Chapter 1 – Guatemala


The first trip of the Gap Year was to Guatemala for one month. The back-story is this: my original plan was to work for the full ‘Gap Year’ in an orphanage in Bolivia. I had an organisation in mind, and had been in touch with them about this plan for a number of years while I was still in school. They helped me work out the logistics and contacted people in Bolivia about my accommodation and the like. However, in my final year of school I was made aware that the organisation were no longer able to send me to Bolivia for the year because I had never before visited Latin America. I guess I had been so determined and had my mind so fixed on the year in Bolivia that the organisation did not think to question whether I had been to Latin America before. Their solution was this – that I visit Guatemala for one month with a small team, and then after a five-month break to recover and process my experiences in Guatemala I could then go to Bolivia for six or seven months. I was assured that both trips would be working in Spanish-speaking orphanages. So, quite stressed and reluctant because of all the fundraising I had done for my ‘year in Bolivia’, I agreed – and paid an extortionate amount of money for my one-month Guatemala trip. Instead of using the five months to rest in England and process my experiences, though, I booked a number of trips to other countries while waiting to get to Bolivia. Probably not quite what the organisation had in mind, but my argument was that it was my year of freedom and my life, and that I could do what I wanted.

So, shortly after finishing my studies and not bothering to wait around for results or graduation ceremonies, off to Guatemala I went. I had my rucksack on my back with everything I thought I would need for the year and very few extras (I was only taking hand-luggage, so trying to decide what to take and what not to take had taken some time!), I was pumped with adrenaline, and various friends and family members came to the train station to wave me off on my way to Heathrow airport. My future was calling – and I was relieved to have survived high school and never have to go back. I knew that I would probably never again live in the town where I had grown up. I looked forward to an amazing year followed by an exciting life, free from the rules and demands of adolescence.

I was not nervous about the year-long trip, except for one factor that had only come to my attention the previous evening. I was finishing my packing, very excited and feeling rather smug: I considered myself a well and truly independent woman, finally a grown-up, ready for a year-long adventure that I had planned for myself. But then I received a phone call. It was the retired couple who were acting as Team Leaders for the group, sounding frantic. They asked where I was: they were in the airport, about to board the flight, and I was not there. I was shocked. I had somehow managed to confuse the date of that first flight: it was due to leave shortly after midnight, and so in my mind I was to fly on the evening of the date given, rather than the morning. (Even now certain friends remind me of that mistake and tease me for my lack of attention to detail.) I stammered over the phone that I must have confused the dates, and that I would try to get to Guatemala as soon as I could, but would have to book a new flight. Needless to say the Team Leaders were somewhat annoyed with me. I was so thoroughly embarrassed that I considered cancelling the whole Gap Year and getting a normal job in my parents’ town for the year instead. People say pride comes before a fall – I had been so pleased with myself for organizing the year-long trip and sorting out the details myself – but now I had to face my parents and admit that I had made this terrible mistake.

This mix-up of mine did not come as a huge surprise to my parents, who knew that I can sometimes be careless in my lack of interest in ‘details’, and that I am not always as thorough as I should be when checking over forms and documents. They had also been worrying about my lack of sense of direction and very limited knowledge of geography – not a very encouraging combination in the life of a teenager about to travel the world. One of my secret aims of the Gap Year had been to prove to them, and to everyone else who I felt had patronized me, that I could be a responsible adult and did not need their help. I failed this aim rather dramatically literally from day one: my parents ended up paying the extra £500 to change my flight to the following day, because although I had raised enough money to pay for the expenses of all the different trips I had not factored in large extra costs like this.

When the flights had been booked for the following night (the time and date that I had originally thought that I would fly), I sent a message to the Team Leaders, letting them know my arrival time. I could not phone them because they were on their flight, so I expected to receive a response the following day when they would be safely in Guatemala. I breathed a sigh of relief that my initial stress of having mixed up the dates was sorted, and I was excited to be there soon even without the security of travelling with the group. By this point it was about 1am, maybe a little later, and I resumed my packing. I was up all night packing and thinking and wondering what was to come, and didn’t even attempt to sleep.

