Blair – Guatemala
Home sweet home!!
My peers and I have all arrived safely back to the United States after a lifetime adventure in Antigua, Guatemala. It is hard to fathom all the memories and experiences, as well as new friendships I have undergone in such a brief time.
I do not think I will ever be able to fully encapsulate all that occurred in Guatemala into a few coherent blog entries, but I did want to use this platform to share some of my favorite moments, and now reflect on the entirely of the situation.
First, I want to extend a gracious thank you to my parents, grandmother, peers, and especially my mentor, Dr. Kim Larson, for helping make this trip possible. Thank you to everyone who donated countless hours collecting medical supplies, those who monetarily assisted, and individuals who prayed for the fruitfulness of this trip. None of this could have been possible without the love and support of the people closest to me!
And one final thanks to my blog readers – the outpouring of adoration I have received from readers just like you made writing so worthwhile on even some of the hardest days.
With that being said, one of my biggest takeaways from the trip is to strive for a continued heart of gratitude. It is easy to go to a developing country and temporarily put on the “white savior complex” as you watch people drink from the streets and live within sheets of metal and no roof, but it is just important to recognize the needs of the American people and return with the same eagerness to help. Moving forward, I desire to have a similar avidity to serve even my closest neighbors all out of response for the blessings that I have been personally given (that I believe are worth my while to share with others).
Like I mentioned, I extend countless thanks to my fearless trip leader, Dr. Kim Larson. This was her thirteenth time on the trip, and one could truly see her passion to help the Guatemalan population across her face day in and day out. As a result, I would recommend a faculty-led trip because not only do you get to work with some pretty amazing faculty at East Carolina University, but they are also very skilled in their profession, and it allows you to foster important connections for when you eventually return to the States.
Finally, if I can leave you with just one simple piece of advice … GO STUDY ABROAD! I promise you will not regret this experience and if I had the opportunity to leave tomorrow to repeat the trip I would do it in a heartbeat. If you have any questions or hesitations, or simply want to learn more, please feel free to contact me at email@example.com.
Wow wow wow! I cannot believe the time has officially come for me to write my last journal entry of my time here in Antigua, Guatemala – tomorrow, at 8 am, my peers and I will make our final departure for the Guatemala City airport. While I am very eager to take a real shower, not have to brush my teeth with a cup, put toilet paper in the toilet, SPEAK IN ENGLISH, and eat the juiciest American hamburger, I am very sad at the thought of having to say farewell. The people here have become family and I wish I could extend this once in a lifetime opportunity for just a bit longer!
Moving on to a more joyful tone, this past week was nothing but absolute bliss! Saturday began with a strenuous hike up Pacaya, an active volcano about 9,000 feet in elevation. We were led by a wonderful tour guide named Freddy who helped us ascend to the top. The terrain was rough, the top was covered with fog, and the soles of your shoes began to melt if you stood in place for too long, but oh man, the hike was so worthwhile! Upon reaching the crest, we got to roast marshmallows in lava and meet a few other tourist groups (4 out of the 6 who were coincidentally also from North Carolina). I definitely added a new check mark to the bucket list that day!
Sunday was simply a rest day. In the morning, many of us went to Catholic mass (in Spanish, may I add) followed by a trip to our favorite bakery, San Martin, and a walking tour around various vendors in Antigua. I was so grateful for a day to slow down and prepare because the final week was jam-packed with events!
Like all the others prior, the last week consisted of Spanish classes in the morning from 8am-12pm followed by a community out-reach activity or excursion.
Then, amongst the various days, my peers and I went to Casa Jackson Hospital, visited a chocolate museum, toured a coffee plantation (wow… do I have a new appreciation for my morning cup of joe), performed a charla, watched the UEFA Championship League tournament, distributed water filters, learned how to make tortillas, attended a seminar on Popol Vuh (traditional Mayan religious text), ate more delicious food, and unfortunately prepared for departure.
