Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark | Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Armored Hearts

On how Gioconda Belli lived her first year in the United States:

I began to understand that one of the more salient aspects of American middle-class culture was privacy, the nuclear family as a tiny, protected haven from the outside world. In big, anonymous cities, many people don't have the reference point of a common history, of a long road of family friendships passed down from generation to generation. Lots of them were as foreign as I was in that city. After the long working day, people in our kind of neighborhood didn't have the time to chat with each other or forge bonds of friendship. This social dispersion, this lack of community and collective living, was another, second exile for me. I realized that in the United States, too often you enter into society as if entering a hostile, highly competitive territory. You leave your home dressed in armor, with your heart shielded, well protected.

This exile - the lack of intimacy with others, the lack of belonging, the absence of a common purpose - was the most difficult one for me.

-Excerpted from the author's autobiography, The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War

I love this passage. I love how, being here, I can see what Belli means. I know that feeling, of leaving the house shielded in armor, of perceiving so acutely that sharp distinction between being inside the home and outside of it. No, I don't know what it's like to be an exile, but I do know how it feels to see that certain lines, in other countries, are much softer. I appreciate what little I can see of the interconnection she speaks of. I miss my family, my friends, and my girlfriend, but I am afraid nevertheless for the day I come home. I do not miss the closed doors, the competition, the coldness you grow to expect in the face of a stranger.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

To Hell With Good Intentions

Searching for Ivan Illich, and ended up here? Welcome. Read a recent update of the below post, here. Thanks for visiting!

To Hell With Good Intentions is a speech delivered by Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich in 1968 to the Conference on InterAmerican Student Projects. The speech was delivered in Cuernavaca, Mexico, where Illich had founded the Centro Intercultural de Documentacion in 1961. I was not familiar with this speech and this man's work until very recently, and so I've put a bunch of links within this post in case you, too, are not familiar. He's a fascinating man.

His audience consisted of American volunteers, so keep that in mind as you're reading the following few quotes. It's scathing. This passage (which I retreived from the website of the Swaraj Foundation) describes the address in this way:

"In his usual biting and sometimes sarcastic style, Illich goes to the heart of the deep dangers of paternalism inherent in any voluntary service activity, but especially in any international service 'mission.' Parts of the speech are outdated and must be viewed in the historical context of 1968 when it was delivered, but the entire speech is retained for the full impact of his point and at Ivan Illich's request."

Illich's address contains, early on, the following:

"Today, the existence of organizations like yours is offensive to Mexico. I wanted to make this statement in order to explain why I feel sick about it all and in order to make you aware that good intentions have not much to do with what we are discussing here. To hell with good intentions. This is a theological statement. You will not help anybody by your good intentions. There is an Irish saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions; this sums up the same theological insight."

In his address, Illich pleads with his audience to stop their volunteer projects in Mexico. He writes, "you cannot help being ultimately vacationing salesman for the middle-class 'American Way of Life,' since that is really the only life you know."

I read that and I knew that he was right. When you are traveling or working abroad, especially in the developing world, I think that it is very hard to silence the commentary, the comparisons, that will always be running through your mind. You're an outsider. You do not understand this life. I don't understand many of the activities here, here in Nicaragua and also in Guatemala. Nor can I really understand the way people see me. I don't want to sell my country's values, that is not why I am here, but I think that I'll still do it, just by thinking, just by reacting. We can't help but compare. If I keep my criticisms inside, does that make it different? My body will still be reacting.
Towards the end, Illich presents his audience with the following:
"If you have any sense of responsibility at all, stay with your riots here at home. Work for the coming elections: You will know what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how to communicate with those to whom you speak. And you will know when you fail. If you insist on working with the poor, if this is your vocation, then at least work among the poor who can tell you to go to hell. It is incredibly unfair for you to impose yourselves on a village where you are so linguistically deaf and dumb that you don't even understand what you are doing, or what people think of you. And it is profoundly damaging to yourselves when you define something that you want to do as "good," a "sacrifice" and "help."

If you read Illich's speech, you'll see what the introduction is talking about. Illich is biting and sarcastic, and some of what he says is outdated. And, I like to think that there's a little more hope for the international volunteer, that human interaction is important, that mutual growth in some way is possible. Otherwise, ultimately, does my contribution matter? What am I contributing to, anyway? Am I actually making something worse?

