Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Tropical depressions and local legends

Yesterday I felt this neat little connection to my town, where I could exclaim with people about the birds I saw and talk about the accompanying legend, wondering if the season really was about to change. Superstition or not, I really hope the season is about to change here because it’s been raining constantly and it’s downright bothersome – I’ve been stuck in site for a week.

Let me begin – yesterday I stepped outside of the office and looked up into the sky – there were hundreds of birds off in the distance, circling, something I’ve never seen in the past 11 months. (Note: that video’s not mine). Sure there are birds around here – buzzards that lurk around the roadside garbage dump that I pass on my morning run, or the blue-jay types that flit through the trees casting shade in the coffee plantation, but not hundreds circling in the sky. I’d never seen that before but….I shrugged and forgot.

Later on that night I went to visit this zany guy in my neighborhood who invited me over for (instant) coffee and sweet breads, of course we discussed the weather since it’d been pretty miserable lately. We are already in the rainy season, but now everything has gone further downhill because of Tropical Depression 12-E, which hit on October 12th and has affected approx. 500,000 people, causing 34 deaths throughout the country. Everything is upset - when the weather gets fierce in Guatemala, roads and bridges wash out, retaining walls fail, mudslides destroy houses and rivers surge over their banks and displace entire communities. I feel pretty thankful that I’m safe and all I have to worry about is staying dry.

Meanwhile, zany guy (Godolfino) is telling me that there’s this local legend that says when the azacuanes arrive in the spring, when they mass together and fly away from the sea, towards the north, it means that the season is about to end. Translation – the rain is going to stop.

(note: for Guatemalans we are currently approaching spring. It’s the opposite than the States –the rainy season, which runs roughly from April to October, is what Guatemalans think of as winter)

Immediately, I thought back to that afternoon, when I saw a big ol’ group of birds massing above the hill on which my town sits, and since I’d never seen them before I figured maybe I’d gotten lucky. “Did you see the birds earlier today?” I asked, and immediately his daughter exclaimed that she’d seen them too. They must have been the azacuanes, we decided. Cheerily, we hoped it meant that the season was coming to an end.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Explosions in the sky

It’s been practically forever since I last posted – sorry.

I’m still in site, still in Peace Corps and days are still passing one after the other. It’s funny to think that it’s 11 months after I first arrived and I still see my neighbors day to day, the crowded buildings lining cobbled streets, the looming volcano of Tajamulco in the distance, the jagged foothills covered with coffee plants, the bright sunshine of the morning on the slope as I walk to work, a gleaming that turns into clouds and then a steady drizzle and usually a downpour in the afternoons and evenings. I’m still in southwestern Guatemala, perched on a steep hilltop and looking out onto the coastal plain, with Tapachula (Mexico) in the distance, plus a faint straight line I can barely make out which convinces me I can actually see the Pacific Ocean. It is lush and green and humid and there are actually two corn harvests here, a lifestyle reward on top of an already agreeable climate, because the colder locales of the altiplano only count on one. Out this morning I saw corn stalks rising up between rows of young coffee plants in a hillside field, peasants or their overseers coaxing more life into existence.

I originally wanted to write about noise and community this morning, when I first reminded myself of the pressing need to update my blog. Last night, I slept lightly because there was constant noise, a series of booming M-80s that went off periodically, continuing until I was already descending the hillside for my morning run. My neighbors were lighting mortar fireworks that go off with warning, a preliminary explosion that reminds you to cover your ears because the actual firework goes off a few seconds later, a thundering boom that echoes across the mountains for miles around.

People in my area were lighting these firecrackers off all night long, which, while not entirely unheard-of, is a bit out of the ordinary. Usually I can expect to sleep soundly. Sometimes they’ll be butchering pigs in the slaughterhouse on the hillside below my window, or the pigeons that live in my roof will cease to stop skittering around, but more often than not I sleep pretty soundly.

