GRIP, Internships Abroad

Six Tips for a Guatemalan Summer

September 4, 2019
By Kathleen Givan, SEAS '21

Guatemala Health Initiative - Santiago Atitlán

Six tips for a beautiful summer in Guatemala:

Bring peanut butter

Bring enough peanut butter for lunches the first month--but no more. You’ll discover quickly a tough gap between breakfast and dinner...where are you supposed to get your food?? For the first month, a peanut butter sandwich is the only protein you can manage, and that’s okay. But once you settle in, branch out! Poke around the market on your daily walk to the hospital. You’ll walk out a dollar lighter but carrying a beautifully ripe avocado, some eggs, freshly handmade tortillas and some magically different fruit to boot. Repeat the food-finding treasure hunt on every work day.

Prepare to learn the language

Warm up your throat with the theater vocal exercises of your youth. Tz’utujil, the local Mayan language, has clicks and stops and breathy sounds where you didn’t know breathy sounds could exist. Speaking it is irresistible--so warm up and jump right in. Here’s a phrase that will come in handy: majon, or “no”, will gratifyingly shock even the most persistent of salesmen on the street. Majon. Majon. Majon. Practice it.

Expect unexpected rain

Rain gear is a must. You’ll become used to the rhythms of the day. The curtains--and heck, the windows--of your house are always open and the bright equatorial sun wakes you up around six without fail. You’ll look at the beautifully blue sky and think “Rain? For sure, not today. Not today.”. But, you will learn to know better. Because at two in the afternoon, without fail, dark clouds will race around the mountain and the world will become inundated with the heaviest rain you have ever seen. (In fact, later, your boyfriend may tease you--how can the rain be the “heaviest rain ever” every single day? But you’ll know--that’s just how it is.) You’ll be happier if you packed the umbrella, believe me.

Don’t forget hearty clothing

And I mean hearty. Guatemala lies close to the equator and it’s July, for goodness sake. You’ll sweat and then you’ll need to do laundry. And then you’ll learn why hearty clothing is important. Doing your laundry requires hours of pounding your clothes against a variegated cement washboard, over and over. Believe me when I say that the lacy tops you packed simply won’t survive. And get used to slightly damp clothing: monsoon season means that nothing is ever really dry.

Record your experiences

More journals than you think you could possibly need. So much of Guatemala is long, languid afternoons sitting around in various locations. Sometimes you’ll be at the lakeside, watching the young Mayan women gossip over their laundry, using the rocks as their washboards and the lake water to rinse. Sometimes, it’ll be the central square, where you’ll watch a million co-occurring pick-up soccer games wind their way around piles of avocados that you swear must be bigger than you are. Sometimes, it’ll just be at home, all of your siblings piled around the “technology tree”, the tree in your house that every piece of technology that your family owns is somehow bound to. You’ll write, write, write: it’s the only way to process everything you see. Because you’ll see a lot. A lot of beauty, and a lot of pain. And you want to make sure you have the journal space to hold all of this crazy experience.

Get ready to fall in love

Guatemala will steal your heart, and honestly? There’s no real preparation for it. Just lean in for the ride--like all love, it’s messy and beautiful and real.


The Global Research and Internship Program (GRIP) provides outstanding undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to intern or conduct research abroad for 8 to 12 weeks over the summer. Participants gain career-enhancing experience and global exposure that is essential in a global workforce. Placements and funding awards are available.