|November 17, 2005|
Now in Monterrey Mexico, researching with one of the two major labour unions in Mexico, CROC Confederación Revolutionaria de Obreros y Campesinos). I attended their annual national conference as a “special guest” and it is among one of my top bizarre educational moments on this trip. I hadn’t recognized the acronyms beforehand, but as I chat with my contact at the labour union, I realize that I know this org from previous studies I’ve done on Mexican politics. They’re a HUGE labor union that contends with another national labour union called CTM on who can rule the most votes (and in Mexico, votes means money…as it does in many places). And they have a messy reputation for their forceful persuasion methods.
And in case you hadn’t heard, in the past labor unions worked hand-in-hand with the the PRI party that lead Mexico for 71 years. And they are used to maintain and increase power. Well, I’d only planned on working with a street vendors union that goes by a different name, not a national all-inclusive union like this (the org I was going to work with is an arm of CROC and in Mexico City but they invited me to do research in Monterrey). These guys work with a lot of money, dish out a lot of contracts, and open a lot of doors if they want to. Yeeeez. (collar tug).
But they seem to like me and they like that I’m interested in informal workers and not the goings-on of their internal politics or persuasion methods, like many journalists and researchers that come around here I`m sure. As I said, I attended the two day conference that included all the
CROC hot-shots and governmental officials paying their respect. And the second day, a meeting of just women (street vendors mostly) to identify the presence and significance of women in CROC: Both were huge and I spent time listening to speeches, shaking hands, and arranging times for meetings
the next week.But my biggest impression was from just watching these people work: how you could just as easily see them beating a competitor to a pulp as you could shaking governors hands. They were fierce and not to be messed with. They had money and power and they knew it. And the deceit of “for the people” rhetoric was so obvious. To everyone I’m sure, but the blue collar audience kept clapping and cheering, why? I can only guess: I scratch your back, and I’m hoping you’ll scratch mine. Just some very strange impressions that I can’t pin down yet.
I’ve now met with street vendors for interviews and surveys, but I’ll write about that a bit more later.
|November 10, 2005|
“Tardy Blog from Guatemala”
So I visited Rio Dulces’ lakes and beaches and Tikal’s Mayan ruins and I must say that were breathtaking and I felt so lucky to go to them and to meet the people I did while there, but it’s time that dictates what I can write about, not necessarily how great the experiences were. Here’s what came after the above . . .
-Semuc Champey’s natural swimming pools, skipping from one aqua colored pool to the next with my newly acquired German travel friend Daniel and two Californians Allison & Travis. Daniel and I scamper off quickly to climb down a waterfall (literally) into a cave with one of the park rangers. Then we hurried to hike up to the “Mirador” before our bus left. Turns out Daniel is as much a movie fanatic as me and end up chatting about directors and bad scenes from Coffee & Cigarrettes the whole way…that and politics of course (what can you expect when you put a German and an American together, or for that matter an American or anyone these days). We actuallty do miss our bus because we got distracted by views and walk 2 km uphill before we hop a ride with a passing truck. That night, there’s yatzy or something after dinner at the hostel, but I´m too deliriously tired to tell the difference when I fall asleep in my hammock.
The next morning, Allison, Daniel, and I head to Semuc’s caves, where I bump into my old friends from Denny’s beach (can’t escape the gringo trail…at least not with short-term travel in a country). With candles and some pretty sweet bowling shoes, we take a tour of the charted parts of Semuc Caves. Bats, pools with no visible bottoms,stalagmites, stalactites, rickety ladders, and underground waterfalls that we have ride down to get out . . . and all explained to us in Spanish. Daniel and I were the only ones who knew what the guide was saying, so it was a fun experience as an underqualified translator. Allison, Daniel, and I walk back to hostel before catching another pick-up. We pack up our stuff. I visit my friends at El Retiro hotel (slash: resort — jeeez) before heading back to Coban for the night´s and next morning´s Day of the Dead celebrations.
-Delicious pizza and one beer at Coban’s “club.” Wondering if the man on the dancefloor that we’re laughin at is actually retarded.
– Next morning. Still drizzling. Stroll to Coban’s cemetery and Daniel and I talk and talk while we walk and see people decorating the graves of their loved ones. Orange pedals everywhere. I’ve never seen a cemetery this festive. Everyone is chatting with family and friend. The adults eating tostadas, & pupusas, and the kids eating candy and icecream. Daniel and I join in my stuffing ourselves with frijoles filled platanos and banana & papaya milk smoothies. Chat until we must both catch buses in separate directions. Great guy and fantastic time.
– Little girl pukes in bus from Coban to Guatemala city and it´s like the carnival pie eating contest from Stand By Me. Everybody’s running down the aisle towards the restroom in the back, gripping plastic bags, and sipping club soda for the next few hours. Wish I was kidding. Actually . . . now I don’t. It’s a funny story.
– Pupusas and hot chocolate in the market with blond Canadian (why can’t i remember names?!) Interviews with street vendors about their vendor association, in spanish! Yay!
– Running around Antigua in order to beat it out of town to Guate before dark. Don’t make it and I ride into Guatemala city at 8pm — NOT A GOOD IDEA, EVER, from what I hear. But I had no choice and had no problems getting a taxi to my hostel as soon as I got off the chicken bus. By the by, if you ever go to Guatemala, don’t go out into the city at night. I´m not speaking from any personal negative experience, but nearly everyone I met (I mean seriously seasoned travelers) won´t do it. i was lucky. okay, on to Mexico…my last stop on this big adventure. Weird.
|October 31, 2005|
Bussing out of Antigua. Three days later than i thought. I got here and two awesome American girls named Erica and Jennifer asked me “if I was going to volunteer?” Now in Ecuador, that usually meant doing crafts with kids, teaching English, and/or being made to think you had a purpose when you didn´t. So I wasn´t too keen on it, UNTIL they told me that everyone does it, locals to tourists, whoever. Antigua wasn´t as badly affected by the flooding from the hurricane as some other towns that were made into “graveyards” overnight, but still right out of town, neighborhoods where drowned in a mix of rushing water and mud AND everything that comes with that . . . meaning couches, beds, sewage, etc. Volunteers had set up a meet station for anyone to hop on buses and come help dig houses out of the mud with shovels and wheelbarrows. I´m enjoying the beauty of Guatemala, so I might as well try to give back a little of all that I´m taking in as a tourist. No getting in the way. No righteousness, just grunt work and leave. Nice.
A few truck rides, an afternoon, four blisters, and a sweet amount of mud all over my body and clothes later, my two American travel friends and new one named Kate and I chowed on the first earned meal I´ve had in months. Mmmmm…
Contacted a labor org and having scheduling problems, but I´m still going to to try to meet with the microfinance org FINCA even though the possibilities are a bit too close to my flight date than I’d like. Okay, there more, but little time. More later.
|October 21, 2005|
Just rode into Antigua (on a bus not a horse, which would be more appropriate for riding into a town like Antigua). its got copple-stones and pretty old buildings, which in “developing country talk” means: it’s for tourists. When citizens of LDCs (less-developed countries) get their choice, they bulldoze the old and bring in the cemented new buildings and roads. so the cobbled streets are just for the likes of me to take pictures of and go “wow, this is sooo . . . rustic. how marvelous.¨ I don´t know how Guatemalans sincerely feel about it, but I think it´s beautiful.
But Guatemala City is definitely one of the more insecure places I have been ever. In all my travels, I have never seen locals carry literally all of their stuff with them (as in, on their bodies) while on buses. They usually put them on the racks on top of the bus or on the racks above their heads inside of the bus. But at the Guatemala bus station, a guy offered to put my backpack on top of the bus and a man in the bus jumped up and said NO! and told me that it would get robbed in Spanish. it could have been just an over paranoid man, but then I saw a grown man uncomfortably cradling a huge cardboard box on his lap and realized “jeez, not even the locals feel safe.” It was like that with everyone we picked up.
That and the woman at my hostal in Guatemala City was seriously worried about me taking a “chicken bus” with both my bags to Antigua. It was fine, but she kinda weirded me out with her worrying. It´s a lot safer everywhere outside of Guatemala city and I don´t plan on going back as I’m
canceling my flight from there to Mexico City in two weeks cause I want to overland it across the Mexican border so I can spend sometime in Chiapas Mexico before booking it up to Monterrey for research with an NGO (and to meet my parents and bro who are coming to visit me there—yay!–it´s
really close for them in Texas.) Okay, that´s it for now other then that Panama is awesome. You should go there! Not just because you´re undoubtedly a Pure Americana and Panamanians should meet
one, but also because they´re friendly as heck and have great beaches and fantastically Tweety-Bird gratiffied buses blasting Salsa music driven by macho men who have no idea how ironic that is.
|October 20, 2005|
Panama City is the richest city I’ve been in in my travels. The sky scrapers are gleaming and beautiful, towering out of a beautiful scenerey like the Emerald City…but with Tazmanian and Tweety Bird graffitied buses roaring salsa music down the perfectly lined streets. The city´s in deep contrast to the rest of the underdeveloped country-side or so some Peace Core volunteers told me. Anyways, knowing that I prefer the country-side to the city when I’m only stopping in a place for a short-time, I skip Panama City, drop my stuff off in a paid-storage room in a local hostel and head toward Panama’s Coast. Taking a bus to Sabanita (30 mintues before Colon), then to Portobelo, after a pleasant wait on a street curb with Alana and her family to Guaira, and then a taxi-boat to Isla Grande, a famous beautiful beach that is virtually empty after the weekend rush (yes!). With only two Chileans and one Ecuadorian we had the Island to ourselves (oh yeah, except for the inhabitants). It was peaceful and beautiful. And with a hammock, the sound of the breakin waves, and only three hours of sleep the night before I fell asleep outside like my father after Thanksgiving dinner. It was wonderful.
