26 November 2006


Last weekend in Columbus, Georgia, tens of thousands of protestors gathered outside of the gates of Ft. Benning to protest the continued U.S. involvement in contemporary Latin American political violence. Housed at Ft. Benning, the Western Hemisphere Institution for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC; formerly the SOA – School of the Americas) offers military training for soldiers and commanders from armies throughout Central and South America. Lamentably (and outrageously), many of these soldiers trained at the SOA have been linked to massacres, violence, state-funded terrorism, and human rights abuses (visit the School of the Americas Watch for news and more information). Of all Latin American countries, Colombia currently sends the most delegates to the school.

For three years in a row, I drove the 15 hours between Indiana and Southern Georgia to join the masses of protestors at Ft. Benning participating in the weekend-long sessions of workshops, protest, and, most significantly, the symbolic funeral procession during which the hundreds of names of citizens assassinated by SOA graduates are read aloud. The weekend is always meaningful, bringing together nuns and students and activists and Latin American guests to give voice to our brothers and sisters who have been victims of the United States’ hemispheric control.

Earlier this year, knowing I was going to be in Colombia during the SOA protest, I was slightly bummed to miss out on the power of the weekend. It was fortuitous, therefore, and rather poetic, that I was invited by the Barranquilla community to travel 15 hours by bus to the town of Apartadó in the Urabá region of Colombia last weekend. Apartadó is a city surrounded by some of the richest land in the country and serves as a strategic site for the distribution of Urabá’s bananas, livestock, hardwood, and other resources.

Less than twenty kilometers from Apartadó, over the mountains, lies the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, perhaps the most well-known Colombian city within the world of international peace activism. Members of the Peace Community have committed themselves to a creative response to the ongoing armed conflict in Colombia by declaring their land a neutral, no-weapon, peace zone.

Residents of the San José area participate in workshops about the philosophy of the Peace Community and commit to upholding the following principles:
Each community member freely and voluntarily makes the decision to assume the position of neutrality as a form of resistance to the war, and to abide by the following norms:
* To participate in community work efforts
* To say NO to injustice and impunity
* To not participate directly nor indirectly in the war
* To not carry weapons
* To not manipulate nor give information to any of the parties in the conflict.
Moreover, we commit ourselves to the search for a peaceful and negotiated solution to the conflicts in our country.
In a country in which the guerrilla, paramilitary, and military vie for social control through tactics of intimidation, disappearances, kidnappings, and massacres, San José de Apartadó has become a model for other communities attempting to reclaim and redefine their lands and their lives. Unfortunately, because this neutral stance threatens the powerful armed groups, the Peace Community continues to experience horrific oppression, including a massacre as recently as 2005.

As the names of these massacre victims were read aloud in Ft. Benning, Georgia last Sunday by protestors and mourners outside of the School of the Americas, it felt only fitting that I found myself in Apartadó, just kilometers away from the Peace Community, thinking and learning about the brave and innovative (and yet completely simple) philosophy of Peace adopted by Colombian citizens seeking to re-shape civil war and resist the cultural of violence.

24 November 2006

Dando Gracias

When we went around the circle sharing our moments of thanksgiving last night, one Colombian woman spoke of the meal, of being welcomed into our lives, and of the great value the accompaniment program. She described a Colombian-U.S. Thanksgiving dinner as representative of the wider benefits of our work here together, in which we create a space for our communities to truly be together cross-culturally, breaking down barriers, enjoying, and learning from each other.


Thank you. Thank you to the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship and the accompaniment program. Gracias a la Iglesia Presbiteriana de Colombia. Thanks to my family and friends who have supported me and kept me company from afar during this amazing experience. Les doy gracias a mis amigos y amigas en Barranquilla – ustedes me han tocado mi corazón y me han acompañado en cada momento. Thank you to my fellow accompaniers – Christine, Amy, Traci, Billie, Shannan, Paula, and John – for sharing this time with me. Gracias a Jaime y Tito y Señor Antonio por invitarme ser parte de su lucha por justicia y tierra. Thanks to the Quakers, especially Bloomington Friends, who have never been far from my mind during this time of great transformation. Thank you to everyone near and far for reinforcing my belief in peace and hope and community and interdependence.

