Category Archives: International Development

Fat Cats, Fat Ladies, Fat Men

Daniella led us from the light tube square past a lovely old warehouse that was now the Education Ministry.

We entered a pedestrian mall lined with stalls selling everything from “Adidas” to batteries to bananas.

Here is Daniella explaining the significance of some indigenous jewellery.  “My mother doesn’t believe in religion and isn’t superstitious, but when I was a little girl and I got sick, she did buy one of these charms and tied it to my foot—just in case,” she ended with air quotes.  I bought two for the little kids in my life.

After a few blocks we began to enter an more open area leading to a very large square.  There was a beautiful colonial church—tainted by the fact that slaves had been sold in front—next to an art deco-era office building.

And then the Boteros began. I’d always thought of Botero as a novelty artist—an artist for whom it’s true that “a little goes a long way.”  But somehow, seen outdoors, in situ in the country of the artist’s birth, I became a fan. Here’s Ricardo taking a snap of Roxana.

This part of the tour must drive guides crazy.  We stopped every 10 feet to take photos.

This was my favorite.

We stopped for a coffee in a café overlooking the square. There were a lot of LLLs (large ladies in lycra) strolling by.

“I wonder if Botero was inspired by the women of Medellin,” I asked, hoping I didn’t sound like I was fat shaming, “or were the women of Medellin inspired by Botero?”

Daniella pointed out that all his figures looked like they’d been inflated with an air pump, not just the women. “He means to represent bloated political figures, and egos, and sometimes he’s just being humorous,” she said.

Our waiter had really been hustling to keep everyone served.  “He is Venezuelan,” Daniella said quietly. He is probably working illegally so they don’t have to pay him full wages.  It’s a big problem.”

“So there are Venezuelans here, in Medellin?” I asked.  “In the US, we read that they’re all on the border.”

“No!  They’re everywhere,” Daniella replied emphatically.

“And in the US they’re referred to as migrants,” I said, “probably because if they were officially declared refugees then the UN and US and other countries would be obligated to help them with funding.”

“Yes!” Roxana added, “They are refugees, not migrants!  ‘Migrants’ sounds voluntary.”

“They have no food, no petrol, no toilet paper,” said Daniella.  “How could you choose to stay if your children are hungry?”

We walked across the square toward the Metro.  This building, which looks like a cathedral or palace, is a government office building.

We rode the train a few more stops then got off to take the cable car system to the top of a mountain.  This is not a sight seeing ride, it’s public transport.

Up we went, over sprawling shanty towns. Six or eight people could sit comfortably in each car.

There was a stop midway.

We stayed on and kept going up, up, up.

Daniella kept saying the last stop was “RV Park,” which had me wondering if there would be trailer homes at the top.  Finally I consulted my Metro map and realized it was Arvi Park.

We wandered around the neighborhood at the top.  I imagine the cable cars solve any number of problems, like shrinking people’s commute times and helping women get around without being harassed, or kids being bullied or recruited into gangs.  Imagine, just sailing over the heads of your tormentors!

A little boy was running a street pet shop selling ducklings, rabbits and hamsters.

We walked to a cliff-side park where men were pushing little kids in what looked like go carts and young lovers were trying for a bit of privacy.  The smell of weed was pervasive.

There was a lot of poverty, but also a lot of art and people having fun out and about and clear efforts by some to improve their lots by adding second stories to their homes or painting them bright colors.

This mural says, “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.”

Some Cold Truths

When I mention I’ve been to Colombia, I get two reactions.

One: “Cool!  That’s the hot new destination!”

Two: “Isn’t there a drug war there?”

Number one is true, while number two used to be true.  As usual, I had intended to brush up on my destination’s history but never did it justice.  I read an article here and there about the peace process and upcoming elections.  A former coworker had just moved to Bogota, where her husband is teaching at one of the universities on a Fulbright Fellowship.  She was sending me photos and updates, including that her husband had been tear gassed twice.

