Off the beaten path or where in the world is Zumbrota

Last week there was an article in TIME magazine how Europe is overwhelmed with tourists. Particularly Italy, France, Spain and specifically some of the popular cities like Barcelona, Venice, Rome and Dubrovnik in Croatia. “Of the 1.3 billion international arrivals counted by the U.N. worldwide last year, 51% were in Europe. Americans, in particular, seem drawn to the perceived glamour and sophistication of the Old Continent. More than 15.7 million U.S. tourists crossed the Atlantic in 2017”, said TIME. “France received 87 million tourists last year.”

That is a lot of people. I read an article like this and become very self-conscious. Conscious of how convinced myself that I blend in better than most tourists. Conscious of being privileged one because of my European passport and income while I meet so many people around the world who cannot even dream  of such travel. Conscious that I want to see these famous cities and places, too, but do not want to be one of the millions.  (Certainly do not want to compete with crowds to take a photo with a view) Conscious of all the times I have searched for low-cost flights while some of my friends choose not to travel by air because of environmental concerns.

Many of us who travel for work or pleasure have these thoughts. I know how many places and countries build their whole economy on tourism but what about the ugly side of it? Local businesses and vendors compete for the money and people start harming their own land, environment and historical heritage. And what about the environmental print of all these millions on the move every year? Including my own? It is perplexing.

While living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I often heard the frustration and dilemma of my local Thai friends who wanted to have a business but were weary of visitor’s attitudes and behavior and the big changes happening in their city. One time I witnessed how Chinese visitors expected the Thai staff to speak Chinese and practically yelled at them. “We have the money and so many of us are coming and why are you too slow to learn our language”.

I stood there thinking how dare this Chinese guy be so rude. And then I remembered that I speak English and I kind of expect to go places and to be understood. (Without the yelling, though 🙂 ) Plus, Thai culture is so polite and accommodating that an average visitor will never know how many times a day he or she may be breaking the cultural taboos. I have seen what my fellow countrymen, Latvians, will do and say in places like Thailand while I hesitated to open my mouth to confront them for  promoting the “ugly European” stereotype. Since I am the polite and culturally sensitive one, right?

Anyways… this summer you can call me a European tourist in America! Besides a busy schedule with meetings, I get to explore. Some small towns and communities. Have you ever heard of Zumbrota, Minnesota? Well, I had not but now I can say “I was there”. What a hidden gem with a typical main street, art shops, beautiful small state theater, best fish and chips I have had in Minnesota and even a unique, old covered bridge!

The lady at the art gallery who sold us tickets to go and see two great local bands, was very friendly. “Latvia? You certainly have come a far way to hear them :)”, she exclaimed. I was equally impressed ’cause she knew exactly where Latvia was. After receiving another compliment how good my English was (that always makes me even more conscious to speak), the lady directed us to Coffee Mill cafe where we had the delicious battered cod.

Don’t know how many visitors a year come to Zumbrota but in 2018 I was one of them! Hopefully not as a statistic but as a Latvian charmed by rural Minnesota.

 

Love and its more than fifty shades of green

May is a beautiful month but this one has been exceptional. In Latvia we experienced the sunniest and warmest May I can ever remember. Everything was blooming all at once. Lilacs, wild roses, chestnuts, rhododendrons, now jasmines … like blooming season on steroids. Makes me want to scream, ” Slow down! Save something for the rest of the summer!”

I took my grandmother who is suffering from dementia to Botanical gardens and she simply came alive. She may not know many things anymore, get confused and forget what she did the day before or even few hours ago but she never forgets the names of flowers! Anything blooming, beautiful and colorful catches her eye. Grandmother will touch it, smell it, adore it… and talk to it.

Yes, she talks to the flowers and tells them that they are pretty and that each is unique. She also talks to a tall tree and asks where does the tree draw its strength and what kind of stories could it tell. We sat down in the grass and grandmother was gently stroking it like it was the smoothest silk. Saying ‘thank you’ for this soft, fresh and green blanket we get to lie on.

My grandmother is a very spiritual person as well and looks at the nature as Creator’s love letter. If she had lived in medieval Italy, I imagine she would have followed the teachings and example of St Francis of Assisi. They would have gotten along very well and probably would have talked for hours about every little creature there is.

Actually I did not mean to write this post about her but about one very important document published by Pope Francis. Encyclical “Laudato si (‘Praise be to you’ from old Italian) was  published in 2015 with the subtitle “On Care For Our Common Home.” It covers theology (creation, nature), science (ecology, global warming), environmental ethics (consumerism, irresponsible development), politics (unified global action)… just to name a few things covered by this paper. Above all, though, it talks about life style described as “integral ecology”.

