Monday, June 21, 2010

Where is "back"?

“Everyone of us is losing something precious to us. Lost opportunities, lost possibilities, feelings we can never get back again. That’s part of what it means to be alive. But inside our heads—at least that’s where I imagine it—there’s a little room where we store those memories. A room like the stacks in this library. And to understand the workings of our own heart we have to keep on making new reference cards. We have to dust things off every once in a while, let in fresh air, change the water in the flower vases. In other words, you’ll live forever in your own little private library." - Haruki Murakami

"Welcome back, Ms. Krystalli," pronounced the US Border Patrol official at LAX, after sniffing the Guatemalan coffee I was carrying and questioning me about my Middle Eastern meanderings. And thus commenced 48 hours of disorientation.

I know how to bucket shower and spot a spider in the dark in the Amazon, but I apparently fail at existing within the United States. One of the starkest differences to my lifestyle in conflict and post-conflict zones is that in the United States there is an abundance of choice - and it mutes my ability to choose. It takes me two minutes to order coffee: tall, venti, non-fat, extra sprinkles, cinnamon on top? It takes me another two minutes to pay for anything: debit? credit? donate a dollar to the children's hospital? cash back? confirm your purchase? Even the bank was baffled by my new patterns, blocking my card when I bought the same bottle of wine that nursed my friends and me through college. Apparently, Bank of America is more accustomed to my purchasing cholera medication than rose wine.

On the road, people have often asked me if I am homesick. The truth is, I miss every home. When I am at a salsa bar in Los Angeles, I miss dancing on tables in Guatemala, or flamenco night in Colombia, or blackening my lungs one sheesha puff at a time in Cairo. It is almost as though the nostalgia has neutralized homesickness for any particular home. Thus, returning to the United States may mean that I have been eating like a 13-year-old hormonal boy with growing pains, but there has been no associated sense of relief, no sense that I am "back where I belong."

A friend recently shared with me his obsession with the Spanish verb 'volver', which means to return, to go back. Returns are glorified. The Greek concept of 'nostos', the root of the word nostalgia, implies that there is a yearning for home bases, a romanticization of the return. Homer did not devote as much ink to the disorientation after the journey, or the danger that the voyager has fallen in love with other ports, other homes, others along the way. There is a profound disorientation to being back. It does not necessarily rob the return of its charm or its joys, but it makes me wonder if I will miss every place I have lived and loved like a home, if I will always be some kind of nostalgic, if I will always be reminiscing, looking forward and thinking of the homes that would have been.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Guate Epilogue: The unexpected lessons

Guatemala is the last stop in this journey of conflict management projects worldwide and it, too, is soon coming to an end. This is a continuation of a series of reflections on my time in this country.

That there are no random acts. That we are all connected. That you can no more separate one life from another than you can separate a breeze from the wind. - Mitch Albom, The Five People You Meet in Heaven

A conflict management professional looks for conflict
In Cairo, I observed cultural conflict as I worked with women living within the realities of Islam. In Africa, the conflict was still raw: displacement, starvation, nightly brushes with violence. There is still a slice of Colombia that necessitates that you trust nobody because nobody has just one affiliation - the same slice that would have you mugged at gunpoint in broadlight. And in Guatemala, I observed ........?

Unlike the other places in which I have lived and worked, Guatemala can be safely classified as 'post-conflict.' It is so post-conflict, in fact, that when I explained that my job requires that I design and execute programs that benefit women in areas of conflict, my friends would ask quizically: "Then what are you doing in Guatemala?" Contrary to popular knowledge, the marks of the conflict are still raw in this country. Exhumations of graves of mass murder victims continue. The war targeted indigenous populations and women with such brutality and consistency that many do not hesitate to call it a genocide. Poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition and other ailments persist in the areas hardest hit by the conflict. There is a conflict trail in Guatemala and it is as live and raw as any other conflict trail I have traversed.

There is also a tourist trail in Guatemala, the very same tourist trail that had me eating a succession of bagels, pancakes, and carrot cake for my first two weeks in the country (actually, the carrot cake is still a staple). As I tried to navigate the two trails, I often felt disoriented and uncertain of the ways in which I could contribute. It was almost as if the conflict element was not visible enough or current enough for me to be able to reaffirm the basics of my job as a conflict management professional. 

Children, chickens, crops, credit, cholera 
Almost miraculously, I learned more about development and conflict in Guatemala than I ever thought I would at a place where the biggest danger to my security was that I nearly got run over by...a Hummer. Conflict has many faces worldwide, from the civil to the international and the genocidal to the familial and as I explored its nuances in Guatemala, I added many "life firsts" to my list.

