28 September 2006


This week we’ve had a delegation from the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship of the U.S. visiting the church in Barranquilla, and I’ve been tagging along on their activities around the city. Cartagena is an old town on the Colombian coast, about an hour and a half from Barranquilla, that historically served as a Spanish port for the shipment of gold, and on Tuesday we drove there to meet with representatives from a Human Rights organization associated with La Universidad de Cartagena.

After the meeting, however, we had time to play, to explore the old walled-in city, visit the shops, and most exciting for me, watch a bit of the filming of the movie adaptation of Gabriel García Márquez’s novel, Amor en Los Tiempos de Cholera (Love in the Time of Cholera), which I just read a few weeks ago. The old town park was filled with cameras, horses, and folks wearing period costumes.

At the end of the day, we ate dinner on the beach overlooking the sunset. From now on, these colorful beads will represent, to me, the peaceful and beautiful Colombian coast. The ceramic necklaces are a traditional craft of folks living on the Caribbean near the town of Santa Marta, and vendors with armloads of necklaces walk up and down the sands selling them to beachgoers. We watched the swimmers, these vendors, and the waves until the owner of the beach-front restaurant rode his motorcycle to the water’s edge to invite us in for dinner.

The Dilemma of the Photo of the Day

During our visit to the Loma Roja displaced community last week, we were sitting in the front room of a home waiting for our host to arrive and begin the tour. From around the corner peeked a little girl, no older than three. She and I made eye contact and I smiled and waved. She seemed encouraged, so I tapped my knee as an invitation to come closer. We held our eye contact as she slowly crossed the room to stand by my side, and when I placed my outstretched palm on my knee, she put her little hand in mine. For about ten minutes, I patted her hand and asked her whispered questions – “What’s your name?” “How are you today?” – but she just calmly gazed up at me. Traci whispered, “She’s probably never seen blue eyes before.”

Those of you who have read far back into my archives will remember that during my first week here I promised to post a “Photo of the Day” in order to share my experiences in Colombia with the folks at home. You’ll also notice that this hasn’t happened.

This moment in Loma Roja was precious for me, intimate and unexpected. After such a moment of connection, of simple joy with a small child, how could I once again distance myself behind the camera? How could I choose to take photos when I could be smiling at a little girl, or asking questions of her mother, or feeling the hot sun on my back?

I’ve been thinking a lot about photography and the power the camera wields in these already tricky situations. In the past ten days, I’ve visited four communities of displaced Colombians, and I’ve seen beautiful people and heartbreaking situations that I would love to share and remember.

When we visit these communities, we’re asking folks to welcome us into their homes and to offer their stories so we can better understand the reality of displacement in Colombia and so we can stand in solidarity with their struggle for land and justice. But it’s more complicated than that.

Visits from North Americans in the past have sometimes resulted in empty promises of money and resources. Also, I can only imagine how weird it is to have unknown folks come into your community and start snapping photos. As a North American, I recognize the power and privilege that my camera represents, how it can build walls and separate us from a moment of genuine human connection. Because of this, I’ve become more and more uncomfortable with uninvited photography in the displaced communities. These walks through neighborhoods are not zoo visits. These lives are not ours to capture, to say, “Look at the poor people in Colombia.”

For me, the community visits have become precious, as I have seen tears stemming from the pain of recalling horrific stories and I have witnessed the pride the comes from these tails of survival. I’ve also laughed and learned, like last week when my hosts, Jaime and Soledad, pointed out every fruit tree and local plant, enjoying my reaction: “Oh, papaya! Yuca! Mandarino! Límon!”

You’ll notice that I still do take photos when I’m out and about in Colombia, and I’ll probably be posting more images of displaced folks and their surroundings here and on Flickr. But lately, my photography has become only one small part of my visits, and it occurs within the context of relationships and respect, after we have established a connection. My priority must be to be in the moment, to share the human experience however briefly, rather than thinking always of the future and the perfect photo.

That said, here a picture of my friend Selys and her loro. She and I sat on the porch of her house for about half an hour as the group waited for a taxi. She drew a picture for me in my notebook and I took her photo. We considered it an artistic exchange.

