A Passion for Peace

Responsibility, respect and a loving connection with all beings and for this Earth we share.

Snapshot Impressions

It's been a whirlwind of a month in Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru, and I wish to share some glimpses of memorable moments in that time.

Middle-aged men and little girls alike excitedly feeding ducks in a waterfront park with a Loch Ness monster statue in Guayaquil, Ecuador.

A waiter arguing with me that a flour tortilla is actually corn because that's what they order from the producer and that I will not be sick eating it. (I avoided it but ended up with soy sauce gluten poisoning anyway.)

Our bus into Peru dropping us at a Customs Patrol Center at 3am. The guards gave us two plastic chairs to sit/sleep in til sunrise while they watched a movie about a Hispanic woman who met American hippies on a beach and got drunk and drugged.

Luke seeing a huge splash in the sea and subsequently witnessing the breachings and spout-outpourings of a huge humpback whale migrating home while breakfasting at our hotel in Punta Sal, Peru. (Photo on left: hotel view)

When our taxi van got a flat tire in northern Peru the driver attempting to drive the wheel onto a rock in lieu of using a jack but instead using the rock to dislodge the entire front bumper.

Listening to a man rile a crowd of educators who then tranquilly marched with their students through the streets of Piura, Peru to protest low teachers' wages while police in full riot gear and shields stood by.

After a man in a fake janitor suit swept my bag away, our landlady and her maid marching me back to a mall in Arequipa, Peru, screaming at the security guards and insisting I file a police report, all of this concluding six hours later with a policeman writing a report typed by lifting his finger before pressing into each key.

Border guards in Bolivia denying my dollars because they 'looked bad', saying it's real money in the US but not in Bolivia. (Only US citizens have to pay $135 visa, no one else.)

Ubiquitous in Bolivia: llama fetuses and dried baby llamas used for religious ceremonies and sugary popcorn that has the texture of a cheese puff. (Photo on right: a real llama)

Everywhere we go finding few parks with grass fenced off so as not to be used and being chastised by police not to touch it or even to lie on each other's lap on a bench.

Following "Love Day" a series of weddings in a church on a busy street in La Paz with musicians, guests throwing confetti and the couple dancing in the street outside while another wedding is taking place inside.

Feeling like I was sitting at the top of the world on an Andean mountain of higher altitude than Everest base camp, meditating and taking in the view. (Photo on left: the Andes outside La Paz)

Finding (British) Indian food for the first time on this trip. Verdict: tasty and permanently out of papadum.

Hiking pre-Incan ruins of Tiwanku/Aymara at a famous temple site and on Isla del Sol where a mesa is still used for ceremonies near the sacred Puma rock where they believe life began at Lake Titicaca. (Photo below: Isla del Sol)

Our cute Spanish colonial loft-like apartment in Cusco, Peru, home of the Incas, gateway to Machu Picchu, and so full of tourists that a sweet-natured shoeshiner spending 10 minutes cleaning up Luke's converse knock-offs in a park asked for $15 for his services instead of the local price of $2. (Luke told him the shoes cost less than $20 to begin with.)

Scouting out the local market of food and artisan wares, complete with cow and pig heads for sale, though what you use them for I am not quite sure. (I'll spare you the picture.)

Posted byValerie at 2:08 AM 2 comments  

La Vida Loca

Sunday afternoon whilst wandering the streets of Manta with Luke I was musing how unremarkable and not quite as crazy life here in South America has been as compared to life in India and South Africa in the recent past. Sure it may take five trips to the tailor who runs a business out of his house to get him to correctly complete a three-minute task of sewing a patch under a tear in Luke's shorts, and sure we got a fake $20 from an ATM and need to visit a bank this week with our receipt to try to exchange it, but all in all, especially in this non-touristy city in Ecuador nothing especially remarkable has happened, which is fine by me--not as many crazy ups or downs as some other places. (Photo: streetscape in Manta, Ecuador)

