Self-Reliance, Guatemalan Style

Soldiers arrive to suppress insurgents in upland Guatemala. I was nearly electrocuted on the roof of the two story building on the right.

Soldiers arrive to combat insurgents in upland Guatemala, 1988. On another occasion, I was nearly electrocuted on the roof of the two story building on the right.

Thursday, October 19, 1989, San Felipe, Guatemala

I feel confused by my own expectations. What I fear more than anything else is that I am going back to the way I was, and that when I get home I will be more or less the same [as I was before]—a weak addict to technology, and a sensationalist. I despise those attitudes now, but I fear that they are still part of me, and will come naturally when I get back. After all, I’m going to be immersed in it all again. That is the way life is there.

I need time to think. But there is no time.

It is morning here. The sun is coming through the white curtains and the room is filled with soft, yellow light…. I just want to learn always to keep life uncluttered.

I’m still haunted by those lines, written just days before I was to return home from my service in the Guatemala, Quetzaltenango mission. I had come to Guatemala the way most Gringos do, from a life of relative suburban ease. I had had my own room, TV, stereo, and piles of recordings and videos. I had ambitions one day of going into film production. But what I found, unexpectedly, in Guatemala was a summons to a more elemental existence: to water and soil, rain and sun; to the natural rhythms of day and night; to the oscillating sounds of corn ground on stone, of hands clapping out tortillas above a little fire, of clothes swashed back and forth on riverside stones; and to a confrontation with my fear of death.

A missionary was killed in my mission the week I arrived, taken out by a drunken driver on the tight, walled-in streets of Xela. I was asked by our president to give the closing prayer (in my brand new, pathetic Spanish) to close the Zone conference in which this death was announced. A few weeks later, my new companion arrived from Xela wearing the small, faded red backpack of the dead Elder. He told me he had been with him that day and had narrowly escaped being hit himself. With the family’s permission, he had washed the dirt and blood out of the pack, mended the ragged holes in it with souvenir luggage patches that said “Land of the Eternal Spring,” and put his scriptures in it. That is what self reliance looked like in Guatemala.

In my next area, far from any medical care, I survived a high voltage shock of exactly the same kind that has recently taken two missionary lives—one in Guatemala, the other in Mexico. (I was lucky in that I didn’t actually make physical contact with the wire, but the charge arced over to me and I sustained some pretty deep burns where the voltage entered and exited my body.) We blessed a pallid little baby with staring eyes who died in the night. We taught a man with amputated legs who had been turned out of his home onto the streets for fighting with his parents. We witnessed guerrilla warfare. And we ourselves were reported to have been killed when the morning bus out of our mountain village lost its brakes and rolled into the jungle below. In fact, no one had been killed, and we weren’t even on the bus, but I have never forgotten the look of astonishment on the faces of our investigators when we arrived by foot at their clearing in the forest, on time and very much alive.

I read Ecclesiastes for the first time while sheltering from a tropical storm in a small village on the borders of the river Samalá. Three years before, a volcano upstream had caused a lahar—a flow of ash that had swollen Samalá and caused it to change course, casually washing away all of the little houses of this village. The people had salvaged what they could and rebuilt in a new location further upland. Within one of the little clapboard huts, I huddled inside my sleeping bag, reading my scriptures by candlelight as the downpour sluiced the muddy streets outside.

Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.

What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again. All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.

I found myself repeating those words: There is no new thing under the sun. My former preoccupations—tapes and camcorders, movies and malls—were a half-remembered dream, void of importance. Now, in this place, where blood red heliconias grew in the green, luminous umbrage of banana trees with their purple hearts bursting, everything seemed to resist and yet summon me, seeped in a sort of benevolent danger. What mattered now was what was within. The sacred words around which my body curved, the life-breath I drew, and having dry boots. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity, but the kingdom of God is within you.

How we crossed the river Samalá. Guatemala, 1989.

How we crossed the river Samalá. Guatemala, 1989.

I came home and hauled the tapes, the records, the videos, the machines, and monitors all to D.I. and walked away from them. I lived in various apartments close to BYU where instead of a bed, I took to hanging a hammock between utility hooks screwed into the wall studs. Later, I slept on the floor in my sleeping bag, which I spread out on a mat I had brought home from Xela. All my belongings fit into a footlocker. I had no phone, took cold showers, used no refrigerator. I gave books away once I was done reading them. I was not entirely monkish, though: I had friends; I dated, went to parties, served as the ward clerk (that no one could ever get a hold of), and so on. But when I came home to my flat, it was to this place of living memory, of reading by candle light, of cooking with a few, barely modified ingredients (potatoes, carrots, beans, rice, corn, onions), and writing. I had a car, but only drove it when leaving the valley altogether. To the store, church, and school, to the temple, and to my Grandmother’s house for laundry and Sunday dinner, I walked.

