Myanmar amidst Massacre

Back in September I had the privilege of returning to Myanmar (Burma) to lead a two week program for a group of high school students. I had just finished a summer in New Orleans managing Rustic’s program down there and was to start my position in staffing and training in October. I had just moved to Toronto and had no source of income, so the offer to run this program was well-timed and welcome.

But the decision to accept this position was more complicated than it might seem. In late August, members of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) reportedly attacked police posts in the Rakhine state of Myanmar (Burma). This attack is said to have been the spark to the “textbook ethnic cleansing” that has been carried out by the Tatmadaw, the military in Myanmar (Burma), against the Rohingya, which you probably read about in the news starting in September (though what most people started hearing about in September, is not new — According to The Wire, in 1977 and 1978 more than 400,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh, “amid allegations of army abuses. The army denies any wrongdoing.” and in 1991 “more than 250,000 Rohingya refugees fle[d] what they said was forced labour, rape and religious persecution at the hands of the Myanmar army in Rakhine.”).

I was conflicted as to whether or not I should travel to Myanmar, not because of safety concerns, but because of ethical concerns. The violence against the Rohingya is isolated to a small region along the western coast of Myanmar (Burma) that borders Bangladesh and the Bay of Bengal. I was conflicted because it is near impossible to travel as a tourist in Myanmar (Burma) without at least some of your tourist dollars going to the Tatmadaw or those connected to the Tatmadaw.

It is generally a best practice when traveling to try to ensure that your money stays within local communities whenever possible, a practice Rustic Pathways prioritizes. This helps to distribute money more evenly than if you were to go through large corporations. According to Rustic Pathways, there are currently a treasury department controls that prevent US companies from doing business with entities related to the military (current military or those with military history or ties), like certain airlines and hotel chains. But in a context as complex as Myanmar (Burma), it’s hard to really know where your money is going.

The government of Myanmar (Burma) is a complicated entity. Throughout the fall, there was a public outcry directed at Aung San Suu Kyi for not denouncing the actions of the military against the Rohingya, and for not even using the term Rohingya. Aung San Suu Kyi has spent the majority of her adult life under some level of control by the Tatmadaw. She was on house arrest for more than twenty years, during which she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. So why wouldn’t a Nobel laureate acknowledge ethnic cleansing being carried out in her country? Some say, essentially, that she’s grown soft and is no longer a champion of peace. This may be true. I certainly can’t say that I’d have it in me to keep fighting if I were her. But if that’s the case, then shouldn’t she leave her position of power? I think it’s more complicated than that.

She’s dedicated her life to improving conditions in Myanmar. I have to imagine she has a more long term vision in mind for the country, one that might be lost if she were to symbolically reprimand the military for something they’ve been doing for decades or give up her position. Due to propaganda in Myanmar (Burma), most people in the country, according to my reading and interactions with locals, believe the Rohingya are, at their most benign, a group of refugees who do not productively contribute to society and who cause conflict within an otherwise peaceful Buddhist country. Now this view is problematic in all sorts of ways. The majority Buddhist country is not otherwise peaceful. The ethnic and religious majority (Burmese and Buddhist, respectively) hold most of the privilege and that power is systemically wielded against ethnic and religious minorities across the country, not only the Rohingya. The debate over where the Rohingya came from is as dizzying as that of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And the Rohingya have had obstacle after obstacle put in their path to obtaining the full citizenship and access to basic services that would allow them to be “productive” members of society. Aung San Suu Kyi is Burmese. She is in a position of privilege and does not have to think about all the issues the Rohingya and other minorities in Myanmar (Burma) face. She may have decided that “the Rohingya problem” is not her issue. She may be biased against the Rohingya by the same propaganda the rest of the country receives, allowing her to believe that the Rohingya are not people of Myanmar and are therefore one fewer group she has to fight for, with 135 other ethnic minorities facing plenty of issues.

Alternatively, she may understand that because most of the people of Myanmar (Burma) believe that the Rohingya are refugees, speaking out for them could cause her to lose her already decreasing support base. Her party could lose the next election to the growing numbers of people who are becoming frustrated with the fact that change is not coming as soon as they expected after Aung San Suu Kyi’s party took over power. It is clear that she understands that change comes slowly and her response to these acts of genocide may be in service of a longer term vision for peace and prosperity for the country. How many lives are worth losing for that cause is not a calculation I’m comfortable weighing in on.

