Sunday, February 15, 2009

Gracias, Honduras

Today is my fifth month back from Honduras. Five months. How am I adjusting with my new status as a "Returned Peace Corps Volunteer" coming from the boondocks of Central America back into the jungles of the U.S.?

It hasn’t been a breeze, but I don’t have much to complain either. For one I’m thankful to just have gotten
 a job at a great firm with great colleagues given how difficult life has become for everyone across the board when I got back. I’m also thankful just to be reunited with everyone I love, to be in a city I love and have access to all the things I love to do. It was just time to come home for me and I’m happy to be back. However, I wouldn’t deny dreading the things I was more than happy to leave behind in the first place – like the temptation to be swept away again by “life” and responsibilities and find oneself be part of the droves of the living dead or be consumed by the accumulation of things, debt and stress.
The realization that my two years overseas that at times felt like an eternity actually happened in the blink of an eye and that most everything and everyone that was left in the U.S. remained where they are was rather poignant. There are days when it actually feels like I never left at all and that Honduras never happened. Peace Corps’ predicted “reverse culture shock” experienced by returned volunteers was pretty on point, such as how it's harder to readjust coming back
and how most people won’t care to listen for more than five minutes about our experience. Personally, one of the most difficult adjustments was getting used to again to not making eye contact with anyone or not acknowledge another presence in a room or on the street, unlike in Honduras.
Nevertheless, I know that once again, I’m right where I need to be right now. But I refuse to conveniently assimilate back into a mechanical lifestyle in a society that has largely forgotten how to LIVE. It saddens me whenever I see how quick-tempered people are over the pettiest matter and how isolated everybody is from everyone else, even amongst a crowd, perpetually plugged onto their mp3 players and smart phones.

As difficult as it is, daily I consciously hold onto the best of both worlds and refuse to be overcome by my negative experiences. I love the U.S. and will be forever grateful for the opportunities only it can afford to all who work for it. But I’ve also come to love Honduras for reminding me of the important things that its powerful neighbor has come to take for granted. Everyday I carry in my heart and mind the faces of the people who have touched my life and continue to make their presence felt by keeping in touch with me.

Five months may seem like a long time already, but I know that my transition is far from over. One of the biggest things I learned in Honduras is MORE patience; hence, I’m trying to apply the same principle to myself by recognizing that things take time- even with me. I’m learning to be patient and accept that I am still in the ocean of uncertainty and that I don’t know what’s next in my life.  And I accept that it’s okay. My biggest dilemma for a while was: since I’ve checked off the biggest dream on my list, now what?? Instead of freaking out, I am deciding to feel excited because this could mean: that it’s the time to dream again, and dream even BIGGER.
And to conclude, to Honduras, la tierra de los catrachos, I say:
Thank you for being the place where a dream came true- and making me work HARD for it.

Thank you for embracing another foreigner and entrusting your land, your people and your heart to her.
Thank you for giving me the family I needed when I couldn’t be with mine.
Thank you for the trials that sharpened my wits and increased my strength.
Thank you for always wanting to be in my presence and becoming a part of my life.

Thank you for teaching me humility with your simplicity.
Thank you for slowing down my life and making me look at what’s more important about myself and people.
Thank you for giving me a taste of the kind of life I’d like to lead.
Thank you for making me a better person than when I first came in and accepting me for who I am.
Thank you for waiting for and believing in my return.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Curtain Call

Seven weeks ago, my students from Olanchito Ballet had their recital before a standing room only crowd at the cultural center. That venue never fills up unless the municipality was giving out vouchers, or free meals to go with political campaigns. Somehow, rain or shine, all cultural activities I´ve organized also made the exception. Last year´s show only had seven ballerinas taking a bow, but this year, my adrenaline got the best of me and I ended up with 37 excited ballerinas and hip-hop dancers taking the stage by storm. It was a bittersweet, nevertheless, perfect conclusion to my service as a volunteer in Honduras. I knew it was going to be a long and exhausting road to the finale, but I couldn´t have asked for a better day for me in Olanchito, where, everything, actually went right.

