The Edge of the Sahara: Teaching English in Morocco

The city walls of Taroudant

After a long overnight journey through a few different airports, I arrived in Agadir, Morocco.  I had accomplished one goal.  I had now visited all seven continents.  Actually, thanks to a one day layover in Dubai, United Arab Emirates which is part of Asia during my travels from Australia to Greece, I was even able to have been on all seven continents within the year of 2017.  But that was not the main reason for coming to Morocco.  I was there to spend three weeks working with an organization based in the small town of Taroudant.  The organization was the Youth Association for Culture and Development, and had a few different programs, mostly for youth but also for some adults.  I would be spending my evenings teaching English at their center.

I was lucky to have found this program.  I had been planning on participating in two different programs in Morocco, but unfortunately, both of them were cancelled.  So during my time in Australia, I was making adjustments and searching for something else in Morocco, and came across YACD on www.workaway.info.  It was an opportunity to help teach English, while working with a youth program.

Moroccan hospitality… tea and sweets

So, after an extremely long wait in line to go through Moroccan immigration at the airport of Agadir, I met with Khalid, who I had been communicating with for a few weeks.  Then, after about a 45 minute drive, I arrived in the small city of Taroudant, at the apartment home of Muhammad, the director of YACD.  I would be staying with him and his small family, along with two other volunteers for the next few weeks.

I was welcomed with baked treats and Moroccan tea.  The tea was actually one of the reasons I wanted to go to Morocco.  And it lived up to the expectations.  After this wonderful snack, we went to the YACD office where the other volunteers were finishing up their classes.  I met Phillipe from Canada, who was teaching French, and Jose, from Mexico, who I would be working with to teach English.

The next day was spent walking around the city of Taroudant and getting to know the area a little better. Taroudant is known as “Little Marrakech” because it is a walled city with a bustling market, but much smaller, and less touristic, than Marrakech.

The adult English class

Each weeknight, we went to the office to teach language.  We had three different classes, each meeting twice a week (one night each week, we taught two classes).  The classes ranged from young children of about 8 years old, with very limited English ability, to adults with rather good English conversation skills.  Each night was a different challenge.  Sometimes it was simply trying to find a new activity to keep the students engaged.  Other times, it would be that there were only 2 or 3 students, so the plans wouldn’t work quite well.  Regardless of the typical teaching struggles, the students were all extremely friendly and it was great getting to know them.  In fact, my last night, some of the women in the adult class brought more baked goods as a “going-away” party.  The same as much of the other food I ate in Morocco, their treats were delicious.

On weekends, I did some personal traveling around western Morocco.  These trips involved some unique experiences, such as spending New Year’s Eve in a bedouin camp on the edge of the Sahara Desert, getting attacked by a dog on a beach, or somehow ending up at a private table in some underground club in Agadir.

Traditional music and dancing at the Brave Kids reunion

One of the more rewarding experiences though was learning about a great international organization.  Khalid invited us to his family orange grove on a Saturday, when he was receiving some other guests from Poland.  Khalid had visited them in Poland through the YACD’s work with Brave Kids.  This is an organization that invited youth groups from around the world to Poland each summer.  The youth groups each come to present some type of cultural performance.  It is an amazing opportunity for these young people to participate in a unique cultural exchange as they get to know other youths from different nations.

The following day was a reunion of the Moroccan Brave Kids participants at the YACD office.  The office was packed full of people and food.  Then, the participants gave an abbreviated performance of their cultural music.  The evening ended with most of the crowd dancing along to the young musicians.

My three weeks in Morocco served as yet another window into a completely different culture than what I was used to.  But I witnessed the universal desire to share one’s culture and learn about another’s.  That was one of the reasons I was so impressed with organizations like YACD and Brave Kids.

At the end of my time in the desert, it was time to head back towards the east.

MORE INFORMATION

www.workaway.info: The website where I found this placement.

Youth Association for Culture and Development: The organization I worked

The city walls of Taroudant

with in Taroudant.  They offer language classes and a variety of other programs for the community.

Brave Kids: The international organization that YACD is involved with.  Youth groups from around the world travel to Poland to present cultural performances and interact with one another.

Where East meets West: Refugee Work in Greece

After my adventures down under, I began a long journey to my next destination.  I planned my travel so I could have a day long layover in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.  I had heard much about this modern boomtown of the Middle East, including the home of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, and wanted to see it for myself.  Sure enough, the city was a strange mixture of traditional and contemporary, with women in burkas walking alongside women in tight fitting designer clothes.  The traditional Arab style was an obvious influence, but it is a cutting-edge city with so many modern trappings of Western culture.  The city is assuredly still building, as it seems there were just as many buildings under construction as those already complete.  I wish I had more than just a day in order to get a better sense of the city, but alas, I had to continue on.

View of the Acropolis, during my brief few hours in Athens before continuing to Lesvos

I finally arrived in Athens, and only had a few hours to walk around the city, mostly due to my own confusion and lack of hustle in leaving the airport as I tried to figure out the public transportation and where I wanted to go.  I was able to walk for awhile around the bustling neighborhoods surrounding the Acropolis.  While, I would have liked to actually go into some of the historical sights, this quick little fly-by would have to do for this trip.  I had booked an overnight ferry that evening to the island of Lesvos.

At one point during my travel planning, I realized I wanted to do something to help out with the ongoing refugee crisis in the world.  It has often been said that we are currently in the midst of the worst humanitarian migration crisis since World War II.  I remember first laying my eyes on this situation about two and a half years ago, while visiting Budapest, Hungary.  I arrived by train and noticed a great number of Middle Eastern people there.  I remember rearranging my bags at one point and looking up to a young boy of probably 4 years of age, shyly smiling and kind of playing peek-a-boo with me, while he sat on the floor next to his mother and siblings.  When I left the station, I was dumbfounded by the mass of humanity surrounding the station.  There was basically an impromptu camp set up there, which would actually boil into a confrontation between the refugees and the authorities the day after I left Budapest.  Ever since then, I had it in mind to try and do something to help such people.

The narrow crossing between Lesvos and Turkey

While searching for such an opportunity for this trip, I came across Refugee Rescue.  They are a nonprofit that operates a search-and-rescue boat on the north shore of the island of Lesvos.  This is the shortest crossing from Turkey and serves as a “gateway” to Europe for many refugees.  I was going to help out on the spotting team, keeping an eye out for crossing attempts, and helping at the transition camp for any landings before people were taken to the more permanent camp of Moria on the island.

The small village I stayed in is Skala Sikamineus.  It is a tiny fishing village with narrow, stone paved streets, and only about 10 of them at that.  The local fishermen started rescuing many of the refugees they noticed making the journey from Turkey.  I was informed that some of these fishermen were actually nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts.

Volunteers from the different organizations getting together to watch the Geminid meteor shower

Soon, governments and NGOs were involved in the proceedings of the area.  The politics involved were far more complicated than I ever imagined, and far beyond the scope of this posting.  However, so many players are involved including the Hellenic (Greek) and Turkish Coast Guards, NATO, FRONTEX (basically the EU border patrol), and numerous NGOs.  Besides Refugee Rescue, the one I was working with, other NGOs that we interacted with were Lighthouse Relief, Refugees 4 Refugees, and IsraAid.  However, one brief note of the politics that I was informed of… technically, any refugees that make it into Greek waters are supposed to be rescued and brought to Greece while any ones intercepted in Turkish waters are supposed to be sent back to Turkey.  One of the coordinators informed me that the NGOs have been keeping an eye and reporting activities of some of these ships, and some times refugees that were supposed to be brought to Greece were actually sent back to Turkey, and that if it weren’t for these NGOs and their reporting, it would be happening far more often.

Trying to make the transition camp a little more welcoming

The influx of refugees was far less in December of 2017 than it had been during the height of the crisis in 2015.  Whereas back then, they were having multiple landings a day, during the two and half weeks I was there, we only had 4, including the one that happened in the early morning hours just prior to my arrival.  With this slower pace of activities, it was interesting to meet the variety of people from around the world who had come to help. Among the different organizations, there were volunteers from the UK, Switzerland, Egypt, Australia, Ireland, France, Lebanon, Poland, Israel, Canada, and the USA as well as others I am probably forgetting at the moment.  This mixture of nationalities, converged upon a small fishing village in the Greek Isles, with a relatively slow pace of life where we often waited for our volunteer shifts by sitting in the local café socializing, gave me the impression of what it may have been like during the Lost Generation years in Europe for many of the ex-pats.

However, in our case, there was a common purpose, and many of our conversations focused on the situation at hand.  It was an incredible opportunity to gain perspective from people with different specializations such as the international law student from Australia providing background and legal issues of the current situation, the journalist who had spent years investigating migrant and refugee issues and now wanted to actually do something to help directly, the founders of these organizations helping to support the refugees, and the search and rescue crew that had served not only in Greece but also in the South Mediterranean with refugees crossing from Libya.  Hearing the different stories and viewpoints of these people both gives hope but also illustrates the complexity and difficulties of the problems facing us as a society.

Life jackets marking the path from the rocky shores to safety

One day, a small group of us decided to walk along the beach towards a ferry wreckage. Some of the group went swimming for a bit and then turned back , while another and I pushed forward, but got separated for a while.  As I made my way through the ancient olive groves and stone terraces, I noticed life jackets.  There were dozens of life jackets attached to trees throughout the groves.  Suddenly, it dawned on me what these life jackets represented.  They had been placed there for any refugees who happened to make it to land without being intercepted.  The life jackets served to mark a safe path to roads and civilization.

I wanted to, but never actually made it to the “life jacket graveyard”, a staggering pile of tens of thousands of life jackets that had been worn by landing refugees or had floated ashore on Lesvos.  Unfortunately, many of these “life jackets” offer no real flotation support and were simply sold to refugees by unscrupulous human traffickers trying to squeeze even more money from desperate people who had likely never before seen let alone been on the ocean.

During my first week, I went through some different training sessions, and served on watch duty both during the day and overnight.  We would spend our shift on an overlook continuously scanning the ocean with binoculars and a telescope during the day and a night vision scope during the dark hours.  While the goal was to always have eyes on the water, due to a lack of resources, we were unable to have a lookout during the hours when we had to made the transition from day to night shifts.  As winter was setting in, it became extremely cold during the night shift, and sometimes, there would be a cold rain falling, with strong winds coming off the ocean.  There were a few shifts that had to be cancelled due to the conditions.

One day near the beginning of my second week, I was on call during the morning shift to help at the transition camp in case of a landing.  At 6 AM, my phone rang.  There had been a landing the night before.  They were already at the camp and the initial process of feeding them and giving them dry clothes had already happened.  I was to go to the transition camp mostly just to have a presence and then help out when the buses arrived to take them to Moria the large-scale refugee camp on Lesvos.

Even in a refugee camp there are prima donas that expect all your attention

There were close to 60 people that had arrived, mostly from the Middle East and some from Central Africa. When I arrived, clothes were hanging anywhere possible around the camp.  These were the soaking wet clothes that they had been wearing while making the crossing.  Most of the refugees were still sleeping in the large tent when I arrived, so I went into the food tent with another volunteer to wait by the small heater that was in there.  A stray cat joined us, and found my lap to be a warm napping spot despite never having been invited.

Soon we received word that the buses were on their way so we began to tell the refugees to get their belongs together.  The camp sprang to life as the refugees went to and fro.  Amongst the Middle Easterners, there were only a couple of men, most of the group were women and their children.  Often it seemed that young teenage boys were serving as the “men” of their families.  Some of the refugees had not received a few items (like dry shoes) the night before, so they were asking for these items now.  And often it would be these teenage boys asking for items.  It turned into a rather chaotic scene, but eventually we got everything taken care of and prepared to put them on the bus.  I handed out water bottles to each person as they boarded the bus for the two-hour ride to Moria and an uncertain future.

That night, I was on the night watch again.  The temperatures were near freezing and the wind was blowing hard.  At one point, as I stood scanning the waves with the night vision scope, my mind wandered to what it must have been for those people who had crossed through those frigid waters, facing similar conditions, in a dinghy and wearing not much more than rags.  And here I was, shivering beneath layers of high quality clothing.

Due to the low numbers of volunteers, I stayed on through the Christmas holiday to help with the staffing shortages.  My Christmas Eve was spent on night shift once again.  It may be cliché, but my thoughts during the solitary times of that watch turned to the oft mentioned fact that Jesus and his family were refugees early in his life, fleeing to Egypt to escape the persecution of Herod.  While I missed my normal Christmas festivities back home with my family, thoughts like that made me feel better about where I was and what I was doing.