Then last night while enjoying evening air and a view from the roof of our apartment building, a school employee showed up with a stranger and started showing him around and asking us questions such as where to recommend this man buy his groceries. We quickly followed them back downstairs and realised that the man had just moved into our shared apartment. Last week another couple from the US stayed here with us and the Ecuadorian couple, which was fun and we were warned ahead of time, but this time someone just showed up, and besides not having cleared any space in the refrigerator or cabinet out of politeness, I had made no space in my mind to feel safe in sharing the apartment with someone new. In addition, I felt incredibly disrespected that we were not so much as informed when we were with various employees over the past two days, nor by the one with whom we live. This stirred up a lot of anger and feelings of unsafety in me, and I spent some time processing those, which included writing a kind but strong email to the school director explaining how I felt and how incredibly preventable this entire experience was. Luke looked at the email through his Western male lens and thought I talked an awful lot about feelings which men may find tricky to take, but I pointed out that the Spanish culture here is better versed in emotional health than we Anglo and Germanic westerners tend to be and that I think he will respond well.

The next morning I awoke to an apologetic email from the director full of responsibility for "causing me such distressing feelings"and assuring me he will speak to the staff and make some changes to policy so that this does not happen again. Imagine our surprise when upon returning to our apartment during a break from class there was a sign on the refrigerator 'Please Leave Space for Other Students in the Refrigerator.' Outrage! We would have made more space if we had but been informed! We quickly went back downstairs to school to speak to the employee we live with, and he apologised that he keeps doing things without telling us first and said the sign was intended for people next week because many new residents are coming to stay after we leave this weekend, and that because of our not being informed last night, the director sent him new instructions to help inform with signs around the apartment. Relief and laughter soon followed. What an unnecessary series of events! (Photo: bamboo scaffolding holding up a concrete building)

Later Luke looked in the freezer to gather some ice. Inside the freezer was our avocado. Por que? (Why?) Which employee would put our avocado that was sitting on top of the refrigerator into the freezer, and why? We left it on the counter to thaw. I don't have much hope that it will be remotely edible, and I have never heard of a frozen avocado. As I sit here typing this, I am informed by Luke: our avocado has melted. Crazy? Maybe just a bit. (Photo: sunset on the Ecuadorian coast)

PS, an update: In case you were wondering, thawed avocados have the texture of rubber. We didn't eat it.

Posted byValerie at 3:42 AM 0 comments  

Impressions & an Electrocution in Ecuador

We're now in the land that is granting asylum to Julian Assange, one of the few times in recent memory Ecuador has made news on the world stage. People here seem excited to see what happens but not actually convinced that it's good or bad to support Assange, just interesting. We've since learned that President Correa over the last 8 years has become chummy with Castro, Chavez and even Ahmahdeneyad, so I assume this move to help Assange and statements such as that he will not receive a fair trial in the US are aimed at flipping a political finger at the US and shoring up support for moving Ecuador off the US dollar and onto its own more volatile currency again. But what do I care for Assange? Frankly, I think that shoring himself up in an embassy and insisting the US leave him alone is a weak move from a rather arrogant boundary-pushing man.

And nowhere but in Latin America would I have competition for music playing on the roof of a city building at 9am on a Sunday morning while doing my daily dance meditation. The country seemingly recycles a handful of Spanish and another handful of remixed English songs, sprinkled with salsa and meringue earlier in the evenings. By midnight, all the clubs around the town are pumping pop-techno poison, including the megahit that translates to 'Everyone knows that the drunk man falls down,' and another entitled, 'I don't want to water, I want liquor.' And speaking of water, the water in all these countries is not fit for drinking, but this water is apparently full of mercury and even in the shower smells fairly foul. Boiling it for tea or coffee results in brackish-like taste, and as in India, everyone buys bottles or purifies their water here. (Photo: from a cafe in Panajachel, Guatemala)

However, there is always the shower, and ours are suicide showers, so-called because one must first flip an electric switch and that heats the water coming out of the showerhead. When we first tried it, Luke got a shock. An electrician came and spent all day in our room, then said it was safe. That night Luke got another small shock and asked me to come and see. Super-sensitive Valerie touches the knob where one turns on the water and ZAP sparks and smoke pour out of the top of the showerhead and I sustain an electric shock throughout my body, complete with red skid-marks up my arm, adrenaline pumping. We got a new shower the next day. And the day after that, the toilet bowl exploded and leaked its contents all over our floor. Always an adventure!

