There were many stereotypes floating around in my head before I arrived in Guatemala. Many of them were about the people I had yet to meet. Needless to say, these stereotypes had been passed down to me through misinformation and preconceived ideas that lacked an insight into the lives of these people, as individuals or their culture. I was determined to start my experience with a clear and open mind to what I should expect, but I had only been told to expect the worst.

My first morning there, I was afraid of even getting out of bed. I was afraid that I had offended my host mother by getting into the house late after my flight was delayed. I was afraid that my inability to speak Spanish translated to an ignorance of some sort. I was afraid that my host sisters were waiting for me downstairs at the breakfast table and I could not communicate with them. This couldn’t have been further than what happened that first morning. I found out quite quickly that my host mother, Lorina, was a very patient woman, and although her English skills were about as good as my Spanish (aka, zero), with the help of over-exaggerated hand gestures and google translate, we managed. Lorena had not been taught English, but it was nice to see that it didn’t stop her to find a way to communicate with me, as if I were one of her own.

That weekend I travelled to possibly one of Guatemala’s best-kept-secrets- El Paredon. I travelled 4 hours by shuttle, through the traffic of the city and down dirt-roads, past cattle ranches and shrimp farms, to the black sand beaches of the pacific coast. The sun was only barely peeking out of the clouds but just enough to hit everything just-right. I learned soon enough that there was more to Guatemala than just cities rich in culture and backdrops of volcanos. There was this very small population in the marshes of the pacific coast, that truly cared for the lush ecosystem around them. Here in El Paredon, they organised community beach cleans and educational tours through the swamps, to give the unsuspecting tourist (like myself) the insight that everything we do around us, effects the creatures we may not even see around us.

After a mesmerising weekend of learning about ecosystem of Guatemala’s, Pacific coast, I was ready to start my final week of Spanish lessons. During my final week in Santa Lucia, the communication between me and my host family got better. My four host sisters between them had an intermediate-advanced understanding of English and along with my now basic level of Spanish we were flying! My youngest host sister Michel and I found a nice rapport of communicating through music. I did my best to teach her some Irish tunes on the tin whistle and she taught me some Guatemalan music on the ‘flauta’. Language should never be an obstacle of communication between two people. There is always a way. My host parents worked very hard to provide for their family. They wanted to make sure their 4 girls had the ability to take every opportunity that came to them. Unfortunately, due to some family’s economic conditions in this country, some children are sent to work from a very young age. We are lucky in Ireland as education is widely available and the government is in a position that it has provisions to allow people, even from disadvantaged backgrounds the availability of education. Although some kids in Ireland leave school early to get a trade- such as an apprenticeship for example, they still have education as an option. Due to varying reasons, this is not always the case in every country, especially when it comes to government funded education in non-compulsory areas such as art, language, technology and music.

One of the people I met on my journey, in El Paredon, was a man named Juan José Asensio, who in 2016 funded a company called 1BOT. Its objective is to improve the quality of education in science and technology in Guatemala, through a social entrepreneurship, model based on children’s self-learning, which he sells to private schools and subsidizes rural schools by 90%. An example of the people this project has helped is Azucena. Azucena is blind girl from Guatemala who programmed and put together a machine that allows her, through a sound, to identify obstacles around her to help herself when walking. This prototype is cheaper and easier to use than many market alternatives, so you expect she can then turn it into a business.

Sustainable Development Goal number 4, ‘Quality Education’, states to “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”. The work that saw Juan had done allows just that. I found in my first two weeks here that people are learning all around them and I only hope that I can take the enthusiasm and encouragement that I learnt from my family in Guatemala into my everyday life at home in Ireland. I learned that I should not, ever look at a country that I have never experienced, with a miseducated interpretation.

Helena Coogan, Access Winner, Guatemala, 2019