AMRDI: #CoffeeLives in Nicaragua

So for about 6 days I was in Nicaragua working alongside AMRDI, a Colorado-based nonprofit that focuses on development in mountain and arctic communities, places disproportionately impacted by climate change. I was there capturing media, writing blog posts and putting together materials for an online media campaign.

What came out of it was this:

In addition to this video, which sums up AMRDI’s #CoffeeLives project, I also did a day-to-day accounting of our adventures, which you can read here.

It’s always awesome to get to be part of a mission-driven project. Keep looking for more from AMRDI, like information on ski area economies and how in the era of climate change workers are struggling to hold together a livelihood. This roots right back to the writing I do in New Hampshire on issues of travel, tourism and outdoor economy and how they interact with climate change. It’s cool to hear someone else talking about it, someone putting numbers next to their notes.

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.

From the Backseat: Oceans Apart

14188296_1606188992740513_8342364284182226130_oI used to think the North Atlantic was mean. All the stories of shipwrecks and European sailors tossed around in icy waters. Growing up I watched winter waves pommel the shore, saw fog swallow roads, houses and fields, watched hurricane swells grab a 40-foot lobster boat and toss it like a seashell. The sea was raw power, the North Atlantic menacing.

Then last fall I visited the Pacific. I wanted to see the Olympic Mountains, to soak in hot springs, wander rainforests and paddle the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Out West, cities face inward. They sit on water but don’t risk open ocean: San Francisco has the Bay, Seattle the Sound, Portland the Columbia River but north of sunny Southern California few outposts brave the sea. And so the Pacific is forgotten. Those placid and welcoming bays and bodies come to represent western water. The ocean lies eclipsed.

But four hours west of Seattle it sits guarding America’s edge: water dark as arterial blood rolling and falling onto itself like a wounded animal, roiled, frantic, ferocious. Unpredictable. Great trees tumble among a constant roar. Seafoam stretches for miles. Wind dashes the shore with tendrils of saltwater, everything glistening and cold. Drizzle falls from a sky only a shade lighter than the water. More trees sit half-buried in sand, ripped from the shore by past assaults, now imprisoned.

This is no Puget Sound, no tranquil shoreline. Here the full force of 5,000 unbroken miles slams unceasingly without stories or reputation to precede it, just a quiet pounding of the American West. Uprooted trees the size of small buildings swing like toys in a perpetual grey of clouds, drizzle and churning. The Pacific marks an endpoint, and there is no mistaking its edges. America closes and it takes over. No abbreviations.

New England is different. The East Coast is warmer, more gentle, dotted by islands and inlets that break up a full assault. Any water runs only a short distance before intersecting land. Only hurricanes carry the intensity of the everyday Pacific.

But home carries its own mysteries.

I arrived in early evening. The ocean stood calm, a mirror of lobster buoys and boat masts. Fog sat heavy, the coastline waning in either direction, an easy day to get lost. I parked at the boat ramp and pulled a paddleboard from the roof. An oversized surfboard mostly meant for lakes and ponds, on the ocean it feels like a thimble. But there is magic in braving something so vast atop something so small. A seagull screeched from the rocks. Cormorants dotted the nearby mooring balls, their wings outstretched like goblins. Everything stood suffocating white. I buckled my life jacket, slid the board into the water and cast off.

Under my feet the mirror shook. Strands of seaweed buoyed by air sacs stretched towards the surface. A loon called inside the mist. The blanket muffled a bell buoy and held shorelines distant. I coursed around a small island at the periphery of the bay, a line of rock mostly buried by the tide. Huddled pines climbed above a highwater mark so low winter storms must sweep the whole of it. But the only moisture touching the pines today was fog.

I paddled to the island’s beach—sand and stone dotted by shells and seaglass—and pulled ashore. White-grey peeled its way across the water, but for a moment the sun broke through. Trees opposite peeked green. From my perch I watched the Atlantic’s shifting mood, an ocean in utter calm.

Our constant neighbor, moody but not malicious. Our porch and guest space for welcoming in the wild. Angry? Mean? Barely. So much more gentle than the Pacific, she allows us to sit on her islands, lets us look into her reflection.

The clouds descended with resurgent fog. I looked back to the mainland’s faint outline, only silhouette now, and walked back to the sea. I slid my board into the mirror, the only ripples ours.


This piece appeared in this week’s Portland Phoenix.

Two Months

Two Months

13682554_606482239532046_749095496_oIt’s been two months since I left Belize.

Two months. Two full moons. Two cell phone bills. It seems like a decade ago.

Here in New England the leaves are changing. There is a bite in the air each morning. The ocean looks grey, no longer warm and inviting.

