My mom and I visited Guatemala for 12 days this past June for different reasons. She, a child of the 60's, missed out on the Peace Corps after college. The tradeoff was worth it, a full-time teaching job, marrying my dad, and having four children. But, in the back of her mind, the cultural immersion always beckoned her. In 2007, as my brothers and sister went off to college, she discovered the God's Child Project, a non-profit organization that offers emergency and humanitarian relief in the U.S. and around the world in the form of volunteer service trips. She's returned to Guatemala every summer since.
My reasons, on the other hand, were less altruistic. When my mom had first thrown out the idea of me coming along, I begged off with job commitments. Honestly, I didn't want to spend my vacation time hard at work in a poverty-stricken country. But, after three years, I eventually ran out of ways to say "no." I agreed to go to Guatemala, assuming that I'd please my mom—and cross it off my goodwill list. She hoped that I'd have the chance to discover an exotic country and, simultaneously, see beyond my own needs. The extra perk would be sharing another adventure: from the Aspen highlands to the Alaska wilderness, the California surf to the streets of New York; we'd traveled together before to places that have piqued my interest and never lacked for conversation.
High in the winding canyons five miles outside of the cobblestone-street village of Antigua, "Cementology 101" began early on a cloudless Monday morning in late June. A pickup truck dropped our service team off in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere. To reach our house build site, mom and I slowly hiked up a steep, rutted dirt path framed by tin walls that hid ramshackle lean-to's constructed from whatever the Guatemalan families living in the surrounding slums could scrape together—scrap wood, corn stalks, twine. In the distance, towering volcanoes grumbled, the lush countryside rolled up and down, and smoke rose from fires already roasting handmade corn tortillas for lunch. Our task was to construct a 12 x 16-foot, one-room home for a family of seven who lost their original living quarters in a mudslide. Temporarily bunking with their neighbors, they had neither the money nor crew to do it on their own. I looked at the bare, packed-dirt floor of their property, only slightly wider than the planned dwelling, and wondered how in the world an azul abode would stand there in three days. Growing up in Iowa, I never cared to learn the most rudimentary techniques about sawing, hammering or drilling from my dad. Instead, I spent most of my time in the kitchen with my mom. She knew as little about construction as I did, so her advice was simple: serve in whatever ways the God's Child Project needed.
I said yes to everything that Eddy, our jovial 25-year-old Guatemalan crew chief, asked. He assumed I knew what I was doing, so he'd assign without instructing. I tried my best, but I still ended up handing him crossbeams with ends that weren't square, hammering doors in upside down, lining up the foundations' blocks in a wavy row, and bending countless nails that would have to be pounded in again and again and again.
"Iss ok," Eddy assured me after seeing me screw up. Each time, he'd fix my mess in a few swift movements. The one task we needed to ace was mixing the cement to cover the inside floor. According to Eddy, the materials consisted of two square feet of sand, one square foot of rocks, ten 100-pound bags of cement mix, and mucha agua. After failing to find an exact weight equivalent for the sand and rocks, I correctly guessed that a cement truck wouldn't have any trouble tossing the mammoth piles around, but we, sin tools eléctricas, most certainly would.
Mixing cement, I learned, is similar to cooking. Both require constant stirring—turn, turn, turn, add liquids—until the dry ingredients combine with the wet ones. Like chocolate chips to cookies, cement was vital to the house. While the walls and roof protected the family from the rain, the four-inch thick slab of concrete would lead to a dramatic reduction in parasitic infestations, diarrhea, and anemia in children. According to a World Bank study: Each year, diarrheal diseases kill an estimated 1.8 million people, the majority under age five, and parasitic diseases claim the lives of 3 million children. That same study found that simply covering the dirt floors with concrete led to a 78 percent reduction in parasitic infestations and a 49 percent reduction in diarrhea. In this case, the mother's five children, ages three to thirteen, would no longer have to sleep on dirt. Borrowing a quote from Congresswoman Shirley Anita Chisholm, mom reminded me, "Service is the rent we pay for living on the Earth." By virtue of being born in the United States, my mom and I had lucked into living in the richest country in the world. More than half of Guatemala's population lives below the poverty line.
Inside the concrete-block foundation's rectangular perimeter, we dumped buckets of rainwater on top of twenty wheelbarrow loads full of sand and gravel and five bags of cement mix. We shaped the pile into a mini-version of the surrounding volcanoes. Standing side-by-side in the middle of the gray slop oozing murky, mom and I pushed and pulled rusty shovels, a splintered hoe, and our American backs unaccustomed to the intensity. I could hear my mom's labored breaths every time she drove her shovel into the dry rocks and stirred them into the gravely oatmeal. Her movements weren't powerful, but they were relentless and she had passed that attribute onto me. As the morning hours passed, we gritted through knotted muscles, throbbing shoulders, and cramped necks, wiping pools of sweat from our brows after every third scoop. She displayed the midwestern ethic she had raised me on, grind away until the job is done.
By noon, we had erased not one, but two massive piles of the gravely oatmeal. Gray began to gloss over the muddy ground as we closed in on our goal of covering the floor. Thinking the end was near, my mom and I scraped up the last crunchy bits and relaxed. Eddy looked at the empty corner and said we needed one more batch. I looked at him incredulously. Really?!
The prospect of throwing my worn out body into another rock mound took me jback to my racing days. The competitions all blend together, but one memory remained fresh: one mile left, Jell-O legs, stomach cramps, and a challenger on my tail. The ultimate honesty test: Do I have what it takes to push on? I had answered that question many times before on my own. This time I had a Chaco-wearing, freckle-faced partner who had encouraged me to take this leap in the first place. After indulging in a cool drink, mom picked up her shovel and I grabbed mine. We flashed weary grins, shrugged, and dug in.
Later that night as we tucked into our bunks in the pint-size, closet-less bedroom we shared at our host family's house, my mom asked me if I thought mixing cement was as hard as she had described. I thought about shielding the truth. But then I exhaled and blurted, "It was the hardest thing I've ever done. But we did it." The digging, the missing, the hauling, and the hammering and the never-ending pile had cemented a bond between mother and son. I slipped into a coma sleep dreaming of our little Guatemala family, with a roof over their heads and a concrete floor under their bare feet.