The Guatemala Experience
Part One: Houston, We Have a Problem
This past winter I had the opportunity to travel to Guatemala with Saint Joseph's College through a service trip. I was excited to venture out and explore the world while helping others at the same time, but I was nervous since I really didn't know anyone on my trip. Although I tried to make friends with my fellow travelers during our pre-trip meetings, it's always a little awkward to break the ice.
Little did I know the biggest ice breaker was about to come.
On a Monday travel day, I arrived at Logan Airport, bags in hand, ready to go out and make a difference. But New England weather isn't always as cooperative as one may like. To our dismay our group found out that our first flight had been delayed about two hours. If this wasn't enough, we would now be arriving in Houston, Texas about 20 minutes after our connecting flight to Guatemala City took off. However our team was not about to step away from this opportunity and we boarded our delayed flight, meanwhile praying that United Airlines wouldn't take off with 25 of its passengers missing.
Turns out, they would. Our connecting flight ended up taking off just as our first flight from Boston was in its descent. With the next flight to Guatemala not until Wednesday morning, our group had an unexpected two night stay in Houston.
Although we were devestated to be missing out on two work days, our group took the obstacle in stride and we attempted to make the most out of it. To me, I saw it as just another adventure.
Side Note: In my family there has always been a competition to see who can travel to the most states. Despite being the youngest, and having an abundance of traveling reporters in my family, I have still made it to my fair share of states. I had an disagreement with my family before leaving on whether being in the Houston Airport would allow me to check the state off my list. However due to our delay, I was able to physically get my feet on the ground in Houston and therefore it totally counts.
Now, I have never had to sleep in an airport before, but I would have thought there would be some sort of system for unlucky people like us. Instead the Houston Airport workers directed us towards the quietest section of the aiport and gave us each three $7.00 food vouchers to use throughout the day. This would have been great if: one, all the vouchers worked or two, if any of the food vendors were open at the time we needed them.
By the time we had made it to our "pod," which of course happened to be six gates and a tram ride away, it was about two in the morning and our group was ready to get some much needed shut-eye. With no blankets and an outfit perfect for 80° weather, I settled into a corner of the freezing cold pod using a maxi skirt as a blanket. And to make matters worse, our pod was guarded by security alarms which for some reason kept going off every five minutes.
I think I may have gotten about thirty minutes of sleep that night. And when I woke at 5 A.M. I saw I wasn't alone, as massive, toothless adult named Richard decided to sit down right next to me in the empty pod. He proceeded to tell me his lifestory and allowed me to watch all of his personal belongings, including his phone and wallet, as he went out for a smoke before his flight. I'm not sure where Richard is now, but I hope he's doing well.
After spending the remainder of the day taking quick naps, snacking on airport food, and shooting the bull, we were finally on our way to a hotel down the road. And I didn't get out of that bed until it was time to get on our flight to Guatemala.
I'm sure Houston is a great place, but I never want to be there again
Part Two: Gringos in Guatemala
We finally arrived at the Guatemala City Airport on Wednesday afternoon and were greeted by Sergio, our translator, and a crowd of about one hundred people waiting outside. We then embarked on what ended up to be a six-hour bus ride through burning sugarcane fields and past a rubber factory before winding up at our hotel. Exhausted, we quickly found our beds and settled in for our first night in the country.
The next morning, it was finally time to get our hands dirty. We were woken to a pancake breakfast by our amazing hotel and restaurant owner, Julio, stocked up on filtered water, and hopped on a chicken bus to take us to the village.
You heard me right.
A chicken bus is a colorful, modified school bus that transports people and products throughout the Central American countries. And when it comes to capacity, the limit does not exist. In Guatemala, one cannot be wasteful of time or resources and this applies to everything. Chicken buses pick people up at a minimum speed of 20mph and it seems where Americans can fit two people, the Guatemalans can fit four.
The other typical means of transportation, which we soon found out, was in pickup trucks. Each day we all crammed into the back of a pickup truck and went speeding down the highways and dirt roads to reach the village.
Once we finally arrived at the two worksites, we got right to work.
