Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Cape Verdean Immigrants Set to Compete in US Open Soccer Cup

Cape Verdean Immigrants Set to Compete in US Open Soccer Cup

When the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup kicks off next week, familiar names from the lower levels of American professional soccer, like the Richmond Kickers and Portland Timbers, will begin play. This year, alongside those perennial participants, the aptly named Emigrantes das Ilhas have improbably secured their own place in the first round of what is recognized as the national championship tournament for American clubs.

The team is based in Massachusetts, and as their name indicates in Portuguese, is comprised mainly of immigrants from the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of West Africa. The Emigrantes das Ilhas represent the United States Amateur Soccer Association, a confederation of amateur teams which hosts regional playoffs to send a handful of teams to the US Open Cup. There, teams are matched in the first round with professional squads from the lower divisions of the American soccer pyramid.

The Emigrantes das Ilhas won the spot from the northeast region for this year’s single elimination tournament. The club was originally founded years ago, to provide a place for Cape Verdeans in the community to practice their favorite sport, explains team president Carlos Amado, who is also a defender for the squad.


“Back in ’87 the club was founded, mostly by Cape Verdean immigrants. At that time players were arriving here from the islands, who were obviously playing back in the islands, and needed a team here to play. And it was actually the first Cape Verdean team around at that time. Now we have eighteen teams, we have actually got a league - a whole league of Cape Verdean teams here in the States in the Brockton area.”

///END ACT///

Amado says the club is strictly amateur, and no one is paid to play. He says the team depends on businesses in the local Cape Verdean community in Massachusetts to sponsor its activities. About five hundred thousand people of Cape Verdean descent are estimated to live in the United States, most of them in the greater Boston area.

The Emigrantes das Ilhas are mainly first generation immigrants from Cape Verde, with a handful of American-born players of Cape Verdean descent, Amado says. Eddie Lopes is a squad member who arrived almost four years ago from the Cape Verdean island of Sao Vicente.


Lopes says he played soccer professionally in Cape Verde for Batuque FC before coming to the United States. He says he arrived alone, but soon found companions on the soccer field, and joined up with the Emigrantes das Ilhas after playing against them in a tournament of Cape Verdean teams.

Now Lopes, like his teammates, dreams of a good result in the US Open Cup, and the publicity and rewards that would come with it. The last amateur team remaining in the tournament receives a cash prize of ten thousand dollars from the United States Soccer Federation.

Amado says the team could use that money since, unable to afford a bus, they currently take a fleet of cars to matches. He says the team scrapes by on contributions from the Cape Verdean community and income from the broad assortment of jobs the team members hold down.

///AMADO ACT #2///

“We all have jobs. We have social workers, we have bankers, we have players who work in factories, there is a range, delivering furniture. Obviously we all have full time jobs. We only train twice a week. It is going to be difficult playing the professional teams. These are guys that get paid to play. But we are confident that we can beat them.”

///END ACT///

Amado says an even greater prize would be a potential match with the New England Revolution of Major League Soccer, the United States’ top league. If they can manage to win in the first two rounds against lower level professional teams, the Emigrantes das Ihlas would line up against the Revolution at Boston’s Gillette Stadium, a field with the capacity for over 68,000 spectators.

///AMADO ACT #3///

“Even now, back and forth to games we are taking four or five, six, cars, as opposed to – we can not afford the bus, or anything like that. To have that opportunity, to even think about the possibility of playing the Revolution at Gillette Stadium, it would be a dream for most of our players. So that is our goal. Our goal is to get that far. If we could get that far, we will be happy.”

///END ACT///

The Emigrantes das Ilhas begin tournament play on June 9th against the Western Mass Pioneers of USL-2, the United States third division of professional soccer. The game will take place at Lusitano Stadium in Ludlow, Massachusetts.

The Lamar Hunt US Open Cup is an annual tournament sponsored by the United States Soccer Federation to crown a national champion. The tournament, which was contested for the first time in 1914, has been dominated by Major League Soccer teams since the league’s founding in 1996.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Cape Verde's Largest Island Struggles to Balance Tourism, Development

Cape Verde's Largest Island Struggles to Balance Tourism, Development
By Brent Latham
04 June 2009

tamarind, Cape Verde
Tamarind, Cape Verde
With a growing tourist industry sweeping the islands of Cape Verde, the nation faces a quandary over how to preserve its tradition and culture while maximizing the potential windfall from the spectacular natural beauty of the remote African archipelago.

Guide Joao Monteiro steps lightly amidst the ruins of a 16th century fort, on a hill overlooking the town of Cidade Velha on the southern coast of the Cape Verdean island of Santiago. The impressive stone walls of the structure, he explains, have recently been rebuilt with financial support from the Spanish government, with the hopes of bringing more tourists to the town.

Cidade Velha, founded by the Portuguese in 1462, is the oldest European settlement in the tropics. But on this day at the fort, painstakingly reconstructed stone by stone by Spanish archaeologists with the help of the local population, few visitors are to be found. Monteiro says tourism on Santiago is not growing at the rate of other Cape Verdean islands.

tamarind, Cape Verde
tamarind, Cape Verde
Monteiro says Cape Verde's northern islands of Sal and Boavista have more spectacular beaches, which attract foreign tourists. The Cape Verdean government has taken steps in recent years to promote foreign investment in tourism infrastructure, resulting in large scale development on a few of the 10 principal islands.

But Santiago, the largest of the nation's islands, and home to the capital, Praia, still mostly lacks the new, large hotels that have attracted European vacationers in growing numbers to Sal and Boavista. Cidade Velha resident Abel Sanchez, who owns a small bed and breakfast, one of the few options for lodging in the historic town, says a renewed focus on development of tourism would be good for the local economy.

Sanchez says many things could be done to promote tourism on Santiago. He says the island, with so much history and natural scenery, would benefit from its own large hotels like those being constructed elsewhere in Cape Verde.

But that model of touristic development has failed to convince some. Sibylle Schellman, a native of Germany, runs a small restaurant overlooking the ocean in the coastal town of Calheta on Santiago's northeast coast.

"The government right now and the ministers of tourism, they only have in mind these big hotels. And they think, cause there was a study once, which said that all included tourism is the best thing for a third world country, and so they said, well, that is what they want, and they want to have a water source, and they want to have golf, and a marina," she said.

Schellman says she came to Cape Verde for the first time years ago, after hearing a performance by Cape Verdean folk singer Cesaria Evora. She and her husband decided, after a number of return visits, to make the island their permanent home, opening their restaurant, as well as a tour agency aimed at bringing visitors from Europe to experience local Cape Verdean culture.

Cape Verde offers much more than just beautiful scenery and nice beaches, Schellman says, adding that she feels the experience of tourists can be enriched far past that offered by the all-inclusive beach resorts, where foreign tourists are sequestered from the local population. Schellman says, besides missing out on much of the beauty of Cape Verdean culture, all-inclusive resorts do not benefit the Cape Verdean population.

"On Sal and Boavista Islands is that the big tour operators are coming, and they are building these all-included hotels. So for the locals it is very hard to start a business there. Even if they make a little restaurant or little tour agency, nobody comes because it is all-included, people already paid everything so it is no use for them to go outside for a dinner or lunch or whatever," she said.

Despite its poverty relative to the European Union, Cape Verde has developed significantly in recent decades. The island population is estimated by the UN at over half a million, with an equal number of Cape Verdeans living abroad. Foreign remittances from the diaspora now account for almost 20 percent of GDP by some estimates, and new cars frequent the streets of the capital.

Cape Verde graduated from the United Nations' list of least developed countries in 2007, and joined the World Trade Organization last year. Along with growth in GDP, foreign tourism has increased substantially this decade, including a 6.5 percent increase in visitors last year, according to the government. The government also noted a 5.5 percent increase in the supply of hotel rooms last year, largely the result of continued development of beachfront resorts on the northern islands.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Description of Service - Chapter 11

11. Green Mangos

If life in the countryside generally required a certain level of tolerance for imprecision, there were some undertakings in particular could be completely ruled out without an even larger dose of the requisite patience. Travel, for example, called for a highly developed ability to suppress frustration, to a much greater degree than had ever been demanded of me in the time-oriented culture back home. When I did venture forth from San Juan, something I was doing gradually less of as the months passed, it was with good reason, meaning that I would necessarily set out with certain goals and specific objectives, the achievement of which normally required that I actually reach my intended destination. But I had at least learned to limit my immediate agenda to merely arriving, a simplification that reduced by many degrees the complication of the long trip from San Juan to anywhere.

I had little choice but to adapt to such a reality if I wanted to leave the village, given the irregular state of the bus service. So many factors - the state of the road, the condition of the bus itself, the not always cooperative weather - all conspired to make transportation to and from San Juan, at times, close to impossible. Over time, as I was compelled to cut back drastically on the frequency of trips, it became obvious why so many of the region’s inhabitants had never left that valley. On many levels, it was not worth the effort.

A journey to almost anywhere on public transport meant awaking at sunrise to catch the bus to La Esperanza, for a ride through the hills that consumed at least three hours over the rough road, sweeping along high above deep ravines at the bottom of sharp cliffs which hug far too closely to the roadside, at speeds that did little to preclude a tragic end. If headed on to the capital, I would arrive in La Esperanza mid morning, covered in the dust of a sweltering summer morning in the hot season.

That was if the bus even made it out of the valley. Once the rainy season set in, it was quite common to never even make it as far as La Esperanza, waylaid by the downpours that washed away sections of the road, leaving thick, slippery patches of mud all along the route, and rendering it impassible for San Juan’s primary mode of public transport, one of the ubiquitous yellow school busses imported used, in less than ideal condition, from the United States.

Each day, regardless of conditions, Ronni, the local bus driver, would optimistically set out along the route, as long as the bus was in working order. More than once that swashbuckling confidence was soon extinguished, his bus stuck tire deep in mud somewhere along the way, leaving his passengers to wait for alternate transport, most likely back to San Juan, their travel plans aborted. The very first time I attempted the journey in Ronni’s bus, just a few weeks after arriving in San Juan, on a what I had envisioned as a day trip to La Esperanza to purchase a few things not available locally, we had made it only a few kilometers out of town before reaching a muddy incline, past which Ronni, despite repeated efforts, could not manage to maneuver the bus. Foiled, I headed rather indifferently back to San Juan on that day.

Perhaps experiencing first hand those serious impediments to departure helped me to assimilate the long term nature of my future in San Juan. Gradually, what had at first been a strong if uninformed desire to find an alternative and more accessible work site had faded, and I accepted the reality that my time in San Juan looked like it would continue for the time being. The isolation of the villages was not fully disadvantageous. For on thing, no one seemed to be supervising my work out here, and I used that freedom to venture back to the capital for long breaks in a number of occasions as the months passed, as frequently as my patience and energy for travel allowed. But I wouldn’t linger there, and the periods I spent uninterrupted in San Juan began to grow ever longer. At first I had rarely stayed in San Juan more than a few weeks straight before looking for one excuse or another to travel, but now a month or even two might pass before the urge for a change of scenery would set in.

Even as the town grew on me, though, I came to recognize one important detail that made my semi-permanence in San Juan bearable: that very freedom, to come and go as I pleased, limited only by my own lack of motivation to overcome the irksome but usually not prohibitive obstacles the journey presented. When I so desired, I could leave. It was a luxury shared by very few in town, and perhaps it made the gradually longer spells I spent there more tolerable.

