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Returning to Guatemala

8 Jul

Guatemala was the country that changed everything for me. When I first traveled to the country in 2011, I had never been on a plane, never left the country, and never ventured anywhere for more than a day or two without my parents. As I boarded the plane, I was full of apprehension and fear. However, once I stepped off the plane, everything changed. Guatemala swept me off my feet, sending me head-over-heels in love within a matter of minutes.

Before I even headed back to the United States, I knew that I would be returning. Almost exactly one year later, I did.

Flying into Guatemala City

In the weeks leading up to Guatemala, I was full of excitement. It was the only thing on my mind. Every few days, I posted a countdown on Facebook. I emailed all of the friends I had made the previous year, letting them know I would be there in just a few days. I talked to those going on the trip – the teachers that had gone last year and seven other students who had never been to Guatemala before, and the excitement grew. I couldn’t wait to share my favorite place on Earth with others.

However, underneath that excitement was a little bit of apprehension. What if it wasn’t as wonderful as I remembered? What if I was disappointed?

I spent the day before I left frantically finishing schoolwork before throwing clothes and all of the school supplies I had accumulated over the year for the school we volunteered at in Joyabaj into two suitcases laying on my floor. The end result was two suitcases that I could barely lift and a bedroom floor covered in stuff that I hadn’t been able to fit. (My packing skills could certainly be improved!)

That night, I didn’t even bother to sleep. Our flight left at 6am and with the 2-hour international flight check-in time and the hour drive to the airport, we had to leave my house by 3am. I saw no sense in attempting to get three or four hours sleep, knowing that I was too excited to actually fall asleep.

We arrived at the airport early, as I had been concerned about being late, and stood around as we awkwardly waited for the others going on the trip to arrive. As it was a cyber-school trip, no one really knew anyone before the trip and as other students arrived, we continued standing around awkwardly. Finally, when everyone was there, we said goodbye to our parents, checked our bags, and headed through security.

Our flight flew from Pittsburgh to Atlanta, with a 2-hour layover, before continuing on to Guatemala City. Though the layover gave us a nice chance to walk around and eat something besides barely-edible airplane food, all I really wanted to do was get to Guatemala.

Street in Guatemala City

The last hour of the flight was probably the longest hour of my life. My apprehension combined with my pure excitement resulted in a lot of seat-bouncing and “how much longer?”s.

We finally landed in Guatemala City, collected our bags, and headed through customs. The Guatemala City airport is my favorite airport to fly into because it’s so spacious and easy to navigate. Plus, I’ve never spent more than 20 minutes in the line for customs and never encountered a rude employee.

After exiting customs, we made our way outside where our driver was waiting for us. As soon as I stepped through the door, I took a deep breath and all of the worries I had left. I was right where I was supposed to be.


Where Have I Been?!

22 May

Wow, it’s been a LONG time since I posted, thanks to the absolute insanity of my life the past few months.

Since I last posted, I failed my Spanish Challenge but still returned to my favorite place on Earth

(Lake Atitlan, Guatemala)

and got to spend time with some very special people

(the teachers at the school I volunteer at)

Then I came back to the United States for a whole 48 hours before boarding a plane by myself for the very first time, racing across an airport to catch my connecting flight, and then I was headed to Panama with another small group of friends and teachers.

In Panama, I had the best fried chicken I’ve ever tasted in my life

(Nelvis fried chicken)

And then I had my glasses stolen by a monkey on this island

(some secluded island we ended up at)

Both trips were incredible and life-changing. Going back to Guatemala was emotional for me because I love it so much and I got to see all of the people that I love so much for the first time in a year. Then I found out that my favorite person in the entire world has a possibly terminal illness, which broke my heart, but also made me so thankful that I was able to spend time with her. Ten days was far too short a period of time to spend in Guatemala and I am so happy to be going back for a longer period of time in January. But, I did get to explore some new places, which I’ll be blogging about too.