I woke up early the next morning to go to the beach and swim. After a few hours of lounging and swimming, swimming and lounging, Pamela (the Ecuadorian), the Chileans, and I go for a boat tour of the surrounding islands. We got out and swim at one and gawked at another that has–no joke– ten buildings and massive satillite tower on it that are all for one Spanish-Cuban couple that only come once a year for 15 days. They have employees there full-time all year round and do not rent it out ever. With white -painted houses and white dogs, I wondered at this lonely place dedicated to two neglectful, yet fortunate parents.
With a 15 minutes to spare, we get back to Isla Grande, pack up our stuff and begin the same boat-bus routine to Panama City over again– except backwards and with a small tour of Portobelo (but Portobelo is small so that’s the only size available).
And now, I’m in a hostel called Voyager International with Hagen Daaz in my stomach to counter the heat radiating off of my body from my decent sun burn. Apparently, even with Sunblock — 70 proof– I am still Irish.
PS- Off to Guatemala. Write more soon
|October 18, 2005|
After a wonderful dinner on Friday night with Mauricio Davalos and his wife, I konked out to sleep before I met Mauricio again at 9am the next morning to visit his 18 hectacre rose farm. We toured the area for three hours (he was looking at damage caused to the roofs by a recent hailstorm and I was obsessing over one variation of rose to another. Imagine rows and rows roses of different colors and curls and stems and leaf sizes…it was kinda like heaven, but warmer. Talking the whole ride back (and the ride there, to tell the truth) about love and politics and travel, we met his wife and daughter Irene and his dog Burna at their beautiful home in the valley outside of Quito. They wanted me to try the best “authentic Ecuadorian food” before I left, so they took me to “El Chorro” across from the Quito World Trade Center. I have no idea if it was authentic, but it was definitely delicious. Mauricio and his wife told me of stories of dancing until noon and then dancing some more and I decided then that these people were fabulous, brilliant, and fun and that leaving Ecuador would be hard because I felt like I just started. But I’m 21 and all I’ve needed was a taste to know that I want more of Ecuador…somehow. Hahaha..=) Flight tomorrow– off to Panama.
|October 17, 2005|
I met with Mauricio Davalos at his office in Quito. We spoke for two hours about the informal economy, micro-finance, and the state of Ecuadorian politics and economics in general. It was great to chat with him, not only because he was providing insightful information on Ecuador for my research, but also because he gave me some insight into my parents’ past. Mauricio was an old friend from my parents years in Grad school at Vanderbilt. He was getting a PHD in Economics (after having done 4 of 5 years of Law School in Ecuador and deciding he didn’t want to be a lawyer). He had gone to Northwestern coincidentally and with parents years in the Peace Core in Columbia and NU, he and my parents hit it off immediately. After stints as head of the Central Bank for Ecuador, minister of Energy, and Minister of Agriculture, he retired from government and exports Ecuador’s famous roses (a major export for the country).
After two hours I excused myself because I knew it was a normal workday for him and we had already arranged to have dinner later in the week to chat more. He referred me to a USAID official who ran a microfinance program in Ecuador and I met with the official, Bernai Velarde two days later. Between those visits though I scrounged up a translator for my interview with the director of a street vendors union and advocacy group, working specifically with Indigenous women who migrated to Quito from rural Ecuador. The director Rosario Curichumbi, another Union officer, and I talked with the help of my half-Ecuadorian, half-Texan translator James. They repeated some of the same themes I have found everywhere with street vendors: harassment from the police, bribery in order to stay in business, efforts by city councilmen, mayors and presidents to “clean the streets” free of vendors — what officials view as a stain on their resume as a developing country. The union leaders seem to think that if the government could hide the vendors, then the IMF, the World Bank, and the UN would think they were “doing better” and they shoudln’t be a Less Developed Country anymore. The problem is that there are no other jobs elsewhere. So the clean-up is all just superficial.
After the interview, James (the Texan-Ecuadorian translator) and I picked up dinner and shot questions back and forth about each others’ homes and politics (his for Ecuador and me for Texas). I also tried one of the most artery clogging meals I’ve had yet–carne, arroz, patatas, and hueves –jeeeezzz. But it was good, real good. Almost beats my chicken-foot soup from a few days ago . . . almost.
|October 11, 2005|
In Quito now, but don´t have much internet time.
After spending three days acclimating to the altitude, making appointments with contacts for research the following week, and seeing parts of Quito, I left the city for…
…Papallacta (thermals baths that are supposedly better than touristy Banos now) in the mountains two hours west of Quito. Gorgeous views and steaming water adjacent to a freezing-cold river. If you go to Ecuador, come here. Termas de Papallacta.
…Saquisili Indigenous Market on Thursday– great market, wonderful hot manzana & cinnamon juice…mmm…
…Otavalo on Friday–couldn´t buy/pack much, only a purse & scarf (both of which I didn´t have and needed)
…Otovalo Famous Market on Sat Morning and then to a beautiful hostel (Casa Luna) in the surrounding mountains that afternoon — fantastic chats with Canadian & German travelers (that I´m meeting up with again in Quito), fireplace, and four wonderful huge dogs to play with and walk in the mountains (peace of heaven above Otovalo)
…Stayed until I took an afternoon bus to a NW highlands town called Mindo via Quito
…Spent today walking around the river and forests surrounding the town and checking out the town´s highlight (bird & butterfly watching and a place that boasts 200 species of orchids). The orchids were wonderful. By the by, there´s my favorite flower. That´s why I went. That and the famous cloud mountains that were on the way.
Meeting with Mauricio Davalos Guervarra, former minister of Agriculture for Ecuador, tomorrow at his office at 9:30. Post again later when I have more news of research in Quito.
|October 10, 2005|
I would like to come back and talk about Central America visits a bit more, but seeing how I’ve moved on to Ecuador here´s a small synapsosis:
After a night in San Salvador I went to the Volcano Llamapatec area, where there’s a lovely lake. Stayed at a great hostel on the lake´s edge called Amaquilco Lodge. Chatted with Germans & an American volunteering in Guatemala and two English siblings who worked in Vail and told me how to get a job there in the winter (to pay back school loans and snowboard). Made quick friends with a crazy German girl who studied and worked in the US and swam to the middle of the lake made by an old cratered volcano. Slept in hammocks, was tucket in by the lovely owner Victoria, and ate inhuman amounts of delicious beans and cheese filled tortilla-like snacks called pupusas. After another mornign swim in the lake, I left with the German, Steffi, to San Salvador where we parted ways. Me to Costa Rica via the airport and her to Nicaragua.
Uh-oh. I lost my first thing on this trip. And it only happened to be my agenda (aka- life source during travel-research)…with my plane ticket to Costa Rica and Ecuador (one ticket) in it. Paid to print a new ticket, rebooked on later flight to San Jose, leaving me no time to go to Puerto Viejo on the coast like I had planned. Although I´m bummed that I´ve lost my agenda and that my plans for Costa Rica have become null as I arrive too late at night, I spend the next day tromping about San Jose seeing museums and the symphony at the National Teatro in the evening. I leave for Quito the next morning.
By the by, Llamapatec volcano erupted after I left., but didn´t (and would have never) effected the lake that I went to cause it shares only the same Range. They say Llamapatec erupts every 100 years and I didn´t try to climb it because the constantly rising ash (before it erupted) fogged any views from the top. Most of the local people in the surrounding area had moved out as well because the last eruption had been a 100 years ago. The keeping of history in the town based on the pattern of eruptions is almost a science. It´s quite impressive that the local people just know because
they´re parents parents told them. Okay, that´s it for now. Choa!
|October 7, 2005|
I’m in Ecuador now, but here´s a blog on El Salvador I let sit in my laptop for days … lo siento.
While San Salvador itself is not an amazing city, I did have the kind of time that clarifies that what you’re doing at that moment is the exact thing that you should be doing in the whole world. Someone asked me what my favorite country was the other day and I realized something that I hadn’t understood when I had asked the same question to a pair of world travelers last year: While some countries hold more charm than others, in travel it is experiences and people that stand out when looking back. It is this sunrise, or this evening with friends, that swim or night sky. It hasn’t been one country. It has been a collection of experiences. I couldn’t answer with a country absolutely without lying.
My first day in the city, I met a guy named Amit from Austin, Texas. After unsuccessfully trying to reach my Street Vendor Unionizer contact by phone, we grabbed a cup of coffee and he showed me the cheap internet dig in a mall that evoked America more than I can say. I headed out to the center market by myself as Amit had bank stuff to do and I wanted to see what I could in my few days in the country. After a bit of a loop, I hopped off the bus at what I guessed (correctly) was the market and grabbed a bite to eat at a small, pleasant restaurant. With my stomach full I walked around the market, aiming to stumble across the famous Cathedral in the area. When I did, I saw local men lounging on the steps of the Cathedral. Now, don’t be be fooled by the information I have given so far. These men weren’t hanging out to chill with the Holy Spirit.
On the South entrance to the Cathedral, someone has set up a television set that has the sports channel broadcasting hours upon hours of futbol (soccer) matches from around the globe. The Cathedral’s steps just happened to be the best open seating area for the crowds that the games attracted. If they happened to wander into the church, all the better. It is by far the best marketing tool I have seen for the Catholic Church, ever. The Vatican should seriously consider this marriage of convenience, football and Catholicism. There’s already an informal relationship in Latin America, a common law marriage you might say.
