Wonder what it’s like to volunteer in a Guatemalan village?

Lake Atitlán

In the beginning of 2014 I volunteered with a women’s weaving cooperative called Lema’ in a small village in the Guatemalan highlands – San Juan La Laguna by Lake Atitlán. It was an eye-opening, at times challenging but always wonderful, experience that I will forever cherish. I could not be more grateful for Rosa and her family who welcomed me so warmly and with their arms, and hearts, so widely open into their home.

Here’s what it was like (and I highly recommend you go for a similar experience yourself – it will change your life)…

Setting the scene: You’re in San Juan La Laguna, a small indigenous village by Lake Atitlán – you’re the only foreigner there except for a some tourists stopping by in the day. It’s January – warm by day, freezing by night (we’re talking 0°C…). You live in a three-story house with one of the wealthier families of the village, the house is basically completely open to the back side, some rooms have glass windows, none fitting properly into the holes in the wall cut out for them (isolation? whats’ that?), letting in all the cold air and all the noise (you’ll love it). There is running water only a few hours a day, you have a wood-fired stove, there is no Internet except in a few Internet cafés.

Second floor of the Mendoza residence – Veranda and kitchen

Let’s start your day with the moment you first wake up…

2.00 am: Boy, it’s cold – has your nose fallen off yet? (You’re wearing two tops, a hoodie, a warm jacket, plus you’ve already got an extra blanket from the family…)

Chicken bus

4.30 am: Waking up to the sound of the first chicken bus, breaking and testing the gears, and honking, honking a lot! God damn it…

4.55 am: Hopefully falling back asleep just in time to wake up again for the next bus and the same procedure… God damn it?
Repeat same as above but add the lovely sound of several roosters… Falling back asleep now seems impossible, partly because you’ve reached your 8+ hours of sleep (yay to falling asleep at 9 pm)… 

6.00 am: Don’t care anymore and try to just sleep through it… Hearing Rubén, el papá, working with his sewing machine next door and feeling guilty, doesn’t make that easier…

6.50 am: Alarm goes off (whatever, you’ve been awake for ages anyway)…

Showering with buckets… not the shower head!
7.00 am: Mentally preparing yourself to shower with buckets of ice cold water – it’s so much worse than jumping into the North Sea!
7.15 am: Avoid screaming out loud as you dip a toe into the water bucket.

7.17 am: Avoid crying as the ice cold water runs down your back. Ayayayay…

The ‘open-air’ bathroom
7.30 am: Warm yourself by the fire in the kitchen and enjoy some delicious breakfast cooked by Rosa or Antonia. Some desayunos: Black Beans with eggs and tortillas. Black Beans with cheese and tortillas. Pancakes with honey and tortillas. Mosh (very watery oatmeal) with bananas. Did I mention tortillas? 

The Kitchen
8.00 am: Open the shop downstairs with Yayme and her little daughter Lynda.

8.15 am: Get “un pequeno o un grande bezo” from Lynda. Forget all about waking up early and showering with ice cubes – that girl is so cute. 
Cute little Lynda

8.30 am: Roll up some naturally-colored yarn.

9.30 am: Prepare some color patterns to be used for weaving scarves.

Preparing the color pattern
9.45 am: By now you’ve cut a few strings with your bare hands. These strings have by now cut into the flesh of your fingers.

9.46 am: Rosa will give you scissors (while she keeps using her bare hands – spoiled gringa!)

12.30 pm: Vamos a almorzar – lunch time! Yippie – more corn tortillas (I seriously like them mucho). Some example almuerzos: Soup made of a bunch of herbs that are supposedly healthy but look like a child has picked his mother a bouquet of flowers from the side of the street – with corn tortillas. Avocado, eggs, tomato salsa and tortillas. Rice, beans, eggs, and corn tortillas. Chicken/Beef with salsa and rice, and tortillas. Steamed veggies, cucumber & horseradish salad with tortillas. Bebidas: Atól (cornstarch tea) or Refrescos (flavored water/ pureed fruit with lots of water).

Tortillas freshly made for breakfast, lunch and dinner
1.30 pm: Return to the shop. Play with Lynda or study English with Tanya.

2.30 pm: Go to the Internet café and upload photos of yesterday’s weaving class to Lema’s Facebook Page.

4 pm: Start weaving your own scarf. Man, this is hard – and it doesn’t even look nearly as pretty as Rosa’s.

La abuela (grandma) weaving a scarf
…and me attempting to weave a scarf

4.15 pm: Oooops, realize you’ve made a mistake a few rows down and call Yayme for help.

5.00 pm: Terminas el día de trabajo y descansas. Time to rest. Walk around San Juan. Try studying Spanish. Feel so grateful because let’s face it – you’d much rather be here, soaking in the beauty of Lake Atitlán, the happiness of its people and the sheer simplicity of life, than in a cold European city in winter that’s way too hectic and whose people never enjoy life as much as they should.

Lake Atitlán at sunrise

7.00 pm: Return home – dinner is (almost) ready. Talk to the family about their and your day. Learn a few new words. Examples of cenas: Spaghetti with tomato salsa and – what a surprise – corn tortillas. Tamal (a mash of either rice, papas (potatoes) or corn cooked in a leave) with tortillas. Eggs and beans with tortillas. Rice and avocado with tortillas. 

Dinner with the family

8.00 pm: Go to your room which has a table and a small bed. And windows which have no isolation whatsoever. Dress yourself for the night in a long sleeve, a cardigan and a hoodie. Wrap your head in the hoodie. Brush your teeth and wash your face – with the water we’ve collected in a bucket during the day.

My room
8.15 pm: Start watching a movie, studying Spanish, reading… and fight against your eyes closing involuntarily.

8.45 pm: Keep fighting. Who sleeps that early?

8.50 pm: Tell yourself, you’ll take a short nap just to rest your eyes for 15 minutes. Keep the music running so you’ll surely wake up again in a few minutes, if not, the honking of cars should do.

Midnight: Wake up, totally lost. Where am I? And why is it so cold? Realize that your plan has failed and just fall back asleep again…

…until 4.30 am! Damn you, chicken buses! And thank you, Rosa and family! You’ll always have a place in my heart.

Yayme, Lynda and I

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