CDS Column: Traveling, Chaos and Comfort

Central American bus terminals are never easy. The word “terminal” is usually an overstatement: a dirt lot packed with people and stands selling fruits and cell phones and loose AA batteries, all crammed with buses pulling in and out and collecting people even as they leave. There are no schedules, no timetables, no assigned parking spaces, just a sea of rainbow-painted school buses lurching and stopping.

That’s Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. I’d just spent a week in the mountains to the north with a small non-profit, interviewing the coffee growers and pickers who make their living at the agricultural end of a latte. After a week of hiking hillsides and asking questions on health, hunger and human impacts, the team was headed to the airport to fly home.

But not me. I like to take advantage of airplane tickets when I have them, so I had an extra few days to head to the Pacific Coast. I was bound for a few days of sand and surf.

“There is a direct bus from Managua every afternoon,” my friend Rich told me. “The bus goes to Las Salinas. Just get off at Calle Popoyo.”

Popoyo is the kind of place people dream about: a dirt road to a quiet stretch of beach, the slow thunder of crashing waves, a handful of scattered surfers, water the temperature of forgotten tea and a few cheap places to stay with hammocks hanging in the shade. No stoplights, no horns and few tourists, only a soft breeze off the ocean. They’re planning to pave the road soon, Rich told me, so it’s going to change, but for now it’s paradise.

After a week of riding in truck beds and trudging through jungle, paradise sounded good. So I rode to Managua and headed to the bus terminal.

Unloading into utter chaos, I looked around. There were no indicators in the dust and dirt and hot sun what bus went where. The best I could do was walk up to one of the barkers standing near a bus and ask for direction.

“Las Salinas?” I said to the first one I came to.

“No,” he said, “alla,” pointing to a bus a few rows over.

I hustled over to the bus in question, dragging my luggage behind me. The barker saw me coming.

“Las Salinas?” I shouted over the din.

“Si,” he said, taking my bag, “Salinas.” He followed me inside and shoved my bag into the overhead rack. I slumped into the seat, ready for a few hours on bumpy roads.

Now, I’ve never set up a country. But if I did and there was a town called Salinas and another called Las Salinas, I’d make sure they were nowhere near each other. Maybe I’d pair them with some other identifier (like an associated state name, for example) to mark one as different from the other. Nicaragua, however, doesn’t. They leave it to a guy manning the door of a technicolor school bus to differentiate between Salinas and Las Salinas.

On Saturday, however, he was asleep at the switch. And so was I. I said Las Salinas, he said Salinas, and together we hopped aboard. Moments later the bus pulled out, collecting more passengers even as it left, and was on its way.

It wasn’t until we were an hour out, when the street signs started announcing Leon, Nicaragua’s famous colonial city far to the northwest, that I realized I was headed the wrong direction. I walked to the front of the bus, where the barker had become the ticket checker.

“Excuse me,” I said in imperfect Spanish, “but did that sign say Leon? I’m going to Las Salinas, which is way south of Leon.”

“No no,” he said, “Salinas is just outside of Leon.”

The man driving the bus looked over at us.

“Las Salinas?” he said. “Small town near the beach? That’s in the opposite direction.”

The barker and I looked at each other. He shook his head. So did I. “Crap,” I said.

Paradise was going to have to wait.

International travel is like that. In places like Nicaragua, the second poorest nation in the western hemisphere, infrastructure is limited, and mishaps occur. But even in places like U.K., where we ought to be able to find our way, we get turned around.

But such errors aren’t errors; they are the point of going. Adventure isn’t the result of well-laid plans working out smoothly, it’s the outcome borne from a misunderstanding and a 100-mile trip in the wrong direction, or some other similar twist of fate.

When I embedded in Iraq I missed my flight home because my U.S. military escorts weren’t used to accessing the civilian part of the Kuwait City airport. The final days I spent with the soldier were some of the best.

On two separate occasions in Peru, I’ve wound up sleeping as a guest with a local family after finding myself far from anyplace offering a hotel room. Those nights each wound up being the highlight of the trip.

It’s hard to remember sometimes when you’re tired, hot and have been sitting on school buses all day, but these are the moments we leave home for. They serve as reminders of how chaotic the world can be, and how lucky we are to live in a place where appointments occur on time, where buses have schedules and potable water flows from every tap. Paradise isn’t just a secluded beach; it’s also a bus station with cushioned seats and a printed timetable.


This column appeared in this week’s Conway Daily Sun.

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CDS Column: Lift the Lamp

In January I began volunteering for a nonprofit that works with high school students to help improve their writing. As I writer I love talking about writing, and this was a way to give back.

