Saturday, February 15, 2014

Rocita

This is a story of Rocita, a girl from the annex where I worked. She was a 19-year-old mother of an extremely malnourished child. Her 1 and a half-year-old had the healthy height of an 8 month old and with that level of chronic malnutrition it’s likely that she will never recover. Her mother was young, timid, uneducated, and had extremely low self-esteem. She was a young girl who used to run away from nurses during vaccination campaigns, whose father told her it wasn’t worth his time and money to help her go to secondary school, whose primary teachers cared about her education so little they didn’t even teach her how to read. She was a young girl who had no income but for the first and a half of her daughters life could not enter into the Peruvian welfare system. She was a young woman who had been written off as a hopeless case by nearly everyone.

There was no real reason for me to have much faith that working with her would change anything. She had proved difficult, resistant and unwilling in the past. She was stuck in a cycle of patterns that seemed unbreakable. And yet there was something about her that drew me to her.

I first noticed it when I would be wandering around the community trying to hunt down mothers to do house visits. Since Rocita didn’t have her own chacra she was around the community more than most other mothers. Whenever I was walking around it seemed as if she was there peering out at me while masking her face with her hair. Curious about what I was saying and ease dropping on my conversations.

During our first few house visits I found myself getting frustrated with her lack of knowledge. It seemed like I was asking the same damn questions time and time again and we were getting nowhere. Was it that she didn’t understand me? That he didn’t want to understand me? That she never would? As time drew on it became more and more obvious that it was in fact that she didn’t understand me. Not for lack of trying, she actually had the best attendance of any mother in my Vivendas Saludables project. It was that I was using words often outside of her rudimentary vocabulary.

Things that seemed so simple to me were in fact complex concepts to someone who spoke Quetcha as a first language and only had a primary school education. Words like protein, development, even diarrhea were things that had never been clearly defined for her. Time and time again the nurses in my site had explained these concepts to her when she went for her child’s doctors appointment but no one had realized that the actually had to go further back and explain the basics. Because as simple as diarrhea seems to us it is actually foreign concept to someone who has never had it explained properly to him or her.

On top of low education and knowledge level her abysmal self-esteem made her self conscious to answer any question. She would get this feared look in her eye; clearly preoccupied that someone would judge or scold her for responding incorrectly. Better to stay quiet in the corner than express an incorrect opinion.

Throughout the course of the project as shy and self conscious as she was, she would arrive to every meeting on time, participate and pay attention, which is more than I can say for some of the mothers. During our house visits she was able to explain more and more concepts, and had a growing pride in the development of her child. I was able to deduce when she didn’t understand a concept I was talking about on a fundamental level and break down the word or concept to a more basic level.

I cannot report to you that her chronically malnourished child was miraculously cured and is now growing healthily. Nor can I definitively say that the next child she has wont suffer from malnutrition. I can hope tat it will be less likely. I can say that she understood that you should play and interact with your child on a daily basis in order to develop their brain. I can say that I saw a growth in her. Something that was different than many of the other mothers I worked with. I think partly because she was coming from such a lower point. She was a case that seemed so hopeless that the world had all but given up on her.

Her parents had essentially told her at a young age she wasn’t worth advancing. The educational institutions had cared less about her intellectual future. Her community had relegated her to the position many women were in, young, with child and stuck in the campo forever. The health post had tired but they didn’t have the time to sit there with her time and time again to try to explain things. Also since she was not a part of the welfare program they couldn’t force her to come to her daughter’s doctor’s appointments. And I know I wouldn’t go to an appointment regularly that was a 2.5 hour walk away that just made me feel more inadequate than I already felt.

What I realized was there had never been anyone to just sit there and talk to her. Someone who had the time to figure out what she didn’t know before assuming she knew the basics. Someone who would not get exacerbated when she didn’t answer question and keep prying for answers.

She was by no means my most successful mom in terms of behavior change, but she showed me something that I often think is hidden in modern day society, the value of taking the time to talk to someone. If you spend your whole life surrounded by people who cant seem to take the time to care: health workers overloaded with work and pressed for time, indifferent teachers, uninterested parents, a community with low expectations for you future you become a product of your surroundings. There is really no chance for growth and change. You never really had a chance. It is if she was predestined at birth to be a campo mother with a malnourished, under stimulated child because it was all she knew and all people expected of her. There was chatter behind her back about how her child was one of the most malnourished in the community, a bad mother, but no one took the time to talk to her. Everything was accepted as indelible fact.

I by no means think this is a problem unique to Peru, in fact I think it is quite prevalent in the inner cities of the United States as well. There are millions of people who are fundamentally ignored and pushed to the side. They never achieve anything because there is never anything expected of them. They become more by-products of society rather than whole people. And in the age of increasingly impersonal education I think the problem will only get worse.

Rocita taught me that even though someone may seem hopeless from the outside, if they have a curiosity inside, a semblance of a spirit to better their lives they are not a hopeless case. If they still try to the best of their ability to pay attention and grow there is still something worth reaching out to. They are not a hopeless case they are simply someone who was never given the chance. They may not achieve what you want but there can be growth and change, and a spark in their eye that grows with time and patience.

Third Year

Well this is a far over due entry. Let’s get serious I took a pretty hefty hiatus from writing on this blog. My life just became overwhelmed with building cook stoves, saying good-bye and all the change that I forgot to write. At points I thought no one would be interested but I’m starting to write again in the self-indulgent hope that you are interested.

I decided to stay a 3rd year in Peru, extending my service to be a Peace Corps Volunteer Leader in Chachapoyas, Amazonas, Peru. As I am quickly learning a Peace Corps Volunteer Leader (PCVL) is a lot more administrative work than being just a volunteer. 60% of the time I work as a PCVL, doing things like running regional meeting, helping with site development and helping volunteers with various projects and genera life and the other 40% of the time I am still doing health projects.

At the moment the health project that I am doing is helping the municipality to set up the Early Childhood Stimulation Center in a community in order to have a functional, sustainable and well-monitored center. I am also helping an obstetrician with her teen health group. She works with 120 kids from around Chachapoyas in creating youth peer educators.

Anyways the most common question that I get is why I decided to stay a third year. Most volunteers decide to peace the fuck out and head back to their lives in the USA. Well, there are several reasons for this. One is that I wanted to stay because I thought it would be a good chance for professional growth. So far I haven’t been wrong on that account.

