Sunday, December 23, 2007

Lucas, the Tico-American

Costa Rica claims Lucas as one of its own. When we toured about, the rest of us would pay the entry fee for foreigners, while he would pay the entry fee for a Costa Rican citizen, which was much cheaper. People who learned he was born in San Jose were thrilled to welcome him back and called him a "tico," which is the less formal name for "Costa Rican."

One day Lucas and I visited Clinica Santa Rita where he was born in 1990 (see photo). The guard at the front door was more than happy to admit us so that I could show Lucas more than just the outside of the building. The nurses made us feel most welcome and allowed us to tour the room where I was in labor, the registration area, and the baby nursery, but not the delivery room, because it's now the C-section room and off limits for other purposes. What fun!

Departing Costa Rica took an extra hour at the airport, where we presented the official copy of Lucas's birth certificate, photocopies of our passports, government stamps, and a completed permission form. Both Jens and I signed, as indicated, in front of the immigration official and she stamped Lucas's departure card, allowing us to then check in for our flight.

The trip to Ecuador was easy - a flight of less than 2 hours - and we were happily reunited with Helen, Gene, Eric, Ellen, Will, and Jesse. Now we're becoming reacquainted with Ecuador after a 3-year absence and looking forward to a few days at the beach on the Pacific Ocean. We're sorry you're getting hit by one snow storm after the next and will try to bring back warmth and sunshine to share with you all when we return.


Writing statements of conscience

Saratoga Monthly Meeting invited Jens Braun, member and co-founder of QIVC, and Nadine Hoover to share a potluck and help them write statements of conscience on December 9th after meeting for worship. Nine participants (six from Saratoga meeting and three from a local peace group) welcomed the opportunity to focus on where their consciences are leading at this critical time in the life of our nation. One participant pointed out that Frederick Douglass had spoken in the Saratoga meetinghouse and that today they continue that same tradition of Spirit-led activism. Friends at Saratoga Monthly Meeting were grateful to Jens and Nadine for their willingness to travel from afar to help them in their journeys.

Friday, December 21, 2007

All Around Costa Rica - the Brauns

Our time in Costa Rica is already coming to a close, alas. We have had a wonderful time learning about Costa Rica as it is today and seeing a few old friends. One of these was Adrian, who worked with us 15 years ago as Save the Children’s Program Manager on the Pacific Coast. We were surprised to find him no longer in the social services sector, but running a small store called Mundo Electrónico. We walked in unannounced and all he could say at first was what a gift it was to see us. Jens and I were also thrilled to find him and enjoyed a visit with him, though it was too short because Adrian couldn’t leave the store and business was brisk with Christmas shoppers.

Thanks to sleuthing on the Internet, we were able to find in the San José area our friends Javier, an architect, and Maria Luisa, an environmental biologist. They welcomed us in their home for lunch on Wednesday, greeting us with joy and showing the photo album in which you see very cute 4-year-old Natalie and 1-year-old Lucas on either side of Maria Luisa. The photos were from when Javier and Maria Luisa joined us in 1994 on a canoe trip in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota. Certainly, it was a memorable trip for us, but especially for them.

In Monteverde we visited with Ricky, the brother of Jens’s good buddy Carlos, who grew up in that Quaker community and attended Earlham. Ricky is a tour guide (biologist) and has seen tourism explode from fewer than 10,000 visitors per year in their small cloud-forest community in 1985, to 30,000 in 1992 when we were last there, to 200,000 this year. Monteverde’s emphasis, you may already know, is ecotourism. We had a great time taking advantage of new tourism infrastructure: a walk on bridges that brought us up into the canopy of the cloud forest. Wow!

We also enjoyed a wonderful visit in Monteverde with a former Westtown teacher and his wife. They are now into their second year teaching at the Friends School there and are loving it. We brought dinner to their home and had great conversation for a couple of hours.

Conversations with these good people helped us understand Costa Rica today. Some quick impressions:

- The country is still absolutely beautiful, with volcanoes and other mountains, picturesque villages, gorgeous coastline on both the Pacific and Caribbean sides, rainbows after afternoon showers, lots of forest, and beautiful and plentiful birds. Over 40% of the country is preserved in national parks and other nature reserves. We’ve enjoyed seeing monkeys, iguanas, colorful fish, and other wildlife.

- Tourism now brings 2 million visitors each year. Imagine how that feels in a country the size of West Virginia with a population of just over 4 million people.

