31 July 2007

thank you Silvia ...

Tristan - the stories are everywhere. this is Silvia Rafael, a 20-year-old myan native who works two jobs and cares for the white children of the tourists. she wears the native clothing of a people who find their way of life disappearing. - Jessie

sidenote: part of why i came here was to rediscover why i became a journalist in the first place. i'm only 24 years old and got so burned out that it was hard for me to remember i've only been in the profession for about two years. i met silvia on the end of a boat dock in santa cruz and asked if i could take her picture. i stayed with her for about an hour bumbling through broken spanish. she has two jobs and is trying to learn english on her sundays off. she is part of a culture people are predicting will be gone in 20 years. the myans are poor, but some of the happiest people i've ever met. during the day they labor at the bottom of the mountain at the feet of the tourists, carrying their luggage and so on, and then every night they climb to the top of the mountain to their own village. last night i went outside late and heard them chanting. it was both beautiful and haunting all at the same time. when i left the boat dock i felt the best i have in months.

i remembered why i marked "journalist" on my customs sheet even though i quit my job to come here. i may be unemployed, but i still realize this may be what i was born to do.

want to hear a grown woman scream like a girl?

laundry list of weird bugs and/or insects i have encountered so far in my central america accomodations: locusts, scorpions, lizards, fire ants, wasps, and a fat spider i nicknamed "Esther." there's probably more, these are just the ones i could identify.

where the waters are choppy and cameras are evil...

Susie, i tried to take this little girl's picture on one of the boat rides back to the island. she hid her face. the myans, like a section of all native indian cultures, fear cameras because they believe the soul can be stolen through the lense. i felt bad immediately after the shutter went off- Jessie

Humane Society of Collier County- close your eyes, imagine the worse possible conditions for a dog and you'll find yourself in a typical Guatemalan village, where the animals roam free as they scavenge for food wherever they can, much like the people. - Jessie

sidenote: I know there's a little bit of me that will always be naive. i grew up in the Idaho mountains with people who still don't lock their doors to this day. but i have a hard time taking in what i've seen and experienced so far here in central america.

i'm torn between allowing it to give me a wider perspective, and becoming dumbfounded in the despair.

i'm staying in the village of Santa Cruz for several days. it is one of many that flank Lake Aitlan, one of the largest tourist attractions in Guatemala City. the small cities, like this one in Panajachel or "Pana" to the locals, must be reached by boat taxis and the cobbled streets are lined with markets where the native mayan populations come to sell their hand woven goods. they speak about 28 different indian dialects, a reality that can be extremely frustrating for someone trying to adapt to spanish. i get by with bits and pieces, but i'm really looking forward to starting school in antigua next week. the poverty here is overwhelming, the children who beg for coins and sell peanuts in the street. they lie, and cheat, and steal because they are forced to. i get ripped off several times a day, and i really don't mind. their currency is measured in quetzales and it takes about seven of them to equal one american dollar. i went to the local bank to get some money exchanged and the woman almost fell off her seat when she saw i had 100 american dollars.

my only question: when do they decide to eat the bird?

First night in Guatemala City was, well, "interesting." stayed in a hostel and met this really cool family who ran a restaurant out of the back of their home. the meal was beans, rice, and chicken and I was so hungry i really could have been eating cardboard and it wouldn't have mattered. a bird sat in the corner and watched me the whole time. manuel, the owner, said one day it flew in through the metal gates he uses to ward off the criminals. the bird has yet to leave.

