Transitions

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My first trip to The Field leaves a fine layer of dirt covering my entire body. My teeth are gritty. The insides of my fingers and crevices of my elbows are dusted with brick red dirt. I stand in the shower and watch the dirt run off and pool at my feet, revealing a sunburn that blossoms down my chest and forearms. When I look in the mirror, my cheeks and forehead are red. There is no SPF in the world high enough, I realize, as I turn left and right surveying the damage, to protect me from a day in the Sub-Saharan heat.

A sign of transition: new skincare routines.

“The Field” is a ridiculous international development term that means everything and nothing. An example: at my California graduate school, it meant “anywhere outside of the United States.” In Malawi, it means, “Anywhere outside of the office where we have a project.”

This is a sign of a transition: definitions change.

I’ve been in Malawi for three weeks. Malawi, a little sliver of a country in Southeast Africa, sandwiched between Mozambique, Zambia, and Tanzania. This area of Africa was known as Nyasaland under the British, who ruled until 1964. Then, an American-educated Malawian named Hastings Banda took over, declared himself, “President for Life”, and proceeded to run the country with an iron fist until 1994. He lead a repressive, violent regime supported by Western governments who feared the spread of communism. Once the Cold War ended, it was only a few years before international pressure and internal protests ended his presidency.

This is a sign of transition: a new history to learn.

The last vestiges of the Brits still remain: English is spoken at work, cars drive on the left, everyone drinks earl grey tea, and the biscuit aisle in the grocery store is massive. When I say hello to people on the street, they often respond: “Hello madam!” This makes me feel simultaneously very proper, and very old. Often they follow up with, “You are very welcome here.”

My home and office are in Lilongwe, Malawi’s dusty and languid capital city. Lilongwe has no city center. Instead, it is like a flat village that kept expanding outwards, its two-lane roads like arms, connecting each area of the city with roundabouts

I learned to drive on a left-handed stick shift and promptly got lost, circling Lilongwe for forty-five minutes as the sun went down, my palms getting sweaty and my eyes filling with tears as I realized that I was lost and alone on a continent I didn’t know. I finally stopped and asked a man selling newspapers. “Just there Madam!” He said, gesturing to a road I hadn’t noticed in the dwindling light. I was 800 meters from my house.

A transition is a new geography.

This is the fourth country I’ve lived in this year: Bolivia, Ecuador,  and seven weeks in the U.S. I’ve been zipping and unzipping luggage, shoving heavy suitcases full of trinkets into overhead bins, scattering bits of myself across the hemispheres.

All of these moves have created a folder in my brain titled, “Moving: Again.” Here is where I store my list of necessary items to pack (french press, floss, ciprofloxacin, my niece’s drawings), rules for a new country (only get into yellow taxis, don’t drink the tap water, never offer up that I’m a single woman living alone), and self-care tips (pack the yoga mat, don’t sleep in contacts, stop reading so many news stories).

As I transition I notice my brain trying to make sense of so much movement and change. Our brains, when confronted with new contexts and cultures, often search for broad commonalities between cultures to understand them.  In cultural competency literature, this is called minimization. Minimization means, “An orientation that highlights cultural commonality and universal values and principles that may also mask deeper recognition and appreciation of cultural differences.This can be helpful for a framework but gets dangerous when we start making false equivalencies so that it fits our own mental framework.

I’ve been trying to be aware of this here. I’ve never lived in Africa before. I’ve never worked in Africa before. Africa is an enormous continent. Not only is Malawi new to me, this entire part of the world is new to me. My American education has not prepared me well for the intricacies and complexity of Malawi.

A thought will skitter across my brain, “Oh some groups here practice religious syncretism just like in the Dominican Republic,” and I’ll chide myself. This is not the Dominican Republic. This is not Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, England, Spain, or the United States. This is Malawi.  This is Central Malawi. You have never experienced this before. It is okay to be uncomfortable. It is okay to say, “I don’t know.”

