I arrived at the Barranquilla airport in the evening around 7:30 pm, well after the sun had gone down. I walked out of customs to see my name on a poster, in the hands of a middle-aged man. “Hola, mucho gusto, Alvaro, he said as he began to walk, signaling for me to follow him. I remember being skeptical of the situation––I had no idea who this man was, wasn’t completely certain about the credibility of the non-profit organization I planned to work with, and had only been in contact with one “Inten Hoek” over the past few weeks about the whole thing––but for whatever reason, I chose to pick up my luggage and follow the man.
The man and I barely exchanged words, letting soft Latin music fill the car as we began to drive through the streets of Barranquilla. It took a moment to realize that we were in heavy darkness––there were little to no streetlights. I could barely make out the crowds of people walking alongside the road or the few who daringly walked in the streets trying to sell water and pop. Endless motorcycles weaved in and out of traffic, leaving behind streaks of light and angry honks. It was thrilling. I don’t know if I’d ever felt more out of place or without context––like I had woken up in another person’s body––than I had in that car. It felt like one of those situations that you never would have thought to imagine for yourself. But there I was, zipping through the dark of coastal Colombia in a stranger’s car. I looked down at my feet, clutched my bag, and let myself be carried into the adventure that lie ahead.
I stayed on a farm-house of some sort in a small village called Paluato. Paluato is a beautiful and rural area about 5 miles from the nearest town with a supermarket. There is one paved road that runs through the village and leads to the bigger towns, but the rest of Paluato is laid with dirt paths, untouched nature, and small homes constructed of metal sheets and little concrete. The property I stayed on was open and spacious with hammocks to lie on and plenty of animals to feed. Life on the villa was very different from any lifestyle I’d experienced in the US, South Korea, or Spain. The mornings were early and full of bird song, the nights early as well, with a darkness that always seemed to arrive a little too quickly. There was no hot water, and we would often run out of running water altogether, leaving us to shower with buckets and trying to avoid the need to use the restroom. I was surrounded by a lot of lush green and open sky–– something that I found spoke rest and tranquility over the space. Ultimately, I found the emotion of this lifestyle that seemed to draw on the raw and beautiful terrain to be restorative and life- giving.
The reason I found myself in this part of Colombia was to work with a grassroots non- profit organization called “Mi Casa en Ipauratu”. The foundation is led by a man named Jeovanny, who grew up in the area, and a woman from the Netherlands named Inten. Over the years, they’ve been able to organically integrate themselves into various aspects of the local community. I spent the majority of my time involved with two of their main projects: in the community center Cultivarte they have a classroom for kids who were rejected by the public-school system and a local soccer club.
Cultivarte: Cultivarte is the name of the community center that I taught at. The “school” was comprised of about fifteen students, ranging from the age of 6 to 15. Many of the students were rejected from the public-school system due to having mental or learning disabilities or not being able to afford the costs of materials and transportation. As such, this “school” served a crucial part of the community and provided an opportunity for education and literacy to kids who would otherwise grow up without such things. Even so, access to this education was difficult; several of the students had to walk three hours every day between the school and home. The school set out to teach everything from English to mathematics to ethics, but every day was a challenge as there was only one teacher, one classroom, and fifteen students ranging greatly in age and level of knowledge. My job over the summer was to be an assistant teacher to these kids. It was a humbling experience to try and create a nourishing environment in the classroom and meet each individual child as the smart and good person they were and were becoming. More than that, it was a privilege to be a friend to these students, many of whom carry experiences that no kid should have to carry. To be a teacher in a town and community like Galapa is to be more than just a teacher; it is to be care- taker––walking kids home after school, it is to be a parent at times––housing kids for weeks or months at a time when problems at home become too serious, and it is to embody the calling of teaching and raising up generations of persons that they may help be a part of a better future.
Coruña Fútbol Club: Three times a week, I helped coach a local boys’ soccer club that the non-profit organization helped fund. The club had about one hundred and fifty five kids of different age groups, and I spent most of my time with the group of 9 year olds. We practiced on an enormous, public, sand pitch that was open to the community and unofficially sectioned off for different clubs to practice on. I grew up playing rec-league soccer, and while I noticed a lot of differences in my experiences in the U.S and the kids’ experiences in Galapa, I also felt a lot of similarities. There were a lot less resources here in Galapa–grass being one of them––and water came from plastic bags instead of plastic bottles. But being under the lights, standing on the pitch, I found the same untainted energy that I have always found in sports. I helped the head coach set up drills, participated in scrimmages, and cheered hard for the boys during games, and it was a privilege to share the joys and the disappointments with the kids–to be a part of a team. There is one memory in particular that stands out from my experiences on the pitch: it was the afternoon of our championship game. The score was tied 1-1, and the game came down to penalties. As the team lined up to face their fate, the majority of the kids on my team began to kneel and pray, some on the brink of tears–the immensity of the moment manifesting in them. It was beautiful to see how the sport and everything that came with it could move the kids and allow them to feel the impactful textures in this life that are universal: hope, desperation, and happiness. One of my fondest memories of Colombia is when we scored the winning penalty shot and the world seemed both really big and really small at the same time––and that is how I would describe my summer in Colombia: recognizing how big and full this life is through learning to love and be loved in small communities, in small moments.”
Volunteer Andy Chung