Anyways, I sat on one of the creeking wooden pillars inside and admired the architecture of this relatively small cathedral. Although I had seen many churches, cathedrals, temples, and mosques, I stilled loved visiting them. There was something comforting about them. Especially, at odd hours in the day, when people came in to pray privately. I often create imagined lives for these people and wonder at what they might be praying for: a rebelious son, a lost husband, an upcoming wedding, the health of an unborn child, a good pot roast tonight. Or more likely, that Arsenal beats Ajax on the match playing outside or that Brazil never makes it to the finals ever ever again.
I hopped the bus back to the awful MetroCentro mall that is close to my hostel and after a nap went off for drinks with Amit and his German and Swiss friends. I ended up talking with the Swiss guy named Tobias for hours about American hiphop and all the random music we loved. We jumped through conversations about books and politics, always coming back to music when a good song came on from behind the bar. We ended up talking until they kicked us out and long after Amit and the German went back. The conversations continued at the hostel until the sun rose and we were forced to bed by heavy eyelids. We said goodbye as I was leaving for northwestern El Salvador later that morning. I slept briefly, showered, checked e-mail, and found the correct buses to my afternoon destination. As we passed the city’s edge, in my pleasant sleepiness, I thought “these nights and conversations are the things you recall when people asks that harmless, but impossible question, ” so how was –insert country–?” Places can be beautiful, but it’s moments and people that make them amazing. My conversations with Tobias over beers, interrupted by songs laden with nostalgia, were wonderful. Thank you for asking.
|October 3, 2005|
In San Francisco for two days. At 2am on my first night, the night manager of the hostel I was staying at in Union Square wakes me to tell me I have a phone call from my dad. In a zombie-like state I climb down the three flights of stairs and answer my dad as fast as my brain will allow me to function. After a few incoherent comments of hello from me he says, “I’m coming. Susannah, I´m coming to San Francisco.” Like I said, I was delirious, so I didn´t catch him until 10 seconds later.
Being from Houston, my dad was set to fly out of hHuston Hobby airport to meet me San Fran for the few days I was in the US, but that Rita chic put a little hitch in that plan and he told me before I got on my plane from Delhi that he wasn´t coming.
Long-story short, my dad showed up the next afternoon and we spent the next day-and-half talking so much my throat hurts. It was wonderful to see family and was a total recharge for Latin America. Now, arriving in El Salvador the only thing I can say is that this is the most orderly place I’ve been on my trip. Right now, I’m in an internet cafe in a mall, after buying a latte with dollars, and Madonna’s lastest horrible-song-mistaken-for-music is playing in the background. It’s completely surreal.
|October 2, 2005|
Over beers I mention to my new Indian friends that I’m going to Patna in Northeast India next. Half-way through a sip of his expensive imported beer, he stops and repeats, “Patna?” With already pronounced eyes, he widens his look of dual atonishment and horror and plummets his voice down a register, “Why would you go to Patna?”
“I’ve got research to do there.” Over the coming days, I would repeat this information to the concerned responses from Indians when I told them where I was traveling to after I left Mumbai, the country’s safe business metropolis which oftens reminds tourists more of Europe than Asia. After a six-hour conversation with an Indian professor-friend, Dr. Sharit Bhowmick, he confides in me and says that he really doesn’t think it would be best if I spent a lot of time in Patna. Leaving his house at dusk, I thank him and tell him I’d take his suggestion into consideration.
After I finish my research up with an American NGO working in collaboration with cooperatives in Mumbai, give a cameo in a Bollywood commercial, and escape away to the Southwest Indian coast for a day, I jump on a train for a 32-hour ride to my destination in the Northeastern State of Bihar, the poorest and as all Indians seem to agree, the most dangerous region of India (apparently Kashmir is a great place for holidays in relation to Bihar). Although everyone’s concern made me a bit more cautious in my travels, I’d been talking to my contact in Patna for months and I was not going to cancel my trip. Besides, their organization, National Alliance of Street Vendors in India (NASVI), was one of the most impressive organizations working in the informal sector that I come across in my secondary research.
After settling in at my hotel and squeezing in 30 minutes of sleep, the representatives from NASVI pick me up to take me to the office to meet the director of the NGO and take a tour of the facilities. I immediately like my translator Bianca and Achje, the on-call PHD Economics student seems kind despite his over-eagerness to quiz me and exchange research findings on the informal market on the ride over. I meet with Arbind Singh, the director, and we lay down a schedule that has me hopping from street vendors area meetings to individual interviews to lunch with various government officials.
NASVI, essentially an NGO working to unionize street vendors and strengthen the social, economic, and political power of informal workers, has just recently gotten a formal request from the local government to draw up a map of possible locations for legal street vending zones and was smack in the hustle and bustle to finish their draft in two weeks. Needless to say, it was a great time to observing NASVI’s work. I sat in on street vendors meetings in various wards of Patna, as local vendors argued over which street blocks would best serve business. Interweaved between these meetings were interviews with fruit, fish, and vegetable street vendors, who shared the common thread of being harassed daily by cops and local gangsters who were working in association with Patna polica to extract 20% or more of the vendors’ daily earnings. Realize that a vendors daily earning could be 80 rupees (less than US$2). These vendors were usually heads of four to eight person households. The vendors paid 10 rupees from fear of the threat of arrest (which would could an impossible 500 rupees) and 10- 15 rupees to local gangsters for fear of having their produce stole and their stand burnt.
At one vendors meeting in Ward 13, three women spoke of their homes being burnt the Monday before by police while they were working in the market during the afternoon. The police had told them to move their shops from the sidewalk area because it was “encroaching” on the street scene (India’s High Court ruling from last year emboldened the officers aggression). They told the officers that they had no way of feeding their family if they had to close their stand. The next day, the police decided to teach them a lesson by burning their shack houses when they were guaranteed to be away at a busy markettime.
There is no employment in the state of Bihar and Indians from rural areas migrate to Patna in search of some means of subsistence. They flock to the informal sector (aka- street vending, short-term labour jobs, etc) because it is the only possible means with few skills and almost no education. Instead of saving, workers in the informal sector pay of what they translated as the mafia and corrupt cops. The money does not go to the city government for development of housing for the homeless, expansion or maintenance of roads or the ancient and decreipt water system. It is not invested into anyone’s future. It is siphoned off by thugs, legal and illegal
The work of NASVI is to unionize the workers to empower and counter the force of this malicious corruption. The ngo is negotiating with the local government over distributing Vendor ID cards that would allow vendors to sell in disignated areas for a small rent. Each vendor I talked with volunteered that they would willing pay rent if only they would not be harassed, beaten, and arrested on a regular basis. Over endless cups of tea, I spoke with Arbind, union leaders, street vendors, and government officials and I can say without a whisper of a doubt that this is one of the most impressive grassroots organization that I have seen or come across. Separate from the eyes of superiors, street vendors praised the organizations work, but in the office, the halls were filled with vendors coming in with reports on meetings they held with their fellow ward members. There was no hint of paternalism here and the workers were doing it themselves.
They didn’t talk about grand dreams. They talked about realistic goals and policy issues. What a technocrat said in the office was recipricated in the fishmarket. With the tool of the newly passed National Policy on Street Vendors, informal workers were attempting to better their sitation themselves. This was the sort of stuff you read in novels and daydream of in real life. But there was nothing fantastical about it and it’s methods were lined with pragmatism. I will be a thrill to come back to the information I´ve gotten in Patna to write my thesis this January.
|September 23, 2005|
I’m sorry for the delays in postings at times. There are various reasons, but I appreciate your patience. The postings have been come daily recently because there were times where my internet access was extremely hampered and I just had to hand write and catch up later. Check below if you’ve been away for a while. Also, pictures from Uganda, Rwanda, and India have recently been posted in the photo galleries.
In Delhi right now, but no for long. Tonight I leave for Taipei, Taiwan for a 10 hour layover, and then to San Francisco for two days–without my Father who was set to meet me for my the days I was in the US. Hurricane Rita, however, is predicted to land about the time my dad’s plane to California would be taking off. Somethings are just out of my hands and against the stars. I hope with all my heart that my family, friends, hometown, Texas, Louisiana, and Northern Mexico make it out okay. In the meantime, I’ll be inhaling as much cranberry juice as I can get a hold of and listening in on other people’s conversations held in English–I haven’t overheard English is so long. Funny the little things you miss.
I had an amazing time in Patna, India. NASVI (National Alliance of Street Vendors in India) was quite amazing and I made friends with my incredible translator Bianca at an insanely fast rate. On the train to Delhi, it was the first time on this trip that I wanted to cry when I left a place or a person. Looking out my train car window, the night sparkled with fireflies and the far horizon lit up with the lightening of a distant storms.
And I thought, “Is it fair to say a place is magical because it has fireflies?” My answer was yes. Thank you to the major characters who made my trip: Faulzia, Colby, Amanda, Alan, Arbind, Gurdu, and Bianca. And thanks to all the others that too numberable to name.
