I learnt many years ago that there’s no point in imposing my idea of help on people from another culture. This TED talk explains why far more effectively than any of my personal examples. It’s why I choose to find local organisations like Help Colombia rather than doing something on my own. Sandra, who has spent so much time in Australia, may not be a much better judge of when and how to help than I am. Last year, I realised how hard the lockdowns must be on so many Colombians who live hand to mouth. Most endured the lockdowns for a month or more before deciding that they were working in food distribution and were therefore entitled to continue working. So we began to see the return of fruit sellers pushing carts down our street. One particularly rainy day, an old man caught my attention for his persistence in trying to sell his limes despite the unwillingness of our neighbours to venture into the weather. He sat outside our building, soaked, for about 20 minutes shouting ‘libodes’ in his usual nasal style. How badly must he need the money to be outside in this? I began to buy limes only from him, going without until he came past at the same time each week. One day Sandra was with me and asked him why he carried the sack rather than use a cart like other vendors. He said that he caught the bus to a different neighbourhood each day and couldn’t take a cart on the bus. We thought about this for a while before asking him if an upright shopping trolley would help. It was then we learnt that the sack was 40kg
Medellin recently ran its annual Book Festival, and this year Bibliolabs had a bigger space with multiple events. One of the group set up a drum machine using Arduino to sense taps on boxes and send the signals to a midi player on his computer. Others created instructional videos for various technology projects. The main event though, at least for me, was the Game of Signs - a website for people to learn Colombia's sign language. Sign Language might seem a universal language, but it must also account for local differences such as gender which is used for most nouns and adjectives in Spanish. It also takes on a life of its own with visual slang. Other sites on the web are therefore only partially useful in Colombia, so we decided to build our own Almost everyone in the group, and many volunteers from other parts of the libraries, got involved, demonstrating signs from various categories. I did the majority of the coding, with a lot of design input from the rest of the team and some tweaks by a more experienced web designer. It was very satisfying to see it received so well at the festival. School groups were delighted to learn a few words and signed up to receive the URL after the festival. We sat by nervously as even a deaf group ran through the application, picking up some mistakes in our signing, but thankfully loving the concept and implementation. One man became quite angry with another member of his group, and from what the more fluent in our group made out, he was upset because he'd had the idea in the past and presumably didn't get support from his peers to
I try to avoid first impressions when I visit a new place, but I arrived in Pereira exhausted from a 2 days of speaking Spanish almost exclusively on topics I haven’t got the vocabulary for, and I wildly misjudged the city. I’d chosen to stay in Dosquebradas because as a secondary city in a single valley and safer than its big sister, it sounded a lot like Envigado. Instead, I found myself in what seemed an industrial area, with rough-looking people along the streets and the heartbeat of metal hammering on metal. The hostel, when I found it, was a shock after the luxurious country retreat I’d been at for the AFS training weekend, but unfortunately, I’d already paid for four nights. In all fairness, I’d chosen to save money by choosing the ‘best value’ hostel in Dosquebradas, remembering my backpacking days fondly. This place had no cosy room full of sofas, no shaded rooftop tables, and apparently no other guests to hang out with. All I wanted for my first afternoon was to chill somewhere comfortable and read. The best this hostel had to offer was a hard table and chair set in the hot, dark corridor outside the rooms and that insistent hammering metal. An afternoon walk to the local shopping arcade didn’t improve my mood or my impression, and I retreated to my room for a few hours. When hunger forced me out for an early dinner, leaving all my valuables behind (just in case), I was surprised to find a calm, residential neighbourhood in place of the industrial nightmare I encountered earlier. Young couples and lone women were out enjoying the evening and were typically friendly. I had a decent pizza
Medellín prides itself on being a forward-thinking city. It pulled itself up from being the most dangerous city in the world to its current state of relative peace and safety by embracing the newest and poorest citizens living on the periphery. It fosters innovation of all kinds, as exemplified by the Experimental Technologies group I volunteer with. And it’s taking significant action to address the problem of pollution that it currently faces. Measurements show Medellín as having 26 micrograms of PM2.5 particles per cubic metre (annual mean) compared to 15 in Tokyo and London and only 9 in New York. That’s still lower than many South American cities, but it is much higher than the WHO recommended limit of 10, so the government is taking steps to reduce it. The largest contributor is traffic pollution, and ‘pico y placa’ restrictions were recently implemented throughout the city. I can’t translate the term exactly, but it means that only vehicles with certain number plates (eg odds or evens) can be used on certain days. Medellin is far from the first city to implement these restrictions, but it is the first city I’m aware of to ban private vehicles entirely, which happened today. Given how hard a time I had trying to get a photo with only buses and taxis, and with police taking no action against the others I saw, I assume that business vehicles are exempt as well. But as you can see from the empty streets, I had much fewer misleading blinkers to navigate when crossing the road. Live measurements show PM2.5 particles down to 15 micrograms per cubic metre, so the action certainly worked.
