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A volunteer perspective

Indigo was a volunteer with De la Gente for 5 weeks this winter. This is her account of her experience. Unfortunately, we have no photos to go along with the blog. 

For five weeks, my mornings consisted of waking up to a stunning view of Volcan Agua out my bedroom window, brushing my teeth on my Guatefamilia’s terrace as Volcan Fuego erupted in the distance, enjoying breakfast of eggs, beans and bread (and understanding a little more Spanish each and every day), and climbing aboard a multi-coloured, bedazzled Chicken Bus direction Ciudad Vieja which took me to De La Gente in San Miguel Escobar, just outside of Antigua.

I came to Guatemala hoping to improve my Spanish, meet some interesting people, and get my hands dirty. As my Mum says, I was taking a year off to attend the “University of Life” after growing weary of learning about the world from textbooks and lectures and deciding that I needed a change of pace and to see it for myself. Admittedly, as a Conflict Studies and Human Rights student, I was a little skeptical about buying into to the volunteer-tourism trend. Paying to work? Neo-colonialism? The white man knows best? However, as soon as I arrived at De La Gente for my first day of volunteer work, I realized just how worth it this experience would be. First, I was surprised at how few volunteers there were at my placement. I had heard of other volunteers working at schools or orphanages with five (or more) volunteers, which sometimes makes it hard to feel like you are making an impact and even more difficult to practice your Spanish. My first week, I worked with Andy and Suzy, two awesome and inspiring women from the States who were just as excited to be getting their hands dirty and practicing their Spanish as I was. I spent a few of the following weeks as the only volunteer at De La Gente, which gave me the opportunity to spend lots of time one-on-one with the farmers, practicing my Spanish and developing a deep understanding and deeper appreciation for the coffee process. I experienced other weeks with volunteers around the world and experienced coffee farming anew each and every time.

I spent one morning classifying green coffee beans with Lydia, a brilliant 19-year old with dreams of travelling and improving her English. We talked about everything under the sun - from school to boyfriends to why we can’t use the coffee beans that don’t have a proper crease. I spent another morning with Froilan roasting coffee, and learned that coffee beans jump (pop) from being a French roast to an espresso roast in about 15 seconds, and 15 seconds later it’s burnt. The next morning, we hiked up Volcan Agua for 90 minutes, hoes in hand, with honest intentions to make some serious headway with the mounds of dirt that build up between the trees when it rains. Upon arrival, we put the tools to good work as elbow rests and talked about politics, corruption, migration and education in Guatemala for three hours, dirt mounds untouched. I’ve laughed with Virgilia about how dirty our hands get when picking coffee beans. I sweat between coffee trees, hoe in hand, as Mercedes smiled at me, impressed at how much we had accomplished. I’ve been moved to tears when I learned that Eduardo’s youngest son, who he called “a gift from God,” was found by he and his wife as a baby and adopted without question. At the end of each day, I scrubbed off the dirt and coffee-bean honey from my hands and picked the leaves and twigs out of my hair with a big smile on my face.

Every individual I met at De La Gente taught me something and inspired me in some way. Any doubts I had quickly evaporated as it became clear to me that De La Gente is doing really incredible and empowering work. I felt I was part of a small team that was making a big difference in the lives of all of the farmers involved in the cooperative. The farmers glowed with pride when they spoke about how they had received high-quality training that allowed larger and more efficient harvests, accessible low-interest financing and community connections which allowed the pooling of resources with other local farmers to purchase new and needed equipment. They spoke about how their children can now attend school, some even going to university. There was so much gratitude and mutual respect between the administrative team, the farmers, and the volunteers.

As my three months in Guatemala come to a close, I can honestly say that my weeks at De La Gente were some of the greatest. Even though I know that the work would have been completed regardless if I had been there or not, I can say without a doubt that it was the most inspiring, humbling, and educative experience that I have had during my time here. I feel like I contributed time and effort into making someone else’s life a little easier and a little fuller. I will forever be grateful for the amazing team that I met in San Miguel. When I (inevitably) grow weary of the Canadian winter and the university library and decide to swap the snow-lined sidewalks for rows of coffee trees, my double-lined mittens for Guatemalan earth, and my desk for Volcan Agua, I know exactly where I will be coming back to.