Money Left Over

Stefan from ConstruCasa sent me this great email bearing good news:

“Hope you are doing great in the US! The iron worker should have installed the doors and windows some time ago. I hope you had contact with your family and could verify through them that everything is finished. Should there be a problem, please let me know.

We (finally) finished the accounting for Tio Nefta’s house, and, oh wonder, there is still a saldo of Q1,041.70! I attach you the accounting sheet, so you can see the detailed expenses. Once you are back in Guate I can give you the original report with all the recibos, facturas, etc.

Please let me know what you would like me to do with the money that we still have, but is yours.

I send you my best,

Asociación Constru Casa”

Since Tío Nefta only has a small bed and a suitcase of clothes in his new house, we’d like you to help us decide what to buy him with this money. Please drop us an email and tell us what you think the money should be used for. Please remember there is no electricity, running water, stores, hospital or pharmacy where he lives. Send us an email at

The House We All Dreamed Of

I was disappointed when I landed in Guatemala City late on Thursday night from Los Angeles and realized there was no chance we were going to be able to make it to Media Luna to see Tío Nefta’s house completed and also make it out of La Antigua by Sunday at 4 AM. I had to blame it on Tropical Storm Matthew that the completion of the house was delayed a week, otherwise, we would have been there earlier. But I wanted to see the house and when I get something in my head, Brad hides. So I called Santos and his eldest son, Willy, and walked them through how to digitize the pictures they had taken throughout the building of the house. The fact they had documented the process as I had recommended to them was stunning. Now, all they had to do was drive into Puerto Barrios to a camera store to develop their film and have them digitize the photos and put it on a CD. Then it was just a matter of going to the internet cafe and having the cafe workers help Willy email it. It worked out perfectly because Willy called me every step of the way and I guided him through it. And, so, it is with great pride and joy that I share with you Casa Tío Nefta. It is still missing the door and windows, but the iron worker will have that done by next Friday, Oct. 8. I will make sure of that. Thank you everybody for believing in us and caring about Tío Nefta:

50+ Ways to Say Thank You

That night after the lines were drawn in the land that would hold his house,, the materials bought, the papers signed, the logistics handled I sat down with my Tío Nefta right across from him on Tía Irma’s diningroom table. We had a staring contest. Course, I always win because he laughs big and then shyly when he realizes he doesn’t have his teeth. Then he covers up his mouth and all I see are the thick leathery wrinkles around his eyes from years of being in the sun. His eyes have a glimmer in them like that day I sat down across from him when I was 11 years old doing my homework and listening to him have entire conversations with himself.

“We have homework tonight,” I tell him after waiting for him to stop smiling.

“We do? What’s our homework?” He asks me, suddenly very seriously. I ran over to get my backpack and the huge stack of white printer paper, permanent markers and scissors. I pulled it all out and then the three-page-list of people who donated to his house. He’d seen it earlier in the day, but he was about to find out exactly how many people had donated. People who wanted to see him have his own house in the place he considered his home.

“We’re writing ‘Thank You’ letters to everyone who helped us with your house, Tío,” I told him and turned over the two permanent markers to him. His eyes grew very large like two big white eggs and he said: “IGGGGGGHH, Carol! That’s a lot of people! I’ll never finish!”

We will, I told him, we’ll just do them one at a time, the same way they donated, one person at a time.

I turned over the management duties to Calvin while I went off to take a quick shower and ready my camera for what we were about to do. It was Brad’s idea and all I could remember was that Bob Dylan “Subterranean Homesick Blues” video with the flash cards. But Tío had his own way of doing it:


After all the construction materials were priced and bought, it was time for the lawyer, Lic. Luis Gilberto Chigua Calderón, who miraculously we  arrived on time to see for our 4 PM on Monday, Sept. 20. We left the albañiles, sons, grandchildren, Calvin and random sundry outside while we entered Don Luis’ luxuriously air-conditioned office (please God, let the power stay on the entire time we’re meeting with him!). Santos, Tío Nefta, and William, Santos’ son, and I all went in through a series of Kafkafian hallways until we got to Chigua’s office piled high with papers:


The importance of this moment didn’t escape any of us because we were all formalizing our trust using a legal contract. We were there to sign a shared land use contract agreement or an usufruto vitalicio so that Tío Nefta has full use of the land until the day we dies. After that I turn over the agreement as the co-signee and the house then belongs to Santos and his family. I did not mince my words when I said to William: “I need to know that even after Santos dies you will not throw Tío Nefta out of his home regardless of what happens. He has nowhere to go if you do that.” “I understand,” William said. “I will respect this agreement.” I recorded the entire conversation and here is a snippet of the final contract being read out:

[gplayer href=”″] Reading out the contact [/gplayer]

This one should help the distrusting, concerned family back in the United States to feel a little bit more secure about the agreement we’re embarking upon with the side of the family that has already been taking care of Tío Nefta for a long time and we are finally holding up our end of the deal to help them support him.