Tear gassed. Her take on it was that Colombians, despite no longer living under a state of war for the first time in decades, still have plenty to protest.  Below is a cut and paste directly from Wikipedia.

“The Colombian conflict began in the mid-1960s and is a low-intensity asymmetric war between Colombian governments, paramilitary groups, crime syndicates, and far-left guerrillas such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the National Liberation Army (ELN), fighting each other to increase their influence in Colombian territory. Two of the most important international actors that have contributed to the Colombian conflict are multinational companies and the United States.

“It is historically rooted in the conflict known as La Violencia, which was triggered by the 1948 assassination of populist political leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, and in the aftermath of United States-backed strong anti-communist repression in rural Colombia in the 1960s that led liberal and communist militants to re-organize into FARC.

“The reasons for fighting vary from group to group. The FARC and other guerrilla movements claim to be fighting for the rights of the poor in Colombia to protect them from government violence and to provide social justice through communism. The Colombian government claims to be fighting for order and stability, and seeking to protect the rights and interests of its citizens. The paramilitary groups claim to be reacting to perceived threats by guerrilla movements. Both guerrilla and paramilitary groups have been accused of engaging in drug trafficking and terrorism. All of the parties engaged in the conflict have been criticized for numerous human rights violations.

According to a study by Colombia’s National Centre for Historical Memory, 220,000 people have died in the conflict between 1958 and 2013, most of them civilians (177,307 civilians and 40,787 fighters) and more than five million civilians were forced from their homes between, generating the world’s second largest population of internally displaced persons. Seventeen percent of the population has been a direct victim of the war. 2.3 million children have been displaced from their homes, and 45,000 children killed, according to national figures cited by Unicef.”

The drug “lords” have been portrayed in recent Netflix series like Drug Lords and Narcos.  I intend to watch to see if they are glorified, and what mention is made of the US demand for cocaine which drove their business.

Michael recounted how his grandmother, as a child, had hidden in a trunk while her parents were murdered by some faction or other in the war.  He teared up.  He described in detail an incident in which he clearly felt his life, and the lives of his fellow activists, were in danger.  Again, he got emotional and wiped away tears.

 

“You’re traumatized,” I exclaimed, and gave him a gentle hug.  “You’ve got to get help and take care of yourself.  Traumatized people do risky things.”

 

“You’re different from most tourists,” he said.  “You’ve heard about the war and you know about the disappearances.”

I told him I work for a torture rehabilitation center and gave him my card.  Lynn mentioned she works for Oxfam, but he had never heard of it, despite it being one of the largest NGOs in the world.

This was when Lynn and I decided to friend him on Facebook.  He is surely being monitored by adversaries, and if they see he’s got XX “friends” in other countries it could be protective.  I don’t know.  I felt powerless.

Next was a memorial to Jorge Gaitán, believed to have been assassinated by the CIA in broad daylight on a crowded street.

Walking in Bogota

Our itinerary said we would have a private city tour “after breakfast.”  What did that mean, and how were we supposed to locate our guide, or vice versa?  Breakfast at the hotel was from 7-10am, so Lynn and I had a leisurely couple cups of coffee and caught up on life events since we’d seen each other in Scotland.

The standard breakfast in all four places we stayed in Colombia included: eggs however we wanted them, arepas or toast, juice, fruit, and coffee. Arepas are little round flat breads—slightly chewy inside and slightly crispy outside—made of ground maize (corn).  They’re standard fare in Colombia and Venezuela.  The fruit selection usually included fresh papaya, pineapple, melon and, at the first hotel, ground cherries.

It got to be 9:30 and there was no sign of a guide so we moved toward the lobby to figure out Plan B.  And there he was, waiting for us.

“I expected you at 9:00,” he said.  We explained the itinerary had been nonspecific.  It wasn’t a big deal, and we were soon on our way.

