Special Needs, Farming, and Argentina

After a far too festive going-away celebration and one more day helping at the center in Taltal, Chile, I boarded a bus for a long day and a half of travel to cross from Chile into Argentina.  While looking for volunteer opportunities to replace my original plan for September and October, I used a website called IVHQ (International Volunteers Headquarters) that organizes volunteer opportunities around the world.  Through them, I found a program in Cordoba, Argentina working with special needs adults.  It seemed like a new challenge and quite different than my previous experiences.

Choripan night in the volunteer house (picture via Jenny!)

On that Sunday, I arrived in Cordoba and was taken to the volunteer house in a small town on the outskirts of Cordoba.  Upon arriving, I met a group of volunteers from different countries (Mexico, Switzerland, Ireland, Canada, Peru, New Zealand, and the US) who were working in a variety of projects related to the program, some with child-care, some with construction, some with the elderly of the community.  It reminded me a little bit of a “Real World” type situation (and has given me an idea for a new reality show!), but, more importantly, it was yet another opportunity for cultural exchange, as well as many fun memories over the next two weeks.

After a day for orientation and logistical items, Tuesday was my first day at my placement: a small center named Un Lugar en el Mundo (A Place in the World).  In total, the center has about two dozen patients with the majority of them in their 30s and 40s, although there were a few older as well.  As far as their abilities, there was a vast range.  A couple of the patients seemed to be very high functioning, at about the level of a 10 or 12-year old child.  These patients often helped with many tasks and interacting with the other patients.  They would often be the ones to pour and serve the mate (the traditional Argentinian tea) during breaks.  Others were more at the level of younger children, and others were almost completely uncommunicative, with little to no motor skills as well, including a couple of patients confined to wheel chairs who could not communicate at all.

Un Lugar en el Mundo (A Place in the World)

Over my time with the center, I got to learn about the personalities and eccentricities of each of the patients.  One was a woman who was like a toddler just learning to speak in that her most common phrases (in Spanish) were “How are you?’, “And you?”, and “Why?” It started as annoying, and then it became something I just adapted to, and, now, weeks later, it has become something I kind of miss hearing.  There was another gentleman, suffering from Down Syndrome and unable to speak, who hugged anyone and everyone whenever he first saw them, and loved to dance during the free time when music was played, and people could socialize rather than having any set activity.  However, he could also have horrible temper tantrums if he was unhappy about something.  There were a couple of patients that could be a little bit dangerous: one woman that would aggressively pinch people if they were close and not paying attention, another woman that would roughly shove people, and a man that would sometimes hit other patients.  All of this made each day a challenge, but completely worthwhile.

Drinking mate is a huge part of Argentine culture, even among the special needs patients

What really got to me, though, was the weight of the situation in general.  There were many times, especially in the first few days, that I was close to tears as I saw things like a 71-year old man working on two-digit sums as part of his lessons or a grown woman crying because she wanted to continue drawing but it was time to stop.  As difficult as those types of things to see are, it was nothing compared to what more I learned from the staff.  I had noticed that many of them wore tattered clothing that was barely staying together, and I wondered about this condition.  Then I learned why.  Many of the patients had been abandoned as children and have lived in a government-run “orphanage” for most of their lives.  Many of these patients had been tossed aside, same as the rags they wore.  As easy as it may be to do otherwise, I need to withhold judgement of their families, because it may in fact have been their only legitimate option.  Rather, the judgement lies with you and me, all of us, those of us who continue to maintain a society in which people can be cast aside as little more than stray animals.

Break time outside. As usual, everyone was amazed by my height

It is moments and experiences like this that introduce me to the unsung heroes of this world.  Incredible human beings like Caro and Vicki and Maria and Simi and so many others that strain their patience each day and then treat these patients with the love and respect they should receive but are denied by this cruel world we have created.

Baking activity at the center

The activities ranged throughout my time there.  Sometimes, a few of the higher functioning patients would help in the kitchen and help bake treats that would be served as snacks and refreshments for the other patients.  Other times, there would be gardening outside or small handicraft projects to engage the patients in active and productive tasks.  Almost every day, as I noted earlier, there would be free time for music and dancing.  The smiles on the faces beamed as they danced to both traditional and popular dance music.  Occasionally, the staff would pull out small drums so that the patients could play along, or plug in a microphone to have a bit of a karaoke session.

Since many of the patients lived in what are basically government run orphanages, they often did not have much more than tattered clothes

Meanwhile, during that time, I also was able to learn more about the fellow volunteers I was living with, who were working on their own projects.  Since I did not work the other programs, I only learned about them from the periphery, but not nearly enough that I could share much quality information.  However, it was inspiring to meet these people who had decided to pay out of pocket to come to another country in order to make a difference in some way.  Some of them were on gap years from school, or other similar long-term travel (like myself) and others took their precious vacation time to serve others.

On my first night in the house, I stayed up late speaking with a young woman, originally from Mexico, who had just finished high school, and was taking a gap year. She had thought about going back to Mexico to help with the recovery from the recent earthquakes, but had decided to follow through with her plan to come to Argentina.  I could sense the desperation in her of wanting to do something meaningful but not feeling as though she truly was making any difference at all. All I could do was tell her my philosophy that, often, all we can do is persevere and do the best we can.  The world can be a horrible place, but even if we don’t change the world, as long as we have not allowed its cynicism and fatalism to change us and convert us to join in the hopelessness, we will have won our own personal battle.   It was a conversation that took me back to my time as a high school teacher, having many long conversations with a young people still trying to figure out their place in the world and the path they would take through it.

My going away dinner on the patio

After two far too short weeks, it was time for me to move on from Cordoba.  My last day at the center, I found myself becoming emotional yet again.  However, it was much different this time.  When I started at the center, my emotions were based on pity for the situation these people were living in.  However, as I prepared to leave, I did not feel pity.  Instead, I realized that I had come to view these patients beyond just their disabilities, but as people I was going to miss.  They made it even more meaningful by making a small poster for me as a thank-you gift.  It was yet another humbling experience that I did not deserve.

The next morning, I packed up my stuff and was soon on a bus for a 24-hour ride to northern Patagonia and the small city of Bariloche in the lake district, where I was going to spend about 3 weeks working on an educational farm.

The gang of piglets running around the farm

After the long bus ride, and another local bus ride, and then walking down a side gravel road, I had arrived at Rock-Heim Farm.  I met the owners, Alex and Cris, and then their long-term helper, Fran, who I would be sharing the guest house with.  The guest house was a nice simple dwelling, only heated by a wood-burning stove.  The next morning my work would begin.

