Thursday, December 31, 2015

Statements and Moments

A tall woman stands, feet together in reasonable beige heels. A long navy blue overcoat reaches down to just above her feet, revealing only a few inches of the navy blue hose covering her ankles. Holding her matching beige handbag with hands covered in black leather at her waist, she stares forward. A navy blue cloche hat with a navy blue bow protects her ears from the cool breeze. Her straight brunette hair continues the length of her hat to gently brush her shoulders. She lightly purses her lips, revealing a bit of age around her lips. Still, tall, and statuesque, she stands. The wind of a final car passing by lifts her hair slightly, the only clue that she was not in fact painted stone. Cars come to a halt, the green man is bright, the statue moves. To one side and then the other the hair turns, and then the beige heels, as if on runway, step from the sidewalk into the street.

Two large turquoise doors open, permitting a father and his young daughter to board the underground train. The little girl with long blond hair, a pink coat, white hose, and pink tennis shoes, pulls her father’s hand toward the area that connects the two train cars, between large accordion-like (fitting for Paris) mechanisms. As he sits in the seat in front of the metro’s joint, he lets go of his maybe 7 year-old daughter’s hand, with an expecting and knowing look on his face. Before the doors close, she is positioned with feet spread apart directly on top of layered metal plates. She lifts her hands for balance, turning back to her father smiling, waiting. As the doors come together, her eyes widen, her smile broadens, and her hands prepare. Her purpose becomes clear as this metal earthworm leaves the station, twisting and turning through stone tunnels.  As the two giant accordions begin to inhale and exhale and the metal plates under her feet shift above and below one another, she surfs the metro line. Her father smiles with an outstretched hand, waiting in case she needs to grab hold. She shifts her weight, lifts her hands frantically, and moves her body with the curves of the underground subway, smiling intensely. As the train comes to a stop, she doesn’t move, ready for the next challenge. Unfortunately, as the doors open, I step out, hoping that this little train surfer never stops facing challenges but also never finds out that some people surf on top of trains.

A man with spiked hair that is as white as snow but pitch black at its roots stands on the subway platform in black leather riding boots. His long black overcoat is swept up in the air from a metro train passing on the opposite side. With one hand holding a black leather handbag and the other gently flicking the air at the wrist, he recounts a story in English thick with a French accent to his companion. His black vest covers a silver tie that nearly matches his hair. As I walk by one of the few conversations I could understand in the subway, I catch a glimpse of his perfectly tailored eyebrows raising as he emphatically states, “All women lie.”

Weaving through Parisian market goers, I step to the left, closer to the pungent aroma of uncooked shellfish and cod. Evading the interesting, yet somewhat discomforting smell, I move to the opposite side of the small walkway where customers are allotted in the street market that spanned at least 5 blocks. Trapped for a moment by an elderly woman at my front and a thick current of people to my left, I am given the short opportunity to watch a fruit vendor work. The most interesting aspect of this particular vendor was the tan cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. It caught my attention, I believe, because you don’t often see food workers actively smoking during service. However, rather than offending, this little stick of tobacco seemed completely in its proper place, part of a proper character. The cigarette moved up and down as the bearded and mustached lips raised and lowered prices during negotiations. Smoke followed the vendor’s head, caught under his dark brown cloth flat cap as he turned to weigh a bag of oranges. As he turned back to his buyer, a small bit of ash fell toward his shirt, but was prevented from burning it by the long brown apron he wore. As I stepped into an opening within the street current, I wondered how his mouth found time to draw from the cigarette and from the wallets of Parisians at the same time.

As the Eiffel tower’s four legs straddle thousands of tourists, we try to make our way out of the crowds. As we emerge, Ben points to a man jogging to our left. He is particularly conspicuous because of the jingling of hundreds of metal Eiffel Towers he holds in his hand on a wire half circle. He is not dressed for exercise; in baggy jeans, an old leather jacket, and worn tennis shoes, he frequently looks over his shoulder. His skin is significantly darker than the tourists around him, likely an African immigrant who had come to Paris to work. Suddenly, I notice another one of these men, carrying even more Eiffel Towers in his arm, jogging cautiously, continuously checking behind him. Then another and another. Turning, I finally see the impetus for their odd actions. Maybe seven men and women in blue uniforms with Police written in white across the front and back walk forcibly, in a disparate arc reaching from one side of the tower to the other, through the crowd. They create a slow moving wall that, like magnets of the same polarity, creates an unseen force that moves these street vendors out of the area. As the men scatter and the police converge, none are arrested. The vendors convene just next to the street, continuously checking their backs, as the police group together into a circle apparently finished with their task. A few men double back, continuously watching their law enforcement foes, returning to their prior position until the next sweep. As we cross the street and continue on toward Notre Dame, I can’t help but wonder if there is better way of regulating commerce than herding people like animals.

