EMAIL 7: Date: 14-Oct-2005 09:57
Subject: Santiago Update, Tikal, USAID, and Leaving Guatemala
First and foremost, thank you to those who sent me the most thoughtful and considerate emails regarding the current situation in Santiago, Atitlan. I appreciated that many of you took the time to think about the hurricane's impact and kept Santiago in your thoughts and prayers.
This fall has proved to everyone that nature cannot be both an incredible gift and also our worst enemy. I don't think anyone (around the world) can handle one more natural disaster. It has affected everyone including both the richest and the poorest countries around the world, and it will continue to affect global policies and leaders and development organizations throughout the year.
To update everyone, Santiago has been considered by many as the hardest hit town in all of Central America by Stan last Wednesday. Not only did it bring absolute chaos and destruction without warning, it claimed the lives of 77 people (many of which were children) and there are 500 people still missing in Santiago. Sad to say, but the volunteer firefighters and other volunteers ceased the search for more bodies earlier this week. As a result, the areas of Panabaj, Tzantzaj and part of Panul have been officially declared as "mass graveyards" for the remaining 500 bodies who are most likely buried below the soil. Between the three "cantones" or areas, there are over 5700 refugees seeking housing in local churches, schools, public buildings, and with other members of the community. The community is also in the process of constructing refugee housing. Electricity and communication have been restored, but the lake is contaminated and some roads are still impassable.
The President of Guatemala visited Santiago earlier in the week to access the damage, and many international and local organizations (including the United States) have come to Santiago to offer assistance and aid. However, it should be noted that when the Guatemala's military army arrived to help, they were turned away by the people according to the press. (Many members of the Santiago community still do not have trust in the military since the war).
From emails from Santiago friends, they have all commented on how impressed they have been with the community. They have mobilized together to help one another. Furthermore, other local communities have also come to help despite their own troubles.
In addition to the numbers alone of those affected, I am sad to say that some ADISA and Co'jolya families were greatly affected by Stan's wrath. Specifically, six ADISA families lost everything they had and 1 family is missing. In addition, 5 Co'jolya weavers and their families also greatly affected and lost their homes or belongings.
As a result, Francisco and Argentina have been working to comfort these families and are looking for economic resources to help restore some sense of normalcy in their lives (providing clothing, etc). It will take time before re-building their homes. In addition, Fundacion Ayudamos (Canandian NGO) who is a partner organization of Co'jolya has restructured their housing project and proposal. They have revaluated the needs of Santiago and have decided to fund homes for the 5 affected families. However, they only have funds to construct the homes and not to purchase the land. This is a strong step in the right direction, but it is also challenging because so many other families will not receive such promising aid or news.
I realize that many of you have donated an incredible amount of money to relief efforts in the United States and to other philanthropic efforts, but if you are willing I know that both ADISA or Ayudamos would appreciate any support. Please contact me if you are interested.
You can also visit: http://www.santiagoatitlan.com/disaster/disaster1e.html for more info about the situation.
It is going to take for all of Guatemala, especially small local villages like Santiago, to recover, but with the proper help and support it can be achieved in the upcoming months and years. Events like these prove the necessity of organizations and NGOs and a general interest in international development. Natural disaster, like wars, can set countries back years. With proper management and ideas, organizations and governments together can restore countries. That being said, there is also the dilemma between sending money (charity) and sending resources or items. Many believe that although a "charity-based model" is insufficient for sustainable development or long term goals of NGOs, etc, it is critical to send financial resources in the aftermath of a disaster. That being said, it is important to follow-up with those affected/local organizations/government leaders in the period that follows a disaster in order to implement long term sustainable plans.
Switching gears (because I do not want this entire email to be depressing), I have spent roughly my last two weeks in Guatemala City working with USAID. Last weekend, I had the opportunity to visit Tikal, one of the most incredible places in the world. Although I was reluctant to go at first in light of Santiago's tragedy, it turned out to be just what I needed. I was able to get away and immerse myself in nature's beauty and witness the incredible knowledge and strength of an ancient Mayan civilization.
