Jul 13, 2015

LAST last day

Today really is my last last day in Canada. Sitting at the airport after a beautiful, exhausting week/month of goodbyes and leavings. Last day of school, last day of work, last soccer practice, dance performance, neighbour dinner, friends beach walk. Last drive past the most beautiful vista on Vancouver Island (Bench Road at Wilson, when the road from the highway suddenly opens up to rolling hay fields with the mountains behind and the sun/moon always throwing crazy sideways light). Last meal from Auntie Marj (buffalo) and last bottle feeding of Jackson (new baby buffalo). I blurted out at my last men's group that I was about done with leaving and ready to start living.

In the midst of those beautiful goodbye's there was scarce time for contemplating what comes next. Friends kept asking how it felt to be going to Costa Rica, and all I could stammer was how good it felt to be present right here, right now, fully living the rich blessing that is our life in the Cowichan Valley.

Then when we finally left the island, there were these last 10 days of camping, visiting Uncle Roy's ranch in the Quesnel hills, supporting G's team winning bronze in the provincial cup (3rd best team in the whole darn province!). Driving over 1,200 amazing BC miles (thanks for the car,mom1) through canyons, evergreen mountains, high plains ranchland and deserts, green crystal lakes, forest fires, and as many Dairy Queens as a team of teenagers could wrangle. We live in a diverse, awe-inspiring part of the world - Monteverde will be equally but differently beautiful, but I will always know what I'm coming home to in 2 years.

Then today, the real last day, was about everything except me and my trip. Dropped the family at the airport at 6am, then retrieved the dog (Snug) and spent 3 hours checking her in. Back to our squatter house in Vancouver to spend some hours of laundry, cleaning and caring to show deep thanks to those dear friends. And a note and some money for the neighbour girl who watched Syd the cat during our trip, and her parents who jumped in with some logistical burocratic acrobatics. Then an hour washing my mom's car inside and out to show more deep thanks. Then pizza with good ol' Uncle Phil in gratitude for him caring for Snug for the week, and all he gives our family. A day of honouring just some of the many people who have supported this transition in surprising, all-the-shades-of-the-sunset ways.

Now AT LAST it's just me and a cat in the airport, 3 hours early. Realizing that I need to re-read all the emails from Costa Rica helping me get my head in to the game. And the job description. And even my job application, what made me want and believe this to be Right. Realizing that I have no real idea what it's going to be like, what I'm going to do each day - okay, I always knew that I didn't know that, but realizing now that it is just a little scary. My head believes, from experience as well as faith, that all I really need is openness and commitment to make this work, and that flexibility and lack of pre-conceived notions is the best way to enter. But that little piece that would like to Know kinda wishes I knew my schedule, what my co-workers' voices sound like, how that fancy job description translates into a job. That my Spanish was already one-month into being back in the flow. That my wife and kids weren't coming 12 days after me (visiting family in Chicago - more of the celebrating supportive good people in our lives). That I already knew what Head of School really looks and feels like.

It'll all come soon. Two families have offered to cook my first dinner tomorrow, and another invited us to a community welcoming potluck at the butterfly gardens. First day of work comes the morning after. First trip to the beach (working trip with my admin team) this weekend. First meeting with Spanish-speaking staff, first fresh mango, first time asking for the local discount price in the shops and restaurants, first Meeting with our new Quaker community. The lasts are finally over, and it's time for some firsts again.

Jun 30, 2015

Leaving tomorrow for Costa Rica

Yes, tomorrow. For 2 years. Which is why I shouldn't be blogging. I've posted two pieces about this move on our family blog - http://wildsidefamilyadventure.com/ Feeling deeply held by this community, and 100% committed to coming back after 2 years. This is Home.

Aug 9, 2014

Neighbours For Sale

Empty. Desolate. Our ideal communal property feels like it's been ripped through by a tornado. Our dear neighbours have left.

When we bought this property, it was the beautiful 5 acres, the barn, the farm, the trees that made it feel perfect. But then we found out that it came complete with a neighbour family of 3 kids. So we instantly had 5 children on our land, then aged 4,5,6,7 and 8. Various renting families and others in nearby houses have bolstered the gang to as many as a dozen, but these five have been the core.

When I think about the most beautiful part of our children's, and our family's, early years, it will always be these children. Weekend mornings we would wake up to a happy bubble of whispers and movement and games and singing and conspiring of 5 or more children in the living room. Sarah and I would lie in bed thinking that Adam and Patty may think they're getting the best of this deal by getting to sleep in, but we get to wake up to this happiest of sounds, then spend our morning puttering and interacting with these beautiful growing children.

