I’ve already written a bit about life in this small town. There’s so much to tell – some of it flashing as surface ‘stuff’, more of it, hidden below, invisible to my eye as a foreigner who sometimes forgets to take off her rose-colored glasses in life.
What’s it like to be a ‘kid’ in a relatively poor town in a dry, hot place in the coffee region of Colombia, where the main business is the planting, harvesting, and processing of sugar cane? As best as I can tell…
Kids seem happy, curious, open even when shy, easily playing marbles or football on the street any time they aren’t in school or when the sun is too hot. Every kid seems to have a bicycle and can be seen cycling up and down streets or heading to the local store for dinner additions. Kids have lots of freedom here and discipline is a problem in all schools (public and private). Kids everywhere in the country seem to be very kinesthetic and need lots of variety and change in learning. I’ve found it best to let them guide what I’m going to ‘teach’ them or what we’re going to talk about.
What do kids ask: besides if I have kids and how old I am, they ask about violence in the states. They seem to have the view of the states as so many have about Colombia. They ask about shootings, murder and suicide. The former is a known entity here, but suicide is pretty much unheard of, and that’s with all the poverty and recent killings around them. The other thing they ask about is how high the buildings are and what it’s like to ride in an elevator. Imagine! This is a town where only a handful of buildings are more than two stories high. When they learn I am flying back to the states they want to know if I get sick – like taking a bus from Medellin or Bogotá. (Fortunately not – taking the bus from Medellin was a 2-bag trip for me, one I’d rather not repeat…)
Kids at the local fiesta wander about on their own. Maybe it’s because the town is small and relatively safe? Or that parents – or more likely mothers were on their way. Every kid seems to love which is regatone, a type of latin music with a rap-like beat (or lack there-of). The louder it’s played the better, or so people must think. This they share after they ask me how I like the music (hmm… well….) and with many holding (and drinking from) a can of beer. Maybe it’s better to ‘teach’ kids to drink at any early age. I don’t know. And then there’s the dancing – sexy salsa which they learn before learning to walk – or so it seems to me.
As many kids have told me, drugs are also a problem. While cocaine is really a ‘foreigner thing’, there is more than enough coke and marijuana to go around for everyone to become users. While I’ve heard about the plethora of drugs all around me everywhere, especially in Medellin, I haven’t been approached – amazingly… or sadly….. It’s been here, wandering the streets that my senses have been filled most often with the smell of marijuana wafting through the cool night air. One afternoon I was bushwhacking with the guys along the river when the smell hit us and we could see the glow of a light ahead. By the time we got to the source, three kids – maybe 8 – 12 – were innocently munching mangoes.
One high-schooler, though they don’t refer to it as high school, let me know that the only options for students revolve around manual labor – construction or sugar cane processing. He plans on leaving and going to University and he certainly was thoughtful. Kids have high goals as recent graduates talked about University plans to become engineers and architects. I don’t know what percentage of kids go to University – and how many come back here.
And then there’s sex – girls shared it’s not unusual for girls to get pregnant at 14, 16 – and even at 12! Not that the U.S. is immune to this kind of problem – there’s just this universal challenge of young poor girls getting pregnant. I’ve met far more women with kids – and no husbands or father around which seems to be more the norm than the exception. And yes, kids are offered condoms – especially the girls. They are freely handed out. As one of the staff from the program pondered – ‘I don’t know why they don’t use them.” Is there the same problem in other cities or regions? Or like in so many other places, including the U.S., the issue is economics.
Every street seems to have one designated house that pulsates with music flooding the wonderfully cool evening. These days that pounding music is accentuated by flashing Christmas lights that have been up for the last few weeks. There’s a point to all this stay with me… Escorted home one night by M. (with the hair), one of his students was celebrating a birthday a few houses down from me, and we were invited to come in. After being offered a drink and potato chips and singing happy birthday, the regatone was turned up to a decibel level that had my neck skin vibrating. That wasn’t the only thing vibrating: Boys leaning against the wall danced while girls gyrate their butts against the boys penises. The mother caught my eye, pointed and seemed to shrug. I couldn’t help but think this was a pregnancy waiting to happen.
Dance is such a part of the culture and latin dancing is certainly provocative at its most innocent. But then there is dress: Provocative dressing is the norm, the tighter the better. I wondered out loud last night if there was an inverse relationship between a woman’s (poor) body image and economics. Here, there seems no body self-consciousness and the curvier the better so girls learn to flaunt from an early age. I have never felt so thin. Plastic surgery is huge here – not so much wrinkles – that doesn’t appear to be an issue: it’s butt and boob implants. If nothing else, an interesting way for people to spend their small, if any, discretionary income.
Many kids let us know learning English will be their saving grace and they want to learn. As I’ve mentioned before, after several years of classes, kids can’t say much. There’s no chance to speak and practice, especially in a town like this that has little if any access to foreigners. Teachers are faced with the same issue – they may know their grammar, but speaking is a whole other thing and another ‘challenge’ for teaching kids the language.
Nukanti, the wonderful organization I volunteered with is a wonderful drop in the bucket to provide kids a chance to expand their lives. And always there’s the question, how to capture and harness openness, curiosity and joy!