The day after Christmas was my flight out of Greece.  I was on call for one final night before I was going to take the early morning bus to Mytilene to fly out later that evening.  At 4 AM, plans changed.  My phone rang as there had been another crossing.  I had to hurry and get ready in order to meet at the Refugee Rescue headquarters to get a ride to the transition camp so we could prepare for the arrival.  A while later, before dawn had begun to break, we were helping distribute dry clothing to almost 30 refugees from Afghanistan.

Imagine crossing an ocean strait with 30 other people in this…

I was unable to make the early morning bus.  But instead, I was going to be able to get a ride to Mytilene with a group from Refugees 4 Refugees who would be going to their warehouse outside of the Moria camp in order to organize some clothing that afternoon.  (This also allowed me to catch up on some sleep in the late morning.)

This unexpected side trip allowed me to learn even more.  Omar, one of the founders of Refugees 4 Refugees, drove the van to the warehouse.  Along the way, I learned a little more about his story.  He himself was a refugee.  He had originally left Syria due to a family dispute, but then when the civil war broke out, he put that aside and returned to help support his family.  They eventually decided it had become to dangerous and they left the country together.  After being in a Europe for a while, he decided to help support the continuous influx of refugees and he helped to found Refugees 4 Refugees.

As we came close to the Moria refugee camp, a place that was commonly described to me as having hellish conditions, I noticed the large numbers of people just aimlessly walking up and down the road.  Many of the refugees in these camps are in a constant state of limbo, not knowing what their status is or where they may be able to go and settle (if anywhere) so they have nothing to do except while the hours away.  Just seeing them walk as we drove along, I could sense the frustrating boredom emanating from their purposeless steps.

While in the warehouse, I began helping the Refugees 4 Refugees volunteers sorting through the boxes of donated clothing.  It was simple, but meaningful work.  A young refugee girl had come through a hole in the fence and was hoping to get a better pair of shoes.  Unfortunately, the warehouse was actually closed that day (so that it could be sorted) so we weren’t supposed to handing out items.  However, a couple of the volunteers tried to help her.  But it was taking too long, and a crowd was beginning to gather at the fence, likely wanting to get something if they could as well.  Eventually, the volunteers had to send the girl away.  But she actually did not go easily. With a smile on her face, she would walk away and then try to sneak back in another way.  It did not seem that she was directly trying to disobey them.  Rather, based on the look on her face, it was a game to her.  She was playing, trying to find some kind of distraction from the monotony of the camp.

Those scenes, including the sprawling tent settlements that were actually outside of Moria, were the final scenes and reminders of the refugee crisis in Greece.  A crisis that is still on-going, and only one of many refugee crises around the world: Africa, Asia, the Middle-East.  It is an oft-stated fact that we are in the midst of the worst refugee crises since World War II.  I wish I had definitive solutions to offer, but there is no easy solution to this.  There is so much complexity and competing aspects to the situation and how to handle it.  However, the one thing I do know is that ignoring will not cause it to go away.  What would it say about us if we just close our eyes to men, women, and children that have struggled in ways most of us could never fathom and are willing to risk everything for a chance to live they types of lives we far too often take for granted?

 

MORE INFORMATION

There are plenty of resources online dealing with the refugee crises around the world.  A quick Google search is really all you need to learn more and find something of particular interest to you.  I am mostly just going to list the organizations that I worked with during my time in Greece.

https://www.greecevol.info/  The website I used to find the program I volunteered with on Lesvos.

Refugee Rescue: The organization I volunteered with on Lesvos.  They operate the Search and Rescue craft: Mo Chara

Lighthouse Relief: The organization we worded with the most on watches and during landing operations.

Refugees 4 Refugees:  An organization that also helped out with serving food at the transition camp, as well as running the clothing warehouse outside of Moria refugee camp.

IsraAid: The program that gave medical support and evaluations to newly arrived refugees

The United Nations High Commission on Refugees: The UN agency that oversees refugee operations around the world, including on Lesvos.

Hopping Around Down Under

Visiting the Rotorua Hot Springs in New Zealand with my parents

Following my excursions in South America and Antarctica, it was time to head onward to new continents.  This started with a short layover of a couple of days in New Zealand.  My parents had been planning a vacation so we worked out timings so that we could spend a few days together in the area around Auckland.  We went to Hobbiton, the glow warm caves, and the hot springs of Rotorua.  After that short family visit, I continued on to Australia while my parents spent another week touring New Zealand.

I arrived in Brisbane, Australia far too late on a Sunday night.  It turned out I had not looked closely enough at my hostel booking and it closed at 10:00 PM.  Which was unfortunate since I arrived there at 11:30 PM.  Luckily, I was able to find a hotel not too far away, so other than spending a little more than I had planned, it was a minor inconvenience.  My first task the next morning was going to the Chinese consulate to get my paperwork started on my Chinese visa.  After the usual bureaucratic annoyances involved in that exercise, I was soon on my way to a small shopping center on the outskirts of Brisbane.

Dinner Time in the Transition Pen

My goal in Australia was to work with wildlife in some way.  During the course of my multiple searches and travel planning, I came across Oceans 2 Earth volunteers.  They are an organization focused on wildlife, based in Australia, and run multiple programs for visiting volunteers.  Now, I was going to be spending a week working with wallabies and kangaroos.  Brian found me in the parking lot of the shopping center and soon we were on our way.  We stopped at a grocery store so I could stock up for the week.  The one restriction that was going to be a bit a little different for me was that they asked me to maintain a vegetarian diet while on the refuge.  So, not surprising to anyone that truly knows me, peanut butter was going to be even more of my staple diet that week.

I want the couch not the pouch…

On the way Brian explained a bit of their history.  He and Lexie used to live in Brisbane, but as they got more involved in taking care of animals, living in the city was obviously not well suited.  They bought some bushland about 45 minutes outside of the city and have spent the past 20 years or so taking care of wallabies, kangaroos, and possums.  The common circumstance is that a kangaroo or wallaby female is hit by a car with a baby in pouch.  The mother is killed, but the pouch protects the baby and it survives.  These are the patients that get brought to Lexie and Brian.  Brian has maintained his normal “9 to 5” while Lexie cares for the animals full-time.  In addition to the wallabies and kangaroos, they also take care of a variety of local possums.

That’s a funny hat…

Soon enough, we had arrived at the Coomalong Care Center, and Brian gave me a brief lay of the land, and showed me to the little cottage where I would be staying.  He told me to go ahead and rest as it would be a couple of hours until the next feeding, and then we could go through more details.  After a brief nap, I was right into the thick of it.  Helping to bottle feed, cutting up fruit for the possums, holding some of the younger wallabies so they got some attention.  There was a surreal moment standing in the kitchen at one point as a small group of wallabies and kangaroos went hopping down the long hallway and past me when I realized this is a completely different scenario than I’ve ever been in before.  It was almost as if I were in a parody of Australia, it was too cliché.  To add to the overly cute aspect, the animals would sleep in woven bags that served as “pouches.”  Sometimes the “pouches” were hanging off of wooden frames, and sometimes cuddled up in baskets with each other.

Substitute pouch

It was easy enough to fall into the pleasant routine of the lifestyle.  I would wake up early to help with the morning feeding and then begin to help clean the house.  You can imagine what a dozen or so wallabies and kangaroos being in a house can do (they aren’t exactly house-broken).  Sometime would be spent taking the joeys outside to begin to transition them.  There was a small enclosure that is used for the really young, and in only small groups at a time.  It is maybe 15 ft x 15 ft, and is basically just an outdoor playpen for them.  But then up on the hill, is the large enclosure, about the size of a residential lot, where older wallabies and kangaroos spend most of their time as they begin to transition to the wild.  Usually, they will go out for a time, and then return to the safety (and ready food supply) of the enclosure.

Bottle feedings happened 6 times a day around the clock

I was able to witness the incredible amount of love that Lexie puts into this calling.  I began regularly feeding two wallabies that shared a basket and often spent time together.   They were named Indy and Lolly.  One day, after we had been up in the enclosure, Lexie found Lolly kind of a daze.  Lexie put her back in her pouch and into the basket to rest.  Later that evening, when time for feeding, I couldn’t get Lolly to drink anything at all.  Lexie tried as well, but also with no luck.  In fact, she noticed that Lolly seemed to be almost paralytic on one side. Over the next few hours, the focus was on Lolly.  Lexie’s theory was that somehow, she may have taken a tumble and had a severe head or neck injury.  Her breathing seemed to weaken and struggle as well.  Phone calls were made, along with efforts to medicate.  The decision was made that, if she survived the night, we would take her to the Australia Zoo and its wildlife hospital the next day.  However, it did not look promising.  Lexie sat next to me on the couch, cradling Lolly, while Brian was on the phone.  Lexie’s eyes began to well up as she quietly cursed.  As many animals as had come in and out of this woman’s life, this one she held meant the world to her.  Just like each and every one of the others did as well.  It was humbling to witness.  I awkwardly tried to comfort her with a hand on her shoulder, not really know what to do or say.

With Indy and Lolly

A few hours later, as luck would happen, Lolly seemed to perk up.  She still did not seem to be quite right, but she was definitely more active.  Lexie and Brian began to think that maybe she had just been slightly stunned or had a small concussion.  But at least things looked more promising than they had only a short time earlier.  The next morning, I went with Lexie and Judy, one of the permanent volunteers, to the Australia Zoo to get Lolly checked out.  It was such an awe-inspiring opportunity to be in this place.  This was the home zoo of Steve Irwin, and I was able to get a behind the scenes look at the wildlife hospital as Lolly was getting checked out.  It was a testament to investment in conservation, with a state of the art facility dedicated to Australia’s wildlife.  Lexie also told me they occasionally due work on the zoo’s animals there as well, and one time she saw a tiger under anesthesia there.  I simply was able to see a koala with a small green cast on its arm.   Quotes from biologists and conservationists adorned the walls, including one that stood out to me, attributed to the Audubon society: “A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his father, but borrowed from his children.”

The prognosis of Lolly was about as expected, wait and observe.  She seemed much better, but they would need to keep an eye on her.  We headed back, and the atmosphere was much lighter than it had been the evening before.  Unfortunately, my time there was drawing to a close.  In a few days, we did one last night out in Brisbane with some of the permanent volunteers, and then Brian and Lexie dropped me off at my hostel.  I was about to continue on with my Australian adventure.

In the Daintree Rainforest

I spent a few days exploring more around Brisbane, including a trip to nearby Stradbrook Island, which Brian had recommended, and the Lone-Pine Koala sanctuary, the oldest such sanctuary in Australia.  After my short time around Brisbane, I took a flight north to Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef.  My first day in Cairns was a day tour up to the Daintree Rainforest to see that ecosystem, as well as learn a little bit about the aboriginal culture there.  The symbiotic relationship between the people and the environment was breathtaking.  I was most taken by the fact that in pre-colonial times, they would bury their dead in the hollowed trunks of certain trees so that they would become one with the forest.  This is why, before entering, we actually took part in a welcoming ceremony, walking through smoke as part of purification as we entered such a sacred place.  What was also interesting was some of the similar adaptations that these rainforest aboriginal people had made when compared to what I learned in the Amazon region about the indigenous people there.  Unfortunately, much as is true with indigenous peoples around the world, the aboriginal people of Australia are among the poorest in the country.  Luckily, Mossman Gorge Center where I visited, is actually run by and helps to train the local indigenous people.

Diving in the Great Barrier Reef

My next week was spent getting my SCUBA certification and diving on the Great Barrier Reef.  I was a little nervous at first about how I would act underwater, but I found it to be such an amazing and calming experience.  Then being able to spend four days and three nights staying on a boat, hopping around spots on the Great Barrier Reef was thrilling.  Just the expansive sight of the reef from the surface was breathtaking.  Seeing such a diverse array of wildlife in such an alien environment is a life experience that cannot be taken for granted.  I actually learned that many of the professional dive excursions actually don’t take the majority of divers to the truly pristine places on the reef in order to better protect them (and with my clumsy efforts in the water, that is definitely a smart decision.)  There is special concern now especially given the reports of recent years about the growing expanses of bleached coral due to rising water temperatures.  The experiences I had in those depths, from witnessing a sting ray burrow into the sand to a moray eel popping out of its cave to look around.  From finding myself surrounded by tropical fish, to diving at night with a UV flashlight to witness the bioluminescent life of the reef.  These experiences just add to the belief of how critical it is for us to protect such wonders of creation.

