Monday, October 26, 2009

Protest at Universidad Santiago de Cali

Check out this video to catch a clip of the protest that occurred this past Tuesday.

Más de la Vida Caleña

In the past two weeks I have been both frustrated and overjoyed, disillusioned and inspired. The frustration and disillusionment came when an apartment contract fell through, a protest stopped classes for almost two days, academics failed to reply to my emails, and start dates for one set of English classes were postponed once again. Combined with moving into a new apartment and scrambling to buy beds and other necessities my stress and frustration levels (which generally remain quite low) began to rise just a bit. Luckily, as always, these moments were interspersed with glimpses of hope and finished off altogether by a weekend of natural beauty, rich culture, and new connections which assure me that my purpose persists and achievement of my personal goals lies ahead. These are the moments in life we must focus on, allowing them to propel us once again into the exciting unknown - the future.

Let me start at the end and work back towards the beginning of these past 15 days. Yesterday was bliss. I spent the late morning and early afternoon in a park overlooking the city, lying under the shade of a large tree and concluding my second of three Colombian history texts. the epilogue of Marco Palacio{s analysis of modern Colombian history was full of links between past and present - violence as a tool to determine political outcomes, the limited reach of the state, the ubiquitous nature of black market trade that began long before cocaine, persistent notions of regionalism triumphing over nationalism despite the highly centralized nature of the Colombian state, and the failures in Colombian democracy which work in tandem with political apathy in a vicious cycle. I read history as a lens for understanding the present - and to be reading the history of a place while you are living in it makes it all the more fascinating. After wrapping up my book, I headed to la loma de la cruz to meet a woman named Janet. A tall, thin woman, Janet's orange headdress immediately caught my eye, contrasting beautifully with her dark, black skin. After being introduced with a kiss and a hug, she began to tell me about herself and her organization. Janet was diagnosed as HIV positive twelve years ago and since then has become an activist for poor Colombian women with the virus, representing Colombia in international forums in South America and providing mental and physical support. I was introduced to Janet and her organization, LILA, by a French Teaching Assistant working in Bogotá and spending this past weekend here in Cali. I am incredibly grateful for the connection. Janet is full of ideas - how to raise money, how to raise awareness, how to provide services to this marginalized population. She needs connections in the Global North for funding and wants to start English workshops for the children of the women struggling with HIV. This is how Anais (my French friend) and I are hoping to help her. I am going to check out her organization further soon and hope to start helping her put more of her ideas into action - primarily the English workshops. "These kids are not going to be able to get anywhere if they don't know English," she told me. Private bilingual schools abound for the rich but are inaccessible for those living in areas such as agua blanca such as Janet and the women of LILA. This woman who suffers from a debilitating disease which sends many into depression has even more energy than I do. As we listened to music from the Pacific being performed live at the loma, she danced, swayed, and sand, smiling in every moment, pushing herself forward. Janet is an inspiration.

Moving back one more twenty-four hour block in time, I found myself in the pueblo of Pance with one of my Colombian friends who lives there, Rodrigo, and a group of foreign friends - Mexican, Swiss, French, and a fellow gringo. We hiked along the gorgeous river, creeping up into the mountains, crossing wobbly hanging wooden bridges Indiana Jones style until we arrived at the perfect spot to stop and take a dip into the crystal clear ice-cold mountain water. Quite the lovely Colombian Saturday afternoon. The nature in this place is like no where else I have ever seen.

Friday = house party. After a mere forty-eight hours in our new abode, Servane, Dave, and I thought it would be a good idea to invite some of our friends over for a house-warming bash. We don't yet have any furniture so there was plenty of space and before you knew it, the living room was full of couples dancing away to salsa and merengue. The firsty party in apt. 301 was a definite success.

