Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Scam, a Familiar Face and Some Important Lessons

La Estafa

About a month ago a man, Benicio, from Coban (city up north), arrived in this small pueblo where I live and rented a room in the Hotel Casa Blanca where I am a permanent resident. He told me he was the director of a Guatemalan nonprofit which provides poor families monthly with 100lbs of corn, 25lbs of beans, 25lbs of sugar, amongst other provisions. The families pay 11 Quetzales (less than $2) a month. Malnutrition is a huge problem here but I wish there were more NGOs showing people how to start family gardens. There are many ways to fight hunger and the neediest require immediate relief so I didn’t argue the seemingly paternalistic aspects of this program.

He proceeded to hire a few locals to help with secretarial duties and work with community leaders promoting the program throughout villages surrounding our pueblo. In about two weeks time he had thousands signed up for the program and collected the first month’s payment, cash money that is. During this process I saw many COCODE presidents whom I’ve worked with bring hundreds of people from their communities to take advantage of this program. COCODES stand for Consejo Comunitario de Desarrollo which is a community development council. They are the legal development body at the aldea (village) level. It began to appear that Benicio should be working with the municipal planning office where I work. I asked him in passing if he would like me to introduce him to the staff and the mayor and encouraged him to coordinate his efforts with our office. He responded by saying that he didn’t want to work with the muni due to political reasons. I wasn’t sure what he meant by his comment and I decided not to dig any further not really knowing the guy and understanding how sticky politics can be here.

I was washing my dishes at the outdoor pila (large water container for washing dishes, clothes, etc.) one sunny afternoon when Guillermo approached me and said he had problemas. Guillermo lives up on the third floor at the Casa Blanca and had borrowed a pickup from a friend to drive Benicio into the villages. All in all Benicio owed him 4,000 Quetzales for his time and truck rental. Guillermo started explaining how Benicio left town a few days prior with about Q35,000 in cash ($4,375), a large sum here in Guatemala. Benicio robbed more than Q11 from these families, he vanished with their hope of receiving food to feed their hungry families.

La estafa means scam in Spanish and this country is full of them. It’s sad to see los estafadores (scammers, swindlers) preying on the poor and I learned a valuable lesson. From this point on I will make it a point to research organizations trying to fly under the radar of the local authorities. Nobody should be forced to work with the authorities, but avoiding the authorities is a sign and I missed it.


The first familiar face from the U.S. arrived a little more than a week ago. I know Carrie from my days at the Orbis International House. She valiantly quick her job and decided to stuff her pack with the essentials and travel around the world. Her first stop was Guatemala where she is taking Spanish classes and preparing to volunteer for various NGOs as she makes her way down to South America. I applaud her efforts knowing it takes an exceptional person to do this.

I picked her up from the airport in the capital, Guatemala City, and we spent a few days in Antigua before heading to Xelajú, or just Xela, where there are some of the best Spanish language schools in the world. You can live with a host family and get one on one lessons 5 hours a day, food included, for as low as $150/week. Good deal. Look into it if you ever wanted to learn this remarkable and useful language.


During my Peace Corps training I was selected by my training group to give a speech during our swearing in at the ambassador’s house. It’s like being the valedictorian and I was honored to be chosen. In two weeks we will all be back at the Peace Corps country office/training center for a week-long conference and additional Spanish training called Reconnect. I will be giving another speech as part of my duties as group spokesperson if you will. I’d like to share some of the contents of my speech with my “followers” (all 8 of you). Much of this comes from people I’ve listened to or passages I’ve read. Many props to the great ethno botanist Wade Davis. Enjoy.

• People in the developing countries are not failed attempts at being us.
• There is no such thing as development. There are simply thousands of ways of experiencing humanity.
• Who knows what of England who only England knows?
• The measure of a society is not only what it does but the quality of its aspirations
• Western religion has and currently is destroying indigenous cultures.
• Fewer than half of the 6,000 languages spoken when we were born are not being taught to children. In our lifetime more than half of the human legacy will be lost forever if we don't do something to stop this.
• We are not so different from other people in the world. The things that make us xenophobic and ignorant are basically the same everywhere.
• Few will have the greatness to bend history; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation ... It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is thus shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
-- Robert F. Kennedy, University of Cape Town, South Africa, N.U.S.A.S. "Day of Affirmation" Speech June 6, 1966