Tuesday, September 7, 2010

"Chapinear" and the Art of Guatemalan Improvisation

Americans are to Yankees as Guatemalans are to __________.

Chapins. The world chapin (pronounced chah-peen) is a term that has evolved affectionately over the years among Guatemalans to refer to the idiosyncrasies that make them uniquely Guatemalan. Hour late for a meeting? So chapin. Love eating tortillas and black beans? What a chapin. Put chile on all your food? Yep, pretty chapin. But careful, just like yankee can have charged connotations, referring to someone as a chapin can be offensive if said by the wrong person in the wrong context.

While the word chapin refers to people, chapinear (the verb) refers to the act of being a chapin and the inherent improvisation that goes with it. Over the course of the last six weeks of construction on the bottle school, I have been impressed time and time again by the ability of my co-workers to solve unexpected challenges in incredibly creative ways. I have been impressed by their ability to chapinear. Instances where I was ready to throw-up my hands and call it quits because we hadn't planned for a certain problem didn't so much as phase our lead mason. One such example was when we started placing the chicken wire in the walls to which the plastic bottles would be fastened. We needed certain pins in the cross-beams so we could run chicken wire the length of the wall and clamp it down with the pins. A miscommunication between the masons, a friend from our sponsor NGO, and me led to the complete omitting of pins on the top part of the crossbeams. Oops.

The sinking feeling I had, mainly derived from the thought of having to chip away at all the crossbeams to insert more pins, lasted only a few moments. The lead mason shrugged-off our predicament, saying we could weave reinforced wire through the chicken wire, tie it to the crossbeam, and crank-it down to tighten it. Problem solved.

Examples like this have been common over the last few weeks. Challenges arise, as they always do with logistically-intensive projects like the bottle school, I scratch my head and summon my liberal arts college education to find few - if no answers, then turn to my Guatemalan counterpart who barely finished fifth grade to come up with the solution. And he always delivers.

Whereas in the States we rely on power tools, technology, and abundant resources to build things, Guatemalans rely on their wit, creativity, and tough as nails work ethic (no power tools here) to build their future. I've worked side-by-side with them for a number of weeks now, and have only had access to saws, hammers, and other rudimentary tools that require good ol' fashion elbow grease to get the job done. Efficient? Not really. Admirable? Definitely.


The tools: hammer, nails, machete, measuring tape, and pliers

"World Class Cheerleading": Ever wonder where your used t-shirts end up?

Don Beto putting bottles in a wall

Hello Ismael

Paco working on the roof

The school with about 1,000 bottles in place

Monday, August 16, 2010

Photo Update on the Bottle School

Hi all,

Here's a quick photo update on the bottle school. We've been building for about three weeks and have about four weeks until we start placing bottles in the walls. As of today, we have 5,500 plastic bottles collected and we expect another 1,000 from neighboring communities later this week. For more info on the project, check out previous post "Building Classrooms with Plastic Bottles".

Day 1. Community members and "Don Jaime" ready to break ground at 6:30am

Day 1. The old classroom

Day 1. Breaking-down the old classroom

Day 5. Starting to build the foundation

Day 14. Pouring cement into the support columns

Day 22 (today). Columns and half of the cross-bars built

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Guatemalan Gambling

Rocky, my host brother, pays his Q5 (about $0.60) and asks for three more cards. He gets them, grimaces, and then leans back in his chair, disengaging from the game as the other three players at the table take turns discarding unwanted cards in hopes of receiving better ones. The rain outside rattles the corrugated tin roof. My other host siblings, Clayton, Hiroshima, and Donaldo, continue playing and bet-up the pot to about $1.50 before laying their cards on the table to see who has the strongest hand. Hiroshima smiles as she extends her arms to rake-in the small pile of bills that look like money taken from a game of Monopoly. They have been playing 5-card draw for almost an hour and I have been observing for about as long. Unlike Texas Hold'em, arguably the most popular card game in the U.S.A., 5-card draw requires little skill and a lot of luck. You pay to get your cards, you pay to play, exchange weak cards in search of stronger ones, and then have a round of anemic betting followed by the revealing of cards; no tells, no strategy, no gamesmanship. It's just you against the cards that happen to fall.