I loved my old site in Huancavelica, but my whole first year was basically throwing rocks at other rocks. Literally. There was a rock where I got MoviStar cell service and I got really fucking good at throwing small rocks into a crevice created by two other rocks. I would personally go so far as to call myself an expert. But at the end of the day it’s a pretty stupid thing to be an expert in. so my whole first year felt like one long game of Survivor. Seeing if I could make it in Huancavelica and actually find work. During my first 6 months I spent about 4 relatively severely depressed, until another volunteer, my Peace Corps Volunteer Coordinator pointed out to me that I either needed to be institutionalized or pull my shit together. Luckily I pulled my shit together. As together as any a Peace Corps Volunteer can.

So since my first year was not, let’s say the most productive, partly because of me, partly because of my site, and my site was only 200 people I never got a chance to work on a larger scale institutional level; it’s al little hard when there are only 3 institutions to work on a large-scale level.

I felt that there was still room for growth personally and professionally and personally and if I went back to the states I would have virtually no idea what to do and would be taking a lateral step. I wanted to stay because I felt like there was still something more here for me.

I also wanted to work with my regional coordinator Miguel Angel, who is now in Chachapoyas. For those of you hat don’t know what a regional coordinator is, it’s a host country national that helps to coordinate site development, and security or work issues that may arise in a region and generally help to organize the region. During my 2 years of service he was the regional coordinator for Lima-Ica and Huancavelica. He was a very good person to have as a regional coordinator and helped me to survive my first year in Huancavelica.

So that is a brief understanding of why I became a third year. And so far it’s going well. The adjustment was a bit chaotic, moving to a city and simultaneously starting a job and trying to find and move into new housing. But now that my life has become a little more stable it seems manageable and I am optimistic for the year ahead.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Reflections

In mid September I accepted the position as a third year volunteer and this seemed to coincide perfectly with the start of the construction phase my cocinas project, the realizing that I was in charge of a Field Based Training for new volunteers that would take place in my site, my teen peer educators project moving into its next phase, and the end of service. Of course it always works that way. In the end everything seems to happen.

It suddenly felt like the world was crushing me with responsibility. All the days I had spent time throwing rocks at other rocks both literally and metaphorically seemed to be coming to fruition into real things. I didn’t know if I was capable of handling it all and actually being successful. I suddenly felt like I had a million things in my hands, just waiting to tumble and fall apart…

My moms seemed suddenly disinterested in the cocinas or getting their materials together. I felt a rush of negativity and self-doubt. Nearly every other voulenteer around me was done with their projects, packing up to go home, and I was just buying chimneys?!?! How slowly time moves in Huancavelica.

Could I suddenly finish everything I had set out to do? Did I get in over my head? Would I epically fail at everything? And how the fuck did everything seem to be happening at once? Did my community even care about the project or did I just thrust it upon them? Ain’t that some luck.

I had seen changes in my mothers here, in the community organization of my annex, in the self-awareness of my teens. But somehow when I was entrusted with doing things like constructing cocinas for them, guiding the teens through their teaching sessions with their peers, I felt like I had accomplished absolutely nothing, what I had thought I had done was all in my head. I was simply hallucinating and the end would prove how much the beginning and middle were fallacies. I can’t quite put a pin on what it was but for some reason I just felt like I was going to crumble. Or at the very least I didn’t do enough. The fact the project was coming to a close so late in my service was evidence of my failure. The fact several of my moms lost interest in the actual construction of the cocinas was evidence of its unsustainability.

I began to feel like I had taken too much personal control over he project. I had chosen the cocina style. I had written the grant. How on earth was what I was doing actually sustainable? How was it not just another example of an American barreling in and telling a community what was best for them? I began to become overwhelmed with guilt, stress, and spiraling down a “would have, should have, could have drain.” Which is never a drain you want to be going down in Peace Corps. You could literally spend your entire service in that drain. I began to doubt how someone who did a project so riddled with errors was qualified to be a third year leading other voulenteers.

At this moment I called my friend and former Peace Corps Volunteer Coordinator and for lack of better words a mentor. During an almost hour conversation she told me that it was not uncommon for volunteers to get really emotional at the construction point of a project. It is the culmination and suddenly when everything should be coming together but sometimes life doesn’t work as perfectly as you think it should. And in Peace Corps it never works out as perfectly as you think it should.

It can be hard when some mothers who had expressed interest in a cocina suddenly don’t want one. Others who had no interest in your work are begging at your door for a cocina…If only they had given any importance while you were working. It becomes emotional and overly stressful but then there is a moment when you have to just realize the mothers you worked with have changed. Combined at a point in your service when you begin to look around and think of all of the never finished projects, grand ideas you had that never came to fruition and knowing that the restraints of time will be your enemy it becomes a bit much.

Andrea pleasantly reminded me that with or without a cocina the mothers who genuinely worked with you would always have the knowledge and basis for behavior change. It does not necessarily have to be a package deal with a cocina. And in the end of the day I learned a valuable lesson about community development and sustainability.

Community development and sustainability are two of the hardest concepts to work with. After two years I still cant really answer the question of what sustainable development is. I can answer the question of what it isn’t. Oh so so so so much of my service has been learning what it isn’t. The project I am currently finishing up has taught me about 50% of those lessons.

There are many elements of my project that are things I shouldn’t have done to genuinely follow the model of the sustainable development. I think that that is part of what caused me so much stress at its final stages. I felt like I had failed at integrating the community enough in the design of the project and then in the construction stage I just felt like I was doing something with no real purpose. It felt like I was doing something that would just be forgotten the moment I walked away.

But then I was reminded even though there were admittedly parts of my project that didn’t follow the sustainable development model, or didn’t include enough community involvement during the design phase of the project there are parts of it that will be sustainable. Often these are the things you can’t tangibly grasp. The things that exist but are not as easily to put in a few sentences, the things that will stay long beyond my service. The gradual tilting of the projection of a rocket I will never see launch.

A teacher once told me that you should never write in pencil because over time it will erase and your wont be able to see it anymore, you should always write in pen. I have come to the realization that that Peace Corps is a lot like this statement. Strangely the things that make us as Peace Corps Volunteers feel like we are accomplishing something, like the structure of a cocina, or a mural, are the things written in pencil. The things that will be unreadable in 5, 10, 20 years.

The things we cannot easily wrap our finger around, the behavior change, a rise in self esteem, a change in outlook, a friend, a new door opened that we never even knew existed, a simple conversation or exchange, these are the things that are written in pen.