I now know how to tell (some) crops apart and how to prevent chicken pneumonia.

I also know what the spread of cholera smells like, and have a newfound appreciation for the resilience of human beings.

To complement the transitional justice trajectory of past placements, Guatemala offered me my first glimpse into microcredit and the capacity of partnerships between the private and public sector to foster development.

I delved into the world of indigenous communities and was forced to learn how to adapt programming not only to the needs of the participants, but also to the realities of a lifestyle remote from my own. When a group of mothers participating in capacity building seminars state that they do not just want to learn about human rights, but would prefer to receive instruction on making tamales and opening a mini Guatemalan beauty salon in the highlands, what is a conflict management professional to do? (The short answer: Career Week 2010 for the Mothers Club!)

When I was not thinking about a rural Central America beauty salon run by indigenous mothers, I finally returned to the roots of my education by conducting a historical memory project involving the facilitation of discussions between villages hardest hit by the civil war and the codifying of the conflict and post-conflict experience for posterity. 

The professional trajectory in this country has been unexpected, disparate, and fulfilling in equal measures. I may not have had my run-ins with insurgents in Guatemala or my brush with malaria, but I thought about oral history, the telling of stories, tamales, bucketing mud, loans for farming, raising chickens, and raising 13 children all at once.

The other lessons

"Do you always have to learn something?" This was a question posed by a friend as we discussed how sometimes the lessons we draw are not the ones we set out to learn. "Say you had learned nothing about conflict or war or development. Would your Guatemalan placement still have been worth it?" The nature of conflict shifts, and so do priorities, my purpose in each country, the people with whom I am surrounded and - inevitably - the personal lessons that resonate from each experience.

If in Cairo I immersed myself in the social webbing of a formed group of friends and loved ones, in Guatemala I learned how to be alone - or how to let strangers break the solitude. I hiked in caves and tubed down rivers with a married couple I had just met, I debated the merits of marriage with a new Dutch friend shortly after the sun came up and I sang along to The Scientist at 5.30 AM on my living room floor with a person I had known for 24 hours, but had attended my farewell party nonetheless. I met travelers in search of love, or healing after a break-up, or in a quest to identify their professional passions, or making a desperate attempt to avoid the world, or hoping to feel everything I had hoped would hit me when I first set out on the road. I met travelers and ex-pats on no search at all -- people who know how to cruise down the road of life, appreciating its every moment without rushing to unearth what it has in store next for them. 

I took photographs and I wrote and I photographed some more - and, for the first time, believed that I could.

I was prodded and challenged and cajoled to think and argue and dig into my own beliefs: Why do we travel? How do expats live and why? How do we deal with the self-involvement often inherent in such pursuits? What about love -- whom do we love, how, why? Surrounded by 'save-the-worlders', idealists, disillusioned ex-pats, cynics, eternal optimists and weary travelers, I attempted to let some of my own sarcasm dissolve a little and embrace a friend's response to my skepticism about certain aspects of the conflict management, ex-pat and development worker life: "Just because you are happy does not mean you are not making an impact. You do not need to be miserable to be making a difference."

And if I had to pick the biggest personal transformation in Guatemala, it would have to be attributed to being surrounded by Dreamers. A dear friend is such a fervent believer in love that he quotes poetry on "el amor, las mujeres, y la vida" as a regular staple of his lunch. Someone else is walking from Alaska to Buenos Aires, hoping to experience the world in the most direct way. A married couple is apprenticing with professionals in their field of interest around the world, hoping to live and learn. A single mother is schooling her 11-year-old son on the road of life, moving from country to country, also hoping to live and learn presently, simply and experientially. A motorcycle-loving friend pursued his passion for riding and wanderlusting by quitting his job and moving to Guatemala to do what he loves. These people have exhibited a fearlessness, passion for living, sustained and true optimism, and constant lust for learning that they have managed to sprinkle some of their pixie dust on me, making me dream and hope and dare a little bit more than I otherwise would have -- which means that for the rest of my life, I will playfully resent them a little and love them a lot.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Guate Epilogue: An Unclenching of Fists

Guatemala is the last stop in this journey of conflict management projects worldwide and it, too, is soon coming to an end. Here begins a series of reflections on my time in this country.
Improvisation. Joan Didion, a writer who has been charting our responses to change since the 1960s, has a memorable passage describing how her husband said they’d begun a trip to Paris in the right spirit: “He meant doing things not because we were expected to do them or had always done them or should do them,” she wrote, “but because we wanted to do them. He meant wanting. He meant living.” 

