5/5 – Who will accompany you?

Aaand of course it’s upon finishing up and reading through my responses that I know there are just a few little details that remain. So essentially, what now? And how am I faring? Or, a response to what became another sub-question from a thoughtful family member responding to my writing about the casas de pique (chop houses) in Buenaventura: Have you imagined the process of your emotional transition to the time when you will be driving down a road and see a sign saying just those two words, advertising a sumptuous and welcoming dining establishment…

In general I’m faring okay, pretty well! I’m relaxing and reflecting a lot, reading and eating and dancing and being in nature, like you do during a life transition post something involved and worth processing. I’m noticing how I feel the same and how I feel different. I’ve disconnected somewhat from the work in Colombia, by choice, and bit by bit I am also making choices about the parts that I want to and can handle reading about and go about updating myself from out of country. I continue to revel and explore in the language that I have developed, and look for good Colombian articles to inform myself with in addition to the funny and whimsical poetry and lyric writing I have looked for.

Over time I am also doing the interesting discovery of which experiences have unconsciously stuck with me or which skills seem to be miraculously well developed all of a sudden. Some fun ones could be almost random, like having a workably good sense of what time it is based on the position of the sun. In Colombia, which is so close to the Equator, at dawn the sun surges like a rocket over the horizon and it plunges with determination at dusk, almost exactly 6-6. There are also pretty defined dry and wet seasons, with only minor variations in heat and more in humidity. As a New Englander this is all just extremely odd. It is one of the things about my place of origin that I am unconditionally affectionate for, our nutso oscillating weather but that absolutely has characteristic changes of season. As somebody who very much marks the passage of time through the change in weather, it almost felt like for the year and a half that I was there my time was suspended a little bit, weather-wise. As what was obviously my most extreme exercise in empathy while there, I tried to understand what it was like to understand time as a Colombian, and asked friends and acompañadxs about it. Are things separated by the sun and rain? Or does it just feel like the most marvelous rotation of crops? Didn’t pin down an exact answer, but it was real fun to think about! I’m also better at thinking through logistics now, and have a sharper sense of the difference of how I come across to others versus how I’m feeling internally. And I know more about land and nature now! This one’s a major plus – learning to spot new fruits nearby is tasty to body and mind.

There are other things, like somewhat ultimate flexibility when it comes to sleeping situations (couch, chair, whatever), but really recognizing that come down to it, now that I do have some choice I’m even allowing myself to enjoy being picky sometimes. Noticing preferences in myself and others in general is constantly instructive. A lot of the time whenever I can feel myself starting to get fatootsed, it doesn’t tend to escalate very much because it is not difficult to recall how hard things actually are in other parts of the world. People are in their own worlds and mostly I get it, it’s just hard sometimes when the temperature of coffee or waiting in a four-person line becomes a matter of upset. I’m learning when it’s important to listen to what are now being somewhat truthfully, somewhat playfully hashtagged as “first world problems”, and when it is useful for me to nod but be on my way.

What that really speaks to is recognizing how lucky and priviledged I am in so many ways, and more of the ways I recognize that. And in fact, most people do lead easier lives when they don’t live in a conflict zone. I think about confianza a lot, and what it means that as small as some peoples’ comfort zones are in the US and beyond, they are actually physically safe. Yeah, a piano might fall on any of our heads, but for the most part people are free of the fear that comes with calculated political violence, and that is precious. It was a weird series of twisted joyful moments for me in my job this summer to arrive and realize that after three days I had freely shared more with some of my new colleagues about my personal and professional life than I had with almost anybody new I met in the last year. I don’t have the creative challenge of finding ways around it anymore, but I can talk freely about my location and company on the phone! I have also been happy to realize how much more consciously I recognize that everybody is coming from somewhere and has their own stories; with some of the patience I gained and some of the questions I learned to ask, I have been a lot more open to people, and learned and have been pleasantly surprised by how much people will offer about themselves if you can be interested.

Experience-wise there are some things I have learned I cannot really do anymore, or at least right now. I’ve always been a sensitive person with a hyperactive, vivid imagination, but I’m way less conflicted when it comes to violent or needlessly gruesome anything. I figure I was doing some pretty sensitive work and was kind of maneuvering it while it was happening, but after leaving I’m aware of how gingerly I’m reacting to some things now, because as aware I am of how much I adore the vast majority of the people and so many, many other things about the country, at the moment it’s a quicker overload. I am choosing how much violence to process and interact with, from news to media. It’s a little rough considering the apalling situations of police brutality and national gun (lack thereof) control in the US right now. I was at once overwhelmed, fired up, inspired, and proud when my Facebook newsfeed turned into a righteous angry hurricane when the events with Michael Brown and Eric Garner were happening and the Black Lives Matter movement was starting to take off, so much so that I wrote an almost-publishable piece about it at the time (we’ll see). But it all really just makes me furious and aghast, because doesn’t feel that damn complicated to me. The arguments to keep guns around that make me maddest are “my guns are mine and I like them”, primarily because returning from a country where there is a conflict with such a staggering number of current and historic citizen victims just pretty much makes me feel like casual ownership is brazen and a dark, condescending slap in the face. See these (both, for a taste of reaction to the preceding).

So on many levels it really was a sobering return to the US, and in really unexpected moments. (Strong material warning for this paragraph and next.) Sometimes they are memories that just pop up. One of the events that affected me slowly but most strongly was the death of a great teacher and educator, Carlos Pedraza, who was killed this past January after being disappeared for two days. Carlos was involved, though on a second-tier or support level with different organizations fighting for causes in education and in the Peoples’ Congress (El Congreso de los Pueblos) and I am 95% sure I met him in the Community during the Campesino University. I think I translated for our delegates during a workshop he ran on education reform. I saw his face in pictures on posters and pamphlets we had in the house for days before putting that together, just before a meeting we had with his brother and the US embassy, which was a lot.

I spent the summer working in New Haven, Connecticut, working with teenagers doing all kinds of cool things, one of them being making different kinds of art that they got to show off at a little gallery towards the end of the session. There were really exciting displays in architecture and design, public art and video installations, and a bunch of other things too. It happened to be my night off that night, but I still wanted to see the pieces, so I went to the gallery later on in the evening, when it was pretty much the staff left and starting to clean up. I walked around laughing and hugging a new friend on staff as we took in all of the interesting pieces there were up, until we came to an all-class collaborative piece with three works held up on thin metal rods. The pieces were made of Barbies, and were (L->R) a pair of legs extended wide, a torso, and I believe two arms all suspended there, simply adorned in some way and labeled in kind, “The Legs”, “The Torso”, “The Arms”. Earlier in session it had turned up on local New Haven news that human limbs had been found in town, and several days later the torso had been found separately. There was somewhat of a tittering buzz on campus, a nervous kind of of what-does-this-mean energy with very real curious edges to it surrounding the whole incident. Dismemberment is so… singular. It’s an act almost medieval-feeling, and it’s just so unusual in the US. It obviously wasn’t blatantly funny to people, but there was enough of a silliness factor, of independent limbs existing somewhere close, especially with such blurry information around the whole thing. And clearly it was enough that our high schoolers were working through it consciously while it worked deeper into sub levels for them, enough that they made art about it. I stopped and caught my breath, and felt that little feeling of dazzlement that happens when it feels like the crank is pulled and all of the blood in your body freezes for a few seconds before it remembers to go again, just a little chillier than before. “It’s the bodies,” I said, “like on the news.” I had been totally taken by surprise, and hugged my friend a little closer.

The first half of the question was about the chop houses, but there was a second half, too. And what I mean by that is who will accompany you on that perilous journey?

It was a strange and somewhat beautiful coincidence that the friend I was holding onto had just gotten back from the Dominican Republic, doing work in a similarly hot region where similar things can happen, too. In a moment where things were on the fast track for a serious emotional nosedive, it was literally right there where we could feel a bit of a parachute open.

It is in moments like that when it is utterly clear to my why my people are most important to me always. I’ve just been listing the parts that have been hardest in my extraction, because they are the parts I’m wrestling with (pre therapy, which I’m looking for). As I said, when I was in Colombia the parts I loved most about the work were absolutely our acompañadxs themselves and my fellow accompaniers, all of whom together were the most inspiration and support you can imagine. But who will accompany me on my journey in the homeland? But you will, of course.

Perhaps I have not said it clearly, or often enough, or loudly. But please hear it: thank you for being my net. Thank you for being interested, or for asking about or investigating this work. A profound and somewhat dumbfounded thank you for making it through these emails, if you’ve done so. Thank you for being there when I was figuring things out. Thank you for being there for me even when you did not know it, when thoughts of you and where you were, interacting and being kind and loving others and yourselves, did so much to make me smile, or remember, and giggle to myself. You all are what fill me up, and your presence made me know that everything, including I myself, would be okay. Normally I do okay homesickness-wise; I’m pretty good at being where I am, feel comfortable sucking my electronic thumb social devices, and know it’ll be fine. But it’s no replacement for getting to see my people, which I got to do in abundance this summer and fall. If I did see you, know just how much that meant to me. If I didn’t, I’m still sending you affection and waiting (somewhat) patiently, with the confidence we’ll see each other again soon and it will be an ecstatic adventure!

So for now I am taking time and place to remove myself and continue to process it all. I am going about continuing to articulate what I want to take and what I want to be from what I have just been doing, and am excitedly gathering materials and momentum before the next big professional move: to the classroom with me, Fall 2016.

You all are really the best. Thanks again for accompanying me on this and other journeys, perilous and otherwise. I’m looking forward to hearing from you soon. For now…

All My Love,


4/5: A Peace of Happiness

From what you’ve seen all this time that you’ve been in Colombia, where lies the central hope in the process of developing a happier country? (Or the way I remembered it in conversation with others, “With all that you’ve seen, what do you think would make Colombia a happier country?“)

I really had to chew on this one. The original response I gave to my friend had taken long enough in getting out anyway, so it therefore was a little rushed (when I am waiting to finish writing something it is a little cathartic birth-like thing), and it was also somewhat uninformed. After that I was able to talk to many more people to ask what they thought, and now I have much more organized thought about it!

So my original response first talked about confianza as a value and really something knitted into the fabric of Colombian culture, and I do still think the country’s happiness is wrapped up in that. Other parts of my first efforts, as it were, are as follows: “…in a bunch of places, including at least two I’ve been which are some of the hottest parts of the country (conflict-wise), the happiest I’ve seen people is when there’s a dance. The double happiest I’ve seen people was when there was a dance with a live band – in the campo when people are happy, there is whooping, and that night was filled with it. Colombians as a whole are incredible dancers, and really there’s something for everyone at a dance. Even those few who don’t dance like to watch. It’s a break in the routine, it’s a mostly-accepted way to share with many different people. And at the very least, within peoples’ own communities, at a closed event everybody knows who everybody is, there’s no danger of armed actors, and the conflict is forgotten for a while when people lives in their bodies. In cities it’s the same, people are just amazingly good at being in their bodies.”

When I asked Colombians, a few of them said that winning the World Cup would be a big morale booster, and it’s definitely true that for the World Cup in 2014, it seemed like the whole country was yellow (the most salient color of the Colombian flag) and for many, many months after the Cafeteros’ breakout star, James Rodríguez, was everywhere, kissin’ babies and otherwise blessing a slew of fun products. I nodded and remembered the success of the local campo soccer tournament. I do also just want to point out that the Colombian team did dance victoriously on the field sometimes, which, yes, does make me feel as though I can have my cake and eat it too celebration-wise. Even as I said the dance thing and as I heard more thoughts on soccer, it didn’t feel quite right to me. At that time I concluded, “The thing that makes me saddest/most uncomfortable about this is that it implies forgetting for a little while, rather than working through upset. But then again, this isn’t about therapy, it’s about happiness. So the happiness is in the dance”. But it continued to niggle at me, the idea that a jolly trade could be made by sweeping the pain under the rug in order to let the nation’s happiness preside.