Glowing Coral during a UV Fluorescent Dive

 

More Information and How You Can Help

Australian Wildlife:

Oceans2Earth Volunteers: The organization I organized my travel with and my placement at Coomalong.  They are based in Australia but have projects around the world.

RSPCA Queensland: Supports many animal welfare programs including wildlife carers such as Lexie and Brian

Queensland Wildlife Rehabilitation Council: A group that represents the different wildlife care organizations around Queensland.  They also have ways you can help and links to other organizations.

Australia Zoo: The home zoo of Steve Irwin and where I got to see an amazing wildlife hospital in action.  Here is a link to their “How you can make a difference” page

Aboriginal Peoples:

Mossman Gorge Center: The organization I visited in the Daintree Rainforest.  It is run by the local community and works to help train aboriginal youth for careers

A list of Australian charities that works with the aboriginal population

Great Barrier Reef:

Eye on the Reef: A project sponsored by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority of the Australian Government that allows visitors from around the world to help with monitoring the Great Barrier Reef

Fight for our Reef: A campaign run by the Australian Marine Conservation Society.  They have different issues they are working all in order to help the GBR.

The End of the World and Beyond

After leaving Bariloche, Argentina, I made my way south through Patagonia en route to my final destinations: Tierra del Fuego and then Antarctica.  All of these locations had held my imagination and fascination since childhood: Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego, Antarctica.  Such exotic and adventurous places, and I was finally on my way to explore them.

Journaling in Los Alerces National Park

I had visited some of the areas around Bariloche on the weekends during my working stay on the farm.  These included Nahuel Huapi, El Bolsón, Esquel, and Parque Nacional Los Alerces.  All were beautiful places to explore the outdoors, as well as sample the wonderful brews of the area!  One slight disappointment was taking a taxi all the way from El Bolsón to El Maitén (about 45 minutes) in order to do a ride on the Patagonian Express, an old steam train, only to learn that it wasn’t running that Saturday despite what the website said.  And there isn’t much else in El Maitén, so I just had to wait a few hours for the bus.  It served as yet another reminder to always take schedules and information in South America with a grain of salt.

Now though, it was time to move on from Rock’s Heim Farm.  I hugged Cris, Alex, and Fran goodbye tightened up my backpack and walked out that dirt road I had walked in on three weeks before, and walked along many times in between, to wait at the bus stop.  I went back into Bariloche, had a bit more to eat and picked up some gloves and a head warmer before heading to the main bus terminal.  Soon, I was on another long bus ride south through Patagonia.

Bus ride through the Patagonian steppe

We zigzagged back and forth between the rugged, snow-capped, forested mountains and the dry shrubbery of the Patagonian steppe along Route 40.  As usual, I had reserved a seat in the front of the upper level of the bus so I could watch the changing landscape ahead as we travelled.  It also allowed me a bit more legroom than other seats.  After almost 24 hours, I finally arrived in El Chaltén, in the southern part of Argentinian Patagonia, in Los Glaciares National Park.  As the bus drove along the shores of Lago Viedma, I could see the mountains that make this area a prime tourist destination.  The imposing Fitz Roy and the craggy peak of Cerro Torre, which from my particular vantage point at the time, looked like a mountain dreamt up by a fantasy writer.

Patagonian Forest near El Chaltén
Lago de Los Tres at the base of Fitz Roy

El Chaltén is a town that is only about 30 years old, and was founded purely to support the growing tourist industry of Patagonia.  As such, I personally did not like the town much, as it did not seem to have any character to it other than to cater to backpackers and hikers.  However, it is a pleasant enough town that suits its purpose well.  And more importantly, the hiking in the area truly does live up to its well-deserved reputation.  The first afternoon, I did an easy hike to a nearby waterfall.  The second day, I did the more demanding hike to El Lago de Los Tres.  The frozen barren landscape, dominated by Fitz Roy standing over us, was breathtaking.  Especially when I walked around the frozen lake to get a better view of a glacier, I saw the glacier, and the runoff from the frozen lake, fall into another lake below, radiating a brilliant turquoise color.  The full day hike through a variety of different terrain (deep forest, barren mountain, scrubland, river beds, lakesides) allowed my mind to wander and appreciate the grandeur of creation.

Perino Moreno Glacier

That night, I took another bus, to the nearby, and large, town of El Calafate.  The main attraction I went to see in El Calafate was the Perino Moreno Glacier, an amazing wall of ice, with active movement that could easily be heard (if the other visitors were considerate enough to keep their voices down, which was much rarer than it should have been). More impressive, there was a regular crash of an iceberg being calved into the waters below.  I was fortunate to see one calving happen right in front of me, as I just happened to stay at that particular overlook for a little extra time. Later in the afternoon, I enjoyed a glass of whiskey cooled by a chunk of glacier ice.  Then, upon returning to El Calafate, I had an amazing evening out with some new friends from the hostel.  It included a giant meal at a parrilla (an Argentinian steakhouse) full of amazing meat and wine, and then ended up attempting to dance at a local dive bar where I was the only non-Argentinian there (excerpt for a Brazilian who was now living and working in El Calafate).

Swinging in Puerto Natales looking at Torres del Paine

Despite the hangover, the next morning, I was on another long bus ride.  This time crossing the border into Chile to the town of Puerto Natales, and Parque Nacional Torres del Paine.  This national park is the poster child of Patagonia, full of rivers, lakes, fjords, mountainscapes, forests, and glaciers.  Many travelers come here to hike the “W”, a 4-day trek through the park that forms a “W” on the map.  Upon arrival in Puerto Natales, there was a bit of chaos.  There had been heavy rain for the past few days which overwhelmed the water system of the town and there was no running water, and many businesses were closed.  Additionally, some of the trails in the park had been closed, including their adjoining campsites.  I had no idea if my reserved campsite would be available the following evening when I went hiking into the park.  Luckily, I had heard from many people that sites are not allowed to just turn people away for obvious safety reasons.  Because of this, I felt comfortable going ahead with my planned trek to the towers that give their name to the park.

Torres del Paine

I packed relatively lightly for my overnight trip to Torres del Paine, and was thankful I did so.  Many people were doing the “W” trek or the even longer “O” trek which was opening that day, and had the full packs including all of their gear.  Luckily, I was renting my tent and sleeping bag directly from the site so I did not have to carry it with me.  At the start of the trek, it was far more crowded than I would have liked, but as the day wore on the lines began to spread out and I was able to hike alone with my thoughts for the majority of the time, again through ever changing landscapes. Along the way, I noticed signs put up by AMA, a nonprofit group that helps with some of the areas around Torres del Paine.  I had actually applied to be a volunteer to help with some of their conservation programs.  Unfortunately, they did not get back to me to confirm my acceptance until shortly before they needed me, and by then I had already made other volunteering plans, so I could not participate.  However, it did seem like they were making an impact in helping maintain some of the trails and signage around the park.  While I think I liked the hiking around El Chaltén slightly better than the admittedly small region of Torres del Paine I witnessed, I could still appreciate the incredible vistas and natural beauty of the park.

Campsite in Torres del Paine

Throughout my week travelling south through Patagonia, all of those hikes, and camping, and experiences reminded me of my enjoyment of the outdoors throughout my life, especially all the times I visited national parks.  The concept of the national park has been called America’s best idea, and I can definitely understand that sentiment.  Maintaining the majesty and beauty of these places for future generations was such a novel concept 150 years ago.  I am lucky to have been a beneficiary of that spirit of conservation and owe it to future generations to preserve such beauty for them as well.

El Fin del Mundo

This was reinforced all the more over the next couple of weeks.  After finishing my time in Torres del Paine and Chile, I ventured south again.  Crossing the border back into Argentina and going to the island of Tierra del Fuego and the city of Ushuaia.  Ushuaia is the southernmost city in the world and calls itself “El Fin del Mundo”, the End of the World.  While getting to the end of the world was a great experience in and of itself, I had a reason for being there.  I had hoped to do some exploring around Tierra del Fuego, but this unfortunately did not happen, as I had one day to do some travel planning and get some final supplies before my next big step: going beyond the end of the world to the bottom of it… Antarctica.

“Fog”bow over ice bergs in the Drake Passage

As luck would happen, a couple of people staying in my hostel were going to be on the same ship to Antarctica.  I felt better about the trip, because from what I had heard and read, I expected the ship to be full of retirees.  My new friends, Andrew and Jason, were expecting the same, but we would turn out to be greatly mistaken.  This expedition was geared towards the adventurous types with camping, kayaking, snow-shoeing, and mountaineering all included. This attracted a much younger and more active demographic.

Night before kayaking

The 11 days aboard the Ortelius were amazing, mostly because of the incredible group of travelers I met and shared such an amazing adventure with.  Many long nights were spent in the “Krill ‘em all” bar (named because this ship actually took Metallica to Antarctica to perform a concert there for a select group of fans and researchers) enjoying the society of such fun and interesting human beings.  I am not going to spend much time talking about the surreal and magnificent environment of Antarctica.  Instead, a couple of my shipmates have put together far more expressive videos that convey the experience far better than my empty words ever could.  Therefore, I will include links to those videos at the bottom of this post.

I will simply state that the vastness of the place was enveloping in a strange comforting sense.  Looking around at the pristine white and gray (not including for the smell and stains of penguin droppings!) gives the sense that you have been dropped into a dream world.  It is a place that you feel a longing to be a part of, but intuitively know that you are a stranger, not meant to be there.

Chillin’ with a Penguin

The crew and guides of the ship were obviously dedicated to maintaining the magic of this special place.  You could sense it when they spoke to you, when they gave talks throughout the trip, when they guided you out into the white wilderness.  I learned how the early explorers suffered and died there, how they often made horrid impacts on the local wildlife, how only slight changes in the temperature have completely changed the ecosystem due to different algae and plankton that have taken over different regions only because of a 1-degree change in average temperature.  The areas we visited and observed vast colonies of Gentoo penguins used to be populated by Adélie penguins a few decades ago, but this change was due to the aforementioned temperature change and resulting disruption to the food chain.  It seems minor, but it is just an example of such changes going on around the world that we don’t yet fully understand.  I also learned that our expedition guide, Sebastian, had founded a nonprofit with a small group of friends: Fundación para la Conservación del Patrimonio Antártico.  They advocate for the historical significance of the area, working to help maintain some of the sites, as well as trying to promote dialogue amongst the different stake-holders in the region.  This was yet another amazing example that I’ve seen throughout this journey across the world of people taking responsibility for something they care about and making a positive impact in their world.

Fellow I-L-L-
-I-N-I that happened to be on the ship! Oskee-wow-wow!

After the week and a half flew by much faster than expected, and we crossed the Drake Passage with a melancholy pall as we soon had to say goodbye to wonderful new friends, I prepared to end the South American and Antarctic chapters of my adventure.  The past three weeks or so, travelling to the end of the world and beyond, and seeing such awe-inspiring examples of God’s beautiful creation, impressed further upon me the fact that these wonders absolutely do need to be protected.  Less than 2 weeks after the events of this blog post, I found myself in the examination area of the wildlife hospital at the Australia Zoo (more about that endeavor coming soon!)  While standing there, I noticed a quote on the wall that is attributed to the Audubon Society and perfectly sums up my feelings about my time in Patagonia and Antarctica:

 

A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his father, but borrowed from his children.

 

 

 

 MORE INFORMATION AND HOW TO HELP:

Fundación para la Conservación del Patrimonio Antártico

The organization founded by our expedition leader to Antarctica.  It seeks to preserve and promote the heritage of Antarctica, and foster better cooperation and preservation, especially regarding Argentina’s role in the Antarctic.

The Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition

A coalition of NGOs working around the world to focused on conservation of Antarctica.

AMA Torres del Paine

An organization focused on conservation in and around Torres del Paine National Park in Southern Chile.  They run volunteer programs that allows visitors to come and help with the conservation efforts in a variety of roles.  This was the program I had hoped to participate in, but due to a structural overhaul of the program this year, they were unable to confirm my acceptance until after I had already made other plans.

