Deep Breath of Fresh Aire

I spelt Air as “aire” which is the way it is spelt in spanish. Today was a good day. As far as Sundays go I feel like it was one of the most Christian Sundays I have had in awhile.

Firstly I woke up and had meaningful conversation. I called Cynthia Pai to find out that I was not going to church because they merged the 2 services. We chatted for a good long time and I was blessed to havea conversation that lasted for more than 30 seconds in which she really wanted to hear about my time in Latin America. That was good.

I uploaded many photos to the facebook following that, which was nowhere near what some of my friends have done. I have not yet begun to explore the proverbial “monton” of photos that no doubt exist from multiple countries with my face in them. I found that I have some really good pictures. I could probably sell a few of them to travel agencies. Shazam.

Then my dad and I got coffee at an organic store. I got coffee. It was okay. Not coffee from central america.

After coffee I chatted for a good 1.5 hours with my friend Michael Richards about life. We talked about how his room was destroyed by mercury and how my life was complicated and frustrating following Latin America. Then I went to Spanish Church at Northwest community church. This started the process that made me scared of what the Lord has in store for me. He just might mess up my life and make me a pastor or something. Sigh.

I went there and interpreted the service for my friend Ron Pai, I think I did an okay job, but there are a few things that are hard to do. When you don’t know a word and have to stop to think about it, you lose a sentence or two. The pastor gave this wonderful sermon about how during the Christmas season we separate the baby Jesus from the adult Jesus. It is always about the baby Jesus during Christmas and we forget that the baby Jesus we sing about had already grown up, become a man, died on a cross for our sins, and rose again before we were ever born. He mentioned the idea that Christmas is more about the incarnation of God in man. God became flesh. He became one of us. That is what Christmas means.

He followed that with the fact that this baby born on Christmas day (or rather more likely in October) became the man/God that lives inside our hearts today and stands next to us. That our commitment is a lifelong process as opposed to just a moment in time. Our faith is a process played out over a lifetime, just as this Messiah baby grew to be the Jesus we read about in the rest of the gospel story we too must grow. I think that was the jist. It was great.

After the sermon the pastor told me I should preach sometime in spanish. That scared me a bit, mostly because I have spent the majority of my life avoiding the idea of being a pastor…but really, I don’t know that I can avoid it much longer. The problem that the world has lies in the human heart, Jesus is the only one who can change that. The best way for me to facilitate that is to be a pastor. Still, maybe there’s a better way to think about it that isn’t so utilitarian.

After the service I talked to Pastor Barron Miller (who is surprisingly witty) and Ron Pai. It was odd as I left the building because I suddenly found myself feeling like I belonged to a church that gave me strength to keep seeking the Lord and wanted to include me in whatever possible. It was great.

Afterwards I went to help the Huckabys run their new soup kitchen. The restaurant that Kelly Huckaby works at pays for a soup kitchen to happen on Sunday nights at the Little Cheerful cafe in Bellingham. I got to go and give food to the homeless and participate in something wonderful that made me feel all of a sudden like I wasn’t going to be stranded in America at a frustrating lack of expression for the ideas I came to own in Latin America. I felt like I was doing things that Jesus wanted me to be doing. It felt so great. Not out of a sense of checking a box, but actually living the call Christ gives us. Amazing.

Then I went over to the Huckabys’ house and appreciated their company, my scarf, my carhartts, my flannel shirt, and a warm cup of tea. It feels so good to be dressed for cold weather again. I feel at home in these clothes. Far more so than I will ever feel in a polo shirt and the manprees I was wearing the whole time in latin America. The Huckabys are some of the most impressive people I have ever met. I am surprised that they want to keep being friends with me when they could easily be friends with people far more awesome than me. I have known them for years and have been blessed by the process more than I could tell you. They really love Jesus, so much that I look at my own life and wonder just what it is that the Lord will do to mess up my life so that someday it will look as wonderfully grace and faith filled as theirs does.

Today was one of those days where I felt like I could stay in Bellingham and love it. It was as though the cool wind of God was blowing through the stifling frustration in my soul.

