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Spending two years living in a Mayan village in Guatemala, I have been exploring was of reintegrating in America and to process my experiences. I was engaged to a local and accepted the invitation to move in with his family, yet I was challenged by our differences in religion, culture and perspective, yet felt an intense love that still runs deep.

Chapter 25

Thank You, Portland

Thank you, Portland; Day 25 & 26

Monday, November 25th at 10:30pm and Tuesday, November 26th at Midnight in Tranquility.

I got out of the sensory deprivation tank early with a strong urge and desire to cry. I tried, but couldn’t. I invited the tears to come yet felt a resistance and was feeling extremely anxious and unable to find any sense of calmness. I decided to take a shower since I had gotten some salt water in my eye as it does sting a bit. I re-entered the float tank for round two into Tuesday and was amazed as the time flew by. I came out on Tuesday feeling rather relaxed and calm, and found it interesting that taking a shower break between float sessions turned things around entirely for me. Perhaps if it weren’t for the salt in my eyes, I would have remained anxious for the transition into day 26. Maybe the shower was sort of a macrocosm of those tears I was longing for…

Thank you, Portland.

I still experience flashbacks of my life in Colorado where I was attending University before I set off to Guatemala wondering if I’ll ever know that version of Alyssa again. The one who wasn’t afraid to take risks. The one who took time caring for and loving herself. The one who was sociable and outgoing. The one who took time to do things of quality and with focused detail. The one who was growing into her own, creative individual. I valued patience. I felt healthy and balanced.

After graduating, I left for a two year service in Guatemala and it was then that everything changed. I listened and had to understand and speak two new languages, greeted and addressed people differently, and lived and worked at a slower pace with an inconsistent and less predictable schedule. I no longer ate the same food, drove my own car, nor road my own bike. I wore different clothes, lost my sense of safety and had an increase in vulnerability. My health declined starting day one. I wasn’t only sick from contaminants and stress, but I was challenged beyond my beliefs mentally, physically and emotionally what seemed like every moment of everyday. It truly has been the most humbling, difficult, beautiful, terrifying, exhilarating, and seemingly endless time of my life, so far. And I’m still seeking to process everything two years later.

I currently reside in Portland, and I feel very lucky to have all my basic needs met daily, yet I notice there is an overwhelming amount of options to meet these daily needs. I am astounded by the diversity and high quality of food, tea, natural healing, dance, cafes, stores, modes and reliability of transportation, safety, nourishment, entertainment, yoga studios, wellness spaces, community centers, knit shops, educational opportunities, and social events. Yeesh, the endless options continue to amaze and overwhelm me to a point of overstimulation, and perhaps even adding tension to my already stressful, traumatic process.

I was surrounded and immersed in extreme poverty, malnourishment, diseases, animal abuse, trash, contamination, violence, gangs, extortionists, and a lack of access to fresh produce and clean resources. My daily thoughts while living and working in the village were how can I help support the families to become healthier, stronger and more sustainable? I worked with the local health staff and community leaders educating and implementing projects for the village and their families. Living within poverty helped me to gain a real experience and perspective of their daily lives and struggles. We ate the same thing every day: corn in some form whether it was tortillas or tamalitos (corn masa wrapped up in a corn husk leaf then boiled), eggs, white bread, beans and rice. There were few veggies, few fruits, little meat and overall a life lacking diversity.

In the beginning everything was diverse for me, yet after about eight months of integration all the fresh experiences and newness of the culture began to ware off, and things became more annoying rather than inspiring and stimulating. I was immersing myself into this culture living and working with the locals by eating their food and relying on their transportation, whether that meant walking through villages, getting rides in the back of pickups, or taking chicken buses. I practiced and communicated daily with their languages, gestures, and sounds. I listened to their music, wore their traditional clothing, and participated in their family, cultural and religious celebrations. In a sense I almost felt Guatemalan, yet I was continually this outsider and minority who couldn’t completely integrate.

I befriended and fell in love with the locals, and even romantically fell in love with a Guatemalan man who truly left a mark I may never understand, nor fully realize what had happened between us. In a sense we come from two different worlds; I was born in Orange County and relocated to a Portland suburb around age nine. I grew up in a culture with country clubs learning proper etiquette in golf, tennis, and piano and had more than enough amenities and opportunities one could ask for. I am extremely grateful to be a university graduate, have had studied abroad and traveled to different countries experiencing life outside of my homeland.

He was only twenty years old when we met, and was in a trade school studying to be an electrician. He had never left his village other than studying in the city below their rural, Mayan settlement up on the mountain. He grew up in a house made of adobe and aluminum tin walls with a lack of adequate resources and opportunities. He was the son of an Evangelical Pastor; I seem to be more of a progressive, free-spirited and open-minded American yogini. We were young dreamers in this romantic, cross-cultural love we blindly fell into, yet we were head over heels for each other.

We became famous right away in the village once word escaped we were dating. He seemed to thrive on this as I became ‘his trophy’, and it was then that I quickly lost my sense of individuality and power being in this new, un-familiar role as a woman in a machismo culture. I had become well known in the village merely just being the ‘Gringa’ starting my first day entering the community, and solely because I was a minority being American, I was already accustomed to the strong discomfort of the consistent ‘eye molestation’. All the staring, laughs, and gossip were challenging enough, yet after having a solid year under my belt I was beginning to feel stronger, a bit more comfortable and increasingly confident in my own skin after enduring the daily struggles to grow into this courage. However, my second year in Guatemala as we became recognized as a couple and were engaged, I accepted the invitation to move in with his family and suddenly things shifted to a whole new level I didn’t ever imagine possible.

