Monday, May 31, 2010

The Day After

I need to believe that something extraordinary is possible. - A Beautiful Mind

I am sunburnt.

It was so gloriously sunny today that I got crispy as I conducted a coordination meeting for relief workers outside. I believe that, after the events of this weekend, they call that irony.

On Thursday, Pacaya Volcano erupted. On Friday night, a good friend of mine took the opportunity to mock my "excessive preparedness" as I named everything in my emergency kit: candles, matches, batteries, canned food, first aid. The next day, he joined hundreds of Guatemalans and fellow ex-pats in clearing those very items off supermarket shelves as Tropical Storm Agatha greeted us. Saturday night found me in the company of my dearest friends here, safely tucked into an apartment with leaking walls, making s'mores and brainstorming evacuation plans, far away from the homes on hills and slopes that were succumbing to the water accumulation and taking their inhabitants with them.

Over 100 people have died as a result of Pacaya's eruption and Agatha's damage. The displaced count exceeds 70,000 at the moment. Among those who died in the mudslides were six of my own program participants who lived on the side of a hill; a reality so remote from my own that grief floods me along with disbelief. Guatemala is a combination of ash, mud, and destruction at the moment and the sun is shining brighter than ever.

I am developing an extreme amount of respect for relief workers. My specialty has been capacity development, conflict management and matters of transitional justice. Aid delivery and emergency relief are new to me and the challenges they present leave me in awe of professionals who pursue these paths full-time. How can people go back to the field, day in and day out, when they are surrounded by death, loss of livelihoods, destruction, and natual disaster? How do they develop the courage and resilience to deliver canned food under a still-smoking volcano when they know they will never have enough supplies for everyone who is waiting in line? How do they deal with the pervading sense of loss?

In Gulu, Uganda, one of the places hardest hit by a 20-year civil war, I met an extraordinary woman who is now leading one of the few organizations dedicated to women's post-conflict reintegration and development. When I asked her how she involved herself in this line of work, she told me a story. The war was personal to her and she was tired of sitting idly at home, so she volunteered with the World Food Program aid delivery. Every day she would deliver cartons of milk out of a truck to women who formed mile-long lines to receive them. It was not uncommon for the wait to get violent, resulting in aid workers having to break up fights or perform basic medical duties to help infants. One day, she spotted a woman with a baby on her back - not an uncommon sight in Northern Uganda. By the time the woman reached the aid truck, the baby was dead. My friend claims this image always travels with her, always reminding her of the need for compassion, dedication to service, and for helping those most in need. She was haunted by many stories like this one, but she did not consider them her 'ghosts'; rather, they are the stories that reaffirm her belief in what she does, they are her fuel that sets her on the road each day.

I am not at that point myself yet. Everything around me is still raw and emotionally affects me, even though I am safe and dry, and my 'fried computer in the flood' troubles absolutely pale in comparison to real human suffering. For the next few weeks, my standard work will give way to relief work, to aid delivery, and to reconstruction. I have never felt more grateful for life, I have never felt more of a need to be where I am and I have never felt more love for the kindness of the human beings who surround me.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Now Seeking: Bubble Wrap Bodysuit

 The dog who escorted me up Pacaya volcano a mere two weeks ago.

When I was little, my father used to joke that we could predict where the world's next great disaster would be based on my brother's travel and holiday schedule. My brother was in the Peloponnese? Massive fires burn five cities to the ground. My brother in Thailand? The tsunami hits. My brother in Africa? Cholera epidemic. It seems that this family luck is as genetic as our shared love of sports.

First, there was the car breakdown in the middle of the Syrian desert, somewhere between No Man's Land and Hezbollah hideouts. Then there was the malarial Christmas special, followed by the Dengue Fever Easter Favorite. [And let's pretend to have forgotten the encounters with insurgents, paramilitaries, government officials, muggers and potential robbers.] Now, remember the volcano I got up to climb bright and early, oh, two weeks ago?

