Willow Wonderings

For 24 Last Hours in Latin America

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On my last full day in Latin America, the morning came quickly.

It was 8:15 when my friend Shane’s iPhone sounded. The night before, a few friends from Argentina had come in around 4 in the morning after a night of salsa dancing so I had not slept very much, and my eyelids were heavier than the ideal. Quinn, who was sleeping in the bunk above me, had already risen earlier to explore the city for his last morning. We had fifteen minutes before we would leave the hostel to meet Clarise for our last breakfast together. Pressed for time, I was grateful that showers in the hostel lifestyle are optional. I was also grateful to be woken up by the lulo and papaya juice prepared freshly by our friendly hostel owner, Novia.

As we made our way to breakfast at the Colombian coffee hot-spot, Juan Valdez, the sky in Bogotá was clear and still. We laughed and laughed during our last breakfast, remembering silly moments from the past more-than-four months together. Just in our week in Bogotá, we had traveled by public transit to visit a salt cathedral, wandered through Christmas fairs, sung Novena prayers with Clarise’s family, and climbed the hill of Monserrate to see the view of the city.

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As Quinn hopped into his taxi and headed to the airport, Clarise and I went to a less touristy area of town to visit the Center for Memory, Peace, and Reconciliation (Centro de Memoria, Paz, y Reconciliacion). At first, I thought that we were lost or confused because the entrance was free yet no one was there with us. The silence of the exhibit contributed to the tone of solemn and haunting reflection upon the longest civil war in Latin American history.

The most impactful part of the exhibit, from my perspective, was a broken statue of the Virgin Mary. As a representation of the broken faith of the people, I also saw the statue as a symbol of the violation of women that occurred during the war and continually shapes reality in Latin America. Innocent mothers and children were disappeared, their bodies to be later discovered in mass graves (or not, leaving their families in continual questioning). The necessity, then and now, is the revelation of truth to give dignity to the victims and their families.

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Bodies, bodies, on the floor, not a name to be spoken
Disappeared, hung and buried, the edges of memory broken
Are you a brother or a husband, a mother, sister, known or unknown victim?
Bodies, bodies, one by thousands, not a spirit to be woken.

Leaving the center and re-entering the city, I realized that I had only carried American cash with me. Clarise kindly lent me 2,000 pesos (roughly 85 cents) to be able to take the new transmillenio transit system to travel back to the center. To enter, however, I needed a card that only locals possess. Outside the gates stood one man; his name was Alberto, and he graciously let me enter with his card in exchange for a few pesos. He said that the fare on his card came from the government; after receiving medical treatment for almost committing suicide, he had one free pass per month to go back to the hospital. He shared many of his concerns about psychiatric treatment. I could not help but continue thinking about him and the intimate, though short, interaction we shared as I boarded the bus.

While on the bus, I noted that the Centro is not the only public declaration against violence; the walls of Bogotá are open canvases for graffiti artists to speak their truths. Semillas de resistencia, one read, seeds of resistance – planted and cultivated for the hundreds of thousands of victims. My other favorite piece read – armas, + universidades, (less arms, more universities). Graffiti in Bogotá takes the forms of artists’ tags, like any other city, but also includes stunning portraits of indigenous women, murals with hidden political commentaries, and intricate geometric drawings.

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When the bus reached its terminal, I exited through a narrow passageway where two violinists played, then emerged from underground to find the center bustling with activity. For two hours, I simply wandered through corners, around markets, clutching my camera bag in one hand and the coffee and chocolate that I had purchased for friends in the other. The most impressive street was lined with fruit vendors, offering a whole sliced mango for less than a dollar. While surveying the many flavors available, a young woman offered for me to try her green mango with lemon, salt, and pepper; her generosity struck me as powerfully as the exotic flavor.

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This semester I became accustomed to entering into churches to see, as my professor Dr. Samson says, “what people are up to.” The main cathedral was almost silent as I entered. A man sat in prayer, occasionally looking at the images on the walls. I stared at a feather floating beneath the benches. The silence presented a welcome refuge; I needed to pause for a moment and breathe before I continued exploring.

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Emerging from the doors of the cathedral, a group of doves flew in synchronicity while echoes of tourists and market vendors sounded with the music of passing traffic. Everything, even the cathedral in its silence, had its place in the choreography. After a bit more wandering, I found my way to the best lunch spot in the historic center – La Puerta Falsa. I ordered a specialty house tamale and sat next to a woman at the counter to write poems, watch families come and go into the hole-in-the-wall, and savor every bite. We had come to La Puerta Falsa for our first day in Bogota, and I was glad to feel the trip coming full circle.

Wandering home, I walked into a vegetarian restaurant/yoga studio/Hindu temple that we had always wanted to visit. The woman selling books inside encouraged me to buy the Bhagavad Gita in Spanish (it was tempting, but it is hard enough to understand in English) and invited me to come to a gathering to read the sacred text that evening at six. Vienes, vienes, she kept telling me, you are coming, she insisted.

So while I was tempted to tell her that I had to pack or make up some excuse to stay in the hostel that night, I made plans to return at six. For the rest of the afternoon, I put on music, took out the million gifts I have acquired in the past four months, and started to imagine returning to the States. My packing was interrupted by pouring rain falling on the hostel roof, a soft breeze entering through the windows as the unseasonal storm continued. I turned off the music and just listened until it turned colder, the wooden floors fostering a chill in my feet.

