Sunday, October 25, 2009

Nicaraguan Nostalgia

I recently finished looking through some pictures of San Ramon - the town I lived in for nine months in Nicaragua - that were taken by an American girl I met while there. She is a friend on Facebook and she recently posted some pictures she had taken for a Christmas toy drive. Seeing San Ramon through the lens of someone else, after such a long time without revisiting my own, affected me greatly.

When I see pictures of San Ramon, or revisit mental images and the live moments I have stored away, I feel a rush of emotions. It is hard for me to even pinpoint what these emotions mean or why I have them, but they are still as strong as they were when I left a year and a half ago. I recognize every individual mountain in the background of the pictures, the pattern in the road, the color of the fence lining the stadium and I can remember how I felt looking at all of them in real time. It's as if I have an emotional relationship with every single artficact in San Ramon and upon seeing them in pictures they once again take hold of me.

The only reason I can give for these strong emotions in association with San Ramon is the solid fact that those nine months make up the most intense period of time in my life. Nicaragua shaped me like no other experience thus far; it bent me, it nearly broke me, it held me up, it pushed me down. My time in Nicaragua was an emotional roller coaster that eventually molded me into a new kind of strong, but the emotional test that I endured still evokes a tinge of fear inside of me. That was a scary time in my life and I can still feel that when I think back to those early months in San Ramon.

San Ramon was also home to a radical transformation within me - one that was still taking place up to six months ago. I was hit with so many life lessons at once and in one tiny dot on the Nicaraguan map (even if some of the lessons had nothing to do with Nicaragua itself). A part of my "self" died there, was left behind; undoubtedly, a necessary and good transformation but one that creates a sense of nostalgia as I look back. A nostalgia that reminds me we can never go back, that some parts of us are forever altered and the change irrevocable, that some pain is never fully forgotten and that youth really was innocent.

I know I will visit San Ramon again one day; I hope soon. If I am moved by just photos, I can't imagine how strongly I will be affected when I stand in front of the same mountains, morning sunrise, and humble cabin where I lived for nine months. I know there is something more I am supposed to understand about that time and that place. Something I won't understand until I return.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

When Women Rule the World?

The longer I work in developing countries, the more I believe that it will be women, if anyone, who non-violently change the world.

It was the case in Nicaragua, and is in Argentina too, that for every ten people actively working for improvement in their community and/or way of life, eight to nine of them are women. Every community meeting or workshop or special gathering I attend in these marginalized neighborhoods is composed of a handful of middle-aged women who are absolutely not afraid to speak their minds.

Globally, the power of women to change the world has been recognized by the leading opinions in the developing world. One of the United Nations Millennium Development goals is to educate girls and see them equally represented in secondary school throughout the world. Just because it’s fair? No; because, if you give a young girl the opportunity to dedicate her life to not only family and tradition roles, but also to her own education and potential, you have given her the tools to be a powerful force of change. Case in point: numerous studies have confirmed and I know from my own experience in the field of microloans that women (in the developing world, remember) have more success in paying back their small loans, are better savers and spend extra income in socially productive ways. You give a middle-aged woman five dollars to spend it however she wants and she will take her child to the doctor or send her children to school with new notebooks or shoes. She will use her money to perpetuate a healthy society. You give a middle-aged man the same opportunity, and he will often go buy cigarettes, beer or go spend an hour at the slot machines.

While not sociologically qualified to say this, I have a notion that the subtle male identity crisis that is very real in my country may also be occurring on a global level.

I don’t write these observations with any hidden feminist agenda; this is what I see happening in the developing world and what has been recognized globally and proven statistically. Women are an incredible investment as agents of social change. I am continually amazed by the spirit of these women upon arriving to these community gatherings. They do not hesitate to stand up, walk to the front of the room, raise their voices to be heard, declare what they see as injustice in their lives and neighborhoods, and call for a dedication to work for change. Rounds of applause from the twenty or so other women in the room follow the passionate tirade and create a deafening noise.

And we North Americans have this tendency to believe that the woman of the developing world is oppressed and not given a voice. While it is the case some times, it’s quite the opposite when you let her out of the house!

When I find myself among these women and awed by their strength of spirit, I can’t help but wonder:

Why is it, again, that men have ruled the world for so long?

Monday, October 12, 2009

When the City Slows Down

I think I keep coming back to this topic, but I love Sundays in Buenos Aires. They are the quintessentially simple Sunday. There is a fourth of the traffic; my usual hustle and bustle neighborhood is so quiet I can hear my own footsteps on the broken sidewalk. Old men with canes populate sporadic city benches and elderly couples enjoy actual lazy Sunday strolls (at a snail's pace, seriously). The men in the bakery, the one I can't pass without stopping, are especially outgoing on Sunday and don't let anyone leave with just one croissant.

"Something more my dear?" (big smile)

"No, no, I really can't, one croissant is enough."

"Ahhhh, but for you my love, you need at least two!"

"Yeah, you know, you are right. Throw it in the bag."

Cafes are packed with people passing the morning with coffee, croissants, and the massive Sunday paper. Parks are full of lovers, fathers and daughters, picnics and sunbathers. No one rushes. Portenos (the name given to Buenos Aires' inhabitants) are clearly a happy, laid back bunch all the time, but on Sundays they just coast.

Normally, I use Sunday to enjoy an especially long run, but this past one I dedicated the day to sitting in cafes and parks, sipping coffee and eating sweets. I went Porteno. I spent two hours reading the paper with my coffee and cake, then headed to the botanical garden where an abundance of stray cats live. I made a couple of feline friends thanks to a can of tuna, laid in the grass for a bit, moved to a bench to write and did a couple of laps Porteno style. Slow as molasses. Moving on to the next park, I joined rollerbladers, bikers, joggers and popcorn stands on the lanes that outline a park with a small pond, quaint bridge and geese. Later I went to an open-air market I hadn't been to and met up with a friend for a flamenco show.

It was a simple day among a background of grad school applications, internship shopping, and the continuous effort to match ambition with opportunity. I plan on keeping my Sundays in such a sacred style. Enjoying the here and now. That's my form of worship.