Discovery, AI and the brain in the jar

July 29, 2023

In the sixth grade, lunch time was a critical hour for survival. It was a time for escape, away from the bullies rounding up young immigrants with pushing, shoving, tripping, spitting and other courtyard tortures. As one of a handful of Central American immigrants at Jonesboro Elementary School in Lee County, I knew that making yourself invisible was a skill that I needed to master.

I slid out of the cafeteria through the emergency exit every day and took shelter in the Dewey Decimal-encrusted library aisles, where even the librarians didn’t realize signs of life could exist, much less grow there. I buried myself in the L. Frank Baum, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien worlds, then Arthur C. Clarke, Agatha Christie and Ray Bradbury – occupying worlds that were more magical than my current grade school version of “Lord of the Flies.” As I sat cross-legged on the floor, I was surrounded by thick volumes of  Encyclopaedia Britannica, half-opened for searches. Search before search existed on screens. 

Tandy 1000 SX
“Tandy 1000 SX with IBM Monitor” by Ben Franske is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

It was the era of ARPANET and then TCP/IP PCs, and Compaq portable computers, the Tandy 1000, with the MS-DOS black screens against which the librarians typed long strings of white letters and numbers. On the other end were public data networks and other libraries. The librarians had long lists of these sequences printed out on dot matrix printers in neat piles on the reference desk.

I volunteered to type those strings for them, just so I could wait and watch the intermittent blinking square while it reached the other computer across time, space and distance. Perhaps it was this dimension, perhaps it was another, but I would have waited for as long as it took had not the fourth period bell rung for the second time. 

When I think about discovery and the process of finding or learning something for the first time—something unknown or unseen—I think of all those things that require exploration, doggedness in the tracing, and acceptance of our own limitations, of knowing that we do not know. Sometimes, discovery requires leaps of faith into something quite uncomfortable.

The internet changed our experience with discovery, knowledge and our sense of the scale of the world and what was knowable. Sometimes, when I had finished typing the long strings of letters and numbers on the Tandy, in that cold, quiet and dark little school library, I imagined my brain in a jar connecting to other brains in their jars, searching endlessly for the answer to a question and perhaps some insight.

These days, I spend less time in between the stacks of books and more hours in front of screens and recording webinars. Lately, it’s been a lot about artificial intelligence and machine learning. For the last four months, I’ve been experimenting with AI, specifically artificial general intelligence (AGI) and generative AI, such as ChatGPT, Bard, DALL-E2  and Midjourney for images. 

First, I tinkered with ChatGPT personally to help me write letters for friends who asked me for help, but I just didn’t have the time. Then I used it for emails, for example, to a utility company when an electric pole needed replacement and I wanted to strike the right tone and not an angry one. It helped me to better understand a family member’s perspective when we were at odds about a topic or to even plan out my weekly schedule.

I used AI to help me write an outline for this story because I can’t find anything more intimidating than starting with a blank page. I incorporated and tweaked the section header titles and deleted the rest. It was a type of collaborative effort, different in kind from  the use of search engines, that made it possible for me to write this.

I continued to use AI, more professionally this time, to help me edit documents and shorten what I had already written or making things clearer, taking notes, creating agendas, coming up with budgets and emails, and helping me set out a content strategy or engagement plan. I used it to do small tasks that I didn’t want to expend too much energy on. Then I tried something higher order. I started using it to help me figure out a reporting strategy based on a pitch, to help me find a reporter’s nut graph or to find the missing source or perspective in a story. At the same time, AI tools are also flexible enough to help process information faster, analyze difficult topics and help discover in a way that I have been doing manually since I can remember.

“The new change is about the second half of the discovery process. We have refined our search. These new tools help with the second half, which is analysis,” said John Tredennick founder and CEO of Merlin Search Technologies, in a talk called “Five Ways to Use ChatGPT in Investigations and EDiscovery.” He called ChatGPT a brain in a jar because it doesn’t know anything about your particular subject or the documents you’re working with to produce the information that it’s going to process. So you have to connect the documents you’ve collected to this brain in a jar so you can harness the computer and computing power of many computers working in tandem.

For Tredennick, ChatGPT and these large language models are in their infancy, but they are still able to provide incredible power to change the game for discovery, which is not about search capabilities, but the analytical and review side. That is, to analyze, synthesize, and report on—essential for reporters and researchers.

I had already experienced the transformative impact of AI on various aspects of my life, accelerating insights, discoveries, and analysis. It felt like my own secret, like being behind the stacks and entering “The Martian Chronicles” for the first time. Surely, no one had walked and explored this planet before, not as  I had? But it was no secret, in fact, I didn’t fit the early adopter role. But my journey felt singular, involving my own journey of discovery into the use of not just a new set of tools, but also a way to think, to learn and to process the world.

I considered the ethical implications of AI—irresponsible data usage, lack of transparency in algorithms and use, powering weapons of warfare—and the many ways it could do harm by increasing inequality, spreading disinformation and misinformation, and reinforcing biases. I observed and participated in ongoing discussions on how others were using AI in news and other sectors, and I worked to set up ethical best practices. Whatever we do with this now that it’s part of our browsers and here to stay, was the larger question. It was not unlike when the World Wide Web launched in the public domain in 1993 and browsers made the web more accessible.  

This dance of collaboration was familiar. It was one in which we, individually and then collectively, explored the symbiotic relationship between AI systems and human expertise and knowledge. AI is intelligent, but it isn’t conscious yet. It doesn’t have human intuition, creativity or context, all of which guide AI so it can provide analysis. It is “Blade Runner” and “2001: A Space Odyssey,” a future we only imagined when we watched those stories. I am living it and it feels like a new alchemy.

In seventh grade, I learned to make outlines and diagram sentences, dissecting them into visual representations of a sentence’s structure and how words worked. Each word had a respective place, and the words related to each other in a way that I had to draw out. In the process of breaking down and diagramming sentences, I began to understand if there were mistakes in my sentences, which is essential for a person whose second language is English. I wonder what I would have missed if AI had done it for me? What would have been added had it been available for me to use?

This process of learning AI feels like a step-by-step breakdown of lived experience into tasks, ideas, concepts and learning to analyze in a way where I never feel alone or limited in this process of learning. What have I missed? What’s the structure behind these things? 

When I use AI tools to produce something, I tell people because human connection and empathy are built on trust, not computing power to process information or who analyzes best or fastest. It’s not about who belongs here is the one who made it here first. 

AI should not be the new bully in the courtyard that you have to duck out to the library to survive.


This article first appeared on Carolina Public Press and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Beyond the dissertation

On May 12, I was “hooded” and a faculty member placed the doctoral regalia over my head as I graduated, signifying my successful completion of eight years in a graduate program in communication. It also means I completed that daunting of all tasks – the writing, defending and final submission of a dissertation, a long research paper, in the triple digits. It’s not about the page numbers, committee members remind me, or the “quant” — in research circles short for “quantitative analysis” — something that can be measured by the quantity rather than its quality.

It’s not about the years it has taken me to get here, or the miles (kilometers, even!) from Guatemala to here, the places I’ve lived since immigrating to this country, the number of books unpacked, or how many times I’ve moved since starting my Ph.D. program. It’s not about the people who are no longer with me, ended friendships or relationships, or the ultimate subtracting number: death or passing. It’s not that at all.

It’s about integration. The integration, in research, happens when you bring together the qualitative, or the “qual” — the nonnumerical — and the “quant” to understand concepts, opinions or experiences. The mixed-methods approach is inductive and deductive thinking, things aren’t seen separately. They are interdependent.

This happens outside of academics, too. It’s been four years and five months since I moved back to North Carolina so that I could be 50 miles from my grandmother, to care for her and be with her at least 120 times before she passed. Each visit, let’s call it a unit, brought a feeling of love and gratitude, which I imagine could generate some keywords for analysis. There is deeper insight to be gained when both truths — the measurable and immeasurable — are held and seen in their entirety.

Education was my religion, and I maintained a clear boundary between my school and my life, the former more orderly and predictable, and the latter less so. I dreaded the moments I would return from elementary school and sit across from my grandmother, who’d begged her father to go middle school in rural Guatemala and share with her what I had learned that day. I never felt up to the task of explaining to her how I understood things so that she could understand them. I felt words would never be enough. Eventually, we’d make a story together. Stories, Bible parables and moving plastic action figures on the kitchen table worked well when I was younger.

I moved away in 1992, and when I got older, I worked and went to school full time. I kept doing it all of my higher education years. Things remained quite modular and clearly set out between the measurable and immeasurable. The number of scholarships, the number of pages to complete for the citizenship application, my paycheck amount to pay for the rest of tuition.

Each time I returned to see my grandmother she’d ask what I’d learned, how I understood those things I’d learned and then the “so what now?” Once again, I didn’t feel up to the task. Even so, we’d make a story together.

I can’t remember when it happened. It was a series of data points incrementally, I imagine, but the boundary between the quant and the qual got thinner and more porous. The combination of different types of data, sources and ways of analyzing things was everywhere, all at once and nothing like the two parallel paths that seldom met in my head. I no longer had valid ways of making sense of my lived experience. I had reached the limitations, as it’s referred to in dissertations, of my inquiry. I had to find a way to set those out and delimit what I could and couldn’t understand at any given point of my life.

“I have never let schooling interfere with my education,” said science writer Grant Allen, a quote often attributed to Mark Twain more than a decade later. I was a fan of this quote for much of my high school years, as probably many teenagers were. I just turned it over in my head, over and over, like a shiny penny or a perfect round stone you polish before making it skip on the surface of the river. It was my “go-to” when I made decisions in life that generated outcomes that higher ed could not help me explain.

I wrote that methodology chapter, and it took me, unexpectedly, more days than I anticipated. This chapter was supposed to present the strategy and steps taken to investigate an overarching research question. It was the road map for others after me embarking upon the journey with a similar overarching question.

In the methodology section, there’s that balance of being prescriptive versus discovery. This is the knowledge transfer, the bridge for someone who doesn’t know the path ahead from someone who has traversed a similar path and can tell you what to expect. While they can’t give their wisdom, the road map they share makes it possible for you to use the knowledge and gain the wisdom for yourself.

I began to understand mixed methods in a different way. It was about developing an understanding of the interdependent nature of things and how they mutually inform one another. There was no word count there. It was in the process and in the result of bringing these ways of thinking and being together where you gain in-depth insights into your life — the decisions you make, the events that make you, and your common purpose.

I finished that road map and the rest of the chapters knowing full well now that for more long distance races, it is not about being the fastest or the best – it is about the persistence and commitment to finishing.

Remembering La Abuela Marcia

Marcia Ramirez Aguirre was born on March 12, 1931, in a small banana plantation called Finca Éskimo in the jungles of Guatemala, along the border with Honduras, to Brigido Ramirez Elias and Maria Trinidad Aguirre. Marcia played a hard-won chess game with death for more than a year and finally, on March 21, 2022, not long after her 91st birthday, she opted for a rapid resignation, perhaps a truce in the name of peace, at the Brian Center Southpoint in Durham, North Carolina. Her youngest daughter, Silvia Andrade, was the fearless knight by her side, ever present, even in the hardest of times, in the game of the century that her mother played.

Marcia spent her childhood years living in different banana plantations, including Éskimo, Cinchado and Mesetas where she completed seven years of schooling. She worked for 15 years at United Fruit Company. The United Fruit paid laborers, like Marcia and many of her family members who lived and worked on the finca, to produce bananas and export them globally, including to the United States. While this was Marcia’s beginning, the banana plantations were certainly not her end – destiny had more planned for her. Perhaps she also played a part in shaping it.

She moved to Guatemala City with her children in the 1980s during the height of Guatemala’s 36 years of armed conflict – one of the longest, bloodiest conflicts in 20th-century Latin America. Ever the entrepreneur she worked hard alongside her children and one granddaughter, to scrape together a living and find a path out of poverty as a single mom. In 1983, when she was 52 years old, she emigrated by foot, bus, train and automobile to the United States with her children and grandchild. They made the 3,146-mile trip guided by her youngest daughter through mountains, deserts and winding paths until they reached El Norte.

In the United States she lived and worked in Florida and Pennsylvania before settling in Sanford, North Carolina, home of many family members, for more than thirty years. She worked at Tyson Foods Inc. and Corey Textiles for many years until a work accident shattered her right ankle and affected her ability to stand up for long periods of time. This did not hold her back, very few things did. She launched her own business and began driving her station wagon to North Carolina flea markets selling music she loved and other products to different vendors. Life was good and she enjoyed her freedom in this new world – it was a life she dreamed of for so long, to live her own choices and work for herself.

As more family members moved to North Carolina, she hung her heart in Sanford, her home, and committed to always being physically close to her family. Close, but independent until the end. After many years of running her own business and various car accidents (she was not a fan of red lights), she decided to give up the traveling saleswoman life. She took up baking, knitting, crossword puzzles and frequented The Enrichment Center after her granddaughter nudged her to meet other people her age. She enjoyed long walks with her granddaughter and her grand dog on Sundays, fried plantains with fresh cheese and hot Nescafe, going out for Chinese food, and beating everyone, especially her daughter, at Dominoes.

