Work-site Fashion

Day six. A quickie. Several of our team members fell ill over the last 36 hours. I too had a brief bout with the old ‘rumble in the jungle’ yesterday morning as previously reported; not sure if it was the unbearable heat, the grueling work, the lack of sleep, or something I ate or drank. Same goes for the other troops who went down over the last two days. You just can never be sure. But we’re back on the work site and we’ve finally hit that flow-space that most work trips find eventually within themselves. It can take anywhere between two days to five if its going to happen, and when it does you can really see and feel it. It’s palpable. One minute you are on a team of twenty-something unique individuals of all different ages, races, backgrounds, and social circles, who may or may not know each other, each with their own work habits, ideas and beliefs; each with their own opinions, fears, hopes, and aspirations – God knows all trying their best to get along and get the job done, but still separated by that invisible line that exists between each of one of us and “the other.” On almost every work or peace or mission or activist trip I’ve ever been on I have noticed that at some point the group as a whole will reach a new place in consciousness where the individuals unify, become one unit and work as a whole that almost always is greater than the sum of its parts in terms of effectiveness, efficiency and productivity. Not sure when the exact moment in time that occurred for us on this trip, but it has. We spoke about it today after we got back to the hotel in our group meeting. We hit that stride where everyone is now working together in harmony and it feels great. Heat, illness, and back-breaking work aside, several commented that the work site has now turned into “a happy place.”
And I thought to myself, “imagine that, a happy place… when just a few days ago there was such a feeling of sadness and frustration in the air in this community. But for this brief moment in time we have managed to all get over ourselves, forget about our “real world troubles back home, or the differences that we pretend between us, and work together, and the ensuing result is that a very happy place indeed has been created there. The theme of our meeting today (for often these meetings do have a central theme to them – each one is created, organized, and run by one of the team members (this one in particular was very special and stood out to me personally and to many of the others I believe) was “harmony.’ And yes there is harmony in the air now. One team member commented that she observed harmony in the ever changing sounds that our work creates – whether it be the sound of people moaning as they dig yet another hole in the earth with a shovel hour after hour, or the back and forth sound of a saw against hot steel, or the sound of a loud cement mixer that we are now using… sometimes the sound can even be the silence that briefly follows one of our meetings when everyone just sits there and takes it all in after a long hot day. The sounds correspond to whatever we happen to be working on that day, and as we progress in the process of constructing this building the sounds continue to change right along with the tasks at hand.
Yesterday the children of the little town up the mountain that I wrote about – Rincon Del Mar – sang us a welcome song to show their appreciation for our visit – which when looking back I find strange because it is we who should be grateful, for after all it is we who are being log allowed to enter their small community and poke around taking picture and learning more about the world we live in through them and their stories; the experience of course is always very moving – no matter where you visit in the world on these kinds of trips. One of the lines in the song referred to “And those mountains will move…” And we all agreed that yes it is a grandiose vision to have, a utopian vision, perhaps an unrealistic one – to think that today, right now, in this time and place in human history we are all contributing to the creation of a better world and indeed we are moving those mountains if we have to. If there is a need to, we will do it. Call it sheer will, perseverance, the will of God, divine intervention, idealism… whatever one calls it, it is happening more and more and more around the world we live in now. Mountains are being moved all around us. Like him or hate him, the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States of America this year is but just one example of this; and there are so so many more. Right now as I type this blog post I am struck by a slight awe contemplating how many other groups are somewhere on planet earth doing a similar such thing. Or even individuals just on their own, helping others. Imagine it. Try to see it. For it is indeed happening.
I guess the real question, if there is one, is how to balance all the giving that one wants to do to make the world a better place with making sure that we also take the time and energy to take care of ourselves as well. Sometimes we can get out of balance and not spend enough time or energy on our own lives and that isn’t a good thing. Just remembering to stay balanced in that.
Speaking of harmony, another thing I have noticed is that our communication – and the fact that we have some 40 plus people now on one work site speaking either Spanish or English or a combination thereof (but only a total or two or three who are truly bilingual) has become entirely transparent. It is almost impossible now for me to tell the difference between when I am speaking or listening to English or Spanish in any one moment. It all just sort of blends into itself. Almost all of the team members now are full on going for it attempting to speak as much Spanish as they can with everyone. It is really inspiring. Kind of cute. Very cool. That communication barrier that might have existed in our first few days here has completely disappeared.
