One from the heart – Personal Involvement

Experience has shown me, both with young and older people, that day to day mingling and personal involvement is what awakens minds, brings awareness, and spurs the desire to go further, to understand better, and to carry out a dialogue. This is why we must really live and work together on shared projects
What I Believe, Tariq Ramadan

This week I munched my way to the end of Tariq Ramadan’s little gem of a book “What I Believe”. The timing couldn’t have been better, as I feel like it was a catalyst to the events and positive energy what has washed over me this week, and I would sincerely recommend it to anyone and everyone. The above quote is an example of the motivation and clarification that I benefited from, and if you give me the chance, I would like to explain why…

As you are probably aware, as a reader of this blog, I am currently living in Bogota, Colombia, working on a placement for the British Council. The events that led up to this position were, put simply, a year placement that I did working in a Haitian village in the Dominican Republic, and a subsequent degree in Spanish and Philosophy at the University of Leeds, having developed a taste for the language, and a thirst for reason. This is my compulsory year abroad, but I slipped out of the university system and managed to avoid the standard route of an Erasmus year in Spain, landing a position in one of the top private universities in Colombia. I have asked myself how I came to fall into this spot, being the private institution skeptic that I am, but I believe that everything is part of a bigger plan. I had similar thoughts when I was put on my gap year placement in a Pentecostal organization in the Dominican Republic, seeing as I am from a Muslim
household, but I have to admit, both experiences have opened my mind and my heart more than I could have possibly imagined.

When living in the Dominican Republic I worked as an English teacher in a Haitian settlement, as well as helping with a youth group conducted by the church. I had no qualms with working for a Christian organization, as they were the ones who had set up shop, and were working in the community, and I felt that if they were doing something positive, the religion shouldn’t turn me off. I later came to understand aspects of the system that made me feel uneasy, or that I wholeheartedly disagreed with, but I feel like the experience made me more understanding, and these concerns were things I witnessed first-hand, making them entrenched experiences that I could draw from in the future. The village was an image of poverty, no running water, an average of two hours electricity a day that was incredibly unpredictable, and a high mortality rate. My students bought knives to school and many of them had serious issues at home, as well as frustrations that caused disruptive and difficult behaviour. The characters I met however, will forever be etched in my mind as real people, with hopes, dreams and aspirations, annoying habits, endearing qualities, and most importantly, distinguishing features that made every person unique and special, separate from association with any stereotype that I might have had before living with them.

This year however, I have found myself in a completely different Latino dimension. I don’t know what plan has been made for me, or how I have managed to hurtle to the other end of the spectrum, but I am now teaching in one of the most esteemed universities in Colombia. The majority of my students have spent the summer, six months, or even a few years in Europe, Canada, the States and Australia, all paid for by their parents. They have iPods, iPads, MacBooks, cars and pocket money that is more than what most people in this country earn to support their families. Coming from Cambridge, I thought I knew about elitism. Turns out, I knew nothing.
It is sickly fascinating working in such an environment, where many of my friends at the university have two or more properties around the country, knowing that Colombia is a country with so many social issues affecting the bulk of the population. Colombia is the country with the second highest amount of displaced persons, after Sudan. The Amnesty International campaign “Everything Left Behind: Internal Displacement in Colombia” makes this statement:

Each year, hundreds of thousands of people join the millions already internally displaced in Colombia. In the face of the continued violence and displacement, the Colombian government’s assertions that the impact of the internal armed conflict has abated ring very hollow. Amnesty International calls on all parties to the conflict to put an end to the abuses that force people to flee their homes and to support communities under fire in their struggle to live in peace and security and to protect their way of life.

Outside my university building in the centre of Bogota the reality of this situation is visible, as you see countless homeless people searching through the rubbish for anything they can get their hands on to eat, begging, a number of times I have even witnessed the muggings. All the while I am sitting with people who are blissfully unaware, eyes fixed on the screen of their iPad/iPhone/Samsung IIIS/WhatHaveYou, making plans for whose country house they are going to have a party at over the weekend.

That said these students, like the Haitian friends I made in the Dominican Republic, are more than just the stereotype that they appear to conform to. They are friends with hopes, dreams and aspirations, who have defining qualities that makes them stand apart from one another, and more complicated than they appear on paper.

