Comalapa

20130612-DSC_0359E: San Juan Comalapa is a mountain town in the department of Chimaltenango. When I was in Palenque, I considered buying mushrooms from an English guy named Shane who told me about a place in Guatemala where he’d volunteered building a school out of tires. Naturally I was intrigued and after a quick Google search discovered the organization, called Long Way Home, based in these mountains. So after a successful mission to Guatemala City to get a new shock for my bike and recover a package sent from home that had been sitting in the Guate Correo for 50 days, I made my way to Comalapa. The ride in was absolutely breathtaking. The Guatemala highlands is made up of many gorges which are a pain in the ass to cross but afford magnificent miradors (vistas.) Everywhere in this region, even on the steepest slopes, are neat farmer’s fields and fruit trees. Being the start of rainy season, the remarkably straight rows of crops were a brilliant green and all the flowers were in bloom. Although the road did not appear steep, there must have been a constant elevation gain, as Comalapa sits at 6,000 ft above sea level. When I rode into town, I tried to find the barrio of Paxsun where the school was, but it was already getting late in the day. I could see the circadian storm clouds gathering overhead and figured it was better to find a hotel than keep riding about the countryside. This turned out to be no easy task as, like the streets, the hotels in this town don’t have any signage. Comalapa is pretty far off the beaten path so I suppose they don’t get a huge amount of visitors here. As it turned out, most of the hotels are actually guestrooms in local people’s houses. The first two homestays I was led to by some helpful locals didn’t have anyone at home and, with the thunder claps becoming more frequent, I was getting a bit anxious. A local traffic cop directed me to a third option a bit outside the town center. This place actually had a sign… and a bar even. Hostal Don Catarina would become my home for the night. I checked in, parked my bike in the front foyer and wandered back into the town. Of course the center of town is monopolized by a giant church and plaza and a collection of random shops dotting the perimeter. Although there were many food stalls serving elote, empanadas, pupusas and a cream-based soup with bull testicles and black beans, after a tiring ride, I was in the mood for a proper sit down meal. Like the hotel, this became surprising hard to procure. I walked in all four directions from the square, asking locals if they could point out a restaurante. Although it was approaching 5pm, I found two restaurants, a tiny hole in the wall called Adobe which was closed (maybe forever) and a pizza place, which had the metal front door shutter also closed and locked. There was actually only one single restaurant option within a good 30 block radius. Café de Plaza was a small windowless restaurant, sparsely decorated with six tables. The wall hangings included some Mickey and Minnie Christmas hangings and a replica print of the last supper in calendar form. There were also some festive construction paper chains draped from the ceiling. Of course I was the only customer, the cost of a meal here being 30 Quetzales ($4) and the average daily wage in town being, well, 30 Quetzales, I wasn’t expecting a massive assembly. I was thankful for the overcooked chicken cutlet, rice and beans and wondered if an authentic Guatemalan Highlands restaurant with a similar ambience could survive in Vancouver. I wondered if I opened a restaurant with concrete block walls, a few plastic tables and chairs and a menu consisting of six mains:  three chicken and three pork cuts paired with rice, beans and tortillas would draw much of a crowd. Of course for it to be a true Guatemalan experience, the cost of a meal would be set at $180 CDN, comparative to the wage of the average Guatemalan.

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The next day, I was forced awake at 6:00 am by the echoing footfalls of the hotel manager on the concrete slab and Mexican cowboy music coming from another room down the hall. Although it would seem that rural Guatemalans lack consideration in situations like this, I have been told that they just have a much higher tolerance for noise than we do. Of course I couldn’t get back to sleep so I got up, had a lukewarm shower and set off on my bike to find the school. I was told by the night boy at the hotel to ask for La Casa de las Llantas (The House of Tires). I managed to find the property where the employees and volunteers of Long Way Home stayed. It was pretty rustic and I was glad for my basic yet clean and enclosed hotel room. I walked through a gate into a covered enclosure and found three girls sitting in a circle eating cereal. Two of them had dreadlocks and all three looked like they had been surviving off sink showers for more than a few days. They were cheerful enough though and pointed me to another wooden building up the hill a ways where they said I could find Ben, the volunteer coordinator whom I had communicated with over e-mail. Apparently this second building is where the employees of Long Way Home live. It was decidedly more upscale than the volunteer quarters although also made from wood planks and cobb foundations although containing less holes. There were about a half dozen people already up and atom and just getting ready to hike over to the school site. I was greeted by Ben, a super affable ex-real estate broker from Los Angeles, who became unreasonably excited about the high-end motorcycle helmet in my hand. Ben rides bikes back home and being in the highlands of Guatemala for the past 3 years has caused him miss his bike to a fairly noticeable degree. I also met another girl with dreadlocks who introduced herself as Genevieve. I recognized her from my initial e-mail contact with the group and remembered she was in charge of fundraising for LWH. Everyone was super friendly and while they finished getting ready they gave me a quick overview of the organization. Long Way Home was started by a peace corp volunteer three years previously after he had completed a two year term but was invited by the townspeople to stay on. He purchased a several acre piece of land on the edge of town for $12,000 and set about utilizing natural building practices to build a school. LWH now have six full time staff from the US who pay themselves $5 per day. There are also a host of volunteers that come for different durations and are asked to pay $75 per week to help with the construction and learn about natural building techniques. Ben told me that they often receive groups, either college classes or churchy types, who pay $600 per week per person to come and visit the farm. Food, lodging, and tours of the area are provided for the groups, so in all, it is not too expensive for visitors from North America or Europe taking 2-3 weeks off. At the present there were six independent volunteers working at the site. The organization also employees six fulltime Guatemalan construction staff. They are paid slightly better than the regular construction wage in the area and are often taken to different projects, even outside Guatemala, to utilize the skills they have learned in this field.

