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 :)