Pieces of Home

October 8th, 2014 by perretlg

All my life, I’ve seen embroidered pillows that say, “Home is where the heart is.” For me, that’s a little kitschy, and also not true. For me…home is where my mom is. Obviously, I can’t drag her around Latin America, so little by little, I’ve learned how to find home in new places.

Anyone who has ever lived or studied abroad can tell you that homesickness and culture shock can be two of the most challenging aspects of a trip. All study abroad programs try to prepare students to cope with it. This being my fourth trip abroad, albeit my longest, you’d think I’d have come up with tricks to conquer those challenges…but that’s not the case.

What I have learned, and what family, friends, and mentors remind me of regularly is that it is okay to be vulnerable. When we arrived to the community of Martin Senteno for our rural homestay, I had a really bad cold. I tried so hard to keep it together and pretend I was fine—ready for anything, like a good study abroad student should be! I didn’t want to offend my homestay mother…I was afraid she would think I was upset about staying with her. Not surprisingly, I lost it. My host mom, Estela, heard me crying and asked me what was wrong. I told her I was sick with a cold and tired from the long trip. Estela went into mom-mode. “You go lay down in the hammock, I’ll bring you some chamomile tea.” She did, and then I took a nap. When I woke up she had brought me a fan from one of her neighbor’s houses to make sure that I could sleep comfortably. For those five nights, Estela made Martin Senteno home.

Estela, my host mom in Martin Senteno

Estela, my host mom in Martin Senteno

With this small world, it’s also possible, even likely, that you might find someone or something from your home. One day, on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, we were walking into the house of a man who was going to talk to us about the literacy campaign in the 1980’s. As I walked through the door I heard an unmistakably southern voice. When I asked the woman where she was from after introductions, she said “South Carolina” in a way that sounded just like home. As it turns out, she was from Spartanburg and does mission trips in Nicaragua. Just chatting with her for five minutes gave me a sense of comfort that I didn’t even know I wanted. As she left, she of course gave me a hug like we had known each other forever.

I also tricked myself into thinking I’d found something familiar, and it ended embarrassingly. Pearl Lagoon is in the Caribbean part of Nicaragua and the people there eat mostly seafood. We spent the day with a family in the community and I was desperately hoping we would go crabbing, because it’s something I’m actually familiar with as a Charlestonian. I talked big about how I crabbed when I was a kid and was excited to teach my New Yorker friend how to crack open the legs and get all the meat out of the body. What I didn’t know is that every time I ate crabs as a little girl, my grandma washed out all of the goopy stuff from the body (anyone who has seen said goopy stuff knows that there’s no better way to describe it). I cracked open the body of one of the thirty or so crabs we caught and I was absolutely dumbfounded. I had no idea how to eat around it, and my host mother was eating it as is. I couldn’t eat the “goopy stuff,” and I’ll know next time to find out what we’re doing before I start bragging about my experience.

 

Some

Some of the goopy crabs we caught

The world seems huge, and I’ll admit I was nervous about going on this trip alone. I’m finding out, though, that it’s a pretty small world and we all have a lot in common. Estela took care of me with the worry and the patience of any mother. The woman from Spartanburg that I ran into was seeing things in Pearl Lagoon from a perspective similar to my own. Crabbing with my host family on the Caribbean coast felt just the same as crabbing with my own family in Charleston—a fun family activity that ends with happy, full stomachs.

And for those wondering…I’m still a mama’s girl—and not just for the soup and goop!

My mother and I

My mother and me

Bienvenidos a Nicaragua!

