Sunday, August 15, 2010

Birth and Death

The first two weeks at the new Coop tienda location have been a success. Sales are steady and Hector, the shop keeper, has done a stellar job at maintaining the set of books I have requested he keep. The books detail the sales, purchases and credit flowing through the business. We have also initiated a new meeting at 5PM every day in which the Vigilancia (vigilance committee), Tesorero (treasurer) and Hector reconcile the books to see how the day ended. The store doesn’t actually close until about 8PM but our “day” ends at 5PM and sales after that point go onto the following day’s books.

This week the minibank also was moved from its temporary location at Jenny’s computation center to the new tienda local. With the move came Veronica (bank teller) and Manuel (doing an internship of sorts at the minibank). Having Veronica at the tienda adds a little spunk to the atmosphere. The girl likes to gossip and has shared all sorts of gushy town dirt with me, such as, which men frequent prostitutes, who hits the bottle a little too hard... I would elaborate but I recently found out that someone who reads my blog (you know who you are) has been reporting information back to people in town and I don’t want to cause any unnecessary trouble. I’m sure you understand.

Veronica’s affinity for gossip is not the only entertaining thing about her. She is six months pregnant and her little bun in the oven is also the source of good chit-chat. She finds out the sex of her little "túmulo" this week. I don’t know the word for bump in Spanish. I do, however, know "túmulo" which translates to speed bump so this is what I refer to her baby bump as- close enough. We spent one afternoon last week going through potential baby names. I did the naming and she would respond if she liked it or not. It went a little like this:

Anna: Micah
Veronica: No, hate it 
Anna: Max
Veronica: OK but Maximilian
Anna: Jackson
Veronica: Jason?
Anna: No, Jackson
Veronica: Jason?
Anna: Zachary
Veronica: Esaqu..... (definitely couldn't pronounce that)
Anna: Brent
Veronica: huh? 
Anna: Trent
Veronica: huh? 
Anna: Charly
Veronica: I like that one. Give me some more...

And so the afternoon went. She came out liking a few of my suggestions but when I offered Annalisa for a girl's name she just laughed at me.

I had intended to end my blog post with the baby name story but there was a passing in my town Friday night which has given me the opportunity to bring together, as often occurs, the two themes of birth and death. I will warn you that this post is now turning a little dark...

Friday night as the town was experiencing a unusually heavy rainfall a man was killed outside of the town cemetery. The murder took place while I was tucked away in my bed, coincidentally, watching the horror movie American Psycho (thanks Danielle). I didn’t hear the handful of gunshots that rang out because they were masked by the pounding raindrops on my rooftop and the sound of Christian Bale's chainsaw. It wasn’t until Saturday morning, when I stopped by the tienda, that I learned of the tragedy. I will recount the details that I have gathered from various sources.

The deceased was a young man of questionable character; a known gang member who also meddled in the dealing and consumption of drugs. His fatal flaw, however, was his inclination to steel from the people in town and then escape of to the capital to sell the ill-gotten gains. Let me remind you that my town is pretty small- just over 2,000 inhabitants. The large majority of people are honest, hardworking and respectful so when there is a rotten apple in the bunch it's easy to pick that person out. And picked out this delinquent was. He was walking by himself after nightfall and someone (or some people) took the law into their own hands and shot him to death. He was found shortly after the deed was done with no less than 8 bullets in his body. One right through his forehead.

Civil policing is not uncommon in Guatemala. In a country where few have faith in the government, police are seen as another futile and corrupt arm of the powers that be. And as awful as this incident was, the townspeople are shaken but show no outrage. “Now we will have fewer problems” is their ultimate conclusion, "the gangs will think twice before coming to Casas Viejas."

Monday, August 9, 2010

Only Time Will Tell

I made it safely back to my site last weekend. The trip, however,was not my typical four hour/three bus jaunt. Repairs on the bridge between Chiquimulilla and my site still haven’t commenced which added a little detour to my usual route. At the bridge all passengers were unloaded and directed to take a rocky side path down to the river. We then crossed three provisional bridges that just barely cleared the rushing waters below and continued to trek back up a steep hill to the awaiting buses on the other side. While crossing the river I could see the once sturdy bridge now dangling by its support cables 100 feet above my head. The site was a stunning visual of mother nature’s destructive power.

Once back in site I started making the rounds. I visited Seno Lili, Jenny, Loyda and ran into a handful of other socios while walking around town. It felt great to greet everyone in the streets, only i found that instead of a simple “good afternoon,” everyone saluted me with a, "You've finally appeared! We thought you were never coming back." While out and about I ran into the Coop treasurer Don Alfonso who informed me that our Cooperative was in the process of moving tienda locations to a much more “rustic” building with a lower rent. I made a trip to Eslin’s house, our shopgirl, and good friend of mine. She confessed to me that she had quit and will be working at the new libreria that will occupy the cooperative’s old space. I have no hard feelings- I think the Coop came to rely on her too much anyway- and am just glad that she didn’t decide to take a job in Guatemala City.

Last Monday I spent the day with the socios cleaning and fixing-up the new local. About ten minutes into the clean-up I managed to cut my foot on a rusty nail (just my luck) and after giving it a good cleaning called Johanna at the Peace Corps medical office- her response, “I would like to bubble wrap you.” We both decided that I suffer from a “lack of spacial awareness” and I agreed to continue to keep the wound clean and let her know if “it gets pussy or begins to smell” (gross- and luckily neither occurred- the wound is nearly completely healed as I write this post). We finished cleaning the store that evening - the only thing it lacked was product. While cleaning I was informed that the new shop keeper will be a 20 year old guy from a nearby Aldea. Working with a male will change my daily work dynamic immensely. I don’t think I’ll be able to just sit and chat at the store like I did with Eslin. But, I am looking forward to starting from scratch with the store bookkeeping - a clean slate will make it easier for me to get him in the habit of keeping good records. I only hope that he isn’t filled with too much machismo and doesn’t mind taking orders from a female. Time will tell how this change effects the progress I make here.

