Drexel University

image    I have yet to visit a college that I dislike. From Connecticut to New York City to Pennsylvania, each college that I tour has its own unique offerings that greatly detract from any potential flaws. Drexel University is just one of the many colleges that I am visiting this summer on my grand Northeastern tour, and it has certainly been one of my most memorable experiences to date.

Drexel University is a fast-paced urban academic institution of higher learning, situated in the heart of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, an utterly charming city. Its student body comprises over 26,000 students, including 14,800 undergraduates, 4,600 graduates, and another 5,000 online students. It is a huge, thriving university. Approximately 200 degree programs are offered by the institution, and there are over 15 individual schools distinguished by the student’s choice of major. Almost every major under the sun is available for study at Drexel, but perhaps the school is most notable for its prominent science and engineering programs.

Drexel especially emphasizes the participation of the student in scientific research, as it pertains to his or her major. Over $110 million is donated in sponsor support each year toward research. This facet is just one of the highlights of the university’s offerings.

My Drexel University information session was led by an articulate and persuasive education major who was currently employed in Drexel’s admissions office. He demonstrated nothing but passion and enthusiasm toward his alma matter, which certainly left a positive impression upon the audience.

Firstly, Drexel offers top-notch academic programs that provide the student with hands-on learning outside of the classroom walls. Perhaps Drexel’s most notable program (which encouraged me to visit the university) is the co-op, a term that stands for cooperative education. A co-op is basically an internship opportunity available exclusively to Drexel students. The co-op can be paid or unpaid, depending upon the specifications of the companies at which the students intern. For companies such as MTV, there are just too many interns working that payment cannot be provided, whereas at smaller firms, payment is usually possible. Most internships average around $15,000 to $16,000 per year, which is quite a good sum of money for a college student. All students are required to participate in this particular program, which extends the traditional 4 years of college into a total of 5 years! I find that this is the ultimate educational experience, especially for someone who is looking to network in college to attain easier connections to jobs.

All Drexel students are required to co-op at three different time periods during their years at the university. The co-op will typically pertain to the student’s choice of major, so as to gain the student some experience in that particular field of study. For example, a pre-law student hailing from California spent her first year interning in her home state for Jails to Jobs, a pro-bono service that helps former prisoners in the search for employment. Another student (my tour guide), who was studying criminology, was taken by her professors to grisly crime scenes (a la CSI), murder trials, and even a functioning jail. After that firsthand experience, the student later traded criminology for the much less ghastly communications. This hands-on experience that Drexel University provides to its students is indispensible to helping students decide whether or not a certain major or career is right for them. It is this direct experience that urges me (and hopefully you too!) to apply to the college.

There are myriad subjects to study at Drexel University at each of their 15 individual colleges. A few of the institutions include the Center for Hospitality and Sports Management, the School of Education, LeBow College of Business, the School of Law, and the College of Medicine, amongst several others. I found that Drexel’s academics were comprehensive and diverse. Just imagine the cross section of people you will meet and the uncontrollable spread of ideas that will flow between you and other Drexel students! The possibilities are endless.

According to The Insider’s Guide to the Colleges, there are about 136 extracurricular activities offered by Drexel, and of course, students can always start new ones (as long as they garner interest). The most popular activities at Drexel are the ones involving the fine arts: band, orchestra, dance, and musical theater. Music and dance are offered only as minors by Drexel, and theater is not offered by the university for study at all. But don’t let that stifle your creativity! Drexel’s extracurricular musical theater program is quite distinguished, and goes well beyond the college level. In fact, all fine arts professors and organizers are professionally trained in their fields. Students have even traveled as far as Singapore to perform in concerts, festivals, and shows!  

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According to my tour guide, most sports offered by Drexel revolve around the school-wide intramural level rather than a national level. As I stated several times before, Drexel is mainly a science school, and most of the extracurriculars will revolve around that subject or the fine arts. Currently, Drexel University does not have a professional football team, but they do have most other sports, including cheerleading, basketball, and rowing. Athletics is not something emphasized by the institution, as it may be at many other colleges.