One thing that would render this entire post worthless if I neglected to report on is a story that one of our teammates told us today. Several of us went into the village proper – to the school actually – (I did not, but instead stayed on the work site) and did arts and crafts with over 90 children from the community for a few hours. Imagine that too. because that’s a big thing. just as important as the construction we are doing here on this church and community center. She spoke to the principal of the school and she told her about this girl who was there today doing the arts and crafts who is 12 years old. She had to try to stop her from going to school with a knife to “take care of some kids” who were teasing her. She said that’s what she as taught by her parents. The principal tried to teach the girl that there were other ways of dealing with disagreements we have with others and when their conversation was over that she hugged her. the principal was balling her eyes out when talking about how at the end of their conversation with the girl she leaned down and hugged her and how the girl started crying because she said that was the first time that anyone had ever hugged her before, that that was the first time in her entire life that anyone had ever “touched her” in a loving or caring way, rather than a more hostile way. Imagine that. Not a good thing to imagine. For sure. But imagine that same girl now having this large church and community center in her village that will be church, school, after school care, consulting and counselors and advisors, social networking with nicer folk more than eager to hug her or play with her or hang out with her and do fun stuff. A place that if all goes according to plan should remain there in that village for decades to come. That is a nice thing to imagine. It is why people do things like this work trip I believe. At least for me, that one story will provide enough fuel to keep my engines burning all day tomorrow.
There is a boy who lives in the village named Paulito who has really taken to us. We get to that work site by 7:30 or 8 AM every morning and every morning he’s out there waiting to work with us. Working right along side us. Never did any manual labor in his life, but he’s ready willing and able to do anything just to be a part of the project. It’s been like that since we got here. everyday more and more people from the village are coming to the work site to help out. It’s really something to see. At first I didn’t quite understand what was happening. perhaps these were people being paid to help us I thought. Like on other work trips we occasionally hire “professionals” so the project isn’t just being coordinated by a bunch of DKNY sunglass wearing “volunteers” from New York City. But as it turns out all of these people are just plain old ordinary people like us who happen to live around the area and either like what we are doing and want to help out, or they just dig hanging out with a bunch of Americanos. We’ve heard both reasons for why we have been joined by so many local people who are now working right along side us. there are no longer 26 people working on this project. It’s more like 40.
The Bishop that is responsible for the project (he is the Bishop of the Methodist Church in the entire country of Colombia) explained to us one teary eyed evening that we aren’t building a church in a small poor town and we shouldn’t for a moment fall pretty to assuming such a simple idea. But that what we are really doing is building a community; helping to “peace” back together a community that was ravaged by fifty years of civil war and government non-intervention. Where there was once just a “housing project” filled with thousands of displaced strangers to each other, almost all of whom are living way below any country’s standard of poverty, many of whom evidently prostitutes, illiterate, or have challenges with alcohol or drugs, there is already a community coming together through this shared experience of working together to construct this mammoth two story building on a plot of land that just a few days ago was nothing but empty dirt, grass and weeds – with some garbage laying around on it. There are now giant 15 foot reebar columns jetting into the sky out of the ground and 24 giant holes dug into the earth. It would be impossible to miss what’s happening there. And word is spreading fast. As each day more and more people from all over the large area of Cartagena come running to our work site to see what all the commotion is about. Most come to stay and help out.
Many of the team members have taken a liking to one or more of the local people we are working with and for and developed friendships with them. Special bonds that are hard to describe. Working that hard, in that kind of heat, for so many hours and days in a row, for such a utopian cause and vision – something that would have seemed absolutely “never going to happen” impossible a few weeks ago creates a very unique, special, and almost other worldly bond between everyone; between both the team members and the locals alike. One really gets the very real feeling that these people feel that they were and have been “truly and totally forgotten” by the rest of the world for decades. Not only is it expressed verbally when you speak with them and hear their stories and their ideas and beliefs about themselves, but you can also feel it in the air. But that has changed. Let us hope that just because we leave that this new positive feeling and optimism does not leave with us.
