Spectatorship: Seeking the sunrise beyond the sunrise


Quincy MA, at dawn

As I travel, I become more and more aware of the power of spectatorship and the impact it has on experiences.

Communing with an uncharted moment

Imagine that you are standing on the precipice of a great cliff, watching the golden fingers of morning slowly creep across an empty riverbed. The heather dances scarlet on the horizon while somewhere far off, a lonely swallow croons.

Now, imagine experiencing this exact same scene with 30 other strangers by your side. Scratching, grumbling, giggling – gobbling up the essence of the moment with their intrusive presence. Iphones and irritation ground your spirit to mundane reality and the sacred splendor is shattered.

Spectatorship in all it’s glory

Instead, imagine you are present in the final moment of the final match of the World Cup.

Fifty thousand people are hanging on the edges of their chairs. The vivacious energy of the day is glowing pink in the faces of everyone around you, bouncing off the walls like daybreak through a prism.

The cheerful comradery inspires a unique kind of intoxicated bliss. For this single moment in time, you and everyone in the stadium are linked by the felicitation of the moment. Strangers are your best friends as you coalesce to make ONE GIANT FAN.

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But what if the stadium was empty and the only person there to see that final play was…just you?

Spectatorship is entirely conditional and too many times in the sweep of the tourist trajectory, the distinction between solitude and conviviality is sorely disrespected.

My manufactured moment 

On my recent adventure to Tikal, I was profoundly disenchanted by the way this line was crossed over and over. On the second day of my trip, I booked the sunrise tour, a 4am trek to the top of the highest temple.

Unfortunately, I was not the only one with this idea. By 5:05, the temple steps were staggered with 45 other tourists, cackling and canoodling in the early morning fog. As the girl in front of me cracked open her pack fiesta Doritos, my sense of glory evaporated entirely.

Cause, effect, and traveling true

The cause of this betrayal is largely monetary. Tour groups will market anything as a ‘unique experience’ and then turn around and sell the same manufactured moment to 20 thousand other tourists.

For travelers, this abuse of spectatorship means that we have a responsibility to engineer these moments ourselves, and think outside the box of ‘conventional tourism’. I urge my travel hungry amigos to seek the sunrise beyond the sunrise, a commitment to chase the genuine experience whenever possible.

3rd World Nations: How is Guatemala different?


© Matt Dayka - Vitamin Angels GT14-9688Reduce_RBC7690

You cannot walk down a street in the loneliest Guatemalan town without encountering it.

The gentle enthusiasm, friendliness, and sociability expressed by every local, from the oldest woman to the youngest baby. Travel to China, India, or Thailand and you’ll be accosted on every street corner with wares and services—but not here. There is a gentle civility that blankets the commercial clamor. A kind, creative calm.

And it’s not just social etiquette. Mayans give off such a radiant vibe that it colors the atmosphere around them. It is palpable resilience, proud and authentic. Decked head to toe in the most exquisite hand-embroidered traje, broad smiles and quirky curiosity utterly betraying the hardships they endure.

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One day, I was walking down the main road lost in the doldrums of un-actualized intent. Slowly twilight began to soften the edges of the sidewalks and cast the volcanic peaks in a scarlet haze. My gaze swept gently across the lane; was the kind of day where it’s both really easy and really hard to remember you’re alive. Suddenly a colorful woman smiled at me and beckoned me over.

Where are you from?” She asked.

I told her about my journey from Australia, her gaze teeming with wild fascination. “I hope that one day, maybe when my family is grown, I too can travel like you,” she said.

Beaming with pride, she stepped aside to reveal a sprightly little girl. As she danced in the milky half-light, I tried not to notice her bare feet or the mud caked under her tiny fingernails. The girl smiled slyly, then dashed into their booth. She came out holding a stack of warm, freshly baked tortillas.

“Amigas,” she said. “Por siempre.” She held one out to me like a new mother offering her newborn child. Well, there was no refusing such an offer. They smiled warmly as my taste buds melted on the first Mayan food I had ever tasted.

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Over a month into my time volunteering with Mayan Families, I find that the same warmth and character oozes from every corner of this amazing country.

Females flying solo: A guide to empowerment


“66% of fourth grade girls say they like science and math. But only 18% of all college engineering majors are female.”

Verizon’s 2014 commercial raises some very good points. Women in America are victims of extreme gender stereotyping and it largely affects the choices we make later in life – including whether or not to travel.

Culturally, women are treated as precious snowflakes; sweet, delicate, and disastrously ill equipped to contend with the meatier struggles of life.

Whether a woman is walking on to a used car lot, pursuing an engineering degree, or planning a trek across southeastern Columbia, the reaction is always the same:

“Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”

An article on Forbes.com tracked the public outcry prompted by the death of a 33-year-old woman traveling in Turkey:

  • “A single woman traveling alone is risky. In a foreign country, it is downright foolish.”
  • “A woman has no business traveling alone.”
  • “No WAY I would even let my beautiful wife out the door to travel to any country alone.”

It’s a sad fact that things like this happen, but bottling women up is not the answer. Terrible things are likely to happen anywhere, even at home. According to the FBI, 80% of violent crime victims know their attackers personally.