Marcia was an avid storyteller and was happiest when she was telling the stories of las fincas and watching telenovelas with many subplots with family. Her secret to a long life was to not have vices, enjoy the present, eat good food, don’t frown too much, keep good company, and moisturize often. Although she loved to travel and to see the world, she never got a chance to do it for pleasure. Her granddaughter sent her many postcards, which she kept on her fridge and waited for her return to hear the stories.

Marcia is survived by her six children, Neftali, Vilma and Edgar Ramirez, Silvia and Sergio Andrade, and Hugo Paíz. She has 19 grandchildren, 10 siblings, 15 great-grandchildren, two large German Shepherd grand dogs, and many friends and extended family – too many to list here, but she loved them all. Marcia was preceded in death by her parents. Her siblings, from eldest to youngest, include Alonso, Marta, Mariana, Obidio, Miguel, Salvador, Oscar, Odelia, and two step siblings: Zoila Aceituno and Gonzalo Aceituno.

A memorial was held on Saturday, March 26, 2022 from 1:00 PM to 3:00 PM at Miller-Boles Funeral Home, 1150 Fire Tower Rd, Sanford, North Carolina 27330. The recorded of the memorial ceremony is available. Her published obit is here, written by her granddaughter, Marcia Carolina Andrade.

‘Dissertating’ is a verb I know well  

After almost six years, I am finishing my dissertation. It’s true, this week I wrote page 102 and entered triple digits. It’s not about the page numbers, committee members remind me, or the “quant” — in research circles short for “quantitative analysis” —  something that can be measured by the quantity rather than its quality. 

It’s not about the years it has taken me to get here, or the miles (kilometers, even!) from Guatemala to here, the places I’ve lived since immigrating to this country, the number of books unpacked, or how many times I’ve moved since starting my Ph.D. program. It’s not about the people who are no longer with me, ended friendships or relationships, or the ultimate subtracting number: death or passing. It’s not that at all.

It’s about integration. The integration, in research, happens when you bring together the qualitative, or the “qual” — the nonnumerical — and the “quant” to understand concepts, opinions or experiences. The mixed-methods approach is inductive and deductive thinking, things aren’t seen separately. They are interdependent.

This happens outside of academics, too. It’s been four years and one month since I moved back to North Carolina so that I could be 50 miles from my grandmother, to care for her and be with her at least 120 times before she passed. Each visit, let’s call it a unit, brought a feeling of love and gratitude, which I imagine could generate some keywords for analysis. There is deeper insight to be gained when both truths — the measurable and immeasurable — are held and seen in their entirety.

Education was my religion, and I maintained a clear boundary between my school and my life, the former more orderly and predictable, and the latter less so. I dreaded the moments I would return from elementary school and sit across from my grandmother, who’d begged her father to go middle school in rural Guatemala and share with her what I had learned that day. I never felt up to the task of explaining to her how I understood things so that she could understand them. I felt words would never be enough. Eventually, we’d make a story together. Stories, Bible parables and moving plastic action figures on the kitchen table worked well when I was younger.  

I moved away in 1992, and when I got older, I worked and went to school full time. I kept doing it all of my higher education years. Things remained quite modular and clearly set out between the measurable and immeasurable. The number of scholarships, the number of pages to complete for the citizenship application, my paycheck amount to pay for the rest of tuition.

Each time I returned to see my grandmother she’d ask what I’d learned, how I understood those things I’d learned and then the “so what now?”  Once again, I didn’t feel up to the task. Even so, we’d make a story together.

I can’t remember when it happened. It was a series of data points incrementally, I imagine, but the boundary between the quant and the qual got thinner and more porous. The  combination of different types of data, sources and ways of analyzing things was everywhere, all at once and nothing like the two parallel paths that seldom met in my head. I no longer had valid ways of making sense of my lived experience. I had reached the limitations, as it’s referred to in dissertations, of my inquiry. I had to find a way to set those out and delimit what I could and couldn’t understand at any given point of my life.

“I have never let schooling interfere with my education,” said science writer Grant Allen, a quote attributed to Mark Twain more than a decade later. I was a fan of this quote for much of my high school years, as probably many teenagers were. I just turned it over in my head, over and over, like a shiny penny or a perfect round stone you polish before making it skip on the surface of the river. It was my “go-to” when I made decisions in life that generated outcomes that higher ed could not help me explain.

Now I’m writing my methodology chapter, and it’s taken me, unexpectedly, more days than I anticipated. This chapter is supposed to present the strategy and steps taken to investigate an overarching research question. It is the road map for others after me embarking upon the journey with a similar overarching question. 

In the methodology section, there’s that balance of being prescriptive versus discovery. This is the knowledge transfer, the bridge for someone who doesn’t know the path ahead from someone who has traversed a similar path and can tell you what to expect. While they can’t give their wisdom, the road map they share makes it possible for you to use the knowledge and gain the wisdom for yourself. 

I understand mixed methods in a different way now. It is how you develop an understanding of the interdependent nature of things and how they mutually inform one another. There is no word count here. It’s in the process and in the result of bringing these ways of thinking and being together where you gain in-depth insights into your life — the decisions you make, the events that make you, and your common purpose.

In and through the tunnel

Today I rode my bike slowly through a tunnel formed by an overpass. I have avoided it since July of last year when I fell with my bike, foot caught in the front wheel, head against the muddy, wet concrete. The last memory was the sound of the helmet cracking like an egg against cast iron. I thought: “This is it, there is no future you.”

It was dusk, and the cicadas echoed like monsters underneath the bed. Time dripped from the bolted seams of iron from the overpass. The thunder of cars passing above was the sound of head bone against helmet, against concrete, like when a bird hits your window.

I thought:

Someone else will have to walk my large misunderstood shepherd.
My husband will have to do his own taxes.
Mi mama will have to fix the pink bathroom tile without me.

What else could I say? Sure, I wanted to stay. At the exit to the tunnel, I saw my abuela, who went to sleep in March and never woke up. I yelled out to her, “¡Abuela, espereme!” Wait for me! Desperately, hot tears running down my cheek, I tried to untangle myself from the bike, struggling with the titanium beast, so I could run to her, but the weight of it pressed me against the ground. I surrendered into the concrete.

Abuela didn’t even bother to turn back. She kept walking, perfectly straight, apron in a bow by her waist, as she did at the mercado when I was 5 and had lingered too long by the lady selling bananas.

In the distance, I could hear my husband’s voice, quietly calling my name. He called my name again, quietly, like wind pouring through marsh reeds before rain. Wherever I was, I turned back, and gagged, his hand down my mouth.

“In case you swallowed your tongue,” my spouse told me, his usually stoic Swedish face showing fear. “You have been gone a while. Do you remember me shaking you?”

I wiggled my toes. I believed I was back.

There I lay, the seams of iron patches perfect above, cracked helmet, throbbing hips, left side of my face with pieces of mud caking off. I sat up, took a deep breath and told him it would be dark soon. We needed to get home. He nodded quietly. We got back on our bikes and rode home slowly. At the top of the hill, I did not look back toward the tunnel.

The next day I was in the emergency room, and they told me I had a concussion. “How did you bike home like that?” the ER doctor asked. Grief and trauma can numb you.

Today, I did look down from the top of the hill and saw the mouth of the tunnel, waiting for me. There was no fog of grief that kept me from tending to the present moment. My abuela had left this world, and I was still in it. I wanted to stay, for her, for me.

As the sun sank just past the pines, I lifted my foot to the right pedal and dove into the slope, slower this time, more mindful, and entered this new life.

Learning to live with the unknown: Things I learned from COVID

It was a COVID Christmas in Florida with mom, from the moment I landed on Dec. 24 until my departure on Dec. 31. I could not outrun the virus: After three years it had kept close to my heels — through innumerable hospital visits for multiple family members, rehab facilities, late-night grocery shopping, avoiding airports or travel, never eating out or with friends, through gallons of hand sanitizer, five and counting shots and boosters, living in small pods, double masking through it all. Through four family deaths. The COVID years had been tragic, achingly beautiful and relentless.

COVID is also the most efficient teacher — it is a forcing mechanism. Much like a tight parking space that you have no other choice to parallel park into. COVID forces us to focus and to learn to live with the unknown.

When I was reporting in Mexico in 2015, I did a profile on Miguel Angel Jiménez Blanco, a community leader and political activist in Guerrero whose preferred weapons for community organizing were the Internet and his mobile phone. Powerful criminal elements wanted him dead for reporting on elections, and then he disappeared on Saturday, Aug. 8, 2015. No one was surprised. 

I was with him weeks before he was murdered, riding through impossible mountain switchbacks at night with one headlight, the fuel flashing red for empty, one tire going flat from the nail in it. I was sure we were being followed, so I had to ask him. Of all the jobs to do in the world, why would he choose to be a community organizer in one of the most dangerous states in Mexico?

“I am doing this for love,” he said. “If I didn’t have a clue about what I loved, why would I struggle? Something has to sustain you for the struggle. We all have a dog that chases you, a purpose to your struggle.”

Perhaps our collective “dog” now is COVID. It was becoming clearer that it was more of a chase than a battle won with viruses and everything in nature that fights for its survival, adapting faster than we ever can to become anti-fragile. Life is fragile, ants are washed down the drain, birds die suddenly, squirrels don’t make it across the road, healthy people die midrun. I don’t think the gods are intentionally trying to break our hearts, but nature governs by its own rules, and we have such a small clue of what those rules are. Sadly, our delusion is that we do. 

I tell this to my mom while I’m recuperating with her in Florida, downing instant Nescafe coffee (her favorite!) in the morning and trying to ignore my throbbing throat. “Don’t you see?” I tell her. “There’s so little we have any amount of influence or control over in life. I’m surprised more things don’t implode suddenly! The fact that we persist in our mundane efforts thinking what we do is either tragic or madness — doing the same thing over and over in the same way and expecting the outcome to be different.”

Mom just wants to know if we’re going to the mall or Mass that evening. We end up hanging out with the Unitarians, wearing masks while pretending we’re sheep in the stable for the Nativity scene, and then go home to sing rancheras over karaoke in her sunroom. Mom gives me more coquito, the Puerto Rican equivalent of eggnog. I don’t know if it’s the drink, but I start to have a feverish hallucination of being a mother-daughter duo on stage and the crowds roaring for an encore. I tell mom I’m going to bed; she says, no more coquito for you.

On Christmas morning, I can’t get out of bed, and mom brings me tea with half a cup of honey I’m sure, Advil and VapoRub — necessary. I tell her, it’s COVID; somehow, I know it’s caught up with me. I test positive and sink into a sea of endless sleep. This is the way it is for days, and I simply surrender. “You got me,” I tell the growling dog.

Mom makes two pots of soup and, not being much of the nurturing type, she informs me that El Covid better be gone by the time the second pot is empty because she’s not cooking anymore — she has telenovelas to watch. The memo has been sent.

In the humbling surrender to COVID, I write down these lessons:

  • Vulnerability is the compass.
  • Rest, rest and when in doubt, rest some more.
  • Healing takes time, so be patient.
  • Since you can’t get out of it, get through it.
  • We have a shared fragility, so be more human.
  • COVID laughs at VapoRub.
Photo: Mother and daughter in post-COVID recovery, December 2022.

On day seven, I start my trip home to North Carolina, dragging myself past the giant pink flamingo legs in the Tampa airport and the throngs of unmasked families all walking in my direction. I duck into bathrooms, hugging my double masks closer to my nose. At home, I sleep for days. The first day of the year, the most humbling thing of all happens — even though I’ve masked through it all, I gifted COVID to mom and my spouse.

Defeated, I call mom, and she reminds me that we know so little and have so little control over COVID. “Or much of anything else,” I say, ending her sentence. 

“We’ll just have to learn to live with it,” she says.

Maybe that’s the last lesson, how to live freely in the midst of something, everything, we cannot control and to trust our own experience. 

Welcome to Iraq

We reach Erbil in time for a suicide bomb attack near the headquarters of Iraqi Kurdish security services, not far from here we land. By the time we deplane at three in the afternoon, the airport has been put on lock down, dozens of police and army vehicles swarm the entrance, no cars are entering or exiting the area, except the shuttles which carry passengers to and from the meet and greet area – about a mile from the airport.

I’m traveling with Sean McDonald from Frontline SMS and we’re both here as technology trainers for the United States Institute of Peace’s PeaceTech Camp training event. Our focus is transparency in a post-conflict area. It’s Sean and my first time in Iraq and we don’t know quite what to expect when we step out of the plane. While Sean waits at baggage claim, I make my way over to a counter at one end of the airport to buy a pre-paid mobile phone card. I end up chatting with a British man named Rob who stands in line behind me. He’s been here before, he tells me, it’s a good place to do business and it’s the safest part of the country. I ask for his business card, I give him mine, we shake hands and part ways.