Gracias a la vida.

22 November 2006

Mo' money, mo' money

Billie and I found this 10,000 Peso note this morning in her wallet. It says esperanza (hope), and adds another layer to the currency-as-political-discourse theme of the past few weeks.

21 November 2006

La Gran Ironía

I like to cook. I enjoy the creative process of sautéing and inventing, eating leftovers, serving meals for friends, and feeding myself well. After almost three months with only a microwave and fridge, I’ve been missing more and more my kitchen in Bloomington.

Luckily, Billie is here. This is lucky for two reasons:
1. She’s a cook, too, so we’ve been commiserating and expanding our repertoire of meals.
2. She’s an explorer and has been peeking into all areas of Colombian life over the past few weeks.

In her explorations, Billie found an electric hotplate for sale at the department store around the corner, hidden far away from the normal kitchenware section where I’ve searched before. After fantasizing for a full day about boiling water (!) and grilled cheese sandwiches (!!), we took action, and within 24 hours the U.S. coordinators of the accompaniment program had generously agreed to subsidize an upgrade of the accompanier kitchen.

Last week, with great enthusiasm, we embarked on a shopping spree (with the help of Shannan), all the while fantasizing about the inaugural meal. We brought home the hotplate, a few pots and pans, dish towels, a cutlery set, some plastic containers, and enough fresh vegetables to stuff ourselves for a day or two.

What we didn’t plan was for the electricity to blow out the minute we stepped back onto campus. Or for it to stay out all night. Instead of preparing the fantasy meal, we wound up eating potato chips, bananas, and ice cream on the balcony with some friends. While a far cry from the pasta with homemade sauce we had planned, the evening did fulfill one of the goals we had for the new kitchen – it gave us an opportunity to offer hospitality and sustenance to our Colombian friends, to return their generosity toward us.

We traveled all weekend (and ate more comida típica than I ever want to see again) but tonight, we feast!



It was early in the morning and I was dozing on and off during the long bus ride. I looked out the window and had this dream-like conversation with myself:

- Hey, there's a donkey by the side of the road.


- Oh right. That's normal.

16 November 2006

Señorita, feel the conga, let me see you move like you come from Colombia

I'm just waking up from an amazing night in Barranquilla. The hometown sweetheart, Shakira, gave her first local concert in over three years, joining other Colombian musicians in a benefit for the building of a new school (In return, the city unveiled a new statue of Shakira next to the stadium. They LOVE her here.)

The Barranquilla fútbol stadium holds about 70,000 fans and last night it was full. To get in to the concert, we stood for three hours (!) in a line zig-zagging through the surrounding park, eating arepas rellenas* and people-watching while we waited.

This was a night to be proud to be Colombian. The opening bands played cumbia and vallenato, the fans were decked out in their "100% Colombiano" t-shirts and waving yellow, blue, and red flags, and every other song gave a shout-out to local cities, customs, and people.
Mira, en Barranquilla se baila así, say it!
Mira, en Barranquilla se baila así
-Shakira, "My Hips Don't Lie"
With the buzz of the microphones, the blasting of the speakers, and the shouting of the fans, I couldn't understand the music lyrics very well, so I used the opportunity to watch the crowd, feel the energy, and reflect on what it has meant to me to be here in Colombia, what it means to be leaving soon. I found myself full of the embracing love for this land and these people, grateful to have found a community and a model for life that feeds my soul, knowing that I've been radically transformed in ways I can't imagine or recognize yet. I also felt quite sad, thinking about walking away from a place and an experience that has become so deeply and beautifully engrained in my daily life.

It's a mixed blessing, the end of an experience. I am so lucky to have these final moments to reflect on these months, to savor the sights and sounds, to love on my friends, to sort through what it has meant to watch and learn. On the other hand, every conversation, concert, fried plantain chip, and taxi ride through the city seems almost too poignant to handle when viewed through the lens of saying goodbye to Barranquilla.