Michael was wearing bicycle gloves and carrying a bike helmet.  This was our introduction to how integral bike culture is in Colombia’s cities. Bogota, for instance, shuts down its main streets every Sunday for people to cycle from 7am to 2pm.  Since the next day was Sunday, we witnessed this as we were being driven to the airport.  There were thousands of people out bicycling—young and old, families and groups of teens.  Some stopped to chat or picnic on the grassy medians, but mostly they were peddling.

“Maybe that’s why you don’t see many fat people here,” I commented to our driver.  I said “fat” rather than “overweight” because I wasn’t sure how much English he understood.  He laughed and replied, in Spanish, that all the gorditos—fat people—lived on the coast, where it was too hot to exercise and they ate lots of fried food.

“I’m a student, a biker, and an activist,” Michael told us by way of introduction.  He appeared to be in his early 20s.  His English was great and very, very fast.  As he led us down the street it became clear he was an activist first and probably a biker second and student third.

Bogota, Medellin, and Cartagena are home to impressive collections of public art.  Some is government-sponsored, but much of it is in the form of murals depicting political-socioeconomic themes.

“We don’t consider ourselves Colombian, or Ecuadoran, or Bolivian, or Peruvian,” Michael explained.  “We are indigenous, and we’re trying to make our voices heard but a handful of wealthy families own the country and control everything.

“For instance this is the Pachamama, the mother earth,” he said about this mural.

“That shop over there,” he indicated, “sells all the herbs used by indigenous healers.”

“Lots of tourists are coming now to try Ayahuasca.  It’s said it can cure any problems of the soul or mind or heart.”

“Maybe we could try it this afternoon,” I joked.

He didn’t think that was funny, and Lynn had wisely not joked along with me.

“It’s a medicine meant to be used only by shamans for spiritual purposes” Michael said, as he hurried us along.

“The Spanish and other Europeans tried to erase the Andean people.  Slowly, we’re coming back.  See that man up there?”

“It’s one sculpture of a man who is not a conqueror.”

“He’s juggling, on a unicycle?” Lynn observed.

“Much of the art is designed to be non-threatening, so it won’t be taken down,” Michael explained.

We entered Bolivar Square.  Simón José Antonio de la Santísima Trinidad de Bolívar y Palacios—or just Simón Bolívar, the liberator of the above-named countries plus Panama.

If this had been Rome or Paris or London, this square would have had tens of thousands of tourists jostling each other for selfies and photo opps.  But this is Colombia, in the early stages of tourism.

We stood in the square for a long while as Michael related the recnet history of double crosses, coups, war, and massacres.  No wonder people prefer to bike instead of attending church in the splendid but empty cathedral.

Work Life Sameness

I wrote a post with this same title three years ago, when I went to Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories for work.  My Palestinian colleague and I met with dozens of activists who told us about the terrible prison conditions, torture taking place therein, and the oppressive regimes (both Israeli and Palestinian) under which they live.

Meanwhile, back in Minnesota, my son was in Moose Lake Prison, from which I had just been ejected because I was wearing a “low-cut blouse.”  This was the worst day of my life in the last three years.

All Omar knew about me was that I was a white, Jewish, middle-aged woman from Minnesota.

“My son is in prison,” I informed him at what seemed like an appropriate time.  I told him about being thrown out.  “I don’t think they know who they’re up against,” I said. “They’re not gonna know what hit them once I get back.”

It turned out to be the other way around. A letter from the Department of Corrections—basically a six-month restraining order—was waiting for me when I returned.  I tried to fight it but the DOC has complete discretion and hides behind the term “Security Issue.”

Yep, I was a big threat.

I think Omar realized I wasn’t some dilettante coming to “save” the Palestinians—what we refer to in the NGO world as just White Women With Scarves.

Part of touring Colombia with a company called Responsible Travel is that you get guides with deep knowledge of socioeconomic and political issues.