I got paired with a 18-year-old Muslim of Somali descent named Abass.

Abass was born in Ethiopia where his parents were refugees, then moved to South Africa before his family made it to the United States. They lived first in Lowell, Mass., and then they moved to Maine. Because of his time in South Africa Abass spoke English well, so he was in good position when started school. He will graduate this year, and he hopes to study dentistry at college in the fall.

Abass smiles a lot. His face moves quickly from into a grin, and then just as quickly back to normal. He is warm, engaging, makes jokes when he’s nervous and is exceedingly friendly. He teases the girls in his class, the boys in his class, everyone, and they tease him back. He’s playful, a bit of a class clown. He is well-liked.

Abass speaks three languages. His parents, however, don’t speak English, so when it comes to filling out any sort of documentation or legal paperwork (taxes, signing a lease, college applications) he winds up serving as translator, explaining things to them instead of the adults explaining things to him. That has forced Abass to grow up fast, but he hasn’t lost his joyfulness. Even 7,000 miles from the country of his people, he carries hope.

Abass is a Muslim and a Somali. If he were applying for a visa today, he would have to contend with the executive order signed on Friday.

It’s been a long two weeks.

In fact, it hasn’t even been two weeks. Inauguration Day was less than that ago, and the executive orders didn’t really begin unfolding until the following Monday. That means it’s been only nine days. But a lot can happen in nine American days.

It doesn’t seem so in the Mount Washington Valley sometimes. There’s no airport with incoming international flights, no mosques, few Hispanics or other people of color. Here, in the northern reaches of one of the whitest states in the country, feels detached from the conversations igniting our country right now. Building a wall with Mexico might push up food prices, but it won’t change the complexion of our streets. Restricting refugee visas won’t break up local families. These are almost academic arguments here, not something poised to come home to roost in our community right away.

But then I sit down with Abass, and I realize how much these conversations matter.

It is striking how divergent American views can be. We read the same sacred national texts, revere the same icons, and yet come away with strikingly opposing views. America is our religion, and we can become unitarians universalists to the Westboro Baptists. The Westboro Baptists are gathering loud of late.

Our creed, captured so eloquently beneath the feet of the Statue of Liberty, is simple: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

America’s promise is a promise we ourselves were granted. It may have been generations ago, but at one time it was our grandparents, or great-grandparents, or great-great-great grandparents, who wanted to be dentists. It was they who spoke three languages and translated their new homes to their immigrant parents. We are the offspring of refugees and asylum-seekers. We spilled onto these shores, scores of English, German, Irish, Norwegian, Polish, Lebanese, South African, Chinese, Sudanese, people from every country and continent, and slowly we made ourselves American. We made America. We grew in size and in strength, emboldened because of our diversity and our courage and our hope. It was not without challenges and disgrace—the slaughtering of Native Americans, the slavery of Africans and their descendents—but still ever striving upwards towards the promise of Thomas Jefferson: “All men are created equal.”

I see that now, in a young man who has dreams of being a dentist. A young Muslim, from a country on a list, who wants the freedom to strive and flourish.

We live a long way from this fight. It is a more than an hour drive to the room where once a week I sit with Abass and we work to improve his writing. But if he is willing to show up, I will too.

These are our fights. This is our country. There are so many days where I wish I could forget it, where I would prefer to grab my climbing gear, strap into my skis, and forget about the chaos unfolding right now, the sweeping American changes emanating from Washington. But I choose not to. I choose to sit with Abass, to talk to him about verb tense and character development and setting, to ask him about his family and his story and what he would like to write about.

And in those conversations I am met by a smart young man, a man with dreams, a man with hope and passion and drive. We would be lucky to call him an American. We would be lucky to have him as part of our country.

I will not close the door, and I will not sit quietly by as others do. Donald Trump is right, this is the time for patriotism. In my country, “all men are created equal.” I will not remain silent.

“I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Welcome.


This column appeared in the Conway Daily Sun.

CDS Column: Live, Vote or Drive

How do we keep having these arguments?

Massachusetts voters streaming into New Hampshire and swaying our elections. That could happen, hypothetically. Despite voter ID laws and town clerks who know residents and a robust, tried-and-true electoral process, Massachusetts could be deciding New Hampshire’s votes.

But they’re not. There is no evidence of such fraud. There is supposition, a rumor, something the White House is talking about, but it’s just “alternative facts.”

And yet we keep having these arguments.

