Guatemala 2020

I don’t know when I first fell in love with travel. I didn’t leave Canada and the United States until 16, although I did travel quite extensively through my homeland before that. But even before my first trip abroad at 16, I dreamed of going to France. I’ll admit that I held quite a romanticised notion of France in my head, helped along by my beloved Beauty and the Beast. But visiting France along with several other European countries at 16 only whet my appetite. Once I started experiencing other cultures and countries, it seemed like I couldn’t get enough of it. 

Combine this with my passion for education, and teaching overseas seems like a natural fit. But it took a long time to have the right place, right school, right time where I feel certain that this is God’s plan and God’s timing for me, not just my own hopes and dreams. 

So… in case you missed it – in case you didn’t come here via a Facebook post – I am taking a leave of absence from my current job teaching in Canada, and I am moving to Guatemala in the summer of  2020 to teach English at a Christian school outside of Antigua. 

 

To tell you the story of how I got here, I actually want to use something I wrote in 2014. I had just finished the Camino, and I was given the privilege of leading staff devotions with my colleagues as we returned to school in August. (Remember, that means references to the present as you read is 2014!)

 


 

For we walk by faith, not by sight. II Corinthians 5:7

I walked alone through the dawning day as mist swirled around me. It was not quite light enough to see easily yet, and I was carefully searching for arrows that would tell me I was on the right path. In Galicia, the most western province of Spain, mist is commonplace in the early morning. Eventually the sun causes it to disappear, but the first few hours of my day were generally spent in mist. Particularly when I was walking alone, I was aware that a lack of attention might mean missing a turn off the path and result in getting lost somewhere in the Galician countryside.

Often during these misty mornings my mind would turn to Paul’s words in II Corinthians – we walk by faith, not by sight. This was my theme verse for my journey, and it was literally true for parts of the Camino. There were times I would be walking for a while without seeing an arrow or waymark, but trusting that I was still on the right path. Or there would be places where the arrows seemed to point away from the direction that intuitively seemed right. I learned the hard way to follow the arrows. It takes faith to believe that they are leading to the final destination. We cannot see the whole scope of the journey in one view, but we trust that we will get there eventually.

In my personal devotions time about a year and a half ago (context = early 2013), I began praying with urgency to know what God’s plans were for my future – not just the immediate next step, but I longed to know EVERYTHING God has planned for the rest of my years on earth. I am without a doubt a planner. I want to be prepared and equipped. I wanted to know ALL the good things God wants me to do, and what the timeline is for them.

The image I kept receiving from God was of the Good Shepherd leading me, one step at a time, up a rocky mountainside. The way is difficult, and I can’t look up from the path too much as I am walking, because I have to be concerned with where my feet are at present. The path is winding, and I can’t actually see where it is heading beyond the next curve. Plus the Good Shepherd is in front of me, and he is kind of blocking the view.

This was an image that kept returning to my mind throughout my journey this summer. It probably helped that I was actually climbing rocky mountainsides, but I also couldn’t help but think, if I had actually known, at the beginning of the trip, what the whole thing would be like, I wouldn’t have started. I would have given up before I began. Sometimes I think God purposely does NOT reveal everything to us. Walking by faith instead of sight is not a task given to us by a mean-spirited God, but by a heavenly Father who has our best interests at heart as he continues the sanctifying work in our lives. If we knew all the experiences that lay ahead, all the challenges, all the difficulties, would we dare continue?

 


 

I want to pause here from what I wrote back in 2014 to take you through the last year. Actually, let me stay in 2014 for a minute and tell you that even back when I was walking the Camino, living and teaching in another country was a dream of mine. One of the things that I was praying while walking the Camino was that God would give me clarity about when and where and how to do that. I felt a little let down arriving at the cathedral in Santiago without feeling like I had an answer from God. It was after I had dropped off my bag at my hotel, showered, eaten lunch, and returned to the cathedral to pray that I heard the Holy Spirit’s words, “Follow me.” 

Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m trying to do, God! Was my unimpressed response. And God again brought to my mind this vision of the Good Shepherd leading me, but not being able to see more than one next right thing, more than one foot step at a time. 

Fast forward to 2019. I finally felt like God had led me to the right place, the right school, the right time. I had found a school I had actually seen in a country I loved in a place where I was learning the language. It’s a school that cares deeply about educating kids to grow within the Kingdom of God, creating shalom in the lives of the kids and families and teachers. I had met the TEFL department director, visited the school, sung with kids in chapel, sat in on English classes. I could picture myself there. All that remained was actually making the plans. 

A year ago, I started 2019 with a trip with EduDeo to Nicaragua to work for 10 days helping to construct a school classrooms and learning about Christian education in Nicaragua. At one point during the trip, one of my school colleagues very astutely said to me, “So when are you finally going to move to central America and teach somewhere?” Uhhhhhh…  I sort of stuttered, very shocked for a moment. I’m hoping to do that in January of 2020! You see, central American schools generally run from January to October, so my plan had been to start my leave of absence at Christmas break. 

But by March break, I felt like God was saying, “Just wait!” Okay, God… if I still feel like it’s the right place and right school, then what are we waiting for? 

When my principal approached me about staffing changes and taking on the lead teacher role for 2019-2020,  that was an opportunity I was really excited about. And considering that and wanting to finish the year well at John Knox, it seemed clear that the half  year would be in Guatemala instead of at JKCS. I prayed and prayed, and the path seemed to be made clear again. In the summer, I inquired, applied, interviewed, waited… and received word that I was accepted to teach for the partial 2020 year that I was available! 

Labour Day weekend, I went home to tell my parents that I was planning to move to central America and oh yeah I had just been in the hospital two days but hopefully that would all be sorted out soon. After all, none of the doctors I had seen seemed too concerned over my condition.

