Monday, September 16, 2013

620 - Enjoying my last few weeks in Colombia with my many friends!

So, before I write anything, I want to start off and say that I've never felt unsafe in Colombia, generally, and more specifically in Barranquilla.  Yes, there is still unrest here and there are places that I would never go in this city alone after dark, but as a general rule, Colombia has come incredibly far in the last 10-15 years.  There are places that I wouldn't go after dark in Peoria or Bloomington-Normal after dark as well, so you'll find places like that where ever you are.

I had just gotten back from a great time in Quito, Ecuador visiting David, Alyssa (both MMN workers in Ecuador) and my friend from Barranquilla, Wendy.  Alyssa then decided to take advantage of my last few weeks in Colombia to come and visit the coast.

We went to my favorite hostel in the world, The Dreamer, and stayed there and I was able to show Alyssa what a real Caribbean beach looks like in Colombia!  We went to a place called Bahía Concha (Shell Bay) and it was beautiful.

Another attraction that we were able to see was La Victoria, a coffee processing plantation.  This place is one of my favorite places to take people when they come to visit.  It's all 100% organic and they use and reuse every part of the coffee bean and plant.  Not to mention the fact that the coffee is just out of this world!

Ok well, the most exciting part of our trip to Minca, the small village on the mountain side where La Victoria is located, was the trip down the mountain.  We rented to motorcycle taxis and they were driving us back to Santa Marta, where our hostel was located.  During the trip two police officers on a motorcycle stopped us and told me that they would need to do a "routine check" on me.  They patted me down and then wanted to check my bag.  Since I had/have nothing to hide I told them that would be alright, but I kept a very close eye on my bag, because I've heard of situations like this before.

It's a bit of a long story, and I don't want to feed too much into the stereotypes, because like I said previously, Colombia has changed quite a lot and it has become my home for the last two years, so I don't want to make my home look back.  However...

When the officer opened one of the pockets in my back pack, I noticed that I had some American money that I had forgotten about so I was excited to see that.  I looked up at the first officer (who was asking me lots of question [distracting me]) for a fraction of a second and then looked down again and the second officer had found a small bag of marijuana in that same (previously empty other than the US cash) pocket.

I don't want to speculate, or anything of that nature... but I don't smoke marijuana, so I have no idea how that would have ended up there (note: in my previously mostly empty zippered pocket).

The officer and I had a long conversation (after a quick silent prayer on my part) that ended with nothing happening.  We spoke both on the road on the side of the mountain, and outside of the police station in Minca.  They asked if I would rather just "fix" things on the side of the road *rubs fingers together in the universal sign for money*, or go to the station, so I requested the police station.  I also made a phone call to the hostel owner (who is incredible by the way) and asked her to talk to the officers for me.  She is also a foreigner, but Spanish is her first language, and she's been here longer than I have, so I thought that she would be able to help me out hopefully.

Well, after about 30-45 very very stressful minutes and lots and lots of quick Spanish, Alyssa and I were told that we could leave.  I didn't give them any money, or my passport information (which they were threatening me with, to call immigration) and in turn, I tried to respect them as much as possible.  So, thankfully, all is/was well.

On the motorcycle trip back down the mountain there were so many things going through my head.  That situation could have gone much much worse.  I know that in the States, I've had friends get beat up just for the few dollars that they have in their wallets at the time.  There were no guns involved, there was no force what so ever, only words.

Situations like this make me wonder a lot about our world.  There are so many people in positions of power who, at least I think, can take advantage of people and situations.  But, luckily, sometimes honesty prevails.  I told the officers that the pot wasn't mine, which it wasn't, and everything worked out fine!  Plus, now I have a fun story to tell all mine friends!

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

601 - Youth Venture Part 3 - BEING in Colombia

This final part in the Youth Venture trilogy of posts is one that I've been thinking about a lot over the course of my, now, 601 days in Colombia.

