Intercultural conflict: Is there a solution?

First and foremost, I am writing this essay for myself, because I wish to muse and reflect on relevant topics that I otherwise might have no opportunity to discuss openly with anyone willing or available to listen. I would like to thank those who take the time to read this essay and I would like to implore my readers to please not take my essay as a complaint, a criticism or a request for intervention on anyone’s part, as I would prefer that said intervention be motivated by a source other than me. Again, I am writing this to share my thoughts and nothing more. I welcome input, ideas or feedback in response.

To some extent, I am writing this essay for a secondary purpose. I would like to open an honest dialogue about intercultural conflict, because I think it’s a topic worth considering for people who live and work in a culturally diverse setting.

I’ve been traveling and working in many different places in Central America for the past five years. By choice, I’ve lived as a single woman in a variety of places under vastly different conditions; ranging from a dirt floor, tin roof hut in an isolated village to a high-rent apartment in the center of Guatemala City to shared housing with a family in their home in southern Mexico. Mostly, I’ve enjoyed the opportunity and privilege to be a part of different cultures that are not my own, and I’ve been fortunate to make many friends along the way.

I often find myself quipping to people I meet, “Yep, been there; done that.” I’ve been exposed to not only the joys of getting to know many pleasant, kind people, but I’ve also experienced the other end of the spectrum: I’ve received my share of hostility from local people who care not to invite a foreign “white girl” into their communities for their own personal and/or sociopolitical reasons.

I have grown accustomed to dealing with and being the brunt of other peoples’ hostility and, at worst, outright rejection due to the inevitable fact that I am from a different culture and therefore not accepted with open arms by local people. By choosing to live and work in a foreign country, I willingly expose myself to discrimination, ironically, because a white woman becomes a minority when living in a country where the majority are not white. While I may be more privileged than the local people in many ways, I do not enjoy the same rights and privileges as a local person with citizenship, social security, the ability to open a bank account without hassle, etc, etc…. No matter how hard I try to acculturate, I will always be perceived and treated as an outsider.

While this can be a lonely and sometimes terrifying position to be in, I am willing to courageously forge ahead knowing that I have enough friends who care and enough stubbornness and determination to continue doing what I’ve come here to do: work, save money, publish my novel and build my house. Unlike Peace Corps volunteers, however, I am here on my own dime, of my own accord, without being held accountable or beneath the protection of a volunteer organization. I fly no one’s banner but my own, and I realize that I do so with considerable risk.

Since November 2015, I’ve been living and working at a charming eco-lodge nestled deep in the tropical jungle where staff members come from a variety of cultural backgrounds in a country notorious for its cultural diversity, despite its relatively small size and population. Co-workers include native Mayan people, Creole people, as well as volunteers who come from the United States (myself included in the latter category). I would like to believe that cultural background is irrelevant and we can “all get along”, but in the Third World, the laws and company policies which protect “equal rights” and “non-discrimination” are not actively enforced or even observed in general.

Here in Central America, I’ve observed that “anything goes,” as long as you can either get away with it or pretend it’s not a problem. To my own chagrin, I seem to be incapable of pretending that injustices, whether petty or monumental, are not a problem. Like the snowball effect, the small injustices tend to turn into the big ones. And when injustice becomes a big problem, people are bound to get hurt in one way or another.

Consider me the self-sacrificial whistle-blower who is willing to take a stand for injustice. I know that doing so implies that I will inevitably have to face the music, which is rarely pleasant. For one, I’m often accused of deliberately inciting drama. Maybe so. Or I simply call attention to what already exists and would otherwise remain under the surface. Over the course of my life, I notice that I often play a role of holding people–including myself–accountable to their actions. Believe me, it’s not an enjoyable role to play, but since I voluntarily live a life of service, it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.

Based on my personal and professional observations as a licensed therapist and teacher at my workplace, there is a significant amount of hostility and disrespect present among staff members. The three cultures working daily in close contact with one another (Maya, Creole and white Americans) tend to form cliques and therefore “stick together” and gang up on the underprivileged minority who is outnumbered. In my case, as a volunteer foreigner, the outnumbered person happens to be me.

