Saturday, July 14, 2012

Things I Learned in Guatemala

Ilanna reflects on her first trip with Bond Street Theatre to Guatemala.

When I first learned I’d be going on our project to Guatemala to work with girls at an orphanage, images flashed through my mind: pessimistic and frail children, theater as the Answer to All Their Problems, and strolling through the countryside en route to our performances. Thankfully (for the first two), I was dead wrong. The girls we met at the orphanage are strong, resilient, and optimistic. They are opinionated and determined, smart and hopeful. And they’re not looking for us to answer their problems—they were looking to us for friendship, fun, leadership training, and teambuilding. And with those as my redefined mission, I got to breathe a sigh of relief. “ohhh--my job is to try to make life richer and teach people how to be proactive, not to Provide the Answer.” And the gusto the girls showed in the following three weeks trying goofy things, helping each other, letting themselves get silly, learning dances and attempting it in homemade masks, creating both poignant and ridiculous tableaux, and then discussing everything—all this proved our work had achieved its purpose. 

Ilanna and Christina performing Se Necesita Soñyar.  
Thanks to John Kirkmire.
I think some of my favorite moments occurred mid-performance of our clown play, Se Necesita Soñar. In the show, I wanted to go to the ocean with the cricket and Christina didn’t want to go.  We led our respective sides of the audience chanting “si si si!” or “no no no!”. Each performance, right before that part, I’d look out at my half of the sea of eager eyes, and know they were with me. I’d make a hand gesture meaning “you too, this time!” and a chorus of voices would join with my chant. 

Where were the shy, unfocused children I had been warned of? These kids were anything but. Kids are kids everywhere—they latch onto a presence that gives them attention and run with it.  After some of the performances, we would take our bow and leave to the chant of “Otra! Otra!” (“More! More!”). I was afraid it would be like pulling teeth to get these kids to participate; in fact the challenge was in getting them to remain passive audience members. Some of these kids had never seen theater or been given the opportunity to be silly in a group before. I think we did this show, about a cricket following its ridiculous dream to go to the ocean, for those kids. I like to think they went home that night, where they may or may not have food to eat, running water, or literate parents, smiling and dreaming about their own desires, just a little bit more prepared to deal with the challenges of the next day. 

Squished in the back of a truck indeed!
Oh--and we didn’t leisurely stroll to these shows, as I had for some reason assumed. We happily made our way squished into tiny tuk-tuks and the backs of pick-up trucks, bumping along to bring smiles and laughter to environs alarmingly bleak but wholeheartedly deserving. 

Things I Learned in Guatemala:

1. You can never listen to Shakira’s “Waka Waka” song too many times. Especially while doing a free style movement warm up!

2. The city of Antigua is beautiful, old, and colorful. It is taken over by students at Spanish schools and gringo NGO workers. Imagine “Epcot Guatemala”. But you don’t have to look far to find the other side of this facade. A 10 minute drive out of the city’s picturesque cobblestoned streets brings you to small farms that have “se vende tortillas” signs, lots of electric barbed wire, and roads in various stages of development. I’m glad that the show we’re touring will bring us out of this little paradise and into areas with more turmoil and less access to foreign checkbooks.

3. Teaching in Spanish is difficult, but gets exponentially easier everyday. We use many of the same words (body parts, theater lessons, simple commands) everyday, and now they are beginning to be second nature. It’s amazing how much I can get across by saying a few Spanish phrases and then using my body and facial expressions to convey the rest of the thought. It has also delightfully surprised me how patient the girls are with our Italian- and Creole-peppered Spanish (complete with competing accents).

Ilanna in the world's most beautiful McDonalds.
4. Antigua has been said to have the most beautiful McDonalds in the world, and this morning as I was sipping a frozen latte staring at a volcano topped in clouds peaking up behind the ruins of an old church, which was situated on the other side of a be-fountained courtyard, I couldn’t help but agree.

5. Water bottles make very good puppet cricket bodies, especially when covered with old green corduroy fabric.

6. Even though it is not my personal belief system, I cannot doubt the good that God, Jesus, and the church has done for many of the people I’ve met here. The girls at the orphanage, who’ve all been taken away from their families because of sexual abuse, get so much hope from religion. Who am I to say that’s not valid? Where do I get the authority to think “those are just stories” or “you determine you own destiny”? If that’s what people want to believe, then okay, their beliefs make it real for them. And that’s enough.

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