A Window into Life: Incredible Experiences in Guatemala – Photo Story

These weeks working and living in Guatemala have been so full of life and experiences. Time seems to fly by, even as it carries the weight of so much life and all that has been happening, all that has been changing within me, and all that I have been able to impact while I have been here. My last post was over a month ago; but let’s be honest, I don’t have time to write internet updates when I am living in a mountain village, translating conversations in Spanish, and traveling all over the country with eleven college students.

But I do want to provide a window into some of the amazing blessings and even the hardships that have been defining my life this past month or so…

A while ago, I got to go to the Caribbean with my students to relax after a few weeks of intense classes. It was a relaxing and joyous trip — and just so happened to be where I was blessed to have my 24th birthday. As is tradition there, I was tossed into the Caribbean with all my clothes on to celebrate the new year ahead of me. I also got to hold an adorable baby sea otter, and climb around on some breathtakingly beautiful waterfalls.

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I have been so happy to have been living in Antigua for the majority of my time working here. It really is a second home for me — never have I felt so comfortable and assured that I belong somewhere. I have already posted about my Antigua community, my amazing host family, my love for the musical community here; but I am going to share a few of my favorite pictures from this wonderful city.

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Here is a sunset I was fortunate to watch from the roof of my homestay:

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Speaking of amazing sunsets, I traveled with the students about three weeks ago to Monterrico on the Pacific coast to have a weekend at the beach after living and working in the mountains for a few weeks. There are some incredible skies there. I also got to adopt a baby sea turtle from a near-by refuge and release it into the sea to start on its adventure.

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For a total of a month, I work with the students in Magdalena Milpas Altas in the mountains while they do internships in different areas of community development. I get to help out with medical clinics for childhood malnutrition, play ukulele for mentally disabled kids at the hospital, visit homes in El Gorrion to build relationships with the hard-working mothers there, and work with an amazing group of students learning so much about Guatemala and relational development.

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I have made some wonderful friends since I have been living here — sharing a house together, playing music together, and traveling together. I want to introduce you to a lovely new friend for life, Olivia: She works at the Pina, and supports me in my music and has listened to me rant about life and made some beautiful memories. Here she is holding a sweet baby:

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This is a picture that Olivia took of me playing at the Pina — one of my very favorite activities…

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I also had a few great Spanish teachers this trip, and wanted to introduce you to Yolanda (Yoli) who mentored me, taught me, comforted me, and helped me really express myself in another language.

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Some of the girls I live with came with my study abroad students and I to the All Saints Day celebration  at the cemetery in Sumpango for the Gigantic Kite festival. These larger than life tissue paper kites take more than 6 months to create and are stunning in their varied colors and forms. Such an amazing sight to see — and so many people all in one place! The tradition of flying kites for the day of the dead is something so touching, because it is believed that the kites are seen as messages from family and loved ones down here on the ground to those who have passed on into the skies.

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At Sumpango I was also privileged enough to see the Mayan Royalty. There is a Cultural Contest (instead of a Beauty Contest) held every year for the many diverse Mayan tribes to show their culture, traditional dress, and language. The winners are then the Mayan Princesses for the year and go to all the significant cultural traditions and celebrations. This is a picture of them watching over the kite flying contest the First of November.

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Our most recent group excursion was to Tikal in the Peten region of the Guatemala highlands. I have been to these ancient Mayan ruins before, but it was so good to see them again and share my knowledge with the students. This time, however, we got to stay on the amazingly beautiful island-city of Flores. It reminded me so much of Sardinia, the Italian island in the middle of the Mediterranean – the colors, the quaint streets, the island life. This island took about 7 minutes to walk around, and it was surrounded by such green jungle and a beautiful lake full of life. I also learned how to walk on water….

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My thanks to all who took a browse through this post — a little photo story of what’s been going on in my life here in the amazing country of Guatemala. I am truly blessed, and that is solidified to me every time I go through these snapshots. I have a great community, friends, and opportunities to travel, grow and fully engage with life and all it brings.

