Jun 27, 2011

First Impressions

Medellín is a "city in transition". It has pulled itself out of horrific conditions in the 1990s (when there was almost 7,000 homicides/year- the highest in recorded history for a single year) and is now doing its best to change its image to the outside world as well. Fear and an impulse to keep your distance from the city due to violence and drug trafficking are being replaced by a slogan that I have come to adopt: "El riesgo es que te quieras quedar." which means the only risk is that you will never want to leave. I have only been here four days and am in love with the city. Medellín is incredibly beautiful, with an unimaginable amount of vegetation for a city; the people are welcoming and warm; and the food (especially the fruit!) is unbeatable.
Murphy's Law required that I earn my ability to be here, but Colombia was worth the wait and the extra effort. Once my plane in New York was delayed and I missed my connecting flight out of Miami to Colombia, I was forced to spend the night in Miami and missed the first night with my group in Medellín. That night the Medellín soccer team won the Colombian national cup and there was celebrating throughout the streets. Friends said that they threw hand-fulls of flour at passerbys as the entire city joined in singing, screaming, dancing, and drinking the night away in triumph. However, back in Miami,I was alone. Thankfully I was able to charm my way into becoming temporary BFFs with a bilingual 27-year-old guy from Colombia who works on cruise ships ten months out of the year and was returning home for his two month vacation time before he sets sail again. He was great company and saved me on numerous occasions since, as I quickly discovered, NO ONE in Miami speaks English. We got flights rebooked for the next morning, found the shuttle to the hotel, got international calling cards to inform our corresponding parties in Colombia of our complications, and then went to a bar next to our hotel where a young woman was singing salsa music live, and we relieved the built-up stress of American Airlines’ incompetence until the adrenaline wore off and I crashed. The next morning I got to the airport at 5:30am, booked flights on Avianca to Bogota and then to Medellín and the adventure began.Side notes: airports in Colombia are very different than those in the US and passengers usually walk outside to parked airplanes rather than board via a gate. Also- on the back of your boarding pass in Colombia you are asked to put the name, address, and phone number of an emergency contact...not a very comforting first impression. But Avianca was wonderful- real food, personal tvs- it was truly luxurious.

“We have to get to the airport three hours before for international flights, they don’t run on Cuban time,” my mom said as she raced through traffic to see me off at Miami International Airport. As I disappeared in the security check line, the look on her eyes was one of despair, sadness, and one could already tell she was longing for my return as I prepared to depart to Medellín, Colombia. It had not hit me yet, and it probably wouldn’t until I actually arrived. As I arrived at the gate, Gideon was already waiting and soon Jessica joined. We boarded the plane and hoped for a quick flight to our tropical destination. 3, 2, 1. Take off. Little siblings fighting in Spanish, a carne meal with jugo de mango was the first taste of what awaited us in Medellín.

A huge part of Medellín that makes this city so wonderful are los Parques Bibliotecas(library parks). The buildings themselves are beautiful; each one is architecturally unique and amazing. There are five in total, spread out across Medellín, strategically located in the poorer areas of the city. The libraries are completely free and open to the public. They funded by a group called COMFAMA and the city of Medellín. We visited Parque Biblioteca España in Santo Domingo. This library is located in what used to be some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Medellín. If you were from one comuna (group of neighborhoods) it was impossible to go into another one without being shot at. Before the construction of the MetroCable, people from these comunas did not feel as if they were part of Medellín. It would take them almost two hours to get to the heart of city. Thanks to the MetroCable and the Parque Bilbioteca España, these neighborhoods feel like they are truly part of a wonderful city and are slowly starting to resolve their differences. Riding up the MetroCable, the black library with its cube shape is nestled amongst rows of brick houses. We entered on the main floor, which connects all three buildings, each serving a different purpose. Of course, our favorite part was getting to visit the computer room for the children. In an area that was once known for its unsafe streets and warring communities, it was so heartwarming to see all the kids using the library’s facilities. As we walked up and down the stairwells, the children ran around eagerly hoping to use a computer. They greeted us with excited smiles and laughs while we watched them use the computers. Most of us take using a computer for granted; it’s part of our daily lives. These kids were willing to wait in line for however long it might take, just to get a chance to learn and play.

