Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Dead Wheat Chronicles - Part 1: Water

We never know the worth of water till the well is dry.
~Thomas Fuller, Gnomologia, 1732

I sit in a wide, wooden 30-foot-long canoe fitted with simple benches and a 40 HP Yamaha motor that powers us across the Chiriquí Bay on Panama's Caribbean coast. The boat, packed with bags, people and a lone chicken, hums along hugging the beautiful coastline buried in mangrove swamps with mountains swallowed in clouds in the background. My feet rest in two inches of water pooling along the spine of the boat. I start to wonder what the call to abandon ship sounds like in the local Ngöbe language. I glance around to study the looks on the faces of the other passengers. No one seems worried, so I ignore the water too.

Dark clouds hang ominously overhead, though my clothes and backpack are already soaked from our ride in the back of a truck taxi from the bus stop to the docks in Chiriquí Grande. The rain has since abated, but the moisture in the air keeps my clothes thoroughly soaked. As my feet slosh in their soggy sneakers, I think to myself, "This is going to be a common theme."

Water: The essential element. Without it we perish. With so much water around me (and on me), I cannot quite appreciate the reason for the trip out here in the depths of this region's rainy season. Steve Bliss of Dead Wheat International Foundation invited me to join the four-day affair in the Ngöbe-Buglé comarca (a region of Panama) to experience the challenges they face providing community development assistance in impoverished and often remote regions and, more specifically, help with an aqueduct project for the village of Kuite.

After an hour crossing the bay, the boat veers right and travels up one of the many tributary rivers for another three hours. Finally, we reach the small town of Kuite quaintly nestled next to the Mananti river. We grab our gear, including personal backpacks and a very large duffel bag loaded with tools and PVC plumbing parts for the aqueduct, and begin the 2 hour haul over streams, rivers and large pools of sloppy mud to our campsite.

Arrival in Kuite

Within fifteen minutes of starting, we pause to wipe the sweat
dripping from our faces and catch our breath. Barry, founder of World Next Door and our companion for the trip, exclaims with feigned enthusiasm and an accompanying grin, "At least we only have 95% of the hike left guys!"

"Haha, yep, and at least it's all uphill from here," I reply appearing gleeful.

"And, hey, the mud is only shin-deep," adds Steve amidst a heavy chuckle.

Sarcasm would become another common theme of the trip.

Navigating the endless mud

Fortunately, one of the locals who knows Steve sees us struggling and offers to carry the duffel bag of aqueduct supplies to the campsite for $5. With no deliberation, the chorus of irresilient gringos sings its affirmative reply, "YES!"

Two hours of sludge-and-trudge later, we arrive at our campsite and position our tent at the top of a hill to avoid rainwater build-up, only the ground is already sopping wet. A light rain mocks our efforts to create a water-resistant shelter, though we manage to shield ourselves from direct rainfall. By the time we finish, we are sweaty, soaked from rain and humidity, and covered in mud.

We sit under the rain tarp and chat while enjoying a delicious meal of canned tuna. Barry mentions an idea he has for an article about how much time, energy and money we
spend in the United States (and other developed countries) trying to be comfortable. The people that live here have no mattresses, refrigerators, air-conditioning, or any other modern creature comforts that we consider necessary to our well-being (and take for granted). Their perception of comfort is quite different from ours, and they are likely quite comfortable.

As I sit in my moist clothes on top of a deflated (uninflatable) air mattress inside a tent eating food from a can, the thought hits me that I am more fortunate in terms of nutrition and basic necessities here on this hill than many of the people in the region. I have filtered, potable stream water and high-protein food, which already puts me well above the majority who have no other choice than to drink contaminated river water and eat mainly boiled green bananas, plantains, yuca or other low-nutrition foods. Though I may be unprecedentedly uncomfortable, I should recognize my favorable circumstances and not complain (although the sarcastic remarks continue for the sake of comic relief - morale is important).

In the morning, we assemble a make-shift filter for the intake on the aqueduct with PVC plumbing supplies. The filter prevents only large debris from entering and clogging the line; water at the source is uncontaminated and potable straight from the stream. I, of course, test this by downing a few handfuls, and I am pleased to announce that after two and a half weeks I have yet to keel over dead or suffer any severe gringo gastrointestinal reaction.

Our installed filter system

From the intake location, PVC pipes carry water to a holding tank in Kuite. To get there, though, the aqueduct must first cross five to seven kilometers (three to four miles) of rolling hills covered in lush jungle, several streams and a large tract of swampland. Accompanied by two Peace Corps volunteers who are partners of the aqueduct project and live in Kuite, we commence hiking the length of the aqueduct.

Beginning of the aqueduct line as it heads into the jungle

As we walk, my rubber boots sink into thick mud and slip on unstable slopes. In spite of the wise advice I received from my mother about running with knives, I keep my machete handy and hack every vine, weed or any other seed-spawned plant life in sight. The metallic ring from each swipe fosters images of the Spanish conquistadors forging their way through these same jungles centuries ago, though our mission here could not be more different. The conquistadors sought to pillage, impoverish and impose their will upon the inferior barbarians; Dead Wheat seeks to empower communities and provide the basic necessities so people can escape the crushing oppression of poverty. The daydream is entertaining though, and I continue to slice my way through the jungle over the course of the next two hours.

The slippery slopes, thick vegetation, razor grass, and rain seem endless. Much of the aqueduct line remains unconnected, laying over trenches dug by the Kuite villagers where the line will eventually be buried. Walking the line gives me an appreciation for the difficulties of laying so much pipe across this unforgiving terrain.

As dusk descends, we reach the last obstacle between the intake site and the village's holding tank: swamp. "We're going through that?" I ask, trying to mask an incredulous and slightly exhausted tone.

One of the Peace Corps workers braves a first step into the muck and mire only to find his foot buried in a gooey mess with swamp sludge pouring into his knee-high rubber boots. "Hmmmm," is his only response.

"How far to the other side?" asks Steve.

"Wait, I thought you were the guide here," exclaims Barry.

Steve chuckles, and we debate our choices for returning to camp: cross the swamp of unknown size to the main path or backtrack along the aqueduct line and meet the path farther up.

As we hike back up the aqueduct line, the only thing maintaining our morale in our exhausted, water-logged condition is our insatiable penchant for sarcasm: "At least it's still raining." "The razor grass doesn't hurt that bad when it rips into your flesh." "I don't really mind that my toenails are so soggy they feel like they are coming off. They don't exactly serve any purpose." "I bet this mud is really good for your skin, assuming the jungle bacteria doesn't eat your skin." "I can't wait to take a hot shower when we get back to the tent...you brought the shower with you, right Steve?" etc...

