Today we took the 2 hour drive to the small artisan and indigenous village of Otavalo, a popular day trip from travelers from Quito. Karina, a local musician picked us up at the Folklore Hotel in Quito. We stopped along the way to shoot some b-roll of the beautiful, mountainous surroundings.
Our first stop was the famous market, which is usually in full swing on Saturdays. Even though we were a day early, most of the vendors were out and selling stuff pretty aggressively and as usual, I bought things I really didn’t have room for in my bag. But this is THE spot to go to stock up on any gifts or souvenirs you care to buy when in Ecuador. If you wait until you get to the airport you will likely pay 4 or 5 times as much for the very same merchandise.
I purchased some typical Ecuadorian pants and a small painting and anything else that caught my fancy and I thought I could stuff into my backpack.
We then headed over to Nanda Manachi where Jose Luis and his family, which comprise the Andean musical group Los Hermanos Pichamba performed a typical Andean song for us.
Here is a little video preview of their performance for you to enjoy. Check out the cute little boy (we confirmed, he is indeed a little boy) singing his heart out!
Jose Luis then demonstrated how some of the instruments are made and he taught us a little bit about the history and heritage of the major instruments used in Andean music. We were joined by about 30 jet lagged but very friendly Australian tourists.
After the demonstrations and the Australian Tour Group went on their way, Jose Luis’s family prepared Cuy (Guinea Pig) for lunch.. a typical Andean delicacy. Jose Luise brought it to us whole, head, little teeth and all, and looked pretty scary but after they chopped it up and removed the head, it was very edible and I must admit, yep, it tasted like chicken.
I felt a little guilty because just the previous day I had made friends with a little baby guinea pig (I named him Snowball) just the day before at the Museum Intinan at the Mitad Del Mundo (Middle of the World). I sure hope they weren’t close relations.
Some sections of the Cuy still had a little fur left on the skin and since I don’t eat skin anyway (that’s where most of the fat is on almost any animal), I gave it to our producer Renzo, who happily ate the skin, fur and all!
After all this we took a few pick up shots of Otavalo and then headed back to Quito where we caught a late bus for the 3 hour bus ride to Baños. We arrived around 1AM at our hostel La Casa Verde and proceeded to sleep like rocks. Dead tired. A good if tiresome day.
In case you don’t know them, World Vision (or Vision Mundial as it is known in Latin America) is one of the world’s premiere charitable organizations. They work closely with kids and families in the U.S. and in almost 100 impoverished and developing countries to help them break the devastating and tragic cycle of poverty.
Back in December, when we were shooting our first episode of Raw Travel for Colombia, I had the pleasure of touring their Bogota office and interviewing Edgar Florez, National Director of World Vision Colombia.
More recently, I had the honor and privilege of witnessing World Vision in action. Their dedicated army of staff and volunteers registered kids and families in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Medellin, Colombia, Comuna Ocho (Community 8). My cameraman for the day, Raul, a U.S. born Colombian-American now living in Medellin picked me up at 6:30AM (evidently volunteering requires getting up early), to meet with Myriam, World Vision’s Regional Coordinator for Medellin.
We were joined by Edgar (not Edgar Florez), a U.S. educated Colombian and extremely experienced translator who regularly volunteers his services for World Vision. Though Raul speaks fluent Spanish and English and Myriam could understand English, it was a great comfort not to have to rely on my cave man Spanish the entire day.
After a short meeting at their offices, we had a delicious, typical Colombian breakfast and headed over by taxi to Comuna 8. Comuna 8 is on the outskirts of Medellin, way up in top of the mountains. The view is absolutely incredible and airplanes from the airport were actually flying below us!
Unfortunately the incredible views, views that in the U.S. would be reserved for the wealthiest, were offset by the fact that Comuna 8 is controlled by Gangs (there are still over 250 currently active in Medellin)and crippling poverty.
What does this mean for the citizens and visitors of Comuna 8? Well for us, as visitors, it meant we’d have to wear World Vision Shirts in plain view and our taxi driver would have to obtain permission for us to visit and prominently display a “Volunteer” tag on his windshield.
