My name is John Richards, and I am a professor of geography at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Oregon, which is where I first heard of Long Way Home – from my students. It took nearly five years of reports from my students and visits to the old Long Way Home website to overcome my inertia, put the distractions aside, and come here to see for myself what can be done with tenacious commitment to a vision, patient construction of community ties, plenty of goodwill, and lots and lots of sweat, dirt and trash.
I arrived in the third week of July, with the rainy season in full swing. Planting is well past and I can see the crops growing daily in the fields surrounding San Juan Comalapa – corn, lots of corn, and beans, squash, tomatoes, strawberries – crops to eat and crops to sell. The days are cool and the rains come in the afternoons and at night. They are often heavy, and I see the local farmers working long days with the heavy hoes called azadones to contour their field and cut back the weeds. The amazing growth I see is not just a gift of the rains, but a product of long, hard, back-breaking work.
I have never before lived in an indigenous settlement, but in San Juan Comalapa, although most people also speak Spanish, I hear much more Kaqchikel, the local Mayan dialect. I have read enough of the local history to understand that this is not a Mayan settlement, but the product of Mayan culture, Spanish conquest, and hundreds of years of retreat, regrouping and accommodation to an outside world that has been mostly hostile to the native culture and for that matter, the native people. San Juan Comalapa is in a picturesque setting of high, steep hills, surrounded by active and dormant volcanoes. It has the layout of a Spanish colonial town with the central market surrounded by Church and government buildings. In the market, hundreds of women in their colorful local costumes, or traje, squat on mats all day long, selling fresh fruits and vegetables for 25 or 30 cents a pound, and other goods that take hours to make for the price of a North American latte. It is picturesque, but dusty, even in the rainy season, and very poor. Generally speaking, the world takes more from this place than it gives in return.
I am especially touched to see very young women in the market, with a baby in the reboso on their backs and two or three more in tow. What alternatives are available to these young people?
Well, that’s a leading question. You should see the kids at Escuela Técnico Maya, especially the girls, and you should listen as they respond to their lessons and create happy chaos at recess.
It is nearly the end of my stay here. For the last two weeks I have been sifting, shoveling, mixing and lifting dirt to make the super-adobe used in the construction of aulas (classrooms) 1, 2, and 3. Work is slowed as we must carefully dry the soil under tarps, stop periodically to scrape the adobe silts from the soles of our boots, and stop early to stretch great black tarps across the whole structure to ensure that the super adobe dries evenly and slowly, achieving maximum strength. Yet I am impressed every day by the dedication of the staff and the persistent hard work of the handful of volunteers, as their examples challenge me to keep working, to try to keep up, to not be the bottleneck in the construction process. I am particularly impressed by the amount of work the locals can do in a day. As I climb the path towards Paxan, the neighborhood where Long Way Home is building the infrastructure for La Escuela Técnico Maya, I look up the long, slick path and across the cornfields, and I see a large, but subtle, set of buildings emerging from the landscape. I think of the grades to be added as the classrooms are completed, and I think that each grade, each classroom, represents a few more choices and broader opportunities for the students of Técnico Maya, and the people of San Juan Comalapa.
As the dry season winds down, Long Way Home is gearing up for a productive summer. We are currently more than halfway through with construction of the first three of eight primary classrooms. Using a method called "superadobe," LWH crew and volunteers are sifting, mixing, hauling and tamping modified dirt into polypropylene tubing to form dome-shaped rooms for our students. In an earthquake region, stability is key. Barbed wire is laid between each course to further reinforce these buildings. Once the shells of the building are complete, we will be able to spend the rainy season working on finishes and preparing the buildings for the 2014 academic year.
We would be unable to move forward with our project without generous donations of time and money. In addition to several stellar individual volunteers, we recently hosted two awesome groups: FIU's Hillel Student Group and Living Waters. Choosing to spend their spring break engaged in service rather than vacationing, these young men and women put many sweaty hours into supporting our team in laying the foundation for the three classrooms. This group was amazing and full of spunk!
Living Waters for the World is a program of the Shenandoah Presbytery of Virginia and has partnered with over 500 organizations worldwide to provide clean water and training in communities with contaminated water sources. Their aim is to remove bacteria, parasites and similar disease-causing organisms and therefore improve health. In April the groups spent eight days installing the filtration system at our school complex and training the staff, teachers and students in operation and maintenance of the equipment. The clean water will serve as an income source for the school in addition to ensuring our children are drinking and brushing their teeth with free, clean water.
In addition to our online fundraising campaigns, Long Way Home is occasionally able to visit our supporters and partners in the United States. In April our Executive Director and I drove nearly 4,000 miles meeting with universities and groups in Oregon, California, Arizona and Colorado and attending events hosted by volunteers and board members. It is such a treat to re-connect with folks who are engaged with the project from afar. The opportunity to share our mission with new friends is energizing as well! Hearing the gasps and exclamations that accompany our slideshow really reminds us that we are turning trash into treasure.
