The Gilman Scholarship

My incredible experiences in Guatemala wouldn’t have been possible without the assistance I received from the Gilman Scholarship. The application process for the Gilman Scholarship was time consuming, but completely worth the effort. Their website was very easy to use and they guide you step by step through the application process. I highly recommend students that are looking for a life-changing, study-abroad experience to apply here:

 http://www.iie.org/Programs/Gilman-Scholarship-Program

I am also eager and happy to answer any questions about the Gilman Scholarship or my experiences studying abroad. I can be contacted by email: kyledurgin@gmail.com

My last 10 days…

My last 10 days in Guatemala were bitter-sweet. I completed my required courses at Juan Sisay. I was happy to be done with the studying, but at the same time I knew that I would miss the many friends I had made at the school and in my host family. The hardest part of my farewell was saying goodbye to Abuelita (little grandmother) and my host family. I gave her a gift to say goodbye and she burst into tears and gave me a long hug. It was a wonderful feeling to have grown so close to a family from a totally new country. My graduation ceremony was similar. My teacher gave a wonderful speech about all of the fun things we had experienced in 9 weeks and how she was going to miss me (all in Spanish of course). We then celebrated with the whole school and danced the night away again.

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The last few days I spent travelling, in a very roundabout way, to the airport. I spent a few days on the beach in Livingston and traveled up and down Rio Dulce. The days on the beach were relaxing! I got to go fishing with a local man and he also took me and my friends on a tour of the local town which included a hike to some pools, a canoe trip up a little river and a boat ride to Playa Blanca (White Beach).

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It was a lovely way to end my time in Guatemala and I met some other fascinating travelers while there. Finally, it was time to leave and I headed to the airport. Twelve hours later, I found myself landing in Minneapolis, MN. Walking out into the cool Minneapolis air felt surreal. I could hardly believe that I was finally back after a life-changing adventure in Guatemala! I experienced so many things while I was gone and met so many people! I will always treasure my memories of Guatemala and want to return someday!

Juan Sisay Weekend Adventures (cont.)

One of the weekend outings offered by my Spanish school was a zipline adventure high above the Guatemalan jungle down the side of a mountain. The view was stunning and coupled with the high speed created an exhilarating adrenaline rush! This was, without a doubt, one of my favorite activities.

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During one of my Saturdays in Guatemala we had the opportunity to travel to a historic Mayan site where we received a tour of the ruins there. Our guide explained the significance of all the different structures and stone carvings and led us on a very detailed tour of the grounds there. The tour was given in Spanish and we took turns translating for the group which was an excellent learning opportunity as it really challenged my Spanish skills. Below is a picture of one of the Mayan “sewers.” In essence it was a pipe made with stone. I was surprised how well it was preserved after so many years.

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Included with the ruins was a small zoo with animals typical to the area. My favorite animal was a baby monkey that clung to it’s mother as she clambered rapidly around the cage. Unfortunately, I was unable to get a photo of it but here are some pictures of the other animals that we saw.

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One Sunday morning at 5:00 a.m. a few of us got a local guide to take us up a volcano to view a sacred lake that is located in its crater. The volcano lake is called Laguna Chicabal. The hike up the slippery mountainside was strenuous, but the view at the end was totally worth it! We walked around the perimeter of the lake and visited shrines of Mayan deities located around the lake. Our guide explained the significance of the shrines and was very friendly and helped us with our Spanish while we hiked.

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Above is a picture of the lake viewed from the rim of the volcano and to the right of it are some of the 600+ stairs we had to climb down to get to the water.

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Here are a couple pictures of the lush jungle plants that surround the lake. It was a dreary day, but the scenery was still spectacular. I even had the opportunity to climb out over the water on a tree branch! (pictured below)

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The next Sunday I hiked up the big volcano Santa Maria which is located right next to Xela. The hike up was the most arduous climb I have ever experienced, and the 360 degree view on the top was probably the greatest view I have ever seen!

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On several occasions I visited Lake Atitlan. Atitlan is an enormous lake surrounded by numerous large volcanoes. My visits there were always blissful and we enjoyed site-seeing, kayaking, hiking, shopping, and many more fun activities. It is really hard to sum up the awesomeness of Lake Atitlan as one really needs to go there to experience it! Here are a few pictures of my time there.