Sometimes I wonder where the day has gone completing simple tasks in such places. For example, Luke went fresh veggie and fruit-shopping at the market this morning while I wrote papers of Spanish vocabulary words and posted them all over the house, such as 'Estufe-Stove' and 'Cortina-Curtain,' etc. When he returned I washed and cut the fruits and veg for the week (this took 1.5 hours). Then I made lunch which required also washing some greens for a salad (1 hour).

We're continuously told that Ecuador has a huge crack cocaine problem and that it's unsafe to walk the streets (or the beach) at night, but we've yet to encounter anything suspicious ourselves. We've been most freaked out so far walking a few blocks in Guatemala City one night, but we're not looking to test it out either. In Guatemala people were surface-friendly but seemed often a bit in shock or shut down, like an entire country still processing trauma and scared to open up to themselves and each other, and certainly outsiders. We never got much past surface conversations about history, politics and people's needs and desires, and I don't think that's just the Spanish-speaking barrier. It's a beautiful and relatively peaceful place these days but has many depths yet to unearth. A former president fled to Mexico and was extradited back in 2010, was recently acquitted of money laundering charges in Guatemala but faces extradition and trial for similar charges in the US. People cautiously ask for change and seek to better themselves through work, education and celebration of culture (more than 50% of the country is considered indigenous Mayans), while also cautiously concerned that the country could collapse and the government is not to be trusted, with genocides occurring into the 1980's. (Photo: Guatemala Mayan farm)

Ecuador is expensive, having replaced the insecure sucre with the US dollar in 2000, but people are more sure, more wealthy, and often more worldly and aware of the impact of change and how politicians are catering with small rewards to short-sighted and desperate people and removing liberties, relying on exports of oil and threatening to shake the stability gained over recent years. It's an interesting time to be here, and I am so glad we went to Quito. It is possibly the prettiest big city I have ever seen. Nestled snugly into a valley in the Andes and dotted with parks, it sneaks up the mountainsides so that nearly every neighborhood has spectacular views. The old quarter shares aspects of many European Spanish cities such as small winding streets, cute cafes and churches laden with amazing art that scream 'God is glorified through gold' (and one presumes, the sweat and toil of underpaid workers in centuries past). Still, the city is spectacular. (Photo: church in Quito)

Now soaking up more Spanish classes after a false start at a small beach hostel with the smelliest kitchen we have ever experienced, uninterested teachers and a perpetually cloudy beach in Canoa, we are studying at a proper school and living in an apartment in a city called Manta. There are nice grocery stores and even a few restaurants with non-Ecuadorian food for variety (mostly Italian, but a nice break from plantains and ceviche, as yummy as those foods are). I'm still introspective but am more actively looking into PhD programs, visas for Luke in the US, and will soon edit my website. I can't imagine living without him anymore, and we're both settling into that space well. It's a new and welcome transition into planning our lives together. Here's hoping it doesn't include any more electrocutions. (Photo: Quito skyline from our hostel)

Posted byValerie at 10:12 AM 11 comments  

Guatemala Dreamin'

I’m sitting this morning with the sun shining and warming my feet on the terracotta tiles of the front porch of our rented house in Panajachel, Guatemala with a view of a tropical garden, a blue sky with fluffy fast-moving clouds, and a small tree-covered mountainside. Paradise, right? So why have I been having a tough time here? One reason is a parade of sicknesses between Luke and myself, first a five-day intense stomach bug for him, then for me, and now for him again--this time with antibiotic--and we both hope the dance doesn’t pick back up with me again this week. I do feel rather achy today. Fingers crossed. (Photo: view of one of the volcanoes on Lake Aititlan from Panajachel, Guatemala)

The other is the emotional intensity and ongoing inner surprises I have been experiencing while continuing to allow my emotional backlog to come up and out so I can be truly present within myself and conscious of what I’m experiencing, that lovely and elusive in-the-moment living. A woman I knew called it ‘conscious awareness of self,’ but it’s more than that; it’s conscious awareness of oneself and one’s place on the planet, of meeting one’s own needs and helping others to as well. A man I know said your freedom ends when it impinges on another’s. If that’s true, it seems to me that no one and nothing can ever truly be free. Maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be in our interconnectedness and oneness on Earth. (Photo: butterfly in a nature reserve in Guatemala)

