Turning Around America – Guatemala
April 14, 2012
It has been two months since Jenn and I returned from Turning Around Americas Guatemala adventure. It was an incredible experience. The people in the village of Vera Cruz were wonderful. We established our school in the remains of a once grand summerhouse, the former vacation home of a plantation owner. Small by American standards it was grand compared to the dwellings of the local villagers. Left empty for a number of years the jungle was reclaiming it quickly. Just before we got there vines and plant material were cleared out, the walls were white washed and the floors mopped. All of the wood in the structure was rotting- the windows the cabinets and doors. We were staying in a building that was basically post apocalyptic, toilets but no running water, lights but no electricity etc. We lit a fire on the porch to cook meals and used candles for light. We were miles from a main road and could only get to the village with a four-wheel drive vehicle. We arrived in Vera Cruz in the late afternoon, it was Chicharra season and the air was filled with their buzz saw like noise. Matt our host brought everything we would need for ten days, beds Mosquito netting, fresh water, tools and a generator for power tools. Our house was at the top a big hill. The local children helped unload all our stuff and bring it up the hill.
We met Pilar and Tyson who would be our guardian angels for 10 days. They live and work with the villagers on a current project Matt helped established called the coconut project (coconuts ground into a cream to sell to bars in Antigua, all done with bicycle adapted machines). Pilar and Tyson moved up into the house with us, we spent the afternoon rigging mosquito netting over the beds. This was done by having the kids cut some bamboo for us with their machetes and then using string wrapped around the beams of the house to hold up the bamboo and netting. When we finished Jenn and I both agreed it looked like an art school sculpture installation, it was a contraption, which totally saved us. The bugs were amazing, many, and voracious. Even though we were always slathered in repellant we were covered in bites.
Matt left us in the capable hands of Pilar and Tyson and we went to bed and tried to sleep through the insect rich noise of the night. The next morning we had a meeting to figure out a big plan. Our mission was to teach enough woodworking skills to allow the villagers to remake windows and doors. Upon inspecting our wood I realized that it was not dry enough to make window or doorframes, the table saw blade was fused so we would not be able to cut the wood into workable dimensions. I cut the pieces I could before burning out the old blade and stacked them up for class projects. Our first group of thirty students consisted of women of all ages. They were very excited and through Jenn and Pilar translating I was able to get everyone to make a mortise and tennon joint, teaching them to use a square, saw, chisel and a bit and brace for drilling. The mortise and tennon is the main joint used for the window and doorframes. We worked until there was no more light available, some women left and some kept working by candlelight. It was the only class I have ever taught with multiple women breast-feeding while working at the bench.
The women took turns bringing us food each day. This consisted of fresh tortillas and beans mostly. We got a variety of fruit from the nearby jungle -plantains, bananas, avocado, papaya, lemon – I do not remember the names of them all. Giving us their beans and tortillas was a sacrifice for the villagers. We were told that the average village member makes around .75 cents a day. The coconut project can earn the participants up to 3.00 dollars a day. Pilar would subtly let us know what was safe for us to eat and what would be problematic so we could thank our benefactor and say we would eat later. Pilar and Tyson could eat most everything so we tried not to let anything go to waste.
Jenn and I could see we would not have enough wood for all our classes so we started looking around. Jenn pointed out all the possibilities of the bamboo around us so we asked the ever-present children to cut some down for us. We figured out how to use it to make whistles, flutes and marimbas with the kids. Jenn came up with a simple candleholder and a bamboo shelf that was quite popular with the teenage boys. After the fourth or fifth day of formal classes, the workshop morphed into open studio for whoever had a specific project they wanted to work on. We made knives from old saw blades with everyone who was interested. The older women saw the process and started bringing up kitchen knives with broken handles. I taught the boys how to fix them using bamboo for the pins. One couple made a stool with a jury-rigged lathe we made and their machetes. People stopped by at times that were convenient for them dependent on their work schedule. Some men would stop by in the morning on the way to or from their land/work. There was lots of woodworking by candlelight. We had a jig saw and the teenagers loved using that especially. The generator was really noisy, so we would wait until multiple projects were marked and ready before turning it on.
I could see it was going to be difficult to make all the new full-length windows and doors with the limitation of available wood. I figured a way that the windows could be shortened by building cinder block half walls. A village meeting was held and Pilar presented the idea, a vote was taken and the plan was approved. The village also formed a carpentry commission and the members ranged from teen age girls to grown men. They took an inventory of the donated tools Jenn and I brought for them from Boston. Matt donated an old wooden chest he had at home in San Lucas. Two days before we left the village the table saw was fixed and Matt was able to bring some dry wood from Antigua. I spent one day teaching Pilar how to make the mortise and tennon on the table saw and everything she need to know to make the windows later on with the table saw. She used her new skills to make sliding drawers for the chest, making a place for each tool so it would be easy for the carpentry commission to keep track of the inventory. In our last couple of days the village held a fiesta for us. All the women came up to the big house, built fires, and cooked all day. They made tamales wrapped in banana leaves (what a treat). When dinner was ready everybody got together in the cavernous living room of the house and a speech of thanks was given to us by Sandra who first contacted Matt to come to their village. Juan Carlos wrote and played a song especially for us on his guitar. They thanked us for our time and offered us an open invitation to come to Vera Cruz anytime, in the spirit of (mi casa es su casa). At the end of the speech Sandra announced that we would now dance. The villagers were quite shy about this, as in any high school dance the girls all danced, while the men and boys were reluctant. I jumped up, always ready for a whirl around the floor and a gentleman I had not met jumped out of the crowd to dance with me. It was great fun.
Our experience in Guatemala was incredibly full in all ways. This is one of the reasons it has taken so long to write about it. We were taken outside our comfort zone and placed in an unimaginable reality. Were we successful? I would say yes, but only time will tell. Jenn and I think of Turning Around America as a kind of garden- we plant seeds of empowerment and see the immediate results, but the bigger harvest is far into the future. We may never live to see it and the cross-pollination that occurs. We are thinking about a Turning Around America Project in Vera Cruz for 2013 or 2014. Our idea is to design a bicycle lathe and take the parts necessary to build a few with the villagers. Turning would be a convenient and well-suited process for creating products for market and personal use. Most people in the village live in small huts with dirt floors. We were teaching what they needed to know in order to fix the big house, but many have no furniture and need household items so that is how they applied their new found skills in woodworking.