She was referring to life as a kind of improvisation: that magical crossroads of rigor and ease, structure and freedom, reason and intuition. What she calls being prepared to “go with the change.” Uncertainty, in other words, makes us feel alive. As jazz great Charlie Parker put it, “Master your instrument, master the music, and then forget all that … and just play.
-Drew Faust and Joan Didion, at their best

My plane landed in Guatemala and fatigue clouded any excitement to have arrived at the last stop of this journey. I had no energy to start over yet again, to make new friends, to tell stories anew, to identify a new project, to win the trust of new participants, to start building another edifice from its foundation.

Guatemala City is a gated world, creating a distinct division between the inside of its universe and the onlookers trapped outside. The smog traveled me back to Cairo, but without its charm, and the chaos reminded me of Bogota, but without its mountains and natural beauty. Prior to arriving in this country, I prided myself on not having disliked any conflict or post-conflict zone in which I had lived and worked. Perhaps it was the emotional exhaustion I carried with me, or the vibes of the city, or 'final stop' weariness. Or perhaps Guatemala City came into my life to disprove my "I like everywhere" assumptions. And so one day, not too long after I arrived there, I decided that my happiness did not lie within the confines of the city -- and I took off, in search of a place where I could be happier, more impactful, where I could once again feel alive.

Therein lay an unexpected lesson for me: If you want to go, go; if you want to do, do. You will never know enough, you will never have enough assurances that you are doing the right thing, the risks of walking away from the 'status quo' will always be there. When I arrived in Guatemala, I ached for being settled. It was uncomfortable for people to ask "what are you doing here?" and for me to not have the answer. I lustfully said 'yes' to every possible project, craving an affiliation with a defined purpose and an institution that makes me more than just a woman performing some sort of projects in some sort of damaged places around the world. And as such, my first steps in Guatemala were shakier and more filled with professional blunders than my previous new beginnings.

Leaving Guatemala City and walking away from some early project commitments was not easy; it required uncomfortable conversations and an amount of confidence I did not feel I had at the time. The process taught me the toughest personal lesson of my journey thus far: Wade in uncertainty a little while longer.The anchors and the affiliations lend affirmation, but also weigh down. I still need a sense of purpose. My passion for what I do still fuels me. I cannot negate all my ties. Yet, a  lot of journeys through rural Guatemala later, a lot of motorcycle rides, a lot of pick-up trucks, a lot of hitch-hiking, a lot of interviews with indigenous mothers, microcredit loan recipients and civil war victims later, the road has had its effect on me: I can float in uncertainty a little while longer, I can fight the impulse of being defined by what I do, I can start to put the itinerary down, unclench my fists, and let the road show me the way.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A day in the life

Or: why I will really miss what I do, and why it really pays to do what you love.

Every normal week begins with a mountain of beans in a school courtyard.
 Conducting a needs assessment: Asking mothers what they want to learn
And from Jocotenango to San Mateo. This is the roof of a program participant's home. Because she has a sheet instead of a door, this is the roof on which I knock to enter her home.
Dogs have a field day in San Mateo. Sometimes, this makes my work traumatic.
A consultation with a microcredit loan recipient in San Mateo. Notice the Barbie accounting notebook.
Interviewing microcredit loan recipients, who sometimes bring their little ones along.
21-year-old Ana and her beautiful family
Some children like me...
But I still have this effect on most of them.
They promised me they were "guarding" daddy's bike and would not ride it, but I remain unconvinced.
 Greeting the volcano on the walk home
It is not every day that all your program participants are half an hour late because the First Lady is here.
Interviewing mothers at the Scheel Center
 Ending the day with a smile

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A childless woman meets a mother of 13

"Give a man a fish, he'll eat for a day. Give a woman microcredit, she, her husband, her children and her extended family will eat for a lifetime." -Bono

In 1976, Professor Muhammad Yunnus set out to investigate the ways in which a credit program could stimulate development for those living in poverty in rural areas worldwide. By 2006 Yunnus and his organization, the Grameen Bank, had won a Nobel Peace Prize and microfinance initiatives have now sprung up from Bangladesh to Peru. With the ground still wet from Tropical Storm Agatha and an outbreak of both typhoid fever and cholera at my heels, I set out to wrap up one of my projects in the country: recording the life histories of women who have received credit to start their own enterprises in rural Guatemala. The interviews defied my expectations; the candidness of the women, their approaches to family and child-rearing, and their attitude towards training and capacity development deviated from the perspectives with which I was familiar and left me with an inordinate amount of knowledge about how to raise chickens, babies, and crops.

