Rio Dulce and Casa Guatemala

Published: March 7th 2011
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San PedroSan PedroSan Pedro

Waiting for the 6am bus
OK, before I start describing these couple of days, I need to give a bit of background information with regards to how I ended up going this way...
Ben and Yasmine, a couple I met in Tulum and subsequently in Caye Caulker weren't sure if they were going to go to Rio Dulce the last time I had seen them but they eventually did and e-mailed me to let me know that it was worth a visit to do the boat trip between Rio Dulce and Livingston, so I had decided I would head this way.
Then, a lot of the people I met in Atitlán (Bethany, both Ryans and Serge) were coming from this direction because they had all met whilst working as volunteers in an orphanage near Rio Dulce called Casa Guatemala. Having spent a week listening to them relating this life changing experience, I really wanted to go and have a look at the place, so when the opportunity presented itself, I couldn't turn it down.

So, after our farewell drink the night before in San Pedro, I wasn't feeling too happy when my alarm went off at 4.40am. Nevertheless, I dragged myself out of bed
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Frm 3 Stooges to 4 musketeers
and got ready quickly. My first job was to go across to the hotel where Serge was staying to wake him up (this whole me being the only one with an alarm malarkey). Then I was to return and get David out of bed. All went smoothly and the 15 minutes uphill walk with the rucksacks to get to the bus stop finished waking us up. We were there for 5.30am so had half an hour to wait. There was a bus there about to depart for Xela and the helper was trying to convince us to hop on and switch bus later but we declined politely, opting to wait for the 6am direct to Guatemala City.
The bus (Q40) was on time and surprisingly full for this time of day (seemed mainly like locals on short journeys to work). We started up the road back to Santa Clara and got to see the sunrise over the lake. When we got to Santa Clara, what did we spot but the 5.30 Xela bus, blocking the road after a minor accident with a colectivo. We were double glad to have not taken this one.
The rest of the road to Guate
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Leaving for Casa Guatemala
was pretty uneventful and I managed to snooze for an hour or so. When we got to the terminus, we hopped off and straight away got jumped on by 5 taxi drivers wanting to take us anywhere we wanted to go for “good price” (remember to roll the “r”). The haggling started and we quickly got down to Q35. I was holding on for Q30 (which I was sure was more than fair and as there were 3 of us made sense to me, but David got fed up and just said “35 is fine, let's go!” I wasn't happy (still can't get used to getting ripped off every day) but we went anyway.
We arrived at the bus terminal to find that our next bus (Guate to Rio Dulce - Q64) was at 11am (or it might have been 11.30), so less than an hour to wait. While we were at the station, Serge spotted a girl called Morgan who was another one of the volunteers at Casa Guatemala (commonly referred to as “La Casa”) and she was also heading back after a couple of weeks away, so joined us for the rest of the journey. The bus was
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Volunteer House
quite luxurious compared to what we'd been getting used to, so it was a comfortable ride, with a lot of chatting away and even a quick ice cream break.
By mid-afternoon, we'd arrived in Rio Dulce and were trying to find “the cheapest hotel in town”.
We first went to see a place which was in the Lonely Planet but their rates were ridiculous. After walking around and stopping at various hotels (we'd found a family of 6 also on the hunt so we were descending on places with 10 of us asking for a group discount) it became apparent that there was one place everyone kept telling us was the cheapest in town. So we headed there and got 2 twin rooms for Q25 per person. It might have been the cheapest in town, but I'm pretty sure there was a reason for it. We weren't worried about the cold water and basic facilities, but weren't particularly impressed with the dirty sheets, smell of piss, newspaper someone had wiped their bottoms with and left on the toilet floor and shower that you couldn't get in because there was a barrel half full of water in it (when I asked,
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picking fruit and eating sugar cane
they told me to just take the barrel out, yeah... because I'm Wonder Woman). Still, it wasn't the end of the world and we had a top night. They let us use the family kitchen so we had a veggie curry with beer and then went to get ice cream for everyone (a way to say thanks for letting us use the kitchen). Serge and David had brought their guitars and as the 4 of us sat outside and they started singing, some of the family members came and sat by to have a listen. By the end of the evening, the audience consisted of the whole population of the hotel (we were the only guests but there were about 10 family members/friends) with everyone filming Serge on their mobile phones. I think it really made their night and I really enjoyed the entertainment too.
The next morning we weren't setting off to La Casa until the late morning boat, but in the end, I didn't even managed to have a look around the town before leaving (I don't think I missed much).

