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.

The American and The Fisherman

Second deep blog post this week. I was talking to the Executive Director about the idea that in America, we generally “postpone” happyness for that magical day when we retire, for that day when our 401k hits the millions and we can spend our waking hours (after the age of 65) golfing and traveling.  All not bad things, but what do we sacrifice when we are young to get there?

Then, he told me a story. A young Guatemalan was standing knee-deep in the water of one of Guatemala´s pristine lakes (I am going to imagine it was Lake Atitlan) and fishing.  Hour after hour sitting in the shade, standing in the cool water, occasionally taking a dip in the lake.

Later, an American guy saw him on the side of the lake, and asked him why he was wasting his time.  The young Guatemalan was smart, business savvy, and if he invested his time and money wisely in his bakery, he could go far in the world.  Instead of fishing, the American explained, he should be working, and the American began to describe what could be this young man´s five and ten year plan: working hard, opening two, maybe three bakeries in the surrounding towns, hiring additional workers, and making a bunch of money.

“To what end?” The young man replied. The American began to explain to him the concept of retirement and of savings so that he would no longer have to work in his old age. So that the young man could be happy and then fish all he wanted when he got older.

The young, Guatemalan man replied, “Why? I am very happy and as you can see, I am already fishing”.

So, my question is: what is holding us as Americans back from doing what we love, what we want to do now? Why aren´t we too fishing on the shores of Lake Atitlan?

Three articles worth reading about microfinance:

Kiva Criticisms

The Reply by Kiva Founder Matt Flannery

In regards to SKS and Yunus

Defining Success

Over the weekend, I was talking to one of my friends here in Guatemala, and we somehow found ourselves in a deep conversation about what makes a successful life. It was the type of conversation that I miss most about my housing set-up last year (yes, the mando), and the type of conversations I just miss having.

It started about with a question “Has oido de la intelligencia emocional?”  We were at Samuelito´s birthday party surrounded by little kids playing and screaming so it took me a while to figure out what he was saying. When he mentioned the book´s author, my mind immediately flashed by to Service Leadership and we spent the next hour talking about developing emotional intelligence and the differences between emotional intelligence and traditional “book smarts”.

Our conversation moved to Warren Buffett, to Colonel Sanders, to Bill Gates.  All wildly successful (and very rich) men.  So, are these men successful because they are rich? Or are they successful because they overcame unlikely circumstances and followed their dreams?

And then he said one of the most profound things I have heard in a while: success comes from the forward progression on your dreams.  Meaning first, success is relative to each individual depending on what they desire to do in their life.  Obviously, not everyone can be as rich as Bill Gates, but does that been they are less successful? I believe the answer is no. Personally, I am successful because I wanted to go abroad after college and help people through microfinance.

So the question follows, ¿what are your dreams, and are you moving forward to achieve them?  Your success is not based on what you have, but you do with what you have.

Just some thoughts on life from a Kiva Fellow.  Click here to see some new videos from the weekend on my youtube channel.

Bitter Fruit: A History to Never Forget

Most of the time I try to make my blogs light-hearted and slightly informative on my life and the work that I am pursuing.  This, however, is not one of those blogs.  I would like to relate to you part of the story of Guatemala’s history that I have recently derived from a book called Bitter Fruit.  This is a tale of intrigue, deception, the dangers of excessive capitalism, and a unneccessarily bloody revolution.  Do not read if you wish to perserve your gran ideal of American imperialism…

The story starts in 1944.  A historically violent and oppresive dictator General Jorge Ubico was overthrown by a group of dissendent military officers, teachers, and liberal professionals in a movement that is later dubbed the October Revolutionaries.  Spearheading the movement are two military officers Jacobo Arbenz and Francisco Arana.

