Monday, February 28, 2011

Our adventure has brought us to Oaxaca

Coming from the small coastal town of Puerta Arista, where after three days the locals know you by name, the city of Oaxaca is a big change.

The streets are lively and lined with shops and vendors, mainly of jewelry and local food delicacies. The streets are wider and busier here compared to the smaller cobble stone streets of San Cristobal and the indigenous population is drastically less within the city center and it took until mid-afternoon before I was able to clearly identify numerous of the traditional dress of the indigenous peoples within Oaxaca.

There are barely any street dogs, although the piles of garbage that clog some streets take their place by the double. Everything here seems to be that much more modern than the other cities we have spent time in while in Mexico. The grove of the city seems to follow the beat of the north much closer than that of the southern state of Chiapas.

There is definitely more wealth within the city of Oaxaca, or perhaps we have just not traveled far enough outside. The majority of children are running around in clean clothes playing with one another or chewing on their treats purchased from the Zocalo. The military presence is drastically lower as well, in fact we have seen many police but have yet to come across clearly identified military. And people seem to be in much of a hurry, even for an early Saturday.

We spent numerous hours walking through one of the largest street markets I’ve ever visited, with the possibility of getting lost quite high and the odds of being hit by a bicycle or cart vendor even more likely, in fact almost guaranteed to happen numerous times within your first ten visits, or at least until you’ve realized these aisles are just as hectic and temptingly dangerous as the streets outside.

The market was filled with jewelry, clothing, shoes, electronics, burnt CD’s and DVD’s, hand-made furniture, hair and makeup accessories, fresh fruits, vegetables and poultries, including fresh chicken with feet, heads and hearts remaining but the most breathtaking of all items within the market were the handmade and hand-painted pottery. Specific to the area, the majority of the pottery had a green cover to it due to the way it is heated. Some had hand-painted flowers or designs with numerous representations. Some of the pottery was small and included things such as mugs and ashtrays and others were so large you could fit a small child in them, although not the purpose. As I walked through the market looking over the unique and beautiful artisan work, I couldn’t help pick out the items for my ‘ideal dream house’ which would be filled with all native art, design and colour of Mexico and built within one of the many green valleys the states of Chiapas, Oaxaca or Morelos has to offer.

Although the city is beautiful, it may be a little too close to home and reminds me of many European cities, with many people responding and discussing in English around us, with almost all luxuries within the city center geared toward the wealthy tourists. Many things are double the cost they would have been in Chiapas and many of the visual aesthetics remind me more of the colonial Spaniards than traditional Mexico. Although it is a beautiful twist of both, we are going to spend the next few days taking day-trips to visiting communities and will return just in time for the famous reputation of Oaxaca dishes.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Palenque to the Pacific Coast

I forgot how cold the nights could get in the city of San Cristobal, tonight I am quickly reminded. Thank goodness we are beach bound.

After a day of touring Palenque, one of the most historic and well-known pyramid sites of Mexico, we stopped in San Cristobal for our last sleep as a whole group in Mexico. Although I had been before, the ruins of Palenque were just as shockingly stunning as the first time. The design and architecture so complex, the hieroglyphic’s lining the walls, ceilings and archways telling the stories of the ancient Mayan past and the tales of jewels and gems found within the caskets and tombs of past rulers and kings and queens. The images of the exploration to discover these hidden treasures rush through my imagination and the idea that at one time these ruins housed an entire civilization, thousands of years ago only to be completely consumed by the life of the jungle. The thought that there are hundred more similar to Palenque, perhaps not as grand, hidden all throughout Mexico, Central and Southern America.

It’s interesting to consider that perhaps, thousands of years from now, our ancestors will be discovering the ruins of our civilization, trying to unwind the tale of our disappearance and or migration. As there is no doubt that within their time, the civilizations of Palenque, Bonampak, Yaxchilan and others were developed and many cannot agree as to why they no longer stand tall, inhabited by people.

I have heard many stories; attacks by rivaling cities, peasants rising to conquer the leaders, some say they disappeared by aliens or rampant disease and others believes natural resources such as food and sufficient water ran out and people were forced to migrate, eventually mixing with other cultures and moving away from their direct heritage of the Mayan.

With all of this in mind, it is time for me to splendor the last evening with my group as a whole. It is time to indulge in a beverage and a game of cards with my roommate and good friends as we have one more reflection of our adventures together in Chiapas before heading in our separate ways. For some it is Guatemala, Mexico City, Cuernavaca or back to Canada. For myself and two Compañeros, it is the Pacific Beaches of Puerta Arista, then backpacking our way to Mexico City, stopping in Oaxaca and any place else that catches our eye.

Goodbye to the Lacondon

As we drove out of the most beautiful and breathtaking places I’ve ever experienced, I felt the butterflies beginning to dance around in my stomach.

