Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Megapaca Party

We may look like adults on the outside, but we teachers need very little excuse to dress up in ridiculous outfits and act a little silly. 

Months ago, a few of us dreamed up an amazing party idea, and Kenra’s birthday this weekend finally provided us with the opportunity to make it happen. 

Everyone who signed up to come to the party was given someone else’s name and a budget of Q100 (approximately US $12.50) to spend at Megapaca, which is a chain of thrift stores similar to Goodwill…except word has it that everything that doesn’t sell at the Salvation Army outlets in the States gets shipped down to Megapaca here in Guate.  So there are some pretty exceptional finds hidden among the copious racks of the stores. 

So, the goal of the party was basically to dress someone else in the most ridiculous Megapaca outfit imaginable.  We then had a contest for the best worn costume, complete with fashion show, at the party.  Everyone made their outfit into a persona, and it really did become a costume party rather than just a silly dress party. 

It was so much fun.  

Monday, October 20, 2014

Atitlan: Body and Soul

I always tell myself: “Low expectations are often exceeded, whereas high expectations are sometimes met.”  I try to live life with low expectations.  When I can manage that, all of the good things that life become bonuses, and everything seems exponentially better. 

My expectations were pretty low this past long weekend.  We were headed to Lake Atitlan, and I’ve been there plenty of times before.  People kept getting sick and dropping out prior to the trip, nothing was really planned for most of it, and to top it off, our group’s shuttle was leaving on Friday at 3pm right after school…which ensured that we left the city at a crawl that didn’t really ever get much faster, due to the mess that is the town of Chimaltenango, finally to arrive at our hostel at 10pm. 

But here’s the thing:
Lake Atitlan is just good for the soul.

When I woke up on Saturday morning to the view of the volcanos, unshrouded by clouds, the placid lake, and the tranquility that embodies all of it, every bit of frustration I’d had the day before vanished.  It was all worth it. 

That first day, we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at our hostel, Iguana Perdida, then walked along the lake to Isla Verde, the place where some of our other friends were staying.  

The pristine walk to Isla Verde
While we were there, we booked a yoga class for Monday morning and found a peaceful spot to enjoy the view before coming back to our hostel for lunch.  

I could have stayed at Isla Verde in this spot all day! 

In the afternoon, we sunbathed and then took a boat to Panajachel for some shopping and a change of scenery.  

Sunbathing in this spot?  Couldn't really get more perfect.

Delectable coffee on a super cool coffee bean table.
That evening back at our hostel, a 30th birthday celebration took place, which coincidentally brought in a lot of our acquaintances from Antigua.  It was amazing how many familiar faces suddenly filled the place!  Though Amy and I planned to go to bed early to be ready for the next morning’s sunrise hiking departure, we found ourselves talking and dancing for several hours.  I had more fun dancing salsa and merengue that night than I have had in a very long time.  (After the first merengue finished, I was actually a little dizzy from all the spinning I’d done.  I know my footwork was atrocious, yet due to the skill of my partners we kept twirling away!)   

Sunday morning five of us were up and waiting in the darkness at the Santa Cruz dock for our boat to take us across the lake to Santiago, where we began our hike up Volcan Toliman.  Our guide Miguel met us there a little late and immediately took off at a quick, ground-eating pace which we easily and eagerly matched.  

Waiting for our guide in Santiago as the sun rose around us.

The hike was moderate in difficulty (definitely not what I would consider “hard” after having climbed Atitlan and Acatenango) and very enjoyable.  Toward the top of the mountain, the path was overgrown (because really, who is silly enough to climb volcanoes during rainy season except us??), and Miguel had to brandish his machete and chop the path for us.  This slowed us considerably, but we still made it to the top in about 3 hours and 40 minutes.  Of course, by the time we got there at 10am, there was no view save that of a white cloud enveloping the mountain.  I didn’t mind.  As we’d climbed, I’d thought about the fact that through my various hikes, I’ve seen the lake from so many angles already…while a view would have been nice, for once I was in it for the hike itself.
A view of Volcan San Pedro from a corn field on the way up.
At the top, sometimes the clouds would lift just enough
for us to see Toliman's twin peak.

We spent about half an hour at the top enjoying snacks and each other’s’ company.  Miguel had brought “tipico food” for us, which turned out to consist of tortillas, beef in a tomato sauce, avocado, lime, and salt.  It was much more than I was expecting, and was quite delicious.

We started a leisurely decent, but when rain began falling about halfway down, we picked up our pace quite a bit.  Thankfully, the rain stayed gentle and never drenched us with a heavy downpour.  (Yet by the end, we were all quite soaked and, though still generally in good spirits, ready for hot showers and dry clothing). 

That afternoon, we showered and napped, then met up with our friends who had gone to San Juan (another village on the lake) for the afternoon.  We swapped stories over a three course meal at Isla Verde that night.  When we returned at 9pm that night, it was bedtime, and we all slept soundly.