PS: The Huckabys also made thinly veiled attempts at setting me up with multiple girls that they know. Some of them sounded interesting, but nonetheless, I don’t like to be set up. No sir. I will maintain my line until I am proven wrong by a setup…not that I have ever allowed one because it violates my principles of not being set up.

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Cuba after-action report

Boatswain’s Log. . December 8th.

Well, I am currently sitting in a compound outside of central San Jose with the 20ish other Latin American Studies Concentration folks. The people who went to Cuba. You want to know about it don’t you…well, this is my stab at telling you about the island nation of Cuba without diving into everyday details that would take too long to convey.

We got into Habana latish at night and were picked up in a yellow school bus by 3 cuban men whom we got to know well named Ariel, Alejandro, and Alberto. The trip through customs was interesting. From the first moment that people knew where we were from it was as though there was a running joke going on with the punch line of “There are people from the USA here…tee hee.” In any case we boarded the yellow bus and embarked on our journey surrounded by a surreal world of cars from the 1950’s that are still to this day kept running because of the transferable capital they represent. The cars made prior to 1959 are the only cars that the Cubans themselves are able to sell and buy without making the government either the seller or buyer.

We stayed at a place called the martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center. The people there are very interested in doing ecumenical work and sponsor groups from the US on a regular basis. The cooked 95% of our meals and fed us typical Cuban fare. It took some getting used to, especially after our group leader Javier told us that every time we asked for more food besides what was put out we were taking food from someone else. Let’s say that it took some getting used to for a 6 foot six 250 pound man. I adapted over time. What do Cubans eat you ask? To answer that I will need a new paragraph.

Cuban food is very similar to the rest of Latin America. They eat rice, beans, bread, citrus fruit, and fish and whatnot. The difference however, is 2-fold. The first part is that Cuba was hit recently by 3 hurricanes. Right in the agricultural sector. That means that fruit and vegetables were very hard to come by. The second part of that is that Cubans eat in most circumstances by using something called the ration. Obviously, since they live in a socialist society the government has made certain guarantees to the population. Free education for everyone that is the best in Latin America, free healthcare for everyone (gender changes, heart surgery, and whatever else), subsidized housing, and a certain degree of food. A Cuban family receives a portion that varies with the size and age of the family in many foods once a month. Every Cuban is entitled to a piece of bread every single day. No matter what. Otherwise they are given a set amount of rice, cooking oil, salt, beans, etc… every month. (Kids under 7 get a liter of milk a day for free) Based on what the Cubans have to say this food lasts for about 10 days or so. The rest of the 20 days they can buy food from the ration store or “bodega” for a very small price in Cuban pesos. This isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Cubans have a system of 2 currencies. There is the Cuban peso and the CUC (1.20 dollars is one CUC). CUC is for foreigners. Background: Cuba relied on the USSR for financial support and a source for about 75% of their exports until its collapse in the early 90’s. Thus through the embargo and the collapse of the USSR Cuba entered economic freefall, they needed to get money back faster. So they made a new currency that would let them get hard currency faster than converting pesos into other things. 24 cuban pesos is one CUC, one CUC is 1.20 dollars, thus 1 cuban peso is almost worthless, and yet a Cuban can buy a pound of rice for about 4 cuban pesos. Cubans get paid about 10ish CUC a month for whatever job they get from the government a doctor gets paid about 20$ a month in Cuba, but they do their job because they want to help people.

So, with their money not being worth a lot, their other bills, and buying food for their families, Cubans have a rough experience. It is hard for them to make ends meet, even with many Cubans receiving money from family in Miami it is really hard. However, if you work in the tourist center and get tips in CUC you can live really well (better than a doctor, think about the conversion rate and what food costs). Thus in a socialist society that was meant to be without class distinction there are indeed class distinctions. Despite an economy meant to get rid of poverty and hunger, both still exist. Furthermore the education system seems to be working out not as well due to a shortage of teachers. People who are 18 or so are having to be emergency professors for kids. I dunno about you, but I wouldn’t like that for my kids.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I may be talking about the negative aspects of Cuba and there are more that I could go into (lack of civil liberties for one thing. One party, not much room for freedom of expression or speech in a more public manner) There are lots and lots of things that Cubans do well that we in the US do not do well. We don’t have a healthcare system that covers every citizen (admittedly on an island with 12 million it would be easier to accomplish this), we don’t provide food to every citizen each month, and our education system consistently fails the inner city children due to a lack of property taxes. I will not say that Cuba is perfect, we do other things well that they don’t. I guess what I want to convey is that Cuban reality is not a paradise as some would argue, but neither is it hell. It is leaning more towards the paradise side.

