week 2: thoughts and recollections from Guatemala

(Note: friends’ photos)

It was mid-summer.  Our group’s van driver chatted animatedly on his cell phone as he drove us up the precipitous roads through the mountains, evoking much nervous laughter.  Five hours of road stood between us and the indigenous village of Nebaj.  Along the way, we took note of political logos painted onto the sides of mountains and houses, fresh from the recent election.

My understanding is that Guatemala is a “developing democracy” featuring relatively free elections as well as opposition parties, but with a worrying degree of centralized power in ex-military hands.  Among other splotches.  They have had both democratic and undemocratic rule at various points in their history, and like most countries, have often been beleaguered with Western involvement.

After lunch, we took a pit stop at the colourful town of Chichicastenango.

My memory of Chichicastenango consists of a never-ending street of textile shops overflowing with hand-woven bags and blankets, beaded key chains, and painted wooden masks.  There were plenty of Guatemalans browsing the shops, but the white foreigners stood out.  They bargained with mothers in brief and broken Spanish phrases, while young boys, like magnets, ran up to them offering their shoe-shining services.  We were reading Marx at that point in our travels.  Rebecca wrote about a boy with a disability she saw who essentially flaunted his disability to evoke pity in the tourist.  A commodification of pity, she argued.  The group spent an hour or so draining our fanny packs of Quetzals, the Guatemalan currency.  The cloudy ambivalence towards our consumerism began to cast its shadow.  Many of us second-guessed our consumption of these products, for legitimizing our “false needs” and expressing our North American purchasing power and influence, but we also recognized the way in which we could try to justify our lopsided tourism: by putting money into local economies.

After lunch, we climbed back into the van and eventually rolled into the village of Nebaj.

Nebaj is a village with overcast skies, pot-holed streets, and crumbling sidewalks, with children who frequent video arcades if they can earn a few coins shining shoes, with blue-painted convenience stores (Pepsi’s influence), and with smiling faces greeting you at every moment–we were to greet every single passerby with “buenos dias,” “buenas tardes,” or “buenas noches” depending on the time of day.  It is surrounded by mountains 360 degrees around, and it stretches out from the central town square (a square every Guatemalan town has for political assembly purposes), to the rural fields.  Despite the pollution of diesel affecting  our heads and inevitably the fleas in my home stay bed, I came to develop an inexplicable love for that village and its people.

Yet, it is arguably the most civil war-torn region of Guatemala.  The civil war lasted from 1960, originating in a C.I.A..-led coup after president Jacobo Arbenz planned to redistribute agrarian land from American-owned United Fruit Company, until a peace treaty was signed in 1996.  An internal war of 36 years and 200,000 lives.  The indigenous people of Nebaj were particularly caught up in the bloodshed because they were perceived by the government, as racists do, to be natural allies of the leftist rebels.  As fellow traveller Rachel commented, we were hard-pressed to see the effects of the civil war as outsiders.  I felt a definite gap between the smiling faces on the streets and the heartbreaking poems about massacres and brothers killing brothers I read in my books.  I felt like we were only ever treading water at the surface of the community.  Likewise, even though I knew that 50% of Guatemalans under the age of 5 are chronically malnourished (World Food Programme), this sort of poverty mostly evaded the observation of a passing traveler.  The kids hanging around my home stay seemed active enough 6 a.m. in the morning.  Pretty mountains, pretty fabrics, pretty faces.

We only really delved deeper when survivors of the civil war spoke out to us.  One of these men, a rebel during the civil war, invited us to his home.  We were first welcomed by his family: we fawned over his children, dressed up in traditional clothing, and learned how to, I suppose, spool wool….

…but he also told us of graver things.  Of a decade of hiding in the mountains, and of fighting for villages against government “scorch and burn” policies.  What he did not tell us is that many locals hold the rebels guilty for provoking more harm from the government.  The war is much too complex for me to understand.  He took us to a cemetery where villagers had been lain to rest in peace–rebels, neutrals, and army officers alike.  I still cannot fathom how brothers, literally brothers, fought each other.

