Tag Archives: Culture

Discovering Your True Self

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We never really know who we are until we strip away everything we thought defined us.  All that comprises our daily life; our home, the food we eat, the people we greet, the clothes we wear, the trivial material objects of our unearned affection.  When you leave all this behind in pursuit of a foreign land, in quest of that noble unattainable quality that makes one ‘worldly’ – the word we’re taught from childhood to revere as a synonym for ‘wise’ – life dumps you on your ass to start from scratch.  It’s as if the teacher of life wiped clear the blackboard and handed you a fresh piece of chalk, challenging all you have ever learned.  You begin again, you are free to be yourself with no strings attached, your spirit renewed.  When you travel, it’s as if the world is letting you be as you are, accepting your quirks and graces with open arms, saying “I embrace you, because I understand that you are you, and the accumulation of that is what makes me such an awesomely profound place.”

And only in the absence of our possessions and familiar beings do we begin to unravel the hidden jewel of our soul that has been buried in the pages of a self-written play, the predictable plot we have contrived for ourselves, acting the role of a character we thought to be the perfect part.  I wonder how many people I pass on the street are where they want to be in life…. I wonder if they are living the life they always wanted; if they find happiness in the roles they have assumed in this world.  Isn’t the thrilling rush of travel the notion that tomorrow could bring anything? – that the shackles of routine are tossed aside for a brief window of time where the world is your oyster and fate your only comrade.  Where skipping down the street between your two long lost friends – ‘spontaneity’ and ‘youthfulness’ – is your staple joy to pass the time, all that you need aside from your daily meals to find fulfillment.  It is the freedom of daily choice, of open possibilities, of approaching the unexpected bumps in the road just to see where it may lead, that fuels my incessant hunger for travel.

Some people travel for the allure of escape, of ‘leaving all their baggage behind’.  The reality is that this is rarely achieved; those who are running away seek sanctuary from themselves, and they will never find it traveling – for this is the medium that best unveils the fading fresco of the true self.  Traveling is a self portrait.  It is a voyage of self discovery. The experiences you have along the way are individual brushstrokes that depict a portion of your being.  If you are fraudulent with your interactions, your painting reflects that – your brushstrokes will quiver, distorting into a crooked wretched portrayal of something you thought you wanted people to see.  A person must approach life with an authenticity, explore the world with no parameters of who they think they should or should not be, engage in community unaffected by what people do or do not say about them.  They must act as they were naturally born to act; and that is how the masterpiece will be achieved.  I hope someday in my ripe old age, if someone were to see my portrait, the fresco of my life, they could say – “that person looks like they have seen a lot of action.”  I hope that it would look like someone who could be large by acting small, who could say a lot with few words; who knew the forest and children’s laughter, who showed kindness to others with subtle quiet gestures… like someone who believed in treading lightly upon this earth to fully hear its heartbeat, rather than the stomping of one’s own feet.

Have you found your true self?  How would your fresco look?

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Humanity Defined: The meaning of Ubuntu

As humans, we too often forget that our actions have  a cause and an effect.  We forget that we are all connected to the consequences of one another; that what we do – our actions, our words, our feelings, eventually manifest themselves out into the world.  We do not realize that our efforts at achieving isolation and independence are in vain, for we cannot escape the decisions and revolutions that affect the world in which we live.  Our hands reach out unknowingly, and spread like breath, a soft vapor touching the peripherals of our fellow beings.  We forget that to be our best, we must look for the best in each other; that to live in peace, we must strive for harmony inwardly and outwardly.  We cannot ignore the lives of those around us.

We must greet one another with Ubuntu.

I remember the day I learned this word.  It was a revelation.  I was eating lunch across from Mark Mathabane, (maw-tah-bah-knee) held captive by an excruciatingly heartbreaking tale.  I could hardly swallow my food as I listened to a story of growing up in poverty, of unendurable suffering, of innocence robbed.  This tale was Mark’s childhood.   It was life as he knew it, through the eyes of a young boy confronting the hardships of apartheid in South Africa.  Confronting thoughts of suicide at the age of 10, facing a future that appeared so bleak and hopeless – digging in garbage heaps for food, never knowing where his next meal would come from.  But what he did know, was that despite the weary destitution, Ubuntu held his people together.  He guarded his family’s love like a fragile blossom, its tendrils gingerly holding the fragments of his life in order.