In all likelihood the cocinas that I have built, as much good as they are at the moment, will not be there in 10 years, they will be a faded memory, maybe changed, maybe destroyed, maybe gradually maintained to still work. Although I can see them today, in the scale of history they are written in pencil. Doomed to the inevitable fate of degradation of most structures or murals in Peru. They will succumb to the element of nature, human folly and time. Evolution will inevitably erase them from my community’s landscape.

Although the physical vibrant changes are the things that make a volunteer feel like they have actually been there. The things that make we grasp to feel like we actually served a purpose our physical changes, unless they are a massive scale municipal wind turbine, will disappear from the landscapes of our towns.

But it is the things such as behavior change, opportunity, hope, a new idea; these are the things that will not fade with time. They will change, morph, maybe fade into the background, but at the end of the day they will be there. You can never unmet someone, you can never un-live an experience, you can never un-eat a meal or you can never un-have a conversation. You may forget, or the memory may get blurry at with the sands of time but it still happened.

I think this is part of what is so hard about Peace Corps. So much of what we do is intangible. So much is hard to explain to someone who didn’t live it. And inevitably we feel like we could have done more. Or wonder will things actually live on once we leave. We can all figure out ways to describe what we have done, but in the end words are not enough. I will never be able to fully explain what I did or the experience I have had. And since I have picked up a really bad Spanglish habit I really wont be able to do it only I one language.

Although I have to come to the acceptance that this part of my service is ending and a new chapter is beginning I can only hope that some part of my time here is written in pen for at least one person. Even if its not necessarily what I think it is.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Welcome to the Jungle

This Fourth of July I went to the jungle for vacation and I have to say that it was probably one of the best vacations I will ever take in my life. I went with three other girls from my region for a relaxing vacation filled with hot jungle air and delicious jungle foods.

To start off we flew into the city of Tarapoto. Well actually if I’m being honest to start off I thought I booked the flights in the wrong direction and I would be taking the jungle adventure on my own. We flew into Tarapoto and out of Iquitos but my flight time was different than the rest of my friends for the flight from Iquitos to Lima and I couldn’t remember for the life of me if we were doing TarapotoIquitos or the other way around. There was a solid 36 hours where I thought I had booked the flights in the opposite direction of my friends and would be spending my vacation solo. Thankfully I did not; I only booked the flight home waaaayyyy earlier in the morning (8am versus 9pm) than my friends. With that debacle sorted out I headed off to the merry land of the Peruvian Jungle.

When we got off the plane and walked down the steps onto the tarmac in Tarapoto we were greeted with mountains lush with forest and life, a sky tinged grey with clouds, a brilliantly hot sun and thick wet air. Lucky for me I was in leather boots and jeans which I promptly took off to not die of heat exhaustion. After collecting our bags from baggage claim we headed outside looking for a taxi to head to the hostel. Funny thing about Tarapoto is that there aren’t really taxis. Instead there are open air mototaxis. To give you a description it looks like someone covered a three wheel motorcycle with a plastic roof, put a seat for two in the back and luggage rack behind the seats next to the wheels.

At this point in our service all of us have a pretty healthy fear of getting robbed and what to do and not do. The idea of putting your luggage on the back of a luggage rack only tied on by string seemed like the ultimate no. that was just asking to get robbed. But after about 10 minutes of searching for a taxi, realizing mototaxis were our only option and we should just hope for the best. Luckily we made it to the hostel all items intact.

. Our first day there was pretty much filled with lounging around, exploring the city a bit and eating delicious foods. The jungle is unlike the rest of Peru. The markets and streets are more chaotic, the air is thicker and the rain more unpredictable. And the food is fucking delicious. The first night we had grilled plantains stuffed with peanut butter or bacon. Whoever invented that is a downright genius.

. The second day we woke up prepared to go on a hike to a remote waterfall, the jungle had other plans. The entire morning it heavily rained. And the idea of hiking in pouring down rain was appealing to roughly none of us. Instead we decided to go to the market to buy hammocks for the boat ride to Iquitos. When the rain finally let up we decided to make an adventure out to a waterfalls, but since it was already 1pm it was far too late to go on an 8 hour hike and expect to come out alive so we chose to go to the closer waterfall that is only a 30 minute drive outside of town.

On the trip out to the waterfall we passed through mountains dense with massive trees and coated with thick green vegetation. The waterfall was off in the distance majestically cascading down an impressive landscape. When we finally arrived to the entrance at the base of the waterfall we realized that coming on a rainy day was the ideal time to come. A place normally full of tourists was nearly deserted. The only other people we ran into on our waterfall adventure were a family of tourists coming down from the waterfall soaking wet.

. When we finally reached the base of the waterfall it became glaringly apparent why the family that was coming down was soaking wet. The waterfall was at least 30 km tall and had a splash zone of about 20 feet in either direction. It was falling with bone crushing speed and power. This was obviously the moment to get as close to the waterfall as possible while documenting everything with a waterproof camera.

. After getting thoroughly soaked by the waterfall we decided that it was time to meander back towards town and indulging in a decadent dinner of fish cooked in a banana leave and a sauce I would not be opposed to bathing in. In case it is not already incredibly obvious I fucking loved the food in the jungle.

. The next day we had to head to a port city about 2 hours away from Tarapoto called Urimaguas to get a boat to Iquitos. Iquitos is the only city in Peru that you can only access by boat or plane because it is surrounded on all sides by the Amazon. The boat was a cargo ship that you can buy space to hang your hammock to sleep or a cabin with a metal bare bones bunk bed to travel down the Amazon and arrive to Iquitos by boat. We got a space for the hammocks and a cabin for our stuff and just in case someone couldn’t sleep hammock style. And yes there are showers and food served on the boat. Granted you are straight bathing in river water but dirty water is better than no water.

. The boat trip is hypothetically a 3 day trip. I say hypothetically because the actual travel takes 3 days but there is the pretty high potential hat you will spend at least one day sleeping in the boat on the dock. Of course when we arrived they said we were leaving at 6pm sharp that night. That was just a bold faced lie. We did leave the dock at 6pm but not to head to Iquitos, to head to another part of the dock where they were building a new ship. We spent a solid two hours trying to pull one giant flatbed cargo boat propped up on logs off of land with another giant flatbed cargo boat in the water attached by one side with a thick metal string. As you can imagine this plan did not turn out as planned. After about two hours of strain on the metal rope it snapped in half like a twig with a loud snap and flying sparks. The wonders of construction projects in the developing world.