Unless I stand up for myself and assert my rights to food, a safe place to live, and other basic privileges of life, these privileges are often threatened to be taken away or, at the very least, made more difficult by people who are afflicted with any one or all of the following: (1) jealousy; (2) resentment due to one person earning more money than another; (3) hostility due to cultural differences and misunderstanding; etc, etc. As a white woman from the United States, it is an undeniable fact that I incite jealousy, hostility and resentment just by being who I am: I earn more money than the local people, I can get better jobs, I can go back any time to my uber-privileged country of birth, and I simply don’t fit into anyone’s cultural norms. Arguably, it is understandable why people would want to “beat up” on someone like me: I am, apparently, an easy target.

It appears that I will continue to be a target, unless and until I stand up for myself, roar like a lioness, and/or beat my hairy chest amidst my fellow beasts in the jungle.

There is considerable infighting amongst the ethnically diverse people I am privileged to know and work alongside. I am not writing this essay to condone or become a proponent of said infighting. On the contrary, this essay is my humble attempt to curtail what I sadly observe. On a daily basis, I notice jealousy, backbiting and vengeful behaviors that are sometimes subtle and sometimes overt. While many of these behaviors go unnoticed or ignored, I am writing this essay to call attention to what has become a significant enough issue to interfere with normal working operations, at least behind the scenes. On the surface, anyone visiting my place of work would probably feel welcome, well taken care of, and treated to a great time … thanks to the hard-working staff and our earnest attempts to do the best job possible.

For the purpose of this essay, I find it unnecessary and even counterproductive to qualify the specific scenarios, interactions and situations in which the aforementioned interpersonal and/or intercultural dramas play themselves out. Not only have there been too many for me to number or keep track of, but I am not sufficiently interested enough to remember them and much less to record them here. For the most part, I do not bother to discuss when such interactions take place, in the interest of “keeping the peace”: I am, after all, here as a volunteer foreigner and therefore outnumbered by far.

It can only be helpful and considerate for those who agree with me to stand up and assert our rights as human beings sharing the same space, where we all live and work. I assume it’s true that we all wish to live and work in a place that offers basic conditions of comfort and safety: (1) access to healthy food; (2) a safe place to live and work without sexual harassment; (3) a decent community of people who look out for each other’s best interests. It would appear, based on my observations and my experience living and working in Central America for the past five years, that the above three basic conditions of comfort and safety are not always present, and when they are not, it is countercultural and therefore problematic for me to insist that these basic conditions are provided with fairness and respect to all of us, regardless of cultural background or ethnicity.

I’d like to end my musings with a question for reflection: Is there a solution to intercultural conflict and misunderstanding between people of different cultural backgrounds? If you, dear reader, have a solution in mind, please leave your comments below.

The late Bob Marley had his own thoughts on the topic, inspired by his own personal views and beliefs. Let’s consider what he had to say:

Fumbled attempts at building my off-grid homestead in Belize

5-armando-mr-bo-and-me-holding-claySince moving to Central America five years ago, I’ve learned that paying the local men to do meaningful, productive work other than trying to marry me or get me pregnant can be met with cultural resistance: Here in the third world, I get the impression that most of the men are unaccustomed to having young, single women tell them what to do and for how much money. (I’m not talking about sex, though that’s an important topic worthy of discussion, not including the two photographed men). I’m talking about an equally important topic: building my own house and growing my own food, both of which I’m attempting, with fumbled trial and error, to accomplish here in the third world country of Belize as a solo woman.

The indigenous Belizeans, many of whom I have managed to turn into trusted friends, have commented about my unique situation: “La chica tiene huevos,” commented one astute observer in Spanish slang. (“The woman has balls”)…. And another observation by a Christian missionary friend of mine: “When you don’t have a husband, you have to wear the pants.” (No comment…. Well, okay, one comment: I wear pants whenever the hell I want to. It’s much more practical than a skirt most of the time).

Parama harvesting bamboo copyIf I had it my way, I wouldn’t have to pay skilled workers to do a job that I would much prefer to do myself. However, since I’ve hammered a nail into a piece of wood only a couple times in my life, I am obliged (for now) to hire my friends and coworkers–indigenous Mayan men–who’ve been building houses with materials straight out of the surrounding jungle since they were old enough to walk.