Sean and I step out into the arrivals platform and I immediately notice two things: there’s no cars picking up passengers – not even taxis – and large shuttle buses arrive one at a time and release crowds of luggage-toting people to the platform. People move quickly. Most of the people on our plane get on the first shuttle and leave, scurry away. We stand in the shaded part of the platform and feel the waves of hot dry heat just like Texas, where I began my journey, fifteen hours earlier. The terrain is flat and bare, thousands of years have passed here and the dust that blows in our faces is ancient. We are both looking for the driver that has been sent to pick us up. We are looking for a sign with “Tangram Hotel” on it. We don’t see the sign or the driver, so I go inside to get money from the ATM and ask some questions at the information desk about taxi and potentially paging the driver. The woman at the counter is nervous. “I don’t know ma’am, an incident has happened.” She moves on to talk to the other person. What incident, I ask. But she is ignoring, except for a man in a dark suit with a CB radio in his hand who is watching me as I try to get her attention. I give up and look around for clues of what could be happening.

I come back and ask Sean if he’s seen the driver, nothing, he says. I tell him to text and call Luke, the event coordinator, while I put in my SIM card and re-start my mobile phone. Another shuttle brimming with passengers arrives, empties, leaves, the platform is empty again, except for Rob. Rob is also texting on his phone in the far off corner near where the bus unloads its passengers. I start to get that feeling I often get in Central America when public places empty out: something is either about to happen or something has already happened. Either way it’s time to move. I reach down for my backpack to get the number of the hotel. As I’m reaching over, the man with the suit and CB radio comes over to us and says: “There are not cars coming in and out of the airport, there has been an incident.” An incident, Sean and I repeat and look at each other. “Yes an incident. It will be better for you to get on the bus.”

He leaves and we’re both silent. Sean looks at his mobile and Luke has texted back and is telling us to stay where we are until they can send a car. By now I have walked over to Rob and asked him what he makes of this “incident” business and where is his driver? Could we get a lift with him? We’d be happy to pay him. As I’m speaking to him, the next bus arrives, empties its passengers and both Rob and I go up to the driver and ask him if the shuttle can drop us off outside the airport. He nods. It’s hard to tell if he’s understood. Rob looks at me and I say, “let’s do it.” I run over to get my bags and Sean who is now intently on his cellphone alternating between typing and taking calls.

“Let’s go,” I tell him.

“They don’t want us to leave the airport,” Sean says. “They want us to stay right here.” I tell him I’m not staying here, it’s time to go. I roll my suitcase quickly to the bus where Rob and the bus driver are waiting. Sean is reluctant, but then throws his backpack on and runs over to catch the bus with us. The bus is now just us and we look out the window at the slow moving terrain, past the sculpture that looks like a steel wired gun pointed in the direction of the airport. We arrive into a large parking lot with empty cabs sitting outside and a large sign in Arabic and English that reads “Meet & Greet”. We are dropped off and as we attempt to linger inside we are quickly asked to stand outside by the security guard. The same thing happens as in the previous platform outside the airport, so we take the next shuttle.

We get on the shuttle and I notice an cellphone on the seat next in front of us. I debate how safe it is to pick it up and after a few seconds, I pick it up, take the cover off, look inside, take the battery out and put it in my backpack. My logic: Since it didn’t set off a bomb on the bus, the owner must be looking for it.  So I’ll take it with us and then I can leave it in the lobby of our hotel for pickup. I forget about the phone as we get on the shuttle which takes us all the way out of the airport. We pass the main entrance with its checkpoint, that’s when we see them: the dozens of police cars, army vehicles, security guards, police and the blocking off of the entire area. Traffic is backed up as far as the eye can see. The bus turns left and drops us off in the corner, makes a U-turn and returns to the airport. We can’t stop staring at all the action in front of us. I come to and ask Rob: “Where is your driver?”

“Oh right!” He says searching nervously in his pants pocket for his mobile and sees he has a missed call. It’s his driver. He calls him and I can hear him giving instructions. “Follow me!” As we walk parallel to the long line of cars headed north his driver is walking quickly towards us, like a worried mother. He is waving his arms at us and talking to us in Arabic. I get the feeling we’re being lectured.

“I have been waiting for more than an hour!” He tells our friend. “We must leave this area, something has happened.” The entire time Sean is receiving various calls both from our own driver and the coordinators about our whereabouts and instructions on what to do (which is exactly the opposite of what we’re doing). He is getting frustrated. On top of this he has also received a message that his dog is in surgery because a bone went down the wrong way and now it has to be removed back in Washington, D.C.. “Could things be any more irrational?” He says out loud.

We continue to walk the unpaved area and I look into all the cars with the drivers looking both mad and helpless at the pile up. We get in the car and the driver’s son is behind the wheel. There is an ensuing discussion in animated Arabic as to where we should go next and finally I say to Rob. “Let’s go to our hotel and then you can wait with us there until all this clears up.” Maybe I should go to work in stead, he says out loud. Work now? I say to him. He nods, tells the driver, and then we’re off and headed in the opposite direction,

As we begin to make our way across town, Sean’s phone rings. “Should I answer it?” He says, more as a statement. “Yes,, but tell them we’re good.” On the other line, I can hear Luke’s panic and frustration.

“Luke, we’ve got it covered, Kara met someone at the airport who is giving us a ride to the airport.” Silence on the other line and I know that just didn’t sound right to Luke.  Should I tell him we both have insurance that will airlift us out of here? “Don’t worry, we’ll see you at the hotel!” Sean says and hangs up as we hit another line of cars. The driver and his father start another animated conversation and then we got off-road into unpaved road and through the back area of parts of town with crumbling walls, children playing in the dirt and trash in large open areas. Erbil is definitely under construction.

There are sirens, honking, and stalled cars and we’re just weaving. I ask out loud what has happened and the older man says: “Bomb, near Center.” And I tap the British guys shoulder. “Did he say bomb?” I think so, he tells me.

It catches Iraqis in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous province of Kurdistan, by surprise because Sunday’s blasts, Aljazeera states, were the first to hit Erbil since May 2007, when a truck bomb exploded near the same Asayesh headquarters, killing 14 people and wounding more than 80. Now four car bombs were detonated near the headquarters, followed by gunfire, and wounding 36 people.

It is normally very quiet here, everyone tell us, almost apologetically.

As we continue to make our way to the hotel the silence is broken in the car by the sound of Arabic music. It’s not the car radio, but I think it is until Sean says: “Can you answer your phone?” I remember the small pocket radio I usually travel with and search my backpack to turn it off. That’s when my hand touches the cellphone I picked up.

“It’s actually not my cellphone ringing,” I say out loud. “It’s a cellphone I picked up on the shuttle.” Simultaneously both Sean and our Rob turn to me and yell: “What? You picked up a cellphone that’ s not yours!” I nod and say it’s the only way the person would get their cellphone back. They are both aghast as the phone continues to ring.

“Don’t worry,” I tell them. “If it had been a cellphone-detonated bomb we would have been dead by the time we got off the shuttle.” They are both speechless. It’s true, we’d had a string of those types of bombs in Guatemala a couple of years ago and I had thought about that before picking it up, I had even thought to throw it off the bus. I counted and watched the phone intently. I figured removing the battery would turn off the phone, but the phone had restarted once I had put the battery in again while we were rushing around.

The phone keeps ringing and I tell the older man to answer it and tell the person calling that the phone will be at the hotel. He answers it and explains everything to the man on the other line who is the owner, now in Dubai. The older man says, “Tangram Hotel, Tangram Hotel,” and hangs up. Sean shakes his head and looks out the window.

We arrive the hotel and are greeted by the local organizers who look very pale and worried. We’re the first ones to make it back from town, the others were near the Center not too far from where the attack happened and are still stuck in traffic.

“What happened?” I ask Afrah, one of the local organizers who is now pale from worry.

“Suicide bombers,” she said. “I’m sorry for all this trouble. This never happens here.” I smile and give her a warm pat on the back.

“Don’t worry,” I tell her. “We made it.”

She smiles weakly and when I turn around Sean has already disappeared. I hand over the lost cellphone to the receptionist and tell her someone will be picking it up. She nods. “Welcome to Iraq,” she says. “I hope you have a pleasant stay here.”

Dead Sea Bound

In the desert there is space, there is expanse and infinity that stretches beyond the present into whatever past we connect ourselves to or future we push towards. It is a feeling of expanding and contracting at the same time that I release a deep sigh of relief while staring out the passenger car window. We are heading south through occupied territory with some stretches where you see the “walls” that separate West Bank from Israel. “There isn’t one wall,” Aviva reminds me. “There are many walls.” And I’m not allowed to take pictures.

We are driving down via Dimona, southeast of Tel Aviv, still a bit of distance from the Dead Sea but we’re in the desert without a doubt. Aviva is driving and she tells me there are two deserts, the Negev and the Arava. We drive through the Negev and the toll road, the 6, starts almost immediately where we get on as cars and trailers whirl by us. The Kibbutz we are staying at is on the northern tip of the Judaean Desert, in the hills which we leave behind quicker than I imagined. It’s not Texas, it’s not California, it’s not like anything I’ve experienced in my life.

It’s getting hotter and dryer and the the hills get flatter and more barren. When there are road signs they are in Hebrew and English. I recognize some names, but not much, so I am grateful for my tour guide who shows me the hidden layer as she expertly navigates using Waze. She tells me of horrible accidents along the road and slows down when a voice from Waze comes out of nowhere in Hebrew from her Iphone. “There is something up ahead,” she tells me some 100 feet before we reach these incidents. It’s accurate, surprisingly so. For most of the drive it is desolate and the light from the sun keeps getting more direct as we go into a valley. I nod off, the jetlag knocking me out around one in the afternoon (5 AM back home) just as we make a pit stop for espresso. It’s necessary, I tell Aviva, it’s human fuel on these treks. She smiles as she talks on the phone the entire time and I negotiate paying for a cappuccino. I clean the windshields of dead insects. Back in the car, we keep pushing south.

Out her window, Aviva points to the makeshift villages the Bedouins, indigenous inhabitants of the Negev desert in the south of the country, have set up. There are anywhere between 180,000-190,000 of the Bedouins living in some of the poorest parts in the country, with the National Insurance Institute (NII) citing rates as high as 79 percent of the population in some of the unrecognized villages, and 61 percent in recognized villages. Water, I think, how do they get their water out here? The Sea of Galilee, Aviva tells me, “We all get it from there, that’s why the Dead Sea is dying.” It’s receding and, ultimately, it too will die an untimely death. It doesn’t register until I’m on top of Masada, later on in the journey, overlooking the sea from Herod’s once lavish temple.

We pass through small towns with trash piled up outside buildings and dilapidated houses. At times there are mounds of trash right next to empty trash cans. As we make our way through these small town’s traffic circles, Aviva suddenly stops in front of a white and green building with the most immaculately maintained entrance. I look at her, interrupted once again from my jet-lagged car siesta. I don’t want to get out, but the waves of heat have already entered the car now that she’s turned off the AC. I think of the door closing on an oven.

“We’re making a pit stop,” she tell me. “At this Bedouin women’s cooperative.”

I drag myself out and snap a picture of the storefront sign, Lakiya Negev Weaving. Lakiya ia a nonprofit organization established in 1998 to improve the socio-economic conditions of Bedouin women in Negev through education, jobs and media awareness. Inside, it is quiet and clean, with colorful textiles and rugs carefully placed throughout the front open rooms. In the back the women weave quietly at various stages of the process, while one woman crunches numbers in front of a computer. There is only the most peaceful silence of familiarity. A young woman approaches us with a warm and welcoming smile to offer us a tour of the cooperative. She shows us the various woven textiles, the colorful balls of wool in their drawers, the dangling thick threads of wool where bits of hay still cling, the vats for the dying process, the open sitting area where the looms rest on the ground, the room where the media classes are taught. I am speechless. The only thing I can think of is my grandmother and how she’s always asking me to bring back wool and beads. For once I can be a good granddaughter. I buy three balls of pink and turquoise-colored wool. I thank the young woman and ask her if she minds me taking pictures of her while she tells the story of the organization. No, she tells me, it’s fine, she tells me sweetly, “This is why we do these tours, so you tell others.”

Back in the car, we continue the descent, into a deep valley. “We’re going below sea level,” Aviva tells me. She sees me desperately trying to take pictures as we descend, so she pulls over to a lookout. In front of us the Dead Sea stretches before us, unmoving, with an penetrable blue. Surrounding it is a thick crust of white.

Snow, I whisper to myself, but it’s hardened salt, centuries old.

Please Vote for our SXSW 2014 Panel: Storytelling for Social Change


We have begun to take control of own narratives, telling our stories using whatever tool and digital means is available to us. We have not only begun to tell our stories, but we’ve connected them to others’ stories being told simultaneously around the world. That act of storytelling interconnects us – creating an imaginary and real social fabric. The storyteller becomes a diplomat, a trickster, an opportunity creator, an entrepreneur, a node for change.

How do we tell our stories? How do we help others tell their stories? How do we create opportunities by telling these stories both for ourselves and others? When does our personal story shift from “me” to “us”? How do we make these shifts? How do we inspire action and empower others to tell their story? How does information and technology help us do that? What are the emerging trends in storytelling that can help us become changemakers both online and offline?

Additional Supporting Materials

Questions Answered

  • What does it take to not merely convey a message, but to change actions & attitudes after a story is told?
  • What goes into the making of a modern-day movement— not just buzz, but sustained change?
  • How do you catalyze behavior change among people whose names we’ll never know and whose lives we’ll never directly touch?
  • How can we tell if we’re successful through our storytelling?
  • How do we teach people to become authors and agents of change in their lives?