- When we lived here there were about 250,000 cars on the road. Now there are over a million plus all the tourists’ rental vehicles – and as far as we could tell, there are no additional roads or even lanes added to roads.

- Pineapple has become a big export crop, but does not yet surpass bananas as the #1 export. Pineapple plantations are as damaging to the environment as banana plantations can be: the pesticides and fungicides leave people sterile, pollute waterways and kill wildlife, etc. The fruit companies have done a lot to move toward being a green industry for bananas but not yet addressed pineapples.

- The only sign left of the major earthquake we experienced in 1991 (7.4 on the Richter scale) was the exposed coral reef right off the Caribbean beach (now dead). It was lifted out of the ocean when the land was heaved 3-4 feet upward by the earthquake.

- Costa Ricans, like Americans, are thinking about organic food, global warming, peak oil, and other global trends, and some are living differently because of their awareness in these areas.

Tomorrow we’re off to Ecuador, hoping all will go smoothly at the San José airport when we try to extract Lucas from his “home country.”


Sunday, December 16, 2007

Surprises in Costa Rica - the Brauns

No sleep Friday night, as we drove off to JFK airport at 12:30 a.m., arrived at 3:00 a.m., found Lucas who had waited 6 hours patiently for us, checked in for our flight, sat for a while, said good-bye to Matthew, went through security, boarded the plane, and finally snoozed at 8 a.m. in our seats. We had some good views through the clouds as we landed in San Jose, Costa Rica, just after noon local time. We had our first surprise when we went through passport control.

“Lucas was born in Costa Rica?” asks the official.

“Yes,” Jens replies.

“How long are you staying?”

“One week.”

“Well, you know you can’t take him out of the country unless you have the proper paperwork,” the official informs us. “You need a copy of his birth certificate, a photograph, and a completed permission form signed by both his parents. Are you his mother and father? Good, then that part will not be so difficult, since you are both present.”

Ah yes, the Costa Ricans want to make sure no child is taken out of the country without the prior consent of both parents. I remember that we had to go through this procedure back when we lived here from 1989 to 1992. First on the agenda for Monday morning is to go to the Registro Nacional and obtain a copy of Lucas’s birth certificate. We hope it’s not too difficult, as we’d like to leave for Monteverde tomorrow afternoon.

The second surprise came when we went yesterday evening to explore our old neighborhood. Jens drove right by the house we lived in for 2-1/2 years, not recognizing it one bit, but at Spee’s instructions stopping further down the street across from the park where Natalie loved to play on the swings and slides. We got out and walked around. Our house no longer had a grassy front yard or metal fence with yellow flowers covering it. It’s a commercial enterprise with parking up to the front door. We visited the basketball court around the corner, passed by the home of Natalie’s friend, whose name we all forget, and enjoyed just looking around a typical middle-class neighborhood. We went up to the main road and searched for the pre-school. It had had a long, sloping front yard and two modest buildings. In its place today is a large modern building.

Next we went by the old Save the Children office, which was in a house just a few blocks into the next neighborhood. It looked exactly the same except for the sign on the building. We drove around that neighborhood, buying lunch supplies at the same old Automercado (supermarket) and noting that many of the same businesses are in operation.

We’re having a lot of fun showing ourselves and the kids all of this from our lives during those three years. Lucas and I went into the Clinica Santa Rita, where he was born, and the staff greeted us warmly and let us see the room where I was in labor, the entrance area to the delivery room, and the baby nursery. This morning we went to Meeting for Worship, where we were kindly welcomed. The two old-timers whom I recognized did not remember us and alas, the mainstay and our good friend Erna Castro died over 10 years ago (probably at age 80, so not surprising).

We’re also enjoying beautiful, interesting, warm Costa Rica. This morning we went to the old capital city, Cartago, then up to the rim of the Irazu Volcano. It was spectacular. In San Jose we visited the National Museum and learned more about how and why Costa Rica abolished its army in 1948. We’ve walked the streets of San Jose, which are full of Christmas shoppers. There are bits of white paper all over the sidewalks in the downtown pedestrian area – confetti, thought Caleb and I, but fake snow, said Natalie, right on the mark. We’re not missing the real snow that you’all have back home, but hope you’re getting in some fun sledding and skiing!


Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Day 4: Are you ready?

The workshop is over and the participants are scattering to the winds. I just ran into the Armenians and Azeris talking in the lobby. They said they are enjoying each other's company and finally having a moment to learn about one another’s countries. For decades, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been fighting off and on over a region called Nagorno-Karabakh, so it’s great to see these individuals building a bridge through their Save the Children work.

