Last month, we sent a group of high school volunteers to Guatemala to support Project Cookstoves, an initiative that builds new, energy-efficient cookstoves for families and allows us to promote education, health, and environmental protection! Read below for Joy’s account on this amazing, eye-opening trip.
By Joy Gursky
A couple weeks ago, I found myself in Guatemala City with a group of twelve other volunteers from different high schools scattered throughout the United States. Waiting for our ride to the hotel from the airport, all of us were exhausted and hoping we had made the right decision in deciding to travel to a foreign country with a group of people we had never met before. We were strangers with one common goal: we wanted to improve the lives of the less fortunate, and we were going to accomplish this by building energy-efficient cookstoves for families in rural Guatemalan villages with Good Neighbors. So, after resting in the hotel, we were off to our first volunteer site. The drive to Patzicía was long (a few hours!), and we were all excited, nervous, and unsure of what to expect.
Building stoves is, as one might imagine, very difficult work, and there are many preliminary steps. First, all the bricks (or “ladrillos” as they’re called in Spanish) need to be soaked in water for at least a minute to ensure that they don’t just break apart when you lay them down. Dirt, water, and cement need to be mixed separately to put in between the bricks and ensure everything sticks together and the smoke and flames won’t escape. The terrain where the stove will reside needs to be evened out; in some cases the stoves were built in the kitchen, but in others they were built outside under some sort of pavilion.
Once all these steps have been taken, it is finally time to start laying down the bricks: cinder blocks at the bottom, and the traditional red bricks at the top. After laying them down, the chimney (a cylindrical, hollow, and very, very heavy block made out of cement) needs to be installed. Thankfully, since our team was so large, we were each able to work on the different steps simultaneously to make sure that everything was completed on time.
Constructing the stoves wasn’t the most fun part of the trip, though. The best part was getting to know the native Guatemalans and the rest of the high school group (we eventually very cleverly named ourselves the “#GuatSquad”). The families in the homes we visited didn’t speak any English, but on that first day, all of us so desperately wanted to interact with them that we were willing to walk right up to them and introduce ourselves in the bits and pieces of Spanish that we had learned forgotten in school years before… even if our American accents were awful. Nevertheless, we tried our best, and by the end of each day we had learned the names of the family, their ages, and where they had been born – all while working together to build the cookstoves. And by the end of the trip, we were having basic conversations with local families and children.
One thing that I’ve taken away from our journey is that at home, we really have it easy. In the U.S, we’re fortunate to have microwaves and ovens that heat up our food, pipes that deliver hot water straight into our sinks and bathtubs, and heaters installed into our homes to keep us warm in the winter. For many people in the U.S, it’s difficult to even comprehend not having any of that, since it’s literally in every home; but for people in developing countries it’s a reality. Many Guatemalans who don’t live in the city rely on fire for everything from heating their bath water to cooking their food. This dependency doesn’t come without consequences. Smoke inhaled by families who use fire as a means to survive regularly leads to several health risks including emphysema, cardiovascular disease, and lung cancer–and claims 4 million lives each year, according to the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves.
If you’re considering volunteering abroad but are having qualms about doing so, my advice to you would be to just do it. Volunteering in a foreign country is a life-changing experience, and your perspective on just about everything will be altered forever. Take some time to read up on the country and culture you’re visiting before you leave. Bring your own hygienic products because you never know when you’ll need them. And most importantly, have fun!