The last week of February in Pana was spent wearing ourselves out in days of service, in various wonderful ways. We volunteered with Solomon’s Porch to build a cinder block house for a local family. We toured the local “Days for Girls” office. We went to the Eagle’s Nest Orphanage in Sololá to play with the children and hold babies for a while. All very worthwhile activities and fantastic charities doing great work.
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In our first day of service, we spent about an hour in the local Guatemalan office of “Days for Girls.” The local office was opened by a friend that we have made here in Pana, Jen Kelly. Days for Girls has come up with a design for a washable, reusable sanitary pad, so that local girls can have something inexpensive and clean and long-lasting to use for menstruation. It is a welcome alternative to expensive disposable pads, or improvised rags and washcloths. This helps the girls to stay in school, stay at work, and avoid the need to remove themselves for a week every month. The office was staffed with 8 local women busy at their Juki machines sewing pads, liners and bags. Our family had volunteered a few times in Dallas at sewing parties, where we sewed the materials with donated or purchased fabrics. Here in Guatemala, they were creating a locally managed micro-business to carry on the work. The office manager told us about trips she was planning and making to local schools and organizations to teach the girls about hygiene, self-defense, and to sell the kits at locally reasonable prices to the girls who need them the most.
Next, we helped with building a house for a local family with the organization “Porch de Solomon” or Solomon’s Porch. The organization was started about 10 years ago by Lloyd and Melanie Monroe. Lloyd is a former Florida trial lawyer who was looking for a change and an opportunity to make a difference in the world. He came to Guatemala to make that difference and 10 years later, he has opened up a hotel and café and they host service groups from the States about 20 times a year. They host medical teams, and building teams, and have built 101 houses in the area over the past decade. These teams come down to pay for and assist in myriad projects to help those in need in the Solola area. I mention “pay for”, because my understanding of the needs of local charities has morphed somewhat since I first came here. Originally, my thought was to come to Guatemala and offer my service hours to the local charities. And yet, I found in every case, that providing my service hours, which I was willing to give for free, was going to cost me money. In other words, I was paying someone else for the opportunity to receive my service. It was like going to the local food bank to offer to serve food to the homeless, and you would have to pay $50 for the privilege – you could only come to serve if you brought or bought the food first. I couldn’t understand it at first.
But then through experience and conversation, I recognized that in 3rd world countries, my free unskilled labor isn’t worth much. The local NGO’s have already spent thousands of dollars to hire and train locals to carry out and perpetuate most effectively and efficiently the service activities, whether it be building houses, or building garden boxes, or installing clean burning ovens, or bringing eco-waterfilters. They don’t need well-meaning, smiling free labor, they actually need the funds to keep their organizations going and the locals employed. While my service hours are appreciated, my donation dollars are critical. In fact, the service that I get to perform is really more about my own satisfaction and learning, and the warm and fuzzy feelings that I get by helping and doing what I believe is wonderful, but quite possibly is only slightly helpful. That certainly doesn’t mean my service isn’t worthwhile, it is indeed. Especially when it is accompanied by the funds that buy the materials, and pay the local workforce, and keep the NGO moving forward. And perhaps most importantly, those warm and fuzzies are enough for me to come back again, and write another check. It is about a change of mindset, to appreciate what is truly needed and important, and what is a side benefit.
We spent two days with Solomon’s Porch, travelling about an hour from Panajachel to the hills to help construct a sturdy cinder block house for a family in need, 6 children ages 2-14 years old. The house itself was a very simple square design, 3 small bedrooms + kitchen, about 400 ft^2. The primary construction of the house was being performed by two local builders, employed by the charity, who were there at the house every day for construction. The 8 of us came in as a volunteer team, the third team which had come to this house specifically to assist over the past few weeks. The construction was rudimentary, and the local laborers were more than capable of completing the entire house. But we didn’t dwell on that, because there was lots of work to still be done, and we were eager to learn and help.
