Since I moved up to the Ottawa Valley from Toronto 20 years ago, the winter temperatures have definitely been getting milder. When I first arrived, the locals used to measure the quality of the winter by how many days were -40C or colder, and when it’s that cold it doesn’t snow. Now a temperature of -29C is considered a cold day. With these warmer winters there is more snow, and my snow piles are as high as the top of the garage door this year. But then suddenly-warming temperatures throughout the season bring sudden melts, which turn the driveway into a dangerous skating rink.
So it’s not surprising that this year, local friends are escaping to warmer climates in record numbers. Remarkably, very few of these escapees are heading to lawn chairs on sunny beaches. Rather, they are choosing to spend time immersing themselves in new cultures, in useful ways such as working on organic farms or helping in community projects.
In the face of a political culture that is trying to exploit fear and suspicion of others, it feels important to me that we spend our free time reaching out and contributing to the lives of those who could use our help. Each of the people I know who have been away, have returned deeply refreshed by their alternative vacation experiences.
One friend named Shirley recently returned from a trip to Guatemala. With her permission I am sharing here some insights she gleaned from her trip which are offered up as inspiration for others:
“I’ve just returned from eight days in Guatemala with the Ottawa Valley ‘dream team’, building two houses this past week. It’s hard work, no matter how many house-builds you’ve participated in. The concrete is mixed by hand with shovel and hoe, the blocks are moved around in small spaces, the ‘bucket brigade’ moves the mortar and cement as cinder blocks are buttered with mortar one by one. Yet at the end of each day there is a real sense of satisfaction in what has been accomplished – we can see how many rows of blocks have been laid as the houses take shape over five days. By the final day when the keys are handed over to the new occupants, there is a tangible sense of ownership in the project by both Guatemalans and Cana-dians, and a connection that defies description.
So often on these trips, learning and growth has come from putting myself in situations that push my boundaries, making me feel uncomfortable sometimes. By the luck of where we are born, we could just as easily be the ones trying to make a living in mountain villages, weaving, working in cornfields on the mountainside, building wooden coffins, looking each day to have enough food to feed our family. Each of us could just as easily be the homeless person curled up in the Parque Central, or the double-arm amputee begging on the street.
In stark contrast to my first trip to Guatemala in 2006, I can now look a beggar in the eye and say “Hola, mi nombre es Shirley,” and drop a few coins in their plastic bowl. These are people in need, dehumanized by their circumstances and their need to beg. I guess I feel more human by being able to actually ‘see’ them now, and not walk past feeling sad and ashamed. We are all one, after all, and I’ve concluded that it’s OK to feel less angst, as long as I’m present to what’s going on around me.
“The other familiar and comfortable part is ‘the team’! We’ve been together for so many years in different configurations .... and we still get along ... we really do! There is such a deep friendship amongst us, having shared so many experiences together. It really is a privilege to be allowed to help build a house which will become a home for a family. It isn’t ‘us’ who are doing the allowing, but rather the Guatemalan people we meet. They are generous and genuine when they open up their lives and let us in. They seem to have faith in our presence, without really knowing who we are. They express real gratitude in the shared experience.
Imagine any one of us accepting strangers into our lives so easily to build a house. I’m not sure that we’d be as open. After returning to Canada, I feel able to see grace and beauty and truth in my surroundings, and feel ready to make a difference, perhaps in some small way, here at home again.”
Shirley has been building houses during her vacations for ten years. She always comes back brown, happy, wizened, and toned. Plus, there is the immeasurable bonus of having touched peoples’ lives by sharing her time and energy, and that has got to be a good feeling for all involved. What better way to feel rejuvenated than by spreading some love and helping to make the world a little brighter (while you get a warmer waiting for spring). I am inspired.