My New Home; Work Life; Social Life; and more…

Over a month has gone by without so much as a word about what has been going on with me. Have no fear, I have not gone AWOL. Nor have I forsaken my clothes to fry up mountains of donuts. As with many of my stateside friends and family, work has been keeping me busy. There have been many new experiences as well. I would like to share them all, but I will stick to the highlights. Let me begin with…

MY NEW HOME

I was only homeless for a week in Coban. Fortunately, Roger was here to put me up while I was looking for my own place. And, with the help of Doña Olga and Jacqueline at Eco-Quetzal, my search was easy and painless.

My landlady is Doña Aurora de la Cruz de Galeano. But people here just call her “Doña Loli.” I figured it was safer to rent from a relative of Doña Olga (my landlady is her aunt) since I would have someone to turn to if there were any personal conflicts. Somehow, I don’t think it will ever come to that.

I think Doña Loli owns the whole block or something. The front of the building is one of those mom-and-pop convenience stores. Next door is a piñata shop. And, next to that is a homemade food take-out café. She owns all of them. Doña Carmela, my landlady’s niece, runs the convenience store, and Doña Gaby (Doña Loli’s fifth child) is in charge of the piñata shop and the take-out café. Behind these businesses are the living quarters. There are six or eight bedrooms in total. A few storage rooms can be converted to bedrooms, too. So, maybe there are ten? There is a dining room, a living room, a courtyard where we all hang our laundry, and what can be called a backyard. The chickens live in this backyard along with the organic garbage disposal (what we stateside people call “a pet dog.”)

I have the biggest room in the house. It’s separated from the rest. So, I get a lot of privacy. I have my own bathroom with a flushing toilet (yay!) and a shower with hot running water (double-yay!). There were two beds to choose from. I use the other one now to “temporarily” hold the stuff that I’m too lazy to properly put away. There’s a ceiling fan – yes, my friends, I have a three-speed ceiling fan. There are two windows, one in the bedroom and another in my own little living room. There’s also a skylight.

I share the kitchen with the family. There was no need to buy a stove since they already have one… with six grills. No matches are needed to turn them on since there’s this high-tech button that you can press (it makes a clicking sound) and then the fire just magically puffs into existence. Pots and pans galore. All the plates and bowls that I need and running water to wash what I use.

Since there is a small convenience store out in front, I don’t need a refrigerator – although there is one if I need it. When I cook, I just go visit Doña Carmela out front, pick and choose the ingredients that I need for my meal, go cook my food, and then return later to pay. I can choose from all kinds of meat (chicken, beef, pork, and chorizos). There are eggs (brown and white), pasta, canned beans (whole and refried), all manner of spices, and a small selection of vegetables and herbs. I can get lactose free milk (no need to buy milk powder anymore). They sell sodas and beer, and a whole bunch of other stuff that I have yet to discover.

When I was looking at other places to rent, I would not have been living with a family. For some people, that’s a benefit. However, this family is not only welcoming and friendly, but they also speak Q’eqchí. When I start taking my lessons, they’ll be an invaluable resource. Other places were asking for Q1,200 (US$158) per month NOT including utilities. No convenience store. Doña Loli is only asking for Q600 (US$79.05) per month INCLUDING utilities, and drinking water (Q15/per 5 gallons in value).

So, mom and dad, there’s no need to worry.

I am very grateful. I feel very blessed and fortunate to have found another nice family and comfortable living arrangements since the Hernandezes in Magdalena. The spiritual side of me thanks God. My cynical side feels that this is too good to be true and, at any moment, the house of cards will all fall down. But, if all goes well, I may very well stay with the Galeanos for my whole two years here in Guatemala.

WORK LIFE

As I mentioned in other updates, I work for Proyecto Ecológico Quetzal (or just Eco-Quetzal). They are a non-profit, non-governmental organization dedicated to protect and recover the cloud forests of Alta Verapaz. They do this by giving alternatives to the indigenous people who live in these areas. Instead of the slash-and-burning of trees, Eco-Quetzal has taught the 35 communities that it oversees how to harvest the seeds from the arrayán trees and extract wax from them. The wax is then used to make candles that is currently sold in Guatemala, the US, and Germany (sounds like we do a lot of business, but, believe me, we are far from that.) A handful of those communities are also great areas for low-impact eco-tourism. Q’eqchí families would offer their homes for two- or three-night stays. And the head-of-household is trained as a guide to show the tourists the forest, fauna and birds. The national bird, the quetzal, is an endangered species (I think). But, the highest concentration of the quetzals is right here in these communities. So, aside from the uniqueness of living with an indigenous family and sharing their meals, bird-fans get a chance to spot this rare bird.

