Sunday, March 20, 2011

Quirky little annoyances

This is not about the "big picture" things that bug me (racism, poverty, corruption, violence, governmental impunity) but about smaller "idiosyncrasies" (the English word doesn't quite mean the same as the Spanish idiosincrásias, but it's close enough), aspects of daily, vernacular life that are annoying, troublesome, or both. I will try, where I can, to not just launch into a litany of complaints but suggest some ways that these are tied into "big picture" concerns. We'll see how that goes.

1.     Garbage.  In much of Guatemala there seems to be no systematic garbage collection. Consequently, people just dump garbage by the side of the road. There do seem to be socially recognized "garbage dumps" even if they are not official. Just this morning driving into Santa Cruz del Quiché, I saw a man on a bicycle stop by side of the road where people had already created an informal garbage dump, and empty a large black plastic bagOf course, there are signs all over the highways that say "No tira basura, multa Q50." (Don't throw garbage, Q50 fine; sometimes the fine is higher: 500 or 1000). I have yet to hear of anyone being fined for littering.

 How does this fit into a "bigger picture"? This speaks to both lack of social infrastructure in many communities to take care of basic needs like sanitation (Chinique, least, has no garbage collection), and also a sense that what one does individually doesn't matter much, and that there are no consequences to one's actions.  The government provides no sanitation, people have to get rid of their garbage somewhere, so they "invent", make do.

2.    Littering:  This is related but separate. Many people, including some acquaintances, friends, and good compañeros and compañeras, think nothing of tossing a tamal wrapper or the wrapper from a package of Tortrix (a favorite national snack: I'll get to junk food later) out of a car window. People litter in the street all the time.  One day I was driving back from Panajachel and there was a pick up full of people in front of me, all of whom were eating tamales and other snacks, and one by one they tossed the wrapping and the paper packaging over the side of the truck onto the highway. I recently found half a corn cob (from which all the corn had been eaten) in the back seat of my car, obviously left by one of the many people whom I offer rides. Carelessness? Perhaps.

My thoughts about why people litter have to do with the same sort of social dysfunctionality I hinted at above. Society is in crisis; there is a lack of confidence in social institutions; people don't feel responsible. So you can have people who profess concern about the environment, about water, about mining, and nonetheless litter. I don't mean to suggest that littering is a symptom of social ill in the same magnitude as the reckless extraction of minerals.

3.   Overabundance of cheap plastic: Markets and many stores use thin, fragile plastic bags to package most things. Most vendors tie the bags in tight little knots which makes it hard to open the bag without ripping it (making it hard to reuse). I try to open packages without ripping the plastic and save the bags to reuse; I'm sure there are others who do this, too, but sadly, the vast majority of these bags end up as garbage (i.e. in an untended dump by the side of the road) or litter (just dropped on the dirt or pavement somewhere).

4.  Not much organized recycling or composting:  as in many other parts of Latin America (and elsewhere, I imagine) people do creatively reuse a lot of things (cardboard boxes, some bottles). However, a lot of things just go to waste and get thrown out.  And I only know of a few places (like the university where I teach) where there is some kind of organized recycling of plastic, paper and glass. People do sometimes break up stale tortillas and mix with water to feed to animals, bones and skin and other food leftovers are often fed to dogs. However, I have not seen many people separating their organic waste and compost (2 or 3 people I know compost).

5.  Sugar, sugar everywhere:  Outside of major cities it is impossible to find juice. By "juice" I mean liquid extracted from fruit that does not contain added sugar. That's what I define as "juice". In small towns, like mine,  if you go into a store and ask for "juice" you will be directed to beverages that are about 20% juice and the rest water and sugar.  To get juice with no added sugar I have to go to the departmental capital.  I bought a quart of what was billed as homemade, natural, unflavored yogurt in Antigua and wondered why it wasn't very tart; in small print, on the side of the container, "honey" was one of the ingredients (I did eventually find unsweetened yogurt).

