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The Muni building in Antigua

The Muni building in Antigua

Guatemala thrives on informality. As a Type A, hyper-organized, multi-tasking young American – less than a month out of college – this is something that’s been hard for me to come to terms with. But what I’m starting to see is that even if I can’t fully comprehend the system…it’s not really for me to comprehend. True, there may be ways to run things more efficiently, or perhaps in a more top-down manner, but if it works for Guatemalans themselves – which in many ways, it does – then looks like it’s up to me to learn how to manage my own life and my own work. And maybe also force myself to relax, be more patient, and have more faith in things working out (or at least in the beauty of a Plan B, and C, and D…)

Take the transportation system, for example. You won’t find a set schedule, route listings, or fees anywhere – yet somehow everyone seems to know how the system works. The busses (camionetas) for different locations line up on different street corners, and come consistently (unless they don’t…which also happens). And linking up with the camioneta system is an even more intricate system of microbusses and pick-ups that will pretty much take you door-to-door to any location you need to get to.  Try to make that work anywhere in the states!

Or the system of confirming campaigns with alcaldes (local government leaders), which I’m starting to wrap my head around this week as I work to pull together some last minute campaigns for our incoming SECorps group. So this is how the process works: After initiating contact with the municipalidad (the local government), you write up a solicitud – a formal solicitation letter explaining how our organization works, what we do, and asking permission to hold our campaign on a specific Saturday morning. You make two copies of the letter, sign both, and bring them both to the muni in person, in a manila folder. The secretario or alcalde will stamp and sign both, and mark them recibido (received), or aprobado (approved). But even if they mark the letter received, it doesn’t mean that the muni has granted us permission for the campaign – we need the official approval to make sure that they’ve accepted our solicitud and will support us in our campaign. There’s no formal database system to keep track of solicitudes, or even external communications in general – but usually at least, this system is able to accomplish what it needs to.

It’s anything but a simple system, and like most things here, I’m still piecing it together. But in a way, it makes sense…as I’ve probably mentioned before, relationships here are based on confianza (confidence/trust) and community, and making that personal contact of turning in a personalized letter in person, and  having it stamped and signed – as opposed to a back-and-forth process of e-mails, texts or even phone calls, as we are so accustomed to in the U.S. – probably makes all the difference.