My final part of my Drexel adventure included a tour of the campus led by the aforementioned communications major. In truth, the campus is not exactly spectacular. There is no style of architecture unifying Drexel University; it’s more of a conglomerate of random buildings grouped together into one entity. The biology building was absolutely stunning, however! It was newly constructed and very contemporary, and featured a spiral wooden staircase modeled after DNA.

I had my first ever opportunity to visit a college dorm room, which was certainly eye opening. I had no picture in my head of what a dorm looked like, but it was quite small. Again, as with the university, the dorm rooms have no similar architectural structure. Roommates can be grouped my major, amongst other credentials. The particular dorm room that I visited was for honors students only. It was in a skyscraper-like building that provided for pretty fantastic views of Philadelphia! Overall, I felt that the dorm rooms were very basic housing arrangements. The showers were the size of a small closet, and the actual room was tiny. But I do understand that this is all a part of college living, and I’ll stay open-minded.

Despite its select drawbacks, I really do like Drexel. I still hold my views that their academics are top-notch, and will provide me with the tools that I need to hopefully become a registered dietitian. I like the idea of the co-op program and the invaluable firsthand experience that I can obtain outside of the classroom. The fact that there are over 15 schools at which I can study is enough for me to apply alone; there is much diversity in the academic realm. Drexel is a solid college for all students, because there is something to suit each and every person who applies. You can most definitely go above and beyond with your Drexel education.

For more information, visit http://www.drexel.edu.

The Ugly Side of Pretty: The Untold Story of Chemicals & Cosmetics

Lip gloss, nail polish, mascara, eyeliner, and foundation, the list goes on and on; these are some of the myriad products girls and women use to enhance their beauty. This past year, Plano Senior High School in northern Texas held a special day where none of the school’s thousands of students wore makeup. The event was called Operation Beauty. Its goal was to boost the self-confidence of its female students, and it worked. The event received national attention, from ABC News to the online newspaper Huffington Post. But forgoing makeup does much more than promote self-worth. There is a hidden underbelly to the business of beauty – one that will frighten and even scar you. As it turns out, there’s an ugly side to pretty.

Ten thousand is the approximate number of chemical additives used in personal care products. One in five ingredients in your favorite cosmetic is a known carcinogen – a toxic, cancer-causing chemical.

You may be thinking, certainly if we just read the labels … but many cosmetic labels are known to be fallacious, and the beauty industry does not disclose certain ingredients for pecuniary reasons. Companies are well aware that consumers will not buy their products if they are known to contain certain chemical compounds. In addition, the cosmetics industry is plagued with corruption, feeding consumers misleading messages and deceptive advertising. Case in point, certain nail polish manufacturers are making products touted as free of the “toxic trio”: toluene, formaldehyde, and dibutyl phthalate (DBP). These chemicals have been linked to asthma, cancer, and birth defects. Yet California state testing identified trace amounts of the toxic trio chemicals in some 25 products that were labeled “three free.”

The American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can be infamously slow at enforcing regulations that could ban these noxious ingredients. In fact, cosmetic companies are not always required to conduct safety tests on their products. And remarkably, personal care products are not required to be recalled.

In 2012, 2,350 American women participated in the “National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey” conducted in Boston. Through analysis of urine samples, researchers sought to detect a family of chemicals known as phthalates, which add scent to various cosmetic products and household items. Phthalates are tied to increased risk of diabetes and obesity. The results were appalling. The study showed that women with the highest concentration of phthalates had a 70 percent increased risk of diabetes compared with women with the least amount of these chemicals in their bodies.

In 2008, another study, conducted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), found sixteen dangerous chemicals from four chemical families – including musks, parabens, triclosan, and phthalates – in the blood and urine samples of twenty adolescent females. How many potentially noxious ingredients are teenagers exposed to on a daily basis? Is anyone keeping track? In Europe and Canada, certain chemical compounds that are known to be hazardous to health are banned from personal care products, but in the United States these are not strictly regulated.

