Sunday, March 6, 2011

Can You Spare A Little Change?

In my former life (no, not one that involves being an Indian rice farmer in the 1800’s….I’m referring to my pre-Nica life), I lived in a large suburban area on the outskirts of Denver.  The official name was Highlands Ranch, a title that no doubt arose from a combination of its altitude relative to the surrounding area and its primary usage prior to catching the eye of a successful land developer in the early 1980’s.  It was the typical western suburb, one characterized by its endless rows of cookie cutter houses (yes, on at least one occasion, I do admit to pulling into the wrong driveway thinking I had arrived home), cute little shopping centers with the uniform big box stores, fast food chains, and roofs covered with faux “Spanish tile”, and lines of enormously large vehicles carrying loads of mid to upper class white Americans watching movies on their built-in DVD players while running behind schedule and telephonically connecting with similar vehicles through their increasingly sophisticated cellular devices. 

Most of those who lived in the area found the experience to be quite positive overall.  In fact I think that the majority of the residents considered their community to be near utopian, as they adorned their vehicles (large SUV’s of course….it WAS Colorado) with license plate covers carrying such slogans as “Highlands Ranch, The PRIDE of Colorado”.  After all, who really cared if you couldn’t park an RV in the driveway, select the paint color of your house, or hang wind chimes on the back porch?  The school system was excellent, there was a relatively high level of safety, and although labels consisting of such words as DIVERSITY may not have been particularly appropriate, all apparent negatives were more than made up for by the overlying blanket of CONVENIENCE. 

Those who found themselves living outside its borders, however, tended to hold a slightly different view of this self proclaimed western version of Mecca, and for that reason there were a number of derogatory nicknames attached to this community as well.  Some may not have been particularly fair or accurate, but as is usually the case in such matters, others were certainly based on an element of truth.  I remember one common reference that hinted at the apparent perfection of the community (emphasis given to “apparent”).  It was “THE BUBBLE”, a name pointing to the fact that in Highlands Ranch, all aspects of life were predictable, defined, controlled, and absolutely perfect.  Of course this was nowhere near the real truth of the matter.  In fact, as a result of my daily brushes with the area’s “less than positive” side through my job in emergency services, I used to say that “behind the well manicured lawns and white picket fences of Highlands Ranch, there lies a whole lot of good old fashioned darkness”.  But whether or not the actual level of perfection was, in the end, achieved, I do believe that there was a consistent effort on behalf of the community to create the appearance of just such a world.

We’ve all experienced it.  The light turns red.  We look to the left.  We see the homeless person with the sign.  “Oh, terrific.”  We fiddle with the radio.  We talk with other individuals in the car with a new found sense of eye contact.  We look for that perfect temperature through precise adjustment of the vehicle’s “climate control center”.  We stare at the color red while praying for it to change as rapidly as possible.  “Whatever you do, do NOT look to the left”, we utter to ourselves, under our breath, as we wait out this seemingly eternal moment.  We do ANYTHING to avoid having to look at the guy with the sign!  Or perhaps we do anything to avoid having that person look at us.  Either way, in the spirit of withholding judgment or examination of the complexities of the situation, I think we’d all agree that such a situation has at least the potential for being quite uncomfortable. 

So what do upstanding, law-abiding citizens do when something is making them uncomfortable?  That’s simple….change the law!  So in Highlands Ranch, as local members of the homeless community began making their way to the southern suburbs in 2004 with the intention of staking a claim on one of its well traveled intersections, that’s exactly what the voters did.  Within no time, the police were given authority to remove any such individual standing on any street corner and asking for any form of personal contribution.  It was a close call, but the perfection was, in the end, retained. 

I think of that sometimes as I make my way around Managua.  I suppose there are technically areas, areas behind walls, gates and private security forces, where one can avoid this type of solicitation for a short time.  But on the whole, it’s simply an inherent part of life.  As far as intersections go, each supports its own little micro labor force.  There are the people selling anything from newspapers to food and beverages to car accessories to dust cloths to small animals.  There are others, I suppose we could call them performance artists, running around dressed as clowns or simply juggling some random object (these days, the object is often on fire) in their everyday wear.  And let’s not forget the classic window washers that tend to wash all windshields without any type of discrimination based upon such factors as the windshield’s level of cleanliness or the driver’s desire to accept or decline such service.  Everyone has their angle.  If you are a small child, you knock on the window and look sad.  If you have been burned, you exhibit your burned face for the drivers to see.  If you have lost a limb, you wave your stump in front of the windshield.  If you’re fortunate, the driver will think something along the lines of “well, I suppose a missing extremity is worth a few cents” and make a small contribution (by the way, I always wonder what the “ranchonians” would think of that one).  Regardless of your respective angle, though, such intersection labor in this area is much more of a contact sport with little room for subtlety. 

But such a culture doesn’t necessarily end with the simple change of red to green.  If you walk down the street, you will be asked for money.  If you eat in a restaurant with an outdoor patio (or often times without) you will be asked for money.  If I leave my door open or read a book in front of where I live, I will be asked for money.  I could go on, but I think you get the point.  Due to an enormous amount of need, there is no shortage of solicitation. 

Hey, these people have no other options.  They are living in extreme poverty and need our help.

Don’t give that guy money.  He’ll just buy drugs or alcohol with it.

That poor kid looks pathetic, and it breaks my heart.  Of course I can spare a little change. 

