Hey everyone. So today marks 1 year since we set off for our trip to Guatemala. We would be nervously moving into our house today, with every experience new and fresh and unexpected. Being a little nostalgic and slightly bored at my desk job in NY, I wanted to share a thought with you. Maybe some of you are also pretending to ...do work and would welcome the opportunity to read something different for a second.
I want to take a second today to acknowledge all of your support. I have learned so much from the perspectives of all of my friends and family and people I have met through this project. I feel incredibly lucky. All of you have inspired me in different ways by pursuing your dreams and achieving successes in whatever field personally drives you, from banking to music to counseling. Knowing many of you has instilled in me the desire to always be learning and growing by seeing and trying as much as possible, even that beyond my confront zone. I almost backed out of Guatemala last minute, after a year of planning it, because I was terrified of the uncertainty and insecure that I wouldn’t succeed. My friends supported me, helped Zach and I design the project, and got me to follow what my heart said was right.
I need to thank all of you for the emails, the conversations, the drunk chats, and the jokes because I want you to understand how much each of you have taught me, given me the motivation and confidence to follow my dreams, and helped me make sense of an experience that seemed to have no place in my day to day life. Thank you especially to Sean, Ryan, and Zach, it’s been an amazing journey with you guys.
I should probably go back to work now and make the most of this summer's challenge before I get fired. Hopefully it gives me another valuable perspective that doesn't involve fleas.
I thought it worthwhile to give you all an update of my readjustment back into my life in the US. It has been a month since I returned (wow) so what has happened?
I landed in JFK airport on August 9th, dehydrated and with a considerable amount of stomach pain from a day spent running between my seat and airplane bathrooms. My mom picked me up from the airport exactly 20 pounds lighter and with a few parasitic friends accompanying me. (Not to mention the flea colony living in my backpack) I was immediately put on Anti-bacterials, anti-parasites, and anti-amoebas by my doctor to essentially cleanse my system and "Start over" as he said.
While I looked forward to the cleansing, it came along with the unfortunate restriction of being unable to eat anything for the subsequent 24 hours, followed up by 3 days of non-other than a diet of Rice, Bananas, Apples, and Toast. (BRAT) I couldn't help but laugh as he told me. To add insult to injury, I walked into my house only to smell fresh peanut butter chocolate chip cookies and a plate of fresh Maine lobsters that my girlfriend had so kindly prepared for me.
So my mom ate the fresh lobster in front of my eyes and I silently wept... :). Unfortunately, I couldn't help but sneak a cookie against the doctors orders, only to spend my first night back at home sleeping on my bathroom floor!
As I had dreamed about for 8 weeks, I spent the majority of my first 10 days back simply eating. All day, and at every opportunity possible. I cant explain it. I would still sneak food when people weren't looking, just because I was scared there might not be enough. I ate a pretty disgusting/impressive amount for a kid weighing 134 pounds with a shrunken stomach. And not once did I ever feel close to full. After 10 days of this new eating disorder and very limited physical exercise, I had gained back 18 pounds. I had been warned about this too, that often times when someone not eating enough food suddenly comes into an influx of it, they end up getting fat... Luckily though, my eating has been subsiding ever since.
My two worlds between Pena Blanca and Fairfield County, Connecticut could not be more contrasting. I spent the remaining three weeks of my summer teaching private tennis lessons to children around Chinos age, making 60 dollars an hour. In one hour of hitting tennis balls, I made more money than I lived off of for 8 weeks in Guatemala. How am I supposed to rationalize these stark changes in my life? I lived in Pena Blanca for 8 weeks, which to me was an eternity, and felt more real and influential than anything I ever done, but it wasn't my life. I got to leave.
I did not try to make this documentary or write this blog telling anecdotal stories about my weight loss so that people would feel bad for me. I'm the luckiest person in the world. I get to walk away with a perspective I never thought attainable and a strength and inspiration that will forever continue to push me. All I am trying to do is to tell, anyone who will watch/listen, a story. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to try to live the reality of my neighbors, and I want to share our findings, the story of their struggle and their growth, with all of you.
I know it might not seem so sometimes, but I swear I am a pretty normal college going kid who just thought of an idea with his friend Zach. (You can look at my facebook if you don't believe me:) I study economics and have read and seen statistics about how microfinance has helped people, but I wanted to prove it to myself and to my viewers. And as a result of the research, my belief in the potential of this system has increased substantially. If a banking service can come in and provide those who are struggling with opportunities for advancement in a simple and reliable fashion (replacing the unreliable informal sector), then it should be supported.
