Thursday, December 18, 2014

The good thing about traditions is that you can always remake them

Christmas Eve 2012, Utila, Honduras
    Today is my birthday, my third one in a row celebrated outside Canada. I wouldn't dream of whining about the lack of good birthday cake in Central America when I'm sitting here on a balmy 32-degree day with a fan blowing on me to keep me cool, but I do want to note that living away does require the reinvention of how you celebrate.
    Christmas, for instance. We've been gone from Canada and our families for the last three Christmases as well, and I admit to being piney sometimes for things like the family breakfast where I'd make cinnamon buns and we'd all drink champagne and orange juice, or the whirl of festive parties we'd go to at this time of year. We moved past the whole gift-giving insanity a while ago, but I still really liked the tradition of making up a stocking for family members.
     But Paul and I have developed our own Christmas travelling tradition now, and I quite like it. In 2012 - my first ever Christmas spent away from my family - my son and his family came to visit us in Honduras, and we went to the Caribbean island of Utila for an absolutely marvelous, gift-free Christmas. Christmas Eve dinner, once a time of baked ham and scalloped potatoes, gave way to tacos in a beach-front restaurant with a knockout view of the setting sun. Last year, we went to Guatemala and Belize, and ate our Christmas dinner with a random collection of other travellers who had also holed up at the tiny Hotelito Perdido for the holiday.
Christmas Day 2013 at Hotelito Perdido, Guatemala
     This year, we'll be on a Pacific beach near Leon, Nicaragua, when Christmas rolls around. I doubt that there will be anything particularly Canadian Christmas-like about our Dec. 25, but travellers do tend to draw together more on days like that, I guess drawn by an instinct to create "family" in whatever situation they find themselves in. We'll be in a little bed-and-breakfast, and I imagine we'll end up sharing some conversation (and probably a drink) with whoever else is there that day.
    I got thinking about traditions today because a well-wisher said she hoped I'd have lots of cake. I did always look forward to a good cake on my birthdays in Canada, most especially a tuxedo cake from Save-On Foods (seriously, they are really yummy).
    Unfortunately, cakes in Central America just aren't my thing. They've got standard layer cakes, but any that I've tried have been mediocre at best with icing that's some kind of frothy stuff that bears no resemblance to good old butter-cream frosting. Their special-occasion cakes - both in Nicaragua and Honduras - are tres leches (three milk) and Pio Quinto, both of which are wet cakes like a trifle. I hate trifle.
     In fact, I haven't found a dessert in Central America that I like. But is that so bad? I get home often enough to gorge myself on Dutch Bakery nut tarts at least once a year, or maybe a killer danish from Crust. This 58-year-old body doesn't actually need to be tempted by dessert. I'm treating myself to a small bag of Fritos corn chips at this very moment, and Paul brought me a chocolate-covered marshmallow clown head on a stick earlier. Surely that will suffice.
     Tonight, we're going to head down to Avenida Bolivar, where the First Lady of Nicaragua, Rosario Murillo, has indulged her obviously overwhelming love of twinkly lights at Christmas. We're going to walk from one end of the street to the other, taking in every giant twinkly-light camel, Santa Claus, Wise Man and candy cane. Then we're going to go to the movie theatre and watch "The Hobbit" - which, happily, will be sub-titled and not dubbed.
    Happy birthday to me.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

There's a million stories in the big city

Horse cart man  and cotton candy vendor
at the end of their day, Managua
    Oh, for a good newspaper that had an appetite for day-in-the-life stories from Nicaragua. I can't walk a block without being intrigued by yet another person scratching out what passes for a living in some unusual way, and would love an excuse to be talking to each of them about what their work days are like.
    There are the fire jugglers and the windshield washer guys at the big intersections, for instance. Are they putting in long days scratching for one or two cordobas from the handful of drivers who seem inclined to roll down their window long enough to pass along a coin? And what must it be like to be those women who spend their days walking right down the middle of the lanes of traffic whizzing by, selling oranges and little bags of fruit juice?
     Then there's the fellow who sells woven or wooden car-seat liners that people buy if they have a bad back or to stop their legs from sticking to the hot vinyl. He's set up in one of the boulevards between two lines of constantly moving traffic on one of Managua's busiest streets. I mean, do people actually pull over to buy a seat liner as they're driving along?
     A job that seems to be the lot of some of the poorest people is operating horse-drawn wooden carts. They own a horse, which in our land would signal someone who couldn't be all that poor, but one look at the skinny little creatures dependent on getting turned out in a vacant lot for a skimpy meal once in a while is enough to know that horse ownership is definitely no guarantee of wealth in Nicaragua.
    The carts mostly seem to work doing pickups of landscape and construction waste, with occasional forays into hauling vast bags of plastic pop bottles scrounged out of the garbage to wherever they go to be recycled. The carts weave in and out of the same crazy traffic as the cars in Managua, the drivers remarkably adept at crossing two or three lanes of traffic to make their left-hand turns.
     One of the most abundant jobs for men is working in security. Houses, businesses, even parking lots - they've all got their own security guy. I pass at least 15 every day on my eight-block walk to work.
Shoe repair outside the Roberto Huembe market, Managua
     One security guard who I chat with regularly works a 12-hour shift, six days a week, getting home to his distant village every night at around 9 p.m. long enough to stuff down a meal, have a quick visit with his family, and hit the sack for maybe 5 hours before he gets up at 4 a.m. to do it all over again. He tells me he's quitting for a new job driving ambulance in January, which makes me happy.
    (But while there's nothing fun about being a security guy in Nicaragua, it's still a good sight better than being a security guy in Honduras. Those poor workers were always the first ones killed when the armed robbers showed up. And they always showed up sooner or later.)
      The market vendors would be fascinating stories, too. Some of them look like they've found a niche - the butchers, for instance. But I do wonder how all the plastics vendors make a living, with their giant stacks of plastic chairs, buckets, basins, stools and Tupperware-style containers. The Roberto Huembe public market has quite a vast section of plastic sellers, but it's a stretch to imagine that there are enough plastic buyers to give them all a decent living.
      And how many customers are there for all the shoe-repair people set up just outside the market? Is there no end to the amount of shoes needing repair? Or are some of these men shoe-repair people by day, security guards by night?
     Same goes for the rosquilla sellers at the market. I'm not a big rosquilla fan myself - they're kind of like a hard little cookie/cracker thing, usually made with cheese - but Nicaraguans do seem to tuck into them with much gusto. Even so, the sheer volume of rosquillas at the market, in the streets, in the baskets of every vendor squeezing down the bus aisles to sell you their wares - well, it just seems to me that there isn't enough rosquilla demand in all the world to provide a fair wage to every one of them.
    In the town square in Leon, I saw a rough-looking old American guy apparently making his living doing levitation tricks and then passing the hat. While he always drew a crowd, I didn't see much evidence of anyone putting money in that hat. But he had a half-empty bottle of red wine tucked away in his big pile of stuff, and maybe that was good enough for him.
Meringue vendor, Leon

