It is so hard to imagine that a year has already passed since I went to Guatemala with McGill University’s Student Chapter of Librarians Without Borders. The LWB 2010 Guatemala Trip was without a doubt one of the most intense experiences of my life. We volunteered at a local school helping them create a library as well as getting a chance to soak in the culture and breathtaking landscape while traveling around the country. I am extremely excited that this year the number of students traveling to Asturias Academy has more than doubled. Also, this year in addition to the students from McGill’s School of Information Studies, the LWB volunteer group has been joined by MLIS students from the University of Toronto, Dalhousie University and the University of Western Ontario. I encourage everyone to check out the LWB Guatemela Trip 2011 blog as the students have been doing a great job of posting regularly to describe their experiences.
As I was reading this year’s blog, I definitely felt nostalgic and found myself reflecting a lot on my trip in 2010. As a whole it was an extremely enriching and positive experience. However, I thought of a few lessons that I learned that might be useful to future volunteers. In retrospect I should have posted these reflections before this year’s group left on April 22nd. Nevertheless, I would be very interested to hear upon their return if they have similar reflections or lessons and I would invite them to comment on the following.
In preparing for the LWB volunteer trip to Guatemala, I wish that I’d know the following…
You can’t anticipate how you will react when forced outside your comfort zone:
Traveling to a foreign country where you might not have all the comforts and amenities of home can definitely be challenging. I dealt with cold showers, sketchy transportation, unfamiliar foods, lack of privacy, etc. The most daunting aspect of the trip was without a doubt dealing with my fear of heights. Guatemala is a very mountainous country and I was at moments terrified for my life as we drove on winding roads along the edge of plummeting cliffs. At the time, I honestly thought that despite the beautiful scenery, the Guatemalan people and the volunteer work we were doing, I felt that my fear of driving through the mountains would prevent me from returning to Guatemala. Now a year later, I am extremely jealous of the students who are traveling in Guatemala and working at Asturias Academy but I cannot deny that my fear of heights is a huge obstacle in deciding whether I would go back.
Brush up on the language before the trip:
I took Spanish in high school and university but when I went to Guatemala it had been awhile since I had a chance to practice. Several times on the trip I felt disappointed that I couldn’t express myself better in Spanish or understand what was being said. Speaking Spanish was in no way a condition of participating on the trip and quite a few of the other MLIS volunteers did not speak Spanish at all. However, I wanted to use the bit of Spanish that I knew in order to interact directly with the people we met. I felt that this offered me perhaps more of an authentic experience although unfortunately our guide Steve usually had to step in when it became clear that people were having problems understanding my rudimentary Spanish. If I were returning to Guatemala I would definitely try to brush up more on my grammar and vocabulary before the trip.
I invite other librarians involved in Librarians Without Borders or other international volunteering to add their advice/lessons learned.