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Happy 30th Birthday ONIC!

February 26, 2012

Friday was a big day for us at the office. It was the 30th birthday celebration for our organization, the National Organization of Indigenous Persons of Colombia (ONIC).  A shaman started off the celebration with blessing each one of us with a “bath” of blessed water and a shot of aguardiente or “fiery water” , a (very) hard liquor, made from sugarcane.

Offerings before the celebration.

The shaman with offerings of tobacco and alcohol before our "baths".

Part One of my bath-blessing.

And Part Two (aguardiente) was a bit harder to swallow.

Elders and VIPs being blessed, including the founder of ONIC (centre) and current Consejero Mayor (right).

Next on the agenda was hours of requisite speeches from VIPs, including the current Consejero Mayor (the Boss), many important elders, and others from the community who wanted to share their memories of ONIC.

The current head of ONIC, Luis Evelis Andrade, addressing the crowd.

Attendees, including the British Ambassador to Colombia (front-centre).

The founder of ONIC, Trino Morales, imparting some wisdom.

Sharing some memories of ONIC through the years.

Leader of the Afro-Colombian community thanking ONIC for being a "lighthouse" for other minority groups.

There were also more traditional components of the evening, including traditional music and dance by various indigenous groups, and of course, the drinking of “chicha”, the more traditional beverage of Colombia, a homemade alcoholic drink made from maize. (Check out this 12 second video of the music and dancing I shot from my camera Video)

A woman with traditional face tattoos during the musical presentation.

One of the musicians, playing traditional Embera music.

Traditional dancing.

As much as my experience working in the field this year has shown me just how far we have to go in the struggle for human rights for all, on days like this when I see so many faces of people that I have met along the way who fight this battle everyday, and the more I hear their inspiring words, my faith is renewed and I once again, have hope.

Parting shot of the elders.


One Week to Fall Back in Love with Colombia: Part One, Medellin

February 23, 2012

Although I usually only share my positive work experiences with all of you, as I’ve alluded to before, there are in fact also many frustrating times as well.  After a few particularly frustrating weeks at the office (in part due to the fact that I was the only one in the office as everyone had neglected to provide me with closing and opening dates for the holidays and once they finally did, still no one showed up until 2 weeks after the “opening” date. No one but me, that is).

As in any long-term relationship, sometimes you just need to do something to spice it up and this time,  I knew I had to find that spice outside of Bogota.

Bogota and I were on a Break.

So, after these particularly frustrating weeks I finally decided that was enough and I needed to get out of town to re-motivate myself.  Of course the very day I finally made that decision, EVERYONE showed up in the office, completely refreshed and ready to work. But by that time there was no turning back, I was taking a much needed week to fall back in love Colombia.  I would visit my friend Cesar in Medellin and then head to the Coffee region. I would read, write, relax, explore, and fall back in love with Colombia.

Of course, the major flaw in my plan was that I’m a foreign woman, travelling alone in Colombia….two things that together, do not make for a “relaxing” experience!

My first stop was Medellin, Colombia’s 2nd city, the home of Colombia’s most famous artist, Fernando Botero, and more importantly, to my good friend Cesar.  My main reason for visiting Medellin was to visit Cesar but I was pleasantly surprised by the city itself.  Medellin is completely different from the rest of Colombia; it is a clean, modern, progressive city that was really unlike any other I’ve ever been to. Given the dire public transport situation in Bogota, I was probably most impressed with its modern and easy to use metro system.

The view over Medellin from Copacabana.

Tropical flower in Medellin's beautiful botanical garden.

I wandered around the streets of Medellin trying to get relaxed and into vacation mode.  My first stop was the Plazoleta de las Esculturas to see all of the famous “fat” statues by the beloved  Botero.  However, I learned that although the world knows Botero’s work by his “fat” characters, he actually refers to them not as “fat”, but as “voluminous” and the more time I spent with these statues in the plaza and in the Museo de Antioquia (which houses a huge collection of his paintings and sculptures) I came to agree that this adjective was much more fitting.  I couldn’t get enough of Botero, something about his figures are just so cozy and comforting, I kept going back for one more look.

Botero's El Caballo overlooking the Plazoleta de las Esculturas, Medellin.

One of Botero's voluminous ladies, Medellin.

Another fun Botero statue, Medellin.

Most of you probably haven’t heard of Medellin, and if you have it probably wasn’t because of Botero but because of one of Medellin’s other most famous characters…Pablo Escobar.  Escobar was the most well-known organized crime and drug kingpin of his time and was the face of Colombia’s cocaine scene to the outside world. He is also from Medellin and was once a prominent politician there.  He was eventually shot dead on the rooftop of a Medellin building, in very dramatic fashion, by the Colombian National Police (and there is actually a famous Botero painting portraying this event entitled “the Death of Pablo Escobar”). Not much more than a decade ago Medellin was one of the most dangerous cities in the world, largely run by criminal gangs, and now, not even 20 years later, it is the modern, sleek city. It is almost unbelievable.

One of the moments that really marked this difference for me was visiting the “Pajaros de Paz” or Birds of Peace statues in a park in central Medellin. These birds were sculpted by Botero; the original one stood in Medellin during its dark ages and was almost entirely destroyed when a bomb attack hit central Medellin.  Botero later sculpted an identical bird to stand beside its’ injured friend to emphasize how far the city has come. The most striking thing for me was not only seeing these two birds together but being there with my friend who is only a couple of years younger than me and who lived through the conflict in Colombia.  I just could not imagine him and my other friends from Medellin, being the same age, living with this danger everyday while a few countries away my biggest worry was  what colour of hair dye would most annoy my parents.

The two Pajaros de Paz, Birds of Peace, one on the left after being hit by a bomb, one on the right intact as a reminder of just how far Medellin has come.

