Search This Blog

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Latin America

You've caused me to wander, all the while bringing me home.

You've caused me to surrender, while making me all the more powerful.

You've shown death and suffering, all the while showing me how it feels to be truly alive.

You've caused me to sacrifice, showing me what's really important in life.

You've caused me to cry until I had no more tears, to laugh until I had no more air.

You've taken me and showed me, who I really am.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

What Makes a Community?

Every once in a while, one of our senses catches familiarity with something that has been long abandoned or forgotten in the pages of our memory. In the same way a certain experience (or span of experiences) can be entombed in a song, we subconsciously embed our experiences in the sights, sounds, and smells of the respective environment in which they are being formed. I experienced this response yesterday and it took me back to my first weeks here in Rocinha. "Caraca..." I said to myself, marveling at the fact that I have been living here for seven months now, "I can't believe how much I've learned, grown, and become engrained into the network of this community". There are few things that I like more than sharing a sense of community. After seven months here, a speechless stroll down the street has become welcomely replaced by conversation breaks with friends on my way down the hill. A community connection is vital for society as a whole, and equally as important for us individually. It creates a sense of connectedness, self-worth, and kinship between its inhabitants. My walk down the hill and to the beach I swear, increases by fifteen minutes every month. But I love it. I love it more than having a car that could jet me there in minutes. It's this walk that reminds me everyday how important community is, and how important it is that we continue to stay connected with one another. I'm not just speaking of 'staying in touch', but of something grander. Locally owned businesses, community involvement, knowing your neighbors, locally grown food, support and participation in city politics, etc. These attributes are what truly create the fabric to which we refer to as community. It is through this connection that we are powerful, that we have voice, that we can be truly represented.. When did we stop borrowing sugar or a cup of milk from our neighbors? More importantly, why?

I come to the bottom of the hill, the end of Rocinha (or the beginning rather) and its adjacency to one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city, São Conrado, never ceases to bewilder me. My pace is slow and unhurried, something I've adopted from Latin America. I venture closer to the beach and the giant, luxurious condos equipped with private parks, gated entries with security guards, and even a 'community' golf course, implore my attention. Their residents give a polite wave to the security guard from their tightly sealed vehicles, and enter yet another gate, giving them access to the building before making their way to the elevator and to the 'safety' of their condos. Protection. It's what you paid for right? Protection from this crime ridden, drug infested favela that has uninvitedly situated itself next to your paradise? Protection. From what, from the same danger-zone that this pale, light eyed gringo just leisurely strolled through? Fear has caused these people to live in isolation, to replace community with electric gates and security guards that won't protect you in the way that a community will. Is Rocinha a scary place for outsiders who know nothing of it other than what the media tells them? Yes. Is isolating yourself and diminishing your political voice to a hymn going to make it any less scary? No.

If we never sacrifice our vulnerability, how do we ever expect to grow? I am the person I am today because I have subjected myself to risk, to failure, to dangerous environments, to the 'unknown', and I've conquered them all. I've come closer to realizing what I cherish, what's important to me, what I want out of my life, where I'm going and why. I took a different path, and it's made all the difference. Society's idea for me; to slave away the rest of my life so I can buy a poorly made, vinyl-sided house in a featureless subdivision, fighting it out with everyone else to prove how much I have and how good of a consumer I am has long been out of my consideration. Living in this favela leaves me wondering...why are we so afraid of ourselves? Why do we work so hard to further ourselves from each other? Why is it I rarely see anyone outside in the wealthiest neighborhoods, but slum communities like Rocinha are bustling with life, day and night? I think it is time for people to open their doors again, to go to your neighbors and meet them, and create communities again, because as long as we are separated, we are powerless. The world really isn't that scary.

Photography: Kay Fochtmann

Monday, November 29, 2010

A Guerra do Rio

After the 'War in Rio' reached international news last week, I've received several messages concerning my safety and interest in how things are in the favela where I live, Rocinha. It has been nice to know that people have me in their thoughts, but I feel to truly understand what's going on, this war, one must understand why and how it all started.