Enter September, October, and part of November which I can’t even tell as a coherent story because they were a haze of new medication that made me feel awful all the time with at least a weekly visit to the hospital, referral to specialists, or diagnostic test, plus so many blood tests I lost track. My doctor started using the word tumour when talking about a possible diagnosis. I wondered what on earth God could possibly be doing… but I also absolutely experienced the peace that passes understanding. Even now when I think back to those three months, I don’t understand the peace that God provided. And of course now when I think back and imagine having planned to leave in January 2020… well, thank God that his plans and his timing are better than ours. 

By November, I had a diagnosis and awaited a referral to a surgeon. When can I expect surgery? I asked the assistant when I got the news I was officially referred to surgery. Well… consult by spring and surgery by summer, she told me. I asked everyone who knew about my condition to pray for something speedier than that… and was shocked when I had a consult scheduled in two weeks.

Meeting with my surgeon was enlightening as he explained anew all of the details of my condition. He assured me that surgery would actually restore me to health and I would be amazed at how great I would feel. I explained about my plans, and he assured me that I will have surgery before I need to leave and will be able to carry out my plans. I have again experienced God’s peace as I continue to await a surgery date. (Yes, prayers appreciated as I wait for surgery to be scheduled!)

If there’s one thing that I’m certain of moving forward, it’s that things will not always seem clear of where I’m supposed to go and what I’m supposed to do, but the Good Shepherd will continue to lead, one step at a time. And I will follow, even when I can’t see the destination. 

 


 

Let me return to that writing from 2014 to finish things off: 

Ecclesiastes 3:11 says, God has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end. Even though we cannot see the whole scope of God’s work, we rest in God’s faithfulness.

Even when we do not know how our work will be used in the Kingdom of God, we will persist in believing that God has good works for us to do, planned long ago. Even though sometimes, the way God is leading us seems to be the opposite of the direction we should be going and we don’t understand what God is doing, we follow in faith. Even when we experience great difficulty and hardship, we will trust that God can work things together for good. 

 


 

Friends, I hope that you also experience the beautiful leading of the Good Shepherd.

CoEd Tour Day 4

Day 4 of our CoEd Tour was a different sort of tour day, so this is a different sort of post. 

I was three years old, on the cusp of another birthday, the summer that my parents realized just how desperate I was to attend school. My four older siblings left home each day to experience this thing that was only a wonderful mystery to me, but our local Christian school offered no junior kindergarten option. So, after much discussion, my parents enrolled me in junior kindergarten on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the local public school. I had never been as excited for anything in my life as I was to attend JK. Each weekday I would wake up, see my siblings preparing for school, and get ready for school myself. And every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, my mom would have to convince me to stay home. I was insistent that I should go to school every day, just like my older siblings. My mom would reason with me, reiterating that my class was not meeting, my friends would not be in attendance, my teacher would not be waiting at the door for me. And I would reluctantly agree to stay home with my boring younger sister for another day.

My love of school and learning continued throughout my life, and I never doubted my ability to accomplish my educational goals. I attended grade school and high school and began applying for universities, certain that I would be accepted into any universities I applied to. Once I was in university, I took advantage of additional study options, like a month long language program in Quebec, a semester abroad in France, and auditing classes like choir in order to squeeze in more courses. In my third year of university, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to finish all of the courses necessary for my teaching certification, French major, and music minor in just four years, so I decided I would stay in university a fifth year. This decision also allowed me to take some English classes strictly for fun, classes that were not required by my education program, major, or minor.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression. University classes weren’t easy, and tuition wasn’t cheap. I worked hard to pay for my classes, getting help from my parents, the Ontario government, grants, scholarships, and student loans. I studied hard, often holing myself up in the library during breaks in between classes to fit in extra review time or work on papers.

Most importantly, though, during the 19 years of my education, from junior kindergarten through university graduation, I never doubted that I would achieve my goals. I never worried that I wouldn’t be able to complete my schooling for academic reasons. I never worried that I wouldn’t be able to complete my schooling for financial reasons.

And I kind of forgot that that’s not the story for many people around the world. 

 

On Saturday, our final day of the CoEd tour, we got to meet scholarship students. CoEd’s scholarships are awarded to students who show academic promise and who want to go to school, but would not be able to without the scholarship’s financial help. This might be because families can’t afford school fees, or because keeping kids home to work provides another source of income that the family just can’t do without.

A group of (totally guessing here!) 40 or so scholarship students took buses into Antigua from their homes to come and meet with us for the morning. We had a chance to introduce ourselves and talk, some icebreaker game time, and some marimba music of course, and then we broke into small groups in order to have more in-depth conversations.

My small group was made up of 5 scholarship students, 7 tour members, and 3 CoEd staffers (1 American staff member who translated for us, and 2 Guatemalan staffers who work in the scholarship program, meeting and assessing possible scholarship students). Our conversation began with each of us introducing ourselves and telling a little about ourselves. We told about the work or schoolwork that we did, our families, a typical day. Then we began asking questions that would be answered by different categories of people in our group. For example, students asked the tour members, “Why did you come here?” We asked the Guatemalans, “What’s your hope for the future of Guatemala?”

One of the questions we asked was, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The girls in our group answered first. They had concrete, specific answers, like architect or English teacher. Then one of the boys, Juan Manuel, gave his answer. “I just want to be able to stay in school,” he said.

This was a shocking statement to me. First, I knew after three days on tour with CoEd that there were lots of kids who wanted to stay in school but had to drop out. But to meet one was heart wrenching. Second, Juan Manuel was in the scholarship program. Why was he worried about dropping out? Third, the girls were also scholarship students, but they had dreams they could hold on to, ideas of what their futures could be with the help of CoEd. Why not Juan Manuel?