Back at the campsite, we wash off in the nearby stream and open another delicious dinner of canned tune. Steve shares some of the difficulties of working in the region posed by the remoteness of the village. For example, transporting all the concrete and PVC piping requires the same four-hour boat ride from Chiriquí Grande to Kuite that we endured. Multiple trips had to be made over time to bring in the supplies. From Kuite, the 100-pound bags of concrete had to be carried individually to the intake site, the same muddy two-hour hike that we endured. On the first concrete pour, a heavy rain began that caused a sudden rise in the volume of water in the stream, which washed away the intake structure before it could set. The pour was rescheduled for the dry season, and more 100-pound bags had to be brought in.

At an overall cost of about $10,000 for materials and transportation, this project is no small feat, and it is an amount that would be practically impossible for communities like Kuite to raise. Most families are subsistence farmers, which means there is nothing left over to sell at a market. There is no money for extra goods, much less an aqueduct project of this scale. For an idea of subsistence farming life amongst the indigenous Ngöbe people, read Barry's article about subsistence farming.

Water is one of the things that we take for granted most in our lives. We forget how essential it is when it flows freely from our faucets, and we forget that many people are not afforded this luxury. The planning and logistics involved with getting potable water to these marginalized communities is mind-boggling. That is why it is refreshing to see organizations like Dead Wheat assisting in this difficult and often expensive process. The result will be tangible and will reduce the occurrence of water-borne diseases that affect many villagers in Kuite, mostly children and the elderly. They certainly understand the worth of water, and their well will soon be full.

Ngöbe children at a school near Kuite

All pictures by Barry Rodriguez from World Next Door. Thanks!!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Magic, Mystery and A Few Mosquitos

Three Frenchman, three Carolina boys, a guy from California and our Colombian guide sit around swatting mosquitos in the middle of the Colombian jungle. We huddle around a picnic table perched at the end of a long line of hammocks wrapped in bug nets and strung up under the thatched roof of an open-air gazebo - our sleeping quarters for the night. A lone candle casts its faint glow across our faces giving the evening an appropriate sense of mystery. We are on our way to the Lost City.

Our guide "Lalo" - 21 years young - recounts stories from his experiences leading the adventurous through the Sierra Nevada mountain range of Northern Colombia in search of the Lost City. His deliberate tone and calm countenance, accentuated by the flickering candle, lend gravity to the mysterious ambience. There is no lack of anecdotes; he has been working the trail since he was 15.

Lalo peppers his stories of adventure with bits of knowledge about the history of the region and our ultimate destination: la Ciudad Perdida (the Lost City). "Finally a history class I won't sleep through," I think to myself.

Founded around 800 AD by the Tayrona tribe (also spelled Tairona), the Lost City is an archaeological site that predates the famous ancient Incan site Machu Picchu in Peru by 650 years. Though the Spanish never discovered the site tucked away deep in the mountainous jungle of the Sierra Nevada, they did indeed discover (and pillage) the coastal tribes that inhabitants of the Lost City traded with, and when that trade was interrupted the city was abandoned. Two more similar sites are rumored to be hidden deeper in the mountains but have not yet been (re)discovered by westerners.

The current native tribes in the region - the Arhuaco, the Kogui and the Arsario - call the Lost City "Teyuna", and they consider the site the inheritance of all natives of the Sierra Nevada. Our campsite for the night is on a Kogui family's land - their round hut rests just a few meters from our hammocks.

Lalo shifts his lesson to focus on the Kogui traditions and beliefs. We sit mesmerized as he describes a spiritual life directed by a shaman (called a mamo) and centered around the mind and its potential rather than the body, intense marriage rites that last 4 days and nights endured by all men who seek a wife, spiritual rituals based around the coca leaf and the organization of community and family life.

I glance at my fellow gringos sitting around the picnic table to see if they are as entranced as I am and detect the amazement gleaming in their awe-struck eyes. We look like little children watching a magic show.

Lalo finishes his presentation and sits quietly looking back at us with a slight grin. The candle sizzles as it reaches the end of its wick. "Buenas noches," he says.

"Buenas noches," we echo. "Y gracias, Lalo." We slowly rise from our seats and head to our hammocks.

In the morning, I look at the round wooden hut with a thatched roof, dirt floor and loosely boarded walls but see it with a new perspective. Where before I saw poverty, I now see beauty in simplicity. While their living conditions are basic, they and their forebears have lived and flourished in this manner for more than a thousand years.
A fire burns inside the hut, visible through the vertical slats of the walls, and children scamper about in bare feet making no sound as they glide across the ground. My watch says 6:00 AM, but I am sure the Kogui do not know what time it is. The sun is up, and day has begun.

The sight of the fire reminds me of something Lalo mentioned before: the top cause of death amongst the Kogui is lung disease caused by smoke inhalation. While the fire is primarily for cooking, it is maintained at all times to also repel insects and provide warmth during the occasional cool night. Exposure to smoke is constant.

As I ponder their condition, a nagging thought pokes at my conscience: Should you attempt to change something that has served the needs of a culture for over a millennium?

While lost in my thoughts, I look to my right and spot one of the little Kogui girls studying me with a skeptical look from a bench a few meters away. "Hola," I say wishing I knew how to say 'Hi' in Kogui. She nods silently and keeps her eyes fixed on me as if trying to decide whether or not I am real. For such a young child, she sure seems rather austere.

I offer up my Recreo cookies, the Colombian version of an Oreo, as a gesture of goodwill - cookies are an intercultural peace offering. She accepts with the hint of a smile and munches happily on her bench, legs swinging with content.

"Te gustan?" I ask. She nods.

"Brilliant question, James," I say to myself. "Of course she likes the cookies." But what else do you ask an 8-year-old Kogui? I wanted to discuss her feelings regarding the influence of tourism on her people and their way of life, but something told me she was not ready for that one.

Tourism is presenting new challenges to this ancient culture. Though the Kogui seem to possess a steadfast adherance to their customs and traditions, the Kogui along the tourist trail to the Lost City are beginning to benefit economically. They own rubber boots, machetes, and saddles for their mules among other useful items. They also now have access to consumer products like the all-pervasive Coca-Cola, which they sell to tourists as well as consume for themselves.

What is the challenge? Well for one, I can imagine a variety of health issues related to the introduction of high sugar content, low nutrition foods. Suddenly I feel a bit guilty for the rush of sugar I just provided this little girl.

In addition, the Kogui and other native tribes in the region that are not along the tourist trail to the Lost City do not receive the same economic benefits. There has been some conflict regarding the fairness of this since the Lost City is considered an inheritance of all natives in the region.

There are also negative ecological impacts from so many tourists visiting the region. This intrusion affects all of the indigenous population since they rely on the land to provide their living. With the rapid growth of Colombia's tourism industry over the past 5 years and the rising popularity of the Lost City as a backpackers destination, this influence is sure to increase.

