Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Coop in Crisis

“Estamos en crisis” “We are in a crisis” is a common phrase fluttering around the coop these days. I consider it a valid statement seeing as I have just learned my Coop’s financials are in complete shambles. And by shambles I mean we’re straight up broke. The sad thing is no one really knows exactly where the money went. I don’t assume fowl-play, just poor planning and management by the Coop Directors. Oh, and it doesn’t help that our treasurer doesn’t read or write (but its totally ok because he says, “its all up here” with a point to the noggin).

I’m going to try to explain what has happened as best as I understand it. I think this will be a good lesson for you all on third world money management. Ok so, lets back-up a bit to November when I arrived in Casas Viejas. From what I can recall, the Coop had a healthy balance in their bank account, maybe about Q16,000. At that venture, the coop was managing their tienda, had just decided to invest in the salinas for a third year, and voted to open up the minibank. To give some perspective, the Tienda maybe rakes in Q500 in profit on a good month and the minibank about Q100. I did a cost of production with my Treasurer for the salinas in February and found that at the end of the season (December- April) they will have invested about Q55,000 in the salt production. How would we pay for this you may ask? Ideally we'd be getting funds by selling our salt- yet we weren't selling ANY (whole 'nother blog post). Luckily though, in February we received another source of income. We were contracted by the local schools to source the ingredients for their daily refracciones (snacks)- they would deposit money into our bank account and we’d purchase and deliver the food. In March they deposited Q48,000 for the next three months worth of snacks. Are you still with me? Lets recap. Started off with Q16,000, the tienda and minibank = no real income generation to speak of, the salina needs Q55,000 to operate, and the schools have given us Q48,000 to buy snacks to last through April. Two weeks ago, when shit hit the fan (sorry mom, its the best descriptor i’ve got) we hadn’t sold ANY salt. So where are we getting the Q55,000 to pay for the saltworks to continue operating you may ask? Classic case of robbing peter to pay paul. The president was using the only money we had in the bank- money from the schools- to pay the saltworks expenses. No one was keeping tabs on the money so it was just being tossed around willy nilly (mom is that better?). Unfortunately, half way through April the funds ran out. Not only did we not have money to pay for the salinas but we didn’t have money for the schools. Yeah, sorry kiddies, no snacks for you for the next month. Seno Maritza explains it as thus, “the Coop had a fiesta with the money and now we are feeling a pain in the head”. Yep. all gone. My coop is completely broke, actually they aren’t just broke their financials are in the red- a deep negative maroonish red.

So here we are en crisis, up to our eyebrows in debt- can’t pay the salina, tienda or minibank employees. Jokingly our treasurer asked the employees if they’d like their salary in salt (funny because the word originates from when Roman soldiers were paid in salt- nerd fact - don’t judge). Today though things started looking up, we got our first salt sale of the season. A guy from the capital bought Q8,500 worth of it. Unfortunately, I think we are still going to be digging ourselves out of debt for quite a long time to come. On the bright side, Its giving me a lot of work- first task to tackle- teaching the treasurer financial book keeping by dictation.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Dos Gotitas De Agua

Today I was at the Cooperative store when an old man hobbled up the stoop in his shabby work pants held up by a worn out belt with rust on the buckle. I’d never seen him before but immediately Eslin turned to me and said, “Here come your mangos.” The man was carrying a pink bucket and as he made it into the store he heaved the load onto the counter. “My mangos?” I asked a bit confused, I didn’t remember putting an order in with this little old fella. The old man asked for a plastic bag and began unloading the mangos. I just stood there still unsure of what exactly was going on. “These are my mangos? Who told him I like mangos?” I asked. Eslin replied, “Maybe Seno Maritza or Seno Lili.” When the old man was almost to the bottom of the bucket he turned to Eslin and Selvin and said, “Here are yours” and handed both of them a handful of the fruit. Then he turned to me and said, “Your sister already left?” “Yes,” I said, “she left last Thursday.” “Uh hu” he replied, then took his empty bucket and hobbled out the door and back to where ever it was that he came from.

