Sunday, March 17, 2013

A little R&R&R&R

We arrived in Antigua, Guatemala Friday afternoon.

A beautiful city to the north of Zacapa, it was once the capital of Guatemala before the capital moved to Guatemala city.  Originally called "Antigua Guatemala", literally meaning "old Guatemala", you can see the mixture of centuries worth of architecture. Ruins of buildings stand next to small houses along the same street.

Founded by the Spanish in 1523, the indigenous Mayan people of the region were enslaved.  However, they rebelled against the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado and forced him to find a safer place to live.  His wife Beatriz took over the city but was killed, along with many other citizens of the city, in a mudslide in 1541. The third time the Spanish rebuilt the city, a series of earthquakes destroyed a lot of it in 1773.  This event was the final push to move the capital to Guatemala City.  As the capital grew, the indigenous people and citizens of Guatemala returned to Antigua to rebuild.  It still prospers as a major tourist destination today.

The city is overseen by three volcanoes.  They are called Agua (water), Fuego (fire) and Acetanango, an indigenous Mayan name.  The largest of the three is Agua, seen below from the Cerro de la Cruz, Cruz of the Hill.

Antigua is a beautiful combination of old and new.  Preparing for Semana Santa, or the Easter festivities, purple banners hang from many buildings.  Semana Santa is an important holiday in Latin American countries.  An old building in downtown Antigua houses religious figurines ready to line the streets.  Men will actually carry a real life crucifix through the streets as an honor as well.

Hearts in Motion brings its students here for what I like to think is a little R&R&R&R.  Students get some relaxation, exploring the city, shopping, eating and spending time together.  Other students indulged in a little recreation, either choosing to go ziplining, hiking or on a tour.  For a lot of people this is a time of recuperation.  Either with stomach issues or serious bug bites, it is good to have so many medical personnel surrounding us.

However, the final R, and the most important I feel, is that it is a time of reflection.  It is easy to go through the motions and just experience what happened in Zacapa and to move on.  But for a lot of people, including myself, I believe that this is not a trip that will stay in Central America.  Some people have started considering changing their majors to a medical profession or have already started planning on returning.  Others' hearts have changed so much and have been humbled by their experiences that their heart is permanently in motion.

Tomorrow we return to the United States.  No matter the original reason that a person joined Hearts in Motion, I know for myself personally, and for a lot of people I spent this time with, we will not return the same.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Serendipity in Sri Lanka

A candid moment shooting a volunteer meeting
I end this blog the same way I started, with a list of figures.

Seventeen bug bites, 12 time zones and one parasite later, I am back in Washington state, alive, well, and very nostalgic. 

It may simply be my body attempting to get back on Pacific time, but I feel like my experience in Sri Lanka was just a dream. The people I met, the places I visited and the cultures I was immersed in have changed my life. My time in Sri Lanka was a priceless memory, and one that I will never forget. 

As a way to conclude my blog, I want to provide a list of my fondest memories from my trip. These memories can also be applied as helpful tips for anyone planning to travel to Sri Lanka:

The gecko who found a home in my pillow
1. Waking up to a gecko on your pillow is actually quite common.
2. White rice and curry are appropriate for breakfast…lunch…and dinner…everyday.
3. If you ask a Tuk Tuk driver if you can drive, they will let you, whether you are qualified or not qualified, like myself.
4. Do not drink the water…ever…ever.
5. Taking photos and video will provide lasting mementos of your trip, but taking a moment to breathe in your surroundings can be an even more meaningful memory.  

My last enrichment with Pooja

Taking a step back and figuring the detail I will miss the most about this country was actually quite easy for me. I will miss my sweet elephant, Pooja.
Although I was not the fondest of this creature at first, with the lovely presents she would leave me in her bed each morning, (if you have been reading you will know what I am referring to), I grew to love Pooja. 
I will miss the way her trunk stroked my hand as I bathed her in the river. I will miss the way her eyes lit up when she saw a piece of cucumber in my hand. But most of all, I will miss her gentle demeanor, so calming for a jet lagged student journalist, thousands of miles away from home. 

