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Nourish International

Project is over, but Nourish doesn’t stop

July 5, 2007 | Posted in 2007, Guatemala, NC State, UNC | By

It has been 3 weeks since our last day of work at the Centro Explorativo in La Pista and Nebaj, Guatemala. Our team has split up and we have returned to our “normal” summer lives in North Carolina, as well as Boston, Saint Louis, and even Guatemala. The work that 4 weeks allowed our group to achieve has concluded, but there is much left undone both on the ground for CES as well as for our Nourish team.

On our last day we successfully raised the greenhouse and had reason to believe that it would remain standing for a long time to come. With a mounted structure and around 50 square meters, the greenhouse is ready to be utilized by the Centro for food production. Pavak is developing a manual that holds all the secrets to the greenhouse so that if there is ever a need to replace something or even rebuild the entire thing, they won’t need a new team of American students to do it for them.

Two other very important feats occurred on that day. First, the last portion of the floor was placed in the actual Centro by Miguel’s team of masons, leaving only the painting and clean-up on the to-do list before the building was to become operational. I can say that it was an honor to work side-by-side with the masons of La Pista. And finally, David successfully interviewed 50 families from the community and obtained the data from 29 questions that will be used to cater the Centro to the community’s specific needs and wants. Currently he is tabulating these results and will be analyzing and sharing them over the course of the summer.

Our last meeting with the CES staff left us all with a better idea of the meaning of our work and the necessary next steps. The peanut butter business that will support the Centro is still only an idea, but the needed human capital to launch it will be provided (hopefully) by Guatemalan university students through the program Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE). The English language DVD’s will be finalized over the summer by Steve and a volunteer guideline will be developed by Nick. These materials will improve the quality of service offered by CES at the Centros (plural!) and will engage future volunteers by leveraging our experience. Finally, the hours and hours of film are being digitized and a story is being sown with them by Catarina in order to create a documentary of our endeavors.

With all of these amazing results and another successful project under the Nourish belt, I believe that it is important to catch ourselves and understand why this project was really successful. It is not because we are putting check marks to a list of bullet-pointed, poverty-reducing initiatives (especially if we are to consider the number of points we were unable to get to!), but rather it is because of the now invisible marks that Nourish left on a rural, Guatemalan community and a group of students. It is the relationships that we built with people like Mek/Miguel, los Felipes, the staff of el Descanso (Ana, Cash, Diego and Chico especially!), the teachers of the Centro (and the kids!), and the families that took us into their homes in Nebaj and La Pista. I think that the project in Guatemala was successful because our team was, like our chosen image suggests, a bridge connecting two peoples. We connected American and Guatemalan, we connected University and Community, we connected wealthy and poor, we connected ventures to development; we connected students to reality and through that did our best to Nourish those in poverty by Nourish’ing ourselves.

Put the lime in the cocunut…

June 13, 2007 | Posted in 2007, Guatemala, NC State, UNC | By

By Catarina

Drive south about nine hours from Nebaj, almost to the Salvadorian border, and you’ll find yourself in a perfect oasis. Six of us made this drive last weekend, and it turned out to be the perfect remedy for our restlessness.

While David and QuiQui headed to the capital to be with family, the remainder of the group chartered a micro bus and took a much-needed break from the hustle-and-bustle of work and life in Nebaj. At this point, we’d been living with local families for almost a week, and we were finalizing plans for the greenhouse construction. A weekend at the beach would give CES some time to approve our plans and allow the education team to work on scripts for English-language DVDs that will be used at the centers when no English volunteers are around.

So off we went, bubbling with excitement for a change in scenery. And what a change it was.

Carlos’ family beach house in Las Lisas was perfectly suited for its climate and surroundings. With a tall, banana-leaf roof and an open-aired common area, protected from mosquitoes with nets instead of walls, the house’s plush couch and big dinner table bred conversation and laughter.

We spent the next few days floating in the pool, relaxing in one of the many hammocks, playing the addictive dudo game and braving the tall waves of the Pacific. We were joined for a few days at a time by Carlos’ older brother, Alejandro, and his fiancée Catherine, and then by Carlos’ dad, his girlfriend Audrey, and Carlos’ little sister Natalia.

