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Venturing into volunteering

‘Champion reporter Nicola Corless spent two months volunteering in Guatemala this summer. Here, she speaks about everything from buses to bugs, environmental threats, rain water harvesting and developing a niche Spanish vocabulary.


‘Champion reporter Nicola Corless spent two months volunteering in Guatemala this summer. Here she speaks about everything from buses to bugs to environmental threats, rain water harvesting and developing a niche Spanish vocabulary.

Earlier this year, Ennis resident Nicola Corless learned she had won a partially paid scholarship to spend two months volunteering on environmental sustainability projects in Guatemala. At the time she wasn’t even certain what ‘environmental sustainability’ really meant. Even now, she says, it is a bit vague.

Nicola and another Irish woman Elaine Doyle were recipients of Global Awareness Awards from EIL Intercultural Learning based in Cork.

Within weeks Nicola was saying goodbye to her husband at Shannon Airport and venturing to Central America where she would live and work with local people in rural communities for nearly nine weeks. Internet access was less than certain so communication with Ireland would be sporadic.

“I was obviously sad leaving but I was excited too. I had never been to Central America and while there were a few tears before I went through to departures, that was overtaken by nerves and excitement by the time I was sitting at the gate,” Nicola recalls.

According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in 2009 Guatemala City had the second highest murder rate in the world. That was its peak and this has decreased year on year since. With a population of 15 million, figures from the United States State Department show the Central American country last year had a murder count of 5,174. That amounts to 99.2 murders per week. This, combined with its location on a major drug trafficking route between Colombia and Mexico, means that Guatemala suffers from a less than ideal reputation.

“Opening the newspapers there, all you see are stories of violence and crime and accidents on public transport. That said I was never worried for my safety in Guatemala. Maybe I was naive but I never really thought about it. When walking in Guatemala City at night or early morning, I took the same precautions I would in Dublin.
President Otto Peréz Molina was elected last year having campaigned under the slogan “Mano dura, cabeza y corazón”. Translated this means ‘firm hand, head and heart’. His promise to take a hard line on the country’s crime wooed the electorate.

“Molina’s campaign symbol was an iron fist and it can still be seen painted on walls across the country. I spent my first week in Guatemala in a town between Guatemala City and the tourist city of Antigua. There houses were surrounded by high walls capped with loops of barbed wire. Tiendas, or small shops, were also secured so you ordered through iron bars and received what you asked for upon paying. Instead of increasing the feeling of security, all this did was highlight the perceived insecurity,” Nicola believes.

Nicola then spent six weeks in the Western Highlands before living her final days in Guatemala, on the Pacific coast near the Salvadoran border.

“In El Novillero everyone knew everyone so there was no visible crime and I could open the door to the house I lived in without a key. The last place I lived was by the sea and was very cut off from the rest of the country. Alcoholism was a noticeable problem there but the drunks on the beach regularly took the time to tell me how safe the village was. The fact that the house I lived in there was open on three sides seemed to back this up,” she adds.

Guatemala is also known for its horrific record on road safety, in particular its ‘public transport’ safety record. The country’s bus service consists of numerous private companies operating different routes between large urban centres. Entrepreneurial Guatemaltecos travel to the United States and buy old Blue Bird school buses, paint them, renovate them and stuff them with large numbers of people. These are called ‘camionetas’ or ‘chicken buses’. They offer locals a cheap, fume-filled and sometimes dangerous mode of transportation with plenty of storage for tyres, furniture, bags of vegetables and so on, on the roof.

“When you are in Guatemala Elaine and I learned your standards change fairly quickly. On our first trip on a camioneta we thought it was pretty crowded but we both had seats, or parts of seats, and there were only a small number of people standing. At the bus stops, the bus doesn’t really stop so much as it slows down. Passengers jump off and others run on, herded by an ‘ayudante’ or bus helper. On one journey the bus paused on the road for us, nobody got off and Elaine and I ran towards the bus. I had a small wheely suitcase which the ayudante took off me in an effort to hurry us up and we hopped on. Elaine managed to get standing space on the second step of the bus and I stood behind her on the lowest step in the open doorway. The bus took off and the ayudante wedged himself in beside me, with one hand holding the doorframe and the other wielding my bag at head level out the door,” Nicola recalls.

“A few days later we got onto another bus. Elaine went on first and shouted back, ‘there is a good bit of space on this one.’ The bus was jammed. All of the seats had at least three to four people on it and there was virtually no room in the aisle but we weren’t hanging out the door so it seemed fairly comfortable,” she adds laughing.