For people doing business in Comuna 8 (bus companies, food and beverage suppliers, etc.) it means they have to pay “fees” to each gang that happens to control the particular area they work in. But it’s the residents that pay the heaviest price, they pay weekly “protection” fees to their respective gang “landlord” and have restricted movement during certain hours.
While we were there, there was little evidence of this oppression or even evidence of gangs, other than we were told when and where we could safely pull out the camera to shoot. Also someone pointed out graffiti that marked a particular gang’s territory. We learned that we’d need to leave before 4PM because even the residents risk personal safety if they venture outside of their block after 4pm.
Someone also pointed out to me the infamous “borrachero” tree that grows wild all over Colombia and creates scopolamine, the “zombie” drug, sometimes used by criminals to rob or rape unsuspecting victims. They assured me the flowers from the tree itself were perfectly safe and naturally occurring all over Colombia. I must point out that while this drug is a real threat and no urban myth, I have never, ever had any personal safety issues when visiting Colombia. Common sense goes a long way all over the world it seems.
During our tour, every time I saw a young boy of 9, 10 or 11 (some smoking cigarettes) , I couldn’t help but wonder if they were destined for a life in the gang or could an organization like World Vision have an impact on this kid’s life? I was told later that the gangs often use young kids around this age as mules to hide their drugs and guns, correctly believing they’d be less suspicious to any authorities when the crackdowns and raids in these barrios occur.
World Vision works in partnership with the community, enlisting many volunteers who live there locally. Without this partnership it would be impossible to operate effectively and help the children and their families.
Myriam recruited one of World Vision’s local volunteers who lived in the neighborhood to show us around and tour the barrio, thus ensuring our safety and ability to shoot our cameras uninhibited.
We shot a lot of great footage as many families invited us into their homes to see how they lived. One family had just delivered days old twin babies. When I walked in the father was giving one a bath while the mother was drying the other off and the adorable sister not so shyly watched us.
I was moved by the tenderness of the father. Myriam informed me she considered him a model father. I later decided I wanted to become a “Sponsor” for these twins (less than $20 a month each). They clearly had the love, now they just need a little money. I think it’s going to be a pleasure to see them grow up and develop the next 15-20 years of our respective lives.
I can’t wait to visit them as they get older and help them in any way I can, but I can’t help wondering about all the other kids without sponsors. Is it right that some win “the lottery” and others don’t? I’ve learned a lot about effectively helping impoverished people, especially after reading a great book called “The Life You Can Save” by Peter Singer. We simply cannot wait for the perfect opportunity to save everyone or nothing will ever happen.
But if those who can (i.e. most people who will read this) will simply try to save someone, then the worst poverty on the planet can actually be eradicated in a matter of years, not centuries. Wow, think about a world without poverty? What are the possibilities for us all then?
Thanks to Billionaires like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and millions of other “regular folks” things are changing. But everyday that we wait, tens of thousands of children die of easily treatable and preventable disease. While the U.S. does contribute greatly to charities, the vast majority of donations go to philanthropic organizations right here in the U.S. (often to local art organizations like the local symphony or museum, certainly not to actual starving people).
Our foreign aid tax dollars don’t go to the poorest countries on the planet either. They go to our allies in the war on terror and to places like Iraq and Afghanistan for political purposes, even though this gets lumped in and counted as humanitarian aid.
In other words, while the U.S., on the surface, seems to be a generous nation when you really analyze it, we are quite selfish. We spend a tiny, tiny percentage of our income and most of that ends up where it is needed least, in the U.S.
We have to ask ourselves “are U.S. lives worth more than others”? What is the cost of saving a U.S. life (estimates are in the millions) versus someone in the worlds’ poorest countries (in the thousands or even hundreds)? Even less expensive is bettering the lives of those in the poorest nations. For example, just $50 can give someone in a developing country cataract surgery and a new life where they can work for themselves, rather than simply beg for spare change.
We need to change our view of the world and understand that “THEIR” problems are “OUR” problems, not just from a humanitarian point of view but from an economic and security point of view.