The tell-tale rattling sound of the front-door window always makes our boys jump out of whatever they are doing to run to the door - "The neighbours are here!" Driving home from anywhere, especially from a trip away, we always look up the driveway to see if they're home, the boys usually tumbling out of the car at the bottom of the driveway to run next door and check in.

Over the 6 years, different passions and routines came and went as the kids grew, including:
- board games (Settlers of Cataan, yatzee)
- arts (drawing, leggo, origami)
- bow and arrow making
- selling flowers at the roadside stand
- bike jumps, skateboards, scooters
- water fights
- sledding and snowboarding and snowplay
- sports (street hockey, softball, basketball, air hockey...)
- music (Annie, country, then Adelle, Waving Flag, Macklemore...)
- hockey cards, hockey cards, and more hockey cards
- "hanging out" and whispering

And oh ya, those kids came with parents. Wonderful parents who cared for our children with love, shared parenting ideas and challenges openly with us, included our kids in their outings and trusted us with their precious young-uns unquestioningly. Wonderful adults who handed us keys to their spare car on our first day here - "Here, this can be your spare car too." Friends who shared meals, fires, tools, food. People we could depend on.

We were supposed to keep growing up together. See them graduate, get married. Instead, they have left for California. The driveway is empty, the front door window doesn't rattle, the strongest thread of this childhood tapestry has been broken. We can't tell bored, bickering siblings to "Go to the neighbours!" I don't have a ready posse of 10 kids to help corral the buffalo when it's time to take him for processing in September (see photo below).

So we must redefine what this land means to us. We still have amazing land, beautiful long-term renters, good kids less than a minute walk away, and an extended community to reach out to. Maybe this is a call for us to strengthen those connections, now that the easiest and naturalest of communal children has ended. And to stay open to whatever new family or people move in, and what new magic can be created with them.

So, there's not only a house for sale in Cowichan Station, but the potential for community. For 6 years it took the form of this amazing free flow of children and energy. That will never happen again in the same form, and this writing is a form of celebrating and releasing that pattern so that there's room for someone and something new to take its place.

Apr 6, 2014

Co-operatives in Myanmar

For the past three months, I was in Myanmar supporting the co-operative movement on behalf of the Canadian Co-operative Association. Bringing a Canadian and international perspective to a movement that is both old (in the stale, entrenched sense) and new (in the sense of great potential).

The first part of my job was to design and pave the way for a "New Model" co-op, working with sesame farmers in the "Dry Zone" in the hot middle of the country. I was unable to ever meet with these farmers due to government authorization snafus (see "Late Night Eviction"), so I had to be learn about the co-op scene through visits to neighbouring co-ops, government officials, and non-profits doing similar work in other regions. Through this creative process I uncovered the challenges and opportunities we would be facing, including:

Challenge: Co-ops have been around for decades, but as an implement of the former government's socialist movement, hence some negative associations for Myanmar people.
Opportunity: I demonstrated how co-ops in Canada and around the world have a higher success rate than private businesses. Then we created a business plan for the farmers' co-op that showed how farmers would increase their income (ie, it fits into a profit-oriented capitalist model).

Challenge: Co-ops are currently a central part of the government's poverty alleviation plans (good!), but narrowly conceived as just a way of channeling much-needed micro-credit loans to farmers and small businesses.
Opportunity: I was able to give multiple examples from Canada (all here in the Cowichan Valley) of other types of co-ops and co-op activities. We then designed the farmers co-op to include farmer education, joint seed and fertilizer order, technical support for uniform planting and harvesting techniques (thereby ensuring higher quality yields), and finally joint marketing to avoid the middle man and ensure fair dealings with purchasers.

Challenge: Co-ops are seen basically as corporations, owned and run by others, often with the suspicion that the co-op management is corrupt.
Opportunity: The pilot co-op will of course emphasize proper elections, reporting and accountability, and education will centre on the member-owned, "self-help" principle of co-operatives. More concretely, farmers expect that whomever they sell their sesame to should pay them right away, then take the product to market and recoup their costs plus profit. They initially expected this of the proposed pilot co-op too. Instead, we are putting it back on them -the co-op is not some other business buying your sesame; the co-op is all you farmers coming together, pooling your product, having elected representatives sell it on your behalf, then returning the money to you. This delayed payment is the single biggest challenge, and probably the most important innovation to make this truly a member-owned, member-operated co-op.

