Guatemala: Part 1/3

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Now that I’ve had time to recover from travel and get my head back into American culture and my real life, I can start recapping this little trip of mine. Since there is mucho to cover, I’ll divide this into three separate posts. Today I’ll talk about the work we did this week, then I’ll go over the cultural enrichment activities we did, and finally I’ll wrap up with some final thoughts and reflections on the trip.

Our journey began on Saturday the 20th with a full day of travel, from Milwaukee to Chicago to Miami to Guatemala City. My Global Village team was made up of fellow Milwaukee Habitat Young Professionals (HYP) members, many of whom I had never met before, and we got a little better acquainted with one another during the numerous hours spent driving to the airport, going through security and sitting through long waits for flights.

Well…unintentionally long waits for flights. As we waited for our first flight to depart from O’Hare we were informed that it had been delayed 2 hours. That would be fine except for the fact that our flight would now be landing mere minutes before our connecting flight from Miami was supposed to take off. The next few hours were rife with TV sitcom-like suspense as we didn’t find out until the last minute whether we would make it onto the last flight.

We did…barely. Those of us who had been in the back of the previous flight scurried onto the next plane just in the nick of time (we later learned that the airline staff were determined to close the doors on us and our team leader, who had gotten on before us, had to fight them not to).

So, we made it!

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But unfortunately, our baggage did not. We were told it would come over on the next flight and we’d have it by the end of the next day. Our Habitat Guatemala liason, Ben, who would be working with us all week and introducing us to Guatemala, met us at the airport and we drove to our hotel in Guatemala City, where we’d be staying the night. After we checked in, we walked to a nearby restaurant for a delicious dinner. The weather was a perfect balmy 60 degrees and we were told that this mild weather is a year-round staple for Guatemala City. Must be nice! On our way home from dinner we stopped at a drug store so we could all get toothbrushes and toothpaste. In spite of that, I don’t think it really hit me that I didn’t have any of my luggage with me until I finally got back up to the hotel room and was dying to get into comfy PJs after a long day of travel, only to realize I couldn’t…I had no PJs. Womp womp!

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Room with a view

So there I was, my first night in a new country, in a high-up hotel room overlooking in sprawling city, sleeping in jeans and the clothes I’d have to wear all day tomorrow, too. But I slept like a baby in that big comfy bed. It’s amazing how insignificant luggage seems when all you can think about is getting out of the airport, eating a big meal and crashing.

 

 

 

 

The next morning I woke up, went to the window to check out that view again and what’s the first thing I see way down below? A race going on!! Because of course!!

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It was a 10K!

After breakfast at the hotel, we promptly packed up and hit the road for the Zacapa province, where we would be living and working for the remainder of the week. For three hours the Guatemalan countryside rolled by the windows of our bus, up and down through the mountains, city fading into mountainous countryside, the gradually declining elevation taking us through farms and desert and farms and desert, rows upon rows of lush melon crop changing into barren cacti-freckled desert and back again, all against the backdrop of smooth, earthy mountain ranges butting up against the clouds and the blue sky. Communities along the highway came and went in little bursts of color, the pinks and teals and mustard yellows and blues and reds of the shy concrete structures that housed sleepy cafes and auto repair shops along the highway.

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About 10 minutes away from our hotel, Ben stood up to address our bus and broke the bad news – that our luggage was not going to make it today after all. That left us with no work clothes for our first day of building tomorrow, so we stopped at a shopping plaza that has a La Torre (kind of like a Walgreens or Dollar Store) and a Superpaca, the Guatemalan equivalent of a Goodwill store. And finally, a Burger King, the Guatemalan equivalent of…a Burger King. At La Torre, we are given Habitat money to buy dollar underwear and socks and some toiletries to get us through the next day, and at the Superpaca we are all allowed to pick out a shirt and a pair of shorts or pants for work the next day. No Burger King. All the tshirts in the Superpaca clearly came from the United States, and we learned that when Habitat Global Village groups or other travelers donate clothes in the country (we’re encouraged to), they are actually gathered and distributed at Superpacas all over Central America. How wild would it be if I found something I had donated after my El Salvador Global Village trip two years ago??

20 minutes later we arrived in the tiny community of Rio Hondo, checked into our hotel for the week and had lunch under the big cabana by the hotel’s pool side, where we will be having all our meals for the week. After a couple hours of down time to settle in, we have an orientation from the Habitat staff and then we have dinner and meet the families of the homes we will be working on this week. There are four partner families and we are split into groups, one group per family. We sit with our respective families at dinner and get to know them a little better.

Our family is Lucy and her husband and their baby daughter, Alessandra. Lucy’s husband can’t be there, but Lucy tells us he works at one of the popular convenience store chains in Guatemala, and together they have an internet cafe business. Lucy’s mother, Teresa, is also with us at the table. Lucy tells us that her sister-in-law is one of the other Habitat partner families we will be working with this week.

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After dinner and saying good night to our families, we get a pleasant surprise: our luggage! It made it after all! We were very grateful to the bus driver who drove out to the Guatemala City airport to get it and bring it to us so that we didn’t have to wait another day. As much as I appreciated my dollar underwear, I was pretty glad I would not be needing it this week.