As with any illegal drug trade. There are more actors than what meets the eye. Most of arms possessed by favela traffickers (which include sniper rifles, machine guns, AK47, M-16, grenades, rocket launchers, various explosives, etc.) come directly from the police or other 'connected' public figures. The same public figures who have continuously turned a blind eye to these expanding and densely populated communities, many of which suffer from open sewers and other elements that accompany life amidst poverty. These abandoned communities are home to such trafficking factions such as Comando Vermelho, Terçero Comando, and Amigos dos Amigos which now control most of the city's favelas.

Far from the postcard image of Rio de Janeiro, these favelas are some of the poorest and most vulnerable communities in Brazil, usually enjoying little or no provision of public services. Only now that more international attention is being brought to Rio de Janeiro is the plan of action changing from confrontational crackdowns, which don't seem to just target traffickers, but entire favela communities, to one of a seemingly more organized approach. These operations have continuously resulted unsuccessfully in ridding traffickers from the community, and one has to question: are they really intended to? What really results after an operation is a few bodies in the streets and a temporary displacement of the gang. However, with the Olympics as well as the World Cup coming to Rio in a few short years, pressure to 'clean up' the city is heavier than ever.

The program in which to accomplish this has been deemed the 'Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora' (cognates) or simply 'UPP'. The program attempts to clean the community of drug trafficking and implement militant police, who live within and take part in community activities. 

Fast forward to November 22, 2010. Traffickers, provoked by the implementation of UPP programs in various favelas around the city, ventured into Rio's richer South Zone setting fire to city buses, personal vehicles, and committed a series of simultaneous robberies outside of shopping malls in a joint effort to demonstrate their power, to instill an idea that they would not be 'pacified'. These attacks continued for three days and on Wednesday, the war started. Tanks, armored vehicles, BOPE (Brazil's Elite Squad or SWAT), soldiers, and police entered Vila Cruzeiro, a Comando Vermelho stronghold (the group taking responsible for the attacks on the city) driving traffickers out. Many of them poured into a neighboring favela, Complexo Alemão, another CV stronghold. Two days later Complexo Alemão was invaded, with arrests of the favelas bosses, many were forced to surrender. The rest, many say, came here to Rocinha. The UPP program has started in both favelas.

With rumors of drug factions joining together in an effort to combat the police forces, Rocinha, my home for the last five months, has become tense. No one really knows exactly when it will happen, but one thing is for sure, Rocinha is next. My heart aches, it aches because I have the option to leave and my friends and neighbors don't. It aches because this UPP program is a band aid on a much larger issue. Traffickers exist within favelas because these communities have long been ignored by the city and federal governments. Absent are efforts for basic sanitation, health care, education, improved construction, transportation, and the list goes on. The absence of such basic provisions have bequeathed a band of criminals who are often the most disadvantaged in the community. Another important piece of information is that these traffickers do not act alone. Marijuana, cocaine, assault rifles, grenades, none of that crap is made here in the favela. It's transported here, and by the time it arrives it's passed through the dirty hands of private and public criminals. I'm not arguing in favor of criminal factions in the favela, but what I am arguing is that such a whimsical approach to 'pacifying' the favela will never work. It's timing and approach prove that once again, this city could care less about favelas and their residents. 

Monday, August 23, 2010

How Voluntourism Can Change the World and What You Can Do

I have to write this, while it's fresh in my mind. So please, forgive the grammatical/spelling/structural errors that will ensue, for they will be plentiful.

I had a great discussion with another volunteer here in Rocinha about the work I have been doing over the course of the past few years, working but more specifically, volunteering abroad. I've been blessed with the opportunity to follow my dreams; a wonderful family, financial stability, and relationships with inspiring people have brought me to where I am now; a favela of over 200,000 people in the heart of one of the world's most violent cities, Rio de Janeiro. However, I have never denied the direction in which my heart pulls me, and it pulled me here.

