6 July 2010

There are some things in the neighborhood that are kept quiet and not shared very openly.  Everyone knows that Cazucá is a destination for the displaced, that it is poverty ridden, not particularly safe and that there is a paramilitary and guerilla presence.  However, while you see poverty and soldiers, as an outsider you do not directly feel the presence of the armed groups.  After being in Cazucá for a little over a month, stories started to arise in casual conversation.  One coworker came back from her vacation early because the guerrilla had threatened her.  The word Para was coming up more in conversation.  And, one of the staff had told me about falsos positivos, a phenomenon which occurs at very high rates in Altos de Cazucá where, prompted by government reward, young innocent men are killed and framed as guerrilla soldiers.  The most interesting part about conversation revolving around these topics is that while generally not mentioned, when they are, they are mentioned in such a way that makes the whole situation seem very common place.  For instance, we were at the upper school the other day talking to the foreman of the construction project aimed at adding a second floor to the school rooms.  It turned out that he was one of the founders of the neighborhood, meaning that he had moved in with others when no one else was living there and as he mentioned, when there were no services to speak of.  He continued to tell about the neighborhood, basing most of the story on the building and remodeling of the school, all of which he participated in.  As he continued, my boss interrupted, telling him that we should make a video and he could show pictures and tell the story of the neighborhood and the school.  He answered that he was totally up for it.  Then added, it would be even easier if the rest of the men that founded Cazucá with him were there, but they had all be murdered.  Smile.  Laugh.  CRAZY.  Just the way things are.  As you’ve been there a bit more, you can also see how life has adapted to the danger in the neighborhood. I am never allowed to walk in the neighborhood by myself, nor are the Colombians that are not from Cazucá.  While Cazucanos can, and do, walk alone, they generally get someone to accompany them.  The interesting thing is that it has become almost a social/cultural thing to accompany people around the neighborhood.  Generally if we are walking up the hill and see someone we know, they just turn right around and walk us wherever we are going.  You have a pleasant conversation; it does not touch on the fact that this is done at all for safety reasons.  This can last anywhere from a 2 minute walk up the hill, to an hour or so.  On several occasions, if we are visiting houses, people will walk with us for a while until we come upon someone else.  Nothing is really said, but the first kisses us goodbye and the second starts tagging along.  I find it to be an incredible social system.  It really is a way for people to talk, share things about their day, socialize, and also assure that everyone is safely getting to their destination.

While making a few house visits one morning in the rain, my coworker started talking about the situation in the neighborhood and I took the opportunity to ask more questions than I had been able to before.  She explained that both the paramilitaries and the guerrilla were in the neighborhood and much of the violence was generally conducted between the two, with civilian casualties as a result.  In addition, the population deals with the pandillas (gangs) that are organized up North, and who take a cut of the members’ earnings in Cazucá.  Apart from the violence and robberies perpetrated by the gangs, the population also has to deal with the paramilitaries killing and attempting to kill gang members, who they see as a social problem.  Along those same lines, the paramilitaries from time to time enact limpieza social, which in essence means that they are  cleaning up the “unwanted” population; drug addicts, drug dealers, homosexuals, homeless, prostitutes, street kids, etc.  The good news is that the violence has become less in the last few years, the worst years being from 1998-2000 (this was added into the conversation unsolicited by me, meaning that those years were likely far worse than those that were to follow and that 2001 brought great changes to the neighborhood).  The bad news is that according to my coworker, the neighborhood is once again becoming more violent and the limpieza social is becoming more frequent.

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2 July 2010

I got sick.  Nothing terrible, but it kept me in bed for a couple of days with a stomach ache.  It hit me at school and I asked my coworkers if someone would take me to get a soda (I can’t walk around Cazucá by myself).  They were outraged; soda, for a stomachache?? Because this was such a ludicrous idea, and something that would likely “make my stomach explode” I actually had to pull out, “I’m 27 years old and I know what makes me feel better.”  After that I was begrudgingly taken to the store to buy a soda, after which I took my hour and a half trip back home, and in case you were wondering, my stomach did not explode.

