Saturday, October 30, 2004

Hello all, Raegan and I still have our heads in the clouds in the hi-lands of the Dominican Republic. We've been keeping ourselves busy doing some work related to the coffee farm and some community-building work in the town where the farm is located. I'll get more specific at a later date, I promise. Once or twice a week we head down the mountain to the town of Jarabacoa to remember what pavement looks like, what products can be bought and to have a little taste of the outside world, usually via the WWW. Next Wednesday will be our next taste, but before heading to the internet cafe, I intend to buy a bottle of fine Dominican rum and some Coca Cola -- limes can be easily plucked on the farm -- for either some post news-gourge celebration or mourning.

I know I'm preaching to the choir, but I must....
We can all remember when we were in school and some of our peers ran for the student council. We would like to think that the shy-but-nice/smart candidate would be victorious, but we knew that the elected would always be the most motivated or the most popular candidate (and in rare circumstances both). It just wasn't fair I remember thinking. And maybe it isn't, but popularity is important. It's important for a politician to have people like you, to be on your side. And the student-reps who used their popularity to their advantage got things done. Ultimately, as divided as our country is now, and likely will be for some time, either Bush or Kerry will be deemed a more popular figure next Tuesday. It's no secret who I like, but I don't think many Americans understand (or perhaps care) what the world thinks.

Given Bush's persistent use of his words on the stump, apparently Kerry made a mistake when he suggested in the last debate that there ought to be some sort of "global test" before we send our troops abroad to wage war. I don't think that he was suggesting that we should allow, say the Dominican Republic, or god forbid, FRANCE (!) to veto decisions related to our national security. But I do think he meant that the there should be some percentage of the world that doesn't think we're full of it. Afterall, we want people to like us, dont we? Well folks, from my informal survey of many people and places in the world over the last 9 months, people think we're full of it and they don't like us.

Since we left the US, we have met one man who was in favor of G.W. Bush. He was a Chilean businessman and like many in our world he was concerned with one issue. For him it was a free-trade agreement with Chile that Bush signed into law. Most take a broader view, and this exceptional man is not what's important here. I should be more clear: we haven't met anyone on this trip who sits on the fence, this man was the only person we've met abroad who was not a fervent Bush hater. People are truly afraid of Bush. They don't trust him and aren't sure if they should trust American citizens because of him.

Many people we've met have reasured us: "there is no way he can be re-elected." They cannot and do not understand how he could be at all popular in the US concidering how unpopular he is their communities, countries, regions, continents. (I don't either). An op-ed article I read in the conservative Santo Domingo daily yesterday characterized Bush supporters as ignorant and provincial people who want America to be an empirical power that can bomb who it wants when it wants. I'd hate to read what the liberal daily says. The article went on to lambaste American democracy in light of the fact that 50% of eligible voters will abstain, and suggested that a Bush victory (given his unpopularity and our absenteeism) would be sure sign of electoral fraud. Woah! The point I'm trying to make is: whether you believe this to be true or not, it's disturbing that a far-from-fringe foreign paper would put out such unsavory ideas about our people, country, and government. (And these ideas aren't just relegated to the developing world, aparently a London daily suggested yesterday that America needs a Lee Harvey Oswald reincarnate) Yes I'm concerned about these opinions, and so should you be. From the people I've met on the road (and no they're not all dreaded, traveling WMF protesters -- they're from many walks) I've gathered that these ideas are more deeply embeded we'd like to think.

(And guess what folks? Many people we've met who would like to immigrate for a better life don't want in. If they had their choice, they want Canada, or Italy, etc, etc.)

These ideas are far from isolated to this paper, to this country. It has been suggested by more than one person, that the current divide we (Raegan and I) have enjoyed on this trip between government and people is very fragile. That is: hatred of Bush and our governtment may not stay merely that, and could easily become hatred of Americans in general if...

So where did I begin? Popularity. We wish it wasn't everything, but it's damn important. And currently, our standing, and thus our power in the world depends on it more than we think.

