Transformational Travel to Guatemala: An Exclusive Interview with Tricia Hall

Awhile back, I was walking around one of my favorite urban lakes in Minneapolis with a good friend and she told me about an amazing program in Guatemala being run by two local non-profits, the Lutheran Partners in Global Ministry and the Community Cloud Forest Conservation. Through a unique partnership, they have been offering transformative intergenerational travel trips to a remote part of Guatemala where families, couples and solo travelers alike can work side by side the local community and do good. The trip brings travelers to the highlands of Guatemala for an intercultural and educational opportunity to work with the Community Cloud Forest Conservation on projects in education and agroecology.

As a strong supporter of sustainable travel, I was instantly intrigued and had the chance to meet with both Tricia Hall of the Community Cloud Forest Conservation and Mary Peterson of the Lutheran Partners in Global Ministry to learn more about their work and the trips to Guatemala. Tricia, a family doctor, humanitarian and mother of three, has been leading the trips to Guatemala since 2013 and I asked her to share a bit more about her inspiring work.

Tell me a bit about yourself. Where did you grow up and what were your hobbies when you were a child?

I grew up in Minneapolis and have always loved the lakes and parks of this area.  We spent time in Minneapolis, but we also traveled to distant places.  My parents are both social workers and we grew up with a strong sense of social justice, both locally and abroad.  From an early age, I loved to travel and learn about new and different cultures.

Where did you go to school and what did you study?

I went to Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan for undergrad and then to Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine for medical school.  I have always loved literature and so my undergraduate degree was in English, which I did alongside my pre-med science classes.  I enjoyed the variety and have never regretted having both of these areas of study.

Why did you decide to become a doctor and what is your area of expertise?

I started to think about medicine in my high school anatomy class when we dissected a cat and I found it so interesting, particularly all of the muscles. Concurrently, I was starting to do service trips with my church.  I knew that I wanted to work in some aspect of service and that muscles were cool, so there you have it!  I decided on the specialty of Family Medicine because I loved the interactions with the whole family at the various stages of life.

Tricia and her daughter in Guatemala. Photo credit: Tricia Hall

How did you first get involved with the Community Cloud Forest Conservation (CCFC)?

We first visited Community Cloud Forest Conservation in 2013 when our daughter was just 18 months and our sons were 7 and 10.  I wanted to see what my cousin Tara (CCFC co-director with Rob Cahill) and her family had been doing in Guatemala and I was immediately hooked on the beautiful area, but more importantly I was compelled by the beautiful people and the mission of CCFC.

Tell me more about the CCFC. What is their mission and how are they making an impact with the people they work with in Guatemala.

CCFC’s mission is to alleviate poverty and protect forests in the Highlands of Guatemala. These two objectives, although not obvious synergistic goals to most residents of the United States, definitely go hand in hand.  The Q’eqchi’ Maya people of this region of Guatemala live in and by the land.  As the land is deforested, their lives are denuded as well.  Through education, reforestation, sustainable development, leadership scholarships, and ecological improvements to agriculture, CCFC is fulfilling its mission from the ground up. As kids learn about conservation, as young women are empowered to stay in school and fulfill their dreams, and as people from remote, rural villages are partners in collaboration, the physical landscape of the cloud forest improves and the personal landscape of the communities thrives.

Where in Guatemala do they work? What do most of the people in this community do for a living? What are some of the challenges they face?

CCFC is located in Alta Verapaz in the Central Highlands of Guatemala, a mountainous region which is largely indigenous and suffers from extreme poverty. The vast majority of the people in these communities are subsistence farmers, farming corn and beans on the steep sides of the mountains.  Although corn is an important part of their diet and also the Mayan culture, when corn is grown as a monocrop, both the land and the nutrition of the people suffer. CCFC is working to increase agricultural diversity, often using ancient Mayan and native cloud forest heirloom crops to decrease deforestation and to dramatically improve nutrition.

What is your role with CCFC?

I feel very blessed to be able to work alongside the directors, staff and volunteers at CCFC and to bring a focus on community health.  I have been working with Guatemalan nurses and nursing students over the past three years to assess the health needs and successes of the communities, identify areas for improvement, and develop initiatives to improve the health of the people in the communities.

CCFC in partnership with Lutheran Partners in Global Ministry, offers a unique intergenerational trip each year to see the work in Guatemala. How was the partnership formed?

We have been supporters of Lutheran Partners in Global Ministry for many years and I served on the board until recently and so I knew about LPGM’s partnerships with organizations around the world, building relationships, breaking down barriers, and partnering in the essential areas of need.  A collaboration between LPGM and CCFC seemed like a great fit for both organizations.  We started with a pilot travel experience and have continued to grow the partnership; because of this partnership, dozens of individuals and congregations around the United States have been able to travel to and work alongside CCFC in Guatemala, expanding the worldviews and potential of people both in Guatemala and here in the US.

What is the mission of the trip? What does a week look like?

