Tuesday, January 26, 2010

"Life Explained"

This is a forward I received from a good friend. I usually never open them but this time I did and I was glad. This short story allowed me to take the time to stop and process meaningful information that holds true for most individuals.

A boat docked in a tiny Mexican village. An American tourist complimented the Mexican fisherman on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took him to catch them.

"Not very long," answered the Mexican.

"But then, why didn't you stay out longer and catch more?" asked the American.

The Mexican explained that his small catch was sufficient to meet his needs and those of his family.
The American asked, "But what do you do with the rest of your time?"

"I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, and take a siesta with my wife. In the evenings, I go into the village to see my friends, have a few drinks, play the guitar, and sing a few songs. I have a full life."

The American interrupted, "I have an MBA from Harvard and I can help you! You should start by fishing longer every day. You can then sell the extra fish you catch. With the extra revenue, you can buy a bigger boat."

"And after that?" asked the Mexican.
"With the extra money the larger boat will bring, you can buy a second one and a third one and so on until you have an entire fleet of trawlers. Instead of selling your fish to a middle man, you can then negotiate directly with the processing plants and maybe even open your own plant. You can then leave this little village and move to Mexico City, Los Angeles, or even New York City! From there you can direct your huge new enterprise."
"How long would that take?" asked the Mexican.
"Twenty, perhaps twenty-five years," replied the American.
"And after that?"
"Afterwards? Well my friend, that's when it gets really interesting," answered the American, laughing. "When your business gets really big, you can start buying and selling stocks and make millions!"

"Millions? Really? And after that?" asked the Mexican.
"After that you'll be able to retire, live in a tiny village near the coast, sleep late, play with your children, catch a
few fish, take a siesta with your wife and spend your evenings drinking and enjoying your friends."

And the moral of this story is: ......... Know where you're going in life... you may already be there.

- Author Unknown



As North Americans we are always in such a hurry to get things done quickly, work harder and make more money... what for? So we can brag to our nieghbours about all the materialistic value we have stocked up in our 3 car garages we don't have time to use and have no friends left to share it with.

It's time we, as individuals and as friends, work together to bring value back into our days. Slow down. Relax. Sleep late. Play with your children. Catch a few fish. Have a siesta with your wife and spend your evenings drinking and enjoying your friends.

Live your life. Love yourself.
Looking out for your own - Community Policing

Written by Michelle Newlands
February 2009

In several municipalities in Mexico, where money is scarce and security is scarcer, communities are developing their own version of community policing with some measure of success, says one human rights activist.
Over 10 municipalities in Mexico are implementing this new program as part of a larger effort to be independent and to protect their communities. Many rural communities in Ontario use community policing as a method of providing security to isolated areas where police are unable to patrol on a regular basis. It also become a meaningful outreach program for the police and keep residents feeling safe, as well as allowing them to participate in their own security.
Juan Manuel Zarragosa, a human rights activist in Mexico and member of ‘the people of Yautepec’ met with Belleville students of Quest Internacion to introduce them to the concept of community policing Mexican style.
Community policing is when the residents chooses not to rely solely on a regular police presence but on the people living within the village. Community policing is when certain members of the community dedicate their time to monitoring their village and preventing crime. Community Police do not have an income, but receive food from members of the community instead. Villages who have implemented this movement say a reduction in crime is clearly evident, Zarragos said.
The movement began with the idea of trying to recreate the traditional essence of community involvement and participation. The principle is one of self-help, where residents take responsibility for themselves rather than relying on others outside the community. He also alleged when a family would report a crime, such as a robbery or rape, some police would demand money in order to investigate the incident, saying they had no money for gas. Some of the times it was legitimate, other times it went into their pocket. There was also very little trust in the police officers. Zarragos referred to a saying, “When the police come, everything goes downhill.”
Complaints were made to the Governor of Mexico and, to their surprise, he agreed with them. Money was given to buy weapons to protect their own communities. In some extreme cases, cities and villages, such Chiapas, the police are banned from the city and can only enter when given proper approval.
When criminals are detained by the Community Police, Zarragos said their sentence is more similar to rehabilitation than prison. The criminals are fed, housed and treated with rights and respect. The sentence is often community service, where they pay for their crime by doing labour for the community. When their sentence is up, the Community Police present them back to their family in a ceremony like setting in front of the entire community. The Community Police ask the parents to ask their children if they were beaten, starved and treated fairly while detained. The Community Police want all people of their village to know they treat all people within the community with respect and dignity, even criminals.
The reason his involvement is not easy work, and his motivation is his daughter, Zarragos said.
“Sometimes I worry... I want her to be safe,” he says. “[This work] is something that comes from my heart.”
He said the role of Community Police is to protect, listen and share; to make visible the invisible.
He also said it is a luxury to call something a success, and success is not necessarily something the movement is interested in.
“Who can measure success? It is about how happy we are,” he said. “Success could be the level of confidence within a community... when things are progressing. It’s about getting up and doing something different,” he said.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Lessons on human rights

