Guatemala or Bust, chapter 4: The Work

Roads into some villages were so rutted and full of chuckholes – more like craters – that we could barely coax our trucks into the sites. But even in remote little hamlets, a Coca Cola truck often arrived before we did. It was astounding to see Coca Cola’s commitment and determination to bring their products to people with so few of the necessities. On those days when I didn’t feel like building houses, realizing that the Coca Cola truck would be there helped to get me going.

Receiving hospitality from those with so much less than I had was humbling. People for whom we built a house would prepare us a grand lunch that probably would have fed their families for days. A meal typically included spicy soup, a piece of chicken – usually from a critter that had been running around that morning – vegetables of some kind, and a mountain of fresh corn tortillas. After rolling out masa, the women patted the tortillas into shape with such speed that their hands were a blur. That was where I ate my first chicken foot. It tasted like – well, chicken.

Sometimes we were served Coca Cola with the midday meal; other times it was a drink made with some sweetened milk. On one occasion milk was mixed with water that I knew had come from the nearby river. Knowing that our hosts wished to thank us for building them a new home, I wanted to receive their gift in the spirit in which it was offered. “Lord, gird up my loins and protect me from whatever is in that glass.” I breathed the prayer as the drink was handed to me. Cheers! I still remember feeling that I needed to chew the water. ‘This is a gift. Receive it gratefully,’ I kept telling myself. Miraculously, I didn’t experience any adverse consequences. One of my buddies, however, found out soon thereafter that he had amoebic dysentery, and he was out of circulation for a while.

Putting corrugated tin on a roof requires pounding special nails through the ridges on the wavy material. This is not easy. Tap-tap-tapping nails with mere wrist action was not enough to pierce the tin, which was necessary before nailing it into place. So we’d hold the nail with one hand and gave it one good whack with the hammer, hard enough to poke a hole in the metal. Aim had to be pretty good, as we were swinging the hammer in a big arc to bring its weight down on the nail. You probably see where this is going… I missed my mark on one of those big swings and smashed my thumb instead of whacking the nail. Oh man, did that hurt. Don’t want to give too much detail here, but a couple of key words would be “blood” and “spattered.” I lay kind of low for the rest of the workday.

The next morning I wondered, Can I get back out there with a hammer? Feeling a little queasy. Were other people facing more challenging circumstances? Of course they were – so get my butt into that truck. A heavy work glove on my injured hand wouldn’t have done much to cushion another blow, but it offered enough mental padding to overcome the queasies and resume working. I was even able to get back on tin roof duty.

On a couple of occasions I drove one of the trucks loaded with precut building materials from the sawmill in town. In the chaos of city traffic one morning I ended up running through a red light and was pulled over immediately by the police. Imagine my surprise when four officers jumped out of the sub-compact car with guns drawn. I was really starting to sweat as they peppered me with questions I couldn’t understand. My life flashed before my eyes as I contemplated being thrown into a Guatemalan jail. Thankfully, another member of our team in a car behind me ran to my rescue. Sometimes the line between every day occurrences and disaster is awfully thin.

Nearly every afternoon the sky opened up for a tropical shower that lasted anywhere from 20-90 minutes. Big thunderheads formed quickly, dumped down rain, then gave way to more sunny blue skies. It often rained again at night. The smell and feel of the washed air was wonderful. If we completed our first house before the daily rains, we’d have a good shelter and vantage point from which to watch the storms. If we were caught without shelter, we dried off pretty quickly in the afternoon warmth.

Men in the villages sometimes sat in a circle to talk; many of them could ‘sit’ in a squatting position with their feet flat on the ground for hours. One older man sat on a little three-legged stool made of wood. The first set of legs was gone, though the through portions of the tenons were still visible, and a second set of legs had been added. I admired the stool and the wood that had been worn and polished by hundreds or thousands of hours of conversation between men. As we packed the truck to return home, the gentleman who owned the stool presented it to me. I didn’t know how to thank him. The stool is in our living room, the generous gift of a stranger, and a reminder of how I received much, much more than I gave.

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