Wednesday, November 28, 2012

What's your therapy?

The other day I started to reflect on the meaning of therapy, outside of the barriers of a certain image so many of us hold; a living room like setting, lying on a chaise longue, spilling out our most intimate stories to a complete stranger. I have come to realize that this is not always how therapy works.  More and more everydayI also realize that the heart speaks the same language everywhere I go. As stigmatized as it is, therapy is in fact something everyone around the world desires andthat which we seekfor ourselves on a daily basis without even realizing it. 
This thought process began for me the other evening when my boyfriend’s uncle Rufostarted to chat with me about a voluntary activity I had been participating in for the past couple of weeks. He had thought that my helping local families in a rural neighbourhood with their vegetable plots,was part of a project I was assigned to. I explained that organic agriculture was in fact an interest of mine and that it was something to keep me busy, that I took great satisfaction in doing and that I did voluntarily. “Ah yes, “he said, “It’s your therapy.” Indeed it is. “I have my therapy too,” he began to tell me in Spanish, “Sometimes I will wash laundry with my wife,” he reflected, “The other day I washed for the ENTIRE day, non-stop!” I realized part of the healing aspect in that for him, “It is the using of your hands that is so therapeutic, isn’t it?” I asked Rufo. “Yes!” He replied enthusiastically.
I understood Rufo completely. Something about using our hands and moving our body in a slow or methodical way can have a soothing impact andallow us to drain out the noisy thoughts that so often plague our minds and allow us to just be. 
This was a moment where Rufo had opened up to me unexpectedly. It was one of those beautiful moments where two people who normally have the run of the mill, “how are you?” “I am fine and you?” type conversation all of a sudden broke out of that routine and shared a part of their lives they may not normally share with others. 
I have looked around and realized that we all have our ways of de-stressing. We all have our own therapy. My boyfriend’s is to play soccer. He runs and plays until the sun goes down and until he forgets what he started worrying about in the first place. 
For me, it is getting my hands in the dirt, to surround myself and to feel one with nature, as cliché as that sounds. I stop feeling boredom, suffering or pain when I am in the garden with my hands in the dirt or watering the crops. I am able to be in the moment like I used to be when I was a child, playing in the dirt. Nothing else really matters, the sun shines on my back, I have nowhere to be and I couldn’t be more satisfied. Farming is a methodical routine, which repeats a lot of the same actions over and over again. I guess that is what I love about it though. It’s soothing and satisfying work watching what you plant come to life as a healthy, glowing fruit of your labour, no pun intended! As my therapy, farming and gardening feeds my soul, when I start to do it, it feels as though my body had been craving it forever. 
I think that if we all could fill our day by doing only the things that our soul craved we would be a much happier, healthier, open-minded society. We would talk openly about our problems, pain and suffering to each other, even with people we do not know that well. We would live moment to moment, relishing in every smell, sight, sound and touch experienced on a daily basis. Imagine a society where we wouldn’t hurt so much, where suffering wasn’t stigmatized andwhere everything seemed simpler and void of confusion?

I ask the question then, what else would our society be like if the only choice we had was to feed our soul’s truest desires?

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Everyday is a day to be thankful.

I am thankful for so much today. I am thankful for travel to places that allow me to open my eyes and reflect on what I have and where I come from. I am thankful for the talented people I surround myself with, both friends and family, you continue to amaze and astound me on a daily basis. I am thankful for my education that has brought me to where I am today. I am thankful for the ability to find
 humility, grace and strength when under the stresses and pressures life throws me. I am thankful for epiphanies abroad and taking nothing for granted. I am thankful for being a free and educated woman passionate about many causes. I am thankful for love, especially for the self, for it weren't for love of myself , I would not be able to show so much love to those I surround myself with. Happy Thanksgiving, Canada.

Inspired and Unified, Feminist Evolution Around the World.

Recently, two very talented colleagues and female friends of mine wrote two great blogs about feminism and the status of women in both Ghana and Nicaragua. The combination of these blogs, an inspiring conversation and living in Matagalpa, Nicaragua, have enhanced my view on women's rights and their importance for Nicaraguans. I can't help but do so, the passion here is palpable. 

