Discovering Guatemala

When I went to Paris, I had an idea of what I would find: the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, berets and lots of baguettes.

However, this summer I had no idea what I was getting into. After I signed up to go to Guatemala, I had to find an atlas so I could discover where Guatemala is (right below Mexico for those who are geographically-challenged, like me). I also found out that Guatemala has the highest illiteracy rate in Central America and that more than half of the population lives below the poverty level.

Our three-week trip began on July 22 as my father, 33 Modesto High students, teachers, parents and I flew into Guatemala City and then drove five hours to our new home, Quetzaltenango.

While there we attended Spanish class for five hours every day, learned about the culture and history through excursions and staying with host families and did some community service.

It was obvious from the beginning that Guatemala is a very different place than Modesto.

For instance, the shower in our home had a gas heater that we had to light with a match whenever we wanted warm water. The ketchup bottle had a price tag on it because our house mother ran a store attached to the house and the store and her pantry were the same.

On the cobblestone streets the erratic drivers had the right-of-way, and, as our guide explained, street lights are novelties and one-way signs are merely suggestions. When we ventured into the countryside to visit different towns, we would pass fields of corn planted directly on the hillside. A few times, trucks filled with soldiers armed with shotguns and machine guns drove past (Guatemala has a recent history of civil wars and the military still assists with law enforcement.)

However, there are still some similarities. On the first night, we had scrambled eggs and hot dogs for dinner. The Cornflakes box had advertisements on the back for contests to win cars and lifetime supplies of cereal. A couple of weeks into the trip, I found out that the Guatemalan boys in my house were eagerly looking forward to the new Harry Potter book to come out in Spanish, and that the younger one loves "The Lord of the Rings."

The street signs are the same shapes and colors, they're just painted on the sides of buildings instead of having their own poles. And most important, Guatemalans appreciate good pizza just as much as we do.

While in Guatemala, I felt as rich as Bill Gates. Everything (except American candy) is at least half of what it would cost in the U.S. There are about 7.5 quetzals to the American dollar and exchanging $20 for 150 quetzals sure felt good. The downfall was when I had to exchange my money back and receive 13 dollars for my 100 quetzals. I was sure that I was being cheated.

The people in Guatemala were very nice and helpful. I never felt bad asking a question of a stranger, even though I would have to subject the listener to my choppy Spanish accompanied by hand gestures when I forgot a word. Unfortunately, some of the men were a little too friendly. We had admirers of all ages, from 5 to 80 years old.

Our group visited the local equivalent of an American high school. Kids from ages 11 to 20 attended this school, and only some of them could read and write. Although the government claims schools are free, mandatory and secular, none of the above is actually true. Because of this, some children attend school irregularly and others do not attend at all.

I thought I knew what to expect in the schools after having read the cultural sections of my Modesto High Spanish textbooks. I had learned that in Latin America, students are much more respectful of their teachers. They don't talk to the other students during class and always raise their hands.

In the history classroom of 11- and 12-year-olds that we visited, the kids were quiet for about the first three minutes. After that, a controlled chaos reigned as boys pulled girls' braids and neighbors talked to each other and students across the room. When the students were paying attention, they would yell out answers until the teacher would ask for hands.

I guess you can't believe everything you read in a book. Sometimes you have to go discover it yourself.

Nora Cassidy is a junior at Modesto High School and a member of The Bee's Teens in the Newsroom program.