Saturday, August 28, 2010

Unbearable Hotness

Until today, it hadn't rained for almost a week, and temperatures were climbing past 100 degrees. It was grueling. However, that's not the subject upon which I intend to expound at the moment, though it might be related. Ever since arriving in Nicaragua, the three of us volunteers in Puerto Cabezas have been upgraded to movie star gorgeous status.

In Nicaragua, as in all of Latin America, light skin is considered the most attractive, and it's one of the most salient features in determining beauty. Here, a darker-skinned woman who would draw far more attention than me in the US gets beauty demerits for being dark-skinned. Although, given the relentless sexual appetites men are expected to cultivate here, it probably doesn't much affect her ability to secure a partner. With this added boost to my admittedly already near-irresistible sexual appeal, I become the overt object of desire of nearly every man in the city, and probably not a few women. One day, as I was walking with Michael, even the mayor of Puerto Cabezas called out “Oy cu┼łado, cuidala!” Which means “Hey brother-in-law, take care of her!” In this clever taunt, the mayor posits himself as my boyfriend, thus relegating Michael to the role of my brother. Latin American culture dictates zero discretion in the revealing of sexual interest, so this sort of call follows me and Susan wherever we go in the city. This diminishes somewhat when I'm out with Michael, and stopped completely only when my parents came to visit and I was showing them around.

The effect of all this attention is both maddening and intoxicating. I will freely tout the assertion that the way men address women in the street is disrespectful and reinforces physical forms of disrespect, ranging from grabbing a woman on the street to rape. In this cultural milieu, I am much more sympathetic to men who jealously guard their girlfriends. Though my American independent-woman mindset makes me a bit ashamed to admit it, I actually feel better having someone who at least partially shields me from the unwanted attention that makes me feel physically less safe. I'm not sure how much more capable Michael is of fighting off an assailant than I am, but the fact is men are just seen as more formidable opponents. If I am accompanied by a man, I will be more likely to be left alone.

On the other hand, I would be lying if I said I only detested the attention I am given here. The truth is, it's wonderful to feel beautiful and widely desired. I find myself dressing up more here than I did in the US, even though I can draw attention regardless of what I wear, because people focus so much on keeping themselves stylish and immaculate. I used to think I cared less about what I wore when my self-confidence was higher. Now I'm not so sure. I'm experimenting with what it means to take pride in myself and my appearance. I do not aim to draw additional attention, but to both revel in and live up to the attention that is given. It's blowing my mind daily, because it's so contrary to the culture I had become accustomed to in which standards of beauty for women are considered a form of oppression. Perhaps it is not so much that I am fully embracing sex appeal and makeup, but rather I am learning to playfully manipulate these expectations placed on women to experience a different way of being and interacting.

I often wonder what it will be like when I return to the US. Will I feel safer on the street? Or more neglected? I suspect that I will at least be much more tuned in to men's intentions in my relationships with them, and a little more inclined to keep my distance. I sincerely hope the overall effect will be increased social savvy rather than cynicism.

Modern Day Samuels

The assignment- write your own version of I Samuel 3, 1-10
Responses by students ages 10-12

A child named Jorge didn't know about the Word of God. One day, he was sitting when he heard a strange voice that came from a little sanctuary. He stopped and thought, then ran to his older brother Luis and said "You said something!" But he said no. An hour later he heard the strange voice again. "Jorge!" "You called me, Luis?" And Luis again told him no. A half hour later, "Jorge!" "You called me, Luis?" "No, surely it was your guardian angel, sent by God. If he calls you, answer and pray for the people around you."


One morning, a voice was heard saying, "Come with me and I will protect you." Later one of the girls in my class followed the voice that called her. When she got there, it was God, but no one wanted to believe that it was God that called her. The next day the same voice returned and the girl said, "Enough. Who are you?"
"I am your father."
"I can't see you."
"You can't see me but if you listen to me, I am your father and I will protect you."

