Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Little Bit About a Lot of Things

Let me start off by apologizing for posting this late.  I have had a hard time deciding what to write about this week.  There is just so much that I could say about my time in Mexico and deciding what would make it into the blog has been a difficult decision for me.  At the time that I am writing this,  I'm still not sure, so I thought I'd just start it and see what happens.  

Accompaniment is a term about which I am learning that I have much to learn.  According to United Church staff, my time in El Salvador is to be a mission of accompaniment and not accomplishment.  When I first got told that, I thought it was bit "airy fairy" and "rose coloured glassish".  I understand that it is part of the movement "to be" rather than "to do".  As someone who has spent a lot of time "doing" I found this a bit daunting, a bit odd and incredibly refreshing all at the same time.  However, I was game to give it a try.  Interestingly during my time in Mexico, two different people, who have both done a lot social justice work throughout Central America and Mexico, spoke to me about the importance of "acompanar" the Spanish equivalent of the English verb "to accompany".  The idea is that simply act of being together and accompanying one other is transformative for both.  Certainly this time spent in Mexico with people sharing their everyday life and experiences has been transformative for me and I hope it has been transformative for others around me.  My host mother Angeles asked me to thank my friends, family and church for sharing "Lynn" with her and her family for the past five weeks.  She believes that God chose for us to be together during this time.  It is hard for me to find fault with that logic.  Being able to learn about and watch Angeles' and her husband Fernando's deep and persistent commitment to living out liberation theology has been an amazing experience for me.  It inspires me to continue to work hard at learning Spanish because I know there is so much more they could and would teach and share with me if I had the language capacity.  I expect that I write more about accompaniment as I continue to explore its meaning in El Salvador.

As many of you know, I have really struggled with the term "missionary".  While I have no doubt that I have been called by God to serve and that the United Church of Canada is my employer and facilitator of this experience, I struggle with all of the historical legacy attached to this term.  I am very clear that my "mission" has absolutely nothing to do with coverting people to my set of religious beliefs.   Clearly,  I have very strongly held set of beliefs, but I don't think that everyone has to think the same way I do.  However, I do find people with a strong belief about the supreme importance of conversion to be very frustrating --- deep down I do want everyone to agree with me about that point!  On the other hand, using the term missionary let's people know that I am open to discussing issues of faith and spirituality.  This has lead to some really interesting discussions.  Angeles for example finds it astounding that I as a non-Catholic would attend her Church.  I think it is her way of living out ecumenism, that at every service I have attended she has asked me to participate in some way.  Twice I processed with the wine and water.  I was very honoured to have been asked to help with the service and to assist in a small way with communion.  I also thought it was a really good metaphor in reverse.  For many, many years missionaries with good intentions came to countries like Mexico to "save souls".  However, at the same time, there was a clear cultural bias against non-Europeans.  In Mexican churches, the Spanish sat in the main and beautiful chamber with the indigenous converts sat in a smaller, darker much less ornate area.  So I have enjoyed the irony of being asked to present the gifts of water and wine and knowing that I am not welcome to partake of the elements of communion!   (For your information, the Catholic and Protestant churches have some different beliefs around communion and so non-Catholics are not allowed to partake of communion in Catholic churches, while the Protestant churches are generally more open on this issue).

Totally changing the subject, some of you have asked about drugs and violence in Mexico.  Firstly let me say that I am not an expert on this topic.  While I have learned a lot about this in the past five weeks, there is absolutely a lot more to know than I will explore here and there are much more authoritative sources.  On a personal note,  I have had no safety concerns while I have been here, nor have I seen any "sketchy" or concerning situations.  There is a much greater police and military presence than I am used to seeing.  I have not been bother or harassed by anyone.  Having said all that, the "narco trafficking and narco violence" as it is called here, is a very real and persist ant problem.  However, it is also a very complex problem.  I am told that in certain areas of Mexico, the local farmers make a lot more money growing marijuana than any other crop.  For a subsistence farmer who can't feed his family growing other crops, it is not hard to imagine why they switch  to growing marijuana.  Also, Mexico is the pipeline supplier of drugs into Canada and United States.  Both of our countries want Mexico to  do something about this problem.  At the same time it is important to remember that our countries have not be particularly successful in decreasing the consumption of drugs by its residents which drives the need for production and delivery.  Also, the violence here is often carried out using guns brought in from the USA.  It is a very real problem, but it is a very complex issue.

