Colombian Travel Part 2: Sex, Drugs, & Tourism

Swimming in Tayrona National Park

For a couple of days after La Guajira, I explored the secluded jungle beaches of Tayrona National Park.  The area is incredibly beautiful (if a little crowded in some areas, especially in Cabo San Juan) and it was a unique experience to wake up around dawn due to the heat, walk through a jungle trail, with birds and insects calling, along with the occasional monkey, and then arrive at a completely empty beach of a secluded cove, and then to take a (not very safe) solitary swim as the day begins.

After Tayrona, I spent one last night back in in Santa Marta (especially looking forward to an air conditioned room).  That evening, I walked around the beachfront looking for dinner, before finally deciding on an assortment of street foods rather than an actual meal; the highlight of which was a maracuyá (passion fruit) ice cream sundae, which was absolutely delicious after the past week of jungle, desert, and jungle again.  My plan had been to go clean up a bit more after eating, and then check out the night life of Santa Marta.  However, while I was eating an empanada and drinking a beer on the beachfront, two girls sat down near me.  After talking to each other for a few minutes, one of them asked me the time, and we soon began making small talk.  It turned out they were from Venezuela, two of the tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of Venezuelans trying to find a better life in Colombia.  We talked longer and had a few beers, then walked around the plazas of Santa Marta, enjoying the evening.

Beachfront in Santa Marta

We tried to go into a couple of the clubs, but one of them had forgotten her ID.  So instead, we bought a few more beers from a corner store and sat in the plaza drinking and chatting.  During the course of the conversation, it was interesting to hear from them about arriving in Colombia.  Literally, the day they had arrived in Colombia, someone had approached them about becoming prostitutes.  They then said it was actually a fairly regular occurrence, with someone propositioning them usually once a week or so.  Unfortunately, I was not all that surprised to hear that attractive young women coming from the turmoil of Venezuela would be targeted in such a way.  We exchanged contact info in the hopes that perhaps our paths would cross again someday, and then they called it a night since one of them had to work early the next morning.

The fortress wall of the Cartagena’s old city

That next day, I took a bus to the biggest tourist destination on the coast: Cartagena.  The old colonial city of Cartagena is a UNESCO world heritage site, and it really is quite incredible and full of history and beautiful architecture.  My first night in Cartagena, I met up with a friend from Spain that I met on the Ciudad Perdida trek and we had dinner and some drinks.  Walking around the old city, I commented to her that the old buildings and small plazas, with the open air cafes, reminded me of the cities in Spain and Italy.

One aspect of the city I noticed that night was all of the women in Plaza de los Coches, one of the main squares in the old city. They were all dressed up for a night out, standing by themselves, or in a group of two or three.  It did not take long for me to realize that most of these women, scores of them, were prostitutes.  It was interesting to see how out in the open it was (prostitution is legal in Colombia) and I said as much to my friend, who laughed and agreed.  We called it an early night, as she had done a tour that day, and I had just arrived by bus, and I made the walk along the beach from the old city back to my hostel, stopping for a brief moment to watch lightning off in the distance as the ocean waves softly came ashore.

Plaza de los Coches early in the evening. Soon it would be filled with prostitutes and johns.

The next day, I participated in a walking tour of the old city, which was a nice way to spend half of a day.  (It also proved how small the travel world can be, as a couple from England on the tour had been one of the two couples staying at the same cabana as me outside of Tayrona National Park a few days earlier.)  After the tour, and eating an excellent ceviche, I escaped the afternoon heat and humidity by going into the maritime museum, which helped me practice my Spanish as there were no English displays, as well as helped me understand more about the history of the city and the country.

(Side note of personal heritage pride: it turns out that there was a large contingent of Irish soldiers that helped fight in Colombian’s war for independence! Erin go bragh!)


Cannons atop the old city walls

The late afternoon, and early evening were spent further exploring the sites of the city: the fortress walls, the colonial streets and houses, some of the green spaces, and the impressive Castillo de San Felipe.

Upon arriving back at my hostel, and cleaning up, I messaged my friend and met her at her hostel with some of her friends she had met on her tour that day.  We spoke for a bit and had a few drinks, and then I decided to go out on my own to explore the nightlife of the city.  They were planning on going to a regular night club, which did not really appeal to me that night.

Revelers in the streets of Cartagena

Walking around the streets of Cartagena at night as a single white man is one of the most surreal experiences I have ever had in my life.  At first, it was similar to the night before with my friend, rather aggressive promoters trying to entice me to their bar or club: Amigo, happy hour, best club, VIP, drink specials…  That seems rather common in most tourist places in my experience, and although slightly annoying, I’ve come to accept it.  However, what soon became different, was the propositions that had not been offered to me the night before because I was walking the streets with a woman.

Hey amigo, I got whatever you need… weed… coke… women.

It seemed every corner I walked past, some different sketchy character would be offering the same vices.  The first time or two, I just shrugged and laughed it off.  However, as it became more and more consistent, I became more and more annoyed.  What I need is to be left alone I wanted to yell each time I was approached, but simply stuck with No gracias.

Salsa Dancers in Donde Fidel

I walked around Plaza de la Coches to check out a couple of the salsa bars in the area that I had read about.   I admired the impressive quick and fluid movements of dancers that had been practicing this art for years, as well as the fumbling attempts of tourists who were trying their best.