By Michelle Newlands --- Written February 2009

After a nature walk and breakfast us girls sat in the yard and relaxed in the sun as we waited for human rights activist Juan Manuel to arrive. It was a beautiful day, probably the hottest one yet and it was nice to put on summer close and relax for a while.

When Juan arrived he taught us about different activist movements including the people of Auetapec, the Zapatistas and others. He taught us about community police and discussed the relationship between the struggling economy and its effects on violence and crime. He said that when the economy suffers, people have no choice but to turn to drugs and illegal labour in order to survive. He told us stories about children, no older than 8 or 10 years old, working in poppy fields all day. They pick with their hands leaving behind residue then they touch their face and mouth and they become accidentally high the majority of the day.
He told us what these different movements were doing and how we can help. He told us by listening and educating people on the similar subjects we can help change the cycle of violence and corruption.

We went to the plaza in Cuernavaca where we met with the Lopez family. They have a large family all of who sell things on the streets for money. They have a one room house with no toilets or electricity and must spend 55 pesos a day travelling to Cuernavaca to sell their things. If they do not sell anything that day they do not get to go home, nor do they get to eat. They sell necklaces, bracelets, weaved baskets and purses among other things.

He told us how he was married to his wife when he was 16 and she was 15. He was an orphan and needed to find a woman to cook and look after his many younger brothers and sisters. The Lopez family has been selling things on the streets their whole lives.

Most days they can’t afford to come into town and make about 3 - 4 trips a week and sell what they have. If they can’t afford the bus ride into town, they will walk through horrible conditions for three hours so the bus ride will only cost 25 pesos. They leave at 5:00a.m. to catch the 8:00a.m. bus to Cuernavaca.

None of the family can read or write and have never attended school. Their son has just recently had a new child and Mrs. Lopez has a tumor. She says some days she is in so much pain she feels like she is dying. Sometimes the pain will last for up to two weeks at a time. The family had to borrow 3,000 pesos from someone in their village for her medication and they are paying 30 per cent interest a day. Mr. Lopez says how can we pay them back when we have no money? Most days it is a struggle to simply survive. As he told the family story the two young children laughed and played in their dirt covered clothes and snotty faces. Their smiles were as innocent and pure as any barefoot child you've ever met.

When they were finished sharing their story we bought some of their items and Mr Lopez gave us each a finger-trap as a gift. He said it is for the girls boyfriends, and the boys girlfriends, this way they can’t get away he joked.


I thanked Mrs Lopez, wished her luck and told her she had a beautiful family.

Next we went to visit a school for street kids called Casa Tatic. It was amazing. Previously I had spoken to Gary about the possibility of me doing my internship with VAMOS!, the organization providing funds for the Casa Tatic to have their facility, and so I was introduced to Alajandro Lopez, the project director. We talked about different possibilities for me :) .

We were shown a short video on VAMOS and different struggles Mexicans living in poverty must face. Many people could not help but let out a few tears, no matter how hard we tried to hold it in.

I’m not sure what touched me the most; the sad truth of these unfortunate circumstances, the strength of people when they work together and how much people are doing to help or the fact that some people really just don’t care.

After the video we were given the privilege of having a tour of the school. We were introduced to the students, whom all said hello/good afternoon, “Hola, buenos tardes.”

For the next two hours we were given free time. Lynne, Chrissy, Jill and I stayed in town to do some shopping. We went to numerous stores and bought numerous things like dresses and purses. I suppose girls will be girls! Then we headed back to the market we visited the previous day and hoped in a cab back to the Abbey.

Please note: We can always tell when we start to grow tired because the laughter begins and doesn’t end, no matter how NOT funny things really are. Caitlyn and I have also realized we have one small problem: no matter where we are or what the occasion we can always break out into song, appropriate or not!