Ed Hale in Cartagena Colombia with child from local village of Flora Del CamposFor whatever reason I have formed a common bond with this cool little kid Paulito. He almost never leaves my side. No matter what I’m working on he wants to help. Even hardcore stuff like sawing steel reebar. He’ll go for it. He speaks no English so occasionally communication is a little iffy but we do alright. If he can’t help with actual work in any particular moment he will take my bandana and towel and go wet them for me and wrap them back around my head and neck, or get me water or Gatorade. He also occasionally surprises me by slipping ice down my back just for fun. I am glad to see him lightening up more and more as the days go on. I have also now started getting him to understand that he is free to drink from our water cooler or have a Gatorade if he is thirsty. He asks. That’s the thing. its just so odd… this humility and politeness that is so naturally expressed by the people here. He works hard and he deserves to drink up when he needs to. But he always asks first. Frankly I love the kid. I really enjoy working with him and feel he’s got a smart head on his shoulders and a good heart. When we go to leave he walks us all to our cars and he just stands there with this sort of sad look on his face… I’m not sure if he is grieving our departing just that day or if he is already thinking about the inevitability of our having to leave at some point in the not too distant future. Four days to be exact.
I found out today that he is only ten years old. He’s very smart for his age. He’s got all the makings of a super –achiever, or at least a darn good and decent person if things go right for him over the next ten years. Tomorrow I am privately going to visit his mom, who I’ve met several times, with our translator to ask her some questions, get some information, find out what their most primary needs are, what can we do to help make things easier for him over the next few years. I’m not sure if it’s the kind of thing that he needs to know about – Juan Camilo our translator told me that he should be there so he can realize how much potential he has, that a basic stranger from the United States would be so impressed by him that he would want to help him out and sponsor him. And also that it will help him over the next few years not give into temptation – something that I feel might be real easy in this particular community living under those kinds of circumstances – but instead really feel inspired by the situation and give life one hundred and ten percent for the next ten years. I’m thinking of some kind of sponsorship to get him into a good junior high and then high school and make sure that all his needs are taken care of.
Today it occurred to me that out of all the kids I have sponsored over the years through the two different orgs that I work with that I have never actually met any of the kids in person. Only pictures cards and letters. But with this kid, I already know I dig him. and I already know he’s a good person with a lot of potential. It’s a win-win. I already sponsor kids. So why not do it with a kid I’ve met in person and know deserves it. the idea excites me. A good sign. (as long as the ideas that excite you don’t harm another and better yet if they actually help someone else besides yourself, yes?) Yes. Yet another good thing to think about as we fall asleep tonight and prepare for yet another hot day out in that Colombian sun.


Ed Hale & Joseph Priest on worksite in Colombia
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.)
Ed Hale and Rebecca Rose Mccain Las Brisas del Mar ColombiaSo 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.
Las Brisas del Mar ColombiaThe 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.



A quick update. It is Sunday night July 26th 2009, the end of day 3 of a ten day work trip in Cartagena, Colombia. We are all exhausted. How we will ever make it to day ten I have no idea. Specifically we are here to do one thing: build a church and community center in a poor neighborhood forty minutes outside of the beautiful coastal town of Cartagena called Flora Del Campos. The area is a project town so to speak comprised of a few thousand people who have been displaced from their real hometowns, neighborhoods, schools, and of course from their own houses. So now they live here. All of them from different areas of this fascinating country called Colombia. None of them natives of the area, or neighbors, or childhood friends or relatives of each other; just thousands of displaced people from all over the country and of all ages who became homeless because of the never ending wars over the last forty years between the “paramilitary” of the rich and powerful monopolizing feudal land owners and the equally questionable communist “guerrillas” who have tried for decades to defeat them.
This is our simple mission. But we are quickly learning that there is much more to it than just “building a church for the poor.” Tired. I have been on the road now for five weeks, primarily in the US. This trip was planned months ago; but it came suddenly. Shocking really. Not enough time to plan or pack or consider what or where or when or how. Flew into New York after more than four weeks gone and woke up at 4am the following day to catch a flight to Bogota and then Cartagena. It is no way to live, but it is better than a day job. Maybe. With each new flight I wonder more and more. I am tired of flying. tired of airplanes. Tired of airports and taxis and early mornings and late nights. More than tired. Exhausted and then somewhere beyond that I would suppose… With the new album out and all the work involved in promoting it I lost track of time and never really stopped to ponder this particular trip. I knew it was on my schedule. But I never stopped to really think about where we were going. It just sort of happened. Next stop. Colombia.