. The next day roughly every 2 hours we were going to leave in 2 hours from that moment. I have become accustomed to “hora Peruwana” but even the best of us begins to get frustrated when hora Peruwana turns into hora you have been on a docked boat for 24 hours with no end in sight. Thankfully at 6pm we left and after another hour of pulling, successfully this time, the boat off land into water we headed out towards Iquitos. And it was defiantly worth the wait.

The boat has an eclectic mix of people. The first floor of travelers is mostly Peruvian locals traveling for whatever reason. The second floor was mostly filled with backpackers, foreign travelers and a handful of Peruvians. On our boat there was a large group of young Haitians making their way to Brazil in search of a job. Every evening a young woman with a crystal clear voice would sing Creole hymns full of hope and sorrow. There were also backpackers from all over the world, mostly European and South American, traveling anywhere from 2 weeks to 2 years. There was also a Peruvian hair dresser who used to work in one of the nicest Peruvian salons but was moving to live with his brother in Iquitos, but we will get to him later.

The first day I suffered from bouts of narcolepsy. It’s hard to maintain consciousness when you are sitting in a hammock all day. Thankfully I was able to take in the view the next two days and not fall asleep in the middle of sentences. The first two days we were traveling on a tributary of the Amazon. The water was a grayish color and about footballs field length wide. On either side there was grass up to 5 feet tall, twisted trees lining the shore line and the occasional small village dotting the landscape. Since it was dry season the river was low and there was a clear white marking on all the vegetation about 3-5 feet above the water marking the peaks of the river during rainy season.

. The first day and a half of travel the houses were few and far between. Every so often you would pass a single house made of banana would and propped up on stilts. Normally not too long (under an hour) after spotting the first house there would be a small cluster of 5-10 houses, each made of banana wood and only one or two rooms. Sometimes the houses only had one or two walls, since it’s unnecessary to enclose yourself against the cold. These small villages often included a small school house and a cleared off area with something resembling goal posts that served as a futbol field. These villages were small and isolated. Often there were paths leading from the river into dense dark, tall, thick jungle. I always wondered where the paths lead and how on earth people didn’t just get lost and eaten by snakes when they took these dark and mysterious paths.

. There are parts of the Peruvian jungle where there are still un-contacted tribes. People living in the heart of the jungle the same way they have for thousands of years with no idea what else is out there. Obviously the villages that were right on the shore line have been contacted but I got a sense that their contact was limited. There were rarely ever power lines in the villages, no cell phone towers and a sense that although they had been contact they still lived a very traditional jungle life. When we would pass thick uninterrupted jungle or see a path leading deep into the jungle I always wondered where the un-contacted tribes are. What must it be like to live in a community and have the people you have known your whole life and nature be all that you know.

These are people who live I harmony in nature and have no concept of the information age which we live in. They are free to live regardless of the rest of the world. Their survival is dependent on a deep understanding of nature and skills honed over thousands of years. Something most other members of humanity have forgotten and replaced with dependency on technology and machinery. Even those who still use the tools of the past or understand nature in a way most Americans never will are getting pushed aggressively into the modern age.

It was hard on the boat not to get overwhelmed by the vastness, majesty and spirit of the jungle. This is going to sound incredibly corny but I’ll say it anyways. The jungle is a very spiritual place. While on the boat you could feel the spirit of the jungle all around you. It was teeming with life in so many ways and yet so fragile. I think it is the ultimate representation of the power of nature, its fragility and our dependence on it. I’m the first to admit that I got really reflective about my life while sitting on the roof of the boat staring out at the sunset over the water and watching us gracefully move through space. It was so happy and peaceful, something unlike anything else I have experienced in my life.

As we got closer to Iquitos we began to see larger villages and stop to drop off the cargo. These villages were by no means large; they were just larger than microscopic. In these small villages of 20-40 houses we would drop off everything from eggs to beer to laundry detergent. It was obvious that the way that these villages got basic necessities and food stuffs was from the cargo ships. Every time we would dock to deliver something at least 10 women 15 children would rush on to the boat to sell food and beverages to the people on board. In the process of selling their goods at least 1 woman would get stranded on the boat, caught up in a sale the moment the bell rang and the boat left the port. To return home either a small wooden boat that looked like a canoe with a motor attached would come speeding after us from her village to get her or the small attached to the cargo ship would escort the stranded women home. Obviously these women could move from moving boat to moving boast as if they were walking on pavement. I imagined myself trying to do the same thing and just face planting into the water.

The closer we got to Iquitos the larger the villages got and the more chaotic each stop became. People would be rushing on and off bustling in either direction, passing on precariously placed wooden planks with a grace I could never even dream of.

Some time half way through the second day of travel we started traveling on the Amazon. Let me tell you it is a fucking huge river. That may seem like the world’s most obvious statement considering it is visible from space but it is a statement worth saying. It is about 3 football fields wide and there are huge tributaries or forks in the river that completely distort any sense of direction. Suddenly shorelines where you could once see clear detail seemed far off. The water was brown instead of gray and it was hard to orient yourself as to which way the current was going. We seemed to be engulfed by river and every so often the snout and fin of a pink dolphin would pop up. And yes in case you were wondering they are in fact pink.

Our original plan was to get off in a port city called Nauta and take a car into Iquitos. Now I know I said Iquitos was only accessible by boat, but from within the department you can reach it by car. Getting off in Nauta would have turned 8 hours of boat travel into an hour and a half of car travel. Violent protests about a newly passes accountably law prevented us, so we spent another day on the boat.

Naturally it was at this point that my friend sweet talked her way into a free haircut on the boat from the award-winning hairdresser. He completed her hair with a cute cut and then proceeded to do my other friends hair. It was at this point I decided it would be an awesome idea to also get my hair cut on the boat. Because how could getting a free hair cut while floating down the Amazon be a bad idea?

Before starting the hair cut I was very animate about how I wanted to maintain the length of my hair. Past horrible haircuts had scared me and I did not want a repeat. I will say that it was not the worst hair cut I have ever received but it was the most shocking. As he flipped my hair upside down and twisted it I wondered where he was going with it. He then promptly proceeded to lop off three inches of admittedly mostly dead and uneven hair. But even still I was not prepared for such a thing. I made what can only be described as the world’s largest gasp and stood up in horror. Nearly the entire boat heard my shock. After about 2 minutes of freaking out I realized that I had dug my grave and now the only thing to let him do was continue with the hair cut. In retrospect not my most well thought out plan but now I can say I got a haircut while floating down the Amazon so at least there’s that.

