Tag Archives: volunteering

Workaway Volunteering, Mozonte, Nicaragua

Having spent three months lounging around (bar the occasional flurry of activity heading up a mountain, or down to the coral reef) we felt it was time to do something. Something useful, and hopefully enlightening: yes, we’d come to that embarrassing traveller phase of wanting to Make a Difference. We were, however, fully aware of the pitfalls of volun-tourism, not only a terrible mangling of the English language but potentially damaging to the local set up, too. So we did our research, and came across an opportunity to lend a hand on a smallholding near the Honduran-Nicaraguan border; the project promised to be about emersion in the local culture, a chance to get our hands dirty and help a hardworking family at the same time. Perfect.

As promised, we were well and truly off the traveller trail, with no other tourists in Mozonte other than another, long-term volunteer. Depending on age, the standard response from the local children would either be laughter or a look of utter confusion as we walked past, so infrequent were people of such a pale and sweaty persuasion. We were warmly welcomed by the family who graciously smiled as I stumbled through my limited Spanish (which I was quickly learning was far more basic than I thought). After setting up our camp beds, we settled down for an early night in preparation for a days’ work. And there was the rub.

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The morning came. After breakfast, we drank some coffee, played with the dogs, drank some more coffee. Our host came and went, occasionally pointing out the various fruits and flowers as he passed. By midafternoon we started to think we’d missed something – had we been up too late? Was an instruction lost as we desperately tried to translate everything? By dinner we were feeling very guilty, having done nothing but fill our faces as the busy family brought out meal after meal. We resolved to gather the right Spanish to ask our fellow volunteer. She laughed and told us this was the way things were in Mozonte.

The following day, the pattern continued – a days’ worth of activity constituting staccato conversation, a couple of hours navigating the dictionary or a local paper, three sizeable meals, a nap, and approximately twenty five cups of coffee. All in all, an odd combination of total inactivity while being highly caffienated, leaving us somewhat twitchy.

In truth, it was a bit of a revelation that I wasn’t at ease doing nothing. I come from a long line of snoozers, people who can sniff out a sofa and a Guardian supplement from a mile away, a tribe known for its abundance of comfortable jumpers and an itchy trigger finger when presented with the ignition for a living room fire. Unsuspecting, overdressed guests have been known to melt if they sit still for long enough in our house – which they inevitably will, having eaten themselves into a comatose state.

We decided that a change of pace was required, and set about spreading potential ‘events’ across the fortnight we’d agreed to. Everything from visiting a nearby coffee finca to clothes washing, walking to the local park or sweeping the patio would be carefully allocated its own day, savoured like a bar of chocolate eaten one square at a time. Meals would be anticipated with some excitement, being both something we could find enough Spanish to talk about (while pointing at ingredients – “what do you call this? What do you call THIS?”) and really delicious. This was especially true of breakfast, usually involving scrambled eggs, fresh tortillas, windfall avocados and juice blended from one or more of the many fruit trees on the property. As soon as plates were empty, we leapt on them like maniacs, fighting each other off and rushing to wash them in an effort to be helpful.

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It is perhaps a singularly British thing to feel this anxious about being in the way. We had, after all, paid to cover our food and our stay, so there was no reason to feel like we were taking our hosts for a ride. Nevertheless, a combination of our poor Spanish and the sense that everyone would find their jobs much easier without being interrupted by tourists madly miming at them left us feeling awkward. At one point we were invited to pick the ripe coffee beans. Fantastic! we thought, a contribution at last. As it turned out, it was job that definitely didn’t require two people slathered in bug spray and sun cream wearing their most sensible gardening gear, being as it was a ten minute task clearly only given to humour the overly keen house guests.

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And yet. As time passed we grew a bit more comfortable in letting the conversation take a pause when we’d run out of things to say that didn’t involve the weather. We learnt to space out the coffees to avoid the tell-tale twitch in the eye. And, we were able to experience things that we otherwise wouldn’t have: going to a rousing local football match and learning all the bad words; watching the local universities fight it out in a bone-shaking drumming competition; getting a private finca tour by the owner, a man incredibly passionate about what he does, despite the problems of drought and the cheap mechanised production enabled by the likes of Starbucks, who ensure that coffee growers like Jorge have to sell their coffee for less than it costs to grow it.

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As chance would have it, on our penultimate day we were given a job, clearing ground for a new batch of broccoli seedlings bought with the aim of adding to the farm’s diversity. Unsurprisingly, five hours in and we were exhausted, grimy and sore – a brief but revealing lesson in what farming here really takes. As we came to leave, we were genuinely sad to be saying goodbye, and the constant noise and chaos of the capital Managua cames as a quite a shock. Though hardly experts in farming, we’d learnt a lot – and were ready to tackle the next adventure with gusto.

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3 Day Hike from Xela to Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Xela had been described as “the perfect Guatemalan town”,  but as far as we could see it was just a town, in Guatemala. We weren’t overly keen to stay, but did so for a few days before we could set off on a three day hike east to Lake Atitlan, organised by a company called Quetzaltrekkers.