All of us are products of our environments and experiences. Therefore, we are always going to have parts of us that reflect that, and that will influence our feelings and decisions. However, what I feel like I have learnt is that it is important to try and be conscious of this, and for that reason actively try to expand our horizons and experiences so that we can have a greater understanding of those who live in completely different circumstances.

Since arriving here I have tried every day to do something productive, to push the boundaries, meet new people and at the same time protect myself from the dangers that I might unknowingly be exposing myself to. This has proved incredibly fulfilling, as I have met hundreds of people since my arrival, “mingling” (as Ramadan puts it) in different circles outside of my comfort zone, heard so many stories, and changed my mind enough times to lose solid judgement and opinion on subjects which I thought I was so sure of before.

As a philosophy student, that is part of how I have been learning to learn, and I have found a peacefulness in the fact that there are so many different angles and perspectives. I have met people who have told me that Pablo Escobar was a criminal beast who ruined the country and many others who saw him to be a modern day Robin Hood. I have met Colombians of all colours and descent, with African, Spanish and Native heritage, as well as all kinds of backgrounds. I was invited to an Iftar meal during Ramadan, at the home of a Turkish professor, where the top members of the Colombian churches were present. We shared a meal and prayers which was very special. I have had countless people introduce me to their mothers, and mothers introduce me to their sons and daughters. I have been fortunate enough to meet some of the most prestigious doctors and politicians in the country, and I have even been invited to accompany some new friends I made to their interviews at national television studios in Colombia. Every experience has added to my understanding of the way that this country works, as well as what kind of person I am in response to it all.

This week I was invited to accompany a very hard working human rights activist and charity worker in her work in the most deprived, dangerous barrio of Bogota. It was an enlightening visit, especially as the core of my work here is based in a private institution, where I am exposed to some of the most influential, powerful people in the country. I must admit I was quite surprised by the response among my friends at the university, when I told them of my plans for the weekend. Colombians themselves, they had never entered this barrio, and they couldn’t understand why a young, European girl of 21, with a cushty position in a comfortable job, would have any reason to go to “the other side”. What I could not understand however, is why anyone wouldn’t. Thankfully I didn’t encounter any problems during my visit, and I met a group of youth workers who had planned an event for the children in the barrio, promoting human rights. I got roped into face painting the little children, and they had music and young people performing hip-hop that they had written themselves. One day, I hope to invite some of my friends to come with me to see the barrio for themselves. I think it is really important that they come, and get to know individuals first hand, because these students at the university are those who are going to be running the Colombia of tomorrow. If anything is to change for the people living at the bottom, those at the top must feel some kind of connection, obligation or brotherhood with them, rather than seeing them simply through the eyes of the media, which distorts their image in such a negative way.

This is exactly what the Tariq Ramadan quote relates to. I feel like the “personal involvement” is crucial in developing a way of being that may have a positive effect in whatever one sets one’s mind to. It is all well and good reading about a subject, or becoming an expert on paper, but until you really put yourself in a situation, engage with the people and understand the intentions, pressures and circumstances surrounding decisions that people make, you cannot fully appreciate the reasoning behind them. And like he says in the quote, it really does fuel the desire for progression and understanding.

Sometimes it is very hard to be so open and accept things that seem to clash with one’s fundamental beliefs and interests. Yet it is important to recognize that parallel to working in circumstances outside of one’s comfort zone, it is possible to learn so much about yourself and question your own beliefs. In doing so, you can begin to disregard thoughts and beliefs that have no real foundation, or understand more fully the reasoning behind others. The effect is two-fold: a deeper understanding of others and a more coherent understanding of yourself.

Am am 21, and I am learning every day and there is so much I have yet to learn, but this is a lesson I wish to share along the way. I hope that you may find some peace or inspiration in it as I have.

Here are a few photos I thought I’d share…

 Some of my students from my English class

One of the cuties in Soacha – she smiled all day but I love this photo

Myself with another Muslim on EidOne of the restaurants in my universityA street in Soacha

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Miss Colombia – A weekend of mixed luck in Cartagena

Cartagena: Two Reinas in Colombia.

