I just spent ten days in Guatemala working with a small school in a squatter community. There are many adventures on this annual trip, as American volunteers step with me into a new culture and the experience of shanty town living. There is a particular adjustment that is hard for us to make, and I see the struggle every summer with every group. The struggle stems from our cultural preference for efficiency and task completion when we set out to work. We have a plan. So we go to Guatemala to serve, and by golly, we are going to serve according to our plan. The intentionality is certainly good, but that American worldview doesn’t fit neatly into the Guatemalan context. Let me give you an example.
Tourism folks market Guatemala as the Land of Eternal Spring, with warm days and cool nights all year long. May through November is the rainy season, which doesn’t affect the temperature, but makes for a wet afternoon almost every day of our visit. So the construction plan needs to yield to the rainfall. Did I mention the arrival of materials? There isn’t a Home Depot down the street and only one person at the little school has a car. Concrete, paint and drywall comes on a truck. Eventually. So the clash between expectation and reality is often difficult when volunteers plan to work for four days, and really want to work eight hours on all of those four days. At dusk we often have a conversation with the locals that ends a smile and the phrase poco a poco.
“Little by little,” they say, which is as much a philosophy of life as an expression used to ease frustration. In a country with little infrastructure, corrupt government and extreme poverty, poco a poco invites an appreciation for each day’s effort, because any progress is good progress. That is a different perspective from our fast-paced, results oriented view of a good day. But I have come to learn than recognizing progress, at any level, helps to cultivate a sense of gratitude and relieve the tension of struggling with reality. Stress, after all, is mostly a perspective that whatever is happening is not good, or should be different. And in a different culture, or context, it is easier to see how little control we really have over reality.
I can’t help but wonder if the practice of a poco a poco mentality might be the best souvenir that anyone brings back from a visit to our little squatter community.