Monday, September 5, 2011

Guatemala - March 2009

This post is of my memories of my trip to Guatemala during Spring Break in my sophomore year of college.  Details may be missing since I am writing this in 2011, but I feel that I should write down what I remember before more time passes.  I did not do any journaling/blogging on this trip, so what I write here are trip highlights and reflections.

Construction Site
I went with a group of twelve BU students and Ben to Guatemala to build a house for a very impoverished family, and to volunteer at the local school in Alotenango, Guatemala.  This was not a religious trip; it was a "this family needs a house" trip.  The US State Department's travel section on Guatemala was like, "Don't go!  Don't go!  Don't go!  Danger!  Especially avoid Guatemala City." So, we flew into Guatemala City and took a van to Alotenango, the small town for which we came to volunteer.

I dropped my suitcase at a host family's house and went to the tiny construction site.  There was a pile of cinder block type things, some wires, a bag of cement powder, a Guatemalan building crew, and a bunch of clueless volunteers.  The whole family (6 ish people) who would live in the one-room house, with one bathroom, was overjoyed to see us. They were so excited and grateful to get a house.  One of the selection criteria in getting a house was that all the kids in the family had to attend school.  We were told that most of the kids go to school because it's the only place to be fed regularly.  During snack time at the school, all the students came together at a very long table with little plastic chairs, and ate a little bit.
Lunch at School

Mixing Cement
Photo by U-Jin Lee
Thirteen volunteers and four construction workers didn't fit in the little house frame to lay the blocks, so I mixed cement in the street to hold the blocks in place.  By "mixed cement," I mean that I shoveled heavy cement powder into a pile, made a small depression in the middle for what little water was available, and mixed the pile of cement inward, trying not to let any water escape.  I turned over the mixture with a shovel until it became cement.  Not easy work, but definitely worth every shovelful.  We built for three or four days.  The family usually helped us too, and the little kids played soccer in the street. (A little road, not like a major street with traffic or anything.)

By the way, the family had a great view from their new home.  The photo to the right is what we saw daily while we were building.  I think this qualifies as a bad neighbor.  It erupted literally each day.  I am not accustomed to looking down my street and seeing a volcano erupt, so this really intrigued me.

Lunch at the Construction Site

We lined up on the ground at the site to eat lunch - very tiny portions of delicious Guatemalan food, and lots of corn tortillas.  In the evenings, we would eat little dinner portions with our host families.  Later, we would eat at the local cafes - cooked food only, and no water or ice.  The owners were always excited to see us coming because well, Americans eat a lot, and the cafes needed the money.  During our lunch breaks, we would frequently supplement our tiny lunches with trips to the little stands/shops to buy chips/drinks, etc.

Stray Dog Eating our Leftovers
The area was full of stray dogs that were clearly starving, but too afraid of people to come near us and beg for our lunches. I tossed a bit of a corn tortilla to a dog, but he/she got frightened from the sudden movement and ran away.  Eventually he/she came back to eat the tortilla after we went back to building.  Often, stray dogs would watch us eat lunch from a distance, so we started to leave the scraps for them, instead of throwing the them away, knowing the dogs would eventually eat the little bits of food we had left.  The people and dogs there seemed to be two populations in the same area that just kept to themselves completely.  Since I love darling beagle, I felt really bad for these dogs, and wanted to share my food with them.


One day, I was in the construction, under which the family currently lived, eating a granola bar.  My mom always sends me with food just in case I get hungry.  Yosalin, the littlest girl in the family was resting in the shade, watching me eat.  Suddenly I felt guilty, realized she was probably way hungrier than I was, yet I was the one snacking away on a chocolate, peanut butter granola bar.  I asked her if she wanted a bit, and her eyes lit up, so I gave her the rest of the granola bar, sorry that I didn't have anymore with me to give her.  I talked a lot with Yosalin about life in Guatemala, and she was curious about my lifestyle too, since both were obviously worlds apart.
On our last day at the site, we took a photo with the family, and they gave us Guatemalan styled dolls as a token of their gratitude.  Having a safe place to live - inside, walls, ceiling, floor - is really nice.
U-Jin (left) and Me (right) with the family.
In the Classroom
Volunteering at the elementary school was a really interesting experience.  We collected rocks with the students by a river and painted them white to line the school's garden.  It really made the school prettier.  All the kids wanted me to take pictures of them, and then they wanted to see their photos on the digital screen.  I suspect that there are as many computers in my house as there were in the whole town, so anything digital with a screen, was exciting.  Well, I did see two computers during my week in Alotenango.  During snack time at the school, all the students came together at a very long table with little plastic chairs, and ate a little bit (lunch photo near beginning of post).