 Little did I know before returning to Nicaragua, that the organization I would be working for is more of a feminist organization, than it is an environmental one. The environment and the protection of natural resources is ANIDES's main focus, with women's rights inherent in this issue. Furthermore, there are a plethora of feminist organizations in Matagalpa...I was amazed upon arriving how many I noticed: Pro Woman, CARE, The Nicaraguan Communal Movement, and Grupo Venancia; A group of women who work in solidarity to promote the rights of women through a variety of means including educational workshops, cultural programs, popular campaigns and even a radio show. 

The sight of these organizations and working for ANIDES got me to thinking. I have always had my opinions about feminism, one being that so many radical feminists never appeared, to me, to seek true equality. As I perceived them, radical feminists believed women should become the more powerful gender, economically, socially and politically. Sort of like the rise of the underdog. After taking a variety of gender studies courses throughout my university career, I was always left with a bad taste in my mouth when learning about radical feminism. We were taught equality meant a perfect equilibrium, socially, politically and economically between men and women, so then why would a group of feminists, fighting for such a concept, want to "bring men down," as it appeared to me? The more I learn, however, the more insight I gain and the more inspired I become.

It was not until I came back to Nicaragua this year, and observed this country that is going through a great evolution ( Nicaragua is one of the only countries in the world with a complete ban on abortion, with many a feminist group speaking against this) , that I have begun to understand what the feminist fight is all about. As I write this I feel slightly ignorant. I am after all , an educated woman who has taken a variety of courses on this subject and yet I am just coming to form somewhat of a clear opinion on the rights of my own gender. Everything has its time, I suppose.

 I came to some of my realizations last week-end, among a group of girlfriends. We were a divided group, geographically, half from Canada, half from Finland. The local Spanish school, a hub for foreigners alike to come and learn and practice their Spanish, only hires women. Myself and others have spoken up to what I perceive as a discriminating act. Apparently the school has had "issues" in the past with every man they have hired and so ceased to do so. The school has a very strong and clear feminist mandate which I support but still could not understand why they didn't hire men if they claimed to believe in true equality? I made a comment to one of my Canadian friends and colleagues, Hannah, in our conversation last week-end, "If it is a feminist school, then why don't they hire men??" I said, totally perplexed. Hannah replied something along the lines of , and I paraphrase, "Well, it is an extreme stance yes, but it is also an evolution. They are going through an evolution." One simple comment and in that moment, an epiphany came upon me. "You are right, you are so right," I said, a light bulb had gone off. 

Just like so many societies,  Nicaragua is going through its own evolution and evolution is messy and complicated. Humans go through change just like societies do and in order to find our balance as beings, we sometimes need  to go off the deep end, go to the extreme,  just to get to the other side where everything seems a little bit clearer and we find our equilibrium, whatever that looks like. Evolution takes time. If anything, change does not happen overnight. 

 How we converse about women's rights in Canada has progressed in leaps and strides. The dialogue surrounding rape education given to women has greatly changed. We have come to a greater understanding of the responsibility of the perpetrator and educating men, the actual threat, rather than providing one  patronizing speech after the other to women, preaching how they need to avoid being raped. This kind of dialogue is more and more present. Just like Nicaragua, however, Canada has gone through an evolution in opinions and dialogue. Our consciousness is evolving. 

All of the bother, frustration and misunderstanding I had for feminists who appeared so radical, cleared. That conversation with Hannah still resonates with me and in the last week I have come to find a great peace in my heart. I feel more proud and more empowered than ever before to be a woman. I feel stronger than ever as well, to fight for my and every woman's rights. 

These decals are spray painted all over the walls of Matagalpa. The feminist energy here is enough to inspire anyone.
As I looked around at the spray-painted decals on the outside of people's homes that say, "In this house, we are against sexual abuse," and at the pro-choice marches down the main street of Matagalpa, I always stood in shock and discomfort ; this seems so radical I thought, there must be some major problems here in Nicaragua," and "Women seem so passionate and demanding, so much so they march around screaming for their rights." 

