Saturday, May 30, 2009

zoo 101

Earlier this week we went to the zoo. The cool thing about this zoo is a) it's the only zoo in the country and b) all the animals are native to here. The zoo actually started more as a sanctuary than a zoo and is still run by the same woman. I recently finished reading a book about her and the zoo and other issues in this country and I found it fascinating and heartbreaking all at once. Even if you don't live here it's a really good read. And it gives some insight into post-colonialism, something we in the West have never really had to ponder from the other side.

So we hung out at the zoo and saw howlers and jaguars and ocelots and toucans and harpy eagles and peccaries and tapirs and so many other wild things that all live and breathe in this one small place. It was also a million degrees outside that day so there was much complaining and unlike the States no refreshment stands around every corner. Some things you take for granted. But then I see a toucan and I kind of forget about missing things like that.

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Thursday, May 28, 2009


I have internet in our jungle house now.  It took all this time and acts of equal parts contrition and might but here I am, catching up with you.  It's slow here, not quite dial up but not quite right, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. And after all this time I've decided I don't need it as much as I once thought I did.

My friends down the road run a guest lodge and I am there sometimes either visiting or watching our collective kids run wild.  They also have easy access to the river and when it's as hot as it's been lately I take M up there to go for a cool off swim.  In case you are curious we also have cool off showers and cool off under the net experiences as well.  We actually call these things that.  So our big dumb puppy follows us the other day which means all three of us are in the river cooling off when some of the tourist folk staying at the lodge wander down for a swim. So we do our swimming thing and they laugh about our silly dog and my silly kid and we don't really talk much and life goes on as normal.  

So the next day I am at the market in town buying a few things for dinner when I hear someone calling my name. I look around and it's those tourists from the day before in the back of a taxi, they are calling my name and one of them takes out her camera and actually takes pictures of me while I am hauling my sweaty ass into our car with a few grocery bags like we are all buddies hanging out on an adventure. I mean, I guess in the philosophical sense we ARE all just buddies hanging out on an adventure. But I digress.

I know this is a touristed area, folks come here to experience the jungle, hell it's how we found this place ourselves.  But now that I live here and am not on vacation it feels different.  This is my real life here and my real life entails buying groceries at a shitty market down the road before driving home and cooking dinner on a shitty stove. I mean, there are good things too about being here but I'm just summing some of the less than good ones up for you here, and for some reason it struck me as odd that people I do not know would want to take pictures of something so mundane and for some reason I was now unwittingly part of their vacation experience, with them meeting weird local folk with weird local dogs and kids doing weird local type things.  With pictures. 

Or maybe I'm just being too sensitive.  

PS. If YOU came here to visit me you can take all the pictures you want.  That's different. See how that's different?

PPS. Maybe I'm the one with the problem.  

PPPS. I need to shut up already don't I?

PPPPS. We were sound asleep when the earthquake hit. It went on for quite a while in a house and a village and a country not built for such things.  Aside from a few broken things we are fine and so are our neighbors.  We'll learn more as the day goes on.  Scared me, though. This was by far the hardest one I've ever felt and I'm from California.

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

girls in the world

I hear them chattering, M and her friend.  Her friend is talking about M and telling her how pretty she is.  I always wanted white skin like yours she says.  M, in a moment that I'll remember forever says but I like your skin, it's so pretty and brown. I wish I had browner skin like you.  It's not the first time this has come up with M, being here she's generally one of the lightest skinned kids around and she's asked me more than once when will her skin be darker. And in this moment I was so grateful for that, she made her friend feel good instead of bad, a spontaneous peacekeeping mission but one that also splinters my heart because it reminds me of what is just around the curve.

So in that moment both girls seemed happy, it's the easy open chatter of 4 and year olds but it's not lost on me that just around the corner comes the more difficult stuff, the times when these games of compare and contrast will linger, that wounds will be caused, that defining others by what is different will be hard to resist and will matter so much.  