Nope.  If you give them money, their parents will keep sending them out in the street to beg.

Well if you DON’T give them money, they won’t eat today.

It’s not our problem.

It IS our problem.  It’s a problem of all of us.  If we fail to care, we fail to recognize the humanity that we all share.

Hey, how about doing something productive like work or go to school instead of just sitting around begging your life away.

There’s 70% unemployment.  Where are they going to work? 

That’s where a little initiative comes into play.  They should pull themselves up by their bootstraps, have a little pride, and make something of themselves.

But given such factors as culture, family, community, etc., that’s not always so easy…..or even an option.

Nobody said it would be easy.  You don’t see ME out there in the street, do you?

But you were given an enormous amount of opportunity.  You can’t even compare your background or experience with theirs.

That’s no excuse.

Maybe it is an excuse, or at least should be.

The opportunity is ALWAYS there.  Sometimes it’s just a little harder to find.  In the end, there’s never a complete lack of opportunity.

But in the end, it’s not even really about THEM, but US.  Are we not to focus on such things as generosity, compassion, and love for our neighbor?  Isn’t that the real point at the end of the day?

At the end of the day, you are actually HURTING them by giving them a handout.  You are creating a sense of dependency that will never be broken.  The best thing you can do is to simply turn away.

And so goes the argument, on and on and on.  One side gets labeled as compassionate and ignorant, while the other is viewed as heartless yet wise.  In the end, I think most of us find ourselves vacillating somewhere between the two extremes, eternally questioning the location of that proper line of balance.  As for me, although I did call Highlands Ranch my home for ten years, I was also one of its most vocal critics.  In reference to the aforementioned roadside justice involving the homeless neighbors at the intersections, the idea of ridding the community of such a minute reminder of what life could look like outside the borders of this tiny utopia, seemed absurd.  I used to roll down my window, chat with my less fortunate neighbors for the duration of the red light, and happily give them a small contribution.  I appreciated the short brush with an alternate reality, as I had grown so tired of the homogenous, controlled, monotonous life inside the bubble.
It’s funny how our perspectives can change.  Last year while visiting my old suburban stomping ground, I experienced the strange sensation of being ironically drawn to it, really for the first time.  And after thinking about this for a bit, I realized that it wasn’t the endless rows of beige colored houses that were calling my name.  Rather, it was the overall comfort, predictability, and external sense of ease.  It reminded me of my first visit to the upscale mall here in Managua.  I had spent the previous year immersed primarily in the local “garbage dump community” and found myself outraged by what I found on the other side of the proverbial tracks.  “How can these people walk around like this, casually spending $100 on a new shirt, while there are others, directly across the street, living in plastic “houses” and surviving on one dollar per day?!”  Needless to say, I didn’t stay very long.  Yet strangely enough, I found myself returning to the same location the following week.  What was that about?  I generally detest the malls, or at least the high levels of commercialization and consumerism that they represent.  I certainly had no interest in making a purchase.  What was drawing me back?  And then as I sat there on the large, gently sloping staircase, surfing the web with the free WiFi connection, I realized that, to my knowledge, not a single person had shown any interest in stealing my laptop.  In fact, no one had asked me for money. I saw people walking around casually……with smiles on their faces!  What were they thinking?  I saw entire families…..TOGETHER!  I saw NO acts of violence or abuse, and I had been sitting there for at least an hour!  “Money may not be able to buy happiness”, I thought, “but I sure like what they’re selling here”!

I suppose that upon reaching the point of disillusion with any one extreme, albeit political, religious, socioeconomic, etc., there lies the tendency of heading directly to the side of the other.  But maybe such things would be better viewed through a slightly more balanced lens.  Maybe, as our 1.3 billion friends from the emerging superpower to the East like to say, seemingly contrary forces are generally quite interconnected and interdependent.  Maybe it’s really more about locating that proper equilibrium.  As author Demetria Martinez says, as she warns against seeking refuge in a place located too far toward a particular extreme:

“It’s not enough: to receive the ashes, to ponder our own inevitable deaths, to remember those who died at the hands of death squads or SS guards or those incinerated by bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasake.  We ponder, remember, and repent, but we don’t stop there.  We taste the honey, celebrating the sweetness of life witnessed in a kind act, a work of art, the sky on a beautiful day, an unexpected victory in the struggle for justice.  We honor the dead by celebrating life, loving it so deeply that we find it within ourselves to create a world without holocausts.”

And so I, like most, continue in my search for that often elusive border.   I have to say that although I do visit the local mall on a regular basis, I have no real desire to return to the utopian life of the suburbs.  As for my response to the external needs of my current neighbors, I’ll just say this:  Last week, while coming out of a restaurant with my girlfriend Marcela, I gave a little money to a lady in a wheelchair.  I chatted with her for a moment or two and then honored her second request by pushing her chair up the curb for better positioning (i.e. closer to the doors of the restaurant…i.e. closer to the exiting customers).  She seemed appreciative.  Earlier in the day, a small child had approached the car I was driving at a local intersection.  He was wearing no shirt or shoes and had the typical amount of dirt covering him from head to toe.  He asked for a little money and told me that his feet were burning due to the hot asphalt.  I told him to go stand in the shade.  

