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Baptism By Fire

dsc014131I’ve been having an incredibly hard time trying to get myself to start writing this article. I don’t know how I can possibly do justice to what’s going on around me. But, I have to try. It’s too important not to.

Even having seen it, I still can’t believe it. On my 8th day in Guatemala, the world exploded. Quite literally – Pacaya volcano, located on the very southern edge of Guatemala City, erupted. Talk about baptism by fire! As if that wasn’t enough calamity, tropical storm Agatha wreaked havoc across Guatemala and much of Central America less than a day and a half later. Welcome to Guatemala, Shannon.

I was at some friends’ place enjoying a delicious dinner we cooked together when we got word about Pacaya. My coworker got the call, and his face absolutely drained of all color. All he said to the voice on the other end of the line was, “the program is completely shut down?!” in the most disbelieving tone I’ve ever heard. My mind started racing in a million directions all at once. The project was closed completely?! I just gave up everything to come down here. How could the project be closed? What was I supposed to do? I had nothing to go back to. I didn’t want to go back to the States, even if there was something there for me.

I’m ashamed to admit that I laughed – laughed – when I found out it was an eruption and the project was only closed temporarily. Can you imagine? I raced up onto the rooftop. The sky was cloudy, but there was no ash in sight. I had such a mix of emotions my mind just couldn’t make sense of it all.

We went down to the neighbors’ apartment and watched the news, seeing scenes of Guate (Guatemala City) absolutely coated in ash. You could see it raining down, thick as snow but black as tar. Nobody knew how to react to any of it – not even the reporters. Everyone was absolutely befuddled. Walking around Antigua later that night, we found a car that must have driven in from Guate. It was coated with a layer of ash almost an inch thick. The ash looked and felt like coffee grounds. I grabbed two fistfuls and saved it in a plastic bag.

The next day, the ash provided great fodder for show-and-tell at my homestay. We doled it out in little portions so everyone could have some. Even the 60-some year-old housekeeper had never heard of an eruption like this. She was more entranced than anyone. We talked at length about the city digging out from the ash, people filling up bag after bag from their roofs, terraces and sidewalks. The three project sites of Camino Seguro collectively removed 10,000 pounds of ash from their premises. Keep in mind the project is in the very north of the city, while the volcano is to the south. We heard tell that some areas of the south were covered in up to 5 inches. Over 2,000 people were evacuated. The last report I can find says 3 people died, while 3 were still missing. Then, attentions turned to the next tragedy.

The day following the eruption, the rain didn’t stop. We’re in the rainy season now, but generally that means rain for a bit in the afternoon or evening. So, everyone knew something was awry. Tropical storm Agatha was officially announced 36 hours after Pacaya started erupting (over a week later, the volcano is still going). Some areas of Guatemala had more than 3 feet of rain dumped on them in 30 hours, wetter even than Hurricane Mitch. With reports varying, something like 130,000 people were evacuated after the storm. Probably half of those were left homeless. Over 100 died in Guatemala alone. Those that are missing are presumed dead, still buried under massive landslides. Volcanic ash plugged drainage systems, leaving some areas of Guate under several feet of water. The landslide that killed 4 people in Guatemala City on Saturday occurred in Las Cruces neighborhood, where a number of Camino Seguro families live. In an incredible twist of fate, CS social workers had gone around Friday morning asking our families to evacuate after the volcano. Luckily, they complied. Incredibly, all of our families are safe, although we’re still trying to figure out if any are in the makeshift shelters made to house those displaced by the volcano and the storm.

We were lucky in Antigua, where I live. The streets were like rivers on Friday and Saturday. By Sunday, everything had cleared up, with only a few puddles to betray the storm. A small percentage of houses had minor flooding, but there was no real damage to speak of.

The areas around Antigua, however, were some of the worst hit in the country. The skyline around Antigua is dominated by three volcanoes – Agua, Fuego and Acatenango. Mountains radiate out in all directions. Nestled on the hillsides are many tiny villages. Some homes are made of cinder blocks, while some are made of tin with dirt floors. Most of the roofs are laminate. Imagine 36 inches of rain falling at the summit of a volcano. Imagine that 36 inches as it tumbles 12,336 feet down, picking up the next 36 inches of rain and the next 36 inches and the next all the way down. Imagine the force of that deluge. Now think about everything that water drags with it and the power it has to destroy everything in its path.

The devastation was severe in San Miguel Escobar, only 5 km outside of Antigua. Half of the town is buried under major landslides. In some areas, the mud is chest-deep. A drainage ditch that once funneled normal seasonal rains safely down from the volcano is now piled high with earth, tree trunks and boulders. As a matter of fact, Volcán de Agua got its name from a major landslide that came down off the summit and buried what was then Guatemala’s capital. San Miguel Escobar is built on the site of the former capital.

I saw the effects of the storm in San Miguel first hand. The Camino Seguro volunteer bus could not travel between Antigua and Guatemala City for 4 days following the storm, so a number of CS volunteers joined up with volunteers from other area nonprofits to help with cleanup efforts in San Miguel. The first day we were wholly unprepared for what we found there. Most went in tennis shoes or hiking boots, with no gloves or any other protection. By the end of the day, everyone was covered head-to-toe in mud, and feeling a bit flummoxed as to how we could really organize and be effective.

