Tuesday, 24 February 2009

¡Gracias, familia Sánchez!

Yesterday was my last night at Conchita’s. Today I’m sleeping back at UPAVIM – now that a few volunteers have left, there is enough room.

I’m ever so thankful for the way I was received there. ¡Gracias!

I’ll follow up on that basketball match in two weeks’ time, Margarita…

Happy chicken-bus

(Monday, 23 February 2009)

Antigua-Guatemala on a chicken-bus, as they call them here. Always with music out loud.

All the time, everywhere…

Fired up by God

(Sunday, 22 February 2009)

The quality of the video is not that great, but I guess the religious vibe is evident nonetheless.

He reminded me of a man who spends most of his days in Oxford Street in London, right by the busiest corners of all – Nike Town – with a microphone on his hand and praying the gospel to the thousands of shopping victims that pass by him.

I guess I’d love to have found out more about both of them. Who they are, where they come from, what makes them dedicate to this work in the way they do.

In absence of that knowledge, I was comforted at Antigua’s cathedral by the message that heaven is not that hard to get after all…

“Bubble” Antigua

(Sunday, 22 February 2009)

Antigua is everything Guatemala City is not. So close, yet so far away.

Antigua is where you lay down in the lawn of a cloister of an old monastery half in ruins and fall asleep under the shade of a tree, only with a few flirting Guatemalan couples as company. Where you can be relaxing in the courtyard of an old colonial villa with the sound of opera as background.

This little town is beautiful, no doubt about it. Surrounded by green hills and four volcanoes, is kept safe and clean. Houses are painted in bright colours, the colonial architecture style is adhered to, streets are lively and crowded at night. Most monuments have been destroyed by successive earthquakes that eventually led to the construction of Guatemala City as an alternative place for the capital. Half of those monuments have been reconstructed over the centuries – many in the mid 1900s after the pillage for construction materials in the early 20th century – while the other half has been left in ruins. I guess that adds to its charm.

It’s a town where stores are wide-open until late in the evening, where people seem to feel safe to walk around at any hour.

But it’s also “gringo land”, and land of all the tourists from other nationalities that use it as central point to their trips around Guatemala and their Spanish learning breaks. It’s a place where you can almost listen to English as often as you listen to Spanish. A town full of hotels, youth hostels and travel agencies. Of laundries for travellers, cafes and restaurants.

“This is not the real Guatemala, but it’s a damn pleasant place” they say. I guess I agree with both aspects of that sentence.

I’m happy for the time I’m spending here, and I’m happy too for the other reality I’m getting to know in Guatemala City and at UPAVIM. I also feel like I’ve the time to find out which reality I want to know more of, in Guatemala and elsewhere in Latin America.

I guess both?

A stone for you

(Saturday, 21 February 2009)

Vejo e toco
mas não sinto
Sinto só se tu sentes

Náo estás, não tocas,
não vês,
mas entendes?

Jeff and the gnome were there too

(Saturday, 21 February 2009)

Climbing volcano Pacaya – the video

(Saturday, 21 February 2009)

Climbing volcano Pacaya – the photos

(Saturday, 21 February 2009)


(Friday, 20 February 2009)

Feijoada for dinner, in Antigua, Guatemala. Not the real one: a bit made up, as Sr. João – the owner – put it.

Really spicy, it was just fine for me…


(Friday, 20 February 2009)

I’ve spent the last two days in Antigua moderating a workshop with 5 of the best Guatemalan BBoys (i.e., break-dancers, for the laymen as myself) and Es., also a volunteer at UPAVIM.

She wrote her master’s thesis on the positive effect that break-dance, and hip-hop in general, can have in marginalised areas. It’s a way of self-expression that helps build self-confidence, and creates something to belong to, that not a gang.

I guess it can have a lot of the benefits I argue for theatre: letting your emotions go, share them with other people and become comfortable with that; be someone else for half an hour; exorcise your demons while creating something you and others can be proud of. With the difference that the idea of break-dancing might be a little more attractive to the teens at risk in Guatemala City than the prospect of playing the role of a donkey in Midsummer’s Night Dream…

Interestingly enough, it looks like once making the bridge with break-dancing (ok, I’ll start calling it BBoying from this point onwards), often kids once at risk or involved in gangs seek other forms of artistic expression – music, painting… theatre.

So there may be a point to this all argument after all.

These 5 BBoys are in their late teens or early 20s. They belong to different BBoying crews, and so are adversaries in competitions. But I noticed a very genuine bound between them – of friendship and of a sense of belonging to the artistic form they chose (or that chose them?).

