Jun 25, 2012

First Impressions-- 2012

I have grown up hearing about the dangers of Colombia, the ever-present crime and drug wars.  When I told my family I would be attending Duke Engage in Colombia my aunt posted an article about continued FARQ violence on my Facebook wall and my mom offered to buy me kidnap insurance.

When I arrived in Medellín however, I saw no evidence of this crime, no reason for my family’s extreme worry.  All I saw were mountains in every direction I looked, candy colored houses, and little kids playing soccer in the street. My home-stay mom welcomed me into her house and provided me with internet, a hot shower, and all the rice cakes I could ever possibly want (she is on a diet and always willing to share).  While I recognized how different Colombia was than my home in America, I did not see the conspicuous violence and poverty that I had expected. 

On our first tour of the city we visited the Biblioteca de España, a new library that was written about in the New York Times for it’s Architectural novelty and positive social impact.  The view from the library was breathtaking and people swarmed it reading and using the computers while kids played in its indoor playground.  As we left the building, we walked over a plaza named “the hole.”  My group leader then told us that was the place where people used to dump dead bodies. 

On our second day here we walked partway up one of the mountain and climbed the rest of the way on a 1,260 foot escalator.  The view from here was astounding.  We were so high we could literally reach up and touch the clouds.  It was the most beautiful place I had ever been.  However, as my friend and I lagged behind our group to take pictures, our tour guide turned and told us to put the cameras away immediately and stay closer to our group.  Apparently, we were in one of the more dangerous neighborhoods where gangs were present and active.

I am constantly aware of Medellin’s past and of the precautions I must take, but my first week in Medellín has shown me a vibrant and cosmopolitan city with generous, welcoming people and views that take my breath away. Even in the neighborhood that Time magazine classified as the most dangerous in the world in 1989, people smile at me and kids laugh and play in the streets.  And regardless of all else, the view from the mountaintop makes Medellín one of my favorite places.

Medellin is very different from the places I call home, Cheverly and Washington D.C., which has made my time here much more interesting. In both of my homes it’s very rare to see people spending their leisure time outside of the house in large groups. This is not the case in our neighborhood here in Medellin- almost every night of the week people flood the community plaza to talk with friends and family.

I think that how often the entire neighborhood comes out to spend time together says a lot about the community. In Cheverly and D.C. this doesn’t happen too often, people leave their homes to celebrate the founding of the town or Osama Bin Laden’s death. We need a special occasion to want to hang out with our fellow neighbors. In Medellin, it seems people go out every night just to enjoy each other’s company. I didn’t realize it until I laid eyes on the packed square that this is exactly what Cheverly and, most likely, the greater majority of American cities are missing. Which leads me to ask ‘would it be possible to create this type of community at home?’ and ‘if yes then how?’ I definitely don’t have the answers but knowing what to ask is a step in the right direction. 

Even though I’ve loved the city I’m frustrated that it’s dangerous. In Washington I can walk just about anywhere alone without having to worry about being robbed/whatever. There are dangerous places but I feel safe practically everywhere while here I’m only allowed to feel safe in a 2-3 block radius. I like what I’ve seen of the city but it’s difficult to fully appreciate it when you’re receiving conflicting messages- on one hand the city and people are great and on the other you aren’t safe and some people may want to steal your possessions.

Daní (Danielle)
Medellín es chévere. Seriously, muy chévere. The city is beautiful, stunning, and different from anything I have ever experienced. Growing up in quiet suburbia, I'm energized, but also overwhelmed by the excitement of my surroundings. I fall asleep to motorcycles, cars, and taxis zooming by on the busy streets each night and wake up to a similar tune. My host mom always greets me with a comforting smile, even when I anxiously struggle to piece together the right Spanish words. She's patient and kind and makes me feel like I'm not an outsider in her country. While I feel out of place at times, I know that smiles and laughter have no borders and we are here with open hearts and good intentions.

