Archive for the ‘Quetzaltrekkers’ Category

Thank you Quetzaltrekkers

I just had the pleasure of spending seven months as a volunteer trekking guide with Quetzaltrekkers.  Sound like a sweet gig? It is.  There’s no boss, and nobody in charge.  The organization survives on the foreign volunteers to commit three months, learn the business, learn the treks, and teach everything they know to the incoming guides.  I was routinely blown away by how Quetzaltrekkers can thrive with such a rapid employee turnover.  But, it works, and it has been for the last 15 years.

It was humbling to be in an environment that attracts such quality people – both guides and clients.  As a guide, Quetzaltrekkers quickly becomes your life.  There aren’t any ‘kind-of’ volunteers.  On non-trek days, guides are in the office twelve or fourteen hours.  Though at times exhausting, it’s by far the most fulfilling place I have worked.  At the end of the day, you know that every Quetzal of profit is headed to Escuela de la Calle and the kids at Hogar Abierto.  They deserve every bit and more and it was a true privilege to be a part of it.  I can see how it has touched so many lives.

We made it! Sunrise on top of Volcan Santa Maria, after hiking all night in the moonlight

A few things I’ll miss:

chocobananos, Aussie slang, breadmaking (hats included), meals w/dairy, Scone Monday, chopping veggies, fighting with the Mercado Flores ladies over Q1 (it’s for the kids!), the spice rack, Sunday Nights, pizza, Monday Dinners, ridiculous party themes, Clos-infused meetings, pizza, crayons, the Black Hole, crazy Mama Argentina, Chino’s “Glolazo!”, Henry’s attitudes, Sueño Mojado a.k.a. Guante Brillante a.k.a. Grandpa’s Cough Syrup, Guapo’s mumblings, Team Captain Henry, Virgilio’s voice, Chepe’s English, Erik’s faces, hot drink kits, postre, cooking for 12 hungry people, TJ comedor ladies, Don’s pie, everything between Nebaj and Todos Santos, Hogar rockouts with Pedro & Mario, sharpening machetes, the Fuentes (R.I.P), Emergency Angel, chats with Wilson (en serio?!?), the pull-up bar, ponche, Santa Maria breakfasts, and the pleasure of hiking & working  & eating & cooking & partying & living with a bunch of amazing people in the Guatemalan highlands.


A sort of love letter

A sort of love letter, that takes place inside of a mate, sipped in a misty mountain pass at 11,000 feet.

Mi querida La Ventosa,

With each passing week you grew to become my favorite place in Guatemala.  A lyric from a song I like sings, “I feel home, when I see the faces that remember my own.”  I´ve lived in a few different spots and I can undoubtedly say that I´ve never felt so at home in such a foreign environment.  The love, unity, and plain good energy that one feels upon entering “Jeronimo´s village” is stunning.  For clients, it was a dry haven on a wet walk, where they could warm themselves in the chuj.  For me, it became a place to learn, to play, to teach, to laugh, and above all, to share.

I still remember the first time I lit my stove to heat water for a late-afternoon mate.  As I hooked up the fuel line to the bottle all of the kids crowded around the Whisperlite Magic Show.  They gawked as I filled the fuel cup, lit the match, and sent the liquid into a flash of orange flame as it heated the metal.  As I drank, they eyed my mate suspiciously, giggling whispers in Mam.  Bravely, William accepted my foreign delight.  He slurped it down and handed back the gourd as a smile burst across his face.  The others reeled back with laughter.  One by one, they received the conspicuous beverage with surprising enthusiasm.

When I returned two weeks later, everybody greeted me with the same question, “¿trajiste su té?”  And so it began that each time I walked down the driveway into Don Jerónimo´s family compound another cousin, niece and brother would yell ¡E-Scot, bienvenido!, and come share a mate.

