How Millennials Are Finding Purpose (and a Better Life) in Guatemala
Of course, our adolescence didn’t play out across the backdrop of the Great Recession. Most of us could still, realistically, expect to get a job when we graduated from university. A perk not enjoyed by the Millennial crowd.
There’s no one answer to the woes of the Millennial generation, but there is one solution that is as time-honored as Mark Twain’s classic, The Innocents Abroad: travel.
Guatemala is a place near and dear to my heart. I spend rather a lot of time there. Winters, six months at a time. A month this spring, holding back rainy season with the force of my sunshiny attitude alone. I’m not above a two-week trip, but that would just be enough to make me homesick when I had to leave. Driving through is always an adventure; you should try it sometime. One of the things that has percolated into my consciousness over a years-long love affair with the country is the number of Millennials who are living there. The question is why?
The Gap Year Crowd
Most of the Gap Year crowd are going back to where they came from. The guy with a tattoo of Texas over his heart was headed back for his master’s in biology. The education major was applying for jobs in Korea using our wifi. The didg player was planning on pre-med.
The Longer-Term Travelers
These are our friends Luke and Em, who spent an entire winter working with malnourished children, developing an arts program and using their birthday parties to fund an educational initiative. This is Orly, who painted us into the landscape of our favorite lake, making her living merging humanity and the natural world in her art as she travels.
These are young people who are living up to the Millennial reputation for insisting on work-life balance and on work that is satisfying to the soul as well as the pocketbook. Does this make them lazy? Is opting out of the traditional route, and living barefoot in a highland village on ten bucks a day instead a red flag for lack of ambition? No. I’d argue the choice has more to do with idealism, and a passion for making a difference, and using their talents (creative and otherwise) to their best end, and nothing at all to do with laziness.
My friend Andrew Raphael began in this group; here’s what he has to say about that:
“I moved to Guatemala 5 years ago to find myself, as cliched as that may be. After several years as a teacher in the NYC Dept of Education, and working on a graduate degree at night, I knew I needed a major change in my way of life. I felt like I wasn’t meant to spend so much of the waking hours of my life on the subway, stuck in windowless rooms, hustling from one place to another.
I felt like I wasn’t meant to spend so much of the waking hours of my life on the subway, stuck in windowless rooms, hustling from one place to another.
For better and for worse, after moving to Guatemala I was left without clear demands on my time and I began to uncover parts of myself over the next few years. My diet changed, as did my perception of what my time was worth, and how I wanted to spend it. I lived without wifi and other common amenities and yet gained a much stronger sense of belonging in moving to a rural village from Brooklyn, New York.
No one forced me to take up the fight against malnutrition in my new home (a place in which I’d lived for over a year before I decided to get involved in Konojel) and I know now that my work represents who I am as much as anything else about me. Living in Guatemala showed me who I was and helped me get to know the person that I want to be. I feel that my life can have a more significant impact on the at-risk and disadvantaged people around me in Guatemala than it did in New York City”
The Youthful Expats
The developing world offers so many opportunities to Millennials that just aren’t available to them at home, not the least of which is independent adulthood and the opportunity to be a community builder instead of treading water at a McDonald’s style job. This generation of young adults has the misfortune of having been raised in a broken system that no longer serves the real world as it actually exists, and they’re graduating into adulthood only to look around and discover that things are not as they were promised they would be.
Which is why they show up around my dinner table in Guatemala, where the light returns to their eyes and they begin to see opportunity and a place in the world for themselves. They begin to see that their tech savvy has applications that will make them some money, maybe not big money at first, but enough money to live in their own house, like a grown up, and work at something they find meaningful. (Housing for a single person can easily be found for $200 USD per month or less in many places in Guatemala.)
They find that there is work to be done. Opportunity for businesses to flourish with little overhead. They discover that they can fill the gaps in their education and become bilingual, which never quite happened, even with that minor in Spanish, or become experts in permaculture, or coffee cultivation, or the hospitality industry through mentorship and hands-on training. They discover that, while it may not make any money, solving the malnutrition problem for just one village, in a sustainable way, is within the realm of their capability, and if two guys can change the lives of dozens of children, why wouldn’t they? It’s a life well spent.
I’ll give the last word to my friend Sarah, who puts it very well. She and her husband are at the top of the Millennial age group and are among the folks who found their footing in travel and are digging deep in the developing world. For them, it’s all about work-life balance and being in control of the important variables in their lives, including the financial ones:
“We first came to Lake Atitlan, Guatemala in 2010. We had both been travelers for years and were on another adventure. We immediately loved San Marcos with its tranquil vibe, friendly community of travelers and small walking paths with no traffic. We stayed for about six months (instead of our intended one!) and ended up managing a hotel.
Shortly after we left Guatemala we unexpectedly conceived our first child. We had been together for two years, but with Bryan being from New York, me from England, and us not being married, there was no easy answer as to what to do next. Immigration takes so long that we would not be able to be settled in either country before the baby was born, and the expense, coupled with the fact that you have to stay for years in order to complete the process, neither of us was sure we wanted to even get into it.
We also debated whether we wanted to give up our dream lifestyles of traveling, living in beautiful places with fantastic climates and meeting new and interesting people on a daily basis, in exchange for paying insane rent and working 40 hours a week just to survive! In the end, we decided to research places in the world to have the baby where we would be able to stay without visa drama, in order to make our plans calmly and figure out our next steps. Once we got here the owner of the hotel we had managed started asking us if we wanted to buy, and after much back and forth we decided to take the leap and go for it!
We can afford childcare in order to take breaks for ourselves and develop our own work, and we host a constant stream of interesting people taking world trips and doing amazing things, meaning that even though our own traveling is on pause for a while, we still feel that flow of fresh energy moving through our lives, which we both find enriching beyond measure.
Bryan can do what he loves, putting on live music events and shows, and I can teach yoga and do massage, and we end up with far more expendable income than we ever had trying to do these things in our own countries. Plus, we work for ourselves, which for free spirited people like we are, is invaluable! Of course we sometimes miss our families, have extreme weather, bugs in the house, dealing with power cuts/water cuts/culture clashes etc, but all in all the work/life balance is just better here, for us, at this point in our lives.”