Wednesday, June 25, 2008
A visit to New Orleans in mid-March for the Brazilian Studies Association meeting. Bourbon Street was like Disneyland for suppressed middle-class white housewives, who have zydeco bar musicians play washboards between their legs on the street while they scream and their children watch. Away from the French Quarter, the meeting was a great moment for me, in which I was encouraged and inspired to continue the lines of thought I have begun in my own intellectual work.
I crashed in mid-April in Boston when I gave a horrid talk at a session on alternative commodities and certifications at the AAG. That brought me back to Earth, and people's words to me reminded me that it doesn't really matter, in more than one way.
From there to Cuba and a really incredible week with Ian and Keith and our 32 undergraduate Geography students from Exeter on a fieldcourse. I loved, absolutely loved going through the process of shock, questioning assumptions, positionality, realizing that Cubans are people, lovely, not just denizens of a socialist country, with our students as they went through it. Think of 20 Cuban abuelas (grandmothers) teaching 32 22-year-old Brits how to be young. It was beautiful.
From Cuba back to England and the race to the finish. At least that is how it felt--finishing classes, writing and giving a seminar on my research project, applying for and then agonizing about a PhD position at Exeter. A couple of trips to Edinburgh to see fantastic Felicity, who made me sing two songs to a full bar. She was shameless and wonderful, and made me feel the same way. Thanks, Felicity...you have no idea what that meant!
Finally the sad/happy decision to turn it down and go back to Kansas. Kansas, my Kansas.
A week in Lawrence with Erin and Charlotte, basically spent staring at and entertaining baby Seimoah, who had me at his beck and call.
And now in Champaign, Illinois, studying Swahili in an intensive course for 8 weeks. A quiet town, a college town without the charm and culture of Lawrence. But I am occupying myself with Swahili, and have bought a guitar. After 3 weeks of practicing a half-hour a day, I can now play Ode to Joy on the first two strings. Huzzah!
All of these threads of life probably deserved more written reflection on this blog, or at least the people who enjoy reading my accounts deserved more. Will try to get back on this horse.
Tuesday, March 4, 2008
So it’s Fairtrade Fortnight here in the UK, and organizations like the Fairtrade Foundation and Oxfam are hosting events to engage people—consumers—in the idea and practice of fair trade through speaking tours, meet-the-farmer events, and…events like this one, which bring Fairtrade closer to your heart by also pleasing your palate (and making you feel a bit more receptive after the first glass, which makes me think we should have done the wine tasting before my little talk).
So why am I giving this talk? I am here from the University of Kansas Geography Department, on a six-month visit to work with Ian and generally get some exposure to geographies that I don’t have access to in Kansas Geography, so that I can get a well-rounded PhD. I work in ethical consumerism/consumption, a bit of rural development, and social movements. Before I started my MA in 2005, I lived for three years in Nicaragua, working for a fairtrade coffee cooperative as a project coordinator for a community-based rural tourism project in four rural communities in the mountains just north of Matagalpa, Nicaragua.
Now, I am sure we all have an understanding of fairtrade and ethical consumerism and perhaps a lot of you will have read the literature on it and will know some of the debates that surround it. Well, this is not an academic talk, so we won’t go into literature. Instead it will be about my experiences with fair trade in Nicaragua and in other places. What I aim to do is to give you a picture of how fairtrade works in a Nicaraguan cooperative, through the lens of my experience of the work I did with the cooperative during those three years and after. But let me start by asking you—what is fairtrade?
This is the question I asked myself one day in 2000 when I went into a café at UCLA after transferring there as a third-year undergraduate—I saw on the menu board ‘Fairtrade Dark Roast, 5 cents extra’. I bought myself a cup, looked at the poster on the wall that said something like ‘A Fair Deal for Farmers’, liked the flavor and kept buying it every morning, not thinking too much about how it was a fair deal for farmers, or why a fair deal was even needed. Soon after, I met the group of students that had just the year before campaigned to get that fairtrade coffee option into that campus café. I joined their group, and we continued working to try to convince the university to switch all of its coffee to fairtrade, getting students to write letters saying the five cents extra per cup was worth it. We didn't succeed while I was there. But I wanted to know more about fairtrade. I wanted to know what farmers did with this social premium. I suspected that there was more here than just a higher price.
But this experience did lead me to Nicaragua during my last year, via Fort Bragg, CA. I had gotten a grant to do fieldwork but did not have any contacts with fairtrade coffee farmers. I happened to be up in Fort Bragg working on a farm for the summer, and my friend’s mom suggested that I talk to Paul Katzeff, who owns Thanksgiving Coffee Roasting Company, and who she thought maybe worked with a cooperative in Nicaragua. Paul is an old hippy, a radical New York Jew living in No. California. Kind of has a reputation for being hard but visionary but is still a kind of old-timer father-figure in the fair trade movement. I and my friends went and met him at the his plant, where we sat on stools around a round rotating table filled with clear glasses of coffee samples, and chatted while Paul taught us how to cup coffee (that’s where you taste coffee under controlled conditions and classify its quality and cup characteristics. Like wine.). He offered us a smoke, and said, ‘Yeah, there are these great cooperatives in Nicaragua. They’re revolutionary. Literally. Came out of the revolution. We are finishing up a project with them to install nine rural cupping labs in the coops . That way they can keep improving their quality and they know what they are selling, so they can have some power when they negotiate with a buyer like me. Or someone less sympathetic.’
So I went to Nicaragua the following January for three months to do my undergraduate study on fairtrade. I got off the airplane at the airport in Managua, where a man in a Toyota pickup 4X4 picked me up. My Spanish wasn't that great, so I couldn't answer all his questions. I only knew he was from the cooperative. He drove me north for two hours through a hot, dry, flat, beige landscape, passing coffee processing mills along the way, and then we began rising into green mountains, finally arriving to Matagalpa and the office of CECOCAFEN, the cooperative. What I met when I arrived there, and later when I went to live in a rural community named La Reyna, was not what I expected. I don’t know what I had expected. I know I didn't expect running water only one or two days a week, or becoming an expert at one-bucket bathing.