I’m here because I love to learn. I’m here because I love transitions. I love feeling the axis of the earth shift around me and settle. I love the exploration: what is this new neighborhood? Who are my new friends? How can I learn about this country, and these people, who have existed for millennia before my arrival, and will continue to do so after I leave? This seems like such a simple worldview, but the more I travel the more I see people who mark their arrival to a country like Columbus. “I am here!” They cry. “I have the answers!”

I have no answers, only questions.

…and a french press, floss, and a few of my niece’s drawings.

Breakfast in Tonchigüe

The vultures strut around the beach in the morning with their black wings outstretched, bobbing their wrinkled, grey faces.  They’re big. They’re the size of terriers, and there are so many of them, digging in the trash, scaring off street dogs, sitting menacingly on the telephone wires. I wrinkle my nose in disgust.

“I know vultures play an important part in the ecosystem,” I say to Nick, my friend and co-worker. “But god they’re gross.”

A vulture near us tears into a plastic bag, revealing thick cuts of fat from the butcher next door. A flock of birds descends and the street dogs come running. Suddenly there is bird squawking and dog snarling and bits of meat flying through the air.

“Welcome to paradise.” He says, taking a sip of Nescafé.

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Nick and I are both interns working on an emergency response program. This morning, we are where we always are: Doña Veronica’s, a tiny cabaña restaurant that feeds our staff every day. In the mornings we sit and stare at the ocean, drinking instant coffee and eating hard boiled eggs.

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We’re here because on April 16th, 2016, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake ripped through the coastal provinces of Ecuador, killing over 600 people, injuring 230,000 and rendering 170,000 homeless. It devastated an area that was already one of the poorest and most vulnerable in the country. Many of those affected didn’t have proper roads or sanitation or electricity before the earthquake, so the disaster laid bare a heavily underserved population with needs that extended far beyond reconstruction.

Our office is a three-minute walk from Doña Veronica’s, in an old house with air conditioning on the bottom floor, and a subtropical climate on the second floor. Nick and I work on the second floor. Staff sits hunched around plastic tables, typing furiously on their computers, slurping black coffee so thick a spoon could stand up in it. Maps of the province are taped to the wall, mock-ups of our shelter and latrine designs sit on the old kitchen counter. It is our base camp. The coffee machine and the printer never stop humming. People are always coming in and out, tracking in mud from the field, running up and down the stairs, and someone is always frantically looking for someone else. Emergency response is different. The needs are more immediate, more urgent. For staff here, this is not a 9-5. This program is their life.

So the program has become my life. There is so much to learn: the history of the province, the culture, the details of the disaster, the immediate response, the organizations that responded. We are the last NGO still in the area.

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Not only do staff work long hours together, we also live together, in small wooden cabañas fifty feet from the ocean. We eat all of our meals together. It is like summer camp for very stressed, chain-smoking adults.

One night I suggested to Nick and Anais, our program manager, that we have a bonfire. They glanced at each other. “No, I don’t think we can do that,” Anais said slowly. “The only people who have bonfires here are narcotraffickers signaling a drug drop off.”

We didn’t have a bonfire.

As many coworkers keep repeating to me, “There is no such thing as a perfect emergency response.” We’ve faced our own set of challenges. The rains have gone on unseasonably long, we can’t reach some of our communities because of flooding. A few families still live in the temporary shelters from last May using emergency tarps and eucalyptus to construct homes. Funding for emergency programs in Latin America is scarce. Staff has been working 13 hours a day since last summer. We work in the most active subduction zone in the world. We have a team WhatsApp group and we get notifications of earthquakes regularly. To signal we are safe, we have to send an emoji of a person with their hand raised.

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The stress gets to us. For example: because I am a 28-year-old-woman with pride and dignity, I spend at least part of every day pretending to be a vulture. I stick out my arms at demented angles and hop down the street.  I think this is hilarious. The program manager thinks this is hilarious. We’re all very tired.

