YoungGlobalCitizen.com tries to create a dialogue about the ideas of culturally sustaining development, global citizenship, travel, and identity. I may post an analysis of current events, a memory or photo from my travels, an inspirational quotation or song, or just an opinion. I believe that everyone in the world is amazing because we can all learn from every person, place, thing, and idea that we come into contact with and I believe that one day our world will be united with this kind of global appreciation. I would love to hear from any one, please contact me through the "Any Questions?" link below or at SSL332@nyu.edu.
In a few hours I’m leaving Santa Elena, saying goodbye to so many things that I’ll know I’ll miss dearly, especially the friends I’ve made here, but at the same time I’ll be continuing on in Venezuela for a week more and still be with Kelsey. A part of me feels like Trail of Seeds project ends today, but really we finished giving the last grant two days ago, I’m meeting Trevor in a couple weeks to talk about editing the documentary, and Kelsey and I still need to write out a few budgets- as part of a huge push I’ve been doing lately to get official future documents for the organization set up. Also, though we’re leaving all of our new friends here, they all have Facebook, unlike in Mangula, so I know I’ll be hearing from them soon.
Things aren’t really ending, just changing- the next portion is starting and there is so much to look forward to. Tonight we are taking a 10 hour bus to Ciudad Bolivar from where tomorrow we will be flying in a five-seater plane to Canaima. We will then take a four hour dug-out canoe ride to the base of Angel Falls, the tallest waterfall in the world, sleep there in hammocks, and come back the next day. Then we’ll take another 10 hour bus to Caracas, meet up with my roommate from the United World College, meet his family, go to a beach, and then head off a couple days later. Kelsey will go back to Canada, and I have a fun 2-day layover in Trinidad where I will stay with one of my best friend’s mom and go out clubbing and Soca dancing with the sister of another friend. Then, I’ll be in New York, the day before my birthday, meet my grandparents (who are there for a college reunion) for lunch, and hang out with my friends, many of whom I haven’t seen in over a year!
What I’m most excited for is continuing Trail of Seeds’ work. The success of our project here and the lessons we’ve learned from the mistakes will make us a better organization going forward and I’m actively searching for the tools to improve. I’ve decided that for my final semester of university, and for the first time ever, I will not have a job outside of school. I can’t wait to see what all I’ll accomplish with my extra time but I know I will be personally, physically, and intellectually advancing and pushing forward Trail of Seeds as well.
It’s always a strange feeling being sad to leave something behind but being so excited for the future. (Un?)Fortunately, I’ve become accustomed to it by moving around so much. But no matter how exciting the next week, or four months, or fifty years are, I’ll know I’ll never forget my time in Santa Elena. I’ll always remember our dog cachique, empandas from Rosa’s breakfast shop, the long walk to Manak-Kru, the songs we always sing, the interactions with so many people around town, and the friendships that we’ve formed. I might even miss the plastic covering on all of our mattresses, the inconsistent internet, and the loud street that I live on. It’s been a special place to us and I think we’ve left a special impact as well.
We’ve done more than we thought that we would here, that was always my goal, and will continue to be for all that comes ahead. -Sal
Over the past few days I have reflected on my time in Venezuela sitting by the window overlooking the hills surrounding Caracas and the Caribbean Ocean stretching out into the horizon. I have been staying in the apartment of Maikor’s extended family sharing a room with his eighty five year old great uncle, spending the remaining days enjoying the joys of Venezuelan hospitality swimming in the ocean with Maikor’s cousin and drawing a portrait of their pet parrot as a thank you gift.
Thinking back on the workshop I feel very pleased in what we were able to put together in a little over three weeks. Although our team couldn’t make it to Roraima we had a very successful journey to El Mirador del Oso, a rural outpost overlooking Kukenan, Roraima, and other Tepuyes.The young guys from Manak Kru, Daniel, Shannon and I travelled there and interviewed local people about their relationship to the land, their indigenous identity, and the folklore about the area.
Meanwhile the other members of the team did a diverse array of interviews around Santa Elena about Roraima. During the last week the whole group came together and worked together in the postproduction and editing process. Through screenings, discussions, and editing workshops we were able to have an inclusive process, which took everyone’s opinion into account. Our film concerned indigenous identity, conservation, and accessibility to sacred land.