Peter Rohloff Wuqu’ Kawoq
Pamela Yates Skylight
Alisa Del Tufo Threshold Collaborative
Kara Andrade HablaCentro NFP and LLC

Kara Andrade Hablacentro LLC and NFP

The Days My Voice Disappeared

August 28, 2013


In Ramallah, I lose my voice. It is the second time in my life this had happened. The first time I was getting our stolen laptops back in Guatemala, but I’ll leave that story for later. Suffice it to say this time around, it wasn’t a surprise. When I first arrived at the Cesar Hotel in Central Ramallah the evening before our TechCamp training would be held from August 28 – 29, the manager of the hotel was smoking as he showed us all the rooms we would be using. I tried to stay on the opposite end of the smoke or would duck to avoid it, at times stumbling on chairs or tables like a klutz. I looked up apologetically and he looked at me confused. But by the end of the evening, the cough started – the annoying cough that serves as a warning of the eventual closing of passages.  Not a cough I like to get. I took out what little I had in my inhaler and did what I could to buy myself some time. I sat in one end of the empty room hoping my body would adapt by tomorrow’s event which would fill the room with some one-hundred people. I asked the hotel manager if smoking was allowed in the building. He looked at me as if I’d just asked him if goats flew in his country.

“Everyone smokes inside here,” one of the Techcamp organizers whispered in my ear. “It’s terrible.” It hadn’t been a problem for me the first Techcamp because it was an all-women attended training and the fact was, I noticed during breaks and meal times, that very few women smoked. So I took my breaks after everyone had finished and tried to find spots in the hotel where no one would be liesurely having their smoke. I ducked to the bathroom as often as possible. Fate, I knew, was inevitable.

We’d had a great event launch with the U.S. Consul General and the representative of Jawwal telecom, the company helping to organize the event, making opening remarks at the slick Jawwal headquarters that could easily have been a building in Palo Alto. Nate Smith from Mapbox and I kept the corners of the formidable table warm, front and center to a large audience of men and women – some of whom I recognized from the year before. I designated myself the Techcamp elder since this would technically be my seventh Techcamp, including the one I organized in Guatemala.  I could easily channel Noel Dickover, long-time MC and resident master pumpkin carver at Techcamps, at any given point in the training agenda.KaraNatePanel

The first day was hectic, full of excitement and beautifully marched on like the first day of school. During coffee breaks the huge plumes of smoke would follow and torment me.

By the beginning of the second day of trainings I was, however, croaking out sentences, and couldn’t help to MC the event.  I was depending on my translator to mind read since she couldn’t understand me and neither could anyone else for that matter. On the third day my voice was gone completely and I was writing all my sentences out on my reporter’s notebooks. My handwriting was sloppy and the fact that anyone could read what I wrote was a miracle. But I didn’t care, I was inspired. Ramallah inspired me. It inspired me the first time and it was inspiring me again. There was a hunger by participants to learn and an ability to grasp complex concepts that challenged me to connect things with the participants that I normally wouldn’t be able to do.

During my session on authorship and storytelling, I asked the group what they wanted to learn, that I was here for them and so I would teach them whatever they needed to do their work. But one after the other said: Teach me to tell a good story, how to make people watch, read and tell stories. You don’t want to learn Facebook, Youtube, Vimeo? No, they said, we want to tell our stories. We want to tell people how difficult it is for us here. And that’s when I started to understand. Israelis didn’t know how Palestinians lived their day to day lives anymore than Palestinians knew Israeli lives. smile

During the break I sat next to a working reporter in Palestine and I asked him about his life here. I wanted to know more, to understand.

“Life here is very difficult,” he said in a very slow, sad voice. “We work hard for another country in a country that is not ours. We pay our taxes to the people who repress us, we are the only people who do this in the world.” We continued to talk and he told me about the religious conflicts between the countries, about the U.S. and how they supplied funds to the Israelis, how they were at fault for suppying the guns, the funding and growing the rift. It was a difficult conversation and the entire time I just listened, asked more questions. When I thought I had asked all my questions, there would be more. How can anyone truly know how someone else lives their lives? Did Israelis really care any more than your typical Palestinian how the other half lived? Where could you even begin to create empathy?

The rest of the day was a whirlwind of activity, with groups dedicating their entire days to matching technology solutions to particular problems that they had brainstormed the day before. I gave up on trying to speak and simply wrote out all my sentences. Our group was creating an online crowdfunded campaign to buy 15,000 backpacks (with school materials) for Palestinian children going back to school on August 2014. It was a good, concrete goal and so we set about developing both an online and offline strategy for fundraising $50,000. By the of the day all the different groups presented their action steps and various stages of project development, including a game using online an mapping platform, video tutorials on how to use video in your work and ways to move from “Clicktavism to Activism”. By 5:30 in the evening even the group picture was done and everyone headed out quickly to beat the weekend rush hour (Fridays were a holiday that people used to go home).

In the evening the international trainers ventured out to the handful of bars and cafes that foreigners made the rounds at. At La Vie Café there was talk among the foreigners that Ramallah was an artificial economy created from all the nonprofits that were based out of the city. It was like Oz with the looming threat of chaos  – now there was Syria. No one wanted to talk about, too much was happening too quickly.

Just one week ago Israeli soldiers shot and killed three young Palestinians in the Ramallah district of the central West Bank. “The Israeli army claimed the Palestinians were about to throw Molotov cocktails at soldiers and settlers in the Bet El settlement.” This resulted in the suspension of the fourth round of direct peace talks with Israel in protest of these three killings. The plot thickened.

Later at Lawain a few locals mentioned that much of the night life had been cancelled in Ramallah due to these deaths. The mood was somber before the DJ started spinning tracks from Spotify, which he complained required too much bandwidth. At midnight the music began to play for a handful of people on the modest dance floor which included Americans, other foreigners from Jordan and South Africa, gay folks, locals, you name it, it was diverse bunch. By two in the morning, the bar was packed.

In the smokey bar, I stood at the end of the counter waving my notepad at the bartender. I scribbled to him: “Whiskey, please, no ice, just whiskey.” He nodded and disappeared behind the bar.


The Return from Tel Aviv

September 1, 2013


I do not like to watch Tel Aviv disappear from above – the Mediterranean Sea coastline a small strip of white that barely holds us from the immensity of blue that continues as we head west on the plane. I raise the window to watch it disappear until my eyes cannot take the sunlight anymore. Still this is better than closing my eyes and not being able to witness every moment of this vanishing, of the physical separation. Not knowing if it will be for the rest of my life that I have left her, this region, which each time pulls me closer and closer. I lose myself staring down until there is no white speck of Tel Aviv left. I feel sadness.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we remind you to please close your windows, so that other passengers can sleep during the flight.”

I lower my window shade, but it’s too late, the image is burned on the back of my eyelids and like other images that arise as I hear the loud thuds of my heart pounding against my ears: the fields of olive trees stretching into the Kibbutz, the receding Dead Sea, the remnants of Harod’s centuries crumbled, once lavish temple rising high above the valley of the desert, the winding outer wall of the Old City in Jerusalem, the cool evening waters of the Mediterranean, and the countless hours of storytelling by friends over large spreads of food like nothing I’d ever taste in my own Guatemala. It is a different, more ancient world here where history has become habit, breath, embodiment and intertwining with the present.

journeyMany worlds exist in a physical area that if it were in the U.S. could be driven in a day. What you see  is not what you get here, and so to know the layers beneath which meaning can be understood is to also experience the pain that goes with it.

“What is Ramallah like now? Tell me what it looks like,” my eighty-three-year-old host Rivka asks me one morning while we’re sitting at her breakfast table. “I only saw it once many years ago when we could go cross.” I tell her it’s beautiful, that when you drive the hills, you feel you are in labyrinth and when the sun sets a golden reddish light falls on all the buildlings, on Arafat’s tomb, on the trash even that lies next to empty trashcans. It is modern, it has bars and five-star-hotels, art spaces, cafes for the foreigners who live there. In the evening, the cool fresh mountain wind that blows will catch in the women’s hijabs and the trees will sway with it.

The Israelis cannot legally experience the curving hills of Ramallah and the Palestinians cannot see the sea.  No one mentions it until a foreigner stumbles upon it and then these facts of their lives are shared with the same resentment and underlying hurt of neighbors having wronged one another. There cannot be forgiveness nor forgetting.

The moments of stillness can sometimes be felt as peace, but the peace has an unease about it in Tel Aviv, I notice it while sitting with my friend Eitan on Saturday evening around midnight when people are still drinking, eating, talking on the night before a workday. I ask him why people are not home getting ready for work tomorrow. He laughs. Here again the foreigners has no idea of the hidden minefield.

“In Tel Aviv, people party like there will be no tomorrow, precisely because we don’t know if there will be a tomorrow,” Eitan tells me.  Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean” and then Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl” play again for the second time over the speakers. We are sitting outsides among a cluser of tables where half-eaten pizza, salads and empty mugs of beer sit on young people’s tables. I notice the tension in people’s movements more readily now.

The last few days have been more unsettling than usual in this region because we are all waiting on the world to do something about Syria, the nearly 100,000 that have been killed there in the past two years, and most recently the biological warheads launched against civilians and children which violates every human rights treaty and agreement on how to behave during wartime.  Specifically the world is waiting on the United States.

“Your President refuses to drop the bombs on Syria,” Eitan says, half in jest when referring to President Obama’s decision to wait on the reconvening of Congress  the second week of September to get a decisive vote on whether or not to act against Assad. “You are the only ones that have enough of a moral backbone right now to drop a bomb on Syria and punish them for doing this unethical thing.”

As if killing thousands wasn’t unethical enough for the world, including the U.S., to respond a year and a half ago. I tell him, a bomb on Assad will not stop him. He will not stop until there is nothing left. So a war will need to be waged against Assad and it cannot be the U.S. alone in this because the whole region will become an abyss we won’t be able to extricate ourselves from. We all feel this restlessness and unease about the next couple of weeks in Syria.

The world is paralyzed, the way people I have seen people in Guatemala freeze like shadows, observing as lynchings, mass murders, violence against protestors, accidents, acts of violence happen in front of them. In Guatemala it is a type of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder where after thirty-six years of war, the violence has been normalized and at the same time there is fear to act and a sense of helplessness in action. Even if I help, what could I do? What difference would it make? There is too much risk for me to help. Someone else must help.

But Syria is different, it is something none of us could ever be prepared for or could recognize from the outside as part of a larger pattern of how war is waged in the most horrific of ways. It is a challenge for us to create a global ethical brain that can respond faster and in more skillful manner to the new bully or murderer in this case. The new evil will inevitably come from humanity, until the whole thing explodes.

Back to the Holy Land

August 26, 2013

Last night I slept sitting up and today I floated in the Dead Sea. Knowing what I’m up against, I sleep the entire trip from Newark to Tel Aviv, no movies, no studying, just food and sleep. The crying babies are mere whispers in my Ambien-induced stupor.

It is my second time back in the Holy Land and this time I want to be prepared to dig deeper, to go one layer below the surface. I step out of the plane less daunted by the fifteen-hour trek and the eight-hour time difference. As I step out of the plane, I feel more prepared for the light out here, more direct and golden than anything I had seen before in my life a year and a half ago. This time when the sign “Welcome” in Hebrew stands before me between two ancient stellas painted on the wall, I lift my camera to meet it.

I feel less disoriented knowing on the other side of customs is my secret weapon, Aviva, one of the friends I made from my first trip here to present at two Techcamps, one in Tel Aviv and the other in Ramallah, back to back. TechCamp is a program under the U.S. State Department’s Civil Society 2.0 initiative to bring together the technology community to assist civil society organizations across the globe by harnessing the latest information and communications technology to find solutions.

It was my crash course into Techcamps and how they were organized and put on, but I had no idea what it would take to understand the model and then take it back to Guatemala City with me to coordinate our own do-it-yourself version. Six TechCamps later I find myself at the beginning, knowing now what I didn’t know then.

Outside, Aviva is waiting for me. She has lived on a Kibbutz for forty years and she’s promised to swoop me up and take me there from the airport. I have only to make it through customs. I show my passport and letter from the U.S. Consulate stating my purpose in Israel, my time here for ten days and my work as a TechTrainer in Ramallah. I get a small identification card which is stamped with my date and time of entry and then I move towards the baggage claim.

I present my documents to two women customs officials. One of them pores through my passport.

“You are from Guatemala?” She asks. Yes, I tell her, that is where I was born. She nods.

“I have been to your country, to Tikal, Antigua and Semuc Champey,” she continues. “It is very beautiful.”

“Yes, it is,” I tell her. “As is yours.” I expected to get my passport back, but instead she calls over another customs woman. They both look over my passport and call on a cellphone. Then I am told to pick up my bag and follow them. They keep my passport in hand so I rush back with my bag and follow them to a small room at the back of the airport where a few other passengers are having their bags and documents thoroughly screened. I get in line and await my turn patiently.

