Monday, December 19, 2011

Lynch Mobs and philosophical tangents

Here's an old blog that I was hesitant to post. It's called 'The Dark Side of Poverty.' Maybe you're thinking: poverty has a light side? At the end of the post, I'll share my thoughts as to poverty's 'light.'

The Dark Side of poverty: I've learned recently that in the big cities, crime is dealt with by lynch mobs. My students tell me they've all seen a lynching. Theft is crime #1. When the police do nothing, the people take justice into their own hands. Patrick traveled to South America during college and he told me they burn thieves there, so it's something rather common, I think, in unorganized parts of the world. It is horrifying, but I've been working to get an angle on it. What I gather is that I can't understand how horrifying it is to live in a world where your only possessions are clothes and food living without any protections from bullies and neer do wells. Like all evil, the evil paid in retribution pulls the good people down. Ordinary good people turn into a righteous mob ready to serve retribution with sticks, petrol, tires, and a match. It's hard to understand such rage without knowing the conditions that foster it. So, that's my limitation, the cultural barrier: class.

What reassures me is 'Normal Goodness.' Everyday people do incredible things when no one is watching. Where is the person who finding a wallet full of money returns it without thinking to take a dollar? Where is the mother who rocks her crying infant into the night, sacrificing her rest to give her child comfort? Where is the person who gives up their chair on the bus for the elderly? I think of men on the titanic who let women onto the life boats, because it was their duty to die so the women and children might live. People do right because they are good, and it are these small actions that uphold humanity and such goodness gives me immense reassurance.

Poverty's 'Light'

Oscar Wilde said: 'The poor don't know how idylic they are.'

This belief is borne out by pastoral paintings in banks and boardrooms of cows and farms, old houses, 'simpler times.'

I think there is widespread fear that our society has grown too complex or materialistic for its own good. I fear my blog may make friends and family guilty for having technological tools and guilty pleasures. It's the: 'children are starving in Africa and China,' deal.

I've tried hard to steer from that angle. Pity and guilt are more likely to atrophy will and blunt insight. Compassion and laughter on the other hand reveal our common humanity. That's what I hope you come away with from these reflections.

A less controversial persepective to take is 'simple vs. complex.' It's easier to be objective in that guise.

Some anecdotes:

An elderly woman I walked with to a Christmas stroll tripped on a new driveway's lip and bloodied herself. An ambulance and paramedics were on the scene in less then 5 minutes with a hydraulic stretcher and an ambulance with head room. Cones were set up that night and before the week was out, cement had been laid by the town to smooth the lip.

My father told a story about his dryer crapping out a year after purchase, one week after the warranty expired. He had to pay to have it repaired. Later he learned there was a class action lawsuit against the company for the common malfunction his dryer experienced. He got all his money back for the repairs from the suit.

I took a bus ride and had wifi access and a seatbelt. I navigated from Brattleboro VT to Hartford to Old Saybrook CT and was picked up by a waiting technician to drive me to my father's car's dealership.

Coordination and systems abound. Certainly they fail more often then succeed, but there are much higher standards of accountability and more efforts invested to see that success is finally reached.

Not Machanga.

There they don't get pissed off about broken dryers because they don't have dryers. There they don't navigate all across creation and need web access while en route because everyone they need to contact is in their community a walk away. They don't have seat belts in their buses because no class action lawsuit or government initiative is encouraging people to 'buckle up!' And there they don't have police or systems funded that can ensure your possessions aren't stolen. Nevermind those more pernicious crimes of molestation, sexual harrasment, and rape.

But, you don't have to pity the people 'there' or admire them. Just love them as you love the people in front of you and next to you because of the beauty and imperfection of us all. Decency is always a simple human characteristic and an enduring one and is totally divorced from location, time, and race. That's why they call it 'common decency.' It's everywhere.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Well, I ought to have begun this blog as my bus pulled out the station, but now we're already on the highway, no time to be nostalgic for my father's city of Hartford. I'm already passing the dump.

I'm writing you from a situation that couldn't be further from my Mozambican experience. I sit on a greyhound bus heading to Vermont with a notebook laptop plugged in accessing the bus' wireless system.

I went through all the brochures boasting Hartford's cultural wealth. I ran into a guy who I may have known at one point from days in the Center. He's on hard times, but didn't ask for help which I was expecting. He said it's expensive to live everywhere. I told him: 'not everywhere.' I spend 10 dollars a week on food .

Coming home, I hear talk about the economy's weakness. I lament that people are out of work. I'm still very cushioned from the slings and arrows of fortune. Poverty is of course a question of perspective. I hesitate to draw any comparisons between the 'hard times' here and those I've seen abroad. I hope I'll always remember that no matter how lost I feel in the future that there are those with much less.

