Spring Break 13 – Guatemala Part 1

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The above are the property of Jacob Nall (www.jacobnall.com)

Check out the whole set here:

Guatemala I-ASE Appalachian State, a set on Flickr.

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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

Costa Rica

The past week has been one to remember. I was privileged to spend my Spring Break at La Gran Vista, an organic farm right outside of San Isidro, Costa Rica with 14 others from App State. The trip was an Alternative Spring Break through our university’s ACT office, an on-campus organization that facilitates community service activities. ASB is one of their largest “events” each year and there are student-led trips in several countries throughout Central and South America. I chose Costa Rica 1) because I wanted to go to Costa Rica, and 2) because it was the cheapest trip offered. Since I was studying abroad last semester when all the applications were due, my dear friend Amber and Mom both did a lot of work to help me make the trip happen and to get all my paperwork in on time. 

 

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View from La Gran Vista

I didn’t know anyone on the trip – there were two people I’d met briefly before but had never interacted with on any level. I love that – to me it is part of the adventure to go to a new place with all new people. I sincerely believe that you can learn something from everyone you meet, and I love opportunities to bond with people I may not normally hang around with. In an effort to live out my faith in tangible ways, I really want to love on people who don’t know Jesus and I find that when I am intentional about that, he opens and softens my heart to others in ways that I am not capable of cultivating on my own. 

 

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My sweet new friends!

We landed in San Jose and were picked up by Leo, a middle-aged Tico (Costa Ricans are called Ticos/Ticas) man who who told us it was a 2 1/2 hour drive to La Gran Vista. I wanted to practice my Spanish, so I sat in the front middle seat and served as Leo’s copilot. Turns out, he lived in Jersey for 12 years and whenever I spoke to him in Spanish, he’d always reply in English. Still, we grew quite fond of each other and by the time we reached the farm 5 (not 2.5) hours and about 100 songs with me as the ipod DJ later, he had expressed to me many times that I was the best and cutest copilot he’d ever had. #winning

 

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La Gran Vista sits on a mountaintop overlooking San Isidro and certainly lives up to it’s name – The Grand View. It is easily one of the most beautiful and serene places I’ve ever been. Donald and Xinia Villalobos are the owners, and they have built a very sustainable life for themselves that is so appealing to me. Their house was so simple but so beautiful; it was made of Bamboo and Eucalyptus trees from the rain forest that surrounded their property and was very open and spacious, allowing the breeze to blow through. It had a sprawling porch and balcony with swings and chairs and no matter what time of day, the temperature was always perfect on that porch. The first day Donald took us on a tour of the farm and showed us where he grew tomatoes, pineapples, papaya, oranges, carrots, lettuce, cabbage, limes, lemons, star fruit, mangoes, peppers, all kinds of medicinal and cooking herbs, and more. We literally picked things right off of the vine or tree and ate them. The meat we ate consisted of pork and chicken, both literally from the backyard, and any eggs we ate were also laid that day by the chickens they had there. They make their own hot sauce, wine, and shampoo as well from the things they harvest on their property and get all their gas to cook and heat their water from bio gas they collect from pig poop – sounds gross but is actually very simple and smart.  It was just about the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. Every day we had the most delicious, fresh food that I’ve ever eaten and it was amazing to know exactly where it came from. Donald is very passionate about what he does and I loved learning from him all week.

 

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The world’s greatest patio hangout.

Every day we woke up at about 5:30AM to the sound of roosters and cows, ate breakfast at 7:00, and started working at 8:00. We did serious manual labor every day, such a digging trenches in the rain forest and hand mixing 20+ bags of concrete to fix the driveway. Our typical workday was 8:00AM-12:00 noon, an hour break for lunch and relaxing, then working again from 1:30 – 5:00PM. After dinner, we usually reflected on the day and hung out for a little while before going to bed around 9:00PM completely exhausted. Although we were all worn out and sun-burnt, we had a blast. It felt good to work hard and our group worked so well together and we all sustained such a good work ethic that it was hard not to enjoy ourselves. We had the day off on Wednesday, so Leo picked us up and drove us to Playa Dominical, an awesome beach about an hour away. We started the day by laying around, swimming, getting even more sun-burnt, and eating coconuts straight off of the tree. After that we went to a marketplace full of Rastafarian people and bought a bunch of handmade goods before heading to a waterfall to relax for a little while longer. It was a perfect day. When we arrived back at La Gran Vista, Donald cut up the hugest, juiciest aloe plant I’ve ever seen and we all slathered our cooked skin in the amazing, fresh goo.

 

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Donald and I chopping up some coconuts to eat right off of the tree. 

It was apparent from the start that we were going to be a motley crew, full of dynamic personalities and world views all over the grid. This fact was further exemplified on our first night at the farm when we were sitting on the porch talking after lunch and Donald said, “So, what do you guys think about the afterlife?” Now that got people talking. I feel like I can’t say more out of respect for others, but conversations like this continued to grow more thoughtful as the week went on and it was beautiful to see God’s faithfulness which is never.ending. 

 

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Playa Dominical, Costa Rica

Donald referred to our planet as a “sinking ship” and asked us what we were doing to save it. The metaphor was as follows – are we doing our part to get water out of the boat or are we otherwise occupied – living it up at the casino, drinking at the bar, playing in the pool, etc. As for me, I think before this trip I was unaware that the boat was sinking. My week at La Gran Vista really changed the way I think about the environment and has really sparked me interest to learn more about being sustainable. 

 

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In summary, the trip was amazing. My group was amazing, our faculty sponsor, Debbie, was amazing, and I’d do it all over again next week if I could. Costa Rica is kind of intoxicating – I want to live there maybe more than anywhere else I’ve ever been. I hope one day I can go back!!