At the time I wasn’t sure I felt bold enough to answer in the way that I was tentatively perceiving. But after observing further and having it affirmed and/or echoed by at least three nationals, I can less cautiously assert that the implication of the question is that Colombia isn’t happy, and this is not necessarily true. It does raise interesting questions about what happiness means, exactly, or if there are “levels of happiness”, type of thing. But in general, people did seem pretty happy to me. Yes, even taking into account how the conflict has left no family untouched, has wrenched millions from their homes and shuffled others about, and how some true atrocities are taking place, there also almost always is a pocket for lightness, and laughter. Even in some of the most tense meetings I witnessed, if some joke were made about the heat, or about lunch, for example, the joke would literally “crack” the tension and to my consistent amazement, everybody in the room conceded at least a small chuckle if not a hearty laugh. Also, as mentioned previously, Colombians are good at taking a break, even if it’s only a bit of a one for lunch. It’s also the country with the most nationally-recognized holidays (and therefore Mondays off). At the end of my original email I noted, “(…the happiest I saw the campesinos (farmers) who I lived with was when they were working the fields on community work days. Maybe they’re happier other days or at other moments, but those were the times I saw them. Sooooo much whooping, huge joy in sharing, and in working in the field, safer in a group and uninterrupted by armed actors. But that’s the campesinos, not everybody 🙂 ).” These were small moments.

A few months after leaving I met a Venezuelan man who was rather critical of Colombia’s seeming happy-go-lucky attitude. Without having been to Colombia, and having spent most of his adult life out of Latin America, even, he perceived the overall Colombian approach to life as somewhat glib and almost intentionally, aggressively ignoring the harsh pitches of the realities consistently thrown at them. I could see where he was coming from, but at the same time this too felt off the mark. It occurred to me that oppositely, it could be that it is in spite of all the heaviness that there is such lightness at times. It’s clear that overall, Colombians have some pretty developed coping techniques, because to live perpetually as heavy as some parts of reality happens there would be literally dehabilitating.

The biggest counter-indicator to this person’s idea of Colombian happiness is that if there’s one thing Colombia, like many parts of the Spanish-speaking world, specializes in, it is memory, or remembrance, particularly with regard to those whose lives were unfairly taken by corrupt governments or twisted regimes. As burned communities who understand impunity deeply through personal loss, it is common to emphasize the importance of the truth and of not forgetting, in holding out and making demands for justice as vehemently as they can. (Note: this part of the paragraph on the heavy/jarring side.) I happened to be in the Peace Community for both the 18-month and two-year anniversaries of the death of Eduar Lanchero, a hugely important Community leader and legal counsel who happened to die of cancer. First of all, almost the whole Community, all three accompaniment organizations, and many people from outside came down to remember him, including his elderly mother, who made the trek and spoke about Eduar’s childhood and his dedication to the Community. Community members were invited to share stories and time together, and were invited to the full hour-long service at 2.38 AM, the time of his death, in addition to the daytime commemoration. During the daytime event there was also a re-enterring for a Community member’s four-year-old child who had been shot and killed during a military raid a few years prior. Padre Javier, the priest, had had the bones in a sort of cloth earlier when I had seen him. Until it was happening, however, I somehow had missed that the simple but pretty wooden box in the center of the circular memorial ceremony was where those bones would be replaced. Of the four-year-old. His mother was there at the quiet ceremony in rural Colombia, and did not speak but was surrounded by the collective reverent tone as Padre Javier lead those gathered through some of his thoughts on the impunity of the event and the actions and attitudes necessary to take so these horrific acts would not happen again.

On Easter one year, the Community also did a memorial walk around the villages and on the road between their hub and the next biggest town a few kilometers away, putting up over 40 crosses along the way in all of the places where Community members or people who help them had been killed because of their relationship with the Community since their start in 1997. The Peace Community is an organization known for its speaking out and acts in demand of justice, but similar acts take place in other parts of the country as well. I wrote about the memorial in the Humanitarian Space in Buenaventura on International Women’s Day when it happened. There were also events on the year anniversary of the creation of the Humanitarian Spaces of Buenaventura and Tamarindo. There was also palpable fury when, in a meeting in Boquerón between community members being forcibly relocated due to effects of mining and representatives from the same mining companies, the reps essentially questioned the existence of the culture that people seemed to be so fervently defending. How dare they say our culture doesn’t exist. Didn’t exist. Ask our ancestors, whose couple-hundred-year-old graves have a fate yet to be determined during the relocation of our community because of your lies. In all of these events, the message is clear: we remember those we love who are no longer here, we miss them and have to go on anyway.

In virtually every one of these events that I attended, there was strong mention of the ultimate importance of The Truth with regard to the events that happened, in knowing that justice is being served. We got to hear from a brilliant human rights lawyer, Nancy Fiallo, when a delegation came to Colombia last March, and she posited an interesting if painful debate. She talked about the massive and widespread acts of the Colombian government against its own people, and mentioned that the great debate here is whether the truth would actually be relieving, or if showing everything out in the open, especially after many years, would make everything even more painful. In terms of the day-to-day, I see this as really the crux of the issue, which raises some key questions. Is Colombia just plain happy? Or can Colombia be happy only when the truth is brought to light, with full knowledge that that will be painful and potentially unsatisfying? Is it worth it to create justice? What will make things better? How much and to what degree is Colombia’s overall happiness wrapped up with its peace or relationship to its conflict?

It was a true pleasure to be on the FORPP team as a former accompanier and current board member, Chris, came to do field research for his doctorate in human geography about peace and territory and what it means to different parties (a serious simplification, do forgive me). This was great for a number of reasons, including getting to watch and interact with a truly brilliant active listener and sharp perceiver who asked really beautiful questions about what each piece of it all really means. It also meant we got to hear about what different peoples’ definitions of “peace” were. One of the Peace Community campesino’s was (paraphrased) “when you can grow your beans without anybody bothering you.” This response felt especially pertinent to a different group of campesinos that we accompanied in Nilo, just outside of Bogotá. This community is made of families that have lived on their land for over five generations now, since before the 1920s. In Colombia the concept of land ownership is hugely complicated, particularly because there is such a range of laws and that have been implemented in waves such that it is sometimes legally unclear whose land is whose, when and according to which entities. So the people of Nilo found their lives complicated when a large chunk of land, mainly populated by their community, was purchased by the Colombian army in 1954. The Tolemaida military base, one of the largest and most important bases in the country, is now home to many army officials, most of whom are from the United States. Over time the army has essentially become more and more hostile towards the local campesino community, including in some cases actually getting physically aggressive, making illegal detentions and recording the comings and goings of community members.

I went to Nilo for the first time in May of 2014, when we went to make observations and take pictures of a literal mountain of trash that was dumped immediately behind the base and into in the top of the creek which was, until recently, the campesinos’ water source. I returned a couple of times several months later, to document the illegal and mass excavation of the rocks and trees in the nearby river, which will literally change the geographic course of history by the way, and to serve as a witness for a series of events verifying the most recent military roadblocks as well as other related events. Nilo was an interesting place to accompany in that it was completely physically safe in terms of combat between armed groups; unlike our other acompañadxs, Nilo is unaffected by guerillas or paramilitary, and instead have purely army to be concerned by. While this of course means different challenges, lowering the physical risk factor by so much, in Nilo it is pretty politically charged for us to be there. The last time we went, it was when the new General and head of the base had just started in his position. We had been there for a different type of event, but after the first day (possibly in part because they saw that we were there?) the army invited everybody to a meeting with the army and the community. This was the first time anything like this had ever been done, and we got to witness what it looks like to have the head of the army meet with the community that lives so close by. There was hope, curiosity, and serious apprehension on the part of the community, and overall it was an interesting first meeting, after which several would follow.

FORPP’s accompaniment in Nilo was relatively new and significantly less involved (only in that we would go once every several months rather than monthly, like we did many of our other acompañadxs), but I loved going there because for the times we were going, it was well thought through and a particularly pointed visit with a rather specific set of political goals to achieve, collecting stories, photographs, and videos as evidence to write letters or publish articles with our observations and support of the community affected. The community members were also really consistent with their own documentation, so our infrequent visits were always rather packed. We primarily worked with the elected leaders of the community and their families, and they characteristically are enthusiastic, intelligent people who really do just want the military to respect the boundaries between the base and the farmers’ land.

As I left the country things were heating up enough that we as internationals gave a little “hey what’s going on here?”-type question on the phone, but there were also these negotiation meetings happening between the campesinos and the military, which was historically unprecedented and really important. We’ll see what happens. For those of Nilo, though, it was pretty clear peace would truly be being left to grow their beans in peace. Or as a wise friend of mine pointed out, you could basically say that for almost anything – “peace is growing your ____ without anybody bothering you”. And it’s true. In general in Colombia, like in many places, there is a serious and growing economic gap between haves and have-nots, but what each group needs isn’t necessarily aligned with what they do happen to have (or not); there were many occasions on which, for example, I heard the campesinos say, “we aren’t poor. We are rich, do you see this land?” They referred to the Colombian soil’s infallible growth, and the abundance that was literally all around them. No, they don’t have a lot of money, but the land is hugely rich so they can grow almost all of what they need to eat, and can share or borrow a lot of other things. They are rich in community.

It is in comments like this that I start to better articulate my own definition of peace. In-country there are signs with the national slogan campaigning for the peace agreements reading “Yo soy la paz,” (“I am the peace”). For me these are interesting signs, using the personal rather than the collective form (as in, “we are the peace”), and linguistically I am wondering how effective they are versus the group form, for example. In a country in which solidarity is lived every day, to such a degree that you always, always wait for people, and where the primary concern is about being alone both temporarily and long term but confianza is key and not granted to everybody, I’m not sure which approach is a good one. Throughout Colombia as I was leaving, there was talk of the peace accords between the Colombian President, Santos, and the leaders of the FARC, the largest and longest-running guerilla group in the country. Those talks were happening for around three years before they came to an agreement, which they completed and are supposed to be in final negotiations and close to signing this fall. The five points they are discussing are rural development, political opposition and citizen participation, the end of the conflict itself, illicit drugs and narcotrafficking, and rights of victims. I’ll admit that in part because our work, while 100% related to the conflict but was slightly less immediate to what we were doing, I didn’t and haven’t followed the every move of the negotiations. Politics and taking in all the pieces thereof is still a challenge for me. But having been in many parts of the country and doing work such that I feel allows me an opinion anyway, I am inclined to think certain things about the agreements.

