Once a year, I spend a day travelling by jeep through the Montes de Maria. I hate it. I love the communities that we visit, the conversations and meetings, the spaces of reflection afterwards, the green beauty surrounding everything. It’s the transportation that gets to me.
Days before leaving, my stomach starts clenching and I have to remind myself to breath. “It will all be okay, ”I tell myself. “I will get on that jeep and then I will get off and then back on again, and then I will finally be home and can have a shower and celebrate being alive.”
The nonchalant aplomb with which community members move by jeep, boat, donkey, motorcycle and horse makes me feel ashamed for my fear. Yes, statistically, more people die from transportation accidents than from armed conflict, but for many, challenging forms of transit are the only option to get in and out of their communities. As well, this transportation provides the only access, albeit still limited, to markets, education and health care. Transportation is scary but there are no other options.
Make no mistake, it is a privilege to visit communities like El Milagro. I return the hugs of my friends who live and work in these hamlets, falling back into easy rhythms of laughter and storytelling. Every time, I am awed by their their desire to do everything they can to advocate for better access to services, including roads, so that they can remain living on their land. I remember that the majority of people were displaced during the violence and have chosen to return. With Jorge still in jail, I recognize that fighting for their rights is a costly decision.
Yet what choice is there? Without roads (or schools or health care or reparations or state presence or political will for change), life is impossibly hard.
Being scared and uncomfortable for only one day is a privilege.
While we were in El Milagro, our group of young Mennonite youth from Lancaster participated in some activities with young people from five other communities in the area. We played charades, writing some of our daily activities on slips of paper and placing them in a hat for the other groups to act out. No one in our group could guess the majority of the activities acted out by the Colombians, including hunting armadillos, washing clothes in the creek, husking rice, and sawing wood by hand. The Lancaster youth remarked to themselves how the daily activities they had placed in the hat, like going out for ice cream and driving cars were the only leisure activities that involved having money.
My personal favourite, however, was the plant identification game. We divided into new groups, each with a list of four different plants in the area. Within five minutes, between all the groups, we had collected twenty different leaves from within a 100 metre radius. Perhaps even more remarkable was the explanation of their uses: of all of the leaves, only one was considered to be solely decorative, not medicinal or helpful for building or water conservation.
Poverty is not glamorous. That does not mean, however, that poor people do not have dignity or knowledge, even if their access to resources is limited and their daily lives are very different.
In the end, I go back to middle class Bogota and grumble about the sidewalk repair work taking place in my neighbourhood, work that will in the end only make my life better. Every time I return, I reflect upon the fact that during my whole entire life, I have never had to advocate for my own basic rights to human services; within the spaces where I do assert my rights, I assume that I will be listened to and that situations will change. (This is of course, not true for many Canadians, including Indigenous people and sexual assault victims).
I read an article recently on self-care and how once we get away from the thought that kale smoothies, not systemic change, will solve everything that is wrong with us, the idea of taking care of one’s self and each other in community is the most radical practice that we can engage in. The article encouraged us to take our example from alternative communities, where new ways of care are developed from the principles that love and acceptance are radical practices.
I walk to work and I walk home. My life is neatly divided into segments of work and leisure. While communities on the coast are not utopias and holidays cannot be neatly scheduled, they model community care in a way that my carefully divided life cannot because in a community, everyone is connected
On our first day on the coast, we visited the town of Libertad and Eli hugged me and hugged me. She remembered all of the little details of my life, down to my birthday and the names of my siblings. As she pointed out every part of her life in relation to her town, I felt alternative senses of shame and wonder: wonder because of how much her time with us had meant and shame because it had not meant the same to me, as I counted the days until my quiet existence would be restored.
I am grateful for a chance to experience a part of her world, to clap along to a dance off on the beach and walk arm in arm down her streets under the midday sun, to be reminded that the world is full of beauty, and that the people in my life matter and I matter to them.
I don’t know if I will choose to travel by jeep again through the Montes de Maria. I am already nervous thinking about it. There are no easy answers, however. Is personal safety more important than friendship and connections? I am reminded again of what a complex world we live in when I have the possibility to choose to be uncomfortable and others do not.
I honour the everyday courage of Colombians across the country who advocate in community, dance on the beach, cultivate medicinal plants and travel the impossibly long 16 kilometres from the highway to El Milagro, whether they are afraid or not.