Friday, April 30, 2010

and storytellers are off!

We have discovered a positive goldmine of creativity in Phnom Penh!

Today, to introduce some non-ferocious characteristics of tigers, we started with a bit of help from a 1995 National Geographic article (thank you parents’ basement!) on tigers. I started by showing the girls a photo of a mother tiger tenderly licking the heads of two of her cubs. Going around the circle, we each chose a word or phrase to describe the photo, some saying “makes me feel like she is human, has a family and loves her cubs just like we do” or “her fur is colorful but also matches the forest behind her.” To bring in a bit of humor – since probably most kids would agree that the best books are the funny ones! – the next photo was a tiger that was so hot, it found a cool crevice with a puddle of water just big enough for its butt to sit in. This brought lots of giggles and “I feel bad for him, he looks so pitiful!”

With significantly more compassionate and amused feelings towards tigers flowing around the room, each person came up with their own tiger character and description. When we shared these with the class, I was STUNNED. Not only were they so hilarious that my cheeks hurt from laughing, but some of the girls had written entire stories then and there! In one story, a tiger most likes to eat fish, but is afraid of water and cannot swim. One day, a bird swoops down from above and gets a fish from the water. Seeing this, the tiger tries the same tactic – he climbs a trees, and then jumps through the air like bird, plopping in the water (HA!). Since he cannot swim, though, he fails to catch any fish and returns to shore embarrassed. Pretty good, eh?

One thing we’re trying to do is let the girls have control over the creative process, and part of this means letting them be the ones behind the camera for once, instead of the object of journalists’ cameras and questions. They’ve learned how to use the video camera, and took turns throughout class filming each other present tiger stories. The resulting footage will be the world through their eyes – and they seem to like this. Maybe one day a VFC girl will be Cambodia’s premier documentary filmmaker, or maybe a journalist!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Workshop 2 begins...

After two classes, I am excited to say that the workshop is off to a great start. The girls are endearing, funny, a little shy, and excited. Classes are conducted sitting on the floor in a circle. In Cambodia, it’s rude to point your feet at people (or touch their heads…), so girls sit with their feet tucked away to the side.

For the first day off class, a local Buddhist environmental organization came in and made a presentation on the environment, conservation of forests in Cambodia, and how preserving the environment can be not just a way to protect nature but also for Cambodians to make a living via eco-tourism. My hope was that this talk would bring up some points about why conservation is important, which might not be immediately obvious to ladies dealing with the life and death issues of sex trafficking.
In the second class, we got to know the girls better in a more casual way. We played a memory game where everyone had to say their favorite animal, and remember everyone else’s favorite animals who had gone before them, which made for lots of playful slaps and giggles. Why one girl chose venomous snakes as her favorite is beyond me, though! Kevin is now officially named “The Giraffe”, because he made a big crash-bang when he knocked a table. This was right after we were told that Cambodians like to keep their voices soft and shut doors quietly. So much for that ! You can ask Kevin sometime to say “My name is Giraffe” for you in Khmer :)

The girls aren’t terribly excited about tigers yet, but we’ll see what happens after we talk a bit about the creature and try to brainstorm some funny stories. Will keep you posted on what happens today and tomorrow!

Chapter 2 - Kingdom of Cambodia

Hello, dear readers!

Kevin and I arrived in Cambodia this week for our second workshop. We have been looking forward so long to this workshop, mostly because of the incredibly heroic women we are working with. Our non-profit partner here is the Somaly Mam Foundation, a program fighting sex-trafficking that was founded by Somaly Mam, a modern-day Harriet Tubman and survivor herself.

The writers of this project are 11 girls in Somaly Mam’s Voices For Change program, a group of girls who have joined the foundation staff and will help other girls being rescued from brothels and integrated into rescue and rehabilitation centers. To read more about the sex trafficking, see this article by Nicholas Kristof about one of the girls in our class -

In this blog, I don’t want to write anymore about the girls’ tragic, terrible, beyond-sad pasts. I will write about how they are now, about their growth and laughter and creativity, and about the way they engage with this workshop. The dark side of this story is much better described in Somaly’s book, which EVERYONE should read. It is called “The Lost Road to Innocence”, available everywhere. Spend an evening and read it, and I promise you won’t regret it.

Friday, April 16, 2010

mucho gusto, Nicaragua

Last day in the village of San Isidro, Nicaragua, and it will be a sad departure.

