Don’t feel like reading the whole thing? Check out the volunteer opportunities at the bottom of this post and vote!

Yesterday Lacey and I drove to Washington, DC to visit friends and attend the rally and march against the Iraq war. It was a gorgeous sunny Saturday, the shiny white swell of the Capitol rising behind a ragged ocean of protest signs that stretched for blocks back down the mall. Positioned between two fifteen-foot tall puppets, Lacey and I and our friend Davis shouted and cheered and believed, along with Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon and the gang, that the troop surge could be stopped, that the hour might still come for impeachment, that this was, of course, what democracy looked like.

When the rally gave way to the bottleneck of a march, the three of us cut, sunburned and jubilant, away from the crawling mass of protestors and across the mall to the back steps of the Capitol. Without our small “War is not the Answer” signs we might have been foreign tourists, smiling at policemen, pointing in the sun, leaning back to squint and snap pictures of the brilliant dome.

But a scene stopped us at the foot of the steps. Two women stood, silent, on makeshift black pedestals, one dressed in dusty business clothes and pressing a long red ribbon to her heart, the other swathed in black, a black scarf wrapped around her head. A third, in a camoflage military uniform, walked up the steps toward them, unpacking a thick bolt of red satin from her army backpack as she went. The three women looked exactly the same, dreamlike triplets. When the woman in military uniform reached the top, she handed the swath of red satin to the woman in Muslim black, who pressed its end against her heart while the soldier took her own place on the middle pedestal, a long, thin ribbon pressed to her own chest.

The three women stood on the black pedestals in a light breeze, the two thin ribbons twisting at times while the river of red satin billowed and settled and billowed again across the steps below their feet. A fourth woman, heavyset, older, wearing a “Veterans for Peace” t-shirt, approached and asked if she could join them. The triplets remained silent. Iraq War Performance PieceThe fourth woman stepped closer and raised a flag, taking her place just as silently next to them. The four made a still row, ribbons and flag rippling in the sun, the river of red writhing and billowing across the steps below.

Stooping to read a small card at the foot of the steps, I saw that one square inch of the red satin represented twelve lives lost. Whispers in the crowd identified the three symbolic women: a victim of the September 11 terrorist attacks, a fallen American soldier, and an Iraqi. The fourth lent her presence unnanounced. The quartet stood straight-backed in the sun, small flag and long red ribbons and the desperately wide river of satin rolled and tugged by the breeze.

(Click for a larger picture of the performance piece.)

Since deciding to live in Guatemala this fall, Lacey and I have been focused on a city known by everyone as Xela (officially Quetzaltenango). We hear that Xela is a wonderful place to live, volunteer, and learn Spanish, a vibrant, friendly gateway to the mountains, still resistant to the cultural influences of US and European expats and tourists. Although we originally hoped to be financially self-sufficient in our travels, Xela has charmed us into a different set of expectations: we’ll be volunteering, hoping to earn our room and board but prepared to use our (not yet saved) savings for whatever needs aren’t otherwise filled.

I like to think I’m not afflicted with grandiose illusions about what it means to volunteer in another country: I know that I am incredibly fortunate for the opportunity, and I expect it will benefit me as much as (or quite possibly more than) those I work with. My hope is that the experience will allow for growth on both sides. This is how I make sense of our plan to volunteer in Xela: by anticipating that the relationships we develop will be the most important part of the experience for everyone involved.

Still, there is that wide, red river of satin across the bottom of the Capitol steps. This is a complicated world and there is a lot about it I don’t understand. And as you’ll see below, finding a volunteer opportunity, even in a place where there are plenty of them, is a fairly complicated decision-making process.

So here are links to some of the opportunities that I’m considering. Please, let me know what you think. This process is completely new and unfamiliar to me, and input from anyone is welcome and encouraged. And if you know about a great opportunity that I haven’t mentioned here, please tell me!

1. Quetzaltrekkers: Guides help lead treks for tourists to surrounding mountains, lakes and volcanoes. Proceeds fund (almost entirely, I think) a local school educating almost 150 local children, grades 1 through 5.

Pros: Leading trips and being outside all the time! Sounds like a great organization. Just basic Spanish skills required. Three-month minimum still leaves an extra month for language school and/or travel. Room (and board?) likely included.

Cons: I’m not sure about the idea of spending so much of my time in Guatemala with US and European tourists.

2. El Nahual: Four projects with volunteer opportunities: a free school for children, a women’s agricultural project, English teaching for young adults/adults, and fundraising bicycle trips.

Pros: Working with kids! Lots of different opportunities, which it appears could be combined or paired with language school (run by the same organization). Just basic Spanish required, and a short minimum commitment (one month or less).

