Life in Cunén – Isabella de Goeij

“Vamos a ver tu cámara” said the little 8 or 9 year old boy, who was following me around Parque Central dressed in the same clothes that I saw him wearing several weeks earlier. I politely responded “no” and continued to walk forward knowing that if I bent down to show him my camera, he would run off with it. As soon as I said “no” he grabbed my arm, and started begging for quetzales (Guatemalan currency). I tried to break free, but he only gripped harder and started to dig his nails into my arm. As I struggled to remove myself from his stern grip, I looked into his eyes and saw a mixture of anger and desperation. An older woman started yelling at the boy from within the market stands and he finally let go and walked away. I stood still in shock for a moment as I tried to comprehend what had just happened only to start being followed by an older man eating some rotten fruit.

This is the reality in the village of Cunén, and the rest of Guatemala. A country with an incredible landscape of volcanoes, forested mountains, jungles, and Mayan ruins. Yet behind all these astonishing sights is a country whose people have endured much suffering, and continue to deal with extreme poverty and violence to this day.

My name is Isabella de Goeij and I am a student at the University of Alberta Augustana Campus, and a scholar at the Peter Lougheed Leadership College (PLLC). As part of the PLLC, scholars are required to embark on a “stretch experience”. This experience is designed to encourage students to develop real life leadership skills and contribute to a community anywhere across the globe. For this reason I, a born and raised farm girl from the county of Wetaskiwin, currently find myself in the Mayan village of Cunén in the El Quiché Department of Guatemala.



I am volunteering at the Colegio Mixto Bilingüe Intercultural (COMBI). COMBI combines both modern education in Spanish along with traditional Mayan education in the language of K’iche. At the school, I am assisting the English professors with their classes, helping out in any way I can, and trying to put together a little video documenting the school and its impact on the community. COMBI is about an eighth the size of the Augustana Campus in Camrose, yet has approximately the same student enrollment with around 950 students. According to the director, Miguel Angel Camajá Cabrera, they have had to start turning down children because of the lack of space. The projectors are old and they project onto simple white cloth. The desks are uncomfortable, all of the administrative offices are in one room with no privacy, and students often have to go print their own copies of worksheets in bookstores for their classes because the school does not have sufficient supplies to do so. There are also students that walk over an hour to get to school each day from the various communities in Cunén. Another big problem that the school faces is lack of salaries for the teachers. For the majority of the time, the teachers are volunteering as the government is not willing to pay wages to those who support Mayan education. This is something that the director, Miguel, has been preoccupied with for the past few years, frequently travelling back and forth to the capital city of Guatemala to negotiate salaries with the government. Through negotiations, they have managed to receive some salaries but they are highly inconsistent and only paid in a small lump sum at the end of the year. The struggles with bureaucracy and paperwork involved in these bargaining sessions staggers the imagination. The government continues to make excuses such as “we will not pay for teacher’s salaries because the chemistry laboratories are not up to standard”.



An Edmonton based organization, the Central American Mayan Foundation (CAMF), has been supporting the school with its operational costs and has also been collecting donations for student scholarships. However, they have expressed uncertainty in providing funds for additional construction or school supplies as it is more difficult to get people to donate to those causes than to funding a student.

In spite of the obstacles this school faces, they have provided an education to many students who have gone on to start businesses in Cunén, or gone on to study for a higher education elsewhere. This has created substantial growth in the economy of the area.. This college is a great example of how education is an important investment, albeit a long time must pass before the rewards are reaped.



My experience thus far has certainly been a personal challenge. Life here is so different than at home in Canada. There are wild dogs, everywhere. Garbage is strewn across the streets, in the ditches, and in the water. Oftentimes, there is only water available in the mornings. There are no supermarkets here, only many “tiendas” (very small convenience stores) which are often found side by side or even in the middle of nowhere next to a winding mountain road. When I am walking around the village, I get stared at, pointed at and many people get nervous when talking to me. The food is different and I must be highly attentive to what I put into my mouth, and other things such as making sure the water I am drinking or flushing my mouth with is “agua pura”. Things I take for granted at home. I have gone through the dreaded traveler’s diarrhea and feelings of homesickness where all I wanted to do was book a flight back home. Yet the family I live with here has been extremely welcoming, and I am thankful to them for making me feel as if I have a home here and making sure I eat well.

Despite these challenges, these are experiences I will carry with me for a lifetime. I will learn things here that I would never be able to learn back in the comfort of home, and the personal growth I am experiencing is invaluable. Being exposed to the everyday life of people in Cunén (that is ever so different from back home) is eye opening and life altering. Every day I realize more and more that happiness comes from within, and it is up to you to decide what you want to make of your life. Life is certainly not taken for granted here in Cunén and it is celebrated continuously, even after a person has passed on.



It is beautiful to see how even though the people here have so little, they give so much. A mentor of mine once told me that “all people smile in the same language”. Though going through this adventure with only basic Spanish skills is challenging, it is amazing how much body language and a smile can do. There are kind people everywhere in our world, and you can find them simply by opening up and offering a smile.


For more information about the school or if you are interested in helping, please contact CAMF through their website ( or Facebook page ( You can also contact me personally at ( Any help is greatly appreciated and I have experienced first hand that it will go to a good cause. Thank you!

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