I think overall it’s good that they’re happening. We at FORPP found ourselves relieved that Santos was voted to stay in presidency a couple of years ago, rather than Zuluaga, who was vowing to stop the negotiations if elected, so overall it’s better they’re happening than if they were to not happen. I think the things they are talking about are the right ones (that is, talking over literally everything), and the fact that the FARC is central let alone acknowledged at the table is huge. I think it is wise that they are using the common mediation technique of an all-points-or-no-points agreement. The government has to be aware that the FARC doesn’t represent everybody, though, so this would be a potential merit to the country voting yes or no on the agreements post creating them. Beyond all this I’m a bit of a cynic, politically. Basically I’ll believe peace in Colombia when I see it, but more when I’ve seen it for a good while. Because the biggest two obstacles I see to the success of this agreement are all of the multiple paramilitary groups that, yes, do still very much exist in Colombia despite the big government paramilitary reveal and acknowledgement in 2012, and the blazing eyes of international development greedily sharpening their vision on the resources available in Colombian soil. The paras are highly threatening, and depending on the area of the country they’re in can turn into merciless assassins as they fly straight under the official radar. Then, their interests are ultra wrapped up in those of mining companies which are seeking to excavate an absolutely petrifying amount of resources in the next couple of decades. I don’t have a snazzy list of solutions from my corner, I’m just wary of whatever conditions the peace agrements (“”) will set out initially, considering there is at least as much if not more to consider beyond what those documents will contain, and considering previous failed attempts, my confidence is low they will come through.

I believe strongly in nonviolent principles (struggling with that name), and in considering nonviolence and peace, I am asking myself how I define those, and I try out scenes I see in everyday life, asking myself if things are peaceful, and as I go along I know better when I see it, and I have more facility in defining it without its opposite. I’d encourage you do the same: try thinking about how you conceive of peace, but without using violence or war in the definition, because it’s hard. Maybe that’s not the important part, but I’m coming to see it as important that naming “peace” as only a counter to “violence” or “war” not be all of it. That’s not fair. On the other side, peace is not only when there is lack of war, or lack of out-and-out physical conflict. Having lived in and left conflict zones of differing levels of violence, there absolutely is a palpable change in what it feels like to be in one place versus another, with the differences being all about stress and heaviness and general tension, which comes out in different ways like lack of confianza, visible wariness, tightness in peoples’ posture, or clipped or overly sarcastic responses to things, and beyond.

It’s a somewhat common joke that when God was creating Colombia (Catholic country, people), God put all of these beautiful lands and rivers and creatures in the country and was asked, “Whoa!! Won’t that be too much for one place?” God winked and responded, “just wait ’til you see the politics I put in there!” Or regularly, when talking about armed actors, “Colombia without conflict?” people say, “Can you imagine? It would be a paradise!” And this is where my thinking about peace comes in, and through that wanders happiness. Post Colombia I will no longer define peace as a lack of violence. Just on principle it’s unfair to call peace just when people aren’t killing each other. I don’t pretend to have a fully-articulated vision of peace, but I’m working on unconvering it. I see peace as about building things, and creativity, and making communities that people have a space in and feel welcome to be a part of and can contribute to. Peace is about choice and about play and enjoyment and about listening for the good, or helpful, or positive, or constructive in what people do. It is about belief in the value of forming things to be beautiful and taking the time to do so, and expressing what’s important. And peace is about sharing.

I come back to the peace part of this because I guess I’m still working on where I think the central hope in making Colombia a happier country is, and I think they’re related even if I don’t have a neat answer yet. I was speaking with a Colombian-US American friend the other day about the new Netflix release of “Narcos”, a series about the famous Colombian druglord Pablo Escobar. The show is apparently pretty good, by my friend’s standards too, but that’s beside the point. My friend’s irritation was that it is yet another piece of media portraying the hyper-dangerous drug-run view of the country. While it is true that there are regions and times which are more dangerous, to cast all of Colombia as that isn’t just unfair, it’s inaccurate. “I wish I could say where my family is from without people making jokes about drugs and violence,” she said, and I know what she’s talking about. When I first had this question about national happiness asked to me, considering all that I had seen in the country, I too went to the place of “things are so heavy here, so where is the light?” But while it is an obviously-flawed country, there is so, so much good in it, too, and so much happiness already. Since her mentioning this we have of course entertained ourselves by brainstorming what we think might be some really gripping portrayals of other aspects of Colombia, for example. So really the question about happiness just needs to be other questions too, about how to tease out more of it, and to more people. To determine the spaces where peace and happiness overlap, and work those on the hardest. Imperfect though it may be, a country with more capable happiness generators there will never be.

3/5: Studies in (Im)Permanence

I’d say that’s the part that’s really the crux for me in answering this question, because really it is less “could you live here permanently? and more “could you be an accompanier here permanently?” Above, and in previous emails, are reasons why I love and am passionate about Colombia. To accompany in-country and always, however, is another thing.

One of the most fun parts of accompaniment is how dynamic the job as a whole is. It is so multi-faceted, and there are so many different and varied things to do always that it is virtually impossible to find the job boring. Getting physically, emotionally, and politically ready for accompaniments, finding our way and actually getting the right buses, figuring out who and how to talk to people where we are, filling in the gaps between what we know is happening bureaucratically and socially where we are headed and what has happened recently, making process-based predictions and figuring out where we as one accompaniment organization fit into it all, preparing for and navigating meetings with acompañadxs, other accompaniment organizations, various police and military officials, ministers, ambassadors, UN, and others, these were all things we did. I did. When people asked “what do you do every day?” I liked that it was better to answer by describing a “typical” month rather than a single day, because they all looked so different. This works super well for me, and it meant that there were a bunch of things I got to work on and be good at, which I’ll self-centeredly admit I enjoy. Other than talking with acompañadxs, I think my favorite part about the office work of accompaniment was the amazing conversations I got to have with my babely colleagues, and the types of questions we needed to/got to ask ourselves and then sometimes answer and sometimes think further on. Which part of this situation are we actually accompanying, here? Is our accompaniment there effective? Which things worked from our last accompaniment, and which things should we avoid or change this time? Of what we’ve just done, what should we be publishing and communicating to the network of support and solidarity we’re building? Where should we apply pressure? Most importantly, where are all of our team members right now, and how do we coax and cajole our schedule into cooperation?

There were some parts that were a little more challenging for me. As a bit of a technophobe, I probably somewhat cartoonishly tried to avoid team social media production (note that I did do it, it was just a little agonizing). Even more, learning the political and social histories and contexts of multiple acompañadxs at once when I got to Bogotá was really, really challenging for me. It’s hard in part because keeping all of the different groups and their histories and tendencies straight is a staggering amount of information. Then there was nailing down all the details and cross-checking from various sources is somewhat high stakes, safety- and otherwise, and because that’s a particular struggle for me, it meant I would face somewhat strong rounds of self doubt and real talking myself down from my knee-jerk, too-high-pressure/standards-induced downward spiral if I figured out I had taken an approach I after deemed inappropriate or incorrect. One thing I’ll say for it, though, is accompaniment definitely filled my somewhat extreme need to be always learning. Particular brain excitement when connections are made and better questions can be asked, plus serious reward for making the right connections at the right time.

In a related vein, one of the aspects of accompaniment that people perpetually say is hard is the principle of non-inherency, meaning not opining on the personal or political processes of acompañadxs, to them or anybody else. In my brain and for the first many months of the job this was easy: I knew my role, to not opine outside of the organization, and it therefore took most of the pressure off of feeling responsibility. Non-inherency is actually the policy that made me feel able to do the work, standing as witness and in solidarity with those being marginalized, and stepping to the side to allow their informed-through-experience, personally-affected voices to be the louder ones. Our acompañadxs were also extremely capable people overall, so feeling like some kind of bystander didn’t really come up in most situations, and anytime it was inappropriate to share our opinions, it was pretty professionally obvious. As time went on, though, the question often asked to me of “is it hard not to have an opinion?” became realer on a personal level. I discovered in my first couple of months in Bogotá, nearing a year in Colombia, that there is an acute and sure relationship between what/how much you know and what/how much you feel you have enough authority to comment or advise on. In other words, essentially as I learned more and also became more passionate about the rights and struggles of our acompañadxs, it became harder to maintain that boundary and not talk to them as typical comrades with opinions about things. In case you were curious, questions of “what is considered inherecy, and when?” are questions that are just as interesting and all the more wrenching to ask ourselves, depending on the situation.

Really, living as an accompanier is a wildly specific view of the country. To be good at our jobs, we must learn as best we can the whole context of every place and group we accompany, and we have first-hand experience visiting and in some cases living some of the heaviest hits of the conflict. While we of course will never understand as a native Colombian can, we are in a unique position as outsiders to the country in terms of what kind of information we get and how deeply we can understand it. I obviously think about this stuff because it’s omnipresent in my own head, and the question of whether or not I could live here permantly was asked to me, so to my own people I’m allowed to lay out my response however egotistically and from-a-distance as I want. This is a huge priviledge. As an acompañante, THE thing that makes us most valuable is our foreign-ness, which incidentally is also a grand priviledge: we have the choice to leave, and we understand we’re not leaving our home in doing so. But that really is the part that dually is the most important. Accompaniers by definition have the ability to create bigger spaces for nationals to act, and under a multitude of circumstances are they able to leave. This is hardly to say that accompaniers up and leave all the time, but in a certain sense, we do (physically) leave most of the places we accompany after we have been there for a few days; our position of living consistently in the Peace Community is a very different, extremely isolated circumstance. But even there, we leave.

Being outsiders is but one of many priviledge-based parts of accompaniment, and it’s a tricky one to navigate. Not unlike teaching, or any other profession in which your body and you are the instrument for what you are doing, the sheer volume of identity work is positively mammoth. As a young, white, short, stocky, bug-attracting, woman, with a background in human rights but not directly square with politics and/or history, from the United States (and a bunch of other qualities, too), every part of me (particularly physically) was called out at some point in contribution to or working against the work we were doing. It can at times feel like an intentional crazy-making scheme, because your professionalism and effectivity is entirely based on the understanding others get in meeting you, in receiving the perception you want them to have of you versus the one you are internally managing. It was most of the time worth it and sometimes not to counteract misperceptions people had of us, but mostly it was just a consistent consideration.

“Just be yourself” works pretty well, but to a point, because then you have to judge whether those puns you really want to try to make all the time are worth the charm factor over this particular audience thinking you’re actually nuts, or if they are someone to give an honest answer to the “tell me about your love life” question to, all while maintaining professional integrity and building positive relationships to bring the organization’s goals forward. These questions come up every couple of minutes or so while on accompaniment, which most of the time is fun, but is of course a lot after a while. Especially as you get to know and admire acompañadxs more, just as it becomes harder not to advise on processes, the temptation to share as friends rather than colleagues becomes stronger, and is one indicator of it being time to leave. And a simultaneously empowering, relieving, existential, and stinging reality is that in our places, as accompaniers we do represent an organization. While we absolutely from different countries, and sometimes use that to make contacts with particular embassies, for example, our overall nationality is “not here”, and we are replaceable in our positions. It’s an interesting reality to know how both vital and nothing you are.

Finally, there is the pretty strong factor of how much mostly secondary and occasionally primary trauma one can choose (by profession if not always circumstance) to take and stay healthy. It’s kind of an interesting thing that in traveling around with different acompañadxs, we would get weird comparative stories of the horrors and severity in one place versus another. I happen to be a somewhat sensitive person anyway, but wasn’t totally aware of how much it all was affecting me until I left. I’m still figuring some degrees of that out, and will mention more in words to come. But basically no amount of preparation or reflection in or immediately after the moment will necessarily be helpful, because it’s often the smallest things that plant the nastiest, stingingest seeds, like awful invisible splinters that the most patient of tweezers cannot swiftly remove.

