A Need for Training

It has now been a few weeks of Monday through Friday physical work. The results are evident: the huge visitor’s center has been painted, garden beds made, many trees planted and an oven has been built, twice.

One thing our group lacks is training. A month ago, the team built a gorgeous, brick, outdoor oven outside the visitor’s center. Once the company is running it will be used to cook food for the tourists. A typical (not overly violent) rainstorm came and knocked down all the hours of work. This story repeated itself a few weeks later.

I do not understand why we did not seek advice (ideally) from inside the community or hire an outside expert to teach how to – not build – a properly constructed oven.

There have been other similar cases where it is apparent that more training is needed. A member of our team started using a brand new professional weed cutter and broke it within twenty minutes because he did not follow the manual of how to put it together properly. When painting, a lack of skill and perhaps patience caused a few to get white paint on the newly stained wood roof. We have had to prematurely throw out new brushes because they were not cleaned after daily use. The list goes on.

These are all mistakes anyone could make. Especially the majority of 18-year-old macho boys, which is what of our team mainly consists of. But there is a definite need for training. But who is to a) tell the team that we need it; b) give firmer instruction; c) hire a trainer?

This issue has to be treated delicately. If too much instruction or tips are given then the boys will get frustrated or even insulted and may not pay attention or come to work as often. It is even trickier because the boys are not being paid. The idea is their payment for this work will come in the future, as the company is to be in their hands forever. Continuing with that point, we should make it clear that it would be in their interest to learn these skills for future maintenance since that will be their reasonability. But without a current wage for the work they are doing of course it would be hard for many to put in the extra effort now. We need to demonstrate that learning these skills properly will also enhance their employability if they choose to not work for the company in the future. Most importantly, how much we admire their drive, hard work and all they have completed needs to be recognized and articulated to them first.

I think we are focusing too much on the physical completion of the visitors center and have since abandoned the very important meetings on the organizational part of the company. The issue of training needs to be addressed at these meetings. And throughout this blog post I have noticed that I have used the term ‘we’ in finding solutions to the capacity problem. By ‘we’ I mean the blanco coordinator of the donation and the two indigenous coordinators and I suppose a touch of my opinion and advice. But what is really important is that the indigenous coordinators, Raul and Poli, are the ones to take the lead on the discussion.

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A Good Change of Plans

I have had some very special moments working in this community. Like today, when I rushed and rushed because I thought I was to arrive late to a meeting to find out no one came. I decided to blog, because I was in the middle of the jungle and the mosquitos were not that bad at this time in the morning and it was a perfect, serene place to reflect and write.

Until a dog started furiously barking at me.

Dogs can be protective of their territory to those unknown, but this dog was fierce and did not want me around. Luckily, a nice man came over and got rid of the dog. And we had a nice chat. He told me about growing up in a Guarani community in Brazil and gave me advice to give to the team on how to rebuild the outdoor oven that had crumbled in a storm. We talked for maybe twenty minutes and then he continued to work on the tiger wooden handcraft and I continued to write. We sat in silence, listening to the sound of the birds – and thanks to him – no longer the sound of the dog, and enjoyed each others company. Moments like these make me very thankful for my placement even if meetings are cancelled and I am not in the know.

A new volunteer job

As my readers have come to realize, I am not the greatest at blogging. So I’d like to take a quick moment to post about a volunteer job I participated in a few months ago.

Since I only worked 15-25 hours a week at the community with Project MATE I joined a small group of volunteers. We volunteer for an NGO called Banco de Bosques (the Forest Bank). I mentioned the NGO in past blogs because they are coordinating a project with the community I work in. This new project is a campaign to create a new National Park in the northern province of Chaco. In Chaco, there is a forest four times the size of the Iguazu National park: 130 000 hectares. It is the second largest forest in the Americas after the Amazon! Many endangered animals reside there such as the yugaurate (translated to jaguar but is actually a slightly different species), the giant armadillo, the crowned eagle, and the pig quimilero, as well has over 150 different species of birds!

The group of passionate young people create awareness about the threatened forest at the Iguazu Waterfalls. (Yes, I work twice a week at a Wonder of the World!) We spend the day discussing with tourists the importance of conserving the park and what our NGO and its supporters are doing. We give a short speech, which due to our international group we offer in French, Portuguese, Spanish, and English. My biggest (and truthful) selling point is that every hour companies cut down the size of 20 football fields (I have yet to clarify whether it is a field for soccer or American football). Once the tourists hear that line, we collect their emails and then they are sent more information about the forest and how they can donate to help.

