Monday, April 19, 2010

The Silent Genocide in Guatemala

Okay, enough about Belgian frites and waffles. Time to get back to the serious stuff.

In between working full-time and my graduate studies, I decided to take a little vacation.

Destination: Guatemala.

In February, I traveled to Guatemala City on my own where I volunteered through the organization, Cross Cultural Solutions. In addition to helping create a computer room for children in a school, I had the opportunity to play with the children while experiencing the culture all in a short week. And with minimal knowledge of Spanish. I was a source of entertainment for the children as I failed miserably at speaking their language.

A week was not enough to absorb the full essence of Guatemala but for what little time I had, it was an amazing experience. The volcanic and mountainous landscape was phenomenal, the people were friendly and warm despite the language barrier and the hospitality of my home-base manager was endearing.

The country has one of the most unequal economic distributions within the western hemisphere according to the World Bank and over fifty percent of the population live in poverty. Guatemala City, its capital, is adorned with vibrant colored buildings that are contrasted with stiff coils of barbed wire and cold steel bars on windows. Antigua, the country's former capital, offers more antiquity with its cobble-stone streets and beautiful churches.

Three of Guatemala's most popular volcanoes: Agua, Fuego and Acatenango

The streets of Antigua

A Mayan woman making traditional coffee

Despite the reality of poverty, I still found myself getting lost in the charm of the people and quickly adjusting to what Guatemalans referred to as "Latin American time" which offered a welcomed break from the rigid precision I am used to in my everyday life here in the States. But just as I found myself easing into Guatemala, I was reminded of the turbulent past the country has had, learning surprising details about a genocide I had never heard about.

I was aware of the Civil War that raged on for over thirty years from 1960-1996 but was clueless to the Mayan genocide that took place during it. As I sat down to hear about the country's history from the guest speaker that came to talk to the volunteers, I was completely caught off guard by the information and testimonies that were presented.

The war, fought between the government and insurgents, was sparked by a military takeover and civil unrest. The Guatemalan military targeted the country's Mayan population, claiming they were an internal enemy with a communist plot to take over the government. Over 200,000 Mayans were killed or disappeared in the conflict with the peak of violence occurring between 1982-1983. The stories of men, women and children being tortured and raped were horrifying.

Despite the atrocities that occurred, it was not until 1999 that the genocide gained attention, when the Commission for Historical Clarification in Guatemala released its report, "Memory of Silence." In the report it was revealed that the United States gave money and training to Guatemalan military who carried out acts of genocide.

President Clinton apologized for the U.S.'s role in the genocide, noting, "We are determined to remember the past but never repeat it." How ironic that five years prior in 1994, history had already repeated itself yet again in Rwanda.

Discrimination against Mayans is still prevalent today in Guatemala. Despite their contributions to the country's rich history, they are still looked upon as inferior people and it is a struggle for them to maintain their indigenous roots and lifestyle.

Below is a video with more in-depth information about the Mayan genocide in Guatemala.

Guatemala - La Cama Massacre from Suneil Singh on Vimeo.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Belgian Frites by Saus

Yes, shame on me, I've been MIA again. It's amazing how much time work and grad school take.

But I digress. And I'm going to get off topic even more. But it's my blog so I can.

I wanted to spread the word about a little endeavor by one of my friends. Coming soon to Boston is Saus, a Belgian street food restaurant specializing in traditional Belgian pommes frites and Belgian waffles with dipping sauces for both. Because I'm a food enthusiast and I'm so proud of the progress my friend and her business partners have made, I wanted to give a shout-out from the virtual rooftop.

Check out their coverage in the Boston Globe and their humorous blog that follows the (mis)adventures of opening a restaurant in Boston.

It's good stuff. And the Boston Globe article talks about their use of social see, my post isn't completely off topic.

If you're in the city, be on the lookout for this place.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

A Modern Approach to Some Historic Landscapes

Expanding on my previous post about online mapping, I thought I'd share a more lighthearted project.

Google Maps has teamed up with The National Trust, an organization dedicated to preserving historic sites throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland, to provide viewers with virtual tours of some of these countries' preserved locations.

"Trike riders" have peddled around the United Kingdom, documenting 20 historic sites including Corfe Castle in Dorset, Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire, Plas Newydd in Wales and Downhill Demesne in Northern Ireland.

While Google Maps has previously only provided street views of roads, this project allows 360-degree views of the UK's iconic landscapes.

This is perhaps my one way to view the rolling hills and centuries-old castles in the UK for now until I get the chance to head back at some point to see everything I didn't get to while I was over there.