What I walked into was a place of incredible history, struggle, and hopeful vision: an organized cooperative of 1600 coffee farmers with less than 10 ha each that most had received through the agrarian reform during the revolution of the 1980s, all organized into small base cooperatives originating in the revolution. Some of these base cooperatives had formed larger Unions of Cooperatives after the revolution was voted out 1989, when many of the rich large landowners who had fled the uprising and subsequent land confiscations of the Sandinistas and settled in Miami, returned and began using the courts and the new right-wing government to reclaim their farms, sometimes legitimately and often not. Small-scale farmers in Matagalpa, who before the revolution had been landless workers often working in slave conditions for the same families that were now returning, fought in the courts and also on the highways to protect their rights to their farms. It was their livelihoods at stake, and everything they had struggled for during the revolution, and organizing themselves into larger unions of cooperatives allowed them to act collectively to protect that.
After securing their lands in the early 1990s, these cooperatives and Unions of Cooperatives faced another challenge—commercializing their coffee. Farmers had two options—they could sell to the coyotes at whatever price they offered, usually not much, or they could look to the outside and get a better price. The cooperatives did have contacts, people and companies in Europe and the UK that had bought their coffee in solidarity during the revolution to help support it. Many of these solidarity workers had in fact formalized that kind of relationship and started fairtrade certifications or importing companies. In 1994 some base cooperatives and one union of cooperatives in Matagalpa joined into an umbrella cooperative called CECOCAFEN and exported their first container to Europe. 100% of the coffee they exported that year was fairtrade certified and in the years that followed they grew and used their growing market savvy to find other markets as well.
That’s the history. What I learned during those initial three months as I went about interviewing cooperative leaders and members, and lived amongst them in La Reyna, was that fairtrade was a continuation of the revolution, and not in any abstract way. The cooperative leaders of CECOCAFEN had all been guerrilla fighters during the struggle of the late 1970s before the Sandinistas overthrew Somoza, and now were leading a national cooperative movement; the members of the solidarity brigades that had come during the 80s to help harvest coffee or to be present in rural communities to deflect attacks on those communities by the contras, twelve years later had now become fairtrade business people or leaders of social justice or environmental NGOs or workers in development aid organizations and they kept their ties to Nicaragua; to small-scale farmers, the cooperative was a way of securing their land, dignity, and livelihoods. I fell in love with all of these visions and wanted to be part of it, and not just by convincing people to buy coffee with the fairtrade seal. I went back to LA to finish my last term, and returned to Nicaragua the week after I completed my degree.
I stayed for three years. When I first got there, I was idle for about five minutes, CECOCAFEN quickly took advantage of my English-speaking skills to accompany groups of buyers or visitors from development NGOs to interpret and entertain as needed. These NGOs were important, because CECOCAFEN was more and more taking on the role of administering development-type projects, aimed not only at improving coffee quality and commercialization capacity in the cooperative, but also at gender education, rural youth development, and, more and more, economic diversification. Economic diversification was crucial at that moment, in 2002, because the 'coffee crisis' was at its most deadly point. World prices had sunk to as low as 40 cents a pound and this had dire results on a country like Nicaragua. Five thousand workers were marching from Matagalpa to Managua to demand emergency aid and long-term development aid from the government after they were left without home or livelihood after 80% of the large haciendas where they were employed were closed. These were large latifundias that had been in operation since the mid-19th century. At the same time, small-scale farmers, the most vulnerable to price swings, were abandoning their farms. Slums were quickly appearing on the hills surrounding Matagalpa, full of dispossessed rural people with nowhere to go. Only farmers belonging to fairtrade certified cooperatives were surviving and were able to stay on their land and continue producing.
Fairtrade certification was also crucial to the environment at that moment—people were clearing out their coffee to plant corn or raise cattle, anything but coffee, which meant essentially an environmental crisis in addition to the economic and social one—coffee in Nicaragua is grown under shade, so switching from coffee to cattle or corn means cutting down the shade trees above the coffee plants. Small-scale farmers with FT certification were less vulnerable, so did not have to abandon their land or cut down their coffee. As a response to the crisis, the cooperatives were adopting a strategy of integrated development, working with International NGOs to administer economic diversification, social development, and environmental projects. An entire development complex focused around fairtrade cooperatives developed in Nicaragua and in Central America.
In late 2002, I was hired to administer a community-based tourism project in five base cooperatives in four rural communities that were especially hard-hit by the coffee crisis because they were at lower altitudes. The major project goals were income diversification for the families involved, and increasing relationships with consumers. By community-based, I mean that from the beginning the idea was that the families involved would run the project and make the major decisions through a democratic structure. It is not easy for a coffee cooperative to go into the business of tourism, nor is it easy for a community of farmers with very low literacy levels, striking gender inequities, and low environmental consciousness to suddenly do things differently. We embarked on two years of training for the men and women who would house tourists in their homes, and for the sons and daughters of farmers who would be community tourist guides, as well as infrastructure improvement in the communities.
So groups of church members, university students, activists, and just curious people came to the mountains of Matagalpa to experience this fair-trade tourism project. Imagine yourself going through this experience—you are a middle-class person who knows about fair trade and buys fair-trade products. Your church organizes a study tour to visit coffee cooperatives in Nicaragua and you decide to go along. After visiting the cooperative office in a small city surrounded by green mountains, you are taken in an old schoolbus painted obnoxious colors north of the city along impossibly pitted dirt roads with cinderblock houses and wooden shacks hung with beer adverts on either side. After a couple of hours the bus stops. You are met outside by a young man named Alfredo who through the interpreter you learn is your guide. He tells you about the community you are in, its name is EL Roblar, it used to be a hacienda, there are two cooperatives, a men’s and a women’s. He then leads you walking up a muddy track up a mountainside and eventually to the house of Dona Dionisia and her nine children. He leaves you there with them. It takes you a couple of hours to get used to the dirt floor, the coffee growing seemingly up to the doorstep, and the overall unfamiliarity of it, but by dinnertime you are side by side with Dionisia’s daughters washing up and drinking coffee afterwards. You ask them about fair-trade, their lives. Your first reaction to their answer of, it isn’t enough is—it must be a fraud. But you continue talking, and you listen to their stories of forming a women’s cooperative and how that has changed their lives; how CECOCAFEN has invested in community projects, and much more. How they are starting to farm organically, how the daughters are attending school when their mother never had the chance. How much hope there is in the future. You see how the project of improvement is an everyday activity here. You return to your home in Exeter thinking that this visit was not about what fairtrade is doing, it was about what these people are doing to improve their lives, and your effort to buy fair trade gives them a step up.