It should also be noted that Aung San Suu Kyi is not the president of Myanmar (Burma). She is the State Counsellor. She cannot be the president. Before pressure from within Myanmar (Burma) and the global community gave way to democratic elections in the very recent past, the military government wrote a new constitution to ensure they would maintain a certain level of power over Myanmar (Burma). They wrote rules to keep Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming the leader of the country and to require a ¾ majority in parliament for the passing of any law, while also allowing the military to hold at least ¼ of the seats in parliament during times of unrest (which is determined by the military), effectively giving the power to stop any proposed changes they don’t agree with. Progress for Aung San Suu Kyi and her party has always been an impossibly delicate act of baby steps that appease the military while satisfying the population enough to continue to be elected.

I seem to have gotten off track, which is not surprising given how complex the situation in Myanmar (Burma) is. I decided to go to Myanmar (Burma). Honestly, that decision didn’t take much thought. I’d be making money. I’d be going back to a country in which I’d enjoyed working and traveling before. I’d be working with great co-workers. I’d be gaining more experience with a company for which I’ve been trying for years to get a full-time job. The tougher choice was how I was going to go to Myanmar (Burma) in the midst of ethnic cleansing, knowing at least some o the money from the program I was running was going to those carrying out and/or those tightly connected to those carrying out ethnic cleansing. I started by learning more about the context. I reached out to Rustic’s Myanmar Country Director to ask for recommended articles, books, and movies. I dug into those, while following the news about Myanmar (Burma), of which there was no shortage at the time. I had articles saved offline to read on my flights and throughout the almost three weeks that I’d be there.

Then I arrived. I met up with my co-leaders, one from Myanmar (Burma), the other from the England. It didn’t take long before the co-leader from Myanmar (Burma) told me that he hoped the students wouldn’t ask about the situation in the Rakhine State, saying he didn’t want to have to talk about it. The co-leader from England had spent much more time in Myanmar (Burma) than I had and had worked in minority ethnic group communities (see his photos features at the bottom of this post). I was confident that the two of us could lead meaningful discussions about the situation.

When the group arrived in Yangon from Brisbane, it was clear that some of them had seen headlines about the Rohingya, but that most of them knew very little about the conflict or the history. We had to balance the fact that they had come to Myanmar (Burma) for purposes other than learning about the Rohingya with the fact that there was an ethnic group being systematically eliminated from the country at that very moment. During our orientation discussion on the first night, we explained, as we always do, that there are certain topics in Myanmar (Burma) that are not appropriate to discuss in public, but that we would make sure to create spaces for them to ask about those topics. We told them that the situation in the Rakhine State was one of those topics and that we would discuss it in the days to come. We went on to ask each student to share something they had noticed on their first day in Myanmar (Burma) that had surprised them. One student said that she was surprised by how normal life seemed for people there given what they’d read in the news. We took this observation as a teachable moment to discuss the fact that ethnic cleansing, genocide, institutionalized racism, and more can go on while people live their normal lives; that these things often aren’t as visible as we may imagine them to be and that that makes it especially important for us to be the voices of those who do not have the privilege to speak up or be heard.

Throughout the two weeks we found times to discuss the current state of Myanmar (Burma) between giving alms at sunrise and watching the Bagan landscape change at sunset, between days of mixing cement at an elementary school and of cruising around Inle Lake, between delicious meals and capricious digestive tracts. The students, and teachers, left with a much deeper, more nuanced understanding of Myanmar (Burma). We helped them figure out how they would explain their experiences and what they’d learned to those at home in a way that felt balanced and fair to both the Burmese people they’d met and the Rohingya people they’d remained so far from, not to mention all the other ethnic minorities who are and have been persecuted. It was a reminder that people often need a reason to become invested in a cause; that meaningful experiences with real people, in powerful places, can be transformative, inspiring, and productive in a way that reading the news cannot. It gave me some hope that perhaps this trip to Myanmar (Burma) could have brought more good than harm.