29 July 2007

Red rivers on an eroded island

[7/28/07 Dear Christian, The deforestation here is devastating. Don’t start in with the enviro-kid jokes. This really is sickening. On the flight northwest from Tana, in the center of Madagascar, to Mahajanga, all you see are minute tufts of vegetation in a sea of mossy looking land where only shrubs grow. Madagascar is home to some of the world’s most cherished biodiversity – most plants and animals here don’t exist anywhere else, and a treatment for leukemia was found in the island’s forests. But only 10 percent of the original habitat remains. Villagers, needing more land to plant rice so they can eat, burn down the forests. I was surprised to see that it still happens. Just on Thursday, I saw a smoldering patch of dry, red earth. The soil here is surprisingly poor, and once the natural vegetation is gone, it can’t be used for too long. It’s kind of difficult to get all high and mighty about the deforestation, considering the fact that America has scraped clean many of its forests and native prairies. But that doesn’t make this situation any less tragic. So far, Madagascar hasn’t seemed at all the tropical heaven it’s often thought to be – or portrayed to be. From what I’ve seen, this is a desert. The rivers wash down so much bleeding, eroded soil that the ocean is stained red.]

Domesticity for the rest of us

[7/27/07 --- Dear John, If you thought I was a slacker at doing laundry in the states, just look at me now: washing my clothes by hand. That’s what pretty much everyone does here; washing machines are only the property of the super rich, supposedly because it costs so much to import them to the island. The professionals rub the soapy water into the clothes with stones. I don’t have stones. So I just mixed my things around in the soapy water to clean them, and then rinsed everything out. I have a whole new level of respect for two-wash cycles. And I kind of like the crinkly feeling you get when you wear clothes right off of the laundry line. I miss you, and your uncanny knack for folding. – John “washboard” Sutter]

28 July 2007

A senator's-eye view

[7/29/07 --- Dear Bryan, From the hilltop view of a senator’s home in Mahajanga, Madagascar, this place looks like a postcard. You can see the whole C-shaped cove, watch the sail boats come to harbor and see rickshaws cart tourists up and down the boardwalk. What you can’t see are the hardships. People piss on the street corners here and many live outside. Most of the country lives on less than $1 a day. But you would never know those things from up here, behind a gated, metal fence, and with a servant house full of people ready to wait on you. Having wealth, in and of itself, isn't a bad thing, I suppose. But the contrast between this hilltop life and that below is staggering. – John]

We're all just people who like to groove ...


[7/28/07 MAHAJANGA, MADAGASCAR --- Dear Cindy, People are so similar all over the world. It is insane and awesome. Last night, on the other side of the world from you, I found a parallel universe version of Cookie’s Bar, in a port town in northwest Madagascar. This bar, which doesn’t have a formal name, was the only light on a dusty street just a few feet from an old Arab harbor on the calm Mozambique Channel. The bar is just a corrugated tin tent, basically, with fisher’s nets strung up on the ceiling. A single light bulb swings over the bar counter. It’s a karaoke joint, but without the television monitor that you have. All of the song lyrics – if you need them – are inside a yellowing graph paper book. Most of the songs were in Malagasy, so I didn’t understand them. I did jump in when someone started singing “Walk of Life,” by the Dire Straits. I swear this place couldn’t get any more random. The whole scene – old men wailing off-key, groups of friends huddling around the microphone – reminded me so much of good friends and good laughs back on 22nd Street in Oklahoma City. Normally, when I walk around the streets of this country, people look at me like a complete stranger. I don’t speak their language. I look different. But somehow music brought me together with the Malagasy last night. We didn’t need a common language. Only a few songs and a little bit of silliness to break down the barriers. See you in December. –John Sutter]

A fallout of globalization and colonization: more prostitution

[7/28/07 MAHAJANGA, MADAGASCAR --- The lights were blue and dancing with epilepsy in the bay-side bar, which otherwise looked like The Cantina from the movie Star Wars. The situation I found myself in would have been hilarious if it wasn’t so heartbreaking. Out for a night of drinks and dancing in Mahajanga, I made friends with two women – and both of them asked me to pay them for sex within ten minutes of our casual introductions. I said absolutely not – for a bunch of obvious reasons – but that I would will be happy to talk to them and to dance. Just to be friendly. And to learn about what put them, and seemingly so many other young women here, in a similar situation. One of the two told me her name was Shakira, after I asked if she liked Shakira’s music, which was playing on the dance floor. They’ll say anything to try to catch your attention. Eventually, I had to stop being friendly and just left the club, rather abruptly. White foreigners have trained these Malagasy women that we are a ticket to another life, to another world, to prosperity. I tried to tell these two women that they could be successful in other ways. But the truth of the economy and the educational system here is that, no, they probably couldn’t. HIV rates are low here, just hovering around 1 percent. But with a growing sex industry, and more foreign workers coming in for international companies, like Rio Tinto mines, it seems like life for people on the streets here will only get more dangerous. ---John]

