Wet greetings from Colombia! Yes, it is the wet season here and temperatures have recently dropped a bit. I only have to put the fan on occasionally at night now, but still need it during the day. During this time of the year, clothes take a couple of days or more to dry under cover and although they are clean, a musty smell remains.
There have been changes at the school with two teachers resigning in recent weeks. Adriana is one and she has been here for sixteen years. Her experience is being missed already. She was offered a position the day after leaving here, that paid three times the salary she was receiving here with much more flexibility.
The two girls from Denmark, who have been here as volunteers since January, will leave in one week. I will miss them for many reasons. They speak English very well and are fairly fluent in Spanish which was a major asset in the classes we taught together. In some classes, there were three of us working together as many students require one on one help. Apart from working together in the English classes, the girls had a great sense of humour, and we had a lot of laughs together. When they leave, I will have no one here who speaks English and that is going to be difficult. I expect to feel very isolated. I have picked up some Spanish but not enough to be able to have a decent conversation with anyone.
I have been doing some after hours English lessons with an ex student and the English teacher who is also an ex student. It is good to be able to help with people who really want to learn. Not all of the indigenous children want to learn. Some only started their education when they were 12 years old and previously had a somewhat undisciplined upbringing so they have never learnt to study. These children need a lot of one on one help to overcome their shyness and build up confidence and trust. Many children come from displaced communities which have suffered a lot and carry painful emotional scars. We do have a permanent psychologist on the staff who meets with each child on a regular basis to address their particular needs.
In this area there is an increasing number of refugees to be seen walking along the roads. Small family groups of adults and children of various ages carrying all their possessions in plastic garbage bags. I saw one larger group who had set up a makeshift camp on a steep river bank near a bridge. They set up clothes lines and on the road, there were vendors selling coffee and bread.
Two weeks ago, I was in a taxi in Bogota. When we were stationary at traffic lights a man was walking down the line of cars and placing a few banknotes on the dash and when the traffic started to move off he collected the bank notes. I was a bit puzzled by this and was wondering what sort of scam it was. It turns out that the man was from Venezuela and was placing some of his countries banknotes on the dash hoping to get a few Colombian pesos in exchange. But because of rampant inflation in Venezuela, the currency has no value.
Last week I travelled to Monteria in the North and also spent a couple of days at Santa Fe de Ralito. This has been a troubled place in Colombia. One of the tactics used by the criminal gangs is to give cell phones to teenagers on condition that they report movement of vehicles in a controlled area. So we had to travel in a vehicle that carried a known number plate to minimum risks to us.
Until a few years ago this area was under the complete control of the para military. The second most powerful man in the para military was Salvatore Mancuso and is currently serving time in prison in the USA. We passed his house and his helipad. Although the para military has been demobilised and many of the commanders have been imprisoned, there remains an undercurrent of fear in these communities as some of the demobilised para military have rearmed themselves and formed loose criminal gangs to carry on with their activities.
Google “Salvatore Mancuso” to give you some idea of the power he was able to wield. The founder of Open Doors, brother Andrew was here in 2002 and was flown by Mancuro’ s helicopter from Bogota to take part in the demobilisation process and peace talks. He was invited to return the following year but due to ill health he sent another person instead. This replacement attended the meeting but as it was running a bit late, he announced that he had to get back to Bogota to catch his international flight back home. Mancuso told him to wait a moment while he made a couple of phone calls. He returned a few minutes later and said his flight would not leave without him and he should stay to continue the meeting.
The para military had established a hospital in the area that had top class surgeons on the payroll. In fact the medical treatment available was better than what was available in the public hospital in Monteria and, if you had the right connection, you could travel here for surgery.
On a drive around the city of Monteria, we travelled through an exclusive area with lavish housing. I asked if robbery was a problem in this neighbourhood. With a bit of a chuckle I was told “absolutely not,” as many of the drug cartel leaders lived there and if you stole anything from them it would be your last theft!
I have attached some photos from the area of Santa Fe de Ralìto. A typical home with palm front roof dirt floor is at the top. One with rice hanging under the ceiling ready to be pounded and cooked on the clay stove is below. And a picture of the usual transport around here – typically burros or motor cycles.
It seems to me if you were born in a western nation, we ought to often thank God for the place we were born. Do we ever consider how lucky we are as westerners? Even the poorest person in our country, is rich compared to the rest of the world, with welfare for people with little or no income and medical help for all who need it. Of course life is not simply about money. Many people from poorer nations could teach us lots about living life to the full – even without many of the things we take for granted. So wouldn’t it be great if we took that lesson, and decided to use our “wealth” to make a difference in our world.