Tag Archives: IVHQ

Everybody Thinks I’m Fijian…and That’s a Good Thing

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*My apologies for the lack of photos on this post. I made my most costly travel error ever when I accidentally dropped my iPhone into a waterfall. I’ll explain more about that on a later post.*

I was meant to arrive on Saturday, but was having such a good time at the Beachouse that I emailed The Green Lion, my project coordinators in Suva, letting them know I would arrive at the bus station at 3:00pm on Sunday instead. No problem.

Kayaking at the Fiji Beachouse
A group of awesome backpackers I hung around with at the Fiji Beachouse.
I also meant to take the express bus on Sunday morning, but instead Ross and his girlfriend Christie (UK) happily offered to drive me in their rental car. They had to go to Suva anyways. On the way there, we stopped in Pacific Harbor to grab some food and use the ATM. I noticed the time was just a little past 3pm, but no worries, Fiji Time. Just like many places I’ve been to (Africa being the one that pops in my head the most) Fiji runs on what they like to call Fiji Time. Which means, everything and everybody is going to be late. Not too late, but a little late. It’s the whole chilled out island mantra of the island and the perfect excuse as to why anyone in Fiji is late for anything. Fiji Time. I could dig it but it can also be annoying at times particularly when waiting on food that I ordered. In this case, Fiji time would work in my favor because I was already almost a half hour late. The coordinators are probably waiting at the bus station wondering where the heck I am. But I wasn’t overly concerned because of Fiji Time.

Once we arrived at the bus station, I just had Ross drop me off in the center of it. The bus station was a lot bigger than I imagined and a lot more hectic too. I said my farewells to Ross and Christie, put on my bags and simply began to walk around looking for any sign of someone looking for me.

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The Suva Bus Station. Courtesy of Fijibus.com
I’ve done this many times before and each time there is always someone around with a sign that either has my name on it, a yellow smiley face, an IVHQ logo sign, or whatever. I looked and looked. No sign. I did several laps around the entirety of the bus station and no sign of anyone looking for me. Oddly, I wasn’t worried.

I had three options:

  1. Keep walking around looking for somebody.
  2. Go into town and sort out purchasing a SIM for my phone to call Green Lion.
  3. It’s Sunday which means I’m probably not the only new volunteer arriving. I can just wait at the terminal for another foreign volunteer to arrive.

I stuck with option one.

They had to be around here somewhere. There’s no way they would leave the bus station with the possibility of a scared little volunteer all by themselves. I wasn’t scared. This was my fault actually. I told them I’d arrive at 3pm. I didn’t even know if buses actually arrived at three. Then on top of that I was late. I had to figure out a way to make myself look known. Other than my big bags I was carrying, I don’t exactly stick out. Since the day I arrived at the Beachouse, I’ve been mistaken for being a Fijian local by tourists and the locals themselves. Many backpackers assumed I worked at the Beachouse and locals were baffled when I started jabbering in my flat American English.

“Oh I thought you were Fijian!” they would say.

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This is a photo of me at a local village near the Beachouse at a kava ceremony. I blend in quite well right?
I blended in so well that a group of locals invited me to take part in a traditional wedding later in the week (more about that later)!

I never once got bored of the confusion. I was happy that I had potential to coast through Fiji without sticking out like a sore thumb. It will prove useful for when locals want to hassle me. It dawned on me that the coordinators are probably around but probably think I’m some local, easily mistakable among the crowds of actual locals venting in and out of the Suva bus station. Time to change my presence.

I purposely began to appear lost and confused. I walked slowly and would pause occasionally on my tiptoes looking past the crowds with a “what the heck is going on” look on my face. I did this all in the area of where I thought the best place the coordinators would be. I paced slowly, alert.

“Excuse me?” said a Fijian man wearing a tropical blue shirt and what looked like a black skirt for men. I glanced at him and raised my eyebrows letting him know he had my attention.

“Are you looking for someone?”

“Yeah, I’m looking for the Green Lion.”

“Oh, are you Daniel??”

“Yup I’m him!”

He and the woman next to him began to laugh.
“We saw you walk by many times but thought you were a Fijian!” they exclaimed.