Everybody knows that poverty and starvation exist, but instead of feeling sad about it, lets take 20 minutes or 20 bucks to actually do something, however little. We can support microfinance as it exists, or if it interests us, we should continue to push the boundaries and think about how to make it better. Or pursuing ways of applying our talents and what we are passionate about, to help change the world we live in. Use art to inspire action, use your soccer skills to teach, or use your film skills to make a documentary. (Sean and Ryan didn't know what Microfinance was before coming) :) And if your not feeling creative, then support people and organizations who are, because they exist. And lastly, at the bare minimum, remember to smile.
Zach and I thought of the idea for this documentary with our friend and fellow microfinance nerd, Haley Priebe, while drunk in a bar in Cartagena, Colombia. That was in June 2009. At the end of the week’s discussions, we had ambitiously decided to create a documentary of us living on a dollar a day while travelling around Bolivia and Peru, interning for microfinance institutions and showing our videos to university students to raise awareness for Microfinance and our student microfinance network, MFI Connect (www.mficonnect.com). A few months went by, we discussed it casually, bounced it off of friends and family, and the ideas continued to evolve. If our peers in the West were able to see us struggling in poverty, maybe they would be able to connect to it more than traditional documentaries which seem so distant and surreal? Maybe we could contrast it with our typical lifestyles in the US, showing a documentary of us interning at an Investment Bank in New York for the first half of the summer (My alternative for this summer) and working at a Microfinance Institution in the developing world for the second. This way, we thought, we could explore the differences between the First and Third World in terms of access to credit, and research how financial services such as microfinance have begun to counter this inequality. Also, we could explore the realm of jobs that exist in social business or microfinance, hopefully finding viable alternatives to the world of traditional capitalism. Over lunch conversations, 5 minute chats and Google documents (amazing btw), the idea molded into what it is today. And it is far from perfect, we will be the first to admit that, but we still and always have believed very deeply in the core goals and research of this project. We want to say thank you to everyone who gave us direction and took the time to humor us and hear out this crazy idea. I doubt too many people really took us seriously for the first 10 months of planning, or maybe ever. The project was a farfetched concept for a major film production, full of uncertainty that two twenty year olds, with big dreams and no film experience, had thought of. Even once we had refined our final proposal for the 10th time, we were declined funding repeatedly from every outlet we sought for a span of several months. I don’t even know if I truly believed myself that it would actually ever happen. It only became real to me as I lay down to sleep on our dirt floor the first night, hungry as all hell, and silently cursing myself for thinking this was a good idea... :) With all this in mind, I wanted to take the opportunity though to thank those that believed in us and decided to take a risk and fund this project. We are deeply indebted to Whole Planet Foundation, the philanthropic wing of Whole Foods (www.wholeplanetfoundation.org), and the students at Claremont McKenna College for making this happen. So as I come to the end of this experience, born from a conversation over a year ago, unlikely from the start, and fraught with repeated disappointment, how do I feel? I am again sitting in my tree, this time watching the colors of the sky switch from shades of pink and blue, to purple, and now a yellowish gray, while I write. Every gust of wind and shift in the sky’s portraits evokes a wave of new emotions within me. I cannot label them as good or bad, positive or negative, but I will deem them strong. This trip has been a whirlwind. My mind is skipping around at a rapid pace, jumping from thoughts of orange juice and Chocolate Chip cookie dough ice cream in my kitchen, to my loved ones at home, to my future life path, to my loved ones here, to the stories we just compiled, to the fact that my bony butt hurts from sitting atop my tree. While my emotions are mixed and powerful right now, I know, with both my heart and mind, that this project was the right decision for me at this point in my life and I will never regret it nor regret taking the time to experience it. Because in reality, as we have sarcastically joked about throughout the trip, 8 weeks is nothing. I mean, as my brother kindly calculated and sent to me from his cubicle in New York, it’s only .08% of my life so far. My decision to take this trip to follow my intellectual interest in microfinance and development economics, passion for travelling, and desire to give back some of what I have received, does not mean I am rejecting my life at home. I see it as adding another perspective; a perspective that will keep me asking questions, growing, and appreciating my loved ones and my opportunities. I love my life at home and am genuinely happy spending time with my friends and family, chilling and enjoying life. I guess I am seeing now that I do not have to choose between this world and that one. My eating a steak or enjoying the shit out of a shower when I get home does not mean I am betraying Chino and Anthony. My friends here have blessed me with their smiles, generosity, and stories, and I will have them forever more, to dig into, and harness patience and selflessness in times of need. I was fortunate enough to be born into an amazing world, far removed from many of the struggles that plague this mountain side and I cannot deny this. It seems unproductive to me to self loath because of fortunate circumstances beyond my control. I kinda feel like I have three options. I can either ignorantly pretend poverty doesn’t exit, pessimistically hate the world for its inequality, or accept it and try out some ideas to try and make it a bit better. I want to move forward from these 8 weeks by seeing my life and my resources as an opportunity, bordering on a responsibility, to bring some good into this world. To remember those that are struggling, to accept their struggle not hide from it, and try to capture opportunities, no matter how small, to give back to this world that has given me so much. Ok that’s as much rambling as I can muster right now. My butt is hurting a bit too much, the sun has risen, and I am probably already late for my last English class at the local school. Also, I have to figure out how to get down out of this moisture laden tree without prompting an expensive hospital bill on my last days… Thank you to everyone for reading, donating, spreading the word, and for giving me the inspiration to stay strong and continue trucking through this experience. It would not have been possible without you. While not my last post, this will be my last from Guatemala. Much love and respect from Pena Blanca.
