Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Jesús' first Christmas

This will probably be the last update I'll send directly from "the Cave" for a while. It's been an awesome 6 months here in La Carpio, full of more impacting experiences and life lessons than I have time to write out at the moment, but I'm working on a few updates to let you know some of the things God taught me while I lived here.

Right now I'm full of conflicting feelings of anticipation and severe anguish. Tomorrow I'll be on a plane headed toward Nampa to spend Christmas with my family, a luxury I haven't had for three Christmas's now. I'm excited for that, but I'm not "feeling" it, yet. What I'm "feeling" right now is the painful sadness of leaving a family whose lives I shared for several months now. Each time I get on a plane to leave Costa Rica, I am reminded that the stronger relationships and friendships I make here, the more difficult and painful I make it to leave. In a way, I thank God for allowing me to still be able to make life difficult for myself in this way.

I found a place to live when I return, though.... that's an answer to prayer. I felt an irrationally low level of stress about the fact that I did not know where I would be living when I return to Costa Rica in January. Thankfully, by God's provision what looks to be a decent living situation plopped into my lap less than a week before I left. So now I know where I'll be laying my head when I get back after Christmas. Stay posted.

Normally that would be cause for much greater celebration, but again... I'm not yet feeling it. I'm still feeling the pain of separation and leaving these 6 months behind, and not having had a chance to fully process it. That's one of the reasons I haven't posted regular updates about the experience while I've been here - there are several reasons, but that's one of them.

I'll write more as I find time, but for now I'll rehash a poem/reflection I wrote several months ago when Jesús (Hay-Seuss) was born (the youngest member of the Chilo Tribe, the family with whom I've been living). Since this is Jesús' first Christmas, I remixed the reflection to fit the occasion. The obvious starting point for this reflection was the similarity between the names Jesús and Jesus. Beyond that, you'll have to figure out the relationship between the two in the poem.

Maybe you were born into the Cave,
   into a prickly bed surrounded by animals.

Maybe you were born into a world in the throes of a genocide,
   when babies were considered a threat and killed before they reached 2 years old.

Maybe you were a hated foreigner in someone elses' land. Maybe there were rats there where you lay, maybe sewage outside and soldiers entering houses, Zealots in the street preaching what was best for them and a self-glorifying religion creating burdens to large for people to bear.

Maybe your birth was marked by explosions of light in the sky.

Maybe you were born to a poor family striving to make ends meet, to a young mother with no medical care, living far from home and family.

Maybe your father's hands were calloused, hard, and strong from decades of work with raw materials.

Maybe your parents were displaced for political reasons, and rejected from every door they knocked on for help.

You probably had no privacy at birth, but were surrounded by a dense throng of animals, people, noise, and activity.

I wish I could assure you everything will turn out well for you in the end. It probably won't, but it might.

You might still learn to love and live. Maybe even you will be amazed at the faith you see. maybe even you will see persistence that surprises you. Even if you know how it will all end, never stop pleading for another way.

I wish we had a better world to bring you into, but that's where we're at right now.

We've been waiting for you. Maybe you're the one here to clean up this mess. We're sorry this is what you are born into. Maybe you're the one who can save us from it.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Slumdog Millionaire

Well, this update has been several months in the writing. I kept thinking that something would click and I would have a better explanation or description of the rather significant move I made back in June. However, even after 5 months it is a little difficult to put into words, but I'll give it a try...

Back in June I alluded to new living arrangements in the works; that was a euphemism for a pretty drastic change that has been several years in development. After a lot of thought, prayer, and planning, I packed up the essentials and moved in with a host family in the La Carpio squatter settlement.

Many thanks to all of you that have been praying and keeping me in your thoughts over the past few months! You never know what that could mean to a missionary serving overseas! Sometimes there's a lapse in my ability to send out timely updates, but please know that your concerns, thoughts, and prayers are always greatly appreciated. Same goes for quick comments and notes of encouragement... you never know when they arrive at just the right time.

So what has it been like living in a "squatter settlement", or a "shantytown"?

Well, one of the favorite terms I came across that describes life in place like La Carpio is "social density", which explains a lot. I went from a household of five to a household of 19, in a slightly smaller area. "Social density" occurs in the streets outside where we live as well; they are almost never empty. There are nearly always kids playing, loud conversations, music at top volume, and a cacophony of other noises right outside my room. For example, as I write this it sounds like there is a park full of kids playing tag outside my room... right outside my room. If they run hard enough into the sheet of tin they would fall into my bedroom. The weekends are an especially big party in the streets.