I'm not much of a cycler (well, who am I kidding, I'm not one at all) but I'd give it a try if it meant I got to have the full access that these trike riders get.

Now that's a decent gig.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Online Mapping: From Haiti to Kenya

In the recent tragedy that came from the earthquake in Haiti, it is interesting to see the role that technology has played in communication during the chaos that has ensued.

Many, many posts ago, I discussed the online mapping project, Ushahidi, which served as a portal for Kenyans to report the violence that erupted after their presidential elections in December 2007. Since then, Ushahidi has expanded to document crises in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the War on Gaza and violence in Pakistan. Its latest project has been helping those in Haiti.

With phone lines collapsed and many anxious over the fate of their loved ones, Ushahidi teamed up with Digicel, a local mobile phone operator, and established a way for people to send text messages.

Here's how it works:
  • People can send their message to text number 4636 via cell phone or through the Web site
  • The message is then translated by volunteers
  • Once the volunteer finds more information and verifies it, the report is mapped
  • Aid agencies are then able to directly act on the message
Here's a full report from the BBC.

Additionally, online mapping is being utilized to help Kenyans in a different way than Ushahidi once did. In response to the massive droughts from last year which made it increasingly difficult for herdsman to insure their livestock, satellite imagery is making it possible to get insurance. These images can gauge the severity of drought allowing herdsman to receive automatic payment for any losses. This will help replace the expensive process of insurers having to check reported livestock deaths before making any payments.

The potential for online mapping is diverse as seen by the projects mentioned above. If it can already be used in a variety of different ways from communicating during an environmental disaster to creating a more efficient way to earn a living, there will be vast opportunities for this technology to be utilized in even more productive ways as it continues to evolve.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Focus Fail: Confessions From the Distracted

As a former journalism student, I'm embarrassed to even admit to this--I'm horrible at reading the news.

Growing up, I remember watching cartoons and eating my breakfast on the weekends while my parents sat at the kitchen table with our local newspaper spread out in front of them. If they weren't able to read it in the morning, as they often didn't during the week because getting two children ready for school while trying to get to work on time was time-consuming enough, they always made the effort in the evening.

Now both retired, they still sit every morning, reading each news article, discussing them amongst themselves. I noticed while I was visiting them for the holidays how different their habits of absorbing the news are from my own.

I always thought that one day, when I was old(er), I'd be doing the same exact thing because sitting down and reading the news is an adult thing to do. Well, now in my mid-20s, I say with reluctance, that I'm a legitimate adult but I sure don't have the focus that my parents seem to have.

Given I studied journalism during my undergraduate days at Northeastern, I understand the importance of the news and knowing what is going on around you but as the industry has shifted from print to digital, how I receive the news has also affected how I absorb the news.

Let's just say, I'm a bit distracted. And I'd be willing to bet that the rest of my generation may be experiencing some of the same struggles.

I became remotely aware of it within the last couple of months. Specifically, when I was reading an article about Sudan on the New York Times Web site and my eyes happened to stray away from the text to catch a teaser about traditional food for Rosh Hashanah (I'm a bit of a food enthusiast). I immediately clicked on the link to that article and soon forgot about Sudan.

Because the digital age of online journalism and social media offer so many options for obtaining news, I tend to feel a bit of information overload. Web pages are riddled with advertisements and links galore tempting readers with instant gratification for anything that grabs their attention. I never seem to have enough will power to resist those temptations and just finish the article I originally started reading.

In other instances, I have been in the middle of reading an article online, only to become distracted by another thought that I instantly feel the need to exlpore by searching on Google. Instant gratification at its best yet again.

It is not to say that the interest is not there--it is, unfortunately, a short attention span that seems to be the culprit. Information is coming at us in all directions and for me, the news has become a mish-mosh of scattered headlines that give me just enough information to have a general idea of what is going on in the world. My main source of news is through the Internet, whether it is browsing headlines on different news sites or through random items posted on Facebook and I can't help but wonder if my abundant sources for information have left me over-saturated, dwindling my patience for in-depth news.

I find this disheartening, considering my previous studies and my current studies in global and international affairs but I figure the first step to overcoming such obstacles is confronting them.

I've managed to stay informed on current events despite my failure to focus--just not to the extent that I should. So as the new year has come upon us, I guess if I had to make any type of resolution, it would be to train myself to be a bit more patient and shift away from my current distracted mentality.

Perhaps I'll take a note or two from my parents.