Thursday, December 30, 2010

Another hilarious update from my Muni

Apparently, my Muni isn’t above bouncing checks – some of my coworkers were unable to cash their November back wages because of insufficient funds.

I heard an interesting, probably exaggerated story about the timing in which payment was made last week. Apparently there were two checks, one for October wages and another for November, and only the former was issued to employees at 11 AM on Christmas Eve, which gave people only an hour to cash it before the bank closed at noon. Employees were then told to pick up the November check later, by which time the bank had already closed.

Whether or not I’m repeating a rumor is sort of beside the point; today, the banks aren’t closed and people have their checks but there’s no money to back them. It’s shrewd but in reality it’s just another stalling tactic – issue the check and deflect Muni fault by associating non-payment with the bank. Clever.

What really sucks is that necessity is encouraging some people to cash their checks with loan sharks – the local fee is 10%.

So – some people at my Muni are still 3 months behind in wages (November, December and the Christmas Bonus) because there isn’t any more money coming in for a while.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Woot woot! It’s Christmas!

Once again, tamales are the go-to delicacy here in Guatemala, although my host mom made some last night that took the flavor to a new level. Raisins, prunes, olives, peppers, free-range chicken (gallina criolla) and cornmeal, slathered in a molé type sauce and wrapped up in a palm frond – so tasty. Oh, and the guy enjoying a tamale next to me? That’s my host brother, and no, he’s not a vicious gangster. (really, he’s a great guy!)

Last night, we ate two tamales each for Christmas Eve dinner, then another before bed; local tradition includes hugs at midnight, wishings of feliz navidad and then a final stuffing of yourself with however many more tamales you can muster. Me, I can always oblige my hosts, foreign or domestic, on eating games that involve me showing how much I appreciate the local cuisine. Bring it (the food) on. Lol.

I shared some food too, a big gingerbread cake that I decided to bake and share with host family, friends, coworkers and neighbors as my own little North American tradition.

The whole experience, from mixing and baking the cake in a giant oven at the local panaderia, to walking through the streets of my town and sharing it with all my acquaintances, was pretty fun. I was glad to have something to share with people.

Back a few weeks ago, I went to Xela and bought some Betty Crocker pre-mixed magic in a box. Xela, By the way, is everyone’s slang for Quetzaltenango, which is the nearest big city with a Hiper Paiz, Walmart’s unfortunate (but convenient!) excursion into Guatemala – it’s the only place where you can find stuff like gingerbread, crunchy peanut butter, boxer shorts and normal pillows. Anyway, so once I had the ingredients I needed for my “cultural contribution”, my host mom suggested that I go see an old coworker of hers who quit working in the Muni budget office about 5 years ago (I wonder why) and took up baking instead.

Entering the tableau was fascinating ... I’ve always liked bread and baking, so it was awesome to witness Guatemalan baking firsthand. Of course, it was funny watching the family watch me, acting polite at first, definitely a bit wary about this seemingly amicable foreigner who waited patiently for room on the mixing table and space in the oven. But soon enough the kids got curious and then excited, after having tasted both the cake batter and icing, knowing that I was going to share.

Gotta let the cake cool, kids….(so cute).

So yeah! That was my little Christmas offering to my community, and I’m pretty happy with the way everything turned out. Everyone thought it was muy sabroso, and those who missed out demanded to know why (I ran out plain and simple; I must have cut that cake in over 50 pieces). I hope everyone else out there is having a good time!

P.S. My Muni FINALLY paid its employees yesterday, at the 11th hour. With checks coming out on Christmas Eve, there was barely enough time for people to cash their checks and buy tamale ingredients. Yet the score isn’t settled; my coworkers are still owed two MORE months of salary, given December and the aguinaldo (holiday bonus) of a month’s wages that is customary here.

People were getting pretty worked up earlier this week – apparently there were demonstrations with bullhorns and declarations of public hunger, but I was at a conference in a nearby town and missed it. I called my security advisor at the Peace Corps and asked him if I should be worried; he said this happens every year. “Mayors here in Guatemala”, he said, “often don’t have the education necessary to follow a budget, so they blow their finances in the first 10 months and everyone gets mad at the end of the year when there’s no money to pay employees. But it hardly ever gets violent.”

Uhh, Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

State of siege

Here's another news link to the ongoing "turf war" between the Zetas and the Guatemalan government - some volunteers I know were getting evacuated today:

Christmas in the Boca Costa!

It’s December 21st and I barely recognize that Christmas is right around the corner, this Saturday. I have plans to make tamales with my host mom for Christmas Eve, special sweet tamales that have meat and raisins and all sorts of special goodies. She likes to brag about them, and given the food she’s cooked for me thus far (fiambre on the Day of the Dead, plus assorted stews and meals when her children come to visit) I suspect that she’s probably not exaggerating.

I’m not really cognizant of the season because all my normal indicators are missing – darkness, Christmas carols, snow, storefront displays and a vague feeling of common identity with the people around me. It might as well be March, April, July or September, if you ask me – the weather is warm, people don’t behave like Americans, there are banana trees on the hillsides and the tinny drone of cheap Christmas lights playing casiotone melodies wafts up from the marketplace and doesn’t stop, repeating and repeating all day long – these things don’t make me think of Christmas.

