To Tortilla

We Are What We Eat: A Comalapan adventure introduced by a corny title

Corn, the foundation of every diet here, grows in abundance right up to the edge of town.

Corn, the foundation of every diet here, grows in abundance right up to the edge of town.

Around town I like to ask the question, “How many tortillas do you eat in a day?” They usually laugh at such a thought, and kind of lowball it, “Five, maybe six,” they say. What they mean to say, though, is five or six in a meal.

When I decided to switch to a tortilla diet, I went to the local tienda (shop) to buy corn. I asked the owner how many pounds to buy and she said her family goes through five pounds every two days. After stating this she really concentrated, thinking back to what she ate and making sure to be accurate and informative. Slowly she explained, “At breakfast…we have tortillas, around ten…we snack on tortillas, at lunch…we have tortillas, in the afternoon…we have some tortillas, at dinner…we eat tortillas, sometimes at night we also have tortillas!” There is so much consumption of tortillas that they have their own verb for preparing them that literally means “to tortilla.” Supposedly Giovanni’s mom taught me how to tortiar, but Fidelia would disagree.

Shortly after I arrived in Comalapa, I started hanging out with Giovanni, one of the local Long Way Home (LWH) construction crew. Turns out that on Fridays and Saturdays he studies cooking in a nearby city and so I knew his house was the spot to learn to make tortillas. When I arrived for my lesson, Giovanni was still in the city and his mom was quietly doing laundry while two of her younger sons were running at the wall of dirt in the back, trying to jump up it. Their family compound is a big open plot of dirt with a stack of bricks sitting in the middle housing stray toys and random cloths. On the right is a hobbit-sized brick room for bathing behind which are a few sheets of corrugated metal creating storage areas. The main structure dominates the east side of the enclosure.

As I continue to get my bearings, I notice the kids throw their tiny toy car at the wall (making the accompanying vroom sound), and then use this extra speed to try again to clear the jump. Slow and calm, Giovanni’s mom looked up and welcomed me. A moment of silence later she left her pila (sink), brought out a plastic chair, and plopped it in the kitchen facing the stove and left me alone to continue cleaning clothes.

In Giovanni's kitchen with two of my tortiaring teachers.

In Giovanni’s kitchen with two of my tortiaring teachers.

The plancha stove is a simple metal slab over a firebox encased in a concrete pedestal. This family has the chimney at the end for ventilation, not always the case in a country where many of the leading causes of death are respiratory-related. The long, hot, metal plancha is a perfect surface for tortiaring, and cooking in general, leaving me wishing the one at LWH’s volunteer house was functional.

Giovanni arrived home and I snapped out of my revere to find a horde had descended on their kitchen stations, Mama Giovanni conducting. Giovanni was on plantains, another woman and two older girls were slapping down tortillas from the bowl of dough that had appeared, and a handful of children sitting next to the heating stove and laughing at my bad Spanish. Mama Giovanni turned to me and showed me the corn, asking me to pick up a piece and feel its softness. Why did it matter if it was soft? “This,” she says to me, pointing to a pot of corn sitting in murky, yellowish water, “is what becomes the masa.” She said it as if she had just taught me how to make the masa dough all by myself. Before I could come out with one of my many lingering questions, she asked if I´d like to try to tortilla.

I followed their motions exactly, but my hands somehow produced a splatter shape, cracked all around like a snowflake. It also tasted different, a chewy and off-crispy that was the clear black swan amidst its fluffy cousins. By now the fire under the stove was crackling hot, and tortillas were being thrown all over the metal slab. One women was adding more tortillas, leaving room for the pot of soup, while another of the girls was flipping them all, revealing a nice brown char.

Tortillas with a nice char.

Tortillas with a nice char.

Despite Giovanni being the chef, his mom was definitely the head cook here – she cut up the potatoes and boiled them with a tomato until it was soft enough to crush in the water. She added noodle shells and dished out bowls when it was ready a few minutes later. No forks or knives, we just dipped the fresh rounds into the soup, and chased it all down with a thick plantain drink reminiscent of apple sauce.

All the family members could explain how to tortilla and over dinner they all did as I took notes. The girls were excitedly talking over each other to get from one step to the next, as an older lady fetched the limestone water that they apparently add during the boiling process.

This whole adding limestone to the corn, by the way, a traditional technique used all over town, was new to many Long Way Home staff members, even the ones who have been living here for a while. A bit confused about the why and how of the limestone myself, the next day I went to our neighbor Fidelia´s tienda to investigate further.

Fidelia is a familiar face to LWH volunteers. Her tienda is closest to the house and she is a caring, wonderful mama to the gringos.

Fidelia is a familiar face to LWH volunteers. Her tienda is closest to the house and she is a caring, wonderful mama to the gringos.

I walked in, calling, “Buenas,” then waited. A head jutted out the side window on my right, and with strong eye contact she looked at me and said, “Huh? You need something?” Apparently the window connected to her house, “You just wait, I’ll be right there, just wait, just wait.” Speaking in a slow and concerned Spanish, changing all her “r´s” to an “sh” as all the older local Kaqchikel Maya do, she said, “So you are trying to make tortilla, no, no, no, you must do it right. What kind of corn do you have?” To my confused look she responded “No, no, no, who taught you? You must soak the limestone in water, and then add it before the corn. You might have to start over! Is the corn soft? How long has it been in? First you need to soak the limestone in water, and then add it to the pot without water. What type of corn to do you have? You need to soak the limestone in water!” She continued to talk in circles as she tried to explain what I needed to do. Before leaving she made sure to emphasize, “Next time you buy corn, bring it to me so I can cook it the right way!”

According to the Mayan Popol Vuh, the races of humans were created from the four different corn varieties.

According to the Mayan Popol Vuh, the races of humans were created from the four different corn varieties.

