Well, we have survived (and thrived!) during the past two weeks in Guatemala. It is hard to believe that we are done with our three weeks here in Xela today!
We spent two weekends ago about 3 hours from our town (Xela) at a lake called Atitlan. It is very important and famous in Guatemala because it is where the Mayan tribes initially settled all around the lake. Now there are little communities (mostly made up today of descendants of those tribes) which are named after the 12 Apostles. Anyway, it is a volcanic crater lake with three volcanoes towering above -- very beautiful! We stayed the night on Saturday on one side of the lake in a tourist town called Panajachel, which is one of the largest artisan areas in Guatemala (handcrafts - mostly woven goods). The students had the afternoon free to shop, interview local people and vendors, explore and enjoy the view of the lake. With a food allowance for the day's lunch and dinner, they also set out to explore their food options and a few were excited to be able to eat "tres por diez" tacos ("3 for 10 quetzales," which is about $1.50), although many chose Salvadoran pupusas or pizza. There was also a lot of helado (ice cream) and choco-bananos consumed by all! Some of them found places along the lake to hang out and read/journal. Most of the students explored the market in small groups and put their negotiating skills to work with a few vendors. It is a difficult balance between wanting to get a good deal and not wanting to take advantage of someone who obviously needs the money more than we do, while also being aware of vendors who just want to take advantage of us as gringos. The students expressed that evening how they often feel like we are perceived more as walking dollar signs by many of the locals, but then we have also had a few very meaningful conversations with a few vendors (mostly women and children) who were just glad to have a sincere conversation with us.
After a short group meeting (all in Spanish!) with the students to debrief about their experiences of the day, we sent them off for rest in the hotel or nightlife. Most of them went out to the same restaurant for pizza and pasta and returned by 9:00 pm to the hotel. I heard that there were some great dice and card games, and I even joined in a for a lively round of ´Would you rather´ with the students, which helped us to get to know each other in a some interesting ways.
Sunday morning we took a 1 hour boat ride across the lake - amazing views of the volcanoes! On the other side, we visited an important catholic church where an American priest had been killed by the army during the civil war in the 80s because he was helping the local people who were being oppressed by the government. There is a special chapel set up in his memory, and we were also able to catch a few minutes of Sunday mass and a baptism in the church -- beautiful music sung by a group of children. A few members of our group went to see an idol that most of the country worships if they are of Mayan descent. It is said that there was a Mayan priest who could do miracles for the people at the time that the Spanish conquistadors came to the area. The Spanish didn't want him to be able to do anything that would give the natives an advantage over them, so they killed him. The natives made an idol (a statue) to honor him and believed that if they prayed to him, they would still be able to receive his miracles. Today, there are a lot of Guatemalans who are either catholic or evangelical (those are the two categories of Christians here) who do not believe in him, but there are still many people who do believe. There are several of these wooden idols that travel around and are on display in different areas where people can come and give money to see and pray before the idol. We had to pay 2Q (about 25 cents) to get into a little dark room in an alley to see him and then 10Q ($1.50) to take a picture. It is a little awkward because it is mostly now a way for these groups of Mayan priests and local townspeople who get to host the idol to make money. More students plan to visit the idol in another town close to Xela with their language school teachers. It will be good for many different members of our group to describe this from their firsthand experience.
Last week was a full week with many learning activities and fun outings. On Monday we were treated to a short talk about religion in Guatemala with a language school teacher who is also a theology professor at a local university. It was a rich discussion about the differences in Guatemala between the catholic and evangelical traditions, as well as some sharing about our personal faith. Tuesday and Thursday of last week were devoted to our final visits up to La Pedrera to work with the kids at the youth center. Lots more kickball, soccer, youth group type games, some English lessons, and great snacks. We also finished our turns at the chocolate making and traditional cooking classes. I can´t say for sure if we are all now experts in these arts, but we learned a lot and had a lot of fun in the process! We do have one student who ended up preparing a type of wall plaster rather than tamale dough – but the Mayan woman who was teaching the class laughed a lot about it! Wednesday was a ´hot´afternoon of salsa dance lessons, where the guys learned how to spin and dip their partners and the girls learned to twirl and strike a pose! We all (including TAs and professors!) went out dancing at the local favorite salsa dance club that night to practice our new moves. The group ended last week by going to some natural hot spring pools on Friday afternoon, where a contentious synchronized swimming competitions – boys vs girls – broke out. You might be surprised to hear that the BOYS wons, hands down!
Last weekend included two morning excursions. On Saturday we hiked up and then down into a volcanic lagoon called Chikabal. It was a fun 1 or 1.5 km hike up for the students (seemed like 5 km to Profe Hernandez!) and then 589 very steep steps down into the lagoon. The lake is a sacred Mayan site of worship with numerous small altars and other monuments posted around the lake. Families or groups of people gather at different spots around the lake to perform Mayan rituals on special days, and there are also Mayans who celebrate the Christian faith who gather to worship together. As we walked the perimeter of the lake, we were able to witness an interesting mix of all of these. Once back to our starting point on the shore, we spent some time of reflection in small groups sharing about what is ´sacred´in our lives and in our personal faith. Saturday night most of the group went to the local professional soccer stadium to take in the first match up of the season between Xela (los Super Chivos) and Municipal (one of the capital city teams). The scene in the stadium was exciting, with lots of fans setting off fireworks before and during the game (yes, right in the stands!), and of course lots of interesting chants and cheers. It ended up being an exciting game with Xela´s Super Chivos winning 3-0 (which apparently is unusual!). On Sunday morning we traveled about 1 hour away to the rural home of a family of Mayan artisans to learn the process of weaving. We got to see the entire process from sheering the sheep and cleaning the wool, to making it into thread (on a 150 year old wooden spindle), to dying the thread with all natural substances (plants, rocks, insects, etc), and finally to watch the children of the family (from age 10 to 20) weaving on large wooden looms operated with a foot pedal. The mother of the family also treated us to homemade tortillas over her wood stove (some of the students helped make them by hand!). It was a very enriching experience for us to see how this family lives and works together.
Now we are finishing the third week of language school and activities. The students seem to be doing very well with their classes, and all of them are showing noticeable improvement in their Spanish proficiency. Monday night we gathered to hear about a local ministry with boys who shine shoes in the park and either live in a shelter or on the street. It was a rich time to hear about the practical ways that people here are caring for these youth. (these are local Xela missionaries in their own community!)
The rest of our week looked like this -- we had a soccer game and dinner with the Inner Change shoe shine boys on Tuesday, a Mayan ceremony on Wednesday, and a group reflection time on Thursday. The soccer game was a blow out – in their favor – but probably one of the most fun experiences of the month so far. We did at least score a few goals!
The students are doing well, and are now very excited about departing for the Plunge tomorrow. They will be traveling for the weekend in groups of 4 with only the name of a town and a small amount of money, along with a list of things they need to report back about next Monday when we all meet up in Antigua. It should be an adventure!!
Please remember about the letter writing opportunities and the upcoming drop date in February. Those first letters will actually be hand delivered by the professor who will be visiting each student in their Honduras homestay. Since this is the only time on the trip when the students will be alone (for 4 weeks), it will probably mean even more to receive letters during that time! If you are on campus, there will be an email announcement sent out in a few days with the letter drop instructions. If you are a parent, you should have received this info in an email from Dr. Le Roy.
Thanks for your continued thoughts and prayers. Keep the emails coming to the students -- they love to know they are being thought of back home.
Saludos cordiales (cordial greetings to all),