I smell like smoke. I feel like worms.

La mujer y nina of Asuzim Coffee Cooperativo.

For those of you who’ve never been on a service trip, this post may be a bit of an eye-opener. The idea of a home-stay, total Spanish immersion, 14-hour workday, alcohol-free, rooster-infused adventure is not for everybody – and by everybody, there have been plenty of times in the past six days that I mean me.

I’m on a week-long service trip with 10 students from my husband’s college to San Juan La Laguna, Guatemala. That means that every minute since arriving at the airport in Atlanta, I’ve been in constant interaction with people I barely know, and having to go with the flow of endless activities over which I have no control. For those of you who know me, you can imagine (actually you probably can’t) that I would voluntarily subject myself to such a situation. Yo tambien.

Our Sisyphusian task.

Yesterday, for instance, after a light breakfast of 3 pounds of wood-fired corn pancakes, sans syrup, I took a two-hour Spanish lesson, during which I was repeatedly reprimanded by my adorable but stern maestra Rosa for writing down words I was trying to remember while she was talking and giving me new words I couldn’t remember. Then, our well-tutored group was led to our daily service project: moving a 10-foot rockpile to the back of a site, so that the Mayan medicinal mujeres could plant their herbal healing plants on level ground. Did we have a wheelbarrow? No. Did we have gloves? No. Did we have a plan for where to put all the rocks we were hauling? No. Was I supposed to complain about any of this or offer constructive input about how to most efficiently conduct this back-breaking and seemingly preposterous work? Absolutely not.

Las mujeres guapas de Medicina Mayan Tradicional.

I was supposed to just “go with the flow” and do what the mujeres were asking us to do –meaning that I ended up with an old frying pan on the top of the pile, scooping rocks onto linen cloths and old mesh bags that pairs of students would then carry to the back of the lot and dump into another big pile. I was so opposed to the inefficiency of our operation I thought I would lose my mind. And we did this for six hours. BUT…about 4 pm, there was a moment of perfect clarity – when the healing mujeres were standing there watching all us gringos work and talking on their cell phones – when it occurred to me, “Wow, this is how every landscape guy in Atlanta must feel about us dopey blancos!” Enlightenment!!

Our finished product!

Then at about 5 pm, just about when my blisters were turning into open wounds, we started actually planting stuff. Suddenly, all the stones we’d moved, brush we’d hacked our way through with machetes, and plants we’d tuk-tuk’d down (my idea!) from the old location were put in the soil, watered, and we’d created a garden that would be used for years to help heal folks in the traditional Mayan ways. Wow!

Happy helpers

That was pretty satisfying and I felt incredibly proud of our students, who had remained easy-going, cooperative and compliant (three words that have never been used to describe me) throughout the ordeal. When we got home I scrubbed out Larry’s and my filthy clothes (I may not be good with rock-hauling but I am awesome with the washboard), then proceeded to rip my leg open on a rusty piece of rebar on the roof of our house where the clothesline lives. Oops.

Lucky for me, we are prepared for crises!

The next morning, while running down the road with four liters of water, I managed to fall between the bars of a grate covering a ditch, trapping my leg just above the knee. Unfortunately I saw 127 Hours and immediately envisioned having to hack my own leg off, but then I wrenched it out of the jaws of death and only caused a minor street spectacle of sympathetic onlookers. And luckily, we weren’t required to do any heavy lifting yesterday—only the usual five miles of uphill walking.

Asuvim's brilliant Worm Whisperer.

That day’s venture took us to a Heifer-supported project high in the mountains at the Asuvim organic coffee cooperative. This is a much poorer and more remote community than San Juan –and it’s almost impossible to overstate how hard life is for the indigenous people living there. The coffee cooperative allows farmers to buy coffee plants more cheaply; provides them with gorgeous organic compost made from discarded coffee pulp, manure, and some serious worm action; and helps them get the highest possible price for their crop. We toured the factory and new school, learned about Heifer’s work in Guatemala, spent some quality time weeding in the nursery & learning to love worms in a whole new way, then walked to two far-flung family farms to hear how the gift of a cow and microfinance loans have impacted their lives.

Larry & an Asuvim member.

I lost my heart to a thin little girl in blue pants who grinned shyly at me from behind her dad’s leg, and I could hardly bear to think that she probably would never get the chance to go to school, much less have enough to eat. But that’s the hope of Heifer, and all we can do is give generously to those organizations that are here trying to make life better, passing on the gifts, and enabling these incredibly stoic and hard-working people to support themselves and their children.

We came home to supper last night (we’re all staying with indigenous families throughout San Juan), and while Maria made us a delicious supper of fried cauliflower, tortillas and French fries, I started worrying once more about the wood fires the people use to cook here – thinking about air pollution, deforestation, little kids’ lungs, and whether any of us gringos are ever going to get the smell of smoke out of our clothes, hair or skin. Then again, maybe the smoke will help us to remember every minute of our time here with these beautiful, dignified and joyful people.

Like the worms, I’m taking in big chunks of Guatemala and trying to chew my way through to understanding, wisdom and hopefully the ability to feed a few hungry people.

Hasta la huego, mes amigos!