“Come over here,” one of the custom folks tells me, motioning me with his hand. He points to the zipper on my bag. “Open it.” I nod. I am told to unwrap a few gifts I brought, maple syrup, Texas barbeque sauce, buckwheat pancake mix.

“What is this?” He asks me. Gifts, I tell him. He removes his latex gloves and instructs me to zip the suitcase up again. Then the questions.

Why Ramallah they ask? I tell them it is for a conference and that I’m teaching storytelling, tools and other skills. Who brought you here? The U.S. Consulate. Why? Because I am a TechTrainer. A what? I teach workshops on storytelling and journalism. In Ramallah? Yes. What kind of stories? The stories that impact them in their lives. Anything? Preferably true, I tell them, otherwise that is gossip. I smile. There is an uncomfortable silence. Each of them looks straight at me. I smile back. They bend in to whisper to one another in Hebrew. I wait and keep an eye on my documents. My passport is passed on to the woman who escorted me here. She waves me over with a faint smile and leads me through different security checks. Stamp, unzip, screen, walk through body screen, zip up, stamp, staple, walk away.

“You are good now,” she tells me and hands me back my passport. “Have a good visit in Israel.”

I walk out into now a small group of people awaiting the stragglers from this flight. Aviva waves to me from the right side of the room and I walk towards her, my legs suddenly weary and my eyes blinded by the afternoon sunlight behind her. I thought I was ready.

At the Kibbutz tucked between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, there is only the sound of crickets and the olive trees blowing in the breeze pushing across the cut dry meadows. Families stroll lazily across playgrounds and perfectly planned communal spaces. In Aviva’s house friends gather, there is talk that I work with the C.I.A. I tell them I am too old to work for the them. It’s true! The cut-off year is 35 and I am 36 now. There is laughter, we eat rice cakes, cheese, grapes, we laugh, the fourteen-year old dogs snore in the corner of the room. The windows are open and the fan blow a small breeze above us. Later in the evening we walk to a neighbor’s house, have soup, tell stories, crack hazelnuts and share pictures from different trips. Neighbors ask my why teach people storytelling and journalism? I teach authorship, I tell them, and the tools for people to narrate their own lives and get the information they need to impact their everyday existence. Around the table I get pensive nods. I hope for approval of this sleep talking conversation I’ve realized I’m having as my eyelids get heavier.

More presents from travels are exchanged, me with my pancake mix and Texas barbeque sauce, and others with rich cheese cake and smoked cheese from Jordan. The neighbors thirteen-year old dog limps across the porch and looks off into the twilight silhouette of trees surrounding us.

I can see how forty years of one’s life could easily slip away quietly here.

Aviva looks in my direction across the table. Tomorrow, she reminds me, we drive to The Dead Sea.

La Pura Vida as a State of Being

February 20, 2013

CR-underwearTo live in Costa Rica is “la pura vida” – a common dicho or saying that literally means “pure life” or “all life”. It’s a newer dicho, having become popular in the past fifteen years after it was coined by the Mexican comedian Antonio Espino y Mora, known as Clavillazo who used it in this film. Although younger people say it often as a slang or when things are going particularly well on a given day, it’s a shared sentiment by Costa Ricans, and something even extranjeros tap into when visiting. It’s an ideology, a way of life, a deeper philosophy of how life should be lived, both in peace, but also to its fullest in the present moment. It also refers to a shared sense of entitlement that you can’t mess with my right or anyone’s right to live a peaceful life. What has become clear after one week of my visit to San Jose, is that viviendo la pura vida doesn’t involve accumulation of wealth or longing for things un-had, it’s a deeper understanding for the richness and appreciation of life itself.

It’s something we discuss for hours while eating pizza and nursing some drinks at Cafe Mundo, a lovely cafe in the ritzier part of San Jose tucked amid boutique hotels, bed and breakfast spots and spas. It’s a favorite spot among locals and Americans who live here and for whom San Jose isn’t just a springboard to eco-adventure-ville. My new friend, Jose Enrique Garnier, a native retired Costa Rican architect, has brought me here. It’s our first two hours of meeting one another after being introduced over e-mail the day before through a mutual friend in Guatemala. Jose Enrique is not only an architect, he was the previous dean of the architecture department at UCR, a documentary producer and now the organizer of what will be the region’s first Cine Arquitectura. He’s soft-spoken and slow to respond, which I thought initially meant he couldn’t hear me. His pauses, however, mean reflection and eventually he responds as any good professor does, by saying “well you have to look at it in context.”

He’s also recently widowed, his wife, who was a journalist, passed away the previous year after thirty years of marriage. He has two sons, both who live in the United States and are in doctoral programs. Sitting across from him I can see he’s had a  difficult year, we both have and neither one feels a need to hide it. We’re both happy for each other’s company. Out of sheer impulse, I had called him earlier and asked him if he wanted to go to the Contemporary Art Museum, it was a shot in the dark, but he agreed readily. “Estoy en San Pedro, te veo pronto.” I’ll see you soon.

I have to stick to Spanish with Jose Enrique, which makes my brain hurt when I ask him about “social paradigms” and “institutional knowledge”, words I do not know in Spanish.  We meet at the museum gates, he wears a yellow golfer’s cap, khaki pants, and a burgundy cardigan that comfortably stretches over his belly. He has his small point and shoot camera in his hand.  I think: If he were grandpa, he’d be a hipster, arty type of grandpa who takes you to the museums and then for a root beer float later.

We enter the museum 45-minutes before they close and we both try to negotiate down the $2 entry fee, shameless I tell him, while he makes his final bid for “2 for one”. “How about 2 for 2?” the museum woman tells us with her biggest and most graceful smile. I don’t think we’re the only ones who arrived late.

“It’s good,” I tell Jose Enrique. “It’ll pressure us to be more selective about the pieces we look at.”

But Jose Enrique isn’t one to rush through things, so we move from piece to piece together, taking pictures of each piece, getting to know one another, scratching our heads when we arrive at a piece we have no idea what to think, then shuffle along quickly to the next piece. One of the exhibits is a national artists’ collection with close to twenty Costa Rica contemporary artists. I couldn’t have picked a better museum partner because Jose Enrique knows most of them and has enough context on everything to teach an entire class. In the pop art section we get to a collection that focuses on outside perceptions of Costa Rica and its role in Central America as the “Switzerland of Central America”, the Swiss Army knife without the army, the missing puzzle piece, the happiest place in the world. “Somos presos del exito.” We’re prisoners of our success, I heard later in my trip and slowly I began to understand.

Then we get to a large piece composed of words in different color font with this as the intro paragraph:

“El 17 de enero 2011 se publico la siguiente noticia en el Facebook de Telenoticias: “Cientos de Nicaragüenses Buscan legalizar Su Estado en Costa Rica “Estós hijo los Comentarios Que Se hicieron el dia al respecto, los cuales se pueden ver en″

It’s one of the biggest debates right now which centers on the increasingly immigration of Nicaraguans to Costa Rica and what to do about an already overburdened public medical and social services system.

I asked Jose Enrique what “pura vida” meant in this context and what it meant to him. He pondered that question quietly. “It’s a good question, it’s a dicho, which we use, but in this case, it’s questioning our own ability to let others live their lives.” I was getting confused because there was a clear tension between how outsiders perceived Costa Ricans, how Costa Ricans perceived themselves and the growing pains of a democracy dealing with increasing levels of government corruption, immigrants from Nicaragua, narco-trafficking, money laundering, and the plot just thickened.

The last part of our museum tour involved the upstairs exhibit which focused on the internal violence that Costa Ricans face with decreasing public safety as reflected in the familiar rolled barbed wire over houses, iron bars on the windows, the availability of guns, homophobia, the increasing aggression by the police force, the push and pull between public and private institutions, limitations to liberty of expression, machismo and pretty soon it was getting stuffy in this attic. I look for Jose Enrique who is staring tranquilly over the balustrade at the repeating video of a young man watering his asphalt yard. Not even weeds sprout to ease the tension.

“It’s stuffy in here,” I tell him.

“I think that’s the point,” Jose Enrique says wisely. I felt like I’d just sat through a three-hour lecture on the plight of Costa Ricans.

“Let’s go get a coffee or drink,” I told him.  He nods. “I know just the place.”

We left the museum and ordered wine, vodka and a pizza at the Mundo Cafe. Tucked in between the ferns, Jose Enrique talked about his fascination with Cine Aquitectura, Metropolis, Peter Greenaway, Clockwork Orange, Bladerunner, Tron, even Batman, films where architecture was part of the theme of the film or the protagonist or where you used film as a medium to tell the story about architecture in a more interpretive way. He’s passionate about it, I’m trying to keep up by Googling on my cellphone or writing as many names as I can for later.

I’m, ultimately, multi-tasking while he’s talking, texting and trying to get another meeting moved over to the cafe. It’s yet another person I’ve never met who I’ve convinced to meet with me. I tell Jose Enrique this and he laughs. I’m not sure if he thinks I’m rude, immature, or simply a novelty. So I casually tell him, this person will be dropping by to say hello. I text over the location to the new soon to be acquaintance. His name is Luis Matgui and he just began the Observatorio Ciudadano, an all-volunteer advisory group that will focus on saving La Caja. I look it up: “La Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social es la institución líder en servicios de salud públicos en Costa Rica.” It’s social security and the socialized medical care system which indirectly helps to create a stronger middle class and increases preventive care and, subsequently, extends the life span for Costa Ricans.  It’s not the first time I’ve heard mention of La Caja, the one that’s in crisis, the one that the entire balance of the Costa Rican middle class hinges upon.

Luis rushes into the cafe, looks around. I immediately I spot him and wave him over to the table. He has a full set of graying hair, vivid dark eyes that dart back and forth inhaling his surroundings. He has a soft leather briefcase in his hand that he sets on the back of the chair.  He makes to shake my hand, but then notices I’m Central American and instead gives me kiss on the left cheek. He shakes Jose Enrique’s hand and then sits. I offer him pizza, a drink, he asks for a coke. I ask him where he just ran from and he smiles, “Where didn’t I go today? It’s been a busy day!” I ask him why.

It’s the questions he’s been waiting for. Luis unleashes about his meetings with public officials and civic groups about the importance of saving La Caja, La Caja this, La Caja that, the plight of the Costa Rica, the slow implosion which is coming to a critical phase after the last ten years. Jose Enrique takes a call on his gleaming white iPhone and Luis continues his unleashing, which has become an informative rant at this point, except I’m too uninformed in local Costa Rican politics to be able to connect the dots. But my brain is speeding along with Luis and the night is still young.

The Universal Hipster

Februry 16, 2013

My new friends are hipsters, Costa Rican hipsters, in the part of town called Escalante where businesses mix with residences and people come out of industrial looking buildings with dark glasses, old Vans or flip flops, sagging skinny jeans and holding cigarettes while they double lock their doors. Of course, I know none of this as I step out of the bus in a sketchy part of San Jose, Costa Rica. We’ve just passed the transvestite sex workers standing near Parque Morazán and by now I’ve lost all the feeling in my legs and just woken up from a delirious sleep.

It’s been a seventeen hour bus ride from Tegucigalpa to San Jose so I stumble out into the night, bid my farewell to my Mennonite friends and take the nearest red cab to the “Art House” I am staying at. I’ve never met Juan or his partner Oscar, but I liked the idea of staying with artists in this jewel of Central America and the bastion of democratic principles. The house, I soon learn, is unmarked and can only be found within a certain number of meters from a known landmark. “A 75 metros este del Farolito.” Why 75 meters? Because not all blocks are created uniform, but meters are, Oscar tells me, minutes after the cab has dropped me off and we’re back on the street catching a cab to el “planchaton“.

I barely have time to throw on a sweater before they invite me out to dinner and the once every three months event that is marked by a DJ playing old romantic songs from their parent’s time and hundreds of young people singing at the top of their lungs both inside and outside a well-known club close to the new Chinese quarter which still has not attracted any Chinese people, but the mayor hopes that will change soon, Oscar informs me as we walk. The pungent smell of pot wafts down the street long before we reach the bar, see the crowds pouring out into the pedestrian street lined with red cabs and a few police texting on their cellphones. Inside the DJ looks like she’s about to fly off like a bird in its spandex red skin and there’s moose heads, antlers and manual typewriters on the wall. An iron deer sculpture separates the line of people paying for drink tickets and the ones in line to pick up their drinks. There’s a system here, it’s obvious.

Planchaton, Oscar tells me, is a year-long tradition now. It gets its name from the songs women would sing while they were ironing their husband’s clothes. It’s gone from a few people at a small bar down the street to hundreds of young people, many of them gay, taking over the entire bar and street well into the night. I get introduced to everybody, one kiss on each cheek, and the required nonchalant chit-chat while everyone drinks and smokes their choice, and suddenly I realize I am the oldest one in this small group.

But my hosts are inviting, open and warm, taking great care that I am included in everything and checking in regularly throughout the night. After a couple of tequilas, I’m done, and I tell Oscar so. He tells Juan and both of them walk me out into the street and talk to the cab driver who has some hip thin leather jacket on and skinny jeans. As the cab drives off I see Oscar and Juan in the rear-view mirror watching like two parents dropping off their kid at kindergarten.

