Dallas Fawson - 2015 Program Participant
A view of fertile farmlands near Quetzaltenango
What inspired you to go abroad?
As a Spanish speaker who had spent several weeks in southern Mexico, I decided that I wanted to increase my global perspective. I had learned so much as a student in Oaxaca, and I felt that being in an area with a high indigenous population had made the trip especially rewarding. Because of this, I decided I wanted to experience the culture of a different indigenous population. For this reason Guatemala stuck out to me, since it has so many diverse native groups and languages.
Why did you choose Discover Corps’ program over other program opportunities in Guatemala?
The children of the Maya program appealed to me for several reasons. After reading about Discover Corps and the programs they had to offer, it seemed to me that they had found an enriching balance between service and tourism. Furthermore, I had always wanted to travel to Guatemala, but was less than impressed by most of the travel companies that went there, since they generally only offer excursions to typical tourist locations, which can only lead to a superficial understanding of a country.
The children of the Maya excursion, on the other hand, involves well known locations, such as Antigua and Lake Atitlán, along with lesser known gems, such as Quetzaltenango and San Andrés Xecul, offering a more complete view of the country and its diverse cultures. It seemed like an in depth program from the description, and in practice it was even better than I expected.
It should also be noted that the Discover Corps program is very reasonably priced, being significantly less expensive than other programs, most of which are less inclusive.
What was your favorite part about Guatemala?
My favorite aspect of the location would have to be the fundamental contrasts that exist in every day Guatemalan life. The population is both largely Catholic and indigenous, and the beliefs of the various cultures have metamorphosed into something unique, oftentimes combining Catholic religious practices with traditional Mayan rituals, as well as customs from the many other indigenous groups in the country.
This contrast can be seen in the beautiful church facade in San Andrés Xecul; though it is a Catholic church, it was constructed by Mayan slaves, and many traditional Mayan symbols and colors can be seen in the architecture. In fact, the striking colors of the church, rather than being an expression of Catholic belief or tradition, come from the Mayan cosmology.
The previously mentioned church facade in San Andrés Xecul
This fascinating juxtaposition can be seen in several aspects of daily life as well. It was not uncommon to see someone dressed in traditional, colorful Mayan clothing while working at a bank, or somewhere else in a fully modern location. It was hopeful to see the two cultures growing together and enriching each other, rather than existing in opposition.
What aspect of your program made it most unique?
I believe the most unique aspect of the program was how thorough it managed to be in just eight days. In that time, I experienced several major locations in Western Guatemala, absorbing the scenery, the people, and even the night life of diverse cities and towns, while still having time to do a rewarding service project. Even so, we were never rushed, and I never felt like anything was being skipped over.
In fact, on more than one occasion, we ran into independent travelers, as well as some who were going through another company, and they were surprised and a bit jealous to find out just how much we were able to do, especially considering the relatively low cost of the program. For what I paid, I was not expecting such nice food and lodging, especially with all of the great activities included in the trip.
How did local staff support you throughout your program?
Fredi, the group guide, was absolutely amazing. I always felt safe with him driving for the group, and we had many stimulating conversations about Guatemalan culture and politics. He was fully bilingual and always attentive to everyone's needs, and was simply a wonderful guide overall. He was very knowledgeable about different aspects of the culture and history of the country, and was always willing to share valuable information and riveting stories.
The staff at our hotel in Quetzaltenango was equally wonderful, being fully accommodating and providing delicious traditional cuisine. I always felt fully welcomed in the country, both by the local staff and by the Guatemalan people in general.
The ruins of an abandoned monastery in Antigua
What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?
I wish I had more fully embraced Chichicastenango, the largest outdoor market in Central America. Markets of this kind aren't entirely new to me, as I have been to a fairly large one in Oaxaca, Mexico; but, even so, the size and scope of it was admittedly a bit daunting for me, and I held back a little bit. In retrospect, I wish I had been more open to the experience, talking to more vendors, and viewing more products. I still enjoyed and participated in the market experience, but not as fully as I could have.
Describe an average day in the life of your program.
An average day in Quetzaltenango, where we spent most of our time, consisted of waking up at about 7:30 a.m. and enjoying a delicious, homemade breakfast from the very friendly hotel staff. We were offered an array of traditional Guatemalan dishes, such as eggs scrambled with diverse vegetables, fried plantains, fresh papaya, and delicious corn tortillas, in addition to coffee and other complimentary beverages.
After breakfast, we would get ready for our service. In our case, we did art projects for young girls living in a shelter in the city. They watched and helped us make decorations for different rooms in the institution. They obviously loved helping us, and were delighted to see the finished products. We made a noticeable impact in the lives of the girls, and it was very rewarding being able to do so. We would leave the center at around noon and return to our nearby home base to rest briefly.
At about one, we would have lunch, which, once again, consisted of different traditional meals, such as tamales or Guatemalan chow-mein (which was absolutely delicious!). After lunch, we would always do some sort of cultural activity, such as the visit to San Andrés Xecul, an excursion to a lava hot springs, or speaking to former fighters in the Guatemalan civil war. The night would end with a delicious dinner and a good conversation among friends, including our wonderful guide Fredi and the friendly hotel staff.
What was your favorite part of the program?
It seems simple, but I have to choose the four hour drive between Antigua and Quetzaltenango. Though the purpose of this drive was nothing more than getting to our home base in Quetzaltenango, it may be the most scenic route I've seen anywhere in the world. I spent that time in awe, looking at the cloud covered volcanoes and beautiful farmlands that led us to our destination. It was a euphoric experience that really accentuated the beauty and biological diversity of the country.
One of many stunning views of Lake Atitlán
What was your accommodation like? What did you like best about it?
The accommodation was exceptional throughout the trip, especially at our home base in Quetzaltenango. We spent four days at one of the nicest hotels in the city, where we were the only guests. We had meals made for us privately by a very friendly staff. One of them, Roberto, had spent time living in the United States, and tried to make those in the group who didn't speak Spanish feel even more welcome by speaking English with them, and helping them with conversational Spanish. He was always friendly and open to conversation. The staff consisted of genuinely kind people, and I never felt like they were pretending for our benefit. The rooms were quiet and well furnished, and the staff was consistently attentive.
Now that you're home, how has your program experience impacted your life?
The trip to Guatemala has enriched my perspective more than I ever could have imagined. Due to the excellent structuring of the trip, I came home with an understanding of several aspects of life in Guatemala, including culinary arts, political movements, diverse cultures, and how all of these elements have fused to create the Guatemala of today. Additionally, the resilience of the Guatemalan people is both inspiring and humbling, and I hope I can apply aspects of their character to my own life.