After experiencing the magic of the Lost City, I hike out of the Sierra Nevada mountains wondering what will become of the descendants of the city's constructors. The indigenous population throughout the Sierra Nevada faces difficult pressures from tourism, government encroachment, drug cartels, military conflicts, ecological changes, and more. It is a delicate balance between the modern and the ancient worlds that unfortunately heavily favors the modern.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Frustration Builds

I balance atop a shaky ladder constructed of long log braces and rickety stick steps held together with loose wire as I look out across the dust-blown fields surrounding Rhiannon Community in northern Ecuador. The hammer thuds against wood as I struggle to wrestle bent nails back into new braces that we cut from warped boards with a hacksaw. Our efforts to hold the greenhouse together through another day's pounding by the constant Andean wind are confounded by that same defiant yet predictable antagonist. The recycled materials we scrounged up from around the site fail to meet our needs. Dust stings my eyes and fills my ears, nose and mouth while my hair escapes the hat on my head to whip my cheeks in treacherous concordance with the intangible enemy. Frustration builds.

"You zink it work?" queries my French construction companion Ludo, speaking more with his large bushy eyebrows and lanky frame than with words. Though he is the mastermind behind the repairs design, he is as lost as the rest of us working on the project.

"I don't know buddy. I don't know," I reply in resignation with a slight shake of my head. I grab another bent nail and continue my futile task.

The Rhiannon Community is an organic farming community attempting to implement permaculture ideas to help increase self-sufficiency and decrease waste. A positive but complicating characteristic of self-sufficiency is a strong mentality of recycling and reusing. For our greenhouse repairs, we are meant to reuse the same plastic that has already been ripped and removed from the battered eucalyptus frame and tack it down with the same wood that failed to secure the plastic the first time.

At times the frustration creeps into the forefront of my mind and I find myself unnecessarily stressing over something outside of my control. Over the last year I have found myself in many situations where I could see my efforts doing little to surmount the task before me. Quite often my role has been as a short-term helping hand with no time to undertake any significant action in a project. I have learned though that maintaining a positive and flexible mindset is essential reguardless of the task. Being able to participate with enthusiasm and share constructive energy at all times is the best gift you can give someone.

The more I allow the stress and frustration to slip away, the more I see how my small efforts help support something larger than myself. For example, the community provides free English language classes in the nearby rural school, and, since Rhiannon is a permanent member of the municipality of Malchingui, maintains a consistent and long-term relationship there. Therefore, albeit indirectly, my actions supporting Rhiannon in turn support this positive presence.

The sun begins to set on another day of work. I look out across the valley behind the community and marvel at the snow-capped peak of volcano Cayambe drenched in the bright but dying colors of the day's last light. Stress melts away.

"Iz wery beauteeful, no?" says Ludo turning to me with his bushy brows arched high with inquisitive intent.

"It sure is," I reply in quiet contemplation. "We're lucky to experience it, aren't we?"

As I appreciate the beauty that surrounds me, I find myself giving thanks for all the difficulties and frustrations I have encountered along the way. Each new challenge has pushed me to higher levels of patience and positive thinking. I suppose when it comes to character-building, frustration provides the framework for self-improvement.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Bright Places Make Smiling Faces

"Qué estás haciendo?!?" demanded the little voice behind me, sounding more like a distressed complaint than a question. I turned around to face my interrogator and found a little lad of about 7 years with his hair neatly combed to the side, button-up t-shirt tucked in his gray trousers, and his face hopelessly contorted with concern as he watched my paint roller pass over the school's recently completed mural.

"I'm putting a sealant onto this beautiful mural to protect it," I replied after a slight chuckle.

"Ahhh, para protegerlo," he repeated, his demeanor instantly changing as my reply met his approval. He nodded and scurried off to his classroom.

I smiled and turned back to the wall with a renewed since of purpose for my simple task.

While I had not participated in creating the mural, I was content that I could contribute to something that the school and its students were obviously very proud of. A group of volunteers through the organization called Otra Cosa, had worked for two weeks to complete the mural, which transformed a dull cement-surrounded courtyard into a bright and colorful place where the youngest of the children at the school play during recess.

One of the final tasks to finish up the wall was to put hand prints of all the children along the bottom border of the mural. Working in assembly-line fashion, three of us volunteers finished over 250 hand prints in two days time and sealed up the final product. The result is maravilloso!!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Out On A Limb

The morning after Machu Picchu started out easy enough: check out of the hostel in Aguas Calientes, grab a fresh fruit juice at the market, and dodge trains for three hours while following the tracks to Hidroeléctrica where my Maltese travel buddy Rob and I caught a taxi to Santa Teresa for 5 Sol (the best US$1.66 I've ever spent). We had already walked the two hours along the dusty road from Santa Teresa two days before on our way to Aguas Calientes and agreed it wasn't worth the trek back, especially since my boots had wreaked havoc on my tender gringo heels opening up impressive, painful blisters on both feet.

In Santa Teresa we opted out of the simple 35 Sol (under US$12) direct van to Cusco thinking we could save maybe 12 Sol (a negligible US$4.00) by sticking with the original plan and catching a taxi to Santa María and then a bus to Cusco. I clung to the door handle of the Toyota Corolla wagon, a slightly newer model than my '88 back in the States, and tried to pull my attention away from the monstrous drop to the riverbed hundreds of feet below. The car drifted within inches of becoming a temporary airplane at each of the endless curves on the single-lane dirt road. An hour later I was still alive in Santa María at the bottom of the valley.

To our dismay, all the minivans heading to Cusco were full, and all the bus companies were telling us the same for every bus in the afternoon. Our next option was a three hour wait to catch the 4:00pm bus putting us in Cusco around 10:00pm, but we wanted to get to Cusco at a more reasonable hour. We sat by the only through-road in town waiting for the 1:30pm bus to see if we could sit on the floor when a giant truck came thundering into town and pulled up just shy of our roadside roost.

"Vas a Cusco?" I asked.

"" he replied as he unlocked the back hatch revealing the chasmal truck bed that was to be our roomy passage to Cusco.

Three brave French girls, Rob and myself ascended the step ladder into the truck, spread out in spacious luxury that is simply not available in traditional public transportation, and before long we were happily bouncing along towards our destination.

An hour into our bumpy ride, the truck slowed, paused and finally cut the engine. We heard some rustling and a few seconds later a round face popped up over the wooden walls of the truck with a quick but complex question, "Están apurados?" Are we in a hurry? Five confused foreign faces looked around at each other hoping to find a united answer. Naturally we wanted the truck to keep chugging along until we were in Cusco, but the best response we could come up with was, "Por qué?" Why?