Peace and Blessings,

–Kira

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Different is Hard; Hard is Rewarding

Back in Guatemala again, settling in to my international home of Antigua. Gearing up for another 3 months of growth and adventure in this most beautiful country. I must say though, that because I am comfortable here, doesn’t mean there won’t be challenges of all kinds this time around. In fact, my first lesson of the trip: it’s not going to be the same “this time around.” And that will be a GOOD thing.

I am at a different home-stay where things are done differently, I have no side-kick or person I experience all this newness with, Calvin isn’t in town, I have to forge my own way and do my job with only a clue of how to go about it. For the first day, that’s a lot of change to take on. But realization thankfully set in pretty quickly. No, I’m not housed with the students– maybe that’s a good thing, so I can have my own space and keep a professional friendship with all of them (and maybe escape every now and then!). Yes, I am in a different home-stay– that comes with whole new relationships, lots of new stories, different food, different perspectives on the families of Antigua, and so far, lots of laughs! No, there is not someone at my side to constantly do things with– how great is that?! I get to plan my days, am free to wander and explore what peaks my interest, and make a whole new community of friends in my fave town. And a new job? Bring it on. I am ready to be flexible, learn, and be a resource to the students.

Yesterday we did orientation here in Antigua and took them up to Magdalena so they can see the community with which we work, and the real rural Guatemala (not the Antigua bubble). I was asked so many questions, and I had many answers to give — I have been here before, know these people, can rattle off Guatemalan slang, and give confidence to those who are new to this all. But oh, how I am blessed with such an AMAZING group of students. World travelers, all competent and excited to learn and be here. And such fun! I can’t wait to see what adventure lie ahead for the next few months, if I am this happy with the first few days!

The view from my room; balcony included!

The view from my room; balcony included!

Speaking of adventures, last evening at around 6pm an earthquake, 6.5 on the Richter scale, hit near the coast and sent some amazing trembles and waves to us here in ‘Tigua. I was on the top floor of my house, and the whole world started pitching and swaying. It felt like I was surfing. At the time I was skyping with my parents in the states and my brother in China, and started shouting about the earthquake. They became concerned, until I stared laughing and getting WAY too excited. “This is so fun!” It was one of the biggest I have felt here in Guate, and for sure not the last this trip. Conversation at the dinner table turned to the bigger and more fatal earthquake of 1976, and my host dad, Jose, started telling us of the many bodies he had to carry out of the rubble in Antigua when he was only 16 years old. Guatemala is so prone to natural disasters and doesn’t have the infrastructure to really stand against it all. So when things hit– they hit hard, people loose their homes, loved ones, and everything they own. So even though I get a little too excited about the fun waves, it is sobering to know the history and continued struggle of Guatemala. Let’s pray for just the little ones from here on out!

Y Tu Pina Tambien!

Y Tu Pina Tambien!

B Boy Chicky, makin' some delicious cafe

B Boy Chicky, makin’ some delicious cafe

Here I sit, in my favorite coffee shop, Y Tu Pina Tambien, connecting with old friends, drinking great Guatemalan coffee, and feeling at home once again. But there is so much more yet to learn and experience and uncover in this amazing place. Come along the journey with me!!

Returning for More – Guatemalan Adventure

It’s a rainy morning in Seattle – something so familiar and comfortable about that. But I’m preparing once again to ditch my comfort zone for adventure abroad, and head back to the country that stole my heart: Guatemala.

It seems this blog is beginning to have a solely Guatemalan influence, and I am o.k. with that. The most interesting and exciting times of my life seem to blossom there! This time, I am taking on the challenge and blessing of being the On-Site Program Coordinator for Seattle Pacific University’s study abroad fall quarter in Guatemala. I am beyond thrilled to have landed a dream job (when I went two years ago, I was already planning on how I could get this position!) and have two days before I start my duties of being guide, friend, mentor, translator, and fellow traveler to eleven SPU students.

