Ryan Colombia, 2011
The weather-beaten, wooden-bottomed cage hung over the river. It looked like a telephone booth with its glass punched out. A thin strip of metal ran around three of its sides at waist level, precariously open on its fourth. I had vertigo as soon as I stepped onto it. The cage hung by a cable over a river that I could only make out by noise and white froth. It was near dark and overcast. Weeks of rain had gathered here, cutting down the mountainside from streams into rivers. The roar of the river was unbelievably loud. We were a hundred feet up the cliff side, and about to cross.
We’d spent four days in the jungle, avoiding every potential form of exhaustion, fall, and bite. I truly didn’t know what I’d signed up for. On day one, I was perched on the back of the mule, way up in the mountains on a narrow ridge. The ground was cracked and creviced. The guide prodded along the beast, encouraging me to turn off my headlamp as we approached a river. Do what, now? It sees better in the dark, he told me. Calf-deep in water, I shut my eyes and clung to the saddle horn, not sure if my mule was walking or swimming. Somehow we made it across.
Days two and three had taken us over beautiful terrain as we hiked up and down four mountains littered with groves of banana trees, sugar cane, indigenous corn, cacao trees, and coffee plants.We stumble-stepped across rivers, ate rice and beans, and slept like the dead. I passed a night in a hammock for the first time. We saw tarantulas whose webs glistened in the sun, frogs of varied color,and butterflies you wouldn’t recognize. Our guides were a trio of native-born Colombians. In fact, Indio, Ali, and Malagi owned a coffee plantation on some of the very land we crossed. But they were urban campesinos in comparison to the true inhabitants of the jungle, the Kogui indians.
The rewarding payoff for our trek was the ruins of their ancestors, a stunning group of rock circles and huts stretched over the entire side of a mountain. Something like arriving at Machu Picchu,the guides told us. But the image I’ll always carry in my memory was ascending that same mountain crest on day five, making our way out of the jungle, when we crossed paths with a small indigenous family. They had paused by a hut, one powered by a generator where its owners sold food staples to plantation workers.
The Kogui parents were there for provisions, and their young daughter waited by herself on top of her burro. Her brown eyes, skin, and hair shone against the cream canvas beige of her dress. She couldn’t have been more than three, but looked completely at ease a mile off the ground—in more ways than one—as we clop-clopped-clopped in front, around, and behind her. With the valleys and clouds as her backdrop, the result was cinematic. We had just panned ten feet around a native child and stepped a thousand years back in time.
Bogotá, in contrast, is Colombia’s bustling capital city of 8 million people. It’s on a plateau called the llanas of the Northern Andes Mountain Range. There are buses, taxis, and people everywhere.Smog runs rampant and it rained every single day of my early December visit. I was received by a kindly single mother and her two sons, one of whom is about my age. Gonzalo was the point person my whole month in Colombia, and had arranged for my stays with each of nine different people/families. He led me on a highly energized tour of the city, from cafes and shopping malls to restaurants and clubs, from botanical gardens and museums to college campuses and parks. Pounding dance music was our soundtrack.
I spent the next four days with a lively little man with a crown of white hair over a tanned head. Octavio told me he’d be turning 80 next month, but his age was no more an indication of his boundless energy than his tiny stature. He stood five-foot-few, smiled widely, spoke pitch-perfect English, and strode with purpose everywhere he went. He had a booming deep voice, a former professor in every way. In four days’ time he had introduced me to his entire region.
Octavio was a teacher. He taught me about the nuances of Colombian history, fed me its food and told me about its origins, pointed out the dialects and temperaments of the people of its 32 departamentos, explored with me far and wide, and generally made me laugh. He was a relentless flirt who was not the least bit deterred by the fifty-year age difference he had with the pretty brunettes he teased or the blonds he chatted up.
We took long drives and stopped the car to let wandering ganado cebu pass. They’re floppy-eared cattle with long drapes of skin for necks. (You’ve got to Google these things. They’re like the Shar Peis of livestock.) One day, he said he had a surprise for me and took me to an after-school group that he met with weekly. It was a ping-pong club, for kids! He also volunteered to give English lessons to the children of the gypsy stall workers at the local market. All the while, Octavio treated me with grace and kindness. It came as no surprise to learn that he was Cornell-educated, had traveled the States, and was the founder of Servas in Colombia.