Medellin hosts a lighting festival in the lead-up to Christmas each year, and this year the heart of it all was at Parque Norte (North Park), a fun park a few steps from Parque de los Deseos where I met Sandra. I was able to visit in the final week before heading back to Australia, and was hugely impressed. The 'flora and fauna' theme celebrated Colombia's incredible biodiversity, which is second only to Brazil, and ranks first for greatest range of bird species. The park showcased lighting sculptures of toucans, crocodiles, butterflies, waterlilies, jellyfish and myriad other objects, some of which were so large you could walk through them. Sandra and I easily passed a few hours marveling at the artistry of the animals, inspecting each stall in the artisanal market, where I managed to tick many items off my Christmas shopping list, and tasting the street food. Best of all, unlike Vivid in Sydney, I never felt crowded while enjoying the festivities. On arriving home, I noticed that the usual yellow tones of the Medellin street and house lighting had been complemented by a blue hue from homes decorated with Christmas lights. Sitting on the balcony each evening was a special way to spend my last week in Medellin.
I arrived in Colombia with more compassion for people in need than I’ve ever had in my life, which means my heart strings are constantly being pulled. Colombia has opened its doors to the people of Venezuela escaping the political strife there, and they’re everywhere. Most arrive with nothing and in far trouble than I ever was in Cuba. They’re more innovative than I was, though, and few resort to simple begging. I’m constantly coming across, or being approached by, people selling packs of gum, chocolates, biscuits, pens anything that can be bought in bulk and sold individually. Others stand in busy backstreets and direct drivers to parking spots, guiding them into even the easiest spot in the hope of a tip, and they’re usually successful. And people with more skills, who are more probably locals, run out to entertain traffic stopped at lights. Jugglers are common, but I’ve seen acrobats stretch their slacklines across the road and one young man who used a slackline as a trampoline So common are these entrepreneurs that I have to follow the example of many locals and limit myself to helping one per day, and be glad that at least the climate here is generally friendly to people without a roof over their heads.