We had over 15 people participate in the workshop and 10 who contributed to the pre-production, filming, and editing. The final showing on the 24th proved that it was a truly collective effort when 60 people from the community showed up, many friends and family members of the participants. The exhibition that Shannon’s participatory photo workshop had displayed along with the documentary showed the considerable creative talent in the community and how putting the right tools in the right hands can produce invaluable cultural introspection.
Before leaving I met several times with Rodny Ara the coordinator at IMCA (the Municipal Institute for Arts and Culture) to figure out the best way to leave one of the cameras we brought in order for the community to continue on the future projects. I wrote a document and left and a much discussed and solid framework so that the camera should not end up being someone’s personal handy cam or get destroyed.
Although the camera is now fully in the hands of IMCA and the Santa Elena/ Manak Kru communities I will keep in close contact with Rodny about the progress of the projects. I am very excited to see what the community produces but I also think it is very important to reflect and be accountable for the resources we give. The great thing about the workshops is that you can see the impact as it evolves and by the end and it was clear in our case that the outcome was positive.
The grants and tools like the camera are different. Too often in dominant development discourse projects are not reflexive and don’t take past mistakes into account when planning for the future. Even more so, summer service projects, charities and the like tend to focus more on the groups’ experience rather then the real effectiveness of the projects they implement. If the camera is misused there is nothing I, nor Trail of Seeds can do or will do. No amount of long distance scolding or paternalism will change what happens. However it is my responsibility to observe, analyze, and reflect on what happens taking into account the longer-term effects of our work.
In the past three or so weeks I have spent in Venezuela I have done a fair bit of traveling. I arrived from Canada by air but have spent many hours since in buses, taxis, and various other random vehicles. Some of my most memorable and entertaining moments have occurred while moving from one place to another.
Gasoline is very cheap in Venezuela (although gas station line ups can be kilometers long) so people seem to have very little incentive to save gas. For example, it is not uncommon for taxi drivers to stop randomly wherever they want and leave the car running while they get an empanada, go to the bathroom, or chat with their colleagues. On our way back from Brazil our taxi driver seemed to be running low on gas, but instead of going to a gas station he veered off of the main road into what seemed like someone’s yard. We waited a few minutes until a woman emerged with a jug of gasoline which she poured into our tank while the engine was still running. It is also very easy to find people to share rides with here, and cabs rarely operate without all their seats filled, making journeys especially interesting. Taxis here are clearly not a regulated service as they are in Canada, but I have (mostly) enjoyed their creative and unpredictable nature.
In addition to taxis, I have also spent a fair amount of time here on buses. They range from quite fancy double-decker units to bare-bones buses which are really more like vans with benches in the middle. I was fortunate to take a fancier bus on my 21 hour journey to Santa Elena, and I spent roughly 5 of those hours imagining that I was on the Spice Bus from the movie ‘Spice World’, except instead of Victoria Beckham singing in my ear I had several Venezuelan men enthusiastically singing aloud to different songs being played from their cell phones. These buses are intensely air conditioned and it would be a mistake to get on one without warm clothes and blankets. However, it is also a bit of a mistake to bundle yourself and take a perhaps ambitious number of sleeping pills only to wake up 12 hours later drenched in sweat because at some point during your slumber the Spice Bus air conditioning had stopped working (this may have happened to me, I honestly thought I had had an accident-that’s how sweaty I was). Another word of advice for the tall or lanky individuals out there- do not try to jam your legs into a window-seat on one of the smaller buses, nobody wins when your bony knees are literally stuck into the back of the seat in front of you.
I hope that this post doesn’t come off as too negative or whiny. I really have enjoyed the quirks of traveling within Venezuela and although unpredictable at times, the journeys I have taken here have been generally pleasant and very memorable (here’s hoping our good fortune continues as we make our way to Angel Falls this weekend!)
In preparation for my last graduation requirement, a two hour discussion with three of my advisers in which I must present and defend my concentration (Culturally Sustainable Development), I have been rereading the books of developmental history and theory that have shaped my views and give weight to my position.