Sometimes, I would help with animal care, feeding and watering chickens or rabbits.  Alex or Fran took care of the other, larger animals: the sheep, hogs, and the small herd (only 3) of Jersey cattle.  Most of my work was spent cleaning up the farm and making repairs following the damage from the winds and snows of the winter.  Or working the ground of the small gardens to prepare for spring planting.

The farm was small and not focused on much production, but rather to serve as an example of farming practices, plants, and animals, for visiting school groups. This was obvious to me as, coming from a farm background, much of what was done seemed extremely inefficient to me, but since it is done on such a small scale, it makes a bit more sense to me given their goal of education.

Beautiful landscape surrounding the farm

I enjoyed working outside and being able to go for small walks in the afternoon, or going to some of the surrounding areas on the weekends.  It was also nice to be disconnected for a while, and enjoying the simple lifestyle.  I would go into the town of Bariloche when I needed to perform an online task, as well as sample the various cervecerias (micro-breweries) as Bariloche seems to be the beer capital of South America.  (When I was in college, I considered studying abroad in Argentina, but never followed through.  Now that I have sampled the beer, wine, meat, and chocolate, I have come to realize how big of a mistake that was!)

Sheep shearing season

While I was there, we only had one school group come by, but Alex told me more would start coming later in the season, especially in the fall.  Another was actually scheduled to come the week after I finished there.  Growing up around small/medium sized farms, focused on production, it was great to get a different experience.  In my opinion, the experience reinforced the concept of specialization and how large-scale operators are much more efficient at meeting the food needs of a growing population.  But it also gave a good perspective in trying to maintain a balance and sustainable practices, which even the large-scale farmers should try to emulate, since we only have so many resources available and must make them last as long as possible.

Exploring near the farm with my hiking buddy, Morsy

Regardless of the “organic vs commercial” farming debate, one undebatable positive aspect of what Cris and Alex are doing with their small farm is the educational outreach.  Far too many people are too far-removed from their food.  They only see it in the super-market, and their knowledge of farming is only from media consumption (TV, movies, books, etc.).  It would be great if all people could connect with and learn more about agriculture first-hand.  After all, agriculture is the foundation of civilization.  If humans never developed agriculture, we would likely still be living as primitive hunter-gatherers.  Therefore, it is important for all of us to better understand the practices and challenges of agriculture.  (I am obviously biased in this situation, but deal with it!)

After about three weeks working on the farm, in the shadow of the Patagonian Andes, it was time to move on yet again.  I said my farewells, hugged Fran, Alex, and Cris, and got on the local bus to Bariloche to take another long bus ride down to the wilds and beauty of Southern Patagonia.

MORE INFORMATION

For more information related to special needs:

IVHQ – The organization that I went through to get the special needs placement in Cordoba, Argentina

Un Lugar en el Mundo – The adult special needs center I worked with in Villa Allenda, on the outskirts of Cordoba

Here are some links that provide lists of other special needs organizations:

http://www.friendshipcircle.org/blog/2016/01/14/10-special-needs-organizations-you-should-know-about/

https://www.care.com/c/stories/6620/10-helpful-special-needs-organizations/

For more information related to my placement on the Patagoinian farm and agricultural education

Rock-Heim Farm – The farm outside of Bariloche where I worked for three weeks.  Focused on education and sustainable farming

Workaway: How I found Rock-Heim farms.  A website to find lodging, and possible food, in exchange for work

WWOOF: The same basic concept of Workaway, but focused on small organic farms around the world.

Agriculture in the Classroom: An organization that works with national and state departments of agriculture, farm bureaus, and other farming related groups to promote agricultural literacy in K-12 education

Into the Andes

The seeds of my visit to Peru were planted many years ago.  To start, from a young age I was fascinated by the stories of the Inca and the Spanish search for El Dorado and legendary cities of gold.  But aside from that, there was also a personal connection.  About 25 years ago, our local parish in Pesotum was between priests.  To fill the gap until a more permanent priest was assigned, priests would come down from the Newman Center at the University of Illinois to say mass and take care of a variety of pastoral duties.  One of them, Father Ed, was working on his PhD at the U of I after having spent time working in Peru.  My parents became interested in his work with the indigenous populations in Peru and after he finished his PhD and moved back to Peru, my parents stayed in touch with him.  Over the years, as I would hear of the work he was doing, an idea formed in the back of my mind that it would be an interesting experience to go and visit him in his village.  But I always just considered it a youthful fantasy, never really expecting it to reach fruition.  But as my trip to South America began to form, I realized that this would be an opportunity to actually make it happen.  So my parents gave me his email address and I reached out to Father Ed while I was still in Colombia, and a few months later, he was meeting me at the airport in Lima.

Father Ed and I in the coastal desert of Peru near Paracas

After running a few errands, we had an excellent dinner at a restaurant in the Miraflores region of Lima (Peru is known as the culinary star of South America, and in my time there and a few other countries, I have come to agree, even if I do not have a skillful palate by any means.) and caught up on the past 25 years.  That night, we stayed at the Carmelite house (his order of priests) in Miraflores before beginning our cross-country road trip, along with his assistant Bernacio, through southern Peru and to their village in the Andean highlands.  To stay in a simple but comfortable room in a community house such as that is a unique sensation, with the quiet and reverent atmosphere filling the building, and religious art and décor and books all around.

The next morning, as we were preparing to leave, we came across one of the priests with a group of men, and after the introductions, the older man in the group, the obvious authority figure, gave Father Ed an update on his work.  My Spanish was (and is) still rather weak, so I was only able to catch bits of what he was saying, but Father Ed filled in the gaps for me afterward.  This man runs an organization, Comunidad Terapéutica Programa San José, that serves as a halfway house and treatment center for recovering addicts.  He had told Father Ed that many of those they were serving at the moment were Europeans and Americans who had come to South America for the cheap and easy access to drugs and now found themselves destitute, and their families back home had all but abandoned them., leaving them with nowhere to turn.  It is interesting to hear about their work after my observation (and anger) regarding the Americans and Europeans that came to South America for drugs, taking advantage of and perpetuating the conditions on this continent that I pointed out in an earlier post.  However, this group were selflessly caring for those that did just that and lost themselves in the darkness of addiction.  It is such an amazing display of affection for those whom so many others would despise.

Upon leaving Lima, we took an amazing 3-day trip through southern Lima.  Through the coastal desert and Paracas, to the desert oasis of Haucachina and its lake surrounded by mountainous sand dunes, down to the mysterious Nazca lines that can only been realized from an elevated perch or (more often) from an airplane.