The next morning, we got up nice and early with the roosters, had breakfast at the hotel and then departed for the little village of Usumatlan, where we would be working for the week.

IMG_3086One unique thing about Habitat Guatemala is that a lot of the Habitat homes exist in housing communities. In partnership with large donors, Habitat Guatemala actually purchases big plots of land and constructs many houses – whole neighborhoods, actually – on these plots, which become Habitat colonies. It’s not nearly as easy – actually, it’s not easy at all – for the average person to acquire land in Guatemala like it is here in the United States. The top 2% own 65% of the land in Guatemala – the most unequal land distribution of all Central American countries – and the process to obtain legal title to land is so tedious and expensive it’s basically inaccessible to most people. Habitat Guatemala’s housing community system is designed to help reduce poverty and housing issues not just through home ownership, but also by facilitating accessible legal rights to property. The Habitat homeowners who live in these colonies don’t just get a house – they get to be land owners, too. How cool is that? Makes you realize how much we take for granted here. And I don’t even own any land.

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Part of the Habitat colony

 

Because we were working on homes that were on the same street within the colony, this meant that our team could basically work and be together even though we were on different houses. We were split into 6 small groups and each group worked primarily on one home. My teammates were Tyler and Courtney, who speaks very fluent Spanish and was able to serve as the translator for us and our house’s albanil (mason), Herman. We got to work on Lucy’s house, Casa Numero Nueve.

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The homes in the colony had already been constructed, and our team would spend the week helping the masons with finishing work: putting the concrete stucco finishing on the interior and exterior walls, laying the concrete floors and in some cases, digging trenches and moving huge amounts of dirt to an open plot for what we would eventually learn was going to be a community garden. What this translated to for us was a LOT of manual cement mixing and hauling (and for those on garden crew, dirt. So many wheelbarrows full of dirt).

Some houses are father along in the process than others, so what kind of work you ended up doing this week depended a lot on which house you were working on. For example, our house was not as far along as many others, so I spent much more time working on wall stucco than I did on mixing concrete for the floors, while many of my teammates were working on houses with nearly finished walls and spent more time mixing large batches of concrete and helping their masons lay the floors.

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Men and women at work

Stuccoing the walls happens in three phases: first, a layer of cement needs to be smeared onto the wall. Next, a piece of wood with a handle is used to blend all the concrete together by going over it in circular motions, and finally, a piece of foam is then used to smooth out all the lines created by the second step by gently going over it in the same circular motion. I got to do a little bit of the first and second steps on my first day (it is harder than it looks/sounds to get the technique right), but I really found my stride doing the third and easiest step: the foam buffing. Herman liked that I was willing to get up on the super sketchy-looking scaffolding to do the upper parts of the walls, so I spent a lot of the week on foaming duty.

Not that I minded. First of all, I’m one of those people who isn’t very good at working with her hands and I usually suck at construction stuff, so it was nice to feel like I was actually kinda good at something. Also, one of the things that can make or break a Habitat volunteering experience is whether or not there is enough work to fill the time, and with plenty of walls that needed stuccoing, I was happy to feel like I always had a job to do and something to keep me busy. It also kept me out of the blazing hot sun, at least during those first couple days when we were still doing the interior walls.

Examples of what the finished stucco looks like, in contrast with what the walls look like pre-stucco:

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The second phase, wood-buffing, underway
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Close up of what the wet stucco looks like after phase 2 and before the foam buffing – those lines have to be smoothed away
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Foam smoothing like a boss and helping Herman

But I did my share of other work, too. Occasionally we could be called on to help at other houses that needed more hands for a task or, in my case, switch with a teammate on another house who needed to get out of the sun for a while. Working on houses that were in the floor-laying phase of construction meant lots of cement mixing. And we’re talking BIG batches of cement.

The cement for the floors is made out of a mixture of sand, concrete mix, and gravel. When a mason was laying the floor in one of the rooms, he would require a really big batch of cement: one batch I made needed 12 wheelbarrows of sand, six bags of concrete mix and six wheelbarrows full of gravel. Turning a bunch of sand and rocks into a heavy gray slop doesn’t sound like rocket science, but there is a method to the madness.

First, the sand and cement powder must be mixed. We do this by putting them into a big pile, shoveling that pile over into a second pile, and then re-shoveling it back to it’s original spot. So, basically – we move a pile, and move it again. When you have that much sand and cement, and no power tools, this is really the only way to get it mixed. At that point, we use shovels and hoes to pull down the mixture and make it into a big crater. Then we add the gravel, and then comes the most important ingredient: water. Lots of it. At this point, we start mixing the whole thing into cement with our shovels, starting at the edges of the crater and gently working our way in toward the middle.

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Concrete mixing in progress! That big dark spot shows you how big the pile was to start. And this isnt even one of the bigger batches…
Mixing a baby batch. This is actually for the walls, which is a different mixture than the floors
Mixing a baby batch. This is actually for the walls, which is a different mixture than the floors
Bucket brigade! Bucket in! Bucket out!
Bucket brigade! Bucket in! Bucket out!