20 September 2006

Los Ernst en America Latina

My brother Michael is currently in Buenos Aires, Argentina, studying urbanization, politics, sustainable development, and cultural responses to globalization as the Trustees Fellow for an International Honors Program semester abroad. In the coming weeks he'll be moving on to China and then India, but if you're interested in the parallel lives of siblings exploring politics, culture, and social action in South America, check out his website, Magical Urbanism.

International observers and human rights abuses

I think this article from the online political newsletter Counterpunch offers a excellent illustration of the current situation for displaced Colombians and the need for international accompaniment as the displaced struggle for their human rights. For those of you nervous about my presence here, I want to reassure you that our work is much less intense than that described in the article (although no less important in the lives of local activists).

Thanks to Cat for bringing the article to my attention.

16 September 2006

La Central

Over 3 million Colombians are currently internally displaced, refugees within their own country, having fled their homes and lives in response to violence, threats, or changing economic situations. After Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Colombia ranks third in the world in terms of internal displacement.

As accompaniers, one of our tasks is to witness the situation in Colombia, to stand in solidarity with folks suffering from Colombia’s ongoing armed conflict and, more relevant to our lives as U.S. citizens, to see firsthand the negative impact of international policies on Colombia’s poor. Yesterday, at the invitation of Antonio, a displaced man who works to organize people to recover land and seek justice, we visited the neighborhood of La Central, a poor community located in the municipality of Soledad, on the outskirts of Barranquilla.

Although the folks we met yesterday are extremely poor, they opened their homes to us and shared often raw and painful stories about their lives and their experiences. I cannot promise money. I cannot offer resources from the United States. But, I can give these lovely people an international voice by sharing their stories and making public what is happening in Colombia. Here are a few of the voices I heard:

Antonio and his wife Doris are in the process of opening this small food stand located near one of the open plazas of the neighborhood. They plan to sell cold drinks and a variety of common Colombian snacks, mostly deep-fried, including empanadas and arepas. Ideally, Doris will be able to run the stand, supporting the couple, their daughter and her partner, and two grandchildren (5 year-old grandson Lewin is pictured here), allowing Antonio to work full-time as a community organizer. Doris told me that she doesn’t want to upset the harmony of the small-business community by competing with neighboring food stands, so her shop will be open in the afternoons and evenings after the others have closed. She used to ride a three-wheel bike cart through the neighborhood selling fish or snacks or homemade desserts, but hopes that the food stand will be a more secure and stable source of income.

Matias sat with his wife Elba in their unadorned living room. The first thing he told us was, “We have been abandoned.” They fled their town in the Department of Magdalena in response to increased paramilitary violence, and find life in La Central difficult. Before they were displaced, Matias grew all the family’s food, but in the city this is impossible. To make matters worse, as an older man he is unlikely to find work in Barranquilla’s limited job market.

This couple arrived in La Central four years ago, after the paramilitaries killed two of her brothers. They relayed to us the story of these deaths with hand gestures so graphic that they required no further translation. Their situation is much the same as Matias and Elba’s: “There’s no food, no money, no work for old men like me.” Sitting proudly throughout our visit in their newly remodeled home, the couple smiled broadly when I showed them their own images on my camera screen.

These stories of displacement are not old news. This family fled their home only two years ago, when their granddaughter Mariana was just an infant. They’ve set up a small stand selling snacks and cigarettes near the front door of their home, but note that none of the neighbors have money to buy from them. Although the family’s financial situation causes daily struggles, they finally feel safe in their new neighborhood.

We have been invited to visit several more communities during the coming week. With my still rough spanish language skills, I found it really challenging on Friday to listen, understand, and ask simple questions, so I feel I left La Central without a full understanding of the daily reality of displaced Colombians. In preparation for the next visits, I’m making a list of questions I’d like to understand, including whether the Colombian government offers any aid the families can draw on, what their daily lives look like, and how they support themselves given the scarcity of paid employment. If you think of any questions that would enhance the understanding of internal displacement from an external perspective, please post them in the comments section under this post and I’ll bring them to the communities.