All the intricacies of the neighborhoods in Medellín... what can I say? Simply breathtaking and inspirational. The different neighborhoods all have their own histories and narratives, but while they're all somewhat different, there is a common thread- a boundless amount of pride for their city and their country. Paisas have a unity and cohesiveness that I never quite imagined given the negative and grim slant of the country's worldwide news coverage. They are not defined by the past violence and widespread conflict, but instead have transformed the city, little by little, incorporating publicly funded urban structures- gyms, metros, cable cars, libraries, parks, escalators, community spaces etc. to not only challenge the notion of "invisible borders," but also to reduce violence and alter the socio-cultural dynamics of the city. Paisas are passionate about their home, Medellín, and want us, even as foreigners, to experience the city through their eyes. If I had to choose one word to describe my first impressions of Medellín, it would be hope. Colombia has proven to me that dedication, persistence, and hope are some of the most powerful and pervasive change agents and I know that in the next two months I will continue to be inspired by this beautiful city and its people.

Things that I love about Colombia:
-the architecture (the buildings are so modern, unique, and cutting edge)
-TINTO (best coffee, hands down that I've ever had. How is it so rich and wonderful?)
-arepas con huevos (yumm buen provecho)
-how friendly the paisas are (always a "buenos/as," there is no such thing as a stranger here)
-La plaza en nuestro barrio at night with all the people, laughing, hanging out, and having a good time with friends y Parque Lleras
-jugo de mora y como toda la fruta es tan fresca y deliciosa
-how relaxed and peaceful paisas seem
-Colombian Spanish

Things that I'm Still Trying to Figure Out:
-How can paisas wear jeans when it's sweltering hot? 
-How many different ways can you eat an arepa?
-How does the whole numbering and street system work in the neighborhood? I'm 100% lost at all times.
-How come there isn't a Crepes y Waffles in the US?
-Colombian slang
-How much coffee am I actually allowed to bring back with me to the States?
-How is my ghostly pale skin going to survive the strong Colombian sun?
.... more to come

First and foremost I need to acknowledge my new family—thank you for being so incredibly normal. You have welcomed me in such a warm way that I already feel at home.
I can imagine it’s pretty hard to open your home to a stranger. Home is something that, for me, means familiarity and not having to think or ever feel uncomfortable.
Repeating everything you say, sharing a bathroom, having to do more laundry, cook more food, and having an extra person looming around the halls are not things any ordinary family would do.
So I just have to say:
Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. I mean it each and every time I say it and I can’t say it enough.

I don’t have the right words to express how I feel about everything I have seen of Medellín so far. Everything that this city has accomplished with infrastructure, community, and mobility have impacted me in a strangely powerful way. I’m impressed, humbled, and moved, but most of all frustrated because I can’t figure out where these feelings are coming from.
Medellín has transformed in an unbelievable way in the past 15 or so years, and over the past couple of days I have realized that this transformation is entirely due to dedicated Paisas.
Paisas are people born and bred here. And they rock. They’ve also created and run extremely innovative programs and public spaces because they love their city and they want to see it flourish. They fight for the rights of their fellow Paisas with as much efficiency as the government will allow.
Realistically, I never thought I was going to change the world, but I expected that the community organizations here would need our help. And I’m quickly learning that I’m wrong. What they need is recognition because what they do is awesome. I don’t mean that in a “that club was awesome” kind of way. I mean to say that it’s awe-some. As in I’m in awe of what they do.
Emotions are getting the best of me as I write and read this and I’m not exactly sure why. I feel so lucky to be able to have this experience but there is something else looming within me that I don’t have a word for.
Scared is what I am.
Scared that I won’t be able to do what I’ve realized I want to do.
I feel an urge to call every newspaper and TV station in the world and force them to report about everything I have seen—the graffiti artists, the Metrocable, the stadium that air conditions itself, my homestay mom’s arepa con queso, everything.
On the other hand, I know this won’t happen. And I know that my own experience will be invaluable and I will do my tiny part in spreading knowledge of how much this city has to offer and the inspiration I find here. But will that be enough?
Sadly, I can’t change the minds of entire populations of people with my words and my images, but I’m glad my first impressions have been strong enough to make me want to try.  