In Belize, however, it’s still summer, or at least some version of it. It’s that season where shoes and shirts are optional. The salt air along the coast hangs thick and fans are mandatory for sleeping. It’s always that season in Belize, a perpetual Caribbean waltz where “Go slow” is more than a suggestion. It’s a way of life.

In the Cayo District 100 students are cracking their books. They have names like Chris and Karen and Joshua. They are wearing uniforms, pouring over worksheets, sitting at attention while the teacher talks and then goofing behind her back each time she turns. They are laughing, smiling, passing notes, switching from English to Spanish to Creol as comfortable as dancers, a veritable language cacophony.

And if you listen close each time they switch to English you might notice something: their mastery has grown. They use the language with a slice more confidence than last year, something over the summer made it build, thicken. They are learning to wield it rather than be driven by it. They don’t just know English, they are becoming English speakers.

What happened?

Us. We happened. Me and 30 other volunteers ages 14 to 40 spent two weeks sweating through the Belizean summer to get these 100 Belizean students talking that way. For that two weeks they were sitting at attention for us, and then of course goofing behind our backs. They learned our language and our names, played our games and sang our songs. They made us laugh, and when we left made us cry.

That was two months ago. Today sitting with my cup of hot apple cider in my kitchen watching the autumn wind pull leaves across the lawn it seems much further away than that. It seems like another lifetime, another world, a distant past.

But.

But there is always next summer. There is always another classroom, another 100 students. There is always a roomful of kids excited to sing songs and play. But next time they won’t be strangers. They won’t be students or kids. Next time I will call them friends.


This piece appeared on the blog of Global Service Partnerships, a Boise, Idaho-based nonprofit that runs English literacy programs in Belize.

CDS Column: Home on the Road

CDS Column: Home on the Road

14066350_1588101947882551_955321454025779419_oWe are all part of a tribe. Family, community, state, country, it all comes out from time to time.

The Olympics, pitched as an instance of the world coming together, is one example. Countries meet on a global playing field, a time-honored tradition in camaraderie. But what is it really? Competition. Nationalism. The chants of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” that fill the stadium are a tribal call, a celebration of divisions, not just unity. It is about us and them, and us. Most of all us.

When Ryan Lochte acts like an imbecile it is not an individual insult but a tribal shame: “the ugly American abroad,” an old tribal stereotype. “He gives our entire delegation a bad name.” How true, a slandering of our tribe.

The Olympics are over. The overt national call has come to a close. But our tribalism has not. It never comes to an end, it is baked into the American fabric.

Some versions are ugly, acute reminders of the stereotype Lochte stands accused of reinforcing: the Ugly American. Those live in the political chants of Americans insistent on restricting entrance or accommodation based on religion. “No more Muslims” has somehow become its own tribal call. Same with “no more immigrants.” This in a country founded by immigrants, built on the principles of religious freedom.

The Ugly American indeed. But tribalism is emotional more than it is logical, it doesn’t always make sense.

Not every vision of tribalism is so bleak, however.

This summer I drove across the United States. First one way, from New Hampshire south to North Carolina, then across to Kentucky, Colorado, Utah, California, then the other, from Washington state back to Colorado and across the long green center to the Mid-Atlantic and the North. Back to New Hampshire, from the Sierras to the Whites, from one unending blue to the other.

In the eastern plains of Colorado I pulled off at a rest stop. It was a warm morning, yellow grass swaying in the breeze. I got out to stretch my legs, hit the bathroom and filled my water bottle. I was roughly 30 hours from home, a long stretch of road before me.

Across the way two men stood outside a green Honda Civic. They were scruffy, their clothes dirty. Modern hippies, maybe homeless, likely both. One had dreadlocks. The other held a leash that ran to a small black dog. Someone had written “Live Free or Die” in white paint along the Civic’s trunk. The dreaded man looked at me, nodded his head, smiled, and then pointed to his license plate with both hands like a maitre d’ showing me to my table: New Hampshire. The Granite State. “We are of the same tribe,” his smile said. I smiled back and waved, then steered toward the highway. Indeed.

A thousand miles later it happened again, this time crossing Ohio: A young man in a low-set Acura slid along the highway. He was driving fast, faster than I would have, weaving his way among the traffic. I saw him approaching in my rearview. I held my course to let him pass.

But when his window was adjacent to mine he slowed. When he paused, I looked. He stared back at me, probably in his early 20s, dark hair, a quintessential college kid. He smiled, raised his fist, quickly pumped it twice and then sped up, crossing back into my lane just in front of me. His plate: New Hampshire, the first I’d seen since Colorado.

What happened next is he slowed.

Not fully, but enough that his message was clear. “Follow me,” he seemed to be saying. “You speed up a little, I’ll slow down a little, and we can band together to cross this Buckeye State highway. As Granite Staters.”

As a tribe.