At Nazca, we turned inland and began climbing in elevation into the Andes.  After about 3 days of travel, and dropping off Bernacio at his home in Sicuani, a small city of about 30000 people outside of Cusco, Father Ed and I arrived at his home, next to the church in the small mountain community of Santa Barbara.  Upon arriving, I was introduced to Veronica and her daughter, Noelia, who stay in a small attached guest apartment and help Farther Ed around the house and church on the weekends.

Santa Barbara

I had hoped to do some direct work in the community supporting some type of a project, however, for a variety of reasons, during the time I was there, Father Ed did not have any major projects underway.  Instead, I just helped with a few small tasks where I could here and there, accompanying Father Ed to some of the other communities he served, helping organize a few things, and helping pick up some supplies for an upcoming youth retreat that would bring together young people from some of the surrounding communities.

Many a late night after dinner were spent with Father Ed and I having a drink and a cigar, discussing a wide range of topics, usually social and historical, regarding Peru and the local area, and the differing influences of the Inca, the Spanish, the church, and industry.  These were easily some of the most enlightening conversations about the region I had during my time in South America.  I also learned more about some of the variety of efforts to improve the lives of the people.  It was especially comforting that even though he is a priest, Father Ed fully acknowledged and did not excuse the sins of the Church in the history of the area.

Even in the freezing cold weather of the Andean highlands, many of the indigenous people wear sandals. The newer versions made out of recycled tires.

One of the elements that continuously came up during the conversations was the role of education.  It is almost cliché to anyone that studies history, but as always, much of the social and economic inequality in the area has been maintained over the centuries by denying the indigenous and lower classes access to high quality education.  This allowed the educated moneyed classes to exploit the lower classes for cheap labor in the mines and on the farms.  Unfortunately, the Catholic church was often complicit if not supportive of this power dynamic, serving both the spiritual and educational needs of the higher classes, while offering only basic support to the lower classes during the colonial era, and the early history of the independent nations.

Father Ed pointed out that this has been part of the reason for the rise of evangelical churches in this region of South America over recent decades. Missionaries would come to the area and provide the local populations with relevant education that would help them to improve their lives in some way.  That, combined with the Catholic Church’s relative indifference, makes these new missionaries much more appealing to these poorer demographics.  Father Ed has seen it happen throughout the communities that he serves, as many of the parishners no longer consider themselves Catholic and have joined these other churches.

Inside the church in Santa Barbara, with the women along the side wearing the traditional brightly colored clothing

We also discussed about how he has been trying to counteract this lack of education and what he hopes to do going forward.  One interesting organization that Father Ed told me about was Fe y Alegria, which seeks to provide education opportunities, usually through Jesuit schools, to the poorest and most vulnerable populations in South America.  Father Ed said that he had previously tried to get a Fe y Alegria school set up in the area a few years before, but ran into some logistical and political problems.  While this specific attempt did not work, upon hearing about the organization from Father Ed and doing more research on it, I found yet another shining example of people trying to improve the lives of those less fortunate by focusing on the fundamental and underlying challenges they face.

From a pastoral sense, he is hoping to develop a lay organization for younger adults in the community.  Most of the communities are basically dying out because young people leave the highlands to go and find work in the Peruvian cities.  However, a couple of communities do have relatively stable populations, but the churches (as is common in many places) are mostly attended by the elders of the community.  Because of this, Father Ed is trying to find ways to engage the younger community members that may have grown up with the church, but have basically left it for one reason or another.

At Machu Picchu

After a couple of weeks in Santa Barbara (interrupted with the obligatory Machu Picchu trek while Father Ed was visiting Lima for a meeting), I took my leave of Father Ed and his hospitality.  Noelia was extremely sweet and my last day, handed me a small cloth bag filled with stones that she had collected around the area that she found interesting, science being her favorite subject.  I thanked her and gave her one of the SpaceX mission patches that I had brought along.

I then had a variety of travelling adventures around Peru for a couple of weeks, meeting amazing people from around the world and learning so much about the different cultures of the area. I did the Inca Jungle Adventure Trek to Machu Picchu, including biking down from snow covered mountain roads to jungle rivers for river rafting, and hiking along portions of Inca trails (although not the “official” Inca trail from Cusco to Machu Picchu), as well as steps up the mountain side in the early morning to the mist covered mountain citadel.  After Cusco, I went to Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca, where I was able to visit more indigenous groups on the various islands, from the man-made reed islands of Uro to spending the night with the native people of Amantani, including a celebration in their community hall.  I also was able to see condors soaring over Colca Canyon, see a frozen Inca mummy, and enjoy alpaca grilled on a hot volcanic stone.

My roommates and house mom on Lake Titicaca at the community celebration.

While doing these tours that involved indigenous peoples, part of me was disappointed in the sheer overly touristic elements of visiting them.  It was obvious with the trinket sales, and even the celebration with Peruvian music and dancing, that this was all geared towards tourists.  However, as I thought more about it, and reflected upon other indigenous groups I have visited as parts of tours in Colombia and Brazil as well, I realized that this is a source of income that allows these people to maintain their traditional way of life (to an extent).  If these touristic opportunities did not exist, they may be forced between living a subsistence existence or abandoning their traditional ways.  However, it is important that if people participate in such tours, they do proper research to ensure that the native peoples are truly benefiting rather than being exploited.

After my month in Peru, I then entered northern Chile and the coastal desert formed by the interaction between the Pacific Ocean and the Andean mountains.  I had long wanted to visit the Atacama Desert and its high, dry environment which is used for many space observatories, to see one of the clearest night skies on Earth.  My first weekend was spent in the desert town of San Pedro de Atacama, which is basically overrun with tourists.  Unfortunately, a wind storm hit the town that week, closing almost all of the outdoor sites that are usually visited.  I happened to meet a young couple from Brazil in the bike rental shop as it was being closed, so we decided to go share some drinks, and were then joined by a German guy from my hostel.  This turned into quite the fun night. Even though the official “star tours” were cancelled, we were able to find a local taxi driver to drive us (and some beer and snacks) out into the desert so we could do our own star-gazing in the dark, windy, and cold, but clear night sky.  While I wish I could say it was the most brilliant sky of stars, it was not quite as impressive as I had hoped, but still beautiful and we were treated to multiple shooting stars against the celestial backdrop.

