Thank you

A small child
arms swinging
by her sides,
like windshield
wipers on a
rainy day
wipes away air
to make space

Space for her
slight figure
and that of her
baby doll on her
spirited back—face
white as a corn
tortilla just patted
into shape
before it turns
dark above the
flames that cook
it steadily from
underneath

Tears dampen
her mother’s brown
cheeks when she
realizes our
eventual departure
She believes that her
economic stability is
tucked away
in foreign bank
accounts. She doesn’t
own the key
to her own future

Her uncle’s eyes are
alert and knowing. He
sits on a hand-crafted
wooden and bamboo
box-stool and talks
about reforestation
creando consciencia
about plastic and
grey water systems
and questions the
lack of regulations
for companies that
ship their products
over in brightly
colored packaging
which later dot
the landscapes
with colors and particles
this land has never
welcomed. No home for
waste—make-shift
trash dumps—basureros 
clandestinos are the
only place that take on
the heavy human hand

The child introduces
me to the kitten Tomy
He is small and black
and has a brown patch
on his throat
He meows as the
child’s mother prepares
lunch en cantidades
He was placed
in the kitchen to
hunt mice but maybe
Tomy is a bit
out of place in his
new home full of
food he cannot
rightly partake in
and lacking the
mice he can.
He is underfoot
in the kitchen
like a shadow—
his presence and
his meowing
reminders of his
constant “thereness.”
(Muj is shadow in
Tzutuhil.) “Tomy Muj,”
I say giggling to the girl
“Muj, Muj, Muj,”
her mother
chants and smiles
Sharing upturned lips
like life-long friends.

 

It’s the last day on the summer course. It’s so interesting to hear about what people say of you and what kind of presence you bring to the table. I think even in my 30s it’s hard to come to terms with or just settle comfortably into the person you are.  I guess sometimes I feel like I’d much rather be on the seat of my chair—smart and talkative and always knowing what to say and/or do in any given situation. At the end of the day, I think what it comes down to is being cool with your inner spirit and self. Maybe what I needed to practice and have highlighted this time around was my spirit of kindness, coolness, and grounded energy. I am so thankful for an amazing Instructor team and group of teenagers ready to learn and grow. Los quiero mucho y he aprendido un montón de ustedes.

 

We have journeyed
into a history
as dark as
the depths of Lake
Atitlán—el más profundo
de las Américas
The depths have
felt overwhelming but
necessary as the reminder
of the pain that lives
in each of our bloodlines
the bones that hold us
up like a ladder
are dense with the
memories of time
and are buried
in the soil we
occupy with strong
and reaching raíces.

Roots we need to
continue to explore
in all directions.

We have ventured
into the verdant lands
of Guatemala—land of trees
and like the Lorax
we must be careful
of the greed and power
that run like currents
of flames in our
nation’s veins
We must tell the story
of deforestation, of
pollution, of dwindling
natural resources before
it’s too late
We must plant the seed
that will revive the
forests and inspire
the birds of the
trees to keep on singing
We must care
and maintain the
precious seedlings
of our siembra and
never give up.

You are the seeds
of the trees that
will grow into
grandes problemáticas
or soluciones transformativas.
We want to sew
the fruits of our
labor of love
During our adventure
the garden of love
has been planted
let’s see what it’s
beauty holds and who
will hold it up to
the light that
illumines dialogue
and understanding,
patience and tolerance,
caring and challenge.
Raíces profundas y duraderas.

 

This is a note for the families and friends that have journeyed with us, albeit from afar (and especially to the parents). We would like to thank you for lending us what is most precious to you so that your son or daughter could learn what the stories of the land of Guatemala had to teach them. From the people that inhabit this remarkable corner of the world, rincón del mundo, and the numerous native languages, struggles, hopes and injustices that each student experienced first-hand. The story of Guatemala is one of conquest, of bitter memories, and difficult realities that cannot be swallowed whole, sino poco a poco. In its same right, Guatemala is a land of a people that inspire. They are resilient to the constant change in tide.

Thank you for planting the seed within your child that gave them the openness, desire, and grit to keep on learning and to begin to grow roots of difference and change against corruption and injustice and the destruction of the Earth. Keep watering them and we hope they will grow into that aguacatillo we learned about at Chico Mendes. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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The red box

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I know I have been kind of absent on my blog recently so I hope this serves to let people know a little bit of what I am doing right now. I am leading another group of students through Peru and Bolivia and just this past Sunday we made it to Bolivia. Specifically, to El Alto and a theater company called Teatro Trono.

