The full group have arrived and are ready for their program!
Welcome to Guatemala!
After a long day of traveling, layovers and rushed flights, we finally arrived. We dove straight into our first immersive experience, hurtling through the bustling streets of Guatemala City, all of us piled in the back of a van. The city is striking. The public transportation system here is made up of old American school uses, refurbished and painted but still recognizable. Traffic is hectic: buses stopping unannounced; men swinging a leg up onto the rear ladders of said buses as they lurch off again; motorcycles weaving through traffic with horns blaring in their wake; cars in various states of disrepair, most with dark tinted windows; constant exhaust; at least three strains of Guatemalan music at all times but usually six or seven woven together with the sound of traffic. The streets are lined with tightly packed storefronts, car dealerships, and the occasional soccer pitch. Every telephone pole was covered with promotional signs for the upcoming election, apparently awash with corruption in many of the candidates (which prompted a mini cultural lesson of Guatemala’s political state).
The exhaust gave way a bit as we escaped the craziness of Guatemala City, climbing into the hills to head for Antigua, where we would spend our first night. Forty-five minutes later, we rolled off the main highway and pulled into the quaint town. Antigua–the antique Guatemala–is a busy, charming place. It is nearly the opposite of the city we drove through earlier. Here, old Spanish cathedrals and Spanish-influence architecture line the cobbled streets. The city streets overflow with the weathered but bright colors of the stout buildings, and many doors are propped open, giving a glimpse of the interior of each building. We settled in at our hotel, the Santa Lucia Quinta, as most of us marveled at its cuteness factor. An oblong courtyard opens to the sky above, and bedrooms fill three floors around the courtyard. We crowded into a large room of fifteen or so bunk beds before heading out to wander the city together for the night. We walked around as dusk fell and later broke the ice over dinner. Across from the central park was a group of protestors, chanting and shouting in garbled Spanish about the country’s government (bringing on another mini lesson). Traditionally dressed women and children, hoping to sell to one of the many tourists, carry wares balanced on their shoulders and tied to their skirts. These people come into Antigua from the surrounding villages, where old culture is better preserved, to sell goods and find work. Locals are dressed plainly and have a slightly less weathered appearance. Bordering another side of the park is an old cathedral, lit on the top. It stands proud still, as does the whole city despite the crumble apparent throughout.
That night, I fell asleep under an open window, listening to the sounds of the city. The immediate city is illuminated, but the sky is darker than I am accustomed to– less light pollution here. The rumble of old cars on the cobble stones outside and the quiet murmur of girls’ voices inside lulled me to sleep.
The next morning, alarms set for 5:20 am, many of us woke for sunrise. After discovering the open roof of the hotel the night before, the idea of watching sunrise was irresistible. We rolled out of bed, and climbed onto the roof, in bare feet and blankets wrapped on our shoulders. From above, the tin roofs form a crisscross pattern, a haphazard one, and the tall, loping hills surround the city on all sides to create a cradle of sorts within the valley. A volcano looms to the south, a few more lie in the distance, and low clouds hand around the base of each. The sky gradually lightened, and though the sunrise was not alone spectacular, the experience was. Church bells rang in the morning as glowing pink light caught the angles of the volcanoes. Watching this, it struck me that I was sitting on the roof of a random hotel in Central America with a group of strangers. It was somehow both unreal and too real.
Our second day was consumed by travel and cultural experiences. Our first stop out of Antigua was a small co-op business of five families trying to keep their culture alive and preserve their heritage. The walls of the store were lined with the most colorful patterns I’ve ever seen. These traditional weavings and clothes are elaborately designed and take six to eight months to sew. The people are adorable and so genuine. One old woman taught us to make tortillas and others offered us sweet bread with as much pressure as any American grandmother offering food. Sweet, cheery people.
The roads we traveled that day wove through valleys and hugged mountainsides, eventually bringing us to cloud level. The views–or rather glimpses–of mist-shrouded volcanoes and gridded farmland are stunning. The valley opens up out of nowhere as we round a bend and disappears just as quickly as it appeared. Even transport from place to place is fascinating here.
