23 October 2006

Update: Everyday Resistance

I received this 2000 Peso note from a taxi driver a few days ago. It says "Quick Death to Paramilitaries in Barranquilla." I'm really interested in everyday acts of political protest, so I loved finding this in my wallet. Unfortunately, I'm stopping the protest here, because I'll probably bring this note home as a souvenir.

I feel like I should clarify something here: I'm interested in the message scribbled on this money because I'm always intrigued by what folks say when given the opportunity to articulate political viewpoints in the public sphere. Although I adamantly oppose the systemic violence of the paramilitaries here in Colombia, I do not, in fact, wish them all a quick death. In the comments section, Sarah suggests that I re-insert the bill into circulation, but I'm choosing to add my own voice to the public discourse:

17 October 2006

Land, Beauty, and Violence

Visit Colombia for a week and you'll understand all of the problems and know exactly how to solve them.

Visit Colombia for a month, and you'll still see the problems, but you're not quite sure anymore how they're going to be solved.

Live in Colombia for years, and you don't even see the problems. You just see Colombia.
Last weekend a committee from the church traveled to the towns of Sincelejo and Cartagena in order to visit with communities and to host workshops, and Traci and I went along for the ride. Getting out of the city, spending time with different folks, and visiting new parts of Colombia opened my eyes in unexpected ways and I still find myself processing the experience.

Although I’ve been here in Barranquilla for seven weeks, until now the violence has seemed invisible to me, rather distant from my own daily reality and from the lives of the folks I know. I’ve heard stories of displacement and I see the newspaper headlines, but in many ways it’s hard for me to connect realities of the conflict between the state, the paramilitary, the guerrilla, to the Colombia that I’ve come to know. I don’t recognize guerrilla members or paramilitary leaders when I’m out in the community, I’ve never felt personally threatened, and as I concentrate on enjoying my friendships and practicing spanish, I often forget that this civil war carries on throughout the country every single day. Unfortunately, the violence was made visible to me in a small way this weekend.

On Saturday morning at 4:45am, we were waiting inside our gate for our friends to pick us up for the ride to Sincelejo. Across the street from the campus there is a fairly large city park, somewhat ironically called La Plaza de la Paz (The Plaza of Peace). As we sleepily waited in the darkness for our ride, I was startled to hear shouting across the street and to witness a police officer on foot and another riding a motorcycle chasing a shirtless, shoeless man through the park. They caught up with him on the street corner nearest our campus and proceeded to beat the man with their nightsticks. It was horrifying, and lasted several long minutes, long after the man stopped struggling. I’m not sure what I would do in this situation in the United States, but I knew that the safest thing for me to do in Colombia was to stay far away.

The ride to Sincelejo was full of contrasting emotions for me. I still felt a tightness in my chest thinking of that scene of police brutality, but the landscape in that part of Colombia is so breathtakingly gorgeous that I couldn’t help but feel joyful about the majesty of nature. We passed through la sabana (savannah), full of clouds and trees and cows grazing, winding streams and the rolling foothills of the central cord of the Andes. We drove through towns full of modest houses dotting the hillsides and small shops selling colorful hammocks. Fields of corn, yucca, and other crops were scattered throughout the landscape, and these patches of brilliant greens and deep browns proclaimed the lushness and richness of this land.

At one crossroads, my slack-jawed appreciation for the landscape was interrupted when a road sign pointing in the direction of several towns prompted one friend to tell me, “This is guerrilla territory. See that town name? There was a massacre there a few years ago. And see this land? It’s all owned by the paramilitary now.”

I’ve been hearing stories for months now about all the land stolen from Colombia’s three million internally displaced campesinos. I’ve been building relationships with so many displaced folks here in the city, but this was really the first time that I understood the link between these gorgeous fields of greens and browns and the stories of displacement, in which horrific violence is perpetrated by the armed groups seeking profit, control, and dominance. This is my friends' land, I realized.

The overarching lesson for me, and one I’m still continuing to dissect, relates to the senselessness of poverty in a country so rich with resources and fertility. A few weeks ago, one displaced organizer was describing to me the richness of Colombian soil and she said, “If every Colombian had land, there would be no hunger.” Another astute observer pointed out that Colombia really has everything it needs – fruit trees, rivers, rainforest, oil, emeralds, and fertile lands. The problem in Colombia is that these resources are constantly being stolen and concentrated in the hands of the most powerful, including the armed groups, the wealthy elites, and, in some cases, international actors. What this leaves is a growing population of folks ripped from their livelihoods, their histories, their communities, now struggling for justice and survival on the outskirts of cities like Barranquilla, Bogotá, Cartagena, and elsewhere in Colombia.

