An unforgettable week- San Lucas Toliman, Guatemala

By Brittany Smith
March 30, 2017

We woke up to the sound of nature. With roosters as our alarm clocks, we rose from our beds to get a start on our day. Focusing on not letting the water hit our tooth brush in fear of amoebas, we prepared ourselves just as we would for any ordinary day by brushing our teeth, washing our face, and doing our normal morning routines. Little did we know, our day was not going to be an ordinary day. And our week was going to be an extraordinary week.

San Lucas Toliman, Guatemala. With a population of approximately 20,000 people, this little towns sits on the shore of Lago de Atitlan (Lake Atitlan) in South-Central Guatemala. There is not a single part of San Lucas Toliman that isn’t beautiful. The colors of the clothing hand made by the Guatemalan women, the buildings and architecture that is seen throughout the town, and most importantly, the people all add charm to the town that holds a special place in my heart. In the United States, Philadelphia specifically, it’s hard to walk down the street and see people with smiles on their face greeting you with a hello. In San Lucas, it’s hard to see anything but that. “Buenos Dias, amigos!” is a common phrase we heard from everyone we saw. With the little Spanish we knew, we would greet them back with “Hola!” or “Buenos Dias!”.

The Friends of San Lucas is an organization that welcomes people from around the world to volunteer in San Lucas Toliman, but in solidarity with the people of San Lucas Toliman. Their mission statements explains “The Friends of San Lucas was created to carry on the legacy of Fr. Greg Schaffer, by listening, responding to and walking in solidarity with the people of San Lucas Tolimán in an effort to alleviate the suffering and dependency created by the ‘process of poverty.’”

Before stepping on the plane, our group didn’t really know what to expect. We knew that we would be doing work, but we didn’t know specifically what the work would be or who we would be working with. The Guatemala ECG course that Cabrini University offers focuses on walking hand in hand with the people of Guatemala. Making sure we aren’t going in as clueless Americans, one of our main purposes was to gain knowledge of the beautiful Guatemalan culture with all the respect that we have. Many times short term mission trips do more harm than good to the people and the place that you are going to visit. Our goal, as a group, was not to do any harm to the people and their way of life, but to gain knowledge of what life for Guatemalans was like and help the Guatemalans with anything they needed help with.

Our first day, Sunday, was more of a sight-seeing day. We traveled across Lago De Atitlan by boat to see Santiago, Guatemala. Here we had our first experience with the persistence of the “sales people” of Guatemala. We were taught that this is their way of living, so as you’re walking past dressed as a tourist, of course they are going to try to sell you everything under the sun! We also learned that haggling the prices is a tool that will come in good use to us throughout the week as we experience more market places and shops in Santiago and San Lucas Toliman. One quetzal, the currency in Guatemala, is equivalent to fourteen United States cents. Indulging in this rich culture of the indigenous people had to include shopping for some traditional wear.

The rest of the week consisted of a lot of physical labor. In the mornings, we would eat breakfast at 8 a.m. One day after breakfast, I headed over to the bathroom before we set out for whatever our job was for that day. I was waiting in line when I looked up above the bathroom to see a quote that really stuck out to me. “Go with the people, live with them. Learn from them… Start with what they know; build with what they have. But with the best leaders, when the work is done, the task accomplished, the people will say, we have done this ourselves!” Lao Tzu 700 BC. This quote was engraved in my brain for the rest of the week, seeing as we were there to walk in solidarity with the people of Guatemala. Whether it was laying the foundation of a house, building a fuel efficient stove, or picking coffee beans, everything that we did was done side by side with the locals. At the end of the day, we never sat back and said “I did something great today,” rather “we (the people of the community and our group) really worked well together today.”


The second half of our day would start after lunch usually with an educational experience. Whether it was heading over to the women’s center to learn how the women make a living for themselves and their families by weaving, going to the ecology center, or spending an afternoon with Chona (an elder from the community), we learned so much about the culture and the typical way of life for the Guatemalan people. It was almost hard at times to keep up with all the knowledge and information we were learning because there was SO much, but it was so interesting, which made it unforgettable. There was, and still is, so much to learn from these people. Although many are illiterate, they are so extremely knowledgeable with things that we would never even think of just because of what they have experienced.

Students at Chona’s house after enjoying a delicious dinner prepared by Chona and hearing her story.

This experience was something that I will never forget. At night, I lay awake thinking about San Lucas Toliman and am already in the process of planning out my next visit. San Lucas Toliman is a place that touches your heart in an extremely special way. A big thank you goes out to the Friends of San Lucas, the San Lucas Toliman community, and Dr. Jerry Zurek and Dr. Raquel Green for giving us students this opportunity. For more information about this beautiful town, or how to go about volunteering, go to Hasta luego, San Lucas!

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Brittany Smith

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