Tortillas are not just a preference, they are a way of life. I found out later that 67% of families in Comalapa live off less than $2USD a day. This gives them just enough money to buy a vegetable or beans to accompany the tortillas that the women spent the day making from the corn the men spent the day cultivating. Corn is so important here that the Mayans believed humans actually were created out of ears of it!

While I may not be ready to buy in to the creation myth as depicted on the town mural I pass daily, I have gotten my “tortiaring” schedule down. Each evening I buy corn on my way home from work and boil it for an hour before bed. At snack time the next morning, I have it ground into masa at place near the school. During lunch I tortiar and with a fresh tomato, lime from the park, and a stray avocado that fell on the construction site, I’ve got a meal.

Learning to make tortillas was not just a lesson in cooking, but it was a lesson in culture, and a reason to learn and laugh with locals. It has taught me the local diet, the array of corn vocab in Spanish, and it continues to earn respect from mothers who laugh in shock at the idea of a male foreigner making tortillas for all his meals. Now there is more than a shirt dirtied from construction and white bearded face to identify me around town, there is also my oddly shaped grey pot and green head wrap, that holds and transports my corn as it goes from kernel, to masa, to my stomach, day after day after day.

by Ariel Vardy
LWH Volunteer

Rockey’s Road: Takin’ it to the Streets

Long Way Home envisions a different future for this student.

Long Way Home envisions a different future for this student.

One of the most affecting memories I have from the beginning of my time in Guatemala is walking past a frail, elderly man with a hoe over his shoulder, feebly putting one foot in front of the other under the afternoon sun. Although just walking appeared to be a real challenge, he was indeed coming back from a day’s work in his field. The very next morning, I saw a group of kids walking swiftly along with hoes over their shoulders, headed out for their days’ work in the fields. In a town that relies largely on subsistence farming, these became familiar sights during my summer in Comalapa. In fact, it is how Long Way Home got its name – it represents “the daily journey of a rural Mayan farmer.”

Long Way Home’s vision involves breaking this cycle of poverty that is hard to miss. In order to have a better sense of Long Way Home’s economic impact, I partnered with one of the local Peace Corps volunteers, Cyrus Sethna, to try to uncover some Comalapan employment data. Our goal was to determine where Long Way Home ranks as private employers in Comalapa as measured by number of Comalapans employed full-time.

We started our search at the Town Hall where Cyrus works. If the data we were looking for existed in Comalapa, the large yellow government building in the center of town was the place to find it. We covered practically every corner, conversing with employees and explaining our quest. One of the first things I noticed was how engaging my partner-in-crime was, and how much his colleagues clearly enjoyed his company. The other thing I noticed was that they were not terribly optimistic about our chances of finding this data. But, we talked to one energetic, cheerful man in an upstairs office who had an idea for us, which he wrote on a small piece of scratch paper and handed to Cyrus. It read, “INE: Instituto Nacional de Estadística” (National Institute of Statistics). A lead! And a promising lead, at that. How naïve I was in those days.

Local waste management practices

Local waste management practices

We went downstairs and eagerly looked up this organization online in Cyrus’s office. We had no luck finding the exact data we were interested in, but, while navigating our way through INE’s reports, several unrelated statistics caught my eye. Here are a few, provided without commentary:
· The leading cause of death in Guatemala in 2012 was pneumonia (Caracterización Estadística República de Guatemala 2012, INE Estadísticas de Salud, November 2013, Guatemala. p. 17);
· In 2011, the government reported 53.7% poverty rate (Caracterización Estadística República de Guatemala 2012, INE. Encuesta Nacional de Condiciones de Vida -ENCOVI-, November 2013, Guatemala. p. 24);
· In 2012, 2,065,413 tons of solid waste were generated in Guatemala, a number that steadily increased during the previous 5 years (Caracterización Estadística República de Guatemala 2012, INE Estadísticas Ambientales, November 2013, Guatemala. p. 58).

Anywho, now back to the quest. Two emails and one voicemail to the INE later, all without response at the time of this posting, we decided to take matters into our own hands. Whereas my instinct was to say, “ehh, let’s wait to hear back from the INE,” Genevieve suggested we simply collect the data ourselves. And so began our encuesta (survey)!

Our two heroes strolling through town

Our two heroes strolling through town

Typically, I am a wait-and-scope-out-the-situation type of guy, and try to take the most conservative path. This is something that I learned to question during my time with Long Way Home. As Crash Davis says in the movie Bull Durham, “Don’t think, it can only hurt the ball club.” Now obviously this takes things a little far. You can’t just move forward blindly – it is essential to plan and constantly examine your actions. However, so often action is better than non-action.

We planned to go to every big business we could think of in town and ask how many Comalapans they employed full-time. We enlisted the help of Cyrus’s wonderful host mom, Doña Juana. She is a welcoming, quick-to-laugh woman who works with a group called Reciclados Amistad (the local recycling center) in Comalapa. She also generally just knows what’s up around town, and was able to put us in touch with several of her friends who are local businessmen.

All kinds of beautiful and tasty things grow here

All kinds of beautiful and tasty things grow here

In fact, the night before Cyrus and I planned to begin our encuesta, Doña Juana and I met with José Terreso – a former mayor of Comalapa who is currently involved in the agriculture business. He welcomed us into his living room and I explained the purpose of the visit. At first I felt outmatched and out-of-place, casually convening on sofas with the former mayor using my just-beginning-to-blossom Spanish. But this feeling quickly disappeared. He was very patient, and blithely chatted about the history and details of his business endeavors. We went on to discuss my role with Long Way Home and recycling. After thirty minutes of captivating conversation, he sent us out the door each carrying a beautiful flower – samples of what he was currently growing. What an informative and pleasant evening!

