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Art is Life
By John Stegner
Microsoft Word (ProjectPropDraft.docx)
International Development Board
1 May 2013
Tutoring at the writing center and mentoring within the student peer advising forum at Duke University, although immensely rewarding, can often feel large-scale and impersonal to the point of solipsistic. It is hard to measure the benefit of involvement when students are quite literally bombarded with opportunities for assistance. This is to say that I would like to step into a more focused role, one in which my contribution can be measured and understood in an area of urgent need. With the well-organized NGO Arte Es Vida, a group founded upon the universalizing premise of art education, I would act only as a vehicle for agency and empowerment in the lives of children. As a Political Science/Public Policy Double Major with two full semesters in Spanish, I am well-prepared to constructively interact with the children while avoiding the imposition of a problematic Western agenda. This would be my first long-term abroad endeavor, and I feel an urgent need to contribute to a rapidly globalizing society. I wish only the money for the plane ticket.
Despite everything, Robert wished Samantha could hear the accent of the mid-twenties Dutch girl sitting across from him on a splintered picnic table. He was trying to take her seriously, but it was difficult when 'the' is 'zee' and 'think' is 'zinc' and 'problem' is 'pro-bloom.'
“I think the problem with Americans is that they don’t travel,” Jolien said, exhaling the smoke from a Belmont cigarette dangling between her two middle fingers. She sat with her knees to her chest, her tiny calves splayed against her thighs. Her hair had been neglected in the precise quadrants required to form dreadlocks, and she always smelled of some form of smoke. Several other volunteers at the house had told Robert that Belmont was a local Nicaraguan company, but he knew that was bullshit because the pack he’d bought at the airport had read 'un filial del British American Tobacco' in tiny print on the bottom.
“It’s good your first time traveling is when you’re only 20,” she said. Jolien put out the cigarette in an ashtray made of a sawed-off quarter of a two-liter soda bottle painted with flowers and smiling stick figures, a recent class art project for Conservation Week.
Emily had been sitting next to him staring into her laptop, the back of which was half-covered by a bumper sticker for a Nicaraguan rum brand. She looked up to agree.
“It’s ridiculous, this freshman back at Florida just asked if I’m having, like, a spiritual journey,” she said with a two-finger flexion, “as if that were the fucking point.”
Robert, who was sitting with a cup of instant coffee and a Kindle displaying page 50 of Harry Potter y la Piedra Filosofal, had thought that a spiritual journey would be a nice coincidence if it happened; but he also knew that wishing it to happen was problematic at best. You had to stumble onto it like an insomniac catches a sunrise, and even then some form of pre-spiritual-experience contribution had to be recorded in qualitative research before it was legit.
“The people here are just so nice,” Emily continued. “So simple. They don’t care about our spiritual journeys because they just care about us.”
Jolien treated everything anyone said as a joke that was progressing to a punchline; she would begin with smile which would broaden with each vocal pause until finally laughed, which she did at this judgment.
“That’s wonderful,” she said. “How’s your paper coming?”
“So well,” said Emily, shutting her laptop. “Did I tell you what it’s about? It’s sort of, well, I guess the best way to describe it would be the psychology of poverty in children.”
Robert glanced up. “You’re writing a paper? Me, too.”
“Really? You know what it’s about? You can totally steal some of my research if you want.”
“That’s okay.” Robert couldn’t imagine exactly what research it was he was supposed to be doing, but ten pages of it was required to prove he hadn’t wasted the point-infinite-zeroes-one percent of Duke’s yearly endowment. “I’m not sure yet.”
“I totally get that.” She opened her laptop again and squinted. “It’s, almost, I don’t know. I’m trying to ensure I maintain the individuality of each kid. Remembering names is fucking hard when you can hardly pronounce them, though. “
Jolien laughed again with no response. She stood up. “Emily, would you get the girls today?”
Emily nodded. “Hang on,” she said, carrying her laptop to her room, “Let me go hide my camera.”
Almost every day, Emily walked a quarter mile to the house of two sisters who were regular attendees. She usually had one girl snap pictures of her with the other, but two days ago, when Rob tried to take a picture of the three of them, one of the girls eagerly grabbed the camera and dropped it. No pictures had surfaced on Emily’s Facebook since.
