Monday, 13 August 2012

The Mystery of the Mascara

I traveled to and returned from Paradise this week. After catching one bus to San Pedro Sula, another bus from San Pedro to La Ceiba, an overpriced taxi ride with an incompetent taxista from La Ceiba to Nueva Arminia, and after a night in Nueva Arminia, a wet ride in a fishing boat, I arrived with two friends in the tranquillo community of Chuchauate in Cayos Cuchinos, a small group of islands off the coast of Honduras.

Turquoise waters, clear skies, hammocks, happy children playing with crabs, coral reefs full of fish taken straight out of Finding Nemo (including a couple of baracuda that sent me swimming quickly to shore) – it is all there in Chuchauate. There are approximately 50 homes on the island that is not larger than a football field, and the residents of the island are friendly beyond belief. The children are happy and full of energy, eager to learn new games and to build sandcastles along the shore. Days are spent snorkeling, laying in the sun and eating heaping plates of beans, plantains, rice and fish while watching the fishermen set off in their long and colourful canoes to catch fish and lobsters.

It doesn’t get much more perfect than this. When staring out at the island gems edged in white sand, set against a backdrop of clear blue skies and waters of a million shades of green and blue, the islands look as perfect as a contrived backdrop in a cheap photography studio. “Tropical Paradise” is the name of the backdrop, and it looks primed to have a harried gaggle of a family posed before it, hands folded nicely in laps or on one another’s shoulders, smiles contrived, clothed in Sunday best.

And perfect it is. Until, that is, the mascara incident. After some quality snorkeling time in the coral reef surrounding the island (did I mention that this place is perfect??) my friends set the snorkeling mascara rented out from the family we were staying with on the beach while showing a giant hermit crab to the kids. A few children who had been catching fish just off the shore started playing with the snorkeling gear, and after the bustle of sunbathers left the beach it became evident that the mascara had miraculously acquired legs, walked into the sea, and taken up residence in an unoccupied hermit crab shell, determined to enjoy the beauties of the coral reef for all of eternity without being subjected to being pulled, prodded and washed in spit by visiting tourists.  At least, such was the only plausible solution to the fact that after walking through the village several times to ask if anyone had seen the mascara, nobody seemed to know where it could be. Each child instantly accused a friend of having taken the mascara. When approached, said friend would then accuse another friend of having it. Mothers of the accused children developed walls of defensiveness when asked if they had seen the mask, also placing the blame someone else's child.

According to the women we were staying with, dishonesty reigns supreme on the island when it comes to the children. The adults are fine – if an adult is caught stealing they are not allowed to stay the island. But the children learn at an early age that if they take something from a tourist, their parents will pretend not to see the stolen object to avoid the embarrassment of acknowledging that their child stole something.  

We eventually gave up on the search and paid to replace the elusive mascara. Emotions ran high when I walked with a local island resident to question other islanders with as much delicacy as possible, knowing that bitterness that arises in a community the size of a football field have a tendency to fester. The snorkeling gear had dominated a portion of the day. Although still dazzlingly beautiful, the waters did not seem quite as bright, nor the sand quite so pristine as it had when we first landed.

Why is it that we gravitate towards Paradise? Why do we daydream about turquoise waters in the midst of January greys, spending hours scanning the internet for good deals on flights to tropical destinations? Why do we contrive to establish paradise around us, wearing fake smiles and putting on our Sunday best? Does this Paradise even exist?  

The missing mascara reminded me of Gerard Manley Hopkins. This is not exactly surprising; it is remarkable how often daily life reminds me of Gerard Manley Hopkins. In the sonnet “God’s Grandeur” Hopkins exuberantly writes about the beauty of the natural world, writing “the world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.” But a tone of mourning enters the poem when a couple of lines later he mourns that “generations have trod, have trod, have trod; and all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; and wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell.”

Sometimes the existence of humanity feels more like a smudge upon the face of the earth, when we smear our bickering and selfishness across the glorious backdrop of God’s creation. And yet we are drawn to natural beauty like moths to flame. Like moths surrounding a candle or a lamp on a summer's evening, our presence rarely augments the beauty that is already there. I think that it is not a coincidence that tropical paradises are not infrequently the setting of books like The Life of Pi and Lord of the Flies, in which the sometimes harshness of humanity is juxtaposed alongside of tropical beauty.

