Accompaniment

It’s been a busy week here at La 72. On the fun side, last Monday I chopped off my hair!

 

 

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I was the volunteer coordinator this past week, which means that in addition to my normal shifts I was in charge of the volunteer schedule, received guests and organized special events, and acted as point-person for questions, problems, and emergencies.

Unfortunately, there were many emergencies. They ranged in nature, from medical (heart failure, dislocated shoulder, asthma attack, dog bite, and convulsions), to logistical (how to get a tarantula out of somebody’s bed), to personal (mediating various disputes). It was extra-challenging because the shelter’s director was in the U.S. for the week, attending various conferences and events.

 

 

 

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The tarantula in question. Apparently this is a baby, small in size, but I still chose to delegate this task.

There were also some beautiful moments during the week. I was able to alleviate a woman’s headache with massage, I had fun reading aloud to a group of kids, and I got to witness a family being reunited after 10 months apart.

Both in times of emergency and in times of celebration, a large part of this work is accompaniment. We do provide various concrete services – and it is satisfying to clean a wound or help somebody get in touch with their family. But we cannot fix many of the major life problems people are experiencing. What we can do is bear witness to people’s pain, and remind them that they are not alone.

In the middle of the night last night, we were awoken because a woman was convulsing on the floor of the women’s dorm. We called the Red Cross, and the first responders told us it was psychosomatic; the woman’s vital signs were normal, but she was under such immense stress that her body was rebelling. Another volunteer and I spent a few hours talking with the woman, trying to help her relax and calm down. The thing that seemed to reassure her the most was when we repeated that she was not alone; we couldn’t fix the problems she was having back home in Guatemala, but we would accompany her as she figured out what to do.

The idea of “accompaniment” is at the core of La 72’s mission and values. While there is of course a power dynamic between staff/volunteers and the people living here as migrants, the framework here is one of solidarity, not of aid.

I’ll leave you with this beautiful quotation in Spanish – the full poem, by Mario Benedetti, is on one of the beautiful murals inside La 72.

Te quiero en mi paraíso

es decir que en mi país

la gente viva feliz

aunque no tenga permiso.

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Día de Muertos // Death

I’ve now been at La 72 – Hogar Refugio Para Personas Migrantes for over a week. Last week, we celebrated Día de Muertos with a host of activities, ranging from fun and silly (e.g. face-painting, a La Catrina costume/dance competition, and more) to somber (a traditional alter to remember loved ones, and a pensive speech from Fray Tomás, the Franciscan friar at the helm of the shelter).

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As Fray Tomás reminded us, paradoxically, many migrants have died seeking a better life. The shelter itself, La 72, is named in memory of the 72 Central and South American migrants who were kidnapped and then killed by a cartel in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, in 2010.

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Adding notes to loved ones who have passed on, in the shelter’s chapel. There are 72 crosses on the wall, honoring the victims of the 2010 Tamaulipas massacre. 

Every person who comes to stay at La 72 completes a “registration,” and one of my key duties as a volunteer here is to do these intake interviews. Yesterday, I interviewed a man who has a young son still living in Honduras. This young man is hoping to find work in the U.S. so he can send money back home to his son and aging parents. One of the questions we ask at the intake interview is whether the person can return to their home country (to see whether they might be eligible for asylum). This man told me that he feared for his life if he returned to Honduras – like many people here, he has received threats from gangs – but that he would return if he needed to: “for my son, I would give my life.”

I also hear about robberies and assaults on the path – both by local people preying on migrants, and by police and immigration authorities in Mexico and Guatemala. One man I interviewed recently was returning to La 72 after a hospital stay. He had left the shelter by catching a ride on top of “La Bestia,” the cargo train that heads north every few days, and jumped off the moving train to escape a band of men with machetes who were robbing and assaulting the migrants sitting atop the train. He suffered a broken leg, hobbled several hours to the hospital, and is now back at La 72 before trying to head north again. Those who don’t jump sometimes face even worse fates – kidnapping, sexual violence, death. Even with all of its risks, many people prefer La Bestia to buses or “combis,” which come with a high likelihood of being stopped by Immigration agents.