Rumors and innuendo are not a basis for policy. New Hampshire knows that. Ours is a state of no-nonsense people. New Hampshire voters are sophisticated. They are accustomed to the political milieu, seasoned from serving on the front line of the presidential vetting process. We Granite Staters are no electoral novices. The Live Free or Die ethos means we belong to fire districts, water precincts and lighting districts in addition to a town, a county, the state and the federal government. Every one of these entities is an exercise in democracy. Each puts out its own annual report, has a board, holds public hearings and requires a vote. If we choose, we might spend half our non-working waking hours ensconced in elections. Not only does the nation trust us to make early judgments on the character and capabilities of those who one day hope to run the country, but we see fit to practice democracy at almost every level and in every corner. Voting is our lifeblood, something rooted in New Hampshire history more deeply than in any other state.

And now our votes have found their way into the national discourse: A flood of Massachusetts carpetbaggers allegedly made their way north to strip Kelly Ayotte of her senatorship and President Donald Trump of a rightful victory. This is the word out of the White House, beginning with the president and repeated by his advisers.

Let’s be clear: The president and his team have brought no evidence to support this claim. None. The White House has a hunch, but offers nothing to back it up beyond words. As with other accusations of voter fraud, it’s an opinion, nothing else.

But this time it isn’t about about California. This time it is about us. It’s about our little state. And this claim hits at our heart — our political process, a sacred part of the Granite State.

Our political apparatus is ingrained into our state identity. When it comes to presidential elections, we have home field advantage. Every great election begins with us. Tryouts here commence a year before the rest of the country. New Hampshire does not play politics, we live it, from the federal level right down to the North Conway Water Precinct and the Redstone Fire District.

As a result, despite our small population and rural character, New Hampshire is no political backwater. Our residents and institutions carry the sophistication needed to govern thousands of scattered municipal districts, as well as the chops required of a state trusted to cast the first vote. We have seen scandal before, and political fraud. Small but well-schooled, we are not naive. This is our game, and we know how to play.

And yet we are left listening to accusations out of Washington that our political apparatus is full holes. Accusations floated without evidence by the president of the United States that Massachusetts political operatives pulled the wool over Granite State eyes.

To sling unfounded accusations at the New Hampshire electoral process is to undermine our electoral heritage. Such slander casts dispersions on our “First in the Nation” position, a role we have carried with dignity for decades. If there is voter fraud, quit teasing and expose it. New Hampshire Republicans and New Democrats alike would stand side-by-side to uproot such perversion. Our coveted electoral position demands it — we all have too much to lose to sit by and let such mischief continue unchecked.

But these claims are baseless. There is nothing behind them. They are all bluster, no truth.

But baseless claims are hard to fight. There is no arguing a shapeless provocation, empty of evidence. How do you prove fraud when all fraud is supposed, not exposed?

The White House casts suspicion on the sanctity of our political heart, on the laser-cut accuracy of our selection process. This dispersion sullies not only the electoral count, but also our presidential primaries, every federal ballot cast, the state election, every local election, each precinct and district. In a word, the president has put the Granite State on notice — without evidence — that our democratic processes do not hold water. We are not a cup, he says, but a sieve.

But it is these claims that are the true sieve. We in New Hampshire wear democracy close to our skin. We live it, know the taste of it, the feel of it. It’s a dance we’ve practiced before. And we also know the smell of something rotten. These accusations are rotten. Without evidence they can only be called lies. And New Hampshire has no room for lies, nor “alternative facts.”

Cast dispersions on New York elections if you wish, Donald Trump, or on California or Texas. Pick any of 49 other states, but leave our Granite process alone. We know politics. We know elections. Step forward with evidence, or be silent.


This column appeared in the Conway Daily Sun.

#CoffeeLives

If you are into coffee, you might want to check this out:

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AMRDI is a Colorado-based NGO working on rural development issues in the mountainous landscapes and polar regions most affected by climate change. Their focus is on data-driven development solutions. They work on the ground to research issues of poverty, health and well-being in communities often far removed from policymakers and government services.

I am with them in Nicaragua now, where they are collecting survey data on local coffee growers. Coffee is a product targeted by terms like “Fair Trade” and “sustainable,” but there is very little oversight or on-the-ground research into just how much impact a $5 latte has on the people who grow the beans. AMRDI is in Nicaragua talking to coffee producers and pickers to understand those issues better.

IMG_1473.JPGI’m along to shoot video and document their efforts, working with them on their research and writing blogposts along the way. The conversations we are having are enlightening, and the living conditions of families who sell some of the highest quality coffee in the world are astonishing.