As an interpreter and translator for the group for much of our time in Teatro Trono I have found that it is a good way to “profundizar” or go deeper into the material we are learning. Nuestros dragones have had the opportunity since Sunday to be immersed in an art collective known as Teatro Trono or COMPA (Fundación Comunidad de Productores en Artes or the Community Foundation for Artists).

Iván, partner to one of our beloved Dragon’s instructors who is currently leading Group A in Andes and Amazon, welcomed us with a smile that made us feel right at home in Trono, a building, that also serves as café, gathering place, theater, and home and which was envisioned and designed by Iván himself. The building is a work of art and has many old relics and antiques and scraps from all over La Paz and El Alto that Iván has collected for years. Parts of old buses, historical balconies, windows from all across the city in various sizes and shapes make up the building façade.

Iván’s personality matches the building in part because he is a gentleman who is not only charming, but at the same time has a depth of personality and purpose that one cannot help but admire and want to get to know.

He tells us, as we tour Trono, that the house pays homage to the miners that are the populace of El Alto, one of the most socially and politically important centers across the Andes. In 1985, El Alto, perched just above La Paz and the capital’s eyebrow, was officially founded. Home to migrants from all across the country who have mostly come from mining backgrounds, the city’s population has exploded to over one million inhabitants. The mine shafts that are in the basement of Trono help to enact an important story of Bolivia of mining and also serve to make sure that Trono stays close to its roots of mining and struggle. At the same time, the rooftop of the Theater is where the artists wings can take flight. One can enjoy the view of the snow-capped mountains that wrap around La Paz and El Alto in a giant embrace, if the day is clear, and imagine all one’s dreams taking off into literal thin air, at 4000 meters.  

In his “charla” or talk with us Iván stars as the protagonist, although he apologizes in advance that he has to tell us his story. On the contrary, I tell Iván, “qué no te de pena, queremos escuchar tu historia,” “don´t worry, we want to hear your story”. And he starts to tell us about his life, born in La Paz. When his dad died in the second guerilla of what was the movement that Che Guevara started in Bolivia for independence, Iván too wanted to live his life for something–he wanted to be a revolutionary, a “guerrillero” with a clear purpose.   

Iván’s dad was pursued because of his involvement in the guerrillas. He therefore had many trades so that he could remain out of reach of anyone looking for him. He was a painter, welder, boxer, football player, plumber, etc. For all these trades he needed different instruments or tools so he had a red box full of whatever work element he might ever need. When his father died in `70 he left behind a widow and three kids as well as his red box full of tools from his various trades. Iván’s mom, Doña Elba, started selling the things inside the box, one by one, in order to provide food for her family and little by little everything in the box disappeared.

Iván, started using the red box as a play toy. He would hide in there and also use it, as his dad did, for storage. Whenever he would come back from the street he would stash different doodads in the box: pieces of wire, leather, glass, little trinkets, whatever he could find lying around outside. His mom would periodically empty out the box. He later realized that it was because there wasn’t much room in their house to have so many things, they lived in a 3 x 4 meter room after all. The years went by and the red box eventually disappeared.

Now, Iván has us Dragons, sitting around in a circle in his house, look around us. We are surrounded by every kind of trinket, antique, and thingamajig imaginable. Posters, frames, paintings, wall hangings, cover the ceilings and walls, and an eclectic mix of rugs lay obedient under our cross-legged feet. We take it all in for a second and then he says. “That red box is long since gone, but that same red box is now my house, where we find ourselves. We are all in that red box now.”

Aside from the red box that serves as the backdrop for the story of Trono’s mission. Iván started the theater company with 7 young at-risk homeless youth and it has grown since then. Next year Trono will turn thirty years old. Iván tells our group that after finding theater he had no need to be a “guerrillero” because theater is a revolution in and of itself, a tool used to transform people into better versions of themselves.

We can only hope that as dragoncitos passing through the door of Trono, we too have become better versions of ourselves. Through the workshops we have had that got us out of our heads and acting with our bodies and our hearts, we have found another way to interact with the world and ourselves. Un trabajo bello e interminable. A beautiful and never-ending work.

