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How Guatemala Changed My American Life

by Nate Van Haute
My group and I at La Ventana, one of the highest points in Guatemala. Here we had a view of massive volcanoes before finishing our hike in Todos Santos.

Everyone I met in Guatemala during my Operation Groundswell program had a story to tell. Each story, just like each individual, was particularly unique. I heard a story from a guerrillo soldier illustrating the atrocities that ultimately my country was guilty for.  I heard a story from a coffee farmer, explaining to me the oppressive pay system of international import/export companies. I heard a story from a Mayan curandera, passed down from generation to generation in Mayan villages, huddled around a campfire with my new OG family. 

The stories I heard throughout my Guatemala: Seed to Shelf program shook me to my core. I arrived back in the United States confused, excited to travel more, and hungry for a cheeseburger. The last was easy to take care of, but the first two I’m still struggling with. 

I can’t stop traveling. OG got me hooked, and now I’m aggressively saving up for Peru: Amazon to Andes. I want to keep working on my Spanish, explore a new part of Latin America, AND (*fingers crossed*) fulfill my childhood dream of seeing pink river dolphins. But the confusion I feel, well, that hasn’t really gone away at all. But I have had a lot of clarity on just how connected we all are, and how the decisions I make on a daily basis can impact others all around the world.

Tzibal is a unique community, and the fact that they threw our group a party is a testament to that. Here some of my friends are enjoying typical food while wearing the community’s typical indigenous dress.

Now I am a More Conscious Consumer

 Before my OG program, I was the guy who spent WAY too much time in the Starbucks drive-thru. I didn’t care how much I paid, where the coffee came from, and who produced it. I just needed my caffeine. After my OG program, I started to ask questions about the coffee I was consuming. I was aware of the journey from seed to shelf, and I didn’t want my friends in Guatemala to continue being paid unfair wages for their beans. The OG Manifesto revolves around intentional decision-making, and where I get my coffee from is the first choice I make every day. 

Now I am a Hiker

I grew up in Nebraska, the heart of America’s “Great Plains”. Don’t let the name fool you though. It’s pretty gorgeous around these parts. Before my OG Program, I only went outside to mow the grass or take out the trash. I loved air conditioning (and still do), but I also just enjoyed reading in the corner of my bedroom. Now, I crave to be outside engaging with the world. I try to create space for myself to reflect while I’m hiking on a trail. I crave a connection with the earth now, something I hadn’t felt until the Lake Atítlan Hub. The sun setting behind a volcano (paired with Bon Iver of course)  just really hit my heartstrings. While I may not be surrounded by volcanoes, I still try to tap into that awe of Mother Nature on a weekly basis. At the same time, the awe has made me a bit more disagreeable.

Me, Nate, on top of Santa María, one of the highest volcanoes in Central America.

Now I Seek the Whole Truth

After learning about United States’ involvement in the Guatemala Civil War, I felt pissed off. I wasn’t the only one in my program to feel that way. My friend and I had a long chat when everyone went to bed about how we wanted to run away from the USA and live in Guatemala forever. That dream is gone, alongside my naive praise for the United States government. On my Seed to Shelf program, the most important thing I learned is how to take things with a proper grain of salt. I learned how to ask the right questions and engage in constructive dialogue. I learned how to ignore the headlines and find the news that really matters. I learned many other things, but I’ll save those for the next campfire.

Finally, seeing the supply chain in action and meeting its players helped me contextualize lessons learned in the classroom. My friends may call me a hippy now, but that’s okay. Those 9 days really changed my life in a way that I was unprepared for. I may have returned home reluctant to call myself “American”, but I think it’s made me a better world citizen. If you’re ready to have your worldview rocked, I recommend checking out Operation Groundswell’s upcoming Guatemala programs. Heck, maybe I’ll even be your program leader one day :). 


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