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Some Gifts Don’t Come Wrapped

Last spring, 15-year-old Rebecca Grossman went to Guatemala with her father, Dan. There, they joined Gabriela “Gaby” Gonzalez, EcoLogic’s Regional Program Director, and Daniel Hererra, EcoLogic’s former Program Officer for the country, on a four day tour of EcoLogic’s work at our Indigenous Peoples for Thriving Ecosystems site in northern Guatemala. Dan was kind enough to donate his skills as a multimedia audio and video producer for documenting the trip. Here are some of Rebecca’s observations from this, her first time visiting a country in Latin America.

“Why would you want to go to Guatemala?,” a classmate asked as we picked up our things and filed out of the humid classroom and on to our next class. I contemplated the question for a minute, before realizing that I didn’t really have a reason. My dad was the one to decide it would be a good experience for me to join him. I didn’t even know if I really wanted to go.

The next morning, I was awakened by my mom at 4 A.M. for the early flight. Groggy and grumpy, I got my things together and went out to the car. Why did I go along with this? A lump started to form in my throat. I felt overwhelmed and scared. My mom looked at me in the rear-view mirror, as tears starting to fill my eyes. “You’re going to learn so much, and you’ll have lots of fun,” she offered. This was supposed to be my birthday trip—I didn’t want it to be a learning experience! “I want a new birthday present,” I mumbled with tears rolling down my face. “OK, we can get you something when you get back, if that’s what you want,” my mom said calmly. I crossed my arms and sniffled.

This is Yovany Diaz, Gaby Gonzalez, myself, and our tour guide in Lagunas.

The flight was long but when we finally landed we played tourist for a day and went horseback riding. Then we met up with Gaby Gonzalez, the regional director of EcoLogic. Early the next morning we packed our things and piled into a pick-up truck and were on our way. Little did I know that I’d be spending much of the next week in that truck! Gaby made me feel right at home as soon as we started the drive and I started to feel less anxious and more excited about what was coming!

As we got further into the mountains the paved highways turned into rocky roads. I was jolted left and right, up and down, over and over. I knew we were going to visit rural towns, but I could never have imagined how far away and separated from the cities these towns were. We finally arrived at a tree nursery. It had rows of trees of various sizes and varieties in bags. After a short stop at the nursery for some photos and videos, it was time to continue on.

The nursery was filled with these small trees that will be planted to reforest damaged areas of the forest.

The nursery was filled with these small trees that will be planted to reforest damaged areas of the forest.

Next we stopped at a small restaurant for lunch. The table was lively and full of chatter until a small, scruffy man hobbled in and came over to our table. He stood at one end and begged for food. I had never seen someone beg like this before. In Boston, I’d seen people asking for spare change on the streets. But I’d never seen anyone be so persistent. After a while the woman who owned the restaurant walked over to the man and told him to leave. When he refused, she pushed him forcefully in the direction of the door. After he left, we all quietly returned to eating. The rest of the meal was silent.

My mind went back to what I had said in the car on the way to the airport: “I want a new birthday present.” The more I thought about it, the more embarrassed I felt. While I was worrying about getting a better birthday present, the people here were worrying about whether they were going to find enough food to feed themselves. I couldn’t believe how self-centered I had been; more than anything, I wanted to take those words back.

This mother and her child let us into their home to check out their fuel-efficient stove.

This mother and her child let us into their home to check out their fuel-efficient stove.

After lunch we were driven to a small community so that my dad could interview a family about a new fuel-efficient wood-burning stove they had been given by EcoLogic. I stood next to my dad’s camera equipment and passed him different lenses and tools as needed. As Dad took pictures and interviewed the family, the children and elders showed interest in my blond hair. They had probably rarely, or never, seen blond hair in person. So it was exiting for them. They all took turns feeling it. As you can imagine, this was very amusing for me.

A farmer took a minute to take a picture in the middle of his agroforestry plot.

A farmer took a minute to take a picture in the middle of his agroforestry plot.

The rest of the week, we visited other communities, and in particular, observed, recorded, and photographed the destruction of the Guatemalan forests that seems to be happening almost everywhere we went. Farmers often cut down forests for more farmland. It’s called “slash and burn” agriculture in English because the farmers cut down the trees and vegetation that they can with a machete and then light everything on fire. We also got to see some of the areas where EcoLogic was helping to plant new forest patches, and also helping farmers plant a tree called inga, or “guama” in Spanish. This tree rejuvenates the soil through its roots and the leaves that fall, so farmers don’t need to do “slash and burn” anymore.

Here Gaby poses for a photo with a group of women who volunteer as forest guardians. The forest guardians monitor the forest to prevent illegal logging and help prevent forest fires.

Here Gaby poses for a photo with a group of women who volunteer as forest guardians. The forest guardians monitor the forest to prevent illegal logging and help prevent forest fires.

All in all, going on this trip gave me a deeper understanding of culture and poverty. Things are not always black and white and are so much more complex than what I imagined. It was an amazing experience for me to see all those different communities where people use their own indigenous languages, farm for their food, and live so far away from cities I think maybe the next time if my father asks if I want to go on a trip with him to somewhere new, I’ll say, “yes!”

All photos courtesy Dan Grossman

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