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Enjoyment Of Unemployment....Part II

If I’m remembering correctly, the idea first began making its way around my head at some point in 2006.  I think it was that year that the concept of living abroad and filling some sort of position in the overall category of “development” began to take hold and occupy an increasingly hospitable place in my thoughts.  There were plenty of things that I found to be appealing in it all.  I was interested in gaining a deeper insight with respect to the world of poverty, immersing myself in a new and foreign culture, and trying my hand at proficiency with a foreign language.  Most of all, though, I was interested in dedicating one year of my life to living in an altruistic manner, to set aside a period of twelve months to focus solely on the act of directing all of the resources I had been given over the years in an outward direction.  

From there, I began researching organizations that do this type of work in the developing world.  I spent months online, looking at various NGOs and the specific work they were carrying out at the time.  I wrote emails.  I made phone calls.  I filled out a few applications.  At one point, I even headed to Arizona to spend a week of “pre-employment training” with one group.  I went on to speak with everyone from the United Nations, to Peace Corps, to your friendly neighborhood missionaries, and in conjunction researched the large, the small, and all organizations in between.  For nearly two years, I looked around without finding that perfect fit, which really, due to the fact that I had a great job and situation back in Colorado, posed no real problem whatsoever.  After all, there was no real hurry.  Eventually, though, in late 2007 I stumbled across an opportunity that sounded and felt right, and within a short time all lights turned to green and all compasses pointed in the southern direction, to Nicaragua. 

One of the challenges I came across in those two years of searching was found in my unique “background”, or “skill set” (skill set is one of those cool terms I picked up in Arizona).  I had a formal education in biological science (with no real experience) and had spent the previous ten years working in the area of emergency services.  What I found was that in looking toward potential projects in this new area (new to me, that is), the general consensus was relatively positive.  The classification, on the other hand, proved a bit more difficult. 

So why do I mention all of this background material?  I mention all of this to make the point that, as it was in pre-2008, I’m once again LOOKING FOR A JOB!!!  I realize that it’s an obvious statement in a Blog entry surrounding unemployment, but I figured I’d go ahead and clear up any confusion that might be present.  I also mention those things above to say that, as was the case before, such an undertaking is not coming without its challenges.  For one, although I’ve been fortunate enough to add a few items to the skill set over the last several years, I’m still a difficult animal to classify in the world of development, especially when the animal is requesting a modest paycheck.  Also, in an attempt to carry out such initial objectives as cultural immersion and poverty education over the last few years, I’ve typically avoided those communities characterized by their lighter skin color and/or economic advantage.  And although I do think there can be something of value to be found there, I have to say that when in search of employment, those living on a dollar per day are NOT going to be one’s most profitable resource. 

Regardless of one’s language, however, the word “challenge” isn’t necessarily classified as a negative, and “difficult” never automatically implies impossible. On a positive note, I think I’m learning a few things these days and hopefully picking up a bit of personal growth along the way.  I’m learning (and re-learning) such practical skills as the compilation and presentation of the resume, the do’s and don’ts of the interview process, and perhaps most notably, the value of networking.  I’ve been gaining perspective and insight with respect to the overall concept of work (more specifically, work that carries with it a monthly paycheck) and the value and role it occupies in one’s life.  And recently I’ve found myself exploring that fine line dividing such traits as persistence and diligence from the simple allowance of letting events and opportunities unfold and present themselves as they are meant to, in their own way and in their own time.  Perhaps more than anything I’m just learning to find a place of peace in a moment often characterized by such less than attractive words as restlessness, frustration, worry, or doubt.

On the lighter side, I’ve been reading some great books, getting more than enough rest, and catching up on the Oscar nominated films of 2010 (a personal recommendation…127 hours).  As for the matter of finding a job, something will eventually turn up, of that I’m confident.  And when it does, I’ll have additional topics about which to Blog.  In the meantime, though, I think I’ll just focus on the enjoyment of unemployment

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Enjoyment Of Unemployment....Part 1

I suppose it all started back in mid November, IT being this current status that I am attempting to enjoy, or at least view in a positive light on a daily basis.  OK, at VERY least, I’m working on being at peace with it all.  There were the initial differences of opinion, which lead to a bit of occupational conflict, which in turn lead to some very positive changes, which then took a sudden and unexpected turn to this place of looking for a new job.  Unemployed.  There, I said it.  It’s out there.  Unemployment.   Unemployment.  Unemployment.  Hey, it kind of has a nice ring to it.   

The good news is that unemployment is something relatively new for me, as my unofficial work history began at what most would consider to be a young age.  I mean I was mowing lawns and babysitting younger kids in the neighborhood when I had not yet entered the teenage years.  Prior to that, there were a number of sporadic employment experiences ranging from office clerk to school maintenance man, uh, boy.  At 14, I started my first “official” job, and ended up working as many hours AFTER school as I spent IN school.  And although I did choose to spend the majority of my college years hidden in the bowels of the university’s library rather than immersed in the local work force, this was a choice (i.e. luxury) that I was allowed.  Following graduation, I was back in the workplace.  OK, so maybe I eeeeassssed in to the work force a bit, but I was back out there, contributing to the overall economic production and benefit of society.  And it is THERE, in THAT place, that I had comfortably resided until......mid November.

From this junction, I think that this entry could take a number of different paths.  I could talk about how unfair and wrong the whole situation was, how disrespectful and damaging it was on a very personal level.  I could talk about how cruel and horrible the people are that contributed to my new found status.  But in the end, there wouldn’t be anything especially productive to be found there.  I could also talk about my own range emotions, the range that closely parallels that whole “stages of grief” cycle and ends with a great sense of freedom and optimism upon looking toward the future OR a desire to punch someone in the face, depending on which day of the week you happen to catch me.  But again, I’ll save that for another day. 

