Our research is starting to progress, giving us a focus and a drive to our time here. While it has taken our first two weeks (crazy it’s been two weeks already..) to settle in, survive, and earn the trust of the community, we are eager to move forward and continue asking questions. Yesterday, we strolled through the mountainside from house to house, conducting our first round of interviews (out of roughly 4 phases) in Pena Blanca. We met with 6 different families, all of which were microfinance borrowers, and were welcomed without resistance.
Our first questionnaire gave us a background on each family, their house, and microfinance history. (Ie. Number of loans taken, for how much, for what activities, etc.) We then opened it up for general discussion to garner a sense of their opinions of microfinance, and means of improving its services to meet the family’s financial needs. The majority of the women were vocal and excited to share their thoughts on the matter, and every family agreed to a second interview next week on film. The consensus was unanimous that microfinance helps their families, but also that it can be improved. The most frequent responses were concerns that the loans were too small and the payment schedule too inflexible. The borrowers have to repay every 15 days, which many noted was too difficult for them due to their unpredictable incomes and that a month would be much better. Most of the families bring in income by selling food (onions, corn, etc) or textiles, sales of which fluctuate greatly with the time of year, weather outside, and luck. Our next round of questions will delve deeper into the issues.
My personal reflection for the day is regarding the consequences of our actions. We all know that every action has a consequence. In this lifestyle though, the consequences of your actions are magnified and unavoidable. For example, if I am nonchalantly cooking and the one pot of beans burn, our family (the four of us) all suffer and miss 3 meals. One is forced to take accountability for their actions here, as there is no hiding the truth. Typically though, one can make up an excuse for their selfishness, blame another, or mask their mistake. Moreover, if Zach or I are lazy in the market and get ripped off by two quetzals (25 cents) or get something stolen, it means the difference between another half pound of rice and beans for the family or not. In the Mayan culture, the lifestyle is about selflessness and giving, while not asking for anything in return. This type of philosophy, where everyone does their part and more, has proven integral to the survival and stress-reduced prosperity of both our neighbors and ourselves. Just some thoughts that are on my mind.
All in all, we are settling into a routine and generally feeling very optimistic. Still haven´t washed clothes yet, but hanging them in the sun seems to do the trick. We also are yet to fill up a very small trash bag in two weeks here, which astounds me. Lastly, I am sad to report that we will be unable to buy Harold the chicken, as he way too expensive, so for now our frequent visitors of flies, worms, and spiders will have to suffice
All of your thoughts and support gives us strength and inspires to uncover new research and create even better video blogs. Thank you muchly!
Just an hour ago, 25 of us stood gathered outside an electronics store´s windows, watching with bated breath as Portugal and Brazil went head to head for 90 minutes. Every close shot or impressive move arousing similar reactions from each of us, gringo and Guatemalan alike.Soccer, Football or Futbol? No matter how it is pronounced, this game functions as an international medium for cross-cultural connections; an automatic bond between people who seem to share nothing else but a genuine love and excitement for the thrill of the game.
While at first this was an uncertain world full of unfamiliar faces, I cannot overstate the impact a shared love of football has had on integrating us into the community. Almost every conversation in our first few days related to the game in some way or another. Now, our neighbor Anthony comes by every evening to give us an update on what happened that day in the World Cup, while the kids in the town yell our names from the bridge to come “juega pelota.” Not only has the sport helped us feel accepted, but it brings genuine smiles and laughter to the kid´s faces. Especially when the tall gringos trip on the ball or bounce it on their heads out of reach…
The game has led us to be welcomed into neighbors kitchens, to sit, as the mother cooked and the flies swarmed, and watch the US keep thier hopes alive in the last minute against Algeria. Truly a world´s sport, futbol will continue to be our staple connection into this unfamiliar world, helping us meet others and establish the friendships needed to conduct accurate and informative research.
How can I respectively decline gifts from my neighbors in Pena Blanca? How can I explain that we are trying to live independently when Don Augustin and his son Carlos come to our door with smiles from ear to ear and a blanket in arms? The generosity and genuine willingness of these Mayan families to welcome us into their community has astounded me. The one thing more surprising has been their ability to anticipate our every need at the perfect time.
On the first night, the four of us crowded around our small firepit, situated in the middle of our house, desperately trying to apply every camping and boy scout trick we had collectively accumulated over the years to start a fire with wet wood. As the failed attempts continued to mount, Carlos turned up, pulled a small bundle of pine wood out of his pocket and gave it to us. We later learned that every family uses this local pine tree to start fires because it has a very flammable coat of sap. Late that night, after hours of cooking a batch of resiliently hard beans, we were left stumbling around our smoke filled house in the dark. Once again, right in time, Carlos turned up with a candle in hand so that we could find our bowls, eat something after the long first day, and set up blankets to sleep on. His actions have made me consider the likelihood that a 13-year-old kid from the US (including myself) would turn off the Xbox and take the time to walk a complete stranger 30 minutes to find wood, or to continually make sure that they were settling in alright.
Instead of isolating ourselves from the community and disrespectfully rejecting these well-intentioned presents, we have given back through our manual labor and gifts to the children. On Sunday, after a few hours of tilling the fields, Zach and I wandered up the hill to give Carlos a box of crayons for all his help. He rushed towards us and gave us each a giant bear hug, an action not common in Mayan culture. Seeing his eyes light up at the sight of the present, all for him, made me want to give everything I had. It’s simple and makes you feel so good to just give charity; and I wish it was that easy. Unfortunately it is not sustainable in the long term, so we are applying our drive to give towards our research on bettering access to financial services.