WHITE TEETH by Zadie Smith: “Please. Do me this one great favor, Jones. If ever you hear anyone if you, when you go back home, if ever you hear anyone speak of the East,’ and here his voice plummeted a register, and the tone was full and sad, ‘hold your judgment. If you are told that ‘they are all this’ or ‘they do this’ or ‘their opinions are these,’ withhold your judgment until all the facts are upon you. Because the land they call ‘India’ goes by a thousand names and is populated by millions, and if you think you have found two men the same among the multitude, then you are mistaken. It is merely a trick of the moonlight.”
|September 22, 2005|
So after getting two tickets to Goa, my Irishfriend Alan and I hop a train to the Southwest coast, specifically Vagator beach, and head for the sands after we drop our bags. Mostly, because I have to leave the next day for Northeast India, but partly because Alan doesn’t want to take a shower yet and the ocean is the compromise we’ve made.
We build abstract castles in the sands and then proceed to throw chunks of our creations at each other until there’s nothing left. We swim for a while and then head in when we see the tide reach our beach bags and begin to carry them away.
We head to dinner, where we pay far too many rupees (Indian currency) for okay Goan food (basically salty Indian) and a few beers. We chat for hours about Ireland, the US, Europe, India, trash tv, and the worlds. Seven hours, one victorious game of pool, a few Hindi lessons from our new Indian “tourist” friends, and a long conversation about Evangelism from a born-again Indian later, we head to the hotel an hour before I have to wake to catch my train.
Whoops….I’ve slept three hours and the taxi at 5:45 has come and gone. Scramble my stuff into a new taxi, say goodbye to half-asleep Alan, and speed off to the train station to get a ticket for the unreserved section to Mumbai to make my connection. Pause: you should know that after seeing Indians crawl over each other into the sardined Unreserved Car of the train in Mumbai, I no longer have to work so hard to imagine what the apocalypse would look like. Sooo… with sleep-deprived head and body, I am real excited about this 12-hour train ride.
However, it worked out great! I jumped onto the 3rd class AC car and asked the conductor if there were any free spots that he knew about. I paid to difference and lounged my exhausted head in luxury for 12 hours. Sweet, huh?
From Mumbai i caught two local trains to a far-off station to get my Sleeper seat on a 32 hour train to Patna. Twas grand. Slept for the first 12 hours and then befriended a university student from Bangalore, who i hung out with for the remaining time and a few hours at the train station as I waited for the sun to come up in Patna.
Patna isn’t the poorest place I’ve been — villages in Uganda win that prize — but it’s the most derelict city I’ve visited. It competes with the Internally Displaced Persons camps I’ve seen, as far as misery goes. It’s the worst kind of povety, desperate and dangerous. But the organization I’m working with is wonderful! And the people are kind.
It just got a formal request from the local government to draw up a map of possible locations for legal street vending zones and is in the hustle and bustle to finish in two weeks. It’s really a quite extraordinary union. That and the director is a charming, sincere guy who i spent dinner with
last night along with his pregnant wife and young daughter. The whole time the young girl was hurtling herself onto her father, pumping him in the stomach and such–and seeing this I thought, “geez, I miss my dad.” Punching you dad, something to look forward to.
|September 20, 2005|
|Arriving in Mumbai, I hung out and visited various parts of the town until I started my research with MarketPlace: Handicrafts of India. I loved my 15-year old translator, who was boisterous and just fun to be around, making the time between and during interviews with the cooperative women even more enjoyable. The interviews with female cooperative artisans was amazing and definitely enlightening. Chowpatty Beach in Mumbai– wonderful Kulfi, which is basically rich rich ice cream cut in blocks. Mmmmm … met with an Informal Markets scholar, Dr Sharit Bhowmich, and talked for over 6 hours, chatting with two other Grad students who specialize in the informal sector, but both in sociology. It was great because I’ve never met anyone who studied the informal market and neither had they. We bonded over similar stories of perplexed responses we got from professors and friends when we tried to explain what we were studyin/interested in. After moving to his house for tea, he mentioned that he was writing a book with John Cross, the informal sector scholar whose my academic soulmate! I was ecstatic! I got Cross’ new email at his new UT school and will be looking him up in Texas as soon as I get back. The next day … I was in a Bollywood commercial. That’s right I did a Bollywood commercial. Me, 7 other foreigners, 2 Indian models, and two intenational models did a-boring dinner-party-turned-dance-fest commercial for a major bank in India. The story goe: I bumped into two English girls that were asked to be in the shoot, told they needed more, and with the offer of 500 rupees for my “trouble” I was dressed up in the ritzy clothes, lathered with make-up, and jabbed with hair-pins and was shooting until 2am the next day. At which point, there was a foreign withdrawal from the set cause we have been 5 hours overtime.Then I met an awesome pair–one English chick and an Irishman — and had the best time with them tromping about, laughing my head off. They are seriously cool. Went to Elephanta Island – — essentially a disguised Dr Monroe’s Island. Got physically attacked by two birds and threated by a number of monkeys. I kid not. Off to Goa in Southwestern India.|
|September 19, 2005|
India is kind of amazing. It seriously the most chaotic, crowded place I’ve ever been, yet I can walk down the street without anyone bothering me because I’m a girl. The most gorgeous women in the world live on this subcontinent. They are also kind and unassuming, which puts them in drastic relief to the glares and suspicions of Egyptian women. And I’ve seriously never seen anything more beautiful than these women lounging together in train cars with their luminiscent saris flapping in the wind. Indians live and share space together so serenely. Reconginizing five days of experience can speak for an entire people or country, from an outside prospective people seem to share literally the same breathing space and reamin unbothered and unjaded by it.
And so far, the men come off as complete romantics. During my 24 hour trainride is the sleeping car from Delhi to Mumbai, men tried to flirt with me, but flirting is not really the correct word for it. We don’t really have one in common-day American vernacular for what it was, but it’s the sorta stuff you read in over-the-top poetry. They’d try to make eye contact — if only for a second — or as one guy did late at night, reach their finger tips delicately through a screen towards me. He wasn’t trying to touch me, not anywhere close to that. Maybe I should be embarassed by this unwanted attention, but as a foreign woman (especially traveling independently) stares, catcalls, and attention from the opposite sex are just an accepted reality. The only thing that is in your control is how you respond to this reality. I, for one try give it as little satisfaction as possible and be as light-hearted about it as possible….yes, my description sounds oh-so-cheesy, but his approach was really tender. And though I didn’t recipricate at all, the romantic longing and impulse really struck me. This mentality of love and romance is really kind of extraordinary and I’d never come across in a culture before. We’ll see if it was mere chance or something more constant in India.
On the research side, my contact in Mumbai (www.marketplaceindia.org) has gotten the stomach flu and is out for two days, so I’m trotting about with a Polish friend I made in Delhi until Thursday. After four or so days in Mumbai, I am going to travel a bit of the West coast of India, until taking a ridiculously long train to Patna (in North Eastern India). I’ll be working with an NGO called National Association of Street Venders in India (www.nasvinet.org); essentially a street vendor labor org. It’s kind of fantastic for my research and their giving me a short term internship. Nothing but smiles. Hope all is well at home to those are reading my letters from abroad.
|September 14, 2005|
Coming back to Egypt, even if only briefly, was a true joy. I certainly hadn’t liked the way I left Uganda–a full 24 hours before I expected and three hours before my 3am flight. Obviously, that sucked.
But Cairo was fantastic. I ran into old crew friends and went running with them on the Gezira Club track. I hung out with relatively new friends–my bud Colin who’s studying Arabic as impressively dedicated as I have seen and a Delaware friend named Tom that I met briefly in July when I was in Cairo. Somehow, I ended up playing frisbee, going running, attending a Friday Christian service, and helping my friend Joanna move into her new Maadi apartment. I watched a movie with an old friend named Ahmed–an Eritrean who is by all accounts a movie-fanatic. And to my jubulent surprise, my good friend Dave came back into town and I crashed at “his place” for my last remaining days. And all this while meeting with a UN-microfinance organization called Mobadara, a US-AID funded rural agricultural NGO called AVERI (associated to ACDI/VOCA), and Barbara Harrell-Bond–essentially the founder of Refugee Studies at Oxford (as well as in Uganda and Cairo). To my surprise, this trip has also lead to an intense, sink or swim lesson in the refugee experience and Barbara is very helpful with my questions.
Sadly, I missed out on a trip to an NGO in Garbage City because of communications difficulties (I know, I know, Dave. I should have gotten a cell phone) and interview with Al-Ahram, but apparently the Al-Ahram interview is more than welcome by phone. Silver-lining, silver-lining.
Off to India, like a tumbling, happy, Texas weed.
|September 3, 2005|
In Northern Uganda, I visited and interviewed directors and workers of these organizations. While some of the meetings were for my research, others were to assist a friend with his. We were quite a team; he’d write notes while I’d ask questions and vice versa. I now see the value of research assistants. The list appropriately illustrates the varying nature of NGOs in Northern Uganda.
Rokele Rahabiliation Center- a Danish government funded rehabilitation center for Ugandan children who were abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army and escaped, before or after being forced to join the army and often kill in order not to be killed. This organization proves to be amazing.
Christian’s Children’s Fund- an international non-governmental org (NGO) that works in development aid and, recently, emergency relief assistance. I follow-up on some of the micro-business loans they’ve been doing in the IDP camps.
UWESCo- Development NGO and darling of Uganda’s First Lady. It is a development charitiable org that also runs a microfinance program as a means of development. Interesting enough though is that the Lira director told me they had a hard time existing as a charity org and as a microfinance loan agency. Because of the conflicting interests of the charity and the need for strict enforcement of return payments, the org and the microfinance programs are separating into two different organizations—with the same name and underlining association/ideology.
