EGL Volunteer Abroad 2012
“For the first time, EGL embarks on a trilogy of experiences”
Destinations: China, Guatemala, South Africa
What We Did
Toward the latter half of August, 15 EGL students made a voyage to spend their last few weeks of summer in the South African winter. The main focus of the trip was aimed towards primary education, which included teaching an array of subjects in multiple primary schools within Cape Town. Most members of the crew arrived together in Cape Town on the 13th, with a couple stragglers arriving early in the morning on the 14th just in time for orientation. Cape Town is one of the most modernized locations EGL has hosted a volunteer abroad trip, but that isn’t to say the volunteer work wasn’t sorely needed. Hour long bus trips weren’t needed in order to scale deep into the jungle, which is a relatively new VA experience. Since Cape Town is so accessible, with only a 20-30 minute drive from their international airport, the SA group was able to dig right into the local scene from day one.
The first day was spent getting familiar with the program expectations followed by a tour of the city in the rain. The two weeks were spent at a volunteer house a short cab ride from downtown Cape Town. The volunteers from UM were not, however, the only members at the volunteer house. There were also people from England, Russia, Germany, and Ireland, making time spent at the house a cultural experience by itself. Each morning was usually filled with a sandwich making frenzy before the eager EGL’s headed off to their schools. Since the group volunteering was so large, they had to be split up into three separate groups, and subsequently they were able to help in three different primary schools around town.
Each school was different and had its own series of special and unique stories and events.The primary function of the volunteers was to assist and aid teachers in the classroom. Class sizes got up to over 40 students per class making it difficult to provide students with the individualized attention that they need. On occasion some EGL’s were allowed to teach entire classes in subjects like math and English. One group of EGL’s even led a team based module on designing and building water bottle rockets. There were many educational takeaways for both the students at the schools and members of the volunteer trip.
Far beyond the teaching that transpired, many volunteers nurtured personal connections with students, teachers, and locals which will endure far beyond the trip. It is hard to measure the impact of education and personal relationships made over the course of months, but hopefully the children we worked with will remember their time with their new friends from America just as EGL will remember them and their friendship.
What We Did
Converging from three different countries and after almost two days of traveling, eleven EGL students arrived in Jishou in the Hunan province of China. They were welcomed by the volunteers from Love Across the Coast (LAC) and by the administrators of the middle school at a delicious dinner. After settling into the same sparse dorms where the students live all year, everyone fell asleep quickly, exhausted from traveling and excited to meet the students the next day. The dorms consisted of five bunk beds in one room with an attached bathroom and a back room to hang laundered clothes. Because the EGLs were volunteers, they were given one fan to cool the room off, thankfully! Their first real lunch in China consisted of getting a bowl of rice and choosing between dishes with squash, tofu, chicken, peppers and beans. After finalizing their lesson plan for the first day of class, the EGL’s went to go meet their students. It was difficult to tell who was more excited: the Michigan students or the Chinese students.
Over the course of the next five days, the EGL students taught English, focusing on the topics of food, occupation/education, sports, holidays and travel. Lesson plans were originally written over the summer before the English skills of the Chinese students were known; therefore, every night the EGLs gathered with the LAC volunteers to fine tune the lessons. The LAC volunteers were mostly Chinese students studying at universities in the US. Each day was easier as the volunteers figured out the most effective teaching methods. Most classes had two Michigan volunteers and one LAC volunteer teaching. The EGL volunteers also helped the LAC volunteers lead mini-projects in the afternoon. The topics were photography, art, industrial packaging, ancient Chinese philosophy debate, sociology, theater.
The EGL students then began the second half of their cultural journey through China. Their exploration of China started in Fenghuang, Phoenix City. The city had a beautiful collection of traditional architecture along the river which the students spent one day exploring and another day exploring nearby small villages that were built directly into the natural landscape of the mountains and the rivers. The next stop was Zhiang Jia Jie, one of the top attractions for domestic tourism. Despite heavy thunderstorms throughout the night, the EGLs adventured up the mountains in an awe-inducing cable car ride. While heavy fog covered most of the views of the mountains that inspired the movie Avatar, the students thoroughly enjoyed their hike down the mountain through the lush forest. The EGL students ended their trip in Beijing where they explored the Forbidden Palace, trekked across a rugged section of the Great Wall and learned how to bargain.
