So much to report yet so tired. It is just past 10 PM on Tuesday night, the fifth day of our ten day work trip in a small village called Flora Del Campos – a government housing project community thirty minutes outside of the much wealthier coastal town of Cartagena in Colombia. This might be a good place to interject one of the many ironies that we have thus far encountered on the trip. [Everything I will write about tonight I will try to keep brief and to the point as best as I can – though even when it is demanded of me, this time out of the dire need to get to bed earlier than midnight and get some much needed sleep, I still almost always find that task difficult. Perhaps best if I just jot down thoughts and observations rather than attempting to break any of it down; so if it all seems a bit disjointed, pardon me just this time at least; for indeed we are more than tired. Way beyond “tired.”]
Our team is made up of 26 butt-kicking, hard-working, and selfless angels of all ages, ethnicities, social classes, and races. All of whom belong to the same church in Manhattan in the United States. We live in a very sheltered and special world that seems more theme park most days than average American town or city. New Yorkers know this about themselves. Some I believe might even take a certain pride in it. To live in New York, to survive there, is a daunting and challenging endeavor. Hence the pride. The cost of living is ridiculously expensive, downright overpriced frankly. We know that. Yes it’s true that most of us live in shoebox size apartments that cost an average rate of $1300 per square feet to own (why the majority who live there do not own but rather rent). Your average rental will run you $2000 per month and for that you can get yourself a decent 500 square foot “studio apartment” which is a fancy way of saying “one small room with a couch and a bed in it. You might get a “bedroom” if the owner of the property at some time or another threw up a wall in the middle of that room and added a closet.
Yes it’s true that many don’t have full kitchens in their apartments – a little refrigerator and an oven will do – even though its smack dab in the middle of your “living room” which often is also your bedroom, dining room, and every other “room” of your small cramped quarters. Manhattanites don’t usually need kitchens very often so they don’t mind. With so much good food all over the place, jam-packed social calendars, and the fact that you have to work 24 hours a day to make enough money to live there renders a real kitchen rather futile to many. Don’t get the wrong idea though. Plenty of people do have larger places. Many of my friends have “two bedroom” apartments which are slightly bigger, but anyone else in America would have to try real hard to stop from laughing when they take the house tour, which should take all of one minute, and realize that that two bedroom apartment could easily fit in their own living room “back home.” But again, it is a matter of pride. Something to the effect of “we live in one of the greatest cities on planet earth at this time in human history and therefore don’t mind working our tails off and overpaying for everything for the privilege to live here.” Indeed it is an honor.
Though it can also be a curse. Easy to get trapped into a semi-hypnotic fantasy world where you really do believe that a bottle of soda or Gatorade should cost four or five dollars, or that it is very very very important to be wearing just the right shoes for the season or be the first to discover the ‘hot new restaurant’ of the month, or week for that matter, since so many seem to come and go with the wind. A curse indeed, because for all our pride and prejudice about our beloved city, and for the admirable battle New Yorkers fight with a smile on their face and that kick in their step (down countless city blocks and staircases) just to get from their place of residence to their equally small office, there is a sense that despite the general discomfort and pain in the ass it is to live in the city that never sleeps, we love it; and we love it so much that we tend to forget that “somewhere out there” is a “real world.” Just past one of the many toll-bridges or even more expensive toll-tunnels there are regular people living regular lives in good old fashioned regular homes. Driving cars, preparing food in their large lavish kitchens, kids playing in the yard, backyard barbecues and all that other stuff that makes America what it is is for the most part completely lost on a people who will send food back at the drop of a hat if it isn’t exactly what they ordered. But for good reason. That meal may cost a few hundred dollars a plate if you’re living it up, or it may only be a four dollar slice of pizza. But that pizza better be damn good, because the battle over which of the three thousand pizzerias in that 14 by 2 mile wide island is the best is something that makes the front page of our blatantly liberal newspapers – something that conservative media has no problem pointing out on an almost daily basis. (for the record, for all its challenges I would never live anywhere else in the US. At least not at this point in my life. I just dig it for a variety of reasons.)
So why talk about New York? Here? In Colombia? Well, the thought crossed my mind as I was walking down a non-paved clay-dirt “road” through a small town in the very north of Colombia called Rincon Del Mar. Where the houses are so small that they make New York apartments look like mansions. It could have been all the children running around with no shoes or shirts on and shorts so dirty that one is forced to wonder if that is the only pair of shorts that child owns or has ever owned. It could have been the horrifying realization that not one, but two, three, maybe even four families call that one house “home” and anywhere from ten to fifteen people might live in it, day in and day out, with no electricity, no air conditioning, and no five dollar bottles of soda or Gatorade.