As I left the club, and stood drinking a beer in the plaza, it wasn’t long before some of the girls came up and made their offers.  I politely refused, but it would not be long before another came up, made a bit of small talk, and then made her offer.  Again, I was becoming more frustrated (as well as hungry) and went to find a street vendor.  At one point, I got caught in a sudden downpour, and huddled under one of the many colonial balconies waiting for the rain to subside, while I fumed about the sordid affairs of the city.

I was disgusted and angry.  Each guy that offered me drugs and hookers, I wanted to punch.  Usually, I am rather libertarian about many things.  However, knowing what the drug trade has done to Colombia, and how many of the women had been driven to prostitution because of the difficult situations around the country, I had come to hate those who promoted and profited from such an ugly system.

But then realization came over me, and my anger and hatred shifted focus.  Many of these young men were from similar situations as the exploited women, and were simply trying to get by.  They knew there was a market for drugs and prostitution, and the prime market was me:  a single, Caucasian male.

I realized that these are the truly horrible people: the type of people that I may know and deal with in my day to day life back home.  Professional men from the US, Canada, Australia, and Western Europe, who have a nice amount of disposable income, and are ready to dispose of it on drugs and prostitutes.  Normally, I try not to judge personal lifestyle choices, but make no mistake about it: these sex and drug tourists are taking advantage of a vulnerable population.  Just the same as if it were a passed-out girl at a frat party (which to be honest, some of these guys would probably have no qualms about either).  Colombia is recovering from decades of civil war and drug violence, the effects of which are still ongoing.  Men who come here to partake in the bargain-priced hedonism, in my admittedly sanctimonious opinion, are not much better than rapists.

These men are taking advantage of young women who feel they have no other choices because of the situations at home, and the aftermath of years of war, come to these cities to sell themselves.  And those are the ones who are truly making their own decisions. Then there are the girls and teenagers that are victims of sex trafficking and subject to horrible abuse.

These men are helping to fuel the drug trade that in turn fueled decades of violence, some of which continues today. I mentioned in an earlier post how one of the social programs for children in Pereira had to be cancelled because of cartel violence.  Those cartels aren’t fighting for the ability to sell me ceviche or some middle-aged Canadian woman a handmade mochila.  Is that cheap bump of coke you bought on the corner in Cartagena worth it?  Not sure?  Just a reminder that only about a week after this, I stood watching a casket come out of a funeral home.

Eventually, after a few more frustrating encounters with drug dealers and prostitutes that night, I found a cab and went back to my hostel, in an unfortunately sour mood. Luckily, the next day was the beginning of my travels for the YMCA, and as I mentioned in an earlier post, I was able to see some of the incredible ways that people are working to heal their communities and their country and give it a bright future.

More info and how you can help:

I know there is legitimate debate about the effectiveness of the war on drugs and whether prostitution should be legal or not, and I have no intention of debating that here.  But how things possibly should operate and the reality of the situation are worlds apart.  All I am trying to do here is point out how the vulnerable are exploited and suffer under the current situation and how prevalent it is in Colombia (as well as other parts of South America).

First and foremost, if you are considering coming to South America for drugs and prostitutes: DON’T!!!! Please don’t partake in this exploitation.  And if you know people that are considering it, try to talk them out of it.  Tell them of the damage it does. Tell them they would lose your respect.  Appeal to their better angels, and if that doesn’t work, threaten their worse angels someway.  Please help curtail the demand for the sex/drug trade, not only in South America, but other developing countries as well.

Beyond that, here are some links to organizations that are working to help the aftermath of the civil and drug wars and organizations helping to fight sex/human trafficking and exploitation:

Guide to conflict and peace-building in Colombia: Has links to many local, national, and international organizations operating in different areas and different ways to support the victims of Colombia’s long-running violence.

Espacios de Mujer: A local Colombian organization trying to help women in the sex trade

Fundación Esperanza: An organization based in Colombia and Ecuador focused on human trafficking and exploitation (In Spanish)

Colombian Travel Part 1: Indigenous Experiences

While in Colombia, I also took some time for personal travel aside from my aforementioned travel as part of my work with the YMCA.  Aside from small day trips here and there, I took three main trips.  I’ll just give a very brief description of the first two trips to give you an idea of them. I want this post to be mostly about the third, because that trip had more of the social focus that is the point of my travels and of writing this blog.

Party in the camarote for Carnival

My first trip was a bucket-list item: I went to Brazil for Carnival.  It also happened to be the most I ever invested in a Tinder date.  I had matched with a girl on Tinder last year who was living in Los Angeles then, but I was travelling at the time.  By the time I returned to LA, she had left to move home to Salvador, Brazil.  We stayed in contact and I often joked about visiting Brazil.  Since I was in South America, I decided to make good on the promise, and what better time than Carnival?  It truly was an amazing experience to see a celebration on such a grand scale.  I do not believe I have ever seen that many people in one place.  The night we went to the parade and partied in an amazing camarote overlooking the festivities, the parade went by for about 6 hours, with the streets packed the entire time.  And that was one of 3 parade circuits! And the camarote had its own amazing party going on inside and on the beach behind it.  There was much more I was able to see as well during my long weekend in Salvador, including the colorful and festive daytime Carnival celebrations. Even though nothing really romantic ever happened with my Tinder date, it still was an incredible event to behold and completely worth the trip.