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Bad sex work law takes effect on the day of a massacre - "How horribly, enragingly appropriate"

 On this day of mourning marking the anniversary of the Montreal Massacre, another reason to mourn: Bill C36, Canada's flawed and tragic anti-sex work law, takes effect on this very day.
    It will be struck down eventually. It's so clearly unconstitutional, not to mention poorly informed and misguided, and in direct contravention of the research around what actually makes life better and safer for those in the sex industry.
    But in the meantime, people will suffer. Women will suffer. The Harper government took bad law and made it worse, criminalizing the purchase of sex for the first time in Canadian history and virtually guaranteeing that vulnerable sex workers will now be that much more vulnerable, and never mind the platitudes about how this law decriminalizes workers while criminalizing purchasers and thus makes everything better.
       What it actually does is push sex work even deeper into the shadows. And we all know that bad things happen where the light can't get in.
      Thank you to writer Edward Keenan for this piece in the Toronto Star today.

Today, of all days, the government of Canada brings a new law into effect that will put some Canadian women in danger and likely lead to some of their deaths.
Today, Dec. 6, the anniversary of the slaughter of 14 women by a gunman in Montreal, the day marked as the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.
It seems grimly appropriate, in a “sick and twisted” way, as activist Valerie Scott told Canadian Press this week, that this should be the day the Conservative government chooses to change Canada’s prostitution laws to make it harder for the women (and men) who work in that business to keep themselves safe. Sadly, it symbolically reflects the approach to “action on violence against women” we, as a country, have taken all too often, all these years after the Montreal Massacre made us swear that things needed to change.
The aftermath and reflection after those killings produced a document called “The War Against Women,” containing recommendations about the changes that needed to be made to reduce the level of violence against women. A quarter-century later, my colleague Catherine Porter’s reflection published in these pages today finds that woefully little has been done to give force to those suggestions.
A year ago this month, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down our laws governing prostitution on the basis that they deprived sex workers of the ability to work safely by screening clients and employing security. It seemed like progress for those who sell sex for money — by choice or circumstance — and who have long had to live in fear, in the shadows of the economy, denied the protections against violence we extend to workers in every other field. Stephen Harper and Peter MacKay responded with a new law, one that doesn’t address the safety issues the court clearly said needed addressing. It’s a new law that sex workers — including Scott, who brought the original Supreme Court case, and some I spoke to immediately after MacKay brought the bill forward — say will leave them even more endangered than before.
This is not some moral parlour game, where we lean back in our chairs and express our disgust at the very concept of putting a price on physical intimacy. This is a very real matter of life and death.
I used to work at Eye Weekly, an alternative paper that made much of its revenue from classified ads placed by sexual service providers. I remember in 2003, when I was still relatively new there, two of our clients, women who’d come into our office to pay for their ads every week, were murdered while working.
Cassandra Do was 32, a former nurse’s aide saving money to pay for sex-reassignment surgery, whose friends said she was notoriously careful about screening clients. She was strangled to death.
Lien Pham was a 39-year-old widow, a mother of two. She was strangled in an escort agency apartment while working alone two months later.
Immediately afterwards, and in the years following, I spoke to many sex workers about the safety issues they faced in their jobs, and how they dealt with them. And almost every one I spoke to talked about the laws criminalizing the operation of sex work businesses as the biggest obstacle to protecting themselves.
That’s why, a decade after those deaths, Scott and her co-applicants brought their court case to the Supreme Court, and finally they seemed to be heard. The highest panel of justices in the country said what those workers had been telling us all along: that to protect sex workers, their business needed to be legalized.
The new law may eventually also get struck down after it winds its way back through the courts. In the meantime, in the years before that likely court decision, it will put prostitutes in even more danger than before.
When I spoke to her about the law this spring, Jean MacDonald of sex worker advocacy organization Maggie’s predicted, “What you’re going to see with this law is a continuation of the epidemic of violence against sex workers in Canada.”
Today, in addition to reflecting on the deaths of the 14 women murdered in Montreal, I’ll think of Cassandra Do and Lien Pham, and the dozens of prostitutes murdered by Robert Pickton, and all the other women who’ve been beaten, raped and killed because of our inaction to protect them, or to allow them to protect themselves — or because, in the case of this new law, of our direct action to endanger them.
Today, of all days. How horribly, enragingly appropriate.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Tap water, beer and beef: The surprising facts of life in Managua

Why does meat taste better in developing countries?
 We'll have been in Managua for a month as of tomorrow, just long enough that I'm no longer getting lost every time I walk out the door but short enough that every day still holds some surprising discovery. Herewith, a small list of things I hadn't been expecting:

