After over four months of tireless fundraising and learning about Guatemala’s history, culture, and language, my group of fifteen volunteers embarked on our two-week service trip to San Lucas Tolimán, a rural village on the banks of Lake Atitlán. After a day-long journey, we finally arrived in San Lucas Tolimán.
First of all, my group was full of lively and intelligent people, all enthused about helping others globally, especially in developing countries. Never have I been around a group of such vibrant and motivated personalities.
Once we arrived in San Lucas Tolimán, I was in awe at the striking natural beauty surrounding the town. Lush mountain ranges enclosed the expansive, sparkling Lake Atítlan. We stayed at a small hotel, Hotel Iquitiu, located within walking distance of La Parroquia, the parish where we ate our meals and got our service assignments for the day. The views from the roof were absolutely stunning.
On the very first night, we were lucky enough to have a clear sky over our hotel, the only night we could see the stars during our time there. Away from the bright lights of Houston, we could see hundreds of stars invisible to us at home. Later in the week, we got to see another unique light show – heat lightning. In the distance the lightning struck, illuminating the thick clouds of the sky behind the black shadows of the mountains. It was such a breathtaking spectacle!
Our time here was full of very rewarding volunteering experiences. Throughout our two weeks here, we worked on a variety of projects, from stove-building to reforestation. We also helped at various construction sites and a coffee bean plantation. We worked every day except for Sundays, both in the mornings and afternoons.
These projects, started by Father Greg Schafer, aim to empower the people of San Lucas Tolimán by creating initiatives that they can lead and develop over the years, while also directly serving a cause, such as relocation from natural disasters or planting trees in the reforestation center. Most importantly, we learned a lot from our service that we can take back to Houston with us, especially to shed light and spread awareness of the issues plaguing rural Guatemala.
Aside from our service, we also participated in a lot of culturally enriching activities. We went on a sunrise hike,
learned to weave,
went on a boat tour of Lake Atítlan,
and played soccer and basketball with the locals, among many other things.
We also took daily trips to the market, where we practiced our Spanish by talking to the local vendors and buying goods from them. A group favorite was the pan con salchicha, a sandwich with sliced hot dogs, mixed vegetables, guacamole, and various condiments.
We (well, namely me) also enjoyed buying helado, or ice cream. My personal favorite was the helado de coco, or coconut ice cream. It was always a nice treat after a day of hard work!
One thing that is very unique about Guatemala is how colorful everything is. From the traditional attire to the buildings, everything is vibrant and colorful, even on the usual rainy afternoon.
One day, after work, a few of us took a walk through the cemetery. It, too, was very colorful, celebrating the life and color of the departed. It was a very reflective but eye-opening walk filled with a plethora of color.
Through our interactions, we learned a lot about the sad and violent history of Guatemala. Each one had a story to tell about the violence in the early 1980’s and how it affected their families and society. We also learned a little about the Mayan traditions and values, and the indigenous language, Kaqchikel.
Before we came to Guatemala, our site leaders, Alex, Kayla, and Abby, had us read an article about “voluntourism” and how short-term volunteers make little difference in the grand scheme of things. The article concluded that it’s the volunteer’s responsibility to learn as much as they can from the experience, to take something back to their homes about the society there, and to spread awareness about the issues.
And, proudly, I can say that my time in Guatemala taught me more about life in developing areas of the world than I could have ever imagined. The sense of community and love here is something we can all take back to our homes and try to embody. I learned how to say “buenos días” to complete strangers, smile a little more, and be unafraid to try new things, like the food from the street vendors (which was actually pretty delicious!). I was endlessly inspired by the way that people here pick themselves up after times of hardship or sadness, a lesson that’s easy to understand but difficult to embody. I learned so many things that would have been impossible to teach in a classroom.
And this, my friends, is the most valuable lesson I took away from my experiences in Guatemala — that learning is, in fact, the greatest souvenir.