When you hear someone say, "I went to Mexico." What comes to mind? Cruise ships. A picturesque vista. Palm trees. Fruity beverages. Oh, and tropical weather. Yes, all the vacation-y things. You typically don't imagine your days south of the border to be serenaded by birds and your freezing cold nights set to the soundtrack of about 1 million dogs.
In this particular case, they were.
Before I fully dive into that, we need to Genesis Chapter 1 vs. 1 this story. So you'll fully get where I'm coming from and how I got to this point.
Ever since I rolled out of the Polochic Valley of Guatemala in the summer of 2009, I knew my life was changed. Deeply and irreversibly changed. What I experienced in those remote villages literally altered the way I view myself and the world I live in. The red clay dirt I worked in became sacred. So much so that I took my boots thick with mud home and I couldn't bring myself to clean them off. For a year! The air I breathed in those hills sank into my lungs and never really left.
As I sat on a crowded bus with the dust hitting my tear-stained cheeks, I tried to make sense of what had just transpired. I knew my life was on a trajectory that would never be the same. I was now on the path to becoming a truer version of myself. The Sarah who touched down in Guatemala 10 days before was NOT the same Sarah who was heading back to the US.
I had caught a bug. Not a parasite from drinking the water, thankfully. But a bug to surround myself with like-minded people who want to make the world a better place. An inner resolve to become a global citizen who believes that extreme poverty in this day and age is unacceptable and who will fight relentlessly to eliminate it.
Never was something so obvious and needful than that of getting back to those hills as fast as humanly possibly. 11 months later, I was on a southbound plane with my already dirty boots. I was thrilled to see familiar faces who flooded my memory every day since. To see the cement bench with my name on it next to people who once were strangers and now were dear friends; words failed me. A bench made from cement in the area where trenches became a school. To say I was happy to see that come to completion is an understatement.
Two expeditions to Guatemala turned into five within a five-year time frame. Each time, those hills whispered secrets to my heart of exactly what I needed to learn through such simple and profound moments. My own poverty was piercing and little-by-little I learned how I can overcome it. In time, I went from Volunteer to Expedition Leader with a group called CHOICE Humanitarian. This organization works all over the world in remote villages on sustainable development projects. To learn more, visit CHOICE Humanitarian.
I knew pretty early on that Guatemala was my one true love. I had gone down there five times, for crying out loud. We were in a committed relationship where a huge part of my heart was held in reserve for those vistas and that red clay dirt. Be that as it may, a lot of people who were on that first trip with me were also now Expedition Leaders and had regaled me of their tales of expeditions to Nepal, Bolivia, and Mexico. Hearing those stories, I started to get itchy again...that darn bug. To put it plainly, it was high-time I had an affair. ;)
It wasn't long before co-leading a trip to Nepal was on the table and was mine for the taking.
This all went down at about the same time as the big Nepal earthquake of 2015. As I scrolled my CNN news feed in disbelief, again, with tear-stained cheeks, I thought that this new idea of going on an expedition to Nepal was dead. I was soon reminded that CHOICE has stared challenge and tragedy in the face before and was not about to shrink away from their mission of ending extreme poverty. Even if their villages were in rubble.
I had met Nepal's leading man, Bishnu Adhikari years before at a gala and had told him I would love to come visit him in his country someday. In his Nepali accent he said, "What can I do to make that happen?" I told him to wish that I could find a better job so I could afford to COME to Nepal. His response still echoes in my mind, "That.. I will most certainly do."
This dream seemed extremely unattainable to me at the time.
Back to the day of the earthquake. My now expedition leader's- fully invested heart pounded as I trolled the internet looking for something about Bishnu and the Nepal team. Were they alive? I saw a post of a mutual friend on Facebook stating that Bishnu and his family had checked in. As safe. (I cried a lot that day.)
The photo to the right is at the gala just months before I would come to Nepal and work side by side with him and his team in his country. I expressed how eternally grateful I was that he was kept out of harms way during the earthquake. He obviously had work he still needed to accomplish. And so did I. Next thing I knew I was on the other side of the planet with my internal clock and head completely flipped (stupid jet lag). After gathering our volunteers from the airport, it was time to head to the village and get to work. There was a school that needed some re-buildin'!
A familiar yet fresh welcome swept over me as walked into the village to the beat of their drums. I felt a beam of love the moment the word "Namaste" escaped my lips. The women I met in the village were leaders, mothers, and teachers. Who had to dust themselves off and start again when they had their world knocked out from under them. Could I possibly ever have that kind of strength?
Day 1 working in the village- I fell in a trench and couldn't move. I had injured my knee pretty badly. How badly? Wasn't sure and wouldn't fully until I got back home more than a week later. I had to be lifted out and carried down to my sleeping bag. Pain hit a new level that day. Is this what I get for cheating on Guatemala?
Fact: As a leader, events such as these is what we classify as an "Kathman-DON'T."
Way to go, Twinkle Toes!