Mark Mathabane (formerly Johannes), native South African tennis athlete, scholar, author, and former White House Fellow.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu explains the South African philosophy of Ubuntu as “the essence of being human”,

“A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.  

Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity.

We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.”

As Mark told the story of his coming of age, I gained a new appreciation for the meaning of the words family … friends … community; Ubuntu.  I could feel, through subtle cracks in the constant strength of his voice, the pain he endured – all the struggles he fought to be here, sitting right in front of me.  I realized right then and there, that nothing in my life was to be taken for granted.  I realized that everything I am, all that I have, all that I will be, I owe to my roots – my foundation – my family.  I saw,  in the dark pools of his eyes, that pain and suffering can be overpowered – that man can prevail in the face of oppression, that if he stands beside his fellow man instead of against him, they both are stronger.  That to embrace each other with Ubuntu, is the light in the shadow of darkness.

I later read Mark’s autobiography and best seller, Kaffir Boy, followed by his sister’s biography, Miriam’s Song.  Both are controversial stories, strong staples in literature curriculum, challenged by narrow-minded parents yearly.  Reading his books, particularly Kaffir Boy, deeply moved me.  But nothing has struck me with such profound effect as the expression on Mark’s face the day I learned Ubuntu.

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Living the Dream: or have we already lost it?

It dawned on me the other day, that people say this phrase so freely, yet seem to have no concept of what its value actually represents.  LTD…Living The Dream.   So simple, and still profound.  I saw it as a sticker slapped on a climbing helmet of a man I can’t help but admire.  And it made me stop and think…. Now THAT’S living the dream…..What is the dream?  Do I have the dream?

 First, what is the dream?

 To dream implies that one has a goal in mind, a fantasy, a vision of what could be possible.  Dreaming is what moves man forward, it inspires, it motivates, it allows us the freedom to imagine the unknown and to viciously pursue it; own it – conquer it.  It is the nature of being human, what sets us at the top of the foodchain.  It is creative.  It is intelligent.  It is brave.  But what have we collectively sucumbed to in our society as our standard of ‘the dream’?

Let’s take a closer look…..

Living the dream A:  Watching the superbowl on Tevo using a combination of 4 different remotes

Because is one ever really enough?

Living the dream B:  Books on tape, the I-pod/pad/broke, and kindles (because if Hitler can do it why can’t we?)

When you just can't turn the page

Living the dream C:  The KFC doubledown (610 calories, 37g fat, and 1990 mg sodium, um yeah…..)

Apparently buns are over rated, its a low carb thing

Living the dream D: Drinking beer in the shower

Not just a good idea anymore

Personally, I’d go with option D.  Nothing beats a tall cool one after a long run…. in the shower.  But that’s just me.  The point is, our ‘dreams’ have gone down the crapper and are replaced with completely asinine social norms.

Is it our culture?  Our generation?  Our geographic location that influences these weakened ideals?   Or is it because everything has already been done.  All the pinnacles have been reached.  All the books have been written.  All the discoveries have been made.  All the landscapes explored and named.  I frequently like to reflect back to a different time.  An era of the past, of the firsts.  The first men who where brave enough to dream, who first conquered their realm.

It’s refreshing.

I think about the pioneers of this land and how they dared to dream of a new tomorrow.  They had the courage to break away from the way things were, from everything that had been done before them; everything that brought them to where they were.  They picked up and left, to start a new way of life with a new way of thinking.  I imagine the first men who summitted mountains.  The first ascents.  The first true risks.  They had nothing; no gear, no equipment, no REI, dryfit, or nalgenes… they relied soley on courage and their own ingenuity for survival.  It hadn’t been done before, hammering the first pitons into a solid slab of granite to ascend to unreached heights.  I think of the first underwater explorers, the men who discovered that air could be channeled through tubing from a tank to a metal helmet.  They found untouched depths, an entire macrocosm undisturbed by the expanses of man.   It hadn’t been done.  And now it had.

