Ashlen Nimmo, MSW ‘16 —Reporting from Panajachel, Guatemala
This semester, Innovate@BCSW is following the experiences of four BC Social Work students who have embarked on international field education placements in Latin America, Europe, and Africa. Stay tuned during the spring for ongoing updates through student-crafted blog posts, video diaries, and photography.
Blog 1: The Arrival
By Ashlen Nimmo
I am a suitcase destroyer. I have earned a reputation as incapable of traveling long distances without ruining a suitcase. So it was no surprise that I arrived in Guatemala City, four hours later than expected due to a surprise stopover in San Salvador, having subsequently missed my shuttle, and with a suitcase that had only one functioning wheel. After dragging my semi-operative suitcase through the throngs of people and arranging for a new shuttle, I was glad to be on my way out of the city. The chaos of the capital with its congested streets and armed guards standing vigilantly outside banks, cell phone stores and even car washes, eventually gave way to green mountains, fields, and then upon entering my town, the lake. That first day especially, but even these first couple of weeks as well, have been somewhat of a sensory overload. These things that I have perceived, smelled, tasted, and experienced, although only giving me a superficial understanding of the world around me, still help me to familiarize myself with this new culture. Some of these initial impressions that have stuck with me, include the sight of…
babies’ heads peering out of the bundles on their mothers’ backs…….. red tuk-tuks zipping up and down the cobble-stoned streets………bright colors and beautiful patterns of the typical clothes…………………old school buses from the U.S. painted and transformed into public buses………..a child being measured and coming up painfully short of her expected height for her age…..an elderly woman skillfully balancing a bundle on her head while walking barefoot down the street…………
and the sounds of…
a murmured “buenos dias” in passing…..the native kaqchikel being spoken……………the loud English of foreigners drifting down the streets and out of the restaurants, stores, and bars……….the barrage of fireworks at any time of the day or night…….the slap, slap, slap of tortillas being made…….street dogs barking…….the caretaker knocking on our door asking for a flashlight to find her lost chicken in the yard………..
Panajachel is unlike any place I have ever lived in before. The local community, along with the extensive foreign community of tourists, NGO workers, teachers, and retirees all occupy the same physical space, yet seem to somehow live in two distinct worlds. While there are some exceptions of course, this dynamic fascinates and vexes me simultaneously. Work has been the one place where I have actually had substantial interactions with Guatemalans. My colleagues have been generous with their time in answering my questions about language, culture, and project specifics. They have allowed me the opportunity to explore the way of life here through their eyes and experiences, and for that I am grateful. I look forward to the months ahead when my initial impressions will be coupled with a more sophisticated understanding of the defining cultural nuances. I also hope that with time, patience, openness, and humility, poco a poco- little by little- I will be able to build relationships and rapport with both the foreign and local communities.
Ashlen Nimmo is spending the semester working for Mil Milagros (A Thousand Miracles), an organization based in Panajachel, Guatemala that partners with mothers, grandmothers, and teachers to improve children’s health and education in that country.