I firmly believe that the affluence the U.S. has enjoyed the last few decades cannot continue to exist securely and safely for the long term as long as the majority of the people on the planet (many just miles from our own borders) are forced to try and live on less than $2 per day and make heartbreaking decisions like which child will go to school and which will have to work to help the family survive.
I saw in person that organizations like World Vision are truly making a difference. Myriam knew many of the parents and children in the community personally and after registering the families, each family received a gift “bowl” of goodies, like flour, cooking supplies, and little things that we take for granted but mean so much to a family living on the fringes of society and the edge of survival.
One lady had received help with fixing her house and a new bed after the rains had destroyed her old one. She proudly toured our cameras around while singing the praises of World Vision.
Medellin’s local government is to be applauded as well. They have a new and modern health clinic that offers medical treatment at greatly reduced cost to families in the Comuna 8 (in the meantime my health insurance premiums in arguably the most affluent society in the world climb 15% annually for less and less coverage).
They are building an Eco Park that will draw tourists from all over the city and possibly the country and help bring local tourism revenue as well. This strategy has proven effective in other at risk barrios in Medellin like Santo Domingo, where a new library and metro cable station was built and now is one of the more visited sites in the city.
A good economy is probably the surest way to break the power the gangs have over the Comuna 8 and the combination of World Vision, brave volunteers from the community and an enlightened government in Medellin could be just the powerful combination necessary to break the decades old cycle of poverty and gang control.
If you’d like to find out more how organizations like World Vision help so many children and families on our planet whose lives are sometimes (and sometimes all the time) at risk or at best can be described as a living hell, then please visit their website at www.visionmundial.org or www.worldvision.org . Also check out www.thelifeyoucansave.org for other practical ways for helping others.
You can view more photos from our tour of Comuna 8 HERE.
I felt like we’re preparing for a week long trip instead of a day trip to San Basilio Palenque. But not a lot of tourists do this trip, and it’s a little tough to get there in normal situations much less when it’s been raining for days no end.
After an early call time, we stopped back at the market in Cartagena to gather food for the Sancocho that Luis Towers’ (who is originally from Palenque) family was to make for us. While Luis and Renzo shopped for food, Moses and I stayed with the taxi driver in some skinny shade in the withering heat. We were so bored we started to shoot some more b-roll of the market.
We shot me risking death and injury crossing the busy street, we shot the fish hung up, the rooster tied to the top of a crate, young kids waving at the camera… you name it.
Finally Luis and Renzo made their way over with a couple of young kids enlisted to help them carry the food. We loaded it into the trunk of the little taxi. Renzo and Luis are big, tall guys. Moses and I are average size and the taxi driver is pretty small, but you add it all up, we have 5 people in a tiny, yellow economy taxi and I’m sitting “bitch” (middle) in the back with a sack of food on my lap.
We determine we’d never make the 1 ½ taxi ride to Palenque this way so we decide it’s best if Luis goes by bus and meets us there. My cramped legs thanked him for his sacrifice.
We were all in heaven again with our own seat when Luis unloads onto the bus. At first since I’ve been in Colombia, we got stopped a lot by the military at different checkpoints along the way. Luckily our taxi driver’s papers were all in order so each delay is not entirely brutal.
When we finally arrive at the turn off for Palenque, Luis has already arrived (the bus beat the taxi, unbelievable), and there is a big 4 wheel driver cargo truck that will take us the rest of the way to Palenque as the roads are still a muddy, rutty mess from the rains.
We all, taxi driver included, climbed into the truck and made the slow, bumpy, muddy and slippery journey into town. Palenque is what I expected thanks to Renzo’s vivid descriptions of the place. It was founded well by escaped slaves from Cartagena.
The people who live there today are all direct descendants of this brave group of runaway slaves. There is electricity but I understand that it goes out a lot.
Luis’ family’s house is one of the nicer ones in town and it is where we set up camp to shoot and unload the food so the ladies could start preparing the Sancocho in the wood stove in the back yard. It’s hot and humid but I enjoyed getting to know the people from town.