For a spiritual person, it is a lifestyle that integrates our four relationships – with God, with ourselves, with other people and with all created order (nature and animals).

Read the encyclical which you can easily download or listen to audio! It is long but it is so well written in common language while reflecting serious theological and scientific research. Of course, it does not cover everything on this topic but it does encourage and even force a deep and open conversation about how to have peace and just relationship with all nature and all its inhabitants.

So, instead or writing about the importance of recycling or how to limit our personal environmental print or what to do about systemic injustices to our earth, I decided to write about love. St Francis of Assisi was a lover of nature and has become a patron of animals and the natural environment. You could say the “saint of ecology”.

Pope Francis who obviously picked the name ‘Francis’ for a reason has said that “God always forgives; human beings sometimes forgive; but when nature is mistreated, she never forgives.” Like a scorned lover who has been rejected, abused, enslaved and mistreated. Our relationship has been broken and it will take more that this encyclical, books, world conferences and declarations.

I wish I could say I was my grandmother’s granddaughter when it comes to this awareness but I am not. Just a beginner in what has been described as ‘eco conversion’ but don’t see any other way. How can we care for ‘peace on earth’ without caring for ‘peace with the earth’?

My husband digs through the rubbish

The nations of the world are meeting in Paris, France to discuss the climate change; the warming of our planet; the pledges that have been made and the reality that those pledges are not ambitious enough. We are negotiating how to cut carbon emissions and to limit global warming to 2C (3.6F)

We are not talking about some greenhouse where to grow tomatoes and other vegetables. We are talking about the ‘greenhouse’ we live in.

The debate has definitely shifted. It does not matter if you believe that the global warming is the result of rapid industrialization or the signs of natural climate cycles. The fact remains – our planet is warming and more and more people around the world are suffering because of it. Extreme weather, severe floods or droughts, food shortages, climate refugees… of course, not just people, but the animals and the nature itself suffers.

I have observed plenty of it with my own eyes. For example, in Southeast Asia where I have lived for the last few years. Plastic rubbish everywhere – on the road, in the forest, in the water, in the field. Plastic is so cheap there and used without much thought. I look at the ground that has to ‘swallow’ it and I feel sadness and anger.

I think of my grandmother who is a gardener and has the highest love and respect for the soil. She knows what is good soil and what is bad soil and how long it takes to nurture a small plot of land to make it fertile. She gets upset at me when I use lots of dish soap or other cleaning supplies because she does not want it to go into the ground. She would be horrified to see and ‘smell’ most of the sewage water and canals in Southeast Asia.

Then I have my husband who also gets upset at me. Well, more annoyed than upset. I think that I am good at recycling. Then comes he and finds something else in our rubbish that I should not have thrown out. Wherever we are staying, first things first – he locates the local recycling bins. Or asks the people we are staying with, ‘how do you recycle? where should we put it?’

In Latvia we are very proud of our nature and clean air and clean water, but we still fail when it comes to renewing the resources. Take that same recycling since it is the easiest thing that everyone can do. We throw out plastic, paper, glass… Most of municipalities provide recycling bins but they are often disaster. I open the paper bin and I see regular waste thrown in. I can imagine what some of Riga residents have thought, watching my husband open those large bins, pulling out items. ‘Why is this foreigner digging through the rubbish? He does not look like a homeless person.’

My Latvian friends can correct me but as far as I know, most of rubbish still ends up in the landfills. I also know people in the countryside who just bury it. So, our beautiful land has to ‘swallow’ it and rubbish produces lots of methane.

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There are many other people who make me think twice about the things I waste. These people make their living from sorting our rubbish and reselling what can be sold or reusing what can be used. In Cairo, Egypt I learned that 80% of the rubbish gets recycled. Mostly sorted by human hands. I stayed in the Cairo neighborhood where thousands of people do that for living. Yes, it stunk and I had to get used to it. I remember washing clothes and hanging them to dry, thinking of the ‘aroma’ all around.

Then I think of Mae Sot, Thailand where families live at the local dump site and children help their parents to climb the mounds of waste, looking for anything recyclable or valuable. Children would also make toys out of the things they found and show it off as a treasure.

One of the millions of reasons why I will never look at my rubbish bin the same.

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Latviski:

Pagājšnedēļ Parīzē sākās pasaules mēroga konference, kas ir veltīta klimata izmaiņām; mūsu planētas sasilšanai; lieliem solījumiem un apziņai, ka ar šiem solījumiem vien nepietiek. Mēs turpinam apspriest, kā samazināt oglekļa izmešus atmosfērā un ierobežot globālo sasilšanu ap +2C

Izklausās, it kā runātu par siltumnīcu. Taču šoreiz nerunājam par tomātiem un gurķiem, bet gan mūsu Zemi un mūsu pašu dzīves kvalitāti.