To my delight, our host Don Jerónimo acquired an instant love for my Argentine treat.  At the summit of La Torre (3837m), I always heat up water for everyone to sip coffee and hot chocolate.  Jerónimo habitually appeared the minute the water was ready, “¿tiene su mate?”  I acted as cebador as he regaled me with stories of growing up in La Ventosa.  It is said that alcohol and caffeine are the lubricants of conversation.  With each gourd, Jerónimo imparted more wisdom.

He is a man who loves his land and his people.  But, like many Guatemalans, harbors disdain for his government.  As a child he didn´t have the opportunity to go to school.  Instead, he joined his fellow highland Maya working on the coastal fincas of rich ladinos.  His first two years he worked for nothing.  Then, 40 cents/week, then 80 cents, un quetzal.  The Maya of Guatemala have been oppressed and ignored and for centuries.  He is still oppressed and ignored.  He knows that foreign aid comes to fight poverty in Guatemala, but realizes that it won´t make it all the way to La Ventosa.  Aid money has a way of disappearing in the capital, as workers take their holiday vacations to the beach.  Jerónimo knows no vacations, no Christmas, no travel for pleasure.  He´s aware that my parents’ house is nicer than his.  But he´s glad I´m here, eating his tortilla, bathing in his temascal and sleeping on the concrete floor.  He worked hard for that concrete.  And, he´s just happy that his kids have more opportunities than he had.  They get to go to school.  They’ve learned to read and write.  After school they get to come home and play, and if I´m lucky, share a mate.

It is a humbling experience to feel at home in a strange land, learning life lessons from a man who never had the opportunity to learn to read or write.  I feel privleged to have been welcomed by Don Jerónimo and his family, and will fondly remember the crispy tortillas hot off the griddle, the unforgiving concrete floor, friendly cries of ¡E-Scot!, and each and every mate-induced smile.



Agatha Clean-up

It was 4:00 a.m. on Saturday morning when I woke up to the relentless rain pounding on the corrugated metal roof.  A quick chat with other Quetzaltrekkers guides concluded with a unanimous decision to cancel all trips for the weekend.  The wrath of tropical storm Agatha had dropped Guatemala into an uninvited mud bath.

On Tuesday we finally spotted our near-forgotten shadows and soaked up some overdue Vitamin D.  All of the Quetzaltrekkers colunteers put our promotions duties on hold to visit Las Rosas, the neighborhood of Escuela de la Calle (EDELAC).  We met up at the school and with EDELAC teachers, volunteers, students, parents, and the kids from Hogar Abierto.  Everybody grabbed tools, split up, and headed out to fix the worst of the damage in Rosas.

We followed EDELAC founder/director Guadelupe up a narrow canyon, passing by an abandoned house.  ¨That´s a tiny house,¨ I mused at first glance, only to realize that our dirt ´trail´ was actually a river of mud that had solidified and thereby raised the ground level up four feet. Unfortunately, that river had also filled the house, leaving only the top few feet visible.

QT guide Russell standing on the river of mud.

We continued up to the house of one of EDELAC´s third graders.  Armando nervously greeted our group, but soon revealed his excitement to grab a shovel and work alongside.  Our first priority was a new location for the family´s water tank as it was in danger of sliding down the steep canyon walls.  After stabling the tank and installing a retaining wall, everyone lent a hand to dig out the stairs.

An assembly line quickly formed as teachers attacked the ground with shovels, Guadelupe filled barrels of dirt, volunteers emptied the muck across the canyon.  I realize we merely put a band-aid on a much broader problem, yet, it was truly inspiring to see the immediate cooperation of everyone involved.

Big Hair & Tortillas

I couldn’t help but laugh.  As I stepped over an old corn-cob on the dirt footpath, the caw of a rooster was drowned out by the “Rocky” theme song.  This is why I love Guatemala.