An English class in Taltal, Chile

After my weekend in San Pedro de Atacama, I made my way to the mining town of Taltal on the coast of northern Chile.  This trip came about thanks to workaway and my original plans for Patagonia falling through.  During my last week in Peru, I had to rearrange my travel and ended up finding a program in Taltal working mostly as an English instructor.  It was an incredibly serendipitous experience.  Taltal is a mining town on the southern edge of the Atacama Desert. I learned from the locals attending the English sessions that the area is considered “remote” by the government, in that the public workers, such as teachers, are paid more than elsewhere, due to the higher cost of living (as almost all food needs to be shipped in.).  Those who work in the mining industry tend to make decent money, but others can struggle.

I was met at the station by Tello (the founder of EFTG) and two other volunteers, one from Lebanon and one from France.  After dropping off my stuff at the hostel, we went to the library for an adult evening English class.  We had about 9 adults there who worked in a variety of industries. It was my first introduction to this friendly small community that I was welcomed into for two weeks.

The organization offers English lessons to a swath of the community, from housewives to children to working adults.  Many of them may not have opportunities to learn, or practice, their English skills.  In addition to that, the organization does other social services.  One other activity that we did while I was there was go with a group of doctors and nurses to the small coastal town of Paposo.  The town only has a small clinic with a nurse available, so many residents do not get regular medical care.  This event was a chance for the residents to come and get a quick check-up, while some of the doctors did house calls at the same time.  If a woman brought her children with her, we would entertain the children with activities and coloring books.  The town was also home to a school that EFTG usually visits once a week to offer additional English language support and engagement with the children.  Not long after I left, the group also participated in a beach clean-up.

The foreigners dressed up for Chilean Independence Day

It was also a stroke of luck that I happened to be in Taltal during Chilean Independence Day celebrations, allowing for even more of a cultural experience.  The other volunteers and I were invited to a party at someones house, and after the parade and before the party, we were given a quick lesson in cueca, the traditional Chilean dance.  This was just one of the many instances of hospitality that I experienced in this wonderful little community that I had never before heard of and will now always have a special place in my heart.

EFTG was a perfect example of trying to improve the world by simply trying to improve your local community.  There were no grandiose plans, simply a goal of helping out those nearby with a focus on English along with a willingness to help in other ways as needed.  It is a living testament to the philosophy of “love thy neighbor.”

Entertaining the children at a medical visit day in the village of Papuso

Perhaps that simple concept is the most important aspect that anyone can take from this.  As much as we would all love to change the world in some heroic manner, perhaps we should first focus on those nearby that need our assistance in some small way or another.  Helping an elderly neighbor with everyday tasks that have become difficult; babysitting or cooking dinner to help parents of a child in the hospital, working with a local homeless shelter, anything and everything can be a wonderful way to make a change for the better.  Sometimes the best way to improve the world is to improve our own little corner of it.

MORE INFORMATION

Here are some links to some of the organizations I learned about or worked with while in Peru and Chile.

http://www.ctprogramasanjose.com/ – The website for Comunidad Terapéutica Programa San José, the organization helping recovering addicts near Lima

http://www.feyalegria.org/ – The main website for Fe y Alegria and its affiliates around South America, focused on improving educational opportunities for underserved populations

https://feyalegria.us/ – US-based group supporting Fe y Alegria and its mission

http://ocarm.org/ – Main website of the Carmelite community

http://www.workaway.info/ – Website where I connected with EFTG.  Matches travelers who are willing to work for accommodation and sometimes food, and local organizations, small businesses, and the like who could use the help.

https://www.facebook.com/English.for.the.Greatest – Facebook page of EFTG (the local nonprofit group in Taltal, Chile)

 

http://infoegtaltal.wixsite.com/eftgtaltal – Standard website for EFTG (some items on the site are a bit out of date)

Amazon Adventure

After six months, and an extra week to see the Independence Day celebrations (which other than a parade, there pretty much weren’t any), my time in Colombia was done.  My next destination was technically Peru, but I had decided I did not want to go there directly.  Instead, I flew to Manaus, Brazil, where I could then get on a river boat going up the Amazon River to Iquitos, Peru.  I gave myself about 2 weeks for this river trip so that I would have some contingency days as well as possibly do some side treks along the Amazon.

Holding a baby sloth in an Amazonian indigenous village

As it turned out, I used one of those contingency days right away.  Upon arriving at the airport, I was not allowed to board my flight due to a visa issue as I was supposed to connect through Venezuela.  After some last-minute travel bookings, I had a new flight going through Panama, but it was going to cost me a day.  However, on the positive side, the layover in Panama City was close to 20 hours, which allowed me to spend about half a day exploring Panama City and the Panama Canal, a nice unexpected side trip.

Finally, after my one-day delay, I arrived in Manaus in the evening, and the next day had a tour of the river around Manus.  This was a good introduction to the Amazon region, even if we really didn’t go into the forest.  Among other things, I was able to see the “meeting of the waters”, where two rivers meet with different temperatures, currents, and compositions.  Because of the differences, it takes a while for them to truly join into one river, so for a few kilometers, there is dark blue water and muddy brown water side by side. I also saw the pirarucu, a giant fish of the Amazon river, and some monkeys climbing the trees above us at one of our stopping points.  I was also able to swim with pink river dolphins.  I was a little concerned about this part, because I did not know how it would be set up: if the animals would be penned in or maltreated or something to that effect.  Luckily, I found out that the operators were conscientious of the animals.  The site was simply on the side of the river, with no pens or anything.  The dolphins simply come there of their own volition because they know they will be getting some free fish.  But I was more impressed that they only do this a few days out of the week, so that the dolphins do not become dependent upon the people for food.

Village lodge with an indigenous presentation

The other interesting part of this trip was getting to visit an indigenous village.  At the village, I was able to hold a baby sloth, taste some jungle food (like grubs and other bugs) and witness a traditional dance (and even join in for part of it).  Talking to the guide, I learned that this tribe had moved closer to Manaus because it was safer and more reliable than living further in the jungle.  The government takes care of the people, providing necessary health care and other services and allows the people to maintain their way of life, provided that they allow and participate in tours such as what I was doing.

I mentioned it being safer for the indigenous to be closer to Manaus.  Only a couple of weeks after I visited Manaus, I saw news of a tragic event in the Brazilian Amazon.  An entire indigenous village had been massacred by illegal loggers and miners.  The only reason it came to light was because someone overheard some of the perpetrators talking about it in a bar, and this person then alerted the authorities.    What is even worse, some experts believe this actually happens somewhat regularly because of the combination of the remote and wild Amazon jungle, the lack of information about many Indigenous peoples in the depths of the jungle (especially the uncontacted tribes), and the large number of illegal timber, mining, drug, and other such operations.  Because of these combined circumstances, it is relatively easy for these illegal operators to come across native people, slaughter them, use their land, and no one ever finds about it.

