Saturday, April 30, 2011

Signing a contract

Awesome news – my Bottle School project is set to break ground on May 16th!

On Thursday night, Hug It Forward director Chris Barry came to my project site and we signed a contract, along with community representatives and the mayor. I’m really excited!

Specifically, this meeting dealt with the accountability of all involved parties – from left to right in this photo:

The Community - Don Miguel is a prominent leader in the village
Hug It Forward - that’s NGO Director Chris Barry
Peace Corps - I’m the project coordinator
The Municipality - that’s Doña Miriam, our mayor
(Our newly named)Project Foreman– Frainer

Everyone’s contributions thus far were spelled out and all upcoming responsibilities noted with regards to the construction phase of the next 2-3 months.

What went especially well is that the community got a strong voice in deciding how to manage the project, even though they aren’t providing any of the funding. My hope is that community project direction will result in prouder work and a better final result.

Specifically, I was very happy that the Municipality allowed the community to use local men as their labor source. Originally, our mayor had agreed to pay the wages of two assistant masons for the project, but instead of assigning some of her existing employees to the job, she let the community pick its own workers. Her decision surprised me a bit, seeing that there are plenty of peopleat the Muni who receive a salary but do very little actual work(and you wonder why we have budget “problems” :) ). The bottom line is that I applaud her choice and I think we’ll avoid a whole host of problems as a result.

Here are some labor details you might find interesting:

Project foreman (mason, experienced in concrete building and construction)

- funded by Hug It Forward on a 6,400 quetzal contract of approx. 2 months of work, paid out in 4 biweekly checks, averaging out at around Q125.00 or $17 US daily

Assistant masons

- funded by the Municipality at 5,000 quetzales apiece for the same timeframe, averaging around Q100.00 or $13 US daily)

note: Unskilled labor is provided by the community.

Basically, we’re ready to go. After the massive bottle collection from a couple weeks back, we now have more than 4000 filled bottles (eco-ladrillos), with probably another 4000 partially filled– that’s more than enough to begin construction. All that remains is for the community to level the project site, which, given that they’ll probably do it by hand and the school will measure roughly 42’ by 21’, they’ll need at least a couple weeks. On the far end of the soccer field in this picture is where the school will be built.

In the meantime we’ll be making the funding arrangements…..

To everyone reading this - thanks for your support! Please let me know if you have any questions, or feel free to check out some of my earlier posts here, here, here and here.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Easter celebration

Yesterday was Pascua (Easter) and here are a bunch of pictures!

The colorful things you see on the ground are called alfombras (rugs), which constitute a pretty central Easter celebration for most communities here in Guatemala. After staking out a bit of road, families or community groups will place colored sawdust in various designs using cutout stencils. The following pictures are of a design I particularly liked (probably ‘cuz I want a Persian rug that looks just like this someday):

Looks pretty crisp, right? It’s almost like a real rug if you ask me – here’s a guy using the requisite stencil with its slight wooden frame.

Closeup, you can see how he’s smoothing out the sawdust into the cutout holes, which will leave the design on the foundation below – excess sawdust on the stencil gets simply picked up and removed at the end.

Once you've finished the design within a stencil, you gingerly pick up the frame, clean off the excess sawdust and then replace it on down the line. But when you think about how big these alfombras are – close to 10 feet wide and at least 30 feet long - you realize that you have to rig up a plank-and-cinder-block system with which to reach the middle sections.

Need I remind you that the sun was blazing when I took this picture, with temps of at least 75 degrees? The guy gets extra props for working under adverse conditions.

Anyway, I should note that these pictures were taken during the festivities leading up to Easter in a small town near Antigua on April 3rd – sorry it took me so long to post...I’ve been real busy!

Here’s a picture of me that same day, helping out with a different alfombra (this one was garnished with pine needles and vegetables!)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Forgetting things

Living in a small town in the coastal foothills of the Pacific slope, there are plenty of things about life in the United States that I forget (but remember vaguely):

o shopping malls (pretty few/far between)
o traffic lights
o large boulevards
o brand name (not fake) clothing
o nice cars
o commuting to work
o supermarkets (once again, these exist in Guatemala but not where I live)
o clean streets
o absence of pedestrians (most everybody walks)

However, there are tons of things I can’t remember. I’m sure that if you suggested that I was forgetting the little things, like you were asking me if I realized that I couldn’t remember all the little details, I’m sure I’d nod and agree.

At the same time, I was a little mystified to realize they don’t have wind chimes here.

And it’s definitely not that I’ve missed their presence for the past 8 months (which I have) but it’s more that….that they just wouldn’t exist.Like, I sort of want to know why not? Of course, Guatemalans are stunned that we don’t eat tortillas with every meal, so it goes both ways.

Anyway so last night I realized the wind chime absence, during a conversation with this guy at the comedor where I eat my meals. He had spent some time in the U.S. and there we were, standing around after dinner talking about the Day of the Dead, All Saint’s Day, Halloween, Scarecrows and finally, windchimes (Scare-crows are called pretty much the same thing in Spanish – “espanta-pajaros”, and aren’t that common here, apparently). So then the guy turns to me and says in Spanish, “do you know what’s really not common around here? Espantaspantos”

The straight translation sounds ridiculous, but it’s basically “scare scares”. No clue - might be a regional name.

It took me a second to figure out what he was talking about, but then I marveled. First, I remembered my mom’s chimes back home. Then, I thought about the occasional wind here, and imagined hearing those same sounds, maybe different sounds, and maybe a new set of chimes from the States….

