Sunday, December 6, 2009

Two weeks under a coup regime...

I awoke in my bus from a drug-induced sleep drowsy and dazed, not sure where I was or what I was doing. We were cruising down a highway surrounded by lush green mountains rolling into the distance, every few minutes we would pass by some man-made structure splattered with graffiti. I was in Honduras I suddenly remembered, where a coup d’├ętat had occurred and an oligarchic-military backed regime was in control. But where were all the soldiers? I didn’t even remember seeing any at the border crossing. How much longer until we reached our destination? Suddenly the mountainous landscape broke into a vast sea of concrete buildings and shacks stretching into the distance – we had arrived in Tegucigalpa, the capital city of Honduras. What a sight this city is, just seeing it took away any anxiety I had about spending time in another bustling, stinky Latin American metropolis. It is situated within a giant mountain valley filled with hills, and it is the different levels that make it so visually stunning. The clusters of buildings and homes never seem to stop and just roll over the steeping terrain. For some reason this makes it a very confusing city to traverse, and it never really leaves you feeling grounded.

The first thing that one notices in Tegucigalpa is the deep intrusion of corporate America into Honduran society. It is a city of brand new fast food chains: McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, Wendy’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, Pizza Hut, they are everywhere. Literally hundreds of each of these chains are scattered across the city, more so than in any North American city that I’ve seen. The odd thing about these chains is that here in Honduras they are status locations, places for the middle and upper-class people to go and eat among their own social class. It is easy to understand why a coup d’etat took place here – the rich elites have so much at stake. Any economic model other than unfettered capitalism could mean a loss of profits for them, and an encroachment of the poor masses into the exclusive middle/upper-class society. So rather than let democracy take its course, the people with power and money pulled a few strings and shot the socio-political development of Honduras dead in its tracks.

However, it wasn’t easy to tell at first that a coup d’etat had occurred here, I guess it never really is. People have to survive; they have to learn how to cope with whatever situation is thrown at them and just keep on living their lives. So, of course at first glance all seems normal here in Honduras, but after a little more exploration one begins to notice that the graffiti all over the city is actually political, with the majority being anti-coup propaganda. It also quickly becomes apparent that this country is heavily militarized, albeit they are not as visual as I thought they might be, at least not until I went to certain areas or events. Whenever the resistance took to the streets for a peaceful protest against the coup regime, the police were always out in force, ready to repress at a moments notice. Election Day might as well have been called the Honduran Armed Forces Convention, with soldiers or police on almost every corner of the sprawling city. I experienced these police first hand that day as me and my trusted amigo made our way to various polling stations to do some investigating. A truck filled with police felt that my backpack was dangerous and they thus decided to stop us on the highway. About five of them surrounded us, fingers on the triggers of their assault rifles, ready for anything that the two of us might do to disrupt their precious elections. They, searched us and questioned us, kept us waiting a bit, then insisted on driving us to the next town where we were heading. Later my friend told me that it was extremely rare these days for a Honduran to get in the back of a police truck without disappearing.

The real sign that this was a country under siege was not in the public displays of military might or the graffiti on the walls, but rather the fear and despair of everyday people. Because I was working in human rights I was introduced to those people whose stories the rest of society does not hear. I met a lawyer who had worked as a government prosecutor for many years, and who was critical of the coup regime. The day we met he had been fired from his position, with no reason given. I met several people who no longer sleep in their homes for fear that the government forces will take them away in the middle of the night. I met a woman, lying in a hospital bed with a bullet in her head after being shot by the military and left to die. Lives are being ruined, families torn apart, all because of the economic interests of a few people. Sure, there are many people who just go on living like nothing has happened here, who leave the decision making to the forces that be – political apathy is rampant here like anywhere else. But there are those who will not stand for a dictatorship, those who will protest until they gain the rights and freedoms that they deserve. It is those people who really see and experience the dark side of Honduras today, and it is those people that will change things.

Human rights work can be exhausting, but it is a struggle that pales in comparison to the toils of those people we are trying to support. I always try to keep that in mind, especially as I head back to the coast for some sunshine and waves. I’m off to El Salvador and the great Pacific Ocean. My injuries have healed and my mind feels strong, what I really need right now is the sound of the surf and the company of some old friends.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

$ LIFE $...

I was reluctant to share the following, as it was not exactly the highest point in my life, and it was admittedly a little embarrassing. However, I feel obliged not only because it was a significant event in my travels thus far, but also because of the many thoughts and emotions that it has stirred within me.

I took a fall about ten days ago. It was a rather hard fall, from a small concrete bridge without railings, and I landed on a rock directly on my side around where my ribs lay. How I fell off the bridge I must admit I am not quite sure; in retrospect I would say that it was a combination of things with the biggest factor simply being carelessness. It must have been quite comical while happening and I probably would have laughed if such a thing befell someone else. It happened to me however, and I am now the guy that fell off a bridge while walking. There, that is the embarrassing part.

The direct aftermath was quite bad, and I was lucky to have friends to help me out that night. I went to the doctor the next day and he told me that my ribs were fine but that there could be other complications and I should go to the nearest city for an x-ray. I am rather stubborn at times when it comes to my health and I am a firm believer in the power of the mind and body to heal itself, so as I slowly felt better I decided the x-ray was unnecessary. It took some pushing from friends and some words of wisdom from my uncle who is also a doctor back in Canada for me to go and get it done.

Everything happened quite quickly after that. I found myself in a little backroom of a clinic with an x-ray technician telling me to go to the hospital immediately; then in the emergency room with a doctor telling me that they needed to perform a procedure, but with an assurance that it was quick and easy. I thought at that point that I could still make the 5:00 ferry back to my place. It wasn’t until I was already on the operating bed and a nurse told me that I would probably be in the hospital for about a week that I really realized the magnitude of the situation. Now, the sad part of this is that the first thing that came to my mind when they told me this was not that my life was in danger but rather that I did not have the money to pay for the procedure. My travel insurance had expired sometime ago and I hadn’t really thought about it until I took the fall, but now it became my number one concern. Now I know how so many people around the world, even in the United States, feel when their health is in jeopardy. This is what capitalism has done to us: we have commodified our bodies; we have let that ubiquitous dollar sign haunt us even in our most vulnerable of times.

I panicked and tried to back out of the operation for some time to think about what I was going to do, but the doctors insisted that I had no choice, that my life was worth any price. They started cutting away at my side while I was still anxious about the whole money situation, calming me in whatever way they could. I recall at one point while they were attempting to jam a tube in between my ribs one doctor telling me “pura vida”.

A bit later as I lay in a bed numbed on drugs I broke down. All I could think about was that with every hour that I lay there my future slowly disappeared - I’ve never felt so vulnerable in my life. Perhaps I felt, just for that short period lying on my bed, what so many people here in the poor world feel all the time, and it is not something that anyone should have to feel.

As it turns out, I had nothing to fear. The reason the doctors were not worried was because Costa Rica constitutionally recognizes the right to life, and that the State is obligated to care for anyone who needs it, whether they have money or not. Money in Costa Rica comes second to health, and several people told me that Costa Ricans always take care of their fellow humans – they certainly proved this true. They did give me a large bill in the end, but they said I have to pay it when I can, and I will, eventually.