How can consumers avoid exposure to dangerous chemicals? Well, some changes are being made. In 2006, a public campaign put pressure on the $6 billion nail care industry to make necessary formula changes. When doing your nails, try brands like OPI and Sally Hansen, which have made significant efforts to eradicate highly toxic chemicals from their products. Or try water-based polishes, such as Acquarella. When in doubt about product formulations, contact the manufacturer.

Young women can join the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, founded by Stacy Malkan and the Breast Council Fund. This group, which has garnered significant international attention, promotes the eradication of dangerous chemicals from cosmetics and personal care products. It has enlisted the help of organizations, businesses, and activists to demand better governmental oversight of chemicals in cosmetics. The Campaign has made several significant strides: it has reduced or removed phthalates from many products; it has forced major nail polish brands to remove the toxic trio of chemicals; most importantly, the Campaign has helped to create the online database Skin Deep.

Skin Deep, which is sponsored by the Environmental Working Group, educates consumers about the pernicious chemicals in over 60,000 cosmetic products. To use the Skin Deep database (www.ewg.org/skindeep), simply type the name of a beauty product into the search box, and – voilà – products are rated on a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 being the absolute safest and 10 being the most toxic.

Everyone can also support H.R. 1385: “Safe Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Act of 2013.” Over 1,500 companies have voiced their support for it. Its goal is to replace harmful additives with safer alternatives. The act hopes to force the FDA to disclose the full list of ingredients in all cosmetic products. This legislation will ensure that the cosmetics industry is making the safest products. The law also hopes to find alternatives to animal testing. If the Safe Cosmetics Act passes, get ready to say good-bye to cancer-causing, birth-defecting, developmentally-harming chemicals. Girls (and guys), with your power, you can encourage local representatives to co-sponsor the Act. We must not let companies continue to hide the true ingredients in cosmetics. Spread awareness of this cause among friends and family. Hold a screening of the informative short film “The Story of Cosmetics,” hosted by Annie Leonard.

The best solution to protect yourself from chemical exposure? Go au naturel. Don’t wear makeup. While this might not appeal to everyone, at very least be sure you are informed about your personal chemical exposure. American women have the power to tell these cosmetics giants that beauty shouldn’t just be skin-deep.

Princeton University

imageIdyllic Princeton University, located in a quiet small town in Princeton, New Jersey, is one of the seven historic Ivy League colleges in the Northeastern United States. In fact, just this past year, the picturesque school was named the #1 academic institution of higher learning in the entire United States by the renowned U.S. News and World Report. Founded in 1746, Princeton University is a midsize college campus sprawling over 600 acres and hosting 5,336 undergraduate students. With only a 7.8% acceptance rate, it is clear that Princeton is only searching for the best and the brightest, but that shouldn’t deter any potential candidate from applying. A top-quality Princeton education will prove to be both intensely challenging and life-altering in the long run.

Personally, I would best describe Princeton University as a rural New York University (NYU). The academic and study abroad programs offered by both colleges are quite similar, and provide the student with an international experience that cannot be matched inside the walls of the classroom. Princeton University is a school for budding politicians and leaders of the United Nations. In fact, many eminent world leaders, such as former American president Woodrow Wilson, were granted their diplomas from none other than Princeton University. At this college, a great emphasis is placed upon the social sciences, languages, and the humanities, more so than many other colleges.

As expected, Princeton places a heightened accent on academics more than anything else offered at the University. The admissions officer, who led a lengthy information session about the university, cited that her own Princeton education was grueling and exhausting, but wholly rewarding in the end. Firstly, Princeton requires that all students become proficient in a language offered by the university before graduation. Some students dislike this mandatory language requirement, but as a person whose favorite subject is French, I believe that this requirement is essential to creating a well-rounded, culturally-minded student body. In fact, what made me research Princeton was an article that I had read ranking the university with one of the top 30 French major programs in the United States. Princeton University offers over 20 modern languages to study, including Bosnian-Serbian-Croatian, Russian, Hindi, Swahili, and Turkish. Undoubtedly, proficiency in a second language is vital for preparing students for jobs and everyday life in the real world. I strongly support this unusual requirement of Princeton University. For me, it’s one of the schools pros.

