Culture, Politics, Religion, Social Life

… is paved with good intentions.

The evangelical problem…

So, where to start with today’s rant?

Shortly after settling into Jaibalito, I noticed something that I thought was odd. That first night, I didn’t think much of it but as days went by, I came to realize this was going to be a daily thing.

For those following my trip on Facebook, you may have seen a post or two with me joking about badly sung Spanish karaoke. You see, every day around 6pm, I’m jolted by very loud music and singing in what I thought was Spanish but now realize is sometimes Spanish and sometimes Kaqchikel, the local Mayan dialect.

Originally, I was kind of ticked off about it, not because it was annoying (although tit was) but because I thought it originated at a luxury hotel and was being put on for the rich Gringo tourists. I thought it was disrespectful to the local people to be playing music that loud for the benefit of foreigners.

This music is loud, and I mean Loud (capital L). It reverberates through the hills.

For those back home in Moncton, imagine a concert on Magnetic Hill and tone it down only slightly in volume.

After a couple of days of this I came to realize that it did not originate in the luxury hotel property at all but rather at one of the 2 local churches.

At this point, my indignation subsided. I thought to myself, of course, these people have little in the way of entertainment so a community sing along makes perfect sense. Why it was so loud I couldn’t figure out but it seemed someone was having some fun so, no problem.

Days passed and every day between 6pm and 9pm this music, accompanied by some very, very bad singing would ring though the hills of Jaibalito. Again, as an outsider, annoying, but I’m guest so I tried to ignore it.

Then I found out a little more info that put me back on that indignation path.

I never gave much thought to the fact there were two churches in this little village. Completely did not occur to me that this meant two faiths. I think most back home, when they think of Latin America they automatically think about the Catholic Church. Now, I don’t have many good things to say about the institution of the Catholic Church or the Pope but this blog entry is not about that.

You see, I discovered by talking to a couple of the locals and ex-pats who have been living here for years, that this ungodly blasting of music originates in a specific church and it is not the entire community that is partying it up but rather a minority of the community in fact. As well as annoying visiting gringos like myself, this blaring racket also apparently very much annoys the majority of the community.

These nightly events occur in the Evangelical Church, not the Catholic one.

IMG_0467Doing some further research and talking to locals again, I came to discover that Evangelical churches are exploding in Latin America in general but Guatemala very specifically. Over 30% of the population of this country is now evangelical. 40 or 50 years ago, close to 95% were Catholic.

So how is this fact relevant to my story about annoyingly loud music?

Well, for me it was a great example of how this new faith is negatively influencing the lives of the local people. Guatemalans in general but the Mayan people most specifically.

In Tongues of Fire: The Explosion of Protestantism in Latin America, David Martin of the London School of Economics asserts that the growth of conservative Protestantism in Latin America, Asia and Africa is as significant as the rise of revolutionary Islam.

The brand of evangelical Xtianity that is most widely seen down here is a variety of Pentecostalism and neo-Pentecostalism. It is imported into this country by western missionaries, mainly American. These zealous Americans urge personal commitments to Jesus and strict adherence to and a literal interpretation of, the Bible.

The spectacular growth of this sect since the 1960s has occurred largely in “Pentecostal groups that combine biblical orthodoxy with an innovative stress on emotionalism and miracles” according to a Time Magazine article.

I looked into a few of local missionary groups active in this area and found this in one of their mission statements:

We believe the Bible to be the inspired, only infallible, authoritative Word of God. We believe that there is one God eternally existent in three persons: The Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We believe in the deity of Christ, in His virgin birth, in His sinless life, in His miracles, in His vicarious and atoning death through His shed blood, in His bodily resurrection, and in His personal return in power and glory. We believe in the present day works of the Holy Spirit to inspire and empower believers to be effective followers of Jesus Christ. We believe in the resurrection of the saved to eternal life, and the everlasting punishment of those who have rejected God’s forgiveness in His Son. We strive to contribute to achieve greater unity in all that we do within the Body of Christ. Our heartbeat is to provoke a young generation to passionately pursue Jesus Christ and to take His life giving message to the ends of the earth!

Now, I’ve had to say this over and over again whenever I discuss my views on religion but I will say it again here: I have no issue with people of faith.

Full disclosure: I am an avowed atheist but I am well versed on Xtian mythology as well as that of other religions. I’ve read the Bible, several times, and cover to cover. If belief in a mystical power floats your boat, so be it, you’ll get no argument from me (unless you are interested in academic debate on the issue which I quite enjoy).