Global Penguin Society

As the name suggests, they are dedicated to the survival and protection of the world’s penguin species.  Penguins are the iconic animals of Antarctica, but they live throughout the southern regions of the Earth.

Concervación Patagonica

An organization dedicated to getting more of Patagonia protected as national park lands.  They also have volunteer programs for visitors to come and participate in.  I looked into these, but the timing did not quite work with my schedule.

The National Park Foundation

The charitable arm of the US National Park Service.

https://www.nps.gov/getinvolved/index.htm

Website with ways to get involved directly with the US National Park Service.

 

ANTARCTICA COMPILATION VIDEOS BY MY SHIPMATES

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9PXk3c9b0cE Video by Daniel Moorefield (https://www.danielbenjaminphoto.com/) I show up at the end of the video, demonstrating why I never made it as a pitcher…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=btKKkMqeIY0&feature=youtu.be Video by Marcey Lietta

https://www.facebook.com/OceanwideExpeditions/videos/10155009361965846/?hc_ref=ARSx7eaShp2ruRSnBmQI4znhQpdL5KtMlbhiBgue3Ap5tRUjExEDfGSVfhv_EBmr7jw&pnref=story  Video by Vedat Mihmat

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Special Needs, Farming, and Argentina

After a far too festive going-away celebration and one more day helping at the center in Taltal, Chile, I boarded a bus for a long day and a half of travel to cross from Chile into Argentina.  While looking for volunteer opportunities to replace my original plan for September and October, I used a website called IVHQ (International Volunteers Headquarters) that organizes volunteer opportunities around the world.  Through them, I found a program in Cordoba, Argentina working with special needs adults.  It seemed like a new challenge and quite different than my previous experiences.

Choripan night in the volunteer house (picture via Jenny!)

On that Sunday, I arrived in Cordoba and was taken to the volunteer house in a small town on the outskirts of Cordoba.  Upon arriving, I met a group of volunteers from different countries (Mexico, Switzerland, Ireland, Canada, Peru, New Zealand, and the US) who were working in a variety of projects related to the program, some with child-care, some with construction, some with the elderly of the community.  It reminded me a little bit of a “Real World” type situation (and has given me an idea for a new reality show!), but, more importantly, it was yet another opportunity for cultural exchange, as well as many fun memories over the next two weeks.

After a day for orientation and logistical items, Tuesday was my first day at my placement: a small center named Un Lugar en el Mundo (A Place in the World).  In total, the center has about two dozen patients with the majority of them in their 30s and 40s, although there were a few older as well.  As far as their abilities, there was a vast range.  A couple of the patients seemed to be very high functioning, at about the level of a 10 or 12-year old child.  These patients often helped with many tasks and interacting with the other patients.  They would often be the ones to pour and serve the mate (the traditional Argentinian tea) during breaks.  Others were more at the level of younger children, and others were almost completely uncommunicative, with little to no motor skills as well, including a couple of patients confined to wheel chairs who could not communicate at all.

Un Lugar en el Mundo (A Place in the World)

Over my time with the center, I got to learn about the personalities and eccentricities of each of the patients.  One was a woman who was like a toddler just learning to speak in that her most common phrases (in Spanish) were “How are you?’, “And you?”, and “Why?” It started as annoying, and then it became something I just adapted to, and, now, weeks later, it has become something I kind of miss hearing.  There was another gentleman, suffering from Down Syndrome and unable to speak, who hugged anyone and everyone whenever he first saw them, and loved to dance during the free time when music was played, and people could socialize rather than having any set activity.  However, he could also have horrible temper tantrums if he was unhappy about something.  There were a couple of patients that could be a little bit dangerous: one woman that would aggressively pinch people if they were close and not paying attention, another woman that would roughly shove people, and a man that would sometimes hit other patients.  All of this made each day a challenge, but completely worthwhile.

Drinking mate is a huge part of Argentine culture, even among the special needs patients

What really got to me, though, was the weight of the situation in general.  There were many times, especially in the first few days, that I was close to tears as I saw things like a 71-year old man working on two-digit sums as part of his lessons or a grown woman crying because she wanted to continue drawing but it was time to stop.  As difficult as those types of things to see are, it was nothing compared to what more I learned from the staff.  I had noticed that many of them wore tattered clothing that was barely staying together, and I wondered about this condition.  Then I learned why.  Many of the patients had been abandoned as children and have lived in a government-run “orphanage” for most of their lives.  Many of these patients had been tossed aside, same as the rags they wore.  As easy as it may be to do otherwise, I need to withhold judgement of their families, because it may in fact have been their only legitimate option.  Rather, the judgement lies with you and me, all of us, those of us who continue to maintain a society in which people can be cast aside as little more than stray animals.

Break time outside. As usual, everyone was amazed by my height

It is moments and experiences like this that introduce me to the unsung heroes of this world.  Incredible human beings like Caro and Vicki and Maria and Simi and so many others that strain their patience each day and then treat these patients with the love and respect they should receive but are denied by this cruel world we have created.

Baking activity at the center

The activities ranged throughout my time there.  Sometimes, a few of the higher functioning patients would help in the kitchen and help bake treats that would be served as snacks and refreshments for the other patients.  Other times, there would be gardening outside or small handicraft projects to engage the patients in active and productive tasks.  Almost every day, as I noted earlier, there would be free time for music and dancing.  The smiles on the faces beamed as they danced to both traditional and popular dance music.  Occasionally, the staff would pull out small drums so that the patients could play along, or plug in a microphone to have a bit of a karaoke session.

Since many of the patients lived in what are basically government run orphanages, they often did not have much more than tattered clothes

Meanwhile, during that time, I also was able to learn more about the fellow volunteers I was living with, who were working on their own projects.  Since I did not work the other programs, I only learned about them from the periphery, but not nearly enough that I could share much quality information.  However, it was inspiring to meet these people who had decided to pay out of pocket to come to another country in order to make a difference in some way.  Some of them were on gap years from school, or other similar long-term travel (like myself) and others took their precious vacation time to serve others.

On my first night in the house, I stayed up late speaking with a young woman, originally from Mexico, who had just finished high school, and was taking a gap year. She had thought about going back to Mexico to help with the recovery from the recent earthquakes, but had decided to follow through with her plan to come to Argentina.  I could sense the desperation in her of wanting to do something meaningful but not feeling as though she truly was making any difference at all. All I could do was tell her my philosophy that, often, all we can do is persevere and do the best we can.  The world can be a horrible place, but even if we don’t change the world, as long as we have not allowed its cynicism and fatalism to change us and convert us to join in the hopelessness, we will have won our own personal battle.   It was a conversation that took me back to my time as a high school teacher, having many long conversations with a young people still trying to figure out their place in the world and the path they would take through it.

My going away dinner on the patio

After two far too short weeks, it was time for me to move on from Cordoba.  My last day at the center, I found myself becoming emotional yet again.  However, it was much different this time.  When I started at the center, my emotions were based on pity for the situation these people were living in.  However, as I prepared to leave, I did not feel pity.  Instead, I realized that I had come to view these patients beyond just their disabilities, but as people I was going to miss.  They made it even more meaningful by making a small poster for me as a thank-you gift.  It was yet another humbling experience that I did not deserve.

The next morning, I packed up my stuff and was soon on a bus for a 24-hour ride to northern Patagonia and the small city of Bariloche in the lake district, where I was going to spend about 3 weeks working on an educational farm.

The gang of piglets running around the farm

After the long bus ride, and another local bus ride, and then walking down a side gravel road, I had arrived at Rock-Heim Farm.  I met the owners, Alex and Cris, and then their long-term helper, Fran, who I would be sharing the guest house with.  The guest house was a nice simple dwelling, only heated by a wood-burning stove.  The next morning my work would begin.

Sometimes, I would help with animal care, feeding and watering chickens or rabbits.  Alex or Fran took care of the other, larger animals: the sheep, hogs, and the small herd (only 3) of Jersey cattle.  Most of my work was spent cleaning up the farm and making repairs following the damage from the winds and snows of the winter.  Or working the ground of the small gardens to prepare for spring planting.

The farm was small and not focused on much production, but rather to serve as an example of farming practices, plants, and animals, for visiting school groups. This was obvious to me as, coming from a farm background, much of what was done seemed extremely inefficient to me, but since it is done on such a small scale, it makes a bit more sense to me given their goal of education.

Beautiful landscape surrounding the farm

I enjoyed working outside and being able to go for small walks in the afternoon, or going to some of the surrounding areas on the weekends.  It was also nice to be disconnected for a while, and enjoying the simple lifestyle.  I would go into the town of Bariloche when I needed to perform an online task, as well as sample the various cervecerias (micro-breweries) as Bariloche seems to be the beer capital of South America.  (When I was in college, I considered studying abroad in Argentina, but never followed through.  Now that I have sampled the beer, wine, meat, and chocolate, I have come to realize how big of a mistake that was!)

Sheep shearing season

While I was there, we only had one school group come by, but Alex told me more would start coming later in the season, especially in the fall.  Another was actually scheduled to come the week after I finished there.  Growing up around small/medium sized farms, focused on production, it was great to get a different experience.  In my opinion, the experience reinforced the concept of specialization and how large-scale operators are much more efficient at meeting the food needs of a growing population.  But it also gave a good perspective in trying to maintain a balance and sustainable practices, which even the large-scale farmers should try to emulate, since we only have so many resources available and must make them last as long as possible.

Exploring near the farm with my hiking buddy, Morsy

Regardless of the “organic vs commercial” farming debate, one undebatable positive aspect of what Cris and Alex are doing with their small farm is the educational outreach.  Far too many people are too far-removed from their food.  They only see it in the super-market, and their knowledge of farming is only from media consumption (TV, movies, books, etc.).  It would be great if all people could connect with and learn more about agriculture first-hand.  After all, agriculture is the foundation of civilization.  If humans never developed agriculture, we would likely still be living as primitive hunter-gatherers.  Therefore, it is important for all of us to better understand the practices and challenges of agriculture.  (I am obviously biased in this situation, but deal with it!)

After about three weeks working on the farm, in the shadow of the Patagonian Andes, it was time to move on yet again.  I said my farewells, hugged Fran, Alex, and Cris, and got on the local bus to Bariloche to take another long bus ride down to the wilds and beauty of Southern Patagonia.

MORE INFORMATION

For more information related to special needs:

IVHQ – The organization that I went through to get the special needs placement in Cordoba, Argentina

Un Lugar en el Mundo – The adult special needs center I worked with in Villa Allenda, on the outskirts of Cordoba

Here are some links that provide lists of other special needs organizations:

http://www.friendshipcircle.org/blog/2016/01/14/10-special-needs-organizations-you-should-know-about/

https://www.care.com/c/stories/6620/10-helpful-special-needs-organizations/

For more information related to my placement on the Patagoinian farm and agricultural education

Rock-Heim Farm – The farm outside of Bariloche where I worked for three weeks.  Focused on education and sustainable farming

Workaway: How I found Rock-Heim farms.  A website to find lodging, and possible food, in exchange for work

WWOOF: The same basic concept of Workaway, but focused on small organic farms around the world.

Agriculture in the Classroom: An organization that works with national and state departments of agriculture, farm bureaus, and other farming related groups to promote agricultural literacy in K-12 education

Into the Andes

The seeds of my visit to Peru were planted many years ago.  To start, from a young age I was fascinated by the stories of the Inca and the Spanish search for El Dorado and legendary cities of gold.  But aside from that, there was also a personal connection.  About 25 years ago, our local parish in Pesotum was between priests.  To fill the gap until a more permanent priest was assigned, priests would come down from the Newman Center at the University of Illinois to say mass and take care of a variety of pastoral duties.  One of them, Father Ed, was working on his PhD at the U of I after having spent time working in Peru.  My parents became interested in his work with the indigenous populations in Peru and after he finished his PhD and moved back to Peru, my parents stayed in touch with him.  Over the years, as I would hear of the work he was doing, an idea formed in the back of my mind that it would be an interesting experience to go and visit him in his village.  But I always just considered it a youthful fantasy, never really expecting it to reach fruition.  But as my trip to South America began to form, I realized that this would be an opportunity to actually make it happen.  So my parents gave me his email address and I reached out to Father Ed while I was still in Colombia, and a few months later, he was meeting me at the airport in Lima.