After our small group session, I walked back to our group meeting room with Leslie. I mentioned how surprised I was by Juan Manuel’s comment, and Leslie explained more about Juan Manuel’s situation. His father has died, leaving his mother as the only income earner for the family. His two older brothers have already had to leave school. Juan Manuel knows well that this may be his future, too. As for the scholarship, Juan Manuel didn’t have an actual sponsor yet. He had been identified by the CoEd scholarship coordinators, and he had been invited to our scholarship day, but he knew that his programming for this school year was being paid for by CoEd general funds. If he did not get a scholarship sponsor this year, then he would not be able to continue school next year.

So of course, after that conversation with Leslie, I went next door to the bathroom and just cried. I could not imagine being 16 years old and hoping desperately that I would be able to stay in school while being unsure of whether that would be my reality or not.

My heart breaks for every child and teenager whose story is so different from my own – every kid who desperately wants to attend school but can’t. Every kid who is kept home from school to work. Every kid whose only dream for the future is to be able to stay in school while living with the uncertainty of whether or not that will be possible.

The stories, experiences, and realities of so many kids, both in Guatemala and around the world, who need help can be overwhelming. I wish regularly that I were capable of ensuring the continuing education of each child in Guatemala and around the world, but I can’t. But instead of despairing, over the last few days I’ve reminded myself of this quote from the Jewish text Ethics of the Fathers 2:16 – “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.” It’s not my responsibility to fix all of the world’s problems.  But knowing what I know, having experienced what I’ve experienced, meeting students like Juan Manuel who don’t know what lies in their future – I’m not free to desist from helping.

Would you like to help? Would you like to make a difference in the life of a Guatemalan student? You can’t finish the work of perfecting the world, but you can help in this small way.

Canadian friends, you can donate here. You can set up a scholarship donation, or you can make a one-time donation to teacher training.

American friends, you can donate here. You’ve got a lot more options that Canadians, so explore the website to find out what your options are!

If you’re curious about the scholarship program, there’s a lot more information on the CoEd website about their program. I opted not to include that information here since CoEd described the program so well on their own website!

 

CoEd Tour Day 3

Our third day of tour was another busy day, even though it had only one school visit and a longer drive back to Antigua (complete with rush hour traffic). After a (ridiculously hearty) typical Guatemalan style breakfast with eggs, beans, sausage, cheese, and plantains, we drove through back roads (and I do mean back roads) to a primary school outside of Tecpan, in Panabajal.

A beautifully decorated school ready to welcome us!

The school children were waiting for us at the gait, even though we were quite early. We were greeted with a rousing cheer of Bienvenido! and then the primary students took us by the hand to take us down the steps to the patio area. There was, of course, a beautiful blanket of pine needles, and a beautifully designed floral altar with incense burning on it. Throughout the morning, little prepatorio students – the kindergartners – would come over to throw more incense on the fire and blow it back into life. Because why shouldn’t the littlest kids in the school be the ones tending the fire?

Please take care of the fire, kindergarteners!

We had a pretty typical CORP (that’s Culture of Reading Program, remember) inauguration activities –  some singing in Spanish and English to get the kids involved; speeches from the principal, a representative of CoEd, and the regional supervisor from the Ministry of Education; songs played on the marimba; gifts and sports equipment given to the school; and a presentation of a small gift to us from the school, a beautifully cloth bound notebook with the name of the school embroidered on it.

The kids are excited for some songs and games.

The supervisor from the Ministry of Education caught my attention with his speech. He was talking about how important reading is and how there is a greater culture of reading in the United States than in Guatemala. He was encouraging the students to grow their love of reading to be just like Americans, who may read even five or six books a year! The idea that reading five or six books a year is something laudatory or even satisfactory was almost laughable to me, but it highlighted again the current culture of reading in Guatemala, where approximately 1 in 100 Guatemalan adults reads for pleasure. (I don’t have a reference for this – it was a stat that our CoEd staff gave us.) Further evidence of the current culture toward reading: the literacy rate among adult Guatemalans is 79%, and when you look at Indigenous women, the literacy rate drops as low as 30%.

(Side Note: I wondered how many books the average Canadian or American reads in a year. I realize that I’m hardly average when it comes to reading, and I read a lot of books for my work as a teacher. My research shocked me when I found a Pew Research Center study that said that in 2013 the median number of books read by an American adult was 5. The mean number of books is 12, which at least works out to a book a month.)

This grade 2 class had 38 students packed into it!!!

After our opening activities, we once again divided into groups and observed a lesson in a grade 2 classroom. This lesson was very similar in structure to the one from our first day of tour. As we were listening to the story (and looking at the pictures as the students got to see them), bombas, or fireworks, were regularly being set off in the street in celebration of our visit. This inevitably set off a car alarm on a car that was just outside the classroom windows. On the other side of the classroom, in the patio, the marimbas were regularly being played. The classroom door being shut made a small difference, as there were broken windows on both sides of the classroom. This made me wonder if the Guatemalan students we saw are better in general at tuning out distractions, or if they are losing educational time regularly because of the number of distractions around them. Of course, it was hardly a typical day for the class, what with 10 or so foreigners hanging around in their classroom.

After the story, each student and visitor got a balloon on which the teacher wrote a word. I asked all of the kids around me what their words were, very impressed when they could read them out loud for me. We then threw our balloons in the air and tried to keep all of them off the floor, working together and shuffling balloons around in the fray. Once we heard the maracas, we each grabbed a balloon and stood in a circle around the outside of the room. The teacher called on people to read their word, show the class, and then have the class read/say the word together. I was super happy to be able to have sufficient Spanish to participate well in the activities.

