Our Journey: A Long Way Home in Guatemala

Elizabeth Rose
Jul 23, 2023

This post is a contribution from guest writer, Elizabeth Rose. We are keen to encourage more bloggers, writers and individuals working in tourism, conservation and sustainability to reflect on their experiences while providing suggestions and tips for future GOOD travellers. If you'd like to share an idea that you believe incorporates GOOD values and practices, please email us at info@good-travel.org. We look forward to sharing more guest posts like this one!

In August 2005 we were a family of four from Boston, Massachusetts huddled in the cool night air of SanJuan Comalapa, Guatemala, brushing our teeth. We were stationed around our host family’s pila (sink) when I realized that despite a year of planning, we were unprepared. We were happy to be in Comalapa, a pueblo of 40,000 in the western highlands of Guatemala, among the Maya, but we didn’t know the basics, like where the agua pura was kept.

It was our first night on our volunteer vacation. Joe and I were the white privileged parents of two white privileged teenagers who would have otherwise finished summer vacation in ice skating and soccer camps. Instead, we were visiting a new culture and hoping to give back.

When I reminisce now, I see the elements of our values and core beliefs tossed into the air at that moment. They were to reconvene in new constellations, like the night sky. We had traveled together every summer, but we had never been this far outside our comfort zone and isolated from groups that were similar to us.

Our Volunteer Experience Educated Us

The following day we began team-teaching English to forty Mayan teenagers in a claustrophobic room with one small window and a central hanging light bulb. The street outside, just yards from our conference-sized table, was congested with mud, dogs, pedestrians, motorbikes and the ubiquitous TukTuks backfiring and spewing exhaust.

When we had landed at Aurora airport, we were a family that disagreed about many things. Then we were in a classroom collaborating and cooperating on curriculum, roles and lesson plans, and with the fate of forty teenager's English language skills in our hands. Yes, we managed to teach some but, in the end, we were the ones who became educated.

During our first two weeks we met Matthew Paneitz, a tall sandy-haired Texan who was starting an Ecofarm on a hillside outside of town. We visited his project, called Long Way Home Parque Ecológica Chimiyá, and found a team of Mayan volunteers, from the neighborhood, hand-planting a regulation size soccer field. Because we were soccer players, we vowed to return the next year to touch the grass.  

Long-term Relationships

Long Way Home
Long Way Home School Building

Thus, we began a fifteen-year journey with Long Way Home that resulted in helping to build a recreational park, complete with a regulation sized soccer field, community kitchen, playground, basketball court and organic gardens. A few years later, Long Way Home was asked to build a school to replace an existing building with poor infrastructure.

In considering the most cost effective and impactful way to build we decided to use green building - because we believed that trash could be useful. We learned that recycled tires, bottles and cans were available, strong, efficient, and less costly. We found examples in local Guatemalan projects and also from Earthship, the Biotecture building company.

We taught local builders the concepts and skills to build with available trash. We established a green building industry, which now constructs energy-efficient homes and community centers. We began offering benefits in addition to competitive wages and soon Long Way Home became the sixth largest employer in the area. We have offered uninterrupted employment in the community since 2009.

Environmentally Sustainable Ethos

Long Way Home Classroom Roof Shingles made from Plastic
Roof shingles made of plastic bottles

Today the school is called the Long Way Home Hero School. There are seventeen buildings constructed of tires, bottles, cans, earth, and mud. Roofs have been fashioned from plastic bottles cut as sheaths, splayed and shingled over each other. A variety of glass-colored bottles, installed in concrete, make skylights with a rainbow of colors shining through the classroom ceilings. The hillsides, reinforced with earth-packed tires, will resist landslides. Earth-packed tire walls will also shift during earthquakes protecting students and teachers. The physical construction of the school is a practical example of green building employed against environmental degradation and pollution.

The curriculum inside the classrooms teaches democratic values of critical thinking, questioning, debate and self-determination. In the high school years, the student projects include cost-efficient tanacas (water storage tanks), energy efficient wood-burning stoves, tire retaining walls, and water-free toilets. These products all provide green solutions to the local and global health problems of pollution, respiratory illness, and the lack of access to water and fuel.

Advice for GOOD travellers considering Volunteering

We offer a longterm volunteering program through Long Way Home because we believe volunteering can support cross-cultural exchange and remove cultural barriers to create compassion. Around the world there are a number of volunteering and voluntourism programs that cater to travellers who want to have a positive impact on the places the travel. However, voluntourism has become increasingly criticized both in academia and the media, because many programs are more harmful than positive to the local community. However, I believe that volunteering internationally can do GOOD when you volunteer mindfully, intentionally and you continuously involve yourself in a process of reflection. We have learnt so much over the years with Long Way Home and we wanted to share our tips for travellers who are considering volunteer programs.

When evaluating a site for volunteering travellers should investigate the host organization:

1) Look for organizations that are tied into the community, driven by community need, and not beholden to outsider creativity. Evaluate the creation story of any organization. Investigate whether the mission has changed in accordance with local need.

2) Determine whether the site is led by local people.

3) Find organizations where locals hold positions of power and authority.

4) Find organizations that explain what their fees are used for and are not too highly inflated according to local prices. A week at Long Way Home is $75, not $750, and includes lodging and meals.

5) Determine if the work is in the interest of the community.

In conclusion, my travel experience in Guatemala has enriched my life in immeasurable ways. We made relationships that are ongoing. Our children learned new languages and new skills. We found a way to put our own white privilege in a context, to understand and appreciate others less privileged, and to work together towards a more equitable world.

Long Way Home has an active volunteer program that will be reinitiated after restrictions from COVID pass. It can be accessed at www.lwhome.org. Visit the Facebook page here.

Long Way Home

July 23, 2023
5 min read