Wednesday, August 5, 2009

A Farewell to Quibdo, Back to Bogota, Colombia

Mixed Feelings About Leaving Quibdo
Jim Stipe, Matthew Bristow, Rigoberto Patiño and myself settled our hotel bill in Quibdo before we climbed into the van one last time. I made sure I gave the driver a hefty tip and tipped the bellboy who trundled all of my luggage from the 4th floor of the elevator-less hotel in downtown Quibdo.
Would I have thought I'd be sorry to say goodbye to Quibdo when I was first told of my destination back in Bogota? Honestly, no, I conjured up images of a backwards, sleepy town. It would be dirty, squalid and unlovable. I was wrong, I was charmed and swayed to think that I could fit in there. The people were down to earth and friendly, and there were internet cafes and cell phone service.

Job Desplazado
Maybe, one day I could help with some of the programs going on—perhaps most first time CRS visitors toy with that idea. Yet, becoming a part of the in-country team might be a possibility at CRS. It is the kind of organization that values inventive thinking. They certainly never glamorize or romanticize the life. It is what it is, great if you are resourceful and have an ability to take things as they present themselves. Staying calm, weighing all courses of action, and most of all having faith in your co-worker's ability to do the same.

In three days time I was feeling very far away, geographically and mentally, from my cubicle at CRS' Baltimore headquarters. And today we were going to see one last social experiment in assisting yet another group of desplazados (displaced persons) to assimilate.

The van rumbled steadily over the rolling pavement and packed mud that does double duty as the streets of Quibdo. We passed streets crowded with running dogs and laughing children and blaring salsa. Down one street I saw a funeral procession of pedestrians proceeded by a casket tilted upwards as if this were the last time the dead man would see the lively streets of their beloved Quibdo.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Moto-taxis zipped everywhere and stands of ripe jungle fruits lined the edges of the raised sidewalk. Urban jumble gave way to wooden and tin roofed shacks balanced on stilts over lush overgrown ravines. We continued outside of Quibdo until we arrived at a housing complex of single story concrete block apartments.

Here was the home of thousands of Afro-Colombian desplazados, row after row of grey apartments with holes for windows but nothing in them, and gaping openings where a door would nicely fit if there were one. The complex had concrete paths and large paved areas where communal sinks allowed some women to do their wash. The sinks had a washboard surface built in and they were under a large metal roof supported by metal legs with concrete pilings.

I was given a tour of one of the apartments by a Caritas (CRS' international partner) worker. They pointed out the lack of windows and doors, there were two. The apartment was comprised of two small room connected to one larger room. I peered in one room and saw that a large mosquito net was suspended from the ceiling and draped around the edge of a mattress. And in the other room was a shower stall with a cistern suspended above it.

The Monetization of Displacement
When he told us that the government sold these to the Diocese of Quibdo for $50,000 (US dollars) apiece, I was stunned. Outraged is more like it. Why did they agree to pay that much, I asked? The government said that they would order these desplazados to move again and tear this housing complex down.

The heat of the day baked the houses and in some ways it was good that they had only holes for windows and doorways, because every breeze would be needed here. We said goodbye and move on to visit a school in session. The children in the complex were assigned to this school, built of wooden planks, but painted at least.

These were some of the last images I carried with me in my head and heart as we drove back to Quibdo and on to the airport. The words I had heard from the Diocesan priest, the young men and women trained in human rights, the dedicated workers were repeating in my head. And as we took our seats on the immaculate cool interior of the jet taking us back to Bogota, I realized that I had become part of Colombia.


© Copyright 2009 Guy Arceneaux All rights reserved

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