Monday, July 25, 2005

Taller without Steriods?

Dear Friends and Family,
Have you ever wanted to be taller? Well you could have a bunch of costly surgeries and take steroids, or you could just pack your stuff and move on down to Guatemala. You’d also probably cut your cost of living by more than half, (although your standard of living would likely fall as well).
It’s true, you can find certain items for much less here than in the states. A bottle of agua pura (pure water) will only set you back around 20 cents (which is a good thing, considering the tap water will set you back on the pot). If you’re feeling a bit more spendy, you could buy some agua (which is the word they use for pop) for around 30 to 40 cents per 20 oz bottle. Yet at this point something strange (or actually more normal) occurs. You don’t pay for convenience in Guatemala, you pay for size. A 2 liter will cost you $1.20 and a 2.5 liter is $1.40. If you want a car you’re going to have to pay around double what you might in the states, and computers run even more expensive. Gas is around $3 a gallon, with all this in mind, it’s no surprise most of the people here elect (or are forced) into not owning a car. About every 10th car on the street is a Camianeta (or bus). Depending on the day, these cost 14-28 cents for a ride (as far as you want). This morning our 1.25 hour trip to work cost us each 14 cents. Yet with so few cars, you can still find plenty of repuestos (or car repair shops). It seems only about half the cars here actually run. On just about every corner you’ll find a repuesto, a local tienda (shop), or a passed out drunk man.
While the men are getting drunk the women are coming to receive their loans from the new life association (or asosiacion vida nueva…not spelled right). In fact 80% of the clients who take out loans from where I work are female. They have quite a unique system of loans. The official unemployment rate is over 50% in the City of Guatemala, although I can’t figure out what constitutes a real job. Either way, much of the economy here takes place on an informal level. Often the people who run these tiny businesses are barely scrape by, having hardly enough to live on it’s extremely difficult to purchase the goods and capital needed to expand and earn more. For this reason small scale loans can and have been very helpful to many people who are unable to find money elsewhere.
In order to take out a loan, you must find a solidarity group, with whom you will hold each other accountable. These groups consist of 3-10 people all of which are ultimately responsible for each other. Should one of member of the group fail to repay the loan then the others in the group must repay their share. Talk about peer pressure.
As our clients repay their loans they are required to take classes in basic entrepreneurial skills. Here they learn how their contributions effect the economy and they also learn how to responsibly run a business based on biblical principles.
Finally, as they repay the loan, the repayment plan is fixed, the plan is extremely simple. The amount of the first loan is 1000 Quetzales (Around 130$) per person and will be repaid over the course of four months. In addition to repayment the clients are encouraged to begin a savings account. Almost all of which do. And so they set aside around 2$ a week as savings.
Usually, my mornings are spent traveling with Walter and Lazaro from house to house in order to see how people are doing, to examine new client’s businesses, and to advertise. The people are truly beautiful. While extremely poor, for the most part they seem happy. They always invite us in, and occasionally they give us something to eat or drink.
Sixto is an older man who lives right next to the garbage dump, he owns a small fruit stand, and has been doing well with his loans. His house consists of a dirt floor a hammock and a small TV. Cluttering the single room dwelling lie a number of objects perhaps collected from the dump. Most of which we might call junk, these items include: ripped cardboard boxes, broken canoe paddles, as well as some small pieces of tin (with which he informs us he is going to enlarge his house). As we talk, he gives us each a bottle of coke and some crackers. I am overwhelmed by his generosity and although I feel terrible to take what little he has, it would be worse for me to reject his gifts.
For lunch we walk down the block to a small shop that sells tortillas for 1.5 cents each. As we return Walter makes a comment on how the price just keeps going up.
After lunch I begin working on an excel spreadsheet in order to automate some of their processes. Association Vida Nueva is a two story building, located approximately half a mile from the dump. There are four employees plus myself who currently work there. Vida Nueva currently has roughly 80 groups consisting of nearly 300 people with loans still outstanding.
Roughly 4 blocks from Vida Nueva is the building known as Potter’s House (or Casa del Alferero). Smelling strongly of rotting garbage and inhabited by more flies than people, casa del alferero offers hope to those who’ve spent their lives living in the garbage.
Victor, or Fito for short, is one of the most friendly people you’ll ever meet. After 22 years of being a, “recycler,” someone who rummages through the garbage for a specific good to sell, (yes their jobs titles have just about as much name inflation as jobs in the US) Fito now serves as the humanitarian director, his sister Auri mans the front gate, and his mom works primarily as a cook. Apparently Fito was third to the top of the gang world prior to coming to Potter’s House. Like in most any company, the dump has it’s hierarchy. Those higher up gaining better access to first picks of the garbage. The farther down the ladder, the less that’s left. However, promotions are not generally given, they are taken. Joining a gang can be very appealing, perhaps even necessary for life.
The work that God is doing through Potter’s House (including allowing Fito and his family to get out of the dump) is truly amazing. My time here so far has been outstanding and there is a ton more that I would love to write about but this is getting extremely long and I know that mass emails are sometimes tedious to read.
Thank you for your prayers and your time.
God Bless,
-Enoch Hill

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