Written by turf2 on 13 Jul, 2005
I have been volunteering during my trip through Latin America in order to experience daily life in the places I visit and to give something back to the communities that welcome me and other travelers. I share my experience here as an example of how…Read More
I have been volunteering during my trip through Latin America in order to experience daily life in the places I visit and to give something back to the communities that welcome me and other travelers. I share my experience here as an example of how interesting and fulfilling volunteering during travel can be.
My time in San Marcos has been not just a window into real life, but a chance to participate. While the project I came to help with still hasn't started, I've learned so much and continue to be amazed by how happy people are to teach me about their lives and share their homes.
Eager to learn more about sustainable agriculture and local culture, I arranged a 2-week volunteer opportunity through Entremundos. A women’s community group was setting up a bread company to supplement their husbands’ slim earnings. Twenty quetzals ($2.50) is not enough to eat, let alone pay bills and send kids to school. The 36 women in this association bought an oven on credit and planned to sell bread door-to-door in rural communities far from the markets. The business was to get started on a Monday, and we would arrive that Thursday.
My only directions were to take a bus to San Marcos, get in a cab that said "EFA" on the window, and ask for Maria (name changed) when the cab stopped. I was skeptical, but of course, here, those kind of directions are all you need.
The village is gorgeous. Ringed by green, mist-shrouded mountains, chickens peck around the edges of corn fields and horses clomp down the cobbled street. The air felt thin and fresh after Xela's smog.
Maria, the initiative of the women's organization and my host, met me at her house. She is a strong and engaging woman. She attended school only through the sixth grade and then started working as a cook. She met her husband when she was 15 and now has three children of her own. Her husband worked as a landscaper in the United States for three years, missing his children’s school years in order to pay tuition. One of the boys moved to the US, and after 2 years, saved enough money to set up a small Internet business here in his parents’ house. Maria also provides rooms and meals to nine teenagers who attend the local agriculture school. Since there are only a few such schools in the country, students have to leave home, and there are no dormitories. The students think that my friend and I and our accents are a riot. They also think we are useful when it comes to doing their English homework.
I quickly settled into Maria's home, munching on enchiladas while she explained why the bread business still hadn't started. They needed to install the shelves, and then they needed a regulator for the gas oven. By then it was Friday, and they couldn't start on the weekend. They also had to plant broccoli plants, but first they needed chicken manure, and they can't plant in the afternoon because it pours, and they needed pans for the bread, but the local store didn't have enough, so they had to go to Xela, but they wouldn't be in until Wednesday... and so, maybe, we'll start making bread on Thursday, a week after my arrival.
We went into the association office while waiting for the advent of the bread business (the group we are with is part of an association of 15 groups and thousands of people who get training - capacity building mainly - from this umbrella association). Louis, who set us up here, wanted to double and triple check that we were happy. He also explained more about the micro-finance they do and was going to help us arrange to visit some organic coffee farms and a peach farm.
One lazy morning, we went for a walk, and a neighbor called to us on the dirt road, saying she heard we wanted to work to learn about their lives and whether we like to chop wood. She armed us with machetes, and we chopped kindling from a giant brush pile in the shade of the corn plants. She offered us a Coke and bread, which we ate in the shade with the chickens pecking at the crumbs around our feet. I commented that they had lots of rabbits - 35 in fact - and she promptly invited us for lunch the next day to taste a rabbit. She also told me that her daughter lives in Boston, where I am from. "Can you bring me? I need to visit her. She works in a restaurant. She says it is cold and lots of snow."
We arrived early for lunch the next day, and her husband decided to take us to see where the cow grazed. We wandered through corn fields, the leaves and fuzzy stalks brushing our faces, to a small clearing with an animal shelter. We talked about agriculture - that I want to study it when I got home and that he thought that was a great idea, because agriculture is the base of development for every country and the basis of life as well. He told me about their composting and manure projects, about how good the cow’s milk tastes when she gets a certain kind of grass, and about his son’s dreams to earn enough money in the US to come back and finish agriculture school and start a small potato business. The people of Guatemala are always friendly, reserved and yet open at the same time.
Back at the house, rabbit was ready, cooking over a fire built with the wood we had cut the day before. We ate in a wood-walled kitchen, the smoke only adding to the rich flavor of the rabbit, a dog, cat, and chicken watching as our host stirred the coffee on the stove and we shared stories about ourselves and our lives.
Back at Maria’s, the old woman that takes care of the family's corn plants was making tortillas over a wood stove, expertly flipping the pancakes from one hand to another and slapping them onto the stove. She tried to teach us, and we produced some lopsided cakes. We were amusing of course, and she said that tomorrow ours will be round like hers.
