in print: national geographic traveller

These are just a few of the things that I love: Latin America, photography, travel, nature, and culture.  They all came together for an article I recently did for National Geographic Traveller (UK).  The issue is dedicated to South America, and the photos come from Ecuador and Colombia.  It was great fun to relive some of my trips to these countries as I looked for images that speak to some of the iconic places to visit and things to do when visiting there.  It’s on newsstands now, so if you find yourself in the UK, pick up a copy!  For the rest of you, here’s a peek at the layout.

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the cost of what is lost (in translation)

When was the last time you thought about language? Being able to communicate with others we encounter is of critical importance on any given day.  Language itself, however, is not something many of us consider outside the realms of academics or literature until we are beyond the boundaries of our own tongue. Travelers often have to rely on hand gestures, humility, and faith that messages are understood when in a foreign place. This is something I was recently reminded of at a Vietnamese train station. I was able to find the right train but have no idea what details were lost in the process of seeking directions. The lack of understanding is compounded when you’re not only dealing with a different tongue but also a different alphabet.  When visiting a foreign country, learning the requisite “Hello,” “Thank you,” “Please,” and “Where is the toilet?” is very important but will only get you so far. (Though I have seen how stumbling through “Happy New Year” in Vietnamese before Tet is sure to bring a smile to local faces. Small efforts almost always bring great rewards.) Yes, a certain level of misunderstanding is to be expected in travel.

No parking? Do not enter? When traveling to Cambodia, where the alphabet is different, I was not only not able to read the signs but could not sound them out to ask others what they meant either. It is a humbling experience. Thankfully helpful people exist all over the world, so I was able to get by without being able to read the signs.

No parking? Do not enter? When traveling to Cambodia, where the alphabet is different, I was not only not able to read the signs but could not sound the words out to ask others what they meant either. It is a humbling experience. Thankfully helpful people exist all over the world, so I was able to get by without being able to read the signs.

Our world is encapsulated in an intricate web of words that has shaped our history and defines our present existence. One of the grave consequences of the age of globalization is the loss of languages in cultures worldwide. How do people navigate the language differences within a community or home as a modern language becomes the dominant one? It’s not just the ability to have a discussion that dies with this decline. There is also a disconnect from heritage and environment that is at some point irreparable.

While none of us are immune, indigenous peoples run the greatest risk of this loss as they become more connected with roads, devices, and the lure of cities for building a different life for their youth. Thankfully there are people dedicated to the importance of words and who are working to preserve some of these languages and the deeper meanings that are connected to them.

A young Waorani girl outside her home in Guiyero. She will no doubt see many changes to her village and way of life as she grows.

A young Waorani girl outside her home in Guiyero. She will no doubt see many changes to her village and way of life as she grows.

The Yasuní region of Ecuador is a region undergoing rapid change. The Waorani that live there are varied in their level of contact with the outside world. Some are completely isolated from modern culture, living as they have for centuries. On the other side of the spectrum are the villages along the “Via Auca,” an oil road built in the 1950’s that brought with it modern conveniences, medical care, industrialized foods, and eventually, tourism. Between these two extremes, there are communities working on the transition that is sure to come. Last summer I visited three of these villages, Guiyero, Ganketapare, and Timpoka, that lie along a road built in the 1990’s. The way of life in these villages is a hybrid, though mostly traditional one. Spanish is widely spoken but is freely interchanged with the native Wao Tededo. Hunting is done with guns as well as blowguns and spears. Western clothes and cell phones are a reality. Tourism is certainly on its way but has not yet arrived. This is a tremendous time of transition and opportunity for the Waorani people.

The Waorani village of Guiyero, like the culture itself is evolving. Traditional straw structures stand next to more modern buildings.

The Waorani village of Guiyero, like the culture itself is evolving. Traditional straw structures stand next to modern buildings.

I was in this area with Megan Westervelt who has been working with the Waorani since August 2014. With cameras on loan from Ohio University, she has provided these communities with a visual voice. As she teaches them about composition and some basic technical aspects of photography, she also talks of how to tell a story about their lives through images. During my short visit, people from the communities met with us daily to work with the cameras and look at photos. Nods and chatter filled the room as they talked about the different stories they could tell. Our discussions with the group centered around parts of their lives that may seem mundane or normal to them but are unique to their culture. (The challenge of showing “normal” moments in a way that is interesting is one that many a photographer has faced.) The resulting images were soulful and intimate. Megan and these communities compiled the images, and with the support of several groups in Ecuador and a successful Kickstarter campaign, they were showcased in Wao Mimo: Yasuní Bajo el Lente Waorani, an exhibit that traveled to Quito and Coca last fall.

Megan Westervelt talks to a group of Waorani about elements in a photo essay. She has encouraged these communities to tell their stories through photography as a way to share their unique ways of life and to bring in the transition they are experiencing consciously.

