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.