Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Day 16: All the Vida

Last week I went on "house visits" with Oliver, one of the founders of Vida, and Meg, my volunteer companion and friend.

I had been warned and prepped for what I was about to see. I knew what to expect. I knew it would be difficult. And then I experienced it and realized that no matter how much someone tells you what an experience will be like, whether it is someone close to you dying or falling in love, the actual experience is completely different.

I didn't take pictures. I didn't feel comfortable invading their privacy. I didn't want to be the girl with everything who was passing through wanting to take pictures of a life she couldn't imagine living.

We visited 5 homes. They were all very different. Everything is built from aluminum laminate, some had laminate "roofs" others had bamboo holding up plastic sheeting. Some had cement floors, others had dirt. Some had been tidied and made to feel somewhat homey, others were littered with garbage and other matter. There was normally 1 bed, a sunken mattress, for 3-4 children and the mother.

The children, when I saw them at home, were completely different from when they were at Vida. I was used to their never ending smiles, squeals of laughter and boundless energy. Here they were shy, quiet, reserved. Many children spent the entire day, every day, on the streets. Their parent(s) rarely know where they are and this is the norm. Some children didn't know where their parents were. Some have an alcoholic father or a mother who prostitutes.

I am so thankful to Oliver for taking me here to see the reality of these children's lives. These kids, who jump on me and wrap their arms around me, they don't have happy lives at home. They barely have a home. But every day they come to Vida for a piece of happiness and a moment away from reality. I am so thankful that Oliver, Marcos and Daniel found each other and built Vida. Last week they didn't have the money for rent for next month, but Daniel says he is not worried. This is God's plan, He will help them find a way. This is their calling.

I only have a couple of days left and I am wracked with guilt. I do not want to leave these children. But I also need to find my own way. I need to follow my own path, that may lead me back to them. Of this I am sure.

I would like to find a way to help them fundraise for different things; whether it is their lunches, rent, paying the teachers, buying more desks, or new toothbrushes or vitamins, I would like to gather sponsors. Their work is never done. They will soon be building a new house for a family thanks to a volunteer's contributions. They are opening a second location in a neighboring town for children with down's syndrome. They are tireless. They are warriors and angels and saviors and very humble.

I only have a couple of days left with them, but I know my work with Vida is far from over.

(I would also like to add that while writing this post, My Heart Will Go On by Celine Dion was playing in the background. I can't make that shit up. I don't know where it came from.)

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Day 10: All the Kids

When I signed up to volunteer in Guatemala I knew that it would be tough and rewarding. It is so much more. It is humbling, tiring, fun, taxing and sometimes frustrating. My feelings of frustration are always at myself. It has been hard to pick up Spanish, even with classes. My brain keeps telling me to speak French. This is not helpful. I want to be able to communicate better with the kids. One girl, Shari, she must be about 6, teaches me words in Spanish and I love it. I love when the kids teach me because I hope that it makes them feel important.

Let me tell you about Vida. I have wanted to write this post for awhile, but knew it would be hard, and needed to prepare this post. And myself. Vida started off as a safe haven for children with down syndrome and is now a place for kids with any mental disabilities or who don't have a parent at home. People with down syndrome in Guatemala (and I am guessing many other countries) are discarded. That is putting it simply, and that is how I will leave it. People with other mental disabilities are at risk of being treated the same. Then there are kids with absent parents, alcoholics, drug abusers, or 6 other kids to take care of. There is a 9 year old who parents his 7 younger siblings. So Vida opened up its doors to them as well. It fluctuates from between 25-45 children. The kids that go come on their own volition and by themselves. Nobody brings them or picks them up.
Vida is their safe haven. It has been built from spare parts and they have been amazingly innovative. The people that work there only get paid when there is extra money. There is never extra money. They have lost some amazing teachers because of this. There is a makeshift playground, a dining room where they eat their snacks, and right now lunch three times a week, 2 small classrooms and a work shed. My first day there I was told that Vida was now my home. Forever.