Our day with a Mexican family

By Michelle Newlands --- written February 23, 2009

This morning I was tired and I contemplated going on the walk. In the amount of time it took me to decide, my brain woke up and I jumped up and joined the rest. I’m glad I did. It was the most beautiful walk so far and filled with some of the best conversation.

We went up city where we met a man who moved to the town only a few months ago. He told us how if we continued up the road we would find a place where there used to be an old railroad that has now been cleared and is a lovely path to walk along. He likes to take his horses there. The group of us went and found the path and you could look down on the entire city and surrounding cities.
It was magnificent! The sun was rising and peeking through the clouds with its rays of light hitting the city below, saying good morning to the world in a breathtaking way. We stood at the top and admired the view for some moments before starting our way back down... wish I brought my camera.

On the way we discussed different non-profit organizations and different projects they're working on. We reflected on the past days and shared some of our goals, ideas and hopes for the future. One thing we agreed was how any one person is able to make a difference and create change.
We talked about the children in La Estacion and how their sponsors give them the opportunity to a better life they would never see without those funds. About how our payment for the visit gave the school money to provide their services. We discussed how our payments for staying in the Abbey give the Sisters enough to keep going for a whole year and how without even realizing it we have the power to help effect lives. It’s crazy what people can do when they work together.

After breakfast we headed to meet Loraine so she could introduce us to the families we would be spending the day with. Chrissy, Caitlyn and I went together to a lady named Juan’s house. We met her two daughters and granddaughter and accompanied them to mass. None of the family spoke English, and the three of us Canadian girls were nervous, more so Caitlyn and I.

When we arrived at the service the church was completely full. It started off with people playing ukuleles and singing, while the pastor walked down the aisle sprinkling holy water on everyone. Following was a parade of people holding candles on huge poles and lanterns with smoke coming out. I’m not an extremely religious person nor do I normally attend Sunday services so this was quite an experience. The music was beautiful and so was the church... but it was cold.

Between the cool temperature, calming music and aroma of incents- it was difficult for me to keep my eyes open for the full hour and a half service (done completely in Spanish of course). I nodded off a couple times and luckily Caitlyn nudged me before I sank too low in my seat... oops!

After the service we went and watched a part of a volleyball game where it was mothers against daughters. Usually the family we were staying with would play but not today. We then returned to their house for lunch and a lovely dessert of apples, pineapples, nuts and some cream that tasted delicious.
After lunch the 16 year old daughter, her friend and a family member named Gabriel took us in the car up through the hills to the lagoon....we were speechless. The roads were winding up and down and all over the place, and Gabriel was just ripping it around the corners. The three of us Canadians were in the back and the two Mexican girls shared the front seat. The trees were massive and green and there was a light rain so the moisture was rising off the ground. We took pictures but they don’t justify the beauty and energy of this place. The six of us walked through this lagoon laughing and trying to talk. The lagoon was more a type of ranch because there were horses everywhere. Chrissy and I decided we would do some riding so we each hoped on a horse and to our surprise the man just let go of the reigns and let us do as we pleased. It was awesome!

Time flew by and soon it was time to go, so one more time through the beautiful mountains we took the winding roads singing to the radio and laughing like 12 year old girls. It was a priceless moment between complete strangers from different worlds mixed with nature and luck that created this unforgettable bond. As funny as it may sound, it’s something none of us can translate into words and may be something only those who have experienced it can understand.

When we returned from the lagoon we took some photos of us all together, presented the gifts we had brought from Canada, exchanged emails, thanked them and said our goodbyes. We all met at Loraine’s house and listened to Matt play the guitar and stepped outside for a bonfire where we discussed our day’s events.

We all agreed it was a magical day filled with great memories and learning experiences.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

An adventure walk

Today we were given the opportunity to see how Mexico looks from the inside. Like yesterday, a group us met Gary at 7:00 a.m. for our morning adventure walk. This time there were a few more students. We went for a walk in a gated community, which is like a
fenced off neighbourhood. We then continued in the opposite direction we did yesterday.

We saw beautiful houses, a horse instead of a car in what looked like a garage, beautifully flowered plants, chickens running around on the streets and a man milking a cow on the side of the road. We saw things that to us were incredible, but to Mexican people would be nothing out of the ordinary. We talked about funny it would be to see a group of foreigners in Belleville all walking down the street in their funny clothes with their cameras in hand, snapping pictures of our houses, cars and construction workers. It would be hilarious. This is exactly what we were doing and I’m sure that’s exactly how we looked to them; hilarious.