All of them divide their time between their families, work (and, for some, school) and BBoying. They practice, they compete, they teach other youngsters. They spend time during their weekends in “Escuelas Abiertas” (a more or less recent government programme that makes schools available over weekends for recreational and artistic activities), or in post offices (also open in a similar format to “Escuelas Abiertas”). There, they introduce other kids to the art of BBoying, they coach and practice with them. Above all, I guess they act as role models.

Here in Antigua we spoke about what they want to do and for whom they want to work for - they're aiming at setting up a cultural association of Hip-Hop for the Guatemalan youth. We spoke of what problems they want to help solve and how do they plan to accomplish that. We spoke of a vision and a mission. Of how they should organise themselves. Of how to grow steadily, step by step, form a small start to the more ambitious end-state they are so enthusiastic about.

One of the things they kept saying to me was that they’d like to build something their families, their friends, and society in general (including “los licenciados” and “los burgos”) could be proud of.

I think they should be already.

Discounted Emotional Flows

(Wednesday, 18 February 2009)

There are situations when you suffer for a long period of time to accomplish something. I mean, you really go through hell. For days, weeks, months. You ask yourself all the time if it is worth it. You often think of giving up. A couple of times you’re one step away from doing so. It seems impossible that you’ll ever look back at that experience with a smile on your face.

But you do, if things go well at the end. Stupid brain. Dumb heart. It is like you forget – or discount – everything you went through, and you put too much weight on the final feeling of “work well done”. It’s that thrill that works like a drug, and floods you of excitement, pride, fulfilling peace. You feel good.

Looking at it rationally you know you shouldn’t be smiling. Not that much at least. You went through too much pain to be smiling so strongly. But you do. Moreover, you actually feel like it was worth it.

I say feel, not think – as those can be two very different things.

And because you feel so, there you go: you do it again. You go once more through pain for long, only to smile shortly at the end.

That’s not enough, I should think.

One’s heart should learn to discount emotions better. In the same way you evaluate a business venture: you forecast the cash flows, then you discount them to account for the fact that income further ahead is worth less that the same income today. Only if you gain enough money in the future – even taking into account that it’s worth less than if you’d have it in your hand today – to compensate for your investment in the shorter term you should go for it. If not, you should stay still.

Same thing with your heart, with your emotions. Only if your smile in the future is strong enough – even after appropriately discounted – to compensate for your short term pain you should feel it was worth it. If not, you should regret it.

If I’d reason that way, I’d probably look back at some of my past experiences and would start saying no to new ventures that have a similar pain-pain-pain-smile profile over time.

Would I be happier if I’d live that way, more short term focused?

I don’t know. Probably not – it’s just not me. I guess I’ll keep looking too far ahead for the payoff, discount too much the shorter term emotional investment, and too little the longer term thrill. I guess too I’m the kind of guy who lives constantly in an emotional state of deflation: it’s better to save a smile today so that you can live it tomorrow.

The way I seem to be discounting my emotional flows would make sense that way…

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Jeff’s back

Jeff has disappeared for a while. I found him in bed with the gnome.

No, it’s not what you think. Or maybe it is: after all they were celebrating el Día del Cariño, or Valentine’s day – a big thing in Guatemala, apparently.

You could not only but see roses – real and plastic ones – hearts, balloons with the shapes of hearts and so forth, being sold in the city center.

This heart was a gift by UPAVIM, along with a candy bar.

I don’t celebrate Valentine’s, but it made my heart sweeter.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Making friends with Quique, proudly

Zona 1

Quite bluntly, Guatemala city is a place no-one can blame a tourist for giving up on it at first sight. I’m happy that I haven’t yet.

Zona 1 is the city’s historical centre, where you can find some shy signs of buildings from the late 1800s and early 1900s.

I’ve met here Cesar and Daniela last night, at a bar where much of the artistic and cultural life of the capital seems to converge. Cesar is a play writer; Daniela is a painter.

Daniela was telling me how she thinks that the last centuries of Guatemalan history have pushed down the country’s moral, and how easy it is for individuals to find themselves inferior, less-capable than those of other ethnicities and nationalities.

I’ve also met in the last week a few people, including Cesar and Daniela, whose work is dedicated to breaking that cycle. By painting Latin American icons, by writing Guatemalan plays or dancing Mayan folks; by inviting the youth to express themselves and celebrating their culture. That brings self-confidence, and self-confidence helps break the poverty and violence vicious cycles.

This is the other side of Guatemala city. The one it’s worth not giving up on.

