“What do you do?”

To the ubiquitous question asked at wedding receptions, cocktail parties, Church, and literally everywhere we’re forcecd to talk to someone  we don’t already know, we all answer in pretty much the same way.  “What do you do?” may as well be said, “What do you do to earn money?”    

If I forget about that for a second, and answer more literally, I do a lot of things.  

I build fences.  

I hang out with my wife.  

I take care of my dogs.  

I spend a ridiculous amount of time laying down trying to avoid doing anything productive.  

I eat food.  I then poop it out.  

I talk to strangers about what I do and give far more literal answers than they were looking for.  

I have a better qeustion.  

What do you do with new information?

I’d love to know.

Myself? I ask more questions, but it’s never that simple.    

 The problem is I am rarely satisfied with incomplete answers: nuance creeps its way into every opinion I have, if by the end of my process it can still be called an opinion.

And that’s why . . .   

I have little for you but questions, at this point.  I process new information by writing, but by writing privately first. 

Letting it ferment 

One of the books sitting on my “Favorites Of All Time” shelf is Travels with Charlie by John Steinbeck.  In it, he takes a three month trip around the United States in order to understand America again.  It’s fantastic.  

He, like me, brings too many things he knows he won’t use.  

“I thought I might do some writing along the way, perhaps essays, surely notes, certainly letters.  I took paper, carbon, typewriter, notebooks, and not only those but dictionaires, a compact encyclopedia, and dozen other reference books, heavy ones.  I suppose our capacity for self-delusion is boundless.  I knew very well that I rarely make notes, and if I do I either lose them or can’t read them.  I also knew from thirty years of my profession that I cannot write hot on an event.  It has to ferment.  I must do what a friend calls “mule it over” for a time before it goes down.  And in spite of this self-knowledge I equipped Rocinante with enough writing material to take care of ten volumes.”

This trip to Nicaragua has brought the curiosity I’m used to, but a much greater reluctance to come to conclusions.  I have a separate notebook for each trip, each filled with thoughts and questions and profiles of the people I meet.  This trip’s book is the same, but it holds few conclusions.  If there is one conclusion I’m happy making it is that poverty is complex and solutions are incredibly difficult to come by.  

  
I’ve had the pleasure of being forced to make decisions about programs to begin, and in that decision-making process I’ve had to refine my philosophy toward philanthropy.  I’m excited to relay those thoughts, and the results of those thoughts, but can’t do so yet.  

Over the next few weeks I’ll be “muling it over,” and making sure I don’t let too much time pass so this trip falls into the shadowland of memory, so I can continue to ask questions about the things I saw and learned.  

  
To do that, I have to write.  To think clearly, I have to write privately, for myself.  Once I’ve dealt with the issues enough privately, I’ll be able to publish them publicly, receive feedback, and further adjust my views in response to what you all have to say.  

That is my process: writing to myself first, and then to you, and then back to myself again.  

  
Some people are Prayers, others are Talkers, others are Runners, or Gymers, or Cryers, or Gossipers.  

I am a Writer, dear reader, but not yet to you.  We have so much to talk about, and I hope we’ll be able to do that soon.  

Cheers, 

Writer

UPDATE:

I kind of missed the point at the end of this article, which is perfect because it illustrates what my process is.  It’s not always true that I don’t come to conlusions.  Without temporarily accepting an idea, it’s hard to test it.  

Writing helps me express temporary conclusions, then balance those conclusions with opposing thoughts, and eventually, perhaps, come to some clarity.  

Phase 1: write to myself

Phase 2: wait some time, then write to myself some more. Edit, refine.  

Phase 3: write to others

Phase 4: receive feedback, further explore ideas I missed.
I’m a Writer because I wouldn’t process information nearly as well without the four steps of this process.  That’s why blogging is important to me.  #3 creates a challenge to think things through clearly in #2, and the existence of #4 helps me learn from others perspectives and find more to write about.  

The trick is in the waiting.  If I post early, I’ll often wake up the next morning and think, “Well that wasn’t very true, was it?”  If I wait too long, I lose the energy of the idea, and it all fizzles incomplete.  

Donate to a Nicaraguan Through Us — Round 3!

Hello, strangers!

 

It has been a long time, and time creates distance.  Some of you may be trying to place me in your memory, to remember why this blog sounds familiar.  Allow me to help.

 

IMG_2229

 

I’m a guy who travels and writes when he can, exploring the world and asking questions to those who give.  I’ve been to Nicaragua twice, and some of you came with me.  Together, we did some pretty cool things.  We got a wonderful man a new bed along with some baseball swag from his favorite team, we placed four (now five) kids through private school for the last three years, we bought and sold jewelry made by the women of La Chureca to help them create a new source of income, we bought a bike for a girl with Polio so her dad could take her to her therapy sessions, and we did a lot more as well.

 

We did what we could with a little of what we have, and we were all lifted because of it.  Those who received our gifts got something special – care and love from strangers thousands of miles away, in ways that helped them in their daily lives.  And we, in return, learned of their stories, received some of their strength, gained inspiration from their courage.  We connected, and we were all made more happy because of it.