Anyhow, upon arriving, we divided into two groups and were welcomed into our hotels.  I was told that my group’s hotel had a motto along the lines of “our home is your home.”  I would soon come to realize that this did not only mean that they would accommodate us like loving family, but that we would be accommodating them: every evening, we were subject to a giggling band of children in the courtyard; we were met in the early morning (think 3 a.m.) with the screwed-up moaning of a defunct rooster; and my bedding was of course infested with fleas.

I am glad it was like that though, because it made for a hell of a hilarious time for me and my roommate, Sara.  She never failed to make me laugh and I am so glad we became friends (although her intestinal amoeba named Victor tagged along unexpectedly).  We would share our beds with six other soon-to-become friends for study sessions.  In the case of Anna, it was more like napping sessions.  I was not initiated into friendship, however, without an interrogation into my character one night because I was apparently “mysterious”.  I think I can safely say that, after six weeks, they know me now…perhaps a little too well.

Three meals a day, we were fed delicious RESTAURANT FOOD here:

Each meal was accompanied by a wicked tropical fruit smoothie, hot chocolate, or various such configurations of parties in my mouth.  We were served a variety of meals, from pizadillas (pizza quesadillas!) to traditional Guatemalan food. Namely: beautiful guacomole all day and everyday; breakfast of black beans, mushy plaintain, eggs, salsa, a slice of goat-tasting cheese, and those dreaded corn tortillas; and a sort of Guatemalan tamale, rather flavourless to me.  We soon grew affectionate for the people we met in our hotel, the restaurant, the cafe, and all the places in between.

To complement my coursework, I took a brief class on Ixil, the native language in the area.  It is a rather neat language.  At some point, Sara and I started asking oh so very relevant questions, like how to translate “my lover.”  The teacher miraculously managed, with my limited Spanish, to have a conversation with me about Guatemalan and American politics & religion.  I could not expect such miracles of understanding from all Guatemalans though–at many other moments during the trip, I wished desperately to break the language barrier and just speak to them without a translator.

I believe this video demonstrates a dialect of, or a similar language to, Ixil:

YouTube Preview Image

During a hike in the countryside, I was privy to the experience of developing a sunburn for the first time in my life!  It was not a pretty sight.  The hike was, though:

Guatemala of course has its fair share of contradictions.  At the foot of a beautiful waterfall, we encountered pollution.  But before we are quick to point out the lack of recycling norms and facilities, we should take note (as we would learn in the following weeks) of the risks local environmental activists take in Guatemala by standing up to expose the human and indigenous rights violations made by Canadian mining companies and their affiliates.

To end on a happy note, I did end up forgiving the children at our hotel for inconveniencing grumpy old me with their laughter.  They were just too adorable.  They threw a paper airplane into our room one night.  On it, “We play with you? Put an X.  Yes or No.”  You know we said yes.

UBC Go Global Group Study Programs Weblink

F Word Undergraduate Conference Review

My brother and I wrote a joint-review on the F Word (Feminist) conference.  If you were there, you can check out our review in the newsletter for the Centre for Feminist Legal Studies at UBC, here (page 6).

Dear First Years (a letter you should read)

Dear First Years,

You’ve probably heard it a million times.

“Your university years are going to be the best time of your life!”

Let’s be clear now: I’m not exactly here to shatter that dream. It certainly has been the best time of my life so far.  I have met and even made friends with incredibly interesting, intelligent, and kind people.  I have enamoured myself with academic passions, and have found means to satiate my lust for learning.  I have loved and (I hope) been loved.  In a way, university makes me feel like a happy little atomic particle freely moving around in open space.


But that doesn’t mean you should put unrealistic expectations on yourself or your experience.  Here at the Blog Squad, we tend to highlight the ups of university, not the downs.  Oh, we may mention the downs but rarely do we  truly explore them.  We’re sort of like the complete opposite of the journalism industry in that way.