Panama was just a whirlwind of firsts for me. While Panama was an “easier” country to handle, compared to Guatemala, the trip managed to push me out of my comfort zone again and again. I went white-water rafting for the first time, despite my fear of drowning, tried Peruvian food, and attempted to salsa dance (but quickly learned that I fail terribly). The people I went with were near strangers at the beginning of the trip but there’s barely been a day that I’ve gone without talking to them since returning home – the two girls and I are something like sisters now.

Both trips were just amazing and I have so many things to blog about but, first, I need to finish my last seven days of high school. Next Friday is my last day of high school ever and it’s completely surreal. I’m excited and terrified and have 1308530 things to do before then.

I have some really exciting things planned for the next year – like a cross-country roadtrip and my first 5k – that I can’t wait to share more about and I’m really dying to spill about all the details of Guatemala and Panama.

Now I just need to finish high school!

The Spanish Challenge

7 Feb

Last year, before I went to Guatemala, I thought I could speak Spanish. Then we landed and it turned out that the only thing I could really say was “Hola”. Apparently the hours of staring at conjugation lists and learning how vocabulary related to buying and selling a house (something I did SO much of in Guatemala) didn’t really prepare me to actually TALK in Spanish. The trip was still wonderful but I always felt frustrated with my lack of ability to understand what the kids were saying and I’m sure that I could have had much more meaningful interactions with some of the girls had I actually been able to converse with them.

When I left Guatemala, I was determined to improve my Spanish skills and be able to talk before I returned. I kept up with this for a few months, making flashcards and buying workbooks and attempting to converse with my Guatemalan friends. Then school started back up and life got crazy. I thought, Oh I don’t need to work on these things, I’ll be in Spanish 3 so obviously I will improve.

Yet we’re 45 days away from my return to Guatemala and my Spanish skills are no better than last year. I may be in Spanish 3 but I’m not learning a thing. I can write basic sentences but ask me to speak Spanish and I freeze. The verb conjugation charts and vocabulary about fairytales are not helping me. I guarantee that when I’m trying to talk to high school students in Guatemala that they’re not going to ask me to make up a story based on some pictures. While I understand that we learn the vocabulary to help us understand the usage of each verb tense, it’s just not helping me reach my goal.

I don’t need to understand every verb tense under the sun or know 10,000 different words. I just want to be able to have simple conversations with my friends in Guatemala.

So I’ve set myself a goal, one that I’m hoping anyone reading this blog will hold me to. I want to improve my Spanish enough to hold basic conversations while I am in Guatemala. I have 45 days and if this guy can become totally fluent in 3 months, I can reach this goal in 45 days.

I’m formulating a plan on how to reach this goal, which I’ll write a blog post about soon.

In the meantime, do you have any advice for trying to learn a language when you cannot properly immerse yourself into the country and culture?

Pre-Trip Worries

5 Feb

My return to Guatemala is getting closer and closer. There are 47 days until our plane takes off. Each week we have a meeting to get together as a group and discuss things for the trip. I usually end up speaking at these meetings because it seems people believe things coming from someone their own age as opposed to a teacher and we want to get everyone excited.

47 days.

I’ve waited for this trip for so long and I’m so excited that it’s so close that I can barely sleep at night. I look through the pictures I look last year, reread my journal entries from the trip, and every part of me wants to be back there. Right now.

I anticipate seeing all of the friends I made last year, impressing them with my new Spanish skills, and seeing the bilingual secretary teacher whom I’ve kept in contact with and running up to her in excitement. I think about the market on Sunday and the yarn that I want to buy. When we go to Panajachel, I know exactly what I want to buy. I’m determined that this trip will be just as magical as the last one.

But what if it isn’t?

I hold the days that I spent in Guatemala so close to perfection that I’m afraid I’ve exaggerated in my head. Last year when I went, I had no expectations. All I had was a bunch of fears and a little bit of excitement. But this year, I know what to expect. We’re going to the same places we went last year. All of the people that I met last year will still be there. I’ve been waiting for this trip to come for so long that I’m worried that I’m going to let myself down, that it won’t be as wonderful as I’m expecting it to be in my head.