Because they lived.  Because they dreamed.  Because they did.

Pioneers heading west on the Oregon trail in the early 1800's.

Sir Edmund Hillary with Tibetan sherpa, first to climb Mt Everest (Jomolungma)

King of the Cascades, Fred Beckey has made more 1st ascents than any other American climber

Emilio Comici, Italian alpinist who first summited Mont Blanc of the Alps

A diving bell, one of the first scuba suits created by August Siebe in 1837

They were the greats.  They were first.  Everything after them, is just walking in the footsteps of giants.

Nowadays we’re all just hanging out at Starbucks waiting to die.

So put down the skinny chai late, get off your ass, and go do something.  We may just be tracing footsteps, but we are re-living a dream worthwhile.  Chasing a pursuit already conquered, but we can at least glean from it the victory of accomplishment.

Life is too short to put off living the dream.

LTD……today, not tomorrow.

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It takes a village to raise a child

As our team adapted to the construction constraints of our limited materials, the project slowly creeped to life.  With the addition of two local construction workers to help with the concrete and rebar placement, we were off to a solid recovery.  In a short amount of time I began to see the depth of strength that held the Tsachila community together.  All those hundreds of bricks had been moved and laid out for us in advance by the ‘Padres de la Familia’, the parent group of the local school.  Their pride for their family and educational system radiated from concerned faces as we passed by the locals on the street, growing more familiar each day.   It was very apparent that this was a community that loved their children, valued their friendships, and trusted their neighbors.  Children gathered in the road to kick a ball around, they chased each other between dwellings, crossing imaginary fences we would have built.  How foreign this open sense of space seemed to me, was truly a reflection on the values for boundaries and ownership instilled in me at a young age.  The village was linked together, almost seamlessly, joining one home to the next with laundry lines and banana trees as the only barrier.

We were different in many ways.  We were pale.  We were tall.  We laughed loudly. We wore funny hats.  We were the village spectacle, and our morning runs were just icing on the cake:  colorful spandex, sneakers, bandannas, and for god sake why would you ever want to run unless something was chasing you?

Well, most of the time there WAS something chasing us.

Earlier that week one of the Yanapuma volunteers had spent a day in the hospital getting a rabies vaccine after an unsettling canine attack. We elected to carry rocks in our hand during these outings, to whack at the perros that came too close.  Most mornings we rose early to fit in our run before the heat set in, a failed attempt at dodging the guard dogs.

As an avid runner, I had become fairly dependent on my music.  But traveling with only the bare essentials, sans headphones, I reverted back to a pre-technological era of athleticism.  I dove inward, and honed in on a sharpened state of being – the state one acquires from complete abandonment into subconscious concentration.  Energy is expended solely on forward motion, focus aimed on the air entering and leaving the lungs.  One knows only the burning of the legs, the timing of the foot striking the uneven ground.  The rhythm bridged between pace and exhale.  The capacity for prolonged momentum – the body a constant vector driving forward.   The earth blurring below a steady gate, escaping my view as I tilt my head upwards to enjoy the new taste of a different morning air.

Returning for a quick swim in the knee high water of the Pucta was quite refreshing – after the initial shock of the tickling minnows escaped your calves.  You never really get dry in Bua, sweat becomes a state of being, comfort – a state of mind.  With our limited backpacking garments in constant rotation, we learned to wear our clothes in shifts.  There was the morning variety – light shorts, dryfit tee or tank, and bandana, which transitioned into long hiking pants and a light fleece to fend off the evening mosquitoes.  Even 2 days after being washed in the river with our magic hippie soap, all fabrics remained damp on the line.

