The children at the Gabriel Garcia Márquez School at first glance look remarkably like well-to-do private school kids in any country. Most are immaculately groomed, the girls’ hair is braided or pulled back, the boys’ is gelled, generally in Mohawk fashion, and they run around in their navy and plaid uniforms. They appear to be well-fed and well taken care of; healthy and happy. The air is filled with laughter. The kids are always smiling and all ages are inquisitive, outgoing, ridiculously polite and genuinely caring and sweet. Camilo, a 7-year-old that I had just met, bought me a bag of juice with his snack money today. The general happiness that the school exudes is juxtaposed by innocent questions or comments that quickly bring to light the extreme circumstances from which these children come.
I was helping to conduct a basic survey today and asked a 6-year-old what his dad did. He replied, “La mató.” (“They killed him,” meaning the paramilitaries, the FARC or the military itself.) Later, a group of 16-year-olds were asking silly questions about the US. “Have you been to Disney World?” “What’s your favorite food to eat there?” “How do you guys dance?” and then… “are there lots of displaced people?” My awkward answer of, “no” was received with wide eyes and disbelief that the situation in Colombia was not common place around the world.
Of course, when you look at the actual surroundings, the classrooms are crowded, the paint is peeling, and there is an almost constant presence of machine gun toting soldiers milling about outside the door to the school or at the least within eyesight. The neighborhood is built up a steep hill with few dirt roads. Most travel is done by walking up steps that are dug into the hillside or just walking up the steep muddy hills themselves. If you don’t live in the neighborhood you don’t walk alone, and even then detours are often taken to avoid “suspicious” groups of men. But, like a dose of poetic justice, the views from the tops of the steep hills are far better than from those that hover above the wealthy Bogotá neighborhood where I live.