I left this work Nicaragua in mid-2005 to go do my MA in Geography at Kansas. It seemed to make sense to me to write my MA thesis on the community-based tourism project, and after some dialogue with CECOCAFEN, we came up with a study that would serve as an evaluation of the long-term goals of the project and as my MA thesis. Four years after the project was begun, I conducted an email survey of North Americans who had visited the project, to see if, and how their visit to Matagalpan cooperatives had impacted their lives. The results? Most of the people who responded to the survey said their perceptions of fair trade had not changed radically as a result of the visit, but they had become conscious that just buying a labelled product was only the first step, and they knew there was more at stake than a price. I also went back to Nicaragua and interviewed the families in the project to see if the project was achieving its goals. They did feel they had a sense of belonging to something larger than their community, they knew people out there cared about them.
I was sitting in a café yesterday on Queen Street drinking a cup of coffee, and I wondered if I had a more concrete answer to that question I had asked myself in that café in UCLA. I can’t say that I am any closer to a concrete answer. Are you? I have come to understand fair trade as something either indefinable or something with many definitions. It depends on where you are. The point I want to get across, is that it is much more than a guaranteed minimum (‘fair’) price, much more than farmer organizations building their own capacity for engaging in the market on an equal footing, much more than long-term relationships between producers and buyers. The ‘indefinable’ part of fair trade is the ‘much more’ part—fair trade becomes a thing of the place(s) it is happening in, the people and culture of those places, and it is constantly changing. It is a process of interactions between producers, buyers, NGO, consumers, and everyone between and around these people and the places they occupy. It is affected by politics, personal relationships, and historical context. Its effectiveness at being ‘fair’ is impacted by these things. There are issues of access to the certification, issues of corporate involvement. The farmers I worked with at CECOCAFEN are now facing the problems of privatized water and electricity being sold at a premium, rising food prices, rising prices of cooking gas, rising prices of petrol. Fairtrade coffee prices provides stability and access to resources for farmers, but at this moment does not address all of these problems. They require more. Just as people within countries like Nicaragua are organizing and looking for solutions, so can we, so are we. It is hope that is required, but also a willingness to have open eyes. Look for the fairtrade label when you buy coffee, but then ask the question of why this is necessary in the first place.
Monday, March 3, 2008
The few times I have traveled through central London on foot or on bus, I have been simply overwhelmed by it. The beautiful, the rich, the elite are all here. The self-proclaimed pinnacle of Western civilization puts on its best face in this place, and seems to say to me, come join, wear gorgeous branded clothing, walk proud knowing you are one of the beautiful, here, in this place. It is hard not to succumb to its call, and even if I never gave in, I usually leave feeling slightly inadequate, as if I had never succeeded in completely engaging with progress and beauty, the progress and beauty that are thrown in your face as the only truth worth knowing, a thousand times over as you walk the distance of one city block in central London.
Two Saturdays ago I left my house dressed as a pirate, with striped tights, black dress, black leather boots, leather belt, and bandanna tied around my head. I met Kerry, also in striped tights, at St. David's station in Exeter, and we boarded a train to London. We alighted two hours later at Paddington Station and took a bus to Bond Street Tube Station, where we spied another pirate, this one carrying a large drum and a backpack. We crossed the street to wait on a corner that was sheltered by the wind. Stephan, the pirate with the drum, crossed and joined us. Every few minutes, another pirate would approach us and stand with us, waiting. Pretty soon, we were a good, sizable group of pirates, conversing, greeting those we knew or recognized, or introducing ourselves to those we did not. More pirates with drums appeared. A police officer crossed the street from the station and politely asked where we would be heading. Two pirates who seemed to know what was going on engaged with him and replied that they didn't yet know. Well, the officer responded, I think you're going to the National Portrait Gallery first. Well, one of the pirates replied, you know more than we do, eying him warily. The officer laughed jovially and said, we're traffic police, so don't worry. Some jokes and witty words were exchanged and the tension passed. We waited some more, passing out leaflets to passersby. One taxi driver rolled down his window and yelled angrily as he drove slowly by--You should support the soldiers who are fighting for you! And then the treasure map was passed out and after a few more moments of waiting for pirate stragglers, we began to move.
It wasn't hard to move, as a skillful marching samba band called Rhythms of Resistance led our rowdy band of marchers, and colorful banners sporting the words HANDS OFF IRAQI OIL were held above our heads. I and others were given shiny flyers with information to pass out, which detailed how Shell Oil and British Petroleum are benefitting from the war , and we skipped ahead of the drummers, handing flyers to passersby. Some of whom smiled as we passed or even gave us a thumbs up; others simply put up their hand, palm up, and speedily walked by without making eye contact. Some tourists, cameras ever at the ready, accompanied us for blocks and blocks as we progressed through the city. At one point, I handed one of my last flyers to an older man in a long grey wool coat standing on the corner observing us with a slight smile. He chuckled merrily as he took the flyer from my hand, and said, You're talking to the wrong person--I'm an oil executive! We both laughed, each patting the other on the shoulder as I continued on my way with the others.
We made noise as we progressed on our route, drumming irrestibly dancable riffs that had shopkeepers tapping their feet, shouting our message, emitting obnoxious pirate growls---Arrrggghhhhh!---that echoed off the grey stone buildings. At one point I mentally stopped to observe the scenario that I was part of--there were we, dressed in our most beautiful pirateness, gleefully enjoying our romp and our efforts to raise awareness about the role of Shell and British Petroleum in the Iraqi War, while highly polished people with shopping bags on their arms stopped to contemplate us, or didn't. I felt free--I was free, shouting in a place where no one shouts, growling in a place where that would be considered insane, pirating in a place where that is totally out of place.