Some factors seem even less obvious – the simple houses of my neighborhood don’t really evoke an American Christmas, for example, with their wooden boards, tin roofs and bright paint. The trinkets available in the crowded market stalls aren’t recognizable either, and neither are the culinary treats for sale. The holiday hustle and bustle seems neutral through a lens of different skin colors, languages, clothing, body language and eye contact . . . maybe it’s just another national celebration that I don’t understand yet. I also realized that I won’t be wandering around a mall this year, absently looking for gift inspiration – I had to plan all my presents three weeks ago, via internet mail order and the plodding Guatemalan postal system.

Some volunteers feel the same way I do, like we’re not really missing Christmas. We tell ourselves that with all the regular holiday stimuli absent, it’s easy to miss. At the same time, it’s likely that we’re still starstruck with the novelty of new surroundings, which I’m fine with. From trash piles in the street to jungle plants hanging above the road as it winds into the valley, a bright red sun through the afternoon clouds and a million little salutations to townsfolk who stare when I walk by, I’m still excited to be here.

To be honest, thanksgiving felt a little more urgent, actually – I really knew that I wanted to be with Americans last month, sharing food and feeling lavish, relaxing in familiar surroundings. Meanwhile, I’m perfectly content that I’ll spend this Christmas in a way that will probably be quite uneventful (although I’m sure the tamales will be incredible.)

p.s. here’s a picture of me with a baby goat:

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


A state of martial law has been declared in north central Guatemala, in the department of Alta Verapaz:

Thankfully, I live nowhere near this area. However, Peace Corps volunteers are getting evacuated right now, and will be relocated for at least the next two weeks....crazy, right?

Monday, December 13, 2010


Last week was an especially good week, although I forgot to mention why. On Wednesday I completed my first self-initiated project for my office, the FODA (also known as a SWOT analysis in English). I didn’t consider writing about the exercise until today, when we were riding through sunshine and over a bumpy dirt road, with lush tropical plants and Tajamulco off in the distance (it’s the tallest volcano in Central America). Frequently, I have to remind myself what I’m doing and where I live; here it’s almost Christmas and daytime temperatures are in the 80’s.

Anyway, so the FODA is an acronym that stands for Fortalezas, Oportunidades, Debilidades and Amenazas. Translated, that’s Strengths, Opportunities, Weaknesses and Threats, which is why the English version is known as a SWOT. It’s a pretty straightforward exercise, meant to be a reflection of an organization’s weak and strong points, self-identified through a facilitation session that allows all responsible parties to not only acknowledge the group’s organizational state but also identify avenues for improvement. The operational phrase is, “how can we take advantage of our strengths and opportunities, while using them to counter our weaknesses and avoid our threats?”

It’s a cool exercise. As facilitator you provide a series of pointed questions for each category, asking your group to consider their own situation and identify the character of their organization. Meanwhile, you record their responses on a piece of butcher paper. Once all 4 categories have been explored, you review the brainstorm and solicit ideas on how group members think they can optimize their current situation with available resources. Really, it’s just a way to get people to reconsider their own environment, putting old problems in a new light and eliciting discussion. In addition, it helped that my outsider perspective made my question asking and facilitation seem natural, as I don’t really know what’s going on in my office, not yet.

Bottom line is, no matter how operationally flawed my Muni might be (internet is still out, employees are still two months behind on wages), I can still facilitate trainings like these and get people thinking. That’s the hope anyway.

Saturday, December 11, 2010


Today I feel like talking about drunks.

Yes, Guatemala has drunks – I think we can acknowledge that alcoholism is a universal disease, and that just like any country in the world, my little hilltop town in Western Guatemala has its share of alcoholics. That part, about drunks existing in Guatemala like they do in the United States, that part shouldn’t surprise me. What is it then, that is so striking to me when I see people passed out in the street?

I guess it’s the degree to which people seem to get drunk here, barefoot and staggering with a look that can’t tell whether the sun is rising or setting. Or maybe it’s their public presence, which seems strikingly large for a town of 6,000. On that note, the police definitely have bigger fish to fry here, as the average inebriate begging for a tortilla or a quetzal (12 cents) is far less of a problem than the drug violence in this region – in the nearby town of Malacatan, about 1.5 hours away, a famous soccer player was found cut up in 6 pieces about two weeks ago. So unless the drunks are wielding machetes in a rage, most seem to get a stumbling pass.

Other times I wonder if it has to do with despair, given that the daily wage for a migrant laborer picking coffee is around $7.

The bottom line is that I’m in a different culture (and witnessing a different community response to alcoholism). I deal with drunks the way my counterparts do, evenly and patiently, waiting for the inevitable request (“Profe, regaleme un quetzalcitoporfa….”) and then I’ll demur. Meanwhile, it blows my mind to see these people later on,dead to the world, wet-their-pants passed out with a smile on theirface. All people do is walk by, and that’s what I’m supposed to do – which is crazy because I can’t remember the last time I saw someone that drunk in public.