But the work is satisfying. I’m in front of my computer for hours every day, but I’m also out in communities. I ride in dirt covered pick-ups to communities that the government doesn’t even visit, crossing rivers in canoes to evaluate the program. I meet new people and capture their opinions and ideas to better inform our future programming. I use appreciate inquiry to lead focus groups.

It those days, when I return from community visits covered in mud and sweat and (always) sunburned, with a half eaten cacao in my backpack and ten pages of barely legible notes, that I am satisfied. I am satisfied with my decision to spend my last semester of graduate school as an intern. The last six months I’ve been stumbling through La Paz, and Quito, and now Tonchigüe, learning about development and this career path I’ve chosen. Grad school gave me a base. Information, books, mentors, a cohort of intelligent, ass-kicking social justice warriors. This experience pushed me out of the comfortable bubble of grad school. Here I’ve seen a slice of development reality: the ethical pitfalls, the enormous need, how hard everyone in my organization works to help the most vulnerable people. It is overwhelming. It is exhilarating.

For Brian Doyle

No living being is without interior liquid motion. We all churn inside.- Brian Doyle

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The ring feels forced, as if it is stretching and pushing its way across five thousand miles of ocean and rocky mountain hillsides.

“Hello?” She says, uncertainly.

“It’s Lizzie.” I say. “I had to call, I just saw.”

In my hand is my still-lit phone, a Facebook post, “Celebrated Oregon Author Brian Doyle Dies at 60.” Above the post, Molly’s one word: NO.

“I just wanted to call.” I say. Now that I have her on the line, I’m not sure what to say. It is her 28th birthday. Our favorite author has just died.  The day before two men were stabbed and killed on a MAX Line we both ride because they defended two Muslim teenagers.

“I know,” She says. “It is so sad.” I start to cry, and so does she. I am crying because if life can take a man like Brian Doyle, what does that mean for me? A spark, a half lit match. I am crying because the most alive human I’ve ever know is now dead.

“It is a hard few days in Portland.” She says.

——-

My last year at the University of Oregon, I was in a year-long specialized fiction writing course called The Kidd Tutorial. It was a pre-MFA, workshop style class that met twice a week. We read, we wrote, and we edited.

I was a lost kid at 21. I was spending a lot of time at Rennies, the local bar, drinking pitchers of bright gold Ninkasi IPA. I was chasing a boy who wouldn’t love me. I was skipping my classes to sit by the river and smoke cigarettes, even though I hated tobacco and wanted to swim. I never wrote. College felt like I was wearing a turtle neck in two sizes too small.

Then I met Molly. Molly was one of the other three students in my class. She was tall like me, redheaded like me, but effortlessly cooler with double nose rings and bigger tattoos than I could commit too.  Molly loved to write like I did. Molly loved to read like I did.  Molly loved people like I did. We were matched and fated by our lankiness and our obsessions.

When Molly and I loved a short-story, which was often, we would bring the text to class underlined and circled and highlighted and trembling in our grateful hands. Did you read this line? We would gasp breathily at each other, amazed at the creation. Our love for it sometimes embarrassed us, bringing us to fits of giggles around the big square table when one of us went on an impassioned soliloquy.

We are taught in writing workshops that sentimentality is to be avoided.  Show, don’t tell.  Lead readers to the trough, but don’t drown them in it. This was challenging for two young girls marveling at the sharp blade of life. All Molly and I had were our feelings. They consumed us, drove us mad, made us write 20-page short stories about death and carnage and love and things we hoped one day to understand.

Then we read Brian Doyle.  Joyas Voladoras.

“You can brick up your heart as stout and tight… as you possibly can and down it comes in an instant, felled by a woman’s second glance, a child’s apple breath, the shatter of glass in the road, the words I have something to tell you, a cat with a broken spine dragging itself into the forest to die, the brush of your mother’s papery ancient hand in the thicket of your hair, the memory of your father’s voice early in the morning echoing from the kitchen where he is making pancakes for his children.”

