Building a Bottle School in Los Potrerillos (Day 1)

Dinner in Antigua

After my day trip to Chichicastenango, I returned to Antigua just in time to meet my volunteer group at Hotel San Jorge in order to walk to dinner at Almacen Troccoli.  The restaurant and bar have a nice vibe.  We, however, had our own private room upstairs which was a little dull, though it accommodated 30 people and a screen and projector for a slide show, so I understand the upstairs choice.  There was also a nice view from the outdoor rooftop where we saw Fuego, an active volcano, spew some lava from its top!

Our group included a large contingent from Arizona as Bobbi and Danny who have been on the volunteer trip 13 times invited some friends and gave the trip as a wedding gift to their daughter and son-in-law.  There were also a small groups from Ohio, Michigan and Texas.  A few folks traveled from California while others came from across the world; Zimbabwe, France, and Sweden!  Almost everyone knew at least one person in the group.  I think there were only three or four of us who didn’t know a soul.

Dinner included a choice from six entrees ranging from ¼ Grilled Chicken, to vegetarian, to pasta and salad.  Most people went with chicken.  The entrée came with an appetizer, dessert and juice.  We spent the evening introducing ourselves and meeting the staff from Hug It Forward, the volunteer group that our vacation club, World Ventures, supports in building bottle schools in Guatemala.

World Ventures

World Ventures, headquartered in Plano, Texas, is the largest, privately held travel company in the world.  The company offers memberships or business opportunities through a MLM type structure.  It offers a variety of Dreamtrips all over the world including voluntours like the one we are on here in Guatemala.  It also has it’s own booking engine for hotels, owner housing, flights, rental car and cruises as well as a shopping mall, all which return commissions to the user.

Hug It Forward

Hug It Forward works to support and empower communities in Guatemala through building Bottle Schools.  Instead of using the common cinder-blocks for school construction, Hug It Forward uses plastic soda bottles, stuffed with inorganic trash to form an “eco-brick.  The stuffed bottles are bound between chicken wire which is attached to a professionally built frame made of concrete and reinforced rebar.  The bottles add insulation to the already structurally sound building.

A two-classroom bottle school requires 6500 bottles that the community collects off the streets where trash is commonly discarded.  They then stuff each bottle with more than 100 trash wrappers to make sturdy “eco-bricks”.  Once the community has provided all the filled bottles and the manual labor for the school construction, Hug It Forward funds the project and organizes the volunteers.  The community was ready for us!

Our team from Hug It Forward included Adam, Andres, Zohe and Vivi.  Adam mostly provided help from behind the scenes such as collecting our flight information, organizing our transportation, and setting up our lodging.  He also provided all the information we needed to know about the clothes to wear, the currency to bring, and the general project.

Andres served as our trip leader and translator.  He kept us on “Guatemalan time”, got all 27 of us loaded on the buses to get from place to place, and spent many hours translating between Spanish and English.

Zohe kept us organized.  She filled our water bottles on the work site and kept up with our things as we moved around.  She is known as the hand-sanitizer queen.  She waited for us outside of bathrooms, and before we went into any eating establishment to provide a squirt of cleanliness to prevent germs and keep us healthy.

Vivi was our group photographer.  She took some fantastic pictures, and she and the Hug It Forward Organization were generous enough to let us use them.  I’ve included many.

Hotel San Jorge

After dinner, we returned to Hotel San Jorge to get some sleep for our big first day.  The rooms were nice and included rock-hard beds, a desk, and bedside tables. The windows opened for cooler air though noisy streets.  A lovely courtyard adorned in roses, birds of paradise and other lovely flowers sat in the middle.  I found it to be a pleasant hotel.

The next morning, we enjoyed our breakfast on the upstairs terrace before loading up to be bused to San Martín Jilotepeque where we made a brief stop to drop our luggage at the Hotel Posada de don José before heading to Los Potrerillos located on a dirt road about 10 miles away from the city.