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Things I have learned about being in relationship with Nicaraguans/people with a great deal of need

I have been reflecting about setting good boundaries in relationships lately, spurred in part by a wonderful Norwegian friend who has a lot of experience being in relationship with the people here in Puerto Cabezas. This is an attempt to start to articulate all that I have learned in the past two years about being in relationship with people in poverty. I write this as a person who is caring, compassionate, loving, and eager to know other people and be there for them. This is the kind of person an organization like Cap Corps attracts, and it stands that such people must be ready to set firm boundaries in their relationships. It amazes me that I felt I was strong and assertive and had good boundaries last year working at a homeless shelter, that this year I would feel like I lost all of that training in maintaining an emotional distance from people who have a great deal of need in their lives. The reason is that at Hope House, I was only in contact with such people in a professional setting, and the additional boundaries I needed for the clientele built off of normal employee-client relationships. Here in Bilwi, the people on the street and the friends that surround me are the ones in need. The same people I draw on for emotional support are the ones who have incredible need both emotionally and financially. When I say Nicaraguans/People with a lot of need, I mean it's impossible to separate the social culture of Nicaragua from a culture of poverty, because the poverty is so widespread. People in poverty in Nicaragua may have different ways of acting than someone in poverty in the US, but I believe there are still fundamental similarities that anyone who is disposed to enter into relationship with someone facing great economic and emotional need ought to know. I'm sure that people who don't live in poverty also adhere to these characteristics, but they express themselves in different ways.

1) Love. Poverty is really stressful. It causes mistrust and anger between spouses who can't provide for themselves or their family, between children who don't get enough, and between parents and young adults who have difficulty becoming independent for economic reasons (see my blog entry In-dependent). This leads to high rates of anger, abuse, and general discontent among families living in poverty. This is a bit different in the US, where I felt like a lot of the people who came to Hope House were estranged from their families and felt alone. Although I have noticed that many young people here feel alone despite being surrounded by their family.

All this is to say that among people who live under the stress of poverty, it is very common (though far from universal) that people will desperately crave love and attention. If you present yourself as friendly and sympathetic, you will attract these people to you. They can take up lots of your time, preoccupation, and emotional energy. First of all, it's good just to listen. People generally just want someone to listen to them. You don't have to understand or offer advice. Secondly, you have to be very self-aware and notice when energy is starting to drain from you because of a relationship. When you are aware, anchor yourself emotionally. Don't get carried away in the emotions of the other person. It doesn't help them and destroys you. I find it's good to set a time limit. How long can I listen to this person before I must go on to something else. You don't have to explicitly say "I'm going to listen to you for 15 minutes," but recognize when that limit is reached, what your "out" is going to be (I have to go to bed now), and enforce it tactfully but forcefully. Then go do something that gives you energy, like listen to music or read a book or talk to someone else. I felt like I had become good at this, but in the ambiguous give-take friendship that gradually become more and more take and less and less give for you, it can become hard to notice when a tipping point has been reached and boundaries must be readjusted. Don't be afraid to readjust boundaries.

2) Lying. Lying is a fundamental part of the culture here. People tend to say whatever they feel they need to say to get what they want, and it's not all that shameful to be caught in a lie. To some extent, the same is true of stealing. Despite how much you love someone, you always have to be skeptical about what they say, especially if they're looking for something, be it your time, your money, your sympathy, whatever.

3) Lending money. There is practically no lending of money here. There is only giving. If you lend someone something, especially money, don't expect it back. Material items can be returned with some agressive pursuit, but money is almost always a loss. I recommend you start by not lending any money at all. Then if you feel comfortable, you can give as you feel led. Generosity is smiled upon here, but it's also exploited like crazy. So know when to say no, and say it a lot.