Father Ed and I in the coastal desert of Peru near Paracas

After running a few errands, we had an excellent dinner at a restaurant in the Miraflores region of Lima (Peru is known as the culinary star of South America, and in my time there and a few other countries, I have come to agree, even if I do not have a skillful palate by any means.) and caught up on the past 25 years.  That night, we stayed at the Carmelite house (his order of priests) in Miraflores before beginning our cross-country road trip, along with his assistant Bernacio, through southern Peru and to their village in the Andean highlands.  To stay in a simple but comfortable room in a community house such as that is a unique sensation, with the quiet and reverent atmosphere filling the building, and religious art and décor and books all around.

The next morning, as we were preparing to leave, we came across one of the priests with a group of men, and after the introductions, the older man in the group, the obvious authority figure, gave Father Ed an update on his work.  My Spanish was (and is) still rather weak, so I was only able to catch bits of what he was saying, but Father Ed filled in the gaps for me afterward.  This man runs an organization, Comunidad Terapéutica Programa San José, that serves as a halfway house and treatment center for recovering addicts.  He had told Father Ed that many of those they were serving at the moment were Europeans and Americans who had come to South America for the cheap and easy access to drugs and now found themselves destitute, and their families back home had all but abandoned them., leaving them with nowhere to turn.  It is interesting to hear about their work after my observation (and anger) regarding the Americans and Europeans that came to South America for drugs, taking advantage of and perpetuating the conditions on this continent that I pointed out in an earlier post.  However, this group were selflessly caring for those that did just that and lost themselves in the darkness of addiction.  It is such an amazing display of affection for those whom so many others would despise.

Upon leaving Lima, we took an amazing 3-day trip through southern Lima.  Through the coastal desert and Paracas, to the desert oasis of Haucachina and its lake surrounded by mountainous sand dunes, down to the mysterious Nazca lines that can only been realized from an elevated perch or (more often) from an airplane.

At Nazca, we turned inland and began climbing in elevation into the Andes.  After about 3 days of travel, and dropping off Bernacio at his home in Sicuani, a small city of about 30000 people outside of Cusco, Father Ed and I arrived at his home, next to the church in the small mountain community of Santa Barbara.  Upon arriving, I was introduced to Veronica and her daughter, Noelia, who stay in a small attached guest apartment and help Farther Ed around the house and church on the weekends.

Santa Barbara

I had hoped to do some direct work in the community supporting some type of a project, however, for a variety of reasons, during the time I was there, Father Ed did not have any major projects underway.  Instead, I just helped with a few small tasks where I could here and there, accompanying Father Ed to some of the other communities he served, helping organize a few things, and helping pick up some supplies for an upcoming youth retreat that would bring together young people from some of the surrounding communities.

Many a late night after dinner were spent with Father Ed and I having a drink and a cigar, discussing a wide range of topics, usually social and historical, regarding Peru and the local area, and the differing influences of the Inca, the Spanish, the church, and industry.  These were easily some of the most enlightening conversations about the region I had during my time in South America.  I also learned more about some of the variety of efforts to improve the lives of the people.  It was especially comforting that even though he is a priest, Father Ed fully acknowledged and did not excuse the sins of the Church in the history of the area.

Even in the freezing cold weather of the Andean highlands, many of the indigenous people wear sandals. The newer versions made out of recycled tires.

One of the elements that continuously came up during the conversations was the role of education.  It is almost cliché to anyone that studies history, but as always, much of the social and economic inequality in the area has been maintained over the centuries by denying the indigenous and lower classes access to high quality education.  This allowed the educated moneyed classes to exploit the lower classes for cheap labor in the mines and on the farms.  Unfortunately, the Catholic church was often complicit if not supportive of this power dynamic, serving both the spiritual and educational needs of the higher classes, while offering only basic support to the lower classes during the colonial era, and the early history of the independent nations.

Father Ed pointed out that this has been part of the reason for the rise of evangelical churches in this region of South America over recent decades. Missionaries would come to the area and provide the local populations with relevant education that would help them to improve their lives in some way.  That, combined with the Catholic Church’s relative indifference, makes these new missionaries much more appealing to these poorer demographics.  Father Ed has seen it happen throughout the communities that he serves, as many of the parishners no longer consider themselves Catholic and have joined these other churches.

Inside the church in Santa Barbara, with the women along the side wearing the traditional brightly colored clothing

We also discussed about how he has been trying to counteract this lack of education and what he hopes to do going forward.  One interesting organization that Father Ed told me about was Fe y Alegria, which seeks to provide education opportunities, usually through Jesuit schools, to the poorest and most vulnerable populations in South America.  Father Ed said that he had previously tried to get a Fe y Alegria school set up in the area a few years before, but ran into some logistical and political problems.  While this specific attempt did not work, upon hearing about the organization from Father Ed and doing more research on it, I found yet another shining example of people trying to improve the lives of those less fortunate by focusing on the fundamental and underlying challenges they face.

From a pastoral sense, he is hoping to develop a lay organization for younger adults in the community.  Most of the communities are basically dying out because young people leave the highlands to go and find work in the Peruvian cities.  However, a couple of communities do have relatively stable populations, but the churches (as is common in many places) are mostly attended by the elders of the community.  Because of this, Father Ed is trying to find ways to engage the younger community members that may have grown up with the church, but have basically left it for one reason or another.

At Machu Picchu

After a couple of weeks in Santa Barbara (interrupted with the obligatory Machu Picchu trek while Father Ed was visiting Lima for a meeting), I took my leave of Father Ed and his hospitality.  Noelia was extremely sweet and my last day, handed me a small cloth bag filled with stones that she had collected around the area that she found interesting, science being her favorite subject.  I thanked her and gave her one of the SpaceX mission patches that I had brought along.

I then had a variety of travelling adventures around Peru for a couple of weeks, meeting amazing people from around the world and learning so much about the different cultures of the area. I did the Inca Jungle Adventure Trek to Machu Picchu, including biking down from snow covered mountain roads to jungle rivers for river rafting, and hiking along portions of Inca trails (although not the “official” Inca trail from Cusco to Machu Picchu), as well as steps up the mountain side in the early morning to the mist covered mountain citadel.  After Cusco, I went to Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca, where I was able to visit more indigenous groups on the various islands, from the man-made reed islands of Uro to spending the night with the native people of Amantani, including a celebration in their community hall.  I also was able to see condors soaring over Colca Canyon, see a frozen Inca mummy, and enjoy alpaca grilled on a hot volcanic stone.

My roommates and house mom on Lake Titicaca at the community celebration.

While doing these tours that involved indigenous peoples, part of me was disappointed in the sheer overly touristic elements of visiting them.  It was obvious with the trinket sales, and even the celebration with Peruvian music and dancing, that this was all geared towards tourists.  However, as I thought more about it, and reflected upon other indigenous groups I have visited as parts of tours in Colombia and Brazil as well, I realized that this is a source of income that allows these people to maintain their traditional way of life (to an extent).  If these touristic opportunities did not exist, they may be forced between living a subsistence existence or abandoning their traditional ways.  However, it is important that if people participate in such tours, they do proper research to ensure that the native peoples are truly benefiting rather than being exploited.

After my month in Peru, I then entered northern Chile and the coastal desert formed by the interaction between the Pacific Ocean and the Andean mountains.  I had long wanted to visit the Atacama Desert and its high, dry environment which is used for many space observatories, to see one of the clearest night skies on Earth.  My first weekend was spent in the desert town of San Pedro de Atacama, which is basically overrun with tourists.  Unfortunately, a wind storm hit the town that week, closing almost all of the outdoor sites that are usually visited.  I happened to meet a young couple from Brazil in the bike rental shop as it was being closed, so we decided to go share some drinks, and were then joined by a German guy from my hostel.  This turned into quite the fun night. Even though the official “star tours” were cancelled, we were able to find a local taxi driver to drive us (and some beer and snacks) out into the desert so we could do our own star-gazing in the dark, windy, and cold, but clear night sky.  While I wish I could say it was the most brilliant sky of stars, it was not quite as impressive as I had hoped, but still beautiful and we were treated to multiple shooting stars against the celestial backdrop.

An English class in Taltal, Chile

After my weekend in San Pedro de Atacama, I made my way to the mining town of Taltal on the coast of northern Chile.  This trip came about thanks to workaway and my original plans for Patagonia falling through.  During my last week in Peru, I had to rearrange my travel and ended up finding a program in Taltal working mostly as an English instructor.  It was an incredibly serendipitous experience.  Taltal is a mining town on the southern edge of the Atacama Desert. I learned from the locals attending the English sessions that the area is considered “remote” by the government, in that the public workers, such as teachers, are paid more than elsewhere, due to the higher cost of living (as almost all food needs to be shipped in.).  Those who work in the mining industry tend to make decent money, but others can struggle.

I was met at the station by Tello (the founder of EFTG) and two other volunteers, one from Lebanon and one from France.  After dropping off my stuff at the hostel, we went to the library for an adult evening English class.  We had about 9 adults there who worked in a variety of industries. It was my first introduction to this friendly small community that I was welcomed into for two weeks.

The organization offers English lessons to a swath of the community, from housewives to children to working adults.  Many of them may not have opportunities to learn, or practice, their English skills.  In addition to that, the organization does other social services.  One other activity that we did while I was there was go with a group of doctors and nurses to the small coastal town of Paposo.  The town only has a small clinic with a nurse available, so many residents do not get regular medical care.  This event was a chance for the residents to come and get a quick check-up, while some of the doctors did house calls at the same time.  If a woman brought her children with her, we would entertain the children with activities and coloring books.  The town was also home to a school that EFTG usually visits once a week to offer additional English language support and engagement with the children.  Not long after I left, the group also participated in a beach clean-up.

The foreigners dressed up for Chilean Independence Day

It was also a stroke of luck that I happened to be in Taltal during Chilean Independence Day celebrations, allowing for even more of a cultural experience.  The other volunteers and I were invited to a party at someones house, and after the parade and before the party, we were given a quick lesson in cueca, the traditional Chilean dance.  This was just one of the many instances of hospitality that I experienced in this wonderful little community that I had never before heard of and will now always have a special place in my heart.

EFTG was a perfect example of trying to improve the world by simply trying to improve your local community.  There were no grandiose plans, simply a goal of helping out those nearby with a focus on English along with a willingness to help in other ways as needed.  It is a living testament to the philosophy of “love thy neighbor.”

Entertaining the children at a medical visit day in the village of Papuso

Perhaps that simple concept is the most important aspect that anyone can take from this.  As much as we would all love to change the world in some heroic manner, perhaps we should first focus on those nearby that need our assistance in some small way or another.  Helping an elderly neighbor with everyday tasks that have become difficult; babysitting or cooking dinner to help parents of a child in the hospital, working with a local homeless shelter, anything and everything can be a wonderful way to make a change for the better.  Sometimes the best way to improve the world is to improve our own little corner of it.

MORE INFORMATION

Here are some links to some of the organizations I learned about or worked with while in Peru and Chile.

http://www.ctprogramasanjose.com/ – The website for Comunidad Terapéutica Programa San José, the organization helping recovering addicts near Lima

http://www.feyalegria.org/ – The main website for Fe y Alegria and its affiliates around South America, focused on improving educational opportunities for underserved populations

https://feyalegria.us/ – US-based group supporting Fe y Alegria and its mission

http://ocarm.org/ – Main website of the Carmelite community

http://www.workaway.info/ – Website where I connected with EFTG.  Matches travelers who are willing to work for accommodation and sometimes food, and local organizations, small businesses, and the like who could use the help.

https://www.facebook.com/English.for.the.Greatest – Facebook page of EFTG (the local nonprofit group in Taltal, Chile)

 

http://infoegtaltal.wixsite.com/eftgtaltal – Standard website for EFTG (some items on the site are a bit out of date)

Amazon Adventure

After six months, and an extra week to see the Independence Day celebrations (which other than a parade, there pretty much weren’t any), my time in Colombia was done.  My next destination was technically Peru, but I had decided I did not want to go there directly.  Instead, I flew to Manaus, Brazil, where I could then get on a river boat going up the Amazon River to Iquitos, Peru.  I gave myself about 2 weeks for this river trip so that I would have some contingency days as well as possibly do some side treks along the Amazon.

Holding a baby sloth in an Amazonian indigenous village

As it turned out, I used one of those contingency days right away.  Upon arriving at the airport, I was not allowed to board my flight due to a visa issue as I was supposed to connect through Venezuela.  After some last-minute travel bookings, I had a new flight going through Panama, but it was going to cost me a day.  However, on the positive side, the layover in Panama City was close to 20 hours, which allowed me to spend about half a day exploring Panama City and the Panama Canal, a nice unexpected side trip.