Link to news story on this event:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/10/world/americas/brazil-amazon-tribe-killings.html

The next day I headed to the riverside again to take the slow boat up the river.  I received my paperwork, and soon I was on a small dinghy to board the ferry that would be my home for the next week.  As luck would have it, I happened to be on the dinghy with a girl that spoke English.  She was from France, but had been in Brazil for about six months so spoke Portuguese rather well.  It was extremely fortunate to have met someone right away that could help translate for me in case of any issues on the boat.

Hammocks, hammocks, and more hammocks. Not exactly private accomodation

The first step was finding an open spot to hang the hammock that I had bought along with the boat passage.  There were two open air decks on the ship where people would hang a hammock, keep their belongings under it, and then that would be their accommodation for the duration of the trip.  While a hammock sounds relaxing in theory, I have learned during the course of this trip that actually spending multiple nights in a hammock is not the most pleasant of experiences.

Fortunate smiled upon me again the next morning. At breakfast, I noticed that two young men sitting across the long dining table were speaking in English.  I began talking with them and learned that one was from Portugal and the other was from Spain.  They had met during their travels in South America, and were on their way to Leticia, the Colombian city in the tri-border region.

Sunset on the Amazon, from my favorite spot, in the bow of the boat

Early in the week, I found an excellent spot on the boat, where I spent much time, including at night where I could write in my journal or prepare a blog post.  Going down to the main cargo deck, it was possible get to the bow of the boat, where almost no one ever went.  It allowed for an almost unobstructed view of the Amazon River stretching out in front of us. One day, while I was sitting in the bow yet again, I noticed the white puffy cumulus clouds in the sky, and the green forest lining the river banks.  We were at a such distance from the river bank, that it wasn’t possible to really distinguish the types of trees on the bank, just the solid green presence of tree life. The combination formed a scene that reminded me of the lakes in northwest Wisconsin. If I looked at a picture of the two scenes, I doubt that I could distinguish between the two without close analysis.  That familiarity made me think of the interconnectedness of the world.  While reading about the Amazon in preparation for the trip, I learned that the Amazon Rainforest is fertilized by dust from the Sahara Desert that is blown across the Atlantic Ocean.  I also remembered that the Amazon supplies more than 20% of the world’s oxygen.  It is easy to focus only on our own little corner of the world, but we must remember that we are part of a bigger world that is in constant interaction.

Just one example of the litter that we often found in the riverside towns in Brazil

As we made our way upriver, in the latter half of the week, we would occasionally stop at a small town on the river to drop off cargo and passengers, as well as take on new ones.  It is important to note that the Amazon River and its tributaries basically serve as the highway system for this region, with transportation of people and goods happening on these boats.  This was not some tour that I was on, this was everyday life for the people of the region.  Often at these stops, my new friends and I would walk around the town and try to find a place to get some snacks and drinks.  While having a few beers at a makeshift dockside bar, the Spaniard pointed out to me his frustration with the amount of trash in the river, on the river banks, and the casualness with which people would toss garbage off of the boat.  I had noticed the litter, especially when we arrived in each little town.  It seemed there was garbage all along the river banks.  The Spaniard and I could not understand how people were so willing to throw trash into the river, since most of them likely lived alongside of it.  I realize that this is a European/American way of looking at the environment.  However, he was truly frustrated by the state of affairs we were witnessing.  And I have to agree with him.  While I am not an environmentalist, I greatly appreciate the natural environment and hate to see what was happening to such an amazing place.

There was no beer on the boat, so we made up for it in the ports of call along the river

Eventually, we made it to Tabatinga.  As a group, we went to the immigration offices, and then crossed into Leticia, Colombia.  The fellow from Portugal was going to be working as a translator for one of the local tour groups.  We arrived at their offices, and began to say our goodbyes.  He actually was scheduled to go out on a tour that afternoon.  I spoke to the tour operator for a bit and then decided to go on that tour.  I hadn’t really gotten into the jungle yet, and I had time, since I had decided I was not doing the slow boat anymore to Iquitos, and the fast boat would only be about 10 hours as opposed to 3-4 days.  Thanks to my fortunate meeting on the slow boat from Manaus, I was now on my way into the Amazon jungle for a 4-day tour.

Again, there were amazing experiences had in the Amazonian jungle.  Both day and night treks into the jungle including looking for sloths in the wild, a night trip on the river to look for caimans (basically, Amazonian crocodiles), fishing for piranha (and swimming with them as well!).  For the first and last night, we stayed in Puerto Nariño.  This is an amazing town that is fairly new, it was only established in the past 50 years or so.  It is also extremely eco-friendly.  There are no cars, it is extremely clean and well-maintained, and the townspeople are almost all descended from one of the local indigenous tribes. Actually, I had noticed in general that the Amazon region in Colombia, and the towns of Puero Nariño and Leticia, was much cleaner than Tabatinga and the rest of the Brazilian Amazon.

Sunset in an Amazonian village

The middle night, we stayed further upriver in an indigenous village.  It was another great opportunity to learn more about the culture there.  The community has a soccer league with about two dozen nearby river villages.  There was supposed to have been a game that day, but it was cancelled for some reason, so we were treated to an impromptu soccer scrimmage as the sun set over the river and the piranha we had caught that day were prepared for dinner.  Walking around the village, and hearing from the guides, I was amazed at how resourceful and perseverant these people were.  The houses were on stilts due to the seasonal flooding of the river basin.  We learned that a few years ago, it was an extremely high river, and the entire village (about 7-8 families) had to stay in one village building because many of the houses were flooded and full of caimans and snakes.

We also heard some of the darker tales.  While in the mirador (viewpoint tower) of Puerto Nariño, overlooking the town and the jungle and river beyond, our guide told us how rampant alcoholism, drugs, and violence can be among some of the indigenous communities, especially at the hands of others.  He told the story about how one of his grandparents was the result of the rape of an indigenous woman.   These are the types of struggles people in these communities often still deal with to this day, and we hear so little about.

