Friday, December 17, 2010

Tafadhali, Asanti, Pole Sana, Rafiki, Caca, Dada, Shusha! I'm learning...

Merry Christmas! While it is way too hot to have any concept of winter, Santa or reindeer I understand that in other countries the tradition is continuing as usual. The last month has been really quite incredible. I think back to my initial wild culture shock arrival and I can't quite believe how much has happened since. This is a town where the majority of well employed or educated people are either Aid workers or consultants working for Aid organizations. Good news for me, as it means there is an overwhelming abundance of people here willing to share their stories and talk about their experiences.

If I didn't already believe it this country has proven to me that so much of the Aid system is broken. While I have spoken to some NGO's and individuals who seem to be having some success, the overwhelming message I have been hearing is one of frustration and too frequent failure. Any large scale project seems to be plagued by money waste, system inefficiency, and wayyy too much corruption. Additionally the country itself has become so intertwined with the aid economy that a really unsustainable dependence has emerged. The most sought after jobs are those working for foreign NGOs as these are the most dominant "businesses" that seem to be in operations (perhaps the most reliable form of employment... which is a bit depressing as funding can be cut off at any time).

Another interesting thing about Dar at least, is the position of Mizungus (gringos, foreigners)within the country. Every foreigner I have met works in Aid, consulting or import/export. As a result I have begun to think that all us foreigners are doing is in many instances condescendingly giving Tanzanians what they need, telling them what they need, or plundering the country. OK a bit harsh, but no wonder there is a level of resentment among locals. I think there is a balance that needs to be found where Aid is appreciated but not resented, right now there seems to be far too much of it and in many instances it only seems to represent the inequality that defines the relationship between givers and receivers.

All this makes things sound very bleak indeed but despite the horror stories I have spoken with some people that are really working toward worthwhile goals in ways that are sensitive to local culture and have aims that are toward long term sustainability. Some very creative models and some very forward thinking and energetic individuals.

I have also come to realize that "local culture" is often a very hard thing to respect. So much of what I have been looking at has been biased towards my belief that local culture must be incorporated in interventions. I stick with that belief but I am now starting to realize that often in interventions local culture has to be changed, challenged and even dismantled. Often local realities must be worked within so that the system of beliefs within a location can be deconstructed.

Last week I spoke with a Canadian lawyer working for women's rights. When I asked her what her most common cases were she told me they were related to land rights. In Tanzanian Federal law women are respected as equals and their rights are protected as being equal to those of men. Unfortunately there is another law that essentially says any local law overrules federal. Seems like a great law to an anthro major right? Of course federal law for Dar Es Salaam would not be totally applicable to a tiny rural village in TZ... Wrong in so many cases, especially when it comes to women's rights.

So back to land rights, in most village law women have no right to own land. When their husbands die they are essentially left without anything even if the husband left a will explicitly passing inheritance to his wife. Widowed or abandoned with basically nothing, in some places women are given, with their land, to living male relatives (often for brothers to share). In other places there are no laws that account for the widow and she is left without anything. Making things even more horrific, if the wife was considered a "bad wife" in some places she can even be sentenced to "wife cleansing"- gang rape by the men in the community. All of this sanctioned and even enforced by the local councils. None of this local law is really written down and so when it comes to fighting for women's rights things get sticky and women rarely end up winning in the end. This lawyer's NGO offers counseling and even represents many of these women in court, she told me that even with their help, too often nothing can be done. After hearing the story I was shocked and thought, as I have far too frequently, how lucky I am that I do not live within the confines of a culture that sanctions such behavior.

In instances like these maybe cultural sensitivity is too much to ask... maybe Tanzanian Federal law needs to force the issue, but then with forcing it who is to say it will be enforced? Is there a way to work within the local culture to change things or are some beliefs too strongly rooted? Is education the answer, is that even feasible? How can large scale change occur when changing the beliefs and practices in one community seems daunting enough? I have too many of these types of questions and find my answer is always, unhelpfully, it depends on the situation.

I know this was a bit of a depressing post, many of the things I have heard have been quite depressing. Nonetheless, I truly have been enjoying myself here and finding my footing in this pretty incredible place. Have met some fantastic people, Dar is very conducive to new friendships as it seems almost everyone in my age range is coming or going or only here for a few months. Everyday I wake up not quite believing I am here and very happy I have come. I hope everyone has a Happy Christmas and sorry for being a downer with this post!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Mambo Jambo- thats how are you doing and hello, the extent of my swahili

I cannot believe how much has happened since the first post... I have met many friendly people (TONS working in the aid community) and have basically stumbled upon a great apartment. I was initially planning on moving around Tanzania but one night after spending my evening in a cafe I kind of felt like fate intervened. After waiting a while for a daladala to come by the street I was on I finally asked one of the people hanging out nearby if the daladalas in fact came that late at night (9pm) turns out they stop earlier and so my only option was to hop in a Bijaji (a tuk tuk motor taxi kind of thing). Of course the Syrian man who I had asked decided it was now his job to help me and we chatted in stunted English as cars passed... when a bijaji finally came around the corner (it had been a while and my small talk was pretty much exhausted)he flagged it down only for us both to see there was already a passenger. She very kindly let me join her on the ride and when she discovered I was staying at Q-bar (the guest house) she, mildly shocked and disgusted, asked me why. I told her it was basically the best deal I could find at which point she told me she had a house with 3 other room mates (all of whom work for various NGOs) and was looking for some one to move in to the final room for 2 months. She gave me her number told me the price and I got out at my "guesthouse"/brothel and pondered a game change.