Eventually, I moved onto the mountain.  With the money I saved from a single month’s rent, I bought a two-man tent and a backpack and scouted out a place above the valley where I could pitch my tent, read, wash, and pray in privacy. Every morning, I broke camp and returned to the valley where I worked and went to school. Every evening, I hiked back up to my place and pitched again. I bought canned vegetables, stews, and fruits and ate without heating. I took sponge baths from a liter bottle of water and kept my Sunday shirt carefully folded in my pack. On warm nights, I left the rainfly off the tent so I could see the stars. I slept to the sound of crickets and often woke to find deer bedded nearby. No one ever noticed me, and I never had a visitor. When the weather turned cold, I moved back into my flat.

A few months later, I met my wife-to-be and proposed to her at my old camp site. We were married and now have six kids, a comfortable home full of books and bedding, and I go mountain biking regularly on the trails I used to hike to get to my site. By now, I am, I suppose, what I feared in Guatemala I would become again—a weak addict to technology and a sensationalist. But what I learned in the jungle and on the mountain is still there: We are all passing, but the earth abideth forever. The kingdom of God is still within us, and there is still no new thing under the sun. That is what self-reliance means to me.

NOTE: This post is another in a series based on the monthly themes from “Come, Follow Me,” the new youth curriculum for the Church. Here are the previous posts for JanuaryFebruaryMarchAprilMayJuneJuly,  August, September, and October.


  1. There are a lot of things I don’t like about pioneer treks, but in that they do promote some of these same lessons to be learned on the smaller scale–at least it did with me–I will continue to support them. Beautifully composed, Morgan.

  2. From one recovering Chapín to another, cheers. I’ll be bookmarking this to read at again.

  3. Roger Nolter says:

    Amazing story! Put another way you really do not miss anything unless it is taken away from you. I remember being on a 9 month deployment on a Fast Attack Submarine during my 20 year career and it had been 3-4 months plus without fresh fruit or milk. We pulled into Yokosuka Japan harbor to take on supplies and you could smell the banannas all the way into the engine room. The milk I drank then was the coldest and the best! Still remember it to this day over 20 year later. Your story really brings out what you missed the most on your return. Thanks for sharing.

  4. J. Stapley says:

    This is really moving stuff. Thank Morgan. Beautiful.

  5. Wow. That is all.

  6. Beautifully written, Morgan! I, too, served in the Xela Mission in the Momostenango and Totonicapan Zones from 1978-1980. I have not been back but these passages took me there again. To this day, I still enjoy a colder than normal shower and prefer to shave with no shaving cream. Weird habits borne of a simpler lifestyle. Thank You!

  7. Studs, not joists. It sort of spoils the entire effect for anyone who reads that line and bursts out laughing.

  8. I have a new appreciation for Ecclesiastes. Thanks for sharing your experiences and insight.

  9. Thanks, Mark! I’m glad I could provide a laugh. Fixed.

  10. It’s cool to hear from others who served in Guatemala or similar areas. There were not a lot of Gringos in my mission, and I have always felt kind of isolated in not being able to talk about what it was like with people who could understand. It’s consoling to hear that others were impacted in similar ways.

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    Fascinating experience. Thanks for sharing.

  12. Oh, I love this! I relate on so many levels. I took my own children to Guatemala when I feared that they were being consumed by the deceits and conceits of Utah life. It was one of the best things I ever did. I always long to return to the simplicity of the Guatemalan life I once knew. I have not tried living in a tent, but I have cooked beans over a fire and taught other gringas to slap out tortillas from store-bought masa. Yes, the Kingdom of God is within us, but it can be hard to remember to seek it amidst all the surrounding noise.

  13. Served with Klutz but in the lake region. Serving a mission is life changing, serving a mission in Guatemala is soul changing.

  14. Why do you hate your white culture so much that you revel in the term “gringo” being applied to you? Have some pride, “man.”

  15. Hey Warren! Nice perspective on life and soul!

  16. I loved this Morgan — amazing insights and experiences. Thanks for blessing us with this contemplation.

  17. What a compelling story (stories) and beautifully written. I think many people long for the simplicity you describe here. I suppose we do our best to bring simplicity and communion with God into our daily lives in whatever way we can. I honestly believe less is more. (Except when more is more. Which is okay with me sometimes.) Thank you for this Sunday morning read.

  18. David Connelly says:

    I served in Xela from 86-88 and appreciate the memories shared here. We live in the first world and complain about our first world problems. Right now our dishwasher is having trouble and I will probably need to replace it. If that is my biggest problem and challenge them I suspect I have lost perspective and certainly have lost my way in terms of a gospel centered life. Thanks for sharing and reminding us all a little

  19. Beautiful words! As a native Costa Rican living now in the states, I can relate to what Margaret just shared about taking her children to Guatemala! I long to give my children even if a small taste of a simpler life in a developing country.

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