After a short tuk-tuk ride over beautiful mountain passes with panoramic views of Lake Atitlan, I walk up the steep main road of San Pablo La Laguna until I hear the familiar sounds of hammers, saws, and the words of Kakchikel, Tzutujil, and Spanish. As I enter the job site, the smells of the horse manure and fermented prickly cactus juice needed for earthen plaster greet my nostrils. By the time I arrive from San Marcos at eight, the local crew who start at six are already taking their first quick break. I say hello in my broken Spanish then make my way down to the carpenters’ area to see what they need me to do today.
Commuting from San Marcos to San Pablo every day is a constant reality check. This town is much more economically disadvantaged, and as such the amount of foreigners dwindles, the adobe and tin-roofed houses get smaller and simpler, and there are no signs for yoga schools or fancy hotels. There are old women half my size carrying bundles of firewood twice theirs, the street is dotted with house-fronts selling bread or vegetables, and the men can be seen hiking to the mountain with machete and pickaxe in hand. Here in the central highlands of Guatemala, Spanish is a second language and much is still handmade.
The building we are creating will provide a service that does not yet exist in this small town: access to healthcare that is more than just a pharmacy or an underfunded, understocked and overcrowded public health post. This new bamboo-framed, earthen-walled medical clinic will help to fulfill this need here, and it is just the beginning. Besides providing work for locals, it is a long-term asset for the community.
The clinic in San Pablo is just one example of the ways natural and sustainable building projects have created lasting benefits for the communities in which we work. Charlie Rendall, the contractor responsible for seeking out and managing many of these projects, is also one of the driving forces behind the new natural and sustainable building school we are developing right here on his land.
Over the past ten years, he has trained locals in bamboo building, an art that did not previously exist in this area, as well as helping them to hone their carpentry, masonry, and other building skills. These same people are now teaching others, who are in turn teaching me. The knowledge begins at a source, and the cycle continues on indefinitely. In just a week of work, I may learn how to make and finish window frames, cut bamboo joinery, and even try my hand at creating a traditional earthen wall.
These projects provide a platform for foreign volunteers like myself to work alongside indigenous craftsmen, learning as we go, both about building and each others’ cultures. These are the types of interactions that we remember forever. Now, we are creating a formal school infrastructure where we can train more locals, provide a well-stocked workshop, and host people from all over the world who want to learn the art of natural building. This creates stable employment for local builders, as well as proliferating both modern and ancient techniques of natural and sustainable building.
We are laying the foundation for lasting positive shifts in knowledge, and your support could go a long way toward helping create a vibrant community of natural and sustainable builders here. Together, we can shift away from concrete blocks and tin roofs to lasting structures of bamboo, earth, and stone. And in the process, we can support marginalized Guatemalan communities.