B (be) F (friendly) F (forever)

This past week went pretty smoothly (as far as end-of-the-grading-periods go). However, I had to deal with two instances of girls telling me that they didn’t have ANY friends in my class. I also found a rather nasty note in the trashcan that had gone back and forth between two of the girls about whose best friend a third girl really was. Time for intervention.

Today, during the last twenty minutes of school, all the boys got to go play soccer outside with the disciplinarian at our school. Is that even a position other schools have? I am very thankful for him. He is an incredibly gentle, yet consistent man who does an excellent job enforcing the rules and getting to the heart of behavior problems. Though he was really just there so I could have time with the girls, I was thankful for the added bonus of the boys getting to spend some very positive time with him.

The six girls stayed inside with me and we sat on the floor and had a chat. First I asked the girls to raise their hand if someone in the room had been unkind to them recently. If someone had lied to them recently? If they thought someone had talked about them in a mean way? If someone had been bossy to them? If they had felt left out? At least half of the girls raised their hand for each question and everyone raised their hand at least once. We agreed we needed to do something to change this.

I encouraged them to stop worrying about who was their best friend and start trying to be the best friend they could be. We talked about how the Bible tells us to love each other, but if we focus on one person or our favorite group of people, then we are not loving others who feel left out. I encouraged them to look for ways they could be a good friend to someone who needs a friend. I also reminded them that a few of them might need to ask for forgiveness or give forgiveness to someone. I know that this is a really important topic because I was still getting ripped to shreds over “best friends” even a few years ago, not because of people being mean to me, but because I took things so personally and felt them so deeply. I am praying that this talk will stick, even if it just helps them take one small step in maturity.

To end our conversation on a positive note, we played a game with a ball of yarn, giving each girl a few chances to pass the ball to another girl and say something positive about her, while holding on to the end of the yarn. We created a fun star shape. I was very proud to hear the things they had observed in each other, such as “being there when I’m sad”, “coming to play with me when I am alone”, “making me laugh”, “standing up for me”, etc. We talked about how they are the qualities we should try to have for those around us.

After praying, I was so happy to hear my Indian student open up and share with the other girls how sometimes she feels left out when they all speak Spanish together at lunch. I know they will still mostly speak Spanish at lunch, but I am happy that she felt comfortable enough to express her feelings (she normally stays to herself) and that the girls were made aware of her feelings and can look for opportunities to include her. We’ll see how this goes!

Photo is my own from the recent 2nd and 3rd grade camp we had. I love those colors!

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7 Dresses

Last month, I had the privilege of helping with an art exhibit to raise awareness for human trafficking in Mexico. My roommate Emma is a visionary and wanted to use dresses to share stories of women without a voice. She found a great book called “De Cielo al Infierno en un Día” (“From Heaven to Hell in One Day”) which contains six case studies of girls trafficked in Mexico, ages six to twenty.

A dress was chosen for each girl that represented her story. We had a school uniform, a quinceañera (a girl turning 15) dress, a housemaid’s uniform, etc. Each dress also featured a pin cushion broken heart with pins in it labeling some of the wounds that got them into trafficking in the beginning. Some had been subject to domestic abuse, deception, emotional manipulation, abduction, and more. We also had a brief summary of each story beside each dress. Our house smelled like a carnicería (a meat shop) for a few days because Emma splattered each dress with blood to represent the abuse.

That accounts for six dresses, but the seventh was the most important. It was a white, unstained dress symbolizing hope. All six women in the stories have been rescued and that is why we know their stories. The rescued are a small percentage though and we want to offer hope to the rest still in slavery.

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The ladies in my bible study, and others, joined me in making smaller versions of the broken hearts to sell as reminders of the event and to raise money for Fin de la Esclavitud (The End of Slavery), the organization that Emma partnered with to host the event. The event was held at a local college in a common area in front of their library. It was so encouraging to see how many people stopped along their way to take the time to read and learn. Fin de la Esclavitud plans to host exhibits throughout the year. They have already done a second one and have two more planned currently. Please continue to pray for the continued impact of this exhibit.

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Here is the link for the author who wrote the book that inspired it all.

Photos taken by myself and by Emma Holloway.

Friends at the Beach and at the Mission Base

This is the final blog post about my Spring Break! I just wanted to share a little about some personal visits I was able to make while in Oaxaca. Though I had a great time being a tourist, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to meet some friends who were living in the area.

