I’ve been back from Guatemala for almost 3 weeks, so I guess it’s time for a recap. In one word, I’d say incredible fits the bill. I had a great time and would certainly consider another humanitarian mission IF the circumstances were right. (Yes, that’s a big IF. My family probably wouldn’t like it if I did it too often!) In the meantime, I’ll continue working on Habitat for Humanity houses destroyed by our prolific tornadoes or reading to young kids through Better Basics.
So, as you saw here, I began the trip very early. We arrived in Guatemala City around 2 or 3 and spent the rest of the day driving to Coban. The roads were terrible, guns were everywhere, and toilet paper is not in the bathroom stall. (You have to get TP before you go in. And you can’t flush it, you’re supposed to throw it in the trash.) We stopped for ice cream about half way and I had a local fruit flavor called Guanaba. We arrived at a nice hotel called Hotel Posada don Francisco after dark, maybe around 8. I was introduced to a very refreshing drink with dinner called limonada con soda. It was club soda, fresh lime juice and fresh sugar cane. It is what Sprite is supposed to taste like, and it was heavenly. Dinner was good too.
Shotgun, riding shotgun:
Construction Barrels. Oh wait. You don’t see them? That’s because they are rocks, painted white:
I awoke very early due to some flapping in my room. At first, I assumed it was a small bird. Then I decided it was a bat (and why didn’t I get the rabies vaccine?!?! Oh, yeah, because it costs $800 but treatment is cheap and easy). Later at breakfast, I was told it was probably a moth. You mean, a giant moth? This sucker was not your average Alabama moth. It made the flapping sound of a bird! At any rate, it eventually found a way out, or I stopped hearing it, but my adrenaline was pumping so I couldn’t go back to sleep. I was eventually coaxed to get up by the zoo-like sound of all the tropical birds. Upon opening my door, I discovered a tropical paradise. The hotel grounds were lovely.
Hotel Posada don Francisco:
It began raining a little later (a sign of the week to come) so we carefully packed the back of the trucks to drive the remaining 2 hours to the Ulpan Valley. And I thought yesterday’s drive was bumpy! Oh boy. At one point, I got fully air born – while riding in the back seat! Once we got there, the sight was beautiful. We were eager to get to work right away, so we spent the afternoon cleaning up the bodega so people could sleep there. (The bodega was the tool shed/garage.) We walked up the mountain behind the house, just as the clouds and rain moved in so we couldn’t see the view below.
The Base Camp consisted of 3 buildings. One had beds. It was concrete block wall up to about 3 feet, then wood planks after that with a metal roof and concrete floor. There were several bunk beds and floor space. I was very fortunate and got a bed with a real air mattress. Score! I also had some privacy because my space was in a corner and had a tarp around it. It ended up being used as the women’s changing room. The next building was called “The Clinic.” It had a small kitchen, an area of gathering for eating or meetings with tables and chairs, and a new small doctor’s room. The third building was the Bodega. It housed tools and supplies. It was made entirely of concrete block with locking metal doors. There was a latrine outside – think traditional outhouse. The shower area was in between the House and the Clinic (yes, outside). It had a regular shower head connected to two pipes. One went to a rainwater barrel with seriously cold water. The other went to a 5 gal bucket. It was usually empty unless it was shower time, when it was filled with boiling water. You could adjust the valves on the pipes to get the right temperature. However, I was very cautious about using hot water during my first shower because I knew there were still people waiting in line. I turned on the water, briefly rinsed, turned it off, soaped up, turned it back on to rinse and was done. It was a quick shower and it never got warm. It wasn’t cold though either. My next shower several days later was about the same, but I was the last one in line, so I used all the hot water. It was brief, but very nice.
There was no electricity, but one solar panel and a generator. There were 5 lightbulbs total in the 3 buildings. We walked around with a headlamp once the sun went down. It got dark. Imagine no electricity for kilometers and kilometers. There was absolutely no light pollution. Stars were breathtaking!
On Sunday morning we began specific discussions of our water project and traveled another hour to the village of Sesalche II. We toured the village, the location of the nacimiento (birthplace of water, or spring), had a prayer service blessing the spring, and talked with the villagers about the project. On Monday morning, we began our work in earnest in the village. We drove every morning from the base camp to the village and worked all day alongside the villagers. There was a language barrier, especially for me because I don’t speak Spanish, but also because they didn’t really either. They speak Q’eqchi. Some have picked up Spanish when traveling to the cities, but usually there was a triple translation occurring.
