Friday, May 15, 2009

Homecoming

So, I am officially back home again. I've been here for a while now (I got back on May 1st), but there have just been a lot of things to process and do and see after getting home.
Some initial reactions after coming home were:

- Norway is FREEZING cold!! Sometimes I feel a little lost here, like I really belong in the jungle, which makes me wish I could just snap my fingers three times and be back there...
- I own way too many clothes.
- I never knew how much I loved Norwegian bread until I tasted it again! I'm back to eating bread 2-3 times again, and it's sooooo good!

- I love my family!! I didn't realize how much I had missed them until I saw them.
- There are waaay more ecological/organic and fairprade products in the stores now than before. I guess some things have changed for the better while I was gone.
- Arriving at my house felt like arriving at a castle -- I haven't been in a house that nice in seven months. It felt really comfortable and familiar to be home again .Yet, at the same time, I was kind of confused and saddened by also feeling like my home is really decadent and excessive.

For the last six months, I've been living in a one-room apartment with just a few pieces of clothing to my name. There, I learned that life without too many things or clothes or electronics is actually a good life. Maybe a better life. There's such liberation in living simply, and though our apartment was still nicer than the houses of most of our friends, I still learned so much from living more simply.

Now that I'm home, though, I'm scared by how quickly the western lifestyle is starting to seem "normal" again. How quickly I fall into old habits; how quickly I start taking my blessings for granted. So if there's one thing I've been left with since I came back, it's a feeling of urgency. A feeling of needing to identify the ways in which I've changed, so I can make a concious decision to maintain those changes. I wish I could tell you what that means, but I'm not really able to articulate it yet. All I know is that it has to do with generosity, simplicity, and faitfulness.

If we're not mindful of how we want to live, the culture around us will dictate our lives. So in fear of falling into a rushed, comercialized, self-centered, and isolated lifestyle, I'm trying to make intentional choices about how I want to live. I'm failing already, but I'm counting on God and the people closest to me to help me up when I'm falling...

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Ancient mysteries in the Andes mountains

After we left Iquitos, Elin and I met up with Vegard (another Act Now student from Norway) to spend a few days in Cusco. Cusco was once the capital for the great Inca empire, which ruled throughout the Andes mountains for about a century before the Spanish colonizers came. Needless to say, the city is full of interesting history and monuments. But the best part is that it's really close to Macchu Picchu, the mysterious ancient Inca ruins, which was really our main destination.

I have to admit, I was a little afraid that because of the excess of tourists, the whole thing would feel a little comercialized and disappointing. Thankfully, though, we were able to find a much cheaper and MUCH more exciting route to get to Macchu Picchu. (If you're planning on a trip to Macchu Picchu, ask me, and I'll tell you how to spend $25 instead of $130 to get there). A friend had told us about the route, but we weren't actually sure if it was feasable. But it turned out to be great!

Instead of taking the tourist train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes (a small town at the foot of the mountains surrounding Macchu Picchu), we spent the day driving through the rugged mountains, passing through small towns, and looking out over coca leaf and banana plantations. Late in the afternoon, we ended up at a train station, and from here we walked along the railways, that we hoped would lead us to Aguas Calientes. Along the way, we met a friendly traveler from New Zealand, Olivia (with scary resemblance to Olivia Newton John), who joined us for the rest of the trip. We were told that the walk would take anywhere from 1 to 3 hours (depending on who we asked), but we got to be a little nervous when we had walked for about 2 hours and it started getting dark. But just then, we saw light radiate from around the bend, and not long after we were in Aguas Calientes.

Walking along the rails to Aguas Calientes

After just a few hours of sleep, we got up at 4 in the morining to start the hike up to Macchu Picchu. The sky was clear and covered in stars, and I almost fell to the ground as I made out the shadows of the overpowering and majestic mountains rising up on all sides of us. I felt so tiny in the face of all this mystery and beauty, and if the trip would have ended right there, it would have been worth it. But we kept walking and after a steep climb for a little over an hour, we made it to Macchu Picchu! Along with some other hikers, we got there before the first buses came up, so we had the privilege of enjoying the sight of the ruins before it was overcrowded by people. SO tired, and SO excited to have made it to the top!

It was INCREDIBLE. So quiet and mysterious (there are several competing theories as to what Macchu Picchu was built for, though most likely it was a religious ceremonial center), and just amazingly beautiful. I will let the pictures speak for themselves.


