Today has been an incredible day. We woke up this morning a bit earlier than we all wanted to and met in the lobby for a tasty American breakfast, then boarded a pickup truck that took us as far away from America as most of us had ever been.
We drove a mile up the road to a refugee camp in the Panabaj canton, set up for the victims of the mudslide that occurred during Hurricane Stan in 2005. Before we arrived, we were warned that the conditions we would see would shock us. It will be like Darfur, Heidi told us, without the Janjaweed. We were sad to find that she was right.
We split into groups of three or four students, each with one Spanish to English translator and one Tzutuhil to Spanish translator, and visited the homes of seven women who survived the mudslide. Placed into hastily-built wood and corrugated tin homes soon after the disaster, these women were starting to lose faith that the next year would bring them safer and permanent homes.
Lucy, Evan, and Laura (HC ’02) went to visit Concepcion, who lost many family members in the mudslide. She explained how it felt to lose her sister, daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter, and soon began to cry. It was a very beautiful and emotional visit. Concepcion helped us to see that these people will never cease to remember the devastation brought about by Stan. Even today, the sound of the wind and rain on their corrugated tin roofs brings back all of the fear and pain that Stan instilled. As she explained, “The children are afraid of the rain. They climb into their beds and hide when the rain comes.”
As we waited for the trucks that would take us to our next visit, we learned about the reconstruction process from Chico, the President of the Board of Managers of ADECCAP. He explained that of the five areas affected by mudslides in 2005, three had indigenous names that cautioned of their susceptibility to these devastating natural disasters. The name for this area, he explained, meant “land of rocks,” a reference to the stones carried down from the heights of nearby volcanoes by torrential rains. The town could not rebuild on the same dangerous site again, so they instead asked their Mayan elders where to build.
Chukmuk, the elders told them, “the top of the stairs.” The site of the first Tzutuhil settlement and one of the most important Mayan archeological sites in Guatemala, Chok muk is in little danger of mudslides. We went to Chukmuk and were presented with the plan for “reconstruction with transformation” that calls for the construction of over 700 adequate, respectable homes to replace those taken by Stan. Construction was already in progress, with families contributing the labor to build their new community. The new homes represented a new life for those who lost everything more than two years ago.
After a satisfying Guatemalan-style lunch and a quick repose, we set out for town to explore the role of religion in local life. Our first stop was a Catholic church built in 1547, one of the oldest in Latin America. The church was the site of the assassination of the beloved “Padre de Santiago Atitlan,” Father Stanley Francisco Rother. After years of devoted service to the community, he was killed for his objection to forced conscription into the Guatemalan army. His service to the indigenous community was indicative of the role the Catholic Church in fending for the victims of the civil conflict, and his contributions are still commemorated today.
We then walked through town to see the shrine of Judas Iscariot. Upon arrival, we learned that this was a tourist destination, and they were charging us not only for entry, but to take pictures as well. Anita decided this was exploitative of religious traditions, and we opted not to see the shrine. Instead we went to the shrine of Santiago, the patron saint of Atitlan. Our visit helped us explore the blending of indigenous and Christian faiths.
Next we hopped back in the pickup truck (all 23 of us) and stopped by the hotel to pick up donations for the school in Panabaj. Awaiting us were many of the cutest children we’ve ever seen. We quickly began to hand out beanie babies and sweatshirts to the children, and then listened to their teacher explain that they used to have four teachers, and now only had one. It was clear that this school is in need of further support. We then went outside to play “pato pato gonso” with the children. Many of the boys played soccer, while the rest laughed and chased each other around. Before long, this degenerated into the little girls attacking and tickling the Haverford women. These kids were irresistible, but unfortunately we had to leave in order to be on time for our visit to ADECCAP.
We visited the site of the Ijatz-La Semilla Project, a community center that includes a handicraft cooperative. ADECCAP, which stands for the the Association for the communal development of Panabaj, raises money to provide community eduction and training based on the Mayan Tzutujil culture. We again heard from Chico and then had the chance to purchase handicrafts from the women who made them. Most of the proceeds from the sales go directly to the women, and a small percentage goes back to ADECCAP to fund community projects.
Satisfied with a truly educational and exhausting day, we returned to the hotel for a spaghetti dinner an evening of recuperation. Who would have thought college students would go to bed before midnight during Spring Break? Well, we are… buenas noches!
-Nick Lotito and Lucy Cutler