This would be the new story of my life.

He introduced himself as Junior and the woman as Seini. Both are coordinators from the Green Lion who were scheduled to pick me up…at three!

“The bus showed up but there were no volunteers that came out, so we were confused,” Junior said with a smile.

I explained my situation but it was no matter. They were just happy to have found me and I was relieved I didn’t have to walk around aimlessly with my bags any longer. They led me to a local bus. About 40 minutes would be my new home for the next six weeks filled with a bunch of other volunteers from all around the world.

This is the part where I usually start to wonder what my housemates will be like, but weirdly I didn’t think much about it. I was concentrating on what kind of restaurants were on the way and IF there was a McDonald’s nearby (there was). I was also taken by the funky island music on blast in the bus. Every volunteer experience I’ve done, the volunteers have always been more than amazing, with a handful being good friends of mine to this very day, so I was sure this experience would be the same.

Once the bus dropped us off, we walked to the Green Lion office where I filled out a bunch of paperwork and then directed across the street to my new home.

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I walked in the house and already there were about a dozen volunteers socializing in the outdoor area. I gave a brief hello and a wave and followed Junior down the hall, downstairs to the boys corridor and to my room. In my room were four bunk beds with someone in each of them except for one, which would be mine.

“Hello,” I said with a stupid smile as I plopped down my bag. “How’s it going?”

One of the boys on the bottom bunk was sprawled out on his side with his right hand supporting his head. “You must be Daniel,” he said in a German accent. “I expected you yesterday.”

He was correct. I was supposed to arrive yesterday. But who is this guy? He introduced himself as Johannes (Germany) but for some reason I kept referring to him as Johannesburg. I got the idea from his chattering that he was the guru of the household. He seemed to know everything about Fiji. The other two in the room were also German. Their names were Timo and Julius, my roommates for the next six weeks. All of them young and all of them experiencing their very first volunteer trip or even solo trip ever! How cute. We made brief small talk before I decided to head upstairs to meet the rest of the crew.

It’s always a bit awkward being the new guy, but turns out that most of the volunteers just arrived hours before me and there were still some coming in later. I introduced myself to about a dozen people and didn’t remember a single name upon the first greet. That usually happens. The same questions follow afterwards: Where are you from? How long are you here for? What placement are you in? Sometimes followed up with: Are you travelling anywhere after Fiji? That last question I chose not to reveal fully just yet. I don’t wanna seem like I’m boasting that I’m currently on a two-year quest to the seven continents. So I just simply would say “Probably Australia.” As a matter of fact, I didn’t have a flight booked anywhere outside of Fiji yet. I wasn’t sure how long I would stick around or where in Australia I would go to first. However, in order to enter Fiji, you need to have proof of a flight departing the country. I found that out at the last minute while I was still in New Zealand. So instead of booking a last minute flight out of Fiji on some random date to some random Australian city, I devised a fake itinerary which worked like magic. (I personally don’t advise this, as it is risky. Go with your gut.) Anyways, back to the subject of my volunteering household.

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Among the group of initial greets, a few standouts were a group of college students from Seattle, Ethan- a southerner from North Carolina, Karen – a laid back gal who hails from Seattle, Annika (Germany) and Sara and Leah, two friends from Chicago. We mingled for awhile as other volunteers made their way into the house. A volunteer who has been there for awhile already, Mychaela, lives ten minutes from my mom in Michigan. Look at that! She’s freakin’ hilarious by the way. The last volunteer to stroll in that night introduced himself as Hamish.

“Hamish?” I thought out loud.”What kind of name is that?” It just kinda came out.

“It’s very common actually,” he responded with a grin. He hails from Sydney and this is also his first major solo romp. He sat down next to me and a couple of others I was chatting with and I could already tell from the words coming out of his mouth that this guy is the most Australian Aussie I’ve ever met in my life and I’ve met tons. I thought I’ve heard all the Aussie slang but it was like he spoke an entirely different language. I wasn’t sure at the time if he was toying with me or if this was legit how he speaks. It was legit how he speaks! If anything, his Aussie slang will help prepare me for my pending trip to Australia.


