Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week Travel Journal

The MAIA and Girl Pioneers’ story

This January, MAIA Girl Pioneer Yessica and MAIA educator Celena embarked on the long journey from Guatemala to the UAE to attend the weeklong Abu Dhabi Sustainability conference. In 2019, MAIA was awarded the Zayed Sustainability Prize at the event for being the most “innovative and inclusive school in the Americas” and received $100,000 to launch the Zayed Garden at the Impact School. The Zayed Garden combines traditional Mayan farming practices, organic gardening techniques, and nutrition with hands-on learning opportunities for Girl Pioneers at the MAIA Impact School and their families. 

Below is a joint travel journal about their experiences, impressions, and lessons learned.

January 10th - The Journey Begins: Sololá > Guatemala City > Mexico City > Barcelona > Dubai > Abu Dhabi

Yessica and Celena had their bags packed and took the first of many legs of their trip from Sololá to Guatemala City. When they arrived at the La Aurora airport in Guatemala City, they were met by all of Yessica’s family, who had saved for the bus fare to the city to say goodbye to Yessica on her first trip overseas. Yessica felt a bit nervous about the trip but felt the support of her family.

Celena had similar feelings. This was her first experience traveling abroad and she was responsible for Yessica, which was a lot of pressure. Travis, MAIA’s Executive Director, was coincidentally at the airport in Guatemala City and cheered both Celena and Yessica on as they boarded the plane. Once they settled into their seats, they both enjoyed being on an airplane for the first time; the feeling was different and unique.

January 12th - Arriving in the UAE

Celena and Yessica finally arrived in Dubai after nearly two days of traveling. Yessica had always wanted to travel abroad, and in the midst of so many different languages and cultures, she was proud to have accomplished that dream during her first year of high school. Celena was full of curiosity about how different people spoke, dressed, and even smelled! 

In Guatemala, names are traditionally very long—Yessica’s first name is Yessica Maria Petronila, and she has two last names.The event organizers thought each name represented a different person, so they sent a car big enough to pick up 10 people! Yessica and Celena had a very comfortable and spacious ride from Dubai to Abu Dhabi!

January 13th - Opening Ceremony Day

Participants from all around the world stood on a huge stage with the prince of Abu Dhabi (whom the Zayed prize is named after), the president of Indonesia, and other global leaders. During the ceremony, projects were presented from five different categories: health, energy, food, water, and education. The education category is divided into six global regions: the Americas (which MAIA won in 2019), Europe & Central Asia, Middle East & North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, East Asia, & Pacific.

Celena and Yessica had lunch with the Zayed organizers and representatives from other organizations at the conference. It was very interesting to learn about the Zayed Sustainability Prize’s vision that participants manage their natural resources so that 50 years from now they are able to sustainably maintain themselves. Each country and participant had a different idea for how to help their communities become self-sufficient and have the tools future generations will need in a changing global climate. 

That same night, they had dinner at the Emirates Palace—a huge beautiful palace with crystal decorations and a woman playing the violin. Yessica and Celena spent the evening mingling with other participants and learning about their projects. 

January 14th - Yessica Presents On the MAIA Impact School Zayed Garden

Yessica felt prepared and eager to present the work we have been doing at the MAIA Impact School in more detail. During her presentation, she showed a video about the Zayed Garden, and everyone in the audience applauded. Yessica was proud of herself for speaking English in public and for continuing to develop her skills. For Celena, it was really impactful to see Girl Pioneers represented in this video and how the audience reacted to the work done at MAIA.

January 15th - Mixing work, culture, and fun

The Youth 4 Sustainability Hub initiative provides opportunities that enable young people to become active leaders in the world’s transition to a more sustainable future. During the event, Yessica participated in an interview about the medicinal plants in the MAIA Impact School garden. She felt challenged answering questions from an interviewer, but in the end, it was a very positive experience for Yessica. Everyone was impressed that at 15 years old she was fluent in English, Spanish, and Kaqchikel. 

That afternoon, Celena and Yessica had the opportunity to visit some of the local sites. First, they attended a tour at the Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi, a huge amusement park.

Later in the afternoon, they took a mosque tour during which they learned about Islam and different religious practices. Before entering the mosque, Celena and Yessica had to cover their hair with a hijab, which was an insight into a completely new culture for both of them. They were intrigued about the mosque, which had the second-biggest chandelier in the world; a lot of marble, gold, and ceramics; and the floor carpeted for prayer. Celena found it interesting that the call to prayer coincided with the movement of the sun and how when people prayed you could hear the sounds all over the mosque.

January 16th - The Masdar Festival

This event welcomed the international and local community to join a series of fun activities related to sustainability, set against the backdrop of one of the world’s most sustainable cities. Celena and Yessica visited different stations with a variety of activities that were related to climate change and sustainability. They planted a seed, saw projects that connect technology and carpentry, and spent time with other finalists from all over the world. 

In the afternoon, the finalists were greeted by the president, prince, and other UAE politicians to tour Qasr Al Watan, the recently built presidential palace in Abu Dhabi. The architecture really stood out to Yessica as it drew on different geometric shapes like cubes and triangles.

January 17th - Back to the Land of Eternal Spring

After a very busy week, Celena and Yessica had a long trip back to Guatemala, as the school year was starting up again.

For Yessica, this trip was extremely important because she was able to achieve one of her dreams of traveling abroad. Coming from a Maya Kakchiquel rural community in the highlands of Guatemala, Yessica recognized a lot of cultural differences, but in the end she found that people were as friendly in the UAE as they are in Guatemala (although in Abu Dhabi, cars actually stop for pedestrians). A key point of reflection for Yessica is that she didn’t see any pollution or trash during her time in the UAE. She believes we should all reflect on the consequences of our actions and think about how our consumption creates trash and impacts our communities. 

Yessica is extremely grateful to have had this experience and is proud of herself for developing the tools she needed to succeed and communicate effectively, like mastering public speaking and English.

When she got back home, she had saved coins from the UAE and bought keychains for her family. They were so excited that Yessica had this opportunity that her cousins now saw her as a role model. Some are even looking for opportunities to enroll in English class in their free time because they know that they will also be able to follow their dreams if they develop the right skill set. When she got back home, she had saved coins from the UAE and bought keychains for her family. They were so excited that Yessica had this opportunity that her cousins now saw her as a role model. Some are even looking for opportunities to enroll in English class in their free time because they know that they will also be able to follow their dreams if they develop the right skill set. 

For Celena, it was very important to represent MAIA and to visit a new country. People would see them wearing their traditional Maya dress and immediately know they were the finalists from Guatemala. This made Celena feel like she was also representing her country. During the trip, they would miss their families and Guatemalan food , but Celena learned how important it is to appreciate your surroundings. It was amazing to learn about new cultures and religions and meet people from all around the world. She noticed that even though we are all different, we are also more similar than we know. The Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week was extremely special because people from all over the globe were working together towards the same goal, with similar passions and no prejudices. “It is important we all learn to respect nature, not just in this setting, but to share our beliefs in our own countries as well.”

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