I want to share with you that the Starfish VOLCANOTHON was a great success. For 5 days I shared a unique experience with an excellent group of people who enthusiastically undertook an adventure full of excitement and energy.
The trip started in the beautiful colonial city of Antigua Guatemala, surrounded by mountains and majestic volcanoes, embellished with colonial Spanish architecture and cobblestone streets. For most participants it was their first time in this country, so walking around town was an adventure to admire.
The first night we had a welcome dinner at a Belgian food Restaurant where we had an amazing meal of Tilapia with mango, ginger and avocado sauce, and Boeuf Bourgignon with vegetables. The purpose of this dinner was to all meet as a group, where each one of us shared a little bit of ourselves, and why we enrolled for this trip.
The next day we boarded the bus heading to Panajachel, located 2 hours from Antigua at Lake Atitlan, to meet with the Starfish staff and students who expected with joy the travelers’ arrival. The first day in Panajachel, we participated in a Scavenger Hunt in the town where teams carried out missions to find cultural and historic scenes and capture them on camera. After sharing a delicious ice cream (a favorite Guatemalan treat!), some of the group returned for activities with the students, such as bracelet making and nail painting. This was a wonderful opportunity to connect with the girls and learn their personalities, share smiles, and begin to understand the lives that have a much better chance in life with the support of Starfish donors. In all, the day was a fun and memorable experience!
At night we gathered at the Starfish office, to hear more about Starfish and its impact on the community, particularly how it has changed the lives of the Starfish students. Starfish arranged activities to help break the barriers of language, where everyone introduced themselves and talked about why they have come on this journey. The group then enjoyed a traditional Guatemalan meal of “chuchitos” (a corn tamale stuffed with meat), beans, and chicken tacos.
On Saturday morning before the sun rose, we met outside the hotel for breakfast and locally-grown coffee, which provided much-needed energy. The sky began to change its color over the lake, a huge mirror reflecting blues and yellows, surrounded by protective volcanoes. Though there were some clouds, this did not dampen our spirits. Caught up in excitement, we boarded a boat to the base of the Volcano for our long hike. The trek to the summit of Volcan San Pedro stands at 9,908 feet. Looking up at the cone-shaped peak, rays of sun penetrated the clouds, giving us a light show projected on the mountains and water.
At 8:15 am we began to climb the volcano, prepared with bananas, oranges, and lots of water. The Starfish student group hurriedly began their walk, taking care of each other so that no one was left behind and supporting us along the way. We were surrounded by coffee plantations and avocado trees, reaching broken volcanic stone pieces that have been forming for many years. Luckily we had a guide to make the road easier during the ascent. We encountered several people coming down, wishing us the best on our trip.
After an hour and a half, we regrouped at a view point overlooking the town of San Pedro, a great time to take group and landscape photos. After our brief stop and re-hydration, we continued to the top, not knowing what awaited us on the road, leaving everything to the day.
As we climbed, we reach a forest of huge old trees, covered by dense clouds; the sounds of birds living in the area making the scene something magical. Every step forward is a step toward both personal and group success and joy.
If there is something rewarding in life, whether as a climber, runner, teacher, student, or whatever role we play, it is knowing that once you get to your goal, even when your mind tricks you into thinking you can’t make it, that you have overcome all personal, psychological, or physical obstacles along the way.
At the peak, everyone enjoyed the rest and appreciated the beauty of where we were. The connection between our group, the students, and guides grew, as we were sharing an excellent time for a talk, singing, dancing, eating, and regaining energy for the descent.
Once we clambered down, legs wobbly and feeling tired, a delicious hot lunch awaited us after such hard work. After the return to Panajachel, as a group we shared constructively our high’s and low’s of the volcano trip, while we splurged on a Japanese style dinner. There are more than just tortillas for visitors to Guatemala!
Sunday, the Starfish group had the opportunity to visit some of the student’s homes, creating a closer bond with them by learning more about their lives. Mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, and other extended family are united living under the same house, an arrangement that goes back many generations in the Tzutujil community. Families are very important in Guatemalan society, as they support each other through any challenges and every day activities. Though girls and women traditionally work in the home, with Starfish student families, everyone is supporting the empowerment and growth of their daughters so they can seek out a future with more opportunity. The group could see that their sponsorships made a big change in a whole family and in a community, even though they live thousands of miles away. The students and their families welcomed the visitors with open arms into their homes, with a humble smile of thankfulness.
Monday, back in Antigua, we visited local shops where the group purchased organic coffee from local coffee farmers and locally made chocolate flavored with cardamom, ginger, and orange. We had our last dinner of Guatemalan food – beef pepian, thick dark stew with vegetables and rice. As a group we talked about our experiences throughout the trip. Everyone was inspired by the families of the Starfish students and the struggles they face in their daily lives. They realized how much people have in North America and how little many people have here – lack of food security, formal education, and health services, often surviving under one roof in small homes with dirt floors and hazardous wood-burning stoves. We reflected on every aspect that creates a big difference between one country and the other, and how we can help to support them. The participants hope to invite more friends and family to be part of a program that empowers women in their futures, starting with the opportunity of receiving an education in a country with the highest rate of child poverty in Latin America, where so many families don’t have the resources to offer their children a better chance.
The volcano, a symbol of the challenge faced by these students, was conquered together.
It doesn’t matter how big or small the mountain is, what is more important is to make this journey a personal motivation to take firm steps and achieve our goals.
- Guillermo Montoya, Guatemala Country Director