There are downs.  Maybe you take long commutes and are having difficulty making any lasting friends.  Maybe you live in residence and you feel like you don’t belong there on Friday nights.  Maybe you have serious troubles paying rent and tuition at the same time and it affects everything else in your life.  Maybe you or a friend are assaulted at a party and the perpetrator gets away with it.  Maybe you develop an eating disorder, depression, or other illness. Maybe you try your best and your marks never go up and you feel like a failure.  Maybe your professor is not treating you with respect or using unfairly leveraging their power over you.  Maybe you’re stressed out thin and feel like it will never end.  Maybe you’re going through problems I can’t even think of.  Or maybe you pretend everything is going perfectly well—heck, maybe everything is, and yet you’re still feeling down.

It’s not like university is some weird phase in one’s life where –poof- all life’s sufferings disappear.  Don’t  trust the photos in the university brochures for the whole picture because they never photograph any of the above circumstances.

All I want to say—to first years, and anyone else who might be reading this, is that:

1) Expecting too much is unhealthy.  Be realistic about your goals and work towards them with your best effort.  Realize, truly (not just theoretically), that there are both ups and downs.

2)  That there are resources on campus (and off campus) provided by both peers and professionals that are here to help you help yourself.  And no, you don’t have to be going through really traumatic events in order to use these services. 

3) That you can still have great, fantastic times at university even if you experience circumstances like the ones given above.  Ups and downs, remember—not just ups but not just downs either. 

So take it easy, my dears.

With love,
A third year student.

My Honest Opinion of UBC Arts One: the Alternative First-year Program

Feel free to ask me questions in the comments or email me at miriamsabz@gmail.com

So here you are, stepping into university for the first time, full of hopes and dreams about what it’s going to be like.  What do you picture in your mind when you think “university classroom”?  Do you see a lecture hall full of 300 faceless students jotting down notes as the professor drones on, repeating the textbook word for word?  Or do you see a small group of students sitting around a table eagerly tossing around ideas with each other (like comparing 19th century poetry with modern horror movies), guided by a professor who is just as excited to learn as the students?  If you pictured the latter, you should seriously consider the Arts One program.

I took Arts One two years ago.  I’m here to share my perspective on what it was like, and why it might be worth it for you.

Arts One is an 18-credit humanities program for first-year students.  That leaves you with 12 credits you can use on electives.  It’s made up of 6 credits each of English, History, and Philosophy.

What makes Arts One unique?

•Instead of taking separate English, History, and Philosophy courses (each with its own professor, teaching assistants, exams, essays, and course content), the three subjects are blended into one program.  This interdisciplinary nature lets you explore topics from multiple dimensions.
•Rather than introductory textbooks, the year’s reading list is made up of novels and original texts (non-fiction and fiction) that revolve around a certain theme.  For example, in the theme, “Dangerous Questions,” one of your reading assignments might be the thought-provoking Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.  (Arts One offers two themes you can register in this year: “Dangerous Questions” and “Monsters in Ink.”)
• Instead of taking multiple choice midterms and quizzes, you write an essay every two weeks, honing the essential writing skills that every Arts student needs.  You also critique other students’ essays—and believe me, constructive criticism is a skill that needs to be developed!
•The classroom structure is designed for an enriched learning experience.  You develop close contacts with professors and fellow students with a diverse array of viewpoints.  Here’s my cartoon breakdown of the classroom structure:

All that information and more is available on the Arts One website.

As you can probably tell by now, I loved my experience.  In addition to al the perks listed above, I am most impressed with how Arts Onenot only taught me what to think, but how to think.  This is because I was in such close proximity with bright students and an intellectually curious professor, all with different ideas and thinking styles.  I learned how to analyze thoroughly, look at the world from different angles, evaluate and form opinions.  Having that foundation in first year has prepared me for the rest of my undergraduate degree.