 

Mariselda

 

And now it’s time to do it again!

 

Britney and I leave for Nicaragua in a couple of days, and we’d again like you to come with us.  With $250 on the first trip we did some great things, with $775 on the second we did even more.  My goal for this trip, like last time, isn’t to raise a certain amount of money, but to involve as many people as possible.  On our last trip we were joined by 33 people.  This time, let’s shoot for 40.  Donate $5, 10, $25, $100, it doesn’t matter how much.  Remember that 100% of your donation goes straight to a Nicaraguan.

 

Here’s how it works.

  • Donate:
  • Let me know that you donated so I can keep a tally and let you know where your donation went!  Click here to send me an email.
  • Share it on Facebook, email, or whatever you want.  Let’s see how many people we can get involved with this!  Something like “I donated $25, you guys should check it out and donate too!” with a link to this article so they can read what it’s about.
  • Subscribe to this blog, if you haven’t already, to receive the followup articles about the people you helped.

Thank you for everything!

 

Jefferson, The Weekend Philanthropist

 

“My mission is to experience the world of charitable giving through study and direct involvement in order to find an under-served people and arrive at a clear, informed, and bold focus that will define the organizations I help create. Oh, and to have an amazing time while doing it.”  

Reddit Posts, Trolls, and Why the Internet Sucks.

Confession time.

A few months ago, I wrote an article that I was really excited about, spammed it all over the web, and crossed my fingers.  What happened over the next few days affected me more than I’d like to admit, but here we are at the confession booth.  I guess it’s time to drop my ego and do some self-expression so I can move on.

What went down

After writing my article, I posted this picture to Reddit and imgur of a girl I had met in La Chureca, who I had written about in my blog post:

Smiling girl in La Chureca

I love this picture.  This moment, caught on camera, expresses something I felt throughout this trip – a close connection with the people I met.  Here is a happy little girl smiling shyly after I said she was very pretty.  She lived in the largest landfill in Central America, “La Chureca,” with over 1,000 other people.  They collect and sell trash every day, making an average of $2 a day.  Their homes are made out of materials they find, they bathe in a toxic lake, many of the girls enter prostitution, and drug abuse is high, among many, many other problems.

Yet here is this little, smiling girl; shy, but happy to have heard me say she’s very pretty.  Little things like this inspired me to do more to help–and to do so more urgently–if I could find a way.

One way was to tell her story.  So I wrote the article, posted some pictures, and linked to Reddit and Imgur with a short, but attention-grabbing title that would quickly express the story that made this picture meaningful to me.

Front Page!

Others thought it was meaningful as well and my photo received a lot of upvotes, enough to move it up to the front page of one of the biggest forums on Reddit: a forum that has about 7 million subscribers.

Not everyone logs onto Reddit every day, and pics is a forum every Reddit user is automatically subscribed to, but we’re still talking about a massive audience of people.  My picture was viewed more than 670,000 times, received more than 10,000 upvotes, and on the day I posted it 833 unique people searched for my blog and looked around (for a total of 1,225  page views).  I was feeling pretty great about it!

But . . . 6,397 people down-voted it.  No big deal, but it was still shocking to me since I thought it was such a harmless and cute picture.  And then there were the comments.

Sometimes, negative things drown out the positive.

“White adventure.”

“Yeah have you ever read a more pretentious title than “The Weekend Philanthropist”? Trash dump? This is just oozing sheltered hipsterism.”

“Slum tourist.”

“The weekend philanthropist?  I can smell the thinly veiled narcissistic smug from here. These are people, not animals in a zoo. If you feel you need to help, do so and shut the fuck up. Don’t run around snapping 1000 pics for Facebook in a weak attempt to seem like a good person.”

There were a lot of others, some of them more laced with cynicism than others.  Some people were offended that I called her home a trash dump, thinking I was just using that phrase euphemistically and not realizing that she literally lives in trash.  Some people were just trying to be funny.  Others attacked me pretty hard, pointing out specific phrases I used in my article and showing how pretentious or naive they were.  At first, these negative comments were getting the most up-votes, and therefore were seen by more people.  As usual, for me, I responded in a cool-headed way at the time, but the negative comments stayed around, bouncing around in my head and annoying me for a while.  I couldn’t get them to go away and they began to affect me.

Others defended me, of course.  If you read the comments on the Reddit post now, you’ll see many more positive comments than negative.

“I’m gonna go ahead and apologize to you for those people who lack the moral and ethical backbone to apologize to you for the stupid things they’ve said. “I’m sorry”. There. They feel better now.  You’re doing good work, stranger. Don’t let fools on the internet bother you.”

“It’s nice to see people covering aspects of my country. It’s a wonderful photo! And to people getting all uppity these people literally live on a dump site that was exacerbated by the earthquake in the 70s. But they’re usually the most humble, caring people you can find.”