Apparently there was a stack of firewood that they wanted to pick up, and we were in no position to demand that the truck continue. We silently acquiesced, and the truck roared to life, veered from the main route, and descended deep into the valley. I began to doubt my hour-old decision to enter this potential death trap as giant leaves from low-hanging banana trees whipped the top of the truck signaling our arrival to the middle of nowhere somewhere in the Sacred Valley of Peru. I quietly pondered what sort of ransom 3 French girls, 1 dread-locked Maltese and a gruff and grungy guy from the U.S. would pull in these parts.

Suddenly the truck stopped and began to reverse, pulling the tail end towards the inclined hill to our right. They were apparently attempting to turn this beast of a machine around.

"But we're on the edge of a cliff with the river below us, right?" I thought out loud.

At that point two things happened: 1) The back end ran out of back-up room and began crushing the limbs of a tree, and 2) I nearly panicked and grabbed my daypack, food sack and sleeping bag with the intention of leaping over the side wall of the truck to the safety of solid ground while this madman finished his maneuvering.

One and a half harrowing minutes and a twelve-point turn later, the truck engine coughed to an uneasy halt. The back doors swung open revealing solid ground on both sides of the dirt road with a long pile of firewood stacked along one side; at least this guy was not as crazy as it first appeared.

Our chauffeur said that loading all the wood would take at most two hours and left us to walk to the river, explore the surrounding bush, or sit around and stare at each other. Once the shock of my near death experience faded and my heart rate returned to readable levels, I looked from my travel companions lounging on the ground to the enormous pile of wood being loaded and saw an opportunity. Without a word I began grabbing logs and tossing them up to the truck bed, trying to keep pace with the crew of Peruvians that were all half my size.

Slowly a dialogue developed, and before long I was laughing and joking with our driver, Luigi, and his crew of roughneck Peruvian truckers. I asked them what they transport when their truck isn't full of firewood and gringos. It turns out they run a semi-regular route delivering food between Cusco and several towns throughout the Sacred Valley. They were on their way to Cusco to pick up another shipment, but could not pass up the opportunity to make some side cash on an unusual mix of cargo. I was thankful that the additional cargo was not livestock nor any product derived from their natural processes. I nodded my approval and continued loading at their vigorous pace.

We packed the entire pile of firewood into the truck in an hour, filling the prior spacious travel compartment nearly to the top. The truck's crew, my foreign travel companions and I once again climbed aboard and sputtered away climbing the valley road while dodging the giant banana leaves that were now whipping our torsos. From our panoramic perch, we had the most spectacular view of the sun setting in the valley as we ascended high into the Andes mountains.

We unloaded in 25 minutes or less in a small village near Ollantaytambo hurling sticks and heavy logs over the side of the truck into darkness. Our eyes battled wind-blown wood shavings for the final two and a half hours to Cusco.

Our nine-hour exploit ended around 10:00pm in the outskirts of Cusco. Luigi charged 10 Sol for his service of safe delivery, just 5 Sol less than the six-hour bus that arrived at the unreasonable hour of 10:00pm. As Rob and the French girls reached in their pockets to pay their tariff, Luigi added, "pero nada para mi amigo," signaling in my direction with a slight nod and brazen grin. A little extra effort had paid my way and earned me the friendship of an unlikely ally. We waved goodbye to Luigi and crew as their truck awkwardly lurched forward down the narrow Cusco street, and I was glad our penny pinching ways had forced us out on a limb.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Mines of Potosí

I was told that visiting the cooperative mines of Potosí, Bolivia is an experience that should not be missed. I would agree, but it is more of an intense humbling experience than a fun tour. Describing the conditions in which the miners work is difficult, but it is the closest to hell as I can imagine.

Upon entering the mine, large chunks of ice hang from the ceiling inches above your head, but as you move deeper into the mine the temperature rises, the spaces get smaller, and thick humidity makes movement extremely uncomfortable. Naturally light is at a minimum and is almost exclusively provided by headlamps, though electric cables coated in thick layers of minerals do stretch deep into the mines. In many places, crawling on hands and knees is necessary to reach the areas where mining actually takes place. Water and minerals leak down from the ceiling often creating large pools of murky water on the narrow foot path. Our guide told us that toxic materials like arsenic, sulfuric acid, and asbestos occur naturally inside the mines. She even pointed out arsenic minerals growing on the walls. Holes for dynamite are dug manually and explosions shake the mountain every few minutes. There are a large number of mines within the mountain, and all operate independently meaning that no one knows when an explosion in another part of the mountain is going to occur. With structural supports like the one in the picture below, collapsing tunnels is something that seems imminent.

The work that miners do is strenuous and equipment is basic. Pneumatic hammers are the only power equipment used, everything else is done by hand including hauling the large bins full of minerals to the mine entrance.

Four men work together to haul minerals out of the mine

I gave them that soda, but the present seemed a bit weak considering the situation

Miners working to replace a popped tire on their wheelbarrow

Due to the conditions in the mine, especially constant exposure to toxic materials, the average life expectancy of miners is around 45 years. The next time I start to complain about going to work at a comfortable, non-physically demanding, slightly boring job, or get stressed about commuting to work in traffic in my car listening to music with the A/C or heat on, I'm going to remember these guys and the hell they go through every day for a monthly wage that many people in developed countries make in a day.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Hogar de Cristo in Quilpué

Building on the previous blog post, below is a quick video introduction to the Hogar de Cristo site in Quilpué where Holy Trinity's donation will likely be put to use:


Covering the patio will provide an outdoor recreational area for the site, especially in winter when all the children are stuck inside due to cold weather and rain. The project aims to accomplish larger goals than just providing space for recreation. Due to the funding structure of the organization, this site's kindergarten and daycare center receive financial government assistance depending on attendance. This means that if children get sick and attendance drops, so does government funding. With all the kids cooped up in a confined indoor space all day during cold and flu season, it is easy for transmission of diseases to occur. Though the area to be covered is relatively small, the hope is that it will provide an outdoor space that will alleviate cramped space within the building.

A view from inside the patio

Looking into the area to be covered

Quilpué, the town where this particular site is located, sits outside of Viña del Mar and Valparaíso, Chile. These two adjacent cities attract large crowds of tourists and host a large number of students. Unfortunately, Quilpué is too far away to realize much financial or human capital benefits. Attracting volunteer help is difficult when there are plenty of opportunities for volunteers to work in Viña and Valpo without commuting 45 minutes by bus outside of town.

Money donated by Holy Trinity Catholic School will help start the process but may not be enough to complete the entire construction project. To donate to Hogar de Cristo, click here, or e-mail me at TwentyTwelves@gmail.com for specific information about this project.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

A Little Help From Afar

For the last 3 weeks here in Viña del Mar, I have had some success finding random volunteer work (lots of painting, delivering food to the homeless, etc...), but I haven't been quite as active with Hogar de Cristo as I had hoped. The idea was to devote a significant amount of time to one organization so as to give myself enough time to begin understanding the organization, drawing on some of the lessons I've learned in the past (discussed in the previous blog post). While I have not been able to arrange a constant schedule with Hogar de Cristo, I have been very fortunate to have support from Holy Trinity Catholic School in Charlotte, NC in order to provide something of value to Hogar de Cristo. Through the efforts of the students and staff of Holy Trinity, Hogar de Cristo will receive a donation that is sorely needed. For more information on donating to Hogar de Cristo, click here.

