My name is Madavi Sooriyapperuma, student at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. I was able to volunteer in Guatemala, through Maximo Nivel, with fellow members of the Ryerson International Experiential Learning Program—a University program created to encourage community members to engage globally in helping to support the complex social, cultural, and economic challenges at home and abroad.
Each year, the program allows students to go to a different country and engage in volunteer work that will positively impact the local community. Being that our program has never gone to Guatemala, it was especially appealing knowing we would not only be helping the local people, but at the same time learning about, and experiencing, life in a country with such rich history and culture. Here’s how it all came together.
Prior to being selected for the program, I didn’t know anyone I would be working with in Guatemala. Being together, in a new country, and sharing first-time experiences with one another really solidified our bond. Everyone had different ideas about what to do, places to visit, and sites to see, so although it might’ve been difficult to come to one decision, it was really nice to have so many different options and perspectives.
It also helped me to learn a lot about myself. For instance, before this trip, I would make sure I had a set plan in mind before venturing out. It’s what made me feel comfortable about my decisions. But working with people I’d never met before, in a new country, who all had varying interests, I was forced out of my comfort zone. I learned how to let go and actually found joy in living in the moment.
One decision we had to agree on, though, was our volunteer project. We decided to join the Working with Kids project. This project allowed us a lot of flexibility regarding what we wanted to teach the kids, and how we would work with them. We all had a great time teaching them new games and playing together. We even got to share some of the books we brought. However, I didn’t realize the challenges I would face there.
My Spanish was really limited before I went to Guatemala. I never studied Spanish beforehand, and the little Spanish I did know was fairly weak, with bad pronunciation. And of course, none of the children knew English! But this didn’t deter me. We were able to communicate using lots of body language, almost like a really intense game of charades! It was quite funny, but a really great learning experience. Not only did I realize that body language is universal, but when survival mode hits, you learn a lot faster! We were all able to pick up some new words from the kids, and vice versa. Having the chance to volunteer and interact with the community allowed us to naturally learn conversational Spanish. Whenever we tried speaking, community members would love to help us out and would be happy that we were trying to learn their language.
Overall, I’m super happy with our choice to volunteer in Antigua, Guatemala. We all fell in love with this charming little city with such kind and generous people. I loved getting lost down the little streets and finding such beautiful pieces of artwork all over. The handcrafts and special textiles I bought at the markets will always take me back to the fond memories I made there.
Another great factor is that Antigua has some cool restaurants and cafes–one of my favorites being Ta’cool and Café, known for their delicious tacos and plentiful vegetarian options. We also really enjoyed the nightly events at Adra Hostel and Bigfoot Hostel, not to mention the free salsa classes right at the Maximo institute!
We made sure to get in some adventures as well, such as hiking Pacaya Volcano and visiting the popular sites of Cerro de la Cruz, and of course the famous Catalina Arch.
When we weren’t running around on the beautiful streets of Antigua, we felt right at home with our host family and Mama Marta. She was a gracious host and friendly face. Her house felt like a home to us and we were very comfortable. Her food was amazing, and I enjoyed every meal she made. You can tell she made everything with love and care.
I’m extremely grateful for being a part of a volunteer group who were merely strangers before this amazing experience. It was nice to feel like a part of something bigger than myself, and to trust that I could lean on them, should anything go awry. But they weren’t the only ones who left their mark in my heart—the Maximo staff was absolutely incredible in making sure we felt comfortable, and like we were part of the family. Our interactions really enhanced our experience.
The only thing I can say that would have made this whole experience better is… if we’d stayed longer! With that being said, I would 100% recommend a group volunteer project through Maximo Nivel. You’re guaranteed to learn, not only about a different culture, or your new friends, but about yourself. And if you don’t learn anything at all–at least you’ll leave with a great story and an unforgettable experience!
Take a look at more photos from their experience in Guatemala in Ryerson International Experiential Learning official Facebook