Journal Entry #3: Expedition Escalera
I’ve compiled an abridged journal of my time spent in Chiapas, Mexico building a school with Foundation Escalera. I decided to share my experiences to offer a small glimpse at the work we did and the people we met.
Chiapas 2010 School building expedition with Foundation Escalera Journal Entry #3
Photo by Zach Byron Taylor
Monday, December 27th - La Virginia
"It always seems impossible until it’s done"
Bright and early, we hit the bumpy and winding roads, there were more curves in the road than I ever experienced, as if the architect was showing off his skill at designing S curves. A lot of people experienced motion sickness, I made it through the 2 and half hour ride okay on mint gum and Coca Cola. Once we reached Ocosingo, we had to load our supplies, tools, and luggage into a caravan of Nissan trucks to get to the village of La Virginia since it was not accessible by the coach bus. Sitting in the back of pick up trucks, we sped over gravel and dirt roads passing rudimentary housing along the way, mostly wooden shacks with tin roofs.
When we arrive at the secondary school, the site where we were to build our schoolhouse, we were greeted by a village welcome, which included music, speeches, and traditional dances by the school kids. My favorite part was this 5 year old kid, dressed like a cowboy, who sang 2 songs. He was so shy, he was afraid to look at us. Once the presentation was over, we set up camp at the primary school, we set up 2 sleeping areas and a kitchen.
Photo by Scott Howard
I went back to the school site to begin helping prep the walls for installation. This 3 room schoolhouse was designed using pre-fabricated insulated wall and roof tiles to expedite construction. The insulated walls also provide excellent temperature controls during summer and winter months. I began removing the protective film covering the tiles, helped align the tracks, and assisted with putting the walls in place. The crew head Miguel and his two sons were amazing at what they do, they worked quickly and extremely hard. By the end of Day 1 of build, all the interior and exterior walls were in place! At dinner, we received our goals for Day 2 and our sleeping assignments.
Photo by Zach Byron Taylor
"Immerse yourself in a unknown world, to better understand your own."
We were given the option of sleeping in the primary school or staying in the home of a family in the village. This was an amazing opportunity to see first hand how the people of La Virginia live, sleep, and work. I stayed with Marcos (pictured above), a 78 year old widower who lived alone. Marcos spoke no Spanish, only Tzeltal which is a Mayan language. He was also a recipient of one of the stoves. Mark, Zach, and I carried his stove from the school site to his home, up and down a few blocks of dirt and rock road. When we arrived at his house, we entered a 8x8’ wooden shack with a large fire pit in the middle of the room which very little room to move around, we put the stove down. Not knowing what to expect I assumed it was is house, until I heard “cocina”, I was relieved to hear this was his kitchen. It’s not uncommon for some families to cook and sleep in the same room, which makes smoke inhalation a major health concern.
We went back to camp to grab our sleeping back and headed back to Marcos house in the dark around 10pm, we find Marcos waiting for us outside. He took us into his house a 10x10’ wooden structure with a tin roof, the walls were slated a with gaping holes revealing the night outside. There was a single thin candle on a tree stump burning in the room, it was the only light. His bed consisted of wooden planks about 2 feet off the ground, no mattress and a few blankets. His other possessions entailed a beautiful, ornate altar with our lady of Guadalupe, a clothesline with his clothes on it, a machete, a hammer, and various wooden planks and firewood. He had cleared an area for us to sleep, we laid down some foam pads and unrolled our sleeping bags. Right by my head, was a huge hole in the wall, I just hoped some kind animal would not find its way into my bag. We tried to talk with Marcos, but his limited Spanish and our limited knowledge of Tzeltal made communication difficult. From non-verbal cues, he asked us if we wanted the light on or off, referring to the thin candle softly illuminating the room, we said it’s your house (“su casa”). He made the sign of the cross and snuffed the candle out with 2 fingers, and proceeded to pray in the darkness in Tzeltal for 20 minutes. In the eerily calming darkness, I feel asleep. (to be continued)