An older woman sits in the final wicker chair at the end of a long line of chairs facing the street, but is turned toward the pedestrians walking along the street. A small espresso size cup of coffee sits beside her on the café table, half full – or empty depending on your mood. Crossing her leg in front of her, bending forward, placing her elbow on her knee, she gently lifts a cigarette from her mouth and slowly blows smoke out of the corner of her ruby red lips. Her red, maroon, black, and purple coat with a boisterous pattern, which can really only be described as eccentric, drapes over her neatly touching the wet sidewalk. She smiles as we walk by, proud of the statement she is making.

Within two hours of being in Paris, this is what became quite clear: It is a complicated, busy, beautiful city, and most of the people within it have some sort of statement to make. Yet, whether due to previous media influence and cultural stereotypes or the real character of Paris, it is still clear that Paris has interesting, beautiful, romantic, and romanticized moments to offer to its visitors.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Different Sort of Tourism

Resting on the cushioned metro seat, feeling the vibration and sway of the train as it passes through the underground tunnels of Prague. No music and little talking. On each side the light of the train illuminated wires, pipes, and walls of the subway through the windows quickly passing by, inspiring a sense of riding a claustrophobic spacecraft at light speed. The loud whirr of the train passing along the tracks mellows the senses and calms the atmosphere. The squealing of the breaks alerts the passengers to brace for the slowed speed as we approach the next stop. Falling out of the underground wormhole, suddenly a whole side of the train is filled with columns, signs, and people waiting. As we begin to slow, they begin to move. Fifty people shift their weight toward the new arrival. Some stand from benches, others begin to stroll toward the tracks. As the train slows to a stop, they take small steps to position themselves in front of the nearest door.

One such passenger, a middle aged woman, with a purple scarf, black boots and pants, and a brown winter coat, holds a canvas bag full of bread, vegetables, and other groceries. She reaches to push a small button surrounded by green lights on the train to signal that the door should welcome her onto the car. As she steps across the gap, she scans for an open seat, quickly claiming one that faces me directly. She positions her groceries on her lap and hastily begins daydreaming while staring passed me toward the back of the train. We make eye contact for a brief moment, and then, with no significant or notable qualities, the moment is over. This was the moment I realized; tourism in Prague was different.

Arriving in Prague, the uncertainty of a new country, place, and culture seemed to be alive and well as we fumbled our way through catching a bus from the airport, missing it twice because we didn’t realize there was a separate pick up and drop off location for different buses (albeit with the same number). However, once on the bus, we were easily able to navigate the public transit, including a transfer to the metro, because each stop was announced and many of the instructions were provided in both Czech and English. Our observation skills were our biggest hindrance rather than any deficiency in information provision.

The ease through which we managed the public transit was quite a bit different than what I have experienced in Nicaragua and Guatemala, where a significant intuition, problem solving skills, and luck are fairly necessary, especially if you don’t speak the language. Conversely, the Prague public transit, and later we would find most of the city, was largely set up for easy and intuitive tourism. You were immediately swept up with directions, signs, and announcements that indicated where and when you were supposed to act. I hardly had a moment to notice the wet smell of winter as we transferred from bus to metro. With our luggage in tow, we arrived at Ota’s House, a small bed and breakfast resembling a hostel more than a B&B, on the outskirts of Prague. Miroslav, the caretaker, welcomed us warmly in English to his home and gave us a wonderful tour of the common kitchen, shared bathroom, and back patio. He offered helpful information, unlimited transportation passes, and even a fridge with beer for purchase.

As we explored Prague, a simple “Hello” upon entering a shop, restaurant, or bar immediately triggered English as the language of communication. On our first night we made the unfortunate mistake of not beginning with hello, staring at a busy bar tender as she spoke Czech to us. When we provided our best impression of a deer in headlights, and asked if she spoke English, she replied quite frankly and somewhat abruptly, “Of course I do. You didn’t tell me you spoke English.” When we entered into a quaint little antique poster and bookshop on the way to the main castle in Prague, the shopkeeper greeted us enthusiastically with both a Czech and English greeting. When we returned an English response, she immediately pointed us to the English section of her shop and pulled a variety of large posters for us to explore. While we perused the communist-time posters, movie advertisements, and random maps she brought us, two more tourists entered. These however, replied to the shopkeeper’s Czech greeting. During our stay, there were many Czech tourists who seemed to frequent the shops of Prague as well. The newcomers asked her a question, and she pointed them to a section in the back, disappearing into her back room for a moment to retrieve something that was apparently relevant to their inquiry. Finally, a young Japanese woman came in, unable to reply to either of the shopkeeper’s greetings. The shopkeeper went to work motioning and pointing. It was unclear if either of them really got much out of the interaction. However for us, throughout this beautiful European city, we were not challenged to learn the Czech language because they already knew ours.