And here’s the thing: I did. I don’t know why. Maybe it was the months among American foreigners, of being surrounded by cars from California and Colorado plates, Kentucky-ites and Utahns.

The poignant reminder painted in green script and shadowed by a fallen Old Man was enough to push my foot on the accelerator. Maybe it was seeing someone call to me in brotherhood despite having no idea of my name. But cruising along I-70 with no reason to speed up beyond the wave of a non-friend I decided to exceed the posted limit a little more.

I lost him somewhere around Columbus where I-77 turns north. He pulled away amid the congestion, and like a cyclist too weak for the peleton I drifted backward. I didn’t find him again. And I was staying on I-70, driving east to see a friend in Philadelphia, my license plates having left out the full story of my destination. But I still smile as I think of him, a lone warrior whose befriending me stood on nothing but my tags. A true tribal spirit.

Maybe it’s only among foreign shores that such tribalism is born. In the West, highway speed limits read 75 mph. With cruise control pegged at 85 I’d find myself weaving past cars, flying faster than the flow of traffic. Weeks later on my return home through New York the posted limit read 50. I again pegged cruise control at 85, but this time I was the sluggard, a slow motion impediment crawling along the pavement. Empire State plates shot past like I was riding a farm tractor.

And for some reason it felt like home.


This column appeared in today’s Conway Daily Sun.

CDS Column: Reflections Abroad

CDS Column: Reflections Abroad

Belize-1050964“Where are you from?” He was wearing a collared shirt, long pants with suspenders and a wide-brimmed woven hat. I sat next to him, sweating through shorts and a tee shirt in the Belizean heat.

“The U.S.,” I said. “New Hampshire.”

“Where is that? Higher than Pennsylvania?”

“Yes, above Pennsylvania. Near Boston.”

“Does it touch Canada?”

“Yes.”

“Huh,” he said. “Is it cold there?”

He spoke with precision, like he was reading off a script. He addressed me directly, never breaking eye contact. His name was Elias. He was a Mennonite, a Christian sect similar to the Amish common to Belize. We were riding south out of Belmopan, the capital city, in a retired school bus with brown vinyl bench seats and windows that only slid halfway down. I was headed to the Caribbean coast. He was going home.

“It is cold,” I said. “It even snows. But not right now, only in winter.”

“I’ve never seen snow,” he said. “I couldn’t handle it.”

He smiled. He was 24, a farmer and one of 10 children. He lived with his family in central Belize, but he’d visited the United States a handful of times and had dual citizenship. His father left their church in Pennsylvania decades ago in a return to his core beliefs. His American community was using tractors and driving cars, Elias said, slipping towards modernity, so his father and a selection of others moved south, way south. They now farm tomatoes and peppers and corn, he said, in a community of 15 families.

“Did you go to Belizean school?” I asked.

“We have our own schools,” Mennonite academies separate from the national system, he said. “But we only study until eighth grade.” After that, Mennonite children become farmers.

“Do you ever feel like you are missing out? Ever think maybe technology and education and everything might be better?”

His answer was unhurried. “No,” he said. “I’d like to know more geography, to understand the layout of things better, but that’s about it. I don’t follow the world, really. And the pieces I hear about don’t make me want to take greater notice.”

“Explain that,” I said.

“You have an election coming up, right?” he said.

“Yes,” I said, suddenly sullen.

“I don’t know much about it,” he said, “but it seems a mess. I don’t think I want a bigger part of that world.”

The bus lurched. I sat quiet. He had a point.

That’s why I love travel: It’s a mirror, a necessary step back for reflection. Only from a distance can you get a full view of yourself.

As a country, it’s no different — without adequate space it can be impossible to formulate an accurate view of your policy, your politics. Only in leaving can you see more clearly.
Another glimpse came from Karina, a Belizean mother of three. Every morning she sat outside the school. Inside, American high school students ran a summer camp for Belizean middle and elementary kids. Karina’s daughter was in the youngest class, made up of kindergarten and first graders. She would bawl inconsolably if Karina wasn’t nearby, so each day Karina sat at the picnic table outside the classroom.

Karina was black. She had grown up in central Belize not far from the school, and for the last two years she’d attended college in America.

“What was it like,” I asked her, “going to the U.S.?”

“It was wonderful,” she said, “but hard.” She wasn’t ready for the racism, she said. As a Belizean she hadn’t developed the thick skin required of a black woman in America. Her culture is multiracial, but it lacks the divisions she encountered in the U.S. Encountering the stinging blows of prejudice as a young adult shocked her. She was unprepared for it. She would cry a lot, she said, and was hurt easily.

“I didn’t expect that,” she said. “I was happy to go to an American university, but it’s really nice to be back.”

