Make Big Waves in Indigenous Guatemala

TL;DR

The Alpha & Omega English Academy was a cornerstone of my Peace Corps service.

Alpha y Omega in Spanish, strives everyday to make great things possible in rural Guatemala for children (and adults) of all ages. With a focus on experience-based language acquisition, Alpha & Omega is directly breaking a cycle of poverty by bringing the opportunity to learn English, participate in language and culture exchanges with Anglophone visitors from outside of Guatemala, and provide valuable experience to youth in a town that was heavily impacted by the Guatemalan Civil War.

In Guatemala, the ability to speak English is highly prized.

Inglés enables its speakers to work in call centers, for international development organizations (which are numerous in the beautiful Guatemalan countryside and bring much-needed foreign money to cash-strapped villages). Furthermore, English speakers can take the TOEFL, a standardized test which measures understanding and comprehension of the English language. This exam is a requirement for most international applicants to American universities at the undergraduate or graduate levels.

Alpha & Omega has built itself up by its bootstraps and I am incredibly proud to have had the opportunity to be involved with its creation since inception.

I have loved everything that AyO has been working on from the early days: cobbling together free classes for community members, setting up meetings with the Guatemalan Ministry of Education to get approval for the school’s charter, striving to find stable space, recruiting students, running marketing and publicity campaigns, and everything in between.

Now, more than ever, the school needs your support to expand its services to a larger area.

Never before has this school solicited donations from Guatemalans, NGOs, or the general public. And never before has your support been more critical. Alpha & Omega is a self-sustaining entity, but your support is necessary to continue building for Guatemala’s future.

In a country where homicide, violence against women, impunity chronic malnutrition, and structural inequality are some of the highest in the world– it is imperative that we invest in the noble and necessary work of Alpha & Omega.

Please join me in supporting Alpha & Omega English Academy’s push to expand services in rural Guatemala!

https://www.gofundme.com/2r0viuk

Check out AyO on Facebook or visit their website.


TL;DR — GIVE MONEY IT’S WORTH IT.

Peace Corps: One Year Later

July 17, 2016 marks one year since I closed my service with the Peace Corps in Guatemala. Since I was a child, I dreamed of traveling to a remote pocket of the world with nothing more than I could carry. Living off the land, the people around me, and striving for something larger than myself, I forwent the trappings of modern life and headed south to the Land of the Eternal Spring.

I left the US naïve, full of idealism, and ready to play savior in the developing world. Little did I know, my two years in poverty would teach me more about myself and humble me before the kindness, compassion, and solidarity I felt from and with the people of my community.

Today marks the one-year anniversary of closing one of the most challenging, revealing, enlightening chapters of my life. Since leaving Guatemala, I have become a stronger, better, more self-aware version of myself.

In celebration of the two years I spent in the Heart of the Mayan World, I would like to share with you the most popular blog posts of my service—thanks to you my friends, family, and supportive readers across the globe!

Top visited posts during service:

  1. [food] Sweet Bread of Guatemala
  2. [food] Tamales vs. Chuchitos
  3. [culture] Who Let the Dogs Out? Guatemalan Style
  4. [food] Gringo in Guate: Paternas
  5. [culture] Mayan Superstitions

Celebrating Peace Corps Week:

Snapshots of Guatemala:

Puebla: Birthplace of Cinco de Mayo

Cinco de mayo, or “cinco de drinko,” as more commonly observed in the United States, is not the Mexican independence day. Like many other countries in the region, Mexico formally became independent from Spain on September 15, 1821 along with Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Costa Rica.

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Source: wikipedia

Cinco de mayo, observed on the 5th of May, commemorates the Battle of Puebla. This historic battle ended in a victory for the Mexican Army against the French during the French Intervention in Mexico. While French forces eventually overran Mexican forces over the length of the campaign, the victory at Puebla demonstrated a resilience and strong spirit of the Mexican people which endures to this day.

On the long road from Oaxaca to Mexico City, Puebla breaks up the journey. Yet again, my senses were availed by a historic beauty. This time, the colonial elements of Puebla were subtly accented with a touch of modernity. The central park is adorned with colorful, modern helvetica script proudly proclaiming PUEBLA in front of the state government palace. Pueblans gather to chat, read the paper, drink coffee, and smoke cigarettes. A forward-thinking outdoor library has been installed along with a giant sandbox which brings a taste of the coast to the warm town.

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To my luck, the chile en nogada was in season. This traditional Mexican dish, native to Puebla is a giant green chile stuffed with savory chicken and doused in a white coconut salsa. On top, the chile is garnished with cinnamon, cilantro, and cardamom. Not coincidentally, the recipe exudes the colors of the Mexican tricolor, a patriotic homage to the great history of Puebla and the enduring pride Mexican’s have for their identity and history.

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Southern Mexico: Tuxtla Gutierrez

The South

Tuxtla

Tuxtla Gutierrez or “Tuxtla” as the bus drivers shout, is the largest city and capital of Mexico’s southernmost state: Chiapas. Unlike it’s charming, colonial neighbor 45 minutes to the southeast, San Cristobal, Tuxtla is a sprawling modern city where Chiapas goes to work. My first impressions were also my last as I did not feel the city had much to offer in terms of culture or sights.