Excited? Heck yes. Prepared…uh, give me a bit. There have been SO many changes in my life and they all have cascaded upon me as I’m preparing to move to Guatemala for three months. New apartment, sub-letter for said apartment, new job, packing up all my things for storage or baggage, and letting go of tings dear to me for a bit. Changes are good though, and challenges are what I have been asking for throughout a stagnant and frustrating year. So bring it on!!

From the rooftops of Antigua

From the rooftops of Antigua

Guatemala — I am excited to live there again, grow there more, show this beautiful land to even more people, and be shaped once again by the people, language, culture and adventure it offers. Here I come!!! Join me?

A Paradigm Shift: Antigua/Magdalena

For the last month, Antigua, Guatemala has been my home. I don’t have a house, I don’t have a job, I don’t have a plan for my life when I get back to the states, I just have a passion to be in other places. Being in this place has been so full of life, language, people, learning. Yet the path I have been on living here in Antigua is going to change, and not just geographically.

Tomorrow I am moving to Magdalena, a small, poor, rural village about half an hour into the mountains. I will be living with a family there, eating what they eat, speaking their language, and learning their life. My internship is in social work in the near-by village of displaced people, El Gorrión. These people had their whole village wiped out by a devastating landslide, and were relocated by the government and kept in poverty, not able to own their land and dependant on trucks bringing in water each week. Where I fit into this is something I am going to be finding out over the next two weeks. Yesterday , after our group bible study, I was able to speak with the head of the social works in El Gorrión, and when I asked about what I was going to be doing exactly, I was given the answer, “you will be going to people’s homes and hearing about their problems.” Perfect. I am a relational person, and I don’t have anything special to give to these hurting people other than my time and understanding. Yet another reason why I am so thankful that my Spanish is really taking off.

This shift with be quite the culture shock: from the touristy and comfortable quaint-ness of Antigua, where I was just starting to make some local friends (you know you are in when you get the Guatemalan cheek kiss), to the unknown, rural life of early mornings, devotion, and pouring out that will take place in Magdalena and El Gorrión. I am excited to live in this new place, and be taught so much about God and relationships from there people who live there. So here is to the comming paradigm shift — may I be prepared as I can, and flexible for what is to come, open to learning and relishing this other side of Guatemala.

From Classroom Books to Caribbean Beaches; Life is Good

It’s all downhill from here. I did it – the last, hard push through of the mountains of homework and credits, and my last classes as an undergraduate student at SPU. Now I look forward to weeks of Spanish language school and my internship with Students International working with rural community development in the nearby villages of Magdalena and El Gorrión.

However this weekend was a time of transition – from the full force of intensive classes (fitting in an 18 credit senior quarter into two weeks) to the more Guatemalan pace of language school and community building. What better place for a relaxing, get away weekend than the Caribbean shore? No better place, is what I say.

Thursday morning, all fifteen of us students piled  into a van headed for the capital, Guatemala City, where we then loaded onto a double-decker bus headed all the way across the country to the small section of the Caribbean that Guatemala claims: Puerto Barrios. After the 6 hour journey, we head in a smaller, sweatier bus to our next mode of transportation: a boat. There are no roads that connect with the Christian retreat center we are headed to. We skim up on the water to the palm leaf covered dock of “El Faro”, The Lighthouse (no lighthouse in sight, by the way, it’s more the idea of Christ being the guiding light, etc., etc.). I am instantly in heaven. This bright, humid shore steals my heart as I unload and walk straight into the 80 degree water. The sand is soft and welcoming under my feet and I have to let out a squeal of pure delight (or two, or five…). It had been one of my life goals to swim in naturally warm water, where at night its warmer then the air around me. Goal status: Check.

