I find myself blurry-eyed, lying under the bed sheets, deciphering what seems to be a dream that I am in Antigua. My flight was confirmed from San Francisco to Guatemala City only thirty hours before. I have a few expectations of course, and some subconscious self fulfilling desires, but mostly I’m along for the participatory ride. Arms wide open, palms up, ready for anything. I decide I’m tired of napping, and find the other volunteers before dinner next door.
Today was our first day getting our hands dirty. We bumped up a partially graveled road towards the small town of El Molino. We left early after breakfast, taking our time to travel an hour or so, climbing through the central highlands of Guatemala, and passing only the occasional truck loaded with sand or fresh logs. I was one of twelve volunteers with the collective goal of helping the community build their bottle school. The community of El Molino had started collecting and stuffing the bottles more than a month before we arrived, and the foundation for the school’s additional two bottle school rooms had just been laid. So we were nearing a construction site in the middle of all the hard work. In the van, we chatted increasingly on what we hoped to take away from our week here, and how best to contribute our energy, how to integrate, avoid cultural bulldozing, murder our inner martyr, how many hugs we planned to give, how this would change us, how this would change them…
Our excitement soon surpassed itself as we neared the top, when the trees gave way and the view invited a beautiful, silent gasp as we slowly emerged and rolled down fifty feet to 120 gorgeous niños and their teachers, families, and community members. There waited a community bienvenidos for us gringos that made our hearts scream.
We must have spent a solid hour hugging everyone in sight, and being group hugged by the smallest children, over and over, until we were so excitedly squished that we couldn’t shuffle our feet one way or the other. And I loved it. They performed dances and skits of their culture and things pertinent to them. They presented the senoritas independientes, who are the girls recognized in their school for outstanding achievement in sports, service, and academics. The schoolchildren gave us each a gift of handmade corn husk faces, and introduced all the teachers, parent-teacher organizers, and El Molino community members.
The schoolyard currently has four classrooms, and with the help of Hug It Forward (HIF), the people of El Molino were building two more classrooms. This will support the growing number of students and attendance from their own community as well as those pouring in from neighboring communities. Everyone from El Molino is completely engaged in bringing this new bottle school to fruition. It is truly a blessing to witness, and to be a part of. Everyone is picking up trash around their homes, pathways, and forests inan effort to collect non-biodegradable trash with which to fill the plastic bottles. Likewise, these efforts naturally beautify their already awe-inspiring environment. When we arrived, they had collected and filled what looked to be around 2,000 bottles, and counting. Some volunteers from our group branched off to sit and help them stuff more bottles, and others separated the ones already completed into sizes. The fifth grade boys quickly formed an assembly line to determine what bottles went in what size pile, and would toss them back to another group if they weren’t stuffed well enough- way to go guys. This was not their first rodeo working as a team.
Some other volunteers jumped in to wheelbarrow gravel and sand to mix cement, while the fathers and friends of El Molino were skillfully finishing laying the structure for the new building. A building, a school out of trash. How incredible. And more so, as I’m relishing in my own bottle stuffing with some of the other women there, I am blown away as to the sense of ownership and dignity around this school that the community has. It is their project, their goal, and their labor that is accomplishing this bottle school every step of the way. And it couldn’t be any other way. HIF is empowering the community here to build the bottle school, but in keeping with sustainability and effectivity, the school is all theirs. And in a week, we’ll come and go.
We embarked on a camino after lunch to get to know the community more intimately and to see their homes and their way of life outside of school. Among the places we stopped by was the home of a sixty-two year old woman making tortillas. Those fifty tortillas smelled delicious, the smell when they’re still steaming from the grille, only seconds before they’re about to be charred. Simple, habitual, and made with love, the old woman nourishes her family with them every afternoon over the open fire. Some with raw queso, most without. We stopped in to say hello, and she offered us an opportunity to try our luck in the art of tortilla making. Not enough water on the hands, too much pressure on the dough, too many weak tortilla slaps on the clay slab, and enough semi-disastrous doughy mounds resulted in our group leaving the tortillas to the El Molino expert.
The rain came again that afternoon, landing softly and indecisively between a drizzle and a hot pour. We left as slowly as we came, dragging our old sneakers in the mud and refusing to acknowledge that morning’s salty ambitions of a clean conscience. The day was so much more than that. It always is so much more than what we can anticipate. And in our collective, conscious journeys, there is a vividness to each day. A voluptuous, breathing moment whenever we take the time to notice. As well-traveled as everyone in our group was, there was a resounding energy from the day’s liveliness that lit up our van with one contagious smile after another. And after day one at the site, clearly, it was going to be a week full of intention and love.
Later that evening, we nestled into the back room for dinner, which quickly evolved from an eating place, to a space of reflection, livelihood, and wild contentment. We reflected on the day and talked about other countries we’ve visited, shared stories of self-affirming goodwill, and sparked discussions of where we were in our own conscious journeys. And the conscious journey is just that- a journey. There is no end result, no finish line, no existential dinner table conclusions. And no need to sit down with a self-assured, bombastic smile at our new-found worldly enlightenment when we can all use what we know to keep. moving. forward. Wake up tomorrow morning with our eyes, minds, and hearts wide open, and embark on another adventure in El Molino. In the midst of our mental wanderings, Christy, our beloved home chef, walked out with smashed potatoes, fresh lentils and green beans, and a salivating sweet pork soaked in coca cola, beer, and honey. Our hearts were as full as our bellies, ‘panza llena, corazón contento.’ Cheers.
Often, an unexpected journey is a poignant reminder at how little we know and understand about the world. At how little we’ve seen. And in traveling, I still find myself surprised by how refreshing and completely new everything continues to become. The inspiring work in El Molino, and the people we connected with are a dynamic manifestation of how we can continue to empower each other to realize lasting change in the world, to live with love, and to hug it forward.