Most of us new volunteers went out the next night to the only bar in town, called Sports Bar. There was nothing sporty about it. Not even a single television. It was kind of a shit hole and we were the only ones there, but still it was a great way to bond with the group I would be spending most of my time with. And no matter how many times I volunteer, no one group is like the other.

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The IVHQ Fiji volunteer group.
Soon I will begin my placement at one of the local primary schools nearby. Like every country I’ve taught in, I expected it to be challenging in a good way. A new culture, new ideals, and different languages always present a few hurdles to bound. In a way, it’s like deducing a puzzle. It always takes a few days but I eventually get the hang of it.

One thing for sure is that I always grow fond of the students I teach and I’m sure the ones here in Fiji will be just as fond-worthy.

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A Gang of Bull Sharks Came To Play

Bull Sharks in Beqa Island, Fiji while Scuba Diving

The only major, adrenaline-fueled activity I wanted to do during my two months in Fiji was to scuba dive with bull sharks.

The moment I arrived at the Fiji Beachouse, my very first day in Fiji, a backpacker came up to me and asked if I’d be interested in diving with sharks near Beqa Island the next morning. My answer was an immediate YES! What tipped this random guy off to ask me just as I was confirming my dorm room at the front desk?

“Alright good,” he replied. “We’ve got a group!”

His name is Dwayne (Australia), a traveler who’s been in Fiji for quite some time now, also staying here at the Beachouse. He mentioned he’s gathered a group of six backpackers who were all in and we’d need to be up and ready by 6am.

Scuba diving in the vicinity of sharks is something I’ve always been interested in. I’ve done something similar twice before but in the protection of a steel cage. Now within hours of landing in Fiji, I was magically presented with the opportunity to dive freely with them. Unlike the Great Whites and the Galapagos sharks I caged dived with prior, this time we would scuba in the complete open-ocean-wild with a number of possible sharks: bull sharks, nursing sharks, white-tipped, black-tipped, and the biggest of them all, the elusive tiger shark.

The following morning, I went to the front desk at six sharp and met the other divers Dwayne gathered who all also stayed at the Beachouse. Among the motley crew of divers were fellow Beachouse backpackers Ross (UK), Nathalie (Sweden), and another Daniel (Australia). We took a private car hire about 40 minutes east along Queen’s Road to Pacific Harbor. There, a small boat was there to charter us to Beqa Island, a small island just a few kilometers south of the main island.

Once we docked on Beqa, my team of divers were equipped and prepped about what we were about to do. It turns out that Beqa Island is one of the best places in the world to dive with sharks, specifically bull and tiger sharks, however the tiger sharks are usually a rare occurrence. This also wouldn’t be a typical scuba dive and not just because there are wild sharks lurking. We were instructed that we’d swim down about 20 meters to an arena where we will watch the dive masters tempt to attract and feed any incoming sharks with their tuna heads.

So far so good. I didn’t feel any motion sickness as of yet. The small boat out into the middle of the ocean above the arena was a little choppy, but I was alright. We anchored with a couple other boats filled with divers. This was a shared opportunity. My group of six turned into a group of about 15. Whatever, I just had sharks on my mind!

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Bull Sharks in Beqa Island, Fiji while Scuba Diving

Once it was time, we put on our gear, strapped on our weights, and spit and rubbed our masks. I always try to be the last one in the water among a group of experienced divers, because I tend to use up more oxygen than most, so any air I can save is essential. I plopped into the water, released the air from my BCD and began the decent down a mossy rope that guided me towards the arena. As I went down, I noticed my regulator wasn’t in the best condition. Every time I inhaled, a little water would run through the mouthpiece and into my mouth. Instead of a natural flow like when I usually dive, this one felt as if I were gasping for air every time I took a breath. Like I had asthma or something. Anyways, I reached the seafloor and joined the others kneeling down at the arena. Holy shit there were so many fish! Thousands upon thousands of tropical fish, all colors, shapes, and sizes. We were surrounded!

Bull sharks in Beqa island while scuba diving.

Bull sharks in Beqa island while scuba diving.

