Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Chai and Beer and Dancing

     This is my second time doing this job, ergo you should trust me. I don’t say that out loud to people here; it’s not the sort of statement that inspires confidence. You would not take your child to a pediatrician who had diagnosed one other adolescent, or a mechanic who had successfully repaired a single prior car. Or perhaps you would, but you would expect their services to be heavily discounted, if not free, which is essentially the deal Supia is getting (with the IFP, at least). I’m learning on the job, we’re all learning on the job. Learning is what we do: we’re students.

     None of which excuses us in any way from doing the job as well as humanly possible. I only mention my very limited frame of reference because it is the lens through which I see this project. Like everyone else here, I have nothing except my own personal experiences with which to compare this new undertaking. Encounters, obstacles, personalities, strategies: they are all either “Like It Was In Tanzania” or “Not Like It Was In Tanzania”. My teammates may very well stab me the next time they hear the word Africa; who can blame them? All of this is the grain of salt. Take it and read on.

     People make projects work or fail. Building relationships with those people is a critical part, perhaps the critical part, of development work. I believe this to be even truer when that work is being carried out without the benefit of external resources (read: money). When building a project solely out of goodwill and need, interpersonal relationships are often the glue that holds the whole thing together. This notion can also be problematic, which I will discuss below. But first, the two events that led me to this conclusion.

     First: on Monday I was alone in Supia, and decided to head down to La Playita in the afternoon. When I arrived I found the vereda deserted, with a tenth of the normal complement of soccer players. I asked what was going on, and found out that there was a multi-game tournament taking place between La Playita and San Lorenzo, which is a town in an indigenous reserve, about 7-8 miles from Supia. After waffling for a bit, I decided to damn the expense, and caught a cab out there, rightly guessing that the investment would be repaid in memories.

     I arrived in the middle of the second game. Too many details will make too long a story, so the highlights: the president of the Junta screaming at the referee like a drunken sailor, two mules taking the field and refusing to budge, a missed penalty for San Lorenzo which gave us the win, a dislocated kneecap for one of my favorite women on La Playita’s team, and that same player finishing the freaking game! After the game we all walked down to the plaza to wait for our bus, which showed up 90 minutes later. In between I facilitated a number of “relationship-strengthening workshops”: they bought the first round, I bought the second. Someone convinced the proprietor of the local disco to hit the lights and pump the tunes on a Monday. Someone else did not think El Oso Blanco could dance.

     And that is how I found myself in a town I’d never been to, dancing with a woman I barely knew, while La Playita cheered.

     Things got stranger on the ride home. It was like a Friday-night football game in the US, if the fans, band, and team rode the same bus, which also had a liquor license. They were rather rowdy. The music got a bit loud. One of the female players started dancing in the aisle of a moving bus. She then requested a male dance partner, in the person of your humble narrator. Who was I to refuse? And that is how I found myself dancing with a woman on the middle of a moving bus, while La Playita cheered their faces off. This is relationship-building.

     The second event: yesterday, we sat down with Luzdary, the lovable volcano of a woman who we hope will run this program. She proceeded to needle me about the events of the previous evening, and most everyone in La Playita broke out laughing when they saw me; it sort of felt like we’d all seen each other naked. But that isn’t the point. The point is that near the end of a long and tiring summer, we were finally able to ask her if she would be the boss of this undertaking, and she said yes. We also asked her about recruiting a local retired cop (Samuel) to be a teacher. She laughed. Samuel is her cousin. So that’s not a problem. Oh, and Efren, the taxi driver who takes us to and from La Playita? That’s his brother, and also Luzdary’s cousin. This is relationship-discovering.

     We’d considered Luzdary as a potential project manager since we arrived here. But it was not right to ask her before; she did not know us, and we did not know her. More importantly, we did not know what the program should be, or whether she would be right for it, until we went house-to-house and talked with the community. Similarly, we knew the people who lived in La Playita before this week. But it is only very recently that they have ceased being “at-risk youth” and “vulnerable populations”, and become friends.