I had never felt such a fierce glaring of eyes nor such an intense, isolating gossip before in my life. Not just in our own village, but the surrounding communities would also continually talk about our relationship and many even confronted us with rather uncomfortable questions and comments. Word spread fast through out the towns as I was eagerly working to finish our community health projects and simply get through this entire Peace Corps service in one piece. For me this included being consistently sick with parasites along with the extra challenges of living with my fiance’s family without a bathroom, little water, little food, lack of privacy, and heaps of obnoxious and dirty animals without a proper door or window covering our room in the never-ending dust, mud, animal droppings, and trash.

As we all became increasingly intimate with each other with his 9+ family members and ever-growing number of farm animals, so did our differences and disagreements. He and I experienced the yin-yang of the beautiful highest of highs and the ugly lowest of lows together. There seemed to be this paradox of loving and fighting occurring simultaneously; however, I noticed a lack in stability and balance I found myself longing for and craving after several months of extreme ups and downs.

In spite of the challenges between us, I still had never felt such unconditional love or giving without expectations from the family, nor had I experienced the natural flowing of authentic emotions amongst the locals within their daily hardships. I still appreciate and can hear their laughter, even in the midst of suffering. I was and still am amazed and humbled witnessing how survival is possible in a village working together as a committed family unit, doing whatever it takes to get through the day. I felt I did my best to translate this raw beauty of family unity I admired into this new found relationship with my partner, but things ended sooner than either of us suspected.

My Peace Corps experience was forced to end four months early due to increasing violence in Guatemala and with the high safety concerns from our headquarters in Washington D.C., we were told to drop our projects and commitments and officially close our service at the end of March 2012. Perhaps one of the most emotionally hardest days of my life began with driving over to a neighboring village on a cold morning. I was on my way to meet with one of our groups we had been working with, yet we were unpleasantly surprised with a flat tire causing us to be very late, even for this culture, which increased my already high anxiety in arriving to meet them.

I had been dreading this conversation I was about to have as it was the day I needed to explain that I no longer was able to provide them with the stoves we had been working towards building for several families. They were cooking on dirt floors enclosed by thick, black walls full of toxic smoke which I imagine is a similar experience in their lungs. Unfortunately, pulmonary diseases are a leading cause for death in children under age five; many families have no other option but to do all their cooking indoors on an open fire with their babies strapped to their back as children and family members huddle closely around the fire seeking warmth at 9,000 feet.

I could barely locate the strength to deliver the words; I felt their pain and suffering on a deep, core level. For months prior they had been regularly attending our educational health talks which was a requirement for receiving a stove project. Upon delivery of the news, they began to yell, cry, and a few even shunned me after I expressed that we could no longer provide stoves due to increasing safety concerns and lack of time for adequate fundraising.

I stumbled through my explanation knowing they have little opportunity and resources leaving them stuck in the poverty cycle of contamination, disease, and violence. I suddenly felt ashamed and resentful for being American that I could easily go back home and escape the suffering and challenges of life in this underdeveloped country. Once again, my life had shifted to a new level of rising emotional, physical and mental stress. A strong, intense feeling of failure, shame and guilt took over my whole being. I felt like I’ve been crying ever since, even if the tears don’t appear, the sadness remains present and deeply engrained.

Although I was accepted into this community and family with loyal humility and gratitude, I still struggle in processing and almost believing what I went through including all the highs and lows. I think back to the village and all my experiences living with my fiance and his family, and it feels like I have been experiencing various levels of stress and trauma because many memories and difficult feelings come up often as I feel triggered on a regular basis. I have been seeking ways to process my experiences, and am extremely grateful for the nourishing communities I’ve been connecting with and all the healing and positive reintegration Portland has been facilitating for me.

I expected myself to be “normal” again after two years post Peace Corps, yet I still feel some of the extremes of reverse culture shock, or I will still experience fear, anger and sadness surrounding Guatemala and the relationships that were formed. I didn’t think life would still be so challenging even while living amongst the luxuries in America, and the beauty in reconnecting with my family and having the proximity to healthy resources again.

Perhaps the most healing benefits I’ve experienced are through practicing and teaching yoga, as well as floatation therapy. They have been incredible means of processing and are consistent tools in allowing myself to relax and sink deeper into my body so much that I am able to release a little more stress and resistance with each breath. I can ease the constant clenching, tension and fear that has been created from my experiences and I come to realize that everything is okay. Even the harsh memories and negative energy that has been stored deep down has been starting to unwind and flow its way out little by little. Thank you, Yoga. Thank you, Float Shoppe.

I’ll always have a special place deep within for Guatemala, the communities, the families, and the man I fell in love with. I guess all I can do now is take one day at a time, knowing and respecting that my process will unravel as its own course, at it’s own pace, and on its own time. Perhaps I’ve been reconnecting with that version of Alyssa from Colorado who values patience, who isn’t afraid to take risks, who is outgoing and sociable, who is healthy and balanced, and who is continually growing into her own, creative individual.

Thank you, Portland, for facilitating the healing and continual rediscovering of myself with this ever-expanding lens of compassion, respect and love.

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Alyssa Grant

Portland, USA

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