Building a Bottle School in Los Potrerillos (Day 2)

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Hotel Posada de Don José in San Martín Jilotepeque

We were so busy and had such a long day yesterday that today was the first day we could hardly even check out the hotel or see San Martín Jilotepeque.  The Hotel Posada de Don José in San Martín Jilotepeque was suitable for the area.  The outside was nicely painted and adorned with flower boxes.  The two floors of hotel rooms lined either side of an indoor driveway where the hotel owners parked their cars.

The hotel’s third floor roof, home to a friendly dog named Chester and landmines of his waste, provided nice views of the distant volcano as well as of the colorful cemetery next door.  I really wanted to stroll through there and inquired about it as the volunteer organization, Hug It Forward, requested that we do not leave our hotel on our own.  Fortunately, we could go through the cemetery as long as we went with two or more people, so I organized a group tour for tomorrow morning.

The sparsely decorated hotel rooms were large!  My room included three beds, an armoire, and a table.  We were given a lesson on how to use the shower.  Andres explained that the heater is wired into the shower head.  We were supposed to turn the faucet on very slowly.  We would know when the heater kicked in as the lights dim.  The hottest setting is at the shortest turn, the coolest on the longest turn.  Andres said not to turn it on fast or it could explode, and he was serious!

Given I like scalding hot showers, I barely turned on the faucet.  I started my shower and it was a bit too hot, so I turned the faucet two small notches.  Over time it cooled down, so I turned it back one notch.  Suddenly, I saw the spark fly over my head.  I looked up and the wires into the shower head were on fire!  I hoped turning off the shower would put out the flames and it did, because otherwise I’m not sure what I would have done!

Full Moon Café

We got to explore the town a little as our group walked to Cristy’s restaurant, the Full Moon Café, for breakfast. She always serves a feast…beans, eggs, salsa, French toast and more.  After filling up on lots of food, we loaded the buses and headed to Los Potrerillos.

Los Potrerillos and the Bottle School

This morning, at the school, there were fewer adults and kids from the community than yesterday at the opening ceremonies.  They must have been working on their morning chores as by the afternoon many joined us. Having said that, we still had plenty of help from the community.  Our job today was to tie the sorted bottles to the chicken wire attached to the school frame.

Andres and Bobbi demonstrated the technique. We were to stick a loop of string through the second from the bottom hexagon on the chicken wire and insert the bottom of the bottle.  After pulling tight and keeping the slack out of the string, we were to insert another loop through the chicken wire three rows up and wrap the string around the top of the bottle.  After pulling tight again, we repeated the process with the next bottle. Once the bottom row was completed, the second row of bottles were turned upside down to fill in as much space as possible.

Deeanna and I picked Coke bottles as they were somewhat colorful. We soon realized the awkward shape made the tying a little more difficult. We should have picked bottles based on shape, not color!  We were definitely slow compared to those who had previously secured bottles to chicken wire. Once we completed the bottom row, men started working on the scaffolding above us so we moved to prevent any accidents. We left our colorful, odd shaped Coke bottles behind and selected some dull grey, yet straight Raptor bottles.

The next thing we knew, some gentlemen from the community joined us to help.  As such, Deeanna and I split up and each took a section to work with the locals.  At first I thought, poor Deeanna, she ended up with Coke bottles again, but the gentleman she was working with was lightening fast!  In addition, it takes five less Coke bottles per row compared to the Raptor bottles.  They finished in record speed.

I worked with Guillermo.  He had never secured bottles to chicken wire so the gentleman working with Deeanna showed him how. Guillermo was very precise.  He pulled a red marker out of his pocket and marked the top row in which to place the loop.  We slowly labored through the tying as I tried to speak with him in Spanish.  I found out he was 72 years-old.  I would have never guessed that.  He looked like he was in his 50’s to me!  Then I felt bad, I thought I should be tying the loops rather than inserting the bottles which was the easier job of the two.

Soon, his son Juan Carlos, joined us to help. With three people working on a section, the third person simply gets a bottle out of the bag and hands it to the bottle inserter.  It saves a little time, but it didn’t seem to speed us up much.  I think we were the slowest of all the groups, but my guess is Guillermo’s precision left the best pattern.  Too bad it would be covered by concrete at some point.

Anyway, Juan Carlos is one of ten kids!  I asked if he had kids in the school. He said no, he was single. So it turned out that neither of the men had kids in the school, but they each collected 100 bottles and filled them with trash. They said ten bags of trash only filled about eight bottles as over 100 trash wrappers are needed to make the bottles hard.  I can only imagine how much trash was on their now clean streets, though Juan Carlos said they had to buy some food for the trash wrappers to finish.

Juan Carlos had two bracelets on his wrist which he pointed to and said he made them. I asked if he had anymore, because I was going to offer to buy some. The next thing I knew, he had taken it off and put it on my arm.  I thought he wanted to see how it looked as he said it was too big, so I pulled it off to hand it back.  He waved his hand back and forth and said, “No, regalo.” He gave it to me as a present so I would remember him and Potrerillos.  How nice!  Though how could I forget him or this experience?

By lunchtime we had finished stringing almost all the bottles into the bottom of the school so went back to mixing concrete. This is a hard job and I didn’t last too long.  I went back to playing some games with the kids who showed up after lunch.

Illegal Immigration

In the late afternoon, we listened to another presentation.  This time it was about illegal immigration and why people risk their lives to come to the USA. First, as discussed in the civil war presentation yesterday, United Fruit Company and the USA helped fight the guerillas which left many in people in poverty and uneducated.

