Friday, July 31, 2009

Price is Right (winner gets a prize)

The past week has been a little crazy. I got pretty sick Monday afternoon from…well, I really don’t know the cause. There are many ‘variables’ in my village to get sick from. I would be willing to bet it was the food I ate as it had a pretty big affect (the next part is graphic, do not read if you are under the age of 15) on the action that food takes an hour after it enters the body. Had to miss Tuesday and Wednesday of work, and have been playing catch-up the past couple of days. Don’t have time for a full update, so I decided to play a game with you instead. Below is a list of items that I have purchased in the past week. Comment on this blog, or email me (bsbelcher@gmail.com) what you think each item costs (quoted in US$). The person who scores the best will receive a hand made hacky-sack from one of the cooperatives I visited.

1) Chocolate covered banana
2) Strawberry ice cream cone (w/ strawberry sauce on top)
3) Kite (flies perfectly in the air)
4) French Fries (size comparable to McDonalds regular container)
5) 3 hours of Spanish lessons with a private tutor
6) 10 chocolate donuts that I bought for my family
7) The Prensa Libre Newspaper
8) One full week of rent and food (three meals a day)
9) Haircut
10) Full loaf of banana bread (size comparable to footlong subway sandwich)

A Big Mac costs $2.05 in Guatemala. That is a hint for most of you, and a joke for anyone that understood Econ 1.

Responses will be graded and the winner (with the answers) will be posted on Friday, August 7, 5:00pm.

Feliz Fin de Semana!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Connecting the Poor

Anyone who’s ever bought a house knows the importance of the credit application process. The most qualified applicants get the most attractive loans. But the difficulty and importance of a strong application has taken on a new meaning for me recently when I learned that many of the artisans Mercado Global will try to assist can’t read or write, let alone fill out a credit application form. As is too often true, those most critically in need are facing the most obstacles. I learned I’ll need to go through the applications with the applicants, step by step – and then fill them out myself.
The success of a micro loan hinges on the ability of the borrower to meet the monthly payment. One aspect of the loan application, then, is determining a borrower’s ability to repay the debt; for this, we use the Feasibility of Credit form. Put simply, the form helps to assess the borrower’s ability to pay by subtracting their monthly expenses from their monthly earnings. The Feasibility of Credit form will work to beneficially pair the borrower’s monthly repayment capacity with the terms of the loan.
Last weekend I had the opportunity to visit the Cooperative of Chaquija. A group of about 20 women in the Guatemalan village of Solola, Chaquija will be the first cooperative to receive a micro loan. The women of Chaquija often work through the day and night at antiquated loom stands to produce the fabrics that sustain their economy. Providing the cooperative with a loan will let them invest in higher quality tools and more advanced technology, in turn increasing their efficiency and improving their quality of life.

video

But the benefits of technological advancement stretch far beyond Chaquija’s looms. Access to information can in so many cases pave the way towards economic advancement. Yesterday, one of the boys in my host family, Victor, sprained his ankle during a soccer game at the local campo. I went to see how he was doing and was surprised to see that basic treatments – treatments we too often take for granted in our own homes – were being forgone. And I’m not talking about Advil and Ace bandages; I’m talking about ice. (Information isn’t all that limits Victors treatment; ice is hard to come by in a tropical climate and a home without a refrigerator or freezer.) I explained to him that it was important to keep his ankle elevated to limit the swelling, another step I had considered universally known.
I started to realize how much a simple internet connection could have provided real, physical – even medical – benefits to Victor and his family. Type "sprained ankle" into Google Search, and he could have learned in five minutes all he ever wanted to know about sprained ankles. (And in almost any language, no less.)
Technology that provides access to information can educate, strengthen, and connect communities across the world (both the “first” and “third” worlds). A family’s access to medical information, a farmer’s access to prices and markets, a mother who is able to contact her son in the United States about the status of next month’s remittance – these are just three of a limitless number of reasons that a connected world is a better one.
While I’m down here, I’m exploring ways to provide technology infrastructure to the three billion people that lack it. (And I look forward to the possibility of working with the Brute Labs team to provide this resource.) Dr. Muhammad Yunus echoes the same vision that there are too many middlemen between the developing and developed worlds.
In this last picture, taken from my office last week, you can see four Americans sitting inside using computers, and four artisans outside making jewelry. How much longer until no one needs to be on the outside looking in? As critically as we must pursue the many green efforts in place across the world, it’s time for us to enable an equally vast information revolution. It’s time to start "G-chatting" with the developing world.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Seasons of the Sky

Many of my posts share the same theme of the peaceful beauty of Lake Atitlan, and its beauty deserves every word. It is easiest to blog about the lake, because it is the one time of the day, on the lake traveling to and from work, when I am alone with my thoughts. No children asking me to perform card tricks, no ladies smacking there hands together to make tortillas, and not trying to figure out what interest rate we must charge so that all the costs that go into the program break-even with the monthly payments on the loans of the artisans.

