Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Emprendimiento de Negocios

Microfinance is nothing new. In fact, I won’t credit Grameen Bank with “founding” the idea because the concept has been around for centuries. Nevertheless, it continues to be, in my opinion, one of the best ways to really help transform someone’s life. I’m broaching this subject because it relates directly to the work I’ve been doing here. While I was conducting interviews in the communities, I asked a lot of specific questions about income, spending, food, etc. but I also asked a lot of open ended questions about the women’s hopes, needs and ideas. It was the responses to these open ended questions that really got me excited. Basically, after meeting with 8 different communities I had found at least four women that I personally wanted to give loans to (Polina, can't you just see my inner CEO getting all excited). Juana in Chuicutama wants to start a panaderĂ­a, Santa in Pacutama hopes to open a store, Dominga wants to grow more tomatoes and potentially start making salsas and pasta sauce and Hilda (who works for AMA) wants to help a group of midwives start a medicinal herb garden. And obviously, I want to help all of them. Rather than becoming a personal micro finance bank, however, I decided to apply for a grant, which is what I’ve been working on this week….and finally finished last night! There’s no guarantee that it will amount to anything but it feels really good to have completed my research and to have actually applied for funding for projects pertaining to it. My work here is done (for now) and I can start to look forward to sunshine and quality time with my mom in Costa Rica. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Slashed bags, Tolstoy & quality time in the kitchen (yes, Karsten, where women belong)

Although I have never been to San Francisco, California, I can say that I have been to San Francisco, Guatemala. San Francisco El Alto is famous for its huge market that takes place every Friday. Unlike Chichicastenango, which is an artisan market that exists primarily for tourists, San Francisco is a market for Guatemalans. It has endless rows of vendors selling fruits, vegetables, queso fresco, grains etc. as well as lots of vendors selling traditional Guatemalan skirts, blouses, and small blankets (that women use to carry babies on their backs). You can also find almost any brand of knock off clothing you can imagine. “Adidas”, “Nike” and “Hollister” seem to be the most popular brands reproduced here. San Fran is also the place to go if you want to buy live animals. This explains why, on the way back, the chicken bus truly became a chicken bus. Several women standing in the aisle on the packed bus held a chicken in each arm. And a little girl and her mom got on carrying ducks, which I must say were much better behaved than the chickens. I actually didn’t end up buying anything at San Fran because, as I said before, it’s not really a market for souvenirs; it’s somewhere you visit for the experience. And it definitely is an experience. You probably haven’t truly experienced pushing until you’ve been in a market like this. Guatemalans may be tiny people but don’t be deceived, they can be quite forceful. At one point a woman shoved past me and I came very close to completely face-planting  in a woman’s pile of potatoes; Lucy actually had to grab the back of my shirt to keep me from falling over. The most notable story from our trip to San Francisco El Alto, however, is Lucy’s slashed bag. When we got off the bus back in Xela, Lucy looked down at her purse and saw that it had a huge slash in it; someone at the market had evidently cut through it with a knife hoping to snag her wallet, camera, etc. Luckily all of her stuff was still there, but, unfortunately, in addition to cutting her purse the knife also slashed through her rain jacket that was inside.
Saturday was a lazy day. Lucy and I wandered around Xela for a bit, took some pictures, visited a bookstore and a chocolate shop and grabbed lunch. Not surprisingly it rained for a good part of the afternoon so I spent some time inside reading. I decided to read War & Peace this summer, which, for those unfamiliar with the book, is freaking huge! At this point Xela has become my home and, just as at home I often prefer spending Saturday nights in, I spent my Saturday night hanging out at “home.” Call me lame if you want, but it’s actually really nice to live in another city/country for long enough that you don’t feel like you have to spend every waking moment seeing this or that city/monument/museum/show/etc. Nevertheless, Sunday I did make a point to experience Xela’s market day and a Guatemalan church service. Although I would consider myself proficient in Spanish at this point, I couldn’t follow the sermon.  I also spent like 5 hours on Sunday cooking, and although I’m still not a boss in the cocina like Cater, I have learned to make quite a few interesting and totally random things – guacamole, fried rice, gnocchi, hummus, quiche and beans. That night, a bunch of us hung out at the office for a while which was actually a lot of fun. I definitely feel at home here now and have gotten so much closer to the women I work with. Juanita is like my mom away from home. Haha I love the way she says “LADYYYYYY.” We pick on each other a lot, which becomes even funnier when she has to explain to me what she said haha. How to describe everyone else.. Claudia is like a fashionable older sister (not replacing you, Jordan) and Sylvia is like your favorite high school teacher. Hilda is so full of energy, like that friend you have who does everything (*cough cough Kaz). They are my Guatemalan family (plus a few extra gringas – Cater, Kirsten and Lucy), which is why the thought of leaving them in 3 DAYS seems absolutely crazy. How did 5 weeks pass already!?!?