I reserve my religious distaste for the last part of that manifesto above. “and to take His life giving message to the ends of the earth” This is the part that I have a problem with and this is the crux of this blog entry (i.e. rant).

The Guatemala Civil War, which was horrific and really only ended about 7 years ago, was largely the result of US interference in Latin America.

Like the much more publicized Contra War in Nicaragua, Guatemala’s right wing governments and military were propped up, especially during the 1980’s by the US government, mainly through the CIA. It started with the CIA-backed coup of the democratically elected Guatemalan President in 1954 and continues, even up to this day to one degree or another.

As an aside, it was this US-backed coup in ’54 that helped radicalize a young Ernest Guevara and put him on the path to change Latin America forever.

At the height of the US government interference in Guatemalan affairs in the 1980’s, CIA-backed death squads roamed the country massacring suspected communist guerrillas and their sympathizers. These people were largely indigenous and the Maya people suffered horribly under these regimes.

Over 300,000 people were murdered or disappeared.

Efrain Rios-Montt, an ex-general turned de facto president in 80’s was recently found guilty of crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing of the Ixil Maya. Rios-Montt was once described by Ronald Reagan as: “a person of high moral character”. He was also a favourite of Margaret Thatcher and Brian Mulroney.

Sure, because he was also an evangelical pastor, he must be of “high moral character” right?

IMG_0463Montt enjoyed much support from evangelical leaders in the 1980s, while he was in power. He once counted Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson among his friends and supporters. Some US evangelical leaders have even recently defended this monster, maintaining that during the Cold War, “drastic measures were justified to keep Communists from overthrowing Guatemala’s government.”

I don’t know but I don’t see anywhere in the Bible that forgives someone for ethnic cleansing because it helps stem the tide of communism (maybe the Old Testament, I’ll have to go back and look).

As the fear of the communist rebel began to subside with the end of the cold war, the US backed off somewhat in its direct interference in Guatemalan affairs although they continued to backup and support its military.

At this point, a more unofficial interference moved into high gear in the form of US corporations and, more to my point today, US churches began moving down here in force. Evangelical missionaries flocked here and found waiting converts.

Catholicism was waning as it offered little help to the impoverished, terrified and war weary indigenous population. Javier Ariz, a Catholic bishop in Peru, says evangelicals make their gains by invading “areas where the people are naturally very religious and the Catholic Church has been chronically short of priests.”

Evangelicals, for example, provide the only community leadership in many parts of rural Latin America that have been overrun by guerilla groups. In Guatemala, evangelical pastors have saturated rural areas, greatly outnumbering Catholic priests. At the same time, they have been interfering in traditional Mayan ways of life.

So here is how it works according to my sources: These missionaries come into rural communities and start spreading around massive amounts of money. Again, this is rural Guatemala. A really good daily wage here is 70 Quetzales (that’s $9.28 CAD). And when I say really good wage, I mean the people that work in restaurants or the hotels that serve the gringo tourists. The subsistence Mayan farmers and artisans among whom I’m living would be lucky to earn $10 in a week.

So they spread around what seems like an unlimited supply of cash. The build beautiful new churches among the corrugated tin and cinder block homes of the locals. They teach early converts to their faith and make the most charismatic (and aggressive) among them pastors.

To be sure, a good portion of those who “accept salvation” may simply be doing what missionaries want them to do in order to receive surplus food and medicine. And in almost all instances, the missionaries equip these new churches with massive audio equipment including big Marshall stack speakers.

And then they leave.

They return back to their privileged American lives thinking they have spread the good word and ensured their place in heaven because they have converted the simple Mayan people to the only path to god.

Now, I’m sure they are well meaning. At least I hope they are. I want to believe that these people truly think they are doing good even if their methods (spreading around cash) are not exactly “Christian” in my opinion. And here is where the problem truly begins.

Once they are gone, their variety of “the good word” gets modified and twisted, morphing with the local interpretations and cultural influences of the area.

Remember the civil war I described above?

Many of those responsible for the worst atrocities, both government and private death squad alumni but some guerrillas as well, find themselves in leadership roles in these new churches. They are the most aggressive, confident and charismatic so its natural for them to take control of these new communities. These churches, from my experience, become gangs.

They continue to flaunt the money and equipment supplied by their American benefactors and those who have not converted are now viewed as the enemy in many instances. Those who support the evangelicals are showered with praise and gifts and those who do not, those who maintain their Catholic or traditional Mayan faiths are ostracized and bullied.