All women have the same rights and the same need for coming together in solidarity, we are in this movement together, wherever it may lead us. We are all one. Perhaps we will find the equality we all so passionately demand one day, but for now let us rejoice in what we have accomplished today and take comfort in the fact that nothing is permanent, change is bound to come.  

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


Suffering is constantly reminding me that there is good stuff patiently waiting for me on the other side.

My first poem ever.

 Starting something can be the hardest part
 But just pick up and start
 The rest will follow, and soon
 You will find your flow, your rhythm,
 Progress and a vision.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Politics of Agriculture

A question that has to come to mind in light of recent observations in the community in which I have been working is what is considered a fair price for food? In my opinion, if produce has been grown organically, it should cost more, no matter what the size of the vegetable. I always thought in terms of size and amount but now that I am on the other side of the coin, that is, observing how farmers cultivate and working for a pro-rural environmental organization, my perspective has greatly changed. Food is a precious thing and it does not simply appear out of nowhere, it takes a lot of hard work to produce and it is this hard work that usually goes unrecognized by the rest of the world.
Is pricing a complicated issue? Should it be a tug of war between consumer, buyer and farmer? How do politics fit in? As I see it, so much is involved in the cost of our vegetables, especially if they are organic. In my opinion, those who have money to spend need to adjust their perception and start to re-think the terms “cheap” and “expensive.” I consider my food my medicine…and just for one minute, let’s stop and think about how much you might pay to make yourself feel better if you struggled with a bad cold come winter time. What if you knew that your diet and the food you ate could help to avoid those nasty colds? Take out all those pesticides and you are left with a real vegetable that will not contaminate your body. If food has a power to heal, then it should be anything but cheap.

Beyond having healing properties, growing and producing food is quite the costly and laborious task. Within the cost of produce has to be considered a transport fare to get the food to and from the farm where it was grown.  The person who is doing the organizing and shipping of the vegetables needs to be paid, so labour should be included in the cost. But the biggest portion I believe should go towards paying the farmers. Growing vegetables organically involves much more labour than growing conventionally; the management of the soil, the preparation of organic compost, and companion planting to name just a few. Farmers perform most of the labour and are doing the growing and oftentimes the selling! Beyond this there is just simply something called a “fair price”, to me that would mean market price or higher, especially if produce is organic.

As my internship continues, or what I see as a journey of constant and never ending learning, I am developing a greater sense of the situation facing rural Nicaraguans on a daily basis. I visited a project I worked on last year in a community called Santiago, to have a chat with a community leader Marta Hernandez. Marta’s was one of the first plots we worked with and she fell into her leadership role quite naturally! I remember feeling so uncertain about the project, would the living fencing make roots or would it rot? Would the garden plots be plagued with insects? Would the families give up?  Or worse would the families start to use pesticides? After talking to the intern who currently manages projects, some of my fears came true, but some of the families, six to be exact including Marta’s, had patience and it certainly paid off.  Many families are perfectly successful producing beautiful organic vegetables (albeit smaller in size than pesticide, genetically modified produce) and they have even expanded their plots to grow more and are now selling their crop to a local restaurant and the Eco-Hotel and Spanish School where I worked.

The community I work with currently, Pueblo Viejo do not grow organic and still struggle to even enter the market with their produce, the market is flooded from so many producers that farmers become desperate and sell at an ultra-low price, usually being ripped off in the process. Farmers do not end up gaining anything from the transaction, safe money for gas they used to get their truck to and from the city.

I would suggest that the families organize and sell between themselves, however there isn’t a custom of eating vegetables in many rural Nicaragua communities such as Santiago or Pueblo Viejo . Beyond this are cultural patterns that have been warped and changed over time based on colonial interference, for example the creation of a culture of mistrust.  In conversing with Gloria, I said “but I don’t understand, it hasn’t always been this way in Nicaragua, has it?” “No,” she replied “It is something that was introduced by foreign powers when creating colonies, the indigenous were split apart into separate communities and forced to rival against one another.” 

