The Mad Mad Mad Mad World

Be sweet, and do awesome stuff all the time

Schmemocracy II: I laughed, I cried, I partied May 25, 2011

Up here in the Great White North this past month we were treated to the ultimate wacky reality-television special: the 2011 Canadian Federal Election! I’m going to try my best to not turn this into a political opinion rant, mostly because I feel like there’s been enough of that in my face over the past couple of months and it’s a body of work that doesn’t need my contribution. I will however say that if our electoral system reflected the way Canadians actually voted we would have ended up with a very different looking parliament than the one we’re stuck with.

For those of you who are not familiar with Canadian politics, it’s really a shame because you are missing out on some choice entertainment. The cast of characters is vibrant, filled with classic heroes and villains, and epic struggles between good and evil. This election was a prime example: on the hero side was Jack Layton, the mustachioed “working man”, champion of the unions, friend of social programs nation-wide, constant under-dog and also-ran, leader of Canada’s “third party”. There was also our gal Elizabeth May, the buck-toothed old-school environmentalist/lone female leader, fighting doggedly to have her Greens recognized as a legitimate party.  On the other hand we had Michael Ignatieff (or “Iggy” as he is affectionately known by the haters), leader of one of Canada’s oldest and most successful parties, former Harvard professor (accused of not being “Canadian” enough to run the country), smug deadpan opposition leader who never seemed to actually oppose anything the party in power did.  Steven Harper, Conservative Prime Minister and resident megalomaniac, is about as close to a dictator as Canadians will allow him to be, and has cold blue eyes that convey the message “I eat kittens”. And how could we forget Monsieur Gilles Duceppe, leader of the only federal party that exists exclusively in a single province, whose sole purpose is to advocate for the separation of said province from the rest of Canada. Wait a minute….what?

The list goes on. Watching the election results come in on the CBC has always been for me what the Superbowl or Stanley Cup is for most of the non-nerd population. Me and my poli-geek friends gather around the TV, drinks in hand and Party Mix close by, cheering and jeering as the polls close across Canada’s 6 time zones, staying up until the wee hours to see the final results in real time. This year, we celebrated Lay-Ton’s long-awaited rise to Leader of the Official Oppostion and Liz May’s hard-earned spot as a Member of Parliament, gawked at the historic defeat of Iggy’s Liberals and his subsequent resignation as party leader, found the humour in the blatant defeat of Duceppe’s Bloc Quebecois (and his instant straight-up resignation), and felt The Fear over the implications of a definitive Conservative majority: the only Prime Minister whose government has ever been held in contempt of parliament became even more powerful as a result of this forced election. America, we have learned nothing from your mistakes.

But I digress. Having held my breath through much of the Haitian presidential election just a few months prior, I wasn’t looking forward to sitting through another schmemocratic mess. Obviously the problems Canadians face when voting are very different to those faced by Haitian voters, and I can’t even begin to compare the experiences of these two groups. I recognize how lucky we are to have the system we do in Canada, and have it work as well as it does. One of the reasons I’m able to find the entertainment value in Canadian politics is that the outcome of our elections never really seem to have that big of an impact on the way the country is run and the way the majority of us Canadians live our daily lives. That may be a very narrow and selfish view, but I recognize how extremely lucky we are to be able to have that sense of security in our country’s political situation. It’s a rare thing in the better part of this beautiful but messed-up world, and something none of us should take for granted no matter how “bad” things seem.

But just because things are pretty good here doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be working to make them better. A friend of mine recently passed this video along to me, highlighting one of the ways people worked for change before and during the recent revolution in Egypt. It’s interesting and inspiring (my favourite video combination!) and I feel like there are principles in it that can be applied to any situation, particularly if you’re looking to influence political change. I think it’s impossible to live amongst society and remain apolitical, no matter how apathetic you might claim to be, and no matter how much you hate the idea of it you may someday need to fight for your cause. So this one’s dedicated to the haters…check it out below:

 

The Three-Month Rule April 24, 2011

Filed under: Ottawa — themadmadmadmadworld @ 3:44 pm
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My first overseas adventure was a week or 2 after my 13th birthday, when I went to France for a three-month student exchange. Looking back, the experience was a very positive one: I learned a lot about myself, was exposed to a life that was different from my own, and (almost) became able to communicate in a language I knew next to nothing of before I left. At the time, however, I was an angsty young adolescent who was her own worst enemy in a strange land. The first month and a half I spent in France I was completely miserable: I barely spoke to anyone other than the other 2 Canadian exchange students at my school, and I spent most of my time locked in my room writing letters to my BFF’s back home, who were so lucky to have been able to go to the mall and have sleepovers with each other all the time while I was stuck in this weird, smelly, mall-less hellhole for another hundred years (or so it seemed at the time).