Cold Spell

We've had several big rainstorms in Barranquilla over the past few days and the stifling heat I've become accustomed to seems to be taking a break. Yesterday I was actually slightly cold all day, wrapped up in socks and a long-sleeve shirt.

It was 75°F.

I'm stepping off a plane into the harshness of a Midwestern U.S. winter in just a few short weeks. This does not bode well for me.

14 November 2006

Escuchando (Listening)

Carlos Vives is a popular musician from coastal Colombia. His music is described as "vallenato-pop," a mixture of contemporary pop music and traditional Colombian vallenato (featuring accordion*, drums, and an instrument that is played by scratching a fork-like wand across a metal tube covered with holes). I've been listening over and over to his song "Santa Marta - Kingston - Nueva Orleáns" because I feel sentimental and wistful about the descriptions of travel through places and moments that have become familiar to me, especially as my departure date gets closer.

I'm posting the song here to share (click the pink 'play' button to listen). Please forgive the potential copyright violation and my rough translation of the lyrics. I've footnoted ideas of interest.

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Santa Marta Kingston Nueva Orleáns
by Carlos Vives

Muy sola se quedó la ciudad, se fueron de vacaciones...
La situa no me deja viajar, me amarro los pantalones...
mejor voy al Parque Nacional, tranquilo en mi bicicleta....
perfecta se pone la ciudad para tomar una siesta....
soñando veo las fiestas del mar que salgo de Santa Marta,
vestido de marino en un barco de la Grancolombiana...
y al poco tiempo de navegar ya estoy en Kingston, Jamaica....
y hay alguien que me dice: ¡no problem, only peace in my island!

The city was left very alone, everyone went on vacation
My situation doesn't allow me to travel, I roll up my pantlegs
Better to go to the National Park, tranquil on my bike
The city makes itself perfect for a siesta
Dreaming, I see the ocean parties that leave from Santa Marta*
Dressed like a sailor in a ship of the Grancolombiana
and sailing a short time I am in Kingston, Jamaica
And someone says to me, No problem, only peace in my island!

Ay...voy disfrutando el paisaje...
Surcando la ruta del sol, no necesito pasaje...
Ay... te esperaré para el viaje...
De cumbias, reggaeton y rock and roll, yo preparé tu equipaje…

Ay... I go, enjoying the scenery
Following the path of the sun, I don't need a ticket
Ay... I will wait for you for the voyage
Of cumbia*, reggaeton*, and rock and roll, I will prepare your luggage

Y al Mississipi vimos al fin, la niebla en la madrugada....
Bailamos..I had come to Nueva Orleans..un vallenato en Louisiana
Parece no voy a despertar, no acaba mi itinerario...
Las gaitas yo comienzo a escuchar muy cerca está Maracaibo...

And to Mississippi we see at last the fog in the dawn
We dance... I had come to New Orleans, a vallenato in Louisiana
It seems that I'm not going to wake up, my schedule doesn't stop
I begin to listen to the bagpipes, Maracaibo* is very close

Ay...voy disfrutando el viaje..
Surcando la ruta del sol, no necesito pasaje...
Ay... te esperaré en el paisaje...
De cumbias, reggaeton y rock and roll, yo preparé tu equipaje…

Ay... I go, enjoying the trip
Following the path of the sun, I don't need a ticket
Ay... I will wait for you in the landscape
Of cumbias, reggaeton, and rock and roll, I will prepare your luggage

Prendido estaba ya el carnaval cuando llegué a Barranquilla..
En Ciénaga, fiestas del Caimán, parranda en la Alta Guajira...
Quizás mañana vuelva a viajar y me regrese pa’l valle...
Colacho* volverá al festival, ya preparé tu equipaje....