Yesterday during a tremendous thunderstorm a tornado touched down in Barranquilla. This came as quite a surprise since tornadoes are extremely rare in Colombia. The campus of Universidad Reformada and the IPC (where I live) was unharmed, but Colegio Americano (American School), the large elementary/highschool operated by the church, suffered considerable damage. Luckily, no students were on campus, although the same cannot be said of neighboring schools, which received much greater damage and where several children were hurt. Hundreds of Barranquilleros have been left roof-less and flooded.

Information is unclear right now, but we understand that the homes of some of our friends from UR and the Colegio Americano lost their roofs and experienced flooding. Christine and I were invited to visit the site last night but decided to respect the request that only emergency personnel travel in that part of the city. We did take a surreal taxi ride through sections of the city without power on the way to dinner, though. I never thought about how full of life and light Barranquilla is until I saw it dark and quiet at 8:00pm on a Friday night.

If I'm called on to respond to this unexpected situation in any way, I'll post stories here. While this certainly isn't a disaster on the scale of Hurricane Katrina, it has shocked the city and placed an additional burden on people already living complicated lives.

(I lifted this photo from the barranquilla newspaper's website, where you can find more photos and information in spanish.)

14 September 2006

Technical Difficulties


A new centro comercial (mall) is being built around the corner from the presbytery office, blocking the signal to our internet antenna and frustrating everyone involved. I´ll be back with posts and photos in a few days when the server problems are fixed.

In the meantime, I recently read this quote in a novel and it has me thinking:
My job was acceptance. To keep an acceptant spirit. That´s what I learned... To accept. Not to change the world. Only to change the soul. So that it can be in the world. Be rightly in the world.
- Ursula K. LeGuin, Four Ways to Forgiveness

Thanks for visiting the blog! All is safe and well here in Barranquilla.


11 September 2006

My Global Heritage

My Colombian friends saw this photo of my family in 1981 hanging on my wall here and laughed because it looks like I have a Colombian father. It's ironic, though, because everyone knows that Dad is German:

(p.s. I'm the cute, medium-sized blond one)

09 September 2006

So that Peace Doesn't Escape Us

I was given this poster today when I attended a conference hosted by La Asamblea Permanente de la Sociedad Civil por la Paz (The Permanent Assembly of Civil Society for Peace). What I love about the image is that it absolutely reflects the nature of the Colombian activist community -- a diverse group of people from all walks of life, hopefully and cooperatively chasing after the dove of peace.

This week la Iglesia faced two challenges associated with the armed groups of Colombia, with the detention of Jaime José Correa by the police and the possible threat to M. when the paramilitaries linked his name to the FARC. When news like this reaches the presbytery, lawyers and activists immediately rush together to strategize, coordinate phone calls, visit the police station, contact family members, and activate their network contacts within Colombia and the international community.

As accompaniers, it's disheartening to sit by as the people we've come to love and respect face challenges far beyond anything experienced by community organizers in the U.S. We do what we can -- sending email alerts, accompanying people on visits to the Police -- but our role in these situations is really the same as every other day: We're here to be present, to listen attentively, to represent the solidarity of the international community, to support our brothers and sisters as they chase the dove of peace, especially in those moments when the nets ensnare them, too.

Emergency Request from the Iglesia Presbiteriana de Colombia

Those of you who have been following the stories from Barranquilla over the past few years know about M.*, our friend with the long hair currently living in Bogotá. His name has once again been linked with Colombia's notorious guerrilla group, the FARC. This is, of course, not true, but the allegations are enough to possibly prompt the government to re-open his case. In order to avoid having M. jailed again, the church is working urgently to find him a safe haven outside of Colombia. The current options being investigated include Brazil and Costa Rica.

In order for this to happen, there is an urgent need for money for airfare and 2-3 months living expenses. In general, accompaniers do not engage in fundraising or offer on-the-ground financial contributions, but leaders here in Barranquilla have asked me and Christine to pass along this request for emergency contributions to folks in the States. Those of you wishing to make a financial contribution for the safety of our friend M. can arrange an international money transfer to an account in the name of the Colombian Presbyterian Church.