Although I would rather have avoided the entire situation, the experience itself was quite interesting. I felt like being in a hospital for three days, and being the only foreigner there, really helped me gain an intimate understanding of Costa Rica and the way life is seen here. Everybody was so sympathetic and helpful, professional and reassuring. They made me feel safe, and they made me feel like they were pleased to care for me. I was staying in a hospital in an area of Costa Rica that foreigners tend to avoid, and because I was the only one there I think I was a bit of a novelty. I was the Spanish speaking Canadian who fell off a bridge, or the “Mal Caminador” as one person put it. In the room where the patients were observed directly after surgery I met a fellow named Elrey who seemed to be in severe pain. He looked at the tube in my side and then lifted his shirt and showed me his scar from the same procedure he had years before. He assured me I’d be alright and then let me use his phone to call my friends. When we were being moved up to permanent rooms he demanded that we be put together. I’ll never forget him for his kindness and the comfort he provided. I stayed in a room with five other people who were all in various conditions, and we all gained a seemingly deep connection in the short time that I was there. I’ve never really been a patient in a hospital before, but I can confidently say that since it had to happen, I’m glad it was there. When I was first wheeled up to the room an old fellow named William came bouncing over to me, he told me whatever I needed he’d take care of it. He was a patient who had been waiting for weeks for some sort of prostate surgery, he reminded me of a Latin Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, able to brighten the darkest of situations. My recovery was rapid and I was out in three days, even the nurses were surprised when I told them that the doctors had let me go.

I suppose if I were to get seriously injured it couldn’t have happened at a better time. My plans were to head away from the coast for a while anyways, so it all worked out in the end. I had a conversation with a girl from Honduras the other night, she told me that the world is wrong and that the majority of Hondurans support the coup government. I chose not to get into an argument with her, instead I just asked her what she was doing here in Costa Rica, already knowing the answer. She, a girl from one of the poorest countries in Latin America, was here in one of the most expensive countries in Latin America, on vacation. I’ll leave it at that, and simply go see for myself. I’m on my way to Honduras to take part in a human rights delegation during the upcoming controversial elections. I’m anxious to get back into the struggle, and I intend to keep constant updates on what is happening there. I have decided that this is a good opportunity to take my writing into two different directions, and so I invite you all to follow a new blog that I have begun at www.riseuplatinamerica.blogspot.com.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Thoughts from a surf town...

Some may say I’m living the dream, hanging out in a small surf town in Costa Rica, enjoying the liberty of beach life, surfing until my arms ache everyday. I suppose for a long time this has been my dream. Now I’m here, in the midst of it, and I feel strangely uneasy with my situation. I’ve come so far throughout my travels and I feel as though I’ve developed certain views that are quite often at odds with my surroundings, even with what I’m actually doing. Here in what seems like paradise it is easy to throw away any guilty apprehensions and just forget about the rest of the world, just forget about everything except the here and now. Yet, I can’t do it. There is so much struggle happening in this part of the world that to just sit back and ignore it all while taking advantage of the waves and warm weather just seems plain wrong. I’m finding it very hard to find the life that I’m looking for here on the beach, and it will be interesting to see where the near future might take me. Of course, that is not to say that I'm not enjoying myself. I've been surfing great waves and meeting amazing people, and as always the adventures continue. These are some thoughts from surf town Costa Rica

Exploitation

Well, if you come here looking to find work be ready to experience what many locals do everyday – exploitation. I suppose it is a good way to learn the reality of what life is like in this part of the world where most people earn enough money to just survive. The really sad part of the exploitation here is that it occurs under foreign owners. It’s hard to criticize the practice of foreign owned business in a place like this, because arguably it creates jobs and stimulates the economy. Such is the great debate over economic globalization… Is it beneficial or detrimental to the global south? You can all guess where I stand in the argument. Just because people here have no choice but to work for these businesses, and even though these businesses are actually creating jobs, does not justify unjust wages and working hours. If a foreigner comes here to live they should accept that their ability to live in a place like this is profit enough, and they should work to create better conditions for those people they employ. But then, that wouldn’t be capitalism would it?
When I arrived here, my own struggle to save money landed me with the first job I could find at a foreign-owned hostel called Tranquilo Backpacker’s. The hostel was owned by a Swiss man and he had hired his friend, another Swiss, to manage the place. I quickly realized that my working at this place was a serious conflict of interest for me. The manager of the place not only could not speak Spanish, but he was blatantly racist against any non-westerner, and the owner was no better. I couldn't comprehend how someone could open a business in Costa Rica and be racist against Costa Ricans at the same time, it was like a throwback to the days of colonialism where Europeans would come to the New World to find a better life at the expense of the indigenous. Although they paid me very little, we learned that they paid the local workers even less, only because they knew that they could get away with it. The owner was constantly complaining about the difficulties of his job and about how hard it was to work with Ticans, and all I could do was pity the fact that he had lost his original motivation to come to a place like this, and that he deserved any trouble that came his way. His racism was the real result of his problems, as he refused to treat locals with the trust and respect that they deserve. Rather than hiring locals who need the jobs he instead hires foreigners like me and my two friends, who quickly realize that they are being exploited and that they don’t need to put up with a job like that. If he hired locals his problems would probably be solved, because sadly they would have to accept his working conditions. I started this job while my brother and my friend Paul were still here with me, and they constantly heard my misgivings. One day Paul told me that all it took was one person to make a stand and to do the right thing; his words were not taken lightly.
One night after another long day of work all of this inner turmoil brewed over and I exploded on the bosses. I’ve never been so angry in my life, and I’ve never talked to someone in the way that I did to them, it was invigorating. Although I was only letting my anger out at them, it was really much more than that to me. That little hostel was like a microcosm for all the injustices being carried out by rich foreigners in the poor world, and I was launching a proxy verbal attack on them all. Needless to say, I’m no longer working there, neither are my friends. Instead, Stu and I are trying to work with a local guy named Rolo running a cooperative surf school.

Thoughts on Honduras

As I think I've already communicated, it is not easy to stay involved with the pressing issues facing Latin Americans today while living the beach life, but I do my best to stay informed while I'm still here. Currently in Honduras there is a situation that is jeopardizing any progress that has been made for human rights and democracy in Latin America. If you don't all know, some months ago the President of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, was ousted in a Coup D'etat carried out by the powerful military and right wing elite. Zelaya had slowly been moving towards the left, aligning himself with social movements of the people and aiming for economic and political independence for Honduras. After being forced into exile at gun point Zelaya was able to sneak back into the country and take refuge in the Brazilian embassy. For anyone who has been paying attention to the developments, you probably have heard that a potential agreement has been reached between the de-facto regime and the ousted President Manuel Zelaya. First and foremost, Zelaya is still confined to the embassy, and he has yet to be able to safely leave. He has not yet been returned to power, and repression, disappearances, and killings continue in the streets. As for the agreement itself it is still hard to say whether it will work. Many are skeptical of the agreement, but it seems to me that anything that might bring the President back to power at this point is a good thing. I’ve heard arguments from both sides, and it seems that there is a division of opinions in the country as to who is right and what should happen next. I believe that the situation can only be rectified through the reinstatement of the legally elected President, and that this is vital in order to uphold the integrity of Latin American politics, and to show the world that coup d’etats are a thing of the past in this region.
The situation, and the impending agreement, has also shed light on the dangers of foreign intervention and dependence. The apparent agreement was brokered by U.S. diplomats who for some reason took their time in pushing this resolution through while killings, beatings, and disappearances continue in the streets. Honduras is one of many countries with an economic dependence on the U.S., especially in the form of “development aid” (a very ambiguous term today). And although it was because of this dependence that the U.S. was able to push for a resolution, it is also this dependence that degrades the political independence of Honduras. Imagine what may have happened if the Republicans were still in power in the U.S.? It’s not radical to say that they would have supported the plotters. In fact there were several Republican representatives blatantly trying to undermine the diplomacy of the Obama administration and back the de facto regime during the situation. The fact of the matter is that there is something seriously wrong when the U.S. can control a political outcome by dangling "development aid" over the heads of poor nations.
This stumble in the march towards democracy and equality in Latin America has only emboldened the movements of the left and only reiterates the importance of economic and developmental independence in this part of the world. I urge you all to keep informed and spread the word about what is happening in a not so distant part of the world.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A brief interlude...

