The Caribbean coast is probably the least private, least polite place in Colombia. Don’t get me wrong, that is part of why I love it, even when I get overwhelmed and cry on top of a bag of cabbages during a giant non-violent march or go hide in my house every night. People yell, demand, gossip, laugh, drive really fast, play loud music out of speakers the size of refrigerators, wear bright, tight clothes, and comment daily on your appearance, from weight change to clothing choice to hairstyle. The best way to convince someone to buy what you are selling, ranging from Christianity to remote controls to lottery tickets is to yell about it, preferably using a megaphone from the back of a motorcycle.
Everything is a big event and everything is public. My neighbours spend all day, when they are not cooking or washing clothes, seated in front of their houses in the street and gossiping about everyone who walks by, remarking on their marital state, their health, their kids, their spending habits or whatever else seems to be the flavour of the day.
In an almost paradoxical way, people also have enormous respect for authority, especially from outside the community. Anyone who professes to be a professional in anything is given the title doctor, listened to with respect and never questioned.
All of this means, therefore, that people have no trouble, and in fact immensely enjoy, talking about their health and going to medical clinics. Once, a neighbour told the story of breaking her arm, taking advantage of the space for personal thanksgiving in church, for an entire hour. There are also a thousand remedies and pills for everything, all of which can be disused and debated for a long time. This is all part of what makes being invited to accompany a health workshop for senior citizens a great way to spend a morning.
We started the workshop by going around in circle, and each person had to share their various ailments. After hearing long stories from the first few people, all excited to share five or more problems, participants were limited to divulging the top problem, which ranged from high cholesterol to aching bones to diabetes to, in a few cases, cancer.
We did warm up stretches, and then received a technical chat about various different health problems. A lot of people had a small nap during this part, but were very happy to respond to questions and share their own advice when the space became available. During the section on obesity, I was volunteered to measure waists to do a healthy or unhealthy circumference check. In contrast to a Canadian event, where people would have been reluctant and then kept the information private, everyone was eager to compare notes with their neighbour and the people with measuring tapes were practically mobbed with eager participants, all delighted to find out if they should gain or lose weight.
Everyone always has to have a story to tell about every subject, therefore, during every pause, everyone would turn to their neighbour and tell a story about how the exact same thing had happened to them and to other people that they knew.
Some of the best moments happened around the theme of prostate exams and bladder control. There was a high amount of verbal discord expressed when the theme came up, especially by the male population, with a lot of “I’ll never let someone do that” expressed with horror. However, when explained that when women give birth or have any sort of exam, the discomfort factor is significantly augmented, none of the women in attendance had any sort of sympathy and were quite vocal about it.
Incontinence had similar results, especially when the sanitary napkins and disposable underwear were displayed, with everyone turning to their neighbour to express a commentary. Some people were not quite sure, but the lady seated beside me was convinced that these options, “Are a gift from God and therefore natural.”
Other high points included learning to find our pulses in our elbows, discussing healthy food choices (there was a lot of audience murmuring about this one), reviewing the skeletal system, warnings about self-medication and talking about exercise options. A lot of good-natured kidding took place throughout the entire morning. I felt honoured to get to hang out with some of my favourite people in Mampuján all morning.
Intentional social spaces are few, and workshops like these provide an opportunity for seniors to get together and talk about life and to feel valued and appreciated at the same time. It doesn’t really matter what the topic is, people wear their best clothes and come prepared to enjoy themselves. There are no kids or grandchildren around; rather, there is freedom to say whatever and to be oneself with the companions one grew up and now are growing old with.
I’m pretty excited for next week. We are going to learn exercises we can do at home and it’s going to be great!