Below is a statement from Holy Trinity:

Once we heard about The Twenty Twelves Project, we were ecstatic for the opportunity to participate in James' adventures, as well as foster a humanitarian vision in our students. As a result, teachers created lesson plans and projects around James' travels. We encouraged students to read the blog and research the towns and cities visited in James' adventures. We held open discussions on the importance of leadership and fellowship, which inspired the students to join various charities here in Charlotte.

On May 1st, we held a Dress Down Day in order to raise money for Hogar de Cristo, an organization James is working with in Viña del Mar, Chile. Dress Down Days are days where the students pay $1.00, or more depending on how much they want to donate, to wear something other than the school uniform. The students were delighted to participate and contribute to the cause. We were able to raise close to $500.00 dollars for Hogar de Cristo in Chile. The students of Holy Trinity Catholic Middle (Charlotte, NC) learned a great deal not only about culture, but also about lending a hand in foreign communities. We are thrilled to help, and will continue with the project once school is in session in the Fall of 2009.

On behalf of Hogar de Cristo and myself, I would like to thank the students and staff of Holy Trinity for their enthusiam, motivation and generosity! Your efforts make a difference even on the other side of the world.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Downtime to Reevaluate

After circling back through Buenos Aires for my 4th visit this trip and stopping for 3 days in Mendoza to settle down, I have ended up back in Viña del Mar, Chile where I spent 5 weeks for a study abroad 5 years ago. Viña is where I attribute my initial decision to make Spanish a principal focus of study, and therefore partly the reason why I am back here in South America now. I may be looking a little rough around the edges and travel-worn, but I'm feeling energized and inspired after 5 days of downtime to assess the last 5 months since starting this trip. The two principal questions I've been pondering are:
What are some of the most important lessons I've learned? And how do I apply them to the next leg of the adventure? Here are some thoughts:
  • It is essential to spend substantial time with social projects to understand how they work and what internal and external factors influence operation. At the beginning of the trip, I envisioned working with a multitude of organizations for a short period of time each and helping to raise awareness of what they do. It finally hit home after working with Cruzada Patagonica at the CEI San Ignacio school in Junin de los Andes that true understanding takes time. We extended our stay an extra week and still felt that after 2 weeks we were just beginning to get to know the people and how they live. I've given myself a month here in Viña, though the usual red tape and difficulties in communication have been chipping away at my active involvement time. That leads to my next point:
  • There is always something productive to do. With all this waiting time, I've been occupying myself with learning the Chilean slang, discussing social and cultural issues here in Chile with my slang professors (hostel workers), as well as participating in interesting student-lead community outreach efforts. After talking about the reason for my extended travels (which is common hostel chatter) and my volunteer efforts, one of the hostel workers invited me to join him on an outreach program that he participates in every week.
    The outreach program is organized by students at a local technical institute. Every Monday the students prepare and deliver hot coffee, tea and simple meals of pasta and bread to homeless people in the area. I spent the evening talking with a wonderfully welcoming couple in a modest 6x10ft shack built in the city's old sewer canal (El Estero Marga Marga), which is now used for parking and flea markets among other things. Something as simple as offering a hot cup of coffee on a cold night helps begin the process of bridging the gap between the marginalized section of society and the relatively privileged.

(Old sewer canal Marga Marga in Viña del Mar)
  • I can't do everything on my own. Trying to accomplish all that I set out to do was perhaps more ambitious than realistic. The majority of planning for the trip was done with two people in mind, and when it became a solo project I decided to go ahead with all the multimedia ideas anyway. First, I generally have to deal with logistics of where I am going, how, when, and where I will stay when I get there. If someone is hosting me, the first things to do is spend time getting to know my host. It would be rather rude to say, "Hi, nice to meet you. Will you leave me alone for a day or two so I can edit some video?" Second, it is next to impossible to carry around a video camera, get useful footage, interact and establish relationships without making people feel uncomfortable (with a video camera in their face), and actually be productive and useful all at the same time. Therefore...
  • Focus on the goal. The goal is to begin to understand cultural differences and local economic, social and environmental factors in order to help people and start working together effectively. While I want to share what I learn and provide a full multimedia production of the adventure to help others understand, I am not capable of being an internationally mobile production team. It would be great if I could be, but I think that I've found my personal limit. I suppose that is still a productive lesson to learn. What does that mean for the rest of the trip? Vamos a ver...
  • On a more supernal level, the idea that there is a reason behind every event and delay, large and small, is something that was pointed out in a simple but powerful way during my short stay on the permaculture site in Brazil. That realization has followed me during the last two months and helped me to start looking for opportunity or significance when something goes awry. It is difficult to explain why, but there is something sublime in the accumulation of many seemingly unrelated factors from the past and the present producing a situation that is somehow more favorable, even though it may be wildly different or a slightly uncomfortable, than the one envisioned. So here I sit in a hostel without heat, freezing los coquitos off, and unable to get things moving at a preferable pace with the volunteer work. In spite of this, I'm not worried because there are a large number of factors in my favor, and I'm learning, finding inspiration all around me, and beginning to see the ways, means and the ends of the project more clearly. I may not have made as much geographical progress North as I originally planned, but learning to accept and flow with the obstacles and opportunities that present themselves is a more important type of progress.
So with the next blog post, my characteristically "American" optimism says I will have good news to share about my volunteer status with the organization here in Viña. Send happy thoughts.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Building on Experience

After leaving Iguazu Falls, I visited some friends in Santa Fe last week for my first stop in Argentina on the slow cross-continent trek to Chile. A friend that I met last time I passed through Santa Fe invited me to visit the school where she works and speak with the class about some of my experiences since beginning the trip. She was discussing the ideas of micro enterprise and sustainability, so I felt that it was appropriate to share what I learned on the permaculture site in Brazil.

The school is called La Cecilia - La Nueva Cultura (The New Culture), and it is a naturalist school with a significantly different philosophy of learning than any other I have encountered. Students are able to choose what they want to learn about and how they spend their time. The campus also has a small organic garden, so many of the permaculture ideas that I learned while at Sitio São Francisco in Brazil were suprisingly applicable to this completely different setting.