  • You can drink the water from the tap in Managua. Who knew? I just presumed we'd be drinking bottled water for the whole time we were here, as was the case for more than two years in Honduras. But I kept hearing from one person after another that Managua gets good-quality water from a lagoon and then treats it. I broke down and started drinking it about a week ago, helped along by the fact that there's no store nearby selling those cheap 20-litre bottles of purified water, and I can't handle the environmental guilt of a giant pile of one-litre plastic bottles piling up. 
  • People like their booze around these parts. Admittedly, the organization I worked with in Honduras was Christian and opposed to their employees drinking, but even putting that aside, the country felt pretty dry. Here in Nicaragua, you never have to walk far to find an open bar full of people talking animatedly. And when the beer truck pulled up to unload what must have been 40 cases of beer at the feria my current organization held last week, I knew for sure that I was in a new land.
  • Religion is a different beast here. People still say things like, "God willing," when you say you'll see them tomorrow, but I don't see the same intensity of faith and complete trust in God that was everywhere in Honduras. Maybe that's what a long history of oppression and revolution gets you - skepticism. 
  • They've got terrific beef here. And cheap. You can buy a gigantic slab of tender, delicious filet mignon that would probably feed 10 people for $20 at the local PriceSmart. I am in steak heaven.  I don't know what they feed their beef cattle, but Canadians should be demanding that if their local stores are going to import beef, they should give Nicaragua a try. 
  • It feels pretty safe in the big city. You'd never want to be getting carried away with your feeling of safety in a big Central American city, but it has been really nice to be able to enjoy Managua without feeling like a target just because I'm out there walking. I even feel OK to pull out my camera for a few shots, something I would never have done in Tegucigalpa or San Pedro Sula. I go walking every morning around 6 a.m. with the landlady's dog, and so far all we've run into are other people going about their business. 
  • A mall is a mall is a mall. OK, maybe that's not such a surprise anymore. I've had a lot of mall experiences in a lot of different countries. But it still is remarkable to me that wherever you go in the world, you can walk into a mall and pretty much feel like you're right back in your homeland. Same design, same stores, same things on offer, even prices that are strikingly similar. Ah, consumerism. 
  • I can live without hot water. Not even a month before we left Canada, Paul and I asserted to each other that while we could live without a lot of things in this new stripped-down life of ours, hot water wasn't one of them. But then we got to Managua and learned that most of the rental housing just doesn't have it, probably because electricity's expensive here, the temperatures never seem to go much below 30, and the water's never really very cold anyway. So here I am, jumping into a an unheated shower every morning. And it's not so bad. Now there's a big surprise. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Right hands, wrong tools: 'Easy' counts for a lot in international development

I love that my new organization has a weekly radio program.
Radio remains one of the most effective ways of
communicating in countries like Nicaragua.
While my previous work experience with Cuso International in Honduras has probably given me a jump-start of close to a year for this latest position in Nicaragua, that’s not to say things are humming along just yet. But at least this time I've been prepared to have nothing go according to plan.
     International work placements have a lot in common with onions. You might think you know what what you're looking at after a few days of asking questions and reading through stacks of your organization’s reports. But be prepared to discover layer after layer of complicating factors once you get to the point of knowing just enough to realize how much you don't know. 
      For instance: Charged with helping non-profit organizations in the country where you're working improve their communications, you notice that the most recent post on a particular organization’s web site was more than a year ago. 
     They’re using data from a 1995 census, and referring to a five-year strategic plan that ended three years earlier. They list staff who haven’t worked at the place for years, and contact numbers that lead nowhere.
     Once upon a time, I would have assumed that the organization clearly had zero interest in communications. Now, I'm more likely to suspect that they got money from a well-intentioned foreign funder at some point in the past to hire a consultant to build the site. The fact that nobody in the NGO knew how to access or maintain a professionally designed site was overlooked, as was the lack of ongoing funding the group had for hiring someone with the skills. 
    Entonces, as they say around these parts, what results is the all-too-common developing world phenomenon of a web site frozen in time.  Ever so briefly a fresh and useful tool for the NGO, the site quickly grows stale, and in its neglected state is arguably as bad as having no site at all. 
     Another example: A database with nothing in it but information from six years ago. NGOs and funders understandably love databases, because they are treasure troves of information essential for demonstrating the impact of an NGO’s work over time. But there's little useful about a database if nobody puts data into it.
     So why isn't anyone updating the database? Blame it on yet another short-term project, which led to the creation of a complicated database that couldn't be maintained once the hired help moved on.
     OK, maybe only two NGOs in the whole world have faced these problems, and I just happened to stumble into jobs at both of them. But I don’t think so. I expect the developing world is full of half-finished, abandoned, poorly envisioned, and fatally flawed projects. Nobody set out to make it so, but that’s just how it goes at the complex intersection between the dreams – and reporting requirements - of developed countries and the real-world problems of local organizations.
     It’s not just a question of technology. In lands with the wealth to fund international development work, issues like literacy, a well-rounded education, electricity, and familiarity with learning and relearning ways of doing things with each new wave of more advanced technology are so blessedly common that we forget how rare all of that still is in most of the world. Watching a young fellow today trying to figure out how to use his computer mouse and open a document, I was reminded of the growing knowledge gap that separates our worlds.
     That’s not to say the problems can’t be solved. It’s not about a lack of intelligence or ability to learn, it’s about starting where people are at. Had someone thrust all the technological bells and whistles of 2014 onto a typically computer-illiterate Canadian of 30 years ago, we, too, would be awash in dead web sites and forgotten databases.
     There are all kinds of free programs out there now for web-site creation, simple enough to be maintained even by those with basic computer literacy. They're not as pretty or whiz-bang as the sites that web professionals can make, but a bit of a plain-jane site that can be updated easily by the organization is one heck of a lot better than a stunner that will be stale within months of the consultant’s departure.
     As for databases, I’m still digging into that one, and hoping that it’s true that Excel 2013 has a lot of functionality. (And that my organization uses Excel 2013 and not Excel 2002, as was the case with my Honduras placement.) There’s a lot of free software available for building databases, but what I've seen still seems way too complicated for people here to be able to maintain. Surely there's a program somewhere created expressly for use for in the developing world, because I know I'm not the first person to identify these common development problems.
      One day when I don’t have to work for money anymore, I’m going to seek out new (and old) communication and monitoring tools to share with grassroots NGOs in developing countries. I’m going to ask the people who live there: What would you do? and then take their advice. I'm going to create a plain-jane web site chock full of easy tools for people like me, so no volunteer will ever again be sitting in her muggy little office somewhere in the developing world wondering where to find such things. 
     I think we can do a lot to close the knowledge gap. But the work has to start with tools that fit comfortably in the hands of those who will use them. 

I'm on assignment with Cuso International. Please visit my fundraising page and support a great Canadian organization doing good work through volunteerism in 17 countries around the world. 