The second part of my assignment was to be the first on-the-ground person for the Canadian Co-operative Association (CCA) in Myanmar, mucking around to see how CCA might establish a long-term presence in the country. I met with other NGO's, governments, co-ops, and the Co-op University/College network to see where CCA might be able to play a role. Despite limited time and chaotic/changing schedules, I was able to identify several areas where CCA would be a important partner, such as:
- teaching and curriculum review at the university and training colleges
- partnering with other NGO's who are doing large-scale development projects, so CCA personnel provide the co-op design and training expertise
- convene a network of other NGO's and agencies working in the co-operative sector. Great interest was expressed in regular meetings and correspondence to share training materials, project opportunities, advocacy, mutual education, and creating a consistent approach to co-op development by agencies from around the world

I was the first of 3 Canadian co-op technical advisors to go to Myanmar this year. The Saskatchewan farmer/co-op developer who took my place got to actually start the farmer education and buy-in process, and the third person will hopefully complete the work by getting the co-op up and running, while also continuing to develop national and international links for CCA's future projects. My other blog posts have been about the amazing personal learning and family experience we had, but professionally this was an extremely rewarding contract. My respect deepened for the Canadian co-op movement and what we have to share in other countries, gave me new tools and perspectives to bring back to my co-op development work here in Canada, and I believe that the foundation was laid for a successful pilot co-op and long-term program for CCA in the region.

Feb 21, 2014

Late Night Eviction

For almost 3 months now we’ve been living and working in Myanmar, sharing photos and writings about beauty, cultural learning, spiritual growth, and friendship. All of that is true, but what I haven’t shared is the undercurrent of frustration and legal challenges culminating in being literally run out of town in the middle of the night.

This whole time I have not had “travel authority” – legal permission to live and work in this Township. I have a house, staff and office here, but am not officially allowed to use them. After over a month we got a letter from the national Minister of Co-operatives authorizing the project, but we still had to await “remarks” from the Regional “Prime Minister” and immigration and co-operative departments, then the District, then the Township immigration and administration authorities. It meant that I could visit co-operatives and partner agencies all over the country but not consult with the farmers I’m here to design a project with; I could meet with my staff quietly at my dining room table, but only sneak into the office before or after hours to “quickly” do emails (which takes over an hour each time).

It also meant that for the first 2 months we moved our family to 23 different hotels. Finally the most local level of government – the Quarter Administration – took pity on our emotional and financial plight and quietly granted permission to move into the house. The huge exhale of “We Are Here” relief, and inhale of “Welcome” and friendship I’ve been writing about, started then, just 3 weeks ago (Sarah made me double-check – we slept exactly 21 days in that fuzzy pink love nest).

Then it all fell apart, in the final week. At 10am on Wednesday, 3 days before we our final departure, we received official “oral” permission from the Regional level to live and work here. But at 10pm on Wednesday, we were informed by the Township level that we’ve been illegally staying in our house and given 15 minutes to pack a bag, wake up the kids, and leave town. By 11pm we were safely across the river in our old hotel, desperately trying to hold onto the neighbourhood warmth we’d been basking in, and honestly worried about arrest or deportation.

Today they have given us permission to go back to the house just to pack up our things, but under strict rules to not leave the house and to be out before sunset. We are not allowed to go to the market to pick up our clothes from the tailor, can’t take our favourite walk past the noodle-maker’s bamboo house, can’t play one last game of soccer or chinlone with all the neighbourhood youth. My mom arrived the morning after to find us in a hotel across the river instead of our home. She flew 17 hours and 14.5 time zones to visit us here, and all she’ll get to see of our town is through the bars of our windows.

This abrupt ending is in sharp contrast to the endless warm embrace of the people of Myanmar – presumably even the same people whose official government role forces them to take this inhospitable action. I wonder what inner conflict they are feeling between what their heart would want to do and what they believe their laws tell them they have to do. I’m never allowed to even meet with them, which is probably a good thing since I too vacillate between wanting to yell at them and feeling compassion for them.

Compassion – that’s a good word. Also patience. Acceptance. Embrace. These have been the lessons of Myanmar. We only got 3 weeks of living in the place we thought we’d have 3 months, but they were rich, real and full. We travelled and saw much more of the country than expected, and felt held and awe-struck and blessed everywhere we went. I did not have permission to follow my very ambitious and very detailed workplan, but still managed to creatively accomplish all the goals.

The legal restrictions and complications may have confined our stay here, but they did not define it. The people and culture of Myanmar were the real Stuff of our stay, and our family’s own resilience and togetherness the Strength. Today the house will be flooded with people who genuinely Know and Care for us, giving and receiving presents and hugs and tears. How can I remain angry or frustrated at our eviction, or even sad at our leaving, when we’ve been gifted with such lessons in love?

PS – I wrote a whiny, apologetic Please Please Please letter to immigration, and they did allow us to be outside the house today. So the boys got to proudly parade their Grandma through the market, we got a final visit with our tailors (who as always insisted on feeding us), and there were even more tears and hugs and presents than I could have imagined. The twins got permission from the school headmaster to stay home all day with us, and there were rarely less than a dozen people helping us pack and feel held. A perfect ending to a perfectly bizarre and beautiful episode of our life.