Go to Indy Media for more photos of the Hands Off Iraqi Oil Protest in London: http://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/2008/02/392147.html
For more information about Hands Off Iraqi Oil, go to: www.handsoffiraqioil.org
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
It started out as a practical thing. I had always had a notebook in the field with me—whether that was the field of work when I ran a tourism development project in
So before leaving for
And it all went downhill from there. My research journal became a book of poems, lists of songs to put into song lists dedicated to certain people, notes on interviews, notes on reflections on interviews, to-do lists, ideas for future research, phone numbers, pasted-in business cards and small paper memoirs. And lo and behold, my research journal became the journal of my life. All-in-one. I periodically flip through its pages and remember, which I think is the point of this exercise. I read (or try to read) its notes and entries, the combination of the written practical and personal, and I can piece together entire days, what I was thinking and doing, and sometimes it conjures up images of where I was, what the light was like, what the air smelled like. All because I called the thing a ‘research’ notebook, instead of a ‘journal’. Somehow it, combined with the other happenings in my life, created a space for, and gave validity to my musings. Now I have a notebook full of them. I must say, the notebook itself has transformed along the journey: it is now raggedy-edged, covered with various stickers and decals from
Monday, February 4, 2008
That's Devonshire speak for "hello". So here I am still in Exeter, trying to find my feet, so to speak, but I think I still feel like I am constantly falling over, tripping, bumping into things, all in an effort to just have some normal-feeling, comfortable interactions with people. A big part of it, I am learning, is learning how to read gestures, body language, and facial expressions, not so much the spoken words themselves, as I stated last time. Right, the major cultural differences in respect to communication, between USers (aka Americans, but I hate calling us Americans when there are two entire continents called America, and thus two entire continents full of people who are Americans!) and the English is in nonverbal communication. So I have stopped reacting to people who, when I am speaking to them, are looking at me with an expression that I would normally interpret as "My God this girl is crazy and I do not understand a word she is saying", because I am beginning to understand that the English ALWAYS have that expression on their faces. It is a natural national defense mechanism which is really indicative of thoughts like "Oh My God I hope she doesn't ask me anything personal. Please go away please go away please go away!". Basically, as my friend Keith says, the English are shy. Which doesn't make it very easy to get to know them. But then I wonder how they are interpreting my own body language...
Otherwise, lots of new experiences...that field course on Cuba that I am helping Ian and Keith to teach had its first meeting, and it was a blast. I was so nervous beforehand that I think Keith was going to kill me, but it went really well. The class will basically be constructed by the students themselves with us facilitating the experience, so they have to research Cuba, get contacts, and develop methodologies in collectives, and then develop small research projects together that they will then present when the class goes there in complete and present in Cuba in April. I wish I had had a field course experience like this as an undergraduate!
I continue to be incredibly impressed by the Geography Department here at Exeter--it and everyone in it is so dynamic--there is always something going on, a reading group, a seminar, or some other activity where people are debating, learning, and interacting with each other. The result is that I am being exposed to so much that I am already integrating into my own PhD project. That was why I came, no? It's great.
Tomorrow is Super Tuesday, and I do hope the candidates can stop badmouthing each other for at least a day, and say something that matters. I am following the elections from here, and it is so tiresome and uninspiring watching how some of them are constantly looking for some other weak point to attack in the others. I wish they would realize that really, we would be so much more inspired to vote for them if they would speak sincerely on real problems with some ideas that might work. That is what I want to hear and consider. But it is hard to sort it all out with this bullshit they are throwing at each other. And the media doesn't help.
Okay, I am done ranting. Hope all is well.
Tuesday, January 15, 2008
1. First, let's hit the language myth on the head. We do not speak the same language. After four centuries of incubation on the American continent, we have developed a completely distinct one. Do I illustrate my point by telling you that I understood NO ONE my first three days here? I then slowly began to connect sounds to letters--a strange 'A' sound was actually a long 'O', etcetera. And the words for things--a 'jumper' is a 'sweater'. And the accents. You would think that television and movies and other globalizations of media would make the striking schism between our respective Englishes much smoother, but I am here to tell you that it backfired. What you will encounter among the young and hip here (and not just in London) is a strange accent, or rather, intonation of words. It is like an American Valley Girl accent superimposed on an upper-middle-class Posh Londoner accent, with strange, drawn out, whiny monosyllables at the end of every sentence or question.
2. Parsnips. Buttered parsnips. Honeyed parsnips. In the U.S. parsnips are a mythical vegetable, something you read about in required Victorian Literature classes in college. Here, they are a way of life. They are everywhere. (And they are yummy.)
3. Communication. Body language. To say it simply, Americans express everything, either verbally, or nonverbally by acting out. The English simply put on a stone face (oh, wait, they always have on a stone face...), and wait for you to figure out that you have done something inappropriate or displeasing. So, being an American, it takes me a while to figure it out.
4. Meeting people. While I was in London, Felicity and I conducted many experiments in many a pub over many a night, in which we would try to make eye contact with attractive men (attractive to us). The responses were interesting: About a third looked directly away to the side (we call that the "Right-glance"), a third looked straight up (the "Up-glance"), and the other third looked up, then to the side, and then to an unidentified point in front of them (the "Triangle"). Needless to say, our success rate at actually meeting people was 0%, since none of them would look at us. That is, if you don't count the outlyers, who were two elderly and drunk men named Graham and Mike, but they don't count. They were so drunk they started performing the experiment as well! We also repeated the experiment every time we had to walk across London Bridge. Same results except that more than half did the "Triangle" (probably because if they looked to the side, they would have to look at someone else crossing the bridge!).
But don't get the impression that I am not enjoying myself or meeting interesting people here. I am. And I am.