I’ve had a lot of wishes lately. Like right now despite my enjoyment of the sun part of me wishes it would rain so I’d find it easier to feel cranky despite the glory of this morning and this place. But then I remind myself that I feel better when I wish for things to be the way they are, and that when I push a wish to come true I often don’t even enjoy the outcome. I learned that in a huge way recently.
I get frustrated with myself sometimes that I’m not enough of this or I’m too much of that; I can be very forgiving of others and still set pretty impossible standards for myself. I’d say I’m working on it, but I would be chided for working too much, so I’ll say I’m steadily letting it go and leave it at that.
I’m realizing I’ve had a lot of preconceived notions about what it’s like finding one’s life partner, some from Disney and others from personal observation and other societal input, and what I’m learning lately is how much these impede me from being in the moment and place ridiculous constraints and “should’s” on top of otherwise amazing life experiences.
Right now my wonderful boyfriend and I are supporting each other, are physically together in our own little house and enjoying the luxury of studying Spanish in a beautiful little town on a lake a mile high with views of three volcanoes in a school laden with magical gardens of tropical birds and plants popping out of every nook. Daily we trawl through the local market for fresh food for supper, where a fresh and peeled coconut costs 60 cents and handfuls of juicy soil-covered tomatoes are abundant and even cheaper. Our Spanish teacher is a sweet lady, a Mayan doll probably less than five feet tall and skinnier than I even after the weight loss of a week of not eating. Want to diet? Try being Western and living in a developing country for a while. (Photo: forest hike in Guatemala: look how big those leaves are!)
Years ago I met a girl in India who excitedly told me how when she had a worm in her intestines she ate all that she wanted and yet lost 30 lbs. I don’t think Luke has a worm but two weeks of not holding down food does slim a body down, and more understandably than that girl, he is none too pleased.
As for what we’ve been doing, months of long distance and head- and heartache are steadily ebbing into a conglomeration of comfort and playfulness and peace. We travelled the Yucatan and communed with the iguanas at Chichen Itza, a famous series of Mayan temples; rode in a buggy pulled by a horse named Achilles around the rainy and dreamy-looking yellow city of Izmael, Mexico; saw a several-foot-long green snake slither across the road just before our tire hit its trail; swam with locals in sunken cave-like cenotes, sloshed down streets with water halfway up our shins a day after receiving an obligatory sunburn; shared a meal of the tastiest homemade chorizo in Luna Restaurant on Flores island in a lake in Guatemala; bumped across Belize in a series of so-called ‘chicken buses’ that are old US school buses reappropriated for public transport in central America; ate at a Tuscan-dressed hotel with beautiful botanical gardens complete with topiary and a lawn chess set at Lake Aititlan; meditated in a magical space-age chair in a restaurant in sleepy San Marcos; met some lovely Mayan weavers who keep their craft alive and spend three days making one five-foot-long and one-foot-wide intricate table runner; visited a sacred ceremonial and supremely smoky cave full of families and shamans in ceremony to fulfil their deepest wishes and desires; successfully navigated the bowels of Guatemala City one night despite receiving incredibly sketchy looks from people on the street; and found friends in others and mostly in each other along our way. (Photo: Mayan weavers wearing their handiwork)
We have one more week in Guatemala, and then the adventure continues in Ecuador.

Posted byValerie at 9:38 PM 3 comments  

In Celebration of my International Work

This journey began in 2009 when I graduated law school and moved to India, then South Africa, then Australia, and soon will be somewhere in South America...

The majorly visible successes so far:
(1) India passed a national law criminalising child sexual abuse.
(2) Australia is passing new laws to criminalise forced and servile marriage.
(3) Dalton Private Reserve in South Africa has been remade into Zulu Waters and has new management and increased success, which can further support the Dalton Education Trust. And in addition to the preschool we electrified, the government has finally erected poles in the communities.
(4) Australia's announcement of the country's first inquiry into sexual abuse in religious institutions.