I gladly took the mangos he left for me. I was still confused as to how he knew I like mangos but I wasn’t surprised that he had asked about my sister. Ever since I returned back to Casas Viejas after Danica hopped on her flight back to the states everyone asks me, “Y tu hermana pue?” “And your sister?” I sadly have to reply, “Ya se fue” “She already left.” My tortilla lady, my next door neighbors, the woman who is always outside setting up her tienda when I head off on my morning run, kids I teach english to, an old man with mangos, they all have asked me where my sister is. Danica obviously made quite the impression on the people of my town.

Before Danica arrived I tried to prepare everyone by warning them that my sister and I look alike. I figured they’d think we were twins since everyone who met my friend Kamille thought we were sisters (Kamille and I don’t look at all a like- we are just both white). The Kamille comment wasn’t surprising since people also asked me if i am related to my soccer teammate Ericka (Ericka and I REALLY don’t look at all alike- we just both have light eyes). I was convinced that when my sister came no one would be able to tell us apart. This was not exactly the case. The day Danica arrived we were walking to my house when we passed my neighbor Milbia and the first thing she said was, “De veras, ustedes son como dos gotitas de agua, solo una es un poco mas gordita.” Translation, “You guys are like two little drops of water, just one is a little fatter.” I started cracking up- I’m used to everyone talking freely about my weight here. However, my sister was not amused.

While Danica was here we spent some time at the beach, ate a delicious seafood soup prepared by Fernando, helped in Jenny’s English class and baked mango banana bread with my women’s group. It was so wonderful to have family back in my town. I loved showing her how I live in Casas Viejas- there is only so much i can share over the phone and through email and my blog. Sadly, Danica’s stay was all too brief and now I’m reminded daily that she isn’t here by the endless questioning of the townspeople. I wonder how many weeks are going to have to pass before I no longer hear, “Y tu hermana pue?”

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Sueña con los Angelitos

I was riding the bus the other day and had a seat all to myself when the bus started to fill up with people. I’m used to riding packed buses- so packed that i’m only afforded seat real estate for one buttock. So, knowing that the empty spaces around me would soon be occupied I stopped reading my book and began to check out the oncoming passengers. Y’all might be familiar with this game. I like to play it on airplanes when I’m sitting in the aisle seat and the middle seat next to me is empty. I size-up every man woman and child passing down that aisle trying to discern who I'm going to share my personal space with for the next four hours. “Well, hello there really hot guy in the Princeton tee, come sit here. No, no, where are you going? Don’t keep walking... oh god, please don’t let it be Mr. Canadian Tuxedo with the runny nose, I saw you use your sleeve...” and so the mental conversation goes. I play the same game here, only we are on a bus and the guys t-shirt reads “World’s Best Mom” or “Give me candy or I’ll steel your boyfriend” (no joke- i’ve seen both being worn by Guatemalan men). So, there I was entire row to myself as the passengers started filing in. I spotted a happy family; mother, daughter and son squeezing down the aisle and thought, please let it be, three of them plus one of me makes four across, everyone wins. I gave the mom a warm no-teeth smile trying to coax her into electing my aisle for her family. Sure enough it worked and the family of three took their seats in my row. The mom and sister on the opposite bench and the little boy climbed up and sat next to me. This little boy was as adorable as could be- the type of kid you can’t help but want to hug. His legs were dangling over the edge of the seat and he had these sweet curious eyes and a cute little button nose. The first 20 minutes on the bus he sat gingerly peering out the window or observing the other passengers. He was awfully well behaved. About 30 minutes into the ride he began to get a little sleepy, doing the head-bob until his sister reached over and shook him up straight. By minute 45 he was in full sleep mode, slowly sliding down the pleather school bus seat-back until his little head rested gently on my left arm. I tried not to move, I didn’t want to wake him. It was such a nice change to have this little angel resting on me instead of the tired and overworked laborers or sour and over-served drunks for whom I'm used to serving as a human pillow. I sat there, as still as I could be on the bumpy road, actually relishing this innocent invasion of my personal space. And as I sat there I realized that i’d forgotten how comforting it feels to be a shoulder for someone to lean on. It was a short moment of bliss for as soon as his older sister looked over and noticed his head resting on my arm, she swept him up and put him on her lap. And then, just like that, I had the seat to myself again.