This time last year I was so afraid to go on this trip that I almost considered backing out. I was afraid to get on the airplane, afraid to try the new foods, afraid to be away from home, afraid to hike up the ruins, afraid to try to speak Spanish. This year, I don’t feel any of that. This year, my only fear is this. The fear that it won’t be the same, that I’m ruining something special by returning.

Has anyone else ever had these feelings about returning to a place that they loved? Is this just nerves talking? Is this normal?

Hello, Dream College!

25 Jan

Saturday, January 21, 2012 may quite possibly go down as one of the best days of my life. Why? Well, because I got some wonderful news.

I got accepted in to my dream college!

I’m still kind of freaking out over it. I was not expecting to receive a letter at all because I thought I still had another two weeks and an interview before the college made a decision. So imagine my surprise when I opened an envelope from them, assuming it would just be another general information packet, and the first words I read are “Congratulations! I am pleased to offer you admission…”

To say I freaked out would be an understatement. I screamed “I got in!!!” in the car, called everyone who would even care the slightest bit, texted pictures of the letter to all of my friends…then I danced around the house the rest of the night.

I will officially be a student of LIU Global!

A lot of people, particularly my friends who applied to fifteen different colleges and get acceptance letters every day, are a little stunned by my reaction. I mean, it’s just a college, right? There’s thousands of them out there! Well, yes…except, um, this was the only school I applied to. I put everything I had into that application, I freaked out for days before I finally hit the “send” button. All of my hopes and dreams were riding on getting that shiny letter in the mail. I wasn’t sure if I would get in or not and, if I hadn’t, I would have gotten over it and moved on. I would have applied to colleges next fall and found somewhere else that I could have probably been happy at. But, luckily, that doesn’t have to happen. BECAUSE I GOT IN. (I really love typing that…)

So why LIU Global?

From the moment I found out about it, LIU Global has been my top choice as far as colleges go. There was never another contestant. Why? Well, because it’s the ONLY college of its kind. It takes hands-on learning and immersion into a new culture to the next level and gives students the opportunity to study abroad EVERY YEAR they are in college. It has centers in Costa Rica, Thailand, Taiwan, Turkey, India, China, Australia, Peru and Ecuador. Everyone does their freshman year in Costa Rica and then has a few options. I plan on spending my first year in Costa Rica, my second during a Comparative Culture and Religion focus that will take me to Turkey, Thailand, Taiwan and India over the course of the year, and then I’ll spend my third year doing the Global Issues in South America program which will take me to Peru and Ecuador in the fall and I’ll finish it off with a semester in Australia that spring. For our senior year, we can pick pretty much anywhere we want to go, as long as we can get it approved, for the first semester. I’m leaning towards Africa right now. Then we round off our college career with the final semester in NYC.

Four years of non-stop travel! Five, if you count my gap year…I can honestly say that I’ve NEVER been more excited in my life. It sounds like heaven!

I’ll graduate with a Global Studies degree. Everyone always raises their eyebrow and goes “What are you going to do with THAT?” when I tell them that part. Well…I’ll do pretty much anything I want. I can go back to school to get my masters in something. I can teach abroad. I can write. I can get a job with a nonprofit. I can do whatever I want. Right now, I’m definitely leaning towards teaching English abroad, just because that’s something I’ve wanted to do since returning home from Guatemala. But, who knows, maybe I’ll do something totally different!

I can’t wait for the future!

I’m Going to Panama!

19 Jan

As of three days ago, I will be heading to Panama for 16 days in April!

This is yet another awesome opportunity presented to me by my school. Each year for the past 6 or so years, my school has taken a small group of students to Panama where they have implemented various projects. I’ve been interested in this trip since my freshman year but in 9th grade it seemed impossible and in 10th grade I was already going to Guatemala. This year was my last year to attend (yay early graduation!) and I figured that since I was already going back to Guatemala that I would have to give up the chance to go.

