Tag Archives: travel

Fidel where does all the money go?

For any cigar fan the ultimate cigar is a Cuban. The Dominican ones just aren’t quite the same and don’t quite have the same kudos. So when on honymoon in cuba a few weeks ago we made sure to visit the Partagas Cigar Factory in Havana. For a geek like me it was fascinating – learning how cigars are made, the leaves are selected and watching a couple of hundred people in a room all rolling cigars. The quality control was impressive, with all the cigars made by new employees checked, and even around 70% of those made by longer term employees checked. The Partagas factory makes most types – Partagas (obviously), Romeo & Juliet, Montecristo, Cohiba and lots of others. We saw some new Cohibas been made that sell at around €50 each.

Now that’s where the experience started to turn a little sour. The workers in the factory get paid around €30 a month. Most of them make 100-200 cigars a day. If they don’t meet their quota or produce too many rejects they have to work longer to make it up. It transpired from conversations with a few locals that the factory workers aren’t so happy that what they get paid a pittance for gets sold for such large sums. Say each cigar you make sells for €5 each and you make 150 a day, 5 days a week that’s a retail value of €3750. And the person who makes it gets less than 1%.

When you remember that Cohiba, Romeo & Juliet, Montecristo etc are all state owned, that means the profits go to the state. Yet so many people in Cube live in such poverty. People are earning very little across the board – doctors included – as this great article in the Irish times highlights. We saw so many families living in cramped conditions in Havana in buildings that were literally crumbling. Back at the time of the revolution Fidel said:

“we are fighting to do away with dictatorship in Cuba and to establish the foundations of genuine representative government”

Fidel what happened to your ideals? Where is all the money going?

Probably the biggest thing tourists are warned about in Havana isn’t safety. For a city with little street lighting Emily and I felt pretty safe walking around at night. The thing tourists are warned about is buying ‘fake cigars’. I assumed this meant you had people making them at home – which in some cases is true – people who have worked in cigar factories and know how to make them. It turns out that everyone who works in a cigar factory gets an allowance of a couple of cigars a day – often ones that aren’t quite perfect. so many of the ‘fakes’ are simply these ones that people sell on. However I also realised in a factory making tens of thousands of cigars a day it must be pretty easy for a few to be slipped into a bag. It made me think maybe the reason the government is so worried about ‘fake’ cigars sold on the streets is that the money is going t the workers and not to them…


The soapbox has been on the move and will be back soon

Samson and GoliathThe last few months have been a whirlwind of constant movement and excitement. After 30ish years in the glorious east, I’ve had to say goodbye to the iconic cranes that remind me I’m home as I’ve packed up and moved to Dublin. Despite having spent half of the last year or two in and around Dublin’s fair city, and becoming practised in moving, leaving the city that has watched me grow up and has changed round me as I’ve grown up has been more difficult than I imagined. I’ve come to appreciate just how blessed I am in terms of the friendships I have and the people around me who I love, respect and have had the privilege of sharing life with over the past years. I know those friendships remain, but there is a wrench when you realise the possibility of nipping across Belfast to see someone is no longer there, and has to be prearranged into two/three day trips north. Moving (and going long periods of not spending more than 5 consecutive nights in one bed) certainly helps with decluttering lots of the stuff that I’ve accumulated, and giving a sense a freedom from the slavery of possessions.

The last months have taken in a wild variety of things – the encounter summer team, a holiday in Spain, Leading for Life in Vienna, leadership training with Cuban youth leaders, Summer Madness, U2 at Croke, Greenbelt and trying to write a dissertation on leadership development, never mind moving city and country. Oh and leaving the organisation I’ve worked with for the last 9 years. Apart from being ridiculously expensive I’m loving Dublin, the future is bright as I look forward to finishing my MDiv after 5 years, Innovista Ireland begins to come online, and a trip to Hong Kong provides space and celebration of all this change. Come 15 September I’m sure many of those musings and a wee review of Greenbelt will come to light, but for now the thesis takes over…

the soapbox is on the move

No I’m not leaving wordpress. After a summer of travelling – a final update on that may come, the time has finally come when my housemate (and landlord) is getting married, and the soapbox is turfed out one the street. Well to another street at least.