The next day, I stroll-down to the soccer field for my ten o'clock game. The usual suspects sit perched on the hill overlooking the field, ready to bet on the day's games. They all throw Q25 ($3) into the pot and bet on the numbers of combined goals that the two teams will score in the game. If one team scores two goals and the other team does not score, he who bet on two goals wins the pot, pretty straightforward. But instead of making calculated guesses on how many goals each team will score based on weather, team and player ability, and any other factors that speak to the gambler's skill at predicting the game, they throw five numbers into a hat (0-4) and blindly select numbers. If it's pouring rain and the teams have strong defenses but no offense, he who selects 4 goals has a slim chance of winning based on the probability given the conditions.

Just like 5-card draw, the soccer betting had little (if nothing) to do with skill, consideration, or ownership by the individual. They prefer to leave their fate to chance instead of taking ownership of it, or what anthropologists refer to as an external locus of control, the idea that one's fate is in the hands of some higher power. This is common with Guatemalans and relates to their relationship with God as well and the active role he/she plays in their lives. A common response one hears when asking about future plans or projects is that it depends on whether or not God will allow it.

Contrast this with the American internal locus of control: the belief that we control our fate. If we work hard enough, we will achieve what we set-out to achieve. Is that not the foundation of our country and the American dream? Returning back to the gambling analogy, why is Texas Hold'em so popular in the U.S.A.? Because it eliminates the aspect of luck to the greatest extent of any card game and success depends more on the gamesmanship and skill of the player. The same is true with sports betting. Americans would rather get smaller returns to predict the future in order feel like they have as much control over their fate as possible.

In the card playing instance, I offered to teach the table how to play Texas Hold'em. They said they already knew how to play, but preferred 5-card draw. They said Texas Hold'em is slow and boring. I tried to explain the contrasting elements of luck and skill between the two games, but they kept returning to the idea of getting lucky, which made 5-card draw much more exciting for them. In the soccer game instance, I asked the guys if they ever considered letting each person choose the number of goals he thinks will be scored and then splitting the winnings with any other person that chose the same. The answer was the same; it was not as fun because it reduced the element of luck.

These distinctive degrees of ownership are a subtle, yet profound, cultural difference made salient by the way Guatemalans gamble. Peace Corps taught us in training about external vs. internal locus of control, but with more emphasis on lives and careers. I do not think you can look at the different life outlook as better or worse, it is what makes a culture. Even the richest of Guatemalans attribute their fortune to God's willing their success. The claim that only the poor do not take accountability for their misfortune is false. The main difference might be that in a society where economic success does not come easily to the majority of the population, the majority has to believe that something has affected their luck so as not to feel like failures. Those who do "make it" are constantly surrounded by poverty and harsh living conditions, so they have to believe that some higher power willed them to be winners.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Catching-up With Quetzals

I apologize to my six faithful readers who have been clicking "Refresh" on my blog for the last three months in hopes that a new post would appear, only to read - for the seventh time - how to make a classroom out of plastic bottles. With quetzal season in fifth gear and my bottle school project starting to take shape (looking to start construction in late July/ early August) I have not been as consistent about writing about the latest and greatest from Guatemala as I would have liked.

Speaking of which, I'd like to share a little bit about the resplendent quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala and the head honcho of El Refugio del Quetzal. As May comes to an end, so to does the quetzal nesting season, which is the best time of year to see these otherwise elusive birds. Quetzals nest from January to May in sub-tropical rainforests at an altitude of around 1,700 meters (in America, that's about 5,500 feet). Unlike the non-industrious jays or sparrows, quetzals laboriously dig away at dead tree trunks to form their nests inside the trunk of the tree. Why dead trees you ask? Great question. The wood of dead trees is softer and easier for the quetzals to pick-at with their beaks. However, one of the reasons quetzal numbers are down worldwide, apart from human-induced deforestation and habitat destruction, is that the dead trees they need to be able to nest have very weak root strength, causing them to fall easily during rainy season when as much as seven meters of rain can fall in six months. When completed, the nest has a circular opening with a diameter of about four inches and a depth of about one foot. Here's a photo from our park of a male quetzal digging his digs.