After our balloon game, we partnered up and got sentence strips from the teacher, with sentences being based on vocabulary words or ideas from the book. We read the sentences aloud with our partners, and the teacher called on some partners to read their sentences out loud to the class. Then we cut our sentence strips apart into separate words. I was paired up with another CoEd tour member, but students were all too happy to lend us their scissors to be able to participate. After cutting up our words, we had to try to put the sentence back in order. The teacher talked about how students begin to understand grammatical word order (like subject-verb-object), and how some words can go in different places in a sentence and still make sense.

I love that turtle shells are a typical percussion instrument!

As we headed out of the classroom to have a quick snack, a little girl approached me to show me her colouring book. It was beautifully coloured, and I loudly exclaimed over each page. When I tried to give it back, she told me that it was a gift for me. Oh, my heart!

Once we’d had some break time, we were on to our next task: painting the shelves we’d brought in order for the classrooms to have a place to store their books. I donned a garbage bag as paint protection, and Rosa and Anna and I started painting. Very quickly, some first graders came over to paint with us. They were excited, but they weren’t exactly careful. I didn’t get any paint on my clothes, but they managed to get my shoes, my jeans, and my sweatshirt. We were also regularly going over their brushstrokes to make sure they all went the same direction along the length of a shelf to end up with a good final product. Their enthusiasm kind of made up for it, though!

Anna and some student volunteers before we began painting.

As we finished up, we began to have some convivencia, or “living together” – some free time to hang out with kids. Again, I was so happy for my Spanish. The kids didn’t really care if I made mistakes, and I felt free to try to say whatever to them. I spent a lot of time asking names, taking selfies, and just giggling with a little group of girls.

Some kids easily hammed it up for the camera, while others took a little persuading to talk into a photo.

I noticed some CoEd staffers washing out paint brushes and scrubbing the floor, so I went over to ask what I could do. Alex took me up the stairs to the sink area by the entrance of the school where some other CoEd staff were thoroughly scrubbing out each paint brush and paint bowl. I worked with these ladies, and they asked me if I knew Spanish. They were so complimentary about my language levels when I told them I’d studied on my own and then taken some classes before going on tour. They were trying to teach me Guatemalan slang, but when you’re not given the English equivalent, only a Spanish explanation, it’s pretty hard to figure out what a slang word actually means! As we finished and I turned around to go back down the stairs to join the kids and the rest of the tour group, I realized that a security guard had come with me and stayed up in the entrance area the whole time that I’d been washing out paint brushes. I’m not sure if he thought I’d make a run for it, or if he thought I’d make a better target being so close to the street. Those guys sure took their job seriously!

By the time I got back to the patio, the gym teacher was leading whole school songs (with actions), and then a dance party/aerobics class. It was pretty epic! We left after hugs and tears and kids running along the fence to wave us off as we got back into the buses.

High fives to the whole class on the way out!

A few last goodbyes from the other side of the fence!

We had a late lunch and then headed back to Antigua. Of course, we had the opportunity to experience Chimaltenango rush hour traffic, complete with a total stop along the road due to a bad car accident a few vehicles in front of us. Thankfully we still had an opportunity to tour the new CoEd office buildings in San Lucas Sacatepequez, and then back “home” to our hotel in Antigua and a great dinner together.

Some serious traffic!

Look over there to be right… what did I find in the CoEd offices?!?!

CoEd Tour Day 2

After breakfast at our hotel, we boarded the boat again at the hotel’s private dock and sailed across Lake Atitlan again, this time in a little bit of a different direction, landing in Santa Cruz la Laguna. The town is literally only accessible by boat or by foot, the once existent mountain road now being impassable. Our boat ride was again, so glorious, soaking in the morning sun and breeze on the lake.

Morning comes to the lake.

Santa Cruz la Laguna is built in between two mountain ridges, but it would be very generous to say it’s built in a valley. There’s a little edge of flat land close to the lake, but then the town rises above on the steep front of the mountain. Instead of walking up the road, we got into tuk tuks and were carted up the mountain side. A tuk tuk is a three wheeled vehicle that’s sort of a makeshift taxi. There are no seat belts. There are bars to hold on to, and hold on I did as my companion and I headed up the mountain. The road was inbelievably steep, and at each turn in the road I expected to see the town, but instead saw yet another switchback. There were no guardrails beside the road, just a very sheer drop-off. Because of the steepness of the road, we couldn’t head up too quickly, and I tried to concentrate on the incredible view instead of the apparent danger. We did make it up safely in the end!

Your typical Tuk Tuk.

Upon our arrival at the school – a middle school where we were celebrating the CoEd Technology Program – we were greeted by students who put a friendship bracelet around each of our wrists. (Side note: it melted my heart when, at the end of the day, I noticed that one of our security guards still had his friendship bracelet on!)

Once again, we had an opening program at the school – Guatemala’s national anthem, speeches from the school director and a CoEd representative, a traditional dance by the grade 8 students, and the presentation of a few gifts from CoEd to the school. The director spoke about all of the ways that the technology centre is used – by the middle school, by other teachers whose only access to computers is generally through the computer centre, by the primary school students, by primary students from the next village who literally make the half hour hike one day a week to use be able to have access to computers, by the vocational students of CECAP, and by adults in night classes. Then the students headed back to class while our CoEd people split into two groups.

Grade 8 students perform a traditional dance for us.

My group got a tour of the CECAP vocational school first. CECAP stands for Centro de Capacitation, and it’s run by another non-profit that works exclusively in Santa Cruz, called Amigos de Santa Cruz. CECAP runs vocational classes on carpentry, beading, weaving, culinary skills – anything that people will be able to use to ensure employment in their future. Their store sells artisan goods at a fair wage, instead of the prices you might be able to barter for from street vendors that don’t recognize the artisan’s time or talent. The non-profit works in a number of ways to better the lives of people from the town, and is run with an almost all local board of directors and staff. Santa Cruz was able to celebrate the first woman university graduate from their town last November.  The vocational school building was built in cinder blocks, and each person from the town helped to carry at least one block up the hill to the building site, some mamas carrying blocks while their babies were strapped to their backs. In short, I loved everything about what this non-profit is doing.

