Unexplored Guatemala: Working Away

Part Two: Daily life on the finca in Poptun.

My days at Finca Ixobel always started with birds tweeting. A far cry from the sirens and car stereos of central London. My first task of the day was to detangle myself from the elasticated mosquito net above the bed. No mean feat before my morning coffee.

Sleepy from yet another night battling the shadows, trying to discern flickering leaves from tarantulas and roaches, I pulled on my work outfit. Old black leggings spattered with bright yellow paint, thick smelly socks from the day before and an old t-shirt that paid homage to a famous beach in Florida.

I made my breakfast alongside the finca’s chefs; all local Maya women who were geniuses in the kitchen. While they prepared intricate sauces for the guests’ evening meals, I fried a few eggs on the gigantic griddle with an apologetic smile and grabbed a strong coffee. The unglamorous breakfast was saved by the hummingbirds that joined me as I ate.

Fellow volunteers arrived in dribs and drabs. Some even less enthusiastic than others. Some beaten down by the thought of another day painting yet another cabin. Together, we would march dutifully in our rubber boots to El Taller – the workshop. It was one of my favourite places on the finca.

Sharp toothed-tools, chairs and old saddles hung in organised chaos around the walls. The floor existed only for creosote cans and abandoned sanding machines. Other regular visitors included horses looking for more feed and a nonchalant female iguana – a regular sunbather on the rafters of the taller.

In hindsight, it seems odd that we always went there first, because we already knew our task. Over the course of a month, we were to paint several wooden cabins, renovate their furniture and refurbish an outdoor bathroom at the perimeter of the property. Arms laden with brushes, buckets and tins of garish red and yellow, we shuffled, embarrassed, across the forecourt as smart local businessmen arrived for brunch.

Six hour days were broken only by a cinnamon role.

After my shift, I’d lose everyone and slip away to the lagoon. An afternoon swim got rid of the grime, sweat and white spirit and allowed me time to reflect. Although I felt so far removed from my usual corporate office job that I never even bothered to compare. Did I enjoy painting? Yes, I think so. That was as far as I ever got to analysing my strange little situation.

Sundays provided a welcome break in my routine and a chance to test my Spanish by waiting tables at the finca’s restaurant. Despite the menu being four pages long, most locals ordered a sencilla – a standard beef burger with chips. It seemed that the U.S (through the finca’s California-born owner) had penetrated even this south-east enclave of Guatemala. Perhaps in a vain attempt to counter this, they washed their meals down with Micheladas – a speciality drink that combines a Bloody Mary with beer.

I enjoyed using my hands but my mind felt redundant. So, in a moment of inspiration taken from a recent visit to the Maya ruins of Tikal, I decided to re-create the Maya world in an outdoor bathroom. Using the cardboard back of calendars to make stencils, our motley crew gave a new lease of life to the little outhouse in the trees. Perhaps not an accurate ode to local heritage but at the very least a cheery design.

For my final hurrah I ran a bar. A rich school group and their teachers descended on the usually silent laguna to celebrate their annual getaway from Guatemala City. As a Reggaeton playlist pumped from the old speakers and a group of pretty sixteen year olds tried to convince me to serve them rum, I wondered for the first time how I had ended up at Finca Ixobel.

Somewhere, amid the normality of the finca’s routine, I’d become used to a different way of life. A world wonderfully isolated from the corporate confines of London. A world where I needed different skills to survive and a different outlook to enjoy life.

Jargon and paperwork didn’t get you far at Finca Ixobel. You needed physical strength, an ability to connect with strangers and an enthusiasm for life’s smaller details that often got ignored in the city that I came from.

10 thoughts on “Unexplored Guatemala: Working Away

    1. It really is – reading it through feels a little like nothing actually happens in the post but maybe that’s the point?! I’ll put a link to the finca’s website in the next one πŸ™‚


  1. Great article, and the ‘day to day’ feel of the volunteering vs the London corporate life is an interesting juxtaposition. No doubt many (me included) have fantasised about what that ‘other side’ is really like!

    How come some of the other volunteers were reluctant workers? Did they know what they had signed up for? πŸ™‚


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