Getting to and from the school grounds everyday was… like a box of chocolates – ‘you never know what you’re gonna get’.  There was your standard reliable flavor, a basic bus ride described in an earlier post.  Then, there were the more daring varieties – the ones with nuts. Truly.  The first time we set foot on a Chiva, was like getting on a rickety carnival ride with no seat belt and a drunk operator at the helm.  Let’s just say Ecuadorians are resourceful.  They manage to cram every square inch of those things – top to bottom and side to side.  After every bench seat gets full (no door style, like a jeep-bus, but without all the cool jeep-like qualities), they start to cram people on the roof – don’t worry, there’s a convenient ladder to climb up on the back…..but most of the time this task must be accomplished with 2 bags in each hand, wearing flip flops, all while the bus takes off bouncing down the pothole filled road.

A very empty looking Chiva, the roof fills up fast.

A typical pickup truck - hauling families, food supplies, & livestock.

For the more daring folk, there’s the pick-up truck flavor – hopping up in the truck bed and clinging to the roll bar as the mildly intoxicated driver swerves potholes.  And lastly, the method I avoided, hoping on the back of a Moto – and trying not to scream as you wrap your arms around the stranger in front of you to keep from falling off the back.  Most locals managed a whole family on one bike with the kids sandwiched between Dad and Mom. No helmet required.

Our meals typically involved rice, bananas, fried platanos (plantain chips), yucca, and occasionally a portion of meat.  My favorite was the fresh caught Tallapia, wrapped in palm leaves whole and cooked on coals.  The cheeks were particularly delectable, but the eyeballs I could have gone without.  Dinner was our favorite time of day, the heat fading off to relax in the company of our gracious hosts.  The slow evenings were a comfortable way to get better acquainted with Alfonso’s family.  Entertainment by candlelight gave us the opportunity for a lazy hammock session, catching up in our logs, and learning more about the Tsachila culture.  I made it a habit to sneak back to the kitchen to look for the sloth, and help Isabel with the dishes.

There are some things that seem to transcend all cultural barriers; women working collectively in the kitchen and chatting about the men, is definitely one of them. I felt more a part of their way of life during that time of the day than any other.  I saw how they stored their food, where they put their dishes, what they told their children to get them to bed.  I saw how they invited visitors into their home, unannounced neighbors stopping by to chat; and how their children were treated by others, as if they were their own.  I saw, through the Tsachila way, that it really does takes a village to raise a child.

Tsachila boys playing around.


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The Paris of the South: Café con Leche

Poem Description: sitting in a café in Buenos Aires, quite observations from ‘the Paris of the South.’

Read Café con Leche

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Peanut butter, set-backs, & the sloth

The sounds of early morning roosters brought disgruntled Americans to the breakfast table.  Still unaccustomed to the time difference, humid heat, and trying to fend off the jet lag, we all were a sorry bunch of ‘workers’.  Hermania had prepared Tom’s favorite – deep fried empanada pancakes filled with a bland, undistinguished cheese of sorts.  What was perhaps one of their finest offerings, made our group’s appetite cringe and go cowering off in the corner to their secret hoard of Clif Bars.  I felt ashamed to be associated with such picky, ungracious eaters and ate most of what was given to me – trans fats and all.  I too, of course eventually broke down after countless dishes of constipating starches and deep friedness, and resorted to the post-meal banana with peanut butter. After all, if my arteries had a say in the matter,  would they favor my unwavering etiquette or thank me for my subtle attempts at avoiding tribal fast food?

Ah, the magic of peanut butter, where would we lost travelers be without you? So far from home with only one jar to spare, sharing your strength, how on earth will we fair?

It was Tom’s idea to pack an extra large jar of Jiff, possibly the best decision of our entire trip.  Bananas grew conveniently right outside our front door, which led to the inevitable discovery of  ‘afternoon deliiight.’  We learned that by cutting the bananas into thin slices, we could smother them with ample peanut butter and top them off with tender pasas (large raisins with the texture of dried apricots).  Truly a treat to be savored in the privacy of our cabana, far below the vast clutches of the almighty deep-frying pot.  But I digress.

