One of the reasons I am here in Guatemala is volunteering in a house building project. I plan to do this for 4 weeks, and at the time I am writing this, I have worked for two weeks on the construction site. The organization in charge of this project is Habitat for Humanity Guatemala. In this post, I would like to share some first impressions of my work at this construction site, where we build a house for a poor family.

On Thursday of my last week at school, my teacher took me to the construction site. It is situated in a town approximately 5 km south of Antigua Guatemala, called San Juan del Obispo. We took the famous chicken bus to get there, or as they call it here, camioneta. I met the first time some of my new workmates. The boss of this place is a Guatemalan builder called Jorge. There were also two volunteers working on this site: Bas, a Belgian student, and Ursina, a woman a bit older than me, also from Switzerland. After chatting a little bit with all of them, my teacher and me went back to Antigua. I had to keep my mind sharp, because one really has to know how to use the buses here in Guatemala. There are no bus stops, network plans and schedules how we know them in Europe. Everything is ad-hoc, which makes it a bit tricky to use when you are used otherwise.

On Monday morning, I attempted the trip for the first time on my own. It went surprisingly well, I found the correct place to get on the bus, figured out which bus I had to take, and left at the right place as well.

My fellow volunteers arrived shortly after me, but we were still alone on the construction site. We couldn’t do anything as all the material was in a shed, to which we don’t have a key. That gave me the opportunity to look around on the site. The only thing that I could see from the house so far were the trenches for the foundation. Other than that, there is sand and gravel for mixing concrete, concrete blocks, and other material such as iron and cement in a shed. And tools of course. No machines though.

A little more than an hour later, we got company of Edi, the son of the boss of the construction site. We could finally get to work. The main job for the week was assembling armor irons of different sizes and forms. This work consisted of cutting iron bars, bending the iron bars into the correct form, and then using these bars to connect larger iron rods to the finished armor iron using a wire. All by hand of course. Especially cutting the bars was really hard work, and the work as a whole required a lot of patience. Fortunately Bas brought a portable speaker, so we could listen to some music while doing our job.

On Friday, we got company of Jorge and Lazaro. That was really necessary because on Friday we started with the foundation. Mixing sand, cement, gravel and water, filling the concrete into buckets, and finally pour the concrete into the trench, fixating the previously made armor irons. Another task I was busy with was to hammer away an old concrete column which was in the way for raising the new one. At noon, after four hours of work, we were exhausted, at least the three of us who are not used to work on a construction site.

On Monday we had to assemble more armor irons, but now on site, down in the trenches before finishing off the foundation. A really uncomfortable position to work in. On Tuesday, another very exhausting day awaited us, finishing up the foundation of the building with hand made concrete. Fortunately, the rest of the week was a bit more relaxed, still mixing and carrying some concrete, but not all morning.


So, what are my first impressions of this construction site?

  • Being a builder is very hard work: I have new respect for the builders at the construction site. It is really hard work. Also, they live on the construction site in the shed where the material is stored. A really basic life.
  • No machines: (Almost) Everything is done by hand. Mixing and carrying concrete being the hardest work. The only machine that I have seen is a circular saw to cut concrete blocks.
  • The construction site is dirty: Well, this is something I really don’t like. The construction site is covered by trash, partly because it appeared when they dug the trenches, and partly because they just keep on dumping their trash on the floor. Hard to comprehend.
  • They give us responsibility: Originally I thought that I would be more of an aid, doing the unskilled work on the construction site. It turns out that they let us also do the more skilled work, such as assembling the armor irons or mixing concrete.
  • Security: There are no security measures on the construction site. No helmets, no protective work cloths or shoes. And we constantly have to take care not to trip over wires, tools, trash, or other stuff lurking on the ground.
  • It is hard to communicate: Apparently, the Guatemalan workers native tongue is a Mayan dialect, which they use to communicate among each other. So neither they nor we are really used to communicate in Spanish, which makes communication a bit tricky sometimes.
  • They are not used to delegate and lead: I think the work could be done more efficiently if they gave us a little more explicit and clearer instructions what to do and point out what is important while we are doing our job. This might be related to the communication problem I described earlier.
  • Lack of transparency: The only thing that I have seen from Habitat for Humanity is a sign attached to a wall. I was hoping for more information of what the organization actually does, how people in need are selected, what the contribution of the volunteers is, how the money is used, etc. Also, I don’t have any idea who will be the recipient of the house that we are building.

So, all in all I think I have two hard, but positive weeks behind me. I imagined a few things to be very different, but I think that is normal. It is an experience, very different from the work I usually do at home. This is what I was looking for. Sadly Bas is leaving Guatemala this weekend, heading to Costa Rica. On the bright side, we get new support, a girl from Germany will start working with us next Monday.