Lunch at School

The school was one of the only places with a bathroom. On our lunch breaks, we wandered around to shops, cafes, any place that looked like it might have a bathroom, and asked to use it.  It was surprisingly hard to find a toilet with a seat, toilet paper, a door that closed, and a sink.  Fortunately, my genius mother also sent me with toilet paper and hand sanitizer.

These guys really, really wanted to have their picture taken.
One night as I was dozing off to sleep in the host family's house, the window started to rattle, and my bed started to shake.  It was very dark, and I thought someone was trying to break in from the window.  It actually turned out to be an earthquake - a weird, new experience for me.  For about 20 or 30 seconds, my bed and the whole room were shaking.  Being unprepared, I just looked around into the dark and held onto my bed, hoping nothing would fall on me.

Upon arrival on our first day, we had had a safety orientation.  You know, how not to get kidnapped, robbed,etc.  Places to avoid, never to go out alone or to go out at all after dark. Later in the week, a different group of students (from Michigan State Univ.) was robbed - passports, phones, ipods, wallets, shoes - all gone.  I didn't find out about this until after I arrived back home.

Dinner at Frida's in Antigua
We also spent two days in Antigua, a more touristy, but still unsafe city in Guatemala.  Antigua is not stricken by poverty like Alotenango.  There are clubs, stores, restaurants, etc.  We frequented this restaurant called Frida's.  The food was fantastic, and there was a clean bathroom with a sink and toilet paper.  Check plus.  I went to one club, but was uncomfortable since the aim was to attract tourists in one place.  I definitely didn't want to drink there either.  Call me paranoid, but you can never be too careful.

Outdoor Market in Antigua

There was a great outdoor market in Antigua where I practiced bargaining in Spanish.  Bargaining in markets seems to be the quickest way to learn numbers in Spanish.  We bought coffee, scarves, etc, and I bought a great jade bracelet and earrings.  There were tons of textile items too; I bought a few table runners.  I love shopping, and I really enjoyed the outdoor markets.  It was really hot in Guatemala at that time of year, and it was great to be in the sun since March in Boston is cold.

Another point of interest in this trip was the armed ATM guard.  Outside of every ATM in Antigua, stood a man with a gun, and we were never quite sure if this made us feel more or less safe.  I assume he was there to protect people from getting robbed immediately after withdrawing cash from their bank accounts.  Since this isn't really something you see in the US, we had to take a picture with him, of course.

Before traveling and in our safety orientation, we were warned to only use official looking ATMs since some have extra attachments which are designed to record your pin numbers for identity thiefs.

Hardening Cords of Lava - Still Warm!
One of the best parts of the trip, aside from giving a house to a family in need, was climbing an active volcano, el Volcán de Pacaya.  Looking back, this was probably the most unsafe thing I've ever done.  But that wasn't really on my mind then. The climb up was intense - about 1.5 hours, and the vegetation totally disappeared into a wasteland of ash and igneous rock as we climbed higher.  The "ground" was a pile of barely hardened lava from recent eruptions, and it shifted below our feet as we walked.
You try climbing this.  It's not that easy.
It moves.  And crumbles.
(Hardened lava and ash)
Climbing the Volcanic Ash
We could feel the burning temperature of the ground through the soles of our shoes, which was really an unexpected, strange sensation. At times, we were on all fours, climbing and clawing our way up steep, crumbling inclines.  Everywhere we looked was void of vegetation or life - just thirteen eager college students and our guide.

The guide was in his sixties and told us he made the climb to the top daily.  He barely broke a sweat, which is impressive since we were on a volcano.  We asked how he knew where the path to the top was since we didn't see any, and he replied that he just, "followed the trail from the previous night's eruption."  Okay, Guatemala isn't really into safety.  Not comforting to hear when you're climbing up the unstable ash/rock piles.

On the Edge of the Volcano
Photo by Ben

When we eventually reached the top, we saw the source of the lava.  In amazement, I gazed at the glowing, orange liquid rock.  I stood only three feet from the flowing rock, thought the skin was going to literally melt off of my face, and posed for what turned out to be a sort of ugly photograph.  I could barely tear myself away from the wonder that I'd only previously seen in science videos, but I did move away since I realized the "ground" could collapse under me at any moment.  I'm a warm weather person, but the temperature at which the Earth literally melts is a little too hot for me.  I took a small igneous rock souvenir, which was still warm and in the process of hardening, and made my way back down the volcano, in awe of what I'd just seen and experienced.
Flowing Lava
Volcán de Pacaya, Guatemala

Isn't this the coolest thing you've ever seen??

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