The next morning Cyrus and I decided to meet in front of one of the large banks in town, Banrural, to start the encuesta. We opened the reflective doors, greeted the shotgun-wielding security guard, and then passed through the second set of doors into the heart of the bank. After tentatively sitting in front of a vacant office for a while (at least, I was tentative – Cyrus was surely gung-ho), a bank representative courteously called us over to his booth. Cyrus handed him his Peace Corps business card, and we explained why us two yahoos strolled into the bank that morning. Lucky for us, he paid more attention to Cyrus’s business card than my lime-splattered work attire. After a brief cordial conversation, we had the information, shook hands, said thanks, and were out the door to continue the encuesta. We had equally pleasant and productive meetings at the rest of the businesses we approached that morning. In fact, I was amazed at how generous the representatives were with their time and attention, their willingness to share information.

Cyrus, Señora Juana, me, and the APAC-PNT representative donned in hair nets ready to begin the tour

Cyrus, Señora Juana, me, and the APAC-PNT representative donned in hair nets ready to begin the tour

Eventually it was time to meet Doña Juana. Under the now-blazing sun, Cyrus and I followed his host mom a little ways out of the urban area of town, across a bridge and up a dirt hill. As we crossed the bridge, we saw another reminder of the importance of Long Way Home’s presence in the community: heaps of trash covering the banks of the creek under the bridge. But I digress, this is a story about gainful employment, not garbage, and my fearless editor will say this word count is too high as is, so let’s return to the tale at hand…Juana led us to a large blue gate in front of a building in the middle of cornfields right outside of town. We ended up sitting with the owner of this company (it has a super long name, abbreviated APAC-PNT) and chatting about their operations and what our survey was meant to accomplish. Here I learned how important regular employment is as part of our measure. The plant employs plenty of people, but for many of the workers, particularly the women who sort the berries, work is not available year-round. We were given a tour of their berry processing facility, and before we knew it, were walking out that large blue gate, each with a flat of blackberries in our arms – a delicious gift from the affable owner. To say that I wasn’t expecting to tour a processing plant at the start of Cyrus’s and my encuesta is quite the understatement. I had no inkling that such a facility even existed in the municipality of Comalapa!

This reinforced another lesson for me: adopting this proactive attitude doesn’t only just get things done, it can lead to surprises that may not have been possible with an overly cautious mindset. If we had waited to hear back from the INE, not only would we likely have no data, we would certainly have no blackberries. This is a small example for sure, and yet served as surprisingly powerful personal proof of how fruitful adopting this attitude can be.

No encuesta is too busy for an atol stop

No encuesta is too busy for an atol stop

So, after conversing with representatives from all the major financial institutions, the biggest lumberyard, construction supply stores, La Despensa Familiar (the walmart-owned grocery store), the Supervisor Educativa (the Superintendent of Education), and more, Cyrus and I learned a whole bunch. By our estimates Long Way Home is the 6th largest private employer of Comalapans in the municipality. As a relatively informal survey taken only over the course of several days, our result must be taken with a grain of salt. Though there are several reasons to be optimistic that this number is in the ballpark. For starters, we had some smart, Comalapa-savvy minds involved: Cyrus with more than a year of Peace Corps service here under his belt, Cyrus’s host mom, my host parents, as well as one knowledgeable small-businesses owner. In any case, that is the number that we have until the INE gets back to us. Which, I hope happens – it seems this data has to exist, and I would love to check our results with the big dogs.

While our encuesta revealed a pretty high “score” relative to other local employers, I believe the more important takeaway is the fact that Long Way Home provides consistent employment in a town where only 14% of residents reported formal and permanent employment in 2009, the most recent census data available from the INE. In this and other ways, Long Way Home’s impact is truly felt in Comalapa. I am so happy to have been part of this impact, and I encourage others to take come and volunteer if they can! It’s been a pleasure blogging, folks. And for realz, ginormous thanks to Genevieve Croker for being the genius editor of Rockey’s Road.

by Nathan Rockey
LWH Intern

Editor’s Note: Writer was advised to remove final sentence but is grateful for the sentiment.

Rockey’s Road: Family Matters

All work and no play...

All work and no play…

As a volunteer with Long Way Home, I am at Técnico Chixot, the school they’re building, from 7 to 4 every weekday. A chunk of my time is spent doing construction work (highlighted in my previous blog), a chunk obeying Genevieve’s every command as her intern (she’s the Director of Development), and the final chunk doing miscellaneous things like managing the water filtration system or helping out with English classes (see my inaugural blog for more on this theme). Work is awesome and fulfilling, but does not tell the whole story of my summer experience.

Unlike most volunteers with Long Way Home, I do not live at the volunteer house at Parque Chimiyá, but reside in town with a host family. It is about a fifteen-minute stroll from the school to my house. Long Way Home is close with this family, and my host dad, Donal, often picks up new volunteers from the airport. Donal and his wife, Ana, have two sons, Estuardo, who is eleven, and Alan, who is five. In addition to the taxi service that Donal operates, my family owns a small tienda (store) that is connected to their kitchen. Of the hundreds of tiendas in Comalapa that sell choco-bananos, I’m convinced that you won’t find a better version of this tasty treat than at Ana and Donal’s place.

Eating a choco-banano with Alan

Eating a choco-banano with Alan

My host family is even sweeter than those delicious choco-bananos that they serve. Estuardo taught me how to make birdcalls with my hands. Donal offers me advice, checks up on me if I’m sick, and is quick to provide comic relief. Besides always making delicious food, Ana gently corrects me when I make a mistake in Spanish and occasionally will have a treat waiting for me when I get home: some watermelon, Jell-O or a choco-banano. Alan is consistently so excited when I arrive home after work, and the first words out of his mouth are always, “¿Puedes jugar esta noche?” (Can you play tonight?)