Maria's family - and in fact the whole neighborhood - has been incredibly welcoming, interested in learning about our lives and sharing their own as well. I strongly recommend volunteering in local communities to anyone tired of the gringo trail.
Written by turf2 on 06 Jul, 2005
Volunteering is a great way to step off the gringo trail, really get to really know the places you visit, and contribute a bit more than your tourist dollar. Xela and the surrounding area offer countless ways to get involved, whether your interests lie…Read More
Volunteering is a great way to step off the gringo trail, really get to really know the places you visit, and contribute a bit more than your tourist dollar.
Xela and the surrounding area offer countless ways to get involved, whether your interests lie with education, kids, addiction recovery, farming, micro-business, hiking... the list goes on and on.
HOW TO FIND OPPORTUNITIES:
The opportunities posted on message boards at hostels and restaurants are only a small sampling of ways to volunteer. For more extensive information, pick up Entremundos, a free newsletter available at many hostels, language schools, and bookstores. EntreMundos is a networking organization started by volunteers who wanted to maximize the potential of Xela's volunteers by helping people and organizations find one another. The newsletter includes English and Spanish articles on local culture and politics as well as a classified section packed full of volunteer opportunities. EntreMundos also has a website - www.entremundos.org - with updated information. You can also stop by the office at 6a Calle 7-31 and talk to Julie, who speaks both English and Spanish. She knows a lot about available opportunities and can help get you started. Hours are a bit erratic.
A couple of good opportunities:
Quetzaltrekkers is an adventure tour company run entirely by volunteers. Proceeds fund a school and boarding house for at-risk children who would not otherwise be able to get an education. If you have three months to spare, some Spanish skills, and a desire to get out and dirty, stop by Casa Argentina and ask the kids at Quetzaltrekkers about volunteer opportunities. Volunteers organize and lead hikes, take care of promotions and fund raising, and get involved with the kids at the Quetzaltrekkers-funded school too.
Finca Nueva Lianza is about an hour away from Xela and an excellent option for anyone with an interest in agriculture or fair trade. The 40 families that grow coffee and macadamia nuts here have worked the land for generations. Following plummetting coffee prices in 1998, the owner of the land stopped paying, but the people kept working. After a long struggle, the workers have finally gained legal control of the land and are starting a small eco-tourism project. Since the owner stopped providing chemicals along with wages, Nueva Lianze is organic by default and are looking into certification options. Quetzaltrekkers and many language schools can take you there for a day or two, but if you want to help out, you can stay at the hotel for a week or more. For a small contribution (125Q or about 17 USD per week), you get housing, hot water, food, a great experience, and the knowledge that you are contributing to a great project and helping people make a living sustainably. For information, stop by Quetzaltrekkers and see if Mike is around.
Written by rockstar11 on 03 Apr, 2006
A few friends and I went on a trip with the language school that we were studying at. It was probably the worst trip ever taken, yet the one with the most memories. First our bus does not get there on time, but it gets…Read More
A few friends and I went on a trip with the language school that we were studying at. It was probably the worst trip ever taken, yet the one with the most memories. First our bus does not get there on time, but it gets there an hour and a half later, which is not uncommon at all in Guatemala. Time means nothing in their culture. Second, one of our bags fell off the top of the bus somewhere. We then spent an hour driving around looking for it and accusing every Guatemalan that had a bag of stealing ours. The biggest problem was that we had no idea what our bag looked like. We also had no idea what was in it. We did not find out until later that it was the poles to one of the tents.
We stopped to get something to eat at a gas station and to use the restroom. My friend got ice cream, which ended up having wood chips in it. Yeah, it was hilarious. Also for future reference, always take toilet paper and antibacterial wipes everywhere. You never know when you might need them. Next tip, take Pepto-Bismol before you eat.
Next, our van gets stuck in the sand. None of us have eaten and are starving, but first we have to get the van unstuck. We are all exhausted. We all go play in the black sand beaches which are very beautiful. I encourage everyone to go. We ate dinner. This was weird. We had a huge pot of fish... whole fish. It was gross. The meat was green, and they put carrots in with the pineapple. Imagine this juicy ripe pineapple. They cut it, then they throw carrots in with it. Finally, it is time to go to sleep. Everyone had picked a place to sleep except about seven of us. There were no more places to sleep. Well, there would have been if our tent poles were not missing. We decided to sleep on the beach. This was good until when the middle of the night brought thunder. It started raining, so we ran to the shack we were staying at that only has one bathroom for like 20 people. We slept under a thatched roof with holes in it, then we all started laughing at probably two in the morning for about one hour. The trip will always be memorable. It was probably the funnest trip. The beach is worth going to, but make sure the person planning it is organized. Also, native Guatemalan standards are far below that of Americans, just for future reference.
