Alumni Spotlight: Emily Robinson

Emily is a young woman, traveler, advocate of sustainability and social justice; a lover of reading, drawing, and languages. She is always trying to push herself out of her comfort zone, to learn, explore and grow into a better person with a better understanding of this world we live in. Her goal is to leave the world a better place than she found it.

Why did you choose this program?

This program was advertised to me, both through school and through the internet. I took a look, figuring it couldn't hurt to check it out and realized that it sounded like exactly the kind of trip I hadn't known I was looking for.

It complemented my degree in Environmental Sustainability, and it sounded like a great organization. Some volunteer abroad organizations might not be as mindful, but here was a Canadian group, promoting sustainable local initiatives, indigenous perspectives, and ethical backpacking. It was almost too good to be true.

What did your program provider assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?

They had some great recommendations for what to bring, what we could expect, and a really well laid out schedule. They provided a great booklet about the climate we could expect, the medical preparations we should make, how to be culturally sensitive, and some Guatemalan history that all made me feel very prepared.

I went through my own travel agent to book flights, but they had recommendations for that too. I also had to get my own travel insurance, but they recommended World Nomads, which is totally the place to go. I had to figure out my own hiking shoes and any books or personal things to occupy myself during the downtime (not that we had too much of that).

What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?

I would tell them to keep an open mind, leave their assumptions at home and maintain a healthy respect for everyone you meet. Everyone has their own story and just because it's different from yours doesn't invalidate it.

Compostable toilets, for example, sound great on paper, but they are in practice very smelly. Hiking for two and a half days through the beautiful mountains sounds amazing, but it might involve being sweaty, tired, using the woods as a bathroom and sleeping on cement floors.

If you go into it with expectations that the standard of living will be what you're accustomed to at home, you're going to be disappointed. But these kinds of trips aren't about helping people who already have everything they need. You're going into places where people live in poverty, where life is a little harder. Allow me to assure you, what their bank accounts may lack, they more than make up for it in kindness, hospitality, and compassion.

Also, don't freak out if people tell you about accidents on the chicken buses. A little motion sickness aside, you'll get through the rides just fine.

What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?

An average day is hard to describe, because each day we were going somewhere new, meeting new people, working with a different NGO or organization. Generally, we were up early, and early to bed, but with such full days we were always ready for sleep. There will be a lot of traveling, and the food will be consistently amazing. You always get breakfast, lunch, and dinner - but one day it might be at a restaurant in Antigua, one day it might be prepared sandwiches while on a hike.

You have the opportunity almost every day to get your hands dirty. Be it planting trees or picking coffee beans, it can be hard work, but the Guatemalan people you're working with are patient teachers and always make sure you get more out of it than just learning the task at hand.

We also get some downtime every day. If we're in a new city, they give you some freedom to explore, hit the local market or buy souvenirs, if you so choose. The program leaders get you started on a journal and encourage you to write in it every day, but it's up to you if you use that time to write or do other things.

Sitting with the crew of participants and leaders, talking about what we accomplished that day and winding down was always one of the highlights.

Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it? How did your views on the issue change?

For me, going into the program, I wasn't sure what to expect. But I was excited to learn and I think having that lack of expectations was a part of what made it so amazing.

I did think we were going to learn mostly about coffee, meaning fair trade or organic practices versus commercial farming, small businesses, how coffee was sold and distributed, etc. While we did learn about that, we learned about a lot of interrelated issues as well.

Operation Groundswell has a lot of partner organizations and the two coffee co-ops were only part of the grassroots activism that we got to be a part of. Looking at scale for these coffee co-ops was great, but so was learning about community engagement from a former guerrilla who started a cooking school, and a rural villager who started planting trees to re-establish a habitat for an endangered bird species and keep out a Canadian mining company.

Every group we worked with was a part of the Guatemalan people working towards making their homes and country a better place to live, not only for themselves, but for those around them.

I found that really impactful, to realize that small change can make big change, and that one co-operative can support both families growing coffee and women making peanut butter or honey, or selling t-shirts internationally. Your dreams or goals don't have to be huge, but collaborating with others can ripple outwards and have a bigger impact than you anticipated. I'm now looking forward to trying to apply that policy here in Canada.

What was your biggest surprise during this trip?

Traveling always entails surprises, there will always be something that doesn't go according to plan. In Guatemala, for example, we learned the real value of those diarrhea pills the travel clinic made you bring. Montezuma's Revenge is real, and we all got very comfortable with the numbers on the poop scale.

If anything it was a bonding experience between ourselves and the program leaders, because every one of our fragile North American stomachs had an adjustment period to the Central American diet. Even though it wasn't pleasant at the time, we still laugh about that experience.

What are some new values or pieces of this trip that you're carrying on with you?

I would say learning to believe in myself and trust the people around me. When I first arrived the night before the program started, I had to navigate to my hostel in a strange country in a language I hadn't spoken properly in years, but I made it.

Our program leaders set us loose in cities and told us to wander around looking for things on our own for a few hours, trusting us to find our way back, asking locals for directions if we had to, and we did just that. The truck and bus drivers challenged my fear of heights every single day, and although I definitely held onto the seats for dear life sometimes, we always got there safely.

The friends I made became family, and climbing up literal mountains was some days the hardest thing imaginable, but we did it together. The feeling when we got to the top of that last ridge on the final morning for the sunrise was simply indescribable, and so worth any blisters or bone-deep tiredness, or self-doubt.

Realizing just how far you can go if you believe it's possible is still something I'm working on, but going on this journey was a huge step forward.