After nearly 20 hours of travel that began June 10, a contingent of 20 student-athletes from Oregon and four staff members arrived in Guatemala City, where we collected our bags and cleared customs. Leaving the airport, we felt like the visiting team in Game 7 of the NBA Finals as we got off the bus – about 100 Guatemalans surrounded the exit ramp, staring at our group as if they had never seen an American.
As we walked to the bus, smiles were shared between us and several Guatemalans. Barter for a 50-cent bag of plantain chips happened almost instantly, and the exchange rate of one US dollar for 7.7 Guatemalan quetzals was recognized. Everyone in our party gave our phones and passports to a Courts for Kids representative, who would keep them for the duration of the trip.
If the travel day hadn’t already been long enough, we loaded up a Guatemalan bus with the clutch smelling like it was on its last leg. It took us about five hours to reach our overnight destination of Momostenango, where our first real Guatemalan meal of the trip – accompanied by heavy rain – awaited us. We had thought we had left the rain in Eugene, but soon noticed that we had arrived in the middle of the rainy season – warm, sunny mornings would inevitably be followed by afternoon rain storms.
After drinking two packets of Pedialyte and lathering up sunscreen to stave off sunburn and altitude sickness, we set off for our new home for the week, Paxmaramac, which was about 8,000 feet above sea level. above sea level. It was amazing how green the vegetation was; sometimes it felt like we were back in Oregon. After an hour van ride, we stopped in the village.
The local school was situated on a small hill which overlooked an excavation for the court which was soon to be built, with a small valley and a hill in the distance. It was the type of view where a multi-million dollar house in America would sit. We were greeted by locals with smiles and a bit of shyness, but that quickly evaporated. We were given three of the school’s classrooms to set up our sleeping space for the week. We were given foam mattresses which were honestly comfortable and a luxurious custom bathroom in the back. Once everyone was settled, it was time to leave.
The next three days were dedicated to field work. This is where you could tell we all had one thing in common: ducks fly together and don’t shy away from hard work! We completed a full size court in about two full working days. Water, two buckets of rock, two buckets of sand, concrete, water, fiberglass, two buckets of sand, two buckets of rock – ask anyone on the trip and I bet they memorized that order because we loaded those materials into a cement mixer almost 360 times. It was well worth the work in the end, to see the appreciation from the locals as well as the joy it brought them.
Black beans, rice and tortillas – these local cuisine staples gave us the fuel to build the pitch and also win a hotly contested football series. We “gringos” took the opener in the pouring rain on Tuesday after the court ended. The hosts won the second game on Wednesday. But the “gringos” won the series on Thursday, energized by lime-covered papaya, plantain juice and a few goals saved from Pat Herbert. Playing sports with the locals was a shared bond that we will never forget. You might not be able to communicate through language sometimes, but sharing the same joy by just kicking a ball around for a few hours is about as pure as it gets.
There’s nothing in the world that forces you to live in the moment like dancing. Besides sports, dancing was another way to share a bond between communities. Before the football game and after the pitch was over, the children in the community dressed up and performed several dance numbers for us. I believe it was to show their appreciation while sharing a part of their culture that we had never seen before. It was cool to watch and we got to join in the dance party as well.
After the court was over, we spent most of the time with the community. Whether it’s riding in the back of a truck from the pool, teaching the locals how to play volleyball, basketball or acrobatics and tumbling, or even playing Mafia card game. All of these experiences have taught us that if you are of service to others and find joy in the little things, it is very easy to get lost in the beauty of the moment. But damn, whoever said there would be no mosquitoes at this altitude missed the boat!
Friday morning, after the opening ceremonies of the court and the shared tears and farewells, we descended the mountain. We ended our trip in Panajachel, where we had our first meal which was not the famous beans, rice and tortillas. A restaurant overlooked the great Lake Atitlan and the surrounding volcanoes. It was surreal. This is where we spent the next day, bartering local produce and sharing more memories with each other.
We recapped the good and bad times of the trip and found that we had bonded with each other better than we could have imagined. We realized that this trip helped us understand that you don’t need anything materialistic to be happy in this world; if you serve and love the person standing next to you, that life will bring you joy.
More reflections from the trip:
“Being rich doesn’t always mean being happy. Guatemalans don’t have much, but I can tell you that they are very happy people. Their happiness rubs off on you instantly; since I arrived here, constantly smiling .” — Phillipina Kyei, women’s basketball
“Coming here and being in the community is a very humbling experience and will change my outlook and the way I live my life.” —Morgan McCarthy, lacrosse
“My favorite memory from the trip was when we got to dance with the kids during their presentation which they showed us. I really had a great time and felt like I had the best time of my life.” — Jade Albalos, acrobatics and tumbling
“Participating in this trip was a once in a lifetime experience. What I learned about myself and being away from my phone is that life is more precious when you can see the things clearly.” — Trikweze bridges, football
“This trip gives me a new perspective on life and happiness. People have a lot less but are a lot happier because they focus on the things they have.” —Patrick Herbert, footballer
“The main thing I’ve learned about myself is how much I love helping others and especially being with children. I feel like I’ve always wondered what other things I also likes tennis.” — Uxia Martínez, women’s tennis
“My favorite memories of the trip would be the bonds I made with the children – from handshakes to jokes made and games played, I loved every part. These children came to me with joy and happiness in their hearts and it was just amazing to see.” —Steve Stephens IV, soccer
“From the community, I’ve learned that the practice of appreciation is endless. I want to be able to go home and see what kinds of changes I can make after everything I’ve learned here this week.” — Lexie Likins, lacrosse
“What I’ve learned about the world is how absolutely wonderful Guatemalans and especially this Mayan community are. They’re so welcoming, warm, generous and generous. The hardest part of coming home will be to get back to a busy pace of life. It’s so nice here to be just in the moment with the people here, building those relationships both within our group and also with the community.” — Katie HarbertPersonal
“I learned that it doesn’t take much to be happy. People in this community are so happy and grateful for what they have, even if it’s not much. What matters, it’s who’s in your life, not what’s in your life.” — Lauren CroquetPersonal