By 1976 the Farm had branched off into other places and established city centers in Miami, Florida and Mobile, Alabama, as well as working farms in upstate New York and rural Wisconsin. These were connected to the Tennessee Farm via the now-crackling Farm Ham Radio network. Consequently, when a devastating early-morning 7.5 on the Richter scale earthquake erupted across 200 miles of the most populated region of Guatemala on February 4, 1976, the first news Plenty heard came from amateur radio operators right on the scene.
We didn’t have TV and we barely read newspapers, so engrossed were we in building the Farm, but this story cut through. Stephen and Ina May were in California on a speaking tour, and we couldn’t even talk with them. We had our Sunday meditation anyway. It was February so we were in the community center. After meditating, we talked about Guatemala. This was the worst natural disaster in the history of Central America — 23,000 killed, 60,000 injured, a million people homeless. We decided as a community to launch Plenty into the great unknown of international disaster relief.
All of our “Farms” and city centers undertook campaigns to collect relief supplies. Local doctors, druggists, hospitals, and medical supply houses chipped in with thousands of dollars worth of medicines and medical equipment. In Boston, members of the New Hampshire Farm, representing Plenty, connected with people working for the Guatemalan Relief Fund. This group had already collected about twelve tons of supplies, including seven tons of army field hospital equipment, all of which was sitting in a warehouse in Boston, because they didn’t have a way to get it to Guatemala. We located a trucking company that agreed to haul it all to Miami for half the usual rates. Members of our Homestead, Florida Farm found a shipping line in Miami that agreed to carry the supplies to Guatemala at no cost. When the semi reached Miami, we had people waiting to unload it into a freight carrier box to be loaded on the ship. In a few days the shipment reached Puerto Barrios on the eastern coast of Guatemala.
It was the worst natural disaster in the history of Central America — 23,000 killed, 60,000 injured, a million people homeless.
Priscilla Wheeler spoke fluent Spanish and worked in the Farm Clinic. The two of us flew down, wide-eyed, tie-dyed hippies in a plane out of Miami otherwise occupied by store-front preachers with wooden crosses around their necks and handle-bar mustaches skull-hugging crew cuts and ostentatious Bibles, headed down to save souls presumably humbled by the earthquake, and a festive gang of elderly orchid lovers on their way to Panama for an orchid convention.
The Boston shipment had preceded us, gilding Plenty’s credentials, and we were met at the airport in Guatemala City by a government-issue Mercedes Benz and a retired Colonel of the infamous Guatemalan army and whisked away to Earthquake Relief Central in a cavernous, previously vacated railway station. It seemed as though we had been time-traveled back to Allied HQ, pre-D-Day, except everyone spoke Spanish — rows of scuffed up hardwood desks with old-timey phones ringing off their hooks and bruiser Olivetti typewriters clacking away, huge maps filled with colored pins covering the high walls, people scurrying around officiously. Incredibly, no one noticed we were hippies (or let on) and they kept treating us like foreign dignitaries. They assigned us to the Terremoto Comité de Civil y Militar, and we spent the next week buzzing around the highlands in military trucks delivering food and other supplies to outlying villages. I became the assignment photographer for the Comité because I had a real live SLR (single lens reflex camera), and I got my first glimpse of patronizing charity as crew leaders pointedly organized photo ops of grateful Indians being handed boxes of food by uniformed officers.
We were overwhelmed to view the destruction. People we talked to described the night of the BIG ONE. It struck on February 4th at 3 a.m. when most people were home in bed, in the adobe walled houses, under roofs made of tiles and timbers, and the earth rose in three foot waves, toppling everything with its relentless, tidal fury. Everyone had a family member or knew somebody who died. We were even more overwhelmed to meet the Mayans. Who were these beautiful, stunningly attired, ancient-looking, graceful people? They were everywhere. Mayans? We knew nothing. Slowly it began to dawn on us. These were the people who had always been here, yet look how poor they are, so poor it’s as if this terrible earthquake is but the latest in a long line of indignities and catastrophes dating back 500 years when the first murderous Europeans showed up lusting for gold, perpetrating the most horrendous genocide in the history of human kind. Back with the Comité we began to get restless. Half the men in the group were packing firearms. We’re peaceniks, for God’s sake, and we’re here to help. We’re also uppity gringos. “What’s with the hardware?” we ask. The last straw was when we were picking up some medical supplies Plenty had shipped and we announced to the Comité that we were taking them to the civilian Roosevelt Hospital in Guatemala City.
“No, no,” they protested. “We want to give it to the military hospital.”
“Well, sorry,” we said. “We’ve decided not to be on your Comité anymore. Gracias and adiós.”