Saturday, January 12, 2008
So, I did drop the ball after that last, brief posting on 80s Night in Campinas, Brazil. The problem was that once I found out that I had to leave Brazil 2 WEEKS early, I became a bit depressed, and was too busy trying to finish up my research project, say goodbye to everyone, and being stressed out about my UK visa application. For those of you who do not know, you cannot apply for a UK visa from outside your country of residence, which was why I had to leave Brazil early--to rush back to Kansas, send in my application, supporting documents, and passport to the Consulate in Chicago, and--wait. So the waiting, coupled with some uncertainties about the ever-changing UK visa rules, had me a little stressed out. The good news, was that the visa arrived the day before my flight was scheduled. All's well that ends well, no?
The unplanned 2 weeks of waiting in Lawrence, KS turned out to be fabulous, as I got to spend lots of time seeing people, hanging out, and doing the pre-Christmas thing. I really enjoyed all the parties and other events that I got to attend and help out at. I love Lawrence, and those two weeks reminded me of why--good people, good projects, good ideas, and good parties.
I arrived in London on the 15th of December. I know, it is now the 12th of January, so what exactly did I do for an entire month? Basically, turistiar around London and vicinity with Felicity, my dear, dear friend from Nicaragua, who has recently moved back to England and is trying to (re) start a life here (which, I have to say, is not easy in this country)--we spent many moments together reminiscing and reflecting on what it means to live in a country like Nicaragua, a magical and harsh place, where you feel part of a struggle, at least, but lose something of your identity and (female) dignity in the process; what it means to re-patriate yourself afterwards, after leaving loved ones and relationships behind. I am convinced that we (or at least I) never get over this; it is always present in your life, always there as some unresolveable thing in your soul. So we talked a lot about these things as we visited some great sites in London, like Brick Lane (curry central), Soho, Trafalgar Square, London Bridge, the Tate (complete with crack), and others. I like London--it is a nice place to visit, but I would not want to live there.
I feel incredibly privileged to have had the opportunity to spend a traditional 3-day Christmas with Felicity´s entire family at her aunt´s house in Croydon, a suburb of London. How do I describe it? Let's see: basically, imagine 17 people staying together in one (large) house, eating together, playing group games, and opening presents for three days, and there you basically have it. English Christmas. I was much impressed by the lack of blowups. Really impressed.
Thomas Overly, friend and compañero from Kansas, jetted over from Copenhagen via Germany, and spent New Years with us. I am sooo happy he did! We had a great time, and he really added a different perspective to the pub nights that Felicity and I had already made tradition.
I then moved to Exeter on the 2nd of January, and have been here since then. I am renting a room in a house a little outside of town, but it is a 10-minute train ride. I will talk more about that, as well as post some pictures, later this week.
For now, Happy January!
Saturday, November 17, 2007
Here are some pictures of a night on the town last night--we enjoyed the Beer Tower, and then went to Barril da Mafia, where it was 80s Night, with a live band of mostly female musicians performing impressively faithful renditions of all your favorite songs by Bat Benatar, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Morissey, and many more. Lots of fun...
Sunday, November 4, 2007
It is called ongoing culture shock. I am past the initial stages of it, but these later stages are not any easier. And I think I am coming to terms (again) with the fact that I cannot escape being a foreigner here. No matter what, I will not blend in. And people will always assume I don´t understand anything (even after having conversed with me for 20 minutes!) or will be so nice as to repeat everything they say to me at least three times, or will solicitously ask me questions at the speed of a turtle without waiting for the answer. Even better, when they first meet me, will ask the Brazilian friend that I am with, ¨Where is she from?¨. I then answer. They then ask my Brazilian friend, ¨How long will she be here?¨or ¨Who is she studying with?¨, or some similar question. I then answer, and then they continue to ask the other person questions about me while I stand there, until I get frustrated and say something like, ¨Look, you can ask me directly¨ or something more or less direct, depending on if they are drunk or not.
The point is, after almost three months of being here, I have great friends, people who communicate with me, make jokes, confide in me, and who listen. But I also have these other encounters, ceaselessly. I don´t remember this happening so much in Nicaragua. Is there a reason why? Perhaps because Nicaragua has a history of foreign solidarity workers living and working there since the early 1980s, while Campinas doesn´t have tourism, solidarity, or anything that would give people substantial experience with foreigners. That theory makes sense, actually, given that people are always flabbergasted when they learn that my university actually offers Portuguese classes; their reaction is always shock that people would actually want to learn Portuguese, so I understand their surprise at my understanding.
But it doesn´t make it any easier. It could be an ego thing, really. I consider myself a mature, adult woman who has cultivated communication skills over a lifetime of 30 (uh...31) years, and to be spoken to like a child, to be denied the very opportunity of engaging in conversations that involve the expression of subtle, abstract ideas, this challenges that self-image. I don´t like that. But I am dealing with it, and learning to smile rather than give in to the urge to prove to everyone I meet that I have some modicum of intelligence hiding behind my foreigner´s face.
A little honest self-reflection is good for a blog, right? I will get back to the fluff in the next post...
Saturday, November 3, 2007
It is raining here in Campinas, which is a long-awaited respite from the humid heat we were having, and is definitely something to be appreciated as we enter Summer on this side of the globe. When I say respite, it is important to remember that southern Brazil depends heavily on agriculture, and some areas were 40, 50, or even 75 days without rain. This is during a season whose brief rain storms are what stimulate the flowering of the coffee bushes that cover the hillsides in northern São Paulo or southern Minas Gerais. So, needless to say, farmers both small and large were getting nervous, anxious, and this was evident on my visits to them in the last month. This past week, after the rains finally arrived, the feeling was definitely different, although not totally. The problem with southern Brazilian rain is that it is ironically localized. Localized meaning that, for instance, we can experience a heavy rainstorm where I live in Barão Geraldo, a outlying district of the city of Campinas, while the center of Campinas, not more than 17 kilometers away, will not feel a drop of that storm. Ironic meaning that, as it happened last week when I was in southern Minas doing interviews with farmers, it can rain in the city where the cooperative office is, but coffee farmers 5 kilometers away will not see any rain. That, to me, brings to mind the Depeche Mode song that has the verse ´God has a sick sense of humour´, since the people that need the rain are the rural farmers, and the city with all its pavement and paving stones, cannot even absorb the water that falls! But that is agriculture, isn´t it? To be expected. (Does anyone happen to remember the name of that song? Cristin?)