My site was 90% located in the sun, which I knew could lead to trouble if I didn't keep hydrated
(I did end up getting sick from heat exhaustion, but was lucky to be one of the healthiest on our trip). The work on the site had begun without us, and we were given the task to continue digging a ten-foot deep trench for the foundation. This took the entirety of the first day and part of the second, but what kept me going was the village children cheering us on from the sidelines.
They were intrigued by the gringos and didn't hesitate to come talk to us. Their smiles could light up the darkest of rooms and they were eager to keep up with us. When we needed a break, they would pick up our shovels and start digging. When we asked them to help us with our Spanish, they asked us to help them with their English. It was amazing to see these young children so happy and hopeful with the life they had, considering they didn't have much.
Houses in the village were made of tin walls that were crammed together for miles. I remember walking through the village and being shocked with how many people could fit in such a small space.
But what amazed me more was the people. Everyone I met had a smile on their face and was so grateful for everything they had. It was uplifting to see the children playing with one another and taking care of their neighbors. Guatemala may be the second poorest country in the nation, but it is one of the happiest. Those children changed my mindset about my life. Now each day I try to acknowledge how grateful I am to have been lucky enough to be born in the United States and given the opportunities I have.
Day 3 involved building the foundation. From scratch.
Like I said, it's amazing what these people can accomplish given the resources they have. Our team wheelbarrowed pounds of black sand, white sand, rocks, and an occasional child to our site in order to start mixing the cement. Once the sand was completely mixed together, all you had to do was add water! Continuously. From here on out our day was very defined:
Cement chain. Rock chain. Mix. Repeat.
By the end of our final day, we have the majority of the foundation built, with wired posts put up in the corners. I was extremely proud of the work our team had accomplished considering our limited stay in Guatemala, but I was mostly proud of myself and what I had accomplished mentally and physically.
I made sure to leave my mark.
Part Three: Antigua, Volcanoes, and Markets, Oh My!
On our final day in Guatemala we took an excursion day to Antigua, famous in Guatemala for its well-preserved Spanish-Baroque influenced architecture. It is also famous for the number of tourists that flood through its streets, including service trip excursionists.
We arrived in Antigua after a long three-hour drive through the mountains, and right through two active volcanoes, and began exploring the city. The Central Park of Antigua is surrounded on all sides by beautiful Spanish buildings, none of which we got to explore (but put it on the list for next time.) We traveled to a local market where bartering was the key to success if your goal was to walk away with souvenirs AND money leftover.
Side note: In Guatemala, the currency is 7 quetzals to 1 U.S. Dollar, so you're already winning.
Things couldn't get much better, right?
Wrong. We had just gotten back to our hotel from dinner when we were politely informed that Volcán de Fuego, an active volcano only nine miles from where we were standing, had begun to erupt.
Now that's not something you hear every day.
Our team immediately rushed to the roof of our hotel to take in this spectacle. And it was truly something I will never forget. We watched as black and red smoke puffed out of the mountains and through the cloudy sunset. And we stayed on that rooftop until the sky turned black and the smoke turned to a lava spewing down each of its sides. The lava, which began as faint and dull, eventually evolved to a bright, molten liquid that drove out of the earth hundreds of miles into the air for all of Antigua to see.
To extend the greatness of our trip a few of the boys snuck out past curfew (don't tell our leaders) to grab some local beers and Cuban cigars for the group to enjoy. As we sat on the rooftop, laughing and swapping stories, I realized I had made a group of friends that I would never have expected. The only thing we had in common was this trip. And although I do not cross paths with all of my teammates back at school, I know that we all share a special bond that originated on this roller coaster of a journey.
The trip really couldn't have gone any better.
But we decided it had to. We all agreed to gather on the roof one final time to watch the sunrise. We watched as "The Volcano of Fire" was illuminated once again, but this time by the orange and yellow sunrays that were peaking over the mountains. We gazed in astonishment when a rainbow appeared over the hazy horizon. And we smiled as we realized how life truly couldn't get better than this.
Till next time, Guatemala.