Megan Westervelt talks to a group of Waorani about elements in a photo essay. She has encouraged these communities to tell their stories through photography as a way to share their unique ways of life with others.

During the time that Megan has worked with the communities in the Yasuní, she has fostered relationships with the Waorani, not only taking on the role of teacher and advocate, but of friend.

During the time that Megan has worked with the communities in the Yasuní, she has fostered relationships with the Waorani, not only taking on the role of teacher and advocate, but of friend.

While we were visiting the communities in the Yasuní, I met Marleen Haboud, a professor of linguistics from Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador (PUCE) and director of Oralidad Modernidad. She works with minority groups to help them to preserve and revitalize their native language. The projects she’s involved with are multi-faceted and include mapping changes in language over generations as they evolve from the native tongue, to Quechua, and eventually Spanish. In some homes she has met families where grandparents have no way to communicate with their grandchildren because there are three distinct languages spoken. Verbal understanding lost in three generations…under one roof. It is a tragic byproduct of progress.

Marleen Haboud and Juan Carlos Armejos talk to a group of Waorani about the work that she has done with other tribes in Ecuador.

Marleen Haboud and Juan Carlos Armijos talk to a group of Waorani about the work that she has done with other tribes in Ecuador.

Wampi Humberto Ahua, a Waorani elder and the leader of the community,  tells a story about hunting to the group. These stories are filmed so they can be translated and eventually become material for animated films that will be given back to the community.

Wampi Humberto Ahua, a Waorani elder and the leader of the community, tells a story about hunting to the group. These stories are filmed so they can be translated and eventually become material for animated films that will be given back to the community.

Marleen’s work extends beyond words. She works with the stories told in these cultures in an effort to preserve heritage along with language. One facet of the work, Así Dicen Mis Abuelos (So my Grandparents Say), is a collaboration with her filmmaker daughter. I was able to witness the beginning of this process in action. Dozens of Waorani gathered in a room. Elders in the community were asked to come forward and tell a story. As they talked, they inevitably became animated while everyone watched and listened, gathered on the floor and in chairs around them. Marleen and her team filmed the storytelling. As I listened to words I could not understand, my mind pictured stories like these being told in villages for centuries, around campfires or while doing daily tasks. With the plotlines fresh in their minds, the Waorani gathered in groups to illustrate the stories. It is very important for Marleen to know what aspects of the stories look like visually for each tribe she works with. On this particular day, one man’s story was about hunting with a blow gun. Without the drawings to accompany the words, it would be difficult to know exactly what Waorani darts and blowguns look like, a key detail in getting the story right. With the recordings and illustrations in tow, Marleen and her daughter work with representatives from the villages to help with translation. The final products include animated films and books depicting the story in Wao Tededo (in this case) with Spanish subtitles. These resources are given back to the communities and serve as an invaluable tool for educating their children in both the content of the stories and the language. The beauty of this exercise was not just in what was being produced but also in the spirit of community and sharing that grew as people from several generations talked, drew, and laughed together.

After elders told their stories, Omaca Gloria Irumenga and others in the room began to draw them.  These illustrations are valuable tools to help Marleen produce resources to give back to the community in the form of animated films.

After elders told their stories, Omaca Gloria Irumenga joined others in the room drawing their interpretations of the tales. These illustrations are valuable tools to help Marleen produce resources to give back to the community in the form of animated films.

I could write multiple posts about the work that both Megan and Marleen are doing in Ecuador. What I witnessed was only a few short days, a small glimpse into labors of passion that no doubt will continue for the span of their lifetimes. They certainly have huge challenges ahead, but I believe their impact is taking root in these villages as young and old take pride in who they are, where they come from, and the importance of keeping some of that heritage alive.

It is clear that the intentions of these two women are not to keep the modern world away from the Waorani. Often when I travel with groups of tourists to indigenous villages, comments arise about how strange it is that the people there have cell phones or TVs. Isn’t it natural that these luxuries would be attractive to them? Dismay that people enjoy modern conveniences because of the quaint or romanticized images we, as travelers from first-world countries, have in our minds about their culture is short-sighted and self-centered. Expecting them to stay as they have been historically is no different than wanting to put them behind glass, on a shelf in a museum, frozen in time. No, the goal in these projects is rather helping the Waorani to recognize their uniqueness, with their language and their ways of life, while their communities welcome the 21st under their own terms.

Preserving culture by giving people voices through the arts: photography and drawing are two ways that Megan and Marleen are working with the Waorani to tell their story.

Preserving culture by giving people voices through the arts: photography and drawing are two ways that Megan and Marleen are working with the Waorani to tell their story. Carolina Ahua’s (L) photographs were included in the Wao Mimo exhibit in Quito and Coca. Wampi Humberto Ahua (R) draws a detail of the darts he mentioned in the story he shared with the group.