That would have been a lovely place to leave this post, but I don’t think it’s the right place to leave it. I hope that the students on that program will grow up to be global citizens who believe that all people are connected by a shared humanity and make their decisions with a global perspective. But I also recognize that over 600,000 Rohingya people have fled Myanmar (Burma) and almost 10,000 have been killed since August. It’s great for my heart to feel warm and fuzzy for having impacted 18 people, but I’m pretty sure that’s not enough for me to do given these staggering numbers. So I’ve written this post, hoping to help even more people begin to understand and continue to think about what’s going on there. I’ve donated. And I vow to continue to use the conflict I feel about my trip for good.

I am happy to have conversations with anyone who is interested in speaking about this. If anyone sees mistakes in this post, please point them out to me and I will revise it. I am by no means an expert on this topic, but I would like to represent it in the most accurate light that I can.

And now, some photos from the program, from the very talented David Shaw:

 

 

Dave’s other photos can be found here. Here are some of my favorite photos from the trip:

 

 

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More Nicaragua Photos

Leslie and I wrapped up our adventures in Nicaragua in March, but I never got around to writing another blog post or uploading any more pictures. Here are some photos from the second month or so of our time there:

Esteli

Our second trip to Esteli was filled with explorations of nature and some time spent helping out at the Permaculture site belonging to a friend we made in town. We got to learn about building houses out of soil and helping with watering the plants and prepping turmeric for roasting.

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Our first official WWOOFing experience in Nicaragua was at Rancho Canarias, a farm set up by a factory owner who wants a simpler life for his family. He hosts WWOOFers to help out as the property is being shaped into his dream of self-sufficiency. There wasn’t too much work for us to do and we got to eat as much fresh produce as we could pick.

Las Peñitas

We took a weekend beach trip between work exchanges and explored this little beach town on the Pacific coast. We stayed on an island reserve for a night where we walked the beach at night looking for turtles with a guide. We stumbled upon this mama turtle digging a nest and laying her eggs. We took the eggs to put in the hatchery at the reserve just moments before poachers passed us on the beach.

Matagalpa

Our second work exchange was at the beautiful eco-lodge Finca Musica del Bosque, which translates to music of the jungle farm. We worked with another couple to dig and build garden beds for a future vegetable garden. The food and company was incredible.

Jinotega

We spent two weeks in the northern mountain town of Jinotega, where Leslie was job shadowing at an amazing organization that works with coffee farmers and their families. I spent many of my days working from their cafe, enjoying their fabulous coffee, which you can all try if you visit before I finish it all. My favorite parts were trying out local restaurants, going to the local market and cooking at our hostel, and thrift shopping.

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Corn Islands

We spent some time on both Great Corn Island and Little Corn Island, where beaches and lobster-based dishes abound. We found a little bungalow on the beach, went for walks and runs on the beach, tried out snorkling and scuba diving, and generally tried to enjoy island living.

Ometepe

Our last stop was the Island of Ometepe, which is in Lake Nicaragua. The island is made up of two volcanoes, one active and one inactive. Ometepe was full of activities — kayaking, volcano hiking, exploring on motorbikes, swimming in the lake, running on the beach, and playing in waterfalls.

Thoughts from Israel and America

What follows is a blog post that started as thoughts jotted down while in Israel in December and has come together, through various iterations and many edits, informed by numerous discussions about the political transition and social climate in the U.S., to form an exploration of two main ideas: the importance of recognizing and celebrating the diversity within ourselves and others and, perhaps through that, making an effort to embrace other people with compassion and respect as opposed to hostility and accusation. It never felt ready to post because every day something new happened that I felt needed to be addressed, but here it is.

In December I had the privilege of going to Israel on a Birthright trip. Birthright, for anyone who doesn’t know, is a foundation that sends Jewish young adults on a free 10-day bus tour of Israel. According to its website, “Birthright Israel aims to strengthen Jewish identity, Jewish communities, and connection with Israel and its people.” According to others, Birthright is Zionist propaganda. I had some qualms about going at all. Would it be supporting Israel to go? Do I support Israel? To be honest, I was largely ignorant of the conflict and didn’t really have a stance on it. I ended up going both to take advantage of a free to trip and to take advantage of the opportunity to educate myself. The specific Birthright trip that I went on was called “Yoga and Mindfulness” and was run by Hillel International. For ten days I got to see parts of a country and a region where I had never been and about which I knew very little. I got to do so with a group of 41 participants and leaders who had been similarly drawn to exploring their heritage through the lens of mindfulness. This led to a remarkably open, supportive, loving, critical environment that gave me the space to explore my identity and how it manifests in our world today as well as how I want to navigate today’s world as an adult and a global citizen.