Volunteer service. Working with marginalized populations has brought me unparalleled joy and satisfaction. It's an addiction I can't kick. The more we engage in activities like volunteer work, travel, learning about other cultures/peoples, foreign languages, etc. a number of wonderful things can happen to us: our minds expand, our prejudices dissipate, our confidence grows, not to mention all of the like minded, inspiring people we meet along the way. Most of these benefits are obvious, but some are buried deeper, hidden as part of a larger picture and they're not felt instantaneously. What I speak of is this; these sort of activities pave way not only for spiritual and mental growth of the self, but a deeper realization that we human beings have so much more in common than what makes us different. We connect. Our countries give us labels as "Americans" or "Brazilians" or "Chinese" but once we connect, once we cross the invisible wall of seperation, we realize that we are really the same, regardless of the minute difference that characterize us as an "American" or whatever. We share so much. Part of what we share is a common suffering of some sort as well, stemming from various forms of suppression. Whether you live in a favela here in Rio, a home made of sticks and garbage bags in Central America, or you are shackled with a never ending debt by an already exceedingly rich bank who's CEO could elevate your suffering with one day's earnings, we are experiencing an injustice which tears at our very core. In the future, it shall be us who lift ourselves from these injustices, not the institutions we have trusted to protect our liberties. The more we connect, the more we understand that we are part of the same problem, and only in numbers can we begin to rebuild. So what can we do, what can I do?

The International Volunteer sector is, for the most part, currently acting as any other business. Organizations like volunteerabroad charge as much as $3,500 to come to a country and teach English for two weeks! For other volunteer organizations (just type in volunteer abroad into google) like CrossCultural Solutions their prices are even more outrageous. So here's what seems to be happening, these organization have moved away from the initial idea of cultural exchange and voluntourism and are behaving more like any other business, principle interest=profit gain. But this this sector isn't like a normal business, and shouldn't be treated as one.

Now, I'm not saying that they aren't doing some good, they are. But these prices are inhibiting hundreds, if not thousands of interested do-gooders from ever having the opportunity to take part in such a life changing experience. I've had dozens of people write me, discouraged because they sincerely want to do some volunteering abroad but can't find an affordable avenue to do so. They search the web with the desire to go abroad, to obtain that growth, that realization discussed above, but are discouraged because the big wigs decided they could make more money because "the rich ones will still pay." Here is how a company like this operates; they connect the volunteer with the NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) that needs the assistance. Cost = free. They set the volunteer up with a family or in a volunteer apartment who provides the living quarters and the food. Cost = depending on country, about about $150-300 a week. Then we have administrative cost. Cost = depends on the number of employees, but I highly doubt these are salaried positions. This is not even mentioning the numerous, grants and donations these companies receive. So where is the bulk of this money going?

What's the idea here? We need to get more people helping, taking part in these experiences, realizing that what we share is grander than what makes us different, adopting tolerance, respect, and compassion. These attributes are what is going to change our society for the better. These realizations are what unite us, not as Americans or Japanese or British, but as human beings. It saddens me to see we are being taken advantage of, yet again, in this sector. How many people have passed up these wonderful opportunities because of its outrageous cost?

But there is hope. Organizations like are charging less, and providing more. Their programs are affordable and their opportunities numerous. Perhaps that is why they are the fastest growing volunteer company in the business. If you want to donate, donate to them. Donate to the organization I work with now, They charge no volunteer free, and have provided kids in this favela free English courses for over 10 years now, not to mention a safe haven where previous role models; rifle toting, drug trafficking gang members are now replaced with new role models; educated foreigners who speak multiple languages, are sincere, and have the compassion and heart to work to change the lives of these children. Donate to Habitat for Humanity founder Millard Fuller's 'Fuller Center'. It provides opportunities to build homes in impoverished regions of the world at a very low volunteer cost. Donate to organizations like this, who have little or no program fee, because this is for us, this is about people helping people. 

Interested in volunteering abroad?



Funding ideas:

-Donations! Put together a letter, slide show, or album of your intended project and why the people need your help. (,

-Search for grants, fellowships, or if you are in school, scholarships!

-Hold an event. Auctions are always great way to raise money.

-Letters. Write a letter and send it to as many people as you can think of. There are many people who would love to be able to travel abroad and help but are unable to do so, many of them would love to see you do it instead!

