Whilst on the programme, I spent three weeks with a few other participants in Comalapa at Casa Jamalil, learning about bio-construction techniques. We were welcomed to the site by Roberto and his family, who immediately made us feel at home. The site is absolutely beautiful, with views over the valley and towards volcanoes in the distance. Our first night was a bit of a shock – compared to temperatures around the lake, it was much colder in Comalapa!
On our first day, Roberto took us to meet his family, who are all dedicated and talented artists. Many of them have contributed to murals around the town depicting important moments in history. We walked along a wall with mural after mural in chronological order, detailing socio-cultural moments of importance. It was interesting to see a change in artistic style in Comalapa, with many of the murals being a lot more blunt and graphic regarding Guatemala’s destructive civil war. Despite speaking English well, Roberto encouraged us to interact in Spanish and helped us to learn by explaining mural meanings and introducing us to his family members in Spanish. This was really appreciated after spending time improving our Spanish with our host families and in classes.
As a town, Comalapa has a sense of normality that also differed from the lake. Wandering around, there were little to no tourists other than those visiting Casa Jamalil and the Long Way Home school. Every Sunday, we spent time walking into the town to buy fresh fruit and vegetables. The market was the highlight of each week, with streets upon streets of fresh fruit, veg, spices, clothes – really anything you could need. I really enjoyed the seasonality of shopping in Guatemala; this is something we are disconnected from in the UK, but in Guatemala governs exactly which fresh food is eaten when.
Working at Casa Jamalil itself was a definite highlight for me. Learning specifically about bio-construction techniques and being able to put these into practice ensured a healthy mix of theoretical and practical knowledge, and Roberto really gave us the freedom to come up with our own design plan. Using cob, plastic bottles, glass bottles, bamboo, and old car tyres, we built the foundations of an outdoor structure that mixed practicality with creativity. Despite planning permission being a little more complex in the UK (!), I felt encouraged to try similar techniques in outdoor spaces in the future, and this opened up thoughts into how bio-construction can be effectively harnessed within settings in the UK.
I would like to thank Roberto and his family for their kindness throughout our stay at Casa Jamalil. I think back often to the memories and skills learned there and feel inspired by their can-do and environmentally-centred aims. Despite the cold showers and even colder nights, spending time in Comalapa taught me that there is so much value in localised environmental efforts and that there is real importance for bio-construction methods to ensure their accessibility and reach.