Finally, after my one-day delay, I arrived in Manaus in the evening, and the next day had a tour of the river around Manus.  This was a good introduction to the Amazon region, even if we really didn’t go into the forest.  Among other things, I was able to see the “meeting of the waters”, where two rivers meet with different temperatures, currents, and compositions.  Because of the differences, it takes a while for them to truly join into one river, so for a few kilometers, there is dark blue water and muddy brown water side by side. I also saw the pirarucu, a giant fish of the Amazon river, and some monkeys climbing the trees above us at one of our stopping points.  I was also able to swim with pink river dolphins.  I was a little concerned about this part, because I did not know how it would be set up: if the animals would be penned in or maltreated or something to that effect.  Luckily, I found out that the operators were conscientious of the animals.  The site was simply on the side of the river, with no pens or anything.  The dolphins simply come there of their own volition because they know they will be getting some free fish.  But I was more impressed that they only do this a few days out of the week, so that the dolphins do not become dependent upon the people for food.

Village lodge with an indigenous presentation

The other interesting part of this trip was getting to visit an indigenous village.  At the village, I was able to hold a baby sloth, taste some jungle food (like grubs and other bugs) and witness a traditional dance (and even join in for part of it).  Talking to the guide, I learned that this tribe had moved closer to Manaus because it was safer and more reliable than living further in the jungle.  The government takes care of the people, providing necessary health care and other services and allows the people to maintain their way of life, provided that they allow and participate in tours such as what I was doing.

I mentioned it being safer for the indigenous to be closer to Manaus.  Only a couple of weeks after I visited Manaus, I saw news of a tragic event in the Brazilian Amazon.  An entire indigenous village had been massacred by illegal loggers and miners.  The only reason it came to light was because someone overheard some of the perpetrators talking about it in a bar, and this person then alerted the authorities.    What is even worse, some experts believe this actually happens somewhat regularly because of the combination of the remote and wild Amazon jungle, the lack of information about many Indigenous peoples in the depths of the jungle (especially the uncontacted tribes), and the large number of illegal timber, mining, drug, and other such operations.  Because of these combined circumstances, it is relatively easy for these illegal operators to come across native people, slaughter them, use their land, and no one ever finds about it.

Link to news story on this event:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/10/world/americas/brazil-amazon-tribe-killings.html

The next day I headed to the riverside again to take the slow boat up the river.  I received my paperwork, and soon I was on a small dinghy to board the ferry that would be my home for the next week.  As luck would have it, I happened to be on the dinghy with a girl that spoke English.  She was from France, but had been in Brazil for about six months so spoke Portuguese rather well.  It was extremely fortunate to have met someone right away that could help translate for me in case of any issues on the boat.

Hammocks, hammocks, and more hammocks. Not exactly private accomodation

The first step was finding an open spot to hang the hammock that I had bought along with the boat passage.  There were two open air decks on the ship where people would hang a hammock, keep their belongings under it, and then that would be their accommodation for the duration of the trip.  While a hammock sounds relaxing in theory, I have learned during the course of this trip that actually spending multiple nights in a hammock is not the most pleasant of experiences.

Fortunate smiled upon me again the next morning. At breakfast, I noticed that two young men sitting across the long dining table were speaking in English.  I began talking with them and learned that one was from Portugal and the other was from Spain.  They had met during their travels in South America, and were on their way to Leticia, the Colombian city in the tri-border region.

Sunset on the Amazon, from my favorite spot, in the bow of the boat

Early in the week, I found an excellent spot on the boat, where I spent much time, including at night where I could write in my journal or prepare a blog post.  Going down to the main cargo deck, it was possible get to the bow of the boat, where almost no one ever went.  It allowed for an almost unobstructed view of the Amazon River stretching out in front of us. One day, while I was sitting in the bow yet again, I noticed the white puffy cumulus clouds in the sky, and the green forest lining the river banks.  We were at a such distance from the river bank, that it wasn’t possible to really distinguish the types of trees on the bank, just the solid green presence of tree life. The combination formed a scene that reminded me of the lakes in northwest Wisconsin. If I looked at a picture of the two scenes, I doubt that I could distinguish between the two without close analysis.  That familiarity made me think of the interconnectedness of the world.  While reading about the Amazon in preparation for the trip, I learned that the Amazon Rainforest is fertilized by dust from the Sahara Desert that is blown across the Atlantic Ocean.  I also remembered that the Amazon supplies more than 20% of the world’s oxygen.  It is easy to focus only on our own little corner of the world, but we must remember that we are part of a bigger world that is in constant interaction.

Just one example of the litter that we often found in the riverside towns in Brazil

As we made our way upriver, in the latter half of the week, we would occasionally stop at a small town on the river to drop off cargo and passengers, as well as take on new ones.  It is important to note that the Amazon River and its tributaries basically serve as the highway system for this region, with transportation of people and goods happening on these boats.  This was not some tour that I was on, this was everyday life for the people of the region.  Often at these stops, my new friends and I would walk around the town and try to find a place to get some snacks and drinks.  While having a few beers at a makeshift dockside bar, the Spaniard pointed out to me his frustration with the amount of trash in the river, on the river banks, and the casualness with which people would toss garbage off of the boat.  I had noticed the litter, especially when we arrived in each little town.  It seemed there was garbage all along the river banks.  The Spaniard and I could not understand how people were so willing to throw trash into the river, since most of them likely lived alongside of it.  I realize that this is a European/American way of looking at the environment.  However, he was truly frustrated by the state of affairs we were witnessing.  And I have to agree with him.  While I am not an environmentalist, I greatly appreciate the natural environment and hate to see what was happening to such an amazing place.

There was no beer on the boat, so we made up for it in the ports of call along the river

Eventually, we made it to Tabatinga.  As a group, we went to the immigration offices, and then crossed into Leticia, Colombia.  The fellow from Portugal was going to be working as a translator for one of the local tour groups.  We arrived at their offices, and began to say our goodbyes.  He actually was scheduled to go out on a tour that afternoon.  I spoke to the tour operator for a bit and then decided to go on that tour.  I hadn’t really gotten into the jungle yet, and I had time, since I had decided I was not doing the slow boat anymore to Iquitos, and the fast boat would only be about 10 hours as opposed to 3-4 days.  Thanks to my fortunate meeting on the slow boat from Manaus, I was now on my way into the Amazon jungle for a 4-day tour.

Again, there were amazing experiences had in the Amazonian jungle.  Both day and night treks into the jungle including looking for sloths in the wild, a night trip on the river to look for caimans (basically, Amazonian crocodiles), fishing for piranha (and swimming with them as well!).  For the first and last night, we stayed in Puerto Nariño.  This is an amazing town that is fairly new, it was only established in the past 50 years or so.  It is also extremely eco-friendly.  There are no cars, it is extremely clean and well-maintained, and the townspeople are almost all descended from one of the local indigenous tribes. Actually, I had noticed in general that the Amazon region in Colombia, and the towns of Puero Nariño and Leticia, was much cleaner than Tabatinga and the rest of the Brazilian Amazon.

Sunset in an Amazonian village

The middle night, we stayed further upriver in an indigenous village.  It was another great opportunity to learn more about the culture there.  The community has a soccer league with about two dozen nearby river villages.  There was supposed to have been a game that day, but it was cancelled for some reason, so we were treated to an impromptu soccer scrimmage as the sun set over the river and the piranha we had caught that day were prepared for dinner.  Walking around the village, and hearing from the guides, I was amazed at how resourceful and perseverant these people were.  The houses were on stilts due to the seasonal flooding of the river basin.  We learned that a few years ago, it was an extremely high river, and the entire village (about 7-8 families) had to stay in one village building because many of the houses were flooded and full of caimans and snakes.

We also heard some of the darker tales.  While in the mirador (viewpoint tower) of Puerto Nariño, overlooking the town and the jungle and river beyond, our guide told us how rampant alcoholism, drugs, and violence can be among some of the indigenous communities, especially at the hands of others.  He told the story about how one of his grandparents was the result of the rape of an indigenous woman.   These are the types of struggles people in these communities often still deal with to this day, and we hear so little about.

Crossing the river to Peru

Upon returning to Leticia, I dealt with immigration yet again and then got on a small motor boat, along with an older gentleman and his dog, to cross the river to Santa Rosa, Peru.  I had quite a bit of time to kill as my boat was not leaving for Iquitos until almost 5 AM.  The town had no cars and no real streets to speak of either.  Just one main road that was mostly dirt, except for a few stretches that were wooden.  I walked up and down that main road just to get a sense of the small town.  The people of the town were amongst the most friendly and welcoming I had yet met I South America.  Multiple people saw my bags, asked where I was from, if I needed anything, and just chatted for a short time.  Then, I decided to get a drink and dinner at a small restaurant that was blaring music onto the street.  While there, I overheard a couple speaking English, and struggling with their Spanish, so I began talking to them. They sat with me and we shared some drinks, and soon another two people joined us, these from Portugal.  We were all going to Iquitos and therefore had a night to spend before our boat left.  After dinner, we made our way to another bar that seemed to be the only one open.  Even though it was a Monday night, and we were the only ones there (aside from the workers, and the waitress from the restaurant we just came from), they stayed open until almost 2 AM for us.  When we left, there was not even a light on anywhere in the town, so we pulled out flashlights and made our way to the small dock to wait a couple of hours to for our boat to leave.

A quick swing through the Amazon Rainforest

In the pre-dawn hours, our boats arrived (it turned out that we were taking two different boats, departing about 45 minutes apart from each other), and the crowds boarded the boats.  For the next 12 hours, I sat on a boat heading up the Peruvian Amazon, with a seat layout similar to that of a standard bus.  That evening, I arrived in Iquitos, had dinner with the English and Portuguese friends, and then walked around the town that evening by myself, doing a little bit of exploring.  There were almost no cars in the city center where I was staying, instead, mototaxis were the prevalent mode of transportation around the town. It was an interesting, but very loud scene, as the mototaxis had an unmuffled engines and hundreds of them were driving around the center square.  Overall, I found Iquitos to be an amazingly quaint city, with a wonderful riverfront, shops, even a small coffeeshop/art-gallery that was open late.  I truly wish I had more time to spend there, but alas, the next morning, I repacked my bags, and headed to the airport to fly to Lima, my two weeks exploring the Amazonian region of Brazil, Colombia, and Peru at an end.

I realize this is cliché but the Amazon truly is a wondrous place with so many different aspects to it, and I saw just a fleeting glimpse.  But even with that quick view, I witnessed how fragile and in danger the area is.  And I never even saw many of the true dangers that are threatening the more remote areas of the Amazon rainforest and its people.  As I said earlier, I am not a tree-hugging environmentalist by any means, but I try to be acutely aware of what is happening, and there are many good and bad things happening in the Amazon.  Hopefully, we can help support those good things happening to overcome the bad.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

Here are some links to sites that have more information and organizations that are working to protect the Amazon rainforest and its native peoples.

http://www.coica.org.ec/ – A collective organization, based in Ecuador, for Amazonian native peoples

http://amazonwatch.org/ – An organization that promotes welfare of the Amazon, both its environment and its people.  It works primarily with local indigenous groups, but also environmental causes as well.

http://www.goodnet.org/articles/4-nonprofits-ideas-on-how-to-save-amazon – An article highlighting groups fighting for the Amazon (Amazon Watch is the first one listed).

Colombian Reflections

My time with Prints of Hope and in Colombia ended in late July.  For the past two months, I’ve done more traveling: Panama, Brazil, Peru, Chile, and now Argentina.  I’ll be writing more about those adventures in upcoming posts.  But given that the six month stint in Colombia was the starting point, as well as the longest I have ever been in another country (I only spent four months in Ireland after graduate school.), this post is a general reflection upon my time and experiences in Colombia.

Striking a pose at the Boltero Museum in Bogota

While I don’t really want this to be a typical “travel blog” about where I went and what I did, but more focused on the needs I observe in different areas and communities, and how these needs could be or are being addressed; much of the important aspects and details related to that have been covered in my previous posts.

