Islamic terror ... Lanta style

Islamic terror ... Lanta style
My neighbour Hutyee Boat
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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Hope and acceptance

Sometimes in life, things just don't go to plan . . . and this week I think I learned a lot about hope but, especially, the need for acceptance.
And I've had a few of my own prejudices challenged by someone way younger than me.
This week, my first as a volunteer with La Esperanza Granada, saw me visit rural primary schools outside the city on three different days.
During the first two, the rain bucketed down and many of the children were absent, unable or unwilling to make the journey through potholed roads. In Nicaragua, there is no compulsion on parents to send their kids to school.
On my second day, I met Barbara, a primary school teacher from the United States. She spent eight months volunteering with La Esperanza (Hope) last year and is back in Granada on holidays for a couple of weeks.
Not for her a trip to laze around or a chance to just lie by the lake during her break from her school in St. Louis.
Instead, she busied herself trying to set up a Skype link between her school in the USA and a small, impoverished school here in Nicaragua.
She purchased one of those mobile internet connections from Claro, one of the mobile phone operators here, and together with me and one of the 'ayudantes' headed to the school to instigate a link between the two classes.
My God, talk about excitement! The children were absolutely thrilled at the prospect of talking, in Spanish, to kids in the USA. Nervous and overjoyed, they sat down in front of the computer and roared out 'Ole' to the kids in America.
And then the connection died.
For the best part of an hour, Barbara tried to get Skype going again. But to no avail. Quietly, without any fuss, she accepted her lot, told the kids to write down their hobbies, a bit about their families, etc. for their conversations the following day. She got in touch with her counterpart in the US and organised a link up again for Wednesday.
It was raining on Tuesday, but gloriously sunny on Wednesday. And Barbara hoped that the weather was a factor. But this time she got no signal at all. The kids lined up again in front of the computer, and managed to mask their disappointment when nothing happened.
Barbara has another week of holidays and, after intense discussions with the mobile phone company, hopes to set up the link again. I sincerely hope it works out, for a bunch of kids who have never had access to the Internet in their lives.
My point? Well, Barbara taught me the value of quiet, stoic determination, and acceptance when things went wrong, even if she is probably 15 or 20 years my junior. Quietly, she accepted the disappointment, packed up the computer, and went back to Granada in the truck. But determined to do the link again.
In third world countries, things often go wrong. People put up with things that would result in endless moaning in first world countries like Ireland. The teacher and the kids shrugged their shoulders and got back to business in their class.
And Barbara taught me that it's too easy to make judgments about races or nationalities. Here was an American who gave up a year of her life to help out far less fortunate people in the second poorest country in the Americas. And she's back, a year later, on a break from her steady job to help out those children again.
Meanwhile, back in Ireland, from the little bit of news I am getting through the Internet and BBC World, all the talk is of doom and gloom, and the bankers, politicians, and developers who have wrecked our economy.
But every day I see poverty and levels of unemployment which would be unthinkable in Ireland, and yet - aside from the odd 'Gringo' comment - Nicaragua seems to be one of the safest countries in Central America.
I would love to see these people, who stood up to brutal colonial powers and corrupt right wing dictators, get even a fraction of the opportunities which were available to most of my generation (and certainly the younger generation) in Ireland.
They put up with crap and stagnation every day, but still manage a smile or a friendly gesture.
These people deserve more hope but, like Barbara, they can teach the first world quite a bit about acceptance.
Recession? Back home, nobody I know is sleeping under a tin roof or forced to work for just US$5 per day.
In recent years, as a single man with a good job in Ireland, I've probably managed five trips away each year to places like Spain, Thailand, Egypt, and France. In Nicaragua, they dream of getting out of the country just once ... in order to take up a crap, low paid job in Costa Rica or the USA.
Despite all the negativity I'm hearing from home, when I look at the lack of opportunity facing the lovely people of Nicaragua around me, I realise how fortunate I was to be born in Ireland.
And how unfair the world is. Just imagine if the American Government had the same outlook on life as Barbara, helping the less fortunate in their own back yard rather than spending a fortune on pointless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Enough of a rant, because this week I learned more than a little about about acceptance in the face of frustration.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

And on to Nicaragua...

