By Ria and Jake
Hi Tulip Fam! We wanted to start this week by saying a huge thank you to everyone who read and participated in our Serving Abroad series over the last few weeks. We are very passionate about service and travel, but not always both at the same time so we were really excited to share our thoughts and engage with you all! The whole series was leading up to this week’s post about the first international service trip we took together.
As we’ve mentioned before, we met and became friends through a service organization at our university called Global Service Learning. Every summer, GSL took an international service trip and in the summer of 2017 we spent 10 days in Antigua, Guatemala serving with an organization called ConstruCasa. ConstruCasa is a Guatemalan-based organization that strives to improve the quality of life among Guatemalans living in extreme poverty through holistic community development with the provision of basic housing, support programs, and community building for health and education programs. Several years prior, GSL had traveled (with a different group of students) to Antigua to serve with ConstruCasa, so we had some organizational relationships and second hand knowledge of what we would be doing when we got there.
Our normal service day looked pretty routine: we would wake up, put on our dusty and concrete-covered clothes, pick up our sack lunches from our host mom, take an hour long van ride up into a tiny village in the mountains, work on the houses we were building for 6 hours, load up the vans, and drive the hour back to the cute city of Antigua. At the work site, our group was split into two teams. Each team had a different family they were building a house for, so our projects looked a little different. One team was building a house with a big common area and the other team was building one with a big kitchen.
The one thing both teams had in common? Countless hours of chipping at cinder blocks with dull chisels. Since none of us were skilled masons and our house-building experiences were…let’s say…non-existent, we were put on block duty. This meant that we had stacks of cinder blocks that we had to chip holes into so that they could be used in the house. When I say we spent hours chipping those blocks, we spent hours. After the first day at the worksite, simple tasks like reaching for the glass of water in front of you was painful! We sweat a lot, we got very sunburned, we broke the occasional block (okay fine, we broke so many our foreman had to tell us to be better and stop breaking them), but at the end of the week we had built two houses for the families we were serving.
Something to note: our team was so unskilled and really hindered the projects at both sites. Each site only had one person who spoke Spanish, so the language barrier was a huge hurdle we encountered! We really struggled to communicate with the construction workers on our site and had no idea what we were doing, so it felt a lot of the time like we were just in the way and making their jobs more difficult. This is a huge thing in serving abroad! Make sure you are actually able to contribute and aren’t in the way.
Guatemala is FILLED with jungles, forests, mountains, and beaches. We were lucky enough to experience a few of these ecosystems during our adventures with GSL. One of our first and favorite began with one of the toughest hikes… but not just any normal hike y’all….. this was a volcano hike!
Volcan Pacaya has erupted a number of times and happens to be a highly active volcano. When we went… we heard the infamous “boom” of this volcano. Our tour guide (man was he interesting…) said “this is just a simple little hike”. Of course, we trusted this guide and woke up bright and early to begin our nature adventure for the day.
When we arrived at the site, a local was ready to take us on our journey. There were other locals that joined, and they brought horses with them. They called the horses “taxis”. Obviously we were confused and thought it was strange… but we realized that they wanted us to hop on one of the few horses they brought along in order to make some money from us. There were a few members of our group that got so exhausted within the first 30 minutes that they caved and got on the horses, but the Tulip Two pushed through and trekked along. Yay us!
This was honestly one of the scariest things we have ever done because our local guide told us that the volcano goes “boom boom” a lot and that if the volcano did explode then all the locals that lived in the village below the volcano would probably die. We wondered why they wouldn’t move, and who on earth would want to spend their lives in fear of an active volcano right above them… but this is their home and what home has always been for them.
As we continued, it got really difficult to walk up because volcanoes don’t have solid paths or giant rocks to step on and hold yourself up from falling. It is terribly easy to slip and fall behind, so we had to keep our bodies forward and move with ease. Our local guide was patient with us, and we finally were able to make it to the perfect view!
