By: Steve Mullaney
Today I ate what translates as “divorced eggs.” They were delicious. Pretty much everything that I’ve eaten here in Guatemala has been amazing. Black beans are a universal hit with the group I’m travelling with; other favorites include plantains, papaya, and pretty much every breakfast food we’ve tried. I mention food not for the cheap point of “things sure are different here in a country that’s not the United States” but to put the kibosh on what can be thought of informally as “Y’all Gonna Die Syndrome”
Before leaving, it seems that every single student in the travel group was harassed within the confines of a formalized travel presentation by someone who went on and on about how they were going to die/get sick/get attacked—by rabid dogs no less—over the course of their trip. I’m absolutely NOT attacking the concept of safety here; knowing what awaits you is very important, as is knowing how to properly deal with situations as they arise. I am, however, opposed to artificially constructed scenarios which pass as absolute truth that create an enlightened Us and an ignorant Other. In the case of all the presentations we were made to sit through, dangers of other countries were highlighted at the expense of the dangers in the USA. Relatively mundane setbacks (traveler’s diarrhea, pickpockets, the horror!) are made to be extremely damning—almost to the point where one would want to consider taking a trip at all.
Through this presentation the presenter is normalizing an extremely problematic juxtaposition: the US is safe (read: superior), the Global South is unsafe (read: inferior). In the case of traveler’s diarrhea the implicit suggestion is being made that by going somewhere else you will be exposed to inherently inferior water/food/other and that it—the other culture more so than the water/food itself—will physically attack your body and take you out. Never mind that people get sick EVERYWHERE, or that travel and everything that goes along with it is a shock to the system; inferior Guatemalan lettuce from inferior Guatemalan farmers will make you sick. By focusing solely on one aspect of health, this decontextualizes the realities of public health and sets up a very easy jump in logic: if US lettuce is superior to Guatemalan lettuce therefore the US is superior to Guatemala. Furthermore, this comparison completely removes the historical context for why it is safe to eat American lettuce and not Guatemalan lettuce: colonialism allowed the rich white male elite to mobilize political, economic and military forces against the poor, the female, and/or people of color. This favored safe agricultural methods in the areas where the elite were concentrated over areas where the masses were concentrated (this is even true within the US itself—produce in grocery stores in wealthy areas is infinitely better than produce in poor areas; this trend has been well documented). Consequentially, the elite are able to enjoy lettuce in their salads, whereas the non-elite cannot without risking illness. Clearly, presentations on health risks need to highlight certain topics—it’s important to know the necessary vaccinations or that lettuce should be avoided, however, this is a very, very incomplete picture that needs to be acknowledged as such. Statistics and factoids taken out of context lead to erroneous assumptions and the reinforcement of xenophobic stereotyping and attitudes.
The foreign pickpocket is another troubling image conjured up in these presentations because it makes the assumption that pickpockets do not exist in the United States. While true that there are certain areas where pickpockets are more likely to strike, this fact still leads to the jump from “in Guatemala there is a small percentage of people who in certain areas are likely to try and take my money” to “all Guatemalans will try and steal my money”. Much like illness, crime happens everywhere—people are more prone to falling victim to crime in unfamiliar areas (travel = unfamiliar, folks) and when they stand out as easy targets, like the author of this post who is six feet tall and white as the underbelly of a dead toad. The racialized foreign pickpocket (pickpockets are rarely thought of as white) is always emphasized at the expense of strategies for dealing with theft: spread out your money, only bring what’s necessary and leave everything else in a safe place, accept that this might be a cost of travel and that $20 is not that big of a deal in the long run. Crime seems to be much more shocking on the small scale: when you lose twenty bucks it’s the end of the world, however, when a government conspires against its people to start a war based on false pretenses which costs billions upon billions of dollars, kills thousands and disrupts the lives of millions (hypothetical example) then that’s just hunky dory.
Finally, the traveler’s presentation omits dangers of living in the US—like watching an average of five hours of TV a day and becoming boring, or chasing money at the expense of relationships. It’s dangerous to be alive; life is something which leads to death. While there are things that will make it more likely that one dies at a young age (smoking, not wearing a seatbelt, etc) the travel presentation creates the illusion that by staying in the country it is impossible to die. Nothing could be farther from the truth; at any point you could be crushed by a falling rock, whether in the United States, Guatemala or any other place in the world. Through highlighting foreign dangers exaggerated visibility is given to another place and the US is artificially normalized as safe, and by extension, superior.