My parents gave me a lift to the train station at around 9am, and there were various others there to wave me off at the station. I had hoped that I could keep my mistake quiet and save the embarrassment of people talking about it and making comments about my disorganization, but perhaps this had not occurred to my Mum, who seemed to take great pleasure in talking about it to those who had come to see me off. Ah well. At last I was on the train and on my way to Heathrow, excited about what the year would have in store. I was thrilled to be finally free from all that I had known – family life, school, and everything else that had made up my life so far. I wondered if I would miss that life. I knew I would miss certain friends, and certain places, but wondered if I would ever think back and miss the routine that I had grown so used to over the years.

But this was a time for looking forward, not looking back. There were a million and one thoughts bouncing off the walls of my mind throughout that train journey that seemed to last forever. I did not sleep, though I had set alarms on my phone just in case, to wake me up before each changeover. As well as being excited about the year as a whole, and the Guatemala trip, I was looking forward to seeing my then boyfriend, Ben, who was going to meet me at King’s Cross. He lived a four-hour journey away from my hometown so I did not see him very often, and I knew I would not see him again for several months. He happened to be in London that weekend so we were able to travel to Heathrow together where he waited with me until I went through security to board my flight. He had brought all my favourite snacks and more, and he helped me to stay calm despite my embarrassment at confusing the dates and my nervousness at arriving in Guatemala alone. I found it comforting to chat with him about all sorts of little trivial things, trying not to think too much about the fact that we wouldn’t see each other for a while. He was about to set off for a full year in Bolivia with a different organisation, and we hoped that we could arrange to meet there once we both get there, even though we would be working in different cities quite a distance away from each other.

I boarded the flight to Atlanta, the first leg of the journey to Guatemala, and fell asleep almost as soon as I had found my seat. I woke up very briefly during the safety announcement and was vaguely conscious that there was somebody seated beside me, and then I slept right through until we began the descent into Atlanta airport several hours later. When I awoke I realised that I had slept through breakfast, lunch and a snack – but that the passenger next to me had kindly ordered for me. The food had sat waiting for me on my little table, which I now had to fold away because we had begun the descent. I sleepily enjoyed the food from my lap shortly before landing, and felt a little sick but quite content.

Before the flight I had tried to call the Team Leaders, but could not get through to their phone. I did not worry, presuming they were asleep and had received the text message I had sent the previous night with my arrival time, even though they hadn’t responded. Now in Atlanta airport I withdrew some dollars and used a pay-phone to attempt to contact them again. My phone did not seem able to find a signal – I wondered if it only worked in England. I then wondered if the phone they had taken with them did not function in Guatemala, so perhaps they hadn’t received my messages – though perhaps they simply saw no need to respond to my message and happened to have their phone turned off every time I tried to call. Frustratingly I did not have phone numbers for anyone else on the team, nor for the Short-Term-Coordinator who lived in Guatemala and was organizing our schedule and our accommodation. I learnt my lesson – always have backup phone numbers in case the one number you do have does not work!

I found a computer that people in the airport could pay to use, so I Google searched the Short-Term-Coordinator and found her blog. I looked through it to try to find a phone number for her that I could call from the pay-phone, but found no number. I considered emailing the Team Leaders just in case they might pick up an email – but could not log into my emails because I was in an unexpected location. I tried to confirm that it was me by using a text-message confirmation system that some email accounts use in cases like this when the user is in an unusual location – but my phone did not pick up any messages.

Frustrated, I left the computer and went to board my flight to Guatemala. I was even more frustrated heading through security when the officials made me remove the ten large bars of Dairy Milk from the very bottom of my tightly-packed rucksack, and it took me quite some time to re-pack and squeeze everything back in. I had wondered about whether I would struggle going through security, because I was wearing several layers of clothing and had sewn a large ‘ukulele pocket’ into the inside of my big coat so that my ukulele would not count as a second piece of luggage – but I did not expect to be stopped and told to unpack my bag for the sake of my chocolate. I had bought it as gifts for the various individuals, couples and families who were to host me on the different parts of my journey. I boarded that second flight rather grumpy, and tired, and my neck was aching from sleeping in an odd position in the previous flight, so I had forgotten my excitement about Guatemala and about the year.

