Reflections from the Habitat build and cultural activities in Guatemala
“About the volunteers, Gricelda proudly displays photos of the volunteers who came to construct her home in her living room, a reminder of the help they had along the way. Their goal is to add a second story one day.”
“About the volunteers and their experience with them, Odilia recalls: “We enjoyed our time with them! They worked really hard. We went to the springs together and shared good memories, we even cooked!”
Saturday, April 7, 2018
Today we are in Antigua – the beautiful former (and colonial) capital of Guatemala. Several of the volunteers, myself included, arrived in Guatemala earlier than the start of the Habitat build to explore the country. On our first days in the country, we visited the spectacular Tikal National Park and Yaxha (pronounced, “Yasha”), two ancient Mayan civilization sites in the Department of Peten located in the north of the country. That was a wonderful introduction to the history and culture of Guatemala and gave great context to the work we would soon start once the rest of the team arrived.
Those of us who had stayed at other hotels in Antigua prior to the official dates migrated to our shared accommodation, Hotel San Jorge, which sat along a cobblestone road near Parque Central. Upon arriving, we met one of our two host coordinators, Ali, who had just come from the airport and picked up several of our teammates in Guatemala City. Mike, our other host coordinator, would bring the rest of the team members to Antigua in the afternoon. So until around 5:30 pm, we had free time to explore the city.
My folks and I, along with Teresa and Dudley, explored parts of the old town and eventually made our way to Cerro de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross), which is probably the most photographed spot in the city. A huge cross sits in the foreground while the cityscape and Volcan Agua lie in the background. Then we explored a crazy busy marketplace inside an old colonial building partly in ruins where you could have easily gotten lost! Stall upon stalls filled the space creating a maze-like interior made up of colorful textiles, pottery, jade, trinkets, and vendors.
At around 4:30 pm, we congregated back at the hotel. By this point, the rest of our team had arrived, so we finally got to meet one another before heading out to dinner. We ate at a local restaurant called 7 Caldos, known for their hearty soups and stews. Tomorrow we begin our journey to Quetzaltenango, where our build sites are located.
Sunday, April 8
This morning, breakfast was at 7 am on the rooftop of the hotel with a great view of the Volcan Agua. We left at 8 am sharp to head to Quetzaltenango, locally known as Xela (“Shayla”), where our build would be. But first, we had a cultural activity!
Along the way, we stopped at Iximche Archaeological Site (“Ishimche”), a Mayan site that was the capital of the region between 1470 and 1524 AD. Our local tour guide, Alexis (Alexis.Guarcas@gmail.com), was of Mayan descent and spoke two Mayan languages in addition to Spanish and English. He explained that Iximche was one of the last Mayan sites to be occupied before the Spanish invasion. Surprisingly, the site was only inhabited for a mere 60 years before it was abandoned. After it was abandoned, Iximche lay forgotten and buried for another 400+ years before it was rediscovered and unearthed by archaeologists.
Unlike Tikal or Yaxha, Iximche is much smaller in overall size than the other two sites and it is also not located in a tropical jungle, but instead in the mountains at a higher elevation. There were five main plazas with various living quarters and temples, one for each of the royal families who had lived there. The temples were about 20 feet tall and only partially excavated, but you could imagine them at the height of their glory. Mounds, which we found out were actually unexcavated ruins, stood as tiny hills with trees growing on top surrounded by flat earth. Between the ruins and temples was flat ground completely clear of vegetation except for grass, again something that was different from Tikal and Yaxha.
That afternoon, we arrived in Xela about 3:30 pm, checked into the Bonifaz Hotel in the center of the city, then headed out to visit the local Habitat affiliate and meet the families we would be working with. We have two sites, two houses, and two families to work with so our group will be split up on the build days.
One house is almost finished and the other is just beginning so it will be two different experiences. One family is made up of a mother, her adult daughter and son-in-law, and their two children, while the other family was a husband and wife and their two small children. We look forward to getting to know them! After that, we had a little free time at the hotel to ourselves and then we walked down the street to the pizza place for dinner.
Monday, April 9
Today was our first day on the build! Since we had two houses to work on, we were split up into two groups: five of us when to the house that was almost completed (Odilia’s house), while eight of us went to the new house to begin the work (Griselda’s house). At the first house, the new homeowners were Odilia and her daughter and son-in-law with their two little kids. At the second house, the new homeowners were Griselda and her husband with their two young children.
Odilia was present at the first house and worked alongside our volunteers carrying buckets of cement, sand, and shoveling. Griselda was present at the second site, but she did not contribute to the manual labor, at least not while we were there, on account of her two young kids. Her husband had a stable day job, so we did not see him during our time working on their house.
To be eligible for a Habitat house, families need to show they have a stable job and income, the ability to pay the monthly payments (around $100+), and be willing and able to contribute “sweat equity”, essentially their direct involvement in the house build. This can come in many forms whether that be carrying cement blocks, cooking for the masons, painting, cleaning up the site, or something else entirely.
