Thursday, March 27, 2008

Life with the fat cut off

At the end of February, I headed home for 10 days. At my connection in Ft. Lauderdale, people were freaking out about the 30 minute delay to head up to DC. None of these people have spent time in the developing world. As you can imagine, life went on. Seeing family and friends was fun, and I was surprised how little everything had changed. This also has to do with the email updates people sent me over the course of the six months down here. I never once felt lost in a conversation or needed to be filled in about something. That was nice. But, being home still felt a little strange. It was kind of like I was visiting family and friends in a foreign country I had visited before. Hard to explain i guess. One of the biggest things I noticed about being at home was that I felt cooped up inside. Here, I'm outside all day long. If its cold outside, its cold inside. You never escape the outdoors. 

 Things I liked about being home:
  1. Family and Friends minutes away
  2. Hot showers with ridiculous preasure.
  3. Throwing TP in the toilet.
  4. An unendless beer selection
  5. Options in general.
Transitioning back into Guate life was pretty easy. No freak outs like when I first got here. 

Work-wise: The coop received an Eco-Tourism volunteer to develop the tea tour. So, I have a new sitemate. He gets up here next week. Its tough getting back into work once you've been gone for a while. So, with my trip home, semana santa, and a PC conference at the begining of April, it'll be tough getting things done this month. However, I did order shirts for the coop, and film and edit a promo movie, which is below.

Semana santa (holy week) was last week. Across guatemala, people carry floats of Jesus and Mary through their towns. PC gave us vacation days from Thursday-Sunday, so I took advantage of the time to visit volunteers in Alta Verapaz.  One of the towns I visited, Salaquim, was a town two hours off off the paved road to Chisec. The town was pretty basic. We played basketball on hoops that reminded me of the Kevin Bacon movie, The Air Up There. 

In general, things are awesome down here. Life is pretty relaxing most of the time, its simple. Life with the fat cut off. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

My apartment and work at the coop

Sometimes the weeks move at a leisurely pace and sometimes weeks only seem to have two or three days. Sorry its taken me so long to post something. I moved into an apartment in Coban about 3 weeks ago. Most of my furniture is made up of pine brought in on the heads of carpenters from the rural areas. There is an abundance of pine in my area, so its all pretty cheap. My living room has a bench, 2 chairs, a kitchen table, shelves, a stuff table, a fridge, an old bed which i use as a couch type thing. The one window in the living room lets in a decent amount of light, but I can flood the room with light when I open the the wooden double doors leading to the courtyard of my host family. My bedroom, which is off of the living room without a door, has a full bed, two shelves connected by a pole to hang clothes, a desk, and a bedside table. The bathroom is off of the bedroom to the front of the apartment, and it has running water, a sink, a toilet, shower with an electric heater that trips after 5-10 minuts of hot shower. My kitchen is outside in a shed - like structure towards the front and has a pila (look on first post for a picture of pila), 4 - burner stove powered by a butane tank, and a prep table. I really like the setup, and my host family is really great. They have four of the most well behaved kids I have met here in Guatemala.
Check out a video of my place.

A few things that annoy me:
Fleas: The host family has two dogs, which had fleas at some point/still do. So, I got fleas. I no longer pet the dogs, and Im looking forward to hanging out with my dog Pepper at home who has seemed like a prince since I got down here. I used a whole can of raid, sprinkled baking soda all over my apartment (not sure if that works but was willing to look foolish), and have resorted to appllying bug repellant before going to bed. Basically, I wanted to turn my apt into a bug - unfriendly place. Any tips from home are much appreciated.

Noise: I live next door to the only place in Alta Verapaz with beer on tap. This is a blessing and a curse. While the taps have taunted me because I cant have more than two beers, it is nice two have 1 or 2 frosty Mozas, the local dark beer. However, they blast all your fave 80s hitz Monday through Saturday until well past midnight.

So, I need to get flea bombs and ear plugs when I get home.

Work is really picking up. Ive come up with my work plan for the next year.