As the plane landed in Guatemala I was in a sleepy daze. I had drifted in and out of sleep throughout that second flight and had ended up feeling more tired than I felt in Atlanta. I knew by this point that there was a strong possibility that my text message had not been received and that nobody knew I was on my way. All I had really said on the phone to the Team Leaders before their flight was that I had confused the dates and therefore would not be joining them for that flight but would hopefully meet them in Guatemala later. I knew that if my text message had not been received, as I suspected, I would not be met at the airport. I was right.

I did, however, have the address of the Short-Term-Coordinator, which, I was told, was where some members of the team would be staying during our time in the country. So when I arrived in Guatemala it seemed my only option was to try to take a taxi to the Short-Term-Coordinator’s house. Now was the time to put my A-Level Spanish to the test. In the airport I was approached – no, bombarded – by numerous Guatemalan men offering taxi services and trying to take my rucksack from me. It was quite overwhelming, so I refused them all. I felt exhausted and scared, and my neck and shoulders were hurting. I was still frustrated at myself for confusing the dates, and was quite conscious that I smelt bad – I had brushed my teeth and washed as best I could in airport sinks but had not had a shower since leaving my parents’ house about two days before. I slowly pushed through the crowd of intense taxi-men to get outside the airport. The sun had set and the air was very warm but with a slight refreshing breeze. When I had calmed myself down a little and practiced some Spanish in my head, I approached a bored-looking taxi driver who had not approached me like the others but was resting against his car with his arms folded. I wanted the taxi ride to be on my own terms – I was not in the mood to be shoved into a car by a pushy driver. I showed him the address written on the crumpled piece of paper in my hand and asked if he knew where it was. He nodded and, still with that bored expression on his face, gestured that I get in his car.

I had withdrawn some Quetzal (Guatemalan money) in the airport but could not remember the exchange rate so had no idea how much money I actually had. I never was any good at remembering numbers. A few weeks earlier I had attended a weekend ‘orientation’ in preparation for the Guatemala trip, and we had been told to always haggle a price before entering a taxi. In the moment I forgot all about this, and was just so relieved that the driver seemed to know the address that I got in the car without agreeing a price. Thankfully this did not become a problem. While we were on our way, the driver’s mobile rang and he answered, still driving. It was his boss on the phone, and he asked to speak to the passenger. The driver was surprised but handed the phone to me. I was surprised, too, and a little worried – who was this man on the phone and why would he want to talk to me?! It turned out that the boss had seen me in the airport and recognized that I was young and foreign and alone. He told me over the phone not to pay the driver more than a certain amount, by his authority, no matter what the driver may try to charge. How strange! I was grateful, though.

After driving for about twenty minutes it became clear that the driver actually did not know where we were going, other than the vague region. We got to that region and then he drove around stopping regularly to ask pedestrians and other drivers for directions, which continued for quite some time. Eventually – after about an hour and a half in the car – we arrived at the Short-Term-Coordinator’s house and I paid the amount specified by the man on the phone, which was not a problem. I still don’t quite know how much that was – I never bothered to work it out because I was so relieved simply to be there – and later could not remember the number.

Then I met the Short-Term-Coordinator. Having read bits of her blog I had been excited to meet this woman. She had lived in the country for some time and I hoped to ask her many questions about the culture and about her experiences, and learn from her – and hoped to be able to be helpful to her in some way too, perhaps doing housework or something, to thank her for the work she had put into organizing our stay in Guatemala. The possibility of not getting on well with her simply did not occur to me.

She opened the door to me that evening – it was about 10.30pm (Guatemalan time) by the time we got to her house, and she looked quite tired. I introduced myself and asked if I had come to the right place, and did not expect to receive a lengthy rebuke for arriving a day late and worrying people and not getting in touch. I could understand why she was upset with me, and when she stopped talking I expressed this, feeling again very embarrassed and humbled. I hoped that we could then move on and be friends. But then she continued to tell me off – which, again, I could understand – but really wished that she would stop. I was tired from a long journey and my neck and shoulders still ached, and I desperately wanted to wash. Not a great first meeting, needless to say, and it was my own fault, so I had no right to complain. After listening to her reproach for some time and desperately fighting back tears, I began trying to explain that I had actually tried to contact her but could not find any phone number and had not been able to email, and had been trying to phone the Team Leaders but had not received a response from them. This clearly irritated her further, and I wished I hadn’t said anything.

