Sunday, September 25, 2011
The world of dichotomies
Everyone I have met from here talks about someone they know who was killed in some violence in Mexico. At a nursing home I visited – children of the women working toward peace and development in rural Mexico – one of the women who used to work with a cultural center at my work was recently killed, no one really knows why. Sometimes I feel myself wishing I were blind to the newspaper headlines, deaf to the cries of my neighbors, and unable to feel the hands reaching out to me to pull me deeper into this scarred place.
But I turn around and there is beauty. The hermanas at the convent have received me with pure joy and kindness, have set an extra plate at their table and told me their home is my home. They have offered for me to come and relax whenever I want to. They have prayed for my friends and family in the US in a prayer circle and constantly ask about the other volunteers here with me to make sure we are all feeling well.
My host family and I continue to laugh and eat late meals together, entering spaces for love and care together and for one another. Meals are made which are the artistic product of a brother who lives to care for his family, which now includes me. They always ask if I am happy.
I go to conferences in rural towns where the groups who are working on environmental sustainability projects thank me profusely for coming and sharing their town, their ideas, and my time, knowing that I may never return and also that I only understand about half of what they are saying. The power of mere presence is a beautiful thing.
I always get extra hugs and words of encouragement from the members of my church,
asked by people I barely know to have coffee or to join in discussions about which I feel like I have nothing to contribute. Still I am received with smiles.
I get lost often trying to find buses and the stress from feeling lost, physically and metaphorically, is immense. But then I muster up the courage to ask a woman on the corner if I am at the right place and she smiles and points out when the bus I want is coming. People are always looking out for me. Even a woman I met once at a lecture offered for me to knock on her door no matter what time of day or night if I ever got lost or need to get out of a taxi in the neighborhood so far away from my own.
I learn about cultural ambassadors of all sorts – those who have made professions out of this work, those who have married cross-culturally. It has been so helpful for me to have people leading me through these huge times of transition, frustration, and unknowing.
I see beautiful flowers and sunshine everywhere, gorgeous countryside, hills, and ruins that tell me a story about the place I am at present. Sometimes I literally need the wind to slap me in the face to wake me up and see what is right in front of me.
Awesome mariachi music alternating with Pitbull blares from the buses as the bus drivers deck out their buses in all sorts of party gear. Just because they can. Sometimes I'm overwhelmed, and sometimes I have the overwhelming urge to laugh and be slightly frightened at the same time. Like when I got on a bus two days ago that had a huge sign that read “SKULL” on the ceiling but then on the dashboard had a bobble-head frog holding a heart that said “I LOVE YOU” for example What would you think in that situation?
I was invited into the home of one of the women I work with, to come meet her whole family and cook with her, though she hopes I enjoy it because she proclaims her family poor.
The same woman shines with pride as she clarifies that her spirituality will never be poor and that her spirituality always brings her peace when she doesn't have money or the ability to read and write. She is embarrassed when I call her my teacher. But although she is not the one in the room who has been working in a physical classroom for 50 years, I am learning so much from her.
I see the pain of people holding out their sombreros for money on the corner of many streets and feel uncomfortable. And then I hear a man call, “Yessica!” I recognize him but can't remember his name, only that we've met once my first day of work at a reunion. He greets me with a smile and asks if everything is going well. He remembers me and I have somehow made an impact on his life. No idea what that impact is. But it comforts me when I am surrounded by discomfort.
I see huge movements and demonstrations that are very dangerous and risk everything, literally.
But then I feel the importance of these actions and words and it is good.
I hear people tell firsthand accounts of immigrating illegally to the US, how hard it was, how easy it was, how much money meant or means to them. And then some say they really miss the US but cannot go back. People of all ages.
It really puts my judgments into perspective when I find out that everyone in my host family has nieces/nephews/daughters/sons illegally in the US, and their children do not have access to education because of their status. And when I find out that 3 members of my host family, those who I probably trust and rely on the most in this unfamiliar place, who I can talk with about nearly everything and who take such good care of me,
are street vendors, jobs which I have always viewed as 'dirty' or 'bothersome and desperate.' Little did I know.
To live with pain, fear, love, ignorance, joy, wonder, judgment, discomfort, caution, reassurance, happiness. Every step I take is a blind one.
