Tuesday, 25 May 2010

The Travel Blog

You will have never seen anything like it.

La Guajira: From brilliant, aggressively white salt flats jut peaks that hurl a reflection which demands the highest sunblock and the darkest shades. Silent beaches of honey coloured sand and a choppy sea to wrap around scorched feet and suck you into its waves. A matriarchal community where bucket showers and fried fish are the only option, Coca Cola is more plentiful than water, hammocs keep you off the dirt floor at night and if you want to get divorced you 'give back the goat' that came with your marriage proposal. Simple.

Parque Tayrona: A two hour hike through a humid jungle, avoiding falling coconuts and blue sand crabs, sees the vegetation limp out into a ocean of dangerous undercurrents, driftwood and boulders worthy of a coco-pops ad. More hammocs, but this time on a raised platform set out into the sea, no walls, just the sea and the sun and the wind.

Taganga: A hippy port of beaches, bars and many, many Aussies. A debatably thorough 15 minute SCUBA demo and your ready to go down to 18 metres (though they tell you it is only 12). Through the pressure pain and your body's disbelief that the air it breathes actually does its job, you can see turtles pootle on by, and the foreign and unwanted lion fish lurking in the shadows, though their zebra stripes betray their presence long before you are unlucky enough to graze one of their fins. Green eels chomp their jaws and stone fish lie convincingly on the more boring coral.

Santa Marta: Best Ceviche you will ever taste (seafood, lemon, onion, and aji mix) comes from a little roadside shack off the main beach front. Ignore all other offers.

Playa Camarones: A make-shift sail, a wooden cannoe, silence and throbbing heat. Four pink flamigoes shimmer and strut, and then take off all at once to fly in formation away from the invading raft.

Just one thing I wish someone had told me before I left; Do not, ever, drink the water. Damn.

That about summs up our visit to the Northern Colombian Coast. Tourism exists but it is as yet still very Colombian. All the businesses and tours are run by locals, who know the locals of where they're are going, so the experience is very authentic. It is fairly rural and simple at times, you just get on with being smelly and salty, don't expect services like showers or internet, and if you don't like having at least four different carbohydrates on your plate each meal time then you are wasting 2/3 of your grub.

Celine and had such a good time though (minus the day or two our bodies spent rejecting the amoeba in our guts). It was really unlike any travelling I have ever done before and I thought before coming here that two foreign girls travelling around Colombia probably wasn't the smartest thing to do, but it has to be said that calculated risks are worth it. For example, on the way back from Tayrona a man struck a deal with us to drive us back to Santa Marta for half the price of the bus fare. With about 50 witnesses to this and Wayuu woman in the front seat of his car, we took our chance, paid less and got back fine. However, when two men approached us in Taganga offering a customised 6 days tour of the whole of the northern coast, they made it sound very attractive. Obviously. When you're are not in the situation it seems like lunacy but at the time you sort of think of the value for money, what you might see and how much fun it will be... duh. We had taken about 3 steps away from them having promised to discuss the matter the next day, when we looked at each other in disbelief at our own stupidity. Needless to say, we decided against it. Apparantly, I've still got quite a lot to learn.

Then it was back to Fenix, Refugio and Pronino as normal after that. Though, the amoeba came back with a vengeance about a week later and I spent an entire Fenix meeting doubled over with cramps. That's one thing about learning another language, there is just no being subtle. I had no idea how to say anything quaint like 'I've got a bit of an upset tummy'. That coupled with hispanic candidness which doesn't shy away from asking why you are going to the loo every 5 mins meant that I had to provide an all too direct description of the situation. But there we go, I'm beyond shame now, I'm even blogging about it.

Fenix is moving ahead really well. We have been planning a design for the Fenix house which we hope to have up and running in a ear or two if we can find funds. There are a couple of new volunteer maybes which are being interviewed and I now feel really comfortable and friendly with most of the girls, especially Alejandra. Unfortunately Celine left on Saturday which makes me really sad, but she invited Alejandra to come out with us and our friends the night before. It was so much fun any way, but Alejandra seemed to have a really great time. She drank, but not too much and danced the whole time. It looked like that was what she had been wanting to do for ages. She stayed with me and my boyfriend's house that night, though her own plank of a boyfriend kept calling me at 5 am to fnd out wehre she was and wouldn't believe she was with me. Luckily by Sunday, she had made the decision to leave him and move out definitively. I just really hope this is for good now.

Dad came to stay last week too! It was so fun to see him though I'm not sure Bogota in all its construction, brick dust and mess really appealed all that much. But we went up North on a buseta and found his old house. He also attended a couple of Fenix meetings and the girls ot on really well with him. He also ate ajiaco for the first time in 30 years! I introduced him to all my friends, who I had met through Hannah. Hannah's boyfriend, Alvaro, is in England and though I have never met him exceot by skype, he is going to stay with my mum for nine days at the end of this week so he can see a bit of the country before he comes back to Colombia. I'm jealous to be honest, I'd quite like to go home for a little bit, but seeing as this is not possible I might as well send a bit of Colombia.
Anyway, I have been to their house quite a bit and when Dad was here they invited me, my Dad, Hannah, Celine, Mario, Rafa and Willy to their house for lunch. So that is all of Alvaro's best friends and his parents hanging out and drinking whisky well into the early hours of the morning. Afer 33 years of marriage I have never seen a more loved-up couple and the Dad, also called Alvaro, sings and they both dance beautifully, so with the guitare and the alcohol they were all salsa-ing and serenading and talking about love, romance, music and politics whilst my English reserve cringed in the corner until my own head was woozy enough to forget it. All the time, Alvaro was present on skype.

It was a festivo (bank holiday) last weekend and we all went to my friend Rafa's 'finca' which I guess is a kind of homestead or farm, but it belongs to his family, so loads of his cousins were there and it is in warm-weather land in Melgar. So after a sickening three hour bus ride to Melgar we all spent sunday in the pool with the sun and beer. Though Monday's sunburnt hangover wasn't quite as fun.

Other topics of interest have been the elections here. PAH to the British Campbell-Clegg malarky, try a stand-off between the Uribe-groomed,loosely-veiled madman, ex-head of the Paramilitary, Juan Manual Santos, and the eccentric, intellectual, worryingly abstract,student-mooning ex-Mayor of Bogota, Anatus Mockus. The country is divided, with tactical voting and blackmail rife, though with a historically peacful campaign process. I reckon this deserves a whole blog, so I'll write about it later, but the elections are this Sunday and the atmosphere is awesome to say the least.

That about brings it up to now. Instead of travelling to Costa Rica I have decided to stay in Bogota and continue working here for a bit, because I enjoy being part of Fenix and the other organisations. Plus, there is a whole lot more of Colombia I haven't yet seen and feel I should get to know the country into which I have put a lot of effort and which has given me so much up until now. I'm off to Huila this weekend, which is in the South near Florencia, but not as dangerous. I should also hopefully be doing a CELTA course at the end of June to get an Enlgish teaching qualification so that I can earn money and travel whenever I want in the future. I'll probably find myself back here at some point.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Choque Shoque

If anyone, ever, suggests that you learn the dance 'choque', check out the link before you bop. Click on the word choque above. I had no idea.

It's Monday morning and I've just spent the last hour and a half teaching body parts in English to the Pronino kids. Whilst the early hour and unfriendly weekday didn't exactly quell the pulse of hormones amongst the mixed group of teenagers, Simon Says and Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes went down as surprisingly well as ever. I was pleased about this, and even more pleased that the class was over, because, honestly, its stressful. 20 teenagers in a small room is never a good plan. However, they are a really great group and the week before had promised me to show me some of their music and how they like to dance. For me, this seemed like a fair enchange and it often helps to have the kids feel like they have something to offer too, so I was up for it. Intitially.

