Saturday, November 20, 2010

A day as a Guatemalan tourist

Since I'm on a roll with blog posts, I thought I'd roll out one I wrote almost a month ago, about the October 20th holiday, and never got around to posting, about a trip to Champerico with my fellow muni employees.

I sometimes feel as though I am genuinely living in an episode of The Office, if The Office were filmed in Guatemala, in a Maya-Mam town, and followed the activities of the municipalidad (the local town hall). The show would be titled "Ja te' ko'wb'il", which to someone from my town means "La municipalidad." Literally it means something like, "house of power," but it's about as close to "The Office" as we're going to get in the Mam dialect of my town.

No more is the sense of being present on some strange comedy show emphasized for me than when the muni employees are gathered collectively, as in the time the head of the office of municipal planning invited us all to his one-year-old daughter's birthday lunch, or when we gather to eat paches (hopefully potato paches) and celebrate's someone's leaving or coming or to plan the important work of stringing up 10 balloons for some crucially important event.

For the moment you will need to take my word that the variety of personalities and their interactions is amusing, to say the least. This hit home for me again on Wednesday, with my first experience as a Guatemalan tourist. Every year the muni gives its employees a free outing, and Wednesday was a holiday to celebrate the overthrow of Dictator Jorge Ubico in 1944. The muni employees decided to take advantage of the holiday to ask for an outing to beach at Champerico. (The original choice was Panajachel, but the men revolted and insisted on Champerico, for reasons that later became evident.)

The morning started out bright and early (in the dark) at 5:30 am. The rented camioneta (old school bus) was "leaving" at 5 am, which everyone knew meant 6 am (optimistically); but the most eager folks weren't for anything going to miss a free ride to the beach nor free breakfast and lunch at the beach, so they showed up at 5:30. My officemate was one of the eager beavers - she even had what I am pretty sure was strep throat and preferred to go to the beach over the doctor - so at 5:20 am I was dragging myself away from my kitten and a warm bed.

Around 6:15 we were making the calls to Persons X, Y, and Z, whom Person Q and Person T knew were coming but still had not made an appearance. At 6:30 Person Z clambered on board without the slightest hint of shame, and off we chugged to pick up two people in an aldea of my town. It also came out that there were people waiting for us down in the nearest big city, but we were going another route and someone made the executive decision to leave them behind. As far as I know, they are probably still waiting for us to pick them up. By 7 we were burning down the highway toward the beach.

It was a long ride through some beautiful country. When we actually reached the coastal plain I was struck by how similar it felt to rural New York in summer. Many times in my life I've looked over flat, rolling agricultural plains, humid, hot air bellowing in from open windows. But maybe I'm just a little homesick.

We arrived at the beachfront in Champerico and all 33 of us piled into an open-air restaurant for a late breakfast of eggs, refried beans, tortillas, queso fresco, fried plantains, and soft drinks. Then an agricultural volunteer from another foreign organization pulled out an almost-full bottle of rum, which was my first sense of where the day was heading.

From that point onward we separated into three groups: the drinking men, the women and abstaining men, and one family (a secretary, her husband who didn't give her permission to go on her own, and her young son). I didn't mind this arrangement, especially because the two guys who hung out with us all day are really good guys and it was fun to have a mixed-gender group. You generally don't hang out with people of the opposite sex in my town unless you're family, work colleagues, or dating, so it was nice to have some of the "hanging out" I was used to in the US.

We spent a little time on the beach, but the sun was sweltering hot - it felt like you could burn in just a second. Like a true gringa tourist I was prepared with sunscreen, a sun hat, a light long-sleeved shirt, and an umbrella. I gave my officemates a good laugh with all this ceremony, but they wore awesome huge-brimmed hats with their traje, too. Mom would have been proud.

Anyway, after a quick dip in the ocean the consensus was to head to a pool; so we hopped on a bicycle rickshaw and off we went, hearing rumors that there was a good spot a long ways out of town. The driver charged us less than $2 to carry three of us more than a mile in the sweltering heat; it was amazing. I think the bicycle rickshaws were a highlight of the day. It was definitely a relaxing way to travel. That type of technology makes a lot of sense for a flat tourist town without cobbled streets; I'm glad they haven't caught the tuk-tuk plague yet. It was also the first time I had ever received an advertising flyer while on a moving bicycle, from someone else on a moving bicycle. I love bikes.