There was a little hole in the point we stopped at in which we could sit inside and take pictures. This whole resembled some kind of little tub. We all took turns hopping in with our friends for a picture of course! The view was INCREDIBLE! We saw what seemed like miles and miles of dark gray rocks and smoke that filled the air even though it felt like 1,000 degrees outside.
The best part came when we reached a baby smoke point low to the ground. It was like a baby fire pit. We stopped to make s’mores, which is so cool. Who can say they made s’mores on a volcano?!!!! Our guide brought marshmallows for us, and it was by far the coolest thing we had done in our lives up to that point!
But for realz…going down was way harder y’all. You literally have no choice but to surf down the rocks because again, there really are no stepping stones to walk down with. We all kind of slipped and found our way back to the beginning. Unlike Jake, Ria definitely struggled going down and held the guide’s hand cuz she be clumsy (and she knows it)! 🙂
Aside from this incredible experience, we were able to experience parts of the forested areas on days when we went to eat out, but a majority of our time spent outside of service was within the city. Although, as a whole group we didn’t do as much in nature as possible, the group of us that stayed to experience other parts of Guatemala (the girl’s trip group) did get the chance to experience a whole new range of nature-based adventuring.
About halfway into our time in Guatemala, we took a trip west to Lake Atitlán to explore the lake region. The drive from Antigua to the lake was, well like most of the trip, just a little nerve racking. The roads were on the sides of mountains, incredibly twisty, and very narrow. We were in a big van, so the narrow and very crowded roads that our driver was taking very fast turns on had all of our stomachs in our throats!
Once we got to the town on the lake we were staying in, we had some time to walk around the street market and do some shopping. Vendors lined the street in booths, selling everything from snacks and fresh fruit to hand woven bags and pottery. One of Jake’s favorite things to do in a new place is walk street markets and look at the local goods, so he was living his best life! One of the finds Jake made was this beautiful little canvas painting of the lake that sits on his desk today!
The next morning, we woke up and went for a day on the lake. Lake Atitlán is a beautiful deep blue surrounded by towering green mountains. We got into a little boat – I think every seat was taken – and road across to the other side of the lake. The really cool thing about Lake Atitlán is that has several towns on its shores, so we were able to visit a few different towns while we were there. When we got to the other side of the lake, we took a tour of the town and saw where the items we had seen at the market came from. A tour of a weaving shop took us through the whole process from spinning and dying the yarn to the weaving of bags and rugs. We spent time in a garden where they grew plants for their medicinal uses. Finally, we ended up at a chocolate shop that showed us how chocolate is made from the beans they grow and pick.
After a long day touring the town, we loaded back into our tiny boat and set off for our thirty minute boat ride across the lake. About ten minutes into the ride, it started to downpour and we were sopping wet! We spent the remainder of the ride singing (or maybe screaming?) at the top of our lungs as we boated through the rain. It was such a fun time that, even though we were all soaked through, we laughed the whole way and it is one of our favorite memories from the trip! So pro-tip: if you get caught in the rain, just find a way to laugh and have fun because you are going to get wet anyways!
After the nearly 2 week long service experience, half of the group (Ria included) wanted to stay behind and experience more of what Guatemala had to offer. A previous Wesleyan student suggested going to stay in a treehouse in a place called Semuc Champey. This is a natural monument near San Agustin far north of Antigua.
Six of us girls from the group decided to get into a literal mini van with a dozen other strangers and took a roguly 12-14 hours to drive to this middle of nowhere location in central/North Guatemala. When our friend said “treehouses”…. we didn’t realize she meant that we would be staying in actual treehouses! Us girls stayed in an actual jungle where lizards crawled on our walls day and night, and the water only ran a few hours a day in our bathrooms. We had the most gorgeous views of trees all around us. It seemed as if civilization ceased to exist when we were here… oh, but there was a bar and dance floor. Classic considering Latin Americans love for good music and dancing! When we took day trips within this natural monument, I am telling you all… the views seemed too perfect to be true. There were hikes that we took on small mountains that took us to places in which a chain of waterfalls was visible. This was one of the main attractions for tourists in this area. We all made our way to the waterfalls, and one of the locals who was there to guide tourists told us that it was time to jump into the waterfalls. We all were shook…..what?! He told us we were to jump off these baby cliffs into the waterfalls until we reached the bottom. We then would have to swim under large rocks and past caves to reach the other side of the water.
