In 2016, I had the privilege of joining my dad and a lovely group of people from Shoreline Church in Monterey, California on an eye-opening humanitarian mission trip to Guatemala. I call it a “voluntourism” trip because after all of our volunteer work, we were able to sightsee a bit. I went on a mission trip with my dad to Russia when I was 15 and had wanted to go on another ever since. When the opportunity came up for me to join the group in Guatemala, I jumped at it!
On the trip, we would be building a house, building 5 cooking stoves, working in a remote school at the base of an active volcano, handing out shoes from Shoes That Grow, distributing Treasures, which are solar powered audio Bibles provided by World Mission that have been translated into many different languages, gospel bracelets which tell the gospel story, and sharing the word of God anywhere that we could.
My dad and I drove to Chicago to catch our flight at O’Hare International Airport and flew from there to San Salvador, El Salvador for a quick stop. Unfortunately, the plane did not have TVs to watch movies and since we were seated in the exit row, I was not allowed to have my backpack on the floor near me, which was full of all of my stuff to do in flight. So, I was left at the mercy of the Avianca propaganda in the seat pocket in front of me…which was completely in Spanish. But it was neat to refresh my memory on some of the Spanish I had learned in high school and college! We saw an awesome sunset from the plane window, followed by an even more incredible lightning storm.
In the airport, we made several attempts to obtain some of the local currency because I collect foreign money. We made two purchases and each time got our change back in US Dollars. Disappointed, we later found out that the official currency of El Salvador has been the US Dollar since 2001! So that whole time that we had been asking them for change in their currency, we were getting it! Guess we should’ve done a little research first!
While waiting for our next flight to Guatemala City, we met a man who was from Miami. He was having trouble getting his phone to work. Since my dad had an international plan on his, he let the man use his phone to call his wife and used this as a way to open the door to talk to the man about Jesus. It turns out the man was already a Christian but we gave him a Treasure anyway and he was so grateful for it!
A quick half hour flight later, we landed in Guatemala City. It was dark out so we couldn’t see much of the beautiful landscape that we had read about, but there was some sort of celebration going on that night so we did get to see some fireworks as we landed! In the airport we exchanged some money and caught up with the group from California who then directed us to the parking garage to meet our local missionary partner, Tono Rodriguez. He brought along another man named Rudy who also worked at the church there and they loaded us all up into 2 giant conversion vans and one pick up truck that took us about 30-45 minutes away to a city named San Lucas where we would be staying for the majority of the trip. Upon arrival, a gate opened and let us enter into a private little compound that the church owned. The accommodations were much nicer than I had expected. There was a tall wall around the property with sharp, jagged pieces of glass sticking up at the top of the wall to act as barbed wire would to deter crime.
There were two separate buildings, one for the men and one for the women. Each had two bedrooms with 3 sets of bunk beds each and two bathrooms but the women’s building also had the main kitchen and a living room. I was super excited to be staying in a place with electricity and running water. There were only 3 people per room so we each got our own bunk bed.
It was a little weird at first having to sleep in a room with perfect strangers but it wasn’t long before I became good friends with Beca and Wendy, my roommates! In fact, everyone started calling Beca and I “B Squared” because we were so much alike and even had almost the same name!
Our first morning in San Lucas, we woke up and went to church at La Iglesia Galilea, Tono’s church.
It was fun experiencing church in a different culture and neat to see that although people are different culturally, they are pretty similar no matter where you go. We even had the privilege to partake in communion with them. The words for the worship songs were displayed on a projector screen and it was astounding how much I was able to comprehend when I could read the words and follow along.
I am able to comprehend much more Spanish when reading it versus listening to it. Spanish speakers talk very fast and I simply cannot keep up with it yet!
After church, we went downtown to a mall to an authentic Guatemalan coffee shop. My dad and Beca and I ordered a mocha drink with real whip cream and it was absolutely fantastic! I vowed right then that I would have to buy some coffee beans to take home.
After that, half of the group wanted to go back to relax and the other half wanted to go explore! I, of course, was part of the group that wanted to go adventuring, and so was my dad
We walked around San Lucas and saw native women making hand-made tortillas, men playing soccer (futbol), lots of small artesian shops, and eventually came upon a marimba band that was setting up to play some music in the town square.