When we finally made it into Iquitos it was the afternoon of the final day of programmed protests. Even though there was no protesting still going there were still signs of the previous days protests littered on the streets. Literally.

When we got off the boat we had to hunt for a mototaxi to take us into the city center because none of them wanted to due to roads being closed from the protest. When we finally came about 2 mototaxis willing to take us I understood what they were talking about. Right at the entrance to the street from the port there was a huge pile of burning trash. The roads leading out were blocked with a hodgepodge of people playing futbol in the street, trash, small bon fires of god knows what and turned over mototaxis. We had to weave our way in and out of obstacles to find a clear path. All of the stores along the road and in the plaza had their doors half shut, shut or with a person standing guard. There were about 20 riot police standing and chatting in the plaza de armas. All around there was a creepy aura that something was about to happen. Fortunately for us it had already happened and we were just on the tail end.

Iquitos is a chaotic, hot, clustered, vibrant and fascinating city. You could spend an entire week there and not do everything there is to do. The markets are filled with monkey skulls and real tiger skin belts, countless isles every kind of fruit, nut and aji imaginable, and exotic foods. I indulged in eating grilled slugs, piranha, crocodile and a juice made of agroboina, honey, dark sweet beer and other random things I can no longer remember.

Since it is surrounded by water most of the travel involves taking a boat combi. Which is amazing. These boasts are small canoe looking boats, with a wooden roof over the majority of the boat and can fit up to let’s say 15 people. Naturally everyone from the selva can get in and out of these small boats as if they are casually walking off a subway platform. I on the other hand look like an elephant trying to cross a balance beam. Not so smooth.

Most of our adventures in Iquitos involved seeing animals in one way or another. The two notable trips were one trip to a very depressing zoo that was also accompanied by a swimming hole formed by the Amazon and jungle animals that looked like a giant guinea pig (roughly the size of a small dog). The entire time I saw them I just kept thinking of the South Park episode about the Peruvian Pan Flute. The other was a trip to a significantly less depressing animal rescue that saved animals that were abused, abandoned or on the black market. Since I have seemed to talk forever I will give you only one highlight from each place.

In the animal rescue I saw a fight go down between a cockatoo and a monkey. Please note the cockatoo won. Birds are scary as shit. The monkey accepted his defeat stole as many lichi fruits as he could hold and scampered off. In the zoo with severely inadequately sized cages a group of Peruvian teens were poking their fingers through a monkey cage and taking photos as close to the monkey as possible. As, what I can only think was a form of retaliation for pissing him off, the monkey quickly stole one of the girls scrunchies and no matter how much she begged he would not return it. I think it´s a fruitless effort to beg a pissed off monkey for your things back.

Well here is will I come to a stopping point. If you made it this far I applaud you.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Small Successes

Throughout Peace Corps service nearly every volunteer suffers from the seemingly perpetual feeling that they are floating upstream without a paddle. So much of your first year and a half is filled with frustration, disappointment and confusion it can seem hard to imagine a day that everything will seem to come together. The day that suddenly you will have too much work to fill in a day rather than too much Game of Thrones. The day where you have to stick to a strict schedule in order to get everything done in a month, instead of having a schedule filled with things like: get out of bed, leave your room, talk to someone and smile. I’m not joking that that was actually my to do list for the first 3 months of my service.

The long months of seemingly accomplishing nothing and going nowhere can get extremely disheartening. Unless you are one of the super lucky volunteers in an awesome site around year one you begin to feel like you have been banging your head at a wall for the last 15 months. It was around this point in my service I started to throw clothes pins against the wall of my room in frustration. I didn’t want to throw anything publically and couldn’t afford to actually purchase something new if I broke it so clothespins became my throwing object of choice.

But somehow in spite of all of this around the last 6 months of your service things seem to suddenly start working. Well start working is a loose term. It is not as if suddenly you are not producing magical things day and night…unless you are constructing things, thin that case you are magically producing things on a daily basis. It is the moment where you realized that someone actually paid attention in the educational sessions. The moment you realize that you have more respect from your community than you initially thought possible. The moment people actually hold you accountable because you are facilitating a project they want to see finished.

This moment I realized I was not just running around like a chicken with my head cut off came for me when I was doing a house visit with a mother who at the start of my service I would have left for a lost cause.

When I arrived the health post had almost entirely given up on this mother. Her youngest daughter was a little over a year when I first got to site. She was a quiet child who only used tear to express herself and had a wanting and dead look in her eyes. Appointment after appointment the nurses had talked to her about the importance of early childhood stimulation and better nutritional habits. Time and time again she came in with her child malnourished and behind on the developmental chart. They seemed to be running up against a brick wall of resistance.

This was a mother of 3 who lived in an abusive household. The abuse created a strained environment of hostility. Father abusing mother, mother yelling at her teen child while feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, her teen child mistreating her younger sister when she was left to babysit her. There were rampant self-esteem issues and a seemingly endless cycle of risky health behaviors. The baby was constantly playing near cow corrals and drinking crude cows milk. For those of you that don’t know crude cows milk although it comes out like body temperature cappuccino milk it is filled with bacteria dangerous to humans. This was a family that from first glance seemed like a worst-case scenario.

Throughout my months of service I began to work with the mother, and with her teenage girl. One I worked with in a healthy homes project and the other in a teen health promoters program. As I began to work with them the seeming dysfunction that shrouded the family began to become clearer.

With every house visit the mother became more honest with me. Eventually she started to ask me questions about what she could do better and proudly tout around her increasingly better nourished and developed child. Although when she attended meetings she looked tired from a long day and as if she was only ½ paying attention, with every house visit she seemed to listen. All of the things she had heard for years about child rearing finally seemed to sink in when someone was willing to sit one on one with her for an hour. Month after month her child began to become better nourished, attentive and observant. What was once a colloquy, disinterested child soon became a curious and chatty child.

In a house visit a little over a month ago the mother commented that her 2 ½ year old was much more awake and attentive than her other children. Her youngest could tell when her mother was sad and comfort her. She could express her emotions and have as intelligent of a dialogue as a three year old can have with anyone. She constantly asked what things were and wanted a through explanation. This mother could see a visible difference in the mental, emotional and physical capacity of this child and her older children.