Monday, November 10, 2014

Prancing horses and candy apples - a traditional Nicaraguan "hipico"

     Enjoy this little sample of Nicaraguan culture, my video of the hipico held yesterday in the streets of Managua not far from our house in the Bolonia district.
     Apparently the display of dancing horses has become associated with celebrations in August that recognize Managua's patron saint, Santo Domingo de Guzman. But this is November, and I never could find anyone who could explain why there was a dancing-horse parade on at this particular time.
    But what the heck. It was pretty cool to watch, and never mind that events started about two hours late and the light was fading fast by the time the parade ended (the sun sets at around 5:30 p.m. in this part of the world). Or that nobody seemed much moved to stop the flow of cars during the parade, which meant the prancing horses were intermingled with motorcycles and only slightly sheepish looking drivers throughout the event.
     An impressive number of booths were set up along the roadside selling cheap beer and rum punches, but they never looked as busy as I'm sure the vendors would have liked. Another cultural puzzle: Why was there so much seating for people drinking beer, but none for those who wanted a rum punch? And did the pretty young woman trying to sell Smirnoff Ice slushies even sell one of them? We were posted right across the street from her and could only speculate that the absence of sales was about the price - 80 cordobas (more than $3) as compared to 20 for a beer and 60 for a very generous trago of rum and luridly coloured juice of your choice.
     I was delighted to discover that cheap candy apples appear to be part of the cultural fun here. They sell them for 10 cordobas - less than 50 cents - and they are yummy. 

Saturday, November 08, 2014

If the Man With No Name was a woman...

   I’m fascinated by my new boss, the presidenta of Femuprocan.
     She’s a hard-core campesina and colectivista, of an era that would have known the revolutionary years of Nicaragua’s Sandinista movement. Whenever I see her, she’s standing off to one side of the group, cigarette in hand, observing the scene with an impenetrable gaze. Cue the theme song from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”
     She intimidated me when I met her on my first day of work this past Monday, me in my summer dress and sandals with my hair up, her in what I now think of her uniform: jeans; long-sleeved shirt suitable for labouring in the fields; worn sneakers. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and not of the flippy, going-to-the-mall variety.
     She gave me a good once-over and declared in a deep, union-president kind of voice that Femuprocan was an organization of el campo – of the countryside, which I understood by her tone to mean not the kind of place where women with girly hair-dos wore summer dresses and sandals. I told her I loved working in the countryside and had better shoes at home. That seemed to break the ice.
     Her name is Martha Heriberta Valle. I don’t know her age and wouldn't dare ask, but I would guess somewhere in her 60s. She has led Femuprocan since the women’s agricultural organization first broke away from a mixed-sex agricultural group back in the 1990s, the women having decided that they would never be heard as long as they belonged to an association where men were always listened to first and priorized the projects. Part of my orientation this week included watching a video with photos from the early days of Femuprocan. There was Martha, looking exactly the same as she does now.
      By the end of this week, Martha appeared to be warming to me. I don’t know why. Maybe it was because I helped clear the table after our first group lunch together, demonstrating good colectivista behaviour. Maybe it was because I jumped right into the work - taking photos, chatting up the campesinas when we all went to a meeting out of town on Thursday, asking how I could be helpful.   As it turns out, Martha and I share a dislike for too much blah-blah-blah, preferring action over talk.
     Most likely it was because I told her she was welcome to come all the way into my little office even if she had a cigarette in her hand rather than stop at the entrance, as is her custom. “They say these things will kill me,” she joked in Spanish, gesturing with her cigarette, “but what’s more likely to kill me are the cars in the street.”
     I have long loved a good orator, the way the union movement used to grow them back when Scottish men with thick accents and big hand gestures ran things. Martha is all of that. She doesn't say much, but when she does, people listen. When I went to a meeting with my co-workers this week to plan Femuprocan's 17th annual farm fair, several women shared with me in passing some bit of Martha wisdom: That a good productora is punctual; that power is in the collective, not the individual. I expect I’ll return to Canada with several Martha-isms added to my lexicon.
     The meeting was at a demonstration farm that Femuprocan has about 70 kilometres north of Managua. Martha was already there when we arrived. I later asked her if she lived in that area, presuming she would have driven out with us if not. She told me that she hadn't lived anywhere for 40 years, preferring to roam from place to place.
     “I can stay for two days somewhere, but by the third day I want to leave,” she said. “I've got my truck and my backpack. That’s enough for me.”
      Cue the Ennio Morricone music. Martha, I think I’m going to like you. 
I'm on assignment with Cuso International. Please visit my fundraising page and support a great Canadian organization doing good work through volunteering in 17 countries around the world. 

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Singalong for Canadian Sex Workers

    And as the UK legislature moves to reject the criminalizing of sex buyers, Canada steps forward into its regressive law that does the opposite, which the Senate has now passed. For the first time in our history, the customers of adult, consensual sex workers are now going to be criminals.
     I guess we all knew how this was ultimately going to go from the minute that Justice Minister Peter MacKay started making noises about further criminalization of the industry earlier this year. But still, the news is so discouraging. Far from abolishing the industry or saving victims, the new law simply pushes sex workers that much deeper into the shadows, where they will now have to take even more care to avoid police and shield their customers from arrest.
     As one might have thought from what we learned after the Pickton multiple-murder case, it's in the shadows where bad things happen, which means that's just about the last place a normal country would force its sex workers to work in. But as this Conservative government has taught us repeatedly, there's nothing normal about what's going on in Canada anymore.
     Nonetheless, no point in bemoaning the wrong-headedness of a government known for doing what it wants, and damn the consequences of ignoring science, popular opinion, the real-life experiences of sex workers, informed thinking and sheer humanity. So here's a little Singalong for Sex Workers as an antidote to this grim news.
     We recorded the song with a few of my talented musical friends in Victoria on the night before Paul and I left for Nicaragua last month. It was good fun, but we really meant it: Sex workers are first and foremost Canadian workers just like all the rest of us, and in no way will they be "rescued" or their industry abolished by bad law that criminalizes their customers and limits their ability to work together in safer conditions.
    Enjoy! Share! And let the next stage of the revolution begin. Peter Mackay, we're coming for you.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Like everything else, international volunteering gets easier with experience

