The Fall of a Gringa: Life Lessons from Guatemala

By Michelle Boileau

Tourists on Bikes

 “Hello. My name is Juan, and I am going to look at that burn.”

"A six-foot-something Guatemalan ‘hippy’ had just entered the van and was now crouching over me, pointing to my left arm. He slammed the sliding door shut and shouted “Vamos, vamos!” to the curly-haired driver.

Panicked, I tried to sit up to see outside but instead, my eyes met with Juancho’s (as I later got to know him) and I suddenly felt a wave of relief. I took a long, assessing look. He wore shaggy hair and a beard, a knit beanie, a beaded necklace, a holey t-shirt, and multi-colored harem pants. My mother had warned me before I left Canada, “you can’t trust just anybody”, but I instinctively knew that I could trust this man. There was no way those bright eyes and that cheeky, yet oh-so caring smile would let anything else happen to me.

With a nod of reassurance, he carefully pulled my arm to his knees, and started bandaging the painful road rash I had been ignoring."


"Twenty minutes prior to my first encounter with Juancho, his cousin - Fernando - had found me laying, slightly concussed and covered in blood, on the shoulder of a mountain highway.

I had been volunteering in Guatemala for nearly a month. I had recently graduated from university and I wanted to make a difference. Change lives. Save the world and what not. So, I applied to teach in a school run by a community development project, and left the familiar Northern Ontario winter behind.

This brought me to the top of that mountain on a bicycle, along with seven other new volunteers, looking down at the beautifully serene lake Atitlán. The landscape was breathtaking. The sparkling teal-blue water, framed by highlands and volcanoes, was calling to us. We couldn’t wait to start our journey down the mountainside; to feel the wind on our faces, to jump into the lake and to be refreshed by its mystical waters.

We couldn’t wait... because every one of us was achingly hungover from the two-for-one tequila shots we had at the neighbourhood bar the night before.

We woke extra early, drove two hours through the Guatemalan inlands, and were now at the starting point of what was to be an adventure-packed weekend. As we fumbled with our helmets and mounted our bikes, I could see our guides shaking their heads at the awkward-looking tourists before them.

Then, we were off. One cyclist behind the other, following the curves of the road like a snake on wheels. I was going fast, pedaling hard, and enjoying the rush of adrenaline that was surging through my body. My hangover went away, replaced by a feeling of invincibility.

I felt on top of the world, having the time of my life in a country where every dollar I had was worth six units of local currency; where my light skin and blond hair would stop traffic, and a sweet smile could excuse my faulty Spanish. Plus, I was there to make a 'difference' in the lives of the locals...

Clearly, I had to be brought down a peg or two.

Guatemala took care of that for me."

Antigua Guatemala


"I couldn't have been more relieved when our van finally came to a stop. We had been driving downhill along a very narrow and winding road for almost forty minutes.

My guides discussed frantically about where to bring me, and what they would do with the other volunteers while I was in hospital. Meanwhile, I laid across the three-person seat in the back, listening to my iPod in an effort to slow the symptoms of shock I felt setting in. The upholstered seats surrounding me were smeared with my blood from the accident. My clothes were ripped, my jean shorts cut up to the waistband thanks to some quick-thinking first aid. I was cold. I was in pain. I wanted to arrive somewhere - anywhere - so I could wipe the Sololá roadside off of me, curl up into a ball, and just weep.

As we pulled into the hospital's parking area, Juancho turned to me with an apologetic look. "I'm sorry. Most private clinics close at noon on Saturdays," he explained. "We had to take you to the National Hospital. The doctor might not speak English, but I’ll be there with you.”

Carefully, Juancho and Fernando carried me to the wheelchair that was already being brought out to us. They must have called ahead. I was pushed up to the hospital and into the main entrance where we were greeted by a family of Mayans; an elderly woman and two mid-to-late teenage girls wearing traditional huipiles and cortes, each with a young child in arm.

Add to that picture a stray dog wandering the hall, and you'll understand why I had suddenly become very nervous.

The doctor came bursting through the doors that led to the emergency room and Juancho sprang into action, starting to recount what had happened: "Se cayó de una bici...." Already wheeling me into the next room, the doctor nodded and held his hand out as if to say to Juancho "This is the end of the line for you, buddy. I'll take it from here."

My new guardian didn't like this very much. Nevertheless, after a brief but very heated discussion, Juancho looked at me with anxious eyes. Hurriedly, he told me that the doctor wasn't going to let him in, then disappeared behind a white curtain."


"A few days later, we returned to Antigua - where we volunteers lived with our host families - and I took my coordinator's advice to go and get 'double-checked' at a private hospital.

I was admitted there for nearly three weeks.

As it turned out, not all of my wounds had been properly cleaned before being stitched up and infection had set into my leg. I had to be closely monitored and was to receive intense antibiotic treatments. But, at least my room had Wi-Fi and cable TV. Fortunately, I had learned my lesson before and never went anywhere without travelers insurance.

By my second week in hospital, things began to change. Somehow, I started to better appreciate my host country. Perhaps because I had lived such an authentic experience there, or simply because I literally still had its soil stuck in my skin. My Spanish was also improving exponentially every day; surely, because my personal comfort depended heavily on the ability to ask for another pillow, more towels, or assistance in the shower.

I had gotten to know the nurses, who reminded me of so many women from back home, and about their families. I also had a lot of extra time to reflect on the social issues affecting them, as well as the discrepancies I had witnessed during my short stint within the Guatemalan health care system.

I began to realize that though my presence in Guatemala was indeed affecting lives, it wasn’t always in the positive way for which a self-praising gringo might hope. Sometimes, it had a negative effect, too. Like when I would get short with a nurse because she didn’t understand me, spoiling that part of her day. Or, when I was told that the students I had been teaching would miss weeks of class because there was no one else to fill in.

Finally, I understood that I wasn't making the kind of difference there that I had hoped to. This became especially clear to me one afternoon when Fernando came to visit me in hospital to see how I was doing. I forget now how we got on the subject, but I will never forget when he told me that the best way, he felt, the gringo volunteers were actually ‘helping’ Guatemala was by simply being there. To him, it was the “privileges of the North” – the open-minds, higher education, and a willingness to spend - that were actually impacting his country."

Antigua Guatemala


"I eventually discussed such matters with a fellow volunteer and kindred spirit. We both felt that it was naive of us to keep living the foreigner’s lifestyle as we had been. So, we decided to really experience Guatemala. The true Guatemala. We wanted to live like the locals did.

We rented a house, ensuring there was at least one avocado tree and one lime tree in the garden – handy for making guacamole. We adopted a cat. And, in addition to volunteering in non-government schools during the day, we got serving jobs where we earned about a hundred quetzales a shift, - approximately fifteen Canadian dollars - tips and all. We ate like the locals. We learned to speak like the locals.

Though not quite the kind of existential rebirth philosophers would write about, for a couple of twenty year-olds, it was admirable."


"These days, when I’m looking at the scars I came back with and I start to wonder what it was all for, I remember the remarkable people I met in Guatemala. I remember Juancho and Fernando, my rescuers in so many ways. I remember the faces of the beautiful children I got to work with, dirty and smelly as they were, and how they always managed to be so happy when they had the most reasons not to be.

Finally, I remember the deep sadness I felt when leaving the Central American country – a country so impoverished, yet so full of riches –, and I recognize that though I may not have changed things there as I had once ‘planned’ to, it is simply because Guatemala had changed me instead."



Written by Michelle Boileau.

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