By Elisa Portz, Buena Onda Intern
Hey all! I’m Elisa and it’s been almost three months that I’ve been back living in the United States after having lived in Guatemala for five months last semester. I did my internship (co-op) through my university located in Boston, and over various searches, I came across Buena Onda. The Buena Onda team helped place me with a local community non-profit organization around Lake Atitlan in Guatemala and I can’t imagine my experience any other way.
It’s definitely a challenge to try and reflect on or speak to my experience living in Guatemala and to be able to fully encompass everything I want to express to those reading this. Guatemala is a culturally rich country with breathtaking views and hard-working people. Everyone I met in Guatemala was kind-hearted and compassionate towards one another and themselves. There was no rush to get anywhere and people took the time they needed to complete tasks, along with paying close attention to detail. Now that I am back in Boston finishing my final semester of college, I am able to notice exactly how my living in Guatemala has impacted my life, and how I choose to live my life in the U.S.
First off, I have had the privilege to be able to travel internationally before. Actually my first time living on my own abroad, was when I lived in Ecuador for 9 months at the age of 18 after I had graduated high school. The truth is if you haven’t been able to travel internationally yet, and by travel, I mean travel intentionally and sustainably. Traveling is one thing and living is a whole other thing. If an opportunity arises where you are able to travel to live somewhere else for an extended period of time—take it—no questions asked. Well, except maybe the question of “why not?” That is what I asked myself before I decided to take a gap year and live in Ecuador.
But if you’re more searching for information about Guatemala specifically, or need help to make a decision about traveling to live in Guatemala, I can provide that too! My experience in Guatemala was different than Ecuador. But this makes sense; I was older, more mature, and more independent when I went to live in Guatemala. But I have my experience there to thank for certain personal, professional, and cultural strides that I have made, and how they have impacted me positively on my return to the U.S.
In Guatemala, I was volunteering at a local non-profit and social enterprise called Maya Traditions. I was living in the vibrant and lively town of Panajachel on Lake Atitlan and I would walk to work every day with my roommate and soon-to-become best friend, who also worked at Maya Traditions. I volunteered with the grant area: writing grant applications and helping write the newsletter for the organization and support with planning for the annual fundraiser. I really enjoyed my position; and my areas of growth really came from some of the time I spent in the office but these growth areas also developed from time I spent outside the office, meeting the artisan women we worked with and exploring Guatemala.
I learned about how to work with my independence, alone time, and also make valuable friendships. Yes, these are aspects I knew previously but they were enhanced simply by living in another country where my environment was completely different than what I had known before. Through the meaningful connections that I made with local community members and friends, I had made Guatemala my new home.
Through my experience living in Guatemala, I also noticed (what I would think of as simple) infrastructure, systems, and cultural differences from what I was used to in the U.S. Being exposed to certain levels of poverty, education systems, or workplaces can really bring light to the simple differences that many people, like myself, would take for granted in the United States. For example, it’s really challenging to get a quality education in Guatemala because so many of the schools require high tuition and school materials/uniform cost and this is difficult to afford. The cyclical pattern of economic insecurity affects many parts of one’s life and I was noticing this where I was living in Guatemala.
It was really difficult when I returned to the U.S. because I wasn’t sure exactly how I could incorporate this new understanding of poverty into my studies and into my life in general. And I’m still figuring this out. What I do know is that I am increasingly more aware of my privilege and this is something that we talk about in my classes, as I am a Human Services major and we often analyze different areas of privilege and oppression within groups but also within ourselves.
I’m really grateful for the experience I had in Guatemala and all the unconditional support I received from the Buena Onda team. Buena Onda really made me feel comfortable about traveling to Guatemala and the team was responsive in answering all my questions and giving me perspective about living in the country before my departure. The team was also extremely supportive of me while I was there and if I had any issues, they were there to help me navigate what next step I should take. Overall, I’m grateful that I did my co-op experience through Buena Onda and I do look forward to returning to Guatemala again in the near future.