The whole weekend that followed was blissful: air conditioned apartments, meals cooked for us, hammocks in the shade, beautiful tropical forest all around us, fireflies in the evening lighting up the grass, parrots greeting us with “Hola” in the mornings, and hours and hours of nothing planned other than to be in and enjoy nature. I held a monkey for the first time, learned how to machete open a fresh coconut, drink the milk, and scrape out the sweetest meat I had ever tasted, and laid in the close, bright, hot Caribbean sun. It was a dream sharing this all with my friends, practicing my Spanish, playing ukulele in the palm trees, singing praise by a bonfire under a star-filled night, and swimming in clear, crisp pools of water fed by slowly cascading waterfalls. Butterflies the size of my face were commonplace. Shrieks of joy were heard loudly and often as we flew skyward off the water trampoline and blob. Sunrises at 5:20am set the morning clouds ablaze with passion. An evening rainstorm pounded on the dried leaf roofs and robed us of electricity for the night, letting us see more clearly the fireflies, and hear more clearly the jungle insects and birds.

As you can imagine, it was hard to leave. Yet coming back to Antigua made this cobblestoned old city feel even more like home. I loved walking in the door to hug a hello to Doña Christi and excitedly tell her about my weekend adventures. Today started the first week of Spanish classes, one on one teacher conversations that are fit specifically to the areas I need to address and practice. This is one of the best ways to learn a language: focus on the areas you know you need help in, study, and be able to walk out the door and immediately use it around the city and in the house I live in. Immersion and study complementing each other perfectly. I am excited to see how much I grow in my language ability, and even more excited to use that knowledge to work with the internally displaced people of El Gorrión in just two weeks’ time. I just know my next two months here will fly by, filled with learning and new experiences. Like tomorrow’s adventure: watching a futbol match between the Guatemala “Cremas” and the Seattle Sounders in the Capital. I can whole-heartedly say, “Life is Good.”

Celebrations, Learning, and Garbage

Of all the times to be in Guatemala — this is a pretty great time to be here. Elections, Independence Day, Dia de los Muertos, and the start of the sunny spring season.

Yesterday was the Dia de La Independencia for not only Guatemala, but all of Central America. It started on Wednesday night with runners from central park here in Antigua running a lit torch to the pueblos around the city, with boys running ahead blowing on whistles to “ring in” the Independence day. All day on the 15th were parades of students from the many different schools playing more drums than I have ever seen in my life. Marimbas (the national instrument) were abundant in the square as the people celebrated their freedom and showed their patriotism. Blue and white flags graced the city, and everyone had a sense of excitement and alegria.

Independence Day Parade in Antigua

My roommate and I, however, spent most of this joyous day doing research for our capstone paper which is due very very soon. This stress has been the worst part of this trip, because we want to go out and really See Guatemala and experience the culture; which is difficult to do when we are having to assign every hour to class or homework or writing. But soon it will all be over! This time next week I will be laying out on the Caribbean beach, celebrating being done with University and ready to move onto Spanish language school and my internship. Until then: writing and cramming information into my head faster than it can hold it. Yet I am still having one of the greatest experiences I could have hoped for–I get to be a part of  great things going on here. It was a blessing to see one of those things today.

Today was an amazing experience. The Global Development class took a trip into the capital, Guatemala City, in the morning to visit Compassion International and a church that is partnering with them to help the children and families who live in the trash heaps of the city. We visited the city dump and got to see the community of people who live and work there, recycling anything they find for pathetic amounts of money (about 30 Quetzals a day, which is only about 5 dollars a day). With this money they have to buy the “clean” water brought in every once in a while by a truck. Here is a picture of the tubs of water that cost about 6 of their Queztals:

I loved seeing h0w the kids of this community are still being kids, playing (even if it is around garbage and in polluted water) and laughing. The church and the people who do development in the community try to emphasize that the kids are not allowed to work, but sometimes they want to help their parents.

