Tool Belt Swagger | San Juan de Comalapa, Guatemala

San Juan de ComalapaTool belts are an interesting thing. Their purpose is reasonable enough, but they also carry a notable connotation for all who wear one — dare I say fashion statement? It’s like that trendy beaded necklace you bought from the Women’s Weaving Co-op in India. When you wear it around your neck people suddenly presume you are worldly and socially concerned.

So what does a tool belt say? A tool belt says, “I’m a creator and a builder” or “I’m capable of independently sheltering myself.” Of course it also says, “Hey ladies… (insert creative innuendo about strong hands)”.

As I fastened my first ever tool belt around my waist this palpable swagger was not lost on me. I couldn’t help but walk around with an air of capability and badass-ery. The world was my oyster and I could do anything! Beyond the initial ego boost, the belt also made me feel accountable to do something with my new found greatness. And for now I would focus my attention on building the roof of a computer lab.

Turns out a tool belt doesn’t automatically make you a good builder. I couldn’t help but notice the local workmen following close behind me fixing my rebar ties. Bless their souls for not publicly shaming me. However, as the days went on I improved immensely. By the last day I had figured out how to manage my bloody wounds, how not to drop the wrench on the heads below me and how to efficiently and correctly tie thousands of square knots around rebar. Ya, I build stuff.

So who would let a random traveler, like myself, just throw on a tool belt and hit things with hammers? Let me tell you.

Introducing Long Way Home

Long Way Home is an incredibly innovative sustainable building project in rural Guatemala. At its core it pursues 3 main goals: Education, Environment, and Employment. For now, this has manifested itself in a school. Volunteers and local workers have been building the school from the ground up, using unique sustainable methods similar to Earthships. For example, they pack trash and dirt into tires to create walls for all of their buildings. Which is genius because not only is it cheap, but it also facilities trash clean up in the community. The school then supplies education for local youngsters as well as employment for teachers. It’s a holistic trifecta of awesomeness!

The school, which is currently up and running, is still expanding so there is plenty to be done. Your skill level makes no difference to the volunteer coordinator, and you will likely be involved  in numerous projects. These projects range from basic construction to artfully placing recycled glass bottles into the walls of the new buildings. If you happen to have some knowledge with teaching, they might even let you volunteer in one of the classrooms!

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The Volunteer Experience

I’ve done quite a few volunteer projects in my day and this one might just make the top ranks! Aside from being incredibly cheap, $75 per week, your physical contribution makes a HUGE difference. During my week spent at Long Way Home I felt like a valuable part of the project, not just a random tourist; which is important to me because poverty tourism is not okay in my mind. If I’m there to “help”, I want to make sure that my hands are actually needed, not just used to rake in a few extra bucks. Long Way Home wasn’t created to attract volunteers, it was created to facilitate important change in the lives of rural Guatemalans. And it’s doing a remarkable job!

As a volunteer you can either rent a room in town or take advantage of the volunteer housing offered. We opted to stay in the volunteer house and were completely blown away. Just a 10 minute walk from the project, it was a lovely and inspiring spot to relax. There are 3 adorable rooms with two comfortable beds in each, a fully equipped GIANT kitchen and a rad outdoor lounge area (complete with hammock and library).

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During our stay, there were just two other volunteers – which is apparently pretty typical. Quickly, we all became buds and spent most of our free time cooking group meals and exploring the small town of San Juan de Comalapa. Speaking of the town, it’s not too shabby itself. There is little in the way of tourism, so it’s an ideal locale for those of you seeking a more authentic experience. Can we take a moment of silence for some of the best street tacos I found?… Okay, great.

The friendliness of the other volunteers, workers and staff truly made this experience one of a kind. I can’t thank them enough for their overwhelming kindness and huge hearts!

For more detailed information on the project and volunteer opportunities, visit the Long Way Home website. 

Want to give this adventure a shot? (logistical information)

Location: San Juan de Comalapa, Guatemala – Long Way Home

Duration: As long as you want, preferably at least one week.

Cost: $75 per week for housing, food not included. There is a kitchen available for use and an awesome market in town.

What to bring: (not so obvious items)

  1. Leather work gloves
  2. Sun protection: hat, bandana, long sleeve shirt etc…
  3. Work boots or sturdy sneakers
  4. Construction tools to donate

Other things to note:

While the core group of bodies keeping the program running are American, you will mostly be interacting with the locals. It is well worth it to learn some español! Take advantage of the crazy cheap spanish schools scattered across Guatemala.

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