Posts Tagged With: antigua

Common Hope

One of my goals for this sabbatical was to find dental volunteer programs in different parts of the world, both to compare and contrast the countries in terms of cultural norms, health education, and services offered. (I make this sound like some sort of thesis, but it’s really just out of personal interest). I was excited to come across an organization in Antigua, Guatemala called Common Hope (or locally, Familias de Esperanza). In addition to their program of sponsorship for Guatemalan children, they have developed an entire system of affiliation between families, local schools, neighborhoods, and their main campus in Antigua, which among other services, has a dental clinic. I arranged to volunteer with Common Hope for one week, both in their main clinic and in a rural satellite clinic.

On my first day, I was given an orientation tour. Lauren met me in the town square, where we took a van to a local neighborhood to see some of the school programs that have been started and also to visit the home of one the participating families. Like Habitat for Humanity in the U.S., CH encourages participants to pay for new homes through “sweat equity.” They also work with schools to develop basic rules for behavior for the young schoolchildren. They have found a noticeable difference in school “readiness” between children who participate in CH programs and those who don’t. The goal is to increase the chances that the children will be successful and stay in school. They try to accomplish this, Lauren said, by eliminating many common obstacles like problems with transportation and obtaining school supplies. What impressed me most was that Lauren stressed that this is not just “charity”: CH tries to make their system sustainable not by just giving money and services away, but by trying to incorporate accountability from all the participants so they can eventually live and work independently. (Kind of like, “Teach a man to fish….”)


20140507-095858.jpg Scenes from our school visit

The facilities at Familias de Esperanza are absolutely gorgeous with a hacienda-style design. There are several wings with volunteer quarters and a common area, a kitchen and cafeteria where we would eat lunch every day, a pharmacy, medical clinic, dental clinic, offices, and workshop. It was a lovely place to work!



Since the clinic was located just outside of town, I either had to take a local chicken bus there (which costs 1.5Q, or less than $.20) or a tuk-tuk for 15-20Q. My first day, I boarded a chicken bus – the first available ride home- only to discover that there were no empty seats. Note to self: I am too tall to stand on chicken buses. The (mercifully short) ride was spent half-standing, half squatting awkwardly in the aisle while holding the overhead railing in a death grip, trying not to hit my head on the ceiling while the bus barreled down the cobblestone road and over the ubiquitous speed bumps.

The next day, I took a tuk-tuk!

On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I did cleanings in the Familias de Esperanza clinic. (We had decided to limit the offered procedures to cleanings because of the obvious logistical problem of carrying other dental equipment and materials in my lone backpack for two months in hot weather!) Another Canadian volunteer named Lynne helped to organize the patient list, Eugenia would stop by to help me with any instrument or autoclave issues, and my awesome translator Chris cheerfully provided the (thrilling, I’m sure) service of assisting with dental cleanings.

The volunteers’ common area


Chris also wears awesomely weird t-shirts 🙂

On Tuesday and Thursday, I drove with Lesbia, a social worker, to a rural clinic in a very poor village called San Rafael. (I love the fact that we just happened to drive past an erupting volcano on the way to work! I could see plumes of ash in the distance). All of the patients here wore traditional dress. One of the volunteer groups, a team of pre-med students from Louisiana, was providing the services of head washing (anti-lice treatments were needed for many of the patients) and foot washing (some of the patients have improper or no footwear to wear on the dirt roads and so have cuts and sores; the team would wash and treat their feet and then distribute flip-flops and “Crocs.”) While Lesbia and the group of social workers led activities for the families, a medical team saw patients in their clinic, and my translator/assistant Micah and I did extractions and cleanings in the dental operatory.

The main road in San Rafael


Appointment fees: one US dollar is worth about 7.6 quetzales


That’s me!


Micah and I, looking tough

“Hey, I have an idea….”

Yes, I am a big girl.

