But enough about my Malaria. Let's hear it for studying abroad! Normally, I would scoff at our university's study abroad program and all the happy little well-adjusted students that partake in its "life-changing specialness" or whatever, but I am prepared to state for the record that I actually enjoyed my two and a half weeks in Guatemala. *Insert gasp here* (Believe me, I'm just as shocked as you.)
Let's start with how I managed to enroll myself in a public health program in a random Central American country, for which I received no credit towards my major (nor does it fulfill any of my academic requirements). I was having a really bad weekend. You know how I get when I'm at school. It's pretty much a non-stop pity party, punctuated by snide comments about strangers and broad generalizations about my school's student body as a whole. So I was stressing about life (grad school, my immense underqualification for any profession, the ridiculous number of stairs to my dorm, etc.), trying to figure out when I'd be graduating, where the hell to live next year, and why the dining hall never makes my favorite apple crispitos anymore. I had been planning to spend a month in Spain studying abroad, but as the deadline to apply crept up on me, I got more and more frustrated and indignant and finally decided to just screw it. This decision came as a result of many factors, including my "advisor's" (Advisor Number 6) insistence that the only study abroad program worth anything is the Valencia program, not to mention the fact that studying in Spain would mean missing the midnight premiere of Eclipse. (Yeah, I said it.)
So as I was stewing in anger and panic, I got one of the mass e-mails they send to all Spanish majors notifying me of a new(ish) study abroad program in Guatemala focusing on public health. I couldn't tell you why, but I was strangely drawn to Guatemala, especially after I opened the attached digital brochure and saw the pictures. (The mountains are just so pretty, it's like they hypnotize you.) Blame the pretty pictures; blame my intense desire to spite my inept advisor and the whole pretentious Spanish department; blame my fragile mental state; blame my omnipresent anxiety over the impending Lost series finale; but somehow all these elements coalesced to result in my applying to study abroad in Guatemala.
As it turned out, the deadline for the application was the day after I got the e-mail (or, more accurately, the day after I actually opened the e-mail), so I hurriedly filled out all the information, sent it in, and promptly forgot about it...until I got a message a month later notifying me that I had been accepted. (Don't think this means that I am in any way an above-average student. Basically everyone who applied got in, because it's the randomest, most obscure and under-attended study abroad program in history.) Further proof of how not-picky they are about the students they accept? They do not require that you have any knowledge of public health or the Spanish language, meaning our diverse group ended up including extremes from both sides. There's me: fluent in Spanish, but knowing nothing about public health (other than what I've learned from House), and then there are one or two students who are pre-med but speak almost no Spanish. So it all evens out.
Unsurprisingly, I learned very little about public health during my trip. (Mostly because I don't care about public health.) What I did learn is that there are actually people at my school who don't make me want to throw up. What a revelation. (Granted, a little late in my college career.) Of the other ten students from my university, I can honestly say that I actually liked all of them. (Not to mention the five awesome students from the University of Guatemala del Valle who were part of the program.) Apparently the secret to tapping into the non-douchey portion of the student population ws finding a group with high proportions of pre-med students and transfer students (these two classifications made up a good 70% of our group).
The people weren't the only thing I was surprised to find I liked. Out of desperation and lack of other options, I ended up eating things I generally despise. I was so hungry most of the time, I would eat whatever they put in front of me, even if that included things like bananas or soup, which, at home, you couldn't pay me to eat. (As it turns out, bananas aren't nearly as disgusting as I had thought. Or maybe that was just the starvation talking.) At times I felt like I was on Survivor, except we actually had a roof over our head (albeit, we had to share our rooms with three to five other people), and the closest thing we had to an immunity challenge was fitting twenty people in the back of a pick-up truck (which we accomplished successfully, by the way).
Pick-up trucks were our primary form of transportation, aside from the large bus that we took to travel from city to city. We spent many hours in transit. I mean, MANY hours. Franklin was our bus driver for the second half of our trip. He's Guatemalan, but his taste in music is more akin to that of a twenty-five-year-old American woman living in the '90s. During our many long bus rides, we heard everything from Alanis, to the Cranberries, to Shakira, and even some Dido. This music was particularly comforting to us while we were stuck in traffic for two and a half hours at one point during a 15-hour drive to the Petén. Did I mention it was hot and there was no air conditioning? Good times.
