It has taken me a few days since returning form my trip to Guatemala to digest everything that I saw and everything I did. Needless to say, it was a packed trip, but not full of the usual activities. So here goes the story, I hope you all enjoy reading about a whole different part of my life.
We were heading to Tamahu, Guatemala, to visit our Grandfather, who runs the Tamahu Project, a non-profit with a three branches. Tamahu is located about 3 hours by car from Guatemala City, and has a population of about 4,000 including a few of the surrounding hill villages. To access it, you drive on a windy one lane highway for the first 2.5-3hrs, then on a dirt road with a few paved sections or a half hour. The dirt road continues for another 7hrs to the Gulf of Mexico passing through other towns. Like I said, it is pretty rural. Our grandfather met us in San Julian, the junction to the dirt road after we took the Monja Blanca (greyhound equivalent) form Guatemala City. I had never been to Central America, much less to Guatemala, but my brother and cousin had each been a few times, so I trusted their navigation skills.
First let me explain, the Tamahu Project as I mentioned before, is a non-profit with three branches: an elementary school, a kids nutritional clinic, and a number of building projects. The school was the first piece, opened in 2005 quickly followed by the clinic which rehabilitates infants and children from malnutrition, a common problem in the area. The third piece, the building projects range in scope from new dwelling for people who live in metal shacks with dirt floors to brining running water to houses in hillside villages.
Since our first full day there was a Friday, we spent the most time at the school with the cute kids. It was “La Dia del Cariño” (Valentine’s Day) so we helped them decorate hearts and, helped the teachers with activities and lunch. I should mention that this region of Guatemala has two dialects, Q’eqchi and Pocom which are based on Mayan, and most of the kids speak one of these two at home, and then learn Spanish throughout their schooling. Needless to say none of them spoke a lick of English, although the teachers all spoke Spanish and the dialects fluently.
It was definitely a test of my Spanish ability since that was my only method of communication. I was surprised at how happy all the kids are despite most of them traveling for more than an hour to school, many of them from hillside villages that they walk a ways down to the road from. It worked out great though, and I loved spending time at the school. We spent the afternoon reading and walking around the town, I wanted to get familiar with as much of the surroundings as I could.
Saturday was a bit of an unusual day for us. We went to run errands with my grandfather, stopping to purchase things for the school and clinic and then meet his friend, Father Ricardo, in San Cristobal. We had a great lunch with a few weird Guatemalan foods I wish I had taken pictures of, and then he wanted to show us a property he bought from a friend who owns a few fincas (agricultural estate, usually to grow coffee) in the area. His property was beautiful, and we got to hear stories about all his walks and adventures to the hillside towns that are part of his parish. Next time I go to Guatemala I would like to join him on some of his visits to see what even smaller/more rural towns in the area look like. After we went to his property, we went to meet his friends, Tono and Irma, and they were very nice. Again, a test of my Spanish, but I managed. It was really interesting to see the coffee beam process before they get roasted. In case anyone was curious, unroasted coffee beans taste like any other bean – pretty bland.
Sunday was another day of adventure. First we went to a few minutes of the mass in Pocom, because I heard the music was an experience, and boy did it not let me down! I’m not even sure I can describe it, so maybe next time I will record a clip for you all to hear. After the music, we sat on the steps of the church in the main square of town to just watch life go by. Being three tall outsiders, people tended to stare at us, but sitting on those steps, after a few minutes people forgot or stopped caring we were there and it was really nice to see life go on.
We spent the rest of the morning and part of the afternoon exploring the area. We stopped to see an awesome waterfall on the way to seeing a few of the completed housing projects that my Grandfather worked on. They are a simple design, designed to not require many tools, no saws, and be easily assembled by the owners, with a concrete floor and real doors and windows.
For me, it was really interesting to talk to the people who owned the houses and hear their stories about how they heard of the Tamahu Project, and what their conditions were like before their new home. It was similar with the water projects, seeing how grateful everyone was for something so simple as running water, not plumbing, just running drinking water.
Overall, this trip was very eye opening. It was hard coming back and going to work to design 4000sf and larger second/third homes for people when there are clearly so many people without proper homes. I know my work in Tahoe is interesting, but I guess I’m beginning to question the importance. Designing cool mountain houses is, well, cool and great experience, but what if I could do more for humanity and actually have a real impact on people’s lives who would truly appreciate it. These Casitas that are being built in Guatemala cost only $800 each and make a huge difference in the lives of the owners. Many of us spend more than that on just the plumbing fixtures or a couch in our homes. To send a child to the private school, including food, transportation, and school supplies, is less then $600 per year. We have found that the kids who attend this school are far less likely to drop out of their subsequent levels of education. At the school, they are given love and attention that is sometimes lacking at home. They are told they can do things and travel, and are allowed to dream. For many of the kids in this area, it is the bright part of their day before they have to return home and do labor.
Meeting the people and seeing Tamahu, the town I have heard about for more then a decade, was an amazing experience, one I will not soon forget. I love that my grandfather wants the grandchildren to continue his work. Part of us going to visit this time was to meet all the people who run each piece of the Tamahu Project so that in ten years when my grandfather cannot live in Guatemala full time, we can continue the work that he began. I love that I have been presented the opportunity to help make such a difference in the lives of people. Hopefully I will be making a return trip in June to again work in the school and travel to the Aldeas (hill villages) and meet even more people in the town whose lives have been changed with the Tamahu Project.
Do you ever wonder if you could do more for humanity?