Yet again, thankful for the opportunity but sad to leave, I gave thanks for all I had been privileged to experience within my time in the jungle.

For sharing moments of honesty and growth with a group of people who had come so far together and for the strangers who had shared a piece of their history and livelihood with us, who welcomed us and had became our companions.

For the moments of appreciated clarity, beauty and reflection while sitting in a waterfall that had flowed for hundreds of years. For the breathes of pure, fresh air that allowed my mind to clear and my thoughts and spirit to heal as we walked through the thick and lush brush of the jungle trails in the last remaining rainforest in Mexico.

To the sounds of the forest who sang us to sleep and welcomed us into each new day, and for teaching us that time is something that we can own and our lives can be all that we dream them to be.

To Yachilan, Bonampak and and Palenque which took us back to a different place in time to learn of our ancestors and the constant struggle, strength and genius of people throughout time within all civilizations.

I gave thanks to the silence in which spoke so loud, so strong and taught me about the world around me and of myself. And as I sat quietly, looking out of the window, we passed a van of people entering the jungle and I gave thanks to them and hoped they would feel the same empowerment and peace that I had as they entered one of the most beautiful and breathtaking places I have ever experienced.

It was at that moment I realized I was leaving the jungle a different person than when I had arrived. There is something about the jungle that does the spirit good.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The rainforest - beautiful, complex and mysterious

Four days in the jungle complete. My lungs are cleared, my skin is fresh and my spirits are high. There is something about the jungle air that makes a person glow.

Our days were spent hiking through thick jungle brush, swimming in beautiful, crystal clear, aqua blue water, visiting ancient ruins, being reborn through an ancient Mayan temescal and visiting numerous excavated, and undiscovered, ruins.

During our hike our guide, Victor, described the history of the jungle and taught us the meanings and purposes of each plant. Some for healing headaches, clearing cuts, removing colds soar, cleansing tea, insect repellents, making furniture, creating natural dies and some for spiritual rituals. He taught us of the different flowers and when they bloom, identified birds by their sounds and explained the paths of the rivers, when they were highest and when they would run dry.

He introduced us to a 600-year-old Ceiba tree, known to the native Mayans as the Tree of Life, it’s branches reaching to the Gods in the sky and it’s roots seeping below the earth towards the Gods of the underworld. We explored the undiscovered ruins of the Laconja people, who were conquered by the Mayan people of Bonampak over some1000 years ago, their city secrets lost beneath the depth of the forest.

In the nights we would fall asleep under our bug nets to the sounds of the crickets and flowing rivers beside our open cabins, often waking to the sounds of the howler monkeys and their packs near by. We would take day trips to the nearby ruins that are run by the original native peoples of the land and listen to the tales of their past as told to them by their grandfathers. Of the bird who was struck by lighting and the serpent nearby who gained his feathers and was recognized as the reincarnation of a God. On our return stopping to photograph the miles of ants carrying leafs to their Queen and greeting the women and young ladies who line the paths selling handmade jewelry of different seeds.

In the mornings we’d wake early and walk along the roads that have been traveled by so many and meet with the young set of cousins, ages 7 and 9, who live nearby and travel to the small store, ‘tienda’ each and every day. They were beautiful, strong and fearless.

It is no wonder so many people from around the world want access to these lands. They are rich in resources and it is shameful these lands and their people can be exploited and sold for capital gain. They are purchased for profit and are now nearly extinct. Once being the home and life support of millions of civilizations, these treasures are running thin and the devastation that has occurred within them is at the point of irreversible.

The Mayan people, so eager to share and so eager to teach, have had their lands captured by greed of individuals and corporations. It has destroyed parts of their heritage and continues to strip them of their cultural lifestyle and identity. As forests continue to be destroyed for resources, logging, cattle farming and foreign profit, an entire civilization of people will suffer the effects. It is inhuman and it should be so widely accepted. I have learned the fate of people lay in the hands of each and every one of us. It is the responsibility of all people to defend those who are being exploited, manipulated and taken advantage of. I hope for these people, for they are amazing and how shared with me a part of our world I would never have known, never have understood without them. To the blind eye it may appear as a gathering of trees, nothing more. But within lies an entire existence that is beautiful, complex and mysterious. As each of us is unique, each tree, each bird and each bug places it’s role in the cycle of life that has been present on this planet much longer than we as humans.

It was the plants and the trees that welcomed us to life, and not the other way around. They breathe life for us and yet we are so quick to take it from them.

It is sad that we, as people, have missed the mark on this one and it is time we repay the forest for all it has given us.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Goodbye to San Cristobal de las Casas

As our time in San Cristobal comes to an end, I find myself stuck in two places; excited for the journey and adventures ahead yet still sad to say goodbye.

My experiences in this city have been amazing and although not always easy, I will forever be thankful for what this place has given me. Within my time here I have learned the value of honest relationships, of being open minded and committed. I have learned to overcome cultural barriers, such as language and to fall asleep each night thankful of my opportunities and accepting of my disadvantages.

