Help me, help you: Why "voluntourism" misses the mark

    “I’d like to study chemistry at the university after school,” Maricio Ruiz said. “Be a scientist.”

    His nearly black eyes looked up over a wooden bowl he had carved, and was now varnishing. The air of his carpentry studio reeked of turpentine and polyurethane. The rules required small masks which covered the nose and mouth, but Ruiz didn’t wear one.

    Boys from the electrician class sat on boxes and tables, installing the wires necessary to operate the two new saws the carpentry studio received from a local Catholic church. All the while, they chatted loudly, frequently calling out, “Chino.” I thought they were talking to me, but it was the nickname of another student with slanted eyes.

    Danika Young, Jenny An, Sarah Woener, one of the Guatemalan boys, and Maricio Ruiz gathered around a table in the carpentry studio. Photo courtesy of Jenny An / NBN

    “I’m not in school right now but I have books and study in my free time,” Ruiz said. The 17-year-old’s nonchalant words turned into a laugh when I asked him what he was studying. “No entiendo,” the Guatemalan would jokingly repeat. Five years of Spanish class had not served me well; my Spanish was barely comprehensible.

    After answering four or five other questions related to learning, he managed to answer that he was studying math, science and English.

    “How are you?” I excitedly asked in English, glad to be back in my niche. He gave me a quizzical look, shook his head, shrugged his shoulders and went back to work.

    Ruiz studies at the Don Bosco School, a vocational school in Guatemala city. Don Bosco is similar to the two-year, state-run programs which children from the Guatemalan middle and upper classes attend, although Ruiz’s school is subsidized by a Catholic charity and costs significantly less. The boys’ backgrounds are “simple,” said the school’s director, Brother Raúl.

    * * *

    I visited Guatemala for one week in August because the Alexander Hamilton Friends Association (AHFA) decided that I was a leader. According to its Web site, the AHFA finds “young Americans with a strong sense of integrity and a passion for service” and “aims to help them develop their goals to become the leaders of tomorrow.” To me, this translated to “free trip.”

    AHFA sent a group of 20 teenagers, mostly female, to paint a doctor’s clinic, two walls around their soccer field (made of concrete, it doubled as a parking lot) and a row of benches at the Don Bosco School. The “voluntourists” came from across the country. Many of them were from small-town America and had never been outside the U.S.

    In the same vein as Alternative Student Breaks (ASB), we were sent with the charge of exchanging culture and raising the self-esteem of the Don Bosco boys.

    Voluntourism has been touted as an alternative to the traditional vacation of pure leisure. Participants go somewhere and do more than just lounge, shop and eat; they make a difference and then they go home feeling warm and fuzzy.

    I went on my free trip with few expectations, background or goals. And I tried not to notice, when I left, that one of the walls we’d just painted had already begun to rust.

    * * *

    During our opening orientation, Virginia Burmester, the Guatemala director of Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS), told us not to expect to “change the world.” To be honest, it was difficult to see even the small change our group could do.

    “Can we actually help [the site]? That is one of the big questions we ask,” said Weinberg senior Nate West, co-chair of ASB.

    When looking at international sites, Medill senior and ASB co-chair Mirielle Cailles said the group focuses on education. For most of its international sites, ASB organizes mandatory three-hour classes for which students get pass/fail credit. These meetings primarily deal with the issues that participants will be dealing with on-site, but also branch out to basic language skills and cultural understanding.

    “Being a service learning organization, it’s really a two-way street between us and the site that we’re working at,” Cailles said. “You can’t just step in there and say, ‘We’re here to help.’”

    * * *

    Boys from the electrician class relax on a box in the carpentry studio. Photo by Jenny An / NBN

    On the third day at the school, three girls from our group decided to start a game of Ride the Pony. The surprisingly sexual game was played as a camp icebreaker in the U.S. In Guatemala, we were told to wear skirts and shorts that fell past our knees.

    By the end of the break period, one-third of the boys were playing with us, while many more surrounded the circle, looking on cautiously. While the American girls’ movements were filled with gyrating hip swirls, the Guatemalan boys’ swirling-arm motions were much more toned down. Most of them were laughing.

    That evening in a wrap-up session, University of North Carolina junior Sarah Woerner, who led the game — and who had to have “Como estás” translated to her during the week — gleamed at the game’s success. “It was the happiest those boys had ever been in their lives,” she said.

    Not everyone agreed, but nobody said anything.

    * * *

    When not at the school, our group hit the tourist destinations of Atnigua and Mount Pacaya, an active volcano.

    Stepping off the vans at Pacaya, we were swarmed by nearly 10 skinny children sporting dirt-smudged faces. “Es necesitario!” they pleaded as they hit bundles of stripped sticks to the ground in front of us. I asked our tour guide if I could give them some candy; he violently shook his head and told me that I’d get swarmed by them.

    Two blocks away from the house, we’d drive past a small market in our middle-class area every morning. The same women who sold sweets and children who walked up and down the street offering shoe shines during the day slept underneath the tables they sold their goods on at night.