September 7th, 2014 by perretlg

From an early age, Dora María Téllez was frustrated with socioeconomic divisions in Nicaragua. The Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), a group that opposed oppressive dictator Anastasio Somoza, recruited Téllez as a teen. At the age of 22 she was “Commander Two” of the guerrilla force that took the legislature of the national palace by storm; a turning point in the Sandinista revolution. During the first Sandinista regime after the revolution, Téllez served as Minister of Public Health. She fasted for about two weeks in 2008 to protest what she calls “the dictatorship of [current Nicaraguan president] Daniel Ortega,” and has more recently been denied entry into the United States to serve as Robert F. Kennedy visiting professor in the government department at Harvard—the U.S. labeled her as a terrorist, revealing yet again what a complicated relationship Nicaragua has with the United states. She was arguably the most powerful woman in Nicaragua during the revolution…and she just happens to be my history professor this semester.

Dora María Téllez, 1978

Dora María Téllez, 1978

It’s very difficult to write gracefully about how challenging, culturally and otherwise, conversations about the relationship between the US and Nicaragua have been. In essence, like most histories, there are two perspectives. It’s difficult to live hearing one your whole life, and then to go to another place and hear a completely different story. I’m lucky to be able to experience Nicaragua in a way that will help shape my opinions—the program I am participating in is really great in that way.

The study abroad program I am working under is called the School for International Training, and my particular program is called “Nicaragua: Youth Culture, Literacy, and Media.” My history professor, as I mentioned, is incredible. My director is a woman from Wyoming who moved to Central America in 1985, later driving an ambulance in the war zone of Nicaragua. She and her husband, a former member of the Nicaraguan military and also a former Sandinista guerrillero, have already told us so many amazing stories about what Nicaragua was like for them during and after the time of the revolution.

The SIT Program Assistant, Maria Teresa, a.k.a. Our-Source-For-All-Things-Nicaraguan, matched me up with the most wonderful host family I ever could have asked for. My mom, Sandra, has already grown accustomed to my fruit obsession and is finding me all the good stuff for my breakfasts. I have a sister, Kelly, my age, and a little brother Cristofer, who is ten. My favorite thing to do when I’m not in class is spend time with them.

My host brother, Cristofer.

My host brother, Cristofer.

Everyone here has made me feel so welcome. I am excited to see what’s next for me in Nicaragua!

Hasta Pronto!

On My Way

August 24th, 2014 by perretlg

With three days left before I get on my flight to Nicaragua, starting my blog seems like a less scary prospect than packing the mountain in my room that I’m supposed to fit in a suitcase! It’s really challenging to write something about my experiences and how I’m learning from them without over-sharing.  Since this is my first post, I’ll share a little about what my interests are and what I hope to accomplish while I’m abroad for the next five months.

I really found my place at Wofford when I took a Spanish course that introduced me to the Hispanic community of Spartanburg in Arcadia. Everyone in the 303 courses volunteers for an hour a week with teachers or with the afterschool program. I began working on spelling and math with the first graders that are mostly English as a Second Language students. It’s hard not to fall in love with them and the community.  That’s where my growing passion for Spanish started to cross with my love for community organizing. Meanwhile, in my classes at Wofford, I found myself writing frequently about women and gender topics, so I took some courses on that. And that’s where I find myself—a feminist passionate about women in Latin America.

Reading some Junie B. Jones with one of the students I tutored at ARCH, Yitzel

Reading some Junie B. Jones with one of the students I tutored at ARCH, Yitzel

These three topics—gender, Latin America, and community organizing—are how I came up with my project proposal. Currently, Nicaragua is planning a canal, Mexico is leading in innovation sectors, and the United Nations commends the Dominican Republic for their efforts toward the Millennium Development Goals.  Despite this recent progress in Latin America, research shows that Latin American women still face significant challenges in obtaining education, surviving economically, and overcoming abuse and oppression. As an aspiring community organizer, I want to spend my time listening to stories of women and communities that have catalyzed change in their cultures, despite living in spaces that may limit their potential.

Argentina taught me to roll with the punches, and though “expecting the unexpected” still isn’t an easy prospect, I’m learning to worry less. The best lesson that Buenos Aires taught me, especially during my independent project, was to let the research guide me. I’m looking forward to sharing more here as my project is shaped!