Instead, I’m going to focus on those things that I find to pass the time, to fill the hours from one day to the next.  Because if there's one thing that I have at the moment, it is a LOT….and I mean a LOOOOOOOT….of free time.  And with that, here are a few of the list toppers.

I’m a Sudoku Guy in a Sudoku World

In early 2007, I took a trip to Panama.  The idea was to take one of those immersion type Spanish courses and expand my bilingual tongue beyond such words as taco and bano.  When I arrived, I found that I was essentially the ONLY student in the school at that moment, and therefore had no shortage of available hours in the day….solo hours (wait a minute, this is starting to sound a little redundant).  Fortunately, someone had given me one of those little books of Sudoku, and I quickly found myself engrossed in the Japanese pastime of filling numbers into tiny square boxes. 

I hadn’t done much with respect to the Sodoku world over the past several years.  In fact, upon starting anew, I had to reread the directions to remember how to begin.  But before long, I was back at it, immersed in a world of one through nine, and within very little time, finding myself progressing beyond the “EASY” puzzles and into the world known as “Intermediate”. “WOW, I thought, I remember the intermediates being SOOOOO hard when I was in Panama”.  “Is it possible that I have somehow increased my intellectual capacity over the last few years”?  When I progressed to the “DIFFICULT” level, I began to think I was encroaching upon genius territory.  “Maybe THIS can be my new job”, I thought.  “I’ll be a professional SUDOKU player!”  Of course that bubble was quickly burst when I showed the kid in the neighborhood the ancient art from the east, and watched him rapidly progress through the designated levels.  These days, it’s all I can do to stay one step ahead of him, and he’s all of 11 years old. 

Regardless, I’m enjoying the puzzles, and a good one can easily take between thirty minutes to an hour.  Besides, I figure it’s like exercise for the brain.  It’s all about problem solving, and if handled correctly, does lead to a great sense of personal satisfaction.  I avoid TV as much as possible.  Sudoku, on the other hand, is just good, healthy, brain-building fun.

Back In The Saddle Again

Speaking of exercise, let me just sum it all up here in three short words….I’M BACK, BABY!!!!!.  I’ll explain.  To truly understand the significance of this statement, you have to understand a little something about my prior, prior meaning “pre-Nicaraguan”, life.  I was living in Colorado for the eleven years leading up to 2008, and I was fortunate enough to take advantage of the lifestyle offered by its geographic location.
Depending on the season, I was generally found to be on some road, trail, slope, cliff, or mountain, participating in some type of sport or activity falling under the genre of “outdoor adventure”.  On the days that I was working, I was utilizing the provided workout facilities and/or running in circles around the fire stations.  The point is that prior to coming south, I was one active muchacho.

When I arrived in Nicaragua, I did make an attempt to maintain some basic level of activity.  I was living just outside of the city at the time and had at my disposal both a small swimming pool in the yard and miles of dirt roads immediately outside the front gate.  But I quickly grew tired of running in the intense heat and humidity, and the combination of being heckled by the locals and chased by numerous angry dogs on a daily basis proved to be somewhat of a detractor from the overall relaxation and enjoyment of it all.  As for the pool, its minimal size (thing large in-ground baby pool) made me feel as though I were the proverbial hamster (with fins and snorkel, of course) running on the wheel.  Besides, I’ve always claimed to be a land mammal.  The water has never been my forte. 

The point is that for the last three years, I’ve found myself to be on the other extreme of the spectrum.  I went from literally hours of physical activity on a daily basis to, well, zero; zero, that is, until recently.  These days, such activities as jogging and homegrown strength training (that refers to push-ups and sit-ups in my room or pull-ups on the local playground… one of those guys on the monkey bars in those inspirational Al Queda training videos) are a regular part of my routine.  I've also been sprinkling in a bit of yoga and hope to be standing atop a local volcano by the end of next week.  AND, last but not least, as an added bonus to my current lack of transportation (yet another story for another day), I’m spending literally HOURS each day in a more subtle and often overlooked form of exercise, namely walking.

As enjoyable as it is, I do have to say that there ARE a few downsides to the walking.  In a city where the overall crime rate is somewhere along the lines of, oh I don’t know, 100%, it can take on an element of danger.  But I figure that in the case of an attempted robbery, I can simply use it as an opportunity to participate in additional track and field events, such as sprinting or the shot-put (i.e. running away furiously while screaming and throwing chunks of broken concrete).  The other downside is that although I really DO want to be in shape again (and feeling really good at the moment), I really DON’T want to lose any weight.  Despite my lack of physical activity over the last few years, I’ve struggled to maintain a healthy weight.  The good news was that I was finally starting to put on a few pounds.  The bad news is that with my new found level of fitness, I think I’m going in the wrong direction.  Well, in the words of my niece and nephew, I’ll just say this:

“More fried cheese please!”  

Cleanliness Is Next To Godliness

Despite a strangely large number of biblical references to standards of personal and communal hygiene, I seriously doubt that the act of tidying up oneself or immediate surroundings has much to do with one’s level of spirituality.  But to be fair, I should mention that I’ve always been a bit of a “neat freak”.  I figure that cleanliness is one of those things, in addition to the opposable thumbs of course, that sets us apart in the animal kingdom.  And besides, is there any real reason to live in an environment defined primarily by one’s own filth?  I say NO!  But even the cleanest of the group can get a little behind the 8 ball every once and a while.  And for me, I watched the 8 ball roll by at some point near the end of the rainy season in October of last year. 

