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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