1)Help with Pruning and Harvesting Techniques. Ive already given a series of trainings on both and have painted signs that I strategically placed around the coop to remind associates of the proper harvest and post harvest techniques. For example, "Dont shove too many leaves into a sack because you will break up the tea leaves and the final result will have a lower quality." I call them my Guatemalan powerpoints. This will help them have bigger tea yields and have a better handle on quality control from the field. One of the previous volunteers left a book on tea which I have read cover to cover, which has aided me in my tea education.

2) Help improve Manufacturing Best Practices in the Warehouse. For example, the packers need to be wearing closed toes shoes, have hair nets, pennies, and should not be wearing jewelry. All windows should have mesh nets so bugs and rodents dont get in the warehouse. Doors should automatically close so dogs and rodents dont get in, etc. It is a slow process and will probably take the full two years+.

3) Develop the Sales team and adding distributors. This involves making the sales team work a little more efficiently and organized. Scheduled transportation pickups, recorded orders, regular sales calls in town, etc. Currently Chirrepec tea is distributed to Xela, Huehuetenango, Quiche, etc. Basically, out west. Ive been helping them find more distributors in other parts of the country including Guatemala City.

4)Help expand into foreign markets. Exporting The coop has 30,000 lbs of tea surplus a year. Im currently trying to find some clients state side that would like to buy some quality tea at a cheap price with a great story. Also promoting tea to smaller importers of tea. Let me know if you have any ideas.

Hope that sheds a little light on the , "Mike what exactly do you do?" questions.

Ive had the chance to check out some of Alta Verapaz. The waterfall at Sachichaj, lagoons at SetaƱa, an old coffee finca that has become the town of Campur, Lanquin, etc. Alta Verapaz is beautifull and Im extremely lucky to have been placed here. Let me know when you want to plan a visit down.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Christmas, New Years, and New Digs

So Christmas outside of the US was a little surreal. The decorations in Coban included a Christmas tree sponsored by Gallo, the national beer company. I saw one fake snowman, which made me laugh. I heard a Spanish Christmas song, Peces en el Rio, which reminded me of Christmas as a kid. The cooperative celebrated Christmas with Posadas. This includes carrying a manger scene through the tea cooperative from house to house over the course of 12 days. Little kids drum on turtle shells and blow whistles to a beat. Once the manger scene arrives to a house, there is a prayer service in Qeqchi, which is tough to understand, and then a rice and milk drink is served. Definately different, but cool to experience.

For Christmas, I met up with two buddies from my training group and a Peace Corps buddy and his old roomate here in Coban and his sister. We rented a cabin just outside of Coban for the 24th and 25th. Fireplace, soccerfield, etc. It was a blast. I cut down a pine tree from the coop and hung up the stocking my mom sent for Christmas. For Christmas eve dinner, we ate at a guatemalan buddies house, where we ate turkey legs the size of baseball bats. At midnight, everybody in Coban lit off fireworks. Think baghdad/fourth of july.

For New Years, the same cabin group went to Nebaj for a two day Hike through the Cuchumatanes mountains up to the cumbre of Huehuetenango. We were guided by an ex-guerilla fighter from the guatemalan civil war who was really familiar with the area. The area is called the Ixil Triangle and is well known for the atrocities that occured there during the war. We hiked the first day to Palob and spend the night in a wooden cabin with plenty of beds for all. We were all feeling pretty nasty so the five of us crammed into a tamascal, which is a sauna/bathhouse mayan families use to bathe. Think two tiny benches, a couldron of hot water, and a little crawlspace lit by a candle. The next day we hiked up to the Cumbre of the Cuchumatanes mountains. Check out pics below.

When we got to an intersection, we waited an hour for a truck to pass in our direction, and hitched a ride to a little town, where we were meant to stay. However, the place was pretty grimey, so we hitched another ride on a pickup truck down into Huehuetenango and enjoyed the amazing views as we dropped 1000 meters down the mountain.
We spent the night with some Huehue volunteers and headed for Lake Atitlan to meet up with a bunch of volunteers for New Years.