Once batches of the crater are mixed into the right consistency of concrete, we get it from the road into the house via the infamous bucket brigade. We fill buckets no more than half full of cement and pass them down a line of volunteers, into and out of the house, filling and refilling. Bucket in! Bucket out! until the word “bucket” starts to sound funny in our mouths. The masons pour the buckets onto the floor and smooth out the mixture as they go along.

 

Fresh concrete floors
Fresh concrete floors

As for the structure of each day, we typically started our work days around 8 AM. We would have a snack break at around 10 and lunch at noon. Lunch is the big meal of the day in Guatemala, and we were spoiled. The Habitat families made us huge delicious lunches every day.

Burrito, Day 1
Burrito, Day 1

We would usually end the day in the early to mid afternoon in an effort to beat the heat. It was hot out there – on Tuesday and Wednesday temperatures soared to 100+ degrees and there was nary a cloud in sight. On those days we were pretty liberal with our break-taking; there are only so many minutes at a time you can shovel concrete in 100 degrees in sun that is much closer to the equator before you feel like you are literally dying, you know?

I was amazed at how much water I drank. I had a 32-oz Nalgene bottle with me and I easily went through 4 of them just during the work day; on a normal workday here at home at my indoor desk job I probably wouldn’t even get through one. I also alternated between bottles of water and bottles of Nuun (I brought two packs of tablets with me), and I think that was my saving grace. Electrolytes for the win!

After a couple days in Concreteland, the old sneakers I wore to the site were so coated in dust you could barely make out the different colors anymore, and I came home every day, sweaty and exasperated and coated with what I affectionately call the “dirt tan”. It was everywhere. Because each day was one long waltz of bugspray, sunscreen, sweat, repeat, the chemicals and dust eventually congealed into a sticky stubborn dirt mixture that wouldn’t come off my skin no matter how much I scrubbed it in the shower. So there I’d be at dinner, clean from a shower and yet still splattered with dirt. But that’s the great thing about being on a Habitat Global Village team: nobody cares. We were all filthy together!

 

But our days weren’t just getting dirty and mixing concrete and milling about the build site. In fact, often times the work was only a portion of what we did during a given day. What filled those other hours and enriched this trip so much more? You’ll have to tune in tomorrow to Part II of the recap to find out!

 

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9 thoughts on “Guatemala: Part 1/3

  1. I’m glad you were able to make it despite the traveling issues! It feels like anytime I’m leaving the continental US, we have some kind of crazy delay & connection issue.

    It sounds like you did a lot of good, gritty work 🙂

  2. It sounds like the Habitat team and families really took good care of you. I’d be so upset without my luggage! The process of the stucco and concrete work is interesting. Sounds really tough, especially in the sun and heat. I bet you slept well at night!

  3. I’m so glad you wrote so much about your experience because I’m looking forward to reading the other parts as well 😀 Sounds like the Habitat team in Guatemala is really helping with an area of need there and it must be wonderful to be a part of it! I always wonder if I would really come in handy for a project like that too because I’m kind of awkward and uncoordinated with construction stuff.

    Your story of not having your luggage brought me back to a time when I volunteered in Ecuador and didn’t get my luggage for a few days also – too funny! I had three connecting flights and a near two hour delay for my first one caused me to miss the second flight. I managed to get myself onto a different flight, but my luggage was no longer with me. So when I arrived in Ecuador, I didn’t get my luggage till two days later!! Connecting flights can make travel so difficult sometimes.

  4. So interesting! It’s always hard to gauge how useful programs like this really are – but it seems as if Habitat in Guatemala are making a real difference – not just putting up a shoddy house and moving on – but making land ownership a reality for people who will benefit from it most.

  5. That must have been so nerve wracking when your flight was delayed knowing you had a connecting flight. Glad you made the flight and that your luggage wasn’t too far behind.

    What an incredible experience! To be able to build a home for those families and allow them a chance at home and land ownership is amazing. What great work Habitat and it’s volunteers are doing in Guatemala. I’m looking forward to reading the next recap, because I am wondering what else you fit into your day. The heavy work and heat sounds exhausting enough!

  6. That is too bad about how hard it is to buy land there, but great that Habitat makes it accessible via this communities!

    I am confused about the allocations for buying the underwear and socks (and BK, lol) – could you have used your own money if you wanted?

    That is good that you had something to do, and found something you were good at! It’s frustrating when you volunteer for something and are just standing around. And I can’t imagine being all the way out there and feeling that way!

  7. Sounds like they have things really organized and down to a science with the work and good food on site 🙂
    That kind of stooping and stretching is harder than marathon training I bet! Most intense cross training ever lol
    The landscape is beautiful and that is a cute little community Habitat has there, it s amazing how difficult life is for the average people there though. We are extremely fortunate, even though I get sick of waking up at 5:30 a.m.every day lol
    Your hotel view was awesome and it seems like a good omen to start the week seeing a race!
    oh, and shame on the airline people, they should be willing to wait to a few minutes knowing how close it was.
    Enjoying this recap.

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