I wake up, laying half on a pad and half on my backpack, disoriented and uncertain of where I am. I blink slowly. Ugh. My stomach adjusts itself and passes gas, indignant that I refuse to wake up and go to the bathroom again. I gently push a finger into my stomach but its so bloated it does not give at all. I roll onto my right side and close my eyes again. Maybe a minute passes, maybe 30, but who knows, there is no clock. My eyes open to the darkness again. Shit this hurts. I sit up. The pressure on my bladder is unbearable. I stand up and grope my way along the wall in search of the door. It’s torrentially down pouring. I cautiously pee from our doorway, plagued by a fear of an accidental solid emergency. I stare blankly at the dirt, trying to pass gas and relieve my stomach pressure. A half a foot long rat scurries across my vision and I take a step backward into the house. I continue to stand, observing and inhaling the rain, mesmerized by its persistence and the sounds of its fury on our tin roof.
What time is it I wonder to myself? I tread carefully back to our bed, fluff my sweatshirt pillow, and meticulously steal some blanket back from Sean. I drift in and out of sleep for who knows how long. My eyes open again. I repeat my earlier routine, and relieve the pressure on my bladder for the 4th time out of 6 that night. Reluctantly, I make the trek up the hill to the outhouse at our neighbor’s house. The dogs erupt in a frantic shouting match, disturbed by my unexpected presence. In vain, I try to silence them.
A mere 5 feet from the outhouse, I too am confronted with the unexpected. In the middle of the path, an old man sits crouched, pooping. Weird I think to myself. But I wait; we exchange a nod in passing and I continue my search for the outhouse. No moon and no stars complicate my predicament. I sit. I think. Friends, porcelain toilets and soft fluffy dogs flash across my mind. 15 minutes later I reemerge. I stand at the top of the hill, overlooking the distant flashes of lightning. I smirk and shake my head. This is absurd I say aloud to myself, and chuckle quietly.
I walk slowly home, force open the creaky door, and stand in the darkness; only the faint noises of the disgruntled dogs are audible over the sounds of rushing water. I hope it’s almost morning I think dejectedly. I repeat my earlier routine and settle back into bed. Its dark, I can´t read. What should I do? I drift off. My eyes open. I stand. I pee. I return. What is wrong with me I silently wonder? I stare at the ceiling and smirk again. At least I’m not hungry I think.
Then it happens. First a little hesitant and nervous about being first, but undeniably the noise I have been waiting for all night. But was it a mistake? No, I hear another call up the hill, and another, bolstered by an orchestra of dogs that add their barks. The roosters were crowing and soon I could wake up and begin my 29th day in Guatemala.
“Question: have you found that the percentage of your worries that are "real" have changed since the start of your trip? I guess that could sound like a cynical question, but it's not meant to be. What I mean is this: I find I waste a stupid amount of my time worrying about non-material things (which I suppose I would define as meaningless things, vain things or things that I have no ability to change--or perhaps, wouldn't even want to change if I could). For instance, I worry about some stupid conversation I had with a friend or about whether Anjie is going to like the movie that I'm making her watch or whatever. Obviously you're not watching movies, but I've often wondered if my/our worrying is a product of the fact that we have nothing "real" to worry about or if it's just part of who we are and we'd do it no matter what?
Do you worry about the stupid stuff at $1/day as much as you do at $20 or $50 a day? And if not, do you prefer worrying about the stupid stuff or the real stuff? (And if the real stuff, then can I have your car?)”
Hmm, good question from the dumb… The first thing that came to my mind when I read this was the overwhelming dominance that lacking a simple necessity has on one´s mind and thoughts. When you are hungry or tired, every thought or decision you have or make is done with respect to this “real” concern. In that way, the percentage of concerns that I would consider “real” or important has increased. We worry significantly about pulling a high enough number (make enough money) by market day so that we can feed us all for the week, or to pay off our Microfinance loan, cook dinner for our neighbors family, or save for an emergency.