Santos was as pensive as ever during the two hours we found ourselves holed up in the back of Chigua’s office:


Quite in contrast to Tío Nefta who pulled out his DPI for the contract signing:


He held up surprisingly well only cracking up under the pressure once or twice:


Here’s the final signing:


And the final contract:


The Good News and then the Worrying News

I had to head back from Media Luna on Tuesday morning because I had to get Omar back to his pregnant wife, get back to work and also get ready for my trip to Los Angeles for Ashoka and pack for our drive back to California. But I’ve been in touch with Stefan and Ranfiri from ConstruCasa as well as, Santos and Doña Juana in Media Luna all week about the construction timeline, helping them with anything that comes up, planning and the budget.

Yesterday when I spoke to Stefan I was feeling a little anxious about some news I’d heard that the delivery of the materials had created some problems because to get to the spot where Tío’s house is being constructed you have to cross the small surrounding swamp around Santos’ house. It’s like the house is surrounded by a moat and the only way you can get across is two thin wooden planks that ford the moat on the eastern side. You can also enter from the north, but the soil is still marsh. The flatbed truck with all the loose gravel and 900 cinder blocks could not get in through the back because it was too heavy and was starting to sink when it backed into the area. So all the materials were dumped next to the moat and it was pure human power that was going to get all those cinderblocks and gravel over. By the time I called Wednesday they had a system and everyone (I have a lot of extended family there around 40 of Santos’ family composed of children, grandchildren, daughter-in-laws, nephews, nieces, you name it) would grab a cinder block and ford it over the marsh.

“You got us working hard, Carolina,” Santos told me when I called every morning. “But we’re getting there.”

When I spoke to Stefan about it he told us everything was going well and on schedule. If all continued on schedule they would be done by Sunday or Monday, September 27 at the latest. They were already on the third layer of the house and were getting ready to put in  the windows. I asked him when was the last day we could tell him about the paint and plaster.

“Let me call you in the afternoon,” Stefan told me thoughtfully.

I was preparing an email to send to people to help fundraise for paint and plaster when Stefan shared the good news that there would be enough funds to paint and plaster the entire house with the same budget.  I flew out of my chair and started bouncing up and down.

I called mi abuela and the first thing she asked was: “What color will they paint it?” Eh, things that never occur to me to ask. “I hope it’s blue,” abuela said. “It’s such a pretty color.”

Before I did my usual round of calls this morning, I heard the news of Tropical Storm Matthew making it’s way to Izabal and right over the fincas. By the time I called Santos said they’d heard it on the radio, but it hadn’t started raining yet. “We’re not worried, we get storms all the time like this,” Santos said matter-of-factly.

I remembered how during the last storm a few months ago they evacuated people from the fincas, the cellphone transmission was down and when finally I was able to reach Santos he  had the same calm demeanor.

“No te preocupes, Carol, Dios manda.”

Don’t worry, God commands.

The Numbers Game

By the time we finished etching out the structure for Tío Nefta’s house in the dirt the leafy palm trees were doing very little to keep the noon day heat from blanketing us in a few layers of sweat and overwhelming humidity. My gray parachute pants had large sweat marks like someone had dumped a bucket of water on me and as I continued to take pictures the camera lens was steaming up and the magic cloth to clean the lens was dripping from the moisture. It was time for lunch and I’m glad Doña Juana, Santos’ wife, called us in for chicken, rice and tortillas. I followed my cousin Omar in and I noticed he’d kept his white sneakers and pull up white athletic socks pristinely white the entire time.

The heat was definitely not my best friend and pretty soon I was dripping sweat into my fluffy white rice and I could barely breathe between bites. I rushed through lunch and then took on the task of coordinating the rest of the day: two cars, ten people, two hardware stores for estimates, a two and half hour lawyer visit to work out the land use permit, passports, DPIs, building materials lists and sleeping arrangements for four people who had various levels of comfort needs and were all broker than a back-packer at the final leg of his trip. I also couldn’t stop coughing and my fever kept making sudden returns at odd times. I focused on the small islands of humor like the team of people that is a requisite for every estimate:



And the list of course:


And the truck to carry the burden:


After a while, Tío and I started constructing our own dream house together and started making our own list which consisted of really tacky linoleum and large Miami-style clay tiles that we would lay down like two soldiers following marching orders. Tío was ready (notice how his shoelaces are tied around his pant legs so the blood circulates properly):


“Can we put these on dirt floors?” Of course, I told him, that’s exactly what they’re made for. You can see the extent of my building knowledge, but I would pop my head in from time to time during the estimate to make sure the most practical questions were being asked:

-What’s the total?
-When can you deliver?
-Can you give us a discount?
-Where’s your boss?
-How do we pay you?
-Do you give nonprofit discounts?
-The other hardware store quoted us Q11,600 pr $1,450. Can you beat that?