     Am I saying that every development worker needs to make a fool of themselves to be accepted? Or that we should only work with people we know and like? Unequivocally: no. In fact, making the project’s success contingent on interpersonal relationships would be an awful idea; the project should outlast any goodwill which we have earned.

     What I am saying is that there is no substitute for mutual understanding. Even in my limited experience I have seen projects fail because development agents acted without comprehending the problem or the people. They did not do the necessary work, and the fact that some of that work often happens over chai or beer or dancing makes it no less important.

     I woke up the morning after my mobile disco with a small hangover and a sheepish grin on my face. As we walked down to La Playita, I had a moment of self-doubt. “Have I”, I asked Tefi, “lost my respect in the community?”
     “Maybe they don’t respect you”, she said. “But now they trust you.” 

     Given the choice, I’ll take it.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Use Well Thy Freedom

Apologies for the long delay. I wrote a post for July 4…but it was garbage, so I did not post it. The highlights:

Woke up on the 4th of July and went for a run. I try to go for a morning run every 7/4. It always makes me happier, and seems to make the day last longer. How better to start one of my favorite days of the year? Went a little farther than I normally do; I tried to make it to the top of the mountain. I’m not sure the mountain has a top, but if it does, I did not get there. I did manage to burn off some nervous energy. This was good. We needed to talk.

Our group has been living and working together for the last 5 weeks…and that’s most of the problem right there. I’m sure one or the other would have been absolutely no problem, but being forced to spend every waking moment with each other had driven us all a bit bonkers. I was stressed out whenever we were NOT at work, others were stressed out whenever we WERE at work, and others were less than thrilled at having their daily rituals lampooned…daily.

In short: jokes are only funny if both people laugh, talking about work in the pool is not always welcome, and spending 18 hours a day with most humans will lead to you wanting them dead. Luckily we were able to resolve our problems non-violently, and could enjoy America Day without all of the frosty cordiality that had been pervading our group for the last week or more.

It was a fun day after that. Qi and I went to watch Colombia’s team lose to Brazil with this wonderful family up in the hills above our town. We ate with them, prayed with them (they’re 7th Day Adventists), and got shown around their sugar-cane farm. I also got a healthy dose of local history, which is always interesting: how the Spanish couldn’t make the locals work, so they brought in slaves. How the indigenous reservations still maintain uneasy relations with the rest of the town. How there are 500 year-old rock carvings of faces in the river. Yeah. Pictures forthcoming.

Got back and shot pool with Javi and Juan P for a few hours, then we hit the town and had a great time at Fuego, the new discoteca in Supia. Danced with a lovely older woman, and then we cleared out when a fight started to break out over a girl. The boys were back in town.

But the greatest part of 4th of July weekend was the 5th of July. Why? It’s complicated. Qi, my lovely companion, was born in China but grew up in Queens. She speaks very good Mandarin and some Cantonese. I mention this, because on our second day in Supia we were shocked to find out that it has a Chinese restaurant. They’re everywhere, apparently. Qi felt slightly awkward about striking up a conversation with the proprietor, with the sole basis being that they were both Chinese. But when she did end up talking with the woman, that woman proved to be a saint. She was overjoyed to talk with Qi, and she invited us over for a big meal on Saturday. And what a meal…one of the best I’ve had in my life. There was soup. There were fried whole snappers. There was Kung Pao chicken. Beef and Broccoli. Delicious sticky rice. A plate full of strawberries. Another covered in melon slices. She just kept on bringing out more plates, to the point that we were laughing in disbelief. For once in my life I forced myself to eat slowly, and savor it. We were there for at least two hours, dining like emperors and enjoying the company of a friend, who used to be a chemistry professor in Medellin, and who had spent time studying in Russia. Among our group, we had every continent pretty well covered. I’ve spent three out of the last five July Fourths outside of America, and there’s a way in which you just appreciate the holiday so much more, and want to share it.

Fast forward to this last weekend. I needed to do some work on my individual project, which involves Colombian welfare programs and attitudes towards them. To do this, I took a bus three hours into the mountains, to a village where two other New School students are living. It was a good old-fashioned bushwhack of a bus ride: dirt roads, wash-outs, huge drops off either side. I loved it. Incredible views.