World Vision an international NGO, funded by the Pentecostal Church, working in development from a holistic prospective, meaning education, economics, social issues, etc.
LICODA- local community-based org working with HIV/AIDS infected Ugandan women through sewing programs to promote economic welfare. In the “office,” we see sewing machines coated in dust, but the director tells us that the women have “just gone to the market today to buy materials.” Nathaniel and I quickly learn how to decipher through the…well, you get it.
Bala Stock Farm- Large IDP (Internally Displaced People) camp on the edges of Lira. This is one of the places where I conduct interviews for microfinance programming among receivers of the credit.
TOWN OF GULU
We visit an IDP camp on the outskirts of Gulu, an especially LRA targeted town in Northwen Uganda. This camp is far worse than the previous ones we have seen. It is also quite old with some of the IDPs having lived there for more than 17 years because of the 20 year insurgency in the North. It is here that I see something that particular bothers me over the next few days : a young boy sitting next a dirt hut, clenching an old bare cob of corn. He’s crying, but looking into his eyes and seeing his clenched jaw, you realize that he has just reached the age threshold where he stops being just sad and learns to be angry and resentful of his hunger. Sentimentality aside, this transition from sadness to anger is a global problem–produced by both natural and man-made disasters.
Night Commuters- See previous blog for more on this.
|September 2, 2005|
This is a backlog that I typed earlier but couldn’t access (Word program problems). Since I had it…here ya go. Disclaimer: What I talked about here had a lot to do with what drove me more and more towards a feminstic prospective, though it was not the main provocator at all.
Arriving in the sopping rains at 9pm that night, our Northern Ugandan contacts meet us as the “station,” a delegated curb in this small town of Lira. Our new Ugandan friends, James, Peter, Jimmy, and George, recognizing us as the only “muzungus” (white people) coming off the bus, pull our hands through the crowd and lead us in a corner to pray for our safe arrival. A little thrown that our contacts had immediately assumed our religion, Nathaniel’s and my eyes meet and wonder at the next two weeks that we are going to be spending with our new friends.
Sitting in a dark newly opened restaurant in Lira, lit by a singular gas lamp, we chat a bit over a bowl of vegetable curry and then say goodnight to our hosts for a few hours rest. The following morning, our day begins early as were visit the Ugandan Young Christian Development Agency–the Community-Based Organization (CBO) started by our twenty-something Ugandan contacts. The two month-old organization seeks to train local vulnerable single-Ugandan women in sewing and craft-making skills. We sit in a thatch-hut classroom, and listen to a lecture given by a recent graduate from the Arts department at Makere University as he explains the color wheel in English to a group of twenty young Ugandan women, but during the Q&A afterwards we realized that most of the girls don’t speak very much English, as the local language prevails. It was clear this session was more for “the visitors” than for them. Although I can’t say for sure, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that this fledging organization seemed to work more on paper than in real-life and that they were suspiciously interested in donors and not in workable market plans for selling their crafts through international buyers like Ten Thousand Villages. Nathaniel and I hid our doubts and walked about the town meeting the appropriate officials like the local Chief of Police to notify them of our stay in Lira. We met with the deputy the local representative of the President, the Municipal representative, the local finance minister, and Lira’s Mayor.
While all were welcoming, Nathaniel and I most enjoyed our warm meeting with the deputy Presidential representative. She was a feisty middle-aged Ugandan woman who was the first to speak openly about the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), the rebel group that has been fighting in Northern Uganda for almost 20 years and has long lost any image as a “political movement for the people.” Some of her most biting comments were on the notion of the LRA calling their efforts “war tactics.” “What is war?” She answers her own question, “it is between two armed forces. The LRA attacks families in the middle of the night, abducts their children, and runs away. How is that war? That is cowardice and cruelty.” For weeks, she will be the only one to heartily vocalize criticism for the LRA, while others never target their anger solely at the LRA and blame the government for failing to protect them from these rebel forces.
Admitting a slight suspicion of our contact’s organization, Nathaniel and I enjoy the female Deputy’s question of “where [the] women are” in their organization’s leadership structure, referencing Uganda’s new movement to integrate women into social and political leadership positions. Peter and James fumble to say that they “are at the office,” which both of us know as untrue, unless they are speaking of the women they are training. We quietly smirk at the Deputy’s directness and are glad that she asks was Nathaniel and I are both wondering. As we leave, we tell James, Peter, and George that we liked her and thought she was interesting. They respond, “she talks too much.” (Pause: to be fair, our initial feelings were only a looming suspicion at that time, but increased as we spent more and more them with the organization. It’s coordinator finally generously explanned to me that “Ugandan should not be put in leadership positions as they misuse
And all I can think of as he finishes his statement that women-misuse power-while-men-don’t is…Obote, Amin, Museveni. These kids are seriously overlooking something.
|August 24, 2005|
I would love to have a disclaimer for this blog and pretend to not have seen things that made me angry or that I would have a funny story instead of a sad one–hopefully I’ll write one of those what-has-Susannah-gotten herself-into ones up soon–but this is more honest to what I’ve seen in war-torn Northern Uganda.
* * *
One after one, they all say the same thing. And perhaps because of my unintended feminist past I’d been avoiding this looming perception. I’d transferred from a women’s college and it became part of my shtick to avoid women’s issues, women initiatives, or anything that sounded remotely like the militant feminism that I had been–by sheer saturation living and breathing at Mount Holyoke. Over the past year, I’d become slightly more lenient about this, but I have to say that Africa has done for me what my year at a women’s college never could: it had made me into quite the raging feminist.
I knew when I heard Stephen Lewis’ speech at Northwestern in April that I was hearing something that would build the framework for an entire new perspective, but I didn’t know where it would lead me. Mr Lewis, recently named Bush’s special UN envoy for AIDS in Africa, spoke for one and half
phenomenal hours on the feministic perspective of aid and development in Africa and though I was dazzled by him in more than one way I didn’t really understand the reality of his argument. Let me explain:
Each day for the last week, I have been to two to three meetings with different NGOs and CBOs working with internally displaced persons in Northern Uganda. And threaded through all these meetings is the story of male heads of households using earnings for drinking or personal entertainment while their wives and starving children sit at home trying to scrap something together to dispel the onslaught of descending bellies and hollowing faces. In fact, as the women in Bala Stock Farm IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camp outside of the town of Lira told me over and over again as I talked to them about their tiny businesses within the camp, men actually felt entitled to take money (set out to buy food for the family) from the women in order to go drinking. These women, given tiny loans by Christian Children’s Fund to start micro-businesses, we ordered to protect their revenues for the family and save their profits in the bank. Meanwhile CCF met with the husbands to explain to them not to take the money from the wives for drinking.
The sickness of it is overwhelming and I could righteously say that it was incomprehensible, but I would be fooling myself. It is understandable. These displaced Ugandans live in desperate conditions, scrounging up food by begging, farming on borrowed land, or if their lucky, finding small jobs to do in town. Men react to what they feel as total emasculation, not being able to feed the family or find a job and decide to self-medicate their depression with the local millet brew served up in small stuffy huts, still the strongest enterprise in the camps. Yet the women keep the family together, often baring the burden of harvesting the fields at the same time that they are caring for the children, cleaning clothes (a full-time, back breaking job in Uganda), and preparing any meals for the family.
It took me a while to process this information. I had actually called my dad in the US, frustrated that I couldn’t put to words what I had seen. All I could tell was that I was angry and confused; in part, at my own ability to relate. I had never known what it was like to go hungry and looking at the women getting by from day to day, I realized that I didn’t know what it was to just survive.
For so long, the designation of feminist has carried an ugly meaning to it that I was loathe to take on and though I am lucky to have wonderful men in my life that continuously regenerate my faith in the male gender, I’m ready to say that Africa has turned me into a full-fledged feminist. Mount Holyoke would be so proud.
|August 21, 2005|
I have done A LOT of research here, with typically two or three meetings with non-govenrmental organizations (NGOs) or community-based organizations (CBOs) a day. They haven’t all been isolated to informal economy and are spread out from between economic development to domestic violence to relief work. And the strangest thing I find it my prospective of normalcy is slowly and quietly changing. The chaos of over-crowded cities stopped being a novelty long ago and eventually all chaos seems to become….decipherable; but recently my experiences in Uganda has pushed an aspect of human reality that I have been fortunately sheltered from: the effects of war.
In Northern Uganda, the war permeates the air. It is every conversation over beers, every interview about microfinance, every discussion with a mother in the IDP (Internally Displaces Persons) camps, in Evangelical church sermons, everywhere. I know so little about war– a truth and a comfort of the American experience I both appreciate and feel overwhelming naïve for; though I don’t doubt that most mothers here would gladly exchange my ignorance for their children’s “education in war.”
I came to Uganda to study economics, but I’ve come to realize that the economics of Uganda is war and this is a bit of what I’ve learned….
* * *
The sounds of children playing have always evoked a certain content ness and hopefulness. They are a queue that captures a moment of innocence that is so fleeting you almost can’t help romanticizing it.
* * *
The stars beam through the holes in the opaque woolen blanket that lines the skyline. The florescent rays illuminate the faces of the growing mass of entranced young children watching Mr. Bean on the outdoor white screen and appear only as floating faces and torsos hovering low to the dirt ground. Children drum a beat and dance in the distance and respond to the adults’ interruptions with giggles and chants in unison. It resonates like a night at summer camp in the warm Texas summers, I think for a moment. Except they aren’t middle and upper white kids escaping from the city to wake up next to trees (and the opposite sex) and I never had barbed wire around my summer camps. These children I’m looking at from my wobbly bench in the back of this crowd have just come for the night. They’ve come from maybe two — maybe five — kilometers outside of this Northern Uganda town to sleep on the tarped floors of converted 70s dance halls and make-shift tent shelters and leave very early the next morning. Tonight is Saturday “movie night” and the last 3 foot tall stragglers are just making it into the gates a few minutes past 9pm.
