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.

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.

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.

Pizza Maya (#39)

Sinking my teeth into a toasted tortilla, beans and cheese ooze out from between the unleavened corn loaves. My host mom cackles gleefully, handing me a napkin, as piping hot globs drip onto my plate.


“Pizza Maya” is an invention by my beloved Señora Juana, Guatemalan chef extraordinaire and my darling host mother in the land of the eternal spring. A delicious snack, tortillas are only about the size of your palm. The pizza Maya is a creative Guatemalan take on a foreign, outlandish culinary concept which involves the incorporation of locally-available dietary staples.

¡Buen provecho!

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.

Burning of the bull (#41)

Sparks shoot into the air and firecrackers blast out towards the crowd gathered in the town square. The effigy of a bull prances around to the sweet, tranquil sound of marimba hammering out a traditional son rhythm. The juxtaposition is strong and people cringe as the bull passes them by—yet the crowd doesn’t disperse.

During the fair in my town, there are many attractions available to celebrate the patron saint: John the Baptist. One of my favorite and probably least-sensible traditions is the “burning of the bull” where a likeness of a bull is constructed out of wood and wire and strung up with all manner of pyrotechnics. A man then proceeds to get inside and dance around with the flaming frame of a bull burning around him, discharging fireworks at bystanders. People, rather than flee for their safety, are mesmerized by the spectacle which occurs in the main plaza of San Juan Comalapa just before the final dance on the last night of the town fair is opened.

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.

Fair Weather (#42)

The festivities, spanning the length of the last week in June are a beautiful flurry of religious activities including alfombras and processions. But also, appropriate homage is paid to Comalapa’s other cultural fortes such as music. Roving bands parade through the streets cheerfully tooting trumpets, glockenspiel-esque representations of the marimba, and plenty of percussion and soul.

A photo posted by Cyrus Sethna (@csethna) on

Parades, pageants, and the town dance highlight the week as all-important occurrences in the social lives of all- young and old alike. Street food vendors and souvenir peddlers cram into every available inch of space in the central park. Mechanical rides and typical “try-your-luck” carnival games abound- though structural integrity and safety standards are dubiously observed (at best).

First published here on csethna.com.

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.

El Quiché (#59)

The Quiché department is Guatemala’s most populous and is predominantly Mayan. Named for speakers of the K’iche’ language, Quiché is part of Guatemala’s “poverty belt” which stretches from Huehuetenango, through Quetzaltenango, San Marcos, Totonicapán, Sololá departments. An area that was heavily impacted by Guatemala’s civil war and genocide, anthropologists and historians studying the genocide continue to exhume mass graves today. The Ixil triangle- an area in the north of Quiché- was made famous by the notorious dictator Efrían Ríos Montt who is allegedly responsible for ordering systematic exterminations of indigenous people. During the 36-year conflict, Mayan people suffered greatly at the hands of the US-backed, anti-communist military regime.

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Diego Luz Tzunux takes apicture with his cell phone of his brother Manul Luz Tzunux, who dissapeared in 1980, and now is being exhumed by forensic anthropologist in Uspatan, Quiche. August, 2009

Photo credit: Rodrigo Abd, see also: Optical Realities, Guatemala

Although some progress has been made towards undoing the damage done by years of conflict, “the Mayan people continue to face discrimination and live in grinding poverty,” especially in Quiché. Often afraid of and mistrustful of outsiders, social, economic, and infrastructure development is a challenge. While indigenous groups have historically been excluded from Guatemala’s socio-political context, poor roads, sporadic telecommunications, and unreliable public services make development in Quiché an even greater challenge.

Solitary houses perched upon a hillside.

Solitary houses perched upon a hillside.

This weekend I went to visit some friends and PCV colleagues who live in Quiché- they showed me a side of the department that doesn’t appear in the news or academic literature. After a three and a half hour journey, I met my friend Sergio in the department capital of Santa Cruz del Quiché. From there we journeyed another three hours north to San Miguel Uspantán, a town only accessible by dirt roads with no grocery store- but two awesome pizza places and a Chinese restaurant! The trip took us through the Sacapulas microclimate which is an almost tropical area perched high up in the mountains. The geography of the valley where Sacapulas is located allows for a much warmer climate than the surrounding hillsides.

An irrigation ditch.

An irrigation ditch.

The next day, Sergio and I, joined by Uspantán’s two other PCVs went for an epic hike through the mountains of Quiché to the town of Canillá- where Sergio lives and works. The journey makes for a Hobbit-esque tale. Aside from being physically challenging in every way possible, the eight-hour hike showed me parts of the Quiché department that I had never seen. The authenticity of rural life, while beautiful and rustic, underscores suffering in the poorest, most rural parts of Guatemala. Whether or not these people are aware- or empowered- to change this reality is a discourse that takes pages rather than paragraphs.