Sunday, September 18, 2011
I took a brave step a couple of days ago. I decided to wash my clothes. With a couple minutes downtime one afternoon I thought (after seeing the washing machine the first day I arrived) that I'd ask to put my clothes in and start it, then get to read my book for an hour or so. Little did I know... The machine was plugged in. About 5 cups of laundry detergent powder was poured on top of my clothes. Buckets of water were filled to pour into the machine. And the power button was pushed so that the machine roared to life, splashing a constant ranging rapids of soap suds and water everywhere. It was kind of like taming a beast. I was asking my family member who was showing me how to do this for the third time how much time I needed to wait before coming back to the machine to take the clothes out and hang them out on the line. His third response after failing to be understood the previous two times was to grab one of my shirts out of the machine, throw it into the bumpy sink, and scrub as fast and as furious as possible, alternating scrubbing a soap bar and tossing buckets of continuous water on the article of clothing with one hand, while rubbing the shirt as vigorously as possible across the bottom of the sink with the other, and then running outside to clip the shirt to the drying line before running back in before the water bucket of constantly-flowing water overflowed in order to keep the process going. It was nothing short of an extreme sport. He gestured for me to take over from there, at which point there was a moment in which neither one of us moved except for a laugh that escaped my mouth; then I spent the next hour running back and forth, alternating throwing buckets of water on each article of clothing, vigorously scrubbing with what I felt was about 100 times more soap than was necessary, and sweating so much that when all was said and done it was almost comical that I had just showered.
Thursday, September 15, 2011
Today is Day 1 (of 2) of Mexican Independence Day. This is the actual day independence was achieved but the news wasn't shouted from the town's center until the 16th. Apparently everywhere is a big party tonight – it was bizarre for me to attend spin class this morning because 3 of the ladies were wearing Mexican jerseys and everyone was really pumped and yelling and Mexican pride music was being blared out of the speakers for the entire class. Everyone just looked so happy and I was trying to also, but it just doesn't mean much to me. I kept trying to imagine that it was the 4th of July, because that's always exciting right? But it's not the 4th of July. Though I bet everyone is excited to see friends and family. That's probably where the true excitement of Independence Days comes from. Strange to be in a place where Independence doesn't mean independence for you. I also wonder what Independence means for Mexico versus what it means for the US, especially in current years. Come to think of it, I'm not even sure I know what Independence Day means for the US in modern context. That we can live in comfort? That we can go out after dark? That we have access to college educations? I don't know about you but I don't think about that stuff on the 4th of July.
Thank God for family and friends. The world is an incomprehensible place.
Sunday, September 11, 2011
I laugh, I cry, I wonder, I love
that all of us transition together, alone but together
I believe one big challenge for me this year is realizing how to combine what I experience every day, some things known as home combined with things I've never really been exposed to
Starbucks and machismo
Bananas and the Spanish language
Nike and bustling mercados
Corn flakes and mariachi
American friends and living with extended families
Kindles and scorpions
Televisions and poverty
All overlapping and literally in one place, so familiar but so foreign, like how can these things possibly fit together?
It's such a disconcerting comfort, I don't know what to do with myself.
I expected to leave – to go far away – to lose myself
But I am still here, not quite sure of how to be lost.
Maybe to be lost is to feel completely unsure, so blindly dependent, but still present.
Or perhaps it's always happening, any uncertainty and any discomfort, no matter how strong.
My visit to the Anglican Church in Cuernavaca:
I go to find comfort
You welcome me
We're all the same
Because of our skin
Until I hear your story
and it is not your neighbor's
At our denominational differences
We all sing
You are escaping
to more isolation
and find freedom?
You have come and gone
I open my mouth to say the Creed
And hear new words
in a deceivingly similar setting
What language do you really speak?
Because though I hear you
I do not understand
You are what I am looking for.
Saturday, September 10, 2011
I learned how to make sopes for the first time today! It was really fun but it took the cook (from now on to be referred to as Gloria) a few minutes to realize I truly wanted to help her cook. She was like, “really, you don't eat tortillas at home?” and I had to explain that even if I did eat tortillas more than once every two weeks, no one around me would know how to make them. I was also fortunate enough to get to hang out with her daughter all day as well, because my two supervisors were gone. What do you know – I was supposed to be at the house (meeting place) all day because people were supposed to come by and drop off documents. The one task I had prepared for and been trained for and... no one showed up all day. But the time was hardly wasted. I pulled out a guitar from the Maestra's house – she has some random instruments sitting around) and I sang and made up very very basic songs to play with Gloria's daughter. We also played a really entertaining game of write out the full name of all your family members and take turns being really surprised at how unpronounceable each name is and count the letters in the name to see who had the longest name. Mom, you won. Toward the end of my time at the house today, some women started coming in to participate in the 'sewing' i.e. gossip class. Don't get me wrong, they were sewing some amazing looking bags, but not much had been accomplished by the time I left other than me learning the word for 'sinners' as the women laughed and talked about drama in the community. I really would enjoy getting to know these women more, but the limited Spanish frustrates everything.
