After very fruitful meetings with the main office in Guatemala city, the next order of business was to meet with the local agency head in Solola. Of course, when I arrived last Wednesday he had already left the office, I waited until 2:00 when he supposedly would return but was informed he wouldn’t be back until the next day. Finally, we met on Friday and established a basic agenda for the next few days. Monday I would buy my motorcycle helmet and jacket so I could ride with the loan assistants on site visits. Tuesday through Wednesday I would go on rides and visits to understand the how the groups worked, get a sense for the relationship between FONDESOL and its clients, and to gauge the logistics of it all.
On Friday night, tropical storm Agatha hit and inundated the entire country for three straight days. I am extremely comfortable and safe, relatively speaking. The biggest inconvenience, perhaps is the lack of access and that I might not have clean shower water for a couple weeks. One experience was particularly memorable.
When I got back to town Saturday evening after dinner I approached the bridge to cross the river to my place. I saw a massive gathering of people and flashlights. Turns out the footbridge I cross had been washed out along with another bridge further up. Apparently 10 houses had been washed away as the embankment simply fell out. Seconds after we arrived, a massive, nearly-built house shot out into the river, succumbing to the jets of water in the water table slowly destroying its foundation. Although the main concrete bridge about a half mile up river was roped off with caution tape, people still crossed. I decided to play it safe and stay a night in the town center. The next day I went to see the aftermath and, indeed, the bridge had broken when a pickup truck tried to make it to the other side.
Clearly not everyone was as lucky as me. 14 people were killed in a nearby town and some 179 have been counted among the dead nationwide. I’m glad my research is finally coming along and that I’m finally getting a chance to get in the field. It helps me quell the ever-present guilt complex.
As of today, my research is back up and running and only a couple days behind schedule. The past two days I’ve spent on the back of a motorcycle traveling to rural sites along with the loan officers of FONDESOL. By the end of this week I should have a better idea of what my final interviews will look like. I also had the opportunity to meet with another microcredit group that gave me some great insight into impact assessments.
Ironically, the first two visits have been beautiful. The weather has been around 75 degrees and sunny. I’ve been running around rolling hills lined with neat rows of corn and various crops. The close-up picture is more tragic. The first visit we made on Tuesday was to check out the damage to some families who are clients. One woman, probably 60 years old, lost absolutely everything. Her kitchen, pots, pans, the bathroom, all her cash savings, all her rooms, and most of her belongings.
All this to say, I’m extremely thankful for my health and general situation. I just hope I can help in some way, either through improving best practices through strong research or finding some other outlet while here to help with the rebuilding.
John Toner, MS Candidate, Global Affairs