The female quetzal lays two baby blue eggs, which the male and female take turns incubating for eighteen days (it's a very progressive bird). This is the best time to view quetzals because you can go to where you know the quetzals are nesting and wait for them to switch turns incubating, providing great chances to see them fly in and out of the nest.

After the incubation period, the male and female take turns searching for food to feed their young (again, progressive). Worms and small lizards are the food of choice for baby quetzals who demand a higher protein content in their diet. When they don't want to put in the effort of going out and preparing food for their kids, like most parents the quetzals resort to giving their children microwavable dinners or macaroni-and-cheese. Here is a photo of a baby quetzal from our park that I took last Monday.

From this point, the quetzals leave the nest with their two (usually) chicks and head-up to higher altitudes where they remain until the following nesting season. It's tough to see quetzals outside of nesting season because they don't have a good defense mechanism (no big talons, no big/strong beak, not particularly agile, etc.), so they keep quiet in the canopies of trees and only leave in search for food to avoid attracting the attention of potential predators (hawks). When something does shake-down between a quetzal and a predator, quetzals use strength in numbers to swarm the predator to fend it off. My counterpart says he has seen this before in our park, but I have yet to witness a swarm of green quetzals beating-up on a hawk.

Overall, we had a successful nesting season this year in my park. Our artificial nests attracted two pairs of quetzals and we estimated having about seven or eight pairs over the course of four months, which - for a park our size - are very good numbers. We invited biologists from Germany to view and research the quetzal's "display flight" (the male's way of attracting the female), we inventoried all of the birds in our park (around 110 different species), and we finished the basic infrastructure after a year of work.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Building Classrooms With Plastic Bottles


As recently as thirty years ago, plastic products were few and far between in Guatemala. Sodas came in glass bottles that were reused over and over. Tamales, cheese, tacos, and assorted snacks came wrapped in the leaves of local plants instead of plastic bags. And as a matter of habit, Guatemalans threw the leftover garbage on the ground without thinking twice because leaves biodegrade and disappear within weeks. Today, the same habits exist; people eat their snack, then chuck the garbage on the ground when they finish-up. But now that everything comes in plastic containers (chips, sodas, water, tacos, smoothies...even plastic bags come in plastic bags), this cultural habit has left Guatemala with a serious waste management crisis.

The great thing about plastic is that it's an incredibly strong material; it's light and extremely durable. However, the terrible thing about plastic is that it's too good of a product: it's cheap and doesn't breakdown. In fact, the average plastic bottle takes roughly 500 years to biodegrade. To put that in perspective, 500 years ago Columbus had just recently discovered the Americas. In the States we've been able to create sufficient infrastructure to breakdown plastic and resell it as a commodity, helping us to avoid the ubiquity of plastic that you find in Guatemala (and most of the Third World, I imagine). Here, in contrast, the common solution for disposing of plastic is to burn it, which creates a deadly toxin called dioxin. It's not uncommon to pass by makeshift landfills with plumes of smoke billowing from the embers of burning plastic below.

Given the lack of probability of investment in waste management, one must devise creative solutions to confront this issue. One such solution is using these plastic bottles to create bottle schools.

What is a bottle school?

The basic idea of a bottle school is that instead of building a classroom using cement blocks, you fill plastic bottles with plastic waste to the point where they're so dense you can use them as your building blocks. Given the fact that plastic takes about 500 years to breakdown, they're actually stronger (in some senses) than cement blocks. Also, these classrooms are safer in the event of an earthquake because they're more flexible and can move with the tremors. In the event that they do fall, plastic weighs much less than cement and would not crush someone like cement blocks would.

I met with a local school yesterday in a neighborhood called Mariscal to start the process of building a bottle school. They teachers couldn't be more excited and we're off to a great start. The project works on many levels. First of all, we're going to build a school for kids who are in dire need of more classroom space. Right now, in the school I visited, about 80 kids have class outside in a makeshift classroom made out of wood and a tin roof that feels like a sauna after about 9am when the Central American sun really starts to beat down. Second, after a project like this where we need to collect thousands of plastic bottles, the streets of San Rafael will be never have been so clean as they will be when we reach our goal of collecting 6,000 bottles and 420,000 plastic bags (about 70 plastic bags fit in each bottle). Third, the project involves the community because not only do the students have to collect five bottles a week for homework, but community members can drop off their stuffed bottles at a collection center in the central park on Sundays. To compliment the waste management lesson of the project itself, I'm also going to give environmental education classes throughout the weeks of bottle collecting. Fourth, and final point, these classrooms are extremely economic to make. Cutting out the cost of the cement blocks cuts the entire cost of building the classroom by about 40%, if not more.

