Tuesday 12 Feb, 2008

Recollections from Guatemala

The boys from the orphanage are running ahead of us, zig-zagging their way up the steep incline. All of us—19 EF staffers on a service tour in Guatemala over Thanksgiving—are huffing and puffing, sweating profusely. A couple of people who wore sandals are struggling. We stare incredulously at the barbed wire fence before us. We will either have to wiggle under it or jump over it; neither is particularly appealing, but the boys’ enthusiasm keeps us going.

Lori, who works in EF Foundation for Foreign Study, asks one of the boys how much farther we are planning to go. He points to a tower on the top of the mountain. She laughs, certain that he must be joking. There is no way our nature walk is going to turn into mountain climbing. At the next clearing, the path starts to slant so that it looks almost vertical. A couple of the volunteers can’t hike any farther and decide to wait for the group at the clearing. The rest of us trek onwards, trying to appear moderately graceful, as the crumbly dirt shifts under our feet.

Jefferson, one of the young boys who lives at the orphanage, sees me struggling. He scampers into the woods and returns with a large stick. He explains that it is a walking stick, so I don’t fall. I’m touched by his thoughtfulness. I’m a bit steadier with my new walking stick, but the hike is still quite strenuous. Jefferson continuously reminds me to step on the rocks, where the ground doesn’t shift as easily under my feet. When we come to the particularly difficult parts, he goes ahead of me and holds out his hand to help me along. All the while, he tells me ghost stories, interrupting his story only to instruct me on how best to navigate the path.

I’m not the only volunteer whom the boys help. Each of us has been “adopted” by one of these children, and they take it upon themselves to make sure that the entire group makes it up and back down the mountain safely. When a child falls, someone helps him up. When boys lag behind, the faster children wait. The boys call out to each other throughout the hike, making sure everyone is accounted for. I can’t help but wonder how many American children would treat each other quite so nicely.

As we hug the boys goodbye, promising to return the following day, we wonder if it is possible already to have become so attached to a group of children we barely know.

Cross Cultural Solutions, our partner program for the EF staff service tour, has organized a cultural activity for us for the afternoon—we are going to learn to paint with our mouths. Ludwig, a sweet 16-year-old with a smile that lights up his entire face, will be our instructor. Ludwig uses a wheelchair and does not have use of his arms. He lives at a home for abandoned boys that is run by a group of nuns. A few years ago, Ludwig’s mother decided that she was fed up caring for a crippled child and sent him out on the streets to beg for money. With limited use of his arms and legs, Ludwig failed to bring much money home to his mother. As a result, she threw him out. The nuns took him in, but soon Ludwig will be on his own again—he will no longer
be permitted to live at the home once he turns 18.

Ludwig explains how he took up painting at the nunnery and found that he is quite good at it. He holds a paintbrush in his mouth and draws by moving his head back and forth. He shakes his head vigorously to clean
the brush between colors.

If you have ever tried to paint holding a paintbrush in your teeth, you know that it is no easy task. I carefully place the paintbrush between my teeth. I don’t like the feeling of wood on my tongue, so I use only my front teeth to hold it in place. My method does not work; the paintbrush wobbles too much to draw a straight line and I instinctively find myself using my hands to steady it. Not one to give up, I try again. This time, I push aside my distaste for the many germs that must reside on the paintbrush and bite down harder. Using my tongue for control, I attempt to draw another line. I wonder if it is possible to
get a splinter.

I don’t have high expectations for myself when it comes to mouth painting, but it is still surprising to see quite how inept I am at it. My lines are crooked. The paint clumps together and when I try to rinse my brush, water sloshes on the paper. Despite my best efforts, it is frustrating to work painstakingly slowly and still create a painting that could have been made by a 3-year-old. Ludwig, however, is a marvel with the paintbrush and as we struggle, he paints a beautiful picture of flowers in a field, set against an iridescent, purple sky.

Trying to paint with our mouths is a humbling experience. Once again, we are reminded of how lucky we are, how we should never take even the most basic things for granted. Perhaps, most important of all, Ludwig is an example of people’s ability to triumph over hardship. Despite all the hardships he has faced at such a young age, Ludwig is warm and kind. Even though he has had all the odds stacked against him, Ludwig has managed to find his passion and share it with others. He is an inspiration to us all.

To learn more about our EF service tour to Guatemala, check out our blog. You can find out about our group, read about our experiences, see more photos, listen to podcasts and even watch short videos.