A knock on a tin roof
To get inside the house of the first woman in my group, I had to knock on the tin roof for the simple reason that she did not have a door. A hanging sheet separated her kitchen from the street, letting out the aromas of her cooking and occasionally letting in the neighborhood dogs. She received microcredit to develop a mini-catering business, whereby she supplies families with cooked food in exchange for payment. She is not herself literate, and in order to keep up with the strict accounting requirements of the microcredit program, her husband records her expenses and income in a notebook with Barbie on the cover. Her dream is to eventually start a small restaurant in the village of San Mateo, tucked away in the Guatemalan mountains. Once she fully repays her loan, she hopes to use the remainder of her profit to buy some tables and begin making her dream a reality.

Tales of sneezing chickens
My next program beneficiary is breast-feeding when I walk in. I offer to wait outside, but she laughs my suggestion off and I realize that this woman has breast-fed while harvesting crops, talking to school teachers, or shopped in the market. Her five children are aged 8, 6, 4, 2  and 9 months. She is breeding chickens for sale and is delighted to see that I am escorted by a business advisor, who spends the next hour and a half explaining to her how to prevent chicken pneumonia. At the end of my session with this mighty mother, I know more about Guatemalan remedies for a chicken cold than I do about transitional justice in this country. When I ask the participant why she chose to use her loan to raise chickens, she explains: "In the winter, I can put the chickens in my kitchen and watch them from there along with my children. I do not have to be out in the field, or away from my family."

Baby in the mud
For some other women, being out in the field requires packing the family along for the ride. Upon arriving to greet a woman who is cultivating corn and beans, I am greeted by a wailing 3-year-old. Little Alma had fallen in a pit of mud and could not dig herself out. As I try to fish the child out of the dirt, the mother laughs and says she was her age when she first worked in the field. She is using her microcredit loan to buy tarps that could shield her produce from storms that can wipe out an entire crop line. When I ask if there is any kind of training that can improve her life as a farmer, she cautions against Northern and Western biases. "When the trainers come in their matching T-shirts and nice cars, they all smile and really want to help. But they do not know Guatemalan crops. We grow a special kind of corn, a special kind of bean, that you cannot even grow in other parts of Guatemala. Unless you know how to tell me to grow this specific kind of bean better, then training is useless for me." A lesson in the need for regionally-tailored development solutions if there ever was one!

It runs in the family
Her sister had numerous responses to the question of what she would like to learn if she had the opportunity to receive some sort of capacity building. She joined the program because her mother and sister both benefited from microcredit and now she also grows crops. However, she warns that this is a seasonally-affected occupation... and so she would like to learn how to work with beads or textiles, so she can diversify her entrepreneurial endeavors, reach into an entirely new market, and have an occupation and income year-round.

San Mateo is a visibly poor village, with a consistent odor emanating from the streets, stray dogs, shoeless children and a limited market. Yet, none of the women will openly discuss difficulties, challenges or hardship. Their stoicism and resilience yield responses that echo one another: "Gracias a Dios (thank God), we are ok." This makes the task of assessing need and developing corresponding programming a strangely complicated one, while simultaneously constituting an example in self-reliance and positivity.

13 children to my none
And then there are the moments when positivity and grave sobriety alternate. A mother of 13 (!) says that she channels her profit towards sending most of her children to school. Like many of my other program participants, she cannot read or write - but her children can. "That is the point of parenting, isn't it? Giving your children more opportunities than you had yourself." She asks me how many children I have and I recall that she already had 5 babies at my age. "None," I say somewhat sheepishly and she gives me a consoling smile and her assurance that God will send me a baby soon. Unsure how I feel about this prophecy, I am on my way.

The less silver lining
My last participant and I are chatting happily as the sun is going down behind a volcano across the valley. We discuss her business model, the lessons she acquired through her participation in the program, her hopes for the future. I finally ask whether she is married and how many children she has. She is a widow who has five children -- but she had to give three of them away to her brother-in-law because she cannot raise them herself. "They are still my children, my blood, and they are in the family, but I cannot be a mother to five. Not right now. Maybe if my business is successful, I can take a couple of them back."

I hitch-hiked home on the back of a motorcycle, since buses only come to San Mateo twice a week and there are no taxis or tuk-tuks in sight. I arrived 'home' to an empty house.13 kids were not waiting for me to make dinner. I could feel my perspectives on motherhood, hardship and gumption were shifting, one chicken raising lesson at a time.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Café "I do not know"

We've lived in bars
and danced on tables
hotels trains and ships that sail
we swim with sharks
and fly with aeroplanes out of here
-Cat Power, Lived in Bars

In Uganda, it was called Fugly's. In Egypt, it was an alley in which no two wooden chairs looked the same. In Colombia, it involved flamenco by candlelight. Every country in which I have lived and worked, no matter the scale of conflict or natural disaster plaguing it, has always been home to that one place where aid workers, backpackers, wanderlusters and gray-haired ex-pats gather to share their nostalgia, pearls of wisdom, love or disdain of being on the road, and conspiracy theories.