Robert left the table and carried his ebook into the large communal living space, an open-air courtyard with slatted roof and bright yellow stucco walls. There was a small unused plot of soil on the left with brown wilted plants, each of which had paper placards with titles like Hope Plant and Peace Flower in Spanish. The couch on the right was primarily used by the teenagers to sit together after Capoeira, a nightly martial art/dance combo class during Jolien and her camera were omnipresent to capture pictures for the group’s weekly email newsletters in both Dutch and English.
There was an uncomfortably close proximity between Arte Es Vida, which was the nicest and largest house by a vast margin, and the house of a family of five nextdoor. Although they shared a large yard, the latter house had no electricity, and their children were forbidden to attend any of the art classes. The young kids instead wandered the premises during the day and peered through their windows during the nightly parties. Rob would wave and wonder if they ever asked their parents about the strange-smelling haze that practically eked out of Arte es Vida every night. Apparently resentment had grown on both sides, because the Jolien’s spent last month’s rent money on a padlocked metal gate for the courtyard.
Rob threw his ebook and coffee cup onto the top bunk to the immediate left of the sleeping area. He pulled his computer off the mattress and sat on the floor next to the wireless router. While everyone preferred to imagine that strip malls wouldn’t exist in a place like Managua, plastic bags with the logos for Las Americas Mall and Tip-Top Pollo Frito littered the house; it was the source of the wireless router, the printer, the AC units, the iHome console that seemed only capable of blasting Bob Marley, and the dozen mosquito nets for anxious travelers. He breathed a sigh of relief as three full bars indicated the quickest internet speed.
stop == para
don’t break that == eso no rompas
2 Jun 2013: fish and chips all day, every day #newdiet #londoncalling
1 Jun 2013: its amazing up here #lifeintheeye
symptoms of parasite infection
Diarrhea, malaise, depression
Six-eight weeks, on and off
Nicaraguan volunteer program arte es vida.
Robert is de nieuwste vrijwilliger. Hij houdt van kinderen …
[Robert is de…] == Robert is newest volunteer. He loves kinderen and is so excited om te work for our organization!
One hour ago: Sometimes all you need is the London skyline and a bunny.
Yesterday: Samantha Elridge likes University of London Art Week.
Four weeks ago: Samatha Elridge changed her relationship status to Single.
Ten people like this.
Sarah Marshall: girl we gonna party tonight.
Lisa Mendoza: london will be amazing!! think of that :).
James Petrarch: let me know if you need to talk.
is volunteering helpful?
The Guilt-ridden Savior: An Emotion-Based Reparatory Model of Voluntary Workers
new deals from iTunes
Human Rights Watch UPDATE in Bosnia
re: Advising for Duke University. Research Grant Recipients
To: Robert Parker (email@example.com)
From: Jennifer Robertson (firstname.lastname@example.org)
I must say I’m impressed. Considering you gave only two weeks of notice that you would be traveling, to have received a grant is indicative of your scholastic achievement. I am sorry to hear how disappointing the organization is, especially considering your two-month commitment, but I am also intrigued. I recommend shifting the topic toward the Western cultural consumption/voluntourism paradigm and using the white-savior idealism and cultural consumption that exists within Art is Life as a jumping-off point for recommendations of future NGO endeavors. Let me know if you need any scholarly--
“Hey, Rob?” Jolien said as she stood in the room. Robert hadn’t noticed she was there. He glanced up then immediately back down. She was wrapped in a blue towel covered in peace signs. There was one bathroom off the sleeping area that the six of them shared.
“I’m going to take a shower very quickly. Emily went to pick up two of the girls. Can you help her out?”
Brëcht, Jolien’s partner for ten years, also had dreaded hair, although his fell straight down his back. The dreads only partially concealed his full vertebrate skeletal tattoo snaking down to his toweled ass as he walked through the room and into the bathroom. The sound of water slapping the tiles echoed as Robert walked out, past the open living room and into the closet of the adjacent dance room to get the paint supplies.
