what the right hand doesn’t know or: and then came the tourists
in some complicated web of disorder and reinventions descended the spanish, then more euros, then chiquita banana and other foreign entities, corrupt politicos, the paramilitaries, the military, and the FARC, both its jekyl and its hyde. the original folk of colombia have endured their fair share of crap, to say the least.
my story is purely anecdotal. before coming to colombia i knew i could not step foot on its soil without reading up on its history. i prepared for this endeavor knowing i was entering a country with a past likely too complicated and rich to ever properly comprehend. the same way i know you can’t grasp miami’s existence without seeing the arc of its quotidian life, todo el pueblo y su gente, because south beach ain’t it. and the same goes for everywhere else. this is one reason i hate travel. it has too many reading requisites that do not involve dragons or heroes. i prefer to know i’m fully ignorant on a place and its people than read a few books and inflate my perception of what i know, as i am wont to do. but i was heading south no matter what, so i had to at least make an effort.
all too quickly i realized it is extremely difficult to find any books on colombia not entitled a variation of “cocaine cowboys,” “the saddest country ever,” “jungle pirates,” “kidnapped gringo,” “aaaaah! stay away,” etc. i read a few non-inflammatory ones, not cover to cover, and struggled to understand the middle ground truth. truth with the tiniest little “t” you could ever imagine. i got a basic outline and went back to reading about dragons.
i volunteer in two barrios in the outskirts of santa marta; they are referred to as invasiones. essentially “illegal” invasions of people displaced from their lands, los desterrados. while there was a time when this happened quite a bit more -el pueblo looking down the barrel of the paramilitary’s (whether narco or otherwise), the guerrillas’, and the military’s loaded weapons as they fled over the carcasses of their community- modern poverty and oppression can displace you just as brutally. these barrios are built by its people and largely ignored by the populace. the electricity shuts off regularly, water is turned on a few hours a week, and a sewer system is nonexistent; don’t even bother to look for a publicly funded school, a clinic, a paved road, a community center, or a police presence of any kind. and these are the better off barrios with houses made of concrete. you travel up any mountainside and things are far worse. it seems what happens in the ghettos in the states also happens here. when folks are forced to live in places that are not theirs, an attachment fails to form. this abusive relationship creates a cycle of resentment and defensiveness. locals have told me that many of these communities disregard the integrity of their land as a means to ensure no one tries to claim it from them. i have heard in one town, when wealthier people move in, someone might throw feces at the house in order to get them to leave; they litter as a way of staying safe. while a terrible analogy, i can’t help but think of traumatized children who sometimes leave their bodies unclean to keep others away and because it does not feel like their own anymore. what happens when foreigners see this without context? their classist and racist prejudices kick in, much like what i assume happens when they see ghettos back home.
disheartened is an understatement in describing how i feel about the backpackers’ and voluntourists’ lack of knowledge about the country they are visiting. part of me prefers they visit and enjoy it so as to poke holes in the false bubble of insecurity in which colombia has been trapped. i suppose if they find out too much of what’s happened and what still happens, they might not come. ignorance being bliss and all that. the downside of this blissful state is that it can lead to continued behavior of ignorance, digging the country in deeper. the euro and u.s.a. gringo’s penchant for cocaine is a finely cut example.
from my experience in the states, cocaine tends to be a hobby of the middle and upper class. in my age group and economic class, someone has a friend who knows a guy that has a hook up but they haven’t talked to them in months and you gotta hang out with them all night to score some blow. hardly ever worth the trouble. and if you bother to mentally trace the trail of cocaine back to the source, you would find it mixed with a trail of blood down through mexico, central america, and south america. kids get here and coke is cheap and pure. the trail, though, is much shorter to follow and, for me, harder to ignore. when i see volunteers in the morning painting a barrio school with their right hand and at night snorting blow with their left hand, i want to casually bring up child prostitution, the state of the barrios, murders and disappearances, the destruction of the amazon, high priced food, bazuka (santa marta’s version of crack. cocaine cut with cement, among other other things), and the reason foreigners are needed to maintain many NGO’s. but somehow it seems context would ruin their trip. and we can’t afford to lose them.
*i feel like it’s important for me to say that i do not see myself as someone who does not contribute to the oppression of others. i recognize all the shit i do that makes me complicit, and i often disregard this fact and do what i feel like anyway. i know i am no better or worse than anyone else and i am just as capable of doing everything that others do, but i still like to bitch about it.