ACT (Appalachian and the Community Together) is a wonderful organization on our campus that provides dozens of service experiences for the students of Appalachian. One of their most popular programs is ASE – Alternative Service Experience – which provides students with the opportunity to take service trips during university breaks.
I spent Spring Break 2012 in Costa Rica, doing the hardest manual labor of my life on an organic farm in San Isidro. This year I had the opportunity to lead an ACT trip with my dear friend Jacob Nall, Guatemala being our destination. We started planning in April of last year, so this thing was a long time coming!
Other than a brief time where we were fairly sure that our trip wasn’t going to get filled (and therefore cancelled), I’d say the planning went off without a hitch. We ended up with a full crew of 15, which consisted of 13 students, Jacob and I, and Dr. Catherine Fountain, AKA my favorite tri-lingual person. The woman is brilliant – has a PHD from UCLA, speaks Spanish, Portuguese, and English fluently, and is just an all-around rock star when it comes to traveling. The woman brought ONE JANSPORT BACKPACK for the whole week and left nearly all of her clothes behind when we traveled back to the US. And y’all thought you knew how to travel light…
Anyway, we ended up with the most beautiful and cohesive group of people that I could have ever imagined. I’m getting ahead of myself, but there was never an ounce of conflict between group members the entire week. The majority of us were strangers before embarking on this little adventure, but we gelled so well. I can genuinely say that I enjoyed each person’s company during our time together.
Personally, I didn’t find myself getting excited about the trip until a few days before. I had so many papers and midterm exams the week before break that I didn’t even realize what was actually happening until we all met the night before our 7:00AM flight. HELLO that’s early – and meant getting to the airport at 4:30. We had what seemed like a shirt journey to Guatemala with a 45 minute layover in Atlanta and all the excitement making time fly. When we landed in Guatemala City, we were given a royal welcome by employees and volunteers of Service for Peace, our partner organization. They had a big sign and big smiles for us and gave us a Spanish welcome before herding us onto a school bus.
I wasn’t sure how my Spanish would hold up – I haven’t really tried using it conversationally since last Spring Break – but my brain was apparently ready to do WORK because I felt more confident than ever. Conjugating on the fly was tough, but I was so eager to get to know the five Guatemalans that were spending the week with us that I put my embarrassment aside.
Two of the Guatemalans that we were with spoke English pretty well and translated for the group. Each had a very strong, unique personality that came through even with a pretty thick language barrier. Juan Pablo is the in-country director of Service for Peace Guatemala, and was very eager to make sure things were running smoothly. He has a baby boy in Nicaragua and wore an undershirt with the baby’s face on it EVERY DAY. Roxana is a medical student and Mario is her 17 year old brother who loves Limp Bizkit and takes culinary classes on Wednesdays. Dulce, as her name suggests, was one of the sweetest, meekest, and most kind-hearted people in our group. Sergio and Andrea are adorable childhood sweethearts that genuinely enjoy the company of other human beings and are always laughing. They were an unforgettable group.
Guatemala is one of the most dangerous countries in the world – ranked 12th for it’s violent crime rate. Large-scale drug and illegal alien smuggling are a constant issue, and the percentage of missing persons has increased 156% since 2009. This was, to me, more intriguing than frightening. Our accommodation in Guatemala City was a bunk room in the basement of a church – primitive but safe and gated in a community that was also considered safe. We had an incredible view from the back porch/courtyard looking over a small valley. Directly across from us on the other side of the valley was a shanty town – aluminum and cinderblock huts stacked on top of each other with trash spilling down the hillside. I never saw anyone moving among the houses, but each day music would echo off the walls of the valley and reach us in our bunk rooms. When they weren’t pumping the latin jams, someone was usually shooting off bombas, or fireworks without the fancy pyrotechnics. I had no idea this tradition existed, but based on my experience it is very popular in Guatemala to shoot them off for any occasion whatsoever – birthday, anniversary, engagement, baptism, just cause it’s Tuesday, etc.
Our first day and a half consisted of getting to know Guatemala City. We rode the most temperamental mini school bus I have ever encountered in my short life into the city center, grinding the gears and lurching up hills all the way. We took a stroll through the packed streets and observed several processionals for Holy Week, which were beautifully symbolic when considered in their purest intention. The processionals we saw were for children, so tiny kids carried around large sculptures of Christ carrying the cross or other Biblical images and walked a route through the streets, regularly walking through intricately designed sawdust alfombras (rugs) that were intentionally placed along the path. Above all, it is a really important part of Guatemalan culture that I’m so excited we could experience.
Truly, we felt like part of the “show” as we stuck out like sore thumbs with our pasty pale Boone-winter skin. Especially since there were 15 of us all in Service for Peace t-shirts, we drew some serious attention. After wandering around, visiting a beautiful cathedral, and wandering around some more, we made a pit stop at a ice cream parlor that offered flavors from oatmeal to beans…to cheese and avocado…and finally reaching a lot point with fish flavored hand-dipped cones. Negative ghost rider, I am all about some adventurous eating but setting thyself up for failure is neigh a good idea.
Alright folks – if you’ve made it to the end of this post, I’m impressed. I’ll stop here and pick up with another post since we’re already at 1,000 words. Thanks for sharing the journey.