I got some odd looks for some of these questions, but no question was left unasked.

Next Stop: Media Luna

At 3:30 in the morning on Monday, September 20 I was bumping along the quiet, wet cobblestones of La Antigua’s empty streets lit only by the silver glow of the full moon. I sped along breaking apart like cotton the mist that still clung to the floor of the streets. My stomach was upset, I couldn’t stop coughing, my coffee had no sugar and the egg sandwich Brad had gotten up to make me had gotten cold and hard already. I had told them 4 AM in front of the Cathedral, Feliciano the newbie mason and Calvin the Abuela Godsend, and I had a feeling the pace of the whole day would be determined by this first moment of lateness or punctuality. I took a deep breath before rounding the corner and soon I spotted Feliciano waiting by a motorcycle with his big bag of tools and his straw mat. At the same time Calvin’s silhouette carrying his construction boots, one backpack and small sleeping bag appeared from behind the trees. It was the harmony of punctuality and as if to bless the moment, I sneezed without my Kleenex in my hand.

Don Alejandro, the second mason, was harder to find, but by 5 AM we had swooped him up from the Tejar-Chimaltenango crossing and were sailing through the early morning San Lucas, Mixco, Zone 11, the Periferico, straight to Calle Marti and just sped past all of Guatemala City before it became the rush hour parking lot we all know so well. It’s true this is the only way to get out of town, like a thief through the back door. By 7:30 AM we were in Estanzuela and I was picking up my cousin Omar who was having a difficult time leaving his pregnant wife behind. We threw his straw mat in the Thule, we piled Calvin and both masons in the back and Omar tucked his turtleneck (to protect against the mosquitoes and the 100 degree weather) and lunch bag in the front seat.

“You want me to drive?” Omar asked.

“Later,” I said, punching it from 30 to 60 MPH to get us back on the road to Puerto Barrios. We’d taken a small detour to pick Omar up and so  I was on driving auto-pilot. This was the most time I’d ever spent with Omar since he was a baby and I used to grab his fat belly and make sounds with it. He turned on his cellphone video games that sound like bad Christmas tree music, while the mason marveled at how hot a place can get in such a short distance. “It’s going to get worse,” I reassured them. Calvin was just flowing with it. We were now sealed in our fate.

Much can happen in a day and sometimes it’s better that you don’t know.

By the time we turned right from Entre Rios to go East towards the fincas that lead into Honduras and the now collapsed bridge before reaching the border, the sun was burning holes into the asphalt where the rain from that morning had already evaporated. “Where is this place?” Omar said under his breath. “It’s where we all began in our family and Tio Nefta calls it Eden.” The left turn into Media Luna is hard to find, you just have to eye it, but it’s always before Rio Motagua and the Finca del Oro. Abuela taught me how to find it and I was going to teach Omar. Ultimately, the masons could never have made their way here. It’s private property and you need a permit enter unless you can convince the guard you’re someone’s family.

“We’re here to see Santos Rosa and Neftalí Ramirez, they’re our family,” I said to the security guard who’s excuses to not let us in weren’t even original. Finally, I talked him into letting us drive in with the agreement that Santos would take care of the permit. We started our 13 KM drive on graded loose gravel road and Omar sped along past the palm trees and endless banana rows. He was born in fincas of Morales, just one finca over from Bananara, so it wasn’t completely new to him. God knows what the masons thought as they stared out into the thick green wall of banana trees. “I guarantee you,” I told Calvin, “that you are one of a handful of gringos that has ever seen the likes of Media Luna.”


We passed the water buffalo, the machete-carrying pickers, the men scooting along on the now empty banana trolleys dangling from cables. I opened the metal gate to let our car clear the entrance to the Finca Inca and felt myself lifted off the ground, my hands burning as the rope slid out of my hand and my body felt the force of the wrong side of a pully that could easily catapalt me off the ground. I quickly used my foot to keep the rope from slipping out of my hand. Omar laughed inside the car after seeing me lifted off the ground. My hands were still burning by the time we rolled into Aldea Las Vegas and straight into Media Luna on the right.

Like a kid home from college I pulled the car up to Santos’ house, right next to the moat that surrounds his home and ran quickly over the two thin planks that form a bridge to their house.

“Santos! Dona Juana! Tio Nefta! We’re here!” They all sauntered out, all except Tio Nefta until I saw him from the corner of my eye, his shirt dripping from sweat from cleaning up the space where his house would be built.