I had lived for more than half a year in San Juan, and I had not been away from the village for more almost two months, when I again decided to exercise that freedom, and go looking for Miguel, in the town where he worked. It had been quite a while since I had seen him, having not coincided on our last trips to the capital. What I knew of him was through news that Jorge had passed on to me when I last visited the house in Kennedy, months before.

The trip to Miguel’s town required me first to travel to La Esperanza, followed by a detour off the main road leading east from there, down a dusty route into the blazing hot valley to the south. The morning I set out in that direction from San Juan was cloudy and cool. A heavy rain had fallen the night before, and remnants of small, gray clouds, free of their cache of liquid, now floated aimlessly through the valley, like caged animals looking for an escape, trapped by the concavity of the hillsides now exploding with green vegetation.

I rode in the back of the packed bus, as Ronni guided it intrepidly down the hill out of town. Not far outside of San Juan, the work on the new road had recently resumed, and was progressing at a snail’s pace, as workers attempted to fix the extensive damage caused by the elements during their long absence. At that point, a detour had been set up around an embankment, which was apparently to be flattened to make way for a pass. As the bus began to scale the muddy makeshift road that had been cleared there, up a slight incline, the wheels lost traction, and Ronni’s machine gradually slid backwards down the hill. Unfazed, Ronni tried again to get that old school bus over the hill, but once more, it came sliding back down. With the passengers cheering him on as if it were a game, Ronni refused to give in easily, but after the fourth or fifth such attempt, with the bus once more at rest, having slid into position at the bottom of the slope, the driver disembarked to assess the situation. One by one, the full complement of men on board got followed him off the bus.

Having seen this drill before, I quickly descended as well. I remembered well that very first failed trip in Ronni’s bus to La Esperanza, when the bus had become lodged in the mud, and all the men on board had immediately gotten off. Not realizing what was going on at that time, I had stayed on board. The rest of the men had proceeded to work to free the bus, as I looked out the window and observed their failed but persistent attempts to extract the vehicle, mortified to realize that, along with the women and children still on board, I was part of the weight that my fellow villagers were pushing.

Since then I have always been among the most eager to disembark stalled transportation. I know as soon as a breakdown occurs, as an able-bodied man, I am expected to make my way deliberately to the front of the bus, down the stairs, and around to the suspected source of the problem, where, at a safe distance from the engine, which often would be steaming, revving, or in the close-to-worst case scenario on fire, a group of men like me, with little or no mechanical experience, will gather and observe the work in progress, like a hand full of supervisors, overseeing the bus driver and his assistants. I have even learned to make appropriate comments to my fellow passengers, adjusted for the level of consternation observable on the faces of the bus workers. “This will be fixed quickly, it’s a simple problem,” or “we’d best prepare for a long wait, there’s no way to fix that,” I will say, my interjection measured to match the egregiousness of the profanity employed by those at work on the engine or tire in question.

The other passengers, impressed, will then nod back in agreement, and add their own observations. “Certainly the gringo is familiar with the workings of this machine, which comes from his land,” was a variation of what one of them would often say. I could now understand their logic. After all, the yellow bus in front of us would have foreign words, for instance “Southern County School District,” stamped in neat letters across the side, revealing the intimate connection between its pale frame and my own.

So when Ronni’s bus once again faltered, at that detour around the hill just outside San Juan, I knew exactly what to do. Despite my eagerness, I was among the last to disembark, having been seated towards the back of the bus, and when I stepped out onto the muddy ground, I found that Ronni had already crafted a plan, and was positioning different men all around the bus. Having given general instructions to push at the appropriate moment, Ronni then climbed back on board, as I took my place behind the bus among a handful of my neighbors.

Ronni gunned the engine, and the bus zoomed off up the hill, leaving the group of would-be pushers behind, thoroughly bathed in a stream of flying mud. Those around me began to run behind the bus as it accelerated up the hill, its rear tires slinging mud all about as it fishtailed from side to side violently. Despite what should have been obvious danger, the group continued its pursuit of the bus, and as its forward progress began to falter, caught up to it, the men, me among them, slamming in near unison into the back bumper with just the force needed to edge the large vehicle forward towards the summit of the small hill. With a puff of deep black diesel exhaust and a triumphant sounding of the loud horn, Ronni and his machine crested the hill and continued onward, coming gently to a halt at the bottom of the incline on the other side.

We men ran along exultantly down the muddy slope, towards the resting bus, shouting jubilantly as, covered in mud, we climbed back on board one by one to resume the journey, with the passion of having just won an important soccer match. On this day, at least, we had conquered the elements.

Having overcome the hill’s challenge, I didn’t run into any more serious setbacks that day, as I found my way down the valley to Santiago Puringla, which despite its name, is a town, not a person. The Otoro valley gradually narrows as the road runs south alongside a wide, shallow river, towards the town.

The details of Miguel’s work as a water systems engineer there seemed to have been more deeply considered than my own job description. His work entailed finding ways to provide water to the towns around the area, and that is exactly what he spent his days doing, jaunting about on the hillsides, mapping the course of small streams and watersheds, and planning his water systems. As such he spent a good deal of his time on the picturesque slopes that hemmed the town in at the narrow end of the long gulch, in this relatively isolated corner of the country, separated from the main road by an unbroken chain of large hills. Despite its site in the center of this hidden valley, I immediately noticed as I reached the town that it was far larger and more developed than San Juan, in proportion, as things these things tended to be, to its proximity to the capital.

Given the size of the town, I had some difficulty locating Miguel’s home. The townspeople, who I imagined would have by now developed encyclopedic knowledge of Miguel’s comings and goings, much as had happened to me in San Juan, instead looked slightly puzzled to have before them an unusually light-skinned individual asking about town for the local Peace Corps volunteer.

“I had a bit of trouble finding your house,” I told Miguel, when I finally arrived at his small apartment to find him just returning from one of his mapping expeditions on the hillsides. “No one seemed to know where the Peace Corps volunteer lived, but when I asked for Jose Miguel, they directed me with no problems.”

“I don’t really tell people that I work for Peace Corps,” Miguel explained, pleased to see me after overcoming the initial surprise of my unexpected visit. “It doesn’t help with my work. There have been some pretty useless volunteers stationed here in the past, and people tend to think of Peace Corps as a bunch of white people bumbling about the countryside. I’m not white or bumbling, so I just explain that I’m an engineer working on water projects.”

I understood what he meant. When away from San Juan, I had further developed the habit of disguising my own identity to prevent being stereotyped. In the village, I described myself as an employee of the cooperative, and never tried to explain the complex arrangement with Peace Corps.

Furthermore, I was far from anxious for the company of other foreigners in what I now considered my village, a preference I knew Miguel shared. Born in Puerto Rico, Miguel had explained that he often felt he had much more in common with the people he found here than he shared with his fellow volunteers. I had also come to understand the irreconcilable differences between me and my fellow volunteers, and through that lens, my similarities to those around me had come into focus. Many of the workers who had begun service with Miguel and me had already gone home, unable or unwilling to adapt to this country and culture. Those who remained spent much of their time cloistered together in small cliques, many of them in a house they had rented together in La Esperanza, where they congregated to escape the monotony of their villages. Ever since I had turned down the invitation to participate in that commune, and in so doing to pay a share of the exorbitant monthly fees, much of which went to buying alcohol for weekend parties, and amenities to make life seem more like home, my rupture with the rest of the volunteer community had been consummated. I now preferred to avoid La Esperanza all together, lest I run into one of my fellow workers, including my pairing at the cooperative, Sally, who was the most troublesome among them, having developed a disconcerting penchant in her centralized role as zone supervisor of critiquing the work and undertakings of her fellow volunteers, particularly in my case.

Understanding all that, I had come, at times, to crave the isolation of my village for a slightly different reason. I had began to realize that only in the context of a closed village, free from outside influences, was I free to develop outside the bounds created for me by the society from which I had come. The presence of another foreigner for a protracted time could lead to comparisons and judgments that could greatly disturb that delicate balance.

“Besides,” Miguel continued, as he pulled a pair of plastic chairs onto the small, shaded patio in front of his house, and offered me a seat. “It’s not many people would be able to make it out here to visit, even if I wanted them to.”

Miguel had at once allayed my fears of having intruded unwanted in his territory, and also pointed out the serendipity of embracing isolation while living in a remote village. Amidst such observations, we broke out the bottle of rum that I had brought from La Esperanza. As we drank, we spoke of the usual range of topics, from development, to the local people, and just living in the countryside.

“Have another cup,” Miguel said as the bottle neared completion. “We can buy another bottle around the corner when this one is through.”

“Really?” I asked. “That’s an unusual luxury for me. In San Juan, there is no alcohol for sale. It’s a dry town.”

“Here it’s no problem,” Miguel said. “Me and my friends drink together all the time.”

“Normally, in the village, I cut off the drinking after a few cups,” I said, nevertheless allowing him to fill my cup once more. “Drunkenness in the village leads to nothing good. In San Juan people are always getting drunk and then shooting at each other. Maybe that’s why they outlawed alcohol.” I stopped there, only half the story told. In San Juan, according to the town statute, to possess or consume alcohol was not illegal. Only the actual sale, and the state of drunkenness itself, had been outlawed. Since those who sold alcohol had staunch connections in town, the jail, such as it was, was used mainly as a holding tank for drunken residents of the surrounding aldeas, to make sure they couldn’t harm anyone but themselves or their fellow drunks while inebriated. And with good reason, as drunks seemed to be able to find little else to do other than fight, often with guns.

“Santiago Puringla is not exactly like San Juan, I think,” Miguel said as he sipped slowly on his rum.

“I think you’re right. For one thing, I would never sit out on my front porch and drink like this. For another, this town is a lot bigger, and a lot closer to the capital.”

“Right, which means people are different. A lot of people have lived or studied in the city, and everyone else has been there many times. Later on we’ll invite some friends over and you can see what I mean. There are a couple nice girls that live down the street.”

“Girls?” I asked in mild disbelief. San Juan at times would have seemed a Puritan village, given the rigid separation between the sexes.

“You can’t tell me you don’t have a few girlfriends in your village?”

“None at all, my friend,” I told him quite honestly. The closest thing I had to a female companion in San Juan was a local school teacher who I occasionally flirted with, if mildly, at the market. But she wasn’t even from San Juan. Then, I thought to myself, there was Indira, a friend of Doña Aida’s daughter Nancy, who frequented the kitchen at the Perdido house, and who I had occasionally caught staring at me from afar. Though certainly beautiful, in her own wholesome way, she couldn’t have been older than eighteen, and we had seldom actually spoken. Yet that was what passed for romance in San Juan.

Miguel, on the other hand, did have in his village a handful of friends our age, some of them girls, a couple of whom stopped by later that evening as the sun set over the valley. Whereas in San Juan any activity taking place after nightfall, particularly one involving members of the opposite sex, was looked upon with the utmost suspicion, evening gatherings here seemed to be considered an acceptable part of normal life. Perhaps that change was largely due to another difference that had suddenly become apparent as night fell. Unlike San Juan, this town had electricity. Whatever spirits had once roamed in the darkness of the night here, frightening the people into the safety of their houses, had long since been driven into the dark hills in the distance.

“There’s no electricity in the town where you live?” one of Miguel’s friends asked in disbelief, when the subject came up.

“No,” I explained, quite calmly, ironically defending my village to a resident of the very country in which a town the size of San Juan could still be without electrical power.

The group stared at me in continued bewilderment. “How do you live there?” her friend asked.