With her child came a rise in her own self-esteem. She beamed with pride as her child surpassed older, under stimulated and malnourished children. She found the strength within herself to begin to stand up to her husband. She also began to try to open a healthy line of communication between her and her teenage daughter, creating a dialogue and resolving the issues that were bubbling under the circle. During the months of working with her she began to have more confidence in the health post and trust them. Instead of hiding from them she began to use them as a resource to discover how she could create stronger family relationships in order to create a healthy home. She began to trust in herself and believe she was a good mother. She began to hug her children and say I love you every day and expecting a hug in return.

From this mother I realized that the smallest things could have a snowball effect. A mother who I wasn’t even sure was listening to anything we said has began to take steps to transform her life. I cannot take the credit for this because at the end of the day all I think I did was give her a route to find the confidence in herself she had lost. Once she saw that she was a good mother and could raise an intelligent well-nourished child she began to want more. She began to believe in herself and her family. She has hope.

Small Successes

Throughout Peace Corps service nearly every volunteer suffers from the seemingly perpetual feeling that they are floating upstream without a paddle. So much of your first year and a half is filled with frustration, disappointment and confusion it can seem hard to imagine a day that everything will seem to come together. The day that suddenly you will have too much work to fill in a day rather than too much Game of Thrones. The day where you have to stick to a strict schedule in order to get everything done in a month, instead of having a schedule filled with things like: get out of bed, leave your room, talk to someone and smile. I’m not joking that that was actually my to do list for the first 3 months of my service.

The long months of seemingly accomplishing nothing and going nowhere can get extremely disheartening. Unless you are one of the super lucky volunteers in an awesome site around year one you begin to feel like you have been banging your head at a wall for the last 15 months. It was around this point in my service I started to throw clothes pins against the wall of my room in frustration. I didn’t want to throw anything publically and couldn’t afford to actually purchase something new if I broke it so clothespins became my throwing object of choice.

But somehow in spite of all of this around the last 6 months of your service things seem to suddenly start working. Well start working is a loose term. It is not as if suddenly you are not producing magical things day and night…unless you are constructing things, thin that case you are magically producing things on a daily basis. It is the moment where you realized that someone actually paid attention in the educational sessions. The moment you realize that you have more respect from your community than you initially thought possible. The moment people actually hold you accountable because you are facilitating a project they want to see finished.

This moment I realized I was not just running around like a chicken with my head cut off came for me when I was doing a house visit with a mother who at the start of my service I would have left for a lost cause.

When I arrived the health post had almost entirely given up on this mother. Her youngest daughter was a little over a year when I first got to site. She was a quiet child who only used tear to express herself and had a wanting and dead look in her eyes. Appointment after appointment the nurses had talked to her about the importance of early childhood stimulation and better nutritional habits. Time and time again she came in with her child malnourished and behind on the developmental chart. They seemed to be running up against a brick wall of resistance.

This was a mother of 3 who lived in an abusive household. The abuse created a strained environment of hostility. Father abusing mother, mother yelling at her teen child while feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, her teen child mistreating her younger sister when she was left to babysit her. There were rampant self-esteem issues and a seemingly endless cycle of risky health behaviors. The baby was constantly playing near cow corrals and drinking crude cows milk. For those of you that don’t know crude cows milk although it comes out like body temperature cappuccino milk it is filled with bacteria dangerous to humans. This was a family that from first glance seemed like a worst-case scenario.

Throughout my months of service I began to work with the mother, and with her teenage girl. One I worked with in a healthy homes project and the other in a teen health promoters program. As I began to work with them the seeming dysfunction that shrouded the family began to become clearer.

With every house visit the mother became more honest with me. Eventually she started to ask me questions about what she could do better and proudly tout around her increasingly better nourished and developed child. Although when she attended meetings she looked tired from a long day and as if she was only ½ paying attention, with every house visit she seemed to listen. All of the things she had heard for years about child rearing finally seemed to sink in when someone was willing to sit one on one with her for an hour. Month after month her child began to become better nourished, attentive and observant. What was once a colloquy, disinterested child soon became a curious and chatty child.

In a house visit a little over a month ago the mother commented that her 2 ½ year old was much more awake and attentive than her other children. Her youngest could tell when her mother was sad and comfort her. She could express her emotions and have as intelligent of a dialogue as a three year old can have with anyone. She constantly asked what things were and wanted a through explanation. This mother could see a visible difference in the mental, emotional and physical capacity of this child and her older children.

With her child came a rise in her own self-esteem. She beamed with pride as her child surpassed older, under stimulated and malnourished children. She found the strength within herself to begin to stand up to her husband. She also began to try to open a healthy line of communication between her and her teenage daughter, creating a dialogue and resolving the issues that were bubbling under the circle. During the months of working with her she began to have more confidence in the health post and trust them. Instead of hiding from them she began to use them as a resource to discover how she could create stronger family relationships in order to create a healthy home. She began to trust in herself and believe she was a good mother. She began to hug her children and say I love you every day and expecting a hug in return.

From this mother I realized that the smallest things could have a snowball effect. A mother who I wasn’t even sure was listening to anything we said has began to take steps to transform her life. I cannot take the credit for this because at the end of the day all I think I did was give her a route to find the confidence in herself she had lost. Once she saw that she was a good mother and could raise an intelligent well-nourished child she began to want more. She began to believe in herself and her family. She has hope.

Monday, June 10, 2013

A Tale Of Cuban Adventure.

Walking around the streets of old Habana is like entering into a time capsule. All around you are restored, or beaten up cars from the 1950s and 1960s painted wild and vibrant colors. The colors and conditions of the cars seem to blend perfectly with the Caribbean background, luscious trees and brightly colored flowers that litter the scenery. On Obisbo Street there is store after store selling everything from pizza, to art, to memorabilia. The art galleries are filled floor to ceiling with paintings so vibrant that their color palate seems to come from the scenery itself. You can buy a half shell of coconut filled with coconut ice cream while milling about and taking in the life around you.