Showing pictures from the site to one of the classes

If you understand Spanish, you can read more about the school on their website. Two students interested in journalism pulled me aside for an interview (no, I didn't sign any autographs, though they did compare me to a couple of celebrities), and a film student took video. You can see the video from the interview on the school's blog.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A Unique Brazilian Experience

A few weeks have passed since I last posted to the blog, and I think the reason I haven't been able to post an update on the Carapicuíba project is because I am still trying to process all that happened. I was thrust into the experience by circumstance, and each day the experience seemed to direct and shape itself. A brief overview might help explain:

It began at the permaculture site, an incredible experience in itself, and continued in São Paulo where we were supposed to be for only two days. After five days I was finally able to go back to the site just to gather my things and return to the city because the opportunity to collaborate on the project in Carapicuíba presented itself. The idea was to renovate a public park that was in terrible condition using ideas from permaculture, Felipe's specialty. The Secretary of Education of Carapicuíba initiated the project as part of establishing an open university. What does 'open university' mean? Well, I don't know exactly, but I think it is similar to community colleges in the states where a wide variety of courses in the arts can be offered alongside mathematics, sciences and the usual.

The group that worked on the project consisted of Felipe, an engineer and the owner of Sítio São Francisco, and three international architecture students that Felipe knew - one from France and two from Spain. After many late nights developing the idea for the project and several meetings with local authorities, the Prefeitura of Carapicuíba (basically the mayor of the city) confirmed our trip to the capital of the country to meet with people from the Ministry of Education.

Presenting the basics of permaculture -
on the screen is the Flower of Permaculture

As the project stood after our trip to Brasilia, things were still up in the air as to what extent the project was going to be supported by federal funds. Basically we ran up against the stifling power of bureaucracy, but as Felipe pointed out, we were able to spread the idea of permaculture to some federal bureaucrats who were quite interested in the ideas, which is a small success in its own right. Unfortunately, they weren't able to provide the kind of support that we were hoping to receive for this sort of unique project.

Late nights developing the idea for the project.

One of the first presentations about the project was made
to the Secretary of Education of Carapicuíba.

The next step was to convince the Prefeitura
of Carapicuíba to back the project.

From there we took a road trip to Brasilia.
Here the group is working hard on our lunch break...
well, the girls are working hard.

Our final meeting in Brasilia.

I think this experience ranks at the top of my list of frustrating experiences. By the time we arrived in Brasilia and encountered the bureaucracy, I was already accustomed to not understanding and being frustrated. For almost an entire month I tagged along while the other four people in the group discussed the project and daily logistical plans in Portuguese. I never completely understood what was going on at any given moment. All the frustration, though, forced me evaluate the situation and the experience in a different way, and it ultimately led me to significantly increase my already immense propensity for patience. It also provided the necessary atmosphere and drive to learn Portuguese. If the group had spoke English the whole time, I never would have picked up the amount of Portuguese that I did. I suppose the challenge is what it was all about in the first place, and I certainly encountered a unique challenge during my time in Brazil.

My goal all along has been to help out in any way I can, but without the ability to communicate effectively it is difficult to establish what that means. In the end, I was able provide a few contributions to the effort. For one, I gave my opinion on the presentation they were giving and how to direct that more towards each different person/group that they presented to. With all the experience I have giving presentations in college, I feel like I had a few worthwhile tips for them. It even helped that I didn't understand the project in detail due to the language barrier because it lent a certain objectivity to my observations. At the beginning of the project, they asked me to document the process for them, so one of my more tangible contributions was in the form of raw video and pictures from the development of the project and the road trip to Brasilia. I personally won't be able to use much of the video due to my lack of translating abilities in Portuguese, but at least now they have a visual record of the process that they can perhaps use in the future.

So, the Brazil leg of the journey has come to a close, and I am slowly making my way West across the continent to Chile to spend a few weeks working in Valparaíso before starting the journey North. Bye bye Brazil - I will miss your zest and contagious energy. Muito obrigado to all the incredible people who helped light the way. Nunca posso olvidar, e com certeza vou voltar algum dia. Até logo!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Murgas in Uruguay

With a little bit of time here in São Paulo, I have been able to go back and revisit some of the video that I haven't had time to sort through. The video below is from the murga performance that I went to in Montevideo, Uruguay. It is part of Uruguay's month-long Carnaval celebration. Murgas are musical theater that often criticize social and political issues, and I remember hearing the word "Yanqui" quite a bit (yanqui is someone from North America). Their commentary on everything from international politics to local social movements drew enthusiastic applause from the crowd. Some groups were quite comical while others were more poignant, but they were all entertaining!

Murgas in Uruguay from Twenty Twelves on Vimeo.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Sítio São Francisco

It has been a very dynamic, educational and challenging experience working on the permaculture site as well as continuing the experience in São Paulo with people from the site. I only spent one week actually on the site, but new opportunities have lead us to a project transforming a run-down city park into part of an open university using ideas from permaculture and sustainable living. The group has a meeting tomorrow with the mayor of Carapicuiba (which is basically part of São Paulo, though technically its own municipality), and then we will see if we are going to Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, to meet with the Minister of Education. It is certainly not the kind of experience that I thought I would have going to a farm far outside the city, but it is turning out to be a much more diverse and valuable experience than I could have imagined.
With that said, below is a bit of an introduction to Sítio São Francisco. I also have footage from the Bioconstructing Workshop that Felipe hosted there, but I need some translating help before it can make any sense. Enjoy

Sítio São Francisco from Twenty Twelves on Vimeo.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Technical Difficulties Technically Not A Problem

It has been an intense week and a half at Sitio São Francisco, a permaculture site in the Quantinga Valley about 2 hours outside of São Paulo city. Besides a day trip to the nearby city of Mogi das Cruzes, I´ve spent the whole time communing with nature in a house in the middle of the woods without electricity or running water. I´ll spare you the details of the banheiro seco or my lack of a shower, but the butterflies don´t seem to mind the natural aromas-

This little guy hung around for a few minutes.
The number 88 is dinstinctly marked on its wings. Crazy.

Despite the unappealing details I´ve been really enjoying the experience. The first few days involved intense manual labor cutting down Eucalyptus trees, dragging them down a narrow wooded path then over a hill, stripping them of their bark, cutting them to size with a hatchet, and finally nailing them in place. The structure below (on top of the existing concrete building) uses materials found on the site or recycled from trash. The only materials bought for the building are the nails. An interesting side note that won´t make my mother proud, Felipe (the owner/only permanent resident of the site) and I dug out some useful materials from a city garbage container in downtown São Paulo last night that included carpet and a bamboo laundry basket. The creativity and resourcefulness here continuously amaze me.

Eucalyptus frame with bamboo poles running laterally along the roof

This bamboo pole is now on top of the building in the background

What has been so incredible is the diversity of opportunities to learn new practical skills while actively participating in creating something new or improving something that most have given up on. Watching your efforts become something of tangible value holds such a deep sense of satisfaction. On top of that, the physically demanding days (and absense of city noise, i.e. passing cars or crazy people with slabs of concrete yelling at passing cars) make for some of the best sleep I´ve had in a long time.

