NEW CASTLE —
(Second of two parts)
Education always was a priority for Markus Naugle and his fiancée.
Naugle, the valedictorian of the New Castle High class of 1986, went on to earn a degree in microbiology from MIT. Laura Wheelock, his fiancée, studied at Harvard and Stanford.
The two, though, have never limited learning to the classroom. They’ve traveled the globe, not as tourists, but more like empty vessels looking to be filled with life as it is lived by other cultures.
Naugle spent time working on a boat in Australia — he calls Jacque Cousteau one of his childhood idols — and lived in New Zealand, where he helped to regenerate a rainforest and volunteered with a school.
He and Wheelock lived in Costa Rica, volunteering to protect leatherback turtles and helping with a local recycling initiative.
Together, they’ve explored more than 50 countries. And in all that time, perhaps their greatest discovery was learning that they wanted to be able to share the same kind of experiences with others.
Thus, for about three years now, the couple has lived in a Mayan village on a mountain lake in Guatemala, running a program they established called Magic Carpet Rides. Originally, they offered a gap-year experience that placed students with local families for long-term stays. Now, though, they are offering such home stays for shorter durations to travelers of all ages.
“Magic Carpet Rides,” Naugle said, “grew out of an extension of our individual lives and when we came together to share the world rostrum and encourage Americans, who don’t travel quite as much as some European or Australian or other cultures.
“We really just wanted to encourage people to get out into the world classroom and do volunteer work and do homestays and really see a different kind of way of living.”
According to brittanica.com, Guatemala’s population is divided into two primary ethnic groups, Ladinos and Mayas.
The former, the website says, are those of mixed Hispanic-Mayan origin. The latter “account for slightly less than half of the country’s total population (but) they make up about three-fourths of the population in the western highland provinces.”
That cultural duality was a key reason why Naugle and Wheelock chose the Central American nation for their work.
“Laura and I live among the Tz’utujil Maya up here at Lake Atitlan, and that’s who we do most of our work with,” he said. “It’s a super lovely, elegantly simple agrarian people who, on average, make somewhere between $2 and $4 a day. They’re growing corn and growing beans and cooking over a fire-based stove.
“Many of them don’t have refrigeration, and live either in a cinder block or adobe block house. So there’s a lot of potential to help them appreciate a better standard of living, yet at the same time, there is still infrastructure in Guatemala that you might not find in parts of Africa and parts of Asia, too.”
The latter can be found in the nearby town of Antigua, where visitors who require schooling in Spanish can stay first with Ladino families, “kind of middle-class Guatemalans who own cars and have kids who are going to school or college.
“It’s a nice little town, the type of place you can see a little boy with several goats walk by, then a Hummer or BMW right after.”
Naugle called the town a nice “step down” from the United States, a buffer between “coming down from a super, well-developed country and the experience of going into a village and living in a mud hut.”
Guatelmala, Naugle added, also is better choice for American visitors than some other countries because — depending on Daylight Saving Time — its day coincides with either Central or Mountain time in the U.S. It’s also a direct flight from many major airports, “so it’s reasonably easy to get to, and reasonably inexpensive as well.”
For anyone planning a Magic Carpet Ride, Naugle noted, “the key travel skill you need is to be able to speak a different language.”
Spanish will do. If you’re fluent in any of the nearly two dozen Mayan dialects spoken in Guatemala, that works, too.
Still, Spanish gets the main focus, and travelers who are not already fluent will get an immersion in Antigua — one-on-one training for up to four or five hours a day.
“You just kind of get in there and scramble up your brain with Spanish and at some point, a couple of weeks into it, it really starts to click and you’re able to communicate.”
From there, it’s up to the lake and a stay with a Mayan family in either a cinder block or adobe block house. While many of these homes have only cold water, or no running water at all, those in the placement program “have at least warm to somewhat hot running water.”
In many cases, children move into their parents’ room in order to free up space for the traveler.
A visitor’s day may start at 5:30 a.m., when the women of the village begin to make corn tortillas.
“They eat tortillas at every meal here, they eat corn at every meal here,” Naugle said. “In the Mayan belief structure, they believe that people are made from corn and if they don’t eat corn, that’s kind of a bad thing.”
Depending on how eager and open the visitor is, the stay and the relationships can grow in various directions.
“We’ve had the families invite them to weddings, to funerals and soccer matches, take them out fishing and make tortillas and let them help cook the meals,” Naugle said. “The kids in particular are always eager to learn a little bit of English, so sometimes they’ll teach the kids some English and the kids will teach them more Spanish or Mayan.
“They’ll really just integrate you into the family and through the community service work.”
For the Mayans, the process is an opportunity not only to be exposed to Western ideas and new ways of thinking, it’s also a validation of their lifestyle, “because all these Western people want to come down and live like I live.”
Americans, meanwhile, gain an appreciation of a developing culture far removed from their own and can measure themselves against their ability to integrate into it.
“It’s a real kind of validation in both directions,” Naugle said.
And for Naugle and Wheelock as well, who have sacrificed being near their loved ones in order to pursue their dream.
“We all make sacrifices, it’s just whether we choose to look at them as sacrifices or not,” Naugle said. “I love my parents (Bob and Judy Naugle of Young Street) dearly, and I would like to see them more often. But they have their mission up there in New Castle, and I have mine down here.
“And living in a developing country, you draw developing country wages, so you make a financial sacrifice as well. It’s just following your heart and seeing where it takes you. And sometimes, what appear to be sacrifices to other people is really you doing what you love and, in your own small way, making a difference.”
NEW CASTLE —
(Second of two parts)
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