The type of work we did at each site was quite different. Since the first house was almost complete, we spent much of the first day shoveling sand into buckets and filling up the interior house floors so the masons could begin pouring concrete. Odilia’s house was in a gated community and was being built flush again two neighboring houses, one of which was her sister’s.
Griselda’s house was in its infancy: the foundation hadn’t even been laid yet when we arrived. So we did a lot to prepare for that including rebar work, mixing mortar and concrete, and chipping away at cement blocks to create “U blocks” for the rebar to fit inside. We learned the latter was an important step to ensuring vertical and horizontal durability in the event of an earthquake (common in the country).
Their house was also behind a gate, but only their family lived behind it. In the front was Griselda’s parent’s house. Behind that, was her brother’s huge three-story house. It was being built in his absence from money he was making in the USA and sending home to his family. Behind his house was Griselda’s house, the house we were working on. And behind hers, in the very back, her sister, brother-in-law, and their two children lived under a tin-roof with hanging blankets for walls. Griselda and her family are currently living in an unfinished room in the brother’s house until theirs is finished.
Floor plans for the two houses based on models at the Habitat affiliate in Xela:
A lady in the community brought us delicious food for lunch – a Guatemalan specialty called Pepian. At around 3:30 pm we packed up and headed home. We cleaned up and enjoyed some free time before our first reflection meeting and dinner at a local sustainable “fast food” burrito joint called Tacorazon.
Tuesday, April 10
The second day went just as well as the first and basically mirrored it in terms of the type of work we were doing and for how long. There were a lot of different tasks to do: connecting and twisting rebar around the perimeter of the house to prepare for the foundation of the house, carrying sand and dirt to fill in the interior floors, cutting wire, mixing concrete, and pouring concrete into the forms around the perimeter of the house. We worked until around 12:30 pm today, had lunch prepared by the same couple as yesterday, and then worked hard until 3:30 pm.
By the end of the day today, we can already see some great process! The vertical sides are coming up and the floor is filling in; you can “see” the rooms! Griselda is visibly excited to watch the progress and we imagine that she is eager to settle in and planning where she will put her furniture finally.
We all had plenty of work to do today and we’re beginning to get to know the masons too. None of them speak English, so it’s been a challenge for those in our group who do not speak any Spanish. Luckily, several of us do know Spanish, so it’s been a fun game consisting of words, phrases, and charades as we try to communicate ourselves and help translate for others. Our two host coordinators, Ali and Mike, are fluent in Spanish as they have lived in Guatemala for a number of years. They have been an absolutely vital component to the success of the trip so far!
After our reflection meeting tonight, we went to dinner at a restaurant where Mike knew the owner from his first internship in the country. Every night we’ve been quite tired, so we haven’t done much after dinner. Eight hours of manual labor can really take it out of you! 😉 Lucky for us, we have a wonderful cultural activity tomorrow that will help to work out those sore muscles!
Wednesday, April 11
Our half day at the build site is today! Some volunteers have not had half cultural days before, so this is a treat for all. We returned to our regular sites to work until 11:30 am. We finished filling in the concrete around the perimeter of the house and the concrete blocks will start to go up once that dries. We moved a ton of blocks into the house and made volcano-piles of concrete!
At 11:30 am, we piled into the van, along with Griselda and her two kids, and headed to the Fuentes Georginas hot spring up in the jungle and mist. We had to drive on a scary, narrow cliff-side road to get there… but the views of the jungle and the lush vegetable gardens that paralleled the road were incredible. Once we arrived, lunch was prepared and waiting for us – what a treat! The same sweet lady and her husband who have prepared all of our lunch meals for us at the build site prepared this one as well, and they have been delicious.
The hot springs consisted of three large pools, each one slightly cooler than the previous. The spring drained out of the hills overhead and trickled down the rocks into the first pool which was the hottest. When we arrived the pools were busy with mostly locals. Many of them come to the hot springs for therapeutic reasons. We saw several people come with empty liter coke-a-cola bottles to fill with the water as it dripped off the rocks.
Odilia also came with our volunteers from the other house. She explained that she tries to come to the hot springs every few months and used to bring her patients with her to do their exercises when she was a practicing nurse. Griselda and her two children had never swum before, so they were all a bit apprehensive at first. But we stayed alongside them and helped them get acclimated where they could stand and enjoy the warm water. Her kids had a blast splashing around!
We stayed at the hot springs for several hours before packing up and heading home. We had our reflection in the evening and then ate at a crepe place for dinner. Trying to stay up a while longer, a few of us got drinks together at the hotel and visited before bed.
Thursday, April 12
Today is our fourth day on the build. To get a sense of the other property and interact with the other team members and masons a bit, my mom and I switched sites. Odilia lives in a gated community with a guard, so her neighborhood was quiet and neat. It is sandwiched between her sister’s house and another neighbor’s house. It has a large front yard where Odilia explained they’d like to have a garden with flowers and vegetables.
When we arrived, the house walls were completely up and the masons were working on the roof measurements and the windows. We initially helped clean up the site a bit and make a little concrete, but there was not a lot that they actually needed help with on this day since they were going to be on the roof measuring, cutting, and laying the roof down. We had a delicious homemade snack one of the mason’s mother had made, called “Pache”, which essentially was a huge potato tamale with veggies and spices and a pork bone in the center.
