Monday, September 15, 2008

South America Log #13

Dear Friends and Family,

"Colombia: the only risk is wanting to stay." A billboard with these words greeted us at the Bogotá airport on a recent flight back from a vacation that ended in Quito, Ecuador. After two years in Colombia accompanying human rights workers and community organizers whose lives are very much at risk, we recognized that for many Colombians this slogan is hollow propaganda. At the same time, as we returned from a fantastic vacation that included visiting waterfalls, rivers and mountains of southern Colombia, we could partially identify with the message. Colombia is a beautiful country, and it will be hard for us to leave.

We are writing to you just 3 weeks before we move back to Minneapolis. You can imagine that our hearts and minds are full as we consider all we have learned and experienced in the past two years and we anticipate sad good-byes here and warm reunions in the United States. To sum up our experience, and pass time at the airport, we came up with the following lists:

What we will not miss about Colombia:

Military check points, common on roads and river ways. Usually all the men in the bus or boat are asked to leave the vehicle, show their ID cards, and get patted down.

Death threats to social organizations, including the 4 new threats received in August by organizations here in Barranca, all signed by the paramilitaries. Although we plan to continue to draw attention to these issues from the U.S.

The heat, although it did dip down below 80 degrees in our bedroom once, and we had a heavy breeze last week that everyone is still talking about.

The smell of the oil refinery that sends us to check for the hundredth time whether something in the house is actually on fire.

Meat- and starch-heavy meals.

Knee-deep mud.

Mosquitoes, chiggers, ticks, and all kinds of other biting insects we've encountered in the rural areas. The relatively innocuous dengue- and malaria-free mosquitoes of Minnesota will be a welcome change!

Dengue fever, fondly known as "break bone" fever by those who have experienced it.

Staying in touch with friends and family via email.

What we will miss about Colombia:

Tropical fruits; we are eating big bowls of fresh pineapple, papaya and mango each day just to store up for the long, apple-filled winter in Minnesota.

Travel by river, the best way to commute to meetings that we can think of!

Cooling nightly downpours during the rainy season.

Opportunities to experience and learn from another culture, although we still cannot figure out how to navigate the traffic. We have learned that the lights go from red to yellow to green, and that yellow can most easily be defined as "start your engines" and is not at all related to the "time to slow down" in the U.S.

Opportunities to learn Spanish, although we will not miss having to worry if a slightly mispronounced word might easily become a swear word, like the other day when Michele attempted to say the word for "bald" and a gracious listener kindly corrected the pronunciation and advised against the ill-spoken word. By the color in her friend's cheeks, Michele knew never to try to say "bald" again.

Things we will take with us:

The courage and commitment of our many partners, including the women's organization that boldly states, "It is better to live in fear than to stop living because of fear."

Living in a community that does not emphasize material possessions, capitalism or individual capital gain. Like the young barefoot boy that helped Michele with her backpack at a river port and then refused the offer of a few pesos, Michele thinking that he must be one of the many people at the port making their living by transporting goods.

A more profound understanding of our global connectedness and our impact on the lives and economies and communities of people living thousands of miles from us. We have seen how our choices in the U.S. can lead to deforestation, violence and displacement, or to sustainable development, secure communities and fairer employment.

The anticipation we feel thinking about our return home is mixed with the angst of job searching. Your job leads and job search hints are still welcome.

For photos of our recent vacation to southern Colombia and Ecuador see our photo album.

We've also particpated in a short video interview about the accompaniment work we've been doing. The video was created for the website of New Tactics in Human Rights, a web community of human rights workers created by The Center for Victims of Torture in Minneapolis.

To read more about CPT or make a donation in our name, go to

In Gratitude,

Michele and Nils

P.S. More stories about daily life in Colombia.

It was brought to our attention (thanks, Tony) that we omitted Flora and Fauna in our last update so here it is, along with a few other odds and ends.