Princeton does not have a core curriculum as many other colleges do, but it has a distribution requirement, meaning that each student must complete one or two semester-long courses in seven general areas: Epistemology and Cognition, Ethical Thought and Moral Values, Historical Analysis, Literature and the Arts, Quantitative Reasoning, Science and Technology, and Social Analysis. In addition, all students must complete a one-term writing seminar within their first year. With these distribution requirements, Princeton encourages exploration of academic areas that do not pertain to the students’ majors, which again, will create a thoughtful, responsible, open-minded citizen. Most classes are graded on the A to F scale, while others can be chosen as pass/fail by the student.

As previously mentioned, studying abroad is encouraged and sought-after by all students alike. One interesting program offered by Princeton is known as the Bridge Year, an all-expenses paid gap year program that students can spend participating in volunteer work abroad. Only 35 students per year are chosen for this highly-selective, work-heavy program. Volunteer opportunities in the Bridge Year include teaching to international students and helping out local communities. Students are able to visit one of five countries on three continents: China, India, Senegal, Peru, and Brazil. With the Bridge Year, I feel that Princeton is pushing its students to go out of their formal comfort zones. In my opinion, nothing is quite as life-changing as travel to a foreign country, and Princeton is most definitely encouraging its students to become adventurous, unprejudiced individuals. I love the Bridge Year’s inventive, innovative approach to learning, and I would strongly consider this program as a reason for applying to the university.

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In addition, a number of classes that students select for the semester take students abroad as part of that course’s requirement! Can you imagine visiting the Louvre in Paris, France or the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia as part of your art history course requirement? What a unique and eye-opening approach to learning that Princeton is offering to its students!

Perhaps another great highlight of Princeton is its generous financial aid, offered to students of all economic backgrounds at the university. Princeton tuition is not cheap: it carries a hefty yearly price tag of $41,820 for tuition, plus $13,620 for room and board. But what people don’t realize about Princeton is that through large donations, the institution is able to provide its students with bountiful financial aid that covers both tuition and room and board. Of any university that I have visited, Princeton most definitely offers the greatest amount of financial aid to any student. If a student’s parent made between $0 and $60,000 per year, the entire $55,000 cost of tuition plus room and board at Princeton would be fully funded by the institution. It is a widely-held misconception that Ivy League schools are all overpriced and not worth their price sticker. But the reality is that an Ivy education can be fully accessible to all, due to the amount of financial backing provided by donors at the university.

Princetonian culture is alive and well throughout the school’s campus, and this is most apparent in the school’s extracurriculars and eating clubs. Over 300 co-curricular activities are offered at Princeton, including multicultural student organizations and even a campus fashion magazine. Athletics are also hugely popular on campus, with football, basketball, cheerleading, and even crew being offered on campus. At Princeton, mealtimes are social gatherings attended by all students on campus. There are three different dining plans on campus, all comprehensively detailed at the information session that I attended.

Some students choose to eat in the on-campus dining halls. This is not a hugely popular option, but many choices are offered. Other students eat independently and cook their own meals (this option is free, of course). Another choice that the university offers is called the co-op, in which students take turns preparing meals and washing the dishes. Lastly, and most popularly, students choose to join a so-called eating club. These eating clubs are not owned by Princeton, but are affiliated with and welcomed into the university’s setting. In fact, on many occasions, eating clubs host dining nights with professors. I quite like this closeness of relationship with the teaching staff.

Each eating club represents a different personality of the student. For example, the Tiger Club is most frequented by those involved in athletics. Eating clubs can be sign-up-and-join or “bicker.” A bicker club is much more exclusive, as students must go through a selection process to join. On a bicker night, a student goes out to the eating club of his or her choice, and chats with the members at a sort-of welcoming party. Then, the members will decide if they’ll accept the student or not. I think that bickering sounds a bit silly, but it may be a fun, traditional part of Princeton life, and provides an excellent opportunity to socialize with students and professors.