He was sentimental. He wrote without remorse about those moments in life that tremble with emotion, with long-winded phrases pock-marked with commas, that threatened to bring you to your knees if you weren’t careful. His lyricism was magnetic. He was an Oregonian. He lived in Portland, worked at the University of Portland. He was a practicing Catholic. We could meet our hero.

We saw him read at the Eugene Public Library on an over cast Wednesday night. We sat in the front row, shaking with excitement, my clammy hands staining the copy of Joyas Voladoras I had brought with me, hoping he would sign. We were the only women over the age of 7 and under the age of 50. Then, he walked in. Brian Doyle was short, with brown hair and wire-rimmed glasses, a graying beard, and bright eyes that roamed the room. He read a short story called, “What if God was an Otter in Ottawa?” The 7-year olds swooned. He talked about God like an old friend, like a wise-man at a bar. He read a short story about a mother dropping her daughter off at college, how she implored him to take care of her little girl. His voice swam through the words, cracking when he hit a particularly emotional part. He cried while he read. “All legs and curiosity” he wrote about the college-aged daughter. Molly and I were overcome.

We saw him again after the Newtown Massacre, at McMenamins in Southeast Portland and he read, to a rapt-audience, a prayer for the parents and the children who had died. Again he cried. Again, we all cried. His presence felt like pure light: a man who wrote so honestly and openly that he brought you into his circle too. You could stand and marvel with him.

His writing was against everything I had been taught: how beauty is created when you allow yourself to be cracked open, to let words pour out of you like a stream, to weep openly at how fragile and tragic and incomprehensible life is. To write train-car sentences if they capture a feeling.  To read half-finished pieces.

Joyas Voladoras has become my prayer. When I crashed my car in 2015, I sat in the wreckage, waiting for the EMTs and repeated, out loud, “You can brick up your heart as stout and tight as you possibly can and down it comes in an instant.”

When my friend died of a terminal illness, I escaped to a back garden in Otavalo, Ecuador, stared at the hummingbirds, thinking: It’s expensive to fly. You burn out. You fry the machine. You melt the engine. Every creature on earth has approximately two billion heartbeats to spend in a lifetime. You can spend them slowly, like a tortoise and live to be two hundred years old, or you can spend them fast, like a hummingbird, and live to be two years old.”

When I walked across the stage to accept my Masters Degree, a hundred shining faces of people I loved staring back at me I thought, “So much held in a heart in a lifetime.”

So today, to honor a man I met but did not know, but whose words pierced me and became the soundtrack to my life, I will walk to the park. I will stare at the towering eucalyptus and the panoramic views of Quito. I will be in awe. I will marvel. I will cry on the phone to a friend I wish I lived closer to. I will let myself be overcome.

When young we think there will come one person who will savor and sustain us always; when we are older we know this is the dream of a child, that all hearts finally are bruised and scarred, scored and torn, repaired by time and will, patched by force of character, yet fragile and rickety forevermore, no matter how ferocious the defense and how many bricks you bring to the wall.

 

MAPS

It’s 2017, it’s April, and you’re not supposed to be here.

You stand in the middle of a field with your parents’ fat, elderly collie panting softly next to you. The collie nudges you with her nose. She’s saying, let’s go. 

But…you are supposed to be on the second floor of the office on Calle Julio Pazmiño. Out that second story window is a view of the towering red hillsides. You glance at your watch. It is 12:00pm in La Paz, the sun would be full and bright out that window. But it is 9:00 am here, and the sky is plump and overcast.

Your brain is a spinning top: where you are/ where you should be/ where you are going.

