Welcome to our family blog!

We began in September 2010 by traveling a portion of the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrimage route that leads to the tomb of Saint James in Santiago, Galicia, in the northwestern corner of Spain. The name of our blog is inspired by the camino, and we'll have many stories (cuentos) to tell! We spent 2010-2011 on an intentional international journey, living and working in Spanish-speaking countries. Since then, we are immersed back in our lives at home but will report on occasional openings and discoveries. Please join us!

Friday, November 18, 2011

My first experience in prison

 I have been volunteering in the Massachusetts prison system with a program that works with inmates to learn alternatives to violent behavior. The following is a piece I wrote for the volunteer newsletter.

Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) Experience “On the Inside”

“Nancy, I’d like to do that Light and Lively exercise after lunch.” “I’ve been thinking about that all weekend, and I think…” The conversations swirl around me as the AVP workshop at a medium security prison, “on the inside”, begins. We are 14 prisoners, mostly African American, including 3 trained facilitators and 4 white middle class women from the outside. It’s not hard to tell who is a prisoner here by race, class or gender.
But when I look closely, I see a different story. When I look beneath all these differences between “us” and “them” in my mind and heart, I feel that I have entered a monastery of sorts, where the inmates are focused on learning about themselves and improving their interactions with the world. True, this is a self-selected group. Unlike in some other programs, prisoners do not win a reduction in their sentence for attending AVP, so their presence is entirely voluntary, a contrast to most of the rest of their schedule.
Right from the beginning, I noticed a deep level of sharing that would be unusual in most groups on the outside. On my first experience inside a prison, I expected to be surrounded by a group of “hardened criminals” who were unwilling to share much, people who were mired in shame and fear of each other and themselves. I was surprised when we did an exercise early on asking us to name, in front of the entire group, positive and negative influences on our lives as well as the resulting effects on us. Absent fathers and racist societies were mentioned, but also loving relatives, success in school and at sports, good marriages and children who continue to love their fathers in prison. Many comments were accompanied by deep feelings, verging on tears.
Later on in the week, we reviewed “The Anatomy of an Apology” and then were given some time in silence to write a letter of apology to someone. The silence in the room was profound, even worshipful. Afterwards, one of the younger men said with much happiness and relief in his voice: “I feel so much lighter now! I can’t believe it! How would it be if I wrote letters to ALL the people I need to apologize to?” I noticed all the prisoners carefully tucked their letters away, one sliding his inside his sock. I wondered how many of these letters were delivered, and if so, how much healing could result?
I brought my own assumptions to this workshop, my first visit inside a prison.  I had been cautioned during the orientation that they might try to “set me up” so that I would compromise myself by bringing in something they could use.  I also came with a package of emotions ranging from anger and disgust at these men’s crimes to anger at a society that is willing to make humans pawns in this vast prison industry, which wastes lives and talents at enormous cost to us all. However, I learned that many of these people are not throwing away their lives, even though some of them have life sentences with no opportunity of parole. They are reading, thinking, praying and meeting together to do what they can in their limited situations. They are gaining the wisdom to see others with compassion and love, and to avoid violence next time, inside as well as outside prison. They are willing to trust each other and name their truths aloud. Watching them take these risks, I found it easier than I would have thought to lay aside my preconceptions and to share some of my inner truth. For the days that I was inside, I truly joined this little monastery and it became a journey of exploration for me as well.
So if you are considering going to a weekend retreat to gain wisdom and understanding of your own life, and to open your heart, why not spend it learning those things with people in prison?

Monday, November 7, 2011

Reflections on our Gap Year by Conor

In organizing my files from our sabbatical year, I came upon this summary of the year by Conor which he wrote shortly after we returned. It got lost in the avalanche of work awaiting us upon our return. It's a wonderful summary of our trip written from a 15 year-old's perspective, someone who gained many years of depth and maturity over the course of the year. In his understated way, Conor sums up the trip well: "This has definitely been a journey!"