CECAP’s cafe is on the top floor and overlooks the lake. I can’t imagine a better lunch location!

Pictures of villagers carrying cinder blocks for the building of the school.

A weaving class for women.

A carpentry class for middle school students.

After our tour, we swapped with the other group and sat in a class with high school students at the computers in the technology centre. Students demonstrated their tech skills while creating and personalizing letters they had written, telling a little about the Santa Cruz and Atitlan area, including details like their favourite sport, favourite music, favourite colour, etc. A CoEd staffer came around and took pictures of each set of partners, and soon the students pulled the photos up from the server, added them to the doc, and printed out the keepsake for us.

Again, I was so happy that I had a foundation of Spanish to use as I spoke to my student about her life and her hopes and dreams. She told me that she wants to be a teacher when she grows up, and I was able to tell her to work hard and pursue her dream, and that I have faith that she can become a teacher and love it just like I love it.

In the computer lab, listening to instructions.

All too soon it was time for us to head back down to the boat (after a little shopping in the school’s store, of course!) CoEd staffer Elizabeth was directing traffic – both tuk tuk and people – at the school door. When I got to the front of the line, she said to me, “Why don’t you go get in that tuk tuk, Bethany?” I looked at the one she was pointing to. “That one with the ten-year-old driver?” I asked. Despite his young age, our driver did take us down the mountain safely, although our downhill journey meant it was a little faster than I would have taken it myself!

Our boat ride back to Panajachel was relatively short, but again in beautiful sunshine. After lunch at a hotel in Pana, we were back on winding, steep mountain roads. After a bit of a drive (it’s always hard to estimate distance actually travelled when you’re on winding mountain roads and back dirt roads instead of my more typical trips on paved North American highways), we arrived at our next school. No one was waiting for us at this school – a bit of an unusual turn of events, so we hung out in their gym while they suddenly ran over and got ready.

The middle school was celebrating the renewal of their textbook program. Research has shown that two critical things for the success of students is a good teacher and good textbook for students and teachers. I can’t remember how much education a middle school teacher is supposed to have, but a primary teacher only needs to have graduated from high school (in a special program to become a teacher, but certainly not the university degree plus teaching certificate program that we’re used to in North America). That means that teachers without a set curriculum will struggle to know exactly what they are supposed to cover and what material is grade level appropriate for their students. CoEd’s textbook program starts with seed money from a donor (or multiple donors) to buy textbooks (really more like workbooks) for the school in math, natural sciences, social studies, and Spanish language. Families pay a nominal monthly fee to cover the cost of using the textbook, and these fees are saved in a special account. At the end of five years, the school can buy new textbooks to replace the well-worn books of the past five years. After the initial injection of funding, the school is self-sufficient and doesn’t need to rely on donors for their next textbooks. Of course, there are families who just cannot afford textbook fees. These students may use the books in school, but don’t take them home to study. That way they are allowed to access the information and are not held back in their school progress. Other schools know that their families might not be able to afford the regular textbook fee – usually around $1.75 US per month (about 12 Quetzales). These schools might opt to lower the monthly fee and have a textbook turn around time of six or seven years instead.

In addition to the textbook renewal, this school was celebrating a special anniversary, so they had their band playing, another high school band visiting, and a local adult band joining them – complete with a sousaphone player. We also got to witness another traditional dance by (I think) grade 8 students.

Students perform a dance.

Marching bands.

After some festivities out in the hot sun, we walked to the edge of the village, split into two groups, and had the pleasure of a home visit. This was a wonderful and heartbreaking experience. The family invited us into their home with such warmth and hospitality. As with most buildings I experienced in Guatemala, things were built around a courtyard – although in the case of the house, it was really just an open space with different buildings on most sides. One building held the very utilitarian bedrooms. One building held a kitchen with a small dining area. The mother invited us to learn how to hand pat corn tortillas. In order to be able to cook them quickly, she added some more wood to the open stove,and the kitchen quickly filled with smoke.

Once we were back in the courtyard, Mario, our Guatemalan CoEd staffer (and translator from Quiche to Spanish), told us that many women have trouble with lung disease and stunted growth because of their constant exposure to smoke. The young children have issues, too, since so much time is spent in the kitchen before they begin school.

Baby spends most of her day on her mama’s back.

We were happy to have Mario with us to translate, because our family was Maya and only the father and school-aged sons spoke Spanish. The family spoke Quiche at home, so grandma, mother, and younger girls didn’t speak any Spanish. This of course means that students are also disadvantaged starting school in a language that they don’t speak, a story that is so common in Guatemala.

We also got to see the family’s chickens and pigs, as well as the edge of their corn field. The father earns money through subsistence farming. The pig would not be destined eventually for the family’s table, but for the market where it could earn additional funds. The father told us how difficult it was to earn money and how he wasn’t sure he would be able to afford high school education for his two sons who were partway through middle school. We could do nothing to help except encourage him to do whatever he could to ensure education for his sons.

As a way of saying thank you for their hospitality, we brought a gift of a water filter to the family. Water in Guatemala may be chlorinated in cities (although it still might not be the best to drink). However, in rural areas, families are often not using running water and almost certainly don’t have filtered water coming out of taps that do have running water. While visitors to Guatemala may have the luxury of sticking to bottled water for the duration of their visit, rural residents can rarely afford the bottled water that would be necessary for regular life. The Eco Filter we gave would provide clean and safe water for the family for the foreseeable future. It was such an important gift, but it felt so small in the face of all the family needed – or at least that we perceived as their needs. After assembling it and taking a group photo, we walked out of their house, and I just cried the whole walk back to the bus, thinking about the difference in our lives and our inability to do more for this family in that moment.

