Celebrating Thanksgiving a World Away

Thanksgiving is about practicing gratitude. More specifically it’s about the celebration of generosity and giving refuge. It didn’t work out for the Indians, but that generosity became the centerpiece of what it meant to be American. As a child of refugee parents, I’m very proud to call myself American. America is my country; America is my home. I have no other and I belong nowhere else. I love her freedoms and I live by her ideals. As I travel all around the world, I strive to represent her well and I’m reminded on a daily basis to practice gratitude for my life and for my country.

Over a week ago, we entered Guatemala from Belize. The border required multiple documents gathered from several windows but it was painless. They didn’t even check our belongings.

We stayed the first few nights at Isla de Flores. It was a little island at the edge of Flores that reminded me of Natchitoches in Louisiana. Only, people drove by and took pictures of me there but Isla de Flores was full of tourists so I fit in.

The restaurant of our huge jungle hostel

We stopped there so we could see our last Mayan ruin, Tikal. Tikal was spread out over a massive area, leading us to take over 21,000 steps that day.

Temple, Tikal
Temple, Tikal
Mask on a Temple
Mask on a Temple
View of other temples atop a temple
View of other temples atop a temple

Maybe it was because we were burnt out on ruins, Thanksgiving was looming in the near future, or they really were just that beautiful but the wild turkeys were our favorite part of Tikal.

Wild Turkey, Guatemala
Wild Turkey, Guatemala

Its feathers were ornamental and reminiscent of a peacock’s. The brightly colored growths on its face looked like candies. We joked about eating one for upcoming Thanksgiving, which wouldn’t be celebrated here.

After a few days, we headed to Rio Dulce to see what was so sweet about that river. When we arrived, one side of the bridge was a bustling little city complete with cramped stalls selling shoes next to electronics next to a butcher. On the other side, it was quiet and we found a place called Backpackers. After 3 days of staying in due to heavy rain, we realized we were staying at an orphanage. A Canadian woman opened the hostel with the primary goal of supporting Guatemalan orphans but it was not advertised. We only found out through purposeful questioning.

First day at Backpackers in Rio Dulce, Guatemala
First day at Backpackers in Rio Dulce, Guatemala
3rd day at Backpackers, Rio Dulce, Guatemala
3rd day at Backpackers in Rio Dulce, Guatemala

The rain continued so intensely, it flooded the entire area. But every morning at the dock, children boarded a boat to attend school up the lake. Once they were of age, the hostel owner offered them service internships in her restaurant. She wanted to help pave a way for under privileged children. All I could do was admire all the meaning she’d infused into her life.

I read this article about child trafficking and saw this obscure sign posted on her wall:


and I knew that she was fighting a bigger problem than most people would ever be exposed to. I don’t even know the owner’s name, but she had my respect and admiration. People like her quietly change the world without recognition, and I felt grateful for people like that and inspired by it.

Flooding in Guatemala
Flooding in Guatemala

When we left Rio Dulce, we drove on a 4×4 road reserved for locals. Our GPS app had no information about this road because no tourist had driven on it. Along the way were a host of indigenous people living on the mountain side. We waved at every single person we drove by. They all began by staring at us with solemnity but each wave produced a genuine human reaction. One little girl actually clapped in excitement and frantically waved back. Some women never broke the serious gaze, but most gave surprised smiles. A duo of boys cussed us out. An old man gave such an authentic smile, I can still see his face. Children ran out of their houses to see what kind of vehicle was driving by. Yes, we were that novel to them.

We came to a road blockage of a string across the road where local men were working on accessibility  by removing rocks. He tried to charge us 100 quetzales ($14) for crossing. We knew he was lying but didn’t want to perpetuate the argument until a bus full of people with several hanging onto the outside came up behind us and told us the toll was voluntary. We gave him 20 quetzales and moved on, knowing 20 was more than enough but also knowing everyone involved knew we could afford 100. It’s always a bit uncomfortable understanding you are rich, very rich.

On the mountainside were women and very young children picking coffee beans. How many thousands of pounds of coffee beans get exported off the backs of children, and how much do they reap of that profit? Let me tell you,  nearly nothing.

At our destination, Lanquin, was a hostel that cost both of us only 100 quetzales a night. The bartender spent time with us, telling us how he cleaned house of the locals who would frequent their bar and bring fights and sexual harassment to the tourists. Lanquin was a small town with a large portion of the males drawn toward alcoholism and unrest. Can you really blame them? The anxiety of this tiny town was palpable. You could feel it in their desperate yells across the road enticing tourists to buy weed or whatever other drug they had on hand. “Support our economy!,” they were really saying. You people who have money and want nothing from us nor care about us.

Their saving grace was the nearby natural beauty called Semuk Champey. Here it is:

Semuk Champey, look-out
Semuk Champey, lookout

After we hiked to the top, we swam in its pools and went to the nearby cave. The cave was accessible by candlelight and the actual river was rushing, and I mean rushing, through it. At some points, we were blindly stepping on top of flowing water that would rip my leg to the side if I didnt confidently thrust my foot in, just hoping a secure platform existed underneath. We climbed over ladders precariously tied to the side of rock formations, hugging the rocks, and offering dangerously small footholds. We swam through rough currents with one arm in the air hoping our candles wouldn’t blow out (which they did).

It was an exhilarating experience insofar as no other country would ever allow such unsafe exploration. But Guatemala had less care for the safety of lives because that is how it is; Darwinian theory at play because there is no means to a better way. One guy came out of the cave with a huge black and blue bruise on his side. And at one point,  the water ripped The Guy’s strapped on sandal from his foot, causing him to fall and scrape his chest.

Waterfall under the entrance to the cavr
Waterfall under the entrance to the cave
Inside the cave
Inside the cave

After the cave was a 300 km tubing ride down the river. As tourists floated by, 6 – 10 year old boys would jump in after them holding a cooler full of beer for sale. They charged 15 quetzales (the equivalent of roughly $2) per beer, which is a marginally inflated price.

They were selling their education and childhoods to provide tourists with two dollar beers. Two dollar beers. It’s either that or pick coffee beans for even less.

My heart went out to them. And amidst all the comments about Syrian refugees, I couldn’t help but tie all the parallels together. My dad was like one of those boys, giving up education around 4th grade to stay home and help support his family’s meager income from their modest noodle shop. When the communists took over Vietnam, my dad made it to a refugee camp in Malaysia and lived there for months until a Christian church sponsored him to Washington state where he picked strawberries, earning a small income paid by the barrel. My mom had already had her own dangerous journey leaving Vietnam on a boat that was too small to brave the perils of the sea and was picked up by the US Navy and brought to the Statue of Liberty’s doorstep.


“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”


This is what America represents. She was the safe haven that gave my parents the opportunity to work hard every single day of their entire lives to give me the privileged life I lead. I’m one of the luckiest people on Earth.

I’m not sure that I could feel any more thankful or grateful during this season. I love my family. And I love my country. America is beautiful; She is giving; She is accepting. And no matter what your background, please, let not one of us forget that.

One world; One Love
One world; One Love

2 thoughts on “Celebrating Thanksgiving a World Away

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Proudly powered by WordPress | Theme: Baskerville 2 by Anders Noren.

Up ↑