Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Camilo and Me in Colombia

“So, Mr. Pinter. After ten years, it ends here.” We were standing in the Cali airport lobby with moist eyes, giving each other a final embrace. It was not lost on me that when I turned and walked away I may well never see this man again. Camilo, whom I had hired and taken under my wing a decade ago when I was looking to provide services to un-represented and under-represented populations, had now grown his own wings.

As the plane lifted off the tarmac I wondered whether he’d pursue the Ambassador position that had been offered to him. In order to accept that he’d have to decide to return to Colombia permanently, uprooting his family once again. We all make choices that affect the course of our lives. My decision to leave the agency after 13 years and move to Massachusetts was no less life altering than would be his decision to return to his native country. Whichever decision he made, his life, like mine, would be changed forever.

Camilo and I had traveled to Cali to present at a two day professional conference on issues related to Colombian people with disabilities. We learned that the United Nations had placed sanctions on the country for not being more aggressive promoting accessibility for persons with disabilities to live in the mainstream of life. The conference, while not promoted country-wide, was nevertheless clearly designed to raise awareness to issues of persons with disabilities living independently in the community. My presentation was entitled Creating A Barrier Free Society. I listed the two biggest barriers as being attitudes and architecture; I also explained Universal Design principles.

Camilo’s presentation traced the history of the independent living movement in the United States, including the various laws that provided for the civil rights of people with disabilities; his focus was on advocacy, grassroots organizing and self-determination. At one point during his presentation, which was in Spanish, I was standing at the top of the stairs overlooking the auditorium and everyone in there turned to look at me. As I stood there, perplexed, the conference organizer passed by behind me and whispered that Camilo had just said that I had been a father to him and had given him all the knowledge that he was now imparting to the audience.

I had provided Camilo the tools that he was now able to use to teach others; the cycle had been completed. There were a number of other presenters from the surrounding universities whose presentations were more academically oriented; another American who spoke gave a presentation on issues related to people who were blind.

As with any event, what all went on separate from the conference was much more interesting than the activity itself. Before we even left the States, Camilo told me that whenever we were in a taxi cab that I should not talk. He said that the cab drivers could be informers for the guerillas and that there was a very real chance, since I didn’t speak Spanish, that I could be kidnapped and held for ransom.

On our second day in country we went to the city of Cerrito and visited with the mayor. We had lunch with the mayor’s wife and a group of his ministers. They took us to El Paraisio, the former home of Jorge Isaacs, a novelist who wrote “Maria,” the most famous love story to ever come out of South America. It has been translated into many languages. Needless to say, the house and grounds was truly a paradise. Nestled in the base of a mountain, the early 1800’s house and grounds that were now a national historic treasure overlooked a lush valley. We walked up a long, rose lined path to the white stucco and red clay tile roofed house. A tour guide took us through the estate and explained the history, intrigue and charm of the place. I noted Bird of Paradise blooms in the garden and many plants and trees unique to the region.

At one point, as I was not interested in buying souvenirs from the gift shop, I wandered off from the group to look at the outdoor kitchen. Camilo came down to me and said that the guides wanted me back with the others. We found out several things at that point. The first was that the place was officially closed but that the mayor’s wife had been able to have them open it just for us; that the mayor had gotten 50 military troops to surround the area to protect us; and, that there was a troop of guerillas on foot less than a half-hour away. I had noticed that we had gone through a military checkpoint while on the road to the estate but had not made any connection. I innocently assumed it was part of the country’s paranoia.


The first night in Cali our host, Jorge Vallera, took us to see many of the city’s cultural and scenic sites. He pointed to the top of one mountain in which there were three large white crosses. I noted that the crosses were now almost dwarfed by telecommunications towers. On another mountain top was a single white cross.

Cali is a city surrounded on three sides by mountains. The city sits in a bowl, much like Mexico City. On the fourth side the plains fan out to the east. Because of this geographical location a lot of smog is created by all the vehicular traffic. In addition, the temperature changes very little. It is always in the mid to high 80’s F. The temperature, coupled with the car and truck exhaust, mars the otherwise beauty of the city and its environs. At one point I was admiring the mountains and telling Jorge that in the United States that would be prime real estate. He said that the poor people, driven out to the fringes of town – in this case the mountains – lived in the worst of conditions but had the best view. He told me that 28% of the population went without any of the three basics – electricity, water or plumbing. Cali was also the first big city the refugees came to from the Pacific coast. Consequently, there were a number of Indians and coastal people begging and hustling on the streets in an effort to stay alive.

Jorge took Camilo and I to the Chipi Chape Mall for lunch. The mall had been converted from its earlier incarnation as a train repair facility. This large and long red brick building housed many shops of all kinds, including a food court. I noted that Jorge sat with his back to the wall. He had explained to me earlier that his wife, an architect and sister to the country’s Minister of Energy had a bodyguard with her whenever she went out but Jorge refused to have one. Camilo told me later that Jorge had a panic button in his Nissan SUV that would summon the military at a moment’s notice.

