Watching Juanita’s Piñata

September, 2012

A reflection on my three months in Bogotá, what I’ve experienced, and what about the country has changed. Some parts will feel familiar to my first entry, “A Reason for Applause.” Some will not.

There was a celebration when we landed. It’s traditional in Colombia to clap when the plane hits the runway. My hands, however, were cradling my head. It is Tuesday May 29th and I’m dizzy.

Immigration didn’t stop me. I always feel as though officials have the power to come up with a silly reason to stop you at immigration. You didn’t spell your address correctly. You can’t speak Spanish. You’re too old. You’re too young. You’re too beautiful. Hey, you, you’re too beautiful. What’s your name?

After a brief pause and a hard stare from the sad looking immigration man who hid behind the glass, I passed through, back into Colombia.

I’ve been here before. In 2009 I came to Colombia to volunteer as a CEEDer for AIESEC EIA and study Spanish for 2 months. I remember the fear and anxiety that plagued me when I landed in Medellín at the beginning of the summer. But suddenly there was an old friend from university and a handful of others hanging over a balcony in the Medellín airport. They were shouting and waving, and my welcome, indeed my entire time in that city, was warm.

Again, now in Bogotá’s El Dorado airport, even though the air is chilly, my welcome is warm.

Right as I walked away from the currency exchange window, I heard my name being called loudly. Cristian and Nataly, two members of the AIESEC Trainee Integration team, greeted me with huge hugs. They took photographs. They gave me a small traditional Colombian pouch with a hand-made Colombian poncho inside. A small bottle of aguardiente, the national white rum touted as a point of Colombian pride, came tumbling out of the pouch as well. Then they bought me a hamburger. We sat down. And we talked. We talked in Spanish. We talked in English. Everything was coming back. A gust of strong, good memories was pouring in from the smells, the sounds, the feel.

I was happy. I felt comfortable. I felt safe. And the hamburger was delicious.

Now, the first thing you learn when you get to Bogotá is just how dangerous it really is, how you have to tener cuidado or be careful. At first, I didn’t understand exactly what this meant. Did it mean that I was going to get killed? Kidnapped? Robbed? Tripped? Does it mean that some parts of the city are more dangerous than others?

“Everywhere in Bogotá is dangerous,” Yudbeny, the woman who runs my apartment, told me later with a big chuckle. “After 8pm in the evening, if you are on the street alone, and the street is empty, then debes tener cuidado (you have to be careful).”

Living in Bogotá, I realize, can be dizzying when the city around you has suffered decades of civil war, the Bogotazo, forced displacement, and a massive gap between rich and poor. The insecurity and the poverty can get dizzying.

After hopping into a small car with Cristian, the road starts moving underneath me. Small, wobbly buses called collectivos zip and dart around us. It is dark. The road is dented with potholes and cracks. The car shakes violently. Cristian is cool.

As we zoom toward the Alvarez family’s house where I will stay for one week until I get settled, something in Colombia is happening.

What coincides with (almost to the day) of my arrival is the release of Roméo Langlois, a French journalist, by the FARC (Las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia). The FARC, a left-wing guerrilla group that formed in 1964 in opposition to Colombia’s tattered political climate, took Langlois captive during a firefight with the Colombian military in the mountains of Caqueta (a department in the south of the country) on April 28th.

During his 30 days in captivity, Langlois rigorously interviewed and documented the life of the guerrilla soldiers whose political motives and weaponry could decide life or death for the young Frenchman on a whim. He emerged from captivity claiming that he was treated well, and that the FARC desperately want to talk peace. Langlois came out of captivity carrying the voice of one of Colombia’s most marginalized and feared guerrilla groups – and how the international community needs to put pressure on Colombia for a peace process.

Now, three months later, much has happened around me here in Colombia, and fortunately the dizziness is passing.

