Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Things the Embera women taught me in 48 hours

One thing I love about my job is that it can still surprise me.

When I accepted to go to Colombia for an evaluation, I felt like I was going into familiar territory. I’ve lived here before, and since have come back on several occasions. Its history and its woes are well known to me.

I came for a project that tries to fight gender violence, and there was one small area that was new: traditional practices that could be harmful to women.

In short this translated into my travelling to the Risaralda National Reserve where the Embera indigenous people live.

Five am we took off from the town of Pereira, and spent five hours driving through tropical forests. At the beginning the sky was heavy and the clouds embraced the green mountains as if trying to hide them from me. Strangers are not usually welcome here. Mostly because in the past the Embera have felt looked down on, discriminated or manipulated by outsiders. Previous film crews have presented them and their practices to the world as that of “savages.” Understandably they are not too keen.

I was lucky because the team I came with has been working here for a long time, as partners, with respect for their customs and traditions, so they accepted not only that I could come in and talk to them, but they also allowed me to take pictures.

As we drove the team told me their story, and of their work here, and a bit of the community’s history unveiled to me as the clouds lifted to show me the full beauty of this country side. In the little time I had a fear I cannot do full justice to it with my photos.

The view was stunning. The eje cafetero, where the famous Colombian coffee is grown, is evergreen with a dozen different shades of green lush. Streams ofwaterfalls everywhere you turn. The thin long barks of the Guadua trees, a local bamboo like tree also known as natural iron because of its strength, grows tall as if proud of the contrast it provides to the landscape. I couldn’t help thinking about my son and wondering how his first day in the crèche was going. I’m pretty sure grandma made it ok for him, really I was thinking about me, the fact that I was missing it dampened the beauty of the moment.

The road kept getting muddier and bumpier, even though it is officially the dry season, until the truck could go no further. So we grabbed our backpacks and walked some more. Along the way the communities greeted my companions with glee. A young man helped us find out way, he was visiting from Bogota where he is doing a degree in environmental engineering. He wants to teach his community how to use the water and resources available to them.

Once we reached the top of the mountain we found the community deep in discussion. Women leaders were presenting the results of a long process they have undergone to recuperate and understand their past and their traditions, which until now had only been transmitted orally, and to some degree were getting lost.This discussion would carry on all day and into the next, with members having walked from dawn to be apart of it. Although the project focuses on reproductive health, the Embera see the world as one whole, so it required a reflection of their entire lifestyle; their history, their life plan, and in particular their treatment of women within the society.

“The land is sick, so the Indian is sick” a man volunteered to make sure I was getting the message. As I sat there with my impromptu translator I couldn’t help but think that so many of their views are shared by the alternative avant garde in the west.

I was introduced to the group, and they were asked to decide weather or not I was allowed to meet and interview people from their community. They decided, as a group, weather or not I was allowed to take photographs. Their leaders, who knew days before I was coming, did not have the last word. A lesson in democracy.

Of course, I am here to look into gender violence, so I don’t want to present an entirely rosy picture either, there are serious concerns to be addressed, but as I met with the midwives, the haibanas or traditional healers, with the community elected governor, or community elected women leaders, I couldn’t help but be reminded how my own society is also full of contradictions on this subject. With mixed messages, and a sad reality that does not correspond with the official script.

At least the community has moved from silence to awareness and open discussion, a leap in anyone’s eyes. During the next two days I often felt that I was being fed an “official line.” What they thought should be shared with this stranger, but is that so different from our (western) governments? Where they hail motherhood and family as core to society, and then invest little or no money into supporting the institution in a pragmatic and realistic manner. One woman leader spoke of the injustice of being paid less for undertaking the same job as a man. Could have been having the same discussion in the European parliament.

I pray for these strong and courageous women that are fighting for their equality and for their daughters’ future. Women who are target of gossip and criticism for doing so, just like women in our society were not that long ago.

We look different, but standing there with them, I didn’t feel so different.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Vulcano god hates me

First my flight got cancelled because of the ash cloud. Although it was last minute, at least I found out before heading off to the airport, and the airline had very efficiently already put me on the next flight out. They did forget to mention that the new route was going to double my flight time.

Then my suitcase's zipper broke as I was heading to the airport, 6am with taxi waiting outside. Fortunately only one side so managed that crisis too. I also pulled my neck in the process. I should have started suspecting something was up.