So besides experiencing rain, I have been pretty busy (although that would not seem obvious given my failure to post anything to this blog). Time is simply flying. I have exactly five weeks left here before I leave, and this makes me feel anxious when I think about it. I have been focusing pretty much entirely on getting through the different research activities that I and Cooxupé set out for me. I spent about three weeks visiting different núcleos (cooperative satellite offices), before Chris, my advisor from Kansas, came for a visit to Campinas to meet with researchers here about his own research. It was an incredibly fun visit, and a really nice temporal oasis of common language, context and culture for a few days, completely out of spatial context. And, as Chris noted while he was here, not one night passed without a bit of beer.
My goal last week after Chris left was to get started on my questionnaires, which I had spent about a month writing, rewriting, getting suggestions, and making more changes before I brought it to the cooperative núcleo in Monte Santo, where the cooperative agronomists and agricultural technicians tore it apart again. I thought I would field test the questionnaire on Wednesday and Thursday, but once I sat down with the núcleo manager and the agronomists, the process of choosing a 20% sample of farmers from a list of 150 farmers that qualify for fairtrade certification turned into a two-day process. Why? Because these things take place within a context of social relations, right? The agronomists know all these farmers and, although we were all conscious of the goal of getting a stratified, geographically distributed sample of farmers for the study, the end result was NOT a random sample by any means. Comments such as the following helped to determine the final sample: "Oh, he is really old and tends to ramble, so it won't be a good interview"; "This guy is married to that guy's sister and they actually live on the same farm"; "He won't know what you are talking about when you ask about legal reserves". This last comment I had to negotiate, because in my study, it means something when the farmer cannot talk about a legal reserve on his farm, that is required by law. But the point is that my perception of this community of farmers meant nothing by itself, and had to incorporate the perception of the technicians that actually are immersed in it. For them, a random sample is impossible given the realities of the people and place, and their relationship with it. In the end, I will now forever question what it means when a study says it used a random sample. After the two days it took to come up with an acceptable sample of farmers, I finally field tested the questionnaire on Friday. I am convinced that the Portuguese I speak is a completely different language than the Portuguese they speak. So now I am spending today rewriting the questionnaire again, to make it more comprehensible to the farmers!
Another interesting impression of life here in Barão Geraldo: Barão Geraldo can be characterized as a university city; it is legally part of Campinas, but is separate, its own little world complete with everything. University students (both undergraduate and undergraduate) generally live either in Repúblicas (shared houses or apartments with 2-4 students per room), the Moradia (subsidized student housing complex, with 4 students per room) or with their parents. So, of course, the first question that came to my mind once I realized this about a month ago, was, where do people have sex? Definitely not in their parents' homes. And if they are in the Repùblicas or Moradias, do they simply do what they want and turn a blind eye when their roommates have guests in their beds? I finally got the real answer: hourly motels. It is a way of life here. There are quantities of them available whenever you need them and, from what I am told, they are accessible to student incomes. It takes away some of the spontaneity of sex, but with the interesting accessories available in the motel rooms, like jacuzzis and mirrored ceilings, it might actually add something to sex that you might not get regularly otherwise.
I will write more this week, promise!
Love from Campinas...
Monday, October 15, 2007
Because, really, let's put this into context: I recently got out of an on-and-off-again (mostly on) four-year relationship with Danny in Nicaragua, a relationship which (at least afterwards) I learned my own value. And it is okay to feel angry, when it is an honest anger, when I know, after a lot of reflection, that I really do have something to be angry about, and I can say no, I don´t want anymore of what we had before. Maybe that is a bit vague, but you probably get it anyway. So I have been spending a lot of time alone, especially in the last week or so, letting the bright and clear reality of this anger come over me. It has not been a hard or intense kind of process; instead it was simple and calm. It occurred as I made painless decisions in various small moments not to give too much, too soon, in this arena of love, but not to be cynical about it either. I want to be open.
And as far as the other stuff, let's put that into context, too: I will do what I can to consciously not become an eccentric (lonely) older woman, but I will indeed live the way I want to, and not give in just yet to those cultural expectations of 30-something women, in terms of what I should own or what I should do. I am not going to tie myself down to money or property, not as long as I feel, know, that I have more stories to tell, other things I want to be. Just so you have an idea of what I am talking about, here is the latest crazy dream that I have decided to pursue as soon as I get to England: I am going to learn guitar. I want to sing, and I need someone to accompany me on guitar, and no one else is going to do that for me if I won't do it for myself.
Sunday, October 7, 2007
Brazilians know about U.S. agricultural subsidies and talk about them as an idea that the Brazilian government should adopt. I am quick to point out the current shortcomings of our subsidies: they go primarily to those that do not need them--large-scale farmers, and they also only go to production of basic grains with low prices, such as corn, soy, sorghum, wheat, and some cotton. Some say that it is this focus on low-price grains that is forcing small-scale farmers off their land and leading to the further consolidation of land in the Midwest in the hands of the big guys, who can produce at such a large scale that they make money off quantity, not quality, and low prices don´t make or break them, as they do a small farmer.
For those of you who don´t know, our legislators missed a big chance recently to reform the Farm Bill (the piece of legislation that governs ag subsidies, school lunch programs, and more) in its renewal year this year, and instead of changing it to apply to diversified ag industries and nontraditional crops that fetch higher prices, they pretty much kept it the way it was. They basically rejected the only hope that small-scale farmers in the Midwest have of staying on their land, and continuing and enriching a rural culture that is very quickly dying.
