Thought I would attach it here so you can all see how I sum up the last 3 months- Im sure some is repetition.
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 Limeños 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.
THANK YOU Watson.
Sending the US my best.