Thank You!

Today is our last day in Colombia. And this is our final blog post.

Today we’ll finish packing (once all our laundry dries – of all the days to start out cloudy in Medellin), take a jog here on our mile, say a few last goodbyes, and try to send out a draft of an article we’ve been working on (we’ll let you know if it gets published so you can read it :)). But before all that gets started, we wanted to take a minute to thank you for reading.

As we said when we started this blog, we did it for us. It was a way for us to remember all the fun, hard work and ridiculousness we would encounter here in Colombia. It gave us a space to think and recount, and readership by family and friends was a bonus. But as time went by, you turned the tables on us. We started getting comments and emails from many of you, and learned of others silently but devotedly following along, and it made us, well, really happy. Because the hardest thing about being here, hands down, has been not having our friends and family around. (Jim and Pam from The Office were a decent substitute for a while, but they generally only wanted to hang out for about 22 or 44 minutes.)

So we started writing not just for our record, but because we knew you were reading. Some of you, we knew, even worried when we hadn’t posted for a while. And that felt good. It made us feel less disconnected, and like when we get back (tomorrow!) we will have less work to do to share an understanding of what this journey has been like for us, and instead many more stories to laugh about with others who remember them. Thank you for making that possible. We’re excited to see you all soon!

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Last Days in the Campo

I just wrote an entire blog post that got erased, so I will make this second attempt short and sweet.

Last night we arrived from our last trip out to the countryside, where we said goodbyes, thanked people for their help with the research, and gave the municipal governments the raw data we have collected. The trip was bittersweet. Here are a few lowlights and highlights:

Lowlights

1. Getting stood up in Rionegro. This incident was reminiscent of our first months in Colombia. I suppose everything comes full circle. Here is a picture of our view while we waited and waited…

Rionegro

2. Getting car sick from all the curves on the drive into San Carlos.

3. Having to pee on the side of a rural road with only the car door to hide me (really!?).

4. Waking up at 4:00am on Thursday to the sound of a blender and what appeared to be the preparation of an elaborate meal (it was Gloria’s boyfriend preparing food for an early day of construction work).

Highlights

1. Falling asleep to the rain in San Carlos

2. Saying goodbye to Gloria and spending our last night talking about ghosts and how she used to raise bees and sell honey before the conflict. She was musing about going back to the finca and starting up the business again, but that she needed to find a helper who wasn’t afraid of getting stung.

3. Saying goodbye to Gallego and his adorable son.

4. The beautifully blue and cloudy sky on the day we drove home from the countryside.

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clouds

ps. Time to pack!  Yay!

 

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The Final Countdown

Go ahead and let the song play while you read this post. I let it play while I wrote it.

Sorry we’ve been out of touch. Casey’s dad and stepmom came to visit for the past week. We saw the sights here in Medellin, and went to Cartagena. It was all great, and wonderful to spend some time with them.

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The owner of our hotel in Cartagena had us pose for this photo. More importantly, he told the construction crew doing his remodeling not to start before 10 a.m. while we were there!

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No explanation needed. (Alright fine – these masks were part of an exhibit at the Botero museum.)

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Case and I snuck off for a private sunset drink in Cartagena. What a beautiful wife I have 🙂

Also, as an added perk of their visit – and as we’d long ago polished off what Caitlin brought us – they brought us another jar of peanut butter, which should get us through to the end of the trip. Because yes, we fly back to the US in nine days. That’s right, we’re into single digits. We have a bajillion things to do between now and then, including what we’re calling our farewell tour in the campo. On that trip we’ll give the people we’ve been working with in the municipalities all the data we’ve collected, organized and mapped. And we’ll say our goodbyes and thank yous, and give and receive some hugs. We’re sure it will be bittersweet.

And then we’ll pack up everything, say goodbyes to our few friends here in Medellin, and head home. We’ll try to drop an update before we actually depart. In the meanwhile, please send us some good vibes for the final days.

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Good Stuff Going On

Last weekend Case and I went back to Granada, one of the municipalities we’re researching. We attended a meeting with a group writing the historic memory of the conflict in the town, and we also met again with the group that wants to attend Casey’s dissertation defense in Madison next year (we estimated costs, and they still want to come!). 

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Saturday in Granada is when the farmers ride the chivas to the town centers to sell their produce.

 

But the event that was actually the most interesting was a public conversation on peace. It featured the Peace Minister of Antioquia (the state we’re in) talking with the rector of one of the universities in Medellin. The minister was passionate about the topic, encouraging the youth in the audience to own the peace process and bring conversation about it home to their families and community. He also had some interesting insight about what would happen to the FARC if they sign peace accords with the government, saying essentially that the guerrillas will negotiate their own freedom from punishment before they lay down arms. 