Me in front of one of the Birds of Peace.

No doubt the best part of my visit was staying with Cesar’s family.  It was the first family I’ve stayed with in Colombia and after a lonely few weeks in Bogota, it was so comforting not only to be with a friend again but to have a “mom” for a few days.  Cesar’s mom also renewed my appreciation for Colombian food; she made arepas from scratch every morning, even making the cornmeal herself from corn on the stove. For breakfast she served wonderful hot chocolate, empanadas, and cheese “straw”s (fried dough with melted cheese inside, who wouldn’t love that?).

Colombian Arepas (photo from Google).

Their home is in Copacabana, a northern suburb of Medellin, so between that and my trips to El Poblado, the fancy area in the south of the city, I got a pretty good lay of the land. Even though he was busy with work, Cesar made time to tour me around the city. The city lies on a valley, north to south. Along the hills to the east and west rise the poorer areas of town. One particularly striking experience was going up the new cable car they’ve built from the metro station up one of these “communs”, into the poorer areas.  The contrast between the modern, sleek gondola and the sights of poverty below was wild.  It was like being in an Imax Colombia movie, with the sounds of children laughing, music playing and dogs barking reaching up into our gondola.

We also took a trip out to Santa Fe de Antioquia, a sleepy colonial town that was once the capital of the Department (province/state) until it was moved to the present-day capital, Medellin. We wandered around the sleepy town in the midday heat and finally settled in at a restaurant overlooking the town square where we had a traditional meal of frijoles (beans) and chicarrones (pork rinds). I love the beans but as hard as I try (and although I always keep my undergrad anthropology prof’s words in my head Eating someone’s food is eating their culture ), I just can’t do the chicarrones.

Church steeple, Santa Fe de Antioquia.

View of the Plaza Mayor, Santa Fe de Antioqua.

Cesar and I after a traditional lunch of chicarrones and frijoles.

After lunch we took an asian Tuk-Tuk (very out of place in this colonial South American town!) to a famous bridge, only to find out the bridge had been closed after two pedestrians had died after falling/jumping (one fell, one jumped to save her) from the bridge.

View from our Tuk-Tuk.

Stopping for gas in the tuk-tuk, Sante Fe de Antioquia

Cesar and I on the kind-of-closed bridge.

After a few wonderful days in Medellin, it was time to move on and off I went by bus to the Zona Cafetera or Eje Cafetero, the coffee region.  I ended up sharing the first 5 hours of the ride with an older gentlemen, Javier, who is from Pereira, the largest city of the coffee region.  At first we just chatted but as he asked me more about my work here the conversation took a much more serious turn.  Javier told me of his experiences during the conflict.  He had bought a beautiful farm outside of Pereira and built up a beautiful life with his wife and their 7 children. That was until the conflict really took hold of the region and armed groups forced them off their farm and they lost everything. With tenacity in his eyes he told me the story of how instead of letting himself be victimized he moved to a new area, acquired another piece of land, and built another farm…only to have it taken from him a second time.  Later when telling me about his family he told me he has 6 children, but that he had 7, one was killed during the conflict.

Once lunchtime came around and he saw that I didn’t have anything considered appropriate for a Colombian lunch with me (my granola bars are not a proper almuerzo (lunch)) and he insisted on sharing his arepa, chorizo, and some kind of meat fried in dough, that his daughter had packed for him.  These first 5 hours of the ride were very enjoyable, however once Javier got off in Pereira (leaving me with his phone number and an invitation to stay with his family), some much less friendlier Colombian men got on and being a foreign women travelling alone, I was of course their chosen target and had to endure their harassment and sleazy looks for the next portion of the trip.  I had purposely avoided the Pereira bus station after reading that thieves target foreigners and “relieve” them of their belongings on their arrival to the coffee region.

So this is it I thought, my luck has finally run out, all I hoped was that robbery was going to be the extent of it.  This was obviously a very stressful couple of hours on the bus, I was going through in my head exactly what I was going to do and the directions I had for my hostel. Luckily I had safety-pinned by bank-card and extra cash inside my sports bra, so I hoped I would at least make it away with that.  I re-arranged my phone and credit card into various pockets of my cargo pants and lululemons and hoped for the best.  On top of my new friends, it was absolutely pouring rain and there were mudslides along the road.

This “relaxing” vacation had quickly turned into a bit of a nightmare.

But then, as one of my favourite Colombians, Shakira, would say, just when you least expect it, Sale el Sol (the sun comes out), not literally, but figuratively because out of nowhere one of the thugs yelled at the driver, stop here! And as quickly as they had entered the bus, the two of them hopped out at a farm along the highway before we arrived in town.

When the bus door closed behind them I unknowingly let out a huge sigh. The driver, seeing my ghost-white face turned to me and said, sick?, no I said.  Tired?, yes, just tired I said.  I had dodged another bullet. Somehow I had made it again but I couldn’t help but wonder, just when would my luck run out?

Stay tuned for Part Two: La Zona Cafetera (The Coffee Region)!

In case you were wondering…

February 21, 2012

No, I haven’t quit blogging! I have just arrived back in Bogota after an extremely exciting month of unforgettable work experiences and learning ever more about the county I have come to love. From finally getting to Colombia’s coffee region, to visiting remote indigenous communities, to some wild rides in the undeveloped Chocó region, to my first foray into the world of teaching law, it has been a month I will never forget. I am  happy to be home in Bogota a little worse for wear, but with many wonderful memories and stories…now to the writing of those stories.

