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Field notes from Colombia: Farewell

 

There are those moments on the Avenida Circunvalar when the clouds lift momentarily and the whole world is flooded with light. In those seconds, the weight of my work here lifts too — momentarily, as though coaxed to evaporate by a patch of blue sky and impeccable clouds. When I think of joy in Colombia during this field project, I think of a taxi zooming through mountain turns on the Circunvalar.



I will miss the conversations with the taxi drivers. A few remain at the top of my mind: The woman who was navigating the city on her first day as a taxista. Perhaps a place is truly a home when you give your brand new taxista directions 100 blocks North and reassure her that you will neither be lost nor be run over by a bus. When she gets terrified, you encourage her to turn up the Carlos Vives bellowing from the radio. If these field notes had a soundtrack, it would be a marriage of Carlos Vives and Fonseca. Other taxistas would disagree with me: There was the one who loved Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, or the one who paired his sharing his opinions on the conflict here with Bach’s cello suites. Regardless of their musical tastes, and for reasons I cannot even begin to understand, all of them that Greece is a cold-climate country and all of them think its women are beautiful. I never had the heart to correct them.

***

Colombia has grounded me in mountains. Summer to me has always meant waking up to the sound of waves and swatting mosquitoes off my back. This is the first summer of my life that I haven’t seen my toes on the sand through transluscent Greek water. I like to dream that this is not a trade-off, that I haven’t exchanged the salt and sea droplets drying on my back for mountain sunrises, that I haven’t traded in my homeland for all the other homes that have crawled into my heart. On an optimistic day, I hope I am simply adding hues to existing traditions. I am diversifying memories.

I will miss falling asleep to the sound of Colombians dancing. I will miss watching Colombians dance, and eating papas con chorizo at a street corner at 3 AM after letting others guide my own steps. My Colombia tastes like achy feet and papas at a street corner. It also takes like Masa’s almond croissants. Almendra, the word for almond, is one of the most beautiful words to my ears. Fifteen years after first reading Love in the Time of Cholera, I can finally begin to understand why Marquez’s imagined worlds always seemed to taste like almonds.

This was a summer of rainbows. Of fast-moving clouds and puffy pink sunrises that almost compensate you for your bleary eyes after a night of nightmares. Of feeling the waterfall spray on your face and your heart pounding from the altitude, only to discover that sometimes you best remember to breathe where the air is thinnest, in the most breathless spaces.

I will miss the tree that smells like jasmine during those seventy steps between my house and Crepes & Waffles. When I walk under it at night, it brings me back to Jerusalem. Colombia transports me, as though this one home can contain glimpses of all others. It finds a way to wink at the nostalgic nomad: The restaurant called L’chaim, the salsero who will wish me καλημέρα when he finds out I am Greek. There is something enlivening about remembering from where you have come, with your feet planted firmly on the ground of a place that will make a heart wander to revisit every home it ever loved.

***

My favorite moments under the jasmine tree unfold around 7.30 PM each night, when the security guards of the K-9 teams allow the bomb-sniffing puppies to run around the park. For ten minutes, if you are lucky, you can catch dogs sniffing each others’ butts and wagging their tail as a sign of affection, not violence. There are more such dogs now than during my last time in Colombia, or maybe I am more attuned to their presence. This realization makes me cherish the whimsical butt-sniffing even more. When the security guards notice me smiling, they will sometimes oblige and give their German shepherds a cuddle. I know they are performing for me, but in so doing, they unite my Colombian universes: a single gesture blends a reminder of the conflict with unbridled affection.

The affection is unavoidable here. Desire is one of Colombia’s many currencies. This is a country that touches and stares and whispers ‘belleza’ as you walk down the street. This is a country of princesas, and preciocas, and amorcitas. All these epithets are gendered in ways I cannot bear to ignore and, in the same breath, I cannot be cynical about calling someone mi vida. My life. When my assessment of the culture of affection becomes too rosy for my Colombian friends, they remind me of how fleeting and broken love can be here. They remind me of the men who are perros — literally, dogs — and of the men who cheat and of the women who cheat and of the ones who don’t call and of the ones who call you princesa for two weeks before they disappear into thin air. They speak of rigid expectations, often crushed, that define the reality of a challenging love, that render longevity in romance difficult. On a rosy day, I will remind them that these quandaries of life and love are not confined to this land.

