Make a Wish

Christmas at el Centro, Cartagena

The term ‘Mucho Gusto’ is a Spanish reply to ‘Como Esta’ or ‘How Are You?’ It means ‘A pleasure to meet you’. But since I regularly take liberties with the English language, it only makes sense that I would abuse Espagnol the same way. To that end, I consider Mucho Gusto to mean ‘Much Gusto’. And Much Gusto is a perfect description of the energy that is being experienced by me, Lori, and the rest of the volunteers associated with the projects.

Volunteer Cocktail; one Part Mexico, two Parts Brazil

t also reflects the attitudes of the support staff in the volunteer house as well as those charged with running the plethora of programs that we are working in.

Historically, the nature of the our previous placements meant involvement in a maximum of two services. Not the case in Cartagena. Yesterday the day was devoted to 30 young adults ranging in age from roughly 13 to 20. All had completed an initial phase of treatment at a locked facility located in the neighbourhood we are living in. Their problems range from drug addiction to depression/suicidal, anti social and gang related and or criminal activities, etc. The adolescents we met today were at various stages of a 6 month Phase 2 of their program.
On first glance, they looked like typical teens; however closer inspection of a couple of faces revealed a small teardrop tattooed below their left eye. Anybody who has watched Narcos or is a fan of gang based movies knows that the teardrop is a status symbol meaning that the individual has killed somebody. 

Facilities were significantly non-Spartan since the campus had been confiscated some time ago from one of Colombia’s drug lords.

Morning was spent playing futbol together, jumping rope (boys and girls) and assorted team and spirit building games. Unfortunately, I am not allowed to display images of the group in accordance with their bail regulations, parole conditions, and general safety and security.

Following lunch the balance of the session was devoted to arts and crafts where, with the assistance and guidance of the volunteers, the residents wound coloured threads around two sticks, creating patterned tchotchkes (Spanish translation) known as a God’s Eye.

Lori’s Handiwork

At the end of the visit, as we sat around in a large circle, Sergio, one of the elder children, stood up and opened his mouth from which a canary-like rendition of a beautiful song emanated. The reason behind the incredibly moving rendition was a farewell to one of our volunteers, Leoni, a stunningly beautiful, inside and out, Portuguese-Swiss young woman who is preparing to leave Cartagena following several months of a highly impactful presence. Tears were shed, although none of the tattoos fell off.

The following day some of us spent the morning gardening. Of course Lori was in her element. The project involved assisting in the maintenance of a small patch of herbs growing in the back yards of the homes of several residents. Amidst the squalor of adjacent properties, a basil patch had been planted, the purpose of which was more than recreational. Local high end hotels and restaurants purchase the greens for use in their fancy salads. The income received from the sales helps the residents cover some of their extra expenses.

Those who opted for a different line of service went to Cartagena’s equivalent of Ronald McDonald House to interact with children who were either recovering from or in treatment for cancer. Supported primarily by private funding and donations, the centre offers a place of refuge and companionship for the fifteen or so children receiving services there ranging in age from 4 to 21. Other than a very few visuals, one would never guess that these children had been living through multiple levels of Hell. 

Their faces beamed as they played with Lego, Monopoly, sang, and did what kids do. While my heart broke over and over again, it was hard to feel sadness. Staying in the moment was an essential tool to appropriately respond to the situation. It was no time for ‘what if ?’, ‘why?’ or ‘what’s next?’. The morning was a joyful experience, highlighted by three children who accompanied a female volunteer. One was her daughter, and the other two her nieces. The girls danced and sang, putting on a Feliz Navidad show as we all munched on snacks. I do not know what it is about these Colombian kids but they seem to sing in hauntingly beautiful and emotional tones that could turn granite to mush.

Speaking of granite, we revisited the neighbourhood known as Granitos. I had mentioned the stores that remain highly secured even during business hours in my previous post. Below is a picture of the local pharmacy. 

Again, note that the store was open for business. But ‘open’ means handing cash through a solid steel grate to receive merchandise. This picture had to be shot surreptitiously. Reason being that fancy cellphones are highly prized in the neighbourhood. I did not notice an Apple store anywhere in the vicinity. Apparently they are usually obtained by the locals through theft. Ideally the theft is not accompanied by a knife in the side, but that’s been known to happen, too.

So much more to touch on. I have yet to kvell about the astounding qualities demonstrated by this unique and astounding group of vols. I have not yet discussed the second part of our interaction with the kids from Bogota whose soccer game we watched this morning, 

We Swam Together 2 Days ago. Now we Cheered and Watched as the Bogota Team Won their Tournament

the preparation for tomorrow’s visit to a private island to celebrate the birthday of the main force of Emerging Voices, or how delicious a Cuba Libre after a full day in the sun tastes. Mucho more to follow.

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