Guatemala or Bust, chapter 3: Arrival

Someone handed me a pillow and showed me where to sleep shortly after we arrived at a home in Guatemala City. It was late in the evening, but the house was still a beehive of activity. Look forward to meeting … must sleep … lots of questions … eyelids so heavy … in the morning … zzzzz.

My host was a Canadian man who’d lived and worked as a missionary in Guatemala for more than 25 years. Now people in local churches regarded him as an apostle. What?? Thought those guys went out about 1,700 or 1,800 years ago. But I heard an interesting story:

Prior to the earthquake, Guatemala’s evangelical community was tiny. Some within that arm of the church believed that God was telling them to prepare for a disaster, and to start stockpiling food, water, blankets, and medicine. They did. When the earthquake struck, the little evangelical churches had people and supplies ready to go while the government and relief agencies were scrambling to mobilize. As a result, they were able to help lead the nationwide effort to deliver needed aid and begin the arduous task of rebuilding.

My host seemed to be in the middle of coordinating that ongoing effort. No wonder people were in and out at all hours. Now six months after the quake, much progress had been made in the capital city, but work in poorer and more remote areas was proceeding much more slowly.

I hadn’t considered doing anything more than a little sightseeing before hopping on a plane to come home. Didn’t know anyone in the country, but maybe someone would be willing to show me around. My host suggested I could meet people at a birthday party he was hosting that evening. Guests included some Americans who had come to help in the reconstruction. We swapped stories at the party, and they invited me to come stay and work with them. Why not? I’ve come all this way… My host gave his blessing, and the next morning I packed my toothbrush and moved to a compound on the edge of Guatemala City en route to San Juan SacatepĂ©quez.

About 30 people lived in various buildings, trailers, and campers on the property. I shared a ‘room’ in a bunkhouse with Enrique, one of several Guatemalans who had come to live there. How remarkable to be welcomed by complete strangers and immediately drawn into their community. A few things stand out about living there:

  • Beautiful singing before meals;
  • People’s joyful willingness to pitch in and help;
  • A big garden behind the main house and chickens running around in front;
  • Beans and tortillas for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Other stuff, too, but always that;
  • Our bunkhouse had an electric water heater. That is to say, power from an outlet ran through two bare wires to an exposed terminal block on a metal showerhead. Since I was more than a foot taller than Enrique, it was sometimes necessary to adjust the angle of the showerhead. I can still feel the tingle in my elbow from grabbing that gizmo while standing on wet concrete in my bare feet.

The community had set up a sawmill in the city, cutting structural lumber and wood siding to length so that the ready-to-build material for two houses could be stacked onto flatbed trucks. Some of us would drive into town each weekday morning to help load the trucks, then a couple of crews would meet the trucks on the way to that day’s building sites.

Sometimes we went into little villages tucked away in the mountains; other times we headed for barrios in the city where kids ran and played next to open sewers. Families left homeless by the earthquake were still living under scrap wood and plastic. We weren’t building anything fancy: a family of up to five was eligible for an 8′ x 10′ house; a family of six or more qualified for a 12′ x 12′ house. Dirt floor, four walls, one doorway, two window openings, and a corrugated tin roof. We could build two of them in a day. Receiving families had the ground cleared and leveled when we got there, and helped us lug the material from the truck to the site if they could.

Though not a skilled carpenter, I can swing a hammer. That was skill enough to be useful and to help make a difference for families who’d lived too long without shelter, something so basic I’d never even given it a second thought. Until then.

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