Backpacking with a purpose

One student activist’s trip to Guatemala

Robertson spent nine days as a  “backpacktivist” with Operation Groundswell: a program devoted to redefining travel and volunteerism.
Supplied by Renee Robertson

Last reading week, I joined a group of “backpacktivists” for a nine-day excursion to Guatemala with Operation Groundswell: a program devoted to redefining travel and volunteerism. 

I went into this experience with a critical mindset, but also a hopeful one. The program satisfied those feelings, and at times, went beyond. As volunteers, we weren’t just assigned to your typical volunteer project but rather, we were given an in-depth and insightful perspective on Guatemalan culture and the organizations we worked with. 

With seven other white, female students and two white, male Operation Groundswell leaders, we stood out as a team with tremendous privilege. During the program we were lucky enough to hear about Guatemalan culture from former guerrillas, learn about and deconstruct myths regarding fair trade, and have a blast while doing it. 

Our days were packed with activities. We hiked up volcanoes, made our own soaps and bags with local Guatemalan women, as well as de-pulped, grinded and roasted our own coffee beans on the side of a volcano. After a two-day hiking excursion we settled in for a couple of days to build stoves for women’s associations in the Guatemalan highlands. On the last day of the program we woke up at 3 a.m. to camp out on the summit of one of Central America’s highest points to watch the sun rise above the clouds. 

The people we met, the culture we were exposed to and the scenery we saw will forever be engrained in my memory.

But while the adventure component of the trip was great, the whole experience had a lasting and deeper impact on both the locals and myself. 

Some might argue that I could have had the same impact if I’d just donated the money directly to the Guatemalan organizations with whom we worked with. But in reality, I would never have done that. 

I paid for the experience and for the opportunity to help other people first-hand — to see the faces of the people I would be benefiting and have a deeper understanding of their struggle.  

“For our generation, it’s all too easy to feel desensitized by the guilt being directly thrust upon us whenever we read the newspaper, turn on the TV or talk to a charity fundraiser on the street,” Mikel Iriarte, an Operation Groundswell leader, said. “Paying up is never going to cure the world’s wealth and civil rights disparities.”

If I’d just donated the money, I wouldn’t be reflecting upon NGOs and volunteerism. I wouldn’t know some of the local challenges that Guatemalan people face. I wouldn’t be writing this article now and the conversations that need to be had about volunteerism wouldn’t occur.  

This experience was more than just backpacking, it was truly meaningful and a trip I’ll never forget. 

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