Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Wheels Down in America--Reflections on Trinidad

Perhaps the greatest value in overseas travel is found in the way it forces you to consider the strengths and weaknesses of your own nation.  You can't help but ask questions of your self like, "What did I miss most about home?' and "What did I most appreciate about the country I visited?"

Our time in Trinidad this past weekend raised just such questions in my own mind.  And like a student taking a final exam in a social studies course, I was confronted with the question, "Compare and contrast Trinidad and the United States of America."

Of course, I recognize that I am not an expert on Trinidadian life and culture!  A few days doesn't turn one into an expert!  And I also recognize that America is a vast and varied nation--so I speak here in generalities.

First, diversity.  Trinidad seems to have found a way to truly appreciate religious, cultural and racial differences.  Hindus, Christians, Muslims.  Vegans and meat-eaters.  Folks of Indian descent, folks of African descent, folks of European descent, all seemed to live and work together.  Granted there were pockets of folks here and there grouped by race or ethnic background--but by and large, I found Trinidad a much for integrated society than our own.  Even socio-economically--large homes of the well-to-do often stood side-by-side with run down bungalows.

That said, here in the United States we often have a more considered approach to planning and zoning.  While it often seems like a burden to Americans, it also leads, at its best, to a community that it more logical in design. 

Trinidad is also marked by an approach to education that seems to be more equitable than our own often is.  There is an emphasis on technical education that is largely missing from our own school systems.  And post-secondary education is provided for all who academically qualify at no cost.

Health care, too, seems to be more readily available for one and all due to a single payer system.  Granted, health care quality is probably greater here in the United States, indeed it is not uncommon for the worst cases in Trinidad to be flown out to places like Miami.  Still access for all is the governing principle.  How, one wonders, can we move to a place where there is both open access and high quality care? 

As always, on these foreign junkets, I come home grateful to be an American.  Yet I am also reminded that as a nation we have much to learn from other nations.  And we are wise to do just that--for we are increasingly a global society!

One of my favorite hymns, "This Is My Song," was written by Lloyd Stone, and is usually sung to the tune FINLANDIA.  It's first stanza sums up well my thoughts and prayers as I reflect on the trip:

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;
but other hearts, in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.
 
 
God bless Trinidad and Tobago.  God bless the United States of America.  God bless our world!
 
 


Saturday, September 13, 2014

Wheels Down in Trinidad--Post #3

Today we distributed 25 wheelchairs.  We also visited a Hindu Temple, and in an odd sort of way, those to things are connected.  Let me explain.


The Rotary Club here in Trinidad has, as I've mentioned, distributed hundreds of wheelchairs.  As a result they have the process extremely well-organized.  It begins with referrals.  Folks who know of their work recommend potential recipients.  After an application is filled out, the club makes certain the potential recipient meets their criteria, including actual need.  A day is set for distribution, and folks are scheduled to come to the school where the Club issues the chairs.  Everybody has a specific job, ranging from greeting recipients to finalizing paper work. 


The folks issued chairs today ranged from a young man who had been paralyzed at the age of three in a car accident, to an elderly woman who was a double amputee.  There was even a little girl who had outgrown her wheelchair and was turning it in for a larger one.


Seedaws Sadhu returned from service in the Pacific during World War II in one piece--unlike many of his comrades.  A devout Hindu, he decided to build a Temple in gratitude for his safe return.  He started construction on the Temple on what turned out to be land owned by the state, and so it was torn down.  But Sadhu was undeterred.  The sea, he reasoned, belonged to no one--and so he would build the Temple some 90 meters off shore.  Each evening, after a full day of cutting sugar cane, he came down to the waters and worked on his project.  He carried foundation stones to the beach on his bicycle and then waded out to build the site--included, over time, a causeway.  He worked on his project for 18 years every single day.  While incomplete at the time of his death, the Temple stands today as a testimony to the marvel of how one stone stacked on top of another, can, over time, amount to a thing of beauty.


We passed out just twenty-five chairs today, but over time the Club here on Trinidad has kept at the work month after month, year after year--and today thousands of folks in the Caribbean lead fuller lives because of their dedication.  Dedication as admirable as that of a sugar cane cutter who wanted to build a Temple so many years ago. 

(Photo Credit:  Don Thomas)


Friday, September 12, 2014

Wheels Down in Trinidad--Post #2

After a good night's sleep and a morning cup of coffee my traveling companions and I explored downtown Chaguanas, the city where we are staying.  We went to the local market, a place filled with the sights, sounds and smells of all manner of foodstuffs!  We saw produce heaped in colorful piles ranging from avocados to something that intrigued grandson Zak called sticky fruit.  Many of the vendors were bagging up their goods--there seemed to be lots and lots and lots of hot peppers!  A couple of them sat chopping avocados to sell in pieces.  I know--you want some chips for guacamole, don't you?