Home sweet home for the next four months
  Meet new boss: Check. Open Nicaraguan bank account: Check. Find place to live in Managua for the next four months: Check.
    And so we are ready, Paul and I, for whatever comes next.
As we had expected, we are settling into our Cuso International positions much quicker this time around, having been able to draw on our last experience in Honduras and get things done in a much more efficient fashion. There will be unexpected bumps and frustrations to come; there always are. But how different it feels to be a more seasoned Central American volunteer, not to mention being relatively fluent in Spanish, as compared to the rather stunned and stumbling first-timers we were three years ago.
     House-hunting was a breeze this time, what with us knowing that the only way to make it happen is to hit the bricks and ask anyone who passes by whether they know of a place to rent.
    We had a free afternoon on Thursday during our Cuso in-country training and seized upon it to walk around the neighbourhood near our offices seeking out for-rent signs. When a security guard in the 'hood spotted us looking uncertain and asked if he could help us with anything, we knew enough to just fess up that we were looking for a place to rent, and then follow him without hesitation as he walked us to a big shared house nearby with five habitaciones for rent. Within a couple of hours, we'd met the landlady, brought a Cuso staff member around to check the place out, and were set to move in (which we did today).
     What was even more different than last time was the meeting that same day with my contraparte, the vice-president of the Nicaraguan NGO where I'll be working, I had such little Spanish last time around that I could only sit like a silent lump last time around, saying a few sentences I'd rehearsed in my head but nothing more. Happily, two-plus years working in an all-Spanish environment in Honduras meant that this time out I could actually have a discussion with my new boss at the Federacion Agropecuaria de Cooperatives de Mujeres Productores del Campo de Nicaragua (FEMUPROCAN), and develop a work plan with her for the next four months.
    I think I accomplished a lot in my last placement in Honduras by the time almost two and a half years had passed, and never mind that I had such poor Spanish initially. But a four-month placement this time around means I have to be on it right from the start. I am grateful for the language skills acquired in Honduras that are going to let me do that.
     In the last posting, I was primarily working in communications. This time, I'll be helping FEMUPROCAN develop a database to improve their collection and reporting of statistics from the almost 2,000 women they work with in the country, and reviewing manuals that FEMUPROCAN believes are very important but under-utilized. Once again, I'm grateful for all the lessons I learned in Honduras around such things, the most vital being that in countries where literacy is a challenge for much of the population and oral communications are the norm, any written information has to be put together with all of that in mind if there's any hope of it being utilized.
    It'll be a challenge. But that's what I love about working with Cuso in developing countries. Can't wait to learn more.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Nicaragua versus Honduras: One survived violent past, other still living in it

On the malecon in Managua
    There's nothing quite like the smell of tropical air. We got off the plane in Managua, Nicaragua last night and there it was, that delicious aroma of heat and humidity that I have come to associate with our new life in Central America.
      My partner and I are back here for our second round of Cuso International placements, having completed two-plus years in Honduras in April and eager to do it all over again in Nicaragua. On the rainy ride to our hotel last night, Managua looked much like Honduras's two big cities where we passed a lot of time during our time living and working in that country. But within minutes of starting into our city tour this morning in Managua, I was already seeing a lot of differences.
       Hugo Chavez, for instance. There's a huge monument to the late Venezuelan president on the boulevard heading into the centre of Managua, a reminder that we are in a country with strong socialist roots and a long history of bloody revolutions and uprisings. On a hilltop high above the city sits a memorial to the many campesinos who died trying to wrest Nicaragua from the control of the powerful Somoza family and their very good friends in the U.S. government. Honduras, on the other hand, is not a country prone to revolution or to much left-leaning political activity.
      The colorful malecon - waterfront walkway - that runs along huge Lake Managua is also very different from anything we saw in  the big cities (or the small ones, for that matter) in Honduras, where the concept of beautiful and accessible urban public space remains elusive. It will take time to gauge just how much support the Nicaraguan government provides for public amenities like the malecon, but it already appears to be a darn sight more than the Honduran government cares to pony up for.
Viva la revolucion. A painting of  Augusto Cesar Sandino,
the father of the Sandinista movement
     And then there are the children's playgrounds, which are for the most part large, well-maintained, and perhaps most importantly, not sealed off behind locked gates. Nor are there armed guards in anywhere near the quantity of our former homeland, or dramatic and depressing vistas in every direction of barbed wire, electric fencing and cement walls topped with broken glass that were so common in big Honduran cities like Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula.
      Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world, which came in at around 85 per 100,000 people in each of the two years we were there. Nicaragua's murder rate is 11 per 100,000. That is one heck of a difference for two small countries that share a border, a language and so many cultural attributes.
       I don't know how Nicaragua and Honduras ended up with such differences in their cultures around violence and crime, but even just the act of fearlessly pulling my camera out in one of the big public squares we visited today - and carrying it around boldly! In my hand! - was something I never felt safe to do when we were in Honduran cities.
    This is not to suggest that everything is rosy here. Today we passed a scratchy little collection of "houses" made out of cardboard, corrugated tin and duct tape that was poorer than anything I saw in Honduras. In the 2014 United Nations ranking of countries based on human development, Nicaragua ranks 132nd out of 187 countries, behind Honduras. It will take time to grasp what the big problems are here, but I have little doubt that they will be significant.
     For now, I'll just take Nicaragua at face value: Pleasant, warm, and friendly, with way less guns or horrific news stories detailing a constant stream of assassinations and vendetta killings. I know a lot of hondurenos who are dreaming of the day when all that can be said about their country, too. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

And the Cuso volunteers ride off in search of new adventures in Nicaragua....