Un mensaje de la madre de huésped de Julie

Junio 19 al 24
Esta ha sido una semana de expectativa tanto para nuestra familia como para Julie, romper el hielo no es fácil, es empezar a descubrir en nuestro huésped sus preferencias, gustos, rutinas y  cantidades en la alimentación, buscar diferentes maneras para que lentamente se apropie de todos los espacios de la casa y no pase mucho tiempo encerrada en su cuarto y lograr así que pueda sentirse verdaderamente en familia.
Julie es una niña tierna, comunicativa y de fácil adaptabilidad, nos sentimos orgullosos de tenerla en nuestra casa, es como si de repente la vida nos hubiese regalado una hija más.

I simply cannot look past the fact that Medellín lurked with danger only decades before. While here, I am limited to just a 3-block radius where I can walk alone. I always feel like someone is following me. I am scared that someone may rob me in a crowded area, rip me off when I try to buy something, or kidnap me in a taxi. I am scared because I know it has happened before, and it could easily happen to me. I also cannot ignore that children play where dead bodies used to lie.

And yet I am incredibly grateful that my host family has opened their home to a stranger and treated me like family. I am thankful that my compañeros treat me like a close friend they have known for years. I am appreciative that I have a roof over my head at night, unlike the metal tins and rocks sheltering the poorer areas. Most unexpectedly, I am incredibly thankful that I have cold water for my shower. Because at least that means I have access to water.

The unfortunate reality is that people treat Medellín as a dichotomy: there is “the good” and there is “the bad”. The union of how “the bad” has created “the good” is what goes unnoticed. The city is fighting for a better future because of past violence. The youth has begun a cultural movement to express their frustrations of and hopes for the city. The government has built an escalator in one of the poorest slums so that people have access to the resources and work they need to survive. People have built playgrounds where stray bullets used to kill children. Individuals have dedicated their lives to improving the life of every citizen, and yet others ignore such efforts completely. My hope with this summer is that I will appreciate and understand Medellín for “the good” and “the bad”, not just one side of the story. 

My initial impression of the city was one of familiarity. After all, both of my parents were born and raised in Medellin and I had been to the city more than a dozen times before this trip. Indeed, I had always viewed myself as “paisa”. Then came the stares; wherever my group went we were viewed with curiosity and a hint of resentment. I was instantly labeled an outsider, a “gringo”. But I wasn’t a “gringo”, at least not one in the typical sense, and I clearly wasn’t “paisa”. That realization made me sad, and then it made me angry, and finally sad again. I write to you today in a state of limbo, trying to make sense of both my “paisa” roots and my “gringo” upbringing. For me, this experience is all about perspective. I’ve come to show the world that there is more to Medellin than cocaine and plastic surgery; the city and its inhabitants are human beings worthy of respect. Yet I’ve also come to show Medellin that there is more to Americans than baseball and SUVs; they too can be compassionate and respectful. Just as we are trying to change the way the world views Colombians, we should also try to change the way Colombians view Americans.

Medellín is so much more beautiful than I could have ever imagined, but I had not realized how emotional this trip would be.  The emotion began with my parents crying at the airport.  About 20 years ago, they made the trip to Bogota, Colombia to adopt me.  It definitely struck some emotional chords in my family and me knowing that I would be able to experience part of the country where I was born.      

I prepared myself for a feeling of loneliness and anxiety upon arriving into someone’s house.  After a long day of travel to Colombia, I expected to walk into a house feeling like an intrusive outsider.  To my surprise, I felt like part of the family.  It was the most incredible feeling.  My host mother gave me a detailed tour of my new hogar.  She has her own paintings everywhere and they are beautiful. The anxiety from the strange encounter that I had expected was replaced with a feeling of belonging and comfort.

The sights are simply beyond words. This first week in Medellín reminded me how massive the world is. Throughout a given day, there’s an entire world of people that never cross our minds. In Medellín, it’s a different way of life—time seems a bit slower, the culture seems richer, the people have an indefinable pride for their city and everyone greets each other with warm smiles and greetings. 

I thought I prepared for all I would experience. However, I could not help but think of myself as inadequate—something that I did not anticipate.  How can I make a positive impact anywhere in the world?  I did not grow up here, or experience the things they have. Yes, by blood, I am Colombian, but I don’t feel that I’ll ever be able to identify as one.  I had always felt that if I sought out the culture, I could one day make up for my lack of Colombian culture.  Maybe I could, but part of me continues to question, what life would be like had I grown up here?

My First Impressions of Medellín, Colombia...