The book cover of Three Princes
Now I should address why I decided to entitle my blog Serendipity in Sri Lanka. The first noted use of the word "serendipity" in the English language was by Horace Walpole in the 18th century. Walpole created the word from the Persian fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip. This tale follows the story of three heroes who were always making discoveries by accident, curiosity and intuition. As an eager journalist looking for story after story in Sri Lanka, I thought it was an aptly title. Serendip is also the ancient Persian name for Sri Lanka.

And so, I bid Sri Lanka, and this blog, a goodbye. Or as Sri Lankans would say, Samoo-ghana. I thank everyone who helped me experience serendipity in Sri Lanka.
My last day in Sri Lanka, taking in every moment

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Lifeblood of MEF

The volunteers at MEF are the most essential element in keeping this foundation thriving. The diversity among the volunteers is evident.  

Sign at the MEF museum describing their volunteer program
They come from all over the world to offer their own unique skills and talents in aiding elephants in need. In my time here I have met individuals from Australia, England, Denmark, China and even a volunteer from Washington state. Volunteers may stay for as little as a few days or weeks at MEF, while others are here for months, or even years. 

Meager conditions the volunteers live in
The first volunteer I met after arriving at MEF was a Canadian veterinary science student named Kjira Wells. Taking a year off from college, Kjira has been volunteering at MEF for two months so far. I expected to hear her complain about never-ending mosquito bites, endless dung counts and icy cold outdoor showers.  But Kjira could only speak of her experience at MEF with a grin from ear to ear.

Kjira working on a craft for local school children

She explains that the reason she chose to work at MEF was the hands-on experience one can have working with a wild animal. As a vet student, Kjira felt that there was only so much the classroom could teach her. Applying her knowledge in the field, she says, has helped her learn more than anything she has learned in school.

This was her last week with MEF. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she commented on her time at MEF in her final group meeting the evening before her departure.

“This has been the best time of my life, and I’m just not ready to leave.”

Emma Cooper traveled from Australia to volunteer at MEF, an organization she stumbled upon online. Wanting to take time off from school and satisfy her animal-loving character, Emma felt MEF was the perfect fit for her. She says one of her favorite tasks is managing the fruit stand. She loves to sneak the elephants treats of pumpkin, cucumber and mango in between tourist rides.

Emma sorting out treats at the fruit stand
Emma and I were assigned the task of caring for Pooja. After working with Pooja for only a few days, Emma says she has as indescribable bond with her elephant.

“Pooja! I love Pooja! I had this weird connection with Pooja. I just thought, I don’t know, she’s the young one, she’s a bit of a wild child, I was a bit of a wild child, so kindred spirits. I love her, she’s so cute.”

Emma still has weeks to go until her time at MEF is up. Since her experience has been so fulfilling, she says she plans to return to the foundation later in the year for an indefinite amount of time. 
Georgia's first time riding her elephant
Georgia Peyser tells me that the best part of the entire volunteer experience at MEF is the last day. While this may seem like a bit of a contradiction from what other volunteers have said, the student from Cornwall says the last day is the best because a volunteer finally gets to ride their assigned elephant. As today is Georgia’s last day, her most anticipated moment finally arrived.

“That was the coolest thing ever! Maybe that’s why they make you wait for the last day because we’d never get anything done but ride elephants!”

Georgia's elephant having a little fun...
While riding her elephant was the highlight of Georgia’s trip, she says what made her time at MEF so special was how important workers at MEF made her feel. She explains that almost immediately after a volunteer arrives, they are responsible for tasks that are vital to the elephants' welfare. 

This, she says, made her feel like a useful member of a team, which made the friendships she forged all the more real. Georgia says she would not hesitate for a second returning to MEF in the future.

Whether it is running the fruit stand, painting an MEF building wall, or bathing a filthy elephant, the experience that MEF can offer a volunteer proves to be one of a kind.

Yours truly working the fruit stand