In some ways this essay is a bit nitpicky, in others it doesn’t go far enough. Travel at its best breaks barriers and humanizes, the travel presentation fights this. Through travel (whether one neighborhood or one ocean away) there is the unique opportunity to interact with and build relationships with folks who would have otherwise been strangers. In the fight for a more just world creating solidarity is one of the tools that exists to achieve these ends. By putting up artificial barriers to interacting with folks from other countries the travel presentation undermines the ability of the US traveler to engage with locals on the level of equals.
…have fun and be safe on your trip, and if you come down to Guatemala make sure to try the huevos divorciados. But you will most likely get traveler’s diarrhea. And you will like it. So there.
Written by Joel Thomas
My mother asked me a few questions about our living conditions, so I thought it would be beneficial to post for the entire readership.
Iganga: Iganga is the….4th largest cities in Uganda, I believe. It is a trucking town ~50km east of Kampala, the nation’s capital. It is not a city like you would think of one in the US, but more of a really large town. There is a main road that runs through town which is also the major highway of the country, running east west connecting Kampala to Kenya. Iganga is between Kampala and Kenya, so we imagine that Iganga is partially a trucking town for folks connecting Kampala, Uganda and Nairobi, Kenya. Iganga is a sprawling town with a bustling market and chaotic traffic patterns. Street lights? Of course there are none. There are bikes, vans, cars, trucks, larger trucks motorcyles and people sharing the road. It is chaotic. We stick in teams and we are very safe. Everyone in town is very kind and we have had not problems with safety. I feel much safer than I did in Buenos Aires. Interesting. Read more →
I made it to Uganda in one piece. The flights were very nice save for the food that was made of a substance that inhibited regularity. That aside, arriving in Entebee on the shores of Lake Victoria was like stepping into another world. The first thing I noticed was how lush and mild Uganda is for a country right on the equator. Since the Uganda national airport is under construction we were processed in a small shack by the side of the runway. While I was in line for visas I realized that I had accidently left my book on the airplane. I rushed back up to get it as was greeted by some thouroghly surpised crewmen. The grounds crew came up too to inquire as to what I was doing back on the airplane and it made for quite the tense first encounter in Africa. After realizing I was harmless they directed me to the lost and found where my book was thankfully returned. I was anxious to get by book back because I really wanted to finish reading it. Little did I know that I wouldn’t lay my eyes on another page again. Read more →
Today Alex, Chandler and I went with Hannah (the local peace corps volunteer) to her Womens Alliance and Children’s Association (WAACHA). Her groups are a very different demographic than I have dealt with up to this point. As Chaz mentions, NAADS has been a huge asset but they advise farmers that are already organized and collectively working on development and financial stability through agriculture. The WAACHA groups are very poor and all the women are widowed and many of the children orphans. Visiting with them has been an amazing experience. After greeting the women and feeling how coarse their hands were and seeing their feeble state of health it became immediately apparent how badly they have need these machines. It also made me wish I could have got this machine to them 30 years ago when they really needed. The combinations of emotions lead to a nervousness I had never expected to feel going through a translot. However, I felt immense pressure to demonstrate the machine well so that the groups would understand the benefits that it can provide. Read more →
We are spending the majority of our time marketing the sheller this week. Demonstrations are going well — hundreds of people show up to the demonstrations; however, closing the deal on sales is difficult — while the demand is great, farmers here do not have much money. We do, however, have a great ally in NAADS, the agriculture extension services here. They are a government entity that has already committed to purchase 20 shellers in the next 10 days. We have 8 at the shop, so we have some work to do! Selling these shellers will bring in over $900 in revenue to the shop, an excellent shop and something we hope will impress the shop owners. For this to work after we leave, they need to be 100% on board and see that it will be profitable to them.