We found one poster that we both enjoyed and prepared to haggle for it. She gave us her price. We told her we would think about it, plus we didn’t want to carry a tube around with us all day. So we left to explore more gothic architecture, Christmas markets, and watch towers. We returned to the store to purchase the poster, assuming that leaving and coming back would potentially help lower the price. Ben asked if she could lower her price by 50 Czech Krona (~$2). She definitively jabbed back, “No.” and gave the exact same price as before. This was new. In shops, markets, and town squares of Central America, I have seen vendors slash their prices in half just to make a sale to tourists. Here, the shopkeeper wouldn’t even budge. If we didn’t want to pay her price, we could take a hike. Desperation was nowhere to be seen in this woman’s eyes.

All of these moments came together to form a realization as I briefly glanced in another Czech woman’s eyes on the metro. This random Czech passenger, riding the public transit home from the grocery store had no idea I was a tourist. With my camera hidden away in my backpack, a skin tone similar to most others around me, and winter clothes that matched the trends of the fellow metro riders, I fit into the crowd of Western European, mostly white, mostly middle-class, mostly comfortable Czech citizens. The constant awareness of my foreignness in Central America was not present here in the Czech Republic, my privilege as a tourist or extranjero was not as overwhelmingly present in every action I took. The power and privilege differentials here were different from those I so commonly experienced in Central America. I cannot presume to say they were less influential or less severe even, but what I do know is that they were different, more hidden and subtle. This was a new sort of tourism and travel for me, one in which I could easily find myself comfortable and hidden, one in which it was much more difficult in many ways to be aware of how my actions relate to the citizens of the Czech Republic; how, or in what way, I was participating in the globalized power structure.

There were two edges to this sword. Traveling here was much more comfortable, easy, and inconspicuous, but at the same time that ease potentially facilitated the blind tourism we often critique in visitors to Central America. It was a challenging and informative endeavor to experience this different sort of tourism, one in which the mind was not so easily handed the ways in which power and privilege exist in the world. However, at the same time, the beauty and ease of Prague was comforting to say the least, and I would definitely go back. Next time though, I would like to have a conversation with that woman on the train to understand her world and country more than through its castles and Christmas markets.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

A Turkish Thanksgiving

When he walked through to door, nonchalantly setting his backpack down, his roommate, Casey, frantically greeted him, "We're having it here!" His eyes widened as he responded, "What?! We're having it here?" I could see the stress level rise exponentially. His hands immediately went to work, cleaning, rearranging, and preparing for the landlady to return. "Do we have everything we need up here?" "Let's hope." Within five minutes, the landlady, Senem, had burst through our door ready to help prepare the evening's meal, mantı. Now by burst, I don't mean physically. She cordially knocked before entering, but once she had entered the apartment, her personality filled the room. With a welcoming and energetic face framed by a turquoise and purple print hijab,  she immediately went to work giving Ben directions and preparing the various parts of the meal.

After setting Ben to task mincing garlic, cutting onions, and watching for the sugared water to boil, Senem set up her dough rolling station in the only free space available in the apartment, the hallway floor. Lily, the other roommate who had just returned from the store, correcting a cheese and yogurt mixup that we realized earlier, told us that two more guests were coming, an English tutor and an English teacher from their university. Weaving between people and door frames, Casey and I moved the drying rack filled with his shirts, underwear, and socks to Ben's room to make space in the living room for guests. Apparently, including Senem's family, the guests, and all the roommates, ten of us were eating. This gathering was turning out to be more than expected on all fronts.

Senem sat in the hallway in a shirt proclaiming "You Make Me Feel Alive" rolling dough into thin crepe-like pancakes, cutting them into small parallelograms. Speaking in Turkish to Lily and motioning with her hands to me, she asked us to wash our hands and begin the process of making mantı. Sitting cross legged on the floor next to a large bowl of ground beef mixed with spices and onions, Senem demonstrated how to fold the dough around small pellets of meat and onions, pinching it shut on the ends to create something akin to a triangular ravioli. Each mantı held a thumbtack sized amount of filling, and we had a whole mixing bowl full of it. This was going to take awhile. We sat on the floor making mantı while I learned, through translation, where Senem was originally from and why she had moved to Konya. Over the next hour or so, we each took turns filling dough and throwing our creations onto a huge circular bowl covered in flour. Senem's teenage daughter soon joined us, sheepishly sitting behind, timidly smiling whenever we made eye contact.

