A Suitcase Of Water Filters by Allen Oertel

 

A suitcase full of water filters. Little brown smiling faces. Bad roads. Market day in Chisec. Heat and humidity. Apple flavored soda. A room full of blank stares. Stacks of buckets. Really bad roads. Grateful faces. Good Karma. These are just a few random thoughts which sum up our recent Guatemala experience.

During our recent trip to Guatemala, Mustard Seed Peace Project president Terri Cranmer and I saw no marching caravans or desperate hoards walking towards a border even though it was all over the news down there as much, or more so, than it was up here. However, we did see lots of people who live in varying degrees of poverty and who lack the education and/or resources to help improve their standard of living. With this in mind, about a year ago Mustard Seed Peace Project seized  the idea of making one small improvement at a modest cost for the residents of two small communities in northern Guatemala; San Alfonso and Las Mojarras. Our goal was to provide a table top water filter to each of the 220 families who live in these two communities that are in an area where fewer than 20% of people have access to clean, potable drinking water.

This trip was also to be the smallest group I have ever traveled with. It’s just me, Terri, our trusty driver/five-language translator/jack-of-all-trades, Ruben Dario Gomez Gonzales, two huge suitcases stuffed with water filters, a backpack and some baggies full of Sam’s Club trail mix. Vamanos!

The longest part of this trip is also the shortest. You grab a quick breakfast at the St. Louis airport, board a 5:57 a.m. flight to Miami, and pretty soon you’re having lunch in Guatemala City. 2,000 miles in about 6 hours. However, the remaining distance of 230 miles will take us about 12 hours to drive from Guatemala City north to Playa Grande.

Yes, I said that right. Do the math. We will only average less than 20 miles/hr. First of all, Guatemala City traffic is horrible and on a Friday afternoon, it’s like any big city anywhere. Everybody wants to leave town RIGHT NOW. Except in Guatemala City (or simply “The City” as most people call it) there are no freeways, bypasses or shortcuts. Every street seems to be a side street only two or four lanes wide where traffic is mostly stop and go, with heavy emphasis on “stop”. Every vehicle imaginable is on the road at the same time: cars, busses, semi’s, motor scooters, cattle trailers, and even a few shiny Mercedes SUV’s with blacked out windows that seem to be able to move faster than anyone else. When the road finally opens up, don’t be surprised when drivers take the painted lines on the road as mere suggestions. We don’t get too worried as Ruben expertly weaves in and out of traffic, passes on hills and curves or nonchalantly crosses into the oncoming lane of traffic armed with only a friendly honk and a wave as his/our only defense.

Five or six hours later in the dark, we eventually make our way to the halfway point, the City of Coban. It’s a large-ish town, or a small city in the mountainous Central Highlands which hosts a surprise most Gringos don’t expect. The Magdelena shopping mall. Not a huge place, but a nice clean, modern, safe mall. It’s pretty much like any mall in the states, except for the well dressed security guards carrying automatic weapons which we don’t normally see too many of at our local mall in Springfield. Dinner is in the food court at “Pollo Compero”. Think of it as the Guatemalan equivalent to KFC. Our hotel is a few miles outside of town. It’s not posh, but it’s pretty good; a nice tidy little family run establishment where Ruben has stayed before. The long day is followed by a good night’s rest and my first Guatemalan breakfast: pancakes, eggs, toast, coffee and the very tasty white farmer’s cheese simply called queso.

It’s a gorgeous sunny day and since you’re in the mountains, it’s fairly cool. We have about 5-6 more hours of driving so we start off passing through the fincas (coffee plantations) outside of Coban. But why should this take so long go 100 miles? Pretty soon we come to the town of Chisec and run smack dab into…market day. The streets are packed with people, trucks and motorcycles all crammed together with little stalls encroaching onto the sides of the highway.

By now it’s crowded, hot and you’re stuck behind a truck loaded with cattle. So you tell yourself relax, “tranquila”, close your eyes and let your ears take it all in. Don’t be in a hurry. And when the little Mayan lady comes up to your window wanting to sell a nick-nac, soda or an old T-shirt, you just smile, say “No gracias, Senora” and soon you’re on your way.

You know you’re getting close to Playa Grande as soon as you see the end of the pavement.

 

You’re entering the Laguna Lachua Biosphere Reserve. It’s a Guatemalan national park where about a hundred square miles of untouched rainforest/jungle have been preserved surrounding a large natural lake. This means no pavement, dirt (mud, even in the dry season) roads, huge potholes and another hour to go the last 10 miles. Jaguars have been spotted on trail cams here. You pass a shrine to Father Lorenzo, an American priest killed in a robbery attempt in 2009 and you feel a brief glimpse of the conflict which seems endemic to this region. As soon as your kidneys feel like they can’t take another pothole, you reach pavement again and it’s only a few miles into Playa Grande.

