Volunteering in Jaibalito, Guatemala

Finally, the time came to report to our next volunteering position. While we’ve been enjoying our “down time” to play tourist, that’s not really the purpose of this tour. We are volunteering our way around the world, and so we were glad to be able to get back to it.

Jaibalito is an even smaller village than Santa Cruz, and it’s even more isolated. The only way to reach it is by boat — or by footpath. After getting off at the dock, we started the arduous hike up the steep main street, loaded down with all our gear, past a couple of restaurants catering to tourists, and then through the rundown houses, storefronts, churches and — wonder of wonders — a library (which even Santa Cruz didn’t have).

And then we were winging it, because we didn’t have very good directions nor a welcoming committee to guide us to our destination. But continuing to wind our way through town, and then out of town, and then through the woods, over a dry creek with a washed-out bridge, on up the hill and past a couple of houses, we finally came to it. Our only real clue that we had successfully reached our destination was the sounds of children’s voices laughing, singing and strumming on discordant ukuleles.

It was a school of sorts, but a very unusual one. It doesn’t really offer classes so much as fun activities for kids — including a chance to play ukuleles. And it’s located in an honest-to-goodness treehouse. The entire complex, constructed largely of bamboo, looks like something out of Swiss Family Robinson. The living quarters of the couple running the school (he’s American, she’s Guatemalan) are very open-air, with only partial walls, and a very spacious interior that includes yoga swings. The man also runs an herbal business there, as well as giving massages and teaching others how to give them and how to brew herbal concoctions and assess health according to ancient Chinese traditional practices. Part of their living space resembles a potions lab out of Harry Potter.

Across the way (and the way is a narrow passage that is public property, so people from the village pass through it several times a day) is the other part of the structure, built around a huge avocado tree, that includes the treehouse classroom and, below it, the living quarters where we would be staying.

It all sounds fascinating, and it did have its charms. But it also had its drawbacks. Since none of the spaces were fully enclosed, they were drafty, and it got a bit chilly there — we were at an altitude of about 4000 feet. Sometimes at night we’d hit the sack early just so we could stay warm. Also, bugs and spiders could come in at will (fortunately, we only saw one scorpion, and it was a small one trapped in a spider’s web). One day a snake was found in the bathroom, and on another occasion, a gargantuan snail, so disproportionate it must have been exposed to radiation or something, wandered into the living room.

We were sleeping on bamboo cots covered with mattresses that were not the most luxurious in the world, but they did turn out to be more comfortable than we’d feared. The bamboo under the mattresses, however, was a different story altogether. There was no hot water — showers could be anywhere from cold to downright icy. (Construction on this complex, we should note, is ongoing, but we doubt if there will ever be comfortable bathing.) And we were right next to the chicken coop, which was graced with not one but two roosters, who might get into a shouting match at any time of day or night — but most reliably, around 4:00 a.m.

The couple in charge were likeable enough, and we had some nice conversations with them. And they had a delightful 6-year-old daughter, who of course took part in the school activities. But by our standards, they were poor organizers, and even worse at communicating. In the months preceding our arrival, we tried to get more information from them about the stipulations of our volunteer assignment, but if they replied at all to our inquiries, their responses were very terse and vague.

Additionally, they and their German friends who have settled nearby are ardent anti-vaxxers, even to the point of trying to persuade other people to distrust vaccines. COVID has not been much of a problem around here so far (though you do see a lot of people taking precautions such as wearing masks and stores offering hand sanitizer upon entry), but it’s probably just a matter of time before a wave hits. It’s very disturbing to see people like this willfully propagating anti-science hysteria, thus abetting the spread of a deadly disease. And it’s hard not to feel that by being here, we were being a party to it.

It was only very recently that we were told that we were expected to pay 300 quetzales a week (about 40 dollars) to cover food and other household expenses. Okay, fine. We understand that they might be operating on a very tight budget; but couldn’t they have stated that up front?

Initially, we shared living space with the previous volunteers, two young American women who would leave a couple of days later. And then we had the room to ourselves — or so we thought. Instead, we learned that it was the handyman’s custom to spend 4 nights a week there rather than commute home every day. He was quiet and considerate, but still, it would have been a nice courtesy if we’d been apprised of this in advance.

As for the food, it was sometimes catch as catch can. The hired assistant, Maria, who cooked the meals and did other household chores (she was a local mother whose kids attended the school) shopped for produce once a week. If the grub didn’t last for a week, we would have to provide something on our own, despite having already paid. Maria would cook breakfast and lunch every day; for dinner we were expected to just eat leftover lunch if there was any, or scrounge what we could. And it was sometimes hard to find anything fresh enough to eat, because the produce was just left out to rot and attract flies.