The morning of day two, we went to the market and got rubber boots to protect ourselves from the sticks and other various sharp objects churned into the mud. We also thought to bring water and tools. We spent the day with our palas (shovels) and azadones (hoes) working hard to remove the mud. A group of us stayed in the street, shoveling load after load of mud into the back of a pickup to be driven out. We then had to shovel the mud out into a yard a resident had allowed us to use. The other group went down to a house at the bottom of the former drainage ditch and pulled out soupy mud all day. Just after lunch, we got a dire call to meet at the church to assist with a new landslide. Some people said it was minor, while others said 40 people were buried in the mud. When we got to the church, several men were pulled away to help, while the rest of us sat and waited for a headcount. We had no idea what to do or what to believe. It seemed like no one had a clear idea of what really happened. We finally decided to go back to our original posts and continue pulling mud. Anxiety ran high when hands were idle. At the end of the day, we felt more productive, but still lacking somehow. We were more or less on our own, and were completely perplexed about this new landslide, how bad it was and what it meant.

On day three, we concentrated on big jobs. My group was assigned to a house. The front room, presumably a kitchen and living area, along with the bathroom, was coated with mud that was drying fast in the sun. We pulled the mud back and sent it careening over into the back room, which lie several feet below. However, with so many stones and sticks and the mud drying fast, we just couldn’t make anything that resembled progress. Filoberto, an obviously well respected member of the community, directed us into the back room. We spent the afternoon clearing layer after layer. The top layer was a soupy pallor. The further down we dug, the thicker and harder the mud got. The bottom layer, a foot thick, was nothing but stones and debris mortared together. At long last we reached the concrete floor! With a renewed ferocity, I used whatever strength was left to jam the pala under the rocks, wedge it in with a few swift kicks and break clump after clump apart for others to scrape away with azadones. We cleared the entire room, at least 8’x16’, by the end of the day. It was a sweet victory.

By day four, we realized it was a good idea to have surgical masks and surgical gloves, with work gloves worn on top. Water and airborne illnesses are on the rise. Tetanus is a constant threat. Now when volunteers arrive, the vehicles are intercepted with nurses giving tetanus shots to anyone who needs one. Methods for more easily removing the mud have now been deployed. Foreigners armed with tools fill 5-gallon buckets provided by Guatemalans, who then pass them down a line and out the door. The work is methodical, but it gets the job done.

Because many generations of a family often live together, there’s no one to take in those that lost their homes. More than 100 families are sleeping and receiving meals and medical care at the church. A mattress is hard to come by. No one knows when they will have somewhere more permanent, or at least more comfortable to relocate to.

Cholera is now becoming a problem in affected areas of Guatemala as bodies interred in the mud contaminate the water supply. Japan has donated several water purifiers to be distributed to the hardest-hit areas. The government is warning people not to drink contaminated water. The problem is that damage to the infrastructure is still heavily impeding travel so enough purified water is not available to all areas that need it. Even if it were, it’s not guaranteed that everyone would be able to get to it, or would even have received the warnings. Communication was already a challenge here before Agatha. In some ways, it’s basically nonexistent now. All the volunteers laughed when we were forwarded a government warning not to listen to rumors and speculation. That’s the only type of information that’s available here!

In serving to help dig out San Miguel from under the mud, I have been able to be a part of the “real” Guatemala. Antigua is beautiful, but it is a dream world. There is so much tourism in Antigua that you can’t go more than a few steps without seeing another foreigner. It would be easy to go a whole day speaking only English. Guatemalans here have money (relative to their fellow citizens) and all the things that it can buy. The tourist police on every corner ensure safety and order from sunup to sundown. Antigua kind of feels like the Hamptons. In working alongside residents of San Miguel, I have been invited into their homes, had conversations about their lives and seen their work ethic. (There’s an expression here, which translates to, “you can kill me, as long as you’re working.”) I have gotten a better glimpse into “normal” Guatemalan life than I could in a month in Antigua. Time after time when informing friends and colleagues of my move, I heard, “yes, go, but be extremely careful!” The opportunity to go out into “unsafe” areas has grounded me, given me the chance to experience all sides of this country and made me feel safer and more relaxed. Familiarity breeds understanding, which builds bonds that have the power to make real, lasting change.

Yet, all of this leaves me feeling an immense sense of tragedy. In the short term, there are tens of thousands of people who need homes. Donations of food, water, diapers and other necessities will be needed for months. Not only do people who lost everything need to be fed and provided for, but much of the food crop was lost. The price of carrots has already more than doubled in the market. The after effects of Agatha will be presenting themselves for a long time to come. I fear that as soon as the next world tragedy hits, Guatemala will be lost from memory.

But, I have also found great hope in the events that have unfolded in the past 10 days. I have seen communities rally together to help their own. Men and boys are removing mud and pulling out boulders, while girls and women walk around serving beans, tortillas, bread and purified water. Volunteers from area nonprofits are there every single day, dedicating themselves to ensuring that communities can dig out and move on. In the face of tremendous adversity, everyone is pitching in.

I also have hope for what this will do for Guatemala in the long term. Houses need to be rebuilt. This is a chance for them to be constructed with stronger materials that can withstand the elements and increase the standard of living for these families. I also hope that this has raised enough awareness about what the living situation is really like for a majority of Guatemalans that more foreigners and foreign agencies will provide aid. I’m not referring to food and staples, although that’s needed, too. I mean aid that builds a stronger, more sustainable infrastructure here. Better homes, better schools, better telecommunications and capacity-building are all desperately needed. Can we join together to help lift Guatemala? Not just out of the mud and ash, but out of the pervasive poverty and inequality that has racked this country for centuries.

This week, I saw peace in the frenzy after the storm.