This last week was certainly bittersweet to say the least. I will forever cherish all the memories and friendships made over the past three weeks! Goodnight from Antigua ….
Until next time (in America),
After a tiring week of changing diapers, conducting charlas, setting-up medical clinics, and engaging in Spanish lessons, my advisor decided that it was time for a getaway trip to Lake Atitlan. While my peers and I were only there for about twenty-four hours, the time was so sensational that it deserved its own blog post!
Lake Atitlan is body of water inside a massive volcanic crater that is situated in the Guatemalan highlands of Sierra Madre, about three hours from our host home in Antigua. Driving was definitely my least favorite part because of the twists and turns of the highways that made me car sick, but we made various stops on both the way there and back to help break-up the drive.
Our first stop heading to our hotel was a delicious breakfast buffet located in Tecpan. They had an assortment of different traditional Central American foods and I made sure to try every one of them: refried beans, tamale, plantains, melon salad, Antigua-roasted coffee, eggs with tomatoes, dobladas, and queso fresco. My absolute favorite was the fried plantains!
Our next stop on the miniature “road” trip was Hospital Atitlan, a hospital located on the Southern shore of Lake Atitlan that serves approximately 75,000 indigenous Mayan people. Because it is located on the lake, we had to take a motorboat to the hospital. However, its location does not prohibit any of its amenities. The hospital provides a full range of preventative and health care services fulfilled by international and local staff, as well as volunteers. While we did not provide any assistance to the Mayan individuals while we were at the hospital, we were able to receive a comprehensive tour of the facility and learn more about the rich history of the hospital.
After our tour, we then took one last boat ride to our final destination: La Casa Del Mundo Hotel. Upon arrival, I could barely keep my jaw off the floor; the hotel was surrounded by water and situated on the side of a mountain. The picture below is a view of the area from the balcony of the hotel.
While there we dined, laughed, relaxed, kayaked, and most importantly, enjoyed each other’s company! We had one delicious candle-lit dinner and a morning brunch that reminded me of my dad’s delicious omelets at home. Before brunch, we woke up with the sunrise to go kayaking on the beautiful lake. It was truly a dream getting to paddle around the water in Guatemala.
Despite the trip being less than 24 hours, it was a slice of paradise! Vacations like this one truly spark so much gratitude at the opportunity to live this beautiful life. However, I am eager to get back to Antigua to fulfill the ultimate mission of the trip, to spread health education to underserved communities.
… And just like that, the trip is coming to an end.
Until next time,
We have reached the peak – the halfway mark!
Luckily, in Antigua, there is no unfortunate downhill anytime soon (and not just because we are 1600m above sea level). These past few days have been filled with great adventures, countless bug bites, Spanish lessons, visiting local hospitals, delicious meals, and so much more!
Now that I am in the swing of things, a typical day begins at 5:30am and ends with a couple rounds of Uno Flip. Most mornings, many of us walk to a local coffee shop called Café Condesa Express where they serve the most delicious chai tea, followed by a breakfast of varying assortment at our host organization. Some days it’s the traditional eggs, refried beans, and fried plantains, while other mornings its more American like pancakes, and sometimes it’s completely unexpected, like this morning: beef nachos with queso.
After breakfast I walk to Spanish lessons located at La Union Spanish School in Antigua until noon. In Spanish class, my teacher and I have progressed away from the basics and are now focusing on tenses, medical terminology, articulations, and gender differences – concepts that will be most beneficial to me while working here in the hospitals of Guatemala. While, at times, it can be frustrating because I am learning Spanish from a native Spanish-speaker who knows very little English, unlike how it would be taught in public schools in the United States, it has really encouraged me to become more disciplined in my studies so that I can progress quickly to be able to speak with the people of Guatemala.