Los Potrerillos

Los Potrerillos is a small community with no post office or waste management system.  The members of the 100% indigenous community mainly speak Spanish though the large majority also speak their native Mayan language, Kaqchiquel.  Most of the community is catholic and very conservative.   The agricultural community grows coffee, corn and beans as well as non-traditional types of vegetables and fruit like kale, beets, and sweet potato as the climate is mild and the soil fertile.  In addition, the women weave their own güipiles (traditional blouses) that take up to three months to finish.

This bottle school project will take approximately five months to complete and benefit 36 students, two teacher/staff members and the 35 families in the area.  Once complete, the current school will be doubled in size to four classrooms.  The community will get two more teachers, so they will have one teacher for each classroom.  Currently the two teachers, one of which is also the principal teach three grades in each room, 1st through 3rd and 4th through 6th, respectively.

Welcome Ceremony

We arrived in Los Potrerillos to much fanfare.  This was the first time for gringos to visit their community!  Students formed two lines and welcomed us just as sports teams enter the field through a cheer leading section.  We were ushered to a tent where we sat for a school performance of song and dance.

The principal and teacher welcomed us.  My hat goes off to them as they are the ones who really spear-headed this project and had to rally the community to participate in the bottle and trash collection and school construction.  Due to the civil war, most of the people in this community don’t have more than a 6th grade education, and they have to work their fields with their children’s help just to survive.  From my eyes, organizing this project seemed like an insurmountable feat.  I can’t imagine how long it took just to reach this point.

After their welcome speech, the first and second graders performed a dance.  Soon, we were up onstage dancing with them.  The only person that seemed to know all the moves to the song was the principal who stood in the corner giving cues.  We all looked to our right for our next hand movement or arm swing.

After our dance, the older kids danced, and the ceremony of dances continued for at least an hour.  I think everybody’s favorite was a dance based on the Guatemalan’s Caribbean heritage mostly because the one little girl front and center was directing traffic.  She was all about the dancing and knew the routine!  She was really fun to watch.  At the end of the ceremony, we all danced together.

Bottle Sorting and Cement Mixing

With the welcoming ceremony complete, it was time to find out our jobs for the day.  We could help mix cement or sort bottles.  Given there were more female volunteers than male volunteers, I decided to join the cement mixing group as I gathered there would be less people up for this job.  In case you didn’t know, mixing cement by hand is hard!  Kudos to whoever designed the cement mixing truck.  Too bad we didn’t have one.

Cement mixing required shoveling five wheel barrows of sand, dumping it on the mixing site, and combining it with four bags of cement.  To combine, we shoveled all the contents into one big pile and then into four small ones and repeated the process until it was well blended.  Then we smoothed the pile and added “gravel” (but more like small rocks in my opinion) and followed the same aforementioned procedures.  Next, we created a moat in order to add water and keep it from seeping out.  The mixing continued and once the water was added, the task required some strength.

Once two piles of cement were mixed, we formed a human chain and passed half-full buckets of cement to the masons who filled the forms to create overhead beams.  The buckets were only half-full because they weighed about 50 pounds.

On the other side of the school yard, many volunteers were working with women and children of the community to sort bottles.  In order to bind the bottles to the chicken wire evenly, it is best to use the same sized and shaped bottle.  The bottles were grouped into at least four categories: Coke, Gatorade, Sprite, and Raptor.  The sorting went quickly and was finished by lunch.


We used one of the original school classrooms for lunch every day which was brought in by Cristy, our cook for the voluntour.  Cristy actually studied hard and was able to receive a two-year scholarship to Mt. Hood Community College in the States about 20 years ago.  She stayed with a host family while attending school in the USA and ended up marrying their son!

While there was nothing in the rules against her marrying a United States citizen, the program threatened to not let her graduate unless she went to home to Guatemala for two years.  She wanted to go home anyway, and she and her husband established a life in San Martín Jilotepeque where they opened Full Moon Café.  She knows the appropriate sanitation procedures to keep American’s digestive track in shape, so Hug It Forward uses her for their trips.  Cristy cooked us a variety of meals over the next four days, but one thing I was most thankful for were green vegetables.  Many times, these are hard to come by in Latin America.