After a small budget scare, it appears as though we have enough funds to support the shop during the summer until harvest. The smaller farmers will be able to afford the machine after harvest (August/September). Read more →
As Joel mentioned, the second batch of students arrived yesterday and the next 3 (Chaz, Ashley, and Alex) are set to arrive tomorrow. Yesterday was also our first day back in Iganga. Fletcher, Kelly, Eddie, Allen and I went with Tomas to Mbale to climb Mount Elgon and begin our outreach there. We stayed at Wash and Wells Country Home and it was a very nice hotel. The rooms all had bathrooms with hot water in the shower and toilet seats. It was great. We slept there that night and woke up and took our trip up the mountain. Mount Elgon is actually a collapsed volcano and our treks only brought us along the outer rim. The national park brochure says that to hike the entire mountain takes 5 days. Our guides name was Fredo. He is a friend of Tomas’ brother (DJ Krew) and was able to sneak us in along a back road to avoid the 20$ US fee, which was nice. Fredo (and the brochure) said that there are mountain gorillas and elephants and such but we did not see any. Only goats and cows. Read more →
By Steve Mullaney
This is anarchic. This is thoughts thrown on a page with a minimum of editing. I don’t care.
One of the things that we’ve talked about ad nauseum is avoiding unintentional harm on this trip. Admirable. I mean, whenever I’ve told people what I’m doing in Guatemala it’s never been followed up with “and I hope that this really messes up the culture of the town we’re in.”
Thoughts torn in many directions inspired from interactions with the wise people in my life rush into my head. The following quotes only get at the surface level of the wisdom that these people have.
A very good friend who has been abroad for a while: “Just like people of color need to prove themselves every day within a racist white aesthetic, so to do white people (in the case of this trip: people with enormous class privilege) need to prove themselves and do uncomfortable things if they want to be in true solidarity with people of color.”
A formal mentor: “The people are resourceful.”
My Mom: “Something needs to be more than just interesting for someone to want to do something.”
A classmate from social justice class: “This is not a game, this is something that affects me every day.”
Aziman, a chief of the Bunun Indigenous Group (Taiwan) explaining how he uses traditional farming practices coupled with organic/sustainable methods endorsed by the Taipei-based Taiwanese Ecological Stewardship Association.
My best friend, a brilliant theorist, researcher and organizer: “Whatever man. Whatever.”
The second batch of students arrived in Iganga today. The facility is going well, but we have a few obstacles at the moment. The first one is a good one to have I suppose: demand far exceeds our current ability to supply. The second is that everyone wants to purchase the machine and make committments, but comittments are not the same as transactions. We need to figure out a way to close the deal better. I will advocate recording committments and making direct calls as salesmen….or perhaps we can hire local salesmen who will do a better job than us. But that’s sales 101, we need to SELL the machine on top of marketing it. So far it appears as though everyone loves the machine, so selling it should theoretically not be too tall an order. Of course, I have been in Uganda for 2.5 days, so what do I know? Not much. Hopefully I won’t stick my foot too far in my mouth during the trip.
Jock will be making a trip to Sudan soon and I am waiting to hear more details about that. Perhaps our biggest challenge will be finding useful activities for every volunteer as our group size will have doubled by the time Chaz, Ashley and Alex arrive.
Greetings from Kampala,
Written by Joel Thomas
Before I dive in, here are quick introductions for our team:
Jeff Rose — Executive Director of the Full Belly Project
Roey Rosenblith — Director of Outreach for the Full Belly Project
Jock Brandis — inventor of the Universal Nut Sheller and chief engineer for FBP
Josephine Karianjahi — Starting Bloc fellow and native Kenyan who made the trek to Iganga to see the facility Read more →
Greetings from Dubai,
written by Joel Thomas
Roey and I are staying in what is perhaps the plushest airport on the planet. We have an 8 hour layover, so we took a taxi ride through Dubai’s financial district and saw the construction for what will one day be the world’s tallest building.
On a project related note, we are going to meet Tom Nottebomme (spelling Roey?) in the airport this morning before we depart. Tom is responsible for 80% of Guatemala’s macademia exports, and perhaps FBP’s macademia sheller will be of value for him.
On May 25th we are meeting with Dr. Aliker, who we hope to recruit for further expansion of the nut sheller in Uganda. Dr. Aliker sits on multiple boards in Uganda, including Lafarge’s. He is Acholi and has a deep interest in developing the north, so perhaps he can help with a location for another facility. But before I get too far ahead of myself…. Read more →