What I told myself

Despite myself and the things I said to keep myself positive about it, and despite all the positive attention and comments my post received, the negativity affected me.  I started editing my blog posts more closely, thinking about how anyone might interpret it in the wrong way, and taking a longer time between writing and posting.  That can be good, but it can also paralyze you if you let it go too far.  It took a couple of months to finish the travel memoir that I was going to finish in a couple of weeks, and even then I continued to hear the echos of some of those negative comments.

I created a story, a story that is very probably true, that the online world favors satire and pessimism.  Being positive comes off as naive.  Now I knew that philanthropy not only doesn’t have shock value, but it can actually be more controversial than many of the other topics.  In America we admire the entrepreneur.  I can start whatever kind of business I want and be applauded for my ingenuity, even (and especially) if my business is based on a clever sales gimmick.  The second I start to work for free, though . . . the accusations roll in on how I could do it better.

I was a small, untrained voice on a corner of the internet that thought too highly of the affect anything I write will have.

Yeah, it was negative.

It paralyzed me from writing in the confident and easygoing way I had before, over-analyzing everything I wrote so it couldn’t be attacked.  I thought no one wanted to hear about what I had to say anyway, that they’re too busy watching videos and easily-consumed media (kitty kats, yay!) to sit and read a long-text article.

Explain to me how anything, anywhere, is supposed to compete with this ...
Explain to me how anything, anywhere, is supposed to compete with this …

But that’s not true.  Not completely true, anyway.

The Party is Life

This analogy comes from How to Stay Sane, which is a friggin’ fantastic book by Phillipa Perry about the stories we tell ourselves and how that affects us.

If I walk into a party with my head held high, with the optimistic attitude that everyone is pleased to see me or would like to meet me (and I them), I will catch someone’s eye even if, hitherto, everyone in the room was a stranger to me.  I will ask them about themselves and they may ask me about myself; we will probably find some common ground and I might learn something from them as a bonus.  But more than that, I give myself the chance of forming what feels like a connection.  It might last just a few minutes, or it may be the beginning of a long friendship, but in that connection I feel deeply nourished.

If, on the other hand, I walk into a party with my eyes on the ground, neither interested in meeting anyone nor thinking that anyone would be interested in meeting me, I will not catch anyone’s eye and I will not enjoy the party.  I will be thinking about ways to leave it.  I will not be fully present at the party.  Instead I will be present only with my prejudices; I will be projecting a fantasy, or an experience of the past, onto the present, and relating to that, instead of to what is going on around me.

The party is life.

At first I read this and thought, “Meh, I always walk into parties knowing I’m going to meet some cool people.  I have my head high, I know I’m interesting and I know others are as well.”  But then I realized that my online view wasn’t the same.  Over the last few months I’ve been “walking into the party” with my head down, feeling like I don’t have a voice, like others will be critical of it, that it’s easier to not say anything than it is to say something that might be used against me.

I’m done doing that.  Yes, I’ve told myself to not let others affect me for my whole life; it hasn’t worked before and it won’t work now.  What others say does affect me, whether for good or bad.  But I’m recognizing that the story I’ve told myself about writing on the internet is just a story, that it has lead me to stop expressing myself, and that I don’t like that.  By recognizing it as a story instead of a fact I have the ability to change it.

To focus on the negative is to ignore all the positive things have happened as a direct result of writing – all the people I’ve met, all the conversations I’ve had and the ones I’ve started, the money I’ve raised, the trips I’ve taken, and so much more.  I met Leo, Travis and Sophie, Jon Thompson, Liana, became more involve with Tab’s nonprofit and Chuck’s yearly donation event, and had great conversations about philanthropy with so many others.  I raised over $1,000 that went to many people in Nicaragua, started selling jewelry in partnership with a women’s cooperative and have purchased $1,100 of it from them so far, and so many other things.   A great business, Blush Box, just purchased 100 pieces of the jewelry to add a little philanthropy to their summer box!  (More details to come on that!)

And that’s just this blog.  On my philosophical blog many other things have happened.

So, the internet doesn’t suck as badly as I’ve been telling myself it does for the last few months.  The party is life, and I’ll walk into it with my head held high. 

Here’s to a great second-half of 2013.

“Post-Racial Hallucinations and Omni-Racial Realities”

Racism in Princess of Mars

You may or may not have heard of Edgar Rice Burroughs, but your experience of modern media has been quietly [and completely] affected by him.  Star Wars, Superman, Avatar, all of that is his fault . . . I’ll explain.

A little intro to Burroughs

After watching John Carter a couple of weeks ago, and loving it, I had to read the book it’s based on, A Princess of Mars, which was written by Burroughs in a world very different than ours today . . . 1912 America.

This guy, who fell into writing as a last-ditch effort to pull his family out of poverty, covers a lot of story in few pages, pulling you forward with that nagging desire to see what happens without bogging you down in too much detail.  His intro will give you a good taste for his story-telling ability.