I think there were three primary factors that contributed to what I now refer to as “The Perfect Bacterial Storm” that took place in the room where I currently live.  First there was an especially RAINY (i.e. SUPER WET) rainy season.  This, combined with the fact that the room, despite its lack of windows, does have a concrete wall that opens to the great outdoors on the other side, created a moldy predisposition.  When I closed the place up for several weeks and headed north for a bit of time with the family, things got a little out of hand.  What I returned to was what I would describe as wall to wall carpeting.  The walls.  The floor.  The mattress.  The clothes. The shoes. The paper and books.  The sheets and pillows.  EVERYTHING had seemingly bathed in a furry fungal substance. 

For the next several weeks, I armed myself with bleach and various scrubbing agents and went to work.  Fortunately, this event coincided with the END of the rainy season, so I was able to take advantage of the intense tropical sun to reach a level of dryness unseen in the previous six months.  I discovered that the roof was an excellent place to dry out one’s freshly scrubbed possessions, and at the end of a 20 to 30 day period, I joyfully declared an end to all major combat operations in Altagracia.  There were, of course, a few casualties, but what can you do? 

What I noticed, though, was that after spending the previous three years working in the area of “international development”, it was strangely rewarding to see a “finished product”.  In other words, after participating in a line of work that is characterized by INCREDIBLY slow and subtle results (if ANY), cleaning brought about a welcomed sense of instant gratification.  Before long, in addition to volunteering for dish duty after most meals, I was washing and waxing vehicles, cleaning closets in preparation for garage sales, and hand washing socks and underwear at a pace equal to that of my personal utilization.  Along similar lines, I also began repairing every damaged item I could get my hands on. Doors. Toilets. Motorcycles (remember that part about walking from above?).  Anything that was nonfunctional or could use a little improvement….I was on it.  The point wasn’t so much about the activity itself as it was about the end result.  Again, it felt especially rewarding to, after any number of minutes, hours, or days, take a step back and admire the beauty of a finished product. I am certainly one to appreciate the patience required by a long and arduous road, but I’m learning that a tangible representation of the fruits of one’s labor can be something particularly valuable.  I suppose that if I am particularly astute here, I should take note of some valuable insight in all of that.  Insight, that is, that could come in handy for the next chapter of my occupational life.

….to be continued

Monday, December 27, 2010

Searching For El Dorado

Warning:  The following blog entry contains material that is, in some cases, less than positive.  Discretion is advised.

As I’ve mentioned before, I currently live in the heart of a large city called Managua, Nicaragua.  Managua is known for a number of things, including, but not limited to, its large size, lack of cleanliness, loud decibel level, and perhaps most notably, it’s especially hard exterior. As for the reasons behind such a reputation, I imagine there are a great number of social and economic factors contributing to the overall vibe or feel of the city, but as I’ve pondered the general way of life around here, I’ve always viewed it as a direct result of one primary factor: lack of resources. What I mean is that there simply isn’t ENOUGH.  There aren’t enough jobs.  There isn’t enough space…enough money….enough transportation…enough time…enough lanes….enough housing….enough….well, you get the point.  For those of us from the large nation to the north, this is perhaps a bit difficult to understand contextually.  We are accustomed to an unparalleled amount of excess available on a 24/7 basis.  Here in the second poorest nation in the hemisphere (umm, at this time, I’d like to give a special shout out to Haiti for taking first place yet another year), the word PLENTY as it pertains to resources is, well, foreign.

I first noticed this dynamic shortly after arriving to Nicaragua several years ago.  I remember being pushed and shoved (i.e. assaulted physically) while trying to get on and off the bus at rush hour.  “Man!, I thought, I think that Managua could use a few more buses in the fleet!  This is a free for all!”    From there though, I realized that the buses were not an isolated factor.  In most areas of life, it’s a more openly Darwinian system.  That is, in daily life and the pursuit of liberty and happiness (and perhaps a monthly paycheck), its survival of the fittest.

I’ve been thinking about this over the last few weeks, as I’ve watched the calendar slowly making its way towards the season known for, among other things, peace, joy, and the spirit of giving.  And in the midst of pondering such traits as charity and goodwill towards those in the immediate vicinity, I’ve been thinking about how the old Golden Rule fits into such a system as one found in Managua.  Unfortunately, upon first glance, I’m not sure that it does.

Isn’t there ANYONE who understands what Christmas is all about??   