As you can tell, the lake is amazing. We stayed in Panahachel, which is pretty touristy and pricey. There are also a bunch of other little towns around the lake. After two days in Panahachel, I headed back to Coban. On the way back, I ate somthing funky and spent the next couple of days vomiting with various other stomache issues. No more street food for me.
Two previous volunteers from Chirrepec, came back to visit for a week. Marsha, the volunteer I replaced, introduced me to a bunch of families I hadnt met and gave me the inside scoop on various things.
Work is going well. Continuing the harvest and post harvest trainings. And, Im planning on organizing sales routes and transportation that is more cost effective for the coop.
Last weekend I moved into my place inside of Coban. I like it alot. I have two rooms and a kitchen shed with a sink in the back of a family courtyard. I finally get to cook my own food and hang out in my own space. Furnishing it is a work in progress. I do have a nice bed, which is an change from the wood plank i had been sleeping on for then last two months. I take a van shuttle 10 minutes down the road to the coop for work. Pictures to come.
I also booked my ticket home for the first week in March, so be there or be square.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Life on the coop

Living on the coop has been a cool experience. The community has embraced the Q´an Is, qeqchi for gringo or yellow hair. I have been invited to graduations, baptisms, and weddings. I´m currently living with the president and his family, which is a stones throw away from the office. This is my view when I shave in the morning.

I´ll be living there until the middle of January. After that, I´m moving to a two room apt in Coban. I´m slowly accumulating furniture for it. The food out in the coop is ¨different.¨ I haven´t ¨become adjusted¨ to cow stomach in salty broth or kidney soup; however, I tried them. Lets just say I´m looking forward to cooking my own food. The cooperative currently does not have running water, so in periods without rain I have been praying for downpours, so I can continue pooping inside. They tested the pump which will take water from a natural spring the other day. 20 men dragged a generator down a hill. They test was succesfull, but they realized their error when they had to bring the generator back up the hill. The solution: 2 oxen. This is me and the oxen.

The coop is also scheduled to get internet soon, so it will be amusing to see which service they get first: water or internet. As a result of always being around qeqchi speakers and classes several times a week, my qeqchi is coming along. I know its about as useful as learning German; however, it has really helped me intergrate into the community. And I now know if they are talking about me.

To use internet, I have to go into Coban and use an internet cafe. My intention was to post last Saturday, but Coban had no it goes. I played on a YMCA-like baseball team for the day instead. I hope that becomes a routine saturday thing for me becasue it was a blast. But in terms of internet and posting, its not as easy as getting on the computer back home. Its slow, far way, and the guys who work at the internet cafes blair horrible music.

In terms of work, I has sent samples of tea home in the hopes of making some contacts for exporting with the help of my dad. I took pictures for their calenday/poster, which looks pretty good. I´ll try to bring home a bunch in March. I have begun trainings in Agricultural Best Practices for pruning and harvesting tea plants for the associates on the coop. How do I know how to prune and harvest tea plants? A previous volunteer left a text book on tea, so I have been studying up. Since Chirrepec is the only black tea farm in Guatemala, there aren´t alot of technicians around like the coffee industry. So, they appreciate all of the training they can get. There are about 300 associates, so training all of the pruners and pluckers will take some time. But, a group I trained last week has already implemented the new pruning technique and others are catching on. Since a powepoint presentation is kind of out of the question, I painted the proper pruning technique on wood boards to show the associates. I like to call it my Guatemala powerpoint slide. The idea behind pruning and harvesting trainings is improving the overall quality of their product. I´m also trying to organize their commercialization commitee. They don´t really have a sales team, so their is alot of room for improvement. The only hiccup regarding work was during a session in the field, I stepped on an ant hill and failed to realize it for a few minutes. I spent the next ten minutes getting the biting ants off of me as the guys I was with were laughing and saying that the ants only wanted the imported meat.