Although I learn a few names, these children are known collectively as the “Night Commuters” of Northern Ugandan. More appropriately, they are the children that have been left behind by government who hardly desires to end the 20 year war in the North that garners much international aid each year for the country (read: government) and guarantees an internal conflict status that forgives poor democratic representation, corruption, developmental neglect, and human rights violations.
These children may revel in the fact that there are no curfews in what seems like a massive, yet austere sleep over, but the reality is that their parents send them to these large camps in town each evening so that they are not abducted in the middle of the night by the Lord’s Resistance Army, the Ugandan rebel group in the North that’s signature tactic is to raid towns, wiping it of livestock, goods, and the town’s children that they then force into their army. With the children taken into the “bush” and forced to become soldiers and kill, the North is confronted with painful situation of fighting against an insurgency of their own abducted children.
Yet there is something overwhelmingly beautiful and moving about these children playing under the hang-nail moon tonight. As they dance around a make-shift drum or laugh as Mr. Bean loses his swim trunks in a pool dive, there’s no hint of the reason that they are here tonight in their faces. And I reaffirm what I have come to realize very gradually over the past few years and which has also become even more solidified during my recent travels, bar a few dramatic situations of extreme loss or moments of overwhelming joy, most everything can become normal to you if you look at it from day-to-day personal experience, isolated from intellectual analysis.
Intellectually, this camp, no… this situation is absurd. It is tragic and heart wrenching that these children leave their parents home every night in order to escape being kidnapped and forced to their join in the killing of their own people. But for the sake of these children’s innocence, there is a movie on show tonight and the Ugandan Save the Children volunteers that come here every night without pay to safeguard the children in large canvassed tents and blue-tarped floors until 7am cannot dwell of this fact. They are kind and exude the character of a father or a mother when speaking with the children.
There is a different behavioral language for the children and for adults in the camp: one to sustain innocence and the other to express the grim intellectual realities for visitors like me. The children come here because they must and the volunteers work here every night because, compelled by their sense of humanity, they feel they must as well.
Saying goodbye to the head volunteer Robert whose guided me through the camp and slipping through the metal gates, I walk into the dark towards town and wonder at the astounding beauty and sadness that my already formulating memory was encapsulating.
|August 10, 2005|
So after intermingling interviews and meet-ups in Cairo with the overwhelming impulse to just chill that seems to coat this city, my friend and colleague Nathaniel has managed to co-opt me into going to Uganda. Hoping to ride on his contacts to make some of my own we are flying into Kampala on Saturday, where we’ll be for a few days before getting out of major cities. From there we may take on one of many possibilities: Rwanda, Kenya (in transit), or Ethiopia (this is my push). Jim and Carol told me to allow my plans to change if I saw a worthwhile opportunity and I’ve decided to take their suggestion to heart…and to Sub-Saharan Africa…
* * *
Arriving in Kampala didn’t seem real. It felt like I’d slipped into a deep sleep in my bed in Cairo and I was just having an especially vivid dream of driving down a dirt red road with unfamiliar man speaking English with a low deep accent. Probably only exaggerated by the fact that I slept on the plane, but as I drove with Victor and Nathaniel from the airport it felt like at any moment the moist air and green backdrop would disappear and I would find myself awake in the dry heat of my Cairo apartment.
But four hours and numerous15,000-Ugandan-mosquitos-vs-me-battles later, I conked out on my dorm room bed just as the sun began to rise. And unless I was dreaming-of-sleeping I had in, in reality, come to “The Pearl of Africa.” Although, I have been on this continent for nearly two months now, this is first time I entered the place that people like to imagine as “Africa.” Morocco and Egypt are appropriately categorized as “North Africa,” which is blended and blurred with the Middle East, but when people speak of “Africa” they mean safaris and grass huts and dark-skinned mothers with colorful beads hung about them. The Africa of National Geographic’s slick pages.
* * *
When I wake at noon, the script seems to fit: young African women carry trays of bananas on their heads as old NGO Rangerovers speed by and “taxis” crammed with Ugandans find room on top of each other for two more passengers.
My friend Nathaniel and I spend the next few days with our Ugandan contact Victor, recording our interviews with him or Ugandan politics (the war, market taxes, HIV/AIDS, anything) and trying what quickly becomes my favorite Ugandan staple—matoke, a plantain-like vegetable that actually taste more like a more-flavorful potato.
We interview an American college volunteer named Emily Cool (yes, Cool is actually her surname) who works for a craft organization, Uganda Crafts, in Kampala that was once an NGO, but became a private business four years ago (read: became part of the “formal market”). It employs over one-hundred widowed Ugandan women that work mostly from their homes while caring for their children and exports their crafts through the fair trade non-profit, Ten Thousand villages (www.tenthousandvillages.com) based in the US (with a store in Evanston). Emily goes to Wheaton College and other than craft markets in Kampala, she tells us about the great battle she has as Christian seeing fundamental evangelizing in Uganda. I don’t know what she is talking about that afternoon over lunch, but in the next two weeks I get a lesson in the Pentecostalism in Uganda that I had never planned in my research.
Wading through the torrential rain on our fourth day in Uganda, Nathaniel and I said goodbye to Victor as we board our 50s style bus for a five hour mad-rush drive to the Northern town of Lira. And I begin to see the “African country-side” that I’d seen only in the movies; films that had been my reality for lack of actual experience. The stories continues as we race ahead of the edge of the rain clouds to the North, but that will have to wait til the next one hour/3,000 shilling session in a few days . . . that is, if the power doesn’t go out in the town again.
|July 28, 2005|
Okay, so I have safely arrived in Cairo. Sitting in the taxi drive from the new airport to the island of Zamalek on the Nile that I will once again call home, if only ever-so-briefly, I’m wonder at the thought that Cairo smells the same, but for some reason things whizzing past my backseat window don’t look nearly the same. I knew Cairo as crumbling and unkempt, as modern and exclusive, as disorganized and functioning, but the streets that we were rolling past, were clean swept and well maintained. The buildings we passed were grand, new, and solid. There were murals on the sidewalk made of mosaic tiles. And then I realized…this was Heliopolis. Heliopolis is the known as the new ritzy part of town, on the outskirts of the city. Where the once exclusive island of Zamalek has failed and deteriorated, Heliopolis has expanded and modernized. I had never come the way to or from the old airport that required you to pass through Heliopolis and many of my fellow study abroad friends had deliberately avoided this area of town, because it was filled with Egyptians who disdained Egypt. Or the Egypt that most Egyptians inhabited.
I had gone to American University in Cairo the fall before and there was a strange mix of Egyptian and Gulf college students who made it their job to distinguish themselves from “ordinary Egyptians.” Whether this meant going to American University, or buying their clothes exclusively in Europe. And even though I had rejected these students views because I wanted to see the part of Egypt they disdained, I’m realizing that I—like them—shut a part of Egypt out. And I now I get a second chance.
I arrive at what will be my apartment, meet my new roommates and konk out until late the next morning. Everywhere I’ve gone, I feel like they’ve changed just a little. Where piles of trash used to be is a well swept corner. Everlasting and completely forgotten construction has been finished or carried away. And I wondering whether it’s my perception or Egypt that has changed.
Tomorrow, I will begin my research at St Andrew’s cooperative and start making phone calls to my contacts at the UN. But even with all the changes, my old neighborhood and my friends at St. Andrews seem the same, friendly and welcoming.
|July 24, 2005|
My stay in Rabat is brief. For three days, I visit with a friend from Northwestern, interview a director of an international workcamp, and strike up a friendship with a New Zealand Samoan poet. The first night, I stayed in a hotel (Hotel Marrakesh) in one of the main market areas in a room that is almost to pink for words. Escaping the neon coloring that was overwhelming my senses, I went out for a bite to eat and this is where I met Tusiata, the poet. She had been traveling for ten years and occasionally returning to New Zealand to pick-up and drop off stuff. She‘d recently returned from two poetry festivals in Belgium and Russia where she’d presented some of her works. Truthfully, I didn’t know anyone made a living doing poetry anymore without teaching. Tusiata proved me wrong. She’d made a living writing and presenting her works and she’d been doing it while traveling the world.
We met up with my friend Veena and Veena’s American classmates from her Arabic language institution that she was attending for the summer. Her friends were nice, excited about being in Morocco or out of the country for the first time, and their reactions reminded me of my own the first time I went abroad. We lounged about on the hot summer afternoons and visited the city’s famous gardens. On one of my last days in Rabat, I met up with Taki from Association des Chantiers de Jeunesse for a three-hour interview on Morocco and his association that attempts to link Morocco (rural and urban) to the rest of the world through volunteer workcamps and year-long programming. To see my interview with Taki, visit: www.justnaiveenough.org in a few days. I stay my last night with Veena’s Moroccan family where they make me sing Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, and any other American pop song they knew. With the men of the family spread about their beautiful traditional Riad style home, Veena, her host sisters and mother, and I lay out on couches in the central room and laugh over tajine and peaches. They love my Egyptian accent. They think it sounds like a movie star because Egypt is the center of the Arabic film industry.
