Thursday, October 27, 2016

Stepping Through a New Door...

As I was heading into uncharted territory, eight years ago today, I created my first blog
My 1st AAS Evaluation Team
post on October 27th. The year 2008 seems like yesterday yet so much happens in eight years. As an aside, I recall moving to Peru just a week or so before the historic election of Barack Obama. I’d been an Obama Mama early on, thinking I could not face 4-8 years of discord between Republicans and Hilary Clinton, thinking Obama would be a better option to avoid the constant discord. Little did I know! I remember being frustrated as there were no news channels in English (nor internet access) so I watched election returns in Spanish--not having a clue what was being said. But the good news is, numbers don’t lie and I could see the results as they came into the networks. Now, as I move on to a new chapter in my life and leave Peru, I find it ironic that I’ll still be here for another historic election, but this time my options for watching election night returns are much greater—and I can understand Spanish, too! And Pamela and I will again share the evening watching the returns. Anyway…

Many of you have followed me from the beginning—others have checked in now and then.
My favorite community--NSJ
I’ve gotten some interesting and mostly positive feedback—so thank you. My time in Peru has been a profound experience. I’d recommend it to anyone who’s willing and able to “step out”, where ever that might be or whatever you might think you’d like to try. You will not be disappointed. But if, for whatever reason you are aren't able to pursue your passion in this way, the support you give those who do is invaluable. We’re all inter-connected, inter-dependent in a vast varieties of ways, large and small. Among the many lessons I’ve learned during my time here, that one has been repeatedly reinforced. None of us are in this alone. I truly hope my blog--or your personal experience here with me--has given you joy and a better understanding of this place and these people. Reminding ourselves that we truly are citizens of the world is only best done once we leave our comfy lives and "step out". 

Reflections on my time in Peru:
  • There really is magic in the jungle, I’ve seen and experienced it many times—or in
    Victoria Regia lily pads
    other words, things just work out in the most mysterious ways.
  • Life in Peru is messy—but where isn’t it? The West just has better window dressing.
  • I’ve learned that people here have an awful lot of room in their hearts for many people beyond their own families and friends—even for a gringa like me. Whatever religion, political party, culture, sex you are…none of this matters—they just take you as you are, looking for the good inside.
  • Hasta mañana is a real motto that people live by—thus American and Peruvian time are two very different things.
  • After 8 years, I’m still the one and only person who brings her lunch to work each day. I’ve never learned to go home for lunch and a nap before returning to the office for a few more hours. Of course, they all think I’m crazy to sit and eat alone out of a paper bag—ya think?
  • No thank you, I don’t want to eat dinner at 10 PM--and never will get used to it.
  • The Amazon River and rain forest are challenging, vibrant and dynamic—but incredibly vulnerable to man’s many abuses and careless disregard.
  • I’ve met some wonderful people who have embraced me, taught me, loved me—always the hardest part of saying goodbye are the many individuals one meets who make life worth living.

The future of the rain forest 

CONAPAC, Explorama, the Adopt A School Program, Clean Water and our rain forest libraries will continue working to provide opportunities to the many people who live along the rivers here—the stewards of this precious resource called the Amazon rain forest. It’s been an honor and a privilege to serve the people of Peru, as well as the many volunteers and co-workers who are too many to count but not forgotten. As in most things, during my tenure in Peru I’ve received far more than I’ve given. I hope my friendship and work here has touched at least one person, making their life better with long-lasting, positive outcomes. I have one more Adopt A School volunteer delivery event to execute at the beginning of next year. I will train our new executive director, along with help from my staff, the volunteers we work with in Peru and the great support we receive from the Detroit Zoo personnel. I will continue serving on the CONAPAC board of directors for the coming years. For a kid born and raised on the streets of Detroit, this little non-profit in the middle the rain forest will always be in my heart.

My 60th Birthday with James

What next? Well, some of you know that I’m getting married soon. Besides all the other reasons I love Peru, without it I would never have met the love of my life, James. We met in the dining room of the ExplorNapo lodge in 2010—the rest is history. Next year, we’ll finish Adopt A School 2017 together then spend next summer in the US. Before the leaves turn, we’ll be on our way back to Perth, Australia, a place I will now call home. Until now, I never imagined living outside the States for almost nine years--but always assumed I’d return. But life is short, I gave the USA 51 years, Peru 9 years so why not a few more in Australia? With luck, it will be quite a few more years filled with the love and joy that centers my life. Perhaps a new blog should be started—life in Australia? It’s definitely a different culture and another world—and in a very nice way, for sure! 