I don't think I had seen a pool in more than nine months, and it was great. This was a real pool (admission $1.25) which had clean-ish showers, changing rooms, and indications of being chlorinated. After an elaborate sunscreen re-application process it was into the water. We took turns diving for a coin and did some laps. Everyone in the group happens to be really friendly and it was fun to feel really part of a group if only for a few hours.

Champerico is an interesting place. It's definitely a tourist town, but decidedly geared to national tourists. The beach is covered in trash; the bungalows are run down; there are desperate-seeming people walking around all over selling cheap shell jewelry, shaved ice cones of questionable origin, and coconuts, ready to be cut open and given a straw. Horses run up and down the beach, mostly carrying a the few foreign tourists around, and for a buck you can get your picture taken with a plastic inflatable shark. And the bike rickshaws. I liked it. It had character.

After the pool it was off to meet up with the big group for a late lunch, which reminded me that I definitely am not a seafood fan. Being vegetarian (or, here in Guatemala, "vegetarian"), this is always theoretically true, but in practice, different types of meat definitely evoke different physical reactions from me, generally in accordance with my exposure to them as a child. Most precisely I'm not a fan of seafood since it often requires bodily dismembering every last thing on the plate and in the bowl. (My parents can attest to that one in base of the famous lobster incident on Cape Cod as a kid, which was a precursory warning to my imminent vegetarianism). Perhaps the fact that the crab looks ready to crawl out of the bowl and off the plate makes it more delicious to some people.

After lunch the men scrambled to get a few last beers in for the bus ride home, and given a lack of fixed leadership - it was more like leadership by druken male consensus - we rolled out of town about an hour after schedule, which meant we were going to get home well after dark. These few hours of excitement harkened back to the days of the "drunk bus" in college; the highlights including general, mind-numbing racket; the head of police threateningly propositioning my officemate who was sitting next to me, before a municipal plumber who I think is an absolute dreamboat stepped in to tell him to buzz off; several passionate conversations between men in Mam that sounded a lot like "hey, I love you man." "Naww, I love YOU man. You're the best." "Nawwww, YOU'RE the best."; and at least two men openly bawling their eyes out on the shoulder of the guy next to them. It wasn't pretty. This has given me some whole new theories about emotional repression.

Meanwhile the women sat there ignoring it, tolerating it silently. But nevertheless, it was a memorable day, and a worthwhile day of cultural reflection, to say the least. I was exhausted and part of me would have loved to have slept in, caught up on work, and Google-chatted with my boyfriend all day. But in the end I wouldn't have remembered such a day at all, and this one I definitely will.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Working Hard, or Hardly Working?

It's been awhile since my last post: four solid weeks of thinking, hanging out with folks, teaching English, snuggling Oliver, and funnest of all, pimping the deformed love-child of my and my counterpart's ideas of community tourism.

I realize that in my quest to keep my posts mostly interesting, I've barely talked about work. In my first five months here work was very slow, but these past three months have been genuinely busy, and time has been going a lot more quickly. At times I regret all those "wasted" days - especially now having days in which I could use 72 hours instead of 24 - but when I really look back on it, there was not too much else I could have done. The slowness of work was in many ways directly related to the culture here and the amount of trust people had in me, which simply took time to build. Now I do more or less have that trust, which feels great, but it hardly seems professional to take so long before getting down to doing anything. Other factors intervened also - the weather, a disorganized counterpart, scattered community investment in my project.

At any rate, at a friend's request, I thought I'd finally get down to describing my work and projects here.

My general project is community tourism, perhaps one of the most flexible and funnest Peace Corps projects (especially if you are working at a site which actually has tourism!) We can work on everything from good business practices to hospitality to signs to guide trainings to trash management to womens' artesania to marketing and publicity to English classes to environmental education to trailwork and infrastructure to environmental interpretation... yada yada. We work with community associations, municipalities, schools, and whoever else we can.

One of the myriad ways for the frustration to come in is when you're at a site with questionable tourism potential. I am the first tourism volunteer in my site, where there is currently no tourism. It can be rather discouraging, since maybe one-third of PCV tourism sites "make it big" or have some financial success and in the others 1-3 volunteers invest two years of their lives each for a project that goes nowhere. I'm sure good things will come of my time here, but it may have nothing to do with actual tourism.