The truth is that I don't "do" as much as I would like to in Barranquilla.  There have been many days and nights where I just sit and think about the numerous missionaries around the world that are building houses, feeding hungry people, and telling people about Jesus in new and exotic places all over the globe.  I also think of many secular ex-pats that are working in different NGOs all over the world "doing" so much more than I feel that I am "doing" in Barranquilla.

I recently read an article about voluntourism by Oline Castel on the Condé Nast travel blog website, that talked quite a lot about some of my sentiments.

Prior to the Youth Venture team arriving in Barranquilla, I sat down at my dinning room table with my good friend Wendy with my head in my hands and I said "what are we going to do when this group gets here?"  I was worried because there wasn't much work to be "done" necessarily.  Unfortunately, there aren't projects, or programs, that we are doing in Barranquilla.  Unfortunately, our attendances at the churches are small, but those who come are passionate and wonderful.  We hope to grow in the future and have nourishment programs, and many other things, but at the moment, that just isn't working out.

So... the Youth Venture team got to do what I do with the majority of my time in Colombia.  We spent time with the church members.  We compatir-ed (5 cool points if you remember what that means!) together, we played games, we laughed, we shared life stories, and we got to know each other.

When I first arrived in Barranquilla, I shared my concerns with Gamaliel and Amanda that I wasn't "doing" much here and that made me sad.  They informed me that this idea of "doing" while in a new country, or doing ministry, was a very North American view, and in South America, I should realize that many of the people in the community would much rather BE with me, than have me DO for them.

I saw how big the girls' hearts were when once they shared with me that they didn't feel right that they were being so blessed by the people in our church community, but we hadn't done anything to bless them while we were there.  However, I fully believe that we were mutually blessed in this Youth Venture trip!  I know quite a few little kids who had the time of their lives playing games like tag and cops and robbers with the group.  They loved caballitos (piggy-back rides) and being spun around and the fact that the group took time to play with them and BE with them.  There were moms and daughters who had their hair french, and fishtail braided for the first time, and loved it!  Even now, after almost a month, I still get asked by the people in the church how the girls who visited are, and they tell me that they miss them.

I have to admit that I don't think there is anything wrong with short-term work mission trips, millions of people have been blessed through them!  I think that they can be truly wonderful!  Some of my favorite memories from my working with my church's youth group during the summer was going on a service trip to New Orleans with Mennonite Disaster Service and working on houses.  It was an incredible time and I wouldn't trade it for anything!!  We were able to bless the people that we worked with with free labor and progression on these houses.  Aside from one day where we went out and visited a man who had last his home and half of his family in the hurricane, because we were working so much we didn't get to truly immerse ourselves in the rich culture of New Orleans.  We didn't fully get to know the people we were building houses for.

Sure, we could have painted something, we could have built something, but instead we built relationships, we have lasting memories, we learned, and we all left changed.  By being with the church members we were able to change some stereotypes that various people held and learn from each other's mistakes and share in our triumphs and joys and cry with each other about our sorrows and pain.  For me personally, knowing that I will be leaving being meaningful relationships and people who (hopefully) will miss me as much as I will miss them, this means so much more to me than leaving behind a house that I built, or painted.  I may not have fed the masses, but I was able to feed the few who came to my apartment for lunch or dinner.  I was able to fill their stomachs with chocolaty brownie goodness.  We filled each others' hearts with joy and friendship (call the cheese police).  We filled the silence with laugher and stories, and it filled my life with a new found appreciation and passion for things like working with immigrants, speaking in and learning Spanish, and treating new people with as much respect as possible, even if I don't really understand some of the /strange/ cultural differences.  In fact, I love learning about those new and exciting little cultural differences!

These are just a few of the many things that I learned and experienced while being in Colombia and I hope that the Youth Venture team shares my sentiments as well!!  Not only were they blessed, they were a blessing for the community that they were in, and they will not be quickly forgotten!

