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!

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