We first had the idea to go on this trip a while back, when I was very young, and the thought of leaving friends behind was scary and unpleasant. We were able to do this trip because Laura and I entered kindergarten one year ahead of when we were supposed to. It worked out that Evan had just finished high school and we had just finished middle school, leaving us all in a good stopping place. We decided to take the year off and begin high school a year later. Our reasons for doing the gap year were also to get to know other cultures and people around the world, instead of staying in the US. Looking back, a big advantage of doing it was that we were able to spend a lot of concentrated time with our family. I think that normally we all do our separate things, and we don’t really get to talk that much to each other. Now with high school and college coming up, it makes me especially grateful to have done this.
            I first felt that going away would be a hard thing to do, to leave friends, your home and your routine to go do something different. As the time to board the plane crept up though, it was something different, something exciting, something new. It all depended on my point of view. In the first half of the trip, I didn’t feel that there I was homesick very much, I’m not sure why. It could be that there was still novelty in this idea, and there was so much more to do, so many more adventures. This feeling stayed the second half of the trip, which was something I was wondering about, about whether we’d get bored of traveling. I now realize that for me, to be bored of traveling is an oxymoron.
            On our trip, we spent a lot of time in Spain. In early fall, we walked the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage across Spain, ending in Santiago de Compostela, where the bones of Saint James are buried. The Camino was one of the most interesting parts of our trip. One can make the walk whatever they want to. It can be spiritual, athletic or just a time to reflect. There is a definite sense of community that I noticed on the trail. One might spend the night in one hostel, meet a person, talk to them and then see them again at a hostel two or three days down the road. Spiritually, I found the Camino very helpful. We would walk in silence, and all I could hear was the sound of my boots on the worn-down gravel path, and the noises of birds in the bushes. They were blackberry bushes to be exact, almost picked clean from hungry walkers, but there always remained a few hidden for the determined. I feel that the Camino also produced a healthy lifestyle. We got up early, and started walking with our backpacks. We’d have breakfast at the first town we came to, and keep walking for six hours, having bread, cheese and water for lunch. We’d go to bed with the sun and wake up with the sun. When we arrived at Santiago de Compostela, we went into the famous church, only to find a large part of it under scaffolding being cleaned for the Pope’s visit the following week.
            Once we finished the Camino de Santiago, we rented a car, and drove around for four days. We’d spend one night here, then another night somewhere else. There was a definite freedom of being able to drive the same section in two days that you spent the last two weeks walking. After walking, driving seems so unreasonably fast. We lived out of our suitcases for most of the first half of our trip, which can get a little tiring. We spent most of our time in the towns looking at the museums they had, then left. Thankfully, we didn’t do that all the time, as we stayed with friends for longer periods of time.
            We crossed the border into France as we came over the Pyrenees. To do so, we passed the border control station, consisting of an abandoned booth in the middle of the road, which we didn’t even have to stop at. A group of cows we stopped to let pass caused more of a hassle than going into France did. We later found out that we had taken the rustic road, quite a bit longer than the newly built highway. Almost immediately after we entered France, we stopped at a café, and were served Crème Brulé, and hot chocolate to counter the foggy day outside. We surveyed the café, and noticed a strange, seemingly out-of-place bicycle motif. Unbeknownst to us, the road we were driving on was part of the Tour de France. We had a bit of trouble as the people in France speak neither English nor Spanish and there wasn’t enough time to learn French, so we had to rely on our mother’s French, which was frustrating at times for me. I was used to communicating for myself!
Later, driving through the country-side, we saw row after row of grapes, all to be harvested for wine. We passed a wine store, and decided to drop in. Half an hour later, we were back on the road with two bottles of wine in the trunk, one for us, and the other for our next hosts.