Thank you, again, for your support. Peace be with you always! Cynthia

Friday, January 8, 2016

An ambassador for the Cuban people...

CUBA: Wow!! or why?? This question--asked by our expedition leader (C.J.) as we prepared the night before our trip to the island--was both thought-provoking and on-point. As our fellow travelers gathered, CJ asked us which of these two replies we'd received from family and friends when we shared our travel plans for Cuba? I had not thought about it but, indeed, our family and friends did fall into two camps: "Wow, you’re going to Cuba—I’m so jealous!" Or, "Why in the world would you want to go to Cuba—Isn’t that a bit dangerous?" And you know what? I was not alone in our group of travelers. Everyone shared the same stories and perspectives from their family and friends. Cuba continues to fascinate and frustrate Americans, as we’ve carried on more than 50 years after Fidel Castro took power from Fulgencio Bastista in the 1959 Cuban Revolution.
Yes, Cuba is a still-life historical portrait.  Not much has changed since the '59 revolution. Someone traveling back in time wouldn’t realize it’s 2016, except for perhaps some 1980’s-era TV’s in hotel rooms or a few Soviet-era autos, along with the shinny new tour buses crisscrossing the island with eager Western tourists. The old cars that Cuba is so famous for are everywhere and in various states of repair--but they're still utilized by all Cubans for their everyday needs. However, you’re just as likely to see horse-drawn carriages transporting people and products to market as you will see old cars. These are found on side roads, small towns and major highways—highways that are large and board yet ghostly vacant with no more than a handful of vehicles.  

I have so many impressions of Cuba and it’s people. Our expedition leader and our in-country guide were full of information and completely open to our many questions--no matter how sensitive. Our travel companions were all curious about the politics of Cuban and American relations—and as you might expect, there are two sides to every story with the truth somewhere in the middle. The people we met were incredibly enthusiastic about the thawing of relations with the US. They are eager for development and new opportunities, but they’re also very proud of their country's ideals of the revolution—something that’s woven into the full fabric of Cuban society. They welcome the opening of US-Cuban relations and are happy to see their country change. But they were clear they don't want to change what’s in their heads. The goals and accomplishments of the revolution--full educational opportunities and health care for all has been accomplished. They’re not eager to give this up or believe otherwise. With virtually 100% literacy rates and good health outcomes for the majority, it’s hard to argue with that desire.

I found my Spanish useful. Since there were no limits on who we could speak with or what
we could photograph, I was able to chat with any number of regular folks on the streets, in stores and cafés. Americans are still quite rare in Cuba, as most travelers  are Europeans or Canadians. I think the questions coming my way were just as pointed. To say that we felt safe and unmolested by anyone in any situation is a complete understatement. Yes, we saw police here and there but no more or less than anywhere else we’ve traveled. Only once did I see a soldier and that was at the monument to Che Guerva, Castro’s Argentinian counterpart in revolution. Everyone just went about their business and tourists are now part of the backdrop in everyday life.

Are streets, building, stores, homes, plazas, etc. in great need of repair? Yes, but being from the city of Detroit, it all seemed quite familiar and I’ve certainly seen worse in the US and elsewhere in the world. What’s intriguing is there are so very many old buildings built in the late 19th and early 20th century, just begging to be renovated and repurposed. Between these endlessly charming old buildings and the odd juxtaposition of 1950’s era autos with these old buildings, you simply cannot be anything but charmed by the possibilities. Yes, US investment will come but I have less fear Cuban will become “Disney-ized” than before we arrived. The leadership and the people seem to have a good sense of priorities and that means not leaving anyone behind as things in Cuba start to improve economically. Already there are limitations on exterior renovations for historical buildings and those old cars will only become more valuable as new ones start to arrive.   