Filtered water – I definitely take my safe tap water for granted as a part of daily life in Canada.

Our drive to our hotel for the night was quite a drive. If you’ve driven through the Rockies or Appalachians in North America, you have a good idea of what it’s like to drive on winding mountain roads. If you’ve driven on rough rural roads, particularly in other countries, you can imagine what condition our back roads were like as we left the school. And finally, if you combine those two and add in the rain that we drove through, you have an inkling of the conditions of the drive to our hotel for the evening in Tecpan.

To be fair, winding mountain roads can give some pretty amazing views, even if they’re hard to take pictures of from a moving vehicle. The memory of shafts of sunlight filtering through the clouds into the valley is something I will remember without a photo.

At the hotel, we enjoyed some exploring around the hotel’s very cute grounds, some social time in a bar that was a cross between a cave and someone’s basement apartment, and a great conversation at dinner. I’m sure that all the other tour occupants fell into bed as exhausted as I that evening.

Cute gardens…

…fancy and fun bridges over little creeks…

…flower lined paths…

…and cute climbing structures for kids! A great little hotel!

CoEd Tour Highlights, Day 1

I recently participated in a tour in Guatemala with the Cooperative for Education, an NGO that works to improve education in Guatemala. I had so many amazing experiences, and the only way to really understand what it was like is to go on a tour yourself (which I highly recommend!), but I wanted to share some of the highlights of the trip.

We started the day with breakfast and an orientation meeting, getting to know our fellow tour members and hearing a little bit about the work that CoEd does.

The education vs drop out rates in Guatemala are alarming. Literacy rates are shockingly low. It’s common for rural kids to drop out of school after grade 6, when middle school begins. Families often can’t afford school fees, or they need their kids to stay home and work to earn a little extra income.

CoEd’s Culture of Reading Program provides a good foundation of literacy skills to primary students (grades 1-6). Their Textbook Program ensures middle school students have access to resources that will help students learn, and their Technology Program allows students to gain skills on computers or laptops. 60% of jobs in Guatemala now require digital literacy skills, but many rural schools don’t have access to computers, let alone teachers who know how to teach computer skills.

CoEd partners with Rotary Clubs around the world to gain funding for their programs. Many programs are also funded with grant money. And individual donors are also key to the work that CoEd does.

Are these the cutest little school kids ever? Yes. Yes they are.

So. School visit.

Our first school was about an hour and a half away from Antigua. After driving through the mountains, we arrived at Xetzac primary school. We were there to inaugurate their CORP (Culture of Reading) Program. We entered the school in between staff members lined up on either side, applauding. Our path was strewn with pine needles and edged with flowers in our honour. Students all stood and applauded as we entered. They were dressed in their very best – girls in their best huipil and corte (the traditional blouse and skirt that are woven and embroidered) with their school sweater over top. Most girls had elaborate French or Dutch braids, often with cloth or ribbons braided in.

Our pine needle and flower path.

I love these French braids!

I felt a little uneasy about how very honoured we were as their guests. What accident of birth had me born as a white person in North America? That has given me many opportunities and advantages and privileges, but that doesn’t make me better or more valued than anyone else. I later realized that the honour given to us was given because we were guests, not just because we were from North America. We can certainly learn a lot about hospitality from Guatemalans. Still – more to think about along these lines.

The flag bearers (the best students from each class) carried in the Guatemalan, US, and school flags. They wore special white outfits along with a banner in the colour of the Guatemalan flag, and white gloves. I couldn’t help but smile – my Spanish teacher Jorge had always called me the abanderaba because I loved getting right answers and showing off my newfound Spanish skills in class.

Proud flag bearers!

We had songs we sung together, special music played by middle school guests on the marimba (Guatemala’s national instrument), the cutest dance ever by kindergarten students (whose parents proved that parents are the same around the world as they gathered at the front to capture the dance on their cell phone cameras).

After opening celebrations, we went into a grade one class to observe a lesson. The whole floor was strewn with pine needles. Flowers were taped up to the walls. Strings were stretched across the class from wall to wall and filled with balloons. We were the honoured guests, and it showed. There were also very typical grade one room decorations – labels on common items, and a word wall filling one wall of the class.

This classroom is seriously decked out in our honour!

Our very brave teacher (seriously – teaching grade one students in front of a bunch of strangers who, let’s be honest, are really distracting to these little kids!) introduced the new vocabulary words from the book she would be using. She had students name the parts of the book – the front and back covers, the spine, pages, and then they made predictions about the book based on the cover. They also talked about the author so that students would remember that this book is actually written and created by someone. (I thought about all the typical preliteracy skills we take for granted in North America – that the majority of kids come into school having had lots of books read to them before. They know how to hold a book, how to look at pictures for extra comprehension help, which direction to turn pages, and even that the letters create words that the person reading is using. In a country where only 1 out of every 10 adults reads for fun and the only book many homes have is a Bible, these are not skills you can take for granted.)

The teacher read the book a page at a time, taking the extra time necessary to walk past each student gathered in a semi-circle in the open space in the room so that students could see each picture. At the end, each vocabulary word was reviewed and then hung up by a volunteer under the appropriate letter on the word wall. Students got the chance to be active and consolidate understanding as they got up and all acted out the events of the story as the teacher retold the major plot points.

So excited to see the pictures!

Finally, the demonstration ended with another game. Each student received a paper on a piece of string which they put over their head. They went out to the patio for more space, and had to pass by where I was sitting to get out. One student stopped as he was filing past me to proudly read his word out loud to me. After that, each student had to stop and read their word aloud. Kids played sort of like a dodgeball game, but with only one ball, and the thrower had to read the word on the person they hit. It was great to see kids with varying levels of fluency work to read the words.