Enough about economics. Let me tell you some stories.

Cubans are the only Latin American people who made me feel like I was at home right away. The moment you talk to a Cuban and they find out who you are they want to talk to you. They treat you like you belong, and don’t make you feel like a rich gringo or anything along those lines (at least on the road called the Malecon where the youngfolk hung out alongside the carribean). Honestly, I partly came to Latin America looking for a place that felt like home. A place where I belonged and felt loved. I think Cuba was that place.

Ariel was an amazing man. He had an incredible perspective. When we asked him what he wanted us to say about him he asked that we tell people that Cubans are human beings. They suffer when there are shortages of certain foods, when the Cuban government is “punished” the Cuban people are really the ones to suffer. They are the ones who have to run to catch a bus that is overly full because of a lack of fuel to run buses. They are the ones who wait in line to receive food.  That man truly made me feel like a brother. He was very honest in response to every question and I would count him a friend and brother in the Lord.

Alberto was our translator. He was incredible. Really. He speaks English so very well. He makes hilarious stories that I couldn’t understand so much of the time and in general is just a great guy. This is a guy to whom Cuba is great. It is home. When he leaves he misses it. It isn’t brain washing. Cubans have a great community environment. This concept of being at home through the manner in which the people interact is truly what I saw there. Alberto has had multiple chances to leave Cuba while in the US interpreting, but has come back every time. The man complimented my Spanish. That was a high compliment.

That is something you should know. Cubans like Cuba. They know it isn’t perfect. No one there will say that on the street. Maybe the government will, but the people know what is up. Even so, like I said they want to live there. They like their country and want it to be changed within their own context. (i.e. not with a US implemented solution) They are people who know how to love their country and be critical of it at the same time.

Change of topic. There are a lot of people who practice Santeria in Cuba. Basically, worshipping fake African idols. About 70% of Cubans are supposed to be sincretic worshippers in religion. That means they do just about everything just in case. This was my first experience with pagan religion that people actually believe in. The church in Cuba on the large part (according to my sources) feels like these religions are evil, idolatrous, and false. I don’t disagree. I wish there were a more culturally sensitive way to say it, but I don’t know one. I have to be real about what I know about God. There aren’t any other Gods. Sorry.

That was a hard context to experience this in, especially because so many Cubans are in this pluralist mindset. I don’t share that with them, but it was very easy and tempting to jump on board with so few perspectives pointing other ways. I didn’t though. No worries, but in the context of Cuba I did experience large challenges.

One of them was my own fault. I came in idealizing Cuba, and it wasn’t until I realized that it had faults that I could begin to think about it as a real place instead of a perfect land. A large focus of my education and Christian upbringing has been social justice in the context of a government that mostly spends money on guns. The Cuban government spends money on its people, and they have lots of basic necessities like food, healthcare, and education, jobs, etc. As a result being a Christian in Cuba looks different in the things that they have to remind their brother to be conscious of. I think they have more problems with false gods competing for the worship of the one true God, but their society focuses on social justice and solidarity anyway. We on the other hand have false gods in the form of success, money, and “the American dream” and our society seems to on the whole forget that the poor number about 40 million in the US. Over 3 times the population of Cuba.

Following Christ is a lot more than just a movement towards social justice though. I think that this idea has been proposed by many people here abouts, however…Where does this play into the fact that Christ died on the cross as a choice rather than solve the economic problems of the world? He could have fed all the poor, changed the government, and done other things as well, but instead died and reconciled us to God. That means that our focus as well should find its foundation in the unseen as well as that which is seen. How does that look in real life? I will have to tell you later when I figure it out.