The butchers were also hacking away at pork and beef and chicken.  You could buy a pig's face (just the face, not the whole head) for soup or whatever.  There were body parts I couldn't identify.  And fish--lots of fish.  We watched as one vendor cleaned and filleted a very large tilapia for a customer right on the spot.  One of our number is a vegetarian, and his commitment to his eating lifestyle was only reinforced by much of what we saw.  And, quite honestly, I had a vegetarian lunch!


Speaking of lunch, we went to one of the mall food courts for lunch--as I was to have a lunch meeting with the General Secretary of the Conference of Caribbean Churches.  Unlike most other regional ecumenical bodies, the Caribbean group includes the Roman Catholic Church.  A very positive sign!  It was an informative and productive meeting, and I left further impressed by the hospitality of Trinidadians!  Zak and the others had lunch and then poked around the stores while we talked.  Zak  was delighted to have Burger King French Fries for his noontime meal!


Our afternoon tour of Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago, included some intriguing facts including two miscellaneous tidbits:  the largest traffic roundabout in the world is in Port of Spain, and so is the KFC selling the most chicken of any franchise!  The things you learn!


Tonight we join our Rotary host at her home, along with about twenty invited guests for a "lime"--not the fruit, a party.  Any time you hang out with friends, it's called a lime.  I haven't discovered the history of the word's use yet, but I like it! 


In case you haven't picked it up--and I don't know how you could have missed it--hospitality is the theme of the trip so far!  We have been blown away by the graciousness, the kindness, the openness of our hosts.  Jesus, of course, was known for his hospitality--and we've certainly seen his face in so many people here.  Who knows, maybe the Last Supper was really a lime!   


 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Wheels Down in Trinidad--Post #1

The alarm went off at 4:10 AM.  We'd driven across the Everglades the night before in order to catch our 7:00 AM flight to Port of Spain in Trinidad.  We'd spent the night at a hotel near the airport and managed to be there bright (well, OK, maybe not so bright) and early.


The "we" includes fellow Sanibel-Captiva Rotarian John Grey, Cape Coral Rotarian Don Thomas, and my grandson Zak.  And we are all here to help distribute many of the 110 wheelchairs shipped here as a result of the Wheels for Wheels Fort Lauderdale to Key West bike ride Zak and I took in August 2013.


Trinidad has long been the home of Arawak and Carib Indians--and indeed, though few in number, still is.  It was first "discovered" by Christopher Columbus in 1498 who gave it the name La Isla de la Trinidad.  The island of the Trinity.  The history of this island nation is rather long and complicated, and includes enslavement of the native population, imported slaves from Africa and eventually the importation of Asian Indians as indentured servants.  The Spanish, the French and the English all played a part in the colonization of the island.


Today it is a multi-ethnic republic--with people of Indian and African descent most predominantly represented.  As an independent country, Trinidad, coupled with the nearby island of Tobago, has been in existence for a very brief half century.


We were greeted at the airport by a fellow Rotarian, and treated to a local favorite, doubles--a very spicy combination of chickpeas, served with fried bara bread.  Goopy, hard to eat, and really delicious.  It also makes for a clever decoration down the front of your shirt as I quickly discovered!


Our host, Lisa Francis, president of the Charleyville-Felicity Rotary Club, helped us get settled in to her family hotel, and then, after some lunch, took us to the local shopping mall for a few supplies. 


If nothing else, this is a place of real contrasts.  The mall didn't look very different from shopping centers in Florida.  Complete with TGI Fridays, Subway and other franchises.  On the way to the mall, however, we passed many, many homes that looked like so many other houses on other islands in the Caribbean.  Some quite lovely, but many having seen much, much better days.


As we left the airport I spotted a large pair of signs--decorations for the celebration of the nation's anniversary.  One featured the national seal of Trinidad and Tobago.  The other said, quite simply, "God Bless Our Nation."  A reminder that even as we utter similar sentiments about America, folks around the world, who love their nation as dearly as we love ours, have the same hopes and dreams.  Our prayer is that our visit might be a bit of a blessing for folks here--for certainly already, in a mere six hours or so, they have blessed us with their warmth and hospitality!



