Mike On Purpose

Finding purpose in the twenty-first century

Posts Tagged ‘Nicaragua’

The return to normal

Posted by mikeonpurpose on December 14, 2010

When I returned about a month ago from spending some time in the second poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, I was emotionally drained.  I had only spent a little over a week in Nicaragua, but that experience was deeply affecting.  I felt a measure of sadness about the poverty I witnessed, along with a deep affection for the people I spent time with.  I spent the first few days after my return looking up Nicaraguan charities that I could give money to.  I just wanted to help more, to make more of  a difference.

After a while, of course, as the everyday, mundane details of life here in the US begin to occupy my mind, I slowly but inevitably returned to something akin to my  pre-trip  emotional stasis.  I am not sure if that is a good thing or a bad thing.

The thing about short-term voluntourism trips is that one’s contribution tends to be rather limited.  We worked on a project that was mostly managed by professional masons.  We did help in ways whatever that we could–hauling bricks, helping with the laying of bricks–but a lot of the serious  work was done by professionals who were hired for the project.

In some ways, our assistance was more about emotional support and making connections.  Some of my most memorable moments include the conversations I had with the people of the village.  For example, there were the brother and sister, ages seven and nine, who seemed tickled to death to converse with strange foreigners from a land far away.   They knew their own ages but not their birthdays–a jarring bit of cultural shock as I came to learn that in poor communities there,  people often didn’t know the day they were born.

There was Fabio, the mason who three of us volunteers worked with over a few days, who would address Phil, a fellow voluntourist, as “Fili”.  There was Ofilio, an older man with a leathery tan who wore shoes with holes in them, but managed to dress up a little more for the final fiesta before we parted.  Ofilio asked me at that fiesta if my camera was expensive.  It pained me and embarrassed me to realize that I was holding in my hand a device that would cost most of those people several months’ salary.

I was as affected by the poverty these people lived in, with unsanitary water and in many cases without even an outhouse, as I was moved by the gentle and kind spirit they exhibited.

Spending time, even a short period of time, in a developing country in the tropics is a trying experience that affects you in significant ways.  The time has passed now since I came back, and I am settling into my routine as a more privileged citizen of a developed country.   Of course, even in the US, privileges and wealth are not equitably distributed, and in many ways the inequality here is getting worse.  Poverty is a problem that plagues all present and past human societies, and it is one that should not exist if we had the will power to address it.

I said earlier that I am not sure if it is a good thing or a bad thing that I settled back into my routine.  On the one hand, I think it is pretty hard to go on perpetually in the sort of emotionally affected state that I was in when I came back.  Life does go on, after all.  On the other hand, maybe we who are more privileged should be a little more plagued by the suffering of others, maybe we need not to compartmentalize things so much, and maybe we need to be prodded and inspired to do more than we do.


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Perez Hilton promotes a worthy organization

Posted by mikeonpurpose on September 5, 2010

I have to admit that I am not a follower or fan of Perez Hilton, but I recently discovered that he has  just recently given some positive publicity to El Porvenir.  Good for him, and good for El Porvenir.

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Benjamin Linder

Posted by mikeonpurpose on July 10, 2010

I ran across this blog entry from the other day that  talks about Benjamin Linder, an American who was murdered by the Contras in Nicaragua in 1987 while “working on a small hydroelectric dam to bring electricity to the northern Nicaraguan town of El Cuá, where he also participated in vaccination campaigns and used his skills as a juggler and unicyclist to entertain kids.”

According to one of the comments in that blog, his legacy lives on to this day.  His family created a memorial fund which later became an organization called Green Empowerment:

Green Empowerment provides technical, organizational, and financial support to local partner organizations in developing countries to construct community-based renewable energy systems associated with residential electricity, economic development, potable water, and watershed protection. They now work in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Peru, Ecuador, Burma, Malaysia, Thailand and The Philippines.

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Voluntourism and Guidebooks

Posted by mikeonpurpose on July 10, 2010

Since the itineraries, lodging, and meals of many types of short term voluntourism trips are pre-defined, the usefulness of guidebooks is an interesting question.  If you decide to extend your stay before or after the voluntourism period, of course, then guidebooks can fulfill the need for information about hotels, restaurants, and travel options.  But what if that isn’t going to be the case?  Suppose you are met at the airport, taken to pre-arranged lodging, and have no real decisions to make about travel plans within the country?  What is the point of shelling out money for information that you aren’t going to be using?

I have, in fact, been going on a guidebook buying spree for two Central American countries I will be doing voluntourism trips to in the future.  One explanation is simply that guidebooks are in this case largely about getting background information and about a country’s geography, history, and culture.  I suspect that for me there is more to it than that, though; I think reading these books are a way of dealing with the anticipation.  I would like to go to these countries sooner than later, but that is not how the schedule has turned out; so, in the meantime, as I wait at home for the months to pass so I can do my next voluntourism trips, at the very least I can imagine what it is like to be in that other place right now by reading a book that takes my imagination there.  Guidebooks are my means of voluntourism fantasy.  I can look at pictures, and I can read about the towns and the history and the fauna and flora of the country, and I can study the maps.

It isn’t even so much about learning about the specific destinations I will be going to within those countries.  I happen to know the names of the towns that I will be traveling to in both of my upcoming trips.  They are small, off the beaten path; and the guidebooks I have bought do not provide much information about either town.  I might see a paragraph or two in a given book, if I am lucky.