A knock was heard on the door. The English tutor had arrived. At this point we moved our mantı making station into the living room so more people could sit around the bowl of beefy onions. Senem continued rolling mantı dough in the hallway while monitoring the syrup, sauce, and desserts in the kitchen. We discussed the cost/benefit analysis of food that requires this much repetitive preparation.
"But it is so good," offered Casey.
"But it is so tedious," Lily retorted.
"It would make a great fine motor therapy session," suggested the occupational therapist in the room.

By the time we were nearing the end of our bowl of oniony meat paste, the English teacher and her 2 year old son had arrived. The terrible twos, it seemed, was something similar between our cultures. With four people making mantı, we quickly finished the bowl and carried the small mountain of Turkish raviolis to Senem in the kitchen who dumped our work into a large pot of boiling water. The next task was setting up a make-shift, and completely unplanned, dining area. Improvising with a small kitchen table and Ben's desk, we created a large dining room table in the living room, utilizing desk chairs, patio chairs, and couches to provide seating. Senem's husband arrived, a shorter full bodied man who wore dress pants, a black vest, and a white collared shirt. He only wore socks on his feet, something true of all of us and congruent with the fairly rigid Turkish custom of leaving your shoes outside the door before entering a home. This was particularly noticeable on him, though, because of its contradiction with his formal attire.

As the dining room came together, we all gathered in the small living space of the Fulbrighters' apartment. The craziness of preparation and the in-prompt-to dinner party settled as we each took a seat around the family dinner table. The mantı, which had been covered in a white yogurt sauce and topped with the leftover dough fried into crunchy crouton-esque accoutrements, along with red tomato-like soup, baklava, Şekerpare - biscuits that had been soaked in a simple syrup, and freshly baked bread filled the table to make something that felt a bit like a Turkish Thanksgiving dinner.

With a mixture of Turkish, English, and confused looks on my part, food was passed, discussion was had, and everyone was a bit more than gently encouraged to eat an excessively filling  amount of mantı. The main course was more tangy than sweet and more earthy than creamy, a flavor that tickled Ben's taste buds the first time he tried it, but took some coaxing for mine to come around. As we slowly but diligently cleaned the platter, the desserts seemed more and more out of reach. It was only missing awkward political conversations and tense religious debates to make it feel like a true Thanksgiving dinner.

When we finally felt like we could fit a bit more into our stomachs, we each took a Şekerpare and chocolate baklava. The Şekerpare biscuits melted in your mouth like tres leches cake, and Senem's husband demonstrated how to eat the baklava correctly by inverting each bite, placing the bottom and most sugary side of the treat on the roof of the mouth.

Instead of venturing to the television to watch a football game, nap on the couch with a stomach full of turkey, or clean the kitchen after the feast, tea was served at the table. Any sort of stress, franticness, or anxiety was swept away with the warm steam of the two kettles stacked on top of each other. One kettle held a concentrated steeped tea. In the other: hot water. One of the Turkish women poured a bit of the tea into each small hour-glass shaped cup, and another followed her with hot water. Sugar was passed to sweeten the drink. As discussion continued, tea would automatically fill your cup as soon as you neared empty. As the pot of tea approached its end, so did this improvised family dinner. Once the last person had placed their spoon on top their teacup, customarily indicating they had finished, the group stood to say goodbye. Thanks were given and the apartment emptied as quickly as it had been filled.

Exhausted, we all went to bed, feeling the fullness of a Turkish Thanksgiving in our stomachs.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Morning Daydreams

Jet lag gently pulls at my eyelids, a tug toward consciousness. As my eyes meet the darkness of the early morning, the bluish inky blanket of light that isn't sure whether it wants to wake or not, I feel very much the same way. Confused, my body, aching from travel, asks me to stay in bed, while my mind pleads to greet the day whole-heartedly. They compromise by reviewing the last 12 hours or so in vivid detail across the blank ceiling.

Photo by: Benjamin Hershey
                                   -- --

When you first arrive in a country, you don't truly make its acquaintance until you have stepped out of the airport. From my experience, that acquaintance usually begins through the nose. I can still remember the smells of gasoline, heat, and burning trash when I first met Nicaragua. Burning rubber, humidity, and matured fruit introduced me to Guatemala. Those two were oddly similar, as if I were meeting cousins. However, when the automatic doors opened to breath in the air of Ankara, Turkey, it was clear I was in a completely different family tree. Cigarette smoke, muskiness, and earthy cold air met my nose as I was welcomed by the honk of a bus asking firmly for a taxi to get out of its way. The air was different here, cold yet heavy, crisp yet smokey, and much like its people, bold yet restrained.

