Maren Talcott: Awesome work in an awesome place
Recent grad volunteers in Guatemala
Not a single place in Washington state has it been warm this winter. But Maren Talcott just couldn’t care less, because she’s not in Washington – she’s in Guatemala. And it’s, like, 75 degrees every day. And the sun is shining. And she’s right on Lake Atitlan. And she has a bunch of new friends. Life, you could say, is pretty decent.
Maren graduated in December with a degree in elementary education and a minor in Spanish. She’s always been interested in both those things. And now she’s combining them, teaching at La Casa Opalo, a Montessori on a 70-acre farm. It’s also right on Lake Atitlan, the deepest lake in Central America, surrounded by seven volcanoes.
“I have wanted to be a teacher almost all of my life,” Maren says. “I also have eight years of education in Spanish. I wanted to go somewhere where I was forced to use the language and I could assist in a school. This experience will help strengthen my Spanish and give me the exposure I need to be fluent.”
This initial teaching post is merely voluntary, between January and March of this year. In this time, she’s already had plenty of good experiences. And lots of good memories. She’s there to teach, yes. And while teaching the young elementary-schoolers English, art, and computer knowledge is a primary function, it’s perhaps less satisfying than the personal relations she’s built. That’s surely what she’ll remember most.
A life-changing experience
The elevation around Lake Atitlan is roughly 5,100 feet. It’s absolutely gorgeous. Maren’s photos are stunning. But for her, the photos she has taken with the students are of even more personal value.
“Words cannot describe the children of Guatemala,” she says. “I came here to teach the children, and in return they are actually teaching me. They are teaching me about myself, my values, my dreams, and my beliefs every day.”
Also, they’re teaching her appreciation.
“These children are living on nothing, barely getting a sufficient amount of food every day,” Maren says. “Their homes are made up of dirt walls, toilets that are a hole in the ground, and up to 14 people living in one small house. Life is very different for them. But these children have so much love to give, and they are grateful for absolutely everything. Many children in the United States expect iPods for Christmas and computers at the age of 5. If you give these Guatemalan children a paper doll, it is like gold to them.”
In fact, while Maren lives in what seems like an oasis, La Case Opala was set up as a haven for the surrounding communities. It’s precisely an oasis because the towns – more like villages – around the lake are not nearly as beautiful as the lake itself.
In 2005, Hurricane Stan came off the Caribbean and pelted Guatemala, as well as some other countries in the region. In that storm, with the accompanying rain, a massive landslide all but took out the Panabaj, leaving an estimated 1,400 dead. Those who were lucky enough to survive were left homeless. However, the sewage treatment plant that existed was never rebuilt. Untreated sewage and other contaminants now work its way into the lake. This is life in the region.
This is life in the region. Real life. Maren wasn’t truly prepared for what she would see. Since right before she embarked on her new adventure, she’s been documenting her experiences in her blog Adios Washington….Hola Guatemala!
Here’s an excerpt from one of her first days:
||Today we did a few home visits to families that will be attending the school this year. Let me describe their homes. Some were made of dirt/mud, others cement blocks. The cement house was considered the “nice home.” Their floors were dirt, the toilet was a hole in the ground, and their stove looked like it was found in a dump and did not even work. There was no shower, no fridge, and the family usually slept in the same room. Imagine sleeping with your brothers, sisters, and parents! No privacy, no warmth, and no cleanliness. Could you do it? I know that I took one look at the homes and thought to myself, could I even live there for one night? Two? It would be so hard. These people live like this every single day, and it is all they know. The family with the “nice house” which was just remodeled to have the cement walls instead of the dirt walls, was more grateful than ever. The families I saw today, their children will be attending the school soon. I was able to introduce myself as one of their teachers this year. Their smile, their eyes, and their happiness just warmed my heart. Yes, my home and the school are amazing and I am so grateful for everything I have around me. But to see how little the families have that will be attending the school really puts things into perspective. When I look at the school, I see the most beautiful school and view I have EVER seen. Imagine how the families feel that are living in dirt homes with nothing? This school means everything to them. This safe haven is a blessing to the families of the nearby towns.
This is the real reason Maren is here. She can teach the little ones math. But what they sometimes really want is a gift – the gift of an exotic friend who cares about them. Because they certainly care about her.
One of the most eye-opening things Maren writes about is when she first showed up in the country. She went with the bus driver to pick up some of the school children, and they were immediately drawn to the gringa.
“They looked at me with such curiosity, touching my hair, complimenting me, hugging me, like they had known me for years,” Maren says, in her blog. “It was the most welcoming thing I have ever experienced.”
One little girl proceeded to sit on Maren’s lap on the bus, and then never leave her side.
“She ended up being my friend for the whole day.”
It didn’t even matter that the children all spoke at once and Maren could barely understand. She felt their admiration.
“Love is something you can communicate without words,” she says.
While much communication is done without talking, Spanish is still one of Maren’s passions. She wants to improve. It’s been a goal of hers since she first started taking Spanish classes in high school.
“Although I can tell my Spanish is already so much better, it is absolutely mentally exhausting,” she says. “At times, it can be frustrating, as well. I will want to say something, but I can’t because I don’t know how to in Spanish.”
For an extrovert, that might be the most difficult part.
“It is hard because I can’t be my outgoing self, and I feel like the people and my students are not getting to know the real Maren,” she says. “In English, it’s obviously much easier to be myself and say what I want to say when I want to say it. It just isn’t that easy in Spanish!”
Yet, she is committed to improve; to communicate more efficiently. She’s certainly in the right place.
“Put yourself in a third world country, where everyone around you only speaks Spanish, and all day long, you are translating in your head and trying to communicate in a language different from your own. Let me tell you, it is exhausting,” she says. “But I am certain that after three months of it, I will be more confident in the language and more fluent than when I started!”
Goals, goals, and more Spanish
Maren is certified in Washington to teach K-8. But her true passion lies with the younger crowd; the really little ones.
“My dream is to be a kindergarten or a preschool teacher,” she says.
After working at a Montessori for the past fives years, and after her experience in Guatemala, Maren figures on becoming a certified Montessori preschool teacher. She figures it will take less than a year to get certified.
Plus, she’ll still be able to use the Spanish she’s learned in whatever she does.
“As a teacher, I hope to incorporate Spanish into my future classroom, and I want to be able to communicate with parents who only speak Spanish,” she says. “I think it is really important for students to learn a second language at a young age. Being bilingual is such a gift, and I hope to use this gift in my classroom and in my career.”
But no matter what Maren does in the future, you can be sure she’ll take Guatemala with her. She can’t help it. It’s become part of who she is. And she’ll never be the same person because she’s seen what true happiness should look like.
“In my world, I can go out and buy a new shirt from Nordstrom for $50 and not think twice about it,” she says. “Here, I am realizing that that amount of money could feed a whole family for an entire month! I am certain I will return after three months with a different outlook on life. So many people in the United States try to buy happiness. The people of Guatemala are genuinely happy even without a glamorous life. It is beautiful to see, and amazing to be part of this life. I try to embrace the culture every day.
“Buying a shirt for $50 will make me happy for about a week. Making a difference in someone else’s life will make me happy for the rest of my life.”