Volunteering in Guatemala

The drive into Antigua was interesting. Parts of the country are beautifully developed with gated communities, while other parts consist of cement blocks stacked to provide housing. Feral dogs roam the streets and 'tiendas' - essentially road side stands – are everywhere. There is lots of agriculture, so the parts of the country that are undeveloped are beautiful. We drove down a mountain highway which had the unique feature of wicked speed bumps, requiring the car to practically stop. We also passed several police checkpoints, staffed with guards carrying very big guns.  

I knew we had arrived in Antiqua when the roads changed from concrete to cobblestone. The ride then began to resemble the drive through the Masa Mara in Africa.  

After a quick stop at Maximo Nivel (the organization that arranged my experience), Tico - my driver - dropped me off at my home for the next two weeks. My home stay 'Mother' gave me a key, and explained a few things to me (which I did not understand – my Spanish being quite poor) and she left me to unpack. When I saw my room, it was the first time I realized I would have a roommate.  This was a surprise, although it was clearly stated in the pre-trip information.

Sundays are quiet so there was no one around. This proved interesting as I could not figure out a) where the bathroom was (turns out, right outside my door), and b) where the gate is located that allowed me to exit the property. Perhaps I should have done a bit more Spanish practice before I arrived?

I wandered around the city, which was very easy to do. The NFL games were on in a local bar so I stopped in for a bit and tried to follow the commentary in Spanish. This is an easy city to walk around. However, it is interesting to note that this is a walking city where the pedestrians do not have the right of way.

I stopped in to a local market where I quickly determined that textiles appear to be the main local crafts so they are for sale in abundance. I loved the people-watching on the central square – women braiding hair for money, men smoking cigars and arguing, children playing soccer. I was warned to be off the streets by dark so I headed home for dinner.

All meals at the guest house are served family style, which is actually a nice way to go. You get to hear from those who have been here for a while, and they give you the lay of the land. They were able to recommend trips and places to shop, eat, exchange money, the works.  And the food is very good. I don't have many home cooked meals in Atlanta.

My roommate arrived home late Sunday night and we established a bit of a routine. I actually am glad to be sharing a room since it has given me some company after dinner (no TV in the guest house).

On Monday, I had orientation. My assignment was to be at Casa Aleluya located in one of the 'suburbs' of Antigua. I would take the 'chicken bus' (details later) to my placement and spent 4 1/2 hours working with children 3 and under. We scheduled a test run for 1:00 that afternoon, and I signed up for Spanish classes (truly a bargain at $50 US for 10 hours of group classes) and headed home for lunch.  

As an aside, my house mother cooks for 14 or so people, three meals a day. More than I could have hoped for.

My first experience with the chicken buses was memorable. The bus station is near the local market - food sold on one side and artisan crafts on the other. The buses are not owned by the city. They are privately owned, and young drivers make their living by renting them, filling them beyond capacity, and then driving as fast as they can so that they can complete many trips.  Apparently, the buses rent for 600 Quetzales (about $72 US) per day, and the ride can be anywhere from 2-9 Quetzales.  

The buses are decommissioned US school buses - you may remember the Blue Bird brand. Owners and drivers have decorated them outside and inside with items that reflect their passion - be it Jesus or Real Madrid. Inside, the buses are rows of seats intended for two people on each side. However, the 'callers' - for lack of a better term, young men who hang at the doors of the buses trying to recruit more passengers - will pack the bus until each row of seats has 6 people, and then add people into the aisles until there physically is no more capacity to move. Oh - and many of the riders bring their wares along with them. The tops of the buses are overflowing with whatever items that cannot fit on board.

Our route to the orphanage involved a transfer, but the first part of the ride is what makes you feel alive! We have to travel up a mountain via a 'highway'. Whoever designed this highway had quite a sense of humor. It is a path that was designed for the Ultimate Driving Machine, certainly not over-packed school buses. The bus driver speeds up the hills and around the curves, never slowing down!  The saving grace is that the bus is so packed that you just end up leaning against people on either side of you, reflecting the movement of the bus. Of course, during this passage, we are trying to follow landmarks so that we know when to get off. Quite an experience. I have a new appreciation for MARTA.

