Bittersweet Goodbye

Leaving Guatemala and Belize was an incredibly bittersweet experience.  Don’t get me wrong, I was excited to be able to drink tap water and have working amenities like constant electricity, but the experiences I’ve had in Latin America were some of the most transformative of my life.  The people I’ve met, the history I’ve learned, and the opportunities I’ve lived while abroad were eye opening in terms of being culturally aware and undergoing extraordinary personal growth.

The Maya, both the modern people and their ancient ancestors, have shaped the way I look at life.  I’m leaving feeling much more in tune with nature, more appreciative of the simple things, and more spiritual.  After visiting ancient sites, particularly Tikal, I feel small, in a good way! I feel like I need to love more and worry less.  My patience has grown, and I try not to sweat the small stuff.  All the little complications seem useless to stress about.

Even though I will cherish the experiences I had, the people I met will be what I remember most of all.  The people I shared my experiences with will be forever friends.  They supported me when I was feeling home sick, talked me through culture shock, and made every multi-hour van ride fly by!

However, the women of Guatemala were the most inspirational of all.  Coming into the trip I expected to experience stronger gender roles, and frankly more soft-spoken women.  That was simply not the case.  Many of the women I met in Guatemala were strong entrepreneurs, active mothers, quick learners, progressive thinkers, and feminists.  I was consistently shocked by their adaptability and resilience towards both personal and cultural obstacles.  I’m leaving feeling empowered by the women I met, and more confident than ever that women can truly do it all.

Overall, I wouldn’t trade my trip to Guatemala and Belize for the world.  I’m leaving as a more patient, well rounded, adaptable, culturally aware person than when I started.



Cheers To The Many First Times!

Studying abroad is the best decision you will ever make! If you ever see yourself with the opportunity to study abroad anywhere in the world, especially Guatemala/Belize, do not think it twice! Believe me, you will never regret it.

Be flexible and willing to take yourself out of your comfort zone. Do not be afraid to try new things, such as hiking a volcano, snorkeling in the Caribbean, or swimming with sharks, because even if it’s the first time that you’re doing such things or if it scares you to death, those experiences will end up giving you the best memories ever along the people that you will get to call friends forever!


Myself, a person who finds hard to open up to people and get comfortable with the uncomfortable, found the way to make the best out of this study abroad experience. I met awesome people that I now have the privilege to call friends, and along them I created the best memories of the many first times we had together. Along my friends, I got to swim/snorkel with sharks, sting rays, an eel and a manatee! We also got to hike a volcano and climb one of the highest temples in the Maya world, never giving up, always together and supporting each other.


This study abroad experience in Guatemala and Belize will always live in my memory and in my heart, and even though it came to an end I know that it is just the beginning of many more first times to come and everlasting friendships. No matter where you go study abroad make sure to make the best out of it, give it your all and remember to always include your peers on anything that you do because those experiences will make a difference and will live with you forever!

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Back to Reality Already?


Goodbyes are hard. Imagine it being a month and you’ve gotten to spend some pretty awesome and some pretty intense moments with the people around you, and right as you’re creating bonds and friendships with the people you’ve met, boom you have to go. Advice time: appreciate every moment on this trip even if it’s difficult to digest. Although I have been on other study abroad programs in the past, this has been the most challenging. I say that because you see things you wouldn’t normally see, experience things you wouldn’t normally experience, and learn things that you wouldn’t really learn if you didn’t experience them there. You have the opportunity to interact with the arts and culture first hand. It’s tangible. It’s alive. It has been mentally and physically challenging, but it has been so rewarding.


Before we left, we were given a reverse culture shock “orientation.” You must be asking yourself what that means, right? We thought the same thing, but it’s real my friends. It means exactly what it sounds like. You really will get a culture shock whenever you go back to the life you had before this trip. There won’t be any more walking through cobble stone streets to go to Casa Herrera to have class, or going on a stroll through the central park, or pushing your way through the most colorful markets you’ll ever see. Point is, you’ll have to prepare yourself to go to Guatemala and Belize, and just as much when you go back home. You have to give yourself time to get used to going back simply because you’re not the same person you initially were.