It's good to not take lying, thieiving, attempts at exploitation too personally. As Michael Crosby says, it's just the hunt. Everyone has need, and they're just trying to get what they can where they see opportunity. People can attempt to be emotionally manipulative if you say no. Stand your ground, and then let it roll off you. Remember that it's just the hunt. If you get too bitter or reserved, you will never have good relationships with anyone.

4) Theft. Anything can be stolen, even if it doesn't seem like it's worth anything to you. And anything unsecured is good as gone within a short period of time. On the bright side, the good people like to keep an eye out for you, so if you forget something often a good person will grab it and hold onto it until you come back.

5) Experiences of suffering bring great wisdom. If I shut down too much emotionally, I might miss the wisdom they have to offer. Also people are in general a lot more comfortable with pain and grieving here, so it's okay to be vulnerable about your feelings. Sharing your thoughts and feelings openly is one of the best ways to endear yourself to the people here, and they are, I find, much more effusive and supportive than Americans. The US has a "polite but aloof" atmosphere that encourages things like suffering to be done in private. In Nicaragua, your pain and joy, just like possessions, are expected to be shared with everyone. If you start to cry, you will immediately have people flock to support you. In the US, they tend to just stand there uncomfortably or retreat to a safe distance.

Setting boundaries is the first lesson, and the last. It's always about boundaries.

Monday, August 16, 2010

One Year, 50 Posts

Today marks the one-year anniversary of our arrival in Nicaragua. An auspicious moment such as this one requires that I make testament to how far God has brought me in my journey. This 50th post on my blog shall, therefore, be a marker post, an ebenezer that bears witness to where I have come by God's help.

My faith has scrambled a lot this year as it tries to define itself in a new cultural context, where the people do not dispute the existence of God and yet feel a constant shame for failing to follow the path they see God dictating. I had trouble finding a church, and spent the first few months adrift and churchless until I decided that I needed to have a church community, even if it wasn't ideal or strongly compelling. Church is the anchor of my week that keeps me from drifting too far from God. When I finally settled down and set my intentions upon regular attendance at the Moravian Creole church down the street, I discovered moments of God's kingdom breaking through in services I had previously found routine and lifeless. Like when the pastor announced, "and now Miss Martha will sing some special music for us," and a tall, slender woman in her 50s gets up and intones with heartfelt sincerity the words of John Lennon's "Let It Be." For the record, the Moravians do not espouse Marian-centric theology. Or, on Children's Day: "Juliet will now recite a poem for us." The little 4-year old girl that lives next door gets up and announces "Happy Mother's Day," to the delight of the audience. Or the congregation that I had only known to sing 100 year old hymns accompanied by an organ playing the pace of a funeral dirge that suddenly springs to their feet and sings a zesty rendition of the Magic Penny song from memory, with corresponding motions.

I have also marked my faith in the observations and responses of my religion students at the two schools. Last week, we were talking about social sins in my 3rd year class, and I was explaining how social sin ultimately came down to hierarchical structures where people at the top abuse their power over the people at the bottom. Climbing upon her soapbox, 17-year-old Yorleni responded with such passion I thought she was disagreeing with me. "Because when judgment comes, you know it's not going to be the people at the bottom with the most to answer for. It's going to be the people at the top, with the power." And her classmate Kent joined in and said, "Then the people at the bottom come up and the hierarchy gets destroyed." Here I raise mine ebenezer.

The symbol of the Moravian church, so ubiquitous in these parts that many children can draw it from memory, constantly reminds me of what I am about here. It features a lamb carrying a flag, as if from battle. The words wrapping around the cross say "Our lamb has conquered. Let us follow him." This image contains two theological tenets I do not normally hold to. The first, symbolized by the lamb, is that Jesus is a sacrifice meant to appease the wrath of God. The second, symbolized by the flag, is that Jesus is a general leading all into violent battle. While these two ideas are not part of my theology, the juxtaposition is something at once ridiculous and beautiful. In the ritual slaughter of the lamb, who would have thought of the lamb being the one who emerges triumphant? What would Braveheart be like if Mel Gibson cast Lambchop in the lead role? It is our vulnerability which conquers. And in a land of unfamiliar cultural constructions, I must look closely and discover that the Spirit of God and my own spirit have always been at home here.