Perhaps the most striking observation is the lack of Castro propaganda. Remember this guy has been considered the most evil of evil-doers, on the same level as other dictators we've seen cross the world stage. And what do you find when you arrive in these other countries? Large life-like statues of these dictators in each town square, larger than life posters, billboards and painted signs everywhere you turn. Banners and flags glorifying the country’s “beloved” dictator. And when these countries fail, break apart or are conquered in war the first thing that comes down is all this propaganda. The Cuban people have overwhelmingly supported Castro through many difficult years--but what is it, the man or the ideals of the revolution? Perhaps both but what you simply do not see—anywhere—are statues, monuments, posters, flags, souvenirs, or billboards of Fidel Castro. Yes, here and there you see political references in the form of Che Guerva and the ideals of revolution, but that’s because he’s long died and considered a national hero—our George Washington. The likeness of any living politician is nowhere to be found. On the highways you will see a sprinkling of billboards glorifying the revolution, but the public promotion of Castro's influence over the decades is none existent. (I wonder, was American’s fight for independence a revolution? And was Cubans revolution a fight for
independence? Words mean something and it’s all in how you perceive these words. One man’s revolution is another man’s fight for independence.) I know that is not an original thought but try it out in your mind when you think about how negatively Cuba has been portrayed in the US press and at every level of government. Is Castro and the revolution perfect? Of course not but what is? Does the country need to continue being ignored 90 miles from Florida when we have so many greater risks to consider? And Cubans are natural entrepreneurs. They will quickly take up any opening and opportunity, work hard and hustle for a better life--even with what many might call a full "welfare state".  

The Cuban people have suffered long enough. Yes, in many ways they’ve suffered by the
hands of their own leadership. But the American policy toward Cuba, in order to make a political point, has made it much worse than was necessary and for much too long. Meanwhile during the 55 years of sanctions, we’ve "kissed and made up" with numerous countries where we once had differences—China, South Africa, Viet Nam, to name a few. Let’s call this family feud what it is and move on.  America needs more friends in the world, certainly not more enemies.  This one is right at our own backdoor, so let’s open it and invite them in, shall we?

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Meet Carmen

Carmen & her little shop
Some of you reading this post will already know who Carmen is and her involvement in my life in Iquitos. For others, I’ll introduce you to Carmen Del Rosario Ruiz Sanchez—or what I like to call her Carmencita (little Carmen). Carmen is a street vendor and craft artisan who works on the main promenade of Iquitos, called the Malecón. Within weeks of moving into my apartment in January 2009, Carmen befriended me in a way that I could never resist.  I barely spoke a word of Spanish then and certainly couldn’t understand it--but that didn’t stop Carmen from providing me with a glowing smile. Her coy little giggle and greetings of “hola, gringita” continued until we could finally exchange names. I’d see her on my corner or along the street as I came and went through the years. She’d always inquire about me and give me her toothless smile, picking up on my moods and insisting on hugs and kisses. Despite her obviously minimal circumstances and difficult life, she never asked me for anything. (Mind you many people over the years have befriended me, or tired, but it was more about being a handy ATM rather than a sincere desire to know me). Even through the years, as I learned to communicate with Carmen at higher and higher levels and better understand her troubled life, she almost always presented me with her bubbly personality and easy going style.

Besides suffering a lot of city bureaucratic rigmarole, an economic downturn in 2010-2013 that seriously reduced the number of visiting tourists (her customers) and ultimately the complete destruction of her vendor stall (along with about 30 others) by a raging fire, Carmen got up everyday, come into the city to work and continued to fight and move into each new day as best she could. She has no other means of support or way to cover expenses other than these small sales made from the natural products she makes herself.

Isn't she lovely?
About two years ago, there was a particularly vicious storm that passed through town. With high winds and rain, many people lost their roofs and/or walls, as the poorest house are made of minimal materials and cobbled together, at best. Carmen lost part of her roof and a whole back wall in the rental lean-to in which she lived. The landlord took no notice to make repairs and the patched together house offered her neither protection from the weather or security from thieves, both of which are common--especially for old, venerable people.

For the first time, she asked me if she could borrow some money in order to buy used, replacement corrugated metal for her roof and plastic tarp for the walls. I agreed and somehow, some way she paid me back over time. She’d told me that she had a small plot of land that was hers, located right next door and someday wanted to build a house there. I decided to check it out and see where she lived and the plot of land, too. Her house turned out to be no more than the most ramshackle, tumbledown building that you and I wouldn’t house a pig or cow in, let alone a human being.  But this was the best she had and proudly showed me around with no embarrassment.  After that visit I started stewing on her situation, attempting to find an easy solution--one that would somehow help her and ease my own conscience about the excessive good fortune in life. However, as the months passed and I kept interacting with her, I knew that half-measures would never do.