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Bolivia, March—-

The streets are crowded with minibuses, trufis, taxis; so many ways to get around the city for less than $1.00. At first, the streets seem impossible. Walking, you get lost. You ask a cholita perched on the corner of the sidewalk for una consultita. Where is Achumani? The new word clumsy in your mouth.  You Smile. Nod. Follow her outstretched finger.

Gradually, the city lays itself before you.  Your weekends become elaborate plans of how to make friends:

1) Sit in coffee shops and smile at strangers. Drink a lot of coffee.

2) Write obsessively kind introductory messages on ex-pat websites. You worry you sound desperate. Hi, would you want to grab a beer? I’m new to the area and looking to explore! Wince. Erase the exclamation point.

3) Go for long, breathless runs.

5) Start reading memoirs. Don’t just read them- devour them. Maggie Nelson,  Terry Tempest Williams, Chloe Caldwell, Ann Richards,  Mary Oliver, and everything Mary Karr has ever written. Your kindle is running out of space. Avoid your credit card bill.

Your favorite is called, “Cooking Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant,” a collection of short stories about the meals authors cook for themselves when they’re alone. You underline passages like, “Taking solitude in stride was a sign of strength and of a willingness to take care of myself,” while microwaving canned refried beans at 2am.

But for you, loneliness is more simply defined by a walk down street: everyone stares, but no one looks you in the eye.

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Finally, you move in with two kind and dedicated women. You live closer to the office than before, but in the morning you  find yourself raising your hand, hailing minibuses. Your chest feels heavy.

First, it is throat pain, a difficulty breathing.  13,000 feet of elevation, you remind yourself, is two thousand feet higher than Mt. Hood. The diagnosis: throat and lung infection. A needle full of penicillin. You smile at the doctor when he injects you, to show him that you are tough gringa. You don’t flinch.

Your ears start hurting, then your stomach, then your lower back. You go to another doctor, he prescribes more antibiotics. You get sicker. You start flagging more minibuses, more taxis, but now it is to get between the doctor and the pharmacy.  Weeks go by. Groceries rot in your fridge.  Your roommate, who watches with big kind eyes as you continue to deteriorate says simply, “I think you should go home.”

Oregon, April—-

You moved away from this Portland suburb when you were 18.  The neighborhood is almost unrecognizable: old houses have been bulldozed and rows of gleaming, neutral colored mansions have been erected. The rain shines off the new concrete. When you were small the street was full of kids and dogs, bikes and rollerblades. Now, it is eerily silent.

The bulldozers destroyed your favorite paths too: ones that cut through neighbors yards and skidded along blackberry bushes. But the collie knows where to go. She pulls you through unfamiliar back roads and past empty driveways and suddenly you are there: an expansive green field.  A field you haven’t walked in a decade, suddenly laid at your feet. A map blooms in your mind. Now you lead the collie, breaking out into a run, through a thin dirt path until, there it is: a huge pond, swollen with rain, and a family of ducks clucking softly as they glide across the water.  The collie lunges in, and you follow, up to your thighs in mud and water, laughing.

Later that day, your boss calls: “We want you to come to the Quito office.” She says. “There’s more work here.” She says.

La Paz, with its crowded streets and ragged hillsides begins to slide from your mind.

Ecuador, May—–

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This, this is the Spanish you speak. “Aychaychayyyyyy” Your coworkers say, rubbing their arms for warmth in your icebox office. The air smells like eucalyptus, the “Revolución Ciudana” posters that were fresh in 2012 are peeling from billboards, replaced with, “Lenín 2017”.  “Despasito” plays from every car, every office window, every cell phone stuffed in a teenager’s pocket.

Quito has changed since you were 22.  There are food truck pods, craft breweries, men with man buns and thick rimmed glasses. There is a restaurant called “Fuck Trump.”  You smile. People smile back. The park next to your house, Parque Metropolitano, is bigger than Central Park, with miles of well-maintained trails that you slowly plod along. You are still a little weak. The elevation is still a little high.

