Stuff is quite a peculiar concept, if you really think about it. Stuff can be owned, had, bought, sold, gifted, stored away, kept, tossed. Lots of times we use stuff to define us, show others who we are, how much money we make, and what we enjoy. For this reason, some stuff is put on public display, and other stuff is hidden. There's so much stuff, everywhere, and as far back as I can remember, I've wondered where it all goes. As a kid I remember panicking at the thought that soon there would be no more room for all of our stuff, and we'd all be left to swim around in it, like in Strega Nona when her magic pasta pot fills the village with never-ending pasta. Except that we can't eat our stuff. Where will it all go one day, when we're not here to use, keep, hide or have it? I've always had a bit of an uneasy relationship with stuff, and por eso, I'm one of those people that purges her closets, drawers, and desk once or twice yearly, to avoid insanity. (I very much subscribe to the "Cluttered room, cluttered mind" mentality.)
A few weeks back I listened to an APM podcast about a Duke University grad student who, in efforts to save money and remain debt-free, lived (and might very well still be living) out of a van he bought and parked on campus. He had everything he needed and more...a bed, a place to cook his food, and a roof over his head. As I listended to his story, I found myself growing jealous. I want to live this simply. It would be so freeing to have everything I own, need, and use fit inside of a van.
Living here, I've seen how little some people can get by on. One of my woman friends, Estela, owns two twins beds for her husband, her 3 children, and herself. The first time she came over to my house, she was immediately taken aback by my double bed. "You sleep here, alone, Miss Hannah? You don't share this bed with anybody? Why do you have such a big bed?" This not only reminded me how lonely it can be to have a big bed to myself night after night, but commented on the pretentiousness of my owning such an unnecessarily large bed. Because the fact is, I don't really need such a big bed. Nor do I need three cooking pots, especially when my Guatemalan neighbor owns two, which she uses to cook for her family of eight. After all, it's just me here...how much stuff do I really need?
On the reverse, however, Guatemalans can be huge pack-rats, when they can afford to be. I've been here long enough now to notice the kinds of things people spend money on in my village. And a lot of it, frankly, is total crap. My friend Olga sells Avon, and I am constantly amazed at the amount she sells to villagers month to month. And again, a lot of it goes back to status. Coca Cola, Avon, Corn Flakes...these are big ticket items here that people are constantly dropping money on--money they don't have. My same Avon-selling neighbor owns four Tigo cell phones, which she received promotional "gifts" for selling so many recargas (phone minutes). I can't help but think that along with a lot of our refuse, America is also sending the worst of it's consumerist buying habits down here to Guatemala, which very well might be one of the bigger factors in keeping the poor poor here, and slowing down development in general.
Jareau, my sitemate, packed up and left last week, leaving me his apartment. So I am going to take advantage of my moving as an opportunity to adios some of my excess stuff. I've bagged up clothes to donate to the pacas*, given some of my kitchen stuff to women I'm close with here in town, and gathered together a bunch of books I'll never read to donate back to the Peace Corps library. See how little I can comfortably live with. That's the challenge. And, of course, in the process, avoid some of that good ole' Gringo Guilt.
A paca*Pacas (literally "bales" or "bundles") are the stuff-fearer's worst nightmare. Pacas are bulk clothing stores (very similar to a Salvation Army back home) where they sell, at very affordable prices, clothing, shoes, and other items that come down here from the U.S. A lot of the clothing is actually brand new (either overstocked or somehow faulty) and some are lightly used. It's a favorite pastime of volunteers here to Paca shop and get great deals on otherwise expensive American brands. Pacas, as well as the revamped Guatemalan chicken buses, are probably the two most apparent manners in which Guatemalans take and use America's discarded stuff. One man's trash...