The next ten years are referred as the ten years of spring in Guatemala.  A civilian president Juan Jose Arevalo assumes the presidency in Guatemala’s first democratic election, and is succeeded in 1951 by Jacobo Arbenz.  Both were outspoken against communism and supported political free speech and a land reform bill that was only controversial in the sense that it affected American interests in Guatemala.  The land reform bill specifically affected the United Fruit Company in the way that the Guatemalan government was reclaiming unused land (paying for it in 5-25 year government bonds) and redistributing it to the severly oppressed class of indigenous people for agricultural use.  Note that both Arbenz and Arevalo’s hero and inspiration for the new legislation was President Roosevelt’s New Deal (the main street in Guate City is even named after him).

Unfortunately for United Fruit, the Guatemala government under Arevalo also proposed to begin construting its own infrastructure to compete with United Fruit Company who controlled Guatemala’s only Atlantic port, the majority of the railroads, and the telegraph system.  The idea was to remove United Fruit’s privileges in Guatemala (both tax and otherwise) to begin to benefit the Guatemalan people instead of a handleful of rich Americans who benefited off the banana trade in Central America.

Needless to say, United Fruit Company’s President and Board of Directors were less than thrilled.  First of all with the land reappropriations: Guatemalan government offered to pay them the Q600,000 for the land (the estimated value that United Fruit itself reported a year before for tax purposes) instead of the Q15,000,000 that United Fruit claimed it was worth.  Note the irony and the fact that this land was UNUSED by United Fruit to grow bananas.

United Fruit’s leaders had significant sway in the American government (most were well connected with or a part of the State Department and CIA).  They arraigned a media campaign and subsequent support (in both paychecks and arms) for their handpicked revoluntionary: Carlos Castillo Armas.  In the summer of 1954, the democratic goverment and its ten years of spring had come to an end under the American goverment’s premise that Guatemala’s land reform act was Communistic (note that both Guatemala presidents were outspokenly anti-Communist).

Armas was pliable for the U.S. and United Fruit Supply’s intents and purposes (American support was contigent on United Fruit’s privileges and land in Guatemala being restored); however, the unstable goverment gave way to a 36 year civil war from 1960 – 1996.  The affects of U.S. action in the 1950’s are still being felt today.

I write so that us as Americans can remember a history that we were never told. And without any political agenda, I urge to remember the story of Guatemala…

Vacation Time

Wait what happened to Eric?? Great I have been blogging for so long that I´m beginning to refer to myself in third person… And somehow I figure that if I don´t update my blog for a period of more than a week all hell will break loose.  So, here is to me scheduling a post for when I am gone to update you on my life.

In the last week, my life hasn´t slowed down.  From the moment I arrived in the capital, I was inundated with stuff to get done (both work and personal). First of all, I had to present myself at the police station last Tuesday to expand the report of my robbery.  Then, that night I moved into the Baptist Seminary a block away from the office to stay for the week.  The arraignment has been, well, rustic (but nice).  I am definitely in a safe place, and after work, I can go to the store for some snacks and eat out at restaurants in the Zona 7. But the best part, in my opinion, IS THE POOL. Yes, there is a pool at the seminary.

Not quite sure it makes up for the spiders and cockroaches in my room, but there is a pool that I can swim in after work.  Then, right about 7:30pm right after my swim, I take off with Hebe, an Argentine coworker who also lives in the seminary, to a comedor around the corner and eat a great meals provided by Juanita for$2 every night.  Last night, I had a smoked pork chop with rice, beans and fresh tortillas mmm….

But if you are reading this now, I have crossed three borders in route to Managua, Nicaragua.  Next week is a holiday for Guatemala and since the Executive Director of FAPE is since on his trip to Israel, I (along with the rest of the Kiva Fellows) figured it would be high time get in some R & R. So, I took a $120 bus ride from the Capital at 4am through El Salvador, Honduras and then finally Nicaragua to make it to Managua by Saturday night.

We will go to Omotepe and San Juan del Sur to climb some volcanoes and soak up some sun.  More updates and videos after the trip!

Cooking Lessons

Read this if your names are Sam or Kim or if you want to learn how to cook some delicious Guatemalan cuisine!