Didn't sleep much thinking about the choice and decided that if the room was nice and in a good spot I would go for it. I definitely think things happen for a reason, so here I am the proud new room mate. So far I'm pretty happy with the choice, sorting out money and a cell phone here has been a bit of a trial, but Dar ES Salaam is the headquarters of pretty much every NGO AID project in Tanzania and there are literally tons of people here to talk to who have experience in the Public Health sector. I have already met a bunch and a common theme seems to be a lot of frustrated people.

Two of the girls I met were even nice enough to invite me to an event their NGO is putting on for World AIDS day tomorrow. Their NGO uses sports and activities to educate and engage orphaned and/or HIV positive children... I cannot imagine how difficult that has to be. So plans for tomorrow, some new friends, and piles of NGO offices/clinics/even a disabilities hospital within walking distance of my house. Things are starting to come together and I really cannot believe tomorrow is December... especially as it is like a million degrees outside with the sun shining.

This is a pretty incredible place and I keep saying it but, totally unlike anywhere I have EVER been. I saw a lot of poverty in Latin America but being here really, more than anywhere else, makes me so thankful for the life I have and my American passport. Just imagine our biggest city, NY, with daily power outages that in some areas go on for days... unfathomable. Makes for a society where people get very envious of people that have private generators...

Friday, November 26, 2010

And The Culture Shock Begins

Hello again! Over the last month I traveled from Lima to Arequipa (the wonderfully beautiful second city of Peru), Puno (where I saw the uglier side of commercial tourism, how lucky I am I live on solid ground, and Aramu Muru- the Portal that will save me from the end of the world in 2012) and then finally to Cuzco where I saw some incredible salt pans and Machu Picchu. My last days in Lima were really sad so many good friends and some wonderful people I count as family, I will be back! Yvette took me to the airport and waited with me in the enormous line to check in, staying with me until I went through security... plenty of tears! Much more happened in Peru (including robbery) but I really don't feel like recounting as I have so much to tell about these first few days in Africa.

My journey to Africa was a long one, 12 hours (I think to Amsterdam) where I spent the night sleeping in the airport (it is a REALLY nice airport I must say) and got up the next morning for a 8 hour flight to Dar Es Salaam Tanzania. I arrived at 12 at night in a different world.

First the Visa thing was pretty interesting, we all gave our papers and heaping wads of cash (100USD for Americans and 50 for everyone else) to one guy who then gave stacks of passports, papers and money to a relay system of people working behind a glass desk. Once every 30 minutes about 4 passports would emerge. I was lucky to have given mine with one of the early groups and only waited for something like 45 minutes. Got out grabbed my bag and hopped in a cab to my hotel.

The next morning, jet lag saw me wake up at 12 in the afternoon sweating like crazy when my fan went off thanks to a power outage... something I have come to learn is quite frequent in the city. I wandered around totally shocked into oblivion. This is not like anywhere I have ever been and my oh so useful Spanish had become obsolete... I'm thinking I am going to try and take a week course in Swahili, it is NECESSARY!

Anyway, I have started to settle a little, I moved out of the hotel I was in to a dorm room with AC for a cheaper price... there really is not much in terms of affordable guesthouses. Only super high end or medium price... not great for my budget. Nonetheless the place I have found is GREAT (the AC is a dream). The reason for so few dorm rooms, I feel like this might be one of the only ones in Tanzania is because of the cultural (I think Muslim) sense of propriety... most hotels will not let a man and woman share a room unless they have proof of marriage.

My hostel is an exception I think because of the bar downstairs. With what the guidebook calls the "well dressed prostitutes" that frequent the place separating unmarried men and women seem a bit obsolete. Anyway the place is great, good bed, nice terrace, AC, really quiet despite the bar downstairs, and as of right now empty. I am totally happy. I am also a bit out of town, a daladala ride from the center... Dadaldala is the name for the minibuses that shuttle people through the city (every country I have been in has them micro's, camiones or chicken buses in Guatemala combi's in Peru and now here I am with daladala!).

Navigating local transport successfully (especially with a hulking backpack) really does wonders for making a person feel like they have a bit more of a grasp on things. With the culture shock easing a bit with the last few days of wandering I decided yesterday I would visit the local market, kariakoo.

It was pretty much unlike any market I have ever been in. On the way I had one of the morning mango's that seems to have become a new addiction- green and peeled by the local vendor, super delicious for 500TZS or 30 US cents- and wandered through another smaller market nearby. People are so friendly! Made some conversation with one of the chicken vendors and joked that in 3 months I would come back speaking Swahili, we'll see.

Continuing on I stopped and bought a very interesting neon green drink (no clue what it was, but it was good) and chatted some more with some people also getting refreshments. Making my way further I finally came to the market... WOW. The place was filled with everything from woven baskets, plastics, musical instruments, electronics, and even a guy selling motorcycles on the second level (no idea how he would get the bike down to the first level... he must not sell many). In the main market there wasn't so much in terms of foodstuff but as markets so generally do, this one flooded out into the surrounding streets. Not only were their fruits and vegetables but in another covered section, I came across all types of spices, dried fish, tamarind, rices, grains, and even these bags each filled with different vibrantly colored seeds.

I initially thought the bags were filled with a popcorn type of thing as they are white and fluffy when they don't have the colorful flavoring on them. Curious and intrigued by their brightness (I'm talking green, orange, pink and purple) I bought a bag and bit in only to find that no... they were not popcorn. The seeds (I bought tamarind flavored) have a white fleshiness that you suck off, the color turns your tongue a different color and makes them interestingly sweet and sour. Apparently sharing is part of the deal and I had several people put their hands out. I was more than happy to share as the bag I bought was huge and only cost me 30 cents. They are called Komba, according to one guy I shared with but beyond that I have NO CLUE what they are.

