The Great Guatemalan Adventure

It’s not often that a college professor has the opportunity to share a favorite pastime with students, but Dr. Joe Little had that unique chance when he took a group of students on a backpacking adventure to Guatemala in March.

The trip was envisioned as a way to make the work his students were doing in his Ethnography and Travel Writing course more coherent.

“The students were reading about certain cultures but writing about others, and it wasn’t working as well as it could have,” Dr. Little, an associate professor of English, explains.

So he decided to add an experiential learning component to the course that would enable his students to immerse themselves in the cultures they were reading about. He chose Guatemala “out of longstanding personal interest in travel to Guatemala,” and redesigned his course to include a nine-day backpacking trip to that country.

“We read Guatemalan ethnographies and most of those focus on Mayan cultures as well as backpacker culture because those two elements play out in Guatemala,” he says. “The Great Guatemalan Adventure allowed us to immerse ourselves in those cultures so that the students could write ethnographies based on their ownfield work.”

The trip began and ended in Antigua, a city in the central highlands of Guatemala, and included stops in the villages of Tzununa (located on Lake Atitlan, considered by many to be the most beautiful lake in the world), and Santa Cruz la Laguna.

Each village offered a different experience for the group, which consisted of Dr. Little, his friend Sam Lightowler, and 13 students. In Antigua, they stayed in a hostel frequented by backpackers, ate at a local Mayan food market, and socialized at night, getting a sense of Mayan culture and the relationship between Mayans and non-Mayans. In Tzununa, one of the poorest villages in the area, the group visited a school, a library, and a guitar academy.

“We spent a lot of time walking around Tzununa, exploring the area, taking photos and understanding the culture,” Dr. Little says. “It’s a very secluded Mayan culture, where the folks speak Kaqchikel, which is a Mayan language, more than they do Spanish.”

From Tzununa, the group hiked the two-hour distance to Santa Cruz la Laguna, a village that is accessible only by boat or footpath. Here, the students went to places where they could interview and observe backpackers and compare what they saw with what they had been reading in class.

Although the trip was much shorter than a typical backpacker’s, the students got a taste of what backpacking is like. Dr. Little also allowed for considerable “alone time” so students could experience the more contemplative side of the activity.

“There’s a definite spiritual dimension to backpacking,” he says. “And I think there was a natural spiritual dimension for a lot of students on this trip.”

Brittany Smykowski, ’12, a marketing major from Darien, N.Y., was one of those students. “I believe that backpacking is an experience that really expands your mind and is definitely a time of reflection,” she says. “Dr. Little suggested we bring a notebook so we could reflect on our experiences at the end of each day. It is amazing to look back and read your entries to see how you were feeling or what intrigued you for the day. Backpacking is definitely an amazing adventure filled with reflection and self-realization.”

It is also physically demanding, which came as a surprise to some students.

“The trip was breathtaking, literally and metaphorically,” says Cassandra Pericak, ’12, a French major from Buffalo, N.Y. “The views we saw are indescribable, but the strenuous hiking literally took my breath away because of the difficulty of the climb.”

While Jessica Schug, ’12, a political science/environmental studies major from Niagara Falls, N.Y., expected the trip to be challenging both physically and mentally, she says her expectations “were blown out of the water.”

“This trip was one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had,” she says. “We were constantly surrounded with the most amazing landscapes and it was wonderful to feel so close to nature. We had the perfect balance of activity and downtime, and the hiking was the greatest challenge I could have asked for. Plus, every time we would hike somewhere, the destination was so much more than worth the struggle.”

One of those destinations was the top of Pacaya, an active volcano near Antigua.

“We were not studying volcanoes, and volcanoes don’t function in Mayan culture in any way that I’m trying to expose the students to, but we went to the volcano just for a sheer backpacking adventure,” Dr. Little says.

As hoped, upon returning to Niagara, the students were able to connect their Great Guatemalan Adventure to their work in Dr. Little’s class.

“We read I, Rigoberta Menchu before we went on the trip to see a background of their culture,” says Courtney McClurg, ’14, a tourism and recreation management major from Perry, N.Y. “While in Guatemala, we even got to speak to some natives about how they felt about her story. It was amazing.”

Hanna Owczarczak, ’13, an education/special education/English major from East Aurora, N.Y., added that a tour guide on the trip shared his first-hand experiences with the civil war in Guatemala. “His touching story was so personal and made the horrors of war we read about realistic. He exposed students to the bloodshed and hardship these people had faced not too long ago.”

Students were also impressed by the cheerful way the Guatemalan people handled their poverty.

“The people in these villages have so little, but yet they are still so content with what they have,” says Brittany. “Everyone went about their day with a smile and was so welcoming to us as travelers.”

“I think all of us were expecting poverty to look a certain way: anguish, physical issues going on. We’d go into these villages and the kids were playing — they’re playing with a 20-year-old ball that they keep fixing — but I think it gave the students a more realistic look at poverty,” Dr. Little says. “That sometimes you can’t see poverty in the face of it, and that poverty doesn’t necessarily mean unhappy living all the time.”

However, perhaps the most valuable takeaway for the students was the experience itself.

“It was a wonderful, exciting, incredible journey that taught me more about Guatemala and even myself than I ever thought was possible in just one week,” says Jessica.

Brittany agrees. “Guatemala is so beautiful and waking up to watch the sunrise over volcanoes in Lake Atitlan was the most peaceful feeling I have ever felt in my life,” she says. “This trip has taught me so much about culture, values and what truly are the important things in life.”