I’ve met with 25 different microfinance groups and have formally interviewed 15 clients. All my visits so far have been around Lake Atitlan and the surrounding areas in Sololá. The process has been more or less 4 phases; 1. observation, 2. trial interviews, 3. formal interviews, and 4. data analysis. I’m now in the 3rd, but I’m also doing some initial data analysis too. More or less I wake up around 6:30AM, grab a coffee and pastry at a local bakery, then head up to Sololá. Sometimes we leave as early as 7:30, other times I’m up at the office by 8:00. Most days we’ll just stay out in the field and have a delicious lunch of chips and soda until we get back to the office around 5:30 or 6:00. Then I head back to Panajachel on a 20 minute roller coaster-of-fun chicken bus ride blaring some variety of latin techno, slicing along mountain roads overlooking Lake Atitlan.
Other days we’ll have visits in the morning, come back to town for lunch, and head out again for visits. These visits are with the loan officers for loan payments and are conducted in Kachikel, the local Mayan dialect (that I speak only 4 words of). Either at the end of the meeting or when the president of the group has time, I conduct an interview that usually takes around 20-25 minutes. On good days, the drives are spectacular- 70-80 degrees and sunny with a clear view of the mountains/ volcanoes surrounding the lake.
One trip in particular was both disturbing and enlightening. A loan officer and I caught a pickup to a nearby town called San Antonio Polopo along the shores of the lake around 7:30. They were still bulldozing 12-foot deep landslides on the way, but somehow a small channel allowed for vehicles to pass through.
We only visited one group, but this time we went to all of their homes to see their weavings. Massive wooden looms sat within the tin-roofed adobe homes arranged in scattered bunches on the hillside. The contrast was fascinating; browns and grays of dirt floors, concrete stoves, and makeshift bedrooms against brilliant chords brought into view by a single light bulb.
Agatha hit San Antonio particularly hard. One member in the group lost her home, many lost most of their crops. Nearly all lost a week’s worth of business because they couldn’t make the trip to the tourist markets in Panajachel and Guatemala. Landslides mar the hillside around the community as if a massive vulture violently clawed for food. While taking pictures and examining the damage, we came across two young girls who sat weaving just a few feet from the landslide. They told us they still heard the spirits crying; two entire families were swept away just a few feet away, their bodies so bruised no one could identify them.
This was just one of many humbling experiences.
As for my research, I’ve experienced two main obstacles. The first is the language barrier. Every community we visit speaks Kachikel and though most of the people I interview speak Spanish, some speak only about 80%. Yesterday, for instance, a 12-year-old grand daughter helped translate for her grandmother. The other obstacle is trying to get as many interviews as possible. Some days loan officers might only have 2 groups, some days they won’t have any, other days they’ll have three to four.
Next week I should be heading to Totonicapán about 2 hours north of Panajachel. This means I get to catch a 6AM bus every morning! Hot dog! I just moved apartments so at least I’m closer to the bus stop. Since Agatha, the direct bridge from my old apt. has been wiped away so now it’s both more convenient and there’s a certain peace of mind knowing I wont be stranded the next time the rain comes. Totonicapán is an older agency so I’ll be working with clients of 2-4 years with FONDESOL. I’m excited to see the contrast between the new and old clients.
John Toner, MS Candidate, Global Affairs