Have I really been here for 50 days? No formal blog today, but a few thoughts for everyone. First of all, I have conquered the E. Coli for the time being. Chris wins round 1 and really hopes there is no round 2.
Mom, I promise to shower and wash my clothes before coming home. The fleas will hopefully stay in Guatemala until next time. Im also pretty unsure of whether or not they would let me on the plane in my current state. I might be deemed an international health risk...
Our days are busying getting final footage for the documentary while wrapping up interviews. The deeper we delve into the stories, the more inspiring and interesting they become. Get ready for the final documentary, we hope to be able to instill the same excitement and passion in our viewers.
We have more radishes than I know what to do with. So to thank our interviewees for all their time spent with us, we are bringing massive gifts of radishes!
I love these kids. Last English class this week...
Quote of the day: "The further we fall, the longer our roots will grow."
A personal reflection written win my journal on Day 45
Just because I know the other world (The West) and have experienced it, does that make this world harder for me than for the people living here? What are their daily thoughts and aspirations? Everyone here, Anthony, Victor and Rosa included, always seem to be smiling and content; But I feel they must strive to progress, to better their lives, and attain comforts in the same way that I do. I feel like we often use the excuse that ignorance is bliss when referring to poverty. They don’t know what life in America is like so have nothing to compare the difficulties of their life to. While this might be true in some cases, I’m believing less and less that this excuse holds water. And even if they don’t know exactly how life in America could be, does that give this excuse any more legitimacy? Anthony and Augustine work in Panajachel, surrounded by consumerism and western culture on every corner. Even Chino and the kids watch TV at Dona Marias or Anacelis, where they are blasted with images of a world far apart from their own. Technology and Globalization have made knowledge widespread on an unforeseeable scale. Even as I sit here in the internet cafe copying this blog, the kids in this rural Mayan town are crowded around the computer next to me stealing cars and accepting missions on their cell phones playing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. The desire to progress and to provide happiness for your loved ones is human nature, and exists no less amongst poorer families than it does amongst the better off, both here and in the US.
In these terms, the great divide between us and them, the west and the rest, is not as vast as is suggested in my development economics books. Yes the income gaps are paramount, but we should not forget that the humanity we share in common is overarching. Yesterday, I spent the afternoon hanging out with Anthony and his friends, telling stories of “the good old days” and poking fun at each other. While forced to take on an air of responsibility to look after their families, Anthony and his buddies are still just guys in their early 20s, not so different from me and the boys.
The conversations turn difficult for me when they begin asking about life in the United States, how much it costs to get there and if they would be able to find a job. What do I tell them? While half of my heart wants to tell them to stay here with their families because they live such a beautiful and uncorrupted lifestyle, my second half wants to help them progress in any way I can, to encourage them to follow their dreams and seek a better future.
Would Anthony really have a better life if he came to the US though? Here, he is a respected member of the community with friends and family abound and a stable job. If he tries to leave, not only is the route by Coyote expensive, but it’s a treacherous 10-15 day long journey to a foreign land where he would be isolated by the language and lack of family. In the end, the decision is obviously not up to me, but my thoughts about bridging the divide between these two worlds are ever increasing, one shared smile, laugh, and conversation at a time.
I wanted to take the chance to update and reflect on some smaller aspects of our adventure so far.
- First thing I noticed recently was that we still have not completely filled up a single trash bag. I didnt even think about it until recently how little waste we have managed to produce in the past month and a half. At home, I feel like I take out the trash every other day. I obviously knew that we in the US produced an absurd amount of waste/trash, but I was surprised by how little we have produced here when not buying individualized and packaged goods. I also dont know what to do with our trash bag if we do fill it up. Upon initial observation, it seems as if most of it ends up plastering the river bed or crop fields.