Erin, Nick and I had planned out an extensive grocery list for the meals we wanted to cook. The grocery store we stopped at on the way to the beach had a produce section consisting of bananas so ripe they’d only do for banana bread, cucumbers, onions, tomatoes and limes. So you can imagine we ran into some problems. Fortunately Alejandro and Mr. Toriello brought the remainder of what we needed. Needless to say, there was quite a bit of improv cooking, all of which turned out great.

Nick and I put together an Alfredo sauce the first night, a creamy marinara the second and breakfasts with scrambled eggs and chocolate pancakes. Erin made an amazing chicken parmesan the third night, as well as chocolate rice krispies. Carlos had asked me to make a marble cake when he heard me raving about it, so I was finally able to when Mr. Toriello and Audrey brought baking powder.

In the evenings, before the dining fiasco, we would sit down on the beach. Facing a pink a peach glow reflected in the receding ebb of the tireless ocean, we talked. Sometimes it was to hear Mr. Toriello’s political stories about various enigmatic relatives and sometimes just to discuss the day’s events.

Speaking of daily events, Nick and I experienced the true force of the mighty Pacific. When everyone else sat down for a game of dudo one afternoon, I convinced Nick to come swimming with me. We were just talking and dodging waves when a little while later we noticed we hadn’t gone under a wave in a while. Looking behind us, we realized that the beach was pretty far away. Carlos had explained the rip tide danger, and we thought we were being careful, but I guess we got dragged into it. We started swimming side stroke to get back to shore. Just when I thought we weren’t getting anywhere, we were swept up in a huge wave. I heard Nick tell me to ride it just as I went under. I popped up after being thrown around, but didn’t see Nick. He finally came up, telling me he was under for almost a minute. GREAAAAT. Well, we continued to swim calmly and made it back to the beach, safe, sound and exhausted. Mr. Toriello made us some daiquiris when we got back, which sure helped relax us.

So that, in a nut shell, was our beach weekend. Although eventful at times, it was mostly relaxing and a great time to enjoy good food, friends and weather. If that soothing humidity could only have followed us back to Nebaj. Alas, we’ll deal with the rainy season for a few more days.

How to build a greenhouse with limited resources And 8 people who have no idea what they’re doing

June 10, 2007 | Posted in 2007, Guatemala, NC State, UNC | By

By Pavak

Step 1: Level the plot

If you’re the lucky, the plot chosen for the greenhouse to be built upon will be level.
If you’re us… it won’t.
So here’s the deal, you’re standing on a slope. You want to build there. It’s sloped. If this were the States you could call up the local contracting agency, they’d bring in a bulldozer and voila! Level plot! Unfortunately you’re not in the States.
I think not!
All you need is a broad wooden plank, a sturdy wooden pole, two pieces of rope and two oxen. We call it “El Toro.”
Oh wait, you were thinking this part would be easy now, weren’t you? Ha! You forgot the small detail of having limited resources. The changes this would make? Simple- just replace the two oxen with two able-bodied team members. It helps to wrap the rope around your hips once before tying a knot. Dig in your boots… and pull!

Ok… so three days and 25 cubic meters of dirt and one upturned landfill later (you didn’t think that all you’d end up moving was dirt did you?) you have a (reasonably) level plot. Continue on…

Step 2: Plan the greenhouse
Here’s what you’ll need:
3 local Peace Corps volunteers whose entire purpose in life for the next two years is agriculture.
1 aging cynical American ex-pat freedom fighter addicted to nicotine and caffeine. Mad skills with grilled cheese are always a plus.
1 computer preloaded with Microsoft Excel to create mechanically precise (ha!) sketches of the planned assembly.
8 people that have no idea what they’re doing.

Here’s what you do:

PVC is your friend.
PVC glue is evil and must be avoided like it carries the plague. Or Dengue Fever.
Duct tape rules. I wish we had some…
Packing tape is typically worse than useless. Masking tape… don’t even bother.

Step 3: Build the greenhouse
Here’s what you do:

Think I’m kidding? Think again.

