School construction, week 7
category: Jims Guatemala


This week’s lesson is a study in cultural differences; the sorts of things I mostly know about, but sometimes forget.  

I arrived at the construction site today to see that a moderate amount of work has been accomplished since my visit last week. A second look revealed that the masons have been putting all their effort into laying block, neglecting the concerte work. Columns remain bare, the reinforcing steel exposed like orangish-brown skeletons. The trenches for the west wing remain unfilled, anticipating the coming of the absent foundations. I guessed the reason, and you can see it in this photo.

missing_concSM.jpg“You’ve been laying block instead of pouring concrete, because it uses less cement,” I stated to Pascual as I shook his hand.

He sighed. “Si, hombre. We are nearly out of cement. At this rate, we’ll have to stop working tomorrow.” He looked truly pained; this project is important to him. Not because he’s a mason, but because he’s a considerate old guy and the president of the PTA. He knows how much this means to the community, and he’s sortof the community’s representative. “If we stop working, it will be a verguenza (embarrassment or shamefulness) for all the community.”

I sympathize with him. Like me, he is in the awkward position of being stuck between the decision makers, and not always given all the information. “I understand your plight, and you are right,” I began. “You need materials to work, that is obvious, and I sent your list of high priority items to Donaldo last week. What you need to understand, though, is that Mario and Donaldo have an agreement. Donaldo will send materials, and Mario is supposed to keep contact with him and send weekly progress reports. But Donaldo and his representatives have been trying to contact Mario for several weeks, and he doesn’t return their calls.”

Pascual shook his head, annoyed. “That Mario, he hasn’t been returning my calls either.” I could tell from his eyes he wanted to add, “He’s going to mess this up for all of us,” but Pascual is too cautious to say it out loud. He then took out his phone and called Mario, who didn’t answer. We talked some about the work and what phases were coming up, with him stopping every few minutes to call Mario again. After several tries, Mario finally answered.


They spoke a bit in Q’anjob’al, much of which I couldn’t follow except the part where Pascual offered to bring me to Mario to talk about it. Pascual hung up, and looked up at me. “He says he will come out here to meet with us to talk about this. He’ll be here at 10:00, when school has recess.”

I looked at the time, it was 8:57 am. That is so Guatemalan, to expect me to just sit around an hour waiting. In the US, I’d say, “OK, I’m out of here. He can call me at the office.” Instead, I said, “OK, I’m going to pop into town and do some errands, I’ll be back by 10.”

And that is exactly what I did, except that like an American, I showed up at about 9:50. Knowing that I have to expect the hora chapina (Guatemalan tendency to show up late for everything), I got out my book and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

By about 11:00, I was starting to get annoyed. It’s hard not to think about my old life, one where my office would bill this joker $150 for the two hours of my time he just wasted. But I work for the Peace Corps now, and my time is theirs to waste. It’s just annoying that the last bus back to my village for several hours was leaving… right now.

Pascual, however, could see my annoyance. “That’s not very respectful of Mario, wasting your time like that,” he said. Wow, I have never before met a Guatemalan that even recognized that concept. He tried to call Mario a few more times, with no success. “Listen, how about we just walk down to his classroom? He teaches at the Escuela Urbana in the mornings.”

Sounds like a good plan to me! The elderly Pascual and I walked about 20 minutes into town, talking the whole time. And by talking, I mean HE did most of the talking; I was pretty out of breath. I’ve lived here for almost two years, two miles up, and I’m mostly used to the altitude. But Pascual is a tough old bird, and a lifetime of carrying firewood and farming by hand in these mountains has made him FAR more healthy that most Americans his age. His dialogue was frank and open, and further reinforced my opinion that he’s a good guy. He’s trying to do something good for the community, and I can tell it annoys him that Mario isn’t holding up his end of the work by communicating with everyone he should be.

When we arrived at the Escuela Urbana (urban school), we waited outside of Mario’s sixth grade class for about five minutes, and he came out. After the pleasantries, I explained to him the situation I’d explained to Pascual: basically, that he needs to send weekly photos and communicate with Donaldo if he wants to continue receiving material shipments. “I know this is not the case with you all,” I began, “but Donaldo has been burned before on other projects. Workmen steal materials, money disappears… he just wants to make sure everything is going as it should. You have to make him comfortable, build confidence, if he’s going to continue sending money and materials.” Pascual and I had already talked about this during our walk, and he’d assured me that they have been posting a PTA member near the site every night to watch for thievery. I believe him; the amount of material installed on the site roughly matches up with what I’ve been told has been sent.

Fijese que,” Mario began. “I got a new phone. Maybe Donaldo doesn’t have my new number.” I am sure he doesn’t, but that doesn’t excuse Mario from communicating. I took the new number down. “And I talk with Eulalia (Don’s in-country representative) but she doesn’t ever send us anything.”

I explained that Eulalia will do only what Donaldo tells her to, and he’s been telling her to not send materials until they have heard something from Mario. “You know, this might be a cultural thing I can help you with,” I explained, trying to not implicate him directly with being irresponsible. “In Guatemala, I know it’s disrespectful to go over someone’s head. But Americans aren’t much worried about that; you can talk directly to Donaldo. You don’t have to just talk to Eulalia; in fact, Donaldo would PREFER it if you called him. He really wants to talk to you.” Mario seemed doubtful, but promised me he’d call Don this very afternoon.

I hope he does, for the sake of the project.

Posted by: jfanjoy