Wednesday, September 23, 2009

An Ode to Running

It's hit and miss. One day I feel like I am giving my life and my energy to exactly what I was meant to. The next day, I feel like I am wasting my time and still have not figured out my purpose. On those days, when heavy questions form ominous, dark clouds over my mind and all seems like confusion, the only remedy I have is to run. It's incredible the difference an hour-long run can make on my state of mind.

Everything stirring in my head starts to settle and become manageable. My world becomes stable again. By the time I finish running, I am again confident I am on the right path and I can believe the world is working for me. Dark clouds give way to light.

Many days the only thing I see through from finish to start, the only objective I manage to complete, is a run. It's often the only action to which I can concentrate my abundant energy. Everything else remains open-ended and vague.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Another Lesson in Poverty

Today was a fundamental day. It was my first day out in the neighborhood where the foundation for which I am interning works. It was a day to learn what poverty is here, in Buenos Aires. It was a day to put my mind around what it is the foundation intends to do and what it is up against.

The poverty in the surrounding areas of Buenos Aires is different than the poverty I saw in Nicaragua. In Nicaragua, people could not secure basic needs – food, shelter, water. In Buenos Aires, most of the people can secure enough food, have a house (albeit a flimsy one made of scrap wood) and beds on which to sleep, have electricity, and the truck that dispenses potable water passes through once a day. They have secured the most basic level of existence on Maslow’s hierarchy, but nothing more.

In the neighborhood where Fundacion Metafora works, most of the people did not complete high school and, consequently, are unemployed (50% unemployment rate, estimation). An elementary-educated, workless mass of people is a swamp socially and culturally. If a large group of people have nothing productive to do all day, every day, they will do other things, such as have a lot of unprotected (high reproductive rates, disease), unsolicited (rape, incest) and premature (pregnant 14-year-olds) sex, drugs, or enter the black market (prostitution, narcotics). Culturally, they will function at the basic level as well. Inter-feuding is rampant in this neighborhood, making it nearly impossible to bring the people together so that they can change their living conditions. Clientelism is thick here – political entities manipulate the uneducated in exchange for votes and loyalty. I get your family access to more government programs or buy you a new refrigerator, you convince your neighbors to vote for this political party. Clientelistic practices exacerbate division within the community and generate a gross amount of mistrust and suspicion.

In Virrey del Pino, the neighborhood where the foundation works, there is another complication. Ten or so years ago, a multinational corporation built a factory alongside the community. The company didn’t employ any of the people in the neighborhood because, well, they don’t have high school educations. It also did not dispose of its chemical waste in a proper manner; it dumped them, contaminating the neighborhood’s water source and causing other unpleasant environmental consequences (it has since cleaned up and follows regulations). There are other complaints . . . loads of them. Needless to say, the people in Virrey del Pino don’t have a very healthy relationship with the factory. Enter politics, power and money. If I manipulate these uneducated, bored, deservedly-angry people into rising up against the factory, I could then bribe the factory to pay me a little to take care of the mess. Strikes start. Factory work interrupted. Extortion. Manipultion. Money. Money. Money. Or, I am a lawyer. I convince these uneducated, bored, deservedly-angry people that it IS the factory’s fault that their roof is leaking, that the air smells funny, that they feel dizzy and have a chronic cough. I convince them that they should file a lawsuit and I - their savior, the one to free them from the yoke of poverty – will be the one to make their voice heard and make that bad, mean factory deliver the money. Deliver to me, that is, because I will get an outrageous percentage if they ever see anything at all.

That’s the poverty existing in the neighborhood where Fundacion Metafora works; a poverty stemming from social exclusion and political manipulation. A poverty that kills hope, stunts progress, creates cynicism, stirs conflict and seeks scapegoats.

The foundation’s way of combating this poverty is to create active, aware citizens out of the people who currently reside in the neighborhood. For them to change they way they live, they have to change their minds. The foundation is trying to form a bridge of understanding between the factory and the community in place of the one currently built on suspicion and mutual resentment. Last week, community members were invited to take a tour of the factory. The foundation offers workshops for the population such as cooking, basic computer courses, parenting, and even one where the young people write articles for a community newspaper. They have helped create a sewing cooperative among some of the women. All of this is done with the hope that the people will have a reason to come together, an outlet for their energy and talent, a hope that they can advance themselves and be the creators of their own future.

Having only been in the community a year, there is a lot of work to be done by the foundation. Step one: turn complainers into doers. Turn divided minds into united by the desire for progress. That in itself, from what I learned today, is going to take awhile.

I am definitely writing conflict resolution and community development on my resume for graduate school.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Settling In

For the first time in a long time I can say with total sincerity that there is no other place in the world I would rather be than right where I am. There is no other phase of my life I look forward to or long for than the one I am living out right now. This must be what it feels like to finally get what you want.