All of this work will eventually find its way into hard print, the sort of data that can help implement lasting change. But for now this is the early stages.

The trip is winding to a close, but if you want a look at what the short story check out the AMRDI blog. I’ve posted a handful of reports (day one, day two, day three and day four) on what it’s like tromping around the Central American mountains talking to people who grow the drink many of us consume every day.

And if you’re concerned about climate change and its impact on communities at the fringes in the high and polar places most affected, get to know AMRDI. Data-driven development work. Cool stuff.

A Snowstorm Together

There’s something about snowstorms.

Maybe it’s a result of growing up in New England, but when storm warnings hit, it’s an excuse to burrow in. When snow begins falling, everything slows. Cars creep along white streets, school gets canceled, and work gets pushed aside. Life becomes frozen in time. Plans and schedules cease to matter, it’s time to hunker down and watch as Mother Nature wear herself out.

When it’s daylight, snowstorms are one thing but after nightfall, darkness hides the growing blanket as it muffles out everything. Daybreak inevitably comes sparkling blue, and everything lays transformed.

That’s when the digging out begins.

We had one of those storms last week. It started early, and I hid inside as I usually do, fully dormant until the next day. When I finally left home, I came upon a woman scraping her car with one of those tiny ice scrapers meant for morning frost — barely larger than her hand, it was insufficient for a foot of powder.

I jogged over with my extended-handle brush/scraper. “Can I help?” I said, my scraper already digging into the drifts covering her passenger-side windshield.

“Thanks,” she said. “You don’t have to.”

“I know,” I said, smiling. “It’ll only take a minute.”

That’s the other part about winter storms I love: They change the rules of engagement. They force us out of solitary lives and encourage interaction. In a modern world, it’s easy to move undetected and anonymous, but winter snow rips us out of hibernation. It bring us out in front of one another.

I have a friend who moved from New England to California, where the weather is always sunny, warm and beautiful. “People don’t talk to each other,” she told me. “They don’t have to. Nothing forces you. You can get by on your own, no one ever has to call a friend because their door’s snowed shut or their car got buried by the plow. It makes life easier, but it also makes it more isolating.”

Community, by force of weather.

But storms offer more than that. It’s more than the neighbor who plows you out, or the friend willing to watch your kids so you can go to work. Snow transforms the rules that govern our daily life, leaving them meaningless, arbitrary markers. Norms go out the window, and in their absence the best of us comes out.

Speed limits, for example: The one time I feel least at risk of getting a speeding ticket is during a snowstorm. If you are able to keep your car on the road and avoid collision, you’ve won. You passed the test. No one comes close to 45 mph then, so why even pay attention to what the sign says? The “rules of the road” cease to be the rigid and dogmatic statues we are accustomed to. They are lost guidelines, so meaningless and out of reach they become laughable. Going 5 mph might be too fast, 15 mph leaves us in a ditch and 45 mph is nothing but numbers.

But the police are out on these nights. They are often out in force. But the snow transforms them from law enforcers to public assisters. They help us dig out, give pushes or call tows. This is undoubtedly what most of members of the police force signed up to do in the first place, to help people, but in the muddled mess of life they spend more time telling people what they can’t do than offering the friendly assist.

Snowstorms, however, recalibrate. They slow us down. They remind us there is no hurry, and in remembering that we remember generosity, thoughtfulness. Our police get to be what they always wanted to be for a night, and so do the rest of us. We remember we don’t live alone, that sometimes we need our neighbors, and sometimes we need to be neighbors ourselves.

I wonder what part snowstorms played in early democracy, that foundational American institution. What would New Hampshire town meetings look life if they could skip the harsh winter, if the democratic congregation was held in June, the summer sun stretching until 9 p.m.? With nothing to keep us indoors would we make time to self-govern? Would we abandon civic duty to take an evening walk among the fireflies? The early colonies further south lacked this democratic practice.

The town hall is a New England contribution, one perhaps tied to snow — because there are no luxuries in March. This is when storms often rage most furiously. And in a storm there is nothing more comforting than sitting in a room packed with neighbors dedicated to enduring the same elements, the same harsh wind.

I think of town meetings past when snow blanketed every street and yet conversations continued in gymnasiums and town halls over how to spend communal tax revenue. This is the time for collective decisions, a time when choices on governing are informed by the vulnerable nature of rural life. Democracy is a game best played as a team, and we blessed with days, December through spring, that remind us of exactly who makes our team.

Much of America doesn’t think about it that way. But then again, most of America has never enjoyed one of our snowstorms.


This column appeared in the Conway Daily Sun.