ABOUT A WEEK before I left for Guatemala, a major landslide east of the country’s capital killed at least 280 people and left plenty more missing. Family and friends quickly descended on me with concerns for my safety: Would I be staying nearby? Would travel be delayed? What if another storm caused a similar disaster? And what about drug trafficking?
The truth was, I felt completely safe in my endeavor, and this feeling was due mostly to my purposeful ignorance. Within a few days of signing up for one of Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village trips, choosing its Guatemala affiliate — the oldest and largest international affiliate in the organization — as my own, I pulled together funds, booked a plane ticket, collected the items on the suggested packing list and promptly put danger out of my mind altogether. Every other journey I had embarked on up until this point had been arduously researched, scheduled and obsessed over. I was committed to arriving in Guatemala City with absolutely no idea what lay in wait.
HABITAT FOR HUMANITY WAS FOUNDED IN 1976 BY MILLARD and Linda Fuller as a faith-based effort to help those in need acquire adequate shelter. Three years later, Habitat for Humanity Guatemala became the organization’s first Latin American branch. The westernmost country in Central America, Guatemala is composed of 22 departments inhabited by 24 different groups of indigenous Maya, as well as Xinca, Garifuna and mestizo people. The country’s 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996 and is widely seen as a genocide against the indigenous Maya people, is demonstrative of a country struggling with exceedingly varied populations and ways of life. It is the Maya families, many of whom live in extreme poverty, lacking access to clean water, family planning resources, toilets and stoves, that Habitat Guatemala aims to help. And it has: more than 58,000 families have received assistance since the affiliate’s 1979 inception.
Though Habitat’s roots are in Christianity, its fundamental purpose can be found in its moniker: humanity. My experience in Guatemala had much less to do with a higher power and much more to do with creating bonds with a very diverse group of people I would not have otherwise encountered, and whom I began to meet immediately after exiting the Guatemala City Airport.
As instructed, I headed to the left of the exit, circumnavigating the lively, raucous crowds of families toting balloons and other colorful gifts meant for arriving friends and family. Sleepy and disoriented from my red-eye flight, I lazily scanned the surrounding area for a Habitat sign, wondering for the first time what I would do if I had trouble locating my group. Fortunately, within moments, a couple of fellow neck-craners — Jim and Lily, both from California, both volunteer veterans — and I discovered that we shared the same destination, and were soon loaded onto a Habitat bus bound for Antigua.
The brimming streets of Guatemala City quickly gave way to the sparsely populated winding roads edged with the forests of vibrant greenery that would visually mark the rest of our group’s adventure. One thing that did not diminish, though, was signage — it seems there is no regulation when it comes to garish ads and political propaganda, which popped up amid otherwise lovely landscapes throughout the country. Guatemala has endured its share of political corruption, and at the time of my visit last October, President Otto Pérez Molina and his vice president had only just been forced to resign from office following a massive customs scandal. Signs depicting his then-potential successors — Sandra Torres and Jimmy Morales, who was inaugurated in January after a landslide victory — smiled down at us as we entered Antigua.
AS A DESIGNATED UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE, ANTIGUA, which translates to “ancient,” boasts the type of antiquated charm that comes only from enforced preservation. Pastelhued, Spanish baroque–influenced architecture lines the cobblestone streets, a buttery yellow 16th-century church marking the city’s center. Antigua itself is surrounded by three colossal volcanoes, making already dramatic landmarks, like the Santa Catalina Arch, built in the 17th century to connect a convent of the same name to a school, all the more striking. Our group of 16 arrived in phases throughout the afternoon, and soon we were all congregated in the lobby of our hotel, where our leaders Trina (a Brit from Bermuda who was preparing for her seventh trip in charge) and Lucho (a Habitat Guatemala field coordinator of Maya descent) led an introduction before the first of many shared meals. And though we began that night as a collective of strangers, we became a family at an almost alarming speed.
The next day’s dawn found us on the road to Panajachel, a lakeside town in the southwestern Guatemalan Highlands that would serve as our home for the remainder of the trip. One of the many villages that freckle the shores of Lake Atitlán — an extremely picturesque basin, intensified by three volcanoes, that author Aldous Huxley once called “too much of a good thing” — Pana is both a hot spot for tourist trade, with many locals selling their wares along its narrow lanes, and the home of one of Habitat Guatemala’s 17 branch offices. After checking into the surprisingly luxe Cacique Inn (“If this is volunteering, then vacationing is obsolete,” was my immediate reaction) our group paid a visit to the much more modest Habitat office to meet Oscar, Jorge, Jose, the other Jose and Lilliana. Oscar partners with a few local Maya women to find families, often located deep in the surrounding mountains, that qualify for Healthy Home Kits, which is what our group was there to provide.
The housing deficit in Guatemala is estimated at 1.7 million. And while Habitat houses are certainly more financially accessible than traditional dwellings, they are still houses, and not within the budget of most Maya families. In 2010, Habitat introduced Healthy Home Kits, affordable supplements to existing spaces, consisting of a water filter, a smokeless stove and a latrine, additions that allow families to avoid two leading causes of death in the country’s rural areas: respiratory disease and waterborne illnesses. Given that most rural households have no toilet (cornfields often serve as substitute), unfiltered groundwater and open cooking fires that blacken walls and lungs alike, these enhancements are both welcome and life-changing.