First, some of you probably saw my post about my travel partner accidentally booking accommodations at a nudist beach. It was really uncomfortable and I didn’t stay on the beach more than an hour or two. It was definitely the lowest day of my trip. We had just finished an overnight bus ride, the humidity was stifling, we were half way through the trip so energy was running low, I’d expected a relaxing day at the beach and didn’t get it, and I was stressed trying to figure out how I was going to meet my friend Scott, an hour away in Puerto Escondido, the next day. After some time in prayer and laughing along with all of you on social media about the irony of the situation, my travel mates came up with a plan that made the next day much easier. We ended up traveling together and once in Puerto I went to meet Scott and his fiancé, Isabel. We got to meet at a café just a block from my hotel. It was a great time swapping stories about our experiences in Mexico and also discussing our ministries and how what each of us was doing was making an impact for the Kingdom. I’m also very excited for them and their upcoming wedding (weddings technically, oh the joys of marrying internationally).

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The other personal trip I was able to make was from the capital of Oaxaca to Foundation for His Ministry, about 45 minutes away. If you know about the numerous trips I’ve taken to Baja California, they have been to visit this mission. The one in Oaxaca is more recently founded and is mainly a children’s home though it supports some other ministries as well. This was really important to me because it was my time in Baja at the mission that convinced me I needed to travel to Oaxaca one day. Hearing about the mistreatment of the Oaxacan people brought to work in Baja decades ago was heartbreaking. They had come out of desperation and ended up in similar or worse circumstances, but without the support of their own culture, climate, and language group.

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I also wanted to go because I heard about Mexican missionaries sponsored by the mission who went to live in the mountain villages to preach the gospel. Aside from the children’s home, the mission in Oaxaca acts as a base for the national missionaries in the mountains. This ministry is still dangerous and I met two Mexican missionary interns who had started the year serving in a mountain village and had to move back to the serve at the mission because things had gotten violent and it was too dangerous for them to remain at their assignment. Hearing more about this ministry to basically unreached people groups was probably one of the best parts of visiting the mission (especially since I had a little idea of what that would be like from visiting the syncretistic village). Another special reason for visiting was that my grandmother had visited for several weeks two years before and I was able to talk with people who had met her and a few teenage girls in particular who immediately brightened up when they heard I was her granddaughter.

Another highlight of the mission was getting to see their new school building and playground. I will admit I was envious. What I would have given for that natural lighting and space during my time at Lincoln!

They even have a zip-line on their playground!

 

All photos are mine.

Oaxaca: A Self-appreciative Culture

After a decade of wanting to go, I finally made it to Oaxaca! Though the trip was probably not how I had imagined it years ago, it was a wonderful first exposure. From Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca (more on that later) we took a private plane to the capital. It was just a thirty minute, smooth flight and a pretty fun experience. It gave us a whole extra day in Oaxaca. If we had taken the windy bus ride, we would not have made it there until evening. We had breakfast and began to explore the city. It was amazing how in one day I got a very different sense than I had in Chiapas. Chiapas is the poorest Mexican state and Oaxaca is second. Both have large numbers of indigenous peoples living within them. However, everywhere I went in Chiapas was very commercialized. I already expressed my opinions on the crowded “ecotourism” sites. Apart from this, you cannot go anywhere without very aggressive vendors trying to sell something to you. This included while you were seated inside at a restaurant. It made me not even want to just sit on a bench and enjoy the surroundings for a minute because I didn’t want to have to say “no” ten times in five minutes. There were vendors and peddlers in Oaxaca as well, but not as many and they seemed to be much more respectful of their customers, or maybe respected themselves more. In Chiapas, it seemed like all of the natural assets of the state existed for tourism and were milked for all they were worth, but in Oaxaca, it was different.

The best part of the city for me was the Culture Museum in a restored ex-convent. It was an incredible museum, on par with many in the states and better and bigger than any others I’d seen in Mexico (though I haven’t made it to Mexico City yet). The building it was housed in was beautiful itself. Huge open hallways with gigantic windows at each end, courtyards and balconies overlooking the botanical garden below. Just beautiful. The course of the museum started with the early history of the state of Oaxaca, moved through the Mayan dynasty, the Spanish Conquest, the Independence, and up to modern day. This museum also affirmed my sense that the people of Oaxaca had more personal dignity as the final few rooms of the museum emphasized and celebrated the continued development of the indigenous cultures. Later in the day, I went back to the location to get a tour of the garden surrounding the ex-convent. The garden was not old, but it was very tastefully done and was a showcase of plants and trees indigenous to the state of Oaxaca specifically. We had a great tour guide who was very knowledgeable about the historical and cultural significance of the plants as well as the scientific details.

