Two years ago, I was working at an advertising agency when I applied for a writing position at a nonprofit organization. I figured I could do the same job but with more meaning. During the course of my interview, they asked me what my dream job was. I had thought of the answer before, but I'd never said it out loud. "I want to travel and take photos."
It's two years later, and I've just returned from taking my first international trip to Guatemala where I filmed a video for Edify, an organization that supports Christian schools in poor areas around the world. I had two travel companions for the trip: Scott Rhoades works for Edify, has been to Guatemala before and speaks a little Spanish. Being first in height, age and communication between the two of us, he was always introduced as "Scott Uno," and I, "Scott Dos."
Johnny Gonzalez works in operations and HR at our church. His parents are from Guatemala and he speaks fluent Spanish, so he was kind enough to come along and translate, correct Scott Uno's pronunciation, suggest good food to eat and even carry my camera bag far too often. Muchas gracias.
We took the three-hour flight to Guatemala out of DFW on a Tuesday afternoon. It was dark as we flew into Guatemala City, and the pilot announced that the glowing red thing out the window (which Johnny was kind enough to give me) was an erupting volcano. Awesome.
Guillermo, our driver for the week, met us at the airport to take us to our airbnb in Antigua, which ended up being an hour and a half trip due to heavy traffic. I didn't mind seeing my second country slowly.
We dumped our stuff at the house and had dinner in the open-air courtyard of a restaurant called Los Tres Tiempos, which was just beyond the famous Antigua Arch, the history of which no one knew. I don't remember what my dish was called, but it was stewed beef in a tomato sauce that had clearly been cooking for a good, long while. Johnny called it his favorite thing, and I don't tend to argue with statements like that. It was delicious; Guatemalans have comfort food down pat.
The following morning, we would be heading to the village of Villa Nueva to film at an Edify-supported school called Le Muel. Their school day runs from 7:00 a.m. to noon, and we wanted to be there in time to film parents dropping their kids off. So we said 'buenos noches' and set our alarms for 4:45 a.m.
Guillermo picked us up in the van promptly at 5:30 on Wednesday morning, and we began a winding, bumpy drive through the mountains. As the sun rose, I was able to see some of what I had missed in the dark the night before. Lush, green mountains, small towns, and too many 250cc motorcycles to count. Also, Guatemalan drivers are super aggressive by our standards; near misses must be the norm because I didn't hear a lot of honking.
I've seen poverty, even South American poverty, on TV. I even re-binge-watched Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown before my trip. It's not that Villa Nueva was different from what I was imagining, it's that imagining can never be as impactful as seeing. It was dirty. There were piles of trash by the street, rust, rocks and rubble. Buildings were made of cinder blocks and corrugated metal. Some of them were painted. The power poles had more cables running off of them than seemed safe or reasonable. People reached through iron bars to do business with shop owners.
It was beautiful. And I mean that in the true sense of the word. If you were to look through my photographic history, you'd see that I've always been drawn to run-down things. Rust. Decay. Evidence of humans, I always called it. I told the guys later that I felt like I had missed 10,000 good photo opportunities, but I did my best to soak it up with my eyes.
We arrived and met Eddy, the school's founder and owner, along with his son, Mario. Le Muel, as it's called, is a private Christian school where children from elementary age to teenagers attend for, I believe, around $20 per semester.
I loved watching the parents bring their uniformed kids to school, but I was shooting video and didn't take any still photos of it. The teachers were lined up outside to greet the students, who would kiss each teacher on the cheek and say, "Buenos dias," before going inside. Some of the parents dodged my lens, but most of the kids returned my smile and wave. Did you know that Guatemalan children have an unusually high incidence of cuteness? They do.
After the bell rang, I was told I had free reign of the school and could go film whatever I wanted. My introverted tendencies gave me pause, but, hey, I'm the bearded American travel adventure photographer man, and I'm not scared of people... Yeah! Let's do this!