Some of the most basic living functions took some adjusting to as well. How many buckets ought one to use to bathe in the morning? (about 10). Where is the toilet paper kept if not in the bathroom? (each person has their own roll because if you leave it in the bathroom it will get soaked and disintegrate). How do you flush the toilet correctly? (takes skill).

I guess the next important question to address is... WHY? Well, the best explanation is that it is a learning experience, on several levels. Primarily, spiritual and life learning. God has been shaping both the desire and the possibility for this as a learning experience for me for several years now, and the time finally came to just take the next step and make it a reality. I really felt he had something for me to learn here. In the months, weeks, and days before the moving date, my writing became intensely spiritual and I felt God's presence in way I have not felt... well, ever. That is, I suppose the intensity and radical dependence on Him for each step of a drastic transition is not new. But the particular circumstances surrounding this move were different; I didn't know what to expect. Hehe, in fact, that's part of the reason I didn't write a lot about the decision to move - I didn't know if the new living arrangements would last 3 days or 3 months... or never materialize in the first place.

Well, things worked out, it has certainly been a "learning experience," and that initial intense conviction that God was with me in the first steps... is still there, not as intense as before, but still there. That's the best assurance of all. When I actually wrote this post it was during a relatively strong rain, which creates a rather soothing din on the tin roofs that sometimes lasts late into the night. To me, it's one of the best sounds in the world to sleep to.

So, as I post this update it's been nearly exactly five months. I will share more stories as I get the chance. But some of the photos, videos, and stories you see now will be from "The Chilo Tribe," as the family I live with is called. If you have trouble picturing exactly what a "squatter settlement" looks like, I recommend the following two videos, that I posted a while back, and the following two photo albums.  I pick these specifically because although the area suffers from poverty as a material deficit, there is a lot more going on here and these videos show that:

Monday, October 31, 2011

Sometimes I Think Sitting on Trains

How awesome is it that I can walk 10 minutes and catch a train and ride it part of the way into work? The answer is shown in this video... VERY awesome. It's cheap - less than 50 cents, comfortable, and only takes about 20 minutes longer. And it's really, REALLY fun.

The kids in the video (Jose and Carlos) are two of the kids in the family I'm now living with. Neither of them had ever taken the train, even though it passes by the valley across from our home each morning and evening blaring its horn. It's only a 10-minute walk, but we have to cross a river on a footbridge and pass through a tall grassy area that everyone is afraid of because of some crazy guy that will attack you. The family always sends Jose and Carlos along (as bodyguards?), and we go in the morning when hopefully the baddies are sleeping in. A few weeks later (just recently) I invited some other members of the family along as well and we rode the train to the end of the line (east-west).

One of the things I think about sitting on trains is how much labor, energy, and talent goes OUT of the new place I'm living, and how much garbage goes IN. You see a lot of heavy machinery and industry going on during the train ride - hydroelectric dams, high-tension powerlines, asphalt plants, sand processing factories, a corn flour factory, and busloads of people traveling out each morning, extracting a lot of good resources and work from the place I live now. Most of what goes IN to the community is garbage, literally, about 700 tons of garbage per day, since the country's largest garbage dump is located on the other end of our community. However, right across the street from the dump is where our kids get computer classes and play soccer, which is an extremely important development of talent and inspiration for their futures. I can't help but hope, though, that some of that talent gets put back into changing the future of this community.

Excuse the social commentary... just wanted to contextualize the video a bit. All the big machinery grinding around is sort of fun. I have not yet built up the courage to hop on the back of a garbage truck to ride it for a few blocks. The train ride is more my sort of fun, and I tried to capture that in the video, and be a little creative with the project. Bonus points if you can spot the signature camera shot from an English director who made some of my favorite movies, many of them featuring trains.

The short clip was edited on Cinelerra, a free multi-track non-linear video editing program for Linux, on Ubuntu Studio 10.10. I wanted to try out a new video editing program and so I tried a couple Linux ones. Cinelerra was a bit complicated and clunky, sort of like Avid (to me), but it gave me the option of multi-track editing and blending modes. Way more options than I know what to do with, but the result turned out pretty good. There were some simpler video editing programs (like Kino) which work a bit like iMovie or Windows Movie Maker. Now you know what to edit your next low-budget film on :)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Speaking the word

Recently I've been sending out a lot of updates about our team's projects here in Costa Rica, and I've been receiving a lot of cool stories from the rest of the MAF teams around the world. I am reminded that some of my team members (many of whom I've never even gotten to meet!) live and serve in some pretty challenging locations. You may get a glimpse of that if you get other publications from MAF that they periodically send out.