Yes, Medellín is synonymous with Pablo Escobar and his drug cartel, but it is also one of the most picturesque cities I can imagine. The airport is on the far outskirts of town and requires you to slowly circle and descend into a broad valley of shimmering lights. Its features are three-dimensional, as its neighborhoods roll over hills and up into the mountains. Almost every bit of the city is covered by some form of white-walled, red-roofed building , tropical tree, or attractive high-rise. And its patron sculptor, Fernando Botero, looms large. His girthy statues—fat babies, fat birds, fat horses, fat fruit—are impossible to miss. The entire city center is dedicated to him and his work.
The holidays were approaching without so much as a sleighbell, and following a domestic flight, I slowed down the pace of my travel by riding a bus to better take in the countryside. I headed north for a dozen hours, toward the sea, and the humidity became real. I’d be spending my first tropical Christmas in 90-degree heat. My host was a young park ranger who managed portions of Tayrona National Park, an incredible beach/jungle/mountain reserve. He helped me settle in his one-room apartment while he packed his kit.
“You’re leaving?” I asked. I was stunned. It was Christmas Eve.
“Yeah,” he replied, “my work in the park doesn’t stop for the holidays.”
Dejected and more alone than I’d been yet on a trip filled with dozens of new friends, I wandered the little beachfront community. I came across a Pentecostal church that made me think of home. Most Christmas Eves for the past few decades, our family has gathered for a candle-light service in our Presbyterian church. I thought, “Why not?” and went inside. A friendly man invited me back for the nighttime service, but said I should first meet his family.
As it turned out, my one-room apartment adjoined their house! My park ranger host was their renter. I was incredulous as they guided me from hand to hand, meeting each and every member of the family: infants, children, teens, parents, cousins, aunts, and uncles. And then I met the matron. Josefa, I found out, is a 70-something mother of 11, grandmother of 45, and great-grandmother to even more. Her humble house with concrete floors and plastic chairs serves as the hive for the whole family, who buzz in and out throughout the day and night. I was adopted immediately.
I grew especially close to her daughter, a beautiful young teacher named Melissa, Melissa’s sister Jacqueline, and their friend Pibe. We pulled up chairs, passed around orange soda and animal crackers, and chatted into the night. They wanted to know all about me, where I was from, what America is like, why I wasn’t married yet, and what I hoped to do with my life? Once, while I was grumbling good-naturedly about being on the beach and not yet having tried a coconut, Pibe jumped from his seat, climbed a tree behind the house, and put one with a straw in my hands before I could protest. I spent a happy Christmas and three more days in their company.
The beach at Santa Marta horseshoed around the sea for a good half-mile. Behind it rose mountains which made way to thick jungle. We’d be hiking in them that week to the ruins of the Kogui people, a stunning group of rock circles and huts stretched over the side of a mountain. Something like arriving at Machu Picchu, the guides told us. It was the last leg of my trip and would appropriately be the most dramatic setting. The evening before our group left, it was dusk and lightly misting. Little skiffs buoyed just off-shore and a huge rainbow hung over the mountains. Young black children, some of the first I’d seen in Colombia, carried lines of fish over their shoulders as they made their way back home. This was the Caribbean.
Oh, no! I did it again. I gushed. I promised myself I wouldn’t. As difficult as travel so often is, I tend to remember my experiences through tinted glasses. I recall the good times and ignore the bad. My storytelling is complimentary, maybe starry-eyed. I don’t tell people about the constant spectacle my friends and I were in Japan, the way people stared at us on the street. For a whole year, wewere a carnival act, gaijin, simply because of our white skin and blue eyes. Sometimes I wanted to shrink into the shadows.
I don’t write about the money stolen from me in Morocco, the foot fungus shared with me in Korea, the motorcycle ride that nearly killed me in Taiwan, or the moral dilemma I faced at a conference in Thailand. I’d gotten desperately sick and vomited for hours on end. Afterward, I went to our resort’s massage room, just wanting to heal my aching muscles and, midway through, was offered sexual services for a price. Saying no that day meant saying no not just to my own libido, but to the exploitation and often forced prostitution of literally millions of young Thai women around the country.