In the months since my visit to the Yasuní, ideas about language and culture have swirled in my mind. (I hesitate even now, putting words to this since much of it is at best half-baked.) I’ve visited with members from Haida (Haida Gwaii, British Columbia) and Tlingit (Alaska) tribes who are going to great lengths to learn the tongue of their ancestors and carry on the knowledge that has long been known in their culture. Friends who work with Native Americans have told me of the gravity in elders’ voices as they describe all that is lost when words are lost. In one tribe, an elder explained that a tree might be “tree’ in English, but in their native tongue there are numerous words used, each that carries a significant meaning associated with its role in the environment.  All of that meaning disappears when “tree” is used instead.

For centuries, the people of Haida Gwaii have spread knowledge through stories.  These originated in nature and were told through art.  Today, Linda Tollas (L) helped design the Spirit Lake Trail and educates visitors in regards to native use of the forests, for food and medicine.  (R) Christian White continues his family's heritage of telling stories through art, included totem poles.

For centuries, the people of Haida Gwaii have spread knowledge through stories.  These originated in nature and were told through art.  Today, Linda Tollas (L), who helped design the Spirit Lake Trail near Queen Charlotte City, educates visitors in regards to native use of the forests, for food and medicine.  Christian White (R) continues his family’s heritage of telling stories through art in Old Masset.

We don’t have to look to another group of people to see the ramifications of this concept. Every year, words are officially added and removed from dictionaries as they become relevant or obscure in modern culture. Last year in the Oxford Junior Dictionary, MP3 player and blog were added while heron and mistletoe were removed.  While a children’s dictionary is not an official lexicon, it does speak to where we are headed. Aside from pocket groups, how many in my generation understand the words associated with growing, harvesting, and canning food, darning socks, or sewing, much less how to put them to use? How many in the next generation will know how to read a map or cook without a microwave?  Our world is rapidly changing, and as it does, the way in which we relate to each other is morphing too. Are we taking the time to think about what parts of our own culture are worth holding onto in the process of our evolution? Who are the Megan’s and Marleen’s speaking out for all of us?

yasuní

Thick clouds hung low over the canopy at sunrise but did not diminish the view from the observation tower.

Thick clouds hung low over the canopy at sunrise but did not diminish the view from the observation tower.

It’s not easy to get to the Yasuní National Park in northeastern Ecuador. Usually it takes ~8 hours to drive from Quito to Pompeya, take a water taxi across the Napo River, and drive the final hour and a half down a mostly unpaved road to the Estación Científica Yasuní. There are times though, like during my recent visit, where this trip takes two days. Three routes link Ecuador’s capital city with one of the world’s most diverse natural treasures. When I was traveling to the Yasuní, two of the three were closed due to landslides, causing our long detour. Just a few days after my arrival there, all three routes would be blocked, leaving air travel as the only way to get from one to the other.

While my trip was long and tiring, it seemed appropriate. Shouldn’t the jungle that is the most biologically diverse place on our planet and the home of several untouched tribes be a challenge to access? Isn’t its remoteness why it is still as rich in resources as it is, for now?

The Yasuní Research Station sits on the bank of the Tiputini River.

La Estación Científica Yasuní sits on the bank of the Tiputini River.

Tourism has been a reality in parts of the Yasuní for years, but that is not the area that I was going to.  The road we traveled on was cut through undeveloped forest in the 1990’s. While it’s primarily an active oilfield road (a complicated topic for another day), it also links a small number of Waorani villages and provides access to a few research stations, including where we stayed.  The other travelers that I met were an international mix of researchers either working with the Waorani communities or on biological studies in the jungle.

The road that cuts through the Waorani village of Guiyero was built in the 1990s.

The road that cuts through the Waorani village of Guiyero was built in the 1990s.

A semi-domesticated tapir would at times come through the research station with her offspring.

A semi-domesticated tapir at times comes through the research station, as she did with her calves during my visit.

I was traveling with Megan Westervelt, a fellow photographer that I met in 2008 at the beginning of her photographic journey. Since then she has blossomed as a photographer and fallen in love with Ecuadorian culture. Last year she earned a Fulbright Grant to investigate conservation efforts in the Yasuní. As she spent more time in the area her focus shifted toward the people that she met living there. Her current project, and the reason for my visit, involves teaching interested Waorani communities photography so that they can tell their stories, and preserve their heritage, while modernization works its quick magic on their culture right before their eyes. My experience with this project will be featured in an upcoming post. For now, the jungle.

There’s nothing like the sounds of a tropical rainforest. By day the air is filled with insect- and birdsong. Night sweeps in, and a crescendo is reached as the symphony of insects and frogs take center stage. I could have laid in a hammock and soaked up those sounds for days.

