Rotarians help build Guatemala school
BY JEAN RUZICKA
Winter winds were howling, snow storms imminent when Park Rapids Rotarians Ed Ranson and Ben Hippe boarded a jet bound for the Central American country of Guatemala in late February.
They joined members of the Fargo-Moorhead club whose mission was to build a school in Monterico (rich mountain) on the Pacific coast.
First on the docket: Demolish a school with walls that had collapsed and clear the rubble. Then work began digging trenches for the new foundation, tying rebar and putting in footings.
Their tools: Sledgehammers, shovels and five-gallon buckets.
The crew of Rotarians would be working with locals, language initially a barrier between the two groups.
But by week’s end, “I felt a shift,” Hippe said. Although his Spanish was limited, he worked to overcome the language hurdle. Through drawings, for example, the engineer redirected the schematics for the rebar that was causing consternation among crewmembers.
From this, a sense of humor and camaraderie emerged.
The last day, when the corps of workers could finally pour the hand-mixed concrete, they were passing a bucket, dumping it and returning it down the line of workers for refill, an arduous task.
A local picked up a Styrofoam cup – instead of the bucket – and sent it back down the line.
“At that moment, I felt we were one group,” Hippe said.
The 13 Rotarians from the North Dakota, Minnesota and Manitoba district were working on an elementary and middle school construction project in the village of El Cebollito (little onion). The former building had sustained irreparable damage from a hurricane.
Rotary projects in Third World countries generally address infrastructure, said Ranson, who has embarked on two previous international service assignments.
The Rotarians arrived in Guatemala City, mid-country, Ranson accompanied by girlfriend Kelly Nelson, who is fluent in Spanish.
“I fracture Spanish,” he admits.
From the city, they traveled a rugged road to mangrove swamps, where they boarded a ferry to head to their destination on the Pacific coast. Smoke from sugar groves filled the air, the landscape defined by volcanic mountains.
Upon arriving, they met a cosmopolitan blend of volunteers - Operation Smile dentists, nurses promoting general health and members of a Bible college from Nova Scotia. A Guatemalan evangelical Christian group provided transportation for the secular Rotarians. Forty percent of the country is now considered evangelicals, as opposed to Catholic, Ranson said.
Temperatures ranged from 85 to 90 degrees during their stay.
The crew’s work on the school provided amusement for the area’s children, who headed out to watch the motley crew.
Hippe played soccer with the kids, who are “very poor, but well behaved.”
Most children have finished school by fourth grade, Ranson said. And many towns have no schools.
“There’s true poverty,” Hippe said, “but they are content. They live with so little, but there’s still happiness.”
One of the trip’s high points, Hippe said, was seeing the “pure joy” in the children who benefitted from last year’s school project. “It’s the simplest things that bring joy.”
The three-sided schools have thatched roofs. A single blackboard is the main instruction medium. Three teachers and a principal instruct the estimated 120 to 150 students at the school, Ranson said.
The Rotary crew was up at 6:30 a.m. at Utz Tzaba, the “gorgeous” resort overlooking the Pacific.
After a breakfast of Honduran-based food - beans (served at every meal) fruit, eggs and “delicious” cheese they headed off to a day of manual labor.
At day’s end, they headed back for a swim, some beer and discussion of the day’s events.
At the end of the week, they headed to Antigua in the central highlands “for some R&R,” staying at a resplendent old monastery, Casa Santo Domingo.
Antigua, “a beautiful place,” is known for its colonial charm and elaborate religious celebrations during Lent. Each Sunday one of the local parishes sponsors a procession through the streets.
Most Guatemalans are descendants of the Mayan Indians, Ranson said, which at one time were one of the most sophisticated civilizations. The culture known for their astrological calendar collapsed sometime between 1050 and 1100. “And no one is sure why.”
But a number of indigenous tribes remain, Ranson said, their facial features bearing strong resemblance to the stone carvings of their forbearers.
After their tour of duty, Ranson and Nelson headed to the Mayan ruins in Copan, Honduras, one of the major civilization centers of the Mayans, the remnants painstakingly excavated.
But Mayans were protesting the use of the admission proceeds, demanding more be spent on health and education, and the archeological site was temporarily closed.
So they headed off to a bird sanctuary, where a wild flock of macaws reside, spending the entire day with the colorful characters.
“It was a delightful trip,” said Ranson, whose luggage held “indestructible” soccer balls for kids. The accommodations for this, his third, were the most “posh” he’s experienced. The ocean-side resort held all the modern amenities. Monterico is considered a Guatemalan tourist destination.
“It’s grunt work, but I enjoyed it.”
The children’s smiles were their reward.