There’s so much to say about this situation, but for now I’ll leave you with a question one pastor posed during the weekend’s workshop. He was describing the culture of consumption and individualism that is rapidly spreading throughout the world, which distances us from our obligations to each other and which, on the national and international level, contributes to violence and power-seeking. He asked:

¿Qué tiene que ver con la vida digna? (What does this have to do with a dignified life?)

Uncle Sam's gonna wanna Hummer

Earlier today Traci and I were invited to visit one of the local schools to share some thoughts about peace at the assembly for the 11-18 year old students. With the students, we read a poem about opening our eyes and standing up for peace, we discussed what peace means, and questioned how to be active peacemakers in our schools, neighborhoods, families, and world. The best part, though, was at the end, when a few student snuck away from their classmates to ask us relevant social questions:

1. What exactly is this thing called a Hummer? Why is it called that?

2. Who's this Uncle Sam guy? Whose uncle is he?

The cultural exchanges continued throughout the day. Sometimes it's really helpful for me when I'm speaking spanish to share a pen and paper with my conversation partner, both to help myself understand new words and so I can be more articulate in explaining concepts in english. This afternoon I talked for well over an hour with a teenager who plays the oboe in the community orchestra here (by the way, I myself have abandoned the dream of joining the oboe section for the holiday concert -- the eight years that have passed since I last played the oboe erased everything from my memory, and my self-education priority for the six weeks I have left here is to continue to improve my spanish). During this discussion, my oboe friend and I spoke about music and the holidays and Colombian cheeses, and I answered for him some random questions about words and phrases he had heard in pop music and movies. The piece of paper we shared during this conversation is a keeper, I think, and I'm posting it here for your amusement. Feel free to click on the image to enlarge it. You won't regret it.

Veinte Preguntas

-- I am a woman.
-- Are you dead?
-- No.
-- Are you from the Americas?
-- Claro que sí. (Of course.)
-- ¿Colombiana?
-- Sí.
-- ¿Barranquillera? (From Barranquilla?)
-- Sí.
-- Do we know you?
-- Personally, no.
-- Do your hips lie?
-- NO!
-- You're Shakira!!*

As we drove back to Barranquilla from Cartagena this weekend, Traci and I played Twenty Questions with two Colombian friends. While the game usually elicits the most creativity when the person to be guessed is obscure or hard to categorize (the constellation Orion, for example, or the Statue of Liberty), during this inter-cultural round we tended more toward simplicity, choosing choose famous world figures (Gandhi, Castro, bin Laden) or mutual friends from the community. Although Traci and I had a hard time naming an old-school Vallenato** singer from the Colombian coast, and I stumped the men with Marge Simpson***, in general, I noticed that we were all very careful to make sure each participant could equally enjoy the guessing game. We laughed a lot and congratulated each other during clever or challenging rounds, and as I posed my questions and watched the stars through the car window, I was struck by how easy it is, when you think about it, to treat others with kindness. For me, our one silly roadtrip game offered a glimpse into a world in which we consider the needs of the group, engage in inclusive rather than exclusive activites, and enjoy each other all the more as a result.

*In the spirit of inclusivity and keeping everyone informed, here's the scoop on Shakira: She's a singer from Barranquilla who has made it big in the world of pop music, with songs in both english and spanish. Her most recent hit was called "My Hips Don't Lie." The latest news around Barranquilla is that she has donated a huge sum of money to the city to build a new school.
**Vallenato is a traditional form of Colombian music, wildly popular on the coast, which features far more accordian that North Americans are accustomed to.
***Marge Simpson is the mother of the family on the television show Los Simpson. She has yellow skin, blue hair, is not engaged in politics, and lives somewhere in the United States.

16 October 2006

Where Everybody Knows Your Name...

11 October 2006

Lost in Translation

My friend and I were looking at photos on my computer and sharing the names of various things in spanish and english. For example, I learned that a calla lily is called "lirio de agua."

When looking at photos of my garden in Bloomington, I said, "Oh, es basil, albahaca." My friend heard "Oh, beso a vaca" ("Oh, I kiss the cow").