Finally, I'd like to say something about the economy.  The minimum wage in Mexico is $55 peso per 8 hour day.  the rate of exchange is roughly 11-12 pesos to one dollar.  This makes the minimum wage equivalent to about $5 per day in Canada.  I am told that the average wage is higher than this at about 2500 pesos per month.  While things cost a lot less here, that not nearly enough for people to survive.  In Cuernavaca, there are many people who have moved to the city, away from family and therefore have to pay rent.  Once again, I am told the lowest rent possible for a small family is about 1000 pesos/month.  There are very few social programs.  While theoretically school is free, all students wear uniforms, pay a yearly registration fee and must provide there own school supplies.  It is a very sobering thought that I am receiving from the United Church, a stipend  so low by Canadian standards that it can't be considered a wage  that is significantly higher than the average Mexican family income. In addition to  my stipend, my housing costs are paid.  

Without getting into all of the boring details, earlier this week, I felt very overwhelmed and anxious about going to El Salvador on Saturday.  Everything seems to be on track and there was nothing specific that upset me, rather it was just worrying about the unknown.  So I pulled out my "special book" and read a few entries.  They were indescribably helpful and reassuring.  My anxiety quickly subsided.  Thank you to everyone who took the time to share with me in my book.  

I look forward to writing to you from El  Salvador.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Water, Electricity, Traffic, Health and El Salvador

Today I want to share with you a little bit about a few things...water, electricity, traffic, public health, and an update on El Salvador.  Yep, this is going to be a bit of a heavy blog, but I will add some funny and interesting stories as we go along.  As you can imagine, water is an important resource here is Mexico.  There certainly is not as much of it running from taps and into appliance such as washing machines and dishwashers as I am used to at home.   As the sanitation system is fragile, nothing additional is put down the toilet.  All toilet paper goes in the garbage can.  I found this a hard habit to get used in the beginning and toilet paper was dropped in the bowl before I remembered that it doesn't belong there!    There is potable (safe for drinking) water in Cuernavaca, but most people prefer to use bottled water.  There is bottled water for drinking at both my home and my school.   There is running water in the bathroom, but no running water in the kitchen.  Dishes here are washed with lots of soap in cold water.   While this is very different and not up to Canadian Public Health standards, I have had no gastro-intestinal distress, so the soap must kill the bacteria.   Dishes are washed in what I would call a "laundry sink" on the back patio using water from a rain barrel.  Most people do laundry by hand and everyone has several clothes lines upon which to hang clothes for drying.  For people like me there are "wash and folds" where I drop off my dirty clothes and they are washed and dried in machines and I pick them up folded.   Everything here is ironed.  I am sure that my housekeeping skills are considered lacking because I wear t-shirts with wrinkles and my jeans don't have have clear crease line down the front.   Oh, by the way, even in prison, almost everyone's pants were ironed as were their shirts!  Considering everyone looks after their own clothing, I find this remarkable.

This leads to the next topic, electricity.  The word that most of us ex-patriots use to describe the electricity system, is fragile.  3-pronged outlets are exceeding rare.  Most people use an adaptor, which converts a three-pronged plug into a two pronged plug.  This is how I recharge my computer at my host families house.  However, the electrical supply is not completely stable and the lights dim and strengthen every few minutes.  There have two brief power outages since I've been here.  Also, for computers, one really has to use a surge protector because you never can be sure of what is in the lines.  As most of the houses are built stone and concrete it is difficult (and likely expensive) to add outlets.  In my house, other than a ceiling light, many rooms don't have an outlet.  My bedroom has one - double outlet.  I have my electric alarm clock plugged in and a lamp.  I unplug the lamp when I am recharging my computer.  Power lines are routinely tapped into by squatters and others.   My house mother cooks on essentially a two burner gas hot plate.  There is no oven in my home.  Of course, there is no microwave.  But this is okay, because a lot of microwave food comes from the freezer and there is only a small freezer section inside the refrigerator (circa a 1950's type fridge).

Traffic in Cuernavaca is like nothing I have ever seen.  Many roads merge into to each other and there are few traffic lights.  There are a number of traffic police, who provide directional assistance at busy intersections during the rush hours.  Cars routinely come within, literally, an inch or two of each other.   However, it all moves in a fairly smooth way.  I have only seen a couple of very minor car accidents.   It is also very clear that cars rule and that pedestrians come second.  It is the pedestrian's job not to impede traffic.  I am getting a bit bolder when crossing the street, realizing  that cars really don't want to hit me.  However, I generally just step beside someone who looks Mexican and cross the street when they cross the street.  Also in order to prevent speeding there are speed bumps on most streets at frequent intervals.  I have learned that it is best to stand up to indicated that your bus stop is next until the bus crosses over the last speed bump before your stop!