Overall, I did love my job accompanying. It was work I learned oceans and made unbreakable connections from. After a year and a half, I was simply done doing it. To end on a high note, beyond the work of accompaniment, I was also in the unique position of getting to help develop FORPP’s Bogotá team in a big way, and I am really proud of that. I discovered that I love the type of thinking that comes with figuring out what is working about an organization, and what could change to make it work better. It was a fun and interesting interactive mobile for me, and I am really proud to say that there are parts of the organization that I can point to and say that I made them so, or that they wouldn’t have been the same without my input. This was a way I found to leave little parts of my legend behind, which feels really, really good. Eventually though, the enormous push that comes with starting any movement worth having will start to have an effect, especially after time. It’s a lot of job in one job, and I have valued and loved a lot of it. Ultimately, it is not a job meant to last forever (while also maintaining one’s health and sanity), and I have chosen to leave and do other things.

2/5: Studies in Permanence

Do you think you could live here permanently?

I have a very complicated relationship with the implications of this question. Many of the things I talked about in the last question form part of my advocacy for loving the country and staying (or visiting!), and there are many, even more everyday reasons for wanting to stay, too.

This is not novel, but one thing I adore is the Spanish. I love it, I love the sound, I love how it turns when it is spoken. I am unequivocally pleased when I figure out new meanings of words and new possible uses of old words. I love Spanish, I heart Spanish, Gale Virginia + español. 4eva. Within the country, Colombians themselves will tell you how varied the accent is just within the (to be fair, considerably large) country, but it was funny how for me it ended up also being a marker of where we happened to be accompanying at any given time. In the captical city of Bogotá they have some of the most clear, lovely Spanish, highly praised from many parts of Latin America. In Antioquia where the Peace Community lives, they have an accent that I love but which is called one of the strongest of the country; these are the serious country people of Colombia, who sometimes just leave off half of their words, replacing both that and their “s” sounds with those of the Spanish “j”, coming out like a gentle sighing hhhh. It is reminiscent of a soft Chilean Spanish, which always tickled me, and is simultaneously frustrating and somewhat amusing when people from other parts of the world, or country, come to visit and have the hardest time getting into it. After you open your ear a bit, it’s comfortable. Along the Caribbean coast where we accompanied in Tamarindo, and along with Tierra Digna the communities of Don Jaca and Boquerón, there is the same word-slicing, but instead of being replaced with the hh, the second halves of words are cut off completely! So you get all the speed and none of the softness, making it some of the most rapid, tenacious Spanish in the country. And on the Pacific coast in Buenaventura is the most sinuous language we came across, with extended, savored essssses and relaxed, comfy intonation. Think auditory steaming mashed potatoes and gravy, all day.

Words I will use permanently include: “hágale” – literally the command “you do it”, but with a sense that’s a somewhat cavalier mix of “go for it” and “why not”. “Amañarse” meaning “to be comfortable/settled in” is beautiful. It’s a terrible trick that people ask you if you’re amañado or amañada when you first get there, because you’ll inevitably think you’re mishearing them and ask what they are asking about the next morning (mañana), but it’s actually a simple way to ask if you’re happy with wherever you’ve just arrived to. I also know that for Colombians it’s not so unusual, but I was overwhelmed with the intimacy I felt was implied (non romantically) when somebody asked if I was “amañada” with them. I love that Colombians use “un poco” to describe a little bit or a TON of something. “De una”, “at once”, is a shorthand for “de una vez” and used often as a light-sounding and elegant response saying you’ll do something right away. Colombians use the English word “man” (pronounced “mahn”) like we use “dude”. This is funny, just as it is funny when they pluralize with Spanish form to talk about multiple “manes”. In casual conversation they also occasionally talk about men in Spanish but take off that pesky “r”, and use “vaina”, which literally translates as “the deal”, as in, “Hombé, y ¿cuál es la vaina con eso?” More regional words are fun, too – “pispireta”, for example, is kind of like boundless energy directed towards fast work (I consider it as a play on the national version of “pilas”, or “batteries”, like Energizer Bunny style).

I heard many people see each other off by saying, “que le vaya bonito”, “I hope it goes beautifully for you”, which pretty much melted me every time. How lovely. Nationally Colombians, like many Latinos, have several grades of “now” differentiating in immediacy. Colombian “nos fuimos” is literally that your feet are out the door and have left already, but saying something will happen “ahora” can mean two-five hours from now, or it happened earlier in the day, or maybe it will never happen (with ya, vamos, and ahora in between). But! if you say “good morning” so much as a minute after noon o’clock sharp people will correct your butt in a hurry. “Uhh, good afternoon by this time of day! Whew!” This was amusing if somewhat puzzling due to irony. Always are there more. (And then next-level Spanish nerd status, another thing I heard for the first time in Colombia that I wonder about its use of elsewhere and evolution-of-language-wise, is rather than saying, for example, “cómanse” as the plural command form of “you all eat up”, I heard “cómansen”, like with an “n”. Here I would interpret this as meaning the same thing, but with a playfulness. To Spanish-speakers it’s clear slang, where the pluralized person-reference reflects the pluralized verb, and seems to be both for fun and inclusion? Excited to listen further into this in the future.)

I’m thrilled that over my time in Colombia I’ve gotten to work out some of the linguistic questions I’ve had, including coming up with a metaphor that I like for what it feels like to talk with somebody in the formal “usted” form, which happens more in the country than it doesn’t. Also I ran it by some Colombians who liked it, so I feel like it’s pretty legit 🙂 What I’ve gotten to is I think using the “usted” form feels like when you are standing with somebody in front of a mirror, and you talk to your reflections rather than turning around and talking directly to their face. There’s an intermediary to receive the message and it’s a little more distant. If you’re used to it, you’re used to it. Then when you’re used to the informal “tú” form and suddenly start into “usted” territory, it feels like the whole world is just a touch farther away. Oppositely, if in an “usted” world you head to the land of “tú”, it feels like everybody is addressing you just a little to closely, which depending on who it is can feel like they either popped up straight into your space bubble or a patronizing slap in the face. As a metaphor for non-Spanish-speaking English speakers to understand, look no further than to Downton Abbey (I was thrilled and paused the show I somehow ended up watching in self-congratulatory jumping for a second when I discovered this one)! Listening to an “usted” form in English is like if somebody says, “Would the lady like more wine?” It obviously addresses that person in particular, and can have the sensation of nodding to the other person’s power, but the most salient feature is the clear distance it creates.

I do love my semi-casual, semi-fervent linguistic puzzles, and overall I’ve been expanding my linguistic space for myself in Spanish and delighting the heck out of myself the whole time. On the other side, this has been challenging of course with relation to the confianza. I have referenced this before, but it really is a challenge in the long term. Living in a country where literally the entirety of which is so selective about what and how they (and in turn you) choose to share about themselves is really emotionally costly. It’s a hard level of control, first, but every once in a while the pain and distrust of a country hits you pretty hard. People ask what you’re doing here when you’re a foreigner a lot, and to carefully navigate that every time is a level of delicacy that’s very present always, like a diet of rose wafers only (or possibly burritos with the bottom open, so you fold it up to keep things in but you’re always worried about them falling out or something). After a little while, you can start to tell when people are giving your sideways answers or don’t want to answer your question at all, and it’s a weird thing when you know you haven’t crossed any social boundaries within your own country of origin. If you’re at all like me and like knowing the answers to questions you ask people, you start to create theories about why they might not be wanting to answer you, or wondering what they have to hide either for security or discomfort, and if you really need the information, who you would be better suited to receive it from. This was a very, very hard one for me to get used to, and it turns out upon leaving it’s one of the hardest ones for me to shake. I’ve come to see it as a sort of survival-mode practice that, considering you find it everywhere in the country, is pretty wild. As a person I stand pretty heavily by trust and truth, and it’s tricky working and living where suspicion is the baseline (even more because it’s out of necessity).

On a potentially-lighter but still everyday note, I’d like to share with you another mixed aspect of Colombian (Latin American) life, which are the piropos! Piropos are cat-calls, which come with varying degrees of severity, creativity, and intensity. I want to say first of all that net opinion: I’m not a fan. I don’t like walking down the street receiving my evaluations like I’m supposed to be existing for that affirmation of my attractiveness, and I particularly don’t like that it usually has to do more with proving the ego of the caller than genuinely dazzling the call-ee. Worse, I would say, are what I call “hungry eyes”, which is when a perfect stranger looks at you like they literally want to consume you. To clarify, this is in the predatory way, not the sexy way. Usually you know this person not at all, you see a flash of unchecked, sexually-famished eyes and in some cases literal staring with full turning of the head as you walk by. They will be murmuring things that you can’t hear and never want to, with the raw understanding that you are being appraised for your weight value as meat. That part happens more commonly in the US, as well. All of that said, it’s literally impossible for me to live always angry with something so constant, so instead I take it as a general wave of understanding that never should I feel sensitive about my appearance again! I’ve always got a hot bod somewhere in Latin America, so just to help you all follow at least my preferences, I have made the following Official Ranking of Piropos! (To be totally clear, some of these are just terms of endearment that people call you sometimes, so technically it’s a bit of a mix. Still stands, though, because sometimes you get it in the same cat-cally context.


The most popular ones are, from worst to best:

6/7. Mi Reina/Princesa (“(My) Queen/Princess”) – I hate these the most because of the servitude aspect, which just makes me wildly uncomfortable. Also I had enough people telling me I had “delicate skin” to feel like a damn princess already, so seriously stop calling me that. Meaning changes slightly when straight women (in shops) say it, but the serving part that I hate is almost more there.

5. Hermosa (“Pretty”) – This one’s whatever but pretty much means nothing, because it has only to do with acknowledging that I’m somewhere on the attractiveness scale, which is duh based on being a woman who exists and walks around in the world sometimes, so honestly it’s kind of a gimme.

4. Nena (“Baby”) – This is cute. It’s okay and makes me feel fun. Less fun when men call me this because it happened sometimes in official contexts, which I felt served to remind me how young and female I am rather than how seriously they should be taking me. I like it when women call me this because it feels like a fun female solidarity thing. Frivolity part made acceptable for fun aspect.

3. Mami – I know I probably shouldn’t like this one, questionable in terms of feminist values, but I really do. Makes me feel attractive.*

2. Guapa – I LOVE this one. Guapa in most countries means like a cute/handsome attractiveness, but in Colombia they use it for when you are strong. When used it is often accompanied by an appreciative look, which makes me feel like it is how I use “babe”, n. def: “attractive because they are strong and work hard” (meaning also confirmed by *real live Colombians*, so.) Sexy.

1. Doctora (“Doctor”) – Used for those people have the utmost respect for. Kind of like older-generation musicians use it, but for other things, too. Call me doctora literally anytime, and I’ll call it to you back – I am so willing to be acknowledged for my brain.**

* (Which I know means I can still be a feminist because I’m choosing it, but still. I’m totally aware I don’t need to be an hot mother in order to be attractive but still like it is all.)

**This one is occasionally a mixed bag because I don’t always feel deserving of the title (read: like, most of the time, considering I’m not in med school or PhD school (yet?)), but if any term’s going to be used, I delightedly prefer it be of an obligation to respect than an opt to oogle. Overall just seriously just keep your eyeballs from being the full judge of my character, thanks!

And BONUS! From when another accompanier and I were walking with an acompañada, Biggest Head-Scratcher goes to “¡Here come the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María!” (What. Like. For conquering? I- what?) Piropos in the end are really just a thing I can live without.


