Sunday, December 19, 2010

Jesus Cristo

One great thing about the Peace Corps is the opportunity it affords to meet amazing people, both host country nationals and other Peace Corps volunteers. Ask any volunteer what enabled them to endure the taxing environments and situations they find themselves in over the course of two years of service, and I’d bet most would say, “the people.” I don’t know how I could have ridden this emotional roller coaster this long without my fellow volunteers. We grow together, celebrate our gains together, commiserate together and share extraordinary moments together. We are all in this together.

Our PCV crew can empathize with each other’s struggles, and because of this, it is natural for me turn to other volunteers for advice in tough situations. As you may recall, I have been troubled greatly by Adan’s loan and recently turned to a volunteer friend, Barrett Bumpas (aka B. Bump, aka Bumpas- blue shirt in the photo above), for his sound advice. His response to my dilemma, transmitted through gchat, went a little like this:

Barrett: i would write him a letter, including ethics, what jesus would do, and spell out how interest is supposed to work
me: i should. wwjd?
Barrett: threaten him with eternal damnation
me: see, that’s a great idea.

Some may think this is actually a ludicrous idea. But, you're wrong. It can’t be ignored that religion plays a major role in the lives of Guatemalans. Everything here is “Primero Dios” (God willing) or “Gracias a Dios” (Thanks to God). The cooperative socios are devoutly religious and often look to the bible and Jesus for guidance.

Let me give you a recent example. Last week, I was debating between whether to take a weekend trip up to Coban to visit some other volunteers or stay in my site. I wanted to see my friends, but I also felt an obligation to spend the weekend in my community. I asked around and most socios proclaimed, “Go! I’d go.” or “Life is for having fun”. But, the best response I got was from Don Edgar. I told him how I was torn and he said, “You should have told me about this a couple of days ago and I could have asked God to send me a sign. But, these things take time and now it is too late.”

“Oh no, that is too bad! Is there anything else I can do?” I replied.

“Well, God’s voice can be heard in many forms. (long pause) Tell me, have you tossed a coin?” Was his answer.

I had exhausted my efforts to convince Adan through rational thinking. It was time to turn to a higher power. I decided to sit Adan down and have a little one-on-one “come to jesus” chat. I had my speech, if you will, thought out ahead of time. I knew I couldn’t ramble off verses or talk him in biblical circles so I needed to go in with a steadfast plan. I decided to use a tactic my Dad taught me (love you papa). When I was buying my first car in Michigan I remember my Dad advised me to, “just repeat, ‘I know how much this car is worth, I’m going to pay this amount.’ Don’t let the dealer get you off topic. Repeat what you want over and over and he will concede.” I applied this “repeat” method to my current situation, reminding myself, “just repeat ‘What would Jesus do?’ Repeat it over and over and he will concede.”

It was Wednesday evening around 5pm when I invited Adan over to the wooden table in the back of the Cooperative. I was strangely nervous. I wanted this to work and I was afraid that at any moment in time I might start laughing. I am not comfortable bringing up Jesus in a work environment and, unfortunately, laughter seems to be my default response to awkward situations. I had decided that no matter what Adan’s reaction to my tactic was, I had to play the part through to the end. This was extremely important to me because I didn’t want him to think I was mocking Jesus in any way, which would never be my intention. I needed the conversation to be as sincere as I meant it. I started the chat with a smile (another tactic my Dad taught me to get rid of nerves, "It calms you and the listener," he says. He is a psychiatrist for a reason.):

“Adan, we have talked many times about your loan and I know you said that it is nonnegotiable but still this loan is causing me pain. I can’t sleep at night. I feel like I’ve come here to help the coop improve its business and this loan is stopping progress. I have spent hours thinking about what I can do to help solve this problem but couldn’t come up with anything. So, I decided to call my pastor (aka Barrett Bumpas) in the United States. I told him about the loan and how it’s making me sad and he said, “Annalisa, this is a tough situation you are in. I think the best thing for you to do is ask Adan, ‘What would Jesus do?’ So, Adan, I’m asking you know, What would Jesus do if he was in your position?”

The question hit him like a load of bricks. He widened his eyes, leaned back in his chair, gave me an awkward smile and then redirected the conversation.

Adan: You see, before you got here the cooperative had taken a Q15,000 loan out from another person who was charging Q100 interests per month. Can you believe it? Q100 per month. We couldn’t keep up that loan and we looked everywhere to find a way out. I offered to loan the money to pay off that loan and only charge Q500 interests. I was helping the cooperative.

