Sunday, October 26, 2008

Building Back Up for Land, Hope and Life

Inside a house of BelenThe story for my travels this week is a little different. I wish I could introduce it with a picture that was a bit more in focus, but my camera is still rebelling at the moment. What it contains deserves a bit more than I can really show.

This is the inside of a house in Belèn, Guatemala, in the western highlands. It is a Mayan mother and daughter of the Ixil tribe we paid a visit to. The story behind how they got there is a long one.

I am not Central American historian, so I can’t make any real guarantees as to accuracy or bias in what I know. But here’s what I have: until 1996, Guatemala had been steeped in civil war. This war was particularly bad for Mayan villages in the mountains to the west. To oversimplify matters a bit, the revolutionary army fled there and assumed guerrilla tactics fairly early. They needed food. So what they would do was go into indigenous villages fully armed, and demand to be fed. The village would feed the guerrillas to protect themselves, and the guerrillas would leave. Later, the national army (US trained, I might add) would roll into town and demand to know what happened in the village. If and when they found out that the village had aided guerrillas, the army would slaughter the village.

Guatemala signed peace accords officially ending the 36-year civil war about 12 years ago. An estimated 200,000 people were killed (for perspective, neighboring Belize has a total population of about 300,000). A million were estimated to have been made homeless, and some uncountable number disappeared.

A huge number of these people were indigenous, and already faced a great deal of discrimination. Even after the war ended, there were outbursts of violence against them. Those who lived often lost all of their family as well as any land they could call home.

Fortunately, there has been help. People have recognized the problem and stepped up to the plate to get these people back on their feet. One of the oldest and most successful organizations taking on this mission (among other missions in several other countries) is Agros International.

The motto of Agros is three words: Tierra, Esperanza, Vida—Land, Hope, Life. At its most basic level, Agros is a micro-loan organization that buys land, gives it to indigenous people to start a small village, and helps them set up its basic infrastructure. Once the villagers are able to work off their debt, they buy the land back. Agros then uses that money to buy more land for more people, and the cycle repeats.

One of the basic tenants is that instead of coming in a giving charity to the village, Agros works with the village and sees how it can augment what the village already has, in order to make it more self-sustaining. For example, if there is a big weaving culture as there is among the Ixil, then they will come in to teach more weaving techniques and how to make things that are more likely to sell, as well as setting up channels for marketing opportunities. If there is a strong farming element and a good location, Agros will teach new techniques to improve crop yield and suggest other crops that will also work aside form the ones the village is already trying. If there’s a large amount of wood resources, then possibly there will be some carpenter training so that the village can create and sell goods made from just two trees for the same profit thy would gain by cutting down and selling half of their forest.

I’ve spent the last week working with an Agros team based out of Cotzal, Guatemala. We spent a total of four days visiting the village of Belèn, with extra days on each end for a little orientation and exploration in Chichicastenango beforehand and Antigua afterwards. I was joining a crew based out of Epiphany Parish of Seattle, about half of which had been coming down to Belèn for years, and was really starting to get to know the villagers.

That phrase doesn’t quite cover it though. "Getting to know" someone sounds like people making small talk over a water cooler at an office. This went deeper than that. At the end of the last day, more than half the village literally lined up to shake our hands and give every team member a hug. A couple of them even started crying. Teams of laughing kids would not let us go as we said our goodbyes, including new members of the team like me.

I’m not sure I could really do justice to how we got there from never having met any of them before, when some of the more shy residents would not meet us or talk to us. It’s not just because I wasn’t there for the first few years. It’s because I’m not sure I know how to put any of it into words. There are bits and pieces I could describe, like my leading a class of little kids, some of which only spoke Ixil and a little Spanish, how to make and inflate origami cubes as part of a cultural exchange. Or how we cooked more than 25 pizzas in the village’s wood-fire oven and served it to them before they gave us a taste of their version of tamales. Or there was sitting down with the village’s only schoolteacher and asking what he needed for his classroom of 40 or more kids ranging from 1st to 6th grade.