We spent the next week checking out what all the other relief groups were up to, and they were all there — International Red Cross, American Red Cross, Swedish Red Cross, Cruz Roja de Mexico, Cruz Roja de Guatemala, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, UNICEF, United Nations Development Programme, Kiwanis, CARE, Rotary, Salvation Army — you name it. They were on the scene in their Toyota Land Cruisers zipping here and there. The popular Mexican food and agriculture agency, CONASUPO (La Compañía Nacional de Subsistencias Populares), was operating the world’s biggest outdoor soup kitchen set up on the street in Guatemala City, cooking massive amounts of food in gargantuan steel vats. Several Red Cross divisions were operating mobile clinics in towns throughout the highlands. The U.S. Army was there, looking efficient and noble, airlifting rubber water tanks into villages whose water systems had been shattered. It was only two weeks after the earthquake, and aftershocks were still rumbling through the countryside. When we stayed for a night in a hotel in Guatemala City, the shocks would roll through the city like subway trains, closer and closer, then — WHAM! Cracking the hotel like a whip, rattling window glass and steel.
We returned to the Farm in a mind-blown state. The scenes of destruction had shaken us, but we had been transfixed by the Maya people who we felt drawn to as if through an aged kinship suddenly revealed. We made our report to the Farm on a Sunday morning in the meadow after meditation. We stressed the need for housing. Tens of thousands were homeless and the rainy season was fast approaching.
Building was a skill we, as a community, had in abundance. Within a week, three of our best carpenters were headed south, carrying their tools in backpacks, with no set destination other than Guatemala. Pedro Grey was from Venezuela and spoke Spanish. Dennis Martin and Melvyn Stiriss were skilled carpenters.
Within days of their arrival someone suggested they visit the Canadian Embassy. They had heard the Canadians were planning to engage in reconstruction. At the Embajada de Canadá they learned that, in fact, a Canadian freighter loaded with thousands of tons of building materials was on its way: however, they had no idea what they were going to build with these materials. Dennis, the lead carpenter, asked for a napkin and proceeded to draw a model house and school that could be constructed with the pressed board, two-by-fours, and lamina roofing that was on the freighter. The grateful Canadians hired our guys on the spot, and so commenced a four-year relationship with the government of Canada, which became Plenty’s most generous funder and supporter.
This relationship resulted in the construction of 1100 homes in the village of San Andrés Itzapa, and twelve schools in the surrounding aldeas (small villages), as well as clinics, community centers, water systems, a soy dairy, and the grand Municipalidad Indígena de Sololá (Sololá Indian Municipality Building) for the Kaqchikel people with its rococo ironwork and tile and the first Maya-owned and operated FM radio station.
More than 200 Plenty volunteers served in Guatemala over the years from 1976 to the end of 1980 when we pulled out. These volunteers undertook projects to develop agriculture and nutrition, primary healthcare, potable water systems, sanitation and communications. We felt very fortunate to be able to exchange a few of our life-supporting technologies for the privilege of experiencing the richness of the Maya culture and the powerful heart and intelligence of its people.
Guatemala provided Plenty with its post-graduate education. It’s also where we lost our innocence. We lived in tents in villages and shared everything with our Maya neighbors, including their parasites and viruses. We invited people who were having a hard time to live with us. Our camp was turned into a 24-hour clinic. People died in our arms.
We saw the brutality of poverty and the enforced suffering of indigenous people. We went native. We dressed in trajé (hand-woven traditional clothing) and learned to speak Kaqchikel. We identified with Maya culture. We threw ourselves into this work with a passion, grateful to be there, and, in retrospect, very lucky we didn’t lose any of our volunteers in the process.Peter Schweitzer
Any objective assessment of the condition of the human species today leaves little doubt that we are in need of a serious re-evaluation of our habits of consumption and management of natural resources. In our time, the stewards and caretakers of the values and principles we need to adopt, for the sake of the world, are most commonly found among the most materially poor and subjugated populations on the planet — the indigenous people. We learned this first living among the Maya. To us, this was akin to the ’49ers discovering gold in California, only the gold we discovered in Guatemala was more precious. Its value was not subject to market forces or the ravages of time and weather.
The ancient Maya, like other Native Americans, were among history’s most resourceful traders. What could we, eager but naive and youthful gringos from Tennessee, offer in exchange for this “gold” we were mining by the heart-full? They would teach us what these were: soybeans, solar panels, CB radios for village health workers, PVC piping for potable water systems. These appropriate technologies became our currency, offered in exchange for the Maya gold that opened our eyes to the state of the world and revealed our mission — if indeed we were to accomplish anything in our passion to make the world healthier and more fair, kinder and more peaceful — a key would be our partnership with the indigenous people of the earth.