Group from the weekend permaculture/Tai Chi workshop building a solar oven
with materials found at the site. More on that later.

We are now in São Paulo city while Felipe collaborates on various projects utlizing his knowledge of permaculture. In the last two days we have met with a family opening a cultural community arts center based around their Capoeira school, a neighborhood reclaiming an unused area to create a park dedicated to education about the African diaspora in Brazil, and the municipal government of Carapicuíba (basically part of São Paulo but not technically) renovating a public park and looking to implement ecologically friendly ideas from permaculture. I happened to stumble upon the most intense and diverse experience one could have in Quatinga...

We are heading to the federal capital of Brasilia next week to meet with an important federal government official. I can´t tell you who...not because I´m not supposed to, but because either I forgot the name or that part got lost in translation. Regardless, my time here is proving to be much more exciting than I imagined. A small glitch that occured tonight is the refusal of my computer to do anything. Luckily we are in São Paulo and Toshiba has an office here that might be able to help. With the way things are progressing, though, it will be nice not to worry about computer details and focus on the more immediate details of how I can be useful. Perhaps my computer crashed to help keep me connected to reality rather than cyberspace.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Happy Easter - Feliz Páscoa

Here is a giant chocolate Easter egg for you from Brazil.
Feliz Páscoa

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Language Learning Made Easy with Music

I have met several people in the last few months who amaze me by saying that they learned English by watching movies and/or listening to music. Of course they take a much more active role in listening, but it shows that if the will to learn is there, it will happen without expensive textbooks, fancy libraries or advanced computer programs. All you need is a dictionary and some good tunes, so for anyone interested, here is a fantastic song by Ben Harper and a well-known Brazilian artist named Vanessa da Mata that should help you. The best part about this song is Ben Harper basically sings the translation of the Portuguese lyrics the whole time.

Link to the YouTube video

And the lyrics:

É só isso
Não tem mais jeito
Boa sorte
Não tenho o que dizer
São só palavras
E o que eu sinto
Não mudará

Tudo o que quer me dar
É demais
É pesado
Não há paz
Tudo o que quer de mim

That's it
There is no way
It's over
Good luck
I have nothing left to say
It's only words
And what l feel
Won't change


Tudo o que quer me dar
Everything you want to give me
É demais
It too much
É pesado
It's heavy
Não há paz
There is no peace
Tudo o que quer de mim
All you want from me
Isn´t real

Mesmo, se segure
Quero que se cure
Dessa pessoa
Que o aconselha
Há um desencontro
Veja por esse ponto
Há tantas pessoas especiais

Now even if you hold yourself
I want you to get cured
From this person
Who advises you
There is a disconnection
See through this point of view
There are so many special people in the world
So many special people in the world... in the world
All you want all you want

(Repete refrão)
Now were falling (falling), falling (falling) into the night (into the night),
Falling (falling), falling (falling) into the night (um bom encontro é de dois),
Now were falling (falling), falling (falling) into the night (into the night),
Falling (falling), falling (falling) into the night.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Sinking In

Sinking into the local culture and experiencing as much as possible is always my main goal, though this bearded gringo doesn't exactly fit in when walking through the street. Brasil has such a rich cultural diversity that I have been a bit overwhelmed with the variety of flavors, fun times, and filling foods.

Lunch is the main meal of the day here. Most days my friend's family comes home from work to eat a big lunch together. One lunch might have 5 or 6 different dishes to pile on a plate. A few examples of foods that I have had include:

Feijão com arroz - Beans with chunks of meat poured on top of rice
Pão de queijo - cheese bread
Polenta - similar to grits but not as gritty...
Farofa - mixed with...almost anything really
Stroganoff - somehow Russian influence made it into to a delicious, creamy Brazilian dish. I ate it with frango (chicken)

These, of course, are just examples, but the point is that each day is a feast of new flavors. I told my friend and his family that I would be 350 pounds if I lived here.

One of my favorite dishes is camarão na moranga, or shrimp in a pumpkin. I got to help make it when I was in Florianópolis and stumbled across it again in a buffet here in Piracicaba (buffets where you pay by weight are very common here in Brazil). Creating this concoction was just like carving a Halloween pumpkin until they skipped carving the face and starting filling the pumpkin with requijão (a creamy cheese) and shrimp. You bake it in the oven for a couple of hours and then mix the inside of the pumpkin with the shrimp and cheese. Thick, rich, creamy, tasty goodness in a convenient biodegradable bowl. Brilliant.

I didn't take this picture...in fact, I don't know who did,
but it more or less looks like the one that I ate.

My latest experience in Brazilian cuisine was at a rodízio (hoe-DEE-zee-oh), which is where you pay a set price and waiters bring offerings of different foods to the table until you signal that you have had enough. This is rather dangerous in my case, because I don't stop until I've tried everything. More specifically, we went to a churrascaria that serves various kinds of meat delivered on giant skewers. The waiters then slice off pieces for you at the table as you pluck them off the skewer with little tongs. They had at least six different cuts of beef, four or five different types of sausage (unfortunately no blood sausage, I miss Argentinian morcilla), a thick white fish that I can't remember the name of, white and dark meat chicken, and even chicken hearts. I wasn't very fond of the latter - too tough and chewy, but my friend who took me to the rodízio loved them.

The name of the restaurant:
Salt and Hot Coal

The menu explained the seven main cuts of beef that they serve.
My favorites were picanha and cupim.

Picture on the front of the menu is none other than picanha.

On a final note, my Portuguese is coming along (I don't know if I would say quickly), but I'm still having trouble with some of the sounds, in particular the ão sound. It is a deep nasal sound that doesn't occur in English, that I can think of, but is frequently used in Portuguese. I'll use another reference to Fernando Pessoa's poetry to illustrate how common this sound is used and therefore how often people look at me funny when I try to pronounce it:
Os campos, afinal, não são tão verdes para os que são amados
Como para os que o não são.

Sentir é estar distraído.
The fields, after all, are not as green for those that are loved
As for those that are not.
To feel is to be distracted.
Pretty deep, huh? Deep like the nasal sound you have to make to say the ão sound. While my attempts to speak Portuguese may well be struggling to stay afloat, I am planning my next attempt to sink further into the culture and force myself to learn the language - a month on a farm. It is about as far away from the tourist track as you can get, so I'm going. Faló!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Useful Days

Weekdays in Portuguese are called dias úteis (literally 'useful days' - though everyone knows weekends are always more useful) and rather than having names based on pagan gods or planets like the rest of the Romance languages as well as in Germanic languages, the days of the week are numbered. This apparently follows the Latin terms for Easter week. Sunday, the first day of the week, is dies Domenica (literally Lord's Day) in Latin or Domingo in Portuguese. The next day, Monday, becomes the "second day of rest" (again, in observance of Easter week) and therefore Segunda-feira. The word feira in Portuguese means 'fair' and the closely related word férias means 'vacation'. I think it is a bit ironic that the dias úteis would refer to the days we should not work.