Today – I swear to you – I saw a man passed out with his cheek flattened against the pavement. Most of his body was crumpled up on the sidewalk, but his upper torso spilled over the curb and pushed his face against the street. He actually looked dead. People just walked by like it was natural, playing their roles as Upright Citizens while he played his of the Town Drunk, like they’d all wake up tomorrow and repeat the show for foreigners who gape on their way home.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Political Manuevering

Today, pushing through a surging throng and probably due to the fact that I’m obviously foreign, I got my picture taken with the First Lady of Guatemala, Sandra Colom:

It was blatant, but why not? I might as well get myself some souvenirs while I’m here.

At any rate, Mrs. Colom visited my town this afternoon to promote the benefits offered by Mi Familia Progresa, a social program she administers. At this stage, the initiative provides a simple handout of either 150 or 300 quetzales (+/- $20 and $40) to needy families, depending on the age of their children. It seemed like a pretty straightforward political maneuver, providing support for her husband’s left leaning political party GANA (“win” in Spanish), which is obviously looking to promote its candidates for both local and federal elections next year. Meanwhile, I was pretty interested in the circumstances resulting from the day’s activities.

For one, citizens took it upon themselves to decorate the streets of my town, (even though she arrived by helicopter). I walked out of my house and found my front gate covered in streamers and balloons, along with most of the rest of the street below me.

After speaking with some women on my street, I learned that people from nearby villages did it all themselves, forming committees, contributing funds from their meager wages and arriving at 6 AM to make everything festive. What’s more, they did it without the help of my Muni - given that my mayor is of the opposing political party Partido Patriota, she didn’t even bother to show up at today’s speech. Of course, that didn’t stop her from submitting three separate requests for project funding to the First Lady, but that’s politics … which … I’m learning can be pretty fierce here. Take a look at the following picture:

Yeah, there are lots of balloons, and yes, that’s my counterpart, but look at his shirt – the orange accents are the color of Partido Patriota, which my mayor decided to integrate into the municipal uniform, which is what he’s wearing. He and I walked into the schoolyard together, waited with the masses for about an hour and then I was amazed to witness him getting kicked out because of his shirt – the security guard had no problem telling him that it “might give people the wrong idea” and he’d need to leave or change his clothing. Needless to say I was kinda flabbergasted, as I’ve never seen political oppression like that before. We left without a fuss but I returned about a half hour later, seeing that my shirt was a non-threatening color. Then I proceeded to get my little photo memoir.

All things considered, I can now say that I appreciate nice free speech a little bit more than before.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

I guess I'm not surprised....

Watching an unforeseen evangelical service unfold in front of my office today, on International AIDS day, I smirked at myself for having been so confident. Obviously I still have no idea what’s going on in my community, let alone what people think or whether they’re just humoring me. The AIDS/HIV workshop I’d been planning definitely wasn’t going to happen, and for more reasons than the Christian rock, dancing children and sing-alongs blaring through my window.

First off, let me clarify that I’m not disappointed. I actually saw this coming two weeks ago, back during the planning processes. Once I verbalized it, describing the possibility during a phone conversation, I realized that a failure to launch was A: probably inevitable and therefore B: definitely not worth fighting. So I shrugged my shoulders, planned the workshop, wrote the budget, requested the funds and waited for a response. Which never came, not directly anyway.

I started back at the beginning of November, working with a set of pre-elaborated activities provided by the Peace Corps. I patiently introduced the exercises to the ladies of the Municipal Women’s Office (OMM), intending to facilitate their proper ownership of the workshop. We took our time, read everything over, picked out an agenda they liked, and had everything ready – all we needed, theoretically, was about $6 to buy butcher paper, markers, tape and make some copies. It seemed fail-safe; how hard would it be to get 51Q approved for a politically savvy event on an international day of recognition? Why wouldn’t my mayor approve this?

Well, she wasn’t around to approve it – that was problem #1. She’s sort of chronically non-present at times, which makes it hard to get a straight answer (The Muni is also destitute, as I’ve noted previously) However, a local Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) called Vision Mundial had suggested that we put on a lavish AIDS-prevention event for Dec. 2nd, which would be a day late but still meaningful. Politically speaking, it makes perfect sense to throw your weight behind one activity rather than two, especially if an international organization with deep pockets is putting on a big show with clowns, condoms, t-shirts and refreshments for 200. So I understand why my little baby workshop didn’t materialize, I just think it’s both funny and instructive how plans can mutate and how that reflects on my “capacity for change” (as a Peace Corps volunteer) . I’m still helping out with tomorrow’s event, anyway…

Yet the crowning moment came when I arrived at work today and saw a sign praising Jesus next to some plastic chairs and a stage made of rough-hewn boards and cinder blocks. Someone at the Muni had authorized a big celebration. I was, of course, clueless, so I strolled into the comedor where I eat breakfast and asked my counterpart what was going on. He snorted in surprise, and replied indignantly that we obviously weren’t going to get any work done today (Ha! Even HE didn’t know what was going on!)

On a completely unrelated note, the Muni stopped paying its bills because the internet got shut off about a week ago. Some people that it might get turned back on this month, maybe not…