Spotlight: “Our Children are not Chickens”

I’ve been in Guatemala for a week and already feel at home.  Between the enthusiastic staff at the local language school affiliated with Cultural Embrace; the glowing faces at the orphanage in San Mateo, a hill town twenty minutes outside of Antigua; and the beauty of Antigua, a city known for its seamless integration of rustic and modern landmarks, Guatemala has surpassed all expectations.

I landed in Guatemala City last Monday evening and was greeted at the airport as expected. Without wasting any time, my instant amigo from La Union, Luis, drove me to Antigua.  The capital of Guatemala until the 7.1 magnitude earthquake of 1717 left most of the city destroyed, Antigua is a city characterized by cobblestone streets, immense ruins, freshly painted cathedrals, lively parks, flooding language schools, and picturesque views of the surrounding volcanoes:  Fuego, Agua, y Acatenango.

La Union is one of many language schools that facilitates traveling, volunteering, and socializing.  The school is a fantastic meeting place where you can take private language classes amidst the school’s jungle foliage, on stone benches in the sun, or on a couch next to freshly brewed coffee.  Although I am not taking language courses, I have met dozens of people from all over the world who are friendly, interesting, and adventurous.
After a tour of Antigua from Ishmael, the social project coordinator of the language school, I explored on my own. Walking along uneven calles, you will see both local “tuk tuk” taxis and coach buses; chicken buses and hummers; local artisans and expensive jade factories.  The disparity is unmistakable, but not neglected. There are many ongoing social projects based out of Antigua where travelers and locals alike can aid neighboring hill communities.

Working in San Mateo, I am part of Cultural Embrace’s HUG (Help, Understand, Give) project.  While recruiting volunteers, gathering donations, and facilitating education are important for the youth at the orphanage in San Mateo, the HUG project also aspires to help the village of San Mateo become self-sustainable.

Every day I take a chicken bus twenty minutes up to San Mateo to work with the children and the orphanage managers.  The chicken buses are crazy: the reggaeton is blasting and tiny Guatemalans are stacked on top of each other.

The women are garbed in brightly colored dresses with long, dark hair braided down their backs.  My first trip on a chicken bus was unforgettable.  Climbing up an 80 degree slope of mountain, the bus chugged along like Thomas the train engine, only it didn’t make it to the top.  Instead, the chicken bus stopped midway and I was left biting my nails, wondering how recently the breaks had been examined.

A half hour of engine work later, everyone finally filtered off the bus and hopped into passing pickup trucks.  Unfamiliar with truck-hailing customs, I was guided into the back of truck by local women.  Half relieved and half fearing I’d fall out the back of the truck, I made it to the dusty streets of San Mateo without any more conflicts.

After the always eventful chicken bus ride every day, I teach English for an hour with Luis, a volunteer from Barcelona.  While Luis continues, I then work with the orphanage managers, Juan and Judith, on their computer skills in hopes that they will be able to navigate the internet and advertise independently.  When English classes are finished, we have a daily physical activity such as a scavenger hunt, a cooking class, or dancing lessons.

Last Thursday, all 46 children cooked chicken fried rice from vegetables that they had grown in their gardens.  Each group of kids had a vegetable to prepare.  They worked together patiently and enjoyed their creation as a family.   Afterwards, each child had a cleaning responsibility and the place was spotless in minutes.  I am so impressed with these kids.

In addition to activities with the kids and technical training with the adults, we also spend time each day brainstorming ways the orphanage can develop a sustainable source of income.  By investigating natural resources and harnessing the children’s existing talents and skills, Cultural Embrace and the orphanage have developed two plans for related businesses that will thrive off Antigua’s tourism:  Crafts (namely jewelry, cards, book marks) and traditional Guatemalan entertainment.

On February 9th, the kids will perform a traditional dance to celebrate the language school’s anniversary.  At the performance, we will advertise and sell the hand-crafted jewelry, made from brightly colored beans, hand made cards, and book marks.  Our hope is that with income from its own business, the orphanage can continue to provide emotional, mental, and physical support to the growing minds and hearts of San Mateo while reaching its short term and long term goals without dependence on donations.

As Juan Carlos, a co-manager explains, “Our children are not chickens; they are not helpless.  They can give back to the community too.”

As Cultural Embrace volunteers arrive in Antigua to participate in the HUG projects, I will make them feel at home like the people here did for me.  I am so excited to watch the volunteers ride their first Chicken Bus—Guatemalans dosing, reggaeton blaring, foreign eyes bulging.

There is magic under this worn tin roof in San Mateo; everyone who enters can feel it in the dusty air, in the adoring big brown eyes.  I look forward to witnessing the changes that will take place across cultures, between hearts.

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Published by

Kate Springer

Freelance writer and editor based in Hong Kong. Contributor at CNN, Forbes Travel Guide, BBC Travel, Fodor's Travel Guide, superfuture, Tatler, and more.

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