So I walked around and filmed students in their classrooms and they didn't bite me. In fact, they giggled and made silly faces for the camera while I smiled and said 'hola!' and 'buenos dias!' in what was probably the whitest accent they'd ever heard. They always smiled back, so maybe I was saying it okay.
After a little more filming, we were directed to a small upstairs room, where a teacher and a few of her students were preparing breakfast for us. I gathered that it was essentially a home economics-type class, and the students were dressed in traditional Mayan clothing. That breakfast was one of the highlights of the trip for me. Not only because it was delicious, but it was humbling to be honored like that for being there.
We had eggs-over-medium with black beans, bread, fried plantains, fresh papaya and coffee. There was sour cream for the beans, sweet breads (essentially cookies) to dip in the coffee and bowls of diced tomatoes and green chilies for the eggs. When I reached for the green chilies, every Guatemalan in the room jolted like I was about to touch fire. After assuring them repeatedly that I actually like spicy food, I covered my eggs in green stuff, secretly worried about how hot it was going to be. Turns out, not hot at all. Like at all. Give a white dude a little credit...
After breakfast, which was accompanied by three students playing the marimba, we walked over to a fenced-in courtyard where P.E. class was in session. After filming children running various forms of relay races, Johnny came over and told me that the band was ready for us.
I assumed we were heading to film a music class inside the school, but as we rounded a corner, I saw a full marching band, in uniform, standing at attention in a parking lot. Some locals had gathered to see what was about to happen. As with breakfast, I felt humbled that they were making such a big deal about our being there. Plus, I had kept them waiting, so I got ready to film as quickly as possible. I gave the thumbs up, the conductor motioned, and the band started to play.
While I was filming the band play, two things happened that I had to be told about later. First, a few shady-looking locals were apparently eyeballing me and my camera gear. Eddy had a security guard there with us, who picked up the bag I'd set down and eyeballed them back as they left. Thank you, sir. Second, Johnny and Scott separately noticed that there was just something different about one of the girls playing trumpet. They later mentioned it to Eddy, and he asked them to tell her that.
Her name is Adriana, a beautiful 16-year-old who looked 12 to me. She's been at the school for three years now, but before that, Eddy found her drinking and doing drugs on the streets of Villa Nueva.
At age 13.
Eddy invited her to the school, where she began learning the trumpet (she's already really good at it), hearing the gospel and being cared for by a man she said seemed mean at first, but whom she now knows is really loving but strict. I've heard stories like hers before—wayward youth makes good, etc.—but seeing her and hearing her story in person had a huge impact on me. In fact, I think Adriana was the highlight of the trip for me. She gave me a lot to think about, and I look forward to hearing about great things from her in the future.
A couple weeks before we arrived in Villa Nueva, a huge rainstorm flooded part of the town. Several houses were destroyed and eight people died, including a young boy who was swept eight miles downstream. I could only overhear some of the translation, but he might have attended the school. Mario, Eddy's son, drove us to a place where we could see some of the cleanup underway. As if I needed further reminding that I don't actually have any problems in my life. But then, I probably do need it.
At noon, the school let out and I began filming an interview with Eddy in his office. I'm looking forward to seeing the translation of that interview so I can know what he said. (This trip made me wish I hadn't taken French in high school and college.) I do know he has a real heart for these kids, though. No one needed a translator to see that.
We went back to Antigua that afternoon and had another delicious meal in the courtyard of another restaurant that Guillermo suggested that I don't remember the name of. Johnny recommended a traditional dish called pepillan, which was chicken stewed in a thick, dark sauce made from roasted pumpkin seeds and chilies – the kind of food that makes you sigh.
I didn't know what to expect for the weather in Guatemala (because I didn't bother to Google it beforehand), but it was around 60 in the morning and got up to around 80 or so in the afternoon. It was nice. Kind of southern California-esque. Also, it was their rainy season, but it never rained on us while we were there. Answered prayer, that.