Fast forward to today, as I reach another personal milestone. I remember my days back in the corporate world and daydreaming in the office of doing the kind of job I wanted, meeting new people and seeing more of the world. Check, check, and check. I finally got to do Peace Corps, met a ton of people along the way, and somehow got to know nine new countries in the process- Spain and all of the countries between Mexico and Panama. Not so bad to be a daydreamer afterall, eh?

After almost a month of being a former volunteer and spending much time traveling, decompressing and reflecting, we may all be asking, "What´s next?"

"HOME" is the definite first answer, but after that is all up in the air for me. This is the first time in my life that I´ve allowed myself to become this spontaneous and worry-free (constantly trying my best not to freak out). I have a definite idea of the things I want and don´t want in my life and I´ve been letting my faith and instincts guide me each day. The process has been terrifying, but undeniably, exciting. I´m really enjoying this whole "do-not-plan-too-much" state of self.

There have been days where I´ve been restless and wished I was back home already, but at the same time, I know all this down time is doing me a lot of good and keeping me from jumping from one big thing to another like I usually do. Much reflection remains to be done, but one insight I already gained is that my time here in Honduras was one amazing experience, but it is also up...and it´s time to go home. I think I can live with that.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Three Cheers in the Month of June

Happy Two Years to Me. Last June 21st I turned two years in Honduras. I made it! Time sure has flown, but unlike in the States, I’m more aware of where my time and my days here have gone- an even split between doing my projects and spending time with people building and nurturing relationships. I can honestly say it has been an amazing experience in all levels; it wasn’t easy at all, but I am certain that I have become a better person for it, thanks largely to the difficulties and challenges I have faced. It’s somewhat ironic to be grateful the sources of my troubles and heartaches, but I know too well that they have been sent my way to instruct.

I know I have changed a lot and have formed a different perspective of life and people, including myself. How, I’m not sure I can explain. I just know that I grew up a lot in the past couple of years in ways I didn’t expect, and I probably will not realize to what extent until much later.

To celebrate the occasion, I was coincidentally invited to back-to-back parties that day and inadvertently, those two events turned into partly my own celebration, in the company of the people closest to me.

Feelin’ So Good. To make the two-year achievement more meaningful, last Friday I knew for sure that I did something right in this country. I haven’t been the type to think that so quickly, having had so many frustrations with work and moments where I have felt futile more than anything else as a volunteer. People left and right have told me that I have done a lot and I know that, I’m just never sure whether I was actually helpful beyond doing just “a lot.”

For the past two months, I, along with the other members of the committee, have been slaving over organizing a Spanish Language Competition in the elementary level where different skills, such as, reading, penmanship, spelling, oratory and declamation were evaluated. In true Honduran fashion, the teachers were late in joining and preparing the kids, or chose not to participate at all. But the schools that did show up became part of a defining moment and helped plant a seed of what hopefully will become a tradition.

The event was not only the first of its kind in a while, but it was exciting and beautiful at the same time. Children got to don their formal wear and had the experience of being on stage, reciting poetry to the public as if they owned the world, then went home with certificates of participation and, some of them, prizes for winning, something they’ll probably remember and brag about their entire lives. I made all of that happen. Yes, that’s right, for a change I am claiming credit for everything- from coming up with the idea to procuring the funds, forming the committee, planning out the event, getting the people there and do their part, and just plain making it happen. I know it was my persistence despite the road blocks (the event had to be postponed due to strikes, some committee members fell off the radar, getting schools to participate was like pulling teeth) that made it come to fruition. The best part was that eventually, I ended up having a real team of people equally dedicated as I was to doing the project and doing it right. I learned so much from them and from the experience and for the first time that I really felt I achieved incorporating “citizen participation” in its fullest sense.