Mr. Bo, a Mayan elder and respected member of his community, lives in a tiny village within miles of where we work together at an ecolodge deep in the jungle of southern Belize. Over a year ago, I hired him to build my off-grid house, a humble 16×16 foot hut made from locally harvested wood with a rooftop made from the leaves of a local palm tree. I envisioned a structure that is somewhat different from what the Mayan people are accustomed to building. If you visit any of the Mayan villages in Belize, you will notice a homogeneous quality to the houses.

Being a nonconformist, I insisted that we try something new and different: I sketched a blueprint of exactly what I wanted and handed it to Mr. Bo. He puzzled over it for a few moments, placed my sketch on the table in front of us, rubbed his strong, weather-beaten hands together and said, “Okay, ma’am, you’re the boss. Whatever you want to do, we can do it.”

I thanked him for his vote of confidence. And for giving me the satisfaction of being called “boss” for the first — and hopefully last time in my life.

Parama's houseAll I knew was that I wanted my house to be built at least nine feet off the ground with a wrap-around porch from which to enjoy the view of the surrounding jungle. The height serves a threefold purpose: (1) to keep me away from the pesky sand flies that would otherwise bite the hell out of me, leaving itchy, swollen, red welts that last for days; (2) to catch a nice breeze off the nearby Caribbean Sea; and (3) to give me some sense of security while I sleep at night as high off the ground as possible, with a ladder that I can pull up into the house, rendering it difficult for anyone to enter from down below.

I don’t know; maybe I’m paranoid. Or maybe it’s just that I’m a single woman in a third world country where most men treat women like mere objects to be bossed around and/or baby factories. Mostly the latter. In Belize, most women have at least three kids. And not all from the same man. The locals are … prolific. Biologically speaking.

Here, I am an anomaly. Not only am I single at forty years of age, but I do not have kids. The local people, especially the women, frequently ask me why I don’t have kids. I am always reluctant to explain fully why I’ve carefully, purposely and conscientiously chosen not to be a breeder in my lifetime. It is a combination of philosophical, environmental, biological and spiritual reasons that I care not to expound on in this blog entry. My point is that being an anomaly within a homogenous culture that expects women to fulfill certain societal roles leaves me feeling at a loss for how to proceed here as a single woman. I find few role models worthy of my respect and admiration in this department. If you have suggestions, kindly share your thoughts in the comments.

A little more than three-thousand US dollars after hiring Mr. Bo and his talented crew, a lot of work still needs to be done. I have an unoccupied house lacking in infrastructure that would make it reasonably habitable: There is a frame but no walls, floorboards that still need to be nailed down, and a beautiful thatch roof that my neighbors, also off-grid homesteaders, attest is well-done. I wouldn’t know the difference.

A great segue to my next point: I am an intrepid, determined woman in charge of a job that I know little to nothing about. I have entrusted my hard-earned money and vision of a habitable home in the jungle to Mr. Bo and his chosen crew of workers, mostly his own sons and personal friends, who I can only assume must know what they’re doing. I know that I don’t know what I’m doing, other than what seems to be a good idea.

house-from-inside-copy

My house is fully self-funded with money that I have earned through work done by my own two hands as a massage therapist rubbing tourists on vacation in Belize. I live frugally and simply here, so I find it easy to save money and invest in things that I think matter most, like having my own house and a small garden of vegetables and fruit trees on my one-acre property.

I wish that at the end of the day I could bask in the satisfaction of having gotten my hands dirty by doing the work myself. But the honest-to-God’s truth is that I pay people to do it for me. I mostly stand by and watch or get busy chatting with people on Facebook while the boys’ foreheads drip with sweat and their heartbeats quicken from the physical effort. My heart is still broken. Abandoned by my partner and most of my family members who would agree that I must have lost my mind, I am without a companion to share in the adventure. At least for now, I carry on with staunch self-reliance.

I go to bed clutching my pillow to my breast, dreaming of a day when I can rest, nestled in the arms and warmth of kindred spirits who are as passionate and dedicated as I must be about living life of service to the calling in our hearts. For me, it’s been a lonely endeavor, as it is for most people who choose to follow their own path instead of the one laid out for them by the mainstream.

Since I was a child, I’ve been a misfit. I spent most of my teenage years, thankfully before the age of Internet and Google, with my nose buried in books, including the gargantuan set of Britannica encyclopedias that my father bought and shelved in my bedroom. “These are for you,” he told me, and whenever I had a question about anything in the world, he told me, “Go look it up. Tell me what you learn.”