Of course, the ridiculousness did not end there.  A couple of more days in bed and our housekeeper came.  She informed me that the reason for my sickness was the fried egg she had fed me on Monday morning before I went to work. Now, this would seem to make sense, right?  Except that she didn’t think the egg was bad, she was pretty sure it was because she had given it to me so early and that my system, used to only eating yogurt in the morning, was rejecting it….still…four days later.   After calling her mom and finding out that we had no cinnamon, she squeezed half a lime into a glass and made me drink it.  I just didn’t feel well enough to argue, so took it and surprisingly did not throw up.  She then boiled basil in water and added sugar and handed that to me, assuring me it would fix me right up.  Jeremy, my roommate, came back home a little later, and added dried oregano to some water with honey and assured me that this was a common cure in Ecuador.  Although he continues to assure me he was not just messing with me, the way that Yasmin and he were laughing in the kitchen as I drank it, more to appease them than anything else, leads me to believe that that was not the case.

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The Gringas Arrive!

24 June 2010

After much planning and bracelet making, 15 girls from Wisconsin, along with their exchange counterparts from a high school in Bogotá, showed up in two large buses, complete with police escort.  After running up part of the hill to catch a ride the rest of the way to the upper school, we climbed aboard the buses.  We started with a presentation of the school, emphasizing the role of outside influence and participation which is so integral to the model. Then the kids put on a show.  Two of the graduates of the school are professional hip hop dancers now and they come back once a week to teach break dancing to a bunch of the older boys.  Both groups are pretty amazing!  I was floored by how talented they were, as were all of the girls that came to visit.   We played some games, handed out snack and gave them some time to interact.  This, of course, was interesting as the mingling was occurring between a group that spoke little Spanish and a group that spoke even less English.  People kept running up to me for translation help so they could all get to know each other better!

I talked to some of the American girls, who assured me that this was by far their favorite part of the trip.  I mentioned that I thought that the whole experience was really awesome.  There is definitely a difference between visiting a South American country in a nice neighborhood and taking a bus with a police escort into a notoriously insecure neighborhood to spend the day with kids that are way less fortunate that you are. The whole day was an awesome experience, exemplifying the fact that people from different countries and socio-economic groups can always find something in common and can form bonds with each other. The kids also started the mosaic that we built together.  And, for that, we there will always be a memory of these American girls coming to visit.

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A Chance Encounter

Transmilenio stop

23 June 2010

An older woman got on the bus on my way home from school the other day.  I got up to give her my seat and after she declined, told me that I shouldn’t have to stand and then apologized for the inconvenience, she took my seat.  She then did something, that had I not seen it happen before, I would have 1) had no idea what was happening and 2) been a little nervous.  She extracted my book and jacket from the crook of my arm, took my water bottle and reached with a smile for my backpack.  I, being afraid to offend her in any way (which is a tendency that sometimes gets me into trouble), took my backpack off my shoulder and set it on her lap.  She was actually holding all of my stuff, so that I wouldn’t be bothered with it when I was standing up!

Courtesy, or lack thereof, here is a complicated and wonderful thing.  A stranger on the bus will take care of your things for you, and sentences are laced with cues of respect:  I am called su merced often (a title taken from Spanish colonial rule that translates to something to the likes of your mercifulness), a friend of mine has taken to being called “doctora” even though she is nothing of the sort, all conversations start with Buenos dias/tardes/noches señor/señora and at the slightest inconvenience you are told “que pena para ud.” (literally, what a shame for you).  Not to mention, that people will actually strike up conversations with you on the bus, in a city of around 7 million people. On the other hand, when getting on that bus, despite the irrationality of it and the myriad signs imploring the masses to allow individuals to exit before boarding, every day there is a jam of people shoving, pushing and wedging their way past those exiting.

Transmilenio: These people are actually trying to get off....

You can also be waiting in any line and people will just stand in front of you, like you were never there, or were not actually waiting in line at all, just happened to be contentedly standing in that space.  Regardless of these little pet peeves, Colombia is filled with some of the most genuinely nice people that I’ve ever met.

But, I digress.  When the woman next to the older woman got off the bus I climbed back into my seat and took back all of my belongings and started chatting with the older woman who was interested in where I was from and what I was doing here.   When I told her that I was working in Altos de Cazucá she, like most people when they hear this, concocted an expression that is something like a mixture of surprise and worry.  But, then she started talking about Soacha: A place where people from the North of the city never venture unless it’s necessary for work, filled with poverty, displacement and many problems.  Then the obligatory, “please be very careful there”.  This dialogue I get a lot.  But, then she started to talk about Soacha when she was a girl.  She had been raised in Bogotá and leaving the city, they would pass through miles and miles of farms and finally drive through the small pueblo of Soacha.  Then, displacement started occurring not too long ago and the displaced began flooding the town, generally bringing with them little more than a few pesos.  Houses were erected downtown and up the hills and the area exploded.  That small pueblo, in just a few years, became the 12th largest city in the country.

