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Last night was my current host mother`s birthday. I decided to bake her a cake (from scratch!). It was yummy and I thought it would be a good gesture. She is one of the most hard working women in the town, probably one of the most hard working women I`ve ever seen. Yesterday, on her birthday she helped her husband construct a house for a pig that they will soon raise up to eat, pretty much cleaned an entire section of a beach on her own all the while still finding time to take care of household chores. It has been a great pleasure living in her home and baking her a cake was the least I could do to show my appreciation. So as the tears fell from her face, I sang happy birthday holding the chocolate cake in hand, using a regular wax candle instead of a birthday candle. I asked her to make a wish and blow out the candle, her husband, six of her children, some neighbor´s kids, Jacqui and myself watching. It was heatwarming. As I gave her a big hug, I wondered what she wished for.
This post is for her. A warrior woman.
This post is for all the warrior women out there.
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Upon my arrival to Estero de Plátano in August, I have been trying my best to not be looked at as just another volunteer. To be honest, there have been many volunteers sent to work in the community through Yanapuma, the Minerva Fellowship even the Peace Corps. For that reason I wanted to set myself apart. I might have had some advantage by not looking like other gringos and not speaking Spanish with a gringo accent. However, I’ve never felt more part of the community than on a particularly sad event. Sadly, there have been two deaths in the community in October. Although I didn’t know the two men that died, I felt the need to make myself present. Even though funerals are not fun events, it is an important way for people to honor their loved ones that have passed.
I didn’t know what the funeral would be like but I knew I was expected to be there. We marched up on a hot sunny day (Sunny days have been few and far between recently as the rainy season appears to have come early with aguaceros almost every day) to the currently used cemetery and to my astonishment the old man’s casket was not placed on the truck for the journey. Instead, people took turns drinking aguardiente (an intense anise flavored sugar cane liquor, cheap and very strong. Try it with fresh toronja or in a small plastic shot glass!) and carrying the casket on their shoulders. As soon as I volunteered to help carry the casket, I knew I had gained the trust of the community. Sure I was one of very few sober able bodied people in the group; I had helped make the journey to the cemetery a success, ensuring a proper burial. Furthermore, I found myself trying to make myself available for people who needed to be consoled. Whether it was a warm hug, sending my condolences, helping recite the rosary, or even helping a man up after tripping, I knew my presence was appreciated.
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The Minerva fellows were recently asked to send some pictures of ourselves “in action” at our volunteer sites. This has been a bit troublesome to me because it makes me think about our purpose here in Estero de Plátano. Jacqui and I have been here for about 3 months and it’s hard to figure out what our “in action” looks like. Sure we teach English in the elementary school, sure we work every day with high school students in the library, but I believe most of our “in action” is about living and trying to find things to do.
One day I was on my way to the school to teach English where I saw a young boy trying to push a wooden raft into the river. “André ayudame!” he cries. Of course, I just had to help this kid (who could not be more than 5 years old). So I drop my bag, throw off my shoes and head into the sand pushing with all my might. When we got the raft into the river, I could see the child’s appreciation. We parted ways, embarking on our separate days’ adventures. Even though it was morning I couldn’t help but feel like I had done my job. For a brief moment I helped make this kids day a little bit easier. I wish I could have taken a picture of this.
Even though I am still not sure of my usefulness here in Estero de Plátano, I am relieved when asked to do small activities. Just recently I was asked to participate in helping the community bank create an official document. I was thrilled! “Finally! This is why I am here!” I thought to myself. I arrived to the next community bank meeting ready to take notes, and to my pleasant surprise, I wasn’t exactly needed. They showed me the document that they have been working on and all they wanted me to do is make sure it looked right. It did.
I often run into people who ask why I am here. It’s always tricky to answer but I usually say “I live in Estero de Plátano, and I work with the community there with whatever they want me to do.” Sometimes people don’t understand and I resort to telling them that I work with High school scholarship students and teach English at the elementary school, but that is just a small part of what we do here!
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I know it has been a while since my last post but a lot has been going on! Here is a video of me and some of the girls of Estero de Plátano singing to Prince Royce! I was supposed to be leading a Bachata lesson but none of the guys showed up and there werent many people present. So, instead we sang songs! Equally fun!