Many of us were so scared at first, but once we got the hang of jumping off of these cliffs (with the help of our guide), it was worth all the fear. Speaking for myself (Ria)….I feel the most difficult part was getting past the caves because we had to sink our heads below the rocks but not put our faces in the water. The water reached our necks, and the rocks were on top of our heads, so you can imagine there was little to no breathing room. If you are claustrophobic like I am, you will definitely feel a bit terrified of this experience. I was lucky and had friends that calmed me down and dragged me the whole way across! Literally lol! Again, it was worth the beautiful views!
Some other beautiful bits of nature that this group of girls was able to experience included a cave adventure (literal walking and swimming through caves) and jumping from a bride into a large river. The locals have all the guts in the world and were doing flips and tricks off the side of a bridge high above the river and fearlessly jumped in! Most of the ladies followed after, but if we didn’t want to participate we were never forced to! We ended this adventure by tubing in the large river with other tourists in our group!
When we say Guatemala has some of the most amazing natural scenes in the whole world, we truly mean that with our whole hearts! No pictures or words can do this place justice!
Near Death Experiences
~TUK TUKS AND SICKNESS~
The whole time we were in Guatemala, it felt like the universe was trying to kill us! We should have known on the first day when we were hiking (or in Ria’s case, falling down) an actively erupting volcano that it was going to be bad news the whole trip and we should start taking precautions. You want to guess what we didn’t do? Take precaution.
One of our first nights in Antigua, four of us (shout out to Ty and Katie!) wanted to ride back from the city square to our house in a tuk tuk (a tiny little buggie). We loaded into two tuk tuks and told them our address. The drivers then took off going 100 miles an hour (so I might be exaggerating slightly) and started whipping us through town! We drove in between cars, ran traffic lights, almost fell out a few times, and drove the longest possible route to get where we were going, but we eventually made it back and couldn’t stop laughing!
The other thing to note about our near death experiences in Guatemala is how sick everyone on our trip got. Some people were so constipated, some were violently throwing up, some had killer headaches, and some had a weird cough/sore throat. Whatever kind of sick the people on our trip were, we all got hit with something! The stomach stuff came from (we think) a place at Lake Atitlán that gave people food poisoning. The cough was probably a result of the concrete dust and smoke we were inhaling constantly at the work site. We actually had to send people home almost every day because we all were so sick at different times! But never fear! If the woman at the local pharmacy will whip out a needle and some mysterious liquid that your host mom will inject into your butt, you will be good to go in a day!
~THE CATTLE CAR AND MACHETE MAN EXPERIENCE~
Half of the group stayed after the service experience to enjoy more of what Guatemala has to offer, and this experience was part of the 6 girl’s trip!
One of the scariest experiences was during the girl’s part of the trip involving our drive to the treehouse our very first night in Semuc Champey. After a long 14 hour car drive to the town around the jungle, we thought we finally made it to our location. Little did we know that we still had quite a drive to go! (not horribly long, but roughly an hour!). We jumped out of the minivan and there were many young men surrounding our van asking questions. Two of us ladies in the group understood Spanish rather well, but these men were impossible to understand. Many of them had machetes in their hands. We honestly were ready (or not) at this point for death.
Our driver started to literally throw our luggage outside the van asking us all to collect our things. Luckily, the other passengers were just as confused as us. A variety of different cattle cars arrived and shouted hostel names. We were waiting to hear the name of the location we were staying at, and we finally did.
