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 not a smoker and I 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.”
First of all we want to extend a huge thanks to everyone who voted for us in the BBC World Challenge 2010. We placed THIRD!! The $10,000 cash reward has enabled us to continue various projects at the Technico Maya Vocational School at a fast pace.
Since the last report the school has seen a lot of progress. We've put a roof on the patio of the first set of vocational classrooms. This roof gives us additional covered workspace, particularly valuable during the rainy season that is about to start.
Furthermore, our first permanent latrine is almost completed (pictured at left). It's fantastic to finally have real toilets on the site instead of using a pit latrine. The walls are made of plastic bottles stuffed with inorganic trash housed in a supportive structure made of bamboo. This structure contains 1,500 pounds of garbage that would otherwise be burned or thrown into water ways! It is a dry-composting latrine, meaning there is no need for water for flushing, and the human waste is collected to provide water and fertilizer for the organic garden and tree nursery. The latrine has been constructed with the help of a variety of volunteers, among them a group from Florida International University and George Washington University. Thanks to all who participated!
At the beginning of April the Guatemalan crew, Gringo staff and three volunteers took a trip to San Marcos, Lake Atitlan for one week to help build a structure with Earthship Biotecture. This trip provided the Guatemalan workers an opportunity to see another part of their country...most of them do not have the means to travel and none of them had ever been to the Lake.
Working with Earthship Biotecture gave us the idea to use more glass bottles on top of walls, a fancy feature we instantly applied on the ongoing construction of the vocational classrooms' center tool shed (pictured below). This tool shed has also been built in the last month-and-a-half. However, the roof is still missing and we are busy fundraising for the US $1500 to complete the roof and bond beam...hopefully before the heavy rains start.
Thanks to everybody who has supported us and to all the volunteers and workers at the site. You make this project happen! Stay tuned for more updates.
I'm overjoyed to report that the voting has finally opened for the BBC World Challenge!!! As Long Way Home supporters, I hope you will all consider not only taking a minute to vote for Long Way Home (A class apart), but consider spreading the word to your own networks. Voting is simple, you just click "Vote Now," enter your name and email address and submit.
The $20,000 cash reward and the spread in Newsweek magazine represent a huge opportunity for us here at Long Way Home. The money will pay for the construction costs for four of our eight primary classrooms. This represents a better educational environment for 80 children annually. We also hope to arrange night classes for adults in these same classrooms. And the publicity will help to ensure we can raise funds for the rest of the project. I'm beginning my seventh month working for this organization and everyday I become more convinced that my decision to stay was the correct one. Never have I been a part of such a dedicated, enthusiastic and talented group of people, both the Guatemalans and the Gringos. The warmth of this community and the overwhelming support for the school project touches me daily. If I ever get discouraged by little set backs, all I have to do is seek out some of the children like those pictured above and I feel energized all over again. I'll want to thank you in advance for considering supporting this project. It is a worthy one and we won't end with Comalapa. This model can be replicated any place there is dirt, trash and poverty...with your help we can make that happen. A clip of the full segment one Long Way Home is currently available and the full program should be available after it airs. We have been told it will air the weekend of October 9th. Please use this link to determine when it will air in your time zone. Click on the drop down to select your time zone and then scroll down to change the date to October 9th or 10th. As far as I am able to determine, we will be shown in each of the four "World Challenge" time slots. Thanks again, or, as my Kaqchikel neighbors say, "Matiox!"
I assume by now that everyone has heard about the myriad of disasters that affected Guatemala in early June. Between Pacaya, Tropical Storm Agatha and the sinkhole in Guatemala City, there has been plenty of excitement. The shutting down of the airport caused some logistical challenges for both volunteers and staff trying to come into or leave the country.
Despite the hurdles from Mother Nature, Long Way Home is enthusiastic about the progress being made at the Tecnico Maya Vocational School. Walls are up for the second set of vocational workshops. Local laborers and volunteers are working long hours hauling and mixing dirt in preparation for the next phase of construction.
We have also been making exciting progress at our prototype structure, the earthbag kitchen. It is here that we test out building methods that will be implemented at the vocational school. A final coat of finish is going on the exterior walls and we are experimenting with the tints available in Comalapa. The workers are enjoying working with the ratios of mix to find the perfect color combination. Our neighbor, Davit, who will eventually move into this home, is enthusiastic about having a lovely place to live with his family. When we build the primary classrooms, these color formulas will be used to brighten up classrooms and recreational spaces.