Regardless of Quiché’s socio-political climate and economic prospects, it is a beautiful countryside rivaled by few others I have seen.

The Río Negro, like the photographer, winding between mountains.

The Río Negro, like the photographer, winding between mountains.

A crumbling bridge spans the Río Negro, a seldom traveled road.

A crumbling bridge spans the Río Negro and connects a seldom traveled road.

Nature and Draz, pristine and picturesque.

Nature and Draz, pristine and picturesque.

Another view of the Río Negro. The crumbling bridge can be seen in the distance along with the road that continues up the opposing mountainside.

Another view of the Río Negro. The crumbling bridge can be seen in the distance along with the road that continues up the opposing mountainside.

A mysterious cave in the cliff face.

A mysterious cave in the cliff face.

A solitary church.

A solitary church.

Ruins of a house, half buried by time.

Ruins of a house, half buried by time.

A horse grazes around the stones.

A horse grazes around the stones.

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.

Being Famous (#64)

Stepping off the plane in Guatemala, I immediately felt out of my element. I didn’t know how to relate to people, I didn’t know how to make friends in a cross-cultural context, I didn’t know how I was going to pretend to like my colleagues for the next 27 months (fortunately they ended up turning out to be pretty cool).

However being one of few foreigners in a country that is about 70% rural and over 50% impoverished has it’s advantages: pretty much everyone is curious about you and wants to be your friend. Granted, some people go about seeking friendship in decidedly more creepy and annoying ways, but by-and-large one of the things I’m going to miss about Guatemala is having random people want to come up to me and take pictures with me, have me hold their babies, and join them for a snack.

The local English academy thanking me for helping them set up a website.

The local English academy thanking me for helping them set up a website.

This pseudo-fame also has landed me some pretty sweet opportunities to get to know even more people by being invited to give presentations, speeches, and participate as the “special guest” at many civic functions. Going from being compared to the likes of Bill Clinton and Michael Jackson based on our shared nationality is going to be sorely missed when I return to being just another person in the United States.

But in the meantime, it looks like modeling positive life skills is rubbing off (or people are just good at telling me what I want to hear)!

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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.

Riding in the Back of Pickup Trucks (#66)

The wind rushes through my hair and blows in my ears. As the pickup truck hurtles around sharp mountain curves, I hold on for dear life, flexing my knees and shifting my weight to keep my balance. Trying not to think of the consequences if the driver were to lose control around the next bend, I enjoy the air on my face and the unobstructed view of nature.

There’s something exhilarating about riding in the back of pickup trucks instead of on a bus or in a car. Never knowing whether or not you’ll be smashed up against a small Mayan lady or a basket full of live chickens, no two rides- or fletes as they call them in Guatemala- are alike. It’s an experience that lends your body and mind to nature and the spirit of adventure on the open road.

Posing in the bed of a pickup truck with my sister Lienne and friend Horizon.

Posing in the bed of a pickup truck with my sister Lienne and friend Horizon.

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.

My Training Class (#69)

My training class, known as Bak’tun 2, arrived in Guatemala on June 18, 2013. Greeted at La Aurora International Airport by Peace Corps staff and fellow volunteers, we shuffled sleepily towards baggage claim, customs, and the yellow school bus waiting for us outside the arrivals concourse. I remember arriving, jittery with excitement to be in the self-proclaimed heart of the Mayan world, yet exhausted from our 4AM flight out of Reagan International that very morning.

Bak'tun 2 at our Swearing-in Ceremony

Bak’tun 2 at our Swearing-in Ceremony

In those days, we were 27 strong. 700 days later, our numbers have dwindled, yet we are stronger than ever. Consisting of PCVs from two projects, Youth in Development and Maternal and Child Health, volunteers representing Bak’tun 2, Peace Corps, and the United States of America are spread throughout the five (out of twenty-two) departments deemed safe enough to work in. This month, I had my Close of Service conference with my remaining group members.

Because of their camaraderie and support, I have had strong network of colleagues and friends. They’re there when I need a hand or a leg up and these last two years wouldn’t have been possible without them.

Our second group following the major restructuring of PC/GT. And it is with bittersweet emotion that we must begin our…

Posted by Peace Corps Guatemala on Wednesday, May 20, 2015

My training class at our Close of Service Conference.

My training class at our Close of Service Conference.

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.