The puma, jet black and angry and seeing the bus, growled and quickly jumped into the foliage off the road. He was only there for a split second and yet the memory of him will last a lifetime for me. Witnessing the puma on the road, slipping in the mud playing games with the kids, watching the sincere thanks in the elders' faces, laughing because Mary just fell in the mud like I did - these are just a few of the memories I returned home with a month ago.
Over winter break, five students and two faculty members traveled south to the Peten region of Guatemala on a Lees-McRae service trip. This was the fourth time Lees-McRae sent a service team to this remote village. Our group left from Charlotte Douglas International Airport on December 30, and after a quick stop in Miami for some last bites of American food, arrived later in the afternoon in Belize City, Belize. It was here that we met JosÃ©, our Guatemalan bus driver and fellow group member for the trip. JosÃ© led us on a bumpy yet enjoyable bus ride across the border into Guatemala. From there, we traveled to Flores, a small town on an island in the middle of Lake Peten Itza. Flores was to be our home base in Guatemala for the next six days.
When we arrived in the village of Chinatal on our first day, we were swarmed by dozens of children. We were warmly welcomed with a ceremony inside the Presbyterian Church and afterward we conducted a skit focused on loving your neighbors and helping them when they are in need. All of the children made heart necklaces to go along with the story and many of them wore the necklaces the entire time we were there. Then, most of us played games with the children such as soccer and Pato-Pato-Gonzo (Duck Duck Goose). Meanwhile, Jamie Petrik (our group leader) and Abril (our fellow student and group translator) met with the village leaders to discuss their numerous needs.
The first two days were spent settling into the village. Each day as the bus arrived, I felt like the favorite Aunt to a hundred children. The kids demanded our time, our hands, and our energy. While we continued to play with the children, perform Biblical skits, and make craft items with the kids, Jamie continued to get requests from various villagers about their needs. One elderly woman wrote him a letter, asking for help for her and her husband. They did not have any relatives in the village and were struggling to eat because her husband, now 77 years old, could not farm any longer.
We had two special experiences worth noting. One of them was the festival on New Year's Eve. The little town on the island came alive as most of our group went into the main town square for local music and dancing. We laughed as we joined numerous other travelers and local Guatemalans on the platform learning the local dances. At midnight, spectacular fireworks lit the sky. From the hotel, the reflection of the fireworks could be seen off the lake.
We also had the amazing experience of visiting Tikal, the largest Mayan ruin in the world. It is located in one of the few remaining areas of intact rainforest in northern Guatemala. While climbing around on the ruins, students and faculty saw numerous wildlife, including toucans, leaf cutter ants, spider monkeys, howler monkeys, a sloth, coatimundi (like a raccoon) and many more!
We resumed our work back in the village of Chinatal the following day and supplied food, shoes, school supplies, and some clothing to the villagers. Working with UNEC, a young adult branch of the Guatemalan Presbyterian Church, we arranged for two doctors to participate in a day-long clinic in one of the single room cinderblock classrooms. While some of the group members also helped put up cement to seal the walls in the nearby Canon Church, the two doctors met with 120 patients in just eight hours. Finally, in a three-hour meeting with the 10 elected leaders, we found out that many of the families will be losing their farmland in six months and have no current plans to remedy the situation. We made a contract with the leaders of the village that stated they would serve their village well and we would continue to return to help them out. As we left the village on the last day, we felt a close connection to the people of Chinatal and all wished we could return again someday.
Our trip began wrapping up as we traveled back to Belize City and boarded the shuttle boat to the secluded island, Cay Caulker. Our final two days of the trip were focused on basking in the warm sun and feeling the cool water against our skin. Our first night was simply spent walking around the small island and exploring our new home. Our second day we awoke to the classic scene of what anyone would expect of a tropical island. The wind was blowing, the sky was clear, and yes there were even clichÃ© coconut trees right outside our doors. That afternoon we rented our own boat and spent the afternoon snorkeling three different sections of the world's second largest coral reef. We were quite proud of Abril for swimming and snorkeling with us in spite of the fact it was the first time in her life she had ever swam. It was awesome to see how some of the group members guided her and made sure she was comfortable in the water. That night we all gathered together for a final group meal to talk about our trip. We all relived the past week through telling stories of our most memorable experiences. Here are some of the group member's reflections:
"The biggest thing I learned [on the trip] was that it's not about me, it's about everyone else. It's about giving! When I first arrived I was struggling a bit to make it to God's presence, because our days were busy. God talked to me through the Chinatal village, through the children's laughter and joy in seeing us. [He talked to me] through the group, and everyone's kindness, through Jamie and his profound yet simple comments. God is in everything!" - Mary McDaniel
"[My favorite memories were] about JosÃ©, the kids at Chinatal, the fish we saw snorkeling, and the people and places we experienced, as well as all the Dennis-isms. I learned to be more caring and learned also that caring people can drop the price of concrete. I experienced God's presence on this trip through all the devotion of the villagers to God despite extreme poverty. In a way they are richer than all of us." -Dennis Lawson
"I really enjoyed the trip especially when some of the young girls grabbed my hands and led me on a tour around the village, showing me all about where they lived and how they lived. Two other awesome memories were the day we spent hiking in the rainforest of Tikal climbing the ruins and getting to see leaf cutter ants, and seeing the giant barracuda when we went snorkeling in Cay Caulker!" -Dan Morris
"On this trip I discovered that I am more comfortable in varied situations than I thought. It also confirmed that I really enjoy using my hands to help others. I really enjoyed the time we spent with the children playing pato pato gonza! The time spent in Guatemala allowed me to reflect on who I've become as a person and I'm really happy with who that is. The time we spent on Cay Caulker was a spectacular ending to our time in Guatemala and I loved seeing all the wildlife that was in Tikal and Belize. I will never forget seeing the black puma that day on the road into Chinatal!"-Karissa Sampson
"One day I got to be a kid and play soccer with the children. Oh how I love the game and love to play it with enthusiastic teammates. In the middle of the game, there was a typical collision of feet, bodies, and the ball. One young boy, seven or eight, cried out. He held his foot and I went to investigate. He showed me his toe, almost flapping it to indicate it was broken. I looked around. I thought about it. No nurse, no doctor, no clinic, no X-ray. No parents standing on the sideline in case something happened. I felt helpless. Helpless because there was nothing I could do. On the 2-hour bus ride back, I thought more. Would there ever be a day a boy with a broken bone could obtain medical help? Will there be a day his family could pay for it? A day when help would be right around the corner?" - Jamie Petrik
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