Wednesday, September 14, 2011


I'm writing this at 8 am, because I couldn't sleep anymore. It's hot already and the motos have been driving loudly past my open window since 6ish. Right now is also about the only time that it's comfortable to drink a cup of coffee also, seeing as it will be about 90 degrees by nine or ten. Ah, life on the coast has begun.

It's astounding how different the basics are here. I've been thinking a lot about contrasts recently. As much as I enjoyed the orientation time in Bogota- for the amount of information from incredible sources and the time exploring the city with my fellow Seeders- I found myself feeling frustrated and purposeless the weeks ticked on. Why we were sitting in an office and spending money in coffeeshops if our eventual purpose is living and working with communities, all of which live at a much lower standard of living than we were? Why were we listening to one lecture after another when the best lecturers will be our neighbors in our communities? How do I adjust personally from living in the largest city I've ever lived in- to living in the smallest town? I think the most pertinent question was- why can't I just get going, get to the community, and start doing what I prepared to do?

(Momentary break to run downstairs and buy bananas from the man pushing his cart of fruits and vegetables up the street. This place is fantastic.)

Of course, there is a logical counterweight to all of these frustrations, which was something I could articulate when I felt purposeful. It was indisputably important that we get the big picture of what is happening in Colombia and how our work as Seeders is all connected. I would also be floundering if I hadn't been supported in work and friendship by the rest of our team for those months, and I'm ceaselessly grateful for that. But overall, I think the clearest result of our time in Bogota was a vision of the contrasts that exist in Colombia, in lifestyle, in peace work, in ourselves... Living in Bogota, as frustrating as it was, was an enduring lesson in the importance of contrast.

One of them- Bogota has sections that look like the upscale section of any major city in the US. You can buy a full lunch (soup, rice, plantain, salad, meat, and juice) for 2-4 dollars, but there were whole sections that I, as an upper middle class US citizen, could never afford. The public transportation was like a metro in an large city, packed with young businesspeople in their black powersuits, heading to work at the multinational banks or businesses downtown. However, there are vast neighborhoods within and on the borders of the town where people don't have consistent electricity or running water. There are powerful contrasts within the city, for sure, but there are also slap-in-the-face contrasts with where we are now. 

Sincelejo, the capital of Sucre, a department on the coast, has no natural industry. There is no factory network and few large businesses, and one of the largest employers for young men (many displaced from farming communities in the region) is moto-taxi driving, where many are trapped paying rent for their motos that they can barely make up in a day of driving around the city. Most of the streets fade to dirt or are full of potholes. It's poor, in short, and there simply aren't options for work for young people- university? Think again. Taking a step further out- my community, Caño Berrugita (which is a community within Macayepo, a region) lies at the end of 2 hours of terrible road. When it rains, only massive trucks can get up the road because all of the ruts fill with water and churn into a muddy mess. There's electricity, but no cell phone service. No hospital, or clinic, or nurses. A fellow Seeder, Leonel, lives in a town unaccessible by more than boat or moto because the roads are also horrible. The government has promised electricity, but has been beyond slow in following through. An hour from Cartagena, the tourist base camp and recently much-publicized new face of Colombia, is Mampujan, where Anna will be living, a community of desplaced people than lives crammed into a tiny piece of land on the side of the main road. I could give example after example of the contrasts within Bogota and between Bogota and the coast, but I'll settle for just one more. There are no funky coffeeshops in Sincelejo, and there is only one store in Macayepo. How can Colombia be considering a newly booming economy if 47% of its population lives below the poverty line?  Contrast.

Another contrast we've been struck with over and over: It's gorgeous on the coast. We've tried a different fruit juice everyday, most I've never heard of, and most of which grow in my backyard in Macayepo, which incidentally produces almost all of the avocadoes eaten in Colombia (and exported). On Sunday, we went to an isolated strench of beach and swam in the Carribbean ocean, drank fresh coconut water and rested under stately palm trees. From the roof of the office, we can see the sun set in orange, purple and yellow splendor every evening, with thunderclouds in the distance turning red around the edges. Anywhere we drive, we see rolling green hills with stately trees and healthy cattle herds. The soil is so rich they say that you just have to throw a seed on the ground and it'll grow. We have to remember why we are here, though. 

Beauty means desirability. Just ten years ago, the region was devasted by a series of massacres in the rural communities, largely carried out by paramilitary groups. Why here? Beaches mean ports and the Carribbean means access to the powerful drug routes through Mexico to the consumers in the US. You can trace a line from massacre to massacre and see that the targeted communities lie right along a prime drug traffiking route through the mountains to the port. Many of the communities displaced, meaning that even as I watch the sunset over Sincelejo, I can see the neighborhoods on the margins- 30% of Sincelejo is made up of displaced people, which makes so many things difficult- unemployment, petty crime, available services. Rich soil also means perfect grazing land for many hugely wealthy landowning families who have snapped up the land left by displaced people for their massive plantations. In many cases, paramilitary groups were formed as private security groups for these families or used by large corporations and the local government to intentionally displace people to make way for palm oil or sugar cane plantations. Constrast: beauty doesn't only mean perfect Carribbean paradise, but it also holds hands with devastation.

The way I'm feeling about finally being on the coast is also quite a few contrasting emotions. There are four of us here working: Larisa, Will, Anna, and Leonel, and Jes, one of our leaders, who will be living in Sincelejo. We're all camping out at Jes' now and doing a second phase of orientation with our partner group, SembrandoPaz. We are living in communities fairly far from each other, but will reunite here once a month for team meetings and collaboration. Our orientation ends this Friday and I'll pack up my newly acquired kitchen supplies, mattress, and backpack and move (provided it doesn't rain) out to Macayepo. From the little time we've been here, I can say a few things for sure. Above all, I'm delighted to be out of the city and into the hot, green, growing, open coast. So many cloudy days in Bogota were disheartening for me, and I've been drinking in the changes here- from hammocks to enjoying cold showers to borojo/zapote/guayaba/corozo juice. Macayepo also reminds me (almost alarmingly) of Nimule, South Sudan, where I spent a summer a few years ago. At the least, the lifestyle is very similar, which means I'll be living with the necessary and working hard. I'm quite excited to try to live in that way again. I know no matter what I do, I am talking from a place of comparably infinite privilege, but I'm excited to cook over a wood fire, walk (or ride a donkey) miles to surrounding farms, wash my clothes in the river, and learn about growing yuca. 

The contrast- it's all scary and overwhelming. The town is small and so, so isolated. The living is hard, and the social fabric is fractured into many pieces. The community has resettled only its original land, but it's barely ten years after the massacre and displacement and so much was lost. I can get excited about living and being there, but I haven't the slightest clue how to step into community processes of seeking reparation, mediating disputes between churches/paramilitary allies and victims/leaders in the community/youth and their families, establishing land rights, or even pushing for a new road to get the avocadoes to market. It's a lot right now.

I suppose overall I'm hoping that I can remember how much contrast can teach us. It would be easy to say how excited I am to be here, or how beautiful the beach is, or how destroyed Colombia is by the drug trade, but it's much more real to talk about the contrasts: the wealth and lack of options, the beauty and destruction, and the excitement and fear. There is much more life in the middle space between the poles, and I just hope I can hold onto both ends, and the reality that reality, en la Costa, is quite complex.