Beyond the language we get to the ways that it would be really hard for me to live continuously in Colombia, principally its militarization and the sense of security in living there. There is army everywhere, and even though I had meetings and conversations with those guys, of varying lengths, I still never got used to the ubiquity of their presence. I don’t have the stats to prove it, but I am certain that it does things to the public to be in consistent contact with military, the peons of whom are not necessarily there wilfully or wittingly and the elite of whom are terrifying. And they’re everywhere. The person who originally asked me the question of stayin there permanently pointed out that the United States is rather militarized itself, and I do agree with them (while it was primarily tickling for me to attend my first NFL game just before leaving, I was also somewhat shocked by the consistent military nods and official salutes throughout the game, for example). Hoever, I do also happen to be from a pretty liberal area that isn’t nearly crawling with army as compared to, say, some parts of Georgia. So it’s still surprising. And it’s right down to everyday language, too. One example is that Colombia’s standard “you’re welcome”, found all over the country, which is “a la orden” or “to the (military-context) order” – it’s weird to feel like you’re giving orders when you ask for like a sweet bread or a coffee or something, and that’s just on the basic level.

One of the acompañadxs I haven’t talked about in detail yet is ACOOC, the Collective Action of Conscientious Objectors, which is an organization that actively works to contradict this part of the country! Their logo is a bird and their motto is “Because it’s not in everyone’s nature to participate in war”. They are a group of men and women who provide legal counsel and workshops to (mostly) young men, who are the victims of military recruitment, and their families. They also work to push forward legislature which acknowledges and incorporates conscientious objection as a real and viable choice that people can make rather than doing military service, while doing nonviolent, creative, positive and collective actions for peace and social justive.

It is a total pleasure to work with ACOOC because they really are all lively, extremely present people who are excited, organized, collaborative, and really live their ideals of equality, listening, feminism, and freedom. One of my favorite pieces of work that I did in the Bogotá office was to help write the nomination of our youngest acompañado, Mario Cardozo at then 22, for the 2014 Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Center Award for Conviction (because that completely exists, and Muhammad Ali was a conscientious objector, too, look it up!). In doing so I learned a lot about Mario’s life and ACOOC’s work in conscientious objection in general. Mario was the first person legally recognized by the state of Colombia as a conscientious objector for non-religious reasons, and was pretty clear to me why.

In his statement about what makes him a conscientious objector, Mario wrote what was expected, in that he has a moral objection to taking up arms in the conflict. However, a second major component of his statement talked about how important he considers it to contribute to Colombian society (what the government will argue he is not doing in refusing to be part of the army), which he does passionately through creative, rather than destructive, activities: He is a movement-builder and artist, and collaborates with people all over to create theatrical works, but is primarily a hip-hop artist and rapper. He sings about growing up in Soacha, an outskirt of Bogotá home to an enormous and fraught displaced population, and how the conflict hits the whole country. He wrote fervently about his, and ACOOC’s, acts of “rebuilding the social fabric”, as it is most often referred to in-country, and it is utterly clear both why he was awarded for his conviction and why ACOOC is so good at what they do. It also was a political move to accept such an award from a US organization, considering that Colombia is one of the top recipients of US military aid, but a wise one. Acknowledging Mario for his conscientious objection within the country that funds a lot of the Colombian armed forces was a pointed tactical move, not dissimilar to that of international (US) accompaniment in general. Overall, despite their relentless work, it is a thrill to accompany, translate for, and create with ACOOC.

And it’s getting to work with people and organizations like ACOOC that is a huge draw to accompanying in Colombia for longer, so here there is a huge split. It was the resolve and articulation of the ideas in the Peace Community’s founding document that really inspired me to do the work of accompaniment in the first place. It was clear that against such forceful and clearly dangerous odds, they were willing to stand together, farming together for peace, as it were. I was blown away, and truly felt honored to work with them. As my time there went on and FORPP, the organization I worked for, expanded the work in some cases with the same acompañadxs and in some cases with new ones, I continued to feel the most inspired in my (pretty substantial gamut of) work when talking with those we accompanied. They are all incredible. In the face of a multi-decade conflict rife with fear, confusion, torture, and slews of truly horrific acts, they are passionate and resiliant people who come up with the most apt, creative, exciting responses to the various types of violence and slighting they receive. In this nearly nonstop job, whenever I had a bit of a lull in energy, the fastest and most surefire way to perk me (or I think it might be safe to say any of us) up was to speak with someone we accompany. Serious shot of adrenaline, energy, and motivation all in one. Really acompañadxs make you want to do your best always, because you signed up to be privvy to this conflict, but they did not and they are staring it straight down anyway. It’s important to deliver.

1/5: Attachment Theory

Dear Friends,

In my last several months in Colombia, I received three interesting questions from three very different people. The questions are:

How attached are you becoming to Colombia versus other places you’ve been?

Do you think you could live here permanently?

From what you’ve seen all this time that you’ve been in Colombia, where lies the central hope in the process of developing a happier country?

As these questions were asked to me, I thought about them more and they became a sort of frame for my final months as an accompanier in Colombia. The answers are related, and I find myself looking to reconcile the ones with the others. They mix. Some I talked over with others, and some I pondered my own self, and for my last Colombian emails (for now?), I offer you a mix of musings and reflection in response, and beyond. It may come as a surprise that upon (almost exactly six months of) reflection, I have even more things to say than normal, so I have again cut this into multiple pieces in an attempt to make each one manageably long for one sitting. Again, props to those who finish! Let me know if (and when?) you do and maybe I will sing you a song or something. If you like. I do apologize for length, but overall it’s been so good for my own processing and personal articulation, it’s writing that works! Thanks for bearing with me. Adelante…

How attached are you becoming to Colombia versus other places you’ve been?

The best way I can answer this questions is by thinking about which parts of Colombia I want to keep up, or stay with me beyond Colombia, I guess sort of going beyond the idea of just missing them. The biggest one is absolutely Colombia’s food culture. The food in Colombia for me is mostly characterized by the fact that anywhere you go in the country, while not enormously varied, it is all so fresh. People from all walks of life will tell you that “we’re are all campesinos”, and that’s actually remarkably true in that most of the country is related to campesinos (farmers) even if they aren’t ones themselves. It’s odd to me that there is so much stigma and scorn against the campesino community within Colombia, when the culture is so prevalent still even beyond the countryside. I found it to be a beautiful background where those roots are strong. There is also evidence of campesino life in other, smaller ways – the national average wakeup time seems remarkably early (things are moving by 7.30 AM at latest, pretty much anywhere. I’d say 6.30 is more like average), and once things get dark out again, around 6.30 at night, everything slows down and it’s about time to settle down and go to bed, sooo early. I am attached, deeply, to the quality, variety, and abundance of fruits in Colombia. I have been consistently dazzled and spoiled really by the array all over the place, and have been delighted to try them all including with total disregard for which ones are appropriate for eating straight or which I was chided as being for juice only, you loon.

Another example of this is that lunch (when you would traditionally either stop your machete work and eat, or come down from the mountain for a little while to eat) is a Big Damn Deal, and is effectively a day-stopper. In the afternoon if you have not had lunch and mention it out loud, you may be met with looks of horror but immediate understanding when you say you’re going to find something to eat. As an accompanier you better hope that no emergencies or organization of things needs to happen between 12 and 2 PM, because if you call and are lucky enough to actually get the military officials on the phone, they more than likely will thank you for the call, but they’re eating lunch right now and could you call back in an hour or so? On the other side, as accompaniers we would theoretically be going with people who are on-the-go and constantly rushing around in order to get things coordinated or moving or what have you, and this for the most part was true. But it was also true that virtually no matter what was going on, we could count on stopping at some point to eat a substantial meal before shuttling on to our next location. It’s comforting to have things you can count on, especially when they are so delicious.

On a related note, what lunch is to a time of day Sunday is for the whole week. Virtually everything stops on Sundays for there to be a full day of rest. Many people also take Saturday, but in a country where people often work multiple jobs in attempts to make ends meet better (sometimes with success and sometimes not), it’s comforting and necessary that the one day is preserved. In general the idea of allotted time for rest feels wise and necessary. While with our ultra-flexible accompaniment attitude and schedule it could occasionally feel exasperating, the fact that there is for the vast majority of the time some level of stubbornness with regard to breaks is good, because it means people actually take them.

I am attached, also, to the culture of dance and movement in Colombia. I talked with a Latino friend recently who talked about how the stereotype of the loud, effusive, salsa-dancing Latina people isn’t fair, because it’s an entire continent (or two, depending on how you count it), and they’re not all like that. It’s true, I said. But in Colombia it does happen to be more true than not true. People are incredible dancers, and movers in general, managing and working their bodies and what’s around them with ease. Movement flows throughout everyday life, and people navigate themselves, their bodies, and others with remarkable ease as part of the rest of the world, which moves too. I’ve been to other places in Latin America, too, and truly Colombia dances. The accessibility of dance classes is widespread and incredibly manageably-priced, and while everybody’s learning, there are without fail people who come into the classes as drop-ins and are just jaw-dropping, not to mention the nation’s kids, who can shake and pop a booty with a rawness and finesse that is unmatched. And it’s not everywhere, but there are places where people do just dance in the street. I am attached to the notion that bodies are natural, and they are beautiful, and anybody trying to move can do so based on the simple fact that they already are. Colombians are open with people learning to move, and are thrilled with any learning we do. I could go on.

Similar to the way dance floats in and out of life like it’s normal is the fluidity between outside and inside, also like it’s normal. I theorize it’s due to the heat and sometimes lack of resources to buy building supplies, but it’s things like in the campo it’s very common if not the norm for houses to have their kitchens halfway or completely exposed to the air. Also common to have the largest living space be essentially a roof over ground outside, where there are hammocks (my fave) hung and people can drift in and out and sit and gather as they like. Understanding and appreciation of how things just happen in nature, and that they’re not weird just because they usually happen “outside” I see as expanded because of the lack of physical barrier between (what I am more familiar with as) inside versus the outside. I think this is related to my love of a community so common and so whole that people you adore on an everyday level can just come and hang out, and it’s fluid. But appreciation of nature, and pride in the beauty of the country, is universal.

But overall, this question is an interesting one for me, I suppose mostly because I don’t think about places like that? I have always been more about my social landscape than my physical one (see my ode to my Colombian social landscape below). Starting with the people I work with most regularly, I am absolutely enamored by and in awe of my colleagues. It’s true that I extended my contract in large part because I am so blown away by the work they do and the minds and hearts they do it with, and I selfishly wanted to be with them more to soak in all that I could. I could not have been more privileged and lucky with the brilliantly shining pillars of humans I have been able to travel, discern, laugh, learn, and revise with over the last year and a half, and now that I am not still doing so I miss them dearly. Hard to leave the people when you’re attached.

And in terms of other people I have spent lots and lots of time with, true to what I have been doing, then, a couple months out and it is already weird for me not to be continuing to learn all of the ins and outs of each community, organization, and individual we accompany (or, secondarily, anybody else I happen to meet). There is so much attention, precision, and question involved in each one, constantly seeking to learn the political processes they are traversing, the internal process they are developing preventatively or responsively, as well as gathering information about the general context they’re working in. It is impossible to do this work without immersing yourself deeply through a sort of platonic or professional love of some kind. Literally sitting with people, sometimes chatting but often, especially starting out, in total silence and becoming comfortable with just existing there is an extremely specific, focused emotional space.

Many of you won’t believe this, but I do swear I’m a little shy when first meeting people; getting to know people sometimes by sitting with them and seeing how they move in space, how they treat their families, other accompaniers, and me, while sometimes tricky, is comfortable. Plus it was literally my job to get to know people as respectfully and deeply as possible, swiftly and in ways that allowed them to feel able to share about their lives and the experiences that have lead them to the situations they are traversing now. It’s an investment, and I learned better to find what’s interesting and potentially stirring about everybody. But this is also where my response to this question bleeds into my response to the next, because while we do such concentrated work with and for our acompañadxs, it is also specifically our job not to become depended-on, and to be somewhat replaceable.

