I decided, once again to the chagrin of everyone in my life, to abandon my course, to follow my instincts and remain in this place so vastly different from anywhere else on earth, a place that felt like home the moment I arrived years ago, a place that gives breathing room to my mind and dreams. The pulse of the beating heart of the Maya can still be felt in the highlands of Guatemala. I am on some acknowledgedly interminable quest search for something that I cannot phrase in words, something that I experience in fleeting moments that arise under unreplicable circumstances.
I stare out the window, maybe a little bit high on diesel fumes, of an old American schoolbus that moves to the beat of reggaeton. Guatemala is an amazing and strange intersection between traditional culture and modernity, I watch a woman board the bus carrying a basket on her head with a cellphone against her ear. In Xecam, I hop out the back door, something that still makes me giddy after enduring a childhood of prohibition, and begin hiking my way upwards towards Nueva Xetinimit. This trail has been used since time immemorial to traverse the highlands, it was hewn by the feet of thousands of K’iche’ villagers, the feet of guerillas during the civil war and the well shod feet of those who want to see a Guatemala from a different perspective. The K’iche’ are an indigenous cultural and linguistic group numbering an estimated 1.3 million people spread throughout the highlands of Guatemala, one of over 23 extant native languages. The long dry season is nearing its end; dust billows out from under my feet with each step. I step to the side of the trail into the pines as mules pass, straining under loads of firewood that arc over their backs. Men hurry alongside with machete in hand, we smile and greet one another with a long drawn out Buenos deeeeas that I learned to mimic after spending months crisscrossing the altiplano as a guide for a non-profit, volunteer run trekking agency that supports local social projects called Quetzaltrekkers in 2008.
I walk into Nuevo Xetinimit and approach two women sitting alongside a deep, dusty scar that cuts through the overgrazed and overworked plain. I greet them in one of the few K’iche’ words that I know, saqui’rik. I ask them how they are doing and they respond in K’iche’ accompanied with a hand gesture that says someone is going to come who speaks Spanish.
The farmers here, as in much of the highlands, scratch out an existence by planting maize, beans and potatoes in marginal soils on steep mountainsides. They hand plant, harvest firewood for cooking and live in simple adobe or block homes. They lead a precarious existence; it is a harsh landscape where there is either too much water or not enough. In the end of October 1998, Hurricane Mitch dropped a years worth of rain that fell nearly horizontal with high winds. The cornfields that provide the year’s sustenance were destroyed by the wind and water. Above Xetinimit the deforested landscape and sloped fields gave way, unleashing a torrent of rock and mud that left dozens of houses destroyed and two lives lost. Central America was left reeling.
Most of the villagers left to try again elsewhere and Nueva Xetinimit was born. Multiple families shared small houses for years as they tried to get back on their feet, there was nowhere else to go. Several children from this area have have passed through a school for children who would not otherwise have access to education called Escuela de la Calle in Quetzaltenango. Escuela de la Calle and Hogar Abierto are the primary projects that the funds generated by Quetzaltrekkers fund. Quetzaltrekkers maintains close relationships with many of the communities through which trekking trails pass: in Nueva Xetinimit alone guides have joined forces to build a bridge, donate bicycles and provide school supplies.
What am I doing here? The village has spent that past 240 days working collectively to carve tunnels into the hillside in search of potable water. A project they undertook on faith, someone had an intuition that they would find water here. They dug two tunnels between 5-10 meters in length into the hillside, each one 1.5m high by 1m wide, before they found two trickling veins of ground water. Manuel, our liaison with the women’s committee tasked with building the project hands a
candle out to me and points towards the tunnel. It feels like an affront to my manliness, I grab the dainty candle and plod my way through the running water, crouching as I move further into the darkness and feel a rising panic as I think about the mass of earth towering over my head. Here, right now? In this tunnel? What if I died? They spent months in this tunnel, it is fine. But everything is fine until it isn’t fine anymore! I am too large! I feel like Alice. I try and balance myself against the ceiling and walls, but worry that this will only weaken the structure. I look and see Manuel’s grin lit by his cellphone at the end of the tunnel. He points to the water as it emerges from nowhere. I awkwardly turn around, quickly moving towards the light. Always move towards the light.