Mar Goês

Listening to Mar Gôes by Carlos Paredes – the master of Portuguese guitar – with my eyes closed while I was falling asleep tonight made me wake up like it was early morning, and I had been in the arms of sleep for long hours. Wrong choice of bed time music I guess…

This music made me wake up and write the following lines. And the following lines made me cry. (?)

Acorda para ouvires
Desperta para escutares
Que dormes faz tempo
Acorda para despertares.

I think I’ve to stop eating so late at night…

Sleep well, g.

Friday, 13 February 2009


Quique barks whenever someone gets on the roof. He has his occasional bite here and there. I’ve been safe so far.

He gets really calm and close to you at lunch time. I wonder why…

Me with a beard...

... at UPAVIM's roof

No vale

I start to realise there are limits to the usefulness of the Spanish I learnt during my working time in Madrid and Barcelona.

Over the last week I’ve been finishing so many sentences with “¡ah, vale!”, a smart – at least so I thought! – way of showing agreement and understanding. I think now I can explain the slightly confused smile people threw back at me: the interjection “¡vale!” has no other meaning in Guatemala than “it’s worth something” or, alternatively, it’s a way of telling someone you couldn’t care less about what they’ve just said. Great ice breaker, isn’t it?

“Coche” is not a car – it’s a pig. I started the other day a conversation with Señor Orlando – Conchita’s husband – about cars and trucks. He was telling me about his work as a mechanic, so I guess he must have been confused with why the hell I was referring to food all the time.

No problem. They always smile back at the strange foreigner, and I’ll stick to the belief that my communication issues only go as far as a word with mixed meaning here and there.

I’ll stick to that belief. As we say in Portugal, never contradict a lunatic…

A view of the neighbourhood… and shy volunteers

Back to UPAVIM’s roof. This is the heaven (and I really mean it) we can go back to during lunch breaks and at the end of the day, when the sun sets. It hosts the volunteer group, with a kitchen, shared rooms and – I’ve been told – the best toilet in Guatemala. I’m starting to believe it.

It seats on the last floor of UPAVIM’s building. The areas underneath host all of the cooperative’s activities – sewing and arts & crafts production, bakery, soya production (when it was working!), kindergarten and school.

There is a quite international crowd hanging around here. We’re eleven at the moment. Things are quite busy, and the reason why I’m staying with Conchita’s family is lack of space in the roof; things should get calmer in a few weeks’ time, when some people leave.

Many of the volunteers are from the US (big country and close by, which helps explain it), others from France, Belgium, Netherlands (another well represented group) and… Portugal. I’m a crew of one, yet proud.

People came here through different routes. There are “veterans” who are here for a third time, with one of them half way through her 2-year project at UPAVIM. She teaches the 6th grade at UPAVIM’s school and transpires commitment to educating the kids. There is a young couple (still on their teens!) who’s staying only for a couple of months. There are people who came here after travelling in Central America for a while; others who intend to do so after leaving UPAVIM, like me.

You’ve Es., truly committed to her idea of getting kids out of gangs through break-dance. You’ve Ma., who’s doing here more of the social work she used to do with kids in Holland. You also have Mi., another social worker from the US who teaches yoga once in a while, during some of the breaks from our activities.

Different stories, all of them curious in one way or the other.

The group is apparently shy on camera, judging upon this video. El., caught on camera against her will, is working with the women in the arts & crafts production. She’s ever so kind to help me practice my French. Unfortunately, there is no hope for it.

A bientôt, g.

Which Gustavo?

It’s not the first time I stand up in the house when I hear someone calling my name. They’re not calling for me, but Conchita’s second son. He’s 13 and the fact we share the name helped establishing a good relationship since the beginning.

What he likes the most doing is swimming. He studies at UPAVIM and the school gives his class access to a swimming pool in the city centre, something like 30 or 45 minutes away. He has proudly shown me his medals. It’s definitely what makes his heart beat.

If only more swimming pools and medals could be given to kids around here. You wouldn’t see half the problems that affect this community. This community, and so many others in Guatemala City. And in Central America. And in…

I’ve been spending some of my time seating at UPAVIM’s roof looking at the quasi-slums around us, and thinking of what in the world has to be done to change this reality.

I’ve no idea. Do you?

Boa noite

Maria is 15 years old. She’s one of Conchita’s six daughters and sons – if I haven’t miscounted! And, to add clarity to this text, Conchita is the mother of the family I’m staying with, after two short “adaptation” days when I slept at UPAVIM.

