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.

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