This Saturday, I had the opportunity to again go with my hosts to the Mexican Prison.  This time I was more relaxed as I knew what to expect and I can speak a bit more Spanish.  The inmates really look forward to the meal, mass and fellowship of this time of the week.  I had conversations with several inmates.  A couple in particular sought me out when they learned that I spoke English.  One man had spent several years in the US and asked me not to speak Spanish with him, as he has so little opportunity to practice English.  Another man explained in very good English that his brother lives in Montreal and he would really like  to go to live with him.  Both men told me that they are innocent and should not be in prison.  The cynical part of me recalled that this is usually what people in Canadian jails say too.  However, in talking with several Mexicans, they believe that many people are innocent who are in jail.  Apparently it fairly common for people to be in jail for years without there being a conviction of guilt or a sentence.  My maestra (teacher) told me of a horrific situation where a person she knows spent 10 years in  jail without charges.  One day, guards came and got the person, took them to the front door of the jail and said, sorry we now know you are innocent.  Go and get on with your life.  Apparently under Mexican law, this person has no recourse for the 10 years spent in prison.  

The meal served at the prison is prepared off site by volunteers and brought to the jail, literally in garbage pails in the back of a cube van during the hottest time of the day.   All the food is room is not hot and cold is not cold.  Inmates form a line and volunteers put food on to or into whatever container, plastic bag, plate,or for those with nothing a tortilla.  The food is served by the volunteers after we have shaken everyone's hand.  There is no hand washing/sanitizing for either us or the inmates.  Some of the food is served with utensils, other times the volunteers just use their hands to scoop the food.  As part of the process, we volunteers quickly eat as well.  For me this week it was a tortilla that someone handed me and I chose to just have the carrot salad in it.  I was struck by how many Canadian health code violations there likely were in this situation.  However, even with my fragile Canadian digestive tract, I had no ill effects.   I like to hope that God blesses this work and somehow manages to keep the bacteria counts down.  Similarly, Cuernavacians really seem to like mayonnaise.  It is on all kinds things sold on the street such as hotdogs and corn on the cob.  People from Canada and the US cringe at the thought of putting mayonnaise that has been sitting out all day on food, but here it is common place.  I am told that most people here don't refrigerate mayonnaise after it is opened.    

An interesting fact --- Mexicans consider North America to be Canada, USA and Mexico and South America to be south of Panama.  Central America is considered essentially its own continent.  However, Latin America includes Mexico, Cuba, Central America and South America.  Although no one took offense, it was explained to me that calling Mexico, Central America is akin to calling a Canadian and American!

This week I have learned that I will be going to the small town of Santa Marta, El Salvador.  This is where a lot of the work of ADES (the Cooperative with whom I will be working) actually happens.  I will be renting a room in an apartment that is shared by other ADES staffers.  I think that this is a good arrangement and I am pleased to have a bit more information about the next stage of my journey.  It is amazing to me that in a little over a week (Feb 26th), I'll be flying to El Salvador.  I have enjoyed the Mexican part of my journey.  I am looking forward to settling into my final destination, and I am worried about what it will all be like and whether in fact I will be of any use to the Salvadorians.  I have learned a lot of Spanish, but I have a long way to go before I am fluent enough to really do any work like I used to doing.  However, I have found that even with my limited Spanish,  I am able to make people laugh occasionally, and I really enjoy this.  

I have attached a photo of Angeles, Bryan (18) and Fernando my Mexican host family, who have been so kind and helpful.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A Day in Mexico

I thought it might be interesting to share with you a "day in the life" of Lynn in Mexico.  Please remember that that this is only my experience in one place in the vast country of Mexico.  We got told in our training that we need to keep reminding ourselves and our friends not to generalize! 

  So on weekdays, I get up around 7 am.  I have a very short, but hot/warm shower.  I was very pleased to hear that daily showers are the custom here!  I then come back to my room and make my bed, get dressed and tidy up.  I would anyway, but certainly this is a house where order and cleanliness are important.  According to the cultural information from my school, this is typical.   I then have breakfast which is made by host mother Angeles.  Typically it includes fresh squeezed orange juice, fruit or yogurt and something hot.  The "something hot" can be soup, tortillas, eggs or just about anything.  While this is certainly a different group of foods than I normally eat for breakfast, they are usually very tasty.  I am slowly convincing Angeles that a cold breakfast with cereal is good too.  Here cereal (such as  corn flakes or rice krispies) are more regularly eaten for the last meal of the day around 9pm.  

