“Are you happy in your heart?” This typical Guatemalan greeting is a thought-provoking question for Intrepid Express reader Bobbie Jo Traut…
“Tossed by turbulence and feeling a little queasy during my short but intense flight, I futilely try to flip through my book on Guatemalan history. The small, Central American country lacks the eco-cache of some of its neighbors and still faces serious administrative and social challenges in addition to carrying the burden from its devastating civil war that took more than 200,000 civilian lives. I can’t help but ponder the wisdom of my trip to the hinterland of the Polochic to work on infrastructure projects in some of the remotest villages in the country.
My gregarious and intelligent seatmate successfully keeps my mind off my stomach by discussing the problems and hopes of his native land. He is optimistic and hopeful for his country, where a growing civil society is promoting greater accountability in the government. “But it’s different in the Polochic. You’ll see. It’s a world apart,” are his final words to me as we go our separate ways. After landing in Guatemala City, I finally arrive at the hotel to greet 88 other volunteers from around the US, including doctors, dentists, teachers and agricultural specialists.
As the sun is beginning to creep across the capital, with its fruit stands lining the roads and rainbow-colored hammocks hanging from the trees, we begin our eight-hour drive up into the surrounding hills. Transferring to smaller buses better able to navigate the gravel roads, we climb higher and higher, winding around mountains, till traces of clouds are visible below us. Passing through villages, kids run along the side of the buses, shouting and waving to us.
The typical Q’eqchi’ greeting is Ma sa la chool? “Are you happy in your heart?” The bright and warm smiles of the people show that they are truly happy. In a remote corner of Guatemala, high up in the mountains, live the Q’eqchi’ Maya, one of the country’s largest indigenous populations. The country’s tumultuous and bloody history and its current problems with corruption and the rule of law have taken their toll on the social and economic development, especially in this region. The paved streets and flashy hotels of Guatemala City are a world away and a sharp contrast to the dirt roads, thatched huts, and oppressive humidity of the Polochic.
We have come for only a week, but in that short week, we hope to accomplish a lot. There is a new medical clinic, secondary school and school kitchen to be built, as well as a cistern that will provide families with a continual supply of water from a nearby spring. I am also part of a group of teachers who will be spending some time observing and assisting in the schools. Village schools vary in size but most are one room, with a single teacher, housing multiple grade levels. School supplies are equally scarce; some of the first graders I observed in the village of Nueva Concepcion were without chairs, bent over their desks using broken pencils. Groups of up to four students share a single photocopy of a textbook. As there is no electricity, a few windows serve to illuminate the room. Another volunteer and I are asked to take the children out for recess. We teach them how to play baseball and organize relay races for the younger ones. I pull a container of bubbles out of my bag and soon a crowd of younger children are chasing me around the field, giggling and trying to touch the magical, translucent spheres.
After the fun and games, it’s time to be put to harder work; this, after all, was not a typical holiday. After mixing the mortar and carefully scooping it onto the ground, I start laying cement blocks that will constitute the wall of the new school in Sajonte. Each cement block must be exact and Hector, one of the villagers who is helping me, has a critical eye and can tell right away. I lift the block and slowly lay it on the wet mortar, holding my breath as it settles down right in line with the neighboring one. I look anxiously to Hector for approval and let out a long exhale. He gives me a stoic look and then checks to make sure the bricks are in line. He looks up and nods, “Os.” (good) I grin back at him, beaming at his praise. He then leaves me to lay the remaining bricks, assuming that I’ve mastered the art of masonry.
My crash course in construction work continues the next day. We broke up the day of sifting the gravel needed for the mortar for the foundation of the new medical clinic, by playing endless games of duck, duck, goose with the tireless village kids. Work and games were interrupted when the sky darkened and the daily rain showers began to fall. I huddle in a small shelter with several of the villagers who have been helping us with the foundation, and with notebook and pen in hand, decide it’s time for an English-Spanish-Q’eqchi’ lesson. Beginning with basic phrases, such as “I like Guatemala,” each of the villagers tries to repeat the foreign English sounds and intonation. In return, I would repeat the Q’eqchi’ equivalent and try my best to mimic them, much to the delight and merriment of all.
On the last day, little seven-year old Wilmy and I scavenge the jungle floor in search of rocks that will be used for the water project. The families in the tiny village of Los Limones, situated at the foot of a mountain, have to draw their water from a spring. I slip around in the mud as Wilmy expertly navigates the jungle floor in his bare feet. He is eager to help and pulls rocks out of the mud which we then carry up the side of the mountain to the site where the cistern will be located.
These projects will take several years to complete due to the difficulty in transporting the building materials to such a remote region. But the villagers don’t seem to mind; time moves at its own pace here. During my short stay here, I’ve come to understand the rhythm and work on village time, to take breaks when the rains come, to leave the brick and mortar for a game of duck, duck, goose, and to discover the magic of bubbles, once again. I leave the Polochic and the people I’ve met and I am truly happy in my heart.”