“There should be electricity, sometime soon,” I answered, repeating the hopeful story I had been told so many times in San Juan, even though I didn’t quite believe it myself. “The power lines in town have been up now for quite some time. We’re just waiting for the lines to be run from the nearest town. It should be anytime now.” It was the same story I had been fed by Peace Corps when I moved out there, and that was almost a year ago now.

In such discussions, we passed an agreeable evening with those girls, who were university students home from the capital on break. They proved quite informed, so when trivial issues did enter into the conversation, it was purely by choice. My country routine already shattered, I woke up much later the next day than I ever would have in San Juan. With little to do but lie around and wait for the midday heat to subside, Miguel and I discussed the possibility of another weekend in the capital. I had already travelled most of the way to the capital from San Juan, and was determined to go on, and to convince Miguel to come along as well. From here, it was a decidedly easy trip. We could hop on any of the passing busses that frequented the nearby road, and we would be in the capital in an hour or so.

But Miguel, who took pleasure in debating the benefits, mostly economic, of staying in his village, refused to give in easily. So we passed a lazy afternoon under the mango tree in the courtyard, sucking on salted slices of green mango, which the old lady next door made a business of selling. The mangos, distilled in vinegar to make them palatable, normally sold for three pesos a bag, but Miguel was able to acquire his for free, since the old woman secured her supply of raw materials from the mango tree in front of his house. I had learned with practice to eat the sour green flesh of the unripe mango, which was sold everywhere, but it was difficult for me to enjoy the taste, especially since I was of the opinion that, with a bit of patience, a ripened mango would have made a much tastier treat, and more prized commodity.

“Why do we eat green mangoes?” I wondered aloud, as I gnawed at a slice. “The people in this country seem to love them. You see them everywhere. But, I mean, ripe mangos are much better.”

“Many here would disagree with you,” Miguel said, assuming the contrary, as he frequently would when he sensed that a local custom was under assault.

“Many here would disagree that one and one make two,” I said with a laugh, before elaborating. “This whole green mango issue - it seems like a lack of patience. Just economically speaking, wait a month or two and the tree will be full of ripe mangos. Even if people don’t eat them, certainly they could sell the ripe mangos for more than they get for these green mango slices, and that’s after all the work of cutting them up and putting them in these little bags.”

Miguel sat quietly, contemplating the barren tree above us as he formulated his rebuttal with the serenity of a father asked by his child why the sky is blue. An engineer by training, Miguel was a sociologist at heart, who always had at the ready a logical defense for the peculiarities of behavior that could be observed all around. Those days, I found myself agreeing with many of his theories, as experience slowly taught me that life here was often about day to day survival rather than the maximization of long term well-being. While I waited for Miguel to emerge from his deep concentration, I considered my stance on the green mango question, and thought it strange indeed, given the amount of patience displayed in other aspects of life, like getting from one place to another, that people here would so uniformly harvest mangos before their peak.

“Wait a month for the mangos to ripen on the tree?” Miguel now interrupted my own deliberations with his question. “Do you remember the guava tree at Jorge’s house?” I did remember that guava tree, one of the many fruit trees in the courtyard in front of his house.

“The last time we were there, it was full of guavas, slowly ripening,” Miguel reminded me. “I can still smell them,” he added, seemingly for emphasis.

“Yes,” I laughed. I recalled perfectly well the rest of the story. “We had big plans for those guavas.”

“But they didn’t work out, did they?” Miguel asked. There was no need for an answer. We were going to use that fruit to make fresh guava juice, and then mix it with aguardiente. We planned a whole party at Jorge’s house around the ripening of those guavas, and invited our friends, and some of the prettier girls in the neighborhood, over, the weekend we anticipated harvesting the fruit.

But we had planned prematurely. Birds ate many of the guavas as they ripened. But mostly, they just disappeared. Finally, when just enough fruit remained to make the undertaking still worth our trouble, we resolved to pick the remaining guavas. But that very day, we looked out front and saw a pair of the neighborhood kids in the courtyard, up the tree. They had jumped the fence and climbed up there, and they were plucking the rest from the tree. Jorge shouted through the open door at them, and then, amusingly, ran out front, waving a broom menacingly, as the boys fled, spilling most of the pilfered harvest on the driveway, and trampling it in their hurry to escape. Not one guava remained in tact on the tree.

“Wait a month, and there will be nothing left,” Miguel concluded. “Green mangos may be only a fraction as good as ripe ones, but they are an infinitely superior option to nothing at all.”

Jose Miguel’s abstract mathematical calculations may have seemed out of place there, in the countryside, but it seemed to me that they were indeed the true calculus of this upside down land.

“What you say is true,” I admitted, in defeat. “Everyone is always after the mangos, whether they’re ripe or not. I guess the chances they will ripen are pretty low,” I finished, as I spat out the indigestible hulk of fiber left over from a mouthful of hard, green mango.

“So the choice isn’t between green mangos and ripe ones,” Miguel continued, clearly pleased with this new theory. “It is between green mangos and nothing. This country is like mangos in so many ways. There is so much potential, and yet there are so many reasons why that potential can never be realized.”

That issue resolved to our satisfaction, we sat in silence, and looked up at the bright afternoon sun, shining between the thick leaves of the mango tree.

“Let’s go to the capital,” Miguel said eventually, admitting defeat himself, in his own way.

We caught a late afternoon bus. Compared to the journey from San Juan, it was a quick and entertaining trip. Miguel slept as I, already energized by the thought of the capital’s streets, observed the people who live in the small villages flanking the road leading into the city, anxiously awaiting arrival. Alongside the road I saw frequent stands, where motorists occasionally would stop to purchase whatever goods were on offer there, ranging from clay pots to firewood, honey, and, of course, green mangos.

“It’s interesting about these people, selling on the side of the road,” I said, nudging Miguel to life as we passed a small cluster of homes, each with its own stand out front, all of which, in this case, displayed a number of small bottles of honey impossible to differentiate from one another. “All the people in a given area sell exactly the same thing.”

When we passed the occasional car, stopped by the side of the road to purchase, I saw how dozens of anxious honey sellers had rushed over, instantaneously annulling any pricing power that an individual seller might have had. A few miles down the road we passed a similar set up, only the stands this time displayed clay pots and ornaments. There was not a drop of honey to be seen.

“Sometimes, like in the case of these clay decorations,” Miguel, now aroused from his nap, said as he pointed out the window, “some aid organization has come and trained the people, all in the same thing. There’s a program like that near my village.” He shrugged as the latest set of stands disappeared behind us.

“I’m looking forward to getting to Kennedy and eating some of those baleadas, they sell around the corner,” I said, changing the subject as I looked forward to the variety of the city. “I’m sure Jorge will be glad to see us. It’s been a couple months since I’ve been to the capital.”

“We might not find him at home,” Miguel answered. “You haven’t been around. Jorge’s got a new love interest.”

“Oh really?” I said, anxious to hear the usually amusing story of one of Jorge’s misguided forays into romance, uniformly with foreign girls of Caucasian origin.

“He’s dating some German girl that works for a development organization. He actually spends most of his time at her house now. She has a huge apartment overlooking the city. The neighborhood is on a hill above downtown, it’s called La Leona.”

Having been away from the capital for so long, this was the first I had heard of any of this. “Do you think we’ll see him at all?” I asked. “I mean, if he stays all the way downtown?”

“Oh, we’ll see him,” Miguel said confidently. “I stayed at his girlfriend’s apartment with him last time I was in town. It’s really big, and quite luxurious compared to the house in Kennedy.”

“I don’t know,” I said, somewhat disappointed in this news. “I like the house in Kennedy. It’s authentic.”

“I know. But don’t get too used to it,” Miguel said. “One of the reasons Jorge doesn’t stay there much anymore is because he says his older sister, the dentist, is coming back from the United States any time now, and according to him, she’s not much fun to be around. Besides, his girlfriend is gone a lot of the time. They fly her all around to meetings in different countries, to talk with other development workers about poverty, and how to help poor people.”

“Sounds nice,” I said, considering the old school bus we were riding in. “Maybe one day we can have jobs like that, and travel in planes instead of old school busses.”

“I don’t know,” Miguel replied. “Sure it pays well, and you live in a nice apartment, and fly all around to different countries, where you stay in nice hotels, and eat well. But I spoke to her about it last time I was there. She says all they really do is talk, and spend a lot of money for conferences and such. I’m not sure I could live with myself, having tons of money spent on me, just to talk about poverty, when there is so much work to be done.”

“I guess you’re right. It’s better to work directly with the people, as we do, even if the scale is smaller.”

“It’s not so much about scale,” Miguel said. “It’s about really getting to know the people, in order to work with them and realize their needs. You can’t do that from a nice hotel or an expensive apartment. You just can’t get the feel for it that way. You end up promoting projects that teach an entire village how to make bird cages, when only so many bird cages can be sold in the countryside,” he concluded, looking out the window as the bus passed yet another town with stand after stand by the roadside, these laden with bird cages of every size imaginable, but with no potential buyers anywhere to be seen.

As I stared down at those unoccupied vendors, I remembered something our Peace Corps business training instructor Oscar, a lifetime employee of non-profit organizations, and as such generally considered an expert in the field of development, had said during our training.

“The people in the countryside,” he had told us, “are uneducated. You will find that they have no reason or logic for most of the things they do. You must teach them everything, even to count.” Those words had stayed with me for many reasons, and I remembered them still. I had been quite sure all along that they were inaccurate, but it had taken time to begin to understand exactly what didn’t sit right about them. I wondered now if I hadn’t been working under the same premise anyway, much like the organization that Miguel suspected was at fault for the unsold bird cages lining the roadside here. Perhaps, as I tried to teach new things, I was ignoring the big picture, one which the community, having been in that situation forever, had indeed assessed with their own precise calculations in a math that they understood perfectly, but which I was just learning. I thought of the green mangos. There was much more I would need to learn from the people here, I thought, before I could teach them anything.

Pleased with my newly developing understanding, which yielded explanations for the unusual things I saw around me that didn’t involve assuming the subjects of my observation were unintelligent or irrational, I passed the rest of the journey looking silently out the window, as the bus rumbled on. It seemed, I thought, that I had been led down the wrong path, perhaps unintentionally, by people like Oscar, who were convinced that they had the solution to all of the problems of life in the countryside. That manner of thinking, I now understood, worked fine for people like him, who lived in large houses and had their land rovers to drive around the capital. But Miguel and I lived lives far different from that, and to do so in harmony, if we ever hoped to be effective in our work, we would have to be able to explain things in a different way.

Night was fast approaching as the bus sped down the long, steep road into that final valley, the bright city awaiting below. Our deliberations on development had ended for now. We wouldn’t solve all the riddles facing us, and the country, at least on that day, as the sun was quickly sinking over the hills in a spectacular blaze of orange that only the contamination of thoroughly polluted air can produce. It would soon be night in the city, time to turn my thoughts to easier pursuits, at least for the moment.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


Brent Latham - Tuesday, May 12, 2009

It should come as little surprise to anyone that Landon Donovan has been the lone spark plug for the LA Galaxy thus far in their MLS campaign. Until about ten days ago, Donovan had scored or assisted every goal the Galacticos had put up all year.

As he practically sleep walks through another season in MLS, America's all-time leading marksman still seems to be begging for a bigger stage. He may soon, once again, get his wish.

This summer will be replete with chances for Donovan. A good performance against some of the world's best at the Confederations Cup in South Africa is likely to have suitors banging on the door again, and this may be his last chance to get this transfer deal right.