Photo by: Benjamin Hershey
As we quickly shuffled to find our bus, and Ben went to ask the driver if it was going in the right direction for our needs, it hit me for the first time. The experience of not being able to communicate verbally with the people around me, at least moderately well, has not been a part of my traveling experience really since my first time leaving the United States to go to Mexico in 2008. Even then, I had a basic ability to ask simple questions and understand simple answers in Spanish. I felt the weight of this realization slowly creep up on me as I watched Ben speak Turkish, annoyingly well for only 3 months of learning I might add, with the Bus driver. At the same time, I remember the frustration and weariness of having others rely on you for communication, especially if you were not anywhere near fluent, so I kept my distance and trusted Ben to get the right information. As we rode the bus through the outskirts of Turkey's capital, the roads were eerily similar to those of Guatemala, cleaner and with less pedestrians, but similar in their design. It was an odd experience to look at the name of a store, fully expecting to be able to read its Spanish name, and then be reminded by the "ç" or the "ş" that you have no chance. Well, no chance alone. 

After hailing a taxi to finish our final leg of the trip to the train station, I sat listening intently to Ben converse with the driver.  Similar to a dog watching a tennis match, I had no earthly idea what was happening in this game, but I knew something exciting was being tossed back and forth between the two and hoped at some point I might get to participate - I didn't. My face alternated between the Kurdish taxista and the American Fulbrighter, turning toward whomever was speaking, laughing when they laughed, quieting when there was a lull, understanding absolutely nothing except for the very loud "Obama good!" from the driver accompanied by a thumbs up  - a thumb I probably would have preferred be on the wheel. To an American eye, the driving here is just as seemingly erratic but oddly well organized as Nicaragua and Guatemala.

Photo by: Benjamin Hershey
Arriving at the train station, Ben's friendliness inspired the driver to only charge us 10 Turkish Lyra (TL) instead of 11 because he didn't want Ben to have to go looking for a single "Tay-Lay" as Ben calls them. (T is pronounced 'tay' and L is pronounced 'lay.') Saying farewell to our brief friendship, we entered, oddly through a metal detector and passed a guard who did not check us even though the detector went off. At first, I thought it might be because it was clear we were travelers, but in the next hour that we waiting in the train station, I didn't see him check any of the people coming through - interesting security measures. Sitting in the train station, it became quite clear just how diverse and heterogenous the Turkish people are. From tall to short, round and thin, darker skin and lighter skin, women who did and did not wear the hijab, men who were concerned and very much not concerned about their fashion statement, young teenagers with half shaved heads, and old grandfathers wearing three piece suits and berets. 

Photo by: Benjamin Hershey
Two sets of maybe 30 benches were situated like pews facing an altar, angled toward a surprisingly enormous LCD screen declaring the train arrivals and departures. Every bench was filled, and as soon as a seat emptied it was almost immediately filled again by a new body. Like pooling water in a stream, always moving, changing, and refreshing, yet seemingly still, calm, and at peace. We merged with the pooled water and sat for awhile watching the pigeons swoop down to pick pieces of simit, something like a turkish bagel, off the ground. Older men wondered throughout the echoing room, waiting for their train while probably trying to keep their legs from stiffening. With these men, I noticed something different. They made clear eye contact with the people around them, sometimes prolonged eye contact, with much more than what a individualized American might be comfortable. It seemed, from my initial people-watching analysis, people seemed to engage with their social existence much more. To be fair, there were still people on their phones, reading, or talking in their own groups, but similar to a Guatemalan town square, many fully recognized and engaged with the presence of others who they did not know.

After almost 16 hours of traveling, my exhaustion at this point was more prevalent to my senses than most of my surroundings. We rushed onto the train, finding our seats. I tried reading my book as the train sped in the opposite direction that I was facing. As Ben listened to music, I decided to lean forward with my head on my knees to rest my eyes. The train's 250 km/h movement was soothing and tranquil. My eyes closed, and I think we can all guess what happened next.
                                                                                           -- --

Photo by: Benjamin Hershey
A deep male voice slowly emerges from the morning fog, seemingly sorrowful and longing. With words incomprehensible to my ears, the sound of the imam's voice wafts through the residential buildings, through the glass of our window, and bounces off the ceiling on which my morning thoughts are projecting, pulling me away from my memory of napping on the train. Parallel to, but very different from the fruit venders screaming in the early Nicaraguan mornings, the call to prayer gently caresses my consciousness. More voices, from countless distant mosques, joined the originator. Like a chorus of sad souls calling for companionship, their voices drifted through Konya, welcoming my mind further into the day. As each called in his own unique way, their distinct voices merged into whatever the reverse of a lullaby would be, gently waking the city, breathing into it with their song.