People start their children on sweetened beverages at an early age. Many people (as in Cuba) sweeten milk, so that children grow up rejecting just plain milk without sugar. People give soda and highly-sweetened heavily processed fruit beverages to very, very young children (i.e. babies who are still drinking from bottles).  I think this is true in other parts of Latin America. So children start at a very early age craving sweets. This sugar fixation is unfortunate in a country with extremely high rates of diabetes; on the radio, it was recently announced that 16 people die every day in Guatemala from complications of diabetes.  And a lot of people do not make it to their 30s without losing a few teeth. 

In addition to sweet beverages, that are served with every meal, Guatemalans (at least the ones I know) eat lots of candies, pastries and cakes. Every morning, a vendor comes around to the Ixmukané offices offering a few different varieties of pay (a phonetic spelling of "pie" -- a lot of bakeries use the English spelling, which I found confusing because the Spanish word pie, pronounced "pee-ay", means "foot", and the first time I saw a bakery sign announcing "pie de queso", I tried to think of what "foot of cheese" could possibly mean, until I realized that they meant "cheesecake"),  and many if not most of the compañeras indulge. Some do go out to the market and bring back fresh fruit, but most also eat sweets. At many of the meetings I've attended, someone has handed around a bag of hard candies to fortify participants if the gap between the refacción and the meal is too long.

Throughout the countryside and cities, one sees hand-lettered signs advertising 'Choco-banas" (chocolate-dipped bananas), and helados (ice creams). One also sees (and hears) itinerant ice-cream vendors; usually middle aged men who tote around a thermal box (or wheel around a small cart) , incessantly ringing a small bell (even during marches or outdoor events where people are seated and listening to speeches. I don't think anyone earns a very secure living by doing this, but they seem to do a pretty brisk business.

How and why sugar took hold as capitalism developed has been well treated by Sidney Mintz and others.  So this is not a critique of Guatemalans as being morally weak; the reasons that sugar has become so entrenched in the national diet have to do with colonialism, capitalism, the development of the plantation system, commercial agriculture, and so forth -- it is very much a "created" taste.  

6.  Sugar, sugar everywhere, part 2:  An example of the way that sugar consumption has become very normalized is that "agua" (which, according to the Spanish we learned in high school or elsewhere, means "water" -- ie. H20, a clear beverage that comes from the earth) does not mean water in Guatemala. At least not in the highlands. When I have been invited to eat at people's homes, at some point in the meal, usually the host or hostess will ask, "Quieres agua?" (which I would understand as meaning "Do you want WATER?" again, H20). However, if you answer "yes" you will find yourself being offered cola or another kind of soda. If you want to drink WATER, you have to ask for "agua pura" (pure water). But really (in the world according to Lisa) you shouldn't have to specify "agua pura". "Agua" should be the default setting; and artificially colored, flavored and highly sweetened beverages that contain water among many other ingredients should be called "soda" or "refresco" or something else.

The sugar industry advertises heavily (at least on radio; I don't watch much Guatemalan TV). The radio ad I hear the most frequently makes it sound as though sugar is the cornerstone of a healthy society. The text goes something like:  

Announcer: What is contained a spoonful of sugar?
Different voices (each word or phrase is narrated by a different person or group):  Health! Education! The environment! Employment! (all sounding very excited, hence my exclamation marks)
Announcer: Azucar de Guatemala. Development for everyone.
So consumption of sugar is conflated with one's patriotic duty (as well as one's concern for the environment, health, education, and so forth). These ads are just about as nauseating as the ads by Montana Mining Company, which operates the Marlin Mine.

7.  Junk food:  The simple fact of junk food consumption is  not unique to Guatemala. However, the reasons people eat a lot of junk food in Guatemala (read: highly processed, packaged foods with a lot of additives, high in either sugar or salt or fat or some combination thereof) are the same reasons that "progress" and "development" in developing countries are usually tied to a decline in diet and health. It's also tied to the emergence of a whole new retail sector of small stores, often in the front room of people's homes, even in the most remote rural aldeas and caserios -- a development that is in turn tied to migration and remittances. Part of the package of goods that capitalist  "modernity" sold to developing countries (back in the 1940s, 50s, 60s) was that chemical was better than non-chemical, packaged was of more reliable quality than fresh, formula was better than breast milk, and so forth. Even when that ideology was no longer directly promoted, people still buy into the notion that consumption of packaged, store-bought goods is part of launching oneself into modernity -- an important objective for people who have been denied full citizenship and often effectively written out of the nation's present.  

