Colombia

A love letter to Colombia, Part IV

eternally nostalgic
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Previously:  Return | Firsts | Memory | Solitude | Nostalgia | Graffiti | Needs | Narratives | Trauma | A love letter to Columbia, Part I | A love letter to Columbia, Part II

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. In Colombia, I am Rossan, as Roxanne is too untenable. 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."

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By the time you read these words, Roxanne has returned to Boston, which she (also) calls home. Her field notes from Colombia may have wrapped up, but her adventures will continue, in life and on this page.

A love letter to Colombia, Part III

eternally nostalgic
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Previously:  Return | Firsts | Memory | Solitude | Nostalgia | Graffiti | Needs | Narratives | Trauma | A love letter to Columbia, Part I | A love letter to Columbia, Part II

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.

Next: Conclusions from biased eyes

A love letter to Colombia, Part II

Previously:  Return | Firsts | Memory | Solitude | Nostalgia | Graffiti | Needs | Narratives | Trauma | A love letter to Columbia, Part I  

I will miss the jasmine tree, whose scent transports me back to Jerusalem and to every home I have 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?

Next: Wherein, amidst the rigid expectations, I find hope.

A Colombian vignette

eternally nostalgic

For the rest of Roxanne's dispatches from Colombia, you can wander over here to visit her field notes.

I am sitting alone. This has become a recurrent motif of my time here: girl in coffee shop, pen in hand, notebook in front of her, in anticipation of the arrival of the next person she will be interviewing for her field research. I notice my solitude is alarming to many Colombians. It invites whispers or even subtle pointing. Colombians point with their lips, as though they are kissing the air. I sit and wait, in the company of pairs of lips extended quizzically in my direction. At lunch a few weeks ago, my solitude was so perplexing that a whole family decided to join me and inquire about my status here: What brought you to Colombia? Where do you live? Why don't you sound Greek if, as you tell us, you are Greek? You have a boyfriend? Ah, then why are you here alone? I cherish the questions and the solitude alike. Steeped in other people's narratives and quotes, always alone in a coffee shop, it almost becomes an imperative to appreciate the research process and its rituals.

My interview subject arrives and my status in the coffee shop is restored. The collective relief at the apparent end of my solitude is palpable. The interview commences and the irony is not lost on me that we are discussing the darkest corners of a conflict while we are accompanied by carrot cake and surrounded by delicate paintings of women dancers. Perhaps we need the delicacy, fragility, and beauty in those moments. Perhaps, otherwise, they would become wholly indigestible.

Halfway through the interview, a man interrupts. I had noticed him looking at me earlier, pointing with his lips. He introduces himself as a poet and his friend as a philosopher and I think to myself that this is the stuff of Midnight in Paris, written by Woody Allen's Colombian alter ego. He doesn't even apologize for interrupting what I know he knew was too official-looking a conversation for a place that cozy and casual. "My friend over there and I over-estimated how much wine we  could drink. Would you like a glass?" Moments later, before I have had the chance to say yes or no, my interview subject and I continue our conversation about conflict in the company of two glasses of rosé wine.

As the interview wraps up, the poet (or maybe the philosopher?) gestures back towards me. "You know what it means to have a man buy you wine in Colombia?," he asks. I think to myself that it probably means the same thing as in the rest of the world, but I simply smile. "You have to buy the next round!" I decline, as another interview awaits me, but I offer another smile. "You know what I love about you?," he asks me. "You have this giant, world-powering smile one moment, and you look totally serious the next. Smile-business, smile-business. You flip like a switch. It's almost psychotic."

You know what I love about this country? That it never leaves you truly alone. That it inquires, prods, points till it is satisfied. That it jars you and fills your life with contradictions, with dancers and carrot cake and rose and conflict and trauma and contrasting memories. Most of all, I love its interruptions. I love the proverbial poet in a bar who will complement your smile, call you psychotic in the next breath, and in the breath after that, be gone, having returned to his own story.

When Memories Collide

eternally nostalgic

You could have fit five people in the front of this car. In Alexandria, maybe even eight.

In the early days of knowing one another, before love, we crammed into a 6-person van to see the other side of the Mediterranean. Having grown up in Thessaloniki, Greece, the Mediterranean always faced south of me. Watching the waves crash with an awareness that more sea lay north was a sight I needed to behold. Accomplishing that involved cramming 11 foreigners in a car that was designed for 6. My first glimpse of Alexandria took place while I was sitting on a woman's lap with my head bumping up against a sticker of Hannah Montana. Next to me, there were two men in the driver's seat. One of them was holding the door open. Or closed. Whichever way you look at it.