After a brief rest at the airbnb, the boys were kind enough to wander around Antigua with me, even though we were all pretty tired. One of my favorite things to do is to walk around cities and just look at everything, and exploring a particularly old city in a different country is, unsurprisingly, even better. I brought a wide-angle lens and shot from the hip a lot (that is, without looking). It's fun because though it yields a lot of blurry, unusable shots, I ended up with a few fun surprises.
We walked to the town square, which was fairly crowded with locals, tourists and people in traditional clothing selling various things. Scott Uno was searching for good coffee beans to take home, which were surprisingly hard to find in 'Guatemala Antigua' itself. He eventually found some, and Johnny picked up some sweets to take home. We began wandering back to our beds, me many paces behind the other two, who weren't preoccupied with photo ops.
As we got back to the airbnb, we saw lightning in a big bank of storm clouds off in the distance. As I braced myself against a telephone pole and pointed my camera in that direction, I began explaining to Johnny that I've never had any luck shooting lightning. I've never bothered to do long exposures with a tripod and all that, and shooting lightning handheld is basically impossible...
We rose at 4:45 again the next morning and repeated our journey through the mountains to Villa Nueva and the Le Muel school. I needed some additional B-roll of Eddy interacting with parents, and we wanted to try to interview Adriana on camera. We had run out of coffee filters at the airbnb, so we stopped at a McDonald's (of all places) on the way to get some coffee. I decided to wait in the van with Guillermo. 20 minutes later, the boys came back and said they had to wait for the coffee machines to heat up. As we drove away, we all discovered the fast-food coffee we'd just waited 20 minutes for was cold. Still, it speaks to how great the trip was if cold coffee was the lowlight. Thankfully, Eddy hooked us up when we got to the school.
After filming the kids arriving once more and Eddy interacting with the parents, we were able to interview Adriana and another student named Alex, who is interested in computers, networks, and other technological things I don't understand. Real people with real dreams getting real opportunities because of a school I didn't know about in a town I've never heard of in a country I never thought about. I'm not sure what that means yet, but we all spent time thinking about it.
After shaking hands and saying 'gracias' a lot, we loaded into the van and headed off to another school in a town that I think was called Cuidad Quetzal. (I could be wrong; I don't speak Spanish.) Silvia, the school owner there, is from Argentina and moved to Guatemala with her husband as missionaries. Her school is in a particularly dangerous and gang-infested area of the country. Even Johnny's dad told him via Skype to be careful when he told him he'd be going there.
When I saw Silvia, I thought she looked like a nun. She's white but doesn't speak English, which threw me off a little. But she's tough. When gang members tried to mark their territory near her school, she got in their faces and told them to unmark her territory and get out. And they did.
One of the things that sets Silvia's school apart is that she accepts special needs children, whereas other local schools do not. Around half of the 33 students at her school are special needs, and Silvia is continuing to learn techniques for helping them.
Again, I'll have to wait for the translation to find out what she said on camera, but I later heard that her goal is to raise up students who can stand on their own two feet (literally; I watched her lift a boy out his wheelchair to help him exercise his legs). After her interview, Johnny said he felt like he'd just talked with an angel.
We left Cuidad Quetzal and headed to our hotel in Guatemala City. Our return flight was scheduled to depart at 7:30 a.m. Friday morning, so we made plans to catch the 5:00 a.m. shuttle from the hotel. After showers and naps, Karla, an Edify employee who lives in Guatemala and works directly with school owners, picked us up for dinner and a debriefing at a very nice steakhouse in the city. The area we were in was in stark contrast to the towns we'd just visited. I wasn't in those places long enough to experience culture shock, either in Guatemala City or upon returning to Texas, but it was different.
So what is the wrap-up statement? I don't know. I loved it. It was beautiful. I met some lovely people. It was tiring but a success. I was challenged and inspired and probably changed. A lot of people predicted that I would catch the travel bug when I left the country for the first time. They're probably right, because I can't wait for country number three.