The town itself was unbelievably beautiful, especially considering how hard it is to get to. The central plaza (every town has one) is built on the slope of the hill, and done so with tremendous elegance. After work was over we spent an hour just relaxing in it, and soaking up the beauty. We were accompanied by a lovely engineer, who was also a stranger to the town, and who wanted to learn English. We traded questions and opinions and useful verbs under the boughs of a beautiful old tree, in the sight of a magisterial old church. It’s an amazing place.

But the work. The women from our project (two from New School, one from the University of Manizales) were nice enough to let me accompany them to a meeting with a number of local women (I was the only hombre present). These local women, seven in all, were community leaders, and represented other women, all of whom are victims of partisan violence within the last 20 years. Mostly (though not always) that means that their husbands were killed by revolutionaries or paramilitaries.

The women are working with vulnerable populations like these, and attempting to help them develop income-generating projects. One of the greatest obstacles is that people here do not talk about their stories. This is a problem, because within groups there can be tremendous unspoken resentment. In a bold (and potentially dangerous) effort to overcome that, our team had them do an exercise in which they wrote down 10 crucial moments from their lives, then placed those on a timeline, and shared their discoveries with the group. We did a sample version of this in our first week in Colombia. People shared experiences in quiet voices. I remember one of my friends bursting into tears during it, and I distinctly remember warning the women running it: you don’t know what is going to come out if you do this. I still thought they should do it, but that they needed to be responsible for anything that happened.

I was somewhat right: things did happen. But our team was perfect in handling it. Here are my notes on what was said (coming from the women, through the translator, and then through my interpretation):

     Woman #1: Was abandoned by her mother at a very young age (maybe in the hospital?). All she wants is to be a better mother to her children, and to give them all the love that she possibly can.

     Woman #2: Her mother died when she was 11. From that day on, she ran the house with five siblings. Then she had children at a young age and ran both houses. She believes that the most important thing in life is to share successes and hardships, as a community.

     Woman #3: She had a difficult childhood. Had her first child @ 16, and had 6 in total. Three of them were taken away by her boyfriend’s family, and today they resent her. One word to describe her life: suffering. But she also said that the only way to get through it is by sharing these stories, and surviving them together.

     Woman #4: Says she is 34, but she feels like she is over 60. “Why do we have to live so quickly?”

Almost every woman that spoke wept during their stories. The experience was clearly painful, but it also seemed cathartic. When the women were asked at the end for their impressions of the activity, they were overwhelmingly positive. One of them said something that I hope I never forget. I'll post again this week, with other, lighter stories from Colombia. But for today, there's this:

     The suffering makes us stronger. The wounds become scars, and the scars become memories. It’s like this: you can be healthy and happy one day, and then suddenly become grieving, sad, and sick. But you can overcome it. You can be happy and whole once more.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Showing the Flag

This past week was notably lacking in continuity, for reasons I shall discuss. As a result, this post will mostly be a mélange of the many strange things that have happened. If you can find a better through-line than strange, feel free to craft your own “Waldron On the Road” narrative. Or just drink every time I use parentheses (enjoy).

Last weekend, the team from Supia journeyed into the hills to visit another team, in the beautiful mountain town of La Merced (or as I took to calling it, The Merced). We were ostensibly there to take part in their yearly fiesta. But after arriving, unpacking our bags, and grabbing some early chorizo, we soon found a higher calling: municipal sports. The mayor of The Merced is a fantastic mayor, I have no doubt. But his abilities as a talent scout are not above reproach. Apparently someone had scheduled a basketball tournament for the fiesta. Which was in La Merced. And in the great tradition of Zen party-planning, La Merced had not put together, per se, a basketball team. So the mayor did what any reasonable mayor would do in Latin America: started walking around the plaza recruiting dudes that were either A. tall, or B. American. I happen to be both, and Javi is one. We were promised food and drink in exchange for our efforts.

