Friday, April 30, 2010

Some Reverse Culture Shock With Your Bagel?

I said that the world is absurd, but I was too hasty. This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing or clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world. For the moment, it is all that links them together. [...] This is all I can discern clearly in this measureless universe where my adventure takes place. -Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

Montreal, Canada was the first place in the Northern hemisphere and 'the West' on which I set foot in almost a year. What better way to commemorate the occasion than receiving a ticket?

Ten minutes after leaving the terminal building, at the back seat of an airport van, I was processing my bewilderment at how the streets were clean and the cars even cleaner. At the end of an overpass, a police car pulled us over. "Ma'am in the back? I need to see some ID." This was not a Lebanese checkpoint in the Hezbollah-filled mountains, or an attempt to helicopter into South Sudan. It was, however, Seat belt Safety Month and, unlike Ramadan, Christmas in Ramallah, Ugandan AIDS Awareness Day or Fight Against Malaria Sunday, I had failed to observe it. The policewoman was unable to trace the Greek writing at the front of my passport and quizzically asked "ma'am, do you have seat belts where you are from?" I resisted the impulse to share the state of taxis in Cairo or motorcycles in northern Uganda. Two hundred dollars and a judgmental look later, I was welcomed back into a virtually incorruptible world of lawfulness and cleanliness. Still wearing the Colombian poncho my workshop participants had gifted me 24 hours earlier, I was incongruous.

There were nights in Uganda when I would have given up my firstborn child for a cupcake. There were hot days in Cairo when I could think of little other than the frozen yogurt and bubble tea that accompanied similar days in Harvard Square. I remained incredulous that the illustrious Crepes & Waffles in Colombia did not serve pancakes. When Indian and Thai food presented itself along the way, I would order it, pretending I did not know that it really meant the same chicken with a lot of soy sauce at every establishment, regardless of the national cuisine it purported to embrace. My cravings for these readily available comforts, culinary and beyond, might have made for an ecstatic, soon-to-be gordita in Montreal.

False. Reverse culture shock is a real force with which to be reckoned, fully disorienting one's internal compass and irrationally making one crave the arepas she had had in Bogota a day earlier, as opposed to the laundry list of experiences she had spent a year anticipating. This was another occasion of the 'defamiliarization of the familiar,' my favorite of Drew Faust's concepts and a recurrent theme in this journey.

I did eat non-stop in Canada. I guzzled Tim Horton's French Vanilla coffee, even after spending a year in some of the best coffee-producing nations in the world. I gave a loved one perpetual food coma as he tried to keep up with my expanding appetite. When he asked what else I would like to do now that I was 'back' in a world to which I could better relate, I was at a loss. Besides a visit to a bookstore ("Are you seriously going to pay 18 dollars for Tuesdays with Morrie?!" "We do not have Mitch Albom in the Mayan villages."), we avoided all other shopping, the movies, and all the attractions of sorts. We walked among skyscrapers, in pollution-free, crisp (whom am I kidding - freezing by comparison to the Equator) air. People in the building across the street from where we were staying worked at their desks at all hours, including at 10 PM on a Saturday or 8 AM on a Sunday. That same Saturday ended with Nelly Furtado blasting at a diner, complete with neon lights, fried everything and photoshopped images of banana splits.

I was torn between impulses: I wanted to stockpile the experiences I had been missing and could not have for months again and I simultaneously missed everything I loved about being 'in the field'. I spent a lot of my plane ride to Guatemala wondering whether I would perhaps never feel fully at home anywhere again, always longing for people, places, food, climates and routines I had left behind. There is a reason my dear friend Ericka always calls for 'mindful presence' - but even at its best practice, I cannot help feeling I have left pieces of myself like Little Red Riding Hood bread crumbs everywhere. When I took an hour and a half to get through customs in Guatemala and faced the heat outside the airport building as salsa blasted from a nearby van emitting fumes shamelessly, I felt as though, strangely, this was a place I understood, a familiar place.

Enter Antigua, Guatemala. Home to approximately 34,000 residents, baroque architecture, and three volcanoes, Antigua is an expat darling. Lonely Planet calls it Fake Guatemala and warns tourists who flock here to learn Spanish that they may never practice the language. Yoga, wireless internet, hot shower water, international cuisines, and flatscreen TVs broadcasting the Champions League games coexist along the women in traditional indigenous outfits, the fruit-sellers on the street and one of the highest rates of childhood malnourishment in the world. As far as my stomach is concerned, Antigua has also boasted bagels, brownies, pancakes, carrot cake, all sorts of cakes and home fries. And frozen yogurt, eerily reminiscent of Berryline. I was expecting reverse culture shock in Canada - and could retreat from it - but I was not ready for it in Guatemala.

