Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Traveling Mercies: Even Though He Was a Stranger in a Strange Land, Alexander Zoltai Found a Home Away from Home in Guatemala

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Traveling Mercies: Even Though He Was a Stranger in a Strange Land, Alexander Zoltai Found a Home Away from Home in Guatemala

Article excerpt

The night was the blackest I'd ever seen: Fresh stars popped out every few seconds, the dark sky telling me it was getting late. I hated to go. I was still enjoying my cup of coffee and oranges. It seemed like we were avoiding the topic of my pending departure.

I had been living in the coffee-producing highlands of Guatemala for the last eight months and was preparing to board an airplane bound for Minnesota in a few hours. Sipping coffee that had gone cold with the night, I was trying to say good-bye to the family that had meant the most to me during my lime in Guatemala.

"What will you do when you gel back?" my friend, Amilcar Yoxon Calel, asked me.

"Meet all the Guatemalans I can find, I guess," I replied with a smile.

It had only been eight months. I had not been gone long, but it seemed like I was a world away from the life I once knew so well. The person going back was coming back with a new appreciation for culture, language, and faith.

I had seen what it meant to be a Mayan, uneasily mixing the ancient with the modern. I lived that mixture, that mezcla, often hearing a babble of languages spoken in town, the local Mayan language, Katchiquel, and Spanish, a language introduced to the country more than 500 years ago.

"Our Mayan identity is very important to us. It is who we are. We speak our language and wear our clothes, like our parents did," Andres Chajil, an elder in the community, had told me. "But you as an American have your own culture, and it is when we get together and share the two that we make our own mixture of the two. And that is good for everyone."

I worked the toe of my shoe back and forth on the dirt floor, throwing a little cloud of dust into the air. I was with my Guatemalan "mother," Maria Yoxon Calel, the matriarch of the family that had befriended me, and her daughter, joking about silly things that we had said and done together as a yellow light bulb buzzed in the background behind us. "Do you know you were the first foreigner to ever come into our house?" Maria asked.

It's not a prime destination for most, but the town where I lived, San Lucas Tolimim, is not completely devoid of tourists. This small village sees a trickle of North Americans and Europeans in and out throughout the year.

I found it hard to believe that not one of them had bothered to strike up a conversation with this kind family, who had welcomed me into their home countless times. Their outstretched hearts and hands had offered me fresh plates of food and a warm bed. All I had done was shown an interest in learning about them and their daily life. That only seemed natural to me. They taught me how to weave and make tortillas by hand, and what it means to be Mayan.

"No one ever came by before, not one," she said. "We were always wondering and are thankful to have learned about your culture."

"Well, I hope I am not the last," I said, half wanting the world to know them, half wanting to keep them my secret.

I had shared what I could, a boy from the American Midwest, accustomed to a life they would never know. We would sit around and talk about our lives--both joys and struggles. I would try to make sense of U.S. culture for them from this great distance, but the local Mayan culture in San Lucas ran as thick and sweet as honey before our eyes, impossible to avoid. My memories are vivid.



Early one morning I sat up in my warm bed, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes, realizing that there were people parading through the streets. …

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