I spent Friday night in Flores, a quaint island town an hour from Tikal, and Saturday exploring Tikal with my cousin, Erin, (who came from Belize) on a Spanish-language tour. I was fortunate enough to meet a hotel buddy in Tikal on Saturday afternoon after Erin left. It turned out that Scott was originally from Deerfield, a nearby town to where I lived in Chicago . Tikal turned out to be more than a incredible "visual" experience, but it also gave me the opportunity to do things I never thought I would do in my life. For starters, I watched the sunset from a top a pyramid, spent Saturday night "sleeping" in a hammock listening to 100s of animals all night long, woke up at 4 am on Sunday to see the sunrise from Pyramid 4 (the tallest), and saw tons of different animals and wildlife. (Who would have every thought that I would sleep in a hammock. Although, I did not sleep all that well . . . I was more fearful that jaguar was going to come.)
And for some comic relief, I managed to fall twice, once face-forward and once backwards, while attempting to navigate the slippery trails. It looks like the gym shoes won't cut it for Manchu Picchu in Peru. It was quite humorous for those around me, and knowing me . . . it wasn't all that shocking!
Aside from Tikal, as I mentioned before, I have been working with USAID as a volunteer for my last two working weeks. It has been a totally different experience that my time with small, local organizations. I have been working with a team from AED (Academy for Education Development), a US organization which received funding from USAID for this new project. The aim of the project is to increase and improve social sector investments specifically addressing education and improving the effectiveness of the Ministry of Education in Guatemala. (The project's duration is 2 years).
It is incredible how much paper work there is with a large scale development project. There are proposals that need to be in both Spanish and English, reports, expense reports, media monitoring projects, and marketing initiatives, etc. I feel like I am back in the public affairs firm that I worked for last summer. It appears that there is more time spent in the office and with government officials than field work or with smaller municipal governments. (Which makes sense since 1 goal is to improve the Ministry of Education). I have spent time doing research, reading older proposals and implementation plans, background history on the social sector, and a lot of translating work or preparing documents to send to Washington.
It has been a great experience to see how larger projects (which plenty of funding) work and carry-out their plans. Moreover, since this project started this summer, a lot of the preliminary goals and challenges are being addresses or reconfigured. For example, in light of Stan, the AED/USAID team has been working around the clock. They must determine how to convince key government and local players to invest and allocate more money towards education (because of long term goals and results) when the country is an immediate disaster in need of money. You can see how that would cause a bigger problem for both Education, the social sector in general, and its affects on the future poverty state of Guatemala.
Lastly, I had planned to return to Santiago for the night to visit with Argentina, Francisco, Lesley, and Amanda. However, I tentatively came to the difficult decision that I should post-pone my quick day visit for another extended stay after the fellowship. It is 8 hours on a bus for only a few hours, and I absolutely must get back to Guatemala City for my flight on Sunday morning. In addition, after talking to my parents and my host family here, I think my reasons for going were because I felt so incredibly comfortable and welcome in Santiago, and that I am not ready to leave Guatemala. If I went, I think it would be that much harder to change countries on Sunday. I already spent all of last night awake or hardly sleeping because of horrific "worst-case scenario" dreams (which I had before I left the U.S.) and felt incredibly anxious about leaving. It is probably better to relax this weekend, pack, and feel at ease about moving rather than emotional and upset about witnessing Santiago's destruction and saying good-bye one more time.
I cannot believe that six weeks have passed as of today! Where has the time gone? I finally arranged to stay with a home stay yesterday (nothing like last minute planning) and it looks like I have strong contacts in San Salvador. I'll be contacting groups (to network and observe) including Catholic Relief Services (all topics), Carecen International (migration issues), ProBusqueda (human rights), Las Dignas y Derechos (human rights/women), and there are a ton of micro-finance organizations as well.
Interestingly enough, I realized this week that although I absolutely loved being in Santiago a non-urban city, the rest of my fellowship travels plan to visit capital or major cities. I have a feeling that I might need to pursue some more rural opportunities as well. However, I should say Guatemala City turned out to be 100 times better than what I had expected. Although lacking culture and community like Santiago, I felt safe and enjoyed the morning and afternoon bus rides when they were not full.
Happy Homecoming to everyone at Vanderbilt!!!! Have a wonderful weekend, and I will write next week once I have settled in El Salvador.