Two dive masters were in the arena, with garbage bins toted to their waist. Inside these bins were fish bait. On the floor were two punctuated chests also filled with fish heads. The other divers and I were knelt in a single row behind a wall of ocean coral and rocks that came up to about our waist. No sharks in sight yet, just an insane amount of fish.

Bull sharks in Beqa island while scuba diving.

Bull sharks in Beqa island while scuba diving.

While I was contemplating on whether I should let a nearby dive instructor know that my regulator was malfunctioning, other divers had separate issues with their gear as well. Ross’ mask wouldn’t fit properly behind his head and constantly filled with water no mater how much he cleared it. The other Daniel had a nose bleed for some reason. And another diver’s tubes became detached which caused her to dangerously rise to the surface. Our equipment sucked. Gasping for air underwater ties into my mild claustrophobia, but I kept it cool. I debated if I should leave and swim back up. That’s how uncomfortable I was. BUT not before I see a frickin’ shark!

Bull sharks in Beqa island while scuba diving.

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It took about 15 minutes before it happened. One of the dive masters unleashed a buffet of tuna heads at once that caused a frenzy with the nearby fish. A barrage of fish and fish guts balled into what looked like an intense underwater dust cloud. Suddenly, a sound similar to thunder rolled in and out of nowhere appeared four massive bull sharks! They burst into the scene chomping at the giant tuna heads scattered in the arena. All the other little fish got out their way. One would think to be terrified at the sight of an oncoming shark, larger than a human, underwater but no. We were all completely mesmerized. Myself, almost hypnotized, so much that I wanted to swim out into the arena and touch them.

Bull sharks in Beqa island while scuba diving.

Minutes went by and more bull sharks joined the arena. A total of 16 different bull sharks showed up to claim any major bait lying around. Whenever a shark came into the vicinity, the dive masters swiftly swam out of the way…way away from the hungry beasts. The wall barricade felt like an invisible barrier came between us and the sharks. They never swam through the barrier, but came awfully close to side swiping us at times. Still none of us budged.

Bull Sharks in Beqa Island, Fiji while Scuba Diving

At this point, I’ve been down here long enough to cope with all the water I was breathing in and spitting out. I didn’t want to miss any of this action. I didn’t want to miss the chance to see the even bigger tiger shark.

Bull sharks in Beqa island while scuba diving.

Unfortunately after about 25 minutes, we were signaled to swim around the coral to our safety spot. No tiger sharks in sight today.

Back on the boat, we had to wait about an hour at the surface before we could go back down on the second dive to do the same thing. I coped with my crappy regulator and decided not to whine about it to the dive masters. I’ll just deal with it again.

The second dive was more of the same; an infinite amount of fish and more bull sharks. They swam in like a gang coming in to steal food from the smaller guys. But not once did they pay attention to us divers. I think the sharks here are used to humans coming down here every other day, feeding them giant tuna heads. One could say this is detrimental to their natural instincts, others may say this is great for creating awareness of the bull sharks. They aren’t that bad. Most reported shark attacks are from bull sharks but that’s only because they are one of the most expansive and abundant sharks in the world. Not only can they adapt to warm and cool temperatures, but they can also swim just fine in fresh water. I’m not sure if this is true or not but I’ve heard bull sharks swim freely in the Great Lakes of Michigan, my home state. I’m not one to find out personally.

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After the second dive, I immediately took off my gear and went to the roof of the boat to lay down. I was feeling woozy. Nathalie joined me soon after. I slept the whole way back to Beqa Island and thank God because I wouldn’t have lasted much longer!

Once we got rid of our gear and recorded our dives, we were happily escorted off the island and were serenaded with a farewell song by the staff of the dive center’s resort. Actually, I’m not sure if the farewell was actually for us or the nearby couple who happened to be leaving the island and boarding the same boat we just so happened to be on. Regardless, it was a nice touch!

Bull Sharks in Beqa Island, Fiji while Scuba Diving

ATLAS Updated!

What’s next?

Upon returning to the Beachouse, I spent the last few days there chillin’ and hanging out with the backpackers I met there over time before I had to part ways to begin the next phase of this Fiji trip.

