Monday, November 30, 2009


After a nice three hours of sleep post-Thanksgiving (I didn´t have that Turkey induced coma to woo me to sleep like most of you all) my friend Saskia picked me up at my apartment and we were off to the airport. By 8 am I had arrived in Quito without really having any idea what was in store for the next three days. I dropped by backpack off at my hostel, shot over to a café with an amazing courtyard and began to plan! Day one – I was going to tackle the historic downtown! Although Cali and Santiago (my two South American homes to date) have very little in common – one thing they do share is a lack of a well-preserved colonial center. Spread out for countless blocks around Quito´s exquisite Plaza Grande lie what must be a dozen churches and just as many museums. When I stepped in La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesus, I had no idea what I was in for. Until that point, I had seen some fairly formidable specimens as far as churches go, but this thing was on a whole other level. Designed in the Baroque style, everything was lined with gold – everywhere you looked. So many street corners, so many wooden doors lead you to incredible sights in Quito´s Old Town.

After my first day in Quito, I was one happy man. That first Friday night at the hostel, I did something I had never done before. I learned how to make hostel-friends solo. This week-long Ecuadorian journey before meeting up with friends in Trujillo, Peru is my first time traveling alone and I have to say that after four days in, I definitely think I like it. You can totally fun your own schedule during the day and then meet back with your hostel buds at night for story swapping, wine sipping, and general merriment. Not saying I would want to do this all the time, but it is certainly a nice change of pace. At my quiteño hostel (with an astonishing view of Old Town Quito from its fifth floor balcony) I met Swedes, Canadians, Aussies, Brits, Frenchmen, and even another North American Gringo – from Illinois! They were incredibly nice people and I am hoping to see at least one of them again as we are planning on being in Bogotá at the same time in January.

The following two days in Quito only furthered my already lofty view of the Ecuadorian capital. I discovered artist Oswaldo Guayasamin through his museum and chapel and become both fascinated and moved. An indigenous Ecuadorian painter from the latter part of the twentieth-century, Guayasamin created rather geometrical figures that express anguish, pain, repression, and misery. Sounds uplifting, right? In his largest project, the chapel of man, Guayasamin created a modernist style building set high over Quito filled with his work and several striking quotes. ¨Yo lloré cuando no tenía zapatos hasta que vi un niño sin pies.¨ That is the quote that stuck with me the most. ¨I cried when I didn´t have shoes until I saw a child without feet.¨ The entire structure and all that is held within it is meant to pay homage, to recognize, the suffering of the indigenous poor not only in Ecuador, but in all of Latin America. Quito is a city which at least by my three-day observation, is majority indigenous. Women often wear traditional clothing and I more than once heard Quechua being spoken on the bus. These are the people I saw nearly everywhere. Only on my one excursion to a wealthy suburb did the look suddenly lighten – it is the same old story, changing I think, but slowly.

Besides becoming a Guayasamin fan, I made a trip to the national museum (where amongst other thoughts, my slight obsession between links in indigenous beliefs and the Catholic Church in Latin America was heavily fueled), a street fair, a couple of fantastic views over the city from perilous church steeples and hilltop parks, and finally of course to plenty of cute and trendy cafés –surpassing those I´m accustomed to in Cali.

¨Did I do anything un-cool in Quito?¨ you might be asking. The answer would have to be yes. On Saturday afternoon, I took an excursion to the equator which was basically seeing a line with a monument on it, being told that it is about 200 meters off the actual equator, and then going to the real deal to balance eggs on nails and watch water swoosh different ways. Wasn´t exactly my idea of an awesome time, but hey, now I can say I´ve been to the equator.

So as not to end on a sour note, I will share my Quito morning ritual – that´s right, if you do something twice you can officially call it a ritual. Both Saturday and Sunday morning, I hoped out of the hotel nice and early, grabbed a newspaper, and went to sit in the main square. Both mornings I had a bench mate and both turned into solid conversation partners. We talked about dollarization, Correa, Colombian-Ecuadorian relations, minimum wage, and just la vida quiteña in general. Starting the day off with the news and a new Ecuadorian amigo always managed to make my day – along with the required café con leche.

Last night I was a little sad to leave Quito, but ready to hit up the next stops. I´m now in Guayaquil, tomorrow heading to Riobamamba, and later down to Cuenca before hitting Peru. I´ll try to keep you updated along the way! Also, pictures should be on the way soon!

Photos from Nariño

So I might of stolen these from Google images...Katie was the photographer this time around, not me.