Last night, however, I kept waking up, or more specifically, I would jerk awake lightly and then slide back into sleep, like I had gradually become comfortable with the booming explosions. This morning, as the dawn’s light came into my room as it does because I don’t have any curtains, I imagine that I should have been pissed that I didn’t sleep well, but I actually felt ok. And suddenly, I liked realizing that the fireworks meant that there was a community celebration and that I had been involved even though there hadn’t been an invitation or an explanation.

I think the difference is that I’m actually connected to my community now, instead of 10 months ago when I was still a stranger, in my own head and my own behavior, unaware of the people around me and their lives, and now I enjoy the fact that I became aware and effectively involved, that I was reminded of people having a good time about something important to them. It made me wish someone had told me, especially when I found out that it was the Day of Saint Francis, which, coincidentally happens to be the name of my very neighborhood (i.e. I totally should have been participating) It made me feel bad that I didn’t even bother going outside to see the music and procession, lit by candlelight and punctuated by M-80 blasts, all of which I could see from my apartment but I don’t feel that bad. There will be more things unfolding tomorrow, more tiny mysteries to discover.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


My bottle school project is finally finished. After three months of construction and almost 6 months of collaboration and planning, we now have a beautiful two-room schoolhouse. Hooray!

Of course, this project definitely didn’t come without some roadbumps. First of all, it’s obvious that the school is now turquoise. Here’s what it looked like a week ago:

At the last minute we decided that the color should change, partly because some of the stucco work was kind of sloppy and had to be reapplied . Ideas started flying around, and next thing you know the mayor plunked down Q700 (approx. $90) for three buckets of paint and the community slapped on a fresh coat. Unfortunately, given the stark difference between light blue and dark red, 15 gallons wasn’t enough paint and now the back side of the school looks like this:

It’s not clear why the mayor didn’t just buy more paint – there were, ahem, some obstinate conversations last Thursday that resulted in certain people just sort of throwing up their hands and saying “this isn’t my problem anymore.” Kind of disappointing, but it’s sorta fortunate that the blue/red combo doesn’t actually look too bad.

Meanwhile, the welders were throwing me for a loop. This is Rolando, holding one of those special, extra-fluffy breeds of chicken:

Rolando, who actually seems like a pretty nice guy, got a bit behind schedule. Having promised that he would have the entire project completed by the 15th of August, I figured that we’d have 6 days of leeway, just in case anything came up. Boy did they cut it close – at 11:30 pm, the night before the inauguration, my community counterpart Don Miguel called and told me – “Justin, you can sleep soundly because the welders just finished installing the doors and windows.” Of course they had to fill in the big holes they drilled and then let the concrete set overnight, so we were putting a final bit of cover-up on the next morning. I literally had to warn the visiting donors, Dave and Cheryl Watson, to beware of wet paint when the inauguration began.

But who cares? It’s all over now! The work is done and there are just good stories to tell :)

On Saturday, (and skip this part if you’re squeamish) we butchered a cow in preparation:

It was two years old, cost Q3000 (about $370) and weighed about 600 pounds. They did the whole jazz right in the middle of the field, and I thought it was funny because there were NO cows anywhere nearby, like, time to make yourselves scarce lol

Here’s the head butcher distributing the cuts of meat to the amas de casa (house mothers) – note the cat waiting patiently in the background :)

Of course, we had to skewer up a little barbeque right then and there, which was probably the freshest beef I’ve ever eaten (it was pretty tasty)

At one point the local kids wanted to take me on an adventure, so we went to a nearby waterfall (you can see it off in the distance):

It’s so beautiful around here.

Sunday morning I headed back down to the community at 9 am and the ladies had been cooking for hours – it’d be stewed beef for the inauguration.

And then, everyone started to gather, all dandied up in their nicest clothes:

I even wore a suit:

There were lots of important people – from left to right:

Zach Balle (co-founder of Hug It Forward)
Cheryl and Dave Watson (visiting funders)
Juan Manuel (the new Hug It Forward coordinator in Guatemala)
Don Armando (one of the town councilmen)
Miriam Lopez Ochoa (the mayor)
Carlos Julajuj and Doris Guzman (my direct boss and his project specialist)
(I’m not sure who the guy in the orange cap is lol)
Jose Caceres (Program Director for World Vision in my area)

There was dancing:

There was a ceremonial ribbon cutting:

Formal awards:

More little kids in costume:

Lots of speeches (can you tell I’m zoning out?)