I learned from my brilliant father to not only be stubborn and self-reliant, but to love books and book learning (Thanks, Dad. I know you’re reading this. Thank you)…. I graduated valedictorian of my high school class and had the nerve-racking privilege of rehearsing and delivering my valedictory speech, in which I quoted the transcendentalists, encouraging my classmates to lead a life of nonconformity.

I didn’t know at the time that my radical views would take me to such faraway places on a journey motivated by ideals that I had only begun to formulate in my young mind, influenced by poets and philosophers who I imagine also suffered from the same torturous sense of isolation that I’ve felt every day of my adult life, as I fail to find many people with whom to share my radicalism. Yes, they’re out there, but usually, they are too focused on their own missions to bother with mine.

Today I had planned for Mr. Bo and his workers to go nail down my floorboards, deliver more topsoil for the garden that is now drying up, and to spray a toxic poison to kill the relentless termites that would otherwise chew up my house and turn it into a collapsing deck of playing cards within weeks, if left unsprayed.

I was looking forward to having a house with an actual floor where I might be able to walk around, do yoga, … hell, maybe invite a friend or two…. So, I called Mr. Bo on his cell phone. (Yes, poor Mayan villagers use cell phones … in remote jungles, no less. And Internet. In remote jungles). “Yes, ma’am?” he answered. “Where are you?” I asked him. He snickered. “I’m out in a di bush,” he replied in a Belizean Kriol accent. (This means that he was out working in the jungle). With excellent cell phone reception. “Are you going to work on my house today?” I asked him.

I interrupt here to inform you, dear reader (Hey, thanks for reading!) that this conversation with Mr. Bo was the inspiration for writing today’s blog entry with the title, “Fumbled attempts at building my off-grid homestead in Belize”. Incidentally, as I look below my writing desk just now, a fuzzy tarantula is slowly crawling beside my feet. I should put a leash on him, give him a name and tie him up next to my bed at night to protect me…. (But that’s no way to treat your man).

Let’s get back to my cell phone conversation with Mr. Bo: “Are you going to work on my house today?” to which Mr. Bo replied, “Not today, ma’am.”

“Not today? … When?” I asked him, suddenly feeling an uncomfortable feeling of frustration and (as usual)… isolation.

He went on to explain that he had gone to work on his farm instead. I put the phone down and thought about it for a few minutes before … reacting. Mr. Bo is a skilled tradesman in high demand for his excellent work and trustworthiness. He works hard at low-paying jobs five to six days per week with precious little time off. He also supports a wife and eight children who depend on him to not only bring home fiat currency but also to cultivate and harvest corn, rice, beans and vegetables from their family farm.

Today was probably the first day in weeks that Mr. Bo had available to take advantage of the dry, cool weather: ideal time here in Belize to work in the field. A magnificently beautiful country where only 20% of the land base is inhabited by humans, the Belizean government issues land to all Belizean residents, most of whom still know how to work the land, grow their own food and live sustainably with minimal carbon footprint. The Belizeans are blessed with fertile land, bountiful natural resources and a warm climate that makes growing food year-round possible, if you can handle sweating profusely in the sometimes debilitating heat.

So, I took all of this into account and forgave Mr. Bo for working on his farm instead of on my house. I reflected on it all day and took it as a lesson that if I am not willing or able to do the work myself, I just have to be patient and wait till somebody can do it for me. Or pick up a hammer and start slamming nails in myself. But I always seem to have excuses, like, “I have to work” … or… “I have to go check my emails…” or…. (the latest one) “I have to write my novel”. Maybe the latter is a reasonably good excuse. Few people can write novels. I happen to be able to. People like Mr. Bo happen to be good at other things, like building houses. So I pay him.

I only pretend to be an off-grid homesteader. The reality is that I’m a poser. (Really, I do lots of yoga). I own an acre of land and I pay people like Mr. Bo to work for me (while I do yoga). I have a long way to go before I can honestly claim to know anything useful about maintaining a productive homestead or a garden. I would like to believe that someday I can get there….

In the meantime, I offer therapeutic massage and spa services as well as daily yoga classes at a charming ecolodge in southern Belize, a forty-five minute ride south of the nearest town where my house sits, waiting for me to call it home.