That said, there certainly is potential here. My site is near a major city as well as another major regional tourist attraction, and we have some gorgeous forests full of Mayan altars and views of volcanoes, completely undeveloped hot springs (although with very difficult access), and other gems most local people probably don't want outsiders knowing about. They have already began constructing a recreation center in the woods with a small building for events, playground, sports field, etc (directed toward regional or national tourists- Guatemalans like to have a playground and sports field in their woods!) The spot is far enough away, though, that attracting outside tourists, even nationals, is going to require some real work. It seems possible to attract a regional market, which is fine because there is a large one nearby, but that is not what my counterpart and the mayor are hoping for the park. They are imagining gringos crawling all over, and that I am the one to bring those people (with a zip-line, says my counterpart!). I doubt foreign tourists are ever going to financially sustain the operation, and I see part of my job as helping direct the muni toward a more accessible and profitable market.

Getting things going has been tough. Money's run out for the recreation center. The average townsperson doesn't really get the idea of tourism and feels ambivalent about devoting any time or energy to the idea. My counterpart, head of the municipal environmental office, is quite enthusiastic about tourism but completely scattered and in charge of about a hundred other things. (Managing six park guards and two office employees, representing our muni to GOs and NGOs, influencing municipal environmental regulations, trash management, reforestation, control of natural resources in the protected areas.)

My goals for my time here are to leave behind:

1. a strategic tourism plan and business plan for the muni and recreation center (and people who understand it);

2. a tourist-ready recreation center, well-managed and regulated, with signs and a completed environmental interpretation trail;

3. a group of people who can do environmental interpretation for groups that visit

4. solid promotion of the recreation center with local and regional schools and churches.

I don't have much hope for getting tourism going outside of the recreation center in the next 15 months, but I'd like to leave the idea with the muni that there are other touristic spots in town; the rec center is far far far and really not any more interesting than other spots in the municipio, or simply the municipio's culture itself. But, there aren't too many people in town who care at all about developing tourism, and my counterpart, the most vocal proponent, really only cares about "eco-tourism" in the forests. I also hope to unite the womens' artesania groups here a little more - that could go somewhere even if tourism doesn't, especially with the recent opening of the Municipal Womens' Office.

It would also be nice to accomplish some stuff with trash management; this year we will be doing an eco-ladrillo campaign with schools (which we could use for building at the recreation center!). I also hope to do a program with high schools to clean up the main rivers in town, and motivate the muni to fix the mess that is the municipal trash dump - perhaps via pressure from a community trash management committee. Plus my Masters' thesis on the water springs, which I've had the thought could be the kick-off of a community water monitoring program (similar to how the community plants trees every year.) OK so I'm dreaming big here, but you've gotta shoot for the moon sometimes even if you're just going to end up flat on your butt in the dirt.

I also have a total dream of putting together a video with oral histories from older people, about their lives and their perspectives on the environment, to use with high school students whose respect for traditional ways are ever waning. I think there would be lots of support for this idea from the Elders' Council, Cultural House, schools... And I would love doing it. I can just anticipate a lot of "creative differences" coming up though, so I would have to ask myself if it was really for local folks, or more for me.

At the moment these goals seem somewhat reasonable but we will have to see. I am about a third through my Peace Corps service and will have to ramp up my productivity rate considerably to get all that done! But the reach has got to exceed the grasp, or you might not even grasp all what you can - is my theory.

Right now without funding to finish the recreation center, stuff has been going slowly. I've been finishing a market survey with local folks about the recreation center (we did 200 surveys and it's now just the analysis), and I've also been doing a summer course in English for teachers (with about 25-30 participants), and meeting with womens' artesania groups to get to know their abilities and guage interest for an English-tourism hospitality class.

As a tiny side project I am trying to help the women improve their products and find small markets; they want to get rich but I'm learning breaking into the foreign artesania market is really tough. Other projects could be much more profitable... Just because gringos have money doesn't mean there's a portable gold mine hidden down our pants that we're ready to turn over. In fact, quite the opposite when the middle-man is getting a 4-5x mark-up. (There's a reason we have money!) But I want to help them realize that, if nothing else. And at best maybe a woman's cooperative or artesanal market could take off here in the future.

This month we'll also go out to the springs to get an idea what the monitoring program will entail. I also am currently in charge of training our new environmental educator by this next school year and writing our office's environmental education and tourism plans for 2011 with her.

So. Life is a little all over the place. But it's definitely not boring. And I go home for Christmas one month from today exactly! So excited!