Two weeks ago two of my MAF Learning Technology team members came to Costa Rica to lead a training workshop for indigenous church leaders in the southern region of Costa Rica. Many of the participants were from Bribri, Cabecar, and Ngobe communities, three of the six indigenous languages that are still spoken in Costa Rica. The training was given in Spanish. The workshop includes discipleship training for church leaders who need better strategies for serving oral communities - that is, where most conversation and authority happens around conversations... not around the written text. Some of these indigenous groups have just recently received print versions of the New Testament translated in their own languages, but I think the orality approach will be a very important complement for the people these pastors serve.

It was great to have some team members come visit! On the team were Laura Macias and Regina Manley who currently work from MAF headquarters in Nampa. The photos are from Laura's blog: http://maciasinmissions.blogspot.com. Some members from my local church here attended the workshops as well.

It's also good to be reminded of the other programs and work that MAF is involved in. I did not realize this until recently but nearly all of our Latin American MAF programs are called "affiliates," which means they are owned and run by national leadership. This creates a different dynamic in how missionaries like myself from the States serve - under the logistics and supervision of locally run organizations. Anyway, there are a few interesting comments that link what we do here in Costa Rica with the rest of what MAF is up to around the world. There are always interesting updates on their website at http://www.maf.org, and our Learning Technologies team at http://maflt.org.

Friday, October 07, 2011

To Infinity, and Beyond!

A few weeks ago, some of our students at the La Carpio computer lab got the once-in-a-lifetime chance to talk via Skype video to Franklin Chang, a Costa Rican-American astronaut and veteran of seven space shuttle missions. This is quite an extraordinary event for the kids. Franklin Chang is one of the more well-known Costa Rican national heroes, and they may have heard of him on the news or in their science textbooks, or even on PBS NOVAScience. Getting to hear from him face to face and ask him some questions was pretty exciting for everyone.

And it doesn't stop there. This week we've started up classes in 3d programming with a program called StarLogo TNG. It's similar to the interface the kids got familiar with in Scratch. I wish I could tell you more about the program, but I am actually learning along with the other students. The three-person teaching team is made up of some La Carpio youth that have shown some incredible aptitude for programming and other uses of computer technology. Queso and Freddy are still helping out with the classes and getting some first-rate training through Omar Dengo, a foundation that focuses on technology development in Costa Rican education.

God keeps bringing together amazing talent for this project to keep in motion. The newest member of our team, Carlos, came in with some more advanced training in network installation. The network in our computer lab was previously a rats nest of cables that resulted from a partially completed team work project. When I came, I plugged things in so that they were provisionally functional, and was hoping that another team would come sometime to finish the job, install conduit, and organize the cables. Well, that team DID come, from the fourth bus stop in La Carpio. We put the tools in Carlos' hands, and he walked through the technical process of routing cable, measuring conduit, and hiding all the messy network havoc we'd created. He showed Queso and Freddy how to create the terminals with a crimper tool, and together they tackled the job over a period of about 3 days. From time to time I went in to try and be helpful, but they didn't need me for anything except to clear out the chopped up cable. Carlos declared he didn't want to see any cables visible by the end of the job. I was impressed at how much pride he took in his work, even taking before and after photos to show to his professor at the technical school where he was training. I think the photos say it all:

It was a mixture of joy and sadness for me to watch this process. Joy because I could take my hands off the project and just watch some talented youth we'd invested in take the reins. Sadness... because I didn't get to be a part of the real fun! I just watched the process from behind a glass window and checked my e-mail, completely cut off from all the action! I guess that's part of the goal, though, but letting things move on without you (successfully!) isn't as easy as it sounds. It's difficult letting it go a little...

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

On Teaching and Learning

Today was a pretty awesome celebration. We completed an 8-week class in computer programming where a group of about 15 students got introduced to the worlds they could create and control through computer programming.

There were a lot of highlights about this class. First of all, I got to see the guys I've worked with for several years now get selected and trained professionally by a nationally renowned technology training center. They were trained to teach other students in their barrio, and thanks to some huge corporate grants, will be paid for their expertise.

A project that Queso made in class was so good that he was selected to showcase it at a press release, where he and another fellow teacher from La Carpio made it into the national news. One interesting thing about that project is that I remember his idea for the project from several years ago when I first started teaching him; it wasn't until now that he finally found a way to make it a reality... and it's a pretty fun game!

So Queso's project got selected to be showcased. Next up, our guys got complemented for the progress they'd made with the students. Willy took the reins and led most of the classes during the 8 weeks, and last week the administrators of the program came to peek in on how we were doing. They said it was the best instruction site they'd seen so far. They were very impressed. This was encouraging to hear, because the classroom that began getting a face lift back in January (see the previous post) now really looks like a classroom - all the machines are working and optimized, the walls are painted with a verse about the renewing of our minds on the wall, the projector is up and running, and the air conditioning works without flooding the classroom. Just walking into the room makes you imagine the possibilities.