I realize that most of the immediately above has to do with a profound learning and knowledge of acompañadxs, and essentially the nature of the work – I’ve realized the practice of that stuff’s so ingrained now I couldn’t shake it if I wanted to. And while it starts to describe the types of relationships forged in accompaniment, it is less specific about the relationships or people themselves. Upcoming.

The Fruits that Bore Tamarindo

Dear Friends,

Accompaniment work is totally wild in that most of the time, things are relatively calm. Don’t get me wrong, the idea of accompaniment exists as one key piece in the gigantic nets that exist for the people we accompany, helping create part of the buffer between them and various types of physical and political harm that can and do befall them. And I mean, we do work a lot, heading from one place to another, physically and politically, and existing in constant contact with about a zillion people, including our acompañadxs, different State and international entities, and a lot with each other, so we can do all of that contact most effectively. But for the most part, things do unfold in a way such that we can maybe look a week or two ahead of us and predict somewhat how things will happen, and considering it all, where would be most helpful and strategic for us to be.

Occasionally, however, something drops and falls smack into our net, lighting us up like a multi-arm fleet of alert, truth-and-justice-seeking critters whose primary aim is to react, protectively and strategically, and construct or reconstruct that piece of our net – or whatever falls into it, come to think of it. Generally these shifts, or switches, or dumping-on-of-heads happens while we’re on the ground accompanying, so we can react by physically heading to a place where there is an emergency, or where we think there’s about to be one. In this way, abstract and theoretical as accompaniment is, it is often easier for us to explain to people what our physical or protective accompaniment looks like; we go with whoever it is we’re accompany to a place, and our being seen there has a strong effect. A few weeks ago, however, we didn’t start out there physically, but got a call first, and I was there and took part when things started moving. This time, while it was multi-part, it was our political accompaniment which started center-stage and had such a role as to pitch us hurtling into serious team problem-solving mode. That was a long couple weeks and I write this to you all in part to help myself process it at a more manageable speed. Several Thursdays ago, we received an upset call from one of the advisors that works with a community/organization that we accompany in the outskirts of Barranquilla, called Tamarindo, saying that earlier that day, the Secretario del Gobierno (“Government Secretary”) of Barranquilla had said the community there might be displaced. Cue our launch.

So this community actually started arriving to Tamarindo over a decade ago and is comprised of multiple families, all of whom got there after having been displaced due to violence of one variety or another from various parts of the country. At that time, Tamarindo was a bunch of abandoned lots, there was plenty of space, and there were no problems as the families settled in. Then all of a sudden in 2007, the area turned into one of interest as the big multinational eye turned its gaze to the land. This meant that the farmers faced violence from paramilitaries, and constant threats of displacement by the State, who actually displaced them a handful of times from where they had settled to increasingly smaller quantities of the same land (and who otherwise were consistently saying they would do so). There are now around 120 families living in the space of around 130 hectares, which, especially if you consider that these people first are farmers and depend on the land to grow crops so they can live, on top of the fact that they literally have nowhere else to go, is unimaginably rough. When this violence started around 2011, 2012, most of the families formed an organization called ASOTRACAMPO (Asociación de Trabajadores del Campo, or Association of Farm Workers), from which they have been centralizing their navigation of the troubled waters of relocation. FOR Peace Presence has been accompanying the community of Tamarindo for a little over a year now, making our first official organizational visit there with a delegation the day before a displacement to a reduced piece of land last March. Since then we have visited there pretty much monthly, and have had a number of successful meetings with local police and military as well.

The current status of the community of ASOTRACAMPO/Tamarindo is one of a parallel set of processes. Now that they as what are technically long-term squatters, have been discovered on this now precious land, they are being forced out. This is somewhat officially called “relocation” or “resettlement” but actually means “deep-pocketed-and-scary corporations are checking out the land now, want it, and will get it, so they are working with the government, and because the families have nowhere else to go, it’s the government’s legal responsibility to find them a different and of-better-quality place to live, and they are taking their sweet time doing so” (read: “relocation” = “forced displacement”). And while government entities are wrapped up in this process of relocation, the community simultaneously awaits measures to cover some basic needs until they can be successfully moved.

Tamarindo has a bunch of the sweetest, most gentle people living in it. On a couple of occasions when accompanying there my partners and I had the pleasure of walking the narrow strip of land and visiting house to house. It turned into an involuntary coffee/sugar capacity test because at every house, delicately and humbly constructed with scrap wood and recycled materials, people would offer us tinto, sweet sweet coffee, to welcome us (I’m pleased to report that after a staggering ten cups or so, I was perhaps a little more alert but rather calm, and feel this experience has made me stronger). We talked with them about the crops they have managed to grow in such little, and somewhat difficult, land, and they would tell us about the drought last year, or their cows, smile at us when we would comment that the wind was so lovely in blowing away all the nasty mosquitoes, and sometimes tell us some of their personal histories, and where they come from. And, of course, with the somewhat constant threat of displacement, what their lives were like now. The call we received represented a sharpening in the looming threat, marking the 44th attempt the community has faced.

Let me make a brief aside to mention that this is one of the things we struggle with in our discourse with broader audiences, is how to communicate about concepts like “displacement”. While “accompaniment” is hard enough to explain, we regularly work with terms like displacement, or occasionally with people who have been “disappeared”. These are scary terms that are culturally clear in Spanish, but to translate to English we are often reduced from “displacement” to longer, somewhat diluted phrases like “forced off their land” or “made to leave their homes”. But considering that Colombia has the second highest displaced population in the world, with over 5.7 million people in this position, and the fact that it describes the vast majority of the people we accompany, including Tanarindo, it feels a point worth lingering on.

So this, displacement, is to say, of course physically it’s a pain to have to move one’s life elsewhere, but we’re also and perhaps more concerned with the trauma and impossible psychological havoc that is caused by displacement. By the city police. In the instance of Tamarindo, the police would show up, along with a much of enormous machines, and would tell people they had to get out of their homes. Persuasiveness on their part on several occasions means to bulldoze or burn their constructed, replacement homes to the ground, often injuring the people themselves in the process. They would rip people’s crops from the ground they planted them in, crush or rip up their trees, and effectively tell them that they were no longer welcome on the land they were living on for however long it had been (years or months). They would need to rebuild entirely on ever-smaller plots of land with whatever little to no funds they had, and nurse their newest set of physical and psychological wounds inflicted by the state that, rather than protect them, would throw them direct under the wheels of the multinational bus to come honking in their direction. Their displacement to a smaller portion of land has happened “only” a handful of times, leaving the rest of the 44 attempts hanging as a dark cloud rumbling and streaked with lightning, but never touching the ground. (For reference, here I describe mostly Tamarindo; in most cases in Colombia, when people forced from their homes by paramilitaries, for example, may just have their doors knocked on and told, if they’re lucky, they have a certain amount of time, usually a few days, to get out, or they would be killed. Or often, simply “get out now” if they don’t want to die.) “Displaced.”

One important piece here is that because the community is in this “voluntary” relocation, they are the ones who confirm that the new government-proposed land is acceptable for them to move to or not. This does create a tricky dynamic in that the State wants them to move fast, but is not really looking for land, and continues to make frankly insulting offers to the community in terms of the conditions of their relocation. Proposals involve things like offering apartment complexes (can’t farm enough crops in window boxes, friends), or land and housing for a mere fraction of the families, for example. There are many meetings with many entities surrounding Tamarindo’s relocation, but the community is not invited to all of them, or is invited at a suspiciously-late hour.

So immediately after one of these meetings, we got that call one Thursday evening. We were informed that there had been three  relocation proposals made, plus a robust one from the community, and we learned that not only were all of the relocation proposals rather preposterous in their inadequacy, but it was made clear that if the community did not accept one, the possibility of displacement, while not next-day immediate, became more acute. To be clear: total displacement in this situation is illegal. And the community’s proposal was undiscussed. So we received this call and shuttled into action.

That night one of my colleagues banged out the first draft of our letter to various embassies. The next day was a whirlwind of talking with the community, editing and re-editing that letter, setting up an emergency meeting for the following Monday with the Ministry of the Interior, drafting different emails to local and national entities and sending the letter, and making rounds of follow-up calls right until the final moments of the working week. The weekend provided a bit of a breath and a re-collection of ourselves before Monday rolled in, at which point we met with the Ministry of the Interior, continued to do follow-up with the Embassies, and generally became a maelstrom of calls to the local government offices in Barranquilla. We conveniently already had an accompaniment set up to Tamarindo (for us to visit there) for later that week, so we spent some time first figuring out if and how we should move that up, and our constant calls to the local offices of the Mayor, Government Secretary, and Police Inspector asked for meetings with each or all of them. We strategized with the Embassies as well as the Ministry of the Interior, and organized between our team in Bogotá and the one in the field to best set them up for their impending visit both to the community and to the Mayor’s Office, where we had learned a follow-up meeting would be held.

So by the time our team showed up to the Mayor’s Office the following week, people in that building didn’t know their names yet, but our reputation preceded them. By that point, we in Bogotá had talked with nearly every important office-holder and their secretary; they knew us by our names, numbers, and bathroom schedules (okay not that last one), and knew to expect our colleagues who were present and asked questions to all the same people we did, but in person. They also reported the notable, avoidant scurrying-past of some of our important figures there, and were finally invited to the follow-up meeting. There, our co-preparation with them from the capital meant they got to the meeting and could quote laws and documentation from previous meetings with these same entities. We had also informed the delegation we had hosted from the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley mere weeks beforehand, who had visited and shared with the people of Tamarindo. So as the icing on our multi-layered cake, while this meeting took place with our colleagues attending, the delegation rallied to have their Spanish-speaking members represent their collective concern by calling those same offices and make inquiries, too. My colleagues left that meeting with the entities expressing their understanding that if they were to make moves seriously towards a displacement, “the world would fall on top of them”. While we can’t know exactly what their displacement plans were, they at least were halted for now, and they are well aware that they’re being carefully watched.

While I’m of course not glad for the events that happened, this is perhaps the finest example of the peak of our teamwork, strategizing, and political work that I can think of. I’m extremely proud that I both was part of it and am able to share it with all of you, and I hope it demonstrates a little better what we do. The part I’m maybe most theoretically fascinated by is, again, that as a “non-inherent” (non opining) organization, we worked to essentially stop a displacement without directly suggesting so. From our position, we can make calls asking about the status of different processes, expressing our concern for civilian safety, and quote any number of legal restrictions or meetings past, but we do not make any specific requests or suggestions. People do understand what they’re doing and what’s right, and are aware of the gap between them.

As a further update, since then, unfortunately nothing is stable and of course some more economic nuances have worked their persuasive fingers back into the mix. So while the results of this course of events stand, Tamarindo still faces strong political pressure and some threat of displacement. To join in solidarity and add to the international political pressure the local government entities are already aware they face by writing what can be a short but hyper-effective letter, follow this link to the Amnesty International Urgent Action. Then congratulate yourself on being an aware and active babe (hopefully before the month is out)!

So it’s particularly moments like this, in which I have immense pride in my team and myself, that make me nostalgic and wistful and not want to leave Colombia. I should mention that as I send this, I have actually left the country! My contract ended, and I am working on transitioning out of the work and consistent accompaniment mindset. But this won’t be your very last email from me – there are a couple more fascinating questions I’m still working on answering, and I do have some bigger-picture reflections as well. And maybe some cultural points, too, because I like those. So hopefully that’ll come in the next few weeks or so. But this time, briefly, I do want to thank people for the support and curiosity you generally have shown in this work and my place within it. Looking forward to discussing it all more in person. For now, be well!