After six days of teaching, the EGL students were able to leave Jishou knowing they had helped their students improve their English and expand their cultural awareness. It was a very unique experience for many of the citizens of Jishou to see and speak with Americans and with native English speakers. EGL students were told several times that they were the first foreigner that someone had seen. The EGL volunteers acted as cultural ambassadors, leaving behind positive impressions of Americans. The middle school students expressed their love to the EGL volunteers through their gifts, farewell tears and email messages sent over the next few weeks.
The EGLs who went to China together came back as a tightly bonded group. They had their first reunion by the end of October and loved reliving their experiences and recalling inside jokes. While some of the students were from China and were able to experience what China was like through the eyes of a foreigner, other students had never before left the country. Almost everyone tried something they had never eaten before: from Peking duck to scorpion. All of the EGLs were able to experience a new culture through its people, history and food.
What We Did
Nine EGL students spent the final two weeks of Summer 2012 trekking through Guatemala, marking the start of an annual trip to support community radio in the region. After landing in Guatemala City, the crew traveled to the scenic town of Antigua, where we spent the first evening enjoying colonial architecture and our first taste of Guatemalan cuisine. Wasting no time, we left the next morning for Xela, and spent the next five days continuing the volunteer work started by the 2009 VA trip.
We once again collaborated with CasaSito, an NGO dedicated to improving rural education in Guatemala, as well as Majb’ab’l yol, an organization focused on promoting awareness of underrepresented groups’ rights and public health through the use of community radio. The foundation that the 2009 VA group had laid for the organization’s radio training center has been transformed into a one-story complex, and our job was to lay the foundation for a kitchen add-on. The team worked tirelessly with pickaxes, machetes, shovels, and edgers to dig a 1.4 meter trench, mix cement by hand, and move around 1000 concrete blocks, and by the end of our work the foundation was already reinforced with rebar and concrete! During the evenings, we visited the town with local youth volunteers, and were fortunate enough to attend a local festival. The celebration included a marimba band, traditional mayan dances, and the ‘Torito’, a man that danced around the stage while carrying a firework-launching frame on his head!
The members of Majb’ab’l yol and its youth partner station, Doble Via, even treated us to a personalized celebration, bringing members of the community together to sing, dance, and enjoy a resounding rendition of The Victors! The festivities were intertwined with somber lessons, however, as Majb’ab’l yol’s founder, Tino, led us to the top of the holy Volcán (Volcano) Chicabal, and there recounted his experiences as a guerilla during the Guatemalan Civil War. Even to this day, we learned that Tino battles institutional opposition to indigenous rights, and has been harassed and even assaulted as a result of his efforts. Thankfully, Majb’ab’l yol has received increasing support from international organizations and volunteers, and next year will mark the completion of the training center!
After finishing our work in Xela, the group traveled to the scenic Lake Atitlan, followed by a cross-country trip into the jungles of Petén. There we stayed in a remote, entirely self-sustainable lodge, and enjoyed the untamed beauty of the Las Conchas waterfalls, the Setzol Caves, and El Paraíso hot springs. We also explored the ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal, complete with howler monkeys! Finally, we returned to Antigua in time to scale Volcán Pacaya, one of Guatemala’s three remaining active volcanos, before heading home.
By laying the foundation for a kitchen in the radio training center, the 2012 VA group helped build on the impact of the 2009 VA team, assisting in the development of a comprehensive center for training local leaders throughout the country. The people of Guatemala are committed to developing the infrastructure and programming needed to educate the rural population, and EGL is fortunate to be a part of this process
EGL students were immersed in Guatemala, from its untamed natural beauty, to its rich Mayan-influenced culture, to the boundless hospitality of its people, even in the face of prejudice and adversity. In addition, the group bonded with each other, sharing unforgettable experiences and forging lasting friendships. VA 2012 Guatemala was a chance for EGLs to witness an entirely new environment with new friends, and we look forward to the opportunities next summer will bring!