February 17, 2012

Reflections on Guatemala (or, What’s In A Pen?)

“I didn’t expect a road-to-Damascus, life-changing snap,” I told a fellow volunteer on my last morning in the country.  “I didn’t expect it–but I guess one can always hope…”

The phrase “cognitive dissonance” keeps coming to mind: How does one work half days in an orphanage full of kids lacking toilet paper & teeth, then cruise off to swim in waterfalls with 18-year-old girls? None of it makes a great deal of sense. Much in our world doesn’t.

What follows is a lumpy mixture of the life-affirming, the very sad, and mostly the totally banal.


I joke with Google folks that somewhere in a Mountain View basement, some quant-savant knows me better than I know myself: s/he has figured out that every person who’s clicked, say, a certain three pages on Wikipedia plus a certain NYT story is a guilty-feeling liberal (likely Catholic-flavored) who’s ripe for soliciting.  And thus the YouTube ads began:

Volunteer in Africa! 2-12 week positions available now.

Soon enough I was off, having chosen Guatemala based on need (it’s a less popular destination than places like Costa Rica) & timing. I drew a placement at Mama Carmen’s, an orphanage/daycare that serves 50+ kids per day. (Mama Carmen herself has adopted 30-some kids, many with special needs, after losing her own son.) We were asked not to post photos of the kids (makes sense), but you can get a good sense of things via the link above.

We worked only half days (something I didn’t know when I signed up), though it didn’t feel very “only” at the time.  Many of the kids are starved for adult attention (as the staff has their hands more than full simply feeding & bathing the kids), and they instantly turned my partner Blair & me into human jungle gyms.  We had little prep: in you go, and climbed you will be. (There can be something quite charming, though, in having little arms appear around your neck while a voice whispers from behind, Yo soy su mochila!!”) I’d often stand with a kid on either arm, plus another grabbing each leg, only to find another quietly pushing up a chair to mount me from behind.

Days could feel long, and whatever supplies we’d bring (crayons, Play-Doh, games) would generally be torn apart in short order. The kids aren’t bad, not in the least; they’re just under-stimulated & -supervised. We did our best to manage the chaos, keeping kids from ingesting crayons and tent stakes (a toy, really?). It was largely a matter of endurance.

And then, on Tuesday, one of the little guys died.

I didn’t know what was happening.  We’d been excused early, and through my execrable Spanish, I thought I understood a lady to say that a new baby was coming to live at the orphanage–that he was about 8 months old and that his parents had died. A long VW van with tinted windows rolled up, and the workers opened up the front doors so that the van could roll into the space where we played with the kids. “Wow,” I thought, “this is kind of a great entrance–maybe the nicest thing this little guy will ever experience!” And then, finally, my fellow volunteer clued me in to the truth.

The boy’s mom had died in childbirth, and he must have suffered greatly during the process. All the antibiotics he’d taken had killed off the flora in his guts, and he needed surgery as a result. All the kids had kissed him on his way to the hospital. He died in surgery, so they returned him home and laid him out on a little card table draped in white.

I cried all the way home. I still do now.

Everyone told me–wisely, I’m sure–not to take it so hard. Maybe it’s different when one is the parent of young children.  In any case, “these things happen,” and so on.  One can’t take it so personally.

I wonder, though, whether that’s exactly the problem: maybe if we knew lives and deaths as individuals, we’d behave very differently. “The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of millions is a statistic,” Stalin reputedly said. If I remained more superstitious, I’d read more into the fact that a fellow volunteer was named John Donne. Ask not for whom the bell tolls.

I don’t know how to continue writing after that. “Poo-tee-weet?”


I love solitude, and back home our kids give me very little.  Having partial days + nights off was therefore quite welcome.  Cross-Cultural Solutions provides various cultural learning opportunities (e.g. touring the rich & poor parts of town, visiting museums, taking Spanish lessons, etc.), and although I wanted to work harder, I think they’re wise to provide this variation.

My fellow volunteers were either 18-year-old girls or 70-year-old men, making me twice the age of some and half that of the others.  I spent more time with the girls, and I wasn’t prepared to be The Old Guy.  It feels vaguely absurd to write, much less complain, about it–but man, this new sense kept hitting me. It touched a nerve with the stagnation I’ve felt in recent years.

Parenting & my career have been a zero-sum game: do one better, do the other worse. Pre-kids I was kind of kicking ass at Adobe: I got the Photoshop PM gig at 26, and I was winning awards & getting big things (like the Photoshop public beta) done. I’d spend evenings & weekends reading, thinking, and writing–because I loved it. I was young & doing some damage.

In my early 30′s, though, it all started to change: I can’t work like I did, and you can tell the difference. I’ve felt I’m skating by, and what have I really done or changed in… years? How many more versions of Photoshop, how many more blog posts can I kick out, and to what end? Four years into fatherhood and I’m not a young badass, nor (this being Silicon Valley) am I some now-wealthy “genius” who’s had his ticket punched.  I’m missing my identity, wondering if I’m a has-been.

I went to Guatemala to better appreciate my life.  Wasn’t it supposed to make me shut up about my vain & trivial bullshit, to embrace those I love & thank God for our blessings?  I didn’t find myself missing my home & kids, though: I found myself missing having any life beyond them. Going out for beers, listening to music–the more I got, the more I missed it–”as if appetite doth grow with the feeding.”

I do love my wife and kids, very much; please don’t misunderstand. I do value my job, despite not doing it nearly as well as I’d like. I just… I keep hearing Björk singing, “There must be more to life than this, there must be more to life.”

I’ve said that this trip should be more a beginning than an ending. I was full of brave & empty talk for years about helping others.  Now it’s like I’ve finally gone to the gym–once. It’s exhilarating, painful, eye-opening–and just a first step.

What comes next? I don’t know; I’m working on that.


At Mama Carmen’s I spent a great deal of time drawing with the kids. I took a particular shine to a 13-year-old named Enrique, a cool & spirited little guy who drew with me quite a bit. On the last day, as I was saying goodbye to all the kids (practicing the elaborate “boom!” handshakes we’d worked out), he pointed to the pen in my pocket–the nice one I’d brought & not surrendered to the mayhem. “Su pluma?” he asked, hopefully. Of course, buddy, of course–I handed it over, deeply touched.

What will happen to that pen? What will happen to Enrique, or to any of the kids? I have no idea. I hope I whetted his appetite to draw, and I hope drawing brings him some pleasure. Beyond that, I don’t know. Sometimes it’s the little things; sometimes it’s just an onion.


So, yeah: no conversion miracles, no road to Damascus. I’ve taken a step, though–and now I hope to take more.

Posted by John Nack at 11:08 AM on February 17, 2012
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