Whatever You Can Do to Diminish the Borders of the World Will Be Worth It:
The anthropologist Margaret Meade once wrote, “I was brought up to believe that the only thing worth doing was to add to the sum of accurate information in the world.” This, for me, sums up my passion in anthropology. The world can be as big or as small as you make it. Deciding to travel and study in another country is not only a challenging proposition but a fundamentally important one as well. This past summer I was fortunate enough to have the chance to do just that. I spent a good part of two months immersed in the culture and experiences of the Tz’utujil Maya people who live on the shores of Lake Atitlán in the highlands of Guatemala.
If anyone tells you that submerging yourself in another culture, especially one so very different from your own, will be easy, they are deceiving you. There is nothing easy about separating yourself from your comfort zone and arriving in a foreign land. There is no amount of preparation that can fully brace you for the emotional realities of studying abroad. That being said, it is also one of the most life-changing, life-affirming experiences available. As graduate students we are embarking on our professional careers. So why shouldn't we also experience the real world in which we will soon be working? For me, this will mean rolling up my sleeves and digging in to do research within various cultures. Anthropology has provided me with a way to view the world that allows me to see the importance of escaping my box and traveling to see how the real world functions.
As a budding anthropologist I felt that I needed to have some real-world experience under my belt before beginning my graduate studies. I searched for a program that would provide a real-world application of methods and teachings that I had come to understand as the tenets of anthropological work. I found such a program through North Carolina State University under the direction of Dr. Tim Wallace. The program was a seven-week intensive ethnographic field school based around Lake Atitlán.
A Change in Plans
The New Project
San Pedro language schools are also fairly inexpensive, ranging from $60 to $130 per week. For an extra weekly fee, most of the language schools will help visitors find family home-stay opportunities as well. This adds to the local economy and directly benefits the families who choose to host students. The language schools also help to mitigate some of the social change that the influx of Western tourists have on the community. The language schools help to bolster the economy and are a strategy for the town of San Pedro to draw in tourists who are more socially and culturally conscious while also creating a niche for themselves. They offer lectures, day trips, and discussion about local issues, histories, and traditions. The schools seem to be the first line of action in gaining control of the tourist machine.
The students often begin to see the schools and their home-stay accommodations as family and home. They socialize with the other students and attend functions with their families. Most language school students are long-term tourists. San Pedro begins to become home for them, and they are more likely to be respectful and interested in learning about the local culture and personally knowing the local people who they come into contact with on a regular basis. For me, my San Pedro family has become a part of my extended family. I cannot imagine not staying in contact with them or coming back to visit.
While the language school tourists bring their own cultures with them, thus helping to influence the culture change that is taking effect in the village and all around the lake, they also bring with them a desire to learn. This desire is what allows the language schools the opportunity to direct what and how knowledge about the culture is presented. It is a powerful tool in helping to gain control over tourists’ influence in the community.
For all the beauty that is Guatemala, it is also deeply entrenched in a battle against the colonial mentality and poverty. The formal end of the civil war that ravaged the country for over three decades occurred in 1996. But even thirteen years later the scars remain, and people live in fear of the government's power. The "disappearances" that were all too common during the war still occur, and violence rages in many parts of the country, as is evident on the front page of any of the national newspapers. Eventually I had to stop reading them for my own sense of well-being. Unfortunately, much of the truth behind the causes of the civil war is not taught in schools in the United States, nor is it popular to discuss the U.S.'s involvement in most circles. Yet visiting a place and seeing the aftermath—the sadness, the poverty, the spirit to survive and persevere; and mothers, fathers, and children wishing only to live safe, happy lives—it is impossible to ignore. For more information about Guatemala, The Rough Guide to Guatemala has a brief description of the history and the people that provides a good overview of the country.
Then comes the hostility stage where everything is not so fantastic anymore. The things that at first seemed so exotic and exciting are now annoying, frustrating, and disgusting. For me, this stage occurred as soon as I got sick. It was a week into the field school and suddenly, and I mean suddenly, I began to question my sanity that I would think that coming to Guatemala was a good idea. How could I think that leaving my daughter for seven weeks would be all right?
I began to question my resolve to be an anthropologist. I hated the constant feeling of always being “on.” Always having to pay attention to who was interacting with whom and in what ways, how I was representing myself, how many people could I count, how was the room laid out, etc. I wanted to go home. I wanted to sleep in my own bed. I wanted to watch TV. Tim and Carla began to be more like spiritual leaders reminding their flock that “this, too, shall pass.” And it did. Eventually.
Much sooner than it felt, I moved into the third stage, harmony, or “it is what it is.” These stages are not static. You move in and out of them. but once the initial shock is felt it becomes easier to recognize where you are in the stages and deal with the effects. It is funny to me now looking back on my field notes during the first part of the field school. I knew so little about where I was or who the people were or how things worked. It is amazing how quickly I was able to learn what was really going on, how to navigate my way through public transportation, and make friends with many Pedranos.
Reverse culture shock was in many ways much more challenging. In fact, I am still dealing with its effects. Upon return, the United States seemed almost more foreign than the country from which I was returning. Everything seemed to be in excess. The people that I passed as I walked down the street did not make eye contact and exchange pleasantries with me. In fact, there wasn’t much walking down the street being done. I thought that I missed my car while I was in Guatemala, and I did.
But I find now that I miss being able to walk to every place I needed to go within the village. I miss the almost vertical hills and the noisy tuk tuk taxis. I miss getting up when the birds start announcing the sunrise and having as my only job to find out what’s going on here. It’s tough to realize the glut that our society produces, even if on some level you already knew this to be true. It is weird to be able to flush toilet paper and drink directly from the sink faucet. It is hard to realize that you won’t really have anyone to share your experience with even though you bombard your friends and family with photos and anecdotes because no one really can share your experience. But it is also wonderful to be with friends and family and to settle back in to a regular pattern of life knowing that you are a changed person, in whatever small way, and this you can keep to yourself as a reminder of the leap you made to leave your box behind.
Our world is certainly not perfect, but making the effort to travel and see firsthand what other parts of the world are like is the greatest gift that you can give to yourself. Volunteer with Engineers without Borders and spend time in Ghana helping the people to improve the infrastructure of basic necessities like clean water, grab your backpack and head to Europe to hike the Camino in Spain, or simply drive south and visit Mexico. Whatever you can do to diminish the borders of the world will be worth it. The United States may seem like a foreign land when you return, but you will have a new appreciation for the rest of the people who make up the six billion plus inhabitants of this planet.
—Lauren Copeland-Glenn, MA student in Anthropology