Oscar is a quiet, soft-spoken twenty-one year old with large unassuming doey eyes and who has shaved off most of his hair except his subtle moustache. He is of a small stature, moves like a cat and is very aware of the details in life. Like most Costa Ricans, he is incredibly well-educated, articulate, diplomatic and analytical. He is also a political science major at two state universities, a historian and a member of the Gen Z who treats his cellphone like his hand. In the middle of conversations he’s lowered his head to look at his text messages so many times I can’t count. He continues to nod at what I’m saying and I, inadvertently, begin talk to his phone as if it were him.

Juan is eight years older, has pink short hair, wears flip flops everywhere, doesn’t believe in undershirts, wears sagging shorts and half the time looks like he should have a surf board under his arm. He’s a graphic designer, an entrepreneur, a painter and enjoys electronic music played very loudly while he’s painting. They are both foodies; they party hard, have tons of friends coming in and out of their house and tonight I’ve just stepped into the usual rhythm of their lives.

How did I find Oscar and Juan? Air B & B, of course. A few years ago it was Craigstlist, but Air B&B has managed to penetrate Central America in a way that’s very practical and useful in a region that is often very difficult to navigate, unsafe, impossible to build trust in and increasingly more online and more connected.  That lifeline of pixels is what’s creating a universal culture of the digital native and the urban hipster. It’s a hipster that has nothing to do with Brooklyn or the rest of the United States. It’s increasingly a more universal term designating a way of life that young people are seeking and creating for themselves.

The Urban Dictionary informs us that hipsters are “a subculture of men and women typically in their 2o’s and 30’s who value independent thinking, counter-culture, progressive politics, an appreciation of art and indie-rock, creativity, intelligence, and witty banter.” Ultimately, it is a lifestyle which prioritizes freedom, usually achieved through creativity, out of the box thinking and a liquid and nebulous economic status. For example, I have no idea how Oscar and Juan make their money, or enough money to meet their lifestyle which involves  a good number of expensive clubs, drinking, cabs and eating out.  And Costa Rica is expensive, make no mistake, more than Panama and El Salvador which have the USD as their main currency and definitely more than Guatemala and Honduras. In a twenty-four hour period I go through $50. In Honduras, it takes me two weeks to go through $100, cabs and all. I also find out that wages don’t necessarily align with the living costs here. Oscar tells me the average wage is $500 – $700 per month and taxes are around 25 percent which many locals can’t afford. The socialized medical system is also in a state of crisis with the influx of Nicarguans and undocumented immigrants. Everybody gets health care, but not everybody pays.  It’s a recent problem and there’s no clear way to deal with it.

But life is good and safe in Costa Rica, or at least it feels that way when you compare it to other countries in Central America, namely Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, right now the pressure cooker of impunity, corruption and narco-trafficking. Perhaps that’s my undoing because when you ask most Ticos about safety, responses range from you can’t walk after 9 PM, to people will stab you first and then rob you, to narco-trafficking is ruining our country or “Soon Costa Rica will be just as bad as Honduras.” Right. There’s a clear feeling of dissatisfaction with the current state of Costa Rica’s democracy, the presence of corruption and denial of the bigger danger of money laundering in the country. The drug trafficking happens outside Costa Rica and then the money gets cleaned in the most stable country in the region known for retiring Americans, eco-tourism, diplomacy and no national army. The elections are coming up next year and consensus among the young people I’ve met is “Please, not her.”

My friend Jenny and I talk about all these woes over sushi. Jenny works at HP, she’s worked there for ages, she’s gone back to school to learn management, and she looks forward to the small vacation time she gets to travel to places like Mexico City. I met her in Chile a year ago during a Digital Natives with a Cause conference that produced a book written by many of us who attended. Jenny tells me she’s going on thirty-four and things have changed, she prefers staying home, sweating over her math. She makes it clear, she’s not into going out the way she used to in her 20’s and she’s definitely not a hipster. Lately, it’s been hard to understand how so many of her friends make it or how they have incurred so much  debt through credit cards with very little to show for it. It’s a problem I also hear about in Honduras where I watched an Honduran film called “Quien Paga La Cuenta?” which has a very Robert Altman story structure centered around the lives of four people, the debts they owe and the debt collectors who visit them all. It’s a tense and nerve-racking film and it stayed with me even after I left Honduras and learned about the new credit card legislation there that would create more oversight. Because Honduras excels at oversight.

Is debt and financial crisis universal too, I wondered, as I watched the sun set outside the main Cathedral in San Jose.  Mass had begun, so I walked into the park where you could hear the sounds of hundreds of parakeets flying into the trees, see couples making out in the grass, the skateboarders flying off of stairs, children feeding the droves of pigeons parachuting in from every rooftop while the old people sat on benches watching them. Costa Rica, it proved, was just a difficult to grasp as the rest of Central America.

On the Road from Honduras to Costa Rica

February 14, 2013

We’re headed south through Nicaragua and the land gets dryer – bramble and brush with large patches of black where the grass has been burned away. The sunlight is different here, it’s more direct with a soft, but relentless quality like the light of memories that imprints itself in the back of your mind. You know, you will remember this.

We’re into the first few hours of our seventeen hour bus ride through the rest of Honduras, Nicaragua and into Costa Rica. Well before the sun rises around five in the morning we depart the erry abandonment of Tegucigalpa in the pitch dark, where only the outlines of the passing shacks mark the sky from the ground underneath our tires. We make random stops that only the driver knows to pick up lone bodies waiting in the night. Over the hills, the red from the sunrise begins to pierce the night and things start to take shape as we push towards the border of Las Manos, the Hands – appriopriately named because Honduras has a way of drawing you back into its unraveling.

By now I’ve made friends with the three Mennonite women sitting in my row: Hannah, Anita and Dorcas. Yes, Dorcas, named after a disciple who lived in Joppa, referenced in the Book of Acts 9:36–42 of the Bible. I learn this as we’re standing in the dusty border with Nicaragua. It is a border lined, like many other borders in Central America, with miles and miles of tractor trailers parked on both sides of the narrow cracked road that looks like it’s melting in this early morning heat. The street dogs scurry across the road towards the overflowing trashcans with rats’ tails whipping across the top of the cans. As we get off the bus, money changers crowd around the door, flashing big bundles of worn bills barely held together by thin rubberbands. I  choose the one female money changer to exchange one devalued currency for the next. Lempires for Córdobas, but it’s the dollar they all want. I ask her for Quetzales, she sucks her teeth and tells me I’ve got the wrong border.

I wander back to my Mennonite friends who stand out in their immaculate long pink, blue and brown polyester dresses that reach down to their ankles. Their white head bonnets do a poor job of protecting their blonde hair from the unflinching heat. I tell them I plan to stick by them the whole trip, because chances are the bus won’t leave without the three Mennonites, it would just be bad PR. They laugh. No really, I tell them.  I’m in awe they’ve stuck it out so long in Honduras, 17 years Hannah tells me, living on a farm in the Honduran country side with nine children their family has fostered and homeschooled. You make enough money as farmers to keep up fifteen people I ask her.

“People donate from our congregration and somehow we’ve never lacked for anything,” Hannah says. Random people come up to me while we’re standing together and ask me what religion the women are. I step to back and say: “Ask them, they speak Spanish.” Most walk away in disbelief.

Our ayudante Walter comes out with a stack of passports, calls out our names and one by one we get back on the bus. It’s Valentine’s day, I tell Walter. He looks back at me and smiles for once the entire trip: “Felíz Día de Amor,” he says and gives me my passport.

In Managua we change buses. Half of us go, half of us stay in the small bus terminal. The rest are waiting in the terminal, including the crying baby who is fearless in screeching out his irritation with the world that we all feel right now. It’s hot, we’re hungry and thirsty, and our ayudante just ducked out the back door, without saying a word about our next step from here. I sit by Anita who doesn’t know that much Spanish and console her by telling her that even if she knew Spanish, none of this would make any more sense. At 1 Pm a new ayudante, Francisco, comes out with a stack of paper tickets.

He hands our tickets to us as he calls our names and stuff border forms into our hands. The Mennonites and I just got bumped to the back of the bus, near the bathroom.  My new friends show their dismay.  I tell them that all that matters is we’re all in misery together back there.

I could have taken a cab from that stop to downtown Managua to stay a couple of nights with a friend and not endure the next ten hours of our trip, but instead I get back on the bus. Hasta donde aguante el burro.

The rest of my trip through Nicaragua I remember between a delirium of waking and sleeping while the bus snaked through its usual route. I hadn’t slept in twenty-four hours, so things were getting a bit liquid as my eyes closed  without me realizing it. In one of my dreams I drove this same stretch of road with Brad and the two German Shepherds in tow with the rest of our stuff in the truck bed. I wake up suddenly when the bus hits a big pothole and I feel relief it’s not us dealing with the road and everything else that comes with it. I don’t need to know the next step, the next bend in the road, and I can just fall sleep and wake to the scenes of a different country and lives lived outside my window. One of the earliest memories of my life was just that, watching the endless Mexican countryside, desert, urban sprawl pass by quickly outside our bus window as my mother and I immigrated to the United States the first time, right before my sixth birthday. I would put my forehead against the cold glass of the window and stare down at the road until sleep closed my eyes and I woke up in a different city, with my mother beside me.

Moments before the border with Costa Rica, I wake to Anita’s snoring and the blaring volume from the new 007 movie on the television hanging from the ceiling in the front of the bus. Things have changed outside. It’s greener, there’s dense forest, wild flowers along the side of the road, less trash, children kicking the ball in their front yards, storefront windows no longer have iron bars on them. You can feel it in the air, there’s less fear. I relax into this new feeling.

When the bus stops we do the usual, hand our passports over to the ayudante, get off the bus with all our bags, let the immigration officers check the inside of the bus, and then we wait until Franicsco returns triumphant with his towering stash of passports. He calls us one at a time, we get on the bus and drive over the border into Costa Rica. We’re all zombies being shuffled from line to line at this point.

You can tell a lot about a country by its border and how it is maintained. A few feet over the border, the bus stops, we get off again with all our bags, enter the air conditioned immigration office, wait patiently in straight lines we’re instructed to stand in, while the immigration office stamps our passports. Mine’s easy, I’m a tourist, I’ve come for five days and then I fly home. Stamp. Please take your bags to the X-ray machines, the kind you only see in airports, very clean and well-maintained. Everyone is very polite, but not just for politeness’ sake.

Our bags are pushed quickly on the belt and on the other side is our TransNica bus, like the faithful steed it has been. I am reunited with my women friends for whom I’ve regained more admiration after they tell me they did this trip just two weeks ago for a bible study class. Now they’re going for a friend’s wedding. It would have to be a very good friend, I tell them, to go through this twice in two weeks.

We get back on the road and a sign greets us into Costa Rica. As the sun begins to set across the hills, you can feel the ocean near. I can’t take my eyes off the rolling green pastures, the red from the sky like a thin veil of warmth.  A new quite tranquility sits somewhere deep now, it snuck into your heart somewhere between waking and sleeping as the world opened its doors to your passing.

What I learned over Chinese Food in Honduras

February 9, 2013

The Chinese food in Honduras is to die for, such that I’ve come to think of the national dish as some variation of chop suey. The baleada, forget it, it’s the plate of fried rice we all crowd around under the bright lights of a flat screen television blasting the re-run of Honduras’ triumpht goal over the U.S. soccer team last week.

On a Friday night, we head to Mandarin, a local favorite in Las Lomas, positioning ourselves strategically between the kitchen and the bar, but in the corner small table where we are now feeling a bit claustrophoic as we increasingly become surrounded by Honduran extended families. The kids kneel down in the walkways pushing their tiny fast cars, some hide under tables, throw fortune cookies in the aquarium while huge spoonfuls of noodles,  rice and dumplings are heaped on family members’ plates. Agua fresca de Maracuya and Salva Vidas are the preferred drinks and I’m eyeing the spring rolls at the table across from me.

It’s  become a spontaneous Girls’ Night Out for the nonprofit ladies of Honduras. It strikes me because it’s the first time I’ve sat with women from Central America, who are in their 30s, single, don’t have children, are educated, living on their own, work in the nonprofit sector and wear their independence proudly. Sometimes you don’t realize you’re looking for something until you find it – so after all these years, I find it in Tegucigalpa:  The do-gooder women friends and the Chinese food, even better than the food I had in Taiwan years ago when I would roam the night markets for dinner around midnight.

Sandra, Hirania and Nora all work at FUHRIL, a long-standing nonprofit that’s served people with disabilities for 30 years. I try to say the name between mouthfuls of fried tofu cubes and they laugh. They’re definitely laughing at me, but I don’t mind because I just want to know about their organization; I’m just not sure how to broach the topic. So we make jokes instead. We order, un pescado entero, beef chop suey, dumplings, rice and, of course, french fries. It’s been a long week so: vodka, sangria and beer. We ask the waiter if he can change the TV channel to the station playing UB 40. He is gracious and changes the channel.  Nora starts talking about a muro, a large wall they’re building. A wall, I ask. “To keep the ladrones out.” People break into the buildling to steal – wheelchairs, hearing aids for the half-deaf children, supplies, anything, even the electricity wire inside the walls. There are big holes in the walls they’ve made to pull out the wire.

