Beyond Boundaries: DMEA lineworker helps electrify Guatemala

February 1, 2024

Guest column by Larry Donathan, DMEA Equipment Technician Foreman

On December 3, 2023, I flew to Guatemala City, beginning a twelve-day journey I'll never forget. So how did I get here? Rewind to last summer when my supervisor asked if I would like to volunteer with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) International and help wire homes in Guatemala. I was sold, and the trip was set for August, but it was postponed until this past December because of civil unrest after the presidential election.

After arriving in Guatemala, I met the nine-member team from Arkansas that I would be working with. One of the guys recognized me as their instructor at Mesa Hotline School in Grand Junction, which he had attended just a few years back - what a small world we live in. From there, we rented pickup trucks and began our first five-hour drive to our stopover for the night. Here, we met the rest of our team from Oklahoma - nine men and one woman. That night, I had one of the best pizzas ever, at a hotel in the middle of Guatemala. Surprise!

We made yet another five-hour journey the next day, reaching the town of Fray Bartolome De Las Casas in the Northern mountainous area of Guatemala. This would be our base camp for the remainder of the trip. That night, all twenty-one of us gathered together to make gift bags with items we'd brought along from home to give to the families whose homes we would wire. The bags included coloring books, crayons, markers, toothbrushes, frisbees, pencils, and a t-shirt.

The following day, it was time to get to work. We loaded the trucks with enough materials to wire ten houses and set out for a two-hour drive to one of the small villages. After arriving at the village, we spent another hour looking for the houses we would be wiring. Addresses don't exist in these villages, and our Google pins were sometimes off by more than a mile. Luckily, we met a lady who acted as the village spokesperson, and she knew the locations of all the homes we were scheduled to wire. She rode with us the entire day, showing us around and taking us to the next house. Without her help, we would have spent most of the day driving around looking.

At each home, we worked with the families, thanks to interpreters, to determine the location of the electrical panel, four light bulbs, two light switches, and two outlets. Some families wanted all the lights inside the house, but most wanted at least one or two lights outside. Each house was different in some respects, and you never knew what to expect when you arrived. Most homes were built with wood planks, and though rare, a few were from cinder blocks. The walls had no insulation, just the external boards and framing keeping the elements out. The layout consisted of one large room used for living and sleeping and another with space for a wood fire and a cooking plate. Some were all one big living/bedroom, while others had material hung for private areas. All the floors were dirt, and a few didn't even have doors. Some had wooden beds with no mattresses, while others had hammocks hanging from the ceilings. Most walls had some sparse decorations. I'm sure with all the coloring books and crayons we passed out, the walls are more decorative now!

There were a lot of chickens and turkeys running loose, and several families had a pig or goat tied up near the house. Dogs were abundant, but I only saw a few cats roaming about. Several times, we even heard howling monkeys but never got to see them.

Each village had a few small businesses selling snacks, pop, and other everyday items, but you had to travel to one of the scattered cities for most goods. There was at least one church and one school. I learned that the children only go to school in the village through the 6th grade. After that, students must travel to a city for school or start working. We were there during the school's three-month break, so we got to meet and play with a lot of children. A few crew members even joined in on some hacky sack games.

Village roads were rough, usually made with larger rocks, and once you turned off the main road into the village, it was usually 4-wheel drive or walking – the mud was everywhere! It rained almost every night during our trip. The area between houses was usually overgrown with plants and grass unless the family had animals to keep it eaten down, with just a footpath to travel along. My team was lucky as we could drive close to most of the homes we were working at. The Arkansas crews weren't as lucky! They started their first day by walking up a narrow, muddy path to the first house that rose 1,100 feet in just ¾ mile! They still had eight more homes in that village to wire, but luckily, the villagers carried all their material up the mountain. We were all lucky in that respect, as we always had plenty of help to carry our things.

It was incredible to see and experience a different way of life from back home. One thing that caught me most off guard was seeing the many above-ground cemeteries. They were colorful and festive looking, and I didn't realize at first that they were cemeteries. During our drives, we traveled through small towns of around 500 or so people. Each town had its own open-air marketplace on both sides of the road, with hundreds of people roaming about. The driving was a lot different! We saw everything from cars and trucks to tuk-tuks, mopeds, hundreds of motorcycles, bicycles, and people walking up the highways. Most people drove motorcycles near the villages carrying only one or two people. But there were whole families on a few. One time, I counted as many as four people on one motorcycle!

Not everything was different, though. We experienced supply chain issues just like the United States. The 15-foot-long pipes we needed to set to hold the outside electrical box and meter weren't delivered on time! Thankfully, they arrived on the fifth day of wiring, so we strapped 13 poles onto our truck and headed back out to the homes where we had already been. It's incredible what two ratchet straps can hold.

There were big ranches with cattle and horses on the outskirts of the villages. They grew crops, usually corn, but we also saw other crops, like coffee and beans. While we worked at the houses, only women and young children were around because the men and older boys were out working at the ranches. The men would return home around 3 or 4 o'clock and were very interested in what we were doing. They stayed to help us at the large village where all five crews worked together. They carried material, dug the holes for the power posts, and ran wire with us. Everyone in the village was happy and smiling the entire time. What a great group of people.

Between both crews on the trip, we brought electricity to 197 homes, but interacting with the villagers was the best part of my trip. We passed out toys, extra crayons, and markers to the children. The women and kids were all shy at first about having their picture taken but warmed up quickly. I bought soccer balls and baby dolls to pass out to the kids, and they had a blast playing with them. Each crew had an interpreter with them, so despite the language barrier, we could still communicate. A few tears were shed when we presented a gift bag to the family whose home we connected, but they were always happy tears.

I had a wonderful time on this trip and would go back and do it again if given the chance. I have great memories of the people I met, the work I did, and the experiences I had.