Therefore, this will be closer to an “experiential” post.  First and foremost, upon reflection, I am glad I took the leap and began this trip.  And my time in Colombia with the Prints of Hope was a good start to it.  While it didn’t go exactly as expected (discussed in earlier posts), it offered me an excellent opportunity to learn more about nonprofit management.  And more importantly, it gave me the chance to experience a new culture, in a different language, which proved to be a challenge for me to rise to in order to make the best of my time there.

One of my last nights out in Bogota (3 blond Americans and 3 Colombians)

Although the language barrier was certainly difficult, for me, the general cultural barrier was the larger struggle.  Prior to leaving the US, I happened to discuss Colombia with a few different people who had visited there, and they all told me how much they loved it.  This was reinforced by many travelers that I crossed paths with while in Colombia, who talked about how much they were enjoying the country.  Having lived there for six months, and discussed the country and the culture with some of my roommates, I realized that an old cliché is probably best for how I would describe Colombia:

It’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

Colombia is an amazing travel destination, and I highly recommend it for tourism.  It is strikingly beautiful with such a variety of landscapes and climates.  There are different vibrant cultures across the country in each region, and I never even made it to Medellín, which often seems to be most travelers’ favorite city.  You could spend weeks and months in Colombia and discover something new each and every day.

With a couple of YMCA friends (Carolina & Leydi) at Monserrate overlooking Bogota

However, I found it difficult to build something of a life in Bogotá.  Now a good portion of that could be specific to the city life of Bogotá, but some of the reasons I believe are more general to Colombia, and how they interact with my own personality.  There were two main cultural aspects that really caused difficulties for me.

Group of YMCA volunteers having a night out after a training camp

One was something that many travelers had told me they loved about Colombia.  And that is the reputation Colombians have for being friendly.  That seems like it would be a positive, but I noticed that Colombian “friendliness” is a different type of “friendly”.  It seems to be a “cold” friendly, rather than a “warm & welcoming” friendly.  Again, a big part of it could be Bogotá, but I noticed it in other cities as well.  Basically, in my experience, unless you already had a connection with someone, while people would be friendly when you spoke with them, they never made an effort to start a conversation or be truly welcoming.  This is actually understandable, given the troubles that Colombia has faced over the years with drug cartels, guerillas, and paramilitary groups.  To survive, one would need to be friendly so as not to offend anyone, but at the same time, maintain a wariness about strangers.  The exception to this cautiousness seemed to be the people who obviously had an ulterior motive, to sell you something in one way in form or another.  To be honest, I have come to have a visceral reaction to the word “amigo” as it was almost always spoken by some aggressive vendor, with an obvious tone of inauthenticity, dripping with hidden condescension.

As I said though, if you do have an established connection with people, the Colombians are extremely welcoming and wonderful.  I was lucky to meet amazing people during my time in Colombia through my work with the YMCA, including people that opened up their homes to me, and I truly appreciate their generosity.

My roommates, Elena (left), Laura (bottom left), and Chloe (right) and one of the teachers we worked with, Lili (center) at the teachers’ appreciation party

The second struggle was something that I already had a little bit of experience with, but until you are truly immersed in it, you don’t really understand it.  And that is the general “casualness” and “indirectness” of Latin Americans, and this is extremely strong in Colombia.  I never before really appreciated how different that is than my nature.  Maybe it is my Northern European heritage, but most people who know me, know that I like to be in control of every situation as much as possible, which is very un-Colombian.  Qué será  or “what will be” is a common saying and not one that I do well with.  I also have a tendency to be as explicit as possible when writing emails or communicating otherwise, so there is no room for misunderstanding.  I do not like subtlety when it comes to communication, but subtlety is more the language here than Spanish is.  Especially the aversion to saying the word No.  Which led to so many frustrations for me.  Chloe, Elena, and Laura began to laugh about and wonder when I would finally explode from the countless frustrations I had due to what I felt was a lack of communication and/or planning about one thing or another.

Rock Al Parque. An annual free music festival in Bogota, in Parque Simón Bolívar

This “casualness” also extended into social life as well.  Making plans with friends was always an unknown.  My roommates and I had learned that you need to make multiple plans for a given night, because you never knew who would actually follow through and who would cancel.  Often, a group would talk about doing something on a night for a week or two, but then when it came, nothing would happen.  Then, another night, a group outing would suddenly happen with only a few hours’ notice (if that). While I like to be spontaneous, and the latter situation is completely fine with me; I have always been bothered when people cancel plans, and it happened with so much frequency in Colombia, that it became a constant source of frustration for me.  But on those occasions when a night out did actually occur, I almost always had an incredible time.  Whether it was my pathetic attempts at salsa dancing (despite my friends best efforts at teaching me), nights out at a variety of clubs, getting locked inside Parqúe Simón Bolívar after sunset and having to help each other either through or over the fencing to get out, or any of the other small adventures we had, they all helped to make my time in Colombia memorable.

There were no Holsteins at the Colombian Ag Expo in Bogota, so I had to settle for an Ayrshire

All that being said, this was an incredible opportunity to learn about another culture (and my own quirks), as well as make new friends that I hope to keep in contact with over the years.  This was only possible by forcing myself to look for such opportunities to travel and to participate in cultural exchange programs.  I have received comments and messages from people talking about how they wish they could travel and do some of these adventures. This has been common from former students.  Especially for those of you, what is stopping you?

The Lego convention came to Bogota

I am fully aware that I am fortunate with my place in life that I can go on a trip such as this to travel the world.  However, there are many other opportunities out there for you to travel and see the world, with limited time and financial constraints.  I have met so many people that are travelling and finding unique ways to afford it.  One friend spent a few weeks in the Amazon for free working as a translator on the tours groups.  I just finished an amazing two weeks doing a workaway in Taltal, Chile helping teach English at a nonprofit and had my accommodation and most of my food paid for.

If you don’t have personal or family responsibilities holding you back, and you are thinking about traveling to experience a foreign country, don’t find excuses, find a way to make it happen.

Here are some links to just a few of the ways you can travel to new places, have unique experiences, and do it rather cheaply (or maybe even make some money!).  Most of them require a commitment of at least 2 weeks, but you often have some free time.

http://www.iena.org/ This is the organization I went through for the program in Colombia, but it also has other programs for Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Thailand.  It is important to note that foreigners can get temporary work visas for Australia and New Zealand, but only until you are 30 (AUS) or 35 (NZ) years old.  So don’t put this off for too long!

https://www.workaway.info/ A website where you can find free lodging (and occasionally food) around the world in exchange for working.  A common set-up is working at a hostel, cleaning or answering phones or something similar.  If you are multilingual, you can also be a translator for tours and such, and get to go on those tours for free.   This is probably the most popular site, and you are more likely to find places in popular tourist spots.

https://www.givingway.com/  Similar to workaway, except more focused on volunteering with nonprofits and projects.  Since they are nonprofits, there might not be as much covered as the ones on workaway.

https://wwoofinternational.org/ WWOOFing is going to work on small farms dedicated to sustainable farming practices.  Often both food and lodging are provided in exchange for working on the farm.   Obviously, these will not be in major cities.

There are other sites that you can find free housing that I don’t have experience with:

www.couchsurfing.com

www.staydu.com

There are also many programs to work as an English teacher and/or au pair in other countries.  You can do a google search for these to find different programs.

For all of these, make sure you do your research and try to find hosts that have been reviewed and seem legitimate, and always trust your gut if something doesn’t seem right!

The world is an amazing place that is waiting to be explored.  I’ll leave you with a famous quote by Mark Twain:

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.

Colombian Conflict and Lessons the US can Learn

(Note: due to my phone being stolen, I don’t have some of my pictures from some memorials and exhibits from the National Museum.  So I am just copying pictures from the Internet).

Given that my Spanish level was at an extremely basic level when I arrived in Colombia, I decided to take lessons from a tutor.  It definitely helped, although I did not put in as much practice in my free time as I should have.  Aside from the Spanish practice, as part of my lessons, my tutor went over some of the past 70 years of history in Bogotá and Colombia.  We also went to the National Museum in Bogotá for one of my tutoring sessions.  These activities, along with my own reading and what I learned from other museums and tour guides during my travels, helped give so much context into the turmoil of Colombia over more than half a century.

Image from the Bogotazo (from LatinAmericanStudies.org)

Here is a very brief (and probably insufficient) summary for those completely unaware and only know that Colombia was involved in a long-running civil war, and that it allowed and was to an extent fueled by the drug trade.  I am including links to the relevant Wikipedia pages for more info.

Unsurprisingly, the roots of the conflict go back decades and the differences were rooted in economic inequality and struggles between peasants and land-owners.  These struggles were then exploited by the liberal and conservative parties for their own political gain (sound familiar?).  This came to a head on April 9, 1948, a date which changed the trajectory of Colombian history.  The liberal candidate for president, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, was assassinated.  There are a variety of theories as to the killer’s motivation, ranging from personal issues with Gaitán to involvement by the conservative government.  At the time, the media was sharply divided and supporters of one party or the other generally only listened to their “friendly” news sources (again, sound familiar?).  As news broke of the assassination, the radio station managed by supporters of Gaitán blamed the conservative government for the killing and called upon their listeners to take up arms in the streets.  Thus began what is known as the Bogotazo, a city-wide riot that destroyed much of Bogotá and resulted in thousands of deaths. This helped intensify other conflicts in other regions of Colombia, beginning the 10-year period known as La Violencia.  The La Violencia set the stage for the rise of the various guerilla and paramilitary groups throughout the country.  And as people tried to escape the violence in the cities, they moved to the countryside in hopes of living as peaceful farmers.  This influx of farmers eventually caused a surplus and then crop prices dropped, which allowed for more economic incentives for drug cultivation, which added yet another dimension to the ongoing conflict which still has effects to this day. All because of division and distrust that exploded due to a tragic event almost 70 years ago.

Image from the Bogotazo (from LatinAmericanStudies.org)

It has been interesting learning about the turbulent history of Colombia (and other parts of South America), while watching from afar the political upheaval in the United States right now.  Yes, it is very much an apples and oranges comparison, and I do not believe the United States is realistically close to an outbreak of political violence.  But nonetheless, consider this hypothetical situation:

Donald Trump is assassinated by some mentally disturbed person with a loose connection to Black Lives Matter or the Antifa movement.  The FBI urges calm as they investigate, but has no reason to suspect anything more than a lone individual.  However, Alex Jones and similar personalities that are enamored with Donald Trump put forward conspiracy theories that this was actually a coup by the establishment, and urges their well-armed and like-thinking listeners to prepare for the worst.  A few unhinged listeners, maybe ones that belong to citizens’ militias, decide to strike first, and begin violently targeting BLM and Antifa gatherings and possibly even federal agents.  Then, Antifa and maybe the New Black Panthers start to promote their own armed resistance against these militias and right-wing groups, and maybe even local law enforcement that they feel are complicit in the violent actions of the right-wing groups. And soon violent clashes are occurring around the country, each side adamantly convinced that they are fighting against evil forces. How far-fetched does that really sound when laid out in such a manner?

The reason this doesn’t sound all that far-fetched is that we no longer view people with opposing political viewpoints as fellow citizens who happen to have a different opinion, or perhaps who are misguided at worse.  Now we view them as sworn enemies bent on destroying the country.  They are others that should be hated and feared.

Hatred and fear are base emotions.  They fuel our fight-or-flight instinct and are, therefore, extremely powerful.  They were very useful to us when we lived in small hunger-gather tribes.  But they can be counter-productive to advanced civilization, especially in a representative democracy when compromise is necessary in order to get things done.

What is worse is that over the past 25 years or so, we have retreated into echo chambers so that instead of learning new information and perspectives, we simply reinforce what we already believe to be true.  In addition, it also fools us into thinking that our particular way of thinking is more popular than it really is, because everyone we talk to shares our beliefs.  And, there must be something wrong with those who disagree with us.

Here is the reality though, no matter what your political leanings are, most of the country disagrees with you on most issues.  That is simply what happens when you live in a large and diverse country.

If we are to move forward as a country, we must learn to accept those who disagree with us and find common ground and ways to move forward.  And it starts by looking at ourselves and how we perceive those of differing viewpoints.  It is so frustrating and disheartening to see what often gets posted on social media.  I want to point out two “headlines” that I made-up and am paraphrasing from stories I’ve seen shared.  And I want you to REALLY think about why these types of stories get shared:

‘Local Man Outrages Liberal with Patriotic Display”

“Majority of Trump Voters Believe Demonstrably False Information”

Are you sharing the first one because of your love for the country and you are heartened by patriotic displays?  Are you sharing the second one because you are worried about the abundance of in misinformation in our public discourse?  You may tell yourself yes; but, in general, I don’t believe you.

