Guatemala. With an average altitude at around 6,000 feet and over twenty volcanoes total in the country, it was definitely a place very different from anything I had ever experienced.. Every morning the faint orange light of the sublime sunrise would gently peek through the window shades to wake me up from my deep night's sleep. Every morning I breathed in the chilly, fresh morning air, ready for what tasks lie ahead for my group and me that day. My group would gather outside by the pickup truck, all loading in the truck bed for the thrilling ride through town. Breeze smacking our half asleep faces, as we hugged ourselves to keep warmth against the cold morning air. It was invigorating. There is nothing more freeing than sitting in a truck bed as you wind through the hills, praying your body won't rocket out on one of those sharp bends. The longer we got to ride back there the better. Every day was different, but I took solace and comfort in having the same morning routine each day.
Two days we worked with Habitat for Humanity, building with local volunteers to provide a new home for a neighboring family. We started the beginnings of the house, so digging the holes for foundation, mixing concrete, piecing together rebar, and pouring the concrete to create the foundation footing and walls. I had never appreciated a concrete mixing and pouring machine as much as I did when we hand shoveled to mix the concrete and used bucket after bucket to transport and pour the mixture. We were lucky to be working with one another and two other great local volunteers, cause we laughed, talked, and sang to the music playing, making the work easier and the time go by faster. Those two days really took it out of me - that night i felt like someone had sucked all of the energy out of me. Maybe it was a lack of water or an excess amount of sun, but I was really starting to get physically worn out. The next day we visited a village by a huge landfill, and did some physical labor as well as got to interact with the community and the children. I couldn't stand seeing all of these families living near this landfill, one which they burned and clearly set off very toxic gas into the air, all but 100 feet away from these homes of the destitute families in this community. But this community had no where else to go, no where else to pack up and call home; they were stuck living in a place that was physically harmful to them, all of which they probably weren't even aware of, and even if they were, there is nothing they could do to change it. I came to reflect on how blessed i am to live in a community and country where I do not constantly worry about the air pollution from a nearby landfill harming me.
On our final day of volunteering we visited a small community far up in the hills - almost 8,000 feet up - to build stoves for families. Something as simple as a stove, yet it is the key to livelihood, needed to cook and provide clean water. Again, we worked with local skilled masons to build these stoves. We mixed a little concrete, measured and laid bricks and concrete blocks, and got to interact with the humble families who need the stove. And the view from the hill was captivating and stunning. It felt surreal; here are six students from a college in Cincinnati, up in this tiny village 8,000 feet in the hills, with two volcanoes in the near distance. Unreal.
Volunteering is always something I see as valuable, however I believe I gain the most from experiencing the culture and people of a new place. My favorite moments consisted of all six of us squeezing in the truck bed for the first time, riding through the town's cobblestone streets, admiring the array of colors and designs on the building. It consists of us hauling our blankets and chairs to the rooftop of the hostel we stayed in as the sun set and the air chilled, watching the nearby volcano erupt countless times with the clear stars twinkling above; of us walking through town and the market, admiring all the local foods and goods as people worked to sell us their products best; of us struggling to hike up the volcano in the sweltering heat. I got to experience a unique and diverse culture, with some of the most adventurous, goofy, and open-minded people I had met in a long time.
I often times get caught up in my own bubble; stuck on the next exam or project I have, with drama with my friends, and basically and stupid and pointless part of a college student's life. This trip allowed me to breathe, to take a step away from everything and everyone I knew. Never underestimate the value of stepping out of your comfort zone or the value of travel. I am so grateful to have gone on this mission trip over spring break; I learned about a whole new culture and made connections with people who were complete strangers. Travel will never cease to be a passion of mine, and I am excited to incorporate travel in my education for the next three years I have at UC.