I’m not going to go too much further into it. Javi and I had wiped the floor with some Supia teenagers the week before, and were overly confident. We took the floor against some grown-ass men, we were playing for a team that had never practiced together, and we got a firsthand experience of what a piñata feels like. Final score: a lot to a little. Pride situation: deeply bruised. Not much more to say. We went back to the hotel room, showered, and yelled a little. Then I had Javi hit me in the face, and we went out and enjoyed the evening.

I have now survived two Colombian fiestas. Here are some guidelines for the uninitiated: 

#1. When someone offers you a shot of Aguardiente, take it. 
#2. As Rule #1 will come into effect about every ten minutes, DO NOT voluntarily pursue the Aguardiente. You don’t catch the dragon. The dragon catches you. 
#3. Instead, I recommend buying a bottle of Aguardiente and giving it away to strangers, one shot at a time. 
#4. Colombian dancing is mostly for pairs. Colombian men, I’m told, are fairly possessive of their women. You must accept that this limits your options. You can either dance with gringos all night, or accept offers from middle-aged women and/or overweight men. I encourage both, but this is your own aesthetic/moral/spiritual dilemma. 
#5. Whenever you meet someone who you instinctively take a liking to, immediately start treating them as if you have known them forever. You will have more fun, they will have more fun, and Rule #1 will come into effect, sometimes straight from the bottle.
There. You’re ready. Oh, wait. 

#6. Learn how to salsa. Otherwise the middle-aged women and/or overweight men will mercy-dance with you for two minutes, then offer to put you down.

There. Now you’re ready.

After your first night of fiesta-ing till all hours of the morn, you know what you’ll be most excited to do in the world? Fly. Sure, you may question your judgment when you’re standing at the edge of a cliff, staring at the valley floor below. You may doubt your own wisdom when the paragliding operator says that he’s too heavy to fly you, and they go off in search of a svelter pilot. And you may have profound suspicions about your sanity when you and the skinny pilot run off the cliff, drop like a stone, and kick your way through a few banana trees before leveling out and experiencing the majesty of flight. But all that’s worth it. Seriously. It is.

                The second night of the fiesta resembled the first, except for the massive open-handed slap to the face that was Portugal’s last-minute equalizer against the US. If you watched the match, you felt what I felt. I went through the classic stages: Denial, Bargaining, Depression, Anger, and Acceptance. In many, many ways, I cannot wait for this World Cup to be over. My nerves simply cannot take much more.

We returned to our valley town, which was now in the midst of its own fiesta preparations. A phenomenal meeting with the Red Cross was followed by a spectacular downpour. This washed out our afternoon meeting, and allowed us to devote some more time to my beloved Estefania (Tefi), who was suddenly in rather agonizing pain. That evening she spent five hours in the Emergency Room, three of those with the entire team sitting in the waiting room, hoping that A. She would be okay (she was, sort of), and B. The waiting room lights would eventually come on (they did).

I want to be very clear: I have heard nothing but wonderful things about the Colombian medical system. Its payment structure, for example, beats our's all to hell, and I’ve been told the care is thorough and professional, without the over-dependence on surgery found in other parts of the world. That being said, Tefi spent five hours in an ER, and was diagnosed with an infection. Two days later, in another hospital, they realized it was an inflamed appendix, and pulled it. I don’t really like to think about what might have happened between those two visits. The poor lady is out of action for 10-15 days, and we miss the hell out of her. Upon being told of her condition, Don Jesus, who runs our hotel, responded, “but she’ll miss the fiesta!”

And what a fiesta it was. La Merced is a town of 6,000 and hard to reach. Supia is 20,000, and easily accessible from two major cities. Our plaza has been packed to the brim for 4 days. The liquor distributors are tapped dry. I saw salsa dancers do things with their hips that are illegal in the Bible Belt, and I don’t even want to talk about what it takes to win Miss Supia. Wife, wherever you are: 1. I love you, and 2. any potential daughter of ours is never entering a Colombian beauty contest. Too much skin. Too much shaking. Too much silicone. I would never watch such a thing (and couldn’t, because we ordered our food before it came on Supia TV, and by the time we’d wolfed it down and sprinted to the plaza, the contest was over).