I believe those of you sharing the first stories are doing so because they “outrage liberals” and you enjoy anything that makes them angry.  It isn’t love of country that is motivating you, it is hatred of the other.

If you are sharing the second story, I think it is really because it reinforces your belief that Trump voters are stupid and/or gullible.  This type of story allows you to continue your intellectual superiority and dismiss valid concerns and values of the other.

Obviously, these are over-simplifications, and you very well may have pure and noble intentions, but all I ask is that you truly question and be honest with yourself.  When you listen to or share a story, look in your heart and ask yourself “Why?”  And yes, look in your heart, your gut, your soul, your emotions.  One of the interesting things that I’ve learned during a variety of coursework and trainings on management and leadership is that the vast majority of our decisions are actually made emotionally rather than rationally, as much as we tell ourselves differently.  While we believe we make a decision using our rational minds; in reality, usually, we are only using our rational minds to justify the decision that our emotional hearts have already made.  So look at what is really triggering your emotional reactions when you read and share political information.  The more aware we are of those feelings and how they control us, the better we are at adjusting our behavior.

There are so many that would rather divide us with heated rhetoric.  They do this not for love of country, but because it helps them win votes or gather viewers/listeners/readers.  They claim some other (whoever they may be) are enemies of the USA.  But the people peddling this rhetoric are the ones that are damaging the country.

To be clear, protesting injustice and inequality or standing up for beliefs and rights are not the same as “dividing us”.  Pointing out the problems of institutional racism is not “dividing” the country any more than telling your sibling that they have a drug and alcohol problem is “dividing” your family.  Expressing your beliefs, even if they are unpopular or old-fashioned, should be no more controversial than the clothing you choose to wear, even if they are out of style.

However, you must realize that there are those that disagree with you and as long as you acknowledge and accept that, and try to find common purpose, there is so much we can accomplish.  But if you dismiss others and their beliefs and opinions, you do nothing more than hold us all back.

Yesterday was the anniversary of 9/11.  All over social media, I saw the common refrain to “Never Forget.” But I am going to push on that.  What do you mean?  How are you “remembering” that horrible day?  Are you remembering how originally well-meaning beliefs were allowed to be warped and twisted by close-mindedness and hate, which led to such horrible devastation?  Or are you remembering it as a reason to hate and fear an entire group of people that have different religious beliefs than you?  Are you “not forgetting” how Americans came together to mourn and support one another?  Or are you “not forgetting” how offensive it is to you when someone expresses an opinion that you think is insufficiently patriotic or overly nationalistic?  Please think about how best to remember those who lost their lives.  Instead of just red, white, and blue posts, or criticizing American foreign policy, or whatever, wouldn’t it be a better honor to their memory to come together as a country, respect each other as compatriots, and work together to a better future?

Therefore, when you are about to post something on Facebook; or read/watch/share a news story; or express your opinion in some other way; or agree or disagree with an policy, party, or person; please ask yourself:  Are you helping us to come together and improve as a country and as human beings (even if it makes us slightly uncomfortable) or are you only making yourself feel better and superior about your opinion and dividing us even further?

 

Colombian Travel Part 2: Sex, Drugs, & Tourism

Swimming in Tayrona National Park

For a couple of days after La Guajira, I explored the secluded jungle beaches of Tayrona National Park.  The area is incredibly beautiful (if a little crowded in some areas, especially in Cabo San Juan) and it was a unique experience to wake up around dawn due to the heat, walk through a jungle trail, with birds and insects calling, along with the occasional monkey, and then arrive at a completely empty beach of a secluded cove, and then to take a (not very safe) solitary swim as the day begins.

After Tayrona, I spent one last night back in in Santa Marta (especially looking forward to an air conditioned room).  That evening, I walked around the beachfront looking for dinner, before finally deciding on an assortment of street foods rather than an actual meal; the highlight of which was a maracuyá (passion fruit) ice cream sundae, which was absolutely delicious after the past week of jungle, desert, and jungle again.  My plan had been to go clean up a bit more after eating, and then check out the night life of Santa Marta.  However, while I was eating an empanada and drinking a beer on the beachfront, two girls sat down near me.  After talking to each other for a few minutes, one of them asked me the time, and we soon began making small talk.  It turned out they were from Venezuela, two of the tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of Venezuelans trying to find a better life in Colombia.  We talked longer and had a few beers, then walked around the plazas of Santa Marta, enjoying the evening.

Beachfront in Santa Marta

We tried to go into a couple of the clubs, but one of them had forgotten her ID.  So instead, we bought a few more beers from a corner store and sat in the plaza drinking and chatting.  During the course of the conversation, it was interesting to hear from them about arriving in Colombia.  Literally, the day they had arrived in Colombia, someone had approached them about becoming prostitutes.  They then said it was actually a fairly regular occurrence, with someone propositioning them usually once a week or so.  Unfortunately, I was not all that surprised to hear that attractive young women coming from the turmoil of Venezuela would be targeted in such a way.  We exchanged contact info in the hopes that perhaps our paths would cross again someday, and then they called it a night since one of them had to work early the next morning.

The fortress wall of the Cartagena’s old city

That next day, I took a bus to the biggest tourist destination on the coast: Cartagena.  The old colonial city of Cartagena is a UNESCO world heritage site, and it really is quite incredible and full of history and beautiful architecture.  My first night in Cartagena, I met up with a friend from Spain that I met on the Ciudad Perdida trek and we had dinner and some drinks.  Walking around the old city, I commented to her that the old buildings and small plazas, with the open air cafes, reminded me of the cities in Spain and Italy.

One aspect of the city I noticed that night was all of the women in Plaza de los Coches, one of the main squares in the old city. They were all dressed up for a night out, standing by themselves, or in a group of two or three.  It did not take long for me to realize that most of these women, scores of them, were prostitutes.  It was interesting to see how out in the open it was (prostitution is legal in Colombia) and I said as much to my friend, who laughed and agreed.  We called it an early night, as she had done a tour that day, and I had just arrived by bus, and I made the walk along the beach from the old city back to my hostel, stopping for a brief moment to watch lightning off in the distance as the ocean waves softly came ashore.

Plaza de los Coches early in the evening. Soon it would be filled with prostitutes and johns.

The next day, I participated in a walking tour of the old city, which was a nice way to spend half of a day.  (It also proved how small the travel world can be, as a couple from England on the tour had been one of the two couples staying at the same cabana as me outside of Tayrona National Park a few days earlier.)  After the tour, and eating an excellent ceviche, I escaped the afternoon heat and humidity by going into the maritime museum, which helped me practice my Spanish as there were no English displays, as well as helped me understand more about the history of the city and the country.

(Side note of personal heritage pride: it turns out that there was a large contingent of Irish soldiers that helped fight in Colombian’s war for independence! Erin go bragh!)

 

Cannons atop the old city walls

The late afternoon, and early evening were spent further exploring the sites of the city: the fortress walls, the colonial streets and houses, some of the green spaces, and the impressive Castillo de San Felipe.

Upon arriving back at my hostel, and cleaning up, I messaged my friend and met her at her hostel with some of her friends she had met on her tour that day.  We spoke for a bit and had a few drinks, and then I decided to go out on my own to explore the nightlife of the city.  They were planning on going to a regular night club, which did not really appeal to me that night.

Revelers in the streets of Cartagena

Walking around the streets of Cartagena at night as a single white man is one of the most surreal experiences I have ever had in my life.  At first, it was similar to the night before with my friend, rather aggressive promoters trying to entice me to their bar or club: Amigo, happy hour, best club, VIP, drink specials…  That seems rather common in most tourist places in my experience, and although slightly annoying, I’ve come to accept it.  However, what soon became different, was the propositions that had not been offered to me the night before because I was walking the streets with a woman.

Hey amigo, I got whatever you need… weed… coke… women.

It seemed every corner I walked past, some different sketchy character would be offering the same vices.  The first time or two, I just shrugged and laughed it off.  However, as it became more and more consistent, I became more and more annoyed.  What I need is to be left alone I wanted to yell each time I was approached, but simply stuck with No gracias.

Salsa Dancers in Donde Fidel

I walked around Plaza de la Coches to check out a couple of the salsa bars in the area that I had read about.   I admired the impressive quick and fluid movements of dancers that had been practicing this art for years, as well as the fumbling attempts of tourists who were trying their best.

As I left the club, and stood drinking a beer in the plaza, it wasn’t long before some of the girls came up and made their offers.  I politely refused, but it would not be long before another came up, made a bit of small talk, and then made her offer.  Again, I was becoming more frustrated (as well as hungry) and went to find a street vendor.  At one point, I got caught in a sudden downpour, and huddled under one of the many colonial balconies waiting for the rain to subside, while I fumed about the sordid affairs of the city.

I was disgusted and angry.  Each guy that offered me drugs and hookers, I wanted to punch.  Usually, I am rather libertarian about many things.  However, knowing what the drug trade has done to Colombia, and how many of the women had been driven to prostitution because of the difficult situations around the country, I had come to hate those who promoted and profited from such an ugly system.

But then realization came over me, and my anger and hatred shifted focus.  Many of these young men were from similar situations as the exploited women, and were simply trying to get by.  They knew there was a market for drugs and prostitution, and the prime market was me:  a single, Caucasian male.

I realized that these are the truly horrible people: the type of people that I may know and deal with in my day to day life back home.  Professional men from the US, Canada, Australia, and Western Europe, who have a nice amount of disposable income, and are ready to dispose of it on drugs and prostitutes.  Normally, I try not to judge personal lifestyle choices, but make no mistake about it: these sex and drug tourists are taking advantage of a vulnerable population.  Just the same as if it were a passed-out girl at a frat party (which to be honest, some of these guys would probably have no qualms about either).  Colombia is recovering from decades of civil war and drug violence, the effects of which are still ongoing.  Men who come here to partake in the bargain-priced hedonism, in my admittedly sanctimonious opinion, are not much better than rapists.

These men are taking advantage of young women who feel they have no other choices because of the situations at home, and the aftermath of years of war, come to these cities to sell themselves.  And those are the ones who are truly making their own decisions. Then there are the girls and teenagers that are victims of sex trafficking and subject to horrible abuse.

These men are helping to fuel the drug trade that in turn fueled decades of violence, some of which continues today. I mentioned in an earlier post how one of the social programs for children in Pereira had to be cancelled because of cartel violence.  Those cartels aren’t fighting for the ability to sell me ceviche or some middle-aged Canadian woman a handmade mochila.  Is that cheap bump of coke you bought on the corner in Cartagena worth it?  Not sure?  Just a reminder that only about a week after this, I stood watching a casket come out of a funeral home.

Eventually, after a few more frustrating encounters with drug dealers and prostitutes that night, I found a cab and went back to my hostel, in an unfortunately sour mood. Luckily, the next day was the beginning of my travels for the YMCA, and as I mentioned in an earlier post, I was able to see some of the incredible ways that people are working to heal their communities and their country and give it a bright future.

More info and how you can help:

I know there is legitimate debate about the effectiveness of the war on drugs and whether prostitution should be legal or not, and I have no intention of debating that here.  But how things possibly should operate and the reality of the situation are worlds apart.  All I am trying to do here is point out how the vulnerable are exploited and suffer under the current situation and how prevalent it is in Colombia (as well as other parts of South America).

First and foremost, if you are considering coming to South America for drugs and prostitutes: DON’T!!!! Please don’t partake in this exploitation.  And if you know people that are considering it, try to talk them out of it.  Tell them of the damage it does. Tell them they would lose your respect.  Appeal to their better angels, and if that doesn’t work, threaten their worse angels someway.  Please help curtail the demand for the sex/drug trade, not only in South America, but other developing countries as well.

Beyond that, here are some links to organizations that are working to help the aftermath of the civil and drug wars and organizations helping to fight sex/human trafficking and exploitation:

Guide to conflict and peace-building in Colombia: Has links to many local, national, and international organizations operating in different areas and different ways to support the victims of Colombia’s long-running violence.

Espacios de Mujer: A local Colombian organization trying to help women in the sex trade

Fundación Esperanza: An organization based in Colombia and Ecuador focused on human trafficking and exploitation (In Spanish)