– Juliana Sandford
On route to our home base in Xela we stopped at the La Cabana de Don Robert, right outside of Tec Pan Village, where our next adventure awaits. La Cabana de Don Robert is a quant restaurant nestled in the mountains of Guatemala. A hidden gem along the winding highway which lead us to our new home in Xela. The restaurant had a European influence, resembling a vineyard. At our dinner table there were vines, flowers, lush, animals and fresh fruit in sight. We were served a 3 course meal consisting of chips and fresh warm salsa, an exotic squash soup and tortillas, our choice of a steak, chicken or vegetable entre sided with refried beans, guacamole and veggies and our favorite part, dessert, lemons cookies topped with powdered sugar. The delicious food is not all La Cabana de Don Robert had to offer. We spent our leisure time petting horses and other animals, admiring the breathtaking view or channeling our inner youth on the playground.
Our next excursion took us to the Mayan ruins in the city of Iximche, an excavated city of Mayan royalty. At these ruins we explored the ruins where we saw ancient temples or even soccer fields where political debates were settled. Our guide was a female shaman who also taught us each about our ¨nahuals¨, our spirit animals based off our birthdates. We attended a traditional Mayan ceremony performed by a male shaman who blessed our nahuals and enlightened us with more Mayan traditions.
We have finally made it to our home base in Xela. We got settled, ate and had our first daily ¨GLA family meeting¨ where we went over our goals and expectations of these next two weeks. On Monday, after our first day of service we came back to the home base, had lunch and then were off to our next adventure. No time to waste! We went to a ceramic demonstration in the traditional city of Totonicapán, a beautiful city about 30 minutes from our home base. Long rides are a pleasure, giving us more opportunities to see the beautiful country of Guatemala. At the demonstration we met with Don Julio, a ceramist who has been doing pottery since he was 14 years old, now in his late 60´s. A couple of the girls gave it a try and made their own ceramic plates. After this it was back to the home base. Before dinner we had the opportunity of hearing a former guerilla fighter from the Guatemalan civil war which only ended in 1996. His words brought out emotions and realizations, making us appreciate the country even more after hearing their unbelievable hardships and being thankful for our homes back in the US.
We 15 girls and our mentors have created a new family of our own and are grateful we have such a diverse group of people to experience this opportunity with. This trip has already changed us and we are excited for what the next 12 days have to offer.
Today was our first day of service, and we volunteered at a school in Xela. Some volunteers, including myself, worked on painting a mural. When it is complete it will be a train with twenty cars, and they will be numbered from one to twenty with pictures of objects representing those numbers. The train cars will be a visual way to help the youngest students learn how to count to twenty. Other volunteers put cement on drywall for the future library in the school. Most of the students at the school do not own their own books and have very few resources, so this library will help them by providing books that they can read. On the other side of the school the rest of volunteers leveled the floor in order to possibly build another classroom next summer. We worked on these projects in the morning, then we played with the children at recess. We gave them piggy-back rides, they rode on our shoulders, took pictures with them, gave them hugs, and played schoolyard games with them. It was so much fun to play with all the little kids and I know that they enojyed our company too because they would run over to us and jump on our backs for a piggy-back ride or hug us for five minutes straight! After recess we sat in a classroom and a third grade teacher talked to us about her own personal experiences and struggles with becoming a teacher. She also talked about the students’ lives and many of their personal difficulties, some of which were the same as her own. For example, many of the childrens’ parents leave Guatemala and go to the United States to find a job, but abandon their families and never come back, and the teachers’ husband left Guatemala too. The third grade teacher explained that she felt very privileged that she was able to become a teacher and that she is able to connect with the students and help them. Despite hearing about their personal struggles, I had so much fun helping out and I could live here forever.