It erupted last night, killing three people, covering nearby villages in lava, and casting a cloud of ash over Guatemala City, shutting down the national airport. I am safe (per usual), but am nursing my latest mosquito-born ailment indoors, as one of my field work sites is covered in smoke, while the other is dealing with a mudslide.

Click here for incredible video footage of the explosion, or here for photos and news coverage of the developments.

In the meantime, if anyone would like to ship me a bubble wrap bodysuit in which I can conduct my field work and life from now on, I would be very grateful.

Update: Tropical Storm Agatha, the very first of the season, graced Guatemala with its presence following the volcanic eruption. It rained outside, it rained inside, it rained on my laptop. For the next month, I am computerless. Frustrated and exhausted as I may be, I am thankful to be safe, alive and (mostly) dry. Over 100 people lost their lives, 70,000 are displaced and many more lost their livelihoods in mudslides, excessive lava flows, or flooding. This is a day to count blessings and to extend a helping hand.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Eight Kilometers of Kisses

 Couples begin to gather for the sunset at the Malecon in Havana.

true lovers in each happening of their hearts
live longer than all which and every who;
despite what fear denies, what hope asserts,
what falsest both disprove by proving true

(all doubts, all certainties, as villains strive
and heroes through the mere's mind poor pretend
- grim comics of duration: only love
immortally occurs beyond the mind)

such a forever is love's any now
and her each here is such an everywhere,
even more true would truest lovers grow
if out of midnight dropped more suns than are

(yes; and if time should ask into his was
all shall, their eyes would never miss a yes) 
-e.e. cummings 

There are some landscape features one does not notice until they are strangely missing. The Malecon is an 8 km. paved boardwalk on the Caribbean waterfront of Havana, Cuba and what is missing are the boats. The Florida Keys are 90 miles away from Havana, but the American embargo on Cuba means no cargo boats or cruise ships travel these waters. The occasional boat to Central and South American countries that have tenuous relationships with Cuba will fill the landscape, but 8 kilometers of walking can go by and a "Where's Waldo?" effect settles in, as one looks out over the water and sees nothing but orange-tinted waves at sunset.

Alone on the Malecon before sunset - an almost offensive sight

In Santorini, Greece, one shares the sunset with an army of couples, staring deeply into each other's eyes and clapping when the sun dips into the Aegean, transforming the experience into a vista that belongs in the previews of a summer film. In Havana, one shares the sunset with the whole city - a city in love. Some people bring their own Cuban rum, others their guitar or music player, but the one accessory nobody neglects is their loved one. Couples sit by the water from sundown until well past midnight and there are so many of them that one has to rub elbows with kissing lovers for a seat and some sea breeze spray. The scene repeats itself nightly, the sunset always obliges with beauty, the tenderness does not wither. The Malecon exudes unabashed, unadulterated affection, not necessarily of the hormonal teenage kind, but of the type that makes one want to love and be loved.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Heartstrings of Champions

No matter how much I search, I cannot find another harbour. - Melina Merkouri, Never on Sunday
I grew up in a sports-loving family. The European Track-and-Field Championships of 1998? We will watch every event, from the steeple chase to the shot put. Olympic weightlifting? We will celebrate every Greek medal. The true family love, though, has always been Panathinaikos. None of us consciously chose a sports team. Before we could walk, our fathers draped us in a green scarf with a clove and taught us to recognize the team's anthem. The family clan nowadays is a cast of characters: divorcees, widows, immigrants, nomads, America-skeptics, America-lovers. We are, however, all 'Panathinaikos.'

Although it has been criminally long since Panathinaikos did tear-jerkingly well in the Champions League, the European Cup for soccer club teams, I knew that the rest of the family would be watching the Inter-Milan final... and that is how I found myself squeezed between a Cuban doctor/professor and a live Cuban band in Havana. The Cuban doctor informed me that Cuba is the country with the most televised hours of soccer internationally (and I share this tidbit with the knowledge that my brothers may be packing their bags instantly). The Champions League tune bellowed from the TV, as the Cuban band was strumming along.