But the election sure is close and I'm trying to be optimistic. Before checking the news on Wednesday I think I'll buy one of those famous Dominican cigars too. Have a happy halloween, and don't forget to vote!

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Monday, October 25, 2004

Month ten of traveling finds us on a coffee farm in the middle of the mountains of the Dominican Republic. We are staying for a month on the Alta Gracia coffee farm in the mountains (the Alps of the Carribean) of the D. R. We arrived on the 19th and were picked up in the town at the bottom of the mountain, Jarabacoa, by the current full time volunteer on the farm, Julie, and a local family who owns a truck. It was dark so it wasn't until the next morning that we saw the amazing view that awaits us every day when we wake up. We are way up in the middle of green mountains, coffee plants, banana trees and countless other plants, overlooking a valley with the D.R.'s largest river. Pretty grand.

The farm is 100% organic and operates with the goal of substainability meaning a lot of the food we eat everyday is grown on the farm. Lettuce, bananas, yucca, plantains, oranges, limes, tomatoes, and eggplant to name just a few. There are lots of chickens, guinea fowel and bunnies running around for the purpose of consumption at a later date. The management of the farm has been handed over to a local agricultural organization who conduct a lot of experiments with different crops on the farm and attempt to create a model for the area. There is also a center on the farm, a fairly large complex where they are trying to promote eco-tourism for groups coming mainly from the States. And finally there is a small library on the land which Julie runs for the local kids, helping them learn to read and have a place to hang out.

Around the farm exists what is called "the community", humble small wooden houses tucked around the hills. Most of the local people make their living by picking coffee and beans. The houses above the farm just received running water two years ago. We are slowly meeting the people in the community and everyone is very friendly with us. We have been helping out some in the library and are making a little "reading challenge" program but are seeking other projects and hope to be starting a few this week.

Besides us the main characters on the farm are Julie, the other American volunteer who has been really helpful getting us aquainted. Lupe, cook and housekeeper who makes us 3 enormous meals a day consisting of some variation in yucca, rice, beans and plantains. Filemeno who manages the farm and is very knowledgable. And Piti and Pablo, two Hatians who work on the grounds and live in the main house. Piti is a very good musician and is teaching me some Haitian songs on the guitar while Pablo is trying to teach me how to sing the lyrics in Criolle (a little hopeless).

Other observations: Baseball is huge here, the local men gather every weekend and place bets on us vs. them, playing all day. No matter how poor a family is most kids have a baseball glove and the US World Series is being closely followed. The main transportation system is by gua gua. Privately owned pick up trucks that go up and down the mountains. You perch yourself in the back on the edge and hang on for dear life. This is still thrilling to us, flying down the road past the latest avalanche spot trying not to think about it. The nights are noisy with every kind of insect imaginable buzzing or crackling or flapping its enormous wings inside and outside. And it takes awhile for us city kids to get used to waking up at dawn with the rooster. But that cup of Dominican coffee helps ease the pain. Humidity is a beast. We climbed a small mountain on Saturday and I didn't know body parts such as one's neck could possibly sweat that much.

Life is pretty quiet, we go to bed early and get up early. We miss a cold beverage now and then but other than that life is good and we are really happy to be here. There has been some talk of us helping initiate a project to re-forest the land around the source of the town's water supply. This may be the most promising idea. We will keep you posted.

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Saturday, October 16, 2004

We aren't in South America anymore. But where are we? That was the question when we rolled into Panama City, the banking district with 173 banks (our taxi driver said). Tall buildings and all of a sudden TGI Fridays, Payless, KFC, US dollars, and prices and people. But the next morning we got up to blustering rainy season clouds and got on the city bus. An old US school bus painted bright colors and blasting techno music as it barreled down the main street. Oh yeah, we remembered, we're in Central America. After almost missing our flight in Sao Paolo, running full speed through the airport to get to our gate seconds before they closed it, yes, we are here.

