Last August, I experienced an adventure so impactful that I can still feel the weight of each moment curled into my memory beds, warm and alive, beating with a heart and soul as vividly as my present day. Yet, while the experience stays there, standing as though in front of me, translating the feelings and emotions into words has been a more trying task than expected.
The experience in question, which has left a writer almost wordless, occurred in Guatemala, where an organization called Hug It Forward has taken it upon itself to facilitate education, encourage recycling, and build community morale through the construction of bottle schools – structures built using recycled bottles stuffed with inorganic trash.
This philanthropic story gained momentum years ago on a bar stool – as so many friendships and ideas do. A couple of guys who wanted to improve the world met one fateful day in Cuba. But this meeting of Zach Balle and Heenal Rajani didn’t end in pipe dreams and a hangover, this particular night was the beginning of an action plan that, with the inclusion of their friend, Joshua Talmon, and a team of volunteers and staff, would see 30 schools built in the rural mountains of Guatemala over the ensuing 48 months.
The matchmaking continued this year when Vancouver-headquartered LUSH Cosmetics, a leader in conscious capitalism, chose the organization as one of its Charity Pot partners – a campaign that sends 100% of the proceeds from Charity Pot Hand and Body Lotion to over 350 charities around the world. Since collaborating, LUSH has sent two groups of global staff, including several from Vancouver, to Latin America to build bottle schools and embrace the beauty of the country.
My first impression of Guatemala was one that made my eyes leak. The glassy ripple of a lake shimmered across my pupils as I witnessed a surprise homecoming at Guatemala City airport. A son had arrived home from America with another family member, startling his mother into a breakdown of emotion that actually shot colours of love out of her arms as she threw them loudly into the air, taking him in a tight embrace to perhaps make sure he was really there. It was an introduction to the expressive and touching warmth I would continue to experience in this Central American country.
The billowing black exhaust, manic streets, flashy billboards, and boxy buildings of Guatemala City blurred past us in a frenzied tornado of sound and smells as we continued our travels to the colonialism of Antigua. It felt like a small Spanish town. Uneven cobblestone streets catching shoes, musicians playing on the sidewalk, and cracking Baroque-style architecture seemed familiar – particularly with the masses of tourists wandering the roads – and not wildly dissimilar from my previous travel destinations in Europe and Mexico. But a clue that there is something more magical to this city is the spectacularly ominous volcano that stares down on buildings, threatening to burst.
Perhaps this touristic stopover was supposed to ease us in for the journey we would take to Guatemala’s soul. But, truthfully, nothing could have prepared us for the awakening, the eye widening, the heart-throbbing experience of what was to come.
My mind in the lead up to this grand adventure had remained oddly blank. I didn’t know what to anticipate, therefore, I had no expectations. The only inkling of emotion that had penned on my thoughts was fear of the unknown. Fear of something different. Fear undefined. Building a school was like nothing I had experienced before, and there was no way I could have prepared myself for the somersault of sentiment that cartwheeled over my tear ducts within the first hour of arrival in the village of El Refugio y La Rosa.
With 65 families as residents, the small rural community is hidden in the creases of the mountainous terrain an hour away from our home base of San Martin Jilotepeque, a dusty market town. Since 1999, the number of school aged children in El Refugio y La Rosa has grown from 45 to 90, and the current two classroom school is not large enough to educate them all. Expansion was necessary to give them all the right to an education.
One look at the children’s faces and I was awash with compassion. They were wearing their best clothes and wide smiles when we drove up in our two buses on the first day. Their excitement fluttered around them like hundreds of butterflies, and each little face was lit up like a lantern.
Perhaps I should pause here to state that I’m not one of those females who gets maternal or gushy around babies, kids, little dogs, or kittens. But despite this, and against character, I felt a compulsion to scoop up every single one of these children into a hug. They wanted an education. To learn. Not Grand Theft Auto, Nike Airs, or iPads.
For three days, we toiled under a sun that made sweat boil beneath our requisitely modest clothing. My legs were covered in black pants, which insulated like fur and stuck to my perspiring legs. Sweat dripped down from the band of my baseball cap. Hair matted underneath. Bugs with razor teeth bit through fabric, creating mounds of red skin burning with the desire to be scratched.
But it didn’t matter. Complaining seemed trite. Discomfort was easily forgotten as we tied bottles together inside the foundations of the walls, pulling the cords so tightly that rough and painful blisters popped out on the beds of our fingers, hardening our sheltered city hands.
We had two rooms and two levels of wall to fill. Seven thousand bottles along with mountains of trash had been collected by the community over the course of two and a half months. When we arrived, we were faced with sack upon sack of green, blue, and clear plastic bottles already stuffed with garbage to sort by height before inserting into the walls in orderly rows.