At the border, it only takes seconds to realise that you are crossing into a much poorer country.
A host of useless ´helpers´hover around, attempting to grab your bag as you stumble off the bus, or waving wads of cash which they offer to exchange at rip-off conversion rates.
Red and black flags, the symbol of the Sandinista (FSLN) revolution, are as prominent as the blue and white national flags and the road looks worse than the route up from Costa Rica.
Welcome to Nicaragua!
Since I was a teenager in the 1980s, I have always an interest in this troubled land. A land that dared to stand up to the might of Uncle Sam, a land of revolutionaries in which pictures of El Che (Guevara) are more prominent than football stickers on parked cars.
This is a land in which politics are discussed every day, in which people´s lives burn with a sense of injustice, against imperialism, against corrupt dictators, against greedy landowners.
Perhaps Ireland right now could learn a little from the spirit of the Nicos, another small land with a weak economy which has been bullied by bigger neighbours.
I´ve only been here a few days but, already, I love Nicaragua.
I´ve been amazed by all the warnings I received from people in Costa Rica and Panama. They wondered why I wanted to go to such a poor and troubled land.
They told me I´d be robbed on the bus or held up by muggers and yet here in Granada I feel perfectly safe walking home from the pub in the early hours.
The poverty, the prostitution, the restlessness and lack of opportunity are all around me, and yet I wonder what potential there must be in this land of poets and warriors if they hadn´t been bullied, mined, and mistreated by Ronnie Reagan and his cronies back in the 1980s, and still treated like the ´second class citizens´of Central America right through to this day.
In Nicaragua, the stagnation is palpable. The unemployment rate is colossal and this land of five million people has 1.5 million living overseas, mainly in Costa Rica and the USA.
Crossing the border was like going from Thailand into Cambodia, in that the higher level of poverty and lack of opportunity were palpable.
In Costa Rica, where Nicos do the crap jobs, the Ticos look down on their neighbours to the north. Yet San Jose is an unsafe city in which tourists are warned not to bother going out after 6 p.m. at night.
They haven´t that much to brag about and Nicaragua does not have the gang problems which have troubled virtually all of its neighbours.
Nicaragua today is a bit like Ireland in the 1980s, a basket case of an economy in which the young are forced to emigrate (in the main, to the land of their worst enemy) in search of a better life.
San Jose has enclaves of Nicos, just as Kilburn and Cricklewood were full of unhappy Irish emigrants (who hardly moved to London for the love of the place) in the 1950s and again in the 1980s.
Every day in Granada, I am approached by beggars, but they are rarely insistent or threatening.
I have already met the other three Irish residents of the town and enjoyed a night out in the city´s only Irish pub, O´Shea´s, which is run by a Dubliner called Tom.
I know it is poorer than Panama or Costa Rica, but in the main I have found the people to be incredibly honest and friendly. Relative to most of them, I am virtually a millionaire.
For US10 a night, I have an en suite room and a swimming pool just outside my door. I am staying with an Irish man called Gerry, who is the same age as me. He was made redundant back home last year and decided to head off, buy a gorgeous old colonial house, and live a new life.
I´m going to be in Granada for the next two months, working for an organization called La Esperanza, which means Hope.
What an appropriate name and organisation in a beautiful land of volcanoes and lakes which is crying out for a chance to take its place in the rich modern world.
So far, I´m delighted with the charity I have chosen. I´m going to relish the work, the challenges, and the opportunity to learn.
I´m so glad I came, and that I didn´t pay too much attention to all the vicious rumours and scare stories. Nicaragua isn´t dangerous, just like Ireland wasn´t dangerous during the troubles when people in London would tell tourists to stay away from the Emerald Isle.
Nicaragua is a beautiful land of beautiful people which, like Cuba or Venezuela or must Latin American countries, just needs to be given some hope.
Children need to learn that there is a point to going to school, that at some point along the way they will get jobs or a chance to travel or use a second language.
La Esperanza? If I can only give a tiny bit of hope to a few people during my two months here, then I think this will be the most fulfilling part of (and a perfect end to) my gap year.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Back from beautiful Boquete