His MLS performances this year will have done little to placate a growing pool of doubters, so shortly after Donovan failed to stick in Germany for a third time. It seems like he has permanently lost credibility with many American fans, who always seem to have held him to a higher standard. More importantly, Donovan's stock has sunk with much of the European soccer establishment.

That's a shame, because it's somewhat unfair. But perhaps no more unfair than Donovan continues to be to himself, by getting into situations in Europe which give him a very low chance of success.

When suitors come calling this summer, Donovan would be best advised to learn a lesson from occasional teammate David Beckham. Donovan will forever be connected to the English midfielder on and off the field, and with good reason. The American says he has learned a lot from the current AC Milan star on the field, and now he needs to pay attention to the Englishman's moves off of it.

While Donovan was struggling in the cold of Munich, his English dandy companion was off to Milan, playing a handful of mediocre matches in which he was handed the starting job from the get-go, after which ensued what appeared to be an international bidding war for his services.

As Milan and MLS scrapped back and forth, the wily Beckham looked on and tried to make nice with everyone, while seemingly bidding his own price up behind the scenes. Beckham - or his advisers- had ingenuously created a win-win from the beginning, from the loan at Milan back to the MLS opt-out clause he negotiated years ago.

Donovan, on the other hand, tends to put himself in a lose-lose scenarios. He had to fight for a few minutes at Bayern, where he found himself once again in an untenable position abroad, allowing his success to be defined in terms of a permanent transfer.

While the American seems to have further improved his game in Germany, the public understanding of his time there, both in the media and in international soccer circles, was of yet another failure, because of the perception that a good performance would lead to that permanent move.

It had long since been clear that such an event was never going to happen.

Even had Donovan lit up the Bundesliga, MLS is unlikely to have accepted what would have almost certainly been a low-ball offer for the transfer of one of their top performers. If MLS consistently turns down millions for Kenny Cooper and Taylor Twellman, no way would they have accepted a few more for Donovan.

Few at Bayern really wanted him anyway. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann seems to have been the only who really cared if he played at Bayern or not, and the coach himself is now gone, following a slide early in the second half of the season.

The difference in quality between Donovan and Beckham at this point can be considered minimal at best. Donovan certainly has more upside, is younger, and is more flexible on the field. If I had to pick one player or the other to start a side right now, from a soccer standpoint, I would take Donovan.

But the difference in their off-field acumen is light years.

Because of all those on-field bonuses, the American who the Mexicans most fear will get another chance to make an impact on the European stage, but this go round he needs to take his chances as clinically as he normally does on the field. A situation with less pressure and immediacy would do him good.

Donovan needs a mid to upper table team, not one of the huge European clubs, in a league like Spain or Holland, where his game will be appreciated and a spot will be regularly his. He is no longer a young pup in soccer years, and the correct fit will be a team that is looking for a player to insert directly into the lineup to give their attack some bite. And he needs to go over the summer, to give himself a proper preseason window to fit in and earn the confidence of his teammates and coach.

One coach that already believes in the American all-time leading goal scorer is Klinsmann. Wherever the German lands, possibly in England, would be the ideal situation for Donovan, with a coach who believes in him, and a full season's chance to show his wares. The two, as they commiserate about the failings of Bayern's board, can inspire mutual confidence in one another.

Klinsmann is likely to provide Donovan's best shot at playing for a team willing to pony up what MLS will be asking for their top American star. If the right chance doesn't come up this summer, Donovan may be better off to wait until the summer of 2010.

Having already struck out on the European stage, the next approach will be a mulligan, with already lower expectations. Donovan seems to turn his failures into ambition, and if he hasn't moved yet, he will be motivated to take on the world in South Africa in 2010.

After that, hopefully, he will choose a situation that is right for him.

No matter his future, Donovan is by any measure a great American soccer player, arguably the best of all time. His career doesn't need a successful European adventure for validation, but some European goals would erase any asterisk that his doubters will otherwise forever put next to his name.

Description of Service - Chapter 10

10. Of Rascals and Saints

On a warm day just before lunchtime, I sat with Juan in his office. My purpose at the cooperative had always been somewhat loosely defined, and over the first few months in San Juan, I had gradually fallen into a general consulting role which included frequent if incongruous chats about the range of issues Juan faced as manager of the branch. Despite having little idea what to do with a consultant, Juan was as determined to try to accommodate my efforts as I was to make them. He had gone so far as to successfully petition the main office for a computer, and a generator to power it, which he would often crank up on the mornings I spent at the office, at expense in fuel and noise hardly compensated for by my production, perhaps hoping that through my mastery of this newfangled machine I would somehow generate the solutions to his managerial quandaries.

By far the biggest of Juan’s work-related problems was that of the cooperative’s large portfolio of delinquent loans. With outstanding loans on many projects that, if they ever had been, were now far from profitable, given the falling price of coffee, the driving force of the zone’s economy, many clients now preferred to abandon their land rather than work to pay off a debt far greater than the value of the property guaranteeing the loan the cooperative had made to them.

On this particular day, Juan and I had just begun a new chapter in our on-going discussion of potential solutions to help mitigate the crisis of bad debt affecting over half of the branch’s loans. As Juan stared out the window, powerless to do much more than contemplate potential action, a look of surprise swept suddenly over his face.

I followed his intent gaze out to the street. Walking by outside was a portly old man sporting a weathered straw hat, which he held tipped across his face in what was clearly a haphazard attempt to conceal his identity, specifically from anyone who might be observing from our vantage point. He was obviously in a hurry, and not anxious to be spotted, but the scheme had succeeded only in drawing attention to his unusual behavior, as it had in the case of Juan, who, after the observing the man briefly, bolted for the front door.

“Don Santos!” he cried, letting the door slam behind him. Through the office window, I saw the man look back furtively, before doubling his pace towards the bustle of the market down the street.

I walked to the door, where Roque stood with a thinly veiled smirk across his face. “That Don Santos, what a character,” he said.

“The Don Santos?” I asked him.

“One and the same,” he said, returning his attention to the pursuit taking place just down the street, as Juan disappeared into the market, hot on the trail of the old man.

On a similar morning, Juan had told me in great detail the story of Don Santos and his coffee cooperative in a neighboring village. Of all the bad loans the cooperative had made, his was the largest, oldest, and generally most egregious case. A number of years ago, when Juan was still an accountant at the branch in La Esperanza, Don Santos had convinced his neighbors in the far flung aldea of Cangual, on the other side of Cerro Grande, to form their own coffee growing cooperative. Not coincidentally, it would turn out, Santos had also recently been named to the board of directors of our savings and loan cooperative. Using his authority as director of both cooperatives, Don Santos had proceeded to obtain, with negligible delay or bother, an extraordinarily large loan for activities at the coffee cooperative.

It was less than a year before Don Santos was unceremoniously removed from the board of the savings and loan cooperative, when his loosely organized group of farmers in Cangual failed to make even the first payment on the loan. The coffee cooperative had been delinquent on its loan payments ever since, and now owed the savings and loan cooperative upwards of ten thousand dollars, an astronomical sum in these parts, accounting for almost half of the branch’s bad loans.

It was now apparent how Don Santos, the sole mastermind behind the scheme, and unquestioned leader of his neighbors in Cangual, had deceptively arranged from the beginning for the loan to be given not directly to him, but to the coffee cooperative as a legal entity, backed by property which he appraised himself to be worth many times its actual value. Furthermore, the property pledged as collateral was split up piecemeal throughout the zone around the village, and belonged in title not to Don Santos or the coffee cooperative, but to several different farmers. These irregularities had been overlooked given Don Santos’ status at the time as a board member. Also ignored was a further, major breech of protocol, in distributing the loan disbursement directly to Santos, rather than to the whole of the coffee cooperative’s board. Given those mitigating circumstances, which Santos now used in his own defense, he refused to be held at all responsible for the debt. Since collecting the cash, it seemed Don Santos had lost his passion for coffee farming, and he hadn’t been seen much around San Juan, having moved to La Esperanza, where he bought a large house that he furnished with all the latest amenities.

With one or another of those details on his mind, Juan soon emerged from the market, with a broad smile across his face. At his side, also smiling, somewhat less confidently, was the recluse Don Santos. Juan marched back towards the office, discretely but firmly pulling the old man along by the arm, like a father herding a disobedient child. The pair crossed the street, and Roque opened the door dutifully with his usual salute. After thrusting Santos through the doorway ahead of him, Juan went inside. With a resolute expression I had seldom seen on his good natured face, Juan waved me into his office as he advanced, all the way pushing the indisposed Santos along in front of him.

When all three of us were in the office, Juan shut the door firmly. “Have a seat,” he said to our new guest. It sounded like more of an order than an invitation.

“Kawil, I’d like to present to you Don Santos Mercedes Vasquez de la Cruz,” Juan said with exaggerated grandiloquence, as he regained his formal attitude.

“It’s a pleasure Don Santos.” I said, sitting down next to him, with a feigned cordiality to imitate Juan’s. At the same time, I inched my chair around the corner of Juan’s desk, to face this man about whom I had heard little good.

“Don Santos has come to speak with us,” Juan said, rather inventively I thought, considering half the town had just witnessed his capture in the market. But Juan had been scripting this moment in his mind for quite some time. Now Santos had finally appeared, and he recognized the need to act quickly, if he was to take advantage of this fortuitous turn of fate.

The pair chatted informally for several minutes, as if they were old friends, as I looked on. Juan asked about Don Santos’ family and his health, while I remained quiet, as I studied the old man. I couldn’t help but feel empathy for him, even though he was somewhat heavy, as the few who eat well in these parts invariably are. In the context of village life, I had somewhat unavoidably developed a lack of tolerance for overweight individuals, reasoning that fatter people were unjustly consuming more than their share of the scarce resources. But this man’s eyes now spoke of remorse, like that of a child who had been caught in lie.

“Don Santos is the head of the coffee cooperative in Cangual,” Juan said to me, when he had finished with pleasantries. Juan was fully aware that I knew the entire story, having told it to me himself, but he seemed to want to reprise some of the facts before getting down to business.

“Kawil has come to work with us here, as an advisor,” Juan continued. “I have told him much of our difficulties. Perhaps Kawil can help us with this problem as well, Don Santos. I have explained the situation to him. He is an expert in finance from the United States.”

“Thank you,” Don Santos said, when Juan paused, indicating that it was time for him to say something for himself. “Of course, I cannot be involved the situation, since I long ago sold my interest in the cooperative in Cangual. I live in La Esperanza now, you know.”

With those initial words, my original sense of empathy immediately turned to annoyance. I let out a grumble of disapproval.

“Certainly, Don Santos,” nodded Juan, much calmer and calculating than I. Perhaps he had expected this turn of events. “At any rate we simply must find a way to help your cooperative. The last thing we want to do is resort to the contract.” By that, he meant take the farmers’ land. That was a losing proposition for everyone involved, as the cooperative was not interested in owning land. In any event, the real losers from such an action would be the poor landowners of Cangual, to whom Don Santos had apparently sold his worthless share of the mortgaged land.

“I would suggest the following, then,” continued Santos with a sly smile, smug behind the barrier of his manipulations. “I really have nothing to do with the matter, as you will see if you go to examine the deeds in Cangual. You should take your little gringo, and go talk with the people there. Organize them to produce, and open the road, which has been closed off by a landslide. I would do it myself, but I don’t want to take advantage of my neighbors. There is much potential for gain, and I would prefer that they are the ones to benefit.”