The job is tiring: we are in the sun, smiling, sweating, and switching languages all day – but I love it. While people are signing, often the same reoccurring conversation passes of the usual where are you from, where are you travelling after, but sometimes this small talk expands into interesting stories and I have to remember to move on to another group. The volunteers are great as well and help with the long hours. All are friendly, have a great sense of humour, and are very passionate about the cause. As a political science student I am not well versed on environmental issues especially not ones pertaining to Argentina, and so, every day I am learning a lot.

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Also, from time to time we escape the heat into areas of the park restricted to the public that the workers at the Falls tell us about. Yesterday, I spent my lunch at this incredible place:

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The Team

During this internship, I assumed I would learn great skills of resiliency, cultural sensitivity, and workshop facilitation. Never did I think learning to paint and garden would be new skills for my CV.

The Inter-American Foundation donated a large sum of money to the community to assist with the establishment of their tourism company. After six months of funding, they gave the community a new goal. By Easter week (its an entire week here!) the company must have their grand inauguration. That means the visitor’s center must be complete, everyone’s roles must be officially decided, and – although not perfect – complete tours must be able to run. The coordinator of the project planned a calendar of tasks to be completed each week. This means on top of regular meetings and my workshops at the escuelita we now work Monday through Friday every morning until siesta. We have planted several garden beds and now are painting the visitors center.

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I’ve never done physical labor before. Yes, I vacuumed and dusted my parents’ home for an allowance as a youngster, but I had a cushy lifeguard job every summer and worked for my university during the school year. I have gained so much appreciation for those who do physical labor for a living.

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As I am not particularly skilled in using a machete to cut old trees, or particularly tall to reach the heights of the visitors center, I am kind of the handygirl. Wheel barrel runs, taping electrical outlets, and planting flowers are my synonymous with ‘diana.’ But I still feel like my little bit of help is helping to create this beautiful place and I feel a part of the team. More importantly, there is a team!

Earlier in my internship it was often a struggle to gather everyone to have a company meeting, but now every morning at 830am our group is there. I think it is that the group is now seeing results; its not just a nice idea, far into the future. They know the realistic steps of reaching the goal and understand the outcome more.

And our 10:30 sandwich and Mate break, definitely help in creating this team too.

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The First Bump in the Road

I would like to take the time to – for  perhaps the first time in this blog – speak of a personal struggle. I have been very lucky during this internship and compared to other interns have had very few very setbacks and challenges. This is probably because I was the 17th intern at my placement, so my professional life was set before I arrived. I had an official boss, tasks, and a schedule. For this I am truly thankful to Niagara College and Project MATE, because many interns were not nearly as fortunate. I also was lucky that I spoke Spanish at an advanced level, which meant communicating professionally came with only some difficulty and doing necessary things like finding an apartment and buying groceries was very easy. I also was fortunate to have a fellow intern, Tulliana, live only three hours away who was an amazing, bright, and fun companion for most weekends. I also had the prior experience of adapting to a new culture as I had spent 6 weeks in three separate counties during the summers of my undergrad. And therefore I did not experience any culture shock when I arrived and the skills I had developed abroad prepared me to sail through any difficulties experienced here. I utmost admire the interns who signed up for a 6-month contract without this experience to fall back on.

This week, I am experiencing my first real challenge after four months. I have a severe allergic reaction. It has been three days of sleepless nights, multiple doctor visits, and an inability to concentrate at work. Aesthetically, it is also pretty terrible.

But as the medication is finally taking some effect, and I can think clearly, what I am most frustrated about is not the actual illness, but disappointment in myself. During a time of utmost discomfort, I subconsciously said to myself “that’s it, I’m going home.”

I decided not to leave. But the fact that I wanted to, makes me question my character. Am I not as resilient as I thought? I could not overcome my first challenge! Was it just great luck that made the last four months a breeze? Was it not my past experiences, my personal growth, my determination?

Once my contract is finished at the end of February I hope to find work in my field in Peru or Equador for a few months. Hopefully I will find further hiccups that will challenge and test myself and ones that I can push through without contemplating to return home.

A New Classroom for the Escuelita

In December a member from Niagara College made a donation to fund a new classroom in the escuelita. The new computers take up a lot of space in the existing classroom and cause a lot of distraction as well so this was a great and very generous idea.