“Myth” by Delerium

It’s a weird game
I’m lonely without skin
No end to begin and only
your mind to hide in
I nudge life
like an unborn child

A dream inside but now I live behind your eyes
I’m uninvited

I’m only a memory that comes through

I’m living in your dreams
I’m where you cannot be
I’m way out of your reach

I’m living in your dreams
I’m where you cannot see

Is it you or is it me?

I can’t protect what you can’t forget
but now I live behind your eyes
You recognize me as only a memory
that comes through

I’m living in your dreams
I’m where you cannot go
beyond everything you know
I’m living in your dreams
You won’t find me anywhere
I’ve vanished in the air

Selfless service as a path to personal success and happiness

working-together-as-a-team-group_people1In this Life Reading, a client asked the following questions: 

  • I’d love to meet my soulmate/life partner. What do I need to do to make this happen?
  • I’d like to be successful in obtaining a job. What is it that I’m doing or not doing to make this happen?
  • I need to know at this point in my life where I am now in 2014 regarding my spirituality.

Parama received the following information for this Life Reading: It appears that you have neglected to properly attend to your home altar, an important observance that deserves daily care and attention. Take time to clean and refresh your altar space, filling it with auspicious, inspiring images and objects that uplift you and refocus your spiritual life. One important element to include is a spiritual text that contains scripture. You should read a passage daily and meditate on its meaning. This could be a text that you already own or could obtain locally. Be sure to choose a text that you will be motivated to read and reflect upon daily.

Is there someone in your immediate family who needs your help? An auspicious opportunity exists for you to offer help to this family member without expecting anything in return. Offering yourself with an attitude of loving compassion and non-attachment from the results (karma yoga) will provide you with some needed reconciliation from past offenses. Do not be concerned about how this family member may judge or criticize you; only offer your loving support with unconditional love, and be open to any positive outcomes that may arise from your selfless service.

You will benefit from improving your diet by reducing sweets and increasing your daily intake of pure water. Consider a more robust, disciplined exercise routine. This will help to cleanse toxins from your system and clear your mind so that you can focus and concentrate better.

Distractions seem to be one of the obstacles to maintaining a pure, clean state of mind. These distracting thoughts and cravings arise from a nexus of unhealthy habits that disturb peace of mind and mental balance. By improving your diet and maintaining an exercise routine, you will notice marked improvements in your ability to concentrate and enjoy a peaceful state of being.

This will further be supported by following the advice and guidance of your spiritual mentors, who have useful and practical wisdom to offer you in terms of specific spiritual practices that align you with your higher self.

Consider seeking the services of a local body worker to whom you feel an affinity. This could be a Shiatsu, Ayurvedic, Acupuncture, or Massage Therapy practitioner. Receiving therapy at least once a month will help you to access a state of mental, physical, and emotional wellness that you will benefit from for many years to come.

You are encouraged to enlist the help of a skilled practitioner of your choice who can answer your specific questions as they arise during the course of your treatment.

The opportunity for a trip to a faraway place will present itself to you through your affiliation with your local spiritual community. You are encouraged to take advantage of the chance to travel with a group of other people who will be aligned around similar values, and who will be prepared to pool their financial and social resources and connections to make this trip more affordable and accessible for everyone.

This trip offers a never-before, once-in-a-lifetime chance to experience aspects of a culture to which you are very attracted and connected, yet have been feeling estranged from. This sense of social disconnectedness and isolation can be transformed through your participation in this journey, which will connect you to people in a way that you otherwise wouldn´t in the course of your daily interactions.

It will be of great benefit to you to muster up the courage to participate more actively in the social events organized by your immediate community. When you are presented with a choice to either stay home or go out and be an active part of a community event, you are encouraged to show up and participate in any way you can.

You have valuable contributions to make that you may have been holding back from expressing due to some kind of self-doubt. As you participate more and more, you will overcome the obstacle of self-limitations and realize the joy of selfless, non-attached service to your community, which has a lot to offer you in return, should you be willing to show up – as you are – with no expectations.

You will be pleasantly surprised by the positive, fulfilling outcomes of your selfless service.

-End of Life Reading-

I wish you blessings of peace, health and happiness. Thank you for writing. —Parama