Friday, January 24, 2014

That Moment When It All Changes...

In the first few weeks in January, I spent 10 days in Honduras with Chencho Alas, the Exec. Dir. of the Mesoamerican Foundation for Peace and his youth coordinator, Yeny Nolasco. I was there to observe how the Foundation worked and trainings intended to help individuals imagine and plan a new future for their communities.

As I was traveling through Honduras, there were various moments when I felt something shift. And then there was the day when I came home and just wrote... what I saw, what I felt, what I heard and what I didn't understand... knowing one day it would be critically important to remember that moment when my perspective irrevocably shifted. It was the day we visited Río Blanco - an indigenous community seeking to protect its land against a Chinese mining company. I have copied this entry below... (see my last entry for related photos).

If you would like to learn more about the Chinese mining project in Río Blanco, here are some good articles to start:

Testimony from a human rights delegation in July, 2013

Article about the World Bank's Involvement and Murders w/in the Community

Father Neri, my host brothers and me in Santa Barbara
Friday January 10th

Our 3rd day in Honduras. Our third day surrounded by fuerza, by strength, by passion, by more suffering turned into positive lessons of Fortaleza, unidad, and endurance rather than an endless string of reasons to blame God for a bad deck, which no one in the world could fault them for. My third day of being inspired by Yeny’s (the Foundation’s youth director… also my peer and roommate for the trip) ability to express love towards everyone around her, especially herself. To wear makeup and be sexy, feminine, and allow those things to contribute to, not negate, her power.

Yeny, German and I eating lunch in Río Blanco
            Today is that day where you realize days, months, years later exactly what you saw. We were invited by an indigenous community to visit their lands high in the Honduran mountains near the country’s newest hydroelectric dam where a Chinese mining company is currently undergoing construction to take over. Police greeted us at odd checkpoints, and when we arrived, I heard stories of people threatened or killed, of orphaned children being taken care of by their grandmothers in skirts and brightly colored shirts donated from the United States (one man sported a large KENTUCKY shirt underneath his sullied white cowboy hat).

            And then there’s Anazibet. She is 13. As we walked the long path from the community to the river below (the crystalline river, cold and fresh, that will be filled with sediment and contaminants if the mine’s construction continues, with vigilantes andpolicemen watching us from high above on the opposite bank), she stood 3ft shorter than I, and spoke of school, of her dreams for the community. She walked me through the situation with the policemen, the lucha (fight) in her community, not a lucha for the adults mind you. A lucha for everyone. She told me how the police come, armed, trying to pass, and she and her peers don’t let them. It was as if we were talking about the weather, what she planned to wear to school the next day.

            One chico took my camera and went absolutely nuts. He was fascinated by the buttons, the rapidity with which he could take these images of people who surround him all day and transform them into single, still images on a LCD screen. I understood everyone! I was welcomed, I spoke aloud and introduced myself in projected Espanol. I shared a meal of tortillas, beans, and rice with the kids surrounding me. And as I held out a bag to collect little candy wrappers, suddenly there was a small army of mini luchaderos and luchaderas (fighters) running around the hill, weaving in between their parents, tias and tios, grandparents, to come back and valiantly throw down their collected garbage into the bag. And I thought to myself, this is the generation that will construct a life in concert with the madre tierra, not against or in spite of it. How did we stray so far?

            I have wondered these past months how the side of justice, patience, respect, and community can possibly win against those with money, arms, and most importantly, the willingness to use these resources at the expense of others. Does that not put us at an irreversible and critical disadvantage? But as we gathered last night in the offices of Mayor Carmen, the victorious LIBRE candidate in San Nicolas, and the people began to recount their most profound, emotional and rewarding moments in their experience of the campaign up until this moment of both loss and victory, I realized that the expressed feelings of love, unity, hospitality, endurance… of deeply felt community and spiritual transformation toward an unspoken but mutually understood dream of a future reality in which kids are free to wander the streets and pursue their dreams and health free from violence, corruption and inequality… that cannot possibly come from self-interest... That is the world we are striving for – a world permeated with love and peace, grounded in a fundamental respect for one’s neighbor no matter his or her creed, religion, or socioeconomic standing. Our actions are given by our morals, and as we continue even in the face of what may seem to be outstanding defeat, our very endurance predicts our eventual victory.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Long Overdue Photo Journal

This blog has been incredibly text heavy. Here, at long last, are some photos from my latest excursions to Costa Rica (VISA renewal), Tortola (to see family over Christmas), and Honduras (with Chencho and the Mesoamerican Peace Foundation). Enjoy!

Enjoying the natural beauty in Costa Rica
At the butterfly observatory, staff collect caccoons before they emerge, leaving them in a protected area to dry their wings. In the picture above, one butterfly had just come out of its coccoon, slowly trying to unfurl its wings.
I traveled to Costa Rica alone to renew my tourist VISA, but soon made friends. The couple above was kind enough to share their honeymoon with us!
Waking up to the sunrise behind a volcano, a cup of hotel coffee, my book, and NYTimes crosswords faithfully mailed to me by my 99-year old grandmother in Minnesota.
The sunset in Tamarindo.
I took one surf lesson, and promptly made friends with an affectionate jellyfish.

