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Thursday, December 18, 2014

The good thing about traditions is that you can always remake them

Christmas Eve 2012, Utila, Honduras
    Today is my birthday, my third one in a row celebrated outside Canada. I wouldn't dream of whining about the lack of good birthday cake in Central America when I'm sitting here on a balmy 32-degree day with a fan blowing on me to keep me cool, but I do want to note that living away does require the reinvention of how you celebrate.
    Christmas, for instance. We've been gone from Canada and our families for the last three Christmases as well, and I admit to being piney sometimes for things like the family breakfast where I'd make cinnamon buns and we'd all drink champagne and orange juice, or the whirl of festive parties we'd go to at this time of year. We moved past the whole gift-giving insanity a while ago, but I still really liked the tradition of making up a stocking for family members.
     But Paul and I have developed our own Christmas travelling tradition now, and I quite like it. In 2012 - my first ever Christmas spent away from my family - my son and his family came to visit us in Honduras, and we went to the Caribbean island of Utila for an absolutely marvelous, gift-free Christmas. Christmas Eve dinner, once a time of baked ham and scalloped potatoes, gave way to tacos in a beach-front restaurant with a knockout view of the setting sun. Last year, we went to Guatemala and Belize, and ate our Christmas dinner with a random collection of other travellers who had also holed up at the tiny Hotelito Perdido for the holiday.
Christmas Day 2013 at Hotelito Perdido, Guatemala
     This year, we'll be on a Pacific beach near Leon, Nicaragua, when Christmas rolls around. I doubt that there will be anything particularly Canadian Christmas-like about our Dec. 25, but travellers do tend to draw together more on days like that, I guess drawn by an instinct to create "family" in whatever situation they find themselves in. We'll be in a little bed-and-breakfast, and I imagine we'll end up sharing some conversation (and probably a drink) with whoever else is there that day.
    I got thinking about traditions today because a well-wisher said she hoped I'd have lots of cake. I did always look forward to a good cake on my birthdays in Canada, most especially a tuxedo cake from Save-On Foods (seriously, they are really yummy).
    Unfortunately, cakes in Central America just aren't my thing. They've got standard layer cakes, but any that I've tried have been mediocre at best with icing that's some kind of frothy stuff that bears no resemblance to good old butter-cream frosting. Their special-occasion cakes - both in Nicaragua and Honduras - are tres leches (three milk) and Pio Quinto, both of which are wet cakes like a trifle. I hate trifle.
     In fact, I haven't found a dessert in Central America that I like. But is that so bad? I get home often enough to gorge myself on Dutch Bakery nut tarts at least once a year, or maybe a killer danish from Crust. This 58-year-old body doesn't actually need to be tempted by dessert. I'm treating myself to a small bag of Fritos corn chips at this very moment, and Paul brought me a chocolate-covered marshmallow clown head on a stick earlier. Surely that will suffice.
     Tonight, we're going to head down to Avenida Bolivar, where the First Lady of Nicaragua, Rosario Murillo, has indulged her obviously overwhelming love of twinkly lights at Christmas. We're going to walk from one end of the street to the other, taking in every giant twinkly-light camel, Santa Claus, Wise Man and candy cane. Then we're going to go to the movie theatre and watch "The Hobbit" - which, happily, will be sub-titled and not dubbed.
    Happy birthday to me.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

