One week before my departure, I realized I forgot to ask the organization one thing: Where was I going to stay? After my volunteer stint in Africa the year before, I was on such a high that I immediately started planning my next destination. At an impulse, I asked myself, why not South America? After researching country by country and organizations by organizations, I've come across IVHQ. Reviews were fascinating.
They offered various placements, I picked my country based on my instincts and, fine, based on how pretty the pictures were. I came across Guatemala and the placement was in this little town called Antigua. As soon as I typed the word in google images, I was captured by its beauty. Cobbled stones, quaint town, mayan heritage, old colorful Spanish houses. I was swoon. The town was just screaming history. I'm a sucker for history. It is not exactly in the center of South America, but it still had the same latin vibe that tickled my fancy.
So we're back to one week before my departure. I sent a "by-the-way" email to my coordinator asking the address of my home stay. To which she replied "Sorry we don't normally know your home stay address until your arrival". But assures safety. Great. I would fly all the way there not knowing much about where I would be staying and who will pick me up. Mind you, my flight arrives at midnight. It seemed like an excerpt from a thriller movie, but my instincts did tell me there was nothing to worry about. So I trusted. May not be the smartest decision for many, but this is how I travel. I travel by instincts (after, of course, intensive NBI-like researching). Upon arrival, I felt a sudden pinch of panic.
Everyone, including immigration spoke mostly Spanish. And not English. Oh boy. As soon as I stepped outside, I saw a guy holding up a sign with my name. I have found my ride. And my ride did not speak English. "Sorry. No habla Ingles" He said. Midnight. Stranger. No English. This really seemed like a movie. He drops me to a random house. To which a woman of maybe 50 came and greeted me with a smile. The woman was Telma. My mother for the next 2 weeks. She did not speak English either, but there was something about her that made me feel safe. It felt like home.
The next morning, during breakfast, I got to meet all my other housemates from different parts of the world. All signed up for different placements. My placement was 1 week childcare/orphanage work and 1 week coffee planting. I was assigned to work at Casa Aleluya for my first week to work with children 0-3 years of age. I was taught how to ride the chicken bus to work. I was not used to commuting back home, so this experience was like an adventure to me.
Every 7am I run to the bus stop and catch 2 buses to the orphanage. I report at 7:30 am and check out at 12 noon. Play with the kids. Feed the kids. Give them a bath. Wipe their dirt (which also included what was inside their pampers). Dress them up. Cook for them. It was the best feeling. Seeing that you can give so much joy to these young ones was so overwhelming. Upon the 2nd day, I've more or less heard how they ended up at the center. Not all were orphans and not all were eligible for adoption. Most children at the center were placed by the government after their drug or alcohol fueled parents were proven unfit by the judge. I have fallen in love with the children. Even up to this day I still think of them and when I do a bittersweet smile forms on my face. My little angels.
Every day at noon I take the chicken bus back home for lunch. All the housemates come back and partake of the scrumptious food prepared by our house mother. It was always authentic Guatemalan cuisine. Our mother was very good in cooking that those meals may actually have been the highlight of our days. We sat and shared our experiences. Telma would also sit and talk to us in purely Spanish which we found very helpful since all of us were enrolled in afternoon Spanish language classes. I enrolled myself to 3 hours of basic Spanish Mondays through Fridays with Maximo Nivel. It was a struggle at first but it felt quite rewarding when I went home for lunch or dinner and was able to tell Telma exactly how my day went. My Spanish may be very bad but I was proud of how much I've learned during my stay. My Spanish story telling evolved from just saying "Si" to everything to being able to re-telling the encounters I had every day.
My nights and weekends were spent with my housemates and other volunteers. Tuesday nights were ladies night. We usually ended up at Sunshine Cafe for acoustic night and then moved to the Mono Loco for a 5 quetzals per drink. Not bad. Other nights were quite random. Salsa clubs and local bars were frequent stops too. We would walk over the very renowned Antigua Cross for sunset sessions too.
On my one and only full weekend in town, my newly found friends and I booked a trip to Lake Atitlan. It was hours away from the city but well worth the journey. We visited the local market and then took a short boat ride to the town of San Pedro where we spent the night. We were so (un)lucky that heavy rain fell that day which caused a complete blackout throughout the entire night. No electricity and heavy rains didn't dampen our spirits. We still went out and explored the city feeling our way through the darkness. The next day we took another boat ride to a nearby very hippie town called San Marcos where everyone walked bare foot, in dreadlocks and gypsy outfits. I found that so interesting. I forgot for a minute that I was in Guatemala. We spent the afternoon bathing under the sun and jumping into the freezing Crystal Lake water. It was too surreal.
My last week was for my coffee farming program. Originally my plan was 2 whole weeks with the orphanage but as soon as I saw the coffee farming program, I thought to myself "where better else can I learn how to farm coffee than in Guatemala?" So I did. Every day at 7:15 I took a bus ride to a nearby town and waited right in front of a church for a random farmer to pick me up. Again, I was not told who would pick me up daily. Organization said the farmers would know and come up to us randomly and we were just supposed to trust and go with them. And so I did what I was told. The week was filled with climbing up mountains, plowing fields, literally spending hours hand picking good beans from bad coffee beans. I even got to measure, pack, seal and put stickers on export made coffee. It was everything I hoped it would be. I hardly get star struck, but that week made me feel in complete awe with these diligent farmers that are then made to great coffee. The effort and the manual labor they put in was outstanding. I felt so honored of being given the chance to work alongside them. The farmers were nothing but completely accommodating. There was a huge language barrier but they were not only patient with teaching me about coffee production but they were also very patient with teaching me how to improve on whatever bit of Spanish I've picked up. They served us free fresh Guatemalan coffee while we worked and some snacks to boost our energy.
My 2-week Guatemala stint was phenomenal. The house stay was the best decision. Immersing myself in different cultures has always fascinated me and Guatemala lived up to my expectations to a tee. If I was allowed more time off work and I had more money, I would've stayed even up to at least 6 months. Heck, I seriously didn't mind living there. The food, the people, the music and the sites were unbelievable. Guatemala was, in plain words, simply beautiful.
Text and Photos by Gelyn So Seng