Trip to the Zoo with Samuel, la pastora Mitzi's son

French braiding while at a church get-together

Karaoke-ing at a family's house 

Celebrating Carlos' birthday at a host-family's house

Visiting some of the youth's school!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

600 - Youth Venture Part 2

Previously, I mentioned that a large portion of the trip for the Youth Venture team, and for myself, was the learning portion.  In regards to the "learning" we went and visiting a few of the key locations in Barranquilla's history.  Locations like:

Puerto Colombia -

 This port was once the longest and more important port in all of Colombia.

Because of the proximity of Cartagena to the Panama Canal, the new port there took over and this port is no longer used and now in shambles

Group photo!  From left to right, Leah, Anya, Christina, Haley, Scott, Graham, and Rachel

If any one is interested, my good friend Courtenay has written up a post about what is going on in Puerto Colombia and it is far more eloquent and informative than I could ever write up!  You can read that post here, I can promise that it is well worth the read!

We then stopped for some delicious fresh, cold coconut water! 

So good!  This is me and my good friend Wendy, she was our Colombian tour guide throughout most of the trip!  It was nice having her along!

El Museo del Caribe - 

The Caribbean Museum is one of my favorite places in caribbean coast in Colombia.  It shows a lot of the culture, both past and present.  There are exhibits on the indigenous people from coastal Colombia, music, tools, the people, the immigration patterns, and so much more!

One of my favorite exhibits is a place with backlit glass.  Two people stand looking at each other through the glass.  They line up their faces with the other person and you can see how your facial features combine.  The museum has this exhibit to show the diversity in Colombia.  The Spaniards mixed with the indigenous people, and the African slaves, and the other European peoples, and all other kinds of mixtures.  

Here we all are in an replicated indigenous house/hut mad out of palm leaves

This is the wall of words.  The majority of these words are primarily used only on the coast of Colombia, however some, like chévere (cool/awesome) are used all over Central and South America

Here we can see some of the different tools other artifacts from many of the indigenous and other pre-modern cultures in Barranquilla, and the surrounding areas

The way that this museum is set up is especially interesting.  You take the stairs, or an elevator to the top, then work your way down.  First there is an exhibit about Gabriel García Márquez, a famous Colombian author who was born in Cartagena (about 2 hours to the west of Barranquilla), and spent much of his life in Barranquilla.  He wrote books that many of you may have heard of, such as, One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera.  I still haven't read either of those, sadly, but they are for sure on my list!

Moving down from the top, you move through exhibits on the people, tools, music, stories/words (poetry and things of that sort), and art.  

La Victoria coffee processing plant in Minca, Colombia - 

As anyone who knows me well... you will know that my list of "favorite things" is quite long!  To add to this last, La Victoria coffee processing plant is one of my absolute favorite places to visit!  Set up high in the mountains in the small village of Minca, you're able to see incredible views, tour the processing plant and see how the coffee that you buy is processed, and so many more things!

Just about everything in La Victoria is 100% authentically original and over 120 years old!!  This is one of the first sacks that they used (seen above).  They used all of the original machinery.  Everything is 100% organic and the power is received through water generators, the water is collected in natural mountain streams, then heated to create power.  The water pressure carries the coffee beans through out all of the area.  There are 14 drop off spots and over 26 miles of tubing that allows the beans to arrive at La Victoria to be processed. 

Coffee beans!  Not quite ripe yet

This is our tour guide.  She is VERY well versed in all of the ins and outs of this plant.  She's shown here showing us one of the turbines that spins to use the compressed heated water and air to send the coffee beans to all different parts of the plant.

Josh Gordon is the man who created all of the (apparently VERY well made) machinery.  He then shipped it over from London and it was assembled in Minca.  It's so interesting to see all of the incredibly intricate machinery that must have been painstakingly put together.  It's like one giant puzzle, complete with miles and miles of pipes...  Just amazing

The fearless Youth Venture leaders, Rachel and her husband Graham, standing in front of the sign

This is a view of the plant that we saw as we walked down the mountain (about a 2 hour trek)

Sans Souci Hostel - 

One of the great things about being in well traveled areas is the ability to stay in the economic hostels that are scattered all over!  Ours was especially nice (and quite cheap, haha).