And that takes me full circle back to this loud, blaring music and singing every night for 3 to 4 hours.

Keep in mind, this is the tropics and daylight hours don’t fluctuate like they do in the north. By 6pm, the sun is going down. By 7pm, its pitch dark. People here are also early risers, often up and active by 5am and certainly by 6am.

Not long after this daily evangelical singsong tradition began, many of the traditional Mayans complained, first to the Mayor and then directly to the local evangelical pastor. In one instance relayed to me, a pregnant mother, who also had a couple of other small children at home, went to the pastor to tell him that the loud music was very disruptive to the community and that her children needed their sleep and asked him to possibly turn the volume down somewhat or to possibly begin and end the events earlier.

His response to her was to tell her that if she complained to him again, or if she went to the Mayor or to the regional police in Panajachel, that she would be killed and her children orphaned.

In another instance relayed to me, two local boys were severely beaten because their families refused to join the evangelical church. There are many more instances like this.

Now, I’m aware that evangelicals back home would read this account and be as disgusted as I and will claim this is not their religion and that I should not paint all evangelicals with the same brush.

To that I say… bullshit.

Sure, what it has morphed into in these local communities may not reflect you religion of peace and love but that is a cop out in my opinion.

If your faith encourages, or even requires you to proselytize and find converts to your own brand of Xtianity, and your church chooses to evangelize in the developing world, then you most definitely are responsible for this type of behavior.

You cannot come into these communities, preach your gospel, throw around obscene amounts of money and then leave and not take responsibility for any unintentional side effects.

If you don’t want to be associated with these goon-pastors and the types of tactics they use in the name of Jesus… then perhaps you should stop sending your missionaries here until you have a better understanding of the local culture.

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Culture, Food, Politics

A blight on the developing world…

Sugar.

“The global burden of non-communicable disease has skyrocketed in the past decade. For the first time in human history, chronic non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes pose a greater health burden worldwide than do infectious diseases, contributing to 35 million deaths annually.” – Harvard College, Global Health Review

Several years ago, I went on a low carb/high protein diet and succeeded in taking off 35 pounds. The hardest part for me was cutting out Coke. I normally drank at least two litres a day. Like most of those types of diets once I hit my target weight I started to ease back into a normal diet and was able to keep about 20 to 25 of those lost pounds off. Instead of adding Coke back into my diet though, I switched to Diet Coke, something I attribute, at least partially, to my ability to keep some of those pounds off. Now the topic of aspartame and diet pop is for another time but Diet pop, while not fattening, does have its downsides too and I’ve discovered some of those as I have been without Diet Coke here in Central America for a few weeks now.

So, as someone used to seeing candy bars and pop in every store window, I did not expect to be shocked by what I saw in my travels. Let me start by saying that I have tried some of these sugary, junk food products down here. I did so out of habit more than anything else. In a away it was a warm security blanket to see brands that I was used to and comfortable with. Pepsi, Coke, Doritos, etc. Of course they are all down here and very easily accessible. That’s the problem. They are cheap, and they are everywhere.

The surprise came though when I bought some of these products and tasted them. Gone was the familiarity. Different recipes than I was used to apparently. And it wasn’t simply the localization of these recipes. It was very clear to me that sugar content was much higher than I was used to.

A bottle of Pepsi here in Guatemala tastes to me what the pure Pepsi syrup must taste like in fountain pop back home. Sweet is an understatement. It was downright disgusting to my tastebuds. As an aside, the Diet drinks, known as Coke Light down here, were equally disgusting. It wasn’t that the diet varieties were too sweet but the after taste and the film it left in your mouth would make you question what was in it. Anyway, quick cure for my pop addiction.

A load 'o Pepsi.And the stuff is cheap. Super cheap. So cheap that you readers are going to feel pretty ripped off next time you hit a local Needs or get your snack fix at Sobey’s next time you get groceries. A 600ml bottle of Pepsi or Coke… under $0.50. And candy is even cheaper. And its ubiquitous. You cannot turn around and not see it. Even this tiny little Mayan village where I live has at least 3 tiendas (small stores) whose main products appear to be sugary candy and soft drinks.

The locals are addicted to this stuff. Many of the poor make the bulk of their weekly income from simply collecting the plastic pop bottles for recycling efforts in the larger towns. The lanchas, the boat taxis going from town to town on Lago de Atitlan, are often full of either empty pop bottles going to Panajachel or loaded down to near sinking with full loads of 2 and 3 litre (yes… 3 litre) bottles of Pepsi. This leads to the second plague I see infecting this country… the plastic bottle and plastic bag. I’ll have that rant another time.