Games and More Cement Mixing

After lunch, we mixed some more concrete and played games with the kids.  Some of the games included duck, duck, goose; hopscotch; the three-legged race; and a few I didn’t know like Eagle and Gato y Ratón (Cat and Mouse).  The Eagle was a game Wei, a Chinese volunteer who lives in France, taught us.  All the kids held onto one another in a line behind here while she spread her arms to keep Kira the predator from touching anyone in the chain.  The chain moved with Wei.

The principal of the school and also teacher gathered the kids to teach us Gato y Ratón.  The kids held hands in a circle.  There was a cat in the middle of the circle and a mouse outside.  The cat was supposed to catch the mouse, but those in the circle raised and lowered their hands to keep the cat and mouse apart.

The 36 Year Civil War

After our work and play session, we enjoyed a presentation about the civil war which began in 1960 and didn’t end until 1996 after a peace agreement was signed.  We met some men who lived through the 36-year fight.

Problems first arose in 1954 when Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzman was democratically elected into power.  The president wanted to take back control of its land that was dominantly owned by United Fruit Company.  The company was known for bribing government officials, exploiting its workers, and creating monopolies throughout Latin America.  The company constructed railroads and ports to transport its bananas, but encouraged governments not to build roads so it could maintain its monopoly on transportation and surrounding, uncultivated land.

When the company learned that it was subject to losing 40% of its land under Guzman’s government to peasant farmers, United Fruit Company convinced the United States government that Guatemala was aligning with the Soviet Bloc.  Fearing communism, USA backed forces led by Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas invaded from Honduras and overthrew the government.  The government overthrow, however, failed to benefit the company which crumbled just four years later after the same USA administration filed an antitrust action against the company! The ties to communism were also unfounded.  It seems most of the ties were between the Eisenhower administration, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles whose law firm represented United Fruit Company, and Allen Dulles, the director of the CIA who was a board member of United Fruit.

The military regime of Carlos Castillo Armas was taken over by General Ydigoras Fuentes after Armas was assassinated in 1958.  In 1960, a group of young officers from the national military academy led a failed revolt against the autocratic government. The surviving officers fled to the hills and coordinated with the outlawed Guatemalan Labour Party composed of middle class intellectuals and students.  Together they formed a guerilla organization called the Rebel Armed Forces in 1962 which sparked an insurgency among the Mayan indigenous people and the poor rural peasants who fought against racism, social injustice and unequal distribution of wealth.

For the next few years, the guerillas fought a series of dictators when Julio César Méndez Montenegro gave the military the freedom to engage in “any means necessary” to pacify the country.  As such, the military commenced counter-insurgent operations.  They swept the countryside capturing and killing anyone suspected of leftist sympathies.  Over 200,000 people were killed or went missing over this 36 year period.

The men we met said they were lucky because Potrerillos was an agricultural town just far way from the big cities, so they didn’t suffer massacres like other towns.  They did, however, live in fear of both the guerillas and the government.  Neither of the men made it past the sixth grade as people didn’t come and go from their houses much as they tried to stay out of sight and remain neutral in the conflict.

One of the men was forced to join a community patrol. He had to complete a rigorous boot camp.  He and others had to run across trees drenched in oil.  He said some of the recruits fell, breaking their arms and legs.  He had to answer to the military whenever they called.  He recalls times when he patrolled the area in the rain, all night, and wasn’t fed.  Sometimes his wife would come with him just so she wasn’t in the house alone and subject to abuse.

Twice, his father went missing.  Once, he saw some men in the bushes, and they kept him for a day because they didn’t want him to disclose their location.  It is believed these were the guerillas.  Another time, he was kept longer and finally showed up naked without any clothes.  This incident is believed to be the result of the military.  He felt fortunate that his father returned as some people went missing forever.  Fearing for their lives with no means to work or eat is what forced many to begin immigrating to the USA.

We asked if they felt any ill will toward us as Americans given our government supported a dictatorship.  Andres explained that they didn’t even know the USA started it, and they were thankful we were here helping them now.  It was quite an interesting conversation which shed light on the education challenges in Guatemala and highlighted one of many reasons why building these bottle schools is so important.

