When I think of life in a foreign culture, there are a variety of new experiences that I assume I will have. Living in Guatemala conjures up images of me being privy to Semana Santa celebrations for the first time, or glimpsing Maya culture in the clothes locals wear, or salsa dancing on a Friday night. But of course, real life goes on in other countries too, and this spring, I had several experiences which were surprising only in the fact that I lived them for the first time in Guatemala.
I never would have guessed, for example, that I would first taste escargot not in France or a fancy restaurant, but in...Guatemala. In my own home. But that’s where it happened. When a friend first told me his dad was preparing escargot and asked if I wanted to try some, I told him I gladly would, but he’d have to teach me how to eat them. (I pictured a snail flying across my dining room Pretty Woman style). Turns out they are not only easy to eat, but absolutely delicious. No fancy French restaurant needed!
Likewise, I knew that at some point in my life, I would find myself sitting in a hospital waiting room supporting an expectant father as his child came into the world. But I did not expect that experience to happen in Guatemala. Yet it did. I was privileged to be included in a group of friends who dropped what they were doing and came to support and keep their friend company as he waited to become a father. It was pretty amazing to be a part of.
And lastly, I never would have guessed that my first time attending a boy’s bar mitzvah would be in Guatemala City. I mean, bar mitzvah? Really? In such a Catholic country? But all religions are present here, and when a student invited all of his teachers to come and celebrate with him, not only did we get permission from our administrator to go during a teacher workday, but the school also provided transportation to get us there and back.
The ceremony started at 7:30am, and we quickly realized we were at a very conservative Jewish celebration as all of the women were herded to one side of the synagogue, where we sat in wooden chairs separated from the men (and our student) by a tall screen. Seated, we couldn’t really see or hear anything that was going on on the other side. A mix of languages washed over me--English (more prominent at this event than in most other places in the country), Hebrew, and Spanish--as everyone quietly chatted while the prayers were being read. Our student’s aunt recognized us as the teachers and came over to explain what was going on, show us the prayer book, and explain that the screen is meant to keep the men from being “distracted by women’s beauty.” She also let us know that when our student finished reading from the Torah (his first time doing so, and really the “main event” of the bar mitzvah), everyone would throw candies at him. (Soft ones that wouldn’t hurt him, of course).
When our student stepped up to read, all of the women stood up and moved to see through over over or around the screen. I’m not sure how, but I ended up with one of the best spots, ushered right up to where I could look through the ornate Star of David patterned slats and able to see everything that was going on.
After the ceremony, we moved over to the tables. Our student and his parents gave short speeches of thanks, and then it was time to eat. Breakfast was an ornate, amazingly delicious affair. There was barely room on my plate (or in my stomach) for all of the delicious treats provided--bagels and breads, muffins, eggs cooked to order, creme brulee french toast, yogurt, cheese and olives, fruit, and pastries. We left stuffed and very happy to have been invited to celebrate such a special occasion with our student.
Life is funny. You really never know when good things will happen, when special people will come into your life or when you’ll have the opportunity to be a part of something memorable and extraordinary. I try to take advantage of those moments, no matter where I am when they occur. And I am glad that I do.