It’s a little hard to express just how much of an all-consuming event fiesta are here. But we did manage to get in a day of my favorite kind of development work, what I used to call “showing the flag”. Basically, you step outside your door, go to where the people are, and see what happens. We went down to La Playita early one Friday. We were fed twice, played at least two games of soccer, a lot of Frisbee, talked with a dozen people, planned a meeting, and went swimming in a river. It was my favorite day since we arrived here, and confirms something that I’ve always believed: absolutely nothing bad can happen if you spend more time with the people you’re trying to serve. Except at the end, when you get to break off another chunk of your heart and leave it behind. Because doing the job right has its own cost. 

Too soon for such talk. Miles to go before we sleep. Stay tuned.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Monday Night Football

I took a nap around 4pm. The game was at 6. Woke up at 4:30, the room hot and dark. I had that electric calm, the kind I imagine boxers get before a fight. Shaved close and careful to a soundtrack of slow, heavy beats, taking all of it too seriously and loving it. Pulled on my favorite jersey: red and white hoops, The Fighting Waldos. Game day had arrived.
Roused my compañero Javi, and while he got his facial hair and jersey situation in order, I kept the beats going while shooting hoops at our hotel. I was nervous, and it was the worst kind of nervousness, where you know that your emotions are about to be played and there’s nothing you can do but take it. I don’t feel this way too often anymore, but that’s the genius of the World Cup: four years is just long enough that the pain is forgotten but the desire undiminished. Hope springs eternal, and that’s what kills you.
Javi is ready to watch. I’m ready to watch. But is the game on? Of course not. Colombians like to pretend that the US doesn’t play soccer, which willfully ignores the last time that the two countries competed in a World Cup: USA 2, Colombia 1.  However since a player was killed shortly afterwards, I don’t bring it up. The point is, Colombian cable companies have no incentive to broadcast USA-Ghana. We need a bar with DirectTV. And we find one. But we’re the only sorry souls looking for a piece of this action, and it’s going to cost the barkeep good money to order the game. We’ll buy beers, we say. He shakes his head, and proposes an unusual bargain: he will purchase the game if, and only if, we buy at least a half bottle of Aguardiente. Just so we’re all on the same page, Aguardiente is licorice-flavored Colombian firewater. Not entirely my idea of a good time. But he had us over the barrel, so we exchanged 30,000 pesos for two Dixie cups, a half-liter of local hooch, and two seats near the TV. Game time.
Most of you know what happened next. Deuce (Clint Dempsey) went through a Ghanaian defender like a wet paper bag, and the US was up 1-0 before a minute was through. It was, as the British say, a bit dodgy from there. Ghana had all of the ball and all of the pressure, and we just sat back and took it. When Jozy Altidore blew a tire in the 17th minute, I suspected we were in trouble. When we finally reached halftime, I had just witnessed 45 minutes of the worst soccer America has played in a while…and we were winning. But this would not do. The Yanks were dropping like flies, the Ghanaians had what appeared to be a warlock among their supporters, and the Aguardiente was going to my head too quickly. We needed American counter-magic. I ran to the nearest grocery store and found some: Oreos. We had no choice; Javi and I were forced to demolish the entire pack in the second half. For America.
Not much changed after half time, until everything did. It was like watching a game of tennis, with the USA as the wall. And then, with a twinkle-toed back heel and a mighty lash, Ghana tied it up. I hit Javi. He hit the table. Despair threatened. And yet…still time. The USA awoke, nudged its way forward. A corner, won cheaply. A perfect ball. A Germerican head to meet it.
People looked at us from the park, stuck their heads in to see if the gringos were carving each other up. Perhaps they expected a cockfight or some gunplay. What they saw were two Americans, dressed in equally ridiculous jerseys, hugging each other, jumping up and down, and screaming into the night. A win. Is a win. Is a win.
We celebrated like Yankees should: found the only BBQ joint in town, ordered a pig slathered in sauce. Had a beer, shook our heads, still in disbelief. Started walking home, encountered three tiny youths playing a game of street soccer. I mostly played the enforcer to Javi’s playmaker, but I have not had that much fun chasing and flicking and juggling a soccer ball since I was wearing a bright blue shirt with a soccer ball on it, lo these many years (Wallenpaupack youth soccer reference). We made it home, stayed up till all hours, were shushed twice, and fell asleep with grins on our faces.
I know I should have a more complicated relationship with the World Cup. John Oliver’s rant against FIFA was spot-on. These sporting mega-events (World Cups, Olympics) are devastatingly costly for the host countries, with only fractions of the promised benefits. Over 60% of Brazilians are opposed to the World Cup, according to a Pew poll. The new stadiums in Manaus and Brasilia are white elephants, with no clear future use. Promised infrastructure upgrades never came. FIFA just spent $27M on a film about itself, while thousands of Nepalese and Pakistani workers are dying in Qatar to build more white elephants. I know all of these horrible things, and I’m disgusted by both FIFA and the host countries which kowtow to its demands. And yet…
…and yet, my squad is my squad. I can deplore world inequality, and wish that the passion for soccer in Honduras and Ghana and Tanzania was met with commensurate resources. I can applaud Costa Rica as they knock off Italy, a country with vastly greater resources dedicated to kicking a ball around a field. I can do all of those things and STILL shout my head off for America when it takes the field. There’s some cognitive dissonance involved, to be sure; more and more of it every year as immigration and globalization transform the notion of a “national” team. But I’ve spent enough time outside the country to realize how fundamentally American I am. I can root for competitors who share my norms and values and language, while still wishing that the competition did more good and less harm.
Two stories, then I’ll shut up: I watched the first Colombia match in Supia’s central plaza. We watched the second one at our hotel, mostly because we couldn’t handle the air horns going off next to our ears. It was a good decision: for the second match the supports apparently brought a cannon. When Colombia qualified, the fans spent all day driving up and down the streets, waving flags, singing, fiercely proud of Los Cafeteros. For every goal they were out of their chairs, hugging, dancing, and spraying fake snow. The same people, when asked, have given me a litany of complaints about their government and their society. But when it’s game time, they root for the guys who are from where they’re from.
Second story. On June 23, ten days after reporting for Peace Corps, I was basically thrown out of a moving van. In front of me was a mud-brick house with a decaying Acura in front. I spoke maybe 20 words of Swahili. My homestay father knew less English. But luckily, he had a football poster up, and when he saw I liked it, he said we would watch some that night. As we walked to the game, I was quite literally overwhelmed: red dirt, mud houses, stars stars stars, a strange new world. We arrived late, maybe ten minutes left. The village had one TV and a generator. We men sat on the floor and watched the play flow back and forth. 80th minute when we arrived. USA vs. Algeria, 0-0. A win meant everything, a tie meant going home.