Southern Brazil does not have a counter-movement against this shift, as the American Midwest does. Around Lawrence, for example, there are lots of young people who have bought or rented farms individually or collectively, and are producing, making a living, and enjoying it, taking pride in it. It is ironic, actually, because the children of the traditional farmers themselves are moving off the land, into the big cities where things are happening and there are actually opportunities; driving through a rural small town in the Midwest is like driving through a ghost town more often than not. But there are these young urbanites moving out into the country, going back to the land. I wish more young people would do it, actually. I want to do it. I think this retaking of rural places will be key to saving ourselves from always eating the same packaged food, that always tastes the same, and comes from noplace, produced by no one, because the industrial farm and the processing plant could be anywhere.
In Brazil there is some hope in a small movement to start a national Fairtrade initiative, a national certification. Heading up this movement is Lula´s government and a coalition of Brazilian NGOs. Hopefully they will be able to create an internal market for fairtrade products in Brazil, where the average middle-class consumer does not really know what fairtrade is. It is exciting to think about the prospects: Brazilians buying fairtrade cachaça (cane liquor) made artesanally by a family, coffee from small farmers, farm-made cheese, and traditional sweets, all for a fair price that actually provides a livelihood for families and helps keep them on their land in the places they love. While that proposal is in the works, coffee cooperatives are seeking fairtrade certification to sell their coffee at a fairer price to Europe and the United States. Of course, that also has its own problems, but it is a step in the right direction.
Saturday, September 22, 2007
I suspect that I will be a bit busier from here on out. I made my first visit to Guaxupé, Minas Gerais (the home of Cooxupé Cooperative, that I will be working with) and Monte Santo de Minas, a smaller city and the home of the cooperative núcleo where I will probably be focusing most of my data collection. I was in those two places for a day and a half meeting with various cooperative officials and discussing possible collaborative efforts with them. I must say that what we ended up agreeing on was not what I imagined we would, exactly, but this is because my own lack of knowledge about the cooperative led me to be very surprised by everything, I mean everything, I found there. I knew they were a well-established and highly-developed coffee cooperative, but the reality that I found was much, much more complex and complicated than I imagined, even after only a day! What was hard for me was how different the reality of this cooperative is from that of CECOCAFEN in Nicaragua, where I worked for three years; every assumption I ever had about coffee production, coffee markets, social justice, small and large farmers, must be questioned and assessed anew here in Brazil. I never thought Minas would be like Matagalpa, I just didn't expect so much contrast, different successes and different struggles entirely. I have a lot to learn here and I will have a lot of opportunity to learn, as I work collecting data on socio-economic and environmental conditions on farms, in relation to the norms of various coffee certifications, and as I study the process the cooperative is going through in order to achieve fair trade certification for its small-scale members, which make up 80% of its membership of almost 12,000 coffee farmers. I will write more about that later, since it is really incredible what they are doing. I go back to Monte Santo de Minas this coming Wednesday, and will accompany a few of the cooperative managers to Belo Horizonte (the capital of the state of Minas Gerais) to attend a Symposium on Social Responsibility in Coffee Production there on Friday and Saturday, and I think I will go back to Monte Santo on Monday or Tuesday next.
In other news...I won third place in a Caipirinha-making Contest last Sunday, as part of an unlikely team made up of myself, Sandra from France, and Ismael from Iran, who is here doing some research on sugarcane-processing or something like that. A caipirinha is a mixed drink that is made from pinga (cane alcohol, also known as cachaça), limes, sugar and ice. A glass of it is traditionally passed from person to person, making it a communal cocktail. We named our team "Babylonia"--I think we meant to name it "Babel", but we were already well on our way to being drunk off caipirinhas by the time our team was to compete (everyone but Ismael, who doesn't drink or speak Portuguese). Third place!! Everyone there was a little surprised, since none of us really knew how to make caipirinhas clásicas, which was the category we competed in. The second photo is our team Babylonia-Babel; the first is the table of judges trying the various submissions (two-thirds of the judges panel were professors from FEAGRI!). The third photo is--you guessed it--E.T.! That special alien made an appearance at a parade for the opening of an art festival that passed the street in front of the venue where the caipirinha contest was happening.
Otherwise, Sandra and I have managed to do the YMCA in a bar with a group of friends from FEAGRI (see photo at right--I think they are doing the ¨M¨), get lost on an expedition downtown via public transportation, visit Parque Don Pedro (the largest shopping mall in Latin America! Hooray!), and basically have a good time while getting something done. Mostly.
I had a little saudade (longing, nostalgia) for things American this morning (shocking, no?), so I got the verve up to make a carrot cake. My first Brazilian carrot cake! At right is a photo of the cake, which is excellent, by the way, although not so pretty! Pure butter...yum...
Thursday, September 13, 2007
Sandra, a visiting researcher from France, arrived to Campinas two nights ago, and she is staying in the same pensionato that I am. She is cool--she speaks very little Portuguese, but does speak English, so it has taken a lot of effort to not speak English all the time with her, and only when it is necessary. We went out last night with some friends from the lab. Lots, I mean, lots of fun and it was good to get out and let loose for a night. Agricultural engineers are crazy. Here are some photos. Sandra is the one with the bottle and glass in her mouth...
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
This is the point at which I pause and consider what that might mean. At first glance, I think it seems extravagant to write about how I am experiencing the physical world, when there are so many other people experiencing it in frankly and obviously horrible ways and, instead of contemplating my navel and writing about it, perhaps it would be more useful to do something...useful. I do. I do useful things in the ways that I can. Things that don't only serve my own existence but also that of others. At least I like to think so.
So, knowing that, I arrive to the question of whether blogging is useful and not just some postmodern activity that shares some of the qualities of masturbation. Well, at this point I remember that I read, a lot. I read novels, many, many novels, all the time (I am on my 6th novel since I arrived to Brazil 9 days ago). I remember and reflect that many of my ideas of love, value, justice, and even cynicism have been inspired by messages found within the pages and between the lines of novels of my favorite authors, artists like José Saramago and Carlos Fuentes. This tells me something: art (and a blog is art, as it is the invention of a mind and the expression of experience) is extravagant, it is superfluous to violence and violation, the unnecessary pain of human beings, but it is a necessary expression of hope, a communication of other and better ways than we perhaps learned by more conventional channels.