I have learned the complexities and different definitions of struggle, and that one’s challenges in life are no greater and no less than those of any one else’s. All people in life struggle and it is possible to overcome those struggles and be a stronger, more compassionate and competent person. I have learned to overcome these struggles and to express them with pride, and share them with others not as a victim but as a way of healing can be empowerment.

I have learned the strength of community and when people work together they can overcome all odds and all obstacles. It is within solidarity that we become unified as a strong, wise body of individuals.

I have learned so much gets lost in translation; from a feeling to a though, to a sentence and into a story, an article, a photograph or a different language. Often the value and meaning of the message can be lost and sometimes the strongest bonds can be made through silence and a smile but I hope I don’t miss the value of ones meaning within it’s presentation.

I have learned to better understand others you must first understand yourself. I have learned we must respect all people for our differences and similarities, as we are all unique and contribute to the cycle of life in our own way and as equals.

I have learned that life is complex and it can be difficult but it is important to take time to recognize the beauty of our existence and in that which goes on around us.

I have learned the importance to share laughter, struggles, celebration, love. To be true to ourselves but acknowledge our impacts on people and the environments around us.

I have learned not one person can ever know it all, regardless of age, class, gender or race and that it is the desire to learn and to experience in which true wisdom is created.

Each time I return I learn Mexico is a beautiful and rich country, with so many elements to offer the world. I have learned it is not fair to judge a country from such a distance and that it is much easier to point the finger of blame than it is to lift it in support of that which we do not yet understand.

I have learned the value of friendship and of family. We do not have to come from the same place to have experiences the same feelings and thoughts and we do not have to be blood to consider one another a structure of support, and isn’t that what family is suppose to be all about.

Beyond everything I have learned, I leave this place with a feeling; a feeling of growth, understanding, satisfaction and contentment. Although our time here has been short, what I have experiences will last a lifetime. I will always look back on our time in this magnificent part of such a greater picture with fond memories and peace of mind.

To the people at the Treehouse, thank you for allowing us your space to reflect and learn.

To our Mexican family, thank you for your hospitality, your kindness and above all your friendship.

To the friends I have made, I will never forget you and thank you for helping me learn about myself and a culture in a way I could never have previously understood.

To each individual we have met along our way, thank you for being part of our journey and for allowing us the opportunity to learn with you, to know you and be part of each other’s lives.

To the city of San Cristobal de las Casas, I will miss you and will always hold you in high regard.

Gracias, Chiapas.

And now on to the Lacondon……

Sunday, February 13, 2011

A journey to Teopisca and a day in relationship building

People come in all different colours, shapes and sizes, each with their own unique qualities and contributions to life. Similar to human diversity, within nature there is biodiversity, with each plant a different colour, shape and size contributing to the natural cycle of life in it's own unique way.

Today we traveled by combi to a village called Teopisca a small city a little more than an hour outside of San Cristobal. The group then split into the backs of two pick up trucks and drove higher into the surrounding mountains where we would meet with a group of international volunteers hosted by non-profit organization Natate, where we would be introduced to the projects we would be working on for the remainder of the day. The journey to the project was a adventure within itself, bouncing around on uneven terrain, getting stuck in potholes and having to get out and push the truck back onto the placed concrete tracks.

Once we arrived we were greeted and began our introductions by playing a game. We were to share our name, favourite hobby and food with the group (in Spanish of course) and then chose the person to follow by shooting that energy across the circle and towards the new person with your hands.

The camp was a piece of land donated by a married Mexican man and German women who say the land does not belong to them but to all visitors and volunteers who choose to come and work, learn and engage in relationship with one another and the the land.

We received a tour of the property where they are working to create a self-sustainable community. They live without electricity and have built a home out of Adobe bricks, with counters and accessories made from the trees. They have built a water collector, chicken coop, natural compost and fertilizers, organic gardens, green houses and dry toilets.

Our host Juan, introduced us to the concepts of universal relationships and shared how all objects play a role in the natural cycle of life. When understood, all beings can work together to support and sustain one another. He spoke of the importance of understanding ones worth and says it is important for things to have more than only one purpose, for when they do they only have two options, either they fail or succeed. When things are complex they are multifunctional, they create options and it is our responsibility to explore and discover these options for the most effective and efficient uses.

Juan asked us about our scent. As individuals, or as Canadians, what was it. We were asked to think about what that meant to us and to think of how humans use their senses and the extent of their purposes; sense of smell, sight, taste, touch. Animals, for example, rely on the strength of their sense of smell for survival where as people have minimized this purpose and worth. He passed around small pieces of different flowers, plants and herbs, as he explained how each of them has their own scent and how each person has their own scent and if we were to consider these scents as different species, how many species there would be in one city, one country and in the world.