If it hadn’t been already, it was now clear to me how this episode would play out. The trusted community leader had devised a scheme to defraud everyone around, in this case selling his property twice, once to each cooperative. With no more gain to be had, he now wanted nothing but to distance himself from the situation, a result for which his scheming had set him up perfectly. The savings and loan cooperative had no legal claim against him, since the loan had been given in the name of the coffee cooperative in Cangual, not his. So many things in this country ended in such a way. Still, Juan was determined to press on with the interview.

In the meantime, I stared out the window, contemplating what could be done about my irritation with this man. Perhaps a few months before, when I had recently arrived, my outrage would have been less fleeting, and I would have made my opinions known by arguing with Don Santos, perhaps screaming at him for a time, and certainly calling him a liar and a scoundrel. And all that would have gained me very little, apart from a reputation as a hot head with none of the patience required to deal with the situations life here presents. But I was beginning to understand that firm reactions were usually not the best option for resolving matters in these parts. The best thing to do seemed instead to be what Juan was doing now. Go along with things calmly, and search patiently for an out. But I wasn’t ready to play exactly that game. Maybe I was half way there, if not prepared to smile at hypocrites, or to nod at ridiculous explanations, at least composed enough in the face of this nonsense to validate the trust Juan had placed in me by inviting me to be present. My best choice, I concluded, was to tune out the rest of the exchange.

So I looked out the window, and watched the townspeople passing by on the street. Mid-morning is one of the busiest times of day around the market. Less so in the summer heat, but still, that block of the main street was the busiest in town, and provided ample entertainment to distract me. I saw Patricia on her way to the market, little Aidita in hand, taking two steps for each of her mother’s, perhaps headed to pay a visit, or to purchase the ingredients for lunch, which I was now looking forward to.

Across the way, a grand municipal auditorium was under construction next to the town offices. An ambitious project that would be the tallest building in San Juan if successfully completed, it had been conceived by Don Santiago immediately after he took office nearly a decade ago, and progressed through various states of construction since then. The structure seemed to be coming along well now, nearing the final phases of building after constant delays in funding, material deliveries, and a host of other generally expected if not individually foreseeable problems.

Of late, I understood, a large part of the construction delays were attributable to the mayor’s decision to contract his brother-in-law once removed to finish the roof. A confident veteran of the construction trade, Anhiel worked deliberately when he was in San Juan, where few substitutes for his labor were available. Of late, he had spent much of his time away from the town, in the native village of his wife, on the other side of the capital. Though Anhiel had long ago come to see San Juan as his home, his wife, who he had met on a sojourn to the capital, preferred to raise their numerous offspring in her own town, given its proximity to the city, and the resulting access to everything San Juan was without. But Anhiel still frequented San Juan, where his connections made it easier to get work, including his present job, on the roof of the municipal auditorium, where I now observed him from my vantage point at the window.

I stood up slowly from my seat by Juan’s desk, excused myself from the discussion in which I, at any rate, had played little part, and pushed my way through the door. From the front step of the office, I gazed up at my friend on the roof of the now nearly completed auditorium building.

“Hey, idiot, wake up,” I yelled skyward. “The mayor isn’t paying you to sleep.” Roque, getting more than his usual share of daily entertainment from his post next to the office door, laughed in amusement.

A number of the pedestrians scattered about the street, curious to see what I was shouting about, paused, their attention drawn to the roof of the auditorium. There, Anhiel had been at work installing long panels of roofing material over the wide expanse of the building’s frame.

Though he was famous in town for sleeping on the job, Anhiel, in fact, had not been asleep this time, as my shouting had somewhat deceptively indicated. My intention had been simply to have some fun, and distract myself from the irritating conversation taking place inside the building I now stood in front of. But my good-natured chiding set off of an avalanche among those on the street below.

“Anhiel, you lazy bum, come down from there if you’re not going to work! The mayor is not paying you good money to sleep,” a passerby jested loudly.

A number of councilmen emerged from the municipal building to see what all the fuss was about, and a small crowd now gathered below the auditorium, laughing and shouting obscenities up at Anhiel, who stared down in confusion from his perch. Women covered their children’s ears and scurried into the nearest open doorway. It seemed I now wasn’t the only one intent on having a moment of amusement in my day, at the unfortunate expense of Anhiel.

“We’ll send the gringo up to replace you, he knows how to work,” called one of the councilmen, eliciting an explosion of laughter from the street around me.

Anhiel, finally getting a sense of what was going on beneath him, tossed a piece of scrap metal down in protest, in the direction of the group below.

“Shut up you bastards,” he cried from the roof, in feigned anger. “Get up here, then, you silly gringo. Stop your talk and criticizing, and demonstrate how it’s done.”

“Go on,” came a chorus of voices from the crowd, urging me on. “Climb up there and show him how it’s done.”

I looked around at the expectant crowd. Many people in town had come to believe, in those short months, that I was capable of most anything. I had played soccer with most of them, rode with the mayor around the country in his car, and addressed the town as one of their leaders on Independence Day. Certainly it would be a small matter, they must have thought, for me to now show this lollygagger how to install a few roof panels. Of course, I had no idea how to perform such a task, but I had gotten myself, and Anhiel as well - somewhat unfairly at that - into this mess, and now I would have to follow through.

I crossed the street self-assuredly and walked past the gate of the auditorium, to the base of the building. A rickety ladder leaned precariously against the side of the structure, leading up to the roof nearly forty feet above. Despite a mild fear of heights, I would have to climb, if only to demonstrate that I did belong here, in this town, where it seemed clear that any male my age should, among other things, feel confident in scaling a ladder and putting on a roof.

I began up the ladder. Before I knew it, I was on the roof, scurrying along the newly installed fiberglass panels to the summit to meet Anhiel. The crowd below was satisfied, and the men shouted their approval as they began to disperse. “That will show that lazy Anhiel,” several of them agreed, as they meandered away. It seemed I had proven my worth yet again.

I made my way carefully over towards Anhiel, treading as lightly as possible on the panels, which looked quite fragile, while trying to maintain my balance on the slick rooftop. Despite my care, I soon heard a loud crack under my foot.

“Not there!” shouted Anhiel with concern. “Damn. This gringo. You’re too heavy. Don’t step on the panels. Step on the beams.” I backed off the broken segment and crawled over to the plank of wood Anhiel had installed as a walkway for just this purpose. As I reached it, there was yet another crunch.

“Crap.” Anhiel said, frowning, as I walked slowly along the beam to where he was standing.

Anhiel sat down on another board, and scratched his beard. “That’s going to take a while to fix,” he said, after a minute’s contemplation, “since we’ll have to undo this morning’s work first.”

He certainly had the right to be angry. Perhaps I shouldn’t have had so much fun with him, I thought. I had started an avalanche of unwarranted criticism, then I had come up onto the roof and ruined a whole day’s work. Despite all that, Anhiel remained calm, smiling at me as he shook his head, in between glances at the broken roof panels.

“Idiot gringo,” he said with a broad grin, when he had finished his preliminary assessment of the damage, laughing even as he tried to remain stern in his rebuke. “Talks big and then comes up here to ruin my work. If I had in fact been asleep, as you claimed, I would have accomplished more in my slumber than you have here.”

Perhaps a lifetime permeated by far worse injustice had left him more willing to accept this additional one. Whatever the reason, I appreciated his leniency. I wondered how I would have reacted in his place.

“I’ll come back this afternoon and we’ll redo the work,” I said. It was the least I could offer.

Anhiel cleaned his hands with a rag, then wiped his forehead. The chalk from the fiberglass panels left a white smear across his face, accenting his ever jovial countenance, as he stared past me into the hills around town, still smiling. With few other options, I laughed as well at my own shortcomings, as I followed his gaze into the distance, and noticed for the first time the sweeping view of the valley from that roof, the highest point in town. There was certainly something calming to that vista of green hills on the horizon, rising softly into the clear, pale blue sky, punctuated by full white clouds sauntering aimlessly above the land. I could see why Anhiel was in a good mood.

“Not to worry, gringo pendejo,” he said. “We’ll fix it, maybe tomorrow. This afternoon, it may rain. Better to rest. Let’s go home, it’s time for lunch.” Without further discussion, Anhiel sprung to his feet and glided quickly past me, down the plank towards the ladder. I followed him slowly, as he turned and started down the ladder.

“Be careful this time!” he yelled to me, as I made my way back across the roof. “If you finish breaking those panels, you’ll fall through to the floor!” Forewarned, I managed to get across safely, and climb shakily down the ladder to the ground, as Anhiel led the way, hopping downward with the agility of a squirrel. Even with his pot belly and work-ravaged old frame, in this task he was as nimble as someone half his age.

Safe back on the ground, we crossed the street and found Juan at the door of the cooperative, in the process of locking up for the midday siesta. Having recovered my sense of tranquility on the roof of the auditorium, I had quickly forgotten about our unexpected visitor.

“What happened with Don Santos?” I now asked Juan.

“Long gone, Kawil. He escaped as fast as he could, with his tail between his legs,” Juan said ruefully.

Anhiel laughed. Just as most everyone in San Juan knew of Anhiel’s reputation for laziness, they knew as well the story of Don Santos. For that matter, everyone in San Juan knew the story of almost everyone else. As for Don Santos, it seemed I was the only one around, except perhaps Juan, obligated by his job as manager of the cooperative, who felt any need to judge what he had done. The rest of the community, even the cooperative’s members, who would, in the end, pay the actual costs of his crooked scheming, seemed content to leave the matter be.

As the three of us turned the corner and headed to lunch, Anhiel described to Juan with great amusement the events that had just taken place at the auditorium. “How they screamed at me from below,” he recounted, before laughing once again about the smashed the roof panels. “All because of this Kawil, the gringo Indian. They wanted to send him up, to show me how to install the roof. But, rather than help, well...”

“I told you, Anhiel,” I interrupted, feeling ashamed once again at my lack of agility, “I’ll help you fix it. We’ll go this afternoon.”

“Don’t worry,” Anhiel said, “we will fix it, all in good time.”

“No, Anhiel,” I insisted. “Right after lunch, I’ll help you to fix the damage I caused.” This time he didn’t respond immediately. Not until I continued to press him to set a time to go back to work that afternoon, did he offer more information.

“Ah, you crazy Indian, don’t you see,” he said, in a more serious tone than before. “There are no more roof panels. They have been brought all the way from the capital, counted and measured for this job. We’ll have to wait for more to be ordered now.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. But before I could speak, Juan did.

“We have several extra roof panels behind the cooperative,” he said to Anhiel. “You can come get them after lunch.”

“After lunch I sleep,” Anhiel said with a wink. We had arrived at the Perdido house. “Isn’t that right Mr. Construction Foreman?” he asked me ironically, once again in a joking mood, as he thrust the screen door open, and stood aside while Juan, and then I, passed through.

That was the last I heard for some time about the roof panels. At some point, Juan sent the panels over, and Anhiel fixed the roof. Several times over the following weeks, as Anhiel worked, I climbed up that rickety ladder to the roof of the unfinished auditorium, for the view, but more to spend some time with a good friend, even if we both realized it was best for me to leave the work to him. When the job was finished, Anhiel steadfastly credited me with helping complete the labor. The broken roof panels remained between him and me, and Juan.

Not until some time later, when the cooperative’s auditor inquired as to the disposition of the missing panels, did I find out how expensive they were. Juan simply explained that, as in so many other cases, no one knew exactly what had happened.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

West African Chambers of Commerce Discuss Export Promotion

West African Chambers of Commerce Discuss Export Promotion
By Brent Latham
09 May 2009

Representatives of chambers of commerce from across West Africa have come to Senegal to discuss the prospects for increasing exports from the region.