So on our first day, in Bogota, Lynn and I got an earful from our guide, Michael Steven Sánchez Navas.  Often I will use pseudonyms for people to protect their privacy, but in Michael’s case I am intentionally using his real name in hopes that transparency with protect him.  Lynn and I have both friended him on Facebook, and it appears he does the same with every tourist he encounters.  Maybe many global sets of eyes on him will put a check on anyone who doesn’t like what he has to say.

More about this later, but for now I’ll just say that this vacation seems like it happened a year ago because I came back to work to find we’ve got three proposals for Iraq due within a month.  Another organization is the lead on all of them, which is great, but it’ll still be a ton of work.  It’s good thing.  But it’s all Iraq, all the time, and all I read and hear about is prisons, torture, rape, and war.

But first, let me back up to something less depressing, the Casa Deco hotel.  As the name implies, it’s a deco-era hotel located in the Candelaria neighborhood of Bogota.  It’s got a lovely lobby with no elevator, but a helpful employee hiked our cases up to the second floor.  It was Lynn’s turn to do a small double take—since in her hemisphere the second floor is the first floor.

I have most of these plants at home, but they are at most 12 inches, not 12 feet, tall.

“The owner is Italian,” said the guy lugging our luggage.  This was by way of explaining why the hotel was full of reproductions of work by Gustav Klimt.  Klimt was Austrian, so this wasn’t really an explanation, but we were tired so we didn’t press.

There was one bed.  The hotel guy quickly folded down and made up the couch, which turned out to be a hide-a-“bed.”  I claimed it, seizing my chance to make up for the times Lynn has sacrificed by taking the bad bed.

I had double checked with our tour agent that there would be two beds.

“Lynn and I are good friends,” I had written, “but not that good.”

Besides, the thrashing around I do to relieve my restless legs would drive Lynn (or anyone) crazy.

And it was bad.  Hard as concrete on one side, lumpy with a big dip on the other.

But so what?  You can get by with little sleep for a couple nights.

The art above the bed was more likely to give me nightmares, if I looked too closely.

Back

There’s a 1969 movie called “If it’s Tuesday, This must be Belgium.”  It features an ensemble of B List actors who play Americans touring nine European countries in 18 days.

Which is kind of how I felt in Colombia.  There were seven flights in nine days, three major cities, and one major jungle misadventure involving a horseback ride over boulders and a Bataan Death March-type hike which led to a case of possible sun stroke.

I kept having these moments where I didn’t know where I was.  Was I in Italy?  Spain? El Salvador? Oh, that’s right—I’m in Medellin—if this is Tuesday I must be in Medellin.  I kept consulting my damp, crinkled print-out of the tour to re-orient myself.

After seeing Israel and Portugal and Cuba on group tours with packed, dawn-to-midnight itineraries, I swore I would never travel that way again.  And those are small countries.  Colombia is twice as big as Texas and has twice as many people.  Colombia is five times bigger than the UK!

The thing is to know what you’re getting into and to set your expectations accordingly.  I knew I would probably not get enough sleep and have to push myself.  I knew I could do this for nine days. I gave myself permission to say “no” to some things that were on the itinerary and not feel guilty or like I had wasted my money by not doing something I’d already paid for.

And you know what?  It was fine.  It was a great way to get an introduction to the country.

Best of all, it was hot and humid.  I didn’t need to use Chapstick or hand lotion once.  The hacking cough I’d had for months went away.  My hair went crazy curly.  I got sun burned.  I know that’s bad, but I don’t care!

And now, back to reality.  My brother picked me up at the airport.  He had my down puffer coat and gloves ready for me in the passenger seat.  I picked up my car at his house; it was splattered with dirty slush from the snow plows.  I stopped to pick up milk for my morning coffee at Super America and laughed at that name.  A bundle of mail was crammed into the mailbox, mostly junk. The house was cold and dark; I felt grateful for central heating as I heard the whoosh of the furnace responding instantly to me cranking up the thermostat. I left the milk on the front porch rather than turn on the empty fridge just yet.

