Here at Warmer Than Canada, I’m launching a new series featuring other families’ adventures abroad. As part of the series, I recently interviewed friends whose kids opted for full Spanish immersion in one of Costa Rica’s public schools. This month, I’m grateful to be featuring my friends Lisa, Fred, and Grace Anderson who are rounding off two years in Central America. Last academic year they were in Costa Rica, where I met them, and this year they’ve been on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. Lisa has taught and Grace has studied at a Waldorf school, the Escuela Caracol, and Fred has kept the family running, doing laundry by hand, taking water taxis to buy groceries, and planning family trips. For me, our chat really highlighted the value of diving headlong into another culture and language, and the family bonding that can result.

KATIE QUIRK (KQ): Your family has spent a good amount of time exploring Central America. Could you give us a list of words to describe what makes Guatemala unique?

LISA ANDERSON (LA): Volcanoes, Lake Atitlán, traditional fishermen, Mayan people, textiles, back strap weaving, chicken buses, the sound of tortillas being made daily.

KQ: How did you end up in San Marcos La Laguna and at the Escuela Caracol? 

LA: On a trip to Guatemala, we briefly visited San Marcos. The school was closed for the holiday but soon after I got in contact with the director and eventually received an offer to teach English as a 3rd language at the school.

KQ: What does a regular weekday look like for each of you?

FRED ANDERSON (FA): My days have included doing laundry by hand, getting on a lancha or water taxi to grocery shop or do bank runs in other pueblos, collecting our five-gallon drinking-water jugs, taking Grace to basketball practices, dance classes and play dates, and enjoying a bit of down time to plan the next family trip or to make bracelets out of aluminum can tabs.

LA:  School is pretty all-consuming for me…thank goodness I love my students, my colleagues and the school itself. The school day begins at 8:30 and ends at 2:30 for kids. I’m usually at school for another hour in the afternoon planning, and on Thursdays I have extra professional development time. When we first arrived, I was learning and absorbing as much as I could about Waldorf pedagogy (in the US I teach at a two-year community college).

For three months this year, we lived in a village 30-40 minutes away–depending on the weather and size of the waves—by boat. That extended our day and meant that mornings we were hustling down to the public dock at 7:15. On those boat trips I learned that many of my students didn’t know how to swim. So, now I have been offering swimming lessons to grades 3, 4, and 5.

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Grace and some of her friends who shared the water taxi commute to school.

KQ: One of the wonders of moving abroad is being immersed in opportunities for new learning. What has been one big area of growth for each of you?

FA: Recognizing the cultural filters I did not know I had, ones that were tested in a different way the last time I went to a Latin American country, but became more center-stage once I was trying to ‘live’ there with my family.  Coming to terms with who I am outside the jobs and activities/behaviors I engaged in when living in the States.

LA: For me, the obvious area of growth has been my Spanish. Working in Guatemala with all Guatemalan locals (adults and children), I am immersed completely in Spanish. And while this has been exhausting some days, my language ability (especially speaking) has improved immensely.

Another big area of growth has been experiencing what it’s like to be minorities in a community—we’ve developed increased awareness of cultural expectations and differences, but also similarities between us as humans.

I’ll mention one more lesson: learning to live for each day, as the locals do. People here head out to gather firewood each day, they make tortillas each day, and they live…for just that day.

KQ: Ah, yes, this is a great lesson for many of us North Americans—learning to focus on and appreciate the present. In terms of the school, what have been some of the benefits for Grace in attending school in Guatemala?

FA: One of the Waldorf principles is “inclusiveness”—the school and Grace’s classmates have embraced her wholeheartedly.

LA: 85% of the school is indigenous Mayan children so in addition to improving her Spanish, Grace is also learning Kakchiquel, the indigenous language of San Marcos. The curriculum of a Waldorf school is also different than a traditional classroom, so Grace has been able to explore her love of art through acuarela painting, pentatonic flute, guitar, crocheting and cross stitch. Every day she is fed a home-cooked meal by a local Mayan woman. Everything about this school radiates love!

KQ: That sounds lovely! Have there been any particular challenges with schooling in Guatemala?