There's a million stories in the big city

Horse cart man  and cotton candy vendor
at the end of their day, Managua
    Oh, for a good newspaper that had an appetite for day-in-the-life stories from Nicaragua. I can't walk a block without being intrigued by yet another person scratching out what passes for a living in some unusual way, and would love an excuse to be talking to each of them about what their work days are like.
    There are the fire jugglers and the windshield washer guys at the big intersections, for instance. Are they putting in long days scratching for one or two cordobas from the handful of drivers who seem inclined to roll down their window long enough to pass along a coin? And what must it be like to be those women who spend their days walking right down the middle of the lanes of traffic whizzing by, selling oranges and little bags of fruit juice?
     Then there's the fellow who sells woven or wooden car-seat liners that people buy if they have a bad back or to stop their legs from sticking to the hot vinyl. He's set up in one of the boulevards between two lines of constantly moving traffic on one of Managua's busiest streets. I mean, do people actually pull over to buy a seat liner as they're driving along?
     A job that seems to be the lot of some of the poorest people is operating horse-drawn wooden carts. They own a horse, which in our land would signal someone who couldn't be all that poor, but one look at the skinny little creatures dependent on getting turned out in a vacant lot for a skimpy meal once in a while is enough to know that horse ownership is definitely no guarantee of wealth in Nicaragua.
    The carts mostly seem to work doing pickups of landscape and construction waste, with occasional forays into hauling vast bags of plastic pop bottles scrounged out of the garbage to wherever they go to be recycled. The carts weave in and out of the same crazy traffic as the cars in Managua, the drivers remarkably adept at crossing two or three lanes of traffic to make their left-hand turns.
     One of the most abundant jobs for men is working in security. Houses, businesses, even parking lots - they've all got their own security guy. I pass at least 15 every day on my eight-block walk to work.
Shoe repair outside the Roberto Huembe market, Managua
     One security guard who I chat with regularly works a 12-hour shift, six days a week, getting home to his distant village every night at around 9 p.m. long enough to stuff down a meal, have a quick visit with his family, and hit the sack for maybe 5 hours before he gets up at 4 a.m. to do it all over again. He tells me he's quitting for a new job driving ambulance in January, which makes me happy.
    (But while there's nothing fun about being a security guy in Nicaragua, it's still a good sight better than being a security guy in Honduras. Those poor workers were always the first ones killed when the armed robbers showed up. And they always showed up sooner or later.)
      The market vendors would be fascinating stories, too. Some of them look like they've found a niche - the butchers, for instance. But I do wonder how all the plastics vendors make a living, with their giant stacks of plastic chairs, buckets, basins, stools and Tupperware-style containers. The Roberto Huembe public market has quite a vast section of plastic sellers, but it's a stretch to imagine that there are enough plastic buyers to give them all a decent living.
      And how many customers are there for all the shoe-repair people set up just outside the market? Is there no end to the amount of shoes needing repair? Or are some of these men shoe-repair people by day, security guards by night?
     Same goes for the rosquilla sellers at the market. I'm not a big rosquilla fan myself - they're kind of like a hard little cookie/cracker thing, usually made with cheese - but Nicaraguans do seem to tuck into them with much gusto. Even so, the sheer volume of rosquillas at the market, in the streets, in the baskets of every vendor squeezing down the bus aisles to sell you their wares - well, it just seems to me that there isn't enough rosquilla demand in all the world to provide a fair wage to every one of them.
    In the town square in Leon, I saw a rough-looking old American guy apparently making his living doing levitation tricks and then passing the hat. While he always drew a crowd, I didn't see much evidence of anyone putting money in that hat. But he had a half-empty bottle of red wine tucked away in his big pile of stuff, and maybe that was good enough for him.
Meringue vendor, Leon

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Bad sex work law takes effect on the day of a massacre - "How horribly, enragingly appropriate"

 On this day of mourning marking the anniversary of the Montreal Massacre, another reason to mourn: Bill C36, Canada's flawed and tragic anti-sex work law, takes effect on this very day.
    It will be struck down eventually. It's so clearly unconstitutional, not to mention poorly informed and misguided, and in direct contravention of the research around what actually makes life better and safer for those in the sex industry.
    But in the meantime, people will suffer. Women will suffer. The Harper government took bad law and made it worse, criminalizing the purchase of sex for the first time in Canadian history and virtually guaranteeing that vulnerable sex workers will now be that much more vulnerable, and never mind the platitudes about how this law decriminalizes workers while criminalizing purchasers and thus makes everything better.
       What it actually does is push sex work even deeper into the shadows. And we all know that bad things happen where the light can't get in.
      Thank you to writer Edward Keenan for this piece in the Toronto Star today.