Panama to be exact. Panama City is an interesting place. The US has had so much, and still does, influence here. There are so many US products, more than anywhere else we have seen in the past nine months. One side of the city is tall sparkly buildings and chain stores. The other, closer to the historical center, looks like pictures I've seen of Havana. We accidently "wandered into a bad neighborhood", the kind our book specifically says stay away from and has a few people whispering to you not to go down that block because it is "peligroso". There were lots of shells of old buildings with jungle growing inside of them. Big old builings that are now apartments, painted bright colors but with doors, porches and wooden stairwells falling down and off and apart. Lots of people in the street, getting haircuts, playing soccer, gossiping and music pumping from everywhere.

We went up north to Bocas del Toro, a set of islands where you can do lots of snorkeling and diving. All of a sudden there are also a ton of tourists from our own country. We probably met about ten total traveling in South America, but here we are everywhere. Bocas was beautiful, lots of small clusters of mangroves growing in the clear Carribean water. It was incredibly hot and humid. One day we went to "Starfish Beach" where we saw tons of big red starfish. Another day we saw dolphins and small red tree frogs.

Today we headed in the rain from the islands back towards Panama City. We are halfway there in the mountains, a town called Boquete. After driving through misty views of green mountains and banana country we are in coffee country.

It's taken some adjustment coming from South America. Transportation infrastructure is way different. It isn't as straightforward here, more riding in the backs of trucks and waiting on the corner for the bus to come by. But we are excited to travel north and see more. Tuesday we head off to the Dominican Republic. Another volunteer sent us some gorgeous photos, I keep joking about the one of a tarantula in her room.

Wish us luck!

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Monday, October 11, 2004

Raegan and I safely landed in Panama City a few days ago. Immediately it became apparent that despite sharring many linguistic and historical ties with South America, we are on a different continent. First impression: how could the air possibly be more humid? We´re adjusting. Next was getting US greenbacks out of the ATM. What bland and boring money we have, but to this too we are adjusting. I don´t know if we´ll ever full adjust to the Quiznos Subs, Payless Shoe Source, KFC, TGI Fridays, Dominos, etc, etc... we didn´t realy miss those places so much. But we were really excited to be able to buy chips, salsa, and cheddar cheese at the 24hr Supermarket, things we really missed, and to be able to take refuge from the heat in a movie at the mall. Raegan and I are a little ashamed of ourselves on this account, and I´m not sure how we´ll feel when we get back to the U.S., but for now, malls are great.

Speaking of great, we had a terrific time in Brazil and our last few days in Sao Paolo was the cherry on top. We met Euduardo, who goes by Duda, in Buenos Aires and he invited us to stay at his house. He lives with two older men; Mosa who teaches languages (Portugese, English, Spanish and French), and Jean-Francois who has a few small businesses (Jeweler and purveyor of fine chocolates). Duda was nice enough to get us at the bus station at 6am before heading off to work, and Francois and Mosa oppened their home to us as if we were old friends. They´ll likely never know how nice it was for us to be in a home instead of a hostal.

Our last night in S.America was well commemorated. Raegan and I cooked dinner for our hosts and were joined by our traveler pal Jonathan. After dinner we went to a rock bar where the multicultural audience was singing Ozzie Osborn lyrics into their beer bottles. That sentence can´t explain the place, but at the time I felt like I had found the heart of the city. Sao Paolo is a really interesting place, and when we took our seats on the plane the next morning we had mixed feelings. Like Brazil and the rest of South America we felt that our time was too short to have seen and done all that we wanted to, but that we had given it a good run. In the last 9 months in S.America we tried very hard to feel and understand a place through our experiences and at times, like our last night in Sao Paolo, we succeeded.

Other thoughts on Brazil as a whole:

You need a guide to get where you want to go because "it´s dangerous." Like the location of a bus station compared to a Brazilian town, or the location of your next destination in this huge country: far from it. The earth is red, the land is green and the skies are blue. In mid-day the cobblestone streets are so hot the dogs scratch their ears standing up, and the men wash their shorts and bodies simutaniously in the watering hole. To battle the heat, find shade and have a beer or coconut chilled scientificly to fractions of a degree above freezing, or a mango or a papaya or a guava or a...... Have one anytime. Or sit in the hammock under a banana leaf, or under a fan, and watch the children play with their invented toys, the shirless men, the men in suits on phones, the young women in tight clothes (tighter when pregnant) or the old women carrying loads home on thier heads. Flip, flop, flip, flop. Smiles. Hear the music blasting from the speakers on the car, the election is coming, or from the radio, the guitar on the porch, the drum on the beach, or the voice walking to her job designing airplanes. Hear nothing: never. At night step up to the bar on, in, around the plaza and meet your friends of every color. Dance. Tommorow: work and dance again and know that you are tropical paridise, a country of 200 million souls, and a world power...who else is?

