A day volunteering in Antigua, Guatemala

I wake up at 06:20, early enough to skip the bathroom line and smell the coffee boiling in the kitchen. Quickly I dress my new rough denim jeans and synthetic t-shirt that I got by participating on the beneficial run on a Sunday. They are still dirty and smelly from the work days before. I leave my boots for last to avoid messing up Thelma's ceramic floor. She's our host mom, our “Guatemama”, and it's busy in the kitchen, like usual, preparing breakfast. It has everything I love for eating in the morning: fresh tropical fruits, granola, fruit yogurt, filtered black coffee and some omelet. Thelma's short and large lady, she's always caring for her big family and it's usually smiling. She's the matriarch, everybody loves and respects her, including me.

Beautiful old colonials houses everywhere
My last day of work
Me and the guys from Niños Con Bendicion
When I'm done eating my breakfast Diana and the other roommates start coming and sitting on the table. I saw a few people coming and going, from all kind of backgrounds. There were two girls fresh into University. A family of six – yes, six. Mom, dad, two daughters, a youngest boy and even a friend-nanny, I'll tell more about them soon. The only girl not from the US, from Amsterdam, and briefly her dutch friend. A medical researcher guy. A student of some kind of medical subject that I never quite understood. From Hawaii, a couple and their young boy. A blond women with stylish haircut and glasses looking like an artist with some amazing life stories. A group of five young girls still at high school. Some of them met each other in the house, others left before having the change. I had the privilege of living with all of them for some time. We all came to Antigua to improve our Spanish and fulfill the need for travel. For some it was the first time on an airplane and other had already traveled around the world.

At 07:10 boots laced and gear in my back I leave the house headed to Maximo Nível office in the heart of the historical city, an UNESCO Heritage site. Maximo Nível is a for profit organization that we hired to help facilitate our volunteering work and Spanish classes. They did a great job for a reasonable price so it's definitely recommended. The people that work in Antigua's office were truly caring and did their best to help with whatever we needed.

It takes approximately 12 minute fast paced walk from my house to the office. I avoid a bunch of noisy and smoky chicken-buses and many other people on the streets. Local students in uniforms headed to school, foreign students to their Spanish classes, other volunteer workers to their projects. I say “Buenos dias!” to a few familiar faces. I can take a different route every day and I do it so that I can enjoy the views of the many cool cafes, hostels, handcraft shops, grocery stores and so on. Mostly all unique, almost no global chain shop around. Just before getting into the office I take a quick look behind my back to check the volcanoes on the horizon. No fire today, unfortunately. On good days I hear thunder on a cloudless sky and see some smoke above the volcano. It's active and roaring.

At 07:25 I meet my fellow workmates and usually there's someone new. I had the privilege and the pleasure to work with a bunch of different people. There was a recently graduated tall guy from Iowa that speaks on a very lazy pace, our best worker is a blond girl from New Jersey, a vietnamese-danish girl that wore only black, a short and funny Italian girl living in Oregon, a young diabetic girl from Toronto, an ex-hairdresser from Chicago on his 50s, a retired sir reaching 80. The last new one I met was a med-school girl from Canada. My boss, Freddy Antonio or Tony how I call him, shows up and cracks some salsa moves and says “Vamos muchachos!” and off we go. Tony's amazing person! He's always cheered up and makes sure everyone around is smiling. Joking and teasing all the time but also teaching and advising. He really cares that we're having a good time and being productive. Since I was the only one speaking reasonable Spanish, we got close quite quickly, translating instructions from Spanish to English – even tough he speaks it – and telling stories to each other. I learned from him the tricks of mixing concrete, the latest corruption scandals, how Guatemalans see the world and tips for a happy marriage.

We head to San Felipe de Jesus, a little town to the north of Antigua. Two dogs usually walk with us, somehow they like us even tough we never gave them anything. There's a local market in front of the church's square. Besides a closed middle-class condo and a five star country hotel, there's not much, only ordinary people getting by. Next to the local primary school is an elderly home, Casa Maria, where we're building a new kitchen for them. The place used to be a private for profit business but due to the financial difficulties of its guests, the business changed to a charity organization. They housed around 60 grandpas and grandmas of which 20 paid a monthly fee for some better conditions and the workers salary. The other 40 or so where there completely free and the organization survives – barely – thanks to donations and other charity work.