When I was a child, one of my classmates bragged about an amazing weekend in NYC. Inspired, I went home and asked my mother if she could take me the following weekend.

She let out a small sigh and said, “Your father is busy, but maybe some other weekend.”

“But why can’t we go just the two of us?” I asked.

“It’s much too dangerous for us to travel to a big city like New York on our own,” she said.

This is the viewpoint that many of my friends and I grew up with; an opinion still institutionalized within my home community.

Every day, concerned friends furrow their brows and ask my mother how on earth she can cope with me living in rural Guatemala.

I am lucky to have so many amazing people in my life who care. But in a more perfect world, people would have confidence in my pursuits and not see every travel excursion as an opportunity for the real-life enactment of Little Red Riding Hood.

Recently, Ohio State’s Women in Engineering (WIE) has taken amazing strides in combating these restrictive stereotypes.

After hearing of the extremely low ranking Guatemala received on the United Nations Gender Inequality Index, the group is preparing to launch an annual woman-centered engineering expedition in conjunction with NGO Mayan Families.

For three months each summer, students will travel to Guatemala to utilize special engineering strategies to empower women and deliver long-term industrial solutions.

The project will give female students the opportunity to travel, experience a new culture, and contend with gender inequality issues both at home and abroad.

At just 18 years old, electrical and computer engineering major Mary Scherer is the pilot representative for the initiative, gathering all the information to approve funding for the trip while pioneering the educational practices that future students will employ.

She’s optimistic that the program will not only benefit the indigenous communities, but will also stand as a champion initiative for equal rights and the empowerment of women everywhere:

“Experiencing volcanic hikes, flooding rains, and an earthquake after only three weeks in Guatemala, I have realized that the world is constantly changing. But while teaching here in Panajachel, I have also realized that as a woman in engineering, I too am changing the world.”

Traveling True in the Developing World


Explaining a developing country to someone who has never seen one is like teaching a blind man to paint. He can hold the brush and imagine the colors, but the abstraction can never be actualized to intent.

It takes a certain level of visionary consciousness to confront the honesty that oozes from every cobble and crack. Quantifying impoverished localities means awareness—open eyes, open ears, and open heart. Awareness is not pity, sorrow, or sympathy. It’s an agreement to see and appreciate the world around you from outside the comparative lens. It’s quiet observation, nurtured by a respectful curiosity. It’s sharing in the enthusiasm, friendliness, and sociability expressed by those struggling under the poorest circumstances. Most of all, it’s feeling awed by a cultural community where poverty, trust, and goodwill thrive in tandem.

Unfortunately, this state of mind is not fundamental or inherent. It takes commitment and reflection, as well as a passionate respect for what lays beyond one’s understanding. It’s been my experience that most travelers remain disengaged, despite total immersion in a developing culture. They flit from one visceral encounter to the next with hasty unaccountability. Their days are scaffolded to fulfill one self-gratifying agenda or another; they do not hear, think, or see beyond the tragedy of foregoing first-world conveniences. Every exposure and observation, for them,is colored by their own perception of what’s right and normal.

Embracing twilight from a terrace in rural Guatemala, I witnessed one of the worst examples of the disenfranchised perspective. It was close to 9pm and most shopkeepers were rolling down their gates after a hard day of work. One booth remained open, manned by a girl about 12 or 13. Her frock, sandals, and emotive gaze were as downcast as they were colorful. As I studied her, a group of American tourists surged up the lane—three teenage boys ducked inside her booth and peevishly rummaged through her goods. They snickered, playing with their smartphones and shoving each other into her carefully arranged wares. None of the boys offered a glance her way, as her mouth sank into an expression of gritty fatigue.

Laughing, one of the boys stepped backward and tripped over a vase. The group turned to stare as hand-painted shards splintered across the pavement. For a moment, the boys just gaped in silence at the wasted terracotta. They looked at each other, then the girl. She didn’t make a movement. Her jaw quivered. Suddenly, one of the boys shrieked and took off down the street. The other two followed—they broke into peals of giggles, their voices echoing through the night air as they caught up with their group.

I dropped money on the table, grabbed the basket of rolls, and ran out of the restaurant. She was in the street, sweeping up the shards with tears rolling down her cheeks.

“Let me pay,”I said, shoving a wad of bills into her tiny hands.

She tried not to accept it, but after a few moments she gave in and took the bills from me. I offered her the rolls from the restaurant and she gingerly accepted those as well. We sat in silence for a few minutes, enjoying the moonlit tranquility. Her native language was Kaqchikel, a spoken language indigenous to the Mayan people, but eventually we were able to exchange a few ephemeral pleasantries in Spanish. I learned that she works every day from sunrise to sunset, earning money to care for seven younger siblings. Her one wish was to go to school, but for the time being her family needed her income to subsist. Despite it all, she was optimistic. Happiness isn’t conditional, it just is. In just a few minutes, she demonstrated more courage and heart than anyone I’ve ever met.

In this moment, all the tyrannical urgencies of life were extinguished and I could see things exactly as they were. For every act of blind disrespect, I hope that as we evolve as a people and a species, there is always someone watching. Someone who cares.