Next and Last Big Thing. At this point so close towards the end of my service, I know I should be resting more than working. Despite the fact how some people may define rest as “inactivity,” there is an activity that I personally consider as still a form of rest, or at least relaxation…i.e. dancing. July 19th is when I have scheduled the final recital of Olanchito Ballet, the group I formed a year and a half ago and has grown. Ballet classes have been ongoing all this year and this week, I will start another series of workshops with ballet classes for younger kids and hip-hop for teens. I couldn’t resist sharing what I love to do the most with more people, especially since so many of them have approached me asking for more, so who was I to say no? Besides, I always wanted to have a graceful ending to my service, and it seems like I’ll be dancing all the way to the finish line.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

High-Speed 2008

It’s almost April. How did that happen? I guess I must have been having a lot of fun and really busy working to have time fly by just like that. I had a feeling that this year is going to be a much better one than the last and so far, so good. It has actually been pretty exciting and I don’t have anything to complain about, aside from, everything seems to be going a little too fast.

A quick rundown of my year, thus far:

• I held a three-week ballet and hip-hop dance workshop. It was the first time in my life that I had so many dance classes and it was a very exhausting but rewarding experience. I had two ballet classes divided into age groups ranging from 5-13 years old. A big surprise was, for the first time ever, a boy came to my class. I also had a hip-hop class with students from 5-56 years old! It was a lot of fun; some of them never even knew what hip-hop was, let alone, take dance classes. Personally, it was also a first to me to teach 5-year-old kids anything; I don’t know how I got through it, but I did. Despite a lot of hair-pulling moments, there were definitely a lot of “awww” ones too!
• January 25th was National Women’s Day and for the second year, I helped out some local women organize a celebration. My major contribution somehow ended up being dance related as well- I did the choreography for a dance piece for a group of women and kids to showcase the different roles and relationships that women have (daughter, mother, grandmother, friend, etc.) and also just to give the participants a chance to experience performing on stage. Also, I had photo exhibit of different women of Olanchito whom I interviewed as a part of a project I’m doing where I am trying to get to know the history of the town through the life stories and experiences of various women. I have interviewed eight women so far and it has been a poignant and eye-opening experience for me finding out a common thread on the reality of the majority of women here. This will be an ongoing project until I leave where the final product will be an archive of profiles of different women, along with, a reflection on their stories and the interviews.

• I helped out the cultural center find a librarian for the Children’s Library that was built as part of my project. It was fun seeing the process for the hiring- a local professor administered different tests to gauge the written, story-telling and creative skills of the different candidates to determine the perfect person who will be running the library and doing story hour with the kids. Of course, little did I know then of the drama that would ensue later on…see details under March.
• Hooray and thanks be to God for generous and kind hearts that chipped in to buy me a ticket back to San Francisco and have one of the best times of my life. It was a very much needed break for me to get my family-friends-and-food fix and just to decompress from a tough year of being away from home and the let’s just say, challenges of being a volunteer. The two weeks went by high-speed as well and I barely got a wink of sleep through it all, but I sure savored every moment being with my loved-ones and inhaling every type of cuisine I could. That trip reminded me of how loved I am by my family and crew who took care of me oh-so well (Gracias!) and spoiled me to pieces. I also think I brought enough goodies back to Honduras to last me the rest of my service. One hundred fifty pounds' worth of luggage, and I didn’t get charged a dime extra, pretty good, eh?

• I barely touched down in Honduras from my SF trip and I had to turn right back around to do another trip- this time by bus, to the other end of the country. I went down to the Dirrrrty South in Orocuina, Choluteca to meet with the volunteer group COLORS, that does American diversity education to locals and also serves as a form of cultural-exchange and support group among volunteers. We held another cultural diversity activity at a local high school where, once again, we demonstrated to shell-shocked students that Americans come in different shapes, sizes and hues. It was fun. Also, this trip made me realize in its full glory how hot and dry it is at the opposite end of the country (see photo of two kids waiting for the bus) and made me realize why most PCVs hate volunteers who get assigned to the humid but lush and green North Coast. All I can say is, I’ll just keep counting my blessings.
• As if my 15-hour bus ride trip (one-way) to the south wasn’t enough of a “welcome-back-to-reality” from my fabulous vacation, I went back to Olanchito with some mo’ drama fo’ yo’ momma. Let’s just say there were sudden unforeseen “staffing issues” at the Children’s Library while I was gone and two weeks after I got back and had already helped with training for the librarian. Hopefully, all of that is already resolved and part of the past. At this point, I’m actually pretty excited because it seems as if, finally, by next week, the library will truly be open, complete with a librarian and kids ready to fall in love with books to make it all legit.
• I would have to say one of the best things about this year so far is being visited in Honduras by my dear friend Gwen from the Yay! Area. We had a blast getting to know a few North Coast spots despite the flu and rain tandem that attempted to spoil our fun. She wanted animals, food, beach and Leah as part of her trip and we easily got to check off that list and at the same time turn her into a volunteer by teaching her how to be cheap. I was a happy camper playing hostess, translator and tour guide for my beloved guest.