Annalisa: Yes, but that was then and this is now. Don’t you agree that the previous loan was unjust? And now you are doing the same thing with your loan. What do you think Jesus would do?

Adan: But, when we made the deal I told them I could only give the loan if they paid me back in full because I am going to use that money for a specific reason and I need it all at once.

Annalisa: I understand, but before the coop didn’t know they would have these troubles. They didn’t know they wouldn’t be able to pay you back in a reasonable amount of time.

Adan: This is true.

(At this point I remembered I needed to get back to Jesus.)

Annalisa: Now, you have the opportunity to help the coop get out of debt. You’ve already made Q7,500. Would Jesus keep taking money?

Adan: But, this is how most people work here.

Annalisa: But, you don’t have to be “most people.” You have the opportunity to help the Coop. But, instead I feel like you are using their weaknesses for your own benefit, umm you are, how do you say....

(Here I tried to think of “you are taking advantage of the cooperative” but drew a blank.)

Adan: I’m not being conscientious?

Annalisa: Exactly. Jesus would be more conscientious.

Adan: But, no one in the coop is doing anything to help pay the loan back or look for another solution. No one has done any work.

Annalisa: Neither have you. (Smiling) If you wanted to help the coop you could go look for another lender. Why haven’t you gone and done any research? It’s as much your fault as theirs that nothing has gotten accomplished.

Adan: But, we need to do it in a group.

(This is a common belief here- everything has to be done in a group. No one can do anything independently. This infuriates me, but I keep my smile.)

Annalisa: Why do you need to do it in a group? If you want to get something done you have the power to do it. When I want to do something, I do it. I didn’t need a group of people to come with me to talk to you about your loan. I wanted to do it and now we are here talking about your loan. (Internal thought, ‘less me, more Jesus, Anna.’) Jesus did things on his own. You have the power to make this right...

At that moment Alfonso showed up on his moto and broke up our conversation. I could tell Adan was relieved.

I have yet to see any signs that bringing Jesus into the loan discussion has helped the situation. But, like Don Edgar says, “these things take time.”

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Getting to Know Nancy

My life in Guatemala has become much more light hearted and humorous these past few months thanks to my new found friend, Nancy. I’m pretty sure I’ve introduced you all to her, she is the latest of the thread of replacement shop keepers. Lucky for the Cooperative, she is on her second month and staying strong. She did threaten to quit after her one month mark but I arranged an intervention and Adan, Alfonso and I managed to convince her to stay. Gracias a Dios.

I knew Nancy and I were going to get along the moment she revealed to me, “I don’t know if I want to get married. I have enough to worry about as it is, the last thing I need are in-laws.” She goes against the Guatemalan grain. She is a breath of fresh air. Since she started working at the store, the monotony of the tienda’s retail atmosphere has vanished.

I’ll give you an example.

At the store we sell some typical produce: onions, tomatoes, potatoes, bell peppers, carrots etc. The stock doesn’t always fly off the shelves so we are constantly looking for ways to keep the produce fresh for as long as possible. Our most recent salvaging act was performed on a handful of wilting, rubbery carrots. I showed Nancy how to maintain the veggies fresh by sticking them in water and refrigerating (a trick I stole from my mom- love you mom- also works great with celery). Nancy filled a little plastic bowl with water, placed the carrots in the bowl stems up. Then she turned to me before placing the bowl in the fridge. The following exchange ensued:

Nancy: “Do we cut the greens off?”

Annalisa: “I don’t know, what do you think?”

Nancy: “What do you think?”

Annalisa: “I want to know what you think will look better.”

Nancy: (While gripping her ponytail) “Well, if you cut off all MY hair, I think it would look a little strange.”

We kept the greens on.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Love/Hate Relationship

Every first Friday of the month at 4pm in the afternoon the Cooperative has an all-member meeting. Yesterday was no exception. At 5pm (we run on “la hora Chapina” (Guatemalan time)) the members gathered in a semi circle of white plastic chairs on the dirt plot behind the tienda. Thirteen of the twenty-eight members were present. Jamie Juarez, the Coop president, gave the introduction, some other pieces of business were discussed and then Adan and Alfonso stood up to give the monthly tienda report.