I usually leave the house between 8 and 8:15.  It is a bit cool in the mornings so I usually wear a light jean jacket or cardigan over my t-shirt.  My ensemble is complete with jeans and running shoes.  It is about a 10 minute walk downhill to the bus.  The buses honestly seem to run every 5 minutes, so scheduling is not a problem.  Buses cost the equivalent of about 55 cents and they are generally comfortable and clean.  The bus ride to my stop is usually 10-15 minutes depending on traffic.  Then there is a 10 minute walk downhill to my school - this includes stopping at a little store to buy my morning coca-cola light!

Classes start at school at 9am and run until noon.  Each week the morning maestra (teacher) changes, but you have the same class and teacher for 3 hours for each of the five days (in a week).  There is a 10 minute break from 9:50-10:00 and  another one from 10:50-11:00.  Typically the first hour is discussion of what you did the night before (a good exercise to get your brain working on using past tenses) and then moves on taking up the tarea (homework) from the night before.  The maestra moves around the table and reads over your shoulder correcting your written work as we go.   It is all done in a friendly and helpful way and so surprisingly does not feel intimidating.   When the tarea is completed, we move onto the new lesson for the day.  The really cool thing about CETLALIC, my language school, is its social justice focus.  Even the example sentences for the grammar points are often linked to womens issues, poverty or gay and lesbian issues.  This is such a great fit for me.  At noon, there is a slightly longer 20 minute break and that is when most of eat the lunch that our host Mothers packed.  Typically this is a sandwich and a piece of fruit.  

On Monday, Wednesday and Thursday there is "conversation" from 12:20-2:00 with a different maestro/a than in the morning.  As this sounds, this is an opportunity to converse on a wide range of topics.  Often students bring questions about mundane issues such as where to buy a particular object or how to get your cell phone to work.  We have also discussed more significant issues such as drug trafficking, the basics of the Mexican Government system and the need to preserve global resources (land and water).  On Monday following the discussion, is an orientation for new students.  If you aren't new, this means it is a short day and you are done at 2pm.  On Tuesday from 12:20-2:00 there is a presentation on some aspect of culture.  On Wednesday, there is a video from 2-3 following practicum.  Last week it was particularly interesting on the Zapitista movement in Chiapas.  Thursday from 12:20-2:00 is "field trip" day.  Last week this got rearranged a bit so that we could visit a really big local festival on Wednesday in honour of Carolina of the Candeloria.  She is a Catholic Saint (I think, I am still a bit confused), but everyone goes to mass and brings dolls in baskets and flowers.  This is a symbolic representation of Jesus being presented in the Temple.  Interestingly, it is the local tradition that Christmas decorations stay up on this day.  So it was not until Thursday this week that all the Christmas trees and other decorations were taken down!  Friday after conversation is the despidida (farewell).  There is cake and students who are leaving are presented with a diploma.  Then everyone including the maestro/as go around the circle and talk about their week.  I find this really hard to do - to share what I want to say in Spanish!  Last week was easier than the first, and I expect next week will be slightly easier again.  

The main meal of the day is served between 2-3, so after school is a walk uphill to the bus, a slightly less pleasant bus ride as all the high schools get about the same time and the bus is usually packed, and a walk uphill to my casa (home).  By this time in the day, it is usually a very sun and warm 25 degrees, so my jacket is tucked away in my backpack.  This meal can vary a lot too, but often is tortillas stuffed with something, and rice or beans, sometimes some raw vegetables.  After this meal, I sometimes go and use the internet in a small store that has 6-8 computers (at the bottom of the hill) or various other errands.  It gets dark around 7pm and I don't like to be wandering around in the dark by myself.  My barrio (neighbour) is very alive and well lite, so I don't mind walking from the business section at the bottom of the hill back to my house in the dark.  It reminds me somewhat of a Toronto neighbourhood with a main street with little shops and then houses behind.   

