"Guatemala? Where exactly is that?"

Trip Start Jan 02, 2009
Trip End Jun 29, 2009

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Flag of Canada  , Saskatchewan,
Tuesday, December 30, 2008

    Firstly, if you'd like to contact me while I'm away it's best to use my email that I'll be checking fairly regularly: jdn719@mail.usask.ca . You can comment on my blogs and pictures but it's better to email me directly. I'll be checking Facebook every so often too. Keep in mind, though, that I'll probably be pretty busy and immersed in life in Guatemala, so please don't inundate me with emails! Thanks.

      I've waited years for this. Patiently at times, not so patiently at others. And not specifically this trip to Guatemala, no. What I've waited for is the life-changing experience of travel, again. I first traveled outside Canada in 2004, when I went on a missions trip to Mexico. Somewhere down there I must have caught a travel bug. Right before graduation from high school I was torn between either going to university or backpacking around the world for an indefinite amount of time. Obviously, I chose to move to Saskatoon and go to university. Regardless of whether or not I would've made a different decision looking back on it, I'm just over half way through my degree and I'm preparing to leave for Guatemala on a study abroad. 

     Among the questions I've been asked - "Where's Guatemala?", "What language do they speak there?", "Are you going for a vacation? They must have nice resorts," - a couple have been the most challenging, and they're questions I've been asking myself for a solid 6 months: "Why are you going?" and, "What are you hoping to find down there?"

     What I'm embarking on initially is a four month semester of classes, language study, and travel. I'll be staying with a family who most likely won't speak any English and will likely live a fairly typical Guatemalan life in Antigua (note: Antigua's not like the rest of Guatemala). My Spanish class, which goes for 8 weeks and is two hours a day, will be one on one with someone who most likely won't speak any English. Classes cover topics involving Guatemala and Central America: political studies, economics, geography, and international studies. Classes, I'm expecting, should be great. Plans for field trips and group travel haven't been confirmed yet, but we should be visiting a lot of places that a lot of tourists wouldn't normally go.

    Guatemala is an amazing, paradoxical, divided, and changing place. From the ancient Mayan ruins to the largely government perpetrated genocide of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Guatemala seems to have been home to things only reserved for fiction and imagination. Environmentally, the country seems to be as diverse as Canada, but fit into the size of, like, New Brunswick. Guatemala is perhaps most famous for, besides Tikal, it's Mayan population. At around 50-60% of the population, Mayan society is alive, vibrant, active, and dynamic. For that matter, for many people in Guatemala it is society. Together with the Mayan population are a couple other ethnic/cultural/racial groups: the Ladinos and the Garifuna. The Garifuna are a relatively small group mostly located on the east coast and are pretty obviously descendants of and expats from the slave islands (the Caribbean): they're black, Spanish, and often mixed with other European blood (and Mayan?). The Ladinos came about with the mixing of Mayan and Spanish blood. At this point, nearly everyone of Guatemala is at least partly Ladino. Where the real divide exists is between Ladino (let's just say Western/Modern) society and Mayan society, and those who (choose too?) lives those types of lives.

     As you'd probably expect, Guatemala is a very underdeveloped, impoverished nation. And like most underdeveloped nations, Guatemala has an incredibly fascinating history as to why such poverty, inequality, and injustice exists. I'll defer you to Wikipedia for general Guatemalan history, but I can assure you Guatemala has a rich, deep, violent, oppressive, and hard-to-believe history at times. This all makes Guatemala an exceptionally interesting place to experience. 

     Anyways, back to the questions filled with utter profundity: why am I going to Guatemala?! Off the top of my head, I have a few answers that I've sort of outlined here: Guatemala's a really interesting, beautiful place; the study abroad program was especially accessible for me, with classes and the like; it was cheaper than Europe; it's off the beaten track but not completely. Now, as to why I'm really doing this, the answers might be a little more complicated. This trip, for me, is not a vacation or a chance to "get away from it all". Of course, I'll have loads and loads of fun and have many new experiences, but that's not my motivation for going.

     Perhaps I can best illustrate what I'm trying to say by using my first travel experience, Mexico in 2004. Before departing, I didn't really know where we were going and necessarily what it was all about. I knew that our group was going to be building a house and "helping people out", but little beyond that. What I'd hoped for, though, I remember clearly. I had hoped to be exposed to life as millions upon millions of people knew it; that is, impoverished, disenfranchised, indebted, sickly, and without choice. In many ways, that's what I'd found in Vicente Guerrero, Mexico, over our trip. The trip was immensely formative and world-shaking, that incredible poverty and suffering (ie, Mexico) could simultaneously exist with incredible fortune and favour (ie, my life here in Canada). Together with other influences, the trip prompted me to enter the International Development Studies program at the U of S.

     So maybe this is what I'm looking for, an experience similar to my one in Mexico. Guatemala, I'm sure, will "open my eyes". But honestly, I've already had my eyes opened. That's not necessarily what I'm going for, to have my hair blown back. I'm think I'm looking for something more akin to having my world turned upside down, again. To me, Guatemala is an opportunity to be immersed and surrounded by a real place with real people which experience underdevelopment, poverty, injustice. In a way, I'm pursuing my dreams, but I've only got a vague direction to go on. Many people, some serious and some not, have said I will not return the same person. Honestly, that's exactly what I'm hoping for.

Jay Nichvolodov

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Herber on

Guatemala is a developing country... but life it's quite different.
And people are so nice and friendly!
You have to love the people more than physical richness... that's what makes of Guatemala a cool place to visit or even live in.

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