Today we learned a new concept of waste, and what waste is or what it is not. We learned how things can be used for different purposes and what we take from the land can eventually be returned to the land and befit other types of existence. We learned how feces could simply be considered as ‘crap’ or how it could be considered as a fertilizer, and nurturer of the plants and animals in which we will then feed. We were challenged to consider the effects of why our feces sometimes does not nurture plants and support the land to consider the things in which we are putting into our body and to find healthy alternatives.

Once we were introduced to the system in which this community had created, we split into three smaller groups and got to work on different projects. One consisting of creating a house of sticks for the chickens, the other cultivating and planting an organic onion garden and the third building abode blocks from scratch.

I joined the group of adobe and was soon up to my knees in a learning experience I will never forget. The process consisted of collecting pine needles from the near by woods, grabbing mud from a pond created by a flood the previous year, adding small pieces of raked dirt to the pile and blending it with our feet. The mud consisted of many natural nutrients including iron and once dried, acts as a strong building block.

Once we gathered materials, blended them together with our feet and threw clay at each other, we shoveled and cupped the clay into a wheel barrow, put it into molds, added designs and left it to dry. It usually takes one to two full days before the adobe is dry and strong enough to build with.

The process may sound simple but after more than two hours of work we had created only 18 adobe blocks, which in the big picture was nearly nothing. It helped us appreciate the value of the work and understand how hard people must work to accomplish things. It was rewarding to have done it as a team and empowering to have gained a new tangible skill.

Once our project was finished, I joined the other group in the onion garden, planting pieces of life within the ground. Two classmates and I reminisced over the tranquility and therapeutic advantages of working within nature. A friend of mine who grew up in Africa said it reminded her of being home, and of how her Grandmother always used to make her water their garden at home and how she had never enjoyed it as much as she did now, now that she had learned to appreciate it. We crouched close to the ground and discussed relationships, friends, family and our futures as we planted what would with time be the food of our new friends who lived in this community.

Next we washed our hands, faces and feet in the natural spring river as others prepared our lunch over the fire stove. Each person having a role, even if it was just good company or 'supervising'.

Some of the volunteers had traveled from France, Germany, Spain, Japan, Canada and other provinces within Mexico to learn about the relationship between humans and nature and how our actions impact the land. We were again privileged to experience a way of life in which was unique and rich in so many ways. We were able to meet with people from all corners of the world and work with them as a team and to build relationships with others who are interested in creating positive change.

I think of all days, this has been my highlight thus far.

One day I hope to return.

ps - I also half fell in the river.... but it was cool

Our second day on the project - my legs are starting to enjoy it. I have never been one for physical labour, and although the act of picking up garbage isn’t very strenuous in itself, the 4 hours of constant hiking up, down and through thick forest can be.

Today we focused on cleaning out the river, which means after an hour of hiking through unmarked path we got to get our boots wet. I could not believe the amount of garbage that we found, the majority of which were pop bottled of Coca Cola –not necessarily to my surprise. We spent numerous hours filling up bags and discussing the current issues surrounding proper waste in Mexico. There is currently no government supported recycling projects or plants and many indigenous communities have yet to fully understand the damage of waste on the land and environment.

Before industrialization, people were able to dispose of their waste naturally, as the majority of products came from the land and were able to self decompose. The waste would then be used to fertilize and it was a natural cycle. Since the majority of populations now use packaged products, the concept of ‘waste’ and pollution is still widely misunderstood. Leo, the local employee of the educational park, discussed with us in details the problems that occur from this and the need for new implementation of proper waste disposal. Many indigenous communities do not understand that products, such as plastic, cannot naturally breakdown and that it is dangerous to land and waste resources.

Another difficulty we learned existed in the park was the issue of logging. There are three small indigenous communities that surround the park territory, and problems with logging have become quite frequent. These communities use the logging to build homes and to gain employment, but have yet to accept the rules of the park. When asked, Leo said besides the lack of understanding with regards to the environmental damage of logging, part of the problem is there is more money in logging then there is in working directly for the park. We were told the park tried to make agreements with the communities where they could have access to log certain trees and although the communities agreed, are not abiding to the agreement.

We discussed the relationship between the park and the communities to try and understand if some of these issues could be resolved through effective communication. Although the park does employ a quantity of people from within these communities, it is often seen as offensive when the topics of waste disposal and logging are brought up, as in the past these have been aspects of indigenous culture. We asked about the different programs and learning opportunities for schools and families to come and engage in educational projects and we received the name of the Programs Coordinator at the park, who we will hopefully be meeting with Monday to learn about the different programs they have in place, such as the preservation of native plants such as flora and fauna and any plans for the future.