A break during mountain biking to admire the view with Angus (from England) & John (from Canada)

The second trip was during Semana Santa, the week before Easter, which is basically a week-long holiday for Colombia (and most of South America).  That week, I went to San Gil in the Santander department, northeast of Bogotá.  This area is known as the adventure sports capital of Colombia, and did not disappoint in that regards.  My activities during that week consisted of rappelling down a waterfall; white-water rafting; mountain biking; hiking along the Camino Real (an originally indigenous road) from the colonial town of Barichara to the small village of Guane (where I tried chicha, a fermented corn drink for the first time); playing tejo (a Colombian game similar to cornhole or bags, but with gunpowder!) paragliding over Chicamocha Canyon; following along a Good Friday procession; and generally enjoying the small town environment in contrast to the sprawling metropolis of Bogotá.

My big trip, though, was visiting the Caribbean coast of Colombia for about two weeks after school went on vacation.  This area had been a travel goal since arriving in Colombia.  On my itinerary were the colonial highlight of Cartagena, the arduous Ciudad Perdida trek, the secluded beaches of Tayrona National Park, and the stark landscape of La Guajira.  The landscapes and adventures were incredible, but more important, especially in the context of this blog, were the learning experiences, especially in regards the struggles of the indigenous peoples (this post) and the sex and drug tourism industry (next post).

After a frustrating day in Bogotá, (I was pickpocketed the day before leaving on my vacation.  Luckily, I had a spare phone and credit/debit cards) I arrived in Santa Marta on the northern coast.  After getting checked into the hostel, I went to the store to pick up a few items as I was going to be leaving the next day on my Ciudad Perdida trek, and then walked around the city to get a feel for it.  It was relatively easy to walk around the small city and enjoyed seeing the beach for the first time in months.  (Yes, I actually have gotten used to being near a beach after 10 years in LA.)

The next morning, I walked to Magic Tours, one of only four companies allowed to operate tours to Ciudad Perdida.  Soon, I was in the back of a 4WD transport with the rest of the crew, about to spend 4 days hiking through the heat and humidity of the Colombian jungle.  Over those 4 days, the group got along extremely well, and our guide, Jose, was incredible.  In addition to his wealth of knowledge, he spoke his Spanish slowly and clearly, which helped my learning immensely, and I often understood prior to the translation.

On the way to Ciudad Perdida (just a little hot & humid…)

As sweat poured off us while hiking through the lush hills with overpacked backpacks (or perhaps that was just me), Jose would stop us on occasion to point out the variety of flora, and explain what they were as well as how they could be and have been used for generations by the local peoples.  At one point, one of the girls in the group had a slight stomach ache, and he made a concoction for her from one of the plants.

At night, after dinner, Jose would explain more about the region, and its tumultuous history: people fleeing the violence in Bogotá for a simpler life, then the influx of farmers and crops driving down prices, which then opened the door for coca and marijuana cultivation along with the drug cartels, followed shortly by the paramilitary groups.  His own father, who was a leader of local farmers, was kidnapped for a time by a paramilitary group while they were trying to gain control of territory.

Kogi dwellings

He also told of the native people and their customs.  He was part indigenous, on his mother’s side, but from a community further north.  However, he had been accepted into the local Kogi community, who were the main indigenous group in the area.  The Tayrona people, who had controlled the area before the Spanish Conquest, and who had built Ciudad Perdida, had been eliminated during their war of resistance against the Spanish.  Along the trek, we saw many Kogi people, in their simple white clothing and colorful bags, set against their dark skin, eyes, and hair.  Often, the men would be using their poporos, made from a gourd and received upon completion of their transition to manhood, and used to contain a seashell concoction that is part of their ritualistic method for chewing coca leaves.  The Kogi helped to support the trekkers, often acting as porters for supplies using burros and horses, as well as sometimes running refreshment stands along the way.  We also would see the simple round thatched dwellings of the Kogi, sometimes in a small settlement of a few dwellings; other times, there would only be one or two, and perhaps built a little more solidly with wood.

Ciudad Perdida

The morning of the third day, after climbing hundreds of ancient, narrow, stone steps, we arrived at our destination: the terraced complex of Ciudad Perdida. Surrounded by jungle and mountains, it is easy to understand why this place laid hidden for hundreds of years.

After a couple of hours of exploring the complex and listening to more of the history of the Tayrona people from Jose, we then went slightly down the hill away from the trail we came up, to another small thatched Cogi dwelling.

Kogi Shaman

There were a group of about 5 children sitting outside, with what looked to be the oldest taking care of the baby.  This was the home of the local Cogi shaman.  He was just finishing speaking with another group also led by an indigenous guide.  After which, he spoke to us in the Cogi language, with Jose translating into Spanish.  He was a middle aged man, with flowing long jet-black hair and a weathered face that looked as it had never once had a smile on it in his entire life.  He wore the traditional all-white clothing, except for black boots, and had a peaked cap that signified his esteemed position in the community.  The peak symbolizes the surrounding mountains.  He told us a little bit about his life; his studies to become a shaman; times he would go off into the mountain jungle by himself for a month or so at a time in order to commune with the spirits of nature; and other glimpses into his way of life.  After about 10 or 15 minutes, he then made his way off down a path leading into the jungle, disappearing as if making a dramatic cinematic exit.

A day and a half later, I was recovering from my exhaustion and insect bites back in a hostel in Santa Marta, waiting for my next excursion which would happen in only a couple of days: a tour of the remote and poor department of La Guajira, the northern most region of Colombia (and South America).

The trip to La Guajira was like visiting a whole different world, even from the rest of Colombia.  I was actually supposed to have gone to La Guajira a couple of months earlier as part of a program with the YMCA.  They were going to be supporting a medical mission in the area for the local Wayuu . However, for a variety of reasons, that opportunity fell through.  So now, I was doing a regular tour of the area.