These moments, and a hundred lazy conversations around kitchen tables and park benches, have kept me strong in the faith. I continue to follow Lambchop and her battle cry of freedom.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Playing Teacher

The religion teacher at Colegio del Nino Jesus is taking a 3-week class on the Bible in Bluefields, so she tapped me to teach not only her religion classes, but also the "Convivencia and Civismo" classes she is responsible for. This class covers everything from human rights and gender identity to healthy eating and proper bicycling practices. They copied the biking notes surprisingly enthusiastically, as if they were actually aware that a bike typically has things like lights and reflectors, and it is generally recommended to wear a helmet.

I have found the creative freedom of creating all of my own lesson plans to be a breath of fresh air. I enjoy the challenge of drawing together resources and adapting my knowledge to present a cogent lesson that a teenager can both grasp and run with in search of their own ideas. I hit a crisis when thinking about how to teach smart consumerism. It first occurred to me to teach about the media's influence in consumption and the various ways they seek to manufacture needs and pursuade people to buy. I then started to think about the kinds of media that are present here in Bilwi, and I realized that no one's developing ad campaigns to target the modern Bilwi youth. The only international media that has any widespread influence is via television. I have to wonder how many of the products advertised there are available here. There's also radio, but that's locally run. The economy is operating very close to subsistence levels; in general people don't buy much more than what they need, and sometimes not even that. There are far fewer manufactured needs here. In my education, smart consumerism had everything to do with learning to make the right choice in an endless sea of options. How can I teach young people to be shopping-savvy when there's only one type of peanut butter available? In the end, I focused the lesson on two points: distinguishing between want and need, and the importance of saving money. The latter is scarcely present in the "just survive today, let tomorrow take care of itself" philosophy that pervades the culture here.

Despite all my training at Hope House, I err on the side of being too nice and forgiving. Or at least I think I do. When I told Lee I had taken several tests away from students who were copying, he said, "Wow, I just took points off." I love the dramatic flourish of whisking a test away. It's deeply satisfying.

I find myself challenged with trying to make lessons about proper nutrition and hygiene interesting enough to hold my attention. I don't worry so much about holding their attention. If it's interesting for me, I can convince them to be interested, too. I was looking for an angle from which to present the lists of information about the proper handling of food. I started off saying, "Did you know that a kitchen rag has more bacteria than the toilet?" They responded with a languid stare, nonplussed. I tried another tack.

"Do you know what BOTULISM is?"
"It's a DISEASE that you get from preparing your food wrong. It slowly paralyzes your body until it reaches your heart, and then your heart stops and you DIE!"

They seemed mildly more impressed by this. Capitalizing on what little interest I had managed to pique, every time a student stopped paying attention or started talking, I pointed at them and said, "YOU'RE going to get BOTULISM!" A few students caught onto my logic that the word "botulismo" rolls off the tongue delightfully, both in English and in Spanish. By the end of class, one of the worst offenders was bouncing up and down, pumping his fists and chanting "Botulismo! Botulismo! Botulismo!" A lump of pride began to swell in my throat.

The other strategy I employed in that class was the traditional trivia quiz-style review, where the class is divided into two teams. One member of each is sent up to the front, and they have to answer a question about the material. In my rambunctious first-year classes, engaging activities like this is like trying to steer a horse at a frenetic gallop. If you can keep it going in the right direction, you can get quite far. If you lose control, all hell breaks loose. I was quite pleased with the results of my class, though the teacher in the room next door might not have been.

On the whole, I have enjoyed playing the part of teacher. I think keeping that element of "play" in the job makes the difference between a delightful class and a nightmarish one.