For some reason, likely corruption-related, Pepsi is the dominant player in Guatemala. Coke is here but its much harder to find. Pepsi and its advertising are everywhere.

“Finding a way to regulate refined sugar, which has been conclusively shown to be a drug similar to tobacco and alcohol, is crucial for both the health of developed and developing countries. Failure to curb global sugar consumption will condemn the world to yet another decade of rampant obesity, diabetes and cancer.” – Harvard College, Global Health Review

The evidence of this plague is easy to see. The vast majority of the adults have horrible teeth, most with clearly evident metal fillings replacing large portions of their teeth (interestingly, some of it gold).

The children here are seen constantly with candy in their hands and sugary drinks too. Many learn to beg for Quetzales (the Guatemalan currency)from the gringo tourists and quickly take any charity given to a tienda to buy candy. I’ve seen it over and over again since I got here. This morning I woke and the first local children I saw were eating Skittles and drinking what appeared to be old school mini-sips (bags of sugar water with a straw poked into them). It was 6:30am.

I have no idea what the solution is but I do know that these companies, Pepsi, Coke, Hershey, etc., they bear the brunt of the responsibility for this new plague. In their unethical quest for more and more profit, they are preying on these people and something has to be done or an entire generation of impoverished people in the developing world are in for a future of diabetes, cancers and an epidemic of obesity… just like the West but without the social nets and healthcare the West has to help deal with the issue.

Its not a pretty sight.

And here’s another cheery little fact to consider…

Globally, the 20% of the world’s people in the highest-income countries account for 86% of total private consumption expenditures – the poorest 20% a minuscule 1.3%. More specifically, the richest fifth:

  • Consume 45% of all meat and fish, the poorest fifth 5%.
  • Consume 58% of total energy, the poorest fifth less than 4%.
  • Have 74% of all telephone lines, the poorest fifth 1.5%.
  • Consume 84% of all paper, the poorest fifth 1.1%.
  • Own 87% of the world’s vehicle fleet, the poorest fifth less than 1%.

Further reading (a case study from El Salvador): http://www.foodpolitics.com/2012/06/how-junk-foods-and-sodas-ruin-kids-teeth-pbs-newshour-on-dental-health-in-el-salvador/ and a WHO report on the issue: http://thinkprogress.org/health/2013/06/18/2173591/who-kids-junk-food-marketing/?mobile=nc

Refined Sugar Map

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Background, Politics, Social Life

The point of it all…

The author boarding a plane to the rest of his life.

The author boarding a plane to the rest of his life.

So what’s the point of this journey I’m on? I’ve been asked that question by a number of people and I always give the same answer…

“Why do I need a goal?”

My goal, if I must define one, is to live a different life than the one I’ve lived the last 44 years. I did the “normal” North American life. And while yes, I was not miserable living this life most of the time, I can’t honestly say I was living my life consciously or purposefully.

Like most, I just barrelled forward through life without giving it much thought. After high school I went to University because that’s just what you did in my circle. After that I got married, got a job, got a better job, bought a house, had kids, etc. Again, pretty much a “normal” life and very similar to almost every other person I know.

With the exception of my children, I can’t say had any of the rest of that stuff not turned out the way it did I would have been any more or less happy with life. My children are the ONE reason why I am not regretful of the life I’ve lived to date. They are everything to me and I couldn’t be prouder of the people they have become.

I did what I was expected to do by my parents, relatives, friends and society in general. The problem is, deep down, it didn’t feel right. I have known for some time That I don’t think like the majority of Western society. My views on politics and social justice are far left. I consider myself a libertarian socialist. If anyone wants to know what that means, read Noam Chomsky because that’s what he is. Also Murray Bookchin is another good source.

I believe the means of production (without trying to sound Marxist) should belong to everyone. While I’m not a Marxist, I believe firmly in the adage “From each according to his ability. To each according to his need.” In other words, I despise what has become of our society because of the rampant expansion of a perverted form of capitalism. And yes, I say perverted form because if you read Adam Smith, the current state of our free market economy is not what he was espousing.

Add to this self doubt about the purpose of living in this heavily consumerised society a nasty divorce, and you have a recipe for what some might call a mid-life crisis.

I hate that word because for most it conjures thoughts of balding overweight men in shiny Corvettes or Jaguars with young attractive trophy girlfriends. Well, that just ain’t my mid-life crisis.