Portuguese - English
Fim de semana = Weekend
Domingo = Sunday
Sábado = Saturday

Dias úteis (literal translation)= Weekdays
Segunda-feira (Second fair) = Monday
Terça-feira (Third fair) = Tuesday
Quarta-feira (Fourth fair) = Wednesday
Quinta-feira (Fifth fair) = Thursday
Sexta-feira (Sixth fair) = Friday

I suppose I should go out and take advantage of the rest of this useful day.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Crisis Ministries Video

So, in an effort to begin catching up on the video that I have taken, here is the video about my experience in Charleston, SC before I left for South America...back in November 2008. Thanks again to Crisis Ministries!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Two weeks in Brazil...I mean, duas semanas no Brasil

Just over two weeks ago, Brazil was a frightening prospect. It promised a nerve-racking border crossing complete with full bag inspection and dark room interrogation, an even worse language barrier than in Argentina and Uruguay (since I theoretically speak Spanish and couldn't even count to ten in Portuguese), and a crime rate that assures each visitor a blind-folded minivan ride before the end of the first week. After seeing the Brazilian movies City of God (Cidade de deus) and The Elite Squad (Tropa de Elite), I started to wonder if the entire country was one giant lawless favela. The State Department Travel Information wasn't helping to allay my fears, though it rarely does. I did find some reassurances amidst the doom and gloom:

Travelers should "dress down" when outside and avoid carrying valuables or wearing jewelry or expensive watches.

Considering I have only 5 t-shirts and 3 pairs of shorts, one of which is a swim suit, and laundry gets done every 2 to 3 weeks, there is really no other option than to "dress down". The next step down is not showering, and I don't think that is necessary, though it does happen from time to time. Basically I should try and avoid looking like a tourist with money. My question is, does this look like someone with their act together?

Very poor neighborhoods known as "favelas" ... are sites of uncontrolled criminal activity and are often not patrolled by police. U.S. citizens are advised to avoid these unsafe areas.

After pondering this for a few moments, I came to the conclusion that they are just saying use common sense. For example, if you see someone carrying a big automatic weapon, don't walk towards them; walk away. Fortunately my mom instilled in me a healthy sense of precaution, maybe not as much as she would like, but enough to keep me from putting myself in certain senseless situations.

All joking aside, it really is important to take into consideration the travel warnings and stories of crime and social disorder when traveling through an area. On the other hand, you cannot let all the possible bad things that could happen to you keep you from going. New York can be pretty scary, but it's worth a visit.

In contrast to my initial fears, I slept through the border crossing while the bus company dealt with border formalities for both Uruguay and Brazil, the only guns I've seen were in the hands of armored truck guards transporting money to and from an ATM (which I feel is normal enough), and I have managed to pick up enough Portuguese to buy bananas on the side of the road.

R$ 2, or about US$0.90, for the whole bunch! That's like 3 cents per banana!

I spent my first week in the comfort of a hostel where English was spoken. Most hostels, especially in touristy areas, have English-speaking staff. I wanted to ease into needing Portuguese to acquire the essentials for a sustainable existence. It has its other benefits as well. One of the best things about the hostel scene in tourist spots is the incredible diversity of people and points of view from all over the world. Here is a condensed list of the people I met while in Florianópolis: droves of Argentinians, a few Isrealis, an Italian geologist on vacation, Australians, an Austrian who lives in Brazil for half the year, a group of young English chums, an Irish dentist who gave me a much-appreciated free consultation on my impacted wisdom tooth, a Dutch girl that I first met in Bariloche back at the beginning of February, two sweet Swedish girls, a smily middle-aged Swiss arquitect, a Portuguese guy, a German with dreadlocks, a Japanese cyclist who had been traveling by bike for the last year and a half starting in Canada, a multilingual French guy who ended up being my adventure guide and translator for the first few days, and of course Brazilians. By the way, the Brazilians that I have met generally seem to be jolly, kind, giving people. One of the reception workers at the hostel who is from Floripa offered me a free lesson in Portuguese and gave me a book of poetry by one of Brazil's most beloved poets, Fernando Pessoa. It has been a useful and enjoyable study tool. It is also probably essential to my ability to buy those bananas on the road trip from Florianópolis to Piracicaba. So, a big thanks to Flavia.

Fortunately, I have found that I can get by with Portuñol here, a rough mix of Portuguese and Español (Spanish). I have even resorted to speaking straight Spanish when I have no clue in Portuguese, and most of the time I can make myself understood with the help of lots of gestures. It is frustating though when you want to communicate ideas more complex than 'I need food' and 'I need a bathroom'. Discussing social inequality or the role of television in shaping society using only gestures just doesn't get the whole point across. I did manage a short conversation about the latter where our common language was gestures and noises. It consisted mainly of making circles with the index finger around the temple, which is the international sign for 'crazy', and walking like a zombie, also internationally understood by sticking your arms out in front of you as you groan and stiffly stagger forward.

One of the times that I really wanted to know the language was in the center of Lagoa da Conceição in Florianópolis. Bars, restaurants, hotdog shops and pastelerías line the main road, and people pour out onto the streets accompanied by live music flowing from the open-air bars. I noticed a number of people roaming about picking up cans and rummaging through bins for other recyclables. After noticing it in the center that night, I continued to see the same thing in many bus stations all over the island. I assume cans are worth a few cents each, and I wondered if these people survive completely by collecting them. One night I put some cans from my hostel in a plastic grocery bag and took them with me to the center. I handed them to the first person I saw collecting cans. She was a short lady perhaps in her late 50s with a kind, tranquil face and thin silver hair almost to her shoulders. When I first offered the bag, she stopped and gave me a baffled look, I'm sure wondering what this strange bearded foreign dude was handing her. When she realized what was in the bag, she accepted with a warm, squinted smile and continued on with her search.

That smile was a simple thank you, but it held a certain degree of contentment that made me wonder about her way of life and how happy it makes her. There is no one right or wrong way to live. If the goal is to be happy, who is to say what way of life brings that about? We are predisposed to thinking that these people are less fortunate than us, but that judgment depends on how you define success. We would assume that someone who collects cans for a few cents each is not financially successful, but if she has her basic needs met and is content with having nothing more, then she must be successful. My point is that I don't know because without a common language, I had no way of knowing anything more about her, but the experience made me reevaluate some assumptions. I found a poem by Pessoa that might shed some light:
Un dia de chuva é tão belo como um dia de sol.
Ambos existem, cada um como é.
Fortunately, this is close enough to Spanish that I can offer a translation:
A day of rain is as beautiful as a day of sun.
Both exist, each one as it is.
-Fernando Pessoa

Where I Am and Where I've Been