There was no way I was going back to sleep.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

A Single Breath

Sitting on a plastic chair in an open air patio where groups of children are playing everywhere around me, I take notes and observe the happenings. There are probably 30 children and a few adults surrounding a table shouting while passing fruit cups around. It seems quite disorganized and out of control. Others are sitting at tables playing with cameras or cell phones. The more energetic children are playing on the fake turf, doing hand stands, back bends, and cartwheels.

Music plays in the background from the kitchen area where 3 cooks are preparing today's lunch. The vibrant colors of the murals decorating the walls brighten up the area and make even the walls seem alive. One child lifts himself up onto his hands and walks down a ramp while balancing only on his palms. Some children stop and glance over at me in expected curiosity, but most keep their distance. But then, quite unexpectedly, a child sits down next to me and directly asks me where I came from, what I am doing, and what it is like where I live. He asks me questions about music, English, and my hairy arms.

My observation is taken from broad and encompassing to focused and narrowed in 3 simple questions. He challenges me to answer his inquisitive thoughts about what I am doing and why. He tells me that the students around the table are  participating in a biweekly "store" where they learn business practices, which explains the scene's odd resemblance to the stock exchange. He calls friends over to talk to me and asks me to say English words. They tell me about their break dancing lessons. He tests his English skills on my native ears. With a single decision by a 12 year old boy, my entire observation is changed. My entire experience of that area, that moment, and that social interaction shifts with a single breath of "hola".  I began to learn about and understand the world more clearly, and then, rather than functioning on my previous assumptions, I was able to more appropriately understand what was happening around me.

A young boy shifted my view, my understanding, with a simple word. He had the courage, or maybe lack of exposure, in order to defy the traditional fear and distancing from people who are different or simply older. He wanted to know some things, so he asked. Therefore, he not only molded my understanding of the world, but also his. Both of our worlds shifted because of a single decision on his part to say hello.

.I plan. I predict. I look ahead to my next conversation. And yet, in each moment my life is turning on the brief and seemingly minuscule breath flowing in and out of my lungs. Every moment is new, different, and unique, yet I fool myself into believing that what I already know will be forever.

I am pulled this way and that way, pushed and shoved by structures and norms, motivated by emotion and desire bubbling up within. In every situation, there are tensions; realities that must be held in contrast to one another without ever letting go of either. I navigate and explore these tensions with every step I take into the unknown future, constantly rewriting my understanding of the world. However, I never really know if I could end up selling bracelets at a lake in Guatemala or teaching a class on occupational therapy in a university. Everything is subject to change and nothing seems to be completely predictable.

Views and opinions clash in classrooms, churches, and political debates, synthesizing new and different understandings of the world. Ideas are digested and processed by small groups and large scale media. My mind is changed, formed, altered, and shifted while at the same moment it is changing, forming, altering, and shifting the world through my actions. I am constantly changing, learning, redeveloping, and emerging with the world and the others in it.

I can look out on to the world and see every raindrop like the last, every ripple in the lake as a repetition, and every man who approaches as simply another homeless man asking for money. Alternatively, I can see every droplet as a new addition to the puddle, every ripple as movement that has never occurred before in the water, and every approaching person as an opportunity to learn from someone new.

Scary yet comforting. In every moment I have an opportunity to change, to make a decision, to do differently, however the pull and strength of my past, my expectations, and current understanding deter me from believing a new or unexpected way of thinking is possible. I am pushed to believe that I can predict what I will be doing tomorrow, next week or even next year, but simultaneously I am consistently reminded that every moment and every person has the potential to reorganize and reshape my understanding of the world.

I often feel tied to the past, incarcerated by its seeming rigidity, its cyclic and repetitive nature. But then sometimes in just one moment, I am reminded of the value of the unexpected and the consistent ability for the world to change, the consistent ability and right for us to change together. I am not bound by the past, in shackles of consistency. We can change, evolve, and understand the world together.

In a single simple action, like saying hello to a stranger, I can change the world for myself and those around me. By standing up and doing, I can begin a process of change, initiate a conversation, explore new ideas from different perspectives, and challenge the status quo, all with a simple breath. Who knew something so small could be so influential? Who knew we were allowed to be so malleable as humans? Imagine what more we can do if we take a breath, let ourselves shape and be shaped by the world around us, and remember that we are all just figuring it out as we go.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

A Church I Can Believe In.

His voice echoed agains the walls as he began his sermon, reverberating against the golden pillars and through the glass protecting ornately decorated ecclesiastical statues. Slightly muffled by the low quality microphone, the deep and somewhat monotone voice was difficult to understand as he discussed Corpus Christi and the transubstantiation of the bread and wine. My mind wondered, dazed with a long night's sleep the night before. My Spanish brain was not working as well as it should have and the content seemed like sermons I had heard before. A piece of soft sheer vanilla-colored fabric attracted my eye as a breeze, from some unknown origin, lifted and spread it out in front of the congregation like a sail that had just caught wind. Several large pieces of fabric, cream and wine colored, decorated the aged walls of the Cathedral. The breeze gently caused them to dance, fluttering like the wings of a butterfly, in and out of the view of the church goers. One brave soul attempted to tame these delicate beasts but unsuccessfully resigned to their presence over and sometimes touching his head.