Ebb and Flow in Buenaventura

Hola hola, Friends!

I hope all is well as the slow (but inevitable!) thaw has arrived to those so eagerly awaiting it! I was originally going to send this email about a month ago, but apparently didn’t! So look forward to another series 🙂 In this email we’re primarily back to accompaniment, and this time I’ll explain about our accompaniment in Buenaventura. Buenaventura is absolutely the riskiest zone where we accompany, so I am taking advantage of my leaving date approaching somewhat soon to tell you about this place where I’ve been going the last several months. (Let this also serve as a bit of a warning, that there is somewhat strong content in the following.)

Buenaventura itself is a fascinating city, a burgeoning port on the Pacific Coast strategically located for exportation of staggering proportions and therefore in the throes of a burgeoning port that has been undergoing mass development for around twenty years already. As such politically it’s one of the hottest zones in the country, crawling with myriad paramilitary groups who are clearing the land, so to speak, and both getting larger economic ducks in a row and making arrangements for the flow of their own cartels in the area. Among other methods, one of their most frequent chilling tactics is “disappearing” people and dismembering them in particular places in the city known as casas de pique (“chop houses”), which are usually among civilian housing. One of these houses was in Puente Nayero, a street where we accompany.

FORPP (our organization) was called to the region by the Inter-church Commission for Justice and Peace (JnP), an interreligious organization that works in defense of human rights. Along with the community, they created what’s called a “Humanitarian Space” on the street of Puente Nayero, the first urban space of its kind, just over a year ago on April 13th, 2014! The basic idea of Humanitarian Spaces is that they are places where there is need and humanitarian workers can operate (and are generally recognized as spaces of non war); in and of themselves they do not treat to binding international law, but once they are established, they can be used as a basis or vehicle to bring to international bodies such as the Inter-American Court into play. When we first started accompanying in Puente Nayero last July, this process had not yet happened, but finally on September 15, 2014 the Humanitarian Space was officially granted Precautionary Measures by the Inter-American Court.

So part of what we do every time we go to the Space is we check up on the progress (or lack thereof) of the implementation of the Precautionary Measures, seeing if: the government has brought greater illumination to the street, if there are buses for children to get safely to school, that there is a special car for the leaders to travel in, and that both the police and the army are at the stations they have been specifically appointed.

Accompanying in the Space is wild. Physically Puente Nayero is a street, or rather, sort of a set of three streets, in kind of a pitchfork formation off of the main street. The principle path is dirt and rock and lined with the fronts of as many wooden houses as possible stuffed into the space. I say “the fronts of houses” because the houses are rather narrow, but long, and beyond the doorstep the rest of the house perches on stilts, extends over the water because it is literally on top of the ocean. Maybe it’s because I look for it, but I’m often struck by the relationships between the physical places we accompany and the nature of the political and social patterns that color them. In the Peace Community I was always struck by the contrast in the beauty of the land as the backdrop for the currents of violence that would slash abruptly through the area – on my first accompaniment to Buenaventura several months ago I was struck oppositely by the reflection of the political instability in the physical manifestation of the space, as the rising and falling tides gently rock the houses teetering on stilts off of the main strip. The two “bridges” that extend out from the main bit and also have houses on either side of them are just as much a part of this, because rather than bridges, they are really more like wide sidewalks suspended also on stilts over the water. Access to these bridges is found in narrow slices between houses on the main part of Puente Nayero, and the bridges themselves are made of a collection of scrap wood carefully (precariously) arranged, and seem to be a lesson in awareness, lest one misstep and find yourself tossed to the tide.

There are approximately 1000 people living in this space of less than a quarter-mile radius, all of them colorfully dressed and with an easy amble that accommodates the rocky road and doesn’t betray the chaos of what happens outside of the Space. Puente Nayero is in a city, but is filled with traditional fishermen, so it’s common to see people fixing nets stretched along the side of the street. The inaugurating round of party-level bumping beats usually start around 5.30 AM and if you’re lucky there’ll be two or three happening in your immediate vicinity, so you get a solid variety in your competing musics until they turn off around 10.30, 11 at night. There are usually many people in the street and hanging out in their houses, or playing cards. There are a few small shops as well as several stands that people have set up to sell the most delicious foods of fried and fruity varieties just waiting to ensnare casual passers-by, and people will often stop to eat and converse, checking in on how everybody is. Always are there people dancing, usually including 8-year-olds who put us to shame. And zillions of children run around, sometimes engaging us (“PROFE”) and leaving us agog as they play some sort of jumping game which always seems to bend the laws of physics. It also never fails to make me smile the way they call my name from down the street (“Bee-HEEN-yah!!”).

While we’re in the Space, we do observe the progress of things like the Precautionary Measures, and ask about recent events near and within the Space. But a lot of what we do physically in the Space is just talk with people and see how they’re doing, what they’ve been up to and what their lives are like. We walk around and eat and talk and check in with Justice and Peace, and essentially exist publicly wearing our blue shirts, visually demonstrating we are there, in the Space. This is particularly key when we are walking around with JnP as they speak with the military, which is supposed to be stationed floating in the ocean, beyond the dead end of the street, and with the police, who have orders to be in various points in the Space. This is a rather interesting point in our accompaniment in Puente Nayero; as a non-violent organization, we generally have pretty clear boundaries as to the types of places that we occupy with the military, for example, which is usually not to share space with them much outside of meetings we have. However, given that paramilitary entrances to the Humanitarian Space (prior to it becoming one) seemed to be happening that much more when neither police nor army were there, it is a strong part of JnP’s strategy against impunity that state entities always be there. Especially having the police consistently there is necessary when paramilitaries do worm their way into the Space, so they can be investigated and taken in immediately. Prior to this happening, though, is usually when we are with JnP to talk to them.

(Some strong violent content in this paragraph!) This is absolutely the thing about accompanying in the Space that most makes my skin crawl. Prior to accompanying in the Space I had read all of our internal materials, as well as the public denouncements and communications by JnP, and other articles written by outside sources, all of which relayed the events ranging from disturbing to petrifying that happened in Puente Nayero prior to the creation of the Humanitarian Space. Upon entering the Space for the first time, then, I was acutely aware that just about everyone in the street would have heard the screams of the people brought to the chop houses. From there, how many of them would have either found or been aware of severed body parts splayed for all to see? At dusk I spoke with people about how, only a few months ago, there had been no shops, and you wouldn’t have found a soul in the street after those final rays of sun dropped down for the day, around 6.30, everyone bound by terror. After a day or so into my first trip there I asked my colleague where was it that the chop house had been on the street. I knew the community had burned it down after the creation of the Humanitarian Space, but didn’t see the gap where it would have been. “Oh, there,” she pointed, and I swallowed as I nodded, regarding the obviously new residence that stood directly beside the house we stay in.

So with this steady buzz in mind, it’s not much of a leap to imagine the experience of speaking with paras. Except that it is. The first time we accompanied JnP as they spoke with some in the Space, I concentrated on maintaining a calm and assured exterior, drawing confidence in knowing that we weren’t alone, that we had numbers of all the major local authorities, we had support from our team in Bogotá, etc. Internally it was more of a churning stampede of emotion contained in a ten-gallon fish tank. But we went with JnP when they spoke with them, explaining that this was a Humanitarian Space and could they leave. (As an international NGO, our legal limits are clear and essentially rather sensitive when it comes to speaking with illegal armed actors, read: we basically don’t.) And that always kind of blows my mind, that they do leave. After all the hideous, horrible things they do, they just walk out of the Space (or towards the police at the entrance/exit), with JnP, sometimes community members, and us, at their heel. Intellectually, I understand that their exits have to do with some combination of the facts that it’s public, there are a bunch of cops and some military around, as well as serious political accompaniment (calls and letters to, and meetings with local and national authorities) from FORPP as well as from a minimum of three other accompaniment organizations, and more – we rely on many of those things in terms of the strength of our dissuasion, and I do know it works. On the ground, with the people themselves, it still somewhat surprises me. And in fact that’s the thing I have the hardest time with, is that they (paramilitaries) look like normal people. I mean, I haven’t examined any for scales, but they don’t have any tentacles or extra limbs or horns or anything. Nothing to give them away. It’s easily the most packed few minutes in any day.

This past accompaniment we happened to be there for International Women’s Day on March 8. In a fun new addition to the Space, some of the community leaders have created “Humanitarian Space Radio”, by way of speaking into a microphone that then blasts out enormous speakers, and on which they make all kinds of fun announcements including reminding the authorities in the Space to fulfill the requirements of the Precautionary Measures, play requests complete with dedications, read horoscopes, and make funny comments to passers-by in the street. Over the Radio this time they read the schedule of the complete Women’s Day activities, which started around midday and went until late in the afternoon. Principally there were games in which any woman could participate to win prizes, including a water relay race, an eating contest, and my personal favorite, “The Fattest Fatty”. In this game, the three women who participated had five minutes to put on as many items of clothing as possible, and then needed to waddle out and peel off each layer to a raucous public count. The winner huffed conspicuously as she began to whittle away at the bulk that covered her tiny frame and grinned when she whipped off the last additional layer, making a whopping 21 clothing items. A small concert by a budding musical artist in the Space played some tributes to women, and in an encore shyly presented a moving song that he had written in homage to God and the creation of the Humanitarian Space for allowing him to breathe again.

In form true to Colombian celebration, the day of course closed with dancing, but not before there was a memorial for a woman named Marisol, a well-known and well-loved personality in the Space, who was dismembered and killed in the chop house before Puente Nayero became the Humanitarian Space. Community leaders put a white cloth on a table and placed a picture of her inside a heart made of red rose petals, and community members lit candles and said prayers in memoriam. During a day in celebration it was a sobering reminder of the importance of the work that JnP do, and that we can accompany, to assure it never happens again.

Sorry, again, that this took so long in coming. Look for more soon!

Lots of love,

Part 5: Confianza

Part 5.

Confianza – Honestly something I’m surprised I haven’t mentioned sooner. Colombia is a country absolutely ravaged by conflict, over fifty years’ worth. Everything, in some way or another, seems to come back to the conflict, with I think the biggest evidence of this being that a central theme in the country is “confianza”. Literally “confianza” means “trust”, but it’s the kind of trust/confidence used when somebody says they’re saying something “in confidence”. I recently had the opportunity to speak with a Venezuelan woman about her perspectives on things, which was gratifying in that she confirmed a lot of what I have been thinking about recently, many related to confianza. One of them was that she confirmed that in general, Bogotans at least are much more distant than many South Americans are. I’d almost go so far as to say cold, but that’s not really it…

People all over the country bring up confianza as a value so immediately and with such regularity in conversation that it is clearly something more, and tightly knit into the fabric of the culture. Having confianza here is sometimes literally the only thing keeping somebody safe, and oppositely, if people don’t know they have confianza with somebody, they are finitely selective about what types of information, opinions, and experiences they share with them (if at all). In thinking about it now, the idea of something like an “instant connection” between Colombians (in the sense that people would just share anything) seems rare to me. This isn’t to say people don’t talk to each other or aren’t friendly at all, the slow reveal of character is just more present. As such, relationships are taken extremely seriously. All relationships, not necessarily romantic. Confianza is everything, and growing real confianza with people takes a very long time.