Vida let me into their home and I let them into my heart. The kids run up to me every day and greet me, "Hola Ale!", with a hug and a kiss, or a high five and a fist bump. They climb all over me and chase me and smile the most beautiful smiles up at me. My face hurts from smiling back. I'm always smiling and determined to only ever bring love to Vida. Vida's first project was called the Love Syndrome, Síndrome de Amor, which is the perfect name. Vida is run down and in need of everything, but it is full of love and acceptance.

I want the money I raised to be beneficial in the most beneficial way possible, if that makes sense. Right now someone is sponsoring 3 lunches a week for the children, but that is not a long term thing. They are also always in need of vitamins. They could always use more craft supplies. The clothes the children wear are stained and torn and always dirty. Their homes are tiny and have nothing in them. I have limited amounts of money and I want to use it for everything, which isn't smart or realistic. You see my dilemma. So I am in the process of strategizing what they need most, what will be most beneficial, and what will have a lasting impact for these children. I will be speaking with the people who run Vida about how they would like me to contribute but I know they will tell me that it is my decision.

And so, for a short amount of time, I will give them my love.


Monday, January 19, 2015

Day 8: All the Adrenaline

This weekend 15 volunteers went up to Semuc Champey, and let me tell you, it was the most surreal weekend I have ever had.

Semuc Champey is about 8.5 hours away from Antigua. We piled in, 10 per shuttle bus/van and hurdled through the mountains, weaving through narrow roads, around potholes and fallen rocks and staring down beautiful cliffs and valleys and small towns. That was the first 7.5 hours (including stops for food). We were then dropped off on the side of the road where a pickup truck waited for us and we piled in the back for the next hour. It was 9 kilometres, however since it rains most mornings, the amount of mud, winding roads and rocks makes it an extremely bumpy ride. We managed to get to the hostel, El Portal, unscathed and in awe of our surroundings. The power is only on from 6pm - 10pm. There is no hot water. But man is this place beautiful and how else do you add character?

First on the agenda on day 2 is wake up at 5 AM because there is a rooster outside your window and some lovely men who are renovating the hut next to ours. 🙇 But alas, it is a new day. After bumping around in the dark and breakfast we make our way into the small rainforest and up the mountain. I use the terms rainforest and mountain lightly; the mountain, although not the easiest thing I've climbed, didn't take us more than 2-3 hours to climb. And then we hit the pozas, the natural pools, where a river flowed down the mountain and through the pools, over a waterfall and back into the river. The view is surreal. We are in awe, giddy that yes, we are here breathing in this air and jumping over mini waterfalls to the next pool. I tried to slide down the last, larger waterfall at our guide's suggestion. He was joking and I was thoroughly disappointed.

After we are all chilled a little bit too much we hike home (most of us in our bathing suits and barefooted as our muddy shoes are definitely not appealing to put back on) and grab some lunch. Then it is a five minute walk to the caves where we are handed candles that we will need to use the whole time for light. Most of the way through the caves we are either waist deep in water or can't touch. A candle will go out and someone will help them relight it. Honestly, it is hard to describe how thrilling and adrenaline inducing the caves are. We climb a waterfall using a rope, end up in pitch black when most of our candles go out, jump from a high spot in the caves into a pool below, slide down a mini (very mini) waterfall (that is pitch black at the bottom) and the whole time the stalagtites throw shadows and look like prehistoric teeth, waiting for their next meal. When we end up back out into the light it feels like it couldn't have been real. We were given tubes to float down the river while kids tried to sell us beers from their tubes. The water was cold but when the sun cme out it brought me right back to summers gone by in thr Slocan Valley in BC, mountains on either side. Our last adventure to end the day is to jump off the bridge into the water below. Only 4 of us worked up the nerve, and I think my heart restarted.

Our walk back to the hostels resulted in being covered in mud (and probably poop, let's face it) and being very grateful for a (cold) shower and dry clothes.

So yes, that was my weekend. Actually that was all done in one day. 2 days of driving for one day of pure adrenaline and excitement and beauty.

I would love to upload photos but Blogger won't let me, so the ones on Facebook and Instagram will have to do.

Here I am in week 2 and very excited for the adventures that await.