All that changed today. Colombia is famous for being infamous if nothing else. Famous for its coffee; infamous for its rather copious cocaine supply, and its place in history in the “war on drugs.” When you say Colombia to people the first thing you hear in response usually has to do with either coffee or cocaine. Its fifty years of ongoing civil wars and guerrillas are less spoken about, but once here, they are impressively moving, shocking, dramatic, and heart-wrenching. The country is also well known for how beautiful the women are and for the fact that many consider “Colombian” to be the best spanish spoken in Latin America (though one understands that both of these ideas are subjective).
Friday was 18 hours of travelling and meetings. Period. Nothing more nor less. If cloning were possible this is the first job I would assign to mine: “wake me up when we get there, are all checked in, and relaxing in our room.” Saturday we had to be at the job site by 8am. Having just travelled for 18 hours the day and night before this was an unexpected and unbearable thought. Worse actually waking up to it. But we made it. The heat here is the hottest I have ever felt. Hotter than Africa. Hotter than the hottest New York concrete Summer day. Something akin to Southern Arizona or Texas at noon in summer. Why we are here to do manual labor under the hot burning sun during the hottest season of the year I do not know. (It occurs to me now. Perhaps we could have come a bit later or earlier in the year. But I also remember looking up the weather here a few months back and noticing that the average temperature here stays exactly the same all year round. 98 or 99 degrees. All twelve months of the year.) So what time of year we come here to work is not really going to help or hinder us either way unfortunately. That’s too bad really. Because truth be told I enjoy work and mission trips of all kinds and try as best as I can – like many – to do at least one a year. But this one is almost too difficult. I don’t say this to frighten anyone else who plans on joining the next brigade we will send to continue working on this project, but only as one of the many facts of the experience. The sun is scorching. It is like nothing I have ever felt before.
On our first day, within less than an hour one of our team members got sick from sun poisoning and had to be rushed back to the hotel. At the same time a few more of us, including myself, felt the same as she did. One minute I was pounding a pick axe into the hard brown dirt of the earth and ten minutes later I had this strange sensation that I was about to pass out. I was panting, couldn’t catch my breath, my skin felt like it was on fire, my head hurt, I felt like crying from how much pain I was in. I stumbled blindly to the tent where we seek the refuge of some moderate shade to sit down. That was it. Something was terribly wrong. Perhaps I under-estimated how hot it was? Perhaps I over-estimated how much work I could do at one time or how fast I could work in such extreme conditions. Sun poisoning like this, whatever you want to call it, is a fascinating feeling. It is brutal. It attacks you slowly. You don’t realize until it is too late that you are about to feel dreadfully ill. So you might work for just a few too many minutes longer in that hot sun than you should. And then slowly… no breath, burning skin, head pounding, no breath, burning skin, head pounding, please make it go away, sit down, no, stand up, try walking, get water, I have to throw up, I need to lie down, perhaps… Yes, this is how it feels.
Lucky for me, the Queen Mother (many will recognize her from the Going to Ghana videos) recognized that there was something wrong with me before I did – pointing out how red my face was – and got me water and then began icing me down with bags of ice, as I sat there in a daze panting, trying to see straight and catch my breath, hoping that I would not pass out. Yep. Not kidding. It’s like that. And we are working in it all day for ten days straight. Doing very heavy manual labor to the point of exhaustion by 10 AM in the morning. One of our drivers, a local woman named Bernarda in her late fifties perhaps, then took over for my care for a few minutes. She explained to me in this very cute “Spanglish” that I needed to slow way down in the heat, that I was working way too fast. She then put my long hair up in a clip, iced me down some more, and then massaged sun block all over my upper body. I wasn’t using any… bascially because I am stupid. I come to that same conclusion every few days. After about twenty minutes I regained my strength and felt better. As most of us soon realized the best way to do it is to work for about ten minutes – depending on what one is doing, breaking up hard rock in the ground with a pick-axe I can only usually go for about five to ten max – and then break for five to ten minutes. More even. You then ice yourself down, pour cold water all over yourself, drink tons of water and Gatorade (I’ll take that product placement check now please), and get your breath back. Of course I would be remiss not to mention the obvious: there is also the issue of extremely sore hands and muscles, and the fact that many of our hands are now covered in blisters. Personally, my three biggest issues are my skin burns like crazy if I am out there for more than ten minutes at a time – it actually feels like it is on fire, I have about seven open or popped blisters on my thumbs and fingers and hands, and I find it difficult to catch my breath doing such heavy work out in such hot sun. Other than that it’s all easy breezy.
