At first, there was a language barrier between the Indiana electric cooperative lineworkers and the villagers in San Jacinto, Guatemala.
Interpreters weren’t available at the time, but it didn’t stop the natives from watching the linemen use their tools and skills of the trade.
Soon, the villagers were able to grab the necessary materials and help the linemen get the posts placed and wires connected.
The people of San Jacinto were used to the hands-on work. Many of them made a living as farmers and didn’t mind breaking a sweat to get the job done.
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That allowed the 14 linemen, including Jason Morrison of Jackson County REMC, to provide electricity for LED lighting and a water pump station at a faster pace.
The Project Indiana team’s work was going to make life much easier for the villagers. No more battery-powered lights in their homes, churches, schools and businesses. No more carrying jugs on their heads and in their hands while walking barefoot to a creek to get water.
“Every morning, there would be a whole crew of them at the warehouse waiting on us when we got there, and each crew would decide how many we would need to take that day,” Morrison said. “We would say, ‘We need cuatro or cinco,’ and we would count them off until so many would come over and go with us, and we would jump in the truck and we would take off to our areas to go work.”
Morrison said they helped place meter posts in the ground, run wire to it, put the meter on and run the wire to the house.
“There would be people carrying (posts) on their shoulders walking a mile or two down the road from where they got that to go put that meter in so that we would run wire to their house,” Morrison said. “It was really interesting to see that interest of ‘Hey, this is really happening. We’re really going to get electricity. I want to be a part of this.'”
Even after their house was wired, they were willing to help at other people’s homes.
“They were right there with us going at it, and that’s what I took out of it,” Morrison said. “They were trying to better their lives, happy that we were there helping. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, go do this for us.’ They were out there getting it. … I think that meant the most to me just seeing them not be afraid to jump in, ‘What can we help with?'”
Project Indiana is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization that helps global communities advance by adopting villages, bringing them electric power and supporting them as they form electric cooperatives that enable them to enjoy a better way of life and a brighter future.
This was the Indiana electric cooperatives’ fourth trip to Guatemala. Others were in 2012, 2015 and 2017, consisting of a combined 56 lineworkers bringing electricity to 416 homes, three schools, three churches and a health clinic.
This year’s crew spent March 24 to April 9 electrifying 92 homes, two churches and a school in the village of San Jacinto in east central Guatemala. It also received electric power generated at a hydroelectric facility.
Morrison, who has been a lineman for nearly 22 years and lives in Vallonia, said Jackson County REMC asked in December who wanted to go on this year’s trip.
He became interested after talking to fellow lineman David Guthrie, who went on the 2017 trip.
“I had not been before, and I talked to Dave, and he found out I was kind of interested, and he encouraged it and said I definitely ought to try it out,” Morrison said.
At the beginning of the year, he found out he was selected.
“It was an honor, honestly. At the same time, I was like, ‘What did I just step into?'” he said, smiling.
“I knew we had to have the equipment to get through everything,” he said. “Then I found out it was in the jungle. When David went, he had been up in the mountains. It was cooler. It wasn’t so hot. They told us to expect we were going to be in the rainforest and to expect 110-degree heat index a day.”
Morrison went from 40-degree temperatures in Indiana to mid-80s when he arrived in Guatemala. Then it jumped to the 90s and one day was 102.
“There were some days it was extremely, excruciatingly hot,” he said. “All of us got pretty much down at one point or another where we just had to sit down and catch our breath, and the villagers were just running around like it was nothing.”
The humidity also resulted in sinus issues.
“Our heads were all plugged up, and we couldn’t breathe,” Morrison said. “It wasn’t because of the high altitude. We weren’t very high. It was just so hot.”
Another challenge was communicating with the villagers, as most of them spoke Qʼeqchiʼ, a Mayan dialect. They had to have translators who spoke that language, Spanish and English.
That allowed the crew to work alongside the villagers and municipal electric cooperative lineworkers.
“We showed them, and then they would do it,” Morrison said. “By the time we got four or five days into it, they were grabbing stuff. They knew what we needed next. They really picked up on it, and they really took to it, so it was good.”
In the homes
At the homes, linemen taught the locals how to wire their house so they would be able to do it themselves in the future.
“The last day, I saw a lot of the guys left a lot of their equipment for those boys to help run the wiring in the houses,” Morrison said. “One of the guys left climbing tools for the municipal to be able to use. It really worked out. Everyone was just giving. It was just really cool.”
All of the homes received two lights, four outlets and some switches. The LED lights last longer and are more efficient.
There also were health benefits. The inside of the homes had been filled with smoke because the villagers used a fire to cook and do other chores, and that led to them having respiratory issues.
If the villagers agreed to buy a wood-fired cookstove with a ventilator system, they could have their home wired. The system would plug into the electricity and pipe out of the house through a vent.
The villagers, however, didn’t have the means to pay for the cookstoves by the time the crew arrived, so the agreement was to loan them the money to buy the stoves until they could harvest their crop and pay it back.
“They didn’t really care about their health problems,” Morrison said. “They wanted their refrigerators and the grindstones for the corn because it was going to make their life so much easier. They weren’t seeing the long-term effects of it. They just saw the short term.”
Before, it would take them five hours a day to make cornmeal, but it would only last two days. Bugs would get into it, and it would go bad because there was no way to keep it cool.
After adding electricity, they could power a refrigerator and a corngrinder to make the process better.
“A lot of families will go together and buy a corngrinder, and they can grind that corn in 15 minutes instead of five hours,” Morrison said.
The people were even more excited when the crew got their water working. The village had a large diesel three-phase system with a water pump run by a generator that would pump water up the hill to a reservoir. From there, water lines ran to homes.
The system, however, had not worked for eight months, so people had to walk to a stream to do laundry and wash their animals and carry water back to their homes on a daily basis.
The Indiana crew figured out the contacts were bad and four lines were broken, and with the help of two engineers from the local cooperative, they fixed everything and got the system running again.
They ran electric to it, switched to a smaller pump and changed the size of the water line going up the hill to make it more dependable and cost-efficient.
“We got their electric on the day before, and then the next day, we got their water working again,” Morrison said. “When that pumped in and they had everything running to their house, they were ecstatic. They had water. They didn’t have to run down there to the creek to get everything.”
The people thanked the crew by shaking their hands and giving them items they had planted by hand and grown, including bananas, coconuts and oranges.
“Everything they did, they had to work for it,” Morrison said. “Whenever we had that and knew how hard they worked for all of that stuff and they came and offered some of that to you, that said a lot to us.”
At the school, the lineworkers ran electricity to a computer lab in a nearby building. Before, the old Dell computers had been powered by a generator.
Morrison said the schoolchildren liked watching the linemen work, and kids often visited the workers at the warehouse, where they were given toys and candy.
The group also had collected $1,000 and bought new shoes for every child in the village. A total of 192 pairs were given out, and money was left to buy two pinatas, fireworks and 10 soccer balls.
“They treated those things like gold,” Morrison said.
The people of San Jacinto made such an impact on Morrison he said he is motivated to work hard and help out when he can just like they do.
“It just goes right along with trying to do everything we can do to help anybody out there,” he said. “(REMC customers) are the same way as the villagers. They depend on us. Our members depend on us to keep everything running smoothly. … You’re just out there trying to do what you can to help everybody out.”
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For details about the linemen’s trip, visit projectindiana.org/san-jacinto-updates.