Unlike last week, the afternoons, following Spanish class, have been jammed pack with outreach programs in the local area! Before leaving the States, my peers and I were assigned a project topic of either hand hygiene or nutrition/oral health. Myself and three others were designated to prepare a charla (informal talk in Spanish) on hand hygiene for children in the nearby villages. So far, we have traveled to Vuelta Grande, San Pedro las Huertas, and San Miguel Duenas teaching children and their mothers about the importance of hand hygiene and nutrition/oral health through interactive games and a question-response format talk. Each location has come with its own challenges and brought on new viewpoints regarding global health. For example, the charla in Vuelta Grande, a municipality comprised almost entirely of indigenous Mayan individuals, was paired with a jornada (small medical clinic). The clinic was performed by our advisor, Dr. Larson, along side another licensed medical professional. Over 35 patients walked from their homes, many of which are constructed of tin sheets and dirt floors, to visit the doctor for varying illnesses (parasites, influenza, pregnancy complications, etc.). During the clinic, it was the role of my peers and I to serve as “pharmacy assistants” (handing out free medication prescribed by the doctor), entertain the children with balloons, talk to patients about their questions, and conduct informational games. It is truly remarkable to see groups of families walk down from the mountain ecstatic to see a doctor, a very rare occurrence in a desolate village.
On the days we do not perform charlas and jornadas, we typically head to Casa Jackson Hospital, located on the outskirts of Antigua, for a morning or afternoon nursing shift. Casa Jackson is a rehabilitation center for malnourished children that currently staffs two full-time nurses and is home to eighteen children and fifteen mothers (three children without mothers). Both the kids and mothers live at the facility full-time until the staff at Casa Jackson decides they have reached a stage of recovery that can be maintained at home. While in Casa Jackson, it is our role to predominantly serve as caregivers to the children without mothers, because without volunteers they are treated like chores in the facility rather than children.
Having the opportunity to work with children abroad is truly a dream come true and one day (if my Spanish improves), I hope to become an international nurse and work in various parts of the world serving underdeveloped countries.
Life in Antigua, Guatemala may not look like that traditional study abroad “vacation” of sitting and relaxing in the sun and dining at 5-star restaurants, but it has truly been such a humbling experience that I would not trade for the world. Talking with children, developing connections with the native people, and providing meals and dental care to underserved populations makes this trip a once in a lifetime opportunity.
I am currently writing from the balcony of our guest house overlooking an active volcano, while I listen to Spanish music from the restaurant next door. WHAT! Pinch me please. I am living out a dream while here in Antigua, Guatemala and I’m only on day four of the adventure.
The days so far have been filled with sunny skies, 75 degrees, and a constant breeze (despite the occasional afternoon shower) – absolute perfection … and they get this weather year around! Upon arriving, my peers and I navigated through customs and then were immediately greeted by our host organization, La Union Spanish School. Leaving the airport, we rode on a bus to our guest house and at once, I immediately encountered culture shock because I was paired with a Spanish-speaking “bus buddy” native to Antigua. The hour bus ride was exhilarating (to say the least) as we quickly moved between lanes, dodged stray animals, attempted to talk to our “bus buddies” in Spanish (reminder, I only know hola up to this point), as well as took in the various sights (surprisingly including countless Mcdonalds and Little Cesars Pizza, along with many other restaurants and businesses).
Eventually, my classmates and I arrived safely at La Union, where we will be staying for the next twenty-one days. We were greeted with showers of love and hospitality, including the most delicious bowl of fresh fruit, yogurt with granola, and juice. The rest of the day consisted of more delicious food and sightseeing in what would be our new home for the next month. Some of my favorite things thus far have included seeing the various vendors and markets located throughout the city of Antigua – many of the main streets are lined with bargainers selling their local and handmade goods, especially to tourists, because Antigua is a very cosmopolitan city for Guatemala (much like Raleigh would be for North Carolina). To buy items at these markets, one must pay in Quetzals, the name of the Guatemalan currency. Therefore, on the second day, I ventured to the bank with my mentor, Dr. Larson, to exchange my dollars for Quetzals (about $1 = 7 Quetzals).