After whinging at their supervisors until they handed over the CD player, the kids quickly turned up the volume on some over-pumped latino mix which sounded like a toddler had just discovered how to work a synthesiser. The assault on the senses wasn't exactly welcome but the noise was quickly usurped but what it seemed to necessitate. ‘Choque’ literally means crash or bump, and the dance did just that. Standing back to back with their partners, the dance started with some simple sort of hopping steps before the dancers simultaneously twisted around to face each other, threw their arms in the air and proceeded to crash together opposite hips in time with the relentless boom boom. Both dancers twisted and gyrated whilst all the time keeping this action going, they turned away from each other, sank down, rose up, moved apart and then together again. It was clumsy and rough but somehow worked in its scarcely veiled sexual context.

Scarcely veiled? Ha, they weren’t even trying. As the acting supervisor, I realised I had unwittingly given the students free reign to dry hump each other for an hour, all in the name of rumba. Oops.
Admittedly, it wasn’t anywhere nearly as explicit as the above video, but it definitely hurled me into that unpleasant limbo between wanting to laugh and cringing like only the British know how. They tried to get me to join in, but I backed up against the wall muttering something about hating to dance and just prayed no other teachers walked in.

Something that I really love about being here is that nothing is ever the same. You think you have it all planned, that a morning will be normal and straightforward, that you will arrive at places as expected, leave as expected and nothing too weird will go on in the meantime. And then things like that happen and you look back on your day and you can’t believe how it turned out. Luckily, the experiences are usually interesting, pleasant or funny. But there are times when you wish unpredictability and opportunism would just give it a rest, because it can just get annoying after a while.

One such ‘incident’ that week truly made my blood boil. It was 8 in the morning the following Thursday and I had just boarded the Transmilenio to go to El Refugio. It goes without saying, there are some days you would just rather miss out on. It’s raining, you’re tired, you have no clean socks and everyone else just seems little too energetic for your current mood. When you feel like this, nowhere is more hassle to navigate than Bogota. Gulping down a mouthful of pollution, avoiding the potholes where hydrant covers used to rest before they were stolen, and jostling to claim a slidey plastic seat on the lurching coaches of Bogota’s main transport system just wasn’t what I felt like doing. Nevertheless, I managed to get myself seated and was settling down for a 20 minute nap before teaching that morning's class, when I hear a soft voice a little bit too close to my ear.

‘I’ll accompany you’

I looked around to see a balding, middle-aged, vaguely indigenous looking Latino smiling blandly at me with fleshy lips and a high colour. I pointedly looked around at all the other empty seats in the close vicinity, but he didn’t take the hint, so I shrugged and went back to staring out of the window.

‘Where are you from?’

I tried to ignore him, but he seemed to have that incredible Colombian persistence and impossibly thick skin which rendered anything as passive as point blank shoulder turning futile. In my ignorance I thought I would try a different tack. My logic at the time led me to believe that if I spoke tersely, maybe it would be more obvious that I wasn’t in the mood for any early morning flirtation. Error.

‘Are you married?’
No ring, evidently not. Crap.

‘No, but I have a boyfriend.

‘What is your name?’

‘I don’t give my name to strangers’

‘Oh. Would you like to do out with me?’

‘As I said, I have a boyfriend’
He leans closer, as if I had given any signals that invited conspiracy.

‘You could still come out with me’


He takes my hand to shake it. Initially I’m a bit surprised by the contact and don’t react quickly enough to stop it. Only when he tries to raise it too his lips does my stomach contract and snatch it away.

‘What are you doing?!’

‘Sorry, excuse me. You are very beautiful’

By this point, it was all too much. I was so tired, in a foul mood anyway and had negative interest in communicating with anyone, let alone having my personal space invaded but ugly men twice my age and half my height.

‘I’m sorry Senor, but I’m not comfortable with this conversation, please leave me alone.’ I almost shouted in my most pissed off tone.

‘Would you like my email address?’

God, I could have hit him.

This sort of thing for travellers is in no way unique. Foreigners are a target for creepy men the world over, but this exchange demonstrates how persistent the Colombians can be. The fact that someone might not want to do something means very little to them, as do hints, prompts, signals and body language. They just keep going, and not only in situations like these. Many have absolutely no qualms about needlessly appropriating your time for their own means and subtlety is, evidently, redundant. Initially I found this funny, now this kind of person genuinely winds me up to the point of indignant rage. The cult of infidelity amongst some people is really shocking. I’m not usually judgemental about this kind of thing, but it is a little different if you witness it first-hand. It doesn’t matter what level of relationship you are in, if a Colombian man wants you, you are fair game. The women and girls don’t even seem to believe that they have much choice in the matter. If a guy pursues you, it is expected that you like them back. Hannah explained this to me, and I now understand why my students looked at me in such shock when I first told them I was single. It’s just not the norm here. I’m pretty sure they all decided I was a lesbian.

Luckily, the day improved from then on. It was the farewell day for one of my favourite students in El Refugio, so I had planned a catwalk for our class. I paired them up, gave them all a black plastic bag and told them to make an outfit and prepare a presentation in English. Image, fashion, music and teenagers: that was a successful class. I am worried about Andres leaving the safety of El Refugio though. This sweet natured maricon is so trusting and innocent, though not that quick mentally, so there isn’t much he can do in the real world and I’m worried he’ll just end up prostituting like before. He made me a wool scarf and said thank you for teaching him. It is sad that he has to leave just because he is 18. There is such a huge hole in the system here, as young people leave care at this age and there is no other welfare option for them until about the age of 25. It seems ridiculous; I just hope the world doesn’t prove too much for him.

Next blog... Travelling to the coast with Celine 

Friday, 9 April 2010

On the other hand...

As I said in my last post, it is not all shocking street tramping and miserable stories of violence and drugs.
Aligning myself with some friendly Gringos and Colombians I had a really good time during Semana Santa, which was last week. Usually, the festivos in Bogota make me a bit nervous. Normality is thrown to the wind and people just begin to act a bit strangely; super friendly or generous, elevated sense of humour and a feeling of unpredictability which just makes me nervous. People are bolder when approaching you and asking for money, among other things. Anyway, during the 5 days of religious rest, Bogota emptied as everyone headed for their fincas in the country.

I also headed for the country on several occasions.
Drive for about an hour and you find that the plateau of Bogota unfolds into sloping mountains, looping down into verdant forest or farmstead and significantly warmer climes. It was a Tuesday evening and I was halfway through the week and with no plans of letting up, as some lines of work don't pay much attention to religious holidays. I received a message from my Canadian friend, Ben, who said his friend had a car with three spaces, they were going to do some adventure sports in a place called Tobia the next day. He wasn't very clear on the details but, determining the possibility do jump off things and get wet, I called Celine and we jointly took advantage of our positions as unpaid volunteers and rearranged Wednesday so that we could go adventuring. So we set off pretty early the next day with Ben and Graham and headed for Tobia.
Compared to its surrounding countryside, Bogota is a pollution choked hole at best. The hills and mountains just outside it are beautiful and peaceful and it is easy to imagine how the reality-enhancing crops that ruin the country and its inhabitants are grown so abundantly, but it is also difficult to think of the violence and terror which prowls the countryside as a result. For once, where we were going didn't involve much danger, and we drove deep into a leafy valley and stopped by the side of a river. We were approached and asked which activity we would like to get involved in, and as the river was low we all decided on repelling, or abseiling down a waterfall and jumping into the pools at the bottom. We had to take a small train and hike for about half an hour to get to the base of the cascada. I hadn´t really realised we would be getting completely soaked so didn't bring a change of clothes. The rest of the day was spent in a slightly uncomfortable cocoon of soggy clothing. Obviously, abseiling down the waterfalls was completely worth it and although it proved to be safe, it was brilliant to be completely free of the safety restrictions which plague such activities in the UK. There were experienced guides, short explanations and then we just had a go :)
In the afternoon we opted for horse riding to take us up to the top of the mountain to see some of the views. It was that time of day when the sun relaxes its grip on the atmosphere and everything slumps into a balmy post-baked reverie. Including the horses, which were not used to the British/American bulk and struggled with the climb a bit. The summit revealed sharply undulating hills and greenery that stretched for miles. It´s not the dramatic scenery of the Peak District dotted with slate lakes reflecting an equally morose sky, but a wild, intense and thrumming landscape, as if a fully formed rainforest would have sprung out of the ground given the chance.
So that was one trip.