Now, you might look at these instructions and think to yourself, “Man, I’m screwed…” but keep in mind that god loves development workers. Things have the most ridiculously insane tendency of just working out. I mean, not more than 48 hours ago I was standing in the plot we’ve been building the greenhouse on with a sinking feeling in my gut upon the realization that the PVC piping we purchased was too thin and would not hold weight. Today? Well, let’s just say there’s a smile on my face again. Over the course of the past few days I think we’ve been given a taste of what some people working here go through for years at a time, the rollercoaster ride from optimism to despair and back again. Besides, even jaded old dogs sometimes need the naïveté of a group of 8 American do-gooders to remember why they came here in the first place. After all, we’re Nourish International, and while we may not end up saving the world, you can sure bet we’re going to try.

Pavak out.

Post ID 1835

June 9, 2007 | Posted in 2007, Guatemala, NC State, UNC | By

 By Russ Spitler

Ok, this entry is a few weeks late, but it is here. I departed Gaute 22 May in order to complete Navy ROTC training. The night before I left, Steph, a friend of Connor’s, and I decided to take a microbus from Nebaj to Santa Cruz and then voyage to Antigua via chicken bus. I was glad to join Steph since she had made the five hour trip before and since my Spanish was still developing day by day. As we neared Antigua we got off the cozy bus to visit the school where Steph had been volunteering. Sadly, I cannot remember the name of the school at the moment, but I plan on writing on it when I get my hands on my notes from the trip. Anyway, it was awesome.

We spent the night at Steph’s house in town. Other volunteers from the school were living there. Carrie, from CES, came over for dinner, and it was baller. I bought five pounds of coffee from the school, and it is quite tasty. The 22nd I took a taxi to the city. The driver and I talked about politics, our project, well, quite a lot of things actually. At the airport I ran into John and his wife, who work with the Full Belly Project. We were catching the same flight to Charlotte. While waiting for our bags in CLT, John told me about his tattoo from the Southern Pacific. I apologize that this is scatterbrained and is lacking in literary vitamins and minerals, but I only have a few minutes. I wanted to at least put something online since I have not done so in a while. I will post something worthwhile in a week or two.


Imagination and reading exploration

June 6, 2007 | Posted in 2007, Guatemala, NC State, UNC | By

By Erin Mulfinger

Last Sunday morning, we said goodbye to the hostel that had been our home for the past week and a half. We paired off and ventured into different areas of Nebaj to begin our stays with local families. Now, instead of sharing experiences as a group, we have been getting to know individual members of the community by learning their stories, eating their food, and getting a glimpse into their everyday lives.

We have gotten into a routine of eating breakfast and dinner with the families, and spending the day together, either working as a group or in small teams on what we came here to do. I have spent the past few mornings working with Nick and Steve on plans for creating a curriculum for teaching English at the Exploration Center. Currently, the children have English class scheduled three times per week, but for those times that a teacher is not available we will hopefully be creating DVDs for them to watch.

During the afternoons, the three of us read with the children individually at the Exploration Center. For the most part we read with the same children each day in an effort to track progress. Reading at home is not something many of these children experience on a regular basis. Therefore, they are not given the opportunity to develop the imaginative and creative thinking that results from such stimulation.

I have noticed a partiular difficulty among many of the children with distinguishing fantasy from reality. We read The Magic School Bus in the Solar System and one young girl nodded her head when I asked her whether a school bus would actually be able to go into outer space. When I asked her why she thought so, she was unable to answer me. I have also noticed such a struggle to answer when the children are asked what their opinions are about the readings or anything else.

Developing imaginations and critical thinking through reading is an important goal of the Exploration Center, and one with which I am in strong agreement. Although reading seems like such a simple exercise, I know that I sometimes forget how lucky I am to have begun reading with my family at such a young age and to have had parents and teachers who talked to me and asked me about my opinions from when I was very small.