I think that yet again Gerard Manley Hopkins grasps this idea in another poem, “Spring.” After describing the richness and beauty of Spring he questions and answers, “What is all this juice and all this joy? A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning In Eden garden.” We are drawn to beauty like moths to flame, risking safety and security in the attempt to experience something of a glory we can only remember. 

It has been about a month since my last blog post. This is a bit of a clue as to how much free time I have had lately. To give an update, I am over halfway through my penultimo day in Honduras; I leave for the San Pedro airport bright and early on Wednesday. It is going to be a tough departure, but I am going to leave with the knowledge that everywhere on this earth, whether a tree-lined street in Vancouver or an island in the Caribbean,  is filled with the glorious "strains of earth's sweet being in the beginning in Eden garden." No place is going to fully live up to the memory of Eden garden - we humans carry too baggage for that - but at the very least I can strive to continue to listen to those strains wherever in the world I am. 

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Colour and a Study in Contrasts

Two weeks have passed since my last blog post and we have now successfully completed the first of the four weeks that comprise the bilingual summer camp programs at UPH. I now wake up at the lovely hour of 5:45 am to get ready to catch a bus at 7am to the neighbouring town of Santa Rita where we hold one of our camp programs. I am sure that those of you who know me well are aware of how pleasant a person I am at 5:45 am. Let's just say that it is best if few words are spoken and that I make my way to the coffee pot at the earliest possible opportunity. Somehow it is easier to wake up early in Honduras, where the roosters begin crowing at 4 am (or at 11pm if they are confused - which is unfortunately an all too frequent occurrence). 

The greatest highlight of the past week is  that I now get to teach art three days a week at camp. And each of those days I get to teach the same class three times in a row: once with the grades ones and two, once with the grades threes and fours, and once with the grades fives and sixes. I have a good life.

The focus over the last week has been on COLOUR, starting off with learning (well, at least attempting to learn) about the colour wheel and complimentary colours, leading into some pop art fun with Andy Warhol, and wrapping it all up with Wassily Kandinsky's "Concentric Circles" (a collaborative student reproduction of which is shown above). It has been really cool to see just how quickly kids catch on to the idea of abstraction. The majority of them had no difficulty whatsoever with coming up with crazy colour schemes for colouring Mickey Mouse or soup cans, and creating mini concentric circles was not a problem at all. We spent the first half of one class just drawing whatever shapes, lines and colours come to mind while listening to different kinds of music. Here is a sampling of some of the results:

The little boy who drew the first drawing above was able to tell me the meaning of every line that he drew, and what emotions he felt about each one. I also had a long conversation with one little girl all about our shared love for colour, in which we discussed how boring the world would be if there was no colour. I think that in these child artists I find kindred spirits!

The last week has been a study in contrasts on more than one level. We have been talking about contrasting colours in art class, and I have been thinking about contrast and juxtaposition as I have been playing with some painting ideas that will be realized when I am reunited with my canvases and art easel in August (SO excited for some quality music, paint and tea time when I get back!) And I have also been struck by the contrast between working with children who attend the bilingual private schools, and working with children at Camp Hope who attend the local public school. Here is an example: at Camp Hope if you ask a ten year old girl what she did the day before, she is likely to say that she helped her mom make tortillas. At the summer program, a ten year old girl is more likely to say that she played computer games. Likewise, although most of the public school kids have never seen the ocean, the bilingual students know enough about the beaches of Honduras to give me travel advice as I think about maybe possibly taking some time to find some sand, salt waves and plam trees before I head back to BC. The students at the bilingual school seemingly have much more in common with the children I have worked with in Canada when it comes to material possessions.

In this blog post I am not so much voicing an opinion as I am presenting a contrast. Like an artist putting blue and orange together on a canvas, I am trying to juxtapose in my mind the poverty and privileged wealth that surround me. Like any contrasting colour combination, poverty is only emphasized when placed beside wealth, and wealth in only emphasized when placed beside poverty. At home economic differences and social classes are less glaring and obvious as they are here, in a society where the gap between wealth and poverty is so huge. Back home, shades of blue are lost in a sea of purples and greens. Here, blue jumps out at you from a sea of orange. And I think that this contrast, however jarring it might be, is as it should be.

Contrasting colours are also called complimentary colours, and some of my more astute art students might be able to give you a few examples of some complimentary colour combinations. The contrast between stark wealth and poverty - and much as I don't want to, I must align myself with the side that we consider privileged wealth - is not a contrast that I delight to dwell on, but it is one that I am forced to dwell on by virtue of living here. As Christ says, "the poor you will always have with you" (Matthew 26:11, NIV). And I know that the same can be said regarding the wealthy. I suspect that this contrast is a constant, something that will be here forever.