Could you please teach me how to make comida chapina? I asked.

Yes, Claudia replied. But not tonight. Tomorrow we will make some good Guatemalan food.

The next day I asked, So, what are we going to make.

Chomí con Pollo.

Sounds good. I replied, Do you know how to spell that? As usual, had no real idea what we would be making or eating that night.

For this recipe you need: (serves 4-6)

  • A whole chicken
  • Four Carrots
  • Guiskuil (if you can find it)
  • Three stalks of Celery (with the leaves)
  • One Red Bell Pepper
  • Half cup diced onion
  • One package of Chow Mein
  • Two Tablespoons of Soy Sauce
  • One cube of chicken bullion
  • Salt to taste
  • Two serranos (if  you dig some spice)
  1. First boil the chicken with the skin on in salt water (about 10-12 cups) for at least 30 mins (watch earlier to see if the chicken is done, all these times are at altitude of 7500ft).
  2. When waiting for the chicken to boil, cut the guiskuil and carrots into thin inch long strips, and remove the strings from the celery and dice both the celery (with the leaves) and bell pepper into small chunks.
  3. After the chicken is done, remove from the water and begin to debone the chicken and cut the skin and meat into half-to-quarter inch chunks
  4. Put the guiskuil and carrots in the same salt water and boil for 20-25mins (until the carrots are soft enough to break easily)
  5. Remove the carrots and guiskuil from the water and add one package of chow mein to the same water (the noodles broken up into 3 inch pieces).  Boil the noodles for 10 mins or until fully cooked.
  6. Strain out the salt water, and rinse the chow mein in cold water.
  7. In a large frying pan, add a tablespoon of cooking oil and the half cup of diced onion. Sautey until brown. Add the serranos here to make it a bit more spicey.
  8. Add the diced bell pepper and celery (cook for two mins)
  9. Add the chopped chicken (cook for ten mins)
  10. Add two tablespoons of soy sauce, and the guiskuil and carrots stirring the mixture constantly. (cook for one min)
  11. Add the chow mein and one cube of chicken bullion and salt to taste.
  12. Serve!

woah, woah, woah. hold up. The traditional Guatemalan food I have been waiting to learn to make isn´t chomí con pollo but Chow Mein con Pollo.

Now, you might be thinking. I´m up in the mountains. I´m cold. I just made my Chow Mein con Pollo over a word fired stove and I need a hot drink.

This, my friends, the Guatemalans call Caliente

  1. Boil a medium sized bot of water.
  2. Add 2-3 sticks of cinnamon
  3. 1 cup of sugar
  4. 2 cups of chunks of watermelon
  5. 2 cups of chunks of pineapple (can add more fruit to taste)
  6. Boil the mixture while cooking for 30-45mins

After slaving over the wood fired stove for about two hours, we finally sat down to eat. Claudia´s husband comes in and immediately says. MMm Delicious Comida Chapina (chapin means Guatemalan). I thought, so, this really isn’t a joke.  Haha, I guess the Chinese and Guatemalans have more in common than I thought.

Stop and Stare

Read this if you wonder what exactly makes my life a One Republic song, if you have ever been out of your element, if you love thrift store shopping or lived in a town with less than 10,000 people.  If you have ever been the first white person a kid has seen or if you were wondering what happens to criminals in small towns in Guatemala.

Aldea Nimasac: population 6,591, elevation 2531m, 6.5 km from Totonicapán.

This is where I live. Well for now. As a roaming Kiva fellow, I get to work with multiple organizations here in Guatemala.  The first, in the capital, and the second here in Aldea Nimasac. The closest big town is… well small.  At least by my standards. I am used to Camarillo: which I consider a suburb of Los Angeles with over 600,000 people, not a suburb of a town of 50,000 with suburbs of less than 10,000 people.  Add some zeros….