I have been working with Adan on compiling this monthly report since I arrived here in Casas Viejas. Prior to my arrival those in charge of the tienda would simply report one figure during the meeting, a figure that they called “Inventory.” This number was a sum of the value of all products in the tienda, plus outstanding credit, plus the amount that was in the cash register. This was an approximate calculation of what was invested in the store at that point in time. The first problem I noticed with this figure was that they were calculating the value of their products using the selling price instead of the price at which they bought the goods. For example, if they had 10 eggs in their inventory and they paid Q.70 for each egg and charged Q1 they would calculate the product value to be Q10 instead of Q7. This was an error that took me months to explain to them. After almost a year of diligently working on improving the old style of reporting Adan and I now compile a complete report including inventory, income, expenses and earnings for the month. But I digress, we were discussing the current report... Adan was up in front of his twelve colleagues about to read off the report we had compiled over the preceding three days. But before he rambled off the figures he started with a little intro that went like this:

Adan: “Before I start I want to confess to you all that this report is not easy to do. In fact it’s a huge head-ache. Annalisa and I have worked three days on completing this work and its tough, all of the numbers give me an immense head-ache.”

Annalisa’s internal thoughts: “hahaha, damn straight I’m making your brain work.”

Adan: “But the truth is I’m learning a lot, Annalisa is teaching me useful information. I was talking with Loyda (his wife) this morning and I told her that what I am learning will help me in future work. I encourage all of you to come to the tienda and take part in what we are doing there.

Annalisa’s internal thoughts: “Awe, Adan, that is just about the best feedback I could have ever asked for.”

Adan: “Right now, I see that there is a lack of participation on the part of most associates. Alfonso and I work every night at the store, sometimes working past dinnertime, our wives are wondering where we are, and I see associates drive by on their bicycles and just waive. Just remember that in March I am no longer going to be a part of the Vigilance Committee and another person will be in charge of the tienda. Whether you like it or not, eventually more of you will need to take responsibility of the tienda.”

Annalisa’s internal thoughts: “March is going to be a rough month.”

Adan then gave the monthly report. Good news, the store had earnings of Q561 for the month and even after paying off some of the Cooperatives debts. The Cooperative as a whole is still in debt but we are making gains in cutting the deficit. Speaking of debts there is one that pains me to think of. Maybe pains isn’t the right word, irks me to no end is more like it. You know that helpless, empty feeling that permeates the area where your figurative soul resides when you realize you’ve lost something of importance? That feeling that sends tingles up your spine and makes you want to heave a moan of angst? I get that every time I think about Adan’s loan.

Adan and Loyda are two of my favorite Cooperative associates. They are responsible, friendly and eager to learn. But ever since I uncovered the specifics of this loan of theirs I have an internal (strictly internal) love/hate relationship with them. Although the pair are one of the most engaged Cooperative associates I have learned that in their eyes, as in the eyes most Guatemalans, family takes priority over community. Often to the detriment of progress.

When the tienda was just opening Adan loaned the Cooperative a generous lump of dinero to be used to buy product to stock the store. The loan is working like this; Adan loaned Q10,000 and will receive Q500 monthly in interests until the loan can be paid back in full. None of the Q500 monthly interests goes towards paying off the principal. You know that helpless pain in my soul I just described? I’m getting that feeling right now just writing about this loan. Adan gave the loan September of 2009. He has since received Q7,500 in just interest. My soul is hurting again. You do the math.

Nearly all of the Cooperative earnings are going to pay other outside debts. It will be ages before they can save Q10,000 to pay back Adan in one lump sum. And in the meantime he will be raking in Q500 monthly. And I’m pretty sure he knows this. In fact, I know he knows this because when I took him aside last month to try to convince him to let the Coop refinance the loan, and told him, “Adan, its going to be impossible for the Cooperative to get out of this loan!” He said with a smirk, “I know.”

I warned Adan that I was going to discuss his loan at the meeting. I even gave him the opportunity to play the “good guy” and offer up the proposed refinance as his own idea. But he wanted me to do the talking and said, “Let’s see what the other members think.” Yesterday, when he was done with giving the monthly report, he was the one that said, “And now Annalisa wants to discuss my loan.”

Annalisa: “I have spoken with Adan about the possibility of refinancing his loan. Since it seems like it will be a while before the Cooperative can save Q10,000 I think it might be a good idea to negotiate a change in how the principal is paid back. Maybe try to refinance so that part of the Q500 that we pay him monthly will go to pay off the principal and a portion will be interests.”

All the associates agreed that this would be a good idea.

Maritza: “Adan, would you agree to this change?”

Adan: “No.”

Maritza: “So your loan is non negotiable”

Adan: “It's non negotiable.”

Annalisa’s internal thoughts: “what a jerk. I’m definitely not going to give him a Christmas goody bag.”

I’m not kidding. I was furious with his intractability and in retaliation my brain immediately sought the only punishment I could bestow upon him. Neglecting him a christmas present.