In Guatemala, it is called Café No Sé.

Part of the print ad for No Sé lists - with pride - the following as its attributes:
"uncomfortable seats, confused staff, wanted and unwanted pregnancies [...], 4.5 dogs, other creatures, deviant behavior [...], hearts to break, heartbreakers ..."
Nobody goes to Café No Sé for an uneventful, quiet night of reflection - not unless they intend for reflection to lead to brooding and brooding to a sense of either impending doom or overwhelming positivity. The night before Tropical Storm Agatha unleashed its full force on Guatemala, on Hour 24 of incessant rain, I huddled inside Café No Sé, earnestly engaged in an argument over whether, following the eruption of volcanoes from Pacaya to Iceland and occurrence of earthquakes from Haiti to Chile, the end of the world is approaching. One of my friends was arguing that a realignment of the universe is taking place, while the bartender who overheard the 2012-oriented conversation exclaimed "oh honey! The end of the world is coming! Drink heavily, have lots of sex, and tell mama you love her!"

Perhaps shamefully, I did not follow his prescription. I did, however, share my own recipe for tropical storm preparation. It was called an "emergency kit" and it required the right amount of neurotic pre-planning, batteries, a headlamp, candles, and all the canned food a girl can eat. Somehow, my disaster preparedness was less popular than the bartender's version... until the next morning, when there was not a single candle to be found in the market.

No Sé means "I do not know" in Spanish; a dictum the café's regulars love to disprove. There is always an expert at something at No Sé, be that Mayan religious rituals, metaphysics and philosophy, or flipping corn tortillas. Curiosity abounds and nothing short of passion is accepted at the door. I recently brushed elbows with a woman who was gesturing wildly, wagging her finger at a man and excoriating: "You need to have passion in life!" Sitting at the counter next to her was a group of older ex-pats, equally loudly expressing the disillusionment that often sadly comes with having spent a life on the road.

It is hard to tell whether what is rubbing up against your leg mid-conversation is a dog tail or a human. It is not uncommon for lone travelers to be sitting at a bar, ready to share their story of how they are walking from Alaska to Argentina with the person sitting next to them. On the night before the storm, I met an American who had arrived to attend a Guatemalan wedding. The volcanic eruption meant he was the only friend of the groom's who was able to witness the nuptials. He joked that he was hoping No Sé would help find him a wedding date to double the number of guests in attendance. No Sé-goers will wax nostalgic about the meaning of true love and proclaim themselves 'dreamers', but until love knocks on their own door, they will often settle for its more ephemeral manifestations. Hence, any night at the café is a collection of lovers, past, present, and future, from the most furtive to the ones wrapped up in the kind of romance they want to shout it from the rooftops.

Unlike the effortlessness of our sheesha alley in Cairo, No Sé tries hard to have the effect it does on its regulars. There is a sense that its charm is very deliberate, from the hipsters it can attract to its mood lighting and tongue-in-cheek art. This does not rob the watering hole of its ability to indeed be charming. And much like the flamenco evenings in Colombia or trivia bar games in Uganda, the nightly gatherings at No Sé, flavored with pop corn and washed down with the local Quetzalteca rum, capture the pulse of something beautiful: the beat of a community, always changing, always passionate, always dreaming.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Post-Agatha Recovery in Photos

Part of the Nuestros Ahijados clean-up crew in San Miguel
Boots and shovels dominate the day.
Clean-up crews in San Miguel Escobar
Mud slid down the slopes of Agua volcano, onto the street, and into this home.
A Bible scene and a painting in a muddy living room
On Monday, the bodies of a grandmother and grandchild were pulled out of these muddy ruins.
 (My) dirty gloves on (someone else's) destroyed computer
Tires are strangely needed relief supplies for all the trucks.
Disease is starting to break out; here, the "new face of Guatemala" is on her way to a tetanus shot.
Except nobody will put this muddy creature in a tuk-tuk...

For another account of the clean-up efforts, check out my friend's reflections on his day in San Miguel Escobar. The count so far:  Over 150 dead in Central America, 56 dead in Guatemala alone, 103 missing, 180,000 homeless, 136,413 evacuees, 32,000 destroyed homes. To help, please visit Nuestros Ahijados or As Green As It Gets.