Otherwise, home's all right. Hope you all are gearing up for the holidays and enjoying the love of family and friends as we move into the holiday season.

My wishes of health and serenity to you all.


Friday, December 2, 2011

Part III Back Home

Part III Return to the good ol' USA

'In Romania, I've learned to live with lowered standards. In Mozambique, I've learned to live without.'

This is a line I've used a few times, and it's a statement I'm testing this trip home. How much can I preserve my viewpoint and adopted way of life surrounded by all that America is?

Catching connecting flights, I began to notice more and more passengers speaking English. Kind of like noticing the water temperature slowly change.

I've decided it is hard to travel and look well groomed. Travelers are unkempt people. It's too difficult trying to walk out the pages of GQ magazine onto a plane with all your crap in tow. I struck upon a nice costume for traveling. . I'd bought a giant basket the shape of those hats worn in Vietnamese rice paddies. The easiest way to carry it was on my head. Everyone from the kids on the street I passed in Vilanculos, sweating, hauling my butt to the airport on foot, to the women hawking credit card subscriptions in Atlanta, loved the hat. All you need then, is something slightly ridiculous. On my trip back to Africa, maybe clown shoes?

Last trip home I was trying only to get ready for the next step. This trip home I'm hoping to actually reach out to friends. But, not been able to since Jame, Cristy, and nephew Jesse are in town.

There are the predictable highlights: cheese, pizza, & coke. A muppets movie with popcorn and killing machines with the lobby's video game 'Terminator Salvation.' My parents organized a party for family and family friends that was like stepping onto a hug carousel. Other highlights include last night's giving my nephew a bath and listening to Al Green for the first time in 3 years.

Adjustments: walking into the Stop & Shop I noticed the potato chip bags have gotten bigger. The bakery there is filled with delectable treats. The shelves were arm deep, stacked with cans, cookies, plastic things, ice cream, nuts, chocolate....I'm flabbergasted that our economy can support this much stuff. How does this store not go out of business having so much capitol tied up into cupcakes and bread stuff that goes bad after a day and 1/2? I can see how there's an obesity epidemic. There's just too much good food around and it's too cheap! I wanna get fat too!

It seems that forces, like those reacting to Environmental Dangers, are gathering, educating people about nutrition, organic options, etc. but it's not happening fast enough.

In Machanga, I don't have a refrigerator: no milk, no cheese, no meat, no problem. With all my condiments, my kitchen compared to other Mozambicans, is intense. Mine, in comparison to kitchens here is a rusty old chevette. I'm cooking dinner for my neighbor this Sunday, and opening her fridge to peruse, she stated: 'I have nothing.' But, oh wow, she had so much!

Also, there's the getting used to driving everywhere. Yesterday I went for an hour and a half walk to staples. That felt good. It would have been a 10 minute round trip drive. Let me tell you, I'm glad I walked. Even though my folks live on kind of a jetty without a lot of traffic, I was still passed by cars every few minutes. Visiting the local gas station, passing the reflective shiny speed signs, getting passed by more cars, entering Staples where there's so much more stuff...I was struck by just how complex life is here. I passed on the way some marshes. Saw some berries I've missed until now and some lumber and other detritus. Those natural systems are awful complex, but our complex systems are pushing them off to the side.

One developing so much faster, changing faster then the other.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Part II Tofu Revelation

Part II Diving with Whale Sharks

So school's ended and I had me some three weeks to go where the wind blows. This took me to spending more 'n a few days with volunteers I'd not seen since October's training. We volunteers are a good crowd of kids who love to eat and watch tv shows n' movies. Lots are into drinking but I'm finding I have more interests in common with my fifth grade self then 20 somethings. Popcorn, soda and a movie or tv show promises great entertainment. I don't have a laptop at site so most of my entertainment at home is jogging, art, or reading.

So my friend invited me to go with her & her friend to dive with the whale sharks. These two ladies both go by the name Camila. One is Puerto Rican. She's curvy, smart; ambitious. The other's a Georgia peach, an artist: tall, classy, & very sweet.

We make it to Tofo, racing to make the boat taxi across the sound. Our first chapa breaks down twice. It's quite hot. We flag down an air conditioned ride with an Africaaner. Most of these guys I see are over 50 and shaped like barrels. It turns me racist-I get to thinking all white people are unattractive and Black Mozambicans (who are almost always slim and muscled) beautiful.