I got to meet a bunch of volunteers from Alta Verapaz two weeks ago, which was a nice break from life at the coop. My plans for Christmas/New years includes hanging out with some buddies in Coban for Christmas, hiking in Qiche, and New years at Lake Atitlan. Its been weird being here for the Christmas season. The plastic snowmen just don´t have the same meaning. But, I have been able to hear spanish christmas songs I haven´t heard since I was little. I hope everyone is doing well. My plan is to come home the first week in March for a week. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Swearing in, Chirrepec living situation, and Thanksgiving

After my site visit to Coban, where I met with all of the people from the coop office and a handfull of others, I returned for my last week of training. We went to the main office in Guate for an orientation with reps from USAID, the regional security officer for American Affairs, and the head of the US Consulate in guatemala. Peace Corps issued me a bike (a bicycle: peace corps used to issue out motor bikes but it was the number one killer of all volunteers), which will arive at my site the next time my APCD (associate peace corps director) visits me at my site over the next few months.

My host family, who recently was able to get a visa to visit their son in Boston, threw me a despedida dinner (going away dinner), which included fireworks.

For our swearing in ceremony, we went to the ambassadors residence in Guate. It is an amazing place with a huge garden, which includes a swimming pool and tennis courts. The rear wall of the compound is the old aqueduct of Guate City. Here are some pics from swearing in:

Picture of my training group:

Picture of my host mom and I:

Me and my buddy Joseph with our rockstar boots (about 15 out of 33 of us sprang for some rockstar boots):

After the ceremony, we headed for a night of partying in Antigua. The next morning I took a direct shuttle from Antigua to Coban, which is a million times easier than taking a camioneta to a point in Guate, taking a taxi to the bus station, and then taking a coach bus up to Coban, which was the way I took the first time. The price is about the same and the direct is not sketchy.

I met another ag markting volunteer at his house, for i had left all of my stuff there from the previous visit. The headed to my host families house on the coop (pictures to come over the next week or so.) My host dad is the president of the coop, and is extremely busy with other jobs also. My host mom works at the municipal office in Coban. They have a five year old son, and a woman fot the community that takes care of house hold jobs and looks after the son.

That first sunday, I went to see the coop soccer tournament, went to mass in Q´Eqchi´(i start lessons on Monday or tuesday of this week), and was invited to a graduation party, where I was asked to dance. This was a little awkward considering a previous volunteer at this site married someone from the community. This is not part of Mike´s Peace Corps plan. Anyway...

It is a weird, scary, overwhlming transition from being so close to all of your buddies, tech teachers, and then being sent all over the country to work for two years. Community Based training is supposed to simulate this, but it is still hard. Luckily, Thanksgiving was right around the corner and I was able to look forward to that to get me through the first week. Peace Corps set up interested volunteers with Embassy families, and PC directors for Thanksgiving dinner. Luckily, the ambassador invited 20 volunteers and me and 20 other volunteers from my class got to go. So, I left wednesday morning, met up with most of my training group buddies in Antigua, and went to the Ambassadors residence in Guate. He told us to bring our bathing suits, so I swam, played tennis, and had an amazing meal. The meal was extremely rich compared to the beans, eggs, and tortillas which has been the base of our meals for the past 3 months. So, many of us were queezy afterwards. But is was still awesome to have candid conversations with the ambassador. I spent Thursday and friday night in antigua, and then left for Coban again.

My plan is to live in the coop with the president for at least a month to integrate with the community, learn their customs, increase my q´eqchi learning, and gain some confidence with them. I will also save a significant amount of money not living in the center of coban or chamelco (7km away) So, I´m getting used to bucket baths, and life on the coop little by little. The bucket baths are actually better than the cold showers I was taking in santo tomas becasue they are warm. And, there are a handfull of volunteers nearby, so I´m not out in the middle of nowhere by myself; eventhough, it feels like it sometimes.
  • Completion of training: check
  • Move to my site: check
  • Found place to live for the time being: check
  • First of two thanksgiving away from my family out of the way: check
  • First six months of TB pills out nof the way and three months till I can get drunk with my friends: check

Thank you for all of your emails, packages, thoughts, and prayers. This would be infinitely harder without them. Hope you are all doing well. Keep sending me updates from back home.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Packing plants, fender-benders, boots, and site assignment