By lunch when no more work turned up, Ali decided we should head to the other site to help. It was a good decision because there was plenty of work for us at the other site. It was also fun to have the whole team work together on one site. Because of that, we were able to get a great team shot of all of us! Moving and singing along to the music, we moved hundreds of cement blocks into the house for the masons, made concrete, finished twisting rebar, and completed other odd end jobs until the end of the day.
Tonight we didn’t do a reflection so people could spend more time exploring the city before dinner, something we haven’t had time to do yet. This night we went to a delicious Indian food restaurant that my mom and I had seen by accident when walking around town.
Friday, April 13
This is our last build site day! Day #5! I can’t believe it went so quickly. Today, my mom and switched back to return to our original houses to help them finish up for the week. By today at Griselda’s, the walls both internal and external are up to chest height, the area around the foundation is filled in, and we’ve cleaned up the sand and gravel piles and trash around the site. It is looking great! Over the last five days, we’ve gotten to know the masons well and really enjoy their company and working with them. The barriers are starting to come down, and of course, today is our last day with them!
Work proceeded as usual until 2 pm. At that point, all of us, volunteers, masons, Griselda and her kids, piled into the van and headed to Odilia’s house for the final dedication ceremony. Some of our team members hadn’t seen her house yet, so it was nice we went there. Other Habitat Guatemala affiliate employees were also there in addition to our volunteer group and the masons from both sites. Odilia made a gorgeous cake, along with sweet tamalitos, and hot chocolate. Griselda made savory, traditional tamales for the ceremony.
Once we had eaten our fill, the Habitat affiliate gave a short speech to everyone and then Odilia and Griselda followed suit. They thanked us for our hard work and dedication to Habitat’s cause and for helping them build their own homes. They were so grateful. Mom and I, as the leaders for our group, thanked our volunteers for their hard work and dedication, the masons for teaching us and being patient with us, and the families for allowing us to help them build their homes. It was an honor to be there!
We were there for a couple of hours, before going back to Griselda’s house to drop off her and her kids and the masons. There we said our final goodbyes, which were, and always are, bittersweet. We’d all gotten along really well and formed various bonds with one another, so it was difficult to say goodbye when we all knew we would probably never see each other again.
For dinner, we went to a tapas restaurant, where we shared several large plates of delicious tidbits. Since it was our last night in Xela, some of us wanted to stay out a bit longer and listen to music and dance. We found a local club/restaurant near to our hotel where we had a drink, danced a bit, and hung out for before heading back to the hotel.
Saturday, April 14
Our last day together as a group is today. How did the week go so quickly?! Breakfast was early at our hotel in Xela as usual, then we packed up and loaded into the bus. It would be about a four-hour drive to get back to Antigua. Teresa, Dudley, Lina, and Alex were dropped off along the way since they were heading to Lake Atitlan for a few days instead of Antigua. When we finally got there, we dropped our bags off at Hotel San Jorge and then visited the Habitat Guatemala office where we bought two picture frames for the partner families. We’ll put a photo of each group in them so they can remember us!
We ate lunch at a delicious crepe place and we figured out what we wanted to see and do in the city. Our group then split up to explore the different sites in the city, while my mom and I found a place to get our photos printed for the families. Before dinner, we had everyone sign their names on the back of the photos and placed them in the frames.
For dinner, Ali brought her husband and the manager for the Global Village program in Guatemala also joined. Dinner was at Hotel Santo Domingo, a beautiful old convent that has been reclaimed and built into a hotel and museum. It’s the most expensive hotel in Antigua. Tonight, we said goodbye to everyone who we wouldn’t see again and then my folks, Kim, and I walked around the hotel grounds at night, which were beautifully lit up.
Sunday, April 15
This morning, my folks and I had breakfast with Ande and Mike, Kim, Roxanne, and Canada Mike before Kim and Canada Mike departed for home. My parents and I changed hotels once again to La Casa de Don Pedro. After we made the switch, we wandered around town some more and visited the old ruins of a Catholic cathedral which fell during the last massive earthquake in the 1770s. It was still beautiful and the grounds were massive, littered with rock rubble and vines trying to take over the remaining structures. It was actually connected to a current-day catholic church which sat right on Parque Central.
From there, we wandered through some stores, past the Catalina Arch (pictured above) and into a tasty chocolate shop and coffee bar. We ended up talking to the owner of the coffee shop for at least one hour all about Guatemala: how they import most of their corn from the US and export most of their vegetables as frozen foods to the US!
Eventually, we headed back to the hotel, got cleaned up and at dinner at El Sereno, a beautiful restaurant with a huge outdoor courtyard and patio. Tomorrow, my parents and I and Roxanne will visit Lake Atitlan together and see Panajachel, San Pedro, and San Juan. After that, my folks and I have a few more days before we have to say farewell to the beautiful country of Guatemala and be on our way home…
See the full Guatemala photo album
Sound like fun? See the upcoming trips I’m leading!