When I arrived to this family’s house this last Tuesday Maria was celebrating her birthday. So, I was welcomed to the place with a party, a birthday cake, music, the all family and some friends too. It couldn’t be better, right?

I started teaching Maria some Portuguese today. She’s studying tourism in school, so she’s really keen to add other languages to her native Spanish. Since she’s also only starting to learn English, our hour today was spent working on pronunciation in both languages, which I guess is not the most orthodox – or effective – way of doing it. But she insisted on the Portuguese…

The enthusiasm rose during dinner – around 6.30pm – when the family was laughing while trying to read my “Quando for grande quero ser engenheiro” t-shirt. I think they now understand what I mean when I say that Portuguese is really close to Spanish, despite the strange noises that come out of my mouth.

The t-shirt actually says a lot to Orlando, Conchita’s oldest son. He’s 19 and has started studying construction engineering. This is a large and humble family, cared by a hard-working woman who always has a smile in her face. She’s one of the success stories of UPAVIM, as she has been around since the beginning (something like 20 years ago) and has put to the best use some of the resources that the cooperative makes available to the mothers who work hard: a position as kindergarten teacher, and ways of supporting her children’s education.

One reference more: Jeffrey. He’s 3 years old and Conchita’s first and only (so far, should I say? :-)) grand son. He has been amazed at my hairy arms and legs since day one. He passes his hands and head through them while carrying a fascinated look in his face, and then starts laughing like crazy. The family members who are around follow suit. I had this before while travelling in South East Asia, so I guess I just need to start getting used to it…

He’s really sweet. He loves drawing, so I have not many blank pages left in my notebook… I leave here a picture of one of his drawings – my favourite. It’s an elephant. :-)

Back to Maria. I taught her today the first basic conversational phrases in Portuguese, so I said goodbye to her and the family in Portuguese too: “Boa noite”. I’ll follow up on that tomorrow.

Miss Simpatía

Juan, Luis Alberto, Gabriel, Brian, Chibala – first grade. Ervin, Mirna, Teresa, Darlin, Esterlin – third grade. Hugo, Augusto, David, Linda, Ingrid, Lenti – sixth grade.

(Sorry if I’ve misspelled some of your names!)

I’m working at Reforzamiento, an all-day workshop that welcomes children from the community. One class at a time, for us to teach and help the kids with the school work. And – man, so important! – to play.

Brian was my first hug. I spent more than 30 minutes trying to build a tall Lego tower with him. Proper engineer work: 4 pillars. I’ve studied some of that stuff after all… He seemed several times to be quite happy with where the construction was, but I guess he had no alternative but to keep adding pieces along with me. We run out of time before we could have the tower standing. I promised to continue the next day. He came back when he was about to leave the door and gave me a big hug – right at the height of my knees. I’ll remember that hug.

Esterlin is a rebel. It’s hard to have her engage in a task from beginning to end. She loves to mess around with the other kids, and looks at all school work with the arrogance of someone who knows that without much effort she can catch up with it all as soon as she wants to. She’s damn smart, and I can’t but smile at her bright eyes and enfant-terrible face.

I got today an unexpected request from Mirna. She had to prepare a long strip of paper for school and needed help. I resisted to express the “what the f*ck?” reaction that was going through my mind, and half-way the process I finally understood she needed it for an activity where someone in the class would be elected “miss simpatía”. I ended up really getting into it, and I think I’m even more proud than Mirna of the colourful stripe she took home.

Without me noticing it, by the end of the task Esterlin was by our side, and wanted a strip of herself too. I tried to sort something out in the short time we had left. I think she was happy: she left smiling. As rebel as the devil, she would win the title should I be the judge.

¿Y cuanto tiempo te quedas por aquí?

This is the question I’m asked over and over again – whenever I meet someone for the first time.

Being run and managed by women from La Esperanza, UPAVIM is naturally very well linked with the community, and the volunteers are respected and protected by them.

Everyone seems to be equally thankful and surprised to see us around. They welcome you warmly, as well your work and what they expect – no, I should say hope – you can make happen.

I don’t know yet the answer to the question being repeated at me so frequently. I want – and I will, I think – travel around Central (and South?) America, but at the same time I also want to leave here with the feeling I helped shape something meaningful. And that, of course, takes time.

Time. Something I do have now.

Time runs differently here. There is a meeting the next day to know what to do about the bakery – is it out of money and should we stop it, or buy materials for another day of production instead? – and I’m relentlessly going up and down the stairs to know the whereabouts of the missing invoices. People are concerned – because the matter is so important to everyone and the urgency of the decisions – but at the same time they know that life goes on, and only the ex(?)-consultant seems to find reasonable to get the numbers right before sun set. How unreasonable that aspiration was…

Time runs differently here. I’m getting used to it.

