Posts Tagged With: poverty

How you can help

After a few of my Facebook posts, several friends and family have reached out and asked how they can help out. If you’re interested in donating money, I have the info!

If you’re interested in helping out where we are (Belgrade, Serbia):

  • Hot Food Idomeni is the only group handing out hot food to the homeless refugees. They show up in a big white truck with two vats of soup and loaves upon loaves of bread. While they blare music over the truck radio, about five volunteers hand out soup and food to the hundreds of refugees in line. The rest of the volunteers (like Jordan and myself) fan out and make sure no one cuts in line.
  • Refugee Aid Serbia is the only group I know of that still distributes winter clothing and blankets (sometimes). Volunteers often wander down to the barracks at lunchtime. When a few refugees approach them about gloves, shoes, or socks, each volunteer will pick three or four and bring them to a park, where they distribute the clothing. There isn’t enough manpower or donations to give things to everyone–they can only distribute to those that need it the most. On their donations page is an email address to request a list of the most-needed non-food items if you want to send material goods rather than money.
  • Info Park hosts foreign language lessons, supports families by helping them find hostels to live in, and coordinating travel and information.
  • Donate money directly to Jordan and I. It’s completely unofficial (thereby getting around the nonprofit distribution issue with the law). We are buying gloves, hats, and socks, and wearing them when we walk down to work with the refugees. To keep things orderly and calm, we only hand out two pairs of things a day, discreetly, to those we see that need it the most. We’re buying winter clothing from the local market and clothing stores in the area (a much-needed boost to the Serbian economy! A double win!) and taking photos to show you what we’ve purchased. You can do PayPal, though if we have enough interest from people we might ope na YouCaring page.

If you’re interested in the wider crisis/conflict, then here’s a list of organizations that do a lot of good work.

If you want to help the refugees relocating to the United States, you can donate to the nine domestic nonprofit organizations that help resettle refugees alongside the US government:

Many of these organizations also take volunteers to help “host” a refugee family as they’re being settled by showing them around town, teaching English, and anything else you’d do as a friendly neighbor.

If you want to learn more about refugees in the USA, go here.

Categories: Serbia | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Why I believe in social justice

“I appreciate your passion for politics and subcultures,” someone recently told me. It wasn’t exactly a compliment based on other things that were said, but I was troubled for a different reason.

I had spoken out over an #Alllivesmatter “news article” published by the ConservativeTribune, explaining that it was rather inflammatory considering several unarmed black men had recently been killed by police, and that this website strays pretty close to the Alt Right movement. And while the response to my comment was tolerant, at least, it bothered me.

Because I don’t speak out about #Blacklivesmatter because it’s a hot topic or a political issue. I don’t think the “liberal media” is driving me into a frenzy, or that I have to be knowledgeable about stuff because I have a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in international affairs.

Okay, yeah, obviously, I like politics. I like debating and sharing and discussing ideas. But that’s not why I speak out, nor why I believe in social justice.

The Christian Right, for better or worse, has been tied to the Republican party for the last 40ish years, and are a pretty vocal bunch. Unfortunately, because some of these social justice ideas (prison reform, welfare aid, education reform, etc) are championed more by the Democrats than Republicans, many Christians immediately view it as suspect.

I once read an article basically saying Christians had no business even using the phrase “social justice,” let alone getting involved, because the word “social” came from Marxist “socialism” and is therefore heretical to anything Christian. (This is where I could go on a very, very long rant about how American Christians hold onto their Republican/American identity more than they care about their Christian identity, but I’ll try to end that here).

I didn’t speak up about that news article because it disagreed with my political beliefs. It did, but that’s not why. I spoke up because I believe that every human is made in the image of God and deserve dignity and respect. I spoke up because my faith demands that I point out injustice (By the way, the Hebrew word for justice doesn’t actually mean what most Americans think it means. Christian political scientists differentiate between two types of justice: restorative/primary justice, and punitive justice. We’ve forgotten than the Bible refers to both, not just punitive).

Contrary to some family members’ opinions, I don’t oppose Trump because I’m a flaming liberal (actually, I’m still registered as a Republican, but I feel no compulsion to vote for someone just because they have a red R by their name). I don’t consider myself liberal, nor a Democrat. I’m independent and a centrist. And I got that way because I read Deuteronomy, Numbers, Psalms, Jeremiah, the minor prophets, the gospels, Ephesians, and James. I became that way by reading about Christian martyrs and leaders through the years.

Don’t knock on social justice, guys. Christians have long been involved in movements that expanded personal freedoms and justice to oppressed people, and  they did it not because it was a convenient political tool, but because they believed that to be true to their faith, they needed to act.

As a Christian, it is a lifelong journey to view and review my political and social beliefs in light of what the Bible actually says. If I’m not careful, I can cherry pick any verse to support whatever cause I want. I can focus on the few times the Bible talks about marriage and divorce (important topics, yes) and build my entire one-issue voter profile and support, or I can view those verses alongside the hundreds of times God called the Jews and Christians to care for the stranger, the widows, the orphans, the vulnerable in our midst. And I can adjust my political beliefs accordingly (Okay, so maybe I have more in common with the Evangelical Left than I thought–and yes, they do exist).

This isn’t about political issues. This is about human beings.

This isn’t to draw a line a divide evangelicalism from social justice. I think we can work together, learn from each other, and even learn from each other’s different interpretations of Scripture. An example:

All my life, I grew up listening to the Widow’s Mite story in the gospels, learning that it was important to sacrifice everything for Christ, even my financial comfort. The widow was praised for her trust and sacrifice, and it was pretty clear that one day, I should hope to do the same. This is good, true, theology. (The Christian Right does a decent job focusing on the theology of a person’s relationship with Christ)

Then, when I was 22, I moved and started looking for a new church. Our first Sunday at an Anglican church had the Sunday Bible study meeting about the Widow’s Mite. “Okay, I grew up with this, I know the drill,” I thought. But instead I was taken through commentaries, translation of Greek words, and the religious/social customs of 1st century Jerusalem. And then I learn that Jesus was rebuking the Pharisees, the elite religious leaders, for creating a system of oppression, for forcing the woman to tithe her last mite rather than taking care of her in her old age. This was a scathing review of how the religious group focused on their own needs rather than ministering to their community, like synagogues are supposed to. (The Christian Left does a pretty decent job of focusing on the theology of a person’s relationship with the rest of the world).

