by Elise Seyfried
It’s 7 a.m. on a Sunday in July. The mission trip kids are sleeping after working as hard as they’ve ever worked. My friend Liz Howland and I are also on a mission — to get some food for breakfast. We amble, talking comfortably. Even at a leisurely pace, the 7,000-foot altitude makes my breathing labored. We are approaching an open-air market. The scene on the street is literally a riot of colors.
The local women wear gorgeous dresses — a rainbow of spectacular hues woven together. Young children, clad in equally lovely traditional clothes, peek shyly at us and wave from doorways. The bright red tuk-tuks (a local mode of transportation, a kind of tiny three-wheeled taxi) trundle along, threading their way through the crowd. Entering the market, again we are confronted by color —glorious yellow pineapples, rich brown wild mushrooms. Guatemala is the most exotic place I’ve ever been to, and I am loving every sight.
It’s 10 a.m. on a Monday. The mission team is hard at work on the site of the future Tecnico Maya School. As we make “cob” from dirt and sand and clay, as we shovel gravel and fill tires and pour concrete, we see a dream taking shape. Long Way Home, Liz’s wonderful organization, is creating a school for the little ones of San Juan Comalapa, using all recycled materials. Absolutely nothing is wasted.
Up the hill by the latrine, we sift through bags of trash and stuff discarded snack wrappers behind chicken wire. These, along with trash-filled bottles, will form the core of a wall. The wrappers are slick and wrinkled; a purple bag once held candy; an orange one contained plantain chips. We stand back from our work and see multicolors. We raise our eyes and gaze past the worksite. Here we are struck by verdant green — the neat rows of crops, the trees, the volcanoes beyond. Absolutely stunning, all of it.
Now 5 p.m. on a Wednesday. A sudden storm. Thick tan mud runs down the streets, washing over the white paving stones on our path home. Silver torrents baptize us with water. We are much too wet to worry about our sodden shirts and pants. On our soggy walk, we see brightly colored structures in the distance. It is a cemetery, we are told, a joyous place to celebrate spirit and life. Everything about this part of the world is different. The climate, the culture. (Here, “bi-lingual” often means speaking Spanish and Kaqchikel.) Our senses are sharpened by the newness of it all. And the oldness as well; earthquakes have shaken, but not destroyed, this town.
6 p.m. on a Saturday. The courtyard of the hotel. Oscar Peren, an internationally known painter and local resident, proudly displays his work. Oil paintings of people and places, using a palette of brilliant shades — a celebration with fireworks, a “chicken bus” — vivid visual love songs to his home. Comalapa is known as the Florence of the Americas for its large population of native artists. Later, a trio plays traditional Mayan music on handmade instruments, bright bamboo flutes and tortoise shell drums. It is cold, and as we sit to listen, we’re draped with blankets with stripes of crimson and teal and gold.
2 p.m. on a Tuesday. Our holiday after our week of labor. We are in the colonial capital, Antigua, a magical town of slate cobblestone streets and buildings of sky blue and lemon yellow and salmon pink. Once more, we are bathed in color and beauty.
Our return to reality is abrupt…the sleek and modern Guatemala City airport, flying above the clouds, a stop in Miami and home in the dark of night. The colors seem duller, somehow. Why is that? Here, people are rushing to catch their flights, are speeding along the expressway. Everything is a blur.
But there, in a remote and remarkable corner of the world, things are clearer. There is much poverty and want, to be sure. There is a landfill where people cart their refuse in a wheelbarrow and dump it into a ravine. Girls are pregnant too soon. Women look old before their time. And yet…
And yet. There is joy. So much joy from so little. There is pride, pride in a way of life that spans centuries. And there is love. The love of family and friends. The love for 25 strangers, who are greeted with a smiling “Buenas dias” by everyone they meet.
Our Liz lives among them. Liz, who grew up in our suburban Philadelphia church. Liz, who with her husband Adam and friend Mateo are building a future for a place they cherish. And the people who cherish them.
We leave Guatemala awash in their joy. Buoyed by their pride. Colored, vividly, by an experience that we will remember for a lifetime.
“De Colores” (Of the Colors) is a famous Spanish folk song, and it rings in my ears today. It reminds me to take out my box of crayons. Make my sky the bluest and my trees the greenest. My love the truest. God gave me the tools and challenges me, back home, right now, to color my world.
Support the efforts of Long Way Home! Visit their website: longwayhomeinc.org.
Elise Seyfried is Director of Spiritual Formation at Christ’s Lutheran Church in Oreland. She is also an actress, wife, mother of five and co-author (with husband, Steve) of 15 plays for children. She can be contacted through www.eliseseyfried.com.