I arrived in Medellín last Sunday evening to the most warm and welcoming couple, Alonso and Patricia. Alonso works with an NGO that monitors and ensures that the landmine clearance practices in Colombia are following protocol and are up to international standards. They were so understanding of cultural transitions, as they said that their son studied and now lives in Calgary, so they wanted to help me in any way they could. As we drove down the winding mountain road from the airport, I was already struck by the breathtaking views of the lush green rolling hills below. As we got closer to Medellín, we stopped at a restaurant that looked down on the whole valley and I had my first traditional Bandeja Paisa, which is a meal of arepa (corn cakes), patacones (fried plantain), chorizo, carne asada and rice. It was delicious, to say the least!
I have been staying at the home of a colleague, Iván, who works in the same office but for an organization that focuses on children affected by the armed conflict. We have had many a great conversation this week about our mutual interest in issues such as the use of child soldiers in Colombia among others. I even got to attend a discussion about the future of children and violence in Medellín, for which Iván was one of the speakers. It has also been extremely helpful staying with Iván and his family, because he has helped me figure out the routes to get to the office on the bus and metro and saved me probably many moments of frustration and misunderstanding, and so on. I have been struggling a bit with the regional accent and heavy use of slang that is common in the Antioquia Spanish; however, even within one week, I’m finding it easier and easier to understand and partake in conversation, especially in the office. Thankfully I have really felt the warmth and genuine spirit of Paisa people this week. Between Alonso and his wife, Iván’s family and everyone in the office, many have helped me to find my way. In particular, one woman from the office, Mary, has been accompanying me at lunch time so that I don’t have to go to el Centro (a more rough area of the city) by myself to get things like my metro card, cell phone, etc.
As for the actual work aspect of this adventure, I arrived at the office Monday morning and was introduced to the handful of other people who share the space. The office is on the 14th floor of a modern building in the central district of the city. All week I kept catching myself staring out the windows at the incredible 180-degree view of the mountains and the city. There’s even a huge adjoining outdoor terrace for our use!
I set myself up at my desk and got right into reading through the plan of a risk education program that CCCM is doing in partnership with UNICEF and that I will be working with. An overview of other work I will be doing includes field visits for the monitoring and evaluation of victim assistance programs and to assess how to improve the gender-specific aspects of assistance. On these field visits, I will also be preparing a photography project to eventually present to the local government to better educate them on the situation of landmine victims. I will also be researching for and writing grant proposals and providing support locally in the office when victims come to us for support.
Now for some fun and quite memorable experiences that I’ve had this week…I arrived to the office on Wednesday morning and as I opened the main doors, immediately had soaking wet feet. Long story short, the water tank on the roof had flooded the elevator and the entire stairwell…so, there was only one way up – 14 floors of stairs with a river flowing down them. Another interesting experience can be had at any parkade in Colombia. Only the driver of the car is allowed to go into the parkade. So, this means that all passengers have to get out of the car before it enters the parkade and stand in a line waiting for each driver to come down. And last but not least, many times this week I’ve noticed people doing a variety of spectacle-like things in crosswalks when cars are waiting at red lights. I finally asked someone in the office why there were people juggling soccer balls, doing gymnastics, twirling batons, etc. in the intersections. Apparently, people put on shows for the cars and earn part of their living this way.
Needless to say, this first week has been full of new and wonderful experiences!