The boat ride home the other day was one I will never forget. As the mountains and volcanoes surrounding this lake create a climate that would even keep Bill Nye guessing, its mystery brings natural beauty. This day, however, was a special day as I call it the "Seasons of the Sky." I refrained from taking a picture as I fear it may not do justice to this experience, but hopefully my words will be able to fill your blank slate. As I stood up on the boat I found that each cardinal direction of the sky was displaying, in my mind, a different season. To the south I saw what looked like to me as fall, a clear dark blue, partly cloudy setting which gave me a chilly feeling. To the North, winter, as I saw headed straight for my boat a rain cloud that in the right temperature would make Whistler look like a shaved ice machine at a carnival. To the East, Spring, and to the West, Summer, which brought up one of the greatest myths? I know that the sun sets in the West, however; at this moment I could not tell where the sun was in the sky. I have never been anywhere on this planet where the weather was so mysterious (except in Prague when in the winter the sun sets at 2:30 pm), and it is so beautiful. I felt like I was playing Truman in the movie The Truman Show, and Ed Harris (actor who plays God) has created a mini-globe for me.

Within the beauty I get frustrated. As I exit the boat the poverty stains my mind. One of the main sources of poverty is geographical location. Some countries are blessed with natural resources that can only be controlled by the location of the country. Whether it is oil, gold, or an environment perfect for agricultural production, location can be a main determinant in the outcome of a country long before “Columbus” even arrived. But I have begun to think, Lake Atitlan may not have the natural resources to sell on the futures markets and exchanges, but they have another natural resource; its natural beauty. As the Seasons of the Sky put a smile on my face, I cannot help but look on this lake and realize that at any point in time there will be no more than two boats on its surface. Atitlan is home to many tourists, and I wonder how well a jet-ski, or water sport business would do on this lake. A water sports industry could possibly provide jobs for hundreds of Guatemaltecans. The true question remains: is beauty something to capitalize on?

Trying to picture this lake with jet ski’s and another hundred speedboats, I can’t help but think that the lake will loose some of its beauty. What is the cost of beauty, and is it worth loosing some to earn profits? One of the reasons the lake is so beautiful is because when I am on it I know that I am the only one. I get frustrated because I see what potential this lake has, but I get frustrated when I think about the effects of that potential.

What is more important, income or happiness? I know that industrializing this lake will bring hoards of cash to Atitlan, but I also believe that the hoards of tourists that it will take may decrease the happiness of the natives. In the country of Bhutan, they measure GNH (gross national happiness) as opposed to GDP (Gross Domestic Product). They believe that the happiness of the people should be the focus, and not the size of their wallets.

If hoards of tourists are not wanted by the Atitlan natives, I have another answer for the economy, the film industry. Tell George Lucas that if he wants to make another Star Wars film that I have a great location for his next planet. He has used Hoth, Tatooine, and everyone’s favorite Endor (home of the Eewok’s), well I think Atitlan with its towering volcanoes, and mysterious climate would make a great setting for the next “In a galaxy Far Far Away…”

Monday, July 6, 2009

10 Things You Should Know

At the moment I have so much work piled up with the microcredit program that Obama would consider fixing health care a walk in the park. I have lots to do, and yet it feels a little stagnant. I am using stagnant to say that we are taking steps forward, but to not have a lot of muddy footprints to show for. Because I am so busy I will refrain from a long post right now, and will keep it to a list of the ten things you should know about me over the past week. Starting with number 10…

10) I ate eggs, beans, and tortillas for dinner every night this past week.

9) I caught six fish. Although the size of the worms we use to catch fish in the United States…still, I caught SIX fish.

8) It rained every day and I saw three lighting storms.

7) This past Monday the kids from my host family just go the okay to return to school. The children have been out of school the past month due to Swine Flu. Hmmm...

6) I watched Michael Jackson music videos with my family on our 10 inch television each of the past four nights. We are all working on our Moon Walk.

5) My Spanish went from a 4 to a 5, out of 10 (on my scale).

4) I wore a Brasil jersey the day Brasil beat the U.S. in soccer.

3) I went two days without light…and could barely tell the difference.

2) My Host Mom made 350 tortillas!

1) I had $500 stolen out of my bank account after I used one out of the only two ATM machines in my town. Bank of America said that it was a criminal who set up a scanner in the ATM. We were able to trace the money and replenish my account. But the question remains…where the hell am I supposed to withdraw money?!