     Almost seven months have slipped by since my partner Paul and I returned to B.C. from our two-plus years in Honduras. That should have been enough time to do all the things that I thought were important when we were planning our return - enough time to see all the people I wanted to see and jam in loads of family time.
     Yet Oct. 25 approaches, the date of our departure for our next Cuso International stint in Managua, Nicaragua. And I never did tick off everything on that to-do list. There are numerous friends I still haven’t seen. Walks I didn't go on. Favourite foods I didn't eat. The time just got away from me, perhaps because of the constant shuffling from one housesit to another as we attempted to remain unencumbered with household effects, but mostly because seven months is long enough to feel like there’s no need to rush, that there will be time enough to fit in everything.
     What we did accomplish was seeing two daughters through their weddings. We also gardened and pet-sat our way through nine housesits, jetted off for a week in Florida (for one of the weddings), spent a great two months in the Comox Valley hanging out with my two oldest children and their families, and ate a lot of meals with my mother. We got in our first family Thanksgiving in three years, and before we leave, will have celebrated Mom's 89th birthday with her as well.
     One of the toughest aspects of our time at home was finding work. I had been self-employed for three years leading up to our departure for Honduras in January 2012, and I guess I hadn't thought through just how long it might take to click back into my clients’ lives when I returned. I have renewed gratitude for PEERS Victoria, which welcomed me back with both friendship and paid work, and Douglas Magazine, which invited me back as a freelancer. Paul and I want to continue this exciting new life doing work for Cuso in developing countries, but it’s clear that we've got some work ahead to figure out the hard realities of the times in between.
     Unlike provinces like Ontario, B.C. has no provisions for suspending medical coverage during extended absences out of the country, so that threw us for a bit of a loop as well. There’s a three-month waiting period and a $250 fee for a B.C. resident needing to get back on the medical plan, and never mind that we were off doing good deeds in Honduras during our time away. This next trip to Nicaragua is short – four months – so we have decided to stay on the medical plan this time around to avoid another $250 penalty next spring, even though we’ll be paying $125 a month for nothing while we’re gone. (Cuso provides us with medical coverage during our time in other countries.)
     Life without many worldly goods has been a bit of a challenge, and we did end up buying a decent used car a couple of months after we got back to B.C. I suspect we would have gone quite mad without it. If your life is going to be about shuffling from one housesit to another, trust me, you will want a car to carry the rather pathetic collection of backpacks, totes and overstuffed plastic bags that now constitute everything you own. That does mean, however, that we now have a car to deal with before we leave.
     A surprising joy for me these past seven months has been bike riding. I’ve loved cycling for a very long time now, but two years of being away from it brought me back to a full-on obsession. When we looked for a suitable car, one that would fit a bike was a priority, because I wanted to take my beloved, ancient Trek everywhere I was going. I’ll really miss cycling now that we’re off again, but am comforting myself with the thought that I would have been hanging up the bike soon for the winter anyway.
My fave photo of Paul from our Honduras time,
coming back from a village on a rainy, muddy day
     As for what we’re heading into in Nicaragua, I am really looking forward to a return to living and working in Central America. I've missed the people, the language, the amazing fruit and the heat. I’ve missed the challenges of the work, which is so different than anything I’ve gotten up to in Canada.
     I will be working to resolve various business problems and improve communications on behalf of the FederaciĆ³n Agropecuaria de Cooperativas de Mujeres Productoras del Campo de Nicaragua, a union of women’s collectives set up by the Sandinistas back in the late 1990s. (Remember Daniel Ortega? Well, he’s still the man in Nicaragua.) Paul will be working with the Associacion de Productores y Exportadores de Nicaragua to find new export markets and improve business practices for small producers,
     With only four months to get our projects done instead of a leisurely two years, we will have to be on the mark from the day we arrive. But at least we are more or less fluent in Spanish this time around, and have a better idea of the cultural barriers we will face in doing our work. I've been faithfully reading nothing but Spanish novels since our return, hoping it would keep my language skills strong during my absence. I guess I’ll find out soon if the strategy worked.
     Please visit our Cuso fundraising page here, and if you can, support us with a donation to a great organization. I can’t say enough about the benefits of working with Cuso, both in terms of putting your professional skills to work for some very good non-profits in the impoverished and challenged countries where Cuso works, and for personal development. I came home from Honduras with a whole lot of skills I didn't have when I left and am a changed person, seeing with fresh eyes that which is good about Canada but also determined not to return to the over-consumption and grousing about comparatively tiny problems that are so common in wealthy, privileged countries like ours.

     To my friends who I never did get to see, catch you next spring. And stay tuned for my blogs from Nicaragua as the adventure continues. 

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Justin Trudeau's stand on decriminalizing still a work in progress

  While I keep my distance from politics, I've somehow ended up on the federal Liberal email list and have been receiving messages urging me to donate to Justin Trudeau and seeking my thoughts. With the heartbreak of Bill C-36 and the further criminalizing of sex work hanging over me, I seized the opportunity to respond to one of the messages to feel out Trudeau's position on decriminalization. Here is our exchange so far.

My response to the Liberals' email asking for my thoughts:

I would like to see Justin Trudeau come out with a clear statement around decriminalizing the work of adult, consensual sex workers. I am a passionate activist on this issue of human and civil rights, and will support the candidate who supports an end to C36 and understands that decriminalization is the best way to reduce risk to sex workers, decrease stigma, and ensure civil equality to a population of workers who are discriminated against and silenced. 

Their response to me a few days later:

Dear Jody,
    Thank you for writing to us about the Conservatives’ recently proposed prostitution legislation, Bill C-36.
    The Liberal Party of Canada opposes this legislation. We have serious concerns that Bill C-36 fails to comply with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the requirements outlined by the Supreme Court of Canada in the Bedford decision. We are also concerned that this legislation fails to adequately protect the health and safety of vulnerable people, particularly women.
    We have called on the government to produce evidence of the legal opinions it sought in drafting this legislation, however, the Conservatives continue to refuse to release this information. They have also refused to submit this legislation as a reference to the Supreme Court of Canada in order to determine its constitutional validity.
    Given all of these concerns, we remain troubled the legislation will not actually make life safer for sex workers.
    Thank you again for contacting us on this important issue. It is through dialogue with Canadians like you that the Liberal Party of Canada can continue to develop policies that reflect the values of Canadians.
    Kind regards,
    James Cano
    Liberal Party of Canada

And my response back to them, sent today: 

    I really appreciate that someone took the time to respond to my query. However, I urge you to make your platform just a bit more specific around WHAT you will do for sex workers. For instance, I am unclear whether you would support decriminalization of adult, consensual sex work, or if you still like the idea of further criminalization but believe that C-36 isn't a good law for doing that. I feel this is one of the most important civil and human rights issues in our country right now, as tens of thousands of consenting adult sex workers work in the shadows without our support, without the same access to civil and criminal remedies such as police, courts, contract law, employment standards, workers' comp.  