“There won’t be a parade of guerrillas going to jail,” he said. “That’s impossible because by that route there is no peace.”

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Antioquia’s Peace Minister, Ivan Marulanda, addresses a crowd of about 100 people, mostly youths.

The event was hosted by one of the groups we’ve interviewed, Granada Siempre Nuestra (Granda Always Ours) in celebration of their 21st anniversary. It’s a group run by people from Granada who have left for Medellin, but want to help Granada continue to progress. They’ve helped displaced people return to their farms, and now they offer education programs for the youth in the municipality. They also offer to help students pay for college in exchange for the student then returning to Granada to put their education to use locally. It’s one of our favorite organizations, run by great people, and doing wonderful work.

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Above the internal courtyard at Granada Siempre Nuestra. Such a nice place.

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Us selfie-ing in the courtyard.

 

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The Other Side of the Story

Today, Jake and I spent the morning interviewing demobilized combatants.  “Nothing more relaxing on a Sunday morning than talking to the FARC,” as Jake likes to say (jokingly). 

Over the past few months, we have interviewed a total of 10 demobilized combatants (two from Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN), four from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and four from the Paramilitary).  To give context, all ten of these interviews were with people who had voluntarily demobilized, but each group has a distinct role in the conflict and a unique relationship with the Colombian government.  The Paramilitaries participated in a collective demobilization process organized by the Colombian government between 2003 and 2005, while those who have demobilized from the FARC and ELN have done so individually, as these armed groups are still operating in many areas of Colombia (don’t worry, we don’t hang out in these areas, nor take our visitors there).  The FARC is currently in negotiations with the Colombian government in Havana, Cuba and there are rumors that the ELN will open its own peace process sometime very soon.

Anyways, a question we ask during the interview is the following:  “Why did you decide to join an armed group?”

We have received a variety of answers, many of which are complex and sad (and often challenge the label I have in my head of the interviewee as “victimizer” or “bad guy/girl”).  For example, one girl explained that she had joined the ELN after being sexually abused by her own father, trying to escape him, and running away to a nearby city at 17 only to have him force her to go back at home.  At 19 she had the opportunity to join a group that could protect her from her father and she spent the next 6 years living in the Colombian jungle, with a group of other ELN combatants who “became her family” and a commander who she describes as “the father she never had.”  She said she learned to use a computer while living in the jungle.  

A few weeks ago we interviewed an ex-combatant who had joined a paramilitary group when he was 12, after being denied entry for two years.  He was young, didn’t see any economic opportunities or any other ways to help his family and so he joined the group.  Can you imagine making that type of decision at that age? 

Finally, a young man we interviewed today joined the FARC after nearly his entire family (8 brothers and his father) was killed in a massacre 15 years ago by the Colombian army.  They were farmers, living off the land, growing corn, yucca, and coffee, not involved in the conflict.   The army accused them of being part of the FARC front that operated in the area. The soldiers then dressed the bodies of his loved ones in camouflage and presented as fallen FARC combatants so the soldiers could earn rewards such as vacation time.  (This was a tactic that army members used in the area we research, as they had quotas of FARC combatants they needed to capture or kill.  This “false positives” occurred on a systematic level, it is one of the most horrible human rights abuses of the Colombian conflict in my opinion).  The irony in this case is that the incident prompted the young man we interviewed and his brother to join the FARC because they had no family left and nowhere to go. 

Other people we have interviewed simply joined an armed group because “they didn’t have any other way to pay for their children’s notebooks for school” or any means “to put breakfast on the table for their family.”  Only two answered that they liked the “adrenaline” of using guns. One had previously operated in Escobar’s gangs here in Medellin and the other had done two years of military training with the Colombian army (but wasn’t allowed into ranks after their training).  Both looked for “career” opportunities with the paramilitaries that would use skills that they had learned previously and give them a living wage.

The stories we hear are not those of terrible people, and after hearing them, I often ask myself if I would have done the same in their situations. The complex stories also emphasize an argument that will hopefully come through in my dissertation – that the Colombian conflict is not a war between the “good guys” and the “bad guys,” but rather that there are structural conditions such as severe economic inequality (one of the highest in Latin America) and political exclusion, which incentivize people on both sides to take up arms.  While negotiated peace accords may be necessary for Colombia to achieve lasting peace, the structural conditions that caused the conflict in the first place also have to be addressed. 

Another relaxing weekend here in Colombia :).

 

 

 

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We just finished “The Office.” Again.