So, why are we here? I mean, why bother? Right? It doesn’t sound fun, and honestly it just isn’t. The work that is. So why do it? Why not just give money so these people can have a church and community center here? For years I thought that donating money was the way to go. If you give enough, according to how much you make and what you feel is appropriate based on your own values, then you’re alright. You’re doing your fair share in the “service to others” aspect of your life and all is well in being a human on planet earth. My first work trip, as opposed to peace delegation or mission trip or protest march or demonstration, showed me personally why it is so important to actually show up on work trips now and then in person AND give. To most readers I will assume that the answer is obvious so I won’t go into it too much except to say that for me personally I have recognized that there is something very very very important in meeting and making contact with the people you are attempting to help. The money is important, yes. But more important is the personal connection and the meaning that is unearthed in the hearts and minds of the people when they see you live and in the flesh and realize that you just flew half way around the world to come work for them and to help them.
Some facts: the building that we are erecting here in this small village is the very first Methodist Church that has ever been built in the country of Colombia. There are only two other Methodist churches in the entire country. Both rented spaces and neither real churches with a steeple or anything like that. Just plain old ordinary buildings. So we are building the very first Methodist Chuch in this country. That is a very powerful feeling. Both to us and to the people here in this country and especially in this community. Another thing I learned is that the church that I belong to in New York is funding the entire project. Think about that for a moment. This strange community on the other end of the planet is having an entire church, rectory, and community center built for them – the first in their country’s history – paid for entirely by a few hundred people in New York City. Just plain old ordinary Americans who live in Manhattan are donating any free money they have to provide this impoverished little village with this giant edifice that will hopefully supply them so many things over the next few decades… I contemplated this fact today while walking around the work site. thought about all the things that a church could provide a people so wanting in so many ways. A place to worship their version of God together, a place to foster community, even an idea as simple as just “a place to come to on a regular basis for years” if they so desire, everyday if they want to, a place to learn, to volunteer, to meet future friends and spouses. A place that will provide them with teachers and mentors and others who truly care. A place to help them with medical needs, emergency needs, education for their children, and even just entertainment. Really made me think about how we can take these things for granted in the States back home because we have so many churches. We also have televisions and other distractions that perhaps lead us into not even recognizing the power and importance that a church can have in our lives if we start going to one now and then. For a people like this, here now, without the basic things we take for granted in the Western world such as indoor plumbing or kitchen appliances or electricty or decent schools, a church can be a very powerful and positive force for good in their lives and in the lives of their children and grandchildren to come.
Yesterday we celebrated their church service with them. They worship on Saturday nights here in Colombia, instead of Sunday mornings (imgaine that in the US!) and the pastor of thier little chuch – which is actually the pastor’s house – which is actually nothing more than a seven by seven concrete room adjacent to thousands of others (picture army baracks painted various colors such as pink and purple and red and yellow stretching up and down for miles as far as the eye can see) led this service. I am getting very tired so will keep this breif. He had a tough time keeping it together emotionally as he looked out at these twenty-three strangers’ faces staring back at him. All of us from New York in the United States here in his little village working our butts off for ten days in the hot sun… and more than that knowing that after will come another team, and then another, and then another, until this building is completely erected and fully functional. The man just couldn’t come to terms with it. Who could? In that position? I felt for him.
I really felt what that must feel like. How can one possibly show how much appreciation one has in a situation like that to the people who are helping you and your community? He told us that he had prayed and prayed to find some way to express his gratitude. And all he could do was to profess to us with tears pouring and leaping out of his eyes that he is so inspired by our efforts personally – as a man and a fellow human being – that he was commiting himself to spend “every day every hour every minute every second of the rest of his life to attempting to give back the way that he felt that we were giving to him and his village. And then he sang to us. Acapella. Just him standing there singing by himself, smiling and crying, as a gift to us. A present from him to us as a way of showing thanks. Of course there wasn’t a dry eye under that tent in that moment. It was one of those transcendent moments that one never forgets. I personally can still see his big beautiful brown eyes filled with joy and tears and a little bit of fear that he may never be able to give back enough in his life to satisfy how grateful he felt in that moment and feels today and will feel tomorrow and for years to come I’m sure. It was a pure bilss moment for everyone and well worth the trip and the hard work.