Feb 20, 2014

The Myanmar Testosterone Club

Boys will be boys. Whether Myanmar or Canadian, white- or brown-skinned, boys will be silly, wild, creative, bored. Teenagers will be aggressive, tender, high, low, smelly. The mutual thrill of befriending someone from another culture (see 3 blog posts ago) has quickly and naturally transformed into kids’ friendship, and our living room has transformed into the same loud, smelly-feet clubhouse as our Canadian home.

The twins – now somewhat distinguishable as “Nee-Nee” and “Ko-Ko” – usually arrive first, ready to launch into living-room badminton or guitar or whatever’s on hand. Pyo Zin Oo (the short joker and our favourite) comes a bit later and alternates between the Kill-The-Man badminton attacks and quieter artwork with G’s geometry set. The other two boys are a bit more irregular. How these 5 have ended up being the gang is a mystery, but they’re lovely and real.

Saturday we rented a “moto-taxi” – motorcycle attached to a cart – into which we stuffed all 7 kids, John Bo and his parents, and me and Sarah. For $5 we motored to 2 ancient temples and the local volcano – a series of burping black mudpools that are slowly creating hills and a surreal lunar landscape on the edge of town. We bought a variety of beautiful mystery fruit and two lava-clay owl ornaments, the twins bought 3 sparrows to be released for good luck, and we still got home in time for the daily soccer (“football”) game at the stadium.

Presents and food are still central. The boys arrive with local sweets or fried mysteries that we usually struggle to enjoy. On them we inflict chocolate chips and sushi and cilantro pesto, with equally baffling results. We celebrate and play with the cultural differences, while mostly enjoying the common elements that make us people and friends first.

Sunday the boys walked us down to the river and hired a fishing boat to take us out to the sandy island in the middle of the river. The 7 kids erupted onto the island doing everything you’d expect kids to do – run, swim, sand castles (looking alot like the temples we visited yesterday), scooping tadpoles, racing, digging canals to bring water in from the river, chasing birds. We were 8 dirty, wet, panting bare-chested boys on a beach (and one amused wife) – is there anything more universal?

At first I babysat them, helped the boys integrate and learn how to navigate language and cultural barriers. Now they toodle through town with their gang or hang out here while Sarah and I do what good parents everywhere do – hide in our air-conditioned bedroom, coming out to break up the occasional argument, redirect bored kids, feed them regularly, and arbitrarily send them all out to the street when they need some air.

John Bo laughs at me when I flash the neighbour. The twins laugh at G when he farts. Boys will be boys. And friends.

Feb 17, 2014

Natural Beauty

I can’t remember the last time I wore pants. Undies, however, may need to come back into use.

When I wear my longyi (traditional skirt that pretty much all Myanmar men and women wear), I’m not trying to fit in and be fashionably cool and local. I’m trying to stay cool, and comfortable, and, um, free. I simply love wearing it, and happily my wife loves me in it too.

But there’s a fine art to tying the knot that keeps a longyi up. Locals are constantly re-tying it while walking down the street, happily flapping the skirt a few times to refresh the air supply before the ritual double fold, tease-out-2 ends, twist-once and tuck in. Young men playing chinlone pull the bottom edge up and tuck it in at the waist, creating the sexiest diaper look imaginable. Fashions include tight neat knots, Big Bulging Man knots, let a long end flop out free in the wind knots, and clever ways to tuck your money into the knot for market days. I’ve gotten good enough that I can go hours or even a full day without needing to re-tie, nor worry about what I need to wear underneath as a precaution.

Until yesterday, that is. Our newly-befriended neighbour came over with a gift of fresh watermelon. At one point during the visit with this young woman and the usual other folk who gather at our house, I gave Sarah a high-five. John Bo’s parents were so amused that they did a two-handed slap (high-ten?) Not to be outdone, I motioned to Sarah to do a jump-in-the-air high ten.

As we both gracefully launched into the air and slapped hands, the longyi knot strained against this new vigorous motion. When our feet triumphantly landed on the concrete floor, my longyi triumphantly landed around my knees. I quick-as-lightning pulled it back up, laughing and looking to see just how much had been revealed to our friends. John Bo’s quick commentary settled any doubts about modesty having been spared:

“It’s Okay, Mr Rick. Natural beauty.”

It takes 5 minute to walk over to the office, but much less time for a good story to travel. By the time I reached there, knowing smiles and giggles met me at the door. My other co-worker, Thein Thein Win, greeted me with a coy question – “So, Mr. Rick, how is the longyi tying going?”

“Good until today”, I replied. She smiled, then outright laughed, and said, “I heard. Natural beauty!”