Volunteers work on a new home in Panajachel, Guatemala. (Photo courtesy of Jim Thompson.)
Volunteers work on a new home in Panajachel, Guatemala. (Photo courtesy of Jim Thompson.)

By Jim Thompson
HCP columnist

Panajachel, Guatemala – When I come to a place like rural Guatemala, I always think about the randomness of life. But for this randomness, your or my conscience, soul or whatever you want to call it, could have been infused in any human body – the poor of the Guatemalan rural regions, the lineage to the English throne, or the Ming Dynasty.

This fact always leaves me bemused when I hear people bragging about their accomplishments. It just may be they have done, by feeble human measurement, great things with what they have been dealt, but they can never get away from the complete randomness of the genesis of their commencement.

This brings us to Porch de Solomon, in the town of Panajachel, on the banks of Lake Atitlan.

A calling about 10 years ago took a comfortable lawyer and his wife, from Waukeenah, Fla., to this place to found Porch de Salomon.

They, Lloyd and Melanie Monroe, call the “Porch” one of the most progressive Christian missions in Central America. I like that.

If you are into formula mission work, this isn't it. They build houses for the indigenous (Mayan descendants) poor, nothing fancy, just earthquake proof concrete block structures.

But it gets these people off the dirt and out from under makeshift plastic and bamboo shelters. They feed people. They have 50 kids on scholarships in school (the only way to get an elementary education there). They arrange cleft palate surgeries and dental work.

 

 

The Porch sponsors many in drug and alcohol rehabilitation clinics. Bible schools are held throughout the area for children. They have church services, run a coffee shop and a bar. I told you it is messy.

Yet, it works. A good example was Sunday. The church service is held at 4 p.m. In walks an elderly woman, obviously a North American (what they call us). She asks for a beer. She is told alcohol is not served during church. So she sat down for the service. Afterward, I asked who she was and was told no one had seen here before. Hey, if you can’t have a beer, you might as well go to church, eh?

Our church in Atlanta sends a team down every fall for a week. We careen up and down the mountains each day to the latest house build. In the afternoons, part of the team does a children's Bible school. They also pass out clothes, shoes and especially vitamins. The people's diet is almost solely corn tortillas, and they mature at about 5 feet, 4 inches tall due to the poor diet.

For me, I get more out of this trip than I put in.

For a person who lives in the rich, artificial world of the United States, a week in Panajachel, Guatemala is a chance to focus on what is important in life.

These people live close enough to the edge of existence that you can see the sheer wall of oblivion. Their priorities are so different from yours and mine to be sobering. The poorest people in the U.S. live like kings compared to these.

The Porch's slogan is “For the lost, the least and the last.” See www.porchdesalomon.org.

Let’s talk about the local conditions.

In town, there is, of course plumbing systems. However, you can’t drink the water and you can’t put any paper products down the toilets (the sewage system can’t handle it).

Everywhere there is great cell phone service. A hurricane wiped out the land lines a few years ago and the company with the franchise here (I think it was Bell South at the time) replaced it with an excellent cell system.

In the countryside, there is running water everywhere, at least in this region, but again you can’t drink it. So, part of the Porch’s outreach is to provide water filters.

I have not been in a building in Guatemala that, to my knowledge, has heat or air conditioning. At least out in the regions where I go they are simply not needed.

Panajachel is, according to some sources, the No. 4 spot in the world for dropouts from the hippie culture of the 1960s. Living is cheap and easy and fairly safe.

In this town of 15,000, it is estimated there are 2,000 North Americans. This creates plenty of opportunities to help people whose brains are simply fried. One fellow we have met here, a Canadian, claims he was in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, although we have not been able to verify it.

Local transportation is by “chicken bus.” These are old U.S. school buses in their second life.

The drivers are cowboys who pride themselves on how fast they can go. Panajachel is on the edge of the lake at 5,200 feet in a very mountainous region. The next town, Solola, is straight up the mountain five miles at about 6,000 feet. The road is winding, two lanes and narrow.

Last year when we were here, part of it was washed out and only one lane wide. Chicken buses, motorcycles and everything else you can image race up and down the road. Well, everything doesn’t race, even though the bicycles do fly down it. The donkeys and people out in the road move kind of slow.

Our job is to build a house. The Porch will build 12 of these this year. Again, an earthquake-proof poured concrete beam and block construction, they are nothing fancy, but they take the indigenous locals out of living on the dirt and under plastic or whatever they can find.

The Porch can build a three-bedroom home with running water, sewage system and electricity (if available) for around $5,500 (U.S.).

So, if you think your relatively high station in life is solely due to your own exertions, I suggest you contemplate randomness, and then, have the resolve to spend a week or more in a place like Panajachel.

You will get more out of it than you put in and you will come back a different person with a different perspective on life.

Jim Thompson, formerly of Marshall, is a graduate of Hillsboro High School and the University of Cincinnati. He resides in Duluth, Ga., following decades of wandering the world, and is a columnist for The Highland County Press.