The guides from Quetzaltrekkers have agreed to provide the necessary materials to fortify the water source and carry water to the lavadera below. I am there simply to help facilitate the project. The lavadera is a washing station that currently sits almost empty, but will serve as a source of water for household consumption for several dozen families who currently walk several hundred meters to retrieve water.
Six women are clustered around the washing station as I approach, soaping, rubbing and rinsing the days wash. I am often cynical about aid from a theoretical perspective, critical about dependency and the inability of aid to achieve lasting results, yet I look on and imagine clear, potable water pouring out of a pipe and the effect that it will have on these women’s lives; it is a beautiful image.
On a crisp and clear Xela morning I walk out the door of Casa Argentina with Santi, a guide, to find our friend Victor leaning against his pickup truck with a new dapper mustache above an unsmiling mouth and mirrored shades. He says nothing as we approach, until I stick my hand out.
Manuel stands on the roadside grinning as we approach. He piles in and we drive into Nueva Santa Catarina Ixtahuacan to buy the rest of the materials. There is also a Santa Catarina Ixtahuacan where most of the locals here used to live; they had the chance to change this name that could only be described as cumbersome and unwieldy, but kept it and added three more syllables.
We arrive in Santa Caterina (the town will be referred to by this name to avoid adding several extra pages to this post) only to be informed from the woman at the hardware store that the estimate she previously gave us was wrong: someone from the city called yesterday and the global price for steel rebar went up. Her gilded teeth wink at me as she explains the unfortunate position in which we find ourselves. I invoke the image of pitiful, dehydrated orphans to no avail.
We arrange for another pickup and a truck to carry materials. We load them down with cement, blocks and rebar before caravanning along dirt roads towards the project. Through the cloud of dust I look out on the volcanoes around Guatemala City and Lago de Atitlan stacked in the distance, clouds gently rising on their flanks. I only catch glimpses through pines as they blur past. I spend half of the time airborne while trying to hold together the rebar bundles that are coming undone without pinching or crushing my hand. Classic Guatemala.
We arrive with the materials in Nueva Xetinimit and dozens of villagers hop to their feet, ranging from old women to young men with gelled hair. Blocks are stacked on backs, bags of cement are passed from person to person, rebar is carried in pairs, bundles of tubes are snaked up the hillside. Thousands of pounds of materials are unloaded in just a few minutes. The trucks leave and then I begin the descent to Xecam on foot with Santi.
I am out working on other projects for a couple of weeks; the only news that I hear from the project is that it was short two sections of PVC pipe, which Santi carried up from Xecam on his back.
On a chilly, clear morning, I arrive slightly before the other guides from the organization for the inauguration; old men and women in traditional dress, teenagers in second hand clothes from the United States and little kids wearing a mix of the two lie around in the grass as I approach. We all sit admiring the project with mugs of atole de maiz in our hands. Manuel steps forth to express his gratitude for our collaboration on the project. One member of the women’s committee stands up and says the following in K’iche’, which Manuel translates into Spanish and I transcribe roughly:
‘Aqui tenemos la voluntad y estamos bien organizados. Terminamos con el proyecto en pocos días, pero no se pudiera hacerlo sin la ayuda de ustedes. Gracias a dios que hay personas con corazones como los que tienen ustedes.’ ‘Here we have the will and are well organized. We finished the project in just a few days, but it couldn’t have been done without your help. Thank god there are people with hearts like yours.’
Another woman steps forth and hands me a hand knitted sign thanking the organization to hang in the office. I also receive a diploma to add to my ego wall, once I have a wall that I can call my own and can afford to have it framed. We walk the length of the project and I see the sight I imagined weeks before: clear water gushing forth into the full lavadera. A few women look up and smile as they knead their clothing against the washboards already worn down from just a decade of use.