Thursday, May 26, 2011


I had just gotten back to the Coop after picking mangos with Don Fernando when Don Simon pulled up in a beat-up red pick-up and called me to his side window.

“The guys want to know if you can go to Sarampaña to do accounts.”

Since December, once a month, I have been meeting with the six socios who decided to take over the salina (saltworks) to review income and expenses.

I grabbed my bag, hopped in the truck and asked, “Did you guys sell all the salt?”

“Yes, and now we want to see how we stand.”

We pulled up to Don Beto’s house and there sat the five other socios: Toribio, Don Edgar, Don Jaime, Jose Angel and Don Beto. They stared at us from a semi-circle of plastic chairs planted awkwardly in the sand.

I climbed down from the pick-up and greeted them with a, “Buenas tardes.” They pulled up an empty seat and I sat waiting for someone to speak. Toribio began, “We are finished with the salinas this year and now we want you to help us figure out how to divide up the money.”

For the next hour we crunched numbers. Our discussion was punctuated with back and forths about who had already been paid for hauling salt, who had put in extra funds for this-and-that, who had been reimbursed for such-and-such. At every point of disagreement I took the opportunity to remind them, “If you had written this all down, you wouldn’t be having this argument.” They always agreed.

It takes time to change habits and I’m just glad I convinced Jose Angel, who was managing the salinas, to carry a notebook with him at all times. He recorded “most” transactions.

In the end, we calculated that the Salina had brought in a little over Q2,000 ($250) in profits for the year. To be divided up between the six men. This may not seem like much but, considering last year the Cooperative lost about Q40,000 in the Salinas, coming out ahead this year was a huge gain.

The difference between the two year’s outcomes lays largely in the price of salt. Last year, the Coop was selling a quintal of salt for Q15 or Q17. In English, 100 lbs of salt for $2. Amazing, right? This year, we were able to sell our salt at Q25. The increase in the price of salt, coupled with a slightly lower start-up cost, helped the guys come out ahead. The good weather conditions this year (less rain) didn't hurt either. I'm also going to go ahead and attribute some of the success to better management of the operation. Last year, it was impossible to assemble the associates to review expenses. This year we met monthly, without complaint. This forced the group to be accountable and scrutinize their spending.

At the end of the meeting, Toribio divided up the cash, setting aside Q200 for a celebratory lunch of fried shrimp, which they invited me to partake in tomorrow, insisting that the shrimp be accompanied by a “cervecita” (little beer). I didn’t contest.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Guatemalan Xerox Machines

Last Sunday my next door neighbor Milbia yelled to me from the chain link fence that separates my back yard from her kitchen.


“Hey Milbia, what’s up?”

“Would you do me the favor of letting me borrow your computer? Ours isn’t working right now and I need to do a paper for the U.”

Just this year Milbia started taking Saturday classes at the local University. This is no small feat for a 28-year-old single mother of two young kids (Benicio and Leslie). Most women in her situation become comfortable tending the house and lack the confidence and motivation to make their personal growth a priority. I was happy to supply my computer for her schoolwork needs, anything to help along her success story.

Later that afternoon, Milbia and a classmate of hers came to my house and I set them up on my computer. As I tended to my housework: sweeping, dusting and washing clothes; Milbia dictated from a bound report and her friend typed.

“Diariamente, miles de niños y niñas en Guatemala viven el problema del maltrato infantil...” (Daily, thousands of Guatemalan boys and girls suffer from child abuse...)

At one point the typist took a break and I took the opportunity to comment on their report.

“You guys are writing a paper on child abuse?”

“Yes, but it’s already written, we just have to retype it.”

“It looks pretty nice in that folio you already have. Why do you have to retype it?”

“Well, we didn’t write this, we are just copying it.”

I grabbed the paper bound report they had been dictating from and sure enough, it had worn out dirty edges and was written by other students with a previous year’s due date. The first thing I wondered was, "Did the students, whose names are on the bound copy, write this or copy it?"

This wasn’t my first experience with students here “pidiendo copias” (asking to copy). When helping Jenny correct English homework, I noticed trends in sentences. “Trends” might be generous, an entire class would turn in verbatim assignments. As if they were little Guatemalan xerox machines. And, Selvin, who used to work at the minibank, would make extra cash by doing kids homework on the Coop’s computer- mostly just copying paragraphs from Wikipedia en Español.

I am frustrated by the Guatemalan educational system. If this country is ever to develop and prosper its students must be empowered to think critically and cultivate their own imagination. It doesn’t surprise me that in any Guatemalan town you will find three panadarias (bakeries) making the same tasteless bread; or fifteen corner stores selling the same cornflakes, sugar and refried beans that the tienda down the street sells. It’s a copy culture. The education system doesn’t encourage kids to take risks and think for themselves so why would they as adults?