            One of the highlights of our stay in France was seeing some of the cave paintings in southern France. We went down into the cave, a long way down. It grew hotter and hotter as we descended. We saw as we came around the corner a wall lit up, and displayed was a red hand painted on the rock, and a few feet over, a horse running. This was just amazing to see, to think that these had been around for 50,000 years. In the same day, we also saw rock huts built in the dolmens or hills. There are still castles around, a few turned into private homes, others into museums. Towns still look like they did in the Middle Ages, mostly preserved, except for the stores and new technology. We had a limited time in France and saw only southeastern France, the area of Toulouse, and not even all of that. We drove down the coast of France, and back into Spain.
            Then we drove down the eastern coast of Spain, and made our first major stop in Barcelona. We stayed with friends that we had made through the website Intervac. We had hosted their family in our house and their son on a separate occasion. We stayed in Intervac places throughout our trip, but it is an especially popular program in France and Spain. This definitely helped us keep the budget low. Our next stop was Valencia, the birthplace of paella (pai-eh-ya). We also stayed in a homestay there, an apartment right next to the beach, where we could hear the waves every night. After a week enjoying the surprisingly nice beach weather in early October, we drove towards Granada, stopping in Seville and Cordoba. Seville, famous for being the place where Colombus’ journey started in 1492, also houses a museum full of all the riches they brought back from the New World. There is one of the largest churches in the world, where Christopher Columbus is buried.
            Further down the coast, and a little inland lies Granada, the home of La Alhambra, a magical palace with a sprawling garden, for the most part left intact by the Spanish. The palace has beautiful poetry written all over the walls and is chock full of Arabic architecture. It is amazing to see it at night, with everything lit up and sparkling. Another large part of the culture of southern Spain is Flamenco. This is a type of dancing which combines Arabic and Spanish culture with gypsy, or Romano, culture from Eastern Europe. It has a lot of stamping of feet, almost like tap dancing, but louder, and clapping to the rhythm. After another relaxing week at a beachfront apartment in Almuñecar, a town just south of Granada, we took a thirty-five minute ferry across the fourteen kilometers of water to Morocco.
            Morocco was a completely different culture from Spain. There were calls to prayer five times a day, and the poverty we saw was much worse than it was a few kilometers north. There are streets so narrow that one can barely raise their arms, and it’s very easy to get lost, as all the signs are in Arabic. It took a little getting used to not to drink the tap water. We rented a car in Tangiers, the port city we landed at, also where a scene in The Bourne Ultimatum was filmed. The car wasn’t exactly in great shape, with one tire that had a slow leaking hole, but it drove just the same. We went south, to Marrakesh, Rabat (the capital), Casablanca, and a smaller town where we were hosted by our Moroccan exchange students who had visited us last May.
We continued farther south, to the base of the Atlas Mountains, where we hiked up for several nights and stayed with a Berber family. They live in the mountains raising livestock, among other things. We stayed in one man’s house who hosts school groups and others to take on hiking trips around the mountains. His organization is trying to bring money into the town, a two hour walk into the hills from the road. He has a lot of interesting projects like making jam to help raise funds. The food was very good in Morocco, we had sweet mint tea, which has been served there for hundreds of years, and tagines, a sort of stew cooked in a special pot. After a couple of weeks in Morocco, we took a very short flight back to Madrid.
            I enjoyed Madrid a lot in the three weeks we stayed in an apartment belonging to friends, a family who had visited us in the summer. Madrid has a very nice subway system, with stops in many areas, making travel easy. There are lots of things to do, such as visit the Royal Palace, or one of the many art museums such as El Prado or La Reina Sofia which exhibits Pablo Picasso’s Guernica. One museum I especially liked was the Prado, which had an exhibit on Greek Mythology, which I find very interesting. We took a few day trips to some of the surrounding towns, such as Toledo, known for its marzipan and silver. The silver was brought back to Spain after being mined out of El Cerro Rico, the Rich Mountain, in Potosí, Bolivia, a site we would later visit. Knowing that so many people have been forced to work in awful conditions by the Spanish added a somber note to our day there. Having researched Francisco Franco, it would have been interesting to see the Valley of the Fallen, a memorial to those who died in the Spanish Civil War, where he is buried, although this site was closed because of restoration.