Rivers have been the center of civilization since the beginning of time; Ancient Egypt had the Nile, Mesopotamia had the Tigris, New York has the Hudson. Estero de Plátano has its own system of rivers as well. This river acts as a place to gather shrimp, a place to collect water to wash clothes, and if necessary, a place to bathe (a lovely experience I must say!) The river is an important aspect of the community. However, living across the river is not as easy as it looks.
I moved into my new host family’s humble house across the river from the main town center just last week. Life pretty much depends on the river level. If it is low enough, one could walk across it with ease. If not, you might have to take a little wooden raft across. It’s easy to get stuck on the other side. I find myself not wanting to cross over—it’s a lot of work for a novice like me. The past week I’ve been driven across the river by Kindergarteners and young teenagers because I couldn’t figure out how to manage the raft on my own. (I am determined to learn however!) This family is wonderful, hard working and fun. Unfortunately they are amongst one of the poorest families in Estero. With 4 children in high school (one a becado) 2 in elementary school, and 1 studying in University, education is priority. However, this is very costly. In fact since moving out of their old home last April, their new home is not finished yet. More specifically, the roof is partially missing, there is no door to close everything out and there is no toilet. BUT they are working on it, little by little. I am excited to be living with this family, hoping my monetary contributions ($9 a day) will help the family in how ever way they need, however I can’t help but believe that I will gain much more from them, in the six weeks I will share with them.
the school had their murga! these kids are the best!
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I can’t believe it’s already been a month since we moved into Estero de Plátano! I’m going to use this post to reflect. For the past month I have been sleeping in my own room, and dining at Comedor Doris. I spend most of my free time hanging out with Doris and two of her children, 13 year-old Carmen and 22 Year-old Raquel, in the little restaurant located conveniently by the path towards the end of the beach. Raquel, Carmen and I behave like siblings as we watch telenovelas, dance, and gossip together. Sometimes, if I can convince Doris, they go out with me on Saturday nights to the discoteca. The best part is, I physically look like a member of the family. As both Carmen and Raquel work at the comedor (Carmen of course goes to school during the week) tourists also assume that I work at the comedor, confusing me as another one of Doris’ 10 children! Just today I was speaking with Jacqui in English and a tourist asked if Jacqui was teaching me. I told her I was from the United States, and to her surprise I wasn’t a member of the Moreno family!
This month we’ve had to be very flexible. Frequently, we would arrive to school only to find out that one of the classes has been let out because the teacher just didn’t show up. It is hard for me to see the students go to school unsure if their teacher will be there. For this reason, I believe I must try my best to always show up on time, ready to teach English or pass out crayons. It is true that the school is lacking a lot of material things, however, the students could be better off with a more reliable school system. One that doesn’t allow them to leave class if they don’t want to participate, or be turned away if their teacher doesn’t show up (apparently these practices are illegal according to the Education system but more on that in another post).
More on flexibility. On our first week in Estero, Jacqui and I joined the artisan and Women’s cooking group. I was very excited about working with these groups as it was a way for us to join the adults of the community. Unfortunately, after the first week’s electricity loss there has only been 1 work day at the taller where only 2 other people showed up to make earrings (I made a nice set out of coconut!). I would like to see the group be more active in the coming months, and I will try my best to participate in meetings (if meetings eventually take place).
Working with the becados is probably my favorite activity of the day… if they actually show up to the biblioteca. Although we do not require the becados to show up every day, many of them don’t show up to the mandatory meetings on Tuesdays. Instead of pointing my finger at these hard working students, I must think about why so many do not show up. What are we doing wrong? I tried asking the becados that do show up (a great group of them I must say!) why people aren’t showing up but I don’t know. We have even tried coming to people’s doors to remind them and their parents that based on the contract they are required to go to the meetings. I am keeping my head up however; I think some fun activities will help bring up the moral of the group such as painting the interior of the blioteca and going on trips!
For the past couple of weeks people have been asking me when we would be opening up the centro de compos (computer center) and I would be very honest and say “As soon as we get rid of the bats!” Finally we got some of the guys to help us, unfortunately instead of fumigating the place and scaring the bats away, these guys decided killing them all would be the best option. Although it worked and now I feel more comfortable inside, I was hoping the process would be less violent. Now that there are no bats, we have learned that there is no electricity. Before I can figure out if the computers work, I have to get the electricity on!
