Visiting Pencils of Promise
Board: Alyce Lomax
Wow, everybody -- it was absolutely amazing. Beautiful and thought-provoking. LittleBluestem, the socio-political aspects definitely got me -- SO different from here (although some things are universal).
We did get quite a taste of how things are there, first hand, on Monday. On our trip back to the airport -- THWARTED! -- we got hooked up in standstill traffic. Protesters had blocked major arteries and so we couldn't get to Guatemala City. They are trying to make some laws regarding transportation -- i.e., the chicken buses and trucks with so many people crammed in and the dangerous driving to pick up as many people as possible for the money actually isn't going over very well. Many people have the incentive to work it that way.
Apparently they did a very good job of pulling off these protests.Apparently things like that are not often very well organized, but this one did actually have the organization to block off the major thoroughfares.
So, after sitting for a while, we did come to the conclusion with the driver that it would be a good idea to take an alternate route, so we could at least get a shot for different flights to the U.S. This was also interesting. The alternate routes was through dangerous mountain roads (we had already experienced how remote/wild it is to get into some areas from our trips related to the PoP schools!), and you could see a few rock/mud slide type things but not too bad.
Not too bad until we got to a place where the road (OUR route! well, pretty much the only route basically) was washed out, and a car was currently stuck in there. We and locals all standing around watching as some people with a propane truck show up, and somebody gets the chains and they pull the car out. Then another car forges it, apparently the trick is to drive fast so you don't get stuck in silt. ;)
SO, we decide to do it in our shuttle. Now THAT'S exciting! Luckily we had a merry band of game Fools with sense of humor, since that might have been a recipe for screaming and crying. ;) We made it with cheering and laughing.
Oh and btw, the entrepreneurship of the Guatemalan people is amazing. I am not even kidding, but during that adventure we hear ice cream truck music -- ice cream man shows up, of course it might be a good moment to buy some ice cream. ;) (We didn't.)
When we finally ended up on alternate route highway, it was also blocked at a standstill. At both standstills somehow people started showing up to sell fruit, pastries, cell phone chargers, and chocolate-covered bananas on sticks. Oh yeah, the best was a dude with some windshield wipers for sale. ;)
We had a lot of good jokes like setting up some kind of new Motley Fool Guatemala office, since apparently we were going to get stranded at the washed out road, so we could build some houses like true frontierspeople. ;)
We ended up having to stay in Guatemala City another night and fight our way home the next day, but it was OK -- again, merry band and we made the best of it! We stayed in a nice InterContinental hotel, and were very happy for warm showers and a nice dinner after that kind of day!
LittleBluestem, we did spend most of our time in Quetzaltenango (AKA Xela, much easier to pronounce) which was a very cool little "city." This was sleeping and dinner area, since most of our days were traveling long distances on difficult roads to the school sites. Our last full day there, we saw the big lake, and the volcanos there!
Actually on one of our day trips we saw a volcano in the distance acting up and puffing some smoke out.
Poinke pointed out a lot of interesting things (such as sustainability in the developing world, conscious cos etc.), but another question he asked was what "economic time" compared to ours Guatemala was in. I think we came up with a spectrum of opinions ranging from 1860 to 1920. Think of everything from the water to the lack of transport for most people to the nonexistence of the middle class to old fashioned farming to people walking with hoes and machetes, child labor (kids selling things in markets) etc. and so forth. Most people make $2 per day. Interesting things I wouldn't have thought about, like the fact that their produce and fruit and coffee -- obviously in abundance -- export, and they are left with the lesser quality. The coffee was really sub-optimal for example, and poinke had Starbucks' Via packets to augment for better taste. ;)
You could ticker symbol for some of the experience. Two names that seemed to be consistent even in some of the rural towns: Coke and Pepsi. I heard that Pepsi (and probably Coke too, really) drivers have the big guns to protect cargo (and really, that looked prevalent, in one of our road blocks I noticed that the passenger had a large firearm). Also, they have armed guards at gas stations because stealing gas is common; I tried to snap a pic of one, subtly because I'm not sure that it is an appreciated thing.
