Day 1: Travel. Traveling. And More Traveling.
We started our day at 2 AM in chilly Philadelphia. I was very excited and nervous for the trip ahead. I had traveled before but never out of the U.S. Landing in Guatemala felt amazing. The air was hot and people were standing everywhere. I saw kids running around on the street and dogs laying around. Meeting Lupe for the first time in person felt so comforting. She had a way about her that made us feel like we belonged. Our first destination --> PANAJACHEL...after a very long couple hours in the bus, we finally arrived to the Rancho Grande Inn. This was paradise.
The bungalow type rooms were extraordinarily cute. The green grass, red doors, kitty (which was given the name Biscuits), and the massive spider I found in the shower made me realize that I was actually very far away from home and in paradise finally.
During dinner time, we got to walk around the town and explore the streets. The streets were not dirty. People were everywhere, walking up and down the streets, carrying several supplies on their backs or heads, and riding motorcycles all over the place. It was very refreshing to see so many people living and working together in one area. People weren't fighting or being confrontational, something that may be seen all over the U.S. Everyone seemed to be working together to make a living. I was actually very surprised to see so many foreigners in Panajachel. It is easy to spot out foreigners because we dress so casual and laid back compared to other cultures.
Question of the day: Do the people of Panajachel like having so many foreigners around? (and not only because they provide an income)
The boat ride was very relaxing. We all sat and stared at the waters and surrounding mountains the entire time. Once we reached the other side of the lake, we were greeted by lots of people. Walking up the street, now that was the real trek. I loved the architecture of the town and all the colors that surrounded the houses. When we finally made it to the coffee plantation, I thought I was in heaven. I drink coffee every morning and maybe 2-3 times more after that. I was very excited to learn about the coffee bean and the process of making coffee to drink.
The tour took us around the plantation and we got to see first hand the trees that the coffee grows on, how they are taken care of and the variety of beans that grow on different trees. The plantation was huge. Can't say I didn't break a sweat walking around!! Once we got back to the main area of the plantation, we were able to see the process of how the beans are left out in the sun, how they are cleaned and de-shelled and finally the grinding process of the beans. I never realized how much work went into cultivating coffee beans. When we were able to taste the coffee during our delicious lunch, I felt very grateful. Making coffee takes weeks and weeks of hard work. I have much more appreciation when I drink coffee multiple times a day.
The coffee plantation was formed through hard work from a group of people that wanted to provide for their families. Hearing the story of how it began firsthand was mesmerizing. Something that began as a small investment, turned into a huge profit for the families that started the plantation and business of exporting the coffee. Coffee is something that is used in just about every part of the world. When people come together and put their ideas forward and work as a team, the success rate is huge. Although some of the people didn't start with a lot of money, they put their confidence in the business and made something happen.
Question of the day: How many people depend on the coffee plantation to sustain their life?
Day 3: ZIPPING DOWN A MOUNTAIN
Once we got all our equipment on, it was time to hike the mountain. The bridges were wobbly and we had to go over a few. But once we reached the first zip line, I was very excited. We were up so high that it looked like we could possibly be on top of the world at this point. Once it was my turn, it was an experience. I got a bit scared when my body started facing the wrong way or so it felt that way. I felt like I was flying through the air! Looking at the lake on my left side was so neat. After 2 or 3 zip lines, we were forced to climb a very steep hill. I had a little moment to my self when I was halfway up because I felt so hot and my throat was so dry. I sat on a bench and just looked out into the open. Even though I felt like I was dying, I couldn't believe that I was zip-lining in Guatemala.
These wooden planks were our final test of the zip-lining challenge. After finishing the challenge, I took all my gear off and felt so much lighter. And sweatier! I could finally cross zip-lining off my bucket list! There were 2 men who were constantly with us helping us zip-line. Before taking off on one of them, I was able to have a small conversation with one of the guys. He asked me what I was studying in school and when I would graduate. I felt like he was happy to be able to talk to someone, even though I could only communicate with a small amount of Spanish. He seemed to really enjoy this job, it was an adventure to him! The natural reserve was very well taken care of and it was nice to see it being protected. Animals were able to have a life alongside humans. The people working at the natural reserve loved what they did, as one could tell from how well-kept the area was!
