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Dirt, Sweat and Smiles in Guatemala

Building hope, one plastic bottle at a time

Miles away from the Western comforts we are so accustomed to, an assortment of Lush team members from around the world congregated in the Guatemalan city of Antigua.

The town, alive with tourists, students and locals, lies under a spectacular volcano painted on the horizon. It was a stepping stone to prepare us for the coming unknown – the rural mountains where we would be aiding a community in the expansion of a school with Hug It Forward.

A Lush Charity Pot partner, Hug it Forward is improving the landscape of Guatemala through the basic yet effective construction of bottle schools – buildings erected using upcycled bottles stuffed with inorganic trash and volunteers contributing manpower. This basic, efficient and environmentally-friendly system has resulted in the completion of 38 schools throughout the small Central American country in 56 months.

From the well-trodden cobblestone streets of Antigua, we journeyed by bus to San Martin Jilotepeque, a small market town not ordinarily visited by tourists, where we would be washing and sleeping off our long days of labor.

Driving the potholed and rocky roads to and from the school in the community of El Refugio y La Rosa was like navigating the stormiest sea in an ocean liner. The bus dipped and lurched, swerved and sailed through the waves of mammoth gravel for almost an hour each way. Motorcycles holding not one, but two, sometimes even three passengers cruised and zipped by us – helmets were neither a thought nor requirement. It was exhilarating to watch the seemingly dangerous world outside and to experience what felt like an amusement park ride inside.

El Refugio y La Rosa is home to 65 families spread out around the school in small huts and plots of land. Parents and children share bedrooms, electricity is scarce, and running water is undrinkable. Despite this apparent struggle, the villagers exude warmth and happiness, and the children soon threw their thin arms around us and slipped their little hands into ours.

After an endearing welcome ceremony, where the children danced and sang in traditional costume, causing our eyes to flood, we got to work. Seven thousand bottles had been collected by the community and crammed with trash over two and a half months. Men, who can barely provide for their families as is, relinquished much needed work in the fields to lend a hand and give their children a chance for a better future.

With the sun beaming its rays into us, we sorted bottles by size to later align in even rows, sifted rocks out of heaps of sand to make it viable for cement, and tightly tied bottles to the walls of the two room structure. Muscles burned, skin deepened, and sweat flowed in rivers. But meaningful work is the most satisfying kind and it was easy to forget any physical discomfort.

Between bouts of hard labor, we learned about the daily lives of those we were working alongside. Their humble homes were opened to us on a trek through the hilly community. We walked along dusty roads and narrow paths enveloped in emerald foliage, always with a gang of children in tow.

On another sun-soaked day, we climbed into the trees to plant tiny saplings amongst their older kin. The view, over the dense crops and untamed green, was astounding enough to stop time. Only the wind remained moving, reminding us this was our reality, keeping us in that moment and capturing it in our minds like a photo. Because (did I not mention?) there were no phones to incessantly distract us, we were ever present.

To explore Guatemala’s roots, we traversed to a former capital city in Mayan culture, Chwa Nim Ab’äj. The ruins were magnificent. The culture, mysticism and strife of the ancient civilization actually sang out from the shimmering stones if you touched their warm surface for long enough. It is the kind of place people come to for meditation and answers from the spirits that guard the buildings in the form of white butterflies.

We returned to the school the next day to complete our contribution. On our last day, we churned cement by hand – thick lava-like globs to be thrown on top of the bottles, sealing them into the walls forever. The dirtier we became (faces and arms covered with quick-drying cement), the wider we smiled. The children watched us with curiosity and wonder. Giggling amongst themselves at our foreign ways. In the time we’d spent with them, they had become bolder. Testing our Spanish and their English, and calling out to us by name.

Leaving the community that afternoon, the school now outfitted with walls, felt like saying goodbye to old friends. Three days had somehow transformed into weeks as the quality of time gone by far outweighed the quantity. The families lined up to express their gratitude as we departed. It was the kind of gratitude so strong that it could be felt without words. We all cried. Not only were we saying goodbye to new friends, but we had collaborated with a community to give their kids the opportunity to live out their dreams as lawyers, teachers, engineers and doctors.