Monday, October 26, 2009

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!

1 comment:

  1. Nick, thanks for the updates on what you are up to. I enjoy reading about your days and I am constantly amazed at the experience you are having. We can't wait to see you in December!

    -Sonja, Jeff, Annika & Maren