By Hand, the Guatemalan Way

Over several years and several visits to the Lake Atitlán area, and Pasaj-Cap in particular, we have witnessed far more construction than I would have ever expected. Now, while that construction has taken all sorts of forms from to stonework to cottage building to dock repair to carpentry to sauna recovery to fixing the half-destroyed curtain serving surrounding our bed intended to serve as bedroom of sorts while the guy fixing it occasionally glanced at us in a slyly accusing manner as though he was well aware of the type of sexual shenanigans that might have resulted in an emergency bed curtain repair job. And as diverse as they may have been as far as jobs go, the one thing they all had in common, besides the fact that I would be of little use even in a pinch, was that in every case the process involves far more labour and far fewer nifty power tools than a similar job would back in Canada. Or any country where it would be ludicrous to think you might hire a journeyman for the day for less than the price of a medium Meat Lover’s pizza. No, on the shores of Lake Atitlán cheap, hard-working labour is easy to find, unlike so many other things such as skilsaws, electric sanders, mechanical post-pounders, power drills, nail guns or bricks that can be purchased in whatever size or shape you desire. Not that there isn’t something a bit wild and magical about digging your own rocks up out of the ground and pounding them into the necessary form using a hammer and chisel, although I have a feeling that by the time you have beaten boulder number 300 into submission and your new stone staircase still only makes it halfway up the hill, it’s possible the magic has started to fade into angry muttering and sporadic cursing.

They crew here at Pasaj-Cap have been spending most of their time this fall working on Pierre’s new house being built over in the far corner of the property so, while apparently hillside pool construction (in Guatemala!) comes with its very own set of complications we haven’t seen too much of it. However, there was a more public maintenance project last week that did a pretty good job of illustrating exactly the kind of typical Guatemalan issue that always ends up being so fascinating to us foreigners. The lake has been steadily rising for the past 5 years or so, although this year had been a bit drier and provided a bit of a reprieve, almost making it to the end of October and the theoretical end of the rainy season when a few more good downpours paid a visit and next thing you know the waves were lapping over the top of the swimming dock again, and on rough afternoons the entire structure swayed from side to side like an Irish groom making a toast to the midnight lunch. Cue the grounds crew – eight to ten short, energetic Guatemalan men teaming up to haul down reinforcements. What, you ask, could they use to solidify a wooden dock that has been raised up so many times that despite the crystal clear water and routinely calm mornings you still can’t see the bottom? Why, how about a handful of gigantic trees, roughly 50 feet or so long, stripped bare by machete, physically carried the equivalent of a dozen stories down the hill, around tight corners and through some dense vegetation, with one end then manually whittled into something resembling a point to make it easier to drive into the muddy lake bed. Which, of course, was done by feeding it down to roughly the right spot alongside the existing dock, tying a crossbeam to it, then having half a dozen men stripped down to their skivvies bounce up and down on it like some sort of jostling, giggling human hammer. And, much like so many of the methods around here, for as completely ineffective as it looked while they laughed, stumbled and jumped around, here we are a week later and the dock is solid as ever, and even on the waviest days no longer causes mild seasickness as we sprawl in our post-swim lethargy.

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