The conflict trail in Guatemala looks nothing like the tourist trail. And yet, the documentary When the Mountains Tremble, showed armed soldiers in tanks patrolling the streets of picture-perfect Antigua in my lifetime. Antigua little resembles the nearby indigenous villages or Quiche or any of the places still bearing visible civil war scars. There is a certain breed of development worker who is born to hate it: the kind who loves to boast about the poisonous spiders she has killed while working in Insert-Dangerous-Place-Here, or the diseases he contracted while saving orphans, or the way the chief of the Red Cross in a war zone calls him on his cell phone as mines explode left and right.

When Antigua first came into my life, I could not shake the disorientation and surprise; now I try to appreciate it for what it is and to allow myself to partake in the comforts it affords me. A new Australian friend at a cafe, as my favorite Cat Power was bellowing from the speakers, put it best when he said "you do not need to be uncomfortable all the time." There is almost a push-back in the field of conflict-oriented work to live in as poor circumstances as can furnish one with the stories of the greatest bravado and resilience. Antigua allows for none of that and, perhaps, it is for the better. Until I can figure out how pancakes fit with the stories of the fifty women I interviewed two days ago who were mass tortured, or where quiz night at the Irish pub overlaps with the story of Myrna Mack, I will order my next bagel and hunt for that elusive mindful presence.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Plight of Women, Part I: Myrna Mack

From the report of the UN Special Rapporteur for Guatemala in 2005:
"The Myrna Mack case illustrates the obstacles faced in the search for justice for women who have been victims of violent crimes. Ms. Mack, an anthropologist, was studying the army’s mistreatment of displaced rural communities when she was attacked in front of her Guatemala City office on 11 September 1990. Stabbed 27 times, she bled to death in the street. 
Police initially informed her relatives that she had died in a traffic accident. Later, they suppressed a 60-page report by their own investigators concluding that it had been a political killing, linking the military to the crime. Only after Helen Mack, Myrna’s sister, intervened did the case begin to move forward. In 1993, a Guatemalan court sentenced army officer Sgt. Noel Beteta to 25 years’ imprisonment for the murder.  In 2002, another Guatemalan court sentenced Col. Juan Valencia Osorio to 30 years for his role in planning the killing.
The conviction was overturned by an appeals court, only to be later reinstated by the Supreme Court in 2003. A police investigator who initially gathered the incriminating evidence was murdered in 1991. Two other investigators and three witnesses also received threats and fled the country. In 2002, a lawyer acting for the Myrna Mack Foundation reported receiving death threats. Col. Valencia Osorio is the only senior officer to be convicted of human rights violations committed as part of the country’s 36-year civil war.  However, since the reinstatement of his conviction in 2003, he has eluded police custody, and his whereabouts remain unknown. In December 2003 the Inter-American Court of Human Rights held that Guatemala should publicly recognize the State’s responsibility for the murder and subsequent denial of justice in the case. The Court also ruled that Guatemala should ensure that the perpetrators of the crime are brought to justice."
An enlightening description of the functioning of the police and justice system, the perils of investigative work in development and justice, and the status of women in Guatemala. There have been steps in the right direction since the Myrna Mack case and I intend to summarize the contemporary data and approaches to the  challenges women face in subsequent posts; yet, Guatemala remains a post-conflict zone that fails to provide its women with protection against discrimination and violence. And while the plight of aid workers and justice professionals does not rival that of indigenous people, the stories from the field every day make it, once again, hard to sleep.

For more information, please visit The Myrna Mack Foundation , read the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission findings on the status of women, and explore this report on genocide and feminicide.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Lonely Planet: A catchphrase becomes personal

I cannot walk through the suburbs in the solitude of the night without thinking that the night pleases us because it suppresses idle details, just as our memory does. -Jorge Luis Borges, and pb.
 
There is beauty in isolation. The three coffee farmers we met at the finca in Salento, Colombia woke up to lush, rolling hills, budding coffee beans and cows grazing every day. The 5 (!) inhabitants of an indigenous village in the Amazon lived in a virgin pastiche of coca plants, fresh pineapples, jaguars and wild butterflies. And yet, when I ask them if they can think of anything missing from their lives, answers converge: "Companionship."
This lady  is the littlest member of one of 8 families in an indigenous Amazonian community; a different village consists of just 5 members.