It was then that I knew why we were there. And why I was there. Why I am here. Still. Typing away while the others are at dinner. For it is these moments that make the difference between being alive or thriving. Between making it or making the most of it. So I madly type away as quickly as I can with nothing but going to sleep on my mind because I have nothing but inspiration and joy and gratitude in my heart for this experience. And to think that maybe we can gather just one or two more persons into this world of giving to others… the possibilities are endless for us if more and more of us catch the fever of selfless service to others. (though I hesitate to write these words for so many reasons. Firstly because I do not believe that giving to others is selfless. I find it very selfish in fact because one gets so much more than one receives. The greatest treasure bought on the most expensive vacation that the world has to offer gives us nothing compared to what we get when we go on any kind of trip like this – even if it just for the day or a few hours even giving to others. I have spent my whole life trying both. I have raced my convertible turbo-powered  BMW down I-395 in Miami Beach going one-hundred and twenty miles an hour and felt fantastic with that wind blwing through my hair and all that goes with it. I have also attempted to feel good through living the msot lavish lifestyle money could afford by pampering myself with everything from weekly massages, manicures, chiropractic visits, hot tubs, $100 plates of truffle pasta, and thousand dollar shopping sprees. And these are damn fine things. Damn fine. But they just don’t give back to the heart in that visceral life-altering way that service to others does. I wish they did. Life would be easier. But they do not. And this is why I say that giving to others is a selfish thing to do. Because we just always walk away feeling as though we got more than we gave.) The point to take away though is that if each of us committed to dedicating at least one week of every year of our lives, and I’m thinking of everyone here, even those of us in the absolute most dire circumstances, I get the feeling that life on planet earth for human beings would be a much different experience. For all of us. Much better that is.
I don’t believe this is too far fetched of an idea. For, as many, I have noticed us trending in this direction for some time. Especially in the last five to ten years. It is only a matter of time. Life may indeed by an absurd masquerade ball disgused as a circus dressed up like a Greek Comic Tragedy most of the time, but it also seems to be interspersed with small miracles every now and then along the way. What if we started attempting to create more and more miracles in our shared lives together deliberatly? The possiblities.
Of course, like most of us, I personally feel like I have so far to go in this arena. Most of the time feeling so selfish and small in comparison to others who appear to give so much more freely than I do. But I cannot allow myself to let this feeling stop me from at least trying to help as best as I can.
It is not late, only 10:40 PM, but our new meeting time in the mornings is 7 AM. So I will wrap it up. But this, this is important. Today we met with the Bishop of the Methodist church of Colombia. He flew in to personally work side by side with us for the rest of our stay here. And he told us some of the most hair-raising stories you’ve ever heard. Hollywood movie kind of dramas of paramilitary soldiers hanging guerrillas from trees with ropes and chopping their bodies in half with chainsaws right in front of him kind of stories. Being kidnapped and held in a hole without food for five days knowing for certain that he was about to be murdered at any minute kind of stories. After all, this is Colombia. And that is why we are here. So I will return to share some more in a few days. For sure. But for now I’m going to hit the hay and pray that the sleep will recouperate me enough to slam it another day.
Random facts and thoughts: There are more women on this team than men, many more. How amazing it is that there is no difference in the work ethic or the quality of work from either sex. Everyone just works hard. Some of the girls seem to be able to stay out in the heat and keep working longer than some of the men. And vice versa. I think it just depends on the person. It’s really something to see someone out there digging away for ten to twenty minutes straight without taking a break (our first task was to “break ground” – we are literally starting this new building from scratch and building the foundation of this two story church and community center) When we arrived there was nothing there but an empty field of grass and dirt and some little wooden stakes in the ground. Our first task was to dig 24 holes four feet by four feet and three feet deep into the earth. Next we will then mix our own mortar or cement and shovel it into each hole and at the same time have the ridiculously daunting task of hand-sawing hundreds of pieces of steel reebar that we will place into the cement that we pour that will eventually hold the columns that will make up the foundation of this building. It is quite the job. In many many ways. We are all very lucky to be on this particular trip.