Perryville man helps villages in Guatemala get electricity

By Tammy Keith Published November 14, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
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First Electric Cooperative crew chief John Hawkins, far right, and serviceman Randy Evans stand with several of the men who helped the Arkansas linemen get materials and tools to three remote villages in Huehuetenango, Guatemala, that were receiving electricity for the first time. First Electric also sent crew chief Kevin Riddle to work on the project.

PERRYVILLE — John Hawkins of Perryville said a recent trip to Guatemala to help bring electricity to villagers was one of the most rewarding experiences of his life.

“It was tears of joy — for everybody,” he said.

Hawkins, 36, crew chief at First Electric Cooperative in Perryville, went in October with a group of volunteers from five other Arkansas cooperatives.

“My wife and I have traveled quite a bit to different countries, and I’ve seen how unfortunate people are,” he said.

“I read about [the trips] in the past with different co-ops throughout the state, and I knew I wanted to be a part of it someday if we ever had one.”

Hawkins, a 17-year veteran of electric cooperatives, put his name on the list and had to be interviewed before being chosen.

He and two other men from First Electric left Little Rock on Oct. 15.

“We landed in Guatemala City and headed north toward Mexico on about a 285-mile-north journey by land,” he said.

It was a seven- to eight-hour trip in a van, he said.

“Oh, gosh, the roads are not like ours,” he said. The two-lane roads were “congested, kind of chaotic,” he said.

Hoja Blanca, Guatemala, was the base camp.

“Some of those people had electricity, but we were working 45 minutes west of there,” he said.

Hawkins said he knew other men on the crews from working with them during tornadoes and ice storms in Arkansas, as well as after Hurricane Katrina.

It rained every day in Guatemala, he said, and the men rode in the back of four-wheel-drive trucks to navigate the mountains.

“The terrain was unbelievable. Think of Breckenridge, … Vail, Colo., and put banana trees on it, and that’s what you had,” he said.

“You walked anywhere from a mile to two miles on pig trails through the mountains, and we built lines from one mountain to the next mountain — very severe mountain ranges. I’ve done a lot of traveling in my life, and this right here was very severe country.”

He said the linemen were working in altitudes of 7,000 to 8,250 feet.

“The air was very thin. It was hard to breathe, especially walking that far,” he said. “The clouds a lot of time were below you when you worked. It was beautiful.”

Temperatures were in the 70s for most of the approximately two-week trip.

“Several days it got up hotter, but it was very, very humid. The rain every day made the conditions very hard to work in,” he said.

The electrical poles had been shipped ahead and set by the villagers.

“It took 30 to 40 villagers to carry the poles in there and help set them. They had most of them set — it was a naked pole sticking out of the ground. Most of the poles were set shallow and the wrong kind of placement, but we worked with them on it,” he said.

It took hours and hours to string the lines, Hawkins said.

The 30 to 40 villagers pulled the wire, “about the size of your finger” off the spool and take it a mile to two miles, down the road, up the mountains.

“It gets very heavy” going that distance, he said. “The strength of those people is unbelievable; they’re very hard workers.”

The villagers spoke Spanish. A couple of them had been to the United States, but they spoke little English, he said.

Two interpreters had been sent to share among all the electric-cooperative volunteers.

“Communication was a very hard barrier,” Hawkins said, although it got easier after a few days. “It was pretty much all work, every day.”

Hawkins groaned when asked about the food.

“It was basically stuff like black beans, lots of chicken, corn tortillas — I’ll never eat another one as long as I live. I’m done,” he said.

Each home in three remote villages, representing about 450 people, had two light bulbs and an electrical outlet.

Hawkins said compact fluorescent light bulbs, which last longer than typical bulbs, were purchased in a town 60 to 70 miles away for use in the homes.

“There were a few little bitty, if you want to call it a store, that sells a few drinks, cookies, right in their village. One had two or three light bulbs, but they were very expensive, $12 to $15,” he said.

It was night when it came time to energize the power source, Hawkins said.

“It was a great feeling,” he said.

The villagers and workers were crying and hugging, he said.

“They were very appreciative. One lady was 95 years old. She was born in that house, and she’d never had power till then,” he said.

Hawkins and his crew arrived home Nov. 1.

He knows he had a hand in forever changing people’s lives.

In addition to just being able to see in their homes at night, he said, they plan to get televisions for better communication, and irons, “because they take a lot of pride in their clothes,” what few they have.

“It was very challenging; very rewarding,” he said. “I wouldn’t change anything.”

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

Niche Publications Senior Writer Tammy Keith can be reached at 501-327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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