Crossing the river to Peru

Upon returning to Leticia, I dealt with immigration yet again and then got on a small motor boat, along with an older gentleman and his dog, to cross the river to Santa Rosa, Peru.  I had quite a bit of time to kill as my boat was not leaving for Iquitos until almost 5 AM.  The town had no cars and no real streets to speak of either.  Just one main road that was mostly dirt, except for a few stretches that were wooden.  I walked up and down that main road just to get a sense of the small town.  The people of the town were amongst the most friendly and welcoming I had yet met I South America.  Multiple people saw my bags, asked where I was from, if I needed anything, and just chatted for a short time.  Then, I decided to get a drink and dinner at a small restaurant that was blaring music onto the street.  While there, I overheard a couple speaking English, and struggling with their Spanish, so I began talking to them. They sat with me and we shared some drinks, and soon another two people joined us, these from Portugal.  We were all going to Iquitos and therefore had a night to spend before our boat left.  After dinner, we made our way to another bar that seemed to be the only one open.  Even though it was a Monday night, and we were the only ones there (aside from the workers, and the waitress from the restaurant we just came from), they stayed open until almost 2 AM for us.  When we left, there was not even a light on anywhere in the town, so we pulled out flashlights and made our way to the small dock to wait a couple of hours to for our boat to leave.

A quick swing through the Amazon Rainforest

In the pre-dawn hours, our boats arrived (it turned out that we were taking two different boats, departing about 45 minutes apart from each other), and the crowds boarded the boats.  For the next 12 hours, I sat on a boat heading up the Peruvian Amazon, with a seat layout similar to that of a standard bus.  That evening, I arrived in Iquitos, had dinner with the English and Portuguese friends, and then walked around the town that evening by myself, doing a little bit of exploring.  There were almost no cars in the city center where I was staying, instead, mototaxis were the prevalent mode of transportation around the town. It was an interesting, but very loud scene, as the mototaxis had an unmuffled engines and hundreds of them were driving around the center square.  Overall, I found Iquitos to be an amazingly quaint city, with a wonderful riverfront, shops, even a small coffeeshop/art-gallery that was open late.  I truly wish I had more time to spend there, but alas, the next morning, I repacked my bags, and headed to the airport to fly to Lima, my two weeks exploring the Amazonian region of Brazil, Colombia, and Peru at an end.

I realize this is cliché but the Amazon truly is a wondrous place with so many different aspects to it, and I saw just a fleeting glimpse.  But even with that quick view, I witnessed how fragile and in danger the area is.  And I never even saw many of the true dangers that are threatening the more remote areas of the Amazon rainforest and its people.  As I said earlier, I am not a tree-hugging environmentalist by any means, but I try to be acutely aware of what is happening, and there are many good and bad things happening in the Amazon.  Hopefully, we can help support those good things happening to overcome the bad.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

Here are some links to sites that have more information and organizations that are working to protect the Amazon rainforest and its native peoples.

http://www.coica.org.ec/ – A collective organization, based in Ecuador, for Amazonian native peoples

http://amazonwatch.org/ – An organization that promotes welfare of the Amazon, both its environment and its people.  It works primarily with local indigenous groups, but also environmental causes as well.

http://www.goodnet.org/articles/4-nonprofits-ideas-on-how-to-save-amazon – An article highlighting groups fighting for the Amazon (Amazon Watch is the first one listed).

Colombian Reflections

My time with Prints of Hope and in Colombia ended in late July.  For the past two months, I’ve done more traveling: Panama, Brazil, Peru, Chile, and now Argentina.  I’ll be writing more about those adventures in upcoming posts.  But given that the six month stint in Colombia was the starting point, as well as the longest I have ever been in another country (I only spent four months in Ireland after graduate school.), this post is a general reflection upon my time and experiences in Colombia.

Striking a pose at the Boltero Museum in Bogota

While I don’t really want this to be a typical “travel blog” about where I went and what I did, but more focused on the needs I observe in different areas and communities, and how these needs could be or are being addressed; much of the important aspects and details related to that have been covered in my previous posts.

Therefore, this will be closer to an “experiential” post.  First and foremost, upon reflection, I am glad I took the leap and began this trip.  And my time in Colombia with the Prints of Hope was a good start to it.  While it didn’t go exactly as expected (discussed in earlier posts), it offered me an excellent opportunity to learn more about nonprofit management.  And more importantly, it gave me the chance to experience a new culture, in a different language, which proved to be a challenge for me to rise to in order to make the best of my time there.

One of my last nights out in Bogota (3 blond Americans and 3 Colombians)

Although the language barrier was certainly difficult, for me, the general cultural barrier was the larger struggle.  Prior to leaving the US, I happened to discuss Colombia with a few different people who had visited there, and they all told me how much they loved it.  This was reinforced by many travelers that I crossed paths with while in Colombia, who talked about how much they were enjoying the country.  Having lived there for six months, and discussed the country and the culture with some of my roommates, I realized that an old cliché is probably best for how I would describe Colombia:

It’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

Colombia is an amazing travel destination, and I highly recommend it for tourism.  It is strikingly beautiful with such a variety of landscapes and climates.  There are different vibrant cultures across the country in each region, and I never even made it to Medellín, which often seems to be most travelers’ favorite city.  You could spend weeks and months in Colombia and discover something new each and every day.

With a couple of YMCA friends (Carolina & Leydi) at Monserrate overlooking Bogota

However, I found it difficult to build something of a life in Bogotá.  Now a good portion of that could be specific to the city life of Bogotá, but some of the reasons I believe are more general to Colombia, and how they interact with my own personality.  There were two main cultural aspects that really caused difficulties for me.

Group of YMCA volunteers having a night out after a training camp

One was something that many travelers had told me they loved about Colombia.  And that is the reputation Colombians have for being friendly.  That seems like it would be a positive, but I noticed that Colombian “friendliness” is a different type of “friendly”.  It seems to be a “cold” friendly, rather than a “warm & welcoming” friendly.  Again, a big part of it could be Bogotá, but I noticed it in other cities as well.  Basically, in my experience, unless you already had a connection with someone, while people would be friendly when you spoke with them, they never made an effort to start a conversation or be truly welcoming.  This is actually understandable, given the troubles that Colombia has faced over the years with drug cartels, guerillas, and paramilitary groups.  To survive, one would need to be friendly so as not to offend anyone, but at the same time, maintain a wariness about strangers.  The exception to this cautiousness seemed to be the people who obviously had an ulterior motive, to sell you something in one way in form or another.  To be honest, I have come to have a visceral reaction to the word “amigo” as it was almost always spoken by some aggressive vendor, with an obvious tone of inauthenticity, dripping with hidden condescension.

As I said though, if you do have an established connection with people, the Colombians are extremely welcoming and wonderful.  I was lucky to meet amazing people during my time in Colombia through my work with the YMCA, including people that opened up their homes to me, and I truly appreciate their generosity.