Over the weekend, I trekked down to Totonicapán to pick up a sweater: yes, at 2500m, it is cold here, and the clothes I brought (an old sweatshirt, a long sleeve tee and a very thin shell) just don´t cut it. As I walked through town, I stopped every half a block at these second-hand clothing stores. Asking if they had sweaters or jackets in my size.  The store owner´s eyes traced my feet up to my head. They would laugh. No, we don´t have anything. Then, when I would ask about the biggest size they had, they would pull out a used, small A&F  sweatshirt. Does this fit? After the first store, I wouldn´t even humor them by trying it on.

I finally stumbled on a used clothing store and went through the same dialogue. But as I was browsing the racks, I found a large Eddie Bauer sweater. Yes, a little small, but this would do. I wondered what part of the U.S. it came from, and at 10Q ($1.25) I knew it had to have been donated to down here. In the U.S., I clean out my closet only to repurchase it six months later down south.  At least I didn´t have to pay to get it shipped? A whole industry based off the things we Americans no longer find useful.

Passing through the market, I stopped at a stall to buy some bread and papaya.  As I was paying, I felt something on my arm. A four year-old boy poking me. Seconds later, he had his foot pressed up against mine and his finger in his mouth looking down at his foot. He smiled and laughed. Am I really that big? As I walk through the town, the kids whisper gigante as I pass. I smile and say Adios–the standard greeting here–unsure of what else to do.

On a separate thread, as I was walking through the town to play soccer with the guy I am staying with, I mentioned how I got robbed in the capital. He grinned, and said I should have been here.  There are no thieves because they kill them. He corrected himself, well in the next village the neighborhood watch kills them. Here, when they catch one, they drag them through the town with a loudspeaker saying come look at the criminal.  When they finally get to the community center (an elementary school) they strip them naked and tie ropes and boulders to their body and make them haul them back through the town. He said, “the police never do anything…so we do”.

And because of this, the thieves flee or never rob again.  So, yes, mom, I feel very, very safe here. Now, I can walk around, and hike and not really worry about anything!

Tough Conversations: A New Fellows Blog!

The most avoided topic in microfinance: deliquent loans, I touch on in a new fellows blog. Read it if you are curious about the other 2%, and what steps are being taken to avoid these tough conversations.

Fellows Blog: Tough Conversations

All the best, Eric

And because this post is pretty much just a link… I attached a video of my ride on the back of a moto to go visit clients!

Kiva: An Explanation

It recently occurred to me that for all my blog posts, you still don´t really know what Kiva is or what the heck I´m supposed to be doing. (Unless, of course, you are one of the 500 people I have told in person). So, if you are curious or just plain confused, maybe this will clear some of it up.

Kiva is a non-profit based out of San Francisco, essentially a website whose mission is “To connect people through lending to alleviate poverty”. It is a site where you, as a lender can lend small amounts of money ($25, $50, $100) to specific people all around the globe. The best part is you choose where your money is going.

Just think, a non-profit where every cent, every penny that you lend is going directly to the person you intended it to.  Wait, there is more.  Because it is a loan, you get repaid over the life of the loan.  So your $25, $50, $100 comes back to you over the course of 4, 6, 9, or 12 months (whatever the loan terms may be).  Kiva as an overall institution boasts a 98% repayment rate meaning that 98% of the time you get 100% of your money back.  These numbers are incredible considering the circumstances, and considering repayment rates on credit cards in the U.S. are much, much lower.

How it works: Kiva has partner institutions all around the world; these are already established microfinance institutions that are working to better their communities.  The two I am working with in Guatemala are ASDIR and FAPE. These institutions post borrower profiles complete with a pictures and a history (check out one I posted last week here: Visión de Fe).  Lenders, like me!, from around the world check out the profiles and choose to lend to individual borrowers.  Lend to Guatemala here.

Then, every month these borrowers repay the partner institution which in turn repays Kiva and in turn repays you! With the money coming back you can choose to relend to a different borrower, withdrawal it back to your Paypal account, or donate it to Kiva.  And ideally, the field partner sends you updates on the loan after the loan term has ended!