It might also be the fact that for fifty years the Colombian people have endured a civil war – one so ugly that it would be hard to imagine it could be real except for the fact that we know it is – between three different groups fighting for control over their rich land and heritage – the recognized government and its military, the “paramilitary”, and the “guerrillas.” Each as wretched and deceitful, violent and manipulative and opportunistic as the next. The people are the people. And unfortunately their stories are truly horrific. Today we took a three hour drive to said little town so we could see another one first hand. Not that the community of Flora Del Campos that we are currently breaking our backs in on this trip is not “real” enough, for it is. We learned yesterday in our evening ending group meeting much more about the town and its displaced people and one would have to admit that there wasn’t much positive to take in – except for the fact that the government does seem to have the civil war under control now and that people from all over the world, including the United Nations, are coming into help these people and that even though things look pretty bad from the outside, we are assured that they were much much worse just a few short years ago.
So off we head to Las Brisas Del Mar. A coastal town in the North-East that sits atop a mountain so high and steep and without any paved roads or highways going in or out of it for miles that you have to park a few miles down below it and hop on the back of a “motorcycle taxi”, hang onto the driver with everything you’ve got as he carts you up to the town – up this clay dirt road headed to God knows where feeling like you are literally at the end of the earth, the driver swerving back and forth all over the bumpy road trying his best to avoid the millions of giant holes in the ground. A ground that no one plans on fixing or paving anytime soon. Within less than an hour of our trip I felt that uneasy queasy feeling in my stomach that our driver calls ‘the rumble in the jungle’ and knew I needed to stop immediately for a bathroom. Could have been the scorching heat pounding on our bodies for hours, or the fact that I forgot to not use the water and brushed my teeth with the bathroom sink water, only once I might add, or the excruciating pain my body is in, the lack of sleep compared to the brutal manual labor we are doing all day, or the windy bumpy roads we traversed at break neck speeds for hours, or it could have just been pure exhaustion… whatever it was, it wasn’t good. Jumped out, ran to a counter, go a key and ran into a public restroom. First thing I noticed was that there was no toilet paper. But when you’re that sick you just don’t even care. You just need to go. So I went. Now as crazy as it sounds, in many situations on this trip we have been forced to encounter and deal with many crazy sounding circumstances, after I was finished I pretty much just had to do whatever I had to do, which in this case was dig through a disgusting garbage can in said bathroom and look for any sort of paper to at least attempt to clean myself. Yes, it was gross. But it was SO gross that I personally found it rather cool. Or maybe it just the fact that I was able to use the bathroom and not puke and poop my guts all over the car in front of my teammates that caused a slight euphoria to take over my mind temporarily. Either way, I was back in the car in no time.
So up we go to this small dirt poor village. And I mean dirt poor. Like nothing we’ve ever seen except in Hollywood movies minus the glitz and glamour and obligatory “indigenous beauty” of the village. We were quite literally at the end of God’s green earth. In the middle of nowhere. And the funny thing is is that there are thousands of people living up there. People just like us. Our brothers and sisters. They showed us the new water tower that the Methodist Church built a few years back, so now many of them have access to water… for that they are very thankful. They also showed us a new small medical emergency building that is being constructed there now. All one thousand feet of it, if that. Now that I think about it, its more like five-hundred feet. But boy are they happy about it. For generations the people of this village have had no choice in a medical emergency or when a woman is about to go into labor and have a baby than to hop on the back of a motorcycle and beg them to drive them an hour away (hanging onto a stranger on the back of a motorcycle) to the nearest medical facility. But soon, if the right kind of money keeps coming in, they will at least have this. there will not be a doctor nor even a registered nurse there at the facility – for they simply cannot afford one, and no one is going to just magically appear and announce “hey I want to be your village’s local doctor” – so what they will have instead, if they are lucky, is a “health consultant.” At best.
The sun beat down on us so hard that another teammate become very ill again today. By this point I was feeling better. I must have taken six Dramamines, five advils, ten pepto bismals, the list goes on and on. Anything to just get through this day… I was just focused on survival. The sun was that hot. And the ride up there was that bumpy rough and winding. Drinking liquids one would think would help, but it doesn’t. For me the only thing that helps is to fill up a bottle with water and just pour it all over my body starting on my head and working my way down. That hot. We visited their church. Their only church. In a town with thousands of people. One church. And the only thing that signified that it was indeed a church – for it looked like all the other stone and mud and palm tree roofed huts we could see around us – was a plastic four by four banner that read “Nueva Iglesia Metodista” with that infamous cross and fire logo on it. Just a very hot stuffy and dark little hut/house. So hot and stuffy that we couldn’t even breathe. Sweating like crazy. sweat just pouring off of everybody’s poor tired faces. It was quite a site to see. On the one hand I felt so bad for us all, and on the other I felt inspired that we all had the courage and strength to be there, toughing it out, making the connections and the contact with these people… they expressed so much appreciation, not for our money or help, but just for us coming there to meet with them and interact with them and to listen to their stories. This was the real gift one could tell that they appreciated.