My roommates, Elena (left), Laura (bottom left), and Chloe (right) and one of the teachers we worked with, Lili (center) at the teachers’ appreciation party

The second struggle was something that I already had a little bit of experience with, but until you are truly immersed in it, you don’t really understand it.  And that is the general “casualness” and “indirectness” of Latin Americans, and this is extremely strong in Colombia.  I never before really appreciated how different that is than my nature.  Maybe it is my Northern European heritage, but most people who know me, know that I like to be in control of every situation as much as possible, which is very un-Colombian.  Qué será  or “what will be” is a common saying and not one that I do well with.  I also have a tendency to be as explicit as possible when writing emails or communicating otherwise, so there is no room for misunderstanding.  I do not like subtlety when it comes to communication, but subtlety is more the language here than Spanish is.  Especially the aversion to saying the word No.  Which led to so many frustrations for me.  Chloe, Elena, and Laura began to laugh about and wonder when I would finally explode from the countless frustrations I had due to what I felt was a lack of communication and/or planning about one thing or another.

Rock Al Parque. An annual free music festival in Bogota, in Parque Simón Bolívar

This “casualness” also extended into social life as well.  Making plans with friends was always an unknown.  My roommates and I had learned that you need to make multiple plans for a given night, because you never knew who would actually follow through and who would cancel.  Often, a group would talk about doing something on a night for a week or two, but then when it came, nothing would happen.  Then, another night, a group outing would suddenly happen with only a few hours’ notice (if that). While I like to be spontaneous, and the latter situation is completely fine with me; I have always been bothered when people cancel plans, and it happened with so much frequency in Colombia, that it became a constant source of frustration for me.  But on those occasions when a night out did actually occur, I almost always had an incredible time.  Whether it was my pathetic attempts at salsa dancing (despite my friends best efforts at teaching me), nights out at a variety of clubs, getting locked inside Parqúe Simón Bolívar after sunset and having to help each other either through or over the fencing to get out, or any of the other small adventures we had, they all helped to make my time in Colombia memorable.

There were no Holsteins at the Colombian Ag Expo in Bogota, so I had to settle for an Ayrshire

All that being said, this was an incredible opportunity to learn about another culture (and my own quirks), as well as make new friends that I hope to keep in contact with over the years.  This was only possible by forcing myself to look for such opportunities to travel and to participate in cultural exchange programs.  I have received comments and messages from people talking about how they wish they could travel and do some of these adventures. This has been common from former students.  Especially for those of you, what is stopping you?

The Lego convention came to Bogota

I am fully aware that I am fortunate with my place in life that I can go on a trip such as this to travel the world.  However, there are many other opportunities out there for you to travel and see the world, with limited time and financial constraints.  I have met so many people that are travelling and finding unique ways to afford it.  One friend spent a few weeks in the Amazon for free working as a translator on the tours groups.  I just finished an amazing two weeks doing a workaway in Taltal, Chile helping teach English at a nonprofit and had my accommodation and most of my food paid for.

If you don’t have personal or family responsibilities holding you back, and you are thinking about traveling to experience a foreign country, don’t find excuses, find a way to make it happen.

Here are some links to just a few of the ways you can travel to new places, have unique experiences, and do it rather cheaply (or maybe even make some money!).  Most of them require a commitment of at least 2 weeks, but you often have some free time.

http://www.iena.org/ This is the organization I went through for the program in Colombia, but it also has other programs for Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Thailand.  It is important to note that foreigners can get temporary work visas for Australia and New Zealand, but only until you are 30 (AUS) or 35 (NZ) years old.  So don’t put this off for too long!

https://www.workaway.info/ A website where you can find free lodging (and occasionally food) around the world in exchange for working.  A common set-up is working at a hostel, cleaning or answering phones or something similar.  If you are multilingual, you can also be a translator for tours and such, and get to go on those tours for free.   This is probably the most popular site, and you are more likely to find places in popular tourist spots.

https://www.givingway.com/  Similar to workaway, except more focused on volunteering with nonprofits and projects.  Since they are nonprofits, there might not be as much covered as the ones on workaway.

https://wwoofinternational.org/ WWOOFing is going to work on small farms dedicated to sustainable farming practices.  Often both food and lodging are provided in exchange for working on the farm.   Obviously, these will not be in major cities.

There are other sites that you can find free housing that I don’t have experience with:

www.couchsurfing.com

www.staydu.com

There are also many programs to work as an English teacher and/or au pair in other countries.  You can do a google search for these to find different programs.

For all of these, make sure you do your research and try to find hosts that have been reviewed and seem legitimate, and always trust your gut if something doesn’t seem right!

The world is an amazing place that is waiting to be explored.  I’ll leave you with a famous quote by Mark Twain:

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.

Colombian Conflict and Lessons the US can Learn

(Note: due to my phone being stolen, I don’t have some of my pictures from some memorials and exhibits from the National Museum.  So I am just copying pictures from the Internet).

Given that my Spanish level was at an extremely basic level when I arrived in Colombia, I decided to take lessons from a tutor.  It definitely helped, although I did not put in as much practice in my free time as I should have.  Aside from the Spanish practice, as part of my lessons, my tutor went over some of the past 70 years of history in Bogotá and Colombia.  We also went to the National Museum in Bogotá for one of my tutoring sessions.  These activities, along with my own reading and what I learned from other museums and tour guides during my travels, helped give so much context into the turmoil of Colombia over more than half a century.

Image from the Bogotazo (from LatinAmericanStudies.org)

Here is a very brief (and probably insufficient) summary for those completely unaware and only know that Colombia was involved in a long-running civil war, and that it allowed and was to an extent fueled by the drug trade.  I am including links to the relevant Wikipedia pages for more info.

Unsurprisingly, the roots of the conflict go back decades and the differences were rooted in economic inequality and struggles between peasants and land-owners.  These struggles were then exploited by the liberal and conservative parties for their own political gain (sound familiar?).  This came to a head on April 9, 1948, a date which changed the trajectory of Colombian history.  The liberal candidate for president, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, was assassinated.  There are a variety of theories as to the killer’s motivation, ranging from personal issues with Gaitán to involvement by the conservative government.  At the time, the media was sharply divided and supporters of one party or the other generally only listened to their “friendly” news sources (again, sound familiar?).  As news broke of the assassination, the radio station managed by supporters of Gaitán blamed the conservative government for the killing and called upon their listeners to take up arms in the streets.  Thus began what is known as the Bogotazo, a city-wide riot that destroyed much of Bogotá and resulted in thousands of deaths. This helped intensify other conflicts in other regions of Colombia, beginning the 10-year period known as La Violencia.  The La Violencia set the stage for the rise of the various guerilla and paramilitary groups throughout the country.  And as people tried to escape the violence in the cities, they moved to the countryside in hopes of living as peaceful farmers.  This influx of farmers eventually caused a surplus and then crop prices dropped, which allowed for more economic incentives for drug cultivation, which added yet another dimension to the ongoing conflict which still has effects to this day. All because of division and distrust that exploded due to a tragic event almost 70 years ago.