We watched season nine when we first got to Colombia. Then, because Case had never seen the rest of the seasons, we decided to start from the beginning. The show has carried us through much of our trip, like good friends. Now that it’s over, we kinda feel like this:

But really, we feel like this:

 

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Macondo Morning

Colombia’s (and perhaps Latin America’s) most famous author – Gabriel Garcia Marquez – passed away last week, leaving the whole country in mourning. He was famous for his fictional writing in the genre of Magical Realism, a narrative form in which reality and fantastical events flow together.  The genre expresses people, events, or moments in ways that aren’t entirely factual, but are true in the sense of how they are perceived or felt by the people living the reality.  For example, Marquez once wrote of a town where it rained for 10 years on end.  While meteorologists may argue that no such event occurred, it is a very good description of the months-long stretches of the rainy season when rain brings down the sides of mountains, washes out roads, and changes one’s day-to-day life in countless ways.  Another good example are Latin American dictators.  In magical realism dictators have taken on mythical characteristics such as immortality, and are infused with imagery that conjures both Jesus and the devil.  Of course we know that no one has ever lived for 200 years, but in Latin America, where an absolutely powerful dictator can leave a legacy of oppression that lives long after his (it’s always a man, people) physical life has ended, immortality feels like a pretty accurate description.

Anyway, I digress. 

Here in Colombia, people use the term “Macondo” colloquially to describe strange, surreal, bizarre or absurd situations that occur in daily life.  Macondo is the name of the fictional town in Marquez’s book One Hundred Years of Solitude, supposedly inspired by his actual home town.

Today Jake and I had a major Macondo Morning.  We woke early and jumped in a cab to try to arrive well in advance of our interview, knowing it might be hard to find the building.  As we sped through the city at 7:15 am, thanks to the fact that we’re so close to the equator, the sun was already high above our heads and the streets were filled with people.  We arrived at the state government building – which we knew was near our destination – exact address in hand.  We asked a security guard to point out which building our address identified.  He didn’t know.  Then we asked another security guard, who also did not know, nor did he know the numbers of the surrounding streets (all the streets are numbered here).  These are the streets he stares at every single day.  We walked behind the state government building and asked a policeman what street we were on. He didn’t know, but told us to head to the “Red Tubes Building” (it has red tubing on its sides) in the opposite direction than we’d come from.  As we walked towards the tubes, I called the guy we were going to interview and asked if his building had a name because no one knew the address. He told me the name was “Business Plaza” near “Ronpoy.” He also said the building was not behind the State Government building, as he’d told me yesterday, but behind the City Government building. Thankfully, that’s on the same block, but it meant we were walking the wrong direction.  As this conversation was occurring, a woman stopped Jake and asked him where “Bare Foot Plaza” was.  Jake pointed in the right direction, but she continued walking the other way.

Jake and I then walked on looking for the “Ronpoy,” which I was pretty sure it was the name of a chicken restaurant (Poy = Pollo?).  Jake stopped to ask a street vendor, wearing an FBI hat, if he knew where it was.  He did not.  We walked on to a promising looking building where we asked a security guard if he knew the address.  He did not.  We asked him if he knew where the Business Plaza building was. He said we had arrived.  He was wrong.  He did know, however, that “ronpoy” meant round about, so we walked on to a big traffic circle. 

We crossed the circle and finally located “Business Plaza” (yes, in English) which looked like an airplane bunker with no real entrance.  As we searched for a way in, we pass a guard with a Rottweiler that suddenly leapt at Jake.  He was muzzled, thankfully, so no harm was done, or we would have been in for a seriously awful start to our morning. 

As we walked into the building, Jake made eye contact with a man on his way out.  Another man followed in his wake, and noticing that we were foreigners, told us that “Jaime” (our contact) would be with us in a bit, as he was getting coffee across the street.  So we waited in the 15th floor lobby that felt like a business incubator or a start-up, but was part of the offices of the city of Medellin.  It had hard wood floors, with bamboo plants and rock gardens, and there was a man with half of his head shaved – a hipster in any city.  Jake joked, “we have some investment capital and a new mayor and we’re thinking this city might really take off!”

Finally, Jaime arrived – the same man who had made eye contact with Jake 20 minutes earlier on his way out of the building.  He introduced himself as someone who “knew a lot about conflict and peace,” since he had been a part of it.  I asked him to elaborate and he explained that he had been part of the EPL, a guerrilla group that had demobilized in the early nineties.  Now he worked for the mayor’s office.

It turns out we had a great interview.  Our final request was “any primary documents he might have.” He handed us a CD and told us to bring it back soon.  We left feeling tired, a bit disoriented, and without high hopes for good info on the CD, as most people we have encountered have been very stingy with data, primary documents, and basically, information in general. 

We got home and opened the CD.  There were over 20,000 documents on it. 

Welcome to Macondo.

 

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