One the morning of the last day, some of us went on a hike up the mountain with the mayor of the village hacking us a trail with his machete so he could show us his favorite view spot of the village. We were able to look down on the valley and see something he could be proud of. Thanks to his friends and a little help from Agros, they had gone from having just about nothing to nearly half of them well on their way to paying off their own land.

And let me tell you, it’s some beautiful land.

Thank you to the Epiphany team and thank you to everyone who gave to support us out there. Thank you also to Agros International and Agros Guatemala. Best of luck to all.

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Caves and Good Eating

That ladder led down to my first snorkeling lesson. It's a pit with water 14 meters down from the edge. It was left there by a chunk of the asteroid that theoretically killed the dinosaurs. The water is very blue from calcium deposits. There are tree roots growing hanging down from the ceiling next to stalactites (I tried my hand at climbing both-- the roots were a lot easier, I got all the way to the top of the cave). The water is quite deep and supposedly out of sight in the darker depths lie human skeletons. These pits were worshiped by the Maya, sometimes by sacrifice.

To review: I went snorkeling and climbing tree roots in a pit full of water, traces of space rock, and human remains.

It's called a cenote. They're all over the Yucatan Peninsula. They are the only open sources of fresh water there, part of the reason why the Maya worshiped them. The peninsula has no real lakes or rivers, rainwater just seeps through the igneous rock underground, filling these cenotes.

I got to see two: Yax-Xa and Kankiriché. Unfortunately I wasn't able to get good pictures from inside. I tried finding good ones online, but I'm not using the fastest connection in the world and can only really find one or two of Kankiriché.

This brings me to some bad news. My camera is officially on the fritz. The screen is now unusable in shooting modes, the thing won't focus well even under great lighting conditions, and some of the images are getting messed up. It's had a little trouble since I arrived in Mexico, but it's gotten worse and worse lately.

The cause? A faulty CCD connection. It turns out that Canon USA has actually issued a recall on the model, because it gets messed up in "hot and humid conditions." It will replace it for free, shipping included. The catch? You have to be in the US. They won't do international orders. I've been directed (very nicely and apologetically) to Canon Latin America. I'm hoping to hear back from them soon, but I'm not optimistic.

But anyway, on a lighter note, I've still managed to to keep busy. I've kicked up the pace a notch, I'm now writing from Flores, Guatemala. Since my last post, I've been through Mérida, Piste, and Tulum in Mexico, shot through Belize with a brief stop in Caye Caulker, and then right across the Guatemalan border to where I am now.

Aside from things like one unforgettable 4 km walk to a deserted beach under a full moon, there have been yet more ruins and more dancing. Dancing in Mérida's weekend fair (live bands, stalls etc. out on the street every weekend of the year) with some of the best salsa dancing I've seen in my life. And then there were visits to the ruins of Chichen Itza and Tikal, two of the biggest Mayan ruins out there, one being named one of the seven wonders of the modern world. But I've written a lot about ruins and dancing already. I want to write about something else instead.

I've realized so far that I've left out one of the most enjoyable parts of traveling abroad: the food. I'm writing this with my spiral notebook sitting next to what was (until it rapidly disappeared) a plate of Guatemalan churrasco beef, tender enough to slice with the side of your fork, immersed in a simple tomato salsa with rice, steamed local vegetables and thick Guatemalan tortillas, plus the ubiquitous lime and hot salsa (habañero this time).

My friend and host in Mexico City, Jorge, told me that I was going to miss Mexican food a lot when I got further south. It's not just the tacos and tamales, but things like pollo pibil-- chicken wrapped in banana leaves and slowly cooked underground, or the more simple courses like elotes and esquites, maize with huge kernels with lime, chili, a pinch of salt, and sometimes some cream and cheese to go with it. Oh and then there's the Oaxacan chocolate. I found chocolate in Oaxaca so good that two Swiss backpackers I met were raving about it.