Thursday classes were back in full swing after the interruption caused by the protest on Tuesday. The highlight of my day was my kid's class. Each Thursday the university entrusts me with about a dozen eight to twelve year olds with the goal of teaching them English. The class is always walking on a tight rope, fun and educational on one side, nightmarish and disorderly on the other. Within the two hours of the class it is almost certain one will fall into both. As we learned Halloween vocab and drew some pictures, I asked each of them what they were going to dress up as - a princess, a witch, a ghost - the usual. And then I got 'a guerilla from the FARC, kidnapping people for candy!' I didn't know how to react. The other students laughed at the comment but I was at the front of the classroom finding it anything but funny. I suppose it is no different then a kid in the United States wanting to be a ghetto gangsta. What it made me realize is that fighting between paras and guerillas is simply a reality these kids are growing up with. It is a fact of life. As their minds are becoming ever-more conscious of their surrounding reality, they are growing up accepting the current situation in their country as the status quo. Shortly following the guerilla comment we took a quick ten minute dance break - my favorite activity to let out some physical energy in the middle of class. I turned on the radio and low and behold High School Musical came blasting through the speakers. Every one of my students knew practically every word - in English! How Disney's High School Musical has become such a world-wide phenomenon I do not attempt to understand. I just smiled, sang along, and jumped up and down with the rest of them.

Wednesday was move-in day, which also meant bed-buying day. One of our Colombian friends took us downtown to find a good deal and help us negotiate, making sure we didn’t get cheated. Previously I had passed through this part of town on the bus, but never gotten off and walked around. I was worlds away from Granada - the 'downtown' of the rich - and yet a mere fifteen minute walk away. The contrasts were striking. Designer boutiques and coffee shops were replaced by black market stores selling everything from flip flops to dinning room tables and street side food vendors selling empanadas, papas rellenas, and some sort of intestines which I kindly passed on. Here, the informal sector which one reads so much about in many articles on Latin American economies, reigned supreme. To buy a bed you went up to an attic filled with mattresses and bartered your price down rather than walking through an air-conditioned mattress store where the prices are marked and fixed. The payment was in cash and the transport provided by a three-wheeled truck. This bipolarity, this inequality, is something that defines almost every major city in Latin America. As I sit on a terrace, sipping my latte, el centro seems worlds away, and yet if I wanted to I could be there in ten minutes flat.

Tuesday morning I was teaching my conversation class, discussing the importance Colombian society places on physical appearance, imported standards of beauty, and the overabundance of plastic surgery available in Cali when the director of the language institute came into the classroom and told us all that we needed to exit campus through the side gate because there was a protest that was turning slightly violent around the main gate of the university. Some fled, quite fearful, others raced away with excitement to witness something that had never happened in the fifty-one year history of the private university. Burning buses and throwing stones are an almost regular occurrence at Univalle, the largest and best public university in Cali. At a private school like the Universidad Santiago de Cali however it is almost unheard of. I have heard various theories about who actually started the protest, but it seems that the policy being protested was the inability of students at the USC to vote for the rector of the university. I am not sure how much success the protesters will have in achieving their stated goal, but they certainly shook things up quite a bit, threw some rocks, and motivated the police to set off tear gas. We'll have to wait and see if anything more comes of it.

I'll stop with the daily replay as I realize it may be getting a bit tedious. The past two weeks have also brought a return to my work with La Fundacion Libertad y Paz as well as the Corporacion Educativa Popular which I am enjoying as well as a little movement of possible academic projects to focus on next semester, but I'll leave that for a later post. As always, I have continued to have the privilege of engaging Colombians in interesting and though provoking conversation on subjects such as racial prejudice and increased security at the possible cost of weakening democratic institutions. I'm sure there will be time to discuss these topics further in the future. For now, I continue my life as a gringo in Cali. It is certainly never dull. A friend told me the other day that I made an excellent ambassador from Gringolandia. I hope that continues to be the case as I continue la vida caleña. I'll be sure to let you know what happens next!

