Learning and Travelling in Guatemala (GCTA 2010)

[The following post was written by Gabriel Ross about his experience as a student in the Global Citizenship Term Abroad (GCTA) Program in Guatemala this past summer. For more information about the program, including how to apply, please visit the GCTA: Guatemala web site. UBCmix, a Terry Initiative, is proud to support GCTA: Guatemala.]

When I first received the e-mail advertising the UBC study abroad program in Guatemala I was immediately intrigued.  Here was an opportunity to both travel and learn simultaneously, a student’s dream come true, and in many ways this dream was realized beyond my expectations.  The GCTA program offered something unique, something which travelling by your self or with friends simply can’t offer; the chance to truly reflect on the state of the developing world and how far our moral obligations should go towards them.

I landed in Guatemala late at night on May 7th and was shocked at how nice and modern the Guatemala City airport is.   I’ve been to hundreds of airports on many different continents and this airport seemed solidly western and well-off.  Obviously those in power wanted to make a good impression to western tourists, and potential business partners, arriving in the country. After a couple of days in Guatemala city, all 19 students who were on the program were bundled into a bus and off to Xela where we were going to spend the first week improving our Spanish.

I really do need to emphasize both the quality of the teachers and the quality of the other students in this program.  I’ve always found that students who go on exchange or choose to do these study abroad programs are often of a different nature than your typical university student.  They are more open, more willing to talk their mind, and more adventurous when it comes to exploring the unknown, in essence the applicants to these programs are usually self-selecting, though I do encourage anyone even thinking about applying for a UBC study abroad program to do so, it’s really an experience that nobody should miss.

I had taken some Spanish in High School and knew French, and so I wasn’t too worried about getting my general point across if I needed too, and was looking forward to the 1 on 1 teaching that was being offered in Xela.  Many of the other students did not know any Spanish but I could see that they were eager to learn and excited about the opportunities that were being offered by the school.  We had the options of going stove building in the countryside, visiting day-cares to play with the children, or hiking to sacred Mayan lakes, such as Lake Chicobal. If you ever find yourself in Guatemala I recommend you try all three.

Photo: Stove Building

The week of intensive Spanish was extremely rewarding for all of us, it gave us a solid base from which to build our knowledge and gave us the tools we needed to communicate with those around us, and helped many of us navigate through pharmacies, and other convenience stores.  Xela itself was a great location to learn Spanish; it’s a city known for its Spanish schools and thus attracts a lot of foreigners, though it still retains its own unique cultural identity, as most foreigners choose to go to Antigua, a city near Guatemala city, which gets inundated by Americans each summer.  However, we soon found ourselves back on the bus and off to the organic coffee farm where we would be spending the next 6 weeks together.

To describe everything that happened on this trip and on the farm would require a book, so I’ll stick to the highlights.  Nueva Alianza, meaning a new alliance, was a coffee farm in southern Guatemala run by a cooperative of forty Mayan families.  We were there to complete two UBC courses and do volunteer work at the same time.  The location itself could not have been any nicer, we were up in the mountains away from the oppressive heat that characterized the low lying regions and had a chance to truly explore the Guatemalan countryside.  Our ‘hotel’ was the former residence of the previous farm’s owner, which had been redesigned as an eco-hotel.  It actually went beyond what I was expecting in terms of comfort and livability and provided all of us with the necessities we needed to both have fun and succeed in our work.  One thing we weren’t expressly told though is that a bug net is a MUST.  Many of us didn’t have bug nets initially and regretted that omission almost immediately.  You can pick up a bug net down there for fairly cheap, but it might just be easier to get that done before you go.

Photo: Nueva Alianza

As a history and economics major I was slightly hesitant to take a 4th year sociology and 2nd year philosophy course, however, these fears were soon put to rest by the excellent teaching and strong support we received from our teachers.  The benefit of actually living with them on the farm meant that they were available to us 24 hours a day, and would be eating all their meals with us, we all formed quick friendships and were soon pestering them at all hours of the day, I’m sure they sometimes found it frustrating, but we all found it very helpful!

Living on the farm was an experience which you just can’t get in Canada, going into Starbucks and buying a fair-trade coffee may make you feel like your contributing, but actually going down there and seeing the livelihoods of those who provide you with your food is much much different, and should in my opinion be a required experience for all UBC students.  Some of the students developed very strong bonds with those living on the farm, especially with the kids, a couple of the students who were gifted musically and had the ability to dance helped our group reach out and allowed us to develop strong bonds of friendship with those living on the farm.

Our time on the farm went by in a blur.   Before we knew it we were getting ready to leave and saying our goodbyes.  Most students went home after the program ended, but a few of us decided to stay on in Central America.  I went back to Xela, and then to Lake Atitlan with a good friend, to study Spanish and learn more about the culture of Guatemala, while others decided to travel and see the many spectacular sights throughout the region.  I would recommend strongly staying on if you decide to do the program as it’s not very often that you’re likely to be in Central America and you might not have the chance to do that sort of travelling again.

I just want to leave you with a couple final thoughts on the program.  To me this program represented the best of the ideals that UBC strives to instill within us.  Our institution endeavors to make global citizens, people who are both aware and involved in transnational issues of justice, peace and equality.  However, to be involved in these types of issues we all need a deeper understanding of the challenges being faced by those living in the developed world; this program helps you develop this understanding.  While it may only be a beginning, the opportunity and experience of this trip cannot be overstated.

Photo: GCTA 2010 Group Photo

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