- It rains here every single day without fail. In one second, we will sitting on the hillside enjoying the sun, and within a minute, we will be enveloped by the cloud and disappear for the rest of the afternoon. Given our position high up in the mountains, it feels like we are in Avatar, floating in midair.
- The weather is perfect for our radishes though! So we seem to have actually been able to grow a successfull harvest of radishes. After cleaning and separating them these past few weeks, they have sprouted! Its pretty sweet that they actually grew. For me, I know that this is the first time I have ever harvested crop. Within the next few days, we will be pulling them all, to eat and share with the community.
- I have pledged to myself that I will cook a big meal of rice, beans, lard, and home made corn tamalitoes for my family and any friends who like to join. After 5 hours of cooking over an open fire every day, cooking has become a new passion of mine that I hope to keep pursuing when I get back. The existence of a stove, oven, and microwave might throw me off a bit though. Let me know if you would like to join and I will cook more!
- I have little battles with my mind everyday over when to eat my banana or finish off my rice and beans from the night before. And it is always a tough call. I have written long journal entries, haha, about whether or not to eat the banana, why I need the banana, and how temporary the happiness from the banana really is; all the while staring at the succulent fruit in my hand. Is it easier to finish all my food at breakfast so that I can accept it is gone and stop thinking about it? Or is it better to save it, take small bites every hour, and drag it out throughout the day. Everyone of us has a different style in this regard.
- My shoulders and my butt bone are both bruised from sitting and sleeping.
- I consider going to bed at 9 pm a late night
- Sean still has not once been able to use his contacts because his fingers are so dirty.
- I have only washed my clothes one time, and that consisted of running water over them
- Chino noticed my flea bites and commented on them. I asked if he has ever had fleas. He said "Si claro, todo tienen pulgas". Or in English, Yes, of course, everyone here has fleas.
- When you feel anxious, try to take a few minutes to simply breathe, long deep breaths through your stomach. While you may think you dont have 5 minutes to waste, it might prove invaluable to your tranquility and happiness for the day.
As some of you already know, I love quotes, and this is one that I have been pondering and forming in light of this 8 week experience.
"Your life does not progress linearly, but is rather a perpetual cycle of breaking yourself down and building yourself back up."
When you observe a gardener or a hotel maid working, what thoughts cross your mind? Do you feel bad that they don’t have a better job? Or do you respect them for doing what needs to be done to pay the bills? Has the thought about how fortunate they are for having a job in the formal sector that pays them a stable and reliable income ever come to mind? Until yesterday, I know that I had never had that thought before. We spent the day shadowing the heads of two of our diary families, Anthony and Augustin, as they went about a typical day of work.
We left with Augustin at around 7 AM, beginning the hour and a half walk down the mountainside to the town of Panajachel where he works as a gardener. While stunningly beautiful, the walk was challenging, steep, and frequented by barely passable mud-slid sections. We discussed Augustine’s past as we walked, learning even more about his troubled past and hardships. In passing, he motioned towards a black cross on the hillside, belonging to his sister who was shot three times, once in the stomach and twice in the head, while walking this same path to work 4 years before. He explained that she had owned a store in town so the criminal had anticipated her having some money on her. The police never followed up and the culprit still lives undisturbed in the town nearby. He turned and continued to walk down the mountain, leaving us wide-eyed in disbelief. After some silent walking, we ask him a question about when he first started to work. At 12 years old he said, his father passed away from a snake bite, leaving him with more responsibility to bring in income for his family. Without ever attending a day of school, he left for the coast to find work on the Fincas or cotton plantations, the conditions of which were disturbing in nature. Working an average of 9 hours, he would make only 1 centavo (one eight-hundredth of a dollar) a day for his efforts. (This was in the past so must adjust for currency appreciation) Moreover, his daily sustenance consisted of three tortillas, one for every meal; an amount that doesn’t even seem possible to me. Until he was 27 years old, he remained at the plantation, bringing back what little he could to his mother once a month. I was not even intending to write about this history, but it left me stunned and triggered such a deep sadness for my friends past struggle that I wanted to share the story.