--Charlie Brown  

 We’ve all heard the stories of the charitable organizations or religious institutions that fail to conduct their affairs in a manner considered to be in alignment with their overall mission or purpose.  Perhaps we shouldn’t hold such organizations to the higher standard they openly represent.  It just seems natural to do so.  Maybe it is for that reason that we find it particularly shocking or disturbing when they fail to live up to their stated objectives.  I’ll give you a recent example.  I have a friend who helps run a relatively large NGO here in Managua.  We’ve spent a number of meals and discussion groups together, mulling over such topics as social justice, helping the poor, the environment, the evils of multinational corporations, and the numerous factors that lead to a cruel and unjust world.  I mean this guy is a person that CERTAINLY falls under the category of “socially conscious”, and I’ve typically found myself to be in agreement with his previously shared views, beliefs, and opinions.  But recently, while working a bit more closely with this individual and his organization, I witnessed three examples that made me stop and shake my head.  First there was the failure to pay an employee a relatively large sum of money owed to them by the organization.  The debt was the direct result of an error made by the administrative staff, and the organization did acknowledge the error on their part.  Beyond that though, no amends were made (i.e. nobody got paid), and the matter was closed.  For fear of losing their job, the employee remained silent as well.  Next came the hiring of a NEW employee (positive).  Everything looked good until my friend expressed his desire to pay the recent recruit “under the table” in order to avoid responsibility for the basic benefits allotted to all full time employees in Nicaragua (not so positive).  And finally, upon visiting one of the local projects, the friend commented on the fact that he didn’t like a particular characteristic of one of the staff members.  “Yea, I’m going to replace her”, he mentioned flippantly, as if she were the batteries in the remote control.

Christmas time is here, families drawing near

Oh that we could always see such spirit through the year

Unfortunately, I’ve since come to find out that these were not isolated events, and I’ve subsequently lost a great deal of respect for this individual and his organization.  I mean sure they have the correct numbers on their donor reports, and all of the decimals at the bottom of their spreadsheets line up correctly at the end of each year.  They even have particularly noble and virtuous objectives covering their walls, corporate documents, website, etc.  But to me, when you fail to treat others (including employees) with a basic level of respect, dignity, and fairness, you have, somewhere along the line, taken a step in the wrong direction.  And for that reason, the nobility associated with such things as your stated purpose, fundraising propaganda, or impressive number of stars making up your organization’s charity rating, take on very little meaning.  As is always the case, the actions speak louder than words.

On a different level, I have another acquaintance that has spent most of the year working in various “call centers” of the foreign-owned-and-operated variety.  To be more specific, she’s on the third one in the last 10 months or so, and the continual change is generally a result of poor and unfair working conditions.  The managers of such companies have one objective in mind, and that is to MAKE AS MUCH MONEY AS POSSIBLE.  The employees are virtually unskilled and can therefore be exploited and replaced with relative ease.  Remember, we are living in a country with an unemployment rate of approximately 60-70 percent.  Regardless of the position in which one is working, there is ALWAYS a line of people behind them willing to perform their duties for less of SOMETHING.  It’s a system that lends itself to a high level of exploitation, and it is the same system that influences the practices of the aforementioned charity.

So my telemarketing acquaintance does what anyone in her shoes would most likely do, namely finds herself on a continual search for the place that will compensate her with the most and treat her the best.  And you know, I hate to hear the stories she tells me.  They really do treat her and her colleagues in a way that is demeaning both on a professional and personal level.  She, of course, finds no enjoyment or satisfaction in being on the receiving end of such treatment, and who could blame her?  But here’s the $100,000 question: What does SHE do as a result of such treatment?  I’m not asking whether or not she goes in search of a different call center to spend her days.  That question is already answered.  I’m asking how SHE treats those around HER?  Remember, I’m thinking about the golden rule here, and she’s certainly not being treated in the manner that she would like to be treated.  So if SHE were to find herself in the position of one of her not-so-virtuous managers, for example, how would SHE run the show?  Well, you want to know the answer?  I’ll tell you.  Exactly the same way….or WORSE!  You see, when she heads home at the end of the day, she IS a manager of sorts.  I know this, because there just happens to be a guy who works in and around the house she shares with her family.  And you wouldn’t believe how she treats this guy!  She belittles him.  She insults him.  She demands service like you couldn’t imagine!  It’s truly incredible.  She literally treats the guy like yesterday’s garbage.  I can’t even be around this and continually have to leave the room!  Golden rule?  Nope, it’s not here either.

Surely he taught us to love one another, his law is love and his gospel is peace

Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother, and in his name all oppression shall cease

So how about this one?  Just for the sake of comparison, let’s just take a look at the extreme end of the spectrum.  That is, how about taking a look at those on the LOWEST level of society; the ones on the bottom; the poorest of the poor.  If there is a system of exploitation that functions in a top-down direction, the buck would have to stop with them, right?  There’s nowhere else for it to go.  So if they were treated poorly by the rest of society and understand such treatment better than ANYONE else in the hierarchy, how would THEY respond? 

I know what psychology says.  It says that those who find themselves on the receiving end of any given type of mistreatment or abuse are very likely to mistreat or abuse others in the future.  It’s the classic chain in which the “abusEE” eventually converts into the “abusER”.  But surely that wouldn’t happen with respect to my aforementioned question, would it?  Well, I’ll say this.  I’ve spent the last several years working with the group identified as the “poorest of the poor”, the group that often gets credited with being “poor but happy”.  It’s the group that puts on a nice smile for the visiting missionary groups, gets subsequently passed around the US in photographic form, and inevitably becomes a source of inspiration to their over-materialized neighbors to the north for “being so wonderful” and “just so happy and content” in spite of “having so little”! 

And the answer is?????  Put another one on the board for psychology.  Angry.  Mean.  Belligerent.  Petty.  Disrespectful.  Greedy.  Ungrateful.  Demanding.  Abusive.  Violent.   Vindictive.  You’ll have to forgive me.  I really don’t want to insult anyone here, and I do want to remain compassionate and understanding with respect to their situation and the histories that contribute directly to the resulting characteristics.  I’m well aware of such principles as “the sins of the fathers” and “the cycle of poverty” and the affects that such factors have on future generations.  But at the same time, I’ve got to be honest.  I’m going to call a spade a spade.  And in this case, we are looking at one angry little spade.

