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.

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