Microbuses provide transport between small towns in rural areas and are often aged Hiaces fitted with seats.
“It is not unusual to see brown tape and cardboard or a sheet of plastic in lieu of a window pane in these. Generally these were in fairly poor condition. These buses were our main mode of transport in the mountains. We would take one from our village to the nearest city. One evening after searching Sololá for a particular type of pipe we needed for the rainwater harvesting unit we were building, we got the last bus home. It had 14 seats each with one person sitting reasonably comfortably in it. The other 13 of us stood or rather in the case of myself and Elaine, stooped. We knew we were in a fairly dodgy situation when a local person used the word dangerous. Everyone had some type of luggage, some had groceries, Elaine had a backpack and I had a fairly large bag of pipes. There was no space. We were pressed up against the door and multiple other people. It was unmercifully hot and the condensation on the windows dripped onto your clothes making them damp. One woman got her foot stuck between my ankles and when she eventually freed it, she lost her shoe. I would happily have picked it up but it was impossible to move so there it waited wedged between my ankles until she got off and stuck her hand back in through the door, and my legs, to retrieve it,” Nicola remembers vividly.
These are some of the reasons many tourists avoid using public transport, opting instead for air-conditioned coaches.


While in El Novillero, Nicola worked in the Corazon del Bosque forest park run by a local co-operative. There she and Elaine, with the help of the park’s maintenance man, built a simple rainwater harvesting system.

“I think a lot of people go into volunteering expecting to be given a set task or job description. That really is not how it is. Organisations tell volunteers over and over again that they have to use their initiative. So when we arrived in the park, we asked a German volunteer who was leaving if she would give us a tour of the 34.5 hectare park. She did and from there Elaine and I did a SWOT (Strenghts, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis of the park and came up with six projects we could complete within the time we would be there,” Nicola outlines.

One of these was an underground rainwater harvesting tank which would supply potable water.
“That was one of our original plans but in Guatemala things move a lot slower than they do in Ireland. One day, for example, I asked one of the men working in the park if I could borrow a measuring tape. I was told the man with the measuring tape wasn’t in that day and I’d have to wait for him to come in. We painted the playground in the park too and when we ran out of paint I asked for more but was told we would have to wait 15-20 days for there to be enough money to buy more. On both occasions we just went to the hardware shop and bought the things ourselves,” she says.

“It became really clear that simple things posed unforeseen delays and one depressing day we realised that our elaborate plan to build the cement system was not going to be a runner. It was funny really. We sat at a wooden bench in the park and went through a very thorough blue print which we had gotten from a charity which literally gave us a step-by-step guide to building it. As we read through it, page by page we became more despondent. Breaking point came when we got to a diagram showing scaffolding made from three ladders, two upright and a cross beam, with a fourth ladder hanging from half way across the horizontal one. While it would be tied one of us would still have to hold it while the other dangled from the bottom of it plastering the inside base of the water storage tank. We saw that picture and tried to imagine either of us in either role. It was laughable,” Nicola recalls.

“We went straight to an internet café and researched other options. That is how we came up with the one built using a plastic tank. It ended up working out a lot cheaper because the park had an old tank that was lying idle. So we just recycled that. We had gone from fairly hopeless to really positive in just a few hours but that was quickly to turn to frustration when we tried to source materials. We were trying to buy it all locally but that proved difficult because we couldn’t source the right size piping for the filter so I had to redraw the plans for it over and over again to accommodate all the variables. That said, we did get to know the hardware shop workers pretty well and I did develop a fairly niche Spanish vocabulary including many different types of materials and tools,” she notes.

The inauguration of the tank was marked with bangers, the sound of celebration in Guatemala, a speech from the park director and a presentation of official certificates of achievement to the two Irish volunteers.
Because of its varied topography, featuring steep volcanoes, Guatemala has multiple micro climates. Temperatures can rise and fall dramatically in the space of just a few kilometres. The highest point in the country is Volcán Tajumulco which at 4,220 metres is also the highest point in Central America. Carrauntoohil, by comparison, reaches 1,038 metres.
Steep mountains rise suddenly from the flat earth and they are often tilled right to their fertile peak.
“The land is obviously more suited to forestry because it would keep the soil more stable. The country often experiences earthquakes, tremors and landslides. It is a difficult problem to solve because the people farming these areas are doing it for to feed their families, for to survive. Corazon del Bosque is one organisation working in the area of reforestation. It is also trying to develop eco-tourism so there are other income options in the area,” Nicola explains.

El Novillero is a Mayan village where most of the women, and the older men, were traditional dress. It lies at 2,400 metres. There Nicola lived in a comfortable, concrete house with a Kich’e- and Spanish-speaking host family.
“I loved my family and the village. By the time we were leaving almost everyone knew us. My host parents, Miguel Angel and Oralia, could not have been more supportive. Miguel Angel oversaw the park we worked in and Oralia was a school teacher. They have three sons Braulio, 22, Alexander, 20, and familiarly called ‘Chico’ and Eddie. They also had a really close extended family. They were really open minded and wanted to learn about Ireland and our culture as well as sharing theirs with us,” she says.