A warm thank you for the donations of time, money, raffle items, lodging and event space. Without the generosity of people, both old friends and new, we would not be as successful as we are!! It is a pleasure to work on your behalf for the community of San Juan Comalapa, Guatemala.
My name is Lars Battle and I’m currently living and working with Long Way Home in Guatemala after serving on its board of directors for four years from 2007 – 2011. I served in the Peace Corps in 2002 and 2003 alongside LWH’s founder, Matt Paneitz, and our construction manager extraordinaire, Adam Howland, where I was personally tasked with organizing community development councils in villages in the northwestern highlands. I have spent time on the ground here in San Juan Comalapa on four separate occasions since then, and with each experience, my departure has left me wanting more of this innovative project. So I am here to stay this time, presently serving as an honorary LWH staff member.
We find ourselves in the midst of the dry season, a particularly productive time of year for a variety of reasons. Working with on-site dirt is a large part of what we do here and the dry soil is essential for packing rammed-earth tires, and certainly helpful for clearing and leveling land for new structures to be erected. Additionally, this time of year brings us groups of college and graduate students using their winter break to support projects like ours. We recently welcomed a group of 14 graduate-level architecture students from the University of Colorado in Denver followed by a group of 20 George Washington University undergraduates, each group spending a week or more working tirelessly on the project.
The CU-Denver group dedicated their time to the design and construction of an octagonal bamboo frame for a trash bottle structure that will serve as part of the volunteer/intern facility on the property. The GW crew packed tires around the same structure, filled cracks in the mud roof of Aula 0 and helped to dig out the bottom of the massive tire cistern at the top of the property.
After years of experience, our Guatemalan work crew is well accustomed to working with international volunteers. It’s a pleasure to observe and to be a part of the camaraderie and cultural exchange between the workers and the revolving door of volunteers. The crew is now putting the finishing touches on Aula 0, building the bottle walls at the bamboo structure and finishing the preparation work for the upcoming Earthship building workshop that begins next week. This will be a highlight of my stay thus far and the anticipation in the air is palpable right now. We are hosting over 60 international volunteers and the Earthship crew from Taos, NM for a 3 week, start-to-finish build of a simple survival Earthship home for a local family. It will be a special learning experience for everyone involved.
Central to LWH’s mission is the educational aspect of our project. We are pleased to announce that school began this week, on January 14th, and we now have four teachers in four finished classrooms, teaching students ranging from preschool to the 5th grade. Whether singing in unison in their classrooms or giggling during recess, the students are a delight to have around. I am working closely with the Técnico Maya school Director and administrators to make sure that the school year is a successful one.
Please visit our website to receive the latest news from San Juan Comalapa, and please support our efforts so that our progress in the latter portion of this school construction project maintains its strong pace.
As the Director of Administration, my involvement with Long Way Home has been long but remote; I’m a founding member and I have spent the past 7 years handling LWH’s state-side operations…until recently. After many years of short visits to our project site in Guatemala I finally had the opportunity to be in-country for a nice long stretch. October marks my sixth month as an in-country team member with Long Way Home and I couldn’t be more pleased with my new office!
As we slowly slip from the rainy season into the dry season, it is a beautiful sunny day here in the western highlands of Guatemala. Everything is green and lush, the surrounding fields are teaming with crops awaiting harvest, and the rains have provided much needed nourishment as well as music to fall asleep to under the rhythmic drumming on a tin roof. Of course, work marches on, even in the rains, and so much has happened over the past few months; the changes are evident while strolling around the constructions site.
Most recently as been our continued work on Aula 0, which as some of you may know, took a hit earlier this year as a result of some untimely, unseasonably heavy rainfall. While our structure, which had not yet been fitted with the complete water deferment system, took a beating, our spirits did not! After a little regrouping we have made steady progress towards its completion. Aula 0 marks the first of 9 buildings that are Phase II of our construction of the school campus. This structure will become the art lab for our students and we are extremely excited about the way Aula 0 is shaping up.
Newly outfitted with a second floor, Aula 0 sports a variety of glass bottles, beautiful bamboo work, and enough aluminum cans to have earned the nickname “Aula de latas” (classroom of aluminum cans)…which makes us smile! While there is still plenty of work to be done before the art lab is complete, we are making progress daily and it is amazing to see how much can change from day to day.
Another big change that has been unfolding over the past month has been the beautification of the vocational buildings. We all love the fact that our school is being constructed out of trash and part of our goal is to make sure that people recognize that trash can be made into something beautiful. We also want our kiddos to have a fun and pretty place to learn. To that end we have been busy adding the little touches that make this one of the prettiest construction sites I have ever seen.