Wandering down to the kitchen to make tea, I decided to read The Fault in Our Stars (o Bajo La Misma Estrella) while I waited for the water to boil. The family that owns the hostel was just having almuerzo when I came down, and they invited me to try fresh guanabana juice with milk. We ended up sitting and talking for an hour about everything from the situation of homelessness in Bogota, to the reality of law and justice and impunity, to the best food of the regions of the country, and the importance of both children working to earn money for their education. As two university students, we constantly saw them working to help their parents with hostel needs. Their dedication made me reflect upon the impressive work ethic and collaborative spirit that they shared with us.

Soon enough, five thirty came and, thankfully, the rain had lightened. I invited a friend from Finland who studies yoga to come with me, and while we got a bit lost on the way, came to find the temple/studio/restaurant just as the gate was closing. We were invited upstairs where the group began to recite Sanskrit prayers and chantings. We passed by a candle and placed our hand in the flame to touch the heat upon our foreheads. The chanting and reading reached a climax when we moved on to the Hare Krishna chant. Children as well as adults danced to the beat of a drum as we repeated the phrasing over and over, until it started sounding in my head as powerfully as my own heartbeat. It was a moment of true ecstasy to be singing in a completely unknown language with devotees of Krishna, to feel their sincere, passion, and to know that though we were foreigners with accents, we were encouraged to join and warmly welcomed.

The teaching and meal followed the chanting; the leader’s speech focused on the many distractions of the material world that he described as a “battle field,” a world that tries to replace the eternal love of God with the illusions of the ephemeral. His words rang most true when he spoke about the importance of constant meditation, words that Jesus also shared with his disciples. The mantra kept sounding in my mind; while it consisted of unfamiliar syllables, the power to connect with God remained universal.

As we finished our rice, vegetables, and tea and broke the circle, I realized that I needed to find a way to meet Clarise and her Colombian family to say goodbye. They had generously hosted us for lunch, shared with us Colombian Christmas treats and prayers, and blessed us with their presence. I set out to find bread to offer as a goodbye gift, and found myself in a bakery that Quinn had always wanted to visit. On the wall, some quirky lettering read (translation mine):
Human happiness generally is not achieved by grand hits of luck that can occur only in rare occasions, but with small things that occur daily.

When I was copying the phrase in my journal, I noticed a father and son enter the tiny tienda. I was afraid they might think I was strange for taking notes in the middle of a bakery but they looked friendly, so I asked the son if he knew the direction to the bus station. He responded in perfect English and so we began a lovely Spanglish conversation. I learned that his name was Santiago and his father, Carlos, thought that it was too dangerous to take the bus at that time of night. So instead, we decided to share a small carton of wine and marvel at Carlos’ art.

The two work together as a father and son by coordinating a transportation business, but in the rest of life, Carlos loves literature and drawing. Santiago is passionate about the environment, literature, engineering and imagination; his eyes came alive when he spoke of his family and his trips to the mountains. We spoke of literature, the history of the United States and Native Americans, the ins and outs of Carlos’ travels, and the current needs of humanity. Carlos gifted me one of his drawings, the Caminante (I think I almost died of happiness). On our way back to the hostel, Santiago shared the bakery bread and cookies with people we met along the streets. Carlos recited poetry verses with the swiftness of breathing, and they even recited some in unison. We said goodbye, and by one o’clock, I was tucked in bed with a smile of gratitude for blessed coincidences covering my lips.

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La Caminante, by Carlos H. Agudelo

One day in Bogota, eighteen hours, captured almost all that I desire to know in this lifetime – sharing mango and bread on the streets with strangers that became friends, witnessing to heartbreak and truth in the fight for reconciliation, listening to the rhythm of the rain and watching flocks of doves fly by a patterned, chaotic, imagination, reciting poetry and mantras, remembering that good finds come from wandering and miracles come from what seem like interruptions. Each of these moments that, as Santiago says, may be small in scale but lead to life-changing consequences.

I have received a richer experience this semester that I could put into language, or even in a fusion of tongues. But the most heartening realization has been that this graffiti-painted, polluted and unjust world is as good as the human heart at its core, and that the sacredness of life makes it is worth fighting for. And while it may be a “battle field,” sometimes to even wake up in the morning, there is always an opportunity of generosity harkening for our attention – in the hostel kitchen, the train station, the bakery, or the temple. The moments that make life vale la pena, that make the pain worthy of endurance, are as available as we are open to giving and receiving from others.

Some warned me that Bogotá was too dangerous of a city to visit. Perhaps that may have been true for past generations, but today, the violence of the past has been woven into a population that is marked by passion for human dignity. I will always remember the artistic spirit and generosity that nourished us daily during our visit, and those who helped us to take the necessary precautions. Perhaps the greatest gift of Bogotá was learning to re-member, to bear witness to the luchas of the past and to recall that the love of God  means  that we never walk alone.

Now, I am “home.” I know this because there is no plastic wrap on the books and the tap water is drinkable. But somehow, I know that the moments of the past weeks and months have been woven into a tapestry that also represents a home – a connection to God and others held together by a web of ephemeral tastes of solidarity.

May you enjoy the bread that you share today – accompanied by someone you dare to love, giving generously out of the passion that God echoes through your blood. And may you seek those daily glimpses of grace that are reflections of true life, a life that is worth fighting for, a life that is shared and therefore may be called sacred.

For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.

– St. Francis

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