Anyway, after sharing I continued on... wandered out of the market and down in hopes of finding a certain street I was looking for. It was so crowded, really hot and traffic seemed confused (to say the least). As I was walking (I had my bag in front of me) these two wonderfully kind ladies came up to me and told me to "hold on to your bag and get in a cab, there are some guys trying to rob you" well that was a bit of a shock. It was so crowded with cars and there didn't seem to be any taxis around, I got pushed up against a car but managed to get away and keep walking. The ladies told me to get in front of them and go with them to the store they were heading towards. I duly moved into position and led/followed. We made it to the store and they told me there were 3 guys who were really going for me, they followed the three of us for a good block and a half and only left when they saw us enter the store. Nothing was stolen but of course I immediately started crying out of shock and thanks to these wonderful women. They both gave me big hug and told me not to worry. I had had no idea and these ladies, upon seeing what was about to happen had come to my rescue, I couldn't believe it. After telling me I should avoid coming to the area alone but that the rest of the city was safe, the lady behind the counter asked me where my husband was and why I had gone there alone... ha ha. The shop owner, the people working there and the ladies then all helped me into a cab. Lesson learned.

I took a cab to the daladala stand and got on the next bus to the mall on the far side of the city, found the first place with AC (a local fast food joint), and sat down to a very unique club sandwich and litre and a half of water... A thanksgiving for the books.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Ayacucho, Lima, Sickness, and now Huaraz

Well it has been a very long time since I have written and per usual it has been an incredible and jam packed few weeks.

Starting back in Huancavelica. I spent several days in the town visiting and talking to people working in the local hospital and making friends with a comedor owner and her daughter. After joining them in some political rallying, and then for dinner, I headed out on a 4 am bus to Ayacucho. Taking a dirt road connecting to another distant town and then on again by micro bus I finally arrived 8 hours later atmy destination. Shocking that it took so long, as the distance between the two towns is really not far if you look on a map... but the roads are just asi.

The ride itself was incredible, especially the first leg on the dirt road as it passed though some really isolated towns and the most majestic landscape I have seen as of yet (saying something as Huaraz is nothing to dismiss). The coolest part about this very early AM drive was passing though some pretty tiny, isolated villages. I was so impressed to see that almost all had Puestos de Salud- fairly basic, but nonetheless, health outposts where people could get meds and treatment by nurses or tecnitions. People are really reached in Peru, health-wise, in a way I didn't see in Guatemala.

The second leg was not so great as I was slow off the bus, realizing as people literally jumped out of their seats, pushed their way off the bus and then into another line that I might be in trouble. I was, while it could have been worse, I spent the 3 hour drive to Ayacucho sitting with my back to the driver (and windshield of the car) hunched over. Making matters worse I had 2 kids sitting across from me who spent the majority of the ride vomiting... shockingly, despite the smell, no one opened any windows!!

Ayacucho was really a cool city, a little overwhelming after the quiet pace of Huancavelica but nonetheless made another friend. This time no parade but a nice conversation in the Plaza de Armas. The man was an engineer and told me about the political corruption that was riddling the most recent public works project in the town. After serious mudslides that killed several people last year the government decided to tear up the streets so as to construct a drainage system that would prevent a similar disaster from happening again. Elections were also coming up so what the hell, nothing like a little public spending to win reelection. Turns out the rainy season starts nowish and the drainage system is nowhere near complete, leaving the potential for a far more dangerous rainy season this year. My engineer friend told me additionally that the system was poorly constructed and had taken so long to finish mainly because money seemed to continuously disappear from the project budget... hmmmm. This type of political corruption is really nothing new in Peru and is in fact the most common story I hear told when talking with people.

After Ayacucho, I returned to Lima on an overnight bus and 3 days later got really quite sick- in and out of the hospital for a week. Front row seat to how things work! Thank God for the kindness of Yevette, her family and the women in my hostel (they call themselves my Peruvian mothers- there are 3+ of them quite dedicated to my mothering). They all cared for me as well if not better than my own family would have and made being so far from home and very frustratingly sick far less difficult than it would normally have been. I´ll call the illness week character building and leave it at that.

So many amazing things over my time in Lima, I´ll give one anecdote.

I went with Yevette and a friend of hers to a free talk given by the Museo de la Nacion in honor of Intercultural week. Could I get any luckier? The evening began with 2 speakers. One was an anthropologist who had taught Arguedas- a Peruvian writer/anthropologist/hero who was really the first to write about and emphasize the need for the inclusion of Peru´s historically marginalized indigenous populations within Peruvian society. And the other was a very well known and distinguished historian/columnist. Their talks were INCREDIBLE. Not only did I learn so much about Peruvian history but also got insights in to the cultural diversity in this country and the slow but vital shifts that are going on in society to include and recognize that diversity a central part of Peruvian pride. Repeated talk of political change and transparency as essential if Peru wants to move forward also caught my attention. Both lectures really opened up social theories, perspectives, and transformations for the listeners, something this anthro major could not help but drool over.

As if that was not enough... after the talks the three best Peruvian guitar players got on stage. Each from a different part of the country, each with different Peruvian heritage and each with different musical traditions (Sierras, Criollo, and Afro-Peruvian). Never have I been so awed, moved to the point of tears by how beautiful the music was and how skilled the players were. And all so distinct!

The whole thing culminated in a highland battle dance between two beautifully and intricately dressed men, one from Ayacucho and the other Huancavelica. Each took turns and performed incredible physical feats in hopes of besting the other all the while keeping beat with a scisorlike chime. Yeah, think about that for a moment.