When leaving Central America each of us was given a quote. Mine was by Henry Miller: “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” That is exactly what I felt all throughout this trip. So, my post is an homage of having the opportunity to experience, see, hear, taste, touch, feel, and most importantly, expose myself to things I hadn’t previously given myself to. Travelling doesn’t have to just be a trip from Point A to Point B, but rather, the growth you experience in between them.


And finally, I just want to say thank you to all the people I had the pleasure of meeting and talking to. I’ve learned so much from each and every one of you. Gracias a todos!





June 30, 2017

It’s day three of being home, and I still feel strange. Honestly, even being in Belize for a while felt a bit odd. Guatemala took a part of me that I’ll never get back. But Belize brought its own pleasures too. In fact, in the 7 days we spent there, I had an array of incredible experiences paralleling those I spent nearly a month accumulating in Guatemala 🙂

If you know me, you know I LOVE animals. Discovering nature in a new environment is fun and exciting to me. That’s why visiting the Belize Zoo and snorkeling in the Caribbean were two of the highlights of my trip, and are definitely on my list of must-dos in Belize!

Before we visited the zoo, I was skeptical. I’ve seen some pretty sad situations at zoos in other countries (and even at home!) before. However, I’m pleased to say that I had a very positive experience! All of the animals at the zoo have been rehabilitated or taken from unsuitable owners, and all are native to Belize. They are provided the most natural environment I have ever seen at a zoo (the habitats are literally carved out of the jungle), and it is clear that all the animals are accustomed to humans and seem happily adjusted. This is really a fantastic way to get up close and personal with the animals while supporting a good cause.

I was especially excited when I saw some of the animals they housed. I am from the Rio Grande Valley, the south most part of Texas bordering Mexico. Due to its proximity to the border, the RGV is known for its semi-tropical wildlife (it’s a popular birding destination). I grew up learning about the animals in my region, and two species of wild cat always particularly interested me due to their rarity: the ocelot and the jaguarundi.

These endangered cats are extremely scarce in the RGV (there are only estimated to be 50 ocelots living in South Texas) and I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing one. I was elated, then, to find myself face-to-face with two jaguarundi kittens when I was least expecting it (a worker was transporting them in a wheelbarrow to their enclosure). I also got quite close to an adult, along with great views of the resident ocelot! I was over the moon!

These cats, along with a gorgeous jaguar, tapirs, an assortment of tropical birds (especially one very amicable and showy toucan), a fox, deer, coatimundis (including an assortment of feisty babies), monkeys, and more, are just part of what makes up this wonderful sanctuary (a more fitting term than zoo, I think).

Snorkeling in the Caribbean (off of Caye Caulker) was also an incredible experience. I’m a little obsessed with ocean documentaries because I LOVE the beautiful colors and delicate intricacies of creatures under the sea. I was fortunate enough to see a moray eel, an enormous lobster, and fishes of all colors! We even got to swim with nurse sharks and rays! It was a bit scary at first, but they were gentle creatures that were all but oblivious to our presence. Or well, they were a bit occupied with the fish our guide was throwing from the boat. I have to say that is my only regret. There were many snorkeling companies on the island that advertised they did not feed marine life (a more natural, ethical approach). I had assumed our chosen tour company followed these same practices but it did not. I should have done my research. Nevertheless, it was an unforgettable experience! Also, live and learn ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Other noteworthy experiences:

After we visited Tikal, I doubted any other Maya site on our list could leave a significant impression on me. I was dead wrong! The temples at Lamanai left me speechless, and wondering why they hadn’t been covered in more detail in previous classes. The architecture is absolutely astounding, unlike anything I’d ever seen before. It looked almost as if they were modern constructions, which was strange but impressive. The views of the New River and tropical forest from the tops of the temples were stunning as well. Equally thrilling was the fact that there were pieces of history everywhere; we couldn’t go far without finding bits of ancient pottery and obsidian fragments! I would highly suggest visiting this epic site!

It was really interesting to see the traces of Mayan influence throughout different countries and regions; from Honduras (which I visited shortly prior to this program) to Guatemala and from Guatemala to Belize, Maya traditions, architecture, and identity took a variety of forms and molded themselves to fit evolving sociopolitical climates in each environment.