As I settle in to my new home, so many of the things I crave in my life are showing up. Two blocks from my house is a street lined with theaters where one can see plays any night of the week. I went to dinner last night with eight 20-something year olds from France – French being the language I plan to study while down here. I enrolled for two classes – one on the literature of Borges and the other on philosophical literature - at a cultural center down the street for a grand total of one hundred dollars. The classes, in which I will likely be the only foreigner, start in October and end in December. I am meeting five girls from the U.S., one from England, tonight to check out a world-renowned exhibit featuring professional photography from all around the globe. My diet consists primarily of avocado, tomatoes, real mozzarella, olive oil and baguettes and I make hot tea every night from an actual tea kettle. There is no microwave in my kitchen and none of my meals come from a package. I have a promising internship for an organization whose stated goals are “sustainable development” and “international cooperation.” My Argentine roommate, Emiliano, is a Buddhist who chants in his room for a half hour every night (which echoes down the hallway), an actor, and a handy-man for income. I have a beautiful area in which to go running and tomorrow is the first day of spring.

I live in a city of full of artists, actors, musicians, writers, tango-dancers, yoga-lovers, students, wine connoisseurs, fine food aficionados, irresistible bakeries that you can smell a block away, restaurants with food from all corners of the globe, Sunday markets, pigeon-filled plazas and delightful cafes. There are more flavors to this city than one girl can take in and there is an outlet for any kind of passion one might hold. This city is diverse, vibrant and teeming with energy.

It’s going to be a good eight months.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

An Idyllic Start

It’s Sunday morning in Buenos Aires, the downtown streets are mostly empty and the newspaper stands are just opening their doors. I head to the port for a long run along the boardwalks and through the ecological reserve; however, upon arrival, I am no longer alone. In front of me is a middle-aged man on a bike, whizzing past me is a girl on rollerblades, down to my right a woman and man row a boat along the river, coming toward me is a fellow runner. I pass a friendly patrol officer who is enjoying his Sunday post by eyeing all the women who walk, run, skate past him. There is something very pleasing about being surrounded by other athletically inclined people as you run along a gorgeous background. There is always a tacit camaraderie exchanged when two runners pass each other and I can’t help but smile every time it happens to me this morning. So many sidewalks, stairs, boardwalks and little plazas to welcome my running shoes, I end up running for over an hour.

As I jog back into the city toward the subway station that will take me to my apartment, I stop and buy a Sunday paper and a spinach and cheese empanada for the ride home, not forgetting to drop a little piece for the pigeons that swarm the main plaza. It’s an early spring Sunday in Buenos Aires. Open air markets are popping up all over the city and I need art for the tall white walls in my room. First, though, coffee.

Friday, September 11, 2009

When It's Finally Your Turn . . .

Buenos Aires really is as exciting as they say it is. The city is a glorious mix between Europe and Latin America; two parts of the world I have greatly enjoyed. One can hear an Italian-like cadence in the Spanish spoken here; two languages which I find extremely pleasing to the ear. I can’t dance and have zero musical inclinations, but if I had an ounce of talent I would dedicate it to tango and its accompanying music. Tango is the most sensual sequence of movements I have ever seen; literally, it makes me want to put on a dress and heels, grab a handsome young man from his street corner stance and let the music take us away. . . right . . . but those are the kinds of thoughts a tango show will produce in your head.

Granted, only a week has passed since I arrived, but I don’t think this is just the “honeymoon phase” that characterizes every foreign sojourn. Every “barrio” or neighborhood has something different to offer. San Telmo is the old historical district where the hippies, artists of all types, bohemians and antique-collectors huddle and also where the famous Sunday market takes up seven blocks squared (street performers included). Palermo is the very hip, middle-class, creative in its own way, gastronomically diverse neighborhood with big parks and ubiquitous boutiques. The center of the city is its pulse; every subway line ends up here, major crosswalks accommodate hundreds of pedestrians at a time (most in their business attire and briefcases), the stock market and financial industry rule most of the city blocks and wind whips around tall buildings. Puerto Madero is the port area where fancy lofts and sky-high apartment buildings are being constructed everywhere, but where one can also go to escape the pace of city life (and all the cars) – in this barrio is a large ecological reserve where Buenos Aires’ runners go and hot dog stands line the park-like walkways.

The café culture here is wonderful – these people love to sit down for coffee, tea, a croissant, a chat, a business meeting, a date; almost any occasion qualifies. As my friend Kiki and I have decided, a period of two hours without a café break is good reason to stop. Small cafés are everywhere in this city and they are never empty during business hours. Having a bad day? Eh, just have a coffee and pastry and everything will be better.