Saruna ir ievirzījusies dziļā gultnē. Vienalga, vai mēs uzskatām, ka globālo sasilšanu izraisa pasaules straujā industralizācija un cilvēku darbošanās, vai arī domājam, ka piedzīvojam normālu klimata izmaiņu ciklu. Fakti nemainās – mūsu planēta sasilst, un arvien vairāk cilvēku no tā cieš. Ekstrēmi laika apstākļi, stipras vētras, spēcīgi plūdi vai arī liels sausums, pārtikas trūkums, klimata bēgļi… Protams, cieš ne tikai cilvēki, bet visa radība.

Daudzas no šīm problēmām esmu redzējusi savām acīm. Piemēram, dzīvojot Dienvidāzijā. Kur vien skaties, plastmasa! Uz ceļiem, mežos, ūdenī, laukā. Plastmasa tur ir tik ļoti lēta, ka nav pat jāpiedomā. Es skatos uz augsni, kas to pamazām ‘norij’, un mani pārņem skumjas un dusmas.

Iedomājos savu vecmammu, kura ir dārzniece, un izturas pret augsni ar vislielāko mīlestību un cieņu. Viņa zin, kas ir auglīga vai neauglīga zeme, un cik ilgi un smagi jāstrādā, lai to koptu. Viņa dusmojas uz mani, kad lietoju trauku mazgājamos vai citus tīrāmos līdzekļus, jo viņa necieš, ka tā ķīmija nonāk ūdenī vai kaut kur zemē. Viņa būtu šokēta, ieraugot un paostot notekūdeņus un kanālus Dienvidāzijā.

Arī mans vīrs uz mani dusmojas. Ja ne dusmojas, tad vismaz aizrāda. Man pašai liekas, ka esmu apzinīga atkritumu šķirotāja. Bet tad virtuvē ienāk viņš, un atkal kaut ko atrod tai miskastes spainī, ko nevajadzēja mest laukā. Kad ierodamies jaunā vietā, viņš uzreiz piefiksē, kur ir atkritumu šķirotavas. Un jautā vietējiem, kā viņi šķiro atkritumus, un kur mums to likt?

Latvijā mēs ļoti lepojamies ar tīro dabu, gaisu un ūdeni, bet mums vēl daudz jāuzlabo resursu atjaunošanā un pārstrādē. Kaut vai tā pati atkritumu šķirošana, kas ir tik vienkārša lieta. Bet vienalga metam miskastē plastmasu, papīru, stiklu… Lielākā daļa pašvaldību (varbūt pat visas?) nodrošina konteinerus atkritumu šķirošanai, bet bieži vien tur ir tāda ‘miskaste’. Atveru konteineru papīram, un tur jau pārtikas atkritumu maisi. Mēģinu iedomāties, ko ir padomājuši tie Rīgas iedzīvotāji, kuri ir redzējuši manu vīru šad tad rokamies pa tiem lielajiem konteineriem, un metot stiklu pie stikla, plastmasu pie plastmasas. “Ko tas ārzemnieks tur meklē? Neizskatās taču pēc bomža.”

Mani draugi Latvijā, variet mani palabot, bet, cik man zināms, lielākā daļa atkritumu Latvijā nonāk parastās izgāztuvēs. Pazīstu arī lauciniekus, kuri plastmasu un stiklu vienkārši ierok dziļi savā zemē. Mūsu skaistajai zemei tas viss ‘jānorij’. Nemaz nerunājot par metāna gāzes veidošanos, utt.

Ne tikai vecmamma un mans vīrs liek man aizdomāties par lietām, ko metu laukā. Ir daudzi citi cilvēki. Tie, kuriem atkritumu šķirošana ir galvenais ienākumu avots. Ēģiptes galvaspilsētā Kairā es uzzināju, ka tur 80% no atkritumiem tiek pārstrādāti. Izšķiroti ar cilvēku rokām. Es pavadīju kādu laiku vienā no Kairas rajoniem, kur to darīja tūkstošiem cilvēku. Jā, smaka bija briesmīga, un bija pie tā jāpierod. Atceros, ka izkāru izmazgātās drēbes, un domāju par ‘aromātu’, kādā tās žūs.

Vēl es iedomājos par Meisot pilsētu Taizemē, kur ģimenes dzīvo vietējā atkritumu izgāztuvē. Bērni palīdz saviem vecākiem, kāpjot šajos mēslu kalnos un meklējot visu, ko var pārdot un pārstrādāt. Bērni bieži atrod arī kādas lietas, ko izmantot savām rotaļām.

Viens no miljoniem iemeslu, kāpēc es uz savu miskastes spaini skatos ar citām acīm…