In the end, travel is not just about ticking off the boxes and seeing as many places as possible ... much as I've treasured my new experiences and locations this year ... it is more about the wonderful people you meet along the way.
For the past two weeks, I have been a student at the Habla Ya school in Boquete, Panama, improving my Spanish in a place which is just as wet as Ireland at this time of year. They have an excellent website,
It's fair to say that a few years ago I would not have been too keen on the place. There is virtually no night life, apart from a gem of a pub called Zanzibar and a couple of local rough spots, and the heavens open almost every day from May to December.
Yet I had an incredible experience, living in the home of Pucho and Rita, who welcomed me like a brother and made me feel right at home from day one when I knocked back beers with Pucho and Rita's two brothers into the early hours.
I got to see how hard these people work, getting up at 5 a.m. seven days a week, in order to provide a better future for their sons.
And, despite my limited grasp of Spanish, I got to treasure the Saturday night sessions on the terrace in which we would swap stories about our lives and families, and enjoy traditional Panamanian dishes such as 'sao', an extremely fattening dish which goes very well with cerveza.
One of the brothers, Rafa, lost his 37-year old wife, suddenly, in March of this year and is bringing up his seven year old daughter, Genesis, on his own. Well, not quite, because he has the support of a wonderful extended family and has lived with his mum and sister since March, because he cannot face the pain of going back to his home.
Saturday was my birthday, and I was due to move out of their home. But they insisted that I stay on so that I could celebrate with them. They didn't want me heading off to a hostal on my own.
What can I say about such incredibly warm people, except that all of us experience pain at some stage in our lives? And that I was taken aback by how keen they were to make me feel at home? Sharing my life with them for two and a half weeks was an incredible experience, and I will always treasure the three Saturday night sessions I enjoyed right outside my room.
In Boquete, I was lucky enough to have a private class with the lovely Leydis for two weeks. She gets up at 4.30 every day in the city of David in order to be at school on time. They fight so hard to earn a standard of living we take for granted in Ireland, and yet they don't complain.
All of the staff at Habla Ya were lovely and I was so glad I stayed for two weeks rather than the one I had originally planned. The place was very quiet, but I befriended a half-dozen wonderful students, mainly from the USA, and we planned outings together such as a morning at the Caldera hot springs.
In Boquete, which is over 1,000 metres above sea level, it tends to pour rain every afternoon. Which is why the classes take place at Habla Ya from 1 to 5.30 p.m. during 'invierno' (their winter).
The place has been colonised to some extent by American retirees, some of whom make no effort to integrate, and yet the locals were incredibly friendly during my stay of almost three weeks in their town.
Sunny mornings were spent on lovely three or four hour walks, there is a huge circuit of lovely roads and pathways all around the mountains and hills of Boquete, even though I never made it to the summit of Volcan Baru, Panama's highest peak.
I might have felt a little lonely, but for the friendship of Danish couple Marie and Jakob, who like me are on a journey of discovery, but with two and five year old daughters on tow.
Real estate agent Tamara, child psychologist Kristyn, and Boston sisters Jodie and Kolie reminded me of how friendly North Americans can be, as I have met very few people from their part of the world during my travels through Thailand, Malaysia, and Spain this year.
So the morning walks were spectacular, and my Spanish came on no end, but ultimately I will remember Boquete for the warmth of a family who treated me as one of their own.
One of them, Ronald, wondered whether I was lonely spending my birthday with Panamanians so far from home. Well, to be honest, I've felt lonelier during heavy drinking sessions at home in Galway pubs.
The rain was a pain, but the magic of the people I met ensured that I left Boquete today (the day after my birthday) with wonderful memories of the place . . . Oh, and a new family of Panamanians who have introduced me to the delights of barbecued chorizo in the early hours!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

My own little ´Bucket List´

"People wondered why they didn´t take more risks, why they worried about having enough money in the bank" - Paul McDermott, Pilgrims.