FA: The annual schedule is January through November, so planning when to enter and when to exit is a bit of a challenge. When we enrolled Grace in August, she repeated part of 3rd grade and then started 4th grade mid-Janurary. We leave at the break mid-June and we intend to have Grace start 5th grade in September. So, her 4th grade year will be only 5 months long.

LA: We cannot speak to the national schools here in Guatemala, but we have really enjoyed a soft landing at Escuela Caracol.

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Lisa (forth from right) and her teaching colleagues.

KQ: I know you’ve moved around a bit this year in terms of housing. A common question for families considering a year abroad is what to expect in terms of where they will live. Would you be willing to describe your Guatemalan homes briefly?

FA and LA: In this region, housing varies as do landlords’ goals: some want long-term rentals (six months to a year or more) and others like to make double during high season. This year we lived in three homes: one that was fairly dirty and had mold issues, a second smaller but colorful house that had a sweet yard, and a third house which we describe as “saving the best for last.” It’s more expensive (an extra $100) but we now enjoy lots of additional amenities, as well as an amazing view of the water, volcanoes, and our own private dock.

KQ: What are some of the memory “snap shots” that you hope to carry with you from this year?

FA: For me, washing laundry by hand and putting it on the line was special. I also enjoyed walking into town to get tortillas (four for about 15 cents or one quetzal), hearing Grace’s mastery of Spanish reach a new level, and watching my wife excel as a teacher at school.

LA: I will leave with so many memories: my students’ comments when they saw me in traditional clothes (“Que linda maestra”); the kids excitedly asking me every day if we had swimming lessons; seeing Grace surrounded by so many friends at school; sharing lunch with a  different grade each day and singing together; commuting to school on foot, by boat, in the back of a pick-up and by tuk-tuk; morning swims off our dock with the brilliant blue sky and three volcanoes as a backdrop; and the love I feel from all of my students.

KQ: Have you faced any health, safety or other challenges in your year in Guatemala?

LA: There is a lot of talk about how “unsafe” Guatemala is and we have found, gracias a Diós, the complete opposite. I will say, as a female, I do not go off the main path nor do I ever hike alone. In fact, even when we as a family go hiking, we always go with a male colleague from school. We err on the side of caution and, in doing so, have had very positive experiences here.

FA: We’ve had some health issues—amoebas, contact dermatitis, a bout of hives for Grace, and some short-term stomach upset, but in general no regrets.

KQ: That’s good! I enjoyed your stunning pictures from Tikal. How has travel factored into your year? Have you developed any particular strategies for making travel rewarding for your family?

FA: Our strategies have largely centered around having an initial plan (route), but then being flexible in how each day unfolds. Swim suits are often a part of our plan. Sometimes finding a piece of our former idea of civilization is another strategy, like eating at Subway or finding a movie theater, even if the movie is in Spanish.

LA: We also laugh a lot! We laugh at the bus seat that is supposed to be attached, but is not. We laugh at the fact that Quetzaltenango (Xela) is only 2 hours away, but we need to take a tuk tuk, lancha, and chicken bus to get there.

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Fred and others gather to celebrate Independence Day.

KQ: If you were to offer advice to families considering potential locations for their family gap year, what criteria or important questions would you suggest they consider in choosing their new home away from home?

FA: To what degree do you hope to learn the language and customs of another culture? Will the locale you’re considering allow you the appropriate level of cultural immersion and financial support? How is your relationship with your family? Traveling for longer than a two-week vacation is very different than living in another country for months to a year. Inequalities, imbalances, dependencies, personal faults and shortcomings will potentially be exposed. Can you handle that?

Even if your interest in these things is high, be prepared to accept that it may be different for each family member. Perhaps there will be a stronger need to be available to them for talking and processing. On the other hand, they may need more time to check out or have some alone time.

LA: I completely agree with Fred. One thing that helped me and I also think helped Grace is that we were clear from the get-go that along the way, we would always be making decisions as Team Anderson – if things weren’t working for someone, we would see if anything could be done and make changes. Continual family check-ins have been very important to us.

KQ: Thanks so much for sharing your stories and photos, Lisa and Fred. What wonderful adventures you’ve enjoyed together as a family. Thanks for the inspiration!