The beautiful sun set from out hostel

One night there was a bat in our room, so Graham Rachel and I had to be brave and save everyone.  It was... interesting

We took a (very long) mule ride up to the top of the mountain in Minca.  It was a very fun, and very interesting trip!  Our mules were fair well behaved, and seemed to know where they had to go.  We were a little sore by the end of the trip, but it was well worth it.

We go to the top of the mountain and there was a hostel (who's name has escaped me at the moment).  At the hostel we had lunch, and were given a short history lesson of the hostel.

The hostel was originally a finca, or a country home for a wealthy European man who had moved to Colombia for business.  A lot of his children and grandchildren are still very important politicians in coastal Colombia.

We were told the story about how during the unrest period in Colombia the FARC, or Fruerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia/ Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia - The People's Army.

As you can see from this incredible view, it's pretty easy to understand why the FARC may want this location.  Set high up in the mountains one can see Minca, Santa Marta, and on a clear day all the way to Barranquilla (about 2 - 2 1/2 hours away).  They were able to do their planning and ensure that they their plans were getting put through.

However, they were not the only ones who thought that this would be a good position.  The para-military groups also had their eye on this finca.  They were able to watch and guard the roads between some of the largest cities on the coast.  Through long range walkie-talkies they would/could shut down the roads, ensure that their drug mules were going to the places they said they were going, and so much more.  

During the takeover of the FARC group, by the para-militaries many people lost their lives.  This got the Red Cross, and Methodist Church to get interested in the goings-ons in this location as well.  This all took place over the course of many many years.  Eventually groups were able to safely go up the mountain and have peace talks with the para-military groups, who were in control at the time.  After many trips, the para-militaries left their posts and gave the finca back over to its original owner.  The owner then paid to have people go all through out the area, over the WHOLE mountain and tear out every single cocaine plant.  That is quite the feat!

Hearing about this gives me hope.  As a Mennonite... I love peace.  Sometimes the idea of a "peace talk" is a little cheesy though.  Mennonites all over the world have been involved in peace talks though.  Programs like Cristian Peacemaker Teams and others like it through the Mennonite Church just fill me with hope though.  The fact that this peace talk, in recent history (with in the last 13 years) made peace really happen... it just gives me so much hope that peace talks in other parts of the world will work, and we will be able to live in harmony with each other!!

PS - I have been in Colombia for SIX HUNDRED days!  How is that possible?!  So exciting!

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

594 - Stories!

This story may not be new to everyone.  If you've read my most recent prayer letter, this is just copied and pasted from there.  But, I wanted to share this on my blog, because I don't know that everyone receives my prayer letter.

Expect more updates soon!  I'm currently in Quito, Ecuador visiting David Shenk and Alyssa Rodriguez, the two Mennonite Mission Network workers in Quito.  I've only been here a few days, but I already have a TON of stories to share!

This story, is one that I wrote after listening to a couple share at church!  Their story really touched me, so I hope that it will touch you all as well! :)

Edwin and Jazmin married fairly young and they were very happy to start a family.  They were a little worried when their first daughter, Jeimy (now 18), was born, otherwise healthy, but with Down’s Syndrome.  They found themselves worried about the challenges that she would face in her life, and the hurtles that she would have to cross; they were in general worried for their new precious daughter.  Around two years later their first son, Jean Carlos (now 16), came into the world.  He was a perfectly healthy baby boy, and is now an integral part of the church’s worship team and the youth group.  A few years later they had a bit of a surprise when their third child, and second son Edwin Davíd, was born with various mental and physical disabilities.  Within his first few short weeks of life he had to have 3 life saving surgeries.  In the 12 years that he’s been alive he has had 13 surgeries in total.
Edwin stood in front of the church and told us about the pain that he and his wife felt when their second special needs child was born.  Edwin was convinced that he had done something earlier in his life to cause his children to be born with special needs.  He’d grown up with family members who were witch doctors and he thought that perhaps God was sending their punishment on his children.  He had at one time been a bit of a partier, and thought perhaps that God was sending his own punishment on his child.
The pain and hardships that Edwin and Jazmin’s children had to go through so early on in their lives caused a riff in their spiritual lives.  At first they were angry and disappointed with God.  Slowly however, they began to see that God could, and would work through this situation.  They joined a church and got more involved. God began revealing more of how God was able to move in their lives and change how they were viewing the hardships that the children that they love madly were dealing with.  That is not to say that they did not go through hardships in their lives, especially with Edwin Davíd.