Platanos grow everywhere around here

The Tsachila Community Center, communal living area

Looking out from the hammock

After washing down our empanadas with a tepid batch of Nescafe con azucar and thanking Marioxi for her hospitality, she shooed us off with her husband to catch our bus on time, coinciding with the first real downpour of our trip.  We jumped on the soggy bus and were crammed in like slippery sardines by the bus boy, who then luxuriously rode hanging off the side of the bus – fresh air blasting his face, happy as a dog with his head out the window of a speeding car.  The rest of us weren’t quite so lucky.  Crammed in 6 per row and 30+ standing down the aisle, we quickly got to know each other, and our local neighbors, on a whole new level.

Fact: Ecuador is hot.

Fact: Buses are crowded.

Fact: Deodorant is expensive.

Why do I point out the obvious?  Because the conclusion is devastating for someone with the nose of a bloodhound.  I could overcome the starchy food, easy.  I could learn to enjoy the flavor of boiled river water with strange floaters and the aftertaste of charcoal, piece of cake.  By the end of my stay, I could even eat salty fish eyes without a flinch.  But for the life of me, I could never get over the smell of South American buses.

When we arrived at the school grounds, children flocked around us in a flurry of laughter and whispering curiosity.  My bright green crocks proved to be highly entertaining, as did Kathy in her REI ‘jungle hat’.   As our seasoned project manager, 15 years the wiser, she sported the keenest preventive measures against sunburn, Malaria, and other joys of the jungle.  The 5 of us, accompanied by Alfonso, congregated in one of the small school buildings to meet with the principal and Yanapuma representatives to discuss our construction plans.

The kids were a bit wound up by all the commotion

Alfonso attends the school meeting in traditional attire

Freddy sits in beside his brother, Alfonso

Our EWB Team - Ingenieros Sin Fronteras (Ayn, Rachel, Me, Danny)

What we had been designing for the past 6 months, was to be a composting toilet system that would relieve the current western toilets from overflow.  Already at capacity, the government installed septic tank was built without a drain which forced all excessive excrement to flow up through the ground and run down the hill onto the soccer field.  You can imagine the lingering stench that arises in the damp heat, not to mention brewing the ideal conditions for a breeding ground of parasites and bacterium.

After showing our counterparts the construction plans and sketches, the principal took us outside to unveil the stockpile of concrete supplies Yanapuma had been accumulating for our project.  From the edge of the hill we looked down at the countless pile of bricks that awaited our motive force.

A broken wheelbarrow.  Several old shovels.  A pile of rusting rebar.

Our meager arrangement of equipment seemed futile against the daunting work that lay ahead.   And we had a tight deadline of 2 weeks – granted that Yanapuma partners would help finish up any remaining work.  Just when we were about to wrap our head around the situation, Ayn, our water resource engineer, chimed up, “Hey guys, these blocks are definitely not 8×8.”  Then Kathy noted, “Ummmm, yeah…. this rebar looks like the wrong size.”

The Tsachila School - Escuela Abraham Calacazon

The soccer field

Our equipment was scattered and battered

Steering the project in a new direction was not part of the plan.  But we were Engineers, damn it.  We solved problems for a living.  We were impervious to negativity.  We had a cause.  We were brilliant.

We were screwed.

Our entire construction plan set would have to be reconsidered.   With the modifications to account for difference in material properties, we would face the possibility of running out of supplies.  With only 2 weeks to make the revisions, we were short on time; with only 4 EWB people and a squadron of high school students from the Yanapuma program, we were short on brains; and with only volunteer donations from our Portland fundraiser office we were short on money.

Setback.

We returned to base camp that evening feeling slightly discouraged after a day of squabbling amongst ourselves to assess the situation.  Tom and I explained our conclusions to Alfonso, who nodded but hardly seemed fazed.  In Ecuador, it is simply another day, like any other.  Full of problems, full of hopelessness.   To an American, it is a challenge to overcome.  And we did, day by day.