The second, two days later was a hike in Parque Chicaque. This is a national park way down south on the outskirts of Bogota. It is a leafy, mulchy, footricking, rainforest trek, and I had been a week earlier with Fabio, Caroline, Kaitlin and some other friends. I had almost died the week before. The trek itself isn't actually that long but the first half is a VERY steep descent for about two hours, which my knees never deal that well with, and all the time you are thinking of the return journey. All the way back up. Luckily there is a midway destination of a pretty waterfall which makes rainbows in the sun (the pot of gold myth is definitely a lie, I checked) and a restaurant. Hannah, Celine, Vanessa, Santiago and I all bought picnics and it wasn't nearly as stressful this time, despite getting lost for a while in the woods. Good exercise and bonding and views etc. But it did last about 7 hours, and then Celine and I had been invited to Fabio's birthday dinner that night. I thought it would just be a sit down meal thing, nothing too stressful. But we soon realised it involved a bus, an hour long trip to Chia and a lot of drinking and dancing. Fabio and Caroline had booked a bus to take us to Andres, the most famous Colombian restaurant, bar and club. It basically sells meat and it a novelty restaurant mixing the burlesque, gothic and circus decoration codes. It was a mash of colour and salsa, Colombia paraphernalia dripping from the ceilings and rough wooden furniture cluttering the floor. It was cool, but by 3 am and far too much salsa, I was falling asleep on whoever happened to be in the direct path of my nodding head. We didn't get back until 5 am. I had stopped drinking at about 12 so I didn't have much of a hangover, but I spent the next day at work (Fenix meetings) feeling sick with exhaustion. The altitude makes everything hurt more.

By Sunday, and after a very long sleep, we decided a trip to La Calera in the North of the city was a good way to spend Easter Day. When I say we visited La Calera, we actually stopped at a roadside shack and ordered a Fritanga, on Hannah´s suggestion. This consists of a metal plate the size and shape of a medium sized, circular table top, piled high with grilled meat, platano, corn and salsa. There were 5 of us, all teaching in one way or another, and we sat and whinged about our respective classes. Ha. Never thought I'd be doing that, but it was funny, especially as the other two girls taught classes of 30 4 year olds English, and one of them could barely speak Spanish herself... Suddenly a class of ten ex-prostitute teenagers didn't look so bad.

And that pretty much brings me to this week. Not much to report that I haven't already said except that I would like to record that the Refugio kids were brilliant this week. I even taught them how to tell the time, a lesson I found so boring it took me about 3 years to learn. Seriously. Now I´m sitting with Fabio in Horwath doing some translations and trying not to do too much damage. I was left as main translator in a continuous flow of emails between the audit partner of Horwath and a client. Finance speak in translation? My head hurts... But it's fun and I enjoy coming here.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

La L

Walking around Bogota after two months here, the recyclers, the peddlers, the drunks and the prostitutes have just become just part of the scenery now. Admittedly, like most things here, they all have their specific districts. Santa Fe is brothel central, La L (aka The Bronx) is a crime-filled drug district, El Favorito is where all the motorcyclists stop off for a hit of Bazuka, and the centre is the home of petty theft, flea markets and lonely figures of walking rags.
Until now, I have been following fairly simple rules: keep alert, walk fast, know where the mountains lie. This sounds weird, but it helps.

Bogota has a bizarrely polarized class system, where people are categorized and characterized by the different estratos or neighbourhoods (1 being the lowest, 6 being the highest) in which they live. The wealthy live in the relatively clean, commercially defined and mall-peppered North. If the mountains are on your right then you are heading towards Business Town, smart clubs and European prices. Past the centre, headed in the Southern direction, the further down the taxi seat you slide. Mountains on the left = lock the doors, don’t break down. Having said this, whatever the district, the silicone religion prevails.

I work in the south three times a week so I'm quite used to getting there on my own and it doesn't really bother me to be there. Recently I have started another teaching program in 'Patio Bonito', which is a pretty rough area and in no way lives up to its name. I thought this was about as sketchy as the whole experience was going to get for me.

Today, Celine and I were due to go into Santa Fe to start a reading program with some of the kids who come into El Parche. This is a clinic which attends to all those who don't feel they can approach or are somehow not entitled to healthcare. It is run by a beautiful angel of a doctor called Tatiana, who is just one of those lovely people I could never even hope to be. She has endless patience and kindness with the various levels of hopelessness who walk through the door and she is part of the Procrear group which runs activities and workshops for the people who come in and their kids. So we were going to start the kids with some reading. We had organised this last week in a Procrear meeting where we had met a community worker called Javier, and he had suggested we do this class, and also at some point come to do a 'parcheando' (giving out food and drink to street people) with him one day.
When we turned up this morning nothing was really going on and the kids were involved in another activity. Whilst Celine (who will be a starting medicine in the summer) sat in on consultations with Tatiana, Javier turned to me and said 'Listo, vamos'.
Generally, I take advantage of anything going on out here, (bar the substances). Javier is part of the Procrear group, and despite only having been off the streets for a year, very trustworthy. So we started walking to what I thought would be an area no more shifty than the Prostitution zones or the bar districts. When I heard we were headed for the Bronx, La L, I seriously almost turned back. I have been lucky in that the people I work with are not paranoid scare- mongerers. They work in the difficult areas, know them well and give good advice which hasn't failed me yet. However, the day before I had had a long conversation with Hannah about La L and how not only she but many of her Colombian friends label it the most frightening places in Bogota. I had built it up as a sort of hell hole in my head and I wasn't far off.

I figured I was safer staying with Javier than bailing and walking back through Santa Fe on my own, though only after several minutes of discussion which culminated in me taking off my watch, shoving any valuables down my bra and zipping my hoody up ASBO style. Plus, I was curious.

Walking along, the density of street people increased alarmingly. These weren't the 'respectable' sort who casually rake through the dustbins of the centre, mug gringos and wash themselves in the fountains. Here, Men and women, half-unconscious or itching with lice and skin disease, lay sprawled in the direct and trickling line of a contemporary's morning ablutions. By the time we had finally reached La Quince, the squalid epicentre of depravity, the vacant expressions had dislocated into gnashing teeth, rolling eyes and the hypervigilent twitching caused by the long term Bazuka, Cocaine or Marijuana abuse. I barely looked up, partly because I didn't want to catch anyone's eye, but also because there was plenty to see on the ground. The mud was inches thick on the crumbling tarmac and it wasn't the brown, healthy British sort either, but a dark grey, poisonous looking concoction of human and animal excrement, rubbish and metal. It was crowded, barely space to move, and people crawled, raving, out from under tarpaulin and sacks. A little higher in my eyeline were rows of ironically sumptuous, three sided marijuana shacks, eating stalls selling near rotted fried pig fat, and sagging, broken vehicles. The smell of weed was overpowering and joints which were the thickness of my thumb and twice as long were casually passed between neighbours, the search for oblivion bringing with it the pot luck of TB contraction. Think Hieronymus Bosch, without the colour.

It was only about the size of a block, and as we walked round I more or less attached myslef to Javier who eventually directed me into a more respectable looking area where some sort of covered market displayed rows and rows of clothes. I almost didn't give it a second thought, until Javier told me this is where the inhabitants of La L swap their clothes for a drag of Bazuka. The ordinary sight transformed itself into a physical manifestation of consumption, quantifiable and eerie in its normality.

