Yieldstreet Spotlight: “Changing Guatemalan Lives” with Paul Cutajar

Our mission of providing Prosperity for All is not limited to investing. In this installment of Oxpecker and Impala, our YieldStreet interview series, Paul Cutajar, a Senior Backend Engineer, takes some time to reflect on his astonishing volunteer trip to Guatemala. Below is the story of Paul’s incredible journey: Changing Guatemalan Lives.

Changing Guatemalan Lives By Paul Cutajar

In a nutshell, the idea to commence a volunteering journey in a foreign country originated a few years ago when a group of friends decided to do something different (and beneficial) throughout the summer period. At first, we looked into the idea but could not find the right fit for us either due to timing or due to our personal work. Moreover, we also wanted to do a missionary program related to sports, since we all form part of the Gozo Half Marathon organizing committee. Last September, we heard the fascinating story of Fr. Anton, a Gozitan missionary who has been working in Guatemala for the last twenty years.  We were immediately captivated by his humble origin and the tremendous positive energy this particular Priest emits and from our first meeting we knew that this was the perfect opportunity to give back to Guatemalan children and youths.  Moreover, he was working on a project to upgrade his sports arena which, once completed, would be able to host sports activities all day long, helping thousands of youths stay away from drugs and many deadly habits, solely through sports. Apart from the project itself, Fr. Anton told us that by helping him with this project, we will be exposed to many different aspects of Guatemalan life, something which we were willing and eager to experience. On a personal note, I wanted to do this experience for two particular reasons. First, I wanted to help other less fortunate people; I have been volunteering in several organizations since I was young, so the giving-back factor was not new, but this experience would enable me to give back at another level. To go to Guatemala, (in a red zone) and donate my time and strength would be something out of my comfort zone and highly rewarding.   Second, I wanted to experience living in a poorer country. I could only imagine how political, cultural and educational deficiencies change lives but I never fully comprehended what it actually meant. Fast forward to the end of April, when we had two tasks. First, we had to formalize a group of people who were willing to be a part of this trip, and second we had to raise money for the project.  By confirming the 16th of July as our departure date from Malta to Guatemala, we only had eleven weeks to raise approximately $28,000. We gave it our all and after eleven weeks we successfully raised $43,306. Apart from the sports arena’s roof, we had other projects that we had to work on during our stay. These additional tasks included teaching English in Guatemalan schools, fixing the IT room where youngsters could learn how to use a PC and doing a recycling feasibility study for the area. We created a rotational program so every one of us could give a helping hand in all projects.

Working In Guatemala

A normal day’s work started at 7:30AM and following a unique Guatemalan breakfast we left for the construction site.  Work ranged from painting, welding, metal work and construction which was all done by hand and with the guidance of locals who tirelessly worked to make their dream come true: a finished roof for their sports arena. The workday ended at approximately 7PM, which was lockdown time for us due to the external threats. We could not venture out from our compound after this time due to the many dangers which decades of lawlessness have brought to the area. Every now and then, we stopped working to experience the harsh realities that many Guatemalans have to endure on a daily basis. Many challenging moments shaped our trip but the most unforgettable ones consisted of meeting people living and working in the garbage village, the remote Mayan villages, the visit to one of the most inhumane prisons in the world, and visiting the sick in their remote homes.

Remote Mayan Villages

One particular village which will always remain as one of the trip’s highlights was located deep in the Guatemalan jungles and could only be reached after a two-hour trekking expedition. In order to reach this Mayan village, three men from the tribe waited for us and escorted us through the jungle path. The trek started through some farms and then into the dense forest. It was a difficult expedition, full of mental and physical challenges, yet extremely rewarding. Although it was a tense journey, we enjoyed the sight of the blue butterflies, which is a very rare encounter. The village was a little bit different from those we had visited before. The elders told us that any supplies such as food and construction materials have to be transported by hand using the same jungle passage that we passed through. To our surprise, a village came into our view. I felt a range of emotions, in part happiness, that they had managed to live remotely, and in part sadness thinking how much suffering they had to endure to move basic essentials. Since the village is not that large, every fit person requires to carry these essentials on a constant basis. We entertained the children of the village through several games which required great energy, movement and most importantly, fun. We ended our meet-up with these children by donating a box of soft toys which attracted many children and renewed their natural smiles one more time.

Garbage Village

The garbage village is a dumping site where some people try to find dignity in a ‘job’ which has no dignity at all! They build huts, shelters, and houses on this site and their ‘job’ is to pick up waste, do the necessary separation and try to sell it to make money. It was a saddening scene to see young children and toddlers helping their parents in the midst of all that garbage. We helped with the distribution of food and water to the people that were there to try to alleviate some of the suffering.

Prison

We experienced the touching lifestyle of hundreds of prisoners that are serving their sentence in this particular prison. This prison can only accommodate 250 prisoners however, 1,085 prisoners are currently incarcerated there. Another incredible reality is that guards only work near the gate and do not work inside the prison itself. The prison is run by inmates and we were allowed in on our own. At first, the fact that anything could happen and that no guards could help us scared us a little bit, but after settling down you realize that they are also human beings that are paying their dues for their wrongdoings. Some of the prisoners do not have any outside human contact because their families have abandoned them for their past actions. Our visit and interactions brought up some tears since for some prisoners, we were the only people who have talked to them since they were imprisoned.

Visiting the Sick

The first home we visited was a complete reality check and a heartbreaking moment. We found a 39-year-old lady under a tin roof inside a hammock, looking very pale and tired. Our counterparts told us that she had been diagnosed with stomach cancer and that she had been lying on that same hammock for the last four years. We had a brief conversation with her using sign language due to the language barrier. I think what struck us the most was the serenity she possessed, together with the joy she expressed with our presence. Towards the end, we said several prayers and left in a deafening silence.  We visited other homes with similar circumstances, most of which did not even have a door to close their homes let alone the proper funding to address their health needs. In total, we visited eight homes with different health issues ranging from children with congenital diseases, elderly amputees and families with no access to clean water. We distributed food and water to each and every home that we visited. I felt a great sense of helplessness in front of this reality since the poorer people are, the more issues and hardship they had to endure.

Reflections

In face of these harsh realities, the impact we left in these people’s lives is probably minimal. The basic necessities that these people lack are immense and it is practically a tunnel with no light in sight. At the end of this experience, I felt a mixture of feelings and anger topped that list. The fact that I could not improve their lives instantly was the strongest. On the other hand, I also felt a general feeling of happiness and serenity since I had the chance to experience this new reality, realizing how these people get to stay so optimistic in face of such difficulties. Finally, I also felt sadness after leaving all these newly formed bonds behind. Paul Cutajar holds a Bachelors in Computing from the University of London Greenwich and has been a full-time software developer since 2010 in various fin-tech companies.
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