Category Archives: Guatemala

Guata Goonies

Semuc Champey?

What the heck is that? A volunteer by the name of Hanni (Australia) invited me out to Semuc with a few of the volunteers from her house. I didn’t really ask her what or where Semuc Champey was, I just wanted to go somewhere for the weekend after spending the past few nights at home. The drive to Semuc would be a little more than nine hours! I got my motion pills ready. Thankfully the roads in this part of the country aren’t too shabby.

After inquiring, I found out that Semuc Champey is one of the most beautifully adventurous places in the country.

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It’s in an area called Lanquin. It’s there where you’ll find scenic mountains surrounding levels of aqua blue pools cascaded by waterfalls. Near these pools and waterfalls was an underground cave filled with black water deep enough to swim in. We were going there and I felt like this is exactly what I needed!

I was picked up in the morning from Maximo, along with Hanni and three other volunteers from her house. The ride to Lanquin was a long one but manageable. We were part of a tour group that made the journey in a minibus filled with close to twenty people from all parts of the globe. We arrived in Lanquin during the nightfall where my group transfered into the back of a Guata style pickup truck and transported to our hostel for the weekend, Hostel Oasis.

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It was more like a bunch of cabinas and bungalows than a typical hostel.

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That night, we enjoyed dinner at the hostels restaurant where I enjoyed a cheeseburger and fries. We woke up that morning where I also enjoyed a cheeseburger and fries for breakfast.

“Typical American,” my group would jokingly say.

Hey, I just went six weeks without any beef! I needed those burgers! And plenty more where that came from. I did the same thing in Thailand where Viola also playfully made fun of my unorthodox eating habits. It’s not an American thing to eat a cheeseburger for breakfast, it’s just me. 🙂

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The first item on our agenda was a short hike up one of the mountains overlooking the pools. It took about 25 minutes before we easily reached the top where we found a deck that poked out beyond the plateau.

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After a few shots, we hiked back down and got into our swimsuits. IMG_7021Into the pools! The pools were completely natural and there were about four of them, each on different levels. The water was cool and felt great with the sun casting down on us. In order to get to the lower level pools, you either had to jump down into them or mudslide down into them. We did both! The slide down was over smooth mossy rocks that have been flattened out from the never ending flow of water. It was great. It was all great!

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Underneath one of the lower pools was a small tiny underpass that we had to carefully poke our heads under and through. One abrupt movement meant hitting your head against the rock walls just inches away. My mild claustrophobia went out the window. I had to try it!

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Me and Hanni!
Me and Hanni!

After splashing around, we went back up the pools and walked back up to the lodge for lunch. I had tostadas y arroz con vegetables. After lunch, we were gathered to hike over to the caves. I’ve been wearing my trusty water shoes all day which are good for moderate hikes and anything related to water. I don’t use them much but when I do need them I’m glad I had them. It’s like being barefoot with grips without the bulkiness of a normal hiking shoe. I wore those and my Under Armour gear for these caves. We were each given a candle to hold. We were told that these caves were pitch-black, deep, and filled with water and even some waterfalls. There would be many parts where we would have to tread water with our candle because the water would be too deep inside. Some of the others were nervous about this, but thankfully none of them backed down and were game for it!

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Instantly, I was reminded of one my favorite movies, The Goonies. I felt like a Goonie, as corny as that sounds. Remember the parts when they were in the caves with the waterfalls? These caves were way beyond my expectations. We were surrounded in total darkness, with only our candlelights to lead the way.

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The water was a lot colder in here and whenever we swam, sometimes we would hit an unexpected rock underneath the eerily black water. We’d have to squeeze through tight crevices in some areas in order to progress and it seemed like the more we progressed, the more difficult the terrain became. Some of the people in our group lost their flame by accidentally sticking their IMG_7047candle underwater. It happened to me a few times actually. At one point, we had the option to go up the natural stairs into another cavern or climb a raging waterfall that bashed on your body into the cavern. I chose the raging waterfall, but it was so dark in there that I could barely get any good photos. I brought my iPhone with a waterproof case inside, which was extremely risky on my part, but I just had to document this. If I dropped the phone or if it fell from my neck, it would have been gone forever. Forever! My GoPro is no good in dark conditions so I left that in Antigua. Some of the others were glad there was someone dumb enough to bring their phone inside these caves to take photos of them as well. I was that guy!

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After about an hour and a half of pure fun in the caves, we made it to the deepest, darkest end of it, seemingly at least. Our guide let us climb a few meters up and cliff jump into the pool of black. Of course, I had to do that too. Hanni was also game! When I jumped in, I let my feet hit the ground. I’d say the pool was about 15 feet deep, more or less. I sat on the floor of it and opened my eyes and saw nothing but black. After a few seconds I floated back up to the top, where the others thought I hit my head on something. “Nope, I was just chilling down there!”

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We went back through the cave the same way we went in. But at this point, our candles only had a couple inches of wax left. If all of our candles were to burn out while we were in the cave, I wouldn’t have minded it actually. What an adventure it would have been to try and get out of the cave in total darkness! As a matter of fact, I tossed my candle a while ago because I was sick of it always losing its flame everytime I went underwater. Worst case scenario, I still had my iPhone flashlight if things got messy.