Our spirits were raised at the prospect of a chicken dinner.  We recognized the significance of being served an expensive meat with our meal – I wondered which bird we heard earlier that morning had bit the dust.  It was delicious.  Simmered in a yucca soup, the meat was tender to the bone, and, for the American label whores, laughably ‘organic’.  Our moods had elevated throughout the evening, but peaked when we were joined by a special guest at the dinner table. Their oldest daughter, Isabel, came waddling out of the kitchen with a furry companion dangling from her two extending pointer fingers.  Squealing with delight, we all laughed at the sight of their clearly domesticated oso perezoso – as seen on National Geographic, the Bradypus variegatus.

The three toed sloth.

Our special dinner guest - the perezoso

I get to feed our friend, he loves rice

Monkeying around in the kitchen

Climbing up the kitchen shelves

Just bein a sloth

You can see by our friend’s posture here, how the Spanish name is all too suitable; perezoso means lazy, oso means bear, thus lazy bear – as they are thought to be a long distant relative to ursus family.  Alfonso affectionately calls him Manza Mono, his little monkey friend.  He had certainly won our hearts with the simplest beguile.  But how can you resist a face like that?

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Back in Bua, a warm welcome

“Dejame aqui por favor,”  I asked the cab driver as his dimming headlights revealed the narrow footpath cutting up the steep bank.  After an unnerving cliff side bus ride from Quito to Santo Domingo, I had hoped to arrive in Bua before dark – to my dismay I threw on my headlamp, paid the cabby, and climbed up the bank into the humid darkness of the banana trees.

Half a year had passed since I last walked the dirt path to the Tsachila village where I was first introduced to Hermania and Alfonso.  Half a year’s time since my infatuation for the simple tranquility of tribal life was conceived; half a year to reflect on how our worlds differed, yet at their core were so similar.  I had spent the 3 hour bus ride consumed with worry.  I worried would not remember the mile count to turn off from the main road, or not be able find my way through the trees at night, or that I would be chased by the rabid guard dogs, or not even be able to hail a cab at this hour.  The possibilities were endless, for this was the very start of my walkabout.  But as the familiar aroma of exotic night blossoms expanded their sweetness into my lungs, I smiled and gradually recognized the bend in the trail that led to my new home.  All doubt was erased when their distant laughter reached my ears in between flickers of the buzzing neon of iridescent fireflies.

I sighed in relief, and picked up my pace.

I was greeted with open arms and a warm meal.  It was a welcoming array of indigenous faces and food – voices and flavors I had grown to miss back in the states.  The 4 other members of the Portland EWB travel team were waiting and had become increasingly concerned by my delay – having missed my flight in L.A. I was a day overdue.   But that is a whole another story, merely an unexpected precursor to my journey.

Following Tom, our team leader, we meandered down the slick muddy hill to find our cabanas along the Rio Pucta.  I found it comforting we would be staying in the same thatched huts we had lodged in previously, closest to the mud staircase down to the river with a convenient porch for airing out our perpetually damp clothing.  I organized my things and set my day pack tremulously on my bunk tucked under the safety of the mosquito net. My 3 weeks here last march instilled in me a leeriness for the giant spiders that live tucked within the dried palm bundles of the roof.  Having been startled by one of those hairy critters tucked deep within my Nike running shoe was by no means the start to a trusting friendship, and made me uneasy at best.

I stowed my larger pack on the bottom bunk letting out a startled chuckle at the sight of the wooden slats spaced between the two long runners that held the straw mattress above.  That was the bed Danny broke during our last trip -his knee busted through one of the thinner slats while tucking in at night; we of course teased him mercilessly the remainder of the trip.  Re-living the memory made me realize how much I missed him.  He was native Chilean, and the strongest Spanish speaker in our group.

With Danny unable to accompany our installation trip, that left me being our most proficient communicator with the tribal leaders…

Home sweet home... The EWB cabana

An elevated cabana, up near the communal area

Rio Pucta - the bathing area

Alfonso, our host and one of the Tsachila leaders

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