At three thousand metres in the Western Highlands of Guatemala the air is thin but carries a loamy scent. I’m coughing. Out of breath and out of condition too, having dragged self, camera and lenses (my daughter Annie´s sensible Mexican boyfriend dissuaded me from adding my tripod) up several hundred metres of mudslide. I´m trying not to disgrace myself in front of an NGO team, most of whose members, besides being acclimatised to the altitude, are three decades younger than me and know better than to lug any camera larger than a point and shoot. Steve, Marylander and group leader, carries something bigger but it pays its way, using GPS to mark the precise location of each photo. That´s handy on a damage assessment exercise aimed at getting a fix on each of a dozen points where a plastic pipe that a week ago brought drinking water to over a hundred households is burst or crushed.
The devastation below is heart rending: homes demolished; maize crops washed away. Jagged half-walls of mud brick – an OK building material till a wall is ruptured, at which point the bricks´ water proof coatings no longer serve as they dissolve in the torrential rains like sugar cubes in coffee – look faintly ridiculous against Ansel Adams skies. Here and there former occupants stand in small groups, smile as we exchange “beunos dias”, and respond to solicitudes with stuff-happens shrugs. Translating, Steve says they´ll be back next year, using the same discredited materials because that´s what they’ve always done. He should know. An engineer like most of the team, and the most seasoned of the field workers, he’s acutely aware that these situations call for more than engineering skills and money. As countless well intended interventions in the third world attest, solutions must be culturally acceptable or they won´t wash. That´s why people like Daniel, Annie´s boyfriend and former marketing man with L’Oréal, are useful for their understanding of how to sell product across culturally divergent markets; obvious when pointed out, but not a truth you´d come up with on your own.
Not that this exempts Daniel from current duties. Right now he´s in an earth shovelling team half a mile away.
We come across mud bricks where ten days earlier there’d been a home. Seedlings push vigorously through the rich earth but it’s the mockery of promise. Lydia, leader of the local women´s co-op and resplendent in indigenous garb, tells me through Steve that the household had a sack of seed corn stashed. Lydia´s slip-on shoes wouldn´t look out of place at a picnic on Hampstead Heath but she´s putting me to shame on the ascent.
The bright spot, says Steve, in a scenario writ large across a country which took the brunt of Agatha’s raging diagonal sweep of the Gulf of Mexico, is the low number of fatalities. Just a hundred and forty people were killed, he tells me, a fact attributed to the prevalance of community radio in the remotest areas. People were warned and heeded the warning. In this they were aided by strong community traditions including but by no means confined to the churches. Central government, everyone says, is useless.
(Soon I’ll be told Agatha was not a hurricane but an unusually violent storm. I’ll also have that fatality figure contested when two weeks on I meet a German just back from the remote village where she’d been learning a Maya dialect. Trapped for five days without let up she spoke of having to shout to be heard a metre away as rains – elsewhere burying villages and shearing off mountain sides – pounded mania inducing rythms on an iron roof. Who, she asked, would bother to count the bodies of Maya whose births had never been registered and consequently had never officially existed? Her boy friend had been with a rescue team – one of hundreds – that alone had dredged eighty corpses from the mud of the Western Highlands.)
Later we pull off the Pan American highway, littered with Agatha´s debris, to inspect a micra hydro power station built by a local company to a design specification by AIDG (Apropriate Infrastructures Development Group, the Bostonian NGO my daughter works for and whose interns I was accompanying). Micra stations generate enough electricity to supply small communities. This one lay on a bend in a mountain stream the size of one of the larger lakeland becks, maybe four metres across. A dam that intact had allowed water to be piped two metres to a turbine on the bank below was smashed in three places. Standing in six inches of water a young South African told me it should be up to his neck, but the dam was the least of it. The turbine house, size of a garden shed, had been flooded floor to ceiling with damage to turbine and generator yet to be calculated. Ditto the gearing unit for converting the low revolutions of short drop turbines to the 1,000 rpm needed to deliver on the station´s 2.5 Kw spec. What I can´t describe is how beautiful the setting was: not just the spectacular scenery but the way the station had been designed to blend into a picnic spot, its play and conservation areas reminiscent of those Aires on the motorways of rural France. So much care laid to waste. Would they simply fix the problem, I ask, or does the exposed vulnerability call for a total rethink? Steve isn´t sure. “Before planning the location of the concrete apron for the turbine, we asked how far this river was capable of rising. We were shown the high point after Hurricane Stan in 2005, and built several metres higher.”
That morning as we´d set out I´d been struck by how similar these mountains are to those of Northern Thailand. Like the latter, though still incredibly beautiful as only high mountains can be, they´ve been stripped of the thick forest that until recently – more recently than in Thailand – had covered their lower slopes. Partly that´s been for timber but mainly to claim arable land. Those forests would have coped with Agatha so much better than the steep strips of maize that replaced them.
That´s me done. I’m due back at AIDG HQ where Annie´s Spanish teacher wants to meet me. Everyone seems intent on checking me out to see if I´m suitable material to be her dad.