Maybe it wouldn’t be much consolation, but I wish I could say that the aforementioned characteristics were only expressed in an upward direction (i.e. UP the economic ladder).  This is the same community though that is unable to leave houses unattended for 5 minutes for fear that the NEIGHBORS will (and do) come over and claim all earthly possessions for themselves.  Maybe it’s just the ugly reality of poverty or, I don’t know, an exposed version of the humanity found within us all.  Whatever it is, it’s ANYTHING but GOLDEN.

Silent night, Holy night; All is calm, All is bright

So as the lights are hung and the trees decorated this year, I’m left wondering if anyone remembers that little rule of the golden variety.  I’ve actually been told that here in Managua, it’s every man/woman for themselves.  People have literally told me that although it may not sound so virtuous, that’s simply the way it is.  But does it really have to be? Perhaps I have to believe it as a fact of everyday life, but do I have to accept it?  Is the kill or be killed (or as they say down here….eat or be eaten) law of the jungle the only way?  Are we left with no other option, and if so, are we going to be happy with the result?

As I share my less than positives opinions here, I need to say that I’m certainly not writing from the height of my pedestal.   I often find myself wanting to follow the law of the land.  As I tire of being the pushEE on the bus, in traffic, or waiting in “line” to make a simple purchase, I’ll admit that I want nothing more than to be the pushER.   In all honesty, I get tired of the whole thing.  I get tired of everyONE fighting everyone ELSE for everyTHING.  I get tired of witnessing those on the receiving end of truly beautiful acts of charity or generosity turn around and steal from/take advantage of/exploit the next person that comes along (for those of you Bible readers, see Matthew 18:23+).  Golden rule nothing, it’s every man for himself!  And after a while, I, like everyone else, begin to push back.

At the end of the day though, I don’t want to give up, because I know there’s a better way out there.  Like that Mahatma character, I’ll do everything I can to continue trying to be the change I want to see in the world.  I’ll choose to follow the lead of the lady that let me and my single item go in front of her at the grocery store this past year.  And what about that guy who helped me out when I was walking home with the non-functional motorcycle the year before that?  These people and their small but significant random acts of kindness will serve as inspiration in the city where similar acts are the overwhelming exception.  Despite the fact that I don’t succeed on a daily basis, I’ll continue in my attempt to treat others in the manner in which I want to be treated.  After all, in this complex and often complicated world in which we live, that’s about as simple as it gets.

And with that, I want to wish you all a very Merry Christmas.  Whether you’re at home for the holidays or experiencing something a little less traditional, I encourage you to focus a little energy in the outward direction.  As for me, I’ll be down south this year, celebrating a slightly more tropical holiday season.  There probably won’t be any of the white stuff outside the window, but whatever the temperature may be, you can rest assure that I’ll be on my search for El Dorado. 


Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Taking The Leap

Before coming to Nicaragua, I had never officially lived in a city. I mean sure, I had spent the large majority of my life living in metropolitan areas AROUND various cities (i.e. the BURBS). It’s just that until I shook hands with my current landlords and handed over that first month’s rent, I had never been a TRUE urbanite.

These days, I live in the proverbial concrete jungle. The exhaust, the traffic, the incredible decibel levels, dirt, trash, smog, miles upon miles of broken glass and concrete……THESE are the components of my most recent environment, the place I am calling home. Put another way…….COMPLETE ISOLATION from the natural world. Don’t’ get me wrong. I’m not complaining. I’ve chosen this present life, and it’s perfect for my current line of work. It’s just that it has taken a little…….well…..getting used to.

A bit of history: In 1991, for reasons I can’t seem to remember at the moment, I paid my FIRST dues to this new group (new to ME, that is) called The Sierra Club. And since a short time after, I seem to have been a tree-hugging/veggie-and-granola-eating/Birkenstock-wearing/hippie freak, to one degree or another (OK…at least on the INSIDE). To put it another way, I’m a BIG fan of the natural world…..yes, card-carrying ENVIRONMENTALIST…… and as one can imagine, the great state of Colorado, where I have called my home for the previous 11 years or so, has proven to be a spectacular place for someone such as myself to hug a tree or two (or at least ski amongst them). The majesty and intrinsic beauty of it all.....definitely food for the soul……and certainly a far cry from my CURRENT surroundings that tends to burn, kill, eat, or needlessly destroy anything that lives, breathes, moves, or grows in any form or fashion.

I think the first time I noticed “the void” was last year while making my way south through Costa Rica. I had just left Managua that morning and was traveling through the mountains en route to Panama. The bus stopped for a short break, and I got off to relieve myself of the morning’s excess of coffee. The only available facility was a small store/bathroom that was constructed quite literally into the side of the hill. And it was within this facility….um……mid-stream…..where I noticed the wall was the actual hillside. Soil……earth…..dirt……..TERRA FIRMA. There it was, in all its glory. It struck me as something so unusual, so foreign, so out of place…..and so…so….strangely wonderful. An odd moment……a ridiculous story, I know…..but profound nonetheless.