So, which one’s right? Which one has more truth to it? If you were reading the last two paragraphs trying to pick apart one argument, you missed the point. Both are true and important to learn.

So why do I believe in social justice?

Simply put, because Jesus tells me to.

Categories: Spiritual Life | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Legacy of the Khmer Rouge, Pt. I

Note: Due to internet shortage, I’ve not added a lot of photos. I will add more later.

Yesterday we did a lot of the fun touristy things in Phnom Penh. Today we did the sad things.

Tourism in Cambodia is really taking off, increasing every year since 1998. There’s plenty of reasons for this, like Cambodia proximity to backpacker paradise Thailand, how cheap Cambodia is, how exotic everything seems, and how all backpackers rave about Cambodia (to other backpackers, word-of-mouth is the best research tool and recommendation process). While almost ever tourist visits the iconic Angkor Wat, tourism is also picking up in the dark parts of Cambodia’s history, like the sites and remnants of Pol Pot and his horrific regime, known in English as Khmer Rouge. One source I read said that about 30% of tourists to Cambodia visit Tuol Sleng, the infamous S21 torture detention center used by the regime from 1975-1979.

Paying money and being, well, tourists, to some of the darkest places of human brutality and suffering is an odd thing. It is a little disquieting, if one thinks about it. Visiting Aushwitz and Hiroshima leaves a person feeling troubled, but I think that is as it should be. I strongly recommend anyone in Cambodia not to miss either the Choeung Euk Killing Fields or Tuol Sleng, for two reasons. Firstly, I think an understanding of the 1970s is important to understanding Khmer culture. This is a recent scar in the people’s memory, and it bears looking at. Secondly, I personally think it is important to not shy away from the suffering of others, even if it is from the past. While we all have emotional walls that protect our hearts from the tragedies in the world (and this isn’t a bad thing), it is important that we learn when to lower those walls, to empathize with the hurt around us, and “sit in the dirt with them,” to borrow a term from the book of Job. To me, visiting these sights is a way to honor the innocent, to remember, and to learn how to prevent something like this from happening again. In a small, insignificant way, witnessing the legacy of the tragedies is me saying, “I see you. I stand with you.” Perhaps it doesn’t mean anything, especially to those murdered 40 years ago, but it is the only thing I can do.

We hired a tuktuk driver to take us to three places (Tuol Sleng, Killing Fields, and the Russian Market–in that order) and paid 19 USD through our hostel. At the end of the trip we tipped him 2 USD.

Tuol Sleng was a high school until the Khmer Rouge took over the country and closed almost every school, learning institution, hospital, and anything that smacked of modernism. To understand what happened during the Cambodian Genocide you have to look a little further back, to what was happening in the decade previously.


A map of the school/security prison.

Cambodia had been a colony of France for roughly 90 years 1953. This period was, of course, rife with ideological conflict and a mixture of retaining Khmer ways and embracing French culture. The rich sent their sons to Paris to be educated, while the poor labored in rural areas in subsistence farming. During WWII Japan took over Cambodia, but when the war ended France resumed its protectorate. You can imagine what life under martial Japanese law looked like. Communism spread in the 1960s and 70s, and the North Vietnamese set up camps and alliances in Cambodia with the prime minister Sihanouk, ending diplomatic ties with the United States. This wasn’t well received, and there was a coup in 1970. The prime minister (who had abdicated the throne for that title, oddly enough) escaped and a new prime minister, Lon Nol, reordered Cambodia as a republic rather than a monarchy. He also began fighting against the communist Vietnamese at this point.

The Khmer Rouge was founded during this time, with the name the Communist Party of Kompuchea. It grew and developed its ideology, which was a branch of Marxism combined with Khmer nationalism and xenophobia. There was also a worship of the past. French-educated leaders in the political party harshly criticized the country’s reliance on Western, developed states in economic matters. The US led a bombing campaign in rural Cambodia, which lead to the death of around 100,000 peasants. Political scientist and scholars debate whether the campaign pushed the peasants over the edge, to joining ranks with the Khmer Rouge, or if is did destroy key parts of the Khmer and North Vietnamese communist strongholds. Regardless, it did push thousands of poor, uneducated farmers into the urban centers of Cambodia with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Pol Pot (known as Brother Number 1) and the Khmer Rouge came to power through the help of the North Vietnamese, eventually taking the government from Lon Nol. Thousands rejoiced, thinking it meant the return of their former king, help in the farming fields, and hope for their children. They were very, very wrong.

In 1975 and 1976 Khmer Rouge forced the people out of the cities to repopulate the farms, to work as the “Old People” did, without the help of tractors or even horses. Families were separated and sent to live in communal areas, guarded by cadres of the regime, and forced to work on empty stomachs. Those were the lucky ones. Everyone else was killed–around 1.7 million of them.

The Khmer Rouge regime outlawed education, religion, medicine, international travel and interests, and old grammar (in this, they were similar to the French Reign of Terror in calling everyone “comrade”). The old ways were venerated, the new ways obliterated in any way possible, from destroying tractors to breaking eyeglasses to encouraging illiteracy. Anyone that could speak a foreign language, wore glasses, had soft hands, had medical or law training, or worked at an education facility was murdered. They justified these killings by claiming the Khmer people were working for the CIA, when most of these people hadn’t even heard of the CIA before. Ethnic minorities were, of course, targeted just as harshly as anyone with international ties or advanced degrees.  You can learn more about Cambodia’s recent history here and about the Khmer Rouge here. Before they were killed, however, the people were tortured.

