By Edna Bissoon
While in Guatemala I was able to visit some of the most awe-inspiring parts of the country including Lake Atitlán with its magnificent volcanoes and beautiful indigenous culture. Lake Atitlán means “between the waters” in the indigenous Nahuatl language. The lake basin is volcanic in origin, filling an enormous caldera formed by an eruption. The lake is surrounded by 11 villages in which Maya culture is still prevalent. The Maya people of Atitlán are predominantly Tz’utujil and Kaqchikel.
Each indigenous village around Lake Atitlán has its own culture and is known for a specific traditional practice whether its weaving textiles, making chocolate or harvesting honey, all of which I was able to see firsthand. As I visited each village, I heard many different languages being spoken and most people wore traditional garments. With such a massive and majestic lake, it was easy to see why so many indigenous groups flocked to this area thousands of years ago.
I was also able to visit Antigua which used to be the capital and is now designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is known for its beautifully preserved Spanish-Baroque architecture with many majestic colonial churches. As I walked through the cobblestone streets, it was as if I had been transported back in time.
Aside from traveling, I cannot say enough about the food in Guatemala. It was the real farm to table experience, full of fresh vegetables, fruit and natural juices. I ate guacamole every day and was in heaven. I quickly realized that I needed to join the gym while there and would go in the evenings after work. I always felt safe walking around by myself and Google maps worked surprisingly well.
Of course, my time in Guatemala was not without its challenges. There are no taxi services or car rentals in Jalapa which made getting around a bit more difficult. There are Tuc Tucs, which are small doorless taxis that can shuttle you to nearby places within the city center. However, if you need to go moderate or long distances, the only option is catching a ride with a friend. Also, if you’re like me and mosquitos can’t get enough of you, be prepared to lather on the deet, especially in the rural villages. All things considered, these are small obstacles to face given the breadth of exposure to international clinical research that I gained. Also, these challenges are part of the beauty of working abroad. Every day is an adventure and one has to be solution oriented, creative and proactive to enjoy this environment. I cherish the opportunity I had this summer to do meaningful research with vulnerable populations.