We have been enjoying immersing ourselves in the rich culture of Guatemala here in Xela, the second largest city in Guatemala. We have taking one-on-one Spanish classes (5 hours every day) these first two weeks at a Spanish School called Celas Maya. The school is very welcoming and provides various cultural experiences and excursions to explore the city, such as visiting museums, taking salsa classes, and making chocolate from scratch (ie. cocoa beans).
We both are living with different host families along with other Celas Mayan students. The families are very hospitable and have really helped in making Guatemala feel like home. It was interesting to note the immediate generosity and openness of our host moms. An admirable cultural aspect noted was the importance of family and meals which was seen in the way all 3 meals per day were eaten together.
We have been learning more about the education system, health systems, and conflicts in Guatemala from the UVA-Guatemala Initiative staff. This has been very important for our dental education project and in understanding the culture and social norms here. For instance learning that many Guatemalans do not finish school, gives us an idea of how to prepare our education resources. We also learned that there is no dental education provided in schools and dental care is not included in the public health system. Additionally our Spanish teachers have been able to augment this knowledge with personal experiences in class and they have been great resources for information on what life in Guatemala is actually like.
We have also built some very strong friendships both within our UVA community, our school and our host families. Our UVA team as a whole has been very cohesive and great with helping each other practice Spanish. We have also gotten to know our teachers very well by know and have enjoyed learning more about their language and culture while absorbing their wisdom. Within our host families there has been a great deal of bonding as well. For instance Emily has a granddaughter who joins her grandmother for lunch almost everyday. This 7-year old, full of energy is so eager to teach her about the Guatemalan school system and has even been teaching her words in Kiche, a local Mayan language in Guatemala. Also, Cara’s host brother has welcomed us all in and has taught us all about local culture, including colloquial sayings and traditional customs. Cara also has a student from England in her host family, who has been helping to improve everyone’s English. We have found it really interesting by the questions we are asked, and the questions we find ourselves asking others and their cultures. It has almost given us the chance to step back and look at how Americans are perceived in other cultures and countries.
Aside from Spanish school and our project development, we have been able to explore some of the local scenery through hiking trips. For instance we hiked to the top of Baul, a nearby mountain featuring a family park on top. We got lost a few times, but we able to chat with the locals and ask for directions through Xela to the base of the mountain. It literally took a village, but we finally made it, and enjoyed the beautiful view of the entire Xela from the top. We also went to the volcano Chicabal with a tour group and hiked to the crater at the top. In the middle of the crater is a lake that is considered sacred by the Mayans in Guatemala and a gathering place for other religious groups as well. From here we could see some of Guatemala’s other well known volcanoes such as Santa Maria, and the active volcano Santiaguito. We hiked around the lake and learned about certain aspects of Mayan culture, such as nahuals and traditional ceremonies. Nahuales are the protective spirits that everyone is born with. They are often represented by an animal or a part of nature. Upon hiking we had some really intriguing conversations with our tour guide about life as a tour guide, immigration to the US and the desire to flee from Guatemala because the lack of jobs and money, traditional Guatemalan foods and traditions, and the attempts to preserve the culture.
We also had a very fruitful conversation with our in-country director Jessica about our project. We discussed a bit of the timeline of our project and its overall trajectory. We identified a community in Charlottesville that we could bring this project back to: Southwood. It is a predominantly an immigrant population that has limited access to various resources. We think this population could benefit from our dental education project once we have refined it and bring it back to the US. With Jessica, we discussed various specific questions that individuals may be interested in knowing besides the basics of dental education (like brushing 2-3times a day after meals, using floss daily etc.). We brainstormed and came up with a list of potential interests and things we want to research.
We then discussed who our stakeholders are and who we can talk to in Xela to understand what people may want to know about dental health, how they want to learn about it, and any barriers that they perceive as preventing them from achieving the optimal dental care/hygiene. Since dentists are typically very busy and not extremely accessible, we thought maybe speaking with just one Guatemalan dentist would be enough if we supplement with speaking to a few dental students. We then were interested in speaking to the UVA-GI staff, our Spanish teachers, and our host families.
After such discussions, we hope to gain a better understanding of what individuals want and need to learn. We will then create our education curriculum to supplement our interview questions for the community. As of now our plans are to travel to Lake Atitlán to implement a pilot study of our interview and education program within the community. We are hoping this pilot study allows us the opportunity to refine the interview-education curriculum.
We are very excited to see how far we have come since arriving in Guatemala, in terms of what we’ve learned, how we’ve grown, and how we’ve become connected to the community and culture here.
Emily and Cara