I was glad to be able to help out with such a great organization. To find out more about Common Hope/Familias de Esperanza and their sponsorship programs, go to

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…and hello to Antigua

The trip to Antigua on Holy Saturday took quite a bit longer than my “road trip” a week earlier. Due to the influx of tourists to all of the pueblos around Lake Atitlán and Antigua, the traffic situation was ridiculous. Several tour agencies in Panajachel combined forces and hired a huge 25-person shuttle rather than the typical minivan-style coaches. I was lucky enough to get a seat for both me and my backpack towards the back of the shuttle. We took an alternate route out of Pana and everything seemed to be going well… until we hit the highway about half an hour outside Antigua. Stretched in front of us as far as the eye could see was a line of bumper-to-bumper traffic along our side of the four-lane highway, which was barely moving. At this rate, getting to Antigua could take hours.

This is when our driver made an executive decision. Without a word, he calmly pulled into the oncoming lane of traffic and casually bypassed about two miles’ worth of traffic by driving on the wrong side of the road. There were few cars coming in our direction, but that didn’t stop us from gaping, wide-eyed and incredulous, at the sheer ballsiness of our driver. At the next break in the median, he easily veered back into the line of traffic like nothing had ever happened. Half the shuttle erupted in nervous laughter; the other half burst into a round of applause. “Propinas, por favor,” (“Tips, please”), the driver joked.
Cutting in line, Guatemala-style

We arrived in town after sundown. Walking alone at night on the outskirts of Antigua is maybe not the best idea, but I was able to find my homestay while walking with a woman who owned a local bakery. I would be staying the next 10 days with the Rosales family: Doñas Natalia, Rosalinda, Sara, Irma, and their adorable dog, Maggie.
At the kitchen table, where I shared three meals a day with my family

I had a spacious private room in the house with my own bathroom. The rooms were on the second floor and opened to a sitting area that had a view of the surrounding hills. It was a beautiful place to stay, especially with the sun rising over the mountains in the morning. Early on one of the first mornings, I heard a rumbling noise which I assumed to be a truck passing by. I heard one of the women downstairs exclaim, “¡El volcan!” Nearby Fuego was erupting at the time of my visit, some distance away from town. Can’t say I’ve ever woken up to the sound of a volcano before!

On Sunday morning, which was Easter, I went to Mass at the nearby Iglesia San Francisco and then got some breakfast. There were processions that day, too, but to be honest, I was getting a bit processioned-out and just caught the tail end of it as the anda re-entered the church in the early evening. There were huge crowds, firecrackers, and the obligatory Dora and Minion balloon vendors. Possibly the strangest thing was the presence of an emcee on a microphone who would shout what sounded like an Easter play-by-play as the procession neared the church doors: “¡Jesus ha resucitado! ¡Aleluia!” And the crowd would cheer and applaud. It kinda felt like a sporting event :).

Jesus surfs back into the courtyard of the church

A typical Antigua courtyard

Volcan Agua visible to the south

Later on, I wandered around town, both scoping out a place to eat dinner (meals are not included with the homestay on Sundays) and checking for any pubs that might be showing Game of Thrones. I know, I know, pathetic, but I never would have cared had I not gotten a taste of Season 4 at the Alegre Pub. I did not find Game of Thrones at Cafe Sky; however, I did find Samir, a French traveler whom I had met in San Pedro. He and his friend Maria invited me to join them for dinner. The views from the roof deck of the cafe were breathtaking. I did not see this beautiful a view for the rest of my time in Guatemala. It was the beginning of the rainy season, so the evenings were turning more and more overcast as the days passed. I’m glad I got the chance to experience this:




I guess Cafe Sky is the place to run into people that you’ve met in San Pedro, because just a few days later, I ran into Sarah and Hani, whom I had seen while watching the Good Friday processions. They were accompanied by new friends Erica and Sam. Both of these American couples are traveling by camper from the US through Latin America. That is, if you could call Skyhorse a camper. Seriously, Sarah and Hani’s vehicle needs to be seen to be believed: Adventures in Skyhorse. Erica and Sam also have a ton of great stories from camping and exploring in Mexico at Song of the Road. Even though we had never hung out before, they were fantastic and hilarious company. Can you see why I never get any work done on my blog? 🙂


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Antigua road trip!

