26 February 2012

Colombian kids

There’s no doubt about it - Colombian kids are cute!

I have recently returned from a week in Medellin, Colombia, where my employer, UK charity Globalteer, works with two local organisations to help the underprivileged children of Colombia.

The first organisation I visited was Poder Joven, which has two projects in Medellin. Poder Joven is a non-profit organisation, founded 16 years ago by students from local universities and young professionals, who resolved to work together to provide better life opportunities to the young victims of the humanitarian crisis in Colombia. 

I was extremely impressed by Poder Joven’s director, Clared, who is passionate in her efforts to help her fellow Colombians.

At the first of Poder Joven’s projects I visited, Casa Karah, the dedicated and hard-working staff provide a protective environment for kids who live daily with parental drug-taking, poverty, abuse and violence. 

Casa Karah is located in a poor inner-city suburb and assists 60 children between the ages of 3 and 14. These children live with their families in individual rooms (one per family) in a local lodge. The children live in very precarious conditions and are often mistreated and disregarded. Casa Karah’s work with this population is focused on providing the children with education, with two meals a day, and with psychological and medical assistance.

One of the beautiful young girls
at Casa Karah
And one of the cute boys, with the
remains of his lunch still on his face!
The next day I visited Poder Joven’s second project, Casa Maren, where the organisation is working in a community of displaced persons to try to assist both the families and their children to live dignified lives without the threat of poverty and violence. Just to put this problem in context, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, since 1985 more than 3 million people have been forced to leave their homes in the Colombian countryside to seek refuge in the major cities as a result of the escalating armed conflict between the illegal paramilitary forces and the guerrillas. This is the world’s third largest internally displaced population.

Casa Maren assists 70 children between the ages of 3 and 12, who are provided with food and education, and receive psychological and medical assistance on a daily basis.

The final project I visited was Antorchas de Vida, which means torches of life. It was established in 2001 by husband and wife team, Luis and Lucy. They gained funding from many sources to purchase a house to accommodate the children they wished to help, and Antorchas de Vida is now home to 68 children from 2 to 17 years old, many of whom come from the street, from very poor families or from parents with various problems that do not allow them to care for their children. The building is no longer a large house but rather a family home, where the children think of each other as brothers and sisters, and the staff and volunteers are their uncles and aunts. Where possible, contact is still maintained with the children’s natural families.

The international volunteers supplied by Globalteer play a vital role in supporting these projects, both through their donations, by teaching the children English and, more simply, by being there to provide the kids with affection and fun. Despite their often miserable life conditions, all the children I saw at the projects were full of smiles, and constantly wanted to hug and play and help each other. It was a wonderful though very humbling experience to spend time with them and to see the amazing work done by project staff and volunteers. I would like to have stayed much longer.

13 February 2012

An art attack!

After I recovered from my initial attack of culture shock at the motorways and new cars, the shopping malls and plate-glass windows, the high-rise apartment blocks and hot running water coming out of the tap, one of the things I’ve enjoyed most here in Medellin, Colombia, is the art.

The city centre, in particular, is full of amazing sculptures. My favourites are the 23 voluminous bronze figures by Colombia’s famous artist, Ferdinand Botero, which are displayed in their own plaza, and a very large section in the Museum of Antiochia, which fronts on to the plaza, is also devoted to Botero’s chubby works. There I discovered Botero’s paintings, which depict equally voluminous people, animals and still lifes. There’s even a chubby Jesus!

In the area around Medellin’s administrative centre, there are several more amazing sculptures. There’s the 38-metre-tall Monument a la Raza, a monument to the people of this region and their struggles against adversity. The lower right part resembles a Greek temple pediment but then the left side soars majestically up into the sky, so that, when photographed from a certain angle, its figures appear to reach out and touch the nearby skyscraper.

Monument a la Raza
The figure work is amazing!

Though this monument is spectacular, I prefer the small bronze figures of local people, by Olga Inés Arango, in the adjoining square in front of the council building. The shoeshine man has an incredibly lifelike face, as has the old woman saleswoman, and the newspaper seller has been caught in mid-voice, yelling out the latest headlines.

The saleswoman ...
and the shoeshine man

and the newspaper seller

Across from the administrative centre is the impressive Plaza Cisneros, with its artificial forest of around 300 light poles, some up to 24 metres tall, which is impressive during the day but must be even more so when lit up at night. The concrete poles are interspersed with stands of tall bamboo, emphasising the idea of an urban forest.

Today I discovered the Madre Monte, the mythical mother nature sculpted by José Horacio Betancur, in the botanical garden. And, after a quick google search, I know that Medellin has so many more amazing sculptures that I haven’t had time to see.

And then there’s the street art ... graffiti on the concrete walls bordering the motorways, images of human figures and huge flower murals adorning the sides of buildings, shops advertising what they sell by painting whole walls with images of their products.

Exploring Medellin has been a totally unexpected visual feast of colour and artistic imagination! I just wish I had time to see more.

12 February 2012

Are you triskaidekaphobic?

Peruvians certainly aren’t. Instead of Friday 13th, Peruvians are afraid of the dates Tuesday 13th and Sunday 7th. I have no idea why and locals I’ve asked haven’t been able to explain it.

They may not be afraid of Friday 13th, but Peruvians definitely are a superstitious people and here is just a sampling of the things they’re superstitious about:

Just as in many other countries, Peruvians won´t walk under ladders. This idea has always struck me as just plain sensible, rather than superstitious.

The idea of touching wood or knocking on wood is just the same.

Most shops and market stalls, many buses and various other places of business will have a bunch of the yellow-
flowering plant ruda (we know it as rue) in a vase (or, in the buses, in a cut-off plastic bottle, taped to the window near the driver). This is supposed to ensure that your business will prosper and you’ll make lots of money. At markets in the country towns, you often see stallholders holding the rue in their hands and tapping or touching their produce with the plant – for the same reason.
In a country of black-haired people, it is good luck for a child to have white hairs in amongst the black.

If they break a mirror, they do believe bad things will happen in the future, but not for 7 years.

There are variations on what happens if you see a black cat. Some people think this is good luck, others think it’s bad luck. Those who believe it’s bad luck will turn around 3 times to ward off the bad vibes that come their way when they see a black cat. Oh, and cats here are considered to have 7 lives, not 9 - something I only discovered recently when I saw this poster stuck to a lamp post.

If, when you leave the house in the morning, the first person you see is a man, you will have good luck that day. If the first person you see is a woman, you will have bad luck all day.

If you accidently spill salt, you have to pour water on the salt, otherwise you will cry very soon. This actually happened when I was at a cafe with a friend – the salt spilled, she poured water on it, and the waiter looked very pleased and relieved that she did so!

There are two solutions to the bad vibes associated with having a nightmare. The most simple is to turn over your pillow. The more complicated is to wear a piece of clothing inside out to counteract the bad omens of the dream.

When you receive presents, you must destroy the wrapping paper (e.g. burn it or, at least, throw it in the rubbish), then you’ll soon receive more presents. No recycling here!

Peruvians also believe in the good luck brought by horse-shoes, which must surely be something the Spanish introduced here, as Peru has no native horses. You can find horseshoes - usually one facing in each direction - on the floor at the entrance to restaurants, shops and buses.