After reprimanding me some more, she put me in a taxi and sent me to the house of the family that were hosting the women of the team. She herself was hosting the Team Leaders and the two young men of the team. I was glad to be back in a taxi and no longer being told off. I was relieved to be sat down, too, with my rucksack no longer pressing down on my shoulders. The whole hour-long ‘conversation’ had taken place standing on the doorstep of the Short-Term-Coordinator’s house.

I do not like conflict, and was so disappointed that my long-awaited Gap Year had begun this way. I cried silently in that taxi, wishing that I had just cancelled the whole trip and got a normal job in England instead. I dreaded the thought of seeing this scary woman every day for the duration of my time in Guatemala, and dreaded the thought of seeing the rest of the team whom I had let down by arriving a day late. I had met most of them a few weeks beforehand at the weekend orientation in England, but I still didn’t feel like I knew them, and at this point did not have the energy for small-talk and friendly introductions.

At almost midnight I arrived at the house where I would be staying, where the rest of the girls in the team already were. Thankfully the man of the house was still awake doing paperwork and let me in. He was as welcoming to me as the Short-Term-Coordinator was unwelcoming, and made me feel very at home straight away. I was hugely relieved! He quietly led me upstairs to the room where the four other women on the team had already set out their sleeping bags, expecting them to be asleep. I opened the door softly so as not to wake them, and found that they were all awake and were talking about me – wondering when I would arrive and whether I was alright. I received such a wonderful and happy welcome from them all, and I felt able to relax for the first time.

Although I was dreading seeing the Short-Term-Coordinator again, and I was nervous about seeing the Team Leaders and presumably being lectured by them as well, I was excited to begin work at the orphanage. Thankfully I had not missed anything – the team had taken the first day to simply unpack and relax, and we were all introduced to the orphanage together the morning after my arrival. I was a little apprehensive about sharing a room with four other women for a month, aware that I might not get much sleep or have any personal space. Although I am an extrovert, I do value time alone. At times throughout the trip I would sit somewhere on my own just for the sake of being alone for a few minutes, but each time I would be asked if I was alright, and then if I was SURE that I was alright… It made me wonder whether other people simply never need time just to themselves. I enjoyed their company a great deal, but also enjoyed those brief times without it.

On weekdays we worked in an orphanage for children from 0-8 years old. We were split into pairs each day and assigned tasks of cooking, cleaning, preparing food, sorting dirty laundry and putting it into washing machines, removing clean laundry from machines and hanging it on very long washing lines, playing with groups of children of various ages, leading activities and taking children on excursions, and doing a little decoration work around the site. It was tiring work, though I thoroughly enjoyed the time that we were able to spend actually with the children. Nobody particularly enjoyed doing the laundry work – it was the most tiring of the different jobs – but the other jobs were fairly enjoyable. At weekends we went on a few tourist trips including climbing an active volcano and toasting marshmallows on the lava, and visiting the famous Lake Atitlan which is absolutely stunning!

Our team was made up of two Team Leaders (a retired couple), two men of about twenty years old, four women of between eighteen and twenty-one (myself included), and one woman in her forties. Unfortunately the three girls of around my age did not get on very well with the other woman, and made fun of her a little, which made her cry a couple of times and upset me, too. Each day after work the whole team would gather at the Short-Term-Coordinator’s house for dinner and an evening meeting, and on one occasion between dinner and the meeting someone made a snide comment about this woman, and she quite calmly left the room and sat on the stairs crying quietly. After a few awkward minutes I went and sat with her, not saying anything but just sitting with her for a short while, and then we both went back downstairs and the evening meeting began.

The meeting was a little awkward because the lady still felt rejected and unwanted by most of the younger women in the team, but otherwise the meeting was fine. Afterwards, however, I was told by one of the girls in the team that the Team Leaders had been saying bad things about me while I was out of the room. Earlier in the evening when roles were being distributed for the orphanage work the following day I had offered to do the laundry, because I had become aware that it was the one job that nobody liked doing. I was unaware that the only other Spanish speaker in the group had also volunteered for this team earlier in the day, for the same reason. The Team Leaders expressed to the rest of the team (while I was sat comforting the woman on the stairs) that my offer was selfish and that I was making unfair demands of the rest of the team because if the two Spanish speakers work together the rest of the team would have to work without any Spanish translation. This had not occurred to me – I was not even aware that the other woman had offered to do the laundry the following day – and I was a little upset that the Team Leaders would speak badly of me to the rest of the team when I was elsewhere, without actually saying anything to me about it. I wondered why they had not mentioned it in the meeting, or straight after I had offered to do the laundry. The women on the team told me that they had tried to defend me when the Team Leaders were saying negative things about me… The following morning I approached the Team Leaders privately and told them that I would be willing to work on any team and I apologised for upsetting them by thoughtlessly volunteering for a team without properly discussing it first. They looked surprised, and told me that they were not upset at me and that I had done nothing wrong… Strange!

