Clive Carruthers, the Canadian Chargé d’Affairs, looked us up, saying we needed a break from San Andrés Itzapa where we were based. He liked the Kaqchikel who lived in the Sololá region. Of all the “indigenes,” they maintain some of the closest ties to their traditional ways. Sololá is 128 kilometers away from Guatemala City, and the people there had a lot less outside contact and a lot more solidarity and sovereignty. We had already done some construction work in Sololá, and were interested in doing some water projects as well. We moved our operation to Sololá, and that began our transition from relief work into international development. We had started out as strictly post-earthquake relief, but as we worked there, getting to know the people, we came up with a more comprehensive program in the hope of making a more lasting change.
The city of Sololá serves as district capital and regional marketplace for many nearby villages, or aldeas. Sololá is located 1,000 feet above the beautiful Lake Atitlán, Central America’s deepest lake, which is surrounded by three volcanoes. Several towns dot the perimeter of Lake Atitlán, each with a handwoven trajé unique to that village. Each has a variation to the traditional language, Kaqchikel, still intact after 500 years of Spanish domination.
Plenty moved into an old finca (plantation) house. Our landlord was an ex-senator of the state who sealed our agreement to lease by shooting his gun in the air. The first couple of nights there we felt some tremors, which sent us all running outside with fallen plaster on our heads; we decided to use that building only in the daytime. We put up some plywood cabins nearby to sleep in.
We lived right in the middle of a canton (small village) called San Bartolo. Right away we noticed that everyone got their water near our house from five rusty barrels, fed by our landlord’s spring. Some people had to walk over a kilometer every time they needed a jug of water.
We asked UNICEF for funds to get water into San Bartolo, then headed into the woods to find a spring. We finally secured the rights to one, which turned out to be a few bubbles in the middle of a muddy swamp. Not very encouraging, but the whole village rolled up their beautiful handwoven pants and started shoveling. After a couple of weeks hauling rocks, gravel, cement, and digging up to our thighs in mud, we laid a piece of PVC pipe and capped the spring. Brown water dribbled through at first, then clear water, eight to ten gallons a minute. The villagers were mind blown and so were we.
When the water came to San Bartolo, they declared that day a local holiday, to be celebrated every year.