IVHQ offers eco volunteering opportunities in a range of destinations, including Costa Rica, New Zealand, Madagascar and Peru - Cusco. The work is perfect for volunteers who don’t mind challenging themselves and getting their hands dirty, supporting meaningful projects that have a strong focus on the natural environment. Keep reading for IVHQ volunteer Sharron Maree’s first-hand account of volunteering on IVHQ’s Eco-Agriculture Conservation project, just outside of Antigua, Guatemala.
If someone had told me ten, or even five years ago that in 2015 I would be traveling to Guatemala to participate in a volunteer program, I would have laughed at the absurdity of the idea. Being almost 53 years old and holding the idea that volunteer work was limited to young people under the age of thirty, I never thought it would be something I would participate in during my 50s. However, my daughter convinced me volunteering wasn’t just for young people and I started to think that maybe I was brave enough to volunteer abroad.
While having had some international travel experience, my sojourn into real overseas travel and experiencing another culture firsthand, didn’t really kick off until 2012. But that travel took me to Guatemala and I was determined to return, so deciding to start my volunteering adventure there made sense. I confess that I do have a few fear bones in my body, but the IVHQ team were amazingly supportive and helpful which squashed those thoughts.
So, what about the practicalities of volunteering on a coffee project in La Antigua, Guatemala?
With a New Zealand farming background and taste for Guatemalan coffee, deciding which project to do was relatively easy. I believe it helps if you have a passion or interest in the work you are going to be doing. Immersing yourself in another culture has its challenges. For me, working at something that had levels of familiarity provided a sense of belonging and confidence in a place which was completely foreign and I felt I lacked confidence. On some level, I could fit in, and I knew the rest would sort itself out from there.
Having no internal sense of direction, I arrived in La Antigua a few days before I was due to start work so I could get myself orientated and sort out where I had to be, what time I had to be there, and how to do that without getting lost. The team in Guatemala made me feel very welcome and after settling in with my lovely home-stay family, the first big challenge was getting to my placement. The coffee farms are situated just outside of La Antigua in a neighboring village and each day we traveled there and back on a bus. The staff in Guatemala did everything they could to support my stay and work while in La Antigua. On the first day of volunteer work, I was chaperoned to the office of De La Gente, where introductions were made and I met my fellow volunteers. From day two I had to navigate my own way there and probably looked hilarious, nervously checking the name on the front of each bus to make sure I got on the right one. Having enough cash for the bus fare is important - but having the right amount of money to also purchase deliciously fresh made tortillas for the bus ride back to La Antigua is imperative! You can smell them cooking as you walk down the street and after spending a morning hoeing weeds amongst the coffee trees, they are a welcome and very tasty treat.
Once at De La Gente, we were assigned to different coffee farmers each day and they collected us from the office, taking us to wherever we were needed. We worked from 9 a.m. till noon and then had the afternoons free for Spanish lessons or whatever you wanted to do. Weekends were also free time which allowed for plenty of time for social or adventure activities.
We undertook a variety of tasks each day so at the end of the two weeks I had assisted in weeding around trees, cleaning the coffee roasters, sorting and grading coffee beans, re-planting coffee seedlings, distributing promotional and marketing pamphlets around La Antigua and concreting in poles for a new roof which would shelter coffee beans as they dry outside. Working on the coffee plantations, I was reminded of stories my Dad told us about his life growing up and working on dairy farms from the 1930’s through until machinery and technology eliminated the need for seriously hard manual labour. It was lovely to see and experience people of all ages working together for the greater good of the collective family unit and community.
The first personal insight I gained was that everyone volunteers for different reasons and they are all valid and worthy. By the time my volunteer experience came to an end, the reason I decided to volunteer in the first place was insignificant in comparison to how much the experience challenged and awakened me to aspects of myself and how I function in the world. It was truly a wonderful and very humbling experience.
My host family were absolutely lovely and between my inadequate Spanish language skills and their better English skills, I think we communicated pretty well. However, there were a couple of times we gave up and just burst out laughing at the comical attempts, and enactments, to make ourselves understood. I think laughter is a universal language that speaks volumes and connects us at times when the language barrier just can’t be broken. Would I do it again? Given the opportunity - in a heartbeat!
If you are ready to pack your bags and experience living in Guatemala then you can find out more about volunteering with IVHQ in Guatemala here.