OK, so the title of this post is somewhat misleading, since “road trip” usually implies that A) you are driving somewhere, and B) you are traveling with at least one other person. While this was not the case, I at least A) took a lancha from San Pedro to Panajachel and then a shuttle to Antigua, where I would be B) meeting up with Megan (from Seeking Somewhere), who had left San Pedro after our karaoke extravaganza in order to check out other parts of Guatemala, namely Tikal and Semuc Champey.

I checked into a lovely guesthouse, Posada Juma Ocag, which had a private single room, en suite, for only 100Q, or just under $13. The rooms overlooked a small green courtyard. Part of me wants to keep this place a secret since it’s so nice, but the staff people are friendly and do a great job, so I’m happy to recommend them. I spent Friday evening checking out the festivities near Iglesia La Merced, which was already preparing for Palm Sunday.

My $13 room at Posada Juma Ocag





Megan and I had originally planned to hike the volcano Pacaya on Saturday, but as she had only arrived in town at 6am and was dead tired, and I was suffering from a painful lump on the top of my left foot (I know, the random ailments continue), we decided to just take it easy and enjoy the ambience of Antigua for the weekend. Antigua Guatemala is a Spanish colonial town, not unlike Granada in Nicaragua, and it was absolutely abuzz with locals and tourists alike for the beginning of Semana Santa, or Holy Week. I had read about the popular processions involved with this week, but never did I expect anything so elaborate. The entire week, there are outdoor festivals and displays in the churches, streets covered in flowers, and bands playing sacred music.



Megan and I picked up coffee and bread for a mini-breakfast and went to Iglesia La Merced, the main cathedral, on Sunday morning for Palm Sunday Mass. Unfortunately, I got the times wrong, and by the time we arrived, the service had already started, and the church was packed with people. We were able to squeeze in to get some standing room, but about halfway through, the lack of space and air started to affect me. I was getting visions of my preteen days when I constantly felt faint during Mass… and then I started seeing stars. I needed to get out of there. The outside of the church wasn’t much better: stifling heat, massive crowds of people, and a myriad of street vendors. (This merits a quick comment on the festivities: while I understand that most of the vendors are there to feed the throngs of people who come to watch the processions, it did feel a little strange to see men selling motorized helicopters and Dora the Explorer or Minion balloons at a religious event. It made me think a lot about the distinction between what is “religious” and what is “cultural”).

On the way to Mass with my palm branch, in front of the fountain of Our Lady of Perpetual Lactation (Kidding. Those are sirens).

Selling palms outside the church

Once I had recovered by eating a good breakfast in the shade of a restaurant, Megan and I searched for a shady spot on the street to watch the processions. We lucked out in that we had chosen a spot right in front of a beauty salon; when the processions started down our block, the ladies from the salon brought out a small bench and allowed Megan to stand on it to get a better view.

Most processions that I saw followed the same standard: men and boys with matracas pave the way, followed by younger boys with incense and men in purple robes, the cargadores or cucuruchos, who take turns bearing the weight of the enormous andas of the procession. (I have read that some of these can weight up to 4 tons). There is always a lead cargador in white who stands at the head of the anda, steering and controlling the speed of the group. The first anda is followed by a band and then by a second, smaller anda with the Virgin Mary, which is carried by female cargadoras in white blouses and black skirts. After the second band comes the clean-up crew, which efficiently scoops up the alfombras of flowers, which the townspeople worked all night to create.

These alfombras are absolutely spectacular and are comprised of flowers, tinted sawdust, plants, and fruit. Rather than ramble on, I think it’s best to let the photos speak for themselves.


















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