The Kids Are Alright: Teaching In Guatemala

Guatemala: A Photo Journal 7/1/17-7/29/17
by Ruthie

I just got back from a month in the highlands of Guatemala, in a tiny town called Tecpan. There, I taught, built, and forged new bonds. . It was the most incredible experience of my life. Here are some snippets from my time:

7/02/17 Day 2

I’m wearing two pairs of socks right now. Big, white, men’s socks from the supermarket. This mountain air is frigid on my feet , and the town seems so fragile and rocky it could break. We were told to prepare for earthquakes. There have already been two this summer. Some died I think. The buildings are made of tin and love and a Mayan culture so often overlooked as “ancient”. There is nothing ancient about the little bodegas that sell snacks; the ice cream man who pedals his bicycle through the streets with a gap toothed grin; the kids that laugh and kick a tattered little soccer ball.  Come rain or come shine, motorcycles sing a smoky song and bachata rings through the streets.

The Mayan dialect here, Quatchiquel, is one of the hundreds the Maya spoke; but only some have survived the years, sprinkled across the quilted map of Guatemala.

Dogs roam freely, scratching at themselves, crying with their eyes. Two strays live with us. Lilly is a puppy, uses our ankles as teething toys. Rocky is vicious, but it is how she survives. They are vagabonds, these two, with hurt and distrust in their eyes.

Lilly our stray puppy, at the home base.

Tomorrow I will start work at the health clinic, where 2 nurses must care for a village of 3,500. Then I will teach 2nd grade. For them, one is wan. Mother is moder. Patience. Patience. Patience. The rain whispers this to me.

My students, Melvin, Henry, and Wendy, in our 2nd grade class at Panamacoc school.

A woman in the market, holding her sleeping baby, surrounded by Guatemalan skirts, or “Cortes”.

7/06/17 Day 6

Today was the first day I looked at the sky and thought about where I am. I’m in a small hardware store, buying bolts and nails to build rooms, to hang curtains. I don’t want this to all pass me in a blur. I am here, on this Earth in every moment.

Before the store, we started fresh and splashed buckets of water on the dust to sweep it out.. We drank coke out of a plastic bag and brought fresh paint for weary walls. We hiked a mountain, planted baby trees. I planted one for my English teacher, Ms. Mellos, and left her a letter in the hole of dirt. I fell down the mountain a lot, but the ground was soft and caught me, so I laughed every time, played music for the trees, and kept going.

In the market, I saw a man crawling through the vegetables, the fruits, the fish. Crawling on hands, and where the rest of his legs should have been. Instead, a different kind of strength had replaced them. Crawling from judgement and watchfulness, there was a gleam in his eye I may never encounter in anyone again. We must find the will to keep on keeping on. When I feel weak, I will think of the man whose strength defies everyone.

A painting by Oscar Peren, famous Guatemalan artist, who I got the chance to meet in his private home and studio.

7/10/17 Day 10

I just passed a garbage bag of dead dog.  I have never smelled rotten flesh like that until the very moment it hit me.  Did he suffer a long and painful death?  His life probably wasn’t fulfilling.  Life as a stray dog seems cold and hard like cracked cement.  Are stray dogs buried?  We planted strawberries today and the mounds of dirt looked like raised graves.  I wonder how many bodies we step over, how many plants grow from lost lives. I’ve always wanted to be cremated, but now I’m not so sure.  Fertilizing the ground and helping the Earth after a lifetime of taking it for granted sounds like a pretty good afterlife.  The people here take nothing for granted.  They appreciate the rocky calloused mountains and the rage of rain season.  Everything has use.

7/11/17 Day 11

My whole body feels the pull and soreness of the day.  That’s how you know a day is well spent though, right?  The feeling of floating through your dreamscape and exhaustion, the only anchor back to the real world.

I’m so hungry here, all the time; teaching and painting; yelling, squatting ,and running; being constantly in motion, even I’m sleeping and the cold makes my toes wriggle.  It’s hard to sleep cold, even harder to wake up.  Waking up at 6:00 am is worth it, though.  Worth it for the murals in the clinic that smells of burnt plastic.  Worth it for the dance parties with girls who cling to music with every part of their being, even if the words are in tongue of the white man.  It’s worth it for our neighbors; Willie and Julio; and their little sisters, who climb all over me, press stickers to my face, smile through their hunger, their blood. I feed them crackers and for each one they are more grateful than those before.

I ran the stairs and saw my life flash before my eyes. I danced the Bachata again with Nicole.  My body is ready to dream now.

7/13/17 Day 13

A Mayan Priestess told me today that we are all born with a mission to complete.  We sat under the trees and she told us our life paths.  Everyone has a Nuohol, the Mayan version of a horoscope sign.  I am a Coyote, a T’zi; fast, impulsive, and full of energy.  The Mayan Priestess prayed for me, softly, almost a whisper.  Cupped her fingers together, made me feel protected with her cosmic shawl.  She sang to me in a Spanish lull that my future is rooted in justice and strength and that I nurture my friendships, hold people up with my arms.  T’zi’s must breathe in the purest air in order to connect with their elders and seize their cosmic energy. I will not forget her face, that Mayan Priestess, her lovely loop grin and those gentle fingers that heal so many.


A cow stood tall, brushing off flies, only 30 minutes after giving birth; her bones creaked and the rain fell in hammers on the plastic tent.  They were beautiful, these cows with their dark saucer eyes you always lose your reflection in.  How can such fine creatures leave in their wake, steamy piles of shit and footprints pounded out of Guatemalan dirt.

The horses were more polished, and stood upright with a sense of purpose, haughty in their beautiful saddles.  “Look at me. Look at me.”  And I did.  I rode them through the rain drenched farmland, looked at the sky, felt good in my place.

We took our class outside today, played “Duck Duck Goose” for what felt like hours; but how they loved it, loved chasing each other in endless circles. Just kids.  Just the world spinning on its axis.

Our little neighbors, Fatima and her brother.


Whiskey means smile, but only in Guatemala, only in the soft mountains and the mist you can reach out and touch, almost. Almost. I have something to tell you.  There was a part of me hiding in the hills, I think, and I’ve found it.  Hammering my broken heart into submission.  Nails bend and pull, but eventually they go down.  Eventually the hurt stops, the mist lifts, and small, dirty hands cling to you.  These hands that need you to be strong. That need your life’s supply of knowledge. These hands want all that you have and you will be that for them.  You will paint them the stars and the ocean and sing them songs of your own childhood.  You will let your frizz out in a halo of love and your nails will thicken and you won’t need a mirror to tell you you’re glowing.  It will reflect off the kids’ faces.  This is the golden summer, and the light is dazzling.

Neighbors on the basketball hoop.