United Planet volunteer, Ben, recently returned from a two week Quest in Xela, Guatemala where he worked with women and children at a local orphanage and shelter. Ben’s journey was both rewarding and exciting. We invite you to experience a Quest through his eyes…
When Ben arrived in Guatemala, he was met with a very important, life-altering question.
“Barcelona or Real Madrid?” natives asked him. It was the perfect icebreaker, a common ground for people who live thousands of miles apart. Ben soon found out that fútbol was an integral part of the culture of Xela, Guatemala, where he would spend the next two weeks on a volunteer Quest with United Planet.
It wasn’t just European soccer that brought Ben and the locals together. The local team, Xelaju MC, was in the championship game of the Guatemalan league. They had made it to the finals five years in a row, but were always the runner-up. Well, fate would have it that Ben and the other volunteers on his trip were a good luck charm. Xelaju MC captured the title and it was time to “Xela-brate”!
“The whole city was vibrant before and after the victory,” Ben said, “There were people celebrating all night. There was a lot to do and the whole central park was illuminated and exciting.”
The excitement carried over to the next day, when Ben and a few friends saw one of the players from the Xelaju team in a local café. Chit-chat ensued between the 36 year-old player, Fernando Patterson, and the tourists for whom Spanish was a second language. Ben’s Spanish continued to improve as he talked with the local autograph-signing celeb.
While Patterson was a celebrity, he wasn’t the only person idolized around Xela. Ben became a hero to young children and women at Fundacion Remar, an orphanage and shelter for mothers where he volunteered for two weeks. Though he wasn’t quite Fernando Patterson, Ben showed off his soccer skills with the young children and also taught them martial arts to shape them into karate masters.
Ben also helped to teach English to the eager kids who wanted to learn as much as possible. He aimed to improve the children’s English while they helped take his Spanish to the next level. During the days at Fundacion Remar, Ben and the other volunteers would divide the kids into two age groups for the first portion of the day, and then everyone would come together in the afternoon for a culminating group activity.
For about three or four days, while everyone else was having fun and learning during group activities, Ben noticed that one girl, about 14 years old, would sit alone in the background with an apprehensive, ambivalent look on her face. In time, Ben and his friends approached the girl and started to talk to her. They found out that she couldn’t read, write, or count – things we often take for granted.
The young girl was very interested in math, yet was unable to count to 10. Without the necessary resources and teachers to give her these basic skills, the girl was in need of a friend like Ben. While the other kids and volunteers were working on homework, Ben stayed with the girl and helped teach her how to count. “We would prepare some problems for her and she ended up learning a lot,” Ben said. “I think she appreciated it too.”
When he wasn’t working at Fundacion Remar, Ben often ventured into the village to explore his new home. He spent multiple nights at a salsa club, where he says the dancers were professional and a joy to watch.
He also visited the largest market in Central America, where he encountered countless types of fruit, many of which were different sizes than the standard fruit in America. For example, Ben noticed that the mangoes in Guatemala are massive compared to those in the US. Seeing all sorts of local, exquisite citrus fruits made the trip anything but sour.
As Ben explained, the local people are extremely welcoming and he enjoyed striking up spontaneous conversations with passersby.
‘”I think one of the most memorable things for me is that people say ‘hi’ to each other in the streets,”‘ he said. “‘You walk next to someone, and even if you don’t know them, and even if you’re a tourist, they’ll say ‘hi’ to you.”‘
It wasn’t just the villagers that were friendly and gregarious. Ben lived with a host family, Ana Maria Yax Orantes, her husband Tulio, and their son Jose Manuel, for the duration of his stay, and characterized that component of his trip as “really, really great.”
Describing his experience with his host family, Ben remarked, “I don’t know if most of the host families are like this or if we were just lucky. They were really excited when they could actually communicate with us and they spent hours on hours asking us about North America.”
While staying with his host family, Ben tried a potpourri of authentic, homemade Guatemalan meals and even received cooking lessons from his hosts.
“Guatemala has an infinity of traditional meals and foods,” he said. “I think there might have been [only] one night that we had American food.” Ben also learned about the best kinds of coffee, and, upon returning home, surprised his parents with some top-notch beans as a gift.
From the village to his host family to volunteering with the children, Ben became fully immersed in Guatemalan culture during his two-week stay and would love to go back sometime soon.