    If the Liberals are looking for more information and research to help them take a firm position on this issue, here are some links that I think have great sources of information. The first is the site of a very large research project going on right now in Canada, which involves subjects who are connected to the sex work industry in a variety of ways. The second is the site of an organization I work with from time to time and am very closely tied to, Peers Victoria. The third is the site of Maggie's, a Toronto sex worker organization that has collected some excellent resources. The fourth is the site of Stella's, a Montreal sex worker organization. 

    There's so much more information I'd be happy to connect you to, from all around the world. This is an emotional issue, but the research around it is very clear. Nothing improves - for sex workers or the communities they live in - through criminalization. Yes, bad things happen to some sex workers, but how does any of that improve by criminalizing the work? The question is not whether we'd want our children to be sex workers (we activists are constantly having that question thrown at us), it's what kind of a work place and safety structure we'd want for them if they were doing this work. 

    Please take a clear stand on this issue as one of human and civil rights. The Liberals stand a very good chance of forming the next government. Be brave, humane and evidence-based, and support a decriminalized workplace for adult, consenting sex workers. 

And what will they say next? Stay tuned. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

My secret crush: Vince Ready

Cartoon in the Ubyssey by Indiana Joel
     Earlier this week, somebody with a sense of humour and an obvious knowledge of B.C. labour history swapped a photo of  mediator Vince Ready for the saintly image of God in the Wikipedia entry on God. Vince Ready - our homegrown Holy One.
    Once bickering parties in a labour dispute learn that Ready has been called in to help them reach a settlement, you can practically hear the collective sigh of relief as everyone starts thinking about getting back to work. I'm sure Ready has all kinds of skills as a mediator, but at this point, after so many high-profile settlements between employers and employees otherwise predisposed to fight each other to the death, just the mere uttering of his name seems to signal that labour peace is coming soon.
    His latest loaves-and-fishes act involved the B.C. teachers' strike. But any long-time B.C. journalist such as myself knows that's just the most recent in a long string of successes. I suspect that part of his secret is that he never gets involved until both sides are wrung out and quietly wishing someone would just come along and help them save face, but he must have some extraordinary people skills as well.
      I've had a crush on the guy for more than 20 years. My one and only face-to-face encounter with Ready was in the lobby of the Harbour Towers Hotel, where he was mediating between the provincial government and whatever big union was furious with them at that time. I introduced myself to him as a reporter for the Times Colonist. He smiled that charming smile of his and said yes, he'd followed my work for years, and it was a pleasure to finally meet me.
     Even in the moment I didn't believe that he had any idea of who I was. But what did it matter? Vince Ready cared enough to flatter me with a fake story about how he'd been noticing my byline, and I swooned like a school girl. If he uses that same charm during mediation, I can see why everyone caves.
     After that, I became an avid observer of any labour dispute that Ready was called into, and how they always seemed to rapidly end in a settlement. I even tried to convince him to let me follow a mediation of his for the newspaper, a request that I now admit might have had something to do with me also finding him very good-looking. Back in those days and perhaps still, he presented as a blue-collar guy in a good suit, a look that I hadn't known I was partial to until swooned by him that day at Harbour Towers.
    At any rate, he said no, and I've never laid eyes on him again. But Vince, I think of you whenever a labour dispute turns protracted - which, in B.C., means you're never far from my thoughts. Thinking back on that distant day at the hotel when I (briefly) considered whether I should make a play for you,  I couldn't have imagined there would come a day when I would say this, but thanks for getting my grandkids back to school. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

So much misinformation in Senate sex-work hearings

     Having a Twitter feed during the Senate's meetings on sex work is both a blessing and a curse. I got so much minute-by-minute info yesterday on the opening day of the meetings that I practically felt I was there, but at the same time I spent the day fuming at all the inane, hurtful and poorly informed comments being made by some of the senators and that infuriating justice minister of ours, Peter MacKay.
     Sex workers and sex-worker organizations that support decriminalization have a huge presence on Twitter. The feed coming out of Ottawa was frenzied from the moment I staggered out of bed yesterday morning, as that three-hour time difference meant that my 7 a.m. rising came a good hour into the meeting. And man, my fellow tweeters were incensed, mostly by MacKay and his continuing assertions that the "vast majority" of sex workers are victims in need of rescue, not workers in need of legal workplaces.
    That statement alone set the tone for the fiction that mostly passes for decrim debate coming out of government these days. In truth, no one knows anything about the "vast majority" of Canadian sex workers, because research has been skimpy and almost exclusively focused on survival sex workers on the street. That group accounts for just 10 per cent of the total sex worker population, and even among that 10 per cent, the diversity of experience is far more varied than research with a few people could ever capture.
     The Tories want to give the impression that they have consulted on this move to criminalize sex work even further. But isn't it strange that Peter MacKay toured Canada in his consultations and never spoke to even one sex worker who is currently working? He didn't stop in at Pivot Legal Society while passing through Vancouver, despite that organization's prominent role in the Supreme Court of Canada ruling last year that threw out three of Canada's main prostitution laws as unconstitutional. He didn't visit sex-worker organizations. Here's how Pivot summed up MacKay's time in Vancouver, in theory consulting with "the people" on C-36.

... Minister MacKay did not spend his time meeting with sex workers. He did not visit where sex workers live or see where they work or listen to their stories. Instead, he hosted private meetings with senior lawyers from major law firms and attended fancy breakfasts at private clubs.

