Friday, October 26, 2012

Jumble of Words

          Stare at their mouth. Read their lips. Watch their eyes. Look at their body language. Squint your face tight in concentration. Nod your head to show understanding. Listen for the words you know. Focus on the inflection of those words . . . These are just a few of the things I'm thinking as my supervisor speaks to me in Dutch, or when one of the boys speaks to me in Saramacans, or when the man who takes care of the cows speaks to me in Sranan Tongo, or just when they're really out to get me, the Chinese man at the Chinese grocery store speaks to me in English. On any given day I'm spoken to in 4 different languages, and many days it doesn't sound like anything but a jumble of words.

          Have you ever focused on something so hard that you've actually lost focus? Maybe you've listened to someone so carefully that you've become lost in their words? Maybe in the process of focusing you've become too focused on focusing? I can admit that even in social work, a profession that many would say prides itself on listening skills, I have sat staring at someone, focusing so hard on them that I've missed a beat and part of what they are saying. This feeling may remind some people of the Magic Eye books of the 90s. Although it is probably not fair to compare my inability to focus on people's words to a psychedelic image book that when brought extremely close to one's face yields mystical images, but the feeling of failure is the equal for both. I remember how awesome my sister Kaitlin was at those Magic Eye books. I couldn't imagine how if I was trying so hard at something, why was I not seeing the picture. That, and why did my head hurt so much.

          Some days in Suriname I feel overwhelmed with language and words. Every day is a lesson in being present and patient. I mentioned above all the things that go through my head when I'm trying to understand people. Sometimes we think that we can learn by breaking things down and focusing on all the pieces. You can see all the pieces of a puzzle in the box, but that doesn't mean you know what the final picture is. I'm one of those people that over-complicates things. When really, in the moment, we can just turn the box over and see what's on the lid. If we’re more present in the moment, then we can learn exactly what we’re supposed to learn at that time. Not just that, but we can enjoy everything around us so much more.

          I could just throw in the towel and I definitely think about it every day. I could say, "People understand enough English for me to get by." Realistically, I'm not going to be fluent in 3 more languages by the time I leave here. For me, I feel like it's a certain level of respect. Culture, customs, language, whatever it is, I know that it's respectful to put in an honest effort. So I do every morning with my notebooks and dictionaries. I know that I can be more helpful, more connected, but most of all I know that it opens the doors for conversations and human interactions that I might not have otherwise.

          Although my head is constantly spinning and I'm often confused, I start my day off lying in bed preparing my jumble of words, and then finish the day in bed exhausted by it.

Hot Pursuit: Burnin' Up The Road!

“HHHHHOOOONNNNKKKK” the car driving past me screams. A flurry of unintelligible words and hand gestures follows as they fly past. I shrug off their road rage as simply as I do one of the dozen mosquitoes buzzing around my head in the morning. Hot Pursuit is focused on the 10 more miles to go and doesn’t have time for silly road games . . . “Oh no, I’m on the wrong side of the road!” I desperately swerve through oncoming traffic to relocate myself on the correct side. Suriname drives on the left side of the road, and choosing to ride against traffic is certain death. Some mornings I purchase the local paper to practice my Dutch, and in the process I have noticed that the front page always has a picture of a bike or motorcycle hit by a car. Fortunately, the 13 miles between the capital city and my center is only located on one of the busiest highways in the country . . . “gulp.”

          I left my center at 6am to beat the heat and traffic, both of which could be the death of me, although after only a couple of miles into the bike ride I started to believe the pain in my butt would
kill me first. The gold colored cruiser that Peace Corps issued me might be rejecting my body in hopes that the thirteen year old girl on summer vacation who was meant to ride it hops on instead. It’s all good, the real star of the journey to

Paramaribo and back is not the man, or the bike, it’s the helmet. My mandatory Peace Corps helmet is straight out of my childhood. It’s black, with purple and teal stripes, and says “Hot Pursuit: Burinin’ Up the Road!” Many would scoff at this,
especially the Surinamese kids I ride by who have never seen anyone wear a helmet on a bike, let alone a goofy, white foreigner. However, their pointing and laughing doesn’t bother me as I confidently wear my helmet, focused on my goal.

          The funny thing about my bike ride most definitely is not my bike, or my helmet, but my desire to go so far out of my way for no reason but to just do it. Often, when back home in the States, I don’t take the time for adventures. The times that I do, they are planned weeks in advance. Of course, if I wanted to wake up at 6am and ride a bike 13 miles I could, but I don’t. I don’t take the time to lose myself in things around me. When explaining to people why I love traveling so much, I have a hard time. The story of me on my silly bike with my silly helmet will most definitely not help anyone understand why I travel, but that’s ok because it helps me to understand. Really, life is not about the things that we surround ourselves with, but the moments that we truly let ourselves experience it.