Glossed over in all the guidebooks, Tuxtla Gutierrez is not a tourist destination. Home to a large international airport, most travelers cross paths with the city on the way to other, more scenic destinations in Mexico’s south. And understandably so. While remarkably more clean and developed than most Guatemalan cities, the only spot of particular note to me was the Parque de la marimba where locals gather at night to enjoy street food and outdoor performances. Musicians, artisans, tradespeople, and street performers gather to hawk their trades and the poorly lit streets had me quickly hurrying between the park and the hotel.

A comedian entertains the crowd.

A comedian entertains the crowd.

 

 

The marimba...

The marimba…

As I soon learned would be characteristic of our journey, we made friends with two lovely locals who took the time to show us their favorite spot: the shopping mall. A throwback to my younger days, having never really hung out at the mall, Tuxtla Gutierrez is Chiapan town that one may pass through. It’s not, by any means, a terrible place. Nor is it one that merits a great deal of time spent in a country so otherwise full of excitement and wonder.

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The kids pose for a goofy selfie at the mall.

Southern Mexico: San Cristóbal de las Casas

The South

San Cristóbal

Chiapas, largely indigenous, is economically distressed. Though rich in land, people continue to live as they have for centuries with limited access to financial institutions, higher education, and modern amenities I take for granted in the States. San Cristóbal de las Casas, or “San Cris” as it’s known by locals, is a pastoral colonial town reminiscent of Antigua, Guatemala. Cobblestone streets and artisan handicrafts characteristic of the Maya can be easily found, though there is a greater sense of order to the disorder than in places like the Mercado del Carmen in Antigua. While vendors still congregate in designated areas, many of the markets are pop-up style and open air with craftspeople bringing their own tents, tables, and signs similar to what you’d expect to see at a farmer’s market in the US.

The city is book ended by two large hills. The Cerro de Guadalupe offers precious views of the city and leads to a cathedral and shrine to the virgin.

Beginning the short climb.

Beginning the short climb.

The view of San Cris from the Guadalupe hill.

The view of San Cris from the Guadalupe hill.

The temple

The temple

I enjoyed how the walk around town to the other side to the Templo del Cerrito afforded us the chance to see beautiful street art and even be greeted by our favorite bartenders from the previous night.

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Chiapas pride

The Templo del Cerrito or “Temple of the little hill” is actually atop a relatively large hill by Midwestern standards. The winding stone staircase which scales the hillside is the only way to access the temple but is an attractive climb punctuated by street art and precious views of the entire town and surrounding countryside.

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Up there we made some new friends. In traveling through Central America and Mexico, I’ve found that it’s totally acceptable to strike up a conversation with someone you’d like to get to know better. This is different from many circumstances in the US where it’s only acceptable to initiate conversation with strangers via Tinder. [link to Tinder story]

The two nights spend in San Cris also exposed me to different varieties of mezcal distilled from distinct varieties of agave native to Mexico’s diverse regions. La Surreal, aside from doting upon me lots of postcards which I gladly sent to the first friends I could think of in the haze being conjured up by beautifully tattooed Mexican bartenders schooling me over flight after flight of artisan, agave spirit.

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My first two days in Mexico left me thirsting for more. And for the first time of many on this trip I found myself not wanting to leave.

Traveling Mexico: An Unforgettable South-North Road Trip

After closing my service in Guatemala, my fearless partner in crime Ryan Koch agreed to meet me in Guatemala City and begin a two-week journey through Mexico by car. We would travel from Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost and poorest state, to Monterrey in the country’s industrialized north.

Screenshot 2015-10-28 at 3.00.36 PMMexico is a beautiful country and this trip afforded the opportunity to see a great deal of it. Skipping the Yucatan Peninsula, its Mayan ruins, and the tourist destinations of Cancún and Playa del Carmen, I feel like I got to see a more authentic, “real,” Mexico.

Stay tuned for updates as they come!

The South

Central Mexico – Mexico City & Puebla

The North

  • Guadalajara, Jalisco
  • Monterrey, Nuevo Leon
  • Crossing the Border

 

Honduras: Ruins of Copán

After deciding to take the Peace Corps’ offer to end my service early due to escalating violence in Guatemala, I traveled Honduras via the ruins in Copán, San Pedro Sula (vying for the title of “world’s most dangerous city) and La Ceiba on my way to Utila in the Bay Islands.

For travel from Antigua, Guatemala to anywhere in Honduras I would recommend the Hedman Alas bus line. Their vehicles are in excellent condition (albeit with questionable reading lights, television, and audio) but come equipped with AC and bathrooms for the long journeys.

The first leg of my trip took me to Copán. Home to some of the arguably best-preserved Maya ruins in Central America, the town, called Copán Ruinas a sleepy and small place. Aside from the Hedman Alas bus terminal, shops and hotels abound but the activity of the town doesn’t compare to the hotbed of tourist activity found in Antigua. Lodging is cheap, comfy, and plentiful and in the evening there are lots of street vendors who will sell you a baleada which is a typical Honduran dish consisting of a giant flour tortilla, beans, and sour cream. I tend to like baleadas that trade cream for cheese and add avocado and sausage (preferably chorizo).