1)Laguna de la Cocha
2)Laguna Verde
3)Santuario de la Lajas

Thanksgiving & Nariño

I must say that although this Thanksgiving was not the most traditional I´ve spent, it was one that made me truly joyful. As about fifteen of us sat down at the long table on my friend Katie´s terrace and began to pass around the spinach rice, ratatouille, orange-soy chicken (cooked by yours truly), and, yes, jellied cranberry sauce that made up our Thanksgiving meal, I felt incredibly blessed. The evening was full of laughter and story-telling, and as I sat back for a moment, I could do nothing but smile. The people at that table may not have been my blood relatives, but many were becoming part of my newly adopted caleña family.

As I briefly mentioned before, the Sunday to Wednesday prior to Thanksgiving, I made a trip down to the department of Nariño with Katie and her friend Eva. Eva, I must state clearly in writing, is super-cool. After a relaxed Friday night out with Colombian friends and Saturday night rocking one of Cali´s most well-known salsa clubs with some fellow extranjeros, we departed in the wee hours of Sunday morning for Pasto. Although the nearly nine hour bus ride required a near constant grip on my arm rest due to the winding mountain roads, the spectacular views made it all quite worth-while. The Nariño landscape lays thousands of meters high in the Andes, a patchwork of contrasting dark and light greens made up of fields of potatoes and other root crops. The scenery kept me mesmerized for hours. Adding to the natural wonders were two very unique lake excursions – one to Laguna de la Cocha and the other to Laguna Verde. I´m going to let the pictures do most of the talking here. Laguna de la Cocha sits next to a small town that is some sort of Dutch, Nova Scotian, Latin American like mixture. The homes are simple and made of wood but brightly painted and gushing with flowers. Delicious trout, beautiful boat-rides, enlightened conversation – it was quite the day. Laguna Verde rests at almost 4,000 meters of elevation inside the crated of a volcano. The journey wasn´t exactly a walk in the park. We hired a cab to take us most of the way up but we still had to hike six kilometers in a rather upwardly fashion which at altitudes where portable electronic devices can be safely used on airplanes, included a lot of huffing and puffing along with some killer headaches. We had reached the 4,000 meters marker and decided to take a breather. Three steps later our moths were wide open in amazement. Inside the crater of this volcano was a bright turquoise-green lake, lined with a sulfur white coast – all in the middle of nowhere. Quite stunning.

While the natural wonders were the highlights of the trip, experiencing an entirely new Colombia in cultural terms was also quite fascinating. Sitting on the border with Ecuador, Nariño is worlds away from Cali caliente. Ethnically, the people are much more indigenous, they eat cuy (guinea pig) like it’s going out of style and Andean pipe music is the standard fare, although salsa and vallenato are certainly contenders as well. People who intrinsically share more with Northern Ecuadorians still take pride in things Colombian. It is a funny combination that turns out to be neither quintessentially Colombian nor (as I can tell so far) Ecuadorian, but something all of its own.

The one excursion I have failed to mention on our Nariño adventure was our sort of pilgrimage to El Santuario de las Lajas. Set down in a gorge with a waterfall on the opposite side, it is a wonder. The sanctuary is built directly against the cliff which forms the church´s fourth wall. According to the tale, the sanctuary was originally constructed after a mother and her young deaf-mute daughter were passing through the dangerous gorge during a storm and sought refuge in between two large slabs of the cliff. ¨La mestiza me llama¨ stated the daughter. A miracle. ¨La mestiza¨ was understood to be the Virgin Mary in one of the many forms she seems to take throughout Latin America. As one descends the path to reach the sanctuary, the rocky walls are lined with plaques from Colombian and Ecuadorian pilgrims thanking the virgin for miracles and answered prayers. There is certainly a special aura about the whole place and all three of us were very taken with it. After our initial awe had slightly subsided, we began to speak with a priest about the history of the church, possible indigenous-Catholic fusions, and the story of the Angel Rafael and Tobias, which I had never heard before but is apparently in the apocrypha. This shared experience inspired many religious and theological conversations amongst the three of us which I must say I really enjoyed and have extrapolated to my days in Quito as I continue to observe Catholic churches and cathedrals demonstrating a syncretism with Christian belief and indigenous symbolism and understanding.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

Arriving back in Cali yesterday after a spectacular trip to Nariño with two awesome travel buddies, today I will busy not only packing up for my next adventure to Andean Ecuador and Northern Peru, but also cooking up some vittles for Thanksgiving! A fellow American is hosting a dinner at her house and I, along with another friend, am in charge of the chicken. That's right...the chicken. Turkey is a bit hard to come by, but I will be eating poultry and, to my utter delight, even some deliciously nostalgic jellied cranberry sauce thanks to Katie's friend visiting from L.A. who brought some down just for us.