Quito is a stream- a long, thin expanse of neighborhoods and high rises tucked between two mountain ranges. You know the major street names. You know how to ride the bus. You’ve found a cafe in La Florestra where they play good music and you can sit and write. The  barista has started to recognize you. You have two friends- Allie and Don- and the three of you order pizza and cook curry and go dancing. You begin swaying to the rhythm of your Quito life.

Then, an e-mail from your boss: “We’re moving your internship to the coast.” She says. “There’s more work for you there.” She says.

You take a breath.

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El Evo vs. The Donald

“This is how social change ultimately happens: enlightened values do not change behavior; the contours of self-interest are altered and new values rush into the vacuum.”
William Powers, Whispering in the Giant’s Ear: A Frontline Chronicle from Bolivia’s War on Globalization

 

A question I’ve been asking myself lately is, “How does Bolivia view the new administration in the U.S.?”

Here is a collection of newspapers and comics I’ve collected. You can decide for yourselves:

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“The Common Themes between Evo and Trump. Similarities: For both, “The people” now have the power. Both are accused of being macho and attacking the media.”*

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Obama: “Congratulations on your first success as president, Mr. Trump…making me look good.”

Paper in his hand: “60% Approval Rating.”

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Great wall of China, Berlin Wall, Trump’s Wall

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The crisis unravels between Mexico and The United States because of the wall.

Trump poves a higher tax on Mexican imports to pay for the construction.

Peña Nieto cancels his visit to the White House; resistance is triggered in the U.S.

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“From the seventh day, we try to rest!”

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The “Right” Sort of Immigrants

“I hope we write ourselves back to life, I hope that we double down on what we mean when we say ‘writer’, so that the definition explodes and reconstitutes around writing as a socially vital activity, remember that? Remember how people died for it? Remember how people were sent into exile for it, for daring to say out loud again: this is wrong, stop.”

-Lidia Yuknavitch

From a young age, we learn the story of our families. Our parents and relatives tell us where we come from. In my family, these trials and tribulations were recounted so often that their struggles felt embedded into my cells, like DNA.

My parents are immigrants. They were both born in countries neither of their parents belonged to. My father: born in England, to a Welsh mother and an Australian father. My mother: born in Germany, to an English mother and a Canadian father. Now, they’re both American citizens.

“Don’t write so much about us,” my dad said on FaceTime this morning. “We’re boring.” He was sitting with my mom in the living room of the house I was raised in.  Fat pets roamed as they talked to me, bits of tails and paws passing across the screen.

I don’t think their story is boring. I think their lives were shaped by history: politicians, wars, quota systems that allowed for the acceptance of European war brides and their offsprings.  A misfired rocket that downed my great-uncle’s plane. A Canadian refugee act for children fleeing the war.

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My dad, grandmother, and great-grandmother, England, 1945

My dad arrived in New York City in 1949 at the age of 7. His mother had divorced the Australian and quickly taken up with an American soldier. Now they were traveling back west, where he was from. World War II was over, and shattered families were piecing themselves back together. My dad was granted automatic citizenship through his mother’s marriage. He doesn’t remember losing his accent. He remembers being teased for being an immigrant, but never in a serious way. At 11, he was standing in the kitchen helping his mother wash some dishes, talking about a family friend they called Uncle Kit. My grandmother said, “Well Uncle Kit isn’t your uncle just like your dad isn’t your real dad.” I imagine my dad standing on a stool, his hands wet and soapy with water, dumbstruck. Until this moment, he didn’t know he had an Australian father. He didn’t know he had a whole host of sisters on another continent waiting for him.

My mom lived in Germany, Canada, and England before she was ten. In 1972,  she was an undocumented high school student in Santa Barbara, California. She’d left her parents and her home in Canada because it wasn’t safe for her anymore. She was undocumented for three years. “I was always nervous,” she tells me. She lived with her older sister, cleaned houses at night, and was the first girl at Carpenteria High School to run on the track and cross-country team. She, through some hole in the system, was able to get her residency at the end of high school.

