“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
Last week we spent several days in Cotzal, a beautiful community in the western highlands of Guatemala. We spent most of our time in Cotzal working with women in a weaving cooperative who graciously welcomed us into their lives and homes. These women were all survivors of and widowed by the devastating Guatemalan civil war that dominated three decades of the nation’s history starting in the 1960′s. Towards the end of the armed conflict, five widowed women die coded to band together and sell their weavings to forge a future for themselves in the wake of such profound loss and desolation. 20 years later, the co-op uses a strong and sustainable business model to support 45 women and their families.
Several of the women in the cooperative shared their survival stories with us one night as we squeezed in the conference room and huddled away from the rain. Their stories blew me away. The strength, grace and poise that Doña Caterina displayed while sharing her incredily devastating story was truly remarkable. I was able to really appreciate the beauty of the courage that these women display in every step that they take and every row that they weave with their weathered fingers.
While hearing Doña Caterina’s story I took rough notes so I would be able to remember the experience later. Afterwards, I decided to transcribe my notes into another journal and now I find myself writing about her words again. The practice of repetition and storytelling is a concept that fascinates me. Storytelling is not only an important source of amusement and catalyst for creativity, but I believe it is also an immense and powerful tool (or weapon) in shaping society. After all, we learn from the words that have been chosen carefully for our ears, and we act based on judgements formed from those words.
As important as words are, I believe silence can be equally impactful on society. If people like Doña Caterina chose to remain silent about the horrific crimes that occurred during the civil war, the situation would continue to worsen and tragedies would continue to occur. Memory is a beautiful and powerful tool in shaping society, and I greatly admire people who choose to remind the world of problems that go unnoticed and forgotten. I will continue to remember the dignity and strength with which the women of Cotzal carry out their daily lives, and the courage with which they chose to break the silence.
If smiles are the universal language, then laughter extrudes fluency. There is nothing like laughter to bring together people, families, nations. And so here, in the small fishing village of Niodior, smiles and laughter are key to center the cacophony of languages misunderstood.
In the vibrant whirlwind that is our home, at least for a handful of days more, every individual has been able to grab on to wisps of all that Senegal has to offer. For some it is language or music or new friendships. Others have learned about culture, religion, or even themselves. But we all, without fail, have perfected the “I don’t know what you’re saying but I hope it’s not a question” smile and laugh.
These moments are horribly confusing at their worst and just plain awkward at their best. Fortunately for us, young and old Senegalese are at the very least understanding and so often willing to help. Be it an answer prompt and then a chance to repeat the interaction or the use of animated gestures to express points, if both parties are determined, conversations will occur. And occur they have. Even on such a small island, interesting people and conversations are abundant if you just look. And yet, perhaps my most meaningful conversations have not been the ones with my host brother on interesting global issues or the quiet interactions with the elders in my host family, but the ones based purely on laughter.
On Niodior I live in a compound full of families not even all related. I have ten host moms. Yes ten. Between them they speak French, Wolof, and Sereer. I speak English and some French. Conversations are always choppy. But honestly, that’s probably for the best. It makes even simple requests difficult, but provides so many hilarious misunderstandings.
Take the day I fasted with my family. As night fell, an older man handed me a few dates. Without thinking, I took a bite. The man starts laughing, as does my host brother. Slowly everyone in the compound is at least giggling. Someone pulls out his phone. Sept minutes he says. Seven minutes. There is nothing to do but laugh. I pretend to be mad at the man who handed me dates. The grandfather of the compound hands me a mint as a joke. In fractured French I thank him, then jokingly ask if he has any more food I can eat before the sun goes down. When it is truly time to break fast, the same man hands me another date. Chaotic peace falls over the compound. I am at home.
Ahlan Friends and Family!
Here are a few snapshots from our desert trek in Wadi Rum. In short, our time in the desert was incredible, although it feels like a separate trip altogether right now. Tonight, the air in Amman is cool. I’m sitting in Jabal al-Lweibdeh, a neighborhood just outside of downtown Amman, and the call to prayer is reverberating off our hillside (jabal) for the fourth time this evening. I’ve never spent time in the Middle East during Ramadan, and the repeated recitation of Quranic scripts always draws me back; it grounds me, and reminds me how lucky we are to be in Jordan during this ‘pause’; an intentional time to prioritize faith, family and extremely rich food.
We’ve had an action packed few days in Amman; the type that became intimidating as soon as I acknowledged the date of this post. It’s now July 14th, and the title of this Yak is “Snapshots from our Desert Trek” … so let me re-cap…
When we first arrived in Jordan, we flew into Amman and immediately boarded a mini-bus down to a desert camp outside of Disa Village; a village on the outskirts of the largest natural preserve in Jordan, Wadi Rum. After two days of Orientation, we piled our belongings into a pick-up truck and hopped atop a caravan of camels, everything glowing in the late afternoon sun.
Our week in the desert settled into a rhythm. We woke up with the sun each morning and wandered into the desert, skirting the edge of huge sandstone cliffs to stay out of the sun. After two hours of walking, we’d settle down for the heat of the day and study Arabic, feast on piles of pita, drink glass after glass of sweet tea, and play cesja, a form of Bedouin chess that our guide Suleiman kindly taught us. Britt and Angie embraced the competition, although Suleiman showed absolutely no signs of mercy, and repeatedly beat both Britt and Angie, taunting them almost continuously along the way; the corners of his eyes folded in triumphant glee. In the evening, we’d walk again, set up camp, and then settle in for family-style dinner; the night sky crushed velvet and stars above us.
Writing about this week feels nostalgic already. Something about the vastness of the sand and the blanket of the sky seemed to cradle our experience, drawing us together to find meaning in the empty space. I grew up along a river in New Hampshire, and the absence of trees, water, and vibrant life in the desert always strikes me; the vacuous space offering time for reflection.
Ok, more soon.
What does it really mean when Dragons push you to your limit or at the very edge of your growth zone?
Let me tell you: Going into a 3 day and 2 nights trek. Sweaty and almost out of breathe. No proper shower. Waking up with random mosquito bites all over your arm, shoulders and legs. Trying your best to send an e-mail in a very traditional internet cafe, however you can’t just because you can’t (only the Team Thailand will know). Interacting to the Karen families and guides and saying “tab-lu” and “nibonita”. And part of the growth zone is when Dragons make you cry because there is some things that you need to let go during this course and maybe your entire life.
I called my mom last night and shared this experience and the one and only thing she asked, “You made it?!”
Trust me, I give up easily and I always find the short cuts. But believe me when I say “I got this.” I don’t know how I made it through, but I am now back in Chiang Mai and I’ve conquered the unknown mountains.
As we are heading to our Thai massage tonight as a reward for accomplishing the trek, I am, in advance, saying “I got this.”