Here are a few photo highlights in hopes of keeping you interested:

Fernando Botero's El Caballo statute in Medellin (Week 1)

Beautiful scenery in the Valle de Cocora (Week 1)

Lunch stop in Cumaribo, Colombia (Week 2)

Meeting with indigenous community in remote Vichada (Week 2)

Me with some new friends in the Vichada region (Week 2)

Entering Acandi, Choco by horse-taxi (Week 3)

Sunrise in the Darien Gap (Week 3)

Teaching my first law class, University of Caldas, Colombia (Week 4)

Please stay tuned!

Our Search for El Dorado: Christmas in the Colombian Mountains

January 17, 2012
Happy New Year everyone! It’s been awhile since my last blog post, between our Christmas trip to the north of the country and a spat of food poisoning that had us down for the count, I am just getting back online now!

This was officially my 5th Christmas that I’ve celebrated out of Canada. What I learned from this year in particular is that 2 consecutive Christmases away from home is absolutely unbearable. What I have learned in general over the years is that the trick to not getting too homesick is to make the Christmas experience  about as different as possible, although this year I may have outdone myself and it was so different that it barely felt like Christmas at all and I’m not entirely sure that we didn’t in fact actually miss Christmas!

Our idea to ward off homesickness was to make sure, in addition to doing something completely different, we were also busy on the 24th and 25th. So begins our latest adventure…the morning of December 24th we headed off on a 6-day hike through the coastal mountains (Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta) on the northern coast of Colombia to the Ciudad Perdida (the Lost City).

Kevin and I ready to head off on our Christmas 2011 adventure.

The Lost City was once home to the Tairona indigenous people of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, who were supposedly the first indigenous people Colombus and his explorers met upon arrival to the New World. Fortunately, the Spanish never reached the Lost City (hence the name) but it is said to be the basis of the original legend of El Dorado (the myth of a city made of gold).

The Tairona people managed to fight off the conquistadors successfully for more than 60 years.  However, they eventually fell victim to diseases brought by the Spanish and most of their culture and traditions were lost with them.  There are three indigenous groups that still live in the surrounding areas including the Kogi, Wiwa, and Arauco peoples. They are said to be descendants of the Tairona people. (For more information on the indigenous peoples and this area check out anthropologist Wade Davis’ talk on the the Realm of the Sacred (start at minute 10).

The Lost City itself was the ceremonial centre of the Tairona people and said to have been their largest city.  It is a mystical place far in the jungle of the Sierra Nevada. You reach the lost city on Day 4 of the 6 day trek (depending on your speed, some particularly stressed-out backpackers do the entire trek in 4 days).

The trip is often compared to Machu Picchu, the famous “lost city” of the Incas in Peru. Although I suppose this comparison is inevitable, having done Macchu Picchu a few years ago, I found the two experiences to be completely different. After having done them both I still think Machu Picchu itself is more impressive, and would dare to say that as an archeological site, it is more significant, but the two experiences are so different it’s really hard, and I’m not sure even useful, to compare them. Beyond the two sites themsleves being extremely different, the two journeys are also completely different. Machu Picchu was much more of a spiritual experience for me, although the sheer amount of people around did impact the experience. Ciudad Perdida on the other hand, is a much more raw experience, the trail is not developed, you don’t run into hoards of other hikers, you really feel like you’re out there, which contributes to the mystique of it all.

Our hiking group was comprised of 16 tourists (6 Colombians, 2 Canadians, 2 Dutch, 4 Americans, 1 New Zealander, 1 Brit, 1 German and 1 Israeli), 2 guides and 2 cooks/helpers. I was pleasantly surprised at how smoothly the trip went, the food was really good (relatively speaking), the accommodations were good, and the guides were good (none of them spoke English but I quickly became official translator which was actually good practice for me anyway).

Things got off to an interesting start when before we even reached the drop-off point we had a flat tire.  The guides quickly changed it and we were on our way, all giddy with anticipation, chatting and making new friends. The drive was a much bigger ordeal than I had imagined. We knew it was more than 2 hour drive to the drop-off point but what we didn’t know was that there seemed to be about a 60% chance that your vehicle may actually “drop-off” the side of a cliff on the way there. Not knowing the road to come I made the grave mistake of sitting in the back of the jeep where every bump in the “road” [SIC] was amplified ten-fold, and to make matters worse I had been looking backwards (thinking it was going to end soon) which made the waves of nausea come even faster than they otherwise would have. I am not normally a nervous person when it comes to these types of things but being on the outside of the dirt “road”, while we drove frightening close to the side of a deep, deep ravine, I have to admit I was regretting the fact that Kevin was sitting up front and I was imagining myself holding the hand of James, the Brit who I had only just met and was sharing the back end of the jeep with, as we plummeted to our deaths (who was admittedly very friendly but it was a little early to share an important event, such as death). All I could do was harness as much mental strength as possible to try and keep from vomiting or screaming stop, let me out! We later found out this road had been impassible (it arguably still was “impassable”) due to heavy rains until the week before our trek and until then hikers had been walking that road.

Requisite Pre-hike tire change.

View from the front of the jeep...the back view was not as forgiving.

During Day 1 of the Hike

We finally arrived at El Manchete, our drop-off point, and had lunch before setting off on a very late start to a hiking day.  We headed off in the heat of the afternoon sun and walked straight up for hours. We had left so late that we didn’t make it to the camp before nightfall and finished Day 1 of the hike with head-lamps in an otherwise pitch black night (note to all of my European friends who laugh at me for always having a headlamp on hand). We arrived at Camp 1 and chose our respective hammocks for our Christmas Eve sleep.  Over a great Christmas Eve dinner of chicken and the typical Colombian fixins (rice etc.) our Colombian counterparts explained the intricacies of sleeping in a hammock (don’t sleep along the fault-line of the hammock, do sleep diagonally). Then it was off to our first night in hammocks, I curled up in my touque and thermals with my headlamp beside me and boots upside down to avoid any surprise bites during nocturnal bathroom trips.