I’ll never forget that night, as long as I live. It was utterly dark. We sipped coffee afterwards while old men told old stories and I looked at the sky. I don’t believe that I’ll ever feel that far away from home again, and writing that makes me both glad and very sad. I wouldn’t have come home early if the USA had drawn the match and left the World Cup. I wouldn’t have been a single mile farther away from my life and my wife. But it mattered. When Donovan crashed that goal into the back of the net, and I started yelling and the Africans started cursing, it mattered to me, in a way that sports rarely does. I forgot, for a moment, that this was all wrong and I didn’t belong. I know it’s ridiculous; I know that Seinfeld was right and we’re just rooting for laundry. But we all get to choose absurdities to care about, and mine paid me back one lonely night in Africa. For that, for ever, I will say: Go Go Go, USA. 

Friday, June 13, 2014

Old Dogs, Little Beaches

     Big world, small world: we played basketball our second night here with a group of kids, about 12-14. They were talking a fair amount of smack, so I didn’t feel quite so bad about using my height/weight advantage. We mostly had our way. By “we”, I mean myself, Javi (from New School), and Juan Pablo (from a university here in Colombia). We have given Juan Pablo the nickname “LeBronzado” (which kind of means “the bronzed”), both because of his burgeoning basketball skills and because of his rich and darkening tan. During the course of this game, Javi crossed up some poor little sparky and finished nicely at the rim. As we were running back on D, I yelled out: “Finish Him! Fatality!” I simply meant to express my appreciation for Javi’s ruthlessness. What I did not expect was for our three adolescent opponents to start laughing and yelling out, “Mortal Kombat! Mortal Kombat!”. Big world, small world.