Those early days of Hannah Montana and two drivers and a stranger on your lap set the precedent for our driving excursions in the years to come. There was that one car we rented with an engine so loud that we would have to shout directions to one another to be heard. There was that other car-like vehicle with seats so small that our fingertips touched as he steered and I unfolded the map.

***

And now we are sitting in a car named Valor. A car with front seats so wide that you could fit our whole Egyptian clan between him, the driver, and me, the recently-arrived passenger.

"It feels strange to have you so far away," I tell him, aware of the irony that he feels far one seat away from me when we have just spent two months of summer a continent and a half away from one another.

"I know," he responds. "It's not a rental car if we are not practically sitting in each other's laps."

This is the kind of car that lets you plug in your iDevice of choice to fill the space with music. I fumble with the cables and remember driving through Kentucky with a car that only accepted cassette tapes, through Israel with the car that would not read CDs, through a desert with a car that would only broadcast Galgaalatz FM.

"Beit Habubot!" I scroll through his iPhone and find the music that provided the soundtrack to our last road trip, to what we had then nicknamed The Farewell Tour. Music pours out of Valor's sound system and all I hear is the sound of waterfalls in May, all I see is a green scarf tied around my hair and droplets forming on his forehead as we hike. Higher. Onward.

***

Beit Habubot continues to play in the background and I struggle to catch my breath as he drives through Harvard Square. I am not used to experiencing this space from behind a windshield. There are no one-way streets on foot for foreign freshmen walking to get their first burrito, or for sophomores slipping on ice, or juniors getting their heels caught in the cobblestone. By senior year, I had driven a U-Haul through here. I had already put a layer between myself and the site of memories, reinforced by the rage Boston driving inspires and the need to shelter oneself from cold and farewells.

In a minute, Harvard Square is behind us. We are past it. It is neither our final destination nor our shared one. This was Home for me before I had ever heard of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. Before "home is wherever I'm with you." Before him, and us, and love. Redrawing this memory to carve out space for him, and us, and a car named Valor feels like worlds colliding.

***

We park in front of a falafel shop in Davis Square. If Beit Habubot was the soundtrack of our shared explorations in the Middle East, then falafel was certainly the culinary backdrop. I had a favorite "falafel guy", he had a favorite "kebab man", and both of them made us promise that we would come back to Jerusalem in the future. My return to a former home well-loved is accountable to mashed chickpeas.

This falafel shop is hip. The walls are bright red. There are certificates of cleanliness on the wall, and of Not Being a Fire Hazard, and of being Allergen-Aware, and so many certificates that my head hurts with propriety. More typed signs, more instructions on how to make a falafel sandwich. Instructions on how to eat. Instructions on avoiding the garlic sauce. In the back, a woman is sculpting the mashed chickpeas into the perfect falafel ball. I can feel my falafel man cringing a continent away.

***

We take our falafel to go and Valor soon smells of the Middle East. Right by the checkout counter, we picked up a flyer about falafel. More instructions. More information. I read outloud to him in an homage to all the times I read out from a Lonely Planet or an incomplete map. "Falafel was a mid-1962 discovery for coca farmers in remote Colombia."

He does not let me finish the sentence. That is too much for both of us. We can deal with the transposition of Beit Habubot from Zefat to Harvard Square. We can wrap our minds around the slow shift from the overpacked van with Hannah Montana stickers on its ceiling to the Kias and tiny Fiats to the Valor. But Colombian falafel is where we draw the line.

"You know I love Colombia. You know just how much I love it," I offer. "Wouldn't it be convenient if falafel were from there?"

He does not need to respond. We have both born witness to Egyptians and Jordanians and Lebanese and Israelis lay claim to falafel as their national food. We have participated in the taste tests. We were even willing to carve out some room for it in our new home, to let it be part of a new story. Secretly, we may have even been hoping we could draw out a falafel man with his cart on these cobble stone streets. Colombian falafel, however, is too much of a stretch, too much of a collision of memories.

We drive back through Harvard Square in silence. Tamacun by Rodrigo y Gabriela is playing in the background. I picture him making pancakes in our Beer Sheva home and me getting in the way of the ladle with my kitchen dancing. We have each arrived in Boston with two-ish suitcases, but the hidden load is that of the memories of all the Elsewheres we have loved. We do not quite know how to be here. We were not quite ready for this collision of falafel and Colombia and Beit Habubot and Valor, of my Harvard Square and his driving, of his guitar in the corner and my baggage. Neither of us has unpacked. In a sense, we do not need to. There are memories spilling out of everything, slowly filling the empty space.