The cool air is beginning to bite and the leaves have nearly all died; it was definitely the right time to come back to Canada, and now its definitely the right time to leave again. Winter in my homeland has its appeal I suppose, but it just can't compare to walking around with no shirt on, surfing perfect waves in the land of revolutions. I arrived home as the last few weeks of summer changed into fall; it was nice to be a part of a clearly defined change of season. I was able to swim in a beautiful freshwater lake, and lie in the green grass. I was able to really enjoy the cleanliness and purity of the outdoors which is so often lacking in Latin America where pollution predominates. It was refreshing to be in such a familiar place and to give my senses a much needed break, and it was comforting to reconnect with so many old friends, but I've got to keep moving, that's the life I've chosen.
I'm not sure what I got out of coming home for six weeks, perhaps it was just something I needed to do in order to reaffirm my goals and desires, and if that is the case then this brief interlude was a success indeed. Going home helped me really realize how important it is for people from our end of the world to move around and experience the world. Not only for the betterment of those particular individuals who travel, but if done right, for the betterment of the world. Canadians are generally great people who are compassionate, kind, and giving, and going home really reinforced that for me. Perhaps it was something that I took for granted throughout my life. However, I still couldn't help but notice the insulated life that so many people still live in the North. There is only so much we can do from our comfortable abodes, and there is even less we can do when we are either uninformed or misinformed about the happenings of the world. Upon my return I became acutely aware of the lack of information, or more likely, the filtered information, that Canadians receive regarding the world. For example, I'm sure that almost everybody has heard about the political problems and the Coup D'etat that has happened recently in Honduras. While I'm also sure that very few people have heard about the human rights workers that were killed at the end of September in Guatemala by security forces hired by a Canadian mining company. Everyday Canadians hear about the "dictatorship" of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and about his various human rights violations or his suppression of the media. Few people have heard about the drastic measures that Chavez has taken to eliminate poverty and inequality, to provide health care and education, and to make his country more democratic. In general, people have very little idea of what is actually going on in Latin America, or in the global South for that matter, unless it is deemed as newsworthy. In fact, one of the main reasons I decided to come back to this part of the world is because I believe that something is happening here that is profound and unprecedented, that is becoming a beacon of hope for those less advantaged all over the world, and it is something I want to support and be a part of. In Latin America, after decades of oppression and inequality, movements of the left - of the people - are on the rise and are here to stay. I'm not talking about armed guerrillas or authoritarian communists, I'm talking about democratic movements that have finally grown strong enough to counter the forces of the rich and elite. It will surely still be a struggle, one that needs all the support it can get, and I believe that we in the rich world need to provide that support. Let us not be mistaken though, what is happening in Latin America right now may eventually fundamentally change the way this world currently functions. I know that sounds radical and probably invokes fear in the North, but the fact of the matter is that no person in this resource-rich, technologically advanced world should be living in destitution, and we must do what it takes to change that. No longer can we hide in the comfort of our northern bastions, we are all in this together.
Thus, I've taken off again with a renewed sense of purpose, with the hope of providing much needed information and updates on the progression in Latin America to those willing to read about them, and to continue with my tradition of seeking out new experiences and people.
I've arrived in Costa Rica to spend a couple of weeks with my brother, cousin, and some friends. Hopefully they take a bit of worldliness back home with them, and in turn inspire others to get out and see the world for themselves. I'm going to take them surfing, and after they leave, I'll continue riding my wave to wherever it may take me....

Saturday, August 8, 2009

End of the road...

So it seems I've reached the end of the road, both literally and figuratively. I've made my way to a small surf pueblo at the Southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica by way of a series of buses, a pick up truck, and a few more buses. It was quite the trek to arrive here, which only adds to the isolated and chilled out feel; I think it is a good place to end things.
Yes, circumstances and experiences and general fatigue have brought me to the point where I think I need head back to Canada for a while. There is so much of Central America that I have not experienced, but I've certainly been here long enough to grasp the essence of it. And now, in Costa Rica for the final leg of my journey, there is one popular phrase that seems to capture that essence: "Pura vida"... The pure life.

The last few weeks here have been rather anticlimatic, as Costa Rica is a rather safe, clean, and friendly country to travel around. It's not a place I'd want to spend a lot of time, despite the incredible waves and the lush surroundings. It's just too easy here to have whatever you want, and I feel it kind of defeats the purpose of coming to a place like Latin America. I spent a few days surfing in a place called Playa Guiones, which also has been given the Spanish name of "Proyecto Americano"- the American Project. There, Americans own all of the businesses, mark up all of the prices, and basically just create a little bubble within Costa Rica that they can call their own. They even have a runway so those especially wealthy ones can make it to their beachfront home with ease. It's been an interesting contrast with everywhere else I've been, and I suppose an important part to see to give me an overall picture of things in this part of the world. So many travellers here look at me wide eyed when I tell them where I've been and for how long, as if I've just come out of a hellish war zone North of here. I've quickly been reminded how easily our perspectives in the developed world are distorted by rumours and the media.
Life in the poor nations of Central America goes on like anywhere else, and despite many struggles and problems, the people hold their arms open to the world and work to make their homes safe and comfortable for those willing to embrace them.

"Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, be fortified by it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it." - Siddhartha

I tried to define my purpose for writing this blog in my opening entry, and if I've succeded in any way I'm grateful, and I maintain my conviction. However, I´ve quickly learned that only experience itself is the true communicator. Throughout my travels I've told many people to read my blog, and when they learn the name of it they often dismiss it as arrogant and ridiculous. All I've tried to relay throughout this blog though, is a truthful interpretation of things I've seen and experienced; it has been the truth to me. Some may say that the title "the truth" ought to be left to something more objective, but what more is the truth than our own subjective interpretations of a series of facts or observations?
"Omne verum vero consonat" - Every truth agrees with every other truth. I maintain that I have written the truth, and I only hope that those reading this can get out into the world and discover the truth for themselves, for that is the only way.

Indeed, despite my my altruistic intentions, this journey has been very much about myself. I've tried to give along the way, but in a life time I would never be able to give back everything I've taken - everything I've gained. Surfing was an important aspect of my time here and it has left me feeling renewed and accomplished. I've surfed some incredible waves and met some incredible people whom I instantly connected with by our shared love of surfing. I've been humbled by the ocean and I've solidified surfing as an intrinsic part of my life now.
I received a letter from my grandmother while I was working in Guatemala in which she told me an old German proverb. The translation in English is roughly "With every new language that one masters, one becomes a new person". My greatest achievement over the last year has been learning the Spanish language, and indeed I feel like a whole new part of me has been found with this. I feel more worldly, and more deserving of the time I had here, I feel more deserving of being a human in this world.

My life in Central America has reached its conclusion for now, but what is certain is that the journey will continue. My time here has only invigorated my desire to see the world and to seek out new experiences. I will head back to my home city for a short period to spend time with some loved ones, but then I will be off too seek more. People often consider those who live their lives like this as being lost and uncertain, but on the contrary I feel more sure about myself, my motivations, and my goals than ever before. The most profound thing that was told to me throughout my time here is so simple yet so meaningful, and I think it encapsulates the life I live and what I've tried to pass on here.

Those that wander are not necessarily lost.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Law and Order...

It is 12:30 at night, I've just walked a friend home on the outskirts of this quaint, foreigner filled surf town called San Juan Del Sur, and I'm heading back to my hostel in the centre. The streets are almost silent in this part of town and all I hear now are a group of local boys drinking at the side of the road ahead. Usually, at this point I would keep on strolling casually and probably even stop to say a few cordial words with this friendly group of Nicaraguans enjoying the the cool evening breeze over a few hard drinks. Instead, I become very nervous and unsure of what to do, so I gather my bravery and walk by rapidly saying a "buenas noche" as I go, avoiding eye contact. They see the fear in me and laugh at me, I'm embarrased and ashamed as I walk away, safely.

