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Kevin Ye: Student Report from 2017 Alternative Spring Break in Guatemala

I think the first surprise of Guatemala was that 2,330 meters above sea level does not feel significantly different compared to the 270m of Knoxville. I might have been a little out of breath at times, but it didn’t affect how much Spanish I remembered from elementary school. I remembered a surprising amount, enough to communicate with Nigel, the foreman at the school we were working on.

The main part of our service project involved putting up a wall in the classroom and plastering concrete on the existing walls. Of course, we had little to no construction experience so Nigel had to explain what he wanted. The problem was that he spoke about as much English as we spoke Spanish, yet somehow, through a mixture of broken Spanish, English, and hand gestures, communication was established. Working with such a language barrier felt like it was stretching my mind. I was dredging up Spanish lessons from elementary school; I was surprised at how much came back.

The kids at the school spoke even less English, but they still had the same curiosity and playfulness of children anywhere. Their cheerfulness and desire to play are especially amazing if you consider the fact that many of the kids came from very poor families and the milky grain drink they got for breakfast at school might have been the only meal they had some days. School just seemed to be a really happy place for them; they certainly showed it. They managed to break the language barrier with piggy back rides. It appears to be universally agreed-upon among those children that these are fantastic. The kids asked all of us for piggy back rides constantly during recess.

There was such a sparkle in the eyes that was reflected in everyone I saw. Even though much of the country is in poverty, everyone still has this energy, this spirit in everything they do. I think it’s partially rooted in the deep cultural traditions and spirituality. Antigua was a great example; it was a mix of old and new everywhere we went. Ancient stone and mortar were interspersed with new developments like this Wendy’s.

It seemed like the people and businesses were only the latest tenants in buildings that had stood for centuries. Indeed, people were actively using churches from the Spanish colonial era. We visited several churches and one of them had the old façade from the original church still attached to it.

It should be noted how well Spanish and Mayan traditions were integrated together. One example of a Mayan tradition being integrated was one church with statues of jaguars on top. Jaguars held religious significance for the Mayan people. I should add that this was a church built by the Spanish to convert the local Mayans to Catholicism. This was a major reason the Catholic Church was so successful in Guatemala and other parts of Central and South America.

Now, I love history, but food is where the real day-to-day experience comes from. Part of why I love traveling is trying different foods from around the world. The first thing I noticed was the prevalence of beans in every meal, including breakfast. I was mildly surprised to find refried beans at breakfast the first day. Another surprise was the addition of tomato sauce, close to the salsa we get in the United States, to the scrambled eggs.

Additionally, I discovered that hot chocolate is something that can be served with every meal; here is a picture of hot chocolate that was served with dinner one night.

However, I found out that chicken sandwiches may, in fact, be universal. This was the lunch we ate on the day we flew into Guatemala.

In fact, chicken, in general, seems to be very popular as fried chicken restaurants were EVERYWHERE we looked. This one was in the market we visited.

I didn’t quite expect so much familiarity in a country so different from ours. Plantains instead of bananas, meters instead of feet, and hot chocolate instead of sweet tea. Yet, the children laugh and play like the ones in the U.S., and the chicken sandwich still reigns supreme.