Every birthright trip affords participants the opportunity to become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, something I did not do as a 12-year old and went back and forth about doing in Jerusalem. The part of me that is keen on embracing any and all experiences presented to me, a part encouraged by my brother, who went on a Birthright trip a few years ago and became a Bar Mitzvah, thought, “why not?” The other part of me answered that rhetorical question by wondering if I would be offending anyone by preparing for one hour for a ceremony that many spend years preparing for, if I would be trivializing a sacred rite of passage by engaging in it without a full understanding of its meaning. After going back and forth, as I am known to do on decisions big or small, significant or inconsequential, I decided to do it. I rationalized my decision by remembering that many 12 and 13 year olds go through their Bar/Bat Mitzvah preparations and ceremonies without fully engaging with the significance of the rite of passage and that while events such as a Bar/Bat Mitzvah are ascribed meaning by the larger community, they also take on unique significance for each individual. I decided that my Bat Mitzvah would be a public declaration of my transition into an adulthood that involved holding myself accountable for my actions or inactions, especially as they related to my global citizenship.

In light of that declaration and my trip to Israel, I have been thinking about identity. One of the speakers we heard ended his talk by telling us that he hoped the future would involve more Jews who identified as Jews and opposed to “Jew-ish”, the play on words commonly employed by Jews who do not fully identify as Jewish. There are many reasons for this that I will not get into here. I have come to think of my Jewish identity as similar to my American or queer identities. It’s not a choice. It’s who I am. Like being American, it’s something I was born into. Like being queer, it’s a part of who I am that I can choose to define in my own way, for myself, regardless of how others choose to define it for themselves or for others. My relationship with my Jewish identity shifts based on my surroundings, as do my relationships with my American and queer identities. In the U.S. I don’t identify as strongly with my American identity as when I’m abroad. In contrast, I tend to identify as Jewish more strongly or more vocally when I am around other Jewish people. A lot of it has to do with how others see me. And a lot of it has to do with power and privilege. People generally assume that I’m straight and I can choose when, where, and with whom you share my queerness. But not sharing it doesn’t make me not queer. Not telling people that I’m Jewish doesn’t make me not Jewish. But I can pass. I can often pass as European or Israeli rather than American. I can often pass as straight. I can often pass as gentile. There’s privilege in that. There’s safety in that. But some would say, and I would agree, that there’s also cowardice in that. Not everyone with marginalized identities can pass into positions of privilege, power, and safety, into ease and simplicity.

It feels like just about everyone in America today has some marginalized identity, be it a non-Christian religion, a non-binary gender identity, a sexuality other than heterosexual, a race perceived as non-white, a disability. The list, unfortunately, goes on. These identities should be celebrated, not marginalized, not attacked. You see people choosing to identify as white or American, avoiding a more complicated, nuanced heritage, a more unifying human experience. You see Irish people, for example, who identify as white, as American, putting themselves in the in-group, in the position of power and privilege, as opposed connecting with their Irish heritage and remembering what happened when their relatives immigrated to America. We are letting ourselves repeat the atrocities of history by choosing to identify with the safe identity, the powerful identity, the privileged identity. But in doing so, we are pushing people with visible, marginalized identities further away, further into the difficulties and dangers that come with being black or Muslim or trans in America. We need to come out – as queer, as Jewish, as whatever we are – in order to make America and the world a safer space for others to live as their beautiful and diverse selves.

On the note of repeating atrocities of the past, another part of every Birthright trip is visiting the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. As I walked through the museum I was struck by the following line of questioning: What are we supposed to take away from learning about the Holocaust (or any other genocide)? We are told “never again”, but what do we do to prevent it from happening again? What do we do for the people today in Syria, in Israel and Palestine, for the Rohingya in Myanmar, for the black people in America, for Muslims around the world, for trans people of color?

We vote. We march. We protest. We talk to people in our lives who believe differently. We call our representatives. We keep calling our representatives. We donate to or work for organizations working for good. Is that enough? These are the questions and feelings I was left with.

