“Rapido, rapido” I say, testing the murky waters of my ability to speak in a foreign language. “Fast, fast” I hear echoing around me, coming from the mouths as unfamiliar with my language as I am with theirs.
We are systematically passing heavy (“pesa mucho” as they taught me) rocks through an expansive chain of people; many hands creating what is becoming the beginning of a much-needed walkway. Our time is limited, and we are eager to finish. To keep ourselves entertained, we are exchanging words, building relationships and our vocabularies. Whatever our native tongue, we are united by one goal: to further our understanding of each other.
Gaining an understanding of people is as much an appreciation of and respect for differences as it is a realization of similarities. In the two days we have spent at the school Ak’tenamit, I’ve found out how skilled the students are in ways vastly different from me. Some excel at playing the schools’ handmade marimba, a few help make the delicious tortillas we eat for lunch, and many are incredibly skilled in the surprisingly laborious art of making jewelry carved from coconut shells (believe me, it is tricky!).
Although the students are immensely talented, they are also remarkably normal. It’s hard to understand how people can lead such different lives than your own. Some hadn’t heard of the United States. Many haven’t seen a garbage truck. It’s also hard to understand how people with such different lives could be so similar. That is, until you experience it firsthand. We are like each other because we are human. Equally unfamiliar with a new language, equally excited to learn from each other, equally ambitious in our goals for ourselves and our communities. We are all eager to take action.
Finally, all of the rocks have been moved. “Finish” the students repeat. I ask a friend, “what do you say when you wanna celebrate?” “Joy is universal” she said.
Written by Thea Holcomb