Here are two pictures that I really like. The first is of my with part of my host family. I was attempting to teach one of the boys how to play guitar (that's me in the hammock). Teaching guitar is difficult as it is, so imagine teaching in another language. The second picture is me waiting at the launches for my boat after work.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Lights Out

At Mercado Global I am currently working on a document that will explain, step-by-step, the process of credit. We need to present the function of the program, Mercado Global Credit, to the Board of Directors and receive the “Go for launch” before moving forward. Last night as my boat approached the launch at San Pedro I noticed that the power was out.
In America when the power goes out and I am driving home there is still hope that electricity is alive in my neighborhood. I figure that in America power comes from many sources and boxes in different regions. But in San Pedro, when the power goes out, it’s OUT!
In America when the power goes out, every activity is affected as everything we do seems to be connected with electricity. I was amazed sitting in my house last night to see that my usual activities were not affected. I understood this as since San Pedro has not made themselves as dependent on electricity and do not have the many amenities that require this resource then no major changes were needed. Sure we did not have light, but I think the kitchen/living room (we only have one room other then the bedrooms, which I would call the “living kitchen”) was more lit now with candles then with the single bulb that normally serves as the light source. I had to use my flashlight to go to the bathroom, but I always have to use a flashlight to go to the bathroom. We did not need to worry about our food getting rotten in the refrigerator, because we do not have a refrigerator. We have a gas stove, and I was worried that without power we were not going to be able to eat. However, the gas stove is one of those little Coleman cookers running on propane, so Teresa, my host mom, was able to cook our traditional beans, eggs, cheese, and tortilla dinner. My conclusion is that when the power goes out nobody is that affected. Now the question is when will the lights turn back on? The power went out yesterday at 1:30pm, and it is still out today at 10:00am. In America I rest assure that I will go to sleep and an electrician is at work, so when I wake up I can look at my clock and it is flashing 12:00 (my signal that the power is back on). But I am not sure if anybody is working to get the power back on in San Pedro. And if I have to take a few cold showers that is fine because we do not get hot water anyway.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Fishing for Dinner

One of the kids in the family is the cutest boy you will meet. Kind of like a male version Mary-Kate/Ashley Olson…pre-drug rehabilitation center era (okay maybe that comparison was not necessary). His name is Checha, which is short for Cesar (He is wearing the yellow shirt in these pictures. Speaking of yellow shirts, yes I am wearing a Brasil jersey, and yes that was on the same day Brasil beat U.S.A. in the finals). Checha is eight years old, and I spend a lot of time with him making card houses, playing marbles, and I even taught him how to play the card game Uno. I have determined that if Checha and I were stranded alone on an island with no resources, he would survive much longer then me. I figure this is because they do not have some of the resources that we in America are so adapted to. Boys like Checha have developed skills that the American man has lost through innovation, growth, and technology.


This past Sunday, Checha invited me to go fishing with three of his best friends. I was excited to see just how an eight-year-old Guatemalan boy fishes. When I fish in America I get out of my bed, put my rod and tackle box in the car, drive to the local store to buy worms then pick a local lake to drive to. In America fishing is usually personal time with my Dad for the main reason that we never catch any fish, so there is no need to pay attention to our lines. And now for Guatemalan fishing…
We had nothing to fish with when we left the house. First, we had to walk to a store to buy our line, which cost 20 cents. Next we had to walk to a different store to buy our hook, another 20 cents. We walked back to our house to grab the cardboard tube from a roll of toilet paper. This was going to serve as our fishing rod (see first picture in the hand on the boy on the left). The boys helped me create my rod. In many steps broken down to a few, you need to wrap the line around the roll, make a few holes here and there, attach the hook, and now you have a Guatemalan fishing line. I assumed that the next shop we were going to walk to would be for worms or bait. But there is not bait shop. Instead we had to find our bait. First we walked to the fishing location, which are the docks of the launches for the boats I take to work each day. These are the only docks on the whole lake. We looked below the docks and saw enough fish to take the next step. We walked to the beach where the sand meets the dirt and began digging for worms. All five of us dug with rocks for about 15 minutes, and were unsuccessful. Then one of the boys said we could get our bait in the trees, but it was a pretty long walk away. I had to see what he was talking about so I said it was okay. We walked to a farm 20 minutes away, which had trees with fruit in the shape of large peapods (I tried the fruit and it tastes like jicama). Supposedly inside some of the pods we would find little worms that we could attach to our lines. But they are not in all of them. Two of the kids climbed the trees and begin looking inside the pods.


It took about 20 minutes until one of the boys yelled (in Spanish) “We have bait!” We all began jumping and cheering. It was like we had just caught a fish in America, but all we caught was our bait. Little did I know that catching the bait in Guatemala is much more difficult then catching the fish. These worms were not American McDonalds super-size either, but more like what I would imagine Chinese McDonalds super-size would be. They were white worms the size of one rice granule.



We walked another 20 minutes back to the docks and began to fish. To fish in Guatemala you lay on the dock and wait until you see a fish swim by, and when that happens you drop your line.

As a group we caught SIX FISH! Granted they were the size of Little Nemo, but we bagged them up. After we were finished one of the kids took the bag home. I would say he took them for pets, but they were all dead by the time we walked home.

Yes finding our bait took longer then the actual fishing. But that leads me to believe that the word fishing should be a flexible cultural definition. To my family fishing is talking. To Checha, from what I saw, fishing is time to play outside of the house, and time to compete with friends. My time fishing with these boys was priceless. I hadn’t had this kind of fun since capture the flag in fifth grade. Checha was so happy when we were at the lake. Later that night I took him and Jaun (Jaun is my neighbor) back to the docks and taught them how to skip rocks. Probably will not be my last time I go Guatemalan fishing.