Monday, February 20, 2012

Stiiiill camping!


Reasons why I am on a two year camping trip:

Bug bites. Unbelievable in their variation and constancy.
Well, after the first 4 months, I no longer shower out of a bucket, but I still wash my dishes in one. And my laundry. With the rain water from outside tanks, note, because the only tap that works is the shower.
My fridge broke, and for the two months that it took to fix it (yes, it takes forever to figure out how to fix anything because there's certainly no one in the town that can), I figured out about how much time I could leave specific types of food on the counter until they went bad.
I walk up and down the road looking for cell phone service.
I cook on a gas-powered hot plate.
I am never fully clean, especially my feet.
I wake up before the sunrise.
Bats fly through my house at night, and lizards crawl on the walls during the day.
Rain radically changes the possibilities for the day. It's kind of like planning a hike- if it rains, you stay in the tent and play cards. If it rains here, you could tramp through mud just to find yourself stuck on the wrong side of the river, soaking wet. So you stay in the tent.
I never know where my next meal will come from, or what it will be. The neighbors are constantly placing a bowl of soup or an ear of corn in my hands, which I must eat, hungry or no. There is no place to buy fruit and no one will hear of me paying them, so I have to wait to see if someone will gift me some (they usually do). Sometimes there are no vegetables. For three months, there was no milk. It's hard to plan how it will all work out, so I just make sure I have a lot of oatmeal.
I still brush my teeth outside with a cup of water.
I always leave with a backpack of things to fix, books to return to our communal bookshelf, lists of errands to run... and return with a backpack full of food that you just can't find in the mountains (which occasionally includes four pounds of oatmeal).

You know (Emma, Jess, Hannah, Sara, Tyler, Lucas) how when you are camping, something unexpected will always find you, and it might be a disaster or a blessing, but the crisis moment is inevitable. Like when your car breaks down in a rainstorm, but you meet a few cute Wisconsin-ite mechanics, or when you drive for hours to find a camping site, but when you get there and set up, the moment is all that much sweeter because of the struggle. Or when you get stuck on an island during a massive storm, but it means that you have the whole beautiful thing to yourself, or when you haul 21 plastic milk jugs down half the east coast and end up with too much fresh water after all. Or tossing your shoes when you get to the beach only to be attacked by prickly grass bushes. Or when you almost leave Virginia for Florida with no oil in your car. Or when you drive for four hours through a blizzard up mountains with faulty windshield wipers and your dear friends try to keep you from going too crazy (and also somehow figure out how to feed you bean soup from a Nalgene as you drive...)- but you get to the house in the mountains, and wake up to a stunning sunrise.

I suppose what I'm trying to say is that my days here are all like that. I never know how they will turn out- maybe I'll hear about a community conflict that's recently hit the fan, or negotiate a failed crop in one of our food security projects, or be invited to a church revival meeting. Maybe I will play soccer with the girls, or the meeting will be canceled, or someone will get in a huge argument about one of the projects, storm out, and then show up five minutes later wondering what all the fuss is about. The electricity will die. I'll drink a cup of juice that turns my stomach. Everyone will be two hours late. I'll have an encouraging, honest, completely unplanned conversation about religion on the back porch. I'll be invited to go wild-honey-hunting. People will agree to contribute to the community fund, without objecting. My phone will completely stop working.

I told Jess once that I constantly feel like I'm surfing- catching my balance minute by minute as the waves appear. I'm trying to learn how to take the unexpected for what it is- crisis or epiphany- and calm it down, make it real, and deal with it. Reacting to the excitement of the wrenches that are thrown in your work doesn't actually help your work, but trying to understand from where and why the wrenches were thrown does. My mom helped remind me the other day that we who work with people work with ecosystems. We work with living beings, who are never predictable and never relate to each other or to us in predictable ways. It's hard, and it requires damn good balance, flexibility, willingness to get your hands dirty, and relentless hope, but at least it's not boring. Kind of like a good camping trip.

(PS. My fridge broke again.  Peace out, folks.)

Thursday, February 9, 2012

One big sigh.


I'm not sure when the honeymoon stage ended, but it's definitely been done for a while. I'm sure you've all noticed that my last blog post is about two months ago, and I can only explain (other than the usual lack of internet excuses) that I have been too muddled to write. I commend my dear friend Jess Sarriot (if you are also reading her blog) for her January entry, for putting uncertainty, doubt, and confusion down on the page. I couldn't. I'm still dreading this post, because it means trying to articulate some of the mind tangles that I've been in recently, but bear with me.

