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."

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