He consciously avoided noticing the life-sized portrait of Jolien topless and staring at her pregnant belly that was hanging prominently on the closet door. He asked Emily about the picture, and she told him that Jolien had never been pregnant, but Brëcht found that the pregnant female form to be the highest signifier of spiritual power. Rob didn’t ask why they’d put it up in such an obvious location, but Emily anticipated the question. “I think it’s great that they’re teaching kids to be so comfortable with the female anatomy,” she’d said among the cicada clicks of her keyboard. “They’re so conservative here; I guess because of the Catholicism? Anyway, that’s why we only get five or so kids. But I guess it’s worth it if we can change one.”
Rob retrieved several buckets of paint and an assortment of detergent bottles. It was Indian Week, and the plan was to build a totem pole with the materials, write war-songs, and, upon his suggestion, read a bit of the 'Native American' Wikipedia page en español. At least, that was the plan written in the newsletter; Rob had no idea how to communicate further than the 200 electronic vocal cards he’d compiled, and neither Julien, Brëcht, Emily, nor the other weekday volunteers were fluent. Julien had expressed regret that she’d never studied the language, but admitted that she preferred the fluidity of Dutch anyway and it was hardly necessary when gestures could work almost as well to communicate the basic tasks required of the kids.
First noticing the picnic table’s disarray, Robert rushed to collect the stray cigarette packs, filled
ashtrays, and beer bottles from the night before and deposited the remnants of vice on the floor of the sleeping room. He paused when he heard grunting from the bathroom, but then cursed silently and went back outside. Emily had arrived with two girls, sisters of a family who lived down the dirt road, and three boys of no relation who trailed behind.
“No,” Emily said as Ana immediately dipped her finger in the paint.
“No! Mal!” she yelled as the girl laughed and swiped her finger in the air at her, splattering black paint on Emily’s white strapless top.
“Rob,” she said, her face scrunched in a scowl at Ana. “I need help! Get Jolien!”
Rob smiled at the girl and nodded towards Emily.
“Chicas!” he yelled, his mind running through a dozen verbs in a dozen different tenses.
“…Para…[grammatical error: imperative singular, not second-person plural]…por favor o… [phonetic blunder: should have paused at the 'please,' not 'or'] …Se lo diré sus padres que te portaste mal [subjunctive mistake, although semi-impressive use of the past tense there].”
Ana giggled and continued waving her hand.
“I would go get them,” he told Emily, wiping the splattered paint off his own shirt onto the table, “but they’re in the shower and, I mean, you know them.”
“I guess,” Emily said, pulling the fabric to examine the damage while Robert avoided noticing. “But they better get done fucking quickly before I kill these kids.” She turned to leave. “I’m gonna go change.”
Rob sat down at the table and gave each kid a little detergent bottle “Como se dice 'cut'?” he asked, making his fingers into the shape of scissors.
“Corta,” Carlos, a chubby 11-year-old, said. His shirt had the Notre Dame leprechaun emblazoned on the front.
“Pero no me gusta pintar,” Carlos said, throwing the detergent bottle.
“Por qué no?” Robert asked, helping another girl whose name escaped him with opening a jar of crusty blue paint.
“Porque nosotros pintáramos todos los días.”
He handed the open jar to the girl without acknowledging the comment. Robert could understand that; they probably had painted some form of trash every day. The program had existed for close to a year and he doubted there was much variety. He motioned to the soccer ball in the living room. Although it was designated lesson time and this was his first time teaching, there were ostensibly no parents with whom to be reckoned, so fuck it.
But the kids didn’t want to play soccer. They ran to the edge of the property while Rob retrieved the ball. The kids all ducked into a large empty storage container, the type that that attaches to semi-trucks. Brëcht was attempting to refurbish it into a new center as a cost-saving alternative to the rented house, but the inside was littered with cigarette butts and rusty nails.
“Toña,” Carlos said, repeating the brand name of an empty beer bottle he’d picked up from the floor. He began swinging it and stumbling: “¡Toña, Toña, Toña! Estoy loco!” The other boys, Juan and Paulo, began to join his shouting, stumbling around inside the container. The girls all sat together in a corner, one braiding the other’s hair, but they looked up to watch the boys as they hopped out of the container’s open half and started spinning around.