A llama (or alpacca...? I still can't tell the difference) at the ruins. Pretty sure they are brought up here just for cheesy photo ops, but it works, doesn't it? All four gathered at the top. (And all four dissappointed when we saw that the other tourist that took our photo had cut our legs off. Big photo no-no!)


The big mountain right behind the ruins is Wayna Picchu, which also made for a good climb. Here looking down on the ruins from another perspective.

Such a beautiful place.
Elin and I celebrating our arranged marrige, which turned out incredibly well. It'll be so strange not to be around each other next year, after having lived together, studied together, and worked together every single day for the last seven months.

In awe...

Saying goodbye

Oh my goodness, time flyes by way too fast... After six months in Iquitos, the time inevitably arrived for Elin and I to say goodbye. Goodbye to the kids in Belen, our friends at La Restinga, and Iquitos.
I don't really have words to describe the process of leaving. All I can say is that despite of the sadness of leaving people I have come to love, I also left with a good feeling of having no regrets, just lots of learning lessons and good memories.
For lack of more words, I will simply put up some pictures and a video of the goodbyes.

Me and my little heartbreakers...

...and Elin with hers.

Few things makes me feel more loved than having a child wrapped around my neck, in this case Carolay (8).

Siara enjoying her cake at the goodbye party.

The Belen team gathered for the last time.

Goodbye party at La Restinga with 50-some friends.

Our boys! Willy, Jose Andres, and Jose followed us to the airport early Sunday morning.

video

I took a little video as we were leaving the goodbye party. The quality isn't the greatest, but it's something. The House with the blue door is where we work with the kids, and the balcony also serves as a diving board since the kids usually throw themselves into the river (which fills the streets during the rainy season). On the other side, you'll see Niro (8) scream my name (I went by my second name Kristine in Iquitos), and lastly my little heartbreaker Glidian (10).

Friday, April 10, 2009

Good news to the poor

Been visiting lots of affluent churches recently, and it got me thinking.. The new testament is often referred to as the "good news." Yet, in many affluent church communities, religion seems to be more of a tool for maintaining power and control than a radical new Way of service and humility. Is it really good news if it's only good news to those who already have everything they need, and not to the poor?
I like what Gustavo Gutirrez, Peruvian theologan and priest, active during the liberation theology movement has to say:

But the poor person does not exist as an inescapable fact of destiny. His or her existence is not politically neutral, and it is not ethically innocent. The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible. They are marginalized by our social and cultural world. They are the oppressed, exploited proletariat, robbed of the fruit of their labor and despoiled of their humanity. Hence the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Before hitting us, try talking to us!

That was the message the group of adolescents we work with wanted to communicate to their parents and to their community in general during an art exhibition they put on a few weeks ago. Using only recycled materials, they constructed an interactive exhibition based on the three main themes of the group: environmental protection, sexual and reproductive health, and violence prevention.

The teenager's messages to their parents included: "Before hitting us, try talking to us!" "When you say to your kids: 'You are an idiot and no good', that is violence!" "When you leave your children without giving them anything to eat, that is violence!"

I was especially struck by the work they did related to violence, which is a social problem deeply entrenched in the culture. Here, most everyone see violence as a completely natural response to anger, “bad” behavior, sadness, and a host of other feelings and behaviors. Moreover, the Latin-America machismo culture prescribes a strict gender-role, purporting that “real men” are physically strong, don’t cry, exercise their power over others through domination and control, and don’t show emotions. This gender-role (combined with the submissive gender role of women) creates a climate in which violence (and especially violence towards women) is accepted as a natural.

Sometimes I scare myself when I realize how desensitized even I have become to the violence during my time here. The kids I work with have shown me bruises where their parents have beaten them, teenagers have told me stories about their alcoholic dads that abuse them and their mothers, and even those I somehow thought lived in families free of violence turn out to have bruises (either emotional or physical). I wish I could say that I was equally outraged each time I heard one of these stories. But the truth is that, though each story stings, there are too many to fully let the impact of each story sink in over you. And, honestly, what disturbs me most of all is the thought of all the stories that are not being told… The silently suffering, day in and day out, year in and year out.