As as a Kiva Fellow, I facilitate these partnerships. Between you and the borrower, Kiva and the partner organization, and you and Kiva!

Not all who wander are lost…

Read this if you enjoy ranchera versions of Hotel California, if you like climbing volcanoes at 5am, or jumping off climbs into ancient Mayan lakes. Or read it for the secret location of the best burrito place in Guatemala or perhaps if buried somewhere deep inside you too have a sense of adventure and a little bit of energy.

A sense of adventure and a little bit of energy. That’s all lonely planet listed under the prerequisites to climb Volcano San Pedro, one of the three that rises up from Lago Atitlan. Somehow, I doubted that was all it took as the lake sits at a little under 1600m and the cumber, the top of the volcano is buried by a heavy cloud layer at 3020m. But, after three weeks of smog, and Guate City, I was ready to get out. And an invitation from Tommy, a friend I meet last weekend at the beach, to get some fresh air helped to seal the deal.

The trip worked out well into my workplan. This morning I had to be in Aldea Nimasac to start working to implement the Cerise Questionnaire (a questionnaire that works to measure the social performance of microfinance institutions) with Asociación ASDIR, another microfinance organization in Guatemala. And Aldea Nimasac is a part of Totonicapan which lies an hour away from Quetzaltenago (nickname Xela): so I caught a ride with the executive director of FAPE´s family to Xela on Friday, and made my way to the Lago Atitlan from Xela with Tommy early Saturday morning.

We got to Panajachel, the largest town on Lago Atitlan, (by the way, I was originally going to name this post something along the lines of traveling to places I can´t pronounce but decided to go with the Tolkien quote to reflect my journey as a wandering Kiva fellow) on Saturday and immediately made our way over to San Pedro which lies at the base of the Volcano. We took another lancha (small transport boats on the lake) to San Marcos—home to more foreign hippies than Guatemaltecos, and make our way to some cliffs that Tommy discovered the last time he was there.

We hiked past half a dozen long-term meditation centers and yoga places and finally got to the cliffs rising a good 12m out of the lake (for all us Americans a good 35ft). And jumped off into the warm waters of Lago Atitlan.

On the way back, we stopped at Moonfish for some burritos. Possibly the freshest, tastiest burritos in Guatemala (perhaps California as well). I had a falafel burrito (don´t laugh there is a huge Israeli community around the lake) with homemade salsa, super fresh veggies, homemade tortillas and the best falafel I have ever had (yes, better than Israel). All with the best cup of coffee I have had since Colombia: the coffee plants grew out back and they did all the drying and roasting of the beans on site! French pressed for maximum deliciousness. Needless to say, we returned the next day for some breakfast burritos and nachos—that for sure would have topped Lily´s in Malibu if they had bacon.

Fast forward to 5am. I dragged myself out of bed and threw on my Merrills. We still couldn´t see the top of the Volcano San Pedro, but having located the trailhead on Saturday, we grabbed our headlamps and made our way through sleepy San Pedro to begin our ascent. At the trailhead two natives stamped our hands and made us aware that it was 100Q a piece to climb the mountain with a guide. “And without one?” we asked. “The same.” I panicked I brought only 50Q for a meal after, but Tommy thankfully had enough. I thought they were going to send us the 300m down to the town to get the money if we didn´t have it.

I´ll let the videos tell the story of the climb as I was a little too out of breath to say much. 1400m is a way to climb and most of the time it was stairs straight up. The climb was even a bit harder because I was coming from Guate City. Thankfully, we had homemade banana and chocolate bread that we bought in town for around a dollar waiting to be consumed at the top.

And now, I´m here in ASDIR. Over the weekend, the combination of the climate change and being around some people with the flu caused me to be a little under the weather today, but I´m hoping it gets knocked out by some good sleep and some delicious caldo de res a little later today.

Until next time, your wandering Kiva Fellow.