Written by spanishschool on 07 Jul, 2005
In order to get to know host families for ConeXion Xela, I'm living with one family after another every week. This is the way I've gotten to know many Spanish teachers last year, and I'm doing the same with host families now. It's been 5…Read More
In order to get to know host families for ConeXion Xela, I'm living with one family after another every week. This is the way I've gotten to know many Spanish teachers last year, and I'm doing the same with host families now. It's been 5 days living with the Morales family, and I'm satisfied here. No, they don't have experience of welcoming a foreign student.
Actually, I'm their first one. But, what I'd like to see in a host family is their happiness as a family, because I don't think they would be capable of making students feel happy if they are not happy themselves. So, I really liked to see how Allan, the father, was playing with his daughter after lunch and how every member of the family was cheering in front of a TV when they watched a soccer game of Xela against Suchi. Ah, since there are three couples in the family, I asked them how they got married and who proposed marriage, etc. They had lots of fun answering the question, and their fun was contagious. It was one of my favorite moments of doing my job.
Sure, you don't NEED to know Spanish to travel in Latin America. Charades and a few words will get you by. Like a drunk tourist told me on the beach, "you don't need grammar. They get it. Dos cervezas. Two." His wife countered that learned…Read More
Sure, you don't NEED to know Spanish to travel in Latin America. Charades and a few words will get you by. Like a drunk tourist told me on the beach, "you don't need grammar. They get it. Dos cervezas. Two." His wife countered that learned grammar had to do with self-respect - you feel better about yourself when you can communicate effectively. For me, though, learning Spanish was a matter of respect for the countries and people I visited. If I hoped to step into someone else's world and be welcomed, I should make an effort to be able to speak their language. Ethics and responsibility aside, you will have a richer and more fulfilling trip if you can speak some Spanish. It will also be infinitely easier to decode menus, find your bus, and find your way around Xela's steep and almost-on-a-grid streets.
Xela is quickly turning into one of the most popular places in Guatemala to study Spanish. (Antigua and San Pedro are also popular but more "gringofied.")
There are so many choices that trying to choose a school can be overwhelming. If you visit schools, they will show you around and all tell you much the same thing. Private or small group instruction, activities included, volunteer placements, free coffee, homestays... Ask around town and see where travelers are happiest, or check out the options below.
Eureka: Eureka is a popular and affordable school run by a couple of young goofballs. All instruction is one-on-one, and if your teacher isn't right for you, you can switch, even mid-lesson. Afternoons and weekends offer time for activities like movies, salsa dancing, and excursions to hot springs or other attractions. Every Friday the whole school gathers at a local home for a dinner party. Eureka also offers free coffee, tea, cookies, and water, and five hours of free internet. Start any day, $100 USD (including homestay) for four hours per day. Located on 12 Ave - walk uphill from the park and it will be on your right half a block before Calle 3a.
Proyecto Linguistico: This politically-minded school gets rave reviews. Private instruction laced with progressive politics is available for about 130 USD per week, including homestay. They also run a school on an organic coffee finca in the mountains, where students live together in a house and share meals with local families. This will cost you 180 USD per week, but everyone who does it loves it. It's often full, so plan ahead. 5a Calle 2-42.
Written by spanishschool on 12 Jul, 2005
Yesterday I visited Doña Esperanza (Doña is commonly used substitution for Señora or Mrs. here in Guatemala) with Mario, who is one of the teachers of ConeXion Xela. Mario was helping me shop around for a cell phone. We were a bit tired walking around…Read More
Yesterday I visited Doña Esperanza (Doña is commonly used substitution for Señora or Mrs. here in Guatemala) with Mario, who is one of the teachers of ConeXion Xela. Mario was helping me shop around for a cell phone. We were a bit tired walking around so much, and since we were around her house, we decided to pay her a visit. Doña Esperanza welcomed us warmly, as usual, and we talked about her neighbor and other students in her place. She always has students staying in her home, both foreign and domestic. The majority of them are referred by her previous students, and I was one of them too. It's because she is so sweet, and her meals are great too. Many students stay there for months, and I guess it's pretty rare to find a student like me who stays there only for a week. I'm just so glad to know her.
Learn Spanish in Guatemala!