I have never blogged before, so am not sure if anyone is interested, but I wanted to end this post with some personal reflection. The experience so far has pushed me in ways I anticipated, but could not imagine before coming. The combination of our difficult sleeping arrangements (two blankets on a straw mat) and our inability, to-date, of budgeting effectively enough to afford a complete diet, occasionally imparts feelings of stress and lethargy on the group. We have been unlucky the past three days, and have only received 1 dollar of income amongst the 4 four of us, an occurrence we did not plan for. (On the bright side though, it means more money in the future)
As it is still so early, my mind can´t help but wander home to creature comforts and home cooked meals. I don´t want this to come across as too glum though, as the hard times are spurring welcomed thoughts and a unique perspective. I am fortunate enough, that my life at home is one of constant amusement, action, and comfort. If I am ever bored or feeling down, I simply wander to the kitchen to eat something, surf the internet, watch TV, have a drink, play tennis, or drive to meet a friend. And those are only a few, as we have infinite opportunities for amusement. Is it these actions and comforts that bring us happiness though? Or do they allow us to mask our unhappiness and hide from our thoughts? During the day here, if I get down or uncomfortable, I notice how many fewer options I have to distract myself, so I am forced to just sit and hang out with my own thoughts. I am welcoming the challenge though, as with it comes the time to come to terms with my thoughts, to read, to stretch, to focus on my breathing, and to simply observe. This project has personally given me the opportunity to learn patience, counter entitlement, gain strength of spirit and build confidence in myself in a way that will never leave me. Now I can only hope and try to dig up the will to make the most of the opportunities.
In an attempt to reassure my mother, I am happy and the majority of the times are definitely good times. I have time to read (steadily working through the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), to work on our research, to play with the little kids, speak Spanish with the neighbors, to farm our land, and cook over the open fire. It feels authentic and freeing in a way that is difficult to replicate in the globalized world of text messaging and opportunity cost.
Most importantly though, there has been no sign of the puppies since our first day. I know, I hate Zach too. Thank you all for your malicious attacks on him, as he deserves them all. My newest plan is to save up and buy a chicken (named Harold) so that we can have a productive pet that creates both food and fertilizer… Thoughts?
Mi familia(novia incluido) y mis amigos, I love you all, miss you and dearly hope that you have an incredible and fulfilling summer. Thanks for reading.
Quote of the trip so far: “The further we fall, the longer our roots will grow” - Ryan
We climbed off of our third chicken bus, slightly jostled from the 3 and half hour journey, but delightfully content as we had arrived in Panajachel. This town is our last stop in a semi-familiar world, before we continue 3,000 ft up the stunningly green mountains to our destination of Pena Blanca; the town that we will call home for the next 8 weeks. We arrived in Panajachel last night, and retired early to a cheap hospidaje.
We awoke early this morning and ventured out into the unfamiliar streets in search of our contacts at Grameen Guatemala. With a unique combination of uncertainty, nervousness, and excitement, we strolled the streets discussing the endless possibilities of what this day would bring us. Is there a house actually arranged for us in Pena Blanca? Do we have land to grow on?
While the answers to our questions turned out to be no, a few hours of wandering the hillsides and explaining our project to several Mayan women in broken Spanish, we were able to rent a house and a plot of land for two months. The real thanks go to Walter and Borhan, two managers at Grameen Guatemala, who were amazingly helpful in negotiating prices and accommodating our odd requests. As one might imagine, it was difficult to explain to these families that the first house they showed us was “too nice,” and that we wanted to be poorer…
After setting up our living arrangements in the community of Pena Blanca, we travelled back to Panajachel to buy a few simple items that we deemed necessary. We are now completely outfitted with 2 pots, a machete, 2 blankets, 5 pounds of rice and beans, a bag of salt, and a pack of matches. All of the costs will be covered within our budget, but these initial investments will put the first strain on our budgeting diligence.
Tomorrow morning our bus back up the mountain leaves at 8 am sharp and won’t be bringing us back for 8 weeks. We couldn’t be happier. It only took us a day to get everything arranged, the town is beautifully situated on the mountain side overlooking Lago Atitlan, the people are warm-hearted and welcoming, and we have an awesome house and plot of land. (Our house had three puppies and a disgruntled mom living in it. I wanted to adopt them, but Zach says they will be too expensive to feed or some bullshit…)
As we stated earlier, our health still remains strong, as do our spirits. Much love to all our friends and family and thanks for reading. For now, we out, but we will try to be blogging on Tuesdays or Fridays (as those are the only days buses travel to Pena Blanca), so check back in from time to time.
Hello again everyone! It is currently 230 in the morning and I am sitting alone at my computer. I will be leaving for the airport in a half hour. I have just said goodbye to everybody I love, my mom, friends, dogs, cats, and amazing girlfriend. I cannot believe it. Zach and I conceived of this project over a year ago, but now life has been breathed into it thanks to a precise combination of support, dedication, and luck. Thank you to everyone who has helped make this opportunity happen and to those who have stood by me and continually shown their support. And to the doubters too for pushing me to prove you wrong... My excitement has reached its tipping point. An adventure is about to begin and I cannot wait to share it with you all. We will be arriving in Guatemala City around 11 am, before taking a 4 hour bus out to the town of Panajachel near lake Atitlan. On Wednesday morning we are hoping to arrive in Pena Blanca and set up for our stay. Given the difficulty of coordinating living arrangements on the ground, it may take a few days to get situated, but we should be back with some blogs in a few days. Viva la dia