All in all, it was another great learning experience and having the opportunity to discuss these matters while being surrounded by nature was much appreciated. After spending a total of 8 hours picking up garbage, I am now noticing the quantities of waste EVERYWHERE and have since realized the necessity of programs that implement and encourage proper waste disposal, recycling, reusing and compost. I’m looking forward to returning to Canada and learning more about current projects that are directed to these issues and seeing how they compare and could be implemented in Mexico.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Our light-labour projects in the mountains of Chiapas

I’m not sure if today really happened, as I spent four hours in the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico with a group of international volunteers picking up garbage at an education park in the rain during the dry season.

Our day began at 8:00am where myself and four other ISW students met with Thomas, a Belgian volunteer and Ricko, a Japanese volunteer, in front of the Revolution café to get picked up by the parks combi. San Jose’s educational park is a natural reserve of mild forest and is part of the Natural History Institute of Chiapas. This is where we will be working for the next four days as part of our light-labour project. The seven of us next jumped in the back end of a truck that had the front already full of three other people. We continued through San Cristobal, picking up three more park employees on the way.

We had offered to come early in order to get a head start on the day, but by the time we did the rounds and picked everyone up we arrived just on time – good thing the boss was driving.

As we drove higher and higher into the mountains surrounding San Cristobal even our Canadian bones, familiar to the cold, began to feel chilled as we sat exposed to the wind. With our toques and fleece jackets, we squeezed together to make room for everyone in the back of the combi and it was kind of nice to have an excuse to sit close together, as it was secretly keeping me warm without having to ask to cuddle my classmates.

The entire drive took about an hour and allowed us to look out over the city of San Cristobal. We passed small villages along the sides of the mountain and I couldn’t help but imagine what life must be like for those who live there. Some living in adobe homes, others in small simple concrete squares surrounded by livestock and dry vegetation. It would be a day’s journey to descend into the city to retrieve basic essentials and return.

When we arrived at the park there was a thick content to the air and it felt as though we were walking through midst of clouds. This morning things were wet and although I packed a small rain jacket, I was convinced I would not have to use it in Mexico and obliviously left it at home. I suppose its purpose was solemnly to protect the maple syrup we brought from Canada for our Mexican family.

Yesterday when we arrived at the park we had an introduction to our projects and today we finished the tour of the grounds and got to work. The job consisted of hiking up, down through and around bike and hiking trails picking up any sorts of garbage. It was definitely a work out but was mentally undemanding. While doing this work I discussed with a classmates some of our own personal significant learning experiences since we arrived in Mexico. We shared insight as to what skills we feel we have gained, experiences we won’t forget and things we hope for our future. The best part of this discussion was recognizing we had created more than an understanding of each other but a friendship, as in the beginning of the year we would barely discuss the weather yet share intimate details of our life experiences.

As we moved along from past to present, we began discussing some of the things we recognized within the project that caught our attention. Some items were things such as:

-The lack of understanding and initiative to promote recycling and proper waste disposal. (Not necessarily at fault of the park, we filled over 8-10 LARGE garbage bags and were told they do this about two times a week.)

-The need for educational programs within all levels of schools and the benefits that would allow having children and youth involved with natural conservation, recycling and proper waste reduction (Children come to look at the animals in the ‘zoo’ learn about habitats, plants and play, but could benefit from an hour of garbage picking to understand waste does not just go away and to learn about the process of proper land use, waste reduction, etc. After spending time picking up others waste, you may often think twice before throwing your own on the ground again.)

-The need to re-evaluate the use of the parks ‘zoo’ (There are numerous animals that live throughout Chiapas and have come mainly from the Tuxtla zoo, but do not belong in mountainous climates or such captivated environments. The park is in the process of rebuilding larger cages but could greatly benefit from creating natural breeding grounds for animals that belong in such mountainous climates as opposed to those who don’t.)

Although cleaning garbage is something that we could do in Canada, I feel there is a lot to learn from this project and I hope tomorrow we will have the opportunity to ask the big-guys some of our more in-depth questions that volunteers and lower level staff were unable to answer. Personally, I am interested in discussing the possibilities of working in collaboration with local schools to implement programs where students, youth, adults and their families can come and learn about proper waste disposal, recycling, composting, the environment and natural habitats of animals.

I can recall as a child in Canada going to ‘The Outdoor Education Center,’ in Northumberland County. There we learned the basics of waste disposal, recycling, reusing, respecting habitats of natural ecosystems and learning about nature without keeping species captive. During our four hours of clean up I thought back to those experiences and thought of how great it would be for the guide at the Outdoor Ed Center Mark (chic-a-dee-dee-dee) to come to this Mexican conservation area and work in collaboration to implement similar programs here. I recall saying today I would much rather see droppings from an animal that was free than the animal itself stuck in a cage (Often at the outdoor-ed center animal droppings and tracks were as close as we would get because the animals ran free).

Although there is a lot of work to be done, I am optimistic as ISW students we will be able to use this learning opportunity to the best of our ability. Tomorrow we return to the park, this time taking the collectivo so we can grab an extra 20 minutes rest, to clean out the rivers of garbage and begin clearing and marking hiking and bike paths.