Wednesday I traveled with Don Jamie and Don Edgar (the current and former Coop presidents) to Cuilapa (a two hour trip in pick-up) to the INACOP offices for a little meeting for all Santa Rosa Coops. INACOP had called the meeting because an opportunity to request government funding for projects had emerged and they wanted to let all Coops try their luck at scoring some of the purse. Nearly 15 representatives from various Cooperatives throughout the department showed up. We were given a small presentation which was followed by a roundtable discussion. The more outspoken attendees took advantage of this time to preach about their misfortunes and coinciding acts of perseverance in the midst of previous monetary obstacles. One woman gave an account of her groups situation, starting her narrative with, “I only would like a few moments of your time” which in Guatemala indicates that she will have the floor for the better part of the next 15-30 minutes. She spoke of the humble beginnings of her cooperative that initiated with the desire to have an income generating outlet for women in her community. They underwent many obstacles to get the group off the ground and reach their current status (abbreviated for brevity’s sake). She then informed us that last year her group had received approval for Q200,000 of funding from the government but when corruption plagued the economic department’s ranks and the head was ousted his budget went with him. This is typical of the empty promises for which the Guatemalan government is so famous. She is still wondering if and when she’ll get the money. The good that came out of her monologue was her depiction of all the trials and tribulations her Cooperative had endured and the success they’ve still found even without the support of the government. On the ride back to Casas Viejas, Jamie and Don Edgar spoke of how much they liked what she had said. We returned home with our spirits high- confident that we could turn around our Coop’s crisis as other Coops had done before us. Still, we wanted to try our luck at government support and resolved to submit three small project requests for funding.

Saturday morning I worked with Seno Maritza on composing our three funding requests. Initially, I was supposed to work with my counterpart Toribio on the documents but his wife fell ill and he had to take her Chiquimulilla. (I’ve heard many accounts of stomach ailments since my return- not uncommon during the rainy season when the water is even less safe to drink than usual). I was happy to work with Maritza on the project profiles as I have found that if anything actually has a chance of getting done in the Coop- she’ll need to be involved. Not that others don’t work, its just she has the capacity to think critically and analyze ideas in an efficient and productive way.

Maritza is a heaven sent for me. She is a mother of four, including one mentally handicapped son, she is a teacher at the elementary school during the morning and is the director of a preschool she runs out of her own home in the afternoon. She also has taken on a “managerial role” at the minibank - closing the bank and doing all the checks and balances at about 6pm every day. When I arrived at her house on Saturday morning she was readying a chicken for a stew. I spent the first thirty minutes in her presence chatting at her pila while she worked with efficient hands beheading, cleaning and disemboweling the body of a recently deceased chicken. As she sawed off the chicken’s head she explained to me that she didn’t know how to prepare a chicken until she moved to Casas Viejas (she is from a town outside of Antigua). “My mother-in-law taught me how,” she told me. As she continued talking I stared at the chicken in a daze, focusing on its mouth as its beak opened and closed in rhythm with every thrust of the knife. My stomach began to turn- seeing the face of the animal was a reminder that it was once alive, breathing from that mouth and seeing out of those eyes. When Maritza found that the knife couldn’t finish the job of severing the head, she took the head in one hand and the lower neck in the other and with one swift yank tore the head from the body and dropped it in a bucket. I was relieved that the face was now out of site and concluded that I’d rather not acquire a mother-in-law that would ever want to teach me to perform proper chicken decapitation.

After the chicken was prepared and had been placed in the fridge, we sat down and spent the rest of the afternoon pumping out three proposals for funding; a community drainage project, a minibank project and a request for additional funding for our tienda. I think the only proposal that stands any chance of funding is the community drainage project. I can’t see the government dealing out cash for a bank or store amplification. However, I was happy to help with the writing and glad that the Coop is not sitting idly by but instead taking advantage of opportunities as they present themselves. Sunday I sent the proposals to the appropriate contact via email. Once again, only time will tell...

While departing Maritza’s house her son Rene came in and told us
that the river that cuts through Casas Viejas was overflowing and flooding the North side of town. Heavy rainfall in the mountains was making its way down the canal and emptying out onto numerous plots of land held by town residents- including Don Edgar (his house is the light blue one in the below picture). This was the third time this year that the town suffered from flooding. At this point it is almost becoming a normality- as I walked the street taking pictures I found groups of kids swimming in their front yards and families hanging out on their porches just watching as the water rose. Some people even posed for pictures, imploring me to come closer to get a better shot. Coincidentally, the government proposal Maritza and I had written for drainage was aimed at avoiding this very exact problem.

Sunday afternoon I had my first soccer game in almost four months. I first thought it might be a bad idea to play with my nose still healing but, since none of the other girl players challenge for balls in the air, I felt I was pretty safe from any more head trauma. I was right and left the game unscathed and with two assists and one goal to my name. We won 5-0.

Today we worked once again on the tienda, this time stocking all the shelves with merchandise. It took 6 hours to place all the products and do an inventory (which I insisted was necessary even though they performed one before leaving the old location.) I met the new shop keeper Hector- very nice young man and I have a feeling we will get along just fine- namely because he seemed on board with my record keeping requests during a little impromptu bookkeeping training I gave him. Tomorrow we open the store at 6:30 AM and I’m heading into this with high hopes!