The town’s famed fiesta is this week! Last year the fellows played a part in the planning of the party. However, this year, we were not asked to join that process. Although I was looking forward to help with the fiesta, I understand completely. This party is an important tradition, for which has been going on for many years. Essentially, they don’t need our help, as they know how to run it. So Jacqui and I get to enjoy it!
Before I wrap up, I must remind myself that I have only been here for a month. Originally I had planned to sit back and not do much for the first month, and allow projects and jobs to find me. So when I think about how we have not been informed about the town meetings, or when Don Fulton asks if we knew that they were discussing water prices the night before, I cannot feel upset. Now that my month is over, I must be more proactive, and ask when meetings are taking place. Although I have claimed that I am here for the community, I must now prove it!
Although there are many projects Jacqui and I are thinking about starting here, one of them is fixing (or moving) the old cemetery. Don Fulton was very enthusiastic in asking for help with this cause. The cemetery is withering as the high tides are causing the tombs to wash away. We have been coming up with some ideas on what should be done. One possibility is to remove the old cemetery completely and take the tombs elsewhere. The land would then be used to create a park where members of the community (and tourists) can sit and enjoy the view of the beach. On certain seasons people can use this land to watch that frequent the shores! I have also been trying to push for the possibility of forming a community garden. Either way, Don Fulton and I want to do… something. We feel it is unsanitary, dangerous and sad to have bodies washed away. Furthermore, in order for the tourists to get to the end of the beach, they have to walk through the path adjacent to the cemetery. This path is also being washed away by the tides, so in renovating the cemetery this path should be considered.
Will post some pics of the cemetery!
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We have just finished leaving a spur of the moment town meeting, when we notice one of the becados walking down with his book bag. We knew he was walking towards the biblioteca. The biblioteca is where Jacqui and I try to assist the scholarship students with whatever they need. Today our becado needed help with English.
Jacqui and I were both very hesitant when the local school (Viña del Mar) wanted us to teach English. At first I thought it was a natural internalized reaction to US hegemony which unfortunately makes English have a level of prestige, I did not want to participate in it. But people are insistent. In reality, English would not really help people in Estero but, as many have indicated, English could bring about the possibility of leaving Estero with other options, and perhaps to learn skills that could help them develop their beloved community. So we began teaching English classes to the youngsters in the primary school.
On Viña del Mar
Viña del Mar, the primary school is a humble (to say the least) place with 4 teachers and over 150 students. The playground and recess area for the kids is pretty much worn out with over use. Glass, sharp objects and other hazardous materials are easily accesable as construction is being done on all of the classrooms. The construction workers work during school hours so it is hard to teach over the noise. Needless to say, the conditions at Viña del Mar could be better. However, the students are happy. Although the teachers have a lot of work cut out for them, I cannot help but feel that some of them are tired. Tired of working under these conditions, working with up to 40 students at a time, many of whom have trouble focusing on the lessons.
Although many of my readers will probably think this is a terrible situation, and have a sense of separation, I must proclaim that these same conditions exist in the United States. I grew up in a place where it was common for schools to have overworked and underpaid teachers, where 40 students in a classroom was not unusual. where construction distracted class ect. Just wanted to put that into perspective…
On misogyny and sexism.
First off let me start of by saying that misogyny and sexism exist everywhere. Also, I have male privilege which allows me to benefit from things that many women cannot. For this reason, I cannot adequately describe the systems that sexualize, dehumanize and undermine women. Nevertheless I will try by sharing some of the things that I have seen.
I thought Saturday night would be a great time at the discoteca but I was proven otherwise. The two women (including a prostitute from another town and Jacqui) were forced to dance with men even if they did not necessarily want to. Men assumed that because they bought beer for the women, they had the right to the bodies of these women. This is in NO WAY unique to Estero de Platano, as I have witnessed this many times at the frat parties in Union College. However, it must be really hard to be a woman trying to enjoy her Saturday night without being harassed, having men shove their tongues down your throat and express explicitly their sexual desires.
I spend a lot of time reminding some of the men that Jacqui and I are not interested in becoming involved (sexually or romantically) with the community, that we are there to help and be active members of Estero. Maybe one day Jacqui could walk to the biblioteca without being whistled at… who knows…
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