By Rachel Herold
This past week marked not only the halfway point of our semester in Guatemala but also the reunion of our (almost) full group after a week of travelling in two separate groups. Although we regretfully left three members of our family behind to rest and get healthy in Antigua, it felt good to be back together as we travelled north to Lake Izabal, Flores, and Tikal.
The timing of this travel week, combined with structured “Knowing Yourself” sessions and ample time for thought during 8hr drive days, created an excellent context for reflection. I found myself reflecting predominantly on our community — on relationships built, on lessons learned, and on how far we have come since September. So, given the opportunity to share my reflections with you all this week, that is what I choose to celebrate — our community.
We may not be a community that always exists in harmony, but we are a community that feels it when one of us is hurting or absent. Despite the excitement of travelling, beach resorts, and farm hostels this week we could not help but feel something was missing and remember our friends we had had to leave behind. Feeling their absence was sad, but it was also a reminder that each and every one of us fills an indispensable spot in our Outtatown community. Our community is made up of 27 different personalities, and yet we have somehow found a rhythm where each of those personalities plays an essential role.
We are not a community that has it all figured out. Rather we are a community where leaders and students alike can sit down and have honest dialogue about topics that matter, such as family and self-esteem. We are not a community that has all the answers, but we are learning to sit in the discomfort of just listening and accepting where each other are at. One of the highlights of my week was, after leading a session on Self Love, seeing students sitting in conversation with one another, sharing their personal thoughts, and just being able to laugh with and love one another, even in the face of the “hard stuff”.
We are not a community that always agrees with each other. Rather we are a community that sits around the table on a free afternoon and has hard conversations about social issues and theological beliefs. We are also a community that is willing to pursue reconciliation and forgiveness when heated debates lead to hurt feelings.
During the last week, I also found myself reflecting on what we were learning and getting out of our time in Guatemala. Of course natural, hot spring waterfalls are breathtaking and hammocks under palm trees are hard to pass up, and these are memories we will take with us and stories we will retell. However, it seems to me that flying thousands of kilometers away from home, sleeping in strange beds, and dealing with strange bugs oddly creates the best environment to look back at ourselves. In the context of the unfamiliar we discover the things we definitely cannot live without (hugs and communal meals), and the things that we definitely can live without (warm showers and Netflix binges).
In the unfamiliar, we also get to practice resilience and trust, as we see just how much we can handle and we find those we can rely on when we’ve reached our limits. And I am proud and grateful and overjoyed to look around me at 26 once-strangers who are now friends, who know each other personally and support one another unconditionally. For me, the best part of this past week wasn’t the incredible sites or fun adventure, it was getting to see our community lifting one another up in the midst of it. Of course, the ancient Mayan city of Tikal was magnificent, but what truly warmed my heart was to hear students finding joy simply in seeing one particular friend giddy in her passion for Tikal’s history. Similarly, jumping off a hot waterfall was exhilarating, but the most encouraging experience was to see students overcoming their fear of heights once again, to the encouraging cheers of their friends, and to see everyone moving over and making space for each other under the falls.
But, these were not easy relationships to build. When we are struggling with culture shock, when we are tired and uncomfortable and hot and sweaty, patience and empathy do not come naturally. Patience and empathy only come because we have chosen not just to live together but to love one another, and we are learning what it takes to truly love in community.
So, as I am sure you have noticed if you’ve been following us throughout the year, Outtatown is far from being about easy experiences. Outtatown is about sitting in the back of bus with your knees cramped up to your chest for 8hrs, but giving up the seat with leg room to the girl who gets car sick. Outtatown is about getting soaking wet because you took the worst seat on the boat but choosing to laugh instead of complain and making everyone’s day a little brighter. Outtatown is about dealing with sun burns and stomach bugs and bug bites but happily sharing your first aid supplies with anyone who asks. Thank you to all my students who, in each of these instances, inspire me with your self-sacrificing love for one another. No, Outtatown is not about Easy, but it is about Together.