Over the past several months, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I would die for. Several of my friends were at the scene in Charlottesville when a man drove a car into the crowd, killing a woman and injuring others. And while I feel very safe and comfortable at La 72 now that I’m here, before arriving I read about the death threats Fray Tomás routinely receives for doing the simple yet radical work of publicly denouncing injustices and abuses of power, and welcoming every human being who walks through these doors, unconditionally.

Famed Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano once said, “it’s worthwhile to die for things without which it’s not worthwhile to live.” I’m now surrounded by people who have faced this question – “what would I die for?” – in a very tangible way. People migrate for a variety of reasons; here, 80% of the population is from Honduras, and most are fleeing violence and/or escaping poverty and a lack of job opportunities. Whatever the motive, this dangerous journey is not undertaken lightly. And Fray Tomás, while certainly planning to live out a long life of service and solidarity, is willing to risk his own life for the lives, human rights, and dignity of all people.

While this blog post is on the morbid side – and plenty of time here is spent discussing human rights abuses, tending to blisters, and handing out scarce soap and clothing – there is also an amazing amount of resilience and joy. So, I’ll leave you with this picture of the La Catrina costume and dance competition, featuring one of the contestants dancing in full drag. (Everyone ended up “winning” and getting pan dulce, as it should be!)

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Cusco and Machu Picchu

Living far from home mostly feels like a huge privilege and wonderful journey, but sometimes it’s hard. I miss being present for various life events; recently, an elderly relative passed away, and a baby cousin was born. And last weekend, I experienced being very sick far from home. Luckily, my sister and uncle were with me, and I got great medical care from the clinic I was at. However, it was my first time being hospitalized, and feeling awful in a foreign country with unknown doctors was a little scary.

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(I’m almost 100% better now!)

The reason I got that sick, though, was because I was on an amazing 4-day hike in the mountains near Machu Picchu. The views were stunning, the company was great, and we had a wonderful guide who taught us about the region and Incan history.

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The view after lunch on the first day.

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Close to the end of day 1 – we hiked up that valley!

The first night, we slept in a beautiful meadow at around 14,000 feet elevation, and on the second day, we got up at dawn to start hiking.

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The view from our campsite, before starting up the pass.

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We passed through a magical grove of trees – I’m certain there were elves somewhere.

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At the top of the 15,800-ft pass, looking over to the other side.

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We passed several lagoons, and got views of glacier-covered peaks.

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It started snowing and sleeting – I was happy to be going down, not up!

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We met a lot of cute sheep, llamas, and alpacas along the hike.

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My uncle the mountaineer.

After finishing the trek, we took a train to Machu Picchu. Although I was feeling terrible by then, I still found the massive Incan ruins humbling and awe-inspiring.

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The mountains themselves were dramatic and graceful

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I hung out with this view and rested, while my sister and uncle climbed Machu Picchu. 

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The slope of the roofs matched the angle of the mountains beyond.

I’ve been back in Cusco for a week now, and I have a few more days to rest and gain strength before heading to Mexico to live and volunteer at a migrant and refugee shelter. Now that I’m feeling better, I can enjoy the many things Cusco has to offer, including parades like the one below!

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Performances

In the past few weeks, we’ve been fortunate to attend a large number of arts performances, ranging in quality and formality.

On the less formal side, there are marching bands that wind through the streets daily. I would describe them as “middle-school marching band” quality, but their enthusiasm (usually) makes up for their imprecision in pitch.

On the more formal end, we happened to be here for Sucre’s two-week long Festival Internacional de la Cultura.

We watched a half-dozen dance groups from around Bolivia perform variations on cueca, a partner dance with pañuelos – handkerchiefs. At the end, the audience was invited to dance with the dancers, and I particularly enjoyed watching a girl in a panda hat dance this formal, delicate dance.

Link to video: These cueca dancers warmed up in the central plaza before going on stage.

We attended several other dance performances, including an indigenous dance and storytelling event, and a dance school performance with a few hundred young dancers ranging in age from teensy tiny to teenagers.