Today, of all days, the government of Canada brings a new law into effect that will put some Canadian women in danger and likely lead to some of their deaths.
Today, Dec. 6, the anniversary of the slaughter of 14 women by a gunman in Montreal, the day marked as the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.
It seems grimly appropriate, in a “sick and twisted” way, as activist Valerie Scott told Canadian Press this week, that this should be the day the Conservative government chooses to change Canada’s prostitution laws to make it harder for the women (and men) who work in that business to keep themselves safe. Sadly, it symbolically reflects the approach to “action on violence against women” we, as a country, have taken all too often, all these years after the Montreal Massacre made us swear that things needed to change.
The aftermath and reflection after those killings produced a document called “The War Against Women,” containing recommendations about the changes that needed to be made to reduce the level of violence against women. A quarter-century later, my colleague Catherine Porter’s reflection published in these pages today finds that woefully little has been done to give force to those suggestions.
A year ago this month, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down our laws governing prostitution on the basis that they deprived sex workers of the ability to work safely by screening clients and employing security. It seemed like progress for those who sell sex for money — by choice or circumstance — and who have long had to live in fear, in the shadows of the economy, denied the protections against violence we extend to workers in every other field. Stephen Harper and Peter MacKay responded with a new law, one that doesn’t address the safety issues the court clearly said needed addressing. It’s a new law that sex workers — including Scott, who brought the original Supreme Court case, and some I spoke to immediately after MacKay brought the bill forward — say will leave them even more endangered than before.
This is not some moral parlour game, where we lean back in our chairs and express our disgust at the very concept of putting a price on physical intimacy. This is a very real matter of life and death.
I used to work at Eye Weekly, an alternative paper that made much of its revenue from classified ads placed by sexual service providers. I remember in 2003, when I was still relatively new there, two of our clients, women who’d come into our office to pay for their ads every week, were murdered while working.
Cassandra Do was 32, a former nurse’s aide saving money to pay for sex-reassignment surgery, whose friends said she was notoriously careful about screening clients. She was strangled to death.
Lien Pham was a 39-year-old widow, a mother of two. She was strangled in an escort agency apartment while working alone two months later.
Immediately afterwards, and in the years following, I spoke to many sex workers about the safety issues they faced in their jobs, and how they dealt with them. And almost every one I spoke to talked about the laws criminalizing the operation of sex work businesses as the biggest obstacle to protecting themselves.
That’s why, a decade after those deaths, Scott and her co-applicants brought their court case to the Supreme Court, and finally they seemed to be heard. The highest panel of justices in the country said what those workers had been telling us all along: that to protect sex workers, their business needed to be legalized.
The new law may eventually also get struck down after it winds its way back through the courts. In the meantime, in the years before that likely court decision, it will put prostitutes in even more danger than before.
When I spoke to her about the law this spring, Jean MacDonald of sex worker advocacy organization Maggie’s predicted, “What you’re going to see with this law is a continuation of the epidemic of violence against sex workers in Canada.”
Today, in addition to reflecting on the deaths of the 14 women murdered in Montreal, I’ll think of Cassandra Do and Lien Pham, and the dozens of prostitutes murdered by Robert Pickton, and all the other women who’ve been beaten, raped and killed because of our inaction to protect them, or to allow them to protect themselves — or because, in the case of this new law, of our direct action to endanger them.
Today, of all days. How horribly, enragingly appropriate.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Tap water, beer and beef: The surprising facts of life in Managua

Why does meat taste better in developing countries?
 We'll have been in Managua for a month as of tomorrow, just long enough that I'm no longer getting lost every time I walk out the door but short enough that every day still holds some surprising discovery. Herewith, a small list of things I hadn't been expecting:

  • You can drink the water from the tap in Managua. Who knew? I just presumed we'd be drinking bottled water for the whole time we were here, as was the case for more than two years in Honduras. But I kept hearing from one person after another that Managua gets good-quality water from a lagoon and then treats it. I broke down and started drinking it about a week ago, helped along by the fact that there's no store nearby selling those cheap 20-litre bottles of purified water, and I can't handle the environmental guilt of a giant pile of one-litre plastic bottles piling up. 
  • People like their booze around these parts. Admittedly, the organization I worked with in Honduras was Christian and opposed to their employees drinking, but even putting that aside, the country felt pretty dry. Here in Nicaragua, you never have to walk far to find an open bar full of people talking animatedly. And when the beer truck pulled up to unload what must have been 40 cases of beer at the feria my current organization held last week, I knew for sure that I was in a new land.
  • Religion is a different beast here. People still say things like, "God willing," when you say you'll see them tomorrow, but I don't see the same intensity of faith and complete trust in God that was everywhere in Honduras. Maybe that's what a long history of oppression and revolution gets you - skepticism. 
  • They've got terrific beef here. And cheap. You can buy a gigantic slab of tender, delicious filet mignon that would probably feed 10 people for $20 at the local PriceSmart. I am in steak heaven.  I don't know what they feed their beef cattle, but Canadians should be demanding that if their local stores are going to import beef, they should give Nicaragua a try. 
  • It feels pretty safe in the big city. You'd never want to be getting carried away with your feeling of safety in a big Central American city, but it has been really nice to be able to enjoy Managua without feeling like a target just because I'm out there walking. I even feel OK to pull out my camera for a few shots, something I would never have done in Tegucigalpa or San Pedro Sula. I go walking every morning around 6 a.m. with the landlady's dog, and so far all we've run into are other people going about their business. 
  • A mall is a mall is a mall. OK, maybe that's not such a surprise anymore. I've had a lot of mall experiences in a lot of different countries. But it still is remarkable to me that wherever you go in the world, you can walk into a mall and pretty much feel like you're right back in your homeland. Same design, same stores, same things on offer, even prices that are strikingly similar. Ah, consumerism. 
  • I can live without hot water. Not even a month before we left Canada, Paul and I asserted to each other that while we could live without a lot of things in this new stripped-down life of ours, hot water wasn't one of them. But then we got to Managua and learned that most of the rental housing just doesn't have it, probably because electricity's expensive here, the temperatures never seem to go much below 30, and the water's never really very cold anyway. So here I am, jumping into a an unheated shower every morning. And it's not so bad. Now there's a big surprise. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Right hands, wrong tools: 'Easy' counts for a lot in international development