Here comes my question: as I look at the inevitable difference between the poor and the wealthy, can I look beyond the stark differences that jar the senses, and can I see where they compliment one another? It is hard for me to see the positives in wealth, particularly as wealth is all too often acquired and maintained by disregarding the position of the poor and oppressed. But I do think that the good of poverty is often emphasized by its juxtaposition alongside of wealth. As someone who has grown up in economic privilege, I learn about true gratitude and true generosity in the homes in the poor.

With this in mind, I am tentatively going to cast off my rich guilt for a time - or at least just put it to the side ready to put on again when needed. Instead, I will attempt to focus on the positives, and see how I might learn more about the condition of poverty and wealth in the world through living beside them both. Just as blue and orange are not inherently "good" or "bad," I don't think that wealth or poverty can be viewed as entirely good or evil - it is how we lead our lives in whatever condition we are in that determines goodness or evil. 

Thanks for reading through these somewhat incoherent thoughts and ramblings! Thoughts and comments are, as always, appreciated :)

Saturday, 30 June 2012

Adventures in Guatemala

Well, the changes foretold in my last post have occurred and we are now getting into the season of summer programs. One of the major changes that this entails is that I now live with nine other people instead of just two or three other people. It has been interesting to see the contrast between walking down the streets of Copan by myself, and walking down the streets of Copan with a group of people.Somehow we evoke a greater response from the corn husk doll venders and the jewelry sellers with their tables in what we affectionately call Gringo Alley. I also had to say goodbye to the kids at Camp Hope where I have been teaching English, and enjoyed reading stories to precious little Hector for the last time during recess. 

Being flung from my natural comfort zone of, you know, reading poetry and listening to depressing folk music in the solitary confinement of my bedroom has naturally occasioned much thought about my own introverted inclinations. As a way to prepare myself for the impending flood of community I decided to go on an adventure into Guatemala last week with the intent of spending so much time alone that I would be absolutely desperate for society by the time the summer began. I spent one night in Antigua and enjoyed the wonderful hospitality of Kodee, a friend I met while making alfombras on the streets of Antigua during my trip there during Semana Santa a few months ago. From there I ventured out to San Marcos La Laguna in Lago Atitlan for three nights where I enjoyed solitude at my hotel while sitting in a hammock surrounded by hummingbirds and flowers at my hotel. I also enjoyed a variety of adventures, like taking a taxi (aka tuk-tuk) ride to neighboring San Juan where I discovered a local women's textile cooperative. Let's just say that if you throw me into an environment that combines my love for pastel earth tones, fabric, local industries and the empowerment of women, the money will most definitely be spent. I spent time kayaking on the lake and gazing up at the steep slopes surrounding the lake that are crisscrossed with terraced farm fields. I also had the chance to go on a tour of San Marcos with a locally run organization (unlike many of the tourist-geared businesses in the area) to learn a bit about the culture and history of San Marcos - and to enjoy the opportunity of wandering along trails that pass between avocado trees and coffee plants. Two of my favorite products of the earth in one place. Good times.

Traveling by myself at the lake was a rich cultural experience. I had the chance to experience the chicken bus of the boat world - called the lancha - while sitting with people speaking not Spanish or English, but the local Mayan language, the name of which I have sadly (and embarrassingly) forgotten. I had the chance to speak with a woman working for the local women's weaving cooperative to learn about weaving with traditional Mayan techniques and dyes, and I had the chance to speak with a talkative taxi driver about the struggles of the illegal immigrant to the States on the rather lengthy and bumpy ride to San Juan. Much as I love the taxi, my love for it diminishes when we are driving along pot-hole filled holes alongside of cliffs.

As you can probably tell from this description, I didn't spend quite as much time in solitary confinement as I thought. But it was still a rich experience that taught me that I can indeed have substantial conversations in Spanish and my vocabulary isn't quite as weak as I sometimes think, that humanity is beautifully and wonderfully diverse, and that maybe I like being around other people a little more than I sometimes think - at least if I have a little sitting-in-a-hammock-surrounded-by-flowers-and-humming-birds time in my vida.