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Our view from the nosebleeds – the colors represent the Bolivian flag.

The musical performances we saw included a “tuna” concert, and a performance by a Bolivian baroque youth orchestra. In this context, a tuna is not a fish, but rather a group of university students who play instruments and sing together. The tunas we saw reminded us of men’s collegiate cappella groups in the United States, complete with sophomoric humor and homoerotic undertones.

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The young man on the center left is wearing a lovely sequined dress

We also went to a poetry reading on the roof of a convent-turned-school. The poetry was beautiful (although we didn’t understand every word, we mostly got the gist) and the roof was magical. Rebecca and I returned to the roofs this week to do our Spanish homework in the sun.

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I climbed the bell-tower while Becca finished her homework on the roof below.

It’s a little hard to believe we are leaving Sucre this weekend. I have learned a lot – Spanish, but also some fascinating history and opinions on current events and politics. We have been going to salsa classes, cooking classes, museums, and more, and have met some wonderful people along the way. So, although the time has gone by quickly, it has also felt full and rich.

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Fun with new friends on a Sunday hike.

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Returning to Sucre, Bolivia

Hello friends and family! (and random internet strangers)

I am starting up this blog again, so if you subscribed four years ago and no longer want to receive periodic emails, there should be a link to unsubscribe at the bottom of this email.

I am currently in Sucre, Bolivia, where my sister Rebecca and I are living with a host family and taking Spanish classes for three weeks. Our host family consists of a mom (Patricia) and two boys (Fabricio and Adrián), and they are lovely. The family also has two dogs. Junior has white, fluffy fur, and doleful eyes. Daisy’s defining characteristics are that she has a lot of love for everyone, and she pees everywhere. Daisy was a street dog until a month ago, so she is still learning the ropes of being a house dog (including not jumping on everyone and peeing everywhere).

File_004Daisy’s cuteness makes up for her lack of manners

When I was 8 years old and Rebecca was 10, our family lived in Sucre for a summer and took Spanish classes. Rebecca and I are back, studying in the same language school (albeit in a different building). It has been fascinating to see what things I remember from 16 years ago. For instance, I clearly remember the look and smell of the eucalyptus trees, and I remember the whitewashed buildings and red-tiled roofs. Some of the street names feel familiar as I say them, and every now and then I get a sense of déjà vu as I walk by an official building or a plaza.

Several times, my sister and I have seen a street food or pastry and remembered its name, and after the first bite, its flavor.

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Salteñas are filled with savory-sweet stew – perfect for eating and for spilling on your shirt.

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Delicious dulce de leche-filled hojarascas

We also remember the abundant street dogs (perros) and Volkswagon beetles (petas). When we were here as children, we played a counting game (perros y petas), competing to see which we saw more of in a given day. There aren’t as many petas on the streets now, but there are still a lot. And there are still plenty of dogs – and accompanying dog poop. When I was here as a child, I remember stepping in it every few days, but now I pay more attention to where I’m walking – perhaps at the expense of noticing quite so many things around me.

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If I owned a VW bug I would want it to look like this one.

There are many things I don’t remember – like the way the mountains rise up beyond the southwest edges of the city and peek through the gaps in the buildings.

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There is a beautiful view from the school’s rooftop terrace

There are also many things that I don’t remember because Sucre, like many cities, has changed over the past 16 years. For instance, there are now several chocolate shops and ice cream stores. There are lots of cafes and restaurants with wifi (we no longer need to frequent internet cafes). There are also a number of gringo cafes, run by and catering to foreigners. Likely some of these changes have happened because foreigners – including my family – have traveled here over the past 16 years, and foreigners – including my sister and I – are studying here now.

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The wifi passwords at this cafe give you a good sense of its patrons.

Returning to this small, beautiful city feels both joyful and complicated. I’m still figuring out what it means to be here learning Spanish as a young white woman from the U.S., in ways that I certainly didn’t dig into as an 8-year-old. And I am feeling very lucky to have my sister with me, experiencing the same things and being my friend and thought partner.