The children watched us closely, looking over our shoulders, eager to witness each minute that led them closer to new classrooms. They handed us bottles and directed with hand gestures, passed us our water flasks when we looked thirsty, and tried to communicate with basic Spanish. They weren’t shy or guarded. They acted with curiosity. Immense intrigue of our mannerisms and lives. They studied our faces when we weren’t looking, peered at our electronic devices with wonder, and insisted we take photos and videos of them.
The manual labour and the construction of the school was only part of the package of this voluntourism experience. Interspersed between the bottle placement and cement slinging, we learned about the culture of the community and the Mayan people. And we got to know individuals we would never have come into contact with during our lives at home.
A tour through the village showed us how humbly the families live. No refrigeration, minimal electricity, water that requires boiling before consumption, and rooms that mothers, fathers, and children sleep in together. Most of the men work in the fields, tending to the crops of corn and beans, and many women embroider intricate clothing and fabrics for sale at market. For most, it’s a struggle to make ends meet. To live, it costs a family of five $9 per day, yet the average salary, if one is lucky to have work, is $7 per day. A small disconnect for us but massive for them.
Some of the more daring men, those willing to take risks to provide for their family, will sneak across borders and into America – an expensive chance at a better life as an undocumented immigrant sending money home. The men who succeed drastically change their fates. The vast majority come home able to buy land and larger homes – $9 per hour is a fortune compared to their native daily wage.
Another day, we trekked into the hills, our hands juggling little trees eager to begin their new life in the fertile soil. The children followed in our footsteps, carrying our water bottles, and never leaving our sides as we planted the tiny trees.
The view from these great heights stole my breath. Snatched it right from my lungs and threw it off the hillside to be devoured by the slopes of green below. I forgot about home, my apartment, my friends, my belongings. And was just there. In that moment. Without the buzz of thought or stress. Sometimes, tranquility finds you. You can’t find it.
On our last day in El Refugio y La Rosa, we mixed cement by hand, while butterflies swarmed the air. Churning the heavy lava-like paste with shovels in a circle of man power, our arms formed new muscles as we performed tasks our bodies had never executed. The muddy substance was then flung with loud splats on to the wire-covered bottles – splashes landed on our clothes, arms, and faces, denoting the excursion we exuded.
In Mayan culture, as we had learned from our visit to the remarkable ruins of Chwa Nim Ab’äj, butterflies represent the spirits of deceased ancestors. They had followed us everywhere as we wandered through the sacred temples. And now they hovered over our philanthropic activities. Watching as we, strangers from another country, helped their people. It wasn’t too long ago that strangers from afar had pillaged and conquered them.
Our experience had come to an end. A school was nearing completion. And a whole legion of educated kids were on their way to making an impact in their country. They told us they wanted to be nurses, doctors, lawyers, engineers, and teachers. And they would be.
The villagers lined up to say goodbye and show their gratitude. Mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters. This is where I got my chance to hug. I squeezed, I touched arms, I smiled. It was beautiful – the astoundingly overwhelming sensation of so much love. We had helped give kids a chance at a future that went beyond working in the fields or risking their lives crossing borders. While we didn’t speak a common language, the look in everyone’s eyes spelled out gratitude in bold-faced letters. The cheers and laughter as they ran after our departing buses still vibrate in my ears and glisten in dried tears on my cheeks.
I’ve finally managed to put this experience into words. Some kind of description of what it means to realize just how lucky I am.
In our apartments and houses with drinkable water gushing from a tap, televisions that mindlessly entertain us, central heating in the middle of winter. We take a lot for granted. Feel entitled to receive more than we necessarily deserve.
It’s incredible how one week can change your vision.
There were no lingering traces of fear clouding my brain. No fright of the future or the unknown consumed my mind as my taxi drove me from San Martin Jilotepeque to Antigua through the night-drenched hills and frantic towns. The 1980-something Toyota, threatening to dismantle at each pothole with headlights at 20 percent functionality, should have made me grimace. Instead, I grinned. All I felt was excitement, hope, and exhilaration.
This was life.
Lessons from a voluntourism trip:
1. There is more joy, happiness, and satisfaction in helping another person or people than any other accomplishment.
2. Life is more vivid and alive when technology doesn’t block it with lasers of distraction. When you’re not checking your phone every five minutes, it’s possible to get completely wrapped up in a moment. All your senses become whet.
3. Despite the labour and emotion that is endured during this voluntourism excursion, it was more cleansing and mind-clearing than any beach vacation.
4. Children are curious. They ask questions. They are unafraid to be inquisitive. They show affection and love without inhibition. Don’t lose this as an adult. Open yourself up.
5. When visiting historical sites, take the time to be alone. Stray from your group to feel the overwhelming energy of times past. Close your eyes and touch history with your hands.
Visit the Hug It Forward website to see progress on all their projects, and go to Serve the World Today for information on how to have your own voluntourism experience.
LUSH Cosmetics is involved in a number of conscious capitalism projects, which may be found here.
Originally posted at TheProvince.com