The band saunters over to me and ask "Any requests, ma'am?" I have none; I am still processing the surrealism of watching the finals of a European cup with a Spanish announcer and Cuban companions in Havana. They ask where I am from and I share my Greek origins. Without my request or suggestion, the band instantly starts to perfectly play Never on Sunday (video above), a 1960 Greek song that won a 'Best Original Song' Oscar. Ironically, the song is often associated with Panathinaikos' arch-rival team, but for me, it bears connotations of Greece, my childhood, black-and-white movies, my heritage, my memories.

There I am in Cuba, feeling like my country is calling me back, tugging at my heartstrings. The final Champions League game had not yet started, and I felt like my team - my beloved team that could not dream of playing in it - had already won.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Give me my 'bubble' back?

How can you gather together
the thousand fragments
of each person?
What's wrong with the rudder?
The boat inscribes circles
and there's not a single gull.
The world sinks:
hang on, it'll leave you
alone in the sun.
You write:
the ink grew less,
the sea increases.
The body that hoped to flower like a branch,
to bear fruit, to become like a flute in the frost —
imagination has thrust it into a noisy bee-hive
so that musical time can come and torture it.  
-Greek Nobel Laureate Giorgos Seferis, "Lost Worlds"

Scene I
I was sitting in the sun reading The Glass Castle, praised for "transforming sad memories into a world of beauty." [Now if the author could tell me how to do exactly that for my post-conflict memory reconciliation projects, I would be very grateful.] I was listening to my iPod in a strange moment of cultural oblivion, in which I was craving the separation from the outside world that the iPod afforded me and the distance that headphones create from potential conversation. The last time I had pulled out an iPod in public outside a plane setting was more than six months ago and on this particular Sunday afternoon in Guatemala, I was hoping to create that invisible bubble between myself and the world - the very bubble I usually aggressively seek to burst.

Despite Patrick Park bellowing into my ears, I heard a whimpering sound behind me. I turned around to see a little boy crying. I ask him "what is wrong?" in Spanish. He continues to cry and slowly walks away from me. I know I have to tread lightly; in many of the countries in which I have lived and worked, children react with fear to strangers with different dress, skin, hair, or eye color than their own and, especially in Guatemala, there have been a number of adoption scandals that have made locals very skeptical of lone Western women. The boy is sobbing and I cannot tell if he cannot understand my Spanish or he is too shy to respond to me. "Are you in pain? Does your tummy hurt? Did you fall and hurt yourself?" He shakes his head no. "Are you hungry? Thirsty?" Looks at me blankly. "Where is your mummy?" Continues to look at me with no reaction other than balling.

I look around the park, but cannot spot any women who could potentially be his mother. I see a policewoman and ask if she has seen the boy's mother or if she can think of any way to help him. She gives us both a sympathetic look, shrugs and says "it happens all the time." In the process of doing this, I must have dropped a 50 centavo coin - the equivalent to far less than 50 US cents. The boy tugged my skirt and pointed at the coin to remind me to pick it up.

There was no way I could get him to talk to me, or to stop crying. I could not get through to him or help him.  All this training, all these conflict and post-conflict zones, all these hours of programming, all these conversations - and I cannot stop a little boy from crying.

Scene II
My notorious clumsiness has led to:
a) My falling off a motorcycle onto red African soil in Northern Uganda;
b) My colliding with every piece of furniture in our apartment in Cairo to the point that when my roommates heard a thud, they would immediately say "ah, crashing sound. Roxanne must be home.";
c) My landing on my behind in a Jerusalem downpour that almost ruined New Year's Eve (and necessitated icing my collarbone in mortification at a cafe).
Hence, when I began a set of visits to the women of the village of San Mateo with tripping over something, I was barely surprised. I turned behind me to see what it was.

It was a newborn puppy. Immediately a little boy ran to me: "Miss, the dog gave birth last night and the puppy is sick!" I look down and notice it is not breathing. I touch its body and it is not nearly warm enough. How do you start your day with a dead puppy? And how do you tell a little boy you have just met that the puppy is dead?