Cuenta Corriente No. 07405677-1
Código Swift: bschcobb
A nombre de Iglesia Presbiteriana de Colombia
Banco Santander – Oficina Principal
Calle 79 No. 55-13
Barranquilla, Colombia

Please continue hold M. in the light. He’s had a rough few years. We will send updates as we learn more.

* For security reasons, we would prefer not to reveal M.’s full name in relation to this request. If you need more information, email me for some links to articles, or contact previous accompaniers who can safely share the story from the U.S.

Rachel & Christine

06 September 2006

Update: Jaime José Correa

We have good news to report. Jaime José Correa was released from detention Tuesday morning and is safe. There are several conflicting stories about the justification for his arrest and folks here in Barranquilla are investigating the situation. We will give you more information when we have it. Thank you for your concerns and your prayers.

Christine & Rachel, accompaniers


My grandmother, Rosemary Loughnane Meyer, died Tuesday in Northern Kentucky at age 89. She had been living with Alzheimer’s for several years and suffered a debilitating stroke in May. She died surrounded by her seven children, her husband, and other loved ones.

I’m here in Colombia and my brother Michael is in Argentina, so we sadly cannot be with the family at this time. Also, while visiting Grandma in the nursing home on Monday, Mom broke her arm in three places.

What I’m saying is, the Ernst/Loughnane family needs some love right now.

04 September 2006

Urgent Alert from Barranquilla

This morning at 10am, Jaime José Correa, vice-President of ANDESCOL (Asociación Nacional de Desplazados Colombianos, Atlántico; National Association of Displaced Colombians, Atlantic Region), was detained by the police while at the ANDESCOL headquarters in Barranquilla. He was waiting to meet with another individual who never arrived. A neighbor called Jaime’s wife to inform her of his detention.

Lawyers and accompaniers went with Jaime’s son to the Police station in Barranquilla and learned that it was indeed the police who detained him. We don’t know specific charges at this time, nor do we know when he will be released.

We ask for your prayers in this matter and we will keep you informed as new information arises.

Rachel & Christine

La Vida Cotidiana

Maybe one of my biggest challenges since arriving in Barranquilla a week ago has been adjusting to the pace of life here in Colombia. Before I arrived, I read in the accompaniment manual that on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being highly stressful, the daily life of an accompanier is usually a 1 or a 2. This has proved to be true in more ways than I expected.

Last summer when I visited Bogotá and Barranquilla as part of a Witness for Peace delegation, our days were filled with visits to multiple agencies and multiple communities, to the U.S. Embassy and the Colombian military. We were constantly on the go and dealing with information overload.

As an accompanier, I've stepped into the everyday life of these Colombian activists, which means that the pace of life is slower than I imagined. There are occasional meetings and visits to displaced communities, and we attend services at a different church every Sunday, but on a daily basis, accompaniment simply means being present and available as everyone goes about their lives in the office and the city.

Christine and I must seek creative ways to fill our days. Luckily, the office shares a campus with La Universidad Reformada, so we're usually surrounded by students who love sharing their city with us. We've gone out for cocktails, billiards games, birthday parties, meals at restaurants, and, I'm somewhat ashamed to admit, I went to the Buena Vista mall TWICE this weekend (!) (once for ice cream and a bookstore, the second time to see a movie). (Stepping into a Colombian mall is like transporting yourself to a U.S. suburb where everyone speaks spanish and walks reallly slowly.)

In general, life here is more fun than work right now, although this will vary week to week. In the meantime, I'm studying and practicing spanish, prepping for the english class I've been asked to teach, reading, writing, siesta-ing, taking photos, and welcoming this gift of Colombian time and space.

02 September 2006

Week 1 Review: Top 5ives

Things I'm Thinking About
1. "To be a witness is too neutral; Be a friend, a brother, a sister."
2. Peace is a result of justice; It grows through work, not just from prayer.
3. Justice demands "Rehumanizing the Human", building community by teaching each other how to work as communities
4. What it means to understand and to be understood, through language, culture, body, and presence
5. How to simply be -- not moving, not doing, not hurrying, not scheduling -- just being present in solidarity.