It was so incredible to finally see my brothers over Christmas break! Having grown up on a small sailboat in Lake Superior her whole life, my mom captained a monohull as my family and I (mom, pop, 2 baby bros now nearly grown into bearded men) through the British Virgin Islands. We spent XMas eve in the storm to end all storms, munching down on defrosted turkey meatballs. It was absolute perfection.
Now on to Honduras. I traveled with Chencho Alas, the founder and director of the Mesoamerican Peace Foundation to observe him and the Foundation's youth coordinator, Yeny, conduct trainings based on a methodology called "Appreciative Inquiry."

Here is German, the youngest son of the family we stayed with. Yes, he is just as adorable as he appears in this picture. Also, one of the most intuitive and intelligent 10 year-olds I've ever met.

As part of our trip through Santa Barbara, we traveled to an indigenous community where everyone, including the children, are fighting for their right to their land. A Chinese mining company has used a variety of tactics, from political to straight up violent, to try and force them off their land.
Yeny and I were roommates, carmates, and everything inbetween during our trip to Honduras. She is one of the most inspiring individuals I have ever had the privelege to meet. She has born more tragedy and hardship than I ever hope to experience in my lifetime, and yet has devoted her life to working with youth in a highly gang-ridden area of El Salvador. And she's only 24 years old.

One of the many young girls in the community who walk around as if they own the place. One little girl described to me how they oppose armed policemen trying to invade their home as we casually walked down to the river, with a tone that suggested we were discussing the weather or her favorite math class.
When we were in the community, they received a call notifying them that after months and months the World Bank had reversed its decision to lend the mining company $250 million, and would no longer be directly supporting the mining effort. It was the greatest and perhaps most unexpected victory they had experienced in months, if not years.
Following the call, everyone joined hands in prayer and thanks, asking for continued success and safety for all those involved.

Chencho with our resident photographer. Many of these photos were taken by the little boy. Once instructed how to work my camera, he went absolutely nuts, photographing everyone and everything and visibly improving with every photo he took.
Chencho with some of the more adorable members of Yeny's family.
Yeny with her mother, father and brother (and Chencho again with his friends).
Part of the Foundation's efforts include turtle conservation. Here is a pen constructed on the beach in La Libertad, El Salvador where the turtle eggs are stored and monitored in a grid. Volunteers help on the night they hatch to make sure  the hatchlings reach the ocean safely.
Rough life.
A homemade dinner with Chencho.
This was perhaps my favorite part of the trip - one of our host's sons created a makeshift radio made from old parts and a backlight. I woke up every morning to Honduran news humming next to my bed. I'm hoping via osmosis the Spanish sunk in twice as fast as usual.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

What's in a Name?

We’re just going to jump right in – I realize it’s been a bit long since I wrote, but when inspiration hits, well ya just gotta jump.

I was in Honduras last week for 10 days accompanying Chencho Alas, the Founder and Director of the Mesoamerican Peace Foundation, on several capacity trainings with the LIBRE party, recently defeated in the Presidential elections last year through some not-so-subtle fraud and corruption. (There will be a whole post about this to come… never fear.)

As we drove the 10 hours from San Salvador through the volcanic mountains at the border and down into the Santa Barbara valley, we stopped at a restaurant blasting old 80’s music and framed pixelated blow-ups of rock idols with too-big hair (think young Bon Jovi). And Chencho shared something with me… “I always ask the name of my waiter. Otherwise, we just default into old relationships, server and the servee, superior and inferior. A name is a very powerful thing.”

Whether consciously or no, I began to ask people’s names. Of my waiters, of folks at the store, but mostly people I passed on the street when walking to work. One woman in particular works every morning cleaning the grass near a specific stand of trees on the main street. She wears a neon vest, is older with weathered skin and has a pair of crutches by her side, usually propped next to an empty Styrofoam plate and cup with dregs of coffee still in it. I nod, I smile, maybe a “buenos días” and I go on my merry way. Yesterday, I lifted my sunglasses, gave her a big saludo, and she reached out her hand to take mine. And when I asked her her name – Maria Isabel Cruz – suddenly I was in a big hug. She was on her tip toes, reaching up to my generally averagely-distanced-from-the-ground shoulders, and for nearly a minute repeated what I understood to be some version of “God bless you.” I thanked her, still holding her leathery hand in mine, wished her a good day, and kept walking.

After Maria Isabel is the tinta shop where they sell computer ink, and there’s a guard outside who stands there every morning and afternoon. Since I pass him twice a day, we always say hi in some form, and yesterday he asked my name and I asked him his – Robert. We chatted a bit more, shook hands, and off I went. This morning, he wasn’t there, until I heard someone yelling, “Anna!” I turn around, and Robert comes out of the shop with a small box of pan dulce (sweet breads you eat with your morning coffee) and hands it to me. “For you,” he says. And that was it. I thanked him and here I am at work sharing the pan dulce with the office, and this story with you.

Yes, the first thought could be suspicious – it’s cause I’m a gringa, it’s cause they want something from me, you shouldn’t be so friendly on the streets of El Salvador – and these are all valid. I need to keep myself safe, I need to be wary and street smart. But I also need to be open, and the recognition of another with no pre-judgments nor agenda is, I think, the greatest gift we can give someone. It is the simple gift of dignity. These experiences, taken exactly as they are, were rare and beautiful (and the pan dulce is delicious).

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