My First Earthquake

Five weeks ago, I woke up in Guatemala for the first time. My brain has been in overdrive-absorption mode since then, but since I promised to share some of my experiences to FTF supporters, I’m going to just share a story.

The where: a small, nonprofit medical clinic called “Health and Help” in a place called Chuinajtajuyup. (Yes, that’s a real word: choo-wee-NAGHH-tah-who-yoop) It’s where I spent the last two weeks, living with volunteer doctors from Russia and Germany. Side note: Super cool people. Inside the clinic you’ll hear an eclectic medley of English, Russian and Spanish in order for us to understand one another. I teach English at the school next door. This clinic is on a winding, dusty road on the spine of a mountain range, sitting about 7300 feet above sea level. I’m still out of breath, and I can’t tell if it’s the altitude or the view.

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The who: Picture me, covered in sweat from just wrapping up a solid morning run along this road, jogging up to the front door of the clinic. There’s a line of about 20 people waiting their turn for a consult, most of them dressed in traditional, colorful Mayan clothing.

The story: As I catch my breath, two middle-aged Mayan women wave me over to where they’re standing. ¡Queremos una foto! I’m surprised for two reasons. One: they speak Spanish. It’s not uncommon for older folks this deep in the mountains to only speak K’iche’, a pre-Columbian language. Two: They are total and complete strangers, and they want to take a picture with me. I shrug and head over to them - guess I’m the only gringa in the house out here.

So we take pictures (sorry I don’t have any to share here. But for your mental image, I’m a giant compared to these ladies – they were just shy of two feet shorter than me). We start chatting, and as soon as I mention that I’m learning K’iche’, she fires off word after word while pointing to different parts of her body, and I attempt to repeat each one. Then her teenage daughter comes over, and starts taking what she thinks is a secret video of her mom teaching some random white chick words in K’iche’. Must’ve been a strange sight.

AND THEN: I felt my first tremor, that is, my first miniature earthquake. Temblor, they say here. A pretty good one, too! I felt the ground lift me up and give me a good jiggle on the way down. Five seconds later there was another one. Then nothing.

The metaphor: For those of us who are not earthquake-savvy, it’s a very uncanny feeling to realize that everything you’ve been led to believe about the ground is a façade. Yes, I know in theory that the earth quakes every once in a while. However, there is a world of a difference between reading the word earthquake in a textbook, seeing it on the news, and actually feeling it happen beneath your own feet.

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The bottom line: Life is meant to be experienced, not rationalized. I came to spend two years in Chuinajtajuyup to put faces behind statistics. 80% of my students won’t finish sixth grade. About half of my kindergartners’ teeth are already starting to rot. I can already tell which kids get enough to eat at home and which ones are malnourished depending on how they perform in the classroom. Those are just some of the stats. They get me thinking all the time, and one thing I always end up asking myself is this:

What happens when you befriend the faces behind statistics? What happens when the stats become souls?

Easy there. It’s only week five. But I promise to keep y’all posted.