Many of you know that I frequently cater to a volunteer organization called IVHQ. My last IVHQ was in Guatemala, which is where I decided Fiji would be my next placement once they opened it up as a new program there. This would be my ninth time volunteering and I had about six weeks coming up with them. I’ll be teaching in a local primary school in the island capital of Suva. Time to revert from backpacker mode to volunteer mode.

Let’s see how this new group of volunteers and this new school I’ll be placed in shapes up to my previous efforts.

The Last Loco

I’m an American celebrating Australia Day in Guatemala…

With my teaching duties over and just a few days left in Antigua, I wanted to relax, get myself together for the next phase, and go nuts! Australia Day was coming and the Aussie volunteers and expats wanted to celebrate. “What exactly is Australia day?” I asked. “It’s the day when the Brits invaded Australia and told the Aboriginals to get the F out”, exclaimed Hanni. Whatever the reason, I was down to clown!

While Lincoln and Hayden had intentions of joining their student group for dinner that night, Nic decided to rebel and take part in Australia Day. It was his last full day in Antigua, so he wanted to go all out. He and I joined forces along with our local friend Evelyn, and went bar hopping in random places around the main center of town. We began rather early in the day.

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Around 6:30pm, the three of us headed to the main site for Australia Day, the Jungle Party Hostel, where our friend Carina was able to hook us up with special bracelets that gave us access to free Wombat Puss Punch (it’s as bad as it sounds). Other volunteers from my house and Shekina met us there.

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It was a giant sized Australia Day party that failed to live up to what Australia actually is (according to all the Aussie volunteers). I wouldn’t know yet.

We’ve been drinking all day long. You can tell by the fact that none of us could keep our eyes open whenever our pictures were taken.

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We should have stopped there but instead we went to Monoloco one last time afterwards. I have to say, the walk home back to Olga’s was the best walk I’ve had back to Olga’s. Nic and Alex were completely gone! Alex decided to take her flip-flops off walking down the street.

“Alex” I said, “Put your shoes back on. There’s broken glass all over the street!”

“But it’s so sparkly!” she responded with a childlike grin.

She never put her flip-flops back on and somehow made it back unscathed, except for a blood gushing cut that happened way above her foot. How did that get there?

Meanwhile, Nic was stumbling all over the place and somehow broke the locks on his keychain and probably left a dent into some guys truck he fell into. He said he wanted to get completely loco today and I’d say he accomplished that, for the mere fact that he didn’t remember anything the next morning! Me on the other hand? I’d say those multiple stops at Burger King throughout the night absorbed any amount of alcohol I had. I ate about four double cheeseburgers in total. Plus, drinking a gallon of water right before I went to bed was the smartest move of the day. I felt about a 90% the next morning. So good, that I was able to watch some of the parade in main Antigua.

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The next morning, I said goodbye to the Hoosiers (Though I have a strong feeling that I will see them again). They had to go to a nearby resort with the rest of their classmates before they headed back to freezing cold Indiana on Wednesday. Long after he had already left, I got a text from Nic saying he forgot his passport and his wallet. Fortunately, I was able to get them back to him before he left for the airport.

On my last full day in Antigua, I went back to my school and surprised my former students who had no idea I would pop up so soon. I took the middle class out for ice cream!

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I went back home to Olga’s and enjoyed my last dinner there: empanadas, refried beans, guacamole, and bread. There was plenty and it filled me up! I went to Monoloco one last time with some friends I had made there and called it an early night. I still had to pack my things for my departure early in the morning to El Salvador. At this point, I was mentally prepared to go. I’ve been here for almost seven straight weeks and am ready to start exploring new countries and meeting new people!

The next phase of this trip begins as I enter backpacker mode, backpacking my way down and up Central America for a few weeks! As for what happens there, your guess is as good as mine.

Teacher from Outer Space

Sometimes strangers from strange places come into your life and change it forever. For this group of young Guatemalans, I was that stranger who came into their lives from out of nowhere.