We awoke to a beautiful Christmas morning in the mountains. We sat wrapped in our blankets and watched the sun rise over the Sierra Nevada and exchanged the (very) small gifts we had carried in for each other. It was very simple but very beautiful at the same time.

Sunrise on Christmas morning

Christmas morning in the Sierra Nevada

Kevin and I on Christmas morning.

Camp 1, Ciudad Perdida hike.

And that was about the end of Christmas for me…Day 2 of hiking was much more difficult than Day 1, we faced long down-hills of slippery mud, that after a couple of hours I literally fell victim to. Shaking with fatigue my legs finally gave out, I somehow got both my feet stuck in the mud between rocks and as I tried to balance myself, the weight of my pack propelled me forward and I fell first on my wrists, then my face. Once Kevin had flipped me over I began the process of dressing my wounds with the massive first aid kit I always carry (note number 2 for those who mock me for always being prepared). There was no crying or whining (well none that I remember anyway), I was just relieved not to have broken anything or had any other injury that would have stopped our trip. Although with these new wounds and the humidity of the jungle I was half expecting to develop an infection that might actually force us to turn back.  In any case Kevin and our guide Diego waited with me while I dressed my wounds and then we were on our way…only to learn that the first river crossing of the day was only about 15 minutes away…so much for the dressing.

A happy start to Day 2, hiking on Christmas Day.

Little friends on Christmas morning.

Our friends Lex and Kim crossing some rapids on Day 2.

Camp 2 was much bigger than Camp 1,  included a row of outdoor bunk beds with mosquito nets, and was situated right beside the river. The river had an extremely strong current and was icy but we took a quick and very careful dip before I re-dressed my Christmas wounds. I had actually sadly, completely forgotten it was Christmas by this point.

Camp 2

Doing our laundry the old-fashioned way at Camp 2.

Luz Elena and Will, hoping not to have to break out any lifeguarding skills, swimming spot at Camp 2.

That night however, was a Christmas night to remember. Out of nowhere all of these indigenous children showed up and wanted to play. We spent much of the evening in a Gringos v. Wiwas battle royale,  arm-wrestling some surprisingly strong little children by candlelight. This was one of those very magical instances that don’t come along often, when you just completely lose yourself in the moment.

Battle Royale, Gringos vs. Wiwas

Kevin and a new friend, arm-wrestling on Christmas night.

Me and a pal, arm-wrestling, a new Christmas night tradition.

One of the best parts of this whole trip, maybe the best part for me, was walking through all of the indigenous communities where the people essentially live exactly how their ancestors did hundreds of years ago. We passed through several communities, most of only a few huts but one that would have been home to more than 20 families. When we passed the larger community the people were all attending a meeting where the Mamu (leader) was addressing the community. It was magical to meet up with these people along the way, but at the same time you felt guilty because before this hike became popular with travellers they would have been completely undisturbed in their daily lives.  However, they do seem to largely just carry on without paying much attention to the hikers.

Some Wiwa children along the way.

Indigenous woman in front of her home, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

Indigenous children outside their home.

Traditional indigenous homes, Sierra Nevada.

Each night Diego would give the plan for the next day (and I would translate it in English). That night he told us that the next day, Day 3, would be the most difficult (although the next night he told us the following day would be the most difficult, and so on). Still being a bit traumatized by my fall I was a bit nervous but it ended up being relatively drama-free.  Many more hills, up and down, and lots of mud.  The trail is in much worse shape than I expected, in many parts there is no trail at all, it has fallen away into the brush below, sometimes we were crossing fast-moving water by jumping from rock to rock, made more difficult by the weight of our packs. Sometimes we were crossing under small waterfalls that made the rocks below extremely slippery. Then there were the river crossings where we crossed in sandals, sometimes the water was so deep we crossed in our underwear, one day the water was so high I had our passports in my sports-bra (first time for that move but I think I will incorporate it into my travel regime). Sometimes the current was so strong we held hands and crossed together, a few at a time.  The muddy hills were possibly the most challenging to manouever, the whole time I just kept thinking how lucky we had been with the weather and what a nightmare this would turn into if it started to rain.

Facing yet another muddy uphill.

Helping each other across the rapids.

One of our many river crossings.

Mules crossing the river.

Day 3 included the most interesting river crossing, a bridge-like contraption that was made of a wall-less box attached to a pulley-system where one by one we were pulled across the ravine, high above the rushing rapids. Now I had crossed some pretty sketchy and only partially existent bridges in the Himalayas, but this was my first time crossing a river in a box on a pulley-system.

People waiting to cross the river.

My turn to cross the river!!

Diego cutting a pineapple with his machete, on the route, Day 3.

In any case Day 3 ended relatively smoothly, we reached Camp 3 in the early afternoon. Camp 3 is quite impressive, with a 2 storey building with tents on the 2nd floor. We opted for the tents, which was a mistake and actually ended up being our worst sleep of the hike. The setting at Camp 3 was gorgeous, with beautiful swimming in the river, sunbathing on big rocks, and a waterfall right out of a meditation poster. All of the swimming stops along the way were just breathtaking, it would be impossible to even begin to explain how beautiful the surroundings are, but if I may try; rushing, cold, clear water in the middle of this dense jungle with nothing else around, but big rocks on either side to jump from and waterfalls along the edges. It seriously felt like you were swimming right into a movie, filmed in Paradise. Another interesting fact about Camp 3 is that it is home to some deadly snakes (thanks for the heads up Dustin) which added a little extra excitement to the experience (2 were spotted the day we stayed but luckily no run-ins).

Sleeping quarters, Camp 3.

Swimming spot at Camp 3.

Kev and I by a waterfall across from Camp 3.