June 5, 2007 | Posted in 2007, Guatemala, NC State, UNC | By

By: Steve Mullaney

Today I ate what translates as “divorced eggs.” They were delicious. Pretty much everything that I’ve eaten here in Guatemala has been amazing. Black beans are a universal hit with the group I’m travelling with; other favorites include plantains, papaya, and pretty much every breakfast food we’ve tried. I mention food not for the cheap point of “things sure are different here in a country that’s not the United States” but to put the kibosh on what can be thought of informally as “Y’all Gonna Die Syndrome”

Before leaving, it seems that every single student in the travel group was harassed within the confines of a formalized travel presentation by someone who went on and on about how they were going to die/get sick/get attacked—by rabid dogs no less—over the course of their trip. I’m absolutely NOT attacking the concept of safety here; knowing what awaits you is very important, as is knowing how to properly deal with situations as they arise. I am, however, opposed to artificially constructed scenarios which pass as absolute truth that create an enlightened Us and an ignorant Other. In the case of all the presentations we were made to sit through, dangers of other countries were highlighted at the expense of the dangers in the USA. Relatively mundane setbacks (traveler’s diarrhea, pickpockets, the horror!) are made to be extremely damning—almost to the point where one would want to consider taking a trip at all.

Through this presentation the presenter is normalizing an extremely problematic juxtaposition: the US is safe (read: superior), the Global South is unsafe (read: inferior). In the case of traveler’s diarrhea the implicit suggestion is being made that by going somewhere else you will be exposed to inherently inferior water/food/other and that it—the other culture more so than the water/food itself—will physically attack your body and take you out. Never mind that people get sick EVERYWHERE, or that travel and everything that goes along with it is a shock to the system; inferior Guatemalan lettuce from inferior Guatemalan farmers will make you sick. By focusing solely on one aspect of health, this decontextualizes the realities of public health and sets up a very easy jump in logic: if US lettuce is superior to Guatemalan lettuce therefore the US is superior to Guatemala. Furthermore, this comparison completely removes the historical context for why it is safe to eat American lettuce and not Guatemalan lettuce: colonialism allowed the rich white male elite to mobilize political, economic and military forces against the poor, the female, and/or people of color. This favored safe agricultural methods in the areas where the elite were concentrated over areas where the masses were concentrated (this is even true within the US itself—produce in grocery stores in wealthy areas is infinitely better than produce in poor areas; this trend has been well documented). Consequentially, the elite are able to enjoy lettuce in their salads, whereas the non-elite cannot without risking illness. Clearly, presentations on health risks need to highlight certain topics—it’s important to know the necessary vaccinations or that lettuce should be avoided, however, this is a very, very incomplete picture that needs to be acknowledged as such. Statistics and factoids taken out of context lead to erroneous assumptions and the reinforcement of xenophobic stereotyping and attitudes.

The foreign pickpocket is another troubling image conjured up in these presentations because it makes the assumption that pickpockets do not exist in the United States. While true that there are certain areas where pickpockets are more likely to strike, this fact still leads to the jump from “in Guatemala there is a small percentage of people who in certain areas are likely to try and take my money” to “all Guatemalans will try and steal my money”. Much like illness, crime happens everywhere—people are more prone to falling victim to crime in unfamiliar areas (travel = unfamiliar, folks) and when they stand out as easy targets, like the author of this post who is six feet tall and white as the underbelly of a dead toad. The racialized foreign pickpocket (pickpockets are rarely thought of as white) is always emphasized at the expense of strategies for dealing with theft: spread out your money, only bring what’s necessary and leave everything else in a safe place, accept that this might be a cost of travel and that $20 is not that big of a deal in the long run. Crime seems to be much more shocking on the small scale: when you lose twenty bucks it’s the end of the world, however, when a government conspires against its people to start a war based on false pretenses which costs billions upon billions of dollars, kills thousands and disrupts the lives of millions (hypothetical example) then that’s just hunky dory.

Finally, the traveler’s presentation omits dangers of living in the US—like watching an average of five hours of TV a day and becoming boring, or chasing money at the expense of relationships. It’s dangerous to be alive; life is something which leads to death. While there are things that will make it more likely that one dies at a young age (smoking, not wearing a seatbelt, etc) the travel presentation creates the illusion that by staying in the country it is impossible to die. Nothing could be farther from the truth; at any point you could be crushed by a falling rock, whether in the United States, Guatemala or any other place in the world. Through highlighting foreign dangers exaggerated visibility is given to another place and the US is artificially normalized as safe, and by extension, superior.