There was so much mud.
Glueing pipe with some kids:
The “Cardamom Forest”: (Don’t be deceived. This was straight down. I’m in the middle, in blue, concentrating on walking down the mountain on those boots.)
A coffee plant. The red beans are ripe:
Some women doing laundry. It took them all day:
This woman was old. I mean, o.l.d. She was barefoot, carrying a machete, and something in the sack on her head:
Our typical lunch while we were in the village was soup. It was broth with a whole piece of chicken stuck in the bowl. We had corn milk or cardamom tea to drink.
The villagers carried everything on sacks on their back. The sack was tied to a band, worn across the forehead. Alternatively, the band was tied to rope, which could be rigged to carry anything. Even an 80 pound bag of cement or a 2500 L tank.
Ultimately, we were building concrete pads all throughout the village for pilas. A pila is a sink, of sorts, with a deep basin in the middle, and a shallow basin on either side. One side of the shallow wells has ridges for scrubbing laundry, and the other side was flat. The spigot was above the deep well. The deep well always had clean water that you dip out of with a clean bowl. We got our water from the spring and looped it all around the village to 9 pilas.
Our pipe down the mountain:
The tanks at the nacimiento:
A banana tree. You can also see the pipeline going up the mountain to the spring:
We worked Monday through Thursday. The project grew in scope as the days went on, we had some troubles with pipes, and kids were playing with valves that were supposed to remain closed, so we realized that we were not going to finish on Thursday. We elected to stay another day in order to finish, but that didn’t happen either. On Thursday afternoon, there was a report of armed robberies in the immediate area. Someone in our group saw a man with a gun on our drive back to the Base Camp that night. Our coordinators elected to get us out first thing in the morning and travel to Antigua, as originally planned. They stayed up all night and guarded the Base Camp.
This is Cata in the kitchen. She was our cook during the week. She was much more than that though. Sweet, sweet lady.
This is our group in front of the house.
I was sad to leave the Valley because we hadn’t finished our project and we didn’t get to say goodbye to the villagers. They worked alongside us all week and even though we couldn’t really talk to each other, we still developed a silly relationship with the hundreds of kids who were hanging around in our personal space. Freddy was one such boy. He had a Boy Scout uniform on one day, so at first, we were calling him “boy scout.” He was also hanging around another little boy and we learned that their names were Freddy and Oscar. The adults called “boy scout” Oscar, but if you asked him his name, he said Freddy. He was quite a character. Later in the week, he had learned all of our names and shouted them whenever he saw us. We could be standing on the side of a mountain (and standing out like the Gringos we were) and he’d yell at the top of his lungs from his house down in the market “Janie!” And we’d all yell back “Freddy!” Freddy had all black front teeth. He chewed gum and ate candy all the time.
We drove all day on Friday (10 hours) to get to Antigua. It was a beautiful city with lots of character. We discovered later that a Peace Rally against Domestic Violence was occurring that weekend. Ten thousand people climbed up one of the nearby volcanoes and formed a human chain to the top. The newly elected President of Guatemala was there along with many dignitaries. They had a concert in the square that night (singing all the best songs like Journey and van Halen – which was honestly hilarious. Imagine van Halen’s “Jump” but in Spanish, they pronounce j like h. Good stuff.). The markets in Antigua were fascinating and the ruins of the old buildings were amazing. Antigua used to be the capital of Guatemala. It is surrounded by 3 volcanoes and got ruined so many times that the capital was eventually moved to the nearby Guatemala City. It’s not far though, so the Spanish Embassy is still there.
Some girls at our hotel’s courtyard in Antigua:
The market had fresh vegetables. The carrots and radishes were so big.
I went to La Merced church on Saturday night.
We got to have hot showers, shop, experience an earthquake, watch Volcan de Fuego erupt and enjoy our last days together. It was a great end to a fulfilling trip.
These last 2 pictures are from a professional photographer who went with us. It really was breathtaking. Copyright by Hollis Bennett (www.hollisbennett.com).