“I am a very old man; how old I do not know.  Possibly I am a hundred, possibly more; but I cannot tell because I have never aged as other men, nor do I remember any childhood.  So far as I can recollect I have always been a m an, a man of about thirty.  I appear today as I did forty years and more ago, and yet I feel that I cannot go on living forever; that some day I shall die the real death from which there is no resurrection.  I do not know why I should fear death, I who have died twice and am still alive; but yet I have the same horror of it as you who have never died, and it is because of this terror of death, I believe, that I am so convinced of my mortality.”

Um . . . yes, please.  Such an awesome beginning.

Thus started Edgar Rice Burroughs’s career; thus started the ideas that would influence the creators of Star Wars (the Western genre now went galactic . . . Han Solo, Jabba the Hut, all of that good stuff), Dune, Avatar (damaged ex-soldier on a foreign planet with sudden super-human powers falls in love with native princess), and Superman (whose original source of power was the lesser gravity of earth . . .), to name just a few.

E.R. Burroughs has mostly been forgotten.  He wasn’t a terribly good author, partly because he wrote so much so quickly . . . in 1913 alone he wrote 413,000 words (Díaz, intro), but his imagination has affected our current fiction in a profound way.

Which brings us to our conversation today:

Race

Burroughs lived in a much more racist time than we do now and that is clearly seen in his books, especially in Tarzan but also in the Barsoom series about John Carter of Mars.  Some people lament enjoying his literature as a result, feeling that his creations are tainted with the hate of his time.

But while his books prop up racial distinctions in a very obvious way (A Princess of Mars contains Green Martians, a war-minded savage people to whom White John Carter brings back love and morality; Red Martians whose feathered clothing John Carter compares to the Natives of Arizona; the culturally superior [and White] “Holy Therns;” and the Black pirates, usually just referred to as “blacks,” who are beautiful but incredibly wicked; and even a yellow-skinned people John Carter hasn’t yet found), it also transcends cultural taboos of Burroughs’s day with with interracial love, honor and bravery within other races, and making the White “Holy Therns” as depraved as all the other-colored races on Mars.  At one point, Burroughs, via John Carter, remarks “More I am willing to concede–that the First Born (the blacks) are no holier than the Holy Therns (the whites), nor the Holy Therns more holy than the red men.”  That statement doesn’t really belong to a 1912 political regressive like Burroughs . . . and it’s little comments like that that make me wonder how racist Burroughs really could have been (of course . . . I haven’t yet read Tarzan . . .).

We live in a society where people commonly say “I’m color-blind,” or “I don’t see race.”  I like to think I don’t treat people any differently based on color or wealth or anything like that, and I don’t think I do.  We’ve certainly come a long way since 1912 . . . but we might think we’ve come farther than we actually have.

Do we really live in a post-race society?

Junot Diaz - intro to A Princess of Mars

Junot Díaz, who wrote the intro to the 2012 edition of A Princess of Mars, posed this interesting question with some great facts to help answer it.  He teaches about Burroughs often at MIT, and here he replies to one of his students who expressed how upset they were at the racial themes in A Princess of Mars.

“. . . What if the unease was about something deeper? Less about where Burroughs was at with his ‘race stuff’ than where we in this country are at with ours.

“After all we live in a country which we are repeatedly being told is becoming race-neutral, race-blind, where racism is if not already bye-bye then more than halfway out the door. In spite of the fact that by a whole series of metrics–prison sentencing, economic outcomes, health outcomes, education outcomes, access to housing and medical care, casting in T.V. and film–racial discrimination and racial disparities have not only persisted they have in certain cases increased. Post-race claptrap aside, racial segregation continues to be a stubborn feature of our social order; my city, New York, considered the model of American multi-racial diversity, turns out to be third most segregated city for black folks in the nation. The country has experienced massive shifts in demographics–there are more colored people than ever before, nearly a third of the whole country–and yet TV and our movie screens and the halls of our state legislatures are as white as ever. Even the U.S. military, long viewed as a bastion of racial equality, was rocked by a study that reports that “minority service members are more than twice as likely as whites–after accounting for the crimes’ circumstances and the victims’ race–to be sentenced to death” in military court.

“The gulf between our post-racial hallucinations and our omni-racial realities is vast and yet we continue to be sold (and to believe) the same ideological bushwa–race and racism are no longer an issue (unless of course it’s racism against white people we’re talking about).

“Which might explain why these days nothing and no one is racist.  A photo likening a black woman to a monkey is not racist.  A predominantly white political organization calling a black president a ‘witchdoctor’ has no racial animus.  A state representative in Arizona falsely claims that 80 percent of violent crime in his state involves illegal immigrants–he is not racist either.  And the legislation that has been passed in states like Arizona and Alabama which more or less criminalizes the lives of undocumented immigrants and threatens the civil liberties of all Latinos and by extension all Americans–that’s not about race either.