Since that time, I’ve experienced a number of such moments (don’t worry….all completely OUTSIDE the realm of restrooms and bodily functions) that have lead me to a very similar conclusion. The conclusion, that is, that it is absolutely necessary to get out of the city now and then. Whether it’s the beach (one hour to the East)….the mountains (one hour to the North)……a local volcano (take your pick….plenty to choose from)……or just a small pueblo outside of Managua…’s essential for the maintenance of inward health and wellbeing.

That being said, when my friend Lila suggested a trip to a nearby “refuge” for a bit of hiking and rappelling, I told her I was in.

“Just say the word, and I’m there!!!!!”

And after several weeks of ………“well, we WERE going to go, but this or that happened, or this or that person backed out”……… the big day finally arrived. I got up early on Sunday morning, did my usual routine, met Lila and the rest of the group, and got on the road by 8AM. By 10AM, we had passed through countless small towns and navigated more than a few curvy mountain roads in order to arrive at what was perhaps the most foreign site I had seen in quite some time.
“Ummmm…..excuse me, but does that sign really say “Eco-lodge” and “Nature-preserve”??????

Fortunately, that is exactly what it said, and within minutes we were admiring a beautiful view of the Masaya Volcano and lake (OK….so MAYBE the majority of the raw sewage from the town just MIGHT flow directly into the lake……but let’s just focus on the view for now) while standing next to a sign exhibiting the various species of birds indigenous to the area.

“Yeeeesssss………I do believe this is going to be a good day”.

Within a few MORE minutes, after getting more acquainted with the group, I realized that we were actually on an organized outing by something called RAPPEL TEAM. Hiking…...savoring the beauty of the natural world…….well, that may have been a bit of a stretch for the day’s agenda. In reality, we were there to do ONE THING and one thing only, to jump off a 200’ cliff. And the more I talked with the members of this newly discovered subculture, the more it became clear that they were certainly motivated by the “adrenaline aspect” of things.

“I’m a teacher during the week, but on the weekends I do anything I can find that’s DANGEROUS….anything that has the potential of killing me!!!!”

….note to self…..remember not to catch a ride home with THAT guy.

“Hey Jason……what’s the MOST EXTREME thing you’ve ever done????? Mine is skydiving. Woohooooooo!”

“You’re from Colorado? I heard that they have A reserve in Colorado that’s JUST FOR SKIING!!!”

“Yep….absolutely true,” I told him. “We do have ONE of those”.

After the big HIKE from the “eco-lodge” to the rappel site (all 1minute and 30 seconds of it……downhill), Team Rappel began setting up the ropes. Now, although I don’t consider myself a true expert in such matters, I’m also no stranger to the “sport” of rappelling. Between various recreational pursuits in the mountains, technical rescue team with the fire dept., and those pine trees in Steven Flynt’s backyard (cirque 1985), I’ve had a fair amount of experience with the world of ropes and knots. But as often crosses my mind, such things as SAFETY STANDARDS don’t always carry the exact same meaning in this part of the world.

“….better pay particularly close attention to the system they’re setting up”.

Well, after putting together a pretty good “anchor” and giving a VERY BRIEF instructional talk, they asked if I wanted to be the first to go. After all, I was the only person that brought any personal gear. Checking and rechecking harnesses, carabineers, knots, and other equipment using the buddy system? Not in this group. Safety line in case of emergency or catastrophic failure of the system? Nope…not today……they forgot that at home.

“So you’re asking me if I want t be the first one to TEST THE SYSTEM? Thanks but no thanks”, I said. “I trust you and all, buuuuuuuut NO”.

Fortunately, despite that fact that I would have certainly made a few minor adjustments here and there, everything turned out just fine (i.e. nobody plummeted to a premature death). I ended up going in the middle of the group, and really did enjoy the descent…….beautiful volcanic cliff and even BETTER view than the one from the lodge. Of course, upon reaching the bottom, I was quickly reminded of just WHERE I was by ONE…..the enormous amount of garbage (literal) on the rocks below, and TWO…..the two guys carrying assault rifles and machetes.

“Funny….I don’t remember THEM being in our group”.

“So what are you guys shooting today?”, I asked.

NO response.

“I’m hoping it’s not anything of the human variety….yea?”.

Vague smiles.

For the next hour or so, we waited at the bottom of the cliff for the rest of the group to make the descent. It was quiet and beautiful, and I even saw a bit of wildlife (large white owl that we startled from the cliff wall). We hung out watching the individual descents, all the while dodging rock fall from above (literally the most dangerous part of the day……..have you guys thought about investing in helmets? ) until it came time for the actual HIKE back, a 30 minute scramble up the adjacent hill……..lots of fun.

From there, we enjoyed an excellent lunch prepared by the folks at “the lodge” and ended up rolling out around 5PM. I arrived back in Managua an hour or so later, rested and refreshed for yet another week in my little “paradise by the lake”. As I always do after a mini-vacation from the city, I experienced a nice sense of rejuvenation, as if the soul had just done the old……

“And now that we’ve all found our happy place……inhale through the nose………..OK, hold it……and exhale through the mouth……….aaaaahhhhhhh.”

Also, as is often par for the course around here, the lack of stress accompanying my mini-vacation was relatively short-lived. That same night, one of the dogs from our house found herself on the wrong end of a speeding vehicle. In the end, all was well that ended well. But in the midst of it all, I learned that although I AM still technically a paramedic, I’m NOT much of veterinarian.

……..but that’s another story for another day.