On a keenly aware day, I, too, feel choked by the rigid conceptions of masculinity and femininity. This is one of the countries in which I most notice the performativity of gender and how narrow the expectations of what it means to be a man or a woman can be. On a flight to Cali, I noticed every single woman had her nails done. On the same flight, a passenger asked me if this is my natural hair color. When I nodded yes, she asked me why I don’t like to go to the hair salon to get ‘this beautiful hair’ straightened. Sometimes, I feel as though I provide Bogotá with its only messy curls. Sit at Juan Valdez long enough and you will observe there is a uniform for women here, one of many: leggings, tucked into boots, topped off with a leather jacket. And straight hair, of course. I am torn between finding these expectations suffocating and appreciative of a type of beauty, between finding them endearing and superficial.

I worry about Bogotá’s rigidity, about the -isms that come up in every interview: machismo, classismo. Most are born out of certain expectations that are etched into the lives of the few — expectations of where to live, where to eat, where to go out. Not complying with them, or flagrantly defying them, is met with palpable indignation. Can empathy grow in sheltered spaces? Of what service can narrowness be, other than protecting the interests and lifestyles of the few?

***

And then I meet the people who break the mould. Last Friday, I was the only person with done-up nails and high heels in a room full of anthropologists. I have come to cherish both the irony and the awkwardness of this, surrounded by Colombians in jeans and Converse who were there to patiently walk me through the process of grave exhumations. Some of the most transformative moments of my research were the ones whose profundity extinguished all room for artifice. In many ways, these are the stories that cannot be told. They are not my stories, or this is not the medium for them, or it is not yet the time to tell them. Even in their untellability, I realize that allowing these narratives to cross my path continues to fuel my faith in humanity. 

 

The responsibilities of storytelling were on my mind this summer, in terms of the responsibilities of the storyteller to the people to whom the story belongs and to the reader. I have watched my own role constantly shift, as the different capacities I have occupied in conflict-affected areas compete for attention: conflict manager, gender-based violence specialist, academic, researcher, listener, writer. Storyteller. It is an ever-evolving contract between multiple storytellers, and it requires finding my own place in the universe of intersecting narratives.

***

I will carry the contrasts in my heart, with appreciation for moments that fracture your expectations, for the moments in which appearance deviates from reality. There was the time I was followed by a policeman for five blocks near the Presidential Palace, only to learn that he wanted to find out if this señorita was married and, if not, would she go out with him? Or the time a whole group of policemen in Cali gave up their seats at the tienda for two sleepy gringas looking for coffee before the city had had the chance to wake up. Or the numerous instances I have walked past the sports bar, Locos por el Futbol, only to hear “A Total Eclipse of the Heart” or another 1990’s sappy favorite bellowing from the speakers — with more than one man singing along. Or that other time during my solo meal in Usaquén, when the table of brunching men behind me spent twenty minutes discussing baby showers. There are moments that insert cracks into an image such that you can no longer say “all of these kinds of people are _______” in Colombia. Colombia makes you fill in the blank, and question the ‘all.’ It requires nuance and texture.