I think it’s easy to get caught up in this line of thinking and feel hopeless or helpless, which can lead to inaction. Are those things enough? If everyone did them, probably. And more importantly, it’s something. It can be incredibly empowering to do something, to feel like you are part of the solution, of progress, as opposed to feeling like there’s nothing you can do to fix the problems of the world. Feeling empowered makes one more liekly to continue fighting for good, for change. I’m reminded of the saying “think globally; act locally”. It’s easy to forget the latter half of that, but that’s where the progress happens — in the aggregation of small actions, not in feeling overwhelmed about the general state of the world. To quote anthropologist Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

With that quotation I transition to the second half of this blog post. I feel that Birthright has been one of many inspiring experiences in my life recently. Another was President Barak Obama’s farewell address. Below are some of the lines that stood out to me.

“Democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity — the idea that for all our outward differences, we’re all in this together; that we rise or fall as one.”

“All of us have more work to do. … Hearts must change. It won’t change overnight. Social attitudes oftentimes take generations to change. But if our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation, then each one of us need to try to heed the advice of a great character in American fiction — Atticus Finch — who said ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’

“So regardless of the station that we occupy, we all have to try harder. We all have to start with the premise that each of our fellow citizens loves this country just as much as we do; that they value hard work and family just like we do; that their children are just as curious and hopeful and worthy of love as our own.”

I think these ideas are crucial to the future of our country and our world. Nobody is exempt from having to do more.

I’d like to introduce, or reintroduce to you something I learned in high school that I refer to perhaps more often than anything else I learned in high school: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

The basic premise is that we, as humans, have needs that can generally be prioritized in the above manner. Our more basic needs are at the bottom and our more superfluous needs (which perhaps aren’t needs, but desires or things we are driven towards) are at the top. We need air; we need water. We also need to feel that our bodies, jobs, families, etc. are safe, but not as fundamentally as we need air or water. As humans we are driven to meet our lower level needs before needs higher up the pyramid. Having our lower level needs met helps us to fulfill higher level needs. This means that it’s difficult to deal with the needs closer to the top when we feel that our needs closer to the bottom, our more basic needs, aren’t being met. Think about a time when you were really hungry. Might you have been a bit less respectful of others than you otherwise tend to be? I certainly have. Have you ever felt a lack of confidence when you were struggling to find a job? Or perhaps put yourself in a less than safe position when you had to pee really badly? This same logic makes it difficult for students to excel in school when they live in unsafe neighborhoods, with unstable families, and don’t have consistent access to food. This can also help us understand how Trump was elected. Around the election my Facebook newsfeed was full of posts about how people who voted for Trump are racist, sexist, bigoted, etc. I’m glad to see that that simplistic, divisive rhetoric has quieted a bit. But what replaced it was not much better — that people who voted for Trump do not see his racism, sexism, bigotry, etc. as enough of a problem to deter them from voting for him. While that’s true, it’s misleading, simplistic, and divisive. And it ignores human psychology. When fear-mongering news headlines and presidential candidates repeat that Muslim immigrants pose a threat to our safety, that Latino immigrants pose a threat to our employment, that trans people using the bathroom of their choosing pose a threat to the security of our bodies, that marriage equality poses a threat to the security of our morality and families, etc., we may be stripped of our capacity to respect others, accept facts, and act without prejudice and with morality. This is not a flaw in approximately half of our country; it is a human response. That doesn’t mean it’s not a problematic response, but it’s a response we can understand. And with that understanding, hopefully we can respond with empathy. The fear is real, regardless of whether the basis for the fear is bigoted or real. Because the fear is real, it must be addressed before we can move forward in a respectful, inclusive, fact-based, unprejudiced manner. Attacking one another or further dividing us into groups keeps these lower level needs from being met and prevents us from moving forward.

I have written this post from a bus coasting through Israel, my mother’s kitchen table after watching Obama’s farewell address, and a hammock overlooking the mountains in Nicaragua, among other places. Some of it feels like it should have been posted weeks ago, but the ideas, I believe, are still pertinent, some even more so after events like the detention of people from seven predominantly Muslim countries at airports across the U.S. and citizens getting up to protest, raise funds, sign petitions, and file lawsuits to make it stop. I’m heartened by the inclusive and loving signs I saw from friends who marched in the Women’s March and showed up to airports, by the posts I’ve seen about how to call your representatives and which organizations to support (see below), and by the company for which I work developing a cost-free summer program called “Peace, Wonder, and Understanding Islam”. There is plenty of good that is happening in the world right now. Be a part of it.