As a base, my perspective is that of a highly communication-based family in the Northeastern United States. Regionally we’re about as direct as the US gets, and beyond that I was raised in a family with a high value placed on communicating needs and speaking with people honestly if things come up. And as a person I just kind of get antsy and confused if things feel unclear or if something’s wrong but nobody’s talking about it. So it’s been interesting for me to navigate a world that is necessarily more passive aggressive than I am used to or comfortable mix. In some ways this is painful for me just because I believe so much in direct communication, but in other ways people are talking directly, they just aren’t using the same words. It’s like a code in which people understand that the grace is not in what people say, but in the fact that they recognize lying/fibbing might be better. Everyday communication-wise, confianza throws an interesting element to the mix.

I’m still working a lot of it out. Thinking about confianza raises a lot of interesting questions for me… I tend to live my life as a pretty open book, both because I like feeling honest that way and because I tend to get more exhausted otherwise. But this year, in my job, I have learned to live somewhat vaguely and in a rather arranged way, at least with strangers. This is a safety precaution that we are trained to work with and in which our abilities grow stronger (that is, right off the bat to say we work “with an NGO” and if pushed “that works with displaced populations” rather than dropping “HUMAN RIGHTS”. So it makes me think a lot about secrets, and their place and necessity. Is it worth having secrets? Do we need secrets? From who? Prior to this year I would have said that people keep secrets or lie perhaps because they are ashamed or because the truth reveals an uglier side of them than they are willing to expose to the general public. But now I know people whose secrecy has literally kept them alive. Or because they didn’t have someone in whom to place their trust; the consequences of the truth could literally be the cost of life. That’s hard for me to swallow. But so are secrets good? Are they a healthy part of having a private versus a public life?

As a person I know I work things out better with others, by talking or writing (yes, hi, my incredibly patient reader friends…) – if I had more secrets, would I be forced to activate a more present inner life? Would my abilities to work things out on my own strengthen or expand through this necessity? On the flip side of truth and confianza is people here lie all the time, in part because of safety and I think in part because sometimes it’s easier. It makes it harder for us as foreigners to be believed sometimes when things do legitimately go wrong for us, because we’re less in the know and therefore don’t know how to backpedal or defend in the right way. Still, especially as time goes on I am learning to become more aware and more sensitive to which silences mean what, when people are hiding things, when people are hiding things and want me to know versus when they’re hiding things from me and they don’t want me to know, and particularly learning to show when I need people to know I can see through them, for better or worse. I think a lot about truth and confianza and what integrity means and where its meaning has become irreparable in this country. Who trusts “first”? What are the changing roles of changing authorities here? This is a drop in the bucket of the vast display of learning confianza has offered me so far.

Thinking of you all out their in your various corners and hoping you are well!


Gale (Virginia 🙂 )

End All. Way to Be, You Babe.

Part 4: My Name, My Spanish, My Language

Part 4.

My Name – I realized that all this time I haven’t mentioned my change in identity from one language to another 🙂 It turns out that my first name, Gale, is really hard for Spanish-speakers to pronounce, and they rather shy away from using it. So I go by my middle name, which is “Virginia”. It took me a little while to get used to, but I now no longer feel like a liar when I introduce myself that way right off the bat in Spanish, rather than apologetically saying my first name, “but you can call me by my second name, Virginia, if you want”, and then having them gratefully sigh, “Virginia”  after looks of confusion and an all-akimbo pronunciation of “Gale” (“Gell. Kayo? Kell. Kull. Gull.”). So now it’s more natural for me, “Hi, I’m Gale, hola, soy Virginia.” It’s probably the most confusing for my poor colleagues, who speak to me a lot in English and call me Gale, but then need to refer to me as Virginia in order for any Spanish-speakers to know who they’re talking about. The Italian accompaniment group, Palomas, was the first to consistently call me “Virgi”, which I like and will respond to – so fun, nickname within a nickname! “Vicki” I refuse to respond to because it’s not me. But little kids saying my name is absolutely adorable (“BeeHEENyah!!!”), and it allows me to think more robustly about cultivating my Spanish-speaking identity to match all the ways I hear my name.

My Spanish – Colombian Spanish is beautiful. The language in Bogotá is some of the most “standard” that Spanish can get, which mostly makes it super easy to understand. Colombia is a large and very varied country though, and, loyal to the language, faithfully flexes vocabulary by region in all kinds of ways. I learned, once I heard people from Bogotá asking campesinos what particular words meant, that my language was getting a rather particular kind of tuning out in the countryside, so that was fun. I’m overjoyed that over the last year and some I’ve felt my language solidifying and changing, and feel more comfortable and articulate than I have before. Vocabulary and sometimes accent-wise I’m tickled that I now have enough experience to start seeing where variety in language and accent is regional versus national versus international. Of course all our present experiences are informed by previous ones, but I like that at least my Colombian Spanish feels like a casual swirl of the places I’ve been before. But in terms of structure and understanding, just due to time I’ve been able to solve some of the linguistic mysteries that have puzzled me in the past, and had the opportunity to prod and flex some newer, tentative understandings. Overall, finally I feel like the last few giant doors of understanding are presenting themselves to me, and that’s extremely exciting. I also know I don’t sound like a native speaker from wherever “here” is, but I do speak in a way enough to confuse people about my origin. Of course there are moments still when I just want to put my thick ear through a wall because I just don’t get what’s going on, or I’ve lost a thread, but these moments are so much fewer and farther between now. Still working on growing what I feel like is a bitty vocabulary, too. I’m mostly grateful and still curious because even within this year and change, I’ve noticed that the more language I acquire, the more I absolutely comprehend in any given situation.

The types of things I get to work on linguistically now are exciting to me because it’s all about shades. I don’t know other languages, so I can’t speak for those guys, but in Spanish there are shades for everything. There are multiple forms of the past and future, and lovely, yet still mundane, ways to present things in the now. Truly the most useful aspect of being immersed is that culturally, different shades of things start to emerge and find a bit of order. I am learning how to add definitiveness to some things and apply acceptable uncertainty to others. The triumph I feel around this mostly has to do with recognition at this point, because almost any time I do add those shades at this point they are a cross between educated guesses and calculated experiments, the social results of which are kind of resting in a rippling pool of questions. As I try one thing after another, I like fiddling in my own head with the linguistic implications on social movements and change, and tracking and checking my guesses from one country to another. Maybe pretentious, but I do keep myself busy… I also realize that this all sounds super theoretical – interested and/or more knowledgeable parties welcome for conversation anytime!

My Language – So just because I’m learning to communicate my opinions, experiences, and ideas in marginally more eloquent and believable ways better matching my name doesn’t necessarily mean what it could for my play with language. Wordplay is such a strong part of my English-speaking identity, and really relates with the music I hear in language. I still thrill the heck out of myself when I make more complex puns in Spanish, because for me this is yet further evidence that I am hearing and understanding more masterfully; I can draw legitimate linguistic and social connections now that I previously may not have. Still, there’s a really funny cultural/identity moment anytime I attempt to make a pun, which is that with any native speaker, there is a really thorough check to make sure I actually know what’s going on. As exaggerated as I am (have to be… sniff, sniff…) in English surrounding puns or linguistic looseness, it has to be at least double in Spanish. This does well in demonstrating my own awareness that I’m up to something, but sometimes has adverse effects in convincing others I’m neither a nutbag nor acting with a maturity far lesser than is appropriate to the situation (which, now that I think about it, can occur somewhat similarly in English, so I guess that just doesn’t really matter…). Interestingly, if it’s not a “perfect pun”, meaning in this case that it’s both linguistically doubly sound and culturally convincing, people do seem to be more strongly inclined to find a way to correct my language than they would were I speaking normally and made some other sort of other normal error. I’m not sure if this has to do with the confidence/cockiness/sureness normally required to pull off a pun, which in these situations somehow seems failed, or what, but this is still one of my favorite puzzles to work out and I amuse the heck out of myself, so I’m not too upset by it. (Also met somebody who fist-bumped me anytime I made a pun in English, which was just as much encouragement as I needed and quashed any doubts I might have had, so merrily sallying forth from there…)

End Part 4. Onward! To Part 5.

Part 3: Fashion

Part 3.

Fashion – There are some strong characterizations of Colombian fashion, mostly falling into one of a few categories. First of all, there are no “crazy leggings” in Colombia because all of the leggings are crazy! This means brightly-colored and with patterns, and lots of people wear them. Somewhat considered just short of professional. Also, from what I’ve seen, the big separation is this: “I am from Bogotá, I wear only black. I am a city slicker and will occasionally wear a little color or an animal pattern.” Everybody else, however, where it is warmer weather, wears brightly-colored clothing with interesting architecture and that is appropriate for exciting beachy towns. Everywhere is the clothing form-fitting. Other significant points of focus include hats, hair, and nails.

So first, Colombians are big on their hats – there are different shapes by region, and they are all awesome. In terms of more mainstream, a funny thing is that while a lot of the clothing is made here or in China, of all the things to import from the US, baseball caps with the New York Yankees logo on them are absolutely ubiquitous. I theorize this has to do with the sexy design of the NY (only), and hope it is not a Yankee recruitment or takeover plot. As a New Englander, on principle I should be offended, but really I mostly think it’s funny. In a minor (expletive) digression, because I’m full of those, I think my favorite hat I’ve seen was in one of the places we accompany. We were on the coast and had seen these awesome baseball caps with tall mirror letters on the front. The first one I saw was red with shiny gold letters that read, “BOSS” – do not be surprised if I return to the US with one that says that, or possibly “PUMA” or “KING.” But this hat that we saw came walking in on an eight-year-old who was casually dropping in to buy a chicken for dinner. He came in with his family and sweetly greeted everybody, which was when we saw the unassumingly flash of his hat reading “FUCK”. Brilliant. Kept us entertained, perplexed, and somewhat embarrassed for hours.

Hair for women must be as long as you can grow it (mine is longer than it’s been in about seven or eight years, and I swear that’s only about half laziness). Men get these creative shapes and some special words to describe hair mostly shaved with super-cool shapes worked in there, too (“motilado”, for those interested). In terms of general form, mohawk- or fauxhawk-like shapes are much more common here. Casual making it up on my part would say this has to do with getting hot hair off one’s ears in the humidity, but I haven’t asked anybody about it. This is less of a choice, but Colombians very rarely get gray hair, and if they do it’s later in their life. Also they have very little body hair in general, which is a point for endless conversation and entertainment as we talk with campesinos who ask us, rather frankly, if it’s just that we think body hair is beautiful or what (also, interestingly, I swear my own forearm hair turned a more soft, golden color when I was in the Community, leading me to reconsider my hair (turned desirable pelt?) anyway). Also a total hoot when my tall, pale, red-headed colleague shaved his four-inch beard and returned to the Community with more than one person thinking he literally was a different person. Full beards not so common here.

Nails are super paramount for Colombian fashion. On women, long nails are valued, as they can be turned into tiny worn art-lets. Ring fingers and pointer toes are painted special and maybe have some lil jewels on them. Colombian men are also somewhat expected to have nice nails. It’s a interesting to go into high-up military and government meetings and observe the state of mens’ hands, which are always well groomed, including occasionally buffed and with a simple clear nail polish. In the countryside this is less common, but a long thumbnail is considered extremely beautiful. In addition to valuable? “They have… many uses…” claimed one campesino casually as he disconcertingly clicked his nail between his front two teeth. When I professed I was still somewhat muddled by that particular cultural point, he demonstrated what a distance he could keep from a gross thing by picking up a shirt with his nails rather than his hands. “Aha.” I said. But almost everybody’s got ’em, so I guess they must be good for something.

End Part 3. Onward! To Part 4