Ready for the game to begin!

After the game, we went back into the classroom and paired up with individual students who practiced reading out loud to us. The flag bearer (abanderado) was the student who read to me 🙂

My reading buddy (on the right) and his seat partner. So proud to show off his reading skills!

All too soon it was time for kids to get packed up and walk home (anywhere up to 5 kilometres to get home). We ate lunch with the Guatemalan teachers, and I got the opportunity to talk with the grade 5 and 6 teachers. (I was so grateful for my two weeks of Spanish classes prior to the tour!)

 

After lunch, we loaded back into our buses and wound our way through the mountains to Panajachel. I’m not kidding about winding – mountain roads with sheer dropoffs beside us and very few guardrails! The views were pretty amazing, though!

When views beside the road are equal parts inspiring and terrifying…

In Pana, we boarded a boat and crossed the incomparable Lake Atitlan. It was a perfect day – sunny, warm, a little breezy. Most of us climbed up to the second level to sit outside in the breeze. We also made some purchases from souvenir saleswomen who crossed the lake with us.

I seriously have about 50 photos of this boat ride that are only microscopically different from each other.

I’m just happy to be on a boat ride that’s not making me feel sick!

We sailed toward the San Pedro volcano and disembarked (on the sketchiest dock) in Santiago Atitlan. We were immediately surrounded by street vendors hawking their wares. Walking uphill past every stall meant a lot of attempted sales when you even glanced at something. We stopped for ice cream, where my new friends the Becks treated me to a cone.

I was grateful for our security (yes, security!), since the road wasn’t very wide and had no sidewalks, yet was travelled by pedestrians, tuk tuks, cars, and even the occasional transport. A security guard stuck with our small group to ensure that no one was run over by a transport. (On security guards – It felt a little extra to have security guards with us when I had spent more than two weeks in Guatemala already and had never felt unsafe. Still, someone stopping traffic for us when we were trying to cross the road, ensuring our belongings were safe in the bus when we went into a school or restaurant, or making sure we weren’t hit by cars or pickpocketed – that was pretty nice. Being in a big group with obvious security guards made us safer; it was a good precaution. Being with obvious security guards also meant some strange looks as people wondered who we were and if we were famous.)

Once we made it to the main square in Santiago Atitlan, we hopped in the back of some pick-up trucks to ride the rest of the way to our hotel.  Our buses didn’t drive around the lake – only the CoEd pick-ups with our suitcases. Our social hour before dinner was spent down by the lake, watching the most beautiful sunset behind the volcano. First busy day done!

Can anything be more beautiful?

Tikal: An Adventure in Guatemala

With my Spanish classes finished, summer vacation could actually begin! And what better way to celebrate the start of summer vacation than to fly up to Tikal to spend a day exploring Mayan ruins?!

I decided to use the school’s tour agency because, as I naively assumed, everything would be taken care of for me. More on that adventure later.

So early Saturday morning, my roommate Julie and I were both up and waiting to be picked up and shuttled to the airport. We booked our trips through different agencies, so even though we live at the same house and were both going to the same place, we took different shuttles. My shuttle ride was a little terrifying, and I was glad that the streets were so empty at 4 in the morning!

At the airport, I met up with my roommate again after we had checked in and gone through security. There are only two domestic gates in the Guatemala City airport, so it wasn’t hard for us to find each other. We had different flight numbers, but we had the same departure time at the same gate and with the same airline, so we weren’t really sure if we were on separate flights or not.

Eventually we got called to board, and we were in fact leaving on separate planes. That’s because our planes were tiny propeller planes with approximately 40 seats! Two seats on one side of the aisle, and one seat on the other. (My roommate Julie later told me her plane was even smaller – no flight attendant! The flight attendant came on to give safety instructions and then got off. The cockpit was separated from the cabin with a curtain!) It wasn’t a long flight to Munro Maya Aeropuerto Internacional in Flores (a grand name for a tiny airport!) – about 45 minutes.

I came out of the airport and found the guy holding a sign with my name on it. He had one other person to pick up as well, and we waited until all the other people had come out of the airport, even the few who had waited to pick up checked bags. The other guy never came, so my pick-up person pawned me off to some other tour guy. He told me to go wait in the cafeteria area for a while. After about 15 minutes, he came and got me and a couple of other people, and we all got into his van. We drove over from the airport to the island of Flores. There we dropped some people off at their hotel, and the rest of us got pawned off to yet another driver.

This driver actually took us to Tikal. We drove through the Petén countryside for about an hour before coming to the entrance to the national park. There we had to pay our entrance fees, and then we drove for another 15 minutes to the main drop off. A guide joined us, and we were split into English and Spanish tour groups.

Tikal is an amazing experience, and I cannot do it justice with any description. There are also so many facts and stories that our guide recounted, but I feel like you can read better recountings or histories in other places. Let me tell a couple of highlights and give a few stories from a personal perspective.

Wandering through the jungle is an experience all its own, in the first place. Even though the trails we walked were well cleared and wide, there was no doubt about how alive the jungle around us was or how easily it would overtake the trails if it stopped being tended to regularly. We saw monkeys, parrots, ocellated turkeys, giant raccoon things (I think they were raccoons!), and heard so much more! We got a little lesson on how to eat termites if you get stuck in the jungle and need to eat to stay alive. Apparently they taste like carrots. I didn’t give them a try. 😒

We learned the Mayan number system (base 20, in case you’re interested), got a lesson on how to write the current year in that number system, and pulled out some quetzales to see that they have the same numbering system present on them. We learned about human sacrifice, and how the gods would want the best blood, so when you played a ballgame to determine who would be sacrificed, it was the winners who would have the honour of giving their lives.