This program was an invaluable opportunity to familiarize ourselves with an array of aspects that contribute to an overarching Maya experience, even in places where it seemed like there was none. It taught me to think more critically about the often not-so-distant past of many of the places we visited and brought to light the beautiful resiliency of Mayan culture still alive today. I am privileged to have been a part of this adventure and both Guatemala and Belize own a piece of my heart now. This was truly an unforgettable summer <3

I hope you enjoy my photo album of these experiences posted below!

All the Firsts, but (fingers crossed) not the Lasts


I tried to quantify this trip:
• 28 days
• 2 countries
• 16 students
• 1 professor
• 1 earthquake
• 10+ excursions
• Countless smiles

And yet, this doesn’t even come close to capturing what this trip truly encompassed. It was memorable to say the least. Most of the 28 days were spent in Antigua, a picturesque and vibrant city. The cobblestone streets, although deadly when wet, only perpetuated the charm of the brightly colored buildings. Every turn of the corner was greeted by a warm “Buenos dias!” or “Buenas noches!” or even a simple smile. Life moves at a slower rate with people taking time to sit in el Parque Central and soak up the sun and the day. Such little things that made a world of difference.


Apart from these details I can’t even imagine what this experience would’ve been like without all the people I got to know better on this trip. Would anyone else laugh as much as Rylie and Rebecca did come 6 AM every day when, shocking, the bread was YET AGAIN ready? Would any other group of people agree to “vote people off the island” in a friendly-yet-incredibly-competitive game of Survivor (Guatemala Edition)? So with that I would like to send a virtual thank you to everyone who came on this trip and contributed to this incredible experience. Thank you Ali, Armando, Cheyenne, Felicia, Gabe, Gaby, Hayley, JJ, Kelly, Lauren, Quinn, Rebecca, Rylie, Sofia, and Vero—wouldn’t have wanted to do this with anyone else


On a side note: When was the last time you did/experienced for the first time? Before this trip I honestly couldn’t remember. Here came Guatemala and Belize to end that streak. Things were definitely new, for the first time I—saw/climbed a volcano, witnessed one erupting, experienced an earthquake, saw a tapir, swam with a manatee, participated in a Maya ceremony and climbed temples at various Maya archaeological sites. Not to brag, but I think that’s a pretty impressive list for the 28 days!!


I cannot speak for everyone on this trip, however, every experience felt truly unique. I felt lucky to have participated, because while Europe (and other places) is charming in its own right I don’t think I could have ever found and experienced many of the activities I did on this trip if I were to have gone to Guatemala by myself.


Let me just say, if you’re considering study abroad, DO IT. You will not regret it, the things I was able to learn on this trip while immersing myself in the culture and ambiance of Guatemala have been unforgettable.

Closing Post

As I think back on my trip, I’m filled with gratitude for the people I’ve encountered, learned from, and befriended. I want to thank Dr. Runggaldier and her husband for sharing their unparalleled amounts of knowledge, Milady for her incessant kindness and unwavering leadership, my class for their company, my host family for their patience with my intermediate Spanish, and all the Mayan people I talked to for their openness in allowing me to understand their culture and traditions.





Somber to Say the Least

Most Study Abroad blogs would have you thinking that every moment of every waking day of these trips are happy- that there are no melancholy moments, no brief seconds where you miss something, no seconds where you feel any tinge of blue… and they’re right, for the most part. The only time that really trumps the happiness you feel while studying abroad is when you say your goodbyes. Goodbye to your homestay family, goodbye to your friends from different countries and states whom you may never see again, and goodbye to the countries themselves.
In the words of our amazing Study Abroad trip coordinator, “The hardest part is going back.” And you weren’t wrong Milly. I know that I am going to miss so much about being in Antigua- the way that the volcanoes rumbled in the night, the beautiful people of Antigua who wore traje and represented their Mayan culture, the storefronts on every building that confuse the heck out of you because they all look the same- and most of all, I will miss my study abroad friends and faculty that helped me to adjust to these whole new worlds of Guatemala and Belize. As sad as this blog post may seem, it is only the reality of what many study abroad students must face. We have to adjust and come back, whether these homes be in the States or on a whole other continent, the fact of the matter is that students always come home. And as much as I hate to say it, study abroad broadens your horizons, but it always leaves you wanting more. Seeing parts of the world that some people have never seen, things that are not in the textbooks, people that have never been asked these questions… it really changes you. So, although every study abroad student must face returning home to the familiar, you never really return home the same way you left it. And to me, that means much more than any textbook or lecture ever will.

