The People who Change our Lives When we Travel

When we travel, we often remember the people and stories that changed our lives. I’ve been lucky to meet a number of such people in my adventures around the world. In the moment and days and sometimes weeks after a trip, I can’t stop thinking about a particular person or interaction.

Alas, after months and years go by, that person becomes less real. Intangible. Etherial, even. Although the memory of our interaction and its impact on us is clear, our understanding of that person as a real-life human being becomes a little more fuzzy.

What happens to these incredible people who change our lives forever? Do they ever know what impact they’ve had on us? And what is our responsibility to them once we’ve left their home and returned to ours?

When I was in Guatemala with Operation Groundswell, I spent a few days in a homestay with a local family in the region of Cantel. It’s a small rural community just outside of the city of Xela. There, we worked with a project called Chico Mendes Reforestation during the days. After a day’s work and learning, we went back to spend our nights with our host families.

Our group weeding the recently planted site to make it easier for the young trees to grow
The laundry and kitchen sink in Iván's family's home

A Boy Called Ivan

11-year old Iván is all smiles and dancing feet when he picks us up and leads the way to his house where we will spend the next few days. Through his broken English and our rudimentary Spanish, we chat about family, school, music, sports and food. You know, 11 year old stuff. He introduces us to his mother Floridalma, his father Juan, and older sister Carolina. He asks a million questions. He tries to impress us with his double-jointed thumbs. He shows us his (rather impressive!) artwork. He and his family welcome us with open arms and beaming smiles.

After dinner, we break out the playing cards. Iván suggests that we play Hearts, which is epic because it’s a big step up on the fun scale from Go Fish or War as far as I’m concerned. Card games work because they bridge the language gap between us, and it’s fun to teach him some sneaky strategies he can use on his friends at school. Playing Hearts becomes a sort of ritual for us after dinners, and we laugh a lot trying to out-wit each other at the kitchen table.

One morning, Iván’s mom excitedly mentions to us that it’s actually Ivan’s 12th birthday that day! When we get back from planting trees in the afternoon, dinner is already in the works. It’s Ivan’s favourite – tamales – and his grandparents on his dad’s side are over for dinner to celebrate. His grandparents are Indigenous Kʼicheʼ and speak only Kʼicheʼ, so conversation with them is a little more difficult.

In any case, it’s clear that everyone squished around that tiny table is just happy to celebrate Iván. There are laughs, smiles and a whole lot of love. At the end of dinner, a fancy fruit cake with the syrupy peaches and perfectly sliced berries and the fluffiest whipped cream is presented as the ultimate indulgence for dessert. Too hyped on sugar to sleep, we play rounds and rounds of Hearts late into the night by the light of the single flickering lightbulb.

The next morning we say our goodbyes, and I decide to leave my deck of cards with Ivan as a birthday present. I know full well that the cards are totally insignificant compared to the impact he has had on me and my life.

Learning how to make tortillas from Floridalma – betcha can't tell which ones are mine 😉
The view of corn fields and mountains from the family home

BACK HOME IN TORONTO

Now, back in Toronto over a year later, I’m often reminded of Ivan. Sometimes it’s the taste of sliced strawberries and cream. Often times it’s when I play a game of Hearts or Euchre with friends. Usually when this happens, I feel joy and whatever that thing called nostalgia feels like. Sometimes I’m filled with empowerment that comes with a small dose of guilt.

That guilt comes from not fully knowing how to fully “thank” Iván or from not thinking about his family “enough”. On the other hand, the joy and empowerment comes from knowing that learning from him and his family have made me a more diligent and open minded person.

All of that has led to an understanding that as travellers, we must continuously challenge the notion of a single story of the people we visit who “change our lives”. Because letting Ivan exist as a caricature; as an image in my mind; as an isolated experience; as anything less than a human being like me – is a gross injustice to him and his community.

What’s next for Iván? What’s next for me? What is my responsibility to Iván, or the community he represents? I don’t know exactly how I’m supposed to act or feel as time goes on and memories fade. What I do know is that meeting Iván has changed a small part of my life for better and for good, and for that I am grateful. What I also know is that while gratitude is important, it is incredibly powerful when paired with actions.

Thanks, Iván. Nos vemos.

If someone like Iván has changed your life, please consider contributing to the Groundswell Relief Fund. This fund is directing emergency relief to communities like Iván’s who are being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and the sudden halt in international travel & tourism.

Iván and Carolina’s kittens, rummaging around for kitchen scraps
Planting trees with Chico Mendes at La Granja site