The houses in Altos de Cazucá climbing up the mountain

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Traveling through Cazucá

20 June, 2010

I finally got to move freely through Cazucá thanks to a lovely member of Shakira’s communications team and his expensive film equipment.  After teaching the kids to make a blog, which should prove to be an amazing way for them to share their story and everyday life with the world, we went about giving a tour to Xavi while he took pictures and filmed interviews.  And, to facilitate this, we had a police escort.  The police were surprisingly attentive, except of course for the brief period when they had to break up a fight and disappeared, or when they just disappeared, leaving Milena (my boss) to fend for us blonde haired, blue eyed gringos (Xavi and I).  We did finally talk our way into a ride in the back of their pickup truck which resembled more a rollercoaster ride than a ride home (yes, I understand that using your breaks while descending a mountain wears them out, but had we known the speed at which we would be travelling straight down the road which seems to have potholes and boulders, but somehow no flat ground, we may have chosen to sit inside the cab).  Regardless, I was grateful.  The views from farther up the hill were the best I’ve ever seen, and we had the most beautiful day!

I got to visit one of the Centros de Interés that two of my favorite girls, Pilar and Jemmy (pronounced Jaime), were hosting that day.  There are 5 Centros de Interés that are located throughout the neighborhood.  They are hosted by kids that are a bit older, Jemmy and Pilar are probably around 13) and cater to the younger population, around 5 to 8.  These sessions are open to anyone, part of the open doors model of the Fundación that I think works so well, so announcements are made over a speaker in the neighborhood and the kids come galloping in.  The centers are really just houses that open their doors for an hour or two so that the kids can play games and learn lessons set up by the educadores. The model that the Fundación follows is dedicated to this theory of multiplication and, in my opinion, is one of its best aspects.  The theory of multiplication (people teaching what they have learned to others) is spread through the model, from child to child (through the Centros de Interés) to parent to parent (through Creciendo en Amor), from graduates of the school to those still attending (through the workshops that are held every week, incorporating art, music, communications and more). It is also very apparent the extent to which this is emphasized in the fact that so many of the graduates are around the school and the casita of the Fundación all the time, helping out, holding classes, etc. View from the Schools Balconey

I also finally made it to one of the huertas, or farms, planted on the roofs of houses with seeds and instruction given by the Fundación.  Walking up the narrow stairs to an open roof filled with crops, I kind of felt as though I were suddenly on the screen of a documentary about urban farming in Detroit.  The crops were pretty amazing, but the 60-ish year old woman growing them was even more so.  The pride in her eyes as she showed us beans, corn, tomatoes, arugula, and a whole bunch of other fruits and vegetables that I had neither seen nor heard of (by their Spanish names at the least), was palpable.  But, nothing like the pride in her eyes when she showed us the gigantic fig tree growing outside her house.  Apparently a horticulturalist had been out a few weeks before and told her that it was the healthiest fig tree he had ever seen, and I can attest to the amazing flavor of the fruit boiled in sugar.  Even Xavi, who looked rather nervous when he figured out that we were going to be fed figs and very politely mentioned that they were not his favorite, went back for seconds when given the opportunity.

During this trip I also had a chance to spend more time with Flor (sister of Pilar, from above) and her mom.  Flor is the daughter of 2 deaf-mutes and one of the more amazing, sweet and intelligent kids at the school (in my opinion).  The way that she and her mom communicate is amazing.  They were taught to sign at some point, but really don’t use it at all.  When I asked them to teach us the alphabet, it took a lot of thinking and discussion.  The two are amazingly connected though, it’s as though they don’t need a formal language.  The mom makes noises and points at her face and at the surrounding area and makes expressions, then points to me, and Flor launches in to explanations of what her mom has said.  The mom and the dad are both fairly good at reading lips, and that is how they receive information, aided by hand gestures and expressions as well.  Xavi interviewed her and said that it was one of the few times while conducting interviews that he had teared up.  The answer was along these lines, “We might not have the biggest house in Bogotá but I love my parents and my family and I am so lucky and happy to have them.”  She then launched into a story of her life goal of starting an animal shelter to help the street animals in Cazucá (the family already has something like 6 cats and 2 dogs).

