Sam and I headed into this trip with a great sense of its being an answer to prayer for us. But my children’s response to the proposal was very different. “Why would we want to go there?” “Do they have wi-fi?” were two of the first questions (from the boys.) The girls were more concerned about the food and if there would be wind there. I reassured them all, “We don’t need wi-fi,” and “Yes, there will be lots of fruit,” and packed our bags.
We brought a babysitter with us, since I wasn’t sure what Sam’s “schedule” would look like. I asked her to plan some nature study assignments and gave her a packing list. We arranged for a Spanish school to send a teacher to the finca to teach the children Spanish while we were working. I bought a bunch of snacks, a Frisbee, and some small games and packed them in our bags. We had medicine to prevent carsickness. I thought we were ready to show the children another part of the world.
But then reality set in. The flights were great; we arrived at the airport hotel for the first night, and they were already hungry. A third of my snacks disappeared before dinner. All the transportation was more expensive than we had been quoted. The guidebook said to haggle, but it’s hard not to look desperate when you’re at a seedy bus station with five wide-eyed children. And really, what they were asking was still peanuts compared to US prices. So we just paid it and got off the street corner and into the cab.
We stayed at a beautiful coffee farm (“finca”) with a housekeeper/cook who did all our meals and laundry. Good, yes. But frankly, having five children with you and no kitchen access was a challenge. My kids are used to being able to eat fruit or carrots whenever they are hungry. Normally we eat at 7:30ish, 11:30ish, and 5:30ish. Meals at the finca were at 6:30 am, 1:30 pm, and 7 pm to accommodate those going down to do medical work (which is an hour away). There was no option to wander into the kitchen for an apple.
All our snacks (the ones they liked, at least) were gone by day 3. I didn’t have a way to get to the supermarket. So honestly, my kids were hungry most of the week. The food we ate was delicious and plentiful, but not geared toward a kid’s metabolism. And having been able to adjust our home schedule to their needs, I had forgotten how important regular calories are for kids. We’re not yet at the point of being able to say to them, “Remember how hungry you felt? Some kids feel like that all the time.” Right not I’m still in the stage of saying, “I’m so sorry you were hungry all the time.”
Spanish class was fantastic. The school sent two teachers (we had engaged for one, so the price different was almost double) for 5 hours/day Monday-Thursday. The teachers were creative and patient and positive and excellent. None of the five children were accustomed to sitting at a desk putting 5 hours of sustained attention toward anything (especially 3 hours past when they were hungry), but they learned a ton of Spanish. All four of mine are practicing, throwing Spanish into every day speech whenever they can, and enthusiastically showing off to their grandparents. Score there. We hope to continue with the tutors via Skype in the spring.
But all my plans for nature study in the afternoon? Well, the rain started at noon. Every day. So by the time Spanish was over and the children had eaten, the deluge had already been going on for two hours, so even if they had wanted to go play in the rain [the girls did], it was so slippery and muddy that the housekeepers wouldn’t let them. [I probably would have felt the same if I were the one hand washing all their muddy clothes.] If I get a do-over, I will plan nature study in the morning and Spanish school in the afternoon. But it meant I had tired, cranky children who didn’t get any exercise hanging out in the house every rainy afternoon with not a single magic wardrobe in sight.
Our weekends were wonderful. The first weekend we went to a water park and then saw a national heritage sight with standing stones and an amazing Mayan observatory (Takalik Abaj). Our guide here was so good. We spent the second weekend in Antigua, where the children practiced their Spanish bargaining for things in the markets. Moriah was especially adept at this– next time I will put her in charge of finding us a taxi. Everyone walked around and ate whenever they wanted
We took a tour of the Catedral de Santiago, which collapsed in the earthquake of 1773. Part of it has been rebuilt, and we saw two weddings there over the course of the weekend. Our tour guide was animated and funny and full of great history, and the children liked the tour almost as much as the cheesecake. The weekends gave us an opportunity to process together much of what we had seen and experienced during the week but couldn’t talk about as frankly as we would have liked. I loved sharing this history and experience with my kids.
So what do I take away from this? The trip pointed out to me how much control I have over my children’s day-to-day experience. I have worked hard to have the flexibility to be with them and I cherish the opportunities to do so, but in Guatemala I didn’t really have any ability to micromanage their experience. The children’s week was dominated by their minute, every day experiences: hunger, sticky bug spray, rain, throwing the toilet paper in the trash instead of the toilet. I hope as time goes on, they will be able to see the forest instead of the these inconvenient trees. If I had it to do over (and I hope I will in a year or two) I would bring a lot more snacks and schedule nature study in the morning and Spanish class in the afternoon. And while our babysitter did what I asked, she was a little young for what I was asking her to do. I don’t think we will need one on our next trip, but I would choose someone older if I could, and someone who already spoke Spanish. I don’t know that anyone would have been up to the task, actually. Even when I spoke with the house staff in the morning about an issue, once I left at 7 am, it was out of my hands. When I came back twelve hours later, nothing I asked had happened. Culturally, the housekeeper told me “yes” because that’s what she was supposed to do, but in reality, she held the reins. It is a very macho culture, and I wonder if a request from Sam would have had a different effect. (Certainly, the two male doctors who came later in the week got what they asked for right away.) That grates at me, but what can I do about it? Nada.
As the project develops, there will be a community center built with the clinic, and then there will opportunities for the children to minister. On this trip, their work was to learn Spanish and to be gracious guests. Being gracious is not their natural gift (though this year has afforded many chances to practice!) and it was hard. In the future, they should have a chance to run children’s programs during parents’ classes and to bless the kids we are there to serve. I think they are well suited to that task, and I hope this trip doesn’t spoil that vision for them.