The rockin rickshaw

[7/26/07 MAHAJANGA, MADAGASCAR --- Dear Jesse, I saw a rickshaw driver (runner) today who was wearing an early-years Bon Jovi t-shirt. I guess that’s a somewhat inspirational soundtrack for someone who has to run in plastic sandals, 10 hours a day, for a living. I think it made his day that I wanted to stop and take his picture. All of his friends laughed and laughed. Malagasy people think everything that Americans do is pretty darn hilarious. Or maybe I'm just weird. –John]

Coolest baobab tree in town

[7/25/07 MAHAJANGA, MADAGASCAR --- Dear Mom, People came to Madagascar – riding on canoes from Indonesia – some 2,000 years ago. This tree, in the center of the town of Mahajanga, has watched nearly half of that history pass. And in the bar beyond its warty, mangled branches, fishermen build boats with centuries-old techniques. Love, John]

Itching the night away

[7/24/07 MAHAJANGA, MADAGASCAR --- Dear John, hater of bugs: Mosquitoes buzzing in my ears all night. Twitching. Slapping. Can’t help but panic, thanks to the threat of malaria here, and an all-too-graphic National Geographic cover story on the subject. The site of red pimples all over my body confirms my worrying, tossing, covering myself in the not-so-airtight shelter of a thin blanket. Needing a mosquito net for tonight. Wondering how to say that in French, so I can be buying it. –John]

The biggest animal here is a lemur, not a moose


[7/23/07 OUTSIDE MAHAJANGA, MADAGASCAR --- Dear John, In this remote and dusty corner of northwest Madagascar, I talked to a woman who was watching a television show about Canada. Even though it is winter here, I’m sure Canada is about 9 million degrees cooler. I drip sweat even in the shade. Outside this woman’s concrete home, kids pulled toy trucks made out of Aluminum cans and tied to string. People dump their trash all over the ground, so their toys are kind of Madagascar’s version of recycling. Inside the woman’s home, next to a bed draped in a mosquito net, a bearded man smoked salmon and played with moose and wolves inside the television. John]

I'm no Rappunzel

[7/23/07 OUTSIDE MAHAJANGA, MADAGASCAR --- Dear Ben, Josephine, 30, and her mother, Totovaiaux, 85, sell small food and drink items from their palm-leaf house in northeast Madagascar, near the coast. They come from the Tsy Mihety cultural group, which believes that it is taboo, or forbidden, for a person to cut his or her hair. It literally means "Don't Cut Hair." These two find that tradition cumbersome and a bit silly; and, like other Malagasy people who are moving to cities, they are abandoning some aspects of their cultural traditions. In Africa, the rate at which people are moving to cities is increasing faster than on any other continent. It will be interesting to see what affect that has on culture…. Hope you are doing well, John]

The Malagasy language is flowery and awesome

[7/23/07 TANA, MADAGASCAR --- Dear Dave – In Malagasy, the word for turkey sounds like “coo-le-cool.” Talk about onomatopoeia in action … old Batman cartoons ain’t got nothing on this place. – John PS: Tell Luke, no geckos yet, but I did see a lizard on the street today.]

