A lot of people ask me what it is exactly that I do, as a field consultant for Community Enterprise Solutions/Soluciones Comunitarias. And it’s not an easy question to answer. Of course, by now I have my “elevator pitch” prepared, in both English and Spanish – I support the work of a social business that offers solutions to health and well-being problems, by offering free eye exams and selling life-changing products like eyeglasses, water filters, improved cookstoves, solar lamps, and more. So yes, a large part of my work is sales – I work two days a week in the SolCom Centro in Solola (our local store/tienda), assist our asesores with weekend field campaigns (in which we take our products to rural regions with limited access), and come up with new strategies to increase our sales and our regional reach. But my job is so much more than that.
The term “gringo” generally refers to an English-speaking foreigner, most often from the United States, though the connotation varies greatly – while in Guatemala it’s most often used as a friendly, matter-of-fact descriptive term, the exact meaning varies greatly depending on both country and context, and sometimes even holds negative or contemptuous connotations. By now, I’m pretty used to being called a “gringa” at least a few times each day, and I know it’s usually not meant in any sort of negative way. I am a “gringa,” my Spanish isn’t perfect, and no matter how long I live in Guatemala, I’ll never fully be able to understand all of the local traditions and customs.
Taking on my new job in Guatemala also meant the end to another important part of my life – my four years at Berkeley, and perhaps more importantly, my time spent in the Global Poverty and Practice Minor. A few days before leaving for Guatemala, I was awarded the honor to share a few words at the Global Poverty graduation ceremony about what the minor has meant to me, and how it has lead me onto the path where I am today. Check out the video or click here for the full text of my speech!
So plans here tend to change…a lot. It’s both a nature of the job and a nature of living in Guatemala. In light of a recent shake up this past week in my region, instead of sticking around for the rest of reflection week, I actually hopped on a 5:30am shuttle this morning and headed back to Pana to manage the office while Juana and Wicho are out. Even though I’ve been here three weeks, this job has a really steep learning curve…and I’ll admit that I’m a little nervous about the responsibility of being in the store by myself! I’m not 100% comfortable with my Spanish, my ability to give eye exams, nor my expertise on all of our projects…but it’s definitely getting better day by day.
Thus far, I’ve been pretty overwhelmingly positive about the work I’ve been doing with CE Solutions/Soluciones Comunitarias. But that is not to say the work that I’ve been doing has been perfect, nor that the MicroConsignment Model under which we operate is without flaws (or competition). A lot of these imperfections came to light in the past few days in particular, both with our model in specific and with the NGO climate in general in Guatemala. On Saturday, our students held their second campaigns – we split the group of 10 into two groups of 5, and I was in charge of directing the campaign in San Pablo, along with Juana (the regional coordinator), and two of our entrepreneurs, Rosa and Margarita. However, the campaign was unfortunately a complete 180 from the huge success that we saw last week when we sold over 40 pairs of glasses (likely an organizational record). I’m hesitant to call the campaign a complete failure, but it definitely was not a success. Numbers-wise, our sales were extremely low. We sold only 3 pairs of glasses, a few eye drops, and a few lightbulbs, and ended up packing up due to lack of interest. Barely anyone came to our campaign, and though we tried to do some extra publicity by walking around the town and talking to people, the public seemed generally disinterested.
Made it out to the Solola office for the first time on Friday! We hopped on a chicken bus around 8:30 and I spent a few hours getting to know Juana, the regional coordinator for Solola and her adorable son Jonathan. The office is really just a tiny storefront in an alleyway in Solola; it’s pretty much a small room where we store our products and we have intermittent (though growing) walk-in sales. Juana went over all of the products with me again – glasses, filters, stoves, lightbulbs – I’d seen them over Skype but it was great to see them in person. We also did some practice eye exams – Michelle showed me how to give them and then I gave a practice exam to Juana! Then, we did a mini filter campaign. We took one of our 5 gallon filters and set it outside on the main street, passing out free glasses of water to passersby and telling them both about the filters and about our work in general. The idea was to generate a buzz and ultimately drive traffic into the store, so people would come in, get eye exams, and purchase other products.
Lots to report from the last few days! On my first night in Antigua, we had a team dinner with all of the Field Consultants, in honor of those who are leaving and as a sort of celebratory welcome for me. We ate at Fusion, one of the best restaurants in Antigua, enjoyed homemade pasta, and shared a few bottles of wine…not the worst first meal in Guatemala! As part of the celebration, two of the Field Consultants put together a bunch of superlative awards and I was given awards for being the most likely to succeed AND “most improved” since my arrival in Guatemala…clearly a joke, but in the best way possible. It feels great to be part of such a supportive team, and having the chance to get to meet everyone all together before heading off to my region was a great transition period, if only for a few hours.