That’s where our first stop of the day was: Tuol Sleng, otherwise known as S21 (Security-Prison S21). Until 1979, when the regime fell, few people knew what this place was. They assumed it was a meeting place or lodging house for soldiers in the regime. Music blared and people and trucks came and went frequently. Even now, we don’t know that much about the individuals that moved through, because the records were mostly destroyed at the fall. But during the four years between 12,000 to 20,000 people were incarcerated and imprisoned here. There were 12 survivors. Men did anything they could to kill themselves–from jumping off the third-floor balcony to stabbing his neck with a pen to pouring burning Kerosene over his head.


It was a very quiet tour as we looked into the 4×3′ cells, the torture chambers with metal bed frames and electric chargers, and the photos of the prison guards and victims. When a victim entered, they were usually forced to write a short biography, were stripped, and assigned a number. Everything after that was to purposefully dehumanize them, from calling people “it” to making them completely silent. Interrogations, or torture sessions, could happen up to twice a day, and were usually electric shock on metal bed frames, water boarding, or hanging on gallows. Women were raped, though it was discouraged by the prison chief, Comrade Duch. Even if they weren’t raped, their bodies were violated by poisonous bugs in orifices and hot pliers. In short, it was a nightmare.

“When you cut grass, take out the roots,” Pol Pot recommended. In practice, this meant not only killing suspected CIA activists or any “New People,” like railway engineers, but also their wives and children. There would be no one left for revenge, the regime decided. Tuol Sleng was a detention facility, not an execution place. This was where people were tortured for months on end, sometimes up to six months, before being taken away and killed. While there were “mistakes,” or people being electrocuted to death, usually if a prisoner was near dead they were left in their cell and had a medic attend them. These medics had roughly four months of training and no actual medicine. Injections of Vitamin C were a mixture of sugar, saltwater, and vinegar. Pills were hardened vegetable matter. Most of the actual medical professionals were prisoners in S21 or a place similar. The prison guards were young, some not even teenagers yet, and were given only basic education that was mostly brainwashing. At least one guard didn’t know how to count past seven. These were often boys recruited from farm villages, frightened into performing some of the most heinous acts we could imagine, for fear of becoming the tortured rather than the torturer. A few believed in the regime’s goals, many were frightened into compliance, and the few that did defect were hunted down and killed.


Tuol Sleng was only one of around 200 torture sights around the country, though it is the most famous.

As we left (we had to move quickly, we were given an hour by our tuktuk driver and ran out of time) I was on the verge of tears. Actually, I was on the verge of tears through the whole museum. Most people are, by the end, I think. We had purchased one audio guide (3 USD) with our tickets (3 USD apiece) and it was well worth it. Most of the information and signs in English or French come at the end of the museum, and I think hiring a guide (they sit just outside the gate) or getting the audio is a smart move.

As we left, we passed two booths under the shade of some trees in the courtyard. There were several souvenir shops stalls, but these were different and had more writing in English. An old Khmer man sat at a table in the booth on the left, another man in the booth on the right. Both tables had signs that read, “Tuol Sleng SURVIVOR.” Two of the twelve, two of the ones still alive, sitting quietly in the shade selling a books they wrote.

I was surprised. It’s one thing to know this happened. It’s completely different to come face-to-face with someone that experienced and lived through that horror.” My step faltered as I realized what I was looking at. The man on the left saw my gaze and smiled at me. And then he bowed to me.

He clasped his hands under his chin and dipped his head to me, a sampeah, the Cambodian greeting.

My eyes widened and filled with tears again. He bowed to me. Humbled, embarrassed really, I returned the bow (though awkwardly). And then we left. We were out of time, unable to stay and meet the unassuming men that survived hell.

It’s the end of the day and I’m still surprised and humbled. He bowed to me.

Categories: Cambodia | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why Arkansans can’t ignore the Syrian refugees

Dear Gov. Hutchinson,
Thank you for the guidance you provide our state. Thank you for the time, effort, and resources you pour into making what you believe is a better Arkansas for us and our children. I can’t imagine the stress and frustration that meets you daily at your doorstep, and I am grateful for your service.

I believe you take seriously your promise to keep Arkansas and Arkansans safe. I love Arkansas, and it is a place I want to raise my future children. I love the kind, good-hearted people, the beautiful mountains, and the southern hospitality. But I am greatly saddened by your decision to refuse resettling Syrian refugees with us. I think you have made the wrong choice in casting the refugees in a suspicious light.

Yes, we must protect our children, our neighbors, and our families. It is our God-given privilege and duty.  Thank you for recognizing that.

But who are we protecting them from? It’s not the terrorists. ISIS strongly condemns the refugees and the nations that accept them. It wants us to reject the refugees. It wants us to fear them, and if we give into their goals, what does that make us? There has been no definite proof that an ISIS agent entered Europe pretending to be a refugee. In fact, refugee resettlement is the least likely route for a terrorist because no one goes under such levels of scrutiny as refugees or asylees.

The United States has the largest resettlement program in the world, and I am proud of our history of opening doors, of welcoming the “tired, [the] poor, [the] huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” There are almost 5 million people whose homes have been shelled, who saw their neighbors bleed to death in front of them, who heard the screams of their daughters as ISIS savaged them who hid their boys in shadows and closets so ISIS or Assad would not take them, who told their children that “everything would be all right” when they knew it was a lie, who decided that braving winter storms in a life raft was safer than spending one more day in the only home they’d ever known. These people are exactly like you and me. Exactly.

We are human beings. We also have the privilege and duty to care for each other. We are frightened, just like the Syrians. But we also have the capacity for great courage, for tenacity that defies all savagery, for compassion that fights against violence. In such a time as this, we have a great opportunity to show our best selves. We can choose love and compassion or we can choose fear and hate. The very people we want to protect the most–our children and our other loved ones–are watching us.

And if you truly believe resettling refugees here is too dangerous or economically unfeasible, then what will you do instead? What will our state do? I urge you to either reverse your decision on resettlement or pour all of Arkansas’ great capacity for hospitality and empathy into another way to support these people. Call up food drives, donations and fund pledges, spread awareness, support scholarships for volunteers that want to go to the camps and help. Lead us to do something. Because if we do nothing we have chosen the oppressor over the innocent.