The Carnaval* was already on when I arrived in Barranquilla
In Ciénaga, parties of the Caimán, a spree in the Alta Guajira*
Maybe tomorrow I'll travel again and go back to the valley*
Colacho will return to the festival, now I'll prepare your luggage

*Accordian: Kids here dance. A lot. And they can move! I was really really amused the other day, though, when I noticed that my little super-cool six-year-old friend plays the air accordion (!) when he dances!
*Santa Marta is a city about 2 hours east of Barranquilla, on the coast. It’s well known for its beaches and Tayrona National Park
*Cumbia is another traditional Colombian musical style
*Reggaeton mixes hip-hop, rap and reggae
*Traci and I visited Maracaibo, Venezuela a few weeks ago
*Barranquilla’s Carnaval is the largest in Colombia, full of dancing and parades
*The Guajira are an indigenous group living on the border of Colombia and Venezuela
*Colacho is a famous accordion player

The Right to Land

When folks are displaced, in Colombia and elsewhere in the world, they lose not only their homes, but also their histories, communities, neighbors, and, for many, their livelihoods. For farming families, the transition to city life after displacement can lead to increased poverty when they can no longer grow food to sell and eat.

The Colombian Constitution guarantees land to the displaced, and a group of families in Barranquilla meets regularly at the Presbytery office to plan their petition for new land. Some of these families have been displaced over and over again throughout the decades, by violence and political pressure, and their process of understanding the law and mobilizing for their rights is fascinating to watch.

While waiting for their petition to be recognized and fulfilled (which we imagine will take quite some time, given the corruption, bureaucracy, and governmental obstinacy they’re facing), several men have banded together to farm a small plot of land outside of the municipality of Soledad.

Last week they invited us to visit the finca (farm), to witness their hard work and to document their struggle for land. They specifically asked us to take photos and to share their story, to spread the word that these families who seek land from the government are not exploiting the system or looking for a free ride. Rather, they told us, “We are dedicated and hardworking. We are farmers. We deserve land.”

The finca currently sits on two hectares and is shared by eight families. They cleared the land by hand, which left a landscape of weeds, uneven soil, and debris such as rocks and trees – quite a difference from the sleek agri-business farms of the U.S. Midwest! The men have planted mixed rows of corn and beans, and while they wait for their first yield, they’re making carbon (charcoal) from the wood cleared from the land. The carbon will sell for 4500 pesos per bag, less than $2.00 US.

Currently, the men are torn between their obligations to their families and the work demanded by the finca. Although we drove over the bumpy, dirt road between Soledad and the finca in a rickety old jeep, we realized that these men must walk this distance (at least three or four kilometers) every day. This creates an obstacle for those who have children to support through other work.

Nevertheless, despite these challenges, the men greeted our visit with enthusiasm and openness. They’re already planning to diversify the crops during the next planting to include yucca and papas (although seeds are expensive and hard to come by). They’re proud to share their land and their struggles with us and, most of all, they’re hopeful about the possibility of returning to their livelihoods.

For more photos of the finca, click here.

The Miracle of Maracaibo

At the end of October, my sixty-day Colombia visitor’s visa expired. I had two options for renewal: fill out a bunch of paperwork with a government agency, or leave the country and reenter. Oh a whim, Traci and I chose the more interesting of these options and decided to go to Venezuela for a few days.

We visited Maracaibo, a city on a huge lake in northwestern Venezuela. The majority of Venezuela’s oil passes through Maracaibo, so this city is rich rich rich (especially compared to Barranquilla). With a presidential election coming in December, the city is also full of the pro- and anti-Chavez propaganda of a divided populace (sound familiar to you folks in the States?). Traci and I spent several days acting as tourists, walking through the central market, visiting two (2!) art museums, seeing the plazas and churches and statues you’ll find in any big city, and relaxing by the lake.
After so long in Colombia, we were a little disoriented to find ourselves in Venezuela, where everything – the accents, the money, the taxi systems, the food – seemed familiar but slightly different. It’s challenging to navigate this new environment, and as two blue-eyed female North Americans wondering the streets we felt a bit overwhelmed. How could we enjoy the city while also staying safe?