Now, much more so in response to a tired 48 year armed civil conflict than Langlois’ hostage theatrics, after sacrificing 2% of GDP ($16bn) on military spending, and an $8bn Plan Colombia to help fight Colombia’s FARC, ELN and a variety of military groups, and after tens of thousands of lives taken on both sides of the fighting, real signs of a peace process have seemed to come alive again.

After a messy and inglorious attempt to start talks in 1998, President Juan Manuel Santos is renewing that failed effort. Colombia and the FARC have jointly declared that they agree to start a peace process starting no later than October of 2012. The talks will take place in Oslo and then later in Havana, and Chile and Venezuela will help facilitate the talks. The US will not be involved.

The mood amongst students in my classrooms, of my boss, around my neighborhood in the Palermo, my housemates – a Venezuelan political science Masters student, and a Colombian history student – is generally a cool mix of tired hope and cautious skepticism.

It has been roughly three months since Langlois came out of the Caqueta carrying the voice of a marginalized group that wants to talk peace – supporting it, promoting it. Finally, his wish is coming true.

Three months, and things are still changing fast around me.

But my changes happening to me are different from the changes that frame Colombia against its tired civil conflict.

Since day one, and beyond the backdrop of the Langlois fiasco and hopeful peace talks, a rich and lucid life has unfolded for me as an AIESEC trainee.

I have learned to listen to the sound of harmonicas whine through the sleepy streets of the Candelaria.

I’ve learned to dance Salsa on rooftops, in kitchens and backyards, and a creaky old joint called the Cubano where the bathrooms might as well be an entrance to purgatory, where no one is younger than 40, and where I reckon they make the mojitos stronger than Hemingway’s beard.

I’ve taught students at a BPO (Business Process Outsourcing) call center that handles ATT&T telecommunications accounts, where employees are students making an extra buck next on the side of university classes, oil mechanics making an extra buck on the side, aspiring teachers, and a Eurozone crisis refugee from Spain. I’ve taught engineers, CEOs, and designers.

I’ve learned to bravely cut into a new, strange and exotically delicious fruit each new week, struggling to defeat the element of surprise that springs from Colombia’s insanely endless diversity of botanical temptations. So I cut again. And then low and behold there always is: another surprise.

I’ve learned to be scolded, praised, humiliated and advised by Yudbeny Gonzalez – Queen of an old broken down house in the Palermo where I used to live. Queen of twelve young boys who want to be men. Mother none.

I’ve learned my language from a new perspective, how its complexity is both its flaw and its beauty, and how news of the way phrasal verbs work is always taken as tough news.

I’ve learned that what is important to remember when living against the backdrop of a place, a people, a country made up of a narrative laced with violence, drug-trafficking, street crime, and robbery, is that it is important to stay hopeful, to stay positive.

Colombia is a country that has been led through countless dizzying trials of hope and despair.

Right now though Colombia is leaning toward a hopeful future.

There was a celebration as Juanita struck the piñata and hundreds of dulces scattered across the floor. A group of children converged on the blind-folded Juanita, whose birthday has brought salsa music, grilled meat, family and friends into the house of Diego Jaimes, the man from whom I rent a room in my neighborhood, the Palermo. I stand somewhere off to the side and talk to a father of one of the children about the US. He is curious. For all the dizziness brought about by Colombia’s political conflict, Juanita’s birthday and the people it brings together feels extraordinarily lucid.

Juanita holds up a dulce. She looks at it, and then she looks at me, and then she unwraps the candy and stuffs it into her mouth and chews and smiles. She is shining. Juanita, who has just turned five years old, will grow up with the worst of Colombia’s memories buried in history. It is hoped.

In the snap and thrash of Juanita’s piñata exploding like a bomb in mid air, I realize I’ve been here for three months now. It is September 8th. There are children and dulces and laughter covering the floor of my house. These are clear and beautiful things.

And Colombia is less dizzy than ever before.

“Watching Juanita’s Piñata” is a reflection on my three months in Bogotá, what I’ve experienced, and what has changed. Parts, though by no means the whole, of this piece are taken from my first entry, “A Reason for Applause.”

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