“In a post-race country like ours where nothing is racist–where people are more likely to believe in UFO’s than in institutional bias–which does back-flips to obfuscate the operations of white hegemonic power–and thereby ensure its continuance–Burroughs’s ‘racial stuff’–especially his obsession with whiteness and the power it arrogates–must literally be too much.  Burroughs’s razaphilia is as shockingly naked as his Martians but these days we prefer our ‘race stuff’ if not utterly erased then at least totally obscured. . . .

“In this light (which is really darkness) I hazard to guess that the problem with a novel like A Princess of Mars for readers like my students is not that it is too fake but that it is too real.  Perhaps at the lowest frequency what my students were sensing in Burrough’s often [messed-up] ‘race stuff’ was their own.”

What do you think?  I’d love to read your thoughts – share a comment below!

Chapter Five – Rio Blanco and Home

Nicaragua's mountain interior

No trip to Nicaragua would be complete without going into the mountain interior.  The problem is the bus system.  Buses leave to Rio Blanco every four hours, they’re packed, and if you’re late you might have to stand for the whole ride.  The solution is to bribe a taxi to break a bunch of laws so you can get to the bus station on time.  Oh, what $4 can buy . . .

Now, this probably wouldn’t be a problem for you at all; you’re a responsible traveler, no doubt, and would know when your bus was going to leave weeks before your trip started.  I am not.  I think travel, like life, is best when not stuck to a strict plan.

Since I didn’t know when our bus would leave and no one could tell me, and since I didn’t want to stand for our five-hour ride if we got there late, I took a taxi to the station by myself, early in the morning, so I could find out.  The ride to the station and back took about an hour with the taxi driver stopping and picking up other passengers along the way, and by the time I got back to the hotel Britney and I didn’t have much time.  We grabbed all of our stuff, got out the door as quickly as we could, and then I got to do something I’ve always wanted to do, but have never have wanted to pay for.

After hailing a taxi I asked the driver how much it would cost for a ride to the bus station.  “50 Córdobas.”  “Great, our bus arrives in 30 minutes.  If you get us there before then I’ll give you . . . a $100-Córdobas tip.”  That’s $4.

It was the most impressive city driving I’ve seen, rivaled only by my experience with New York taxis, but with more broken laws.  He went as fast as his little car could take us at every chance he had, took detours through neighborhoods to avoid slow parts of the road, and ran red lights whenever he could get away with it.  When we came to a red light and had about 15 cars between us and the intersection, he simply drove on the shoulder of the road until he had passed all the cars, then turned in front of them to wait until the light turned green.  We got a seat on the bus and he got his tip.

Into the mountains

The ride to Rio Blanco is long, the bus is cramped, and the road is pot-holed, which makes it hard to do anything except pop a pain pill and think.  As an 6-foot 2-inch adult, I’m not designed for the school buses I rode as an elementary student.  My tail bone lands firmly on the iron bar of the bench, so I’m forced to slouch or sit with my feet in the aisle, which isn’t an option because of all the merchants and passengers walking past.  Britney could have laid her head back, except for how well the bus’s old shocks transferred every bump through the whole metal structure into every passenger, bouncing and jostling with every hole and turn.

With the jewelry cooperative and La Chureca on my mind–still day-dreaming about the possibilities–I looked around at the other people on the bus, a mask of boredom worn by most of them just like it was worn by me.  I wondered what they were daydreaming about and how their culture influences their secret ambitions.

Outside the bus everything became a shade of blue, green, brown, and white.  The city was behind us, along with its cement and smog, storefronts and graffiti, advertisements and FSLN propaganda, and now it was just mountain and sky, a loud engine, wind coming through the bus window, and my thoughts.

We arrived at María’s on time and prepared a few things so we could leave at four the following morning.  We were glad to have a trusted bed and a bed net – we were now far enough inside the country that malaria and dengue fever were a risk.

The morning came and we started what has become my favorite bus-ride of all time – three hours up into the mountains to the community called Naranjo, which I’ve done on both trips to Nicaragua.  As an outsider, most people act differently around you.  In Nicaragua, especially, everyone is seen as a potential customer.  In the mountains, that stops.  From the darkness before sunrise to the heat of mid-morning, Britney and I were flies on the wall – strangers in a foreign country observing the daily routine of Nicaragua’s humble farmers.  These are cowboys returning after selling milk or livestock in town; young students going to school for the day; families going home with a baby in their arms and a toddler on their lap; and elderly men returning from the city after trying to buy a new horse, but finding out it had a gimp leg.

There was a boy in the front-right seat who had a space available next to him that he wouldn’t give up, even to elderly passengers, until a cute girl got on the bus.  I had talked with a young guy on my first trip, on this same bus-ride into the mountains, who had asked me how many girlfriends I had.

“Uh . . . one,” I said.

“Only one?” he asked.  “I have a girlfriend in every town!”