As I sat distracted and feeling uneasy with the amount of wealth and treasure that adorned the walls, a woman nearly in front of me fanned herself with the church bulletin. From outside, the sound of an ice cream salesman's bell harmonized with the priest's resounding tone. A baby cried in the back of the church and then a shuffling of chairs to allow the mother to stand and walk with her child up and down the aisles. I repositioned myself against the back of my pew which seemed to be designed at a ninety degree angle to keep anyone from slouching even in the slightest. As a variety of sounds from a distant car alarm burst through the open doors of the church; the flames of the candles covering the altar seemed to shiver at the intrusion into the solemn and respectful space.

"...el descubrimiento de la corrupción organizada en entidades estatales..."

"Guatemala Pains Us"
The word corrupción immediately caught my attention since corruption has be a main topic in the political discourse over the past few weeks here in Guatemala as the country approaches presidential elections this fall. As my ears were redirected to the priests words, his tone and energy shifted from somewhat monotone and obligatory to animated and passionate. It seems the content of his homily had shifted to something a bit more timely and political. I was interested to see how involved the sermon would be in making commentary on the political situation of Guatemala. At first it seemed more informative than opinionated, providing information that recounted the scandal of the Vice President as well as other high level officials who had been embezzling money through a variety of sources. I thought it might simply be a public service announcement to make sure the church was aware that the rich had stolen from the poor – an ironic public service announcement at that, seeing as it was given from a pulpit and altar decorated in gold and jewels. It turns out, instead, he was actually attempting to bring to life the content of a communication, found on the back of our bulletin, from the Episcopal Conference of Guatemala, a conference of bishops that had both opinions and advice for their flock.

The priest passionately and pointedly describes the tumultuous and broken system of political parties and bureaucracy that faces Guatemala, "...un deterioro profundo del sistema político guatemalteco". He began to criticize all the political parties for disregarding the needs of the people and only playing
political and economic
games, claiming they "...surgen y desaparecen en ciclos breves, se caracterizan más por la personalidad de quien los organiza y menos por la propuesta política que los inspira". He blatantly describes the disenfranchised people and a skeptical mentality that prevents many from participating in the political process. But he also commiserates with them, recognizing that their options, as they stand now, are between bad and worse. But, he says, this is why there have been "manifestaciones multitudinarias que expresan..." the indignation and wrath of many citizens. He proclaims that the demands of the protests and demonstrations in the streets across the country over the past few weeks, which have only been peaceful, must be answered and resolved immediately.

Additional to this demand of the government, he reminds his people that they are also responsible for the situation of their country.  When it rains, "las calles en Antigua están inundadas por la culpa de ministerio publico..."  but the roads are also flooded because the people continuously throw trash into the drains. He reminds his congregation that, as Christians, they must participate and support their country in a governmental process that resolves issues like child malnutrition, corruption, and poverty. He challenges them to confront the false christians who are stealing from the Guatemalan people, to not stand with "brazos cruzados," and instead ask what they can do to decrease corruption and improve the political stability of their country. Because they, as Christians, do not place their faith in a political party, not in a candidate, but instead in "...el amor de Cristo Jesus." 

His tone and emotion had reached out and pulled every eye toward him, seeking to not only move the soul but also the body. It almost felt appropriate to stand up and clap at the end, but no one did. As the priest left the podium and the mass continued, my companion, Juliana, leaned over to my ear and said quite matter-of-factly while nodding her head, "una charla tan buena."

How amazing to see the church taking an active role in the political support of its people, supporting, not a party, not a candidate, but the people and their needs as a whole. This was not a call to believe or passively live morally well, instead it was a stimulation of action, a fanning of the fire for change, an instigation for the pursuit of justice, and a reminder of the value of peace. This was a church I could feel a part of, even with a physical appearance that so contradicted  the message it sought to proclaim. I could feel welcomed in an institution that stood by what that priest had offered to his people. At least for this moment, for that hour, my beliefs and understandings of the world greatly coincided with this institution that is often so complex and convoluted. I felt at home within those walls, even though I absolutely would have decorated them differently.

As I stepped out into the street after mass had ended, navigating the cobblestone stairs, I felt rejuvenated and hopeful. I felt that the world could change, and that it just might. In that moment, I turned to Juliana and said, "Esa, esa es mi iglesia."

That, what I had just heard, is a church I can believe in.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Never separate, always connected.