As time went on, I eventually got my act together and started allowing myself to enjoy the experience. About half way through my time in France, I realized that I could actually speak and understand French at an acceptable level. This opened to door to independence, pain au chocolat whenever I wanted it, and new friendships with people who were as foreign to me as I was to them. I started to participate more in activities with my host family, no longer relying on their English-speaking daughter to be my sole companion and guide, and became a part of a new family. By the time my 3 months were up, I didn’t want to leave. Forget the mall, le printemps dans la France m’attendait!

There’s this idea of a parabola of culture shock: after the peak of the initial honeymoon period is over, you start to resent the differences between this culture and your own, and you sink to an emotional low point. After a time (the length of which is different for everybody), you reconcile yourself with these differences however you see fit, you get happy and comfortable again and you settle in for the long haul. (Or, you don’t reconcile, and you leave if you can.) Once you return home, a similar parabola of reverse culture shock usually follows.

Ever since my formative experience of spending three months in France, I have found myself relating to this culture shock parabola for not just travel, but for any big life changes. It’s different for everyone, but it seems that for me three months is the amount of time it takes to run the gamut, establish a level of comfort with a situation, place, person, idea, etc. and have a clear opinion of whether or not it’s for me. Over the years I’ve had relationships, jobs, and living situations that have reached the three-month point and been abandoned, just because by then I knew it wouldn’t work. I have often caught myself living my life in three-month chucks of time. Last year was a prime example: 3 months in Mexico, 3 months in Haiti, 3 months in Canada,  another 3 months in Haiti.

Now it’s been just over three months that I’ve been back from Haiti. I haven’t been blogging during that time, mostly because I felt like I didn’t have much of interest to say. I’m pretty sure that exposes me for the crap blogger that I am, so let’s pretend that it was because I’ve been riding out my three-month adjustment period. How have I reconciled myself with the difference between my new-old life, my old-old life, and my most recent travel experiences? It hasn’t always been easy. Sometimes I still can’t believe that last year really happened, or that it was actually me who lived the experiences I did. (Re-reading my own blog now I think, “Really? There’s no way it was me who wrote something with a title as pretentious as ‘Political Cacophony’. Please.”) It was hard to come back to things like fashion, consumerism, and the way people go on about things like how unfair the electoral system is in Canada (compared to how they roll in certain other places I’ve been). It freaked me out to think of how I maybe used to think before, and how I might return to thinking that way, being back in this world. It’s hard realizing that the more you learn, the less you know, and trying to find a way to work that realization into your daily life.

At first when I came back there were some aspects of my new life that I tried to force, to prove to myself that what I’d learned was tangible and real. That ended up making me pretty unhappy. So I did the mature thing and gave my whole experience the middle finger, declared it just a bunch of stuff that happened, and wallowed in some serious regression for a while. That also didn’t really do it for me, so I decided to just stop worrying about it and just let myself live. Much to my surprise, the laissez-faire attitude has been working out pretty well so far. Maybe the things that I’ve learned aren’t tangible, and the changes that came didn’t come because I decided they would. These lessons and changes are manifesting themselves in surprising ways now that I’m allowing them to just be. Some of it is what I’d hoped for, some of it maybe isn’t. For example, I’m no longer obsessively following the situation in Haiti as I was trying to do when I first got home, although I do stay in touch with my friends and dream about being back there at least once a week. I’m prioritizing taking care of myself and focusing on doing what I’m doing here and now as well as I can, instead of relentlessly planning my next adventure like I usually do. I’m not frantically working my butt off to be able to make everything happen as quickly as possible, and it’s insane how much free time I’ve discovered as a result.

My life right now isn’t as exciting and interesting as it maybe was this time last year, but I feel happy and healthy and sane, so I really have no cause for complaint. Adventure comes in many forms, and right now the one I’m on is a bit more slow-paced than I’m used to. This likely means less blogging, but it’s good to not share everything with everyone all the time. (Especially when it makes for an uninteresting read.) Maybe I’ll write again in another three months, by which time I might be on a whole other level I’d never imagined before. Or I might still be here in Ottawa, doing the same stuff and feeling the same way, which would be great as well. You’ll know I’ve reached a point where it’s time to stage an adventure intervention when this turns into a cooking blog…but considering the state of my perpetually dirty kitchen, I don’t think there are any worries for the time being.

 

Living A Double Life February 3, 2011

Filed under: Ottawa — themadmadmadmadworld @ 11:23 am
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At our volunteer base in Haiti, there was a group of us who would semi-regularly go up onto the roof in the evening to practice yoga under the stars. It was there that I was introduced to Bikram, a modern yoga style in which you do everything twice. The first time you do a posture it can be difficult to coerce your body into such an awkward and unnatural position, extending it outside its normal comfort zone. In your second set of the same posture, the improvement is noticeable – your muscles have warmed up to the idea of stretching or contorting in this way and are much happier to be doing so.

