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Erica's Travel Adventures

Starting volunteer placement and Spanish classes

GUATEMALA | Thursday, 10 January 2013 | Views [304] | Comments [1]

Life lessons learned so far:


Water temperature is directly related to water pressure; the more pressure, the warmer the water (I think.  It doesn’t actually get hot).


Guatemalans can pack more people onto a school bus than any other country in the world.


Running water in houses typically runs out by 8:00 PM


I started my orientation at 8:00 AM Monday, January 7.  My roommate Dainia was kind enough to wake up early to walk me to the volunteer office, Maximo Nivel, so I wouldn’t have to go alone my first time.  Orientation was short and to the point, which was very nice.  We found out our volunteer placements.  I am working at an orphanage called Casa Aleluya for children who were abandoned by their parents.  The orphanage as 500 children, but I am only working with the 0-6 year olds.  Then we took a Spanish placement test that I didn’t bother finishing because I didn’t understand most of it.  After the test we took a quick walking tour of Antigua.  The city is on a grid, which is very convenient for the directionally challenged.  Volcan Agua is directly south of Antigua, making a fantastic landmark (also beautiful to look at).  We walked passed the bus terminal, the post office, along some main streets, the central park area, a supermarket and safe ATMs to use.  It was a nice opportunity to talk to other new volunteers and talk about various trips we wanted to take on weekends. 


After the walking tour I signed up for 4 weeks of Spanish classes and walked home for lunch.  Then I had to be back at Maximo Nivel by 1:30 to be taken to Casa Aleluya to meet the people in charge and learn how to get there.  One of the Maximo Nivel employees, Victor, walked us to the bus terminal and explained how the bus system works.  Before I explain the system, let me explain the buses.  They are old U.S. school buses called chicken buses that were passed on to Mexico before ending up in Guatemala.  They are painted bright, bold colors so that they don’t look so worn down. 


The first step in our journey is to find a bus that says “Guate” on it.  Someone will generally be standing outside yelling “Guate, Guate” in case you are confused.  Then I ask the bus helper (the one yelling “Guate,” if they are stopping at San Lucas.  If he says yes, enter the bus.  Step two is to attempt to find a seat towards the front of the bus.  You also want to try to get a seat that is empty or with only 1 person in it because they will fill the bus with 3 per seat and it is much more comfortable to be fully in a seat than half hanging off.  Step 3 is to hold on tightly so you don’t fall out of the seat or slam into the person next to you going around the curves on the road.  Remember, there are no speed limits.  After the first stop, you keep an eye out for a big supermarket with a huge overpass.  That’s San Lucas.  Get off there, and go over the big bridge.  On the other side of the road, find another bus that is heading toward Chimantenango.  Ask this bus helper if they will stop at Casa Aleluya (not an actual stop but if it’s worth their while they stop).  If he says no, repeat process until a bus says yes.  Casa Aleluya is maybe a 5-minute drive from this stop, and by then the bus is packed but we aren’t allowed to stand.  Instead of waiting at the front we have to pass through all of the over stuffed seats to the back so we can sit down, only to stand back up.  After a nice, relaxing, smooth ride, there we are!  


This first afternoon that we went (my placement is actually from 8-12 in the morning but all of the new volunteers went in the afternoon together) we went into the area for the younger children to meet the staff.  Within 2 minutes curious kids had poked their heads out to say hello and immediately ran into our arms to be held.  It was incredible.  A sweet little girl named Sandy jumped into my arms and hugged me so hard.  I honestly didn’t want to have to let go.  After Victor introduced us he took off to take some other volunteers to their orphanage and left us with a volunteer who had been there before and could teach us how to use the chicken buses and get back to Antigua. 


I must have held the same little girl for 30 minutes.  We brought markers and paper for the kids to use.  The facility is very run down.  There are a few broken, mini play places, a few wooden benches a couple of wooden tables, and a wooden sea saw.  Everything is communal so the kids have no ownership over anything except maybe their toothbrush and bed.  There is one huge closet for all of the girls to share all of the clothes and the same for the boys.  The kids are all so cute and loving, friendly, and happy.  Even with all they don’t have, they’ve made it work.  They are all brothers and sisters.  They look out for one another and play together.  Everyone wants a hug, to be held, to be recognized as an individual.  It broke my heart that they knew right away to mime everything they said because most of us wouldn’t understand what they were saying.  They are so young and shouldn’t have to accommodate others.  I actually understood a decent amount and so far can communicate fairly well, which is relieving.  I knew how to ask if Carmen, one of the women who works there permanently as the cook, if she needed help passing out snack.  They had cinnamon bread sticks and each child must have taken 20.  They don’t go without food, from what I can tell, which is nice because that is the only thing they seem to have plenty of.  They are so used to having people walk in and out of their lives that they were so comfortable with us after 30 seconds.  It’s amazing and awful all at the same time. 