Deserts of La Guajira

Although only a few hours away from the coastal jungle area of Santa Marta and Tayrona National Park, La Guajira is coastal desert, almost completely barren except for scrub.  There were areas of salt flats, and giant windswept sand dunes, and rocky outcroppings overlooking the ocean.  Ferocious winds often would pound at our different stops along the way.  When we stopped at one of the giant sand dunes, which sloped directly into the ocean, making for one incredibly large beach, the wind pelted us with the sand, feeling almost as if we were being aggressively exfoliated.   The community of Cabo de la Vela was a one road desert/beach town, with almost all of the buildings seemingly made of gathered sticks and limbs.  The threat of a mass fire destroying everything struck me almost immediately.

Throughout the three days of driving through the desert, our guide, Snyder, discussed the variety of difficulties facing the local people here.  A general lack of consideration from the government often means these people are forgotten, along with rampant corruption that often robs them of much of the miniscule funds that ever are targeted for development of the area.  The only industries that I could see were salt collection, fishing, goat herding, and the just beginning tourism industry.

Wayuu child waiting while his siblings begged along the side of the road

Along the desert “roads” were shelters of sticks that looked as if they would topple in a strong wind. In these shelters were often many children, who at the sight of an on-coming vehicle, would run towards the road with their arms outstretched, hoping for some treat: candy, fruit, crackers, even water was welcome.  Some of these shelters were set up as vendors, selling cactus fruits or homemade items such as bracelets or mochilas (colorful bags).  At other points, children had tied rags together, or used rope and string, and then tied one end to a shrub.  They would then be on the other side of the road holding up their corded gate to serve as a makeshift toll booth.  Sometimes drivers would stop and give a treat, other times they would simply honk and drive through, the children holding on to the sting until the last possible moment before letting go.  Government posters were displayed in restaurants and other stopping points to discourage this behavior, imploring tourists not to encourage it, as it is obviously dangerous.  Snyder pointed out the frustrating hypocrisy since the government hardly does anything to alleviate the underlying situation.

“School bus” in La Guajira

Our last night in La Guajira, we stayed near Punta Gallinas, the northernmost point of Colombia, and South America.  That next morning, at the little complex where we had slept, a group of about 7 or 8 children were gathering, wearing royal blue polo shirts as they were meeting there to ride together to school.  One of my co-tourists, Alex, and I tried to speak a little with the kids, but they were rather shy, and also preoccupied with a puppy.  After a bit, the children made their way to an old transport truck with a wooden gated enclosure on the back.  The children climbed over the wooden gates and into the bed of the truck, helping the smaller ones up and over the gates.  This decades-old transport truck served as their school bus, taking these indigenous students to receive the most basic of education.

By the end of the day, I was out of the impoverished desert of La Guajira and in a luxury cabana in the coastal jungle, outside of Tayrona National Park, enjoying a “jungle bird” cocktail, as the Rio Piedras flowed below my room and joined the crashing waves of the Caribbean.  The contrast of lifestyles did not escape me.

More info and how you can help:

Without going into complicated and heated discussions about the history of colonialism or current political situations involving indigenous peoples in the Americas (North and South) as well as other parts of the world, it is not a controversial statement to point out that indigenous populations have some of the highest rates of poverty and some of the highest rates of drug and alcohol abuse.  Even in my recent travels in the Amazon and Peru, it has been so informative to be able to have interacted with indigenous peoples here and learn about their histories and their current struggles (I will write about those interactions in later posts).  Indigenous groups back home in the United States have many of the same difficulties in their communities.

While I haven’t done any direct volunteer work with any of the indigenous communities in my travels, I did some research and here are some organizations working to help indigenous communities if you would like to learn more.  And, when you hear about issues involving indigenous communities, please try to take into consideration their perspectives and current struggles, and view the issues through empathetic eyes if nothing else.

International Indian Treaty Council: The first Indigenous organization to receive Consultative Status with the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)

International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs:  One of the earliest international groups supporting indigenous peoples

Cultural Survival: Another large international group supporting indigenous peoples

Organización Nacional Indígena de Colombia: The National Organization of Indigenous Peoples in Colombia (website in Spanish)

Top Native American Organizations to Know: An article listing many Native American organizations in the United States so you can find one that best fits your concerns and philosophies (education, economic development, women’s issues, etc.)


Colombia: Volunteering and Social Programs

In addition to the school placement and the English programs, which paid the bills, we also were expected to volunteer with the YMCA.  Much of this turned out to be office work:  helping prepare for the different camps and programs, translating and proof-reading documents, and the like.  Given my background, I ended up working on a couple of independent tasks for most of my time.  One was helping some of the office staff and an intern to establish an MS Access database to better track the volunteers and clients of the various English Immersion and exchange programs run by the YMCA-Colombia.  My other responsibility was my work with the Executive Director.