Ok. So, its been a while since I posted, but this last week has been quite busy. Time is flying by. So...intro....I met other ag marketing volunteers, visited San Martin Hilotepquez, watched South Africa win the rugby world cup, went to a soccer game, met the US Embassador to Guatemala, worked in a packing plant, bought some awesome boots, took a field trip to Guate for ag marketing stuff, got my site assignment...Coban at the tea coop....holatchboi, got in a camioneta fender-bender, went to Santiago to watch 30ft. diameter kites fly in the air on All Saints Day, starting learning learning the mayan language Q'Eqchi' let me explain some of this nonsense.

Ag MKT Volunteer meet and greet:
All 12 current ag mkt volunteers came into the training center to discuss what they've learned over their time here, what they would do differently, etc. It was also really nice to meet all of the volunteers in our program to be able to network, etc.

San Martin:
We visited a volunteer who lived at the bottom of a hill from San Martin. She showed us the green been packing plant that she worked at and basically gave us a tutorial on better busines practices (structure requirements, cleanliness requirements, etc.) needed to obtain sanitary licenses in plants. There is only one road in and out (the road being dirt) so the security officer came and did a land survey to be able to land a helicopter in the soccer field if needed. The volunteer there was able to reduce the plant transport costs by $68,000/year because she read the fine print in english on the existing contract. And she got them $100,000 in retroactive taxes becasue she heard of a change in the tax law for exporting non-traditional goods(tea, beans, basically anything besides coffee, sugar, and a few others.) Thats awesome.

South Africa:
SA won the rugby world cup. I was able to catch the game in Antigua.

Santa Lucia vs. Chimaltenango U-22 soccer game:
I went to go see my host cousins team play. It was awesome soccer. For having such a shitty national team and league, these guys were pretty good. It was a close game full of fireworks after goals, yellow cards, guatemalan trash talking. But, they lost.

US Embassador to Guatemala Q & A:
The embassador came to talk with us last week. He is a career foreign service officer, an spoke to us about the elections (Colom ended up winning:he has been accused of corruption and narco trafficking), narco trafficking, and US /Guatemalan adoption, etc. Our swaearing in ceremony will be at his residence on the 16th in guate.

4 Pinos Packing Plant:
After visiting the smaller packing plant in San Martin, we went to go visit the varsity coop packing plant called 4 Pinos. These guys export a ridiculous amount of veggies a month and have Costco on their client list. We visited the fields, then sported the white lab coats and hair nets required to enter the packing plant. i was extremely impressed with the setup they have. the plant included packing areas, cleaning stations, labs, cargo platforms, etc. The point of the visit was to see that our small coops have the potential to turn into a well oiled machine with time, hardwork and dedication. After the tour, we got our hands dirty and helped the employees peal carrots, dehusk beans, pack, etc. Its really hard work. We left after an hour and the employees still has a long shift left.

Pastores Boots:
So I ordered some handmade leather boots. Think halfway between rockstar and cowboy boots. After trying to convert the size into a 40 something, the guy said,"Put your foot and the paper. I'll draw an imprint and fit it to that. " Sounds good. A week later and $40 US I had a baddass pair of boots.

Guate Ag MKT Trip:
We took another trip to Guate to find out about obtaining bar coades for products, visited the main tax office(SAT), and visited the country legalization inspector for the ministry of agriculture (a nice contact to have considering nearly all of our assignments could potentially involve this guy. In fact, my site (read on for site info) will be inspected by this guys this week. The following day we also visited La Terminal (really crappy dangerous market) and CENMA (the really clean and organized market none of the vendors like. Change can be a long road here)

Site Assignment:
I got assigned to the site I requested: The Chirrepec tea coop in Coban. Basically i am helping them increase sales, reduce production costs, in order for them to make more profits. According to guate law, profits from a coop have to be invested into the coop like infrastructure and services (electricity, water, schools, etc.) Five years ago they didn't have electricity, but they now have it because of the gains from selling tea. They have piping for water and are waiting for the pump to be installed. So, I might have water by January. So, by helping the coop make more money by selling tea, the quality of life of the coop is directly improving. I'm really pumped. i also have to learn Q'Eqchi', which is spoken by everyone. Most of the men speak spanish, but not all. More on Q'Eqchi to come in future postings.