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One Week

My heels are cracked, my skin is darker, and my hair is lighter.  I have blue bruises on my knees from misjudging spatial relations while getting into autorickshaws.  My legs are dotted with mosquito bites, and the tan skin at the corner of my eyes radiates pale lines from smiling and squinting in the sun.  I have a little extra padding around my hips and tummy from four months of eating rice.  Two fingers on my left hand are calloused from playing sitar, and my biceps have grown (from concave to a little hint of muscle) from hanging on while riding the bus.

Mostly, on the outside, I still look like me.  But I have grown, learned and changed over these months, in ways other than my physical appearance.  Some changes I am aware of: I now feel much more comfortable finding my way around a city; I have gained confidence in myself and my abilities (if I can cross the street, no sweat, in Hyderabad, I feel like I can do anything in the world); and I have come to enjoy being alone and independent amongst a crowd of strangers, now appreciating my usually-solitary commute to school.

As for learning during my time here, never have I felt that I learned so much in such a short period of time.  In my classes, I learned about urban inequality in Indian cities I had barely heard of months before; I learned about secularism, Hindu nationalism, Muslim politics, and Partition; I learned about the specifics of Bhopal and other disasters in India; and I learned to speak, read, and write Hindi.

Although I certainly learned a lot from my academics here, I learned even more outside of the classroom.  I learned that in India, plans are never 100 percent sure until they actually happen, and even then you never know; I learned that there is a lot of hawking here, of two kinds: hawking goods, and hawking spit; and I learned about certain foods giving you “the heat,” an ayurvedic concept that people use to explain ailments ranging from boils to digestion troubles. 

I have grown accustomed to so many things that are part of daily life here.  I am used to people’s syntax and accents in English, when they say things like “Have you reached?” to inquire whether you have gotten to your home, and when they give compliments such as “You are looking too nice;” I am used to the theme songs of Aji’s favorite Marathi TV serials; I am used to the onion seller’s loud, nasal cry as he roams around the neighborhood selling goods; I am used to billboards with Kareena Kapoor, Aamir Khan, or Mahesh Babu endorsing a product; and I am used to wearing Indian dress, keeping covered up even when it’s 110 degrees Fahrenheit. 

As I prepare to leave, mentally and physically, I know that I will miss many things about India.  There are things that I have identified that I will miss: fresh sugar cane juice; delicious mangoes (it is finally mango season!); cute cows, buffalo, goats, dogs, and pigs in the street; my host mom’s dosa; the lovely friends I have made here; and people’s understanding that we do not control everything in the world.  I’m sure that when I am in the U.S., I will also realize that I miss other things.  Perhaps I will miss the noises, sounds, and smells.  Maybe I will miss negotiating the price of an auto ride, or navigating the busy street. 

I am currently trying to prepare myself for my return home and the reverse culture shock I have been warned about, yet I am simultaneously wary of unnecessarily worrying in advance about the transition.  I am looking forward to many things about returning home.  I am excited to sleep in my bed, to be physically much more comfortable, to see my boyfriend and my friends at school, and to eat my father’s cheesebread and my mother’s chocolate-chip waffles.  But I am also scared.  I am scared of losing the skills I’ve learned in India; scared that having idealized the things I miss about the U.S., I will have a hard time experiencing reality; and scared of not feeling at home in my home country. 

I know that whatever my transition is like, I am lucky to have friends and family who will support me.  And as I try to balance thinking about coming home with being fully present in my last week in India, I am grateful for all of the experiences I have had this semester.  It was a challenging, exciting experience for me, and I am very glad I chose to live here.

I hope that some day soon, I can return to this vibrant, maddening, exciting, beautiful, fascinating country.  For now, I will travel to Darjeeling with Iris, come back to Hyderabad and pack up, and leave early next Monday morning, one week from now.

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“Is this what hell feels like?”

Disclaimer:  The following blog post may seem like a whiny rant.  That is because it is basically a whiny rant.  I recognize that I am an extremely privileged individual, and that many people in India, and in the rest of the world, sleep in far worse conditions than I did last night.  I ask you to please suspend your judgment of me while reading this (including the less politically correct bits)!