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Christian Propagandists

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Found this at the house of an artist. Interesting that Guatemalans would welcome any member of the Bush family.

Found this at the house of an artist. Interesting that Guatemalans would welcome any member of the Bush family.

Ben spent the entire morning with me and gave me the greatest tour. After securing my bike inside the enclosure, the two of us set of into the fields through the morning mist. We waved and greeted the indigenous farmers or their silhouettes as they began their daily work of tending the crops. It was a perfect day although it was already starting to get humid at 7am. We slowly made our way up a rise and at the top we turned back to survey the maze of connected fields we had just walked through. Much like the ride up to Comalapa, this was some of the most exquisite scenery I had seen on my trip. For this reason alone I was glad I had decided to come. A little ways further, Ben pointed out the outline of the school building in the distance. It was quite large and seemed to encapsulate several buildings. Ben told me that the school had opened two years ago and as the group completed different buildings the enrollment grew. At present there are 94 children from the surrounding area receiving their education here. As well as construction, LWH also funds the operation and instruction through their donations. Along with the main building which comprises three classrooms, the organizations office, and an apartment, the site also includes a separate classroom in the shape of a mushroom for the pre-school aged children, a block of four composting toilets and a tool crib and office for the construction personnel. I have to admit I was completely in awe as we wandered onto the site. The land is quite large, several acres at least, but is sloped and situated on the back side of the town, hence the cheap price. To create a somewhat flat footprint to construct the structures, the group had to level some of the land and did so by building a retaining wall completely out of discarded tires filled with earth. This wall ran the entire length of the property and was extremely impressive. Ben told me that just this component took six months straight to complete. Even more impressive was the huge subterranean cistern also made completely with large truck tires and backfilled with earth. To complete this project concrete will be poured along the walls to make the basin water tight. The price tag on this is $8,000 and the construction is therefore stalled pending funding.

Ben, ex-real estate broker from Los Angeles

Ben, ex-real estate broker from Los Angeles

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The Cistern... I guess this is while villagers call it the House of Tires.

The Cistern… I guess this is while villagers call this place the House of Tires.

Composting Toilets

Composting Toilets

Some of my fellow volunteers.

Some of my fellow volunteers.

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As we got to the edge of the site, Ben pointed out an unfinished cobb and bamboo structure that had been designed and constructed by an visiting architecture class from a US college. The students had come to observe and learn from the techniques being utilized here and they offered to fund and construct a building of their own. The roof trusses were especially interesting utilizing nothing but thick bamboo poles, twine, tie-wire and a few double headed nails. Once complete the students had poured a 5” thick smooth concrete roof on top to show the strength of the support structure, I suppose, and they coved the outside edges to create a rainwater collection system as well. The walls were cobb with glass bottles throughout to add strength and they had also added plastic bottles which I hadn’t seen before. As a way to help further reduce the solid waste in the community, LWH collect all the plastic bags, candy wrappers, chip and cookie bags and push them into the plastic bottles with a piece of rebar, Then they screw the cap back on and voila, you have a non-compressible building element which acts the same as the glass bottles. Later in the day Ben took me into town for some food and we detoured over to see the town dump. Walking along a street with a big wall on one side, we eventually came to a break in the wall (with no barricade) and looked over the side into a massive pit about 200 feet deep and even larger in diameter. This used to be a natural river valley but has now been completely covered in decades of the town’s garbage. Considering its location right in the center of town, you can imagine the danger to the town’s water supply. Part of the program is to educate the community on how to reduce their solid waste. Some of the staff and volunteers give presentations in the town to educate people about the problems of solid waste and how they can reduce and reuse. At the site Long Way Home have arranged a number of bins for glass bottles, small plastic bottles, large plastic bottles, solid waste, and as many tires as they can get their hands on. They have even made excursions to nearby towns to collect all the used tires they can find. Sometimes they offer neighbourhood kids a few Quetzales to collect and bring to the site all the glass bottles they can scavenge around town.