To build the classroom you have to have the foundation: a cement floor, steal columns, and a corrugated tin roof. From there, you put sheets of chicken wire extending from one column to the next, on the inside and outside of the structure, creating a space in between (the width of the columns) where you put the bottles. After putting row after row of bottles between the chicken wire, the wall slowly takes shape. In the spaces that remain between the bottles, you put more plastic bags to fill any empty gaps. Then you apply the first layer of drywall (a cement mixture), then the second layer, and then you have your wall that looks like any other wall; it doesn't look makeshift. After a layer of paint, the bottle classroom is complete and classes can begin.

Here are a few photos from yesterday when I taught the students how to stuff their bottles. I'll also include some pics from a bottle school that another PCV built to show the process of building a bottle school.

This is one of the classrooms we want to replace with the bottle classroom

Please fill-in your own caption in the "Comments" section

Teaching the kids how to stuff their bottles with trash

(The following photos are from PCV Laura Kutner's site in Granados, Baja Verapaz.
We're using this project as a model for the school in San Rafael)

Placing the stuffed bottles in rows between the chicken wire

One of the walls with the first layer of dry wall

Exposed section of wall and completed section of wall

Final product

Monday, February 1, 2010

Park Update: Signs

Hi everyone. We recently put the signs in the park. Yes, the same signs that we started working on back in October (see: "Sign-making" entry). It took a while to get the paint, but they're finally done and in the park. Here are a couple photos:

"Welcome to the Quetzal's Refuge"

"Don't throw garbage"



Friday, January 22, 2010

A Year in Review

My first year in Guatemala was a challenge, a reward, a life lesson, a personal lesson, a dream, at times a nightmare. It was an arrival to a new world, a jump into the unknown, a farewell to friends and family, a farewell to my comfort zone. It was a trembling at the door of my new host family, a new-found feeling like a brother to my new Guatemalan sister. It was a barking dog at 3:00am, a cawing rooster at 3:01am. It was a grit, a stench, a rawness. It was an occasional emaciated street dog on the occasional corner, a shining red and yellow chicken bus. It was a sense of belonging here, a sense of longing for home. It was an early Monday morning ride to Peace Corps headquarters, a smile from Brittany, a smile from Molly, a smile from Maria, a deep-seeded common bond with fellow PCVs. It was a volcano spewing smoke into the air half a mile away, a pizza and a beer in Antigua, a tortilla and beans (never apart) in San Antonio. It was a spider on my wall, a mouse in the corner, a flea on a dog, an amoeba in my stomach. It was a tumultuous Thursday morning when I found out my site location, a seven hour chicken bus trip to San Rafael Pie de la Cuesta for the first time, a bright green quetzal feeding its young, a first cup of sugary coffee with the mayor in his office. It was a achingly arduous adjustment, a laggingly long loneliness, three months of doubt, three months of questioning. It was a rediscovery of self, a rediscovery of purpose, a rediscovery of contentment. It was a bead of sweat in the Coban half marathon, a drop of crystal clear water at the pools of Semuc Champey, a candle-lit tour of jungle-covered caves. It was a new house in town, a new rhythm in our work at the park, a new-found excitement to be a Peace Corps volunteer in San Rafael Pie de la Cuesta. It was a Sunday soccer game in the shadows of the tallest volcano in Central America, a "G-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-L", a sense of community in an uncommon place, a sunset that washed San Rafael with a burnt orange. It was a daily greeting in the streets of town, an "Hola!", an "Adios!", a street corner to sit on, a patient watching of the world-go-by, a conversation with a Guatemalan friend, a breaking down of preconceived misconceptions, a realization of similarity between two dissimilar people. It was a smile, a wave, a nod, a handshake. It was seemingly small, but undoubtedly profound.

My first year in Guatemala has been a lot of things. I look forward to learning what the second year will be.

(Structural inspiration from John Steinbeck's opening sentence from "Cannery Row")