At the transfer point, we climb a set of stairs that serve as an overpass, and then wait for our next bus. The interesting part of this segment is that not all drivers want to go to Casa Aleluya (it's only a 2Q ride) so you just keep asking until one will stop.  One last comment about the buses - since the driver is doing me a 'favor' by dropping me at Casa Aleluya, he does not fully stop. He slows down considerably and changes gear when we arrive at Casa Aleluya. The real purpose of my trip begins.

From 1996 to 2007, Guatemala was one of the primary countries from which adoptions took place. In 2007, 5,577 children were adopted from Guatemala. Unfortunately, there was extensive corruption in the adoption process, including babies being stolen from their parents, and rumors of women having babies to sell their babies. So in 2008, international adoption of Guatemalan children was essentially banned. However, rare cases, largely when the adoption began prior to the change in law, babies may be adopted by non-Guatemalans.  

As you can imagine, this change in the law has left many children without parents and no place to go. Places like Casa Aleluya (CA), one of many orphanages with which Maximo works, have sprung up to address the needs of these children. If you visit their web page,, the stats are out of date. At the time of writing, there are over 600 children ages 0-18 who live at CA. I am assigned to work with those 3 and under.

For my first day at work, I left Antigua early to avoid the crowded buses. But what I did not realize at the time was that the lack of crowds meant I would have to use upper body strength to keep me on a seat as we climbed the mountain. I am not sure whether the uncrowded buses was worth the sore body. 

The nursery was far less chaotic than you would expect from a room of 20 or so under four year olds. The children have had breakfast but not changed out of pajamas (or morning diapers!). So I started by picking up babies and changing them one by one. Nothing else in Guatemala may be organized, but the staff here have quite an impressive process in place! It takes nearly two hours to get everyone bathed and dressed, but these babies did not cry (except when someone pulls hair, which I get). As volunteers, we would help to keep the children entertained until all were ready to go outside.  

At mid-morning, we opened the doors for our little bitty’s to join the rest of the crew. It was a happy reunion as little and big children all played together. There are a few donated small bikes with training wheels, so the children take turns riding around the courtyard. Volunteers have brought other toys, enough for the kids to share, most of which are missing a few parts.  

There is one of those plastic playground slides which is missing the part of the slide that connects to the grounds. Instead, there is a scary shredding of plastic that makes me nervous. No one else seems to be concerned.  

The kids also have a see saw, which someone always seems to want to go under while there is a rider on top. But what is completely absent are any books! I was shocked to find out that there is not one single book in the nursery or in the toy room! As it turns out, books are expensive and volunteers don’t realize how badly they are needed at CA. So new volunteers bring more clothes and toys, but books appear to be overlooked. I found a store in town that sold children’s books, but I quickly realized why no one buys them locally – they are too expensive when compared to the local cost of living!

So I have to tell you about Sammy. I am in love!  He is four, beautiful long lashes and the cutest buzz cut. Our first day together, he would not leave me, nor would he let anyone else pick him up nor would he let me pick anyone else up. He probably latches on to someone every week, but I was as taken with him as he appeared to be with me. When I left after the first day, he cried.

One other love (they are all magical) is Juan. I was told that he is four but he looks much younger. He just wants someone to be there just for him. It's an easy job as he smiles all the time.

CA is a pretty special place, but it showcases some of the flaws in the current system. These children will NEVER leave this place. This is theirl ife. Admittedly, it is far superior to being on the streets but really – is this better than allowing the children to be adopted by the many families outside of Guatemala who are willing to take them in?

In case you care at all about Antigua, it is a popular tourist destination, so there are lots of things to do. The city is surrounded by mountains, one of which is an active volcano. It erupts fairly regularly, but apparently only releases gas. So we are not to be worried. Being in Antigua provides you with easy access to all the major tourist attractions, like the Mayan ruins and the beaches.

The great part of volunteering in Guatemala is that you can experience the local culture, practice Spanish, and still give back. When you leave, a part of you will stay behind and you will look forward to an eventual return. And at least there are no conference calls here!