Thoughts on returning to Colombia
Authors Note: Peace Corps Volunteers who served in Colombia were invited to return to Colombia in 2008 to visit their sites and to witness how Colombia was overcoming the violence and civil discord prevalent during the 1980s. This essay expresses my thoughts at that time.
Traveling back to Colombia, more than forty years later, I recall my first plane ride. It was to Peace Corps training. Just graduated from college, the whole world was awaiting me and was mine to experience or was it? Initially there was the thrill of the airplane ride, but the challenges at the end of the plane ride were daunting when I chose to think about them.
Earlier that spring when I announced to family, friends and college professors that I had been accepted for Peace Corps training, their reactions were less than supporting or congratulatory. Peace Corps was in its infancy; there were no models for success. Moreover, the initial programs in community development were male dominated. Yet, it was a community development program to which I was invited.
My own self-confidence was also challenged; the Peace Corps invitation was to a training program, with the admonishment that only those who successfully completed the training program would become Volunteers and travel to Colombia.
Already I had rejected the accepted social roles for a woman of my time. I was not prepared to be a teacher or a nurse, and had graduated from college with a BA and not an MRS.
As I prepared for the adventure, doubts of my success were constant. Yes, my transcript showed above average grades in Spanish. I knew that was more about my ability to pass written exams than to actually speaking Spanish.
While I would have chosen to enter the training program quietly and unobtrusively, this was not possible. Government bureaucracy conducted a massive security investigation into my background as well as an inordinate health and physical examination. “Agents” interviewed former classmates, teachers, neighbors and summer employers. It seemed as if everyone in my hometown (population about 8000) knew of my invitation to the Kennedy Kiddy Corps (as it was dubbed in this Republican community).
If I did not successfully complete the training program, I had no backup plan. Indeed, what was I thinking?
Later, a Peace Corps Volunteer
On the plane ride to Colombia, no longer a trainee, now a Peace Corps Volunteer; again I was full of mixed emotions. How had I managed to survive the vigorous training programs and all the de-selection intervals? Here I was, on an airplane to Bogota with nearly 100 others who were also Volunteers. It was easy to understand how the top people in the language levels had been chosen; they could speak Spanish, either by birthright or by having studied in Spain at some point in their lives. Some came from California, New Mexico or Arizona, so Spanish was part of their every day existence. My Pennsylvania heritage, with no experience in a Spanish or Latin American culture, did not put me with those people.
While none of us seemed to have any experience in community development, some of the men had worked on construction projects doing various labor jobs. We all learned how to make bricks and some of us had worked on simple construction projects during training. This was our skill training in community action. How had this training prepared any of us for community action and development as Peace Corps Volunteers to change the world, or even some small part of it? How naïve could I be? Again, what was I thinking?
Yet I had managed to survive working in community action in that neighborhood on West 87th street in New York City. Had I actually done something positive by not flinching when I realized I was the minority in the neighborhood?
I was not a stellar performer in the Outward Bound program in Puerto Rico, finding myself upside down swinging from the safety rope more than once when rock climbing. I did complete the swimming tests with relative ease, this had to count for something! But then, there was that nasty photo taken of our group, climbing into a taxi to reach our destination on the four-day wilderness trek into the rain forest.
Nevertheless the excitement of this adventure to Colombia was nearly overwhelming. Here I was, traveling to a foreign country on a government-issued passport. All my doubts were cast aside. I was determined to succeed. Since I had not been de-selected, I was qualified. I could do this. There was no backup plan, this was my destiny!
Then reality set in. Waking up the first morning, in a hotel in Bogota and entering the dining room for breakfast, the waiter gave each of us menus and patiently waited to take our order. No English spoken! I was in Colombia and it was time to pass the real test. Café con leche, pan tostado con manteca y jugo de naranja! Yes, I could survive in Colombia!
Returning to Colombia in 2008
Now I am traveling to Colombia again, to where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Once again, I am anxious and excited. That my Spanish may not be perfect is incidental. Many years ago, I was part of a group that had worked for two years to make small changes to improve the living conditions of the Colombian people. At the time, it was a daily adventure to see what obstacles would challenge our efforts. Being able to communicate in Spanish was very important at that time.
Nevertheless, serving as a Volunteer, I had found the people industrious, intelligent, full of life and happy; the countryside beautiful, welcoming and hospitable. So much has happened in these intervening years. Peace Corps projects were terminated in Colombia in 1981 when it was clear the country was engaged in civil war and the safety of volunteers could no longer be guaranteed. The overriding reputation of the drug cartel and Pablo Escobar erased all images of the beautiful and industrious people of Colombia. Although Escobar was assassinated in 1993, the drug cartel did not disband. Drug production and traffic remained a problem.
While as former Peace Corps Volunteers we were invited to Colombia for a conference, we were also given detailed instructions with regard to our personal security to prepare for this trip. Initially hesitant to make this journey, but in the end, decided it was worth the risk. My spouse Kevin clearly wanted to return to Colombia. Could I let him travel alone? What was I thinking this time?
Slowly we began making travel arrangements. With each email from the Friends of Colombia, we followed the instructions, completed the forms and returned them. The actual event seemed distant in time. We researched travel conditions in Colombia, validated with Colombian acquaintances that the country was safe for foreign travelers, updated our inoculations, and checked with our Peace Corps friends. (Were any of them planning to make this trip? Wonderful, we would reconnect with folks we had not seen in several years.)
The day of departure, we flew from Logan to Miami. Working through the chaos of Miami International Airport customs and immigration, we arrived in the boarding area for the Avianca Cartegena flight to learn our flight was delayed at least two hours. Operation Tortuga (Operation turtle), not an unusual occurrence when traveling in Colombia. Looking around at our fellow passengers, we anticipated that many were former Peace Corps Volunteers we might recognize, as well as Colombians, but nearly everyone was a stranger. There were some familiar faces among the group, we all had the resigned knowing look of experienced travelers in Latin America being delayed from time to time for no apparent reason.
Indeed there were former Peace Corps Volunteers among our traveling companions, but few were greeting each other or striking up conversations with unknown persons. (In contrast to my first plane ride to training, flying across the country from Pittsburgh to Chicago to Albuquerque, when there were other trainees on the flight, we managed to identify each other and become friends, even before we touched down in Albuquerque for our training program. All of us full of excitement, ready for an adventure!)
Finally we arrived in Colombia and the conference opened. While the Colombian people have experienced many difficulties and hardships over the years, their spirits are not broken. The day before the conference opened, there was a countrywide March for Peace against the violence. Ten million people participated and marched, not only in Colombia but around the world. Their white T-shirts proclaimed “I am Colombia” and on the back, the shirts stated “no more kidnappings, no more lies, no more murders, no more FARC.” There was nothing about this event in the international news, but it was a huge event in Colombia. Peace Corps members who had arrived early marched!
Throughout the Conference, national leaders and dignitaries presentations focused on where the country had been and where the country is now, complete with the statistics and the trends showing the progress. Traveling in the country, we saw the positive signs of the progress and development that is taking place.
In my city site, Medellin, a city of three million people now (from one million forty years ago), there is now a very sophisticated rapid transit system, a layout of beautiful parks and museums designed for the people to enjoy. The university system is well developed. There is a new bullfight stadium, covered!
Experiencing the Colombia of today was like waking up after forty years (akin to Rip Van Winkle’s experience), and seeing all the changes and improvements. It was worthwhile to return to Colombia! What was I thinking?