-Get an online fundraising page with

Related clips of the organization I currently work with:

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The body of Rocinha

A wander through the narrow alleys of my new home, South America's biggest slum, birthed the need for a written analysis of Rocinha and my current situation. For some, this experience could be traumatizing; the noise, the open sewers, and all of the other issued that develop from close quartered living. For others it's like candy for the soul, a new experience around every turn, each as deliciously invigorating as the last. It all depends on how you look at your current situation. Do you invite fear and uncertainty in, allowing a manifestation of helplessness and vulnerability? Or better yet, do you invite the new experience to the contrary, recognizing that you are now part of a community that cares for and protects its inhabitants? We humans tend to retract when we experience the unfamiliar, a sort of primitive defense mechanism I guess. But we are no longer primitive beings, even here in the slum. Brutality has been replaced with generosity, a caring for one another, a connection shared by those who live here. On the outside, sophistication is pride. Yet we continue to submit to unsophisticated lack of ability to connect with one another. We tend to go from home to work to the grocery store to the bank and back in the tightly sealed safety of the car, the tightly sealed representation of who we are, a judgement from the outside rather from the inside. I've always been attracted to poorer, less developed communities because of the fact that human connection is so evident. It is in fact, a necessity for our species. Relationships are the focus, people know each other from the inside out, not just from the outer coating buttered up from purchasing power.

The body of Rocinha is made up of poorly constructed brick housing and edifices, but once inside, the elderly, the children, and everything in between are constantly passing through the streets and narrow alleyways, like cells pumping blood, giving life to the slum. The heart is the kindness of the people, the willingness to help each other at the drop of a hat. The muscle, one could say, are the gangs that keep order here. Like the illegally wired electricity that illuminates Rocinha, the gangs have replaced the lack of government assistance here with a system of order, punishment, and respect. As a gringo living here in Rocinha, this place is safer for me than any other in Rio. A thief is left with a few less fingers after they're caught, and they are always caught, because the slum is a body, and the good cells seek out and destroy anyone who threatens its health. Characterized as a brutal and crime ridden collection of filth from the outside, the residents of Rocinha share what most of Rio doesn't, a community free of crime, free of fear.

This place is little understood. Every passing week is like another puzzle piece added, but this is a puzzle with no final image. In any new environment, I clear myself from judgements. It helps me to absorb and analyze on a deeper, clearer level. Especially in a place as complex as Rocinha, one cannot even begin to try and understand it from the outside. Those that do, do so with ignorance as the drive the freeway safely sealed in their protective four wheeled bubbles, pontificating about surface values, without ever penetrating the inner beauty that makes Rocinha not a favela, but rather a community.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

I am the captain of my soul, and the only gatekeeper of my abilities

I will not be paralyzed, I will not allow my dreams to be suffocated by fear

When it does arise, I will simply expose it and watch it disappear

My mind will not be a copy, it will not have a strict diet

It will be eclectic, and distortions of reality within a television set will not fry it

I will walk slowly, and enjoy every step

Recognizing the impermanence of money, that relationships and helping others is where true love is kept

My life will be beautiful because of these truths, and I hope it so

So I can say with satisfaction and gratitude,
'I was my captain'

When it's my turn to go.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Murals for Soacha in Bogotá, Colombia

My summers through high school and most of college were spent working construction and learning every foul word and expression Mexican spanish has to offer. Stripping forms, finishing concrete, and jackhammering equals long days and hard work, but I wasn't really prepared for the work I had committed to a month earlier when I spontaneously decided to head to Mexico and build a house with Habitat for Humanity. I was bound for a small settlement called Chinameca in the state of Morelos with a group of volunteers with the idea of finishing a house in a week. A took a week off of work, but I was going to be compensated with something worth far more than a dollar amount. On the last day of the build, having been one of the few Spanish speakers on the project, I sat holding a middle aged single mother of four as she sobbed uncontrollably in appreciation for the work we had all done to provide her family with their own home. Not just the twenty-some volunteers, but the local masons, the pueblito's "don", as well as various other member's of the community who had come together to make a dream into reality in just seven days. This was quite a change from what I was used to, instead of a middle aged woman up in arms with frustration over a crack in the finish of her three car garage, I was now comforting a middle aged woman whose glossy eyes and ear to ear grin were the product of a 900 sq. foot house made of block whose construction lasted just over a week. To this day, the recollection of this moment clouds my eyes. The feeling was like a drug, and I've been addicted ever since. Two houses later, I find myself here in Bogota, Colombia.