So, I resolve myself to believe that this blog matters. It does to me.
Moving on. This week I have continued to get accustomed to things here. I have hung out with new friends, met new people, and continued getting to know the people I had met already. I got to hang out for the afternoon with the Pontes family on Sunday. The picture at right is Great-Aunt Norma with her sister, Pedro´s grandma. They are great. They are obsessed with embroidering. It is awesome.
I also had lunch on Saturday with some new friends and ended up hanging out with them until late that night. It was nice to just feel like I had a normal social life where I could spend time just talking with people for hours. No picture of that.
Today when I got to the office the lab was locked, so I went outside to wait, and ran into two friends from the lab. We starting talking about raspberries for some reason and, when I was trying to explain what a raspberry was, they took me behind the lab building to a tree which was filled with ripe fruit, which looked like raspberries! I have no idea what they are, but they look and taste just like raspberries, but grow on a tree instead of on a bramble! (If anyone has any idea what those are, please let me know). So I snapped the picture at right while we stood there for a half hour picking and eating these berries. After we cleaned the tree out, we sat down on a curb to look at the view, and we stayed there for another half hour discussing George Bush, the problem of the lack of public transportation and its relationship to the petroleum crisis, and then problems with the monopolies that control the biodeisel industry here. Very interesting and pleasurable morning. Then I went to work.
Wednesday, September 5, 2007
After work, I walk home, make a cold dinner of a sandwich and salad, which is all I can eat after the heavy lunches that are customary here. Dinner also includes one or two glasses of red wine while I check email, surf the internet, write this blog, or read. I am already through three world-class novels, and am getting perhaps a little bored with the solitude of the evening part of the routine after less than a week. A symptom of this might be my frequent trips in the evenings to the grocery store two blocks away to browse the aisles. Literally, I go there to browse the aisles and watch people, maybe buy a baguette or some arrugula. I have been there four times in the last six days. This is pitiful. I think this habit is replacing my Lawrence habit of going for an evening beer at the Pig, where I know I will run into someone I know. Am I hoping I will meet people at the grocery store? Could be, it´s a nice grocery store, lots of nice-looking, mature men wandering the aisles alone with frozen pizzas or packaged sausages in their hands...I am so pitiful.
I walked by a gym today on the way home to check it out. This could be my chance to get out of my grocery store-haunting habit, so I think I am going to join tomorrow and take an evening class or something. I also know, as a friend wrote me today, that with a little more time, I will make friends, have a social life (outside the lab), and forget all about this present loneliness.
I think that is enough for tonight. I will try to remember to bring my camera to work with me tomorrow, so I can post some pictures of Campinas and the lab (exciting!) for you all to see. Also, Friday is September 7, Brazilian Independence Day. I have been invited by a nice grad student named Daniel to have churrasco and beer at his house with his friends. What a relief--I thought I was going to spend Independence Day in the house working at the computer all day! It also looks like I will be spending two or three days next week out in Guaxupé, with the cooperative. This makes me happy.
Monday, September 3, 2007
And I say this not because I am on my second glass of wine here in my room, alone in front of my laptop. No, I say this because it is just so.
So...it was my first day of "work" today. Professor Rubens picked me up in the morning and
took me to FEAGRI (Faculdade de Engenheria Agricola--Faculty of Agricultural Engineering). He introduced me to all the lab-mates (fellow graduate students), and then we sat down with Professor Julieta to talk about my goals and thoughts on what I would do while I was here (this is where I had to justify my existence in Portuguese). Julieta is who I will effectively be working with. She is part of the group that does rural development studies here at UNICAMP.
Julieta is very cool, very critical of "agronomic" thinking, excited about my ideas, and ready, I think, to keep me on task here. She wants a work plan of sorts after I visit COOXUPE (the coffee cooperative) for the first time next week, which will be good, I think. I will go to COOXUPE for a couple of days next week and am very excited about that. For now, I am working this week on a presentation of some preliminary market data, to have something to bring to the cooperative as information.
I went to the bandeijão for lunch with the lab-mates. The bandeijão is a humongous cafeteria-type place that is subsidized by the government, so it is basic food, very cheap, close to a dollar with a student ID. I don´t have one yet, so we borrowed someone else´s so they would let me in. Lots of fun, lots of rice, beans and kovi (greens, very popular). The bandeijão serves 5000 people every day for lunch!
The lab-mates are great! Agmon the lab technician has adopted me as his new project, I think, and I already know his whole family via fotos.
From there I attended a 3 hour lecture on modes of agricultural production in Brazil (focusing on soy and coffee!!) and then Rubens took me home. Leftover feijoada for dinner with a cup of Brazilian red wine in my room. A great first day.
I walked around the neighborhood a bit after I got home, so I feel more comfortable and less isolated than yesterday. I will probably feel even better after I walk to campus tomorrow (if I can find my way!).
Sunday, September 2, 2007
Tomorrow I go to UNICAMP (University of Campinas) Faculty of Agricultural Sciences, to meet the professors and students that I will be working with.
Saturday, September 1, 2007
Some first impressions that I wrote down in my journal:
As I sat drinking an espresso and eating a pão de queijo in the airport after arriving, the music playing on the São Paulo airport sound system was a collection of Rod Stewart´s jazz hits (hits?!).
On the bus ride over from São Paulo to Campinas, skyscrapers, smog, small cars...
Incredibly warm people--they embrace you when you meet them as if you were their daughter, their best friend, or a long-lost relative. Generosity, incredible generosity.
It is 70 degrees farenheit here, and everyone keeps saying how hot it is. I think this means that the heat will probably not get anywhere near looking like a Kansas summer (yuck!).
After staying a night and a day with Pedro Pontes´(my Brazilian co-researcher in arms, who is currently in Kansas) family, Pedro´s mom and dad took me to get settled in the pensionato I will be staying in for the next few months. Concecião, the owner, then took me in her car the three blocks to the grocery store! Like I said, generosity. So now I am settled in and looking forward to getting settled into work next week at UNICAMP.