When I arrived in Guatemala back in December, Roxy and I were the very first teachers of a new after-school English teaching program. We were thrown into the trenches of a mix of different locals, some with excellent English but most with little to none. Now, six weeks later, my very short stint was coming to an end and I’ve grown completely attached to all my youngin’s.

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The past couple of weeks at the school, new volunteer teachers have been introduced. I’ve had full reigns of every class prior but had to give up some classes to the new guys. Since then, I’ve become something like a principal of the school. I assigned each student to their permanent classes, observed the other teachers to make sure they were teaching properly, and handled any problems associated with attendance and classroom structure. Principal Sellers at his finest!

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For my last day at the school, I wanted to take a break from teaching and put together a fun time for everyone. It was also Ben’s last day, so he and I took the chicken bus to Alotenango early and loaded up on sweets and treats. We bought two piñatas for the younger classes and filled them with an assortment of colorful candies.

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Soon the students began to arrive, knowing full well that it was my, Ben, and Luke’s last day with them. “No class today!”I told them much to their delight. We spent all afternoon with music, snacks, photos, and ultimately piñatas.

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The oldest class arrived later. I’ve kept them as my own class since the very beginning and got them used to a weekly structure of new material. Each of them improved quite a bit since. I didn’t have a piñata for them, but instead we played games involving lots of candy, cookies, and cans of cokes as rewards.

The older class. I kept them since the very beginning.
The older class. I kept them since the very beginning.

I laid down the foundation for future volunteers to follow. A couple of the newer teachers have been spending the past few classes observing me and my methods. Hopefully everything Roxy and I started on the first day will trickle through from here on out: to learn English, but to have fun doing it!

Just like every time I say goodbye to my students in whatever country I’m in, it’s mighty tough. I did what I needed to do here and once that goal was accomplished, it meant that it was time to me to move on and meet others who need a little inspiration from this stranger from a strange land.

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I only have a few more days left in Guatemala before I set my eyes on the next phase of this global journey. With me, I’m taking all the good memories that came from this school and adding it to my plethora of memories from my teaching experiences all around the world.

I’ll have some information to reveal later as far as to what the next phase of this worldwide adventure has from me.

And when I tell you, you’ll think that I’m absolutely insane!

Expediciòn Acatenango: The Ring of Fire

When I reached the summit of Kilimanjaro three years ago, I felt like I could accomplish anything. To this day, it is still the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life.

My friend Lionel, who I met in Monterrico during Christmas, had planned on climbing one of the many volcanoes in Guatemala called Volcan Acatenango. It’s one of the tallest volcanoes in the Ring of Fire standing tall at 13,045ft (3,976m) near its very active neighbor Volcan Fuego. Lionel invited me for the expedition in which I gladly accepted. I’ve never hiked anything like this before! Ben would also be coming along for the climb.

This is Fuego. The volcano (not pictured) to the right of it is higher and the one we would be climbing!
This is Fuego. The volcano (not pictured) to the right of it is higher and the one we would be climbing!

Acatenango can be hiked in one day. It takes the average person up to six hours to reach the summit. A few volunteers have gone to Acatenango over the weekend for a day trip and have come back saying “it was the most physically demanding thing they have every done in their life”. A lot of them have said that, but every one of them made it to the top. I was going to attempt it differently though. My group planned on hiking up with a bag full of supplies and equipment and camping out, and then hike some more to the very top. I was warned it was going to be very cold, very windy, and that we’d have to wake up early on the second day in order to reach the summit by sunrise. I wasn’t worried about any of those factors really; the only thing I feared was altitude sickness.

I already knew from past experiences that I am sensitive to high altitudes. It affects everyone differently and just like how I am extremely sensitive to motion, the altitude affects me in the same way, except much worse. Maybe there is a correlation between the two? Kilimanjaro almost killed me because it was so high. And every time I hike a mountain, I start to feel nauseous. Thankfully though, Acatenango is a lot smaller than my old frenemy Kili. I knew my limits and higher altitudes take me sometime to adjust to. Besides, I just recently spent the past several weeks living on a high mountain in Nepal, so that should help a bit!