And to help those of you living back home to get a taste of the beauty of both Antigua and Lago Atitlan, I have, as usual, some photos:

Exploring the plethora of fruit, souvenirs, secondhand clothes, technological products, pirated movies, artisan products and more in the market in Antigua. 


More fabric!

The past two months have not diminished my love for the crumbling walls of Antigua. 

The cathedral of San Francisco. 

More walls. sigh. 

The pilas in Antigua. I can see myself enjoying washing my clothes here. I like the colour scheme., yellow and greenish browns. Lovely.

I know that it is strange to include a picture of my hotel bathroom, especially given that it isn't even a very good picture. But this is just to communicate how pretty the art is in even the bathrooms in the hotel where I stayed - Hotel Aaculaax. Stained glass art is good for the soul. 

I didn't take too many pictures at the lake. I decided to focus on enjoying the moment rather than spending time fussing over my camera. These pictures are the result of this mindset. 

Baby coffee plants!!

This photo does absolutely nothing to show the beauty of the mountains covered with fields. 

Some of the paths close to the water in San Marcos. 


Volcano at night, with the lights of San Pedro below. 

And...back to Antigua. Did I mention that I love the walls there?

 An interesting exhibit about diversity in Guatemala. The photographs were beautiful. 

And last of all, a picture of me enjoying two of my favorite treats from Antigua: chocolate and coffee, united in the beauty of a mocha. Good times. 

Adios for now!

Sunday, 10 June 2012

A Day in My Life

I decided to be a tourist a couple of weeks ago.

When I first arrived in Honduras, I walked around feeling blind. Coming from the late winter/early spring clouds of beautiful British Columbia in March, the sunlight and colour of Honduras was a shock to the system. Without the gradual seasonal transition from the gray shades of winter to the vibrant colours of sunlit summertime, the contrast between the aesthetics of home and Honduras was a surprise and I spent a lot of time squinting my eyes and feeling dazed.

I don't feel that way anymore. It is like when back home people ask my family if we ever get tired of our view of the gorgeous mountains north of the Fraser Valley. The reality is that after a while we don't notice them anymore. The mountains - albeit beautiful and awe-inspiring become mundane and ordinary.

I think that there is a lot of truth in what Paul says in Philippians, about being "content whatever the circumstances" (Philippians 4:11). Whatever our life circumstances, something else will inevitably look better. If we are rich, we want more. If we are poor, we want more. If we are bored, we want change. The secret to happiness is not contingent upon changing our circumstances or the scenery that surrounds us. The secret is in somehow being content with the grays of BC winter, with the vibrant colours of Honduras, with times of plenty and with times of need.

All this goes to say that I applaud the cliche tourist who stands in scenic locations around the world with a camera around their neck, gazing with an awkward, squinting gaze at the world around us (usually with sunglasses), striving to capture the immense beauty in which we live with a haphazard snapshot. I think that in many cases an artist is like a tourist in their own town, someone who sees the world with the wonder of a tourist who has been transplanted from the mundane reality of Canada, Germany, Korea or wherever they are from, and is now looking with new eyes on the world that is mundane to everyone else around them.

And so, even though the aesthetics of Honduras are still far from mundane to me, the fact that they no longer shock my senses with their beauty inspired me to be a tourist last week and take haphazard snapshots of my everyday life.

Here it goes, portions of my daily life in Honduras:

Morning coffee drinking/reading/journaling time overlooking the palm trees and hills. Beauty. 

(I highly recommend delving into the poetry of Mary Oliver. Her view of nature is beautiful!)

The walk from my house to the road. 

Walking to work.


I get to draw pictures on a regular basis for English class. What is the shepherd doing? He is taking care of the sheep. (hand motion - rocking the imaginary baby while saying taking care of emphatically)

My walking buddies on route to the after school camp program. They are two of the lideres joevenes who work with the kids at camp.

Bananas! We also saw a black variety of bananas on this walk but I forgot to take a picture.

I asked the boys if they knew which plants along our walk are edible. The result is that we stopped every couple of minutes for the rest of the walk to look at every edible plant variety in Copan. Now I can get lost in the forests of Honduras for extended periods of time without the fear of starvation. 

Entering Nueva Esperanza, the neighbourhood where we run one of the afterschool programs. 

Coming up to the school where all the craziness of camp occurs. 

And last but surely not least, the chicken. Probably one of the most common fixtures of life in Honduras. I am sure a better photographer could find beauty in this chicken. I did not. 

Hope you enjoy this glimpse into everyday life here in Honduras!