Cartagena is one of the famous hotspots in Colombia. You might have heard about the CIA prostitution scandal that happened a few months back with some of Obamas men getting themselves into a bit of a pickle with some of the working girls in the area, and it would be hard to deny that sex tourism is a strong draw for many middle aged tubby white men. And yes, this is quite evident as you are in the street. Its not unusual to see two señoritas led by a gent with silver hair, tucking their bare bronzed legs into the taxi as he wraps his arms around their tanned, skinny shoulders and pulls them in for a snuggle as they head off to his hotel.

However, as I am sure you can guess this was more of an undesirable footnote rather than an attraction to the area for my Mexican amiga and I. We made plans to head up to the Caribbean coast because this weekend was a bank holiday festival – the carnival for Miss Colombia – and we wanted to check it out. We headed up on the Friday, we left early and were lucky enough to get pushed into Priority so we avoided the queues. Two things that I cannot stand include waiting, and travelling, so I was pretty pleased to be able to alleviate some of this stress. When we arrived the Caribbean heat hit us and we jumped into a cab with a young shouty taxista, who was very annoyed at how the taxi line was being organized. We had some banter and I told him to stop being so serious as he was going to ruin my first impressions of Cartagena. He gave me his card which read “El famoso rompe corazones” (The Famous Heartbreaker) and asked me to smile, with that he told me that I had paid for the taxi, he jumped back into the taxi and sped off without charging us. Good first impression restored.

We were staying in a hostel slap bang in the middle of the old part of the city, which has a colonial feel not dissimilar to that of the Zona Colonial in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. All the houses had fat old wooden doors with huge bolts and many were painted pretty Caribbean colours like pink, yellow and blue. The streets in the Old City are small and just make room for the horse and carriages taking wealthy visitors around, as well as the little yellow taxi cabs.

This weekend the city was crazy busy, and as we ditched our stuff we went out to eat and run some errands. I had to pay a bill in a specific place so we took a taxi out of the Old City to a shopping centre in the wider region of Cartagena de las Indias. Outside of the quaint, touristy area things are a little more straggly, and there were a lot of people sitting by the sides of the road, chilling, watching the traffic go by. It is crazy to have spent three and a half months living in Bogota, which is nestled in the mountains and has a bizarre mixmash of a climate, to experience an area that ticks all the boxes of a Caribbean island. It was boiling, there was fried everything, everywhere, the girls were wearing crazy bright tank tops and diamante jeans with impressive nail extensions, and there was reggaeton blasting out of every crack in the pavement.

One distinct feature that I felt about the people in Cartagena was that they were a lot more down to earth than the people in Bogota. Much as I love the capital, it sense of humanity between strangers is frozen, as you see in London and Paris. Everyone is going about their business, running as if they were on a treadmill that never stops, that won’t let them look to the side and see the homeless man looking through the rubbish for something to eat. When we were in a resto-café, we ordered a plate of fried fish, creole rice, plantains and salad. Yes, this was definitely the route to an early heart attack, but it was also DELICIOUS at a mere two quid. The place was full of Costeños, (people from the coast, as opposed to gringos) and all of them put together their leftovers in a takeaway box to give to the guys who were begging outside. It might not seem like a huge gesture, but having seen people completely ignore brothers and sisters in the street, it struck me to see people going around the tables, carefully picking out pieces of meat to share with those outside.

We were in a hostel but we went about it the comfy way with a private room and en suite, and we met a lot of backpackers. They were very nice people, but it was strange having hardly seen any English speaking people to bump into some “gringos” with their flip flops, battered guidebooks and of course, those beasty backpacks. There’s this stereotype of having a rugged beard, dirty feet and a shitload of bracelets and necklaces bought of that market that makes the backpacking lot look very bohemian. They all seemed to be enjoying themselves, but I really clocked that I travelling like that wouldn’t suit me or my desire to see more of the world. I like travelling with people who know the area, fully immersing myself in the culture and getting my teeth into the language. I guess there are different ways to travel depending on what you want, but the most important thing is that each person finds what satisfies them.