By the time we got on the boat, we'd met up with some more volunteers who
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Some of the kids I got the chance to meet
had just come to town and were heading back. I was a little apprehensive, not quite sure what to expect. The whole experience is a little hard to describe, even 10 days later, it feels a little blurry in my head and I don't think I will be able to explain it fully, as only being there can make you realise how big a deal it all is.
The Casa houses around 65 orphans but also provides tuition and food for another 140 kids from deprived families (they may be living with a relative or have only one parent left). A normal day starts early (you get woken up by the howler monkeys and dawn) and at about 6.30 am it's breakfast (rice and beans), followed by the bit where everyone is trying to make sure all the kids have brushed their teeth. After that, the children have a little while to play before heading to class. At lunchtime, it's rice and beans again, before more school time and at 4 pm, they have the daily unmissable swim in the river. Diner is at around 7pm (rice and beans - you get the picture) and all the kids are in
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not a bad view
bed by 8pm when the electricity goes off. The evening then generally carries on at “Volunteer House” with candles and beer (which gets bought from a small wooden hut in the jungle, about 10 minutes of a slightly surreal walk away).

Arriving was a little overwhelming as the kids were all running around and coming to greet returning volunteers. I was also surprised by the scale of the place. I was expecting something really basic and instead was faced by numerous solid buildings: classrooms, canteen, accommodation, office, along with the school playground, football muddy pitch, etc... I soon got the grand tour of the place, went to see the pigs and the garden plantations, ate some sugar cane and played with some of the little ones.
The rest of the day seemed to fly by and before long I had decided to stay a second night so that I could witness a full day in the life of a volunteer. We were lucky that it was the last Thursday of the month, which is when all the birthdays are celebrated, so we even took part in the birthday party, which meant we had the privilege of having electricity from
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Celebrating the month's birthdays
6 to 8.30pm instead of 8.00. The first night was really good, when I got to meet everyone and also catch up with Ryan and Bethany. On the second day, David was unfortunately poorly and spent the day in bed. So Serge took me for a walk in the jungle, where we got to meet and talk to quite a few locals (including a mother nearly in tears because she said she couldn't afford the school uniform for her eldest child). After that we did a bit of work and spent more time with the kids. I was very impressed by how happy the place seemed to be. I was expecting a lot of sadness but that was not the case at all. At the same time, I could also see how much more could be done (maybe with a little bit of my organising skills put to the test!)
For the second night, we had been invited for dinner at the house of one of the families helped by La Casa. This was a very special night and a true insight into the local life. We had chicken soup for diner because they killed one of the chickens especially
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An evening at volunteer house
for us. It felt a bit wrong but just proved that even though they have almost nothing, they are willing to share what little they have. A good lesson in humility to take back home with me.
All in all, I could see how the experience would change someone's life. I was only there for a day and a half and still, it really got me thinking about how we live our little cushioned lives and how much more I could do to “make the world a better place”. On the Saturday morning, it was time to leave and I didn't want to go. But I knew it was the right thing to do as the longer I would have stayed, the harder it probably would have been, so after saying goodbye to everyone (adults and children) I headed back to Rio Dulce to start my journey towards Honduras...

Additional photos below
Photos: 15, Displayed: 15


In the jungleIn the jungle
In the jungle

Our evening with the locals
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In the jungle

the last night

7th March 2011
In the jungle

new top? les petits sont vraiment mignons

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