Volunteer Vacations: Go & Give Back in Guatemala
Voluntourist Rebecca Field Jager takes a purpose-driven trip
As I stood on the scaffolding, the faint breeze did little to combat the mid-afternoon sun. I wiped the sweat from my brow. Beyond the partially constructed concrete wall at which I toiled, a field of corn, black beans and carrots carpeted the landscape. Some 40 kilometres away, Volcan de Acatenango, the highest of Antigua, Guatemala’s four volcanoes, dominated the skyline.
Having volunteered to be part of the rebar crew that day, I’d spent hours securing small pieces of wire to intersecting reinforcement bars and finally was able to carry out the task while carrying on a conversation with the woman working beside me. Although she hailed from the eastern tip of Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula and I, the northwestern shore of Lake Ontario, we’d quickly found common ground.
“My husband’s job takes him away,” she told me, “usually for two weeks at a time.”
“Do you miss him?” I asked.
“I do,” she sighed. “I miss the sex but I miss the part afterwards, too.”
When I first learned about it, I had a few concerns. Would the group be mostly composed of young do-gooders handy with a hammer and nails? Laurie Myles, one of the three Canadian women who founded GiveGetGo, the travel company offering the package, assured me that most of the folks heading down were big-hearted boomers with little construction experience.
“Are they all couples?” I pressed.
“There are some couples, yes,” she replied. “But a lot of people are travelling by themselves, most of them women.” A potential gaggle of gal pals, I thought. Count me in.
During the “build” part of the trip, we rose early each day for a buffet breakfast on the rooftop patio of our clean modest hotel. After a brief team meeting, we’d board passenger vans that carried us to Melody School, in Chimaltenango, about 45 minutes away. There, we’d meet with the foreman and his assistants who would keep us on track.
At noon, delicious fare prepared by women in the school’s kitchen was set out – such as caldo, a beef soup with potatoes, pumpkin, corn and guisquiles; pollo en joken, roast chicken in a green tomato sauce; and chile relleno, sweet peppers surrounded in egg and stuffed with meat and potatoes. One day, as part of a “learning lunch,” we gathered beneath a tree to watch a local woman demonstrate how to roll out tortillas from scratch.
Although we didn’t quit until 4 p.m., time flew. Throughout the site, people worked in small teams, executing various tasks from laying concrete blocks to pouring cement. Because we were allowed to pick our job and encouraged to change it up, I was surprised that the toughest gig – mixing cement – was among the most popular.
When we arrived back at our hotel that day, it was time to switch modes and abodes. Our new digs, Casa Santa Domingo, was stunning. Constructed within the ruins of a church and monastery, its stone corridors gave way to lush gardens and open spaces, a pool and spa, restaurants, shops and museums. Some members of the group expressed qualms about going from helping the poor to helping themselves to all things posh.
Others pointed out that because this part of the trip was not all-inclusive and only our accommodations had been pre-paid, we’d be putting money back into the economy through our meals and personal purchases. I wrestled with it, too, but I think that volunteering in general doesn’t have to be a selfless act, and it’s okay to get something out of it.
Located in Guatemala’s central highlands 1,500 metres above sea level, Antigua is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site, founded in the 16th century. Two centuries of volcano eruptions, hurricanes, tremors and the Santa Marta earthquakes of 1773 forced the powers that be to move the capital to what is now known as Guatemala City.
Left in ruins and mostly abandoned until the mid-1800s, coffee and grain production brought new interest to the region. Today, Antigua is a popular tourist town famous for its Spanish Baroque-influenced architecture, church ruins and original grid plan of 1543.
According to the UNESCO website, the grid serves as “one of the earliest and most outstanding examples of city planning in Latin America.”
According to me, the grid serves as one of the most outstanding examples of why it’s good to make friends when you travel. Instead of getting lost in the cobblestone streets by myself, there was always someone willing to get lost with me as we took in religious structures and monuments, plazas, art galleries, markets and the Santa Catalina arch beneath which a stretch of jade stores and chocolate shops, bars and boutiques beckoned.