With the guidance of the Geneva-based International Trade Center , business leaders from a number of West African countries are planning future steps to further improve the panorama for businesses wishing to export goods from and among African countries.

Participants in a week-long conference represent the business sectors of over ten African countries, organizers say. The chambers of commerce are in the process of evaluating their cooperation with the International Trade Center , or ITC, to determine which programs have worked, and which direction to take forward, says Blaise Borel Dourou, a technical consultant at the Chamber of Commerce in Point Noire, Congo .

The ITC, a joint program of the World Trade Organization and the United Nations, has played a role in helping West African countries develop their export sectors during the recent period of rapid expansion over the last three years, according to Edward Collins Boateng, Executive Secretary of the Ghana Export Promotion Council. "We have had quite a close level of collaboration with ITC in developing and establishing management information systems to serve the exporter community. It was a three year program which is ending, and there is the need to evaluate and see where we are, what new things we can lend, and evaluate the program. So that is what brought me here," he said.

ITC representatives say training is a key tool for small business owners in the region wishing to export internationally. They say, that since small businesses that could potentially benefit from international trade are spread out across the continent, working through the region's chambers of commerce is an effective way to make sure African businesses are getting the information they need to become effective exporters.

Boateng said the chambers of commerce participating in the conference are eager to continue to encourage the recent growth in the export sector of the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS. "I think the regional trade is growing, especially within the ECOWAS sub-region. The European Union has been our main market over a couple of years. Over the last two or three years the West Africa sub region is growing very strongly, and I believe that has something to do with proximity to markets, and we intend to leverage our competence and continue growing those markets," he said.

Africa has traditionally been an exporter primarily of natural resources and raw materials. Experts say African economies would benefit from new approaches to adding value in other sectors, if they are to provide more jobs and opportunities for the people of the continent.

Boateng said he is working with the ITC in Ghana to develop a more effective service sector, which he says has traditionally been informal, both there and across the region. "We are looking basically at the services sector. We thought that we had people trading in the services for a couple of years that had not been formalized, and again with the support of the ITC we tried to formalize it. We have done a strategy with the Commonwealth Secretariat consciously to go out there, create awareness, put advocacy measures to remove obstacles towards trade in services, and effectively take these companies into things like matchmaking issues, development, and international services contracts, et cetera," he said.

The African Development bank says West African economies grew by 5.4 percent on average in 2008, though that growth was expected to slow to 4.2 percent in 2009. Ghana's national statistics service reports that the economy there grew by 7.3 percent in 2008, buoyed by the agriculture and services sectors.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Description of Service - Chapter 9

9. Independence Day
After seven days in the capital, I decided it was time to return to San Juan. My original idea had been to stay longer, but a week proved sufficient to change my perspective, and leave me anxious to get back to the fresh country air. The thick, polluted city air had permeated my lungs, provoking an incessant and annoying cough, and the disingenuous scheming of those around me had exacted a similar toll on my spirit, and generated a strong desire to return to the transparent simplicity of the countryside.

I left the capital early one weekday morning, with little energy remaining from the week of life in the fast-paced city. What force I had in reserve I would need for the trip back to San Juan, which I knew would be many degrees more complicated on public transport than in the private cars in which I had always had the fortune to travel.

Despite my concern, I was yet to fully grasp a simple reality of bus travel which my fellow passengers seemed to understand perfectly. Public transportation is rife with inherent setbacks and serious delays. When the bus broke down, or a tire went flat, as happened more than once along the way that morning, there would be little reaction from anyone to match the frustration I felt inside. I was on a schedule, and these unexpected obstacles jeopardized my carefully laid plans. If this bus failed to complete the trip to La Esperanza in the five and a half hours I had carefully budgeted, allowing for what I thought a reasonable amount of delay, then I would miss the departure of the only bus of the day leaving La Esperanza for San Juan.

With that scenario in the back of mind, I watched the countryside slowly roll by through the window as the morning too quickly gave way to afternoon. Even when the bus was in motion, which it seemed, for one reason or another, not to be the majority of the time, progress was painfully slow. Climbing those steep roads into the mountains had taken little effort in the new cars in which I had previously travelled, but the ascent proved a trying labor for the converted school bus in which I now rode, which slowed to a maddening crawl on the incline of each hill, as the window for me to make it to La Esperanza slowly closed. By the time the bus driver stopped for a leisurely lunch break, near the place where I had eaten with the mayor on the way to the capital, I had already become very concerned about the late hour.

“What time does this bus arrive in La Esperanza,” I asked an attendant, who stooped casually by the roadside, watching the passing cars on the main highway.

“We will leave before long,” he replied.

Not satisfied with that answer, I tried my luck with another passenger. But this gentleman, who was dressed well enough to look as if he might have also had some appointment to keep, proved no more able to dispel my growing fears of missing the bus to San Juan.

“It arrives when it gets there,” the man said, with a deeply ingrained fatalism that I assumed would be shared by the other passengers, dissuading me from further inquiry. The other passengers seemed to have wisely put aside thoughts of virtually all future activities, pending the unpredictable culmination of the bus trip.

As the bus sputtered onward, and the afternoon shadows grew longer, I was forced to come to terms with reality. There was no way I would reach La Esperanza in time. I resigned myself to the situation, and gazed out upon the bright green countryside as the bus meandered west, up and down the mountain passes.

It was past two in the afternoon when I finally descended into the large lot that passes for a bus station in La Esperanza. The bus to San Juan was long gone.

I carried my small bag to the edge of the lot, where I tossed it down in exasperation. I had assumed that a full day would be more than sufficient to reach San Juan, and I had not planned for the possibility of being stuck here. After a long, expensive week in the city, I had only twenty five pesos left in my pocket. My painstaking calculations had extended to my finances, leaving me just enough money for the ride back to San Juan, but certainly not to spend the night here in town.

I considered my options. I didn’t want to go to the cooperative office, concerned that I might find Sally there. I had no valid excuse for having been in the capital for a week, away from work. It was easy enough in the expanse of the city to avoid contact with Peace Corps, but if I encountered Sally here, I would have to explain what I was doing away from San Juan.

As I sat, deep in thought that was quickly turning to despair, it began to rain lightly.

“Are you waiting for a bus?” A voice came from a wooden stall next to me, behind which a woman, who I hadn’t noticed before, was observing me closely. “Because you know, there are no more buses from here today.”

“I’m trying to figure out how to get to San Juan,” I replied, somewhat annoyed by the interruption to my thought process.

“There are no more busses to San Juan today,” the woman repeated, as she swept the dust from the table where she normally displayed the merchandise for sale.
“But you could always try the crossroads. Sometimes trucks are headed in that direction.”

“The crossroads,” I repeated, in an exclamation of revelation that the woman mistook as a question.

“Walk up this road to the edge of town,” she said, indicating the road passing in front of the stand. “You should see others waiting there.”

I stood up quickly, pausing only to thank this woman, whose intervention had originally annoyed me thoroughly before ultimately proving so valuable, before I hurried off up the road.

The light rain had quickly tapered off, but the storm clouds were regrouping as I arrived at the crossroads. There I found an assortment of would-be travelers huddled under the overhangs of the homes on either side of the road out of town. Each of them hoped that the next passing vehicle would be headed in the direction they wished to go.

I stood by the roadside for a time as a handful of pickup trucks passed. Some sped by without stopping, others were headed to destinations much closer by. As the minutes turned to hours, most of the waiting crowd found their ride. The rain again started to fall, and most of those who remained at the crossroads gave up their wait, to seek shelter elsewhere. Cold and tired, I would have given up too, had I another option. Forced to remain, I was left alone on the roadside in the late afternoon. The rain fell with more resolve now, in increasingly heavy, cold drops that splattered mud from the road onto the sidewalk, where I tried in futility to distance myself from the torrent from above and the splashing from below. I remembered with commiseration those villagers we had passed in the mayor’s car, on the way to La Esperanza, who we had inadvertently bathed in dust as they waited for transport themselves.

“It’s late, perhaps no car will come now,” said an old man, who I hadn’t noticed before, standing quietly under the leaky overhang by the roadside, unfazed by the weather. His face was harshly weathered by years of facing predicaments like this one.

As I stood on that crossroads, my warm, cozy mud house in San Juan had never seemed so inviting. Nor had I eaten all day, and the rumblings of hunger in my stomach were reaching a point at which I could no longer ignore them. If I could just reach San Juan, I would find Doña Aida there, waiting to prepare a hot meal. That I had no money made little difference there, I thought. I wouldn’t have to pay until I could. I hadn’t even yet paid for the first few weeks of meals I had eaten. I had tried to hand over some money on the first day, but Patricia just laughed at my effort. “Payment comes at the end of the month,” she had patiently explained. “First you eat, and then you pay.”

It grew colder along the roadside, as I remembered the intense heat earlier in the day, when the bus had made that extended stop while the driver slowly ate his lunch, the passengers patiently waiting for him. If that driver had moved more expediently, I might have made the bus to San Juan, I thought. I cursed him as the cold rain water began to soak through my clothes.

“Even if a truck were to come, it is raining even more in the pass,” I heard the old man say softly, perhaps to himself, as he stared towards the clouded peaks in the distance west of town. “Perhaps it is for the best that no car comes today.”

I looked off into that dark sky, and noted with chagrin that the old man was right. The casual assuredness of his observations made it clear that he didn’t share my concern at being left behind, out in the cold. Nevertheless I could hardly have considered him pessimistic in his assessment, since his words were simply an impartial appraisal of the probabilities which we faced.

“No, old man,” I mumbled, as I looked into that darkening range of hills. “I must travel today.”

But the old man must not have heard me over the falling rain, punctuated by the noise of a truck rumbling up the road from town. With it came once more the faint hope of salvation. I held my breath.

The large, brightly covered truck pulled over to the side of the road. It was the type used to haul merchandise and coffee, comprised of a flat bed flanked by wooden rails, and a large cab in which four men could travel side by side. The driver’s window lowered slightly against the pounding rain, revealing a pair of men inside whom I didn’t recognize, as I might have if they had been headed for San Juan. But all hope was not lost. Some cars left for Gracias from here, passing San Juan, though it would be very late in the day to attempt that route.

“San Juan?” I asked hopefully, not just for me, but for my new travelling companion standing behind me.

The driver nodded.

“Hop in,” he said, motioning with a quick movement of his head towards the back of the truck. When I turned around to wave the old man forward, he was nowhere to be found. I located him again, already on board, positioning himself in the back, when I circled around the truck. I threw my bag upward into the cargo area, and climbed up into the bed of the truck, as, with a start, it began up the bumpy road towards San Juan. As we left the town behind, a loud clap of thunder boomed down from the mountains ahead, as if nature had sounded a warning to those who, having realized the danger, still dared to take on the trip. Headed into those dark mountains at this late hour, the sound triggered in me a sense of profound fear, borne of a suspicion of the risk I now faced at the hands of a force much stronger than I was prepared for. Observing a strong storm, which I had always enjoyed, was quite different from behind the glass of a weather-proof western fortress, I thought, then out here. My perception of any ability to resist the power of nature was quickly undone, as I shivered with cold under the dark sky of the rain-soaked afternoon, my vulnerability clear. Perhaps, I thought, the old man had been right his assertion that it was best that no car come.