One thing that really hit me when I was in Cuba is that Alberto told me I had a big heart. People say that to me often wherever I go. What does it mean? I try to love people, but what does a big heart convey in their minds? I am not sure that I understand. Let me know if you know.

I gave Alberto and Ariel my address in Bellingham and told them if they got the chance to visit that my door was open to them to stay at the house. That was just a quick summary. I could have talked about lots of things. Ask me sometime about my thoughts on the embargo, the Habana psychiatric Hospital, or the glorious beach called Varadero. I will end with a Haiku:

Cuba is a place,

Filled with caring people who,

Lack much but love lots.

The Day after thanksgiving.

Boatswain’s Log November 28th.

I returned several days ago to San Jose. This will be my last entry until after Cuba, which starts tomorrow afternoon. We leave LASP at 3:30PM. I will get there at about 2:30ish.

I returned via the bus from Alajuela at about 11AM on Wednesday. The bus ride lasted 6 hours or so. Saying goodbye seemed a good deal harder for my host family than it was for me. I felt somewhat heartless as I got on the bus heading to start the process of going home, but at the same time I came to a conclusion. I really like my host family out in Aguas Claras. They are wonderful people who are very kind and hardworking. I did not like my work. It was really hard and I did not enjoy it, not because it was hard…mostly because I was so lonely out in the field for so long alone with my thoughts which is bad for me. I was excited to be leaving and while I would miss my host family I also knew that I would not miss my job and also that I was really glad to be 2 weeks away from being home. I don’t know if that makes me really dumb or that I didn’t do the experience right, but I can only have the experience that I had. Andrew Brauer and I got back and I headed home for lunch and then to an internet cafÈ.

That night my friend Jose (a guy who works at the Spanish institute we went to) and I went out and got dinner at a nice asian food restaurant. We hung out and talked in Spanish for the better part of 2-3 hours. It was pretty awesome. He paid for dinner, I was ready to pay, but he insisted so I didn’t argue. That was a blessing. Then it was bed time.

Yesterday was the day when all us kids got back together to discuss our time out in the fields. I found that there were lots of people with great experiences and others with hard experiences. When it came to be my turn I started verbally processing my experience, and what came out was all the negative things. It isn’t to say that only hard things happened, but at the same time all the wonderful and fun things (learning how to drive a motorcycle, etc…)were put in context of the hard things (work). I guess that the time I had there was more challenging and hard than it was fun and easy. Now, after several days of enough sleep and fixin to go to Cuba I find myself feeling sturdier in body, mind, and spirit. That isn’t to say that I am without problems, I just know that I can handle the problems that exist with Jesus’ help.

We watched a few documentaries on Cuba (which made me pumped to go and made me think that Castro isn’t the worst man that has existed, as the US government claims), then we started our orientation.

Firstly, we were told, Cuba is expensive. You can only change US dollars into money specifically for foreigners called “cucs” (pronounced “kooks”). 1 cuc = .80 dollars. So no matter how much money you bring, you only wind up having 80% of that money. Not to worry. A bottle of rum is only about 6$.

Secondly, we get to go to one of the best beaches in Cuba. Huge hurray from deep within my soul.

Thirdly, there is no US embassy there. Only an office of US interests. A pointed statement was made (at me) to mind my manners there and not be intellectually aggressive like I was in the US embassy in Costa Rica. I got the hint.

So overall, I am pretty excited. We are supposed to get several nights where we can go out and do whatever we want for as long as we want. Awesome, but it really makes me want to buy a cigar and smoke it while drinking a mojito…lifestyle expectations face their worst challenge in my experience. I really want to still do what I said that I would do, but it is harder to want to do that in a country that I will probably never get to visit again. Not to mention the fact that few other people are doing what I am doing. I feel like integrity will win out, but will it just make me feel stupid for not taking the chance to be in Cuba like the Cubans? Or will it have some sort of reward beyond that? I know that it is entirely respectable (despite people who state otherwise) and that if someone has principles they ought to stick to them. So I guess that is what I will end up doing. However, if Fidel Castro offers me a cigar I will be severely tempted.

