Guatemala

This was ported over from my old blog. It’s probably a mess

Over Spring Break, I went on a volunteer trip to Guatemala with some of the coolest people. Here are my thoughts on the week.

Expectations

I never felt like I was able to fully process my expectations for this trip. Part of this was just pre-trip stress (yay college!) and part of it was a fundemental lack of anything to compare this trip to. I had absolutely no idea what could’ve happened. Nonetheless, everybody around me was more than willing to fill me in with their ideas of what I should be expecting.

My doctors kept emphasizing how deadly everything was. The street food was toxic. The water was cyanide from a tap. Killer mosquitos control the air and hepitaitis was basically inevitable.

My parents kept emphasizing how dangerous everything was. Pickpockets on every block. Every building would be like a Western saloon, filled to the brim with thugs. A land devoid of power, plumbing, privacy and protein.

The entire country seemed framed by these fears before I left. They are well-intentioned, to be sure. Most Westerners aren’t used to the bacteria in the water, for instance. Pick-pockets do love tourists because of our cash, easily accessible wallets, and refusal to look with our eyes and not our viewfinders. Infrastructure typically isn’t as well-developed in Central America.

But, because I had no expectations, I let these fears creep into the back of my mind.As the trip approached, I started to think of it as this kind of painful transient state. Something that has to be endured and then is remembered fondly in the company of good friends, WiFi and a glass of supermarket wine. To some extent, it was to be seven days of pain for a couple of good stories.

I look back and I’m ashamed of that mentality. I’m immensely glad that everything I thought was proven so wrong.

Reality

Picture of Antigua All of those fears were completely unfounded. Guatemala is an extraordinarily beautiful, peaceful place. The street food seemed fine (I ate a sandwich and I haven’t died yet), there weren’t any mosquitoes and I didn’t feel the need to obsessively guard my possessions (granted, I wasn’t being stupid either).

In reality, the country was absolutely beautiful. The skylines were adorned with majestic volcanoes on every side. The night sky was filled with these strange lights - I believe they’re called “stars”? I don’t really see them in the States. The cobbelstone roads were surrounded by quaint, Old World style buildings that all individually radiated warmth.

We stayed in a beautiful little hotel in the town of Antigua. I’ve never seen a place that’s able to blend outdoor nature with indoor life. Open courtyards surrounded by the rooms of yourself and your neighbors- it’s a type of architechure that I don’t think could ever happen in America. We could’ve jumped into our next door neighbor’s living room if we really wanted to (in fact, somebody almost did. oops). It’s a level of trust that I just can’t seem to get over and a embrace of nature that warm weather enables.

The food turned out to be anything but toxic. It was delicious. The freshest produce arranged into flavorful dishes of eggs, chicken, rice, beans, potatoes and so much more. I didn’t expect so much variety of food and I didn’t expect how much of a treat it all would be. We had three meals daily at our homestay and each one was a highlight of the day.

One thing that did surprise me was the driving. I’ve never thought of driving as a particularly scary endeavor. Accidents do unfortunately occur, but there is a system in place that tries to minimize them. Guatemala didn’t feel like that. It felt like NASCAR with oncoming traffic and scooters for good measure. I can’t remember how many times I thought our driver was about to hit somebody and how many times I thought somebody was inching far too close to us. Even in the most populated areas, I don’t visibilty remember any stop lights. Every intersection turned into a negotiation with the people around us. It was this strange mixture of pseudo high-speed hostage negotation and Russian roulette.

Work

Working, but there ain't much there There’s a false idea that volunteers are meant to rescue a community and galvanize its occupants into saving themselves. It’s a really easy trap to fall into when you know that you’re helping people who are “less privileged.” It’s definitely a trap that I fell into before the trip began.

The reality couldn’t be any farther from that. We spent four of our seven days building two cinder-block houses for two amazing families. The work was exhausting. I’ve never moved, or even seen, so many cement blocks in my life. I’ve mixed and poured hundreds of gallons of cement. Turns out, cement is heavy. Also, the sound of a hatchet striking a cinder block is a harsh, volatile shriek that belongs in a Kubrickian horror movie. At first listen, this doesn’t sound enjoyable at all. But, it ended up being some of the most enjoyable and rewarding work I’ve ever done.

The families and the masons were so much of the reason why. Even though we were volunteering, it never felt like we were providing charity. The wives were just as involved as we were. They were always ready to haul cinder blocks at a moment’s notice. One of them was even pregnant! Every day, they greeted us with a midday snack and a warm smile.

The masons were such a great source of knowledge. They were incredibly knowledgeable about their trade and helped us through every step of the process. Despite our inexperience (and complete inability to do anything right), none of them seemed irritated at us.

Where did those walls come from? Overall, I feel like I was given so much more from this work than I possibly could have put in. I learned so much from the masons and befriended them all. I’m even friends with one on Facebook! The families were so kind and taught us all about generosity when you have so little.

Touristy Stuff

Throughout the week, we did a whole bunch of “touristy” things that I’d be remiss not to mention.

Orphanage

We're such a cute group This isn’t touristy at all. Throughout the semester, we amassed eleven (!) suitcases worth of donations to bring to Guatemala. Many of them went to a local orphanage, where we spent a couple hours. It was a humbling experience. The kids were so thrilled for our donations. One little boy was so thrilled at the sight of new toothpaste, as he began to horde half-a-dozen boxes for safe keeping. I thought that the language barrier was going to be too much to overcome to be able to interact with the kids. I was so wrong. One little girl had me push her bicycle all around the courtyard and another played soccer with me. Language never seemed an issue.

Market

Picture of the market At one point, I thought my local mall was big. Then, I saw the Guatemalan market. It’s a mixture of open air booths, fabric covered stalls, cement buildings, and wandering merchants. It’s what I imagine an Arabian bazzar would be like. Everything was for sale - bootleg movies, fresh produce, socks, dishwashers, toothpaste, massages, restaurant food, and even painted livestock (or rather, a pink chick). It seemed to go on for miles - a couple of us spent a solid 45 minutes and never encountered the same booth twice.

Macadamia Nut Farm

There's no nuts here... It turns out that macadamia nuts are farmed from trees. News to me too. We visited a small macadamia nut farm, where they grow hundreds of different varieties of macadamic nuts. Again, I thought there was one type (those that go inside cookies with white chocolate). They showed us the machinery they designed to individually process the nuts and fed us delicious pancakes. Everything was homemade and grown on the farm. This was down to the blueberries on the pancakes and the chocolate I bought.

Volcano

Yes, there's a volcano. But, there's also a dog. Guatemala has at least thirty volcanoes throughout the country. In fact, an enormous volcano -suitable for any supervillian- dominated the southern skyline by our homestay. We took a whole day and hiked one of the local volancoes. The best parts were at the base. We roasted marshmallows over the heat emerging from the surface. That means we roasted them with no chance of charring them. Somebody, patent that please. There was also a cozy little store in a shack that sold souvenirs made from lava rock. I’ve never seen a business so far off the beaten path before.