It may be a while before I am able to sit down and recap some of my latest travels, but know that I am seeing some beautiful spots and having the privilege to know exciting new cultures and ways of life. My upcoming trip ends me up in Trujillo where my good friend Julie Breck from Northwestern is spending the year as well as a Peruvian friend, Gabriela Espejo whom I met during my time in Quebec last summer! I'm so looking forward to seeing them.

Wishing you all a blessed Thanksgiving full of family and friends!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Yo No Sé Mañana

This salsa tune has managed to lodge its way into my head and stay there for the past week with no sign of leaving. Give it a listen!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Cardinal Directions

In the past week, I have successfully propelled myself to each extreme this mountain-sided city will allow. From the wealthy high rise apartments on the north side and the grand old haciendas still further north to one of the poorest neighborhoods on Cali´s extreme eastern edge, and the sparkling private universities to the South, I´ve enjoyed unique and memorable experiences. Starting in the North and moving East, South, and finally to the center, I will share with you a bit of what I have had the privilege to discover.

Santa Rita is nestled up towards the Western Cordillera below the poorer neighborhood of Terrón Colorado (where I teach on Wednesdays) and above the Cali zoo. Public buses don´t come here and rent is over twice as much as I pay in my upper-middle class neighborhood of Pampalinda. A new friend I´ve made, half caleña and half Dutch, lives on the fourth floor of one of these high rise apartments and enjoys ever comfort one could imagine plus a stellar rooftop bar and Jacuzzi. Not to bad if I do say so myself. On Saturday, this new friend Saskia was nice enough to take a couple of other friends and I up to her grandfather’s house in Palmira to have a look around some colonial haciendas. Saskia´s grandfather, I would come to find out, was one the mayor of Palmira, this town just north of Cali which today has turned into a sort of distant suburb. Thanks to abuelito, we were allowed access to numerous haciendas, primarily producing sugar cane, which are not open the the public. Saskia´s grandfather had much more pizzazz than you average 84 year old, much as my own grandparents, and was a wealth of information on both the history and agriculture of the department in we live, Valle de Cauca. One of the highlights of our mini-tour was the home where Jorge Isaacs (arguably the second most famous Colombian author after Gabriel Garcia Marquez and a vallecaucano himself) grew up and where his most famous novel, María, takes place. We went to another home with a crumbling yet gorgeous colonial chapel at its side and trees so big it would take four people to wrap their arms around just one of them. I as truly transported back to another time - a time long forgotten in industrial Cali. This was an era of European immigrants overseeing African slaves to produce sugar in one of the most fertile valleys on earth. The photos on the walls of some of the hacienda houses brought me back to a time I have studied much in school, but never come near to experiencing so clearly. Urban colonial centers are one thing, but agriculture and mining, rural activities, were the heart of colonial Latin American economies. It was awesome to be able to experience these places first hand.

Moving ninety degrees clockwise on our compass, we look due East, far from the Western Cordillera to which my neighborhood so tightly clings - 117 blocks away to be precise. This eastern edge of Cali actually contains around half its population. The barrio is called Agua Blanca. When I first arrived I heard vague references to this place somewhere out there, far away where a majority black population lived in poverty. I had heard that it was dangerous. I had heard that things were improving. I didn´t really know anything about it and wasn´t about to just head out and find out for myself. If you´ll recall, nearly a month ago now I met a woman named Yaneth who, diagnosed with HIV twelve years ago, has now started an organization called LILA Mujer to aid women in and around Cali who are suffering from HIV and AIDS, providing physical, mental, and emotional support. Yaneth lives in Agua Blanca and invited me to her daughter’s (after whom her organization is named) birthday party Tuesday evening. With Yaneth by my side, I felt safe enough, and accompanied her on her pre-part errands, shopping for cake and decorations. Being born and raised in this same barrio, Yaneth literally knew every fifth person we passed on the street. Always sure to make me feel safe and protected with her hand on my shoulder and frequent side hugs, I felt a little bit like I was part of the community. Materially, the place was a far cry from my evening in Santa Rita. Besides the principle street, the roads are generally unpaved. The buildings are a mish-mash of concrete, tin roofs, and open square windows. It doesn´t look like much, but it´s what they´ve got. Yaneth, I believe, could now move up and out of Agua Blanca, but she doesn´t want to. She´s not going to. Construction was recently finished on the new LILA Mujer center and it is quite impressive - nice brick, strong black gates, two stories. It remains unfurnished due to financial issues, but her dream is one step closer to becoming reality. Here, women will be able to receive mental and emotional support as well as a place to stay and child care if they are visiting from other cities for medical treatment or a doctor´s visit in Cali. As we turned the corner to catch our first glance of the building, Yaneth´s face was beaming as I have to imagine it always does each and every time she sees it. The evening birthday party was lovely - a dozen of us eating, chatting, feeling like family. I felt so welcomed and at home. As Yaneth and I continue to get to know each other, we are still figuring out how I can best help her organization. One thing I told her I would try to do is raise money. The lack of financial resources is often the most debilitating force against an organization such as hers. The women from the center have made some really nice bracelets which Yaneth would like to try to sell abroad, so that is my first mission - to find her some North American organizations to connect with in this effort. As Yaneth and I discussed, 2 or 3 dollars is not all that much for us, but to LILA, those four-thousand or six-thousand pesos could go a very long way. If you know of an organization that might be interested in selling some bracelets (simple, woven with beads) please let me know and I will give you more details on her organization. Next semester, I am also going to try to set up an English workshop for the women and their children which Yaneth told me they would greatly appreciate. I will be sure to keep you posted with any new developments on this front!