Reminding me of a movie set, we eventually arrived at a gated community in which Augustine gardens for a wage of 1,200 Quetzales a month. Although not a large wage, the job is secure, pays reliably and helps ease the stressful challenges of money management for his family. As we said our goodbyes to go visit Anthony working at his hotel, Augustine commented on how fortunate Anthony was to have a job as a hotel cleaner. My perspective was thrown upside-down. I had never before considered a job as a gardener or hotel cleaner one to be strived for, but comparatively in their communities, these jobs have allowed Augustin and Anthony to ease the struggles of poverty for their families. We spent the afternoon getting footage of Anthony cleaning room after room and making bed after bed in a hotel that charges 50 dollars (400 Quetzales) a night to stay at.
While Augustine and Anthony are fortunate to have the stable jobs that they do, they spend every day tending to the wants and desires of their wealthier patrons in a tourist town full of luxury beyond their means. For me, it was a personal struggle to see the plates of uneaten food in the restaurants, the lavish beds in the hotels, and the smells and sounds of consumerism all around. As we walked past the nicest hotel on the main strip, we overheard a couple saying “That was the worst cheeseburger I have ever eaten, and the fish was hardly edible.” It awakened and doubled my desires for meat and seafood and western comforts, but all I could do was listen and watch. Next time I am travelling, and a guest in someone else country, I will try to be more aware and respectful of my actions and appearance. Although seemingly insignificant, the simple act of being aware of my consumption may lessen the struggle of others like Augustine and Anthony who are forced to observe our habits day in and day out before making the long walk back home.
Every interview, conversation, and observation opens up new doors to be explored in our research. While the first few weeks were personally eye-opening and interesting, we were only able to scratch the surface of the financial lives of our neighbors. The growth of our friendships and trust within the community have now allowed us to identify the complex and intricate nature of their lives and the important ways in which financial services factor in, both in the short and long-term. I wanted to take the opportunity to explain in more detail what the financial diaries we are constructing consist of. Using the in-depth Financial Diaries from www.financialdiaries.com as our model, our initial questionnaire, out of 3, asks questions regarding family size, ages, educational attainment, living standards (dirt floor, stove?, etc), food habits (how often they have enough food) large events (emergencies or weddings, etc) and physical asset ownership to begin to paint a picture of how the family is organized and roughly their socio-economic status. The questionnaire is simpler and less intrusive than the rest, designed to make the interviewee more comfortable. We have also been using the initial questionnaire to highlight certain aspects of each household that we find particularly interesting and would like to explore deeper in further interviews. Our second round of questions is designed to build upon the trust from the first and delve farther into the inflows and outflows of capital within a household. To accomplish this, we begin by identifying all the sources of income. This process is long and complex, as we must continually dig to uncover all the sources of income, both formal and informal. We have to make sure to explore all non-employment income, such as grants from the government, retirement pensions, rental income, remittances, and dowries too, as they can alter a families economic status significantly. The process then involves identifying every formal, casual and self-employed source of income for all family members, including earnings; payment schedules, and taxes, so that we have a full picture of the family’s financial situation. The second questionnaire wraps up by identifying all household expenses, ranging from living expenses to educational to unexpected ones. While a little intense to accomplish in Spanish, these have been fascinating interviews so far. First of all, we have been stunned by the sheer poverty of our neighbors, caused in large part due to their fluctuating and unimaginably low incomes. In many cases, we have found incomes are patched together from several informal sources, such as day-laboring, selling eggs, or making cloth skirts, all of which are highly unreliable. Our third questionnaire deals with financial instruments used by the households. This one allows us to compile a summary of the different savings, lending, and borrowing methods that each household has implemented in the past. We have recently made several breakthroughs with our third questionnaire, as families have opened up to us more and divulged more details of their personal lives. As you might imagine, people are often hesitant to explain every detail about their money to a foreign stranger, so we have been very fortunate. These have been super interesting as they are the missing piece of the puzzle. Borrowing, lending and saving through friends, microfinance institutions, banks, asset accumulation, and savings clubs are proving to be the means by which the poor here survive. We are also finding that they employ an unexpected variety of these methods to meet both their short and long-term needs. Lastly, we are completing our portfolios by following the cash flows of a select number of interviewees, to see exactly how they manage money day in and day out for the rest of our time here. Sorry, but I’m not going to go too deep into our findings here as we are too excited to portray them to you all in our final documentary! But.. I wanted to explain what we are compiling. While we wanted to better understand this reality by living as close as we can to it, our story and research is about this community. The stories we are uncovering are inspiring me more everyday and providing the drive I need to keep going. The days seem to flying by and part of me wishes we had another month or two to keep learning. Our daily conversations are becoming more productive too, targeted at crafting our final product and discussing a variety of partial solutions to give back to this community. I hope that our documentary can instill a passion and inspiration in all its viewers to give back by any means possible, no matter the scale.