Still, if I can take as an indication the grilled lobster tails and coconut rice I had served to me by what must have been one of Belize's fattest chefs (Roger of "world famous" Jolly Roger's, right on the beach of Caye Caulker), not to mention of course what I've been finding here in Guatemala, Mexico is going to have competition. No doubt Jorge would put it all down to the shared Mexican border, but I've had great stuff in both countries during the short time I've seen them in action.

Here's the trick: eat local. If you're eating only where the tourists eat, the food you're getting is probably not as good and definitely more expensive. Watch out for English menus and credit card acceptance. Where I've been so far, these are bad signs. Look further, to where the locals are eating: the food will be cheaper and tastier. For anyone who is interested, I've got more tips. Let me know and I can send the to you (if enough people do I can post more here). But for now I've got other people wanting to use this machine.

So, I've got two more days until I meet my Agros team in Chichicastenango and then we head up to Belen. More from me when we start working.

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Friday, October 10, 2008

Welcome to the Jungle

I went from sipping Oaxacan tejate (a cold maize and cocoa drink) from a bowl while a rainstorm whipped through the tarp-encrusted market to the middle of a nature reserve in 24 hours. My time at Sumidero Canyon was a boat ride full of birds, crocodiles, and even a couple spider monkeys. The canyon is massive. See that white thing on the water on the left? That's a boat full of people. Get the scale?

I was never much into bird watching, even if a lot of my middle and high school friends were. Now I'm starting to regret that. I'm seeing (and hearing) so many different kinds of birds, and I have no clue what they are. I can just report an assault of colors and calls everywhere I'm going. Same for the fish I'm seeing in rivers and creeks (is there such a thing as fish watching?).

I spent a night on the other side of the mountains from the canyon next to the ruins of Palenque. This was the jungle. I got half a cabin and spent more time than I'd care to admit evicting the previous occupant: a moth/roach critter about the size of my fist. But waking up to those noises the next morning was something else entirely. Everybody, four-legged, six-legged, two winged, or otherwise had something to say. Forget roosters, try waking up to dawn in the tropical rain forest.

I crossed swinging rope and wood bridges next to waterfalls to find that the ruins of Palenque themselves have been totally conquered by the the jungle. Fully-grown trees erupted out of stone steps and buildings. Vines had torn off limestone plaster and the rocks beneath. But the biggest buildings and pyramids had been preserved. The carvings of gods, kings, and heroes were still visible in places. I don't think this will be the last time I visit ruins like these, but this might be the most impressive setting for quite some time. You snake your way through trees and vines until a pyramid suddenly opens up in front of you. Amazing.

When I wasn't crashing through the jungle, I was mostly either chatting up or being chatted up by locals and fellow travelers (mostly Spaniards out here in Chiapas). I don't know if my Spanish is actually improving, but I know I'm getting more and more confident at least. Since I was a teenager, I've almost always had some song or other running through my head. Lately, I've been mentally translating the lyrics from some of the songs into Spanish without even thinking about it until I hit something I don't know how to say or that just won't scan right. When talking to people, I still constantly have to ask them to repeat themselves, but I'm getting better at it. People have been really excited to teach me localized spanish. Especially how to swear properly. Also learned where piropos/pìckup lines with "mamacita" come from (turns out it's not mother, it's maize). Useful stuff...?

I have about a week left until I meet up with my group in Guatemala. My next stop is the Yucatan. With any luck, I'll be there before sunrise tomorrow morning.

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Monday, October 6, 2008

A Little Mexican Night Music

Walking the streets of Mexico after darkI wrote about half of this entry in my notebook in the very back of a midnight bus from Veracruz to Oaxaca, with my crank-powered flashlight dangling from where I'd jammed the wrist strap into the A/C vent. I wrote most of the other half in a $10 room in Xalapa at (I kid you not) the Hotel California. The finishing touches were scribbled out in my current hostel in Oaxaca while surrounded by its two black cats, three basset hounds, two black labs, and one beagle. So if it all seems a little mixed up, that's probably why.