Organizing one’s community involves investing a great deal of trust in your neighbours. This sense of trust and openness does not tend to exist in many rural communities in Nicaragua. I was baffled. In the small town and big city where I have lived, I have found the sense of openness so refreshing as people appear to be so friendly, neighbours talking to neighbours, making eye contact as opposed to flippantly walking past each other on the street (as in a big city like Toronto), and taking care of each other’s children, rather than depend on a day care facility. But perhaps these behavioural patterns are just the remnants of what was left after colonial powers stripped Nicaragua of many things, including systematic norms set in place by the indigenous. It appears as though small communities don’t even trust their own local leader as he or she is considered to be corrupt.

Individual men and women could theoretically come together and sell their produce collectively, this way they would make a fairer profit selling to one buyer who is in need of a large quantity of one particular produce, i.e. rice or beans. (gallo pinto is the country’s national dish: red kidney beans and white rice cooked in olive oil and onions…quite delicious !) The lack of trust between community members however halts any collaboration of any kind.

Some suggestions and solutions have come up in conversation with Gloria to the aforementioned problems. Nutrition trainings, government food policies that restrict the market and only allow farmers to sell in their region based on the amount and type of produce they have to sell, and education. When I refer to education, I refer to the kind that promotes fundamentals like collectivity, trust, peace, honesty and a just society for everyone. But as I am quickly learning, just like so many things, trust and collectivity are not cultivated overnight.

I am learning that although there appears to be deep ingrained behaviour in a particular society, it does not mean this behaviour is desired or benefiting the country’s development. Changing behaviour is not necessarily a bad thing; it simply depends on who is doing the changing, how and what is their motive for wanting to change it. 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Encountering and Forging Networks, The Enjoyable Challenges of Being Vegan and other Precious Things in Life!

It has been a while since my last blog post, much has been going on! My role at work is now more defined; I am researching and designing a five year integrated watershed management program! Lots of work for an intern but it is an invaluable lesson that will serve me for the rest of my career.  One of the most challenging aspects of my job has been trying to envision and grasp the notion of a watershed. About two weeks ago I headed out to the watershed territory we will be working, El Zapote. The day was spent drawing maps in the sand and stopping in the middle of dirt country roads to observe and analyze the watershed’s ridgelines, basins and sub basins. Once developing a grasp on the definition of a watershed and its function, the next step is to understand the activities implemented in the territory. Depending on its inhabitant’s knowledge, beliefs and actions, a watershed can be managed very well or very poorly. A watershed program can focus on such activities as reforestation, environmental conservation and preservation, sustainable and organic agriculture, hygiene and sanitation workshops, and the construction of ecological latrines. At the end of the day, water is the main resource and the main focus. Water as I knew before and value ever more now, is precious. 

 In my daily life, I am sinking into certain comfortable routines and learning to be creative in many aspects of my living situation. As some of you know, I am a vegan as of the beginning of this year. Coming from Toronto, the city in North America with the most vegan options, both restaurants and stores, I was quite concerned as to how I would manage this lifestyle here in Nicaragua. In the first month or so, I faced challenges. I didn’t appear to have the numerous options of soy products and nut milk, or even the wide variety of protein substitutes.  I was also faced with criticisms from some Nicaraguan friends and family, I had not seen in nine months. These criticisms were on one side, hurtful and shocking, but also predictable and understandable. I had changed, and change, as they say is never easy to accept. Criticisms sometimes came in the form of questions: “Are you well, Clare? You look awfully thin,” (a curvier body is definitely of higher value here) or in the form of direct statements “It is not good for you to eat this way, no dairy, no eggs, no meat!” I have received this kind of criticism before, even in Canada.   Not only am I used to them, but I understand where comments such as these come from; fear. The vegan lifestyle is a new concept for many who do not understand it or its benefits.  Many people, for reasons of culture and upbringing, do not know a life without consuming animal products.  I however, find I am happier and am more creative in cooking and preparing my food and I enjoy my meals more than ever before!