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Peru summer 2017

The other night my dad invited me to a reading from someone at the Mennonite church that had just published his memoir chronicling his life from his birthplace in Paraguay, retracing ancestral roots to Russia and persecution there and extending the roots that he himself had stretched into North America at the age of twenty years old. His friends and mentor introduced Erv and then he read a few excerpts of his story. Lastly, he had each of his family members present–children and grandchildren–read stories that they most identified with from his book. I found the whole presentation very touching and an exercise in modern-day storytelling that I had never seen before. Each of the voices took it’s own shape, but through the framework of Erv’s original story.

Our Focus of Inquiry for our Peru six-week course this summer was storytelling and communication. We heard and experienced so many stories during the oh so short time we spent together. Stories of hardship, of trauma, of joy, of love, of privilege, of gratitude touched us from within our group of travelers. And stories with these same themes touched us from outside our group of travelers. Stories have come to us about the magical place called Peru from the high snowy peaks of the Andes, to the dense green forests of the Amazon, to the citadel of mystical Machu Picchu. We learned from people who inhabit all of these spaces, and thus learned a bit more about what it means to be a human in these often broken, bewildering, and besieged times.

I’d like to share with you now some of our time together and I will try to punctuate opportune times with pictures for your enjoyment and increased understanding of our wonderful experience together.

Our adventure began in Lima where, after excited and nervous introductions in the airport, we traveled to our orientation destination in Caraz, a beautiful permaculture eco-lodge called Apu (or Mountain) Eco-Lodge with a view of the Cordillera Blanca. In our three days there, we built a supportive group culture, started learning about Peruvian history and culture, and outlined different course components so that students would be familiarized with our learning goals and outcomes. This course mostly focused on the focus of inquiry outlined above, as well as rugged travel, trekking, home-stays, and developmental studies.

In the map above you can see most of the places we went to. Cities of interest are Lima where we landed. Caraz->Huaraz->Parque Nacional Huascarán->Pucallpa (in this map right next to Yarinacocha)->Cuzco->Machu Picchu
Short walk outside of Apu Eco Lodge one of the crops is carnations.
At Apu Eco Lodge playing a team-building activity.

From orientation we went to Huaraz, where we spent two days preparing for our first trek. We went to the mercado and stocked up on supplies and met with the trekking company and our guide to familiarize ourselves with the lay of the mountainous land we were about to trod. Then we traveled to Parque Nacional Huascarán by bus, enjoying the peaks of the Cordillera Blanca glistening and grand, through the dusty bus windows. Huascarán National Park is the highest tropical mountain range in the world and holds close to 660 glaciers and 300 lagoons. We (instructors and students alike) were a bundle of nerves that didn’t know how to diffuse. So as the bus bumped along the road our nerves jostled along as well and we sat in nervous anticipation of what lied ahead.

View from our hostel in Huaraz.

Upon arrival to Pomabamba we stayed overnight in a friendly and spacious hostal to be greeted the following morning by our three arrieros (Agustín, young and timid, Geraldo, silent and somber, and Zenón, our all-knowing hero), fourteen mules, and trusty emergency horses–Mono and Juan. During our rugged and isolated trek through the park, students learned the basics of trekking, philosophy of Leave No Trace, and how to keep safe (although we did have a few close-calls with symptoms of altitude sickness and some kind of bacteria that most of the group got halfway through our trek) and warm in the high Andes. Students also got the chance to practice camping behaviour by setting up and tearing down tents when time allowed, cooking food, and learning about the park through our guide and mountain enthusiast, Eduardo, and our trusty and steadfast arrieros.  We crested mountain passes over 4,800 meters, enjoyed the cool of glaciers, and looked with awe into crystal lagoons. After hiking for a week we concluded our expedition to the park with a short bus-ride back to Huaraz to relax and recover from our rugged adventure in the snow-capped Andes.

The above map shows the whole Cordillera Blanca. The trail that our group did, Los Cedros, is the red dotted line going up and down on the far left side starting in Pomabamba and ending in Hualcayan.
Meeting our arrieros and mules and doing some last minute preparation for our trek.
First view of the Cordillera Blanca while on trek.

Our first campsite was right at the foot of this glacier. Picture really doesn’t do it justice.
Second night we set up camp right next to an alpaca herd. Here’s a couple of them left in the morning when we set off.