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Mayan Nawals

Mayan Nawals are essentially the Mayan equivalent of you astrological sign. My zodiac sign is Sagittarius and is based on which block of the year you are born in. Mayan Nawals, however, are determined by the day you were born so that someone born in April might have the same Nawal as someone born in November. My Nawal is Kame, which as everyone from my ASB team knows has a rather interesting/morbid description.

This is my translation from the book of Nawals in the AMA office:


Owl. Death, tranquility, silence. Nawal of death.

Symbolizes the end of all things good and all things bad. An excellent day to ask for forgiveness or to pardon others, it is a day of reconciliation. A special day to remember and ask for the rest of the dead in order to supplicate tranquility.

Persons born in Kame were conceived in Tijax, they are pacient, of good practice and attitude, they are bold, intelligent, respectful, they know how to control themselves. Philosophers, spiritual doctors, administrators of justice, psychologists and artists. If they cultivate the Mayan spirit they can come to prophesy the good and bad. They have a tendency for accidental death, vengeance and to be despised by other.

 Yea. so not sure what I'm supposed to take away from this. The end of all things good and bad...

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

chicken buses and bartering

A chicken bus is really something you must see for yourself. Imagine an American school bus painted an assortment of other colors with a name like “Super Nina” written across the side. Now imagine it packed full of Guatemalans and a few young white travelers. That’s a chicken bus. Despite the rustic nature of this method of travel, I must say that the bus system here – both micro-buses within the cities and chicken buses that travel between cities – is super convenient, and of course, super cheap! My first experience on a chicken bus was the ride to Cantel with Katy last Thursday. To catch one of these buses in Xela you have to go to el terminal, where there is a row of buses heading off to almost any city you need to get to (and if not it’s super easy to change buses in a city on the way). At first I was concerned about trying to find the right bus to get on, but as soon as you exit the market and approach the line of buses, someone comes up and asks where you’re headed and then shows you to the right bus. When I got on the bus to Espumpuja with Katy on Friday I was taken aback by the number of people crammed on there. We made our way to the back and sat three to a seat with a man and his sack of potatoes?? By the time the bus actually pulled out the aisles were also completely packed with people standing and then at the next stop two or three more men got on in the back. One of the men had his arm right by Katy’s face and his backpack was resting on my head until I made an uncomfortable movement that sort of nudged him off of me. The bus also becomes a major selling place for venders prior to its departure from the terminal. Young boys wander onto the bus selling gum and others try to sell fruit in a bag, bread, coconut, candy and all sorts of other stuff. Also, if you recall riding on the bus as a kid, then you probably recall how much more you feel all the bumps and curves in a road on a school bus. Nevertheless, although I complain about the downsides to the chicken buses, I absolutely love them because they take me from point A to point B (which can sometimes be 2 or 3 hours away) for roughly 2 or 3 bucks.

If you ever go to Chichicastenango (which you should!) be prepared to barter. Anyone who has done much traveling has had experience with this. The Chichi market is filled with rows of venders selling blankets, weavings, pillowcases, hammocks, jewelry, sculptures, paintings, bags, shirts, masks, belts, candles and a whole lot more. It’s awesome just to walk around and look at everything because the market is filled with such beautiful colors, as is most of Guatemala. Beware, however, because as you walking it is very likely that a small Guatemalan women will starting following you trying to get you to by one of the many weavings she is carrying on her head, continually telling you “good price, good price.” Also, if you point at something the vendor will immediately start to take it down and ask you what price you’ll pay for it. I always have the vendor name the price first and then basically cut that price in half. One time I did this with a blanket that I was looking at but wasn’t even sure I wanted, and when I turned to leave lady finally accepted my really low price, which I didn’t expect. So then I was like crap, I don’t even know if I want this and ended up turning it down. It’s kind of easy to end up bartering for something you don’t even really want to buy…but hey I guess that’s part of the fun.

Newsflash: Hot showers. Yesterday I had my first legitimate hot shower, like steamy almost too hot hot. Here’s the crazy thing though…apparently Lucy and I had been using the shower wrong this whole time and the cold handle is actually hot! Before you laugh about how stupid I am, however, I’d like to say in my defense that I had tried that before and that when I got here I was told nothing of the sort.