          I can’t say that anyone ever telling me that I was adventurous made me feel adventurous. Is adventure the addition of “exciting” activities to one’s life, or is adventure the ability let go of what we are so comfortable with? I’m not comfortable in a country where I don’t understand people most of the time. I’m not comfortable with the heat the bears down on me at two in the afternoon every day. I’m not comfortable with things never happening when they’re supposed to. I’m not comfortable with my bike. I’m not comfortable with my Hot Pursuit helmet. Yet I’m comfortable with the idea that tomorrow will bring me to a new person or experience that I may never have had if allowed myself to stay comfortable.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

My Pile of Rice

                 My heart is beating too fast to count while sweat pours down my face. Am I really this nervous, or is it the ridiculous heat outside? Am I ready for this? Is this how an Olympian feels seconds before their moment of glory? Is today the day that I shine? My entire life is flashing before my eyes. Am I prepared for this moment? I’m literally scared that I can’t even finish the challenge ahead of me. I honestly feel like I’m about to feint. Maybe I did feint? Am I dreaming? I snap back into focus as a chorus of teenagers around me say, “AMEN”, and then I look down at my pile of rice.

It’s lunch time at my center, and “Amen” could easily be replaced with “GO!” The boys usually eat some kind of small sandwich in the morning before school. However, that’s at 6am, and it’s now 1:30pm. They’re definitely starving even though they act super casual. Each afternoon I size up the competition before they sit down. There’s Thin-As-A-Stick Jonathan across from me, Big Bennie at the next table over, and Little Donovan in the corner. Sometimes they act like I’m not even there, like I’m not even part of the competition or something. Don’t they know that my freshman year of college I won the Lucky Charms eating contest on St. Patrick’s Day. Don’t they know who I am?! They act as though they don’t. They’ve only known me for 3 weeks, but still, that’s no excuse.

I’ve done my fair share of rice eating, hell, I’ve eaten rice in about 15 different countries on 3 different continents. I ate rice three times a day for more than two years. I should totally be in at least the top ten rice eaters at my center. I’m not though. It saddens me to say that even with all the passion for rice eating that I have, I come in dead last every single day. You know what the saddest part of this whole competition is? I’m the only one in it! They’re just eating their lunch, but it’s me who is eating as fast as I can. Lunch is usually a small side of vegetable with a little meat, and then the pile of rice. They eat it like it’s nothing, yet halfway through I probably look like I’m going to vomit and pass out, possibly not in that order.

In my defense, these kids have super high metabolisms. First, they’re all teenagers. I remember the damage I could do to a refrigerator at 16, and let me tell you, it was impressive. Second, they’re all pure muscle. I consider myself a semi-fit person, but I haven’t even been in a liquor store with more six packs than our Mess Hall at lunch. Third, they work up a very healthy appetite playing football (soccer) in every spare minute of their day.

        At the end of lunch, I’m sitting by myself. Even though I feel a little sick at the last bite, I enjoy it. In the U.S, I’m a little obsessive about food. We are all constantly thinking about what we’re going to eat and when we’re going to eat it. My pile of rice is more than a meal. It’s what food is supposed to be, life, and a humble reminder that I am very lucky to have my pile of rice.

A half-eaten pile of rice.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Binnenland, The Boy, The Balloon

          “You know Tom, when I was a small boy I used to believe that if I walked through the jungle an anaconda would jump out and bite me. It was a scary thing, but now that I’m older I know that’s silly” said the Surinamese guys standing next to me just before our trek home through the jungle. I wanted to tell him that when I was a little boy I was also scared of the jungle, but still excited by the adventure of it. I wanted to tell him that the fear and excitement was not left in my childhood, but that I carried it now some 2,000 miles away from my home. I wanted to tell him that I was amazed by the beauty around me, but I kept it to myself as we strolled casually from an adventure that none of the following words do any justice too . . .

  My journey to the interior, or binnenland of Suriname, started with an invitation by my supervisor at the center I am working at to travel with her and her husband. I couldn't pass up the chance to see the beauty that so many books had talked about, so of course I said yes. Our journey began by bus, where I had the opportunity to sit snugly between two very “healthy” women for a few hours. I was so snug, that if someone had taken a picture and photo-shopped me out, they could have easily mistaken me with a Catholic school-boy on the first day of classes, my legs tightly together, sitting up perfectly straight, with my hands folded in my lap. Although my legs and neck were soon stiff after only a few minutes, the passing scenery easily took my mind off it. I’ll never forget the “healthy” Surinamese woman to my right looking at the same things as me whispering to herself, “Mooi, so mooi” (Beautiful, so beautiful). You always know you’re in the right place when the people who live there can behold the beauty of what’s around them.