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For lunch Ben took me for bull testicle soup, but instead we ate pupusas!

For lunch Ben took me for bull testicle soup, but instead we ate pupusas!

Beautiful natural gulley!

Beautiful natural gulley!

Otherwise known, for decades, as the Comalapa Dump.

Otherwise known, for decades, as the Comalapa Dump.

The foreman at the site, a guy around my age named Adam with a big beard and a patient demeanour, is the brains behind the majority of the construction. He has been working in Guatemala on natural construction projects for the past 10 years. Whoa!!! I really took a shine to him and enjoyed watching how he ran both the Guatemalan workers as well as the less experienced volunteers. He was also appreciative, I think, to have me helping on site as I had done this type of work before. They were in the process of building two gigantic earthbag structures approximately 25 feet tall. It was an enormous undertaking considering how labour intensive this type of constructive is. Adam confided in me that he was unlikely to try such a large structure with earthbags again. He said that the first school building had been made with tires and went up about four times quicker. Just looking at the size of the two massive bee hive shaped edificios, I was concerned about the structural stability, especially in an earthquake prone area such as the highlands. At one point when I went into the office to grab some tools, I saw Adam poring over an AutoCAD draught of the buildings with all the dimensions. We he walked me through it and explained the tight tolerances he was following and the factor of safety it made more sense to me. I have to say I was blown away to see he was using AutoCAD. This site was the real deal. I was also especially taken with how well the finished structures had been beautified. Although the base structure is made from old tires, discarded bottles, cobb, and trash, the finished structures are clean, colourful and possess some pretty incredible artwork. Many of the female volunteers who aren’t giddy about heavy construction work have contributed to the decoration. Also, the local people and children, essentially the end users, have been invited to work on the finishes of their new buildings.

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Adam from Philadelphia, the brains behind the design and construction.

Adam from Philadelphia, the brains behind the design and construction.

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The Toolshed

The Toolshed

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Site Super's Office. Nicer than a trailer.

Site Super’s Office. Nicer than a trailer.

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After work was done for the day, Ben caught up with me and took me a few blocks into town to show me some Earthships that had been built by the crew of Mike Reynolds, the esteemed Garbage Warrior. I couldn’t stop myself from enthusiastically boasting to Ben that I knew all about the Garbage Warrior and was a huge fan. Tanya had put me onto him when she insisted we watch his 2007 documentary a few months into our relationship. http://www.garbagewarrior.com/about I thought it was utterly spectacular and it has remained an inspiration for me. There is a large community of people who have built or are building houses with natural and recycled materials in Taos , New Mexico, where Mike Reynolds has been battling the state legislature to change their traditional building codes. He has labeled these structures Earthships and defines them: Earthship n. 1. passive solar home made of natural and recycled materials 2. thermal mass construction for temperature stabilization. 3. renewable energy & integrated water systems create an off-grid home with little to no utility bills. LWH invited Mike Richards’ construction crew to Guatemala and paid them to construct an Earthship to gain the skills and knowhow in order to duplicate the feat. The first home they gave to a single mother with five children to look after. They also built a small shed in the back for her loom as she works as a weaver. At presentl, the LWH crew are building a second Earthship for staff housing.

'Earthship' built by Mike Reynolds crew

‘Earthship’ built by Mike Reynolds crew

LWH's first house

LWH’s first house

The finished school in operation

The finished school in operation

Current enrollment is 94 children.

Current enrollment is 94 children.

The Pre-school

The Pre-school

I really liked the people I met while working with Long Way Home, from the staff, volunteers, the local tradesman and even all the people that I met in town. It was inspiring to see so many smart people who believe in this method of construction and the many benefits. The dedication from some of the staff who have worked here full time for so many years, essentially spending a good portion of their lives helping this community and furthering the science of this type of construction made me feel very humbled. I met one gentleman in his 50’s from Oregon who had volunteered with LWH in the past and was back again for another month. He told me he’s retired and his wife is still working so he likes to come down here and help out for spurts. He said that he’d worked abroad for many years mostly in the Panama Canal as a crane operator.  He raised two of his kids abroad and two in the states and he confided that seeing how they turned out, he wished he’d raised them all in the developing world. This cracked me up. Hell, I wish I’d grown up living in lots of exotic places. But mostly I was roused by this group because they are really onto something. Not only are they providing housing, school buildings, education, employment, waste reduction and donations to this one community, they are also pioneering a technology that can be used the world over. The proof of this program’s success is the staff that have been here for years at a time and the volunteers clamouring to be involved. My hat off to Long Way Home and best wishes for much continued success.

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One response to “Comalapa

  1. Great project, clearly giving something really special back to the community and re-using waste brilliantly. Some of the buildings you were working on look totally mental, esp the pre-school 🙂 PS Disappointed that you didn’t try bulls’ testicles soup – I bet it would have been lush! Best of luck with your onward journey…

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