I walked out even more in love with Peru than I already was. As if to justtake it over the top in celebration of intercultural week we all went out for some delicious Peruvian Chinese food (huge migrant Asian population in Peru).

After several more days living in Lima- seeing the parade for Lima´s most special saint from the courtyard of one of its oldest public hospitals- I made the move to Huaraz. A highland town flanked by some pretty incredible snowcapped mountains. I think the highest range after the Himilayas. Got here yesterday AM, caught up on sleep after an overnight bus ride and today went and spoke with a guy in a local NGO... interesting approach (too much to write here, my blog stamina is fading) and again problems of respiratory illness and malnutrition... the biggest difficulty to implementation success... POLITICS! Tomorrow I go back to talk to the Health director of the organization, and then in the afternoon head onward to Caraz/Yungay/Lago LLanuco... depending how things go. Will keep you all posted!

Watson Quarterly Report

Thought I would attach it here so you can all see how I sum up the last 3 months- Im sure some is repetition.

Hello Watson!

I can´t quite believe the last few months I have had. The wonder I feel when I think about what I have seen and learned is entirely the result of my project focus and that pesky Watson loneliness. Both these aspects of the Watson experience (no other name for it) have compelled me to talk to numerous people over the course of my travels. And in this talking I have found the most meaningful part of my journey so far and the theme of this long letter home.

When I say talking I think it is best that I introduce the Spanish verb ¨platicar.¨ Perhaps because most of my talking has been in Spanish or maybe just because I love the language, for me, the Spanish verb really embodies the feeling behind the talking I have engaged in. The two sidedness of the verbal exchange is an inherent and important part of the meaning behind the ¨we¨ plural form of the Spanish verb: platicamos. When we think of ¨talk¨ in English this feeling of give and receive is far less emphasized. So pardon my Spanglish but the most wonderful part of this journey has not been that I have talked but rather that I have ¨platicado¨ with the most diverse group of people I have ever come across in my life. From each person kind enough to initiate or accept my often clumsy attempts at conversation I have been given a rich and varied vision of each country I have visited.

To give you an idea, I have platicado with: A cardamom farmer, APROFAM sexual health educators, librarians working in ¨Bibliotecas Comunitarias Modernas¨ dedicated to encouraging community engagement with reading and learning in a new kind of community focused library space, bus drivers, a government accountant who oversees and manages municipal spending, a Vietnam war vet turned expat in the mountains of Guatemala, NGO directors, Peace Corps volunteers, government health workers, a marble miner, a social worker, a politically fiery comedor owner, the medical director at a distant Peruvian Puesto de Salud (clinic outpost), the urban LimeƱos who design and consult on the management of Government and USAID sponsored maternal and child health projects in the ¨campo¨ of Peru, clinic directors, regional hospital workers who coordinate logistics for distant clinic outposts… and the list goes on.
While over the course of traditional travel I may have met some of these people, the power of my loneliness and my interest in public health made me search most of them out. For those I didn´t search out and question, my interest in public health focused our conversations giving me insights and information I never would never have been able to develop or otherwise uncover.

From many of these conversations I came away with stories of failed projects ill conceived and inappropriate. Nonetheless, there are many sparks of hope. I heard stories of people, who recognized the failures in their initial attempts and then realized the importance of cultural understanding and worked to incorporate those realities into a revamped approach. One example is that of a fuel efficient stove project in Guatemala that initially had little success with their model stove. Finding them to be unpopular to the point people were simply tearing them out their homes, the organization did a type of market research survey (the kind the organization should have conducted before designing a stove but better late than never!). The organization found the griddle to be too small for cooking of the large number of tortillas most Guatemalan families consume with every meal. The already overworked women didn´t have the extra time to spend over the stove and so simply reverted back to the easier less efficient stove model.

While hearing about improvements in projects was revealing, even more interesting were the examples of those organizations/projects that made cross cultural exchange and understanding a central and primary goal in any change they worked to bring about. In other words, those interventions that were implemented after a study of the local culture had been conducted. Every successful intervention I saw was sensitive to and integrated with place and every innovative approach made use of the local knowledge.

The APROFAM health educators (an organization affiliated with Planned Parenthood) understood the religious context and large family tradition they were working with and rather than pushing radical family planning methods in their education sessions, they tailored each talk to age and social group. Their goal was to work gradually using education to make change people could accept and appreciate. The high school talks I participated in focused on body education, sexual abuse, everyone’s right to bodily privacy, STD transmission, and personal hygiene. The final message was that the APROFAM clinic was a safe space where any questions could be answered and help could be found. The discussion was left open and topics were introduced that educated adolescents about sexual health without pushing too hard against the cultural factors at play in their lives. These culturally sensitive and respectful education sessions garnered a trust that then created a space for the bigger social changes APROFAM ultimately wanted to encourage.

These stories of success bring me back to my theme, platicando. Talking showed me how important interaction with the beneficiaries of any intervention is. Finding the boundaries, the problems, and the needs as dictated by people in the situation is essential and must be any projects first step.

So while I have been truly challenged by my project and more than anything by my own aloneness- man did I miss home while in and out of the hospital this last week with stomach pains- both have forced me to search out, meet and platicar with a collection of people so diverse that they have enriched my experience and changed who I am. Pretty unbelievable for a span of only 3 months.


Sending the US my best.


Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Huancavelica Clinic

The events of my clinic visit are too funny to not make a post about. After stopping by the government clinic in town to see what I could learn of PARSALUD, I was immediately ushered in and invited to watch a education session for adolesents. The talk focused on clean food handling practices and personal higene and culminated in a parade... you guessed it I was one of the paraders carrying a sign through the centro of Huancavelica... people got a pretty good kick out of the gringa marching with a sign saying "dogs can transmit rabies." Was all in all a pretty good time and had the chance to talk to some of the 15 year olds marching, got the whole low down on the teen scene in Huancavelica and entertained them endlesly by translating spanish names in to english... of course most are the same with different pronuinciation, nevertheless they were entertained. Went to bed wiped and woke up this am to head back to the clinic for a day of observing and interviewing. Today was the clinic day for pregnant women and young kids. Got the chance to sit in on an education session on voting in the upcoming election (not about the electiion issues but rathe what the ballot will look like). Sitting next to a girl who looked like she was 15 and pegnant I couldn´t help but think how unimportant the informaition was and how irrelivant the session was to real life. After the election info. we learned about TB (currently there are 12 cases the clinic is treating) and then finally the women recieved a rapid result AIDS test- a deisease that has not yet arrived to Huancavelica.

I spent the rest of the day watching the daily goingsons and ended the afternoon with an interview with the doctora. Apparently respiratory illness is the most common illness in the area... wonder what the stoves look like... and levels of depression are increasing, the clinic even does mental health talks. It was really interesting to see how the clinic structures its week with different days that specialize their focus on different age groups providing daily talks on themes that most relate to that age group. The clinic (Peruvian Government) even provides food bags for all women with children under (I think) the age of 2 or pregnant, malnutrition is common and another topic the talks focus on.

The other interesting thing was the role of PARSALUD... while they say they work in Huancavelica they actually have done nothing for this city but rather work building clinics in the really rural areas... the doctora was clear that they provide no logistial help or management skills to their clinic, not the story I got from the PARSALUD guy. Tomorrow I plan to visit the local hospital to see what they have to say.

It was really interesting getting to see how the government run system works, while things at the clinic were really chaotic and the space was nothing like the super hospitals of the US the clinic was treating and seeing a lot of patients (30 per doctor a day), giving supposedly free medicine to those who need it (the consult was free but I did hear one woman paying for her meds), and even offering food aid to new mothers. While the classes could have been better at least there was some kind of education on healthy life habits and diseases to watch out for. I am hoping tomorrow I can get some more tangable numbers, did get some idea of the birth rate and maternal mortality rates but would like something more concrete.

Final interesting thing was about the natural medicine and how in the more urban centers like Huancavelica (this is no city but it is bigger than a village) folk medicin and modern medicine mesh while in some of the more distant rural areas people are more skeptical of modern meds. I think it points back to educating people that perhaps a ballance between the two is what is needed, incorporating rather than rejecting what people have believed in and have seen to work for a reallly long time.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Adios Guate, Hola Peru

It has been a while and so much has happened! Will give a very abbrevuate overview... After spending the last bit of my time in Guatemala, doing some interviews with people working for Mercy Corps in the Coban area and then traveling to one of their principle sites to see how things were going, I headed to Antigua and then finally out of the country to Peru.

The last 2 weeks have been spectacular. The heaping portions of food, the incredible scenery and the friendliness of the people have really made time fly. I started my time here spending a few days in Lima, seeing some of the sites, enjoying the city´s position on the clifsides above the ocean, and making some wonderful Peruvian friends- the friendliness first became obvious. What a wonderful city Lima was I really fell in love, found myself repeatedly thinking how I might be able to live there more permanently... thoughts for a later time...

The real success of my time there was that I got the chance to talk to one of the PARSALUD administrators. ParSALUD is a organization funded in part by the peruvian government and in part by the World and Interamerican development banks. Its goal is to reduce maternal and infant mortality in Peru and has clinics in 9 of Peru´s poorest "regiones." Firstly learning about their organizational structure- they work jointly with reignoal governments in an exchange system where the local govt builds and provides the clinic and PARSALUD offers technical and managerial advice often providing some of the equipment to the clinic as well. And secondly hearing also about their approach to actually lowering the maternal and child mortality rates- working in the clinic by proividing the equipment and managerial skills necessary, in the community through education, and in the governmment educating the "community leaders" on what must be done and demaning their cooperation and joint commitment to lowering the levels- I was left curious to see how things actually go... and out of Lima I went.

Traveling by train (what a freaking train ride) to Huancayo I made some friends from the area and learned about some of the really gross political corruption in the area-politics is really on peoples minds as the elections in Peru are coming up and there is plenty of campeighning going on. One such example was of a local guy with hopes to become mayor of Huancayo. He owns the enormous building in which the (incredible) local market is held, renting spaces to people who depend on the market for their livelihoods. He not only charges 1 sole per person- a friend estimated that makes about 1,000 to 2,000 soles everyday (500USD to 1000USD for doing nothing!)- but also holds an enormous power over a very weak and dependent population. I was told that this guy is essentially blackmailing the people with stalls in the market into voting for him, forcing them to rally and campeign at his meetings if they want to continue renting their market stalls. Pretty sick and it leaves me thinking government involvement in the PARSALUD approach might be really quite challenging... corruption seems to be quite an issue.

After spending 2 days in Huancayo, it has the biggest sunday market in all of Peru I think, I headed through shocking Andian scenery to Huancavelica... nestled in a valley sided by huge mountains it is the town where PARSALUD has as a project hospital. This afternoon I have plans to meet with people working in the hospital to see if I can learn more about what the problems are in Peru and how local culture is intergrated in their medical approach (I´m really interested in this as natural remidies are HUGE, people know so much about various herbs and medicnal plants and the markets are filled with such folk remidies). I am also curious to hear more about the mental health problems that are emerging in Peru, mentioned by the PARSALUD guy and the friend from Huancayo. Each mentioned emerging problems of alchoholsm and familial abuse, problems, interestingly enough that Guatemala also suffers from. I really believe that these issues to be linked to historical violence, the guerra civil in Guatemala and sendero luminoso here in Peru; the fact I am currently in one of the areas in which sendero luminoso violence was most centered makes me think mental health problems would be most noticeable... I have already seen several public education posters talking about ways people can deal with their depression.