Camioneta Fender Bender:
My camioneta got in a wreck last week. The bus driver hit the gas and the car in front of him did not. We waited for a few minutes and someone ran on the bus and told everybody to switch buses. So, I got on a bus with 600lb of tomatoes in the aisles. Each wooden box is 50lbs. The 1st had camioneta busted out the tail light of the car.

Todos Santos:
On all saints day, we got the day off and visited the town of Santiago, known for their humongous kites in order to communicate with the dead. Picture the number of people at a concert looking up at the sky and in front at 60ft stationary kites and smaller flying one, in the middle of a cemetary overlooking a huge valley. I forgot my camera like an idiot, but i'll try and get some from other peeps. A buddy of mine got his wallet stolen...bummer.

So, I finish training and move up to Coban on the 16th of November. I'm going to visit to find housing this wednesday-sunday. When I get back, I wrap up training, swear in, and become a PCV. Hope everyone is doing well.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Projects and Field Based Training in Coban

So, over the last 2 weeks I've been busy with marketing work and field based training up in Coban.

Marketing work
Just after the last post, I got extremely busy with my project work and preparation for my first "charla" or talk given to the family I've been staying with here in Santo Tomas. The charla was on the Five P's of Marketing, so hopefully the family can apply it to their farming business. I also had to turn in my project proposal to my tech trainer. All of the Ag. Marketing trainees have to take on a project with their families that can improve their income. I have chosen to "add value" to their tomato patch by making salsa. By the end of training, I have to give my family a post-harvest manual for how they can make more money by processing the tomatoes and selling it as salsa instead of selling it at the market as plain tomatoes. Needless to say, training has been hands on.
FBT in Coban

We drove four hours north to Coban in the Alta Verapaz department. Coban used to be a German settlement until the US preassured Guatemala to expell them at the beggining of WWII. Before the Germans were "asked to leave," they had extremely succesfull coffee and tea plantations all over Coban. So, we went there to learn about the coffee and tea process. We stayed at the Chirrepec Tea Coop for five days with Q'Eqchi families.

The accomadations were pretty rustic. My room had no door, a bed, a wooden chair, and a wooden shelf. The house had four 10 x 10 rooms. The bare bulb in the middle of the house hanging from the corragated tin roof could be seen from every room. In the mornings I would wake up and take a bucket bath in the corner of the cement kitchen. The corner had a little hole for drainage and was "covered" by a doubled over nylon tarp. I thought the nylon tarp provided some sort of barrier between my naked body and my host mom smacking tortillas every morning; however, I quickly learned otherwise after my host mom started bathing while I was eating my bean and tortilla breakfast. Lets just say the next day I faced the other way.

I was one of the only one of the trainees with a matress, which I thought was extremely fortunate until I got flees. Out of the training group of 33, about 20 have fallen victim to "pulgas." Bummer. However, the experience at the Tea Coop was amazing and I wouldn't have traded it for a five day stint at the Ritz. It is one of the possible sites for an Ag. marketing volunteer, so we'll see what happens.

Besides the tea coop at Chirrepec (Q'Eqchi word for cave of stone), we visited the Asociacion Nacional de Cafe Demonstration plantation. We learned about the coffee plant and processing.

We also met with a womans waevings group in Carcha, which is one hour away from Coban. I gave a talk on steps to obtain new clients and contacts. Unfortunately, the waevings market is completely saturated and these groups often don't cover costs.

After 5 nights at the coop, we moved to a hostal in Coban with running water, comfy beds, and a tv with dvd's. So, Coban is an very cool place, and its a jumping off point for all of the sites up in the Peten region like Tikal.

In summary, I saw coffee and tea plantations, a mayan woman saw me naked, and I got flees.