Moreover, we were expected to eat breakfast and lunch at the same time as everyone else — even though it was hard to find any place to sit. (There was no table, only a counter with stools.) And meal times varied widely. One day, breakfast would be at 9:00, and another day it would be at 11:00 — Guatemalans are proverbially lax about maintaining a schedule. Breakfast always consisted of eggs scrambled with tomatoes and onions, frijoles, and tortillas (homemade by the cook herself). Nobody made any effort to alert us about meal time; we were expected to simply find out somehow. When we came to eat, we were served a certain size portion — generally more than we wanted of some things and maybe not enough of another — rather than selecting our own.

And so on.

But notwithstanding the spartan living conditions and the problematic and awkward guest-host arrangement, we enjoyed the volunteer work itself. The teacher, a young woman named Karla, really loved working with the kids, and enthusiastically offered them activities they delighted in. The kids themselves were wonderful. They warmed up to us immediately, and we had a very good time with them.

Since we arrived just before Christmas, there was a Christmas party for them, at which they received grab bags full of simple gifts (little toys, toothbrushes, stickers, etc.) and played games and sang songs. At Karla’s request, Kimberly made a big poster of a snowman that they could pose in front of for photos. And having learned that Kimberly is a dancer, Karla insisted that she perform for the kids — which she did, totally improvising a dance that elicited an enthusiastic response from the youngsters, and even got them up and dancing themselves.

Maria made special Christmas tamales for everyone — huge tamales wrapped in banana leaves with prunish plums and olives in them. She was even considerate enough to make vegetarian versions for the two of us, and they were quite tasty and certainly unlike any we’d had before. She also, by the way, made very good and very spicy salsa frequently.

The classroom sessions were held for about 90 minutes on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. There was a possibility that we ourselves later could have additional sessions with the kids (once they felt comfortable with it) on Tuesday and/or Thursday, doing theatre activities. The rest of the time, we felt a bit stranded in this little isolated corner of the world, though we did get out on occasional excursions.

One of these was on Christmas Day, when we caught a boat to San Pedro, a much larger and more lively village that has a real “backpacker vibe” to it. There are numerous hostels, hotels, restaurants and businesses catering to tourists — there’s even a pretty decent health food store. We enjoyed walking around there, but the real highlight of the day was our hike to the village of San Juan, which is only a couple of miles away. Because this wasn’t really so much a hike as a climb. Rather than follow the road, we opted to make our way over the boulders that lined the shore, making for an exhilarating, if occasionally precarious, itinerary.

At first, we weren’t sure we’d even be able to make it that way, but we saw a couple of fellows coming from that direction, and asked them if it could be done. “Si”, one replied, “pero despacio. Tenga cuidado.” So we did go slowly, and we were careful.

San Juan is also a very colorful and vibrant town. And very artsy, featuring fine arts and traditional Mayan craftwork for sale. One of its distinctive features is .the assortment of decorations hanging above the street on the main thoroughfare leading up the (very steep) hill that screams “photo op” at every turn. It also has its share of profit opportunities for the local entrepreneurs, who even charge you 15 quetzales to sit on a little straw bench in a courtyard. (As we found out after we’d already done it and snapped our photo, so we pled ignorance and got away with it.) And its share of poverty among the locals: one family who may have been homeless, or at least weren’t far from it were sitting down by the water’s edge and panhandling as the chance arose. When we wished them “Feliz Navidad”, the dad said something to the effect that we could help make it a Merry Christmas by donating some money for the children.

Back in San Pedro, the first thing we had seen when our boat docked was several women doing their laundry in the lake — which doesn’t have the cleanest water, and is even full of litter– scrubbing the clothes on big rocks and hanging them to dry on racks stationed there for that purpose. Yep, they were even doing this on Christmas morning.

The natives who live around the lake tend to be very cheerful and friendly. Resources however are hard to come by and everyone chips in to get the job done, regardless of age. Girls spend their days making tortillas and tending the markets, boys help run the boats and drive the tuk-tuks, children and adults gather sticks, carry water and building supplies from the docks up the hills. The children who live in the area need and deserve the kind of cultural enrichment and just plain fun offered by places like the little school in Jaibalito. And we as volunteers learn as much if not more from them, as they do from us.

Dec. 17-26, 2021

A big thank you to the patrons and donors who help support this project.

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