After the bus ride, we came to the end of the asphalt, and the beginning of the water. We would go by boat down the river to our destination. All around, people were bustling, carrying goods to and from the long canoes that lined the water way. Men were shouting commands of what to put where, while fisherman sold their catch from old Igloo coolers. We gathered ourselves and our things, and carefully boarded our boat taxi. The canoes were old, dug-out trees, where the cores had been burned out. You could still see the charred wood at the bottom. We glided along for about an hour while our captain, a teenage boy, manned a small outboard motor with skill that made one wonder if he was born with knowledge of every shallow, rock, and submerged tree beneath the water.
The River

The women in front of me while walking.
We unloaded at a small break in the shoreline, and began our short hike through the jungle. Never have I walked at such a slow pace and garnered more sweat than that thirty minute walk, yet every minute I was transported back to my 6 year old self chopping away through make-belief jungle with my stick for a machete. It was one of those moments that we all need to have some time in our life, where you say, “Where am I, and how did I come to be here?” Not in fear, but just plain dumbfounded in the turns that life takes us in.

The Cabin
         We came to our destination, a small village/camp with a few very small wood cabins that would be our home for the weekend. We were the first people to come and stay here, so each hut was decorated with three small balloons over the entranceway to celebrate the “grand opening.” As the only non-Surinamese person there, I took my roll of sitting and watching without understanding anything around me very seriously. I
Women making cassava bread. 
watched the old women make bread from cassava. I watched the children play and bathe in the creek. I watched a boy come up to me and say, “Hello, how are you.” I watched him run away as I said “I’m good, and you?” I watched teenage boys play their drums. I watched teenage girls be impressed. I watched people sing. I watched people dance. 

         After a few days of watching, I still could not put words to any of it. We were getting ready to leave on Sunday afternoon, so I walked to the creek for one last look at the fresh flowing water and scenery. I saw the small boy who ran away from
me. He was playing with a balloon that he had taken from one of the cabins. He was so enthralled in his balloon that I would have thought him a kid from the U.S. playing with an iPhone. I watched him and I started to wonder, “Where do little boys
who live in the jungle imagine themselves when they’re playing?”
The Boy, The Balloon

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Life with the Kaiman Hunters

“Tom! Tom! Kaiman!” “Tom! Tom! Kaiman” I hear them yell from the water. “Come! Come!” 

         For the last two weeks I've been eyeing up the Kaiman Hunters, almost as much as they've been measuring me. Each day they pass by my windows looking at me with their sharp, ever vigilant eyes, nodding to me as if we’re agreeing on something that I have yet to know. Today they've called me along on their hunt for the kaiman (kai-mon), which is Saranan Tongo for caiman, the small crocodiles that live in the waters of Suriname. Since arriving at my site I have been focused on work and learning two languages, but as I hear them calling, I know that this is my opportunity for acceptance among the rag-tag group of Kaiman Hunters.

The ponds behind our houses.
          Although most are only twelve years old, and they hunt with slingshots crafted from multicolored rubber bands, the excitement is definitely there. For the past two weeks the kids have been telling me about the groten kaiman (big crocodiles) that are living in the drainage ponds behind the center where I am living and working. The tales of catching and eating these wild beasts have come with the playful and exaggerated gestures of all little kids. Every time they talk to me they widen their eyes and move their arms in the fashion of chomping jaws. Although I know that
these small, relatives of crocodiles don’t get very large, I still act scared and immensely impressed with the description of their hunts. As of now, they’re the only kids living at my center, children of the families that work here. The boys who live here during the school year move in this upcoming week. They've been curious of me, but have stayed their distance, knowing that they can’t speak English and I can barely speak their languages. Yet, as with all children, their friendship is easily won with the huge bag of candy I brought from the U.S. The past couple days, I've been feeding their sugary urges in trade of a promise that when they fell the monster in the murky water, they call for me. And so they did . . . “Tom! Tom! Kaiman! Come!”