That crossing to the next valley might have taken an hour, or slightly more, as the truck slowly rumbled up the mountainside, but it felt like a frozen eternity. The storm clouds had quickly turned the afternoon to evening, as the daylight dimmed at an accelerated pace with the climb higher into the mountains, where the sun sinks behind the tall, distant peaks in mid-afternoon. The now icy rain pouring down on the slick hillside made the already brisk temperature unbearable, as I huddled in a corner on the floor of the truck’s bed, protected from the worst of the driving rain by only the limited shelter afforded by the cab.

The truck gradually crested the mountain, and passed the small village of El Membrillo, from where, on the way to the capital, the mayor had pointed out San Juan in the valley below. It seemed like an eternity had passed since I rode along in the mayor’s new car on that bright, sunny morning.

“Here it freezes at night,” I remembered the mayor’s cousin say. That observation was more than a curiosity now. It was in fact advice I should have taken, I thought as I shivered uncontrollably. As for the view of San Juan, it would have to wait for a later day. A thick, gray cloud rose off the mountain, immediately to that side of the road, obscuring the countryside beyond.

Several kilometers beyond that village, high among those mountains, just when the cold and rain seemed at their apex, the old man let out a shrill whistle, which those who dwell in these mountains use as a signal to be heard at a great distance. As it rounded a bend there, the truck gradually slowed.

“Good luck,” the old man said faintly. “The worst is past. You’re nearly there.” With that, he leapt down from the still-moving bed of the truck, and landed with a splash on the wet ground. I thought it strange as I watched him, from the moving truck, for such a frail old body to not have waited for the truck to stop completely. As he edged off the road and disappeared into the undergrowth, where he disappeared, I felt the cold begin to diminish slightly, and I realized, for the first time, that I would soon be home.

Many times since I have travelled that route in the plain of day, and thought to look for that bend in the road, where the old man faded away down a narrow, little used path, off through the trees and into the hills. But that turn in the road has always proved elusive, too difficult to distinguish from all the other bends, and I have never again been able to find it. I know only that the man must have dwelled in one of the isolated homes that sit in the hills well off the road, perhaps with his family, alone and isolated in the dark, cold night. I wondered where he might turn, out there, when something went drastically wrong. Then I asked the same question of myself.

Soon after, the descent into the valley began. The way down the mountain, carried by momentum, was an easier proposition for the truck, and its passenger. The rain let up a bit, and the temperature began to warm noticeably with each passing kilometer. I was invigorated by the knowledge that progress was coming faster now. I stood up and held on to the rail of the top of the cab. As the truck plowed forward down into the valley, I felt the mild air of the approaching basin sweeping up the mountainside, and knew the most difficult part of the journey was behind me. Soon I would be in San Juan. Soon, I thought, I would be home.

Reaching the valley floor, the truck sped down a section of new road, under construction just outside of town. There, the state had incongruously begun a project to pave the road through the valley between San Juan and the neighboring town of San Miguelito, despite the fact that sections on either end of that span remained unpaved, and in much more desperate need of attention. The workers, contracted in fits and starts that depended on the vagaries of the government budget, had been on an extended break since well before I arrived in San Juan, and had long since returned to their respective cities of origin, far away. Most of the work that had been accomplished was now being quickly undone by the rainy season, but the flat, unfinished roadbed still provided a rapid conduit towards my final destination.

The damp countryside was barren as the last light of the fading day made a gallant but unsuccessful attempt to break through the clouds and shine across the valley, when the truck crossed the bridge over the San Juan River, and stopped at the crossroads outside of town, from where it would head south. I descended, and began the short walk up the road into town, reenergized by the completion of the long trip. Exhilarated, I was in the mood to greet someone, but there was no one to be seen anywhere in the fading light. I encountered only silent streets as I walked up the road to the Perdido house, where I let myself in through the open screen door, and proceeded into the kitchen. Finding it empty, I sat down by the stove’s warm fire, and contentedly took in my surroundings.

The wood in the stove crackled slowly as I continue to warm there. I saw the makings of corn tortillas on the table, and a host of covered pots, pushed to one side of the stovetop. Before I could gather the energy to serve myself, Patricia came in. She jumped with surprise to see me seated there.

“The devil has come disguised as a gringo,” she said, when she had gotten her bearings.

“I’m not the devil,” I said, “but this fire is nice after the cold trip from La Esperanza.”

“How would I know if you are the devil or not?” she asked. “Only the devil would travel on a day like today. No reasonable person would attempt a trip in this rain, at this hour. Spirits are everywhere.”

“Well, I haven’t seen any,” I said. “I came alone in a truck, with just an old man for company.” Patricia smiled deliberately.

“This old man,” she asked, as she handed me a cup of hot tea, “was someone from San Juan?”

“No,” I said. “But he was nice enough. He got off at some bend and hopped off into the woods.”

“Ah ha!” she declared, as Aida appeared and, without a word, begin to prepare a hot plate for my dinner. “That’s what the spirits do. They travel with you, disguised as old men or women. Sometimes, when they have served their purpose, they disappear in the middle of the forest. Sometimes, if they are evil, they take those aboard with them.”

“It wasn’t a spirit,” I said, laughing as Aida set the plate down in front of me, on the table next to stove. “He spoke to me several times.”

“Ah,” Aida, who had remained in front of me after serving the meal, sighed knowingly. “But did he speak to anyone else?”

After dinner, on my way down the wet, dark street leading home, I thought about Aida’s question. As I approached my home in that dark corner of town, under the cloudy night sky, I tried to remember if I had seen the old man speak with anyone else. I wasn’t sure I had. He had hopped into the truck ahead of me, and gotten off, alone there in the mountains, without even waiting for the truck to stop, or negotiating the usual fare with the driver. In fact, I didn’t remember him appearing until we were alone at the crossroads.

Too tired to contemplate the episode further, I went in, undressed, and fell into my warm bed.


I awoke late the next morning and stepped out onto the back patio to a bright sun, shining warmly on the damp ground of the embankment behind the house. The rain had coaxed the dust from the air, and refreshed the earth. I was rejuvenated as well, from the peaceful night’s sleep that favors those tranquil in the knowledge that the next day brings no obligations or worries. I dressed leisurely, and made my way to breakfast, then on to the cooperative to look for Juan, who I hadn’t seen since my return.

As I approached the corner by the central plaza, I spotted the mayor on the front patio of the municipal building.

“Don Kawil,” he called to me with a smile. “So you are back!” I walked over to greet him.

“How are the girls in the capital?” the mayor asked, a little too loudly for my comfort. He turned to one the councilmen standing behind him. “This Kawil is quite a terror with the ladies,” the mayor said. The official nodded approvingly at the observation, in the same way he would have if the mayor had been speaking of budgeting or infrastructure. “Kawil,” Chago said, turning back to me, “I have something to discuss with you. Come into my office if you would.”

I followed the mayor inside, where the typical gathering of townspeople awaited him. He offered me a chair to the side, rather than in front of, his desk, before greeting a few of his other visitors. When the mayor returned, he sat down next to me, crossed one leg over the other, took off his hat and placed it on the desk, and looked at me with a serious countenance.

“Kawil, as you know, Friday is the anniversary of the independence of our great nation,” he began, as if he had rehearsed this speech many times. “Francisco Morazán, who you see there,” he said as he pointed to one of the pictures on the wall above his desk, a cardboard cut-out, more apt for a classroom than the mayor’s office, of the revolutionary hero, “liberated our land from the oppression of its colonizers almost two centuries ago on this date.”

I tried to agree, particularly with the part about the dastardly nature of the country’s colonizers. I had made a habit of taking every opportunity possible to express my distaste for the Spanish, a practice which seemed to take the spotlight off my own exotic origins. But the mayor proved to not be finished, so I remained quiet.

“This Friday, as we do each year, we will celebrate here in San Juan with a grand parade, for which I have already signed and stamped the proclamation,” he continued, glancing towards the official stamp which sat on his desktop at the ready. It seemed the mayor wanted everyone present to understand that a signed and stamped proclamation, in this context, was the greatest assurance available that the event being spoken of would in fact take place.

“I will lead the parade,” Chago continued, “which features the government officials, and other leading community members. It would be my pleasure, Don Kawil, for you to march alongside me.”

The mayor now seemed to have finished, but I waited a moment to make sure that I was not interrupting him. My delay had the added advantage of making it seem like I was taking the adequate time to consider this important request, which to me seemed simple enough. When I was sure the mayor’s monologue had indeed ended, I answered.

“Sure, Don Chago,” I said. “I would be honored.”

“All right, then,” the mayor said, brandishing his perpetual smile. “That is good. I will send the official invitation to the cooperative office later today.”

When that was agreed, the mayor stood up and extended his hand to me, then turned away, to speak with a group of farmers who were waiting for him. I took my leave of the municipal building, and continued my original errand to the cooperative across the street.

There I found Roque, the office guard, waiting as always in his position in front of the building. A former military officer of some insignificant rank, Roque had parlayed his experience into the job as guard, and was now prepared to use all his guile and militaristic wherewithal to defend the cooperative in case of an assault, which was thought likely to occur eventually, if not imminently. He opened the door for me with his usual military salute, acknowledging his understanding of my role as one of the cooperative’s ranking officers, as he pushed aside the shotgun with which he was armed for the part of his job description that did not include opening the door repeatedly. Inside, I found Juan seated behind the desk in his office.

“Good morning, Kawil. Aida said that you had returned!” Juan said as he greeted me with a firm handshake. “I didn’t hear you at the house last night.”

“I got in late from La Esperanza,” I told him. “It was a rough trip. It’s very cold up in the mountains with the rain.”

Juan had returned to his place behind his spartan desk, and motioned for me to be seated across from him. Intimately familiar with the difficulties of travel between San Juan and La Esperanza, he smiled with understanding as I described the trip. During his three years as manager of the cooperative, he had made that journey on countless occasions, every so often multiple times in a single day. Only recently had the cooperative board approved the purchase of a motorbike for him, not because they were concerned about the extensive burden of travel, but because the members were worried that it had become common knowledge that the manager frequented the route, travelling in the back of randomly selected trucks, with large sums of their deposits.

“I’ve just come from the mayor’s office,” I began, when I had finished describing the previous day’s trip. “He has invited me to march in the parade with him this weekend. It sounds like fun.”

I had been slightly amused by that invitation, which I now shared with Juan. The mayor had been very enthusiastic about inviting me, in my role as the cooperative advisor, and I had assumed Juan would be invited too.

“That is a great honor,” Juan said, attempting by looking out the window to hide the frown that had broken across his face. “Only those with great importance in the community are invited.”

“Certainly you have been invited too?” I asked, immediately realizing my mistake.

“No,” he said. “The mayor hasn’t invited me in past years. I’m not from here, you know. But it is a great honor for the community to host someone from so far away as you.”

“Thank you Juan, but I won’t march if you won’t,” I said, willing to exchange the marginal honor of being in the parade in the name of solidarity with Juan.

“Don’t be rash, Kawil,” he said, “you must participate.”

But we didn’t have the chance to discuss further, since, at that moment, Roque tapped on the door. Juan waved him in, and he entered slowly, with great deference, and laid two envelopes on Juan’s desk.

“These have just arrived,” Roque said. “I hope you don’t mind that I accepted their delivery.”

“Thank you, Roque,” Juan said, as he looked at the envelopes. The first, which he passed across the desk to me, bore an irreconcilably misspelled version of my name. The other Juan opened, extracting a letter, which he began to read aloud with a broad smile.