Flora and Fauna: - With temperatures in the 80's to 100's all year around you can imagine that we enjoy beautiful flowering trees and plants all year as well, including the bougainvillea on our patio, and an amazing variety of heliconias. Colombia also has the most diversity of orchids in the world, with thousands of varieties. For the most spectacular tree we have seen, check out our Garzal photos from Christmas.

Our best fauna stories are already included in our Food section of the last email but we have met some animals we have not, yet, had the opportunity to eat. A favorite memory is when a falling monkey almost hit Nils. Nils was standing almost directly below a family of monkeys who were traveling in trees 70 feet tall. One particularly clumsy monkey hesitated and then leapt for a branch and missed, falling right towards Nils. Nils scrambled to get out of the way, but fortunately the monkey caught itself in a 15-foot tall cacao tree that was growing beneath the taller trees, and it quickly clambered back up to a higher perch. We're not sure who was more frightened, the monkey or Nils.

Other animals we have enjoyed are the mules that have transported us long distances to meetings. Sometimes this travel becomes quite treacherous due to roads covered in several feet of mud. One time Michele was on a two-hour mule trip with a teammate and the mule driver. Michele watched in surprise as the mule driver jumped off of his mule just as the mule lost its balance when one leg sunk into belly-deep mud. Thankfully, this lessened the surprise for Michele when her mule toppled over a few minutes later. Luckily, the soft mud that had caused the fall also created a nice pillow for Michele's leg that was now trapped under the mule. The mule driver reached Michele in record time, and with a few quick pushes the mule was back on its feet and Michele and her muddy pants got back up on the mule.

On our river trips we see hundreds of birds including egrets, herons, cormorants, ducks, and kingfishers, as well as a lot of birds we can't identify. When a birdwatcher, armed with her bird book joined our team she was thrilled to see dozens of birds she had never seen before, on her first trip on the river! Insects (the biting kind) were mentioned earlier in this letter, but Colombia also has an amazing variety of butterflies, and some really cool beetles.

We have also seen small crocodiles, iguanas as big as cats and twice as long, small lizards that can run across the surface of the water, and several small rodents that seem to not have names in English. When one teammate asked a farmer for the difference between a 'tiger', a 'lion' and a 'puma' (small wild cats that live in the region and are not the cats we know by this name), he responded, "A tiger is a tiger, and a lion is a lion, and a puma is a puma." We felt this summed it up pretty well.

Nils has added to his list of "strange foods" recently when he insisted on eating a guinea pig (cuy) for his birthday. It was so big that he was able to split it with a friend. Nils got the head since it was his birthday, and our friend got the butt. Michele took the tiniest bite possible that would still qualify for "I ate guinea pig".

"Mud" could have its own section. Like the time the roads were too muddy for a truck to provide transport and motorcycles were sent, in the rain, to collect Michele and a teammate. With a shrug and a "what can you do?" they put on their raincoats and each got on the back of a motorcycle. A short time later one of the motorcycles broke down and the trip ended with Michele, the teammate, the driver and a large back pack all on one motorcycle, in the pouring rain, arriving in town covered in mud and unrecognizable to people that knew us. Luckily, our driver shared our "what can you do?" attitude and when the rain picked up he chimed in saying, "Oh, nothing like a downpour to make everything fresher."

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Short video about our work

In January, our CPT Colombia team participated in a on-line dialogue about Unarmed Accompaniment on the New Tactics for Human Rights website. When the two of us were back in Minnesota in April, the folks for New Tactics asked us if we would be willing to be interviewed by them for a short video about Colombia and the use of accompaniment as a tactic to protect communities at risk of violence. Below is a nine-minute video they made, based on the interview with us.

Special thanks to our friends Tim and Kevin for the use of their lovely sunporch.

Take Action for Colombia

At the end of July, the State Department again certified that the Colombian military has been meeting the basic benchmarks set forth by Congress on respecting human rights and breaking ties to paramilitaries.