Throughout the time in Guatemala one of the men on the team was behaving quite inappropriately towards me, making strange and awkward sexual comments and trying to touch me inappropriately even in front of other team members. I told him very firmly not to continue doing and saying those things and that I was not remotely romantically or sexually interested in him, but still he continued. Various other members of the team told him to stop being inappropriate, but each time he just laughed. I felt incredibly uncomfortable whenever I was asked to work alongside this man without other people present. Eventually all five women in the team (myself included) met with the Team Leaders to talk about it and ask advice. The Team Leaders expressed that we must be imagining it, and that he was a good man and we should get on with our work and ‘stop fussing’. So we tried.

After a few more days of attempting to put up with and/or avoid this particular team member as he continued his frequent inappropriate words and actions, the five women in the team (myself included) approached the Short-Term-Coordinator about it and asked her advice. She told us that she believed it was my fault because the man in question had spoken with her privately and told her that I had been flirting with him and leading him on. I felt so upset and angry, and didn’t know how to respond. I was lost for words, and once again desperately fighting back tears. The other women in the team began talking about how we had all firmly and repeatedly told him to stop speaking and acting that way towards me and that I was not romantically interested. The Short-Term-Coordinator ended the meeting, telling me in a stern voice to be careful and watch the way I speak to men. I was baffled. I even began to question whether the way I speak had been coming across as flirtatious in some way. The women in the team assured me that this was not the case. The situation remained unresolved and the team member continued to harass me throughout the rest of our time in Guatemala. He did not do anything “serious” but on a number of occasions I was sorely tempted to punch him. I managed to resist, somehow! I did not want more conflict with the Team Leaders or the Short-Term-Coordinator.

Towards the end of the trip the Short-Term-Coordinator was asked by the people in the organization’s UK office to interview me to see if I would be a good worker in the orphanage in Bolivia. I was nervous about this interview because I had not got on well with the Short-Term-Coordinator throughout the trip, no matter how hard I had tried, and I was not used to this sort of conflict with an adult. In the interview as well as some more normal questions she asked very pointed questions regarding my attention to detail and careless disorganization (getting the dates mixed up) and regarding interaction with men. I felt like whatever answers I gave could be interpreted negatively, such was the nature of some of the questions asked, and by the end I felt well and truly put down and rejected.

As a whole I did enjoy the trip to Guatemala. I got on well with the teammates, except for the one difficult man and occasionally the Team Leaders. I was not used to falling out with people and was a little shaken by all the conflict that arose – perhaps it was the intensity of several people being abroad together and living in close proximity to one another for a short time, or perhaps it was the occasional stress of the work, or the heat, or the language barrier – who knows. I enjoyed the work in the orphanage, especially talking with the Guatemalan staff – I had the advantage of being able to communicate with them in Spanish. I even enjoyed translating for the rest of the team and gradually improving my Spanish and my confidence in Spanish-speaking. However, by the time we left I found myself wondering whether it was worth going at all – whether we had actually done anything. We had done some cooking and cleaning and food preparation and the like, but those things would have been done anyway regardless of whether or not we had been there. We were not there long enough to form lasting friendships with any of the local people, but we were there long enough to fall out with the Short-Term-Coordinator and Team Leaders! We learnt about Latin American Culture a little, but I did leave feeling like we perhaps had not achieved very much. But perhaps the trip was more about learning and growing as individuals than achieving something big for the charity anyway.

[Since the Guatemala trip I did meet the Short-Term-Coordinator in England and ended up spending some time with her. We get on much better now. It had been a stressful time in her life, the time of our visit, and she had many things on her mind. She was also not used to having teams stay in her house.]