Until next time,

Lindsey

Thoughts on Helping

January 12th, 2014 by Laura Kate Gamble

I have spent a lot of times on planes over the last few months. My favorite part of every flight is the first time I see the new country I’ll be visiting. There’s something incredible about catching a glimpse of a new place through the clouds as the plane starts to descend. Haiti was no different.  As the blue Atlantic gave way to a mountainous island, I could feel the familiar thrill of seeing somewhere new. Here’s the thing though, what do you think when you think of Haiti? What’s the first thing that comes to mind? As we were landing, I couldn’t help but think I was landing in the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. I thought of corrupt governments and foreign interventions and devastating earthquakes as the song “We are the World” played in my head.

Haiti is a poor country. It was devastated by an earthquake four years ago today. Many Haitians have suffered and continue to suffer in a way that no person should have to. But, that’s not all Haiti is. It is stunningly beautiful. It has a wonderfully kind and welcoming people. It has a long and complicated history, but that does not diminish the pride heard when one says, “I’m Haitian.” Haiti does not need our sympathy. It doesn’t need our pity. Recovery and rebuilding are time consuming processes the outside world should see as an opportunity to build relationships, not dependency. In our haste to intervene and improve, we undermine this country’s ability to change for the better on its own.

Earlier this week, I was riding through Port-au-Prince after visiting an incredible organization that is working to employ Haitians, not simply pass out charity. As we made our way through town, sometimes on smooth, paved roads, sometimes bouncing along gravel and dirt, I watched the city pass by my car window. We passed the U.S. Embassy, an enormous building that towers over all other structures in the area. After that, we were passed by several UN trucks, the blue helmets of the police peeping out of the back. Next, a Red Cross vehicle rolled by. Then, a Doctors Without Borders van passed us.

I did not write this blog post to criticize foreign aid organizations. I admire the work that they do and the assistance they provide. If I’m fortunate enough to go to medical school, I’m interested in working with Doctors Without Borders, or an organization similar to it. But, in that moment, I wasn’t filled with the familiar warm fuzzy feelings of seeing these organizations on the ground and in action. Instead, I wondered what it would be like to watch these vehicles roll through the streets of Summerville or Spartanburg. I wondered how I would feel if the rest of the world assumed my country couldn’t function without their presence.  I thought about what it would be like to see these trucks every day, not just on posters and commercials, but on my walk to school or home from work.

I’m not denying the important work all of these organizations have done. Countless lives have been saved because of their presence. I’m thankful for the men and women who have left their families and the comforts of home to come here and help create change. I just don’t think we should be so distracted by the organizations at work here that we forget to see Haiti. Yes, Haiti’s political history is filled with corruption and leaders who let  personal interests cloud their judgment. Only 50% of Haitian children have the financial means to attend school. Many people lack access to clean water. But, that can not be the only thing we see when we look at Haiti. We can’t continue focusing on the flaws and failures. (And, let’s be honest for a minute, we all have flaws and we’ve all failed at some point or other.) We can’t assume we have all the answers. Rather, we can recognize the importance of working together and seeing the strengths of others.We can work with the dedicated Haitians who are already working to make this country better. Before we reach for pity or sympathy, before we pull out our checkbooks to support a “starving Haitian orphan”, we can remember that Haiti is not simply statistics and failures. It is a country with people just like you and me. It’s filled with moms and dads who want to send their kids to school. It’s filled with kids who one day want to grow up, but who are happy today being kids. It’s filled with churches where people come for worship and comfort. Sure, there are complicated problems to be worked out. Yes, there are years of hard work ahead. But, if we start out focusing on all of the things that have gone wrong in the past, how do we expect anybody to do better in the future?

Expectations

January 3rd, 2014 by Laura Kate Gamble

Happy New Year! I can’t quite believe that it is time to be welcoming in 2014, especially when I was just getting the hang of 2013. Nevertheless, I hope the new year has started out wonderfully for everyone.