The mission of the trip is to:

  • Experience and learn from a different culture,
  • Work alongside CCFC on projects that are ongoing in education and agro-ecology
  • Shareour lives and God’s love with each other and with those we meet in Guatemala.

When we arrive in Guatemala City, we get an introduction to Guatemalan culture and then we head to the mountains!  We spend 4 days partnering with a group of children from a local village school, learning and experiencing together, and at the end of the week, we accompany them to their village, often with trees or other native products to plant. Throughout the week, we are hiking, cave-exploring, making native cloud-forest products, learning about coffee-production, playing soccer, and packing in as much learning and fun as we can. At the end of the trip, we spend a day “adventuring,” either in a natural waterpark or on a volcano.

Group photo of US travelers along with the village school children and teachers that we partnered with for the week. Photo credit: Tricia Hall

How does this experience change you?

This summer will be my 6thyear bringing a group to CCFC and I never tire of witnessing the beautiful connections that occur on these trips. To see a 7-year-old US girl from the city and a Q’eqchi’ Maya girl from a remote village walking together, smiling, communicating through hand gestures, and learning about themselves, each other and the world around them—it just doesn’t get any better than that!

Want to learn more about the upcoming summer trips?

June 19-29 2019 | Community Cloud Forest Conservation | Intergenerational Trip – Open

July 27 – August 6 2019 | Community Cloud Forest Conservation | Intergenerational Trip – Open

The usual trip size is around 10-18 people, filled with a mixture of families, couples and even solo travelers ranging from all ages. Cost is $1250 per person plus airfare. To learn more about the trips please click here.

https://lutheranpartners.org/transformational-travel/guatemala/

About Community Cloud Forest Conservation

Community Cloud Forest Conservation alleviates poverty and protects forests through education, reforestation, sustainable  development, leadership training, and ecological improvements to agriculture. CCFC believes that holistic human / community development through education and capacity building is the key to conservation and development in Guatemala’s central highlands. Education, especially for young women, is key to building peace in this region.

cloudforestconservation.org

About Lutheran Partners of Global Ministry

Lutheran Partners in Global Ministry was created in 1995 out of a pressing need to connect people with opportunities around the world and build relationships. Lutheran Partners in Global Ministry shares resources and hope through: Partnerships (with local, national, and overseas organizations), Education (for women and children, transforming lives for a brighter future), Empowerment (empower peace, stability and sustainability through leadership development), and Transformational Travel (to India, Guatemala and the Central African Republic).

lutheranpartners.org

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Why Ecotourism and Sustainable Travel Must Be the Wave of the Future

As much as I love to travel, there is no doubt I feel concerned about the negative impact that travel can make on a place due to overtourism and additional stress on the environment. As the world economy improves and more people are being lifted out of poverty, tourism is on the upswing as well. World Count estimates that approximately 1 billion people arrive in a new destination each year which translates into a new arrival every 30 seconds somewhere around the globe.

“Should we feel guilty for traveling”?  and “How is tourism the harming the environment and what we can do about it?” are excellent moral questions us as travelers have to often consider when planning a trip, especially to a threatened destination such as The Great Barrier Reef, Iceland, and Machu Picchu to name a few.

In this thought provoking piece, Dafina Zymeri of SUMAS (a Sustainability Business School in Switzerland), shares some areas where travel has negatively impacted the environment and the very culture of a city and how we as travelers can travel more consciously. I have added in my insight where I deemed necessary to expand upon a topic. I am hoping this is the first of many conversations on the importance of sustainable travel for we must protect and think responsibly about our impact as travelers upon the very world in which we desire to see.

It has been estimated that over half of the Great Barrier Reef has died since 2016. What impact does tourism have on this fragile ecosystem and should we go there? Photo credit: Pexels

The Burden of Overtourism

If you search on Google “How tourism is…”, the first suggestion to finish the sentence it will give is “How tourism is killing Barcelona.” Pretty sad, isn’t it? Well, we travelers – or tourists, whatever you call yourself – are destroying the environment of those beautiful countries we’re visiting. Of course, we don’t mean to do so but we are flying, visiting and trampling all over the planet. Our increase in visiting some of these destinations is undeniably having an impact and perhaps not such a positive one.

Let’s take the case of Barcelona. Check out the Guardian’s recent article “How Tourism is Killing Barcelona – A Photo Essay“. We have all seen and experienced beloved destinations like Barcelona that have sadly began to lost their charm and have become overrun with all things tourist. Trinkets, t-shirt shops and crowds and crowds of people is making a once culturally rich city feel more like a Disney-styled theme park. Will Barcelona eventually loose the charm and uniqueness that initially made it so popular with tourists in the first place?