Whenever something like that would happen--if we had to leave at 4:45 AM, if we were stuck on the bus for eight hours, if our karaoke night got canceled--the faculty would feed us Chikys. Chikys are kind of like the Central American equivalent of Oreos, only they have some kind of magical sedative properties. They're chocolate coated cookies that our fearless leader Dr. B would buy in bulk at every gas station and then throw them at us in order to placate us whenever he gave us some bad news. For example, here's a scenario:
Dr. B: "So, there are some protests going on tomorrow morning, which means that the roads will be blocked, so we're going to have to leave tonight instead of tomorrow. Karaoke and Internet time are canceled. Go pack your stuff and meet us on the bus. Oh, and here are some Chikys for the road."
Us: "Yay! Chikys! Wait...what?"
Chikys solve all problems. Every time something went wrong, the faculty would just ply us with Chikys until they came up with a plan. And there were a lot of situations that required Chikys. The two-and-a-half-hour traffic jam and the road-closing protests were just the beginning of our disaster-ridden trip. We were superbly lucky, however, in that every catastrophe seemed to just barely miss us. In our last week in the country, a volcano erupted in Guatemala City, where we had been just twelve hours earlier. Then we got word that Tropical Storm Agatha had caused devastating mud-slides in San Lucas, where we had stayed during the first week of our trip. Then, when we finally made it back to Guatemala City, after most of the volcanic ash had been cleared, we drove past the giant sinkhole that is in the process of eating Guatemala. Basically, we are the horsemen (and women) of the apocalypse.
Based on our luck, we were all unsurprised by the cancellation of our flights home from the Guatemala City airport due to the volcanic eruption. Fortunately, this news was accompanied by many Chikys, so no one panicked. But Chiky-induced euphoria only lasts so long, and after a few hours, we started to wonder if we would ever make it home.
The next day, we packed up our stuff, hopped on a bus at 5 AM, and headed to El Salvador, where we had all managed to get flights back to the States. After chilling in a fancy pants hotel in San Salvador for two days (where we not only had the luxury of hot water, but we could also flush the toilet paper, unlike all of our previous accommodations), we boarded our respective flights and bid farewell to Central America, only to find that we had brought our terrible luck back to the U.S. with us.
The plane carrying me and four other D.C.-bound students from the trip was unable to land as scheduled in Miami due to inclement weather, and by the time we diverted to Orlando to get gas, we had missed our connecting flight. With no Chikys to calm us, we (along with the majority of the other restless passengers) resorted to some mild panicking, wondering why in the world we couldn't just get a connecting flight from Orlando. (Answer: Orlando is not an international airport, and is therefore not equipped to take us through customs. Eff.)
Around 10:30 PM, we finally landed at Miami International Airport. We got our bags, went through customs, and stood in line for thirty minutes trying to get seats on the next flight to D.C. Blah, blah, blah, fifteen minutes and one semi-inept airline employee later we all had tickets for the morning. Having secured our inevitable exodus from Miami, we were free to focus on more important matters, such as the fact that some of us hadn't eaten since 11 AM. Thank God for 24-hour Subways, because that was all that was open by the time we got all our ticket shenanigans sorted out. I have never been happier to see a mediocre sandwich chain in my life.
Out of fatigue/laziness/apathy/lack of funds we decided to sleep in the airport rather than get a hotel only to return in five hours to make our 8 AM flight. I tried every sleeping position possible on the various furniture options available in the airport, and when I finally found one comfortable enough to fall asleep, it was time to check in for our flight. (Of course.)
The good news is, #1) there was a Dunkin' Donuts in the airport, and #2) we made our flight without encountering any major problems. Two hours later we landed in D.C. and blearily, blissfully ran to get our luggage and breathe in the hot, humid, carbon dioxide-infused air of our beloved capital. It's good to be home.