While waiting for them to get set up, we wandered down the street and saw a market that was just getting ready to close up for the day. We asked if we could still come in and look around and found several kids that we stopped to play with for a bit.
It was at this market that a man curiously started following us around. He was very friendly and showed us where to buy some rambutan fruit, which are red, spiky fruits grown in Guatemala. I was hesitant to try it because it had been burned in my mind before the trip to not eat at street vendors because things are often washed in unclean water. However, since this fruit had to be peeled, I figured it was ok. To me, it tasted like a mix between white grapes and peaches. Very good, but the texture was a little weird!
The man, whose name was Joseph, ended up having a great conversation with my dad and another man on the trip, John. As they talked, Beca, Eric and I walked around the corner and found the community “laundry mat” which was a large cement basin filled with water and had several manual washing stations. It seemed so archaic to us but it was how they did their everyday laundry.
My dad and John caught up with us and explained that they had just prayed with Joseph and led him to the Lord! How awesome! After all, that was the ultimate reason for our being in Guatemala- to share God’s love.
We decided to run back to our rooms and get him a Treasure Bible and the church’s contact information so he could learn more about God. When we came back, Joseph was still waiting for us near the marimba band, who were just about to start playing. There, we also met a man named Orlando. Orlando’s dad had recently passed and had been a part of this marimba band when he was alive so it was an emotional time for him as he watched the group play without his father. We also gave him a Treasure Bible and prayed with him that he would find comfort in the Lord. It was surprising how easy it was to talk to locals. Smiles and good intentions go a long way! And Guatemalans are so friendly!!
We were told not to be out after night because of the crime so after watching the band play and peeking in a pretty church nearby, we headed back to “camp” for dinner.
The next morning, we packed up our gear and headed a couple of hours away to a remote jungle village called Zapote. The drive there gave us awesome views of Fuego and Agua, two of the active volcanoes in the area and we even got to see smoke coming from Fuego!
We also drove through Antigua, which is the city that we would be sightseeing in at the end of our trip. It looked gorgeous and we got excited to explore the city later that week! Along the way, we stopped at a gas station to get some Gatorade and snacks.
Standing outside of the gas station was a security guard holding a sawed off shot gun. I quickly noticed that this was pretty typical in Guatemala and almost everyone either owned a sawed off shot gun or a machete! After awhile, I kind of got used to seeing it.
San Lucas is at a pretty high altitude so to get to Zapote, we had to drive downhill almost the entire way. So much so, that we had to keep stopping to let the brakes cool off in our trucks! We also had to cross (drive through) 4 different rivers on the way there.
Needless to say, it was a very bumpy, windy, twisty ride to get there. And because of the lower altitude, it became extremely hot and muggy compared to the nice, cool weather in San Lucas. The hot weather made for more of a concern with the Zika virus since there would be a lot of potentially infected mosquitoes in that area. I treated all of my clothes before the trip and practically bathed in bug spray before we arrived that day!
When we got to Zapote, we went straight to the school, which was also where we would be staying.
They had a bunk area for missionaries at the school on the 2nd level of the building.
We were divided up into work groups and helped with pretty much anything they needed at the school. Some of the groups went to build stoves in the village and some stayed behind at the school to work. I ended up spending most of the day grouting tile in the school library and cafeteria.
I had never grouted before but came out from the day well experienced in it! I kept joking that Dustin would be excited to put my new skills to use when I got home since we were in the middle of redoing our laundry room in our house! After finishing up our grouting job, we decided to walk over to the houses to see how the other groups were doing on the stoves and to take them some water since it was so hot out. On the way to the first house, a little boy named Elmer walked up behind me and nonchalantly grabbed my hand like we had known each other all our lives and just started walking alongside me. I thought it was the sweetest thing!
We later learned from some of the locals that Elmer had a mental illness and a history of having seizures and that he was kind of an outcast in the village due to this. It made my heart happy that we had been able to show him a little love that day. He had recently been fortunate enough to be given some medication for his condition, which seemed to be helping. He ended up following our group around for most of the day.
