In Transit

Sometimes it feels like my life is in transit. I wonder in those moments if life is a sum of the places you are waiting to go, or if the key to life is enjoying the journey and the mundane, endless hours in the terminals of… wherever.

And as it turns out… It is. If you don’t enjoy the process of getting there, you will miss out on those perfect sunsets, the people you met along the way, and when you get to your destination, you will only be thinking about how much you hated getting there.

All of these thoughts are summed up in my latest trip down south to do a borrower verification with our field partner, Manuela Ramos.  It started out last weekend when I took a trip to Arequipa to see American movies (yes they have a theater), to see Mt. Misti rising up from the town, and to read in the shade of every park I could find.  From there, I took another bus to Puno passing the high mountains and flamingos and deserts and lakes.

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In the first two days in Puno, I had traveled all over Juliaca and beyond, and down to the Bolivian border near Yunguyo.  Which added up to waking up before sunrise, and getting back hours after the sunset over Lake Titicaca.  Unfortunately, one very elusive borrower had taken off to Moquegua (another part of Peru). And if I couldn’t find her, I had to visit another 10 new borrowers.  With parents arriving on Monday, I choose (reluctantly and not enjoying the journey) the 7 hour trip for a 15 minute interview.

I was back in the morning, and headed out to the spectacular islands on Lake Titicaca. First to the famous floating islands Los Uros which I visited three years before, and then to spend a night on Amantani and a morning on Taquile.  I ended my stay with a cannonball in the freezing cold lake (did I mention that the lake is 3810m high??).

70 plus hours on buses, trucks, vans, boats. Exhausted. But happy. Remembering that traveling, meeting people, the journey, is why I did this in the first place.

All you ever wanted to know about buses in Guatemala

Read this if you have ever been nervous about riding buses in 3rd world countries… better yet, probably don´t read this if you are nervous.  But perhaps read if you want the down and dirty about bus assalts and extortion around Guatemala—all from a real life interview with a bus driver.

Two weeks ago, Elmer came on the FAPE payroll as a driver. FAPE´s health project, Gems of Hope, enabled them to buy a couple of pick-ups this year and because the newly hired doctora can´t drive…drivers were hired.  I hadn´t talked to Elmer much more than a hello, but on our recent client visits to San Martin Jilotepeque, I ended up in the front (the prized spot for the almost 2 meter tall American) and spent most of the ride back talking to him.

I found out that his last job for 10 years was driving a bus from San Juan Sacatepequez to Guatemala City.  Every day, multiple times a day.  Now, ever since I have got here, I have been taking a minimum of buses (unless its long trips outside the city) and a maximum of cabs (which any of my past travel companions can tell you is VERY uncharacteristic of me–I just would rather be in with the locals and smog experiencing a city than aloof and viewing it from the back of a cab.)

What has me so scared? Assalts. Robbers come on the bus with pistols drawn ready to blow the head of anyone who makes a wrong move.  As a gringo, I am what is affectionately called “un blanco” or a target.  But I´m not the only one, a month ago, another FAPE employee was on a bus when it got assalted and preferred to jump off and break his arm then go face to face with the robbers.  Another loan officer had a similar encounter having to give up her jewelry and phone two weeks ago. An Elmer, as the driver, had been robbed at gunpoint 3 times.  Another Kiva fellow wrote a very interesting blog about this here.

From assalts to extortion. What I found most interesting was the bribes or what Elmer called “impuestos” or taxes.  Every week, he had to deposit Q100 (around $12) into a bank account of these gangsters for “protection”.  Q100 * 52 *10 = $6500.  And these payments still didn´t stop him from being assalted those 3 times! Ok, lets do some math.  Elmer estimated that there are around 5000 buses in the city (I would say that is a conservative estimate), so every week gangsters are receiving half a million quetzales from just short distance buses.  Tack on another 10,000 buses traveling around the country (because although this violence is concentrated around La Capital, it is not isolated to just here), we have Q1.5 million a week.  Q78 million a year which is around $10,000,000.

With $10 million, Guatemala could beef up security and clean up its streets.  If only there was a way to get these “taxes” into the hands of the Guatemalan govt, I (and the rest of Guatemala) wouldn´t be so scared to hop on a bus.