Monday, June 27, 2011

"Sorry, I just don't get excited about rocks"

Backtracking – Last Thursday I visited Cantel to interview another women’s circle. It’s surprising how different communities can be…Cantel appears to be quite a bit more affluent than the other communities I’ve visited. Afterwards we came back to the office and helped get everything set up for the festivities that evening. Friday was Juanita’s birthday and we had a whole team staying at the office for one night so AMA was a very busy place. We had two teams here for a salsa lesson and pizza and then we surprised Juanita with balloons and cake before heading out to La Rumba to dance! Hilda and Juanita got pretty drunk which was absolutely hilarious but also well deserved if you knew how hard these ladies work. That night I stayed up until 2am talking with Caleb from the MCV team…that turned out to be a bad decision as I was absolutely exhausted going to interview the women in Espumpuja the next day. While we were in the community, Katy and I found out that it was San Juan’s day which means there is a big celebration in San Juan. Despite the fact that I was about to fall asleep standing up I really wanted to see what a saint’s day celebration is like so Katy and I made a short detour to San Juan before heading home. There were rows and rows of vendors selling food and lots of games in addition to music and people in elaborate dress and masks dancing in the center square. I was literally the only white person in San Juan haha.
Saturday, I tagged along with a JPC group from Uva to visit Tak’Alik’Abaj, the site of some Mayan ruins. We took a 2 hour ride on a chicken bus to the nearest city for about $2 and then caught a taxi up to the park/reserve. Obviously I knew that this site wasn’t going to be as amazing as the famous Tikal, but I was still pretty excited to see some ruins. However, the quote of the day, which Vat is still laughing about, turned out to be “Sorry, I just don’t get excited about rocks.” There were some rocks carved into cool figures like alligators, toads, jaguars, but still, after an hour and a half of touring them I had had my fill of rocks. So, we grabbed dinner at a Mexican restaurant, ran through the rain and caught a chicken bus back home. Oh crazy story, on the micro bus back to my office in Xela, I heard a cat meowing only to turn and discover that the women beside me had a cat in a bag…wtf.
To make up for the rocks, Vat, Lucy, and I went to Chichicastenango yesterday. Chichi is also about 2 hours away and boasts a huge market full of all sorts of artisan goods. I told myself when I came to Guatemala that I wasn’t going to buy very much, but it is so much harder to stick to that when you are surrounded by beautiful and very inexpensive crafts. Luckily, I didn’t bring very much money so I couldn’t go overboard. I did buy a blanket and an awesome weaving for my mom though. Vat and I also became obsessed with the paintings at this one store and are seriously contemplating returning to buy one…they are pretty expensive by Guatemalan standards but so awesome. As it tends to in Guatemala, it started raining, but luckily just as we were leaving. Surprisingly, I found that I felt a little sick on the chicken bus ride to and from Chichi…as Vat and I would say, travel weak. So anyways my day in Chichi was awesome...I will definitely fill you in on the art of bargaining and the joys of riding chicken buses in my next post!