The day before the hike, Ben and I went to the local mercado to shop for food and supplies. Everything we ate on the volcano would be on our own dime and we’d have to carry it all up! We stocked up on snickers, crackers, chips, fruit bars, bananas, and a few liters of water. Our main course were peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that we premade the night before. Interestingly enough, Ben has never had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in his life. It’s not common at all in Australia like it is in the USA. Hopefully he’ll like ’em! We found two torches (flashlights) for 20Q each that we would use during the night hikes. I packed a few long sleeve shirts, a few pairs of socks for extra cushioning, and some long pants that were light and easy to manuever in. Lionel told me prior that he had a couple of sleeping bags, a tent, and a jacket for me later. My gut told me that I packed perfectly for this trip! Not too much and just enough to be comfortable. I didn’t want to bring too much up because I would have to carry it all.

Ben and I were picked up in the morning in the central park of Antigua around 9:20am along with another person who would be joining the hike with us. His name is Robin (Germany) and he is friends with Lionel. There were a few other locals in the van that would join our group making us a solid team of about eleven or twelve. We drove about an hour or so to the base of Acatenango, where it was a bit chilly. Still I wore shorts and a light jacket because I knew it would get hot soon enough.

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Robin, Me, Lionel, and Ben before the start of the hike!

And so we began! One of the hardest parts of a good hike is the very beginning. Going up the first slope I was already winded! It just takes your body s few minutes to adjust to what you’re about to do. I felt fine a little after once we had a steady pace going. The first 40 minutes we hiked through farmlands and crops before we entered a very muddy forest.

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I didn’t have a proper pair of boots with me. I’ve been sticking with my tried and true NikeREAX sneakers I’ve been using since I left home in July. I’ve used these bad boys when I hiked 22 miles in Germany, hiked up to the largest ice caves in the world, and everywhere else beyond and between. I just used extra socks for cushioning and padding which worked wonders.

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After the first hour, we took a twenty-minute break to wait for the others in our group to catch up. Afterwards, we continued on up through the muddy forest. At this point, I already started to feel a headache, which is the first symptom for oncoming altitude sickness. Crap…it’s too early in the hike to get a headache! I decided to re-adopt my “Pole Pole” method I used on Kilimanjaro. Pole means “slow” in Swahili. I went super slow on Kilimanjaro which prevented me from having a headache until the fifth day of hiking. And so, I began a slower pace here on Acatenango as well, which meant Lionel, Ben, and Robin would be way ahead of me. I was in the middle. While the rest of the group were still behind me, even after I was going mighty steady. It also allowed me to realize my surroundings and take some nice photos of everyone and the scenery.

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On our next break, I pulled out some of the food I had brought. I gave Ben his first Pb&J ever while I munched on that and some jalapeño flavored Cheetos, which were extremely good. I chugged on some water and we were on our way.

Ben and his first peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Ben and his first peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

I had the hiccups as soon as I began the hike and they stuck with me the whole way. Hiccups are an indicator that your body is trying to adjust to the altitude. I didn’t mind the hiccups. I’m just glad my body was trying to readjust itself back to how it was three years ago on Kili.

The scene turned from a muddy forest to a cloudy one. It was chilly whenever we stopped for a rest but we became warm as soon as we started moving again. The clouds covered any skyline we could have seen. The mist sponged the forest like a wet blanket. The footing on the ground was still a bit damp but the soil turned into pebbles of old volcanic ash. There were lots of groups of hikers around and about, most of them overdressed for the occasion and had too much in their backpacks.

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It’s been two and a half hours and we still had ways to go. We had two main guides with us: Biiron and Moses. Biiron is the one who organized this whole trip and Moses was his sidekick. Moses didn’t speak much but he was always going at a steady pace and always waited for everyone else to catch up before we continued. He’s a really short guy, literally about a third of my height. He never had any snacks whenever we stopped for a break so I made sure to share my food with him. Our group as a whole was great with sharing with one another, even with random hikers who looked like they could use a dose of energy. Even at the pace I was going, my headache grew. Thankfully, we reached a point where the path became more flat and less sloped.