I got to chat a lot with the wife of the pastor, who also serves as the main doctor of the medical team that gives services to this community and the homeless around Guatemala City. Her name is Laylah, and she was so happy to answer all the questions I had. It was such a blessing to be able to translate for my other classmates and to talk about complicated issues with Laylah in Spanish. Thankfully my time translating at Agros International in Seattle has taught me pretty useful vocabulary, like human development, maternal health, and governmental support. The program in the trash community has been running for about two years, and Laylah described to me how much progress and improvement she has seen since they first started. She remembers going to the dump and seeing the people wrapping themselves in nylon fabrics and sleeping in the piles of garbage. Now there are dirt paths, less garbage, shanties of metal, and they are starting to put in concrete floors for many of the families to improve health.

So a good way to sum up my time in Guatemala so far? Learning. Sure it’s a fatiguing experience, but I wouldn’t trade a minute of it. I am so blessed to be able to learn in a place like this, and see what I have been studying for years first-hand. Tomorrow? I am going to hike a volcano. No joke. As part of my earth science class, we decided it would be pretty applicable if we got to see actual lava flows. I’ll be sure to take pictures and post as soon as I find a spare moment! Thanks to all who read this horribly long post, and to all of my new SPU readers out there! Many blessings on you all —

Namaste, –Kira

 

A Day of Remembrance and Politics

What a way to spend a Sunday. And such an Important Sunday at that — For the United States, we remember the Twin Towers attacks of ten years ago on this day. For Guatemala, it is election day for the new President and government.

It is an amazing thing to be down here during such exciting political times, and to be able to talk with Guatemalan’s about their opinions and what is going on in current events. Some things I have learned so far: no alcohol is sold starting 24 hours before election day and going until the morning of the following day. Great idea (Hint hint, US). There are ten different political parties that have candidates for the Presidency. People do not have to be literate to vote, since you just have to put an X on the symbol of the party you wish to vote for. Since it is unlikely for any one candidate to win the majority (50% plus one) then there will be a runoff election with the two top candidates in November, which I will also be present for. It is very exciting to be in another country for the change of government, and a little scary too. I hope to be an observant learner and see a peaceful election and change for the better come to this beautiful nation. Independence day is also coming up very soon here, on September the 15th. And of course the holiday I am most excited about? Dia de Los Muertes! All Saints Day is a big deal here, and the other students and I are planning to go to a festival of huge handmade kites in a nearby city’s cemetery — talk about a colorful culture!

Here is my group of companions and professors that are making this trip a fun and wonderful learning experience for me:

Today was also a day where being an American is very important. I felt very distant from my nation today as many were remembering the 9/11 attacks that happened ten years ago. It’s amazing, because ten years seems so long ago, but that event does not. As I am sure it is even more so for others, it is still quite vivid in my mind and heart. yesterday morning, however, I was provided with an extraordinary way of remembering the tragedy: I was speaking with Doña Christi and two Americans over breakfast about the attack on the Twin Towers and what it meant for each of us, where we were when it happened, and how we have been processing it since. The 85 year old lady of the house has two children who immigrated to New York many years ago and live in Long Island, so this event was very close to Christi’s heart as well. The amazing thing was being able to describe it and discuss it all in Spanish. Connecting to other cultures through languages is definitely a passion of mine.

The whole of today has been amazing and has allowed me to fall in love with Antigua and my Guatemala experience — started out with coffee grown right here around Antigua and pan dulce for breakfast, met up with some other friends who live here to go to a bi-lingual church and sang praise songs in Spanish, went out for a Guatemalan lunch (which includes a lot of yummy black beans and guacamol made with mint and lime) and had an SPU student get together over dinner talking about the great trips we get to have around the country after our two weeks of courses have ended (and we don’t have homework every night…). I am so truly blessed to be here, and I have never felt this comfortable in another culture. I am already starting to feel at home, and I am thankful for the fact that it’s going be a few months rather than weeks in which I am able to soak up as much as I can. I just feel like I belong in other cultures, and I know it’s something I will pursue for the rest of my life. Never will I want to stop going, seeing, experiencing this world and it’s beauties; and I thank God for all the opportunities I have to do so.