The airport was ok, not too crowded and not too much chaos, although more security than usual, (I guess in case volcano god struck again and the passengers got rowdy.) I got tapped down, which is a common occurrence in airports these days, apparently I look more and more suspicious as I grow older. My stamp collection doesn’t exactly help (Sudan, Vietnam, Uganda, Laos……)

Quick run into the public bathrooms to morph from mommy into aid worker, and off we go, which is when the length of the detour struck me (i.e. after I didn’t buy enough magazines.)

The plane must have been prewashed, cause it certainly felt like it had shrunk. My knees firmly dug into the seat in front of me, as I watched old movies at a ridiculous volume so that I could make out anything at all, with painful earphones that kept falling off.

Stop over in Houston Texas, never been there before, but US immigration was as unpleasant there as I’ve relied on them being anywhere else. What is it about their manner that makes you feel like you better shut up and respond quietly while avoiding eye contact?

(they tapped me down too).

After another 5 hours I finally arrived to El Dorado airport in Bogota absolutely beat. I ran as fast as I could to get in front of the immigration line, then strategically switched to the slower lane, (I always pull that one.) Once I reached immigration I realized that the airline had cracked the spine of my passport while boarding the plane.

Fortunately they let me through, but am pretty sure I am not going to get through Texas with that, even if it’s just transit.

Arrived to my hotel at 11pm local time, 6am my time, and 25 hours after I set out. Next evening I was scheduled to fly to Pereira. Shortly after boarding I had to laugh when the captain asked us to get off the plane. An electric storm at destination made it impossible for us to land there.

True story.

housing on the road

this was my room day one (we were upgraded admittedly)
and this was my room day two, (couldn't fit the bed from the small door opening)

Monday, May 17, 2010

On impossible choices

Just got back from a lovely holiday –slash- work.

Since I am freelance and can work anywhere as long as there is a computer and internet access, we often end up taking holidays while I’m on a job, which doesn’t entirely work for me, but will have to do, at least until the novelty of being able to do this wears off.

I get three days back home to unpack, wash, sort myself out and repack for a work trip.

What is killing me is that during this trip I will be missing my son’s first day at the nursery. I had two choices:

Door #1- I could fly for my job during their holidays, leaving them home alone with the nanny, dad in the office, no activities, no friends around and no grandma (she was travelling too), and make it back in time for “first day,” or

Door #2- I could take them back home to see their cousins and play in the beach during their two weeks off, work when and however I could around that, and leave when they are back home with their activities, school, grandma, and… miss baby’s first day of school.

I thought the right and selfless thing to do was door #2, so now I have to live with that. For some strange reason remembering that I also missed my daughter’s first day makes me feel better, (as luck would have it, it coincided with the four months I worked during a 3 year hiatus I took to look after them), something about at least being fair and consistent.

So now I am meant to be preparing for my trip, finishing up documents, interviews, schedules and organizing meetings. But instead I am going to the forest and sitting down to watch them push their lunch around, while they recount tales of princesses and frogs that make little sense really. Yes, the eternal guilt, the desire to make it up to them even before I have left.

To make what up to them? The fact that I want to be independent, and feel productive and important, but also that I want them to have a female role model that is strong and economically independent. The desire for them to grow up in a home where daddy and mommy are different, but equal. To ensure that our family always has enough for them, for the right school, for the best doctors, for the holidays with their cousins and the opportunity to run in the sand and splash in sea water during the month of May. That and more is what I have to make up for.

It’s late at night and I am still getting ready for my flight in the morning. I went into their bedroom one last time to tuck them in and watch them sleep. Just going into the room filled me with their smell. I breathed in deep trying to hold on to enough of it to last me two full weeks. Their little bodies laid tired from a fun day, unaware and indifferent to my heartbreak.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

It tastes like childhood

What do you miss most from home?

Anyone who has spent time away from home knows the answer to this: It is simple, and it is usually the food.

Ok, often there is something about the family and friends, but now a days it is so much easier to stay in touch. There is facebook, skype, email. Also, now a days people move around so much that often when you go home many of your friends and relatives are no longer there anyhow. When it comes to shops, you can find the same brands on any highstreet, with few exceptions. Even the coffee is the same.

So at the end of the day it is the food specialties or the fresh stuff that you just cannot get a hold of. The sweets and treats which are local, the stuff you grew up on, the little things that just don’t translate or are not worth exporting. Fresh things, like the juiciest sweetest melon, or the rather rare outside of Spain nisperos. The tinto the verano, a strange concoction made of red wine and a sweet soda. Bliss as a summer drink. Foreigners just don’t get it, which is why they don’t travel well.