All for now more to come perhaps in a few days!

Friday, September 3, 2010


I now find myself in Coban and man was it a trip getting here. Got to see some of the poorest and most isolated parts of Guatemala I have yet seen and talk to some really fantastic people allong the way. After leaving San Mateo for a town Barillas... another 2 hours down the dirt road, I spent the night in a hostel and then left the next am on pickup truck for Playa Grande... you have to take a pick up as the road is virtually impassable... dont think I understood what that mean until I was on it... It was really close to impassable, some months you actually cant take the road beacuse of the rain, as it was I dont know how the driver did it. It was 5 hours in the back of the buss with an assortment of other Guatemalans and the road wound its way down out of the mountains into the very hot humid and flat finca growing part of the country. It was really beautiful sceenery and was so shocking to pass through some of the towns along the way. Talk about poverty, people were living in thatched roof, wood walled, dirt floored homes bathing their children, washing their clothes and probably drinking from the same water source near the house. Those were the towns on the road too we passed numerous turn offs for pueblos a little bit off the track.

From PLaya Grande... a definite border town (I decided maybe I shouldnt spend the night there as I had planned) I hoppend on another bus on another dirt road... this one not quite so bad... for 4 hours to get to a town Chisec. Once in Chisec I satayed in the local cantina/hotel... felt not so great about all the drinks hanging out where I was living but what the hell it had a shower right... After 9+ hours of travel that was all I could think of... a shower... I made it into the dank bathroom and turn the knob and... NO AGUA. The town was out of water, closest I have come to tears I wander into the cantina in my towel begging the senora to tell me it isnt so. Tried another shower got enough water to soap myself up and again no water... finally the tough duena of the cantina dragged a bucket and ladel into the shower for me and I was able to rinse off for the first time in 3 days, I felt like a new woman getting the dust off of me.

The next day in Chisec I went in search of a local peace corp girl to see if I could get the sitch on the town- gone home for a visit- and had a really fantastic conversation with a cardamom farmer as he gave me a lift. We talked about the price of cardamom and how the little farmer really gets screwed by the middle men and big bulk buyers who set the prices but that these companies have elevated the wage 15 quetzales so there has at least been some benefit having these big companies (foreighn) come in. After talking about some of the issues in Guatemala and talking about what I was interested in he like so many others brought up education as essential. In a country where public schooling goes till 5th grade and most kids dont even go at all it seems to be such a centrally important thing. The farmer brought up another common theme I have come across, that of a lacking contiousness of the long term... he said people grow what they eat and hope to have some extra to sell for shoes or clothes perhaps but really dont think beyond that, their kids are for working- and they have a lot of them- and slowly as time goes on the amount of land per person just continues to shrink. There is no level of education that leaves people wanting more than what seems like this almost day to day existance.

If anything speaks to the need for education it was a 7 year old boy in a USAID sponsored tourist attraction. I stopped by some lakes in Chisec after waiting 4 hours for a pick up to take me there finding a ´´guide´´ and his son sitting in a wooden shack with a termite problem. I think they were shocked to see a tourist, they had to drag the kyack out of the underbrush for a float around the lakes, the whole thing was absurd, a big waist of USAID money on a place tourists couldnt even really get to. The man and his son basically sat in the hut all day in the odd chance someone might come by, the boy spent the day with his only stiimulation being a set of keys as his father definitely said nothing. By the time a pick up finally passed by they may have been as relieved as I was to get me out of there... nice investment USAID... at least they got to stick their sticker in another place.

Finally made it to Coban and a hostel that shockingly costs the same as the cantina but has hot shwoers and a comfy bed and doesnt give me the heebie jeebies... also the attached restaraunt has hamburgers (!) I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Hell of a journey to get here and man did I see a lot, minor excerpts inclided to give you a little taste... this country is so stunng, has some really incredible and friendly people, and some really serious problems that seem to only perpetuate themselevs. All for now again with stream of consciousness I hope it makes enough sense to be followable.

Monday, August 30, 2010


Well here I am in the middle of what feels like nowhere. Headed up in to the Chuchumatanes like I said and am almost out on the otherside. I started my trip in Huehuetenango and then headed close to 2 and a half hours to Todos Santos, a really cool very traditional town where even the men wear the traditional clothing... for the most part in Guatemala you only really see women wearing the indigenous clothing. While in Todos Santos I went on a really incredible hike up into the hills kind of following this path and then veering off it when there were big mudslides blocking it, I eventually made it up to the ridgeline where I was able to look out over both vallys it was so beautiful, the way the clouds move up the hillsides is just endlessly entertaining. The next day was market day which is always a great event to stumble upon and wander through. While it seemed like many of the other markets I have seen, aside from the clothing people were wearing,I stumbled upon this one back section where poeople were bartering in hushed tones over bulk purchases of potatoes and maiz... it was the kind of sceen you can imagine has gone on the same way for quite along time.