I recently wrote about the solitude of those I have encountered in the field. I am now experiencing another kind of solitude - that of the nomadic field worker. On the planes to Guatemala, I was trying to tally the number of flights I have boarded this year, the number of times I have had to say goodbye, the number of emails I have had to write that begin with "My name is Roxanne, I am a conflict management fellow designing and implementing projects related to the themes of women and conflict and am interested in your apartment listing." As my fellowship is drawing to a close, a lot of processes have become second nature. I can pack my life into two bags in under two hours (an endeavor, as I found in Colombia, much accelerated by the effects of wine, friends blow-drying your still wet laundry and screaming the lyrics to Rent while dancing around the apartment). I have become more adept at identifying local partners with whom to affiliate myself during the project design phase and have developed a better instinct for credible funding options. There are two processes, however, that do not get easier; in fact, they become harder each time because their weight on me accumulates: Saying goodbye to one community and beginning to entangle myself in the next one.

There has come a point in every placement when I can distinctly remember breathing and thinking that the new conflict or post-conflict environment is beginning to become a home. In Cairo, it involved coasting on the Nile in a felucca after having to unbuckle my belt to hide a burgeoning belly from a Ramadan feast. In Bogota, it entailed singing along to the Kings of Leon with my roommates while eating my first carbonara in 7 months. In Uganda, it included a barking German shepherd, home-made ice cream and discussing a friend's discovery of a black mamba snake in her shower. What fills the gap between my arrival at each new place and that moment, though, is solitude. Even though it may be touchy to call it that, there is a loneliness to this lifestyle, which only seems to compound over time.

Since boarding that first flight to India, there have been days when I have not had a conversation. Days can pass without my touching another human being (admittedly, this has changed in Latin America, where kisses and hugs are the inevitable standard greeting). There are many occasions on which I read something, see something beautiful, or have a thought but do not yet know anyone intimately enough on the ground with whom to share it - so it is filed away in writing or e-mailed to loved ones far away who will graciously share the moment with me. Sitting down to meals can often feel like the first day at a new school: all around you, there are groups of people laughing amongst each other, while you are attempting to make solitary eating a dignified activity. Those multiple plane take-offs and landings have taught me that this is always a temporary state; it may take a somewhat awkward, bold introduction to a favorite cafe waitress or accepting an invitation to drinks with friends of a coworker's daughter you barely know, but soon enough, you find your own 'lunch group', your favorite reading spot, your after-work hangout and your Sunday morning routines.


Affection abounds in Guatemala too; quite the juxtaposition to the solitude.

While in the vacuum between being a 'stranger in a strange land' and settling in, every conversation takes on a new importance. A certain inquisitiveness develops about what has brought other people here. I have always been curious about people's narratives, about the trajectories that yanked them out of their previous environment and into this foreign one they now call home. In those first conversations in a new country, I always find myself asking "What brought you here?", "What do you love most about this country?", "How did you get the idea for the project in which you are currently involved?" These conversations with near strangers, which sometimes evolve to "did you imagine yourself doing this a few years ago?" or "towards which other places or projects do you feel a pull?", have been some of the ones I most cherish - there is a certain candidness, freshness, liveliness and optimism inherent in their stories, their conviction, their passion about their lives that becomes contagious as I attempt to navigate my own way.

As I am beginning to define my Guatemalan project in this final leg of the fellowship, I made a few tough decisions that involved letting go of belongings and comforts to which I had been attached in prior parts of the journey. My project will likely mean that I am constantly on the road, Couchsurfing, staying with families, sleeping in cheap hotels, hopping from indigenous village to indigenous village. Like Colombia, this is a country bursting with the stories that cannot be told. As such, the two international organizations under whose auspices I am likely to carry out my project have encouraged me to stay tight-lipped about it until it is well underway, for my own security and that of my participants. All I know is that I am going to have to be my own thread; the project will involve shuttling myself across the rural environments hardest hit by the civil war, facilitating, mediating, delivering workshops, bringing people in contact, and listening, without really being able to call any base a home or come back to the same group of people every evening. I am energized and filled with anticipation. I am also field weary, exhausted from looking after my own security at every turn, filled with nostalgia and, yes, lonely. This time, the loneliness is likely to linger for a while longer than I am used to.

Thankfully, Guatemala and its people supply the beauty and inspiration in ample amounts to compensate.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The world will blow your mind, if you let it

For us, each day is a dark night. None of us know what might happen even the next minute, and yet still we go forward. Because we trust. Because we have faith. -Paulo Coelho

During my first 24 hours in Colombia, I went on an accidental date. During my first five hours in Guatemala, I got invited to a 7-year-old's first communion.