Every year I watch my relatives observe disapprovingly as I chow down pink shaped sweets, or bright orange chips. After all, we are adults fighting age, time and gravity. Dieting and eating healthy should be a norm (more on that another day). And often I do feel regret, particularly as the jeans start “shrinking”, or if I decide to go shopping and have the effects stare back at me in the mirror. Then I remember it might be another 12 months before I have the chance to eat these things again. So I buy another cookie pack or order more chorizo.

Taste and smell are some of the strongest memory triggers. To me these things taste like home, like childhood. Those things that were forbidden or restricted to special occasions, as an adult are readily available (and cheap) in every corner shop. Just too darn tempting. The fact that they are only available during a small window of time seals the deal.

A pang of shame hits as I load my children with these unhealthy snacks, but another side of me feels pride as they chow the food down, knowing that they will crave these delicacies just like I crave the Peruvian food my mom still prepares on the odd occasion. In Spain, knowing what tapas to choose is the true badge of citizenship. You can learn the language, you can study the history, but the tastes you can only experience.

In my defense, there are also many healthy sweets. There is the tight and salty taste of the Serrano ham drowning in the sweet juice of the melon. There is the cold gazpacho soup bursting with vitamins from all the vegetables in it. There is the Paella, where fresh fish and vegetables mixed with rice hide behind a deceitfully fun orange fiesta resulting from the saffron stems. A taste so succulent few can resist it. Petite suise, natillas, flan, all traditional milk and egg based desserts now mass produced. Tortilla de patata. Pulpo a la gallega.....

To me they feel as much a part of my country’s history as the civil war. It is only when you are in exile, when you cannot have these things that they gain such importance.

As I write this my time home is quickly coming to an end. A tinto and an empty plate of jamon rest loyally by my side. (the cookies have in a bout of shame been hidden away, but alas I always manage to find them.) The children sleep having managed to overcome the sugar rush resulting from my Sunday splurge. I fought my six year old niece over a yogurt earlier today, and the fridge has been replenished with local cheeses and membrillo.

But a few days left before we part ways again my friends.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

On home and identity

I’ve come home.

Once, and if I’m very lucky twice a year I fly home. Like the birds fly east in the winter, I come home to my family, to my food, to my language and my traditions. Once a year I touch base with my roots and my past.

Home for me is Spain. And although I grew up in Madrid, for some time now whenever I come home I fly south where most of my family has relocated to. It is nicer for the kids. It is always warm and there is a beach. There are six cousins, a pool and a trampoline, a set of (very attentive and spoiling prone) grandparents, and some uncles always ready to pay special attention to them.

Needless to say my children are over the moon here. Coming home to them is the best holiday, and this is important to me because I want Spain to somehow become their home and their roots too. I want them to fight over their toys in Spanish, to be familiar with the menu at a restaurant. I want their childhood to be bathed in Spanish sun and fed on Spanish tapas.

Spain is also my adopted home. I was born in Mexico, and my parents are Peruvian. And although I was only six months when we landed here, I left again when I was eight. I lived in the states and south America, and came back when I was fifteen to finish high school and go to university. I was away for some pretty determinant years, but I was also back for probably the most significant ones. Bottom line is home is where my family is. Not my extended family, they are still back in Peru, but the family I grew up with; my sisters, my brother, my parents. They are my home, and they are making Spain home for my children too.

I left Spain when I graduated from college and have never lived there again. In the last fourteen years we have moved eight times. My daughter was born in the US and my son in Thailand. To add insult to injury my husband is a Dutch born Italian who was mostly raised in Hong Kong (when it was still British,) so the issue of identity is a pretty big issue in my household. At least we agree that we are European and Mediterranean, but already my husband has chosen English as ‘his’ language with the kids, because he feels more at home with it than Italian, which was once his mother tongue. It scares the living daylights out of me to think that my children might not be fluent in Spanish. It’s too alien to even consider as a possibility, even though I understand that I will have to work hard to avoid this.

I read a blog this week, someone who had chosen being close to family over quality of life and the ramblings over this decision. For us and because of the type of work we do not really have the option of moving back to either in Italy or Spain, although we do hope to stay in Europe. We are tired of the fairground attraction and are looking to settle down.

We are hoping to find a new place we can call home. We want to own something that we can do up according to out needs and tastes, (furniture shopping is usually defined by weight and how easily something can be dismounted). We want some permanence, and hopefully at a place where we can all be happy, not to far from our families, with good quality of life and possibilities for work. Aim high they say. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

But no matter what we do or what the future brings, I will continue flying home with my family once, or hopefully twice a year, to build memories and roots together with my new family here, because no matter what and how awkward it might seem to some, Spain will always be "home" to me.