Today is Tortuga Fest for our two writing classes, with cake and music and of course an award ceremony. 12 blossoming young writers will receive special prizes - sets of colored pencils, all the rage around here - for specific strengths of their stories. Gabriel, a quiet and hardworking boy who plays the flute and joined in the second week of our workshop wins for "best use of suspense" in his story, "The Intelligent Turtle". Spunky Abraham wins most creative title "N.C.H.D.T." (No Comen Huevos de Tortuga - Don't Eat Turtle Eggs). Francisco (about 12 yrs), a star student who encouraged the others by reading his story to the class as they were working, will win for his use of detail. Check out the beginning of his story (please excuse the rough translation):

"It was a hot day, and the waves of the ocean were calm. A sea turtle swam with his babies under the surface of the water, and all was calm. The fish swam happily as the turtle and her babies floated along without a problem. This turtle and her babies spent most of their time in the sea, although sometimes they would spend a little time in the un one the beach. One day..."

There are many good stories to share. A shout-out definitely goes to thhe story about the Bougie Frog and the Turtle (I've translated fochenta as bougie...), and also to the story where a mother buys turtle eggs in the market only to discover that her daughter has adopted and brought home the mother turtle, resulting in a happy family reunion and return to sea :)

Before I sign off from Nicaragua for a week break before Cambodia, I'll leave you with a couple fun learnings about Nicaragua:

* Nicaraguans point with their lips. (Thanks to Bridget for pointing this out - it's a mannerism I'm considering adopting). Want something over in the corner? You'd better air-kiss toward it.

* If you need something, plan for 6 times as much time as you might expect. Por ejemplo, yesterday we wanted to buy cake for today's party. Pretty easy, we're told, since there are some places with cake. After an hour sitting under a star-fruit tree watching Natacha the feisty puppy repeatedly torture the cat (I seemed to be the only one disturbed by this) while talking local politics, we met the smartest little 8 year old around who named all the major U.S. cities and taught us about turtles, and accompanied us in the bed of a pick-up truck to the cake-store. Somehow this took 5 hours. No idea how. Pretty cake though.

I highly recommend Nicaragua to anyone. There is a huge amount of naturaleza here, the people are friendly, and it's not touristy in most places (even San Juan Del Sur is more backpackery than touristy, and the cafe Gato Negro is a dreamy Nicaraguan seaside version of a Brooklyn cafe, missing only the skinny jeans - not too much to lament over). A little money will go far, and all you need is a dictionary, some bravery in use of Spanish, and say "Adios" or "Buenas" to those who pass by.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Some color on Nicaraguan life

As fascinating as it may be to detail the goings-on of our writing workshop, even more interesting for you, dear reader, is probably the culture of Nicaragua itself. Given that, I'd like to take some space here to share some of the culture I've absorbed from this country, so that you can also feel immersed in it.

So to start - Nicaraguans are very clean people, in general. Even when it is 95 degrees, breezes kick up the dust all around, and the scalding sun shines down with such intensity you think it'd run out soon, people still put themselves together each day. Both men and women often slick their hair with some sort of gel or wax, with men combing their hair neatly back and women pulling their hair tight, tight into a neat ponytail or bun. Clothing is often neatly washed and not wrinkled, with many color shirts, slacks, and closed-toed shoes (heat notwithstanding). Houses are swept frequently and things kept in place, even when the roofs are made of tin (most of them are) and the wall are rudimentary (generally cement, stucco, or just giant swathes of tin pieces together like a quilt). In the rainy season, the rain can make such a clamor on the roof that they say it's hard to hear yourself think. I imagine it gets quick messy in the rainy season, as most houses have a 6-inch space between the top of the wall and the roof. I assume this is for ventilation, but it also allows the snoring of the neighbor, the howling of the dogs, the crowing of the roosters, the buzz of night insects and of course anyone's gossip to float through the houses along the breeze.

Almost every house in Nicaragua has a dog for protection, all looking looking as lean and tough and any stray mutt. Though they bark at times, these dogs are in the end are well-trained and polite. They generally lounge about the front of the each house in the dust, or wander about looking for anything suspicious or fun to play with. At night, one dog's growl, snarl, or bark can set off the others, but their excitement never lasts long. With the high rate of petty theft and other crimes in Nicaragua, having these dogs around must add a sense of security, or at least hope.

The men of Nicaragua mostly do farm work, construction, or other basic manual labor. They work on the farms that fill Nicaragua (not patchwork farms like you'd imagine in America, but smaller plots on scraggly, chaparral-like land). They grow beans, rice, tomatoes, and fruit. Giant papayas and avocados, mangoes, banana bunches and pineapples are grown everywhere, and sold in the busy local market. Many young schoolboys have to take several months off of school each year to farm with their families. This help with the harvest often puts them behind their studies in school, but there is little option. Girls also have to take time off school at times - if they are in school - to help with some manual labor as well. The number of single mothers in Nicaragua is astounding - so many have several children, perhaps aren't officially married yet, and then the men leave. These women are everywhere, running their households with such hutzpah and effort.