  I run halfway to them before they start yelling at me, “Photo! Photo!” I am so excited that I forget my camera. They realize and send me back before I even get to them. I run to my room, grab it, and run back to meet them by the edge of the water. They point to the small reptile head sticking out, while the expert marksman, the youngest and smallest of the bunch, takes aim with his slingshot and rock. One shot, “THWACK!” He hits it dead-on and the kaiman goes under. Cheers go up for the death of the beast. I ask if the kaiman is really dead, and everyone says yes. I’m pretty sure the creature went to the bottom of the pond for a reprieve from the bullets of stone, but the hunters insisted it has been slain.
Congratulations if you can see the kaiman because I know where it is and I can't even see it.
  In the end, it probably wasn't that exciting of an experience. I would have to say that my real excitement comes from the acceptance by the children. Whenever I travel, the moments where I feel part of the community are always the most exciting. That beyond our differences, all of us are capable of connecting with each other. It feels good to live with the Kaiman Hunters.

Friday, September 21, 2012

One Week in Paramaribo

Old Dutch buildings in Paramaribo.

            I have most definitely been ignoring this blog so far. Since leaving the U.S, things have been a bit hectic. Whether it be unforeseen weather delays and missing connecting flights in the States, or the normal challenges of moving to another country and culture. As of now, I’ve been in Suriname for over a week, although it most definitely feels much longer than that, in a good way that is.

            The first week I stayed in the capital, Paramaribo, living in a guesthouse/hostel type place traveling back and forth to the Peace Corps office everyday for various trainings, including things like medical, safety, language, and job preparation. Reorienting myself to Peace Corps hasn’t been that difficult, after more than two years previously, I have a strong understanding of the goals and challenges of living and working in another country with Peace Corps. The difficulties in the training came more from the general challenges of moving to another country. However, these are also some of the most exciting aspects of Peace Corps. Here is a short list of some of the training discussions, made even shorter . . .
  • Mosquitoes have malaria.
  • Here’s how to construct your water filter for clean drinking water.
  • Here are the two languages you should learn to speak, but there are many more.
  • Watch out for the largest spiders in the world and poisonous snakes.
  • This is the place you will live at for the next 6 months.

Goliath Birdeater Spider
Fer de Lance

It would be unfair to the amazing Peace Corps staff who did the training to say that this is the way training went. However, I believe that this short list that I just wrote down is an example to the difficulty of traveling to and preparing to live in a place so different from your own. There is only so much you can try to learn in such a short time. Real learning and adjustment takes much longer than one week. Also, the first time I did Peace Corps, we had three months of training, so there is definitely a confidence that Peace Corps probably has that I have the skills to adapt again.

My delicious water filter!

            After one week in Paramaribo, I have now been at my permanent site for a few days. A very interesting place that I will share more about as I learn . . . 

Friday, September 14, 2012

"The Beating Heart"

I wrote this before I left, but didn't get to post it. More to come!

          As a young kid, I had a wardrobe in my room. I like to think it belonged to me, but in actuality I was the smallest person in the house, taking up the least space, so my room and closet often became other family members’ rooms and closets. At the age of about 6 or 7 I have very clear memories of climbing into it and sitting for minutes in the darkness pretending to be transported to other places. Obviously, I wasn’t very creative seeing as this is the plot to C.S. Lewis’ the The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I remember watching an old animated version of that story when I was little, which gave me the idea to travel to magical lands through the use of the previously insignificant wardrobe in my room. The point of this vignette could be to again declare my weirdness to the world, or maybe it could serve as a warm reminder to a natural human curiosity in far-away places and a sense of adventure that we all may have had as kids. Maybe it’s both.

            In reading about Suriname, the first thing to jump out at me through random website searching was Suriname sometimes being referred to as “The Beating Heart of the Amazon.” Wow. Hearing that made me want to climb into the wardrobe (now located in the garage) and wish myself away to Suriname. It sparked that childlike sense of curiosity and wonder of far-away places. It was also a swift reminder to myself that I really had no knowledge of the country. Here are some general facts about The Beating Heart . . .

            Suriname is a small country on the northern coast of South America in between French Guiana and Guyana, with Brazil below it. Being that it was not free from Dutch rule until 1975, the official language is Dutch. The country has a population of more than half a million, a majority living along the coast compared to the sparsely populated rainforests of the interior. Its beautiful diverse forests only pale to the diversity of its people. Here is an excerpt from a popular travel site that listed Suriname in its top ten places to travel to . . .

“South America’s smallest country, both in area and population, is easily one of its most diverse. Some three quarters of Suriname’s people are descended from Chinese, Javanese and Indian laborers that arrived in the 18th century, and West African slaves in the 17th. Add indigenous Amerindians and Lebanese, Jewish and Dutch settlers, and you have the makings for a lot of ethnic tension, right? Fortunately, wrong. Suriname is known for its peacefully coexisting cultures, most emblematically represented by the country’s biggest mosque and synagogue situated side by side in the capital Paramaribo.

Mosque and Temple