Blessings on this day of remembrance, change, and hope — Namaste

Soak it in

Guatemala, Antigua, and the beautiful people who live and work here have been teaching me wonderful things in the past couple of days. I am so content to be in another culture and to be able to really put my Spanish to work. I feel as if the many bits and pieces of the Spanish that I know, the vocabulary, the random ideas of grammar, and the sounds of the letters, are all weaving themselves together and are finally being gathered into one place in my brain. just after a few days, I am comfortable holding conversations and kick starting my brain into processing this amazing language.

I suppose I should share a bit about my situation: with the 12 other Seattle Pacific University students, we arrived in Antigua in a very shaky van on the cobblestone streets, we shown where we would start our language courses in two weeks, and then delivered to our various home-stays. My friend Kjersti and I are rooming together at a home which is run by an amazing 85 year old woman affectionately called “Doña Christi” who is super sweet, has a great sense of humor, and has been hosting international language students for 50 years…wonderful lady. I love waking up in the morning and drinking local Guatemalan coffee, chatting in Spanish, and seeing the sun stream in through the open courtyard.

The weather here is phenomenal — bright and clear in the mornings, hot around lunchtime, and then the clouds roll in for the afternoon rains. Right now I am listening to the evening downpour on the tin roof and thanking God for how blessed I am. This is truly going to be an amazing quarter. We started classes today, beginning with the class I am mentoring (Intro to Global Development) in the morning, and the Earth Sciences class in the afternoons. Lots of learning going on.

Today I was able to walk around the city and explore as part of my morning class, and my favorite part for sure was the crowded, bustling, loud market. So many fruits and vegetables, lots of colorful craftworks and fabrics, women with chickens on their heads, and me trying to squeeze through the short Mayan people. I wish I had a picture to show, but I have not been good at taking pictures so far…or at all yet. I am hoping to soak in a bit more, and feel my way around the city. This is definitely a tourist center, and I guess that thing in me that tells me to blend in and be a part of the culture is stopping me from taking pictures “like a tourist.” But really–there is too much color and life and nature here not to want to capture as much as I can. So tomorrow (amid the piles of homework I already must accomplish) I am going on a photo journey, reading at a cafe, and soaking in as much as I can of Guatemala.

I couldn’t be happier — this is what I thrive on: living in other cultures, meeting new people, and of course speaking other languages. Thanks to all who read my blog! I hope to keep up with all the amazing adventures that are going on down here. including the nation-wide elections that are going on tomorrow. I have had the great opportunity to learn more about this process and how Guatemala is dealing with the transition. Many blessings and joy on all of you,

Namaste,

–Kira

Sompeplace Brand New; again.

Here I go again—

In less than 24 hours I am headed off to another country: Guatemala. Needless to say (but I have to say it, because that’s what blogs are for, right?) I am quite excited. I get to immerse myself in another culture, another language, make community with new people, eat new foods, hike some volcanoes and soak up as much learning as I can cram into my last quarter of being an undergraduate student.

I will try to post as much of my adventures and pictures as I can on this humble little site, for anyone who is interested to see. There will be times when internet will be a bit of a longshot for me (and by that I mean impossible) since I will be doing my internship in a rural village, but that’s the fun of it, right? Getting away, disconnecting, being as Guatemalan as I am allowed to be.

I am a bit nervous, but after a year in Italy and a summer in India, I feel like I am getting a hang of this whole process, from packing, to flying, to not drinking the water. I hope to do this all of my life: travel, learn, be immersed; GO.

So with these few words, I leave you– off to new lands and experiences.

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” – Saint Augustine

Namaste,

–Kira