Some of you may know that I recently spent some time in Guatemala. Guatemala is a very beautiful country with some amazing landscapes. It is also one of the poorest countries in Central America. In recent years I have been attracted to developing countries and this attraction has grown since I spent some time in Asia. After doing some research on countries in Central America, coupled with my desire to learn more about developing nations, I booked my flight to Guatemala City. It felt like a great pick for my next trip and I was eager to see this beautiful yet complicated country. I was met with questions such as “Why would you go there?” “Isn’t it too dangerous?” from friends and family. Despite their concerns, I got ready to hit the road.
As soon as you get out of the airport, the differences between Canada and Guatemala are evident. The infrastructure is simply not the same as we are used to and this is most noticeable during your travels. Whether it is a five-hour shuttle bus that would normally take one hour back home, garbage on the side of the roads or having cold showers, everyday tasks are more complicated. I welcome these differences as they give me an opportunity to experience what it’s like to live there and to immerse myself in their culture.
Shortly after I landed I noticed one difference in particular (I also noticed this in Asia – not to this extent). Whether it was in Antigua, San Pedro, or Flores, the people of Guatemala were welcoming and very kind. This was demonstrated in one notable way. When you walk down the street, it was common for one of the locals to make eye contact with you and say ‘Hola, Buenos Dias’ translated to “Hello, good day”. At first, I thought, wow, that person is having a great day, until every single person I passed would say it. It took a couple of days to get used to these greetings as, at least in larger urban centres at home, it is not as common for strangers to walk past you and say “Hello, have a great day!’ It got to the point that, if a local walked past me and did not say ‘Hola, Buenos Dias’, I would think they were miserable. However, for the majority, it was second nature. For me personally, it is these cultural nuances that make travel so rewarding.
These experiences really made me think about what motivates the local people to engage in these social interactions. The people of Guatemala are very poor and it is exemplified in many different ways. A large segment of the population live in homes constructed out of cement and sheet metal for a roof with no heat or air conditioning. Yet, these people walk past you with a genuine smile and say hello? It seems to contradict life back home in so many ways. We live like kings and queens in comparison and, yet, when was the last time you walked by someone on the street you didn’t know and said ‘Hello, how are you’? I am not here to blame, I am guilty myself. But what would it take to engage in such pleasantries?
Despite all of the complications they deal with everyday, a simple ‘Hello how are you’ is said to someone they will never see again. It makes you reconsider your priorities. This goes back to my first blog about the sunsets in Bali (Sunsets). In my experience, it seems to me that people I have met in developing countries are friendlier and interact more than we do at home, in spite of the reality of having to deal with so many more obstacles than many of us encounter. Perhaps they place more value on relationships, community, and family then we do? Whatever it is, I think we can learn something from them.
I think we need to shift our focus outward to help one another more. You may ask, how is saying hello to a stranger helping others? It is not the simple act of saying hello to someone, it can be anything. Think back on your own life. I am sure you can recall a time where someone has said hello, held a door for you, or given you a compliment. After this you feel appreciated and valued. A brief five-second interaction can completely change how you feel and interact with others for hours after. I can recall times at previous jobs when someone has said something nice to me and I felt good about myself. I am certain this changed how I handled my work and interactions. For example, working in a call center environment for many years, you get a lot of disgruntled people who speak with you, and you get the odd person who recognizes your work and extends their gratitude for your help. My output is distinctly different after each interaction. After receiving a quick thank you from someone, I would feel good about myself and it was reflected in how I communicated with people.
I am not here to say that we are self-centered or narcissistic, I am simply writing about my experiences abroad in contrast to those at home. Of course, there are many things developing countries can learn and implement from our home countries. But we can learn from them too. Being kind and genuine with strangers and, saying a simple hello, can have a big impact on that person’s life.
Remember, one kind word can change another person’s entire day.
“Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty”
“Kindness is the opportunity that we all have every day to change the world”