Tuesday, October 26, 2010

I Saw the Sign— and it Opened up my Eyes

          As the title track on the first cassette I ever owned in my life, the 1993 Ace of Base smash hit- The Sign- still holds significance in my life, or at least makes an excellent title for this post.  I am sure I could likewise find a way to title future posts with various other tracks from the album-- “All that she Wants (Is Another Baby),” “Happy Nation,” “Living in Danger,” only to name a few obvious examples.  My primary project within my work is that of eco-tourism; I am working alongside a Q’eqchi community in order to improve a tea-tour, offered on both foot and bicycle. 

“A concept that describes a form of development that respects
tradition and culture,protects and preserves the environment, and 
educates and welcomes visitors sustainably over the long term.” 

Although widely misunderstood or unimplemented in most areas of this country about the size of Tennessee, tourism is clearly a virtually untapped financial resource for many of Guatemala’s unique, diverse, naturally beautiful, and culturally rich departments and communities.  Rafting, volcanoes, lakes, waterfalls, rain-forests, Mayan ruins, bird-watching opportunities, and communities containing some of the deepest and hardly altered Mayan lifestyles are widely prevalent.  Despite this fact, there remains a significant need for improvements in customer service, computer literacy and training, language ability, business and accounting practices, promotional materials and resources, presentation, and feedback-…the list goes on.
          Having worked within customer service for a number of years, conducted market analysis and promotional improvement projects in New York, and worked with European tourists the summer before I departed, I felt confident- and still do in a different way- I had the tools to improve this tour and make a positive impact on business level—beyond the cultural interchange, secondary projects, and inevitable spreading of laughter.  Beyond this resume knowledge, one major aspect I overlooked for some time was my ‘outsider’s point of view’.
For example, in a recent meeting with the head directors of the Cooperative there was difficulty among those in attendance to grasp the concept of cultural tourism.  Sure, bird watching, adventure tourism, agro-tourism, Nature views and waterfalls, but why would someone want to see how traditional food is prepared or typical clothing of the Mayan communities?  Would someone actually pay to learn about history, play a marimba, and eat caldo?  Having an outside perspective it is easy to understand the answer to these doubts is yes; the first large group of U.S. tourists we received actually indicated this interest in their feedback.

While in the Estados Unidos  (U.S.) we are constantly surrounded by signage.  Is this the men’s or women’s bathroom? How long is this trail or path? Is there a handicapped child in the area? Where is the next rest-stop off the highway? How far is Jimmy Johns?  What is the speed limit? Simple information displayed to inform, protect, promote, assist, and make things happen around us with some sort of fluidity.  Informing of locations, directions, and information is especially important within tourism.  Those visiting are clients and have no previous knowledge of the destination and its surroundings.  Simple right? 
We as a Cooperative are currently in the process working to get funding for official Cooperative signs on the major roads.  Knowing local resources, NGO’s, governmental organizations, etc. to reach out to and work with is undeniably an important step to becoming professional, efficient, and connected for the future.  Professional external promotion and signage is necessary in moving forward, but my ‘outsider’s view’ noticed a shortage of internal signage  on a very basic level.  Things as simple as locations throughout the tour, bathroom differentiation, office labeling, general information, directions, and distance were not present.  Simple signs can make a world of difference, allowing the client to get to what they need, when they need it.  Using the router, which we were briefly trained to use during our training in February, I have begun a sign project with those on the Co-operative.  Teaching how to draw out, space, carve, and paint signs made out of wood, I hope to teach a skill which will be used well on into the future.  Ironically I am fairly decent at sign-making myself; one of my most significant contributions in promotion has been one I did not even realize I possessed.

-Don Chico and I- One of the hardest workers I have ever met.For the publication release event we also made three signs on the Chicoj Cooperative. 

Although I could tap into studies on color preference based on life experience or age, eye-tracking studies on websites, or size and shape significance, one of the things I overlooked as an outsider was finding the balance in what I know and the functioning culture of where I am assisting.  Luckily this was a simple project and my error was simply in using cursive writing.  I have found that many Guatemalans have had to re-read a few of the signs which were made in cursive, a style of writing not as commonly used.  I am currently reading The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz (Thanks Aunt Maureen) and found this following excerpt relevant to what I am getting at.  The lesson seems to be taking basic instinct, knowledge, and experience and implementing it in a way that intermingles relevantly. 

UNICEF hired an expensive Italian designer to create a poster campaign aimed at convincing women to vaccinate their children…They were perfect, except for the fact that the extremely low literacy rate in Rwanda made it likely that words written even in Kinyarwanda would have little impact.  Much better would have been pictures that told stories…Just seeing this process, though, helped me to think differently about how to design future messages and programs, how to move away from our view on how things should be done and observe how people live and communicate with one another.

Nevertheless, in dealing with tourists, both foreign and Guatemalan, there is a unique challenge of finding a balance in how things are communicated, presented, and targeted.  Our Viviente Verapaz team, representing the alliance of eleven tourism sites , recently put together a promotional item fitting within that universal communication middle ground- print material.  After months of meetings and preparations we recently held the Viviente Verapaz guidebook release feria at the Chicoj Coffee Cooperative, in which we hosted and fed over one-hundred attendees.  The 23 page book, a review of the sites in Alta and Baja Verapaz region, is aimed to be distributed to tourism agencies, restaurants, hostels, and other places visitors frequent throughout the country.  
Preparing tea for the lunch
Kamille and the Chicoj tour guides
Throughout the process we stressed counterpart participation in fulfilling all steps regarding the publication and event.  A major goal is for each Cooperative president or tourist site director to begin meeting regularly, eventually taking on this alliance as their own. Host-country national membership would allow for legalization as a certified organization, opening up doors to increased funding down the road.  The immense opportunity the alliance holds is claro como agua- clear as water.  This event and publication have opened up my eyes so to speak, but I am the one who saw the sign.  I am hopeful we will see the sign and potential during my service and for years to come.

Until next time—The Ace of Base,


Chirrepec tour-guides talking with media
Cover of the alliance guide-book


  1. Good stuff - very reflective considering you're still in the middle of your project. It's also fascinating how things like cursive writing can dramatically alter the impact of such an intervention - it is sometimes trial and error, hard to know that type of thing until you try it. Did the first large group of US tourists indict or indicate their interest? ;-) Keep up the inspirational work cousin. All the best - MRM

  2. you are an impressive writer...is that something else you discovered about yourself?