I returned late Sunday night from my first Habitat for Humanity Global Village trip. I saw Antigua, Panajachel, Sololá, San Juan Argueta, San Juan la Laguna, Santiago Atítlan, Pixabaj, and Caserio Chuacruz, as well as Chimaltenango and Cuidad Guatemala from the road. Guatemala was nothing and everything like I’d imagined. It seems to be a country full of contradictions and dichotomies, but it’s contradictions suit it perfectly.
The majority of what I saw was dusty, covered in discarded trash, and truly devastatingly poor. But behind all of the inescapable poverty, there is an equally inescapable and indescribable beauty. In Ciudad Guatemala and Chimaltenango, there’s no room between the buildings, which are almost uniformly either unfinished grey or garishly painted cinder block. The sprawling barrios stretch out between green mountain ranges. Old school buses (“chicken buses”) carrying far too many people move with uncomfortable rapidity and complete disregard for what passes for road law. The chicken buses all have names like “Esmerelda” and are actually quite pretty once you get past the fear that the technicolor Mad Max bus is going to ram you off the road. Motorcycles with too many riders weave through lanes of traffic, narrowly missing the pedestrians hawking water bottles or juggling for tips or just crossing the street. Farmers work in their tiny, dusty, nearly-vertical fields on steep mountainsides just off the road.
Sanitary water is scarce- it certainly doesn’t come out of the faucets- but a variety of colorfully packaged processed snacks hang outside of every shop window in even the most rural towns. Panaderias sell delicate, delicious breads and pastries in hidden alcoves on nearly every city street. Merchants selling identical but gorgeous handicrafts for pennies line the main street in Panajachel, wait for tourists outside of hotels in Antigua, and set up stalls outside of the Mayan ruins of Iximche. Evidence of ancient earthquakes is everywhere in Antigua; beautiful ruins of abandoned cathedrals and monasteries and convents leftover from a famous quake in 1773 litter the city and serve as excellent photo ops and tourist traps. A trio of massive volcanoes looms over Lago de Atítlan and another trio border Antigua to the south and west, occasionally punctuating the nightly fireworks shows with their own fiery displays.
Though the landscape and cityscape were mind-blowing, it was the people that truly stuck with me. Our team was unanimously awesome. I primarily stuck in a pack with Ashley, another first time Global Villager and my roommate as well as coincidentally in my Language and Culture class!; Melanie, a team leader and Habitat employee who’d been in Guatemala twice before and knew all the best places; Andrew, deflector of merchants, hilarious, and an excellent landmark (he’s over 6 feet tall so easily visible in any crowd of primarily Guatemalans); Jay, generous joker, lifter of heavy things, and another first timer in Guatemala; and Lucho, our local field coordinator and translator who’s amazing smile was a near-constant presence on our trip. I got a little bit of time with everyone else; Fredy (fiercely devoted field coordinator and giver of tours), Bob, Dianne, Skip, Mike (the hardest worker on my team and unintentional solo explorer), Jeanie, Judy (who is a total trooper and excellent ruin-explorer at 75), Ida, and Carol (kind lender of antibiotic cream for sunburned ears).
In taking thirteen people down to Guatemala, we were almost guaranteed to have too many people for any job. Even split into two teams as we were, everyone had a chance to take a break from amateur stone masonry or mixing mortar or hammering to interact with the locals, a job just as important as the rest that we called “citizen diplomacy”. Sometimes being the citizen diplomat of the moment meant getting completely schooled in fútbol by kids too small for their ages, or learning a few words of the Mayan language spoken in that part of el campo, or chatting about embroidery with the doña. Teenage girls in Santiago Atítlan giggled and blushed behind their phones when I told them I wished American clothing was as beautiful as their traditional traje. Two little boys, maybe three or four years old, climbed up onto the outdoor sink and using the hard soap to blow their own bubbles after our liquid ran out, sneaking peaks at me between bubbles to make sure I was watching. We met the woman who’s stove we’d built two days prior in the street, and she stood up on tiptoe to hug each of our necks and say thank you. A crowd of little kids sat around my feet, mothers close behind them, listening intently while I struggled to translate Curious George Goes to the Zoo into Spanish on the fly. Doña Emiliana smiled and whispered in half-Spanish, half-Tz’utujil that she liked that our names were so similar so she could remember it easily when I was gone.
When I embarked on this trip I was worried about voluntourism- coming to Guatemala under the guise of helping people but taking work from Guatemalans who could build their own latrines or stoves or homes, taking pictures and buying up souvenirs and calling that life-changing. But as the week passed, that fear melted away. The families we helped had made their own bricks, sourced the majority of their own materials, and got just as muddy as we did by the end of the build. We built three latrines, four stoves, and pressed just under two hundred bricks. Building projects that typically take a family between 5 to 8 days were accomplished in a few hours. People thanked us for coming to help their countrymen when we mentioned that we were there with Habitat for Humanity. Our trip was less about the tourism and more about meeting the people who need help and giving them “a hand up, not a hand out”. We were there to show them that there are people that care enough to come help when they ask for it, to learn about their culture, to see that we’re part of a grander global community, all with our own dignity and struggles and hope for the future.
To my teammates:
Huey ütz trip ya’ll, and matyox for all the excellent memories we made together! I can’t wait to see you in Sololá again next year!