The hope was for us to also support social programs run by the YMCA-Bogotá.  (Note for clarity:  the Prints of Hope program is run by the national YMCA-Colombia Federation, which oversees the local YMCA groups such as YMCA-Bogotá which run the local social programs.) We visited some of the local YMCA social programs around Bogotá.  There is amazing work being done at these sites, and it was easy to see how in need some of the clients were.  We went to visit one site in Bosa, far on the southwestern outskirts of Bogotá.  To get there, we needed to be escorted by a local after traveling for about an hour and a half.  We went past the busy main street full of small shops and street vendors, and people staring at the gringos that had no business being there.  Then once in the side streets, it was obvious how rough this area was. Dilapidated buildings with crumbling walls and barred windows surrounded us.  Trash and filth were everywhere.  People regarded us warily, and mangy dogs sunned themselves in the street.  We were welcomed in to the facility and learned more about the community from the coordinators.  The families often were the ones that would go through Bogotá and sort through the trash trying to find scrap items.  At home, there was little if any emphasis on education, or even basic sanitation, and health problems, especially respiratory, were rampant.  Later, when we spent time with the children, playing games, the lack of hygiene was evident.  But the children were sweet and enthusiastic and wanted to be close to us.  One of the volunteers, Hannah, pointed out how aggressive the children were with each other, tackling and shoving one another if they were in one another’s way, almost certainly a product of their rough environments.  Eventually, we needed to leave, and it was heartbreaking how disappointed the children were that we were leaving them.  Two boys clutched on to my arms and legs, and I was almost literally dragging them as our group made its way down the street.  Eventually, a couple of the volunteers were able to coax the children back to the facility after they gave me one last hug.

Youth Program at a YMCA-Bogotá Site

Another site we visited was the local house in the barrio of Claret.  This site has a variety of great programs going on. They have vocational training for women in difficult situations to help them gain useful skills such as beautician and garment skills that could be useful for future income.  They also have programs that support school-age students when they aren’t in school, focusing on leadership, arts & crafts, sports, and tutoring.  An interesting project they have is a robotics/electronics project for teams of 2-3 kids.  They make their own proposal and then over the course of a few months, they put together a working prototype.  Some of examples of past and present projects are a motorcycle helmet with integrated lights, an app to help with pet care, and another app to monitor your gas and lights at home.

Unfortunately, we had difficulties trying to set up regular volunteering at the social programs for a variety of reasons, including responsibilities to support other activities, such as English activities and camps run by the YMCA-Colombia. I really had hoped to spend more time with some of these programs and the children that are so in need.  Luckily, I spent my last two weeks in Bogotá visiting Claret and helping develop a structure and schedule for our program going forward. Although I did not get to interact with them as much as I would have liked during my time, the current Prints of Hope volunteers are now regularly visiting the site and helping with the kids there.

Despite not being able to do as much social work as I had hoped, I did request a special assignment to focus on management, and received great support in that area.  Soon enough, I started working with Alveiro, the executive director of YMCA-Colombia on a project that turned out to be extremely rewarding, although the details would probably be boring for you to read about.  It basically entailed some information gathering and evaluation of programs and funding at various local YMCAs in Colombia.  What was great, though, is how it opened up opportunities for me to learn more about some of the great activities being done, and being able to visit YMCAs in the cities of Cali and Pereira to witness some of this work first hand.

In Cali, I was able to see a few different sites, all working in partnership with the Instituto Colombiano de Bienstar Familiar (ICBF).  They offer a variety of programs for at-risk children, when they may otherwise be on the streets.  The YMCA offers physical activities, tutoring, and music lesson (I was treated to an impromptu performance of “When the Saints go Marching In” by a couple of the students.)  While visiting Cali, I also met with the local coordinator for a program called Paza La Paz, a national program trying to help teens in troubled communities develop leadership and community-building skills.  While having a conversation with the coordinator, he relayed to me one of the many success stories.  (Disclaimer: unfortunately, this was a one-on-one conversation, and the coordinator didn’t speak English, and my Spanish is still rather weak.  Therefore, I very well could have some of the details of this story wrong.) One of his youths had previously been hired as a potential hitman by one of the local cartels.  Although I don’t believe he had actually killed anyone; he had attempted to, and has been around murders (again, reminder that I may have misunderstood parts of this.)  Over time, he began feeling guilty about his involvement with the cartel.  At around the same time, he started to become involved with the Paza la Paz program.  This became a self-feeding cycle of wanting to make things right.  He has confessed to his crimes and, while serving time (I believe a six-year sentence), he is still trying to participate in the program as much as he is allowed.

From Cali, I went to Pereira in the heart of the coffee region of Colombia, and found even more inspiration and heartbreak.


Volunteer clown visiting children in the hospital

Among the more uplifting things that I was able to witness (and even peripherally take part in) was their clown outreach.  Pereira YMCA uses clowns for different programs, including visiting the children’s ward of the local hospital.  I was fortunate to be visiting at the time a couple of volunteers were preparing to go.  So soon, I was walking down the street in Pereira, Colombia: an extremely tall white blonde guy accompanying two clowns.  We visited six children in the hospital that day, ranging in age from about 2 years old to probably 8 years old.  All were excited to see the clowns, as they laughed and played and made balloon animals for the children.  I played a small game of catch with a little girl of about three, neither of us being extremely coordinated.  Eventually, our lack of grace displayed itself when the ball went out the window.  We looked at each other, gasped slightly, and then began to laugh.  Luckily, there was a small ledge out the window, so I retrieved the ball with no harm done.  Other children were excited to receive balloon swords from the clown volunteers.  And soon, swordplay was happening in each patient room of the children’s ward, laughter and squeals drowning out the beeping of the machinery.

Unfortunately, not all was joyful in Pereira.  I was invited into the family home of one of the youths that is both a client and a volunteer of the YMCA. He was a tall, skinny youth of 17 years old named Christian.  His family lives in a difficult barrio called Las Brisas, but they are very welcoming.  He has been participating in various YMCA programs for about 3 years now and has become extremely involved, even going to represent the YMCA and present the clown program at a conference in Santiago, Chile; an opportunity many in his community likely will never have.  As inspiring as Christian is, while talking to the family, we learned that some of the programs in the barrio for young children had to be cancelled.  There has recently been an upsurge in cartel violence in the area.  Because of this, parents do not want their children out and about after school, understandably worried about what could possibly happen.