And with that, here are some pictures from Israel:

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The reflection of candle light at the children’s memorial at the Holocaust center in Jerusalem

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The bus upon which we spent countless hours at sunset in the Negev Desert

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The Western Wall

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Thrilled to have had the pleasure of sharing this experience with my second cousin and first friend, Alex

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Learning about the periods of Israeli history from our fabulous tour educator, Shlomit

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How the yoga and mindfulness group spends shabbat morning on a kibbutz – yoga, flutes, and bubbles

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Bat Mitzvah

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Yoga silhouettes in the desert

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We didn’t make it to the Dead Sea because of really bad traffic, so we did some yoga on the highway

A few (perhaps out-dated at this point) resources on ways to take action:

Nica Adventure

I’ve been working on a blog post about Birthright, but until that’s done, here’s a little something about our first 2 weeks in Nicaragua. For those of you who don’t know, Leslie and I decided to spend two months of our winter in Nicaragua before we jump into our next jobs with regular schedules and allotted vacation time. Our goals are to brush up on and then improve our Spanish, stay warm, find some places to work outside with our hands in the dirt, and for Leslie to do some networking with coffee producers.

I have a new part-time job that I can do remotely as we travel, so I find 4 hours per day to work as the Program Staffing Assistant for Rustic Pathways, the company for which I’ve led programs in Southeast Asia for two summers. I’m thrilled to have this position with them and I’ve been loving being involved in the puzzle that is finding the right applicants for the 300+ positions we have for summer programs in 18 countries.

Our first week was hectic, to say the least. We went from Toronto to Managua to Granada to Esteli to San Juan del Sur in 7 days, which looks like this, with a lot of backtracking:

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Managua to Granada to Esteli (via Managua) to San Juan del Sur (via Managua and Rivas) Map curtesy of Google Maps

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Landing in Managua

I’m pleased to say that traveling in Nicaragua has been far easier and more pleasant than in Ethiopia – a welcome change. The buses still get quite full and feel like they might break down at any moment. The leg room ranges quite a bit from bus to bus, but they leave promptly instead of sitting, idling, until they fill every available space.

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Look how much space we had leaving the bus station!

After a night in Managua, we took off for Granada, a touristy town that seemed like a good starting point as we knew we’d be able to get around pretty easily without Spanish.

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Catedral de Granada

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Colorful streets of Granada

As soon as we arrived in Granada, we walked around the city, checking out the architecture and getting some fresh air, which turned out to be a good decision since we ended up leaving 15 hours after we’d arrived when the opportunity for Leslie to meet with a coffee project in the north presented itself. We hopped on a bus early the next morning and were back in Managua by 7:30am. We hitched a ride to Esteli with a friend Leslie had met and worked with in Costa Rica and the two of them had a fruitful meeting that evening. More to come on that opportunity towards the end of February.

We spent a whole three days in Esteli before heading down to San Juan del Sur. We spent a day at the Miraflor Nature Reserve where our wonderful guide Señor Juan walked us through the oak forests to a swimming hole and a mirador (viewpoint).

Week two brought the first chance we had to feel a bit more settled. We stayed in the tourist beach town of San Juan del Sur at a small hostel run by a wonderful woman named Elizabeth for 8 days. We were able to check out the local market and buy groceries with which to make some meals on our own. We took Spanish classes for 2 hours a day in an attempt to brush up on the base of Spanish that we both had but were struggling to access. After work and Spanish, we’d usually head to the beach for sunset to do yoga, run, play frisbee, or have a beer.

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A funky little coffee shop with terrible internet, but a great atmosphere

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Sunset from a beachfront bar

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Frisbee with some folks on the beach

We managed to fit in some other fun activities like stand-up paddle boarding, surfing lessons, and a walk up to the giant Rio-esque statue of Jesus that overlooks the ocean.

Now we’re back up in Esteli trying to get ourselves some work on a Permaculture farm just outside of town. More on that next time.