As I've told a lot of people, I've been saving up for this trip for a long time. One of the ways I've done that is to put little things I'd want to buy in perspective. I'd look at a teriyaki lunch in Downtown Seattle during a half hour break, but then I'd tell myself "yeah, I want that, but it will taste better if I save the money and use it to get some in Japan." So I would save the cash, knowing it would be put to better use later. The gelato will taste better in Italy, the samosa will taste better in India, and the hot chocolate will taste better in Mexico.

A few nights ago, after hunting live music by streetlamp, I found myself writing by candle light on the cobblestone square of the Artist's Barrio, sipping Mexican hot chocolate and listening to two guitars and a violin playing latin jazz in Puebla, Mexico.

I was right. The chocolate did taste better.

The week has been filled with churches, museums and markets, but also especially with music. On Thursday, a few friends I made in Puebla took me out to a couple of their favorite bars and clubs. I left my hostel at 9:30 pm, and didn't end up back in my bed until I wandered in around 9:30 am, groggily grabbed breakfast and stumbled back into the dorm for the two hours I could use before checkout. I haven't pulled an all nighter like that since college. Get yourself a club that plays both club music and salsa/meringue/etc, stuff it full of people who know how to handle both, and you've got yourself a great party. I didn't even know the name for half the partner stuff I danced to, but I guess I did okay-- after sitting down, one of the girls I'd been dancing with asked me if I knew how to dance to the kind of song that had just started playing. I said I might be able to guess. She took my hand and said "let's guess together." This is a culture I could get used to.

Then on the other end was two nights ago in Veracruz. I'd been talked into seeing Veracruz by a native who had two rules: 1. No hablas mal de Veracruz (you don't say bad things about Veracruz) and 2. No hablas mal de Britney Spears (...same thing with Britney). So I was a little dubious of his judgment. Especially after running into a Spaniard in Puebla who went on at length about how ugly the city was. But when I got there, and Saturday night fell, it was a whole different ball game. Live salsa bands peppered the city center and people were dancing everywhere. I saw one talented singer who couldn't have been much older than twelve (and also his adorable little brother who wandered onstage and covered his ears). Then of all people, I met a Mexican man who had spent 10 years in Edmonds, WA (or "Deadmonds" as he called it), just outside Seattle.

"Veracruz is ----." He told me confidently. "The place is ----, the people are ----... they just don't ------- want to work." He added, "This is my country, so I can say whatever the ---- I want about it, know what I mean?" I pointed out that the music was good, and he couldn't disagree with me there. He himself has spent three years doing what I'm doing now, traveling the world. He's got back problems from his old external metal frame backpack. Not that he has to worry about it anymore. It was stolen on a second class bus between small towns in the state of Veracruz (part of why he's less than happy with the place). So he's got plenty of advice for backpackers like me.

"Backpackers like me" brings me to another reason why this trip has been so great so far. One of the things I enjoyed the most and now really miss about college is that I was surrounded by smart people close to my age from all over the country. But now, in hostels, I'm surrounded by smart people close to my age from all over the world. Bonus: we're not here to sit in class and do homework. We're here for adventure. Within two hostel stays I've met travelers from the UK, Australia, Switzerland, Spain, Brazil, Italy, and Belgium. None from the US so far, interestingly enough...

For those of you keeping score, I've gone from DF to Puebla, to Xalapa, to Veracruz, and am now in Oaxaca, where last night after climbing a nearby mountain, I made myself sick off of Oaxaca chocolate (...but it's so good!). Up next is Chiapas, then with any luck the Yucatan. Either that or I'm just gonna say screw it all, I'm going south to the beach. We shall see.

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