We as mothers no matter where we raise our kids or what our faith we is face these issues, these issues of raising our little girls into young women in a world full of differences while trying desperately to show them how to celebrate them instead of losing a piece of themselves in the exchange.  And we face our own demons in the balance, our own multiple dissatisfactions whether quiet or loud do not go unnoticed, our girls see us worry about our weight and our hair how we look and a multitude of other things that more often than not were simply how we came out but never able to accept.

And I feel this is the beginning of our journey, of my chance to do whatever I can to normalize M's experiences of this in her world and to be there with her when she struggles but I am also unsure, afraid that my own earlier woundings will get in our way as they have for generations before.  And it also strikes me that no matter where you go in the world we women share this and that both saddens me and binds us, me to you and us to them and we together have to work to strengthen our collective lineage and do what we can to make sure our girls know their radiance, their unique badassedness, every single day of the rest of their lives.

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Sunday, May 24, 2009

school daze

I met a woman who teaches art classes in another village.  We've become friends so I asked if I could come and see her and see what she does.  The village is about 30 minutes from here down dusty bumpy roads winding along jungle river.  She is an artist in every sense, from her clothes to her walls to her manner of being, this woman.  I like her.  So she takes me to the school where she teaches, she shows me her ramshackle classroom and she's somewhat embarassed, not of herself or her work but of what is painfully obvious, these kids have nowhere close to what they need. 

She volunteers her time here, she's involved in the village and is commited to the children.  Her art space is at the local school and as we walk the kids swarm her.  Art today they ask no children, not today and we keep walking.  She shows me pictures, she has shown the kids all kinds of art from puppet making to cassava root to macrame.  I try and teach them things they can turn into an income one day if they choose.  It's obvious how much she's done with so little, her passion and sense of community are nearly falling off the walls.

As we are wandering around the school I see the bathrooms, outhouses really and I poke my head inside. I hear the little girls who've been trailing me start to laugh so I look at them that's the boys they say and giggle. Whoops I say but there are no signs so I don't feel so bad, apparently you have to be in the know to know the drill.  No matter who uses them they are terrible, they are so dirty and I want to cry and I can't imagine M every using these one day even though this isn't the school she'll go to I wonder what those look like and make a mental note that I've got to check them out before next year.

I say as much to my friend who already knows the score.  I tell her I can't imagine how people in charge could not care about this, not the teachers themselves but the higher-ups, the ones who set standards and make the rules and allocate funds and she laughs.  They probably send all their kids to private schools and I am sad because I am sure this is true. I tell her I wanted to talk to her about bringing some art classes to our village but now that I've seen these bathrooms it seems silly in comparison to even ponder but at the same time it's why she does it at all, to show these kids the world is bigger than these bathrooms and that they can do anything they set their minds to in this life.  
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Thursday, May 21, 2009

everyday picasso

Every afternoon any number of village kids come round to play.  I can't tell if they are coming to play with M or because we are fairly new and have toys they've not yet played with, I hope it's the former but I think it's also the latter. One of the kids who comes over is a boy I'll call G.  He's adorable, he's 8 years old and has lived in this little village his whole life.  As is common here his mother has to travel long distances for work so he's often being watched by cousins or other family and has a lot of time on his hands.

I've decided there are two reasons he comes over, one is to use our bathroom and the other is to color with M's colored pencils.  He will sit for hours and color in silence, using coloring books we have on hand and every so often he'll bring the picture he's working on over to me for my review. We even brought him one from the States and he finished the entire book in a few days.  

I was watching him last night and he looked up and saw me, a shy smile on his face.  I decide I have nothing to lose. You know, G, you are an artist.  Does anyone ever say that to you? And he shakes his head no. Well then, you should know I see that you are.  And he smiles and shows me his picture and he is so serious, his lines and shading are just so.  I ask him if he ever draws without lines and he nods his head.  I get him some paper.  Let me see what you can do and off he goes, studiously bent over the sheet of paper.  He comes back awhile later and I see he's drawn a sun.  I knew it, I said. I knew you were an artist.  He smiles and I ask him if he gets to draw in school or if there are any art classes and he shakes his head no.  I ask him if he has colors at home and again he shakes his head.  You come here to draw, don't you and he looks down at his feet.  It's okay if you do, G. Everybody needs a place to work on their art and you can come here whenever you want.  Thanks, he says.  I will go now but maybe I come back tomorrow. If it's okay with your family it's okay with me I say. As he's leaving M screeches goodbye and asks what we were talking about.  I tell her knowing G can hear me G's an artist. He is an artist and artists have to create.  There are no two ways about it.  I see him puff up a bit before he looks down again.  I like this kid G.