The point in the Edwin’s story that made me choke up the most was when one day after school Edwin Davíd came home and then sat on his father’s lap.  He asked his father with that childhood innocence, “Daddy, why did God make me the way that I am?”

When Edwin repeated his son’s question to the church, you could almost hear everyone in the sanctuary’s heart drop for just a moment.  Questions like that hit you like a 2X4 across the back, it takes your breath away.  This is a question that is hard for adults to fully fathom, how could you possibly explain something like God’s goodness and mercy to the child that you love with your whole heart when it’s something that you yourself don’t fully understand?  This was Edwin’s worry.  However, God gave him the words to speak.  He told his son that he loved him just the way that he was, and that he should never feel ashamed.  God had a beautiful plan for his life, and he had been given a chance to show people God’s love in new and different ways.

That seemed to be enough for Edwin Davíd because he has never stopped loving.  I can say that I know first hand that when anyone walks into the church, Edwin Davíd is there to greet them with a great big hug!  He loves to love.  He has no shame, or embarrassment.  He just loves.  During worship he claps, dances, sings, and lifts his arms up to the God who created in him an uncanny ability to love others.

When Edwin reached this point in the story he had his son join him in the front of the sanctuary with him.  Edwin Davíd had prepared a song that he wanted to share with the congregation.  The emotion and symbolism in the song and the situation moved me to tears.  He was nervous when he started; he was a little shaky to his song start alone, just as he had been when he was born.  His dad was by his side, but he was the one singing.  He slowly gained confidence and started to really get into the song.  He was singing of God’s love and mercy and with every fiber of his being, he believed the words that he was singing.  He was singing about his own story.  He was sharing his story as an offering to the church, and lifting it up to God.

This song must be one that most people in the church knew because half way through everyone joined in and with tears in their eyes started singing along.  Edwin Davíd didn’t have to be worried or scared, his story was at the heart of church and it’s members.  He was not going through life alone, he didn’t ever have to worry about not having support.  As I sat there and watched, and listened, I saw the church become a part of Edwin Davíd’s story as they all joined in.  I observed the church lift up their collective story of love and of mercy to God as an offering, and I am touched that I have been blessed enough to be a small part of that story.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

584 (from Sunday) - Youth Venture Part 1

As I sit here typing out this blog post there are a great deal of thoughts and memories going through my mind.  One, is that my poor 5-year old Macbook is nearing the end of it's life.  For the last 5 years it has served me quite well!  Even after spilling an entire glass of water on it 4 years ago, it has given me minimal problems.  About 6 months ago out of no where the attached keyboard and trackpad decided that they didn't want to work any more.  So, I went out and found a good deal on an external set of both and they have served me well.  I used these for about 2 1/2 months before my computer magically fixed itself (that is after going to the Mac store in the mall here and having them look at it twice and telling me that they had no way of fixing it because the part that it needs is no longer in stock, because my computer is so old, and they can't order it).  I was beyond excited at this point!  I was cleaning the dust off the trackpad one day and I saw my little cursor move!  Excitement doesn't begin to express the emotions that I felt.  It worked great again for about 3 months or so, then out of no where it stopped again.  So, I'm back to the external ones.  But, that's alright with me!