Given my inability to separate my thoughts from connecting to hunger or body pain, its true that I have far fewer insignificant concerns. I think it is important first to recognize where our concerns originate though. I am going to make the claim that our concerns stem from our minds natural response to continually desire more. I think that our ¨concerns¨ over whether or not our girlfriends like the movie we put on is out of a desire to make sure that they are as happy as they could be. For you, that is a relative desire, because you already know that she has enough to eat and a bed to sleep in and is generally doing well. And while I don’t have a TV, here I worry far less about the little things, such as a conversation, or how I look, or smell, but it does not mean I don’t think about stupid things. I would consider the fact that I draw pictures of delicious steaks and think about how excited I am to play tennis when I get back, insignificant in my situation. As long as I have food to eat, I should be appreciative. And while my sleeping arrangement isn’t perfect, and consists of a shared blanket and a pad for my upper body, it could be worse; yet I think about how nice a bed or a pillow would be all the time.
I guess what I am getting at here is that I believe that it is a sadly natural response for our minds to fill their time with thoughts and concerns over our relative desires. While my desires here might be simpler and seem more ¨real¨ than my desires in the US, I still get frustrated at myself for always wanting more, or what I don’t have.
What is incredible about an experience like this though is the perspective that one can gain and apply to their life in the US. When I get back and find myself worrying about an awkward conversation I had with a friend, I hope to be able to harness my mindset here and put it in perspective. Because that conversation doesn´t matter when a billion people continue to go to bed hungry at night. And while I can´t relate exactly to the struggle of poverty because my time here is finite, I am hoping to be able to apply the knowledge I have gained to look past the bullshit that plagues our minds in the western world and apply my mind to more productive endeavors. And with a bit of luck, maybe I can provide an outlet, through video and blogs, for someone else, who didn’t have this amazing opportunity to live in Guatemala, to gain and learn as well.
The mood swings are so extreme, from euphoria and satisfaction at living the simple life, to a selfish and overwhelming desire to be back to my cushy life in the US. Thankfully though, several weeks into the project, a routine and excitement for the project are winning the mental battle. Every open air ride into town, stroll up the hill to check on our radishes, laugh shared with a little kid, or inspiring interview with a neighbor, fortifies my resolve and determination to take advantage of this opportunity. This is a once in a lifetime look into a different lifestyle that I am so fortunate to have in my lap right now.
My time here is finite, and while it may be hard sometimes, it will end and I will return to steaks, beds, and family. I should never complain, as this, and all struggles are relative. While impossibly more trying than life in Connecticut, we still cannot replicate the continual struggle of poverty or truly demonstrate the difficulties that plague our neighbors for a lifetime. For Anthony, Carlos, Chino and our new friends in Pena Blanca, this is no 8 week experiment, but life; and a life that contains no safety blankets of trust funds or finite timeframe. We will continue to try our best to gain glimpses into aspects of extreme poverty, and shed light on it through reflective and comedic video blogs, but the fact that a billion people live like this makes my insides burn with sadness and my mind swirl with methods to end it.
Why can we not create more businesses in the western world that create products or services that provide benefits to this world? I´m not saying that capitalism or making money is wrong, but rather that we have proven ourselves innovative enough to design businesses that help the poor. This is far from a new concept, yet I never once heard ”the double bottom line” mentioned in my micro economics class last semester. In economics terms, you have an almost infinite market of more than 2 billion people that need services and products to rise out of poverty. And if social businesses become so successful that they tap the market, thank god. We will have proven that business can be a variable sum game, where both the west and the rest can benefit. There are a number of ways these social businesses can be designed and modeled, and a number of them already exist, Grameen Dannon, Tom´s Shoes, etc (Google it). The principle at the core though, as in any business idea, is to recognize a need and find a way to provide the service or product that addresses that need. Observe, be innovative, and take the challenge to make a sizeable living while actively pushing the boundaries of traditional business. Who knows, maybe the knowledge that you have the potential to help others will revive your tedious job with a fresh wave of inspiration. Please feel free to tear apart my arguments or build upon them. This is simply an overview of a complex subject, (written in a journal on a dirt floor), designed to provoke thought. Thanks.
Fun fact of the day: I wander around brushing my teeth for around 25 minutes a day minimum. It tastes so good and kinda makes me feel like I’m eating.
¨Just because you can afford something, doesn´t mean you need to buy it. Live within your means. Be at peace.¨
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.
Vamos los Estados Unidos!
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