I am currently sitting in a children's store, surrounded by stuffed Dumbo elephants and breathing in pollution that makes my heart and lungs travel back to Cairo. This appears to be the only place with wireless internet, so, for the best effect, the chronicle of my first 12 hours in Guatemala should be read to the sound of screaming children, exasperated parents and singing Santa Clauses.

This is the sixth place this year at which I arrive to live and work without knowing a single person and without a roof to put over my head. The experience does not make the process any less nerve-wracking. What does, however, is stepping into the home of a Guatemalan family I identified through Couchsurfing to be greeted with an enormous hug and a kiss. The mother told stories of how she loves to host Europeans because they "are not cold like those North Americans who put their feet on my coffee table and giggle amongst themselves." She still remembers two gregarious Greek guys who barely spoke any Spanish and still managed to gesture vividly enough to win over her household's heart. I laughed at the coincidence of other Greeks having crossed paths with her family and immediately felt at home. Her daughter, who works at a T-Mobile call center, shared her exasperation with people who call to say "activate my phone, yo" without a "good morning" or a "please." They both mocked Guatemalans who move to the southern United States, where Spanish is widely spoken, only to move back to their home country two years later and pretend not to speak their own language. "Um, what do you call those, shoes?" "Zapatos, you idiota. You are Guatemalan!"

And so passed my first couple of hours here, until the son drove me to a...Walmart. Five years of living in the USA and I had never set foot in one. Two hours of being in Guatemala and I am in search of a phone and plug adaptor in the maze. With my new phone in hand, I call one of the organizations with which I had been in touch prior to arriving in order to arrange an introductory meeting this week. Its president picks up and asks me where I am right at this moment. "Can you come to a meeting? Our whole team is here and is dying to meet you." Hoping that their team could not smell plane all over me and wishing I had not traveled in yoga pants, I put myself in a taxi and arrived at a meeting.

There were 100 people there. Apparently, this is the beneficiary population with which I would work were I to accept this partnership for my fellowship placement here. The president--a true tour-de-force of inspiration and strength--gives a speech in which she mentions that "God loves me because he sent me this angel" and introduces me to donors and colleagues as a 'lifesaver'. In yoga pants, might I repeat. I looked like Robin Hood. They usher me to speak. What came out of my mouth was a mumbly mix of Spanish and sleep.

The founder offered to drive me back to my host family. She slipped me a piece of paper with her two sons' phone numbers, in case of an emergency. She said one of them can be "spacey", so she drove me to his house to introduce me in order to establish familiarity. That is how I found myself in a gated community, surrounded by plush carpeting, well-manicured lawns and even better-groomed dogs. The founder's adorable niece is participating in her First Communion this month, so she showed off M&M's with her name and face printed on them... straight from Times Square, NYC. She then proudly said "Primera comunion en ingles is First Communion!" I left with an invitation to a play-date to practice speaking English, and with my mouth gaping open at Guatemalan kindness.

In the car ride, the founder discussed how her daughter had  lived in Boston and Washington, DC, married a "gringo" and now has children. She teared up talking about how "you raise three children in largely the same way and they turn out becoming such different people." I wanted to squeeze this woman into a hug the rest of the way home. Upon arrival, I fell asleep in my clothes (yes, same yoga pants), but not before I noticed that the host family was sitting on a couch with a bedspread covered in panda bears, watching American Idol. If pandas are not my 'spirit animal', I will eat one of the 23 stuffed Dumbo elephants around me.

Panda Love - those who know me well will appreciate this.

I was awoken at 5.30 this morning by a phone call from the United Nations Democracy Fund, another organization I had contacted in preparation for my placement here. The Guatemalan mission is organizing an exploratory visit to some of the rural sites hardest hit by the civil war and they would like me to join them in order to assess potential women's programming. I am getting picked up outside the children's store in the next hour. I may still be uncertain as to where I am living, exactly what I am doing, and how life in Guatemala will unfold, but armed with positivity and jingles from toys all around me, I am beginning to see that - as always - it will all be alright.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Found in Translation

[This is the second part of a series reflecting on some lessons from my time in Colombia.]
From now on I hope always to educate myself as best I can. But lacking this, in future I will relaxedly turn back to my secret mind to see what it has observed when I thought I was sitting this one out. We never sit anything out. We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out. -Ray Bradbury
 
Tipping over
On a particular Monday night in February, my kitchen table in Bogota betrayed the existence of an anxious woman. It was the night before my first training of community leaders who would help co-facilitate my workshops for the full 750 women participants in this program of post-conflict reintegration.This night represented an unexpected first: Faced with the prospect of conducting this session, I was scared out of my wits.