Living with my host family has presented me with cool opportunities to explore the town and meet people. One Saturday in late July we all went to Ana’s mom’s house for lunch. Standing on the roof of her tall house in the center of town, you can look over most of urban Comalapa. Construction had just been completed and so about 25 family members were gathering for lunch to bless the home. I arrived with Donal and the two kids, and when we made it up to the roof, Ana was already cooking meat on an open fire with her sisters. I was last up the steps, and once I made it to the roof, Ana proclaimed, “Y aquí es mi hijo mayor” (And here is my oldest son). Roaring laughter ensued.

Once lunch was ready, we gathered on a lower level of the house and sat in plastic chairs in an elongated U shape around an altar. On my left sat Donal, and on my right a very friendly man whom I had just met. The mood was jovial as contented conversations filled the room. People ate the delicious lunch of tortillas and meat, and drank cold Cokes from a straw – a relaxing Saturday afternoon.

View from Ana's mom's roof. Photo credit: my fellow chair-wrecker

View from Ana’s mom’s roof. Photo credit: my fellow chair-wrecker

All of a sudden, the abrupt sound of a plastic chair snapping and its former occupant falling to the floor broke the tranquility. Yup, there I was, sitting on the floor, my broken chair behind me and every eye in the room looking at the mess. If they had somehow missed the tall blonde dude that was in their midst beforehand, they were for sure aware of me now.

Donal made sure that I was alright as I got up, and I was graciously provided with two chairs, stacked one on top of the other, as my new seat. While my face remained a deep strawberry color, my lunch mates resumed their conversations, an undercurrent of laughter permeating the room. It’s not every day a gringo destroys a chair during their family lunch.

Ten minutes after my fall, another plastic chair snapped. I checked beneath me to make sure I was still properly plopped atop my upright chair. Indeed, it wasn’t me this time, but rather a man on the other side of the U. Ana quickly turned to me and cheerfully said, “¡No eres el único!” (You’re not the only one!)

When people get up to leave a meal here, they say “muchas gracias” and everyone else responds with “Buen provecho.” When I said my thanks after this lunch, I substituted, “Muchas gracias por caerse” (thanks for falling) to my fellow chair-breaker. After lunch, the two of us had a long conversation on the roof about his police work and about what I was doing in Comalapa. He even offered to take my picture with the big white church in the background. It’s funny the kind of events that can open the door for more in-depth interactions. Surprises happen, man, and the only thing to do is to embrace the challenge, embarrassment, fatigue, or what-have-you and keep trucking forward. Good things will happen. The sudden snapping of my silla (chair) is far from the only thing in the last two months that has reinforced this idea.

I don’t go to their relatives’ houses and break chairs every weekend, but living with a host family, I am constantly able to use Spanish and learn about Comalapan life. Here is a jumbled assortment of some of the lessons I’ve learned during my homestay and while wandering around town:

First laundry attempt

First laundry attempt


· Laundry is not easy. The first time I did laundry, the results were far from superb. I had a bag of “Blanca Nieves” laundry detergent, the large pila at my host family’s house, and a medium-sized bucket at my disposal. Interestingly, my first instinct was to try to mimic the wash cycle of the machines from back home. I dumped my clothes in the bucket with a heaping scoop of detergent and water from the pila, and began mixing around the clothes under the water with my hands. The final result: incredibly starchy, detergent-smelling, still-brown clothes. I have since improved my laundry technique, mostly by realizing that there is a technique, and it is quite different from the Whirlpool machines back home.
· To get somewhere quickly, just hail a tuk tuk – the three-wheeled taxis that are constantly whizzing by in town, barely dodging people, dogs and cars. They will take you anywhere in town for Q3 (less than 50 cents), though sometimes you have to bump it up to Q4 or Q5 for a ride from my house to Parque Chimiyá (about a 25 minute walk).
· It’s astonishing how much noise pollution there is in town, especially for a relatively small place. Tuk tuks, dogs, roosters, motorcycles, blaring music, the propane gas salesman with his megaphone: “Zeta Gaaaaaaas”…
· If you go to a tienda and ask for an “agua” (water), they might hand you a Coke. To ensure you get water, you need to ask for “agua pura” (pure water).
· All tortillas here have two distinct sides – as in, there is a correct way to fold a tortilla. When Donal told me this, it blew my mind.
· Angry Birds has been so successful at infiltrating everything everywhere. Angry Birds clothing, Angry Birds toys, Angry Birds stickers, Angry Birds puzzles…It’s absurd.
· Sitting on a tiny plastic chair sipping from a steaming hot cup of atol from a street vendor is amazingly comforting and a great way to hang out in town.
Family photo in the courtyard

Family photo in the courtyard

· Playing Super Smash Bros doesn’t have to be the most competitive thing in the world. If Estuardo’s character knocks Alan’s off of the screen, they will both laugh hysterically.
· Tradition and customs here are very important – from religious practices to eating the same local dish every Saturday night. But this deserves a whole separate blog post…

My time with Donal, Ana, Estuardo and Alan in Comalapa has been a delightful and educational experience. When I walk through the wide wooden door after work today, Alan will come bolting through the red curtain over the entryway to the kitchen asking me if I can play tonight, I will chat with Donal, Ana and Estuardo, and then make my way to my room to take off my boots before dinnertime. I will be home.

by Nathan Rockey
LWH Intern

Rockey’s Road: Keeping up with the Comalapans

Joel, Jugete, Axel and Marcos chillin' on the future art classroom.

Joel, Jugete, Axel and Marcos chillin’ on the future art classroom.

