Working in developing countries is a learning experience…

The streets close to the center of Xela, where I stay at the home of a woman called Judith, remind me of Inca roads I’ve seen in the Andes. They are paved with stones of varying sizes and shapes and are pieced together to make a more-or-less flat surface for travel. “More-or-less flat” works well for pedestrians but is a little rough on vehicles so speeds are slow. I love these charming roads, as they are a constant reminder that I am someplace foreign with a deep and mysterious history that I get to touch just for a moment.

When I visit our projects in Xela, Carlos and Xavier (Sandra’s husband and teenage son) often give me rides on motorbikes to and from Judith’s house, around town to do shopping, and to and from the homes of the scholarship girls. Although I normally enjoy walking very much, the motorbikes are much more expedient, and, since I find myself exhausted from the physical work each day, it is a welcome treat.

The benefit of motorbike travel does come with some costs, however. For one thing, no one here wears a helmet. Under perfect conditions the motor bikes probably can hit top speeds of 30mph, but on the stone streets near Judith’s house we typically limp along closer to 5mph and probably get to just 10-15mph closer to Sandra’s house. Only when we head to the outlying villages of Xecaracoj and Tierra Colorado where some of the scholarship girls live do we start hitting the higher speeds, but there is so little traffic on those roads an accident is extremely unlikely. Am I therefore safe without a helmet? Definitely not, but I pretend I am. Ignorance can indeed be bliss, even when it is feigned.

The family has the use of two motor bikes. The one that Xavier uses is thinner and more modern. It actually belongs to the owner of the micro-credit business that they work for, so they use it on their debt-collection rounds. We used this bike when I spent the afternoon working with Xavier as he made his collections, and I found it to be a very easy motorbike to ride. The family motorbike, on the other hand, is much older. It is quite wide, and it is hard to get on and off because my old body isn’t very flexible anymore (was it ever?) When I am on it I feel like I’m on a horse with my legs bent in unnatural ways, so, when I dismount, my first few steps are unsteady and a little painful. Of course for Global Pearls work I typically ride the family bike.

On my second day here, the handle for the brakes fell off the family bike (not while I was on it) so I figured it was out of commission. That, of course, is a very First World view. Carlos assured me it was no problem. He could still drive me around because he could use his feet as brakes, and, indeed, he was still using the bike for his own needs. I am adventurous, but I still have a husband and two daughters that need me, so I figured I needed to draw the line. I asked him if he was planning to get the brakes fixed at any point and he assured me, “yes.” I suggested that getting them fixed before I rode on it would be a good idea. He laughed, and we lost half a day of work while we waited for the brakes to get fixed.

The next day we were riding around on the once-again-functional bike as we shopped for chicken coop supplies. As we were preparing to leave one shop, Carlos decided to check his gas level. Of course the gauge doesn’t work anymore so he checks by rocking the bike back and forth to listen for sloshing gas. A worried look came over his face, and he asked the location of the nearest gas station. It was about 6 blocks away, but we only managed to make it one block before we ran out of gas. We could certainly have walked the rest of the way, but we had no container in which to bring back gas, so we needed to call Xavier for a rescue. Fortunately, there are functional pay phones throughout the city so we only had to walk a block or two to find one. Xavier soon arrived with a container of gas and we were once again on our way.

Our next tricky undertaking was using the bike to transport bulky chicken coop parts to the girls in Xecaracoj and Tierra Colorado. The smaller items, like the 150 segments of PVC pipe and 75 connectors, fit in my backpack, but the larger items, like the metal netting and fencing materials that we use for the floors and walls, not to mention the 4’x8’ piece of thick Plexiglas which protects the chickens on the lower level from the excrement of the chickens on the upper level, were definitely a challenge.

Transportation isn’t the only challenge on these trips. Money, too, can have its own complicataions. Around here, typically, only stores that cater primarily to tourists accept credit cards. Carlos and I arrived close to 6pm at a store which we finally decided had the best prices on most of the items we needed for chicken coops. We haggled over the price on each item, the worker occasionally calling the owner over the phone to get permission for a larger discount, and we finally came to an agreement. The total ended up close to Q6,000, which is about $800. I didn’t have that much cash on me, and apparently chicken coop materials aren’t popular tourist items so they wouldn’t take my credit card. They did let us know that we could use the card at their bank to make a deposit directly into their account. That sounded good, so, armed with their account number and all the information they felt we needed, we waited for the banks to open again the next morning.

Unfortunately, the next morning we found out their bank, BanRural, will only accept card payments if it is a BanRural credit/debit card. My Wells Fargo card was not accepted, so we were back needing cash. That bank didn’t have an ATM machine but they directed us to their bank in the Democracia market with a machine and we headed off.

All worked well, except, despite my Wells Fargo withdrawal limit of $1,000, the BanRural ATM limit is Q2,000 (about $267). We headed across the street to another ATM machine in the grocery store, same bank, and I was rejected because the new machine was aware that I had already taken my limit. Unfazed, we decided to try a different bank and headed to the Central Park where there is another bank called BAM. They don’t have ATM machines, but they directed me to the closest ATM which turned out to be a BanRural ATM. I didn’t even bother trying.

There was another bank, Banco Industrial, on the other side of the park and they had an ATM machine so that was our next stop. Unfortunately, the bank computers must talk to each other, because the Banco Industrial ATM knew that the BanRural ATM had already given me Q2,000!

I wasn’t ready to give up. In addition to my non-profit bank card, I had a personal bank card and a credit card. I was able to get Q2,000 for each card, so in the end I out-witted the ATMs and headed back to the store with my Q6,000 and by 3:00pm that afternoon we had the materials. It only took us close to 24 hours to make the purchase!

Utilities, too, aren’t always reliable. Most of the time all the utilities work well here – we have water, electricity, phones, internet… but sometimes they don’t. Today we had no electricity and therefore no internet as well. When I asked how long people thought it would be before the electricity returned I was told, “I don’t know. Maybe 2 hours, maybe half a day, maybe a whole day…” During announcements at Sandra’s church we were told there was an evening event planned for 7:00pm, and, if the electricity came back on by then, the people should plan to attend. Maybe they will have an event. Maybe they won’t.

What is interesting to me is that none of these things disturb people here. They are unfazed by inconveniences that would cause Americans to fret and become angry. I wonder how much of the stress and frustration and anger in our lives is really necessary and how much is self-imposed? We expect perfection from the world around us, and we stress when our expectations aren’t met. But what if we expected imperfection instead? What if we only became upset over things that could not be fixed with a bit of time and money? I love seeing life through the eyes of different cultures because I learn so many important things! I will continue to worry over big things like loved-ones who are diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, but for the rest I will follow the advice of a man I met several decades ago in Mexico who said, “Things don’t go wrong. They just go different.”

I also might buy Carlos a new pair of shoes, just in case his brakes go out again.