There are plenty of companies in Xela offering the same three day hike, but none can make quite the same altruistic claim as Quetzaltrekkers: run entirely by volunteers, the treks fund two projects for abandoned and orphaned children, with 90% of the money going towards a school and shelter in town.

The volunteers are a rag tag bunch who come and go as responsibilities allow, all passionate about the project (less so about cleaning). Our guides would be Tyler, an 18-year old American wise for his years except when mooning the camera, and Ofer, a wandering Israeli with excellent Spanish and a good line in sarcasm. Throughout the trip they’d inform us about the local flora and fauna, offer good stories and first aid kits for feet rubbed raw. They’d also ensure we ate well, with an emphasis on breakfast each day to see us through our 37 kilometre hike.

Day 1: Queztaltrekker Office, Xela

We started early on Saturday, hoeing down great plates of eggs and toast prepared in the office. After sharing out group provisions and packing 15 litre day bags, we set off for a short chicken bus that would take us to the suburbs. Then the walk began – at first a medium slope that would quickly turn into a steep one, prompting me to wonder whether the extent of my hiking experience (being carried halfway up a mid-sized Scottish mountain as a child) might not be quite enough.

The first hour set the tone for the day: breath-taking in every way. Once we’d conquered the steep slope we found ourselves in pasture land, with equally precipitous corn fields to tackle up and down, the locals all putting us to shame as men and boys shimmied up slippery clay slopes with huge baskets of wood strapped to their backs. Lunch was in the ‘cloud forest’, amongst trees entirely encased in white, then there were steep, dusty roads to tackle before a steady upward climb home.

The first night was spent in Santa Catarin Ixtahuacan, using a local’s property to sleep in, the balcony providing stunning views over the mountains while Tyler cooked as much pasta as the pot could handle. In the highlands it’s common for houses to have temescals, low, coal-fired saunas that resemble pizza ovens housed in a chicken shed. Taking it two-by-two we clambered in, instantly feeling our muscles relax as the hot steam worked its magic.

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Road to Xiprian

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Day 2: Comedor Belen, Santa Catarina

We set off early the next morning, feeling reassured that the worst was behind us. Breakfast was in a local comedor a short walk from our base, ensuring more than one business would benefit from our stay. Cups of strong cafecito (a sort of coffee/tea blend) and plates of beans, rice and eggs followed by banana pancakes worked like rocket fuel for the day – which was lucky, given what was to come.

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Comedor Belen

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We climbed up through more jungle, then lunched by the river after slipping down to the valley floor. Next would come Record Hill – an almost vertical climb taken one hiker at a time due to the narrow path and likelihood that you’ll need to stop (and possibly spew). Not quite beating the 11 minute record, neither did I win the wooden spoon (a weighty 40 minutes on a previous hike), coming in at a respectable 20 minutes or so.

We felt we’d conquered the worst… until Record Hill merged into Record Mountain, only slightly less steep and considerably more slippy. By the time we reached the promised ‘Ice Cream Village’ everything was sore, and a unique camaraderie started to build around the collective taping of feet to stave off blisters. The rest of the day involved thigh-testing descent, then the final ‘Cornfield of Death’, another raking climb, though mercifully shorter than Record Hill.

Finally we reached our second base at Don Pedro’s, in the village of Xiprian. There were fresh fruit smoothies on arrival, then a fantastic dinner of tamales, chicken and salad served by the Don’s wife; later there was a real fire with marshmallows to melt. Before bed Don Pedro would thank us all for coming and explain the good the project was doing, leaving us all feeling a little humbled and even more pleased we’d happened upon such a worthy cause.

Day 3: San Juan and San Pedro

For our final day we were up at 3:15am, quickly packing our sleeping bags and setting off in the dark to the nearby mirador to await sunrise. On the way we’d pick up our police escort, a precautionary measure introduced after a robbery some years before. Once at the lookout, Tyler and Ofer set about making breakfast – porridge, granola, jam and peanut butter and cookies made by the children benefiting from the scheme, all washed down with hot chocolate and shared with our friendly minders.

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Breakfast at sunrise

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Before the sun appeared we watched a nearby volcano – Fuego – erupt in the distance, a far off lightning storm adding to the drama. The sunrise, when it came, was spectacular, throwing electric blues, oranges and purple across the sky, reflecting in the waters of Lake Atitlan below.

After breakfast it was a relatively short and bumpy climb down to the nearest town. Here we’d visit another local business, this time a coffee co-operative in San Juan offering excellent and much needed hot drinks to mark the hike’s end, at an incongrously early 9am. From here we’d take a truck to San Pedro to await our bags, taking the chance to cool off in the Lake and have one final meal together before saying our weary goodbyes.

http://www.quetzaltrekkers.com

Price: From 750Q per person (approx £70).

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