The 7pm until bedtime can be a bit boring.  I do my homework and work on other Spanish stuff usually for an hour, have some personal devotion and reflection time and write in my journal.  I read, craft and do other little projects, but on nights where I come home directly from school and don't go out, the evenings can be a bit long.  However, the neighbourhood kids often play on the street until 9ish. Many of them are finding me interesting and I have had some particulaly interesting conversations with a few of them.  They like to ask me the English words for stuff and really enjoy teaching me the Spanish words for things.  Angeles has a church meeting every night, but usually comes to my room for a chat when she returns.  By then find my brain so tired that it is difficult to sort out anything much except the schedule for the next day.   The only TV in the house is in my host parents bedroom.  I don't feel very comfortable watching it there, also it is all in Spanish and usually by that time of the night by brain is very Spanish tired.  There are also two more meals, one around 6pm and one around 9pm.  I typically pass on both.  Sometimes I'll have a little snack in the evening such as fruit or a cookie (I must confess, I have fallen in love with oreos because they are the only thing I have found that tastes like home).  I find that my diet has switched almost completely from mostly meat and veggies with some fruit, a few carbs and little dairy to mostly carbs (tortillas and white bread), dairy (everything has cheese and sour cream on it) with some fruit, a few veggies and almost no  meat.  I am getting used to this and my digestive system seems to making the necessary adjustments.     Sometimes  I go out with other students after school and do things, but even then, I am usually home by 9pm.   The buses stop run at 9 and then you have to take a cab, which gets a bit complicated because after 9pm it is recommended that you don't flag a cab down,but rather call and request one.  This means you have to have a phone and know where you are, which can be a bit confusing at times.  However, this works well if you are at a restaurant or at someone's home, as the Cuernavacians are typically very kind and helpful.   I have learned this week how to charge my computer battery at my house, which means that I can play music and computer games as well.  Next week I'll talk more about the general customs and lifestyle, so you will understand more about why charging my computer has been such a challenge.  

Thanks to all of you who are following my adventures.  I miss you all, but I am having an amazing experience.  I can hardly wait until the day when my Spanish is good enough to have a real conversation about real issues my Central American friends.  They are amazing, bright and passionate people, a lot like my friends in Canada.

For your info, I am attaching a picture of my bedroom and of the terrace where I spend most of my evenings.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Feliz Cumplenos!!

Wow, another week has passed in beautiful sunny Mexico (sorry to rub it in I hear there has been lots of snow in Ontario!!!)  Many thanks to everyone who e-mailed to wish me a happy birthday.  At CETLALIC (my language school), they have a tradition of having a small party every Friday to say goodbye to the students who studies have finished.  This week it was also in celebration of my birthday.  The "happy birthday" song in Mexico is about 5 verses long and is much more profound than the song I am used to hearing.  Also they have a tradition where the people being "celebrated" in this case, me and two students who were leaving, each have to bite the cake with their mouth.  People did suggest to me that I take a small bite and then when the cake is cut, your piece becomes the one with your bit marks in it!  Very fun.  After classes, another student and I went to the Centro (historic downtown Cuernavaca) walked, shopped and had dinner.  When I returned to my house, there were a couple of lovely small gifts from my host family.  I had been talking to one of her grandchildren during the week about if he preferred Toy Story or Shrek.  Her grandson prefers Toy Story, but I said I liked Shrek.  One of my gifts was a Shrek key chain!  I was very touched that Angeles (my host mother) had paid so much attention.  I really appreciated all all the e-mails and the cards that people sent with me.

On the weekend I joined some students from other language schools for a tour to Puebla (the 4th largest city in Mexico) and the site of the battle that is celebrated on Cinco de Mayo (5th of May).  On this trip we also went to two archeological sites and saw pyramids  -- very cool!  The historic centre of Puebla is an interesting as it was a city built entirely by the Spanish.  It did not exist prior to the Conquistadors and as a result is very European looking in parts.  A great weekend and a memorable way to celebrate my birthday.

This week I was reminded of something we discussed in  the Orientation training in Toronto...the danger of the single story.  This is where you get one point of view on something and extrapolate.  It is important that whatever you learn from my experience, you remember is from one person's point of view who spent a little bit of time in one part of Mexico.  This week I made some comments about "Canada" and "Canadians".  Some other students said, you really think that. I said absolutely.  Interestingly a  Canadian student who left last week had said the opposite.  If people from Mexico or the US only heard one viewpoint they might believe that this is what we all think.  I found the other Canadian's viewpoint bizarre and I truly hope that people here don't remember this as the point of view of Canadians in general ---the danger of the single story.  However, in reality my story doesn't explain it all either!

This week I am continuing with my spanish studies (in spanish, languages aren't capitalized).  I am learning lots of new words and verbs.  My maestras (teachers), other students and my host family are working hard to help me sort out my pronunciation issues  ---which are significant.  Who knew -- in spanish your tongue goes to all different places in your mouth than when making vowel sounds in english!

So until next week...Saludos (greetings) to everyone!