This crazy big earth worm slithered up to us in the rain. What was I supposed to do?... It just looked sooo good.
The weather here seems like it could only be created by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Our days of beautiful sunshine left sparkling clean by evening showers have been violently interrupted by torrential rain. It is hard to think inside our house with the violent sound of millions of water droplets amplified by our sheet metal roof, so I will keep my own thoughts relatively short…
Our experience here has not been easy and will continue to be the most challenging thing I have done so far in my short life. Already I have found what I have learned here invaluable and I hope that what we are able to share through these blogs and videos inspires others to challenge themselves and their beliefs. If I ever stop pushing myself and re-evaluating my purpose in life then I will have failed. It is with this understanding that I hope I am continually evaluating what I am learning in Peña Blanca.
As I have become slightly more adjusted to our lifestyle here I occasionally find myself thinking that this life isn´t as bad as it may seem. The pace is slower, it is impossible to not appreciate the little things I usually ignore and there aren´t any cell phones! (Granted this feeling is usually only during the five minutes after eating when I feel relatively full). However, this misconception of poverty is flawed and demonstrates the one thing that I will never be able to truly experience. No matter how much I suffer now, I know that I am going home in six weeks. For my neighbors this lifestyle is a reality and their chances of mobility are next to none. To know that every choice they make budgeting their money will effect if their families have enough to eat not only tonight but for the rest of their lives must provide a level of stress that I can only find inconceivable.
Luckily, the research and interviews we are conducting has started to fill in the gaps of understanding that the experience of us living under one dollar-a-day would never be able to fill. This week we have begun interviewing people in Peña Blanca. Each and every interview has both inspired me to continue with our own struggle and to find a way to help them with theirs. I have included a summary of one of our initial interviews below. This simple peak at Rosita´s life will teach you more than I will ever be able to.
Initial Interview - Rosita Coj
Rosita lives in a mud brick house in the same compound as Luisa in Tierra Linda. She is the daughter of Doña Maria and is able to speak Spanish. Her husband Avalardo was also present at the interview and is fluent in Spanish. She has been married for 20 years and has nine children. The oldest is 18 years old and the youngest is 1. The eleven of them live in the same small house, which they own and have lived in for 19 years.
Rosita received her first microfinance loan for Q900 on the 13th of July, 2007. She has received seven more loans with the last totaling Q4,000. All of the loans have been for growing cebollas (onions) which she sells in Sololá. The final loan was also used for purchasing a pickup which can be used as a taxi to provide some additional income. Additionally, she has taken five loans with another MFI called Genesis but has stopped because the interest was too high.
Unfortunately, her family lost half of her crop of onions (worth Q10,000) because of mudslides during hurricane Agatha. She has found additional part time work sewing full-size quilts for a white woman in Panajachel. She receives Q150 ($18.75) for each.
She has agreed to have us come back for additional interviews and provided translation for her neighbor Luisa´s interview.
Our main purpose in coming to Peña Blanca was to conduct research on how the rural poor budget their income and how we can further empower them to lift themselves out of poverty. For the past week we have been consumed by learning to survive on a similar income. As the authors of The Portfolios of the Poor have said, “For those of us who don´t have to do it, it is hard to imagine what it is like to live on so small an income.” After only a little over a week I am becoming to appreciate that statement. I can feel my energy level and body begin to change and adapt to the lifestyle. However, while our experience here has begun to help us realize the importance of little things we take for granted in our daily lives, our research is where we will be able to delve into what it means to live under a dollar-a-day.
Yesterday we conducted our first interviews in the community of Tierra Linda, which means “beautiful land”. The village is dually named because it sits above a massive valley overlooking a vista of stunning green mountains. While it is beautiful we quickly learned in our interview that it was also prone to disastrous mudslides. Tierra Linda is only ten minutes from our new home of Peña Blanca but the only road there is in itself an adventure. The grade of the roads here seems impossibly steep. On our arrival we were greeted warmly by two Mayan women who welcomed us into their home.