     Small world, big world: we walked down to the community in which we will be working: La Playita (the little beach). On our way, we passed all manner of sophistication: restaurants, gated houses, street lights on in the middle of the day. We saw soccer stadiums and fancy gazebos, outdoor grills and swimming pools. Most importantly, we saw a water slide. The town is up and it is coming. But eventually we reached the sign for our little neighborhood, turned off of the road, and stepped back 40 years. The houses were crumbling, the roads were unpaved. Trash was lying around, and the dogs were numerous, though thankfully friendly. Our contact was a woman who I feel like I’ve met before: the kind who won’t shut up at a PTA meeting until she gets the funding, the type who ran village meetings in Africa with an unteachable mixture of efficiency and beneficence. She’s a rockstar on a smaller stage, with a greater need.
     The neighborhood we are working in is marginalized, both physically and economically. The specifics are still a little hazy, but it appears that these people were uprooted during the violence of the 1980’s and 90’s in Colombia. This crime has never been effectively redressed; they remain displaced within their own country. The effects are still evident: high dropout rates, drug use, and underage pregnancy. Without jobs or immediate prospects, many of the unemployed youth have nothing better to do. Teenage pregnancies derail promising students, and the cycle repeats. The neighborhood Council wants to improve things, but they don’t invite the youth to meetings. None of us is sure what the youth think. We’re not even entirely sure how to ask. 
     What does unite the community is football. It is everywhere, all the time. Our community contact told us that she was thankful that her 21 year-old son had only one addiction: el juego bonito (the beautiful game). We got to watch the women’s team practice, and they could all dribble the pants off me. But as we’re learning from Brazil and Qatar, football alone does not feed anyone. What it can do is unite people in a collective enterprise: a team. And while this community is used to having teams that compete for trophies and championships, we are planning to use the team model to implement a life-skills education plan with an emphasis on sexual education, substance abuse, and decision-making.

     This town has resources. Our walk to the fringes made that abundantly clear. Our job is to connect this neglected barrio with those resources, and to work with all involved parties to create a plan that will endure over the medium-term (the  next 9 months or so), and might be replicable in the rest of the town. How exactly we do that is the question that we’re spending two months answering.

     But back to the inconsequential: this town has public-square Zumba classes! And a regular old subscription-paid gym! I’m doing more American things here than I did in America: playing basketball regularly, pumping iron, and watching attractive mothers dance around in tight pants. There’s a degree of cultural homogeneity (some might say imperialism) that I wasn’t quite expecting. There’s a Chinese restaurant around the block from my hotel. The mall I went to in Manizales had at least four different Abercrombie-esque stores with the word “America” somewhere in the title. My friend Juan Pablo and I were talking about energy the other day, and I was telling him how there are growing links between fracking and seismic activity. He didn’t quite get it. We’re causing earthquakes to keep energy prices low, I said. “America…too much power”, was his reply. Probably right.

     Yet that’s a poor place to end a blog for a happy week. This morning I got up early, even though we had nowhere to be. Read “The Poisonwood Bible” (also very much about cultural/religious imperialism) for a bit, just lying in a hammock. I could get used to this. The hammocks are somewhat secluded, which means I got to watch people come and go, to and fro. Favorite part of the morning: there’s this old German shepherd here, named Toby. I call him Viejo (old man). He’s massive, but slow-moving, and generally just changes his nap spot throughout the day. We get along splendidly, but I’ve never seen him show much enthusiasm. Until this morning, when Jesus (the hotel owner), was walking across the property. Suddenly, Viejo was young again. His tail was wagging, and he was bounding around his man like the happy little puppy he once was. They crossed the yard, like they probably have done a thousand times, and when Viejo’s excited circling finally brought him close enough, Jesus rubbed his head and scratched behind his ears. They kept on walking, out of my sight.