Monday, September 8, 2014

Flying on 9-11

I'm flying on 9-11.  Thirteen years ago many of us wondered if we would ever be able to muster the courage to get on a place again.  But we did.  Millions of us did.  Indeed, I flew later that fall to teach a course in Iowa.  Security was tight.  The soldiers and others who protected our airports carried weapons that were unsettling for many.  I remember on that first flight something fell a few rows ahead from one of the overhead bins and a woman screamed.  We applauded when we landed safely.

I didn't intentionally book a flight for 9-11.  I'm going to Trinidad to help distribute wheelchairs to folks in need of them.  9-11 turned out to be the day we needed to leave to get there for the distribution.  Not only am I flying that day, but I'm taking my thirteen year old grandson with me.

I hadn't really thought about it as particularly brave or noble, much less as an act of defiance.  But I suppose in a way it is.  I suppose in its own way its saying terrorism can't stop us from doing good.  Evil may think it has the upper hand, but it doesn't.  We may need to ramp up security.  We may need to take off shoes and worry about how many ounces of shampoo we're carrying and even give up a measure of our own privacy--but we're not going to stop doing the things that can help make this world a better place.  Like raising money for wheelchairs and seeing that they get given to kids with no legs and old folks who are no longer mobile.

So I'm flying on 9-11.  It's not much, really.  But keep me in your prayers, please.  And keep in your prayers those folks who do far riskier things in the name of all that is good.  Doctors and nurses who risk their own health to fight Ebola.  Firefighters who run into burning buildings to rescue those who are trapped.  Those who negotiate between warring parties.  For in the end every act of love, every act of compassion, says no to evil and yes to that which is good and right and beautiful.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Post-Journey Junkmail

I just returned from vacation.  I was away for two-and-a-half weeks.  It was a good trip--saw lots of friends and family, read some good books, got in lots of swimming and sightseeing.  All and all a success.  But every vacation comes with a price--and I don't mean the various expenses like lodging, meals and transportation that come with every trip.  No I mean sorting through the mail that has piled up while I was away.  Literally hundreds of e-mails (though I did keep abreast of them while I was away.  The blessing--or perhaps curse--of a smart phone!) and dozens and dozens of pieces of snail mail.

What struck me as I sorted through the snail mail was how much of it was a real waste!  A waste of paper, a waste of time, a waste of effort!  Very few pieces were personal.  There was a lovely invitation to a birthday dinner-dance in October.  And a very gracious thank you note for a memorial service I had conducted from a parishioner mourning the passing of her husband.  But other than that it mostly fell into two categories.  Bills or solicitations. 

The bills are self-explanatory.  While I've converted a number of paper bills to electronic formats, we do still receive some of them by mail.  Including some very confusing medical bills and explanations of benefits from our insurance company.  (Explanation is a technical term here--in reality nothing ever seems to be very clearly explained in such documents.  Who owes how much for what?)

The solictations often come with preprinted address labels.  Most of them get thrown into the recycling bin.  Some come from organizations we have supported for years, like Planned Parenthood, the American Cancer Society and Amnest5y International.  But others come from organizations we've never supported!  Here's a hint for such organizations.  Just send me your request.  Forget the free labels, the little cutesy pads of paper with my name on the top, the wrapping paper, the greeting cards.  Spend your money on the cause--not on the trinkets and tokens! 

So there you have it.  Post-vacation rant is over.  Thanks for letting me vent!

Friday, August 29, 2014

On Home and Hearts

Sherwood.  That was my mother's maiden name.  Her parents, Sue and Robert Sherwood, are both buried in Park Lawn Cemetery in Bennington, Vermont.  My grandfather, Robert, died in 1961, when I was just seven.  As his grave marker reminds all who see it, he was a veteran of World War I.  He was in the Medical Corps, and a corporal when he got out and finished his studies at Harvard.  My grandmother Sue lived another twenty-seven years and was a major part of my young life.  I had the honor of officiating at her funeral, next to my Dad's, the hardest funeral I've ever done.




I visited their graves this week while on vacation in the Berkshires.  My mother, who was raised in Bennington, moved away in the early fifties, and never lived there again.  To the best of my knowledge, we have no living relatives in Bennington. And while I visited often in my childhood and young adulthood, I never lived there myself.  But I've moved around a lot over my lifetime, and Bennington was a constant.  It was the closest thing I had to a hometown.




As my wife Linda and I placed flowers on my grandparent's graves, I offered a brief prayer of thanks for having had them in my life.  My grandfather's love of literature, my grandmother's concern for the environment--things that remain with me to this day.  But as I reflected on how spread out my family is--Nebraska, Kentucky, Michigan, New York, Massachusetts, Florida--I realized that home is indeed, where the heart is.  And my heart is in many places.  Not divided, but rather enriched by the diversity of people and places that are a part of my life.