We exited the caves and marched down back to the lodge. That was one of the funnest things I have ever done! Expectations exceeded. But the day wasn’t over yet, we still had to go tubing down the river.

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We were each giving a tube…some of the smallest tubes I have ever been in. We walked down to the river. At this point, the sun wasn’t shining as bright so it was a bit more chilly than earlier. This fact was even more so evident when I went into the water! The guide had us interlock our legs to a person in front of us.

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We floated outward into the flows. A bird flying high above us may have mistaken us for a giant snake swimming down the river. I was in an awkward position in the tube which was very comfortable to sit in. Most of my tube was underwater the whole time. I don’t think this is right. But still I sat there, leglocked with the other tubers while little local kids tubed near us selling beer. The cold didn’t bother them one bit. Little troopers.

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After a very fun weekend, my group packed our bags and made way back to Antigua. Semuc Champey was just the place I needed to go to after lying in bed sick all  week. I highly recommend it to anyone thinking about it.  We arrived back home during the evening. I saw the lights on in Katie’s room.

“Katie, I’m back!” I shouted as I knocked at her door. The door slowly swung open but it wasn’t Katie. It was a new volunteer who introduced herself as Uma (USA).

“Katie, stepped out for a moment,” she said. “But she told us we should wait for you before we go out for dinner.”

Uma informed me that while I was away for the weekend, that a few new volunteers arrived, which was music to my ears! After Adelah left, the place was starting to get lonely. How do you cap off a great weekend in an awesome place? I expected to just go to sleep when I got back home but instead, I was treated to wine, wine, and delicious food, with new volunteers from all around the world.

Things are off to a great start!

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Welcome to the Volcanic Arc!

First things first: I’m sicky poo.

I spoke too soon when I boasted about not falling ill in Nepal. I almost, almost escaped unscathed. But I found myself coughing every few minutes between two hefty guys on a 15 hour flight to North America. That was not comforting in the slightest. Thankfully, they were just coughs and not anything worse. Upon landing in the Guatemala City airport, the time was now around 8:30pm on Sunday. I easily navigated around, found my luggage, eased through customs, and went on my way out the door. I saw a guy holding a yellow flag with a smiley face on it. That’s my guy! I received an email a couple of weeks ago telling me to be on the lookout for a yellow flag with a smile on it. There were two other volunteers there waiting. I was so out of it from flying, lack of sleep, and falling ill that I couldn’t remember their names.

Our Guatemalan driver handed us a folder labeled “Maximo Nivel” that had information specific to us. I opened it and read that I would be placed in a homestay. My host mother’s name is Olga. Can’t wait to meet her! We were picked up in Guatemala City but had to drive about 30 minutes west to the city of La Antigua, my new home for the next six weeks. I expected the roads here to be crap but they were as smooth and paved as can be. On the way we passed multiple McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Taco Bells, and Burger Kings. I haven’t had McDonald’s since Germany! That might be a new record for me.

We entered the charming city of Antigua, which was festive with Christmas lights and colorful buildings. The roads were made of cobblestone that spread evenly between perfectly parallel and perpendicular streets and avenues. Smack dab in the middle of the city was Parque Central, a very small square with a fountain and lot’s of greenery surrounding. Speaking of squares, Antigua was very square in nature. Streets ran directly north and south and directly east and west. This was block city at it’s finest. It would be difficult to get lost here.

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After dropping the other two volunteers at their volunteer house, the driver dropped me off at my homestay, door number seven.

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I walked inside with my bags and met a young woman, maybe about 20 years old, and a little girl around 10. The older woman didn’t speak a lick of English but welcomed me anyways. Her name is Lorena. Where was Olga? The woman showed me to my new room. Would I have roommates? Would the room be cozy? This house smells like my grandma’s house when I was growing up and that’s a good thing. It’s a comforting scent. “El desayuno es a las siete,” she said. Breakfast is at seven in the morning.

My room was a single bedroom, with a really soft bed, blanketed with multiple covers. I had my own dresser, night desk, and a few towels to spare. To top it off, I had my own bathroom across from my room with an actual toilet I could sit on and best of all…a hot freakin shower! This was luxury compared to my more primitive homestay in Nepal. And since I was coming down with something awful, I needed to be as comfortable as possible with the peace and privacy I needed to relax. But, were there other volunteers already living here? I arrived late at night so if there was anyone else then they’d be sleeping. I’d see who else was around tomorrow.

My room.
My room.

I woke up early from jet lag and from constant coughs. Thankfully, me new bed welcomed me with much needed comfort and warmth. Soon enough, I got ready and entered the dining room. There I met my pleasantly pleasant host mother Gloria and a few other volunteers. Three of the volunteers were here independently studying English. The other four were part of IVHQ and were only here for one measly week. Three of them came together for nursing and another, Adelah (New York), came here for construction. The breakfast we had was wholesome and filling. Yogurt, granola, omelets, fruits, toasts, and tea. We had a brief orientation later that morning at Maximo where I was introduced to more volunteers, including Roxy (USA). She will be teaching English alongside me.

