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.
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