Study Abroad - Maya Daniels

Maya Daniels
BY MAYA DANIELS ‘12

I was riding a subway in New York City during Spring Break when I first had the idea to go to Guatemala. After spotting an advetisement in Spanish, my thoughts flowed from regrets about forgetting my basic knowledge of the language to a wish to travel to a Spanish-speaking country. I realized that by using AP credits from high school, I could skip fall semester and live in a place I’d always wanted to visit. I cancelled my previous study abroad plans and committed myself to researching volunteer opportunities in Guatemala. After several months of
dump.

My first few days in Guatemala were spent reviewing and re-learning Spanish in intensive language classes, touring the dump and surrounding shantytowns and attending an extensive orientation to the project. Assigned the role of Teaching Assistant, I was placed in the main building with 6th graders in the morning and 3rd graders in the afternoon. My duties as a teaching assistant included helping students with homework, making copies, handing out vitamins, and accompanying the class to various sports activities. By the time I returned to my home-stay at six each evening, I was usually too exhausted to do anything besides watch telenovelas and sleep. Gradually, I fell into a routine alongside my fellow volunteers. The majority of us lived in Antigua, an hour-long bus ride from the project site, and I learned to catch up on sleep during the ride to and from the City. My home-stay family soon seemed as close to me as members of my actual family, inquiring about my day and gently correcting my Spanish. I quickly learned that life in Guatemala has two very different sides, and that as a volunteer, I would pass between them every day.

Antigua maintains a reputation as the tourist capital of Guatemala and is filled with restaurants, clubs, bustling markets, and expatriates. The cobblestone streets, bright houses, and (relatively) cheap prices often make Guatemala seem like a dream, where one can escape the demands of the real world and live untroubled forever. However, it doesn’t take much effort to see the grittier side of Guatemala; there are houses of stacked tin and hanging cloth, a pervasiveness of machine guns and military police, and people struggling to make enough money to survive another day. According to the United Nations, almost 30% of the country lives on less than $1 per day and 70% live on less than $2. Nowhere was this wealth disparity more apparent than in the Camino Seguro community. Teaching and tutoring kids who subsisted solely on what their families could scavenge from the Guatemala City dump forced me to acknowledge my own place of privilege in a way that I had never considered in the United States.

The feeling of powerlessness was sometimes overwhelming. I soon fell in love with the kids in my classes and often wished that I could somehow do more to fix their situation and free them from a life of poverty and hardship . While Camino Seguro’ s building was beautifully constructed and maintained, destitute living conditions could be seen from its every window. The dump was easily located by the vultures tirelessly circling in the sky and, when it rained or the wind blew, the smell of the dump was inescapable. For the first few days, it was difficult to remember that even though we were providing food and basic necessities for the children, we had to resist pity and provide them with a dignity they were denied by the rest of the world.

Unfortunately, illness sent me home two months earlier than I’d planned. But not before I promised myself, like nearly every other Camino Seguro volunteer leaving the project, that I would return.