Finding our home away from home in Guatemala
Dinner with our host family in Santiago Atitlán.
COURTESY OF LEWIS FAMILY
My family’s kitchen table stands about a foot off of the ground, just below my knees. It is made of unfinished wood with a few nails protruding on the underside, but it is sturdy. Tonight, all 15 tiny chairs around the table are filled as we eat a traditional meal of beans, eggs and plantains. My family of four shares this table with our host family of 11 in Santiago Atitlán, a city of 50,000 in Guatemala. This table has come to represent what we come to love about Guatemala, a place poor in material resources but rich in so many other ways.
My wife Sarah and I have been married for 11 years and, as long as we can remember, we talked about taking a trip like this. There are plenty of reasons not to live abroad: loss of financial stability, uncertainty, hassle, and safety risks for the children, Noah, 5, and Anya, 7. But last winter, on yet another day of unforgiving Seattle rain, we committed to making the big trip.
We wanted to give our children the experience of living in a different world and learning a foreign language. For them, there would never be a more formative time than these ages. And we wanted a family adventure that would grow us closer as a family.
Tonight at dinner, Noah excuses himself and makes his way over to Delores, our host mother, who cooks over a wood-fueled stove. She watches him as he smacks dough enthusiastically in his little hands as he flattens tortillas. Anya gets up to resume her ongoing rehearsals of “Despacito” with her new sister, Martololita, 8. Although the inescapable cultural shadow of Justin Bieber has followed us to the Guatemalan highlands, we have found a new way of living.
It’s the end of our first month abroad with two more to go. In Santiago Atitlán, Sarah is a volunteer pediatrician at the local hospital, which serves about 100,000 locals living in 10 towns around the lake. Sarah speaks conversational Spanish. Local staff translate her Spanish to Tz’utujil, the predominant Mayan language in this city. I teach English and P.E. and work with local teachers to develop a math curriculum at a school where our children are among the only English speakers. We commute in tuk-tuks, three-wheeled motorized rickshaws.
Despite our obvious foreigner status, the school has been extremely welcoming. The first days were like any new school gauntlet, with an added language barrier. Anya hid in a corner of her classroom with books. Noah’s fists were clenched and his breathing was rapid when he first walked into his classroom. Going against all my teacher training, I followed a deep parental instinct and stayed in my son’s classroom 30 minutes on the first day. I am completely out now. I’m not sure who was more nervous on that first day.
Noah initially showed no interest in learning Spanish, but out of pure necessity he now offers complete sentences, mainly in pursuit of his favorite foods: panqueques (pancakes), pan (bread) and cereal with sweetened milk. We all took a few weeks of language school for three hours a day, which isn’t ideal for a 5-year-old. For all of us, trying to understand and speak another language all day is exhausting, but we find our energy replenished when we gather together for lunch around the Betz family table again. While we still struggle to speak Spanish around the table, laughter flows freely and the warmth of the tortilla stove soothes our nerves.
Today Noah, Anya, Martololita and Juan Pablo started a soccer game in the alley next to our home. Competition raged for more than an hour on the 5-foot wide field. The game ended when Anya tripped over a rock and scraped her knee. Camaron, our host father, ran over waving a bottle of body lotion, proclaiming in Spanish that “Doctor Camaron will fix it.” Here in Guatemala, attitude often beats resources.
Our experience here makes me lament that in our world of plenty, we don’t fully appreciate what we have. Around the rustic dinner table, the older brothers take care of Juan Pablo, the youngest of the bunch, cutting his food and rolling up his sleeves. Meals are not large, at least by American standards, but the food is delicious and homemade, usually cooked by Jenifer, the eldest daughter. Today and often, it is a soup full of potatoes, carrots and guiquil, a native vegetable. Jenifer never fails to make the most of the ingredients available.
This three-month sojourn has sometimes felt like a forced march and at other times, a blessing. On bad days, I blame myself for subjecting us to it. But we are in awe of how adaptable our children are, which is something people told us, but we had to witness to fully believe.
We’re still deep in the experience, but we’ve had the chance to reflect on our decision to drop everything and come here. To be able to shed our comfortable lives in Seattle for a season to live, work and go to school in a foreign culture is an opportunity that will rejuvenate all of us intellectually and spiritually, certainly a lot more than a trip to an amusement park. We still have a few more conventional trips in us, but finally beyond the toddler stage with our kids and eager to try something very different, this feels like the right experience at this stage of our lives.
When we first duck into our host family’s alley and see the entrance to the kitchen with the table inside, our children say how happy they are to be home. Then they vanish into the alley to play soccer. Moments like this serve to remind Sarah and me that the resiliency of children should not be underestimated. If nothing else, the simple fact that my children came so far, and yet are still at home, makes it all worth it.