Stage fright and I are strangers. I have always loved public speaking. Over the course of this year, I have offered seminars, workshops or trainings for over 3,000 individuals worldwide. Yet, this training presented a unique challenge. It was the first time I had to write a script for myself, effectively a sentence-by-sentence speech of my delivery of four hours of complex material. In Spanish.

I spent the rest of my placement in Bogota grappling with words. There were multiple times when I had to stand in front of 1500 eyes and ask if *insert-almost-Spanish-but-not-quite-word-here* made any sense. I rehearsed trainings on the terrace, much to the amusement of the love motel staff across the street, who inadvertently became my test audiences every week. My professional life unfolded entirely in the present tense, as I delicately attempted to dance around every use of sentences referring to the past or the future for fear that my inadequate grammar would astound. Now try doing that when talking about 'memory reconciliation' or 'women imagine themselves in the future.'

Somehow, through it all, I have started to learn how to crack a little. Words in Colombia did not roll off my tongue. My presentations were not polished. I could not hide my insecurity, uncertainty or, at times, my cluelessness. All of this had to be ok. My Spanish was not going to magically improve enough overnight and the trainings had to go on. I needed to ask for help and I needed to be able to laugh moments of confusion or miscommunication off. I needed to work twice as hard, rely on others twice as much and be prepared for twice as many errors as usual. Once I resigned myself to these realities, I found that if I was ready to show some very public vulnerability, there may even be a crowd of 750 there to catch me.
The completed curriculum for women's post-conflict reintegration in Colombia

You've got to give a little
The Colombian women of my workshops demanded a lot from themselves - and from me. They were the definition of 'high energy' (and every facilitator's dream): always questioning, always seeking to contribute, always wanting to share a personal story. When I tried explaining the contrast of this environment to my life in New England to a friend currently living and working in Boston, he amusingly remarked: "If there's a spectrum of energy, measured by volatility and desire to constantly contribute and level of emotive hand gestures, I think East Coast WASPs run at the very low end!"

Working with these Colombian women, therefore, required abandoning the levels of formality and self-sheltering that I had built as defense mechanisms of my privacy and distance from others over years of living in the US. Examples had to be personal; examples involving boyfriends and mothers resonated particularly well. When I budgeted for half an hour of discussion, I learned that it really meant two hours of anecdote sharing. There were hardly separate columns for 'workshops', 'personal life', 'travels', or 'friends'; rather, life unfolded in a continuum and a good day of work would force me to draw on all columns, to share a little more of myself every time.

And if this experience became more personal for me than previous professional endeavors, it was certainly deeply personal for my participants. It is easy to forget that conflict management is not just a theory, that people are not just part of a case study on the effects of violence or the position of women in a post-conflict community of one's choice. These women gave me the greatest gift: the gift of their stories, which continue to move me, inspire me and travel with me. There were the mother and daughter who survived their rape by the same commander. There was the woman who was so engaged in the "Women narrate their own stories: Female Figures in Literature" unit that she devoured all the initial books purchased for the participants' new library within one week, from Anna Karenina to The Memoirs of a Geisha. There was the nun who, against orders and general practice, counseled women affected by the conflict to use birth control in order to best decide the size and nature of their families. There was the 14-year-old girl who called me out on not being 'feminist enough', on having prized moderation and the sharing of multiple perspectives over activism and the lighting of a strong feminist torch (a conscious choice on my part; a fair critique on hers). There was the mother whose husband told their children that she died when she joined the guerrillas and refused to allow her to see them after she lay down her weapons. These are all women of perseverance, resilience, guts, courage and hope - women with a fire inside them.


At my surprise farewell party during the transition meeting, with a few of my favorite Colombian things: obleas, music, aguardiente glasses, a Colombian poncho and a video with the stories of my community leaders

A farewell steeped in gratitude
Colombia was a lesson in the art of the possible - in the art of everything one can do if she sets her mind to it--something my father lovingly drilled into my head as a child and I seemed to have lost sight of until I landed in Colombia. I left Bogota with a better understanding of what it means to truly give yourself wholly and to let others have a stake in your curtained-off, secure, self-sequestered little life. The first days were difficult; I remember thinking: "You do not have to love it. It may never surpass your experience in Cairo, Uganda or elsewhere. It is just three months. You can just cope." Three months later, I felt an attachment and an immense sense of gratitude to the ex-pats and Colombian men and women who surrounded me with their love and energy. They all taught me, each in their own way, how to begin to unclench my fists, how to be a little less afraid, how to have a little more faith - how to begin to crack and give my own filling cup a gentle tip.