We all wondered what we were doing in cattle cars… and people in the group began to panic. I (Ria) tried to stay calm, but I also panicked as it was pitch black outside at this point and we had no idea where we were. No cell service. No connection to familiarity.
The scariest part was once we hopped onto this random car with strangers from our van, a random man started driving us and our belongings away from our stop point. Where we were, didn’t seem like civilization at all, but there was no way any of us could tell where we were going. The random men with machetes…. Yeah they didn’t go away! They kept following. Some would hop onto the back of our vans and eventually hop off and walk into the forest. Literally no joke! Then random ones would appear and hop on to eventually jump off and do the same thing. Many of us sat in silence or began to laugh because we had absolutely no idea what was happening to us.
We rode aside mountains and the dark jungle for what felt like a lifetime when we approached the largest forest fire we ever came across! We were scared to pieces and thought we would have burned alive because it felt the fire was so close to us! We tried to stay calm and not cry…. But I know all of us were ready for death at this point in time.
Eventually, we heard music and saw lights changing colors at a bar looking area. This was our treehouse stay! Finally… we had made it after the longest day! This was definitely an interesting way we could’ve died, but hey we survived lol! Although I am positive the few drinks we had at the bar helped us sleep better that night!
Some of our days off service were the days where we would participate in a number of cultural activities that would help us understand and better explore the local culture. Some of these included immersing in the food and walking around the city to interact with the locals.
~LIVING WITH THE LOCALS/MEETING NEW PEOPLE~
First and foremost, instead of staying in churches or community centers like we normally do for service trips, we were lucky enough to have connections in Antigua as GSL has previously served in this city with the same organization we worked with. We stayed with a local couple who might’ve been the sweetest souls we were able to encounter. Their jobs were made to host foreigners trying to learn Spanish, so they were used to having strangers in the house. Their names are Elvira and Enrique. All of us had a nice, warm space in their house to stay. We even had little birdies to look at each day because they had tons of pretty birds as pets (aka our morning alarms because they woke us up at 5 am on the dot every day! yikes!).
This was one of the best experiences for us because we were able to get the inside scoop of what was best to try out while we were in the city. They made us meals each day, and we would sit and have meals like a giant family every day (unless we ate out one night). They also packed lunches for us to take to our worksites each day and accommodated our dietary needs! Literal sweethearts! Our group also was lucky that we met a friendly American man named Jason. He is from Ohio and was living with the couple because his accounting firm sent him to Guatemala to learn some basic Spanish. We got to spend time with him during family meals each day, and he joined our adventures! He was so nice and became part of our GSL family during our trip!
*Side Note: Guatemalan Spanish is one of the most neutral and easy for beginners to pick up. I noticed that the locals of Antigua speak rather slowly compared to those that speak Mexican Spanish or Spanish from any South American country. This is another reason foreign companies send their workers here! Neat, right?!
Markets are a large part of Central and South American culture. As mentioned previously, these small booths sell a variety of items running from paintings to bags to jewelry. You name it, they have most likely got it! Our sweet host mom took us to some local markets on one of our weekend days off. We got to see the hundreds of booths and enjoy the center of the city. The cool part is that the venders will make things from hand a lot of the time and are willing to negotiate prices!
Alright y’all….this crepe place was literally the highlight of every day. When I say we went everyday…I mean it! After our work days, we would drop our things off at the house and race to this crepe shop. Honestly, the workers were probably like… “you again?” all the time, but it was worth it! We treated ourselves to chocolate crepes or ice cream after work, and it was relaxing to sit with the whole group and stuff our faces with something cool after standing in the heat all day. If you make it to Antigua, PLEASE eat some crepes for both of us because we surely miss that place as it brought us some happy memories.