Day 4 was as intense as the first 3 days of the workshop. The focus was on carrying out a distribution of relief items in a community: planning, organization, security, set-up, and execution. The trainers supplemented by a few trainees were the beneficiaries, and we arrived at the distribution point with exaggerated stories of our plights and testing the security and logistical procedures. In the end, some "beneficiaries" left with just their share of blankets, food, and tents, while others snuck out with more than their allocation, and still others left with nothing because of bureaucratic red tape. It was a good learning exercise for the trainees - I'm sure they'll do better next time!

Every morning, first thing, I'd asked the participants if they were "REDI" (they are part of the team for the "Rapid Emergency Deployment Initiative"), and they would respond with more or less volume, "Yes!" The photo is from a session where they brainstormed about what they would need to have ready both personally and professionally before the call came to head out immediately to an emergency response and what they would need to do after the call came. Answers included having prior arrangements for childcare and long-distance bill paying, and having a current will and one's vaccines up to date.

During the closing session, we heard from participants how much they had learned and in what areas of humanitarian response they have gained confidence. We hope they can put their new learnings to good use - well, actually, we'd rather they didn't have to, because that would mean people are suffering from one disaster or another, but such is the world in which we live.

This evening I finally made it into the hot springs, where I tried not to relax too much, knowing that upon exiting, I'd have to climb the 100+ steps back up to the hotel. Still, it was wonderful.

Tomorrow I head to the airport and take the long flight to the U.S. I'm ready to be home.


Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Day 3: The Lights of Jerusalem

Day 3 was packed with action. Even the morning classroom sessions were fast-paced, as we covered how to set up Safe Spaces for children, Save the Children's Child Safety Policy (e.g., at least 2 adults with children at any time), maintaining staff well-being in the face of extreme stress, and much more.

This afternoon during the simulation, the trainees set up two Safe Spaces on the hotel premises, complete with registration tables and stations for quiet play, reading, etc. Save the Children's "President" and "Angelina Jolie" came for a visit and were interviewed by "CNN." We caused quite a lot of commotion in the hotel - especially earlier when the staff who went up the road to "procure" items for the Safe Spaces were "taken hostage" on the way back. It looked so realistic with people lying flat on the ground while men in kaffiyahs brandished sticks over them that hotel security tried to come to the rescue. You should have seen the looks on their faces and those of the few other guests who were around!

Tonight we had a Team Dinner at the fancy Panorama Restaurant, just 10 minutes further down the wadi (valley) from here. The sorry thing was that it was pitch dark, so you couldn't see the Dead Sea just below, Jericho just to the north, and so on. I showed our Central Asian visitors the lights of Jericho, Jerusalem, and Bethlehem and they were thrilled, yet wanting desperately to see the place in the daylight. So close (about 20 miles to Jerusalem, according to the panorama map we read with a cell phone light), yet so far away. I felt those typical Middle East feelings caused by the crazy human-made boundaries. I was reminded of how we often saw the lights of Amman when we lived in Ramallah, yet could not drive over there, send a letter, or even make a phone call to someone on the other side of the border (think what cell phones and the Internet have done to that!). I think I'll try to arrange for the American with a car here to take some folks down to see the view during our lunch break tomorrow.

We shared the restaurant with one other large group that appeared to have a diverse mix of nationalities like ours. The Arab men in that group did some debke (line) dancing and then a few members of our group went next. It was a crazy mix of Georgian, Arab, American, Bosnian, and French body shaking - for example, a belly dancing approach by the Egyptian man, extreme upper-body bust shaking by the Georgian woman, and the arms and hands gliding through the air by the Palestinian woman. We all had a great time.

Three days down and one to go. This is crunch time. I must head to bed, as I have lots of prep to do tomorrow before we start and need a decent night's sleep. When we're done tomorrow at about 6 p.m., I'll have a breather, as my ride to the airport is not until about 8:30 a.m. on Thursday. Maybe I'll even finally get a dip in the hot springs!

- Spee

Monday, December 3, 2007

A couple of pictures from Day 2

Day 2 in "Nooristan"

Day 2 of the workshop went well, without any earthquakes to shake us up. We taught participants how to do an initial rapid assessment, going out to the communities and interviewing leaders, parents, children, and others affected by the earthquake. Then in the afternoon during the simulation, they went out and conducted the assessment. The trainers donned wigs and vests and name tags with designations such as “handicapped child” or “community leader.” We have some good actors on the team and they make it hard not to burst out laughing in the middle of this serious scenario. Next, the team has to review all the data they collected and use it to determine what kind of help to provide to the earthquake victims in the coming days.