IMG_4201

I’m sure he was just boasting, but as I looked at the two young people in the front-right seat of the bus I wondered how much of this was a daily routine and whether or not she was happy about it.  Were they dating?  Did she like that he saved her a seat, or was this just something he did to pick up on cute girls?  His family owned the bus, so he stayed on it all day going back and forth into the mountains – were there other girls along the route that he saves that seat for?  Naturally, as a camera-happy American, I took a picture so I could journal about it later.  I’ve been watching chick-flicks and reading love stories my whole life, but they’re all depicted in American settings.  I was thinking about the love story of the future, as America no longer dominates culture and as Nicaragua and other poor countries find their own two feet.  This could be the setting for a chick-flick in Nicaragua – two young people flirting on their morning ride into the mountain-farms above Río Blanco.

Guanagua Cafe

Since the ride is long and the bus drivers do this route all day, every day, we stop halfway in a little town called Wánawá.  Here there is a café with no sign, but known by everyone anyway, to which bus passengers quietly shuffle to eat whatever is cooking: usually fried chicken, hand-made tortillas, slow-cooked beans, and fresh cheese, along with your choice of a few different “frescos.”  The smoke rises slowly towards the windows and gaps in the roof, which creates soft rays of light as the sun passes through.  The walls are decorated with newspapers and framed photographs of graduations and weddings that are placed on backgrounds of Disney Land or palaces, never against the natural scenery around them.

Decorations in Wanawa

Our cultures continue to interact in ways I don’t fully understand.  Americans take as many pictures with natural scenery behind them as possible – it’s our proof that we were there, with our faces stamped into the photograph in front of the Eiffel tower or mountain scenery to prove it.  These Nicaraguans like to place themselves artificially in American or European destinations.  They wear American clothing and watch American movies dubbed over in Spanish.  The fantasy is an American one, not Nicaraguan.  Though certainly they’re proud of their country–they all know how beautiful it is–I wonder when little things like the backgrounds for pictures on the wall will change, when their culture’s appeal will be stronger to them than America’s.

Guanagua

It’s early, but it’s the weekend and it’s Nicaragua – there’s work to be done.  Plus, sleeping in isn’t really an option when you’re surrounded by roosters, not to mention to insects and birds of the jungle.  Here, farmers talk in the foreground and kids play soccer in the background.  A Claro dish can be seen at the top of almost every one of the houses in this little square.  Cellphones are new to the area and people need to refill their minutes often.  Someone started selling  them first, it went well, and everyone else copied.  Now you can get your refill anywhere you’d like.

After our little break in Wánawá, it was another hour or so until we arrived in Naranjo.  We were there to help give a survey (the director of the program, Tab Barker, wants to start collecting data so he can to measure how much a good school and access to clean water affects education) and we were there for María to meet with the adults of the community so she could coordinate the rest of the work that needed to be done to finish the school.  We were also there to dance, to laugh, to eat, and to learn.

To laugh, to eat, and to learn

There were two surveys, one of which was for the kids.  Britney stayed with María in one of the houses by the school and Manuel and I walked from home to home to asked our questions.  Each time the whole family would come around, bring us a drink and something to eat (again, some of my favorite food – hand-made tortillas and a fresh white cheese called guajada), and we’d chat.  One of the questions was meant to determine what the kids liked to do, and Manuel always asked it in a way that made it fun: “I’m going to give you a list of things you could do, and I want you to tell me which things you like to do the most, OK?  Do you like to work, go to school, go to church, or play the most?  Work?!  Well, this one’s going to be a hard worker, isn’t he?!  OK, so out of the rest of the three, which do you like to do the most – go to school, go to church, or play?  Church?!  Well, he’s a serious boy!”  I got the feeling that many of these kids were answering with what they thought their parents would like to hear rather than what they’d actually do if they had the choice – some parents even answered for their kids.

Survey in Naranjo

Other questions were meant for the adults, to determine their level of income and to survey how many children they have, etc.  Tab wanted me to help get these surveys started and report back to him, and I was very interested in helping; this was a good excuse to ask questions I was already extremely curious to know about anyway.  It also made me feel like a pampered fool for complaining about my job.

Naranjo cleared field

Take this field for example, which has been cleared and is almost ready to plant.  First, the trees were cut down; then, organic beans were planted to choke out the rest of the vegetation; and then a man came through with a machete, stooped low so he could reach, and cut everything down as it is seen in this picture.  That man was paid 100 Córdobas a day by the other farmer who owns the land, which is $4, something I make in less 15 minutes of sitting down in an air-conditioned room, often googling pictures of cats or complaining that my work isn’t meaningful.  My grandma could barely get me to mow her lawn for $35 when I was a kid even though all I’d have to do is walk behind a lawn-mower that moved itself, turn it when I got to the end of a row, and listen to music.  It took about three hours to mow that lawn, so I made $11.67 an hour.  Then my brother and I would complain about how strict she was when she’d take us around the lawn and point out all the spots we missed and ask us to finish it up or grab the gas-powered leaf blower to blow the grass off the sidewalk.    A pampered American, indeed . . . .

Britney’s secret mission

In Nicaragua, dogs are there for the same reason they came around us to begin with – they stay because we have food and we let them because they’re useful.  They keep away the snakes, rodents, and everything else that creeps around in the jungle, and warn us if anyone else is coming close.  But if they eat the chicken or get in our way, whack. They get pretty good at staying a few feet away but still begging, and they don’t like to get very close.