I am currently focusing my energies on Eco-Quetzal’s candle business. (In January, after the heavy rainy season, I’ll be working on their eco-tourism business.) I’ve been kept busy for all of August doing a cost analysis of our candle products. I tried so hard to remember the principles of Cost Accounting that I learned from Prof. Kenyon’s course back at Humboldt. In the end, I figured my analysis was (as they say) “good enough for government work.” However, if GAAP should get a hold of my report, I fear they would find my work so unacceptable that even my grandchildren will be prohibited from being accountants.

Although I enjoy doing financial analyses, I switched gears this month to Marketing. We have new prices and we need to increase sales. If we manage to sell as many units as needed to reach breakeven, then I would reach my first goal. To do that, I need to find 48 clients who would each order 50 units of our best-selling product every month. Since our products are a commodity, I am trying to differentiate them by selling Eco-Quetzal’s mission rather than its candles.

I remember that when I worked for Fire & Light Originals, they made these point-of-sale posters to help its vendors sell their products. These posters would tell the story behind their recycled dinnerware. So, I am trying to make point-of-sale posters that would tell the story behind our candles. I just finished writing the pitch. Now, I’m working on the pictures. If all goes well, and I can get enough of these point-of-sale posters within budget, then I will be traveling to Guatemala’s tourist cities to find my 48 clients.

SOCIAL LIFE

On days when I go to the gym, I wake up at six-thirty in the morning. By eight, I start walking from Barrio San Marcos to work. It takes me 30 minutes one-way without my backpack, 40 with one. I get two hours for lunch (gotta give props to Guatemala’s liberal labor laws). I walk back home for lunch. Then I walk back to work by 2pm. My work hours continue from 2:30 to 6:30. I get home by seven to cook my dinner. After eating and washing my dishes, it’s 8 o’clock. Time for laundry. Despite all the amenities in Doña Loli’s house, I still wash my clothes every night by hand on the pila. More on that later.

By 9:30, I would be finished with my laundry and the ironing of yesterday’s load. After showering, I would either play a little guitar or read before going to bed at eleven. Then it all begins again the next day. Five days a week.

Needless to say, I don’t have much of a social life Monday to Friday. But my weekends are my own. And I either spend it with the Galeanos or with my fellow volunteers.

THE GALEANOS

They are a huge family. Doña Loli is the matriarch. I overheard that she’s somewhere in her seventies. Her husband passed away several years ago. She has five children, all grown. I like her a lot. She is kind and is an astute manager of the household. Unfortunately, she has fallen ill of late. Doña Loli has been getting vertigo from an ear infection, and has swollen feet that make walking a challenge. She is now taking an extended rest at the house of Doña Lina (her fourth child).

Doña Loli’s first child was a son. He used to live in the room where I currently reside. Now he lives in Paris, France with his wife and kids. He’s a firefighter.

Her second child is Doña Vilma. She was married. I don’t know what happened to her husband. But, she has a son, Alfonso. He’s 27-years old and is married to Anabel. They run Vilma’s second pharmacy store, and have three children: Alejandro (8), Rodrigo (3), and Marcie (infant).

The third child is Mayra. I have yet to meet her since she lives in El Salvador.

The fourth child is Doña Lina. She has a really nice house – a lot of varnished wood. Owns a beautiful husky dog. Her husband, Carlos, has three motorcycles and a car. Doña Lina’s eldest son, Juan Carlos, is a supervisor for a construction company. Her daughter, Mariana, is either in high school or college.

The fifth child is Doña Gaby. She comes over every day to run the take-out café. Her two children, Diego (aged 11; looks like a young John Leguizamo) and Sophie (aged 5; already has two silvers replacing her two front teeth), are always here after school. I have been spending a lot of my Saturdays cooking with Doña Gaby and her household help, Marisela.