To progress our cultural understandings, every morning, from 8am-12pm, my peers and I engage in Spanish lessons with a personalized teacher. My teacher’s name is Ana Lucia, and she is very sweet, but more importantly, extremely patient with me and my lack of ability to speak Spanish. Up to this point, our lessons have been simple, but she has grand expectations, and I know the rigor will be increasing as the days progress.
However, the afternoons have consisted of much less structure in comparison to the mornings. Typically, after class, everyone returns for lunch and has a few hours of rest time (or an opportunity to practice their Spanish). Then, because we have yet to start our volunteering at the local villages and hospital, our group has engaged in more of the sightseeing and tourists’ activities. For example, yesterday we went the Bodega, which is like an American Walmart, yet upon entry we locked all our belongings in a locker before walking around the two-story building and eventually paying with Quetzals (but no plastic bags nor receipts are given in Guatemala).
Today, we hiked Cerro De La Cruz, an “elevated hill” (which is really an understatement considering its 300 steps) that holds a stone-cross with the most beautiful views of historical Antigua. Not only was the view absolutely breathtaking, but the hike was internally so fulfilling as I was captivated by such gratitude at the opportunity to be in Antigua upon reaching the top.
With that being said, these first few days have been fantastic to say the least. I am certainly still adapting to the culture (no toilet paper in the toilets, beans and rice for breakfast, Spanish EVERYTHING, fanny pack always attached to the hip, and waking up with the crows of the roosters to name a few), but I have loved getting the privilege to experience Guatemala and all that it has to offer. I am very eager to begin working in the villages and in the local hospital, supplying care for malnourished children, but until then, I will continue to take in the vista!
Hola Pirates!! My name is Blair (purple shirt), and I am a rising sophomore at ECU majoring in nursing. My peers (also pictured) and I are preparing to leave Raleigh-Durham Airport (RDU) this Sunday, May 15, and head to Antigua, Guatemala with our fearless mentor, Dr. Kim Larson. I cannot wait to take you along with me!
Leading up to the trip, my days have been filled with fast-paced learning, guest speakers, storytelling, movie watching, taste-testing, and lots of packing! My classmates and I had two full days of seminars where we watched El Norte, a Spanish movie detailing the Guatemalan genocide of the early 1980s, read articles and presented about the concerns of child stunting and poverty in Guatemala, watched a sociodrama performed by various professors, and tried Mexican tamales (masa or corn dough wrapped around a filling of your choice and steamed in a corn husk). And may I add, they were absolutely delicious!!
While in Antigua, I will be staying in a guest house that has five bedrooms, a kitchen, and a shared space (oh and a personal chef ? – imagining the guacamole now). In the mornings, I will be enrolled in Spanish classes at La Union Spanish School, taught by a one-on-one teacher, who will hopefully have enough patience to help me expand my vocabulary beyond hola and adios. Then, in the afternoons, we will travel to Casa Jackson Hospital for Malnourished Children where my peers and I will promote hand hygiene, oral health, and nutrition to the children of Guatemala. Personally, I am most excited about this part of the trip because I will have the opportunity to put my understanding of health and Spanish knowledge, despite minimal, into action. Over half of my suitcase is already filled with toothbrushes, toothpaste, and soap to be able to distribute to the children of Guatemala at Casa Jackson Hospital.
Overall, I am beyond excited for this opportunity, but it will certainly be a cultural adjustment! One of the hardest things I had to do in preparation to leave was shop for clothes. As a foreigner, it is very important that my classmates and I model the dress of the indigenous people groups (no shorts, no leggings, no ripped jeans, and no revealing clothing to just name a few of my mentors’ requirements). By doing so, we not only better “fit-in,” but also show the utmost respect and recognize the importance of their cultural differences. While my wardrobe will certainly not be what I am used to, I am excited to embrace every aspect of Guatemala while there for the next three weeks! Stay tuned for more updates upon our arrival as we get settled in the coming days. Until then…