Football in Guatemala, Now Back in California

I am back home in California. I had a safe and comfortable trip from San Pedro to Guatemala City, then on to San Francisco by three American Airlines flights stopping in Dallas and Los Angeles.

In Guatemala City, I got to go with Ben, his girlfriend and her brother to the World Cup qualifying game between Guatemala and USA. Ben and Maria had a Guatemala jersey for me to borrow, so that I wouldn’t stand out too much as a gringo and get us all killed. They also asked me several times pointedly who I was going to be rooting for. (I assured them Guatemala!) The reason for their concern is that they had bought preferred tickets for the Guatemala section. The stadium is laid out into several sections. The cheap seats are on each end. They go for Q50. Our section was on the sidelines on the far side from the sky boxes and the TV cameras. We paid Q150 ($20) for our seats. There was a tiny section devoted to the visiting team’s fans (in this case, about 35 ex-pat Americans, flags waving proudly). All of the sections had huge barbed-wire fences bordering them. The visiting team section also had a line of guards protecting it on each side. Also, there was a huge fence with several layers of barbed wire and concertina wire between the stands and the game. You actually watch the game through chain link fence. There were security guards with riot shields on the edge of the field. There were emergency exits out of the chain link cages we were in but they were chained closed. There was a fireman stationed at every exit who’s job was to stand holding the release device on the chain for the entire night.

OK, with all the scary part out of the way, we can get to the game. It was really fast! Everything moves so much faster in real life than it does on the TV. The ball is tearing around the field, and the tackles are happening at full-out sprint speed. It is 100 times more exciting to watch football in person than on TV.

Despite a security stance that would have been way more expected in a prison than a sports arena, the crowd was incredibly peaceful. They got really excited and pumped up, and they had the foulest mouths and poorest sportsmanship you could possibly imagine, but their behavior as far as violence was concerned seemed to be above reproach. The poor sportsmanship was only really a one level above the obnoxious behavior that’s taken over basketball in the last 20 years. For instance, the crowd made an immense amount of whistling noise whenever the Americans were setting up and making a kick (corner kick, penalty, etc). They also sometimes chanted “fags”, like when the Americans showed up on the field.

As buff as the American football players were, it seemed to me to be a complement to all fags everywhere, but I guess that wasn’t what they meant. They used to say I threw like a girl in school, but when I watched my sister Lindsey pitch for her softball team I felt a lot better about my throws!

The game itself was great. The teams were agressive, but respected the rules and didn’t get hot under the collar. The only yellow card was to a Guatemalan, but even that offence wasn’t too bad. The officiating seemed pretty fair, though the last time I studied the rules of football, I was still in grade school, so who am I to judge? At least the Guatemalans didn’t get too mad at the officials. The teams were well matched, too. The Guatemalans didn’t allow the Americans to intimidate them, even though to a man the Guatemalans were shorter than the Americans, sometimes by as much as 8 inches or a foot!

There were a number of incredible shots. And as I mentioned before, because everything seems so much faster in real life, it was especially exciting to watch the goal keepers make the saves.

The game ended in a tie, 0-0. That was disappointing because Guatemala didn’t win (and they really need the points to make it ot Germany). It was also disappointing because I really wanted to experience the feel of the crowd after a goal. I don’t actually know anything about the matter, but if I was in charge of FIFA, I would make a rule that all games had to end in an absolute win. But actually, that kind of sucks too, because when you watch a hard fought game go through two overtimes and it is still tied, and it ends up being decided by a penalty shootout, that’s a real drag. (Why? Because the emotion is just not there in a penalty goal. Suspense, maybe, but not the genuine mix of surprise and excitement of seeing a goal attempt shoot out of the disorganized mess of attackers and defenders!) It is not so bad watching a 0-0 game for 90 minutes straight, because interesting stuff happens; shots get taken, tackles reverse the balance of the game, penalty shots get taken. But as it comes down to the end, you just dread that there will be no resolution to it. And then the final whistle blows, and it’s over, and it all feels like a big waste of time.

I had a great time, and would recommend to anyone to make sure to catch a World Cup qualifier if you can. It’s pretty intimidating mingling with such a big crowd in a big cage, especially when you know that people have died in that very cage at other games. So find a way to have a bunch of locals take you to your first game, like I did! I wasn’t scared for a second, but I would have been had I been there alone.