Cons: Hmm, I like the sound of this one, and the flexibility of the commitment. But it looks like room and board are not covered. And it’s a newer organization, so it may not be as well-organized.

3. Comunidad Nueva Alianza: Cooperative plantation run by 40 Guatemalan families. Volunteer work includes farming, eco-tourism, building renovation and community services.

Pros: Looks like a wonderful community, housing is right there, no minimum Spanish requirement.

Cons: Pay-to-volunteer, could be somewhat isolated. Would it work for Lacey to live there if she does something else?

4. Elly’s Kids Foundation: Provides free education for local children.

Pros: Working with kids! Just a six-week minimum and only basic Spanish required.

Cons: Not much information online, so I’ll have to find out more.

5. Educacion Para Todos: This language school advertises connections to lots of well-established volunteer opportunities.

Pros: A one-stop solution?

Cons: Are they just trying to sell their language school?

6. Casa Xelaju: Language school also advertises connections to several volunteer opportunities and the ability to set things up in a smooth way.

Pros: Again, a connection between the language school and volunteering could make the whole experience smoother.

Cons: Placement fee, although maybe other places just don’t advertise theirs? Also, unclear if intermediate/advanced Spanish is required for all volunteering, or just certain opportunities.



I have since contacted the first two organizations on this list. Read about it in this post.

6 thoughts on “Marching in DC, Volunteering in Xela

  • January 31, 2007 at 9:59 am

    I missed the march, Ethan. I’m glad you two were there. The photo is amazing. Waiting to cast my vote!

  • January 31, 2007 at 2:16 pm

    I was moved about what you wrote about the street theatre the 3 women performed at the demonstration- and the demonstration more generally. It is heartening to know that so many people care about stopping the bloodshed. Unfortunately, I couldn’t go to the march so I was especially happy to see your pictures.

    As for your volunteer opportunities, wow, they all look great- good luck!

    Finally, I will say that “blogs” and “blogging” are still new to me. I guess I need to check your website periodically, to see if it’s updated. And then sometimes I’ll write. I really enjoy seeing others’ comments and am glad you are doing this. I still have to fumble around a little to log in. Ciao, Demie

  • January 31, 2007 at 3:04 pm

    Glad we could represent the moms at the march! You are obviously far too experienced in motherhood to “vote,” but hopefully someone will soon…

    Thank you for the feedback, too. I have reorganized the site in a couple small ways that should make it easier to use. For more information on how to make your reading and commenting as smooth as possible, please visit the “How to…” page, where I have written careful instructions to help make things clearer.

  • February 3, 2007 at 3:16 pm

    I’m so glad you shared the performance piece, Ethan, what a powerful scene.
    Thoughts on volunteering: I don’t think you’d be satisfied with the trip-leading thing, if you’re going to be in Guatemala so long, I would think it would be nice to really get a sense of the community you’re visiting. El Nahual sounds really good, maybe you could try out several projects to decide which one you’d like. Is there any way to get refererences for a newer organization? And it sounds like you are excited about working with kids… so do that!

  • February 6, 2007 at 5:03 pm


    I don’t think it would be difficult to get to Xela and get organized; you’re good at that, your trouble with movies notwithstanding! The most complicated part is getting from the airport to your first night’s lodging; after that, yer home free.

    More important is how well-run an organization is. I like the range of options of El Nahual — lots of kids and education. Can you contact some people who have volunteered there? Ask the place to put you in touch with some of their volunteers. Their insights could be decidatory.

    The El Nahual website says they provide one-on-one language instruction four hours a day; this would be great, though exhausting! Learn as much as you can before you get there. Learn basic grammar and 1000 words. Then, even if your instructors aren’t educators, you can practice conversation.

    My experience with David in Japan 23 years ago left me with mixed feelings about language schools overseas. I studied at one and taught at another one; David taught full-time at a third. I studied Japanese at a small program for foreigners at the local YMCA (there was never any mention of the “C”); I had a wonderful time. I taught English at a big, downtown Osaka school where Tony Soprano would have felt right at home, though I’m forgetting the Japanese word for “mobster” right now. David’s school was a large, multi-city, financially successful place that rooked some of its students but was able to pay for well-qualified teachers.

    Fellow foreigners in language classes can be good or evil, but on balance the latter. Fun to drink with outside class, but they won’t help you learn Spanish. Still, it is a relief to hear them make mistakes.

  • February 16, 2007 at 3:14 pm

    Thanks for the suggestions and shared experience! Soon I’ll be contacting each of the organizations I listed to find out more. And thanks to your advice, I will definitely put references near the top of my list of things to find out. Also, I will be studying Spanish some this summer, after Chinese classes end this spring. One thousand words sounds like a good (but daunting) goal!


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