Hi indie volunteers!
I’m back in New York City after a harrowing end to my experience in Colombia, Panamá, and Ecuador – while busing it from Bogotá to Quito, one of the bus drivers fell asleep and we veered off the road and crashed into the mountains at 5 am. I woke up thinking, my poor mother will find her daughter dead in a fiery explosion in the south of Colombia after she had just written a blog post about traveling safely alone! Luckily, the bus didn’t explode. The bus crashed against its front left side, and the engine/generator was in the back, thus evading the possibility of internal combustion and us going up in flames. However, this incident has led me to re-evaluate my budget-pinching tendencies, for the cheapest buses in South America can be the most dangerous. They did not staff my bus with enough bus drivers for the long journey (14h from Cali to Ipiales) nor did radio-ing the company bring technicians or nurses. We waited for an hour up in the mountains for other buses to come and rescue us! Did I mention that the bus crashed against the mountains only 5 seconds before the weak railing separating the road from a steep cliff? The thought of waking up while falling off the mountaintop on a bus really sobered me. On the way back to Bogotá, with a lot more apprehension, I rode with Expreso Bolivariano, which is only 5.000 pesos more expensive than its competitors (about $3.00USD) and with a much more satisfying safety roster. So, when you’re already cheapin’ it by taking buses, choose the most reputable company, which is normally the most expensive one. It will be worth it.
I’m extremely grateful for my trip to Colombia, Panamá, and Ecuador. I never would have imagined partaking in such diverse activities, having the experiencies that I did, nor learning so much. I studied French at Alianza Francesa in Cartagena, where I learned that the administration/other students’ level of French is horrible in smaller cities, and lived with my friend’s family for two months there while doing so. Living with the Castros in Getsemaní taught me so much; I had never been part of a large family before. The lack of privacy, the constant noise, and the compromises that they make on a daily basis impressed me. I slept in the same bed as Flor, the older sister in the family who had invited me in. I believe that it’s all worth it, though, because the family has strong relationships and a great deal of affection for one another. Loneliness was not a concept that presented itself to me in Cartagena. I felt incredibly empty after I left to go to Carnaval in Barranquilla. We had a teary goodbye, and exchanged hopes to see each other in the future..
Barranquilla shocked me even more than leaving the Castros in Cartagena. It is an overwhelmingly vast and industrial city, one that you cannot manage without a car, and one that you cannot even hope to truly discover in several days. I felt as if I was in Los Angeles, although I may be unfairly using Los Angeles as the emblem of all large cities without a strong vibe or essence. Carnaval was an incredible experience, however. I danced my heart out and learned how to party tirelessly like a Colombian – always the whole night through, never make excuses! I went to Taganga afterwards to detox and then to Panamá to visit a friend who works in the Red Cross there. It was eye-opening to tour the Ciudad del Saber, aka white humanitarian SUV land, and to discuss the politics of international aid with my friend. We don’t see eye to eye on the issue of NGO transparency/efficacy, and it’ll be interesting to see the research of another friend come out, who is studying the transparency/efficacy of this very Red Cross for her master’s thesis! 🙂
I flew to Bogotá afterwards with the intention of leaving almost immediately, por tierra, to visit my host family in Ecuador. However, I got along incredibly well with a friend’s friend who was hosting me, and her friends were all similarly intelligent and interesting. I passed a phenomenal weekend with them, full of dancing and celebration. Bogotá is an amazing place with great people, despite its mordor. When the sun comes out, watch out, because you can lose your heart there. Nevertheless, I needed to leave and so I set out on the long trip to Armenia. There, I couchsurfed with two Colombian girls who live on a small farm in Tebaida. They shared their knowledge of the Mayan calendar and their huerta with me, and I in turn, happily consumed all of the fresh-from-the-farm meals they cooked me. No, but all jesting aside, I brought them news of the coast and of Bogotá… of the outside world. They don’t get to travel that much, with all the work on the farm.
The emotional crux of my trip was returning to my family in Ecuador. Despite the aforementioned bus crash and some attack of spiders or mosquitoes who had decided to sleep with me one night, I arrived safely to Quito and received an emotional welcome from the family that I haven’t seen in 3 years and consider as my own. We spent two weeks together, cooking, chatting, eating, commuting… jaja. They live in a neighborhood far from central Quito in a small house, but they are the most generous people that I have ever met in my entire life. Moreover, I connect deeply with their take on life. My family loves the arts and culture. One of my sisters is studying to be a chef and the other hopes to be a ballerina. They are basically the two halves of myself. Some of the highlights of this trip was tasting the miraculous mermelada de achiote from my sister who is studying to be a chef, and then taking a literature & orthography class at her university. I made friends with her professor, and it added a whole other dimension to my trip. I am now more sure than ever that I will focus on linguistic anthropology and delve into Spanish & French literature more often; language is one of the grand loves of my life.
It was interesting to see how some things change and how others don’t when I was with my family in Quito. In the last three years since I had seen them, I had really changed. I didn’t speak such great Spanish straight out of high school. I was a lot more inexperienced about the
world. I didn’t know anything about what I wanted to do in university nor outside of it. I used to be Christian. Now, I might as well be a completely different person, what with my obnoxious self-satisfaction about being an anthropologist, my goals to work for the rights and development of girls and women, my near-fluency in Spanish and French, and my more open spiritual view that God is inside each one of us. However, I learned that family is family. I really struck the lottery when I met my family on the line to that ballet, because they still love me just as I am, and care about me more than ever. If I had to pick one lesson that I learned from this entire trip, it would be the importance of family. I come from a rather small and very broken family, so family is a precious thing for me. Every single experience that I’ve had in Colombia and in Ecuador with other families has strengthened my belief in the power and in the love of families. That there can be healthy, whole, nurturing families with functioning marriages out there. They exist, and I know them, I lived with them.
A book that I’m reading right now, called Antropologia de la Pobreza (yes, I read in Spanish!) recognizes the social and political significance of families as well. The anthropologist-author Oscar Lewis, explains why he chose to study the anthropology of poverty looking at just 5 families in Mexico: “Como la familia es un sistema social pequeño se presta por sí mismo a la consabida vía antropológica… al discribir a una familia vemos a sus individuos conforme viven y trabajan juntos, en lugar de verlos como promedios o esterotipos implícitos en los informes sobre patrones culturales… Los estudios de familias salvan la brecha entre los extremos conceptuales de la cultura por un polo y el individuo por el otro; nosotros completamos ambos, la cultura y la personalidad, conforme se interrelacionan en la vida real” (Lewis 18). Basically, the family is a small social system and that we see that individuals conform when they live and work together when we observe a family, instead of seeing them as implied averages or stereotypes in cultural patterns. The study of families bridge extreme cultural concepts from one pole and one individual to another; we complete both, because culture and personality interact in real life.
Fascinating stuff! I highly recommend this book. And a cultural homestay with another family, if you have the opportunity.
A note to the reorganization of this blog: I was inspired by a blog that is a very useful resource for artists, scholars, and writers: Mira’s List provides lists of grants, scholarships and retreats and is organized by keyword and provides lists and links directly in her blog posts. Since most people may not want to use my blog just to click on the Volunteer Resource Database to go to another website to browse through volunteer opportunities, I believe that I will most write blog posts in the future about specific NGOs that accept volunteers and do not charge them. This will be the most visible and perhaps effective way of spreading information about a NGO on this blog. Thank you, Mira’s List! If you have time, check out her blog. It makes me want to write a novel just so that I can apply for a residency in a castle in Italy 🙂