Snapshots of Summer

Photos from Thailand

 

Photos from Laos

 

Photos from Vietnam

 

Photos from Burma (Myanmar)

 

Photos of Cambodia

Happy Right Now

Nine years ago I was faced with the question of what to do with my summer after eleven years of going to summer camp. I don’t know how my parents heard about it, but they obtained and then gave me a giant booklet full of beautiful photographs of paradises printed on glossy pages. It was the Rustic Pathways Summer Program catalogue. I flipped through it over and over, reading about all the programs around the world, from Fiji to Morocco to India. After much deliberation. I settled on two weeks in Costa Rica doing a soccer and service program with a homestay followed by a sea turtle conservation project. I went knowing nobody. Although I had a great time playing soccer, painting schools, building a house, and relocating turtle nests, what stood out most was my program leaders. I decided then that when I was old enough I would work for Rustic Pathways.

Half a decade later college graduation was approaching and, contrary to what I had expected, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. Inspired by a favorite anthropology professor, I had applied for the Peace Corps, but I wouldn’t hear back, let alone leave, for months. During my search for interesting things to do with my time I remembered Rustic Pathways and realized I was finally old enough to work for them. I filled out an application and was on a plane to staff training in Thailand a few months later. I had a blast working with and learning from a bunch of people who’d had far more experience than I in outdoor and adventure education, facilitation and teaching, and international travel. I got to lead a series of three week service-based trips called “Come With Nothing, Go Home Rich.” I left that summer rich with love for Thailand, service work, and program leading, with newly developed leadership skills, confidence, and a sense of empowerment to make changes in myself and the people with whom I interact.

The summer ended and although I had a job lined up for the fall, I considered staying on with Rustic to lead fall gap year trips. In the end I honored my contract and left for Southern California to work in experiential education and went on to Ethiopia for my Peace Corps service. I gained so much from both of those experiences, further developing my facilitation skills and self-awareness, among other things, but every time summer came around and my Rustic friends headed back to Thailand I would fill with feelings of envy and stagnation. I was still in the same place and they were going off on adventures. I acknowledge the incredible opportunity I was having living in Ethiopia, learning a new language, and integrating into a new culture, but it’s hard to always appreciate these things and these feelings of envy and stagnation were not ones that I was accustomed to feeling.

My 27 months in Peace Corps eventually came to an end and, yet again, I was surprised when I didn’t know what I wanted to do in life. I didn’t know what I wanted to go back to school for; I didn’t know what career I wanted to work towards. I applied for all sorts of global trip leader and mentorship positions. It was only after I asked my wonderful former supervisor at Rustic for numerous recommendations that I realized I ought to be applying for Rustic again as well. I had been hesitant to go back to where I had been three years prior, after having completed this two year experience that was supposed to have been transformative. I wanted to move on to something as opposed to falling back to something. What I hadn’t considered was that Rustic Pathways may have grown and developed in those years as well.

I am three days into this year’s Rustic staff training and I have been continually impressed by the ways the organization has improved since I was last here in 2013. I’ve gotten chills and been moved to tears by the inspiration and passion I’ve felt and seen from this team. The approach to service learning and sustainable travel has developed into a model that exceeded my expectations and makes me not just comfortable, but proud to be working for Rustic Pathways. They are doing it right – training us to have the tough conversations with students about white savior complex and the problems with voluntourism, developing long term local partnerships and community driven projects, and emphasizing the importance of debriefing and reflecting with students about experiences. I might not know what I want to do in life, but I do know that I’m both happy with and proud of what I’m doing right now.

Rustic Pathways Costa Rica, 2007

Rustic Pathways Thailand, 2013

A Ten-Day Trip to America

Here’s a brief photo tour of my ten days in America between two years in Ethiopia and three months in SE Asia.

Boston 
Driving home from the airport along the Charles River

  
 
An afternoon in Menotamy Rocks Park with Rachel
   
A homemade Ethiopian fusion dinner for 20

Explaining the food and answering questions about my experiences in Ethiopia to the family and friends who came to see me in Arlington 

Michigan 

Combining  getting ready for the wedding with a  visit with a good friend


The wedding party
   
College friends, all dressed up

Chicago


Sitting in on Dad’s Spring Flora class

 
Chicago, Millenium Park

  
Obligatory picture at the bean 

 
Bridges going up (a rare occurrence) on the architecture tour along the Chicago River

And now I am off to Bangkok, from where I will fly up to northen Thailand for training and then around the region for my trips. Blog posts to come detailing those. 

Apologies for any weird formatting in this summer’s posts. I am now crafting posts from my phone.