While progress has indeed been made in a few high-profile human rights cases, and some important arrests have been made, the sad truth is that the Colombian military continues to commit human rights abuses with near total impunity.

The Latin American Working Group (LAWG) is asking people to send a simple, but strong, message to the State Department - wrong decision, wrong time, wrong message.
Click here for an on-line form to take action and make sure your voice is heard!

A big human rights concern that we have seen in our work is extrajudicial killings by the Colombian military. We wrote in an earlier blog post about this phenomena, and The LA Times recently published an updated story on these illegal killings by the military which are common (329 last year), but rarely result in prosecutions, or even thorough investigations of the soldiers involved. There are also some photos on the CPT website from a recent accompaniment CPT did to support the investigation of one of these extrajudicial killings.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Our recent trip to southern Colombia and Ecuador

In August there were a bunch of other people on team with us so we were able to take a two-week vacation to see a little more of Colombia (the south this time) and to visit Ecuador. See below for pictures.

We went to stay with our friend Karen that Michele met at a workshop last year, and and visited the Tatacoa desert near Neiva with her. Then we continued on to San Agustin, where archeologists have discovered hundreds of tombs and funerary sculptures dating from between 900 BC and 1200 AD. We continued on to Popayan, Pasto and Ipiales, and then crossed the border to Ecuador. We spent several days in Otavalo, Ecuador hiking and visiting the indigenous market, and then went on to spend a day in Quito and to visit a monument at the Equator, which runs just outside of Quito.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Recent Accompaniments

Here are a few photos we have taken on recent accompaniments.

Recent accompaniments - June 2008

Photos of Barranca

Here are some photos of life in Barrancabermeja, our home for the last year and a half.


Sunday, June 22, 2008

South America Log # 12

Dear Family and Friends and Assorted Peacemakers,

It took us a few months to notice the trend. Last September, the military arrested four leaders from a farmer's organization, and issued arrest warrants for 18 more of the organization's leaders. The leaders went into hiding, leaving the organization essentially dismantled. In January, armed men broke into the apartment of the director of a women's organization and threatened her life. She left Barrancabermeja for her own safety. In March the director of a local human rights organization moved his family to Bogotá for their safety. When we returned to Barranca in May, after 6 weeks of vacation in Minnesota, we learned that several development workers and priests from a rural area CPT accompanies had received written threats and had displaced from their communities.

As the media will report, and Colombian President Uribe and President Bush will boast, violence is down in Colombia. But, any human rights or development worker will tell you the threats continue, one by one, one by one. And, soon, numerous human rights workers are gone or threatened and the news media and global community hardly even noticed.

Sometimes the threat comes from the Colombian government itself. The government will arrest community leaders for "rebellion". Often the evidence is flimsy and the courts eventually release the person, but during their detention, the government has kept this person from organizing. Four of the leaders of the small farmers organization mentioned above were released after almost 6 months in prison when the government could not produce evidence against them. The leader of the small gold miners' organization was held for rebellion for over a week and then released for lack of evidence. An advocate for political prisoners was himself held for 18 months and then released before his trial date, again for lack of evidence.

When CPT first arrived in Barrancabermeja 7 years ago the physical violence of the conflict was evident. Our teammates attended funerals of people they had accompanied, they were present moments after people were killed, and they encountered dead bodies floating in the rivers where we frequently travel. Thankfully, it's been over a year since the physical violence of the conflict has touched our team that closely. The type of violence experienced by our partners has changed but the effects on human rights are not any less damaging.

So, the need for accompaniment continues in Barrancabermeja. This week Nils spent a day accompanying local elections in a nearby town where there are concerns that paramilitaries will intimidate people from voting. Michele spent 3 days with development workers who were leading a workshop on cooperative projects including buffalo and coffee.

Thank you to everyone who reads our writings, checks out our blog, takes action on an issue impacting Colombia, sends us an email, or donates to CPT in our name!