To the Best Month of My Life

The sun began to peek through my blinds on the morning of May 31st. It was finally the date I had seen stamped all over emails since I had applied for the Maymester program last fall — departure day. I finished packing my clothes and double-checked for my passport. As my dad drove me to the airport, I didn’t know what to expect for the next month (which ended up being one of the best of my life).

Now on June 30th, I watch the sun fade below the horizon from my patio in Dallas. I fumble around my home, but it seems different now. I seem different. I am different. I came home with only a month more of time in my possession, yet a lifetime more of experiences and memories. A lifetime more of awareness.

Whenever someone hears I just got back from Guatemala and Belize, the first question they ask is, “What’s your favorite thing you did?” It’s hard to choose when I have done so much — hiking a volcano, going to a black sand beach, visiting ancient ruins sites, feeding a wild monkey, swimming with sharks and manta rays — but what has stuck with me the most from this adventure is not a touristy attraction that people want to hear about, but the new feeling in my heart and opening of my eyes.

The reality of third world countries was shocking to me. My heart hurts every time I think about Janial, an 11 year-old boy I played volleyball with who no longer attends school because he has to help his dad sell fruit, or Magdalena, a woman whose husband was murdered brutally and randomly in the civil war. These people have drastically different lives from mine simply because of where they were born. Humans should not have to choose between food and medicine, sacrifice education to put food on their family’s table, and live each day wondering if they’ll be able to earn even a dollar.

This is not to say that there are not things I prefer about Guatemala and Belize. In America, it’s easy to plug in our earbuds or open up our screens and create our little life bubbles to block out the world. In contrast, no one in these countries disconnects from their surroundings while walking the streets. Instead of people avoiding eye contact with me, I felt welcomed and part of the community from a simple “hello” or “good morning”. I really enjoyed getting away from such an individualistic society as the US for a month.

These same little life bubbles we find shelter in allow us to be oblivious to the struggles of millions of other people. We get so caught up in ourselves that we forget to appreciate our access to clean water, plentiful amounts of food, higher education, comfortable homes, or even just the sense of safety and security that governments are supposed to give ALL of their people. These are the things that are the hardest but also the most important to think about. Real people with real lives and families live this reality everyday.

This is supposed to be a “goodbye” post, but I can’t imagine that this is the end of my connection with the places I visited, the incredible professor I had, or the amazing friends I made. So to Guatemala, Belize, Dr. Runggaldier, and my peers — see ya later. Thank you for the greatest month of my life.



Rainy season – should I go?

When the program first started, I was extremely nervous because I hardly talked to anyone in class and now I was going to be stuck with them for a month in a foreign country. I contemplated just dropping from the program because what was I doing going to a foreign country with people I hardly knew. I’m so glad that I didn’t since it ended up being one of the most memorable experiences of my life. I couldn’t have asked for a better group to experience all of this with.

Being able to stand at the archaeological sites and learn about even the tiniest of details about their architecture and background was incredible. It’s hard to visualize an ancient city when reading about them but once you’re at the site there are no words to describe it. The place just sort of comes alive and you can’t help but imagine what life must have been like back then. The research aspect of this program allowed me to connect with some of the locals in a way that I would have never imagined. They were so open about many controversial topics like religion, identity, and gender roles. I was able to learn more about them in one sitting than I would have reading about them.

I didn’t think that I would get so attached to a place that I’d only be living in for less than three weeks, but that is exactly what happened with Antigua. I started missing it as soon as we left. I couldn’t help but think about my homestay family and all the amazing people I met there. Waking up to the sight of volcanoes and the sound of the birds outside my window is something that I’ll never forget. Antigua is a small city that holds a special place in my heart. I hope to someday return and fully experience everything that this city has to offer.