We returned for yet another delicious breakfast at the Abbey. We then split into four cabs and headed to the squatter settlement in downtown Cuernavaca. The settlement is a piece of government land housing more than 20,000 poor Mexican families. Years ago many of these families had no money and were living in shacks or boxes. Over time they have been able to save enough money to build a more sufficient home out of cement blocks, most with tin roofs. Some houses had more, some had less.

La Estacion is a building in the settlement that is similar to a community center and has been running for 13 years. It is made up of volunteers within the community including over 80 mothers and numerous International and University students. They prepare breakfast for the neighbourhood children and schools 130 kindergarten students. It also holds workshops for students and mothers to improve existing skills, such as knitting and also teach them new ones like pottery for an example. La Estacion has international partnerships with churches and organizations that make donations and find sponsors for the children. The donations cover things like school supplies, maintenance of the facilities, costs of educators, breakfast costs and things like that. The individual sponsors pay for the childrens' school uniforms, shoes, medicine and food.

Out of the 130 children attending La Estacion, there are only 10 who currently have full time sponsors. The children receiving the funds are chosen by the mothers at the center based on financial need.

We were privileged to meet with two of the families involved in the center who live in the settlement also referred to as a cooperative. Both families invited the 13 of us into their home where we gathered on stools, chairs and arm rests to ask questions and listen to their stories.

The Leon family was made up of the mother, Lourdes, the father and their five children. The children were 8, 9 and 11 years old. All of the children attended school and received sponsorships. In order to continue receiving these funds they have to participate, study and be of low income.
The father works two jobs and Lourdes helps sell things at the market but the family is still low income. The fathers daily income for the one job is 150 pesos a day which is equivalent to $15 a day Canadian. Lourdes says this is the cost of feeding her family each day.
Lourdes told us about their living conditions dealing with water, hydro and sleeping conditions. Their electricity contract is shared between 11 families, which means at night it is poorly lit because all 11 families are using the same source of energy at the same time. She s
aid the children are sometimes afraid of the dark but there was not much they can do about it. Sometimes their power goes out and it won’t be fixed for days, same for the water. She said a few weeks ago they lost power for over a week and were not able to turn on the lights, shower or do the dishes. They resorted to using paper plates so they could throw them away when they were finished their meals.

She told us about their set of bunk beds; on the top sleep the two boys and the bottom the three girls. The youngest daughter told us how her sister was afraid to sleep on the top because she kept rolling off, so the girls took the bottom bunk and that sister slept in the middle of the other two. Lourdes and her husband slept on the single bed together in the same room as their children.

About a year ago the family was forced to fix their roof because the rain would leak in. They needed to borrow the money in order to replace the cardboard with tin. The interest rate was 50 per cent and they have a year to pay it back before the rate increases. If they aren’t able to pay, the bank will come and start taking things of value. The bed and the T.V. are the only things of value they own she says.

The two older daughters told us how they like to sing and dance. The mother told us how dangerous the neighbourhood is. She said there are many drug dealers in the area and a lot of crime.

The second house we went to housed a mother, father, their seven children, and the grandparents. The mother has lived in the cooperative for the last 12 years and her children ranged from 4 to 11 years old. The father has diabetes and is employed at a corner store where he works six to seven days a week, 7:00a.m. until 10:00p.m.

He will make 800 pesos if he works Monday to Saturday and 900 to 1000 pesos if he works Monday to Sunday. This is $80 to $100 Canadian a week to care for a family of two adults and seven children.

The grandfather worked for the railroad before retirement and receives a pension. His daughter, Gloria, says her father is sometimes able to help them out when money is short.

Gloria says the government has programs that cover some of her husband’s diabetes medicine, but not all of it. Right now he has to take drops that cost 380 pesos for a bottle that will last a month.

She tells us how her son likes to play soccer and about the time their house was broken into and robbed. She says over the last few years the police have been present in their neighbourhood. When they were robbed, the police were able to find the person who broke in and return their valuables.

As the mother tells her story, her seven kids surround her, laughing and playing, but mostly staring at us. When I take their photo they smile and pose, then run over to me to see what the pictures look like. Both women have very beautiful families.

When we are finished our visit 10 year old boy Luis Antonia walked us back to La Estacion. We are able to meet with a few of the volunteer mothers and hear more about how the facility is run and get an opportunity to ask questions.

