Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Week Three: Land of the Eternal Spring

Day 16

The Gapsters kicked off our third week in Guatemala with a return to Los Patojos school. Once again, we were reminded of how the school creates an environment that fosters development through education and play, rather than through drugs and gang involvement. In class, we have been learning about the theory of accompaniment that was originally proposed by Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez and Dr. Paul Farmer. The topic of accompaniment was particularly relevant to our class conversations revolving around Los Patojos, because the theory is centered in mutuality; we learn as much from those we are with as they learn from us. Our interactions with the children through sports, art, and music gave us the opportunity to impact each other’s lives through simple acts of relationship building, rather than through traditional service (e.g. building homes for Habitat for Humanity). As Paul Farmer wrote, “The process is humbling, since there is always an element of temporal and experiential mystery, of openness, in accompaniment.” These words were especially relevant when pondering the language barriers our students had to overcome while at Los Patojos. Instead of participating in service that does not require intentional interaction with those we were accompanying (such as serving/preparing meals or fixing houses), we embraced the universal language of love in accordance with the mission of Los Patojos. This language of love went above and beyond the necessity of verbal conversation. It forced us to use creativity, supplementing a lack of verbal communication with our actions and feelings.

Gapsters Playing Alongside The Children Of Los Patojos

During class, we had a debate on the positive and negative effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA). NAFTA was first implemented as a way to open trade routes between Canada, the United States, and Mexico. In theory, this trade agreement would allow goods and services to flow freely across national borders, thereby eliminating the import and export tariffs previously imposed on goods crossing national borders. The thought was by eliminating export taxes for goods being produced in Mexico, individual citizens would benefit because they would get a higher price for their goods when exporting them to developed countries such as the United States. Realistically, the agreement saw large corporations receiving benefits that greatly outnumbered those of small businesses or individuals. The aftermath of FTAA was similar to that of NAFTA. Developed countries were now able to outsource cheap labor in developing countries, eventually lowering wage standards, and monopolizing industries that effectively hindered the sustainability of small businesses.

Day 17

Day seventeen began with a tour of Guatemala City's National Palace of Culture. The Palace was constructed in 1943 under the order of Jorge Ubico, to serve as Guatemala's governmental headquarters. Ubico was an oppressive leader that mandated inhumane labor requirements for the unemployed, and forced prisoners to construct his grandeur Palace. Upon entering this massive space, we were easily swayed by the extravagant two and a half ton chandelier, finely crafted doors and pillars, the brilliantly polished floors, and a 24 carat gold ceiling. Further analysis of this lavish spending during a time of civil turmoil and governmental corruption lead to a more focused perspective on The Palace's questionable origins.

Chandelier Imported From New York Hanging In The Palace's Ambassador Hall

Coincidentally, we were at a point in our course material, specifically the course text Silence on the Mountain, that emphasized the Guatemalan government's desire to appear wealthy so as to maintain foreign investment fueling political efforts. The Palace was simply a reinforcement of the misrepresentation of Guatemala’s wealth. After continuing our tour, we stopped at the reception hall where a series of stained-glass windows displayed the ten values of Guatemalan government: progress, peace, labor, liberty, justice, honesty, concord, order, institute, and fortitude. We found it interesting that the building housed windows representing the moral values of the Guatemalan government that directly contradicted the government's actions during the civil war.

Stain Glass Windows Displaying Guatemala's Governmental Values

The National Palace has two large patios; one represented peace, and the other represented culture. The Patio of Peace displayed a mural of 29 hands holding up a white rose symbolizing the 28 tribes of indigenous Guatemalans living in harmony with the Spanish. Our tour guide helped us understand that this symbolic depiction was incredibly inaccurate. During the Spanish colonization, discrimination and targeting of indigenous peoples was overwhelmingly common. Many indigenous lives were lost during the Spanish colonization. The Guatemalan government, to this day, provides economic and social incentives to declare nationality as non-indigenous.

Today's activities exposed some pretty ugly truths in Guatemala's history. In addition to gaining more knowledge on national corruption, we learned about the 1996 Peace Accords signed in The National Palace, which technically ended the thirty-six year civil war. As we know from class discussions and site visits, these agreements have not yet been upheld by the government. No actions have been taken to try those responsible for the human rights violations during Guatemala’s internal war. This lack of accountability by those responsible for wartime atrocities is extremely unsettling for many Guatemalans. Fortunately, groups such as Los Hijos combat the attempts by the Guatemalan government to "overlook" and minimize the government's actions during the brutal civil war. Los Hijos was established by children of genocide victims as a way to not only to raise awareness of the atrocities committed by the government, but the group actively pushes back against the government's denials, attempting to holds those accountable for the human rights abuses that were committed, yet perhaps most poignantly, Los Hijos is committed to keeping the memory of their loved ones alive.

Paulo Leads A Los Hijos Tour Through Guatemala City

Los Hijos is attempting to reclaim public space by displaying victim's pictures and stories on city walls, and spreading their message of accountability by educating through walking tours, parades, museum displays, etc. Los Hijos is keeping the memory of disappeared individuals alive despite the relentless efforts by government to remove the posters from public places, and remove the disappearances from people's memories. By listening to the personal accounts of Paulo and his colleagues at Los Hijos, we now stand in solidarity with Guatemalans still searching for answers. With every group Los Hijos educates, their own mission is reinforced and

One Of The Many Walking Tour Displays Recognizing Guatemala's Disappeared

Days 18 & 19

Wednesday and Thursday, we commuted to Jocotenango to spend time with the children of Los Patojos. Most of our time was spent observing and supporting the students as they practiced for an upcoming talent show. It was uplifting to see how dedicated the children were as they practiced their performance sets many times over. Our applause and cheers were a fantastic trade for the incredible entertainment they excitedly provided for us. Time at Los Patojos was greatly anticipated, and even more so appreciated. How appropriate that our last visit to the school was on Thanksgiving Day!