I believe that their living conditions are so bad that they do not even entertain the idea of people giving or loaning them money. they just don’t have the reference points for “we need money” to even think those thoughts. Their real gratitude was in seeing all these pale foreign faces from the “estados unidos” sitting there in this dark room of stifling heat staring back at them sweating till we were all soaking wet. This is what they kept saying. they had prepared a few songs to sing to us, their only accompaniment was a little drum and hand clapping, but the songs were beautiful. the words even more uplifting. Just wanted to find a way to welcome us and express their gratitude that we came all this way to see them and listen to them.
They told us of what it has been like to live there for so many generations. The paramilitary camped out just a half a mile down the road would drive up every morning at five AM into their village and raid all the houses for all the boys ages anywhere between 6 and 30 and take them. Period. They go into the houses, take all the boys and force them to either be slave workers for them or train them to be child-soldiers. The girls’ fates were even worse. Taken from their homes at all hours by force or gun-point and dragged down to the “commandante” of the paramilitary group and forced to “service” all the men. This went on for years and years and years. No government in the world stopped it. No one tried. The Colombian government was helpless. It was, by all accounts, a civil war that lasted at least fifty years, some say its origins go back much further. And these people lived this as their daily lives. Scared to death 24 hours a day. Praying to a God that never seemed to hear their prayers or who was unable to do anything to help.
But along comes this Bishop… his name is Juan Alberta Cardena. He has been working in this community for seven years now. Slowly he has brought progress and a modicum of decency and security to the community. A small church that counsels people about recovering from their hardships, ears to listen, a shoulder to cry on, a strong man to advise them too to be strong. A church that also acts as a school so the children can learn to read and write so they will not continue the cycle of ignorance that leads to nowhere. And hope. The church in this community offers hope. It is there. right there. In their little village. Open 24 hours a day if need be if someone needs something. perhaps just a prayer, or a meal, or some advice or counsel or information. It is really something when you ponder how important and profound just one little building can be to a people who have almost nothing. They sing together and pray together and one can feel an optimism in the air there now… compared to what one feels in the air when they recount what life was like for them just a few years ago, when life seemed heart-wrenchingly hopeless and insufferable. You could really feel the difference that this hope offers the people. They have a long way to go… a long way… this will be a generational thing.
Truth be told, the African people of Ghana actually seem much more advanced in many different arenas than the people here in these small poor villages of Colombia where they can’t even read or write and don’t have any way to make money. They don’t know what a lawyer is, most have never seen doctors ever in their lives, nor schools, nor hotels or television or shopping malls or mailmen. It’s just crazy when you think about it. Basic survival was really all that was on their minds for decades, generations. But little by little this is now changing. This bishop is on fire. He is the Bishop of the entire Methodist Church in Colombia. His spirit is strong and powerful and aggressively focused and disciplined to the task at hand. And yet his heart seems soft and caring, compassionate and kind and generous. I now understand why our church way up there in New York City has taken on this project – out of all the different peoples around the world who need help we chose this country as our next big project. and each person that is a member of our church who gives money to the church is helping these people, though many of them don’t even yet know it, but each should be very excited, happy, and proud – for their donations, no matter how small or large are really helping people. I am humbled to be a part of this group of very special giving people.
And I now understand why out of all the places where there is need in the world we chose this country and these people. There is much need and wanting here. More than I have ever seen before. Anywhere. Including the “favelas” of Brasil. (yes, it is worse here… somehow… hard to explain… but it is almost as if civilization just forgot about them and left them behind…)
But there is also a glint in the eye of this lion of a man called “Obispo” or “Bishop” so strong and gleaning that one cannot help but get the sneaking suspicion that he really does believe that he and so many others like him, who he works with now, and who are going to come after, is going to create real measurable positive change in the lives of tens of thousands of people, his people, over the next five to ten to twenty years in this country. I wouldn’t be surprised if soon these ghastly roads are paved, electricity added, running water and indoor plumbing, stores, shoes, clean clothes, villages where everyone can read and write, where people come and go as they please because they have access to transportation, perhaps even a few cars of their own, air conditioning, better medical facilities, and eventually aware citizens of the civilized world who are able to make contributions to society at large using their God given talents and skills… they just need to get over that hump between survival and living so they can discover those talents, gifts, and skills… and that’s happening now. We are slowly pushing that cart over that bump in the road.
And after we leave in a few days, more groups, from more churches and non-profit organizations are going to come here. Feeling the same thing that we did. Inspired. Ready to do more. Willing and wanting to share and to talk about it with others so they too can jump on the bandwagon and lend a hand. It is only a matter of time.
In other news, we got to see a lot of things like herds of cattle, old men wearing hats riding donkeys down old unpaved dirt roads, wild hogs walking around, little piglets, sloths hanging in trees, fawn and deer, real cowboys on horses…. and of course hundreds of beautiful little children….
O.k. that’s it. It’s way past my bedtime and I’m going to be feeling it tomorrow but this was important. Needed to let it all out. Until next time friends, as always, we are the revolution.