On Thursday June 23rd, we went to a rehabilitation center (Hospital Mental de Antioquia) for children (ages 7-19) who were living on the streets of Medellín. The majority of them were found on the streets addicted to some form of cocaine. The director of the center told us that not only are these children/teens found on the streets, but there are also hundreds of them that gather in abandoned buildings to do illicit things. He described it as the closest thing to infierno (hell) he has ever seen: there are close to 300 children in a room — people are having sex (child prostitution) in one corner, defecating in another, doing cocaine, dying, etc. And there are children who are so addicted to their drugs, that they don’t eat, sleep, or go to the bathroom — they only want to keep doing the cocaine to feel the effects 24/7. Some of these children take 200-300 hits of cocaine a day. We learned a lot about the philosophy of the center and their daily schedule. Then we went to visit the kids/teens…it was an indescribable experience. First of all, the children look 2-3 years younger than they actually are (most likely because of malnutrition/drugs). We went to a classroom where a group of about 10 children were practicing plays and singing. It was touching to see how happy they were to see us — one boy thanked us for coming from the US and visiting the center, saying it meant a lot to him because his family lives in a different city so he never sees them. Messages of thanks are extremely beautiful in Spanish, because the language allows people to use mindblowingly elegant and descriptive phrases. The children were so curious about us, wondering why we weren’t all blonde with blue eyes, asking us how to pronounce our names, and pleading us to teach them words like “cool” in English. One of the boys had scars all over his face and neck, and told us that he had been playing with petroleum when he was 3 years old and burnt himself. The boy had run away from home to Medellín when he was 7 years old, and his older brother left home to find him. He found him on the streets of Medellín, and the two were able to stay together even after they were discovered on the streets and sent to the center. Recently, the center was able to locate their family and set up visits for them. A girl came up to the director and started begging him for something: although I couldn’t hear their conversation it seemed like she wanted drugs. When he turned her request down, she started crying desperately and walked away from the group. But the other children came and hugged all of us and introduced themselves, and then gave us kisses on the cheek (Colombian custom) when we said goodbye. It was a bittersweet experience: the children made me laugh so much with their antics and smiles, but I also teared up every time I remembered how incomprehensible their lives are to me and how ridiculously difficult their past has been.

Today was a really touching and moving day. We went to a Mental Hospital for kids that live in the streets. These kids were drug addicts. They were in situations where they didn't eat, didn't sleep, didn't go to the bathroom. They only used. Different types of drugs were used but I think the guy said that the most common were the 3 different forms of cocaine.
The kids were so excited to know that we were from the United States. They wanted us to speak in English because it was so foreign to them. And they didn't even believe that I was from the US because I'm black. They have this perception that everyone from the US is blonde haired and blue eyes. Some of the students even had blue eyes and they thought that they were fake. Everything was new to them. They performed some of the things they learned in theater class for us. One of the boys sung for us. It was really special. They were so excited to talk to us. Over and over again, they asked questions about money in the US, how to make money, how to buy a plane ticket, how to get a job. They wanted to know how to have a brighter future and that was so surprising to me. Like going to the US was something that the strive to do.
There were a few black kids there but not many. One black girl who was really tall, probably about my height, came up to me and she couldn't stop smiling. She said, "You look like me!" She was so excited. I think because some of the kids don't really have families and because they haven't been exposed to much that it was her first time seeing someone with dark skin like hers and I think that even for that little bit of time that we were there, she was really touched. Funny part is that the feeling was completely mutual. She told me when we were getting ready to leave that I couldn't go. I wish I could have stayed. Those kids had gone through so much and all they were looking for now was someone to love and care for them.
(Google Images: http://cdn.thefreshxpress.com/freshxp/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/afro-black-woman-looking-in-the-mirror-1.jpg)

Today, we headed to La Pola, a juvenile delinquent center for kids twenty-one and younger. When we arrived, Tam warned us to be on our toes. None of us had ever been to a delinquent center, but images of what happened inside one in the states were shown in many movies, making me a little nervous about what we would see. The large green entrance gate was intimidating, but as soon as the van drove through, a serene landscape of pure blue skies greeted us. Flowers, green grass, buildings laid out like a small town. Not an armed guard in site.
We were introduced to the director of the center and sat in a circle, listening to him explain La Pola. He was a lovely man, and he was joined by Anderson, a 19-year-old boy from the center. You see, I don’t have the heart to call him a delinquent. Although I may not know what crime he committed, he was just another kid like us. He was obviously very well-behaved as well because of his special opportunity to talk to us. Him and the director told us about the detention center and all of the programs/rules/accommodations. The idea was to create an environment free of strict rules so that the kids could concentrate on their own self-acceptance. So different than the centers in America. They still had their privacy intact (the toilets and showers had stalls), and their dorm rooms had windows and could be decorated.