There were all sorts of elderly people there, some perfect lucid and talkative, others schizophrenic, with advanced Alzheimers and other mental diseases, in wheel chairs or tied to poles, all frail. Most had a name and a family, others were just left there and they had no idea who they were, where they came from. The facilities where barely acceptable. It was very humbling place and it definitely needed all the help it could get. I was extremely happy to be able to help them anyway I could, but truthfully, I couldn't handle working directly with the elderly in those conditions. 

One day, there's was something unusual in the entrance, bellow the shrine to Holy Mary: a white bed sheet covering a small solemn mount. It was Dona Maria, “Choula” as we called her because she would scream it almost every day, the whole morning and annoy us and anyone around her. It was sad and disturbing thought to always be calling for someone that will never come and never be able to realize it. This was a sad event for us, so sudden. We started working even harder to make sure the kitchen was ready as soon as possible. We start getting busy at 08:00.

Learning how to whisper
I got really strong working with construction! 
Hiking Pacaya Volcano on the rain. Can you see the vapor?
Night out in Antigua with our Spanish teacher Eric and dutch Tess
Oh yeah, construction is hard work. It takes time, there are many details to pay attention and you can get hurt badly if you are not careful – thankfully we only got a few scratches. Nothing was too complicated and working with your body is very gratifying. It's instant feedback for your efforts. We would dig big holes with shovels, bend and cut rebar to make steel columns, mix sand with rocks and cement to make concrete. We carried building materials, like cinder blocks and rebar, to the construction zone. With levels, plomos and a fishing lines we would slowly raise the walls and concrete columns. Some days the supervisor would show up and help us out. At 09:30 we would have a break, eat some snacks, tell stories and jokes to each other and then we would continue until 11:30. It was a very relaxed working environment very different from the real thing as Tony would tell me.

Running to our goals
Beautiful ruins everywhere

The cliché
I almost fell into the water...

Our friend Cambray at San Pedro, Lake Atitlan
We all walked back to Maximo's office, some would take shortcuts to their houses. I would walk back home through the most shadowy path to avoid the heat. If I needed some apples, medicines or if there was anything interesting happening around I would take a detour. Surely I didn't want to miss lunch because it was always wonderful. Thelma would always impress us with a dish even better than the previous. We were very lucky because I heard that local food, for the locals, is usually not so good. So, around 12:00 I was back at the house and would run straight to the shower but there still one hour to relax until lunch was served. Diana would arrive usually a few minutes after me so we could chill in our room and tell the day's stories.

Lunch time was always family time for me in Brasil and at Thelma's, I felt the same vibe. All the chatter, passing plates around, people telling good and bad stories was there. It was so nice! One of my favorite stories is of the Doese Family – it's pronounced like “daisy”. They are a young family of five from US. Mom and Dad met in college, got married and started having kids. The whole family is very religious – Catholics maybe? – they sing and play at their church, they were involved with volunteering other times and baptized all their children. Oh, the children! So sweet, innocent, clever, fragile, pure, loving. Actually, it's been a long time since I saw so many demonstrations of true love. The love that a stressed mom after a long day that took too long to end pour at her baby boy when he hugs her when she's finally back. The love that dad shows to his older daughter that just won't behave at the dinner table and has to be corrected - going to bed earlier. I've never once saw the parents being violent with their kids. My mom would slap me for much less than what I saw the kids doing. The parents would talk and explain things. They would make propositions and kids would take compromises. They explained why they were being punished all the time specially when the kids made a bad decision. Cheating and lying were the worst crimes. It was very tiring but also amazing thing to see. It tickled my fatherhood instincts.