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Annie Falconer, Oregon, 1982

I remember finding her green card at the bottom of a desk drawer, underneath our passports when I was ten. How funny the word, “alien,” sounded on my tongue, how delighted I was to have discovered this thing about my mother. I didn’t understand then.  I didn’t understand how people can be rendered stateless and undocumented, how the removal of those papers can make a whole family invisible.

When she started studying to become a citizen. I quizzed her at the kitchen table, amazed at how few of the answers I knew even though I was in  U.S. History class.  I don’t remember her citizenship ceremony- where was I? – because it was something that was a given. My mom could get citizenship, as long as she passed the test. “I was very proud of myself!” She reminded me today when I brought it up.

My parents are immigrants, yes. But they are white immigrants. We are from industrialized, English-speaking, European countries. They came as children, in the late 1940’s and the 1970’s respectively. They don’t even have accents, the only vestige of their backgrounds are strange vocabulary choices and a love for deep, sarcastic humor. We, in the United States, are considered the “right” type of immigrants.

No one has ever thought I was anything but an American. No one has ever questioned my legitimacy or my parent’s legitimacy in this country. It is something I can bring out as a fun fact about myself, “Hey, I’m a first generation American!” I have never felt less safe and  there was never a fear of my parents getting deported. For others: who are Mexican, Guatemalan, Afghani, or Syrian, or whose skin is a watercolor of histories and continents, it isn’t so easy.  My privilege shows in every aspect of the immigrant identity for me:  I can put it on and take it off, no questions asked.

This isn’t the case for many of my friends, classmates, coworkers, professors, mentors, loved ones. They have to live in a society that is now governed by a demagogue who rose to power on a populace platform of anti-immigration. That is scary shit.

The United States has always been suspect of the other: the Catholics, the Italians, the Jews, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Somalis. There was always a fashionable group to hate. A fashionable group to fear, to “other” so we can “preserve ourselves” and keep our families safe. But who is we?

If we are not immigrants; if “we” does not include the Syrian family fleeing war, or the Iraqi translator who kept American soldiers safe, or the 15-year-old Salvadorean girl running for her life from gang violence,  or the boy just walking down the street, or the child of migrant workers in Salinas trying to go to college, then what have we become?

And we cannot forget the people who never wanted to come here, but were kidnapped, brutalized, maimed, and continue to live in a country that treats them as if they’re less human. A country that subsidizes prisons on the backs of their sons. 

I think one of the mistakes that I and many other white, liberal democrats made before the election was thinking we were above history. That our lives would be guided by our personal choices and our values.  We believed our government and democracy was rock solid enough that we could float above it, chasing our dreams. The great wars were over, humanity had learned lessons and we wouldn’t need to learn them again. Our lives would unfold before us based on education, who we chose to love, and where we chose to move. It was all available to us.

But, history makes fools of us all.

As we continue forward,  we must remember that people are not just one thing. Junot Diaz said it best (as he always does) in an interview with NPR’s Morning Edition in 2008,

“What you learn as a kid, is that Whitman Concept that you can contain multitudes. That one can carry inside of them both their country of origin and the country that has received them… you can be two things at once: If American teaches you anything, it’s that.”

There are people detained at airports right now. People with visas and green cards and children and illness and debt and jobs and a whole multitude of things because …they are people. They are not being allowed in because of their religion and their country of origin. This is wrong.

“Why don’t you talk about religion, Lizzie?” My Dad said, eager for me to stop asking pointed questions about his childhood. “Remind them that Jesus was a middle eastern refugee.”

The politics and trajectory of our nation drapes heavily on our shoulders. What is happening in the United States is wrong.

Can I say it louder?