Everyone gets up at 5am. This is when the roosters crow, the sun comes up, and it is slightly cooler. Breakfast is gallo pinto, or rice and beans. Little is added to this dish besides water, and lots of salt. While rice and beans are eaten three times / day, essentially, a couple other ingredients may be added - chicken, dried, super-salty cheese that looks like sticks of feta, ayote (a cucumber-like vegetable in the squash family that can be sauteed), plantains (dried, boiled, fried, steam, you-name-it), and sometimes bread. Most families can't afford to have very much meat at home, though. Chicken is a special thing.

The women wash the family's clothing in the one sink in each house. These deep, wide sinks are made of dark cement, and reminded me of the sinks we used in elementary school art-class. The bottom of the sink has some fifteen ridges, used to scrub out the dust and sweat from clothing. The same sinks are used to wash faces, wash food, brush teeth, do the laundry, and clean the dishes. To the right of the sink is another sink that's 5 inches wide and a couple feet long, with a faucet, and this is often filled up for the day, with a plastic bowl left in it to scoop water out and onto the dishes/faces/hands/clothing that are being washed. This helps hugely in preserving water during the week.

The kids are pretty happy-go-lucky, not-with-standing the hardship. Often those with the biggest smiles in our classes had some of the hardest background. Nicaragua is not safe, and all know it. People know the groups of men hanging out who are professional thieves, who go into the city to pick-pocket and break into houses, and then return to their own town at night. The townspeople don't speak up, because they say it is better to be friends with them than on their bad side. People walk carefully, and are wary of city buses and walking or traveling-about after dark. Everyone is in bed by 8:30 or 9pm. Many people burn their garbage, and walking along at night you'll often see piles of cinders glowing alongside the road.

Huge portions of Nicaragua are undeveloped, with only a house here or there, and otherwise only scattered Fincas or bus-stops in sight. Nicaragua has huge capacity to become an eco-tourist zone, like Costa Rica, but has not taken advantage of it. This has helped to leave the nature undeveloped. We will see what happens in the future.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Moving towards a Nicaragua book...

Good progress has been made in the last couple of days!

Yesterday, we visited the home of the 3 sisters in our class whom we would like to highlight, and it turns out there are nine siblings in total! Outside their home are 4 giant tubs of water which were standing full, something that only happens once every eight days when the “Agua Potable” truck comes rumbling by, kicking up a dust-storm in its track.

Behind the house is a “finca” (farm, though mostly uncultivated) stretching across the hills with barely a house in site. The three sisters must have show us every prickly plant and pretty flower and hovering bird on the premises, and were terribly exited to show us these natural secrets of their land. It's amazing how quickly kids can become comfortable with you, and us with them – I already feel so familiar with them that I will be sad to say goodbye in only 3 days.

This morning the sister’s father took us on a behind-the-scenes tour of the finca. Unfortunately, even though I stuck my head way into the tree where a sloth (“el perezoso”, or lazy one) lives – and poops down occasionally – he was way up in the heart of the tree, just out of sight. We got a good whiff of him and some shots of his home, at least. The finca had beautiful, if dusty, rolling hills and thick trees and vines that require saber-toothed machetes to pass through. There is an incredible difference in the dry and wet seasons here – now, in the dry season, there is no rain, no water (thus the weekly agua truck), and only prickly bushes and trees with thick, waxy flowers. In the wet season, though, the entire depression behind the sister’s house is filled with 5-6 feet of water, making an instant lagoon. This is also the season for growing tomates, frijoles, and maize.

A final note – if anyone is looking for a fabuloso Nicaraguan singer-songwriter to make famous, I’ve got one here. Ernesto allowed me to film him as he played Nicaraguan folk songs, some modern pieces, and even his own work, and anyone would be slightly in love. He sings songs of youth, love, dreams, hope, pobreza, the environment… a Nicaraguan Jack Johnson, quizas?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Nica, Week 2

Greetings from Nicaragua, everyone!

After taking a local bus almost to Costa Rica- with a vociferous rooster and an even more vociferous preacher – and a couple days of salty Pacific treatment for our dusty feet, it’s back to work in San Isidro and the final week of creative workshops! This week is especially key to the project, both for story development and the “other” part. You see, these are no ordinary story books..

After each endangered species story will be a profile of the local non-profit partner, like Fabretto’s education program, special features on Nicaragua, and the Carey (hawksbill) sea turtle – one of the 7 species of sea turtles, 5 of which are in Nicaragua. Other pages will have the always important “Vocabulario!”, and These are some of the elements that we heard in our parent focus group could add a lot to the books from the parents’ and teachers’ perspective.