When I decided to move to Latin America, it was my plan to find a way to contribute to my chosen community. While I wasn’t arrogant enough to think that I could do everything better than people in less developed countries, but I had forgotten how much I can learn from them. For example, libraries in Medellin are more than just a place for reading. They've become hubs that transform the community, with buildings of architectural interest, parks, auditoriums, computer learning labs and a few books. For the past month I’ve been volunteering with the Experimental Technologies Group, part of Bibliolabs, at the Libraries in Medellin. I came in at the tail end of a project to build a device for teaching people how to read / write braille. There was no need to design it from scratch when they could modify something from the open source world, such as a braille keyboard for smart phones, but finding parts that can be used locally is a lot of work in itself. The team had 3D-printed the chassis with buttons and were working on the circuit and coding when I joined them. I was assigned the task of understanding how a keyboard works so the same logic could be applied to detecting button presses on the device. I also kept an eye (my ears weren’t as much help as usual when all conversation was in local slang) on the coding design and noticed a couple of problems. The most significant was that their code required the buttons to be pressed in the order they decided. The letter ‘c’ is denoted by the two dots in the top row. If the learner pressed the top left (button
I recently got a chance to play tejo, a traditional Colombian game involving a metal disc and a target of packed mud and explosives. It was the thirtieth birthday of an expat friend, and despite four Colombians coming along, he was the only one who had ever played before. We threw our discs from the halfway line, marvelling at the skill of the man in the far lane with his own gear, who managed to hit the gunpowder regularly from the full distance of twenty metres. The target is roughly a metre square, and sits on the ground with the far side angled up. You have to throw the disc underhand and have it land in the mud and stay there without ever touching the ground, backboard or sides of the target. In the centre of the mud sits a ring of about fifteen centimetres diameter. Landing the disc in this ring scores six points. Two triangles of paper containing the gunpowder are placed at the top and bottom edges of this ring. Exploding one of these gets three points, so it’s possible to score nine in a single throw. Failing anyone achieving one of these goals, the closest valid shot scores one point. We split into two teams of three and began playing. Jonny and I started using the heaviest disc, and eventually the girls joined us as well, finding that it was more accurate, but the game is as hard as it sounds. Jonny managed a ‘mecha’ or explosion on his second turn, then spent the rest of the night trying to repeat that feat. The rest of us tried to match him, but the targets either side seemed to regularly pull
Feria de los Flores (Festival of Flowers) is the biggest event in Medellin, but was more elusive than I expected. It runs for ten days every August and celebrates the contribution of farmers. From all the hype, I expected to see flower decorations throughout the city, but that wasn’t the case. My Feria de los Flores experience began with a quiz at the language exchange evening held by Colombia Immersion on Friday night. Rather than the usual ice-breaker where I'd receive a slip of paper with the name 'Jekyll' and having to find the person with 'Hyde', last week I was given a quiz with ten questions and asked to obtain each answer from a different person. As a foreigner, my questions were in Spanish and I was expected to get the answers from native speakers. The first with all correct wins. I wasn’t the first, but I was perhaps the only one with all correct, so I won a white poncho, which is the traditional costume for local farmers in the area. The following evening, Sandra and I joined a group from the school at the festival's main event, a concert headlined by Marc Anthony in the stadium. We arrived before five and were directed into gender lines for a police search at the main gate. That might have made sense if the women were searched by female officers, but Sandra was also searched by men. My water and even my pens were confiscated, while others had their belts taken and had to pay a hefty sum to have them returned after the concert. Inside, we found water available at prices higher than you'd pay at an Australian music festival, and tetrapaks of
The second thing I noticed about Colombia was the driving. While distracted by all the beautiful women (the first thing I noticed), I regularly stepped out in front of cars. This wasn’t, as it often is, due to Colombians driving on the other side of the road to Australians. I’d had over two months in Latin America to get used to that. It wasn’t because I expected cars to stop at pedestrian crossings. Two years living in Bhutan disabused me of the notion that white stripes on the road have any meaning at all. In Colombia, the real confusion is caused by cars turning right with their left blinker flashing. At least in Bhutan, where blinkers aren’t used the way they were designed, they were used consistently to indicate whether it was safe for those behind to overtake on the winding mountain roads. In Colombia, they seem to merely be something that drivers bump while turning the wheel, and it’s not uncommon to see a car driving for miles with one blinker or the other going continuously. I should also say that I've been caught out by cars turning left with their left blinker flashing. It's oh, so confusing. Colombian driving, in general, leaves a lot to be desired. 'My Spanish teacher' tells me that drivers here get their licenses from the back of cereal boxes, and swears she didn’t pick the phrasing up from her time in Australia. The roads are scary enough in the cities and towns where people give way to everything they can see through their front windscreen, but out on the single-lane highways fear takes on a new level. On my various bus trips, I’ve almost become used to