We heard and saw and experienced these things in between plazas and temples. The temples and archaeological sites are obviously the main attraction. It never failed to amaze to be walking through the jungle and suddenly come up behind a giant temple!

The first temple we came to was a pretty small one, relatively speaking. You’re allowed to climb them, and I did so with great excitement.  My thoughts on the way up centred around the question why, if the Maya were so short, their steps were so gigantically tall. Getting up to the top made me immediately change my train of thinking to oh my goodness I could just accidentally walk off the top of this thing why are there no railings??? However, you can see out over the whole plaza, and that’s pretty impressive! Then going down. Ah, going down. The steps are narrow but super steep. And I have this problem with my balance. And I am also secretly (or not so secretly) convinced that I will die by falling down stairs and breaking my neck. And there are no hand railings. And my arthritic knee gives me a little pain on a downstairs trip. So I took the steps down super slowly and carefully!!! 


Going to climb the first temple!


View from the top! 

There were also ruins of buildings that we walked through along ledges where there was quite the drop off to one side. Or stairs up the side of a building with nothing but empty space beside. I’m so used to North American safety standards that I couldn’t help but think over and over again, you’d never be able to do this kind of thing in Canada! Someone asked the guide about this, and his answer was that in Guatemala, the buildings and their historical nature are valued more than the tourists. I was okay with that. I mean, people can choose to climb or not as they would like. It didn’t really bother me too much since I was making safe choices!

Some bigger temples were big enough to have new stairs built on the back, where they don’t ruin the look of the temple. I was super appreciative.


Actual stairs! With a hand railing!!!

Then we got to Templo IV. It’s the biggest, highest temple among the ruins. Thankfully, it too had modern stairs to climb. When I got to the top, I’m not going to lie – I was a little freaked out by the height and how little space there was on the platform. But there were the original stairs going up about 8 more steps, and most people just sat on them. Once I was sitting, it was fine.


The view from Templo IV, above the rainforest canopy. 

And if you looked up, the sun was almost directly overhead and was wreathed by a rainbow!


It was an incredibly peaceful and beautiful place to sit and rest after hiking through the jungle and climbing up a million stairs.

Then some other tourists came along and ruined it. People kept coming up and asking others to take their picture taken by others. They would stand with their backs to the wide open space, and someone taking their picture would stand three feet away on the other end of the platform with their back against the temple wall. People standing right on the edge of the platform was kind of freaking me out, and I kind of became my mother, unable to watch that. That wasn’t good enough for some tourists, though, and they wanted to sit down on the edge of the platform with their feet dangling off. I could not handle watching them, and that was the point that I got off that temple as fast as I could (safely).  It’s one thing to say people are responsible for their own safety, but another thing to watch them throw caution to the wind. I didn’t want to watch anyone die.

Eventually, the afternoon was coming to a close and it was time to leave Tikal and head out to Flores. We found our driver, got back in the van, and he began dropping people off at their hotels. Soon, I was the only one left in the van. “Which hotel are you in?” he asked me. “What? I don’t know! Aren’t you supposed to know?” I responded. Remember how I said at the beginning of this story that I naively assumed everything would be taken care of for me since I booked the trip through an agency? Everything was booked for me, but somewhere in that line of people passing around tourists, information hadn’t been passed along with.

That was when my Tikal adventure officially became An Adventure.

My driver said he would call his friend. He did this while driving (of course), and we drove off the island which made me very curious because I was sure my hotel was in Flores. We stopped at a little store, and he said he needed to buy more minutes for his phone. He was back in the van in 30 seconds. That store was out of cards to recharge minutes. He eventually found a store with minutes and applied them, calling his friend who’d passed me along. That guy knew nothing. I thankfully remembered at that point in time that I had gotten the number of the woman at the school who’d helped to make arrangements through the tour agency. We called her, she made some calls, and within five minutes called back with the name of my hotel. Thank goodness!

I did a lot of it’s all part of the experience! What a fun adventure! self-talk through all that fun, but I was also glad to actually have a place to stay for the night! And I prefer the kind of trip where I actually know where I’m going and know what’s happening!

Saturday was a free day for me, so I spent the morning by the hotel pool (or in the pool), and the afternoon wandering around the cute island of Flores shopping or finding little cafes to sit in where I could be out of the hot sun and in a breeze, overlooking the lake. In short, first day of summer relaxing!!! All too soon it was time to take a Tuk Tuk back to the airport and head back to home sweet home Antigua.

Julie and I were much relieved to get out of the hot airplane and feel the cooler air of Guatemala City greet us. And we felt like experienced and seasoned travelers familiar with the airport amidst all the new arrivals last night. It’s funny how two weeks here has given a new perspective on the familiarity of so many experiences here.




So many beautiful pictures from the flight back, including this one where you can see rain falling from the clouds we’re passing through!

The Secret of the Quetzal

My teacher and I have spent some 56 hours together, so he definitely knows a lot about me. But there is one thing about which Jorge has no doubt: I am a very proud Canadian.

Today during class, Jorge suddenly interrupted himself to say that he had read something interesting about the one Quetzal bill. He pulled one out of his pocket to look at it.


An unassuming Quetzal. 

“Yes!” he exclaimed. “It is true!”

“What’s true?” I responded, my curiosity piqued.  (All this in Spanish, of course!)

Jorge handed me the Quetzal and pointed to the corner. I picked it up to examine it closely.


Can you see that?


How about zoomed in?

Yep, the Guatemalan Quetzal says CANADIAN BANK NOTE on it! Naturally I pulled out my wallet to examine a couple other bills, and we discovered that it’s not on bills printed in 2011, but it is on bills printed in 2012 and later.

Turns out, the polymer bills are printed by the Canadian Bank Note company. Who knew?!

Now you know a little more about Guatemala! 🇬🇹🇨🇦