Our vocational buildings have received some “blush and lipstick” that has transformed the tire structures into works of art….literally. The process has been accomplished with the help of many volunteers and the artistic skills of Magdaleno, one of LWH’s Guatemalan crew members. The vocational buildings reflect elements of the rich Mayan culture of our community, educational aides in the form of maps of Guatemala and a portion of the globe, and stunning glimpses of birds, flowers, crops, and tools that are ever present in the day to day activities of our work.
Visit us on site and you will witness a hustle and bustle that seems to never end….even when the work day is done. Our team invests countless hours cultivating new ways to utilize what others have tossed aside as worthless; we thrive on the challenge, we enjoy the thrill of pushing the envelope and we take pride in innovative results. It is really fulfilling to finally be on-site to see, first hand, all of the elements in play, working together to move toward a common vision….and a very beautiful one at that!
PS - In August we hosted a film crew from Germany's Deutsche Welle. Click on the link below to view the segment.
I’m almost completely out of breath after a brief trudge up a moderately steep hill that brings me closer to the town of San Juan Comalapa. I’m in decent shape and normally wouldn’t be so overwhelmed by such an unremarkable slope. I am, however, at nearly 7,000 feet above sea level, which I’m fairly certain is by far the highest elevation I’ve ever been to. My attention is completely consumed by the clouds above me, so lucid and detailed, and it’s hard to believe everyone in this area doesn’t stop dead in their tracks and begin to study or paint them. I’ve never seen clouds like this, just like I’ve never seen such towering volcanoes demanding awe on the horizon.
I’ve been in Comalapa for nearly a month, interning for Long Way Home, and already I’ve experienced many firsts. The people of this town are the friendliest I’ve encountered and never greet me as a stranger but as a welcomed guest, and always with a contagious smile.
After a short yet “rigorous” hike I reach my destination and begin to process another first for me. I can’t help but admire the creatively-sustainable structures that make up Técnico Maya’s vocational primary and secondary school. And after a few exchanges of cheerful “buenos dias” with some of the local workers and students I head towards the meat of the landscape. A vast hillside of soaring tire-walls and earth bag/trash bottle architecture unfolds before me and alerts me that I’m standing right in the middle of the future, or at least I what I hope is the future.
This future, led by Long Way Home’s imaginative building ingenuity, utilizes and works cohesively with two things that Guatemala has plenty of; 1) a life-sustaining climate 2) trash. LWH’s approach includes an impressive lower tire-retaining wall, which was completed in March of this year by the way, and uses over 3,000 recycled tires. So many tires were used in this project that the department capital ran out of recycled tires to contribute and LWH had to scavenge some from an illegal landfill. Trust me when I say these tires compliment this school better than they would a local waterway.
Let’s backtrack a bit- my first week in this country, I received a tour of Comalapa by LWH’s volunteer coordinator Kristin Guité and was indescribably moved when I got to see what motivates LWH so passionately. I was brought to the town’s only legal landfill, which can only be explained as a garbage-filled Valley of Eden. I stood at the edge, jaw-dropped, not knowing what to do with such a scene where a deep, jungle-occupied canyon, that must have been ideal territory for a jaguar or a tyrannosaurus rex, was about 1/8th trash and 1/16th trash-eating dogs and buzzards. Then Kristin broke my spell with “see, this is why we work with garbage.” I was sold, and I saw the future I wanted where this valley flourished and homes and schools were built out of the garbage that was once here, back in the day.
Let’s backtrack even more, just a tad- The first part of my tour took me to a mural that decorated the walls of every building for an entire street’s length. I was guided very thoroughly through each depiction of (for lack of a better word) struggles that the indigenous population endured in the past. I didn’t tear-up, because I didn’t want people who just met me to see me cry, but I wanted to, especially when I came to the last walls where the mural portrayed rebuilding and moving-on from such atrocities.
Now I’m walking through Técnico Maya, which will feature classes on the local indigenous language, as well environmental education courses that will inspire the youth of this town to follow LWH’s lead in conservation. These are all firsts for Comalapa. I’m learning about the upper cistern that has re-purposed over six tons of tire waste and the upper platform where the elementary classrooms will be built was blessed by a Mayan spiritual guide on March 25th of 2012. I’m learning about Long Way Home’s Just $21 Campaign where supporters pay 21 dollars for earth bags, or more for windows, floors, entire classrooms, or even the local labor, that all collectively make up this futuristic learning station.
Let’s move forward- Not much is different, the locals are still as delightful as ever and the clouds transcend what I ever thought possible in the sky. There are some not-so-subtle differences though; the valley below is beautiful and pristine and all the buildings around are built using thoughtful methods and garbage. The streams flow freely, and all cultures do the same. This is all a first for our planet and in order to get here we may have to travel far but thankfully we have a leader. Supporting LWH is the first step of this arduous journey and when we get there we’ll all look back at green, rolling hills and busy, smiling farmers and think “that was a long way home, but we made it.”
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