Interesting side-note: K-12 students go to school either from 6:30am to 12:30pm or 1pm to 6pm. There are numerous holidays, some announced, others not. And school is out from late-October until early-January. Does anyone see any problems with so many days off? I’m sure my young cousins don’t.

Doña Gaby’s husband, Gustavo, is a real-life cowboy. He owns over fifteen cows and acres of land where all manner of produce is grown. Gustavo recently purchased a 15-passenger van to take the whole family around on vacation. I plan to learn how to milk cows like a pro by the time I’m done with my Peace Corps service. Gustavo said he’ll give me the opportunity.

Gosh, I’m getting tired. This family is huge. Maybe I should just send a picture and have done with it? Ah… no. I should at least mention Doña Carmela for a bit. Like I said, she runs the front store. She is incredibly nice. She’s been teaching me some words in Q’eqchí and gives me discounts on my groceries. Her father is Don Saúl. He’s blind. I think, since he can’t see me, he feels the need to shout everything he says to me. Makes me jump out of boots every time.

Okay. I’ll write more about the Galeanos some other time.

THE VOLUNTEERS

Although there are a lot of volunteers in the state/province/department of Alta Verapaz, I rarely run into them during the work week. However, something is usually going on every other weekend and we get to catch up then.

We usually just go out to eat. But, recently, some of them have taken me out to Semuc Champey, the waterfalls at Sach’i’chá, and the quaint little town of Chamelco. Pictures and more stories to come on those.

ZEN AND THE ART OF DOING LAUNDRY BY HAND

This update is getting repulsively long. So, let me end it with my thoughts of doing laundry by hand.

To all my friends in Beijing from the WTO Group, I salute you. If I remember correctly, you all did your laundry by hand when you were in the States. It’s hard work. I know now that washing machines are common appliances in the US. They are a luxury in China. In Guatemala, they are a myth.

In this country, we have what is called la pila. It’s a T-shaped concrete contraption: the middle is a deep reservoir where water is stored, and the two wings to the side are the sinks. One sink is for dishes, the other is for doing the laundry. In the Galeano household, since we have a regular kitchen sink for doing the dishes, our pila is used strictly for laundry.

Guatemalans didn’t make these pilas for Americans. A typical pila would barely reach the mid-thigh height of an average gringo. So, doing my laundry is a back-breaking ordeal. But, I got it down to a system.

I recently finished reading Robert Pirsig’s book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Aside from his argument for a return of rhetoric in schools and his epistemological musings, Pirsig makes a strong point about doing quality work in all aspects of our life. Just as nirvana is reached by paying attention to what would otherwise be normal human experiences, feeling connected to this new fast-paced, high-tech world around us is achieved by paying attention to all our work. From the most complicated to the most mundane. Like doing our laundry by hand.

Pirsig talks about gumption. It’s more than just motivation. It’s the gung-ho attitude towards learning – the love of knowing something new. So, I approached this task of laundry with gumption. I wanted to do quality work. By paying attention to what I was doing, rather than grumbling about not having a machine to do the job, I did not just find efficiency. I learned how to stop time.

Well… maybe not “stop,” but more like slow down.

The first load of laundry I ever did took me the whole evening. Almost three hours for just six articles of clothing. My back ached like an old man, my left wrist was bruised from bracing my weight while bending over the pila, and my right hand was wrinkled and chapped from all the water and scrubbing. I cried to think I had to do this every night. I did not even consider leaving a pile to do over the weekend.

But the next night was easier. I eased myself into the process by doing the smallclothes first: the underwear, the socks. My undershirts and dress shirts would come next. Then the big boys: jeans, slacks, or sweaters. And, if I did my laundry every night, the load would be very manageable. By the end of my second week, I was proud to not have given in to paying the household help to do my work.

Besides, I’m not too keen on someone fondling my boxers.

Even though I had a system, I still paid a lot of attention to what I was doing. I looked for efficiencies, but I also didn’t take short-cuts. Then time slowed down. I felt like more than an hour had passed, only to discover that it was just twenty minutes. This past week, I had a bigger than usual load of laundry. I thought it took over two-and-a-half hours. It was just one hour, including the ironing of yesterday’s clothes.

Who knows? I may be able to eventually stop time altogether. And, if I applied this conscientiousness to all aspects of my life, I may even reach nirvana. Or go insane.

Ah, you didn’t know? Robert Pirsig suffered from schizophrenia.

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