I've been working at a little school, an escuelita, here in Granada. I've been there two weeks. I go in and sit at these little tables with young kids, ages five to seven, some a little older. We work through the lesson, we read books, we color, they learn a tiny bit of English, I learn a tiny bit more Spanish. I like them, and they like me. The really hard thing is the teacher. I can hear this speech when I'm with her. I know she's seen people like me come and go, and I wonder how I would feel if some girl without Spanish came into my workplace like that, offering to help. Please, just imagine it for a second, turned around.

The very last lines of the address read as follows:

I am here to entreat you to use your money, your status and your education to travel in Latin America. Come to look, come to climb our mountains, to enjoy our flowers. Come to study. But do not come to help.

His words sting, but in a way they help, too. It's true what I've always suspected; I am not solving any problems, and I do not have to feel like I need to blend in, because I never will. Maybe the best thing to do is to realize that I don't have much to offer, and maybe I have nothing, but this is my life. I am traveling now because I can, and I think there should always be travelers in this world. There always have been and there always will be, and it's never been perfect. But people will always be interacting, all over this planet, and I think the good outweighs the bad in that respect.

And so I am here, where I hire a tutor, go to the market, go out to eat and to the post office. And sometimes I take kids from the escuelita to the library; most of them haven't been yet, although it's just two blocks from school. They go nuts over the books, reading in Spanish, reading in English. We read dozens of books in two hours. Books are not important here; most people don't buy them, and most people don't read. The kids I work with mostly can't read yet. I take them to the library because I think it's sad that they've never been, that they don't get to read books, that maybe their parents have a fourth-grade education, and I take them because it is fun, and they are cute, and it makes me feel good to show kids books, because that is their right. And so here are my values, spread out on the table. Here is my money, my slowly improving Spanish, and the home I carry with me, the home I won't always be able to hide.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

I am loved

Yesterday was my birthday. It was wonderful. These flowers came to me in my little Nicaraguan hostel, all the way from the great US of A. That is all.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Welcome to Granada

One thing I've discovered about Granada is that her tourists are of a slightly different breed. On the streets of Antigua, you could find your Germans, your Swiss, your Canadians, your French, your abundant Americans. You had your retired folk, your hippies, your musicians, your earnest language students, your hopeful volunteers. You could find kids fresh out of college, girls with bleach-blonde hair in little dresses and strappy sandals, guys in board shorts and polo shirts. Antigua has wedged itself onto the beaten path, and all of those shuttles, those buses to and from Panajachel, Quetzaltenango, Chichicastenango, Copan—they make it so easy for us tourists.

But there aren't so many of us here, here beneath the hot Nicaraguan sun. For one thing, you won't see so many nations represented. It's not that Granada doesn't have its draws; it's beautiful here, arguably even more beautiful than Antigua, because this city was built right on the shores of the huge Lake Nicaragua. The man at the front desk of my hotel told me that the lake is dotted with 370 islands, and of those, 3o or so have disappeared for the season, because of all the rain. All of those tiny islands, and so much rocky water. Granada, too, is sprinkled with huge, freshly restored cathedrals; the one that marks the city center is painted a brilliant yellow, and is lined with colonial architecture and mango trees and hums with the bustle of vendors selling fried plantains, Nicaraguan pottery, woven bags. There's nothing here that a tourist wouldn't love.

But, like I said, you won't find the Antigua crowd down here. You won't find, so much, that retired traveler, breaking out of his shell, pushing the limits of his comfort zone along with his lovely, retired wife. Those two stick to Antigua, Lake Atitlan, the ruins of Tikal. They rent Guatemalan vehicles and have purchased beige canvas vests for their adventure, the adventure they've saved their whole working lives to take. Their vests, which they wear both in the mountains and on the colonial, cobblestone streets, have many zippered pockets, designed for the secure storage of their many coins, cameras, maps, trinkets, souvenirs, swiss army knives, and other gadgets. Their quick-drying pants protect them from a foreign country's abundant and unexpected rainfall, and they have purchased very sturdy shoes for marching off the beaten track. They bring floppy, wide-brimmed canvas hats to prevent sunburns, hats they would never wear at home, because although they don't hesitate to get sunburned in their native land, it's a far greater inconvenience abroad.

Nor will you find, here in Nicaragua, the traditional traveling hippy, the hippy with the baggy pants that mark his many months abroad. You won't so often see those baggy pants built with plenty of pockets and room for musical instruments, worn Lonely Planet guidebooks, food purchased in the market, scraps of paper bearing song lyrics and poems scrawled on buses. No, you won't see those so much here, or the stocking caps that hippies love, because pants and hats are made for cold, and god, it is hot here. And so the hippy, with his dreadlocks that have become museums for beads, bones and stones, is also different here.