I'm reminded of the humidity here and how electronics are said to have half the amount of life that they would normally have in other circumstances.  Which is very surprising to me, because cell phones, tablets, and laptops here are a MUST for all people.  It might be because I left the US right as tablets were really taking off, but I would say that more people here in Barranquilla have tablets than other places that I've been!

My current second thought is that there must be a soccer game going on right now.  Outside there is hardly any traffic and there seems to be a small party going on in my neighbor's apartment and I hear them cheering for something!  I just heard the famous "Goooooooooooooool!!" scream that can only mean one thing!  We're doing well!  I should be wearing my jersey...

The third, more important, memory that I am reflecting on is my time with Mennonite Mission Network's Youth Venture team that was here recently (Did you see that?!  My first hyperlink, I didn't even know I could do that... now I feel silly).

Youth Venture is a learning tour between 2 and 3 weeks, either international or State-side that is put on by Mennonite Mission Network.  This year there were 8 locations to choose from, 4 international (Colombia, Ecuador, Spain, and South Africa) and 4 North American (Anchorage, Brownsville, Fort Myers, and Seattle).  Four lucky applicants and their two leaders had the good fortune to come and spend three weeks with me here in Barranquilla!

Firstly, I have to say that I love it when groups come to visit.  Not only is it a great opportunity to speak in English and catch up on what is going on in North America, it's a nice time to meet new people and also to show the visitors around Barranquilla and the work that the church and I do here.

When a group visits I see a whole new side of the church and it's members.  There is a newfound hospitality that emerges in the congregation that just fills my heart with joy and excitement.  As a whole the people of this church are generally quite hospitable, but when there are newcomers, it is exponentially greater!  We are blessed by seeing people open up their homes for people who they have never met, invitations to dinner, birthday parties, activities, and coffee are extended.  It is incredible.

Since there is not a lot of "physical" work that takes place in my position here, we were able to explore the more relational and learning aspects of what I do here in Barranquilla.  By far my favorite things that I do here is learn.  I learn about the culture, I learn about the people in the congregation, I learn about the situation here in Colombia.  I love to learn.  When groups are here, something that I am able to do is truly think about what all I've learned since being here.  It's a great time for me to process my experience and put it into words, rather than pictures, experiences, and emotions in my mind.  So, I string together words and thoughts and hope for the best!

One of our very first activities was going on a retreat to a little cabin on the beach with the church's youth group.  We had planned on trying to make this a city wide (for the churches in the city) retreat, but unfortunately that didn't work out as planned.

While there, we relaxed in hammocks...

Found crabs in our camp... Aldo is the brave one who caught our intruder! Although I suppose we were more intruding on his turf than he was ours.

We sang some songs... (top) Jean Carlos is playing a few songs and (bottom) Aldo and Isaías are here showing us how it's done!

We also played bi-lingual telephone pictionary, which was hilarious!

We also of course played on the beach that was just a 30 second walk from the cabin!

One of our next activities, possibly my favorite activity, was learning to cook with pastora Mitzi! 

Here, Mitzi is showing Graham how to make patacones (or tostones in most other Spanish speaking places).  They are cut up and twice-fried green plantains.  They are DELICIOUS!

Leah, Rachel and I are also taking a stab at the patacones.

Natalia (Mitzi's oldest daughter) is also learning!

Making arepas is sticky business!

Haley's doing a great job balling!

Anya's got some delicious arepas all balled up and ready to be fried!

Samuel, Mitzi's son, and third child, had a new found best friend while the group was here!  Even though he and Graham didn't speak much of each other's native languages they built a pretty meaningful relationship!

All together we made arepas (a fried Colombian bread that is to die for), lentils, rice, and patacones!  We got made fun of for wanting to make those all together as one meal, but I thought it was delicious!

Stay tuned for Part 2 of the Youth Venture updates!  I'm hoping to get the second part out later today, or soon thereafter!

Thanks for reading!