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Photo by Celia Mitchell (2015/16 Semester Photo Contest Entry), Indonesia Semester.

San Juan la Laguna

I have now been living in Guatemala for a week, and it has been a week full of surprises, challenging moments, and beauty. I remember standing with the other students in front of a group of women who would be our mothers for the next five days, and I was terrified. What if I said the wrong thing? Or they couldn’t understand me?

Although neither my fear of offending someone nor the challenge of a language barrier have disappeared, they have certainly lessened.  For the past three days, I have grown accustomed to bucket showers at 7am, followed by a delicious breakfast of eggs and beans, before heading to Spanish classes. The sound of hands slapping tortilla dough has become a familiar noise that is constantly echoing through the house.  My eyes have been delighted by the beautiful huipil (traditional shirts the women wear), colorful buildings of San Juan, and most of all the amazing scenery of this beautiful town. San Juan is nestled between two beautiful green hills, and right along Lake Atitlan. In all honesty, it is one of the most picturesque places I’ve ever been.

While here in San Juan, we are also taking Spanish classes for four hours every morning. Although while writing this, I have only attended two classes, I am amazed by how quickly everyone in the group is improving. Each of our teachers is helping us address specific weaknesses in our Spanish, as well as capturing our attention through complex conversations in Spanish I never knew I could carry. During one of our classes, I had an hour long conversation about public health in Guatemala. This is an opportunity to practice Spanish in an organic way, that is just not possible outside of a Spanish speaking country.

It is hard to capture a culture so different from our own in writing. The constant smell of cooking tortillas and street food lingers in the air, and in the moments when rain is not soaking us all, the sun beats down on the cobblestone streets. But, not only are the sights, smells, and sounds of San Juan different from the US, so are the people. There is a deep rooted generosity and strength in everyone I’ve met here. My host mom, similar to others, is willing to put my comfort and happiness before her own. This astounds and inspires me and I often struggle to even share candy with my brother back home.

I continue to look forward to learning more about the history that shaped this beautiful country, after we had a basic lesson on Monday, and to continue to explore and learn while I’m here!

To many more days of mosquito bitten legs, walking in the rain, and laughing until hurts!

-Hailey Olcott