Then they brought us into the center and we walked in. We were split up into two different small groups. We walked past a building as about 30 boys sat watching us walk by. They were all wearing red polos tucked into black sweat pants. All donned black Chucks; all donned a bewildered expression as well. Yeah, some mumbled some things, but I kind of felt bad. I didn’t want to come in as an outsider and observe them as if I were above them. I didn’t want to think there would be some kind of line dividing us. But still, that line remained as we walked in while a room of boys were eating their lunches. The director continued on with his tour, but as he did, all the boys would continuously come over and hug him. It was definitely not an act; not planned whatsoever. It was really touching – their love for one another was pure.
Then there was a moment after we saw their dorm rooms, when we all went back outside, where we all went past them in a line. Two lines, facing one another, from completely different backgrounds/lives/everything. One boy even murmured “Those girls are brave.” Not in a harmful kind of way, but in a way that meant that this opportunity was rare for us. And them. Juntos.

Lydia Rose:
Sometimes they leave in the middle of the night with only the clothes on their backs. Sometimes a family member is missing, lost in the violence, the conflict over territory between gangs of armed traffickers. Sometimes they walk for days from the mountains with nowhere to go and nowhere to stay.
There are three centers for displaced persons in Medellín. We visited one, seeing the spaces where they provide food, legal advice, a recreation room. The displaced people can come early in the morning and stay throughout the day. Some who have nowhere to go but the streets resist leaving for the night, feigning deep sleep as the administrators attempt to close up, but in the end they all must go.

Some may be lucky enough to stay in a temporary home that houses a number of displaced people for a maximum of one month. After leaving the center, we visit one such home where families and lone displaced persons can stay, receiving free food, clothes, and a bed to sleep in while they begin the slow, agonizing process of starting their lives again from scratch, searching for more permanent shelter, for jobs, for a future.
We climb up the tiny twisting staircase that leads to the second floor to see the spaces where multiple families live, packed into bunk-bed filled rooms. I feel strange, peeking into these people’s lives, their private pain. Some of the children are sleeping, others stare at us from their mother’ laps with wide, curious eyes. Who are these intruders, touristing through the aftermath of the violence that ripped through their lives?
Back downstairs we sit with one of the heads of the home and ask questions—how many families are there, how long can they stay, what do they do while they are here, etc. “And after one month,” someone asks, “what if they still have no place to go?” It is sad, the director says, so sad, but there are so many displaced people in Medellín, so many more people to help . . .
I feel awful. I cannot imagine the tiny child, now toddling about in a “Little Schemes” T-shirt, perhaps leaving this place in a few weeks when his month is up with nowhere to go but the street. I wonder what his story is, what he saw, what he is missing.
Sometimes in Medellín I get homesick—I miss my pug and my parents, the river by house, the posters on my walls.
Of the people here, so many may never be able to return to their towns, their homes, their families ever again. I cannot imagine.


In the first week, I have found that the best thing about Medellin is its people. Without them, Medellin would just be another midsized Latin-American city. Instead, there is a citywide movement from the personal to governmental level to change its international image. Every person we have encountered has been more gracious than the next. After meeting our Companeros, I was blown away by their friendliness. Back home, this type of hospitality is somewhat hard to come by, especially for foreigners . The slogan for sospaisa, a program for expatriate paisas, embodies this ideal, “Donde Hay Un Paisa Esta Medellin (where there is a paisa there is Medellin).” For those who still live in Medellin, the quote can be adapted to “if you know a paisa, you know Medellin.” In the next couple of months, I do hope to get to know this city well, but it will not be as important as getting to know its people.