Now that I’m back in Ottawa, I’ve been thinking about Bikram a lot. (Not just because it’s -20°C out on a regular basis and Bikram is done in a hot room at around +40°C.) I’ve moved back into my old apartment with most of the same roommates, I’ve unpacked all my old clothes that my sisters had been wearing all last year, I’ve reactivated my old cell phone, and starting on Monday I’ll be back at my old job at the YMCA. I have the same boyfriend, same friends, almost the exact same neighbours…did 2010 even happen, or was I just on a quick vacation from my adult life?

Clearly it happened, and I definitely learned from everything I did over the past year. So I guess 2011 is just my ‘second set’. I was quite happy with the way my life in Ottawa was when I left it in December 2009. Obviously it wasn’t exactly what I needed at the time, seeing as I was more than happy to peace out like I did and stay away for so long. But after a year of running around, never having four walls to call my own, and watching my bank balance steadily decrease to nothing and beyond, I think I’m ready to give the whole adulthood thing another try.

Not that I intend to sell out to the man entirely (retirement savings? home/boat ownership? Please!), but I do think it’ll be good for me to spend some time just in one place. This time around I’ve had a year to get used to the idea that I will likely live to see my 25th birthday (which, may I remind you, is only 10 shopping days away) and beyond, so I am allowed to get a bit comfortable and let everything I’ve done in the past marinate for a while. I’m excited about the things that come along with having a proper home, like a mailing address and a fridge, and also about doing stuff that can be hard to do while on the road, like taking classes in awesome stuff, owning ice skates, and maintaining long-term relationships.

I’m happy to have this sort of cosmic do-over presented to me, and I’m excited to make my new old life as awesome as possible. Come visit me anytime…I now have a couch you can crash on, a neighbourhood I can show you around, and a toilet you can actually flush. Life is good!

 

P.S. – At the request of some of my friends and family, I’ve decided to continue writing regularly even though I’m no longer in Haiti. For those of you who read for the Haitian content, I recommend Se La Vi Ayiti or On the Goat Path. For those of you who read for the Madison content, I’ll never understand you, but I will do my best to keep you entertained!

 

 

 

Life, Love, and the Pursuit of the Haitian Dream January 9, 2011

Filed under: Awesome!,Haiti — themadmadmadmadworld @ 4:45 pm
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I’ve gone longer than usual without posting of late, and not for lack of interesting things to write about. The past 2 weeks have been among the busiest, and best, that I’ve had in all of my time in Haiti. Welcome back to The Mad Mad Mad Mad World. Let me tell you about life, love, and the pursuit of the Haitian dream.

Life – Public transportation in Haiti comes in the form of colourfully painted trucks called “tap-taps” (because you tap the ceiling twice when you need to get off…clever, right?), most of which have slogans painted on them that are reminders of how to best carry on, loving God and country. Today as my child-bearing hips were locked in a vice-grip between the other human sardines on the way home from church, I looked up and saw my favourite piece of tap-tap wisdom painted above me: “Lavi pa fasil.” Life is not easy.  Very true, for some more so than others. Seeing this on the back of a dilapidated truck crammed with people, as I whip past roadside shacks filled with those left homeless or worse by natural and human disasters, makes me think twice about ever using those words again back home. Heavy thinking for a Sunday morning hangover…

Love – On a much more upbeat note, I love my family! The now-world-famous Watsons of Phelpston made a brief but memorable appearance on a rubble site near me last week, and man was it fun. (To see the front-page article in our hometown newspaper click here!) It was amazing to have all 7 members of my immediate family sledgehammering in sync to smash up the better part of a collapsed roof in just one day. Our team leader called us “the Von Trapp’s of rubble” (stay tuned for an awkward family photo or 2…). Considering that everyone in my family falls more on the “nerd” side of the high-school yearbook spectrum (no matter how hard I try to argue my rightful “jock” status), I was pretty impressed with how naturally they all took to rubbling. Junior, one of our strongest and longest-serving local volunteers, took my 17-year old sister Mallory under his wing and within the hour they were an unstoppable team. By the end of their visit I didn’t see much of Mallory, as she seemed to be always covered in a pile of adoring Haitian children who wanted her to stay and play with them forever. It seems that whatever it is that I have that makes me do what I do is genetic, and I don’t think Haiti’s seen the last of the Watson sisters. Having my family come volunteer with me was a really special experience, and it meant a lot to me that they would put themselves so far out of their element to come and see firsthand what the work I’m doing is all about.

