Me: Hey, I just got a job in Colombia. I am moving to Barranquilla for at least 2 years.
Friends: Wow, congrats. You gonna be a drug lord?
Me: Nope, teacher…
As I walked with my girlfriend to the bus stop, there was a man sleeping in the middle of the sidewalk. It was around 7pm. Assumedly, he was a homeless man, an irrelevant fact. This man baffled me, not because he was sleeping in the streets but because of how he was sleeping, perfectly perpendicular to the flow of the sidewalk. His cheek rested on the cigarette-but-littered concrete in a way mine does on my soft, fluffy pillow – so peaceful. This wasn’t some alley where he would be out of sight, but a busy sidewalk during a time when many commute home from a long day’s work. Here was this man who decided that he wanted to sleep, and simply lay down in front of everyone’s path without a single care of whose route he would be obstructing, and without any concern for his own security or shame at having to sleep on the streets. I half expected him to wake up and grab our ankles as we stepped over him, like he was playing some sort of cruel joke. Instead, we passed hearing his authentic snores.
This was a snippet of about 2 Minutes in Barranquilla, Colombia. The same scene could have taken place anywhere else in the world…but it didn’t. Because it is an experience I had in Colombia, it is a Colombian experience. I attach it with the place in which I was at the moment. But there is no one else with whom I can share my experience, not truly. No one else can see it through my eyes. Without seeing something with our own eyes, we are obliged to rely on others’ descriptions. In consequence, we feast on imbedded ideologies and biases, dangerously believing that the experiences of the author would match our own if we should be in that same situation.
It’s impossible to separate our biases from our descriptions. My whole reason for writing is charged with personal ideologies. The danger in this is when we start to forget an author’s humanity and take certain texts, novels, and newspaper articles as truth, assuming had we been in the author’s shoes, we would have come up with the same experience. An experience, the concrete actions, can change dramatically depending on the author’s assumptions that accompany his or her perceptions. Our minds can be altered depending on why an author chose to write something, and how he or she chose to write about it.
Take the opening story – a true story, something that actually happened. Anyone in my position could have explained the same events, but how I told it and why I decided to tell it decided what kind of feelings and beliefs pervade the reader’s mind upon leaving the page. Let’s take another crack at the story to make it a bit more obvious:
As my girlfriend and I were on our way to catch the 7pm bus, we approached a dark silhouette lying on the sidewalk perpendicular to the direction we were walking. This homeless man was a common site below calle 66. I had just left my two- bedroom apartment, complete with kitchen, living room, two bathrooms and a washing machine. Having always experienced the comforts of having a bed to sleep in, I wondered what it would be like to have to sleep on the ground night after night. I came from a middle-class family that fed me, clothed me, put a roof over my head and more. I also worked hard to get where I am. But for all I know this man on the street could have been a farmer from the interior of the country, displaced because of the incessant violence. He had worked all his life to become an expert at what he does best…farming. Now he is forced to try to survive in a place where his expertise is of little use. He knows how downright unjust “La Vida Real” has been to him, and instead of slipping into the cracks, trying to stay out of the way of the more privileged, he has chosen to be seen, to lay where everyone can see the outcome of a terrible injustice. In consequence, passerbys won’t be able to avoid the dark corners, but will have to step over a terrible injustice, indefinitely branding it on their once peaceful consciences. As we step over the homeless man, my girlfriend whispers, “Hay mucho feo en ésta ciudad pero también es un buen lugar para vivir.” (There’s a lot of ugly in this city, but overall it is a great place to live,”) leaving me to wonder what was the “ugly” to which she was referring.
This new edition came with several different biases. It may have caused you to have a little more sympathy for the man on the street, and get a little more fired up about the injustices of the prevalent issue that is homelessness. But more subtly, it attributed this man’s unfortunate circumstances to the violence in Colombia’s interior. Although there has been violence caused by various militia groups, bandits, and terrorists, I had to make a conscious choice to include it in my story as a hypothesized reason for this man’s burdens. It is quite possible, or even quite likely, that the man on the street had nothing to do with the displaced farmers in Colombia’s interior. This story inserted a negative picture of the safety and security in Colombia’s interior without mentioning any positive associations, thus feeding us negative perceptions of Colombia. Also, by saying homelessness is “common below Calle 66” I am highlighting a negative fact, leaving “common” open to interpretation. “Common” could mean 3 people, but by noting homelessness in Colombia, I imply that it is significant enough to note.
Here’s a narrative of the same experience with a different viewpoint and purpose:
As my girlfriend and I ventured out on my evening stroll in Barranquilla, Colombia, I felt the crisp, refreshing breeze that usually brings relief between December and March. It was a nice night for a walk. The busy daytime traffic had ceased, and as we walked, we stepped over purple flowers that were illuminated by the surrounding street lamps. “There’s something inspiring about flowers on concrete,” I said to my girlfriend. “It really brightens up the neighborhood.” She glances in my direction and cracks a smile. We continue walking to a nearby park, passing other Barranquilleros out on an evening promenade. Before arriving at the park we came across a man that was sleeping across the sidewalk. I wondered what unfortunate circumstances had brought him there, and it made me ponder homelessness in the rest of the world as well. It’s amazing how much progress our world has made, yet there are still so many people that fall through the cracks. I wanted to wake this man up and have him join us on our stroll. I needed to hear his story, and I had this incessant desire to make sure he knew about the purple flowers falling on the concrete sidewalk.
We are bombarded with negative ideologies in the news on a daily basis. “Bombs Explode in Colombia as the Summit of the Americas Opens,” “Colombia’s FARC rebels to release three hostages,” “Spanish Couple Rescued by Colombian Navy,” “Colombian Troops Pulverize FARC Camp,” these headlines and more filter words through our minds connecting negativity to Colombia. In fact, some articles imply FARC involvement in unrelated crimes. Even though the FARC is related to Colombia, it is not Colombia itself, and violence, although articles seem to display government triumphs amidst said violence, permeate the news and therefore our minds. I understand that the newsworthy items in any country are often negative. People appreciate the shock value of the news. Therefore, we need to turn to other media to be holistically informed. Pick up some of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novels, read some Colombian poetry, check out cross-cultural blogs, and purchase a travel guide to come see for yourself.
I don’t intend to give a completely objective view of Colombia. In fact, much of it will be emotionally and ideologically charged. My goal is simply to show more of Colombian culture, parts of which are often unfamiliar to outsiders. I will do this from a “Gringo” perspective, and from a perspective of someone who has loved and loathed his Colombian experience.
Some may question, “Well, if you want to get at the real truth, why don’t you write as objectively as possible?” The problem is, truth often blooms from one’s subjective reality. In other words, without our thoughts, opinions and emotions attached to our descriptions, we lose half of the story. The sheer task of trying to eliminate all bias from one’s descriptions is in itself wrought with ideologies anyways; it implies that subjective observations do not constitute truth (an opinion I will refute to the death). My proposed solution: read everything and anything, but know that one person’s “truth” is not ever universal. Trust what you read as the truth of one being, the author, and gather your evidence to formulate your own reality.
This is Colombia from the perspective of a 6-foot-5-inch, 26-year-old, white male, from suburban, middle-class, Minnesota, United States of America – a perspective unmatched by anyone else, even other 6-foot-5-inch, 26-year-old, white males, from suburban, middle-class, Minnesota, in the United States of America.