Photos from Nights out on the Town

Photos from Pance

More Photos from Popayán

Photos from Popayán

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

In My New Apt - Finally!

I am finally all set up in my new apartment. It is so great to have my own room, decorated as a like with a nice view of the mountains. I´m quite content. The address is:

Nicholas Cheadle
Calle 3 No. 63-34 Apt. 301 Bloque 5
Pampalinda, Cali, Colombia

I´ll be awaiting your snail mail!

I feel like I have so much to blog about and will make sure to do so soon (as well as getting you all those Popayán pictures I´ve promised you). Hope all are doing well in the meantime!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


Picture it – a bright, multicolored school bus sized vehicle, no doors, no Windows, wooden bench seats, colorful lights flashing, salsa and vallenato blasting, jam-packed with people in every corner, rumbling down an Andean unpaved road. The scenery is a stunningly gorgeous combination of green mountain peaks, trickling waterfalls, and bubbling streams and brooks, the variation in elevation taking your breath away at every turn. I was on that chiva Monday traveling from Aguas Tibias to Popoyán after a lovely long-weekend getaway! Although the majority of the people packed onto that chiva where just getting from point A to point B, for me it was an experience that felt quintessentially Colombian. After the hour and a a half $3.000 peso ride, I was all smiles. In that moment – sitting beside new friends, jiving to the salsa beat as best I could seeing as I barely had room to fit my two legs in front of me side by side, mouth open in awe at the Andean landscape – I knew I was where I was supposed to be. I was in Colombia – this place that a year ago I had just applied to go to, a little nervous and a bit intimidated. Now, I’m here. I’m really here and I love it.

Although the chiva was that moment of brilliance that clicked in my head screaming - ¨this is Colombia!¨, the long weekend vacay included much more. My friends and I spent Sunday wandering through the streets of colonial, white-washed Popoyán. We peeked into churches, popped into museums, and lazed in the tranquil and beautiful central plaza. At night we grooved to some salsa, meringue, bachata, and reggaeton while Monday we headed up into the mountains to wade in natural thermal pools and rush down water slides – all with incredible vistas at over 2.500 meters. All of this, mind you, was accompanied by plenty of obleas, fresh strawberries in cream, candied figs, and delicious guanabana ice cream. I just can´t get away from these Colombian sweets. Now, I´m back to work in Cali caliente, excited to see what the next week might bring. I will also be posting some photos from the weekend soon. Keep an eye out!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Simple Pleasures

The past two weeks have been rather, well, normal - by my new Colombian standards at least. My life here now has a nice rhythm of its own to follow. Tuesday through Friday ticks right along with school activities and classes (although I´m missing my primary and secondary schoolers – school is back in session in a week and I can´t wait). Friday night as my last class gets out at seven, I head to the main plaza on campus to meet up with my friends and the beat chills out a little (not like it was ever too hectic to begin with, not to worry), generally morphing into salsa or merengue before the night is up. Saturdays have been days to hang out in Cali while the last two Sundays I´ve been up at the crack of dawn to head off hiking and getting a breath of fresh air accompanied by mountain views of which I will never tire, all at a nice vallenato pace. Finally Monday arrives, chatting on Skype in the mornings while planning the week’s academic activities and catching up on my reading list in the afternoon with a rather jazzy vibe. Not to say that things aren´t going to change, but it sure is nice to finally have a routine.

I continue to love the hours in my conversation club. We´ve been looking at some North American art and setting up a bit of an art gallery in the classroom with works from the likes of Hopper and Rothko. Many of the students have never been to an art gallery or museum and I´m hoping I might have piqued their interest a bit because there are a couple of modern and contemporary art museums in the city to visit. This upcoming week I´m showing the cute and quirky rom-com Waitress for our recently inaugurated English film club, what I´m hoping will be some nice lighter fare after Trainspotting. I am going to try to organize my clubs for the beginning week around themes from the movie and on Columbus Day and all its implications on Thursday and Friday.