Dogs in Nicaragua

Britney, with her feminine sensibilities (*bracing for a slap), and being the American that she is, made it her goal to gain the trust of the little dog you see in this picture.  She slowly came closer and closer, and Britney would hold on to the food until she came as close as she would, and eventually she even ate right out of her hand.  It was quick, though, quick enough to be hard to catch on camera, and this was the only picture I got when she was close.  Britney had a friend and the dog had a new source of food, and both felt pretty good about the whole arrangement.

When I feed my dog at home, he, also being a pampered American, lets it sits in his dish until he feels like eating.  With three or four other dogs around, as well as pigs and chickens competing for the scraps, these dogs on the farm don’t hesitate and they don’t chew.  I tossed them some grilled meat I couldn’t finish (having been fed about eight times that day) and it was gone in a second, the dogs swallowing as quickly as possible so they’d have room in case anything was left, and then looking up at me with their round eyes to see if I had anything else to give.  I suspect that having round eyes and eyebrows is one of the gifts of evolution that have kept dogs fed for millenia.

Mountain time

Sleepin in hammocks

Things go at their own pace in the mountains; clocks don’t dictate what a person does or send them anxiously running so they can be “on time.”  We had told every family to meet us at 4:00 in the school for a community meeting and we had showed up a little early.  4:00 came and went, and people straggled in and chatted or watched the movie someone had started on the TV, and no one did anything.  5:00 came and went and I got nervous about wasting people’s time.  I didn’t want them to be upset about missing out on the work they needed to do because we had told them to come to a meeting.  I asked Maria and she smiled at me and said, “Oh, that’s what we call mountain time.  We say 4:00, but people come when they come.  When everyone is here we’ll start.”  I wonder if I could convince my boss of this philosophy the next time I’m written up for being late.

TV is amazing when you haven’t watched it for awhile.  Its pull is almost unavoidable, even if it’s a kid’s program that’s on.  When I was a Mormon missionary and I hadn’t watched TV for over a year, I had a companion who was completely useless if a TV was playing in the house – his eyes would be pulled towards it and there was no way to get him back, so I’d have to go on without him.  So it was with Britney, and, I suppose, with these people who had only recently obtained electricity and probably hadn’t watched more than a few hours of programming in their entire lives.  The movie was Kungfu Futbol and I highly recommend it – after a few weeks of not watching TV it’ll become one of your favorite movies of all time.  Britney’s zombie TV-watching face can attest to that.

Everyone finally having arrived, the meeting began.  María is an excellent community connector and she’s also pretty blunt when things aren’t being done as they should be.  In this community, there were still some things that hadn’t been take care of (the name hadn’t been painted on the school and the floor hadn’t had a second layer of protective coating placed over it) and María did what she does best and called a few people out on it.  The response was good.  Everyone came to agreement, some plans were set, and the meeting was done after about an hour.

Project Schoolhouse school

Dancing

The day’s tasks done, this trip was complete.  The next morning we were to travel back to Rio Blanco early in the morning and then catch a bus from there to Managua – eight hours of bus travel in total, before sleeping in a hotel and then leaving by airplane back to the States.  We had one night left here in the mountains, away from commerce, away from everything we had to do and that we wanted to become, a night to take a shower outside as the sun set, to chat in the dark with no natural or artificial light to distract us from where we were, and to enjoy Nicaragua.

Sun set in Nicaragua mountains

Without any city lights around for a hundred miles, it gets very dark and the stars all come out.  As we chatted outside the home we were to sleep in, María, Manuel, Britney and I, along with a couple of the farmers, darkness fell, but our conversation continued.  It was fun, talking and laughing with friends you can no longer see.  I think it always is.  It reminds me of having sleep-overs when I was a kid and has that mischievous energy we used to get when we did something we weren’t supposed to (“Turn out the lights and go to sleep!”).  With people of a different culture, and while speaking a different language, some of the obvious differences between us were taken away with the setting of the sun.  We couldn’t see skin color, clothing, or even the mountains and the huts around us.  We could have been anywhere and anyone.  We were just friends and acquaintances sitting on our back porch and talking.

As the sun set, the fireflies came out.  They were larger than any I’ve seen before.  Britney had never seen fireflies at all and was completely enamored with them.  We went into the large clearing next to the home and tried to catch some of the fireflies with our hands.  After failing for a few minutes, Manuel came to help us.  Smiling, as he often is, he showed us that the bugs were attracted by light.  That’s why they lit up in the first place, he said – to attract mates.  He used my cell phone’s flashlight app to get a few to come near and, sure enough, caught a couple for Britney to see.

I felt, for a moment, as if we were in some enchanted forest, the kind we read about when we were kids, and imagined that these were some sort of magical creatures around us, fairies or something else.  I grabbed Britney’s hand and placed my other hand on her waste, and told her I loved her.  We rocked and turned, laughed and sighed, and smiled against each others’ faces.