But wait, there’s more! If all goes well, the books will also have nifty educational CDs for the intrepid reader to learn more about conservation, do some fun activities (because who doesn’t love a turtle-themed crossword puzzle?), listen to clips of local kids singing, and even check out a Behind the Scenes section with a sneak peek into our classes and the daily life of people here.

To make this happen, I’m snapping photos and filming as much as possible so that we’ll have lots of color to paint with during book development. Doing an ethnographic film with local interviews could be a wonderful month-long project - if you had the time!

Early this morning I asked a man living in an 8 ft by 4 ft, tin-lined shed if I could hang out a while and film as he prepared breakfast. Fanning the small fire circle in front of his home, he cooked water from an old oil can and pinto beans until they frothed in his riddled cast-iron pot, and then switched out this pot for another with plantains to boil. Stirring his food and fanning the fire, he told me about the hard life of the people here, (Nicaragua being the second poorest country in the Western hemisphere behind Haiti) and how his skewed eyes see blurry because his mother was not given sugar while pregnant (hmm). Though he didn’t have much, he insisted I drink his hot bean water with a touch of sugar. Pretty tasty, actually, and I’m thinking one could make a new energy drink of this stuff in the U.S. Will experiment at home with bean-based drinks, if anyone is interested in a taste-testing position …

As my head is full of turtle-facts (I’m no wangba dan!*), here are a few for the road:

After long migrations and wandering, sea turtles march up right up the beaches where they were born (usually by night) and lay nests full of flexible, ping-pong sized eggs!

Baby sea turtles brave a dangerous journey back to the sea, but often head off in the wrong direction if lights or beach erosion confuse their orientation.

In many areas, shrimp fisherman now must use turtle ejecting devices in their nets to decrease the amount of accidently trapped turtles. It only takes them 40 minutes to drown (they have lungs), and much less to be ejected!

Turtle eggs are often sold as shots in bars as a protein-rich, if less-potent, alternative to Viagra.

*Calling someone a turtle egg, or dumb person, is pretty derogatory in China.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

As Kevin and I travel to partner countries, I want to let everyone know what it is that were actually doing day to day, how each country and non-profit partner plays out, and hopefully in the end provide details of the environmental-themed children's book series we hope to publish in a year! The books will all be written by young women and kids around the world, and the backs of the books will feature the profiles of the strong female leader of each organization and the local endangered animal on which the book is themed. Countries to come include Cambodia, Bangladesh (the Ganges dolphin), DR Congo, Sudan .... but, our first stop: Nicaragua.

We have been in San Isidro, Nicaragua, for two days now. It is almost part of the capital, but for all appearances worlds away from the city. Our stucco home is one of the lucky with a tank above the house for running water. Friendly roosters and perros serve as consistent if vocal guardians, and Spanish is the only option here. Heaving 3-seat camponeras (read: tuk-tuks) ride along the dusty hill road entrenched in the dusty mountain and surrounded by small tin-lined or stucco homes and gnarly green trees.

Fabretto's main school at the top of the windy hill is extensive and lush, with a small student garden cultivating papayas, pinas and radishes, basketball courts, an auditorium, a scholarship student building that includes a computer lab, and a chicken coup. Today, 100 chickens will be slaughtered up the steet. Mucho sangre! Mucho trabajo, they said.

Ernesto, the music teacher, has regaled us with sweet Nicaraguan class songs of libertad and latino-america, and offered to help write a turtle-themed song with the classes here. I returned his music with a meager Bubbly on the guitar; if only Caillat's version had been accompanied by congo drums like mine was! The ukulele has yet to be brought out.

With homes open to breezes as much as other people, this community feels small and entirely separate from Managua. Classes on creative writing and sea turtles began yesterday with 30 students in 2 schools down the hill, and the students are already showing their creative talents. When asked to draw turtles with personalities, students came up with colorful images of golfing turtles, domestically-focused turtles going about their housework, and even some picketing tortugas on strike for humans eating their eggs! Today the students began thinking about elements of stories like narrative voice, setting, and characters, and with amusement acted out the story of Jeshi the gorilla. The students are 8-12 years old, and so far very sweet, engaged and attentive.

Tomorrow we hope to organize the classes into writing skits that will be turned into Oscar-nominees on Monday. Plans are also in the making for a Tortuga Fiesta on Friday next week to celebrate the conclusion of the workshop, with a class-made pinata perhaps!

People here go to sleep at 8pm, and are up with the roosters and the sun. Geckos skirt the walls roving for insects, and rice and beans is the daily fare. So far so good, and Ill keep you posted.