Took a nap on the hammock on Jen and Nadine's balcony.  Lovely spot.
Monday morning, four of us padded back over to Isla Verde for the yoga class we’d signed up for.  The yoga studio there took my breath away.  It is by far the most peaceful setting I’ve ever done yoga in, and I left completely refreshed, body and soul.

Nadine was a good sport and faked a yoga-esque pose for
my picture before class started.  

After packing and checking out, we hopped a boat to Panajachel and took our shuttle from there back to the city.  We avoided major traffic, making it to the Guatemala City by mid-afternoon.  A perfect end to a much needed weekend! 

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Top Ten: Guatemala

A few weeks ago, I received a message from two friends of mine in the Netherlands.  They've started up a travel website and asked if I'd be willing to write a piece on Guatemala for them.  I was thrilled and excited!  My first foree into actual travel writing.  So, while they translate my article into Dutch to post on their website, I'll post it here for your reading pleasure.  (And, because it's my blog, I'll add a bunch of links back to prior entries about each of these things).  

I moved to Guatemala City just over a year ago to teach at an American School here.  I don’t pretend to know everything about the country, its sights and sounds, or its people after one short year, but I started to discover some of its treasures in my time here.  So if you ask my humble opinion, here are my top ten tips for what to do in Guatemala.

1. Hike a volcano.  This is my absolute favorite thing to do in the country.  Guatemala has 33 volcanoes, and many of them are hike-able.  Hire a guide or get a trekking company to take you to the top of one of them.  Be prepared for a long day of physical exertion with a stellar view from the top as a reward.  My personal favorite organization to hike with is Quetzaltrekkers (Click here for Quetzaltrekkers' website) because of their dedication to bettering the community, showcasing Guatemalan culture, and great service with their amiable guides. 
Two of my favorite hikes were Atitlan and Acatenango.

View of Lake Atitlan from near the top of Volcan Atitlan

Volcanes Agua, Acatenango, Fuego, Atitlan, San Pedro, and Toliman
as seen at sunrise from our hike up Volcan Zunil

2. Volunteer!  The disparity between rich and poor in Guatemala is jaw-dropping, and every day the small percentage of upper class citizens get richer while the poor get by with less and less.  Over 50% of children in the country are malnourished.  And extreme poverty breeds a host of other social issues as well.  Volunteering is a great way to see what is really going on in the country.  Many great organizations exist to help, and many of them welcome volunteers.  Research them wisely and remember that  you’re here to open your own eyes, not “bring the change” to the country.
I don't volunteer enough, but the one time I did, it changed me.  

3. Spend some time at Lake Atitlan.  This stunning lake is surrounded by 3 impressive volcanoes and numerous small villages.  Each village has its own personality, and hotels and hostels ranging from hip to luxurious abound.  Spend some time taking in the culture in the villages, learning Spanish in one of the many Spanish schools, hiking, kayaking, shopping at a local market, or just relaxing and drinking in the jaw-dropping view.
I love Atitlan, and I've been to SantiagoSan Pedro, and once, I hiked from Quetzaltenango to Lake Atitlan.

Vocan San Pedro and the lake, seen from Posada de Santiago

Lake Atitlan at dawn

4. Find adventure at Semuc Champey.  Located just outside of Lanquin, Semuc Champey is a bit off the beaten path, but is becoming more of a tourist destination each year, and for good reason.  The turquoise pools, exquisite as seen after hiking to the mirador, are perfect places to swim and play at your leisure.  But you can also swim through the caves there holding your candle above the water, jump off the bridge or the swing into the river, or go tubing down the calmer sections of the river.  There’s something for everyone, and definite adventures to be had. 
My trip to Semuc was definitely an adventure.

View of Semuc Champey from the mirador (lookout point)

5. Bargain at an artisan’s market.   Skip the tourist shops and get a douse of culture with your souvenir shopping as you peruse a true Guatemalan market.  The biggest native market is in the city of Chichicastenango on Thursdays and Sundays, but there are also large artisan markets in Antigua and Guatemala City.  The stalls are filled with colorful fabrics and weavings, handicrafts, jewelry, and artwork.

6. Visit Antigua.  It’s filled with tourists, yes, but they’re there for good reason.  The pretty, colonial town is only 45 minutes from the Guatemala City airport, making it easily accessible, and the cobblestone streets are lined with restaurants boasting pleasing atmospheres and delicious food, cool shops, and beautiful architecture.  Take some time exploring the many ruins throughout the city, check out the markets, relax in the center square, or get a bit more adventurous and go up to the cross that overlooks the city for a great view of the town and surrounding volcanoes.
I still remember my first ever trip to Antigua vividly. 