After 2 nights in Todos Santos I continued on into the mountains, on my journey of 3 different bus transfers, I met a man on one of the microbusses I flagged down who had lived and worked in california for 9 years... it was great to talk about places back home and I think he really enjoyed the opportunity to practice his English. After finally arriving in San Mateo Ixtatan... it was a beautiful bus ride though valleys, up mountains and along ridges... I found that the immigrant story is fairly common in the area. Especially in San Mateo Ixtatan, a town about an hour on a dirt road from the nearest junction, it seemed like some families had made it big while their neighbors were living in poverty. Turns out the huge cement houses some people occupied were built largely from the money kids and family members had sent back from the US. It´s really interesting the way people talk about the US in the area, not only are there american flags painted on everything from houses to tomb stones but people seem to view making it to america as their key to wealth and comfort... I dont blame them seeing what some people have been able to do for their families after only a few years working in the US, even with all I know about immigrant issues in the US I actually have started to think the same. I talked to one girl in a coffee shop and she told me that the price to cross the border is 12000 Quetzales or roughly 1,200 USD a hell of a lot of money for these people but an investment they believe they can pay off with only a few months work in the US. Given the chance I think most would risk the corssing.

In San Mateo I again was lucky enough to arrive for a MArket day getting a look at the big blocks of salt the women were selling, harvested from the salt flats down the valley. I also got to see some of the most beautiful huipiles (woven traditional tops) I have seen since being here. The older women in San Mateo wear these long almost knee length huipiles thattake a year to weave and radiate outward from the head in really intricate patterns. San Mateo also has some unexcavated ruins on the edge of the town that look out into the vally perched on a really incredible cliff. I sat under the moon and sun on one of the mounds and watched as the clouds slowly crept up towards the town... again with the clouds- they are just so magical!

I also heard about a loclal NGO and the next morning went and talked to the local director about the work they do finding out that one of the biggest difficultes they run in to is a distrust of foreighners... no wonder considering the indigenous populations history with outsiders. Alot of their interventions... mostly geared towards education, the NGO runs a school in the town... face a slow participation rate that they overcome with slow baby steps and with the help ofcommunity leaders they can engage as sort of cultural mediators. The NGO also had some interesting approaches to becoming self sustaining- the director talked about selling vegitables from a organic garden and running an internet cafe and restaraunt in the town in hopes of generating revenue.

In addition to the school there was also talk of a reforestation project- dependent on collaboration with another NGo- and a water purification project-that seemed to have stalled as the price they were charging for filters was beyond the means of most of the people living in the village. Like I said the main focus was education the school was focused on offering kids a more well rounded and complete education than the governemtn provides... they train their teachers and also have several that have come from different countries to offer their skills and teaching strategies. Another NGO that has found education to be their method of choice for breaking the cycle of social issues in this country.

Now today I find myself in a town Barillas where I think I am one of very few gringos who has passed through...poeople stare at me quite openly and the hotel guy even went down to my baraganed price because in his words ¨its only once a year.¨ The bank people also had a hell of a time changing my travelers check I think it is the first one they have ever had to deal with and they had no problem passing it around so everyone could get a good look at it. This town, for as few gringos may have been here, is actually quite big even having 2 totally useless stoplights on the central square. Its a good 2+ hours from paved road but definitely a center for the smaller surroudning towns in the area, driving here we passed through a few that were very poor making me wonder what those off the main road are like. Tomorrow I plan to take a back road to a town called Playa Grande, a path I hear is quite exciting. Will hopefully write more in a week or so.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


Long time no write... am finishing up my month here in Xela... LOVED it. Made some great friends and had the opportunity to talk to some local NGOs, see some of the education workshops many have going, visit several clinic, see some of the surrounding villages (a totally wild animal market one Friday- the market not the animals being wild), watch a performance group as they taught kids in a nearby school a new more creative way of thinking, and a performance put on by a local group that that shook up quite a few of the accepted beliefs surrounding gender roles. Also have gone on some fantastic hikes... one where me and 2 roommates- after bushwacking through a corn field- came across a Mayan alter with what look like some Mayan ruins and stone carvings... only in Guatemala.

Needless to say the last few weeks have been a blast and have given me some insights in to the multitude of projects and organizations in Xela some working more effectively than others. One I got the chance to observe in action is a group APROFAM- the international branch of Planned Parenthood. They have a clinic here in xela where they offer very cheap family planning methods and clinic consults. The clinic also has a space for adolescents where they can go spend time get free exams and again, nearly free, family planning meds. The clinic also has a branch of educators that go from school to school offering sex ed talks, something that the schools are not required to give and some schools are quite hesitant to allow... religion has a strong hold in this country. I sat in on several of these talks and got the chance to see how subjects are broached and what focuses are deemed culturally appropriate... focuses on sexual violence, cleanliness and bodily changes where primary and only with a few of the sessions was the educator allowed to talk about condoms... and even then it was in terms of STD prevention... for family planning only the natural counting method was really discussed although the educator made a point every time she could to tell kids female fertility in Guate was (something like) from 12 to 46 years making them calculate how many babies they could end up having if they weren't careful... emphasis on being responsible and frequent mention of the clinic in Xela.

One surprising topic was sexuality and gender which the educator brought up only with a smaller group of older students, her approach to presentation was very much focused on group participation in those instances making the topic a difficult one to bring up in the larger class settings- I was impressed as these are very controversial and hidden concepts in Guate.

From the educator I learned about the high rates of sexual and physical abuse in many of the rural areas and how difficult it is to bring in discussion of family planning when the topics discussed are dictated by the school principles. The clinic and the services it provides are well needed here- I really like the joint emphasis on education and prevention as well as clinical treatment.

I also had the chance to visit an organization that has a health clinic just outside of the city proper. The organization makes roaming clinic trips and also has a health education program affiliated. Like most NGOs here the funding like the volunteers is foreign. Came away with an interesting opinion on this clinic...

