By Michele DeLuca
Niagara Gazette — The only thing that Joe Little can promise is a life-changing adventure.
For the past two years he's taken groups of students to Guatemala and knows it has led them to an expanded world view. Now, he's looking for 10 adults who want to challenge themselves and expand their vision, as well.
This January, Little, an associate professor of English at Niagara University, will be leading what he's dubbed "The Great Guatemalan Challenge," for adults who want to join him.
The back-packing trip will immerse the travelers into the lives of the Guatemalan people, with visits to small Spanish and Mayan villages, schools, marketplaces and farms.
Though the trip provides a physical challenge, such as hiking up volcanos and mountainous terrain, there will also be some comforts. Included will be communal dinners when the group lodges in the home of a retired United Nations officer, who helped implement the peace accord after the country's civil war. The war ended in 1996 with more than 200,000 people dead, but the war crimes trial of its dictator, General Efraín Ríos Montt, continue to make global headlines due to a recently overturned conviction.
And while some may worry about traveling to a third world country that is still recovering from civil war, Little says the tour is as safe as most major American cities.
"There is some level of danger, but for me, that is part of the point," Little said. "I'm interested in helping people to learn how to travel, and to learn how to be in the world."
Those who have made the journey the past two years were able to meet with soldiers and civilians who lived through the experience, Little noted.
The civil war began in the 1960s with a grass roots uprising of Guatemalans who felt cheated out of their land and power by the government. Little said his students learned of the horrific quandary faced by villagers ordered to provide assistance to fighters then punished or killed by soldiers on the other side for assisting the enemy. But learning more about the history and current events of the country isn't all the travelers gain from Guatemala, a Third World country noted for its long chain of volcanos and what Little calls "one of the most beautiful lakes in the world."
Little said the spirituality that arises from such trips is amazing, especially as the travelers move through their fears of safety and cultural discomfort. "For me the trip can lead to transformation as a person," he said. The brochure he wrote details the trip as "an affordable, off- the-grid adventure for the spiritually minded traveler.
As the trips unfold, Little said he likes to include down time for reflection. There is also backpacking, swimming and fellowship, he said, and it takes place among some of the most beautiful locations in the country.
Little leads the groups with Sam Lightowler, a Torontonian and old friend. Prior to the student trips, the two had back-packed together to Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and Guatemala. Lightowler believes their experience as backpacking adventurers offers travelers the chance to try something new under the guidance of leaders familiar with the terrain and the culture. As a bonus for stepping off the beaten track, "they're going to see something they've never seen before," Lightowler said.
One of the students on Little's most recent trip last March, said the trip enhanced her love of traveling the world.
"It was absolutely gorgeous," said Atasha Ramsaroop, 21, a recent NU grad from Long Island. "We were at the lake, surrounded by volcanos," she said. "Every single day I told myself," I can't believe I am here right now it feels like a dream." While Ramsaroop was nervous about going to a third world country, she said she learned a lot about herself during her Guatemalan trip. "I would go back in a heartbeat," she said.
The deadline to apply for the adult trip to Guatamala is Aug. 16. For more information or to register for the trip, call NU's office of Continuing Education at 286-8181 or email Little at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Little, clearly interested in being a citizen of the world, also traveled recently to Vietnam where he and his girlfriend volunteered to tend to adults and children suffering from the impact of the Agent Orange chemical used in the Vietnamese War. Little is holding an online fundraiser to raise money for those efforts. Those who want to participate in the Friendship Village Service Project, are asked to go to www.giveforward.com and search "Friendship Fund."
IF YOU GO • WHAT: A guided trip to Guatemala through Niagara University • WHEN: Jan. 5-12, 2014. Registration ends Aug. 16 • MORE INFO: Contact Niagara University's Office of Continuing Education at at 286-8181 or email Joe Little at email@example.com