I want my children to live in a state where love conquers fear and logic triumphs over propaganda. I want to be proud to call Arkansas my home. I want my children and grandchildren to know that when others feared and drew back, Arkansans opened their arms and gladly gave what they could. Let us be the Samaritans rather than the rabbi that pulled away. You’re right–it’s true that Europe and Africa are better suited geographically to take care of the refugees. But if they don’t take them, what will we do? Allow them to suffer and die because it’s not our problem? Or will we make it our problem and find a solution? We can’t ignore the Syrian refugees because denying their humanity strips us of our own.

I want a better world. I want a world where, if I am murdered and my toddler found drowned on a foreign beach, people will be angry enough that they will rescue my neighbor’s children from the same fate. And the only way to create that type of world is to be the angry person that says, “Enough.”

Please, Gov. Hutchinson, lead Arkansas in saying, “Enough.”


Original press release (11/16/15) from the governor’s office below

“As governor, I oppose any facility or installation in Arkansas being used as a Syrian refugee center.   Many of the Syrian refugees are fleeing violence in their own country but Europe, Asia or Africa are logically the best places for resettlement or for temporary asylum.  Syria is a war torn country and the United States will support our European friends in fighting ISIL in Syria and elsewhere; however, this is not the right strategy for the United States to become a permanent place of relocation.  Again, I will oppose Arkansas being used as such a relocation center.

“The hardships facing these refugees and their families are beyond most of our understanding, and my thoughts and prayers are with them, but I will not support a policy that is not the best solution and that poses risk to Arkansans”


Categories: Spiritual Life | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Potosi silver mines

I thought about having Jordan write this post, because by the end of our tour I was not having a good time and very close to passing out. He was still alert and aware of his surroundings. But Jordan prefers to be the photographer, so here’s my take on the silver mines of Potosi.

Note: If you are claustrophobic, have breathing problems, or altitude sickness, this tour is probably not for you.

When the Spanish conquered/colonized most of Bolivia, they discovered silver throughout the Andean mountains. Sucre was built primarily on the wealth of silver. Potosi, a city three hours south of Sucre, was founded in 1545 to dig out the silver, iron, lead, and zinc in Cerro Rico. It is also one of the highest cities in the world, the lowest point of the city is at 4080 meters, or 13,385 feet above sea level. The Spanish forced many of the Aymara and Yamparaz men to mine for them, in dangerous situations. The refining process in the 1500s was to smooth the rocks with bare feet in a mixture of water and mercury. After a few years they quit doing that because too many Indians were dying. Imagine that. The supports used in the mines at that time, however, were/are actually first rate and better than what many of the miners use today. That type of fortification is too expensive to use now.

We had read in a guide book that a mine tour is one of the most interesting things to do in the region, though murky when it comes to ethics. The mines are “medieval” with terrible conditions. Miners usually live only to about 50 years old. Although it is illegal for men under 18 to work in the mines, we met several miners that began as young as eight years old. When you breathe without a mask, you can feel the asbestos, sulfur, and arsenic coat the back of your throat. Only the miners that work with blasting use face masks. So ethically-speaking, it is taking entertainment from another’s suffering. Yet at the same time, the miners are all friendly and love to see new people. They are proud of the work they do, even though it is incredibly dangerous (accidents, explosions, collapsed tunnels, the toxic air, etc.) and appreciate the gifts tourists bring them.


I was very curious to see the mines, mostly because I think it is important to be aware of the difficult lives many people lead, but didn’t want to support economic oppression. We found Big Deal tours, which was highly recommended online at trip advisor and other blogs, an agency made up of ex-miners. Many of these miners left the mine in search of better health and a longer lifespan. We decided we could support that. These ex-miners worked in the mines for around 20 years, beginning at 9 years old, and don’t have any other marketable skills besides mining. They also will probably develop cancer or some other terrible diseases from breathing in so many toxic materials, and giving them our business seemed much more ethical.

Jordan, Julia (another volunteer/friend), and I barely made it to Potosi in time for their 1:30 afternoon tour on Saturday. Due to rain, the bus drove slowly. But only half of the cliffs had guardrails on them, so I didn’t complain too much at the more careful pace. Big Deal tours’ office is right off the plaza, near the Casa de La Moneda.


It was the silver mint the Spanish built in 1574. Now it is a museum explaining the silver refinement and colonialization process, open only with guided tours (and closed on Mondays). I had hoped to visit it, but we didn’t have the time. This building (and the cathedral on the plaza) show how important Potosi used to be in the region. Now there is very little there but mining and buses to La Paz.


The cathedral on the plaza

Big Deal tours was 150 bolivianos a person (which I thought was a little pricey, especially considering a tour cost 100 in 2013), but they include face mask and water. I think other tour companies make you buy your own.

We started the tour by piling in a bus and going to the miners market. It is customary to bring gifts when going to see the miners, such as juice, cigarettes, alcohol, coca leaves, or dynamite. I think the miners prefer food. Julia, Jordan, and I split the purchase of juice and coca leaves for 5 bolivianos total. Wilson, our guide, told us that miners will stuff coca leaves into their mouth and hold it in their jaw, like chewing tobacco, with a pinch of flavor from other fruit or herbs. When the taste disappears, they know it has been four hours. They rest, then fill their mouths again. Miners regularly work 12 hours a day or more during the week and around six or seven on Saturdays.


We then went to the companys storage place to get into our gear: hats, lights, coveralls, and belts. Dont we look grand?


The refinery plant is higher than the rest of the city and where much of separating of rock and minerals are done. It was loud, completely without guardrails or caution signs, and dirty. We were also able to talk with a couple of miners about their work.



After giving them coca leaves, we drove on to Cerro Rico. The peak of this mountain is 4800 meters, or 15,478 feet. At this point I felt fine because I had taken 1 mg of dexamethasone earlier in the morning. We stopped about two-thirds up the mountain and walked through the miners huts. They dont live in these shacks, but it is where they store their food, equipment, and water during the day. Because we went on Saturday the miners were already finishing their workday by the time we arrived around 3 pm. We stayed clear of the tracks so the miners could push the carts out of the mine and dump their contents down a slide.