When I found out that Milbia was copying, I became upset. Doesn’t she realize the only person she is cheating is herself? “You know,” I said to her, “if a student in the U.S. is caught copying, they can be kicked out of school.” I didn’t receive the shocked reaction I was hoping for.

I wasn't shocked.

"Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution." - Albert Einstein

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Yes, This is My Life

Below is the house tour grand finale. But, before we get to it, I have a few updates:

Blog by Bullets

☀ I learned yesterday that the Coop has taken out a legit bank loan to pay off Adan’s "predatory" loan. The new Q10,000 loan will be paid off, interest and principle, in two years, or so I’ve been told. Adan received his Q10,000 principal payment in one lump sum on Saturday. To date, Adan has reaped Q10,500 in straight gains from his loan. A 105% return on his investment. He will no longer be taking Q500 monthly "interest" payments from the tienda. Thank God.

☀ At the same time, the Coop took out another Q10,000 loan to start a fried chicken business. So help me God.

☀ While talking on the Coop stoop, Don Alfonso informed me that you can rub a live toad's belly on your shin to cure a gimp leg. However, after you get the toad slime rubbed in real good you must immediately put the creature back in water or it doesn't work. Animal rights DO exist here, after all... The procedure gave birth to the saying, “Saque el sapo.” (Grab the toad) when discussing what to do with a hurt leg.

☀ Yesterday, the school kids and I transplanted a tomato plant seedling to an upside-down hanging carton. Photos to come. We are waiting on the two other surviving seedlings to grow big enough to transplant as well. The kids are looking forward to their chirmol (a typical salsa made with tomatoes). After losing dozens of seedlings, I’m thinking in baby steps. Tomatoes first, salsa later.

☀ Last week, I visited Jenny and her new baby boy, Nicolas.

☀ Saturday, I visited Brenda and her new baby boy, Adrian.

☀ Sunday, I visited Eslin and her new baby girl, name tbd.

☀ Leslie + Benicio Explore the Kitchen, Part 6


Annalisa: The kitchen. What do we have in the kitchen?

Leslie: Dishes

Annalisa: Dishes, what else?

Leslie: A table

Annalisa: A table, what else?

Leslie: Some bottles.

Annalisa: bottles, what else? What is this? (pointing to the refrigerator)

Leslie: This is a blender.

Annalisa: This is a blender, what is below? A fridge!

Leslie: A fridge.


Leslie: This is the water.

Annalisa: Water, purified water.

Leslie: Bottle.

Annalisa: Oil.

Leslie: Oil, and what else?

Annalisa: A lot more. Peanut butter, soy sauce, honey....

Annalisa: What is this? (pointing at honey)

Leslie: To put on food.

Annalisa: OK, what else do we have in the house?

Leslie: In the house we have... (no idea what she is mumbling)... Benicio... (no idea what she is mumbling)... I say.

Annalisa: I think we are finished. Do you want to do a dance or say goodbye to the camera?

Leslie + Benicio: goodbye!

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Great Outdoors

I found a way to compress the video files and was able to put the remaining parts on two videos. Here is the first, enjoy!


(Mostly english)

Annalisa: I'm speaking in English and it's difficult to understand, huh?

Leslie: (nods)

Annalisa: Why aren't you talking? Here is the bathroom.

Leslie: The bathroom

Annalisa: And this, what is this?

Leslie: A sprinkler.

Annalisa: A sprinkler, A shower.

Leslie: A shower.


Annalisa: What else is there, Benicio? A kitchen?

Leslie: A kitchen.

Annalisa: Let's go to the kitchen.

Leslie: OK

Two notes:

1. The bottles stuffed with trash are used by other volunteers in their Bottle School Projects. Check it out:

2. I failed to show you the amazing thatched roof "rancho" that I have. The roof, made of palm leaves. covers the area where my hammocks and kitchen reside- keeps the space shaded and (relatively) cool during the heat of the day.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Leslie + Benicio Forget That They're Tour Guides


Annalisa: Here they are!

Annalisa: Can you do the tour, please?

Kids: silence

Annalisa: Show us the bathroom.

Kids: silence

Annalisa: Leslie, where is the bathroom?

Leslie: silence

Annalisa: Where is the bathroom?

Leslie: silence

Annalisa: Over there? (pointing to the bathroom)

Leslie: Over there.

Annalisa: Yes, let's go.

Leslie: Yes.