Volunteering and Learning in Guatemala
Guatemala — Uniterra
Volcano in Antigua, Guatemala.
Are you a future volunteer? Or are you just curious? Wouldn’t it be nice if you knew all the mistakes a person can do when coming to Guatemala? Well, I can’t tell you all of them, but I sure can tell you mine and hope you can learn without having to go through them yourself. Also, I will give you some advice, which may be less entertaining but hopefully still useful. Some of them, I might have had, but didn’t quite apply and others that just came to me in my first few weeks here.
MISTAKES / OPPORTUNITIES TO LEARN
We all learn from our mistakes. What if you could learn from mine without having to go through the consequences yourself?
Here we go:
Mistake or Opportunity to learn #1 My first day of training in Guatemala City, I got to meet the whole team from CECI-Guatemala. I have had friends from Central and South America for a long time and still I leaned in and gave the first person two kisses on each cheek instead of one. It’s just a small anecdote, but it goes a long way of showing how the reflexes from our own culture can be strong.
Mistake or Opportunity to learn #2 Also on my first day, I had dinner at the hotel’s restaurant and maybe it was the exhaustion from all the traveling, but again I made a mistake that could easily have been avoided. It is known that often the tip is already included on the bill here, but my brain seemed to have forgotten this fact too, so I left 20% tip in addition to the already included tip. No matter how much you prepare and how much you know, these trivial mistakes will most likely happen to you. In case of doubt about the tip, just ask the waiter and they will tell you if you need to add it or not.
Mistake or Opportunity to learn #3 My next opportunity to learn also happened in my first few days there. I had just gotten a SIM card and a package for my phone so I had a Guatemalan number and access to Internet. The company kept sending text messages with ads and offers. My Spanish isn’t perfect but I can more than get by. In this case my first language, French, went and tricked me. One of the text messages said that I should send a text with a certain code to “finalizar” the contract, which to me sounded like “finaliser” in French or “finalize” in English – as in “to conclude” the contract. Well I did, but “finalizar” meant to terminate the contract, so I had local mobile phone access for a big 30 minutes. In this case knowing more than one language played against me, but I contacted them with the hotel phone and could resolve it all with lots of explanation on “false friends”.
Mistake or Opportunity to learn #4 One of the mistakes I was going to write was to have brought too many clothes for the wrong weather. After a month though, Antigua really has all types of weather, so do bring a bit of everything. Don’t forget your rain boots and your raincoat if you come between May and September!
BE PATIENT. The whole world isn’t all as much in a hurry as we can be. Yes, we are here for a certain amount of time and need to facilitate a change with our partner during this time but taking the time now to unpack, meet the locals, get to know them, etc. can help widely to make your project a sustainable success in the future.
This one is a given, but still very important to keep in mind: TRY TO UNDERSTAND THE CULTURE WITHOUT JUDGING IT. It is so easy to judge other people’s actions, but if you take the time to ask questions and understand them, not only will you find out that there are often good reasons for everything you see, but also, it will help you collaborate with them. This also includes speaking the language or at least making an effort in your free time to learn more of it every day.
FIND YOURSELF A SOCIAL CIRCLE/NETWORK. It can be by creating bonds with the people you are now living with (for instance, I have three roommates) or with new people by going out and doing activities you enjoy (for example, I go to yoga classes in Antigua). Not only will it help you miss your home less, but also, you will start to feel at home in this new country you are in.
TRUST THE OFFICE TEAM. Obviously, we have the BEST team here in CECI-Guatemala! Seriously, they are here for you (us) to help with any questions or any doubts you may have. They have a lot of resources that you can use and often so, more experience, which you can benefit a great deal from. Don’t hesitate to seek help; you are all a team and you are all working towards the same goals.
PREPARE YOURSELF. I made mistakes about things I already knew and others about things I had prepared myself for… and yet they happened. Obviously, I can’t guarantee that you will make no mistakes, but you will make even less if you prepare yourself (read about the country and culture(s), read the volunteer blog (you can now check this box!), ask your entourage if they know anyone from this country that you can have chats with and ask them as many questions as you can, etc.).
P.S. Mistakes are learning tools and opportunities.
Thank you for reading.
Here are some of the things that surprised/astonished/amazed/impressed me when I first got to Guatemala.
-The never-ending diversity of the flora is beautiful; there are SO MANY different species of plants and trees, it is truly majestic. Also, any landscape, well, anywhere you look really, is GORGEOUS in Antigua. When it isn’t the vegetation, just the volcanos, the architectures, the ruins and mountains in the distance make you feel quite small and lucky to be there.
-I had seen this in Peru, but it’s something you never really get used to: the homeless dogs in the streets. They often are super skinny and sometimes even look hurt. You’ll want to adopt them all.
-The kindness of people. They are always ready to help you around and answer any questions you have, really. Nothing beats getting so many smiles and ¡Hola, buenos días! in the streets by strangers as you go do your grocery shopping.
-Walking around without looking down at EVERY (only a slight exaggeration) step you take can be considered a serious hazard. Seriously, the streets in Antigua are so uneven; going up and down and for the most part made of cobblestones. Bring good walking shoes with a thick sole. Also, the sidewalks are tinier than I am used to and they take some time to adjust to when walking side by side with someone.
-The fireworks and/or firecrackers almost every day, several times a day in Antigua. At first, I thought they were gunshots and they gave me quite the scare, until I asked what it was. After a whole month, I am still startled by them. I am not sure four months are enough to get used to the loud sound they make.