All in all it was an amazing day.  There is so much to learn from people in Cazucá, but I think the best lesson is well summarized by a sign I once saw in the school that said something to the effect of, “Wealth has nothing to do with money, but instead with your state of happiness.”

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The Country above…

16 June, 2010

In 2005 the city of Soacha, which used to be little more than a pueblo before the influx of displaced persons, became the 12th largest city in Colombia, and it continues to grow.  What’s most shocking about this is that the poorest parts of Soacha, which soar above the raging city into the mountains, although crowded, actually feel like the country.  It is, of course, in part the people, most having been displaced from the country with more formal mannerisms and language filled with cues of respect.  But more than that, the neighborhood, with its lack of cars and height above the city, is actually void of noise, and filled with people walking instead of taking transportation.View up the hill in Altos de Cazucá

I take 4 buses to get to school and it takes me an hour and a half.  I start my 20 minute walk to the transmilenio (a bus system with dedicated lanes that acts more as a subway than anything else).  The air is polluted, the sidewalks are crowded and the streets are filled with honking cars and thunderous trucks.  My trip on the transmilenio is relatively quiet and peaceful, as the rest of the city is headed from the Southern suburbs into the city. I get off on a smoggy highway filled with traffic and catch a small crowded bus to the bottom of the mountain at Cazucá.  From there, I catch a car up the mountain and everything changes.  Cars disappear as we climb because the people are too poor to afford them, the air clears and lush vegetation reappears.  Instead of the sound of traffic and horns, you hear birds chirping, and you find yourself, just a half mile above the busy city, feeling as though you are in the Colombian countryside, complete with goats and chickens roaming the green space. The views from the mountains are also amazing.  Clouds seem to hang on the ceras, creating shadowy shapes and highlighting the impossibly green vegetation.

Chickens roaming above the school in Cazucá

Of course, that is not to say that life is good or easy in Altos de Cazucá.  It is obviously poverty-ridden, there is little access to services and the presence of the armed groups makes for a balancing act with deadly consequences.  And although it is not often that I directly see the omnipresence and power of the armed groups and military, save the military presence in the streets, it was very apparent on this day.  I sat down at lunch with my coworker and bunch of 5-7 year olds who were being served lunch by the older students. As they were passing out plates 5 soldiers walked in took plates of food off the counter that was manned by the single mothers that run the kitchen and sat down.  I looked at my coworker questioningly and she shrugged, and said with disdain, “I guess they’re eating lunch.”  The little ones didn’t even blink an eye at the fact they were sitting next to fully uniformed men toting machine guns.

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I am not Shakira, bummer…

Out of breath and a little sweaty I finished climbing the steep hill to the upper school, Escuela Gabriel Garcia Márquez, El Minuto de Dios, only to be welcomed by screams of “¡Es Shakira!”  Just goes to show you how many light-skinned people these kids see, but it did do wonders for my self-esteem that even a couple of four-year-olds confused me with the pop star!  Now I just need to learn how to sing, otherwise I’m not going to make it very far with my new identity.

Continuing our surveys, I got a real feel for just how destitute these people can be; something that I had realized in a general/academic sense, but that feels much different in person.  We walked into the house of a poor family (even by Soachan standards) that consisted of a long hallway with a dirt floor and two rooms off the side.  Each room had two beds and houses a family of 4.  The walls were made of clapboard so thin and battered that light was coming through in places.   Keep in mind that Bogotá doesn’t have a tropical climate, it’s in the mountains and very cold at night.  The family was very nice and consisted of a grandmother and grandfather and two little girls.  The mother apparently lives in the neighborhood, but as the grandmother says, she might as well not.  The grandparents were very caring and loving.  The grandmother especially was very charismatic, making fun of my coworker Mónica for being afraid of the dogs and such.  I realized that she was illiterate when I asked her to check the spelling of the child’s father’s name.  She looked at the place I was pointing and said, “it’s just that I can’t read.”  She then extracted ID cards for the girls out of her wallet as well as her phone number and address written down on separate pieces of paper, neither of which she could tell me off the top of her head.

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