 With my team of community leaders on the day of the transition (and my last day in Colombia)

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Stories You Cannot Tell

[In a few hours my last fellowship placement will pull me away from Colombia. Here starts a series of reflections on some themes from my time here.]

Justice is conscience, not a personal conscience but the conscience of the whole of humanity. Those who clearly recognize the voice of their own conscience usually recognize also the voice of justice. -Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Explaining to local populations that one's work brings her to 'conflict or post-conflict communities' is tricky. In Northern Uganda most would ask "we are post-conflict...right?" Even though L.R.A. leader Joseph Kony is still at large and some fighting continues in the North, a cease-fire in 2006 ended the 20-year hostilities and the country has been moving into post-conflict reconstruction and development. Ugandans take immense pride in this peace - the kind of sentiment that the conflict environment in Colombia renders rare.

Colombia presents a more complicated profile. There is my Bogota of wine bars, flamenco nights and Crepes and Waffles and there is also my Bogota of having seen 4 unburied, unclaimed bodies in 3 months in the streets of Ciudad Bolivar, witnessed a 12-year-old snorting cocaine in broad daylight, and heard the stories of displaced people with standing assassination orders against them. The picture becomes blurrier outside Bogota: There is the Cartagena of colonial architecture and dreamy carriage rides and the Cartagena of visible slums as one's plane approaches the runway. Authorities blame the FARC for a car bomb that killed 9 in Buanaventura, as well as for a 'child bomb.' Yes, a child bomb - someone gave a child a package containing a bomb and the boy detonated with it. All these Colombias co-exist within the same borders, making the determination of whether this is a conflict or post-conflict zone an impossible task.

Academics and development specialists have developed various approaches to defining the stage of conflict in which a country is engaged. These approaches take into account the scale of the conflict -- how many people are involved and what percentage of the country is directly affected by combat? The type of atrocities are also a factor: Are civilians targeted?Are 'cruel and inhumane' methods employed? Is there indiscriminate fighting? As conventional warfare has given way to more conflicts involving guerrillas and paramilitaries and fighting has moved away from demarcated battlefields, the delineations of conflict vs. post-conflict in a country with the size, diversity and the co-existing, different security situations of Colombia can often be in the eye of the beholder.

Closure helps. The Ugandan peace process passed through the milestone of a formal cease-fire, of an acknowledgment that there was war, that there were perpetrators and victims, and that there will be a justice process that will seek to bring the former to justice and aim at the reconciliation of the community. In the words of Juanita Leon,  Colombia has not gotten this type of atonement. There have been declarations that "the guerrillas have been defeated", some have been offered amnesty, others have turned themselves in and yes, some have even put down their arms on their own initiative. But the country is still grappling with its conflict identity: What happened? Why? Who was behind it? And how will the justice system treat 'them'? Without the answers, and without a formal process for obtaining them, it is impossible to speak of the conflict in the past tense.

And it is further difficult to obtain the answers in an environment where the capacity of development professionals, justice workers, and NGO specialists to do their job collides with a barrier of tight government control. This is not a characteristic unique to countries with open combat within their borders; my former home of Egypt is seeking to bring NGOs under an umbrella of government control (hence defeating the very notion of a non-governmental organization) and simultaneously "beating and arresting pro-democracy demonstrators, while neighboring Israel has a gag order on a journalism case that has divided the judiciary, military and media. In Country of Bullets, Juanita Leon speaks of her experience with the stories she could not cover if she were to maintain her own and her sources' security, of the accounts one witnesses but cannot retell, of the opinions one has but cannot express for fear of being followed, kidnapped or hurt -- or if none of the above transpire, for fear that one's opinions will attract the kind of wrong attention and scrutiny that may ultimately undermine the work one hopes to do and become an obstacle to achieving true impact.

This is a country in which some NGO workers introduce themselves as working at a "social organization" - fraternity connotations and all. Bosses in this field advise not to discuss 'the conflict' in public places or to divulge details of one's work with new acquaintances. And journalists, development workers or justice professionals are all filled to the brim with the stories they cannot tell. Some may argue that the government is winning the war on cocaine, others may point at agreements with groups to lay down their arms, but until the ground is paved for a holistic investigation,  open discourse and a transparent justice process, the pulse of conflict will continue to beat, whether in the face of a child unknowingly carrying a bomb or under the surface, in the form of the stories that cannot be told.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Tears and Rain

Beauty is unbearable, drives us to despair, offers us for a minute the glimpse of an eternity that we should like to stretch out over the whole of time. - Albert Camus


  Eleftheria Arvanitaki, one of the loveliest Greek singers: 
"Please stay here, do not bid me goodnight"