“Tio! We’re here.” He covered his smile shyly and then his eyes grew quickly to take me in.

“Carol, I didn’t think you’d come. I thought you’d forgotten or left,” he said sadly and surprised.

“No Tío, I did not forget. Starting today we start making your house.”

Quickly the masons and everyone else congregated around the space where we stood which had been swept and cleared by Tio Nefta. It was a lovely shaded space covered by palm trees.


So we quickly started measuring the space and sketching out the outline of the house:



As we were measuring the space, I noticed what was a semblance of the Northface tent we had given Tío as his little house to hold him through until we could start building:


I told Omar to follow me so he could see the best living conditions Tío had experienced since moving to Media Luna fifteen years ago:

Inside Tio's Tent

My cousin turned and walked away. Personally, I was amazed at how resourceful Tío had been with the tent and the innovation that necessity creates. As we organized ourselves, sketched out the plans, measured and cleared, Tío took a break and chopped up a few coconuts to welcome us with fresh coconut juice. I explained to him what the plan was and he tried to hug me with his sweaty shirt still dripping. “Tio,” I said, “where’s that other shirt we bought you?”

“Oh, it’s somewhere,” he said, happily sucking the juice out of his coconut.

Getting Ready for the Drive to Media Luna

I’ve been worried about a lot of things and it made me sick, I didn’t realize it until I was on my third bed-ridden day of the flu last week. It’s true that you have to prepare the way for new things when they come – came the thought from the backwards of my mind in half delirium. You have to be mentally, physically and spiritually ready for things that are going to impact your life, things which are on the brink of happening and transforming you.  The constructing of Tio Nefta’s house is one of those things for me because it’s not just a house, it’s a collective effort, it’s love and hope tangled up into this one tangible, humble house.

I was going to be the messenger, making my way through the night with two freemasons I didn’t even know (Mija, llévate el machete por si caso que alguien trata de hacerte algo , “My daughter, take the machete, just in case anyone tries to do anything to you,” mi abuela, my grandmother, reminds me over the phone, just in case I was feeling comfortable with the idea of traveling with strangers.) all the way through Guatemala City into the humid Atlantic Coast of Guatemala where El Montagua follows you on the right and then passes you into full surge from Entre Rios into almost Honduras. I was doing it, no excuses, no delays, no anything, no more fíjeses y peros – ¿pero porque no depues¿ ¿por qué tienes que ser tu que hace el sacrificio? Why not do it later, why do you have to make the sacrifice?

In general, I’ve grown tired of a certain lack of conviction and follow-through on actions in Guatemala since I got here and the worst has come from my own family. I didn’t care if I was still feverish and hacking up a lung, I was gonna get in that car and drive, drive and drive. Here’s the video of the distance I would drive:

Getting sick made me feel more vulnerable, however, so it did occur to me to at least throw out a few calls for help. First: I was going to call Tio Nefta’s youngest son, Omar, and remind him of an offer I made to him months ago – that if he couldn’t help with money, he could help with his presence. He’d just gotten back to Guatemala a few weeks ago, in time for his first child is about to be born.

“Omar,” I said my voice hoarse from coughing, “vente conmigo, come with me and you’ll get to see where your dad lives and show your support. Plus I need you to help me drive.” He was quiet and said, “I’ll let you know by Saturday, I need to change some doctor’s appointments.”

Today I called him, not really expecting anything. “Are you coming?” I asked him.  

“What time are you picking me up? I’ll be ready,” Omar said and I found myself smiling without even realizing it.

I called mi abuela who’s been in her full bloom of worry, a list that includes: What if the car breaks down? What if the freemasons kidnap you and steal the car? What if you slide off the road and spin like a top? What if have swine flu and you die out there in Media Luna because there’s no doctor? What if a hurricane comes and you can’t get out of Puerto Barrios? What if the narcos get you? You heard that Guatemala is 40% controlled by criminals now! What about the earthquakes?

I repeat a dicho to her she taught me well: Abuela, uno pone y Dios dispone. Something that translates roughly to “One says it’s so, but it’s really God who has the final say.” Definitely something is lost in translation. It’s a sure-fire recipe to make abuela go quiet. When she hears Omar is coming with me she starts to cry and then she’s in glee. ¡Gracias a Dios por escucharme!

I have always been convinced abuela has a special shortcut to the gods because at the same time a good friend of mine – the oh so stylish, ever positive and wickedly funny Calvin Knutzen – also agreed to go. So now we have a full car and I’m in good company the entire trip. I tell all the passengers that there’s no electricity in Media Luna, no running water, no flushing toilets, skin-crinkling heat and humidity, mosquitos the size of my hand and anti-dilevian rains. “As long as I don’t have to ride in a Camioneta,” Calvin says.