In the bigger cities I did notice Pizza Huts and Taco Bells (YUM) and McDonald's and Burger King. (Drive-through names: Auto Mac, Auto King, Auto Bell. I'm not sure why that amuses me but it does. ;)) I saw one Wal-Mart in Guatemala City. Zara apparel store (not too surprising since it's international) and Forever 21 (who knew?). Also a large Avon office building. I know Avon is big in Latin America, so there you have it.
Poinkie's theoretical question about growing sustainable, conscious, socially responsible companies in such a country was interesting and twisted my brain a bit. It struck me as very hard, since the first and foremost thing to build on would be major revenue and growth, before it can safely offer all the great things on worker and environmental levels (at least in my point of view -- sometimes I feel dismally realistic). Although I do truly believe that innovative, smart managements can figure out ways to do this without being awful and trying to improve the lot for the other stakeholders big time. But it is not easy in the least. The first prong for building out has to be profitability so the business survives. I told him 4 days till I have better thoughts because I was burned out. ;) He brought up the point that to achieve that there would make a great grounds up blueprint.
W.D., the bananas! Yes, just like Costa Rica they were everywhere. Growing by the side of the road too (have machete, will have bunches of bananas), and roadside markets had huge bunches hanging up. Bananas and Guatemala go hand in hand. Also corn -- The People of the Corn. (Fresh tortillas, wow!)
Hmm, apologies, this may be part of my brainstorm for Fool.com articles. ;) I should have brought my pencil and pad so that I could take notes although I generally have a lot of absorbing I have to do after experiences. I do plan at least one Fool.com article, since there was a lot to think about and learn. I haven't even really gotten into the great work PoP has been doing that we saw first hand, which of course is the main thrust of the trip. They kept us busy and taking us into the super rural areas gave a lot of great perspectives, such as how deeply people appreciate it, how much of their own labor and resources they are willing to put in, even though they don't have a lot (PoP does want to "teach to fish," and communities "buy" in by about 20% I think it is, with resources such as labor, materials, etc.) PoP's main goal is among other things to build these so that they don't have to intervene later, so that these are the communities' own schools.
We had such a great group, such as John Sergeant (jsergeant), his wife Anna, Brian Withers (bwithbike), and aforementioned Kent Buell (poinke). HQ Fools Tamsin Green, Ilan Moscovitz (TMFDiogenes) (writes quite a bit for Fool.com) and Erik Stadnik. A lot of caring and humor and laid back attitude. Lots of stock talk such as qualitative aspects of business including consciousness aspects.
Lots more to come... and I don't know what has been going on with stocks. Wi-fi was sketchy, although interestingly, cell phone penetration among people is impressive, even though they don't have great data plans and I think recharge their minutes as they can. I think that mobile capability has been huge in some of the developing nations and rural communities since it can help commerce/economies, and I believe it was Coke we talked about recently that was forming sort of cafe hubs (?) where you can get wi-fi and such. Back to communications, it was interesting that my actual voice/text coverage was great, even in the remote areas. (I think this also speaks to the power of WhatsApp, since is super cheap and I know part of Facebook's acquisition was that that is a LOT of people across the globe who even though they pay little, can communicate with one another and ideas can grow.)
OK, juggling lots here, but it was such a great trip! I do highly recommend seeing this country. It is extremely untouched by the modern world, which is a mix of feelings on that level too. It could probably use more tourism dollars but of course that's a double-edged sword. It could also use a lot of help and fortunately orgs like Pencils of Promise are there. The people are willing and able. Very able, they work really, really hard. So... go see if you have the desire. It also puts so many things into perspective.
PS: delightful weather too (although it's the rainy season, and pop-up rains would come up, very very heavy). It was in the 70s, and that's cooler than DC was/is!