The moment really took me back, like a perfect metaphor, or like how most of the tiny, insignificant details can mean a lot but can fade away.

Now I want to hear a windchime again.

Here’s a picture of the ladies that run my comedor (windchime guy is actually the husband and father of the Baby and Momma on the right)

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Plastic Bottle Madness

Today was a good day.

Here I am, out in a rural village in my municipality, communing with a bunch of students who have been collecting plastic soda bottles that we’ll use in my bottle school project (background blog post here). The look on my face says it all – we made a big haul, the kids were adorable, and now we’re a heck of a lot closer to the 8000 bottles we’ll need for our project. Woo hoo!

It all started six weeks ago, when my counterpart and I convened a bunch of school principals together at the district office and asked them to convince their students to gather plastic soda bottles and fill them with inorganic trash. The big idea, we explained, was that these stuffed bottles would serve as eco-ladrillos or eco bricks, which we could use instead of concrete blocks in the construction of a two-room schoolhouse for a needy community. Further advantages included:

- Cheaper construction costs
- anti-seismic design (walls of mostly trash rather than concrete are a plus)
- inorganic/organic trash awareness for students
- neighborhood garbage cleanup
- citizen participation and community involvement
- there’s an NGO helping out (external $$$$ for infrastructure creation)

Yeah, building a school out of bottles seems like a crazy idea, but…… there are a few advantages :)

Anyway, so we convinced the principals to help out, throwing in the further enticement that we’d be awarding prizes to the student, class and school that brought in the most filled bottles within six weeks. Man, did they get excited!

This is just one of the five communities we visited, and there are probably 500+ filled bottles in that pile! I was pretty excited, because we pulled in around 1000 filled bottles just in one morning’s haul, with 1000 more only half filled or empty (still useful). However, the real shocker is that there are around FIFTEEN more communities that we have to visit over the next few days, so there’s no telling how many bottles we’re going to end up with….

Here we are, preparing the costales (plastic sacks) of bottles that we’ll haul away. That’s my counterpart on the right, the mayor’s brother in the middle, and a resident of the community where the school will be built on the left.

Things are coming together! With hope, we’ll begin construction within the next 4-5 weeks….

Monday, April 4, 2011

poco a poco (little by little)

I figure I should write an entry with details on stuff that I’m actually doing, not just random anecdotes. Most people probably have no idea how I spend my days.

Which is ok, I think, because most of my days are spent in an office. I do a lot of document writing (in Spanish) and I have internet. I don’t live in a cave or have to hunt my own food. Life as a Municipal Development volunteer in Guatemala seems pretty western-standard normal, at least it does now that I’m accustomed anyway.

Anyway, I’ve recently spent a good deal of my time in the office working on a series of workshops, five presentations that I’ll give to community leaders over the course of the next few months. Basically, my counterpart and I want to help train the community groups that act as the cornerstones of the democratic system here in Guatemala. Any community group, once registered, is supposed to have a direct voice in a council system that is shaped like a pyramid, broad at the bottom with tens of thousands of community groups throughout rural Guatemala, each of which having the (theoretical) input in the decisions of the roughly 333 municipality councils in Guatemala at the subsequent level (each representing what roughly amounts to a county or borough in the States)

Each county or borough council has a voice in the succeeding level (what we’d think of as a state), which then has a voice in the regional council, and finally there is a national council over which the Guatemalan President presides. The idea in this system is that even the lowliest campesino can be directly involved in the democracy of his country.

Of course, there are lots of problems. First of all, many Guatemalans are woefully undereducated, which is a large part of the reason why we’re doing these workshops. We want to provide local leaders with some pointers on the associated legal background of their community groups (which are known as COCODES), helping them to identify their organizational strengths and weaknesses, assisting in the prioritization of needs and finally, helping to elaborate a project profile. The hope is that we can empower these groups in their drive to improve their communities.

Ok, so I just described one problem, the education bit, and then I got carried away talking about mission and failed to elaborate on the other problems to which I alluded. Here’s a big one – the existing power structure. Oppression in Perpetuity, or Why Would I Really Want To Make Life Difficult For Myself?

Case in point – during our first presentation to about 50 rural community leaders last Tuesday, where we talked about the lawswhich sanction community involvement and transparency, my counterpart decided to gloss over the established legal provision which dictates that municipal treasuries should be able to respond to individual citizen requests for accountability and/or financial records. Later on I asked him why, and he told me that one particular community leader would have gotten animated and started causing trouble, this guy whose personality apparently feels like having an inextricable rock in your shoe.

I tried to tell my counterpart that yeah democracy is messy and annoying, that when everyone knows their rights and can speak up for themselves that change can happen without fear of reprisal, and maybe if That One Guy started causing trouble, then maybe there wouldn’t be so much corruption (Guatemalans love to bemoan the corruption here)

So thatwas my counterpart, perpetuating the status quo, ostensibly involved in an effort to spread awareness and transparency but intentionally leaving out important details. Oh well.

At the same time, I readily admit that it’d be a tough decision. Furthermore, this is his community and not mine, so….. I can’t really tell him how to behave. Lastly, physical violence as a reprisal for sticking one’s neck out is not uncommon here.

What stays with me is a conversation I had after the fact, when I recounted the meeting to a friend and he assured me that most people probably already know their rights but fear for their safety. My friend told me that if you draw enough attention to yourself and make the existing power structure feel threatened, someone might take steps to have you silenced.

Which is pretty intimidating.