We're back: Exploring Guatemala with a TINFA Aficionado!

Sam and I were a little apprehensive because we were worried about the crime rate in Guatemala City. It's one of 3 countries (US and Mexico being the other 2) where gun ownership is a right. This means that a lot of stores in Guatemala City and other cities have people like this guy.

It's not as if there were armed guards are every store in Guatemala City, but there were some neighborhoods in which every other store had an armed guard. We saw this in a few high end stores in Antigua and at banks in Retalhuleu and Xela. It certainly was a good reminder for us to be very careful as we went around sightseeing to Antigua on the first day.


Another highlight of our stay in Antigua at the end of our trip was a visit to a Chocolate Museum where we learned all about Chocolate and Sam was able to learn about and actually make Chocolate from Cacao. I am now a chocolate connoisseur and will never be able to eat cocoa or chocolate made from cocoa without a tinge of regret that it is not pure cacao.

We later had many different varieties of chocolate drinks that were similar to Mayan, Aztec, Colonial Spanish and modern recipes. We also had tea made from Cacao husks and made real chocolate truffles. A few days before, we had seen the Cacao fruit for the very first time in a Cacao and Coffee plantation right next the ruins of an ancient Mayan city called Tak’Alik Abaj.

Here,  Sam is making chocolate from cacao seeds that have been roasted and husked. He is doing it like the ancient Mayans by grinding the seeds on a stone. I also just have to throw in a picture of Sam holding a Cacao fruit for the very first time in his life.


Antigua is an old, colonial city and the previous capital of Guatemala (and its neighbors when they were all one “Captaincy” ruled from Spain). It feels like a classic colonial city as opposed to the modern architecture in Guatemala City. Both cities are surrounded by volcanoes. Here is one single photo that captures the feel of Antigua and one of the volcanoes in the background. That’s Sam & me in front and the volcano in the background.

Antigua seemed as safe as Guatemala City seemed on edge. We discovered during the cab ride back that not only is Guatemala City chock full of traffic but wandering around on the side streets felt more than a little unsafe. Not so at all in Antigua. Here is another shot of an Antiguan street at twilight.


Here,  Sam is making chocolate from cacao seeds that have been roasted and husked. He is doing it like the ancient Mayans by grinding the seeds on a stone. I also just have to throw in a picture of Sam holding a Cacao fruit for the very first time in his life.

I have shown this picture to many people in Seattle and pretty much no one is able to identify the fruit properly. The big surprise is that the fruit itself is edible and sort of reminds me of Cherimoya or Custard Apples but of course the roasted seeds have so much to offer. One interesting surprise for us was how fragrant and aromatic roasted Cacao can be.

Emma had to go through all kinds of hijinks consisting of canceled flights and missed connections and arrived at the hotel in Guatemala City just in time to taek a two hour break and then get on a minivan on the way to Quetzal Tenango. She had not slept all night and had essentially been traveling for 24 hours but she was remarkably sanguine about it and took it all in her stride. I want to grow up to be as calm and collected as Emma! We took the minican to Lake Atitlan, which is an ancient volcanic crater that has collapsed and filled up with water, just like Crater Lake in California. It is spectacular and is surrounded by volcanoes. We had a meal by the lakeside and met up with Cesar and Mike. We then jumped in Cesar's car and to Quetzaltenango. The countryside was almost as beautiful as the colorful clothes that the people were wearing. It was the first Sunday of Lent and every town had a celebration, suitably sober, but a celebration nonetheless. QuetzalTenanago is the Aztec name for Xelaju aka Xela and we arrived in Xela and saw that it had its own celebration parade that seemed to go on forever. It was  grand and sobering and a sight we will never forget. Check out the video. 

For the next four days, we were engaged in the most fun and interesting part of the trip, way more than all this sightseeing. We started visiting the schools one at a time. There are so many different things that we noticed at the schools. The first thing that stood out for me was that the kids going to public schools in all of Guatemala wear school uniforms just as I did growing up in India. The way teachers taught was quite different from what I experienced. The teaching was more creative and interactive and engaged than I had imagined. It was immediately apparent to me that an engaged teacher and a good principal can magically transform the teaching experience from good to extraordinary even if the actual amenities are less than adequate.

Here is a classroom where a teacher had all the kids read a passage using one of Tinfa’s projectors.

