Andes students explored new world with trip to Guatemala

By John Bernhardt
“The world is a book, and those who do not travel see only a page.” If you pay heed to St. Augustine, eight Andes students completed a fascinating chapter on a six-day school travel club excursion to Guatemala in March. In Guatemala, the Andes contingent saw life from a new perspective and experienced a world they had never realized before.
This was not a typical travel club adventure. Rather than only seeing sights as tourists, in Guatemala, the Andes students experienced life through first-hand interactions with Mayan village families and work assignments. The Andes delegation worked in collaboration with Funcedescri, a nonprofit organization that encourages solidarity between some of Guatemala’s poorest people through projects promoting sustainable development. During their stay, Andes students helped compost the fruit trees on a Mayan farm, treated the trunks of the trees with calcium to prevent fungus, and constructed a cow barn with materials purchased with funds from Delaware County donors.
“This was a unique learning experience for our students,” noted Jeff Rhone, a co-advisor of the travel club. “We’ve never had so many students engaged at the same time for such long periods of time. Our program has finally evolved to the point where the students are not simply tourists in a new land. Instead, on this trip our kids lived and experienced a culture by giving something back.”
That’s not to say the trip was without visits to fascinating places. Early in their travels the group encountered the Pacaya Volcano, an active volcano located near Guatemala City.
The volcano, at an elevation of 7,500 feet, last exploded in the 1960s. The heat from the volcano escaped through fissures in the earth’s surface warming the surface under the Andes party’s feet. Walking on the surface of the volcano was described by co-advisor Ed McGee as similar to walking on ‘the lava rocks of your home barbecue’. Students roasted marshmallows using heat from free flowing lava.
The Andes advisors planned the trip with Jeanine Kacprzak, a representative of Funcedescri, who traveled with the group throughout their stay. For the most part, the Andes voyagers spent much of their stay in the Department of Quiche (like a province or state in another country) at one of the Funcedescri home bases located near the small city of Antigua.
The highlight of the trip had to be visits to three different remote Mayan villages. Pedro, a leader at Funcedescri, joined the Andes voyagers when they visited Mayan mountain locations. Pedro grew up in a Quichean Mayan Village and was fluent in Quiche, the Mayan language spoken with 24 different dialects. Pedro engineered a three-way communication loop, translating Quiche to Spanish in conversations with the group, with Rhone turning the Spanish into English for the students.
The complicated language routing was not lost on the Andes students. Several students mentioned an evening session where they played with young Mayan children as a magical moment of the trip. “I loved the activities with the guides,” bubbled Andes junior Gabby Harp. “Interacting with the little Mayan children was awesome. Having the language barrier as an obstacle and still being able to joke and play with the kids was amazing. I had a ball. It was like I was three years old again. The guide told us we were only the second group of people from outside the village the local people had ever encountered and the first outside people ever seen by the children,” marveled Harp.
In fact, at one village located high toward the top of a mountain, the Andes delegation was honored becoming the first people to eat dinner at an adobe home, a newly built structure and the first adobe home ever constructed in the village.
An inaugural celebration was scheduled the following day. “One night we went to have dinner at a Mayan family’s house,” recounted sophomore Isabella Mincerelli. “The family had just finished building their new house, and we were their first ever guests. We visited their old home that was really small and had a single bed. It was great to see how their lives had improved. They were really curious about our lives, and it was a real challenge trying to describe things like pizza or McDonalds in a way they could understand.”
Working vacation
The Andes students went to work visiting the third Mayan village, treating fruit trees for the local farmers. “It really opened my eyes to see how hardworking the people are and seeing how much effort they put into everyday made me realize we take our lives for granted and don’t really appreciate what we have,” explained junior Tyler Fairbairn.
In Antigua, the Andes students experienced a full spectrum of Guatemalan life visiting a ceramic jewelry company run in a local home using youth laborers. The students toured Raquelita, a chocolate making operation in business since 1935. Later in the day, the students visited a jade jewelers shop and were dazzled by Francisco, the jeweler. Francisco showed the students a large piece of jade he discovered some five-and-a-half hours from his shop. Each day for six months, Francisco trekked to the stone, carried it as far as he was able, buried the stone, marked the spot, and then returned the next day to continue the transport to his shop.
Life of the Guatemalan upper class was on display as the students toured a coffee plantation. The contrast of the lives lived by the people here were obvious. “Seeing the different way people lived there, the size of their homes, the things many people didn’t have, how hard most people had to work just to have basic things like water, how little education most kids get in school, and how quickly many kids go to work was stunning,” emphasized Kayla Weaver.
At a women’s weaving cooperative, four Andes students were selected to role-play a traditional Mayan wedding ceremony. Engaged Mayan couples must wait a full year to get married, allowing the bride time to weave intricate clothing to be worn by the women at the wedding ceremony. The bride makes a shawl worn by the mother-in-law that must be worn, no matter what the temperatures, throughout the entire wedding ceremony. The shawl is a symbol of love and acceptance, and if the mother-in-law removes the shawl it is a statement of disapproval of her new daughter-in-law.
The weaving is not limited to the bride. On their wedding day, the mother-in-law presents the wedding couple with a blanket she wove for their first child. In the picture Tyler Fairbairn plays the role of the bride. The jug on her head symbolizes the woman’s responsibilities in managing the Mayan household. Her arm extended and hand out symbolizes her holding the hand of a child, the sash she wears represents a second child.
Sage Beemer, playing the groom, holds a canteen holding water he will wear as he cultivates crops in the field. An ancient lunch pail strapped to Sage holds the tortillas he will eat for lunch.
At Funcedescri’s home base in Quiche, the Andes students worked on Mariano’s Farm, a model farm that serves as a prototype to teach farming methods to poor Guatemalan farmers. The focus of the Mariano’s Farm is to use all waste, human and animal, as fertilizer to maximize food production. At the model farm, the Andes youngsters tore down an old cow barn, cleared the site, and constructed a new barn.
The Andes students visited Guatemala prior to Easter, a huge ceremonial holiday. Each village has a procession path for a large parade. People who live along the parade route must prepare the alfombra, a large ceremonial rug covering the procession path.
The alfombra, an astonishing piece of art made out of organic materials, sand, straw, pine needles, etc. does not come without controversy as some local business people complain that local roads are closed to travel and commerce for up to a month before the Easter processions.
In the end, the Andes students returned to Delaware County viewing life with an expanded world view from new vantage points and perspectives and experiencing a whole new world they have never known before. “This is the stuff that can provide big picture thinking,” concluded adviser Ed McGee. A trip like this has the power to stretch your mind and provide more focus and purpose to everyday life back in Andes.”