Thursday, December 8, 2016

Week Four in Guatemala: Many Memories Still To Be Made

Day 23

Gapsters Entering El Sitio For Their Final Class

Our final week in Guatemala marked the end of our traditional classroom gatherings at El Sitio. The last class consisted of discussion centered around course materials and shared experiences in the field as they related to academic themes from the semester. A few of the conversational topics in our final class once again circled back around to issues of power dynamics, marginalization and oppression, social justice issues, and how one chooses to respond to the various social and environmental injustices we have been exposed to throughout the semester -- but certainly, here in Guatemala. More pointedly, Dr. Fredrickson stressed the importance of cultivating a well-balanced and reasoned perspective on how to address these injustices, stating that as young adults, they need to become more actively engaged in their analysis of news and media information. Particularly in this age of instant gratification and having access to multiple information sources at one's fingertips, Dr. Fredrickson emphasized the necessity of becoming more critical consumers of the news. The group was urged to consider that every news source usually has some level of bias, and that as modern-day learners, we must acknowledge the presence of biases, become confident in our viewpoints, and be able to substantiate our positions with solid, reputable facts. We were further encouraged to analyze the rapid explosion of social media, including an analysis of our personal investments in the techno-sphere. The overabundance of news sources on social media that are not founded on factual evidence challenges each user to determine whether the news source is legitimate or illegitimate. With this overabundance of news sources and instantaneous information, we were confronted with the harsh reality that we cannot be lackadaisical about our news consumption. We were introduced to the idea of 'fact checking' as a countermeasure to this passive habit of assuming the legitimacy of all information on the Internet as being sound and true. 

Gapsters "Cutting A Rug" At A Local Studio

As welcome relief to a class full of weighty discussion, a handful of students participated in salsa lessons at a local dance studio, willfully immersing themselves in a piece traditional Guatemalan culture. Natalie, Bry, Claire, Alexis and Nathaniel shamelessly shared their moves with Martin and the other salsa instructors. After class, and salsa lessons, we headed to the guest house for a pizza dinner celebration and bonfire with s'mores as a thank you to our host families for their generosity and hospitality during the previous two weeks. Many students expressed appreciation for being able to spend their final night with host families in such a light-hearted, carefree way. Conversation between the farmers, their families, and our students was filled with memories and gratitude from the past few weeks. 

Day 24

Day 24 began with a traditional tamale workshop led by Thelma Gonzalez. Tamales are a corn-based dough mixed with tomato sauce and veggies or chicken, individually prepared, wrapped, and boiled until served. The tamales are wrapped in two separate leaves. The first leaf comes from the banana tree, used to enhance the tamale's flavor. The second leaf, mashan, speeds the cooking process, and holds the tamale's form. Conversation with farmers at dinners and workshops lead students to the understanding that this traditional dish is a staple in many Guatemalan Christmas, birthday, and New Year celebrations. One farmer stated that in preparation for Christmas, she makes and sells over 700 tamales, all in two days. Each family we spoke with regarding holiday tradition stated that they recognize the new year by eating a tamale at midnight, ensuring that the first day of the year is spent in conversation and community with each other.

Nate And Bryanna Preparing Tamales

Freshly Wrapped Tamale - Before The Cooking Stage

This workshop, similar to the pepian workshop from week two, graced our students with the opportunity to work alongside local co-op farmers preparing their own meal, while gaining valuable insight into the lengthy tamale preparation process. Spending half of the day creating and consuming a traditional Guatemalan meal with one of the cooperative farmers allowed our students the opportunity to revisit the concept of accompaniment from last week's material.

Day 25

Glimpse of Lake Petén Just Outside Flores

Today's change in scenery came after a character-building 13-hour bus ride from San Miguel Escobar to Isla de Flores in Lake Petén. Before taking off, the Gapsters were encouraged to "unplug" and be conscious of their surroundings both inside the van and out. During the cross-country trip, students were making connections to scenic themes discussed in class. The first scenic connection was an old Kaibil sign. Appearing in the course textbook Silence on the Mountain, we learned that the Kaibil military group was responsible for wartime atrocities during the civil war, included kidnapping, torture, and murder. The second connection made came after the identification of grid patterned hillside communities. According to Buried Secrets author Victoria Sanford, these grid communities were first implemented by the Guatemalan military as "model-villages" during the internal conflict. Additionally, our bus driver informed us that many Guatemalans were displaced because of regular volcanic activity, creating a need to more efficiently use space within cities. The bus ride certainly tested our stamina, but the students stated that the intensity and duration of the trip was well worth being able to analyze Guatemala's scenery, relating their observations back to course readings.

Day 26

Laura And Morgan Looking Over The Ixpanpajul Canopy

Day 26 was a highly anticipated free day, giving students a chance to explore Flores, catch up on sleep and homework, and make connections with loved ones back home. Some students explored Cueva de la Serpiente (Cave of the Serpent), some took a boat to Jorge's Rope Swing for swimming and rope-assisted acrobatics, some took a shuttle to Ixpanpajul National Park, and others wandered the streets of Flores visiting shops, restaurants, and local hang-out spots. Cueva de la Serpiente was home to a system of limestone chambers filled with stalagmite and stalactite formations, wet ceilings and floors, bats, and happy students.