Day 4 is the big day. We were up early and off to face the more than 1200 steps up to the archeological site itself. The site is magical, it’s hard to describe, indescribable really but again, here goes; It is not as immediately striking as Machu Picchu (I realize I am now comparing it to Machu Picchu after saying I don’t know why people compare it to Machu Picchu but I need a reference point), but no less magical. It is still largely covered with moss and jungle. Part of what adds to the mysteriousness of the place is that there just is not that much known about the site itself. The Tairona were a very insular people who made a conscious decision not to pass on their cultural traditions as they did not want the conquistadors who had arrived to benefit from their knowledge. As such the last Tairona elders took much of their culture with them to their graves. It is said that 80% of their culture, traditions and knowledge died with them, leaving their descendants with only 20% of their traditional knowledge. Ciudad Perdida, or Teyruna in the Tairona language, is believed to have been the largest of the Tairona cities, it was both a ceremonial centre and a living city. It is not known how the structures were built, some rocks were taken from the same river we crossed, others from one section of the city known as the rock garden. Our guide referred to the rocks used as “metamorphic” rocks and explained that there are several theories on how they manipulated these rocks, including the use of chanting by shamans to bring the rocks to their most malleable form in order to be molded for construction. Most pictures of the Ciudad Perdida show the same platforms which are the ceremonial centre of the city. In front of the platforms is a large rock shaped in the form of a frog, a symbol of fertility for the Tairona people.

Some of the 1200 moss-covered steps leading up to the Ciudad Perdida

Kevin and I in the Ciudad Perdida

Ceremonial Platforms in the Ciudad Perdida

Base of the ceremonial platforms and the frog-rock, a symbol of fertility for the Tairona people.

The site was “re-discovered” by grave-robbers in the early 1970s. Unfortunately those grave robbers made away with many of the keys to the past. The Colombian army then moved in to keep the grave-robbers out which started decades of occupation of the site by military, paramilitary groups and other armed groups. The site has only been opened to tourists since the mid-2000s but even during this time there have at times been security issues. There is now a permanent military outpost, where soldiers spend a few months at a time guarding the site.

The site itself is thought-provoking but probably most memorable is its setting in the mountains and the journey to get there. And in case you’re wondering…no, we didn’t find gold.

Our guide Diego, explaining the map left by the Tairona people. Each line carved into the rock represents a path within the city.

Me at the base of some of the ceremonial platforms.

Kevin and I, view from the top of the Ciudad Perdida.

After leaving the site we still had a long way to go on Day 4, we hiked all the way back down to Camp 2 and only arrived just before nightfall. Day 5 was  bittersweet as some of our group had planned to do the hike in 5 days and others in 6. Although Day 5 was short, it was also extremely taxing and we were happy to have chosen the 6-day option. We arrived at our last camp before lunch, had (cold) showers and spent the afternoon reading in the sun and chatting with our fellow 6-dayers. It was a bit sad to leave our other friends in the group (or have them leave us I guess) but it was wonderful to have an afternoon to relax and just take in the amazing surroundings. And it meant we got to sleep in hammocks one more night!

Day 6 was relatively calm, but as often happens on long hikes, I was nowhere near ready for the journey to end. While I’m sure others were dying for a hot shower and ready to check their emails, I just wanted to keep walking.

View from the trail, Day 6.

Kevin during the last hours of the 6-day hike.

Me on Day 6, bearing my then 5-day old wounds.

6-days later and somewhat worse for wear...we made it!

We ended the hike with our fellow 6 day-ers on a very positive note, the drive out was nowhere near as harrowing, and although I would have preferred to have been swinging in a hammock listening to the jungle sounds, I will admit the large pepperoni pizza we had that evening really hit the spot. I guess there are some benefits to getting back to “civilization”.

A parting shot, contemplating the meaning of life, Ciudad Perdida.

An Early Christmas Present? The Decreto Ley Becomes Law in Colombia.

December 21, 2011

For those of you who have worked internationally, I will dare to say especially with NGOS, I have little doubt that you would agree that there are great days and there are incredibly frustrating days, and not necessarily much in between.  It’s not like most jobs I’ve had in Canada where there were some great days and some difficult days, but most days fell somewhere in between. It’s been my experience that when working internationally, most days will fall on one end of the spectrum.

Yesterday was one of the great days.

It was the official signing of the Decreto Ley. After months of hard work by people all across the country, the Decreto Ley is now officially law in Colombia.  For those of you who have been following my blog, you will remember that this is the law I have been working on since arriving in Colombia (for those who haven’t been following the blog check out previous posts; What Am I doing here Anyway? and Experiences with the Duty to Consult Part One and Two for background).

The Decreto Ley is now officially Decreto Ley 4633 de Diciembre 09 de 2011 (See also Semana newspaper editorial on Decreto 4633). It provides for various forms of reparation including restitution of lands, compensation, and satisfaction, to indigenous communities and persons who have been victims of the Non-International Armed Conflict here in Colombia.  One of the most important aspects of the law is that it also provides guarantees of non-repetition, meaning the State guarantees it will not let these people become victims again. Obviously a tall order, the implementation of which will no doubt be challenging given that the conflict is ongoing.

Some of the main points of contention during the consultations of the law remain in the final document.  One of the most contentious issues during the consultations was the dates that would be used for how far back to provide reparation and restitution of lands. The dates in the final version remain those proposed by the government (1985 for reparation and 1991 for restitution of lands), although indigenous communities had proposed dates as far back as the arrival of Europeans in Colombia.

However, the most important thing is that this law is now in place and victims of the armed conflict now have an important tool to seek reparation for their damages.  Two sister decrees were signed yesterday as well, one providing reparation to victims of the communities known as “Afros” here in Colombia.  These communities are descendants of slave populations and benefit from collective rights, similar, but not identical to the rights of indigenous communities (Afro-Colombians).  The third decree provides reparation to victims from the Roma (Rrom) community (formerly known as “gypsy”) (The Roma) (Spanish Article explaining history of Roma (Rrom) people in Colombia).

