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When New Jersey native Audra Kyrk (pictured bottom left) earned her Master’s Degree from Tulane University School of Social Work in 2012, she was ready to start her career but hankering to learn more. Kyrk also wanted to spend time abroad and improve her skills in Spanish, so she enrolled in a six-week language immersion program in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Today, she remains at the school working with students as an international coordinator. “I had my roundtrip ticket booked before I came here,” says Kyrk about her extended journey. “I returned home to New Jersey and knew immediately that I would come back.”

At first, Kyrk felt guilty about not following the popular path of getting licensed immediately after obtaining her degree, but she has since forgiven herself. “People become so focused on their career trajectories and busy daily responsibilities that they brush these types of experiences off as a waste of time and money,” she says, “[but you should] forgive yourself for carving out the time. It will make you a more well-rounded, open-minded person in the end.” Kyrk was immediately taken by the Guatemalan way of life, everything from the relaxed atmosphere of Quetzaltenango (known as Xela to locals) to its friendly, welcoming people. She also appreciated Guatemala’s deep-rooted cultural value of gifting and sharing, even when people have little to give.

audra-kyrk-guatamalaThe Proyecto Lingüístico Quetzalteco (PLQ) language program attracted Kyrk through its social concentration. “It doesn’t only focus on language and culture education, but also political education,” she explains. Kyrk is PLQ’s only international employee and fluent English speaker on staff. Each week, she leads required orientation for incoming students, which focuses on Guatemalan history and current events. “Regardless of where you visit, you should know a country’s political situation,” says Kyrk. “It creates solidarity and increases understanding of the locals’ feelings, behaviors and way of life.”

Guatemala currently has one of the highest poverty rates of any country in the Western Hemisphere and carries dramatic disparities in terms of distribution of wealth. Still, more than two million tourists visit the country annually. “Guatemala is becoming a language tourism destination,” Kyrk notes, attributing this to the country’s attractive history, culture and clear Spanish dialect.

Xela is a small city, making it easy for Kyrk to get around and do errands. Her grocery shopping is walking through local marketplaces and piling her baskets high with fruit and vegetables. “I love it because all the walking and fresh produce keeps me healthy,” she says. The challenges of living in Xela come from its poorly supported infrastructure, crowded sidewalks and inconsistent access to electricity and water. Kyrk occasionally makes store runs to replace the gas tank for her apartment stove but luxuries are limited and more expensive. “You get what you get here,” she explains. “There aren’t excessive options and you also don’t expect them. It’s a simple style of living. That doesn’t mean worse or less privileged – just different.”

img_0027During her free time, Kyrk enjoys exploring the abundance of nature, including hiking volcanoes and soaking in hot springs. “Many of the hikes from Xela involve walking through villages to reach these seemingly magical destinations,” she notes. “It forces me to learn more about the country’s ecology and also to engage with different cultures and communities.” Kyrk explains that as the historic city of Xela has grown in popularity among foreign travelers, it has developed many local activities, including an international food scene.

Chatting via FaceTime over her lunch break at PLQ, Kyrk forked at a pache, a mix of rice puree, veggies, hot pepper and meat rolled tamale-style in a mashan leaf, which resembles a palm tree leaf. The dish is from a Señora who sells plates from her home near the school. While Guatemala isn’t known for international dishes, Kyrk says many of the fresh and flavorful local foods are influenced from Mayan culture.

Kyrk believes that it’s important to put aside time to travel and explore new cultures: “Whether it’s for a week or year, traveling forces us to see different sides of ourselves.” She also has some advice for the many Americans that are overworked, stressed and longing for their overdue vacations: “Do it! Take the vacation!” For most Americans, the perfect getaway involves a beach where one can relax and disconnect from social and economic issues, but Kyrk prefers a vacation that can stimulate the mind. “Understanding a place politically and culturally exercises the brain in another way,” she says. “It’s a different type of break that everyone should do at least once in their lives.”