Later at dinner I spoke to Hannah again, whose visit to La L was on the arm of a street girl and disguised as a regular sex worker. She was told not to open her mouth and betray her gringo accent or there would be trouble. Having not seen the dead bodies or the street children who are paid to clear them away, apparently my experience of the place was tame.
Obviously I got back OK, and was grateful for the experience, though trying to put it into words when meeting Celine again was interesting. As a Literature student I have never really found myself stumped, but when I tried to speak all I saw were flashes and images. Javier shouldn't have taken me there really, but he was the safest person I could have gone with, so the calculation was correct.
Walking back after that place, Santa Fe looked like a high class resort with suddenly well-groomed call girls and paternal looking pimps.

OK, these are all a bit depressing, normal stuff happens here too. Next blog, hiking, adventuring and fritanga!

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

A Vignette

It's Semana Santa (Easter)this weekend, so everything is shutting, people are leaving Bogota and things are all quite festive here. Except maybe the weather which is having a strop.
Other stroppy types today are the Refugio kids. I walked in this morning to find the front door pane broken, and all the staff donning plastic gloves and face masks in preparation for a search. Apparently, nearly the entire group of about 12 of them had gone on a bit of a rampage during the night. They set off the fire extinguishers, broke the door, trashed the computers and smuggled in drugs and arms, which is what the staff were about to go searching for.
One of the ring leaders, apparently, was Elena.
It was such a strange situation to walk in on! All these kids I've been getting to know over the last few months suddenly revealed an unpredictable streak so common of the psychological and trauma they have endured. I imagine if I knew I had a terminal illness or had been prostituting since the age of 8, I wouldn't worry too much about going a little crazy every now and again. But I felt terrible for the staff. They are with the kids day in and day out, they do activities and psychotherapy sessions with them, give affection and essentially offer them a future which is not selling their bodies and risking their lives. The disrespect of the behaviour was sickening, partly because it was still understandable. However, the main group sat around looking quite smug, brazen in their numbers, and called out to me as I walked past. They ate their free food and talked and laughed amidst the costly destruction of the night before.

I didn't teach them all today, obviously, and couldn't really make eye-contact with them. I just sat with Andres and Juliett (who hadn't been involved in the chaos) and continued with the public speaking workshop I was going to do with them all. I gave them the brownies I had made for Elena's birthday and we actually had a great session. I was so relieved that Andres wasn't involved in it. He has no concept of malice or judgment, just an innate sense fairness and an even-keeled temperament. It worked well to have a more private lesson with them too because I could give them more attention.

Situations like these make you realise what a luxury self-criticism is. Timothy has been having some trouble with some real hopeless cases; liars, manipulators and those who essentially want rescuing but are prepared to put zero effort into improving their lives. Their situations are just so mentally and physically squalid that they have no capacity for the self-evaluation that brings about self-control, responsibility and improvement. It´s hard enough to work on and improve some undesirable personality trait if you are well off and not suffering from mental trauma, but everything is magnified here to a tempestuous scale and just explodes occasionally, relentlessly reiterating how broken so many of them are. I don't mean to sound judgmental or smug, I just have so much respect for those who continue to try, because the highs and lows are exhausting, stressful and sometimes horribly demoralizing.

Bureaucratic Bits

I really should have written this earlier. I'm having some real trouble remembering the different facets of the past 10 days or so, mainly because of the influx of many exciting new projects.

One of the most recent 'events' (if I can refer to her like that) is that a new volunteer, Celine Sparrow, has arrived. She is from Boston but her mother is French and she is about to go to Medical school after the summer. It's really cool having her here, not only because we get on well, but because it feels like the whole foundation is growing in different and international directions. With Celine, Hannah, Amy and I there is now a team of visiting members able to take on and develop projects there otherwise may not be time for.

With this in mind, for the last few weeks we have been working on developing a formal volunteer proposal for Fenix. Working with a young and extremely small foundation means that that there are opportunities for some interesting progressions. Volunteers and the network that they create between themselves and other entities in Colombia and their own countries, could eventually provide Fenix with a lot of financial support as well as acting as general advisors for new volunteers coming out to work here.

While it is useful if a volunteer applicant has some practical or academic background to this kind of work, I feel it is important to emphasise the potential worth of all those offering their services (guess why...) Admittedly, there will be some applicants who are completely inappropriate for the work, but we're trying to devise a system where as many volunteers can be included as possible (at the very least just to get Fenix into the hearts and minds of future professionals). This would require some sort of (probably fairly lengthy) document detailing the sort of personal characteristics needed to be able to work out here, the areas where new volunteers may be able to help, how the Fenix members integrate them, what sort of projects can be put into place and how to induct a new volunteer when they arrive. I have been putting this last point into practice with Celine, showing her around, helping her find and apartment and phone and explaining about buses and general things to avoid (numerous). Though when it comes to the historical /cultural assets of Bogota, I'm pretty useless.. Timothy did this for me, and she will do it for the next volunteer who comes out to join us.
What should also be included is advice about personal relations with the people we work with. Ideas about continuity of relationships, where the boundaries of friend/mentors lie and what to do in various crises. Timothy has been running a workshop for a couple of meetings with the Fenix girls about what it means to be a mentor. They have all been doing it for a long time and are experienced and perceptive.

Subjects like censorship and privacy need to be addressed too, both in legal and personal terms. This includes blogs, photos and identification, which, with networks like Facebook, could be very dangerous for some people here. Some of the Fenix girls prefer not to be tagged publically in photos, because this can lead to stigmatization as charity kids at their universities.
So that's a rough outline of what we are beginning to sort out.

As result of this idea, sort of, there is also another plan to develop a fundraising team specifically for Fenix, which will hopefully help provide some desperately needed financial support for Fenix, teach the girls more about Corporate Social Responsibility and general PR techniques, but may also be an area to include any volunteers initially especially those with little experience.

This idea surfaced partly because one of my friends emailed me about maybe coming to work here too. With plenty of law and PR experience, a bit of community work, and perfect Spanish, this is the sort of thing he could do a lot with. However, as I said, continuity is pretty vital for this kind of project and so we need a fixed team here in Colombia that is not just made up of visiting volunteers. Hannah suggested that we make it a project for the business students at the local university, so they get credits and practical work for their degrees and CV's, and Fenix benefits financially. Unfortunately we have hit a bit of a rut with this as we need a permanent advisor willing to teach the university class, who knows the commercial environment well and also understands the values and philosophies of Fenix. The one person we do know for this may not have the time, so we are thinking this one through. Any suggestions welcome!

As I mentioned a while ago, I have started working one day a week with Horwath, an international accountancy firm based in the North of the city. The Communications and Marketing Manager is looking to build links between the company and Fenix. I help the members of the company improve their English, and advise (as much as I can!) on British and American business etiquette. This is all fairly obvious, but I explain about the differences in British and North American spelling, the importance of and differences between written address, manners and body language and have even had to write an advice sheet on dress codes... I really hope I'm not doing some serious damage.
Anyway, the idea is that they will give the Fenix girls some workshops on presentations, interviews and explain a bit more about the national and global market. The girls will hopefully have the opportunity to go to their offices in the North to experience some of the general business atmosphere. The girls will also be able to teach the employees a fair amount about social responsibility and aid their corporate global image through this association. This is quite a new concept for many Colombian businesses. So, if the girls agree, it should be quite useful (especially if any funding comes out of it).
These are the kind of projects are pretty difficult to get off the ground and may not actually work out but as I said, everyone working together brings a new atmosphere of inspiration and interest.

So apart from that and helping get Celine settled (though she hasn't really needed it), I have been to El Refugio as usual this week. I think I went there with the idea of being a sort of friend/mentor, but now when I'm teaching I'm a lot less afraid to be authoritative, because nothing else really works that well with bored teenagers. When I say authoritative, sometimes they just piss me off to the point that I tell them so. It's not something I enjoy doing but it's good to have the confidence to be able to do that, and know that they will still all be pleased when I turn up next time.
We all went to a conference together last Thursday and at the end they were asked to stand up and introduce themselves. They were all painfully shy and none of them wanted to say anything. Eventually, with a little encouragement, Elena stood up and spoke about herself and the foundation. She is one of my favourite students. Bouncy to the point of hyperactivity and with such an appealing laugh, she also manages to command respect from the others, calm them down and has some real ambitions for herself, so works hard at her English. She and Andres (pretty much her male counterpart) are such allies there and I actually feel quite close to them. She also decided that my Spanish wasn't up to introducing myself to a room full of natives so took the opportunity to do it for me. Oh well.
Anyway, I told her she was good at public speaking and she looked so pleased. Reactions like that instantly give you a boost when you feel like your flagging under the weight of all the drama. Next week I'm going to get them to do some small presentations so they can all gain more confidence when speaking in public.