    Guatemala is poor by any measure. More than 75 percent of the population lives in poverty while 29 percent of those people live in extreme poverty (meaning they live on two quetzals or 25 U.S. cents a day).

    An entire community lives around the city dump. The children go into the city’s trash fill looking for anything usable from food to ardboard, aluminum cans or plastic bottles to recycle for money. They live in one-room houses in shanty towns with ridged aluminum fooves tied on with rope to keep dry during Guatemala’s six-month rainy period. “These are the poorest people in Guatemala City,” said Sonía Tello, the CCS placements coordinator, “but if you go just outside the city limits, they make their homes of only cardboard.”

    We had only seen that community from within a school bus as the area’s residents stared. They were used to us Tello told me: CCS frequently brings groups here to help them understand the poverty. Tain pounded outside our yellow cocoon that day as the native women ran down the narrow, steep streets with bags over their heads. Men looked on, frozen in the rain, as a day’s collection of cardboard was ruined by the downpour.

    Trapped in the yellow school bus, I felt like a complete tourist.

    It’s hard to stay helpless in a bus or unable to give a granola bar that I wasn’t even planning on eating to a starving girl with dirt on her face. I snuck a piece of bubble gun to that little girl and all the other children around her saw it and surrounded the van. It was dark and one was nearly hit, but managed to scamper off with just a bump, I hope.

    * * *

    On our final afternoon at the school, our group led a short presentation. We all sat in the concrete courtyard. The Guatemalan boys sat on the left and the Americans sat on the right. Both sides offered presents. We gave them a wall hanging and pillows bought in Antigua. Brother Raúl sad he wanted us to bring back to America the fact that what they need in Guatemala is jobs.

    The boy they called “Chino” carves a wooden bowl. Photo by Jenny An / NBN

    The boys in the mechanics class made little medallions out of quetzel coins. While most of the boys sat back joking amongst each other, many of the girls on the trip began crying.

    As we parted, a few of the boys asked for our contact information. A boy maned Josef asked for my phone number. I told him “no” because it’d cost too much for both of us to dial international, but offered my e-mail.

    “I don’t have an e-mail,” he said. “But my brother does and he can help me write the e-mails.”

    Then he asked if we’d come back next year. “Of course not,” I wanted to say, but instead I offered, “Maybe.”

    I asked Ruiz what he thought about the Americans’ visit. He laughed like usual at my shoddy Spanish and nodded. When I pressed him he said it was nice because the boys got to do less work than usual. He later gave me a bowl he had made.

    When I asked a few of the other boys what they had expected before we arrived, many of them said they didn’t know, or nothing. A couple said they didn’t expect nearly so many girls to visit their school composed entirely of males.

    What I did know was that there was no culture that needed to be exchanged, at least not on our end. On my first afternoon, walking around a carnival-like festival with food, fames and small shops, booths were selling Avril Lavigne posters and pirated Brad Pitt movies.

    On my final bus ride back from school, Karla Franco, a chaperone and our translator, told me that Ruiz had been living in an orphanage since he was four. And that, according to Ruiz, he still kept in touch with relatives outside Guatemala, including uncles in the U.S. and Europe, and hoped to leave one day.

    “He says he’s good at English,” she said.

    * * *

    On the plane down to Guatemala City, I met a pair of Canadian girls who were headed to volunteer as well. “We wanted the experience of being in a Third World country,” said Melanie Jamison, 20, who works in a halfway house in Milton, Ontario. She was tired of small, Canadian towns where all she could do was work in a soup kitchen, and she saw Guatemala as a chance to do something bigger.

    The girls spent most of their summer vacations raising $2000 each for the trip by holding garage sales and working odd jobs. However, they didn’t know much about the situation in Guatemala. “It if has to do with geography or politics, I know absolutely nothing,” said Marla Armstrong, 19, a student at Brock University. Neither could speak Spanish either–a fact that made them apprehensive because the program they went with instructed them to find their own housing for the first night.

    My week with the Don Bosco boys changed me profoundly, no doubt, but I doubt it meant the same to them. It has been two months since I’ve left and I haven’t received an e-mail from any of the boys. It’s hard to gauge the self-esteem we were supposed to suddenly bestow upon these kids that referred to us as the “gringos.”

    Not that no good could be done, but my group and I were a bunch of mostly affluent kids who hadn’t bothered to learn what was going on beforehand. We’d been plopped into Central America after too much ego-stroking that we were leaders, movers and shakers or whatever other terminology people use to describe a young person who’s involved in their community.

    We could barely communicate with the boys and had little tangible change to offer. My carpentry skills were limited to having used a table saw once to build theater sets in high school and we didn’t know Spanish “Hola” and “Adiós,” let alone the impact Chiquita banana and the Cold War made in Guatemala.

    The Taco Bell we drove by twice every day didn’t make sense in Guatemala. We were no different.


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