I often come back from trips with goals for things to do/do differently.  After being in a jungle, my return goal is to more than double my plant population—from 17 to 40.  None of my plants had died, which I took as a good sign that I could achieve my goal.

It was midnight.  I had been in transit since catching my ride to the airport in Cartagena at 10:30 that morning.  I leaned against my bedroom doorway and gazed lovingly at my bed.  My bed!  Oh, how I had missed it. Every bed in Colombia had been like sleeping on a wooden plank.  In Medillin, the beds were so creaky I had to wear ear plugs so I wouldn’t wake up every time I rolled over. In the jungle, the mattress was narrow and only inches off the floor.  I kept waking up to pull my arm back from the edge of the mattress.  I had seen giant cockroaches, spiders, and grasshoppers; and geckos, in the bath when I turned the light on.  I assumed they were lurking in the dark under my bed, just waiting to run up my hand.

I thought about unpack but I couldn’t face the smelly, dusty clothes I’d been wearing for nine days.

I did pull out a few special gifts I had bought for my son, the cook.  For instance, this snack that was sold on the street—Big-Bottomed Ants.

I’ll write a lot more about Colombia, but for now, here’s one thing they want you to know:

Goodbye Summer, Hello Spring

My last night in Scotland.  We watched University Challenge, a game show that’s been on the air for eons.  In it, teams of four students from two universities answer questions about chemistry, literature, philosophy, physics, geography, and so on.  It was interesting to me how many students representing British universities were from China, the US, and other countries. I guess it would be the same in the US—half the team members would be from India, Korea, and China.

The presenter read a question: “Ulanbaataar’s famous Sükhbaatar Square features monuments to Genghis Khan, Ögedei Khan, and Kublai Khan in front of the Saaral Ordon. The center of the square features an equestrian statue of what famous leader of Mongolia’s 1921 revolution?”

The kids would huddle, then their representative hit a bell.  “Damdin Sükhbaatar!”

“That is correct!”

I got one question correct in the month I was there, and I was proud of myself.

The next morning at breakfast, Lynn was very quiet.  When she left the room, Richard informed me they had made the decision to have the vet come and help dear old Cosmo make his exit from this world. “So say your good byes now.”

I did, then we were off to the airport. It turned out they changed their minds about the vet, and Cosmo lived another month or so.

I flew to Heathrow and spent one night in a hotel nearby.  My plan had been to go into London one last time before flying out but there wasn’t really enough time.  So I had a horrid curry that tasted and looked like cream of mushroom soup in the hotel restaurant, then went to be early.

My summer: Minneapolis to London, London to Copenhagen, Copenhagen to Amsterdam then Utrecht, Utrecht to Salzburg by train, Salzburg to Frankfurt, Frankfurt to Addis Ababa, Addis to Axum, Axum to Lalibela, Lalibela to Axum, Axum to Shire by truck and on to the refusee camps and back to Shire and then Axum to Addis, Addis to London, a road trip across Cornwall, Dorset, and Devon; a month in Eton and Windsor, London to Aberdeen, a month in Aberdeenshire, Aberdeen to London, London to MSP.

In the six months since returning to Minnesota: I moved, my mom had a stroke, I helped move her, my son moved.  I enjoyed Wisconsin adventures to Milwaukee, Madison, St. Croix Falls, and Garmisch; and I made a jaunt to Washington, DC for work.

Neither of my big proposals got funded but I’ve cranked out at least six more so I am hopeful.  As I write this I am checking my work email for last minute changes before I submit a proposal for our program in Ethiopia.  It really made a difference in preparing it, having visited in person.

I would love to submit it now, because in two hours I will leave for the airport to fly to Colombia for a week of R&R.  I’m flying the first leg to Miami with my friend Roxana.  From there, I will fly to Bogota and she will head for Medellin, where her daughter Gaby is in grad school.  Rox’s friend Ricardo is coming to join her from Lima, Peru. I’ve met him before; he’s good fun.