My flight home was uneventful, but long. American Airlines flew two out of the three flights at less than 60% capacity. The next time American begs for some more handouts of your tax dollars, call your congressperson and complain. Tell them Jeff says American wasted money and doesn’t deserve to be bailed out yet again. On the other hand, though they waste money here and there and whine about it later, at lest they ran all three flights on time, almost to the minute.

Every single checked bag at Guatemala City airport gets an extremely thorough hand search. It took forever, but they were very efficient about it. My pack was carefully packed in layer after layer of Guatemalan cloth, so it took the guy forever to dig down through it and then repack it. He did an OK job or repacking it, but it ended up a bit of a mess. I suspect that the TSA has made requirements they have to meet to fly to the US, and as with everything in Guatemala, instead of paying for the expensive machines we use in the states, they just hired and trained a bunch of bag-searching guys.

This morning I called up my home chapter of Red Cross and decided with them that it made most sense for me to do my paperwork via the Palo Alto Chapter of the Red Cross. So then I headed in to Palo Alto and turned in my paperwork. I hadn’t finished it all the way so I sat in the lobby working on it a bit and also got the lay of the land there. I figured out who was the key person and got her to understand my situation then got her to give me an interview on the spot. That took almost a week delay off the processing time, as they have a backlog of 400 applications that I jumped in front of. One reason I got an interview today is that I am already trained to the level they want me. I “passed” the interview (I guess… seemed to me it went OK) and Karl tells me they have already called him for a reference check (of course, he’s biased, because he probably just wants me out of his house!) Nonetheless, the next step in the process is next Thursday night, when there is an orientation. Alas, I missed the one they the night I arrived. So between now and Thursday I just have to hang out and find something to occupy myself. As usual, that’s not too hard.

I worked the rest of the afternoon in the Red Cross office at the front desk. I learn fast (and make up what I don’t know even faster, a key skill in the Red Cross organization) so I was able to pretty much get a handle on the job in a hurry. The funniest call I got was from a sweet old lady who wanted to donate several jars of coins. I knew damn well that if I let her bring them in on my shift I was just going to get stuck counting them, so I told her about the CoinStar machines in Safeway and asked her to take the coins there first. I also took several people’s applications to be deployed. And talked to lots more who wanted to know the status of theirs. A difficult question to answer, so we at the front desk prevailed on the volunteer coordinator to get a list made of the applications she is processing, so that we could at least give them a definitive confirmation that their application is in the queue. They will make up the list over the weekend, and when I go back to work Monday morning in the office, hopefully at least that answer will be easier.

Alas, the most common call was “I have stuff to give you, where do I take it.” And the answer has to be the same one I gave the other day here: we can’t take stuff, it has to be money. One of the other ladies had someone insistent on the line and eventually came up with the idea that she should hold a garage sale and donate the money. Seemed like a good enough plan, at least good enough to satisfy the caller and get them off the phone.

We had a mom bring in two kids who had gathered over $100 doing various things, including a lemonade. I got the executive director to come give them a special thanks, and took a picture of them with my camera phone. I passed it on to the executive director, who will hopefully print it out and post it in the office. The mom commented that she had thought about taking the kids’ money, writing a check and sending it in. But she decided to have them bring the cash in themselves so they could see with their own eyes what happened to it. A very cool mom.

I am simultaneously investigating talking with some teams who are deploying wireless internet to Red Cross shelters in northeast Louisiana. I’m considering working for them, but the best way for me to do that is probably to drive out there, and the fuel cost will be over $600 for the round trip (I used $4 a gallon as the average price of fuel. It is $3.10 here in the Bay Area, and I’ve heard that closer to LA it hits $5). I’m still contemplating how to fit that into my increasingly stretched budget, and how the trade off between doing Disaster Services work for the Red Cross versus doing wifi work breaks down. I sense another sleepless night coming on…

At the Palo Alto Chapter, we have had several clients come through. They have made their way here from New Orleans, God alone knows how. I suspect (or at least hope) that they have stopped at Red Cross chapters along the way to get help with the trip. They have relocated themselves to the Bay Area because they have family here. I didn’t get a chance to talk to any of them because things were so crazy at the desk when they were in. We have two extraordinarily dedicated and expierienced Client Services workers on hand, who did a great job of listening to their story and making a plan for how to help them, now that they are our guests here in the Bay Area.