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After a visit to Foundation for His Ministry (more later), I returned to the capital for an evening dinner and show. The show was called the Guelaguetza and was advertised as show casing dances from all seven regions of Oaxaca. While visiting the mission, I happened to pick up a book that gave me some more information. The Guelaguetza was a prehispanic tradition of the people in Oaxaca coming together to share culture, food, and dance from the various indigenous groups. It was a way of celebrating diversity. In 2006, there were a series of strikes that affected Oaxaca all year long. The people were upset with the corruption in the government (an unfortunately common sentiment through Mexican history) and people were striking for better investment in schools, for the rights of the indigenous, etc. At this time, the Guelaguetza had become a commercial annual event which was so expensive only tourists could afford to go. The people decided to boycott the commercial one, eventually forcing them to cancel and the people hosted their own, which was completely free to Oaxacans and represented many more dances and foods than the commercial one ever had. Again, this demonstrated to me an inherent pride in their culture whether it was shared and produced money or not. The show we went to was not the large annual event, but a representation. Watching the dance was a fun experience, as I always enjoy watching good dancing.

Our last day, we created a custom tour of the area. We do things the classy way. We skipped some of the more common tourist sites and went to visit three artisan villages. The first was where they carve and paint alebrijes, incredibly complex wooden statues of animals. Originally, they were tied into the Mayan religion and superstitions as a kind of protection. They remain breathtaking art, which I imagine has only grown more complex and beautiful with time improve the talent.

In the second village, we visited a workshop that makes pottery out of black clay. Oaxaca is known for this particular technique of rubbing the clay with a certain stone before firing to create the appearance of a glaze. What I didn’t realize is that we were taken directly to the workshop of the woman who had discovered the technique in the 1930s! She has since passed away, but her legacy continues.

After a brief stop at the Tule (the widest tree in the world), we finally visited a town that specialized in wool weaving. We visited a co-op of 20 families. One of the weavers gave us an explanation of the natural dyes, showing us how to mix some colors in our palms. In my hand, he broke some pomegranate seeds and mixed it with limestone and created a turquoise. Another woman demonstrated how to card and spin the wool. We also got to watch them creating the pattern on the loom. It was incredible how fast they went because they had a complex pattern memorized in their heads.By the way, they offer workshops where they teach people the process, starting with going out to gather the materials for the natural dyes!

That evening we enjoyed one more walk through the markets and stores with a new appreciation for the art. I wish that I had more money available to support more of these talented, hard working artists. I was happy to make a few small purchases to enjoy for myself and to show appreciation for the culture at the same time. That is how I have come to view souvenir shopping in other countries. It is no fun if I am just looking for myself or am trying to drive the hardest bargain I can (though I do barter a little and I don’t like it when people intentionally take advantage of me being foreign). I get so much more enjoyment knowing that what I am buying is supporting local economy and appreciating local culture, which is why I try to buy directly from the artisans if possible and avoid the manufactured souvenirs.

So thankful to finally have this opportunity!

Photos are my own.

Contradictory Ecotourism in Palenque

From San Cristobal, we took a bus to Palenque. It was a 7 hour bus ride. It was a 7 hour bus ride with movies playing the whole way. It was a 7 hour bus ride with multiple R-rated movies playing the whole way. I just don’t understand. The one entertaining movie they showed was Mexican-made and set in Jalisco (our state). Viva el mariachi!

Palenque was hot and humid! Fortunately, we had a very nice hotel and air conditioning in our room. The next day was an adventure for me because April wanted to relax around Palenque, Bev wanted to see ruins hours away closer to Guatemala, and I wanted to see some waterfalls. So, I went on my first tour by myself. After a great buffet at the hotel and a lazy morning journaling, I got on a tour bus with fifteen other people and went to Misol-Ha.