In some ways this essay is a bit nitpicky, in others it doesn’t go far enough. Travel at its best breaks barriers and humanizes, the travel presentation fights this. Through travel (whether one neighborhood or one ocean away) there is the unique opportunity to interact with and build relationships with folks who would have otherwise been strangers. In the fight for a more just world creating solidarity is one of the tools that exists to achieve these ends. By putting up artificial barriers to interacting with folks from other countries the travel presentation undermines the ability of the US traveler to engage with locals on the level of equals.

…have fun and be safe on your trip, and if you come down to Guatemala make sure to try the huevos divorciados. But you will most likely get traveler’s diarrhea. And you will like it. So there.

Tears of Sad, Tears of Happy

May 27, 2007 | Posted in 2007, Guatemala, NC State, UNC | By

By Steve Mullaney

This is anarchic. This is thoughts thrown on a page with a minimum of editing. I don’t care.

One of the things that we’ve talked about ad nauseum is avoiding unintentional harm on this trip. Admirable. I mean, whenever I’ve told people what I’m doing in Guatemala it’s never been followed up with “and I hope that this really messes up the culture of the town we’re in.”

Thoughts torn in many directions inspired from interactions with the wise people in my life rush into my head. The following quotes only get at the surface level of the wisdom that these people have.

A very good friend who has been abroad for a while: “Just like people of color need to prove themselves every day within a racist white aesthetic, so to do white people (in the case of this trip: people with enormous class privilege) need to prove themselves and do uncomfortable things if they want to be in true solidarity with people of color.”

A formal mentor: “The people are resourceful.”

My Mom: “Something needs to be more than just interesting for someone to want to do something.”

A classmate from social justice class: “This is not a game, this is something that affects me every day.”

Aziman, a chief of the Bunun Indigenous Group (Taiwan) explaining how he uses traditional farming practices coupled with organic/sustainable methods endorsed by the Taipei-based Taiwanese Ecological Stewardship Association.

My best friend, a brilliant theorist, researcher and organizer: “Whatever man. Whatever.”

Read more →

Avoiding hell with good intentions

May 22, 2007 | Posted in 2007, Guatemala, NC State, UNC | By

– Carlos Toriello

I spent the majority of our early morning bus ride staring into the eyes of a young girl. While our group has spent a fair amount of time out in the field and traveling across Guatemala, we have spent the majority of our time with each other. Chapel Hill, Durham, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Boston and even Guatemala City have very different eyes from those of La Pista. Not to say that our group is in any way homogeneous; on the contrary, we are a very diverse bunch but we have had the time to understand one another in different situations. We are still getting to know each other but there is no doubt when you see us shoveling tons of dirt, uprooting trees and even unearthing forgotten pottery that Nourish Guatemala has become a team. Our group is a functioning unit with outcomes and goals in mind for the next couple of weeks that directly impact the community we are working with. And yet, we are very far away from understanding Nebaj, and even more so, from understanding La Pista.

Intelligent development, one of the ways that Nourish chooses to describe its projects, involves an in-depth understanding of the contextual reality surrounding the community and the “developers.” I don’t think you can do development work without it, which is why you see our team carrying around 250 page course packs on top of their water purifiers and Cipro (this massive antibiotic has made its debut. How is that for contextual reality?). Our last discussion featured one of my favorite, must-read, service articles “To hell with good intentions” by Ivan Illich. I have never read a more direct opposition to the kind of work that we are doing. The words “do not come to help,” in reference to service work in Latin America, have a particular sting when you just spent the entire day moving wood around a construction site to aid local masons. On the ground we have successfully gained the respect of the team of construction workers and are asked if we are coming back tomorrow. They are only a small part of the community but if they want us there, I will easily choose to ignore Mr. Ivan’s advice.

When I stared into that little girl’s eyes I could not find any common ground to stand on and understand her. We just looked at each other for endless minutes in that unabashed silence that you rarely achieve with adults, but there was a gap between us. I know that the community was not so long ago entrenched in civil war and that presently her village, a former refugee camp, has dust streets and little running water, not to mention minimal access to modern communication or a formidable medical service. This little girl and I were sharing the same bumpy ride but the distance between us was still great. Ideally the next few weeks of work and homestays with families in Nebaj and La Pista will help bridge that distance, but for now it is still very present. If we are unable to understand each other, even a little bit, then should we be involved in this kind of work? As the leader of this team, am I just paving our road to Illich’s hell? Or are we successfully avoiding it and achieving something “good?”