On another occasion we were taken to another Cali mall. This mall had several fountains and a lot more shops than at Chipe Chape. What I noticed about both malls was that they were just like the malls in the United States. Not exactly replicas, but certainly very North American. The shoe stores sold Rockport, Bass, Bata and all the other American brands. The clothing stores were stocked with men’s and women’s clothing that was definitely North American in design.

We were taken from place to place in either Jorge’s SUV or via taxi cab. At first I found the traffic to be in complete chaos. Fiat’s, Renault’s, Ford’s, Hyundai’s, Kia’s, Mazda’s, Chevy’s, SUV’s, and even a few Ford F 150 pick ups drove down the thoroughfares while the motor bikes zipped in and around them from seemingly all directions at once. After a while I started noticing a pattern. At first it was as if each vehicle had a cushion of air surrounding it that kept everyone from banging into each other. Then I noticed that while the drivers were assertive, they were not aggressive and everyone gave quarter when another took the opening.

I had been studying Argentine Tango and learned that this improvisational dance, once the basics are learned, is achieved through intention. The leader gives the follower the opening through the intention and, while subtle, that’s what makes the dance as beautiful, sensuous and flowing as it is. The traffic followed this same pattern: when a driver found an opening in the traffic and took it, the others would back off and let him through. It was subtle, to be sure, but it was there. Unlike the typical New York City drivers who would rather ram each other and let the police and insurance companies sort it out, the Colombian drivers had this “dance” going on which, once one understood it, could see it as a long, flowing movement. Not always graceful, to be sure, but one in which there was no malice.

Camilo and I stayed with his sister, Marleny, and her two grown daughters. Marleny’s husband had died of a heart attack about three years ago. Camilo had asked whether I wanted to stay in a hotel as an option but I wanted to truly be within the culture and so opted to stay with family, provided there was room. “No problem,” he said. “My sister has a lot of room.” When we arrived it didn’t take long to determine that both daughters had given up their bedrooms to accommodate us. In the morning, after eating breakfast, I started to clear my plate. Camilo stopped me, saying that “Here, Mr. Pinter, we do not do that. You can to just leave it on the table.” Dutifully, his sister came and bussed the table and cleaned up after us. In a discussion with a close female friend after I got back, we talked about the subservience of the women in Latin America and how, while there was equality on the surface, underneath there was much resentment of the paternalistic, male attitude. I was told that Colombian women got the right to vote in 1959; yet, males were still in the major positions of authority. I remember when Camilo first came to work with us he said to Ruth, a peer, “Ruth, can you to get for me a cup of coffee?” Ruth replied: “Camilo, I’ll show you where the coffee pot is. You can get your own damn cup of coffee!” That encounter became a running joke for a long time; however, it also left a certain amount of resentment between them for a long time.

Marleny, an IT manager for a bank, had a nice apartment in a middle class neighborhood in west Cali. She lived on the first floor of a two story building in the middle of a long block of row homes. Like virtually everyone in Cali whose door opened to the street, the front of the building was gated and the windows were grated. Her home was long but not too narrow. One entered into a small living room/dining room combination then passed through an arched way into the kitchen. On the other side of the wall of the front rooms was the master bedroom. Passing through the kitchen one went down a hallway in which two bedrooms were off to the left, a bathroom to the right and then a small family room housing the TV, stereo and computer. At the end of the apartment there was a small courtyard used mostly, it seemed, to hang laundry and, opposite that, a utility room. The walls were painted a pale yellow and the ceilings white.

When we finally arrived at Marleny’s, after connecting flights totaling six hours air time with an eight hour lay over in Miami, I couldn’t wait to take a hot shower and get to sleep. It never occurred to me, even though I knew the temperature in Cali remained in the mid to high 80’s F all year around, that there wouldn’t be any hot water in the shower. I guess one eventually gets used to taking cold showers and, during the succeeding days when we returned to her home after being taken around literally from dawn to beyond dusk, I welcomed cooling off in the shower. I wondered about the cold water deal, though, and while using the bathroom in a wealthy person’s home, decided to conduct a test. I turned on the hot water faucet while using the toilet to see what came out. He didn’t have any, either. I guess there’s not much need for hot water in a hot climate.

I also noted that Marleny’s washing machine had a permanent custom slipcover over it. While in the wealthy person’s home, I noted the same thing. There were flaps in the slipcover that allowed for the raising and lowering of the lid and for accessing the controls so the cover never had to be removed. In talking to my sister about that, I decided that covering the washing machine made it look less obtrusive.

The other thing I noted, in general, was that everyone whose home or business I went into had a computer. In addition, literally everyone had a cell phone. Many wore their cell phones suspended from a lanyard draped around their neck.

