Today something cool happened:
4:59am: Sober to the realization of leaving my bed.
5:00am: Kemba is beaming guilt rays across the room – she needs to go outside.
5:03am: Water boiling for coffee.
5:11am: Dressed, brushed (teeth, not hair; hair goes under hat as to avoid unwanted attention/it is cold) and packed for day.
5:27am: Waiting at bakery with Sonia for bus.
7:01am: Arrive at Venecia, the town directly off the paved road, after which we walk, and walk, and walk, and walk.
7:04am: Hoorah! Have successfully hailed pick-up truck, therefore don’t need to walk (and walk) as much.
7: 34: Arrive at destination community, Julen.
8:17: Am suddenly surrounded by small flock of 5-12 year olds. School is about to begin.
So, listen: I have been stared at continuously since I have set foot in Guatemala. In fact, since getting off the plane almost exactly a year ago, I haven’t not been stared at when in a public place. Period. However, this encounter was something extraordinary, because, unlike most of the unwanted attention I receive, today was pretty neat; as in, I was digging the attention.
I was the first, FIRST, white person these kiddos had EVER seen. I understand this happens on the regular for a lot of Peace Corps volunteers, say, in Africa or remote regions of Central Asia. However, in a country separated from the United States only by Mexico, and much less than that if you care to take into consideration its cultural and diasporic ties with America, this is rare. Most people have SEEN a white person, at least in passing.
So, the first thing the kids did was take interest in Kemba. Then, ever so slowly, about 50 elementary aged Mayan children corralled me into a circle. Total silence. Just staring and pondering; and chewing on their fingers.
I took my hat off. Whispers raced around the circle, giggles erupted, words in Mam were shouted that I didn’t understand. My hair. I instantly felt the need to contact the Colorado Welcoming Committee on Extra-Terrestrial Life to tell them, from the perspective of an alien, how it feels to be consumed by little eyes.
Our conversation ensued:
Me: Well, good morning everyone!
Me: Its really nice to be here in your town. My name is Elizabeth. I’m from the United States. We speak English there. Do you guys want to learn how to say “Buenos Dias,” in English?
Me: OK, well, my dog’s name is Kemba. Can you guys say that? Kemba?
Me: Alright, do you guys have a map in your school? Do you know where Washington State is? That’s where I’m from.
Me: Do you want to play with me?
Me: Do you want to play with my dog?
Me: Um, do you want to touch my hair?
Kids: (all) YES YES YES YES YES!!!!!!!!!
Julen is one of the poorest places I have seen in Guatemala, as it is one of the most isolated and barren locales I have ever witnessed. I asked one of the women in the group later that morning if other NGOs had ever been to Julen. The answer was basically, no. Years ago, I discovered, a Spanish NGO named “Intervida,” came to build a school for these children, but, apparently, no Spaniards actually accompanied the project. Thus, as I later confirmed with the director of the school, I was indeed the first white person the town had ever laid eyes on.
It is a fascinatingly unique and powerful gift to be “the first,” of this sort. I have them captivated in a way I can’t even understand. I’m looking forward to playing with these kids and getting to know the community better. Lets hope they’ll become more playful and less silent in the months to come.