After completing my undergraduate degree in environmental studies and nonprofit administration, I was ready to travel for an extended period, to really get to know a place, get out of my culture, learn a new language, and do something worthwhile.
While in college, a roommate had traveled down to Guatemala and went to a place called Maya Pedal. He described it as a small NGO that imports bikes from the U.S. and then uses them to build machines to do work for people that can’t afford electricity or for people without electricity. Maya Pedal makes machines for grinding, dehulling, blending, pumping, and much more. As a firm believer that bicycles are a means to solve many of the world’s problems, I was spellbound and submitted a proposal to the InterExchange Foundation for a Christianson Grant to help me with funding and to my pleasant surprise, I was accepted.
Welcome to Guatemala!
After 12 hours in airports and careening along the curvy Inter-American highway from Guatemala City, I finally made it to La Democracia Spanish School in Xela. For the next four weeks, I studied Spanish intensely five hours a day, five days a week.
During the weekends I explored the surrounding landscape on foot or by bicycle. I was so astonished at the incredible beauty of the volcanic landscape intermingled with corn fields and small towns. At times, I felt as if I had walked into a postcard: the stark beauty, the smiling people dressed in the most ornate colorful clothing, the corn covered hills surrounding the bustling city where I lived. Quetzaltenagno, commonly called Xela (“Shela”) is a city of about 250,000 people, over half of them K’iche Mayan. The city epitomizes the collision of old tradition and modernism. This was ever apparent in the many old Mayan women I saw dressed in traditional colorful handmade clothing talking on cell phones.
After four weeks at the school, I successfully “graduated” with an intermediate level certificate from the school. My Spanish still had a long way to go, but now I could at least barter in the market and get around the country.
Volunteering at Maya Pedal
My seven years of prior experience working in bike shops turned out to be quite useful at Maya Pedal. Life was simple. I woke up early and went to the market to buy food for the day: fresh vegetables, avocados, eggs, and banana bread. Then there were always plenty of bikes to tune up and make ready for the sales room.
After my first month, I began welding my first bicimaquina (bicycle machine), a bicimolino (bicycle grinder) for grinding corn or other grains and took over the role of volunteer coordinator. I finished three bicimolinos during my time at Maya Pedal and a couple of biciblenders. I also installed two bicibombas (bicycle water pumps) with local farmers during my volunteer placement there.
As time passed at Maya Pedal I found myself becoming used to the things that had previously seemed so foreign: the incredible colorful Mayan garb that most women wear, the cows and horses that walked down the road from the woods past Maya Pedal carrying the day’s supply of wood to town, and the large number of stray dogs. Old school buses decked out with the brightest paint you could imagine, the sound of the corn miller just down the road grinding away for the day’s homemade tortillas, and spectacular volcanoes towering overhead. I became used to being the extranjero (foreigner). I’m sure much of this was due to the tremendous friendliness and curiosity of the Guatemalan people that made me feel welcome and at home in their country.
I wanted further experience with nonprofit operations - Maya Pedal functioned more like a profit making venture than a nonprofit - and I knew I could find another project where I could have the cultural exchange experience and opportunity to work with children that I was looking for. So I hopped on a chicken bus back to Xela and made some connections with two other organizations called El Nahual Spanish School and Semilla Nueva.
Volunteering at El Nahual and Semilla Nueva
El Nahual is a community center which addresses shortcomings in the Guatemalan national education system by providing free classes in English, art, drama, music, and sports. They invite native English speakers to come teach – a slightly hectic system as many volunteers had never taught before. My first class was a nightmare. I was hopelessly under-prepared but with some help, I learned how to prep for these classes and be disciplined when the class was talking or not paying attention. I can happily say I became a much better teacher at El Nahual.
Semilla Nueva, the other organization where I volunteered, aims “to help communities gain economic independence and rejuvenate their land through hands-on education and collaborative sustainable agriculture projects.” It was founded to help rural farmers, those most affected by crises such as droughts and floods, find solutions by organizing and implementing innovative growing techniques.
My first task was to investigate the feasibility of incorporating environmental education and sustainable agriculture curriculum into Semilla Nueva’s community work and eventually into the broader government education policy of Guatemala. They saw this as an important task because, while kids in rural communities learn the traditional subjects of math and reading, they don’t learn much about agriculture, the basis of their livelihood. This research opened my eyes to the enormous challenges facing Guatemalans and made me appreciate how privileged I am to have had the free public education I received in the States.
I found out some startling statistics, including huge literacy gaps between rural Mayans and urban Ladinos, rampant bureaucratic corruption, inadequate funding, and underqualified teachers. Many students end schooling after sixth grade as there is no public funding support beyond this in most areas. Many also leave school or never go at all once they start helping with their family work around age nine. Rural schools are especially hard hit, often receiving the bare minimum from the government.
These statistics became apparent as I walked through the markets of Xela and spotted kids as young as six selling chiclets (gum) or plastic trinkets, and saw them perusing the streets looking for shoes to shine. At the bus stations I saw them combing every bus earning a Quetzal ($0.12) here and there selling ice cream or candy. It’s truly heartbreaking to see so many kids working and losing the chance for even a basic education.
To the Campo, Xacana Grande
For my last few months, I lived with the Lopez family in the rural community of Xacana, (sha-ka-nA) where Semilla Nueva is involved. They are working to address many of the problems I discovered during my research about the education system. I was fortunate to come into the community right after another group of volunteers established a school garden. I’m happy to say it was the most fun and rewarding work I did during my time in Guatemala.
Dinners were a good time to be a part of the warm and welcoming Lopez family, even if the food left something to be desired: The typical meal includes pasta or beans, eggs and rice, and always as many tamales as you can possibly eat with ketchup. One night I even got to eat rooster heart!
One weekend I helped another volunteer, Cali, prepare a lesson about the worms used in worm composting, and how organic waste can be turned into usable, rich soil. It was challenging for me to communicate the lesson in Spanish, but we practiced many times until we had the major key words ingrained in our brains. The kids were well-behaved and attentive for the entire lesson. We made sure to tie our lessons to real life with lots of diagrams and metaphorical stories. The next week when we returned to teach our next lesson on soil formation and quality, I was pleasantly surprised to see that most of the students seemed to retain all the main points from the last week!
The next step for Semilla Nueva will be to work with local teachers to develop lesson plans that will help prepare kids to work their land more profitably and sustainably. I hope that with Semilla Nueva’s help, these lesson plans can take off with local teachers and provide the interactive, hands-on lessons that kids don’t normally get. Kids need opportunities to learn scientific analysis to promote critical thinking, and these lessons could provide locally relevant ways to do just that.
It was so exciting to be working somewhere where there is so much potential for positive change. It was bittersweet to leave Xacana after seeing the potential impact that continued work could have there. I’m happy that perhaps a few of the kids in Xacana learned something and gained some perspective from me.
I can’t thank the InterExchange Foundation enough for giving me this amazing opportunity to fulfill my dream of extended travel; to see and live in Guatemala and work towards worthwhile causes there. During this time I have learned more than I could have imagined about what it means to be human in this world. I’ve also learned skills, like how to weld, speak conversational Spanish, teach English as a second language, teach garden curriculum to Spanish speakers ages four through 30, and how to walk around the streets of Xela without getting run over or breaking an ankle. I have learned how intertwined sustainable agricultural practices are with the well-being of poor rural communities, and how essential sustainable agriculture is to the development and autonomy of these communities.
I have so many stories from this trip, each a rich experience that has impacted my life in countless ways. I am so amazed at the strength, perseverance, patience, and optimism of the Guatemalan. One thing is for sure: Guatemala has left its mark on my soul forever.