It was a pretty waterfall, but it really got me thinking about the whole concept of ecotourism.  We have waterfalls just as pretty and similar in height in Virginia and if you go visit them, you might see ten other people. They are really enjoyable to visit. You get some friends together, pack a picnic lunch, and enjoy a hike or walk to the falls and of course take out all of the trash with you. In Misol-Ha, there were probably at least 500 tourists there. It was very difficult to find any spot to stand where you could get a nice view or a picture of the falls without dozens of other people in it, or without feeling like you needed to hurry because of the dozens of people coming behind you. There were several vendors along the very brief walk from the parking lot and by the parking lot there was a huge restaurant which was also full.

The cascades at Agua Azul were very impressive and I’ve never seen anything quite like them. However, the overall enjoyment factor was quite low. Why? Same problem, but carried to a further extreme. Close to 100 makeshift vending booths right up to the edge of the water. There were again probably 600-700 people around. It is quite interesting that Chiapas is advertised for its ecotourism, yet it seems very obvious that the tourism is damaging the ecosystem. Yes, the tourism does bring money to the local people, such as the vendors, as well as to the state when people pay a park entrance fee, but is it worth it long term? What will the people of Chiapas loose by the tourism? The pride of living in a beautiful place and being able to enjoy it and preserve it in peace?

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While I was sitting down eating some snacks and pondering this, a family enjoying a picnic started talking to me in English to practice. In the usual Mexican way, they asked if I was single and introduced me to their son who was also single and spoke some English. What a coincidence?! After a few minutes, I left to see the falls more up close. Before our group left, I had a little time and I wanted to get in the water. I felt stuck because I had my backpack with me and with 100s of people around it wouldn’t be responsible to just leave it somewhere. My friends weren’t there and I hadn’t really connected with anyone in the tour group and couldn’t find them even if I had. So, I went back to the family I met and asked if they would watch it. They were more than happy to comply. I guess there are always options when you travel alone; you just have to be bolder in making quick relationships.

The next day, we went to see the ruins right outside of Palenque before returning to San Cristobal. These are incredible ruins of a Mayan city, complete with a palace, dozens of temples, and houses. It was another sobering reminder of the Mayan religion, heavily influenced by fear of the gods and spirits, who were often appeased with blood. On a positive note, the architecture and advance of the society was impressive. It was a neat experience to climb to the top of a pyramid, face away from the people out into the jungle and imagine what it would have been like to live there 100s of years ago.

 

All photos are my own.

Catholicism and Mayan Religion in the Same Building

Some friends had recommended that while in San Cristobal, we take a tour to a nearby village called San Juan Chamula. We had an English speaking guide who had been giving the tours for over a decade and really had a good understanding of the culture. The village was completely autonomous from the Mexican government and its church was autonomous from the Vatican. Their native language is Tsotsil and they continue to use the Mayan calendar. The village has their own policemen who enforce the rules and penalties; one to three nights in jail for petty crime or death for a major crime. We passed the burying ground as we entered the village. The graves were simple dirt mounds as large stone tombs and shrines are prohibited. It was prohibited to put a fence around the area. The crosses on the graves were black, green, and white denoting the death of an adult, young person, or infant respectively. By the way, the cross (especially a green one) is a prehispanic symbol, not always connected to the Catholic or Christian faith).

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Despite the large Dominican church built in the 1700s, their relationship with the Vatican has had a tumultuous history. In the late 19th century, they killed a catholic priest who had destroyed some sacred stones which were worshiped, but it wasn’t until a century later that the departure was final and official. Instead of catholic priests, they have 122 spiritual leaders at a time in the community who serve for one year terms and, with their wife and the partnership of another couple, take care of a saint in their home. The 122 does not count the shamans that serve the community.

Before entering the church, where we could not take pictures, we were startled by loud fireworks a few feet away and entered the church right after a procession of musicians. The noise from the firecrackers and musical instruments was part of their worship ritual. There are no pews in the church as most people worship on the floor and no sermon is delivered. I am doubtful if they even hold mass. They do not read the Bible. The saints all around the walls have literally replaced the Mayan gods and are worshiped in similar ways as their predecessors. There are rows of candles in front of them; different colors representing different things, including food for them. The saints are decorated with mirrors, going back to the practice of putting a reflective stone on an idol so it could draw energy from the sun. Jesus is associated with the sun and Mary with the moon. From the doorway, the center line of vision is drawn to John the Baptist. Jesus on the cross is lower and to the right hand side. We also had the privilege of going into one of the spiritual leaders’ homes though I could barely breathe because of the heavy incense and smoke shrouding the room where a saint was enclosed in a shrine of branches.