The first house that we stopped at was very tiny and cramped. When I say house, I mean more like a garden shed by American standards, and I was amazed that an entire family called this place home.
It had huge spider webs with spiders crawling everywhere, dirt floors, and open walls in places. It reminded me of a scary Michigan basement, but in the jungle and at the foot of an active volcano! I felt terrible for this family that had to live in such filth, but they were such happy, friendly people.
The stove that the group was building for them made it so that they could cook their own meals inside their home for the first time. They were constructed from bricks, cement blocks, rocks, and concrete and all of the supplies were brought in from the church in San Lucas. We were only able to bring enough supplies to build 4 stoves during the two days that we would be in Zapote, but there were so many homes that desperately needed them.
That night we had to sleep enveloped in mosquito netting in our bunk beds. All of the girls were in one room this time and all of the guys in another. We still had running water and toilets in the school which was amazing, but it was about a million degrees trying to sleep covered up in the heat so that we didn’t get mosquito bites.
The second day in Zapote, we switched up the groups a bit. My dad and I who had been grouting the day before, requested to be in the groups that were building stoves so that we could experience all sides of the work there. We went to the local church to pick up the supplies and were dropped off at the first home with two other people, Jessica and Rudy. The family that we met lived in a home without a roof over half of it! We were astounded at the living conditions that these families had to deal with! It somehow made it so much easier to do the hard work to build them a stove knowing why we were doing it. To help these people in God’s name. Giving up just one day to work would continue blessing this family for many years as they used their new stove.
After finishing our stove, we walked back to the school to finish our work in the library. On the way, we saw pigs wandering in an out of people’s houses, eating in the fields where the kids were playing, etc. It was crazy how pigs were everywhere! And so was trash!
Our group had brought over 1000 children’s books with us from the U.S.A. to stock the library for the kids at this school.
After grouting the floors the day before, we moved all of the furniture back into place and sorted the books and placed them on the shelves. The kids were instantly excited when they saw all of the books! It started raining that afternoon so we had to pack up and leave in a hurry because if the rivers that we had to cross got too high, then we would have been stuck there for a few more days!
The day after we got back from Zapote, we drove to another village about a half hour away called Membrillal.
On the way there, we had to go over 51 speed bumps! After the first few I lost track, but one of the other girls counted them all. We visited another school there and again, just helped anywhere we were needed and part of the group went and built another stove that day. I was asked to help sand desks, as it was the last day of school for the year so all of the kids were gone.
Some of the desks had tons of writing and carvings on them that we needed to sand out as best as we could, so we really had our word cut out for us!
Shortly after beginning sanding, a group of boys ages 6-10 walked up and asked us if they could help. They each grabbed a piece of sand paper and started sanding away! We thought the excitement of helping would die out pretty quickly but we were pleasantly surprised by their incredible work ethic as they helped for over an hour! Wendy spoke pretty good Spanish and she said that one of the little boys told her that he thought we were being punished for something since we were being put to work! That cracked us up! To thank them for their hard work, we gave them some cookies, candy, and gospel bracelets.
After the work was done, two of the little boys motioned for Beca and I to come play games with them. We sat down and began playing Jenga with them. One little boy in particular, named Felipe, kept whispering to me “media, media” telling me to pull out the middle piece while playing Jenga. Felipe was 6 years old and really stole my heart. He was such a sweetheart and I wanted to bring him home! When it was time for us to leave, he picked up my backpack for me and dusted off all of the dust from sanding and handed it to me then gave me a huge hug. I really enjoyed my afternoon playing with him and his cousins.
That night back in San Lucas, a few of us walked downtown to a local bakery, or panaderia. Unlike in the USA, the bakeries in San Lucas had fresh pastries around 5pm rather than first thing in the morning. So we showed up just in time for the fresh baked goods and made out like bandits! We bought enough pastries for each person in the group to have multiple and it only cost somewhere around $9.00 total!
The next day we set out to build an entire house (again, basically a shed by American standards) for an elderly woman and her handicapped husband in a small village called Zorzoya.