• While the workload isn’t much more than a regular course load (it might even be less), you should be aware of the type of work you will be doing: you have to read about a book a week (the texts can be deep and challenging), write an essay every two weeks, prepare for class discussions, and read and critique other people’s essays.  If you really don’t like writing essays, it’s probably not for you.
• Arts One is not an honours program, but keep in mind that there is a minimum average in English to apply.  You should be confident with your English, and make sure you meet the requirements as described on the Arts One website, here. [note to editor: http://www.arts1.arts.ubc.ca/registering/requirements.html]
• If you’re considering a major in International Relations, you should know that the 6 History credits don’t count as first-year history credits.
• Arts One focuses on writing analytic essays, which means you don’t learn how to write other types of essays (like research essays for political science, sociology, or anthropology.)  On the bright side, you still have 12 credits of electives to learn them.

The benefits definitely outweighed the potential negatives in my experience.  Most second years who took Arts One students will tell you they wish there was an “Arts Two”!

It is possible to register for Arts One until class start in September.  The subject code is “ARTS” on the UBC registration website.  Make sure you meet the requirements!

Hoping to see you at an Arts One alumni reunion soon…


10 Reasons Why a Philosophy Degree is Awesome

“ Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing wonder and awe – the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” –Immanuel Kant

I want to share some of the perks of studying philosophy at the undergraduate level!  In no particular order:

1. By studying philosophy, you are actually studying everything else.  There’s Philosophy of Art, Philosophy of Economics, Philosophy of Science—you name it.  You get exposure to a wide variety of different fields.

2. You develop  a deep sense of humility, Socrates-style.   This is partly because: “Philosophy, if it cannot answer so many questions as we could wish, has at least the power of asking questions which increase the interest of the world, and show the strangeness and wonder lying just below the surface even in the commonest things of daily life.” –Bertrand Russell.  But mostly, it’s because you’re always wrong.  Good luck finding a golden answer..

3. You learn how to easily find the main string of any argument.  That’s because we regularly read sentences like this: “Since men in their endeavors behave, on the whole, not just instinctively, like the brutes, nor yet like rational citizens of the world according to some agreed-on plan, no history of man conceived according to a plan seems to be possible, as it might be possible to have such a history of bees or beavers.” -Kant (What’s that about bees and beavers?) And this: “If I can know something without knowing what I know to be the consequences of it, then I can know that I know something without knowing what I know to be the consequences of my knowing it.” –Some philosopher I have willingly blanked out of my mind.  It also means you will never be distracted by rhetoric or fancy fluff.

4. You get to intensely study topics that every human thinks about at some point in their lives.  Some people think Philosophy is a lofty and leisurely activity but I think it permeates our everyday, down-to-earth existence.

5. You spot and swat down fallacious arguments like flies.  Unfortunately, the side effect to this amazing superpower is that reading YouTube comments hurts your soul.

6. Fellow students are thoughtful and know how to STFU most of the time.  Yeah.  You know what I mean.  If you don’t, read this hilarious Onion article (which is ironically about a Philosophy student.  Oops.)

7. You learn how to write clearly, to justify all of your statements, and to be persuasive.  (For those regular readers of my blog looking at me in disbelief, this does not apply to my blog posts!)

8. Your papers are relatively short.  Example: I had a total of 13 pages to write in a Philosophy 300 course, and a total of 16 pages for a Political Science 100 course.

9. You walk out of many of your lectures or tutorials, mindflipped.  Lectures actually interest you, and you don’t understand how other students can fall asleep in theirs.   Also, you always look forward to your readings.

10. Philosophy is highly normative, meaning you’re not just absorbing facts of the world but thinking about whether or not those facts should change; you ask questions about what “should” or “should not” be.  Political Philosophy: Should our society have a welfare system?  Epistemology:  Should you believe in science?  Ethics:  Should you participate in assisted suicide?  etc.