During my four months in Koh Lanta, Thailand, at the start of this year, one of my fellow DMTs (Divemaster Trainees), Jane Waites, set up a DVD library which proved to be a huge hit among the staff at Blue Planet Divers.
If you had to be up at 6 a.m. for a day out on the boat, then it was great to lie at home in your beach bungalow and watch a good movie on your laptop instead of going to the pub of a week night.
One of the first videos I took out was called ´The Bucket List´, a tale of two old terminally ill characters, played by Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, who decide to live out their dreams before they "hit the bucket". They go all around the world and have a whale of a time, chasing adventures, but ultimately Freeman´s character (the poorer one) teaches Nicholson´s millionaire that all that really matters in this life is love.
The film really struck a chord with me as I came to the realisation that I was ticking off items on my own ´Bucket List´during my 2010 gap year.
And when I returned the DVD, I was thrilled to note that Jane had rented it out the night before me.
During my time in Thailand, Jane was an inspiration. For starters, she was older than me, when I was afraid on the way over that all the other DMTs would be 25 year old hunks and babes.
She had battled breast cancer two yeas earlier and, along with husband Chris, decided to change her life by selling her house in England and touring the world, becoming DMs and Instructors in the process. Two years on, they are still on the road and loving every minute of their new lives.
Jane is just one of the courageous people who have inspired me in 2010, just one of the amazing people I have befriended since I left my ´comfortable´(but unfulfilling) life in Galway behind in early January.
Since I left home I have lived on a tropical island in Thailand, become a professional DM (after 12 years of diving as a hobby), spent a whole summer in Spain (which just happened to be the year Spain won the World Cup!), learned an awful lot about Spain and the Basque Country, visited a tropical rainforest in Malaysia, and now I am living with a wonderful family in Panama, while learning even more Spanish for two weeks.
I´m enjoying knocking back the beers with the Panamanians on Saturday nights, but I have also seen how hard Pucho and Rita work in order to provide a better future for their teenage sons. They get up at 5 am every weekday.
In my daily walks around the beautiful mountain town of Boquete, I see indigenous Ngoble Bugle children whose futures are already bleak because their parents don´t bother to send them to school. Life in Panama is not easy, but what an incredible experience it is to live among these beautiful, friendly people, who love music and have a zest for life.
All of these experiences would be on my own personal ´Bucket List´... and so many people I´ve met in Thailand, Malaysia, Spain, and Panama have renewed my sense of adventure, plus my faith in humanity. Nine months on, I can´t imagine how negative I would be right now if I had not taken this career break from my job in the Connacht Tribune back in Ireland.
This morning, for example, I enjoyed a tranquil three hour trek through a beautiful rainforest. Then I spent four hours talking Spanish with, and learning from, my beautiful teacher, Leydis, at the Habla Ya school. She gets up at 4.30 a.m. and earns about 400 euros per month.
Today, I talked to a Danish couple who are touring Central America for five months with their two and five year old daughters. Life seems full of possibilities, instead of the negativity I experienced back in Ireland last month.
In the mornings, I leap out of bed, full of adventure and anticipation of what lies ahead. I can´t remember feeling like that at home in Ireland for a long time.
So I guess my point is that we should all make our ´Bucket List´right now ... because the time is now.
If I had toured the world when I was 25, I probably would have drank too much or got into silly drunken scrapes along the way. Right now, like Jane and Chris, I feel as though I´m living life to the full.
Why wait until you are 70 or 80 to live out your dreams? Because none of us really knows what lies around the corner, aren´t we all better off to live life to the full, right here, right now?
At 42, I thought I was too old for a gap year. Instead, I have been encouraged and enriched by all the good people I have met on my travels, and I still have two months of voluntary work to come.
For me, the biggest problem is going to be trying to convert my new found positivity into my mundane life back in Galway. But at least, in 2010, I have lived out my dreams to the full ... for the first time in over 40 years on this earth.
The quote at the start of this piece, by the way, comes from a hospice for the terminally ill.
It´s too late to regret not taking risks when you are at the end of your days, sitting in a wheelchair in an old folks´ home.
So thanks to the Tribune for giving me 12 months to explore, dream, and discover, and thanks to all the people who have inspired me along the way.
I´ve had fears and worries and down days on my travels, but this has been the most enjoyable year of my life so far. By a long shot.
Because, like others I´ve met this year, such as Emma and Raggi in Thailand, or Amanda in Spain, I had the courage to try to live out my ´Bucket List´.

