Our main focus for our time here is dentistry. But a simple walk through town reveals numerous ways to help, get involved with the community and better understand the daily challenges of the people here. Running through Panajachel is a small river that empties into Lake Atitlan. Along the length of the river workers spend their days digging out sand and gravel delivered daily by the rivers flow. These workers will shovel the sand and gravel mix onto the river banks and then spend their time separating the sand from the gravel, a laborious process. The workers are paid by the cubic yard of sand or gravel. If an individual works hard they separate up to a yard of sand and gravel each day. If they reach this goal they can sell these raw materials for building materials. The payoff for their day of hard labor…between 50-100 Quetzales (about $7-13.00 US Dollars). Remarkable.
Myself and a good friend from the US, who lives here now, felt like we could get to know another side of Panajachel by helping out. We each purchased a shovel and at least once a week we go down to the river in the early mornings and help a river worker separate their sand and gravel. This gives us the chance to help them. By helping them we can increase the amount of materials they separate and in turn get a bigger paycheck that day. We talk about why we are there and get to know them and their backgrounds.
We met one man, Roberto, who has been working the same spot in the river for 20 years. He started when he was 13 years old. He works the same spot on the river his father worked before him for 45 years. Through this experience we have had the opportunity to go into Roberto’s home and meet his family. We’ve even had the opportunity to take dinner to his parents who are now 90 and 75 years old, and still working.
Another women we met last week is 70 years old and works on the river. She is the only woman I’ve seen working on the river. We don’t know a lot about her because she doesn’t speak Spanish, she speaks a Mayan language called Kaqchikel. We know she appreciates our help because each morning we help her she takes our shovels into the lake and washes of the sand and gravel for us. Last Friday she gave me a hug before we left. I don’t speak Kaqchikel but I know what that means.
This is a side of Panajachel very few if any tourists see. Truthfully, these are some of my favorite mornings.