Immersion by Submersion

As a field worker in Guatemala I am often caught sitting on the fence between familiar comforts and the unknown. Here's an example of what I mean.

I stood there with my shirt off, shivering slightly from the evening breeze that found its way down the 127 steps leading to the local sulfur baths just outside of Momostenango.

“Man, I’m white,” I thought glancing up from my glaringly pale skin and alongside a much browner contingency of local inhabitants. I’m the kind of white that skips the entire tanning color spectrum and goes straight to red when caught in the sun for too long. I am white even by really white-people standards. So to have my white belly flashing innocent bathers with no regard for their general well-being was almost offensive – like I had just turned on the light during a relaxing sleepover.

“Why did you have to bring that thing down here?” their eyes seemed to say, squinting still from the glint of my marshmallow skin.

These kinds of stares never go away in Guatemala, and they never really grow on you either. People are curious about who the outsiders are - the mu’s. Usually I get these stares when I have all my clothes on. So to be partially nude and emitting approximately 6,000 lumens from the glow of my polished ivory torso would have shaken even the most resilient of foreigners. Luckily, I had some Russians by my side, our friends who run the local medical clinic up the road. They’re the kind of people who don’t have preoccupations with doing things that most people might consider different, forward, or “dangerous to your health”. They often provide the push I need to tumble down unceremoniously on the ‘unknown’ and ‘uncomfortable’ side of my fear fence, in this case shivering with my shirt off and 100 pairs of eyes on me.

“Come on, let’s go,” Vika said, starting to dance out of the breeze and climb down the rocky descent into the overcrowded baths.

I looked onto the mass of people below and realized this place was not just for hanging out and chatting like I thought, but rather was intended for actual bathing. Soap, shampoo, scrubbing one another down, the lot. I immediately felt embarrassed to be there. Like I was watching something private – intruding on something I wasn’t invited to. This wasn’t the recreational hot water dip the Russians and I were looking for. We didn’t belong here.

“Reilly, come on already,” Vika pleaded again from below.

As I stood there contemplating my next action, I thought back to a quote from Gregory David Roberts' novel Shantaram: “Tomorrow, when you go to the village, try to relax completely, and go with the experience. Just....let yourself go. Just surrender, no matter what you find there.”

Focusing hard to ignore the stares that lingered on my half-naked body, I followed Vika and Karina down to the sulfur pools where they had already squeezed in next to a middle-aged man. Just before stepping into the shallows, I hesitated for a moment, listening to the doubt ringing in my ears. “The water is dirty, this place isn’t for you, no one wants you here anyway.”

I considered these for a moment, then shoving them to the back of my mind with all my might, I said nearly aloud, “so be it.” And just like that I was submersed in the near-boiling sulfurous spring water.

As soon as I got in, it was though a weight had been lifted. Everyone stopped staring and went back to bathing, laughing, and playing. A man close-by shook my hand, asked me my name, and passed me a palangana, so that I too, could begin to wash myself with the steaming water.

“See, its not so bad,” Vika jested, as I waded over to them.

As I looked around, I realized that these baths were a place to socialize. The women chattered with each other, washing their children in time, while the men sat half-sunk in the baths, joking and talking about their days. This is exactly where we needed to be – bathing with the city’s poor in the place where they come to clean themselves and socialize with one another.

While living here, sometimes the best thing to do is just to let go, to silence my Western mind, and surrender myself to Guatemala and her people. In submersing myself in the water, I immersed myself in Guatemala. Only by washing and bathing with our local Momostenangan community can we ever hope to become a part of it.

Support what we do here.