It is the moments that make the cycle of life and death, pain and joy, suffering and well-being blatantly apparent that make the silver lining entirely elusive. Helplessness is a crippling emotion for an aid worker. It is moments like these that make me wish that I could go back to that place, that pre-fellowship, pre-road, pre-epiphanies, pre-everything place of mine, of not being able to feel.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Lava Diaries

4.55 AM: Alarm goes off. Cross paths on the way to the bathroom with Couchsurfer who has just come home from a night out. Promptly acknowledge that it is way too early for hiking boots.

Why I wake early (borrowing from Mary Oliver)

5.10 AM: A brownie is the new breakfast of champions. A brownie eaten in an outfit consisting of said hiking boots and a nightgown.

Beer on a rosy doorstep: the remnants of someone's Friday night

5.45 AM: Climb out of nightgown and into overpacked shuttle after walking through empty park strewn with beer bottles (ah, Friday night). Flashback of transportation memories of Egypt, Uganda, and Colombia. Plug in headphones and allow the Soundtrack of Post-Conflict Development This Semester (ie. Bon Iver) to put me back to sleep for another half hour. Identify Sign #3435 that you have been doing "this" too long: Sleep straight through the dirt road segment of the drive, including the part where our shuttle driver got out to yell at the bus driver who nearly ran us into a ditch.
7.10 AM: Spot the volcano! Maybe this is one of those car mirror things whereby "objects are not as high and impossible to hike up at this unseemly hour as they seem?"

7.15 AM: At the base of the volcano, children swarm us to buy walking sticks. Mine is about as tall as I am. Either this volcano is made for giants, or I will have to elbow my way to a Polly-pocket sized walking aide.
  What's that saying about carrying a big stick?

7.20  AM: Begin walking up steep, rocky incline.

7.21 AM: Oh God, this is steep.

7.22 AM: Remember "Brownie, the new Breakfast of Champions?" Um, scratch that thought.

7.25 AM: "Taxi?" A 13-year-old boy asks me if I want a taxi. There are rocks behind me and forest in front of me. I soon realize he is referring to a horse. My pride gets the best of me and I say "no, thank you." He continues to ride the horse behind me, meaning a) I get to hike in the knowledge that a 13-year-old boy is betting against my odds of making it up there on foot, b) I am nearly trampled twice. Clop clop clop.

7.35 AM: Through the forest we go. This is my first active volcano and I am surprised by the vegetation, explained both by the rain in this region and the minerals in the ground. Gone are the days of trudging up a Santorini pile of rocks radiating heat up my sweaty calves.

7.45 AM: The first look-out point, with the peaks of the triplet Agua, Fuego and Acatenango volcanoes rising above the morning fog. One of those sobering "life is beautiful" moments.

Three inactive volcanic peaks in the distance. Life is beautiful.

7.55 AM: "For the red madam, a taxi?" A different boy attempts to cut me a discount on a horse. Was it my intense wheezing, beet-like countenance or look of 'beaten puppy' that gave away my physical strain?

7.57 AM: Still on foot, still huffing-and-puffing like a British steam train on the eve of the Industrial Revolution.

7.59 AM: "I will never smoke again." I say this while ascending a smoking giant, and with the knowledge that like all "I will never drink tequila/sing karaoke/etc." resolutions, it will only last as long as the effect of the embarrassment does.

8.10 AM: "You have an hour to go [lie, by the way] and it gets very hard! Taxi, taxi, taxi!" So much for motivational speaking. Someone needs to get Nike and their "You can do it" life cheer-leading up on Pacaya. Tell them to take a taxi because I still refuse to.

8.20 AM: The terrain shifts to fine, black volcanic dust and rocks. Spot the first billows of smoke and smell the sulfur in the air.

