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San Juan and Puffy Jackets?!

I’ve made it four weeks and two days successfully avoiding writing a yak, but I cannot be blamed. Just think, yaks are how most people back home are keeping up with this trip. This is a form of looking back on a trip after it has finished. And this is how potential future Guatemala 6-Week students will decide whether or not to come on one of these trips. Not to mention the occasional yaks of the week for this trip. Quite the intimidating task. But, after being hunted down by the instructors and explained to that my mom needs to know I’m not dead, here I am.

After leaving Rio Negro, we return back to something we’ve become professionals at: Van rides. We pack in and all return to the seats we’ve felt out to be the most comfortable for us. With many different spots tested van rides ago, I’ve settled on the solo seat next to the sliding door for maximum leg room and prime snack access. Many others and my technique is to sleep for as long as we can with quick interludes for lunch, snacks, and pee breaks of course. Moments awake are usually spent daydreaming while soaking in the scenery or by having conversation giggling about the funny memories from the trip thus far. With mostly spanish music playing from spotify, when the occasional english song slips in the queue Lindsay and I whisper song requests to Jesse that have been unsuccessful in the past but surprisingly successful this ride. A few sing alongs later, Itza blurts “LOOK OUT THE WINDOW, SHES WEARING A PUFFY JACKET” and the van erupts in cheering and applauding. For being in the humid, mosquity jungle for almost half of our trip, seeing a puffy jacket really was something to celebrate.

We arrive in San Juan La Laguna during a power outage. Promptly eat dinner in a small restaurant in mostly darkness with an “ayyyy” every time the light comes back on and an “ohhh” every time it cuts back out. The next morning eat some meal from the busy market that I can’t even remember what it consisted of because the beans really stole the show. We then learn about Mayan culture and the history of the city through a mural tour. Entonces stop at a bee farm and end up buying honey sticks that I soon became addicted to. Then headed to the program house where with great anticipation, we were finally introduced to our host mothers and all parted ways to where we would be eating 3 meals a day, sleeping, and becoming a part of a family for the next 10 days. The next day we started our spanish classes where almost every student has one-on-one lessons with a teacher and a day after that we started our Independent Study Projects.

In 3 days I have yet to feel so empowered by a place as I have by San Juan. Through homestays, always speaking and improving my spanish, and exploring the town on my own – my independent study brought all my feelings to a new level. My meeting spot for my independent study was near the library which I opted to watch the game of pelota maya in the meantime. As the game comes to an end, turns out the referee for the game was also my ISP music teacher. I head to his house expecting to see a drum set and relearn how to play to a beat of four and instead when I arrive I am welcomed by a room covered in murals, many little wooden instruments, and a hand made drum set that included 2 turtle shells as drums. I unexpectedly learn about traditional mayan music and how it replicates the sounds of nature and that all of the instruments in the room are made by hand with nothing plastic or metal, all natural materials. I then learn about Tz’utuj Q’ajom, which is a group of him and his siblings trying to keep traditional mayan music, a dying art, alive and not forgotten. We then start playing music by him introducing a beat to me, letting me struggle to grasp it for a bit, then him bringing what I’ve learned to life by playing the flute or marimba over it. And once I get it and we’ve had some fun with the beat, he’ll introduce a new beat to me and repeat the same process with an occasional friend or sibling passing through grabbing an instrument and joining for a moment . And – as most things have gone on this trip – many breaks for water and pan dulce.

After one lesson I ache for more and come back to my homestay ecstatic and tell them all about it. Later that night was a concert of Tz’utuj Q’ajom at the program house for my group and our homestay families. I sold it enough for my host siblings to join me. I arrive and see my teacher, Gaspar, and now the rest of his group, his family, all in traditional mayan clothing. Gaspar explains everything I learned today again for everyone and for an audience less than 20, starts playing a song of theirs that Brandon and I immediately start swaying together to. Though the small audience, the group was singing and yelling and dancing and putting their all into a soulful performance that I feel inspired us all. At the final song we all got up and danced with our host families, instructors, and friends and were laughing and yelling and spinning each other around and in that moment nothing else mattered.

I was reluctant to write a yak because I cannot capture the true essence of a moment through this media. I cannot express enough through words the richness of this experience and how much I’ve changed on this trip. I cannot express the curiosity and excitement of a new place. I cannot express the connections I’ve felt with people and places while I’ve been here. Of course any of us can skim through a story in chronological order and try their best to explain, but all these experiences have been so personal to me and no amount of words I use can feel like enough.

And mom I’m not dead.