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The Give and Take Vacation

A renovation-challenged traveler tests a new breed of volunteer trip that factors in time for work (stove building, anyone?) and play.
Our volunteer, hard at play at the Earth Lodge, in the hills above Antigua, Guatemala
Our volunteer, hard at play at the Earth Lodge, in the hills above Antigua, Guatemala (Joshua Paul)

It seems like a no-brainer: Would I rather sign up for a volunteer project and install drywall in the New Orleans heat, or lounge on a beach in Rio, caipirinha in hand? On vacation, all my do-gooding is typically dedicated to the betterment of a single member of humanity: myself.

Jodi Nelson, a former film producer, is one step ahead of me. In 2007, she created Play It Forward Adventures, a company whose small-group trips to Chile, Peru, and Tanzania, among other countries, come with a twist—you spend half the time improving the lives of the less fortunate, and the other half improving the life of numero uno.

There's just one problem. I can barely handle a glue gun, let alone be trusted with a power saw. Plus, I usually travel with friends—but this is about testing my limits. And I figure I'm bound to make some friends in the trenches on a trip Jodi has planned to Guatemala. We'll build brick stoves for a family of tortilla makers for the first three days and then follow that up with three equally satisfying days of hiking, biking, and kayaking along Lake Atitlán. If that's not a recipe for building bonds, I don't know what is.

It takes a village—with Home Depot
I meet up with Jodi and a few of my fellow volunteers—Pam, Melanie, Abbie, Danielle, and our token Y chromosome, Matt—at the Guatemala City airport. They're a well-traveled bunch: Melanie, who works at the Minnesota Zoo, has gone on humanitarian trips throughout Central America, Africa, and Asia. Abbie, who works for a nonprofit based in Atlanta, explores the world by signing up for triathlons.

We pile into a van and head to our hotel, Posada Lazos Fuertes, a manor-style house in the colonial town of Antigua. From there, it's about a 45-minute drive northwest each morning to the family's home in San Andrés Itzapa, a dusty village where women wear lace blouses with colorful wrap skirts and men ride horses through the winding streets on their way to work in the nearby cornfields.

The van pulls up to a cinder-block house, and our project leader, Rufus, an ex-chef from Britain, introduces us to the Buch-Tatuíns, an extended family of 25 people who live together in the four-room building. Chickens and the occasional duck roam inside the house (talk about free-range!). In the largest room, three generations of women—matriarch Maria Josefina, her four daughters, and a few grandkids—make tortillas, which they sell to their neighbors. All day long, the women kneel around a five-foot-wide griddle over an open flame and knead, shape, and grill the tortillas, creating a comforting scent that reminds me of toast just as it's beginning to char.

Our task is to install two stoves with chimneys to properly ventilate the space, which fills with smoke when the tortillas bake. (The effect of this won't hit me until later, when I have to step outside for air.)

My last disastrous renovation project involved sponge painting a bathroom, so I poll the others to see if I can coast on their This Old House coattails.

Note: This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.



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