It makes their life harder. Not only do they not have much funds to do their work, but now the crooks are taking everything from a building donated to them from the Honduran government. “We asked for someone from the army to stand guard outside our building, but nothing,” Sandra tells me. Sandra has short hair, glasses, gray eyes and is one of 14 children from Choluteca. She has been vegetarian all her life and believes in adopting children because that’s what’s needed in the world.

The food comes and my indignation at the unfairness of it all subsides. But it rankles in the pit of my stomach where the food hasn’t reached yet. This feeling stays with me the entire night.

They do a lot, sign language training, make affordable hearing aides and wheel chairs, help people register as disabled with the State to receive much needed discounts and educational attention, case management, policy proposals for urban development that is friendlier to disabled people, media campaigns to stop the silence around disability and the list is long. This weekend they’re doing a training, a training of trainers, focusing on teaching human rights to people working with those with disabilities. Later I find out some of the trainers themselves have disabilities.

How can it be that you do so much and get so little funding? I ask, knowing the answer after so many years in nonprofit work. They look at each other and burst into laughter. I stuff myself with more food, ashamed. Nonprofits are nonpofits in every part of the world.

When I was six years ago and having recently immigrated from Guatemala, the other kids thought I was disabled because I didn’t know English and couldn’t speak in their language. I stared out the window most of the school day, watching the snow fall on the sidewalk, snow I had never seen in my life, and disappear into the asphalt. The Catholic nuns then began to teach me English and I learned it in three months, enough to talk back to kids who called me a “retard”. Except I still read slowly, slower than most, and still today because of my dyslexia, the reading is slow going. I didn’t consider myself a person with disability, but others did. I was fortunate because I never stayed at the same school for more than one year, so I could reinvent myself and omit certain details about my life. It was my own private disability.  I tell this to Hirania as she’s driving me home and she doesn’t skip a beat: “You read slowly because you had dyslexia and it probably affected your ability to also learn another language.” That’s right, I tell, that’s exactly what happened.

A couple of hours later we are the last ones in the restaurant. The waiters are eating their dinner and the lights have been turned off in one part of the restaurant. We don’t notice. At this point, we’ve thrown ourselves head first into the work of FUHRIL. I learn that they even built parts of their facility using bottle construction and Red Bull cans. I’m writing tons of notes and suggesting fundraisers with jazz musicians, a Kickstarter campaign to help build their wall, an art exhibit with photographs of their clients,  a media campaign just with testimonials, grants, you name it, the creative juices are flowing.

But in the end, it’s the same note of disappointment: they can barely keep up with their current work, much less add more. I ask them how I can help? Sandra smiles, la cuenta comes, and I reach in my pocket for my wallet. Sandra shakes her head and takes the bill, wags her finger at me. “This one is on us, you’ve had to put up with all of us tonight!” Sanda says. I am caught off guard and don’t even know what to say, except this: I want to take video testimonials of the people who have gained something from the program. She nods in agreement, her head bent over the bill. Then she looks up. “It’s something we could use your help with.” How about we start tomorrow? I ask.

Saturday afternoon I am driven by Hirania into a very dangerous part of Tegucigalpa that is a “red zone” because of all the gang-related violence and narco-trafficking.  Their training is at the Catholic Church activity center, the one with the rolls of barbed wired above the matching gray-colored steel double doors that only someone from the inside can open with the push of a button. There’s cameras on every corner of the building and I feel that I am about to enter an immaculate prison. Hirania calls and the double doors open slowly while a couple of guards watch to see who’s coming into the facility.

When I went to St. Mary’s church in Lancaster, I remember the creaking sound of the big gates the nuns would close shortly after the bell rang. I watched from the second floor library as the latecomers hurried to beat the closing of the doors only to be reprimanded by Sister Mary Catherine who wagged her finger at them. Her black robe swished just above her ankles as she hurried them in, like a hen getting her chics into the nest.

I lived one block from the school and walked over before anyone else, but Sister Mary Catherine who would open the library for me to read and do my English homework. It felt safe inside, after our journey by land from Guatemala. St. Mary’s was my first refuge.

We parked, I got my camera and tripod and went up the stairs. Sandra smiled a very warm smile when she saw me.  I wonder if in part she  expected me to come at all. “Let me introduce you,” she said pointing to the large classroom packed with students staring at the newcomer.  That’s not necessary, I told her. “Nonsense, come with me,” and she pulled me to the front of the room, just like in the old days when I was the new girl at yet another school. “Tell them who you are, they want to know why you’re here.” Sandra said to me in front of everyone.

“Good afternoon to all of you,” I began nervously (Should I slow down, should I talk louder? Could they hear me? I thought to myself.). “It’s a pleasure to be here to help in any way that I can in your work.”

I felt their warm gazes and smiles looking back at me as Nora translated into sign language what I was saying. Her hands stopped and she waited for me to say the next sentence. I turned back to the students.

“I’m here to hear your stories, if you’ll tell them to me, I can share them with everyone else.”

What’s Happening in Honduras

February 2, 2013

It is Saturday morning in Tegucigalpa and I do the unthinkable: I decide to walk a few blocks in the middle of the day. I live up the hill from the Presidential House on Juan Pablo II, an area heavily patrolled by police and security guards pouring out from the big hotel chains, Marriott, Clarion, and then the McDonalds, Wal-Mart and the usual fast food asphalt jungle. In Tegucigalpa, no one walks, not by day and definitely not by night. The streets are quiet and abandoned and you get the feeling even the buildings have eyes to watch as you walk by. There is a general feeling of being watched and it’s becoming part of my skin.

There are pockets of safety that everyone knows and navigates towards. “I’ll meet you CafeMania,” you tell your friend or at the MultiPlalaza – malls having now become the new public street that promises safety. Coordinating activities is an elaborate dance of who has a car and who needs to be picked up or cabbed over. The in-between, the public space that forms the fabric we propel ourselves around is tattered and not to be trusted. You cultivate habits and superstitions that help you make it from one island of safety to the next, scurrying with the least amount of possessions on you or ready to part with whatever is requested at gunpoint. You can see it in people’s face, they expect a gun in their face any moment now.

“When I leave in the morning, I pray to God I return to my wife and child in the evening,” a waiter at a Chinese restaurant told me last week. During the day the cab drives me around the hills and I can’t quite get my bearings because there is no center, no core from which the city extends from. It’s a decentralized maze of lomas and increasingly more high rises, like El Castillo, the castle, that floats safely above the reality below. A good reporter friend writes this when he learns I am here: “Tegucigalpa is the town with no center – you’re just endlessly driving around hills, orienting from one strip mall to the next. The bourgeoisie has done a terrible job at city planning there, as with everything else. The only landmarks are the presidential palace, congress, the FESEBES union hall, the Hospital Escuela, the embassies, and the airport. You can tell what kind of a city it is if your landmarks are the morgue and the airport.”

The most difficult part is that once you leave your door it’s the arbitrainess of the violence that is unsettling. I was used to this in Guatemala City, but this is different, it’s feels more unnerving for some reason.

So, I decide to walk in the middle of the day Saturday, walk four blocks to Channel 8, a public station paid for by the government and right in front of the Presidential Palace. As I’m leaving my journalist friend, Luis, who I’m supposed to meet at the station calls me. “You’re not walking there are you?” Yes, I’m walking there, right now, I tell him. He grows alarmed.”Wait for me at the end of your street, I’ll have the taxi drop me off there and we’ll walk together. We’ll take the cab instead.” No, I tell him, I am walking. I refuse to be paralyzed by fear in the middle of the day. I can hear his disapproving silence on the other end of the phone.

We agree to meet and walk down together with every single person behind the fruit stands, behind their cars, behind the Bingo Real, or eating in the McDonald’s watching us walk by. I ignore it and talk to Luis. I’ve been invited by Jovenes Contra La Violencia to watch the first broadcast of the year of their one-hour youth show on the state channel which is actually seen on Channel 10. The Movement of Youth Against Violence has now spanned several countries, including Guatemala and Honduras, where they have chapters around the country that account for some 3,000 volunteer members. It’s run by youth for youth and in Honduras they’re organized enough to have their own nonprofit status supported in part by USAID. They have different teams in charge of fundraising, training, political mobilizations, and this television program which has a significant viewership. The show for now is a cultural, lifestyle show, but I’m ingraining the seed to have them do actual reporting. I bring Luis with me because he works at Conexihon, a collective comprised of  journalists who promote the defense of human rights, the right to freedom of expression, transparency and access to public information. We all stumbled upon each other at TechCamp Honduras and now we’re meandering along whatever sidewalk we can find on Juan Pablo II with the sun blaring down the back of our heads.

There are no sidewalks so we walk partly on the street or whatever thin curb is left on the side of the road. Cars don’t stop or slow down, they just speed up to get past us. One false step and you lose a limb.

“It’s Honduras, nobody cares,” Luis tells me. Really, I ask. He shrugs his shoulders and drops them in surrender.

So what’s happening in Honduras? 

  • In the past three years, there have been 20,573 homicides, with 7,172 murders registered in 2012, up 68 from 2011. The murder rate is 85.5 per 100,000 inhabitants, which comes to 19.65 homicides per day. For comparison, the murder rates in neighboring Nicaragua and Costa Rica is 12 per 100,000 inhabitants and 11.5 per 100,000 inhabitants respectively
  • Honduras has one of the most corrupt police forces in the region. Marvin Ponce, vice president of the Honduran Congress, has said 40 percent of the country’s police are involved in organized crime. According to organized crime analysis website InSight Crime, Honduran police officers “have been accused of acting as killers and enforcers for the country’s criminal interests.”
  • Currently the country’s internal debt is around $3 billion; its budget deficit exceeds $1 billion (6% of its GDP), while its foreign debt lies at around $5 billion, the same amount allocated to last year’s entire government budget.
  • In addition to high levels of impunity for crimes, the country is currently in the middle of an institutional crisis. Current President Lobo encouraged Congress to remove four Supreme Court justices following several decisions that went against his administration. To read more on Honduras’ woes go to Just The Facts =>

At the television station the young people are in the middle of preparing to go live with their show. They dart back and forth, laugh, push each other around jokingly, look at themselves in the camera, do the last primping on their hair and clothes. It’s all sneakers, jeans, red and black T-shirts with their logo and “¡Ponte buso!” Get on the ball.

It’s as much a warning as a command, in this country.

A Sewing Machine for Madgalena

We headed West for Magdalena. We knew it would be a rough ride when we had to get three nails taken out of two tires. We pulled into the nearest pinchazo on the Inter-American.  Crouched between towers of new tires we listened to the Olympic games over the radio. One hour later we were back on the road driving into the looming black rain cloud over Xela, our final destination. It was not as North as Chajul, but midway, intended as a mutual effort and crossroads by both Magdalena and us to get her what she needed.

The air grew thinner and cooler as we climbed towards La Cumbre, what we call Alaska here – a place about as cold as any Guatemalan would be comfortable imagining. We slackened our pace. I was driving Bea’s dad’s truck and still hadn’t adjusted to the zero power steering, the broken fuel meter, no bearings, the lights in the dashboard not working, the four cylinders. Frankly, I hadn’t adapted to being in a car after the accident we’d had in Honduras the week before. But at 25 MPH and the hazards on I felt good about cutting through the dense fog one piece of asphalt at a time.

We descended into Totonicapan, less than an hour from Xela and saw an older man sitting among the rocks with his thumb out. I looked at Bea to make sure she was comfortable with us stopping. She nodded. I reversed back to the giant limestone rocks where he had hidden four loads of wood about 60 pounds per load. He had a younger male friend with him, so that when we reversed we realized how much they’d been hauling up and down steep curves. They loaded up the truck and I swear I could hear the truck let out an “ufff”. They sat down on the side of the bed and whistled. We were moving slower than ever now, feeling the extra weight as I made our way up the hill in second gear, mile after mile. We must have driven 10 miles before the older man banged on the side of the truck, the universal sign for his stop. I looked at Bea and we both thought the same thing: That man was going to walk that entire way with those bundles. They offered to pay us for the ride, we thanked them and resumed our climb up the hill.

Bea and I drove through the terrain like two old experienced truckers – staring off into the expansive landscape of jagged mountain rock, rising corn stalks, deep valleys and moist pine to the horizon. The light was fading quickly.

We’d bought Magdalena’s sewing machine the week before after 72-hours of furiously fundraising $400 online, including the cost of transporting the machine westward to Chajul. I had rushed over with a big wad of quetzales, our local currency, in my two pant pockets and my shoes and made my way to Revue Magazine where Terry Biskovich was waiting for us. She ran a used clothing, book and brick-a-brac store in front of the Magazine office. The shop served as a way to raise funds for her animal shelter in La Antigua – the veterinarian for the shelter was our veterinarian. It was a small town for all of us. What was significant was that we were about to create a win-win situation for everybody involved.

I had gotten the idea to ask her if she was willing to donate the Huskylock 905 Swedish sewing machine that had been at the store for months now with a handwritten $550 price tag cut out as a large dog paw print. She thought about it, told me she couldn’t donate it because she’d just rescued a horse, but she would reduce the price. She agreed to sell it for $400. We shook on it, she put the “SOLD” sign on it.

