Snakes, Jaguars, and Bandits: Archaeology and Humanitarianism in the Guatemalan Jungle - My Family Travels

I want three things from life:  to discover and explore as much as possible, to know that I made a difference in an increasingly unscrupulous world, and to have good stories to tell. For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved history—first it was dinosaurs, then it was Egypt, and now it’s whatever I can get my hands on. As a career, though, the number one drawback of archaeology for me was that it didn’t seem to have much to do with making a difference. As much as I loved the idea, it always seemed like a job for restless adventure-seekers and intellectuals who only wanted to observe the world, not be a part of it. However, after spending this past summer studying archaeology and doing environmental and humanitarian work with Dr. Richard Hansen, the world’s pre-eminent Mayanist, at the ancient site of El Mirador in Guatemala, I learned that it can be so much more than that.

When I mention wanting to study archaeology, people often tell me: “There’s not a lot of money in that, you know…” or “What’s the point of studying history? The future is what matters.” I believe that money beyond what’s needed for comfortable survival shouldn’t matter; to me, the real reward lies in exploring the unknown, pushing boundaries, and acquiring new skills and perspectives. Also, before I spent the summer alternating between excavating at my dig site and teaching Spanish and English to the locals, I had no concrete way to answer the question, “What’s the point?” The reality is that archaeology and ecologically friendly tourism can be and are being used to promote the economic and environmental well-being of many struggling nations—Guatemala is only one of them.

Spending five weeks working in the rain forest of Guatemala at a set of phenomenal ruins, studying the history and helping to preserve the environment and local culture, was one of the most exciting things that I’ve ever done, and it represented many new developments in my life. It was the first time I’d ever traveled alone internationally, which was a crazy and exhilarating experience. Imagine a nervous 16-year-old girl running the length of three terminals at LAX, carrying two bags laden with everything she’d need if her luggage got lost and praying her boarding passes hadn’t somehow escaped the confines of her back pocket. If that seems too mundane an experience to be life changing, now imagine two days of rigorous hiking and four weeks of Coleman tent-style camping in a jungle ridden with poisonous snakes, deceptively lethal insects, grave robbers, and the occasional drug trafficker.

This summer, I discovered that I am a capable human being, able to navigate crowded airports in a second language, survive a 50-mile hike through the rain forest in July, and single-handedly head a team of five at an archaeological dig of some significance to the historical record. My experiences in Guatemala also served as much-needed proof that I truly do want to be an archaeologist. During my preparations for this summer, I was afraid that a month of slow, demanding, sometimes dangerous work at El Mirador would scare me away from archaeology for good. However, the satisfaction of getting my hands dirty, breaking a sweat, washing and cataloging thousands of artifacts (a surprisingly meditative activity), and conducting daily business in Spanish (which I now speak almost fluently) was the best part. I left for Guatemala torn between academia and altruism, but I came back understanding that archaeology will allow me to balance intellectual and ethical pursuits while still following my own goals and desires.


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