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We were informed that instead of camping at the crater of the mountain, we would be camping much lower. There were just too many people there. We would find another place less crowded. At around 5pm, we all finally made it to our campsite. We were situated right in front of Fuego with a perfect closeup view of its constant eruptions. My head was pounding but an aspirin fixed that once I settled down. We setup our tent which was a lot smaller than I thought it was going to be.

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It was a two person tent for four big guys. We didn’t think about it and began to help collect wood to build a fire. It wasn’t as chilly as I expected but maybe it was because we sat by the fire most of the night.

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As we sat there with my Nikon in hand, I patiently waited for Fuego to erupt so I could capture all its fiery glory on camera. The eruptions happened about every twenty minutes or so, but there was no warning of when it would happen. It was hard to capture a shot in the dark but I did manage to get something.

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The backdrops were perfect for some pretty amazing photos that night!

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Biiron informed us that we will be waking up at 4:30am to begin a hike up to the summit, in order to see the sunrise. Close to 9pm, the four of us squeezed into the small tent and tried to go to sleep. It was uncomfortable but at least it was warm. I could barely move or readjust. Every so often we heard a loud boom. We sprang up and looked out the screen to see Fuego erupting. To see a volcano explode and spit lava everywhere is truly a sight to behold! The next morning, we woke up and I bundled up in layers. It wasn’t as cold as everyone has been telling me it will be, but it was still chilly enough for me to wear the big jacket Lionel lent me. I barely ate a banana and a fruit bar. I didn’t have an appetite whatsoever. I stuck a bottle of water and my pocket and off we went. I wasn’t in any mood to hike at all though. I could have stayed asleep a few more hours. My heart was pounding and a headache approached not even fifteen minutes in. I had to slow my pace. Pole Pole. Ben, Lionel, and Robin led the pack. I was somewhere in the middle and the others were behind as we trudged up the path of loose gravel.

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My feet sunk into it with each step, it was like climbing a never-ending sand dune made of black ash. Two steps forward and slide one step back. This was the hard part of the volcano. I grew nauseous, like I wanted to vomit. Altitude sickness was looming! But at least the sun began to show, and that distracted me for a moment.

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The group that was behind me were nowhere in sight. The group that was in front of me were long gone. I was on my own now, which I was okay with. I found my own pace which was slow but steady. I reached for my water bottle out of my jacket pocket and found that it was gone. It must have fallen out as I was sliding all over the place. I could manage without though. The summit wasn’t too much farther!

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Eventually I saw groups of hikers in front of me near the top. I’m almost there! I passed up climbers who were on the struggle bus and continued on the demented slope to the peak. I saw the other guys and gave them a salute signaling I was fine. Actually, I felt like I was going to vomit any minute. Step by step, I made it to the summit and it was a sight to see. The best viewpoint in all of Guatemala!

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My urge to vomit began to cease. I just had a pounding headache. Still I took off my jacket and enjoyed the summit scape. It wasn’t nearly as cold or windy as I thought it was going to be. I was quite warm up there! We stayed up there for a little more than an hour. We had views of the Pacific Ocean, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala City, and the best views of Fuego itself.

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Fuego erupting.
Fuego erupting.

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Man, I’m no good with high altitudes. My muscles were in great shape; no aches or pains, but it was just difficult for my system to adjust in such a short amount of time. I was glad I didn’t have to go up any further though. It’s all downhill from here and going down the steep ash was a ride in itself. We practically slid the whole way down back to camp!

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We packed up our gear and supplies and continued down the volcano. Once we approached the muddy jungle, it was a slip slide ride all the way down while dodging trees and large rocks scattered across. We slid so much that my toes began to dig into the front of my shoe. As we ran down the volcano with our large backpacks in tow, I felt like we were in boot camp training. My desire to get to the base of the volcano was strong and the lower I descended in altitude, the more strength ensued within. But by the time we reached the bottom, after about two hours, my toes were scrunched and my legs and feet were covered in ash. All worth it!

My group and our guide Moses.
My group and our guide Moses.

When we got back home, I had so much ash and rocks in my shoes and clothes that I left a trail all the way through Olga’s house to my room. Sorry Olga!

One of the best hikes I’ve ever done!