The people in this village are known for growing vegetables and for their wool work. The women’s traditional clothing is a heavy black wool tube that they belt to form a skirt and a traditional blouse.

In a nearby town of Zinacantan, we got to see a completely different lifestyle in the same indigenous language group. These people were known for growing flowers and weaving and embroidery. Their clothing was very distinct from San Juan Chamula and was beautifully embroidered with flowers in blues, purples, and pinks. This included the men’s clothing. We visited a home where the family demonstrated the back loom method for weaving and shared fresh made tortillas with us. We also arrived just in time to see a procession into their church. This village, though originally more syncretistic, has somewhat reformed and now follows more acceptable catholic practices.

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On the whole, it was an incredible experience and really opened my eyes to the spiritual condition that existed in Mexico before the Spanish conquest which has clearly persisted to an extent, especially in the more isolated regions among indigenous peoples. It also gave me an idea of just how difficult it would be to come into an unreached, hostile people group and bring the gospel. Though our guide kept insisting that they were a lovely, respectful people, they do not allow anyone to live in the village who does not follow their religious views. Apart from this, there is the evidence of how they responded in violence various times to the catholic priests. There would also be opposition from the outside because of the global tolerance culture. Our guide was complaining about how these people are persecuted even today. His example of persecution was that a few people had been giving free medical help at a clinic, including free glasses, medicines, etc. and at the same time giving out New Testaments. Our guide asked the police why they weren’t stopping these people and they responded “Don’t worry. They won’t read it anyway.”

 

Photos are my own.

Markets and Churches in San Cristobal

So this is the part when I get to share funny stories, more pictures, and all of the things I learned while on my wonderful Spring Break trip. It will probably take me several posts to cover everything I want to talk about because my head is so full. The first night back, I woke up multiple times trying to figure out where I was. That almost never happens to me, but I guess being in six different hotels in fourteen days will do that to you.

I want to start with our first stop, beautiful San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico. (Emphasis is on the second syllable in Cristobal. That took us a while to learn.)When we got off the plane in the capital of Chiapas, we still had an hour ride to our destination. The bus was full and another wouldn’t be going out for several hours so we opted to take a taxi. After the taxi driver received our ticket, he walked past the two ladies I was traveling with and took my suitcase. As I’m laughing and apologizing to my friends, the taxi driver yanks my bag off the curb and in the process breaks the handle, which left him off balance and knocked his sunglasses off his head. So began a heavy itinerary with a broken suitcase. Grrr. The taxi driver also passed people at least 50 times on a no-passing windy mountain road while talking on his cell phone. Just great.

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We had a homey, rustic cabin a short walk from the city center, but nicely secluded in the mountains where we couldn’t hear the crowds at night or the church bells in the morning. The city was beautiful and full of Semana Santa tourists. There are two streets off of the main square that are strictly pedestrian and they would completely fill up with people especially around meal times and at night. It was interesting that most of the non-Mexican tourists were European, not American. This led to some interesting conversations. On a boat ride down the Cañon de Sumidero, I got to talk to a Swedish couple who were asking me about the upcoming elections and shared their own views when I asked.

There is a huge backpacking culture in Chiapas with a hippie subculture. I wish I could have subtly taken pictures. I haven’t seen so many dreadlocks since my trip to Asheville, NC.

The best part of San Cristobal is probably the market. There is a huge market with artisan crafts for very reasonable prices, often produced by the person vending them or by their family. Clothing, blankets, wool ornaments, leather bags, and amber jewelry can be found in wide variety. We went to the market several times during our stay to pick up a few things here and there. There were also many beautiful churches and delicious restaurants.

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After a few days stay in Palenque, we came back to San Cristobal for one more night and Easter Sunday. I didn’t manage to catch a catholic service like I had hoped to, but I did pass two churches I’m assuming were Protestant. In one of them, the pastor was passionately speaking into the mic as The Lion King soundtrack swelled in the background. Well, that was an interesting choice.

Another thing I found interesting was the street art and graffiti. That’s not normally me, but in San Cristobal, a lot of it was political/social. After what I learned in helping with the 7 Dresses Exhibit, some of them seemed very relevant. The following say “Without women there is no revolution”, “Machoism kills”, “My name is not mamacita, precious, my love, etc.”, plus one for fun!

Photos are all my own.