The mine is cooperative, meaning it is owned by the individual miners. It seems much more fair than working for a mining company. The process to join the cooperative takes years. A new worker would apprentace under a seasoned miner for three years. At the end of the three years, he will own one of the veins he worked in and have the chance to join the cooperative for 7,000 bolivianos. Gross income is roughly 3,000 (444 USD) a month, but some of it goes to the refinery plant and other mining necessities.


We entered a mining tunnel that has been in use since colonial times, or the mid 1500s. It was exactly like a working mine would be: dark, damp, dirty, with low ceilings. We followed the track into the mountain until it branched off, and Wilson our guide happened across his friend who blasts dynamite. So he herded us into a branch of the tunnel with fortifications from the 1500s and had us wait while his friend set off 19 sticks of dynamite.

That is a strange sensation, let me tell you. The pressure of the whole tunnel changed and hit us hard. My ears hurt at the first blast, so I opened my mouth, which helps normalize pressure in your body, and it was more bearable. We could feel the vibrations through our bodies and my hair flew everywhere. It wasn’t that loud–not loud enough to cover our ears–but we could feel it everywhere.


Wilson told us we were now going down 45 meters, that it was a little difficult but not bad. Hogwash. It’s not bad if you’re five feet four inches and you’ve been doing this two-thirds of your life. The tunnels got smaller until we were bent over double. I breathed a sigh of relief when we got to the hole to go down, until I realized it wasn’t a ladder. It was like a rocky, curving slide that you had to grip with her hands and feet to not fall the whole distance. I crab-walked half the way down, then lowered myself down the vertical distances with just my arms.


Once at the bottom, Wilson told us that when a miner works alone, he fills his buckets of rocks and minerals and has to climb the distance carrying 20 or 40 kilos with him. I can’t imagine.

We stopped at a vein and rested. I was starting to feel sick at this point–I couldn’t catch my breath and bending over double (and still hitting your helmet on exposed beams!) wears on you quickly. I had taken one pill that morning for altitude sickness, thinking it would be enough, but it was not.

IMG_4086Miners live hard lives, he explained, and although they often make more money than other workers in Potosi, they live shorter, due to accidents, toxic fumes, alcoholism, and just hard living. But they are also very proud of the work they do–even though it is very unsafe. We had been underground for about two hours at this point, and I was only getter sicker. Wilson led us back into the main tunnels, larger ones the government constructed 30 or 40 years ago, and onward.

Miners, although Catholic, are incredibly superstitious. While their wives can help sort the rocks and minerals into containers to ship over to the refinery plant, they are not allowed in the mines, touching the minerals. Although they go to mass every Sunday, once inside the mine Pochomama and El Tio rule the miners and their world. Pochomama is the goddess of Mother Earth, more or less, and is married to El Tio, who guards and preserves the mineral veins. If a woman touches the minerals, Pochomama will think that the woman is attempting to seduce El Tio, and she will cause landslides and earthquakes in the mountain, hurting the veins and the miners.

Every year the miners gather around an idol of El Tio and offer him llama blood. Odd numbers are unlucky, so there are always at least two llamas killed and their blood poured around the shrine to El Tio. We saw the bones of a baby llama at his feet.

IMG_4115Miners regularly stop by to offer him food, coca leaves, and alcohol (96% proof alcohol!) from their packs. They stuff cigarettes in his mouth and ask him to bless their veins, to keep them safe from accidents, and guide them through the tunnels. Wilson asked us if we had any gifts leftover to offer El Tio, but we had given them away already. So he pulled a bottle of alcohol out and set it on the hand of the idol, then prayed. Much of the prayer was for show, for the tourists, but some of it was real. That was a really interesting experience.

We got up and started to leave the tunnels, and my sickness was in full swing. I am not claustrophobic, but with a killer headache, stomachache, and shortness of breath I was feeling very anxious about all the walls and dirt around me. After I lost circulation in my arms and almost passed out twice, I just breathed without my face mask. A little asbestos was fine, I decided, as long as I could catch my breath.

We passed colorful rock formations, all completely toxic, and Wilson told us what they were. I think this is copper sulfide or something. I really was not paying attention to anything anymore.

IMG_4103The assistant guide made me sit and rest for a few minutes in the tunnel and poured the 96% alcohol over my face mask. I dont really know why. She gave me extra water, and everyone was urging me to drink it. “Just keeping drinking water,” they told me. “You will feel better with more water in yoru system.” I suppose there is truth to that, but I have been altitude sick before and no matter how much water I have forced down my throat, it never made me feel better.

I was sick enough that when we finally left the mine (I almost fell on my knees and started crying), they ushered me to the waiting bus. I hung my head out the window on the trip back to town, expecting my nausea to erupt. We returned to the storage place, took off our protective clothing, then went back to city center. The center of the city is also the lowest point, thankfully, so my nausea began to fade. My headache was now at the level of a moderate migraine.

Julia, Jordan, and I ate dinner quickly, then rushed back to the bus terminal, only to find that we missed the last bus to Sucre by three minutes. I laid down on a bench while they went from stall to stall, asking about other buses.

This is important. The last bus from Potosi to Sucre leaves at 7 pm sharp.

“I cannot spend the night in this city,” I told Jordan. “I will be throwing up at the toilet all night long if I do.”

So we took a taxi to the old bus terminal, where we found no buses, only taxis. To make a long story short, we took a taxi back to Sucre (a two and a half hour drive) for 50 bolivianos apiece. It was over twice the price of the bus, but we had no choice. We would have spent more money sleeping in a hostel and riding the bus the next morning. Because Potosi is in a valley, the taxi driver had to climb the mountains to get out before going back down the mountains. That was a very tense 30 minutes for me. But the lower we got, the better I felt. We arrived back at our hostel, 7Patas, exhausted, dirty, and (in my case) with a bad headache (it downgraded from moderate migraine to bad headache as we went downhill).