I don't know this kid's potential but I know he's not getting to exercise it.  His family struggles daily to meet basic needs and the village school has no extras, I see how it is and I see why and at the same time I sit and wonder if I gave him a box of art supplies and found a way to bring art classes to the village I wonder what might come from it, I wonder how many Gs live here and are simply never allowed to flourish the way they need to, to allow the color to come from their fingers and onto the page. And I wonder what can be done about it.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

mother superior jumped the gun

Everything is harder here.  This is less of a complaint than a statement of fact.  Going shopping requires multiple endeavors, putting the 5 gallon water containers in the car and going to one place to get them filled and another to return the glass bottles or sometimes the same place it just depends on who has what in stock at the time.  One store might have chicken and it might not or it might only have the kind that comes with feet and we aren't quite at that stage in our journey just yet.  Chicken feet will have to give us a pass for awhile.  Bananas are everywhere but sometimes they are overripe and I can't figure out how things work seasonally yet, zucchini for example has left the freaking building without so much as a goodbye and it's been replaced with these freakishly hard squash type things that scare me a little. So today I dropped M off at school and failed at finding wheat bread so I came home and sat on my porch and looked at the plastic laundry bucket and the cloudy sky.  Odds are it will rain as soon as it's on the line.  I see a toucan.

Some days you just have to give in.  

So I get my book and turn the fan and open a cold coke and sit on my ass and read.  I read when J comes home full of dirt and dust and I read when he comes through again.  I do however, offer to make lunch for him and the guy he works with every day. I do get off my ass for that. Grilled cheese and sweeping, these are the things I've mastered lately, but today it's on white. And I sweep like nobody's business.  I could perhaps earn a MS in Sweepage if such a thing was possible.

After lunch I do something I never do.  I take a nap.  I climb under the mosquito netting and sleep hot and sweaty dreams and wake up just in time to race back to pick up M.  On my way out I see J, who leans over and gives me a kiss.  You'll be working soon, he says. It's okay to take a day off.  I can tell he's a bit worried about me, he's so used to seeing me going 100 miles an hour he isn't sure what to make of this or better said, what I happen to be making of this and to be honest I'm not sure either.  I'm not bored and I'm not afraid. I'm not stressed out and I'm not unhappy but I'm something and I don't know how to define it except for this all still takes some getting used to.  

Oh right. The title of this post?  Beatles White Album. But you knew that already.

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

easy off

I have this friend in the States, I've known her a long time.  She's wealthy by any standard and whenever I'm with her I have this sense of it, from her really nice cars to terrific clothes to fancy house and private schools. It's like a spa retreat, visiting this friend.  She's unaware of her largess mainly because she's never been accustomed to anything different. Her life is all she knows and it's basically what she expects.

Here we live in a house that is below the standard of normal or even below below normal in the States. There isn't a housing inspector in the US that wouldn't cite this place for a variety of codes, from the holes in the roofing to the termites out of control to the broken this or that or whatever else. I am not saying I am entirely digging this, in fact some days it's nearly too much. But this is life here and our house is not as nice as some but nicer than most.  

On one of my worse days I was complaining about our stove, a stove that has no temperature control in the oven and needs to be lit with a lighter every time. The stove that runs out of propane in the middle of dinner. Beyond the rickety status of things it's filthy, it was in this house when it flooded and here it remains, a battered thing like no oven I've ever seen before I moved here.  So I was on a rant to J, taking stock of all I found unbearable in some sort of roundabout effort to convince him we should spring for a new one, it'll still be the same size but it'll work and it won't be so, well, gross. A friend of ours from the village was here when we were talking about it and he chimed in too, yes see you can get a new one in town. And maybe if you do you can give this one to my mom, because our stove isn't as nice as this.