Part I: Rain on a cold tin roof
Drops of rain on a tin roof are enough to wake even those in the feverish delirium of mosquito-born illness. Almost two months late, the rainy season has arrived, making me nostalgic. I miss the seasons. I miss the cherry blossoms currently bringing spring to Washington, DC. Nostalgia for fall foliage was the first bout of homesickness on the road. In this part of the world, seasonal transitions are a foreign concept. Indeed, when I lent my voice to the voiceover of an English workbook for Panamanians, I had to read a passage that suggested: "There are some parts of the world that have four seasons. In the spring, people wear lighter clothes and are happier. In the fall, they repair their homes, bring out their coats and prepare for winter." As the Northern Hemisphere comes out of hibernation, I am preparing to replace my taxi ride to the Bogota airport with a canoe.

The advent of more rain on the roof

Part II: The last flamenco
 If I miss spring and fall and foliage and cherry blossoms, I do not miss transitions. Last night was my last flamenco night in Colombia before the final fellowship project pulls me out of the country. A Barcelona, Spain transplant quit her private sector job and moved to South America. She had been singing since she was 14 and when a manager heard her belting out flamenco tunes at a casual party gathering, he encouraged her to pursue her passion professionally. I first crossed paths with this woman's hauntingly beautiful flamenco the night before my very first workshop in Colombia and when I returned home, I was so entranced by her voice that I could barely think about the next day's topic, Difficult Conversations and Conflict Management. Flamenco night has become a staple in my Bogota life and formed the backdrop for celebrating a beloved friend's birthday, fretting over my command over post-conflict reintegration, or spending one last night in the company of "Verde que te quiero verde", papas criollas and my Colombian family before heading off into the next conflict environment.
 At the last flamenco night

Part III:  One may leave, but their stories stay
First came the needs assessment. Then curriculum development, followed by training trainers. And then there was the implementation in the Centers for Reconciliation with the beneficiary women ex-combatants and victims of conflict. Data collection, monitoring and evaluation, transition plans. Three months ago to the day, I was homeless, friendless and virtually purpose-less in Colombia. Yesterday, I wrapped up my last workshop to a room filled with tears.

 Mentors and Role Models 'Train the Trainer': Sources of inspiration

There have been more tears throughout this project than I ever could have anticipated. The stories of the participants themselves are heavy: During our session on violence against women, one participant shared how a commander of a guerrilla group gave her the option of sleeping with him or being in the front lines, with death being all but a certainty. As we discussed our unit of "Stories of Women Worldwide: Parallelisms and Differences," a displaced woman living in what is essentially a slum remarked that she felt "grateful that our lives are pretty good", after seeing a photo of an Afghani woman in a full burqa and a Kenyan child prostitute. Every single one of the workshop participants represents a story of pain and injustice, but also courage, resilience and an unshakable commitment to peace and love that moves all of us - sometimes, perhaps to tears.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Faith in Humanity

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
-Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver 
Easter at the top of Monserrate, nearly 10,000 ft. above sea level

Time and again on this fellowship year I have had moments that enhance my own faith in humanity. Moments that exhibit the unparalleled kindness of strangers have fostered some of the most valuable personal lessons of this journey. One such moment unfolded at over 3,000 m. (10,000 ft) above sea level at Monserrate hill, the highest point of Bogota.

A Colombian woman who noticed me at the top of the mountain came over and introduced herself. She was there with her family, including her three teenage daughters, and they had all ascended to the church to celebrate Easter. When she found out I was Greek, she expressed her daughters' enthusiasm for my country and continued asking questions about what has brought me to Colombia. Her warmth and spirit were touching, though nothing could have prepared me for the end of our encounter.

I complimented the woman's earrings, bid her farewell and started to make my own way down to the city when she approached me once again. Earrings in hand, she said, "you can have these. You also have a piece of my heart." She insisted that I keep her earrings as a token of her appreciation for work benefiting communities of Colombian women, as well as a reminder of the love of Colombian people.

This is love I have felt in ample amounts in the three months that I have been here. Today I may be nostalgic for Easter in Greece, but I arrived in this country as a stranger in a strange land and I am leaving deeply moved, filled with memories and lessons and, almost unavoidably, filled with love.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Jungle Macho

Through the jungle very softly flits a shadow and a sigh -
he is Fear - o little Hunter - he is Fear
-Rudyard Kipling

After a strange Christmas in the West Bank, it was time to trade Greek lamb on a spit for piranha fishing this Easter. As Bogota shut down to observe the religious holidays, I packed my 99% DEET bug spray and headed for the Amazonian jungle.