My colleague Roman and I with two Roma women after the presentation.

The event itself was very exciting.  It was held on the grounds of Congress and security was very tight. When we arrived the line was a block long.  We had to be on a list and show identification, and be searched, before we were allowed in.  When we walked through the gates we saw about 50 media people already set up to cover the event.

People lined up to enter the Palacio de Narino, the seat of the Colombian Congress

As people filed in, the significance of this law became more and more palpable; representatives were there from many of the various indigenous groups, Afro, and Roma communities, many in their regional clothing. Personally, it was touching to see so many people I had met in their own communities again here in Bogota.  It was a real demonstration of multiculturalism. I couldn’t help think about the article I’d seen last week in the Globe and Mail about an Ontario school cancelling its Christmas concert for fear of offending people of different backgrounds (Canadian Schools Struggle with Christmas), or the never-ending discussion of spending for French Immersion programs in our schools. Canada is known for its multiculturalism but then I come to other countries and see demonstrations like this, it makes one wonder if we still deserve our reputation. I often thought about this topic when I was a Rotary Exchange Student as a teenager and  my host country of South Africa has 11 official languages, yet we can’t seem to get it together with 2.

Anticipation before the event, Casa de Narino, Bogota

Our ONIC crew, waiting for the presentation.

Not that I’m saying Colombia is a model of peace and harmony, but it was an impressive show of multiculturalism. As I was sitting there I kept thinking, these questions of whether to have a Christmas concert or whether it’s politically correct to wish people a Merry Christmas, I just wished I had a platform to say to my fellow Canadians; A. Look at this, all of these cultures and languages being celebrated, look how beautiful it is and B. This shouldn’t even be a question people, seriously, can we not organize ourselves and get onto questions that actually need to be dealt with (Like this for example, Attawapiskat’s Christmas List, published the same day as the above article)?

The whole basis of Canadian multi-culturalism and what distinguishes it from other ideas of multi-culturalism, American multi-culturalism for example, is the salad-bowl idea, that we welcome all cultures and people are not expected to just become the “same” but that every ingredient (people) contributes in its own way. That is what makes it so great, but that acceptance of different cultures includes appreciating the “mainstream” culture and people from that tradition should not feel bad about celebrating their traditions openly any more than a new Canadian should feel bad about sharing theirs. There is absolutely nothing wrong with celebrating one culture as long as you include and are open to others. The idea is supposed to be that Canada welcomes everyone and brings people together, and the Christmas and holiday season is the time of the year when this is most apparent and to avoid celebrating and to do away with events that bring people together is completely short-sighted.  Multiculturalism does not mean shying away from anyone’s traditions, it means celebrating all of them.

So on that note, Merry Christmas, Joyeux Noel, Feliz Navidad, Happy Chanukah, Happy New Year, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Everything.  Enjoy the holidays and I hope you will all join me for more adventures in international law in 2012!

ONIC Consejero Mayor (the boss), Colombian President Santos, and other VIPs look on as the official signing begins.

Colombian President Santos signs the Decreto, Bogota, December 20, 2011.

With my officemates at the presentation of the new law.

My colleagues Jose Luis and Roman and I with one of the representatives from Amazonas.

Happy to be reunited with my Bari friend Fidel, who was featured in my blog on the consultations in Cucuta (re: oratorical skills)

Roma, Afro, and indigenous representatives after the signing of the law.

Final parting shot, in front of Casa de Narino.

The main square in Bogota, Plaza de Bolivar, decorated for Christmas.

These are the People in Your Neighbourhood: A Little Bit about my Life in Bogota

December 14, 2011

As always, there is a lot going on in Bogota these days. One of the major events this past week was the country-wide march in support of the release of FARC hostages, some of whom have been held captive by the guerrillas for many years.   Here in Bogota, the main streets were closed and people marched all day, carrying Colombian flags, wearing t-shirts that said “Colombian I am” and chanting “No Mas FARC” (no more FARC).

After several weeks of rains, the rivers and streets finally hit their breaking points last week and a state of emergency was declared here in Bogota (Colombian News Updates on Floods in Cundinamarca Province).  The Bogota river was flooded and thousands of residents in the south of the city were unable to return to their homes.

Wednesday night was the turning point in these crazy rains, it was the night of the “velitas” or little candles, when residents put candles in their windows and along their porches and people head out into the streets to see them (Dia de las Velitas).  The following day is a an official holiday celebrating the Inmaculada Conception (the immaculate conception of Jesus)(Feast of the Immaculate Conception).  It also marks the beginning of Christmas festivities.

One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot since moving to Bogota is that for a big city it really knows how to do “Neighbourhood”.  Not to slag my adopted city of Toronto, as I came to love my neighbourhood there and all of its waterfront festivals and concerts.  But this is a bit different, instead of feeling like we’re trying to “bring back Neighbourhood” or working to have a neighbourhood feel, it’s just there.  I’ve only been here for 3 months and already there have been several occasions when the neighbourhood has been alive with people. Our street is called El Parkway (pronounced in a manner that does not in any way resemble “Parkway”), and as its name suggests, we have a park that runs the length of our street.  This is where the action happens.  On Halloween I went out with my roommate Clara and we handed out treats to the little ones who were participating in various activities along the park. On Sundays the neighbourhood is particularly alive. Many streets in Bogota are closed off to vehicular traffic every Sunday for the “ciclovia”; when bikers, walkers, joggers, and roller-bladers get to take over the usually busy streets.