So. The mine tour. I didnt expect it to be loads of fun, because, well, its a mine. I went because I wanted to know about the lives of other people. And I guess I did that. If youre not over 6 feet 3 inches you can make the tour (uncomfortably), and if you dont get altitude sickness, you should be fine. Jordan had a better time than I did. Do I regret it? Ehh, no. But I will never, ever, ever do it again for as long as I live.






Categories: Bolivia | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Poverty: Shock, shame, and guilt

When my dad was a child, he (like most his age) didn’t always want to eat what was for dinner. My grandfather, like most parents, was very exasperated with him. One night my grandfather had enough. He resorted, in desperation, to what other parents were using then.

“Don’t you realize there are starving children in Asia that would be lucky to have this much food on their plates?” he asked (probably with a raised voice).

My dad, ever quick with words, grabbed up the plate and shoved it across the table. “Well here, then! Send it to ’em!”

I think the story ended with my father going in time out, then eating the cold dinner. I doubt my grandfather tried that logic again.

It brings up a good point. Why do we tell children about the starving children in Africa at dinnertime? Is it to make us feel lucky or blessed that we have food on our plates? Is it to motivate us to help others in need? Has a child, when confronted with that reality, ever said, “Well geez, Mom and Dad, I had no idea that kids like me on the other side of the world didn’t have enough to eat. Thanks for the broccoli. I like it now!”?

While the intentions behind that phrase are good, I don’t think its very effective (and not just because teaching empathy to children is one of the hardest things in the world).

When I went to my first developing region (parts of Mexico and Belize, later Nicaragua) I wasn’t shocked by the poverty I saw there. Believe me, it was there. I just wasn’t shocked. This probably has something to do with my personality (I rarely feel a strong sense of culture shock), but also something to do with what I have been told my whole life. I can’t even count the number of times people returned from mission trips, youth groups, or a well-meaning adult has told me, “You are lucky to be American, to never want for food or a roof over your head. There are people that live on less than $1 a day!”

And it’s true. It’s all true. I am blessed. I have never wanted for food, even in the first couple months of marriage when almost all of our food budget was used up buying basic ingredients. I have never unwillingly spent the night outside, even when our housing situation was up in the air (though that was due more to generosity of friends than our bank accounts). There are people so poor, so destitute that it is shocking. But hearing it over and over deadens the impact, particularly if someone never does see that poverty firsthand. I have now been through some very poor regions of the world. Jordan had gone through some poor parts of the United States (and they do still exist). So we have seen with our own eyes the dirt floors, the cardboard walls, the trash heaped everywhere. And I wonder, would I be more shocked if I hadn’t heard the statistics before? I don’t know. I just think that sometimes a person can’t understand an idea or reality unless they have seen or experienced it for themselves. No amount of slideshows or well-meaning speeches from youth group pastors will make them understand.

Absolute poverty is terrible. And we should do something about it. But the way we motivate one another is also important. A good way to get the attention of complacent, insulated teenagers that all have iphones and nice clothes is probably to shock them. But shame is the worst motivator, and guilt probably not a lot better.

During my time in impoverished places, I have felt more compelled and eager to act not from the shame of being from the wealthiest country in the world, but from the smiles and dignity of the poor, and my gratitude for my own wealth. I don’t know how most Americans are, but I do know that Jordan and I are very frugal with our money, as we were taught to be from childhood. We tithe, we sometimes (not often) give special gifts to church, we stick to a budget and try to do the best we can. We have fun, of course, I mean, we’re on this trip! We stretch our money as far as we can, and so are able to do so much more than someone with the newest smartphone, latest design of clothes, new car, or whatever other material “needs” he spends his money on. So because I know that we are careful with our limited income, that we spend responsibly, and try to avoid companies with unethical business practices, I am not ashamed of my wealth. We are are far from rich, compared to the average GDP per capita of the United States ($54,678.17 in 2014), but we have so much more compared to some people we have met. Rather than shame, I am thankful for what I have and the small amount of excess we can give away.

Shame doesn’t motivate. It might make us give a dollar to a beggar once or twice, but it doesn’t change our hearts. Gratitude does. Shame also usually involves showing the people in need as just and only that: poor people. Photos of starving African children often precede a commercial to give money. This shock-and-shame technique, I think, doesn’t just hurt us rich people, but also strips them of their human dignity. When was the last time you looked at a photo of a starving child and thought, “I wonder what her name is. I wonder what type of music makes her smile”? Really, we even have a well-known phrase for them: the starving children in Africa. While the poorest of the poor are victims of income inequality and the trouble it brings, that is not their sole identity. They are not, and should not, be only known as victims.

We should feel compassion for the least of us, and we should want to help them. True help, or “sustainable development,” however, only comes when dignity is preserved on both sides of the equation, when giving is done from abundance and gratitude, and when receiving is done with agency and respect.

I don’t have any real answers for how to combat poverty. I’m still figuring life out, and poverty is a complicated issue. But I don’t think I’ll use the “starving children in Africa” trope to shame my children into eating their vegetables.

Categories: Culture Quirks, Spiritual Life | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

INTI children and the weariness of poverty

Every afternoon, rain or shine, weekday or weekend, around a dozen children swarm the central plaza of Sucre to make a little extra money for their mothers.


Most of the children, around nine years old or younger, spend over 20 hours a week trying to sell INTI magazines to tourists and locals. When they sell as many as they can (five is the daily goal), their mothers or mother’s friends hands them bags of seed to sell.

These children come from the countryside and the barrios, or suburbs, and live in poverty. Their mothers usually fooled around with a machista 15- or 16-year-old boy just out of the military and get pregnant with their first child by the time they are 14 or 15. Then, if the boy is good, they marry and have a few more children. Or the father leaves his family to go find another 13-year-old to seduce. So most of these kids have no father at home, either because he abandoned them or because he lives in a different city, trying to find work to feed his family. The children go to school for four hours a day, then walk into the city to sell things. Their mothers also sell things on street corners, but usually not near her children.