To celebrate I would like to share the opening I wrote and delivered for a restorative justice circle I facilitated as a project of the Melbourne Victims' Collective in April 2011. Participants included: members of clergy, victims’ advocate, police officer, survivors of clergy sexual abuse and support persons. I have removed names and refer in the text below to the speakers as 'survivor advocates.' I hope you enjoy.

Thank you for coming today; my name is Valerie and I will be the facilitator for the next two hours.
Restorative justice is about the interconnection of humanity and the strength we have in that connection represented in this circle today.
We all have pain inside. The sanctity of the body is the sanctity of the mind, and the violation of the body is the violation of the mind, not just of those who are sexually abused but a violation of us all.
Through these restorative justice Building Bridges circles, survivors fearlessly persevere through their own realms of suffering to share their pain. We who sit in solidarity with survivors in this space open ourselves to take societal responsibility for the survivors’ pain and seek to thereby slightly easing the burden they carry.
As concerned community members we are committed to shifting suffering into a positive energy. We vow to protect all children and adults from sexual abuse. We also see that until sick people are identified and helped, children will continue to be abused. Abusers are sick, and are the products of instability in our society.
We vow to develop compassion to protect all people, and to cultivate peace within ourselves to bring about peace in society. This is the tireless mission of the survivors and clergy abuse advocates who are bravely and generously sharing the story of their family’s pain and suffering with us today. It depends on us to move this pain in a positive direction to create the safe and loving communities we wish to live in.
To outline what will happen, first we will send this ball of wool around to symbolize the interconnection of us all and our commitment to cultivating peace by working together. Because we are blessed with such a large circle today it is important to keep introductions short, stating your name and role today, because we are all here for the survivors. After introductions, the survivors will speak about their family’s abuse in the Melbourne Archdiocese.
We will honour their words, and to let them take a breath will take a five-minute break after they speak to stand and stretch our legs and have some water. We will resume the discussion to share how you are feeling about what the survivors have said, what you see as the harms and impacts they have suffered, and ideas for ways forward to begin to address and repair those harms on a small and large scale. I will close with a few words, and at 4pm we will break and share tea together. Again, with this large of a group, I ask that you be mindful your words are your best and brief. 
And so this powerful restorative healing circle began. I am very grateful to everyone who has supported me in my work thus far, and all of my amazing and inspiring co-workers and friends I have made along the way. I love and miss you all. (Photo by Luke Ringland, I am hugging the Angel Oak Tree outside Charleston, SC, USA)

Posted byValerie at 2:15 AM 1 comments  

Chaos to Order, Order to Chaos, and Repeat

It seems the natural order of the universe from a centrally-located bundle of light energy to the Big Bang and from then onward has been an oscillation between order and chaos. Through chaos there is creation of new order, and then a challenge of that order by creation of more chaos, thus establishing a new order, and so on ad infinitum. These past six months have been something of a personal inner ordering. I've dug deep into my emotional world and learned a lot about myself and worked through much of my past pain and suffering that due to my previously frenetic pace of life I couldn't reflect on. It is not highly valued yet in our Western society, but it is extremely hard, humbling and confronting work to sit with oneself and work through all the shit that comes up. No excuses, no blaming, but taking full and complete responsibility for one's life and all that's been created, releasing the bits that do not work, being willing to ride out the emotional highs and lows, self-comfort and seek support. Even Jesus, as has been pointed out to me recently, disappeared into the desert for 18 years to work through his own personal challenges. "And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man" (Luke 2:52). (Photo: a child's poem on a plaque in the MLK Memorial Rose Garden in Atlanta, GA)
It seems to me people from Obama to George Clooney or anyone who has achieved a powerful position and is stable inside (key word "stable," do not include dictators or flailing Lohan-like starlets on this list) are just sorting out their creative experiences on broader scales than the rest of us because they have mastered more of their self work in this University of life-long learning we call Being Human. I think the work is no different to ours. What I understand is that in this three-dimensional life we each have an emotional world, a physical world, and a mental world, and together they form our complete spirit. To be a master of all three seems to me to be consciously aware where you are in each--your challenges and boundaries and limitations and strengths and weaknesses--and to as best you can, unconditionally love and accept yourself exactly where you are, and therefore offer that gift to others around you as well. To stand up for yourself in healthy way while being kind to others as well; to seek support and to support others; to be a master manager of your emotions and work through them as best you can while also putting them aside at times so as to not be enslaved by or over-identify with them; to be a mastermind and not identify fully with the mind but recognise it for the fantastic tool it is for creative imaginings and memory processing and complex problem-solving and capacity to hold information; to be a master of your physicality and listen to your body and treat it like the temple and important vessel to carry you through this life that it is while also not falling victim to narcissism or over-indulgence in fleeting self-definition or seeking affirmation through physicality...these are all aspects or our stories, and our individual stories form our identities in our minds, but we are so much more, and so much less.

