The town of Antigua is deservedly a world heritage site, nestled in a valley surrounded by high hills and dense vegetation. Indeed the whole place is verdant to the extreme, at least it was when we saw it post rainy season. Dominating the landscape around the town are three volcanoes, two of which are extinct – the third can be seen, especially in the clear of the morning light, to be puffing smoke from it’s summit. Usually as the day progresses the clouds amass over the tops of the volcanoes and we experienced afternoon downpours the last couple of days we were there.
For the first couple of days we explored the cobbled streets of the town of Antigua, taking in the mixed population of indigenous people dressed in the most incredible colored and patterned fabrics, who are living alongside a large presence of western folks. Antigua is a place that attracts tourists from all over the world, as well as many who are helping the local populations through various NGO’s and church foundations.
There are a number of functioning churches in town, but more striking were the many remaining skeletons of enormous churches that once dominated the place, their ruins a result of the numerous earthquakes that have struck the region over the past few centuries. They are a constant reminder of the fragile nature of life in this area of Guatemala, that is seismically active. The many monasteries and nunneries that surrounded the churches seemed mostly to have been transformed into classy hotels, restaurants, and put to various other usages. They retain an air of tranquility that invades the town despite the hustle and bustle of the many street vendors, cars, motorbikes, women and families selling their home spun and richly embroidered clothes and fabrics. It is an enormously colorful scene and all the people we met had the same disarming warmth that has been characteristic of the people we have met so far on our travels.
We had come to Antigua to teach a day workshop with the children and young adults that Mick Quinn and Debora Prieto are working with through the NGO they founded called The Integral Heart Foundation. They told us their touching story of coming to Antigua on vacation 6 yrs ago and seeing a group of children returning home from school one day. They saw an incredible potential in these young spirits, yet they knew that, because of their circumstances, it was unlikely they would be able to realize it. These children’s lives are mired in poverty that they have little hope of transcending without a great deal of help. Mick and Debora decided there and then to return to Antigua to start an NGO with the goal of giving these youngsters the possibility to grow and learn. There is more to the story about the journey they have been on since they founded the NGO and the work they do that can be found on their web site: http://www.integralheartfoundation.org/integral_school_guatemala.htm
Suffice to say what we experienced in the two days we spent with them, both visiting the children’s homes, and working with them all for the day, is testament to the incredible work Mick and Debora are doing that is transforming young lives in and around Antigua.
Definitely the highlight of our time in Antigua was the two days we spent with them finding out about their work. We went with them on Tuesday to visit the families of the children we would work with the following day, in villages high in the hills surrounding Antigua. These families have very little indeed. For the most part they are large with anything from 4 to 7 children, often sleeping and living in one room, with an extra room for cooking. The poorest houses are simple structures created with corrugated iron, and dirt floors. Some of the ones we saw had an extra building that had been constructed for them by other NGO’s from town, affording them more hygienic living conditions. Despite their poverty the mothers we met had amazing warmth and dignity as they welcomed us into their basic homes.
On Wednesday we spent the whole day working with the young people in a large structure with a concrete floor, part of an American religious organization in Antigua. We had 35 children and young adults in ages ranging from 1 1/2 yrs, 5yrs, 7yrs, 9yrs up to 27yrs, some of whom we had met the previous day.
We were slightly apprehensive about working with such a diverse age group but we were in for a great surprise. In a word they were: extraordinary! I have NEVER in my life worked with a group of young people who were so seriously focused, open, receptive and willing to try anything. In the opening circle we asked them all what moves them and we got an impressive range of answers including; concern for the environment; animals; philosophy; studying; meeting new people and situations; Guatemalan traditions and culture; art; music; history; and wanting to better their country! We were so impressed and also deeply moved by these young people. Even the younger ones joined in all the physical exercises and sat with us in the dialogue sessions, maintaining a focus that can be rare even in some adults. We wondered if it had anything to do with the fact that these children have had little exposure to television or other technologies to distract them from their lived experiences. Again it was clear that Debora and Mick are doing exceptional work with them, giving them a safe space, encouragement, rigor and discipline that is supporting their learning and grow. And indeed the potential that they first saw in them six years ago is beginning to shine – we found them to be exceptionally bright, intelligent and engaged. It was an honor to meet and work with them.
And all of this is happening in the context of lives that are often fraught with suffering and pain. We heard some of their life stories that were traumatic to the extreme. This made the joy we saw manifesting in their faces as we moved together, and the attentiveness and respect they gave to each other as they listened to the dialogue sessions seem truly extraordinary and poignant.
We left Antigua yesterday at midday, saying goodbye to the astounding beauty of a very special place that had been our home for six days.
Last night we flew to Bogota, Columbia and on to Buenos Aires, Argentina arriving early this morning.
The vast metropolis of Buenos Aires that is situated on the South Atlantic Ocean could not be more different from the landlocked valley of Antigua. We look forward to getting to know this city a little bit and to working with the people we will teach here over the coming days.