Inspired Words

These are the experiences of our volunteers in Guatemala.


February 2011: Day 2.

Posted in Guatemala on February 8, 2011

On a gorgeous Monday morning the twenty two Canadians piled into our bus and headed north to the town of San Miguel Duenas. We were greeted by Teresa the director of Open Windows, the local NGO, our partner in our project, to build two houses for two local families. After a review of her work at Open Windows, which concentrates on helping to educate children with ability who need assistance with their education, we were divided into two groups, each group responsible for the construction of a house over the next two weeks. We are to be assisted, at each site, by a local mason and one or two helpers.

The entire group of twenty-two arrived at the first site, led by Teresa, through a narrow walkway to a small yard between two buildings, almost all of which was to be covered by our house. After some discussion Teresa led half the twenty-two away to the second site, and we got down to business.

Sheila Hickok provided excellent translation for our mason William, who had laid out and leveled the lines for us to dig. The trenches were to be thirty centimeters wide and seventy centimeters deep. We were overtaken by our enthusiasm and dug them twice as wide in some places, despite cave-ins. Before we knew it, the trenches were finished and we left for an early lunch. The people at Open Windows had prepared a delicious lunch for us in a cool upper room, away from the sun.

At lunch Teresa gave both groups dimensioned plans for the houses they were to build. The plans for both sites were for identical houses. However, after lunch, upon visiting the second site, we discovered that the mason there was using a plan for a larger house than our plans called for. After some discussion, we decided to increase the size of the house we were building to this larger size. The family was delighted with our offer to increase the size of their house.

They filled in a trench already dug and dug another one, working in the heat of the afternoon. By the end of the day our trenches were finished, our objectives were met and we looked forward to the next day's work, building the foundation with reinforcing rods to help withstand earthquakes,

Meanwhile, Teresa had lead the second group back to the principal street of the town, turning left along a paved road that skirted the mountain that over looked the town, then down a second road, over a culvert, down a lane, to the site, a small yard between two adjacent properties. There had been a previous house on the property, since there was a concrete foundation floor covering half the yard. The mason was busy laying out the lines that defined the walls we were to build. Our first job was to dig the trenches for the walls of the house along the lines the mason laid.

The mason and his helper looked surprised to see us, twelve middle-aged, pale men and women, not obviously in one of the construction trades. They had not finished laying out the lines for us to dig. Teresa had a brief discussion with them and then left us to carry on. Our only means of communication with the mason and his helper, who spoke almost no English, was through Zelia Swan, whose mother tongue is Portuguese, but whose knowledge of Spanish construction terminology was not strong. We looked at them. They looked at us. What to do?

North Americans are not good at waiting patiently to see what unfolds. One of our group grabbed a pick axe and started digging energetically a trench along the one lines that the mason had leveled. Then a second one of us grabbed a shovel and stated digging out the earth the pick had loosened. Unfortunately he came too close to the pickaxe, which shattered the shovel handle with one blow. This was unfortunate, since there was no other shovel at the site. The mason looked horrified. Fortunately Teresa arrived with more tools and the work continued. With another pickaxe a second keen Canadian started to dig a trench opposite, but before the mason had laid his line. When the line was laid and leveled the trench was a foot offline. New trench diggers moved in and corrected the error.

At one point, the trench diggers encountered a huge rock, too large for them to move. The mason and his helper came and after much discussion, began to lever the rock out of the earth. The North Americans gathered round and bombarded the two men with instructions in English, some of it contradictory and none of which, fortunately, the mason and his helper understood. Eventually the two men moved the rock, and the digging continued. By the end of the day, our trenches were mostly finished.

Gradually, for both groups, the enthusiasm of the volunteers and the savvy of the masons and their helpers began to connect. By the end of the first day we began to feel satisfaction that the work had progressed according to plan. We understood that the masons had no access to the kind of tools that were used in North American construction and with that, that we needed to find the patience that would allow us to work in the Guatemalan way. We felt that work in our sore muscles and tired bodies.

We felt also that we had exceeded our original expectations by increasing the size of the houses on both sites to the delight of the families. We were all looking forward to the walls rising in the trenches we had dug.

Preston Thom

DWC Team Leader

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