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Semuc Champey! I was fortunate enough to be able to spend a long weekend at Semuc Champey in the Northern part of Guatemala during my time there. Semuc is a natural monument. It consists of a 300 foot limestone bridge with a large river rushing underneath. The structure of the bridge causes gorgeous pools to form above and the water trickles from one pool to the next. It was awesome to swim in the pools, jump off cliffs into the water, climb down a ladder and see where the water rushes out, explore a cave with a river flowing through it by candlelight, tube down the river, share dinner and drinks with friends and soak in the beauty of the jungle! I highly recommend this location to everyone!

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Jaun Sisay Weekend Adventures

 

Three times while I was there we got to go to the local natural hot springs Fuentes Georginas. This was definitely one of my favorite adventures! The 40 minute drive to the hot springs took us along steep windy roads and past farms clinging to the mountainside. The view was breathtaking!

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When we arrived at the hot springs we changed into our swimsuits and walked down a steep, slippery path through the springs jungle to the first hot spring which sits below a waterfall. The water was incredibly hot and getting into the pool was a little bit painful at first. However, once I was accustom to the heat it was a very relaxing experience. I always felt sleepy afterwards.

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We then walked up the hill to a larger pool at the top which sits right next to a restaurant. It was wonderful to enjoy a nice cold drink and the famous ‘Papas Geroginas’ (potato wedges).Image

Futbol, or soccer, is a huge part of Guatemalan culture as well. While I was in Xela we attended several soccer games, usually late at night. The stadium was always packed and the fans were very energetic! 

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Also, this was certainly the first time I have ever seen fireworks set off in the stands during a game…I think that would be considered dangerous here in the states, but not in Guatemala!Image

One weekend we had a tour of the cemetery in Xela. It was very different from the cemeteries here in the US, but it was beautiful in its own way. The graves are all painted with bright, vibrant colors and a lot of them have a lot of history behind them. 

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The cemetery is beautifully located with a view of the city and surrounding volcanoes. Image

 

Afternoon School Activities

Every afternoon Juan Sisay, the Spanish school that I attended in Xela, offered fascinating activities for all the students. the activities were usually inexpensive (5 – 100 quetzales) which is less than $13 US. The activities often focused on the vibrant Guatemalan culture and the beautiful landscape. Below is a picture of the oldest church in Central America which we visited in one of the towns adjacent to Xela. We were lucky enough to visit on a day when someone was there to let us into the church and show us around. 

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Occasionally Juan Sisay had local artisans visit the school to demonstrate how they made their wares. I had the privilege of attending a lesson on weaving taught by an indigenous Mayan lady. She let us take turns assisting with the weaving (below).Image

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Another excellent activity was a lesson at a local chocolateria. We participated in the chocolate-making process from roasting the cocoa beans, to grinding up the beans with sugar and then pressing them into little bars. We then were given fresh cups of hot chocolate – it was delicious! Below are pictures of the chocolate making ending with a photo of our class drinking in the cafe.

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A huge part of the culture of Guatemala is dancing. As a result, we witnessed and participated in a lot of dancing, especially salsa. Several afternoons during my 9 weeks at the school we had salsa classes. One of the teachers at the school also runs a professional dance studio so he gave excellent lessons. Then every Friday night the school hosts a party to welcome new students and say farewell to the graduating students. These parties always ended in hours of dancing! Below are some pictures of the dancing and the Friday ‘fiestas.’

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Xela (Quetzaltenango), Guatemala

Xela was a vibrant, crowded city and there was always something to do. The crowded streets constantly bustled with vendors selling their wares, children walking to and from school, numerous old, noisy cars and hundreds of dogs.  The view of the city pictured below was incredible. The lights of the houses of Xela, which is nestled between volcanoes, was breathtaking…except when it poured with rain, which was almost every night.

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I had a lovely view from the window of my bedroom looking over the rooftops down into the valley.Image

There was a large dog living on the roof next to me and occasionally I would throw him a treat. I miss that view and my incredibly-hospitable host family!

The Journey

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Just getting to the school in Guatemala was an adventure in itself. On the flight I had the opportunity to talk to many fascinating people. When I landed in Guatemala City I had to figure out how to navigate through the airport security, customs and the haggling taxi and shuttle drivers that persistently sought my business as I walked out of the airport. (above: the view from my seat in the plane in Minneapolis, MN; below: the Guatemalan countryside in the evening during the bus ride from the capital to Xela)Image I then enjoyed a relaxing 4 hour bus ride along the winding roads from the capital to Xela and got my first taste of Guatemala! When I finally arrived in Xela after 17 hours of travelling I was exhausted but too excited to sleep. I couldn’t believe that the adventure and learning opportunity that I had dreamed of was actually happening! (below: the view from my bedroom overlooking the city)

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