Benefits of Bottle Schools

Along with providing the opportunity for education, the bottle schools also:

  1. Teach the community about cleaning streets and recycling waste
  2. Spend capital into the community
  3. Teach new skills like masonry to gain employment later
  4. Bring communities together as kids from smaller areas may attend school when they didn’t previously
  5. They give the kids a sense of ownership as they helped construct the building

Community Walk

The community patiently waited on us to finish our presentation to take us on walk to some of their houses.  Each child selected a volunteer and led us by our hand to each home.  Rafa, a very shy and small 13-year old dressed in a puffy jacket with hood on this overcast, cool day was my partner.

He quietly took my hand as we followed the group along the dirt road past some corn fields and a church before suddenly he let go.  We had reached the first home where a few women showed off their weaving skills.  The blouse one young mother was weaving would take three months to make and sell for $50.  After a short stop here, we continued.  Rafa came out from hiding, reached for my hand and continued down the road with me and the rest of the group.

We reached another home, not far away, that was nicer as the lady’s husband sent money home from the USA. He has been gone for ten years, and she didn’t seem very happy about it. She made purses that can take from one week to one month to make depending on how much time she has to work on it. The purse sells for $10.

The last of our walk took us through a coffee field past a cow and turkey to another home where we learned to make tortillas. The kitchen was open to the outside, but covered by a tin roof.  This seemed common for many houses that also had their sinks outside too.

To make tortillas, first the dried corn which has been stored in a small silo is boiled with lime. The lime (mineral not the fruit) softens the corn which is then ground into flour. Water is added, and the maiz is rolled into a large ball. Next, with damp hands, the ladies select a small amount of dough and lightly pat it into a round tortilla.  Finally, it is roasted on a tray placed over an open fire.  They make 75 tortillas a day for a family of five.  We patted our dough into a tortilla, though it didn’t come out round.  The little nine-year old girl put us to shame.

As dusk fell, we walked back to the school where we had a chance to buy their wares. After I browsed the crafts, I got a soccer match together with the boys and girls. I had planned to even out the teams with boys and girls, but as soon as I said, “Necesitamos equipos (we need teams), the girls flocked to me.  With my limited Spanish, I quickly realized it would be easiest to say, “Girls against boys”. And so, the chaos began!

The make shift goals which on one side was a bench underneath the tent and the other side a space between a chair and a ball soon expanded to the entire side of the tent and a space between the chair and our bus as the ball went missing.  With every GOOOOAAAALLL, one little boy reminded me of the score.  “Cuatro a dos,” he shouted as he held up four fingers to two.  There was truly no out of bounds.  They played over the rock piles and behind the goals.  Forget about kickoffs.  No team could relish in their goal with a high five as play started immediately the other way.

Personally, I love how soccer can bring people together so quickly. It truly is the universal sport.  The shy kids suddenly spouted off Spanish to me like they thought I could respond, ha!  If only I were fluent.  One boy asked to what score were we playing?  Until I have to leave, I responded…which was at sunset!

San Martín Jilotepeque

As day turned into night, we returned to our hotel in San Martín Jilotepeque for a ten-minute break before heading to Cristy’s restaurant for dinner.  She prepared chicken quesadillas which were excellent and supplemented them with rice, beans, cauliflower, broccoli and vanilla cake.  We cleaned our plates.  What a great first day with the community! ETB

Other Posts About Guatemala You May Like

A Day in Guatemala City

A Day in Chichicastenango, Guatemala

Building a Bottle School in Los Protrerillos, Guatemala (Day 2)

Visiting Chwa Nima Ab’aj also known as the Ruins of Mixco Viejo

Building a Bottle School in Los Potrerillos (Day 3)

Two Days at Lake Atitlán, Guatemala

Pacaya Volcano By Morning, Hobbitenango by Afternoon

World’s Largest Easter Celebration

Antigua’s Parks, Churches and Ruins

Top Things to Do in Antigua



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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned travel photographer and blogger.

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