Scammed Voluntourist Repurposes Their Trip

What’s an adventure without sweat, secrets, and something going very wrong?

A few of my friends and I wanted to go on a senior trip after high school and one of our teachers happened to be going on a voluntourism trip to Guatemala. A suave man named Paulo came to our class to invite us to volunteer with his foundation which built stove chimneys in the homes of impoverished communities. This would help to combat an asthma epidemic affecting a growing population of women and children in Guatemala, many of whom spent all day breathing carcinogenic fumes from cooking. Helping some folks who live in an exotic location sounded like the trip of a lifetime to me. The man gave off a weird vibe though. He wasn’t Guatemalan, but avoided nationality as a self proclaimed,”citizen of the world.”  However, I trusted my teacher and really wanted to travel somewhere I’d never been.

Word of a relationship between our teacher and Paulo made its way through the small group of highschoolers on a seven hour flight to Guatemala. Amongst the youth in out outfit, a boy whom I had ever seen at school took notice of our math teachers daughter. These crushes though, would not enhance but only distract from a successful trip.

The recent infrastructure of Guatemala City began with an airport that spawned a city around it. This makes landing particularly strenuous as planes must clear a wall of skyscrapers that hug the airport’s walls, then dive into the runway, leveling out just before landing. We arrived safely, and took a bus to Lake Atitlan. Once hailed as the most beautiful lake on Earth, this lake now harbors the garbage brought in from foreign countries that locals now depend on for tourism and “modern life.” There are no dumps, nor any societal agreement for how to dispose of the plastic and glass in a sustainable way, revealing a dark side to an influx of products from the developed world. We were also products from that world. Would our presence only serve as a temporary service to that neglected sustained attention required for healthy progress? I hadn’t thought about it at the time.

We met up with the foundation’s leaders; Paulo and his until-recently fiance Anna. They lived in a three story tree house about a mile up the road from the lake. Wild coffee plants grew alongside towering trees whose canopy shaded us from the beating sun. That day we went to build our first chimney for a family two ciudades down from where we were staying. To our suprise, workers showed up to help with the construction. Paulo tried explain, “they’re here to show you how to do it.” Once the workers finished the chimney we began to get suspicious. We asked the men if they were volunteers as well. They explained that they were hired hands who received pay from the foundation commissioned by the family. Yes, the Guatemalan family was paying for the chimney, and so were we through a 300 dollar required-donation to the foundation for materials. Some of us were worried, but I kept my faith… until dinner. We had also paid 200 dollars for two weeks of food, which Anna had been purchasing while we were working. She brought back five cans of cream of wheat and ten bunches of plantain. “Food for the week” she said. Nine of us, multiplied by 100 for the week, and she gets that. I was devastated. Yes, that was more food that most locals would eat, but from my eyes it was starvation.

That night we met in the boys cabin to stage a mutiny. Those in favor of staying were swayed otherwise when the girls informed us of the love triangle formed by our teacher, Paulo, and Anna. Paulo was engaged to Anna, while dating our teacher in the states. He broke up with Anna the day before we arrived, presumably to hide his secret from our teacher. So we left. Into the night the nine of us scrambled down to a nearby village and checked into a hotel. It was the Fourth of July, and some of the girls made quick work of absconding alcohol from some drunk American tourists. Brave, and naive of us to just leave. The next morning we walked back to camp and confronted the three adults, revealing our knowledge of the scam and Paulo’s scandal. Our teacher, at her breaking point, left with us to seek other ways to volunteer in Antigua.

A coffee plantation opened their doors to us for a day of work. We sifted beans into three catagories: split, round, and rejects. Fair Trade agreements ensure families get paid at least 30 US dollars a day. For a family of fifteen that works out to about 10 to 75 cents an hour, depending on who works that day. They will not be pulling in the kind of cash that Starbucks does from selling their coffee later. We did this for eight hours, and never looked at a cup of joe the same way again. Just for fun, we chartered a van and went to the volcano Pacaya. On the way up we drove past a group of weeping locals who stood atop a cliff where a Chicken Bus had just driven off. Chicken Busses are decommissioned busses usually from the US and repurposed for mass transit in Central and South America. With no regulations or maintenance, it is likely that the brakes went out. Our driver did not stop for fear of causing more accidents. There were a dozen bystanders, but help wouldn’t come for another day or so. All anyone could do was pray, so we did. We hiked up the Pacaya and roasted marsh mellows over flowing lava, a typical tourist experience on a volcano with no restrictions on where you walk. I knew though, that the same freedom granted from lack of governmental presence in the area also took all hope of rescue away from the victims of the bus accident.

Finally, we found ourselves at Hermano Pedro’s Hospital. The hospital/orphanage/church/homeless shelter has been around since 1663. Everyone split up for the next few days and went to a wing of the hospital that they felt called to. Some went to the orphanage to play with the kids, others to help clean, but about four of us went to the mental health unit. We were seated by an employee directly across from seven women who suffered from some form of mental illness. Everyone was quiet at first, silenced by the language barrier. Then a couple smiles built up some rapport. A Guatemalan woman reached out her hand to shake mine. She grabbed hold with the strength of a gorilla, and did not let go. She kept shaking and smiling, as if getting a laugh out of my discomfort. Then I realized how funny it was, and we laughed like old friends do when they make fun of themselves. I had to yank my hand back after a couple of minutes to let my blood flow back in. But it was a blast. We just sat there all day making very small conversation with a little Spanish and a lot of nonverbal signals.

I can’t say we made a huge difference in the communities we visited, but I can say that I made some friends and began to see my own culture in a new light. It wasn’t the scam, the money or lack of it, or even the kindness that shook my worldview; It was the fact that everyone knew that I knew nothing about them, and they so much about me. I suppose we all got a little help.

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