A little before 7 each weekday morning, I arrive at Técnico Chixot. I stroll past the future art classroom where the Comalapan greenbuilders are chillin’, waiting to start work. I say, “Buenos días, amigos”, and they respond likewise, enthusiastically adding several of the many nicknames that they’ve given me: colocho (curly-haired); dobladas (a delicious fried potato snack common in Comalapa); oso (bear); and Santa Claus (a large man who brings presents on Christmas). It’s rare that I am able to formulate a joke in Spanish on the spot, but yesterday morning when they exclaimed, “Dobladas,” I didn’t giggle, as I normally do, or flex my biceps. Instead I stopped suddenly, looked around frantically, and yelled, “¿DONDE?”, as if I was already thinking about snack time and ready to eat dobladas before work had started. Not the most complex joke, but they burst into laughter. Good start to the day. Woot.

Axel mixing cactus juice into the lime plaster.

Axel mixing cactus juice into the lime plaster.

Whether we’re pounding dirt into tires, cleaning styrofoam to make napalm, or preparing lime finishes by blending nopal (prickly pear) cactus and picking apart human hair, the awesomeness of this construction crew is regularly on display here at Técnico Chixot. And as a quick aside, I’d like to note how crazy each of those three activities would have sounded to me before coming to Guatemala, and how perfectly normal they seem now. In any case, it’s tough to describe just how meaningful it has been to work alongside this group of Comalapan guys this summer but here comes a try.

My high school varsity baseball coach, an incredibly insightful man brimming with life wisdom, constantly relayed a particular message to me and my group of baseball buddies: nothing is better than being part of a team, and we should cherish the opportunity to be part of something bigger than ourselves. At the time, my teenage ears just heard, “baseball team.” But that’s not what my coach said and certainly isn’t what he meant. Since hanging up the spikes, I have begun to grasp what he was really getting at. There are many teams to join beyond those that don caps and jerseys and run out onto a diamond.

Our nearby hills, minus torrential downpour, plus erupting volcano.

Our nearby hills, minus torrential downpour, plus erupting volcano.

One afternoon in late June (woah, time flies…where did July go?), I was hauling buckets from a big pile of dirt to Romeo and Josue, who were perched on top of the newest tire aula (classroom), pounding away with their sledgehammers. I was cruising – head damp with sweat under my Carleton College hat, rockin’ my new heavy-duty Carhartt pants, and feeling immune to any post-lunch fatigue. Suddenly Axel, who was working alongside me, drew my attention to the thick grey clouds that were moving swiftly over the edges of the nearby hills. The kind of clouds that mean certain torrential downpour. The crew surrounding me quickly discussed whether the rainstorm would reach us or pass by harmlessly. It was decided: The clouds were heading straight for us. As if a flip was switched, we all went from construction mode to tarp-covering mode. As Lars Battle eloquently told me on my first day in Guatemala, “water poses a problem when you’re building with dirt.” Axel and I rapidly worked to cover the big dirt pile with tarps, and then throw tires on the tarps to prevent them from blowing away.

In the middle of the chaos a thought occurred to me, “This seems strangely familiar…” But how could it? Seemingly everything about the situation was foreign to me: I was in Guatemela for the first time, I was speaking Spanish, and I was building a school…out of dirt-filled tires. Heck, I had never even owned a pair of Carhartt pants before! Why then, the déjà vu?

As fate would have it, after five minutes of scrambling with the tarps, the ominous clouds skirted around us and we hardly felt a drop of rain. It happens. Axel and I began to pull off the tarp, laughing about our miscalculation, and the source of the sense of familiarity dawned on me. How many times throughout my high school career did we rush out of the dugout at Taylor Field to cover the infield with that big grey tarp, trying to outrace the dark gloomy clouds lurking nearby in the Oregon sky? That brief period of commotion recalled in my mind these experiences with the baseball tarp. Looking around on this muddy hillside in Guatemala, it was clear that I was surrounded by new teammates.

Buckets, buckets, buckets.

Buckets, buckets, buckets.

Perhaps a more obvious example of teamwork are the cement pours. The two that I have been involved in have begun anti-climactically, with a group of workers scratching their heads around our aging, reluctant-to-start cement mixer. But once the mixer is churning it’s two hours of fast-paced, challenging, “all-hands-on-deck” work. Every person involved has a specific role, from shoveling gravel into buckets at one end of the line to smoothing the cement at the other. In between, people are dumping materials into the mixer, shoveling mixed cement into buckets, and hauling those buckets to the final destination.

We most recently poured cement at the base of the tire retaining wall surrounding the cistern. Throughout the pour I stood on top of the cistern as part of the bucket brigade. Full buckets of cement were carried from the mixer to Romeo and Hugo who were doing the finish work, and empty buckets were tossed around until they made their way back to the base of the mixer, ready to be refilled. It is important to move quickly, and if any one person slacks off, the whole operation suffers. In the midst of a cement pour, you get this feeling that if the team needed it, you could haul buckets of cement all day. Love it.

My mid-air bucket toss to Raul during the recent cistern cement pour.

My mid-air bucket toss to Raul during the recent cistern cement pour.

Coming to Guatemala, I was excited to be part of the construction team. I spent last summer recuperating from a major hip surgery, and was eager to use my muscles again. The work has not disappointed. I thoroughly love carrying tires, hauling dirt to pour into tires, or pounding that dirt into those tires. (Turns out, I’m a tire guy). I don’t know many things that are more satisfying than seeing a tire wall go up, knowing that you poured sweat and energy into it. But what I’m going to remember in the long run is not the sweat, blisters on my fingers, or the ratio of materials in the cement mix. Rather I will remember the pummus-rock-throwing contest I had with Josue and Giovanni. The way Jugete yelled, “Dobladas,” when he saw me in town, instantly making me feel at home on the streets of Comalapa. That time I tripped on a tire on the retaining wall above the cistern, causing the half of the crew that witnessed it to laugh mercilessly. The fervent look on Raul’s face as he whistled for me to chuck him empty buckets during the cement pour. When the whole crew cooked a delicious lunch of meat and tortillas for the volunteers and staff. And the list goes on.