And in that moment I, like my friend in the States was largely unaware of her largess. I am like my friend living there but living here, with my high standards and supposed expectations, of my discomforts unbearable and yet completely without a clue about how much of the world goes around. I'd feel even more ashamed of this if I wasn't at least trying but in so many ways it makes me want to try a little more.  Because at the end of the day the damn stove works, it works and I use it and I cook my family dinner on it and it often sucks but it works and no one is getting poisoned and no one is going hungry and that should be enough right there.

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Thursday, May 14, 2009


I came here naive.

It's not easy to find international work.

All I want to do is work on community development issues, I want to gain experience working internationally, I want to make some sort of small difference. I want to earn a living while J attempts to build our house. I came here full of this intent and after 3 months (granted we had a setback) I am no farther along than I was when I arrived.

The resources see, they don't even come close to filling the need. And I knew this and I know this and yet I am still full of frustration because I can't help but think I could do something about it if only I was given a chance.

I'm whining here and I know it. I want this to work more than anything and in order to do that I need to work either with NGOs in the States or ones here and the US economy is terrible and here, well here is a wild landscape and there is still so much I do not know. But I'm scrappy and I'll work hard, I will and can do this if given a chance.

Five years ago we started this journey and I was told something then that always stuck with me. All you'll get is one door at a time, Jen. You'll have to walk through to see what comes next. And I've walked through all of them sometimes blindly sometimes in good faith and so far so good but this one, this door it seems to be stuck or hiding or I need one pill to make me smaller or one to grow so I can see where it is.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

you don't know how precious you are

And so we are here. Sorry for the delay, but things have been hectic and internet is back to being spotty at best. Plus it's been raining, great big buckets of rain.

As we were landing back in the jungle last week J looked at me and said It feels like this has been one long day and I started laughing because that felt exactly right. Like the past month had been one surreal dream of doctors and hospitals and now as we walked down the jetway it felt like we were waking up. It smells different here, see. It smells like heat.

The night we came back we were invited for dinner, we sat with 6 other people under a palapa, eating good food and drinking too much wine (this friend, she finds wine here and it is good, but I think any wine here is good because it's hard to find) and the conversation was perfect, one of those long rolling nights full of laughter, telling stories. One of the things that continues to strike me here differently is what we talk about, here we talked all night of spiritual matters, not religion but spirit, of things people have encountered and how they've witnessed transformation. My priestess friend was there, radiant as usual and midway through the night she jumps up childlike to dance in the coconut grove under the moon. I watch her and I smile as she calls out to the stars.

This is what I have missed.

The next day I reconnect with the friend who has been collecting our mail in my absence. She and I carry 4 boxes to my car, four heavy boxes that are full, are full and overfull with school supplies. She looks at me in disbelief I can't believe your friends did all of this. Do you think they will mind if some of this goes to the other school in the village too? I tell her the truth, that I don't think you would mind at all as long as it's going where it was needed most and she said there is no shortage of that so I take the boxes home and start to open them and all of a sudden I am sitting in the middle of the floor crying because I am so humbled by your generosity and not only your generosity but for your love and gifts for M and for how you wrote notes telling me you did this with your children and how much it meant to them. I could say thank you two hundred and seventy six times and it would not feel like enough.

J stands over me in awe, he can't believe you would do something like this and yet at the same time he can, he's seen it before with the Just Posts and with the flood and with the orphanage in Africa and yet he still can't help but shake his head. Your friends, they don't even really know you and that's when I stood up and said you are wrong there buddy, just look around and tell me that we don't know each other and that our love for our community here isn't the same or better as anywhere else and he nodded his head you are right he said. And I am.