In the middle of Nicaragua, a recently engaged couple danced in the darkness, a shifting blanket of fireflies below and around them, stars above.

The long road home

We woke first to the sounds of the mountain farm (roosters, dogs, insects, birds) and then, finally, to the light of the sun.  It was cold, and fog had settled in the low points of every part of the mountains, making for beautiful scenery.  I snuck back to my cot before the others woke up (it gets really cold at night and Britney and I both had only one thin blanket).  We packed our things, Manuel grabbed the desk from the school, and we headed out to the place on the road where the bus would pass and pick us up.

One thing Britney had not yet done, because for some reason the buses we had ridden so far wouldn’t allow it, was to ride on top.  When we got to Wánawá, the driver told us it would be OK and we joined four of five other passengers for the hour and a half of the ride we had back to Rio Blanco.  This is, I think, the best way to travel, as long as you make sure to duck under the power lines and tree branches.

The sky was cloudless and the sun was warm.  We were in that perfect place where the wind from the bus’s movement took away the sting of the heat, but the sun kept us from getting cold.  A group of 20-year-old kids were on top of the bus with us, sitting on a spare tire, a chicken inside a bag placed in the tire’s hole.  One of them picked up old cocoa beans that had collected in the grooves of the bus’s metal roof, unzipped his friend’s bookbag, and put them in without him knowing.  Then he looked back at us and laughed.

We were tired.  This was the end of our trip.  We lied back on the bags of cocoa beans and alternated between napping and looking up at the trees and clouds passing over head.

The world looks very different when it’s upside down and moving past you, and when you aren’t looking ahead to see what turns you’re about to make.  It’s nice just to live in that moment and enjoy it, thinking of how glad you are to be there.

On top of a bus in NicaraguaSleeping on top of the bus

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Thanks for reading!  If you’d like to read from the beginning, here’s the intro.

I’d love to hear what you think – if you have any feedback, let me know!  Or if you’ve gone on a similar trip and want to reminisce about it, I’m all ears.

Also – if you need any help with traveling to Nicaragua, or if you know of any great nonprofits down there that I haven’t talked about, let me know.

Happy travels, friends.

Homosexuality, Religion, and Philanthropy

My other blog is about my journey from devout Mormon to Atheist, and I usually keep it completely separate from this blog.  Religious debate tends to divide people; my goal on this blog is to bring people together to pursue something we all value – helping other people.

Austin Pride Parade 2012
Austin Pride Parade 2012

Today I’m going to risk crossing over because of an issue I care deeply about – gay rights.  I’m crossing over because . . . unfortunately many of the problems facing gay people are caused by religious belief about them.

Also, life has placed me in a unique position of empathy; I couldn’t keep myself quiet about it if I wanted to.

You see, my father is gay and I grew up in the Mormon faith.  My parents were divorced when I was one, so my dad wasn’t around and I didn’t really know him, but he was still my dad.  That had an affect on my religion.  I felt like my dad was going to go to hell if he didn’t change and I felt a personal responsibility to help save him.  This, along with many other things, was one of the things that led me to become very religious.

Listen, if you’re not interested in talking about this that’s fine.  I’m not trying to push a conversation on you that you’re not open to and I’m not looking for an argument.  Come back later and let’s keep working together in the areas we agree on.

So, philanthropy

The reason I’m bringing it up here is because there are too many good people suffering.

There are still too many instances of bullying, too many suicides, too many parents kicking their children out of their homes, too much depression, too much mental illness, too many STDs from normal people being pushed to the fringe of our society, too many predators taking advantage of young people who lost all support from family when they “came out.”

The world is changing.  The world my dad grew up in was much more difficult for gay people.  In fact, if he had been born a few years earlier there’s a large chance he would have been involved in electroshock therapy at BYU.  Mormonism has become much more inclusive over the past few years.

Things are getting better, but we’re not there yet.

For example, 42% of homeless youth in Utah are gay.  They were shunned, pushed into “reparative therapy,” or left their home for some on their own because of the pressure.

All of these things stem from the beliefs you and I hold about who gay people are and why they do what they do.  They depend on the attitudes our kids hold when they go to school and see the effeminate kid being picked on.  It starts with us.

So I’ve written about it a lot – mostly on my other blog, but also on Facebook, in the Pride Team Member Network within my job, in letters to family members, etc.  Advocacy for gay rights and understanding of gay issues is a core part of my philanthropy.

Here’s the point

My brother and I were interviewed a few weeks ago on a podcast that focuses on gay issues within Mormonism.  We talk openly about what it was like for us.  If you’re interested in hearing our perspective, you’ll find the two episodes of the podcast here and here.

If you can’t listen, you’ll get the main gist of what I want you to understand in this short article: A Mormon Boy’s Mission to Save His Father.

Talk to me

I’d love to hear what you think!  I’m very open about this and will answer any question you have.  You can post in the comments below or send me a personal message.

Cheers!

–Jefferson