As tiring as it is, another day of noiseless scenery and company of good people will be nice. Hopefully tomorrow we will have an opportunity to look closer into the details of the conversation park and their plans for the future.

Perhaps I will bring my raincoat just to guarantee it won’t come again.

Business as a form of empowerment

Something we as International Support Workers must learn to be comfortable with is the exchange of money. Whether it be from a donor to an organization, government funding towards a project or a pay cheque to a support worker; the exchange of money is inevitable in all fields of work, including this one.

Over the course of this program I have become more confident and comfortable with the exchange of money, especially in terms of co-operative business and social business. I have learned in order for things to exist, somewhere down the line there had to of been a minimum exchange of a few dollar bills.

Through speaking with others in the field of international support work, I have learned ‘business’ is not something to fear and when used properly, can be to the benefit of all parties involved.

In this program we have critically analyzed the systems of fair-trade, direct-trade, social business and cooperatives. We have explored examples of where business can be used to empower individuals and support entire communities. As a class, we went to visit a coffee shop co-operate and received a history of coffee plantations within Mexico. We learned of the horrible abuse and mistreatment towards indigenous workers on these plantations in the early 1900s where all coffee plantations were owned by European foreigners and the indigenous were used as slave labourers on the properties. We learned that after the Mexican Revolution in 1910, the people reclaimed these lands and used these plantations in a cooperative effort to support all involved; from the planting of the seed to the selling of the cup.

I am learning that business is a major part of support and development work and it can be crucial to understand the basic elements. I may choose to be oblivious to it, but business will go on around me and I will be unaware of how it is being used and who is benefiting.

In the ISW program, I have learned to become comfortable in a business role and am able to make decisions based on the best use and most productive purposes. If I am choosing this type of work as a living, and want to completely engage myself in the activities, there must eventually, and inevitably be an exchange of money both for my own survival and purpose of any organization I am part of. I do not say this out of ignorance or arrogance, but out of the clarity that business is a natural cycle of survival and I must include my own actions within this cycle in order to keep up with the required demands. By choosing to take part in business aspects of organizations, I am able to contribute to ethical and fair decisions involving the exchange of money.

In the past few months I have learned business is something to fear when you do not understand. To get involved, to ask questions and to take part in, is learning and it can be beneficial and empowering.

Money is part of the cycle of change, and whether we like it or not, it holds power. Through elements such as fair-trade, social business and cooperatives, that power can be put back into the hands of the people and they, and myself, can take part in the economic, independence and stability of our own existences.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Update from Chiapas, Mexico

One thing about Mexico is time definitely flies. Our group has been here for a little more than two weeks and in hindsight we have learned so much.

We have had the privilege of meeting with members of autonomous, indigenous communities, listened to a presentation by social justice organization Otros Mundos and sat in on a press conference at internationally recognized human rights and advocacy center FRYBA. We were able to explore the programs within the local chapter of Save the Children and paid a visit to non-profit organization Casa de las Flores, which offers a safe place for discriminated street children. We traveled to impoverished communities to experience the process of development projects with Belleville based organization Arthur Frederick Community Builders and have celebrated two birthdays, a bonfire, numerous Mexican Fiestas and participated in day trips outside of the city to local Mexican vacation spots. Today we met with volunteer organization Natate and began our low-labour projects with other international volunteers and had the opportunity to meet with a representative of the Canadian Embassy.

It is the individuals behind each of these specific titles and organizations that have offered us such strong and unique learning opportunities. Each a new perspective on development and support work and each with eye opening stories and experiences to share. The students came here with an expectation of what we would be involved in, and although sometimes difficult to comprehend or hard to face with a smile, each learning opportunity has been an undeniable experience and I have grown as a person and as a professional.

Each day I continue to learn how we, as individuals, have our own ideas and opinions, and we as Canadians are extremely fortunate to share those opinions and to chase those ideas.

As a woman, I have learned I am not only fortunate but privileged to live in a country where my voice, opinion and body are respected.

Here in Mexico I have learned the true meaning of freedom.

Freedom is not to live in fear and oppression. Freedom is diversity and individuality. Freedom is a safe place to start a family and raise your children.

Freedom is equal opportunity to employment and basic life essentials, such as shelter, food and safe drinking water. Freedom is the ability to protest your rights and express societal concerns and stand up for what you believe.

Freedom is the opportunity to education, to learn, to grow and to prosper.

Freedom is beyond the space in which we have to expand our wings. It is the ability to live freely within one self, without fear of consequence or violence.

I live in a country where the building blocks of freedom are considered commodities, in which people take for granted everyday. We are given a voice and we use it to speak of gossip and tabloids, not to defend the rights of marginalized and discriminated peoples.