            After a calm three weeks in Madrid, we flew to Nairobi, in Kenya, a twelve hour flight. We stayed a few days at the Kakamega AIDS Orphanage, teaching ultimate Frisbee, learning soccer, making crafts like Gimp and spinning tops, and on one particularly hot day, we organized a water balloon game. We then moved on to Esabalu, the sister city of Amesbury, Massachusetts, connected with the organization Amesbury for Africa. Without having seen it, I thought it would be more desert-like, but instead it was very lush and green, with many people growing corn. We helped with some projects in Esabalu for a few days.
Our final place in Kenya was a safari at two national parks. On a safari, one tries to see “The Big 5”: an Elephant, a Buffalo, a Lion, a Leopard, and a Rhino. The term was actually coined by big game hunters, not safari guides, these five animals known for their ferociousness when cornered. We saw only four, missing the elusive leopard, but we’d had enough of the safari after the four days. There were a lot of tourist vans, making it easy to see from a distance if there was something important by the number of vans gathered around one spot. We returned from the hot, almost always sunny climate in Kenya to the snowy New England under freezing temperatures, but still glad to be back after four months. I think the trip would have seemed a lot harder, and more difficult if we hadn’t come home for the holidays.
            As I mentioned before, in the first half of our trip, we moved around a lot, and didn’t spend very much time staying in one place. However, this was the opposite in the second half, where we spent eight weeks living in one town in Guatemala, where we rented an apartment. There were definitely benefits to each form of travel, and I’m glad we did both because just moving around the whole year would have been tiring, but it also was a good way to see a lot of the sites in Spain. Living in one spot also helped, it felt like we were actually citizens, living there, and not tourists coming to see things for a week, then leaving.
            We started the second half in Guatemala, in a small town called Antigua. Almost all the streets were cobblestoned, and it was definitely a walking city, as cars were faced with the challenge of lots of one way streets. It was hard to get lost because of the city’s grid layout. Albeit a small town, it still had a grocery store and lots of other facilities. Antigua has benefited from the ex-pats who come to live or retire there. One thing we did while in Antigua was attend Spanish school. A lot of fun, we had the lucky opportunity to spend four hours of our morning sitting with a teacher conjugating verbs. Guatemala is a good place to learn the Spanish language, as their accent is very clear; therefore, a number of schools have sprung up. Even though we may not have liked Spanish lessons, I think they definitely helped get most of the grammar down.
 In the afternoons, we volunteered at an afterschool center called Los Patojos, essentially, The Kids. This was a very nice program, encouraging peacefulness, love, and care for others to create a better learning environment, something much like the Montessori principles, and also Quaker testimonies. We spent roughly seven weeks working there, long enough to get to know most of the kids’ names. Antigua served as a base camp for our weekend trips around the area. We went to various places such as Xela (“she-la”) also known as Quetzaltenango, where one of the last Mayan rulers was killed by the Spanish. We built a new sustainably designed stove for a family while there. We visited El Lago Atitlan, a lake featured in many Mayan creation stories. One weekend we spent in San Juan Comalapa, where an NGO is building a school out of recycled material like bottles and worn down tires.