A piece of advice that I’d give future students of this program is to bring rain boots 🙂 If you’re going during the rainy season your shoes will get wet and they will stay wet for days!


(Photo: Hayley is prepared!)


(Photo: Skipping in the rain – go Cheyenne!)

Go and See

Without a question, this Maymester will NOT be my last trip to Guatemala or Belize. I’ve experienced much more than I thought possible in a four-week period of time, and I’ve met people whose stories and compassion will be with me for the rest of my life. I’d like to thank everyone that made this trip possible for me, and everyone else that made this trip memorable. Without you guys, I would not have been able to walk in the footsteps of the ancient Maya, or alongside the contemporary, much alive, Maya people that inhabit the lands of their ancestors. I’ve been to some of the major Maya sites of the Yucatán Peninsula (Chichén Itzá, Coba, and Tulum), but they didn’t have the same breath of life that Iximché or Tikal still breath.


(Above: Contemporary ritual burning at Iximché)


(Above: A modern stela at Iximché)


(Above: Contemporary ritual burning at Tikal)

Maya people of the Yucatán don’t have the same access to their ancestral lands as the Maya people of Guatemala, who can once again practice their rituals where the Classic Maya did day in and day out. It’s incredible to see Maya women, and occasionally Maya men, wearing their traditional clothing (traje), selling their hand-woven textiles, or cooking in the way their people have for more than a millennium. The way the Maya are talked about in American grade schools would make you think they are all dead and gone, but simply getting off the plane in Guatemala City proves otherwise. Traveling through the Highlands of Guatemala, you wouldn’t even think they went through a conquest, colonization, or a very recent and brutal civil war…at least until you start talking to the people. I heard several people’s life stories while on this trip that would break anyone’s heart. While at the Tz’utujil Maya town, Santiago Atitlán, formerly called Tz’ikin Jaay, I met Dolores Ratzan.


(Above: Prof. Runggaldier with Dolores Ratzan!)


(Above: View of the lake from Santiago Atitlán)

She gave us a tour of the town while stopping at a few key spots, such as the Catholic Church and a few of the Cofradias. Dolores was extremely open and welcoming, she shared her personal struggles as well as those of her people starting at the conquest thru the civil war and up to the present day. The civil war has impacted her life, and the whole of Guatemala, since its conception in the 1960’s. Over a thirty-year period of time, Dolores and tens of thousands of Maya people were targeted by the military as conspirators with the guerillas. Dolores was able to flee to the United States as a refugee shortly after her name appeared on a list of people that the government forces intended to make “go away.” That list was distributed in the plaza outside the Catholic Church in Santiago Atitlán, outside the very same church where Father Aplas, or Stanley Francis Rother, was murdered in the night shortly there after.


(Above: Plaza view from Catholic Church in Santiago Atitlán)


(Above: Dedication to Father Aplas)

Father Aplas, as the locals called him, was a Catholic Pastor from Oklahoma who worked to help the people of Santiago Atitlán out of poverty, he opened a hospital, bought and rented land to the locals so that they could grow food, and allowed the traditional Maya people to perform their rituals. Dolores was a young girl when he first came to the town, and she told us she would not be alive today without him. She was one of the many children Father Aplas helped by providing food to their families when they came up short. I really cannot do justice to Dolores’ ability to recount Father Aplas’ many deeds and untimely death, but I can certainly suggest to anyone to travel to Guatemala and learn. Learn from the people who suffered such a great deal for embracing their traditional heritage, or for helping a population that so desperately needed and still needs a helping hand. See why they fought for their culture, visit the ancient and not so ancient sites, eat what they eat, live how they live, and maybe try to learn a Mayan language. Since traveling across the world of the Maya, I decided to set a few goals for myself: learn Spanish, attempt a Mayan language, learn what I can do to prevent the looting of ancient artifacts, and to volunteer for archaeological digs. I would like to continue to learn as much as I can from the living Maya and those who have since “entered the water.”