Hey all. Ronnie again, here this time to talk about the beautiful Livingston trip that the volunteers took last weekend with 13 San Andres school kids. Mateo had picked his top 10 students to go on the trip and then accepted 3 other top students from neighboring schools to join. One purpose of such trips (which Mateo hosts regularly) is to serve as incentive for kids to do well in school. But the Livingston trip did much more. This was the first time that many of these kids had been anywhere outside of the Peten. They got to step out of their relatively small worlds to get a glimpse of a place that, while just 4 hours away, is so remarkably different. They met some of their indigenous neighbors and learned about the work and achievements of fellow Guatemalan youth.
It began with a (in my case, record-breaking) 4 a.m. wake up (Jess and Steph didn’t think I could do it—and, admittedly, I cut it close—but, thank goodness, I proved them wrong and we made it to the bus on time!). Four rather delirious, cramped (we’re still getting accustomed to the 2-people-per-seat standard here in Guatemala), and quiet hours later, we arrived at a small port and boarded a lancha (boat). The 25-minute ride up Rio Dulce was a blast. We smiled and laughed as the boat splashed and flew up and down, and marveled at the lush jungle, bungalows, wildlife, and bustling day-to-day activity that surrounded us. There are no big roads here; the river is their highway.
As we slowed down and began to dock, the boat driver started talking with some of the people on shore. It wasn’t too unusual that I couldn’t understand what he was saying, but in this case it was because they were speaking Quechua, one of the 23 indigenous languages spoken in Guatemala. We had reached our destination: Ak’ Tenamit. Ak’ Tenamit is a boarding school and community center that focuses strongly on preserving Mayan culture while preparing students and communities to succeed in a changing world.
Our guides were students from their tourism services school. We got a great, hours-long tour of the grounds. Our guides showed us the schoolrooms, barns, crops, and rain-capturing irrigation system; their artisan corners, kitchens, and workshops; and their expansive clinic. Ak’ Tenamit’s health services, providing for 30 communities, are a huge deal because many rural populations otherwise lack access to quality medical care.
I have to say that one of my favorite parts of the trip is what followed. Now, I can’t vouch for the boys; this part is the female experience. Following a lazy, relaxing hour lying on the grass and watching a traditional Mayan dance, we took a lancha to our sleeping quarters: La Isla de Mujeres. That’s right: Women’s Island. Need I say more? I thought that this was just the stuff of legends (and, for some, dreams), but let me tell you, it exists (although it’s technically a peninsula). La Isla de Mujeres hosts the sleeping quarters for the female students and volunteers at Ak’ Tenamit. We waited all of 5 minutes after arrival before plunging into the river. Coraima, one of our students, got to reunite with her cousin, a student at the tourism school, and we all got to hang out. I learned that Coraima, who has another 3 years of secondary school to complete, plans on becoming a lawyer with a focus on human rights. When, excitedly, I asked her “rights of women?!” she responded “all sorts of people.”
In the morning we were picked up and taken to downtown Livingston. We had a delicious breakfast and tour at one of Ak’ Tenamit’s two restaurants, run almost entirely by students. After that, we piled into the back of two pickup trucks (sorry, moms and dads!) for a ride to the ocean. A truck half-full of gringos bouncing around town certainly earned a few odd looks, but it was a great time.
But then we saw a glimpse of a waterfall a little ways behind. And when we neared this waterfall we realized it wasn’t just one, but a huge labyrinth of cold, sweet waterfalls surrounded by forest. After taking note of where Heaven on Earth is indeed located, we giddily embarked upon an afternoon of bliss. A bunch of the students and some of the volunteers jumped off the tall waterfalls (as Marina and I, the less adventurous volunteers, looked on in terror between the cracks in our closed hands).
We had lunch at the Ak’ Tenamit restaurant again, but this time each volunteer invited a student (or 2 or 3) for a meal so that we could get to know them better. My lunch partner was Lester, a 16-year-old San Andres native. Lester loves to read (a big Harry Potter fan), draw, and write songs and fiction. He has already authored a novel, which is currently being passed among his teachers, and wants to write for a living. His book is about a Guatemalan boy and his life as he seeks work and finds love along the way. On the boat ride back, Lester gave me a beautiful purple seashell as thanks for lunch and asked me what my favorite part of the trip had been. After I listed about half a dozen things, I asked him what his had been: “Everything.”