There is much to blog about from recent weeks and months, a long awaited follow up to ‘any women on the go’ perhaps, there will be something on Palestine after hearing lots of interesting stuff on that topic, and the fabulous Greenbelt at which Miss Beth Rowley, Brian Houston and beer and hymns in the ‘Jesus arms’ were all highlights. Philip Yancey and Brian McLaren weren’t bad either. But alas I am packing up my life. I’m shocked to discover how many books I posess. They take up so much more room out of bookshelves as well. Moving does force you to be a little ruthless with some of your possessions – our blue bin is rapidly filling and the local second hand bookshops may soon be overflowing. There is something incredibly therapeutic about getting rid of stuff – I remember crookedshore once giving some fascinating insights on decluttering and it reminding us not to put down too deep roots. Living out of a rucksack for 2 months also reminded me that I really can live so much more simply with less clutter, less clutter (and probably less time online) leaving more time for some of that soul (in the full sense of all compassing – can you tell i’m reading NT Wright?) enriching time with people, time to think, read, reflect and dream…

Peru #2 – bite city

It seems I taste rather good. To the mosquitos and biting insects. I returned from a trip to the CU group at Cantuta outside Lima with around 20 rather large bites on the legs, 5 days later they are starting to go down and the itch is finally going. At least the dog attack last year was more of an adrenaline rush! I´ll maybe spare you the photos of the now purplish blotches adorning my calves.

Lima the city I famously advertised as the place where the sun doesn´t shine is rather different this year, with a fair bit of sun and blue sky and the odd bit of sunburn for the team. We´ve been pretty busy hence so little ranting but check out our official updates here.

Hard to believe we´ve only around 10 days left, but it has been going really well, and I hope will be really significant for us as a team in relation to experiencing poverty, injustice, crossing cultures and how God is at work in the midst of all of that. We´re spending time in Galatians as a team thinking about freedom, sonship, grace, life by the spirit, idols etc – I have now crossed to the dark encounter side officially. I blame my co-leader. Although God may have something to do with it too. It is really transformational thinking about Galatians in the context we are in, following a God who longs to free people form the oppression of sin, both personal and structural, and also in a church context that at times is rather like at home in the north. Tomorrow we have our last day in San Martin – the shanty town on the edge of Lima then its a 20 hour bus journey to Cusco on Thursday where we will be spending 2 days working in AGEUP projects then our 3 days team holiday to machu picchu.
The english camp was fantastic and we´ve been able to build some really good relationships with Peruvian students, visiting universities has also been good, and really stretching, doing evangelistic dramas, giving testimonies at 1 minutes notice, and having the chance to share why we are here with lots of students who don´t know Jesus. I may not be too keen on dramas at home but the Peruvians seem to love it…
San Martin
San Martin

San Martin as been a really significant time, working with and getting to know kids and people who have very little, who after 20 years in the same shanty town still don´t have running water or electricity. We´ve been making a room for kids, planting trees to make the place look brighter, playing with the kids, and doing lots of practical stuff. We had the opportunity to go with the community to the zoo, with someone paying for the community to go. It was incredible to watch the delight on the faces of the kids and parents (many of whom had never been before), and yet stranger seeing them look comepletely the same as everyone else, all dressed up yet knowing the conditions in which they live and struggle to survive. San Martin to quote Stocki is a sad and beautiful place – sad in the sense of the poverty and the injustice of why people can´t break out of poverty yet beautifil in terms of the people, the sense of community, the welcome we receive, and the smiles on the kids faces and in their eyes. It is really moving at times to realise that god is there working through AGEUP, and will be long after we have gone.

We´ve had the chance to learn from some of the AGEUP staff more about what they do, with Juan the director giving a phenomenal presentation on mision integral, and jenny talking to us about their worl with HIV/AIDS, and the chance to meet one of the volunteers in one of their projects – a mother with a 9 year old daughter, the mum is HIV+, having contracted the disease from her husband, who died a few years ago.
The injustice of so much of what we see is difficult to take yet AGEUP and many of the churches are such beacons of hope bringing God´s kingdom in some incredibly special ways.
If you´re the praying sort, God has been really faithful and is working among us in so many ways as a team, pray that we will finish well, and that time finishing off Galatians and debriefing  will really help us clarify some of what God has been saying.