I had my first experience of real Colombian bureaucracy the other day too. Nothing teaches you to wait in line like the D.A.S. Typically, I had sort of forgotten (maybe ignored) the fact I was supposed to register my visa and apply for an ID card. All it took was for me to mention this briefly to Hannah and suddenly a time and date had been fixed to meet the visa people. The ever-decreasing but easy to fake language barrier came to my rescue again and after convincing them I hadn't really understood the initial proceedings, they began to register my visa. It took forever. Finally, I got up and asked in my most polite Spanish when it would be ready, but it was only until a very fluent and cross looking Hannah turned up at my shoulder did anthing actually happen. Hannah is hilariously direct, perfectly fluent and is at home with taking on authority of any kind. She recently began lecturing a bouncer on the inappropriateness of a Machista attitude when he ID'd her at the door. Having been stuck in Ecuador for a very stressful 6 days trying to get her own Visa sorted so she could continue working, Hannah was well out of patience with the Colombian immigration people. So that sped the process up a bit.

There was also an Art exhibition on Wednesday showing the photography of Sarah Longworth, one of the embassy team, and it was called The Streets of Bogota. It was such a good idea because the street art and grafiti here is amazing. I wish I’d taken some photos... The exhibition was put on to raise money for Fenix, and Lady, one of the girls, acted as a representative of the foundation and gave a good speech.
So weird to be around that many Brits again! Nice though, I found a Scotsman and chewed his ear off about Edinburgh for a good while. Poor guy was Glaswegian. Ha.

Finally, looks like my Mondays are going to be taken up with going to a new foundation called Pronino Kennedy. It is based in the Kennedy barrio in the South, which is poor and very rough. Right now there are about 450 kids aged between 7 and 17 who attend the day centre, and 8 staff. They are desperate for volunteers to run classes and activities. Celine will do an afternoon class and I'll be doing the mornings.
Unlike El Refugio, this is a prevention program as opposed to a refuge program. It gets the kids off the street before they turn into little diablos, but they are essentially there not because they have to be, but because they want to be. And they get free lunch. I enjoy exploring the difference in learning attitudes and the process of change they undergo over a period of time. Plus I'm looking forward to working with different age groups.
When we arrived we were shown around all the different age-grouped classes. From grubby faces and banana pulping hands of the ninitos to the limpid eyes and shy but slightly sexualised stares of the teenagers, the prevailing impression was chaos. Monday morning. Hmm.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Flora and Trauma

Yikes, it's been a while. I´ve been in the Amazon.
But before I start chatting about that I will start with the preceding Fenix-related news. I like chronology.

The Sunday before last, a girl phoned up Timothy hysterical and in tears saying that her boyfriend had been beating her and that she wanted to leave the house. As I had been working closely with the girl, Timothy called me and before I knew I it, I had been enrolled in a spontaneous, DIY crash course for crisis management. These sorts of things are common in the daily running of Fenix. Just the other week, some of the street leaders Hannah and Amy work closely with had been attacked by the police in La Mariposa (a hub of the youth prostitution industry) and one, seven month pregnant, girl had been clubbed in the stomach had ended up in hospital threatening early delivery.

So I had expected to be involved in this sort of thing at some point. I expected to be prepared and practical. I expected not to have a hangover.

Ha. Nothing like adrenaline to chase that away. After arranging to meet Timothy and Laura at his house at 1pm, I received a call from Timothy at 12.15 saying that his last conversation on the phone with her had been interrupted by the sound of angry shouts, swearing and screaming as her battering-boyfriend entered the room and snatched the phone from her. This led to a good 45 minutes of us panic-calling all her friends to try and find out where she lived and get someone there to protect her, but it wasn't necessary in the end. We later found out her boyfriend had only taken the sim card out of her phone and refused to put it back in again. Luckily this girl isn't stupid and had phoned the police before Timothy, so when we next spoke the police had arrived, rearranged the phone and I was witnessing Timothy's white-knuckle, paternal fury as he spat in vehement Spanish down the receiver to the young man, 'How cowardly you are to ever hit a woman´.
After all this, Laura managed to extract herself, clothes and belongings intact, and make it to Timothy's. He and I sat with her as she composed, broke down, and recomposed herself, all the time with a miserable, innocent and lost demeanor. Occasionally she laughed. She's only 18.

My tone here is glib, but the situation was frightening. I like and respect this girl, and we have a friend/teacher relationship. She is super-enthusiastic, intelligent and adorable. To know she was in serious trouble and to be powerless to do anything about it was horrible.

That night she needed somewhere to stay, and for obvious reasons Timothy has a rule that no girl ever stays at his house, especially if Sarita is not there. So after she had showered and calmed down she came back to mine for the night.
Three years older, with every advantage she never had and I know nothing about having to support myself entirely, having no family around, few friends and an overbearing, violent boyfriend as my one claim to security. God, I'm the polar opposite. Silver spoon, social network, independence. Again, fish out of water.
But it wasn't as terrifying as I had initially thought. We watched 'Shrek' and made dinner. We discussed options for finding lodging for a few weeks and we settled on a distant aunt as the most likely option.

He started calling at about 8pm and didn't stop all night.
'Don't pick it up'. Of course, it was obvious she would.
'You know what he's going to say already'. But she wasn't ready not to hear it.
'Every time you answer it gives him hope, and you can't go back'. Better the devil you know?
And finally, no matter how much you were unhappy, the eternal problem: 'Rose, it hurts.'

Well this was all bit familiar. Minus the bruises and manipulative phone calls, what she was experiencing was akin to any kind of normal break up. Hurt, sadness, anger, confusion, and loss of the security net she had relied on for the last 18 months. It's rubbish to feel that when you have a loving home to go to and a gaggle of chocolate/tequila wielding friends to dig you out of the mire, but when it was just the company of a English chick you barely know and the feeling of being dependent on their charity, I can't think of anything worse. Except him hitting her.

Whether she has seen him since I don't know, and whilst I got her to promise not to meet him, I secretly think it is a bit much to ask such a vulnerable girl to cut her links with this part of her history so abruptly (though Timothy disagrees, for obvious reasons, but he's not a girl). At the very least it will be one less time this happens before she finishes it for good. Either way, I couldn't have had more respect for her as she left the next morning for a full day of work. I, and most of my contemporaries, would have been resolutely wallowing under my bedcovers.

And then The Amazon!

I went to stay for 6 days with Sarita, Timothy’s wife, in Puerto Nariño. Sarita also runs a foundation called Natutama, which is as rural as Fenix is urban and equally unique in essence.
Natutama has its headquarters in Puerto Narino, a fishing village of about 2000 inhabitants. The work they do is based around the conservation and monitoring of dolphins and manatees and other river creatures in the area. They foundation has constructed a small exhibition centre, meticulously researched and beautifully executed by the community carpenters, artists and foundation educators. This is all in order to educate the community, children and visitors about their natural surroundings that aren’t all that easy to see. One room was called the ‘underwater world´ which showed the fish and plant life surrounding the giant tree roots that grow down into the river. Instead of flashing lights, electricity powered displays and printed information, the display contains natural looking, life-size, handmade dolphins, eels, manatees and fish all swimming around real tree roots which spring from the ceiling, and a foundation educator takes you round and explains the habitat, eating habits and features of each of the animals. It is so authentic and professional looking. Each leaf has been hand painted and sewed on.
The next room was completely black and covered in sand. This was the ‘Beach by Night’ and shows just what it suggests with all the animals and vegetation, including little turtles making their first great escape to the water. The night sky is dotted with stars and constellations which were accurately researched and the date settles on was the 4th of October. I love the idea of looking at the sky of a particular date.
What was especially interesting about these two exhibitions was that each demonstrated the local myths and legends of the Ticuna Indians, keeping the local history alive for both the foreigners and the ever decreasing population of Ticuna speaking people.
As for the research on the dolphins and manatees, this was carried out by Sarita and the team of local fishermen, and it is this that makes the foundation one of a kind. Their attitude to the inclusion of local knowledge and methods of information gathering has lead to some invaluable discoveries and serves the community as well. The fishermen are paid for their work, and as a result care for and monitor the environment. Sarita was telling me that the politics involved in getting in some of them to stop hunting manatees was complicated, delicate and to me it seems to be a great achievement. Natutama has brought a lot to the community, the wildlife and the promotion of an important symbiotic relationship, using the native fishermen as ambassadors to other, otherwise unreachable, communities, and becoming an example for foundations in other areas.