As we enter the second half of 2010, LWH is embarking upon a campaign to raise $40,000. These funds will be used to complete the four vocational workshops and begin construction of the eight primary classrooms. We are currently employing 10 Guatemalan construction workers and would like to increase that number to 18. We are committed to supporting the local economy through employment opportunities, patronage of Comalapan vendors and productive use of waste. Increasing our manpower will also allow the construction to move more swiftly and ensure that the children of our community have better educational facilities as soon as possible.
I encourage you to watch our latest video (link below) to see previous donations in action. Please also visit our recently updated photo gallery (link below) if you want to see more of our community and our work. Thanks for your support. Together we are building a better future for this Mayan community.
Latest Update from the Field
Postcard from Build a school from recycled materials for 50 Maya
By Mark Skeith - Visitor, October 14, 2009 04:16 PM
Children that benefit from the education opportunities provided!
Before heading to Long Way Home’s project in the Mayan highlands of Guatemala this summer, I decided get a feel for the organization by reading their website. I ran into this mission statement:
“Long Way Home’s mission is to break the cycle of poverty among youth in developing communities by creating educational opportunities, cultivating civic interaction, and encouraging healthy lifestyles.”
At first glance, their strategy seemed to be a straightforward and common way of reducing poverty in any developing country. After volunteering with them for a month, however, this pitch has gradually transformed into a very coherent and pointed approach to achieving sustainability in a community unlike any other in the world. Like nudging a line of dominoes waiting to fall, Long Way Home has introduced the idea of a better future into a community so that it can use preexisting relationships to do so when Long Way Home leaves.
A 45 minute drive up into the highlands from the economic vein of the Inter-American Highway, this community, San Juan Comalapa, has felt the winds of globalization but has not yet found the sails needed to enjoy it. Without business connections to foreign companies like Castrol, Fed Ex, or even Gold’s Gym, store owners have painted their logos on their storefront walls instead. The DVD stand in the central market is surrounded by people who would love to purchase movies but do not have the extra dollar to do so. Especially with people in their thirties or older, it was very easy to see an almost giddy excitement that their children and grandchildren will never have to see what they saw during the recent civil war.
That optimism is coupled though with another haunting idea that, although they are climbing out of their past, they could still slip back into it. There are Coca-Cola trucks servicing Comalapa now, but there are also guards carrying loaded shotguns. Villagers can now enjoy the crackling of fireworks at festivals without having to worry about government approval, but sometimes the bangs I heard were actually those of a gun.
Matt entered this community in 2002 as a PeaceCorp volunteer, building relationships with community members before returning home. But unlike many others in PeaceCorp, he realized an opportunity for sustainable development and returned with colleagues and funds in 2004 to see it through. With a network of community leaders that were determined to pull their village out of its past, Matt realized that he could do more than just teach a child, build a road, or save a tree here. By “creating educational opportunities”, he has been providing parents a lasting way to protect their children. By “cultivating civic interaction”, he can pass appropriate technologies along to people looking for just that. And by “encouraging healthy lifestyles”, he is providing a roadmap to a longer, brighter future in an environment that used to seem inevitably tarnished. In each of these 3 approaches offered in Long Way Home’s mission statement, the community is receiving the tools needed to help themselves when he leaves.
During my month volunteering there, I noticed so many little moments when this change of attitude would come out. One day, I was enjoying a snack with a married couple in the back of a pickup truck on the way to the school construction site, and when the husband tried to throw away the wrapper, his wife said to him, “You shouldn’t do that” (The concept of littering is definitely new there!). Another day, I followed a group of students up to the soccer field listening to them complain about their little soccer balls that pop far too easily, and then like receiving Willy Wonka’s golden ticket, I saw the excitement in their faces when Matt held up ten gold medals that ten lucky kids would receive if they hustled. Coming from the U.S. where the idea of working at a soup kitchen sounds absurd on a beautiful NFL Sunday, it was amazing to see entire communities banding together to build latrines and retaining walls for the local elementary school because no one else would.
When I look back on a month there, all the wonderful conversations I had with Guatemalans, Long Way Home staff, and other volunteers pointed to one clear message about sustainable development. Community members are not the targets of development; they are its force driving.
And, this is why I really think it’s their slogan, not their mission statement, that does them the more justice:
“From the ground up”
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Combined with other sources of funding, this project raised enough money to fund the outlined activities and is no longer accepting donations.
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