A walk around the bucolic campus certainly motivated me to apply to the university. By far, Princeton is the most attractive college campus that I have had the chance of visiting. The location is spacious and inviting, and the atmosphere of the campus is relaxed and open. At the entrance of Princeton is a serene little lake that leads to the university’s main buildings. The architecture of Princeton is of a charming gray Gothic style, that resembles a medieval city center instead of a typical college campus. The many ivy-covered buildings incite nothing but visual appeal and delight, and provide the finishing touches to the benefits of a Princeton education.

As aforementioned, Princeton is situated in a pretty rustic area of New Jersey. At first, I myself was hesitant about even visiting Princeton, as I had believed that it was in the middle of nowhere. On the drive over, all I noticed were Target stores and a little cinema. But have no fear! Princeton is right in between New York City and historic Philadelphia. A one hour journey by train will land you in Manhattan, while an hour-and-a-half train ride will land you in Philly. Students can choose when they want to be in a citified part of the world or bucolic little Princeton. But of course, there is so much to do on the Princeton campus itself, that it is likely that you will never be bored. Student life is vibrant and highly active. And I’m pretty sure work will keep the students busy.

I changed my mind regarding Princeton after visiting the New Jersey campus. The location of the school isn’t so bad after all. The rural campus allows for college life to be in full bloom, and the urban world is only a train ride away. I also appreciate the international education that the institution promotes and provides at an affordable price, as with the Bridge Year Program and the emphasis on linguistics. The school isn’t too big, as it only welcomes 1,300 incoming freshmen per year. At this size, I should be able to get to know the student body along with my distinguished professors. I truly cannot think of a flaw at Princeton, and I urge everyone to keep an open mind and take at look at this illustrious institution.

Day 10 – Goodbye Guatemala!

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Greetings from 20,000 feet in the air – or however high up we are!

My mother and I have just departed from Miami International Airport in Florida, and we’re on our way home from Guatemala City. Today, Day 10, just consisted of hanging out at aeropuertos and flying around. We woke up at about 6:30 a.m. so that we could arrive at the Guatemala City International Airport at 8:00. Apparently, in Guatemala City, airport officials try to set a rule that all passengers must arrive 3 hours before the departure time of the flight. Why, I do not know. I guess so that nobody arrives too late.

The airport in Guatemala City has no air conditioning, unfortunately. I believe that it was about 90 degrees in that airport. My mother and I were suffering beyond belief! But our tour guide did explain to us not to expect all of the amenities provided at an American airport here in Guatemala.

Nonetheless, the airport in Guatemala is a lot of fun. There are maybe 30 different souvenir shops (which all carry the exact same merchandise), and they all have very good prices on locally-made items (like fancy jade and beaded jewelry, colorful Mayan textiles, etc.). But still, prices are not as low as in the marketplaces, which are a much better place to get a bang for your buck. In the way of food, water is about $1.20 (and at the Miami airport, it was a whopping $3.50!).

Mostly American food chains are available at the Guatemalan airport, like Subway and Pizza Hut. Some Guatemalan chains located at the airport are Pollo Campero and Telepizza, but most of the food is American cuisine. And unlike US airports, Guatemala offers free wifi, which I think should be gratis at all airports worldwide. Throughout my visit, I’ve noticed that Guatemala is much more generous in amenities at hotels and in public spaces. This is one aspect of Guatemala that I love: the people are gracious and welcoming, and hospitality abounds.

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I am going to miss Guatemala very much! This country has to be one of the most memorable places that I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. The landscapes throughout the country are breathtaking, the work of the Maya people is intricate and impeccable, the food is flavorful, and visiting the country is extremely low in cost. By far, I am going to miss Lago de Atitlan, an unusual highlight of my vacation. Here, I stayed at the best hotel yet and experienced the action the markets had to offer.