Image from the Bogotazo (from LatinAmericanStudies.org)

It has been interesting learning about the turbulent history of Colombia (and other parts of South America), while watching from afar the political upheaval in the United States right now.  Yes, it is very much an apples and oranges comparison, and I do not believe the United States is realistically close to an outbreak of political violence.  But nonetheless, consider this hypothetical situation:

Donald Trump is assassinated by some mentally disturbed person with a loose connection to Black Lives Matter or the Antifa movement.  The FBI urges calm as they investigate, but has no reason to suspect anything more than a lone individual.  However, Alex Jones and similar personalities that are enamored with Donald Trump put forward conspiracy theories that this was actually a coup by the establishment, and urges their well-armed and like-thinking listeners to prepare for the worst.  A few unhinged listeners, maybe ones that belong to citizens’ militias, decide to strike first, and begin violently targeting BLM and Antifa gatherings and possibly even federal agents.  Then, Antifa and maybe the New Black Panthers start to promote their own armed resistance against these militias and right-wing groups, and maybe even local law enforcement that they feel are complicit in the violent actions of the right-wing groups. And soon violent clashes are occurring around the country, each side adamantly convinced that they are fighting against evil forces. How far-fetched does that really sound when laid out in such a manner?

The reason this doesn’t sound all that far-fetched is that we no longer view people with opposing political viewpoints as fellow citizens who happen to have a different opinion, or perhaps who are misguided at worse.  Now we view them as sworn enemies bent on destroying the country.  They are others that should be hated and feared.

Hatred and fear are base emotions.  They fuel our fight-or-flight instinct and are, therefore, extremely powerful.  They were very useful to us when we lived in small hunger-gather tribes.  But they can be counter-productive to advanced civilization, especially in a representative democracy when compromise is necessary in order to get things done.

What is worse is that over the past 25 years or so, we have retreated into echo chambers so that instead of learning new information and perspectives, we simply reinforce what we already believe to be true.  In addition, it also fools us into thinking that our particular way of thinking is more popular than it really is, because everyone we talk to shares our beliefs.  And, there must be something wrong with those who disagree with us.

Here is the reality though, no matter what your political leanings are, most of the country disagrees with you on most issues.  That is simply what happens when you live in a large and diverse country.

If we are to move forward as a country, we must learn to accept those who disagree with us and find common ground and ways to move forward.  And it starts by looking at ourselves and how we perceive those of differing viewpoints.  It is so frustrating and disheartening to see what often gets posted on social media.  I want to point out two “headlines” that I made-up and am paraphrasing from stories I’ve seen shared.  And I want you to REALLY think about why these types of stories get shared:

‘Local Man Outrages Liberal with Patriotic Display”

“Majority of Trump Voters Believe Demonstrably False Information”

Are you sharing the first one because of your love for the country and you are heartened by patriotic displays?  Are you sharing the second one because you are worried about the abundance of in misinformation in our public discourse?  You may tell yourself yes; but, in general, I don’t believe you.

I believe those of you sharing the first stories are doing so because they “outrage liberals” and you enjoy anything that makes them angry.  It isn’t love of country that is motivating you, it is hatred of the other.

If you are sharing the second story, I think it is really because it reinforces your belief that Trump voters are stupid and/or gullible.  This type of story allows you to continue your intellectual superiority and dismiss valid concerns and values of the other.

Obviously, these are over-simplifications, and you very well may have pure and noble intentions, but all I ask is that you truly question and be honest with yourself.  When you listen to or share a story, look in your heart and ask yourself “Why?”  And yes, look in your heart, your gut, your soul, your emotions.  One of the interesting things that I’ve learned during a variety of coursework and trainings on management and leadership is that the vast majority of our decisions are actually made emotionally rather than rationally, as much as we tell ourselves differently.  While we believe we make a decision using our rational minds; in reality, usually, we are only using our rational minds to justify the decision that our emotional hearts have already made.  So look at what is really triggering your emotional reactions when you read and share political information.  The more aware we are of those feelings and how they control us, the better we are at adjusting our behavior.

There are so many that would rather divide us with heated rhetoric.  They do this not for love of country, but because it helps them win votes or gather viewers/listeners/readers.  They claim some other (whoever they may be) are enemies of the USA.  But the people peddling this rhetoric are the ones that are damaging the country.

To be clear, protesting injustice and inequality or standing up for beliefs and rights are not the same as “dividing us”.  Pointing out the problems of institutional racism is not “dividing” the country any more than telling your sibling that they have a drug and alcohol problem is “dividing” your family.  Expressing your beliefs, even if they are unpopular or old-fashioned, should be no more controversial than the clothing you choose to wear, even if they are out of style.

However, you must realize that there are those that disagree with you and as long as you acknowledge and accept that, and try to find common purpose, there is so much we can accomplish.  But if you dismiss others and their beliefs and opinions, you do nothing more than hold us all back.

Yesterday was the anniversary of 9/11.  All over social media, I saw the common refrain to “Never Forget.” But I am going to push on that.  What do you mean?  How are you “remembering” that horrible day?  Are you remembering how originally well-meaning beliefs were allowed to be warped and twisted by close-mindedness and hate, which led to such horrible devastation?  Or are you remembering it as a reason to hate and fear an entire group of people that have different religious beliefs than you?  Are you “not forgetting” how Americans came together to mourn and support one another?  Or are you “not forgetting” how offensive it is to you when someone expresses an opinion that you think is insufficiently patriotic or overly nationalistic?  Please think about how best to remember those who lost their lives.  Instead of just red, white, and blue posts, or criticizing American foreign policy, or whatever, wouldn’t it be a better honor to their memory to come together as a country, respect each other as compatriots, and work together to a better future?

Therefore, when you are about to post something on Facebook; or read/watch/share a news story; or express your opinion in some other way; or agree or disagree with an policy, party, or person; please ask yourself:  Are you helping us to come together and improve as a country and as human beings (even if it makes us slightly uncomfortable) or are you only making yourself feel better and superior about your opinion and dividing us even further?

 

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

YMCA Cali

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.

Addendum:

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