Carmen's original home
With crowd-sourcing groups catching fire, I decided to try a personal appeal to my own family and friends, describing the project and the person who would benefit--sort of a personal Habitat for Humanity idea.  Not surprisingly, people stepped up with large and small donations, which quickly added up to enough to build Carmen a very simple home. In February, construction began and was completed in about 8 weeks. Since then, Carmen has moved her things in and made it a home. I’ve tossed in some paint and bought her a few pieces of furniture. And she’s now making her various crafts at home under a very bright fluorescent light fixture. She has plants rooting in buckets, created a small kitchen in the corner and added some homey touches on the walls.  In the meantime, she continues to go downtown each day, 7 days a week to sell her products and do the best she can.

Who is Carmen? I didn't know as much as I should so with a friend, we trekked out to her house one Sunday afternoon to chat. Everyone has a story to tell and Carmen is no different.  Born January 3, 1950 in Iquitos, Perú, she has lived her whole life in the city and never gone or lived elsewhere. She was the oldest of 5 children and it was clear as she spoke about her parents that they were a kind and loving family unit. Unfortunately, when Carmen was 13 years old, her father—a radio operator for the naval station in Iquitos—was working when lighting struck. He was wearing headphones and the electricity came down the tower to his head. He was rushed to Lima for treatment but died a day later. This left Carmen, her mother and 4 siblings with no means of support.  Her mother had no skills and could only sell scavenged fruit on the street. A classmate’s family bought Carmen her schoolbooks until she was 15 and gave the family S/5 a day for food for years. Carmen cried as she told me how she was so careful with her books and notebooks. They were very precious to her and she knew her mother could not replace them. A few years later, Carmen left school but continued to care for her brothers and sisters so her mother could scrape out a living.  
Relaxing & catching a breeze

In her twenties she took a three-year vocational course for the production of artisan crafts from an institute in Iquitos. Along the way she had a husband in her life but that didn’t last and he left her with three small boys. She provided for her family by selling these artisan crafts and still does to this day, maintaining a fierce independence. All her children have moved to Lima and for whatever reason she rarely sees them but now and then they do call. However, her old classmate--whose family helped her out all those years ago--comes to Iquitos every Christmas to visit family. She always seeks Carmen out on the street and brings gifts of Christmas bread (panetones) and chocolate. Also, her younger sister calls her every day from Lima to check in and stay connected. These two women provide a lifeline and network of people who care about Carmen and her well-being.

In 1996 she was hit by a motorcar and severely injured her leg, which troubles her to this day. And her toothless grim is to be blamed on a thief in the night who broke in her house 8 years ago, stealing clothes and personal items, including her front bridge. And I don’t know to what extent, but she’s suffered more than once from malaria, dengue fever and giardia, just to name a few risks that living on the edge will present here in Iquitos and the rain forest.

Home, sweet home!
I asked Carmen with such a troubled, seemingly limited life how she maintains her happy, positive self.  With so little to call her own, she still shines through with light and joy. What’s her secret, I asked? She gave me her shy smile, not sure what to say but eventually stating the most healthy of sentiments. She simply fights to keep going each day because life is still good. Her friends and fellow vendors on the street are her family. They watch over her and love her. When she has a sad day, she goes to bed to rest and the next day feels ready to take on a new day. She puts each day behind her—letting the past go--and does her best to look for the good in her life, counting all the things that are right, not wrong.  She inspires me!

Considering her age and health, I don’t know how long Carmen will be around and who knows what will happen to her little house when she’s gone. But it gave me incredible pleasure to provide one kindly old woman who befriended me a home to call her own for as long as she lives. Where our relationship will go from here, I don’t know. When I have to leave Iquitos now, we say our goodbyes and she cries even as I assure her I’ll be back. When I do return, it’s a reunion of pure joy. One day I will leave here for good and say my final goodbyes, but that’s a ways off and in the meantime I’ll continue to share her joy in the simplest of desires—a home of her own.

NOTE: A final thank you to everyone who pitched in with donations for this project. You know who you are and I will always have a special place for you in my heart.  Sintita