Friday, September 3, 2010

How quickly we forget ...

On a soddy, drizzly afternoon, which could have matched Galway´s worst if it wasn´t so warm, I found myself heading for Panama City´s excellent Canal Museum.
Among the exhibits is a section dealing with the construction of Central America¨s first (and only) railway from Panama to the troubled city of Colon, where tourists are warned not to even go out in the middle of the day.
The railway, which linked the Atlantic with the Pacific, was constructed in the late 1840s and early 1850s and, guess what, the country which had the biggest representation among the manual workers was Ireland ... and that´s despite the fact that it was considered part of the ´British Empire´ at the time.
Just imagine what life was like for the thousands of labourers who left their villages in Galway, Mayo, or Offaly behind, crossing the Atlantic on the infamous ´coffin ships´ in order to begin new lives alongside tough men from all over the world.
Of course, the museum did not refer to the fact that the railway was built right after our Potato Famine, when Ireland (or its British masters) spat out its young men and women, forcing them into exile.
Uneducated, penniless, and facing yellow fever and malaria, life in the tropics must have come as a huge culture shock to the thousands of Irish men who found themselves in Panama a century and a half ago, working for a pittance as they traversed dangerous country.
To my knowledge, RTE has never made a documetary about these unfortunate men, or no major study has been undertaken in Ireland into their lives.
Because in Ireland it´s more convenient to ignore or forget about the people who were forced out of our wet and rocky isle in search of a living.
Panama City, my introduction to Latin America, was an incredible experience. I did not feel a bit unsafe wandering the streets by day, although of course it pays to be careful (or take taxis) at night.
The Casco Viego (or old town) is undergoing a massive revival and wonderful old colonial buildings are being restored. It´s like Havana, but without as many crumbling old abodes.
During two days of wandering its streets, I probably met a dozen foreign tourists in Casco Viejo. It really feels like an unexplored gem.
The museum, which is in the heart of the old town, also showed the appalling conditions in which slaves were brought from Africa to the Americas, which might just explain why the ghettoes of LA or Detroit are troubled to this day. The ancestors of America´s poorest had a horrid introduction to life on the other side of the Atlantic.
Seeing the Panama Canal, with the huge ships lined up to enter it, reminded me of how insignificant little ol Ireland is in the wider scheme of things.
And, as the Banana Republic spits out its young again, just as it did in the 1980s and 1950s, our wonderful leaders will probably care as little about their stories, their futures, as the Brits did back in the 1850s.
While the pigs who took over the farm continue to knock back the porter and defy the smoking ban in public places, while bailing out their banker buddies, Ireland´s youth are searching abroad for jobs again.
Thankfuly, they are probably a lot better prepared for the big bad world than the West of Ireland peasants who fled starvation at home in order to work on the Panama railway a century and a half ago.