The Doese's, Tess and we at Monterrico Beach
Last goodbye to our friends
The Doese's are a great family and in many ways they are perfectly normal but what sets them apart is what they are doing now and why: they quit everything and moved to Puebla, México, to help out in an orphanage as missionaries. I make this sounds so boring and silly but I can't help it, my words are not capable enough to fully communicate someone's calling. For that what it was. Something that makes you put your family under a lot of stress and risk must be something God send, must be a total commitment to faith and purpose. It was awe inspiring. They made us feel sane and normal again, specially in a world full of selfish people and its actions, yours truly included. The cherry of the cake was their "nanny":Lis. She was always quiet because she was "working" but we talked and I was so impressed with her. An entrepreneur - she helped co-found a brilliant company called Trades of Hopea writer, a student, a learner, a bright young girl. These six were great company and I wish them all the best, with all my heart.

Around 13:40 all the guests are done with lunch and Thelma's family would come and eat. They had their own meal but would also eat whatever we hadn't finished. Seldom we would sit and chit-chat with them for a few minutes before coming back to our room where I would take a heavenly ciesta for half hour. From 14:30 to 15:30 it was free time. Usually I would just be wasting time on social networks, watching videos or reading articles. Some times we would do Spanish homework or plan the next moves of our trip.

At 16:00 our Spanish class started, at Maximo's Nivel school also in the city center. It's a red building with 5 classrooms, an open terrace for studying and social events and a computer room for Facebooking – you could do more of course but what do youngster like more than socializing? In the first two weeks we had a cool young men as a teacher. As Diana likes to put it, he is a character. He grew up in Antigua, attended to Arts school – dancing, drawing, theater -, he has a technical degree in electronics and computers, he founded a charity school for teaching informatics to kids, he taught Spanish for foreigners for many years, he is a professional DJ and audio engineer and now he's graduating in Law School. After that he wants to continue his dream of coaching football to young kids. The guy was basically everything and he was a good teacher and even took us out one night in his convertible old Mustang to some really cool bars in town. The last two weeks we had a different teacher, this time a local lady and housewife. She was an incredible Spanish teacher and as kind as a grandma. We learned a lot with them in just one month and hopefully we'll stop speaking Portuñol – mix of Portuguese and Spanish – soon.

My favorite day of the week: beerness
I shrunk!!!
Lucky shot from a horse that was passing by
I never learned why masks are so popular in Guate...
After school, which ended at 18:00, we had one hour until dinner so we usually just went straight back home. Rarely we would meet a friend for ice-cream or coffee after class. So at 19:00 the same routine of lunch was repeated but with simpler dishes. Everyone would retire to their bedrooms around 20:00, Di and I would spend more time online and by 22:00 would be calling it a day. We lived in the far southeast corner of the city, outside of the historic center, and had a tight schedule for meals, volunteering and school. We almost didn't go out at night at all but I heard from my co-workers that Antigua's a fun place to party and the gringos go crazy. But my first teacher and my boss told me it's even better for local guys because there are tons of blond foreign girls around wanting to experience a different culture! On the weekends we would explore Antigua and its wonderful ruins, cafes and shops. We went to Monterrico beach, to the Pacaya volcano and to Lake Atitlan. We were also sick for a weekend so we just stayed in bed (and close to the toilet).

Happy hard workers. You should also try some volunteering

Boloney day = happy day

Noisy, pollutant, old and stylish: chicken buses! 
The builders also know how to have fun - Amazing photobomb!

I'll miss you Tony. Cheers! 
Our last day working. So many emotions.
The Hawaiian lady introduced us to the concept of Mini Life, which is exactly what we had in Antigua, that she and her husband have been doing for a few years now. Instead of locking up their house and doing tourism for ten days, like many other people would, they rented their house via AirBnb for a month and moved to an interesting city to work and live there. We loved the idea and for sure we'll try it more.

Living for a month in Antigua was a marvelous experience. Since the beginning we saw it as one of the most important period of our travels and we're glad to say that we made it. We got what we wanted! We said many goodbyes to our new friends, we shared contacts and tears of happiness and sadness with them. But now the journey goes on, heading north to unplanned countries: Mexico and Cuba!

Have you been to Guatemala too? If not, what are you waiting for? Tell us more on the comments!


  1. Amazing! My favorite post so far ;) @Will: next time we meet, I wanna hear this " reasonable Spanish" ;) Beijinhooooooos!

    1. Woot! I'm glad you liked it! Si, por supuesto. Me encanta español.