These moments give pause. They are brief glimpses into the mirror of ourselves, of the country we have built: A Mennonite man with a middle school education who sees our politics clearly enough to know he wants no part in them. A young mother whose experience with American racism left her in tears. These versions of America grow fuzzy to those of us who live them every day. They seem impossibly entrenched and complex up close. But from abroad they look different. With the benefit of distance they seem both larger, more intertwined in the American fabric, and also smaller, more isolatable, more feasible to face head on.

At home, issues of race and politics seem too overwhelming to be changeable, too thickly American. But from 1,000-mile shores they become remote enough to appear moveable. They seem again to be in our hands, something within American control, within the control of the citizens who make up this country. They are ours to manipulate and eradicate if we chose. Racism is not part and parcel to this nation. The politics of money, fear and limited choice is not an inexorable American parasite that cannot be purged without risking the host. These are momentary glimpses of our country at this moment, they are not what define it.

But to change them, first we have to look in the mirror. First we have to decide if we like what we see.


 

This piece appeared in the Conway Daily Sun.

Belize’s Tired Tourism

Belize’s Tired Tourism

Belize-1050971Storms roll in each morning just after sunrise. The thunderclouds sweep the ocean and crawl up the beach, prolonging the night and laying soak rain across the sand, palm trees, patios and walkways. But it never lasts, the Caribbean sun quickly burns through and turns the air into steam. Placencia summers are sticky and dense.

The town juts out like a thumb, surrounded on three sides by water. It’s a town of sand and ocean breeze and falling coconuts, a Belizean paradise. Pink and yellow cabañas dot the beachfront. A quiet walkway parallels the sea. Shops selling conch shell jewelry abut seafood stands. Placencia is the real thing, the kind of sleepy backwater escape first-worlders dream of.

And so they’ve come. Tucked among the shops and stands and bungalows are restaurants advertising happy hour drink specials, pizzas and ocean views. ReMax realty signs dot empty lots proclaiming the ideal locations for vacation homes. Tour operators bark snorkel excursion and scuba trip information in the streets. Everywhere the signs of a bustling tourist economy call.

But if that bustle marks opportunity, it is growth that leaves Belizeans behind. The realtors are expatriates, as are most restaurant owners, tour operators and even many shop and stand owners. The face in the window may be Belizean, but usually the owner behind them is not.

“They want to own everything,” one Belizean food stand owner told me, “and to tell us what to do.”

Belizeans smile and don’t let on about the tension, but if you ask they’ll tell you: the best of their country feels taken from them. Expatriates are the new colonialism. They own the resorts and restaurants and tourist businesses. They buy the land for cheap, developed it in ways no local could afford and then hire on the former owner at sharecropper wages. They sell to tourists and export the profits, leaving Belizeans marginalized, pushed aside in their own country and unable to afford a home in the towns they grew up in.

But no one will tell you that. Everyone is too friendly, too polite. You have to ask.

It’s not a dissimilar story to thousands of other tourism destinations, the skyrocketing real estate prices and the foreign investors/developers. But in Belize for some reason it feels different. The expatriate-owned properties are billed as ecoresorts, a term that conjures images of local cooperatives, not exploitive practices. That such sustainability-focused businesses are environmentally conscious but socially bereft (or worse, intentionally abusive) seemingly runs counter to their mission. The idea of an expatriate-owned business helping elevate overall economic standards seems an empty one.

Without the infrastructure built by such investment, however, there wouldn’t be much in Placencia. The tourism economy was founded by those expatriates, even as they changed it. The economic prosperity of the peninsula is intricately tied to those foreign-owned shops, restaurants and hotels.

How do you balance growth with economic prosperity? How do you ensure locals have access to the kinds of jobs that feed a future? Is it a business owner’s responsibility? Government?

Owners, it appears, aren’t doing it, but at the suggestion of government Belizeans laugh. “They’re as bad as the foreigners,” they say. Politicians in Belize are notoriously corrupt, and everyday Belizeans know better than to look to them for relief. If a big house on the beach isn’t owned by an expatriate it’s owned by a government official. The path out of poverty, it seems, lies elsewhere.

Perhaps it is in education, notoriously underfunded in Belize but a possible path to something other than displacement and servitude. The cost of high school, however, is borne by families, to say nothing of college. In a country of 300,000 it’s hard to spread the cost of public necessities. College is not in everyone’s future.

These are the quandaries hidden beneath white sand and rum drinks. They are the veiled problems of paradise. Belizeans know that Caribbean destinations are only desirable if they are warm, inviting, happy, and so they remain beneath the surface—to do otherwise would threaten the few economic scraps available. So any tourist with $40 U.S. can land a cabaña on the beach and stare at the stretching blue Caribbean, sip rum drinks near the lap of waves on sand.

But that is the tourist economy today—one of displacement and denial, an economic scramble that leaves behind more people than it elevates.

Welcome to Belize. Welcome to the world.

Belize-1050964