Last Wednesday night the neighbourhood was at its best with the velitas. The parkway was full of people, dogs, and life in general. There were people selling hot drinks, snacks and of course, candles.  There were little candles lining the entire length of the park and watching revelers light the candles was beautiful.  Standing at one end of the park and looking down was almost magical. In the middle of the park there was a Brazilian music band that was drumming and dancing.  The drumming was very moving.  I don’t know why but something about the dancing, togetherness, and constant beat was very emotional, almost overwhelming.  The band invited us to join them and we walked behind them the length of the park, gaining neighbours as we went.

Las Velitas

Lighting Candles Along El Parkway, Bogota

Singing Carols in our Neighbourhood, night of las Velitas

Lanterns Lit along El Parkway

Drumming and Dancing in our neighbourhood, December 7th, 2011

Drumming in the Neighbourhood, El Parkway

Heading up the Parkway with the Drummers

Maybe it was thanks to all of this sunny, positive energy, maybe not, but the next morning we woke up to what would be 4 straight days of sunshine, something I had yet to experience in Bogota.

There is a huge artisanal market in Bogota at the moment, said to be the most important in Latin America (Expoartesanias 2011). I took advantage of the holiday Thursday and spent the day there.  There were 8 buildings of handiwork, workshops, and traditional food. I had planned to attend workshops all day but there was just too much shopping to do.  There was an entire building of products from the various indigenous groups in Colombia, which is obviously where I spent my time and made more than a few purchases. I participated in one music and dance workshop where I learned some traditional dancing from the Llanos region to the east of here (Llanos Region).

Traditional Music and Dancing from the Llanos Region, workshop at Expoartesanias.

Another part of Bogota life I’ve had the chance to experience here is great house parties.  My first house party in Bogota was during my first weekend in Bogota, which also happened to be my birthday.  My roommates were very sweet and made sure I had a special day filled with friends even though I’d only been here one week.  We headed out to lunch with some of their friends and then to a concert. However, after waiting for 3 hours for the concert to start we gave up and decided to look for somewhere where the action had already started.  We were wandering along the streets of the Candelaria when all of the sudden there was a friendly blond lady hanging out a door waving to us.  She was a friend of one of the girls in our group and said she was having a party and invited us in.  From the outside you would never have known there was such a beautiful house inside but once through the doors it was architectural and design heaven.  It was an old fashioned South American house built around an open centre area with rooms lining the side, like the description of the family home in the House of Spirits, or for those of you who were with me in Monsieur Robichaud’s grade 8 class, the Argentinian farmhouse in Fierro, l’ete des secrets. The rooms were beautiful and she had them decorated with art and other treasures from Tibet, South America, and everywhere else. It was part house-part museum and exactly how I picture our house when I finally *settle* in somewhere.  The cozy kitchen was already filled with people, dancing, and warmth.  They made us feel right at home and brought us bring us drinks and food right away.  When they found out it was my birthday everyone started singing Happy Birthday in English and our host brought me a piece of Spanish Tortilla with a candle in it.  We then spent hours dancing to wonderful latin music in their kitchen.

Impromptu Birthday Cake: Spanish Tortilla at my first house party in Bogota.

My second Bogota house party was this Saturday. It did not disappoint.  This time was a bit different and served as my introduction to the gay community in Bogota. It was the big-pink-fabulous birthday party of our upstairs neighbour Miguel.  We were all asked to wear pink (this was not a problem for me).  They had decorated the entire flat in pink; pink boas, pink glitter, even the kitchen cupboards had been painted pink for the occasion! Drink choices were all pink. The cake was pink. There were also non-pink snack options, including hot dogs served by hired servers.  Pretty much everyone had complied with the pink wardrobe requirement. One of my favourites was a man in a pink I’m Free To Be Me t-shirt. The whole night was fabulous, lots of dancing and music and new friends.  All-in all it was a heartwarming, inclusive, and very fabulous night in our neighbourhood and  although it’s not yet New Year’s Eve I have resolved that when I get home, I will definitely throw more parties; pink or otherwise.

My roommate Lucas and I ready for the Pink Party

Early in the Dancing, Pink Party

Dance Floor at the Pink Party

Girl Power, Chimila and Mokana Style. Experiences with the Duty to Consult in Colombia: Part Two

December 2, 2011

N.B. Please see Part One (Magic Realism of Miami Vice?) for the background to this post.

My second consultation was in the north of the country, outside of Santa Marta.  These consultations were with the Chimila and Mokana people of the Caribbean coast.

Beach Shot, El Rodadero

The meetings were held in el Rodadero, a tourist town just outside of Santa Marta.  Everyone involved in the consultations, the government representatives, the representatives of the indigenous organizations, and all of the indigenous people, all stayed in the same hotel.  Though we’ve had many interesting accommodations during these consultations, this place was really a dive.  One thing I came to appreciate during my travels for these consultations is the varying degrees of quality of food.  It really made me appreciate the differences in quality of food available to people, in particular what we serve “poor” people.  At times during this experience I felt like I’d been eating in a soup kitchen for a month.  What’s so bad about that you ask? Sure, people do it every day but experiencing such poor quality of food made me realize that going to a soup kitchen for food is something much more than just being unable to afford to feed yourself.

As with the other consultations, all of the meals were included during these consultations.  The government of course foots the bill.  The sad thing about this was that the food was so awful the government representatives starting eating out right from the start.  I felt too guilty to do this, having the majority of the indigenous people eating this awful food while those who could afford it went to restaurants. I tried to hold out, but there was only so long I was willing to do it when with every spoonful that went into my mouth I could feel myself getting sick. Finally when not only the representatives of the government, but also the other representatives of the indigenous organization started eating at restaurants, I gave in and started eating out as well.