p.s. the picture above has nothing to do with the bus incident. Its a picture of my neighbors Leslie, Benicio and one of their older cousins I took from my yard looking into theirs.. I just thought this story needed some cute kids.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

My Moveable Feast

Today, Easter Sunday, marks the end of Holy week, or Semana Santa as it is called here. For me the festivities began last Monday. School is out for the week and I was invited by Jenny, Seño Lili and Seño Maritza, to join them on their “Summer Day.” Seño Maritza is the director of the pre-premaria (pre-school) in town and all her students and their families were invited to celebrate their “Summer Day” at El Sitio (The Site), a park with swimming pools about a 45 minute drive from my town. It was a day full of carne asada, mangos and pool games. I challenged the kids to a swimming competition and went undefeated. In fact, now that I think about it, I may have been the only one to actually finish. I guess knowing freestyle put me at an unfair advantage. There were no complaints though and the kids begged me to race more. I also was the time keeper in the “how long can you hold your breath underwater” competition. The kids insisted that I count only in English. And so the day went on, everyone enjoying the pool party until about 4PM when it was time to leave and we loaded back up into pick-ups and headed home.

Wednesday, after finishing inventory at the Coop store I headed into Antigua to meet Kamille’s mom. Toribio’s (my counterpart) mother-in-law- Vilma was driving into Antigua to visit her sister so I managed to snake a ride in her beat-up blue pick-up. Driving direct to Antigua cut my travel time in half. I miss having a car.

Antigua is probably the best place to spend Semana Santa. There are processions, special events and the streets are decorated with festive flare, none of which I had the pleasure of experiencing. My stay lasted a short 18 hours- just a quick trip to spend the evening with Kamille and her mother. It was all worth it though, we shared a wonderful conversation over a lovely Italian dinner and bottle of wine. Then after a relaxing nights sleep at Meson Panza Verde, I was on the camioneta headed back to my site. The bus ride lasted 4 hours and I managed to start and finish “A Moveable Feast” while on the trip. I feel I can relate my Guatemalan experience a good deal to Hemingway’s years in Paris. I, like the author, am relatively poor, embracing a foreign culture and inspired daily by the people who surround me. The only thing my moveable feast lacks is all the good wine and F. Scott Fitzgerald (minor nuances, if you ask me). And, if you must know, in honor of Hemingway’s chapter “Hunger is good discipline” I am writing this blog on an empty stomach (while thinking of those mangos in my fridge).

Getting back to Holy Week. The reason I had to rush to my site on Thursday was because I had plans on Friday and Saturday. Faviola, my soccer coach, had called me out of the blue last Friday and asked if I like turkey. I said, “yes” and she said, “My mother would like to invite you to lunch next Friday, she is preparing turkey.” Then Brenda, Faviola’s sister that owns the beauty salon across the street from my Coop tienda, invited me to their brother Carlos’s house on Saturday for lunch and a pool party. I couldn’t believe my luck- racking up quite a social schedule.

I was very excited to be invited to lunch on Friday, mostly because I love spending time getting to know the families in town but also because I have been dying to see the Escobar’s house. Faviola’s family is the wealthiest family in town and lays claim to most of the land in the area. They live a life of privilege unfathomable to most of the inhabitants in my town. They have armed guards standing watch out front of their house and the only thing visible from the street is a satellite dish and antennae poking over their huge brick wall. The amount of protection they employ would be fit for a Brangelina estate and thus I’ve imagined that the house inside must be equivalent to a Beverly Hills mansion. The Escobars are kind of a big deal here in Casas Viejas.

When Friday came I walked over to Faviola’s house with my neighbor Oscar Ruben, whose mom, Julieta, is Faviola’s mom’s sister. Oscar Ruben and I have become good friends since I moved into my little casita. He is 24 and runs his own salina, teaches at the high school and goes to the University on Saturdays. I often ask him to help me with things around the house like hanging my hammocks or helping instal a light switch. He’s pretty handy to have around. Oscar and I walked about five minutes to Faviola’s and when we got to the gate the guards let us in. As soon as we stepped inside those tall brick walls I felt transplanted out of Casas Viejas and into a little slice of paradise. The gate opened to an expansive well manicured lawn that stretched 100 meters to the car port where their five shiny cars were kept in a row. I looked to my right and there sat the house, freshly painted and surrounded by tiny palm trees. I was surprised, however, to notice the house was no mansion at all (well, no mansion by Beverly Hills standards). It was, of course, much nicer than any other home in my town, about the size of a standard tract home in the states. Between the house and the carport a large circular rancha (thatched roof gazebo) was being prepped for lunch. There were about 18 guests total. Faviola’s parents, Brenda, Brenda’s daughter Pamela, Brenda’s boyfriend, Brenda’s brother Hilo (I think thats his name), Doña Julieta, Oscar Ruben, Oscar Ruben’s sister Graciela, Doña Julieta’s mother, and then Faviola’s Dad’s Brother and his wife and three sons, one of which is autistic. Faviola wasn’t present as she is spending Semana Santa in New Jersey with a friend.

When lunch was served I was given the first plate of soup. I felt like the guest of honor as Doña Leti, Faviola’s mother, went around the table showing me where everything was, “Here is the salt, and limes, and cheese- the kind of cheese you like. Here are the tortillas. Take some while they are hot...” She was very concerned with making sure I felt comfortable and kept returning to me throughout the meal. “Do you want some fish? Here take a torta and put cheese and creme on it like this.” Then Doña Julieta, Oscar Ruben’s mom, joined in on the questioning, “Have you had any turkey? Would you like more soup?” It lasted until desert, “Have you ever tried such-n-such desert? Or would you prefer such-n-such?” I didn’t really know what either was so I said I wasn’t sure. This was a big mistake because then they served me both, “just to try.”

After the meal all the boys went to dar una vuelta (cruise) the beach, which has been packed all week with vacationing Guatemalans from the capital. When I say packed- I mean sardines packed. Throngs of people as far as the eye can see. The festivities are sponsored by Gallo (the Guatemalan Budweiser) so the mass is full of bolos (drunks) being sloppy all over the place, taking their pants off and starting brawls- its a cornucopia of general debauchery. I have opted to steer clear of the beach this week as my blonde hair is a bolo magnet and an open invitation for inebriated men to speak slurred, incomprehensible “English” to me. So, while the boys “cruised” I stayed under the circular rancha and chatted with the grown-ups. Well, I mostly chatted with Faviola’s uncle who is an economist. He preached about how Casas Viejas is the capital of the world. “Anything you want you can get here.” He said, “And in two years you’ll find a husband and never have to leave, what’s your favorite type of food?” I replied Indian and Thai, “Oh, well, no worries you can hire a chef that can prepare you and your family (he means my future Chapin husband and little Guatemalan children) Thai food. After two years you’re never going to want to leave.” I kept thinking to myself, “I wonder what my dad would think of this conversation?” We talked about Obama, Iran (he did most of the talking on these subjects since we aren’t supposed to engage in much politicking) my work with the cooperative and a slew of other things. What I found most profound were the three things he likes about the United States. He stated quite firmly, “There are only three things I like about the States and nothing more. First, they take good care of their children, I mean really good care of their children.” I think this makes his list because he has an autistic child who lacks adequate care in Guatemala. “Second,” he continued, “everything they do up there is done logically, everything is thought through. And third, the U.S. has learned how to be the economic capital of the world” (he is an economist after all). “So” I replied jokingly, “does that mean you don’t like hamburgers?”

The Saturday pool party came and went and now its Easter Sunday. It doesn’t really feel like Easter without the brunch and my parent’s sponsored easter candy hunt. I guess it just feels like the end of Semana Santa.

But the winding down of Holy Week brings with it the promise of a new adventure. Friday Danica comes to visit. I just hope she can handle the heat. Its so hot here I’m beginning to think those silly hats with their tiny built-in fans are a genius invention.

Danica, you have been forewarned.

p.s. Nate, this is a pic of marañones- the fruit of a cashew tree I was telling you about. So delicious.