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To Tikal

I am living with a host family. The parents, Luky and José, are two of the most wonderful people I have ever met. They are so warm and friendly and genuinely care about all seven (yes, seven!) people living in their home at any given time. “Nuestros estudiantes” as they call us, are treated like part of the family. I can ask Luky and José anything and have gotten their perspective on a wide range of controversial issues. It’s not always safe or invited to bring up topics such as politics or family planning, and so I especially appreciate their willingness to share this part of their culture, as well as their own perspective, with me. It gives me a rare and much appreciated window into the Guatemalan world. In an Antigua life that can seem pretty removed, it makes me feel like I have a real part of Guatemala to call my own.

The guests in the house often reciprocate the favor, giving Luky and José a window into both the world beyond Guatemala and the oft-visited places of this country. You see, even though Luky and José are doing well by Guatemalan standards, they still don’t have much extra. Traveling is a costly endeavor that isn’t a reality for your average Guatemalan. Luky and José would have to travel via luxury buses and/or planes, given José’s bad back from a childhood accident. So, Luky and José have had to rely on traveling in their minds, augmented by the stories they hear from their students. Tikal, Lake Atitlán, Cobán, the Peten, Livingston – Luky and José have seen it all, but none firsthand.

A lot of people have come and gone through this house. Antigua is a revolving door of foreigners. But, the stories of how long people have actually stayed in this house is evidence of how amazing Luky and José truly are. Most people that come here long-term start out in a homestay and move to an apartment within a month or two. One of the current residents of the house has lived here for two years; many others lived here for over a year. Once, a European couple came with plans to only stay one night. One night turned into two, two into ten. They ended up staying for seven months.

Luky and José have dedicated the past seven years to helping foreigners see and understand Guatemala, and have gone to the ends of the earth to make sure every single one of their students is healthy, happy and taken care of (they even chased down paperwork for my medical insurance when I had been unsuccessfully attempting to do so for a month). They have spent so much time and effort taking care of us and helping us enjoy seeing Guatemala, we figured we should return the favor.

The idea started as the brain child of Mac, a Safe Passage volunteer from Chicago. He thought, “why don’t we get everyone who’s lived in the house to pitch in and send Luky and José to Tikal?” Rachel, a Bostonian Safe Passage volunteer, and I loved the idea, and the three of us were an unstoppable force to make it happen. We decided it would be the perfect gift for José’s birthday on September 26. So, on September 1, we launched our fundraising efforts. Thanks to social media, we were able to easily connect with over 40former residents of the house from all over the globe. We started a Facebook page to let everyone know the plan and how to donate. I already had a PayPal account, so we had online donations sent to me. Checks and cash were directed to Mac’s parents’ house.

The response we got was amazing! Here are a few responses from those that contributed:

“I love this idea! Of course I know how they would be happy to see Tikal; especially because they are so interested in their culture.”

“This is for my beloved mami y papi chapines. Tell Jose feliz cumple, and mil besitos para Luky.”

“What a beautiful idea to send them to Tikal!!! I appreciate everything you’ve done to prepare this amazing plan. Thank you very much that I’ve got the opportunity to thank them again for the hospitality they gave us!”

In just under a month, we were able to raise enough money to fly Luky and José to Tikal, as well as pay their hotel, transfers, park fees and give them spending money for their incidentals. We did it! (I later asked José if he was more excited about going to Tikal or about flying. Without skipping a beat, he told me flying because they never thought they would go on an airplane in their lives. It’s just too expensive for them.)

The day of José’s birthday finally arrived. We planned a special dinner for him – three courses! We also got him a special cheesecake — fig, his favorite. We all suffered through dinner, bursting at the seams to unveil our surprise. Finally, the moment arrived. Rachel has lived in the house for two years, so we appointed her to present the gift. Another former resident, Carlyn, made a gorgeous card with the names of everyone who had contributed. Rachel presented the card and told them they were finally going to Tikal. Screaming, crying and laughter ensued. I get goose bumps again just thinking about it. I have never been so moved in my life as when I saw their reaction.

José proceeded to read each name on the card, recounting every person’s connection and reiterating exactly how important each estudiante is to Luky and José. The reading of the names was interspersed with interjections of, “Esto es increíble!” (“This is incredible!”) Luky made a speech that brought more tears to everyone’s eyes:

It’s like we’ve always said. For us, it is such a pleasure to have you here. It’s not just our job, it’s a pleasure to help you youngsters. What we try to do is help you all understand that this is your house. We’re the family that you all have closest here in Guatemala. Thank you so much. This, for us, is something incredible that we could never have done. Thank you so, so, so much. You all know that you’re like our children; we love you so much. Thank you!

The thing that makes Luky and José so special is that they would never do something just for what they’ll get in return. They simply just care that much. That’s the power of putting good out into the world – it creates more good actions as people are inspired to follow your example. Good deeds are infectious. When you approach life with this attitude, good always comes back to you, and it always seems more because you’re not expecting it.

This week, I saw peace in paying it forward.

More about Shannon Malone…