Extensive fumbling through the Internet landed me with an organization looking for volunteers with construction experience to come and help renovate an elementary school in the Colombian neighborhood of Soacha, one of Bogota's poorest districts. The deal was sealed when I scrolled down further to discover they were also in need of artists to paint murals on the walls of the school.

Arriving in Bogota on a rainy Monday night I first met the organizations founder, Al. A British born vagabond like myself, the 26 year old had founded the NGO just six months earlier. This was a newly discovered piece of information that quickly initiated my interrogation-like Q&A with Al. That night I met the family who I was to be staying with for the next month. The mother, a sweet woman of about five feet, was the first to greet me. Though small in stature, her virtue is quite the opposite. I later found out that she founded both the primary and secondary school in Soacha (those which we would be working on). Her sons, Johnny and Arnold, also do a lot of work with the school and its programs. Being similar in age, they have become very close friends of mine and our conversations have formulated many ideas of developing a home building program in Soacha. Though I am not so sure I am ready to put on the breaks yet and develop a foundation yet as I still have one last stop before slowing down, they will be a favorable contacts for the organization when it does become a reality. Everyday I walk through Soacha, I take note of the construction going on and I notice the lack of equipment, resources, and overall manpower. What may take two masons two months to build, a group of volunteers could do with there backs and volunteer fees in less than two weeks. Another noted application to the houses is the paint. Though very few of these houses are painted (most are left with exposed brick and concrete), the small street that I pass everyday that boasts its brightly colored exterior creates a different psych for those who stroll through. The colors generate a sense of beauty as opposed to a sense of ignobility and underdevelopment. It would take less than $100 to paint a home in Soacha, an amount that would barely suffice a couple of mixed drinks at a Vegas nightclub, yet it has the ability to forever change the mentality of the home's inhabitants creating a sense of hope, self-worth, and motivation.

Having past the halfway mark on my time here in Bogota, I feel satisfied with the work I am doing. The mornings are spent picking a ditch in an area that will eventually become a playground area for the adjacent elementary school, and when the rain rolls in (usually between noon and 1pm everyday) I head inside to work on the murals. The two hour trek to and from the site everyday becomes worthwhile when you are hugged by some of the student's, some of which I haven't even met. The children are often just as appreciative as the adults. During some of the home builds, kids were amongst the hardest workers.

Recent years have created a more optimistic view of the world for me. I believe we are beginning to see that we can no longer ignore each other, we can no longer turn a cold shoulder on those born in unfavorable conditions, that we can no longer live in ignorance of the developing issues that help to create much of the ugliness in the world. Want to put a dent in the flow of immigration over our southern border? Use the money to build houses to help them stay instead of a wall to keep them from having a chance. Change the situations in which cause them to leave. Give people a reason to stay, because that is ultimately what many of them wish to do, not leave their families and risk their lives chancing it to an unknown territory with a foreign language. The woman for who we built a house in El Salvador had her husband leave over a year ago. I find it hard to believe that it was an easy decision leaving his wife and children only to taunt death riding a train through gang infested territory, traverse corrupt police officers, and walk days through a desert with little food or water for a 'chance' at obtaining a job in the US and providing a better life for his family back home. The reality is, his family was living in a makeshift home of dirt floors and a ceiling made from sticks and jointed garbage bags. The decision to leave becomes one of necessity when faced with unlivable conditions.

More than just American, or Colombian, Central American, or Mexican we are human beings. Brothers and sisters of the same species. There are over forty-two thousand languages in the world, but only one set of feelings shared by all who carry the human genome. The unnecessary suffering is not going to be solved by any government, it will be solved by us. We already have the capacity and the resources, we just have to realize it. We just have to come to the realization that we have the power to change it. Together. Now. John Lennon said it quite well "Millions of mind guerrillas... Raising the spirit of peace and love, not war."