“The family were really hard working and dedicated to education and they also had a tremendous social conscience. Each of them were involved in community and charitable organisations in the locality. It was a wonderful experience to see the way they interacted with each other and to be part of their family,” she adds.

After six weeks in the mountains Nicola travelled to a sweltering La Barrona, a remote village on the Pacific coast just seven kilometres from the Salvadoran border. The village was accessible by road once but the only bridge connecting it to the mainland was washed away in a storm. Now the village finds itself largely forgotten by the rest of the country especially when it comes to provision of public services. Access to it from Guatemala City requires two camionetas, a microbus, a boat and another microbus. It has its own primary school, which Nicola describes as “totally inadequate”, and while schooling is free transport to it is not. This means that many of La Barrona’s families can’t afford to send their children to secondary school.

While there, Nicola worked with Akazul, a giant sea turtle conservation programme.
“When I was in El Novillero I visited the school where our host mother taught. It was similar in a lot of ways to schools here but visiting the school in La Barrona showed a totally different side to the education system in Guatemala. It had few educational resources and applied out-dated forms of discipline,” she claims.

In Guatemala, a book costs approximately a week’s wages. They are a luxury few can afford. That goes some way to explaining the country’s 75% literacy rate. Literacy levels are generally lower among women, among people in rural areas and even lower again among rural women.

Sarah Lucas is one of the founders of Akazul. She lives in La Barrona as the organisation’s in-country co ordinator. Because the school is meant to have three teachers, but a teacher was not appointed last year for the junior classes, Sarah volunteered to teach them for two days a week.

“Sarah is really inspirational. As well as teaching in the school, she has also set up a library and the children can come to the Akazul building and borrow one English or bilingual book and one Spanish book per week. She also gives craft classes to local women to give them skills to develop their earning potential and holds a weekly activity day for the children because there are no amenities there. Last year they also held the village’s first turtle festival. Sarah places Akazul volunteers with local families to augment their income because the people there rely primarily on fishing to live,” Nicola explains.

Nicola tried some fishing herself in a nearby mangrove.
“We went out on a boat with a local family. Our fishing rods were an empty Coke can and some line with a hook and a weight at the end. We baited it with some fish and cast from the boat. After some time, and no luck, the family suggested the fuel from the boat might be putting the fish off. So we climbed up the crab-covered mangroves in our bare feet and cast uncertainly from there. I caught root after root after root. It became a running joke that we would be eating wood for our dinner,” she says.

Guatemala boasts three species of giant sea turtle: Olive Ridley; Leatherback; and, Hawksbill, along with one sub-species: Eastern Pacific Green. The populations are under threat from commercial fishing practices and the collection and trade in sea turtle eggs. The country is one of the few where trade in sea turtle eggs is not illegal. However Guatemala does have an egg donation system whereby egg collectors or parlameros are permitted to harvest the eggs if they donate 20% of the nest to a local sea turtle hatchery. In practice, this does not always happen. At Akazul, volunteers accompanied by a local guide, walk the beach at night when the sea turtles come ashore to lay their eggs. If they find a nest, 100% of the eggs are donated to the hatchery. They also collect donations from parlameros on the beach.
“There are three four-hour patrols per night if there are enough volunteers. Myself and Elaine only got to do a few because of time constraints. It was a great experience but unfortunately we didn’t find any nests. We did however, find two dead turtles. One of the turtles appeared to have been killed and cut open for its eggs. The other looked like it had maybe been in collision with a boat or ship,” Nicola says.

“Akazul has also recently begun tagging turtles it finds on the beach in order to gather data on the local turtle population. On our last night, Melvin, one of the locals working there let me name a turtle so I called it Eilis after my youngest sister. I don’t think there are too many giant sea turtles with Irish names or many Irish girls with sea turtles named after them, so it was win-win,” she adds.

Akazul has also started a mangrove species-recording programme.
“We went out with Melvin on a narrow wooden boat and took down the coordinates, numbers and types of species that we saw. It was so peaceful and a real highlight for me,” Nicola says.
Back three weeks, the Mayo woman says it’s like she was never away, except for her renewed appreciation for home comforts and a fresh outlook on volunteering.

“In La Barrona our living conditions were very basic. The mother of the house was extremely proud of the cement structure, in part because she had a television and a freezer, two rarities in the area. It didn’t have running water and electricity was sporadic. My bedroom was fairly open to the elements and the wildlife. One of the more interesting things I found there was a scorpion in my bed. Therefore when I got home and pulled back my duvet I felt so relaxed and so privileged,” she says.

“I also learned that volunteering is as much about learning about another culture, other people and another country, as it is about sharing your experience and your culture. You have to be open minded, flexible and most of all respectful,” she concludes.

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