Playa Grande, formerly known as “Cantabal” (and still called that by many locals) is the municipal seat of local government. It looks and feels just like a border town. There are dusty streets, lots of shops, stalls, a few sketchy hotels, markets (mercados), hardware stores (ferreterias) and at the end of the main street, the large and imposing Catholic Church. Stand downtown on most days, and eventually you will see soldiers from the local army garrison patrolling the town in groups of three or four dressed in American fatigues, carrying American automatic weapons and riding in American Humvees. It’s as if they are just another ever present reminder of the area’s conflicted past. However, next to the Catholic Church we finally see the Ste. Teresita Women’s and Infants Clinic which we will call our home for the next three nights. It reminds you of a hospital from the 1930’s but the rooms are rented mostly to local aide groups like ours where for $5 a night, you get an old hospital bed, clean sheets, a mosquito net, cold showers and most importantly, a big locked gate.

Your alarm clock while staying at the clinic will be the sounds of all the people lining up to be seen Monday through Saturday starting at dawn. Many of the waiting patients are sick children, but there’s also the crush of cuts, broken fingers, skin rashes and mysterious fevers. A lady sets up a stall outside our rooms and sells fresh fluffy tortillas loaded with freshly cooked chicken, rice and beans for one Quetzal or about 17 US cents. As tasty as they look, we know better than to try one. In one very touching scene that I was lucky enough to surreptitiously capture, a woman waiting with her sick child buys one of the tortillas for her and her baby. And as limited as her resources are, she can’t resist sharing some of her breakfast with a stray mother dog who obviously has mouths to feed herself. This lone act summarizes one of the gracious qualities we see in people here. They may not have much, but more often than not, they will share what they have.

Anyway we don’t want to linger here because today is the first day of assembling and passing out our water filters in San Alphonso. It’s only about 5 miles away on a mostly paved highway and it’s just a typical October Sunday morning in the northern lowlands; blue skies and about 90 very humid degrees. As we arrive the community center is already packed. The buckets have already arrived and we are introduced by the Alcalde (Mayor) of the community.

We are two white faced gringo’s looking out on a sea of attentive, but stern, brown faces. We first thank everyone for allowing us into their community and offer a brief explanation of what the filters will and won’t do. They will filter out all the bacteria, viruses, sediment and debris. Someone asks if they will filter out agri-chemicals. No, they won’t so you have to careful and know where your water is coming from. The biggest advantage, we tell the people, is that you no longer have to boil your drinking water, which means you don’t have to collect as much wood, which means reduced smoke from cooking fires, fewer breathing difficulties and less deforestation.

Most people sit passively and you can see they are skeptical. This is where you have to put it on the line. I ask someone to get me a bucket full of the dirtiest water they can find and pretty soon in comes a bucket scooped up from the nearby creek. Debris, bugs, and floating algae are the only things I can recognize and I pour most of it into the filter for all the world to see. A trickle of clear water slowly comes out and in a few seconds I’ve got a glass of clear water held up for the community to see.

And then I drank it completely in front of everyone. A few sceptical people walk up. They look in the bucket at the fetid water. I pour out a little more filtered water, take a sip and offer it to them. There is always a quick sideways glance up at my face where they seem to be thinking “This isn’t a trick, right?”. In my best kindergarten Spanish I say “No, it’s fine. Have a drink.” and before long we have a literal bucket brigade drilling holes and installing filters in 5 gallon plastic buckets. In a few minutes, someone brings out massive battered speakers that every town seems to have and they start blaring out Mexican Ranchera music. Pretty soon a group of ladies bring in huge baskets of “pan dulce con frijoles” (sweet bread with refried beans). Tons of little kids. Apple soda appears (which really needs to be a thing in the United States). Music. Food. Handshakes. Clean water. This is what you call a party.

Although this was our first community, it really was the high point. Tomorrow we have to go to Las Mojarras, IF it doesn’t rain during the night. If it rains the road will be impassable and we’ll have to reschedule. Our good karma stays with us and it does not rain during the night. However, the road is still too rough for our rental car and our friend Elias comes to get us in his brother’s pickup. Sitting in the back of a tiny Toyota “crew cab” truck for 15 miles on barely passable road and going way faster than this gringo thinks is prudent, but in a little over an hour we make it to Las Mojarras. This community is a twice as big as San Alfonso so we don’t meet with the entire community. Instead we meet with the Water Committee but instructions take a bit longer because many people do not speak Spanish. Our instructions in English are translated into Spanish by Ruben to the Alcalde of Las Mojarras who then translates from Spanish into Kakchikel, one of the local Mayan dialects. Once we get started, this meeting is all business. No music, no snacks, but busy working hands. The assembly is over in a couple hours and soon we’re on our way back to the clinic for our last night. As if on queue, knowing our main work is done, the heaven opens up and it pours for about an hour, but at least we can rest knowing what we came to do is finally done.

 

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We know that these filters will not solve all of the problems in these communities. Filters get broken, lost, “borrowed” or simply wear out. They don’t last indefinitely. We are working towards finding more sustainable solutions to supply water to these communities, but that takes time and money which we hope will eventually come. However, until that time comes, we know that we have improved their quality of life and provided them with clean water for themselves and their families……….And that is something to celebrate !!