GETTING TO KNOW MAYA HIGHLANDS HIGH SCHOOL VOLUNTEERS

Located in Central America, Guatemala’s springlike temperatures has earned it the nickname “land of eternal spring” while its variety of plant and wildlife has put it on the map as a biodiversity hotspot. Guatemala is also an incredible destination for volunteers interested in Mayan history, tradition, and current culture. Between the warmth of its people and the beauty of the land, you will be amazed at how much Guatemala has to offer.

Learn About Guatemala

The Mayan civilization was (and still is) active in this region, and the ruins of Tikal stand as a breathtaking example of their religious beliefs and traditions. Though the height of the temple period was over 1,000 years ago, the indigenous people remain active in Guatemalan culture – making Guatemala strikingly different from many of its Central American neighbors. The arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century brought Catholicism and a baroque architectural style to Guatemala. To view these influences for yourself, check out the cobblestone streets and spectacular ruins during an afternoon in Antigua (a UNESCO World Heritage Site).

Guatemala’s recent history cannot be mentioned without discussing the effects of a 36-year long civil war that ended in 1996. Guatemala has worked hard to overcome their recent past, and has won over a new generation, offering visitors everything from eco-tourism to award winning coffee!

Chocolate is said to originate in Guatemala! It was used in Mayan culture as early as the sixth century A.D. The word ‘chocolate’ comes from the Maya word ‘xocoatl’ which means bitter water, as cocoa at the time was the basis for a thick, cold, unsweetened drink. Sugar was not yet discovered so the Maya used different spices to add flavor, including hot chili peppers - which are used in gourmet chocolate production today.

Guatemala is a country of colonial architecture, exotic jungle ruins, cloud forests, beaches, active volcanoes and a rich indigenous Mayan culture, but did you know that it is also known for producing some of the world’s best coffee? Guatemala ranks second in the world (after Colombia) in the amount of high grade coffee it produces, and it has the highest percentage of its crop classified as high quality.

Tecpán, in the Maya Highlands, is THE place to be – you will be immersed in a welcoming and laid back community where the Mayan way of life is present. From hiking the surrounding mountains, to exploring ancient Maya ruins, there will never be a dull moment!

Cultural Do’s and Don’ts

Entering a new culture is an exciting and challenging experience. And just as you bring your own culture to share, it’s important to be open and respectful to the culture of those you’ll meet during your travels. You’ll often find that you have a much more positive experience if you are aware of and take into account cultural norms when meeting new people and getting to know your new community.

Do!
  • Learn some basic Spanish phrases
  • Address people with a formal title (Don /Doña)
  • Tip your server at restaurants
  • Haggle at marketplaces when buying crafts
Don't!
  • Take photos of the local people without asking
  • Don't flush toilet paper- throw it in the bin
  • Be too affectionate in public (it’s frowned upon)
  • Shut car doors too loudly
The Mayan Calendar

Archeologists are still uncovering the ancient knowledge that the Maya possessed. One famous, but misunderstood, example is the Mayan Calendar. Contrary to popular belief, the Maya did not predict the apocalypse on December 21, 2012. This was just the date that the calendar rolled over into a new B'ak'tun, which happens approximately once every 394 years. You will have the chance to learn all about it, along with your Mayan astrology sign, when you volunteer in Guatemala.

Culture Shock

Picture this: You’re living in a country far from home. You can’t understand the language, and you’re trying to order food, but everything seems to be moving so slowly! Why can’t it just be like in your home country: fast and efficient?

Sometimes, these and other frustrations can build up, and you may even become angry or annoyed at with this new and unfamiliar place, its cultural norms, and its people. If this happens to you, you might be experiencing culture shock.

Culture shock can be a normal part of traveling to a new country, but it might surprise you that you can also encounter reverse culture shock when you return home. While everyone experiences some degree of culture shock, the impact that it has on your experience depends on how well prepared you are to handle its different phases. Here are some tips and tricks to get you assimilated (and re-assimilated once you’re back home) so you can enjoy every moment of your journey.

"I - I hardly know, Sir, just at the present," Alice replied rather shyly, "at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then."
- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

  • Have a sense humor.
    Try to see something of value in every new experience you have. While it can be challenging in the moment, try to keep it all in perspective. The ability to laugh and go with the flow are two key tools to coping with initial culture shock.
  • Expect differences.
    In any new culture, there will be some differences. If you’re prepared for there to be challenges and differences before you arrive in-country, it can make a world of difference in how you adjust.
  • ...but look for what’s the same.
    You will likely encounter differences in cultures, but you might not immediately realize the similarities. Take a moment to appreciate those attributes that make us more alike than different.
  • Keep learning.
    Immersing yourself in a new culture is a constant education. So continue making an effort to learn and understand what you’re experiencing.

Language Skills

Living and working within your new community is a great way to learn the local language. Whether you’re an advanced speaker or just learning a few key phrases, you’ll enjoy CCS-organized language lessons during your time in-country to help you through your journey. Here are a few important phrases to learn before you depart for your volunteer program. Even if your pronunciation isn’t perfect (yet), give it a try! Your attempts to connect with new friends in the local language will always be appreciated.

Spanish Phrases
HelloHola / Buenos díasDo you speak Spanish?¿Habla usted español?
How are you?Estoy bienWhat time do you have?¿Qué hora tiene?
I’m fine¿Cómo está usted?Do you understand me?¿Me entiende?
PleasePor favorWhere is the… ?¿Dónde vive usted?
Thank youGraciasI live in…Vivo en…
May I…?¿Puedo…?How much does it cost?¿Cuánto cuesta?
It’s a pleasureCon mucho gustoWhere can I find…?¿Dónde puedo encontrar…?

Intro to Spanish:
Basic Level

As with learning any new language, reading phrases is helpful. But listening is one of the best ways to grasp sounds and vocabulary. Click below to hear Country Director Virginia Burmester begin your first Spanish language lesson.

Ready for the next level? Practice your Spanish with these online sites:

http://www.studyspanish.com/freesite.htm »
http://dictionaries.travlang.com/EnglishSpanish/ »

Recommended Reading and Films

We believe that travel and firsthand encounters are the BEST education. But there are also plenty of resources to help you learn more about the history, travel opportunities, culture, stories, and language of Guatemala so you can begin to immerse yourself even before you arrive. Here are just a few of our favorites to get you started:

Travel & Leisure: Under the Volcanoes »
CCS Blog: Guatemala »
YouTube: Guatemala City »

Activities & Excursions

Between volunteering, cultural activities, navigating a new language, and immersing yourself in a brand-new culture, you’ll still have plenty of time to explore the local area and even the country during evenings and weekends with the CCS in-country staff. Our activities & excursions are an important part of your experience for exploration and self-reflection, and our in-country staff will always be there to guide you through getting to know the culture and country.

Here are a few of our favorite activities that might be included on your schedule.

Spend the day exploring the archaelolgical site of Iximche, discover a number of pyramid-temples, palaces and two Mesoamerican ballcourts.

Take in Guatemala’s natural beauty at Lake Atitlan, referred as the “most beautiful lake in the world” by English novelist Aldous Huxley.

Explore Antigua, a charming old colonial city that for many years was the political, religious, and economic heart of Central America. Charge your camera and get ready for a day filled with beautiful architecture and rich history.

Training Sessions

If you’re ready to start learning more, review your online Training Sessions below (these are required – so make sure you allocate enough time to review each of these trainings, each under 30-minutes). About two weeks before your program begins, you’ll join your final pre-departure call with your group. We can’t wait for you to join us, meet your fellow volunteers, and explore all that CCS has to offer.

Training Call:
Volunteering in Maya Highlands »

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