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.

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