Robert tried 'para' a few times to no avail. He decided to just sit cross-legged on the wet grass. He felt droplets of rain begin to trickle on the white part of his thighs that the new cargo shorts didn’t cover. The first week he was there he had been sick from traveler’s diarrhea and an adverse reaction to a new antidepressant, so he’d missed most of the classes, preferring instead to constantly click refresh on Samantha’s Twitter account until 'this weather is the stuff of legends #heatwavelondon2013' floated in his head every night before he fell asleep. He didn’t know what the disciplinary protocol was.
"Por qué están jugando con alcohol?” Rob asked Carlos.
“Por qué?” Carlos repeated. “Por qué no?”
Why not? His flashcards hadn’t covered alcoholism and the hypothetical implications of child-parent replicative behaviors, so he just repeated the question.
“Por qué no?” Carlos re-repeated.
“No está…” [funny funny funny funny] “…cómico.”
“Sí,” Carlos replied, pretending to take a swig. “Es muy cómico. ¡Estamos jugando!”
“¿Fútbol? ¿Por favor?” He held up the ball, pleading. “¿Fútbol?”
Carlos relented, realizing that Paulo had already calmed down from his drunken revelry.
And so they all gathered to play. They formed teams on their own, jibing each other in familiar middle school ways that Rob was remiss he couldn’t understand. He knew 'aquí' meant 'here' so the game went smoothly. He was proud of how much better he was than them until the realization hit him that he’d assumed all Central American kids were amazing at soccer. After about an hour, Jolien yelled that 'zee children should go home.' They all came back to the house to get a drink from the bathroom sink, which had a half-empty bottle of lubricación sin agua on it.
Robert walked the kids back instead of Emily, who was impatiently waiting for the arrival of the cleaning woman, the mother of one of the Capoeira dancers. The kids talked to Rob very little. The girls were focused on two pieces of candy that Jolien had given them, and the boys wandered off in opposite directions without a word. Rob felt like a two-minute YouTube video designed to entertain and be forgotten. He thought that from all of the pictures from his friends’ trips to Ghana and Jaipur that the kids would instantly grab onto you, that you had to keep your distance as to not break their hearts. It must be different here.
Their house was made of concrete walls and a slab of curved steel for a roof. A poster of Jesus with the insignia 'Cristo Es Amor' hung prominently on the doorway. The father sat outside on a folding chair, shirtless, with a belly that only fathers have. The mother swept a small rug in one of the two rooms and began yelling when her daughters appeared. A radio was playing commercials in Spanish with loud sound effects and dramatic baritone voiceovers. The parents smiled at Rob but he did not try to speak. He slicked his long hair back to mimic the style of the teenagers he’d seen and waved the girls goodbye as they walked towards the house without a second look.
On the way back, he entertained the image of one of D.C.’s infinite suburbs sporting wild mango trees in each yard. Small tuk-tuks piloted by teenagers puttered the route continuously to offer trips into the city for two dollars. Everyone in the area clearly lived below the poverty line, and the influx of locally-distributed cash within the hemp wallets of the Arte es Vida collective must have redeemed its obvious sins. Maybe it was the money; anyway, he didn’t know. He certainly didn’t know enough to have sent that scathing email to Professor Robertson. He could have written a neat little paper about art’s universal applicability and the psychological benefits of creativity for children from low-income homes. There were 5,000 different research articles for international art therapy, from anthropological fluff pieces in Uganda to rigorous bubble-test sociological approaches in America; and yet, there were at least 40 small houses on the street but only five kids at the program.
When he arrived back, Jolien and Emily were making lunch. Brëcht was smoking by the semi-truck container. Rob walked over and sat down next to him. They stared at the solitary tree that interrupted the vast open field where the four blocks of plywood still stood from the soccer game.
“How’s it going, man?” Brëcht asked. “How were the kids?”
“Okay,” he said. “They didn’t want to paint.”
Brëcht smiled, squinting as he took a drag. “They never do.”
“Yeah,” Robert shifted in his seat before standing. “I don’t understand how we’re supposed to keep them in line.”
“It’s not easy,” he said, offering Rob a Belmont, which he took. “They have terrible family lives most of the time. Jolien means well but maybe we should be a bit stricter some times.”