I've travelled for almost a year now here in Central America, and never until now have I felt such fear. This is a result of being robbed twice within a span of two weeks, once at knife point. As I've already mentioned, my board was taken from my hostel as I slept; the bandits preferring the unconfrontational methods of night time burglary. The anger over this incident was just beginning to subside when I experienced my second, and much more damaging violation.

I was having a few drinks with a lady friend down along the popular strip of bars on the beach. At about 9:30 we decided to go for a stroll along the beach, which as I should have known turned out to be a big mistake. We walked for about five minutes before we found ourselves alone, but the solitude was only momentary as three guys appeared out of the dark behind us. It was a little sketchy the way they silently came up on us, but as I said, I had this happy go lucky mentality at this point that nothing would go bad for me and so I really thought nothing of it. When one of the fellows asked me for the time and then continued walking ahead, he only confirmed my unconcerned attitude. They continued strolling, just three young fellows enjoying the beach like ourselves, until before I knew it they had turned around and rushed us, and I had a knife jabbing against my side. Another fellow pointed at us what appeared to be some sort of gun, but in retrospect was likely a toy. Just as I came to the realization of what was happening another man came running from the street and the thugs backed off. We were saved! A cop or a good citizen was coming to our rescue! As he approached though I could see that he had different intentions, he ran up to my friend and ripped the bag off of her. Now the three guys were fighting over this bag; this fourth thug had just robbed these hooligans of their robbery! I still stood there with a knife jamming against my side, eventually having my pockets stripped of a mere five dollars. I tried pleading with them to at least leave some important medical supplies that my friend needed in her bag, but to no avail. I talked to the police right after, and they knew who at least one of the guys was, but finding these bandits that come from the big city of Managua to rob tourists is next to impossible with the resources that the police have here.

I lost practically nothing of value, and my friend had nothing irreplaceable, so seemingly there was no damage done. The truth is though, that incident left a huge mental scar. Perhaps its good that I will now be more careful about what I do; never again do I want to have that feeling of helplessness and violation as a knife is pressed against me, but I don't want to fear people either. I feel like those bandits have left me with a sense of paranoia, even prejudice and that angers and saddens me. I didn't want to become another statistic: "One cannot travel for a year in central America without being robbed at least once", but now I am.

After these two incidents I had a new and unyielding thirst for justice, so I got more active. I walked down to the local police station with my English surfer friend Stewy, and there I demanded to talk to the Chief of police. I was forthrightly granted his attendance, perhaps because I was skillfully illustrating my frustration in Spanish, having planned my speech in advance. My goal was to make the police come with me to search for my board, as I had received information a few days before from a local property owner who said he saw the guy who took my board and he knows who he is. The chief was equally impressed with my determination, and seeing as he had another incident where an ATV and a motorbike were stolen in the same area, he decided to investigate. Now, for this to happen here in Nicaragua is something very special, as the police usually have much more important things to deal with then frustrated foreigners. They are paid next to nothing on a monthly basis, most of them carry no weapon in a relatively violent country, and they often have to hitchhike to different areas to patrol. In this case though, they pulled out the one police truck that the force has; four officers including the Chief; one rusted assault rifle; and one sidearm. We had to push start the old truck and then we piled in and headed down the bumpy dirt road. Stewy and I were now on a ride along with the Nicaraguan National Police Force.

The investigation started with the stolen motor vehicles, and after driving to a few different spots we were able to figure out who the perpetrator was, but were unable to locate him, a local bandit known as "Checko" or something along those lines. We then drove down to speak with my witness who promptly informed us that the this "Checko" fellow also took my board! He pointed us towards a few more places to search. At one point the officers wondered off into the bush to search a house and they told us to guard the truck, we were working now! It must have been quite the site for the locals who passed by. Stewy and I, a couple of dirty surfer bums sitting in the front seat of the only Police truck fooling around with the two way radio.
As it turned out, the bandit was not found, but the police have insured me that they will continue the search and will "interrogate" him as to the whereabouts of my board. In reality, I will probably never see it again, but it was worth the effort if not only for the experience. The police were incredible to do such a thing for me, and I am grateful. Hopefully someday their work will become much easier.

So that is my story of crime out here in Nicaragua, a story I was hoping to never have to tell. It must be said though, that despite a recent string of armed robberies, San Juan Del Sur and the surrounding area is generally safe and the local people kind hearted and caring. In fact, those most angry about what is happening are the locals, as it hurts business and generally just perpetuates racist stereotypes. Everyone I've talked to here knows about a board being stolen, likely because it is actually big news and is out of the ordinary. They are all extremely sympathetic when I tell them my story, and often seem ashamed that such things would happen in their own country.

Needless to say I've had enough of this surf town life, and today I'm heading out to a famous break called Popoyo where there is nothing but one hostel and incredible waves.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

El mar, mi amor...


It has been a long while since I've written, almost all of this time has been spent along the coast surfing and living the beach life. I returned to El Salvador where I surfed all kinds of different breaks everyday, and now have moved on to Nicaragua where one must take long muddy roads to reach the various beaches that are pristine and beautiful. I write this now the day after my beloved surf board, which has been through so much with me, has been stolen. This both angers and saddens me deeply, but already I have a new board and I know that the waves that I find tomorrow will make all better.

I've often attempted to explain to people what it is about surfing that makes it so special, so much more than just a sport. Often it seems my attempts have been to no avail. Thus, I will now endeavor to articulate this passion that captures new people everyday and opens them to its wonders.
I now present my admittedly esoteric and yet hopefully explanatory ramble on the ocean and surfing.


"You must live in the present,
launch yourself on every wave,
find your eternity in each moment." - Thoreau

It has once been said that there are three great elemental sounds in nature: rain; wind; and the ocean. As one sits far removed from the ocean its presence remains in its infinite and awesome roar. As one moves closer the cry of the waves not only become louder, but the noises expand into a natural symphony; the spraying and hissing; the slamming and crashing; even the clattering of large rocks being pushed by the undulating tide. Often the sounds of the ocean are accompanied by a shaking of the ground, so powerful is its force. In fact, when one stays long enough on any particular beach, one begins to notice how it all constantly and drastically changes. How one day as you walk along the beach during a picturesque sunset while your feet sift through the sands, you are on that beautiful landscape you know so well. Then, the next morning, as you begin a morning stroll you are met by a completely different beach all together. What was once sand has now become rock both big and small, the shape of the beach has shifted, giant logs have appeared half buried as though they've been there for years. Such is the nature of the ocean and everything within its grasp. Fluid; constantly shifting and moving and cycling; power beyond comprehension.
Only such a force could draw someone from the life they once imagined. Only the ocean could draw one away from the human temptations of money or love; from stability and relationships. Only the ocean can inspire one to devote at least a part of their life to understanding and experiencing its wonders and joys and might. The means by which such understanding can be attained is through surfing.

For many surfing is merely a sport, but there are those few who understand it as so much more. Surfing is meditation, bringing ones mind into an almost zen like state. It is a conduit between humans and nature, giving us a greater appreciation for the earth and its power. Surfing pits humans against the raw and awesome power of nature; to harness such force in such a simple and non-technological manner is to rise to ones full potential as a human being. Surfing is a lifestyle, signified by a free flowing, constantly moving, positive outlook.

Surfing is the perfect complement to the indefinite and spontaneous traveler, and it is no coincidence that the two are often found together. They both require a sense of openness and adventure; an appreciation for this world and all its wonders. Surfing takes the traveler to new frontiers, off the beaten track to communities and settings that offer no amenities - only the ocean and the people who have for generations lived by it.

