Antigua: Kitchen Tables, Volunteering and Coffee

La Antigua (the one in Guatemala!) received us, with its arms wide open, and there we had our life for 4 weeks: we were staying with a Guatemalan family, working as volunteers and studying Spanish.

Integration was easy. We unpacked our bags in the first evening and started meeting people and our projects next morning. Antigua is packed with the same of our kind but also cafes, restaurants and beautiful scenery. Oh what a beautiful small city! 
The beautiful Arch of Santa Catalina

Chocola la la la anyone?

After some research, and like always, some compromise, we agreed on doing our volunteering and studying via Maximo Nivel. Originally a language school Maximo is also a bridge between many parties - among them us - volunteers/students and the organizations, that need hands to do some work. They are also the link between the local families, that accommodate the volunteers, cook and integrate us as one of the family.

For volunteering we both wanted to do something outside out of our field, out of comfort zone kind of thing. William knew from the beginning that he wanted to do construction, I knew I didn't want that. With the research I found an Eco-farming project where I would be helping coffee farmers from a close by village, located in the slopes of the inactive volcano Agua, from 8AM to 12PM, 5 days a week. And that was it! De La Gente it's the cooperative that brings the coffee farmers together, about 30 farmers after 11years of existence. Every morning I was going to San Miguel Escobar, a 10min bus ride, and met with the farmer at the "From the People" office. A Maximo Nivel's partner, De La Gente supports these farmers with loans, legal matters, the best techniques of coffee farming and, among many other things, with a massive marketing strategy that gives them a lot of visibility (mainly in the US). Check their website and Facebook page, it's worth the time!

Mostly I worked with different farmers every day. In my first day, out of the coffee harvesting season that goes from November to March more or less, I picked coffee berries - red, green and some black ones, all had to go out of the trees. These berries were not the best quality anymore but they had to be picked as they fall they can germinate a fungus to the tree itself. And along with the damage that they could do to the cycle, these beans are still source of income - the farmers sell these type of beans to produce instant coffee, as its of such low quality. And this was how I learned what was I drinking almost every morning back home... I did all sort of different things during the volunteering with De La Gente - some related to coffee some not, but all with on thing in mind: they would be done to help the farmers somehow. I roasted and packaged coffee to sell in coffee shops in Antigua, I picked peaches (duraznos) at about 1500m above sea level, made firewood with a machete and carried it up hill few days later, I pealed peanuts to be used in natural peanut butter, I cleaned the weeds from the coffee trees and dig holes to protect the baby coffee trees from the heavy winter rain. I distributed flyers in the city to promote the tours that De La Gente does almost every day (if you are in Antigua check them out!!).

The complete coffee process is long and needs time. For example, after picking berries the pulp has to be removed and the coffee beans have to dry. Only after it's time to sort - first, second and third quality beans - some to export, some to sell locally. Sorting can be tedious, and for doing it you need a good pair of eyes but it was by far one of my favorite tasks. The farmers open their houses to us, seat with us, and are eager to share their knowledge, experience and dreams. It was in this intimate environment that Florian thought me all about the signs that nature sends when the rain is about to arrive; I got to know Manuel's dreams of taking his 4 kids to Florida (yes, to Disney world!); I got to know Julio, a 18years old helping his dad in the fields early mornings and learning English in the afternoons. At a kitchen table, in their backyard, you can even learn how shy, happy, humble and thankful a farmer is, with no words, just by the smile he gives you when it's time to say "adios" - that's how I met Mercedes.
Red coffee berries

After the pulp is removed and they dry in the sun for some time

we roast the bean

And grind it
After packaged we all know the next steps
It may sound that I was doing this all by myself, which would be totally impossible. We were always 2-3 volunteers every week but there was a lot of rotation which made it hard to connect with everyone but still I met great people and we had great talks. I'm sure that without them, I would have been a lot more useless picking duraznos or digging holes - it's was always a great team work! Important is to mention that my experience got in a whole other level because of the little things, or better say, because of people. People like Jane - our helpful De La Gente point of contact, always starting the days with an important ritual of a coffee co-op: turning on the coffee machine. And like Phomolo - our Maximo Nivel field manager, that at least once a week, became one of us and worked as hard, always with a joke ready to make us crack. 

Manuel and the helping crew
Even 3 and 5 years old can help and have fun!

Happy sorting morning
This post is getting way too long, but I still need to mention Thelma dos Reyes, our lovely host mother. The house was located in the boarders of Antigua, simple, warm, full. The family was basically formed by 5 women and one grandson but she had a lot more people coming in and out throughout the day. Food was never an issue while we stayed there and I always had the feeling that she spent her entire day, cooking. Not only cooking but also laughing! The whole family would have food after us and thats where they would laugh even harder, together, at a kitchen table. 
I got sick the last weekend there and I'm pretty sure it was something I ate at home, but I will always remember her food as amazingly tasty. The people we met in Thelma's will also be part of our memories and our hearts - William wrote all I wanted to say about them in his blogpost!
My fav. Guatemalan family selfie
Our Guatemalan mom
I talked about the volunteering so many times now that I wonder if I still add something new to it...
I feel though that I need to share it as much as possible to inspire people to try it too. But it doesn't have to be abroad, it doesn't have to be a month, it doesn't have to be on the other side of the world. We can be volunteers in our neighborhood, in our city, in our own country - just look around and try to see if there is someone in need of help. I'm sure there is someone in need of a smile as there is always room for it.  
But to be totally fair and honest, I guess I will never be able to explain in words how good is the feeling of giving, of helping, with simple acts of kindness, sweat, strength, effort. I will never be able to truly explain the power of a kitchen table. 
Give it a try!

From El Cerro de la Cruz, my fav. view from Antigua and Agua