In class, after our final visit to Los Patojos, we shared reflections on our experiences at The Palace and on our walking tour with Los Hijos. We coupled this debrief with a lesson on public speaking. Each student was required to read their reflection papers aloud to the class, as if they were presenting their reflection at a conference. In congruence with developing speaking skills, the activity allowed students an additional opportunity to process their feelings, thoughts, and concerns after a long day in Guatemala City.

Following class, we headed to the Santa Catalina Arch where we departed for a secret Thanksgiving dinner location. We crammed 22 people into one shuttle van, some on top of each other, to deliver pizza. Wait, what? Yes, we delivered a tasty looking combination pizza to a kindly looking man our way to the mystery destination. After an uphill drive filled with song and laughter, we arrived at Cerro San Cristobal, a farm to table restaurant with a mountainside view of Antigua. After exploring the grounds, and singing "Unwritten" as a group, we sat down for a wonderful dinner of pizza, pasta, nachos, smoothies, and more. When dinner was finished, we went around the table sharing our thank you's and appreciations from the previous year. Many were thankful for family, friends, health, education, the wonderful view, and the opportunity to travel freely. Overall, the students agreed that it was a memorable first thanksgiving away from home.

View Of Volcan De Fuego From Cerro San Cristobal

Day 20

After a wonderful Thanksgiving feast, the cohort split up to participate in artisan workshops. This round, everyone picked a workshop other than the sessions they were a part of last week. Some people crushed peanuts into peanut butter, others sewed together burlap or huipil bags, and some labored at woodworking or ironworking shops. Each student was able to create a keepsake as a reminder of the day's activities. It was a humbling experience to once again see how much work the artisan’s put into developing their hand-crafted products.

Roberto Watches Nate Form His Tray's Frame

Aerial View Of Guatemalan Peanut Butter Processing

Days 21 & 22

The Gap students split into two hiking groups. The first group hiked Pacaya, and the second group conquered Acatenango. On the way to Pacaya, Diego, our interpreter from Old Town Outfitters, showed us a little secret inside the Ring of Fire. There is a specific location on the main highway to Pacaya that creates a magnetic field strong enough to pull vehicles in neutral uphill towards the source of the magnetic energy. After experiencing this nifty science experiment, we set off to Pacaya's entrance point. Upon reaching the summit, we enjoyed a nice surprise of toasted marshmallows. There are two open vents pumping out hot air from magma chambers below the volcano's surface, allowing locals and hungry hikers to make a sweet treat in a unique way.

Pacaya Crew Roasting Marshmallows Over A Volcano Vent

After consuming the whole bag of 'mallows, we walked across a field of volcanic rock leftover from a 2012 lava flow where we visited a tiny stand called "The Lava Store". Because of its location (on an active volcano), the Lava Store was recognized by National Geographic as being one of the world's most unconventional shops. It sold silver earrings, branded coconut shell bracelets, and necklaces/rings/earrings embedded with volcanic rock. After our perusal of The Lava Store, we made a small climb to the top of Pacaya for a lunch of cold cut sandwiches, fresh guacamole, fruit, and aloe water. After, a long descent back to the bottom of the volcano, a relaxing drive back to San Miguel was greatly appreciated.

The Acatenango group hiked over the course of two days, guided by Mara, Oscar, and Rodrigo from Old Town Outfitters. The first portion of Saturday's six hour hike passed through the land of an 83 year old farmer named Don Martin. During the next four hours of the ascent, the group climbed through eroded gullies that was the trail through volcanic soil -- walled in by barbed wire to keep hikers out of the surrounding farmland -- and continued the ascent upward. Eventually the group entered a cloud forest, which was home to moss covered hardwoods, bamboo trees and verdant vibrant plant life. Cloud forest gave way to sparse evergreen forest. The hike was strenuous, and the group reached based camp, which was approximately at 11,700 ft. and there the group stopped to share an evening meal around a roaring campfire before attempting to summit Volcan Acantenango the following morning. 

Sunrise On Acatenango

After a night of rest (but not necessarily sleep), we had a 4 a.m. “voyageur start” reminiscent of our time with Outward Bound. Mara stayed back at base camp while Oscar and Rodrigo motivated us to reach the summit. At one point during the morning ascent we reached a dry section of the volcano where one step up meant two steps sliding back down. This one step forward, two steps back phenomenon was noted by our students as being analogical to systematic oppression discussed in this semester's coursework. After the dry patch, and before reaching the top of Acatenango, Oscar pointed out a crater formed by the volcano's most recent eruption in 1972. Each student stated that the hike's difficulty was no match for the beauty at the pinnacle's top most view. Our first three weeks in Guatemala have tested the students physically, mentally, and emotionally. Check back in next week to see how our final week unfolds!

Summit Of Acatenango


  1. Amazing views only rivaled by fantastic opportunities to learn!

  2. I am totally enjoying the blog and thanks for sharing your experience with us. Be safe and have fun.