To top it all off, I have a home in this city for the next eight months. I am living in an apartment in the heart of the city with a French girl, a Colombian guy, and an Argentine guy. Let me state that in Jessi terms: I live in a house representing four different countries and four different views on global issues and politics. It doesn’t get any better than that, or wait, yes it does. I also have access to a roof top terrace. Big room, double bed (this means you can visit), high ceilings, metro station one block away . . . all of this for $370/month. Yes, indeed, it is a good time to live in Buenos Aires.

Most importantly, though, is work. My purpose here is to gain experience in international development in order to get in to DC grad schools as well as spend a little more time among the people at the heart of global poverty before spending three years in classrooms and lost in theories. Tuesday, I start work with a small non-profit called Fundación Metáfora that works on the outskirts of the city where people live very marginally. If they have a source of income, it comes from the big international corporations who have built factories in the area. The foundation works in areas similar to that which Rainbow Network (the nonprofit for which I worked in Nicaragua) does: microloans, health care, education, and workshops that educate the local population on topics such as women’s rights, self-confidence, technical training and literacy. The foundation also works to bridge the gap between the profit-driven world and the social world, the market and humanity.

What my role will be I have yet to discover. This week is just an orientation of sorts – meet the people, get to know the area, see the work being done to counteract the poor living standard, etc., before I decide how or if I can contribute to the organization. It sounds promising, but as I have well learned by now, life always gets a vote and nothing is ever certain.

I am speaking Spanish every day, I have my long-desired big city life, I have diversity all around me, I have a place to run, and I think I may have work. Yeah, I am pretty damn happy with it all. It was a long road to get here.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Thoughts at 37,000 Feet

If I could rename this blog, or give a name to the theme of my 20-somethings, I think it would go something like this:

"What? Where? With whom?"

I think those three interrogatives may just sum up life's purpose in an umbrella sort of way. As in all of our side diversions, escapades, romances, obstacles, failures, hopes, quiet dreams, distractions, plans, unrealized efforts - all directly or indirectly lead us to the answer of one of those questions. I think we could all agree that the culmination of life would be to find oneself with solid answers to those three big questions. Or would it?

Undoubtedly, at 24, "what," "where" and "with whom" are popping up in my thoughts more often. The same could be said for every one of my female acquaintances. Some of them have already begun the process of chalking in their answers.

What will you do with your life?
To what end will you give your energy and passion?
Where will you call home?
With whom will you make a home?
With whom will you spend your life?
What is home?

I can tell you this much: I know the answer to not a single one of the above-listed "w" questions. A couple of shadowy ideas, but it boils down to three big, often obnoxious and hovering, question marks. It can be admittedly frustrating at times, even defeating, as I watch most of my friends rejoice in light bulb moments of discovering their answers.

However, as I fly over continents to reach Buenos Aires and reflect on some of the big lessons learned in the last couple of years, I can't help but think those question marks are a personal blessing and that knowing the answer to even one of them would be wrong at this point in my life. On this plane, in this moment, life is one freshly-printed, blank page. My story could turn out so many different ways that no mathematical formula or psychological evaluation could predict what life will show me in the next year or what shades of color will end up on my page. I have no idea where I will be a year from now, what I will be doing, or if there will be a love interest. Faced with nothing but a future of unknowns, I am forced to live right now. Nothing more. And that feels amazing.

And really, if the high point of life lies in feeling like I have secured mostly solid (because life will never be without uncertainty) answers to the what, where and who, then I don't want it to come anytime soon. I am absolutely convinced that the adventure of life is found in the search. A search that will likely take me all around the world and through a handful of different lifestyles. A search that will take me up and down, high and low, but never stagnant for very long. A search that will show me how big life could be and how mysterious our existence is.

Besides, once I get it all - the boy, the "home," the dream job - what's left to do? Sure, I will enjoy it for a good bit of time, but doesn't everything get a tad dull after awhile? Perhaps it's just my eternally restless spirit, but I wonder:

Once you have it all, then what?

That question has convinced me to change my mind about the search. I am 24 years old. If I had all the answers tomorrow, I would be bored by 30! If I had all the answers next year, I would miss out on so many opportunities for fulfillment and satisfaction that come alongside the search.

Sure, the boy would be great to have. Yes, yes, yes, I would like to rest my head on someone's shoulder at the end of the day - figuratively and literally. But I have learned SO much due to loneliness. When it is just me every single day, when I am all I have, when there is no one to call to say goodnight and I still manage to find contentment, I am fulfilled in a way like no significant other could provide. Yes, I'd like to have a home-ish thing some day, but in searching for it I have felt at home in ten different countries. Of course I'd like to have a job I love, but until I decide what that is I'll just keep trying new things, teaching myself, pushing myself, reaching higher, dreaming bigger.

Which is better? The search or the answers?

There is one "w" that I am sure of. When. When will I know the answer to "what", "where" and "who"? Not anytime soon. I am having too much fun searching.