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The ruins themselves are about 1km away from the town center. I walked there and back but would recommend taking a wide-brimmed hat for the oppressive sun and plenty of water to stay hydrated. Scarlet macaws can be seen perched in the trees around the ruins of the ancient city and frequently swoop around tourists with shiny cameras.

A photo posted by Cyrus Sethna (@csethna) on

Copán is one of the southern-most Mayan cities and was once a great seat of power.

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Nightlife in Copán was fun. I popped into a bar where I quickly made friends with the locals who were very curious about my journey and two years in Guatemala. Copán’s ruins are breathtaking and the Copanecos, or people from the area, are friendly, welcoming and nice.

Gandalf the Güey

güey is a “dude” in Mexican Spanish. So walking the streets of Guadalajara one day I found this fellow who I lovingly refer to as “Gandalf the Güey.” After placing a $1 peso in his collection tin, he handed me a small slip of paper from another box.

A photo posted by Cyrus Sethna (@csethna) on

I found the wisdom to be quite sage and a little bit revealing about this point in my life.

After a period of darkness, the light always returns. Now you can face a new stage of rebirth. The moment is adequate for you to renovate yourself and begin a new path, without pressure. You will not find resistance that impede your path towards success.

What Goes Up Must Come Down: My Guatexit

Molten rocks are hurled out of the Fuego Volcano’s crater, spewing a column of fiery ash into the stratosphere miles above the ground. As the lava flows down the side of the mountain, it oozes at a much slower pace—several meters per hour and begins to cool, forming igneous rock in the volcano’s lava fields.

The process of a volcanic eruption is highly analogous to my time in Guatemala stemming from an intensely hot, high-pressure drive inside me and manifesting itself through my deeds and actions on behalf of the Peace Corps mission. As with the ash and rock ejected from a volcano, I too was sent at high-speed, barreling towards adventure 757 days ago.

Saying goodbye to my friends and family, I left the United States to embark upon what has been a life-changing journey full of adventure, self-discovery, and the surmounting of the most difficult personal challenges I have experienced in my life to-date.


While my experience has provoked immeasurable personal growth, I will be closing my service with the United States Peace Corps this Friday, July 17—three weeks ahead of schedule. My reasoning for this decision stems from the worsening security situation in Guatemala and the risk that Peace Corps Volunteers run of being victims of serious crime. Recently in Antigua, one of my favorite places in Guatemala, there have been at least three incidents of aggravated robbery—the most recent one resulting in one of my colleagues being stabbed multiple times in the chest.

While most have come to Peace Corps to do a job and perform a service for Guatemala on behalf of the American people, some PCVs continue to engage in high-risk, and frankly, immature behavior that places them at increased risk for these types of serious crime incidents. As a result of these recent events, orders from Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C. have imposed highly-restrictive policies upon currently-serving PCVs which impede many aspects of the individual liberty of qualified, professional adults (like me).

Rather than live my last few weeks in Guatemala unable to travel, visit my favorite places, and say goodbye to my Guatemalan and ex-pat friends, I have decided to take a one-time offer from Peace Corps/ Guatemala’s administration to close my service early with the full benefits of RPCV status such as education credit and Noncompetitive Eligibility for employment in the Federal Competitive Service.

While my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer is drawing to a close, Guatemala will always have a special place in my heart. In the meantime my plans for the immediate future involve returning to San Juan Comalapa for one week in order to pack up my things, say proper goodbyes to my host family and dearest friends. Thereafter I will travel to Honduras’ Bay Islands via the ruins at Copan. I intend to complete the coursework to become a certified rescue scuba diver and return to Guatemala at the beginning of August. I will then pick up my friend and colleague, Ryan Koch from the airport in Guatemala City and he will have the pleasure of coming to the Peace Corps office to watch my official Close of Service Ceremony (I’m only signing the papers on Friday). Immediately afterwards we will make our way into Mexico and road trip back into the United States of America!

Keep checking the blog, or even better subscribe, as I will have updates and insights from my travels along the way. Thank you, loyal readers, for two years of love, support, and encouragement. Your page views, comments, and subscriptions have motivated me to keep this blog alive and updated with fresh, informative, and engaging content. See you Stateside!

Cerro de la Cruz (#34)

The Cerro de la Cruz or “Hill of the Cross” is a historical landmark and park in Antigua, Guatemala. Providing visitors who can arrive by foot or vehicle the opportunity to see magnificent views of the city in its entirety and the Volcán de Agua, the Cerro de la Cruz is also adorned with a cross monument installed by Antigua’s municipal government in 1930.

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Goodbye Guate is a blog series celebrating my last 100 days of Peace Corps service in Guatemala. A beautiful country known as the land of the eternal spring and named as tempting the limits of the possibly picturesque, Guatemala has inspired great changes and tremendous growth within me. I hope to share with you the 100 things I will miss most about this charming and pastoral Central American country.