Friday, June 24, 2011


Happiness! Hola amigos! I haven’t written to you since Monday and this time I really have A LOT to catch you up on. Up until this week I would say that my experience here in Guatemala could be described with mixed feelings. At times I loved exploring the city, hanging out with new friends, and chatting with the women I work with; at other times I felt extremely lonely and seriously questioned whether my work here was what I had expected. Yes, I even had a mental break down of sorts…which after the fact I suppose I can appreciate and regard as a character building experience. However, yesterday, as I walked a little dirt road to Xeabaj II with Katy (looking out over an amazing mountainous landscape), I couldn’t help but think, “This is why I came to Guatemala!” In other words, the past few days have been amazing.
Monday morning at 6am I left for Pacutama, a community about an hour from Xela. There was a team of med school students from MCV working in a clinic there and I stayed in the bunks and ate meals with them, but during the day traveled to different communities with Katy to conduct activities and interviews with the women’s circles that AMA has set up. Monday, I visited Chiquisis and Chajuab. It’s much colder that far up in the mountains so I had to wear yoga pants under my blue jeans and like three layers on top. The meetings with the women’s circles went surprisingly well. All of the women in these communities spoke Quiche so I would speak in Spanish to Katy, who would then translate to everyone else. It feels pretty cool to have conducted a whole meeting/interview in Spanish; even my notes are in Spanish haha. Anyways, I’m finding it really hard to describe everything I want to because there is just so much and I would end up writing a novel, so I’ll have to do some summarizing. Over the next two days I visited four more communities – Chicuatama, Pacutama, Xeabaj I, and Xeabaj II. In each community I had the women draw a map of the community while Katy and I conducted individual interviews. These communities are pretty small so in most cases the women legitimately knew how many families lived there. Some of the communities are literally only a stones throw away from each other and yet they are considered completely separate.
Short anecdote: As I finished up talking with the women’s circle in Chicuatama, the women started asking Katy a few questions about me in Quiche and then went on to say that they thought I was pretty yada yada. Here’s the kicker though – Karsten, you’re gonna love this – they told Katy that they liked my chin. I immediately started laughing and then went on to explain in Spanish that my brother frequently makes jokes about my chin. Karsten, you win – even a group of indigenous Mayan women in Guatemala thought my chin was worth mentioning.
Also, for any of you that didn’t know, tortillar (to make tortillas) is actually a verb. I made tortillas twice this week and, let’s be real, it’s harder than it looks. These women make tortillas three times a day though so it’s expected that mine shouldn’t be as perfectly round and flat. In Xeabaj I, I ate lunch with a family in their little cinderblock kitchen. The family was incredibly nice and hospitable; they waited for Katy and I to finish eating before they served themselves. The dad asked me a lot of questions about school, my U.S., my hometown. It was almost a little embarrassing to have to say that my house is two stories when theirs is obviously like two rooms. Nevertheless, lunch was really nice and the dad even made a joke about me marrying his son and buying him a visa haha (totally think I flipped the switch, Kelsey).
I’m going to write a completely separate post to describe the interviews and activities I’ve been doing and to of course offer my inspirational/sentimental/women’s empowerment thoughts that you are all probably expecting to hear from me (Polina, this is probably where you laugh and say “you would”), but for now I’ll just mention a few of the other interesting things that happened in the community. Since we were living in a community I had to say goodbye to toilets, mirrors and showers for a few days. Yea haha I didn’t bathe from midday Saturday until Tuesday night. And when I finally did get to clean up, I got to try teamascal (probably spelled that wrong) – basically you heat several buckets of hot water and put them in a small wooden house (kind of like a giant dog house) outside where you essentially just give yourself a sponge bath. That description makes it sound really weird but it’s actually pretty nice because the water is super warm and there are rocks inside that you can pour water on and it makes the whole little house steam up.
I haven’t mentioned this before but there are tons of dogs in Guatemala and Pacutama was no exception. Normally I wouldn’t be scared of dogs but they definitely made the idea of walking outside, by yourself, at night, to use the bathroom much more frightening. The girls from MCV thus created the pee bucket, which yes, I most definitely used. Last, but not least, (and sorry to be throwing this in after a pee bucket story) I want to say how super freaking proud I am of my brother for making it to the final election for Governor at Boys State…you don’t need the title, Karsten, you’ll still always be much cooler than me. Well, this is adios for now…this post really only covers through Wednesday so be expecting another one very soon!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Santa Maria and sudden changes in plans

Friday night at 11:45 pm I climbed in a bus with ten other students to hike Santa Maria. Santa Maria is a mountain from the top of which you have a great view of an active volcano. We started the hike at midnight in order to make it to the top at 5:30, sunrise. Unfortunately, none of us napped as much as we’d hoped to that day so we were all pretty tired as we hiked up the really steep and sometimes slippery path. The difference in altitude in Xela already makes breathing hard when you’re exercising, so breathing as we hiked up Santa Maria was even more difficult at times and we stopped pretty frequently. Of course, it was dark so we were all lighting our way with flashlights…scanning the ground closely to avoid stepping in the huge piles of cow/horse poop that were pretty common along the trail. When we first started hiking it was pretty warm; I stripped down to my t-shirt and actually broke a major sweat. I actually thought of Nate Brown and how sweaty he would have been haha. As we made our way up the mountain, however, it got really cold. And at the very top of Santa Maria it was windy which made it even colder. Despite the cold and the sleep deprivation though, it was worth it because the view was spectacular. While it was still dark we could see the red glow of the volcano below us and as the sun rose we could see mountains on every side of us. It was beautiful and you can count on seeing lots of pictures soon! Anyways the hike back down was a lot warmer and faster. I still can’t believe I stayed up all night doing that hike! After we got back to Xela, David, Vat and I went out to a crepe place for lunch and then we all went home to nap before meeting up that evening for dinner. It was David’s last night in Xela so we hung out and talked for a long time and then went to dinner at a good Indian place in town. I’ve absolutely loved getting to talk and hang out with David and Vat, probably in part because I like to talk so much haha. They are both from Uva, which is also really cool because we actually have the potential to hang out when we get back to Charlottesville.
Changes in the plan. This is the only blog I’ll be posting between now and Wednesday because, as I just found out twenty minutes ago, I will be living in a community for part of the week. Unfortunately, Pacutama is even higher than Xela and therefore, is much much colder. However, the good news is that I get to start conducting the interviews and activities for my research. Wish me luck!