“This Friday,” he began, “is the anniversary of the independence of our great nation. Francisco Morazán liberated our land from the oppression of its colonizers almost two centuries ago on this date.”

Juan continued to read the letter, which matched verbatim the speech the mayor had just given me, finishing with the final sentence of invitation. In this case, however, Juan pronounced his own name instead of mine.

I looked at my copy of the official letter. It was signed and stamped to prove its authenticity.

“The municipal seal,” Juan said, “makes this document an official command from the mayor. So there is no discussion. We must present ourselves Friday at nine in the morning at the mayor’s office, to fulfill our role in the celebration of Independence Day!”

Juan looked out the window, across the way, at the back of the mayor’s office.

“It’s quarter of twelve,” he said, looking at his watch. “Let’s go catch the mayor before he leaves for lunch.”

I could barely keep up with Juan as he rushed out the door and across the street. Retracing my steps of a few moments before, we found the mayor in front of the municipal building, about to get into his truck.

Chago smiled at us as we approached. “Juan, Kawil, can I offer you a ride somewhere?” he asked.

Juan responded quickly, as if there was a chance I might say something to ruin the whole arrangement. “No, Mister Mayor, we’ve come to thank you for the invitation to participate this Friday. We will be present with you that day, anxious to do our part to help the cause of the celebration. You can be assured of that.”

“That’s good Juan. I’m glad.” The mayor said, smiling as always, as he extended his hand to each of us, in turn. “There is much work to do before then. Perhaps you will join me for the planning committee meeting this afternoon.” He stepped up into his truck, where he sat with the door open, still grinning.

“Yes, Mister Mayor, of course we will be there,” Juan said eagerly. The mayor nodded and closed the door gently.


I was asleep after lunch when, apparently, the planning committee met. As we walked to the soccer field that afternoon, Juan reported that he had signed us both up for what he described as the Independence Day information committee.

“What does the information committee do?” I asked.

“We are in charge of disseminating information about the festivities – like the parade,” Juan answered, his excitement over being invited to take part still apparent. It was our job, he explained, to make sure that everyone in town knew about the parade.

“Who else is on the committee?” I asked, somewhat skeptically.

“There is also Father Ismael from the church, and Don Alvaro, the principal of the high school,” Juan told me, “and of course, the mayor.”

“Aren’t those the people you said were at the planning committee meeting?” I followed, perhaps a bit cynically.

“Yes, in reality it is the same group of people on all the committees,” Juan said, with a sheepish grin, though he didn’t seem to share my doubt over the need to have several different committees comprised of the same group of people. “Our main job,” he continued, regaining his serious demeanor, “is to make sure everyone in town knows about the details of the activities on Friday.”

“But Juan, isn’t there a parade every year? Don’t people already know there will be a celebration on Independence Day?”

“The people need the details, and they need to be reminded. We have already formulated a plan to remind them,” Juan said, with a chuckle. “It’s already Wednesday, and the mayor has to make a trip to La Esperanza tomorrow to buy materials for decorating the town, so we had to think quickly.”

“So what did you decide?” I asked, anxious to know what I had gotten myself into.

“The best way to communicate information,” Juan explained, “is of course the ‘speaking car,’ which we will ready for Friday.” I had already seen the form of publicity to which Juan was referring employed around San Juan more than once. The scheme was straight forward enough. It involved rigging a car with large loudspeakers connected to a microphone, then circling the town repeatedly, while announcing the desired information, in this case that the parade would start at nine on Friday morning, and that, most likely by municipal decree, everyone was commanded to be present.

“The committee decided furthermore,” Juan continued, “that the best time to undertake the mission will be when everyone is in their home. Upon further consideration, we determined the most convenient time to be the morning before the parade. We are expected to meet the mayor at the municipal building at four o’clock Friday morning.”

With that, we arrived at the soccer field.

Friday morning came, and I was sound asleep when Juan came knocking on my door at precisely four in the morning. If I had learned one thing in San Juan, it was to expect that nothing would go according to plan, so when Juan appeared, he had to wait for me as I got out of bed and quickly got dressed.

“This plan will work perfectly,” Juan said, as we walked to the central plaza through town, still asleep on a dark, chilly morning. “We will have a captive audience, as everyone is in their house at this hour.”

The mayor must have been less confident, because when we arrived at the municipal building, he was busy loading a pile of bottle rockets and firecrackers, which he had bought in La Esperanza the previous day, into his truck. He eagerly showed off some even more imposing explosive devices, which he simply referred to as ‘bombs.’ The priest soon arrived in his own car, accompanied by the school principal. They had already installed the loud speakers, which belonged to the church, in the back of his truck. Those devices, the priest explained, had been a donation to the church years ago, from well meaning Catholics elsewhere who didn’t realize that San Juan had no electricity. They were convenient to have, he said with a wink, on occasions like this one.

At a few minutes after four o’clock in the morning, we set off from the municipal plaza, with the priest at the wheel of his car, and the principal on the microphone. I followed behind, riding with the mayor in his truck, with Juan in the back manning the fireworks and bombs, about which the mayor was demonstrably animated.

“When we get to strategic points, I’ll give the word, and we will throw these bombs out onto the street,” the mayor said, slapping my shoulder enthusiastically as he elaborated on his plan. “Then, once we have everyone’s attention, we make the announcement of the parade.”

We followed that plan closely, driving one by one down the streets of the village, shooting off fireworks at the intersections, followed by the announcement.

“The parade celebrating Independence Day begins at nine,” the principal declared repeatedly as we drove along. “Begin your preparations now!”

I tried to imagine what those preparations might entail, as we paused on the street outside the Perdido house, while Juan detonated a series of firecrackers with a gleeful shout. That morning escapade went on for almost an hour, as we made three complete circuits around the town. Finally, with the mayor satisfied that the whole village was not just awake but also well informed, the members of the information committee returned to our respective homes and went back to sleep.

When I woke up again, it was nearly nine. I jumped out of bed, already dressed, and raced over to Juan’s door, upon which I knocked loudly.

“Let’s go Juan, it’s time for the parade!” I yelled.

Juan emerged from his room with a start, and we rushed over to the municipal building. In the central plaza, we found the school bands from each of the aldeas around the village gathered. They were preparing for the parade with a distracting cacophony that epitomized the haphazard preparations taking place around them. The mayor stood, harried, in front of the municipal building, surrounded by his councilmen. He was dressed in a bright white button down shirt, with intricately woven cords hanging from each shoulder, which connected to his belt in a colorful array. He wore bright blue trousers and black boots, along with some variety of wide-brimmed hat that must have been used to signal the status of a leader of some forgotten rank, many decades ago. Dressed that way, the mayor resembled quite closely the general that he was fond of pointing out in that picture above his desk.

The mayor was occupied with the arrangements for the parade, and one of the councilmen greeted us. “We are ready to go as soon as the mayor’s assistant comes back,” the man said. “He has gone home to look for the keys to the office. The mayor needs the town staff to lead the parade.”

A large crowd had formed in the plaza, and was beginning to overflow along the street leading down the main road into town. The people waited patiently as the final preparations for the parade were performed. After some delay, the mayor’s assistant was spotted down the street, meandering along in no particular hurry, as the growing crowd, anxious for the parade to start, urged him along in his mission of returning with the keys. A councilman anxiously took the keys and disappeared into the municipal building. When he failed to emerge expediently with the awaited staff, Juan was sent to look for him, and I followed along.

We found the councilman towards the back of the municipal hall in the seldom-used area of the long room, standing in front of a large wooden display case. The floor was covered in a think layer of dust, as were the councilman’s hands, from trying to force open the glass doors of the neglected case, through which I could see a variety of objects presumably useful in the ceremonial rule of the town, though I couldn’t make out the staff in question.

“Can we be of help?” Juan asked delicately, after observing the councilman’s struggles for what seemed like an inordinate amount of time, given our presumed rush, as he continued his attempt to pry open the doors of the case.

“The key to this case is nowhere to be found, and the mayor’s staff is inside,” the councilman said, as he hurriedly sorted once more through the large collection of keys on the ring in front of him. Juan let out a beleaguered hiss to express his shared dismay at the predicament, as a number of the other town leaders now made their way down the hall towards us.

The group discussed the problem at length, but was pressed to come up with a viable substitute for the missing key. Finally, the high school principal appeared with a crowbar, and the door was pried open with a snap. But the staff was nowhere to be found, so the mayor was called for. When the situation was explained to him, he smiled apologetically.

“We were waiting for the staff?” Chago asked guiltily. “You should have told me, I took the staff home yesterday to be cleaned and polished. I forgot all about it in the rush this morning. I will send for it.”

It was closer to midday than the parade’s planned starting time when one of Chago’s sons appeared with the wayward staff, and the parade was finally ready to begin. Don Santiago began the festivities with an impromptu speech. The crowd, which had been growing ever larger with each moment of delay, listened intently as the mayor spoke. Just as suddenly as he had begun his speech, the mayor gave a shout, waved the prized staff, and the bands began to play all at once as he marched off, down the road that leads out of town.

One of the councilmen quickly motioned for Juan and I to fall in next to the mayor, as he led the parade down the main street, waving at the people that lined the road, two or three deep on either side at some points. I felt at first a bit strange to march past the same people we conversed with on a daily basis, who now watched, and waved back at us with enthusiasm to reflect our temporary celebrity status. The spectators shouted and cheered as our small lead group passed, followed by the numerous school bands.

We marched down the long block of the main street, to the edge of town, where the crowd quickly began to diminish. But Chago didn’t stop there. Holding his staff aloft ahead of him, the mayor marched on, down the hill towards crossroads, past the thinning crowd, and out of town.

Confused, I looked over at Juan, who shrugged, and signaled for me to continue to follow the mayor. The mayor must have eventually realized, as we reached the bridge out of town, that this tack was leading the parade into the countryside, because when he slowed down and looked about, a concerned expression came over his face. With one of the bands rapidly bearing down immediately behind the lead group, the mayor, as quickly as he had stopped, made a broad u-turn and began to march, with renewed zeal, back towards the town. The entire parade stretched out behind, and lost its shape momentarily to avoid falling off the bridge, as band after band followed the mayor’s ill-conceived route, first down to the bridge, then around and back up the hill towards the plaza, past the same crowd the parade had passed on the way down. Nevertheless the mayor and his councilmen saluted them once again, and the people cheered with no less passion or any surprise at seeing the mayor’s group of honor this second time.

“Look at all the people,” the mayor shouted towards Juan and me, without taking his eyes off the crowd. “Our early morning planning must have worked!” I was too busy waving at people to appreciate the mayor’s dubious logic. Chago, who seemed to have put less thought into the parade route than other details of the day, spontaneously made a right turn at the plaza, and we marched towards the parallel street and the Perdido home. When we passed the house, Patricia hurried out, carrying Aidita, her young daughter. Juan and I waved proudly at them as they pointed and shouted.

We continued up the street to the soccer field, where the parade, having already been strung out along several blocks as the marchers advanced at varying speeds, ended in complete disarray as the bands streamed one by one into the open space. Much of the crowd had also made its way up the main street to the field, where the end of the parade had apparently been anticipated, and a makeshift stage had been set up.

With the last of the paraders still arriving, the mayor began a long and patriotic speech which lasted into the afternoon. In turn, each of the members of the ‘guard of honor,’ as the mayor called the small group that had marched along with him at the head of the parade, was asked to speak. I was not left out, and the mayor eventually called me forward. I stood up from the chair that had been provided to me, alongside the others behind the pedestal at which the mayor stood, and prepared to address the town.