Niagara College brought the money to Claudio and he was to organize its construction. I was there the day the contractor came by to decide the measurements, the materials, and where windows and doors would go. Claudio, me, and the contractor. Three blancos and not one member of the community. I asked if we had spoken to the families nearby, not necessarily to ask permission, but at the least to let them know, as we were blocking their pathway to their homes. I never received an answer.

I understand that making consensual decisions are difficult. Claudio must have advised the main members of the community and they did not come – as often is the case. So what is MATE to do? Hold off on decisions and post pone construction until members of the community all attend a meeting and agree on decisions? If an organizations tries to involve the beneficiaries but they do not want to participate in decision making does that count as involving them? If in international development the beneficiaries are to be involved in the decision-making, do the decisions not get made if they’re not?

The decisions were made by us blancos and the contractor was hired. The next week construction started.

I only assumed that the contractor would hire young people in the community. They are able bodied men, many without jobs or are able to take some time away from making their handcrafts. That is not to say that I assumed men in the community are looking for jobs, or would want to work on a short contract in construction or are looking to fill their days. Many families comfortably live off their government funding and selling their handcraft goods. One needs to also remember that they do not have the mentality of always looking to increase their wages or for the opportunity to learn a new skill. As well, spending time with family is of high importance in the Guarani culture. Working in the fields to manage crops or take care of the maintenance of the paths also takes up much of their day. And then of course, they may not want to work under a contractor from outside of the community, or work to fulfill the decisions made by someone else.

But, they were not even asked. I inquired about this and the reason is because the contractors from outside of the community are highly skilled and are on tight timelines and therefore will maximize efficiency by completing the task in the least amount of hours, costing MATE the least amount of money. If those in the community were hired, they would have to be taught skills and their manner of working would delay completion, which when being paid an hourly wage, would go over budget.

But is sustainability not a key ingredient in international development? Is it not better for members of the community – only if they want to – learn construction skills so they can assist or even manage the next project? Perhaps it isn’t cost effective now, but isn’t it always better to invest in education?

It is always easier to discuss these issues than put them into practice. I also need to understand that I have only been in the community for several months, not ten years as has Claudio and so I do not yet fully understand the intricacies of working in Yryapu. And my idealist thinking probably is not realistic and there is much more I need to understand and experience. These are just my thoughts as I walk home from a confusing day at work.

 

2nd Annual Conference on Community Tourism in Chile

Last month, I attended a wonderful conference on Community Tourism in Chile. We were invited based on a contact made when Channel 13 news came to the community (refer to a previous blog).  It was a struggle to find sufficient funding for both a leader in the community and Claudio, the coordinator of MATE to attend, but after many emails, and persistent funding requests, we were fortunate to purchase the 2 and half hour flight and ten hour bus ride to San Pedro de Atacama, located in northern Chile. The community selected Raul, a 25 year old, charismatic and intelligent coordinator of the future tourism company to represent them at the conference.

Before making our way to Chile, our motely crüe stopped in Salta for a few days where making contacts and promotion of our organization began. Below is a photo of Raul and Claudio speaking with a radio station in Salta, a city in northwestern Argentina.

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Next was Chile. Travloution organized the conference. They are an NGO that works to protect and enhance, on a global level, community tourism development. They are a network who bring together travellers with local communities to foster the sustainable development of both the communities and travelers. In the desert we found a diverse set of entrepreneurs from all areas of community tourism: from the more established who run tourism travel companies, sell artisan goods, own cabins and hotels and even people like us in the primary stages of their company.  There were entrepreneurs from Perú and Colombia as well, from cities, farms, and also indigenous communities.

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The first presentation set up the weekend with an exploration of what community tourism is. Community tourism it is an activity that, if well managed, can become a tool of sustainability and a safeguard of cultural heritage. It energizes local economies, and promotes the participation and control of the community and their heritage. He continued to discuss that a community’s motivations to participate in community tourism, is to promote their identity, strive for respect and visibility, and self manage their businesses. The most important aspect is that it is controlled and maintained by the community.  At one point, Claudio leaned in to me and said “no estamos tan mal en nuestro camino, no?” “We aren’t doing that bad in our path, eh?” And he is right. Project MATE, although still in the preliminary stages, is without question making the necessary strides towards the requirements this presenter listed, the most important one being that a responsible and community tourism company is controlled by the community.

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Raul presented next. The audience was very receptive and impressed with how far the community had progressed since MATE formed 7 years ago. While the end goal of a fully self managed tourism company has still yet to formally come together, a lot has been done. Raul discussed the escuelita, and the workshops that are held there: communication, computers, English, Mbya Guarani culture, and administration.  He talked about the grant and the process of the building of the Visitor’s Centre. And most importantly, he explained how although it has been a journey with the ‘blancos,’ the community has maintained control of all decisions and will eventually be on their own without outside help.

