Niina’s Volunteering in Candelaria

Candelaria is a small community on the Pacific coast of Guatemala, some 8km from Monterrico. As the village is on the coast and near canals, fishing is one of the main industries here.

I spent four weeks volunteering for El Proyecto 123 Candelaria, an educational project founded by a Candelaria native, Jorge. Volunteers can work either at the health centre or in the local primary school in the mornings and give extra support in literacy, maths and English to small groups of children in the afternoons. Most volunteers choose to stay with Jorge’s welcoming extended family in the village, although it is possible to arrange to stay in a hostel in Monterrico instead.

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I would typically first wake up at 5am as the neighbourhood roosters began their daily concert. Although the family would get up at that time, I usually drifted back to sleep for another hour or so, soothed by birdsong and the sound of the waves crashing into the shore.

After breakfast, I would walk to work along the main street, past the many local businesses.

I taught English and environmental awareness to grades 4-6, which was a challenge at times but very enjoyable nonetheless. I was also fortunate enough to witness two special celebrations at the school: the first one for Mayan ruler Tecun Uman, where I learned more about Guatemalan history through songs and texts. The second one, celebrating the beginning of lent, saw the kids decorating empty egg shells and filling them with confetti or flour, then smashing them into each other’s heads! I returned home with a new look that day.

Reducing the amount of rubbish (particularly plastic) in the area is an ongoing mission with the project, and volunteers are encouraged to get involved and come up with ideas for improvement. Organised by Jorge, the students from grades 4-6, their teachers, volunteers, and workers from the municipality got together one morning to clean up the beach and the roadside in Candelaria, with visible results.

After school, as the temperature soared, I would often wander down the dusty road to the beach which attracts few locals during the week, so I had the place to myself most of the time! The waves here are strong and very unpredictable, though, so swimming alone is not recommended.

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One day, I had a chance to learn how to make tamales, a local dish of corn-based dough balls steamed inside corn husks or banana leaves, then served with tomato sauce.

Lunch is the most important meal here, and the family prepared wonderful, healthy plates daily and would gather to eat together and share stories.

The mother of the family took my request to have a plant based diet in her stride.

After lunch I would study Spanish, help with afternoon lessons, relax in the hammock and read, or go cycling. A few kilometers away on the coast, a turtle sanctuary releases newly hatched baby turtles into the sea most afternoons. They welcome visitors and there may be an opportunity to volunteer here with the project in the near future.

One afternoon, we had a chance to go for a swim in a pool by the sea…

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… and on our final afternoon together, Jorge took a few of us on a bicycle tour around the canals and a nearby lake. A better end to my magical month I could not have wished for!

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