I asked why the mothers chose to volunteer at the school instead of getting work, one mother named Maria Carmen, says it is because they all have children who are being sponsored and this is their way of giving something back.
The school refuses to ask or accept government funding. They don’t want anyone to manipulate them, and if the government is giving them money they will say it is their school and try and make them change their ways.

Today I realized there are many stories far too often overlooked, unappreciated and under estimated. These people I met today were phenomenal. They welcomed us into their homes, answered questions honestly and offered us what little they had. This community constructed of people living poverty worked together to create something structured to help their children succeed.

It was a fascinating day that was full of many different things. To me, the most important was their hope, hope for themselves and for a better future.

I wish them all the best.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

¿Cuánto cuesta?

Written February 20, 2009

Today at 7:00 a.m. three of the other girls and I met Gary and set out on the first of many morning adventure walks. We call them adventure walks because Gary says he doesn’t like retracing his steps, which means we explore new directions each time. Gary’s brain should have been drained by 8:00 a.m. when we finished because we didn’t give him a chance to rest it. Between the four of us girls, it was question after question.


“Gary what’s this?”
“What does that mean?”
“Is it true that....”

He knew the answer to every question we had.
Lynne noticed that on numerous houses there were dried out flowers bound together, making the shape of a crucifix. Gary explained how families would place them out during one of their holidays, which he believed to be All Saints Day, to invite the good spirits into their home and show the evil spirits they were not welcome.


We learnt how sewages can run under to sidewalks and how at times, they are not too sturdy. The cement blocks can, and have, broke and you fall through, right into.....
We saw a secondary education system and had a peek inside the front gate. We asked if we could look around and take some photos but we were told the lady in charge, I’m assuming it was the Principal, wasn’t there to ask permission. They said if we came back sometime on Monday it probably wouldn’t be a problem.


We returned to the abbey and had a wonderful breakfast. They made us tortillas with baked beans, lettuce, tomato and a cream sauce similar to sour cream with fresh squeezed orange juice. It was a delicious way to start the day.


Next we were split into three groups, were given a map and a list of things we needed to find in the market and headed into the town of Cuernavaca on a city bus. Once we arrived we split up to find and purchase our list items. We were faced to deal with many different challenges, including language barriers, money exchange, market commotion and an unfamiliar city and atmosphere. We all found the items on our lists and saw the landmarks we were supposed to see in the amount of time given. By doing this, we gained a feeling of accomplishment and independence. At first it was a little intimidating to cut your safety net, being our supervisors, and have to survive on our own in a foreign place. It was rewarding to know we could do it.


While we were in the city we saw some beautiful churches and cathedrals, the town square and experienced what Cuernavaca was all about. We met some interesting people, including a man and his female friend who were sitting in the town square making jewellery. Their names were Victor and Leslie. They asked us where we were from and tried to relay some of the things they knew about Canada to us. We would sit down and people would approach us and ask us to buy things, then they would insist, and then again, sometimes even aggressively.


When we returned to the Abbey we met with Andy, Gary and Loraine and discussed our different experiences. We talked about how sometimes it costs families to sell us certain things but they have no choice. Sometimes it will cost a worker 5 pesos to make, for instance a hat, and they will then try to sell it for 20 pesos, when people refuse they are forced to bargain or negotiate. Some people will turn the customer away or give up if an agreement hasn’t been made before it reaches the cost of creation, others have no choice. They must sell the items at a lower rate, even if they are at a loss. Why you ask? I did too. It is because they have spent all of their money on the necessary materials and if they do not sell it they won’t have the cash to buy food. This means that, yes, they are out profit, but at least they have money to feed their children that day.


Once we got home we had some time to ourselves before diner so we headed down the road to the internet cafe. We were there for about an hour and it cost us 4 pesos, which when converted, would be forty cents.
We returned at 7:30p.m. for diner and met a lady who will also be staying at the Abbey for the night. She created a program using music to help teach children with brain injuries and disabilities.


After dinner it was my turn to do dishes with two other of the girls. The Sisters have this system they use when cleaning the dishes that preserves water. You scrub off all the junk left on the plate, use a sponge with a foaming solution to clean the plates, then you fill a cup with water out of a water basin, pour it on the plate to clear off the suds, then you dip the clean dish in the water basin to guarantee there is no remaining solution, then you dry. Of course between the three of you doing dishes you each have separate roles. Then together you reset the table for the next meal.

We were hoping to play Catch Phrase, but our day was so full none of us had the energy and called it a night around 10:00 p.m. The earliest I have gone to bed in years.