  The next morning was my first full shift at the orphanage.  I had to leave by 7:15 to get to Casa Aleluya by 8:00 so Desi, another girl in my placement, met at my house and she, my roommate Amanda, and I all caught the bus together.  Amanda takes the same route as us but just stays on for longer.  When we first got there, most of the kids were still in their rooms.  All of the girls sleep in one room with bunk beds with one woman, Carmella, who they call Mommy Carmella.  I haven’t been in the boy’s room, but I imagine it is set up the same way.  The kids all come outside dressed and ready to play.  Everyone wants a hug and to be held.  I spent a lot of the morning with a 4-year-old girl named Misa.  We walked around a lot and other kids would come with us for a little while and then get interested in something else.  Misa wanted to be held most of the time so I sat with her in my lap or we went on the slides or swings.  The kids literally played outside for 4 hours with no structure.  They seem to love it, but they aren’t learning anything to help their futures.  Apparently the older kids go to school but I don’t understand how the system works because I see them outside a lot of the morning and some of the kids I’m with are 7 and 8 years old. 


A couple of hours into the morning a few girls came over to me and tried to tell me in rapid Spanish that one of them had been tripped by a boy and scraped her toe.  When I finally understood what they were saying I picked her up and took her to clean it out.  They don’t have soap in the bathroom so I wasn’t sure what to do, but the girls when to get Irina, the woman in charge of the younger kids, and she brought the girl, Sandra, to clean it up.  As she was putting antiseptic on Sandra’s cut I noticed her finger and toenails all looks like they are disintegrating.  Irina explained to me that they can’t get the medicine for it in Guatemala and that Sandra’s mom had never cleaned them at home.  I didn’t understand whether it was a fungus or a disease causing her nails to crumble, but it looks awful for the poor girl.  If anyone knows more about a medicine that could help her and how I could get it, please let me know! 


When Sandra was all cleaned up, I went outside and sat with some of the girls and taught them how to make cootie catchers out of paper.  We didn’t have anything to write with so we just folded them. These kids don’t even have crayons or pencils or paper.  Desi wanted to read with one of the boys and we asked if they had any books, but they didn’t.  These kids never get to read stories.  Desi and I left pretty soon after that because the kids went to eat lunch and we were supposed to leave in 15 minutes anyways. 


That afternoon I went to my first Spanish lesson.  I originally started in the most basic level but I ended up moving up to a faster paced class because I already know the alphabet etc.  My teacher is an adorable Guatemalan woman named Odilia.  She is so nice and very patient.  She speaks minimal English so the class is almost completely in Spanish.  I think it will be very helpful!  So far I am signed up for 4 weeks of classes.  My roommates Dave, Dainia, and Jason all finish class at the same time as me so we all walked back together.  That night we met up with a ton of other volunteers from our program at a club called Mono Loco (crazy monkey).  It was ladies night and drinks are 4Q (50 cents in the U.S.).  I saw some girls from my orientation, Kate, Hannah, and Mae, which was really nice!  We spent some time at that club and then went to another club called Ricky’s.  It wasn’t very crowded and apparently doesn’t usually get busy until around 1am.  I was ready to go back home and Amanda wasn’t feeling very well so we took a cab with Jason and left around 1.  I was so tired and had to get up at 6:45 the next morning so I crashed when we got back.                


This morning I woke up completely exhausted but ready for the orphanage.  Desi and I got there very easily, already getting used to the bus system.  The kids were excited to see us, and we had immediate playmates.  I spent most of the morning with the same few girls walking around and playing.  At the end of the morning the girls took me to look into the baby room, which I had yet to see.  There was a little baby boy that they pointed out laying in his crib crying.  The room is mass chaos with too many kids under 3 and not enough help.  I went to pick the poor kid up at literally as soon as I held him he stopped crying.  I felt awful for him.  After a few minutes I realized that he has a bald spot on the back of his head from laying in his crib all day long.  It made me feel so sick.  His name is Freddy, and he is only 4 months old.  I am going to spend time everyday holding him so that he can have more time out of his crib. This afternoon, Desi and I want to the supermarket to buy toys to bring to the orphanage.  I also bought some books and candy.  I’m so excited to be able to give them to the kids!  



You are so lucky spending all ur day with kids, and partying at night while i sit at school and pretend to pay attention! You are so lucky!

  Ari Jan 11, 2013 1:38 PM

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