We have the opportunity to travel, ask questions, develop our minds, and yet we choose to sit in front of a television screen and get lost in the chaos of multimillion-dollar corporations. In the developed world we are in the sense free, but we are choosing to be prisoners of capitalist societies and perpetually secular systems.

Here in Mexico, and around the world, those who have nothing fight for their right to basic essential needs. They fight for equality, liberty, dignity and the right to independence. They stand against oppression and inhuman treatment, often at a dangerous cost.

In Canada many are not aware of the human rights violations and mistreatment towards marginalized people in our own community and country nor are they aware of the role they play in the mistreatment towards our global neighbours. We have the opportunity to speak on behalf of those who cannot and still many choose not to.

If we were to wake up, and global positions were to shift and we were no longer ‘at the top’ – who would have our backs? And would we judge them if they chose not to. Would we cry out to them, get angry or simply understand ‘it is not their problem.’

How would we face these challenges of survival? And if we woke from that dream, do you think we, as Canadians, would do things differently?

I hope so.

And I think it’s time we wake up.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The process of learning

Some of the most difficult decisions we must make alone, but it is the support of others that allows us to know we’ve made the right one.

Since we arrived in Chiapas, Mexico a little over a week ago there has been a lot to process. Some of the things we are learning are physical; the structure of a non-profit, the process of a campaign, the history of an area. Others are more intellectual; why do so many people have to live in fear. Others emotional or spiritual; how do I feel about this, what do I do about it and how will this shape my future and the person I want to become.

Although we do it as a group a lot of it is done internally, as we are all here on our own learning journey, our own quest. We must process for ourselves things like; what does this mean to me, how do I feel about it, how does this effect me, personally and professionally, what will I do with this knowledge and how does this apply to my future.

Sometimes the learning is difficult, and we are learning it is important to name what we are feeling and what we are thinking in order to allow ourselves to process it in a healthy way.

It is like that old saying, if you don’t know what’s wrong you won’t be able to fix it.

I have been going through some personal struggles, things about who I am, who I want to be and how I want to participate in this vast and ever changing world. I begin to second-guess myself; will I be good enough, am I strong enough. Will I be able to make a difference and where within this global chaos do I belong.

Today as a group we discussed these things, we talked about our hopes, our fears. Where we feel there needs to be change both within ourselves and societal systems and structures. The conversation ran long but for me the message was clear.

Through this process of dialogue and experiential learning I have learned we must be careful to go easy on ourselves, take care of ourselves and be patient with ourselves. It isn’t healthy nor realistic to expect too much of any one person and if we try to do it all, we will surely fail. We live in a time where results are expected promptly, we must be able to measure our success in order for us to believe it exists. Often this is not the way and our dreams will be lost and our spirits will die.

Through this process of dialogue and experiential learning I have learned the importance of balance and of self-forgiveness. From within Mexico I have learned the true meaning of mental health not only in the northern context but in the way of having peace of mind and tranquil thought. I have learned it is okay to make mistakes as long as we learn from them and grow. I have learned it is okay to have my head in the clouds as long as my feet are firmly planted on the ground.

I have learned the power of honest relationships and the strength of community. I have learned to honour the opinions of others equal to those of my own and to honour all people as equals. I have learned things that at one time, long ago as a child were natural and were somehow lost or forgotten. Not intentionally or with pride but within a culture and context where we constantly struggle to be better, best, or on top.

I have made mistakes and I will own them. I can admit my humilities and I am learning how to put them behind me. No one thing can ever be perfect, and no one thing should ever want to be. It is every imperfection which makes beauty beautiful and I am learning it is my imperfections which make me human and make me, me.

These I will own, I will admit and I will move on and I will grow.

To take this path has been the right decision; Belleville, Mexico and wherever else I may go. And I am thankful for what I have been given, for what I have seen and what I have learned.

We make the path by walking, and so far I like this path best.

Thank you ISW.

“A man fails many times but is never a failure until he gives up, for from failure comes valuable experience and from experience comes wisdom,” author unknown.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

O'Canada our home and native land...

…. what about the homes and lands of others?

International Support Worker Students from Loyalist College met with employee of advocacy organization Otros Mundos – Other Worlds - where they had the privilege of discussing some extremely important, and controversial, issues.

Otros Mundos has identified numerous of the economic problems within Mexico as part of the global economic crisis, as many underlying issues are present around the world and are caused by the Capital Crisis. This crisis is universal and it seems everyday people are becoming more and more unhappy in both developed and under-developed countries.

The struggle continues for employment, nutritious food, shelter, labour rights, education, healthy care, security and gender equality. Many communities are experiencing inter-family conflicts and one can only speculate if these problems are a result of poverty or political violence.
Otros Mundos is an advocacy organization that works to discover and implement alternatives that can better the life-situations of the Mexican population. The organization works to find sustainability in our environment and within the people as they understand that food and water are not enough as long as the extreme levels of inequality continue.

