Tag Archives: travel

Miguel Asturias Academy: Growing a Crop of Educated and Socially Concerned Citizens

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.

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Volcano Follies in Guatemala

Shoe-meltingly hot lava on Volcan Pacaya

One of the most popular activities for visitors to the Guatemalan highlands is hiking up volcanoes.  Some people approach it like collecting merit badges, listing which ones they’ve “done.” That’s a big job because there are 33 volcanoes in Guatemala, three of them very active.

On our last visit to Guatemala, we hiked up Pacaya near Antigua, which is active, to say the least. It always strikes me when I visit developing countries how few safety rules there are.  For example, on Pacaya, there’s nothing stopping you from walking right up to the lava flow, except common sense, which from my own experience, (and judging from the video below) is often in short supply. Standing all too close to the lava flow—which felt like standing in front of a giant hair dryer—our guide suggested that we poke around with our walking sticks (rented from a group of local children who I initially feared wanted to swat us with them) to be sure that the scree underfoot was sturdy enough to stand on.  Oh, and be sure to check the bottoms of your shoes to be sure they’re not melting…  This just would not be allowed in the U.S. where we worry about keeping five- year-olds in car seats and constantly douse ourselves in Purell.

I recently scored my second Guatemalan volcano: Santiaguito, near Quetzaltenango.  Santiaguito is actually a junior version or extension of the much higher Santa Maria volcano, and therefore a shorter trek, which was fine with me.  The big attraction is that it erupts in a giant cloud of ash and steam about as regularly as Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone. We started our trek around 6:30 a.m. in order to be in place to see it erupt around 8:30.  “Poco e poco,” and with several banana bread and water stops, we made it to the designated viewing spot, a kilometer or so from the crater, along with a fellow hiker from Hungary and a group from France.  Who knew scampering up a dusty trail in Guatemala could be such a cosmopolitan experience?

As can happen with travel, all did not go according to schedule.  Santiaguito was a little slow that morning.  We ate sandwiches in the company of a particularly persistent little begging dog and waited. The clouds rolled in, then the eruption began, half obscured, but viewable nonetheless.  The sound, even at that distance, was amazing, like a huge roaring jet engine.  Of course, if we had been closer, the clouds wouldn’t have been such a problem but I’ll trade a better view for a modicum of safety.  Here’s a video from a guy who was a little too close to Santiaguito for comfort. 

Cuanto Cuesta? Getting Psyched to Bargain in Guatemala

Embroidery for sale in Chichicastenango, Guatemala. Who can resist?

In anticipation of traveling to Guatemala, I’m trying to get myself into bargaining mode. I have to do this because I am the world’s worst haggler.  Offer me something for $5, I’ll pay $8 for it. Put a cute kid in front of me and it’s all over. This drives my spouse, the world’s best and most unemotional bargainer, completely nuts.  It doesn’t matter how inexpensive the item the child is selling, he asks for a lower price.

I, on the other hand, offer an amount which is the selling price plus my “empathy quotient,” based on how much I envision the money meaning to the child’s family and how much I would hate having to go out and haggle with tourists if I were that kid.  Then I add more money simply because I’m a wimp.  Any ten-year-old Guatemalan kid holds great power over me. Then the word spreads that he has a “fish on the line.”  His friends show up. They laugh. They give each other high-fives. It doesn’t matter, I can’t say no. Last time I was there, a little girl asked me to buy some dolls.  I said I didn’t need them.  She said, “Buy them for your friends.”  I told her I didn’t have any friends.  She said, “For your enemies.” I told her I’d take two because she was funny.

So, if you see someone walking around Minnesota in winter wearing an embroidered blouse, sandals and carrying dolls, you’ll know it’s me.

McSorley's Old Ale House-Glad to see this NYC institution still going

I was happy to read in the New York Times that McSorely’s Old Ale House is going, even if its without the old chicken bones. Writers (Ginsberg, Kerouac, Menken, the McCourt brothers), artists, and politicians have whet their whistles here since forever.  e.e. cummings wrote a poem about the place

I was sitting in mcsorely’s. outside it was New York and beautifully snowing. inside snug and evil…

Some things just should not change.

Anticipating Travel: Guatemala

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.

Reading + Travel = Empathy

It seems like every week brings a new sad development in Haiti—cholera a couple of weeks ago, flooding from Hurricane Tomas this week—added to the devastation of the earthquake earlier in the year. I was particularly sad this week to see people in Leogane, where I visited a couple of years ago, dragging themselves through waist deep water.  Then there are the earthquakes in Indonesia… Viewing these images on TV makes us stop for at least a moment and imagine what it must be like for people whose lives are devastated by these disasters, to empathize.

The New York Times’ Jane Brody, in her excellent piece  “Empathy’s Natural, but Nurturing It Helps” says that, “Empathy, the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and recognize and respond to what that person is feeling, is an essential ingredient of a civilized society. Lacking empathy, people act only out of self-interest, without regard for the well-being or feelings of others. The absence of empathy fosters antisocial behavior, cold-blooded murder, genocide.”

From natural disasters to politics (some might see those as overlapping), it seems like we could all use a little dose of empathy these days.   Brody reports that one way to cultivate empathy in children is “reading books and talking about how people (or animals) in a story feel and why they feel that way.” Reading Rockets, a great Web site about “launching young readers,” has an interesting article called, “It Happened Over There: Understanding and Empathy Through Children’s Books.” Scroll down to the end of the article for children’s book suggestions.

I’d add that it’s not too late for older children and adults, too, to cultivate empathy by reading.  Think about To Kill a Mockingbird, The Diary of Ann Frank, Dave Eggers’ What is the What, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl DuWinn’s Half the Sky, Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea, and Khaled Hosseini’s The Kiterunner for starters. Do you have other suggestions for “empathy reading?”

Travel is, of course, another way to gain understanding and empathy for people whose lives are far different from ours.  It’s not always possible to travel (or in the case of places with natural disasters, desirable), but you can do it through the pages of a book.

Google Lit Trips: Literary Travel on Your Computer

I’ve finally had a chance to take a look at Google Lit Trips.  It’s an amazing way to use technology to teach/understand reading and literature and to visualize the connection between what you read and where it takes place. Designed by English teacher Jerome Burg, Lit Trips uses Google Earth as well as contributions from educators and students to map the movements of characters over a plot’s timeline while providing excerpts, pictures, and links at each location.

It’s necessary to download Google Earth and do a little experimentation, but for example, you can follow the path of the Joad Family in the Grapes of Wrath, get a real-time view of those locales right, see photos from the era, study questions and much more.  Though
it was intended for students, it’s great for anyone taking kids on a trip or for people who are just interested in having a greater connection to the literature. Look at the Downloads, etc. page to find the list of books that you can take a trip with–no passport required.