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.

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