This weekend, Karl and I plan to do some yard work and maybe take a hike. I might work for Red Cross in the office if they get slammed, but right now my next shift is Monday morning.

What is the price of security?

Sounds like a really deep question, right?

But in this case, it was esay. With help from my parents and grandparents, I traded in my complicated itinerary home for a simple e-ticket on American Airlines from Guatemala City to San Francisco.

The old itinerary involved a too-expensive flight from Guatemala to Cancun, or a really long bus ride, followed by traveling standby out of Cancun. The new itinerary has all the random earth-bound connections taken out, and replaces them with a boring old two-stop flight directly to SFO via Dallas and Los Angeles. And it didn’t exactly break the bank, because I told a teensy weenie lie to American Airlines and told them I was sure I could fly back to Guatemala City on Oct 8. We’ll see if I am really in a position to keep that promise to them.

However, with the continuing aviation fues shortages, I suspect the flight home won’t go exactly according to plan. But the good news is that once I touch down in Dallas, anything else that goes wrong is American Airline’s problem to solve, not mine.

If all goes according to plan air-travel-wise, I will be in SFO at 5:37 pm next Thursday.

Katrina Gives me a Change of Plans

Over this year, some people have asked me, “Why do you seek to work for an international organization when there are so many problems that need to be solved inside the US?” It is a good question, and until Hurricane Katrina, my answer was, “I choose to work overseas because the US has enough good people, who can’t leave their families and work overseas, and who time and again give their time inside the US.”

Clearly, it doesn’t make sense for me to stick to the game plan and apply to Doctors Without Borders right now; the need for relief work inside the country is too great right now to justify applying to work outside it.

Next Wednesday, I will say goodbye to San Pedro la Laguna and travel to Guatemala City. I will meet the director of Planeta en Línea there. After seeing him and taking in the Guatemala vs. USA World Cup qualifying game (my last entertainment for a while) I will head toward Cancun to catch a flight home to the US. I should arrive in Oakland before 9/15. When I arrive there I will contact my chapter of the American Red Cross, where I was trained in January, and sign up to be sent to the relief operation. I will likely arrive in a wave of volunteers timed to relieve the first wave, who is scheduled to work three weeks. I will work at least three weeks with Red Cross, and probably longer.

What Can I Do?

If you are reading this right now and are asking yourself how you can help, I have to respond like all the experts on TV do. Find an organization that you trust to spend your money wisely and give them money. Cold hard cash. Give a bit now, give a bit later when you can afford it again and when the headlines have moved back to Michael Jackson.

I know it feels better to give time and posessions than it does to give money. Giving of your time is useful, but nothing is more useful than money. The reason is that money moves at the speed of light to the disaster. There are no logisitical nightmares in trying to move money. All money works equally well (as opposed to some foods, which might be inappropriate in the community they reach), it doesn’t need to be cleaned first (like clothes do), and it isn’t the wrong kind (like building materials can be).

Unless you happened to have put in the time beforehand to get the training you need to know how to be helpful, money is the only way you can help. If you hate that answer as much as I did the first time I heard it, then use it as motivation to go down to your Red Cross chapter (or another organization you trust more than the Red Cross, I don’t care) and get the training you need before the next hurricane.

If you are hell-bent on giving your time (in addition to money), there will be a huge backlog of paperwork to do to keep up with the donations that are arriving right now. It’s no fun, and not much of an adventure, but organizations will need ofice workers in droves soon too.

A Tough Decision

This has been a tough decision. About the same time Hurricane Katrina hit, I discovered a volunteering opportunity in New York with MSF that would have been a perfect chance to turn in my application and score some brownie points. Even that opportunity was going to require me to leave Guatemala early, interrupting both my Spanish studies and the term I committed to here.

I started talking with the director about it, and he gave me “permission” to leave early. But as the scale of the effects of Katrina on the US grew, I was unsure of the right thing to do. I literally had a half a sleepless night pondering it, and anyone who knows how well I normally sleep should understand how much trouble I was having thinking it over.

But the deciding factor was the question I mentioned above. The question boils down to a moral one. I believe I have a responsibility to my local and national community before the wider international community. Normally that responsibility is offset by the relatively small scale of the problems in the United States, and by the energy of my fellow citizens to attack them. But right now, for (hopefully) this one time, that balance is thrown out of whack. The problems the people in the south are facing are so severe that my international plans had to go on hold.