Category Archives: International Development

Waterworld, What a World

I’m not sure why we were driven five hours from Tayrona to Cartagena, but Lynn and I agreed it was important that we did because it showed us sides of Colombia we wouldn’t otherwise have seen.

We drove south along the coast past more beautiful beaches.  If we had flown from Santa Marta to Cartagena we might have been left with the impression that all of Colombia was unspoiled.

But soon we were driving over a very long causeway with what I can only describe as water-logged slums on either side. I found some photos of the place, Tasajeras, online.

This area stretched along a couple of miles.  Our driver said something about the residents being dependent on tankers for clean water.  Ironic, given that they were surrounded by water, but it made sense.  There were no signs that the houses had indoor plumbing.

And here we were, sitting in air-conditioned comfort behind tinted glass, our suitcase contents probably more valuable than the entire contents of one of these homes.  In dollar terms, anyway.

Everywhere I go, I am very conscious of being a one percenter.  I’m not a one percenter in the US, but I imagine that, compared with the population of the planet, my net worth is higher than 99% of the rest of my fellow humans.  At home, I am probably solidly in the middle, which is fine with me.

As I’ve written before, I started my adult life at 17 by getting pregnant, going on welfare, and moving into subsidized housing.  I’ve worked hard to get where I am, but I know firsthand that the vast majority of people in the world can never get ahead no matter how hard they work because they have no social safety net to support them until they get traction.  And the US is heading backward in that direction.

So I have donations to certain causes automatically deducted from my bank account (HIAS is one of my favorites).  I volunteer to do some small part in fighting mass incarceration in the US, and I work for a nonprofit that supports people who have been affected by war trauma.

Lately I have been trying to buy less plastic.  It’s so hard. Everything is packaged in plastic.  I got an Amazon order last week where the item came inside a small plastic tub, wrapped in a plastic bag, mailed in a giant bubble-wrap plastic envelope.  It made me feel sick.  I set the envelope aside and meant to write to Amazon to complain, but I never did.  Now, recalling all the plastic and other waste choking this watery community in Colombia, I wish I had made the effort.

When I travel I tell myself I am supporting the local economy.  Is this true? Would it be better if I stayed home, reduced my carbon footprint, and send a check for the amount of the tour to some Colombian charity?  I don’t know.

We drove through Barranquilla, a city of over a million. I’m sure there are many very nice areas of Barranquilla, but this was pretty much what we saw for 20 minutes as we passed the outskirts.

“Shakira,” said the driver out of the blue, pointing to the city.  Apparently the hip-shaking pop singer is from here.

We drove through a nice residential area down a wide boulevard with signs that announced “Free Wireless,” and just for kicks I tried to connect but we moved on too quickly.  That’s great that they’re making internet available in public parks, I guess.

We stopped at a light and two young men started washing the windshield.

“Venezuelans,” said our driver, as he rolled down his window and gave them some money.  “I don’t need my windshield cleaned but they have no other way to earn money,” he explained.

So a few of my tourist dollars did trickle down.

Two more hours.  The driver’s phone rang and he handed it to me.  It was someone from Responsible Travel.

“We have changed your hotel to a much nicer hotel,” she informed me.

Um, okay?  Who knows what happened and it doesn’t matter.  I was just ready to get to a hotel, any hotel.

See How I Resisted a Horse Pun?

I hadn’t been on a horse since I was eight years old, at Campfire Camp, where we had probably received two hours of lessons before we even mounted.

The walk into Tayrona National Park had been billed as one hour by foot.  How long it would take on horses was anyone’s guess, but it would have been impossible to bring our suitcases if we had walked.

As I lurched up and down and back and forth on my horse, I tried to recall those horse riding lessons as Lynn screamed behind me.  Not to get too graphic, but I had to firmly lay my left arm across my bosom to prevent giving myself two black eyes as the horse pitched up and down. God help any woman with double DDs.

“Let me down this moment!  Stop hitting the horse, you awful man!” Lynn kept repeating.

Hie, hie!” was his response, as he urged one horse, then another, onward.  I’m sure he was as eager as we were for this to be over.

I was a terrible friend.  I started to laugh.  I tried to do it silently, but thought it a good idea to yell back to Lynn, “This is the craziest ride I’ve ever been on!” so she would think I was laughing at the situation, not her.  I haven’t laughed that hard since Lynn ran over the boulder in Cornwall.

“Stop right now—I demand you stop this horse right now!” Lynn shouted.

I knew she was terrified.  “Try to stay relaxed,” I yelled over my shoulder as my horse suddenly jerked over to one side going over a hill of bowling ball sized rocks. “Don’t tense up!” I had read somewhere, maybe in Black Beauty when I was 10 years old, that horses can sense you are nervous and will take advantage of it by behaving badly.  It was also advice I’d received in similar situations like a Jeep ride on a potholed road in Jamaica and a boat ride on the squalling sea in Italy—don’t tense up, it’ll make everything worse.

While all this was going on, I kept seeing this scenario: One of my horse’s shoes would slip on a rock, his leg would fly out from under him and break, and I would hurtle onto a boulder or off a cliff.  Then the guide would have to shoot the horse in front of us and I would have to crawl on my elbows the rest of the way with two broken legs.

Several days later, I found a horseshoe on another path.  Ignoring the airline rules about not transporting livestock items, I brought it home.  It’s pretty much as worn and slippery as I assumed they all were.

As I was imagining my future on permanent disability benefits, I also knew my horse had done this hundreds of times.  He was not thrilled about it, because the horrid man had to keep urging him on, but it wasn’t his first time at the rodeo.  Ha ha.

“There’s a bridge!” I cried out to Lynn.  “Bridge” is a very generous description.  The riverlet was only about 15 feet wide but too deep to wade.  Someone had laid rough-hewn planks across it.

Nooo!  I am never going across that … that!” Lynn inarticulated, and instinctively pulled up the reins to stop her horse and somehow got down.  “I am not going across that river.  I am not ….”

Lynn is not a fan of water.  I heard her bargaining with the guide, who had slapped my horse so hard that it galloped headlong across the “bridge,” and on into the jungle.

I don’t know what transpired behind me, but Lynn arrived at the lodgings shortly after me.  We each tipped the guide something and he skedaddled.

Did I mention it was 90F/32C, and 90% humidity?  We were covered in sweat and dust.  Lynn probably did stink at this point but I could no longer smell because my nose was clogged with dust.

“Welcome to Tayrona!” A young man with braces came to greet us.  There should be something called “The Braces Index” to measure countries’ economic development.

Soon we were in our luxury hut, post showers, enjoying cold beers.

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: