Tuesday, May 25, 2010

I spoke too soon

Seems as though my camera's focus has decided to quit on me. Unless I want our disinfectants to be portrayed a bit blurry, the hunt for a camera toting Casas Viejan begins a new. Wish me luck.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

If its broke, fix it.

I was on the first leg of a 12 hour trip up to Coban. Sitting in the middle of a chicken bus when I spotted an adorable little Guatemalan girl peering over a brown pleather seat back. Her face, picture perfect. I pulled out my camera to snap a shot. Pressed the ON/OFF button. The camera turned on and the lens expanded and then I heard a “chit chit chit chit chit” sound. “Not good” I thought. I looked down at my camera’s view screen and the warning, “Lens error, please restart camera.” flashed and the screen went black. I turned the camera off as recommended by the device and then turned it back on. “Chit chit chit chit chit” + error message. “Oh no, don’t do this to me camera” I said to myself. But after ten consecutive chit chants followed by error messages I gave up and placed the camera- zoom lens still extended- back into its carrying case and dropped it into my travel costal. I sulked a bit in self pity. Of course my camera breaks on my way up to Alta Verapaz where not only was I going to run my first International 1/2 Marathon but also was going to visit Semuc Champey- ranked no. 27 on the Rough Guide’s list of “30 things not to miss” in Guatemala (Casas Viejas didn’t make the list... sad, i know). After a good three minutes of silent pouting I reminded myself that Kamille and Cara would surely take plenty of pictures. I resolved to rely on their documentation expertise to supply me with evidence that I indeed was present at the previously mentioned momentous events. And luckily they succeeded beautifully.

The day before the marathon I got to partake in the Coban “Welcome Party”- a get together for all the Verapaz volunteers to welcome the new volunteers to the region. We had a marvelous BBQ at Kamille’s house at the Chirrepec Cooperative (don’t know if you remember but I wrote about this Cooperative during training- it is where the Ag Marketing group had our Field Based Training). The morning after the BBQ we all woke up early, had our breakfast of champions and headed to the race. I was so excited to run- partly because I was looking forward to the culmination of all my months of training (read: I was sick of sticking to a strict running schedule) but mostly because I knew the experience would be very memorable. I was not disappointed. The entire route was beautiful- rolling green hills and small villages- but my favorite part of the race was at mile 9. They had about a hundred Qeqchi school girls lined on both sides of the road in their traditional traje clapping and singing for the runners. I definitely turned off the ipod for that blissful minute of cheers- i may have even teared up a bit- the whole moment was just surreal.

After the race we relaxed another night at Casa Camila- another BBQ, bonfire and round of roasted angelitos (marshmallows). Monday morning Kamille, Cara, Chad, Nick and I headed up to Lanquin to explore Semuc Champey. We had a fun filled day of caving with only candle light to guide the way and wading in the the shallow waters of the Semuc Champey ponds.
I’ll let the photos do the talking.

Upon my return to site I began preparing for a meeting that I had been invited to by Rosa Solaris, the Santa Rosa director of Secretaria de Obras Sociales de la Esposa del Presidente (SOSEP) (translation- director of the Santa Rosa branch of the office of the First Lady of Guatemala). I met Rosa while she stopped off in Casas Viejas during her current tour of the region. She has been charged with encouraging and supporting women’s group projects and she chose our group for further participation. I of course was adamant about participating. Hoping this opportunity would open up doors for new sales of our products (something we desperately need right now). The meeting was in Taxisco and I brought Loyda with me. Loyda is the president of my women’s group and is also a socio in the Coop so she was the perfect candidate.

We arrived in Taxisco with disinfectant samples and jars of jam in tow. The meeting turned out to be extremely beneficial- we met the president of the Association of Hoteliers in Monterrico (main tourist destination). He was extremely interested in purchasing our disinfectant for his hotel and selling our jam in his gift shop and thought the other hotel owners would have a similar sentiment. He requested that we create a one page price list of our products with pictures so he can share it with the remaining hotel heads. Perfect opportunity. Only problem is I have a busted camera and only one week to get this product page put together. Today I started asking around if anyone in town owns a digital camera. Haven’t secured one yet but alas, good things come to those who wait, for just moments ago, when I was checking my camera for the error message verbiage to accurately recount it for this blog post, I hit the ON/OFF button, and there were no “chits” and miraculously the lens retracted and the camera turned on as if nothing had ever gone wrong. It only took time and patience to fix what was broken.

Friday, May 14, 2010


The sluggish yet necessary ascent out of our financial slump has begun. Yesterday we successfully produced 50 1-gallon jugs of disinfectant to sell locally. Four socios showed up to complete the task- each worked swiftly and with purpose and got the job done in less than an hour and a half. Don Alfonso was on water duty, filling up gallons of water for each new batch. Don Nando was the steady stirrer mixing the ingredients as Seño Maritza dutifully measured and poured the various components into the oversized basin. I worked cutting and adhering the new labels Jenny and I designed earlier in the week. Seño Lili had the least pleasant job, filling the empty gallons with the finished disinfectant. I say least pleasant because although all of us had to endure the stinging odor of the chemical components, Seño Lili was the only one that had a constant stream of the liquid being poured over her hands. I urged her to wear gloves. “Next time” she said. Word to the wise, those “may irritate skin” warnings on cleaning supplies are not to be taken lightly. Despite another common warning “keep out of reach of children”, we managed to enlist ourselves some little kiddy helpers to aid in our efforts. Don Nando has a small army of children (six or seven- I’ve never gotten an accurate count) that jumped at the opportunity get in on our assembly line fun. His daughters took their positions as lid tighteners and his youngest son began stacking the finished product. I must disclose that the adults warned the kids of the dangers of disinfectant, “don’t stand too close” and advised them not to get the disinfectant on their skin or it will burn. The latter warning was justified in Seño Lili’s case where large quantities of the solution was in contact with her skin for a lengthy period of time, but we all know a little spritz of cleaning agent on the skin isn’t gonna kill anyone. However, Nando’s youngest son took the warning very seriously. When he got a splash of disinfectant on his leg he started panicking, “it’s burning, its burning”, the little five year old yelped, “Be a man.” Don Nando huffed from his position over a tub of green pine disinfectant. Tears began to run down the little kids cheeks and his face morphed into an expression of aggravated suffering. I really think he thought he was going to die or at the very least loose the tainted limb. I couldn’t help but laugh. His mom came to the rescue and wiped his leg with a washcloth. All better.

We finished the first four batches- lemon, pine, cinnamon, almond- and had enough daylight to produce one last batch. When Seño Maritza took stock of what was left of the ingredients she found that there was only lemon and cinnamon fragrance left and green and brown die. This tested the team’s knowledge of quality control. Seño Maritza suggested, “Why don’t we use the green color with the lemon scent?” This may be a valid proposition here in Guatemala since the word for lemon, “limón” is used to describe a lime. Limes are green so to them this made perfect sense. “But we used yellow dye for the last batch of lemon and green dye for the pine, you don’t want to confuse customers.” I injected. “But “limones” are green”, replied Don Alfonso. “Yes, but you need to keep your product uniform for quality control purposes.” “She has a point.” said Seño Maritza, “Lets do another batch of cinnamon.” Seño Maritza is always first to take my advice and I love her for it.

We finished the last batch, gave ourselves a pat on the back and parted ways. Now to the hard part- selling those 50 gallon jugs. When all is said and done we expect a profit of about Q1,000. Such a tiny amount when compared to our Q50,000 debt. Baby steps.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Get Smart

Little has changed in regards to the status of my poor Coop in despair. They are still broke and it continues to be a daily struggle to pay workers, creditors AND scrounge up enough dough to buy food for the school’s daily snack. However, there are a few glimmers of light; some creative and positive changes that are occurring in response to the economic crisis we have dug ourselves into.

Getting with the times, our minibank has had a little bailout of its own. Five affluent townspeople (including some socios) have taken it upon themselves to save the bank from sinking. They have removed all of the Coops money and infused the account with about Q20,000 of their own funds. They now supervise Selvin, our “banker” (if you can call him that), like hawks on a field mouse (funny, now that I think of it, Selvin kinda looks mousy). Every day they revise all transactions and count the cash on hand. Its sad that it took a meltdown before anyone payed attention to the money that flows in and out of that little enterprise. Better late than never, i guess.

Another creative development... on Friday we had our monthly Coop meeting. After a good hour of pointing fingers, questioning “where did all the money go and why do we not have any record of where it went” and solid declarations of, “we will not let this break us” the discussion turned to “how do we get “pilas” and fix this?” (Side note: pilas translates to battery- like as in energizer- but is also a term used for clever or smart). Some said we need to sell more disinfectant, others said we need to outsource the purchase of food for the schools, but the winner, the idea that took the cake, was the suggestion that we should hold a raffle. We are going to make additional funds by selling about 200 Q5 raffle tickets around town. The prize: a used sewing machine (whether it is functioning is still TBD). I have to hand it to the socios for pulling together during this rough patch. Its a positive sign that they are gonna pound some pavement and make money out of nothing. And even if this only earns them Q1,000 of the Q30,000 they are in debt, at least its a step in the right direction. To do my part, I have offered to help make the tickets with Jenny and design posters promoting the raffle throughout town.

All of these tactics are a step in the right direction but I still find myself pondering the possibility of a cure all idea that would restore my Coops financial stability. Then I have to remind myself that although a magic wand approach may help their current situation, would it change their business savvy? Probably not. Its the little things that will make a big difference in the long run. For instance, they are finally realizing that i’m not being excessive by urging them to keep better records. Its rewarding to hear socios in the meeting mandate that the new treasurer keep a book of “entradas y salidas”- something that I have been preaching since my bookkeeping charla in December. I have had my first real success on this front- a pro-treasurer has been assigned to help with the bookkeeping (remember my treasurer can’t read or write) and I have my first meeting with them both on Wednesday to start keeping better financial records. No magic wand will be present. Just pen, paper and a calculator.