But, then, last week, the price of Guatemala went down by $500, thanks to cheaper airline tickets and a few fundraisers that the school did. That, combined with the fact that this year’s project involved working with children convinced me that I needed to at least attempt to go.

So I talked to the teachers in charge of the trip and discussed the price and various activities we would be doing. Then I put together an entire proposal to present to my parents. This included a title page, a description of the trip, a list of reasons why it would be good for me to go (improved Spanish, more travel experience, I love Latin American culture, etc), and an explanation of how I would go about raising the money and how I would be able to balance school and everything with both trips. To my surprise, even though my mom burst out in laughter when I first approached her with the subject, they both said yes. The only issue either of them had was that I would be gone for a few days of the state standardized testing, which is a requirement for graduation, and I to make arrangements to make them up before I was officially allowed to go. (Yet another reason why I HATE No Child Left Behind.) Fortunately, I was able to clear that up pretty quickly.

I am both super excited and terrified for this trip. We’ll be spending a day in Panama City, including a tour of the Panama Canal, and then be heading to the town of Boquete for the majority of our stay. While in Boquete we will be working with Casa Esperanza to help eradicate child labor through “education, literacy, health, nutrition and personal development to Panama’s most vulnerable children and youth.” Our main tasks will involve assisting the children with their English, helping them with their homework, and just spending time with them. We will also be hosting an event in the town for them, though I am currently unsure of what all that will entitle. I’m really excited for this part of the trip. Even though we will only be there for two weeks, I feel like we can still make a difference to at least a few children.

Besides our volunteer work, we will be going ziplining and white water rafting on the weekends. To say that I’m anything less than terrified is an understatement. In all honesty, the thought of doing those two things almost stopped me from going on the trip. I’m terrified of heights and not necessarily the best swimmer. But I made a resolution to get over some of my fears and ziplining through a cloud forest sounds like a pretty good place to start. We’re also going to spend a day at the beach, which I am really excited for, since I haven’t been to a beach since I was 7 and, you know, foreign beaches are always cooler. 🙂

Have you been to Panama or visited the Panama Canal? Feel free to share your experiences!

Change of Plans

5 Jan

I’ve been planning my gap year for a while now and my plans have changed faster than my clothes. First I was going to go around the world, hitting as many countries as possible. Then, when reality started to sink in, I changed my mind to spending 3-4 months in Latin America and flying home for Christmas, followed by 3-4 months in East Asia. Finally, when reality sunk in a little more, I decided on exploring more of the U.S., coming home for Christmas, and exploring Latin America for six months. I began to get a basic plan together in the past few weeks and had a general idea of where I would be when. Each day I would plan the trip a little more, finding something new that I wanted to see every day. I began counting down the days until my trip.

Then my best friend came over and dropped some big news. She was getting married, in May 2013, and she wanted me to be in the wedding. My first reaction was excitement, for her and for me. She had been waiting for a ring for a while now and her happiness was contagious. Plus I’ve always wanted to be in a wedding.

Then I realized what the date was. It is smack-dab in the middle of my gap year, right around the time I should have been in Bolivia.


Being a bridesmaid means I can’t just pop in for the day of the wedding. I have be there for the bridal shower, bachelorette party, and dress fittings.

Double crap.

Once I realized that, I immediately began changing plans in my head. If I’m home by April…if I skip this part of the trip… As excited as I was about traveling to a bunch of different countries, there was never any hesitation about changing my plans around. Bolivia, Peru, and Argentina will always be there. The rain forest may not be there forever but it will still be there in a few years. But, my best friend will (hopefully) only get married once. We’ve been best friends since I was in seventh grade and she’s helped me through everything. There is absolutely no way that I would put a new obsession with travel before something like her wedding.


However, since the wedding is in May, I still have a few months to travel. My plan for exploring the US still works – it’s just the Latin America part that needs to be revised. I know that I’m definitely going to Guatemala, at least for a month, just because I love it so much and it was the country that started this whole travel obsession. That leaves about 1-2 months to explore other places. I just haven’t figured out where, yet.


So, if you had thirty days to explore anywhere in Latin America, where would you go?