New Things I'm Doing
1. Teaching an english class
2. Playing oboe in the community orchestra
3. Eating fish
4. Speaking spanish
5. Daily yoga

Things I Love:
1. Living a culture of peace
2. Breaking away from the routine of academia
3. Germán, Gustavo, Camilo, Ramón, Gloria, Elias, Christine, Amy, Armando, Giovanny, Yolbetis, Chery, Milciades, Jackie, Diego, Flor, Julio y más...
4. Arequipe (dulce de leche ice cream flavor)
5. Colombian hospitality

Things I Miss:
1. Cappuccinos
2. Quakers
3. Autumn
4. Mike, Lori, Sarah, Michael, Beth, Gabe, Mom, Dad, Ann, other Sarah, Leila, Beatrice, other Michael, and more...
5. Having my own kitchen

Barranquilla Contact Info

In addition to having a wireless internet signal in my room, I also have a cell phone. It's probably quite expensive to call from the United States, but incoming calls are free for me to receive. When calling from a U.S. phone, the number is:


Also, I love mail! Letters, postcards, photos, organic snacks from Bloomingfoods, English-language magazines, and so on, can all find me at:

Rachel Ernst, Accompañante
Iglesia Presbiteriana de Colombia
Carrera 46 No. 48-50
Barranquilla, Colombia

And I write back, too!

01 September 2006

Bocas de Ceniza

Yesterday we had a beautiful day! Gustavo invited me, Amy, and Christine to his house for lunch (see my flickr account for photos of us wearing hats from around the world) and then we had drinks at a restaurant that sits above the waters of the Magdalena River. It was so beautiful and tranquil, watching the birds and enjoying a break from the overwhelming heat of the city.

From the restaurant, we rode a rickety little train powered by a motorboat engine out to Bocas de Ceniza, the area where the Magdalena River meets the Caribbean Sea. Rio Magdalena is Colombia's biggest and most important river and this area is called The Port of Gold because of all the commerce it brings into the country. Bocas de Ceniza was built in the 1930s to make navigation easier and is basically a long strip of land that juts out 10 kilometers to divide the fresh and salty water. It's called Bocas de Ceniza (Mouths of Ashes) because when the waters mix they have a gray, ashy look.

I was expecting a beautiful view, but I wasn't expecting to also find a community of poor fishermen living and working on this narrow, rocky jetty, so far from the city and its amenities. Beautiful, old, wooden boats line the shore and the homes are tiny and weathered by the waves and the sun. Some of the men fish with nets, but many use a complicated (yet brilliant) fishing system involving a kite, a bottle of water, and four baited hooks, which this man demonstrated for me and Amy.

After being used to construct the jetty, the train tracks that connect Barranquilla to Bocas de Ceniza had been closed for almost 30 years. In 2003, Colombia's president ordered them open again in order to boost the economy of the area. As a tourist trap, Bocas de Ceniza is unlike anything I've ever experienced. Multiple small trains (trencitas) share the single track, so at three times during our 10 kilometer trip we had to step off and wait as the conductors lifted the train off the track to allow another to pass. Close to the end of the jetty, the tracks had been so jostled by the water and rocks that the wooden planks lie scattered at severe angles. Along the way, we passed several small clusters of houses built between the tracks and the sea, where residents sell snacks, water, and beer from coolers. We bought four waters for 1200 pesos, or just over 50 cents total. In addition to tourists, the train tracks also service the fisherman by allowing them to transport their fish into town and collect fresh water. One fisherman and his giant, two-foot-long catch rode the train back with us. We learned that he would make approximately 70,000 Colombian pesos selling it, probably to a local restaurant at the end of the tracks. This should be enough money to take care of his needs for a few weeks.

El tiburón arbóreo

Everyone told me to be careful when visiting Colombia, but why didn't anyone warn me about the tree sharks?!