Those who have migrated to the U.S. have been able to experience modernity full-force (and nearly everyone in rural Quiché is convinced that it is much more alegre -- happy -- in the U.S. than where they are). Those who haven't can get a little taste at the local store. And the local stores, as I noted above, are everywhere. Many are owned by indigenous families -- a shift from earlier periods when all businesses were owned by Ladinos -- since many Maya have migrated and either returned to invest their savings or sent money to their families (the two stores I know in Tapesquillo I are owned by returned migrants).  Due to their remote location, limited electrical grid and refrigeration, and the fact that most people nearby are subsistence farmers, small stores in rural areas carry little in the way of fresh produce. Some staples that store relatively well (onions, lemons and limes, garlic, tomatoes, potatoes). But I would estimate that 90% of their stock is packaged foods, cleaning supplies, toiletries and single packets of medicines (individual capsules of a variety of remedies).  So, lots of packets or cubitos (cubes) of bouillon and other seasoning mixes. tubes or jars of mayonnaise and hot sauce, soda, instant packets of beverage mix, and dozens of varieties of candies, other sweets, "chips" and other packaged savory snacks. You can buy coffee, oil, salt, sugar (of course), usually eggs, powdered milk, packages of rice or oatmeal -- that is, some things that would qualify as "real food". 

An informal index of the consumption of junk food would be an examination of garbage. Although I have not done any kind of thorough archaeological analysis, in my walks around town and the nearby countryside, a lot of the garbage that I see seems to be junk food and wrappers, and sweetened-beverage containers. 

8.  The way people drink coffee:  I think I've already written about this but it goes on the list here too. A teaspoonful of coffee grounds to half a liter of water would be strong coffee by rural and highland standards.  This might come from entrenched poverty and the need to extend a modest amount of coffee as much as possible; however, it has also become a preferred taste (when I offered to treat friends to coffee in Panajachel, not a single one would try cappuccino, even with flavored syrup). 

9.   Dogs:  There are a lot of dogs in rural Guatemala. Nearly all are unleashed, including the ones that belong to people, and consequently dogs wander into the road all the time. In some areas dogs actually sleep in the middle of the road. And no one seems to try and keep their dogs out of the road. So a lot of dogs are killed. Virtually every time I drive I have to crunch on the brakes at least once to avoid hitting a dog that is standing idly in the middle of the road, or that has decided to amble across from one side to another. I am not certain all other drivers will make those concessions.  I did hit a dog once: an awful experience. I was caught in a sudden, heavy downpour just after dark with thunder and lightning, and almost no visibility, on a very curvy downhill stretch of highway, and with no warning, a dog darted out from the side of the road directly in front of my truck, giving me no time to react. Because of the heavy rain, the slick, steep and winding road, I couldn't slam on the brakes or swerve sharply (I wasn't going very fast because of the weather) as I would have done in daylight and dry conditions lest I end up in a skid, and thus in a ditch on the side of a mountain. 

Also, I have rarely seen people in rural areas treat their dogs with affection except when they are very small puppies. A few people I know have tiny little "pet" dogs that are allowed to live inside their homes, and some of the wealthier families in town have dogs that look to be fairly well groomed and kept on the property, but most dogs out in the countryside are not really treated as pets. To be sure, people provide their dogs food, and I have not seen people harshly mistreat dogs, but in general they do not pay their dogs any positive attention. Instead, they spend a lot of time and energy yelling at the dogs to get away from the table or to go outside the house; the verbal anger is often accompanied by kicks, threats with sticks or hands, occasionally tossing small stones. A lot of houses in rural areas are not fully enclosed buildings, but instead are structured around an open patio or courtyard, around which there may be one or two adobe buildings (sometimes the kitchen is separate, and the other building contains bedrooms). There are not always doors, or they are often kept open during the day, and sometimes the family might eat on a table outside, so there are not clear boundaries for the dog (I think). So,  I have not seen anyone beat a dog, but neither have I seen many poor rural folks show a lot of care and concern for the animals. 

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