As for the meetings, these consultations could not have been more different from our consultations in Cucuta.  The people here were actually excited about the new decree and the law.  The atmosphere was completely different, there was none of the tension that there had been in Cucuta and the people were all hailing our boss as the father of the indigenous people. He is actually an indigenous leader from the Darien Gap area (once known as the most dangerous place in the world), also located here on the northern Caribbean coast.

ONIC's Consejero Mayor (the Boss) addressing the room at the consultations in Santa Marta

Unlike the consultations in Cucuta, these consultations went pretty much according to plan.  There were none of the protests against the consultation or suggestions that it should be downgraded to a “socialization” of the law.  We basically followed the prepared agenda; the first day was spent on presentations teaching people about the law and the second day we moved to small group discussions on the various parts of the law.

There are a couple of points that really stuck out from the Santa Marta consultations. One is the fact that we can’t just paint “indigenous peoples” with one brush. Even working within an indigenous organization, everyone always refers to “the indigenous people” and how they have a completely different view of the universe (cosmovision) than non-indigenous persons. Obviously this acknowledgement is a step in the right direction but these consultations made me realize the importance of acknowledging that every “indigenous group” is not the same. The fact that a people is indigenous does not mean they all have the same needs or goals. Certain indigenous groups, like any group of people, will have different opinions than others, and it is important to recognize this as well.  The opinions of the Chimila and Mokana peoples could not have been more different from the U’Wa and Bari in Cucuta. Of course many of their base needs are the same but given their distinct histories and cultures, their opinions on the law and their proposals were very different. This was a very important realization for me during this consultation, and something I didn’t even realize I had been doing.

Indigenous Authority Addressing the Room, Santa Marta Consultations

Man translating from Spanish to the Chimila language, explaining a slide during the presentation about the heightened effects of the armed conflict on women. Day 1, Santa Marta Consultations

Crowd listening to presentations, Day 1 of Consultations, Santa Marta

Day 2: Commissions

The most touching part of this consultation was by far and away the commissions on the second day.  In Cucuta we had not made it this far in the agenda and missed out on this experience. These small groups or “commissions” dealt with all of major themes of the decree (restitution of land, specific effects on certain vulnerable groups, etc.). I sat in on the Women’s Commission and it was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life.  These women, their stories, and their willingness to share those stories, truly impacted me. It also threw me into a crisis about women’s rights that hits me about once a year when I am working with these issues, hearing stories from victims of domestic abuse etc. that leaves me wondering if men aren’t in fact a completely distinct species (This may seem harsh but I’m in good company: Strombo Interview with Michele Landsberg and Stephen Lewis ).

At first the women were slow to volunteer to tell their stories but after a couple women went ahead, more and more took the microphone and by the end women were lining up to tell their stories. When people came to tell us we had to wrap it up the women refused, one woman put it best when she said I haven’t said my words. The commission seemed very healing for these women, what an opportunity for the women of a community to get together with women of all ages, all sharing their experiences.  I thought to myself, aside from the armed conflict, imagine how amazing it would be in any community to have everyone there in an open and supportive environment like that to just share their experiences. How important, especially for young girls to hear the experiences of the older women and know they are not alone in whatever they are facing.  The commission was only women and the one time when an elderly man came by he was shooed away by the women.  These commissions are crucial because as I saw at the Cucuta consultations, although there may be many women attending the events, barely any take the microphone and speak during the meetings when men are present.

These women are from an area that has been largely affected by the armed conflict but also by many multinational corporations operating in the area.  Almost every woman that was there shared her experience and every single one of those women was a victim on some level. The speeches were powerful, the stories touching.  There were many widows there, now single mothers, some with 4 or 5 children, whose husbands had all been killed by paramilitaries. Many of the widows appeared to still be in their 20s. The women told horror stories of what the groups had done to them and their families.

Women's Commission, Day 2 of Consultations, Santa Marta

One interesting point that contradicted all of the other consultations was that when asked, these women said that there really wasn’t too much sexual violence against them by the armed groups and paramilitaries.  This was surprising given earlier discussions we’ve been part of and story after story, statistic after statistic from this armed conflict and others.  Who knows if for some reason, the women in this region have been largely spared from what is sadly a common practice during armed conflicts, or if they were just not comfortable enough to discuss these events.

What they did want to talk about and what they said was extremely prevalent in their community, was sexual violence against them by their “companeros” (family members, acquaintances, members of their own communities).  As much as they were all victims of the armed conflict they were also all just victims of life.  They told story after story of sexual and physical abuse against them by their husbands or other “companeros”. This is what they wanted to talk about, not the armed conflict.  Sadly there were the same stories of domestic abuse I had heard time after time while working for other NGOs around the world.  Every country I go to the stories are the same, of varying degrees, yes, but similar experiences all for the fact of being women. However as much as these women were victims they did not sound like “victims”, they spoke of empowering themselves and each other and fighting back.

Women sharing their stories of life and the armed conflict in Colombia.

Chimila and Mokana women participate in small group discussions during Day 2 of consultations of El Decreto Ley, in Santa Marta.

At the end of the commission they were asked to come up with proposals, both specific proposals for this law and in general what would help to improve the situation of women affected by the armed conflict. They talked about the need for psychological assistance and how once a woman endures the realities of armed conflict she is no longer the same and how it not only affects her but she transfers that pain to her children. They proposed further education for girls and women and asked for compensation to be able to support their families. But the overwhelming response was: to improve the position of these women in their communities there must be an end to the armed conflict. Full stop. Only then could the position of women be improved.

Some parting shots to lighten the mood..sort of. Ominous rain clouds over the beach.

Entrepreneurialism alive and well at the beach: Welcome to Colombia.

Self-Portrait, hiding from the afternoon rains.

Lunch break on the beach, this guy is making me ceviche.

Guilt aside, some of the best ceviche I've ever had.