Delta aren´t so dirty after all..

After last year´s expeeriences we called Delta ´dirty Delta´but this year they delivered us and all our luggage almost on time which was a relief.

We are settling into a much warmer Lima than last year, even a spot of sunshine. We´ve had some great orientation stuff and its exciting to be immersed in an IFES movement that lives and breathes mision integral, at whose heartbeat is the belief that justice is not just something good, but is at the heart of the gospel. I´m once again reminded of the amazing capacity of Peruvians to love and welcome. Tomorrow we´re off to some universities to do some dramas… should be interesting…

Life on the road

It feels strange that after almost 5 weeks in Peru, a few days in the Mournes and a week in Berlin I’m not going anywhere in the next few weeks. Life on the road isn’t all bad. Berlin is a fascinating city. We (some of my colleagues and I) were there for a conference on missional leadership by the excellent Innovista. Charlie Hadjiev – a Bulgarian Pastor, recently finished a PhD on Amos led some great sessions thinking through what mission and the gospel actually is, pushing us not to settle for a narrow inadequate and simplistic understanding:

“Often when we think about mission, we make a fundamental mistake. We think our mission is to save people from ‘the fires of hell’. This is all good and true, but inadequate. The gospel is not about avoiding death only. It is about new life.”

Having been in Berlin last year, I enjoyed a bit more time sitting in cafes. My boss now agrees with my last year’s assertion that the coffee in the Starbucks at the Brandenburg Gate is among the worst I’ve had in a coffee establishment. Dunkin Donuts offering wasn’t too hot either, but the local places were pretty good. Being in Starbucks – for usage of their fine toilet facilities, listening to English music was unsettling. It reminded me how bland and dull globalised franchises are – totally lacking in character. Looking forward to my return to common grounds.

If you’re ever in Berlin – do the walking tours. We did a Third Reich one – 4 hrs walking around with an excellent guide who knew his stuff and was pretty funny – and had the best walking backwards technique I’ve ever seen. 90% of the city was destroyed in the war so a lot of the tour is “this car park was the site of Hitler’s bunker”, it was disturbingly fascinating to see the remains of cells in the basement of the SS and Gestapo HQ – now site of a Typography of Terror Museum, and to hear how Berliners call the Soviet Memorial to the Unknown Soldier (commemorating some of their 20 million war dead) – ‘the memorial to the unknown rapist’ due to the 90,000 Berliners raped by conquering troops. War isn’t a pleasant business, and our guide was at pains to point out that the Nazis weren’t superhuman monsters but humans like each of us capable of acts of extraordinary evil. Sobering stuff. The national guilt in Germany over the war and the Holocaust is incredible, and their process of coming to terms and living with that. Having seen what the Spanish did to Peru and Bolivia, and aware of the mess the British Empire made of much of the globe, I wonder how much remorse Spaniards or British people have for the actions of previous generations. And where do you begin to draw a line? For those of us living on Northern Ireland, that’s the question – how do we deal appropriately with the events of the past, what does it mean to move forward?
Hope becomes an important concept – despite growing up in a ‘hell and brimstone’ culture – seeing and being reminded of stuff like this, the thought that one day those who perpetrate horrendous acts will be held to account gives me hope, while i tremble and throw myself on God’s mercy and grace because (to paraphrase Gary Haugen) I know that the same attitudes and thoughts that existed in the hearts of Hilter and Stalin are in mine…

On tour in Peru – Cusco and Machu Picchu

A 3am start the day after our return from English camp was met with much excitement (and the odd bit of morning grumpiness) as we flew off for our team holiday – 3 days in Cusco including one at one of the newly voted 7 wonders of the world – Macchu Picchu. We could feel our chests tight with the altitude which was cancelled out by the wonderfully clean mountain air. None of the the black snot that signalled the pollution of Lima! We had a whistlestop city tour of some of the main sights in and around Cusco – a combination of Inca ruins and Spanish architecture.