Even if not traveling, surfing still provides that removal, that solace from society. One could be surfing off the coast of a large Western city, but just being out there off the land on the periphery of civilization one can find peace and solitude and an escape from the bustles and pressures that we find imposed on us in everyday life.

The experience of surfing is continuous and wholesome, including both the struggling paddle out and the exhilarating ride in. As the waves come crashing into the shore the paddle from what is known as the "inside", where the white water rages, to the tranquil area called the "outside" becomes the first difficult test of ones endurance and understanding of the ocean. It is during the paddle out that one may experience the full wrath of the swelling ocean. There is nothing more daunting than a seemingly huge wave forming up a mere few feet in front of you and crashing down on you as you lay prone on a small board - a mere speck in the vast openness of the ocean. Either you make the "duck dive" under the wave with smoothness, gliding underneath it, penetrating through the power to arrive perfectly projecting to the surface on the opposite side of the wave. Or, the sheer might of the wave and the rip it carries underneath its breaking curl is too much for you and it grabs you and throws you back and spins you and holds you under for what seems like an eternity until you are ultimately spat back up to the surface like a piece of driftwood.

Once one reaches the outside they find themselves in the calm of the open sea. Here one waits for the perfect wave in a state of patience and awareness. Here one soaks in the beauty of nature as they as they sit afloat on their small board in a relaxed position. Often I've sat on the outside staring at the setting sun on the horizon, contemplating the sheer vastness of the ocean and magnificence of this earth. I've often looked across the Pacific knowing that at the opposite side lies a land far different, and that just maybe, sitting off that coast so far away is another surfer, equally awed and at peace.

"It does remind me of the majesty and timelessness of nature,
as compared to the brevity of our own existence...
I love being out the back when its sunny and the water is blue and clean
and the waves are crashing down and there is foam and spray all around.
Especially if I'm alone, or almost alone, and there are miles of breaking waves.
Actually catching the waves can be secondary." - Peter Singer

Waiting on the outside I've seen seals frolicking only yards away; turtles paddle up beside me to inspect with their inquisitive eyes; huge flocks of mighty pelicans swoop down along the breaking waves. I've seen fish of all shapes and sizes project themselves from the water in a great leap, or ride along a wave as if for fun - perhaps so. I've even once seen a mighty wave form up in front of me, and as it curled over me and I dived under I glimpsed a pack of three large manta rays riding the wave as it broke over me.

Surfing affords a natural proximity to nature like nothing else, both physically and mentally.

Patience and mindfulness are virtues of the surfer, and after an often long wait the time will come and the wave will arrive. The riding of the wave itself is the ultimate experience, the raison d'etre, if you will, of surfing. It is also the ultimate form of meditation. As you wait sitting on your board, staring into the horizon and those distinctive lumps appear in the distance, the time has come. A set has arrived; a movement of water has been generated somewhere out in the great ocean, perhaps on the other side of the world, and here it will end, and you will harness its thundering conclusion.

As the wave forms up into a peak behind you those insignificant thoughts and preoccupations festering in every humans mind disappear and complete concentration and mindfulness begin. You move into position and behind you towers the wave. It has formed into the peak and you are now on top of it, rushing forward with the momentum of the wave. Nothing else in the world - in the universe- matters now. With your mind so focused, it is just you and this manifestation of nature - your own being fades into nothingness. With the force of the wave you rise onto your board and take the drop down the steep face of the wave. At this point you are surfing, and as you move along in the direction of the wave while it breaks behind you, a fluid wall forms before you and an unconscious creative instinct guides your movements - an instinct only revealed with patience and understanding and reverence for the ocean. There is no other feeling like cutting up and down a liquid wall as it appears before you, your instinctive movements constantly adapting to the fluidity of it. Over time you gain an understanding of the wave, and you know where to put yourself in order to gain speed and make your way back up to the top of the wave, only to drop back down yet again.
As quickly as it comes it goes, and the wave dissipates leaving you with a feeling of euphoria that can only be described as "stoked", a feeling that words alone fail to grasp.

"The only thing that actually comes close to riding waves is sex." - Mark Richards

Although those particles of water will find themselves in another wave, as ever throughout the history of this planet, nothing will ever emulate that unique wave and your movements on it.

Each wave one catches is a once in a lifetime experience. Each wave is something new and exciting.

And so the ride ends and you begin the cycle again. Paddling out, waiting, placing yourself to coincide yet again with the infinite cycle of the ocean and finding your next wave. Surfing.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Moving On...


The season began its swift change in my last few weeks here in Guatemala, and an almost daily darkness arrived. The heavy clouds brought bouts of torrential downpours, brilliant dry lightning storms, and sweeping winds that flailed the sandy roads into the eyes of those braving the elements. The change was a welcome one, ending the dry and desert-like atmosphere, liberating us from the almost unbearably hot afternoons. It was as though one day the fog rose around our pueblo to reveal surrounding mountains that had suddenly become vibrantly green, you could almost smell the refreshing difference in the air. I'm in the capital of Guatemala now, debriefing and preparing for my departure. Thoughts of the last month are fresh in my mind...

Conspiracy Theories
I just wanted to illustrate further the political situation here in Guatemala, and the kind of issues one has to work around while involved in human rights work here. A few days ago a high profile lawyer, a man that was Harvard educated and considered reliable and legitimate, was "apparently" assasinated in the streets while exercising on his bicycle. The next day a long video was released of that very lawyer standing in front of a podium, clearly speaking passionately and from his heart, saying that if he was found dead and we are viewing this video it is because he was killed by the President of the Republic of Guatemala. This of course caused an uproar, and the last few days have been marked by large and very active protests from both sides of the political spectrum. The really interesting development is that information has come to light that this lawyer was financed largely by a company with close relations to the President, and many people are now rumoring the theory that the lawyer was not actually killed but was helicoptered out of the country to a secret location and is now sitting on a pile of money - all of this part of a plot to overthrow the government. Often when I read the newspapers here I feel as though I'm reading about the next hollywood political thriller, but this is just something the people have learned to live with.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VxZptUp9a44 (watch the video with English subtitles here)

Easter
This may be a generalization, but I think its fair to say that a good majority of the people here in Central America hold strong Christian beliefs. It's easy to understand the enthusiasm and conviction of the people here towards Christianity, as it seemed to be the only thing that wasn't blatantly exploitative brought by the Spanish Conquistadors centuries ago. Christianity came to be seen as a liberating and unifying force representing peace and goodwill in a time of violence and inequality. After all, when the entire indigenous population was enslaved in the early days of the conquest, the one path to freedom, as a result of a Papal decree, was for one to become Christian.
Easter week here in Guatemala, known as "Semana Santa", is a highly important time of the year marked by huge processions and celebrations in the streets. The location where I was situated seemed to be a sort of religious centre for the people; hundreds if not thousands flocked there to take part in the festivities. The Easter celebrations in Guatemala are much different than anything I've seen before. The children and young people maintain an intense sense of excitement, as though they are about to go on a hunt for chocolate eggs, but they are not, and the excitement is something else that is admitedly unbeknownst to me. The streets are decorated in highly detailed sand designs, and many people dress for the occasion. There were hordes of children dressed as Roman legionaries, and others walking around bloodstained and shirtless as they hauled crosses over their shoulders. I even witnessed a reenactment of the final judgement of Jesus put on by youths in the market, complete with a torture seen of eerily realistic whipping and beating.
I couldn't quite believe the time and resources put into these celebrations; I suppose that with more poverty and desperation comes more fervor towards the one thing that seems to offer hope and salvation. A constant struggle to survive and a feeling of hopelessness is a life I've never experienced, and thus I've never felt the need to cling to something like Christianity. However, I couldn't help but think about what tangible positive results could possibly be found if only such energy and resources were aimed towards, or perhaps derived from, something more tangible in the first place...