     I like to make fun of dog people, because they are quite often ridiculous. But I’d be a damn liar if I said, in that moment, that I did not want a dog like that, who was that excited to see me and go outside with me and be scratched behind the ears by me. Caring for pets is a luxury; in Africa the village boys were far more likely to hit a dog than pet it. There’s no bigger message here. I just love to watch a happy dog run. Reminds me of me.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Llamas and Mamas

Found a hostel on the internet. I suppose some intrepid criminal could have just made a list of Top 10 Hostels in Medellin. Safe this time. Cameron and I walked into the hostel, and were greeted by the sound of someone just wailing on a karaoke track. Friday night apparently equals karaoke. We were informed that the two beds we booked are no longer available. We had been upgraded. Upon being shown the new digs, we immediately noticed two things: 1. that there was only one bed, and 2. that one wall of the room was covered in a mural, featuring a particularly angry llama and a pair of devilish looking ragamuffins with precious few teeth. We said some prayers to these witchy children that our significant others would be understanding, and set off to find some food.

After dinner, we returned to a hostel which was still rocking karaoke. Acknowledging that no self-respecting traveler would decline karaoke on his/her first night in a new country, we belted out a decent "Tiny Dancer". But then the magic started. I've gotten to know Cameron fairly well. We were in Peace Corps Tanzania together, we went vacations in the same group, and now we go to the same graduate school. So when she picked up the mic, turned on "Shoop", and became both Salt AND Pepa before my eyes...I had a feeling this was going to be a very good trip. I did my best Vanilla Ice impression, straight to the point, no fakin, killed some MCs like a pound of bacon...and went to bed.

The last week since we arrived has been spent in Manizales, which is just like any city of 400,000 people, if it was then pulled up on all the corners and made to look like every house was about to slide into the middle. It's a beautiful, old city in the Colombian Andes, and is essentially the heart of the coffee-growing region. The mountains are formidable, and were a delightful challenge to run up. We got to take a trip one day to the world's leading coffee research center, CENICAFE. On our way there, as we were driving through lush, green mountains covered in coffee, I had an experience wish I imagine is analogous to a heroin addict driving through a poppy field. So this is where my fix comes from...

The rest of the first week was wonderful. We did a lot of team-building exercises, planned out our 9 weeks in general and the next few in particular, watched a lot of soccer friendlies, and ran. But at night, in our hostel, we had a few bottles of wine, and we simply laughed. Laughed until we cried. There's a simple kind of magic that belonging can bring in a foreign land. For all we want to fit in here and do our work, for all that we might not willingly form such a group in America, in the middle of Colombia we were grateful for what we understood about each other, and that was more than enough.

What else? I spent several nights eating and drinking in the living room/restaurant of a lovely burlesque-esque mama named Monita, who kissed me lustily on my cheeks (and may have copped a feel). After a Colombian soccer victory, we were treated to shots of Aguardiente, which is like licorice mixed with unleaded. Actually not too bad. I was asked for my opinions on the media, politics, and Henry Kissinger, and my response in broken Spanish was apparently hilarious. I ate too much food. I read too much about the World Cup. I missed my wife and my family. The usual.

But now I have arrived in the beautiful town of Supia, which is beautiful, and a town, and hellishly hot. I have acquired a hat which makes me look like a Colombian cowboy. I'm basically living in a tree fort with two guys who have metal-pumping on their minds. This will make me or break me. We're about to meet with the mayor, present our plan for the summer, and get down to work.

What is our plan? We're working with a small community just outside of Supia proper. Students from The New School started working there last year, and we are trying to implement a sports-based mentoring program for vulnerable youth. Since the decline of the coffee economy, youth unemployment, teenage pregnancy, and drugs have become more severe (similar to many parts of the world). But this community, like many others, contains a world of resources, and our job is to put some of those resources together in unexpected and effective ways, so that these kids can have a fairer shot. That's the big picture. The details are still coming.

In the meantime, my Spanish is broken, I can't make dirty jokes again, and I have both a hat AND a sunburn. I'm somewhere else in the world, and it is once again beautiful.