We had a friend with us from Banrural Grameen Guatemala who served as our translator during the interviews. Chris and I both speak Spanish but have trouble with the Kaqchiquel that permeates and is mixed freely with the rural Spanish here. Having another local with us proved to be a valuable asset. As the authors of The Portfolios of the Poor had warned us in emails before we left, the interviews are a messy process. However, we were successful in conveying the questions of our initial interview without any major mishaps and were pleasantly surprised by the information we were able to garner.
We are lucky enough to be using digital SLRs (Canon 5D MarkII and Canon 7D) which appear to be normal photography cameras. However, in order to build trust we were careful to leave the cameras behind. Our initial interview consisted of simple questions that covered information on their family, their house, and their microfinance history. These questions provided us with insight into the level of poverty the family faces and if there is any especially interesting or telling aspects of their lives that will be useful in the documentary.
The three interviews were helpful in calming my fear that the people here wouldn´t feel comfortable opening up their personal lives to us. Thankfully, we were quickly invited back by all three women and will continue to conduct our initial interviews in Tierra Linda and Peña Blanca in order to figure out which families to follow for the documentary.
Talking with these women also was an important reminder that while events may quickly leave mainstream media they continue to have devastating effects. Guatemala was recently hit by torrential rains that caused a news splash in American media because of the enormous sink hole in Guatemala City. This storm however continues to affect the lives of the rural poor here. Rosita, one of the borrowers we interviewed, lost half of her crop of onions, which was worth Q 10,000. This is a devastating amount for a family at that level. She had built this crop up with loans from Grameen Guatemala over a period of three years of continually larger loans. Recovering from these major events is a major part of the poor’s life. This tragic event will be an important part of our research in how the poor are able to use the financial tools available to them.
These initial interviews have re-energized our commitment to follow through with this experience and our research (although I was hoping Mireille would have enticed Chris back to the states by now so we could share his portion of the budget).
If you have ever read The Milagros Beanfield War and remember the character Herbie Platt, a white NYU student dropped in the middle of a completely Latino, New Mexican farming town to do research, you may understand how I feel. The past week has been a maelstrom of new culture, new ways of living and crazy dreaming. While the analogy is not perfect, the sleepy Mayan village of Peña Blanca has all the characters and history necessary in a magical realism novel.
Our short stay in our new home has been an amazing yet humbling experience. We were immediately befriended by the family that we rent our house from. Carlos, one of their ten children, has become our personal guide of Pena Blanca, its people and how to survive at the level that our meager budget permits us. He is barely four feet tall and is only thirteen but his knowledge of living in the mountains is a culmination of the hundreds of years that his Kaqchiquel ancestors have lived here. He is constantly smiling, which comes as no surprise considering the amount of times that we have made complete fools of ourselves. Whenever we are almost ready to give up Carlos arrives with exactly what we need, be it a candle or a stick of acote (red pine, a natural fire starter). When we gave him a set of crayons to repay him for all of the help he has provided he immediately wrapped Chris and I in individual bear hugs. His lack of entitlement and the appreciation he showed was something that is so often missing in American culture and something I will try to learn from.
The generosity of the community has been one of the most difficult aspects to moderate. The willingness of the people to give us whatever they have has forced us to refuse and return gifts as politely as possible in order to follow our budget of one dollar a day. Finally I think we have reached an understanding that we will only accept gifts that we can return with something of equal value. Our evenings are now filled with mutual exchanges of Kaqchiquel lessons for English lessons. It is a great feeling having the community come to our own home while we cook our dinner of rice and beans on our fire.
Our adventures in cooking may be one of the reasons that I was left immobile on our earth floor on the first day, while everyone else worked tilling Don Carlos’ corn field. Luckily, I have completely recovered and our cooking has vastly improved. We now enjoy beans spiced by a little garlic, chili pepper or onions. The portions come nowhere near to filling me up but our first week will most likely be our poorest.
While the Mayan culture and our experiences thus far have reminded me of magical realism, the poverty here in the Guatemalan highlands is all together to real. Living at a similar level only makes it more apparent since we will get to return after eight weeks. The height of all of the children is more than telling of the lack of nutrition they receive. It is hard not to give to everyone that I see. This urge is impossible to suppress no matter how much I have studied the negative effects of charity in school or in microfinance books. Luckily, the few borrowers that we have met so far seem to be better off than their neighbors. I am eager to begin researching to find out if this is due to microfinance or if they were already ahead of the game before borrowing.
The women borrowers that we have met also are strikingly confident and have no problem talking to us. This is completely different than most of the Mayan women we have met in our time here. Again, this only reaffirms why I have come here and my desire to begin really start investigating. Hopefully in the future I will be able to provide more insight in both of the previously mentioned areas.
The only thing that I ask is that you send me delicious food thoughts, anything helps.
Unfortunately I will not be able to write a full blog post becuase this internet cafe is closing and I need to rush. Blame IES abroad who sent me a language placement test that is due in a week. One thing is for sure, it is incredible with the technology that we have I can do a language placement test in the middle of rural Guatemala. So much has happened today that it may be good to digest before I write something. Until next time...
Arrived in Panajachel. Meeting with contacts and purchasing a knife. Our health remains strong...
We leave tonight, June 14th, to start our eight week excursion to Guatemala, a country that is known for its beautiful landscapes, rich indigenous culture and unfortunately, for its social inequality and extreme poverty. Guatemala has emerged from a brutal 36 year civil war as one of Central America’s largest economies with democratic and macroeconomic stability. The past ten years for Guatemala may seem to represent a period of growth and prosperity but a closer look reveals a country that has been unable to address chronic problems in it’s society. According to the most recent World Bank Report, more than 50% of Guatemala’s population lives below the poverty line and 15% live in extreme poverty. For the indigenous population, that comprises 38% of the population, these statistics rise dramatically to 76% living in poverty and 28% in extreme poverty.
These statistics are shocking and cause me to immediately question how such a seemingly rich economy can leave so many people to suffer. Many people such as Samuel Loewenberg who wrote Political Will is Scarcer than Food, an article about malnutrition in Guatemala, blame a lack of political will to tax the rich and help the poor. Whatever the reason, the reality is that over half Guatemalan’s children are chronically malnourished (6th worst in the world) and in rural areas where the population is mostly of Mayan descent malnutrition reaches 80%. Something must be done. The question is what should be done and how can we help to make it happen?
Without going to into an in depth debate on development, I believe that action needs to be taken at many levels through government programs, charitable work etc. But the solution that has best resonated with me, as an economic and international relations major at Claremont McKenna College, is through microfinance. If done correctly, Microfinance has the potential to provide financial services, such as credit and savings, as well as non-financial services, such as health insurance and health education. Instead of giving handouts through charity, Microfinance works to help the poor bring themselves out of poverty in a way that is sustainable.
This week I was listening to an NPR radio show (How Foreign Aid Hurts Haitian Farmers) on how food aid to Haiti has caused Haitian rice farmers that were unaffected by the earthquake, to face the dilemma of eating their own crop or selling it for almost nothing and going hungry to try and keep their children in school. The price of rice has dropped because so much of it was freely given in the relief effort. Clearly we cannot allow for people to go hungry after natural disasters but maybe we need to rethink the solution.
Part of this solution may be Fonkoze in Haiti or Banrural Grameen Microfinanzas in Guatemala. These organizations target the poorest of the poor and have shown to do amazing work. It is with these thoughts in mind that Chris, Sean, Ryan and I have chosen to spend our summer in the rural village of Pena Blanca where Grameen Guatemala has started a microfinance program. Hopefully by bringing an open mind and a desire to learn, this summer may begin to provide some answers (As long as Chris doesn't gamble away our dollar budget)