I don’t know, but I’d love to hear what you have to say…

Taking amoxicillin for my allergy was not helpful, but investing in three types of capital could be positive for La Pista

May 21, 2007 | Posted in 2007, Guatemala, NC State, UNC | By

– David Palacios

This past weekend I experienced one of the most severe allergies in my life. Nebaj is surrounded by beautiful mountains with a rich variety of trees and plants. I rarely get allergies, but Nebaj’s natural diversity and weather have given my allergies a comeback. I began to take amoxicillin to alleviate my symptoms. After taking this treatment for several days, I did not get better at all. The next step I took was talking with my doctor who told me to start a treatment with an antibiotic which is stronger than amoxicillin.

There are over a dozen pharmacies in the central area of Nebaj, but I had to go pharmacy-hopping until finally I found one pharmacy that had the medicine that I needed. I took this super strong antibiotic on Sunday night and by Monday morning I was feeling significantly better and well enough to go to work at AcTxumbal (La Pista).

We all felt anxious about our first day of work at La Pista. That morning, we met with Miguel Brito from Community Enterprise Solutions to plan our daily tasks. We ate the most energizing breakfast that we could given the time constraints and then we took a 20 minute bus ride to La Pista.

When we got to the construction site we started by clearing the area where the greenhouse is going to be built. We collected the trash that was spread throughout the area and removed all the plants that would hinder the construction work.

I think all of the team would agree that everyone was incredibly productive. Some of us were successful in removing large plants after battling with roots that went very deep into the ground. Others focused on preparing the land for its future uses by picking up all sorts of things from the ground such as pieces of glass, wood, plastic, etc.

I remember hearing some of our team members talk about how rewarding this day had been for them. Personally, I view my time at La Pista as a way of putting forth an effort to try to make a positive contribution to this community. This contribution could develop in different forms in the long term.

I think that these forms can be seen as three types of capital on which we are investing. By investing in them, La Pista is more likely to attain higher wellbeing levels in terms of nutrition, health, housing, education, job opportunities, and reduced violence.

The first type of capital is human capital. A more robust educational system in La Pista is likely to make its economic growth more sustainable in the long term. I hope that the Exploration Center strengthens the education levels of La Pista by helping the future generations to learn more about their interests, talents, and skills.

The second type of capital is financial capital. Increased inflows of financial capital will empower the locals to create more wealth or capital for their own community. The greenhouse is likely to make a difference in this aspect if it encourages the members of La Pista to diversify their agricultural production, produce with more efficient methods, and engage in more commercial activities. Also, I hope that eventually the center facilitates trade amongst the members of the community by serving as a small-scale market.

Lastly, fostering civic capital could be beneficial to increase the inclusion and pluralism of the members of La Pista in their community. The Exploration Center and the greenhouse might be able to create more cohesion in the community through the involvement of the parents. Also, by enhancing the education of the children, the center will have the capacity to shape future leaders who might strengthen the regional democratic institutions such as municipalities, offices of the judiciary, and local governance committees.

Our first days in Nebaj and La Pista have nurtured us more than a college-level course. We have been able to learn about the region’s politics, economy, and social issues with a great amount of detail. Moreover, our readings of articles on development have also expanded our views on the subject and have allowed us to evaluate their ideas in relation to our project. Yesterday we had a seminar on different readings which gave room for debate and an exchange of perspectives. Without any doubt, this project will be an esoteric experience that is representative of the social reality in which most Guatemalans live in.

Mountains, cheese and Ashoka fellows

May 17, 2007 | Posted in 2007, Guatemala, NC State, UNC | By

 By Nick Cuneo
On the morning of the 16th I awoke early to an unpleasant sensation in my intestines and a need to get the bathroom as soon as possible. While I was expecting to be hit by travelers’ diarrhea at some point during my time in Guatemala, I was on some level clinging onto the hope that I might be spared—especially given how good I’d been so far in observing basic food and water precautions (in contrast to previous, diarrhea-free excursions I’ve had in other developing countries where I was much less cautious). Anyway, I was pretty miserable for a couple hours, not only due to the antics taking place in my gut, but also because I was missing out on time at the Colegio (the Colegio Miguel Ángel Asturias) which I’d really been looking forward to since the beginning of the trip.