XO Ale (Alex in Spanish is Ale, pronounced Al-eh)

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Day 4: All the Chicken Buses

Before I came to Guatemala I was warned about the chicken buses - they are school buses that have been painted in bright coliurs and blast music, and it's common to have 3 people per seat. Muy squishy. They are super cheap and people pile in and can be daunting if you're not prepared for them to hurdle down the streets. But that's Guatemala, and it is actually a great ride. Which is great because to get to and from Vida, where I'm volunteering, it takes about 30-50 minutes each way. Luckily I have Meg with me each way so I'm not alone.

Here is a break down of my day each day:
7:00 AM: breakfast is served!
9:00 - 11 AM: Spanish class.
11:15 AM: head to Maximo Nivel (the volunteer HQ) to find other people for lunch
1:00 PM: head to the bus station
2:00-5:ish PM: volunteer with some of the cutest kids at Vida. There is quite the language barrier still, but I play a lot with the kids in the yard, and try my best to help them with their crafts and anything else they need.
6:00 PM: dinner is served and I am always late!
The rest of the evening is Spanish homework and often meeting up with other volunteers for a drink. EVERY night is ladies night at different bars. I've done 2 so far and I danced my butt off last night!

I have met some truly amazing people this week. From the other volunteers to Olga, my house mom, to the people at Vida to the locals, it has been great so far and everybody welcomes you into their life.

This weekend I am going to a place called Semuc Champey. There are waterfalls and hiking and caves and swimming and it all just sounds amazing. It is a 10 hour bus ride each way but I've been told it is worth it. !!!!

That's all I have for today, Mr. Moose lost an antler. On day 1 I think. I'm pretty sad, not gonna lie. Don't worry though, I won't let it ruin my trip.

Hasta luego!

Monday, January 12, 2015

Day 1: Learn All the Spanish

So here I am, sitting in a garden with WiFi on day 1 of my adventure. Let me tell you, Antigua is such a beautiful town. There are cobblestone streets and restaurants and shops everywhere. My house mom is very friendly but I feel awkward with the communication barrier. I have enrolled in Spanish classes that will start tomorrow at 9am and I will definitely take them every day that I am here.
There are a lot of dos and don'ts. The hardest for me is that we shouldn't eat fruit that is cut up and sold on the street because of how dirty it is and the word parasites was thrown out there and hell no.

The other volunteers are friendly and young. I am for sure the oldest newbie, but they are sure to keep me young!

This weekend I plan on taking a trip to Lake Atitlan. It is supposed to be one of the most beautiful places and I have been looking forward to it for awhile! I think it will be the perfect first tour.

Someone said that they hoped to be able to shop at Target. So there's that. Also, I've been told I have to go to the McDonalds here because it is the fifth most beautiful McDs in the world and you could get married there. (Next week's post will not be about me getting hitched in a fast food chain.)

Hasta luego!

Monday, January 5, 2015

Going On An Adventure

In 6 very short days I will be heading to Guatemala where I will begin the, er, beginning of a once in a lifetime trip.

I have so many feelings coursing through me right now, hence the insomniac post I am about to write. I am excited, nervous, scared, anxious, impatient, and a million other things. I'm not ready and yet I want to be on the plane already.

First off, I will be volunteering in Guatemala with children for 3 weeks. A month ago I held a fundraiser to help offset some of the volunteering costs and to raise money for the community. They have asked me to wait until I get down there to give them the money and see if I'd like to put it towards any projects I become involved in. In total I was able to raise $1200 and I am pretty proud of that.

Unless I stay longer to volunteer, after I'm done I will be looking for other backpackers to start my travel with. While I know I won't want to stay with the same group the entire time, I want to travel with people, partly for the experience and partly for safety. I'll be heading south from Guatemala and hitting up as many countries in Central America as I can: El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama. Then I'll head down to South America to tour Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Chile. That's the plan, but I know things change and that's part of what I look forward to.

Honestly I can't wait to get started on this journey and I will definitely be updating my blog. Finally, a reason to write again. I can't wait to take you all with me.