Guatemala: The Land of Luv & Tortillas

Guatemala: The Land of Luv & Tortillas

Tzibal is a small indigenous village located about two kilometers from Campur in what I affectionately call Guatemala’s “egg carton hills” but don’t try to find it on a map. There are about 380 Q’eqchi’ residents who rely on the farming of coffee, cardamom, bananas, black pepper, and mandarins as their principle sources of income. The community has no electricity or running water, but has just acquired a cell-phone signal, albeit faint, and to we CLARO carrying Trip Leader’s frustration, only for those with TIGO. We also quickly learned that the community boasts abundances of love, generosity, and tortillas, so many tortillas.

The Egg Carton Hills

From our bienvenidos at the escuela, to meals with our lovely families, soccer games in the street, haircut, healthcare, and Chicky (oh so delicious chocolate covered cookies) runs to Campur, jungle hikes, evening masses, and poolside parties, OGG spent an amazing week cultivating cross-cultural connections and constructing a “bottle school.”

Bottle School projects are being undertaken across Guatemala with the support and tutelage of OG partner, Hug-It-Forward. HIF is a San Diego-based non-profit that blends intangible change with tangible results. They utilize 100% of donations on the ground in the communities where bottle schools are built; meaning absolutely no money is taken for overhead or salaries. Their Bottle Schools are only initiated by community invitation and initiative. The participation of the collective ensures a sense of local ownership and pride while serving the educational needs of the community’s children. Hug-it-Forward then coordinates with the Guatemalan Ministry of Education, and other organizations (including PeaceCorps), to facilitate the construction and sustainability of the innovative structures and its services. There are already no less than 10 built in Guatemala with many more in the planning stages.

How it works

But I’ll let Ali, Allison, and our fantastic PeaceCorps host, Hannah, share there takes.

Hannah (quoted from her blog ¨Cartas de Lejos”):

“The 11 volunteers (Canadian and American University students/recent grads) stayed in the village with host families and worked at the school each day, classifying the 10,000 bottles (a horribly tedious task that I owe them big time for) hauling rocks, and playing with the village children. I owe these guys a huge thanks for their time, dedication, and amazing enthusiasm for the bottle project and the Tzibal community at large. The community could not have been prouder to host this lovely group of “kaxlan,” and their stay will long be remembered by the families they stayed with and the children who will soon have a brand-new school.”

Allison adds:

“… Well, we tried to spend the week working, but we kept getting distracted by the kids wanting to play with us, the teachers taking pictures of us, women inviting us to their weekly woman’s group, families taking us on a hike through the jungle, and the whole town throwing us a fiesta that lasted for 6 hours. What a week. But we did manage to move some concrete and sort the thousands of bottles that will be used in the construction of the bottle school…”

Constructing Bottle SchoolAdditional photos courtesy of Laura Huddart

Ali tells a little more of the story:

“Tzibal stole our hearts to the fullest extent. From the first step we took into the classroom to the last steps we took out of the aldea [hamlet], we felt the strongest sense of hospitality imaginable. Upon our arrival, the teachers and students arranged us to walk in a single file line into the classroom so that they could give us each an individual round of applause.”

They then serenaded us with Q’eqchi’ and Spanish songs, challenged us to games of musical chairs and fed us fresh fruit and Caparina. When we finally admitted defeat, we were introduced to the families with whom we would be spending the week. The hospitality however, never ceased.

“Throughout the entire week they housed us, fed us, did our laundry, and genuinely cared for us as a family would. What really got me was that they provided us with everything we needed and more, which was particularly grounding considering they had next to nothing to give. Living with next to nothing, my family showed me what it was to be truly happy. This is a community with no running water, no electricity, and few, if any, living comforts at all, and yet they live like they have all they need. In carrying out their daily lives, they taught by example that simplicity makes for a richer life than complexity. This mindset rang through the entire community; never before have I interacted with happier children than those of Tzibal, and what do they have? A community soccer ball, basketball, and volleyball. The ability of those children to take what they have and make the very most of it was, to say the least, refreshing after growing up surrounded by the excesses of North America. The spirit of the entire community- men, women, and children- was in one word inspiring. I have never met a more resilient, hospitable, and purely happy group of people in my entire life.”

The kids of Tzibal
Additional photos courtesy of Allie Stote, Allison Isaak, and Laura Huddart

Allison goes on to describe the unique connection that was made.

“From the moment we set foot in the community to the moment we left, we felt so welcomed … Sure we didn’t speak any Q’eqchi’ and yes, most of our host mom’s didn’t speak any Spanish either, but somehow we still communicated and connected and my host mom still wanted my cell number, not sure what she will do with it but the gesture was really touching. She also tried to teach me how to make tortillas at which I failed miserably but I made a solid effort. The whole community was so thankful for our presence and so gracious to us that we at times felt like we hadn’t done enough for them in return for all their gratitude, and so to my family and friends in Tzibal, I say, “bantiosh,” [Thank you in Q’eqchi] and hopefully we were able to have as positive an impact on Tzibal as Tzibal had on us.”