Colombia is Passion

While browsing YouTube, I found this public relations video about Colombia.

While I think it's really important to present an image of Colombia that isn't all about drugs and violence, I also think this video does a small disservice to the country, as well, in presenting an overly beautified description. Colombia is a country of constrasts; a balanced and honest portrayal of the country would include natural beauty and poverty and celebrations and conflict.

Nevertheless, can you all understand why I've fallen in love with the gem of South America?

El Campo (extra-special multimedia post!!)

Last weekend we took a short trip to accompany a small church in a town near the Venezuela border. I was so thrilled to leave the city for a few days, and during the four hour bus ride my nose was glued to the window. As we drove, the landscape changed from city to sea to marshland to mountains, and we saw fewer palm trees and more grazing livestock. Everywhere I looked, I saw beauty (and poverty and innovation and community). I felt like the trip gave my eyes a four-hour stimulating massage as I took in every cloud and every tree.

I was so enraptured with the landscape that I filmed a few videos through the bus window. I'm posting two here, not because they're inherently entertaining or well-crafted, but because they offer an easy way to share a small bit of the beauty of Colombia with you folks in the States.

This video captures the beauty of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range. For some reason, I was surprised to see mountains so near to the coast, because I know the Andes are more centrally located in Colombia. How lucky are the folks who live with this view out of their windows?

I'm posting this other video simply because it makes me laugh. During the bus ride the movie Miami Vice was playing (dubbed in spanish) and I love how the soundtrack of the movie, the reflection of the camera on the window, the weird dead palm trees, and my jumpy hand combine to give this video a really creepy feel. The footage suggests that we're forging deeping into the Amazon jungle, where danger lurks, when in reality we were on a cushy, air-conditioned tour bus watching a cheesy U.S. movie.

06 October 2006


Around here, offices and businesses close every day between the hours of noon and 2:00pm for siesta. Folks turn down the lights, eat a leisurely lunch, and sometimes even unroll cushions behind their desks for a little nap on the floor. After I eat, I’ve become accustomed to taking this time to read a little, write a little, or just close my eyes and think.

While the tradition of siesta is rooted in Latin American culture, it offers a very practical solution to life on the Colombian coast – It’s hot here! Weather.com reports that while it’s 91˚F today in Barranquilla, it “feels like 106˚F.” ¡Bien Caliente! Under this scorching sun, when it’s just too danged hot to function, siesta gives everyone time to slow down and cool down. It seems to me a beautiful ritual for self-care, for shaping cultural practices in response to real human needs.

Last Sunday after church we were invited to eat lunch in the home of one of our friends. For a few hours we visited, played with the baby, ate delicious food, and, in the mid-afternoon, we all took siestas on the various couches and beds throughout the house. It was a bit strange for me to find myself sprawled on my friend’s bed, listening to the hum of the fan and watching the curtains dance across the windows, but I relished the opportunity to be silent, to retreat for a small moment. After about an hour, we gathered back together, shared a tinto (small mug of black Colombian coffee with sugar), listened to music, and talked politics until the early evening. Given the intensity of human rights work and the amazingly long hours so many folks spend on the job, it’s no wonder that families will be so deliberate about relaxing, reenergizing, and enjoying each other on Sunday afternoons.

02 October 2006

Puerto Colombia

I spent Saturday visiting the town of Puerto Colombia with my friends Camilo and Ramón. Although Barranquilla is located on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, the city doesn’t have easy access to the sea. Puerto Colombia is a town about 15 kilometers from Barranquilla and is home to the area’s former shipping pier. Built in 1888, the muelle (wharf) extends one kilometer out into the water and is now falling into disrepair.

When the pier was closed and the shipping businesses moved to Barranquilla and the Magdalena River, the town lost its primary livelihood. The area continues to be well used, though, by men who sit on the muelle catching fish for their families, beach goers who rent small cabañas on the shore, and kids who dive into the waves over and over.

Camilo, Ramón and I spent over two hours walking to the end of the pier, chatting with the divers and the fishermen, taking photos, and leaving our mark.

Although Puerto Colombia is still a popular destination for visitors and community members, it doesn’t feel as touristy as Cartagena. There was something precious about spending a simple Saturday afternoon on the Colombian coast, walking above the waves and feeling the salty spray of the water on our legs.