Let’s not forget that these stories exist close to home too. In America, 1 in 4 women will experience violence in their lifetimes. In Norway too, supposedly one of the countries in the world with the greatest gender equality, women still bear the larger burden of violence in the home. And again, there are undoubtedly countless stories that are not being told here either…

If you are interested in learning more, click on the following links:
Amnesty International's campaign Stop Violence Against Women
UNIFEM - Violence Against Women

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Fight for your right....to party!

Recipe for teaching kids about children's rights:
4 weeks of previous workshops around the theme of children's rights
72 hats with the different rights written on them
Enough balloons to decorate the whole room
1 clown
1 gigantic piñata
20 liters of refresco (lemonade)
72 hyper 7 to 11 year olds

Let it all come to a boil in a two hour gathering of games and fun, and... voila!

Carmen (in pink) overwhelmed (in a good way) by the high energy level!

The rights of the children in Belén are ignored and violated on a daily basis. Abuse, lack of access to healthcare, long hours of work from a young age, discrimination based on skincolor or socioeconomic status, and lack of access to education are just some of the problems they face on a regular basis. Teaching them that they indeed have rights, and the power to claim them was therefore quite the challenge. But I think it got through to them eventually, and we ended the topic with gathering the three groups that we work with, throwing one big party!

The kids screaming, practicing their right to use their voice!

F.L.: Rosa, Damaris, Alexandra, Marcos (a canadian volunteer dressed up as a clown), and Linda.

Confession: I want to bring these girls home with me! Deborah and Linda are the cutest..

It was a beautiful sight seeing canoes full of confident, colorful, and content kids, returning home after the party.

One of the boys was picked up by his mom who normally runs a small corner store. During the rainy season, as the water rises, she packs her canoe full with all her merchandise and paddles from door to door!

Tired and happy after a long afternoon..

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Where is Julia?

A few years ago I went on a mission trip to Juárez, the industrial Mexican city right across the border from El Paso, Texas. There I met Julia (see picture below), a young girl with the most beautifully curious expression on her face. Tonight her face was brought back to my memory as I saw the film Bordertown, based on the real story of the countless raped and murdered women of Juárez. Though conservative numbers affairm the deaths of 600 women, some estimate that up to 5000 women have been brutally killed, mutilated, tortured, or raped. The majority of the victims are workers in the maquiladoras, the massive factories that produce cheap electronics with the help of minimally paid Mexican labourers. Neither the factories, nor the companies buying their products have taken responsibility for the safety of their workers in this lawless town. Click on the picture of the movie to see a trailer, or click HERE to read more about the female homocides in Juárez.

Recalling the face of Julia and other memories from Juárez, I remembered that one of the momements that made the biggest impression on me during that trip was a visit with a catholic priest and a nun who had been living and working together in Latin America all of their lives. Reflecting the horrifying truths portrayed in the film, they told us about the frequent kidnapping, raping, and murdering of women, sometimes even during bright daylight. The nun told us that not long ago, she had been walking down the street in the afternoon, when a young girl came up from behind her, grabbed her arm, and said: "Walk with me, I'm being followed". In their neighborhood there was frequent instances of violence, and though they didn't emphasize it themselves it was clear that they were and had been putting their lives at risk protecting those most vulnerable.

Take a look at Julia's face again. She must be around 15 years old right now. Where is she? Maybe she too is working long hours for little pay in one the maquiladoras supplying Americans with cheap electronics. Maybe she too is putting her life at risk as she returns home late at night without protection. I pray she will not be another one of the women whose disappearance or death will silently be swept under the rug.

As long as we consumers care more about the bottom line than the conditions of the workers who have produced the products we buy, the owners of the maquliadoras will continue to neglect the safety of their workers. We have the power to change that.
Of course, the factories alone are not to blame for this violence. This article from June 2008 highlights the connections between the warlords of the cocain industry and the ongoing merciless violence in Juárez. Yet, by placing international pressure on the factories neglecting to provide for the safety of their workers, the local government, the factories and those who demand their products, as well as the perpetrators will be forced to confront this brutal reality.

Though there are many ways to confront this issue, one of the first steps can be using our consumer power to choose to be part of the solution. One suggestion is taking a few minutes to look at the Ethical Consumer website, a UK based organization with lots of great guidance for those of us on the path to becoming more informed consumers.
From there, the rest is up to you. Think critically. Shop wisely.