One would think that 99% DEET bug spray would burn a hole through one's skin. And it well can. What it apparently cannot do is prevent mosquito bites in the Amazon. On a year when I have lived and worked among insurgents and rebels, drunk questionable tap water and eaten the most ominous looking street food, the greatest threat to my life has come from a surprising source: mosquitoes. Amazonian mosquitoes resemble birds more than insects; some of them deserve their own zip code and should be fought with a bazuka, not a fly swatter. Starting at sunset, a process unfolds that greatly resembles Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' theory on the 5 stages of grief:
1) Denial: "Surely they cannot be as bad as people say they are. People exaggerate all the time! Plus, I have my 99% DEET bug spray, long pants and Tiamina vitamin tablets, so I am prepared." This can also be called delusion.
2) Anger: A heavy dose of indignation plays into this one. "But how could my bug spray not work? How is it possible that they bite through jeans and high socks?" This stage can also lead to theorizing: "Who needs mosquitoes, anyway?", "What function do mosquitoes fulfill?" (if anybody dares tell me that they are food for bats, I will gladly invite said bats to the Amazon and ask them to start feasting.)
3) Bargaining: "Maybe if I eat my dinner standing up and twirling around in circles, they will not be able to bite me." "I think they are attracted to light, so I will go stand in the dark." "Scratch that, Amazonian mosquitoes are apparently attracted to the dark. Back to the candle it is." It is around this time that great creative patents also begin to take form: "Maybe if there were a full body scratcher..." or "What if there were an Amazon suit made of the same material as my galoshes? Then the rest of me would be as bite free as my calves..."
4) Depression: Thoughts of oncoming malaria, dengue fever, yellow fever, typhoid fever, all the fevers surface. The idea that the back of your thighs look like you have developed heavy cellulite from the bumpy bites also settles in.
5) Acceptance: You finally sit down to eat your meal. You realize the DEET will not help, nor will a galoshes suit, or a candle or the lack thereof. You will get bitten, you will get eaten alive, you will scratch despite your best judgment. But you are still in the Amazon, you are breathing more oxygen than your sheesha-suffering lungs have enjoyed in months and you are about to fall asleep in the company of a jaguar.
That last bit about the jaguar is as literal as can be. I am fairly certain my bag of bathroom trash was stolen by a jaguar, panther or other cat-like creature with a penchant for toilet paper. There is no Starwood Platinum Guest way to the Amazon and if there were, it would not be my way. Then again, a year ago, I never would have imagined that 'my way' would have meant a hammock in the woods, so far into the jungle that the dot in Google Earth is simply a spot in a sea of uninhabited green. On my first night, I was warned to always wear my galoshes, lest a poisonous snake emerge. Shine your flashlight at night - red eyes mean snake, white eyes mean spider. If you see a panther, make yourself as large as possible (which is exactly how large for a munchkin-sized woman in the jungle?) And if you see a jaguar... well, never mind. The indigenous say that you see your first and last jaguar at the same time.

For some, this information means they spend their nights lying awake under hammocks attempting to discern tarantulas or hear wolves. For others, it leads to a manifestation of yet another kind of Colombian macho. Introducing the Jungle Macho:
1) Wear cammo. Meryl Streep's all white linen outfits in Out of Africa planted the idea in wealthy Westerners on safari that this should be their default zebra-spotting uniform. Somehow, the Amazon inspires cammo.
2) Adorn yourself with gadgets. Reptile-deflecting rope? Rock-climbing snap hooks? By all means, bring them all. Does it matter that there are no rocks to climb?
3) Reiterate how badly you want to see a snake. The more poisonous the better. Extra points for possible death by asphyxiation. [Equally important: When said snake manifests itself, retreat to the back of the line of hikers, duck behind a small girl and beg for mama.]
4) Discuss the time of your close encounter with *insert giant, deadly jungle cat here*. Of course it did not eat you alive because it saw that you have the "soul of a tiger."
Patting a poisonous snake at the natural reserve - and yes, that is a giant mosquito bite on my forehead.

Modern urban-men-gone-Tarzan may make for as entertaining a sight as all gimmicky, gadget-loving, intensely passionate individuals, but the conservation of the Amazon largely rests on their initiative and commitment to protecting the rainforest. They are the ones who invest the time, energy and funds to lobby officials against deforestation and mining, who build ecotourism lodges to attract travelers to the area and who lead said travelers by hand as they spot their first jungle treasures. And with these people ten hammocks down the line, those of us who suffer Malarone-induced insomnia and count spiders on trees as the new 'counting sheep to sleep' can breathe out and begin to find our own way to love the jungle.

Learning to love the jungle one night in a hammock at a time