Guatemala: The Trip of a Lifetime

So as many of you know already, I went on an Alternative Breaks Experience through UMD to go to Guatemala. When I signed up for this trip, I was so excited because it was about sustainability (an issue I am deeply deeply passionate about). I wasn’t 100% sure what I signed up for, but I knew I was signing up to go to Guatemala and help people. What the trip turned out to be, was totally different.

Before leaving for this trip, I had only ever met one of the other girls going before. We had met about twice as a group at meetings and some of us had never met at all. Some girls had transferred from a different trip that got canceled and others had missed some meetings, but I was hopefully we would all get along well and the trip would go smoothly, so on January 10th 14 girls came together to fly to Guatemala City together on an unknown adventure

I was really scared the girls wouldn’t like me, we wouldn’t get along, or something crazy would happen, but I tried to push that fear aside and make the best of it. Once we came together to leave for the airport, we had time to talk and we started to get familiar with the faces we would be surrounded with for the next 10 days.

Fast forward a little and we wind up in Antigua. Antigua is a large, historical city in Guatemala where we spent our first night. We got to look around at some shops and go out to eat and this was our first real experience getting to know each other, and I think we finally started to become comfortable with one other.

The next day, we drove to Lake Atitlan, where we explored the town, did some shopping, and ate lunch with the most amazing view of the lake from Hotel Toliman. At this point in the trip, I was so amazed how almost touristy I felt. In my mind I almost felt guilty that we were staying in these beautiful places and having these awesome experiences and had done no service yet. It almost took away from the experience in the moment, but it was hard to be upset in such a beautiful place.

After leaving Hotel Toliman, we drove to our final destination of Los Andes Nature Reserve. The reserve is on the back side of the Atitlan Volcano on the other side of the lake. The reserve is home to families who work on the farm and in the community. The farm grows USDA Organic coffee and tea as well as macadamia nuts, quinine, and mahogany trees. The people who work the farm have access to education, medical assistance, clean spring water, and hydroelectric power when they live here.

Our job over the next 7 days was to help repaint 2 schools and the health clinic in the community. Each day, we would go out to our designated projects and work alongside the teachers and some of the students to help freshen up their school for their upcoming school year (which starts in late January for them).

In between our painting times, we learned about the community and the amazing work they do. We learned about their workers association, their community store, their carpentry program, their hydroelectric power, their quetzal conservation, their student government association, and so much about the community itself. This community was the hands-down best part of this trip. Yes, it was great to learn about their reserve and to help paint their school, but the people in this community are so filled with love. They made us feel so welcome and accepted, even with a language barrier.

Most of the girls on the trip knew some spanish (some much more than others), but I went into this trip knowing hola and gracias (no hablo espanol). I was very frustrated the first few days we were there because of the language barrier, but I learned pretty quickly that didn’t matter. After spending time with the kids playing games and painting with them, we shared laughs and smiles and that was what made us understand one another.

By the end of the trip, I did learn a decent amount of spanish, but I learned so much more than that. I learned Guatemala is not just a country flooding refugees into America. I learned the people are so diverse and I will never be able to understand the complexity that is their culture, but I can appreciate that I was a part of it for a little while.

I also learned that although this was a “service trip” our service is not going to make a monumental change. We went to do something to help one community in one country. What matters is sharing with the community, teaching the kids, engaging them in our culture and them engaging us in theirs. Exposing yourself to new experiences, new cultures, and new people gives you a sense of humility. It teaches us to understand and to realize were not here to change this community in some big way. We weren’t going to change the world in 10 days, but we did change something.

Through this trip, I saw 13 other women and myself grow as friends with strangers in a different country. I saw us work as a team, work through struggles, see our differences, and accept them. I saw us become more conscious of things we say, how much privilege we have, and how our mindset can affect our lives.I also saw us grow as friends; some friends who I now cherish very very much.

I think we all left Los Andes after those 8 days feeling like we were leaving behind a new family. Tears were shed, not only because we were going to miss our new found friends, but I think some of us felt like we were leaving an experience that changed our lives. For myself, I thought about a lot of things on that trip. One of the most important was I was not there to change this community. I didn’t go to save these people. I went to work with them, to learn from them, and to grow as a person. I left there feeling like the community had done more for me than I did for them. They gave me perspective, they taught me to have cultural humility, to keep my eyes as open as my heart is, and to continue to do good in my own community.

I hope if you read this, that you think about what matters to you. I hope you think about something that sets your soul on fire. It may not be saving the environment, or social injustice, or global poverty. It may be local, it may be global, but I hope you take the issue to heart and you take action on it. We all can do our part to change the world. It may not happen today, it may not happen in our lifetime, but we can all do our part and work together to do something.