Mine was more a re-examining of my purpose in this world and less a last ditch grasp for imagined youthful glory days.

My marriage had ended and this totally shocked me out of that “normal” stupor. You see, divorce was never even imagined by me. Call me naive in today’s world but that is true. It was not my normal to consider divorce. I am basically the first member of my extended family (right out to cousins) to be divorced. So to say it came as a surprise is an understatement. I realize others saw it coming but I’m here to tell you, I did not. I was always the “work-through-the-shit” guy. Not the “cut-and-run” guy.

With that shock, the corporate job had to go next. I had not been happy working the typical wage slave, suit-and-tie life for some time, but I did it because again, it was expected and it paid me an above average salary with which to support my family.

I dumped it and after a bit ended up working retail after almost 25 years in mid to upper management. It was a job. It paid the bills. I did not have to think about anything once I clocked out. I did not have to do anything above and beyond the job I was paid to do for the hours I was paid to work. And I didn’t have to deal with the bullshit of corporate politics or the inflated egos of spoiled rich kid CEOs and Presidents for whom I had no respect whatsoever.

And here is the problem. That working poor lifestyle, while according me the ethical and mental freedom from corporate life, didn’t provide enough remuneration to have any kind of real life in Canada. It was paycheque to paycheque and I came to realize that this is, in fact, how the majority of people live. Every dollar went to food, lodging, heat and lights. That’s it. Actually without child support payments from my ex-wife, I wouldn’t have even been able to afford basic cable or internet for the kids. And I didn’t even have a car. That was way beyond my new financial means.

That’s not what I want for my kids.

If they want to become lawyers or marketing managers or whatever so be it but I didn’t want them to walk down that path simply because it was the only path presented to them. I want them to know there are other “normals” and they are free to chose whatever path they want regardless of what society tells them they should be doing.

And then something occurred to me. My kids were actually an example for me. You see, my ex and I are not Christian. I haven’t considered myself Xtian since before high school while my ex, I believe, abandoned any pretence shortly after her first university degree.

I explored various faiths over the years and for a long time considered myself pagan. I am now completely comfortable with being an atheist. I no longer feel the need for “faith” to find meaning in my life or the world in general.

The reason I bring this up is because my kids were both raised without religion. They were exposed to many: Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. I tried to ensure they understood the basic tenets of all faiths and always told they they were free to believe or not believe whatever felt right to them.

This upbringing brought about some interesting side effects and made me reflect more on my own upbringing. Like why, as an atheist, can I recite the Lord’s Prayer without thinking? I still remember the time my daughter Isabelle asked me what the last supper was. Or the time my daughter Mhairi asked me “who’s Noah?”.

What was normal to me, indoctrinated since early childhood, was foreign to them.

That was my answer.

By consciously choosing not to raise them with mindless adherence to a faith, I had found the method by which I could help them realize that they didn’t have to be trapped in a life that was not their own. If I wanted them to grow and be whatever they wanted to be, I had to live that life myself. I had to be an example and the example I’d set thus far was the exact opposite of what I wanted for them.

And that is the point. I want to live a life that is an example to my children. I want them not to stumble blindly through life doing what is expected of them rather than what makes them fulfilled and better people.

And so that all led to this. To me quitting my subsistence job, to cancelling the lease on my apartment; to selling 98% of my worldly possessions and to leaving the security and comfort of Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada.

Being apart from my kids (and now my girlfriend) is hard. Very hard. But I can’t just succumb to the strong urge to abandon this plan. I need to stay true to the reason for this in the first place. I cannot allow fear to be my guide any longer.

To explore just what it is to live life. To experience other cultures; other ways of seeing the world; other beliefs. To find my own normal and in so doing showing my children that they too can undertake their own quests for bliss.

I am tethered to Moncton and will return as often as I’m able for extended visits and my ex has graciously agreed to a custody arrangement that will allow both my kids to spend extended periods of time with me in another country or on the road. The love life… haven’t figured out how that will manifest itself yet but she and I are both very happy and very willing to explore how this will evolve (see visits home and on the road above).

So while being apart from my children and girlfriend is painful, my purpose keeps me going for now.

How long “for now” is is anyone’s guess. Like I said at the beginning. Why do I need to have a goal? I’m on a quest for something. Don’t know what that is yet but I’ll know it when I see it. That could be 6 months or 6 years from now.

Maybe its an apartment in Iquitos, Peru. Maybe its an ashram in Kerala, India. Maybe its a 2 bedroom bungalow back in ‘ol NB.

I’ll know it when I see it.

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