The house was already 70% built when we arrived. The septic tank was already dug - dug by hand, 5 feet across and about 10 feet deep. About 10 layers of cinder blocks had already been laid, all the doors and windows were framed, and it was our job to lay the next horizontal rows. Our first task was to form a line and move concrete blocks from the pile outside to the inside of the house. When I said unskilled labor, I wasn’t kidding. After moving the 80 blocks, the kids then all climbed up on the sketchy wooden scaffolding, which was literally rough-hewn planks stacked on cinder blocks, or balanced precariously on upstanding timbers, themselves haphazardly nailed into the newly lain blocks. The kids were handed trowels and leaking buckets of mortar and shown how to slop the mortar on, douse the cinder block in water before hefting it up to place on the wet mortar, tap each block flush with the plum lines, slice off the oozing mortar, repeat for the next block. Other jobs included: pounding rebar holes in the blocks with a hammer; cracking/sawing the blocks to size by whacking them with a dull machete; mixing new mortar on the bare ground with water, cement, sand and a shovel (no electric cement mixer); digging a trench for the sewage line, laying the pipe, filling the trench back in; more digging of trenches around the outside of the foundation; shoveling river sand through screen mesh to sift out the sand of proper size for the mortar; laying and cementing the cinder blocks in the septic tank hole; slopping buckets of concrete onto a tin plank foundation to build a concrete roof for the septic tank; and other various heavy labor construction tasks. We all really enjoyed the “very part time” work, and the kids became the bricklayers they never knew they wanted to be. Jacob, 9, mentioned a few times how much he enjoyed serving this way, and was glad to be working. By the end of the day, the constant exposure to wet cement dried out our hands to the point of cracking, like fallen autumn leaves in the sun. It was satisfying work, and the recipients, Juan and Juana, with their 6 young children were grateful and gracious.
On our second day of building, after the morning's labor, we ate with the family in their existing stick wall, tin roof, dirt floor one-room abode. With a wood fire burning over a flat metal griddle, and smoke ascending through a stovepipe too short for the room, then fingering its way inside the room along the tin roof ridges to find the light of escape and exit, Juana and Tera and Emily and Megan took handfuls of pre-mixed cornmeal, water and salt, and pounded them flat in their hands to make corn tortillas about 4 inches in diameter, to then be baked on the griddle. All of Juana’s tortillas were flat, round and even, while those made by the Schaumann gringos turned were lumpy and misshapen sad excuses for tortillas, one after another. Once cooked, Juana kept discreetly putting the gringo lumps at the bottom of the tortilla stack, so they would be selected last (or not at all) during the shared meal. Who knew there was such a delicate art to tortilla hand-slapping.
The local meal consisted of salted, cooked white beans, and corn tortillas, and nothing else. This was pretty much their meal of choice for most meals every day. In true economically-advantaged American picnic style, we brought a broader selection. Peanut-butter, honey and banana sandwiches, ham and cheese sandwiches, apples, nuts and crackers. We shared everything with the family, and the Mayan kids were some of the most grateful kids I’ve ever fed. They never asked for more, but they accepted with eager eyes everything they were offered. Even the mother, who was busy at the stove, and whom I suspected would be demure and unwilling to accept the offered food, was eager to eat every sandwich and apple slice which came her way. It was a delightful meal, in humble and memorable circumstances. Talking afterwards with Miguel, our Solomon’s Porch host & translator, he mentioned that peanut butter was very much a luxury item, a jar costing a large percentage of a day-laborer’s wage.
On our 4th day of service for the week, we visited a local Guatemalan orphanage, the Eagle’s Nest. The kids who lived there were between the ages of 3 months and 18 years. It was located in an old hotel (I’m told) that occupied a prime location on the end of a ridge, with a gorgeous overlook of Lake Atitlan. It looked to be very well-staffed and clean and orderly. We played with the children on the playground with frisbees until 2 of the children refused to give them back and then ran away with them, ending in a game of hide-and-go-seek in their bedrooms – with them hiding under beds or locked in bathrooms. We also held babies in the nursery and fed them bottles and some pureed food. It was a pleasant afternoon spent at a busy orphanage.
Plan? What plan?
Our first Gap Year was a fabulous "2017-2018 School Year" of travel: from the Netherlands to Jordan to Texas to Hawaii to Mexico to Central America to London and back to the Netherlands. Our "2018 Summer Vacation" took us all around Western Europe, back to the USA on a transatlantic cruise, a road trip through New York and into Canada, and ending up in Utah. We have now kicked off the "2018-2019 School year" with a trip to Asia. Follow along with us on our visits to new places, as well as revisiting some of our favorite places from our time living there. It's going to be great!!