The weekend before we bought it, Jose Osorio, Magdalena’s friend, had stopped by to catch us up on how the coffee cooperative was doing and the update on Magdalena and the other women. They’d met with various nonprofits that were willing to help them export their textiles as long as the women could produce the quantity needed for export. I asked him if that was possible for them. He said “No.” Why? Because they didn’t have the sewing machine to make it happen. How much was a sewing machine, I asked him. “I dunno, maybe $300?” And would it last long at that price? He looked at me puzzled and then shrugged his shoulders. “They’re Chinese machines,” he said. “They get the job done.” That’s when it hit me that we should show the Huskylock 90 machine to Jose and see what he thought of it.  That same day I dragged him across La Antigua.

We crossed the park hurriedly, I took him up the stairs and he hung back to look back at the machine from a distance. He saw the sewing machine and folded his arms around his chest and smiled shyly. “That’s a good sewing machine, why would someone give it up? Does it work?” All good questions, so we plugged the machine and asked the store clerk how often the machine had been used. “It’s been used once and then the owner realized it wasn’t what she wanted so she donated it to us.” Jose looked puzzled. “The signs says $550,” Jose said. I told him not to worry about that, we’d made an agreement among friends. Jose was thinking hard.

“Are you going to buy that machine for them?” Jose said. I don’t have that kind of money, I told him, but I have a small amount of money and we know other people who have small amounts of money. “We’re going to buy that machine for them, together.”  I’d done the same thing with my Tio Nefta’s House, in true “Eat Pray Love” fashion, and fundraised $3700 in less than a month, built my uncle the house and even a table and some furnishings for his two-room home. We could certainly fundraise $400, buy this machine and get it to Magdalena and the group of women who formed The Association of Displaced Maya Ixil Chajulense Women (ADMICH).

We made it into Xela right before dark and as we parked in the hotel the rain started to fall steadily from the sky. We took out the large plastic containers we’d used to put the sewing machine and our bags to protect against the rain. We ran quickly into the hotel, unpacked and waited for Magdalena and Jose to call. Half an hour later they called from the central park in Quetzaltenango and made their way to our hotel room where we’d put the box with the sewing machine on the desk. We dovetailed our trip here with a screening of  “Granito: How to Nail a Dictator” as well as, some testimonies from people of their memories during the armed conflict. Not a minute would be wasted.

When I entered The Revue offices to pay for the machine, Bea, the other intellectual author of our crowdfunded sewing machine for Magdalena idea, stood in the middle of the room like Amelia Earhart, silk scarf tossed across her neck, her motorcycle helmet under her right arm. Her arms firmly on her waist as she waited for me. She was bigger than life and taller than most Guatemalans, including myself.

“Do you have it?” She asked me. Yes, I do, I told her, I have the money. She looked triumphant and it made me smile.

We’d met Magdalena months before when Jose made his usual exploratory rounds in Antigua, trying to find buyers for his organic coffee made in Xix, El Quiche. Jose I’d met through a training I’d done in August 2011 and since then I was his source for contacts and random ideas for his business. On one of this trips Jose brought Magdalena, a young 29-year-old woman with the most ernest smile and wearing the bold colors of her region’s traje against a black background fabric. I sat next to her on the park bench in La Antigua and she told me her story. She and her family, along with many other widowed women, had been displaced from their homes in Chajul during the armed conflict. They’d lived along the northwestern border with Mexico until they were allowed to return, many of them carrying the only things they owned.

Back in Chajul, the lack of employment and opportunities for women forced her and her women friends to be inventive with creating work for themselves and working together to do it. In September 2011 they formed The Association of Displaced Maya Ixil Chajulense Women (ADMICH) which consists of 46, mostly young women under 30 years of age, and the association is led by 7 women from community of Chajul. The president is Magdalena. She wanted to meet me in person, she told me, because Jose had mentioned me. “Es un gusto conocerla.” It’s  pleasure to meet you, I told her, and gave her my blank reporter’s notebook and pen. I told her that I promised to take notes and learn from her if she promised to do the same thing. We had much to learn from each other, our work and from others. The best way to remember was to write things down. She smiled and promised to write more. Even if it’s only numbers, you have to reflect on things you learn, I told her. She agreed.

Magdalena knocked shyly on our hotel door. She and Jose walked into the room after traveling most of the day to meet us. Three buses and five hours later here they were in Xela, right outside our door. Night had set it and the rain had wet her huipil and long black hair she had in a pony tail that fell down her back. She didn’t mind, not the trip, not the rain, she was happy to see us, she said.

We invited them in and I brought the box over from the desk and put it on the bed closest to the door. The box had the sewing machine inside, along with the manuals and dozen spools of string. Magdalena did not take her eyes off it.

Open it, I told her. It’s yours.

I handed her the box and the list of people who had donated to make it possible to purchase the machine. A big smile lit up her face and then she hugged Bea and I, a long warm hug that made me finally relax after our journey. I gave her the car keys and told her to use the ignition key to open the box. Bea filmed the entire nail-biting opening of the box until Magdalena took the machine out and expertly plugged it in. At first,  she was careful, like a mother with her new child, not to drop it and to be gentle with it, but once it was plugged in, it was her machete.

That night we all watched “Granito” together and the next morning, after writing “Thank You” letters, we set out early, even amid protests and blockades along the Inter-American. The rain and fog continued as Jose and Magdalena rode in the back of the truck and we kept the sewing machine in the small front cab, keeping it dry. We gave them our rain coats and drove past accidents, blocked roads, detours, fallen rocks, until we finally arrived at Los Encuentros and had our final lunch together. Afterwards, I handed the machine over to Jose as the rain came down harder and they rushed off to catch la camioneta which was just pulling up. They ran in the rain protecting the machine with some makeshift plastic bags ripped open.

We watched as they made it to the back of the bus and waved back at us. The black smoke from the bus billowed out. Bea and I got back in the truck and headed home.

The Way We Do Things Here

August 15, 2012

They almost lynched a man in my callejon this week. I had just returned from walking the dog, when I turned into our alley and saw a big circle of men surrounding something or someone in the center.  I opened the door and let the dog into the house. This would be no place for dogs. I wasn’t convinced it was a place for most people. I grabbed my cellphone from the table, immediately called the police and said: “There is going to be a lynching in our alley near Iglesia San Francisco, please send someone fast.” I took a deep breath before taking one step further.  Presence, full presence, is what this would require. I had no expectations. I did have this vague feeling of dread because Guatemala is a country where people take the law into their hands and lynchings are a popular way to do that.

As I reached the outside of the circle I asked the neighbor I trusted most to tell me the story. A thief had broken into our neighbor, Alejandro’s, house and Alejandro had caught him red-handed with his computer keyboard under his arm and some audio equipment from his house. There were no signs of a forced entry and worse still was that the thief was the husband of Alejandro’s housekeeper, Monica. She had been a faithful and loyal housekeeper for more than eleven years. The rumor was that she had given her husband the key and over the course of the day Alejandro’s camera and other equipment had been stolen piecemeal from his house. The thief had also broken in while Alejandro’s most prized and beloved possession, a small black terrier, was in the house.

“Whatever you don’t want to do is call the cops,” my neighbor told me. “They won’t do anything.”

By the time I reached the inside of the circle I saw a thin, short man around thirty years of age stripped down to his underwear and in the corner of the callejon against the wall. Surrounding him were the indignant, angry young men, the fathers, the mothers, the wives and then the smaller children clutching to their mother’s legs. It was the paralysis of a still life painting. There was very little motion, except by the younger men yelling obscenities at the man, inching ever closer with each obscenity, and pointing the finger at each other and then at the thief. Alejandro was next to the thief – orbiting him like his own satellite planet.  His face was sweaty and red as he paced incessantly around the thief threatening him and shouting for the key to the house or for Monica, the housekeeper and the thief’s wife. He shoved his cellphone in the thief’s face and the thief cowered away, covering his nakedness by crossing his arms over his chest.

“You’re going to pay for this with your life, you stupid fuck!” Alejandro yelled at him and then swung a punch at the man’s face. His right white-knucked fist landed right below the man’s left eye where the skin began to grow white then red and then began to puff up. The man groaned, turned his face and curled into himself, while retreating quickly from Alejandro. The crowd was quiet for a moment and then “¡Eso! ¡Asi es!” That’s the way to do it, some yelled out. “¡Dale otra” Hit him again! As Alejandro turned to look at the crowd I came out of it and got in between him and the alleged thief. “Get out of the way!” He yelled at me in English. No, I said, you know this is wrong. His face turned red again and his eyes grew into globes.

“You know what’s wrong? That this asshole stole my stuff and I caught him doing it! So move!” I know, I told him, I heard he broke into your house and stole your stuff. That’s wrong and you should be mad because it’s wrong. “¡Entonces quitaté!” So get out of the way!

No, I told him, because doing a wrong doesn’t make another wrong right. This is wrong and we both know that. “¡Quitaté!”

No, besides I’ve already called the police, so I’m going to wait here next to this man until the police arrives. We’re going to use the law, Alejandro, it’s the only thing we have. We were speaking in English to one another. All the men were confused because they didn’t understand. What they did know is that women just didn’t get involved in these matters.

Alejandro saw my face and knew I would not back down. At that point, Brad and Kofy, our German Shepherd, arrived and stood next to me. I was not backing down. Alejandro pulled back trying to contain his anger. I told the thief to get dressed. I saw the police sirens pass and told Brad to get the cops into the alley. Brad left with Kofy and I went to speak to Alejandro.

Look, I told him, you’re right, he did do a wrong against you and his wife also did a  wrong, and anger is the right thing to feel, but hitting a man, lynching him, killing him, will not get you anywhere, you know that. It’ll make you feel good because you’re angry, but nothing more comes out of it.

“What do you want me to do?” Alejandro said inches from my face, his rage making him bigger than life. “Let the asshole go with the cops? The cops will let him go in a few days and then what? They’ll have my stuff and I’ll be the stupid fuck who let him have it. No way in hell!”

I’ve been in your boat, things have been stolen from me, Alejandro, you can keep that man in jail as long as you provide the evidence and ride the fiscal and judge. I can help you, you’ll just need to be patient and take the first step.

“What’s that Miss Know It All?”

It’s making the denuncia, the official police statement.

“No way in hell!”

At that point the police arrived in two Helix trucks and Alejandro said one last thing in my ear: “You haven’t done me any favors, you know, just go home!” As he stormed off three of the police caught up with him outside the door to his house and the other three came over to the corner where the thief had put on his clothes. The man would not say a word, so the crowd yelled out the story at the polic. I followed Alejandro to hear his entire version of the story. Alejandro walked through the sequence of events, unlocking the door, entering his house, seeing the thief with his stuff, catching him and hurling him outside the house. One of the police wrote furiously while the other two just shook their heads. One of them said out loud: “You should just have beaten him to a pulp, that’s what I would have done.”

I turned and glared at him. “You’re the police, even if you think that, keep it to yourself,” I told him.

Who are you, he asked me.

I’m the neighbor who called you. I told the cop to walk Alejandro through the process of making a denuncia and what he could expect. What evidence did he need to provide? How long could they keep the thief behind bars? I got closer to the police writing the report and told him that it was important for Alejandro to be able to keep the things that were stolen with him until they were needed for evidence. I’m not sure he can do that, the policeman said to me. I asked him to call someone above his rank and ask so he wouldn’t get in trouble. He agreed and went off into a corner to call a superior.

Meanwhile the other cops had handcuffed the thief and then shoved him into the back of the truck. His cap had fallen off and all the young men leered at him and called his cap trash. One of them picked it up with a stick. I grabbed it and said “At least try to act mature!” I gave the cap to the man and he took it from me and put it between his legs with his two handcuffed hands.

Alejandro came looking for me and pulled me aside. “Look I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna try, but you gotta take care of my dog while I’m at the police station.”

Absolutely, I told him, pick him up tonight whenever you get done. Alejandro got in the other police truck and they drove down the callejon in a caravan. It was 8 at night.

At 2 AM that night, Alejandro knocked on our door. I had pulled up a sleeping bag and was sleeping outside in our patio with his dog because he would not stop howling for his owner. Little Crocker had fallen asleep inside my sleeping bag and when we heard the knock we both jumped up. I opened the door and saw Alejandro’s very pale, exhausted face. Crocker ran out and bounced into his arms.

How did it go? I asked him.

“It was long, but I did it. The asshole is in jail.”

Good, for how long?

“Until the judge lets him go. I told her I would present my stuff whenever she needed it. Now I want Monica in there with him.”

Do it, use the law to make it happen.

He stared down at the entrance to my house as he petted Crocker with his other hand.

“Hey look, I know I yelled at you. I’m sorry for that. I was mad. I just wanted to say, it was good you were there. So thanks.”

No problem, that’s what neighbors are for.  Let me know if you need any more help with this process.

“It’s gonna take a while you know.”

I told him that this I knew very well. I still had to go to court to press charges against the thieves who stole our own laptops, more than one year ago. Animo, I told him, he was doing the right thing.

He kicked some pebbles by his feet and took in a deep breath.

“I hate this.” He said and walked away.