In hope,

Michele and Nils

You can read more about the tactics used against human rights workers in the Amnesty International report, Colombia: Fear and Intimidation: The dangers of human rights work.

To read about one aspect of economic oppression facing rural Colombians, Nils recently wrote a short essay on the likely impacts of the U.S. Free Trade Agreement with Colombia. Go to our blog ( for a link to the article and to see photos of Barrancabermeja.

If you have read this far, you might be one of our friends who has asked to hear some more of the personal details of our life in Colombia. Here they are:

Spanish – Nils came to Colombia with a decent level of Spanish having spent one year of high school in Venezuela. I had taken lots of evening Spanish classes but felt stuck at the intermediate level. When I came to Colombia I had high hopes of becoming fluent. In our 18 months in Colombia, the work of CPT has taken precedence over Spanish learning and at times it has been more important to get the work done than to do the work in Spanish. Our co-workers are from Canada, the U.S. and Colombia and the Colombians want to practice English as much as I want to practice Spanish. So, some days meetings are in Spanish, some days in English. When we go out to visit communities, I almost always travel with a teammate with stronger Spanish than me.

With less than 4 months left here I have decided to spend some more focused time on Spanish learning. I will go to Medellín (about 8 hours away) in July for 3 weeks of language classes in the morning, volunteering at a school in the afternoon and living with a family. I hope the time of traveling on my own and relying on my Spanish will do a lot for my Spanish skills and my confidence in my Spanish.

Friends – It has been difficult to make friends here for several reasons. The culture in Barranca is very much centered on family, so time outside of work and on holidays is usually spent with family. People have said so many hellos and good-byes to CPTers that they often do not want to take the risk again to get close to one of us. We often feel the same way, having made friends again and again with other international accompaniers only to learn on our second or third meeting that they will be leaving Barranca. I (Michele) did make a friend about a year ago on an accompaniment. Gladis is a grade school teacher who has to learn English because her school is going bilingual. Gladis and I get together almost every week. I enjoy the time spent talking with her family, sharing a meal and practicing Spanish. When she pulls out her English textbooks I also get to review my irregular verbs and the difference between a past and present participle.

Free time – Barranca is an industrial, working class city of about 300,000 people that offers few cultural activities. We ride bikes, swim at a hotel pool, do laps at an Olympic sized pool, rent movies, go out for pizza, walk downtown for ice cream or a beer, play board games and go dancing if we can stay awake until 11pm when people start going out. Only once have we ventured out for a game of minitejo. It's similar to horseshoes except you throw a small metal disk or tejo across the court and if it lands in the center it will explode a small packet of gunpowder. When our group of foreigners finished playing, the court owner got a real laugh when he discovered we had only managed to finish one game in the 3 hours we were there.

Food – tropical fruits would best define the cuisine here, along with cassava, plantain, rice, meat or fish, and arepas (round, flat bread made from corn flour). The only tortillas are imported from the U.S. and food is never spicy. Fresh fruit juice of every variety is commonplace – we will miss the passion fruit juice the most! We were told once that you could eat a different fruit every day for a year in Colombia. We began to believe this when our 28-year-old Colombia housemate was asked the name of a fruit and he said he had never seen it before.

Strange foods – although we still both prefer to eat vegetarian food we quickly realized that would not be realistic here, especially when we travel in rural areas and much of the food is brought in from a long distance. We eat what is served to us. We have eaten turtle (not recommended), every internal organ of a cow (especially not recommended, intestines – they might look like pasta but do not be fooled!) and several large rodents (Nils thinks the ponche is good with coconut milk). We hope to travel to southern Colombia and Ecuador before we leave, which might mean trying guinea pig.

In turn, Colombians tell us that our strange (and detestable) foods include peanut butter, olives, pickles and cranberry juice.

Now, if you have read this far, you owe us an email, even a short one, to tell us what you are up to!!