I had such a relaxing week. I slept so much! Didn’t realise I was so tired after a month in Bogota so it was a nice break. I went out on the boat a couple of times which was brilliant. Had to hack through ‘water-undergrowth’ at times, saw some dolphins, and heard our guide, Jose, call and get answered my caimans. Jose also took me out into virgin forest for a hike, which was amazing. We hacked Copuasu (my new favorite fruit) and something else I can´t remember the name of, off trees and ate breakfast out there. Chevere.

I spent the evenings wondering around Puerto Nariño looking at the artisan shops, and taking in the wildlife. Very good to see trees again and be out of pollution, though the heat and humidity was pretty intense. I stayed with Sarita and Rocio (one of the foundations artists) in their house next to Natutama, which is lovely, and spent a lot of time reading and rocking in the hammock. Sarita was worried I would be bored, but it was so beautiful there and with a pile of books, I was more than happy.
Otherwise it is good to be back in Bogota, and I went to an interesting, if slightly claustrophobic, conference on sex trafficking today. The speakers were brilliant, but my concentration span was not quite up to a whole day of Spanish lecturing. I’m working on it.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Routine v Chaos

The most popular topic of conversation this week has been 'el paro'. Everyone has been talking about how it has affected them, how terrible it has been and how nearly all of them have not been able to get to work/school. I suspect in about half the cases it is a convenient excuse to be lazy, but upon getting off at Ricaurte (one of the largest Transmilenio stations) and finding that I could not move for the mile-long people-jam, I realised it wasn't a joke. To explain: in reality el paro was nothing more than an average transport strike, but for Bogota this meant disaster. The bus system here is a crazy network of privately run vehicles driven by conductors who subscribe to a near-suicidal braking philosophy and demonstrate the machinery mismanagement that has firmly rendered suspension a thing of the past. Personally, I love them. You sort of wave frantically or jump in front of one if you want a ride and then sit back and enjoy the sickeningly irregular journey that may or may not take you to your destination. This is partly because the signs that explain the buses destination (tacked on to the front windscreen) are loud and lurid Word Art creations that take a feat of eyesight to decipher. But whatever, character and all that.

Anyway, so the mayor’s office took too higher cut of the money made, so all the buses went on strike for three days. This basically meant everyone started using the more general state-run form of transport, the Transmilenio. This is a coach with its own lane, and station-type stops. It is functional but isn't brilliant or very specific in terms of destination. And then that sort of stopped working a bit as well.
The result of this was a lot of walking and expense, because taxis became the most efficient way to get around. Bogota is disorganised enough as it is without people not knowing where they are going. I don't really have a point to all this information except that it has been on everyone's minds, and it is also an indication of a very thin shawl of order loosely disguising the city's default chaos.

Despite all this, the week has still been constructive and interesting for me, I continued consolidating the more regular elements of work here and trying out some new ones.
As usual, I went to El Refugio on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. I think it is safe to say that the kids have well and truly got over the romance of learning English and have realised that a few lessons won't give them the extensive grasp they hoped for, nor will it turn them into Britney Spears just because they can pronounce 'womanizer'. The idea of actually putting effort into learning the verbs and word lists just isn't that appealing and I was met with whinging and apathy on Monday morning. However, ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes´ was (surprisingly) a success.
I expected this, and Timothy says just to go with resistance and work with it, which is a pretty valuable lesson to learn. By Thursday, the attitude had not improved much so I decided to join in with what they wanted to do, which was crafts in the form of making friendships bracelets. I was really interested to see that if I let them concentrate on something mundane and quiet, but enjoyable all the same, it focused their attention on something so that what I was saying became the thing that distracted them into paying attention to me, and on the whole they learnt more.

So that was teaching this week. On Tuesday afternoon, I went into the heart of the Santa Fe brothels (again) with some Refugio staff, Hannah and Timothy to watch Timothy do his 'condom and lubricant' spiel. This meant talking to a bunch of prostitutes in three separate brothels, teaching them to use the condom correctly, the importance of lubricant in their line of work, showing them pictures of the effects of diseases like syphilis and gonorrhea and finally, effectively teaching them how to masturbate their clients so the whole process takes less time and causes less physical danger and discomfort. It's a little weird seeing a contemporary of my father's being quite so explicit with a rubber penis, but you get used to it really quickly, and Timothy is not only very funny and sensitive, but brilliant at getting the information across quickly and clearly. Hannah says she's never seen anyone who is better at this type of workshop and the girls laugh and seem to trust him completely.

It was the second time I had been into these brothels, and I was surprised to feel more negative towards them as opposed to accustomed. The first one we went into had a catwalk upon which a woman was dancing. She looked bored, tired and bopped away with absolutely no sense of rhythm. She was incredibly unsexy; she felt it and it emanated from her. It was frustrating watching her, not just because I felt sorry for her, but just because money is so relentlessly generated from such bathos.
The second group of prostitutes seemed pretty high on the whole. They barely listened to Timothy, one was almost certainly about 15 and another walked into the room in a shift dress, little underwear and scratching herself. The following handshake was unappealing at best.
Inflamed mouths and raw noses; STD's, coke, glue and grappling for the higher price offered by a bareback trick.

The third lot seemed like really lovely girls. They were friendly alert and interested and it was great to see Timothy really get some information across, especially as they are the sort who could become community leaders themselves and teach others how to look after themselves, which is an important goal for Fenix.
¿Y que mas? Well, I had Aleja and Ani over on Thursday night and taught them how to make a Spanish Tortilla. This is fairly easy, very cheap and filling so I thought it would be good for them to learn. They are good fun but exhausting. They fire questions at me and interrupt each other. My role with these two is to be a sort of mentor/big sister type and both are saying that they would like their independence and to live alone. I'm a big advocate of this and so will be trying to work out an exact budget for Aleja in particular so that she can start to save the money from her job to pay her own rent instead of spending it all at once. They are sweet girls, but very different and the presence of a family upbringing is obviously lacking in the behaviour and attitude of one of them.

At the other end of the scale, I spent Friday in the Northern part of the city. One of my friends works in an accountancy firm as communications director and I shall be spending every Friday there from now on doing some translations, speaking to foreign clients and generally being useful wherever I can. It is just CV building really but the people at the office seem like good fun and I thought I would take the opportunity as internships are such a hassle to get hold of in the UK. It also gives me a chance to concentrate more on my written Spanish, which I will need to improve for my fourth year at Edinburgh. With regards to Fenix, making contacts within the bigger businesses may lead to valuable sponsorship so I will be keeping an eye on that.

Finally, I had an interesting social experience last night. I was in a club with some friends when a beautiful girl approached me and started chatting to me. She was charming, very complimentary and suggested in meet her in the bathroom in 10 minutes... I politely indicated that I was not inclined in that sense and that I was actually there with someone at the time, so it probably wouldn't go down too well. It just so happens that I did need the bathroom about half an hour later and she was standing in the queue when I got there. We chatted some more and I thought nothing of it, why would I? However, it did surprise me how much it bothered my friend. It must be a point of culture, but I regarded the whole thing as kind of amusing, whereas it seems Colombian women are regarded with the same level of competition as other Colombian men. Odd.
So that's this week’s news from Bog. I'll remember to write in shorter entries next time.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Brothels and Gatorade: Life has taken a turn for the random..

