We knew that when we headed out for a life on the road that we wanted to spend time volunteering in the places we explored. We had done a variety of volunteer work back in Oregon from Habitat to Humanity to Fences for Fidos to cooking for the families at the Ronald McDonald House. Volunteering abroad is not much different, and our time with the Guatemala Housing Alliance one of our favorite memories of Lake Atitlan.
We first heard of Guatemala Housing Alliance when we were staying with Carlos & gang at 7 Volcanoes. One of his returning guests regularly worked with the organization and perked our interest.
The next day we found ourselves packing into a tuk-tuk, along the John and Maria, the mysterious Aussies renting upstairs from us, for the short but bumpy trip to the neighboring village of San Pablo.
Of all of the villages we explored around the lake, I must admit San Pablo was not a favorite. With little in way of hospitality infastructure it seemed merely a transit town on the way to San Marcos to the left, and San Juan to the right. However, our time spent there was especially enlightening.
One thing that made San Pablo an anonamly was the lack of home bathrooms. Neighborhoods offered up public restrooms but no individual homes featured them. This certainly decreased the complexity of the houses we would find ourselves building.
The last year or so the housing alliance started experimenting with updated building practices. Traditionally the homes were cinder block or corrugated metal, neither particularly good insulators. We arrived at the building site to find a basic 2X4 frame already in place that the crew had built in previous days. Our job was to start on the walls, an enterprise that proved a bit challenging at first.
The houses built by the Guatemala Housing Alliance are a basic two-room design and approximately 350-400 square feet in total. They feature two windows and most are built with the wood-burning cooktop outside for ventilation purposes.The walls are composed of rows and rows (and rows and rows!) of cane that is placed on each side of the 2X4 structure and held together tightly with wire. Maria and I quickly realized it was a job we hated and determined Jim and John were much more suited to the task. This left she & I with the job of cleaning and cutting the cane for them, snipping wire lengths, and generally moving things out of their way for them to work.
Luckily for us, after a day or two of canning, it was time to mud. Patricia, the head of the organization, warned us it would be dirty. We had no idea! In my head I pictured the mud, made by mixing pine needles, leaves, dry dirt, and water together, neatly prepared “somewhere else” and brought in with wheelbarrows. Silly me for thinking with my western world mind.
We arrived to find one of the two rooms of the house very literally knee deep in mud which the workers were stomping with their bare feet to make a usable mixture. We pitched right in, hauling heavy buckets full into the second room and began filling in the space between the cane walls and slapping it on to create a somewhat smooth surface for the plaster that would eventually be applied.
Jim and John were relegated to continuing caning the upper half of the walls, by now required to perch precariously on less than safe scaffolding to do so. Guatemalans are physically extremely tough, but also a very small people. Jim and John, not so much. Jorge, the project manager, was continually adding wire to the “supports”, hoping to avoid crash down, while we all regularly hit our heads on the crossbeams.
The rules of the Guatemala Housing Alliance are that the future homeowners contribute a certain number of hours to the work on their home. Sweet Clara, always colorfully dressed as is Guatemalan tradition, came in to help with the mudding project. By hour two, Maria and I were covered in mud while Clara had slightly dirtied palms but not a speck of mud elsewhere, not even on her sparkly silver sandals.
We spent a few hours, every couple of days, working on Clara’s house. Each morning we would meet John and Maria to pile into tuk-tuks to bump to San Pablo. The boys worked cane, Maria and I mudded and cleaned and cut cane.
In the end, our mysterious Aussie friends time was up and they departed the lake before seeing the house completed. As for us, we stopped by to check on the lovely green color applied to the cement floor but moved on to assist with the next house before seeing the final, completed project.
Jim and I did work on canning a second house, overlooking the lake, but our visa expiration date loomed, my writing jobs increased, and we unfortunately were not able to help to completion.
Our time spent volunteering was some of our favorite at the lake. We got some exercise, met many wonderful people, helped someone less fortunate, and had a lot of laughs in the process. Aspen became the work site mascot with everyone more than willing to step over her to get jobs done.