December mornings on the streets of Xela, Guatemala, are sharp. The air is chillier and the sun more blinding than expected, the sidewalks and streets stonier. Hands slap small corn tortillas into shape, dogs trot around seeking errant scraps, trucks and mopeds bend around corners and baskets calmly float atop bobbing heads. The orange juice lady grins widely and bids goodbye with a plastic bag of fresh jugo, a straw, with a trailing “vaya…” or “a servirle…”. The traffic will not stop for you today. Today we walk to the office, as we do everyday.We are Quetzaltrekkers volunteers in Xela, Guatemala, we come from far away lives, different nations, with unique stories. At 18 years old, Quetzaltrekkers has grown to be one of the most well regarded non-profit trekking companies around. We run hikes for tourists to various parts of Guatemala, treks which mix magnificent nature with unique cultural experience. The guides are all volunteers, in fact, there are no paid positions at all. Our profits entirely support two sister organizations: a school for about 170 disadvantaged kids, Escuela de la Calle (EDELAC), and a dormitory for 19 called Hogar Abierto. We are proudly able to fund 100% of the Hogar’s costs, and 80% of those of the school.We work hard, and we do it, as we say often, for the kids. Add prep work for a late sign up? It’s for the kids. Trek another day in a row? It’s for the kids. We come here somewhat selfishly, to live abroad, to hike, and work harder than we imagined for these kids.Despite some having childhoods rougher than we could imagine, the chicos thrive in the Hogar and at school. They take care of each other. There is wide-eyed, curious Dieguito; ambitious and serious Domingo, already a competitive sprinter; Angelina, who can produce the most devilishly pursuasive smile; Henry, who dons a frilly apron at our office (with gelled hair) to bake a mean carrot cake. They deserve everything, and we work so that they can seize every opportunity they wish.As volunteers, our weeks our split between treks and office days. We hang out with the kids a few times a week, mostly dinners and football (soccer). Trekking is 2-6 days/week, on any of our six wildly beautiful regularly-scheduled hikes, the shortest being day hikes and the longest at six days. Office days are frantic trip prep, promotions, gear repair, dishwashing, emailing. 9am is our start time, and it is a miracle to finish dinner and be out by 8pm. In a firmly egalitarian organization – no manager or boss – we all have coordinator positions, but we are all responsible for successes and failures as a team. We eat every meal together, live together, lean on each other, uphold huge expectations, and have ridiculous amounts of fun. We are family here.One night in the office, I believe someone was throwing around AT jokes when the notion of a thru hike of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) became another joke, a challenge, a question, and soon a surprising reality.There are three of us. Henley was the first on board, a bespectacled and bearded Texan with a penchant for zingy one liners and tight pants. Dan did not need much convincing, our tea sipping mountain man, formally a posh British accountant. I jumped on last, the giggly Californian who hopes to write you with some eloquence.
The wild idea of leaving Guatemala to hike together again, from Mexico to Canada, could only be made sweeter with a few familiar words: let’s do it for the kids.
We aim to raise money for EDELAC and the Hogar, but also for individual projects. These two organizations need electricity, teachers’ salaries, plumbing repairs, food for meals. Specifically, we are researching smaller fundraising causes for the kids. Two of the Hogar chicos, Maricella and Domingo, are competitive athletes who compete throughout Central America and have the chance to go to the Olympics in two years to represent Guatemala. Domingo, a sprinter, and Maricella, a speed walker, lack real athletic gear. Their competitors have spikes and running clothing, while they compete in old sneakers. It would take only a few hundred dollars a year to supply them with gear and fund their travel expenses for competitions.
And now we plan. In our minute amounts of free time researching gear, reading blogs, securing a visa for Dan, figuring out how to possibly make this work financially, mentally, physically. If Quetzaltrekkers has taught us anything, it is teamwork, strong hiking skills, selflessness and determination, and that, I believe, can take us 2,663 miles.