I have added a couple of other teaching ventures to my schedule as well – teaching my new preacher´s wife English a couple hours a week and helping my new gringa friend with her español. It´s been good to get the experience of one-on-one tutoring as well as teaching a language that isn´t my own! Katie, the new American in town, and I have become fast friends. She works for CIAT, an international agricultural development think tank based here in Cali and I´m really interested in her work. All goes well with the amigos colombianos as well. The university has a talent show at the end of the month and although our actual talents are still being worked out, you can be sure we will all be participating.

As far as cultural diversions go, I stopped in to see the biggest Colombian tango show of the year last Wednesday and it was exhilarating. I talked enough about how I feel about Latin dancing in my last post, so let´s just keep it to I loved it and I want to be able to move like those tangueros. I´ve also been hitting up the hiking trails a bit as you can see from the pictures in my last two posts. I hit el cerro de las tres cruces hace ocho días (eight days ago here meaning a week ago. Colombian use 8 days to mean a week and 15 to mean two. Can´t say that wasn´t a little confusing at first), and Kilometro 18 yesterday. Km 18 sits, as its name connotes, 18 kilometers outside of Cali up in the cool breezes of the mountains. The two highlisghts of our day for me were, not too surprisingly, the food and the beautiful fincas with bright blooming flowers and green mountain top views for as far as the eye could see. Sevane, Katie and I went with a Colombian friend Clara and more or less munched our way along out 10 km hike. The fare included arepas de choclo with cheese in the center which is the rough equivalent of fluffy corn break, hot chocolate and coffee with cheese to dip and or melt inside the piping beverage, and a variety of juices from blackberry to lulo. You already know I´m all about the tropical fruits, the hot cocoa with cheese I´m going to have to get used to – but it was certainly interesting and really, can I dislike anything involving chocolate?

Amongst my various reading I have come to the close of my first attempt at Gabriel García Márquez en español. Over the past few weeks I read 12 Pilgrim Stories – a dozen short stories about South American and Caribbean nationals on journeys of various lengths in Europe. Although the occasional tale was light and uplifiting, the majority were quite tragic. Most involved female protagonists meeting their maker or going mad and many had a tinge of Márquez´s famous magical realism where the seemingly incredible happens amidst a story which otherwise strictly adheres to the natural laws of this world. Not to say I didn´t enjoy these more tragic tales, but as I sit here in reflection, the three stories I enjoyed the most dealt with simple pleasures – a man admiring a sleeping beauty on his transatlantic flight, barely exchanging a word but remembering her for the rest of his days – two brothers being raised in landlocked Madrid, far from their seaside Cartagena, turning their parentless apartment into an imaginary underwater getaway – a Brazilian woman living in Barcelona and teaching her dog to find her future gravestone all by itself so it can visit her after she´s gone. These stories capture for me a truth I am living. Some of the simplest things bring me great joy here in Cali – whether that be a one time encounter with a person who gripped me so I will never forget – a fantastic journey in my imagination to a place once traveled or soon to be known – getting to know someone new, coming from an entirely different place and discovering a myriad of commonalities. Every day there is something small to take, appreciate, and be thankful for.

A look to the future shows my last week without volunteering at Fundación Libertad y Paz and the Corporación Educativa Popular while figuring out how to permanently fit in some French classes I´ve started and some weekly yoga I´m going to try out this week with Katie. Next weekend the Fulbright ETA whose working in Cartagena is visiting Cali and on Sunday and Monday (puente!) and then I´m heading down to colonial white-washed Popyán! I´m quite excited about my first visitor to Cali and our long-weekend travels. Can´t wait to get some of you down here for a visit – you know you want to!

Photos from KM 18

1) Scarffing down some arepa de choclo, hot chocolate, agua de panela, and jugo de mora...mmmmm.
2) On the trail with one HUGE leaf...and Katie & Servane.
3 & 4) Some spectacular views from our trek!