After nearly 20 hours of travel that began June 10th, a contingent of 20 Oregon student-athletes and four staff members arrived in Guatemala City, where we gathered our bags and went through customs. As we exited the airport it felt like we were the away team for Game 7 of the NBA Finals getting off the bus — a hundred Guatemalans surrounded the exit ramp, looking at our group as if they had never seen an American.
As we made our way to the bus, smiles between us and several Guatemalans were shared. Bartering for a 50 cent bag of plantain chips occurred almost instantly, and the exchange rate of one US Dollar to 7.7 Guatemalan Quetzals was recognized. Everyone in our group gave our phones and passports to a representative from Courts for Kids, who would hold onto them for the duration of the trip.
If the travel day hadn’t been long enough already, we loaded up a Guatemalan bus with the clutch smelling as if it was on its last leg. It took us around five hours to reach our overnight destination of Momostenango, where our first true Guatemalan meal of the trip — along with heavy rain — awaited us. We had thought we left the rain back in Eugene but soon came to notice we had arrived during the middle of the rainy season — warm, sunny mornings would inevitably be followed by afternoon rain storms.
After drinking two packets of Pedialyte and lathering up the sunscreen to avoid sunburn and altitude sickness, we were off to our new home for the week, Paxmaramac, which sat around 8,000 feet above sea level. It was amazing how green the vegetation looked; at times it was as if we were back in Oregon. After an hour-long of ride, we pulled into the village.
The local school sat upon a little hillside which overlooked a dig-out for the soon to be built court, with a small valley and hillside in the distance. It was the type of view where a multi-million-dollar home in America would sit. We were greeted by locals with smiles and a bit of timidness, but that quickly evaporated. We were given three of the school’s classrooms to set up our sleep space for the week. We were given foam mattresses which were honestly comfortable, and a luxurious custom bathroom out back. After everyone was settled in, it was go time.
The next three days were spent working on the court. This was where you could tell we all had in common one thing: Ducks fly together and don’t shy away from hard work! We completed a full-sized court in roughly two full workdays. Water, two buckets of rock, two buckets of sand, concrete, water, fiber glass, two buckets of sand, two buckets of rock — ask anyone on the trip and I bet you they have that order memorized, as we loaded those materials into a cement mixer close to 360 times. It was well worth the work in the end, to see the appreciation from the locals along with the joy it brought them.
Black beans, rice and tortillas — those staples of the local cuisine gave us the fuel to build the court, and also win a highly contested soccer series. We “gringos” took game one in a downpour of rain on Tuesday after the court was finished. The locals took game two on Wednesday. But the “gringos” took the series on Thursday, energized by some lime covered papaya, plantain juice and a couple saved goals from Pat Herbert. Engaging in sport with the locals was a shared bond we will never forget. You may not be able to communicate through language at times, but sharing the same joy by simply kicking a ball around for a couple hours is about as pure as it gets.
There is nothing in the world that forces you to live in the moment like dancing. Other than sports, dancing was another way in which we shared a bond between communities. Before the soccer match, and after the court was finished, the kids from the community dressed up and performed several dance routines for us. I believe it was to show appreciation along with sharing a part of their culture we had never seen before. It was cool to watch, and we also got to join in on the dance party.
Once the court was finished, we spent most of the time with the community. Whether it be riding in the back of a truck from the pool, teaching locals how to play volleyball, basketball or acrobatics and tumbling, or even playing the card game Mafia. All these experiences taught us that if you are in service of others and find joy in the little things, it’s very easy to get lost in the beauty of the moment. But dang, whoever said there weren’t going to be mosquitos at that altitude missed the mark!
Friday morning, after the opening ceremonies for the court along with the shared tears and goodbyes, we made our way down the mountain. We capped off our trip in Panajachel, where we had our first meal that wasn’t the famous beans, rice and tortillas. A restaurant overlooked the great Atitlan Lake and surrounding volcanoes. It was surreal. This was where we spent the next day, bartering for local goods and a sharing more memories with one another.
We recapped the good and bad times of the trip, and realized that we had bonded with one better than we could have imagined. We realized that this trip helped us understand that you don’t need anything materialistic to be happy in this world; if you serve and love the person standing next to you, this life will bring you joy.
More reflections from the trip:
“Being rich doesn’t always mean being happy. the people in Guatemala don’t really have much, but I can tell you that they are very happy people. Their happiness instantly rubs off on you; ever since I got here I have been smiling constantly.” — Phillipina Kyei, women’s basketball
“Coming here and being around the community is a very humbling experience and is going to change my outlook and way I live my life.” — Morgan McCarthy, lacrosse
“My favorite memory from the trip was when we got to dance with the kids during their presentation that they showed us. I genuinely had a great time, and I felt like I had the best time ever.” — Jade Albalos, acrobatics and tumbling
“Being on this trip has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience. What I have learned about myself and being away from my phone is that life is more precious when you can see things clear.” — Trikweze Bridges, football
“This trip give me a new perspective on life, and happiness. People have much less but are much happier because they focus on the things they do have.” — Patrick Herbert, football
“The main thing that I learned about myself is about how much I like helping other people and especially being around kids. I feel like I have always been wondering what other things I enjoy besides playing tennis.” — Uxia Martínez, women’s tennis
“My favorite memories from the trip would be the connections I made with the kids — from the handshakes, to the jokes being made and games being played, I loved every part. These kids came to me with joy and happiness in their heart and it was just amazing to see.” — Steve Stephens IV, football
“From the community I learned the practice of appreciation is endless. I want to be able to go home and see what kinds of changes I can make after everything I learned here this week.” — Lexie Likins, lacrosse
“What I learned about the world is just how absolutely wonderful the Guatemalans and specifically this Mayan community are. They are so welcoming, warm, generous and giving. The most difficult part of going home will be returning to a busy pace of life. It’s so nice here to just be in the moment with the people here, building these relationships both within our group and also with the community.” † Katie Harbertstaff
“I learned that you don’t need much to be happy. People in this community are so happy and grateful for what they have even though it’s not much. What matters is who is in your life, not what is in your life.” † Lauren Crockettstaff