By Linda Dillman
Canal Winchester High School 2018 graduate Abby Obert’s timing in the face of a pending pandemic permitted her to check off a college requirement by participating in a March 6 service learning trip to Guatemala.
While the 10-day trip was cut short by one day because of travel worries by The Ohio State University due to the coronavirus, Obert was still able to help Maya people living in local villages by installing cook stoves and simple, at-home water filtration systems.
Obert’s OSU contingent also conducted interviews with families regarding water usage and spent their off-duty time participating in cultural activities such as chocolate-making demonstrations and cliff jumping in a natural preserve.
“We also when to Chichicastenango Market, where there were many streets of street vendors trying to sell scarves, jade carvings, and whatever else they made,” said Obert, who is a sophomore studying Food, Agricultural, and Biological Engineering – Ecological Engineering Specialization – with a minor in Humanitarian Engineering. “This was a fun day trip because we were able to barter with them. Two evenings when we had free time, we played soccer games with the staff of Mayan Families (a local Guatemalan organization).”
Obert’s group consisted of 18 students, one professor and one Engineering Abroad manager.
“We partnered with Mayan Families, a group dedicated to providing sustainable development for the rural areas around Lake Atitlán,” said Obert. “The Maya people are often under-represented in Guatemalan government—you cannot vote if you don’t speak Spanish—and a lot of these people speak their indigenous languages instead.”
Before the trip, the class split into three project groups. One group focused on collecting data for potential sites for a community garden. One group focused on collecting data for adding a rainwater harvesting system for a preschool in Tierra Linda.
“There was already a rainwater harvesting system at the El Barranco preschool, but it wasn’t working, and my group’s task was to figure out why it wasn’t working and potentially do some easy fixes,” said Obert.
However, Obert noted the school was built on the border between two separate villages, and the villages are currently not on good terms on who “owns” the preschool.
“Mayan Families realized this was a touchy subject and they didn’t want outsiders coming in and potentially making the situation worse, which I see to be a valid concern. So, we were not able to complete our project, but we still had many other things to keep us busy,” said Obert.
While the language barrier was the largest difficulty during the trip, Obert knew a little Spanish, so she was able to get by in some places. However, in the rural villages, many people speak Kaqchiquel, one of many Maya dialects, and the group always had at least two translators with them.
The OSU team flew out of the John Glenn airport the morning of March 6 with a layover in Miami before continuing on to Guatemala City, landing around 4 p.m. their time.
“Coming into the main airport, we had to stop for airport employees to take our temperature, assuming they were looking for those with coronavirus symptoms,” said Obert. “From there, we had around a 4-hour bus ride to Panajachel, a larger city on the shores of Lake Atitlán. We were supposed to be there for 10 days and fly out March 15, but due to the COVID-19 outbreaks and the possibility of our flights getting canceled before we came back to the states, the university wanted us to get home as soon as possible, so our trip was cut short by one day.”
Obert said she was very grateful for the opportunity to travel with the group and complete short and long term projects to help people in the area. It was her first study abroad trip, and she hopes to be able to go on another service-learning trip before she graduates.
“The people in the area were always super friendly and the cultural immersion was beautiful,” said Obert. “This experience opened my eyes to the lives of those living in rural areas of Guatemala and the appreciation for their way of life. When I got back to the states, the one thing that bothered me was how people acted when I told them I worked with the Guatemalan people. Most of them live what we consider normal lives, with jobs and cell phones. The last thing that I want people to believe is that we came in to help these people that had nothing. They aren’t wealthy in how we consider wealth, but they have strong family relationships, a strong connection to their culture and past, and beautiful views around them.”