——–

“We didn’t get here by accident. This is not a new brutality, it is a very old one, and every time it circles back around in a new form, we have to look again in the mirror and stand up differently ― writing can yet invent new forms of resistance and resilience in the face of brutality. And the wonder of that. And how this is our present tense calling.”- Lidia Yuknavitch

Dispatches from La Zona Sur

ONE

The walk to work is 28 minutes, door to door.  Achumani to Calacoto. Both are neighborhoods of La Zona Sur, the southern zone of La Paz.

The southern zone is the wealthiest area of the city. Here is where you find the embassies, the trendy coffee shops, the upscale restaurants, and the headquarters of many international non-governmental organizations. I work in an office now, so I wear slacks and blazers and leather shoes that need to be polished.  On my walk to work, I share the sidewalk with other people dressed in business clothes, their headphones in, eyes up and alert to the frenetic pace of the traffic. I also share the sidewalk with indigenous families. The women’s billowed skirts sway as they shuffle down the street, bolero hat perched on their heads. We all hurry to our next appointment, but I stick out.

Nothing screams foreigner in La Paz like red hair and a lunch box.


TWO

Bolivia is in a water crisis. Climate change has evaporated the glaciers that feed the city.

The government is now rationing the water for La Paz.  Allegedly, water comes to La Zona Sur on a three-day rotating schedule, the water cycling through the barrios. But I have yet to see proof of distinguishable system. Water comes from the tap, or it doesn’t. When the water does come, I fill up gallon jugs in my fridge and my electric kettle.

When I first arrived, I asked my boss if I could drink the water. Maybe he was distracted, maybe he misunderstood, but he said yes. I drank the tap water for five days.

On the fifth day, I met an American, who when I asked her about drinking the water, stared at me open-mouthed: “Absolutely do not drink the water.” She said. And then continued, incredulously, “I can’t believe you’re still standing.” An intern in her office was sent back to the United States after she contracted typhoid from the water. “Don’t drink the water.” She repeated.

Here is the water in the office:

 


THREE

Nick, one of my best friends, my work-husband, is on the Ecuadorian coast working on disaster relief for CRS.  Even though he is far away (2,000 miles or 49 hours by the Panamerican highway) we get to collaborate on a number of projects.

So part of my job really does consist of this:

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and sending cartoons like  this:

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FOUR

On the last day of Barack Obama’s presidency, I sat cramped in a minibus, one of the hundreds that troll through the streets of La Paz, ferrying people across the enormous city for about 30 cents a trip. There were eight of us in the bus.The driver was speeding. I’ve been in two car accidents, bad accidents, in the last fourteen months. Everyone who has been in a car with me knows how I flinch when cars weave past me, or when a corner is taken too fast.

I was sitting in the back of the minibus with Ivana, the administrative assistant in our office. My head was pressed up against the glass, trying not to look at the street, instead thinking about the Betsy DeVos hearing I just watched.  I read too many articles about the transition team, was feeling my absence from my country at this pivotal moment as a deep ache in the center of my chest.

Ivana, maybe sensing my despair, pulled out her phone and showed me photos of her family: her husband Miguel, her son and daughter, her grandson. She flipped through her phone, showing me pictures of them posed in front of Lago Titicaca, draped in hammocks, diving into swimming pools. Big smiles, arms draped over each other. She kept swiping. Mira: her father’s house. The family at a hotel. Together eating dinner, glasses raised to the camera.

For the first time, I looked around the minibus and saw that everyone else was looking down at tiny, glowing screens in their hands. The mountains of La Paz swirled around us. A thought hit me, like a pinprick of light:

Isn’t this beautiful? Isn’t it beautiful that millions of us carry tiny computers that contain the faces of those we love?

I pulled my phone out. Mira: my mother, cradling my niece in her lap. My father, a cigar in his hand. My brother, my sister-in-law. My friends at graduation: suits, dresses, and mouths open mid laugh.  My friends and family: educators, artists, writers, politicians.

And for a moment, I felt optimistic.