We departed our hotel and ventured more than 10 hours into the scenic jungles and verdant cloud forests of eastern Guatemala. Our valiant van carried us across the tranquil waters of , through the flea markets of El Estor, and up winding roads that wrapped around lush hills dotted with coffee plantations.
Thus begun our CHOICE expedition on June 13th. Our group consisted of 18 service-minded volunteers: fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, friends, students, and co-workers. We left behind our laptops, cell phones, and watches...thus abandoning the constraints of pressing deadlines and strict schedules. This was going to be a week of selfless service and personal reflection thousands of miles from home.
The paved road became a gradual path of rugged terrain as we ascended toward the villages of the Polochic region. Gravel soon replaced the ease of asphalt just as intermittent rainfall turned roadside dust into unforgiving mud. Cheerful families waved to us from the windows of their humble homes as we continued up the hill before coming to a final stop.
We stepped out of our van and stretched our fatigued bodies. A small group of curious villagers had gathered to greet us upon arrival, though the village itself was still a 1-hour walking distance uphill. Without hesitation, village men with smiling faces grabbed our backpacks and hurried up the hillside as sunlight began to fade. We followed—far behind—along a broken stone path lined with oversized palm leaves and towering banana trees. At last, the vegetation cleared and revealed a gleeful crowd of giggling women and children gathered in the dark. Welcome to Chirixquitzac.
We entered Chirixquitzac as the first international volunteers since 1997. Still, village toddlers felt comfortable enough to hold our hands and stare at their gleaming portraits taken with our digital cameras. A small percentage of the 500 village residents spoke basic Spanish, though all others communicated in the native Q’eqchi dialect. Despite the assumed cultural differences between North American volunteers and indigenous Mayan families, nothing seemed to be lost in translation. We were delighted to be in Chirixquitzac…and Chirixquitzac was ecstatic to receive us.
Our entire week would consist of hard work, recreation, and friendships. We did not just bond within our group of CHOICE volunteers, but we reached out and unified ourselves with the endearing villagers of Chirixquitzac. We even shared a common passion for soccer during afternoon pick-up games. The villagers no longer seemed to notice the twisting ravine that divided the field, though I almost collided with a team of wallowing pigs and ducks as I ran toward a makeshift goal of tree branches!
At first, our project appeared simple: we would dig the initial trenches of a village-identified water project. For generations, village women have scaled the mountain trails in search of fresh spring water located at higher elevations. Such time-consuming trips allowed mothers and wives to fill their ceramic jugs with just enough water to heat a pot of vegetables or wash a small pile of clothes. The villagers had invited us to work hand-in-hand with them to bring water to the village for the first time. What a humbling honor and opportunity.
Each morning, with a stomach full of corn tortillas and fresh mango, we grabbed our handmade picks and shovels before trekking further up the mountain to our project site. While some groups had the pleasure of working in the shade, I struggled to avoid the suffocating heat from the sun overhead. While others were blessed with damp soil, I was blessed with solid bedrock…and a pile of broken picks due to poor gringo technique! Our group of dedicated volunteers took frequent breaks, with water bottles in hand, and watched in amazement as village men removed boulders and “cleaned up” our trenches—all without breaking a sweat!
The water project allowed us to better understand the trials and obstacles others often face in seeking the basic needs of life. Further perspective was given as we ventured on a midweek “ecological tour” up a surrounding mountain peak. The climb was tiresome, resembling a vertical staircase of mud with miniature footholds. The humid climate and enormous insects made the hike more interesting. As we reached the summit and overlooked the village far below, we posed the question amongst ourselves: “What is their poverty?” The general consensus was clear. The people of Chirixquitzac did not have luxurious homes, expensive cars, or lucrative bank accounts. Yet, these same people did have something much greater: happiness, camaraderie, hope, an astounding work ethic, a deep appreciation for life, and a profound connection with nature.
An eruption of thunder and torrential rain disrupted our group discussion and forced us back down the mountain. A handful of shoeless children led us down to safety—the same children that assigned me the nickname of “Rambo” earlier in the week.
That evening, we returned to the village church to rest (with inquiring onlookers peeking through the windows). As we stretched our tired bodies across foam pads and sleeping bags, the humming of the gas generator came to an abrupt stop, turning off the few dangling light bulbs overhead. All was black—except for the intermittent flickering of fireflies in transit from one window to another. I drifted off to sleep that night as I pondered the question: “What is my poverty?” What a thought-provoking subject for us all.
Our CHOICE expedition concluded the final night with a festive village celebration as hesitant mothers and children joined us in dancing to the piercing rhythms of a nearby marimba. Afterward, village elders wept and expressed their gratitude to CHOICE for our commitment to help others rise above the constraints of impoverished conditions. I was honored to translate those words for the volunteers of our group. A sacred Mayan ritual soon followed before we retired to the village church one last time.
I joined CHOICE in September 2009 as the new Director of Expeditions. This was my first CHOICE expedition to Guatemala. Years of international business and travel had prepared me for the job responsibilities ahead, though I never imagined such a powerful and meaningful experience in . This past trip renewed a personal connection with the simpler things of life—similar to what I first learned a decade ago while serving a humanitarian mission in . I invite you to join us in the field, share these experiences with us, and witness the powerful effect of combining the thrills of adventure with the rewards of service!