A long day, I started at El Refugio in the morning and then made my way to Timothy's to settle down for an afternoon of administration. I ended up tramping the streets with two of El Refugio's psychologists (Silvia and Sandra), wandering in and out of brothels at four in the afternoon and fending off sugar lows and hyperventilation with Gatorade. OK maybe a slight exaggeration, but there was a lot of nakedness. Such was my first experience of street outreach. Silvia and Sandra were recruiting brothel owners and prostitutes for a meeting next week to discuss the options available to them with regards to official papers and alternative work. Their approach was brilliant; casual, enthusiastic and down to earth. They are fairly well known in the area (Santa Fe) but obviously I wasn't so they flanked me at all times and I will continue to shadow them until I am a bit more of a familiar face.
The visit culminated in one of the sleeping quarters of the young or underage prostitutes. Many were my age and it was good to meet them. I ended up suggesting I come to Santa Fe once a week to teach a group of them some English. They really liked this idea, especially because most of them have such a romantic idea of learning English (often dispelled after a few sessions of Higgins-esque pronunciation bullying) so it looks like I've managed to start my own project, which is exciting.
Being here as an unqualified student is a useful journey of discovery for everyone involved. Timothy has been explaining that it is really all about playing to your own personal strengths, or even just vague interests, and therapy through friendship. As a result, I am going to take on two Fenix girls (the one I mentioned before who broke down the other day and her friend) and begin to create an atmosphere where I can be considered a particular friend. Hannah and Amy do the same sort of thing with two other girls, inviting them to their house and spending time with them, so I will be doing this with Angelica and Alejandra. I have thought of teaching them basic cooking skills so they learn something beyond 'arroz con pollo' and just hanging out, so they feel they have somewhere to go and relax. Like a family environment, which is really what Fenix is all about but it doesn't quite have the resources or space to fulfill this promise for everyone. One of the girls is an orphan and lives with an unpleasant boyfriend whom she hates, and feels trapped because she has nowhere else to go.

The desperately needed sponsorship and donations of individual patrons and those who have given so generously to my father's request at Christmas, means that these girls gain the education to get the economic basis they need to be free. I hadn't realised how much of a direct impact each contribution makes. It is a small organisation and every investment is noted and appreciated so much, even if it is just to buy a calculator or month's bus fair to get to college.
From a personal point of view, I want to thank everyone who has contributed. Timothy puts his life, soul and cash into this project, as do many others, and I genuinely wish I could do more to help monetarily. This is not just giving to some huge charity where money is lost in middlemen and bureaucracy. Where 3000 pesos is about 1 pound, everything goes a long way, and I see the results daily. As I said, many, many thanks.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010


I am halfway though my second week here and it feels like I've been here a hundred years. Not in a bad way at all, but, as the title of this blog suggests, I had and still have a lot to learn and it is quite exhausting.

While I'm on the subject, I should probably explain that I am not technically a 'gringo'. This title belongs only to the North Americans, apparently due to the historically heavy presence of 'greencoat' military in Latin America (but there are many different versions of the origins of the word). Either way it is applied to anyone who looks foreign, sometimes as an insult, sometimes just as a description but mainly because people like to mutter things as you walk passed. Surprisingly, the heckling isn't nearly as bad as it was in Spain, which is a massive relief. The people here are mainly interested in the fact there is a foreigner walking around their city, which is relatively uncommon. They aren't sufficiently accustomed to the presence of foreigners to start seriously annoying them as yet (just nicking stuff off them), which means on the whole, the people are so keen to talk and be friendly, to know more about you and to show you their country, of which they are immensely proud. It is also really refreshing because there are very few shops, stalls or activities tailored specifically to the tourist. Bogota has quite an international flavor anyway in its shops and bars, especially in the northern part of the city, but it is great to feel that nearly everything that is there is for the benefit of Colombians, rich or poor, and not for the tourist industry.

So. The last few days have consisted of quite a random bunch of activities. I went out with Hannah and some of her Colombian friends on Friday which turned out to be a really good night. I cannot believe I have ended up in a country where the national drink is Aguardiente. Basically another drink made from aniseed, which happens to be one of the only tastes in the world I really really hate. However, about five minutes after meeting these people I realised I had three choices: pay much more for a different drink, be antisocial and refuse everything, or just man-up and hold my nose. I'm pretty thrifty, and like being sociable, so you can guess which option won out. At least it made me a bit more receptive to the obligatory salsa that came later.

Saturday started at 9 with the Fenix meetings though it was a little chaotic this week. Hannah and I started teaching some English to two girls who are Fenix 'maybes'. I am continuing to learn from Hannah, she is extremely energetic, keeps control well and is really good fun. I tried to imitate her on Monday with my first class which consisted of 10 pupils at El Refugio. At least 75% of them were paying attention and we had a laugh so I think that was pretty successful, though I was totally unprepared for feeling nervous in front of these kids. I had forgotten that it is scary to get in front of a load of people and say anything, let alone be entertaining and informative in a different language. Also, I never realised how difficult it is to explain things in a way that is accessible and coherent. It seems obvious but when put on the spot it is so easy to confuse yourself and everyone else around you. You have to be really prepared and inventive. Huge sympathy with all the teachers I've ever had.

We went to the park to play some football accompanied by one of the other teachers, but two of the girls took the opportunity to run away, which happens quite often apparently. The staff don't worry about it too much, they can come back whenever they want, but these kids miss their families so much and are so unhappy when they are not with them that it is almost pointless forcing them to stay anyway. The irony is that most of them have been neglected, pimped or sold by their own parents.
I don't know, but it seems like the safety and painlessness of the refuge just doesn't compare to the autonomy and familiarity of their former lives. It must just seem like some unreal limbo to them.

Apart from the prison breaks, however, it was a good day and what came out of it (apart from hopefully imparting some knowledge of the verb 'To Be') was that when I turned up the next day, my rapport with the kids was much more secure. We were pleased to see each other and they were keen to start the next lesson. They also trusted me enough in a position of semi-authority for me to teach them some posture and breathing exercises learnt from NYCGB, which always seem a bit pointless and ridiculous at first but are very important. I am going to try and start a small singing group with them too, but that will have to be in a while.

Other activities have included dinners and epic games of monopoly with other variations on the American/Colombian mix which have been fun and provide some good downtime. It feels really good to have some proper friends here, two in particular, but not seeing them every day at university or any other fixed place means that life can be a little serious sometimes.
Timothy and Sarita took me to the embassy to have dinner with the British ambassador and his wife last night. It was so interesting to see diplomacy from a less personal point of view, though I hadn't realised how much I knew of it and the way it works. I'm not sure the lifestyle, name dropping and society would ever be for me, but you certainly meet some interesting people. Anyway, the idea is that I become the point of contact between the embassy and the charities if we ever need any strings pulled/handouts from the embassy warehouse. Hmm, not sure how effective I'll be on that one..

Today, as with every Wednesday, was a Fenix day when the girls can come and talk to the Fenix psychologist. My role is to be here to befriend the girls and make the atmosphere comfortable so that they open up and feel easier talking to the psychologist. One girl who I am particularly fond of and with whom I spent the whole afternoon has been coming for the last couple of weeks. Until today she hasn't said anything particularly useful or profound about herself, but at the end of the afternoon she broke down to Timothy and managed to have a useful session with the psychologist. I don't claim to have had anything to do with this; in fact it was a bit depressing to have been chatting and laughing with her all afternoon and not have any real inkling of what was really going on in her head. But it was good to see the process of progress. I am absolutely shattered though, this girl has way too much energy and chatting for 4 hours in Spanish has nearly killed me.

