Traveling and Giving Back

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EGLE GERULAITYTE

Riding a motorcycle around the world can mean so many different things to different people. Why do we travel? For the freedom, the open road, the thrill, the adventure.

After a while, though, most riders realize there’s more to riding round the world than, well, riding.

A lot of people start doing photography, blogs, or videos. Some begin to realize cultures and local communities matter more than farkles and beer. Quite a lot begin to wonder about traveling and giving back.

traveling and giving back

CEOs and their Millions

I’m no exception. The longer I stay on the road, the more I wonder whether I can do something for this beautiful world I’m traveling through. As a journalist, I tell stories about local indigenous communities and culture. But can I do more, and how?

traveling and giving back

The obvious route is volunteering and raising money for charities, which a lot of riders do as they travel. I’ve volunteered in Peru before, and as for charities… President and CEO of Goodwill, Jim Gibbons, makes $689,418 a year. Save The Children’s CEO Helle Thorning-Schmidt earned $257,358USD in 2016, six times more than the average Danish salary. CEO of Red Cross pockets $500,000 a year. And yes, I know it’s only a fraction of the income of those charities, and it’s no small job to manage such humongous international organizations, but I just don’t feel like donating money to some faceless NGO whose presidents make half a million dollars a year.

I couldn’t decide what would be the best way to go about traveling and giving back, until a few weeks ago, a chance meeting in Antigua, Guatemala changed everything.

Exploring Guatemala

Paul and I planned to spend a whole of semana santa (holy week) in Antigua because of the famous religious processions that fill the town with mystic chants, music, and the smell of incense. Antigua’s semana santa processions are one of the most elaborate, most festive in the world, and it’s an incredible sight to behold. I was hoping to cover the semana santa celebrations for a newspaper I freelance for back home, while Paul was planning to do some photography.

traveling and giving back

Sitting on a bench in the town’s square, we met a woman named Aracely. Aracely was from the Kakchiqel tribe; she was selling beautiful hand-woven shawls, scarves, bracelets and other crafts in the plaza. As we’re traveling on motorcycles and have a pretty strict budget, we didn’t really have the money or the space for Aracely’s art. She didn’t get upset with us not buying anything though, and sat down to chat. It turned out that Aracely had been weaving belts, tablecloths, shawls and other crafts since she was a little girl.  Her mother taught her, and now she was teaching her own two little girls, Marta and Briana.

traveling and giving back

traveling and giving back

We talked for a while. Aracely explained the different colors and patterns of her wares: deep reds and purples for Chichicastenango, blues and greens for Antigua and San Antonio. A Quetzal bird, the national symbol of Guatemala, perched on little tree branches dancing across a beautifully woven belt. Tales of love, woven into a baby carrier shawl.

Aracely wasn’t trying to sell us her art – she just genuinely enjoyed showing it off, and we were more than willing to listen. She told us it took her a month to weave an elaborate shawl, a week for a belt, half a day for a few bracelets. Aracely made about $200 on a good month; on a bad one, she had to worry about her little girls’ food.

traveling and giving back

Still, she was all smiles. Aracely wanted to know about our travels, and we wanted to know about her art.

Project Ootz

Walking to our hotel that afternoon, I just couldn’t stop thinking about Aracely. Wasn’t there anything I could do for this amazing woman? I couldn’t buy her crafts…but perhaps my friends could?

And thus, the plan was hatched: I would share Aracely’s story on Facebook, and ask people to buy her art. I’d then buy whatever people wanted – a scarf, a belt, a bracelet – and ship the souvenir to them, while Aracely would make some money.

I was hoping I could maybe get 3-4 people on board and raise some $100. Instead, within 72 hours, I had 20 buyers and nearly $700!

Needless to say, Aracely had a fantastic day the next morning. She could have taken all the money, but instead, she asked me if I could buy something from her friend Darcy who had a new baby – so I spent all the money on Aracely’s and Darcy’s crafts. Both women had a big boost to their businesses and said they’d spend the money on their children’s shoes, school supplies, and food. The people who bought something from them will soon get beautiful handmade souvenirs from Guatemala. Me? I was excited to be able to help. Win-win-win!

Both Paul and I, as well as our friends, loved the idea so much that we decided to make this project a continuous one. We’d travel, meet local people, and if we saw an opportunity to help a local artist, craftsperson, or just anybody awesome, we would.

As a parting gift, Aracely taught us a few words in her native  Kakchiqel language. I loved “ootz” the most. “Ootz” means “good”, or “great”, in  Kakchiqel. So we decided to call the project Ootz – ootz people helping other ootz pople for ootz reasons. Couldn’t be ootzier!

One-legged Motorcyclist and the new Ootz

We had no idea when we’d meet the next Ootz person, within weeks? Months? Both Paul and I decided to wing it and just improvise as we went along. This just couldn’t be planned or scheduled, we figured.

Our next Ootz person came to us sooner than we thought. As we were riding along towards Coban, we spotted a strange couple: a one-legged motorcyclist on a Suzuki 125, holding crutches, and a small boy on the seat behind him. Intrigued, we followed them for a while before pulling them over to have a chat.

traveling and giving back

It turned out that Robin, 25, and his eight year old son Angel were out for a day in the countryside. Originally from Guatemala City, Robin said he’d lost his leg when he was seventeen. Walking home from work, he happened to be near a shooting, and a stray bullet hit his leg. The doctors decided to amputate above the knee.

traveling and giving back

“I don’t feel like I’m disabled when I’m riding, though. I rode my Suzuki 125 all the way to Nicaragua and back, I love what you guys are doing! I hope my son Angel will also be into bikes, not drugs or gangs when he grows up”, – Robin told us.

We were left speechless. From the barrios of Guatemala City, as a single dad, with just one leg, Robin had managed to ride his bike across Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and back. On top of that, he was also racing: a local Guatemalan club MotoVelocidad had helped him along, and Robin’s dream was to one day race in the Bridgestone Handy Race in Europe. “I don’t have the racing suit…or any gear, really, but that’s okay. I’ve come this far, so I know I’ll get there too one day!”, – Robin said.

His optimism was infectious, and we realized that helping Robin to achieve his dream will be our next task on the road.

traveling and giving back

And just like that, we seemed to have found our way of traveling and giving back. Of course, we realize how small the scale is, and how little we will change in comparison to the big charities and the international organizations. But we’re meeting these amazing, inspirational, incredible people here and now, and we’re connecting other riders, travelers and friends from around the world with them – here and now.

And sometimes, Ootz things happen!

More information: Helping RTW – The People of Ootz

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