“Do you ever teach classes?” Rob asked.
“No, I’m not very good with kids.”
“I feel like none of us understand the shit that these kids go through every day.”
Brëcht scratched his shoulder. “I mean, my father was an asshole,” he said. “He was an asshole to my mom and me.”
“Yeah. I came here with Jolien to get away from him.”
“I’m sorry, man. Mine divorced when I was little.” A teenage boy appeared in the distance leading four cows with a walking stick. “I guess I came here to get away from a shitty relationship.”
“Well,” he said, walking to the toolbox at the end of the container. “I’m sure Emily understands. Her, what, ex?” he scratched his shoulder again, “Well, I wouldn’t ask her, but everyone has shit, you know? Like, it doesn’t matter who they are. We watch out for each other.”
Rob stomped on the cigarette and coughed. “Do you like working here?”
“It’s okay,” he said, pulling nails out of a packing crate that were to be the materials for a teepee. “It was supposed to be only a little bit. But the other owners just took off.”
“You mean the guys on the website?” He remembered a lanky black guy whose credentials were 'Capoeira Instructor.' “They left?”
“Yes. They left us in charge. The place is losing people and they left with all the money. We started from scratch from like two months ago.” He squatted and stared at the detached boards. “It’s the kids’ place, you know? We just stay here and the older ones just do their thing.”
“How long will it keep going?”
“Until the container is finished. They won’t have to pay rent and hopefully the new owners won’t be assholes and will let them come.”
“How much more time will the container take?”
“Maybe a month? My mother wants me to come back. I guess she found me a job.”
7/04 9:03AM Robert: Hey! How are you? I’m sorry that things ended so weirdly. Just wanted to say hi and that I’m happy you’re okay. Hope London is okay. Things are a bit crazy here in the jungle, would love to talk to you. Skype sometime?
7/07 4:30PM Samantha: Hi! It’s been a while. It’s okay, all for the best. Despite everything, I’m happy here and love the people I’ve met. London is fabulous, as expected. Oxford is difficult as hell, but it’s rewarding. You’re in Central America?! I never even knew you wanted to travel.
7/07 4:31PM Robert: Great to hear. Yep, I have a research grant. Working with an organization called Arte Es Vida (Art is Life) for a while now.
7/07 4:55PM Samantha: How is that organization? An NGO, I take it?
7/07 4:41PM Robert: Yeah, it works with locals. It’s amazing to see change being made without any white-savior idealism from a hostel or something.
7/07 5:00PM Samantha: Sounds great.
7/07 5:00PM Samantha: Well, I’m going to take off; it’s eleven here. Maybe I’ll see you next semester!
7/07 5:01PM Robert: Yeah, okay. I hope so. Miss you.
7/07 5:05PM Samantha: Bye, Rob.
Robert set his backpack down on the carpet of his seventh-floor room in the Managuan airport hotel, flipped open his computer, and waited to connect to the internet. His stay at Arte Es Vida lasted another two weeks, cutting his research short by a full month. He told Jolien that he had decided to travel further into Central America. She recommended a hostel close by called The Treehouse, which boasts the largest bar currently suspended in a tree. He told her he’d check it out and paid the last of his rent, the price of which had already risen. He had spent approximately one-quarter of his two-thousand dollar budget, not including the plane ticket which was paid for by his mother as a gesture of pride.
Realizing the Internet was slow due to heavy traffic, he ordered room service and tried to read, switching from Harry Potter to Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, in English. His Spanish hadn’t improved through the one-hour exposure period with the kids, and he stopped trying to speak it a week before leaving. New volunteers shifted in and out of Arte Es Vida every week, and the kids seemed to take it in stride; Carlos didn’t even know his name. They painted until they were tired of painting, ran around until classes ended, and left with two pieces of candy. All the while, volunteers would snap pictures, update travel blogs, and scribble down detailed observations of each kid’s clothes and behavior. So he just watched, eating as little as he could and sleeping for much of the day. When the taxi arrived, he did not say goodbye to Diego, Carlos, Juan, Alessandro, Paulo, Ana, Camila, or Rebecca.