Road Rage
More than a year ago now a couple of friends and I went on a surf trip to Mexico where we rented a jeep to drive around to various breaks. I was warned at the time about the danger of this, especially of the police if they stop you. I ignored such warnings at the time and that trip passed by more or less without incedent. I still maintain that driving around Mexico or Central America can be safe and fun, however it wasn't until recently that I understood why driving here can be so dangerous. It isn't only the poor quality roads or the constant danger of landslides, and it certainly isn't the Police that one has to worry about - but rather a lack thereof.
I had to make a long bus journey back to Mexico to renew my Visa for another three months, so my new accompaniment partner and I decided to take a series of chicken buses along a stretch of the country that neither of us had yet to see. As soon as we reached the city of Huehuetenango we were rushed onto a bus that was headed to the border town of La Mesilla, and immediately the bus sped off with a sense of urgency, which of course is normal here. We raced along the highway for about an hour, weaving in and out of oncoming traffic in order to pass "slow" moving vehicles, stopping here and there to load or unload brave passengers. It was at one of these stops that it happened.
We stopped suddenly as usual, the driver slamming on the breaks and cranking the huge vehicle on to the gravel, only this time it was too sudden and a speeding big-rig coming up behind us sideswiped our bus. It wasn't anything serious, some people didn't even realize what happened until they later saw the minimal damage on the side of the bus, however it was enough to set off our driver and several passengers into fits of rage. Of course without consulting the rest of us on the bus as to what measures to take the driver took off after the truck - which had no intention of stopping. We sped down the winding highway faster then I ever thought one of those old school buses could go, barely slowing down for the random speed bumps that are scattered all over the place in Guatemala. Finally we caught up to the truck and our bus forced it off the road blocking its way. Out jumped the driver and his newly formed possee of hooligans wielding machetes and large rocks. I was sitting near the back so I stuck my head out the window to hear what was happening. The poor truck driver was terrified and refused to get out of the truck, understandably fearing for his life. The thugs, of whom I now felt an unwilling association with because they came from my bus, were busily threatening the driver, trying to open all of the doors of the truck to get at him. When they realized that this wouldn't work one of them finally smashed one of the windows of the truck with a rock. Eventually, it seeemed that they were satisfied with this and off we went again. Of course it wasn't until some time later that we were all forced to get off the bus and wait for another, as a phone call was received by the driver saying that the Police were looking for them. As far as they were concerned though, justice had already been carried out.
I couldn't help but wonder what would have happened if it had been me who side-swiped the bus. Something tells me that there wouldn't be a polite exchange of insurance information...

Moving On
My departure from the accompaniment project here in Guatemala is bittersweet: it's hard to be leaving so many incredible people behind, yet I'm excited to continue traveling. I'm going to miss the spectacular mountain views; the loaded pick-up truck rides and the kind hospitality of the Guatemalan families of whom I got to know so well here. On the other hand, I'm not going to miss the rampant pollution; the sound of whimpering, dying, abused dogs or the noisy cars blasting sickening music over loudspeakers on their roofs. I'm certainly going to miss the random farm animals roaming the country side, the authentic smile and "buenas dias" I received from almost every person I passed on the road, and even the angry neighboring dog who seemed to bark only at me and other gringos. However I won't miss the long, death-defying chicken bus rides; the obnoxious roosters in the morning or the visible desperation of so many people.
The fact is, being here in Guatemala and working as an international human rights accompanier has been an incredible and unforgettable experience that I'm sure has changed my perceptions, and thus my life, in ways that I have not yet even realized. It was exactly the kind of experience I sought when I came here, and despite the often hard times I think it was exactly what I needed. As much as this work did for me, I can only hope the results were the same for those people I was here to support. Even though my role here was minimal, the many genuine thanks I recieved from the people I accompanied made my work feel accomplishing and succesful. I can only hope that the struggle of the people here eases over time, and that the future brings them justice and peace.


And so off I go again, back to the open road, back to the freedom of indefinite travel. I don't know where exactly I'm going or what I'm going to do, but heading south and finding some surf sounds about right. I've been away from the ocean long enough for the many wounds on my feet to heal and scar - too long. It feels good to move on, to seek out once again new and fresh experiences and perspectives. I'm not sure what I will find, but I'll let you all know when I do...



Thursday, March 19, 2009

Thoughts from the field...


I was under the impression when I took this position that my role would be relatively limited, that because of my limited experience I would not be too involved in the some of the more immediate and pressing issues. In the grand picture, this remains to be the case. However, only a few weeks into my time things began to get very interesting here in Guatemala. The big news of late was that the government was finally ready to hand over four important military documents from the war that could potentially contain information which could inculpate several currently high ranking military men and politicians. However, on the very same day that the President of the country announced that the documents were ready to be disclosed, the Ministry of Defense claimed that two of the four documents had mysteriously disappeared and were likely destroyed. The audacity of the forces that be to think that they can get away with such deception almost makes me laugh, but alas this is the reality of Guatemala right now.
During this time my partner and I were given the task of accompanying someone who lives in our region who is deeply involved in the struggle for justice and the processes occurring right now. In all honesty I did not realize the magnitude of the task we were undertaking until it was pointed out to me. It's easy when accompanying to lose your perspective and to feel unimportant or useless, but this feeling is suddenly turned into a subtle surge of adrenaline when you see the name of the person you are accompanying and the issues he is involved in on the front page of the national newspaper.

Things have slowed down again and now we are back to a more routine schedule of accompaniment in our region. I've received a new partner for the remainder of my time, but the month that I had with my former partner was highlighted by some unforgettable experiences.
At one point there happened to be an exhumation in one of the communities that we were visiting; a local family had long awaited the day when they were allowed to relocate the remains of their murdered teenager. We were invited to the pre-exhumation "Mayan" ceremony which began at 4 am and continued for a few hours as the sun slowly rose. The entire ceremony was in the local language called "Achi", however I could often discern what was being said by the actions we carried out. We created a large circle around a fire and many words were spoken, then we took a moment to bow and venerate the four directions of N,E,S,W. This first part all seemed genuinely Mayan to me, or at least it verified my admittedly ignorant preconceptions of a belief system very much interconnected with nature. However as the ceremony dragged on things began to change, and I suddenly found myself in a curious situation that left me unsure of what was going on and why. We began taking turns throwing things in the fire including many whole candles, twigs, and some sort of food. Next the "sacerdote" or priest began throwing in the fire the following: water, honey, leaves, charcoal, liquor, beer, red soda, several eggs, and other odds and ends that I can't remember to describe but seemed strikingly wasteful. After more words were said a chemical composition was mixed together which smelled like some sort of hair treatment, it was carried around to each one of us and heavily applied over our entire bodies face and all. Finally near the end when I thought I could no longer be surprised by what would be next, everyone bowed their heads and thanked God almighty and Jesus Christ!... Upon later reflection I came to terms with the fact that this ceremony was the product of an ancient culture struggling to find itself in modernity after years of suppression and dilution. Further, that the significance of these practices are no different nor stranger than any of the religious practices carried out often with even more zealousness in North America.