I will meet a familiar face in Bogota—Lynn. After a couple days there we’ll fly to Medellin, where we’ll meet Roxana and crew.  That will be fun.  We’ll also fly to Cartegena and spend a couple nights in Tayrona, a national park on the coast.

We’re trying something a new—a sort of guided tour for two.  There will be someone to pick us up at the airport and take us to our hotel.  We’ll have guided tours.  All our hotels and internal flights are arranged for us.  But instead of being with a big group, it’ll just be us.

I know, it probably sounds complicated.  But I’ll just put one foot in front of the other, do the next thing required thing, and try to unwind after six months of moving and family crises and winter.

Over the Hills

One of my proposals was due in two days and things had gone seriously off piste. It may be that, because we are essentially a mental health organization, we have a way of working that is consultative in the extreme.  When people edit drafts of proposals they never comment, “This number should be 50.”  Instead they write, “I sort of think this number could be 50, but what does everyone else think?”  And then everyone piles on and adds comments until all the edits look like the Babylonian Talmud.

I often suggest that people jump on Skype and talk to each other and make decisions, but with time differences and poor internet and … well … Skype—the program we love to hate—that’s challenging.

A colleague had offered to incorporate everyone’s comments into the proposal.  I just had to give it a once-over to cut down the length and make sure it was clear and responded to the donor’s intent and requirements.  I was free to go with Lynn on an excursion the next day.

The next day.  An email from my colleague to the whole group, “I’m sick and there’s no way I can do these edits. I’m sorry!  I’m signing off now.”

Shit.  It was on me now.

“Will there be internet at the venue?” I asked Lynn.  She didn’t know; Richard Googled it and the website didn’t say anything about internet.

“But it’s an event venue,” Lynn reasoned.  “It has to have internet.”

“Agreed.  It has to have internet.”

Lynn is on the board of Grampian Women’s Aid, one member of a consortium of Scottish domestic abuse organizations.  The event was a celebration marking their 40 years of providing refuge for survivors and advocating for stronger laws to protect women and children.

It took us an hour to get to there.  Richard had hand-drawn a map for us; I held it and nervously called out the turns.  “Left before this bridge!”  “Right after the abandoned pub!”  We only got slightly lost once, which is amazing for Lynn and me.  Why didn’t we use a GPS?  I don’t recall, but we passed through one of the most wild, empty areas of Scotland.  An old-school GPS wouldn’t have known about the washed-out bridge; a smart phone-based app needs 3G, which was iffy in some areas.

I’m looking at a map of Aberdenshire now, trying to figure out where we were. I love the names but none of them sound familiar: Haugh of Glass.  Glenkindie Towie. Bellabeg Strathdon. Longmorn Fogwatt. We may have been in Cairngorns National Park.  I don’t know.

We passed this creepy gate.  I hope it was a joke.

I can’t recall the name of the venue, but it was lovely.  We met some of the other board members in the café to have lunch before the event, which was redundant because there was so much great food at the event.  More great food!  Here is my lunch.  A fresh fish fest!  I forgot all about my proposal.

But after lunch reality hit and while Lynn and her fellow volunteers were setting up, I tried to get an internet connection.  This was complicated by the fact that my laptop battery has been dead for five years so it has to be plugged in.  I walked around with it and finally got an off-on connection and an electric outlet in a back room.

People think everybody, everywhere, is online.  Well everybody isn’t, and doesn’t.  People in Ethiopia.  People in rural Scotland.  People in Nebraska.  Poor people.  Elderly people.  Me.

But I managed to just focus’til I got ‘er done then got enough of a connection to send it off.

The event was very moving.  About 100 women and men were in attendance, including one of the local lords and a woman politician.  This is artwork by children in refuge.

The most memorable speaker was a woman who had been involved from the start.

The food was fantastic and provided gratis by the caterer.

I felt grateful.  A former battered woman myself, I was now eating strawberry and cream tarts in Scotland to celebrate 40 years of aid to battered women.  There is so much good work being done in this world by so many.