We really wanted to get this team out using the GPS equipment and so we sent them on a scavenger hunt this morning, even though that meant we had evening training sessions to make up for the time spent on the game. The clues were laid out from between the new spa under construction about 500 feet down the wadi (valley) from the hotel all the way up to the entrance for this large complex, a good hike. Hana, a relatively conservative Muslim woman from Gaza, changed her shoes twice before heading out, not sure whether any pair would suffice, since she certainly didn’t bring anything like sneakers with her.

Hana is also dealing with security shock. The first day she was confused and concerned when she followed her teammates out of the hotel and down the road a bit to a United Nations coordination meeting, which was held on a lower terrace. She kept asking if they were supposed to leave the building and if there was a possibility of getting kidnapped. Okay, I admit, her fears were well placed, in that today, a couple of the trainers dressed as rebels “attacked” some members of the group as they traveled back to their “office” after conducting the needs assessment in the “field.”

Conversations outside the sessions have been fun, as I learn more from Hana and her colleagues about the current difficult situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, about Save the Children’s latest work in Azerbaijan, about old friends in Lebanon, and about what’s important in the lives of these new folks I’m getting to know.

There’s much more, but it’s late (10:40 p.m.) and I must get enough sleep in preparation for another long day. I’m hearing from you about cold and icy days and feeling lucky, what with gorgeous views of desert mountains and steaming thermal baths all around, with temperatures around 70 degrees and lots of sunshine, delicious Arab food at every meal, and a stimulating workshop. The only thing missing is all of you!


Sunday, December 2, 2007

Day 1: Earthquake!

On Tuesday, we sent all participants the background on the emergency that we're using for the emergency simulation in this workshop. They were asked to read, as they traveled to Jordan, all about the made-up country of Nooristan, which we located between Turkey and Syria, with borders also with Iran and Iraq. We sent them preliminary reports on the massive destruction caused by a made-up earthquake that hit the country on November 29th. We asked that they review all the materials carefully in preparation for landing on the ground and getting right to work.

Imagine our surprise when during our opening sessions of the workshop, we all felt the ground shake - a real earthquake. We couldn't have planned it better!

Check out the news story at-Spee

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Prep Day in Jordan

We had a fine day today, with a scenic ride to Ma’en across the plains and then down the steep and windy road to this resort, the Janna Spa, at about 800 feet below sea level. Janna means paradise, and it sure is beautiful (though I don’t believe they provide the virgins). The hot springs pour out water that comes tumbling down three different waterfalls, one of which is designated “The Ladies Waterfall,” for those women who prefer not to get wet in the presence of men. I haven’t been in the water yet, but my colleagues tell me it’s very hot – around 50 degrees C. Too bad I forgot my bathing suit. If I can find the time, though, I’ll get in anyway, wearing shorts and a t-shirt.

It’s fun to be surrounded by Palestinian/Jordanian Arabic, which I consider "my dialect," having learned most of my spoken Arabic when living in the West Bank (1982-84) and Gaza (1987-89). I have a lot of recapturing of vocabulary to do (“I know I used to know that word”), but will likely not have the full opportunity this visit, as we are operating the workshop in English. It’s especially important to be fully inclusive of the Eurasia folks, who are from Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan and speak no Arabic, except for one Tajik.

The preparation for Day 1 has gone well. We re-arranged the training room, reviewed the overall agenda, developed the detailed agenda for tomorrow, and assigned tasks and roles. We (mostly I) still have a couple of things to get done before we start at 8:30 a.m. tomorrow, but they will not take long, so we’re in good shape.

This is a very fancy hotel and in some respects, not great for an emergency response simulation. There’s no hardship, what with the beautiful setting, very nice, clean rooms, and delicious food and drink. I think we’ll also have a steady electrical supply and around-the-clock Internet access. Maybe we’ll have to ask the hotel to cut the electricity during the simulation one afternoon…?

For the simulation, the compound offers quite a few locations where we can hold meetings, set up safe spaces for children, and conduct a distribution of goods. We’re thinking that even though we only have 4 days instead of the 5 we had in Africa and Asia, we’ll still conduct a scavenger hunt with the GPS equipment – sending them all around, including out to the entry gate, which is probably one kilometer up the wadi (valley) from the hotel.

The training team seems good and I'm feeling very upbeat. Right now, though, I'm getting hit with jetlag, so I'll sign off here and hit the sack.