Meet the 2011 Team

Qué pasa! My name is Jessica David. I'm a rising senior at Duke University. I am studying Psychology with minors in Visual Arts and Afro and African American Studies. With my heavy courseload and my position as a Women's Basketball manager, I never thought that I would have the time to travel abroad and take advantage of the amazing opportunities that Duke offers. Then I came across the program for DukeEngage in Colombia. The program scope immediately drew me in. The program offered the chance to travel, live in an indescribably, beautiful city, experience a new culture all while helping displaced families capture their personal stories and document them. Medellín has not let me down yet. I'm excited to get in the field and start listening. That's one of the greatest qualities that I can offer and I can't wait for this experience to really begin.

Hola! My name is Stephanie Amador, and I am a rising Junior at Duke University from Miami, FL. I am currently majoring in Sociology, minoring in international comparative studies, and obtaining a certificate in documentary studies. A little bit about me: I grew up in a Cuban household so I have a love for Latin music and the Hispanic culture. Needless to say, in the words of Celia Cruz, my Spanish needs to be “Better Looking.” Duke Engage in Colombia is a program that I am deeply looking forward to! I believe that Colombia does have a negative image in the United States, but most things do not appear as they seem. I hope to uncover the complexity of the images of Colombia in order to mitigate the wrong Colombian stereotypes given by those around the world. Even my parents were hesitant about Colombia when they first heard the news of my acceptance. “¿Pero chica de todos los lugares porque Colombia?” I would nod my head, and try to explain, but I could tell that they too held the same perceptions as the majority of the United States, something I hoped I could help change. Although I am nervous about being in a foreign country with a host family, whom I do not know, I am excited to learn about another culture and change the perceptions that people have of Colombia and of the Colombian people.

Hi! My name is Gabriela Arredondo-Santisteban, and I’m a rising Junior at Duke University majoring in Psychology and minoring in Spanish. I was born and raised in Durham, North Carolina, and I have never lived anywhere else. My background is Latino, with my mom being from Costa Rica and my dad being from Mexico. I love trying new foods, traveling, and meeting new people, all parts of the reason why I chose DukeEngage Medellín. Although my family was initially a little skeptical about my decision to go to Medellín, so far the experience has been nothing short of amazing. I have always heard that the nicest people from Colombia are from Medellín and I haven’t met anyone yet who disproves that. Everyone here is warm and welcoming, always offering us a tinto wherever we go. I wanted to come to Medellín to meet its people and experience the culture, but also because the program felt close to home as a Latina. With my parents being from Latin American countries, I have been to many cities that are not always the tourist hotspots or the safest places. Not once have I been nervous going with my family to these new locations, but I felt a little bit uneasy when I first decided to go to Medellín, and I want to change that feeling back. I want to show my friends and family at home what the real Medellín is like, and in the process, learn about Colombia and myself during my stay here.

Hi! My name is Lydia Rose Rappoport-Hankins, but I go by LydiaRose or LR for short. I live with my parents, Cliff and Leslie, and my pug Iris. My lovely super-smart older sister Clarissa lives in Washington, DC with her soon-to-be husband Will. I am from Iowa City, Iowa but I was born in Durham and now study there at Duke University, where I am a rising junior majoring in psychology and English with a minor in cultural anthropology. My hobbies are dancing, drawing, reading, and writing. I know absolutely zero about the logistics of filmmaking, and my Spanish is quite the work in progress, but I couldn’t resist the DukeEngage in Medellín program. Capturing stories meshes perfectly with my interests; as the daughter of an English professor, I suppose I’ve always found stories important. Combine that with the psychological importance of expressing oneself and I felt like this program was perfectly suited for my interests and my potential for contributing to the people of Medellín. And, of course, there is the unbelievable bonus of spending time in the beautiful city of eternal spring with quite possibly the kindest, most open people I have ever met. It is true what they say about this city—the only danger is that you will never want to leave.

Hola! My name is Gideon Rosenthal and I am from Charleston, South
Carolina. I am 21 years old and a Political Science major and Computer
Science minor at Duke. In the next couple of months I hope to
experience everything Medellin has to offer, from the nicer areas such
as the Poblado to the neighborhoods we will be working in. I hope to
see a side of Medellin that is not portrayed in the international
media and return to the states with a deeper understanding of both the
social problems and the amazing culture that exists in this city.