As one crisis has many elements, Otros Mundos have categorized the global economic crisis as follows:

-Financial crisis
-Social crisis
-Food crisis
-Energy crisis
-Political crisis
-Environmental crisis
-Security crisis

Many ISW students were curious to learn more about the role Canada plays in this global economic crisis, more specifically the involvement with food and security.

Students were shocked to learn of the incredibly harmful and life-threatening impacts left behind from Canadian mining companies. There are currently more than 25,000 mining companies within Mexico, 70-75% of which are Canadian based and are known around the world for being the worst violators of human rights.

“When I heard this, I was disgusted. I thought, how could I want to serve for a country, and protect people that care for no one but themselves and their money,” says Caila Widdifield, current ISW student and Cadet Instructor Cadre. “It’s revolting. We’ve always been taught ‘do to others as you would have them do to you’, how would they feel if they were the one being exploited and having their rights violated, with no one to protect them. It isn’t right.”

It is not only the initial damage of the mining but the continuous impacts of devastation towards natural resources. First communities are forced to move as companies now own the land they live on, they extract what they want and in the process contaminate the land and water resources, where luscious vegetation once grew is no longer possible. Communities are being affected with increasing rates of cancer and other health implications. Homes are being torn apart and indigenous communities who resist to leave their homes are beaten. It is shameful.

For many students this was the first time they would hear in such detail the horror left behind from Canadian companies. Canada is becoming more widely known, especially through Latin America, for their negative impacts on the earth, inhuman treatment of indigenous populations and violent attempts to get what they want.

When ISW students ask what can be done, Otros Mundos reply not to give up.
“It is important to look at your own context and understand what is going on around you and then say what can we do.”

Otros Mundos works in partnership with many international organizations, such as Friends of the Earth International, REMA, and closer to home, the Council of Canadians and Human Rights Watch. Through these organizations, international campaigns are led and Otros Mundos urge all to get involved. They say it is important to acknowledge the harm and violation of human rights being done by Canadian mining companies and to educate others on these issues.

Corporate America always finds ways to avoid responsibilities, it is our job to hold them accountable for the damage they produce. As global citizens we must work together to better the lives of all people, we must no longer work to feed the machine but work to feed the people.

For more information:

Council of Canadians:

Mining Watch Canada (Bill C-300 – Corporate Accountability for the Activities of Mining, Oil or Gas Corporations in Developing Countries):

In Remembrance of Bishop Don Samuel Ruiz - A Man of Peace

This past week marked a tragic time in Mexican history as hundred of indigenous and mestizo Mexicans, along with international supporters, gathered to honour the life and pay tribute to the death of Bishop Don Samuel Ruiz.

Bishop Ruiz, better known as Tatic by the people of Chiapas, played an impartial role in the defense of the indigenous population within Chiapas. Not only within Mexico but around the world, Bishop Ruiz is known for his commitment, affection and protection to the equal rights of the indigenous peoples.

Bishop Ruiz ministered from 1960 to 2000 in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas and touched the lives of many. His courageous words empowered his followers from the North to the South as he spoke of community, equal rights and liberation.

I had never known Bishop Ruiz, nor was I completely familiar with his every day attributions to the overall wellness of an entire group of peoples. I was aware of his involvement with the Zapatista negotiations and defense of indigenous people, but similar to many things, it is difficult to imagine to what extend without having witnessed.

On January 26 I arrived in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, home of Bishop Ruiz. Although our group was not present for the funeral we were fortunate to see the streets still lined with people, the Zocalo and cathedral surrounded by flowers and messages of love and thanks wrapped around the walls of the Cathedral. Banners hung with the image of Ruiz, “Peace and Justice” encrypted.

It was incredibly moving to see the love of so many people. I now am able to recognize what an impartial role Bishop Ruiz has played in the rights and freedom of the indigenous people of Chiapas. I am able to see the gratitude of his support and sadness of his death. I could feel the loss and fright of those who are still here, of those who are indigenous and must continue their lives without the presence of one of their most loved and respected leaders.

I have heard many say, “What will happen to the Zapatistas? Who will defend them?”

Perhaps it is time for all people to follow in the steps of Bishop Ruiz, to stand up for the rights of indigenous peoples, not only within Mexico but around the world. It has been too long that their rights be denied and their voices not heard. It is long past due, that people unite for the rights and equal treatment of all peoples, regardless of ethnicity, gender or social class.

It hurts to witness people living in fear and this has continued for far too long. It is not right that governments and corporations have more rights then those who have lived off the land. It has been far too long since people can stand up, without fear of violence to say, “this is me and this is what I want.”

Thank you Bishop Ruiz, Tatic, for opening my eyes to the truth that is in front of me and thank you, Tatic, for all you have done. You will remain a figure of freedom, love, affection and truth in the eyes of millions around the world.

Gracias Tatic y paz contigo.