 

One of many mountain passes, highest of which was 4,880 meters.
Laguna Cullicocha

Our last campsite on the trek–Wishcash. And let me tell you, when I rounded the bend and saw this campsite it was definitely a wish come true.

After a day and couple nights in Huaraz we changed our surroundings dramatically during a 20+ hour bus ride to Pucallpa, our entry point into the Amazon. We took a short boat-ride down an estuary of the Amazon to arrive in a Shipibo community called Santa Clara where students spent four days and nights in homestays with families who had only this year been catapulted into modern times through electricity and running water. Many families spoke limited Spanish and the cultural exchange was even more meaningful by the fact that houses were normally built with the surroundings in mind, sometimes only three walls enclosed participants from the forest along with their thin mosquitero or mosquito netting. We partnered with an agency based out of Pucallpa called Alianza Arkana, roughly translated as The Shielded Alliance, that collaborates with many indigenous communities of the area with a particular emphasis on the Shipibo people. One of their main projects in Santa Clara is a permaculture project that will eventually reforest the deforested region around the town and provide one meal a day for the local children that attend the elementary school in the village.

Gone fishing.
Our Shipibo family: Luz, Isabel, Gabriel, and Freddy.

 

Papaya plantation right as you enter Santa Clara from the river.
Enjoying the heat of the rain forest!
Walking on the dirt roads of Santa Clara.
Embroidering with the Shipibo women.

After our short but sweet time in the Amazon, we transitioned back to a bustling city as we made our way to Urubamba, a city in the Sacred Valley that is a stop for many people going from Cuzco to Machu Picchu. In addition to learning about Urubambin@s first-hand from host families, during our ten days in this vibrant town, students took Spanish classes daily, worked with local mentors on independent study projects focused on learning about Andean instruments, Andean spirituality, Permaculture, and Andean weaving.

Our time in Urubamba came to an end and we said goodby to our host families and new community partners as we transitioned into the expedition phase of our course where students prepared for a ‘mini-expedition,’ where they would take on most, if not all, the leadership and logistics. Student leaders took us on the three-day trek of Salkantay a sacred apu or mountain that is one entry point to the Machu Picchu ruins. Our expedition took us through the Sacred Valley where we delved into the meaning behind being a traveler versus being a tourist on oftentime crowded parts of our journey as we headed to visit the ancient Incan ruins of Machu Picchu.  We were fortunate enough to have Favian, a wonderfully joyful guide and spiritual leader.  Favian’s quena (Andean flute) playing floated through the air as we took one step after another on sacred ground. His music was a plea to the mountains to allow us to journey safely, purposefully, and most importantly, to secure an invitation to journey at all.  On the day we climbed from our campsite up the steps to Machu Picchu park and up more steps to Machu Picchu mountain, Favian taught us much about the quickly fading culture through an impactful pachamama ceremony, a blessing and sacrifice for pachamama, or mother earth at the Incan bridge.

Day 1 of Salkantay trek…you can see Salkantay on the right-hand side.
Favian and his quena.
Day 2 of our Salkantay trek.
Favian and my two trusty co-instructors (Jhasmany and Mateo).

We then returned to the outskirts of Urubamba, where we transitioned into our transference phase of program. We continued sharing our own stories and that of our time together and discussed how to translate what we learned and experienced in Peru to our lives back home. These final days flew by and we soon found ourselves in the heart of Peru–Cusco–basking in the light of the full moon as it sat over snowy Ausangate. In the light of the moon we offered praise, gratitude, and appreciation for the people we had met, the lives that had touched us, the places we had only briefly known, and the impact that it already had on our lives. After saying our goodbyes, we were ready to take our individual stories, now altered by the sacred apus and their inhabitants, out to our respective parts of the world.

Our group as well as our guide and arrieros after our first trek together.

Coming back from the place you started from and telling your story is always an interesting exercise that for me never gets easier with time. Hearing Erv and his family read his memoir gave me some hope about how storytelling can be more integrated into our experiences. I’m currently filled with a light mist of sadness because of the people and the places that I always seem to leave behind in a mission to keep moving forward with the tides of time. Sometimes the visibility through that mist is pretty good, but other times that mist clouds my vision and I have trouble seeing at all. I hope that through this account you can see some parts of my story during these last couple of months and I thank you for journeying with me.