Michelle and I woke up early yesterday morning to catch a shuttle to Pana, which is where I am now! I checked into another hotel where I’ll be staying for the remainder of this week, before heading out for fieldwork with the interns at the end of this week. I’ll probably actually be sticking in this hotel for the rest of the month since I will barely be in Pana at all, and looking for a more permanent place to live in July. So looks like I’m living out of my suitcases for now! Michelle also talked me through some of the specifics of the projects we will be working on with the SECorps intern during our field weeks this summer, and they’re all really exciting and right up my alley!
I’m here! A little exhausted and somewhat overwhelmed, but safe, happy, and so excited for the adventures (and hard work) ahead. My journey started around 4am this morning as I headed to the airport to catch a 6am flight to Houston, and a connecting flight onwards to Guatemala City. The “trusty CE Solutions cab driver” Don Tono picked me up at the airport and drove me the hour or so into Antigua. I had just enough time to literally check into my hotel and drop off my things but then headed right to the office to get started.
The rest of the day has been crazy from there. I spent the morning and early afternoon at the office, sharing lunch with a few of my coworkers in celebration of one of their birthdays (you guessed it – fried chicken from Pollo Campero) and meeting tons of different people. The office is cute but not fancy. There’s a shared work space with tables, a computer and printer, and a dorm area where the Field Consultants stay during the monthly staff meetings, along with a small bathroom and kitchen. Everything opens up into a really pretty patio area and garden. After lunch, I headed over to the bank to open up an account and to fill out some paperwork for my local health insurance plan, a pretty confusing process navigate with my still somewhat-rusty Spanish. Then, I was introduced to the 30+ students who are here through the Social Entrepreneur Corps program as our interns for this summer – pretty funny that I’m only a year or two older than many of them! They’re broken up into teams of ten and have been spending the past week or so doing Spanish language training (four hours a day of one-on-one tutoring) and learning about SolCom’s work, programs, and products. Starting next week, they’ll be going off on field weeks all around the country – one of the groups will be coming to my region, Solola, to work with Bo and I in San Juan (Bo is the Field Consultant in Antigua, but he will be working with me in Solola during the duration of the SECorps program as I get adjusted). I’m the only new Field Consultant, though we do have one other new person on staff, Jorge, who is a previous SECorps intern and so is here just for the summer to help us out.
The rest of my week is shaping up to be just as crazy as today. Tonight, we’re having a team dinner in Antigua to celebrate my arrival and the departure of my predecessor, Michelle, and our Country Director, Lydia. Tomorrow morning, Michelle and I are taking an 8am shuttle back to Pana. I’m checking into a hotel as the apartment we had lined up fell through at the last minute, and Michelle is going to help me find at least a temporary apartment within the next few days. Tomorrow afternoon I’ll be visiting the office/storefront in Solola, on Thursday I’ll be going to San Juan to meet a few of our partner communities and organizations, and then Friday I’ll be back here in Antigua to help out with what’s supposed to be a very successful campaign with our SECorps students. On Monday, I’m heading back to Solola with my group of ten students but will be going directly to San Juan, where we’ll be for the week doing a few different field research projects with the students’ VNGO (Virtual NGO) groups. Michelle will be leaving shortly after that but hopefully by then I’ll have a good grasp over all of the different products and programs of the organization!
It’s been a jam-packed first day in-country, but I really couldn’t have asked for a better one. Everyone has been so nice and welcoming, my hotel is perfectly comfortable (I’m staying here rather than in the dormitory with the other Field Consultants simply because of lack of space – but honestly having some space to myself on my first night is pretty nice), I surprised myself with how much of my Spanish I’m recalling after not using it much since leaving Madrid last May, and I already feel like a part of the CE Solutions team (though of course, I still have much to learn). One important lesson learned today, though – never again will I pack my raincoat at the bottom of my suitcase when traveling to Guatemala during rainy season!
A few days ago, a young Mayan girl tried to sell me a bracelet on Skype. I was in the middle of a Skype training with Michelle, the current CE Solutions Field Consultant in Solola, when she wandered into the cafe where Michelle was sitting and took it upon herself to join in on our Skype conversation. I told her that the bracelet was very beautiful, but that I live very far away…and she said (very seriously) that my friend should just buy it for me and send it to me later.
It’s hard to believe how quickly my start date is approaching! But lots to do between now and May 28th, including finishing up my last month or so of school and graduating…! Last week, I went home for a few days to catch up with family and start to gather things I’m going to need. I went to see if I need any new vaccinations and found out that I’ve pretty much already covered all the bases from my previous trips. Glad I was able to avoid more shots! I also had some fun at REI and bought sweet new hiking boots and some other travel goodies but really, there’s not much I have to buy! I’m actually looking forward to minimizing, both in clothing and possessions and in lifestyle, since I know from my previous time there that day-to-day life in Pana is pretty simplistic – but wonderful!
I also just received a copy of my tentative summer schedule – since the Social Entrepreneurship Corps interns are actually arriving a few weeks before me to start their orientation, I’m really going to have to hit the ground running.