Although Whole Foods is not a mere subway ride away, I do have Matagalpa’s largest market around the corner from my apartment. Here I can find three different varieties of beans, rice, delicious root vegetables to make soups and steamed sides, 2-3 different varieties of plantains, and a wide variety of tropical fruits, among many things. With some of this produce I have been able to cook up some delicious but simple recipes. The other day, I whipped up a deliciously warm red kidney bean soup with onions, garlic, herbs, salt and pepper. As a side, I steamed a handful of local root vegetables, namely chaya and pipian (could compare their tastes to artichoke and their texture to squash.) I topped it with some rice that I sautéed in the leftover herbs and garlic and as dessert I prepared a watermelon and cucumber smoothie. The smoothie didn’t require any sugar or yogurt; it was sweet and refreshing without. Next time, however, I will add a dash of mint to perfect it. It would also make a mean cocktail…just toss in a shot of vodka and voilà!
A lovely Thursday afternoon lunch with the first expats I have met in Matagalpa, Lynn and Richard proved to be very fruitful! They told me about a smaller organic market where prices are fairer (some may say higher, I say fairer) and has a few more produce items I might not be able to find in the main market such as organic honey. They also directed me to an NGO that helps children with disabilities but which is also a general store that recycles plastic bottles (there is not yet much of a recycling collection system instituted in Nicaragua, so this was very exciting news to me!) They also told me about a little panaderia (bakery) where a lovely lady with the help of her young daughter bake a mean loaf of whole wheat bread that Lynn claims she  cannot get enough of! Beyond giving me shopping and food advice, the couple are going to introduce me to their network of locals and expats they have met along the way.

I love discoveries like these. We tend to take the purest and seemingly smallest things in our lives for granted…recycling, whole wheat bread, easily accessible organic produce and it is these things that I come to appreciate so fully when abroad.  
Beyond the challenges I have faced with my diet, the isolation has been difficult as well; mainly the inability to go outside at night in a neighbourhood that has a reputation for being slightly on the rougher side. I have gotten to know a few co-workers, but there has not been the opportunity to go out and see the town from a local’s perspective.  I decided to be proactive and seek out whatever network I could find, which is how I met Lynn and Richard.

 I had joined an expat bilingual listserve called Casa Ben Linder just before coming to Nicaragua. This network of around 600 expats living, volunteering, interning and working in Nicaragua is fantastic! Practically for whatever piece of information you are seeking you will receive a handful of helpful replies. For instance, I have been on the hunt for mushrooms in Nicaragua…I have only encountered the canned ones which I don’t find most appetizing! I had about six replies all sending me to different  niche organic stores, restaurants and supermarkets that might have what I was looking for. One of the expats who messaged me directed me to an eco-lodge, cloud forest and coffee farm on the edge of town that I had fallen in love with a few weeks back. It turns out they grow their own oyster mushrooms out of plastic bags that hang off of the wall!! All the more reason to go back!

Casa Ben Linder is also the name of a community center in Managua named after Benjamin Linder, a mechanical engineer only in his twenties, who was inspired by the Sandinista Revolution of 1979, and moved to Nicaragua during the height of the Contra War. In 1986, Linder moved to La Cuá, a village in a Nicaragua war zone. There he helped build a team to construct a hydroelectric plant to bring electricity to the town. He was also quite well known as an animated character that had many talents including unicycling and juggling. Sadly, in April of 1987, Linder and two other Nicaraguans were assassinated in a Contra ambush while working on a new dam site in a nearby village. Linder was the only US citizen to be killed in the Contra War.  Among many memorials all over the country, Linder’s legacy lives on in the Nicaraguan and expat community through the community center and its list serve.

Although I had a general understanding of gender roles in Nicaragua from living here last year, I had the opportunity to discuss with my co-workers and the community I am working in, some of the traditional roles here in Matagalpa. In the countryside, girls normally stay home and help their mothers to maintain the household (cooking, cleaning, carrying water and firewood) and boys will go out and work on in the field with their fathers. If the family owns a small piece of land, women also have to make time to manage a small plot of vegetables or beans while their husbands migrate as far as Costa Rica and Guatemala to work on a farm.