Swooping another ninety degrees from East to South, one encounters the most expensive private universities in Cali. On Friday, I attended the third and final part of a seminar series entitled Lo Local y Lo Global at ICESI where I have been making some academic contacts over the past few months. This specific session of the seminar, by far my favorite, concerned itself with NGO´s and international cooperation´s influence and effects on Colombian human rights and peace. As a gringo in Colombia, this was right up my alley. Hearing both Colombian academics and those working directly in the field weigh in on this topic was very productive for me in terms of gaining a better understanding of how international NGO´s (mainly North American and European) can both positively and negatively affect areas they are trying to help. To hear the frustrations and concerns of those who work for Colombian NGO´s towards their international partners gave me a needed perspective. I also came to a better understanding of how communities, domestic NGO´s, international NGO´s and governments at all levels interact. It was the view of the panelists that for any movement to be successful it must have its roots in the base community, aided by the ideas and funding of NGO´s. One panelist pointed out specific areas in which international NGO´s have pushed their agendas for the good of the community, such as environmental issues and gender equality, but there are other cases where perhaps the international NGO should keep its mouth shut and its pocket book open. there are fine lines with no certain right or wrong, but it was very productive to hear the opinions of those active in the middle of things here in Colombia.

In the center of all this, I have continued teaching and now find myself in my final week. Exams are being proctored and review sessions are full. Somehow, I have come to the end of yet another semester. Great adventures lie ahead with new, exciting places to explore, interesting and intriguing people to meet, and informative and captivating books to keep me thinking and entertained. Hold on tight, it´s going to be a whirlwind of a trip.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Salento & La CEP: Tranquil Getaway & Schooltime Grins

Although only a four hour bus ride, Salento is worlds away from Cali. Salento is small, tranquil, cool, breezy, and relaxed. Gorgeous green mountains catch your eye in every direction, topped by fog and clouds and sprouting with tall wax palms, Colombia’s national tree. This is coffee country. If this incredibly diverse nation with jungle, beaches, snow capped mountains and fertile valleys has a center – it might just be here. Pardon the stereotypical allusion, but this is where Juan Valdez would live almost without a doubt. I spent two lovely days horseback riding, sipping coffee in adorable cafés, window shopping for artisan crafts, eating divine trout, and sharing a few canecas of aguardiente with Oliver and Katie, my fellow foreign travel mates. Paisa country (the land populated by those originally hailing from Medellín and surrounding Antioquia) is renowned for being industrious and hard working. Demographically, the European dominates and there is little trace of the Afro presence that gives Cali and the Pacific its vibrant personality. Tranquillity was the name of the game and that was precisely what I was looking for after a somewhat hectic week in Cali. Our arrival back at the bus terminal in Cali provided the perfect contrast with our previous locale. As we hopped into line to get a taxi on the trash lined sidewalk, a woman was madly yelling vulgarities at a police officer and had to be escorted away. The noise of the city was overwhelming and we all knew we were not in Kansas anymore. We were back home. Despite the grit and the grime, or perhaps because of it, I have learned to call Cali home. Cali is complex. Cali has countless layers. Cali es Cali y el resto es loma no más! I’m learning to understand that phrase more and more. Cali is Cali and the rest is just hills. Cali brings together diverse cultures, music, peoples, and makes them caleño. It is certainly rough around the edges, but something continues to intrigue me and pull me back.