            After two months in Guatemala, we flew on to Bolivia, having a layover in Miami. We arrived in La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, with the highest commercial airport in the world, suffering slightly from soroche, high altitude sickness. We tried to quickly make our way to Sorata, lower in elevation, down in a valley. We stayed at the Quaker Internado, a boarding program for high school students. If they live up in the mountains but want to go to school, they can’t walk five hours each day. The Internado is a place where they can sleep and have meals in a five day boarding situation. It is funded by BQEF, the Bolivian Quaker Education Fund, which is doing other work in the area surrounding La Paz, such as helping the Quaker schools. In Sorata, one of the outings visitors generally do is to go with a guide up into the mountains and stay for a few nights. This is called “a trekking” in Spanish, with an obvious origin of the English word trekking. We tried to do something of the sort, but once we got up to the campsite for the first night, it was so rainy and cloudy that we couldn’t see the end of the lake, which was not bigger than some pools. The tents were leaky, and we decided to come back to Sorata after one day.
During the week, we helped the local high school with English by coming in and teaching. This was a very interesting experience for me, and I think it helped me be a better student by thinking about how to teach. It also helped me practice Spanish, because I’d think about the grammar in Spanish when teaching English. The students were beginners, so most our time we had to explain things in Spanish. We taught for four weeks in the school and hung out with the kids in the Internado the rest of the time. We participated in organic gardening and other projects with them. My brother had brought some silkscreening materials down for the kids in the Internado and we taught them to silkscreen t-shirts. Now they have a project to raise money by selling these t-shirts.
The majority of our Sundays spent in Bolivia we went to Quaker church service. The meeting was a lot different than what we are used to, there was no silence, and the preacher talked during most of the three-hour servide. We were only slightly affected by soroche, and when we felt some symptoms, we usually just took out our coca. Coca is a very big part of the Bolivian lifestyle, and mate de coca, coca tea, is said to cure many things such as a headache, stomachache, and just general aches. Although it is used to make cocaine, you don’t have to worry about getting the effects of cocaine, because the dosage is way too low to make any sort of difference. We showed the kids in the Internado how to play Frisbee, and left a few with them. We also brought a soccer ball which we gave at the end of our stay. We spent one month volunteering in Sorata, and one week of tourism in the surrounding areas.
            After leaving Sorata, we headed north to Peru. We stopped in Puno, a lakeside town which is the starting point to go see the Floating Islands, reeds strapped together to make a safe haven for the inhabitants fleeing from the Peruvians on one side and the Bolivians on the other. We continued on by bus, heading for Cuzco. Cuzco has a battlefield overlooking the city, where the Incans almost pushed the Spanish completely out of Peru, but their culture was also harmed by inter-tribal feuds. This kept them from being successful in beating back the Spanish. From there, we proceeded on to Aguas Calientes, the base point for visiting Machu Picchu. The reason Machu Picchu is so well-known is that the Spanish never reached there. They continued down in the valley after Cuzco, and didn’t climb up the mountains to Machu Picchu. This makes the site  well preserved in comparison to other sites where the Spanish killed everybody and stole everything of value.
            The food in Peru was delicious, and we bought gourmet foods for a third of the price we would get in the US, as the Peruvian Sol is three to one dollar. A few of the specialties in Peru are Llama, Alpaca and Guinea Pig (known as cuy). Llama and alpaca we did get to try, but we were eluded by the Guinea Pig. In my opinion, llama and alpaca taste the same, and they both mostly taste like beef.
            After our time in Peru was done, we returned to Bolivia, again by bus, but this time coming around the opposite side of the lake. We started traveling around inside of Bolivia, to places like Potosí, Sucre and Cochabamba. Potosí is famous for its mines, where the Spanish forced the indigenous people to work, mining out the silver that financed Toledo. With Potosí, the amount of silver in the world tripled what it had been before. We also traveled to Sucre, the legislative capital of Bolivia, also known for gourmet chocolate. Sucre was one of my favorite places in Bolivia. It felt very elegant and modern, and at the same time, there were also places to do volunteer work.
We stayed in Cochabamba for a few days, the site of the infamous “Water Wars”. This happened very recently, when big companies bought the rights to the water supply, and started charging Bolivians to use it. Riots were started, and eventually, they succeeded in getting the companies to leave. A movie was made about this, called Tambien La Lluvia, Even the Rain. It is about how they would charge even for the rain. We stayed with some Quaker friends in Cochabamba and played with their young son.
