Sunday, November 22, 2009

What I Do

While I was at home, a lot of you asked me the question “What exactly do you do?” The short answer is “I live on a banana island and work for two banana cooperatives.” If you want the long answer, read on.

I spend my days running between two cooperatives, literally running. One is located 2.5 km from my house; the other is 6-7 km. Sometimes I bike there, sometimes I walk, and sometimes I walk there and run back. Whichever way – between the burning hot sun, which has me arriving at my destination soaked in sweat, and the alternating hard as hell and swampy dirt roads, which have me either pushing my bike through waist deep sand or mud or screaming as every bump hits me in such a place as to hinder future generations of Viranis –, it’s not a pleasant journey.

Of course, there’s always the occasional adventure to get to work. A few weeks ago, I was returning from Asunción in the van of ACDI-VOCA, a development organization that works with cooperatives. They had arranged for an American volunteer to act as a consultant for two weeks to my two cooperatives. As I am the resident American in town and am well-versed in Spanish, Guaraní, and Paraguayan culture, I was to act as translator for the duration of his stay.

Back to our journey: as is usually the case whenever I want to come home after a few days in Asunción, it rained. “What’s the big deal?” you may ask. There are no paved roads where I live, only dirt ones, meaning that a heavy downpour will wash them out. As we drove down the road, our bulky van began to slip and slide in every which direction. Supposedly the van was 4x4, but not AWD. Brave adventurers that we were (or just foolhardy), we kept on going. At one point, the driver was driving along the side of the road when the car started to spin. Each attempt to move us forward only moved the back wheels over the edge of the road. Finally, the three of us sitting in the back of the car started screaming for the driver to stop and jumped out of the car. One more attempt and the car would have fallen over into a ditch! The driver hadn’t realized how dangerous a position we were in.

We were stuck. The driver couldn’t drive another inch without risking the car flipping over. Because of the car’s position, not to mention the mud into which it slowly seemed to be sinking, we couldn’t push it. The driver told us not to worry and went to find help. He came back with two oxen that he hooked to the front bumper. The oxen calmly pulled the car through the deep mud like it weighed nothing. We hopped back into the car and continued on our journey. Hardly a minute later and the three of us had leapt out of the back again. The driver had to call back the oxen to pull us out of danger again. Needless to say, we didn’t make it to my site that night.

The next morning the road was still awful, but at least we made it in one piece to my site. The challenge then was to visit both cooperatives. After enduring a grueling journey to the farther one, we returned to the first cooperative – which is located past my house and back towards the river – for lunch, only to realize that we had forgotten to drop off the volunteer’s bags at the hostel near my house. The staff that had dropped us off in my site was in a rush to get back to Asunción (plus she was absolutely terrified of the swampy roads), and took off without as much as a glance in our direction. She arranged for a ride, however, a tractor. And so it was that with Michael perched above one wheel, hugging a six-pack of bottled water and hanging on for dear life, and me, grasping a two-liter bottle of water and balancing on the bars on the back (where they usually attach a platform), we arrived in the center of town. It was easily the roughest 2 km ride of my life!

Our adventure didn’t end there. We needed to get to the cooperative if the volunteer was to make his two weeks in town worthwhile. Yet, with the roads in the horrible condition they were in, we could hardly walk. Our solution: ride a tractor to the cooperative. As a now experienced tractor-rider, let me tell you something: it’s not as fun as it sounds! First of all, you have to keep your legs slightly bent in order to bounce with the tractor (and not have it break your legs). Then you have to grip whatever is in front of you with all your arm strength and pray to God that the tractor doesn’t stop suddenly, flinging you in whichever direction like a sack of potatoes. We arrived at the cooperative every day, doubled over with pain, clutching our backs and knees.

The physical rigors aside, after two weeks of working with the ACDI-VOCA volunteer, my brain was ready to explode. There were days on end of cramming numbers into my brain. Not only did I have to crunch them, but I had to translate them. The worst part was the phone call to another cooperative’s accountant. We were having trouble reconciling the books and decided to solicit her help. To say that was a stressful conversation would be putting it lightly. While the cooperative’s Secretary talked on the phone and wrote down numbers (1. talking on the phone can be a challenge and though I know how to do it, I don’t like to and 2. numbers can be especially challenging to translate quickly), I asked her questions and she translated the accountant’s responses. Needless to say, using the Secretary as a go-between caused several time delays which annoyed the hell out of the accountant. After she angrily hung up the phone, the Secretary sheepishly looked at me and said “I think she’s mad at you.” I had to agree.

The numbers portion aside, we also had several meetings with both cooperatives’ Board of Directors to a) figure out what they were doing b) explain to them what they were supposed to do. While I’m quite familiar with the banana production process, having spent the past year learning steps A-Z from the planting to the selling of the crop, and while I’ve spent a significant amount of time explaining the proper role of management to the directors, it never hurts to have another person, especially an “Expert in Cooperatives,” to reinforce what you’ve been preaching all along; all the better when you’re transformed into the authority figure by your ability to converse in the languages of both groups of people. I, for example, used the opportunity to insert much-needed suggestions into my translations of the consultant’s commentary and thereby, force the hand of the directors. I jokingly told them that they had ten minutes to decide on the members of a long overdue Education Committee, otherwise the consultant would come back from the U.S. and kill me. 15 minutes later, that issue was resolved, a matter that had taken the other cooperative and I nine months to settle (they were oblivious to my poking and prodding for most of that time).

You would think that I would be relieved when the consultant left after two weeks. In a way I was as it meant an end to the horrific tractor rides and nightmarish calls to Asunción accountants. At the same time, it signaled a start of the actual work, work that I was in charge of. I don’t mind, knowing that my work is steering both cooperatives in the right direction. Besides, too much work is better than no work at all (which often happens when as a result of the Paraguayans’ tranquilo attitude I’m left waiting around for months for them to come to a decision), although writing that 18-page business plan in Spanish was not fun. Sure, it’s a job that it has its challenges, and sometimes may just seem downright mundane, but who else do you know who rides a tractor to their accounting job?

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