What’s Next? Since life is going so fast, I had to come up with a quick list of what I have to do in my remaining months here, namely:
• Finish remaining projects and follow up on pending ones.
• Dance my heart out with the kids I am teaching and stage a dance concert before I leave.
• Travel locally and cross a couple of borders.
• Make the most of my last few months with the friends and family I have formed here.
• Do all the reading, writing and other things I’ve been planning “to do a lot of” during my service.
• Figure out my action plan for my return to America, come September.

And the countdown begins…

Monday, February 04, 2008

A New Year´s Prayer

I am thankful that when the clock struck twelve that fateful 9th of December, I turned 30 and the world remained intact.
At least my world.
I felt my heart race once or twice leading up to the moment.
I sensed a split-second anxiety wondering whether there’s an unspoken rule that once I turn 30, I would have to start behaving, well, 30-ish.
Shortly after the candle was blown out and being surrounded by friends with old souls and hearts that are forever young, I realized, it’s just another year.
I will always be the same kid I have been deep down.

Eventually, I started to notice a difference-
That I appreciate my youth more,
That I recognize its enduring, steadfast quality,
That I am proud of it beyond expression.

I am thankful for a new era in my life and the chance for a new beginning.
I am thankful for having been honed over the years for the adversities that face me today. That I had the foresight in the distant past of the challenges that I would have to one day endure.

I pray that I am as strong as I have to be, as forbearing as I would like to be.
I pray for the right perspective and attitude towards my life to get through day to day.
I pray for understanding and compassion from myself and from others that I may have peaceful rest every given night.
I pray for forgiveness and kindness form my past and for healing.

My thanksgiving I lift up to the heavens for accepting my imperfect self and my imperfect faith and for allowing me to at least try to be even just a little closer to perfect.

I pray for this world that has endured every conceivable pain, destruction and hopeless situation, and yet it persists and endures. May I be just like this world and the goodness that it continues to reflect. May I be a light, no matter how faint, but bright enough to shine in the darkest corners of people’s hearts.

- Journal entry, 010808

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Beyond Numbers

It is the end of the year and this is the perfect opportunity to reflect on a year gone by. I will start by listing down some important numbers indicating the number of people I’ve directly worked with on different projects over the course of the year and the amount of funding for a project I got.

• Domestic Violence Workshop (1 session) - 22 women
• Project Citizen (14 sessions) – 28 high school students
• Cultural Diversity Activities (1 session with 3 different schools) 53 high school students
• Gender Equity Workshops (1 session with about 21 different classes in 3 schools) – 619 high school students
• Ballet and Modern Dance Classes - 46 grade school and high school students
• Micro-Enterprise Workshop (6 sessions) – 12 women
• $10,000 – amount of funding acquired for the Cultural Center project
• Execution of Cultural Center Project – approximately 50 youth and adults (contracted and volunteers)

Why do I have these numbers? Because I had to track them down. In my project area, we volunteers have to turn in biannual reports reflecting the work we’ve done in our respective communities. The first time I had to do mine I was really intimidated (and depressed) because the report format was very numbers-oriented, where we had to list down the number of people that we’ve trained in the different targeted areas by municipal development. Needless to say, I didn’t have much to write on my first report, at least not in terms of numbers. All the work I did on my first six months all seem to have fallen under the “other” category.

On my second report, however, I felt more like that as a volunteer, I had met the minimum basic requirement, by being able to come up with the digits aforementioned. This has led me to reflect a lot, because even though that I knew I was working all the time in my community, somehow I felt that the only way for me to justify that to Peace Corps administration was by coming up with the numbers. Sure, there was plenty of room at the “others” column, but then again, all my work couldn’t be under that one category.