Another more recent incident occurred after we attended a memorial ceremony in an isolated location in the mountains, a place where a horrific massacre had occurred during the war. The journey itself was exhausting, rising at 3:30 am we piled into the back of a large truck actually designed for cattle, but often converted into human transport. Standing the entire time, with a cold wind striking all exposed body parts, we crept along the poor quality road for more than four hours, finally arriving at a large river. Although the sun was high in the sky by this time, we were still freezing, so we basked in the sun for a few hours as we waited for the small boats to ferry us down the river. It was at this point that I took advantage of the large and relatively clean body of water that I had been longing for, having one of the most relaxing swims I've ever experienced. Finally we were dropped off at a spot downriver only to learn that we had a two hour hike up the mountain which would commence in the afternoon - when the sun was at its strongest. I carried only my backpack, as did the other foreigners I was with, and after many much needed breaks we finally reached our destination; everyone of us completely exhausted thinking we had just endured an epic journey. However, about an hour later a procession of locals casually strolled up the mountain pass, what an incredible sight this was. The men, women, and children all carried huge parcels of various things on their heads and backs and any where else they could fit them, a couple men even brought a "Marimba" - a large and seemingly heavy three person musical instrument. Here we were sprawled on the ground panting, wondering where we were going to find water or food, while these people casually unpacked and proceeded to prepare a giant feast for us all! I've never been so aware of my spoiled North American lifestyle as I was that day.
We camped out the night in the mountains and then made the exact same trip back, which for some reason seemed twice as long and exhausting. Although the entire expedition was quite memorable, the point that I will never forget happened the next day back in our community. Unpacking my bag without a thought of danger in my mind I found a good sized scorpion, still alive. I'm not sure where it was hiding the entire time but I found it sitting right on the part of my pack which rests above my back close to my neck. This scorpion almost surely came from the mountain location and therefore enjoyed a four hour trip on my back, I can only assume it was comfortable.

I feel inclined to end this post with some reflections on the situation here in Latin America, more specifically, the political situation. Among the many reasons I came to this part of the world was an interest in the leftist politics that have seemed to have survived the cold war and the apparent victory of free market capitalism. Albeit, some of the most atrocious neo-liberal far- right experiments in the world have been carried out in this region, which to me only makes the surviving and rising strength of the leftist movement here so fascinating.
A couple of months ago Hugo Chavez won a referendum in Venezuela allowing him to run for re-election without limit; other nations such as Ecuador, Bolivia, and Nicaragua have steadily been pressing their left wing agendas; and only last week El Salvador, a nation until now considered one of the U.S.A's closest allies in Central America, voted into power an openly socialist government. The developments are happening rapidly and are undoubtedly instilling fear upon the multi-national corporations, the right wing politicians in the north, and the local rich. When I lived in Canada the only press coverage I heard regarding Chavez or other left wing movements were reports of violence or unrest or human rights atrocities, incidents which do unfortunately still occur. However, when I was traveling in El Salvador every single person that I talked to, save the rich Texan that brought me to his mansion of course, adamantly desired a change to the left. No large government is perfect, and no left-wing government is going to create a utopia - we've already dug a hole too deep for that. Any government though, that is willing to spread wealth more evenly and put power back into the hands of the people is surely a step in the right direction. Being out here amongst these developments and witnessing first hand the blatantly obvious disparity, has challenged many of my ideas and aspirations, but only for the better. Humanitarian and developmental assistance from the more wealthy nations is important, and I believe it is vital that people at least attempt to help if only by coming here and learning of the situation, but the roots of change however, can only grow from the seeds of a nation itself. The left is back, seemingly stronger than ever, and the potential that this poses for the future of not only Latin America but the entire world, is almost unthinkable.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Accompaniment...




We awoke early our first day after arriving, the sun was just creeping over the mountains surrounding the valley settlement where our house lay, the brisk cool of the night was still in the air. We threw on our packs and walked through the dusty roads to the edge of town where we hailed a pick up truck. We clung tightly as the truck made its ascent up bumpy mountain roads, stopping now and then to squeeze more people into the already full bed. Finally we arrived at our destination, a small indigenous community where the homes are spread along a mountain slope, each dwelling separated by winding paths through the woods, broken occasionally by a spectacular view of rolling mountains in the distance. We spend the day going from home to home, chatting with villagers about life both in the hopeful present and the darkened past. I ask one man how things are going here, he tells me that "things are good, things are normal, life is a struggle from day to day". He is probably quite old, but like most people here appears much younger. His face, with distinct wrinkles cutting through his smooth leathery skin and large kind eyes, displays a sense of experience and hardship that is impossible to understand. With his little girl messily eating her lunch in his lap he goes on to tell me how him and his brother are the only ones of his family that survived the massacre here, his eyes look as though they are near tears. He becomes silent, I don't know what to say to him. His family offers us some delicious food and after eating we move on. This is one of the many people and many communities that we have visited over the past couple weeks. Already its been an unforgettable experience, and I'll be here for at least another three months.

With traveling, as with all great things, comes a responsibility. I knew I couldn't just come out here and take advantage of the economic disparity between this region and my own, I knew I had to give something back. Thus, after four months of traveling and searching I've finally found an opportunity that I feel is worthwhile, beyond the realm of voluntourism, and an experience that will surely impact both myself and the people I interact with here. I've started working as an international human rights accompanier in Guatemala, a country where violence and impunity are pervasive and deeply rooted. Throughout the not so distant years of authoritarian rule, massacres, disappearances, and various other atrocities were common place. Today, many of the men behind these often planned and deliberate acts still roam free; some are even still a part of the government. However, there is still hope for justice and reconciliation thanks to the tremendously courageous actions of victims and survivors of the violence who are willing to come forward and testify against those in power, even in the face of threats against their lives. We, as international accompaniers, are here to provide a hopefully deterring presence and a show of moral support for these brave souls and their struggle.

I came back to Guatemala after being invited by the volunteer coordinator to come in for a meeting. The organization, called ACOGUATE, is a central body that coordinates various international groups who send accompaniers here. This means that the team here is comprised of a diverse group of people of all ages and nationalities, all here to show their support.

I've mentioned before that I was looking to be completely immersed in Spanish, well I've certainly gotten what I asked for. Both my initial meeting with the organization, my training, and everything that has followed has been entirely in Spanish. Needless to say its been a rewarding struggle, and I've already come along way in such a little amount of time. It's a great feeling being able to converse with so many different people from around the world whom, if it weren't for Spanish, I would not be able to communicate with at all. Language is a beautiful thing, I only wish I had such insight at an earlier age.

I spent about two weeks in Guatemala city preparing to begin working in the field, and after an intense period of training I finally got a sudden phone call from my partner telling me to get ready, we were leaving in an hour. Now here I am in an interesting town made up primarily of Indigenous Guatemalans who experienced the brutality of war first hand. I feel both saddened and at the same time privileged to be here. The town is centered around a square where a large church and a popular bustling market are found. I have been reading much about the atrocities that took place in this very square, about the brutal murders and abuses that were carried out as people flocked to this communal center of town. It invokes in me both a sense of eeriness and happiness when I find myself in that square; knowing that such atrocities were carried out in the setting before me, yet seeing all these people continuing to thrive and enjoy themselves.

I'm still in the process of understanding what happened here, and of understanding the mindset that the people now hold, but everyday it is becoming more clear. What is certain is that justice and recognition is a prerequisite that has yet to be met, and so the struggle continues.






Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Cataratas Catrachas...


I had only scuba dived once before, and that was in Thailand on a small island called Koh Tao. I remember it quite vividly, the colours and diversity of life were intense, and the way everything seemed to co-exist harmoniously was inspiring. Since then I had been anxious to try it again, to see more and go deeper into that underwater frontier that we still know so little about. And so it was that I made my way to the island of Utila in Honduras, a place where apparently some of the best and cheapest diving in the world can be found.
The ferry ride over from La Ceiba to the island takes about an hour and is usually a pretty rough ride, which makes for a comical trip across. There are crew on board who seem to have no other function but to walk around and hand out plastic bags and tissues to the many people who cant stomach the angry ocean. I stood near the front and had a view across the whole seated section, where once smiling tourists sat there looking miserable, bending quickly over the side of the boat now and then, or those without shame simply emptying into the provided bag. I suppose I only found it funny because it didn't affect me at all, because I stood there cheerily enjoying the fresh ocean breeze and the fun ride while this puking epidemic unfolded before me.