My family doesn’t know about the verbal thrashing I got at the hands of a hugely muscled guy when visiting a gym in Mexico. I was an intruder, a foreigner, and didn’t belong there. I know because he told me so. My friends don’t know about the shame I felt at arriving in Spain, having a poor command of Castilian Spanish and not dressed nearly as well as my colleagues, a place where scarves and a fashion sense are seen as birthrights.
The reality is, travel is hard. It’s hard to do and sometimes even harder to see. Colombia has been my hardest trip yet. I spent months reading about the way the drug trade, most specifically cocaine, ravaged the country from the inside out throughout the late 20th century. People became prisoners inside their own homes. Murders happened routinely on the street. Good cops were killed and bent cops walked free.
I watched Maria Full of Grace, a drama focused on the young girls who act as mules, ferrying drugs on planes in the safest and least safe way possible, inside their own bodies. This, so often, to feed the ever-growing American appetite for soft and hard drugs. I read with horror Out of Captivity, the story of three American contractors surveilling against the drug traders—Tom Howes, Marc Gonsalves, and Keith Stansell—whose plane crashed and were captured by the FARC. The far-left guerilla group kept them hostage in the jungle for over five years while their families waited desperately for each next prueba de vida (proof of being alive).
In Colombia, the historically-largest trading partner of the U.S. in South America and one of our best allies, family owned farms have routinely been undercut in price and forced into buyouts by powerful companies. Infrastructure is crumbling. Rebel groups still live, and capture, and kill. Coffee and chocolate growers export nearly all their best products, because it’s better to have money to eat than to eat your only source of income. Girls de-thorn roses for pesos. Poverty claims huge swaths of Bogotá, Cali, and Medellín, and the outlying countryside. Then I met the desperation for myself.
Remember Jacqueline? The last night of my stay in Colombia, while in her mother Josefa’s house, she asked me a favor. She asked if I could deliver a letter from her son to her husband, who was in the United States. I thought she meant by mail.
“Of course,” I answered. “Where is he?”
“In Virginia,” she said, “in federal prison.”
Her husband, like so many others, was a poorly paid police officer who had tried to escape poverty by digging a deeper debt. He’d become involved in the cocaine trade, been caught, and was extradited to the U.S. During the following years in his cell he’d reformed, found Jesus, and become a completely new man. Jacqueline’s teenaged son wanted to write his dad a letter, tell him he missed him, and have me hand-deliver the note. She thought it would mean something for a friend in common, who had just hugged her, to pass that hug along to a man she loved in a place very far away. Her innocence in thinking I could make the short drive from Illinois to Virginia some weekend afternoon made the request that much more touching.
I asked myself, can I judge a man who was trying to help his family survive, even though he did wrong? Have I ever been in a position where I had to decide between bread and the law? The thing is, I know the obscene amount of privilege I’m afforded for being an American, male, white, and educated. I’ve been given deference, money, and influence where it hasn’t always been earned. But if I truly understand what that means, and the inherent disfavor it causes others, it obliges me to fight on their behalf.
Awareness is just the start. I think equality means seeing the common humanity in everyone and then working incredibly hard to make that “worth” real. When I’m invited into a Colombian’shome, I don’t want to be seated in the best seat and waited upon. I want to serve them. We all have the capacity, as the young founder of two kindergartens in Vietnam said, to serve others and “make a dent in the universe.”
I was the recipient of the 2011 Servas Youth Language Experience, or SYLE, a four-plus week immersion program in another language and culture. It took me to a place I never imagined I’d visit, and left me with impressions I’ll never forget. My very grateful thanks goes to the U.S. Servas Board for their support, Youth Coordinator Heather Mason for all of her help, Heather’s counterpart in Colombia, Gonzalo Forero, and Dennis Mogerman, who gifted me the very first Mogerman Scholarship. (Two scholarships are available in 2012!) I can’t recommend the program highly enough to the young and young at heart. It’ll change you. Find out more at usservas.org.