OGG & Tzibal
Additional photos courtesy of Allison Isaak, Chelsea Poupore, and Laura Huddart

“B’antiox” indeed. OGG was so touched by the hospitality, generosity, and so taken by the genuine connections they made with the community of Tzibal that participants decided that their work on the bottle school was just simply not enough. So after some, but not much, deliberation, and an über unanimous decision that OGG’s fundraising should stay with its heart, in Tzibal. For those unfamiliar with Operation Groundswell: One unique part of OG’s program is that each and every participant is required to fundraise $1000, 50% of which is used to facilitate contributions to local partners and projects, and, in part, to help offset the burden and costs associated with accommodating X number of gringos. 35% is secured in a central OG fund for larger scale and longer term projects while 10% is used to carbon offset all participant and TL flights.

So, OGG reflected on the week’s events and recalled their participation in a community meeting which all of the town’s women and many of the children attended. The gathering had been held in an old church space because none of the women’s houses were big enough to host the group. They remembered that the following night, we had attended an evangelical church service that was held in someone’s one-room homestead. Locals and OGers had been crammed onto the few benches with children, big and small, necessarily sitting on their parents’ laps. Nevertheless, many people had been forced to stand in the doorways and outside the house to participate in the service. Additionally, our work in and around the school and afternoon activities with the kids had made us all acutely aware that the only space for outdoor games and sport was on the town’s main road, a sloping patch of dirt and gravel, where in addition to the dangers of turning vehicles, serious falls, scrapes, and bruises were common. Needless to say the community’s need for a safer place to play and learn was obvious. And combining this need with the lack of space for women’s meetings and social gatherings, we came to the conclusion that fundraising could be used to contribute to the construction of a recreational and civic space. So a covered “Cancha“ was proposed. Not just a safe place for games, gym class, and after school sports, but a public space capable of accommodating the community’s social congregations.

The team voted and agreed that – pending the wishes of Tzibal’s 300 citizens – we would continue working with Tzibal to construct its first Centro de Comunidad.

Enthusiasm for the collaborative project hasn’t diminished. A potential design has been generously provided by Baird Sampson Neuert Architects and a new larger plot of land acquired courtesy of a local resident. However, even with the pledges of land and labour, material costs will still exceed community means and OGG’s budget. Participants have therefore channelled their enthusiasm into a renewed fundraising effort. The goal is $6,500, a daunting task but a modest sum for what will become a social hub and living testament to cross-cultural and communitarian initiative. For all those equally inspired to help, we invite, nay, we ask that you to make a pledge, small or large, Quetzal or Dollar.

On behalf of OGG 2011 and the community of Tzibal:

Thank You, Gracias, and B’antiox!

Pledges and donations will be accepted on Operation Groundswell’s dojiggy fundraising site available below.

For more information: See an executive summary of the project proposal below or please feel free to contact me or any of the other team members. Directions are at the bottom.

Project Proposal: Executive Summary


Tzibal is a small indigenous village located about two kilometers from Campur in what I affectionately call Guatemala’s “egg carton hills”. There are about 380 Q’eqchi’ residents who rely on the farming of coffee, cardamom, bananas, black pepper, and mandarins as their principle sources of income.  The community has no electricity or running water, but abundances of love, generosity, and tortillas, so many tortillas.

From OGG’s bienvenidos at the escuela, to meals with our lovely families, soccer games in the street, haircut, healthcare, and Chicky (oh so delicious chocolate covered cookies) runs to Campur,  jungle hikes, evening masses, and poolside parties, OGG spent an amazing week cultivating cross-cultural connections and, when there was time, “building” a bottle school.

But OGG was so touched by the hospitality, generosity, and so taken by the genuine connections they made with the community of Tzibal that its participants decided that their work on the bottle school was just simply not enough. So after some, but not much, deliberation it was decided that OGG’s fundraising would stay in Tzibal.

After some reflection and community consultation the need for a safer site to play and facility capable of accommodating community congregations was made obvious. Consequently, participants concluded that they should contribute to the construction of a civic and recreational space infrastructure. The result is “La Cancha” project, a covered outdoor Centro de Comunidad. 

The current situation
Additional photos courtesy of Allie Stote and Laura Huddart
Conceiving a solution

The Goal

The principal goal of the Cancha project is to construct a public and multi-purpose community centre and versatile recreational infrastructure. The site is situated in close proximity to the community school facilitating its use for school related games, sports, and activities. Outside of school hours the space will be available for soccer, volleyball, and basketball providing a safe space away from the effects of alcohol and domestic violence, which remain concerns in rural communities such as Tzibal. Additionally, the community centre will provide a forum for cultural and civic gatherings, including fiestas, ferias, performances, community consultations, and the women’s group meetings. Tzibal’s access to comparable facilities is limited by its isolation. Moreover, localizing such events will promote civic engagement and cultural enrichment, sustaining and further fostering the strong sense of community already present in Tzibal.