At the root of the root of it all, we are love, unconditional and infinitely accepting, and are all inter-being and co-creating and co-experiencing our lives. (Think the butterfly effect in Chaos Theory.) We all have infinite value and are deserving of infinite joy and wealth, happiness and health because we exist. We are all worthy. Our experiences of joy and love are as different as we are, or as they say in Cambodia, "Same same but different." We have so much in common, and the more I sit alone at home in myself and reflect on all I have seen and experienced in my short life so far, the more I see how much we get in our own way and distort this truth and create distance and confusion and chaos, so that we can reach this truth again and again in a deeper, more integrated and wonderful way. Such is life, to me, this challenge of feeling love and joy when it is not easily apparent, of deep acceptance and love and compassion for creatures human and otherwise we do not like or respect.

I have worked for years for survivors of child sexual abuse and to prevent this horrible experience, and people often say to me, "Wow, I couldn't do that, good for you." It is hard, I will not lie, but it is so deeply rewarding as well. And apparently for me it requires periodic self-refreshing sessions of some time to process all I've seen and heard, but I have just as much compassion for an abuser as any other person. An abuser is just as much a product of our society as you or I, and to work through such a deeply disturbing act requires they receive as much support and compassion as we can provide. This can of course be coupled with careful limitations and strong boundaries to keep them safe from further harming themselves or others. I would prefer to live in a world where we as a people and a collective culture we are so comfortable in our sexuality that we can talk about it openly and are not ashamed of our bodies and emotional desires or our taboo thoughts, do not overly identify with these, and seek support when we feel overwhelmed. I would prefer to live in a world where there is so much self-awareness that these urges and thoughts alone are enough for someone to seek support and help to prevent harm. (Photo: Yellow Branch Falls in Walhalla, SC)

But it seems to me we live primarily in a world of reaction and response, not prevention and reflection. How many people sit even once a month and reflect for 30 minutes on their priorities this month, this year, this life? How many people then reflect how they spend their time, money, energy and other resources, and if this reflects the priorities they outlined? And how many people then are capable and interested to take responsibility for themselves and their lives and create the change they wish to experience? (Photo: profound local paper bin in Savannah, GA) We all have the choice to do this with every living, breathing moment.

In this infinite dance of chaos and order, it strikes me we have collectively created and continue to create, a helluva lot of chaos, and I am among a growing minority not crying or screaming at the world for order or playing victim, but quietly calming and coming into myself, practicing extreme self-care, compassion, acceptance, patience and other aspects of loving resiliency, of growing peace within myself and accessing passion to fill my world with as much joy as I can so that I can be peace and passion and patience and compassion and acceptance and all these aspects of being inherent in each and every one of us, and in so doing help those I come in contact with access and grow these within themselves. The more I work on being these, the more my personal world becomes peaceful and passionate and dream-like in feeling; the less seriously I take life and the more fulfilled I feel and fun I have; the more I laugh and smile and see a light in someone's eyes, the window to the soul; the more the following poem by ee cummings appeals to me and the more life makes sense and settles in comfortably for me in all its current 2012 chaos:

seeker of truth

follow no paths
all paths lead where

truth is here

I am infinitely interested in everyone's stories and perspectives during my finite time on Earth, and to further a deepening of my understanding of different cultures and lifestyles and ways of being, will be moving to South America with my sweetheart in three weeks, during which time the blogging will be back on track. And I invite you to join me and to share your thoughts. xoxo

Posted byValerie at 9:35 PM 1 comments