We took a fat off bus journey along to coast to the very pretty Santa Marta for the day on Saturday. The buses in Latin America are very often more comfortable than planes, but I guess that is because there aren’t any trains. We made our way to the beach, and then hopped on a boat just the two of us to get to a more secluded beach called Playa Blanca. I bought some arroz con coco, a sweet Caribbean version of rice pudding, and we lounged out for the afternoon, feeling very much detached from the craziness of Bogota. We made friends with a Colombian fitness model with a cracking bod, who seemed to continuously be rubbing tanning oil onto her chest and glutes (this is the perfect word to describe that derriere…). Later we took the big journey back to Cartagena, and went on a nighttime adventure exploring the nooks and crannies of the Old City. As it was the festival weekend, there were stages with live music, plenty of street vendors, and groups of people sitting in plastic chairs in the street soaking in the atmosphere.

The next day was CARNIVAL DAY! The city was packed full of people, armed with spray foam to attack passersby, so we carefully slash sprinted to the promenade, where the procession was going to pass by. It was sweltering and everyone was in tiny shorts and t shirts, sunglasses firmly on the face, milling through the security to where the crowds were congregating to watch the carnival. To get up into the seated platforms and have a good view you have to buy tickets, which we hadn’t done, but the carnival fairy have us a hand and we managed to bag a pair for free.

The carnival was as would be expected: colourful loud and very very dancey. Each of the Reinas or Queens went past on huge floats, shimmying away in teeny tiny bikinis and killer platforms, and we could hear the commentator over the loadspeaker repeatedly commenting on their “cuerpos perfectos, cuerpos naturales” which was a massive joke. Although the Reinas were all objects of “perfection”, I would question the claim that they were all natural. After all, Colombia is renowned as being a hotspot for plastic surgery – you see huge billboards for it around town, and even commercials on television. Each area of Colombia had a beauty out there to represent them, and the competition took place the day after at a swanky hotel, watched by the whole country in their living rooms.

All of the spectators were whining away to the music enjoying themselves, and from the safety of our paid-for seats we could see randomers being attacked with the dreaded foam spray in the crowds. As we were going to leave I bumped into some of the other assistants for the British Council who are working in Barranquilla which was a nice surprise – I hadn’t seen them since the week that we had arrived!

We went home to wash off the sweat and spray and went out on a mission for ice cream. Considering that Cartagena is a beach city, it was surprising how difficult it was to find an Heladeria that sold ice cream, and we wound up in a very swish bar where the ice cream cost an arm and a leg, but we decided it was worth the sacrifice.

As we were ordering, a gentleman on the next table interrupted us to ask the waitress something and I got a bit narked because I thought it was really rude. He apologized and I aired him, but later when we were asking drinks prices the waitress told us not to worry, as the gentleman had said he was going to cover our tab. The three of them came over and apologized to us, and invited us to join them. We rejected their offer initially, but they won us over with a bit of charm and we sat outside and shared virgin cocktails and fancy food. It was a really fun night and the atmosphere was very relaxed, so we went onto a club later on. Not being from Cartagena, my friend and I would never have found this place, it was very exclusive and full of the “It” people who were in town for the carnival. We were definitely not dressed for the venue, but it didn’t really matter, we were dancing away in our flats and watching all of the interesting people. Finally we left the guys to do what they needed to do and made our way back to the hostel, having had an incredibly fun and spontaneous night.

The next day we were due to get our plane and we arrived on time, but somehow managed to miss the flight whilst waiting in the waiting room. It was a bit of a nightmare and we had to pay a bomb to get new flights. As you can imagine, being the impatient person that I am, I wasn’t very pleased. But I think God was trying to balance out all of the good luck that we had had throughout the weekend! Luckily my fairy-grandmother in the UK came to the rescue, and we managed to get flights that were to leave in the evening, as I had to be at work at 9am the next day. We ended up having one of those deep conversations where you really get to know the other person and what events have shaped their lives, so I would say that it wasn’t all bad. At one point we were sitting outside the airport with our bags and I was joking out loud to passers by that I had spent all of my money on my flight home, that my mum was in another country and that I really wanted an arepa (a typical Colombian pancake/bread). One man actually stopped and forked out 3000 pesos (about one pound) so that I could by one. (Remember what I told you about people from Cartagena!?) My friend and I were killing ourselves laughing and we spent the rest of the day in fits of giggles, lamenting our bad luck and joking with each other. The only moment we got a bit serious was when we had to catch our flight, because we didn’t want to miss another one, and I don’t think I could have found enough Costeños to fund a third ticket before 9am the next day!