Here are pictures!

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Sunday, October 03, 2004

Okay, this is version number 3 of this entry because the first two magically disappeared with one sentence left to go. So here goes nothin’…

The most common gesture here is a thumbs up, or two thumbs up to someone passing by, meaning “Tudo bem” or “It’s all good”. We are still in Brasil and it is two thumbs up, Tudo bem.

We have been enjoying a relaxing past couple of weeks, a vacation away from our vacation lounging in hammocks in a small mountain town and then lounging on the sand in a small beach town. It has been great and I have been thinking a lot about how fast we usually move around, going to a new place every few days. I think we will start looking for more nice places we can just park it for awhile and enjoy the last months of our trip.

From Salvador we took a bus, rocketing through the night at full speed and arriving in Lencois at 5am. I need to take a few words here to explain the extreme length of time it takes to get anywhere. This country is enormous and we have been on a number of bus rides over 20 hours, followed by connection buses, ferries, etc. It is getting daunting and luckily we only have one more to go cause I think I would start boycotting.

Lencois is in the middle of jungle-covered mountains, next to a national park called Chapada Diamanta where until the 1980s they used to mine for diamonds. It is a sweet little town, surrounded by swimming holes and waterfalls. We spent our time reading, going on walks and swimming. Today is Election Day in Brazilian precincts and for the past two weeks everywhere we went people were campaigning hard. Every candidate has a number and straps enormous speakers to their car, driving around blasting their “theme song”. We still can’t get the song for 22 out of our heads. One night we sat in the plaza and watched half the town march, party and dance for 22, complete with fireworks and free cake. We overheard one woman say she would vote for him because he “has nice legs.”

After Lencois we went to Itacare, a small town south of Salvador on the coast. It is still a somewhat unknown place so the vibe was very MELLOW and the locals and tourists mixed in a very easy way. There are lots of little beaches and many people go there to learn to surf. We spent everyday hanging out on the sand, watching the surfers and drinking that wonderful coconut juice. One day we hiked half an hour through jungle to the “hidden beach”, one of the most beautiful beaches I have ever been to. It was surrounded by bright green palm covered hills. The sand was so clean and flat, the only thing you saw were tons of sand crabs whizzing across it. We met some fellow travelers and by the end of the week started feeling like we had been there forever and I might have liked to stay that long (well almost).

The music here is amazing and everywhere. We are collecting as much of it as we can afford so we can share it with you all when we get home. One night in Itacare the town threw a party in honor of the town saint. There was live music and everyone out dancing until dawn, including many children. The last two weeks we were in the state of Bahia, birthplace of Capoeira . This is the sport/dance where people spar to music, kicking and twirling and jumping in time together. In both Lencois and Itacare we saw Capoeira troops practicing, kids and adults together doing amazing flips and turns to music.

After getting up at 5am our last day in Itacare, walking through pouring rain to the bus stop, almost missing our connecting bus two hours later (literally running after it as it was driving away), spending another 21 hours on the bus to a city called Belo Horizonte, arriving at 5 am to catch another 2 hour bus… we are in a town called Ouro Preto. The old center of Portuguese gold mining, it is a colonial amazement in the middle of the mountains.

For those of you who have asked me a lot of questions about our schedule in the next months here goes: we are leaving South America after over eight months in less than a week, on October 9. We fly from Sao Paolo to Panama where we will spend two weeks until we fly to the Dominican Repulic on October 19 to begin 5 weeks of volunteer work on the farm Alta Gracia. Then on November 25 we fly back to Panama to begin that trip north and home.

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