I can't brag enough about our guys, they've stood out in more ways that I could have ever imagined.

In other news, our Learning Technologies Costa Rica Team shared at the church I attend two weeks ago. My boss, Mauricio, talked about changes and developments in Latin American missions. Which is quite an interesting topic, really. My ideas and experiences of missionary work have been shaped in unique ways through my three years here in Costa Rica, especially by seeing how nationally-led missionary outreaches work. In many ways we've worked through that reality as a team, and so it was cool to be able to share about the different things we do at our church. In the photo is our entire office team.

A couple of other learning experiences for me show up in the photos that I post on-line. I attended a robotics class for educators (the students were getting ahead of me and I felt like I was getting left behind). Next I attended the first Latin American conference on "Scratch", the educational programming tool we use in our classes. It was pretty interesting to be a part of the exchange with other Latin American educators. And finally, I visited a partner ministry in Honduras that hopes to create a learning lab similar to the one in La Carpio... with a few additional challenges and tweaks.

And finally, another learning experience on the horizon is the final year of the applied anthropology masters degree I'm doing on-line. This experience studying on-line has been a fascinating complement to the work and cross-cultural experience I've had here in Costa Rica. So much of it relates directly to what I am doing. As an example, you might want to check out the 15-minute oral presentation/report I created about "environmental justice" issues in La Carpio.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Technology without borders in La Carpio

This is old news, but once again, good news. It sometimes takes me awhile to post new developments, for which I apologize. I posted a video about "New Horizons" in La Carpio back in February, but I never explained what was going on in the video. Here's what's up...

There have been lots of changes and some exciting new developments in La Carpio. Leaving the previous computer lab intact, we did some shuffling around to a new location with another partner ministry in La Carpio. This has been a great chance to springboard off our previous project and help out at another well-established partner ministry in the same slum. We had a group of our faithful cohort from the previous site join us in opening up the new pedagogical tools, and within a few hours they had assembled a battery-powered physical therapeutic treatment apparatus (read: robotic back massager).

One of the most exciting things was that some of our guys from the previous place, along with some guys from the new place, helped build and install some new computers. With my supervision, they essentially assembled them from scratch. They've been excited with some of the new features and made a few videos to show off some of the cool projects we've been doing.

Here is a video showing clips from the computer installation process:

Here are two more videos showing clips from the process. I will let you decide which one was made by the missionary and which one was made by one of the teenagers.

Featured in these videos are:

  • Freddy and Queso, our two main lab technicians from the original learning lab
  • The new mac-mini that the videos were edited on
  • Me demonstrating the new tactile feature of the mac that senses air movement across the screen and moves the mouse cursor accordingly (they think of everything!)
  • A few new friends from "Christ for the City", the local organization we're partnering with there.
  • Pretty eye candy in the Edubuntu 10.10 linux operating system

Pretty exciting and encouraging stuff! The idea is to sort of to recreate what we had in the previous computer lab, using some of the lessons we learned, and the expertise of the same guys who helped construct it. This location offers us a more controlled environment to do that (still located in the slum, but with better security). Also, please keep this new development in your prayers. We still need lots of prayers for momentum, and for the missing pieces to come together to provide a long-term benefit for the community.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

On purple fingertips and other immigration issues

I arrived in the house today after church to find that the entire
family was over and everyone had one purple-tipped finger. No one else
seemed to think this at all out of the ordinary, so I withheld my
confusion and after a few minutes asked about it casually in conversation.

The purple-tipped finger signals that a Peruvian has voted. Today are
the presidential elections for Peruvians, and so here in the Peruvian
household where I live there is a big hooh-hah about the current
candidates. I haven't heard anything regarding the elections until
about a week ago, but the degree of electricity in the air inspires me
to write about this fascinating occurrence. Cousins and aunts and other
relatives are all over, each bearing the purple mark on their fingers
to show that they've voted. Voting in Peru is mandatory... you are
fined something like $57 dollars if you try and perform any legal
transaction using your ID card if you haven't voted. So everyone here
in the house made sure to vote.

Some things about the elections seem the same. Over lunch there is
passionate conversation about the different qualities each candidate
brings, small concessions made for the opposition and huge claims made
for the family favorite. The conversation ranges from position on
social issues to how the candidates look and dress. The "authentic
nationality" of one of the candidates is a big issue of contention.
Some people keep switching the channel to Smallville between political
updates. Everyone in the family votes for the same person except the
rebellious teenage son, who votes for someone else for reasons that are
unclear and infuriating to the rest of the family.