If I had to pick a word, I guess I'd say that there's something edgy about the Nicaraguan tourist. There's something a little more raw. You won't see many canvas hats, weatherproof pants, woven rainbow purses. What you'll find, instead, are tattoos, funky haircuts, stiletto shoes. You'll see arms dyed every color, stained with twisting naked women, Virgins de Guadalupe, flowers, crosses, night-skies, Nepali script. These tattooed folks drain bottles of beer and count their remaining cordobas, shelling out four or five dollars a night for a dorm-room bunkbed. They live off tortillas, tomatoes, and cups of watery coffee, and if you ask, they'll tell you that they're looking for something a little rougher than what Guatemala provides.

Or maybe that's just what I see. After all, what makes me so special here? What makes me so edgy? I don't have an arm of tattoos, or any interesting clothes; I just have a backpack full of too many books and a bunch of dirty socks. Maybe I'm just seeing what I want, hoping that maybe Nicaragua really is a little rougher, a little wilder, than anywhere I've been so far. But I guess that likely isn't true. Yes, I guess I'm just projecting. These countries do hold a wildness, a lawlessness, that we don't have in the States, but they're also just countries, countries defined by their inhabitants and not by the tourists they attract. Maybe the people here, the people who wake each morning to sell their fruit, to work in their tiendas, to go to their appointments, their universities, their families, roll their eyes when they see these tattooed tourists flitting through town, in and out, in and out. Maybe, to them, we're all the same. It's not our clothes that define us; it's our mission. And so part of me, deep down, hopes that they snicker to each other while we drink our beers and take our pictures and make our quick assumptions. I hope they get a chuckle out of us, how naive we travelers can be, as we bargain for the cheapest ride to the nearest beach, the nearest jungle, the next, best, exhilarating place.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Saying Good-Bye to Guatemala

Good-bye to the place that taught me my first words of Spanish. Good-bye to the music on those buses, the cramped seats, the teetery routes, because two days in El Salvador have taught me that no bus is quite like a Guatemalan one. Good-bye to those microbuses and to the little children that quietly get sick in bags as the roads wind and dip. Good-bye to those mountain ranges, those blue peaks that stretch all the way to Mexico, and good-bye to the black Monterrico beach, the one that's littered with trash but beautiful nevertheless. Good-bye to the volcanic rocks scattered everywhere, the climate that grows colder and colder the higher you get, and good-bye to the eucalyptus trees, the alpine palm trees, the sapodillas, the ceibas, the cedars, the acacias. Good-bye to the flowers. Good-bye to those 62 stoves we built in Uspantan, those Mayan ladies in their traje, Hilary's apartment with its deep blue pila and good-bye to her sweet cat, Suerte. Good-bye to the lake, the deep Lake Atitlan with her ring of volcanoes around her. Good-bye to her waves, and the room that we had, that high-up room with the view of the fireworks on New Years, the fireworks that went off like brilliant dots, now in San Pedro, now in San Marcos. Good-bye to the orchids that hung in the bathroom; good-bye to that wide, white bed; good-bye to the sickness, the recovery, the market in Chichicastenango, that journey with you. Good-bye to the love that Guatemala gave, the love that I found, in so many corners, so many forests, so many different rooms. Good-bye to the hugs, the patience with my Spanish, the kisses on the cheek, the gifts of food, the gifts of juice, Norma's house in Xela, the dark, quiet streets at night, the dogs that come out when it gets dark. Good-bye, good-bye, and thank you for everything. I love you, Guate.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Up North

Dear all:
Below are a few pictures from Uspantan, where I have spent the last week and a half. During my first few days there, I drove with Hilary and Chris, an ex-Peace Corps member, to La Gloria, a tiny Mayan town five hours by dirt road from Uspantan. It looks like Hilary will be building a school up there, with Chris' help - Chris works for a non profit called HugItForward whose mission is to help design and build these 'bottle schools' - cement schools with plastic bottles inside, which saves on resources. Best to check his website for a more detailed description. La Gloria was fascinating, beautiful, and very, very poor. The pictures of the homes and churches below were taken in and around La Gloria.

I also spent a week working with Corazones y Manos, another (Canadian based) non profit that builds stoves for people in need. We built stoves every day, these cement stoves that are better for the women and families, as well as the environment, because they save on wood and prevent smoke from staying in the home. Now there are 62 more stoves up there, and we met so many interesting people. And, guys, guess what! I translated a little bit, did a mediocre job, but my Spanish now is way, way better than it was when I first got here. Yay for immersion.

Hope everyone is enjoying the month of love! Missing you all. xoxo