Guatemala is such a great for a student or budget traveler to explore. Taking a tour here is relatively inexpensive, as I had stated before, and, most of the time, a full meal (which is always served in heaping portions) costs only $2 to $3. Things aren’t pricey because the Guatemalans don’t live as extravagantly as Americans prefer to. But of course, that doesn’t mean that the country isn’t bursting in culture and vibrancy.

Traveling in Guatemala has allowed me to become a more open-minded, adventurous person. In the future, I want to take more risks when I travel, and visit more developing countries. I don’t just want to see the first world. Guatemala has also caused me to rethink my ideas of poverty. Numerous times, our tour guide gave us his opinion that Guatemala is not impoverished. Rather, the people just lived simply and humbly. I mean, if a Guatemalan family does not finish its home, they don’t pay taxes! But Guatemalans still own plasma TVs, cellular phones, and computers. They just don’t feel the need to be flashy like Americans, and I wholly appreciate this way of life. We’re just too quick to judge.

My mother and I would never have gone to Guatemala if it wasn’t for two travelers that we had met in Peru. Over dinner one night in Lima, the Peruvian capital, this couple had informed us that Guatemala was an unforgettable destination, and that it reminded them a little bit of Peru. Guatemala was so cheap that we knew that we had to plan a trip. Before I went to Guatemala, I probably would have thought of it as a country with little in the way of tourism. But boy, was I way wrong!

Guatemala is a little hidden gem of a country, a destination for people who wish to explore off-the-beaten-path destinations. This is the first country that I have been to where there are not too many actual tourists. Most of the foreigners that I encountered were Christian missionary workers (almost all of them, actually) and also people adopting children. Outside of my tour group, I think I 20 people were there for fun. The entire country is unspoiled by tourism and souvenir shops. So many parts of the country have been untouched and undiscovered by visitors, that travelers will gain a real sense of what it means to be Guatemalan.

Day 9 – Panajachel and Santiago, Guatemala

I am still in Lago de Atitlan – once again. If any traveler decides to visit just one place in the entire country, it has to be the Lago. I’ve never seen such a magnificent sight.

In the way of villages, the main town around Lago de Atitlan is Santiago, quite a distance from the Hotel Atitlan. My mother and I enjoyed a one-hour boat ride to get to the village, which is pretty big and has splendid views of the Lake. Santiago is where many Mayan villagers live, and naturally, they speak a completely different language from most other people in Guatemala. Around Santiago, the indigenous women were outfitted in their traditional garb, going about their daily activities.

Debarking the boat was quite a frightening experience. The jetty to the land was feebly constructed, and at one point, it almost collapsed! But luckily, we survived. The backdrop to Santiago is the San Pedro volcano, which erupted the next day. But this was a very minor occurrence – just a dark gray cloud. A hike up the volcano takes 4 hours each way and is best done in the early morning. But of course, the hike is extremely rewarding; on an especially clear day, one is able to see all the way out to the Pacific Ocean.

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The main site of Santiago is a quirky cathedral at the top of a hill. The villagers will adorn religious figurines with anything that they deem of value. Yes, this includes a fake Bob Marley dreadlocks cap, Gucci and Hermes scarves, and other items. Guatemala is a highly religious society, and this little church exemplifies that fact.

There are two main markets in Santiago. One of them is actually a flee market for the locals. We’re talking a market selling Salvation Army donated clothing and an array of corn products. The other market is more geared toward tourists, again with beadwork, jewelry, and traditional Mayan attire for sale.

My day in Santiago was brief because the hotel was quite far, so it’s best to travel the morning and early afternoon. The rest of the day was spent leisurely at the Hotel Atitlan. I just ambled around the quiet, well-manicured grounds of the hotel, exploring the gardens and the animal sanctuary. The hotel houses parrots, birds, peacocks, and wild rabbits for visitors to check out.

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The other main town that I visited in Lake Atitlan is Panajachel, which was even more spectacular than Santiago. Panajachel is known for its museum and its indigenous market. The market in this area is much more professional and higher-end, if only a little. In Panajachel, visitors can find more established shops rather than various tents lining the streets. But the goods remain inexpensive, colorful, and diverse. I purchased handmade 5 bracelets at $2 each, while my mother purchased a $10 purse made of indigenous fabric.