There are some major differences as well, from what I am used to in
elections. First of all is the mandatory voting thing and the purple
finger. You gotta make sure it covers your fingernail and don't you
dare wash it off for at least 24 hours. Also, there are five main
candidates running with a distinct possibility of winning, not just
two. The far left candidate (not referred to by name but as the
Chavista, from Hugo Chaves) is actually far left, not just less
right. There is a woman in the running, the daughter of the infamous
Alberto Fujimori which I remember learning about in International
Relations class only because of what I thought of as a very non-Latin
American sounding name. Also, I found it interesting that when I asked
what political party the family favorite was from, they said he came
out of nowhere and was basically running his own party.

As I am surrounded by the excitement of the small Peruvian consortium
in my household, I am intrigued by the fact that in the Costa Rica
world right now, nothing is really happening. In most households right
now, it's just like any other Sunday. I was reflecting that this is one
of countless experiences I've had with other immigrant groups here in
Costa Rica - Columbian independence day, Thanksgiving dinner with U.S.
Americans are two examples. These national celebrations turn immigrant
populations into an uproar and throw everyone together to tune into
news or sports from "home," while the streets outside seem quiet and
totally unaware the need for excitement and activity.

Another thing that strikes me about these celebrations, especially with
my church (the majority of which is Columbian) that I realized early
on... that we're all immigrants in this country together. I never
thought of myself as an immigrant partly because of the stigmatization
attached to the word, which isn't really directed toward myself. I tend
to work and congregate with other immigrants, though. I remember
feeling this especially toward the beginning of my time here when I
realized that other immigrants had this valuable pool of knowledge
about how to make the best of their time here in Costa Rica while still
being foreigners without official citizenship. Other immigrants are
super resourceful about how they get around and know some of the most
beautiful, free places to spend time (at parks, cheap beaches, etc...).
They also have these huge celebrations for events from "home" that no
one else is privy to. They also have their special food products that
can only be found in their home country - regardless of whether these
special foods actually taste good or not, they evoke memories of their
childhood and home (for Peruvians this is Inca Cola [which tastes like
every other carbonated fruit drink I've tasted], chicha morada [which
is a really uniquely flavored purple corn drink], and some special
brand of Christmas fruitcake [has to be the special brand] which is not
really that appetizing.)

This is such a familiar feeling for me, though... walking in on an
explosion of activity where everyone knows there is a clear cause for
celebration and drama, yet the reason and excitement is lost to me.
Even after the reason for all the hoohah is explained to me, I still
have a hard time getting as excited about everyone else about it. It's
pretty interesting to watch, though.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Recent News

Wow, it has been far too long since my previous update! Far, far too long, I am very sorry. It hasn't been quiet, by any means. All recent news has been poured into my prayer letters, facebook posts, and picture albums. But just in case those slip by you, here is a short summary of the previous month's adventures, including links to more information about each event.

You might note as well that I've added some tabs to my blog up above. That way you can jump straight to my photo albums and videos. I've also added an interactive map, from which you can see visually some of the different places I've visited and ministered at. Clicking on some of the locations will pop up photos, videos, or more details on the location.

February 2011:
Yis Kar Du Sarat
February 18 weekend, I participated in a mission trip led by Costa Rican nationals deep into the Chirripó indigenous reserve. For over 15 years now, the leader of this missionary outreach has been visiting remote parts of her own country to train, evangelize, and encourage Christian leaders where they serve. On this trip, we left at 2 A.M. and hiked 7 hours into the reserve, forded a few rivers (the one pictured being the largest), and participated in a few evangelistic services and events with the Cabécar families. 7 hours hike also meant 7 hours in from the nearest electricity source, cell tower, and village. We also delivered gifts for a very-late (February) Christmas party. I went mainly to help with children's activities (some of the photos of children's activities are from a previous trip). Several of the kids in the photos (including Kimberly, the young girl in most of the photos) raised their hands and prayed to accept Christ, and were baptized that Sunday in the same river pictured, as were most of us non-officially while crossing back over. This is my third trip with this church group, and Alicia, the team leader, went with me to Haiti in August.

In January I went to camp with a group from La Carpio. It was a blast as always, and this year we had a batch of lots of new kids. One of our guys, Freddy, mixed together these two videos:

Check out two video slideshows I made during December - one when my cousin Mindy visited and another for Christmas and New Year's celebrations (lots of fireworks). Oh, and I turned 27.