My last day at the shelter was last Friday (December 27th). Leaving the shelter, with my backpack full of notes from the kids and a chorus of voices asking for one more hug, I couldn’t help but feel that I was completing the most difficult part of my trip. Granted, I haven’t been to Haiti yet (that flight leaves tonight), but the two months I’ve spent in rural Peru have been some of the most thought provoking, some of the most difficult, and yet some of the most wonderful of my life.

When I arrived at the shelter back in November, I wanted so much for the kids. I wanted them to realize how big the world was and that there was so much more for them than life in the small town of Huánuco. I wanted them all to finish high school and then college and have successful lives, where they never lived in poverty again. I wanted them to be completely healed from the abuse they’d suffered. I wanted the girls to realize that despite the incredibly macho society in which they’d been raised, there was nothing wrong with being a girl. They were not worth less, nor did they deserve to be treated differently because they were born with two X chromosomes.

I still want that for the kids I’ve worked with and loved the last two months. But, about two weeks into my volunteering stint, I realized that in two months I wasn’t going to be able to change Peru. I wasn’t going to be able to change Huánuco, and I probably wasn’t going to make a tremendous difference at the shelter. These children come from poor families, where abuse, both physical and sexual is the norm. They have grown up in a culture that even in 2014, women are often treated like second-class citizens and expected to obey their husbands (or any other male figure in their lives for that matter) regardless of the situation. The complexity of the problems I was witnessing couldn’t be untangled quickly or easily. These problems weren’t simple x causes y equations. Rather, I was looking at a mountain of a problem, built on an incredibly complex, intertwined series of issues, making the mountain of the problem grow larger and larger. As much as I wanted to, this problem wasn’t something to be tackled in a two-month volunteer stint.

But, here’s the question, what do you do? I’m a product of a very loving family and a very supportive upbringing. “If you put your mind to it, you can do it” is a phrase I’ve heard over and over again. And, I’m thankful for parents and friends who’ve given me this perspective on life. But, what do you do when you know you can’t just put your mind to it and change something?

This brings us to the whole point of this blog post, adjusting expectations. If you’d asked me about adjusting expectations six months ago, you would get a very different answer from the one I’m giving now. I would have seen “adjusting” or “lowering” expectations as a sign of failure. I hadn’t worked hard enough, I hadn’t done enough, and as a result expectations and goals had to be lowered. In what I can now see as a clearly egocentric approach to problem solving, I assumed the solution was all about my abilities, therefore the failures were all my fault. But, that’s not really the case.

I walked into La Casa del Buen Trato HOVDE two months ago. I walked back out the front gate last Friday, leaving some of the same problems I saw my first week there. The girls waving good-bye to me as I boarded the bus were not all suddenly college educated, empowered to stand up for themselves as women and confident in whatever direction they chose in life. I didn’t spend my two months in Peru leading antipoverty workshops designed to lift families out of desperate financial situations and set them on the road to success. I spent most of my days hanging out with the kids. I wiped spit up off a baby’s face. I helped with English homework and washed dishes after dinner. I demonstrated by truly abysmal volleyball skills and entertained the kids with renditions of popular American music. Most of the kids I worked with still aren’t going to college. Most of them have years of therapy ahead of them to work through the despicable things they’ve had to suffer. I haven’t eradicated the macho mentality in Peru that is holding so many poor, rural Peruvian women back. But, I did what I could. And, I’m glad I decided to focus on being a friend to the kids, rather than trying to tackle every problem plaguing their lives. Granted, in the long term, singing a One Direction song may not have had the impact a “know your rights” workshop may have had, but I did what I could in the time that I had. I wasn’t going to change Peru in the two months I was lucky enough to be there. I did have a chance to be a part of several children’s lives, and that is an opportunity of which I tried to take full advantage.