I have also been moving into my apartment today which I am looking forward to, but I will be spending a lot of time at Timothy and Sarita's anyway reading and just being around to help with the general flow of people.

That's about all for now. It's about 6.30. I want to go to bed.

Friday, 19 February 2010

The Beginning

I have been in Bogota, Colombia for a period 6 days now, most of which has been characterised by the question 'Where do I start'?' Writing this blog, for example; there is no way I have the energy to write personally to everyone who wants to know what Bogota is like, but then again, when faced with a blank window to record the last week, it feels like everything I want to say is inadequate.

So I’ll start with the basics:

I am staying with an old friend of my father's, Timothy Ross, and his wife Sarita. He and my father worked together here in Colombia years ago. Timothy used to be a journalist and photographer for many major western publications and has spent significant amounts of time reporting from and travelling with many political and military groups in Colombia. Now with various medical and psychological qualifications, he is the creator and director of the charity Fenix.

Fenix is a street outreach program which sponsors (through foreign and private patrons) young women who have had particularly bad experiences during their short lives. This includes abusive parents/partners, pregnancies and terminations, prostitution, rape, neglect, substance abuse and trauma of one description or another.
The organisation is not huge and is run with the help of professional psychologists, therapists and also by the girls who benefit from the 'godparents' who sponser them. They are in education and are training to become professionals such as doctors, nurses and dentists, all with the intention of helping their original communities. As a result, it only sponsors those with the intelligence to achieve professional status.

However, the outreach part of the program means that Fenix is a huge support for a wide network of children, adolescents and young people. Timothy and Sarita's flat is the main meeting area and almost drop-in center for anyone who may be having a crisis or who are just in need of a bit of company. For example, yesterday a pregnant nineteen-year-old and her 14 year old sister came by in the evening for a couple of hours. She wanted to voice her qualms about her pregnancy and get advice on exercise and stretching, as well as use the computer to do some study. Timothy, as a trained nurse, fed her, chatted to her, encouraged her, showed her what exercises to do and also how to stimulate the baby from its 'sleep' which is apparently not a good state for the fetus to be in. This involved playing classical music and blowing raspberries on her belly!

Obviously, working with women like this means that everyone in Fenix must be well versed in and very comfortable with talking about and explaining all manner of physical and psychological issues. I have become very used to listening to and discussing STD's, sexual relations and use of birth control freely and with examples. It’s a big change from the British social norms.

Fenix is affiliated with a large network of similar programs, two of which are called 'El Refugio' and 'Procrear'. I will be working mainly with El Refugio before I get into the serious street work of Procrear and Fenix. My street Spanish and social experience are simply not up to it.

El Refugio is a refuge centre for teenagers who need the asylum. I met the kids yesterday and had such a good time. They are sweet, funny, interested and energetic, and all desperately fascinated by the 'gringa' (foreigner/white person) that would be working with them. I spent an hour or two answering their questions about the fashion, music, lifestyle, sports, countryside, weather and people of the UK. They wanted to know who my friends and family were, what their names were, what they looked like. Was everyone tall over there? Why do I have different coloured skin? Does everyone have blue eyes over there? There was no persuading them mine are grey, that just would not do.

They are all between about 14 and 18 but, due to the circumstances of their histories, have a mental age which is slightly lower, so they love clowning around but also have a simultaneously candid but timid approach which can be a bit surprising. Mid-conversation about my family, one 16-year-old told me that she had a baby, and also suffered from HIV.

This was shocking, even after hearing all sorts of information and stories from Timothy. What was most unsettling for me though was how I should react to such information. As someone from such a very different upbringing, with opportunities they have never had and probably never will have, with all the advantage of my health and education and family, a really debilitating sense of inadequacy hit me. I didn't show this and luckily the girl inadvertently offered me a lifeline by asking whether they had HIV and AIDS in the UK, which kept the conversation upbeat and flowing. One homosexual boy joined in and started asking me about what type of gay bars they had over there, were they fun, were they safe? Edinburgh people, I related the delights of GHQ! It was just such a normal question for a teenage boy who wanted to start going out and meeting people.

Overall, the experience was really touching and I’m looking forward to working with them three times a week. I will be giving them an English class for an hour and then getting them outside to do some exercise. Most of them are a little overweight due to a sedentary lifestyle and high carbohydrate intake (lunch consisted of rice, yucca, oats and potato, with a tiny bit of meat)
I have no official qualifications to help these people so it is all about being opportunistic and using what you do know to help them. I never imagined that all the nutrition and excercise knowledge I gained from a teenage insecurity would be such a help here.

There have been many other meetings and experiences over the week that have been complete eye-openers. All I can do is watch and learn from people far more experienced and qualified than myself, and hopefully I will find my own niche at some point.

Apart from the work, Bogota itself is busy, dirty, noisy, full of people, markets and hectic bus routes. The atmosphere is brilliant, the people charming and the city completely polarised between rich and poor, beautiful and ugly, junk and treasure. Timothy took me to the flea market last Sunday which I loved, and had my first experience of how empowering a police uniform can be for a young Colombian: there really was no getting rid of dear old Andres, the marginally elevated officer who demonstrated how policing was more about personal status rather than enforcing the law. Next time, I'm definitely 'married'.
Timothy also showed me the bookseller’s area of the city. It is a warren of second hand book shops and arcades which include upstairs lounges with high ceilings and wooden floors, old leather chairs and thousands and thousands of books, so it is pretty easy to lose yourself for a day. I'm very pleased with this discovery.

As for a social network, I was pretty convinced that would be put on hold for the duration of my stay here. On the contrary. On my first night here, Amy, an American Fulbright student from the states invited me to a 'cookout' for one of her friends. Bearing in mind my paranoia was such that I hadn't even left the flat yet, I was a little bit nervous about going out drinking that night. Even so, I ended up meeting a brilliant group of young Americans and Colombians who are mainly here on Fulbright scholarships and so are all really motivated and intelligent. One girl, Caroline, has only been here a month and we really got on. She introduced me to her Colombian flatmate, Fabio, and we all met up the other day to see the Northern part of the city (the rich side) where they live. She also taught me to use the buses, which are mad, and I had my first Juan Valdez coffee. With baileys. Yum.

Hannah, another ex-Fulbright who lives with Amy, took me to visit her boyfriend's parents the other day and give them an English lesson. They were the loveliest couple, extremely in love after about 30 years together and so eager that I should feel comfortable with coming to them for anything. I watched Hannah give them an English lesson, which was so useful because she is a brilliant teacher. Afterwards, the parents gave us, and some other friends of Hannah's who joined us, this sweet drink made from sugar cane. You drop cheese into it to melt, then fish it out with a spoon and eat it with bread! It's just little things like this, which probably sound really boring, that make such a difference to how you feel about a place.

I have found a beautiful apartment in La Candelaria, the old part of town. It has a kitchen, sofa and fireplace downstairs (can be a little cold here due to the altitude) and a spacious room and bathroom upstairs with latticed windows and wooden flooring. I will be living on my own but in a complex with people. And it is really secure which is encouraging.

I'm looking forward to moving in but have really enjoyed living with Timothy and hearing all he has to say about his life, the work he does, and the people he works with. He has been given me a mound of literature by all the famous psychologists regarding sexual abuse, trauma-organised systems and violence to get through, and I have spent a few evenings reading without even noticing the time passing. Apart from the books being well written and interesting, the theory can be applied to the everyday practice of what I'm doing which isn't really something I have ever experienced before. I have never been much into psychology, but now I have started, I am loving the research opportunity and learning a lot. I just wish that, apart from the Spanish side of things, it was more relevant to my degree. 'Literature' just sounds a bit pathetic in comparison.

So that roughly summarises the last week, though there is plenty more I could ramble on about. I feel pretty wide-eyed at the moment, there is a lot to take in, and it is frustrating beginning to realise how much I don't know. I miss home a bit and appreciate any contact, but my energy levels have begun to meet there match out here, which is a fairly big deal and makes me happy :)