With the hustle and bustle of daily life, it is often hard, if not impossible, to really stop and appreciate the good in what is already around you. Framed portraits of me decorate walls and shelves of my home, capturing various life stages and memorable events, yet I rarely stop to look at them. My phone is full of hundreds of pictures, capturing fun, everyday moments, but even then I take a quick glance and proceed to doing something else. Bins of toys shoved into a corner in my basement, clothes lining the walls of my closest (and I still feel as though I have nothing to wear), everything seems to be at my disposal. To be frank, I have never really thought about how fortunate I am, to such an extent, until I visited Guatemala on a mission trip with my friends. For most of my life, I took these pictures and “common” objects, along with other things, for granted until I took that life-changing trip to the impoverished garbage dump communities in Guatemala City.
It was this past summer, when I volunteered to help build homes for families who live by scavenging trash in the city's landfill. The majority of their homes are made from corrugated metal, with cardboard layering the ground, with bed sheets for doors and with an abundance of other items (tires, disposed lamps, and rusting frames) used to decorate the interior. Many of the homes are smaller than my garage, and had eight to ten people occupying the tiny space. Children ran up and down the alley ways, playing with scraps of cardboard make shifted into what looked like airplanes, with discarded Xbox controllers, and with deflated soccer balls, yet I’ve never seen someone so genuinely happy. I couldn’t wrap my head around it, how they could all be so content with their lives, even with so little.
Every day of the trip, one of the volunteers, who was also a good friend of mine, brought a Polaroid camera to the communities. Multiple children would scurry around us, hoping to get their picture taken. Grinning from ear to ear after they received the image, they would immediately run home to show their parents, holding the picture firmly in their hands. It was shocking to me how excited they all got over one, small image when I had hundreds of my phone. However, the moment that my privileges really hit me was on the last day of the trip, when a boy was given his picture and seemed unnerved as he withdrew from the group. He shuffled his feet against the dry, dirt ground and made his way towards the center of community, where workers rummaged through the large piles of garbage that mounded higher than the buildings. He stopped and sat alone on the curb. He kept staring at the picture of a small, undernourished eight-year-old boy with big brown eyes and short black hair. He remained silent.
“Hola. ¿Estas bien? ¿Quieres otra foto?” Hi. Are you ok? Would you like another picture? I asked.
“No. Esto es perfecto, pero ese soy yo?” No. It’s perfect, but is that me? He barely took his eyes off the photo when he replied. He wore a blank expression as he continued to gawk at the image. The other volunteer turned to me and hesitated, before replying to his question.
“Sí, ese eres tú. ¿Estás triste por la foto? Podemos tomar un otro, si quieres.” Yes. That is you. Are you upset about the photo? We can take another if you want.
With tears in his eyes, he looked away for a moment, and then responded.
“No, no. Me gusta la foto. Nunca he visto lo que parecía antes.” No, no. I love the picture. I have just never seen what I looked like before. He sat silently, no longer aware of his surrounding, and remained fixated on the image.
The experience in Guatemala City made me appreciate the many blessings and opportunities that go unnoticed every day, even including our access to hospitals and health care. On our trip to Guatemala, we were fortunate to have a doctor from our community join us, and I was able to assist in the medical clinic that he hosted. I remember it vividly: it was our last day and we were getting ready to leave the clinic until next year. We had already packed up all the medication, leaving the grey shelves in the small room empty, when a short, teenage girl walked into the building, her mouth and eyes opened widely at the sight of us.
“¡Hola! ¡Por favor espera! ¡Necesito ayuda!” Hi! Please wait! I need help! she screamed, her voice echoed through the room. She gripped at a cloth that was wrapped around her thigh, the once white cloth had now transformed into a dark crimson.
“Te podemos ayudar. Ven aquí y siéntate.” We can help you. Come in here and sit down. The doctor guided her into the office, and removed the cloth from around her leg. As soon as the cut was revealed, his face drained of color, and I could now see a strong correlation between his white hair and his skin.
“¿Cómo pasó esto?” How did this happen? he asked her, as he began to scrummage through the mess of tools and medication that were already packed in a large, blue suitcase.
“Me corté la pierna en un vaso mientras buscaba cosas para vender en la basura.” I cut my leg on glass while I was looking for things to sell in the garbage. she explained, occasionally holding her breath as the doctor rubbed various types of disinfectants and alcohols over the wound. When the doctor finished stitching up the wound, she was given medication to treat the already present infection in her leg, and was sent on her way with bandages, ointments, and personal hygiene products. After she left, the doctor pushed his glasses up onto his forehead and expressed the severity of her situation to me.
“I have never seen a cut so deep and so close to having a severe infection. A few more days and the infection could have killed her, or at the very least she would have lost her leg.” he uttered as he skimmed through the pictures that had taken on his phone, to show his colleagues back in the U.S. If this were to happen to me back home, I could easily go to a hospital to get treatment and not have to worry, but this girl would not have had this option if we were not visiting, and it seemed so unfair.
My trip to Guatemala City taught me that happiness doesn't lie in possessions and materialistic objects, but rather in experiences and the people around you. This was a lesson I was taught by children half my age. These young kids had such great potential, with so little opportunity, and it sickened me that they didn’t know and would most likely never know the possibilities available outside of the garbage dump community. After this trip, the little things I took for granted do not go unnoticed anymore. I appreciate the gifts and opportunities I have been afforded and want to give back to others to make their lives better. Due to the amazing experience that I had in Guatemala, I have gotten very involved in the Hope’s In organization, a non-profit charity that works to raise money to help the impoverished communities in Guatemala, that my services will allow us to build even more homes. As for the future, it has become my goal to be a Physician Assistant, and I plan to host my own medical clinic one day. Until then, I will continue to try to make an impact by returning to Guatemala City with my instant camera and film and hope my small contribution can help make a big impact in the life of someone else.