So how does one should really go about measuring the success of one’s work?

I don't have a definitive answer, but an insight I can offer based on experience is this: the numbers don’t always speak the entire truth. For example, in the countless classrooms I’ve been in preaching about gender equality, I remember often wishing to myself that even if just a few of the students got it, then my time spent there would have been worth it. But I’ll never know for sure, really. I have given this workshop to 600+ students and yet, I feel more confident that I got my message across better with the 12 women I worked with on the micro-enterprise workshop. Most people are receptive and thankful in the end, but I can't help but wonder, "What did they really learn from me and will it stick?"

Usually the things that have been more obvious and in my face have been the challenges that came with this role, such as chronic apathy and indolence that are endemic in the culture. The experience of this whole year has been sobering for me in the sense that being a volunteer has stretched me so much further than I would’ve thought. I was pretty confident that I was already a patient, strong and resilient person before coming to Honduras. I was ready for the rough patches and the challenges; but I never expected being “hard-pressed… perplexed… persecuted… and struck-down...” by them the way that I was. For a while, there seemed to be something on every corner waiting to pounce on me and run me out of this country whether they were work-related or “cultural” things that I just have had to accept.

But true to 2Corinthians, despite all the frustrations, I didn’t let myself get “crushed… be in despair… feel abandoned… or get destroyed.” When I didn’t know what to do anymore, I let my faith take control. I’m not the type who quits so the only other alternative left for me was to humble myself and trust that the circumstances I was facing all have their purpose. I’ve also had to a have little more faith in myself and believe that all my good intentions and my labor have amounted to something positive; how much exactly, I will not worry about. If we really have to do the Math, I can offer this figure: for this holiday I’m giving out at least 110 greeting cards to good friends and colleagues in Olanchito alone…the majority of these cards are addressed to families, so let’s say if an average family has at least three members (this is Honduras, after all), that means that I have made a positive connection with at least 330 people. This doesn’t include the participants whom I’ve trained or taught in my various endeavors. Hence, I’d like to think that, sure, I’m making a positive impact on people or at least planting some seeds in their minds, whether through my work or by example. I figure that, if I leave a positive impression whether as an American, a woman, or a volunteer, then that’s something to feel accomplished about.

So how does one should really go about measuring the success of one’s work? It depends on who’s measuring, but for me, when I get to make people smile, get invited to their homes and family gatherings, or get a "Thank you" then it’s a sign that I must have done something right, whether that registers some numbers or not.

For more details on the projects aforementioned, see previous blog entry: Confessions of a Workaholic

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Dancing My Heart Out

It took me a long time to admit it but I can finally say that dancing is my first and true love. I realize that part of the difficulty in admitting this is my deep-set insecurity about not being as good as I’d like to be, hence, I can’t make any claims to being a real dancer.

But I’m over that because I figured out that there’s no sense of my being continually frustrated over not having the regular and formal training I could have used to develop, it doesn’t really matter because I never dreamt of being a professional dancer anyway, I just always wanted to be, well, good. And just to keep dancing. It’s interesting that while growing up, despite not having the encouragement from home for me to pursue a hobby, nor the money to pay for non-school related endeavors, I always managed to find an outlet for dance that didn’t cost a dime, save for costumes for performances. Thank goodness for the student-organized cheer dance team in high school and the dance company in college. Then after graduation, when I eventually got this thing called a “job,” I could finally pay for dance classes to my heart’s content. I had a better idea of how I loved to dance when I was still living in Fairfield and used to drive 50 miles all the way to San Francisco on weekends just to receive a couple of classes. I was also fortunate to have found opportunities to perform and even for a short while, be part of a real dance company.