So I divided things up along with the things you'd sent to me in the States (you women are so creative, feathers and glitter and shells and blocks and glue and paint and sparkles and so much colored paper and crayons?) and took the biggest box to M's school and two smaller boxes to two other schools, each teacher stood in shock and hugged me tight. I let them know this wasn't from me but from my wonderful friends and they all said to thank you so much. And today when I dropped M off at school they were using playdoh for the first time and they had new puzzles, and new crayons on the table. The children are using new and different and better supplies today because of each of you. One other box is still waiting, apparently there is a homeschool out in the bush where there are only 10 or so kids who can't make it into the village. I hear they have next to nothing and my neighbor asked if we could share some of our supplies with them too. Four different schools. You helped four different schools and if there was more I could keep going, the need here will forever outshine the resources in a way that's hard and stupid and honest and real.

So for the two hundredth and seventy seventh time, I thank you.

Want to know the song in my head? The Ocean by Dar Williams

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Thursday, May 07, 2009

take me out to the ballgame (and hurt me)

I'm probably hovering at 38,000 feet right now as you read this, or wading through the Houston airport accidentally breathing in swine flu germs or perhaps just perhaps cracking that first jungle beer but I couldn't leave the US of A without sharing a story with you to ponder whilst I'm en route.  So sit back and relax and at the end I'll be asking for your opinion.

J and I are at a Dodger game with two friends.  It's maybe the 4th inning, we are in fairly decent seats (friends with money treated us to the game) and we are enjoying our first beer.  The crowd is raucous, it's obviously that this section has some very dedicated fans who whoop it up every time something good happens.  It's good fun and everyone seems friendly.  We are here at the 4th inning because traffic was so bad (yes LA you have bad traffic you bad city you bad traffic city you) that it took us this long to get here and then to find the beer.  But it's okay because on the way we were listening to New Order and you know, I haven't listened to New Order since I was a wee wisp of a thing, and now I'm old.  So it was quite a reunion me and New Order. But I digress.

Sitting in the stadium on the first base line, I can see the field and the night is clear.  I smell hotdogs and everyone is wearing blue. Directly in front of us is a couple that I might rather generously describe as rednecky.  The dude is affable and loud, the woman seems to be enjoying herself.  They are sitting close but then again we are all sitting close packed into stadium seating. He jumps up and screams every time something good happens for his team which happens a lot.
And then it happens. 

All of a sudden and without provocation a peanut shell lands on my hand.

I glance down and see it and a few more shells on the aforementioned affable yet rednecky gentleman in front of me.  Almost unthinkingly I reach down to brush off the shells on his back when all of a sudden his lady friend whirls around (think the chick from Exorcism) and grabs my hand and squeezes it hard.  Hard.  And right before I even make contact with the said shells. As she squeezes it she says Don't you touch him and then lets go of my hand and turns back around.  I see her gentleman friend nudge her but he doesn't look back. J's watching the game and misses the entire thing. 

Needless to say I am speechless. She then proceeds to turn around and glance at me every 12 minutes or so for the rest of the game.  Just in case.  But in case of what? 

Lacking closure and slightly afraid of the crazy chick in front of me I am unable to find resolution and am left to wonder what could have possibly been going through her mind and what would cause a person to react like that.  So I've come to you for help. 

Is it that she:

1. Was terribly insecure and thought I was hitting on her aging rednecky gentleman caller even as I sat with a male friend of my own?
2. Has eyes on the back of her head implanted there by the CIA for purposes of looking over her shoulder to thwart evil at large scale sporting events?
3. Thought the peanut shells added a little sexy something to his ensemble?
4. Thought I was an alien invader looking to suck the blood of a strapping young buck and feared for her very life?
5. Thought I looked like his 2nd ex-wife, the one he can't get over and still calls on Fridays after too many beers?
6. Fill in the blank

Or was I simply wrong for somewhat absentmindedly invading another person's personal space, space that is on short order at a sporting event of this kind?  I realize that is probably the right answer but her response was well over the top for such a minor offense.  

Or was it?

See you on the flip side (from down under and why do they only say that about Australia anyways?).