Question of the day: How much work does it take to care for the land in the natural reserve?
Day 4: Cement goes a long way!
The previous day was the first time we had all visited the Xela community in which we would be building stoves for 7 families. Being greeted by the Mayan woman was so welcoming and heartfelt. They made us feel right at home, offering us flowers as gifts for the job we came to do. I couldn't have been more proud to have traveled so far and help a family in need. Rich, Win and I were assigned the home of Consuela Velasquez. Walking into her home, I was amazed. There were 2 beds, a dresser and a place to store food in a corner. The bathroom was just a hole nearby outside and that was about it. What I considered a home was so different than what it was in the Xela community. I felt grateful for the things I had and appreciated being able to live in the United States.
We had 2 days to build the stoves. We worked together as a team and tried our best to make the stove perfect. Following the measurements perfectly was challenging at times. The daughter of the household was very helpful. She mixed the cement when we got to her house and whenever we needed more. Every woman and child we met in the community was so nice to us and helped us whenever we needed something, even if a language barrier existed.
Not being able to finish the stove building was saddening. Rich, Win and I tried to finish all that we could with the time we had left but we were sadly taken from the house when we had to leave. I know the mason's would finish the stove and 2 days later we got to see the finished project, but I wanted to be able to give something completed to the Velasquez family. I know it was appreciated as to what we had finished! Being able to participate in something like this was an experience I will never forget.
This community compared to what my hometown was like was completely different. This community was far away from a big city and the people had to provide for themselves living so far away. Farmland stretched all throughout and a few small stores were open in the community. Most of what I saw in the stores were small bags of junk food that I would see the kids eating. Farm animals were spread around the homes, consisting of goats, sheep, horses, cows and chickens. The chickens and their chicks would walk around the community, while the kids played in the dirt streets. All the dirt that the families had to live with was bewildering. I felt like nothing could be kept completely clean, especially the people who had to walk all day on the dirt roads. I didn't see any medical services nearby the community which was another thing that I found shocking. Immediate help was probably almost never available because most people walked everywhere and barely had the money to pay for health-related reasons. Getting back to the hotel after the long day always consisted of me cleaning my nose for 5 minutes and seeing so much dirt stuffed in my nostrils. The Xela community probably never noticed such things.
Question of the day: Do children of the Xela community typically stay in the home and find a husband to take care of them or is there a way for them to get an education and pursue a meaningful career?
Day 5: FIRE SHINE SO BRIGHT!
The Mayan Fire Ceremony is something that I will never forget. It was an experience that I was happy to be apart of. I didn't feel like I HAD to do it, I wanted to engage in something that was important to the Mayan culture. The Fire ceremony made me feel a variety of ways. Especially thinking of loved ones and people who had passed in my life. I cried during the ceremony because my grandma came to mind. She passed very suddenly 2 years ago. She lived in California and I was going for the first time in about 3-4 years to see her and she passed away the day before I was set to leave. It was a very emotional time for my family and especially my mom. I was able to be apart of a prayer for her when I arrived and joined my family. Like this fire ceremony, it had meant very much.
Religion is a big part of the Mayan culture. Since I am not a religious person and do not follow a structured way of thinking, I found the fire ceremony to be free and I was able to connect on a spiritual level. It felt like I was doing something right and I felt very happy being apart of it. The fire ceremony was important because I got to understand the Mayan culture a little more. The 4 large candles used in the ceremony represent the 4 directions and the ancestors. We got to toss candles into the fire pit when we felt a prayer was important to us. Releasing that energy was very powerful.
It is very difficult sometimes to wrap my head around the life that I have and have been provided for. After the ritual, I was even more grateful for my mom. I don't tell her I appreciate her as much as I should. She has provided me with such an amazing life and I have been able to gain many experiences because of her. She is such a strong woman, with being a single mother and raising 4 kids. I felt very good about my life and the people I love and the ones that love me back.
Question of the day: When did the Mayans begin the fire ceremony and is it still done the same as it was back then?
Day 6: NAKED DOGHOUSE SAUNA!