And this girl sang, no lie, 8 of those wailing Mexican rancheras about drinking and lost love and we sat there as patiently as we could :)

All told, it was a fantastic day! Thanks to everyone out there for all your support!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Putting on the roof

Rain is no longer an issue! Last week our herrero (metalworker) finished assembling the metal rafters, which he then installed on the school. Next came the tin roofing (lamina), which is standard for building construction in Guatemala. Here’s the school from the back (note the kids chasing each other; a few hang around the jobsite constantly, either curious or playing nearby)

And here’s a completed picture from the front:

Here’s an idea of what the construction looks like from the inside – the bright light you see on the ceiling is where daylight enters the classroom through an installed sheet of translucent lamina. Pretty smaaart ☺

Yep, it’s really starting to look good.

Then I came back a few days later, and whoop – they’d already started painting! (see what I said about kids being everywhere?)

Another picture from the back

and here’s what the inside will look like

A few days afterwards, it was time to pour the floor!

First, you’ve got to mix a bunch of concrete on the ground – for this particular pile I believe the proportion was roughly 5 bags of cement to 20 buckets of gravel to 30 buckets of sand. Then the albañiles (masons) start spreading it out on the classroom floor:

It’s tough work shoveling concrete but we all helped out ☺

The process goes pretty fast though; a couple of hours and we were done!

We’re about 90% done with the school now – next week the herrero will install the windows and doors while the electrician mounts the light mixtures. Just a little more than two weeks until the inauguration!

Press coverage!

I've been incredibly fortunate to get some press on my bottle school project - here are a number of news outlets that have covered my story:

Fairbanks Daily News Miner
Anchorage Daily News
Ponte Al Dia (Spanish)

Earth Times
Hug It Forward

US Embassy - Guatemala

CBS - Atlanta
K13XD - Fairbanks

KUAC - Fairbanks

Other bottle school projects in the news

Here's former Peace Corps Guatemala volunteer Laura Kutner demonstrating a technique of how to construct bottle wall at the 2011 Smithsonian Folklife festival:


Monday, July 25, 2011

Filling in the walls

I figure I’ll start out with the most recent progress – here’s what I left with you the last time I posted (about 2 weeks ago)

Since then, this is what the community has come up with:

The end gable is filled with bottles and has its first layer of stucco; they also started stucco’ing the lower parts of the wall. But we’ve already advanced way past this point.

The sun makes it a little difficult to make out the progress, but both the end gable and the entire back wall have their finish coats of stucco. The workers are placing bottles in the second level, and since I took that picture on Wednesday the remaining squares have probably already been filled in and have their first coats of stucco. We’re moving right along.

Some recent events…..above are some pictures from when we invited a bunch of local community leaders out to the project in hopes to dispel some of the mystery surrounding building with eco-bricks. They seemed pretty impressed, which is nice because most people look at me with incredulity when I tell them that we’re building with trash. Usually, they have to see it in order to believe it.

I’ve been getting my hands dirty, of course. Here I am up on the scaffolding, tying bottles to chicken wire:

And here’s the square that Don Miguel and I finished:

These next few pictures can give you another vantage point from which you can see progress. First, the “before”:

Then, the “after”

Gotta hand it to our head mason Frainer; he’s pretty good with stucco and a trowel.

Here’s a couple of community members pitching in with another part of the wall:

Bottom line is, things are going awesome. Here’s another “before” picture of what our school will look like from the front:

Final thing – we just confirmed today that our inauguration will be Sunday, August 21st! It’ll be a big party and some people are saying that we should slaughter a cow, but I’ll wait to see it before I believe it ☺ Regardless, there’ll be lot of different people present, including the Municipality, folks from the Peace Corps administration and some special Hug It Forward VIPs. I’m really excited - just one month to go!