– Jennifer Ahmann
Thoughts from students on their time in Guatemala:
A trip to the Immigration Center in Quetzaltenango
The group of newly apprehended boys and girls awaited us in what appeared to be a kitchen/dining/recreational room as we approached, all anxious to meet them and see how they reacted upon our arrival. Feeling overly-privileged, we were all scared to see if the boys and girls would be jealous of us, depressed, or even spiteful toward us. We walked in to see about 35 kids, most of which were male, waiting to meet us and interact with us. We split into four groups, each consisting of 6-10 kids plus 3-4 GLA students. To break the ice between the two groups and possibly reduce tension, we started with what the Leaders call “The Marshmallow Game”. Each group must work together to create a structure out of 20 dry spaghetti noodles, about two and a half feet of tape, and a singe marshmallow. To win, you must have the tallest structure with the marshmallow on top, or to have the only standing structure seeing as the task is much harder than it sounds. After 5 minutes of chaotic chattering and translating between Spanish and English, one of the groups finally won and took the first spot in our next activity: “The Chubby Bunny Challenge”. One member of each group went up to the front and started to learn how to participate in the challenge. The point of the game is to fit as many marshmallows into your mouth while being able to say “chubby bunny” in between each marshmallow. Many of the children laughed at the thought of the game, but it was nothing compared to the laughs and smiles generated once the game actually started. After the game was over and the victorian walked away with the record of 5 marshmallows, the GLA students served cake and soda to the kids. After the quick bite, the four groups turned into two groups and took turns between playing “Salmon, Bear, Mosquito” and “Jenga”. “Salmon, Bear, Mosquito” is pretty much an active form of “Rock, Paper, Scissors”. The groups splits into two separate teams and decides if they want to be a salmon (plays the role of paper), a bear (plays the role of rock), or a mosquito (plays the role of scissors). Once the teams decide in secret what they want to be, the teams stand back-to-back and on the count of three, they turn around to reveal the role they chose. If your team beats the opposing side, they run after and try to tag one of their opponents to bring them back to their own team. After a long round of “Salmon, Bear, Mosquito”, the two larger groups switched places and played “Jenga”. To add a bit of flavor to the game, the GLA students wrote questions on each of the blocks to answer when it was their turn. After 25 minutes of playing, the GLA students found out information from the kids, such as “if you could be any animal, what you be and why?”, “what is your favorite super hero?” and “what is your favorite sport?”. After the tower finally crumbled, the GLA students bid farewell to the new friends they had made and exited the center. Many of the GLA students felt a sense of confidence leaving the center because the kids where nothing but welcoming to the students and staff who visited them. The students walked away with a feeling of appreciation for they have in the United States. The migrant center shared information with the GLA staff regarding the amount of kids that enter each week, around 75, and their ages, usually between 14 and 17. For many of the GLA students, it was a major reality check, as they saw how little some of the children had and how they still managed to crack a smile. While the major issue in each of the students’ lives may have been school work, the children in the center would have done almost anything to be in their place. For a first experience in this kind of situation, it was definitely one that will never be forgotten.
I went in completely blind. We were told that we had a very intelligent speaker coming to share some experiences with us. I thought nothing of it to be honest, but once the talk was over, my outlook completely changed.
His name was Don Arturo and he was an advocate for the Guerillas. If you’re completely in the dark, it’s fine because so was I. I never knew that there was even a civil war that happened here in Guatemala. And I’m a history fanatic. Don Arturo shared with us the civil war from his perspective, the Guerilla’s perspective.
This war was long and it was gruesome. Don Arturo spoke of the brutal crimes the Guatemalan army committed. Many of which reminded me of acts Hitler performed during the Holocaust. The entire time, I wondered, how could I have never learned about this in my history class? After all, the best way to keep something from happening again, is to educate people about it.
And then it became clear. Don Arturo explained the confusing role that the United States played throughout the war. After Don Arturo finished his talk and we got to pick his brain with all of our questions, we came to the conclusion that the United States probably doesn’t educate it’s students about this war because believe it or not, we may have actually been in the wrong here.
We went to bed feeling rather unpatriotic.
The following evening we were told that Don Pepe, a Guatemalan Army Official during the civil war, was coming to speak with us. We were told to have an open mind but we were still pretty shaken up by Don Arturo’s talk. How could a different perspective change the fact that the Guatemalan Army was horrible to the civilians? Well…
Don Pepe focused more on the big events of the war while Don Arturo spoke more about the abomination that was the Guatemalan Army. The funny thing is, these two very smart men happen to be friends, they just disagree about certain things pertaining to the war.
Don Pepe allowed us to ask him boatloads of questions too, and although the answers were great and very detailed, it almost made us more confused. We knew that the point of the war was to fight against communism but who was fighting for what? Why did they go about fighting communism this way? What did the United States really have to do with all of this?
Leaving both conversations and having discussed it with all the girls and mentors, one thing has stood out in my mind the most. Education. I need to take it upon myself to learn more about these international affairs that fail to make it into our history textbooks for fear of tarnishing the American ego. I am and will always be proud to be American, but this definitely showed me that we aren’t as big and grand as we think.
I’m so thankful that I got to listen to these men discuss something that is most likely really hard to think and reminisce about. Even though I left really confused, it only motivates me more to go home and read and research. Our generation has the ability to educate and speak out about the hidden affairs that happen on our planet. I’m so grateful to be able to take what I have learned and learn even more.