Hi! My name is Amrita Dixit and I’m a rising junior, majoring in Neuroscience with a certificate in Information Science & Information Studies. I am 19 years old, and I have never left the United States without my parents or older sister. However, I have traveled to places like India, Peru, Mexico, Italy, Hawaii, Alaska, Montana, Texas, and more – and I’m always intrigued by the new cultures I come in contact with. I love my hometown in California, mint chocolate chip ice cream, soccer, and spending time with my family/friends. I applied to the DukeEngage in Medellín program because I wanted to hear and help document the various stories that Colombians in Medellín have to share. The program’s use of media and technology caught my attention, because it is such a creative way to combat the stereotype of Medellín as only a place of violence and drugs. I’m also excited that the program will give me a taste of the beautiful, caring, and fun sides of Latin American culture. I’m so thrilled to join the other Duke students in getting to know our “nuevo hogar” (new home)!

Hola! My name is Natalie Robles and I’m 18 years old. I spent half of my life in Santa Rosa, California, but have since been living in Goldsboro, North Carolina for the other half of my life. I just finished my freshman year at Duke University, majoring in Music. I’ve been playing the clarinet for almost nine years now; I went to a really intense arts school for the last two years of high school and learned a lot, but I really love Duke a lot more. If I hadn’t gone, I might have not had the opportunity to come here! I love all types of music, especially indie/alternative rock. My favorite band’s name is Circa Survive. I love hiking a lot; I’m part of a group called P-Wild at Duke and have hiked years beforehand as well. I love sushi and goofing around with my little brother, Benson, who’s fifteen. I like swimming and playing water polo. I’m also a big movie buff, so if you have a question about an actor or some movie, just ask me. I wanted to be a part of this program because I am half-Colombian. My father is from Barranquilla, and my mom is from the United States. My parents got divorced when I was four and I recently became estranged from my father. The issues that happened during the divorce caused a lot of misunderstanding between me and my dad’s side of the family, so I decided to do this DukeEngage program in order to connect with my other home country in a different way. Already a week in, and I’ve created relationships with this country and its people that will last a lifetime. Hope you enjoy hearing about our trip here!

Hello Friends! My name is Kendall Murphy; I will be 20 years old in August; I am a rising junior at Duke University; and I am from Darien, Connecticut. I come from a large Irish family and I love my family more than anything else in this world. They have made me who I am today- outgoing, fun-loving, ready for anything, and excited for everything! I am currently studying Sociology, History, and Markets and Management Studies (Business), and while I have not yet decided upon a career path, I am confident that as long as I am working with people who can make me laugh and in an environment that is stimulating and engaging (and open to a sense of humor) I will be happy. At school I try to take advantage of all Duke has to offer: great professors, club sports and a gorgeous campus to run outside on, a thriving social life, and countless opportunities to experience something new. My two favorite life mottos are: “you are only young once” and “apathy gets you nowhere”, so with my combination of curiosity and assertive action I jumped at the chance to apply to DukeEngage. After reading about each program, Colombia was where my heart was set. While taking a Documentary Studies course at Duke, I loved how by putting the time in and conveying my genuine interest in a particular population, I was welcomed into a world I otherwise would not have known anything about. Thus I felt the Medellín program was perfect, for it combined documentary technology and the Spanish language with a mission to serve a community eager for a voice. In my 8 weeks here I want to listen to the Colombian people- the poor residents of the mountain sides as well as the university students around the corner- and learn every detail of Colombian culture- from what they value as important to life to how their social norms differ from mine, and I want to share what I learn with the world.
I enjoy challenging myself and doing things that scare me, for I feel I grow as a person with each attempt at something unfamiliar. But because I am known for being a little naive and overzealous, my parents feared that I would be in danger in Colombia because of the media’s hype over its past violence and drug cartels. Luckily however, their policy once we leave the house for college is that we have to make our own decisions and live with the consequences of those decisions, so my announcement of my summer plans was not so much a question for permission, as it was a declaration of a decision. And now that I have met the warm, friendly people, seen the art covering this beautiful city’s walls, tasted the tropical fruit, and danced to a salsa beat, I can say with absolute certainty that coming to Medellín was the best decision I’ve ever made and I hope the consequences never fade.