It was fascinating to see a Dominican church built on the ruins of an Inca temple. The Inca stonework was incredible – no cement or mortar used the stones were precision cut to fit and lock together. We detected some of the animosity from the guide that can only come from a people subjugated in the violent way they were by the Spanish. On a ‘mission trip’ it was interesting to observe the effects that forcing Catholicism had on the locals. We also visited Saksaq Waman– not sexy woman but more Inca ruins which from the air form the shape of a Puma’s head, with the town of Cusco forming the body. The Incas really were pretty amazing people. The best was saved for another 3am start – a one and a half hour minibus ride followed by 2hrs in a baltic train to Aquas Calientes – the town beside Machu Pichhu.

Machu Pichhu is an Inca settlement at the top of a mountain. The scenery alone is breathtaking as jungle covered mountains appear from the morning mist with the coming up of the sun. That this sanctuary or city could be built in such a place without modern technology is stunning. The Spanish didn’t discover it and it was only found in the early 1900’s covered in jungle. Its incredibly beautiful and peaceful, slightly disturbing on learning some of the stories of sacrifice, and still mystical – people are still unsure as to its exact purpose. A hike up the Inca trail – in the burning sun gave still more magnificent views down onto the ruins I’m more used to seeing on my coffee packets. We had all sorts of fascinating discussions about the Inca’s beliefs and how God would view those in the silence looking down at the city as most of the tourists left. It may just be ruins on top of a mountain but it one of those place you have to see for yourself to appreciate it, the skill of the Incas, and the God who gave them the skills to build it.

Paint, holiday camps and ethical tourism – Peru part 4

Leaving Caraballyo was an emotional experience. Although some of our Spanish wasn’t great we had formed bonds and built friendships with many of the people there, especially Cara and Emma who had been before as part of the UUJ team. The warmth and generosity of the people in San Martin as they welcomed ‘the gringos’ won’t be easily forgotten.

Our next task was a spot of painting in casa AGEUP, repainting the exterior cream from its original light blue. Painting was great fun, the girls seem to get more over themselves than the walls and a few white handprints appeared on people’s clothing. Its often nice to do something you see tangible results with, which was definitely the case here.

Next stop was English Encounter 2007 – and English Camp for Peruvian students. Around 25 of us headed off to a little holiday camp in a part of Lima where the sun actually shone for some intense English speaking, English lessons and English bible studies. We enjoyed not just a bit of sun but the opportunity to really get to know the students, and in many ways it would have been great to have the camp nearer the start so we could have continued to deepen those relationships and continue conversations. No camp is complete without a campfire which eventually lit with the help of a little gasoline, although we almost lost Rob in the process!

After the team holiday (in a post to come) there really was the sense of beginning to come home. we lost Jo in Cusco, as she stayed on to go visit Puno and Lake Titykaka. Before Cara flew out on the 10th we had a goodbye dinner with the guys from AGEUP. Apart from being some of the best chicken and chips i’ve had it was a really emotional evening with more than the odd tear shed. The AGEUP staff – Juan, Yenny, Adela (and her husband Juan) , and Jose have been incredible in how they welcomed us, loved us and looked after us. The warmth of that love was so evident that night, despite the language barriers. It has been a real privilege to be part of their family and we’re really going to miss them. One of the things we did notice is that Peruvians and Irish people do seem to share a similar cheeky sense of humour, not only did we feel incredible loved but we had so much fun with them. There will be more reflections to come im sure and one definately has been how thankful, generous, affectionate and loving the christians we met in Peru are. We definitely have a lot to learn from them…
Some of the Peruvian dancing was also strangely familiar:

Halfway musings

Well my system is well and thoroughly detoxed and i may even be a little slimmer thus allowing my brain to begin musing on some of what we´ve been experiencing here in Peru. One thing that´s been very noticeable in churches is how often people say ´gracias´ when praying. After listening to a Tim Keller sermon on the bus on the way home today (that´s the sort of christian geek i am) i was pondering is the thankfulness and generosity shown by christians here as compared to how we live at home related to how much we actually believe the gospel. In wealthy countries we have everything we need and do we really acknowledge how much we need God or do we just do religion – good stuff? More to follow….

