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The Study Abroad


By kpPublished 2 months ago Updated 2 months ago 4 min read
Casa Cervantes - fair trade with a hint of molasses

In 2016, I had never left the country. I was entering my second year at Eastern Michigan University after taking a four-year break from college and had only spent time in the United States on short trips. I was studying international affairs, so studying abroad was required at some point in my academic track. There were a few options, but a class I was taking through the winter semester offered a relatively inexpensive two-week spring trip to Guatemala, and given the content of the class, it seemed like the best fit for me.

The class was called Poverty, Human Rights, and Health. Our final unit covered the 36-year civil war in Guatemala. The trip was meant as an opportunity to stay with Indigenous Mayans, visit coffee co-ops, and, most importantly, meet surviving guerrilla fighters from the war. I signed up immediately.

me and my professor

We landed in Guatemala City and didn't waste a moment. We met our guide, a member of DESGUA, the organization gracious enough to host us, and headed to our first hostel in the city. We didn't do much on the first day but feed ourselves and refill our multiple water bottles with filtered water. We explored our neighborhood, visited museums, and wandered around the city square. Our destination was not Guatemala City. We would spend the bulk of our time in our guide's home city, Xela, or as you may know it, Quetzaltenango. Although the city name is an Indigenous word, it was bestowed upon the region by the conquistadors, so our guide insisted we refer to it by its proper name, Xelajú or Xela.

Café La Red Kat, or La Red as it is now called, was our home base for most of our time in Xela. It's a remarkable project that acts as a social enterprise restaurant and cultural center. We ate tostadas and drank coffee, discussing Guatemalan and Indigenous success in the region without American intervention or forced migration. The prime location outside the Sierra Madre meant we witnessed the regular eruption of Santa Maria. We would run outside the cafe when we heard rumbling to watch the smoke billowing over the horizon.

hostel living

Our next stop was the Santa Anita Coffee Co-op. It is run by ex-guerrilla fighters who now spend their time and energy harvesting organic coffee beans. We spent our days hiking to the waterfalls outside our lodges, interviewing ex-guerrillas, and learning how coffee leaf rust struck their crop a few years back and severely impacted their growing capabilities.

A small building on the property houses family photos, memorabilia, and artifacts from the Civil War. We spent a great deal of time in that shrine-like structure. Their martyrs filled the space.

our first hike at Santa Anita

We spent a few days in San Juan La Laguna on Lake Atitlán, a small Indigenous Mayan community known for weaving and textiles. While there, I learned how they use full moons to pull new colors out of their dyes, hiked to the top of a neighboring mountain to listen to the stories of Chakona and Maximon, and let the medicine workers in the village treat my arthritis with bee stings.

the second hike in San Juan La Laguna

Once the inflammation from the sting settled, the ache disappeared, and walking became a bit easier. After the ritual, we shared bread and honey.

sharing a meal

Our return to Xela was marked by a dip in the local hot springs and more interviews with civil war survivors. We met a man whose words still ring true to me. He trained guerrilla fighters for multiple wars across Latin America. He helped the Zapatistas in Mexico and the guerrillas of Nicaragua and Cuba. He paid dearly for his liberatory crimes, losing his entire family and nearly his own life to state-sanctioned terrorism. His kindness and joy filled every word he shared with us, and at the end, I asked him how. His only words, said with a brilliant smile, were: "Everything I do, I do with love."

the hot springs - Guate Linde in Xela (Quetzaltenango)

I had made plans with a classmate of mine to stay an additional three weeks after the program ended. By the time that point came, I was ready to go home. It had only been two weeks, but every moment had been filled with activities and traumatic stories. We were shown the people, the history, and the culture intertwined and directly impacted by our country's foreign policy. A new ambivalence and fear had crept into the forefront of my deepest insecurities, and any semblance of pride that remained in me for my country before this trip was dead. I became obsessed with how to reject Locke's notion of "tacit consent." I wanted to know how to remove myself from our nasty colonial experiment. I wanted to change our approach to international affairs rather than work within the confines of the existing system.

After talking to my friend about leaving early, we switched flights to go with the rest of the group. When I returned home, I switched my major to philosophy. I had given up my belief that substantial or significant change occurs at the institutional level, and I devoted my life and my work to dismantling the systems that oppress, both domestically and abroad. I knew I needed to experience more cultures besides my own, so I vowed I would leave the States again, and soon.


travel photographystudent travelphotographyhumanityculturecentral america

About the Creator


I am a non-binary, trans-masc writer. I work to dismantle internalized structures of oppression, such as the gender binary, class, and race. My writing is personal but anecdotally points to a larger political picture of systemic injustice.

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Comments (3)

  • Mike Singleton - Mikeydred2 months ago

    That is a great story with wonderful pictures, and sharing your meal with wasps too

  • Alex H Mittelman 2 months ago

    Great biographical piece! You could use that as chapter 1 of your autobiography! 😇

  • angela hepworth2 months ago

    What an amazing opportunity you had!! I loved the pictures!

kpWritten by kp

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