Guest blog written by Bonnie and Tim Power,
Global Village Volunteers
If you are lucky, someday you will find your way to Xela, Guatemala. You will be in a hotel off the old town square that is on a very steep street. You will be at 7,600 feet altitude.In the morning you will ride in a van with a very skilled driver who will drive you through the extremely narrow, hilly streets away from the square onto the Pan American highway. There is traffic—lots of it and there are street dogs—lots of them. You will drive past businesses and stores like XelaPan (bakery), a Mormon temple shining white in the distance, a very (very!) large and old cemetery, the local bus station where the "chicken buses" are waiting, the beautifully painted and signed ‘Romance and Elegance Auto Hotel’ (just ask someone about that). You will not go too fast because the speed bumps are big and high and frequent.
You will leave the Pan American highway to drive through suburbs where the roads are narrow and not meant for a van. You will drive through San Marco and then turn left into a lane that is hardly more than a foot path. You are greeted by dogs—dogs in groups—dogs lying close to the road, dogs sleeping, dogs forming a blockade to the footpath the van turns into. You are greeted by, at a minimum, 15 dogs.
And there you are—in a small community of houses interspersed with fields that are cleaned but not planted, every variety of building from those patched together with whatever wood was collected and adobe bricks could be made and corrugated metal roofs to more elaborate, newer buildings that in many cases were built with money sent from relatives living and working in the United States.
It is hilly, almost mountainous. The fields are well maintained, and the soil is a medium brown. There are chickens and turkeys calling out from their yards, there are cows—some tied to trees or fences where there might be some foraging available. There are large goats wandering around looking for eatables. There are sheep, pigs in pens, ducks.
There are no street addresses, no mail delivery, infrequent house numbers, no evidence of sidewalks. Off in the distance can be seen one of the many volcanoes—this one not active. It is beautiful—so beautiful and peaceful, if you don’t listen to all the roosters, cows, and especially to all the dogs barking.
Wash is hanging on the line outside the one-room house which holds eight members of a family. The cement sink and water faucets in front of the house are still full of laundry. This set of sinks and basins is where dishes and clothes are washed.
And there is the family—Pedro and Emiliana and one of their sons greeting us. Pedro and his younger son work alongside us. Pedro does not walk for anything he does—but runs. He runs to get cement blocks, runs to water down the ground to reduce dust, runs to stack wood and cement blocks. He is so committed to the prospect of this house and he has put his whole heart and soul into building. For his family it means there will be 2 bedrooms, a kitchen a bathroom, a concrete floor, and longevity.
For this family it is somewhat of a miracle, especially the bathroom which will replace the latrine which is made of a fence of corn stalks, a door consisting of a piece of cloth, and a hole with what looks like a round piece of metal which would be difficult to sit on.
We volunteer in an open space where cement blocks and sand for cement block are staged. Puppies sleep in the sand for the cement, find a spot near where cement is being mixed and play under the setup to make rebar. Mother dogs still nursing watch over the puppies. It is hard not to pet them.
Some dogs actually have collars and may have a place to go to at night. They may be guard dogs. There are so many of them and they wander the neighborhood.
Little kids head off to school in the morning and bigger kids go for the afternoon. They come to say hello and if their mother is near, they may run up to you to say hi and then expect a pat on the head. That may lead to a hug even as they are shy.
There is good work to do and the day goes quickly—hauling cement blocks, mixing cement, creating U-blocks for the rebar, assembling the rebar 'ladders'. And then we leave for the day—wondering what it is like to live in a 1-room house with no inside water, a minimal latrine, no ability to make a quick trip to a store, no street lights, no kitchen with equipment. It is dark, and the dogs continue barking.
This is all very hard to leave. These families, as with a large percent of families in Guatemala, struggle for resources daily and seem very happy to have these houses that they have worked very hard to have. We are so lucky to be able to meet them and work with them.