I feel the pressure of the concrete pushing up on my thighs. I sit on the waist-high shelf formed from an entrance to the ruins of the old church. My heels press against the wall as I look out at the yellow pilas where indigenous women used to wash their clothes. Cars, tuk tuks, and motorcycles pass in front of me on the cobblestones, sometimes fumigating me with exhaust. The missing pieces in the arch overhead create a pattern of firm smoothness and aged scars, a testament to its many experiences. My hands press firmly on the rough surface, creating intricate and complex patterns in the skin of my palms. Seemingly ancient twenty foot doors tower behind me, emitting both a sense of wisdom and wear as if they embodied the priests who may have once served within the church.

I realize if I lift my legs up and scoot back into the recessed concrete cove, I could hide myself a bit from the world. I re-situate myself, crossing my legs and supporting my back against the worn wooden door frame, I open my back-pack and begin to observe the world through the lens of my camera. A group of teens sitting in the pilas populate my frame for a moment. A police officer and his friend walk along the uneven sidewalk entering my view and then disappearing again. Two women sit gently speaking with one another as my small window of the world passes over them. I feel almost invisible, safe behind my shield with life continuing around me, seemingly unaltered. I am nearly separate, unnoticed, and external, completely invulnerable and inconsequential to those around me... or so it felt for a moment.

As I observe my surroundings from a distance, continuing my plan to remain unnoticed, suddenly a older gentleman appears directly on the sidewalk before me. He turns and notices me almost immediately, somewhat surprised to see a random man with a camera sitting in the recesses of the church's entrance. He says hello and somewhat quizzically asks "¿Como estás?" At first it seemed peculiar, almost uncomfortable, that this man could somehow see into my little world, my closed off reality. How did he so matter-of-factly find me in my separateness and what made him decide to stop and inquire? We begin a polite conversation that eventually and oddly leads to the topic of my home state of West Virginia and the song Country Roads, a song he apparently loves. Then, just as suddenly as he appeared, he says "Tenga un buen día" and continues walking toward his destination. My sense of separateness was dissolved; my cove of solitude, revealed to be false; my distance from the situation, imaginary.

It was impossible for me to hide, separate myself from the world. I could not remove myself from the goings on of Antigua, Guatemala. My mere presence was altering the path of a gentleman, enlightening me on the popularity of a song, and calling attention to the oddity of my actions. Life was still going on with me in it, whether I wanted to recognize it or not. This connectedness to the world and people around me is both daunting and exciting. In every moment my body, mind, and presence is interacting with and influencing the actions, perceptions, understandings, and ideas of people around me. In every second, I am influenced and changed by every aspect of the world around me. Even the direction of the wind is altered as I feel it pass across my cheeks, sending chills down my spine. It is inescapable.

I am integrated – linked to every atom, substance, and person in the world. Even memories of people and years past, influence how I interacted with that man. Songs I have learned, languages I have stumbled through, and obstacles I have overcome all emerge in my interactions with the world today. I am connected and carry the years of my experiences and interactions with me. I cannot elude the reality of my synthesis with the world. I am, in every moment, affecting you, and you me. We each carry that effect with us for the rest of our lives, holding the experience of the other in ourselves, remembering, learning, and feeling.

Once, a long time ago when I was very young, my family experienced a great loss, a time when it felt like the whole world had been ripped away from us and we stood alone, separated, angry, and isolated. At this time, for some odd reason, I made up a song:        "A line, a line, a so far line. That's how we stay together."
It seems silly to think of a simple line connecting each and every one of us, passing through time and space to connect us to someone we had lost. But maybe my five year old brain was grasping at something it took me 20 more years to even begin to understand. We are all pervasively consequential to one another. We are linked, whether we like it or not.

We are connected. We are integrated with and through each other. I carry the love, experiences, challenges, and interactions with all my family members, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances with me every day. Sometimes they reside in the recesses of my soul, hiding, seemingly forgotten. However, every once in awhile, a moment occurs, a man asks me how I am doing, and I am reminded that I exist as a deeply connected being to everyone and everything around me, even those who have left us. I carry them with me in the way I say hello to a stranger, care for a friend, or say I love you. Our connectedness does not stop at the living. Their memory and existence have forever altered the trajectory of my life and will always have a place in my soul. They are never lost – nothing is ever lost.

Although we sometimes don't want to admit the illusion of our separateness when it means loving and caring for those who we don't really enjoy, it challenges me to live life continuously reminded that I am always deeply consequential to others and they to me, even with the most random of passers-by. And further, it gives me great comfort to know that, no matter how far or where I go, I carry with me the love and experience of those who have left me. I always carry them with me in every breath I take and every action I do.

I am never separate, even from them. Instead, always connected.