8.30 AM: "Descaaaaanso!" The Bedouins of Sinai smoke five packs of cigarettes a day, put five spoonfuls of sugar in each of their twelve cups of tea, and still manage to run up the rocky Mt. Sinai in pitch blackness nightly as tourists relate to the Biblical analogies of Golgothas, miracles and trials of the self while struggling kilometers behind them. This particular Guatemalan guide was sporting a generous beer belly and had exactly one arm and one tooth. And he grinned his way up the volcano, hopping from peak to peak without breaking a sweat. When he called out for a rest break, he laughed at all the gringos who-despite their better judgment-were horizontal on the little stones within seconds, with chests rising and falling rapidly, guzzling water and explaining away their poor physical states ("I have recently had knee surgery!", "I had one Gallo too many last night", "My left ankle is itchy.")

The smoking peak within sight

8.40 AM: Collective gasp, followed by quietness. We complete a steep turn and rivers of lava are flowing off the peak of Pacaya. The magma sizzles audibly, rocks tumble visibly, mini-fires start where wood burns in the path of the lava, and one cheek feels heat equal to having snugged the fireplace seat on a November night while the other is experiencing cool mountain air.

 The first 'Ahhh' moment

8.45 AM: Gingerly tiptoe across the sharp volcanic rock to get closer to the lava. Gingerly recall all the incidents that ended with me flat on my face on similar occasions. Gingerly contemplate what would happen if I were to fall flat on my face here.

Gingerly tiptoeing next to a lava river

8.50 AM: A French couple is roasting marshmallows over magma.

8.55 AM: I shift positions neurotically so as not to burn the plastic soles of my shoes. Surrounded by lava, I am in awe (and in a natural sauna).

 Now you tell me?

9.30 AM: As picture-taking, oohing and ahhing goes on, I ask the guide if he knows of any accidents. "Accidents? He. he. he. Two people died two weeks ago. A Venezuelan woman was surrounded by lava and both she and the guide who tried to help her died. Do not play with fire. He. he. he." Curiosity kills the cat, Roxanne.

You mean, I should not chase the rolling fire down the hill?

9.45 AM: We begin our descend. I slip and slide all across the rocks, but keep delusionally repeating to myself "If malaria, rebels, dengue fever, food poisoning, the Amazon, an armed robbery, and Egyptian trains did not kill you, a river of fire will not."
Do not hold on to this for support.

9.55 AM: Creek, crack, eek. Those were my knees, speaking up to express their, ehm, enjoyment of the downhill prancing.

10.05 AM: "So, how many times a week do you do this, sir?" "Ah, nowadays, not a lot. Maybe three times a week?" Gasp.

10.10 AM: "And what are your plans for enjoying this Saturday afternoon?" "I am taking a 2 PM group back up the volcano, señora." Señora is dumbfounded - and clearly a woos.

10.20 AM: The only thing keeping me from rolling downhill, intentionally or despite myself, is the thought that I really would prefer to not ride the van back with a horse excrement souvenir.

The señora near the peak - with a "taxi" stubbornly behind her

10.30 AM: "Señora, you made it!" The 13-year-old boy at the bottom seems pleasantly surprised. I am too. Volcanoes are beautiful, as is life wish fulfillment and the sense of satisfaction of having pushed oneself to make a dream come true. Now, my 13-year-old 'taxi'-driver, is there any chance you will let me trot home on horseback?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Bumps Along the Way

"I will learn from myself, be my own student." - Herman Hesse, Siddhartha 

One of my favorite professors at Harvard, while commenting on my writing, chastised me for a perpetual 'positive spin.' He commented that I would infuse positivity into my writing when there may not have been any in real life and prodded me to "allow the reader to feel what he wants to feel. Let him wallow in the same discomfort you do. Writing is not a romantic comedy at the cinema; we do not always need to smile and feel settled at the end of it." The dark, convoluted thoughts have rarely made it on paper; friends have remarked that they sometimes do not even make it out of my mouth, staying instead trapped inside my head.