Goofing around with Josue.

Goofing around with Josue.

To be sure, the tire-pounding and dirt-hauling are essential: they are what produce this sustainable school, and ultimately bring the team together every day. But, as extraordinary as these buildings made of trash are, it’s the Comalapan crew here that impresses me the most. They inspire me daily to work as hard as possible by constantly displaying their astounding work ethic, are patient with me as I try to use Spanish on site, and embrace me as part of their team – something that could easily become a drag for them with all of the gringo volunteers that come through. I may be a long way from baseball practice, but the lesson from my coach still resonates and I feel so lucky to be a part of this team.

by Nathan Rockey
LWH Intern

Rockey’s Road: Build-a-Bear Workshop

My "Rockey Road" to work each day.

My “Rockey Road” to work each day.

One of my first memories of working as an intern with Long Way Home, which I’m doing for a little over two months this summer, was Sarah Mykkänen describing NGO management work as being able to learn on the fly and “just get it done.” She said that here you will often be assigned a task outside of your expertise or comfort zone. As an example, she said she was currently learning to properly calculate payroll taxes, a first for her. This isn’t a story about taxes, thank goodness, but it certainly connects to Sarah’s advice.

A couple of weeks ago, I was lounging in my favorite chair in the kitchen at the school site, (the same one in which I am currently seated, in fact) when Sarah came in with that classic goofy smirk on her face. She told Ben Smith, sitting in the chair adjacent to me, “The fifth grade teacher wants to build a bear out of tires.” Once Ben’s initial confusion waned, they began to discuss logistics, such as whether they could spare a member of the crew to help the class in the construction process. Then Ben turned to me and said, “Nate Dogg, wanna build a bear?”

So, I showed up to work on the morning of Friday, July 25th eager to begin work on the bear. Equipped with a picture of the bear that we were trying to emulate and a zealous overconfidence about my construction capabilities, I embarked on the build-a-bear workshop, Guate-hilltop-style.

Tires organized into "weaves."

Tires organized into “weaves.”

The first order of business was to scan the neatly organized tires (shout out to Matthew “Joben” Haynes for his mastery of the tire weave technique) for the perfect five that would constitute the bear: two for the feet, one for the head, a larger camión (truck) tire for the body, and one wide tire that could be used to cut out the arms and ears.

After consulting the construction assistant, Dori Lavy, about the structure of the bear, my plan was to support the bear structure with a big metal pole that we would slide through each tire and then sledgehammer into the ground. So, the next step was to drill holes in the head tire and body tire. Due to the sheer thickness of the metal wire layer inside the tires and to several untimely battery malfunctions, it was surprisingly difficult to drill big enough holes for the one-inch metal pole. The camión tire proved to be especially frustrating and time-consuming, as it was the largest and had the most metal inside.

Our bear's inauspicious beginnings.

Our bear’s inauspicious beginnings.

Eventually, after I had made decent progress with the holes, I chatted quickly with the fifth grade teacher, Delmy Edith, so we could get on the same page. She showed me two beautiful, circular pieces of wood that she had brought for the body and the head of our bear. This was a game changer, for I was very unsure about my ability to make the face and body look good. But, then I had a devastating realization: the camión tire that I had chosen was much too big for the circle of wood. So, I went back up to the weaves of tires, and chose an appropriately sized camión tire for the body and started the drilling process again. Inside, I was irate at myself for my lack of foresight and for wasting time.

So, there I was, drilling furiously into camión tire numero dos, when a fellow volunteer, Bailey Robbins, came bouncing down the tire stairs. “Nate Dogg, I’m here to help with the bear!”, she said with a big smile on her face. This was Bailey’s first day of her second stint as a Long Way Home volunteer, in addition to being her 24th birthday. Bailey could tell I was frustrated with myself, especially about wasting time drilling a hole in the unusable tire. She wasted no time cheering me up, saying, “Someday, someone is going to pick up this tire and notice that there is no water in it and think, ‘thank goodness for that hole!’”. This not only made me laugh, but after picking up many tires full of water during my time with Long Way Home, it didn’t even seem like an absurd thought. What an amazing ability that laughter and camaraderie have to clear your head and reignite your gumption!

At the end of the first day, we had made much less progress than I initially anticipated, but morale was high. “Heck,” I thought to myself, “I’m in Guatemala building a bear out of tires…How cool is that?!”

Our bear learns to stand.

Our bear learns to stand.

Over the course of the next week, Bailey and I merrily continued work on the bear for several hours a day. It turned out to be much more complex than I had imagined; we had to think about leveling the ground, making drainage holes for the tires, applying water sealant to the wood, making shims (a new word for me), and working with finishing screws.

On Friday, one week after we had started, we were ready to put finishing touches on the bear and paint it with Delmy Edith’s class. Kids in other grades would run up to us and ask about the bear, curious about our endeavor. When I asked one of these inquisitive schoolchildren what he thought about the bear, he looked at it from head to foot (I typed “toe” at first…but our bear is, indeed, toeless) and responded, “Muy bien” (very good).

Painting with the class. Delmy Edith is in the orange sweater.

Painting with the class. Delmy Edith is in the orange sweater.

I would not be surprised if I never “build-a-bear” out of tires again in my whole life. Perhaps slightly disappointed, but unsurprised nonetheless. So, my newly acquired ability to drill holes into tires or make shims to screw circles of wood into tires may remain forever dormant. But, of course, that’s not what is important. Building the bear is not a story about shims and finish screws. It is a story about meeting challenges with ingenuity, working as a team, turning trash into art, and being part of a bigger process. I am very blessed that Delmy Edith decided to build a bear, and trusted Bailey and me to be her helpers.