La Antigua Guatemala

7. Tikal.  Obviously.  Tikal is perhaps the most impressive Mayan site in existence.  Well maintained and protected, if you’re at all into Mayan history, this national park is a must-see.  Stay in the park and get up early to take advantage of the sunrise tour where you’ll listen to the howler monkeys sing Good Morning as the sun lights up the sky over the tallest temples. 
A sunrise tour makes a day starting in Tikal a long one, but a good one.

Sunrise over the jungle of Tikal

Gran Plaza, Tikal

8. Learn about coffee at a finca.  The Guatemalan hills are covered in coffee plantations, and several of them (like Finca Filadelfia just outside Antigua) welcome visitors, offer tours, and teach about the coffee making process.  So go, enjoy the beautiful views, sample some deliciously fresh roasted coffee, and learn a bit! 
I confess the only time I was at Finca Filadelfia, it was for a brutal race and not to learn about coffee...but it's a beautiful place! 

9. Hit up the beach.  Guatemala may not boast the calm white-sand beaches of the Caribbean, but its volcanic black sand beaches on the Pacific coast are still worth visiting.  I recommend renting a beach house or hotel room with a pool and a nice view of the waves, because strong currents and riptides make the ocean treacherous.
I've had some great times at the beach, both in Monterrico and Iztapa.

Sunset on the beach in Hawaii, Guatemala

10. Skip Guatemala City and head to Quetzaltenango for culture.  Guatemala City gets a bad rap as a tourist destination because of the crime and traffic and overall dingy big city feel.  (That’s not to say that the city doesn’t have its charms, of course—check out Zona 10 for great restaurants or visit Historical Zona 1 during the daylight hours for a piece of history).  But Guate’s 2nd largest city, Quetzaltenango (more often called “Xela” by locals), has what most people look for in a Central American city: a lively center square, colonial architecture, and friendly people.  Xela is also a popular starting point for more adventurous activities.  Several volcano hikes leave from there, and there are also rock climbing options and hot springs nearby. 
The last time I was in Xela, we went rock climbing.

Walkind down the hill towards Xela's main plaza

Bottom line: Guatemala is worth a visit.  Come give it a try.  

Monday, October 6, 2014

A Course on Leadership

Last week I finished my first Framingham masters course of the new school year.  6 classes down total, 3 to go until I have my masters degree.  This most recent class focused on Collaborative Leadership, and was taught by a spunky, spiritual, loving professor who lives in Antigua and is, simply put, a force of nature.  Her class was anything but conventional.  We began and ended each meeting with a bow, breathing in the air and energy from the earth or the sky, bowing to each other and letting that energy flow to the center of the circle, then breathing in again “just taking what we needed for the night” as we stood up.  We also meditated several times throughout the course, and each evening included time for both reflection and for play. 

At first I really wasn’t sure what to make of the course.  It certainly was not stressful, but the format being so different from other classes, I worried that I wouldn’t learn “enough” in it.  As the class progressed, though, I came to realize I was learning, just not in the conventional sense.  I didn’t leave the course ready for a test, with my head full of memorized facts and data about the best forms of leadership…but I could certainly write an essay about what it means to collaborate and what the most effective forms of leadership look like. 

During the course, we worked on a project utilizing Appreciative Inquiry to interview people and then develop a “dream plan” to revolutionize leadership, supervision, or professional development at our school.  Working in my group of 6 teachers was, in my opinion, hands-down the best group work experience I have ever had, and a perfect example of collaboration.  The six of us had very different views about most everything, but shockingly, though there may have been moments of quiet frustration during our discussions, we always talked it out and came around to a decision that everyone was comfortable with.  It was a slow, thorough process.  Simply developing our four interview questions took several hours of talking to come to agreement.  But we did it.  No one backed down or let the others take over rather than disagree.  That would have been the easy way to solve our problems, just letting one person direct the project and lead it in the direction he or she saw fit, but we didn’t do that.  And as a result, in my opinion at least, we all came away with a clear vision of what it means to truly collaborate.

Many education professors will tell you that the best way to learn is by doing, and that we should teach our students using a Constructivist approach (students construct their own learning).  It’s sound theory, and lots of professors tell you to do it in your classroom.  Very, very few professors actually take the time and effort to practice what they preach.  In fact, I think this course may have been the only course in my life that I think was truly Constructivist.  My whole mindset changed throughout the course, to the point where, when on the 2nd to last day of class our professor finally got around to addressing Chapter 1 of our textbook by summarizing the key points for us, I found my inner self rebelling, thinking, “What are you doing?!  You don’t tell us the ‘right’ answers about leadership or what Appreciative Inquiry is…we figure it out on our own!  Stop giving us the quick version!” 

So I guess it’s pretty obvious that, whether I realized it or not, I was learning quite a bit, not only about leadership, but about teaching and how to create that environment that I covet in my classroom.