What could possibly happen showed its ugly face the day I arrived in Pereira.  After picking me up from the bus station, Nelson, who is the coordinator for two YMCA sites in the coffee region, the one in Pereira/Risaralda, and another in Quindio, took me to lunch and then to grab a coffee.  While at the cafe, Nelson was on the phone a lot, and during a break in calls, he explained.  One of the volunteers at the Quindio office had been killed that morning.  He was 20 years old, and was a university student, and he volunteered with some of the computer related programs at the YMCA.  It seemed to have been a case of mistaken identity, where someone thought he was someone else.  Yet another senseless death in the ongoing cycle of violence.  My last day in Pereira, we began the morning by driving down to Quindio so that Nelson could pay his respects at the funeral.  Another volunteer, Martin, and I waited outside, surrounded by the family and friends grieving a lost loved one that had been trying to make things better in his world.

YMCA youth program participants and volunteers in front of a mural of “Sheriff”

However, I was also able to witness how someone turned a similar tragedy into purpose.  YMCAs will often try to partner with other local organizations to offer programs in communities.  While visiting some of the programs in Pereira, I was taken to meet with the founder of one of these organizations.  A little more than 5 years ago, a man with the nickname of Sherriff was killed during one of the many random acts of violence in the poor barrios of the area.  Wanting to do something in his memory, his friend Carlos and another friend decided to start running programs for the youth in the barrio; just some small programs to help support the youth in a dangerous area.  Before long, this became Impacto Juvenil, an organization that partners with the YMCA, and runs many programs, especially through the aforementioned Paza La Paz program.  One of their bigger projects was putting together a free community library for the youth to meet and receive various support.  I sat in this library, surrounded by old, donated books, almost looking like they came directly from a garage sale, and listened to Carlos tell his story, and my mind wandered.  Before visiting Cali and Pereira, I took my own two-week tourist vacation to the northern coast of Colombia and ran into so many tourists at the various sites and excursions.  With the successes of the peace process, Colombia has become very much a tourist hot spot.  Yet, I was sitting here having a more profound Colombian experience than any of those tourists.  Colombia has come so far in the past 10 years, but it still has so much further to go.  And people like Carlos are the reason it is coming out of a dark time and heading into a bright future.  In that library was the moment I finally decided to start this blog.  These people, and others around the globe, who are doing all they can to make this world a little bit better should have their story heard in any way possible.

More Info and how you can help:

Below are links to the local YMCAs that I worked with in Colombia. A great way to get involved is actually at your own local YMCA. There are likely plenty of opportunities to help out in your local community.  Also, a current goal of the YMCA-Colombia is to have each local chapter eventually have a sister YMCA in another country.  There is already a wonderful relationship between YMCA-Pereira and YMCA of Greater Moncton in Canada.  Perhaps as you get involved in your YMCA, you can eventually help develop a relationship somehow with a YMCA chapter in another country as well.

YMCA International

YMCA Bogotá

YMCA Bogotá – Claret Site

YMCA Pereira


Colombia: School Placement & English Programs

NOTE: This post is dedicated to the memory of my former student, Angel Murillo.  Please read the addendum at the end.

Playing a game on the playground

Chloe, Elena, Laura, and I all had the same placement at a school in northern Bogotá.  The schools in Colombia usually have all the grades from entry level to high school on the same campus, so we were going to be working with all levels.  Although, as the details were worked out more between the school and the YMCA, they assigned us to focus on the younger kids, from kindergarten through 2nd grade.  The reasoning being that the school is trying to develop into a fully bilingual program and these younger students are the ones piloting it. We would just occasionally work with the older students as specific events and items arose.

Elena helping in the classroom

This experience has taught me one critical lesson: I can never be a primary school teacher.  I always knew I didn’t want to do middle school.  I obviously chose high school when I became a teacher in the US, but thought maybe I could do primary school.  I was completely wrong about that belief.  Thank God I was only there to support the other teachers; if I had been the actual teacher of the class, it would have been a complete and unmitigated disaster.  The language barrier was one issue (as we were not allowed to use Spanish with the students or even let on that we knew any Spanish, which was not difficult for me given my extremely limited Spanish skills), but just in general, the kids were cute, sweet, little demons.  Just to give one of the best stories from my time there, two boys in the kindergarten class were always the first to yell my name when I walked into the classroom and jumped up to hug me.  However, they could NEVER be trusted.  One day, in the bathroom, they were together and noticed the janitor with his keys on a chain clipped onto his belt.  They proceeded to take the keys off his belt and flush them down a toilet!



I enjoyed many aspects of working at the school.  The kids were extremely friendly and sweet. (One of my classes made me cards on my last day.) However, overall, I had a slight problem with the assignment.  The school I was placed at is actually one of the most expensive schools in the country, so this was not the population I had hoped to be helping.  In fact, I felt a little guilty.  Since we were focused on the younger students, the ones that do not likely realize how privileged they are, we were giving them an advantage (working with fluent English speakers and engaging their language skills) that their peers in the impoverished areas did not have.  I felt as though I was reinforcing an education inequality.  At least if I was working with older students, I could try to challenge them to make their world better, but the younger students do not have the maturity or language skills to understand something like that. I understand that the situation was basic economics in that the school contracted the YMCA for this service, and this helps support other programs of the YMCA, but nonetheless, I was not thrilled with the situation and voiced my concerns to Kiara.  To her credit, she completely understood my perspective and agreed with the assessment.  She did say that we can still make an impact by being positive role models and demonstrating the core values of the YMCA (Honesty, Caring, Respect, and Responsibility).  I admire the positive spin she brought to the situation.

