In contrast to the dry hills of Chuacruz and Los Morales, day three of the Learning Journey found us traipsing around the lush green slopes of Concepcion. The first community in which we’ve had a persevering relationship, “Conce” feels the most like home to Reading Village. We know its cobblestone streets, its white steeple, its vibrant fields. What we are only beginning to know, however, is the impact of our work in this corner of the world. We were going to explore that today, to bear witness to some of the change that’s taken place since we first arrived, and to meet the scholars who are – beyond a shadow of a doubt – fully responsible for said change.
Concepcion is a small municipality. You turn right out of Sololá and roll along the edge of the steep cliffs which drop more than 1,500 feet down to Lake Atitlan. Hugging the hillside you roll over broken pavement and frequent speed bumps – an ever-present attempt at civility – until you drop down into the old caldera that is Conce. A small network of paved roads are your first clue that this town is better off than the others. There are storefronts (the size of postage stamps), a two-story school building, a brilliantly white cathedral. Where in Chuacruz and Los Morales there were dry fields, here there is a bumper crop of cabbage and carrots being harvested – an orange brilliant against the dark dirt and the blue sky.
We spent the morning walking along those colors today, getting to know the scholars. We shared stories about our lives, questioned where one another come from and day dreamed together about where we were going. We continued to flail with our Spanish and they treated us with the persevering patience that they offer the young children they read to. And when words were lost in translation, we took to laughter….and foot races. Nothing like physical displays of emotion and friendly competition to bridge the cultural divide. Flip flops were thrown off, heads were thrown back, and worlds were bridged.
After a long walk down (and up) the steep hillsides we sought shelter in the shade of the community’s public library. Its name literally translates to Flourishing Knowledge and it’s true. The modest building is a physical reminder of the generation of youth who are flourishing in this small town. The library was their idea, after all. Three years ago they requested the space from town leaders and pressed their local networks for donations of paint, cleaning materials, and supplies to transform what was otherwise an apartment in great disrepair into a community asset for local learning. The parallels that can be drawn between this space and these youth are infinite. Both beacons of hope in an otherwise rough spot.
The rest of the day was passed in a series of sweet moments. We heard from our teaching fellows and recent graduates about their grand adventures in the big city. We stood at the top the great cathedral and sat down in the dirt to share simple conversation. We ate a meal of sweet tamales and laughed over storybooks and stories shared.
As we loaded the bus this morning we were presented with a single question to consider: What does it mean to help? In international development it’s a question we ask ourselves often, but never enough. Sometimes the gestures are grand, but more often the help we offer one another is nothing more than simple attempts to connect, to offer, and to receive. In Concepcion today, there were two groups of people. Some spoke Spanish, others flailed. Some were sunburnt and blonde, others were beautifully golden. Some had traveled far and others not at all. But despite the obvious differences we were all there with a common desire to help – to help each other know these disparate worlds, to understand a simple goal, to build a singular community. Sometimes the simplest definition of help is to share one another’s burdens in whatever form they appear and in whatever way we can. It would be a noble thing to do.