Standing next to the Garita at the entrance to the school, the bear is a small facet of Técnico Chixot’s exceptional landscape, greeting anyone who walks up to the school with a big smile.

by Nathan Rockey
LWH Intern

Bailey and Nathan with current and future students.

Bailey and Nathan with current and future students.

Nothing Small About Micro-Credit

Even after a difficult cement pour, Raul's got his smile.

Even after a difficult cement pour, Raul’s got his smile.

Guatemala is filled with the indigenous Maya people like Raul, one of the NGO Long Way Home’s employees. Over the course of my weeks volunteering at the school construction site, I never saw Raul without a genuine smile on his face and a tool in his hand. Raul is one of countless survivors of Guatemala’s volatile history. He also happens to be one of the first recipients of Long Way Home’s new microcredit program.

Ever since learning that microcredit existed, I thought it would be a great way to help at-risk populations work their way out of poverty. I was so excited by this concept that I told everyone I knew about it. I was even able to convince my incredible wife, Stephanie, to give a portion of money that we received at our wedding to this idea.

All of my professors were in support of my interest too. As with most things, a particular professor stood out among the rest. Professsor Connie Daniel invited me to teach a class dedicated to this pilot microcredit program. She also set up a grant from Westfield State University to fund this program.

I was so energized by this grant that I told my friends at Long Way Home. They agreed that it would fit in with Long Way Home’s vision as a nonprofit. Genevieve Croker, the organization’s Director of Development, took it under her wing and used her expertise to create the program. Connie and I were able to provide $3,000 in seed funding to provide small loans when I arrived in March.

Raul and his relatives work weekends on the new kitchen, made from hand-crafted adobe bricks.

Raul and his relatives work weekends on the new kitchen, made from hand-crafted adobe bricks.

In the first process, we awarded three loans, one of which went to Raul. He is using the money to build his family a bathroom, and a kitchen with a fuel-efficient, ventilated stove. This stove will replace the cooking fire that currently billows smoke in his home.

The folks at Long Way Home are here to help Comalapa – a remarkable town with a rich Mayan heritage. It’s clear to me that Long Way Home exists to support the community while it heals itself from tragedy and moves above the poverty line with its identity intact.

by Alex Sinclair
LWH Volunteer, Donor and MicroLoan Committee Member

Fidelia’s Kitchen

One of my favorite things about getting settled in a new place is getting to know new people. I have found, in my travels, that the best way to really enjoy any new place is to get an insider’s perspective on the location. Do they have a favorite breakfast spot…who do they buy their produce from….where would they spend a sunny afternoon? As time moves on and I transition from getting settled to being settled, there is a shift in the kind of insights I am looking for. I no longer need tips on where to get produce or where to spend a sunny afternoon…my attention has turned to developing friendships with my neighbors….enter Fidelia.

~Fidelia~

Fidelia

For those of y’all that have spent some time with Long Way Home, the name Fidelia will instantly resonate, but for those who have not had a chance to visit our project, a little introduction is in order. Fidelia is our neighbor. She lives near the park that many of our staff & volunteers call home while they are here in Comalapa. She is the proprietress of a little tienda (store) that provides us with things like cookies, fresh eggs, bread & beverages. However, our relationship with her extends far beyond that of vendor & buyers…Fidelia is a part of our family here in Guatemala….& that is a wonderful blessing.

I met Fedelia many years ago, on my first visit here. She instantly struck me as a kind, delightful person with a spunky nature that brought me smiles. Even though I didn’t understand much of what she was saying….a result of my extremely poor Spanish & her thick Mayan accent…I knew instantly that I liked her. With each returning visit Fidelia & I invested a little more in our relationship. Once I moved south & started calling Comalapa home, our friendship started to blossom even further.

Here a chick, there a chick

Here a chick, there a chick

Here, many families have tiendas that occupy the front room of their houses…Fidelia is no different. Walking through the sea foam green doors of her modest shop, you get a glimpse of her home through the back doorway. Chickens, scratching the ground for gnats & such, strutting past the door….or sometimes, into the tienda. Her dogs, Clifford & Opín…lounging in the sun…or mingling with Juancho (my pup) & whichever other LWH dogs I have in tow at the time. But what started as an (almost) daily exchange of small talk, me standing on one side of the counter, her on the other, has evolved into a much more familiar exchange. These days, when I walk through the door of Fidelia’s tienda it has become more common that I will end up in her kitchen than that she will come out to attend the counter.

This is where things get really good….in Fidelia’s kitchen…or some other room of her house. Over the past couple of years I have spent a good portion of my time with Fidelia working alongside her while we chat. Not one to sit & watch, I have often jumped into whatever chore she happens to be doing when I stop by. As a result I have “mastered” (my words…certainly not hers) several tasks that are a part of everyday life in these Mayan hills.

It started with an invitation to dinner. Watching her effortlessly make tortillas, I asked to help. I was granted one attempt…that ended with my tortilla on the floor. After a few seconds of begging, Fidelia let me try again, which ended in being told that my tortillla was “casi bueno” (almost good), that I was not allowed to make anymore & I would have to eat the one I’d already made….yikes! From there…a few cooking lessons regarding local delights. I am now able to cook yerba…a leafy green with little yellow flowers that is quite delightful. Also, güisquil (wiskil) a strange little vegetable that is a common ingredient in soups…but sadly, doesn’t have much flavor…although with Fidelia’s preparation instructions that has changed…yummie! In case you are wondering…a decent Guatemalan tortilla has not been successfully produced by these hands.