If this isn’t sad enough, the huge increase in popularity of Barcelona is having its own negative impacts on its own people who live there. Barcelona native residents are enraged with the cost of living that they say was inflicted by tourism. Per The Guardian, it used to cost 250€ (or around $280) for a short-term rental permit but now that they are not being issued anymore. Needless to say, the average monthly rent in Barcelona (which is the most expensive in Spain) is around  700€. Residents are seemingly being forced out by high rents in Barcelona neighborhoods with a high presence of Airbnb. Since Airbnb’s intention is “revitalizing neighborhoods”, how is that possible when neighborhoods in their presence are actually losing population to a large degree?

 

Is tourism ruining the charm of such beautiful places as Barcelona?

 

Here’s another example to touch your conscience: The beautiful beach of Maya Bay of Phi Phi Lei Island in Thailand had banned, for a certain time, boats of tourists from landing on the shore. The tourists that want to take the trouble to visit need to do it by foot from the neighboring beach Loh Samah Bay. I was heartbroken when I read what the Chief of Mu Ko Phi Phi National Park said the reason behind the temporary closure was that the marine life and corals need time to recover.  How utterly devastating. The beach we go to see, swim in, and take pictures of to need a break from us!

And what about Machu Picchu, a World Heritage Site? Thousands of tourists are trampling across ancient ruins every day at a level that is truly unsustainable for keeping them around for further generations. Although UNESCO has strongly recommends that they cap the number of visitors to 2,500 per day, 5,000 tourists visit and walk across these threatened ruins daily. Don’t we want to safeguard and protect Machu Picchu for future generations to enjoy?

Isn’t this how Machu Picchu is supposed to look? Untouched?

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Backpacking with a Purpose with Operation Groundswell

For the past two years, I’ve been a proud member of Impact Travel Alliance, a global community of change makers, passionate about transforming the travel industry into a force for good. Through this amazing network of sustainable travel organizations, writers and travel enthusiasts around the globe, I’ve learned a lot about how we can use travel to make the world a better place.

For the next several months, I am working on putting together a searchable database of the best ethical impact-focused and sustainable travel organizations on the planet. While I’m researching these different organizations, I will be sharing guest posts to uncover each organization’s unique mission and how you can travel for good. This guest post is written by fellow Impact Travel Alliance Media Network member Marissa Sutera (creator of Little Things Travel Blog) who introduces us to Operation Groundswell a Toronto-based organization whose mission is to create a more equitable, just, and sustainable world through travel and backpacking with a purpose.

Operation Groundswell

Operation Groundswell Ecuador trip

Backpacking with a Purpose

When seeking out more purposeful work to do while traveling, it can be challenging to dig deep enough to find the best route to take and the organizations that are truly carrying out positive work. In this interview you’ll hear from Justine Abigail Yu, Communications and Marketing Director at Operation Groundswell, who will be sharing her insight into what questions to ask when volunteering abroad, where to begin, and how to know what sort of impact you will make.

Operation Groundswell is a non-profit organization that facilitates experiential education programs on a host of social justice issues around the world. With ethical travel at the crux of their philosophy, they always work in partnership with local non-profits and charities on community-requested projects to ensure true sustainability. Their aim is to build a community of “backpacktivists” that are socially, environmentally, and politically aware of their impact in the communities they travel to and live in. Their programs are intentionally designed to uncover the intricacies and on-the-ground realities of each region they go to. With ethical travel at the crux of their philosophy, they always work in partnership with local non-profits and charities on community-requested projects to ensure true sustainability.

Their aim is to build a community of “backpacktivists” that are socially, environmentally, and politically aware of their impact in the communities they travel to and live in.

Operation Groundswell

Meeting with our partners at De La Gente, a coffee cooperative in San Miguel Escobar in Guatemala

How can someone seeking a volunteer program abroad determine if they will actually be making a difference?

First and foremost, whatever volunteer project you work on abroad should be done in partnership with the local community. If you want to make even the slightest difference, be sure to find an organization that puts the needs of the local community first. Contributing to a project that your host community actually wants and needs is the first step towards responsible international volunteering.

But it’s also important to set realistic expectations of what exactly “making a difference” means. For many people, this requires a bit of a rethink. You’d be surprised (or maybe not) how many volunteers going abroad expect to “save Africa”, or Asia, or Latin America. And that’s just not the reality.

The majority of volunteer programs are often short-term projects that range from one week to a few months. So when you’re seeking a volunteer program abroad, consider the time you’ll be spending abroad and align that with your expectations. Because real talk – if you’re only going to be spending one or two-weeks in any given country or community, you may not actually make that much of a difference.

You’ll accomplish some things, of course: you’ll likely gain a deeper understanding of the complexity of development and what it takes to actually achieve social change, you’ll make a strong connection with a handful of people who you will hopefully stay in touch with, and you’ll contribute in some small way to a project.

But honestly, you’ll likely leave with more questions than answers. And that’s ok. This is a process.

“Change doesn’t happen overnight or even in a couple of weeks or months. Often, the work that you do when you return home, as a result of what you learned abroad, will be where you make the most difference.”

Just remember to have humility when taking part in work like this!

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