It was a class focused on reading comprehension - what it meant as well as how it happens. He then had a simple game that engaged the kids while the learned and had fun. See the video for that exercise here. The kid who was last at jumping on his piece of paper when the music stopped had to peel off a question stuck on a ball and answer a question. The kids barely knew that we were in the classroom and even someone like me who has a shaky grasp of Spanish was engaged. We saw many such interactive games in different schools and classes.

Like this one where each little child had drawn a fruit and the teacher called out the fruit that she was going to buy at the market by saying “Two grapes and one orange” and two little grapes and an orange would run to the stand by the teacher and then she would ask “How many fruit did I buy?” and then count out the fruit. Check out this video to see these beautiful children happily learn art and counting and addition, all in a classroom that had barely any amenities compared to what kids back home in Seattle enjoy.

In every school that we visited, we had a happy audience that surrounded us and asked us to translate things from Spanish to English; each translation was greeted with a guffaw by the littlest kids. They had the most fun when a name like Jorge was translated to George but Nose or Shoe were also enough to set off a big laugh. Sam, as a kid was popular and he loved talking to the kids and practicing his Spanish as well as playing soccer with them.

Futbol was played in all kind of circumstances, see this video of frenetic soccer in a closed and covered area where there were multiple games in progress at one time as well as a big, dusty, open field where one focused game prevailed. The girls in one of the schools were able to get in there and play as furiously as the boys as this video shows.

Schools with a great Principal, committed teachers combined with good infrastructure like a good playfield and access to the whole wide variety of the internet’s content made for the most interesting schools. TINFA, with its philosophy of a light touch really let the teachers decide how they want to use the internet connected computer or the projectors. Some teachers used them in a great way and others were still learning. However, in all instances, the teachers were happy to be collaborating with TINFA and each visit ended with a quick meeting with the Principal and teachers.



One of the schools gave us a bag of mangoes that we enjoyed in the form of mango juice at the hotel and another school had cooked a grand feast of corn, tamarind chicken and tortillas for all the teachers and the visitors. The tamarind juice was especially soothing in the hot weather of Retalhuleu. Talking about temperature, for me at least one of the highlights of the visit was the descent from Xela to Retalhuleu. We went from one Mayan kingdom and language in the mountains at altitudes of 8000 Feet or higher and temperatures of about 40 degrees Farenheit to a sea level colonial town that was the location for a completely different Mayan kingdom and language with temperatures of 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The whole descent took about an hour!

Towards the end of the trip, we used about 100 quiz questions that we had assembled about Guatemalan history and geography, science, and mathematics to create a game show like quiz game that had the kids enthralled. Sam was the quiz master in one classroom with four teams and Mike was the quiz master in another classroom. They were ably mentored by Emma and Cesar who jumped in when the question needed a higher level of Spanish proficiency. The kids did surprisingly well in spite of some doubts about how they would perform. These were questions that were plucked off the internet and were about suitable for similar aged kids in the US.

In the midst of all these school visits we somehow also managed to squeeze in a trip to a huge and spectacular and ancient Mayan city called Tak’alik Ab’aj. I knew very little about the Mayan civilization but visiting Guatemala has given me a reason to dig in a lot deeper. This is a civilization that flourished for thousands of years beginning at the same time as the Phoenicians and the Greeks and lasting all the way until a few hundreds of years before Columbus arrived on American shores.

Guatemala is a living museum of this fascinating and great civilization. It had thousands of books just like the European civilizations did leading up to the Gutenberg printing press but unfortunately the invading conquerors burned them all. Four codexes still exist and have helped historians learn about ancient mayan culture - from chocolate to ball games. In the midst of all this hectic travel, Sam and Mike managed to collect a beautifully curated set of photographs of Guatemalan buses. These buses have an extremely interesting history. They are all school buses from the USA. These school buses are overhauled, painted afresh and redeployed as private buses plying within and between cities. Here is one such bus.

Take a look at what the gentleman in the pickup is doing during his commute. My favorite school buses were like this one -- a school bus that had made it all the way to Guatemala to be repurposed as a … Bus Escolar!

There is so much more about Guatemala that I wish I could write but the overwhelming feeling I left with was the importance of TINFA’s mission and the humbleness with which it is approached combined with gratitude for being able to learn a little bit about Guatemalan culture and the joy of having spent time with these adorable, energetic, smart kids. We hope to be going back with TINFA in future years.

Thank you TINFA, Cesar, Emma, Mike and thanks to all the teachers who hosted us.