    The Vancouver group Sex Workers United Against Violence sent out invitations to every one of our 412 MPs to come and learn more about the realities of sex work in Canada directly from the people working in it in the Downtown Eastside. Only one MP took them up on it.
    Anyway. We are worlds apart, those of us who feel strongly that decriminalization is the only way to assure more safety, equality and respect for sex workers, and those who think they can abolish the industry by criminalizing more of it. Do your own research into that position and what you'll learn is that there isn't a country in the world that has had success trying to abolish sex work.
    I fear the fix is in, though. The Conservatives have carefully collected feedback that shores up their position, and victims of abuse to tell their admittedly tragic stories to the media as if they were representative of every sex worker experience ever. Never mind that Conservative statements about how further criminalization will protect sex workers fly in the face of the experiences of sex workers and the findings of international research around measures to reduce violence.
     And yes, there will be another court challenge, but years and years will pass before the courts can rule yet again that our laws hurt far more people than they help. Peter MacKay, I hope you realize that the suffering of all the sex workers shut out of Canadian society and forced to work in even more unsafe conditions between now and then is firmly on your shoulders.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Revised post: First day of Senate invitation list shuts out sex workers, but things improve on Days 2 and 3

 And yet another revision as of Sept. 10: Yes, the speaker lineup had more balance than I initially thought, but sex-worker organizations note that even so, the ratio was 2:1 in favour of further criminalization of the industry. A wise media scribe also noted that media tend to cover the first day and the last of a meeting, and that it had to be more than coincidence that the first day was almost exclusively anti-decriminalization. 

Mea culpa: Turns out I was looking at only the first day of the Senate meetings when I wrote this, in which the lineup is very much abolitionist. But here's the full list for the 3 days of meetings, and I see many more sex-work groups have been invited to speak. Sorry, Senators! Carry on.

Looks like the Conservative-controlled Canadian Senate is taking extreme measures to avoid hearing anything that might shake up their conviction that all sex workers are exploited victims when the Senate's legal and constitutional affairs committee considers Bill C-36 next week.
     The bill will add even more criminality to sex work if it becomes law, making the purchasing of sex a crime for the first time in Canadian history. It's a controversial bill, coming on the heels of a Supreme Court of Canada decision in December that threw out as unconstitutional three of the country's major laws against sex work.
     A wise government would have taken a step back to really consider the implications of the highest court in the land ruling that Canada's anti-sex-work laws hurt more people than they ever helped. It would have taken a long look at the significant research in Canada and all around the world that has found that the best way to improve the safety, equality and lives of sex workers is to decriminalize the work.
     But the Conservatives had their minds made up long before that Supreme Court decision was handed down. They opted for a different tack, choosing to just shut out the voices of anyone who doesn't think like they do on this issue. The invitation list of those requested to present to the Senate committee on Bill C-36 next Tuesday is blatant confirmation of that.
     Only two of the 11 organizations and individuals invited to present hold a view different than the Conservatives. These two groups will be alone in the crowd in their support of decriminalization, and their view of sex workers as capable people able to make their own choices and deserving of equality, safe workplaces and respect.
     Three presenters are traumatized parents of missing or murdered daughters. I'm sure their tragic and emotional stories will play well on the news that night, even though it's hard to see that C-36 would have changed anything about the circumstances of their children's deaths had it been in force back then. None of the presenters are sex worker organizations, even though Canada has quite an abundance of well-informed groups armed with convincing research in support of decriminalization.
    Instead, the Senate committee will be hearing mostly from groups that support  Bill C-36. They are passionately against prostitution. They're all supporters of the muddled version of the so-called Nordic model that the government is proposing, in which the buyers of sex are especially targeted for criminal charges, but the sellers nonetheless remain at risk for a variety of charges as well (not to mention are forced to retreat even deeper into the shadows to try to protect their customers).
     The Senate presenter list was clearly carefully crafted to ensure that most of the day will be devoted to groups saying exactly what the Conservatives want to hear. You wouldn't want to be the two groups in the room with something different to say facing a lineup like this one:
  • Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies. Member of the Women's Coalition For The Abolition of Prostitution, which believes no one makes a truly free choice to work as a sex worker.
  • Native Women's Association of Canada. Also a member of the Women's Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution. 
  • Walk With Me Canada. An anti-trafficking organization that opposes decriminalization and supports C-36.
  • Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution. The name of this group pretty much speaks for itself. The group sees all sex work as male violence against women and wants prostitution abolished.  
  • K. Brian McConaghy, Director of Ratanak International, which describes itself as "a Christ-centered organization committed to serving the people of Cambodia by being an agent of change in Cambodia’s social, economic, and spiritual landscape." What that's got to do with sex work in Canada, I don't know.
  • The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. A coalition of 160-plus church denominations that have strong opinions against gay marriage, abortion, euthanasia and sex work.
  • Ed and Linda Smith, a Regina couple whose teenage daughter left home, got into drugs and ended up murdered in 1990 while working the streets in Victoria. Fighting against prostitution has been a cornerstone of the Smiths' lives ever since. 
  • Mothers Against Trafficking Humans. Anti-prostitution group founded by the mother of a young woman who went missing in 2006. 
    The two presenters who will speak that day in support of equal rights and equality for adult, consenting sex workers are Pivot Legal Society and the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. Both are fine organizations with thoughtful, well-considered positions, but I fear their voices will be lost. I note that both have also been placed in speaking positions that are just before a break, which makes me wonder if they will also end up rushed through their presentations after the more Conservative-friendly groups have had their say. 
    Like all the other Canadian sex-work organizations, PEERS Victoria didn't get an invitation to present. But they sent in a presentation anyway. Read it here if you're still not sure what's so bad about Bill C-36.
     Let's hope at least a few senators will have the decency to seek out the points of view of the other side, that at least some will feel foolish supporting a law opposed by the very people who it aims to "save." You'd think that before you rode off on your white horse  in the certainty that there was a nation of exploited, helpless victims needing rescued from prostitution, you might want to hear from a few of them first. 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

U.S. income gap by race worse than apartheid era

   Still reeling from the news that they're putting Uzis into the hands of nine-year-olds for fun in the U.S. (well, at least until they accidentally kill their shooting instructor), I now see that whites in the United States believe that anti-white racism is a bigger problem than anti-black racism. Oh, my.
     But there's loads more in this piece from the New York Times than that little depressing tidbit. Like how the income gap between whites and blacks in the U.S. is now greater than it was in South Africa during apartheid. Or how a white boy born today in the U.S. will live an average five years longer than a black boy born at the same time.
    Read it and weep, or at the very least confirm once and for all that race issues are very much alive and tragically well among our neighbours to the south, if recent events in Ferguson, Missouri leave any room for doubt. Americans are great people individually, but collectively they've got some serious problems. The unravelling is starting to show.