Spoke to some other NGOs finding out about the work they do and their reasons for selecting specific target focuses and interventions... Have a very diverse set of opinions and approaches and each with its own pile of difficulties... nothing is fast and easy.

Very brief summary of a fantastic month here, am sad to be leaving but at the same time am eager to see more of Guatemala. Plan to go to the famous Lago Atitaln- according to my guide book a energy gyer... hmm we'll see- for a few days and then head way the way out there to the very indigenous highland mountains to see what I come across... may have some peace corp contacts thanks to a roommate but really just want to see what types of projects there are way out and how they work.

Again I'm going with stream of consciousness, sorry if I make little or no sense! Can't believe I'm almost through August, where did the time go!?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


It has been a busy 2 weeks... After spending some time in Antigua I went to EL Quiche Province and headed up into the Ixil triangle an area of the coountry where most people are very much connected with indigenous tradition, everyone was wearing the traditional clothing- beautifully hand woven tops and skirts- and few people spoke spanish. While there I did a bit of hiking and got the chance to talk to some interesting people... one of which was a man who had spent 20+ years in Nebaj (the biggest town in the triangle) who had endles stories about develkopment projects and the difficulties of implementing effective interventions... he had a lot to say and most of it left me thinking he was pretty jaded by the big aid organizations. He was running a bee co-op and school for disabled chioldren in the town and was very clearly sick of some of the poorly thought out gringo interventiuons... one he told me about was USAID gain bags that say do not sell on them that eventually end up in thye local tiendas where they are sold for such a low price they undercut local farmers who cannot compete with the prices. Aside from him I spoke with 2 girls who were shcoked to come across me in the town Chajul... very few gringos around... and were working for an organization that did eduication and some healh interventions in the area... Im thinking at the end of my time in Xela I might head back up and work with them for a bit.

As of right now I have found an apartment here in Xela or Quertzaltenango and am planning on stayiong for a month.. the apartment is great and almost all of my roommates are working for local NGOS, one among them a specifically health education focused NGO I am hoping I can hook in with. Its been fantastic here in Xela have spoken with a local social worker, various other Guatemalans and some gringos who have been here for a LONG time about what they hace seen. There are endless perspectivces on local dveelopment projects and the need in Guatemala finding the best kind of intervention in a courntry with so many problems seems to be the hardest task... Im starting to think it is education and empowering the local women. More to come later...

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


So I am now in Stanta Cruz de Quiche after spending a day talking with a group that does family planning and cervical cancer screeingin in the towns around Antigua... really cool approach with some really interesting insights. I spent the rest of the day watching the Reicken foundation do one of their librarian training sessions where they teach librarians who work in various small towns how to make their libraries a communityu center of types and how to engage the community in the process. It was so obvious in the training that Reicken has a great hold on what the local mythsd are surrounding books and reading in GUatemala and how to educate these librarians on how to really engage the people in the communities they are working in. I espeecially liked the emphasis they put on creating what they call a ´biblioteca comunitaria moderna´ making people shift their thinking away from the traditional image of what a library is. IT WAS AWESOME.

Aside from that I decided I had to get off the tourist trail and out of Antigua... I took a 1 hr bus to Chimaltenango and transfered onto a bus headed for Santa Cruz de Quiche. The busses around here are called chicken busses and are converted school busses with wild stickers and paintings all over them... they are really neat looking but are not really gringo sized person friendly, even sitting straight up my knees are against the front seat. The ride was great all the same very windy through some really cool countryside. Im definitely not in gringolandia any more, this town is so cool with a market selling piles of the indigenous clothes, belts, ribbons, and skirts the market is filled with incredible color, I am so excited to go even further in to the highlands to a town called Nebaj on what is called the Ixil triangle- very much a indigenous area from what I understand. I have plans to visit one of the libraries Reicken has been involeved with and also chase down some whispers of projects in the area.

Really loving Guatemala

Sunday, July 18, 2010

First Few Days

Thought I would give this blogging thing a chance so no one has to be unnecessarily subjected to my emails. Pardon the spelling and rambling nature of my writing.

Well what a couple of days it has been, in addition to a few leads on projects I plan to chase down this week I ran my first half marathon! After meeting a friend in the hostle I am staying at we made plans to try and climb the volcano Agua after breakfast and while he was looking in to rendting a motorcycle he came across a huge event in the town square... the half marathon las rosas... plans changed and we decided to run that instead. It was fantastic! There were people all alopng the road chearing and encouraging all of the runners (probably 1000 runners in total). It was such a wonderful opportunity to explore some of the surrounding area without the trouble of busses in the road. I even got a metal at the end of the race as proof for all of you nonbelievers out there.

Aside from that msot recent adventure I made it up to the town at the base of the vlolcanoe for some exploring and spent an afternoon skethching the town square church. The sketch is horrible but while I was sitting there I managed to somehow make friends with a huge group of kids on a field trip up from guatemala city. The were waiting for their bus so while they were waiting we sat around and chatted. As they were all called away to catch their bus I was givin probably 50 sticky goodbye kisses on the cheek. That would have been enough excitement to keep me content but I got even luckeier. The indigenous women selling their bracelets and trinkets on the tow square apprently decided I was safe and each took turns sitting down next to me on my bench for a chat. OUr conversations ranged from talk of the local stoves used to my religion to joking about my lakck of artistic ability.

Have plans for Monday to visit the nearby offices of the Riecken foundation a group that builds libraries in emproverished areas. We will see what they can give me- also plan to visit an organization WINGS that does womens health in Antigua. Vamos a ver que pasara.