Our study process includes both experiential and academic modes of learning. We interact with Maya people and other Guatemalans and are immersed in their cultural worlds for most of nine weeks. Much of our learning proceeds from Maya experts’ instruction, our experiences working on local projects, and discussion of current issues with our Maya hosts. We meet as a group to discuss and integrate these experiences. We also employ the familiar academic learning methods—readings, lectures, discussions, and student presentations--but these activities do not take place in libraries or classrooms. We work together to create workable study contexts while visiting local people, hiking, and traveling.
This program is quite different from other Sierra Institute programs and on-campus courses in the following respects. Our primary learning contexts are Maya cultural worlds rather than wilderness backpacking trips. We “earn” our positions as students of Maya life not by simply signing up for the course, but by working side-by-side with Maya people on projects of importance to local communities and with archeologists on research and restoration. Our learning process and the success of the program depends to a large extent upon making significant contributions to these projects. This is an unusual “learning contract”—our enthusiastic participation in the job at hand opens the way for local people to teach us about their lives, heritage, and revitalization efforts.
This is a mobile program. We travel by public transportation to most locations, staying at each site for between three and eight days. We reside in modest hotels or camp in tents. We eat in local restaurants, or with host families, or we cook on campfires. We do some day-hiking and a couple of two-day mule-supported walks, but no multiday backpack trips. Much of our time is spent working, traveling, and learning with Maya people and other Guatemalans.
We usually have access to medical assistance and hospitals, but transportation to medical services can take several hours. At El Mirador evacuation could take two days. I have training in wilderness first aid, but I am not a health care professional. In event of an emergency I will do my best to get you promptly to proper care. I will establish basic safety procedures at the beginning of the program.
Participants provide their own personal equipment. Group items (tents, stoves, pots) are shared by everyone and organized by the instructor. A detailed equipment list will be sent upon acceptance.
We often have access to modest restaurants, but cook on campfires for some meals, preparing dinners in subgroups of about four. Those “cook groups” make their own decisions regarding food purchasing and meal planning. Your total food cost will depend upon those decisions and personal choices. Food and restaurant meals in Guatemala are inexpensive. Plan on food expenses of approximately $500, depending on taste and frugality.
The climate at Lake Atitlan is temperate, with daytime temperatures in the 70s. The climate in the lowlands is warm, humid, and often rainy, with daytime temperatures in the 80s.
Spanish language is not required, but a grasp will increase your learning and enjoyment on this program. We have countless opportunities to converse with Mayas (for whom Spanish is also a second language) and other Guatemalans. Brush up your Spanish, listen to language CDs while you drive, or consider studying in one of the inexpensive, intensive, one-on-one Spanish schools in Antigua or Panajachel before the program begins. Information about schools will be available upon acceptance.
HIKING AND SWIMMING
We take numerous dayhikes and walk for two days carrying water and lunch in our daypacks on the way to and from El Mirador. Therefore students must be in good physical shape. We occasionally travel on Lake Atitlan or on lowland rivers in public transportation boats. Students must be able to swim 500 feet because we cannot be sure that life jackets will be available in the unlikely event that a boat goes down.
HEALTH AND SAFETY
International and backcountry travel are physically and emotionally challenging. Students should be in vigorous good health and good physical shape to deal effectively with these challenges. Outside of Guatemala City, where we spend very little time, travelers are rarely in danger of violence. Rare, but historically known dangers include powerful earthquakes and hurricane-generated rains which can cause mudslides in the highlands. We take precautions against malaria which is present but not common in some lowland areas. We also take precautions against travelers’ diarrhea and less common, but present subtropical maladies. We take care to avoid dangerous pit vipers, such as Bothrops asper, which are present throughout lowland tropical and subtropical America. These snakes are not aggressive. We stay out of trouble simply by not stepping on them.