What amazed me over and over was how the Travel Deities were watching over us throughout the entire trip. When we arrived at the bus station after dark and asked about finding a taxi, the wife of the station owner offered to drive us to our hotel. This turned out to be incredibly fortuitous because it was a holiday and all the hotels were full. In the course of an hour, our new friend Lupe took us to six or seven hotels before we found a room. She also took this opportunity to rail against President Chavez and the state of Venezuela since his election. If we had been in a taxi, it would have been an expensive and worrisome situation.

The second travel blessing occurred when we were hanging out on the sidewalk, trying to figure out how to get to the Plaza Bolivar, which would lead us to an area full of tourist spots. An affable and eager young guy overheard us speaking English and asked if he could practice his conversation skills with us for a few minutes. We couldn’t help but trust him, carrying a Bible under his arm and asking earnest questions about life in the United States. In exchange for the opportunity to talk with native English speakers, he offered to accompany us to the Plaza, choosing the correct bus and then walking the several blocks to the Plaza. Once there, we bought waters, chatted for a few minutes, and then he pointed us toward the market and the museum and went on his way. Without his help, I’m not sure how we would have fared that day.

Our bus for Barranquilla was scheduled to leave Maracaibo at 5:30am. Because everyone warned us that it’s safer to call a taxi company for a ride than to flag down cabs in the streets, we made plans the night before to be picked up at 4:50am. A 5:00am, though, we found ourselves still standing in the dark in front of the hotel with no car in sight. Desperate, we walked toward a busier street, hoping to find a safe, trustworthy driver to take us to the bus station. Much to our amazement, the first taxi to pass was driven by a man who had given us a ride the day before. He works for the cab company that was recommended by a very friendly waiter at a restaurant where we had eaten dinner twice. The very fact that someone who recognized us and who had been friendly with us before found us (in a HUGE city!) and got us to the bus station on time felt like an amazing end to our week of Maracaibo miracles.

The most outrageous and surprising moment of the trip, perhaps, reflects the desperation of two U.S. travelers longing for the comforts of home (that is, non-South-American food), however perverse that decision seems now:

For more photos of Maracaibo, click here.

08 November 2006

Why I Love (Platonic) My Life Here

1. Billie not only brought me letters and peanut butter when she came to join me in the accompaniment program -- She also brought me AUTUMN!! She carefully selected leaves from her yard, ironed them between sheets of wax paper, and surprised me yesterday with a bundle full of home. Today I shared them with Colombian friends who have never seen autumn, and we talked about the seasons and the beauty of the world. Also, I learned that the spanish word for squirrel is ardilla.

2. I’ve been working as an informal tutor with some friends who are studying English. Last week, one friend sent me this lovely and completely charming email:
Hello, my beautiful angel (ito), the beautiful person of the world, you are unique.

How are you? I hope very well. Ok, I was reviewing some verbs in past and I have many problems with the verb TO HAVE that you explain me in the last class.I think in you and I remember that I had you Email, I take advantage of for saludarte and I know the same time if this mail arrives to you.
I love you (friends). We see Tuesday.
3. On Saturday, I went to a picnic and played Bingo. The song in spanish goes:
y se llamaba Bingo

I also spent the day with a small friend and we made art together:

4. Yesterday we visited a huge agricultural market in the municipality of Soledad and I saw more bananas than I’ve ever seen in my life. Trucks and trucks full of bananas. Rooms of bananas filled to the ceilings. There’s something powerful and overwhelming about being confronted with the sheer abundance of the Earth.

01 November 2006

Food of Dreams

My new accompaniment partner, Billie, arrived in Barranquilla a few days ago. In addition to bringing me a letter from a dear friend (Hi Beth! Hi Gabe!) and a package from my parents that included embroidered “R” handkerchiefs from my recently deceased grandmother, Billie gifted me with the most precious of foodstuffs:

Although I love many many things about the Colombian coast, lately I’ve been fantasizing about U.S. food. I feel like I’ve eaten enough rice and plantains and farm cheese to have had an authentic Barranquilla experience, and I’m ready for the return of gooey pizza, big salads, and creatively prepared tofu.