Finally, I took a look at how people dressed. Our host had requested that we wear a shirt and tie each day; he wore a suit and long sleeved, French cuffed shirts. Many years ago I traveled through India and saw those people there wearing loose fitting, loosely woven cotton, linen and/or silk clothing; many wore sandals. It was really hot in India and their culture accommodated for the weather. In Cali, while it wasn’t as hot but very warm nonetheless, the average person wore denim jeans, a t-shirt and socks and shoes.

Working people wore slacks and cotton dress shirts while businessmen wore suits and ties. Women wore tight fitting tops and tight fitting pants. The young girls wore their clothes so tight fitting that it looked like they had body suits on. In fact, a hostess in a restaurant we went to wore a body suit. It was hard to look at the menu or at anything else when she was in view. Very few people wore shorts; so few, in fact, that those who did stood out in the crowd. I remarked that the Hispanic people I saw and met at home were dressed the same as those I was seeing and meeting in Cali. I guess one adapts but it sure seemed to be too hot to me to be dressed in long pants, denim jeans at that, and a cotton shirt. I thought the guys in suits were really excessive (what price success).

We also met the mayor of Cali. Casually dressed, he was blind and had been elected by popular vote about a year earlier. His popularity was based on his being a “regular” person instead of one of the wealthy elite. However, as was noted by several people, the mayor did not surround himself with a good group of people. The mayor was to open the conference but never showed up. At first, Senator Clopotofsky, a wheelchair user, the first speaker and the one responsible for Colombia’s main disability rights law, implied that perhaps the mayor was snubbing him since apparently they were at odds on several issues. Later on we found out that the mayor had his own set of problems.

It seemed that a developer in town wanted to build a building and had gotten all the permits and had jumped through all the bureaucratic hoops to do so. Ready to break ground, the mayor said that he couldn’t. Now, graft was never hinted at nor did anyone bring it up but it is very common; at any rate, the mayor said the developer couldn’t build. The developer took the mayor to court. The mayor remained adamant and refused to comply with the judge’s ruling against him. So, the judge had the mayor arrested for refusing to comply with the law. Instead of opening the conference, the mayor was locked up in jail.

In all, we visited about a dozen or so private foundations, non-government organizations and government run agencies, all providing services to people with disabilities. Many of the service providers were disability specific. No one had a lot of money to work with, all were doing the absolute best they could and, just as in the United States, turf battles were everywhere, trying to get the scarce resources. One private foundation we visited, Compania Artistico Estimulo, was very unique.

Estimulo’s founder, Jose Fernando Sarrio, began his professional career as an elementary school special education teacher. He didn’t fit in with the rigid structure of the school system and, while it was unclear whether he left on his own accord or was asked to leave, he nevertheless stopped teaching in the public schools. What he did do, though, was to combine his three interests of working with special needs children, dancing and art and start his own private foundation. Estimulo works with mildly mentally retarded children and, combining education, art, and dance, gives them an education complete with socialization skills. The students have become an internationally recognized performing troupe. They sing and dance to traditional Colombian music, play traditional and contemporary musical instruments, make their own costumes, and design, create and paint their own backdrop sets. They enter into competitions against performers from all around the world, not against others with disabilities.

They performed for us Friday night, the night after the final day of the conference. It was quite an experience to see the students, who ranged in age from around 10 to in their early 20’s, perform as well as any professional on stage. We were invited up on the stage to dance, as well. Given that we had been fueled by beer and rum and marinated meat, we joined in and participated with vigor. It was an exciting finale to a long week. Camilo and I didn’t get to Marleny’s until well after midnight.

The trip to Cali, my presentation at the conference and visiting and meeting with the various service provider executive directors was also my swan song. Unbeknownst to the Colombians, I had already left my former employment and moved to Waltham, MA. Only Camilo knew the truth and he had made me swear not to tell. On the one hand, I felt like a betrayer. On the other hand, though, I gave them my insights and thoughts, gleaned from twenty-two years of experience of working with people with disabilities and promoting full inclusion into the mainstream of society. Since 1992 I had been an executive director of a non-government organization; I had faced and worked with the same pressures, lack of resources and bureaucratic intrusions that they were. Even though I was exiting that arena and moving into another, I shared a kinship with them and understood that, across cultures, we were all having the same struggles. I recognized that, as people, we are all the same. People are people and we need to embrace the diversity.
Standing in the airport at 6:30 a.m. the following, Saturday, morning, I gave Camilo and Marleny a final hug and walked to where my bags would be searched, my body patted down and my passport stamped. Ten years had come and gone in a week. I was a father, a betrayer and now a memory. Hoping my teary, glassy eyes wouldn’t be misunderstood by Customs, I headed in the direction of both the closing of a chapter in my life as well as the entering of another new one.

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