Biblioworks, a nonprofit in Sucre dedicated to encouraging literacy and education, works with a British expat to create and publish INTI, a short magazine for children and tourists, in both Spanish and English. They distribute the magazine to the children, which costs only four bolivianos. Two stay with the children and the other two fund the magazine.

These children are sweet, smart, and polite. Many of them are embarrassed that they have to approach strangers with merchandise to feed their families. They are all fluent in Spanish and Quechua (they don’t understand why I can’t speak Quechua) and have big, wonderful dreams. 10-year-old Carlos said he wishes he could take his whole family to France to see the Eiffel tower because he heard it was nice. One of the boys told me that Washington, D.C. was the capitol of my country. Two weeks ago Biblioworks took the kids to the movie theater to watch Home. It was the first time they had been in a movie theater.

Selling the magazine gives the children a greater profit than a bag of seeds, and it helps them practice their social and communication skills. They get very little attention at home. This isn’t to say their parents are bad (though domestic abuse is a serious problem in Bolivia), but when you are extremely poor, all energy goes into putting the next meal on the table. Basic survival trumps hugs and cuddles.


As a volunteer with Biblioworks I walk around with the kids, talking with them and encouraging them to communicate with the people on park benches. I am supposed to offer a chance to socialize as well as safety. Child disappearances are a problem in Bolivia, and the police are either unable or unwilling to do much investigation. Also, these kids walk from the suburbs to city center and around very busy streets. We volunteers are there to make sure they don’t get hit by a car while trying to make money.

Last week I walked one girl to a bank building so she could sell in the offices. Unbeknownst to us, her four-year-old brother followed, his trying to sell his bag of candy behind us. We crossed two intersections and walked in the street because the sidewalk was under construction. We didn’t see him until we were halfway through the bank building. The older sister, who is nine, started yelling at him and boxing his ears. I assume she was yelling in Quechua about how dangerous it was for him to walk by himself. I finally got them to stop, but by that time both little boy and his sister were in tears. As an oldest child myself, I understand full well the weight of responsibility one assumes, especially if the parents are absent like hers (mine never were, thankfully). Family ties are extremely strong; the poor girl was probably almost as terrified for her brother’s safety as if he was actually her son and just as anxious to protect him as a mother would.

So I calmed both down, had her carry his bag of merchandise, and held his hand as we crossed the busy streets back to the plaza. We both made him promise not to follow us again. It was so sad to see how hard these children’s lives are. And yet they are some of the sweetest, happiest children I have met.

Seeing their lives shows me two things. First, we need very little in order to be happy. Nice cars, iphones, and great clothes really aren’t necessary to wake up with smile and enjoy our day. We learned in kindergarten that the most important things in the world aren’t things, but people. Our relationships with neighbors, friends, and family are what really give us the most joy in life, and this is something that Latin America (and many poor people) realize. Once basic needs are met, some of the poor in the world are probably happier than the richest, just because they know what really matters in life.

Second, poverty is wearying. When we struggle to obtain the basics for our survival, we are exhausted physically, emotionally, and spiritually. The worst part of destitution and extreme poverty I think, it’s not actually the lack of money, but the lack of a purpose in life. You can’t go to school. You can’t get a job. You can’t fix the hole in your roof. You can’t plant a garden. You can’t talk to interesting people. Most of life’s goals are completely inaccessible because poverty closes all doors in society. It makes you doubt yourself and become apathetic. People so poor they slap together sheets of tin for a hut are desperately unhappy, unfulfilled, and unmotivated because poverty (not just of money, but of soul as well) robs them of their humanity and agency. People that send their children out to work aren’t quite as bad off, because their basic needs are being met through great toil and struggle, and are therefore probably much happier than the poorest of the poor. But they are still exhausted.


I hope the shoeshine boy gets to see his father again. I hope these nine-year-old girls don’t become mothers in four years. I hope the Down syndrome girl gets the help she needs. I hope they don’t drop out of school in a year or two. I hope their mothers have the energy to kiss them goodnight.

For more information about happiness and money:

  • UNDSP Happiness Report 2015
    • In the past, Scandinavian countries have always ranked highest in happiness, and several half-developed countries like Mexico rank higher than their GDP and other economic indices would suggest. The United States, which one might assume would rank highest in happiness as it does in economics, does not. Hypotheses include: Mexico and Sweden both have strong support systems for individuals (Mexico through family, Sweden through social welfare programs), making sure people know they will be helped and not forgotten. The United States (because of a strong tradition of independence or a reliance on money rather than people, or the odd mixture of ethnicities and SECs, take your pick) does not guarantee support, community, or belonging for its citizens, and the country’s wealth can only make up for some of that social/spiritual/human deficit.
  • Gross National Happiness: Buhtan
  • $75,000 The Price of Happiness
  • Planning for Sustainable Happiness: Harmonizing our External and Internal Landscapes, by O’Brien (2005)
  • Anything by economist Amartya Sen, such as this Reuters interview
Categories: Bolivia, Spiritual Life | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment


We arrived in Aswan this morning. Aswan is a city in the far south of Egypt, toward Sudan. With a population of roughly 275,000 it is one of the larger cities in Egypt.

Nubians are Egypt’s second main ethnic group, and they usually live in southern Egypt or northern Sudan. They have lived there for thousands of years, often trading or battling with the Egyptians.

While our tour group went off a did a formal tour of the city, Jordan and I opted out because it was over $30/per person. Instead, we searched online for interesting places in Aswan, then grabbed a taxi outside our hostel. The driver knew immediately where we wanted to go (Nubian Museum) and took us there–for a hefty fee because we’re tourists. Pictured below is a Coptic Orthodox church.

IMG_1090At the museum (which we both got discounted tickets for a youth and student) we saw plenty of Nubian artifacts and pictures of daily life. Afterward, we walked down the hill, guided by Jordan’s phone GPS, and slipped into Fatimid cemetery.

