Cultural activities are a highlight of a buildOn Trek

Don’t Pack Your Comfort Zone: Trek

By Ben Kelly

A few weeks ago, I went on Trek with a group of U.S. high school students to the mountains of Guatemala to help build a school in a rural community. I joined the marketing team at buildOn last August, so for the past 10 months I’ve heard and written about Trek constantly without experiencing it for myself. I must admit, I had my doubts. Were my colleagues overselling or exaggerating the experience? How impactful or life-changing could it really be? Now that I’ve gone on Trek myself, I am happy to report that yes, it is all that it’s cracked up to be. Maybe more.

What is a buildOn Trek?

If you haven’t heard of Trek before, in a nutshell, it’s a program that buildOn runs that brings people from different cultures and backgrounds together to build a school in an economically developing country. When a community in Guatemala, Nepal, Malawi, Senegal, or Nicaragua comes to us and asks us to help them build a new school, we work with donors to fund it. Once the team reaches their fundraising goal, they have the option to travel to the community to work alongside them for a week to lay the foundation for the school. It’s a truly life-changing experience for both the Trek participants and the community members.

As a Trek support staff, my main role on the trip was to support our in-country Trek leader, Kathy Castillo Avila. In reality, Kathy didn’t need much help. She had our schedule planned out to a T, could perform any first aid assistance anyone needed, and was extremely knowledgeable about the local history and culture, answering any questions I could think of about the new world I found myself immersed in. From explaining why the village had so many dogs running around to going through the intricacies of Guatemalan politics, Kathy had all the answers.

Kathy (left) did a great job guiding us through Guatemala!
A Trip Like No Other

The main function I served was as an airport chaperone for 8 Pennsylvania high schoolers, a task for which I was very nervous. Navigating the airport as a solo traveler is an undertaking as it is, let alone needing to herd a group of teenagers through security and customs. So when I met the students at 3:30 AM at the Philadelphia Airport, I prayed everything would go according to plan. My fears were almost immediately confirmed when the security line snaked past the check-in counters and almost to the parking garage. Five minutes into my new role and I was already blowing it! I shepherded the students into the line and hoped for the best. 

In hindsight, this was the perfect way to start the trip. Not because it was the first in a long series of errors and mishaps or something like that, but rather because it forced me to get out of my comfort zone from the very moment my Trek began. And, as I came to discover, being outside of your comfort zone is kind of what Trek is all about. I may as well have left it far behind me, sitting forgotten for a week in my apartment in New York like an extra pair of socks. 

Anyway, through some miracle the security line began moving and we were able to make our flight. Though I needed to keep track of the students and make sure they hydrated while we changed planes in Ft. Lauderdale, the majority of the stress-inducing parts of my airport chaperone role were over. Once we landed in Guatemala and met Kathy, I could fully immerse myself in the Trek experience. 

Experiencing Guatemalan Culture

After landing in Guatemala City, we made the 5+ hour journey to Cobán, in the center of the country. We spent the rest of our first day on the bus, driving over mountain passes and through small villages, stopping here and there to let a cow or goat cross the street. 

Journeying through the mountains of Guatemala took a long time, but the scenery was stunning!

After checking out Cobán’s city center and market the next morning, it was time to head to the village of Santa Julia Sonté, a small farming community in the mountains nearby where we would be helping to build a school. After an hour on the bus, we arrived at the road leading up to the village to discover that the community had put up a sign welcoming us, and organized a parade to lead us into the village.

The people of Santa Julia Sonté gave us a warm welcome when we arrived.

I was struck by the humidity, which would be a constant companion during my week in Santa Julia Sonté. But I was also struck by the hospitality and palpable excitement I felt from the community, which would also be a mainstay for the coming days. After an official Welcome Ceremony featuring music and dancing and an impromptu soccer game where the local children completely demolished us, we met our host families and were escorted to where we would be staying for the week.

My sleeping quarters were simple, but got the job done.
Staying in a Remote Village

The house I slept in was a simple structure with cement block walls and a tin roof, but it kept us dry at night and let in a breeze when there was one. I’m a pretty outdoorsy guy, so some of the aspects of Trek that might have been unfamiliar to others weren’t a huge jump out of my comfort zone, like using a latrine, sleeping in a mosquito net, or not having access to running water. Others, like the bucket showers we took each night or the persistent humidity, were new, and took some getting used to. 

