A Lesson in Happiness in Antigua, Guatemala
As the morning sun peeks over three towering volcanoes and into the valley below, the ancient town of Antigua, Guatemala comes to life. At the centre of this charming pueblo – known for its Baroque architecture – a beautifully aged colonial building stands majestically on a block. The building’s exterior gives few hints as to what lies inside, save for a solitary wooden sign above the door revealing its name – Hogar de Ancianos Fray Rodrigo de la Cruz. A scarcely funded nursing home for the low-income and impoverished elderly of Antigua, Fray Rodrigo is a great lesson in the wonders of human connection.
I can feel the cool cobblestones beneath my feet as I amble down a small street of Antigua, Guatemala, bathed in morning sunlight. Though winter barely exists here, the brisk touch of the morning chill is enough to invigorate my senses with enthusiasm for a new day. I arrive at the doorway of an old colonial building standing stoically on a block in the centre of the small town. The heavy wooden door is slightly ajar and I push the wrought-iron ring at its centre. It swings open and a gentle breeze sails from within. Another metal gate sits inside and I press the bell beside it.
As I wait, I rest my forehead against the cool metal bars of the gate to survey the scenery behind it – a picturesque courtyard surrounding a luscious green garden filled with tropical flowers and an old empty fountain decorated with ornate hand-painted terracotta tiles. Wandering through the garden and seated around it are the residents of the building – elderly men and women known as abuelos who, with no family or money to speak of, are now spending the twilight of their lives here.
Some stare off into space, reflecting on a lifetime of memories. Others snooze in the sunlight, their chests rising and falling in a gentle rhythm, their faces a picture of serenity. The ambience is peaceful, moving at a pace much slower than the world outside.
This is my sixth day working as a volunteer at Fray Rodrigo. With very little funding to work with, the home needs all the help it can find. While I wait at the gate, several of the abuelos gather around waiting excitedly. As they rarely see new faces in their dwelling, they are buoyed by a new presence. When an orderly comes to unlock the gate, a tiny old lady who has been waiting on the other side dances in delight. Standing at less than five feet tall, Juana is deaf and cannot speak (though she can manage a hearty cackle), but she radiates a joy I’ve rarely seen in anyone. As the corners of her mouth twitch into a disarming toothless grin, her eyes sparkle with kindness. With one arm bound in a sling, she wraps her free arm around my waist and buries her head against me. My heart swells at such a benevolent welcome.
Juana tucks her weathered fingers into the crook of my elbow and hobbles along beside me as we walk through the courtyard past the line of elderly residents sitting sedately in their wheelchairs. I see each of them staring ahead, as if steeling themselves against the indignity of being ignored. But as I stop in front of each one to wish them a good morning, their stoic leather faces melt into smiles and they clasp my hand in their weathered palms, murmuring to me appreciatively in Spanish.
Seated against a wall in the corner on a battered chair, a moon-faced old man with liquid brown eyes reflecting a tinge of sadness sits gazing into the garden, his hands folded neatly in his lap. He has been waiting patiently for me to arrive. When I first encountered Agripino days earlier, he proudly told me that he was a poet. But as the crippling pain of arthritis had begun to weave its way through the joints in his hands, he could no longer write them down. Today I have promised to be his scribe, carefully taking down his dictations.
Soon after, it’s lunchtime. After only a few days here, I can see the residents are creatures of habit. As the clanging bell reverberates throughout the concrete walls, mealtime in the stark dining hall sees everyone take their designated seat at one of the long communal dining tables. Following mealtimes, the abuelos resume the routine they plod through each day. Some return to the courtyard to pass the hours, others simply sit at the dining table, waiting in solitude until dinner.
Most of my time here is spent in the generously named ‘Occupational Therapy’, where I help piece together jigsaw puzzles or try to fashion various arts and crafts out of donated materials such as plastic cutlery, face washers and buttons. Time passes very slowly but it’s a great reminder of how simple life can be. Each resident is issued a standard set of clothes – gents wear brown knitted v-necks and grey slacks, while the ladies don simple house dresses cut from the same swatch of fabric. While many have abandoned (or are no longer capable of) the meticulous grooming habits of their youth, there are still those who clearly take pride in their appearance. Some of the women wear their hair intricately braided, while others add small individual flourishes to their otherwise identical outfits – a scarf, a pretty apron, or a crocheted cardigan resting on their shoulders.
While the world outside might have forgotten about these elderly souls, the staff who keep the home running exude a compassion and respect for them that is truly touching. During my time at Fray Rodrigo, as I get to know each of the nurses, orderlies, cooks and cleaners, I am struck by their passion for their work. Most of the staff have worked in the home for at least ten years and know each of the abuelos by name and character. I feel privileged to work among them, if only for a few weeks, for they have taught me an appreciation for the simple joy that human connection instils in the heart.
A version of this story originally appeared in map magazine.