BEFORE OUR REAL WORK BEGAN, WE BOARDED A BOAT — a very exciting prospect, as we had been staring longingly at the lake since our arrival the previous day — for an excursion to Lucho’s hometown of San Juan la Laguna. The ride across Lake Atitlán was nothing short of epic: calm, cerulean waters gave way to lush and rugged landscapes sprinkled here and there with minuscule (and colorful) lakeside villages, while towering volcanoes oversaw the scene. Docking at San Juan was like arriving in another country altogether, with thin layers of moss coating the shallow waters like a wooly throw. Rickety wooden boats lined the shore, where women and children soaked laundry while men languidly tossed out fishing lines. Ahead, the hilltop town hovered in exotic, welcoming and unassuming fashion.
We were there to visit Lucho’s childhood friend Miriam at Casa Flor Ixcaco Tejedoras Mayas Weaving Cooperative, a women’s weaving co-op. Women partaking in paid work of any sort are a relatively new sight in Guatemala — traditionally, females tend to stay home, rising early to take care of the children and begin making tortillas. They clean the house, wash dishes and clothes, prepare three meals a day, feed their families, go to sleep, wake up and do it all again. But more recently, certain women have found ways to do even more. Weaving brings wages, and the work can be done both away from and at home, and weaving co-ops take it a step further, allowing women to be entrepreneurs and control their own finances, some even saving to send their children to college. Products include ponchos, blankets, scarves, bedspreads and much more, and of every 100 Quetzales (Guatemalan currency) earned, 95 go to the workers and five to sustain the shop. I purchased a poncho that took two weeks to weave and cost 225 Quetzales — just $30.
There is just one requirement for those wishing to join the co-op, which currently has 19 members: women must grow their own organic cotton. From it, the weavers pull and spin to make string by hand, then drench spools in natural dyes in a wealth of vivid colors. The walls of the co-op were lined with a rainbow of thread, each hue born from naturally occurring charcoal, hibiscus, avocado, bark, coffee, cinnamon or other substances. Miriam demonstrated the process, introducing us to three naturally occurring colors of cotton — white, nude and ixcaco, which comes from the Maya word ixoq’, meaning women, and caco, the color of their skin.
We broke into small groups and visited weavers in their homes — some abodes consisting of dirt floors and barely any walls — to watch them at work. The craft is time-honored, and the crafters’ smiles were ever-present as children and dogs made their way in and out of the scene. After the visit, we all shared a lunch of tamales and pozole prepared by the women of Ixcaco. Conversations swayed between English, Spanish and Maya, and traditional marimba music floated on the air.
THE NEXT DAY, WE GOT TO WORK. THIS WAS A HAPPY development, as the vacation-like aspects of the trip thus far had instilled in us all an underlying guilt — we were, after all, there to volunteer. We split into three groups, and our now-familiar buses snaked into the upper zeniths of the surrounding mountains, the ride offering the occasional glimpse of the lake waters below. My work site was occupied by two families, so two of our groups disembarked. Tiny puppies — which we were warned not to touch, an impossible request — skittered around in the dirt, along with curious shy children, who on our first day could be seen peeking out from behind their mothers’ skirts. It occurred to me how strange the scene must be for them — without Internet, television or even access to town, how did we appear to them? I still wonder if the kids will remember our time there, and if so, how.
On the first day, we — Karen, Nancy, Jill, Mary and me, with instruction from our mason, Billy, a local student of architecture — built a smokeless stove. Provided tools and materials were modest, but effective: we mixed cement with mud and water outside the kitchen space with spades and trenching shovels. We wetted, lined, coated and stacked adobe bricks provided by Habitat, slathering each layer in the cement mixture, navigating around the small space like a line of like-minded bees building a hive. By late afternoon we were covered in dirt, our work gloves coated in mud, smiles plastered on our faces: we had built a stove. And upon officially meeting the toddlers who occupied the space — one with rotting teeth but a beautiful grin — we felt a sense of meaningful accomplishment.
Dry vented latrines were next on the agenda. Wood slats did not come pre-measured, so a large portion of the project was dedicated to calculating and cutting planks — with only one truly effective handsaw, passed back and forth all day, at times forcefully, between each group — to the appropriate size. We dug deep holes with machetes to plant the poles that would serve as the building’s frame — four points surrounding an obviously bigger and deeper pit, which was then topped with a plastic toilet — hammering slats and forming walls as the day progressed. We attached PVC pipes, nailed on an iron roof and admired our handiwork, as did the families. We closed the second day with a little ceremony, where the families thanked us for the additions, and we thanked them for the experience. I don’t think it was possible for either of our vastly different groups to truly understand the effect we had on each other’s lives, but we did our best.
The experiences I had in Guatemala were immeasurable, and beyond anything I could have planned for: I hammered nails in the pouring rain; shared laughs, stories and meals with families and friends; and spoke with a Maya woman about women’s rights while she wove a bedspread that, when finished, would feed her family for months. Habitat allowed us to peel back the veil that typically separates tourists from the places they visit, and for a few days, we became a part of the community. I now understand why volunteer trips are a kind of addiction: when traveling gives you so much, giving back is kind of a no-brainer.
This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition under the headline: “Guatamala“.