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Wednesday, May 06, 2009

back in the saddle

I am packing and repacking, this time trying to fit in the amazing and beautiful pile of school supplies that was so generously donated to M's school from many of you.  I hear there are more supplies waiting for us when we get back as well, between all of your general loveliness the school will have everything it needs for an entire school year.  Just like that, you did this.  Thank you. I mean really. Thank you.

Aside from the supplies there have been some jungle requests.  A woman who has never left the village nor the home she was born, she has asked me for some new pots and pans, ones from the states she says, I know they have nice things there.  This is from a woman who will surprise us with rice and beans and bits of meat, a woman who I love. Of course I cannot say no so 8 pots and pans are mixed in with our clothes, the bags are burdened and straining with goodness like new baby clothes for the neighbor who is giving birth next month and the medicine and other sundries not so easily acquired in the jungle.  I even got to buy a nearly teen her first bra, her mama ordered it specifically and I felt both humbled and grown all at once standing in the store trying to decide if a 12 year old would appreciate it printed with hearts or if plain is better and to be honest I still have no idea.

In other ways too like we are re-entering something we had no business leaving so soon.  I anticipate it feeling harder this time around, the obstacles that seemed new before won't be wrapped in mystery but sitting there glaring in the light.  It'll force me, I think to get clear, to get much clearer on why I am doing this in the first place and what I hope to learn.

In other news, I'm also posting at Blogher today with part 5 in a series of 6:  Jungle, interrupted

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Sunday, May 03, 2009

sitting on dandelions

The traffic was terrible and you just knew that whatever lay ahead wasn't good.  It wasn't the right time of day for hundreds of cars sitting like a parking lot.  After awhile the glimpses of red flashing lights were visible, after a while longer you could see them spinning around inside their globes.  As we are inching by I am always caught in that wrestling move, the one that tries to get me to turn my head while the rest of my body screams don't look you don't need to look it's someone's most tragic moment and it's not for you to stare and yet I see her anyways, I see her and I see her mangled bike and a couple of wrecked cars and then I notice she doesn't have on any shoes.  

I send a silent prayer for grace and hope and healing as the line moved forward and I look in the rearview mirror at my child, she's holding her little stuffed kitty and singing to herself and I look around at the other cars flying past me and each one is an entire life captured in a bubble going places to be with people they love or people they don't but either way it's so entirely fragile and we take for granted never really knowing if we are going to make it to our destination or hell, if we'll wake up in the morning and then I think of all the squandered days, days spent feeling sorry for myself or not showing up or lacking in discipline and I ask the Divine for a do-over, a chance to do it right this time, hit me baby one more time.

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Friday, May 01, 2009


We head back next week.  I am ready and I am not ready, coming back meant so many things became easier, from bathing to laundry to eating to sleeping. Easier means more comfortable and I am like a baby lulled into a state of complacency here, where I can leave food on the counter for as long as I wish and fall asleep uncovered by nets.  Leaving so soon means my life there had not yet become normal so going back is almost like starting all over again. I've known this all along, ever since the moment I realized we'd have to fly back and yet I ignored it for awhile but here we are now, it's time to cowboy up and it's time to go.

And yet I am excited. The whirlwind of the past month still ringing in my ears, the hospitals and lack of privacy, the freeways and the massive grocery aisles.  I think I could fit every single crappy market in our whole jungle town into one Safeway here.  

It makes a girl think.  Sometimes it's hard to separate the truth from the bullshit. Questions like what is this all for really and what are we supposed to be doing and how much does my consumerism hurt someone I've never even met.  

When we get back we are starting a food forest on our land.  I'd rather call it a garden but J assures me it's not.  It's rather a wild mass of vegetation where all the plants grow together in some sort of harmony.  I can't quite picture it but then again I can't quite picture most of what we've done since January so instead we'll just go for it and I'll probably freak out along the way.

PS. I mentioned it before but I need to say it again.  To you.  Your support and kindness over the last month has meant so much, this place I could write frankly and have you listen.  Those of you who came out of the woodwork simply to just let me know you are here and you care.  It means more than you know.  Thank you.

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