The remoteness of the village meant that I didn’t have access to the internet for much of the week, which was a blessing in disguise. After a few days, I started to feel like I was back in my pre-internet childhood, rising with the sun each morning and going to bed soon after the sun set. It was nice to disconnect, especially as someone who is plugged into everything that happens on the internet every day for work. 

It’s interesting to reflect on the fact that while the other Trek participants and I had to adjust to not having access to the internet or running water for a week, the people of Santa Julia Sonté do without them for their entire lives. In spite of the challenges they face, they lead fulfilling, joyful lives even without the technology and comforts we have come to rely on.

The village’s older wooden school served as our basecamp for the week.
Building a School in Guatemala

Each morning, after a delicious breakfast (anything from eggs and beans to pancakes or french toast with jelly) prepared by our cooks, we would make our way up to the worksite for four hours of manual labor alongside the men and women of Santa Julia Sonté. Each day, we made a little progress–unearthing rocks, digging the foundation, pouring concrete, tying rebar, and carrying sand and gravel. It would have been hard work in low humidity and mild temperatures, but the muggy weather of the Guatemalan rainy season meant that we were already sweating by the time we got to the worksite. I don’t think I’ve ever sweat so much in my life, not even during two-a-day preseason football practices when I was in high school.

After a week of hard work, the school began to take shape.

Still, with each passing day the worksite looked less and less like a pile of rocks and dirt and more like a school. I continue to be impressed by how hard the community worked every day, men and women alike, rain or shine, to build a school none of them would attend personally. Their belief that education would make a better life for their children and grandchildren was inspiring, and made me reflect on how lucky I was to have four walls and a solid roof over my head for all the years that I was in school. The work was hard, but rewarding, and I never regretted a second of it.

Uno was a big hit with the kids of Santa Julia Sonté.
The Impact of Education

The students we were building the school for were far and away the highlight of Trek. Not only were they adorable, playful, and funny, they were endlessly curious and excited to learn. Despite the language barrier between us, they picked up what I taught them quickly, and with improved access to education, would fulfill their parents’ dreams of a better life. Through playing games with them and teaching each other bits of English, Spanish, and Qʼeqchiʼ (the local Mayan language), I really felt like I made a connection with them. I hope that they will remember us as much as we will them.

The children were eager to learn even a few words in English.

Santa Julia’s many village dogs were also a highlight, particularly a puppy we affectionately named Beef. Though we weren’t allowed to pet them for safety reasons, they and all the other animals who wandered about the village were a welcome sight, and a reminder that a community is not made up solely of humans.

Humans weren’t the only ones who called Santa Julia home.
Why Go On Trek?

There are so many little Trek memories I could go into depth on–and maybe I will, in a future blog post–from learning to make tortillas, to teaching the kids how to bowl, to the Mayan ritual the community performed to bless the school on our final night. But I feel like I’ve gone on long enough for one post. Every day was memorable, and the five days we spent in Santa Julia could have easily been a month. I felt a deep connection to the village and its people that won’t fade anytime soon.

By the end of the week, the villagers were sad to see us go, and the feeling was mutual. Watching them fade into the distance as the bus pulled away from the community was bittersweet. On the one hand, I was excited to take a shower and connect to the internet, but on the other I knew that I might never return to the community that I had built such a bond with over the past few days. Still, taking a non-bucket shower was nice. 

After leaving the community, we visited a completed school in another village before spending a night back in Cobán and another in Antigua, a beautiful city filled with colorful buildings and surrounded by volcanoes.

Antigua was a perfect sendoff to end my Trek.

Then, just as soon as we had arrived, we said goodbye to Kathy and headed to the airport. Fortunately the security line was shorter this time, and I got the students back to their parents in Philadelphia without a hitch.

I’m still settling back into my usual routine now, even though it’s been a few weeks. Before I went on Trek, I didn’t entirely know what to expect–would it live up to the hype or was everyone just overselling it? Now, I can confidently say that it is worth every drop of sweat and each swatted mosquito. If you get the opportunity to go on Trek, don’t pass it up. I know I won’t miss a chance to go again.

At the end of Trek, each participant leaves their handprints in paint on the school walls.

Interested in experiencing Trek for yourself? Learn more and start your journey here.