The Colegio is no ordinary school, by any measure or standard. Providing a transformative education rooted in ideas of social justice and equality to over 200 students K-12 on an operating budget of just $50,000 a year (no, I did not forget a zero), the Colegio is unique within Guatemala in its approach to education and emphasis on leadership.

Guatemala’s education system was ranked last within Latin America just four years ago by UNESCO and has not seen improvement since—indeed, while Guatemala’s population is growing at an annual rate of 3%, funds devoted to public education are barely increasing at all. What this translates to in practice is a situation in which “of every ten children, only eight step foot in an elementary school, and all but three drop out before the end of sixth grade.” Of the seven not making it to the end of sixth grade, it is without doubt that indigenous children (especially girls) make up the great and disproportionate majority. Manifested in such daunting statistics as a 65% illiteracy rate among indigenous adults (in contrast to a 30% rate among European descendants), the Guatemalan government’s historical approach to indigenous education has been reprehensible, at best. Unfortunately, even after the 1996 peace accords which ended Guatemala’s bloody 36-year civil war and promised greater equality with regard to government spending, not much seems to have changed. Fueled by insidious and inveterate racism towards Guatemala’s indigenous population, inequalities within Guatemala’s education system have resulted in a disheartening 66% of indigenous children’s not having access to basic schooling.

In response to these overwhelming numbers, the Colegio has brought children from Guatemala’s most vulnerable sectors together through scholarships and a well subsidized tuition rate to learn under its dramatically improved version of the government’s curriculum, infused with the methods of Paolo Freire and an emphasis on human rights. Consequently, the school’s primarily indigenous student body has achieved outstanding success in national tests, placing the Colegio in the top 10% of private schools in the nation and flying flat in the face of widespread racism regarding “innate differences” in learning capacities within the country and indeed world.

This is why I was upset about missing out that morning on our visit to the school. Fortunately, I was able to come later on in the afternoon, after my intestines had calmed down a bit. After researching the Colegio a great deal while in the process of applying for a grant on its behalf back in the States (before I had even set foot in Xela), I certainly enjoyed getting a glimpse of how it operates.

After our day at the Colegio we ended up at “el Sabor de la Índia,” a tasty Indian restaurant in Xela, with Jorge Chojolàn—the director of the Colegio and Guatemala’s first Ashoka fellow—and his wife and four daughters. I had the pleasure of sitting next to Jorge at one end of the long table with Pavak, Erin, Catarina, and Russ. Throughout the three-hour-long dinner we got to discuss a variety of topics with Jorge and learned quite a bit about his life, interests, and efforts in establishing the Colegio. Little to say, I left the table completely overwhelmed with respect for the man.

The next day was spent traveling to Nebaj, a destination we have been looking forward to for some time in anticipation to begin our work in the country, the reason we are actually here. After some amazing behind-the-scenes coordination by Carlos and David, we ended up with a van and driver—free of charge—through David’s father’s company. Needless to say, the free and extra space made possible by the van was greatly appreciated throughout the five-hour drive. We arrived in Nebaj late that afternoon safe and sound, ready to begin exploring our home for the next four weeks.

Explore is indeed what I got to do the next day with Russ, Steve, and our Ixil guide, Felipe (quite a cool guy) on a five-hour hike across the mountains of Nebaj to a pastoral, cheese-producing community on the other side of the mountains. I say cheese-producing because its main attraction was the large cheese factory on its outskirts, surrounded by idyllic pastures and many, many cows. After tasting its renowned product, a mild Swiss-like cheese that was actually quite good (Latin America is not known for its cheeses, it turns out), we decided to buy some for the group and head back to the hostel on one of the area’s many “microbuses,” almost identical in setup to the many “bush taxis” or “tro-tros” I took in West Africa. That is, a small van with four rows of back seats into which upwards of 20 people are packed for a small price (in this case four quetzals, equivalent to $0.50).

So that’s that. In just three days, I got to visit a remarkable school, have an unforgettable conversation with an amazing man, and hike through beautiful mountains. Not too bad, if you ask me. And I got to eat some decent cheese, too.