The Pursuit of the Haitian Dream – Although it’s hard to define what “The Dream” is for any country (except for Canada, where it is clearly finding attractive winter footwear), last night I felt like we were as close as we’ve ever been to seeing it for Haiti. After coming back from my break(down) in November, I switched from working with the mayor’s office project to assisting the coordinator of our local volunteer program (see my November 27th post for more on that). Since last April, All Hands has welcomed young men and women from Leogane and the surrounding area who want to volunteer to help their community in whatever way they can (see November 18th’s “Interview with the Volunteer” for more on the program). I was involved in the initial restructuring of the local volunteer program that happened back in June, when we created a mentoring program to make sure that our volunteers got the best possible learning experience out of their time at All Hands. The program has grown and developed since then, thanks to the volunteers themselves and the amazing project coordination of my friend Jess. Our original group of volunteers, which has grown to about 30 over 9 months, celebrated their “graduation” from the local volunteer program last night. The ceremony was great, with valedictory speeches and a slide-show put together by Emmanuel, an incredible 17-year old kid who has gone from a shy rubbler to head of our Bobcat operator program, over the course of the past 9 months. Everyone looked extra “fresh” (the adjective of choice for a well-dressed Haitian), and it was a beautiful way to celebrate an inspiring group of people. I’m proud to be a part of something that connects people with a genuine desire to help with the means and materials to do so. Every day I’m amazed by the energy and passion of our local volunteers, and the more I’ve gotten to know about them as individuals and about their circumstances, the more I’m blown away by everything they do. Lavi pa fasil, but my friends here in Haiti are proving that no matter who you are, there’s always something you can do to better it.

 

“Mesi bondye pou tou zanmi’m!” November 27, 2010

Lately I’ve been hearing from the people who know me best that my blog has been giving me away, indicating signs of wear and tear, exposing my waning optimism and questionable mental health. I just can’t get anything past you guys, can I, and mesi bondye for that!

I have definitely been feeling the strain of not only living and working in a challenging environment, but also the added stress of having multiple existential/moral/socio-economic/sexual (why not?)/political crises every single day about said life and work in said environment. When I said in my last post that I needed an extended mental health break, I was serious. It started out with just a week with good friends from base at an insanely luxurious all-inclusive resort in the Dominican Republic, which was at the same time the most amazing and most horrifying thing I’ve ever seen. (Kind of like dogs wearing sweaters or Chinese children who can expertly play classical violin while still in their mothers’ wombs.) Crossing the border and seeing the difference in the quality of life was shocking enough (pothole-free roads! Christmas lights! Lights at all!), but the extreme excess of the Lifestyle Hacienda Resort in Puerto Plata was enough to send me into a frenzy. So I did what anyone in my position would do: I drank and ate as much as possible, then booked a ticket back to Canada to digest for a week.

My visit home was unexpected. Even I didn’t know I was coming! I had a lot of time to relax and hang out with the people who I love most of all. I got a lot of insight into everything that’s been going on in the past month, both inside and outside of my selfish self. I am uncomfortable with the situation in Haiti and how it’s being handled by all parties involved, right down to who thinks they have the right to even be involved. What am I, as a white Canadian from a privileged background with little to no connection to this country, doing here at all? Am I some kind of a saviour, or some kind of sick tourist on the ultimate off-the-beaten-track backpacking adventure?  Both of these ideas sicken me. I don’t want to be either, but I guess the best I can do is to fall somewhere in between.

I’ve decided that in order to continue with whatever it is that I’m doing here (helping? gawking? sweating?), there are a few things that I have to do. I’ve decided that I can’t continue with the project that I was leading before, which involved working with the local government trying to do capacity building and liason stuff with the UN and other NGO’s. I know that I don’t have the knowledge, experience, or resources to do any really useful capacity building, and I also feel wrong pushing for the local government to rely more on NGO’s when I feel like that’s a really terrible way for a country to be run (something I will rant about later…I’m trying to keep these posts a readable length). Over the 2 months I have left with All Hands I’m going to do more physical, outside-type work, and also more work that gets me into the community on a personal level. I’m not sure what exactly I’ll be doing, but I feel like by doing that I can help in a more sustainable way. Mostly because it won’t make me go crazy and I will be a happier, more productive volunteer.

Yesterday was American Thanksgiving, and because we are a US-based NGO, we had a huge party last night to celebrate. We invited about 60 people from the community, including all of our local staff and volunteers and their families, and there were volunteers working all day to cook an amazing, full-on turkey dinner. It was the best holiday we’ve had so far on this project, mostly because of the positive reaction of our Haitian guests. I tried to explain the conecpt of giving thanks in my sometimes passable Creole, and asked my Haitian friends what they were thankful for. It was so great to hear them say “Mesi bondye pou tou zanmi’m,” – I thank God for all of my friends – refering to us, the foreign devils who have infested their town and tried to take over their lives.

I know I’ve said this before, but if nothing else,  this is what keeps me believing that I have a place here.