I’ve conquered Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, plowed my way through Stiglitz’ Stability with Growth, read millions of years of history in David Fromkin’s The Way of the World¸ am halfway done with Arturo Escobar’s Encountering Development, and have David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism and McCarty et. al’s Polarized America packed and ready to be read in a few days as I lounge in a hammock next to Angel Falls. Needless to say, there has been a lot of page turning here in Santa Elena.
Though I’ve read almost all of these works before, reading them here in Venezuela while doing Trail of Seeds’ mini development project has been incredibly meaningful. It is wonderful to see the critiques and failures of development on the page, and then get up and go do work that tries to mitigate these problems. For example, yesterday at 4:00pm I read in Escobar’s book that development largely was and still is “a top-down, ethnocentric, and technocratic approach, which treats people and cultures as abstract concepts.” Then, at 5:00pm I went to a meeting with a community organizer who said she does her work with indigenous language because “the heart of the culture is the people and vice-versa the heart of the people is the culture” and I gave her a micro-grant to publish a new book of songs. I told her “this isn’t a gift that we give to you or the community to help, it is something earned for all the hard work, and we’re just recognizing that.”
Understandably, learning these critiques in theory and then attempting to apply them in practice is almost ineffably pleasing to a student of development. What is most exciting is that there is always so much more to learn- Trail of Seeds will continue to grow from both our experiences in the field and through our gaining of a stronger grasp on development theory which provides insight into how we can work to make it better.
In contrast to what I shared of Escobar’s explanation above, Trail of Seeds is trying to promote a community level, inclusive, human approach which treats people and cultures as the most critical aspects of development. We have the passion, we are gaining the experience and skills, and we will continue to contextualize, historicize, and critique our own work and all that came before so that we can make the biggest impact possible.
From the oppressing hegemony of the stars and stripes, to the songs of false revolution of the romantic reds, we find ourselves in a generation where one can find disappointment in every corner.
On the last night in Santa Elena, before Marcela and I left to Caracas, the group had a heated discussion about the political and social reality of Venezuela and the world. Inevitably we ended up conversing in a very abstract level about the systems and models we find ourselves living under.
I have been postponing writing this final blog in a frustration to find the purpose and outcome of going to Santa Elena. I discussed with Sal the personal expectations of Trail of Seeds and the achievements after the two weeks of workshops. I definitely learned a lot: adaptability, teamwork, leadership, humility, and in many other areas I feel that I have grown from the group and the experience. But, more than a growth in the competencies one has to continuously develop as a human being, this experience was relevant to me as an attempt in finding a model that I could actually believe in.
Culturally Sustainable Development seems like an awfully complex term, actually is fairly straightforward. I came to understand through this experience that it has arisen as a response to many critiques that the field of development has had in the past. That it gives a central focus to culture and the development of communities. That it focuses not on the “freezing” of culture, but on its sustainable development. Also, only giving grants to preexisting organizations, in order to reinforce established webs of creation, shows an understanding that it is more powerful to be humble than to attempt to impose a personal project in a community one does not belong to.
These examples of the way through which this model attempts to create positive change in the world make complete sense to me, and are very powerful. But I don’t leave Santa Elena believing this is the way to change the world.
Don’t get me wrong; Culturally Sustainable Development is by far the best model to make a difference. But I have come to a personal conclusion that endlessly discussing models and believing one better than another is nothing more than an illusion.
I leave Santa Elena not blindly convinced that a model will elevate human kind into a utopian reality, I do leave blindly convinced that there are people with good hearts and will that working together can make a difference.
Seeing the group of individuals that came to Santa Elena with nothing to earn but the satisfaction that making a positive impact gives them, and having the opportunity to meet passionate individuals in Santa Elena that are working in the right direction to follow their dreams or to make an impact in their community, is what assures me that I have to be positive about the future. I don’t think we have to find the one model that will magically allow us to rearrange globally into a functional society. There are many ways to create a positive impact in ones surrounding, the only thing needed is the good will to come together and do so.
From the oppressing hegemony of the stars and stripes to the songs of false revolution of the romantic reds, we find ourselves in a generation where one can find an opportunity to improve in every corner.