Moving on. Last night was thanksgiving (as y’all know) and some of us went out to celebrate. We went to find some chicken restaurant in Guadalupe because chicken is as close to turkey as you can get without spending a lot of money. We ended up going to this karaoke bar and hung out. Bethany from Canada came, so did her friend Jessica. Andrew Brauer, Andrew Hayes, and Craig came too. It was really fun. I had fajitas and made the standard sketchy jokes about fajitas. Shoutout to Michael Dallas Miller. It was my first thanksgiving not at home, and I celebrated it with some great people singing songs to drunk Costa Ricans who were vigorous dancers (according to Bethany who awkwardly accepted semi-drunken offers to dance). That is one for the books. We did that circle of saying what we are thankful for. It reminded me of home, so I proposed a toast in a very Frank Handy manner. Unlike toasts at my house, our toasts in the karaoke bar didn’t last an overly long time.

Afterwards, We looked at a Christmas shop and walked back to Sabanilla from Guadalupe, quite far for a tired lad like I was but we made it anyway.

It was the first time I have had the chance to discuss the last article we read in-depth with other people. Remember that one? I do. I realized two things while talking:

A) I am not really troubled by the violence of God that man author talked about. I don’t know why, and maybe I should be…but I find myself surprisingly comfortable with Jesus no matter what happens in bible that I don’t understand.

B) I don’t value my ability to think as much as my ability to pray. Instead of thinking about how to reconcile the problem I had, I prayed about it. Today, unlike quite a few days I find myself for the moment in a state of not being worried about doubting. I prayed for that. Other people mentioned that they couldn’t do what I did. They couldn’t pray in spite of themselves. I suppose that might be something good. Others might not say so, but I don’t agree with everyone.

I went to bed, and my bed in the middle of the night listed at a strange angle. It seemed that while I was away during the day my host mom had tried to put little bed pegs on, they didn’t work because I squirm a lot while sleeping.

Today I changed colones into dollars. I had planned on getting dollars from the ATM like the people at the back said I could, but they lied. So I had a large stack of Colones that are useless in Cuba, so I had to traipse all the way to LASP, get my passport, go all the way back to the bank, change the money, and then go all the way to LASP again. Frick. Incompetence of the bank employees makes me get all irritable.

After spending a while at LASP chatting with some friends and using free internet I came back to the house and made spaggetti with garlic bread for my host family. They liked it. It wasn’t too hard to make. Neato gang.

I also completed my own little no-shave November today. I shaved the large beard I was growing because tonight I am going to hear the national symphony play at the national theatre in downtown San Jose. I am quite pumped about the whole endeavor. It is cheap, I like classical music, and it is a good reason to go into the theatre. You know. Music and all that. The girls who are going are getting fancy, and while I entertained the idea of just having a mustache…I decided that that would be a fools’ errand and shaved it off. I got some video and a good photo of it though.

I will be trying to do the rest of my Christmas shopping in Cuba, so hopefully I can get some of you a knickknack. I am getting increasingly excited to see and talk with all of you. In class we talked a bit about reverse culture-shock. I may have that at some point, this is entirely possible, but I am still really pumped to be going home soon. I hope you all bear with me if things get challenging for me. I don’t expect them to, but I didn’t expect most of what I thought about and dealt with here so I doubt home will be different.

I am also MCing the LASP talent show at the end of the journey in Miami with my friends Chelsea and Ryan. That will be a hoot. I got nominated to do so. I doubt that STUB at SPU will extend me the same offer. I turned down their offer last year for me to host date auction because date auction is stupid and I wanted to hold out for what I really wanted: to host talent show. They got bitter (except for Kile “I kick ass” Petersen) and so I got to do neither. Someone from their team last year is in charge now…oh well. Maybe she isn’t bitter anymore?

This is Chauncey Handy, leaving Costa Rica tomorrow. Signing off. I am leaving on a jet plane…don’t know when I’ll be back again.