One of the basic difficulties of living in another culture is that you do not understand the cultural cues. I live with folks who have never left their hometown, which is profoundly isolated, which means that they have mental encyclopedias of information that I will never know. To an extent, I can learn the Spanish dialect on the coast, make family trees to remember who is who's cousin, hike around to get to know the farmland, etc., but I'm mostly lost. The most frustrating thing about this is that I will never understand- I might think I'm grasping something, but the rich fabric of really knowing because it makes up part of my life experience- I will only have that about my two years in Colombia, not about the past. I spend hours a day listening to stories: who sold what land to who when, what happened when the community tried to petition the govt. for a better road the last time, why this neighbor refuses to talk to this neighbor, what went wrong in the last project SembrandoPaz worked on there... and I am still lost. I don't know how to make informed decisions, other than to just make decisions with what I know and hope that the repercussions aren't that huge. This is true about half the time.
I have made some really faulty decisions because I don't have all the information. I've traveled on a dangerous road. I've spent time with people who are considered untrustworthy. I've implied that I'm friends with a certain group of people, and not with others. I've misinterpreted the parameters of who I work with and who I don't in the community. I've mixed up names and dates and meeting times. I've confused (or offended) people countless times because of my ignorance of what it means to me to be: polite, a woman, a member of the church, friendly, honest, a good communicator, a rep. of SembrandoPaz... I just don't know and can't know so much. I remember back to doing community organizing at EMU, where I still made plenty of mistakes, and sigh to remember the ease of culturally knowing who to talk to, how, when, and what to say. I knew the paths.

Another trap that has me completely at a loss is the level of distrust and gossip that happens in Berruguita. I remind myself daily that it's a community that was literally torn apart from within- same families, same siblings, same neighbors- by armed groups, and that it was mostly arbitrary who was killed and why (at least the victims and their families were never told why). Also, the authorities who were supposed to help them betrayed them. The army, police, and politicians are notorious in the region for at best turning a blind eye to the violence, and at worse, actively collaborating. To illustrate, the same paramilitaries who had killed community members were incorporated into the army group that welcomed back the displaced people of Macayepo after their seven years of flight. It makes you sick. Because of what I know of trauma, I forgive the distrust, again and again. 
It doesn't mean it doesn't hurt- me personally and generally for the pain that it generates in the community. Most days, I listen to someone describe their land struggles- how they were unjustly treated by their neighbors or how the legitimately posess the land, but don't have their papers in order, or why they deserve this land- and I'll empathize, and then later in the day I'll talk to someone who will tell me that the other is lying and can't be trusted. I feel really yanked around between alliances and individuals, and I keep wondering if my policy of transparency and honesty is helpful or just making it worse. I try to speak up when something someone says or does is hurtful or unhelpful to the process, but in so doing, I've created enemies. I try to empathize all around, but people tell me then that I'm letting myself be fooled. I trust universally, and people tell me I'm na├»ve. Then I stop trusting someone, and someone else becomes offended. Sigh, again. I mentioned before that my strategy has become on of honest disclosure and reliance on the process. I try to keep my personal feelings out of things, and use the language of work to respond to people's actions, even if they just piss me off. For example, recently a huge weed of conflict has been growing (can't get the VeggieTales “Rumor Weed” episode out of my head, sorry folks) around the money that is currently still out on loan from the Community Council. Certain people refuse to pay because certain others haven't paid yet, or they don't approve of our work strategy, or they don't like me personally... etc. I try to respond with the truth of any organization- that if your budget isn't in order, no one will collaborate with you or trust your work- instead of my personal feelings of frustration that people refuse to pay, and my own hurt that people don't trust me.

And while I'm venting, let me say that it's a LOT HARDER to keep your head about values and principles while working in the field than while hanging out in a classroom. I think back to my neat conversations about sustainability and community process, about restorative justice and participatory democracy and human rights and empowerment, that I had at EMU, and I wonder how on earth to pull all that along. When I am working with an already-established organization (with fabulous vision, but occasionally sketchy followthrough), in a community of folks with very different views of how the world works (I attend a legalistic, conservative Adventist church where dancing/alcohol/worldly music/working on Saturday and some of my closest friends were in the army), trying to deal with problems of root poverty (income generation projects are hard to keep sustainable) and violence (we really need the army presence sometimes... or do we?), in a culture that I don't understand... how the hell do I make decisions based on my values, or our values of good work? The factors and considerations are huge, and compounded by the fact that I live mostly without internet and cell service and touch base with my organization every month or so, which means that I make a ton of decisions on the fly, with the people they affect standing right in front of me. It's hard to keep things straight. I trust my local community leaders immensely, but wonder how to strike a balance in between letting their style and beliefs influence me, and sticking to my values and trying to influence change.

These are some of the things that keep me up at night. We have some great momentum, and good projects going, and I'm excited about where things can go. I get exhausted, though. Most days I sort of shrug and say my Colombian mantra- well, something happened, and it was probably good. I'm just trying to take one step at a time, but I'm hoping the fog clears out a bit more so I can see where I'm going.