Strolling into Xexocom at dusk, the mayor sees us pass his house.  Before I can set down my pack, he’s at the door and handing me the keys to the school.  I follow behind as he leads me to meet the family who will be our host for dinner and temascal.   His Spanish is questionable at best but we manage a bit of small talk.  He gets a kick as I proudly butcher the few words I know in his native Quiché.  “Utz tuh,” I tell the family as I scope out their adobe steam sauna.  After a nice bath, it´s time to round up the group and head back for dinner.

It´s a misty night in the cloud forest but I can see florescent light glowing from the house.  “Damn,” I mumble to myself, “electricity.”  Among the twenty-one families who call Xexocom home, candlelight dinners are the norm and more than one light is unheard of.  At least that’s what I thought until María welcomed us with the Rocky theme blasting at full volume.  Yet, upon entering it still seemed like a normal house among the highland Maya – one open room with four beds and a table.  The décor ranged from a fighting elk tapestry to a diagram of the nervous system to Evangelical calendars.

It was Guatemala at its finest (or just at its self?).  The beans were salty, the peppers made you sweat, the 80’s mix tape was blaring, and the endless supply of thick tortillas were still warm and wrapped in a hand-woven cloth.

Beach Day!

What´s it like taking 15 Guatemalan kids to the beach? Shenanigans! The Quetzaltrekker crew took a well-deserved break from the office, hired a pair of micros and headed to the beach with the niños del Hogar Abierto. A few of the kids had never seen the ocean and the majority had very questionable swimming ability.  Luckily, a few guides are former lifeguards so everyone made it back to Xela alive – and burnt to a crisp!

Miguel, Henry and Tomás puttin on a show!

Fútbol con gringos!

Deep in thought after a long day in the sun.

I´m a guide: Tajumulco

A peek into leading a Quetzaltrekker trip up Volcán Tajumulco

Friday morning: Check the enrollment forms to see how many people have signed up for each hike.  Play the always-entertaining guessing game of estimating the number of clients who will show up during the day and go buy the appropriate amount of beans, fruit, veggies, bread and nachos.

Friday afternoon: Start chopping vegetables and cooking food for all of the treks – lunch salads and homemade pasta sauce.  Prepare medical kits, stoves, fuel bottles, tents, spice kits, shit kits and gather dry food.  Answer questions and sign up clients as they come through the office.

Friday 4:45 p.m: Divide up group gear into piles for each person and prepare for pre-trek meeting.

Friday 5:00  p.m: Meeting time. Greet trekkers, collect money and introduce Quetzaltrekkers. Explain the itinerary of the hike and what equipment everyone needs to pack.  Invite everyone to borrow any gear that they might need.  Repeatedly instruct everyone to remember their water, plate, cup and spoon until you think it´s impossible to forget.

Friday night: Notify both comedores that you´ll be bringing a group of hikers to come eat, just like each of the last 52 weeks.  Divide and label each trek´s lunch salads and pasta sauce.  Play tetris with the plastic containers to stuff the tiny QT fridge to capacity.

Saturday 3:45 a.m: Roll out of bed and walk to the office.  Finish packing your bag with guide gear.  Make fresh guacamole (delicious!) and set out remaining food for clients to pack.

Sat. 4:45 a.m: Welcome the first clients and thank them for arriving on time.

5:00 a.m: Cram people and packs in the back of Víctor´s pick-up and head to the Minerva Terminal.  Bask in the early morning garbage fires.

5:45 a.m: Bus leaves for San Marcos.

7:15 a.m: Greet the always happy Lérida and give her the breakfast order at the fantastic San Marcos comedor.  Sip the infamous Guatemalan coffee-tea, a sugary concoction that always inspires debate as to its true ingredients.

9:00 a.m: Arrive in Tuichan (3000m) and try to avoid Esteban.  Should you fail you´ll have to pay an entrance fee and sign his amazingly unofficial logbook.  I still have no clue as to where the money is sent but I can guarantee he´ll creepily stroke your arm (if you´re lucky) while writing receipts in broken Spanish.  Shake his hand and start hiking ASAP!