He couldn’t focus. He couldn’t imagine the reactions of the International Development Board to whatever smattering of eyewitness accounts he could recall to dissect the problems of Arte Es Vida, despite the fact that he felt a kinship to the wandering fuck-ups that sickened him. He tried meditating, imagining the waterfall he’d found on a trail in Appalachia the previous summer and Samantha’s dragging him under the frigid torrent.
But he couldn’t focus. The food arrived 15 minutes minutes later, a plate of steaming fried plantains, four fried eggs, a large serving of black refried beans, and five flour tortillas in a foil wrap.
“Sir,” the bellhop Carl(os, Rob inferred) asked, “would you like to donate one dollar to our hotel’s charity partner?”
Robert looked up from the food. “What’s the service?” he asked.
“It donates money to local schools. I think the children make jewelry to sell in America to raise money for it.”
“How did the hotel get involved?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “But it’s very popular here. Many people donate. I think it’s called Escuelas Para Nicaragua.”
He gave the busboy a dollar, thanked him, and ate as he stared at the bars on the WiFi network. It ascended to three bars as he finished his third egg.
7/07 5:05PM Samantha: Bye, Rob.
Two hours ago: great day with the kids. taught them how to effin splatter paint. Nica, please.
Twenty-three people like this
Emily Threshgold: oh my god sounds amazing. i love you, come back to meeee.
Escueulas Para Vida Nicaragua.
Bienvenidos! Esto es—
[Bienvenidos!…] == Welcome! This is the blog for the organization Schools for Nicaragua. We pride ourselves on providing real, tangible financial relief for local schools in Managua and its surrounding community. We work specifically with locals so the money will be used well. Contact us at 2-505-436-8706.
Robert kept the computer open and dialed the number. A woman answered.
“Hola, Escuelas Para Vida. ¿En qué puedo ayudarle?”
“Uh, me gustaría hace un donación?”
“¡Buena! Are you in Nicaragua, sir?”
“Oh.” He paused. “Sí, yes. I’ll only be here two more weeks, though.”
“That is okay. We can take PayPal, if you would like.”
“I would love to do that,” he said.
“And how much would you like to make, just for our records?”
“Dollars?” She paused.
“Um, yes. Is that okay?”
“Of course! Thank you so much, sir! Please, let me get my director on the phone to thank you.”
“No,” he said, louder than he meant. “Just let me ask you something.”
“Oh, of course.”
“Are you from Nicaragua?”
“Yes, from Masaya. Is this a problem?”
“No, no. Um, is the money going to actual schools?”
“Okay, one last request.”
“I’d like at least $500 to go to the school in Ticuantepe, just outside Managua.”
She paused, the sound of pencil on paper. “Of course,” she said finally. “You’re sure you don’t want to talk with the manager? We could also schedule a visit to our organization headquarters.”
“No, I’d prefer to make this donation anonymously.”
“Okay, our blog has a link to donations.”
“I’ll make it right away.”
“Thank you again. It will be such a big difference.”
After he hung up the hotel phone, he found the donation page and sent the money directly from his checking account. He shut his laptop, took the first hot shower he’d had in more than a month, and slept.
Microsoft Word (ProjectAbstractFinal.docx)
International Development Board
1 August 2013
I chose to conduct my research in two locations: firstly a volunteer hostel that, despite its various problematic aspects to be explicated further, accumulated a large number of relatively successful projects with children from the surrounding area; secondly, an organization focused on the funding of small-scale educational projects within the Managuan community. In both cases, funding was provided by Westerners who knew little of international development, and were attempting to consume the culture of an exotic locale while simultaneously easing their guilt of said cultural consumption with shoddy volunteer or research efforts. This paper will make the case that the removal of said financiers would ultimately benefit the surrounding community, while leaving the foundation of each NGO intact. In the former group, said financiers were a motley assortment of backpackers who were ultimately unfit for any organizational and personal accountability; in the latter case, it was me, under the same circumstances.
#ShortStory #Fiction #CreativeWriting #ArtIsLife #Research
John Stegner, studies English Education at the University of Virginia and currently resides in the bovine wonderland of Powhatan, Virginia. He has received the Wagenheim Prize for Best Short Story from the university, and has served as an editor for the Virginia Literary Review.