Nearly all the buildings and houses all have a flare of Spanish architecture and give you a feeling that you are wondering through history. Some of the buildings have been rejuvenated in downtown Habana with a government recuperation project, but the majority of the others stand in different states of disrepair. Paint chipping off the walls, iron balcony’s rusting and filled with drying laundry. The once stately manors have been turned into multiple family homes or government buildings. When driving on what used to be Park Avenue of Habana you can sense the forgotten glory of the estates of the sugar kings. One particularly ostentatious estate now houses an ATM at what used to be a grand front door.

The grand houses still stand, but their glory has faded, they no longer represent wealth and success. Many of the houses have been slowly restored, but instead of a massive overhaul the restoration takes place over time. A house may have a beautiful coat of paint, yet shutters that are still crumbling. Some of the former one family homes now look more like apartment buildings than grandiose estates.

The majority of the people live simply. A doctor’s house is similar to what many late 20 year olds would have as an apartment. A full bath, living/dining room, kitchen, several bedrooms and closets, no rooms left unoccupied or infrequently used. Even the most pristine houses near the pristine Varadero beaches are houses that by US standards would be a starter home or a middle class home. Living room with separate dining room, kitchen, patio, several bedrooms, 2 bathrooms and clean-cut floors, furniture and light fixtures maybe even a back or front yard. These houses are nice, well kept and grand on a Cuban scale, but nothing compared to the sprawling manors of the US.

Driving along the coast to get to Varadero beach you can see miles of untouched forests, full and vibrant with life, densely covering the mountains. The coastline varies from rocky to sandy. Although you pass some factories and oil refineries for large stretches there is pure, untouched land. The beaches of Varadero beach are white sand beaches with calm crystal blue water. Although this is the most trafficked tourist beach in Cuba the sand remains largely free of liter and it is possible to find a spot where you can sit down and no one is within 50 years of you. There are a few resorts that line the beach front, nothing more than 7 stories high, but for the most part there is foliage with houses tucked in.

Throughout the day and night the streets are filled with vibrant life and lively people. Only occasionally will you get asked by a panhandler for money or overly pressured to enter a store, but never so much you start to feel uncomfortable for your safety. There is not a single child working on the street selling gum or food. It is rare to stumble across a disheveled homeless person, although it happens.

At night young people gather on the Malercon, the “couch of Habana.” A long, low wall that stretches along the waterfront where you can gather to sit, dance, drink, and waste the night away with friends. There are also dance clubs that play vivacious music and lead to sensual and sensational dancing.

This is the image I leave you with of Cuba. A land shrouded in mystery that houses friendly, vibrant people largely unknown to the American people. A land full of colors and life in every sense of the word that is untouched. A small island nation that is presented as America’s enemy and filled with so many questions it is hard to unravel.

Recently I was fortunate enough to go to Cuba with my grandmother, mother and several family friends. We went as part of a religious delegation. Under current US law religious delegations are allowed to obtain visas to go to Cuba to strengthen the relationships between the Cuban and American religious organizations. I would like to preface this part of my story by saying that this was not exactly your typical vacation. A part of me would not consider it a vacation at all due to the amount of meetings and events we attended. This was a bizare trip partly because it wasthe first trip that I took with real people that were not peace corps volunteers. I throught it was totally normal to say things like !”thats some fucked up shit” and eat with my hands when knives seemed inconvient. I realized I will have a lot to adjust to wjen I return stateside. Anyways back to cuba...

When I was 13 we went to Cuba, but I think I was too young to really appreciate what I was seeing. What I can really remember from that trip was being exposed to papaya for the first time and initially thinking it tasted like poop, although I have since come around to the fruit. Having a celebration with Elian Gonzalez and his entire family and being overwhelmed by how quickly everyone was speaking Spanish. In one conversation the only word I understood was “tierra” (earth). Going to the tobacco factory and later smuggling cigars into the country because my parents felt my suitcase would be less likely to be searched.

Clearly.

And finally I remember falling asleep at the dining room table after eating dinner with Fidel Castro. Castro is notorious for long conversations and being a master of communication. I would agree with the fact that he is a brilliant orator but my 13-year-old self became overwhelmed with exhaustion at 1:00 am when he and my parents go lost in an intricate conversation about municipal development. You would think one of the most vilified political figures in the 20th century would be bothered, or at least notice, that someone from the country that actively presents itself as Cuba’s enemy, fell asleep in the middle of one of his sentences. In fact he simply told my mom to move me to the couch outside and kept weaving in and out of conversations with my family for another hour. He did not seem remotely phased that I could not keep up with his marathon conversation. Maybe I wasn’t the first.

It is always a slightly odd experience going to Cuba because Fidel is one of the most polarizing political figures in modern political history. As a result it is hard to get a clear picture of what the country is actually like. What the lives of the average citizens are like and what are their feelings towards their situation, livelihood and government. It’s hard to actually look at the country without being shrouded in stereotypes, mystery and unbearable curiosity. I am not saying that I got a clear and balanced picture of Cuban life but I made my best effort to ask questions, explore and find out some answers that always prodded my mind.

This trip to Cuba was very different, not only because I am now 23, but also because I can speak Spanish. When you speak the language you can gain a clearer picture of the reality at hand. I am not going to pretend that I got a completely even-handed picture of everyone’s perception of the Revolution or life in Cuba. The majority of the people I spent substantial time with were members of the government or members of the Cuban Council of Churches, and a handful of artisans, street vendors and families of political prisoners. So there are shades of grey.

When we went to Elian Gonzalez’s house we saw how he has turned into a healthy young man, regardless of the political battle he was the center of when he was 7. He lives in a nice house not far from the Varadero beaches. Once one of the most notorious children in the US, who got caught in political warfare between the US and Cuba is now a happy and healthy 20 year old boy. He lives with his family and is in a serious relationship with a girl from University where he is studying Business Administration. This child who became the center of every news cycle, entangled in legal battles, and almost unable to return to live with his father, stepmother, brothers, and grandmothers because his uncles wanted to prove a point about the US and the evilness of Castro, is now a humble young man. He has been able to mature outside of the spotlight of prying eyes and live with a family that loves him. This served to prove the point my grandmother, who was heavily involved in his rescue, always said, “governments don’t raise kids. Families raise kids.” Sometimes you have to look beyond the problems of government to the people that lay underneath.

One of the most interesting things said to me during my visit was from the President of the Cuban Council of Churches. He said (paraphrase from memory) we recognize that Fidel is not a perfect man. We know that he made mistakes, especially at the beginning of the revolution, when he was a young revolutionary heavily influenced by the policies of the Soviet Union. But as the churches of Cuba we choose to forgive, we choose to look towards the positive and remember the things that we have gained from the revolution as a way of moving towards an untied future.