Laura helping with a group activity

In addition to the school, we also supported English programs run by the YMCA-Colombia.  Often, these were single day programs at other schools, usually lower-income populations.  Colombia is currently undergoing an effort to have all their students learn English, so almost all students are taking an English class. These programs are designed to be a break from their normal English class, and have more fun activities, such as sports, arts & crafts, and games, but all activities are done completely in English.  It is also a promotion for the English immersion camps that the YMCA also holds on weekends, or for an entire week during school vacations.  We also do such camps for university students as well, mostly for English students, who often want to become English teachers.  We also supported a program called the International Camp Counselor Program, where Colombian university students go to work at summer camps in the United States, as part of a cultural exchange.  As part of this, we helped with some cultural training at their weekend training camp a few weeks before the summer.

Chloe helping students prepare for a speech

During my time in Colombia, I think I participated in 4 or 5 English day programs, one weekend English camp for university students, one week-long camp for children (from ages 7 to 17), a YMCA leadership training camp, and the ICCP training camp.  There were highs and lows throughout this aspect of the program, from having complete chaos of 2nd graders running amok during an English day, to teens doing a thank-you surprise for their two counselors and I at the week-long camp, to getting food-poisoning the second day of the weekend camp, to learning the fun new sport of gaga.  Working these camps and programs was how I got better acquainted with different Colombians associate with the YMCA, and these were the locals that I socialized the most with during the latter part of my time in the country.

Back at the school, as my time was coming to a close, it turned out that I was able to serve a little bit in a manner that I had wanted to all along. Throughout the semester, I talked with as many of the English teachers at all levels as much as possible, especially with the senior English teacher, who definitely had been hoping for more interaction between us “cultural agents” and her students. In the last few weeks I was at the school, she asked me and the others to come whenever we had free time because the students were presenting art projects about a social issue, and she wanted us to evaluate them and ask questions of the students.  Their subjects included globalization, social networks, drug use, racism, and many others.  This was exactly the type of discussion that I enjoyed, and got me excited as a teacher.  As the students presented interesting pieces of art, they spoke about their issues.  However, in my mind, often they only spoke about the issue in a detached, superficial way.  These were my rare chances to challenge.  I tried to ask probing questions, to get them to think more about their world.  And, more often than not, they rose to the occasion.  They were obviously uncomfortable at times, especially due to difficulties in English teachers, but they were willing to take the challenge and offer some deeper insights, and acknowledge when they had gaps of understanding.

One of my favorite moments at the school was during one of these presentations. The presenters were discussing inequality and corruption.  They had already seen me challenge the other presenters, and they turned it around on me.  As they finished their presentation, they asked me a question directly.  They wanted to know if I had any thoughts and suggestions about the issue and what could be done.  I was a little taken aback by the question.  I did not think they knew me well enough to feel comfortable asking a question, or to care enough what I really thought.  However, I figured this was my one chance to teach the same basic lesson I tried to teach my government students back in the United States:

“There are two things you can do.  Obviously, I’m not from here, but it’s the same anywhere.  First, become informed.  Learn about what is happening, and learn about different perspective and why people may think differently than you.  And secondly, get involved. Do something, anything.  If you think the politicians in this country are corrupt.  Become a politician who isn’t corrupt.  Everyone has a voice, no matter how small it may seem. Use it to make a difference.”

Maybe no one was really listening.  And perhaps I am just self-important.  But maybe there is a small chance that one of the students were slightly challenged and encouraged by those interactions and they will eventually go on to serve their communities and improve the world in some way.  Even if I was nothing more than an encouraging voice in a chorus of encouraging voices (which is likely the best that I should expect), at least my time was well spent.


Upon getting back online after my travels in the Amazon, I learned about the tragic loss of one of my former government students.  Angel Murillo never really needed that lesson about improving the world from me.  He already knew it and was dedicated to serving and improving his community and his world, even as a teenager, and as a young man he was even more ambitious about changing the world.  This post is dedicated to him… #TogetherWeCanChangeTheWorld

You can help his family with the funeral costs here.



Starting in Colombia: Prints of Hope

As I type this, I am sitting under a dark sky in the bow of a boat travelling up the Amazon river.  At first that sentence was just a mundane statement of fact.  Then, I thought about it again.  Holy crap! I am on a boat travelling up the Amazon River!  A shooting star went across the sky in front of me literally as I turned on my tablet to type this!  Sometimes we get so caught up in the routine and mundane, that we forget to appreciate where we are, and to be truly excited about opportunities in life.  When we are luckily to have those realizations, sometimes it is worthwhile to think about how it is we got to be in the situations we find ourselves (whether they be good or bad).

With that intro, I want to tell you about the program that kicked off this adventure, and brought me to Colombia about six and a half months ago, and how I got started on this trip.  At the beginning of 2016, I began researching volunteer and work abroad programs, because I wanted to do something more long term in another country than my usual two-week vacation, and I wanted it to be meaningful in a social impact sense.  I also wanted to do something different than the usual teaching English abroad that most people do when they get bitten by this “work and travel abroad” bug.  During the course of a couple of months of online research, I came across something that seemed rather interesting: a 6- or 12-month program run by YMCA in Colombia that supported English learning and cultural exchange part-time, and then spent part-time volunteering with the YMCA.  The name of the program is Prints of Hope. 