I could not tell you how, but Ria and another member of the group (Katie) found a dance class. As some of the group members passed by restaurants and shops, one of the dance teachers saw us looking at the door of his studio and asked us to come inside and dance. Ria and Katie remembered that every Tuesday was free Salsa dance class lessons, so they definitely took advantage of a fun time! They went by themselves the first time around and told the whole group how enjoyable this experience was (although none of us were the best at dancing). Each Tuesday, they took more members of our group after work to these classes. Dancing is one of Ria’s favorite hobbies, so this was one of the most sincerely joyful parts of the whole trip. Dancing is also a huge part of Laitin American culture, and there are a number of types and styles. This is definitely an activity to try if you get the opportunity to visit a Spanish-speaking country!
~OTHER FOOD/DRINKING CULTURE~
Once again, a majority of the food we ate was sack lunches packed by our host mom or meals at home. When we went out, we tried to pick places that had a variety of options because there were definitely some pickier people in the group. Although eating tacos and tortillas was common for our group, there are restaurants that aren’t typical Guatemalan dishes that are definitely available for people wanting other ethnic foods. You could also indulge in crepes the same way our group did, but if you are looking for local cuisine, some of the most common dishes or staples in Guatemala include the following: corn, beans, rice, meat of all kinds, and soups or stews. Chicken dishes and empanadas are highly common in this country, as well! Drinking is also quite common in this country (beer is huge!). “Licuados” are common drinks and are made up of blending fruits and milk or yogurt with alcohol (or without). Having a drink with dinner or dessert isn’t uncommon, and as I am sure many of you know, the drinking age is quite lower than it is in the U.S. but more common to that of other countries around the globe.
~HOSTEL LIFE YAY!~
This part refers to the girl’s trip: This experience included staying in a literal tree house (although they call it a hostel), and we got to stay in our first hostel ever! The hostel we were able to stay at was in Antigua (after the trip to Semuc Champey). The most wonderful part about hostels is getting to meet new, friendly faces from all across the world. This place had bars and a number of games (outdoor and indoor) that you could play with other guests of the location. We all got to talking with some new people during our stay. Our room was isolated from others, and the bathrooms were isolated which was very nice! Our room had some new guests each night, so we met lots of travelers our age. They all had different reasons for why they were in Antigua, and it was really enlightening to share stories and get to know some people our age that were traveling for fun!
P.S. We recommend hostels almost everywhere you go to interact with internationals and enhance the experience by meeting new people! Y’all know how adamant we are about making new friends during y’alls travels! Go do it!
The Language Barrier
I am sure y’all have noticed by now that Spanish is one of the main languages spoken in Guatemala, although there are dozens of Mayan languages still embodied within their culture and indigenous people. Ria and another member of the group (Anna) both were Spanish majors in undergrad, so their Spanish knowledge came into good use during the trip. Our group was lucky as well that our host family was able to translate a number of words for us if we needed help. Our English guide was able to translate to an extent, and we had masons at our work site that were able to speak little English. Ria and Anna were split up at the work sites in order to provide Spanish and English translations between the GSL group and the main mason leading each group.
We again…got lucky during this trip overall….but you don’t need to be an expert on Spanish to travel here or anywhere in Central or South America. Of course, it helps, but there might mostly likely be locals that are relatively decent at English. You can always study up before traveling to a Spanish-speaking country, or be comfortable asking locals for help when needed. Because this city is a tourist destination, you will more than likely come across tourists and English speakers eventually! Just never be afraid to ask for help when you need it, and use that judgement of yours!
Words of Wisdom from the Wisest:
- Don’t worry about your level of Spanish because you can learn the basics before you go (which we highly encourage if you want to embrace more of the culture)
- Try new foods (as in any new place)
- Don’t let the fear of getting water up your nose stop you from jumping into a waterfall or darkness stop you from walking into a dark cave with bats… .you will most likely enjoy the experience and want to do the whole thing again!
- ***Go read our posts regarding service because it is crucial to think about the type of work you are doing before serving abroad or in general.
- Listen to the locals.
- Ride in a tuk tuk at least once because it will be the most fun taxi ride you will ever have in your lifetime! We can guarantee it!