If we think about it what political figure hasn’t made mistakes? I feel like the 24-hours news cycle survives pointing out the mistakes of American political figures. And if anyone says our politicians are perfect to that I say George W. Bush. No government is perfect. But I think it is telling that the churches are willing to recognize the mistakes of the past, forgive but not forget. They support and remember the good; the benefits such as free mandatory education, food stipends and world-class medical care for free, instead of engraining themselves in blame of past mistakes. They work to create a culture of forgiveness, not forgetting the mistakes of the past but working to create a better future through unity.

Every person that we met was not as Zen about the government. One member of the parliament we met during our trip was the opposite of what the American image of Cuba would lead you to believe was in parliament. One shocking fact, to me at least, the parliament is elected. And since it is a socialist society there is only a brief biography about each candidate, which do not all necessarily share the exact same views. In my opinion, voting seems much simpler because there aren’t millions of dollars funneled into campaigns. This allows janitors, farmers and teachers to become members of parliament instead of relegating politics to the elite class.

But back to Mr. Parliament man. He was the definition of a showman and a chatty Cathy. Perpetually pulling the spotlight to himself. Sometimes saying outlandish or controversial things. He told us his wife once asked him if he was scared about being so outspoken, to wit he responded let them come after me if they want pretty much, criticism is the only way to get the government to do what the people want and need. To this point no one has arrested him, although I came close to throwing something at him. There is a level of freedom, political discourse and public awareness of the power of the people that is not presented in the American dialogue of Cuba. I’m not saying that it is a perfect system but there was a level of trust and respect, namely born from the access to education and health care. There are problems but there are certain things, namely the education and health care, which Cubans are passionate about never loosing. Just like any other society there are people that stand in opposition to the government. Those that fear it, or have problems with their situation or think it is not doing enough. One man we met, Ariel, was a one legged street vendor who was very frank with us about his dislike of the Cuban government. He told us that people are not paid enough for what they need to buy, and the only really good jobs are in the hotels, restaurants and taxis where tips serve to supplement incomes. He had tried to escape by boat 3 times to join his father in the US, but according to him there are sharks that surround the boat waiting for it to sink and eat you. None of us had the courage to ask if he in fact lost his leg to one of these hungry sharks. He saw the US as a land of opportunity and freedom but now he has given up his quest to venture there. He has bitterly accepted the opportunities available to him and works hard selling his music to earn an income.

Ariel represents a rising number of independent businessmen who pay for a government license and then are able to open art studios, restaurants, street food stands, or sell music and memorabilia on the street. His main complaint was the lack of strong economic opportunities versus the cost of living on the island. It is difficult to find a balance when you have an embargo with the one of the most powerful nations in the world and have to ship nearly everything from Japan, China, Brazil or other countries thousands of miles away. There is also a special “Cuba tax” implemented by most companies that protects them if the US decides to invoke economic penalties for dealing with a country they have an embargo against. So buy the time an average Cuban goes to the store the products are 3 to 5 times their original price.

The one thing that I do have to give the Cuban government credit for is its adaptability in the last 10 years. I am making this point based on the increased amount of small business ownership present in Havana. I have seen many changes since the last time I was there and although I am hardly saying that Cuba is a perfect government at least it has come adaptability, which in the face of growing bipartisan rigidness in the US Senate I think we could use some adaptability.

But even as I say this, I remember there was also one man that came up to us in church looking like the CIA was chancing him. He said that we had to help him because we speak English. People are scared of the government and we had to help his cause because we could communicate in English to everyone else. I cannot say where this fear grew from but unless he is paranoid it grew from somewhere.

Their voices served to show us that things are not a utopia socialism, there are problems with unemployment, dissatisfaction and frustration even fear. I think that these are the things that the US dialogue focus on when they are talking about Cuban society. But at the same time don’t these problems exist in a capitalist society? I don’t think a single American can say at this point in our history that they haven’t felt the pangs of unemployment or underemployment or dissatisfaction and frustration with the government. In my opinion that is how we have to change the dialogue between the US and Cuba; instead of looking to them and saying “prove it,” show me why your system is so awesome there should be an open dialogue. Because isn’t the fear of drowning under medical bills or college debt something that plagues millions of Americans? Neither society is perfect, neither is imperfect, that is what we have to accept. Throughout my trip I was exposed to what has to be one of the most under told stories in US history, the Cuban 5. The Cuban 5 are Cuban political prisoners that have been held in US jails for 15 years. Naturally since I was with my family I ended up in a press conference discussing the Cuban 5 in Spanish. Just your average family vacation. Since this entry is already pretty long I don’t want to go into the whole story right now and overwhelm this entry. All I want to say is that it was heartbreaking to listen to the stories from their families and really makes you question the integrity of the US government with regards to Cuba and the influence of the Miami anti-Castro Cubans.

The things that never enter into the American dialogue are the effects of the embargo on medical care, on both sides of the embargo. For instance since the Cubans have to ship things from thousands of miles away they sometimes run out of things or simply cannot purchase it. One such item that they frequently have a shortage of is batteries for cochlear implants. So you can get the implant but it may run out of batteries and you could have to wait far too long to replace it. They also frequently run short chemotherapy treatments for children. The most innocent members of society, who had nothing to do with Castro’s Revolution, can be sentenced to death due to lack of medicine.

But this is a two way street. After Hurricane Katrina Cuba offered the US 100 doctors to New Orleans. These are world-class doctors that come from one of the strongest health systems in the world. They each had a backpack packed with their personal food and water supplies and medical supplies to help the US citizens, but President Bush refused to let them enter the country. Even though it would have cost absolutely nothing to the American people and there were American citizens living in a life-threatening and parlous situation. We also can’t have access to the Meningitis vaccine that has been developed in Cuba because that would violate the terms of the embargo.

These are the stories that we never get to hear. The dialogue that is largely inexistent. The reason I am going so in-depth into some political opinions is because these are some of the things I was exposed to on my trip. I think that these are the things that we never get to learn and it is what I personally chose to investigate. This is the image of Cuba that was formed throughout my trip. I had my eyes opened to many things. Some doors opened as many questions as answers. But for the most part I found that the Cuban people were vivacious people who did not hate the US, much as we would are to believe. It is a place I hope you all can be exposed to and form your won opinions.