Wrestling with poverty in Antananarivo

[7/23/07 TANA, MADAGASCAR --- Dear Chad, I was a rich American looking out across Antananarivo, from atop a hill. She was a poor woman carrying her belongings on her head in a woven plastic sack, climbing up a steep hill to the wall where I stood. They were her children, climbing the dusty path with here. I was the arrogant Westerner who asked to take her family’s picture. She was the homeless woman who said yes, but only if you pay me. And, now, I am the insomniac who feels like he shouldn’t have turned her down. The poverty here is just so overwhelming. I don’t know what to make of it. Hope all is well in Oklahoma City. Take care of the golf clubs for me … --- SUTTER]

Waiting out the night with good ole philosophy

[7/23/07 TANA, MADAGASCAR --- Dear Jesse – Why do we write? Is it to effect change, to nudge the world in a slightly better direction? I hope so. But right now, I write because I control my pen. I control this space. And I must use it to untangle my mess of thoughts. Right now, the rest of the world – its poverty, its heartbreaking inequities – seems too tough to deal with otherwise. – SUTTER]

Buses like pill bugs, slinking around Tana

[ANTANANARIVO, MADAGASCAR --- The van zipped through the streets of this hilly city with me standing on its metal bumper, clinging to the van's back door for dear life. "OK, you really can't die on your first day here," I thought to myself, as we approached a round-about intersection, a thing all Oklahomans fear. This is how I greeted the sun on my first day in Madagascar, and I couldn't have asked for anything more. I have been reading about the 1960s taxis and buses that tote slogs of people around the capitol city of the world's fourth largest island. This bus did not disappoint. There were 40 of us on board, in only five rows -- roughly eight per row. To accomplish such density, the bus has a row of fold-up wooden plank seats in the center, so no space goes unused. The cramming also relies on goofs like myself, who hold onto the back door and watch the pavement sweep by beneath their feet. I read an article in The New Yorker before coming here in which the author compared these buses to wobbly millipedes, crawling all around the city with arms flailing out the windows. Today I am happy to say that one of those arms was mine -- and perhaps one of the legs, too. --John]

23 July 2007

Two years ago i packed everything i own into a small honda and left my childhood home in Idaho to take a job in Florida. before i kissed my mom goodbye, she looked at a map and said "You really can't go any further can you?" when people down here asked me where i came from, i remember feeling embarrased to tell them i was born and raised in the Idaho mountains, a place where cell phones don't work and people don't lock their doors. my friend michel calls me "Idaho Jessie" and asks if i carry a six shooter. my friend josh, who fights fires in the pacific northwest, gave me this postcard when he found out i was leaving florida to go study in Guatemala. it's not really possible logistically or financially, but would give anything to see my home state one more time before i leave.

19 July 2007

Steam pipe blast in Manhattan

[Overheard cell phone conversations after Wednesday's steam pipe explosion in Manhattan. It was a very panicked scene, especially at first, since no one knew exactly what had happened. -- John]

Angels in America

[Dear John -- Happy birthday! I wish you were here with me today. I'm sitting by the angel fountain in Central Park -- the one from the HBO series, "Angels in America." It is nice, calm, only the sound of running watter rippling down from the Angle's feet. Molly and I just had lunch at the opulent restaurant on the back of this card, called Tavern on the Green. Very Alice in Wonderland, I thought, just without the mad hatter. Flowers everywhere -- on the carpet, on the chairs, on the ceiling, outside. Unicorns in paintings. A literal hall of mirrors. It was a little much. But so over the top that it is also kind of magical. Love you, John]

Stonewall Inn, population six

[Dear John, Decades ago, this hotel, The Stonewall Inn, was the witness to a riot that spawned the gay rights movement. On the shadowy wall, protesters march for equal rights, holding signs and rainbow flags. But those days are history here, it seems. A friend told me that New York City's gay community doesn't frequent this area of town as much as it used to. Instead of having a geographic hub, gays in New York are spread out all over the place, he said. In many ways, I think that is a powerful victory. While gays are still discriminated against, they don't have to separate, isolate and alienate themselves from the rest of life and society. They, or we, are peppered in as part of the mosaic experience that is American life today. Well, at least here.]