The Weekly Ringer

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

Students learn mayan culture

4 min read


Geography professor Dawn Bowen and the members of her Mayan survival in the 21st century course spent spring break in Guatemala.

The Maya account for more than 50 percent of the total population in Guatemala. The purpose of the trip was to illustrate how Maya culture continues to survive in post civil war Guatemala and the modern world.

The group of students arrived on Saturday, Feb. 27 and had lunch in Guatemala City, followed by a visit to the Catholic Human Rights Office.

The trip, according to senior Nate Delano, is a truth commission set up to investigate massacres that occurred during the nation’s 36-year-long Civil War.

They discussed the Mayan cultural implications that have arisen as a result of the war.
The Guatemalan Civil War began in 1960. A mostly Mayan insurgency fought a guerrilla war against the Guatemalan army until 1996.

During these years approximately 200,000 people were killed. According to the Human Rights Commission, 93 percent of the atrocities committed during the war were committed by the Guatemalan Security Forces.

On Sunday the group went to Cobán, attended a Catholic Mass, did some sight-seeing, and played a soccer game against some local Guatemalans. The UMW group lost.

On Monday the group traveled with Guide Rob Cahill to Bezaleel, a school outside of Cobán. Cahill took the group on a tour of the grounds, which includes a large and diverse organic garden tended by the school’s students.

The garden was relevant to the work being done in Sanim’taqa, the Maya village they would visit the next day.

“I learned a lot about the practical applications of agricultural development,” Delano said, who plans on joining the Peace Corps after graduation.

Later that evening, the group met with human rights students from the local university, a professor and a priest, who explained how Cobán was never colonized by the Spanish, but was instead colonized by Dominican Catholic missionaries. Later on a Mayan Priest shared some Mayan creation stories with the group.

They spent an hour in the backs of pick-up trucks on their way to Sanim’taqa, a remote Maya village. In the village the group met with elementary aged students. Again they played soccer, this time they managed to win against far younger opponents. Go America!

The students stayed with host families, two students per house. After dinner they spent time getting to know their host families.

“At times it was difficult to communicate with the host families because some spoke Spanish, most spoke [Q’eqchi’,] an indigenous Mayan language, and no one could speak English,” Delano said.

However, Delano still remembered the people as the most memorable.

“Hanging out with the host families was the best part of the trip. They work the land all day and then come home and spend time with their family at night. They are content and happy,” he said.

On Wednesday the group went on a hike through the nearby cloud forest. Cloud forests are generally highland evergreen forest with a high occurrence of low level cloud cover.

The trail was established by Andrew McAfee, a Peace Corps volunteer and UMW alum, seeking to promote Eco-tourism with the help of local people. On their hike, they came across a couple of interesting things.

First they came across the boots of a person from Sanim’taqa massacred during the long conflict. The boots had been discovered and preserved during a Human Rights Commission investigation of the area.

The boots now sit aside the trail as a reminder of the human toll taken by the country’s long Civil War. In Sanim’taqa 15 people died and 11 disappeared during the long conflict.

Second, they came across a pair of Quetzals. Quetzals are known for their vibrant coloration and elaborate tail feathers. They are revered throughout Guatemala and neighboring countries. It is relatively rare that they should be observed in pairs. The Quetzal Guatemala’s national bird,

It is mythologically a symbol to Mayan culture.

After the hike, the group returned to the village and taught the host families card games.

First, they taught War and then Egyptian Ratscrew, which they renamed “Oportunidades” because Egyptian Ratscrew was lost somewhere in translation. Senior Nate Finney brought pop rocks and introduced them to hisGuatemalan friends with great success.

“I met a lot of good people,” he said.

On Thursday the group left Sanim’taqa. As a gift they gave the village a number of water purifiers. This was, essentially, the extent of their humanitarian work in the country. They had intended on doing more, but timing made it difficult.

The group headed back to Cobán Thursday afternoon. They spent the day on a coffee tour and an artisan fair where Delano bought an obsidian letter opener which he eventually broke and Mayan Jewelry to give to “his ladies,” meaning his mom and sisters.

Friday morning the group got up and traveled four hours, again in the backs of pick-up trucks, to Chelemha Lodge, a cloud forest bird reserve in Alta Verapaz.
They hiked through the cloud forest and watched birds hoping to see and perhaps get pictures of another pair of Quetzals, but this time the birds didn’t come.

Saturday morning the group headed to Antigua where they would spend their final day and night. Delano said Antigua was a bit “touristy,” but that they enjoyed a great meal and some great fireworks there.

Next year’s geography trip will include student participation in a development project. If you would like more information about next year’s trip, contact Bowen.