Coming Home: Guatemala

Guatemala | Anna Zauner

Home: Skillman, New Jersey

Photo: Dressed in traditional Mayan traje, as is custom for Sunday  Mass. Anna Zauner, left, with friend Jackelyn Saquic.

 

We received the evacuation notice at 10 p.m., just hours after the Guatemalan government announced that all school would be canceled for 21 days. Forty-six minutes later I received the follow-up email with my departure date: Tuesday. A full day to say goodbyes and pack. 

I started Monday by telling my host family and what friends I could find the news. I ran into some of my students along the trail to school and told one group of girls that I would be leaving. One of my work partners scheduled a meeting in the town center for me to tell colleagues. My return was uncertain. A follow-up email instructed us to give away all belongings we could not bring. 

My colleague Patty Saquic hosted me for a last lunch in her home. Troubling news kept coming. Volunteers scheduled to leave that morning were on their way to the airport and had their buses turned back. No planes were leaving. The border with Mexico was scheduled to close at 8 p.m.

 

As I was finishing lunch, I received an update: “Have all of your things packed and ready in an hour to go to your consolidation point.” I was 30 minutes from home with nothing packed.

 

 

 Class of first-year secondary school students preparing Jocón. They learned budgeting by saving up for weeks to purchase ingredients for the recipe. Photo by Anna Zauner

 

As I was finishing lunch, I received an update: “Have all of your things packed and ready in an hour to go to your consolidation point.” I was 30 minutes from home with nothing packed. I ran through the town center to catch a bus. A friend flagged me down: Be careful, she said. Guatemalans were becoming hostile towards “tourists.” I shouldn’t be walking around alone.

At home, I packed a few things, hoisted them into a tuk-tuk, headed for the nearest neighbor with a car.

A flight was chartered for us, departing Tuesday 9 a.m. Then canceled; the plane had not been granted airspace. Negotiations with the government were still in progress. Wednesday, airspace was granted. To keep local police from stopping us, we headed for the airport with an embassy and police escort — multiple vehicles and 20 motorcycles, sirens blaring, lights flashing.

Hours later we touched down in Miami. The entire plane erupted with applause for the hard work our post administration put into bring us home.

As for home: What about the one I left behind?

When I told my host family in Guatemala and tried to explain through tears that I was hoping to come back but unsure if I would be able to, they said to me, “No tenga pena.” Don’t have shame. “We will keep your room for you — this room is yours.”

Though I do have shame — for the lack of proper goodbyes, for leaving the community I pledged to serve for two years. The students I was teaching have been spending their time at home, leaving quiet fútbol courts and classrooms bereft of laughter. I hope the lectures I gave on positive youth development through life skills will propel students forward. There was so much more that I did not get the chance to address: substance abuse, reproductive health, and mental health for starters.

 


This story was first published in WorldView magazine’s Summer 2020 issue. Read the entire magazine for free now in the WorldView app. Here’s how:

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