This is an attempt to address the bumps along the way of this roller-coaster of placements in conflict and post-conflict communities. It has been an extraordinary time. It has also been an extraordinarily difficult time. There was the malaria, the driving under Hezbollah flags, the being stranded at various borders, the dengue fever, the being followed by an intelligence officer/the army, the stomach parasites, the getting mugged by children in broad daylight. The constant farewells and arrivals at new places as a stranger in a strange land, the nostalgia, the homesickness, the longing to be in the arms of loved ones. The commencement of projects with little to no institutional support, the language barriers, the cultural misunderstandings, the religious confusion. Every obstacle has enriched my journey and every overcoming of it has given me even more faith (how is that for a positive spin?)

However, there are the times when the challenges are man-made. A few lines from Kostas Kavafis' Ithaca read:
Laistrygonians, Cyclops, wild Poseidon -
you won't encounter them
unless you carry them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

During my early days in Guatemala, I excelled in this setting up of barriers in front of myself. One of the most critical decisions a post-conflict development worker needs to make at the onset of an intervention-based project involves selecting the right partners with whom to cooperate on the ground. What kind of work have community-based and non-governmental organizations already done to address the particular problem, how can I contribute to it and how can they be of help to my project? 

When I arrived in Guatemala, I did not spend enough time asking the right questions or processing the answers I was receiving - even though this is a process I had successfully carried out in a number of environments and intellectually 'knew' how to perform. There is a lot of need for post-conflict work in a country with genocide investigations, exhumations of mass murder victims from the civil war and indigenous Mayan communities with distinct development challenges from the urban centers. Perhaps insecurity got the best of me and I wanted to know what my purpose for existence was in this environment. I hurried to the answers without the required patience, self-reflection or scientific assessment whose necessity I swear by. As a result, I said yes to every offer of partnership, without it necessarily complying with my personal goals or professional requirements. 

And, of course, when the wind died down and I began to form a clearer picture of what the real needs are and how I can ameliorate them, I had to say no. This was an ugly process - ironically so, for a conflict resolution specialist who had taught 750 people a unit called "Difficult Conversations" just weeks before! I disappointed organizations who could have used my help and I disappointed myself. I did distill three diverse, distinct, all-consuming projects towards which I am channeling every ounce of energy I have left. While the details need to remain under wraps for my security, per usual, they involve:
  • Offering capacity development for a women's microcredit initiative that seeks to reintegrate Mayan women into the community by building their skills and helping them transition into employment;
  • Spearheading an oral history of the conflict project for six Mayan villages hardest hit by the civil war;
  • Conducting a needs assessment for programming for a 'Mothers Club' consisting of the mothers of children participating in a high-needs education program. 
 I am proud and inspired by the portfolio of this last placement. I am less proud of the ways in which I conducted myself until the above crystallized itself into a coherent professional trajectory. Armed with the knowledge from my early mistakes, I now know a few things: First, clear your head. Conflict and post-conflict environments have a fantastic way of rewiring one's brain to complete convolution. Figure out what you want and why. Secondly, do not be afraid to wallow in uncertainty - a few more days of "I do not know" as a response to "what are you doing here?" are more valuable than the security of knowing you are about to do something for which your heart does not yearn. Third, confront conflict head on, apologize, and move on. These are the times when wallowing does not help. And finally, hold on to the greatest lesson this cycle of conflict and post-conflict zones has bestowed upon me: Have a little faith.

It turns out that I still cannot write without a positive spin. This time, though, I think the Eternal Optimist comes from within and the less shiny versions of this journey are finding their way out as well. Prof. B, thank you.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Access in Guatemala in 15 images

A mirror on a door 
Sometimes latticed windows reveal a love of Christ...
... and other times they reveal hanging shoes, a dubious symbol potentially signifying a safe space to buy drugs.
Sometimes the latticed windows complicate the beautiful light...
  ... and sometimes they let all the light right through, in doses large...
...and small.
To get in, you may need to hold a hand...
... stroke an animal...
... pat a lion ...
... bow to a foreign god... 
 ... smile to foreign creatures...
 ... or lose sight. 
And if you cannot get in, there is always an engraved peephole...
... to let you into secret gardens, or keep you out of them.
And on every door you can find love.