I applied and was accepted in the spring of 2016, and was planning to start that summer.  However, the 2nd launch of a dual-launch contract that I had been working on since starting at SpaceX was pushed into the summer.  Therefore, I decided to defer the program until the start of 2017, which also allowed me to save some extra money in the meantime to help travel after the program finished.  And in mid-January, I arrived in Bogotá, Colombia to start upon this new path.

The program worked in partnership with IENA, an agency that does international exchange programs.  The combination of IENA and YMCA-Colombia helped me through the process of getting my visa, as well as helping me get set up with a place to live when I arrived in Bogotá.  I ended up living with three other participants in the program: Elena and Chloe from the USA and Laura from Brazil.  So, yeah, I lived with three girls.  That experience can be discussed in another blog post.  (Or maybe it is better if I don’t.) Kiara and Juan Carlos were our coordinators at the YMCA that basically were our support system, helping us to get settled and figure out everything we would need.  They also lived in the apartment below us, which turned out to be extremely helpful when the lock on our bathroom doorknob got jammed and I became locked inside late one night.

As mentioned, I did not have only one responsibility. Our main job was working at a primary school, supporting English teachers.  In addition to that, we also supported short-term English programs that the YMCA ran; sometimes these would be day-long programs at a school, and other times, we may support an English immersion camp for a weekend, or maybe even a week.

Additionally, the plan was for us to also support one or more of the local social programs run by the YMCA-Bogotá as well.  We visited three different sites, with a lot of good work being done for worthwhile targeted demographics: extracurricular programs for at-risk children; leadership training and support for youth in disadvantaged communities; family support and vocational training for single mothers or women in abusive relationships; among many others.  However, due to a variety of reasons and priorities in the YMCA office, we unfortunately did not get to support the social programs as much as we had hoped.

Luckily, I was still able to take advantage of an interesting opportunity.  During an early tag-up with Kiara, she asked if there was anything specific I would like to do as part of the Prints of Hope program. I told her that since I had just finished a nonprofit management program through the UCLA Extension Office, I wanted to try and get some top-level organizational experience. Soon enough, I started working with Alveiro, the executive director of YMCA-Colombia on a project that turned out to be extremely rewarding, although the details would probably be boring for you to read about.  It basically entailed some information gathering and evaluation of programs and funding at various local YMCAs in Colombia.  What is great though, is how it opened up the opportunities for me to learn about some of the great activities being done, and actually being able to visit YMCAs in Cali and Pereira to witness some of this work first hand.

I will write in a little bit more detail about the school placement & English programs and my work with the social programs in my next two blog posts, which will be posted in the next day or so. (I plan to keep each of these blog posts relatively brief so you can read them in a short time.)

Choosing this program rather than a standard teaching English program definitely turned out well.  Aside from not having the responsibility of being the teacher of record and not having as long a time commitment as some of those programs, working through this program involved me in a variety of different activities, exposed me to aspects of the country I otherwise would not have seen, and allowed me to meet people from all over Colombia.  While there were some aspects of the program I had wished were slightly different (and I may touch upon them in later posts), this was quite the worthwhile experience and I truly appreciate the opportunity to have been a part of it.

More info:

  • Prints of Hope Program
  • YMCA-Colombia (Note: Website in Spanish)
  • IENA
  • As noted, I will provide more specifics about my work in the next couple of posts over the next day or two, including links to specific YMCA chapters and what they are doing



Why am I taking off more than a year to travel around the world?

Why is a man staring down 40 going on a trip that most people usually do in their early 20s, right out of school?

One obvious reason is that even though I often thought about it, I didn’t do it in my 20s, so better late than never.

Another simple reason is because I can.  I am fortunate in that I am currently at a place in my life where I am able to go on such an adventure.

However, the true reason is I don’t know.  That is not to say that I don’t know the reason; I literally mean that the reason is “I don’t know.” I don’t know my purpose in life even as I approach middle age; I don’t know what the future holds; I don’t know why things are the way they are; I don’t know nearly enough about the wider world.

I hope that as I wander through the world over the next several months some of these questions become answered. Yet it is more likely that I will continue to be just as ignorant as at the beginning.  But least I will have experienced more of this world that we all share.

My plan is that the majority of this trip will be spent working on a variety of volunteer and service projects in different areas of the world.  That is not to say that there won’t be selfish travel adventures purely for the experience, because that is definitely a goal as well.  Yet, I do want to spend most of my time feeling trying to be constructive and not just being a tourist.

This leads to an important note, “voluntourism” is a cottage industry that has really grown over the past decade.  However, because of this the efficacy of this phenomenon is rightly questioned.  Oftentimes, at best, the volunteer is doing little or no actual good.  Other times, it can actually be counter-productive, by denying locals employment opportunities or even worse causing exploitive situations such as “orphan renting”.  Because of this, I am trying my best to investigate the projects in which I plan to participate in order to ensure that they are truly beneficial programs.  I also am well-aware that I will have very little actual impact myself (if any at all) in my short time of supporting these projects.

Instead, I hope to have slightly more impact through this blog.  My goal is to share inspiring stories of what is happening around the globe and how people are striving to make this world, which often seems so dark and brutal, a little brighter for the future.  When telling these stories, I plan on sharing information and links about the programs so that if you are so inclined, you may be able to support their efforts.

Thank you for reading and if you continue to read about my travels in the future, even more thanks.  But what I will appreciate even more is that if you are inspired by a certain program or story that I share, please try to support that program, or search for some similar way to help in your local community.

Here’s to a smaller and better world!