Monday, July 11, 2016

Expression in Colombia

Colombia is not what I expected. I suppose I had expected some fusion of Mexico, Spain, and Costa Rica; the three spanish speaking countries I’ve travelled to before now. When I first arrived here, I was far too exhausted to notice anything and just barely managed to squeak out enough words in spanish to get through customs and into a taxi with the host of my airbnb (thank you, modern world).  After being handed six keys to get in or out of my apartment, I collapsed for a night’s sleep.  What greeted me the next morning was a sight of beautiful mountains and apartments leading up into the hills. I was a little taken back as I had expected it to look somewhat more refined, more like the careful masonry of Spain or the parts of northern Mexico I used to frequent when I was much younger.
What really shocked me was the razor wire. My exceptionally kind host escorted me around the city and I tried not to stare at pieces of trash, high steel fences surrounding all the apartments, and graffiti everywhere I could see. While I realize that the broken window theory is mostly debunked at this point, it is still exceptionally unnerving. To add to all this, while I speak spanish fairly well with a single person and can read it, the conversations that were whirling around me were far too much to keep up with. I felt surrounded by a foreign world and began to ask myself what I had gotten into, I mean I wanted to help people, but this was a pretty crazy place to live alone.
I’m not alone per say, as I’m sharing an apartment with my host and his mother. But between them they do not speak much English and it can be exhausting to constantly try to think and converse in another language. My host, Mao, is very amiable and swings by my little room asking if I need anything or want to go with him to get coffee. His mother even gave me an impromptu geography and history lesson about Colombia which nearly blew my socks off. I consider myself fairly educated for an American and I still had managed to forget that Brazil and Colombia share a border. Stupid Mercator projection making me forget just how huge South America is.
I got to meet the people that I will be working with for the next six weeks on my first day in Colombia. After walking past huge fences and lots of razor wire (still shocks me a little), I finally stumbled upon the building. The group I’m working with, C-innova, share a space called Lab1 which is squished in between several stores and apartment buildings. It stands out to put it mildly.

C-innova and Lab1
Yes, the yellow building here is Lab1. During lunch one day I asked one of my hosts (coworkers?),Johanna, what the fences and graffiti were about since I found them so surprising. The fences were because there was a specific type of robber who specializes in apartments and if there is an easy means of egress or ingress then the apartment or building is a prime target (hence my six keys to get to my room). The graffiti however was nothing to worry over since rather than a person or group staking territory, it was more of a form of self expression. At first, I didn’t really understand this idea.  I decided it would be fun to walk to the National Museum of Colombia, especially since the first Saturday of the month was free. On my walk I saw some truly stunning graffiti, telling stories, announcements (including one for a movie), and opinions.
Man playing dominoes in La Candeleria
After having spent most of my last few days barely speaking for fear of messing up, I began to understand the incredible quantity of graffiti. When you’re forced to close your doors, add razor wire or broken glass to the tops of your walls and cannot afford nor care to appear too wealthy, street art makes sense. Expression is something that humans crave and Bogota has found its calling. There are even tours for just the graffiti which are, of course, conducted in English.
When I was back in Dallas, I was forced onto the skytran along with a few other unwilling passengers (I mean, what’s so wrong with wanting to take a walk?!). I heard a couple of people speaking spanish. I wondered if they felt ostracized and after working up my courage asked them in spanish where they were headed and if they had watched the Copa America tournament. They exuded joy it seemed at not being so isolated in a country where we are being told by certain groups to despise foreignness, and especially that they could just speak.
We talked about the various performances and lamented about the rumours that Messi would no longer play for Argentina (please Messi, don’t do bring joy to the world by playing as marvelously as you do). We wished each other good luck to our various destinations, them to San Salvador and me to Bogota. Filled with a good will for humanity I watched a stranger’s bags while she went to the bathroom regardless of the loudspeaker blaring that I shouldn’t. I was rebelling in a place that forced me to remove almost everything I was using as expression and stand nearly naked whenever called upon to do so, a place where I had to walk where told and sit like a good puppy and not say the wrong words or act outside the norm.

So if I lived in Colombia, I’d probably cover my overly large walls and gates with beautiful paint as well. I admired that they didn’t have perfectly manicured lawns leading to the exact same house with the exact same cars and the exact same suits walking out each morning at exactly the same time. We all need a way to express ourselves, and street art like this, seems like a great way to do so. My Costa Rican friends would say “Pura Vida” about the art which roughly translates to "pure life" but really means "cool"(What a fantastic expression!). The Colombians would say “Es Chevere.” Hasta la proxima semana chicos.

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