When we got to the construction site, we found that it was severely sloped and there was a hole that was 42 feet deep that needed to be filled from where someone had previously started digging a well. The problem was that this well was in the spot where the house needed to sit. We attempted to fill the hole until we realized that it would take us the rest of our lives to fill a hole this wide and deep with only a shovel, so my dad and a couple of the other men went out to solicit some help from the locals.
They found two men who were eager to work and earn some extra money, so our group paid them what was equivalent to one month’s wages for their help (which was only like $100). These men filled their wheelbarrow with dirt and brought it back and forth until the hole was finally filled.
The rest of us worked on evening out the sloped land, so the handicapped man could easily navigate his way around the house in his wheelchair.
This consisted of us having to build a retaining wall on the one side out of some old sheet metal from a dilapidated shed that was no longer in use and move shovel after shovel after shovel of dirt from one side to the other.
After a long day of getting sunburnt, sliced by sheet metal, dehydrated from the heat, and just all around sore, they told the girls to go home early while the guys finished up the roof. Ecstatic to be done after a long day of hard work, we hopped in the back of the pick up truck for an open air ride back to our room.
That night, we were given an option for the next and final day of our volunteering/working portion of the trip. We could either go back to Membrillal and help out at the school again or go back to Zapote to help build a roof for the family that we met that did not have one. My dad had felt called to donate money from his business to provide a roof for the family there and that was the reason our group was even going back to Zapote. Due to his involvement with the project, I really wanted to be a part of helping him to build the roof for them.
About 30 minutes into our 2 hour drive back to Zapote the next day, one of our two trucks broke down and we spent about 30 more minutes on the side of the road, but it gave us time to take photos and stretch for a bit, as we were pretty crammed in the back seat!
We ended up towing the broken down truck to a gas station to see if we could get it fixed. Before arriving, Tono and Rudy told all of us to go into the gas station and stay there until they came to get us. Guatemalans are charged half of what tourists are charged for repairs so they did not want to be seen with us and get charged double! So, we got some snacks and sat in the gas station patiently waiting. Eventually they got the truck going again and assured Tono that it would be safe enough to endure the rest of the bumpy ride to Zapote. It only ended up costing them about 50 quetzales, which is equivalent to about $7.00! Tono wanted to head back but we convinced him to press on! Upon arrival we got right to work. There wasn’t enough room for all of us to help, so Beca, Jenna and I walked back towards the school to pass out candy, or “dulces” and gospel bracelets to any kids we could find.
We ended up playing a game of marbles with a little boy named Adolfo. He was only 4 but taught us how to shoot marbles way better than we ever could’ve without his help! He was another little boy that really tugged on our heartstrings.
Once the roof was done, we helped clean up and then headed back to San Lucas. Our truck broke down again on the way back, but this time it wasn’t able to be repaired so easily.
We ended up having to tow the truck again, but this time up a mountain and over speed bumps. After a short distance, we heard one of the tow straps snap so we quickly pulled over and found a hardware store that sold heavy duty chain versus the material tow strap. Seeing how we were towing the truck up a mountain, we didn’t want to take any chances of losing that second truck, especially since it was full of people! Slow and steady, we finally made it back to where we were staying in San Lucas. Grateful that we didn’t end up having to ride one of the infamous “chicken buses”, we were so relieved and thankful that we had all made it back in one piece! It made me realize that if you just trust God when he calls you to do something, he will provide a way to make it happen!
That night we got cleaned up and packed up all of our luggage and spent our last night in San Lucas at a campfire with the youth group from La Iglesia Galilea. It felt just like being at camp when I was younger. We sang songs, roasted marshmallows and hot dogs, and drank hot cocoa. It’s funny how alike groups of people can be when they live in such different cultures.
Throughout our trip, we had successfully built 5 stoves, 1 house, fixed a fence at the school in Membrillal and did electrical work there, sanded 50 desks, grouted tile floors in the school in Zapote, stocked a library with 1000 children’s books, and built a roof on a home for a family who was living exposed to the elements. It’s amazing what can be done in a single week!
The next morning, for our last day in Guatemala, we traveled to Antigua for a day of sightseeing and fun before going home to the USA. Read more about our day of exploring in the next post about Antigua!
*Photo credits for some of these images go to my teammates from the trip- thank you for letting me use some of your pics along with mine to help visually tell our story!