Also known as the Islamic Necropolis, it houses many of the tombs of the Fatimids. They were part of the Shia Fatimid Caliphate, which ruled from the beginning of the 10th century until the end of the 12th, when Saladin took over.  There are tombs here from the 9th century to the 21st.

The Egyptian men hanging out at the cemetery were very helpful in showing us which dirt paths to follow to get out the other side and didn’t even ask for any tip in return.


We saw the famous unfinished obelisk, then haggled with a taxi to get us to the Nile ferry to Elephantine Island. The public ferry separated men and women, and I had a scarf/hijab so we tried to blend in with the locals in the boat. We had intended to visit the Aswan museum, but a Nubian man told us it was closed. We weren’t sure if we should believe him, but we didn’t know any better, so we allowed him to take us around the island, where two Nubian villages are. After going down tiny little alleys and along dirt paths past very undeveloped houses and gardens, we arrived at Animalia, another museum we wanted to visit. It was smaller and less official than what we had read online suggested. A Nubian woman came downstairs to greet us and walked us through a little museum dedicated to local Nubian life, homes, and decorative baskets. The price of admission was steep for what we got: 15 Egyptian pounds a person, but I suppose helping someone stay out of poverty by purchasing a service from them is good. Everyone was so friendly and kind.

A large portion of the Nubian people lived just south of here for hundreds of years, but flooding along the Nile was getting worse and threatening several temples and parts of Aswan. So in the 1960s the Egyptian government, with some funding from other nations (including the U.S.) moved the temples, built a dam, and permanently flooded the area the Nubians lived. About half were moved to Sudan, while the rest (around 80,000) were moved to the Aswan area. The Egyptian president Nasser declared that Nubians could claim any land between Aswan and Luxor along the west bank of the Nile.

This evening we ate dinner in a local Nubian home, and the food was delicious. Along the ferry ride we were able to see the monastery of St. Simon, one of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world. The ancient Desert Fathers, seeking the solitude of the Egyptian desert, began practicing Christian monasticism.


Taking a ferry across the Nile reminded me so much of Agatha Christie’s “Death on the Nile.” I think Jordan was relieved because the BBC version doesn’t have any singing for me to imitate, unlike “The Prince of Egypt” (from yesterday looking at alabaster stone) or “The Sound of Music” (when going through the Vienna airport). As long as I sing quietly, no one hears me and it makes me very happy. So far, Egyptians seem to like us. Actually, I was expecting (As an American) to be met with cool indifference or slight displeasure by the Egyptians, but instead everyone is very enthusiastic about us being from America and seem very excited to have American tourists back among them.

Categories: Egypt | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Machismo in Nicaragua

“So, are you dating anyone here?”

“No. Nicaraguan men are mean. It’s just not worth it.”

I and my American friends have had this conversation several times with Nicaraguan women, and they all say the same thing, whether we asked or not. Most Nicaraguan men are mean.

A common term in Latin America for this is “Machismo,” which is closely related to the US term “Macho man.” These men are often extremely masculine. Many spend time working in the gym, if they have the luxury of time to do so. Others get the best office careers and make sure that women don’t.

Machismo is often described by Central American feminists as a form of patriarchy used to dominate women and make men feel better about themselves. While in the past machismo has had positive connotations, people use it today as the idea of a machista, a sexist man that sees woman as objects to be used in some form or another. Years ago, and possibly still today, some men see machismo has a code of honor–a way that the head of the household would live. Defending his land, protecting his family, and supporting his community were the highest duties of a machista and the honorable way of life. But most men use this idea to live however they want to–even at the expense of women and children.

This idea, unfortunately, is not confined to Latin America. The United States, even though equality is more of a reality, has many problems with patriarchy and rape culture. There are far too many boys in the United States that believe having sex with a drugged or drunk woman is perfectly okay. But in the United States, there is at least a backlash to that sort of behavior.  At least online and in some courtrooms, the “boys will be boys” excuse falls flat.

In many parts of Nicaragua, this is not the case. In the past, machistas regularly raped women, attacked gay men, had two or three girlfriends at once, and/or beat their wives. While that still happens, less extreme versions of machismo are now more common. It’s the comments that “women shouldn’t go to college” because they “only belong in the house,” or all those catcalls when a woman walks to the bus stop, or the dismissal of a girl partner for a school project because “girls are stupid.”  My male teacher said that because he studied French in college, many of his acquaintances told him he was gay. And when he washes his own clothes at home, his male neighbors laugh at him for doing “women’s work.” My other teacher, a woman, said her previous boyfriend (who is in his late 20s) left her for a fifteen-year-old girl. There was a news story a couple years ago showing father and son going to a brothel for the boy’s birthday. And this is normal.

“It is getting better,” my teacher told me. “It used to be worse. Some women are doctors and engineers and architects now. And Nicaragua doesn’t have the gang violence that Honduras and Guatemala have, so the [sexual violence] and crime isn’t as organized.”

Still, a friend at Bartahola Norte told me that about three years ago a man killed his wife, and no one in the neighborhood did anything about it for a long time. A few people were to scared to tell the police, and others just didn’t care. Many years ago, another man in the same neighborhood also murdered his wife. But he didn’t go to prison, and the neighbors don’t like speaking poorly about him because he’s such a nice man.

Because of this, the cultural center has neighborhood meetings on violence prevention. Ideas do take time to catch on, however, and usually the men of the neighborhood see these meetings as an opportunity to talk about whatever they want, while the meetings were really designed to help women know they have resources to help them get out of bad situations.

The people of Nicaragua are friendly, usually kind people. They make tons of food and are always trying to give you more. But there are some deep-seated problems in their society–ones that are not unique to them.

It is exciting to learn more about the culture if Nicaragua, and encouraging to learn about nonprofits and individual people that are slowly eroding the abusive “machista” image of manhood and replacing it with something that benefits the whole society. And something I believe is much nearer to our own roles as image-bearers of God.


For an interesting workshop on education the public about the culture of machismo, go here. Another nonprofit website is here.

Categories: Nicaragua | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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