It also isn’t entirely about learning about the histories of these countries.  In fact, when you get to what can be rather contentious recent historical events you sometimes have to take what you read in those books with a grain of salt.  Every author has an opinion, of course, but I ran into one example that illustrates the problem to an annoying degree.  The Hunter Travel Guide for  Nicaragua makes some categorically untrue claims about the Sandinista government of the 1980s.  (The book asserted that they established a one party state, when in fact they created a multi-party democracy with free elections and they faced opposition parties in parliament.)  Running into something like this serves as a reminder of why it is useful to consult multiple sources.  Perhaps that is why I have already bought several guidebooks, but I have also been doing a fair amount of internet research about the countries I will be visiting.

Of course, as I mentioned, these books are as much about being taken away in my imagination as they are about learning facts about where I will be going.  Voluntourism is both deeply fulfilling and adventurous, and both of these aspects of voluntourism can make for quite a contrast to the often mundane nature of ordinary life as a working citizen of the United States.  There are several ways of biding time until I get my next voluntourism fix.  One way is to do volunteer work where I live–it may not be adventurous, but at least it is fulfilling.  Another way, for me anyway, is to blog about the subject of voluntourism.  Given all of that, reading guidebooks is just one more way of getting me through my everyday and sometimes humdrum existence until the next voluntourism trip begins.

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Voluntourism and Latin American history

Posted by mikeonpurpose on July 5, 2010

I recently had a chance to view the 1996 Ken Loach film “Carla’s Song”, which uses the vehicle of love triangle (of a sort) to look back on life in Nicaragua during the Sandinista revolution. I appreciated the politics of the film, and I felt that the story had a lot of the right elements for a good story, but as a feature film I found it unsatisfying.  The Scottish bus driver was clearly meant to be portrayed as a passionate and impulsive rebel against the uncaring bureaucracy in his own country before taking off to Nicaragua, but I found his behavior a little over the top and his relationship to Carla while in Scotland struck me as more than a little like stalking.  The American Witness for Peace volunteer who was in Nicaragua, played by Scott Glenn, also seemed over the top and as much as I wanted to be moved by his own story of transformation I just couldn’t feel any connection to his character.

Despite all of that, the images of the Sandinista revolution itself (the film took place in 1987) were somehow inspiring.  I was trying to imagine what it must have been like to live in Nicaragua during those heady days of optimism when the people had banded together to build a better society.  The images of Contra violence in the film were also a stark reminder of all the forces that exist in the world who will use any means necessary to sabotage efforts to strive for justice.  This has especially been true throughout much of Latin America’s history.

Alas, the United States has played a very unfortunate role in the history of this region.  In 1954, for example, the CIA engineered a coup against the democratically elected government in Guatemala.  The legacy of this horrible history of intervention lingers on there, as a recent story in the New York Times reveals:

Guatemala’s criminal networks extend deep into the institutions of state. Even the language of Guatemala’s agreement with the United Nations refers to “illegal security groups and clandestine security organizations” with the ability to “avoid investigation or punishment.”

When the democratic political fabric is destroyed and when aid is given to death squads and military dictators, is it any surprise that even once a country is at “peace” after a protracted civil war that it is a long way from the normality of civil society?  I often ponder how different things would be today in Guatemala had the events of 1954 not taken place; or how Chile would have been different had the events of 1973 been different; or how Nicaragua would have been different had the US not armed the Contras to terrorize the country into submitting to the aims of Washington policymakers.

I used to own a vinyl copy of the Clash’s 1980 album “Sandinista”.  The song “Washington Bullets”, published just a year after the Sandinista revolution, celebrated the events in Nicaragua with this hopeful but (in retrospect) clearly naive lyric:

For the very first time ever,
When they had a revolution in Nicaragua,
There was no interference from America

Of course, that was 1980, and we all know what happened later.  There was plenty of interference.

Fast forward many years later, and in 2009 we saw a coup in Honduras, in which a democratically elected government was overthrown by the military.  Deja vu all over again.   Honduras was expelled from the OAS, but the US government refused to take part in any sanctions against the new military backed regime.  And just last month, the Obama administration came out publicly in favor of re-admitting Honduras back into the OAS.  As one writer describes it:

The Organization of American States suspended Honduras and has continued to resist efforts of Secretary of State Clinton to pressure them into readmitting Honduras. However, the US pushed for and was able to secure the formation of a high-level OAS panel to “study” the re-entry of Honduras at its recent meeting in Peru. We may well start to see the international community beginning to normalize relations with this illegitimate government.

As it stands now the coup government of Honduras’ biggest ally is the United States….

Once again the US is on the wrong side in Latin America.

Once again, the US government is undermining democracy and actively supporting a government that is murdering its own people.

Once again, the US has sided with anti-democracy forces and is trying to bully the world into rubber-stamp approval of our mistakes.

Because this is par for the course, my response to this is angry and yet in some ways muted. I am just not surprised by any of this.   It does remind me of why I invest so much personal energy into the concept of volunteering overseas.  If I have no faith in the political establishment to do the right thing with respect to Latin America, then I instead put my faith and hope in the efforts of impoverished and indigenous peoples of this region (and elsewhere) to organize themselves, and my efforts at voluntourism are directed with this sense of solidarity in mind.   As people struggle to survive financially in the face of the powerful forces of neo-liberalism, globalization, and free markets, not to mention racism and government repression, then the volunteer work that we do can express our support in their struggles for economic self-determination.

This gets back to a point I have raised earlier in this blog.  I think that volunteering abroad is not about solving other people’s problems, but rather assisting and participating in the basic work that a people are engaged in to make their lives better.

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