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.”
May is always a busy time for Long Way Home crew and volunteers. The long rainy season is about to start and we do a lot of work to prepare the construction site for the deluge. This year we have been fortunate to be able to hire nine additional local Guatemalan workers to help us get ready. Recently I was shooting some footage for a campaign video and our students were telling the camera, "Nos encanta nuestra escuela" (We love our school). Our workers were also part of the shot and after the kiddos ran off, I got to catch our workers making the line their own (see short clip below). We hope to find funds to keep the extra workers on for another month...every day makes a difference when prepping for The Long Wet!
As Director of Operations for Long Way Home, I have a lot to be grateful for: friendly neighbors, highly capable staff, energized volunteers, generous donors, freedom, learning opprotunities, cultural exchange...the list goes on. By far the biggest perk of my job are the smiling faces of our Técnico Maya students. We now have 25 students from 2nd - 5th grade onsite Monday through Friday. I used to have to walk to the old school when I needed a recharge from the hug brigade; now I simply walk outside. From my office I can hear a wonderful addition to the sounds of power tools: children singing and reciting lessons. When my internet breaks down or I feel overwhelmed, the sounds of children's laughter is the perfect antidote. I want to give a heartfelt thanks to the donors and volunteers who have brought us this far. When I started with Long Way Home in March of 2010, the thought of having children in the classrooms was just a dream. With your help, it's become a reality!
As we near the mid-point of 2012, I'm excited to report that we are making great progress toward our goal of opening the entire school for the January 2014 school year. We've had setbacks, yes, but we've never lost focus. The current Técnico Maya students seem very happy in their new "digs" and we are so excited to build their capacity to serve even more children. In recent months we've added new staff and new board members who have increased our capacity and our drive. As I prepare mentally for the grey skies, I salute all those who brighten up my day and the future of this magical community.
PS - Stay tuned for our 2011 Annual Report. It will be available online shortly.
Three weeks that I have joined the Long Way Home team, what a wonderful experience!
I am an intern from Belgium, I am going to stay in San Juan Comalapa for three months, and day after day I can see how the staff and the volunteers are motivated. In three weeks I saw the landscape changed, the building goes very fast... When I read previous reports, I can just recognized the progress made by the NGO.
I had seen how was the site before and I think that Long Way Home does a great job. Before my arrival, in early January, the NGO was pleased to open its first classroom that welcomes children of 4th and 5th grade. The building just goes on: the earthbag building, the art room, the retaining wall, the guard shack: all the site has great step forward.
I was pleasantly surprised by the methods of construction, the NGO has combined ecology and building in a surprising way. Tires, trash bottles and bags are very useful for the building's structure. Of course, it is a work of recycling, but it is also a way to preserve the environment. On Earth, we have a lot of waste, Long Way Home is able to use them effectively.
I think joined the LWH team is an rewarding adventure. And I am pleased to take part of this adventure. I want to thank all donors who, in some way, act in favor of this project. Thanks to you, 2011 was a wonderful year, and 2012 is ready to be also a great year.