After a wonderful sleep on an imperial style bed that made me feel like a movie star, Veena and I gulp our cups of coffee, I say goodbye to her host family, and we part ways: her to school, me to Egypt. I’ve loved where I’ve been, but taking to the train to the airport to catch my flight to Cairo I can’t help feeling like I’m going to someplace like home. Cairo, my Middle Eastern home away from home.
|July 22, 2005 (journal entry)|
My entire body aches. My face is blazing red. My right heel is sporting a gash that would concern my Uncle Stephen the doctor and my legs feel like they have been run over by a steamroller. And I have just had the most amazing last three days.
Returning from the mountains near the town of Imlil, Marrakesh seems noisy and overcrowded. It may well be because July has hit and Frenchmen are now taking their oh-so-coveted vacation to this Francophone country for a week or so. July and August will be good months for hotels, guides, and bottled-water sellers in Marrakesh. But for me, these crowds are unwanted and I pleasantly look back at the calm 3 days I spent with Frenchmen in the mountains.
In truth, looking at how I met Regis and Florian makes me think of someone stumbling down a staircase. I had arrived in Marrekesh the day before and had spent most of it with Jessica and Armando at the Moroccan primary school. After a wonderful night in Djemma de Fna square overdosing on free mint tea and sneaking up to the roof to sleep (again), Jess and I were eating breakfast downstairs when Regis, who we had met briefly yesterday and who spoke French, no English, and decent Spanish, came over to say goodbye. In our choppy Spanish conversation the day before, he had told us that he was going to go hiking in the mountains. He had vaguely invited us and though I hadn’t said so when he mentioned it, I had secretly wanted to go with him as I had come back to Marrakesh for the sole purpose of going into the mountains. In fact, Jess and I had very conspiratorially been waiting downstairs, hoping he would walk by so that we could strategically, yet casually get another invitation for me (Jess was leaving that day for Spain). It wasn’t a very thought out plan, but it turned out to be rather unnecessary as he sought us out to very amiably say goodbye. Still fumbling from the hilarious conversation that Jess and I were having, I very lacadasically asked him if he still wanted company to the mountains. Just to let you know, I am never this bold. I am pretty much a totall wuss. So big kudos for me!–though in all honesty, if we had both spoken a sophicated level of the same language and I didn’t think I could fall back on the social leniency given for bad language skills, I would probably have never been so brave.
He was packed and ready to go, but it was obvious he wanted company. Despite being very socialable and relatively attractive, he hadn’t met anybody to socialize with in Marrakesh as he had stumbled into the only Hostel that wasn’t teeming with Frenchmen his age. Our Spanish conversation had basically given me “an in.” Sweet! I ran upstairs, threw the last of my stuff in my pack, stored my big pack in the luggage room at Hotel Ali, and in ten minutes I was saying goodbye to Jess and the very groggy and confused Armando. Like I said, stumbling…..
Talking about Chirac, Bush, the EU in Spanish (something that I’m barely qualified to talk about in English, no less rusty Spanish), we walk around Marrakesh for about an hour or two trying to find a bus going to Imlil as the bus that regularly travels to Imlil three times a week apparently had broken down. Regis’ (pronounced Khregis) French really came in handy and after arguing with taxi drivers at a very odd informal taxi station beyond the border of Marrakesh, we get a Walter Mathow’esc Moroccan taxi driver to take up for sixty durham each. All of sudden, a pale foreigner walks into the depot; is pointed to our taxi and the fare to Imlil becomes fifty durham! Score #2 for us for the day!
And then…the stranger begins speaking in French. “Oh damn,” I think to myself. ” It’s now France-2, America- 1. I’m going to be learning a lot of French this week, aren’t I?” His name is Florian and he’s just arrived in Marrakesh from Northern France. He’s friendly, the fit, thirty-something Dad type and after a hour long ride into the mountains, we three arrive in Imlil. We load up on last minute necessities and begin what becomes a seven-hour trek to where we will sleep that night. Though I start with a decent amount of energy, it fades hours later and Florian and I are trekking like old men using baby steps while Regis storms ahead. Talking with Frenchmen heading the opposite way than (truthfully, Regis and Florian did most of the talking in French), refueling our energy with chocolate-filled cookies, but mostly Florian and I pushing our bodies to the brink of what we can handle. My lungs are fine, but my muscles are puddy on the steep sections.
As dusk falls on the mountains and the air cools to a chill, we arrive at the Refuge to stay the night and immediately meet three friendly Frenchwomen and their Moroccan friend. Let’s pause and have an overview. It is now France- 5, Francophone-1, and America-1. I am completely surrounded and at this moment, am wishing I had taken even one French class in high school.
But alas, the binding forces of a communal pasta dinner and a few hidden chocolate bars in my backpack draw us together and we stay up until the Refugee owners turn the lights out. At six the next morning, I wake up groaning with legs that feel no better than the day before, but gulp down a cup of coffee and begin the hike up the mountain 30 minutes later. Three or four intense hours later, Florian, my new French friend Celine, and I reach the summet half an hour after the rest of the die-hard trekking crew. I walk to a ledge bordered with boulders that make it seem like a throne at the edge of the horizon and lay head down and close my eyes.
“C’est va?” I wake to a Berber guide inquistive face poking out of the side of one my imperial boulders. “C’est va tres tres bien,” in a happy, sleepy-glaze. I join the group for a photo and a lunch of tomatos and cow-cheese on thick Moroccan bread- food that will forward recall this trip for me. Skiing on my sneakers through moguls of sliding rocks, I make it down in two or so hours and beat everyone except the mountain beast Regis to the waterfall at the base. Using the extra time, I dip my feet in, lounge in the beautiful crevice in the mountain, and eventually stir up the courage to dunk my sweaty head in the freezing cold water.
Before peeling myself away from the beautiful cascade, I notice blood on the rocks by my feet and discover a deep, but painless gash in my right heel. Oh well, I have four more hours of trekking (downhill) today. Let’s just hope it gets me to Imlil. We pack up our stuff at the Refuge and make the journey back to Imlil where the one paved-road ends (or begins depending on your prospective). We share a table of tajine, bread, and delicious cheeries, and I head to bed for one of the best sleeps I’ve ever had. My body will ache a week, I haven’t verbally communicated past the 4th grade level since after Marrakesh, and I’ve eaten bread and cheese for days, but I had the best time in these three days than I could have imagined. I may never see these kind friends I met on this adventure again. That is the way this travel game is played, but I am grateful for having known about their adopted daughter living in Haiti, hearing about their dreams for the future, and laughing beyond languages. I part with Regis and Florian the next day in Marrakesh and I have an overwhelming sense of bittersweet happiness.
Catching the local bus to the train station, I stumble my way to the next adventure; to the capital city of Rabat…but that’s for another blog entry.
|July 16, 2005|
While I have now left El Maghreb, that beautiful country whose Arabic name distantly means where the Sun sets last in the west (in relation to its position to the rest of Africa), I cannot omit the adventures that I had there since my last blog. While a trip to the mountains stopped me from posting earlier, it has been largely for the reason of needing to backtrack that I have not posted a few days ago. It started about a week and half ago, when I bought my bus ticket out of Fes. I had spent 2 days in the imperial city of Fes, walking the labyrinths of the markets and making friends with Mustafa and his father who owns a café in the medina. After meeting more travelers at my hotel, exchanging books, and being forced to skip my trip with Mustafa and my Australian friend to the waterfall, I boarded my bus next to Jessica and Armando. Jessica was from England and went to the London School of Economics and was amusingly modest in her surprise that I knew what that was. Armando was a student from Mexico City and knew about as much French as me. They had met in Spain and decided to travel together to Morocco. They were some of the most pleasant and genuine people I had met yet in Morocco and that was saying something.
We clicked immediately, and when the bus arrived in Marrakesh at 5:30 in the morning we three decided to sit in a café near the bus stop until light hit and hostels began accepting new backpackers. As we compared Blair and Bush’s policies on religion and the state, a 40-something Moroccan man piped in. He had been sitting there quietly since we arrived, twirling his coffee without taking a sip.
It began, “Excuse me, I overheard what you and this young lady were talking about…” (either purposely or mistakenly overlooking our Mexican friend Armando). An hour, two chocolate croissants, and one long scattered conversation later, Morat (as he introduced himself) was inviting us to come see the primary school where he was a director of teachers. Morat, had traveled outside of Morocco a lot when he was a young man, finding random fruit picking jobs to fund his summers in England, Scotland, France, and India. He was a teacher, now married with three boys still in school and you could tell by the way he interrupted people that he was used to be addressed as “sir.”
Armando had struck up a conversation with a man from the Sahara, who didn’t consider himself a Moroccan (though receiving little international news coverage, there is an on-going conflict between the people of the Sahara seeking independence from Morocco and the Moroccan government). When the Saharan man said this our teacher friend Morat was non-to-happy, but nonetheless, we struck up a hour long conversation with him about the political situation of the Sahara in Spanish as Jessica continued speaking with Morat as he lectured her about “being critical” of the world and information you receive from the Media.
After far too many cups of coffee and the sun heating up the mid-morning, we said goodbye to our Saharan friend. Armando, Jessica, and I used the opportunity of Morat stepping away to pay his bill to discuss whether we trusted Morat enough to go to his school. Deciding that’d we take a calculated leap of faith, we tell Morat that we are up for seeing his primary school. We drop up our bags at the hostel I had stayed at two weeks before and drove to the edge of a middle class residential area of Marrakesh with Morat. Now this school was top notch, it had the playground area that used to make your eyes light up when you were in grade school and I felt like a kid in a candy store in their theatre (comparatively to my grade school theatre, of course).