11:00 a.m: Enjoy a scenic trail mix break and give some background on the region.  Be sure to give an exhausting explanation as to the proper use of the shit kit. The shovel should not touch the shit!

12:30 p.m: Lunch time! Whip out the Guac, salads, PB&J and picamás! You know your presentation is solid when clients start taking photos of the spread.

3:30 p.m: Arrive at the campsite (4007m) and throw down your pack with a glorious sigh.  Set up tents and grab your book.

5:30 p.m: Gather everyone together and head up Cerro Concepción for sunset.  If you´re lucky you´ll be looking down on a sea of pink/red/orange clouds.  If you´re unlucky, you´ll be back at camp and feebly attempting to escape the rain under the cook tarp.

7:00 p.m: Fight the falling mercury with a hot cup of tea – it´ll whet your whistle before a fantastic dinner of backcountry pasta with homemade sauce.

9:00 p.m: Roll out the sleeping pad and read a few pages of Guatemalan Journey before bed.

Sun 4:00 a.m: ¡Buenos Días! Give out a wakeup call and jam your sleeping bag and mat into your pack.  Switch on the headlamp and start the final climb to summit.

5:30 a.m: High-fives all around for climbing the highest point in Central America!  Crawl into your down bag and await a magnificent sunrise over Guatemala´s volcanic horizon.  Watch for the smoky eruptions of Fuego and Santiaguito.  Reward everybody with homemade cookies from the kids of the Hogar.

7:00 a.m: Thoroughly awed, circle Tajumulco´s crater and descend back to camp.

8:00 a.m: Sip a well-deserved mocha and slurp some mosh with all the fixin´s!

Sunrise at 4220 meters

9:00 a.m: Massage your knees before heading down TJ´s stunning ridgeline.

12:00 p.m. Lunch with the fantastic Mirna.  If, for some unfortunately unforeseen circumstances, a surprise snowstorm froze your bones for the last 24 hours you should beeline it for the kitchen and thaw your hands over the tortillas.

1:30 p.m. Wedge yourself into the overstuffed Tuichan-San Marcos chickenbus.  Only 6 adults in your row? 20 people in the aisle? The driver will pick up that family and his truty ayudante will find room, ¨Péganse por favor, hay lugares.¨

4:30 p.m: Home sweet home! Arrive back at Casa Argentina, give a killer farewell talk and thank the clients for being such a pleasure. Collect gear and say adiós.

5:30 p.m: Finish cleaning and sink into the couch with a long-overdue mate.

9:00 p.m: Grab some ponche (mixta, con ron – naturally) at the park and reminisce the trek at Pool & Beer.

Quetzaltrekkers: La vida diaria

I’m nearly three months into volunteering with Quetzaltrekkers and have yet to write anything about it.  The reason: being a guide is a very intensive (and rewarding) commitment.  We eat, cook, live, work and play together.  It’s one big team and there isn’t any kind of director.  We’re all here by choice and we run everything from finances to promotions to the website.  As volunteers we commit to a minimum of three months and it is our responsibility to recruit and train new guides.    It’s humbling to know that this process has been successfully repeating itself for 15 years.

When you cook for a minumum of twelve, the dishes never end.

So what does a Quetzaltrekker do? Well, we hike.  But it’s not all that simple.  If you’re not on a trek you’re probably in the office for about 12 hours/day washing filthy trek dishes, hand-coloring our rad posters, chopping endless amounts of vegetables and explaining why the 6-day Nebaj to Todos Santos hike is the greatest of all.

Hangin out with the kids!

All the profits from the hikes help fund a local school here in Xela called Escuela de la Calle and the dormitory Hogar Abierto.  Our QT family has the privilege of getting to know and love the 20 kids in the Hogar through dinners, soccer games, water fights and tons of roughhousing.  Ask any trekker who’s been here long enough and he’ll tell you it’s because of “the kids”.