When Anides started working in Pueblo Viejo, almost as many men as women would come to the workshops aimed at improving women’s ability to manage their own resources, i.e. financial and agricultural. Men wouldn’t participate, but sit on the edge of the group, listening and observing. Now half the men come and women are the main participants. As Anides works to slowly improve women’s self-esteem and ability to manage their own financial situation, the organization has noticed an increased level of confidence and assurance in women and their abilities. Slowly, women are discovering that they want to expand their role from working in the home.  Some men, however, are threatened by this confidence and domestic violence ensues. The male leaders in the community continue to show up at trainings and speak up more than women. Women tend to be intimated by the men’s outspoken behaviour and in turn, are not as verbal. I asked my co-workers why not provide the same isolated training to men as to women, and was left with the answer: because it is simply not in the culture to do so.  Laws are now being created that favour women and leave men with nothing. For example, in the case of divorce, women are given more benefits and men are left without any assets. Although many women might say that advances have been made, it appears as though they are moving in one sole direction. We must ask ourselves then, what is feminism’s ultimate goal? 

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Nicaragua: The Sequel

Even when you think you know a place and its context, there is always more to learn. This is what I love about this experience and also what I find difficult. I love it because it means that culture is rich in layers, meaning and experiences. It also means however, that right when you think you know it all and find a comfortable living pattern, you become uprooted and all of a sudden find yourself in unfamiliar territory. That unfamiliar territory currently consists of working with a new organization, living in urban Nicaragua (as opposed to rural), and being immersed in a foreign language five days a week, eight hours a day.

I have learned a myriad of things since beginning my first week with ANIDES, I don’t know if I could recount all of them. What I have learned so far is mostly about ANIDES and how it functions. Underfunded but well-represented, it is a team of only 20 people that works hard to facilitate each of its 32 community’s needs. It is like many organizations that do such good development work, but simply go unrecognized financially in the grand scheme of development. Although, it has developed a handful of useful partners that support it in its mission to provide rural communities with access to loans in kind, volunteer projects (building a school in a community where one barely existed) and capacity building trainings.

I must mention one of the most momentous occasions to occur, a reunion in the making: arriving to see my boyfriend who I have been away from for nine months. The last time we saw each other was July of 2011 in a town called San Juan de la Concepcion. There were of course lots of tears of joy, shock, many kisses and many hugs.

As we drove away from the airport, window down and air flowing, I felt at home immediately. I am more than familiar with the language and am greatly familiar with the culture. Many of the initial smells were familiar as well, the burning wood from street food roasting on a small grill or the diesel gasoline pouring out of trucks and cars driving through the market behind my apartment.

Watersheds, watersheds and more watersheds! I have heard the word microcuenca (watershed) and had the concept explained to me many times this week, I feel as though I should be an expert on the subject. One of the organizations main foci is to work in communities that are located in a watershed. Watersheds, if you did not already know, are ‘’basin-like landforms defined by highpoints and ridgelines that descend into lower elevations and stream valleys.’’ They drain into what is called a sub basin, basically a smaller watershed that makes up a piece of the larger watershed. This website has been very helpful in teaching me about watersheds in a fun and visual way. ANIDES has chosen to work in watershed communities because it is here where the water sources are and where these water sources can be harnessed and protected. The most important thing to know about watersheds is that what is practiced on this land will undeniably affect communities downstream.

Apart from learning about environmental issues, I have been slowly getting to know my co-workers and the lives they live. I am so curious about every day routine here in the city and of my co-workers. What pressures do they face? Is this job a job they enjoy or is it simply to pay the bills? Most of my co-workers are in their early to mid-30s, have children and some face challenges taking care of family and dealing with the stress that that brings. One of our accountants travels almost an hour to get to work and wakes up at 4 in the morning to make sure the kids are fed and she can get herself ready and to work on time.

In terms of living in Matagalpa so far, I like the city. It has more of a nightlife than I was used to in San Juan or did not get used to I should say, and I am excited to be living in a city and to have my own space. As I settle in, however, I have begun to miss San Juan! I miss seeing familiar faces and getting to know a community so quickly. I miss being welcomed with arms wide opened and saying hello to all who pass me on the street. Living in a city, even though I know this country, will be a challenge. I am looking forward to making some new friends in the next few months!