They say that the best things in life are free. As a nineteen-year-old college student, I often found this to be meaningless. Until now, it was one of those pithy things you always hear people say, sticking it in the back of your mind wherever you go. I never had a real, raw experience that defined this expression for me. The concept was beyond my frame of reference at home; it wasn’t until I started traveling alone that I began to see the truth behind it.
Traveling opened my eyes to a new realm of experiences, and helped shape me into a person diligently looking to remove judgement of all kinds from my daily routines. Traveling has made me immensely susceptible to new people and experiences, to taking more risks, and accepting people for what they are. Most importantly, travel has enabled me to finally assimilate the very real truth that the best things in life are, you guessed it, free.
When I talk about travel changing me, I do not mean simply taking a vacation to an island for ten days. Sure, vacation is nice, but sitting on the beach at an all-inclusive resort will not change you as a person. I travel so that I can become smarter, stronger, more amiable and more accepting. Staying in hostel dorm rooms, eating local foods bought at the market, using public transportation, and becoming friends with backpackers twice your age enables you to see the world from a new perspective. In doing so I learn so much about myself and the world that encompasses me. These are the things you cannot learn from a professor or textbook, which is why I find balancing college and traveling in harmony so important.
Recently, I traveled to Guatemala for the most rugged adventure I have ever undertaken. For a month, I worked on an eco-building project to help build a sustainable school amongst Guatemalans, expats, and other volunteers from all over the world. I stayed in a town in the Western Highlands, known as San Juan Comalapa. I lived amongst residents in a small neighborhood, staying in a house with limited electricity, no Wifi, and no hot water. Truly, the simple life at its finest. On the days the market was open, I stocked up on food from local vendors, and cooked all meals at home. I worked from 7am to 4pm five days a week and hiked about twenty minutes to work each way.
Taking the trash out at home is now a luxury to me. Something I never would have said before traveling to Guatemala. At home, I had always taken for granted the process of waste removal, it was just a given that our society has developed a system where we can properly dispose of trash. Yet, in San Juan Comalapa, there is absolutely no waste management system in existence.
Most Guatemalans either throw their trash into a large ravine-like structure in town, or burn it in their home. The levels of toxic waste that have built up due to this illegal dumping poses significant threats to the environment. Burning trash indoors is the alternative, but this is often worse due to the fact that it causes severe respiratory issues over time. Neither of these options are suitable for people, or for the environment, but there is no other option for the people of Comalapa.
It is easy to forget how lucky we are at home, until we travel to other places. Taking the trash out used to be a mindless activity to me, a pain in the ass endeavor at most, but now it really makes me think, “How incredibly lucky am I to live in a place where basic issues are consistently solved?” When I take the garbage out, I now silently thank the garbage men for performing this intrinsic task in my life.
Everyone knows that poverty exists; we hear about it on the news, see videos about it on Facebook, and learn about it in school. Hearing about it, and seeing it firsthand, are two very distinctive experiences. San Juan Comalapa is a town where most people only have access to unpurified running water forty-five minutes a day, lack steady work, cannot afford education for their children, and where over half the citizens live under the poverty line.
Throughout my time in Comalapa, I saw something that left me in awe. Despite the extremely difficult living conditions most face, I was able to see that your conditions do not necessarily determine your attitude. I did not see poverty stricken people with troubled faces. I never once saw people complaining about what they do not have, and most importantly, I never saw anyone give up.
To say that the people of Comalapa taught me a lesson is an understatement. They showed me what it means to never give up. I learned that when the odds are against you, it is not an invitation to complain or give up. Rather, it is a platform presenting itself that you must use to make yourself a stronger person. I learned that everything I own and have access to is a privilege, not a right. I saw a plethora of proof that happiness is not in any way shape and/or form attained via money; it is good company and an optimistic attitude that determine your joy.
My travels to Guatemala facilitated a new perspective on life, and changed how I live day-to-day. It was one of the most significant months of my life, filled with incredibly eye-opening experiences. I am both humbled and proud to say that I have had an experience like this at such a young age.
The invaluable lessons I learned will last a lifetime. These are lessons that can only be learned through traveling, and widening your perspective. Guatemala is the catalyst that finally gave meaning to the expression “the best things in life are free.” I understand it now.
This is why I travel as much as I possibly can. I travel to learn, I travel to grow and I travel to understand!
By Dylan Sulat
Please note: Photography of people was kind of a touchy subject in the town that I was as they are a very conservative/ traditional Guatemalan community. Thus, I wanted to respect the privacy of the people who embraced me with such kindness. Also, there are no photos of the giant landfills in town; another instance wherein I was told to not take photos. After all, who of us wants our trash on display for the world?