The average wage for people in Guatemala is $7/day (not hour), and it costs about $9/day for the following items:  beans, rice, cheese, milk, eggs, tortillas, sugar, coffee, bread, and chicken.  To make ends meet, many raise chickens and grow corn and coffee.

In order to enter the USA legally, they have to pay for a $50 passport and a $160 visa for a six month visit or “come and go” visa that lasts for ten years.  Obviously, based on the income they make, this is difficult, but what makes it more difficult, is their application is regularly denied and the $160 is non-refundable.  Not to mention, they have to take all day to go to Guatemala City and wait in lines to be rejected.

The USA denies their visa because the government is afraid they will stay.  Generally, the only people who get a chance to get a visa and travel to the USA legally are the ones who have a good business in Guatemala that they will come back to, but even that is subject.

As I mentioned in my previous post, our cook Kristi is married to an American. They have raised their three kids with dual citizenship in Guatemala.  As a family, they have tried to visit her in-laws in the USA multiple times, but each time she has applied for a visa, she has been denied despite having a restaurant and dog shelter.  Her entire family can enter America except her.  The USA government says she must go through the naturalization process, but she doesn’t want to, as she just wants to visit and return to her life in Guatemala.

I empathize with their plight especially due to the US government’s involvement in their 36 year civil war, but I also understand the US government’s stance as I suppose many people would over stay their legal welcome.  I don’t know what the happy medium is, but maybe the $160 fee could be refunded if denied.  At least that would be a start to encourage a legal process rather than paying human trafficking coyotes $10,000 to get across the border while packed like sardines in a tractor trailer.


We met three men from Potrerillos that illegally entered or attempted to enter the States. José told his own story as he learned English while working as a landscaper in New Jersey. His boss increasingly added to his pay, and after six years of being a loyal worker he was making $25/hr. A far cry from $7 a day.  He was 17 when he paid a coyote a few thousand dollars to get to the States 20 years ago. Generally, it takes 30 days to get to the USA.  Much of the time is spent in a semi-truck with no air, water or food. He was lucky. He hid in a car, and it only took six days to make it across the border.

The process to hire a coyote is to pay half the money upfront and the other half upon a successful border crossing.  Most Guatemalans borrow the money from family members already in the USA. José got to the safe house in the USA so fast that his family didn’t have the money to pay the other half, so the coyote locked him in the house with no food for a week until his family was able to pay.

José felt like he was getting old after 20 years in the States and wanted to be married so he came back to Guatemala by his own choice. He now has some a family in Guatemala.  He is able to pay others to work his land, but with the difficult earning situation, he struggles to support his family.  We asked if he regretted coming home.  He nodded, “sometimes” only because it is so hard to get ahead.


Marcelo was also seventeen when he left for the States around the same time as José, but he had a more typical experience. He said they were packed like sardines in the tractor-trailer and would coordinate turning from one side to the other by counting to three.  He witnessed some older people faint in the conditions.

He successfully crossed the border and stayed with his uncle in California for a little bit.  He sold ice cream from a cart that he pulled along, but the police made it difficult for him to sell it so he moved to Ohio to live with another uncle while working at a slaughter house. He soon moved in with three other guys who all spoke Spanish, so he never learned English.

To work for a big company, he needed a fake ID, so he bought a real person’s ID from Puerto Rico. After six years in the USA, he was caught and taken to jail for false impersonation.  After six months in jail, he was deported back to Guatemala. With the money he saved from working in the USA, he was able to build a house and get a truck in Guatemala, but he had hoped to acquire some land too.  He was deported before he was able to purchase any, but at least he has a truck which is useful to transport people for a small fee.


Finally, Herman tried to go to the USA four times and never made it. Twice he was stopped at the Guatemala/Mexico border and twice he was picked up in Arizona. The final time, the officials allowed him a phone call from jail to a relative in the USA.  If he was able to reach his brother, he could stay with him.  Unfortunately for him, he couldn’t get in touch with his brother and was deported.  He borrowed $10,000 to get to the USA, and still owes his family money that he can’t pay back for which he feels disgraced. The pain showed on his face as he relived his difficult experience when he told his story for Andres to translate.

Herman is still single, so he may consider trying again, but Jose and Marcelo now have families, and they will have to discuss with their wives and decide if they want to break up their families, also not the best option. I found it interesting to hear what they face, though also know the USA needs to control its borders to some degree.

Other Scenes on the Job Site

San Martín Jilotepeque and Cristy’s

After listening to their stories, we loaded the buses and headed back to San Martín Jilotepeque at sunset with enough time to shower before dinner.  My shower had a new set of wires…Whew!  I planned for a longer, warm shower this time, but the power proceeded to go out seconds after I turned it on, so along with some others, I had to wait to clean up after dinner when the power returned.

taken through the bus window

The night ended at Cristy’s where we had amazing chicken burritos. All the dogs in the neighborhood think they are great too as they lined up on the street at her restaurant.  In fact, six-eight dogs patiently waited outside her restaurant every night because she feeds them any scraps.  In addition, as I mentioned previously, she operates a dog shelter called Asociacion Protectora de Animales “MI AMIGO FIEL”.  She currently cares for 72 animals, and today was a happy day for her because she was able to adopt one.  She is in dire need of a vets help to spay and neuter these animals.  If there are any vets out there willing to help, contact her on her page.  Until tomorrow….ETB

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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned award winning travel blogger and photographer sharing the earth's beauty one word and image at a time.

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