Utila was not what I expected it to be, and I quickly realized that I had gone from one tourist centre in Copan to another in Utila, and that just wasn't the kind of place I wanted to be at the time. I wanted to be in a place where I was forced to practice my Spanish; where people still reciprocate the curiosity and interest that foreigners bring; where things were a little difficult. Utila though, had everything that a Gringo would need, from fine dining to peanut butter. I tried to use my Spanish anyways, but the locals would always just respond in English - they had no patience for my slow speech. As it turns out, English is actually the first language in Utila, and although it is a part of Honduras officially, it has largely maintained a degree of autonomy which has allowed an interesting culture to flourish. The people in Utila speak English with a sort of Creole/Caribbean accent; apparently the islands were settled by former slaves who moved there when Britain took control of Honduras.
When you get off the ferry at the one port in Utila you are greeted by hordes of people all pretending to be your best friend, trying to convince you to dive with their school. This is something you get used to when traveling - over friendly locals with a hidden motive - and usually the hardened traveler can see right through this. Here however it was a little different because not only were locals there putting on a show, but many foreigners as well, all trying to recruit new students. I managed to make my way through them after a few superficial conversations and made my way to a dive school where I knew someone I had met before in Guatemala. It rained the day I arrived in Utila and continued the four days that I stayed there. It wasn't until my day of departure that the sun finally appeared, which made the return ferry a little easier on people. One of the best things that happened on Utila was that I reconnected with with my friend Nina, who I had been traveling with in Mexico, someone who I never expected to see again as she was heading North. When traveling though, it seems to be quite common that you run into other long term travelers months later down the road.
As expected the diving was incredible and even though I didn't see a whale shark, a magnificent creature that frequents the waters of Utila, I was left quite satisfied with my experience. Diving 18 metres down into the ocean always seems surreal and otherworldly. Everything slows down, your deep heavy breaths calm any concerns you may have, and you glide along peacefully with the thrust of your fins. A little black and white fish appears before you, it is completely alone, hovering in one spot. It approaches you fearlessly and comes right up to your goggles, you watch its curious and intelligent eyes look you over, satisfied it moves on. It seems that as long as you remain unobtrusive and move with the calmness of the ocean life, you are accepted as part of it, and are not feared. However, it was difficult to feel completely connected to everything that was happening before me with all of that high-tech equipment on, I almost wish I had gills...
I finished my diving course and headed back to the mainland to the small port city of La Ceiba, a place that most foreigners refer to as a dangerous dump - I couldn't wait to get there. My friend Tyler, who I had met in El Salvador worked for a Canadian NGO in La Ceiba, he had an apartment in what is called "Barrio Isla", which is a neighborhood with flooded dirt roads and absolutely nothing to cater to a tourist. It felt refreshing to be there. I would borrow a bike during the day and explore the neighborhood, dodging around giant pools of dirty water, every ten minutes stopping to pump up the punctured tire. Tyler made sure to give me the full Honduran experience, complete with a trip to a night club to dance "La Punta", a local dance that is, well, provocative to say the least.

One of the best things about La Ceiba is its proximity to beautiful areas of untouched nature. My relaxing week in the city concluded with a hike into the lush jungle in the surrounding mountain, where we rock jumped into a waterfall pool and a swam in a rushing cool river. We took a long walk out of town because we didn't want to wait for the bus and we were unable to hitch a ride. As we walked along the dirt road that paralleled the river we came across a couple of young guys who were working on repairing the ever forming pot holes in the constantly flooded road. At first I figured they were paid government workers but I quickly learned that they were working for themselves. As cars passed by them they would stop and offer a cash tip to the workers, a sign of thanks for the maintenance of the road. It was a really interesting example of the people here effectively dealing with the neglect of government.
The hike was the best I had been on thus far in Central America, the bright green thickness of jungle that canopied over us and crept onto our path was invigorating. The smell of the ancient trees and the mist of the giant waterfall combined to invoke a sense of peacefulness amongst the three of us hiking alone through wilderness. When we finally reached the base of the waterfall it started pouring rain, and we all just stood there soaking in silence, staring in awe and appreciation at the magnificence of nature.
If I had more time, and a little more money, I would have liked to hang out around La Ceiba for sometime more. There were many more paths to traverse and waterfalls to see, rapids to ride and songs to "dance" with. Tomorrow though, I am on my way to Guatemala city for an opportunity that has arisen that I expect to be incredibly interesting and rewarding. It is a great feeling letting things just play out while traveling, new opportunities and experiences always appear if you just maintain a sense of openness and adventure. I'm heading backwards while I head forwards, and I'm ready and eager for whatever may come next...

Monday, January 12, 2009

Borders...

After more than a month of surfing and soaking in the energy of the ocean, I've finally moved on. It was not an easy decision, and I miss the Pacific already, but after another cracked board and a longing for new experiences, I felt it was time to continue.
I didn't leave El Salvador immediately, but rather headed up into the mountains to a small coffee producing town called Juayua where I spent a few days. When I was living along the coast I often wondered if the relaxed nature of the people had something to do with the peaceful setting by the ocean. A local even told me that during the war the coast was the one place that remained at peace - even during great bloodshed and violence, the ocean and beach maintained a sense of tranquility. Once I arrived in Juayua though, and felt the welcoming vibe of the people there, my respect for the people of El Salvador was only reinforced, and I realized that it was not only the coast that instilled a great kindness in the people here.
Every weekend in Juayua there is a food festival called the "Gastronomical", where cuisine from all over El Salvador is cooked in the central square. As you make your way into the area surrounding the square the aromas of fresh meat and spices hit you. For vegetarians, there is no escaping the fumes and smoke of burning flesh; for those that like meat, there is a wide range to try. Fortunately I had met a girl earlier in the day while hiking to a nearby waterfall who liked eating and trying new things as much as myself. We split a plate of grilled rabbit and barbecued frog - unfortunately the snake cookers weren't present this weekend...
After Juayua I was determined to make my way to Honduras, to the Copan Ruinas. The fact that I was in Central America, where brilliant Mayan structures abound, and I had yet to see any of them, was beginning to bother me. I wanted to do the trip in one day, via chicken bus, and the fastest way to do this was for me to cross from El Salvador into Guatemala and then up into Honduras. I never really considered how interesting of an experience this would be - to cross the borders of three different countries in one day. Traveling in a chicken bus is always an experience of complete immersion, where the services provided are primarily for locals. On the chicken bus in Latin America, the culture of the area flourishes. Thus, by traveling this way in three different countries, I was given a clear and concise juxtaposition of them, and was able to really notice the many differences. Just by simply stepping across a border so many things change drastically: the language; the styles; the attitudes; the music; the food; the politics; the looks; and even the geography. The one constant of course, being those aspects of humanity that an invisible line cannot draw a distinction between - good nature and kindheartedness. Viewing borders in this way made me really question their importance - made me really question whether borders are for better or for worse. Do borders help to maintain a sense of national pride and character? Or contrarily, do they impede a sense human unity? Are the borders there because of the great differences that are apparent? Or have those great differences only grown and been exacerbated by creating a more apparent distinction in the first place? As a strong believer in localized and direct democracy, it is difficult to find a balance between these thoughts. However, it is clear that in most nations of today, democracy is not as it should be anyways, and therefore the notion of a border to protect a shared belief is a fallacy...
Now I am in the border town of Copan Ruinas, a place where arguably tourism has played a vital role in helping the people. The locals here ought to thank their Mayan ancestors for building the incredible structures that now remain in ruins. Were it not for the thousands of tourists that flock here every year to see these stunning structures, I wonder what would keep this community from falling into desperate poverty. I won't dive into the positives and negatives of tourism this time. However, tomorrow I will be diving literally into the Atlantic ocean when I make my way to the Bay Islands...