The place where we would be teaching is in a new building that Maximo is still renovating. It’s about 25 minutes outside of Antigua in a place called Alotenango. To get there, we must take a chicken bus. A chicken bus is a pimped out American school bus that the locals can take to nearby areas on the cheap.

A chicken bus.
A chicken bus.

They call it a chicken bus because they pack it so tight that everyone’s heads are bobbing around like chickens packed in a crate. Honestly, I’ve been on far tighter buses that deserve the name “chicken bus” more so than these here in Antigua. These buses here weren’t so bad in comparison.

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A team member from Maximo named Jonathan took a few of us to our placement on our first day and gave us the lowdown on our teaching gig.

Our building where I will be teaching.
Our building where I will be teaching.

Roxy and I expected today to just be an observation day to get the scope of things but instead we were thrown into our own classes of three groups of students. I haven’t been in Guatemala for 24 hours yet and already we had our own classes. As a matter of fact, there were no other teachers here, just Roxy and I. We found out we would be teaching to kids who couldn’t afford language classes and that these kids would be coming to our building after their normal school day. We teach for three hours every weekday to three classes, all ranging from five year olds to adults in their early twenties. We have to be basic and simple here. Constant repetition is key. Unlike Nepal, Vietnam, South Africa, and even Tanzania, the students here in Guatemala were severely lacking in the English department which surprised me. I thought they’d know at least a few things here. This will take some time!

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Roxy teaching the students their numbers.

 

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I’ve been pretty sick for the past few days and instead of mingling with the other volunteers and getting to know them better, I was stuck in bed, sick as a dog each night. I signed up for Spanish classes every morning and I wound up getting my poor teacher, Sandra, sick. Lo siento Sandra! I worked up enough strength to finally go out into the town with Adelah and a new arrival named Katie (England).

Me, Adelah, and Katie.
Me, Adelah, and Katie.

Turns out Katie and I have a mutual friend by the name of Sam. Remember I met Sam in South Africa some time ago and visited him when I went to London for Christmas two years ago. Small world! A few volunteers from the volunteer house planned on going to a place called Semuc Champey over the weekend and invited me along. By now my cold started to wear off and I felt better enough to join up. I had no idea what Semuc Champey was. I never heard of it.

Turns out it’s one of the best places ever to do something I’ve never done before!

The Latin Linguist

This upcoming seventh season of volunteering lending my talents abroad leads me to Guatemala and I’ve been wanting to go there for years! In fact, Guatemala was supposed to be my very first country I’ve ever travelled to alone, fresh out of high school. But a phone call from my organization at the time asked me to change countries last minute because of growing civil problems within the country. And so, I changed it to Costa Rica.

Guatemala! My new major area of exploration for the next few weeks.
Guatemala! My new major area of exploration for the next few weeks.

I don’t know much about what’s going on but I do have some information to share. Once again, I will be working under IVHQ, teaching English in the city of Antigua, Guatemala! I’m scheduled to remain there for six weeks but I still don’t know if I’m staying in a homestay or a volunteer house. I’ve had great experiences with both situations, but I think I’m leaning towards a homestay. The best news I received is that the local organization I will be working with is called Maximo Nivel. I’ve worked with them before in Peru, three and a half years ago and they were a really great company to be a part of! They have branches in Peru, Costa Rica, and Guatemala. I also plan on getting my spanish on hardcore while I’m there.

La Antigua, Guatemala.
La Antigua, Guatemala.

Once again, I’m going in mostly blind. I don’t know anyone or what it’s going to be like, or even what excursions I’m going to be taking.  The mystery is part of the intrigue. I’m hoping Guatemalan food is similar to Mexican food because if so, I’m gonna get fat for sure! Mexican is my favorite food! I’ll be spending Christmas and New Years down there which will also be a first. I spent my first Thanksgiving abroad in Nepal and now I’m spending my first New Year’s abroad in Guatemala. For those keeping record, I spent Christmas abroad already once before in the United Kingdom.

The last few days in Nepal was starting to get cold so I was ready to get to a warmer country, but getting there was tiresome. A five hour flight from Kathmandu, Nepal to Doha, Qatar-> a 12 hour layover in Doha -> a 15 hour flight from Qatar to Miami, Florida-> a two hour layover and then finally a three hour flight from Miami to Guatemala City.

Goodbye Nepal!
Goodbye Nepal!

This is also the first time I stopped back in the US during a lengthy trip to continue onto other countries. So that will be a little weird; seeing all the fat people again for a few hours. After not being in the US for a few months, you really notice it once you go back. Trust me.

I’m ready. I’m excited. I’m pumped! I’m planning on getting my Spanish on and will bathe myself in the language until I start to think in Spanish. That is one of my primary goals while I am there. Also, to get my hands dirty with the Guatemalan culture and explore as much as I can.

Continue following me on here, I have a  feeling things are going to get interesting.