This guy was friendly enough (especially for picking us up). We had some interesting discussion. When you meet any whites from South Africa, you can assume their attitudes towards blacks bear traces of the racist apartheid government that lasted into the 90s. About Blacks he said: "I'm Boer. They have their space, I have mine." He's trying to build a hotel but has to wade through lots of bureaucracy to obtain permits. He is in for the long haul however. His stories of working with officials showed he had tolerance and some understanding. That kind of interaction for mutual gain promises the continued development of race relations. Or maybe I'm just intuiting too much. Camila talked to us both about Bovine tuberculosis. Like I said: she's smart.

We crossed using a boat that had a cage on top it, covered by a tarp to keep us dry. No escape hatch. If you are looking for transport safety, Africa is not the continent for it. The Embassy official who visited our training group told us: "Be smart. If you catch a ride hitchiking, find a place where you can jump and roll." This is one area where I am all about Strong Government imposing rules to the benefit of all.

In Tofo we hit the bar scene where lots of unkempt 20 something backpackers danced to the worst DJing. I wrote a poem for the party. I think a party is an excuse for joy. Joy must be felt sincerely. A good party is a sincere party.

Two of the best parties I ever attended were also the geekiest. One was the prom at the special education school I worked for (theme: Oscar Night). the second was in Romania with Hungarian teachers, the median age 55 partying out in a cafeteria. Both parties, a jubilant, sober dance floor. Fierce.

Here's my poem:

Tofo Revelation

The poet's philosopher stone
turns the focused energy: a joy of parties bursting at the seams
stomped church floors with bursting voice of choir
and solitary spinsters alone in their kitchen with the radio loud
dandcing themselves over the broken linoleum
It takes out of the night
collected from the dust of cars racing through
cutting it like a knife
the man 'hind the wheel crazy for the music
that's stirred his soul something sincere

That stone turns that energy
to make some special gas
that powers nuclear generators
steam engines, lamborghinies,
the cameras at Emmy Award Ceremonies and all the bulbs' flash

Runs for years on years
leaving no residue or pollution.
Dilutes only in the feeling amongst the people
as some vauge sentiment
that the world's all right.

I went diving with the whale sharks. They have no teeth, eating only algae or krill. They're spotted. The guy was great at dropping us right in front them. You see only a huge mouth coming at you and have to hustle to get out the way.

The art market was incredible but I was short on funds. I will return.

Part I Mangoes from Umbilical Cords

All right. Seems this blog'll be three parts.

Part #1: 6 hr. trip to Beira diary
Part #2: Whale Shark Diving (& a poem)
Part #3: Return to the USA

As always I'll try and keep it succinct. ;)

1. Beira. I've hated this long ass journey since having to take it while desperately seeking medication to treat the scabies attack that had turned my body to that of a sunburned lizard. The packed conditions then seemed less then charming. This particular morning, I lucked out and was taking the comparatively spacious bus. Despite it being 530am the driver began blasting rock and roll hits like Bryan Adams. He told me it should make me feel at home. This long journey always puts me in touch with the experience of living in a different country. Apart from food, road/train/boat/& plane trips are great ways of reading a culture, the best reason to travel.

Here's an excerpt from my journal...some of it illegible for the bumping.


Like the rain, the music comes
whether I like it or not
the notes work on me, like scalpels on
an anesthetized patient

The termite mounds
the houses the color of earth
the mango trees promise fruit

the confident smile of the pregnant mother
concentrated on the life inside her

the upside down chickens
the papaya trees no longer look ridiculous
and black muscles
stand out through tatter windows

the sky gave us rain the other day
salving the ground
the women open it with their hoes

Dogs with ribs jump out from in front of the bus - a pathetic look on their face: "Why me?"
mangoes hang from umbilical cords
once they were too many
now they're a gift

baby goats like toys
papaya trees seem dignified
banana groves isolated and shocked, parched
termite mounds as tall as the banana trees

the house's baby blue door
musters all the color it can
women sitting in the house's yard, gathered, enduring

The respectable gentleman in blue button down coat
Newsboy cap and red sunglasses sits across from me
The elderly husband smacks his young (2nd wife?)'s arm
Her breast hangs out for her crying infant to take
He wears a baseball cap with confederate flag and motto: 'Get R Done.'
His child looks at me wide eyed
drinking in the muzungu (that's me)

a baboon in a bare tree high up, distant
a baboon large as a dog turns to the bus' honk
bored, probably thinking about food

boy selling goat kebabs
a half side of goat hoisted to the high window, rejected
We pass a sign for the 'God Exists' pharmacy
Our bus is surrounded by vendors
Surely the white man will buy something!