Athletics News

Discovering Guatemala and the Mayan Culture
July 12, 2017

PARRAMOS, Guatemala – For the nine Blue Demons on a week-long service immersion trip to a Guatemala children’s home, days three and four brought some eye-opening experiences along with quiet moments of reflection.

They made discoveries about the Mayan culture and civilization, engaged in some bartering with local merchants and witnessed the eruption of a volcano.

Sonia Johnson, Ronnie Griggs, Anton Sell and Vanessa Nigg provide journal accounts from the Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos (“Our Little Brothers and Sisters”) orphanage.

Day Three

Sonia Johnson, Women’s Soccer
After hearing that we would be going to a Mayan city in Guatemala, I was ecstatic. This was a great way to leave the comfort of NPH while getting the opportunity to learn more about the culture and history that surrounded us.

My first time in Guatemala, I continue to be taken aback by the beautiful views at every turn outside the walls of NPH. The drive up to Lake Atitlan was unreal and even a little scary at times because the drop down into the valley was so steep.

After crossing the lake, we heard from Juan who had vast knowledge about the lake and its surrounding environment including the fact that the lake is 383 meters deep. That was one of the most mind-blowing facts especially after we had just ridden across it without even a thought at how dangerous it could have been if you fell overboard.

Juan spoke at length about the importance of the lake and keeping the nature surrounding it alive. After having a delicious meal at Hotel Uxlabil, we ventured into the center of the town of San Juan where we met Aliix a Mayan artist. Listening to his story about the importance of keeping the Mayan culture alive was incredibly impactful. The gallery that he worked at displayed artwork from 17 different artists who owned the store jointly.

This really touched on the theme of solidarity that we learned throughout the day. It is incredibly important to work with others toward an end goal. Without this collective mindset, a culture could be completely lost, and Aliix wanted us to understand that. Mayan people have always been a step ahead in math, science and the environment, and they did it as one cohesive group.

It is now up to a new generation to start planting the seeds of the Mayan culture so it is never forgotten. After talking to Aliix, we were ab le to go around to the stores and buy some authentic Mayan goods. This was the most nerve-wracking part of the day because we really had to use what little Spanish we could speak.

I was able to spend time with my teammates Elizabeth Parrilli and Vanessa Nigg while shopping, and together we were able to barter and negotiate lower prices. One woman was incredibly nice and even spoke a little English which made me so much more comfortable.

I wasn’t sure if I had the right to negotiate lower prices as selling these goods was essentially the livelihood for these women. It was definitely an internal conflict that I will continue to grapple with moving forward. You almost feel guilty asking for a lower price even if that is the custom.

The day ended with one of the coolest things I have ever seen, a volcano erupting. Within view from NPH is the volcano called Volcan de Fuego and it began erupting around 9:30 p.m. This was the best way to end the day, seeing another natural wonder in Guatemala.

Ronnie Griggs, Men's Golf
Day three was amazing but different than the first couple of days. We went outside of the NPH walls and took a bus ride to the beautiful Lake Atitlan where the view was breathtaking. Seeing the culture, the mountains and the lake were things that I will never forget.

We drove all the way down to the bottom of the mountains and got on a boat to take across the lake. We met some amazing Mayan (indigenous) people who help take care of the lake. The culture is still alive and well for the Mayans. The day was meant for us to learn more about Guatemala as a whole.  

Interacting with the people of Guatemala might be easier if we take the time to learn about different cultures and important ideas in Guatemala.  We had lunch at an eco-hotel in San Juan next to Lake Atitlan.  Juan, who lives in the village and works at the hotel, talked about how he and the rest of the community put in countless hours over years and years to make sure the lake is environmentally friendly because of its importance to the ecosystem and the people surrounding it.

We ate a delicious lunch at the hotel restaurant looking out over the beautiful lake and listened to Juan’s stories about the rich history and culture. Hearing about Lake Atitlan provided for the area was so inspirational because they do all this from the goodness of their hearts.

The primary reason for all the extra work is not for their economic well-being, but to improve the community as a whole. At the end of our day, we did something that was not as familiar to us---bartering. We went to the markets at San Juan and learned if any of us have any potential in sales.

The most interesting part for me was seeing a parent negotiate prices with us, and in the back of the store a child was knitting the things that the family sold. At that age, I was watching cartoons and hanging out with friends. But these kids were doing manual labor to help provide for their family. This experience at the markets was definitely eye-opening.

Day Four

Anton Sell, Men’s Soccer
The fourth day of our immersion trip in Guatemala started as astonishingly as the day before ended. The night before, we witnessed the volcano close to the NPH orphanage spewing lava. We were relieved to greet the next morning, but also amazed to see smoke still coming out of it.

After a quick breakfast of scrambled eggs, rice and salsa (shout-out to Kelly Campbell and Sebastian Feyersinger for waking up at 5 a.m. to help in the kitchen), we started working with the gardeners and farmers. In addition to helping the NPH workers, our tiring physical work under a bright, hot sun gave us a better understanding of the conditions millions of people worldwide have to endure every day. This experience was representative of the whole trip and truly puts our life back home into perspective.

We had the pleasure of meeting COO of NPH International, Chris Hoyt, along with three graduates from NPH Guatemala, David, Pedro and Gustavo, who now attend college. Chris explained the organization's social context in Guatemala and globally while emphasizing what the children have gone through and the need for NPH and similar organizations.

We asked dozens of questions and received insightful responses, which made the discussion a great success. In particular, the impact NPH has on its "pequeños" (children) became tangible. Seeing these three young men who grew up without parents attending college and still selflessly giving back to their NPH family was very inspiring. Personally, I would not be where I am today without my family, which is also true for David, Pedro and Gustavo and their NPH family.

After a game of basketball, we did multiple activities such as coloring, reading and nail-painting with several girls from the orphanage, who greatly appreciated it.

In our daily debriefing session, we talked about the differences between the Guatemalan and the American cultures and what we can learn from each other. We all agreed that the children’s positive nature is the most admirable characteristic, considering their challenging environment, and we learned again to put our “problems” into perspective.

Vanessa Nigg, Women’s Soccer
Although we are halfway through our trip, it seems as though there is still so much left for us. Unlike yesterday we were able to sleep in and stay at the home for the day. Following breakfast, we suited up for a morning of landscaping and farming with some of the NPH staff.

I joined several other members of our group working with the NPH landscaping crew, which to my surprise only consisted of five people. I was in pure shock that five people were able to keep the 25 acres of the home so immaculate.

The NPH crew put us to work with not only rakes and garden shears but even trusted us with their machetes. After about three hours of landscaping, we finally finished the section in front of the main offices and Casa Uno.

We spent the rest of the day listening to a panel discussion with several former NPH graduates and playing basketball with the children on the Cancha. We got to dive in a little deeper into what we were doing at NPH at our debriefing session later in the evening.

Our goal of this service trip is not only to touch the lives of the children at NPH but also expand our world view. One thing that we made a point of expanding in our debriefing earlier in the day was how the pequenos (children) are told on a regular basis not to take what they have for granted. They have been given the opportunity to create a better life for themselves.

Although we did not come from the same background as these children, we as student-athletes have a similar opportunity in front of us. We have the opportunity not only to do great things, but also to change the lives of those around us. We are working towards this in Guatemala and discussed what we can also accomplish in Chicago after trip ends.

All it takes is one person to begin the ripple effect.

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