Although the "sauna" ritual we got to apart of was nothing like I imagined, it was still amazing to be apart of it. I have noticed over and over again how much the community works together to make something happen. At the start of the ritual, all the woman from the community participate. One woman provided us with her home in which we were able to get changed and lay in the beds after the ritual. Woman were standing outside with towels and blankets, where they covered us when we came out of the sauna so that we would not get cold. The experience was very intimate but I did not feel uncomfortable at all. The rubbing of the skin with the hot water is supposed to help with lactation purposes for a woman who has given birth. A fire was burning inside what I called a big doghouse, boiling water. There was a wooden pellet where we were told to lay. There were 2 midwives in the sauna who splashed hot water on my body and rubbed it in all over. The ritual was over before I knew it and I was wrapped in towels and blankets and cocooned in a bed drinking a herbal tea. This experience was so new and almost felt like it hadn't happened because it was something I had never done before. Something I will never ever forget. Especially when I crawled out of the sauna with no top on and laid in bed with 5 other naked girls and Rich!!
It is not common in the United States to find woman practicing rituals like these. People have much more confidence in medicine (plus much more money) and the help of hospitals to heal them. The sauna provides a natural way for woman who have given birth to heal their bodies and promote nutrients and food for their babies. They believe in these rituals and have much confidence in their family and community to help each other get well.
Something surprising about today was when I was checking in the members of the community, most had ailments that have been occurring for many years. I think it had a lot to do with their way of living their day to day lives. For example, many had stomach pain. When I see the woman eating, they sit on dirt floors and eat with their hands. There are flies all around them while they eat too. The way they live affects their health but this is the way they were brought up and most likely do not think it is a problem.
Question of the day: What more can be done to help produce better health outcomes for the Mayan woman in the Xela community?
Day 7: CHOQUE DE AZUCAR
Preparing for today was exciting. The night before Parth, Melanie, JT, Khyati and I all prepared a poster for the children and woman of the Xela community. The poster focused on an interactive activity that explained what sugar was and why it is important to the body. Also the side effects of what too much sugar may cause to the body. A variety of drinks were laid out on a table and the children and women of the community had to guess how much sugar was in the bottle by scooping up spoonfuls of sugar into a cup. After they guessed, we showed them the actual amount. Most were shocked to find out that just about everything had triple the amount of sugar! I thought this interactive game was very informative. The community was able to learn something that they had no idea about. Sugar can be an enemy, especially when a diet consists of foods and drinks with added sugar.
It seems that the Xela community is unaware of the consequences from the bad food they get from the stores and the snacks they allow their children to eat. On the days we were in the community, I noticed the children snacking on various chips and drinking sugary drinks. Even though they got a lot of exercise, it is still bad for their health if that is what they put into their bodies on a daily basis. It may be a cheap alternative to healthier foods, but it is never a good thing to teach children to eat poorly at a young age.
Something surprising about today is that during the sugar shock game, most of the women did not know that soda is one of the worst things one can drink. Sugar is hidden within the carbonation and by drinking a full bottle of it, one consumes over 10 spoonfuls of sugar. This can lead to diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity and tooth decay. By being aware of the consequences before damage can be done, the women can teach their children to stop drinking these drinks and only have them on special occasions.
Question of the day: What is a cheap alternative the Xela community can purchase that is healthy and provides many nutrients for the mothers and her children?
Day 7-9: ANTIGUA-THE MOTHERLAND!
Making the bus ride to Antigua was very exhausting. The bus ride felt very long and since I had been battling some GI disturbance, the only thing that seemed to help was sleeping. When I woke up in Antigua, I was amazed. It was breath-taking! The streets were beautiful! It seemed like we were in a completely different country. The cobblestone is what made it stand out. Although not ideal to walk on, it was unique to the town.
What I really noticed during the last few days in Antigua, is how close we all got on the trip. It was coming down to the last day and I wasn't ready to leave. I felt like I got to connect with everyone, whether it be by salsa dancing or building a stove together. We all got along and worked together so well. I was going to miss my friends once I had to go back home.
Like the various groups of people we met throughout our trip, I noticed something. Even though we may not have known each other in the beginning of the trip, by the end we were all inseparable. We wanted to work together to make things possible. The Mayan people that we met showed this to us everywhere. They worked hard for what they had and worked hard to make things possible for themselves and their families. It was something that I would never forget. I am grateful for the experience I was able to have with the people that came on this trip with me and the people I met on our 9 day journey!