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This conference was unlike the other conference on tourism organized by ITEP. Unlike the typical formal presentation after presentation, after every two presentations the conference would break for forty minutes. There would be time for coffee and snacks, but more importantly the participants would attend informal workshops.  At a table of 9, we were given questions to prompt discussion on the themes presented. Members from the same community or organization were split up to different tables, which offered for varied responses and the sharing of different experiences. It was brilliant idea. We were able to further explore the topics and share our stories and opinions that cannot sufficiently be expressed in the short Q+A period after a presentation. The workshops were also recorded in order for Travelotion to get feedback on the presentations, prepare for next years conference, and gain ideas to develop ‘the network’ that I will discuss shortly. I think these workshops added to not only the relaxed and close knit atmosphere of the entire weekend, but also allowed for interactive and enhanced learning for all participants. The following main three themes were discussed: the profile of a tourist, certification, and the formation of a network.

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Our group discussed that the profile of a tourist who participates in community tourism is someone who wants to explore their spirituality. In some cases the tourist is looking for an inner learning experience, or, even beyond that, a transformation. This type of tourists seeks tranquility and craves an opportunity to disconnect from their lives. They desire a new experience and often want to interactively participate and further involve themselves in the community beyond a typical rigid tour.  The last comment led me to think of an idea of having an artisan course back in the Yyryapu community.  Instead of only displaying for purchase the beautiful craftsmanship goods, the community could offer a short workshop to a large group. Thus, they would not only get to take home a keepsake, but can return with a memory of learning from someone in the community and experience the rewards of hand making something.

We also discussed certification. Certification entails a government regulated standard for all companies related to tourism. It does not yet exist in Chile and due language barriers and its vague subject, I think it would be similar to TICO. Our group mainly agreed that big companies should have to pay for certification, since many of our groups are barely turning a profit. There are many benefits to certification, however. It sets a quality standard to assure satisfaction to the client. It would offer transparency, prevent risks for the visitors, and offer necessary information. It can also help improve and regulate management. Of course beyond money monetary issues, certification could standardize touristic services, which can hinder the riqueza, (richeness, authenticity; there is not really an adequate translation) of community tourism.

The main idea of Traveloution is to create a network for community tourism in Chile. We discussed its benefits, functions, and of course its potential problems. Much of the entire weekend’s goal was to survey the ideas of those in community tourism of what such a network would look like. We decided that the benefits of it are: strengthen the identity of locals, increase the number of tourists that participate in community tourism, organize tours and exchanges, support the organization of community tourism, distribute the demand, offer relatable experiences, and share solutions to problems. The idea is for the network to be running in a few years. Although, before the formal establishment of the network, all the contacts that were made over the weekend will begin to be put to use now. Someone even said near the end of the weekend when discussing how well the conference and planning for the network went, that the real magic happens after the conference. Although our organization is not Chile, and we will not be formally apart of the network, I’m looking forward to how the magia, magic is spread to us. Already the weekend has provided us with numerous success stories that gave us motivation, and many ideas that we will share with those in Yyryapu.

After the conference there was an excellent market where the communities displayed and sold their craftsman goods. As well we had the opportunity to explore the surroundings area of San Pedro de Atacama. We visited Valle de la Luna, Valley of the Moon, a moon-like landscape with ruins of old Chilean salt mines. We also biked 32km to a gorgeous lagoon with a volcano nearby in the middle of the desert, and visited a natural hot spring.

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Those we met were more than just contacts over the weekend. The number of attendees made for a weekend of lots of socializing. A large group of us would share meals together and then meet again over music and drinks.  Something I often highlight to others who don’t understand the travelling bug is how friendships are accelerated when travelling. Raul and I attended the same meetings for two months. We exchanged many words, mainly formal ones, and once we shared a few laughs when we worked together on his power point for the presentation. The conference gave us an opportunity to see each other on two hours of sleep, when USB keys wouldn’t work, and when altitude dizziness came into play. And that’s what’s great about travelling: aspects of people that you would only see after perhaps years of friendship and even living together, you get to see in a quick two weeks. As well, waiting for planes and luggage, and meetings to start, and files to upload, offers a lot of room for conversation.  And around a campfire on the last night Raul and I agreed that due to the conference, we became beyond companeros (peers/work colleges) and now can call each other amigos.

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