Maddy is a Boston, Massachusetts native who studies Sociology. She volunteered abroad with two of her friends at a children’s home in Guatemala through World Endeavors.
Were you nervous before leaving for Guatemala?
I am a relatively well-travelled person, but my travels have almost always involved my parents, and we usually have gone to developed countries, so I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of how a lot of the traveling would go, and I didn’t know exactly what to expect in terms of food, safety in the city, and opinions of tourists and foreigners in Guatemala. It was definitely a new experience for me to go into a foreign country without knowing much about exactly where I would be living and what work I would be doing, but I just tried not to have any expectations ahead of time!
What were your first impressions about Guatemala?
I have travelled a lot in Europe, but I had never travelled south of California! It was immediately obvious to me that everyday life in Guatemala ran much differently than life in the States. I ran into a strike my second day in Guatemala that slightly delayed my travel, but everyone was very friendly and helpful. Reactions to the setback were much more laid back than they would have been in the States. This experience made me and my travel companions realize how different life would be in Guatemala.
What was a typical day like for you at your volunteer placement?
Two of my friends and I did this trip together, and we all signed up to volunteer in a children’s home. We worked from about 8:30am until 11:30am, and then again from 2-4pm. On a typical day, one of us would be playing with the babies and toddlers, one would be helping out in the classroom for special needs kids, and the third would be in a classroom with 10-12 other kids, usually 7-11 years old. When we were in the classrooms, we would normally be helping them out with homework and doing activities. Sometimes we would play outside with them at recess, and once or twice we went on a field trip with them (to get ice cream, or to go for a hike up a hill to a playground).
I really loved the activities that we did that were only possible because of the volunteers there. With only a few employees at the children’s home, they aren’t able to take all of the kids out very often because they don’t have enough chaperones, so when there were a few volunteers there, we were able to create more opportunities for the children, which was great. The kids don’t get to leave the home much, apart from going to school, so they really love it when they are able to leave. One of the challenges I faced was communication – although I have taken a few semesters of Spanish, it is much harder to understand children because they talk quite fast and don’t realize that you are struggling to understand them, and their train of thought is often hard to follow!
Despite the language barrier, it was quite easy to form relationships with the children because most of them love any exposure they have to adults. They loved learning English words and always wanted to play and talk with us.
Why did you choose this program?
My two friends and I are all rising juniors in college, and we are all studying abroad in various countries in Europe this coming year. As excited as we are for that, we all wanted to have a different travel experience that exposed us to a country we had never been to before and a culture we didn’t know much about. My two friends had volunteered in a children’s home in Kenya before and loved it, so we all decided that we wanted to do something similar. We talked to our study abroad offices at college and they gave us names of a few various organizations that could help us, and we found that World Endeavors offered us exactly what we needed – a homestay and a volunteer placement in countries that interested us – at an affordable price.
Did you find any challenges with the language barrier?
Yes, there were definitely some challenging moments I faced when communicating, because, at my school, most of my Spanish classes focus on reading and writing, so it’s difficult for me to talk at a reasonable pace. It got easier every day, though, and I always was able to get my thoughts across, even if my grammar was a little off. Most of the Guatemalans were patient and helpful when we struggled!
How did you get around?
Our home stay was within walking distance from the children’s home and from downtown Xela, so while we were in the city we almost always walked (although once or twice we got a cab because of the rain). When we travelled outside the city, we would go to a tour agency in the city that would organize a bus to wherever we were going.
How was staying with a host family?
The three of us stayed with a 67 year old woman who lived alone. The house was small but comfortable, and we all got our own rooms. Our host mother generally made us all 3 meals every day, although every once in while she would be out for the night and we would be on our own. She was super sweet and friendly, and told us places in Xela we should visit and restaurants we should go to. She was pretty lonely living alone, which is why she has students stay with her, so at meals she would talk and talk and talk (all in Spanish) but her stories were quite funny. The food she made was generally pretty good, and she was one of those people who had a medical remedy for everything, so with almost every meal she served us she would tell us why it was good for us (e.g. This drink is great for your skin; this dish will settle your stomach, etc).
What did you do in your free time?
On most evenings we would just stay in house, exhausted from our day and not wanting to be out alone at night. Our host mother actually kept on telling us we were antisocial and took us to her son’s Discoteca on our last night! We unfortunately only had two weekends in Xela, and on the first one we went to some natural hot springs that were heated from a nearby volcano and we went on a hike up an inactive volcano.
What was a typical meal in Guatemala?
The typical Guatemalan meal generally included rice, beans, and tortillas. Tortillas are like bread in Guatemala, and they are eaten with almost every meal. Our home stay mother would make lots of soups that were really good, and she would give us papaya for breakfast almost every morning. Everything was so inexpensive in Guatemala that we would frequently grab a pastry on our way to work, for about 20 cents.
What are you feeling now that you are home? Have you found that your time abroad has impacted you in any way?
As short as our trip was, it definitely had an impact on me. It was fascinating for me to see this more laid back lifestyle that I am unaccustomed to, and how the city dwellers have developed ways to deal with all the common problems they face. During the hurricane we lost plumbing for a few days, but it didn’t phase our host mother one bit. When the hurricane ended, the streets in the center of the city were covered in a layer of mud a foot deep (the dirt was washed down the hills into the town center with the rain), and immediately all the residents were outside shoveling the mud outside their house, as if it were any other day. Even when there were torrential downpours, we saw groups of women gathered together inside their houses, making tortillas. Their lives never stopped, no matter what natural disaster came their way, and that’s something that I think we should learn to do here.
What advice would you give to someone traveling abroad?
Honestly, the reason I think we didn’t freak out whenever we hit a glitch was because we tried to find humor in whatever situations came our way and just accepted that many things were totally out of our control. I tried not to have any expectations of what it would be like, and that made it a lot easier. So I would tell someone who is travelling abroad to be open to new opportunities and open to any experience, good or bad, that might come their way.
Number one challenge about being abroad:
For me, I wished that I had been more comfortable speaking Spanish to our home stay mother and to the kids at the home, because I think I would have formed stronger relationships with them if I had been able to communicate more successfully.
Most important thing you gained from your time abroad:
I definitely gained confidence in terms of travelling independently. It was great to be able to make our own decisions about where we went and what we did on a given day, and it was up to us to figure out how to get to a bank, an internet café, etc.
I learned that I can still keep a positive attitude even when I hit a glitch, and I also realized that I really want to become fluent in Spanish. Thanks to my experience in Guatemala, I learned what I need to improve in when it comes to learning the language!