I have written about difficulties sleeping before, in my blogpost about “night noises.”  More recently, the neighbors across the street had wedding celebrations that lasted for six nights; you haven’t really lived life until you’ve been woken at 4 a.m. to the sound of loud drums and a badly-played horn.  Once I realized that it was a wedding, not a marching band sacrificing a bleating goat, I put my pillow over my head and tried to fall back to sleep. 

Lately, the heat, not the noise, keeps me awake at night.  Last night was my least favorite night since I have been in India.  Iris and I each got around 2 or 3 hours of sleep total. 

It started with a long, tiring day; I came home with a headache, and by evening I was mildly nauseous, probably from a combination of exhaustion, dehydration and pollution. 

After an early dinner, Iris and I decided to go to bed at 10.  It was very hot, but the fan in our room was on, so our habit of pre-bedtime showers helped cool us off slightly.  However, as we lay there, we realized that our mattresses were even hotter than the air.  Because our room is on the corner of the building, the sun heats it up during the day, and it takes hours to cool down. 

Before the room could cool off enough, the power went out.  Sometimes when the power goes out (and the fan turns off) there is a slight breeze that cools us down.  Last night, the air was perfectly still.  Iris and I lay in the stuffy, oven-like room (my best guess is that the room was between 90 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit), hoping that the outage wouldn’t last.  I was dizzy, nauseous, and felt like I was burning up.  Unfortunately, the lack of breeze also meant that the mosquitoes were free to fly exactly as they chose, and they chose to fly towards me.  Usually, when I hear the high-pitched whine of a winged vampire, I wave my hand to swat it away.  This time, though, I didn’t have the energy to raise a finger.  Have my blood, little suckers. 

After some time, the fan switched on – the power was back!  But our joy was short-lived, as it soon shut off again.  When it was clear that this power outage business was not a temporary matter, the apartment building watchman/caretaker switched on the generator.  The generator powers one ceiling fan and one light in the main room of our apartment.  So, Iris and I traipsed out to the main room, our pillows in tow.  We dunked our heads under the sink to cool off a little, and lay on the tile floor in the main room, directly under the fan.  This was better, somewhat.  But it was still too hot to sleep.  Instead of the tiles cooling us, our bodies were heating up the floor.  

The power switched on again – for two minutes – enough time for the watchman to switch the generator off and for us to go back to our room.  This off and on routine continued for hours.  The watchman is only supposed to switch the generator on when he expects the power outage to last for at least 15 minutes, I believe because it is bad for the generator to run it for a shorter time.  So, there were many stretches of time where we were baking in the still, hot air.  As we lay on the floor, we raised our waterbottles over our heads and dumped the contents on our bodies.  This was successful at turning us into soaking wet puddles – for perhaps half an hour, until the hot air dried it all up.   

At some point, Iris asked, “is this what hell feels like?”  We lost track of time.  I remember looking at my watch at 2:30, 2:50, 3:15, 3:50 a.m.  I believe we dozed off for a little while. 

After one particularly horrible stretch with no generator, we finally heard the familiar low rumble kick in.  Iris and I raised our hands in the air, two atheist Jews saying things like “sweet Jesus” and “praise the Lord.”

The whole night was a blur of heat, delirious conversations, attempted sleep, and hysterical laughter at the situation.  At one point, my laughter turned to tears, except nothing came out of my eyes because my body was not eager to waste the little salt and water reserves it had.  At some hour (maybe 4 a.m.) I realized that the liters of water I was drinking were going through my body without me feeling better.  Remembering my pediatrician uncle’s advice on balancing electrolytes, I went to the kitchen and started licking salt out of my hand.  I felt kind of like a horse who has found saltlick, except that most horses aren’t laughing hysterically to themselves as their clothes stick to their body with sweat.

At 6:30 a.m., our host family woke up, and the day’s noises began: that was the end of our “sleep.”  Iris and I have been through a lot together already, but after last night, we felt like comrade soldiers, bound together in wartime.  There are many things I will miss when I fly home in two weeks, but the summer heat of India is not on that list.    

P.S. My family’s recent visit was wonderful, and a good time was had by all!

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