We arrived back in La Paz, for three more weeks of volunteering. We taught English again, and rented an apartment. We taught at an Evangelical private school there, and we taught both morning and afternoon sessions. In Bolivia, students only attend school half days, however they have smaller vacations. We taught students of all different ages, mostly from seventh graders to seniors in high school. The knowledge of English definitely varied between classes, but all of the classes required us to speak a lot of Spanish. We didn’t teach immersion English. We liked to incorporate songs and music into the teaching. We taught “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” and in the morning, a Quaker song before meals, performed with pretend trombones. They had asked us to teach Christian songs especially.
            One night, we had an idea to make brownies. We used a mix, which was Betty Crocker. It just so happened to have high altitude directions, which we just glanced at, seeing 3500-6000, and figuring that was in meters. We looked again at the directions after the brownies were a little sub-par, and realized that it was in feet. La Paz, which sits at a stunning 3,500 meters, was triple the height of the directions.
One thing that struck me about La Paz is that very few people actually own personal cars. Most people take the readily available mini-buses, which zip all around town for a small price. It’s better for the environment to have a lot of public transportation. One thing we noticed right away is that the indigenous woman’s outfit almost always has a bowler hat. There are many stories to why they all wear bowler hats, but a prominent one is that an English businessman ordered too many, and brought them to Bolivia to get rid of them while accidentally starting a fad. The majority of our travel between cities was made by bus. Sometimes they would be big, overnight, long journey buses; other times the very same mini-bus taken to get around the city. Taking these large buses is always an adventure, as they usually don’t have bathrooms, and there is almost always a section of mysterious sticky stuff on the ground somewhere.
            To change it up, we took the train from southern Bolivia to the Argentinian border, where we promptly got on a bus and headed further south into Argentina. We realized right away that it was more expensive. Food is more expensive, hotels are more expensive, and travel is more expensive. The buses’ high price is explained by the pristine conditions, and the fact that they gave out food, and sometimes even blankets to everyone. We stopped in Salta, known for Salteñas, a meat filled pastry, before continuing on to Buenos Aires. Once we arrived, I noticed that there were not any mini- buses zipping around, that most people seemed to own their private cars. We had a bit of a slow learning curve when dealing with the Argentinian accent in Spanish, and we still hadn’t completely gotten it down by the time we left, a week later.
There are lots of activities to do in Buenos Aires, like seeing tango dancing, going to some of the numerous art museums, or just walking around. Buenos Aires is a very European city, with most streets having traffic lights, not common in Bolivia. We stayed in a homestay in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, and took the commuter rail in on the days we decided to go into town. This was very peaceful, and we had no problems with the trains. Once inside the city, there is a growing bicycle program that lends free bikes to residents, with pick-up stations all over, and more planned.  Argentina is known for delicious steak and great wine. We tried the steak, and it was very good, but I’m not the one to ask about the wine. We ended up seeing a professional soccer game while we were there, which I was really glad to do. We weren’t familiar with the teams, but it was cool to see the game, and be there with the whole crowd, singing songs and waving banners.
            On the trip home, I was in a pensive state, glad to be home, but thinking about what I will do next, whether I’ll get bored, or be sorry not to be still traveling; I don’t know what will happen. I am definitely glad to have done this trip though. I think it better prepared me for the challenges I will face in high school, and further developed helpful skills like independence, cooperation, and dealing with stress. Traveling can definitely be fun, but there is always a certain amount of stress involved, and I think learning how to deal with that will be very valuable in the future. This time also provided an opportunity to bond with the rest of my family, learn more about other cultures, and the most significant achievement in my opinion was progress in Spanish. Having started the year without knowing almost a word in Spanish, we are now thinking about whether we’ll be in Spanish 4 or 5. This has definitely been a journey, and now I’m ready to begin high school, to begin the next journey.