Looking back now, I’m more impressed with myself than sorry for having accomplished a lot in dance despite the little professional training or experience I have. In high school, I was surprised to have been able to learn some new skills despite being, as a dancer, being in the ripe age of 16 years old. In college, I was in the dance company for four whole years and in the last two, was in charge of the dance productions that were staged. These entailed more than just dancing. Then a couple of years ago, I organized a performance hip-hop key group in the church I was attending whose aim was to do fellowship through the common interest of the members. We had a pretty cool performance one New Year’s Eve that not only involved choreography, but a spoken word piece as an introduction and a multi-media presentation that was played during the dance. More than the coolness factor, the whole experience was special to and a breakthrough for me because it was when I realized that God really wants to use my dancing as a way to reach people. “Little ol’ me?” I wondered. “Yes, little ol’ you,” seemed to be God’s response.

Coming to Honduras, I always knew that I was going to keep dancing somehow. However, not in a million years would I have thought that I’d be giving ballet lessons…especially since it’s not my forte, having only received a few years’ worth of instruction and well, it wasn’t my cup of tea. Nonetheless, I’ve maintained my high regard and respect for it being the necessary foundation any real dancer must have. I always consider knowing ballet as being literate in dancing. To cut the long story short, for art´s sake, I eventually succumbed to giving classes back in February, not having a clue what I was getting myself into.

Lo and behold, November 3rd was the first ever performance and recital for Olanchito Ballet, the name which we would eventually call the group I’ve formed. Seven little ballerinas who’ve remained steadfast and committed to learning ballet, the art form that is as esoteric as the concept of punctuality in this country. In the recital, the girls performed ten (count ‘em) short dance pieces, to a combination of classical and Latin folk and Honduran folk songs. This is mind blowing to me because personally, I hate doing choreography with a passion. Let alone, choreograph to classical music, which I have never done, nor would have wanted to do. I always just wanted to be the one learning and dancing. But what was I to do? I found myself in a situation where the only way I could keep on dancing is to be able to be the one to teach it. So I went for the compromise.

I thought I already knew how much I love to dance, but I didn’t know to what extent. Being a teacher truly stretched my limits and brought about another experience I didn’t expect to have: being a parent. Thinking of my students as my own children was the only way for me to survive the classes without any bloodshed (spoken like a true non-mom) or losing my sanity. Sure, it was fun, but it was also like being a full time nanny.

Was it all worth it? Of course, everything looks better in retrospect, having survived the tempest. But I remember the evening of the performance where a good number of people braved the rains to witness what was to be the first ever full-length ballet performance in Olanchito. Days in advance, I tried my best to let go of all control and let the kids come around on their own and be there for them as moral support more than anything. I won’t deny that I felt like a true stage mom the whole time, proud of how all the girls (and two “special participants”) held their own even if it was the first ever performance for the majority of them. Also, I’d have to say that I was proud of myself for having accomplished something like that and overcoming everything that got in my way- my own issues included.

Dancing has also been my refuge as a volunteer. For someone who can barely stop working to rest, dance has been my playtime as much as it has been work. It didn´t matter how frustrated I got, because at the end of the day, I was still dancing. It also has given me my chance to get to know more youth in the community. Twice I was asked by a couple of high school groups to help them out with their cheering competition- and the sucker that I was, I readily agreed not aware of the headaches these two ventures entailed. In the end, I was only able to help them out partially, either they didn’t give me enough time to work with or only half the group was attending and I had to cut my “services” short. In the end, however, Honduran-style, both groups pulled things together last minute and managed to walk away with second place in their respective competitions. Pretty cool.

From all these experiences, I’ve gathered that my most effective and gratifying community work is going to come from doing something I love the most- dancing. My project at the cultural center is on the last stretch and when that is done, I will take advantage of the kids being on vacation and will be giving dance workshops (ballet and hip-hop) to all those willing. I will also be involved in preparing for various art, literary and theater workshops, all part of the project for the center. Art is life indeed.

I haven’t built any wells or roads, but I am helping build a children’s library with a mural and the works; I haven´t saved lives, but I have danced into the lives of people, in one way or another; I once thought that ballet was a part of my past and yet I have started a school here in Olanchito. I´m still a long way from the kind of dancer I´d like to be, but I know that if I can keep doing it, I can only get better. I think I should have faith in my talent the way it has been faithful to me, always giving me opportunities to keep dancing. I guess this little ol’ dancer has nothing to complain about.