This page has moved to a new address.

Almost Colombia

In the "Cult of Escapism": Almost Colombia

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Almost Colombia

The most surprising part of this trip was that, after traveling east from Panama City for 12 hours, I still wasn't in Colombia. Remember that Panama has roughly the same area as South Carolina. If I started in central South Carolina and drove east for 12 hours, I'd be in Morocco. 
From the boat ride in

As I mentioned in my last blog post, another volunteer named Dave and I have been 'touring' the country, giving a Basics of Business seminar in other volunteers' sites. Our most recent trip took us to one of the more remote sites available, in an indigenous reservation near the Colombian border*.

To get there from Panama City requires seven hours on a bus, 30 minutes in a van, 3 hours in a boat and then another 30 minutes in the back of a truck. Add wait time between connections and it's a full 12 hours.

For the last two hours of the boat ride, you see nothing but water and seemingly uninhabited islands and shoreline. Then suddenly, a house with a satellite dish pops out of the jungle. Then a town with sidewalks, powerlines and many more satellite dishes. Their school has internet. What now? Where the hell am I? How could I not be in Colombia yet?

Carmen's community
Seriously though, a gigantic, house-sized generator electrifies four or five towns and so you end up with stilted wooden houses and leaf roofs with satellite dishes on them and flat screen TVs inside surrounded by squalor. It's still extreme poverty, only with HD and HBO.

Carmen lives with the Enbera, another indigenous group I wrote a bit about in a former post. If you don't feel like clicking that link, here's a short summary: short, painted bodies, extremely poor, topless women in colorful skirts. That's a whole culture in ten words.

Carmen is in my same sector – Community Economic Development – but after countless teenage pregnancies** and several AIDS deaths within her first year of service, she started concentrating more heavily on sexual health education. She's also hoping to create more job opportunities through tourism efforts and wanted to get Dave and I out there to help her artisans straighten out their business operations a little bit.

"0.90 means 90 cents, not 9 cents..."
Before every seminar we've given, the recipient volunteer always warns us that their community members have a low level of education and that we should expect to go slow, that they might not get it right away, etc. The people in my region have the lowest average years of education in the country (4.1) and Dave's people weren't any better, so we usually just brush the warnings aside and deliver a solid seminar, at the right level. But DAMN were Carmen's people uneducated.

Carmen said that most sixth graders in her town still can't write their own names. This is particularly sad because the kids actually do go to school for those six or seven years and still can't write their names. Shit. I'd like to see what it is they're actually doing in the classrooms. Maybe they can write other people's names.

In the sepo, or stocks - this is an actual punishment
Anyway, that made it difficult to give a seminar on basic business skills. Almost every participant was illiterate and those who could write usually didn't make any sense anyway. One person out of twenty knew that $0.10 means ten cents (they use U.S. currency here). We found out that one small store owner had been losing 16¢ for every bag of sugar he sold. At one point, a group of artisan women had to calculate 1/1 and they reached for the calculator.

Dave and I usually hit a home run on this seminar – this time was more like an intentional walk. We told Carmen that before her women moved on to running a business, she might want to teach them about decimals and perhaps a little division.

While isolation and lack of education make it difficult to teach business skills, it's a perfect formula for proselytizing. Carmen's town is about half Square Evangelicals (I'd never heard of it either), which are apparently the double bacon quarter pounders with cheese of Evangelicals, which are already the Whoppers of Christians. We happened to be there for a Wednesday night service, which featured highly amplified bad singing, praying and angry shouting. It was only missing an exorcism.
Carmen and I walking down the river

That wasn't a joke, this town has about two exorcisms every week. I thought an exorcism was a once in a lifetime event for a small town, but there it happens more often than gigantically fat people eat Whoppers. Thing is, any illness, any miscreant teenager, anything negative is apparently appropriate grounds for an exorcism. Ever seen There Will be Blood? It's like that, but much louder because they have microphones.

I had a cold when I arrived and considered dropping in during service for a quick exorcism but decided to take a Panadol instead. My nose is still sniffling two days later – maybe that's God's way of telling me that I'm long overdue for an exorcism (but where would I even start?).

Shockingly hairy
These Squares also treat everything with prayer, including snake bites. Within the last year, a man has died and a child has lost his arm because after being bitten by snakes, they were first sequestered and prayed over in the church for 24 hours and then med-evaced. Gotta work on your order of operations, my Square friends.

Does this town sound like a hip destination? Let me redeem it a little, because I did have a good time there.

There are few primary (i.e. 'virgin') rainforests left in the world, but one of them surrounds this site. Rare and endangered animals slither, swim, crawl and caw throughout the jungle only a few minutes' walk from the town center and it doesn't take long to lose sight of all farms and houses and become entirely immersed in this deep green kingdom. We walked a jungle trail for about an hour and returned to the town by walking in the river. I've seen a hell of a lot of jungle in the past two years, but this still managed to impress me, being so raw and unaltered.

One of my favorite moments was when Dave and I got painted with jagua fruit juice. The woman first painted my back and when I turned around and presented my hairy chest for painting, she broke down laughing. So the family came running and broke down too. “Is that even possible?!” asked one of the daughters. The woman hesitantly put the stick to my chest and drew a line across, giggling the whole time. It worked and now everyone in my town is wigging out over my painted body.

So despite a fairly weak performance on the seminar and approximately 27,000 hours of round trip travel, I'm glad I went out to Carmen's site in almost Colombia. To say it was visually stimulating would be like saying three quarter pounders are 'enough' to make you full. Plus I have these sweet tribal tattoos for the next week. I gotta stop talking about hamburgers, I'm making myself hungry for something I have no access to...

*Whenever I mention the Colombia border, people tell me to be careful. So you know, the FARC has officially declared that it will no longer take civilian hostages as ransom. So that's nice.

**This town has the youngest pregnancies I've ever heard of – and I'm used to some young pregnancies where I live. In our two days in her site, we saw a pregnant 13 year old and heard about a pregnant 10 year old. TEN YEAR OLD. Damn. 


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home