I love that my new organization has a weekly radio program.
Radio remains one of the most effective ways of
communicating in countries like Nicaragua.
While my previous work experience with Cuso International in Honduras has probably given me a jump-start of close to a year for this latest position in Nicaragua, that’s not to say things are humming along just yet. But at least this time I've been prepared to have nothing go according to plan.
     International work placements have a lot in common with onions. You might think you know what what you're looking at after a few days of asking questions and reading through stacks of your organization’s reports. But be prepared to discover layer after layer of complicating factors once you get to the point of knowing just enough to realize how much you don't know. 
      For instance: Charged with helping non-profit organizations in the country where you're working improve their communications, you notice that the most recent post on a particular organization’s web site was more than a year ago. 
     They’re using data from a 1995 census, and referring to a five-year strategic plan that ended three years earlier. They list staff who haven’t worked at the place for years, and contact numbers that lead nowhere.
     Once upon a time, I would have assumed that the organization clearly had zero interest in communications. Now, I'm more likely to suspect that they got money from a well-intentioned foreign funder at some point in the past to hire a consultant to build the site. The fact that nobody in the NGO knew how to access or maintain a professionally designed site was overlooked, as was the lack of ongoing funding the group had for hiring someone with the skills. 
    Entonces, as they say around these parts, what results is the all-too-common developing world phenomenon of a web site frozen in time.  Ever so briefly a fresh and useful tool for the NGO, the site quickly grows stale, and in its neglected state is arguably as bad as having no site at all. 
     Another example: A database with nothing in it but information from six years ago. NGOs and funders understandably love databases, because they are treasure troves of information essential for demonstrating the impact of an NGO’s work over time. But there's little useful about a database if nobody puts data into it.
     So why isn't anyone updating the database? Blame it on yet another short-term project, which led to the creation of a complicated database that couldn't be maintained once the hired help moved on.
     OK, maybe only two NGOs in the whole world have faced these problems, and I just happened to stumble into jobs at both of them. But I don’t think so. I expect the developing world is full of half-finished, abandoned, poorly envisioned, and fatally flawed projects. Nobody set out to make it so, but that’s just how it goes at the complex intersection between the dreams – and reporting requirements - of developed countries and the real-world problems of local organizations.
     It’s not just a question of technology. In lands with the wealth to fund international development work, issues like literacy, a well-rounded education, electricity, and familiarity with learning and relearning ways of doing things with each new wave of more advanced technology are so blessedly common that we forget how rare all of that still is in most of the world. Watching a young fellow today trying to figure out how to use his computer mouse and open a document, I was reminded of the growing knowledge gap that separates our worlds.
     That’s not to say the problems can’t be solved. It’s not about a lack of intelligence or ability to learn, it’s about starting where people are at. Had someone thrust all the technological bells and whistles of 2014 onto a typically computer-illiterate Canadian of 30 years ago, we, too, would be awash in dead web sites and forgotten databases.
     There are all kinds of free programs out there now for web-site creation, simple enough to be maintained even by those with basic computer literacy. They're not as pretty or whiz-bang as the sites that web professionals can make, but a bit of a plain-jane site that can be updated easily by the organization is one heck of a lot better than a stunner that will be stale within months of the consultant’s departure.
     As for databases, I’m still digging into that one, and hoping that it’s true that Excel 2013 has a lot of functionality. (And that my organization uses Excel 2013 and not Excel 2002, as was the case with my Honduras placement.) There’s a lot of free software available for building databases, but what I've seen still seems way too complicated for people here to be able to maintain. Surely there's a program somewhere created expressly for use for in the developing world, because I know I'm not the first person to identify these common development problems.
      One day when I don’t have to work for money anymore, I’m going to seek out new (and old) communication and monitoring tools to share with grassroots NGOs in developing countries. I’m going to ask the people who live there: What would you do? and then take their advice. I'm going to create a plain-jane web site chock full of easy tools for people like me, so no volunteer will ever again be sitting in her muggy little office somewhere in the developing world wondering where to find such things. 
     I think we can do a lot to close the knowledge gap. But the work has to start with tools that fit comfortably in the hands of those who will use them. 

I'm on assignment with Cuso International. Please visit my fundraising page and support a great Canadian organization doing good work through volunteerism in 17 countries around the world.