There are lots of young boys and girls who were curious and came over to see what all the fuss is about. I was able to get to know a few of them as we shot.
I spent a little time with an expert on the Palenque language which is a unique dialect that combines elements of all the African languages represented in the village with Spanish. He taught me a few words, but considering I’m still having difficulty with Spanish, you can probably guess that my lesson was slow and painful.
I had even less success in learning the African drum, which is called the Alegre (a Spanish word for “happy”). I had more success eating the Sancocho whose delicious smells wafting through the house kept me motivated.
After lunch we headed over to the ball field where Renzo had brought some old bats, gloves and balls to give to the kids. They loved it! We played a few innings of baseball with palm leaves serving as our bases. The kids seemed unimpressed when I chased down a ball and helped get an out but these guys are hardcore baseball and soccer players.
When it was time to head back, Renzo decided to stay overnight and catch a bus back in the morning. So Moses, the taxi driver and I were loaded back into the big Cargo truck who took us back to our taxi parked at a friend’s farm. The cargo truck charged us $15 U.S. for the round trip, which is pretty expensive but the only other options would have been to hitch a ride on the back of a motorcycle trying to balance expensive camera equipment over really rough terrain. I think we made the right choice.
We were sort of in a hurry to get back, to be honest, but we shouldn’t have bothered. After we got into the taxi we were not on the road for half an hour before traffic suddenly stopped and we find ourselves in the middle of a traffic jam on a bridge in the middle of nowhere.
There had been a trailer truck overturned in the marsh earlier that day and they had decided to pick that evening to get it out. Just our luck. We’d sit on that bridge with hundreds of other cars, buses and trailer trucks for 2 hours before we could start heading back to Cartagena. As hard as it was for us, I can’t imagine what it was like for all those people crammed on the hot buses.
I walked past a couple and heard screaming babies and it reminded me of being stranded on a plane for hours on end, except no climate control, no bathroom or beverage service and mosquitoes attacking you relentlessly. And while maybe the passengers could disembark on a bus, I didn’t see any do it. They say patiently, screaming babies, mosquitoes and all, for 2 hours.
Traveling in Latin America can really take some getting used to but seeing San Basilio de Palenque was worth it. The Afro-Latino culture is really unique in Colombia and they have their own unique history and culture that is worthy of exploring for the curious traveler. If you’re ever down in Cartagena, think about taking a day to go see the village of San Basilio Palenque. The roads will most likely be better and I think you’ll find the people very friendly and hospitable and the culture very worth exploring.
Check out more pics from our trip to San Basilio de Palenque HERE
We woke up brutally early to catch a flight from Pereira to Cartagena with a stop in Bogota. Renzo, the Supervising Producer, was really, really sick all night. Food poisoning. Definitely not good.
Once at the Pereira airport, complete with an hour long delay, Renzo was not getting any better. Poor guy was in hell. We arrive at the Bogota airport to catch our connection to Cartagena and I got something to eat but Renzo could hold nothing down.
At Bogota airport we met up with Moses, our cameraman / editor who joined us for the remainder of the trip. Moe is a talented and experienced guy so luckily, Moe and I could at least carry on without Renzo. There is never a good time to be sick when traveling but at least we have a back up with Moses.
In Cartagena the weather was absolutely horrible on arrival. It had been raining hard for days and the streets were completely flooded. Our hotel situation was not nailed down either but Renzo’s buddy, Luis Towers, a local Champeta musician was on the case and nailed down the Villa Colonial in Getsmani just outside the old city. It was cool.
Since Renzo was exhausted after being up all night and needed some sleep, Moses, Luis Torres and I headed out to shoot some b-roll. It started raining again so we stop to have a light lunch, but we really don’t get much video shot. We instead go on a quest to buy ponchos for everyone as it looked like we’re going to need them.
Later that night the rain lifted for a bit and Moses and I took advantage to get some night shots of the old city. I sure hope this rain goes away tomorrow. Cartagena is not as much fun when it’s raining, but it still beats snow any day of the week!