My news from la Corporación Educativa Popular, or El Liceo de la Amistad as it is colloquially referred to, is quite good. I have been working at this private, low-income school Wednesdays from seven in the morning to one or two in the afternoon and now have a fairly good report with many of the students both young and old. I still occasionally have a group of students who don’t know me, but they are rarely too shy to come and introduce themselves. My favorite such episode was when three tenth grade girls approached me a few weeks ago and told me they had a bet going and needed to know who had won. One bet that I was Paisa, one Argentine, and the other a gringo. I found it all quite entertaining and let them continue their guessing aloud for a bit before I spilled (well, really, they had all figured it out after a few minutes of conversation...who am I kidding? My accent isn´t THAT good). In class time, I am usually working with small groups of students, pulling them out of class for an hour and reinforcing concepts already learned while focusing on speaking – almost always the most difficult part of language learning I believe. We do a pretty good job of sticking on topic, but I must admit that my favourite moments are when I just sit and chat with them, leaning about their lives, their interests, their hopes, and their dreams as well as answering their questions about the United States and the world in general. As some of my experiences in Colombia tempt my inner cynicism, these kids keep me believing in my ideals and give me much hope for the future of Cali and Colombia.

It is hard to believe, but this semester is coming to a close. A couple more weeks and then it’s off to the next chapter of Fulbright-Colombia: a good two months of travel and exploration. If all goes to plan, I will be visiting Ecuador, Peru, Los Estados Unidos, Mexico, and various parts of Colombia in the next two months on both personal excursions and official Fulbright journeys. My first three months have been a time to get settles, to realize how difficult it can be to get side projects off the ground and then sustain them, to learn about teaching, and to learn about Cali and Colombia. At times I have felt that things were not moving quickly enough, but I have accepted the fact that I have worked for the best and now have set up several new activities (classes and a research assistantship) to compliment my teaching, volunteering, and travelling come next semester. I have learned a lot about the world in these past few months and know that the learning will only continue, growing exponentially as different wires connect and realizations are made.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

A Short Rumination on Reality

Colombia can be dangerous. Life to many is cheap. As I open myself up more and more to local news media and hear more tragic stories of friends and their families, I find myself no longer able to deny the fact that killing is more common than I had once imagined and often quite illogical. Killing an innocent cab driver to display one´s ¨manhood¨, killing over lovers, killing over ice cream - I feel as if I have heard it all. This isn´t guerrillas and paras we´re talking about, although I´ve certainly heard plenty of stories for which they could be held responsible as well. The people who are commiting these atrocities are just civilians. I generally meander through my surroundings with my rose colored glasses securely afixed atop the bridge of my nose, but it is important, even necessary I would say, to take them off now and again. Colombia is undeniably a country soaked and marinated in a bloody history of violence and extralegal means. This is far from the onl historical legacy and certainly not one that Colombia holds alone, but it is one I find increasingly difficult and dangerous to ignore.

Last week four young guys assaulted and robbed me on the streets of Cali. What seemed like a mere thiry seconds later, I found myself standing in the street, frozen in shock - no more wallet, no more cell phone, no more messenger bag. What remained with me in that moment aside from the clothes on my back was the visual impression of two knives pointed at my stomach and throat, my hands clasped behind my back. The sound of screeching tires finally broke me out of my trance as a car chased the aggressors down a small side street. People came to help me, the police (corrupt as they may be...they practically offered to sell me the marijuana they had confiscated earlier that day) arrived within five minutes, and all was well. I am absolutely fine - so don´t worry about that. After the police arrived, I hopped in their van and we drove through parts of town I know I will never see again - parts of town I have been told time and time again to stay away from. Here, just a few blocks away from the robbery, the cops thought we might find our culprits. The search was unsuccessful, but I did see what I never would have seen otherwise - ¨the hole¨ of downtown. Here, trash is piled to the rooftop and people scattered about in seeming disaray. It truly seemed like something out of a nightmare. I was hard for me to take in - hard for me to believe.

According to the jokes of my friends here, the robbery was my official caleño welcome, but I am taking it more as a wake-up call to be more cautious. It also slightly deflated my naivete in a healthy way. In academic study and daily life alike, I tend to brush the violent, the curel, the difficult aside; however, that only causes more harm. There is almost always good and bad, just and injust, peaceful and violent. We all must work to create in ourselves a balanced worldview that contains each in its appropriate share for if we do not have a tight grasp on reality, how can e ever hope to reform it?

Coming soon - tales from my weekend in coffee country (pictures included) and updates on my work at La Corporación Educative Popular!