On our recent trip to Guatemala, we visited Miguel Asturias Academy in Quetzaltenango. A chance to go behind the scenes at a school is a great way to learn about local culture, what people are teaching their children, what they aspire to, and how kids there interact with each other and with their teachers. I find this school, named after Guatemala’s Nobel laureate, particularly exciting because its leaders seek to improve life for Guatemalan children, not just through literacy, but also by teaching them about leadership, gender equity, and concern for the environment—concepts that aren’t in the typical curriculum in Guatemala, or sometimes even in the U.S. Growing a crop of well educated, critically thinking, socially conscious citizens is about the only way I can think of for Guatemala to move beyond the conflict and corruption that has dominated civic life.
This isn’t a fancy private school for elite children. Asturias students are from a range of backgrounds from poor and indigenous to middle class. It was founded by Jorge Chojolan, who was, himself, a poor indigenous kid. Click here to see a video about Jorge and the school’s philosophy.
One of the latest accomplishments at Asturias is the new library, which still has many needs, particularly good science books in Spanish. Librarians Without Borders (I’ve heard of doctors, but never librarians without borders) has helped them create the library, which will eventually be open to the community. Public libraries—another of the things we take for granted.
Xela, Guatemala (a.k.a., Quetzaltenango) lies at 8,000 feet in the heart of the country’s
highlands and at the center of its Mayan population. Xela (pronounced shay-lah) is a great base from which to explore a huge array of nearby sites and activities. However, at
that altitude, I’m wary of doing anything that requires more exertion than sampling some of the country’s great coffee in a café or watching others exert themselves in a game of fútbol. Still, the possibility of a trip to a rural village that boasts the most colorful church in all of Central America prompted me to get trade my café chair for a bike to ride to San Andrés Xecul.
Fortunately, there were only a few steep patches, and the friendly people in the village (one little boy kept pointing at us and saying “Gringos, Mama!”), a nice sugary Roja from a local tienda, and the Technicolor church made it worth the occasional gasp for oxygen. Our guide from Altiplano Tours was merciful: “Poco a poco. It’s not a race.” Poco a poco, little by little, became the mantra of our trip and as I think about it, that’s a pretty useful phrase for most of life.
We’ll soon be off to Quetzaltenango, in the highlands of Guatemala, to visit our son Mike who teaches science at a school there. One of my favorite things about traveling is the anticipation of the trip. I stretch out the pleasure by planning it for weeks. I read about where I’m going (in this case Francisco Goldman’s Long Night of the White Chickens, David Grann’s fascinating New Yorker article, Murder Foretold: Unraveling the ultimate political conspiracy, and a New York Times article on trekking the highlands). I talk to people who have been there, check Web sites, think about gifts I want to bring back for friends.
I plan partly because I want to do the best things available during my short time there. But, I also plan as much as possible to avoid disasters. The more exotic and challenging the destination, the more I like to have some idea of what it will be like so I don’t make mistakes–get lost, get robbed, offend people, have them offend me. A little planning makes me feel more confident and maybe that way I’ll blend in and avoid looking like a naïve tourist just ripe for fleecing. Since I have short, stick straight blond hair, blending in poses a particular challenge in most of the places I travel lately. When I went to Haiti, people regularly reached out to touch my very foreign-looking hair. “Madame Blanche!” On the other hand, how often do you get to feel that remarkable?
Ultimately, though I enjoy the planning and anticipation, some of the best parts of travel are those you don’t plan and can’t control. These are little Zen lessons of being in the moment, as on our last Guatemala trip when I came upon the interesting Mayan women (pictured above) in Santa Catarina, near Lake Atitlan, or the mother and her adorable baby (below) in the square in Antigua.
Travel to the places you read about. Read about the places you travel.