~güisquil on the vine~

Güisquil on the vine

Not too long ago she taught me how to shuck dried corn without damaging the husks, which are used to make chuchitos (tamale-like food item). I have shucked corn by the bushels…so I know my way around a corn husk…but this task was new to me…& there was a learning curve…but by the third go I had it down… mostly…. according to Fidelia. The time before that, we were preparing food for her chickens…& before that…shelling beans. Always something new to learn….& she is a patient teacher offering lots of guidance….although she is not quick to compliment…if she does extend praise, you can be sure it is genuine.

While some of our time together is occupied with household tasks, there are times when we just hang out in the kitchen, listen to music on her little radio & chat. The talking is really the most fun. Granted, it can be a little complicated at times…my Spanish is improving but there is still much I need to learn….this inevitably frustrates both of us. Several times we have spent a moment or two expressing that frustration…her in Kaqchikel (the Mayan language of these parts that is the first language of most of our neighbors) & me in English. After a few minutes of ranting in our own native languages – that the other doesn’t understand – we both pause, smile & giggle with each other…perfection.
Victor (1)

By Lisa Massey
Office Manager, LWH

Live from Lobo: Finding My Skill Set

P1030982What kind of value can I offer as a team member when you strip me from my corporate resume list of skills and expertise? How does my lean six sigma training translate into what I am doing now? Within the group dynamic, what strengths will I be viewed as having?

These are questions I have asked myself throughout the first week. My mastery of Microsoft Excel or technical knowledge of using ERP systems would offer me little aid in helping physically build a school. I am no construction worker. I have little-to-no experience in masonry carpentry, welding, or electrical work.

The LWH staff has been nothing but supportive and open to allowing me to blaze my own path and figure things out for myself. If a task is given to me, it is given with minimal instruction, which allows for a prime learning opportunity. The one thing I can do is ask questions, learn quickly, and proactively seek where I can add the most value to the projects at hand.

P1030451“How’s Activity X coming along?” asks one of the staff during our morning break. (Replace Activity X with the project du juor; e.g. tire removing, mud digging, door making, cob mixing.)

“Making progress,” I respond.

This seems to be my default response. The activities I have worked on always initially appear to be simple and quick but once started I discover they are riddled with challenges and learning opportunities. “How the heck do I make a door for a curved wall out of reused wood and screws?”

I approach the current project with a fresh mind and body the next morning and collect feedback others, my plan for the day often changes. For these reasons I have grown accustomed to taking life and my work here one day at a time. It’s hard to predict what challenge or opportunity might spring up later that day. Despite this unpredictability, it’s extra gratifying to know that whatever happens, I can conquer it, and ultimately make progress on the task at hand.bamboo jake

Live from Lobo: Daily Commute

photo 1 Coming from a large metropolitan city, my daily commute was always a challenge to my time management and energy management skills. Fighting traffic for at least a half hour, I would arrive in the office already exhausted. Long Way Home has offered me a chance to hit the “reset button” with my morning commute.

The volunteer house is located at the Parque Ecologico Chimiyà. To get to the school on foot, the main path is up through the park, through corn and strawberry fields, up a dirt road and then smaller dirt path, then through a forest. The first time I walked this path all I could think about was how long and hard of a walk it was. After the first day, this morning commute proved to be much more. photo 3
I often try to make the trek on my own which allows me time to take in the beauty of the countryside without interruptions. It also helps me mentally prepare for the challenging and physically demanding day ahead.

The air is fresh. Fog lingers in the valleys. Rooster crows and lively bird chirps are heard from all directions. A local farmer shuffles off with a machete in hand. The soft bristle of corn stalks welcomes the sun. The pine needle-covered floor crunches as I take the final steps before I reach the school grounds. Upon arrival at the school I am calm, collected, and ready to take on the day.

photo 2
The afternoon commute takes on a different vibe. Normally my fellow volunteers and I walk down the same path together, triumphant from what we have accomplished that day. As exhausted as we may be, nobody complains about the distance we must walk. At this hour of the day the sun is close to setting, which showers the hillside landscape with a brassy-yellow tint.

There is no smog on this commute. There is no road rage. It’s only me, my fellow volunteers, and nature. This lovely routine is one of the many highlights of my time with LWH.

Live from Lobo: Volunteer House

photo 3I went to a university where our dorms were called residential colleges and very much like the Hogwarts sorting hat in Harry Potter, new students were randomly assigned to a residential college. It was often said that the residential college shapes the students and the college dynamic as much as the students shape the residential college. The same is true about the LWH volunteer house. The volunteer manual provides a decent description of the volunteer house. Structurally the house is very basic. There are very few luxuries. You know the cliché response of one being “grateful to have a roof over his head, running water, and electricity”? That’s basically the idea of what we have here.

The cinderblock walls are hand-painted with flowers, a map of the park, a portrait of Che, instructional trash disposal signs, as well as inspirational quotes. Many hands have left their impression on the house over the years. A considerable assortment of books and boardgames fill the bookshelf.

photo 4As for the volunteers that fill the house, it all depends on the overlap of volunteer schedules and from what walk of life comes the volunteer. I have had the pleasant fortune of volunteering with a lovely group of people. Some may call us a colorful cast of characters. There are six of us in the house at this moment: two Canadians, two Australians, one American, and one Texan.

The volunteer house offers the space and the resources in which we fill it with life. The space has become our place to restore our bodies and spirits. The classic morning routine can be described as a quiet preparation for the day. The early evenings take on a more lively dynamic as dinner is prepared for all. After dinner the soft ambiance lights are turned on and the chill tunes are cranked up as we swap world adventures and tell riddles.

photo 1There are many opportunities to play Mr. Fix-It around the house. It has been fun to strategize and brainstorm solutions as a group. Despite the lack of the modern day comforts we have grown accustomed to, the volunteer house has become a true home. Just like during my university years, the volunteer house has been shaped by the volunteers just as much as the volunteers have been shaped by the volunteer house.

By Jacob Lopez
LWH Volunteer
Houston, TX