And yet, the often heart-warming contrasts cannot allow me to forget about the shadow economy of fear, in which boundaries are overstepped or invisibilized. Many of my interviewees use ‘invisibilize’ as an active verb: to render invisible. ‘To (forcibly) disappear’ has been another active verb that has punctuated the narrative. The hierarchies of privilege that define other aspects of life here also determine fear, risk, and danger — with human rights defenders often finding themselves at the bottom. I have been conscious of how my own layers of privilege color my experience and provide an extra layer of protection in most instances: I am a foreign, Western-educated woman who is affiliated with a US university and is not fully embedded in the realities of advocacy in Colombia. I am also conscious of how the human rights defenders I have interviewed rarely use the language of fear directly. They speak of ‘risks’, ‘danger’, ‘threats’, but rarely fear itself. I seek to learn from their example as I sift through trauma, both vicarious and my own. In the moments of human connection, of asking the questions and recording the answers, of finding beauty, of experiencing learning or vulnerability or hope, I, too, feel less afraid.

***

This was a summer of questions. I lived in them. I learned how to design and conduct qualitative research piece-by-piece. Inquiry became my home in Colombia. It was a summer of cómo and por qué?  I struggled with shifting from my previously service-based roles in conflict-affected areas to being here in an academic capacity, with asking questions without being able to immediate use the answers to implement an initiative that responds to needs. I asked myself what the service of academia is, and whether it is immediate enough and close enough to the source of the need for me to feel that it can be a true service. I watched my communities shift and the often-solitary-occasionally-lonely rhythms of academic fieldwork give way to a group of thinkers who would proofread my every word, assess the effectiveness and ethics of my every interview question, and give my Spanish translations their correct subjunctive forms. I will miss spelling my name on the phone each time I requested an interview and hearing the other person repeat ‘Rossan’ to me, without an x or an e. I am Rossan in Colombia and by the end of my time here, I have learned to pronounce my own name as such, too. I will miss the workers at Auros, my neighborhood copy-scan-fax store. They, too, are part of the routines of my research, and I can tell they are perplexed by the formalities of the process. I credit them with having taught me how to say ‘stapler’ in Spanish and with having helped assemble my every consent form.

And then I was silent. When the questions died down and the music quietened, I found myself sitting alone on the Cartagena city walls. Colombia can be uncomfortable with solitude, and Cartagena is a city that demands affection. It is a country of two and many, one in which you can always squeeze in an extra seat at the table or an extra person in the airport line to say goodbye. This summer has blurred the lines between solitude and loneliness, raised the cost of distance from loved ones, and lowered the barrier to entry into becoming a loved one in the first place. This country is full of loved ones, my loved ones. It is full of love.

I have felt small this summer. It is the kind of smallness I crave, the kind that emanates from being humbled and cannot be corrected by high heels. I have felt lighter too. I have laughed more easily, stumbled more confidently, made mistakes less shyly. When I’m abroad and alone, unshielded by familiarity or company, I say yes more. I dare more, especially after midnight when the words fall out of my mouth without fear of the Spanish subjunctive.

***

I sometimes feel about Colombia like a photographer who only wishes to capture her lover’s dreamier side, all the while aware that another side exists, having pushed up her fingers right up against the underbelly. I cannot definitively reconcile my memories of Colombia, those of almonds and rainbows, with the memories Colombians have narrated to me. I know they exist side-by-side, almost unfolding in parallel universes. I understand that the differences in the hues of these narratives partly emerge out of my biased eyes: those of a Colombia-loving foreigner whose multiple layers of privilege circumvent many glass ceilings and shield her from some of the challenges of life and work here. I do not wish my fondness for this land to render me blind to its injustices or to push the many conflicts that continue to unfold away from the capital to the periphery of my own vision. 

 

At the same time, I am hopeful — not out of ignorance or bias, but by choice. I choose to be hopeful because I have met so many Colombians who are, who believe in Colombia, who have dedicated their life to peace. During one of my interviews, a human rights defender explained to me: “We push and ask questions, even when it feels as though the mountain is not moving. Why do we do it? Because every day when I get out of bed to do this work, when I see more of us committing to it, I can feel the space for impunity shrinking. That is enough, even if I can’t see it. I believe it is there. I believe it is shrinking. When you believe, you have no choice but to keep working, to keep pushing.” 

This post appeared in installments as my Eternally Nostalgic column on The Equals Record.

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