Entering "Cave Of The Serpent"

Jorge's Rope Swing is an internationally known hot spot that offers a unique swimming experience on Lake Petén. For ten quetzales, each student was able to use the rope for as long as they desired. Students had hangtime competitions and splash contests to keep their rope swing and swimming experience as entertaining as possible. Ixpanpajul Natural Park offered jungle canopy zip lining, horseback riding, and suspension bridges. Our group decided to go on the suspension bridge hike, where toucans and howler monkeys were alive and active.

Sunset On Lake Petén Returning From Jorge’s Rope Swing

Day 27

Carlos Explains The Development Of Mayan Water Reservoirs 

Driving through an entrance arch inspired by ancient Mayan architecture, Tikal National Park welcomes its visitors with curvy roads thickly surrounded by exotic plant life, signs warning of crossing wildlife, heavy humid air, and a sense of natural grandeur that evokes unbearable anticipation. After parking, applying sunscreen, and the arguably necessary bug spray, students were lead to the welcome lobby where we were shown a to-scale three dimensional depiction of the park as it appeared before the arrival of Spanish colonizers. Our tour guide Carlos was born in the only remaining village that existed during the peak of the Mayan . Through connections and networking, Carlos became a tour guide for Tikal National Park, working as the primary liaison for National Geographic visits, restorations, and some excavations. His connection with the village and the Mayan ruin site at Tikal has made him an invaluable source of knowledge for individuals and organizations looking to further their understanding of ancient Mayan history. We were incredibly fortunate to have such a superb tour guide.

Family Of Coatimundis Searching For Breakfast 

Our walking time between ruins and points of interest were made special by friendly encounters with coatimundis, and sightings of spider monkeys, toucans, and other unidentifiable jungle birds. Our stops at various temples, altars, courtyards, and residences coupled with a constant flow of knowledge from Carlos substantiated claims and evidence surrounding the advanced nature of Mayan culture, science, and architecture. Two of our students favorite examples of this advanced society were the Mayan method of teaching astrology, and their indescribable ability to create a main plaza that gave birth to the name we now use to reference the ruined city -- Tikal. Students learned that Mayans created a water channeling system that allowed wilful flooding and draining of entire plazas to reflect the night sky. Because there were so many stars, and because they were difficult to distinguish by merely pointing up, teachers and students would stand in the flooded plaza, where teachers would use sticks to point out stars in the water's reflection, rather than trying to describe patterns by pointing to the sky. Secondly, students learned that the word Tikal stems from the Mayan word ti ak'al -- our guide told us that, to the Mayans, ti ak'al meant "place of whispers", but was understood by colonists to be pronounced and spelt as Tikal. The label "place of whispers" originated from the main plaza's perfect acoustics that allow individuals to stand on opposite ends of the plaza and engage in a perfectly audible conversation of whispers.

Temple I And The Central Plaza -- Picture Taken From Temple IV

Our students continuously noted the unfortunate destruction of Mayan culture and theory by Spanish colonizers, and the ignorance of Spanish invaders assuming that Mayans were inferior due to certain cultural tendencies. One such tendency was contemplation before response in conversation. Carlos told us that Mayans (and still most traditional Guatemalans) listen to understand, rather than to respond. This lack of cultural acknowledgement by the Spanish further encouraged our students to be cognizant of cultural differences when interacting with others. Our time in Tikal ended with another temple climb that allowed us a fantastic canopy view of the Tikal jungle, Temple I, and Temple IV.

Temples I And IV Peek Above The Canopy

Day 28

Day 28 started at 12:01 a.m. on a closed down highway en route to San Miguel Escobar. The Gap crew waited for 2 hours while road construction took place. It certainly wasn't the most exciting part of the trip, but it was a certainly a memorable example of what many Guatemalans experience when traveling to Guatemala City and throughout the country. After arriving to La Casona in San Miguel, the Gapsters went to bed, ready for a full night sleep before a free day meant to give students an opportunity to pack, work on papers, and decompress after a long weekend at Tikal. The evening of our free day was taken up by an activity known as Hot Seat/Love Seat. The purpose of this activity was to create an atmosphere of constructive and positive feedback relating to the students semester as a whole. Students shared their opinions on individuals growing edges, and what they appreciated most about having individuals be a part of the cohort. The feedback shared in this activity was meant to be a constructive way of contributing to the individual development and growth of each student. The day before our departure, the cohort ate dinner together at a lovely in-home restaurant where we conducted the final evening meeting of the semester. Students shared their favorite memories from the semester, and shared one last meal before setting off for campus.

This semester has provided our students with countless gifts and blessings. The knowledge, experience, memories, and relationships made throughout the course of this program will stay with our students for the rest of their lives. In the spirit of the Gap Experience Mission, we hope that through this literature, you have gained a glimpse of the experiential service learning our 2016 cohort encountered, motivating you to be a part of the advocacy we attempt to create in our students. With continual exposure to culture, and regular contemplation of that culture, we hope to create a future generation of students that truly advocate for intellectual development, and cultural understanding. This years group certainly brought their A game. Thank you for your support of this years Gap cohort!

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