Added benefits of the Cancha stem from its design.

1. The cable and vinyl roof is devised to act as rainwater catchment system channelling water from its immense surface to cisterns below providing a public source of potable water and possible service to sinks, toilets, and showers on site. The unique but simple technology will complement the health and hygiene program currently being implemented locally.

2. The suspension roof and substructure minimize the use steel components reducing weight while maximizing strength and reducing overall cost by approx. $2,000.

The Design (Courtesy of Baird Sampson Neuert Architects)

Based on community consultation, OGG consulted award winning Toronto firm, Baird Sampson Neuert Architects about plausible design options. Preliminary plans were subsequently drawn up and presented to Tzibal in September 2011. The design includes a paved court with nets and goal posts. Reminiscent of a Mayan ball court, 3 tier bleachers will frame the two lengths of the Cancha. Two steel support arms and one tensioned cable in a tripod formation will stand in each of the four corners (two tall: 6.6 metres and two low: 2.8 metres). The roof utilises a web of steel cabling held in tension by the steel substructure. Suspended overtop, a vinyl covering will channel rainwater into two large cisterns positioned below the roofs two low points. Positioned, adjacent to the catchment cisterns will be sanitation facilities (special sinks, known as pilas and possibly toilettes and showers).

The Innovation
Courtesy of Baird Sampson Neuert Architects
The Preliminary Design
Courtesy of Baird Sampson Neuert Architects


 The Budget

Project Revenue in CAD$
Tzibal Community Donation
$ 1,000 + all manual labour and transport
Fundraising Events & Individual Donations:
$ 6,500
Pending OG Project Fund Request
$ 6,500
Total Revenue
$ 14,000
Project Expenses in CAD$
Land Property
$ 2,000
$ 1,300
Steel Posts
$ 1,000
Roof Cables
$ 4,000
Vinyl Roofing
$ 1,000
$ 2,500
Goal posts/nets
$ 1,000
“Pila” Sinks, Shower & Toilet
$ 1,000
Transport of Materials
no cost
Manual Labour
no cost
Banking Fees/Conversion
$ 200
Total Expenses
$ 14,000


The Plan

The initial project proposal and preliminary design received overwhelming support from community leaders. Therefore, a donation of $1,500 was left on October 3, 2011 to help secure the 3 cuerdas of land necessary for the build and facilitate the commencement of necessary clearing and grading. On October 9, 2011 a proposal was submitted to OG headquarters for $6,500 from the central project fund and a fundraising objective of $6,500 established. The deadline for the achievement of total required revenue will December 15, 2011. Final blueprints and total funding will be subsequently transferred to OGG’s PeaceCorps contact on January 1, 2012. The expected commencement of construction will be February 2012, with completion slated for May and the Cancha’s inauguration tentatively scheduled for June 2012.

The Stakeholders

This is the wonderful and diverse group of people working together from Guatemala, Canada, and the United States to bring this project to fruition.

The Community of Tzibal
San Pedro Carchá,
Alta Verapaz, Guatemala
Hannah Gdalman
Youth Development Volunteer, Peace Corps
OG Financial LiaisonAldea Campur, San Pedro Carchá, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala
tel. 502 4015 3721
Erick Rodolfo Cuz Choc
Director, Escuela Oficial Rural MixtaOG Materials/Operations CoordinatorAldea Tzibal, San Pedro Carcha, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala
tel. 502 5903 6004
Ben Sampson
OG Guatemala Trip Leader
Project Coordinator
Toronto / Guatemala / Ghana / France
tel. 416-505-4262 (Canada)  / 502 4679-0301 (Guatemala)  / 233 20 249-1030 (Ghana)
Jay Wall
OG Guatemala Trip Leader
Project Coordinator
Toronto, ON
tel. 416-899-6633
Allie Stote
OG Guatemala Participant
Project Coordinator
Cambridge, MA 
tel. 781-548-1063
Allison Isaak
OG Guatemala Participant
Project Associate
Brandon, MB
Chelsea Poupore
OG Guatemala Participant
Project Associate
Oneonta, NY
Laura Huddart
OG Guatemala Participant
Project Associate
Toronto, ON
Nichole Trudeau
OG Guatemala Participant
Project Associate
Ottawa, ON
Eva Tong
OG Guatemala Participant
Project Associate
Vancouver, BC
Porschia Thomas
OG Guatemala Participant
Project Associate
Ajax, ON