Its been interesting how easy it has been to go without things, like the two days without our luggage, and even for a coffee snob like myself who has 3 cups a day, i’ve only had 3 my whole time here. Peru produces some really good coffee – the cafedirect beans from macchu picchu are pretty good yet people here don’t seem to get to enjpy some of the really good stuff they produce because its all exported. One of the women in Caraballyo, when asked if she uses vegetables (given there are fields of vegetables around the community) replied tellingly ‘no, the good ones all go to you’ meaning overseas. The world is so small and connected, frightening to think our demand for vegetables and coffee actually deprives the people in the countries that produce them from enjoying the good fruits of their land…

After some more painting the last couple of days we’re off for an English camp this week and we are actually camping. A few English lessons and some Irish culture are being hastily prepared. For those of you who have been to Slovakia – sound familiar?

We return on Sunday night and get a 6am flight to Cusco for our team holiday – a few days at one of the new 7 wonders of the world – Macchu Picchu which should be stunning – as long as no-one gets altitude sickness. We’ve done pretty well on the sickness front and hope it stays that way…

Who let the dogs out? – Peru part three

To quote another song, dogs are everywhere here in Peru, well especially in Caraballyo, although most are pretty inactive and docile. However we have learned that Peruvian dogs seem to enjoy the Peruvian way of life which tends not to be too fast paced. Powerwalking in a European way to get back to the petrol station from which we get the bus back to Lima seems not such a good idea, as the hole in my t-shirt from an overexcited dog now demonstrates. No skin broken so no fear of getting rabies. We’ve been working in San Martin in Caraballyo for two weeks now. The roof on the community house is now complete, there’s a 3m hole dug for a latrine, and there’s now a fence running along the back of the kids playpark and the path shielding the sight of the rubbish dump in the background. We’ve discovered some of the genius of HSBC’s local knowledge ad from the local handyman and community leader Crescento who with a chain and piece of wood took out a pole concreted in the ground in two minutes which took us a couple of hours with our rocking back and forth method. We´ve loved working with Luis the carpenter putting up the roof, one of those people with a constantly smiling face who we managed to have great chats with in spanglish. The universal language of football is a great starter. Paul and I and a few of the girls have been getting into playing football with some of the kids and the guys who drive the mototaxis. We’ve seen the sun and blue skies in Caraballyo for the last week which has meant lots of sweating, even when just doing nets. The Paul and Sam combo is becoming a pretty fearsome attacking force. For those who are aware of my footballing prowess, the stony bumpy pitch and the dust seem to help. It’s exciting to see how AEGUP (thePeruvian IFES movement) are committed long term to community development in partnership with the community. The last couple of days we’ve been able to do a bit of mini kids club with arts, crafts, songs and bible stories. The kids seem to get it all, which is great. This weekend is independence weekend so there’s flags everywhere and we’re getting the chance to see some of the big parades in Lima. We’ve settled in really well, helped immensely by Rob [Rob Clay Rivers – to give him his full title], an american doing a year here with LatinLink. Sorry a North American, as we’ve realised that american refers to any native of the two continents of the americas. Watching the Copa america final at his house was pretty good too. One of Rob’s other contributions has been giving us another team member. His friend Jo came to stay with him for a week and get involved in the stuff he was doing and has ended up joining us for the whole time. Its been funny thinking back to this team almost not happening but we’ve got a great bunch of people with Emma and Cara staying from the Jordanstown team, and now Jo. Its added a great dynamic, perspective and banter. As a team we’ve been digging into Colossians which has been great, and I’ve been rereading Colossians Remixed – which is one of the best books I’ve read in the last couple of years, both for the context of the Roman Empire and for translating Paul’s subversive message into a global consumer culture. Lima is no different with McDonalds, Dunkin Donuts, Pizza Hut et al in evidence – although Paul and I’s sneaky Pizza last night from a local joint was pretty heard to beat… the girls weren´t so impressed but it was his birthday…

Soapbox – currently enjoying a free (involuntary) weight loss and detox regime