A whole lot of essential oils (thanks DoTERRA ) and pain meds later, I seemed to be able to summon the strength to "do my job." The villagers and my co-leader made me a walking stick so I could get around. That soon became a treasured item. A symbol that we all get hurt. As humans, we must look outside of ourselves to help the injured of both body and spirit.
After doing my one-legged dance move ('The Himalayan Hop') into the new year, it was time to hobble home. The trip, albeit was a little bit of a painful blur, but I was able to do great work and have some rich moments with my Nepali family.
Jet lag wore off a solid week after reentry and I was still in a lot of emotional and physical pain. The next several months were spent doing physical therapy and cruising through more Netflix shows than I care to admit. You know, when you watch The West Wing all the way through enough times to start thinking the characters are actual White House staff members, you've got a problem. My inner resolve was still burning bright but taking a year off to rest and reset was necessary. After the Great Kathmandu Tumble of 2015, I needed a B R E A K!
When the heinous year of 2016 was over, I was ready to get back in the saddle. A weekend spent in the mountains at a leadership training retreat was just the ticket to load me up with enough ammo to take the expedition experience to the next level. I was warned that the bar had been raised and you can bet your bug spray I was keeping my chin up.
Mexico? Mexico. Yes, I can do that. It was about 6000 miles closer and required 3 hours in the air instead of 30. I'll take it.
That brings us back to the birds and the dogs. Still with me? Good. Ahhh, Mexico. A quick jet south of the border and my 7th expedition was kicked off to a spicy start.
Note to self: Don't under any circumstance fall in a trench.
I was whisked through the rain to the city of Irapuato to the CHOICE Center. The home of many ducks, pigs and cows. You can take the girl out of Lehi, but you sure can't make the girl from Lehi bond with farm animals. That, and the giant tree outside my window was packed with...you guessed it...birds. They were melodic and welcoming upon arrival but soon caused me search for the universe's mute button. Alas, this is what I live for and to be quite honest, it's what keeps me alive. Experiences you do not have every day and may never have again.
The dogs. Let's not forget the 1 million dogs that populate this village. The second I cocooned myself in my sleeping bag with only nose and mouth exposed (it was C O L D) a stadium full of dogs would start howling at the moon. They went on and on for what felt like hours. It's as if it were the Dog Superbowl and Old Yeller just scored a touchdown to win the game. They would quiet down at just about the exact time the roosters would say, "Sarah, 45 minutes of sleep is good, right? Cuz, we have choir practice. Sooooo..." #sorrynotsorry.
Photo by Jenny Farrell; Mexico 2017
I was on a pilgrimage of sorts. To once again return to the basics of authentic living; stripped from distractions. I was invited to focus on that matters most. Human connection. Why is that so hard for some people? They won't talk to you while you're in the same room but they'll go home and send you a message online instead. In this rural Mexican village, that was not an option. People are raw and real when you take away comfort and replace it with a cot. I discovered people for who they really are. Someone who only has themselves to offer. We go through life aching to be seen and to be heard. A certain level of vulnerability unfolds and I am amazed that even after 5 days of not showering, I still liked what I saw.
Photo by Margarita Landeros Menchaca; CHOICE Mexico 2017
I was able to see a new side of myself as I worked down inside the water cistern. A side that was taking in life at a slower pace. No need to rush. No need to fight to the front of the line or for the best parking spot. Work. Talk. See. Smell. Notice. Just be present. There is so much to be said for being present. We live in a culture where we are living to post and posting to live. I get it. I'm a millennial. I think in hashtags. But, when you stop and really just live in the moment and accept it, you notice that poverty is not what you thought it was. You notice that living with less is sometimes more. The shift is seeing that what you were ignoring before becomes your priority. Connection to family and community is not your competition but your lifeline.
Photo by Margarita Landeros Menchaca; CHOICE Mexico 2017
Village Life 101: Being uncomfortable is part of the gig. It seemed to bring in a new line of thinking to the forefront of my mind. What was making ME uncomfortable and how long was I going to keep walking around with that "pebble in my shoe?" What was I going to do to get it out? I was also reminded that we can do anything for 5 nights and be just fine. You can be cold, have little light, sleep on a weird air mattress, have your cot rip, check the walls for spiders, pour water down the toilet to flush it and share it with 8 people, have the wind howl, the dogs bark and the roosters go nuts and be just fine. For when you walk in your apartment and slide your barefoot on your floor, your carpet will never feel so soft.
When I got back to life and the inbox got jammed with demands and deadlines I have to take the time to remember simple moments. Ones that have shaped me and that keep me on that trajectory of self-discovery and authenticity. These sacred memories that tether me back to those hills and those vistas are threads in my tapestry and they continue to weave in and out of my life. Everyday.
I can sum up by saying this: "I know everything about this place; it wears your face. Even when my body blows away- my soul will stay." (Ingrid Michaelson, "Home")
I know where my soul lives now. And I go to these villages to sync up with it and see what secrets it will tell me.