Morat took us to one class after the next, where students dawning curious faces as young blue-jeaned foreigners walked into their classes with only the legitimacy of being lead by an administrator who could–and probably easily did–give out detention to carry us. They were friendly and asked questions about our homes and backgrounds and subtly–what the heck we were doing there. They laughed pleasantly when we told them Morat insisted we see the school. It was their last day of classes and everyone was home preparing for the night’s big end-of-the-year celebration. Jessica and I were given free reign to walk about the campus and while Armando rested we slipped into the pre-schoolers room and colored with five year olds. The teachers showed me the children’s year work, including notebooks and notebooks of Arabic and French alphabet writing practices. I sat at the 1-ft tall table stuttering over their Arabic vocabulary cards (with pictures to boot), while the children and teachers laughed approvingly at my efforts.
We joined Morat in the theatre to watch rehearsals for that night’s graduation celebrations and after a few hours of speaking with his son in English, we returned to our hostel to rest for a bit before we returned to the evening’s events. Later at the school that night, we saw girls just reaching womanhood in their beautiful, yet innocently awkwards formal graduation dresses. Like girls still perfecting walking in their mom’s high heels. We all know it well. A stoic young man recited a piece from the Qur’an and the girls lined up, singing Moroccans pop songs, and presenting awards to top students.
As Jessica, Armando, and I walked back from the school that night, we talked about the universality of such experiences like grade school graduation: feeling older than you’re allowed to be, noticing your crush notice you in your new red dress, and speaking in front of people at an age where you just want to hide. It was like we were recounting out own grade school graduations. Morocco didn’t seem so far from home that night.
|July 3, 2005|
So an amazing Gnawa music festival and a few towns later, I am in the ancient Moroccan city of Fes in the central North. Staring out the window of my bus and wondering at the shades of green that have now collided with the pink and orange that I’ve come to associate with all of my experiences in Morocco so far, I am happy to have moved into the mountains after only a day ago standing on the beaches of Essaoira.
But between my travels posts, there have been a few things that I must share and in order to do that and as strange as it may seem, I have to tell you a little about the stories laden in speaking of Gnawa music. Gnawa, often argued as the music where Arab and African meet in Morocco’s music culture, is also music that is referred to in relation to its supposed ‘spiritual possession’ of its listeners. Brought to Morocco through produce and human trade from Sub-Saharan Africa, it is said to cure the physical and pyschological illnesses of its listeners. Sufficed to say, when I heard some of the songs on a radio piece online last January, I enjoyed the music, but was quite a skeptic as to its healing powers.
But I should have realized that one should never underestimate the power of sincere, collective beliefs. As the festival went on, there were more and more public displays of audience members randomly becoming ‘possessed’ by the music. While standing in a large crowd in the main square of the small town of Essaouira and listening to the enchanting sounds of the traditional Gnawa musicians onstage, a young Moroccan woman became what Gnawa fans called ‘possessed or depossessed by spirits,’ twirling her hair in wild intensity to the music. I had seen many girls toss their hair about while leaning their neck down at these concerts, so nothing seemed too unusual, but as her entire body began to move in unison to her neck, people began to respectfully back away. The girl’s movements had become so extreme, she’d fallen to the ground and continued to jolt her head and body. As a Western woman and more significantly as a former lifeguard, I thought that the woman was having ceisures and immediately tried to get in to help. But as I sifted through the crowd with the aim of stablizing her neck, young Moroccan children bombarded me in their broken French and English saying “no, no,” “demons,” “gnawa,” “music, music.”
It took me a moment, but I realized that everyone around me believed that the woman had been overtaken by spirits while listening to the music of the traditional Gnawa performers. When she settled a few minutes later, her friends carried her away, but I was still really thrown by the idea that this was a woman that had been ‘possessed.’ But all the Moroccan Gnawa fans I spoke to later testified to their belief in this and other spiritual possessions that they had seen themselves while listening to Gnawa music, specifically traditional (or as one friend said–pure) Gnawa music. There were stories of women cutting or burning their forearms before a Gnawa song started and having no wounds or scars at the end of their dancing.
Despite seeing the woman in the square, I was still a bit skeptical, but undoubtedly intrigued and curious to hear more of what people from North Africa thought of these so-called possessions. Their stories seemed rather similiar to mine and the forearm’s scarring (or rather, lack-there-of).
It was not until my last day in Essauoira that I began to really appreciate the people’s belief in gnawa’s spiritual possession. While standing in line to buy tickets out of Essaouira at the local bus station with some Moroccan and American friends, the large crowd began to mobbishly run toward the narrow exit. My friends and I turned to see what the crowd was running from and we saw a Moroccan woman in traditional dress, soaking wet, with blood running down her face. It has to have been one of the scarier images of my life: with the afternoon sun streaming into the dark room through one of the open doors the woman, looking full of simmering rage, a mix of blood and water dripping down her face, was pacing back and forth in the center of the one large room, as grown Moroccan men ran from one side of the room to other to stay out of her path. Everyone looked on in amazement including and especially myself. We had already purchased and gotten our tickets for that night, so my group and I eventually woke from our amazement and squeezed out of the room as some of the crowd stayed on. On the walk back to the apartment, my Moroccan friend explained to me that while he believes the woman may have been crazy, there is a large belief that this is largely a result of spiritual possession by Gnawa music as the woman had appearred to be “normally” and “traditionally” dressed before. As Gnawa is relatedly to pyshcologically illness and the curing of them, I saw a bit of the connection, but was overwhelmed by the following of this spiritual belief.
Okay, this was long and was so that I can remember details when I think on this later. Write again
soon. Much Love, Sus
June 24, 2005
So it begins….
Months of planning, dozens of phone calls, hundreds of e-mails, and thousands of miles….and I arrived in Casablanca on Monday via Madrid. Despite the connotation left by that beautiful movie, Casablanca is largely an unromantic industrial town. So after picking up my bags and exchanging my dollars into Moroccan durham, I decide to take the local train to the major train station in order to book it to Marrakesh, a beauty artsy town inland and to the south.
While attempting to compromise between the teller’s French and my Arabic, I met an wonderful Polish woman in the airport (who’s husband works for Citibank in Cairo and I’m going to have dinner at her place when I get their in July…small world). Seceding French to the teller, she assisted me in buying a local train ticket to the main national trainstation…ah, the kindness of strangers.
Yup, I was possibly the only white person and undoubtedly the only American taking the local train to save a few hundred durham, but once I hopped onto the other main train towards the artsy, expat/tourist city of Marrakesh, there were plenty of foreigners to be seen. I rode second class
and in Moroccan summer heat that was a sweeeet deal, let me tell ya. It was like a free sauna, on top of an inexpensive train ticket. They should market that: sweating spa for the girl-on-the-move. But my fellow Moroccan cabin members were friendly and they definitely enjoyed my Arabic. When one of the Moroccan father’s son snizzed, I responded habitually (but changing into Arabic mode), “yar’hamukum ‘allah.” Out of the corner of my eye, you could see each of the Moroccans exchange a look and a smirk. In the summer heat, I was glad my Egyptian Arabic made them smile.
I continued on the i’m-way-too-good/cheap-for-a-taxi kick, and took a local bus when I got to Marrakesh, where once again–I was the only tourist foolish enough to decide to decipher the town on-the-go and with a far too overpacked backpack. Getting off at Djemma de Fdn, near the major suuq (market) and mosque, I found my hostel/hotel, “Hotel Ali” and checked in with my newly acquired reservation. For 50 durham/night (almost US$6) I got a bed in a dormitory where I met some friendly, adventurous Spanish/Canadian/Australian/American hostel-jumpers who had been traveling alone like myself but who had recently combined forces on a trip into the mountains.
I joined their group and we trotted off into the amazing market that comes alive at night. It’s bursting with vendors and performers and food stands and spices and music and story-tellers. And we jump in for food and one of the group actually gets dragged into a boxing show and we shake benign stalkers and it’s a true sensory overload. When it is all capped off sometime around 2am, my new group of internationally gathered friends and I sneak our pillows and sheets from the room and sleep on the roof with the music of the market performers in the distance and the cool Moroccan breeze and the stars as our blanket.
The next morning, the hot summer sun wakes us up and after venturing around the Marrakesh markets for hours but buying nothing (I’ve got 5 months to go) we take a bus to Essaouira for the June Gnawa Music Festival that starts on the 24th (I actually heard about it on the BBC in January and randomly really wanted to go to it–I didn’t realize until about 2 weeks ago that it was actually happening when I got here). The music is amazing and we’ve rented an apartment from a kind grandmother and her daughter for a week. The women would come in each day singing this song ‘Susaanna, Susaana’ and speaking with me briefly in Arabic. When they first heard me speak Arabic, their face lit up and began speeding through questions. Some of which I could answer, others: not so much. And when it comes to French conversations, I am quite inept.
So I will remain in this coastal town until Sunday, at which point I decide when and where I will be with a non-governmental organization working in Rabat. Needless to say, reading over my adventures in Morocco so far brings a smile to my face. And then I must remind myself, it is only the beginning…
Susannah Cunningham's 2005 Circumnavigator's Blog
Susannah Cunningham was awarded the 2005 Circumnavigators Travel-Study Grant. It is jointly given by the Circumnavigator's Club of Chicago and Northwestern University's Office of the Provost. This is a screen capture of Susannah's trip blog.