Panajachel, as I previously stated, is also known for its archeological museum, which I did not a chance get to visit. Hundreds of feet underneath Lake Atitlan, there is another undiscovered ancient Mayan city. The Panajachel museum features a handful of the relics from what has been excavated from this largely unexplored city. If I had more time, I certainly would have given the museum a visit. Maybe next time….

I had the chance to visit a small school in the village. This was the first time that I got to visit an actual Guatemalan primary school, and it made me thankful for what I have here in the United States. In Guatemala, the population is so dense, and about 50% of the inhabitants are under 18. Because there are just too many school-age children, students must attend school in shifts throughout the day: from 6 a.m. to 12 p.m., and then another one from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. Traveling to developing countries like Guatemala, I realize the advantages of both our public and private education systems, and I cannot be more appreciative of the school that I attend.

After Panajachel, we left the Lago and headed on to Guatemala City to prepare for our next-day departure. I know that I will greatly miss this country! I’ll write more tomorrow.

-Danielle

Day 7 – Lago de Atitlàn, Guatemala

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Good evening fellow readers!

I have officially died and gone to heaven – or should I say Lake Atitlan!

Not really. I still have two more days (besides today) left in my Guatemalan adventure, and I am far from ready to return home.  Home means back to the daily grind of eating healthful organic food, exercising, and getting back to work as a cashier at the cinema (it’s my high school summer job). Vacations  provide a respite from life’s daily stresses, and I’m just not ready to return to the real world.

Along with our tour group, my mother and I took a two-and-a-half hour bus journey from Antigua to Lago de Atitlan, a majestic volcanic lake situated 9,000 feet above sea level in the highlands of  Guatemala. The landscape surrounding the lake is reminiscent of the one in Santorini, my personal favorite Greek isle. Or even Lake Como over in Italy, a dream destination of mine. Lago de Atitlan (the Spanish name sounds more sophisticated, am I right?) is also surrounded by three dormant volcanoes, of which the biggest is San Pedro.

I am currently staying at the Hotel Atitlan, another five-star resort. According to Conde Nast Traveler, it is one of the top five hotels in Central America (yes, just like the Porta Hotel in Antigua!). But this one is much more attractive, as a picturesque view of Lake Atitlan sits in front of the hotel. In case you were wondering, it is not safe to go swimming in Lake Atitlan, as it is contaminated with runoff from fertilizers, which, in turn, has caused dangerous algal blooms in the water. Lake Atitlan’s ecosystem has also been destroyed, following the introduction of Black Sea bass in the 1980s. This bass was introduced by a prominent figure in Guatemalan society to encourage fishing as a sport, but today, the fish has overpopulated the otherwise scenic lake. But one thing I did notice is that the lake, on the surface, appears calm, azure, peaceful, and pristine.

Hotel Atitlan is architecturally similar to the Porta Hotel, the only difference being that I have a gorgeous balcony, and the greenery is a little more manicured. The jacuzzi and pool provide jaw-dropping views of Lake Atitlan. Dinner was served buffet style, and let me tell you. This is probably some of the best food that I have ever tasted for the entire trip. The food at the hotel is high-end gourmet cuisine. Not Guatemalan, but still delectable and well-presented. In my opinion, the food was comparable to Cunard’s (an elegant cruise line), and I could tell the ingredients were obtained from only the finest of sources.

Without a shred of guilt, I indulged in Swiss crepes, artfully-presented pastries, clam & seafood linguine, fresh avocado & cucumber salad – I could go on forever about tonight! The food was colorful, while the service was impeccable. When I return home, I’ll return to my careful, health-conscious self. But I’m on a vacation at the moment.

Tomorrow, I am going to take a boat ride around Atitlan, and I also plan on stopping at Santiago, the main town on the lake. Until tomorrow’s festivities!

-Danielle

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