I had to choose between going to the internet cafe and taking a shower tonight, and I figured since I hadn't showered in 2 days, there really was no choice. But talk about really having to choose here. You really have to figure out your priorities. I'm not only referring to building a fire for half an hour before I shower so I can have warm water (the water felt so much warmer because I successfully built the fire myself today! - I think of how stupid these little celebrations must sound to my host family who has been doing these things for years) and thus not being able to go have internet before nightfall sets in, but also living off minimum wage in Mexico really stresses me out in always thinking about calling and texting and then deciding it's not really worth it, using less soap in the shower, not washing my clothes as much, and nearly eliminating my snack and exploration of food and beverage intake. I've had a couple discussions already with ML (my direct supervisor), la wise elderly Maestra, and other women in rural Mexico about the serious lack of ability to tackle looming issues because entire families are trying to live off what I'm living off of. And I don't have to pay for food or rent. Go figure.
I was riding in the bus today in one of my two hour commutes, and every 10 seconds I saw black fumes grossly emitted from buses. For a fleeting second I was like, “So.... anyone heard of global warming?” and then I grimly laughed at myself and thought, “If I was trying to put sustenance on the table for 6 people, this question would seem totally irrelevant.” Así es. There you have it. Shortly after, a man sitting in front of me threw out two empty bottles into the ditch. Ironic that the organization I'm working with is working with environmental projects, among other things. Then you step back into the real world and everything laughs at you.
Also, as a side note, la Maestra is one of nineteen children.
Happy first of September! I have one more day at the convent in Cuernavaca and then the real work begins here. After meeting my host family and seeing the two sites I'll be working in, I'm excited but also I know there's a lot of learning to do. The two work sites, in Cuentepec and Coateltelco, welcomed our group of volunteers with a HUGE welcome. It was intimidating to have entire communities welcome me into a position where I already know I will not be giving as much as I will be receiving the local knowledge and kindness. What I thought would be a concise tour of the two work placements in each community ended up being a day long, snail-paced meal basically. We spent most of the time at two homes, each of which seem to be the headquarters of basically a community meeting area (I use the term community loosely because it's more like an informal fiesta and work-related topics may or may not pop up in conversation). There were tons of flies and mosquitoes that gave me bites which covered my feet and that worries me a little for the comfort of my work. That being said, these women are already some of the most amazing people I've ever met. They lead community clean-up days where 100 women more or less literally sweep the streets; they teach each other how to make stoves that are easier or more efficient to use; they organize tours of the local school where organic composting and other amazing projects about nutrition and sustainability are happening. The school tour, however, felt really weird because we visitors were being video taped the entire time. Talk about being an outsider. I am grateful that I know have some idea of what it feels like to be a minority. One woman, basically the 85 year old head honcho of one town, said that like 50 years ago she stopped the president of Mexico and made him come visit her small town (by pulling him into a taxi), because she was so upset that her mayor was portraying their pueblo as being fine and everything in order. I have found my grandma, Mexican form. We have been visiting other volunteers' sites every day. This has entailed visiting an organic farm owned by an expat, a center where people ages 10-46 with down's syndrome go, multiple centers for women's domestic and reproductive rights, an AIDS activism program, and retirement communities – just to name a few. It is so inspirational to witness what wonderful work is being done here in Mexico with regard to human rights and community support, especially in a society where it has been made clear to us (by a university professor who came to talk to us one day) that expression of opinions is different than where I am from.
Hola a todos! It's about time I start recording my orientation experience of the last 2 weeks. I was in Chicago with the 49 other YAGM volunteers August 17-24 and had an absolutely amazing time meeting other volunteers, alumni, and staff of the program. It still blows my mind how quickly deep relationships can form – what a great and beautiful thing! We had many sessions about living abroad, interfaith dialogue, cross-cultural living, and other reflective subjects.
On August 24th at 5:30am the Mexico group departed for Cuernavaca, Mexico. We were there by lunch time with our only flight being from Chicago to Mexico City. In my program there are 5 young men and 4 young women, and we have been so lucky to have the opportunity to spend LOTS of time together since we got to Mexico. We have been doing a lot of “Art and Story” which includes using clay as props to tell a story of our lives to the group. That and other activities have really allowed for deep community to be built amongst these volunteers and our country coordinator.
The orientation time here has mostly been spent at a convent in Cuernavaca. We've had the amazing opportunity of getting to know the nuns here, not just by being welcomed into their morning worship services which we always read and sing in Spanish and English. The nuns, and the cook here we've had at the Lutheran Center in Mexico City, have made AMAZING food. This includes tostadas, tacos, chile rellenos, avacado and bean combinations, and many delicious spices. We have done a few quick guided tours of the city of Cuernavaca, and it seems wonderful, though it'll still take me awhile to feel adjusted to living there.
We depart from the convent in Cuernavaca for our host families on Saturday at 2:30pm. I will meet my host family (three middle-aged siblings), along with the other host families of people staying in Cuernavaca, on Wednesday evening over a shared meal. I am a bit nervous for it but also after having seen the success of two of the volunteers whose host families from Mexico City got to eat with us last night, I am looking forward to having the stress of not knowing the family gone.
I wish you all much peace in your own exploration!