Bread with soya

I’ve been wondering around in the last few days, observing the people at UPAVIM and asking questions here and there to find a worthwhile project to dedicate my time to.

I guess the timing couldn’t be better for a mini financial turmoil at some of UPAVIM’s businesses: a bakery and a soya production shop, both run by the women in the community.

In addition to my time with the kids, I suddenly became the messiah who should help shed light on how to boost the bakery and get the soya production up and running, after it was shut down in December. I guess they noticed what I wrote down in the application about my business background …

The last two days have been strangely familiar. Being introduced as someone “who is here to help”, but having to position things nicely so that you don’t step on anyone’s toes, especially as an outsider. Finding out what the numbers are, running after missing information. Hearing from person A that only person B knows piece of information X, only to hear the reverse when you finally get to speak to person B. Listening to 101 different views on what the strategy should be. Observing a lot of misunderstandings. Identifying a subtle yet visible competition for the most powerful positions. Finding out about personality clashes. Trying to overcome mismanagement and lack of accountability.

Management consultancy in Guatemala City. So different, yet so much the same.

I had never thought about it…

Tuesday, 10 February 2009


Fuego at sun set; it seems to be always covered in clouds at this hour

Fuego in the early morning, the best time to actually see it so far

Fuego is a (fortunately) inactive volcano – at least in recent times. Behind it is Antigua, the capital of Guatemala when the Spanish still ruled around here, and the country’s tourist centre – only 1h away from where I am.

There are two other volcanos close by. One is called Agua, and is still active. Interesting play of words with Fuego – shouldn't they be named the other way around then? The third is the most impressive one as you can often see smoke coming out of it. I’ll try to get a good picture of it without clouds (not easy task) at the same time that I try to memorise its bloody name…

Monday, 9 February 2009

Me @ UPAVIM (view from the roof)

Jeff Vader and the gnome with passion for Indian food in Guatemala City

It’s a bit awkward that the gnome with passion for Indian food (ask not where this name comes from – it’s a long story!) is more than double the size of the all-mighty Jeff. Let’s call it just optical illusion. Jeff is much greater than he seems...

Running away from, or running towards?

I’m flying over US territory, somewhere in between NY and Houston, the two intermediary stops in my 22 hour-long Lisbon – Guatemala City marathon. After the flight to New York, where every passenger had three seats to enjoy all by themselves (yeah, a business class bed for the price of economy!), I’m now stuck to a tiny little place in a bloody crowded plane.

I’m thinking again of the question that has been bugging my mind for the last few weeks: what am I running away from?

When asked this by a very good, sweet and wise lady, I didn’t find the line of thought to answer her immediately, so I joked around a bit to gain time and deflate the question. The truth is that I felt somehow uncomfortable, so avoided thinking of an answer. I got the feeling someone had just pointed out really well the way I had been feeling in the last few months.

I’m leaving a lot behind during these travel months. A lot more has been locked away in the souvenir drawer and photo album – either in London, in Lisbon, or elsewhere. “Para mais tarde recordar”, as the TV ad used to say in Portugal. But I have to say that the decision to put my life in a bag for half-a-year or so, and go after some of my deepest and not so exploited passions – travel, development work, teaching, creative expression – was driven by a very strong (almost violent) fear to regret later on not having done so.

So, I guess I’m running away from a future image of me as an old man, looking back at my memories with a “closed for balance” kind of mindset, and regretting not having pursued those passions when the conditions to do so were created: I changed country, I became free of any contracts or obligations, I changed life. Or at least I became ready to do so.

Yep – fear of regretting not having pressed the trigger when I could have done so. That’s what I’m running away from. And that’s why I pressed the trigger.

One could argue I’m not running away from anything; I’m instead running towards something. Towards experimenting with my passions. Towards finding what I’m looking for.

That’s the way I think indeed. I mean, that’s what I’m doing at the end of the day, right? But I guess in those brief moments of doubt – and sometimes panic – when I ask myself “what the hell am I doing with my life by doing this?!?” it is not the rationalisation of what I’m walking towards that peaces my mind and makes me keep walking ahead; it is the rather strong emotional desire of not wanting to regret later on.

Is there any difference? Doing something because you want to, and doing it because you don’t want to regret not doing so?

I don’t know. I know that one thought is setting my course of action. The other is giving me the guts to keep walking that walk.

I guess that’s all I need to know at the moment…
Laters, g.

Who's Jeff Vader?