I loved the graceful shapes of the rainforest, including this undulating species of Bauhinia and the delicate dangling nests of the oropendola that hung from many trees.

I loved the graceful shapes of the rainforest, including this undulating species of Bauhinia and the delicate dangling nests of the oropendola that hung from many trees.

Even though I was there to work on a specific project, I was able to make it out into the jungle on a few outings. Early one morning I met a local Waorani guide, Gabo, to hike up to an observation tower to watch the sunrise. The world was dark and quiet as we ascended God-only-knows how many rungs up a metal ladder to the top of the canopy. There we waited, and the jungle, like clockwork, came alive. Gabo named off the bird, sapo and monkey calls as they chimed in. Being an active hunter for his family (with a blowgun for monkeys and a lance for larger animals), Gabo began to call the monkeys, to which they immediately responded. So when he asked if I wanted to go looking for them, of course I said yes. Within minutes we were bushwhacking through the jungle. It didn’t take long for him to come to a tree where nocturnal monkeys were asleep at the top, and which he woke up to make sure I’d seen them. We had to look a little more for the others. Something would cause Gabo to stop, listen, and sometimes make a call, before deciding which direction to walk. Before we made it back to the main road, we had found three different species of monkeys. Our last stop was under a tree where hundreds of squirrel monkeys scurried overhead.

Squirrel monkeys (locally called payasos) scurried in huge numbers along branches, sometimes taking giant leaps between trees.

Squirrel monkeys (locally called payasos) scurried in huge numbers along branches, sometimes taking giant leaps between trees.

Gabo would frequently pause to listen and call to monkeys as he tracked them.

Gabo would frequently pause to listen and call to monkeys as he tracked them.

A few days later, a small group of us went out for a day on the Tiputini River. Any visit to this area of Ecuador should be seen from a boat. And there’s no substitute for having the expert eyes of locals on board with you. I still have no idea how Nonge and German saw some of what they spotted during our trip on the river. The biggest surprise was the well-hidden sleeping green anaconda that German spotted as we were speeding upriver. In order to get a good look, we tied our very long and narrow boat to a tree upriver and drifted back. Nonge, in the back, held on to the limb the snake was coiled around. I had lean out of the boat a bit on the opposite side because we were too close for my lens to focus. Needless to say, this was much closer than I’d ever expected to be near one of these large snakes in the wild! Watching it gracefully wrapped around the tree limb naturally birthed questions about where the head was. In response, Nonge began to shake the limb and splash water on the snake to try to give us an answer. As much as I would have loved to have seen the face of that snake, I was relieved that it kept sleeping.  The torrential rains that came every day unleashed on us as we made our final stretch back to the research station.

A green anaconda sleeps on a branch overhanging the Tiputini River.

A green anaconda sleeps on a branch overhanging the Tiputini River.

Nonge does his best to outrun an approaching storm on the Tiputini River. We were drenched by the end of our outing, but happy nonetheless.

Nonge does his best to outrun an approaching storm on the Tiputini River. We were drenched by the end of our outing, but happy nonetheless.

Being that close to one of the world’s longest snakes, hearing stories about researchers being struck by vipers and swarmed by insects while sampling, and seeing an hours-old jaguar print the size of a man’s hand as we walked through the dense forest, were just some of the reminders of how dangerous tropical rainforests can be. Thankfully just like any other wild place, for those willing to venture out into them, the beauty of it all is powerful enough to transform any fear into a deep, raw, and intoxicating respect.

The ivory-billed Aracari was one of the many incredible birds I saw.

The ivory-billed Aracari, a relative to toucans, was one of the many incredible birds I saw during my short visit to the Yasuní.

 

 

 

nightlights

Northern Lights, Ketchikan, Alaska, May 2015, on the National Geographic Sea Lion

Northern Lights, Ketchikan, Alaska, May 2015, on the National Geographic Sea Lion

At the bookends of the Northern Hemisphere,
Two ships sail through calm waters,
Different voyages exploring two of Earth’s numerous natural treasures.
Two nights, almost exactly a month apart, open with clear starry skies.
Yes, stars do produce a spectacular celestial show on their own,
But on these two nights, they were but a prelude for what was to come.
In the darkness, a light…
Not the moon, nor the wish-inspiring path of a shooting star.
In the north, colliding particles in the atmosphere birth tiny bursts of light
Creating dancing ribbons of green and red over the lights of Ketchikan.
On the Equator, hot molten earth bursts from a volcano,
Its red flow producing a glowing ribbon of its own over the land.
Displays like these don’t last forever.
As clouds roll in, the sun rises, and lava hardens into a cold blackness,
The shows come to a close.
But they live on, painted in their fleeting splendor,
Forever on display in the depths of my memory.

Eruption of Wolf Volcano, Galapagos Islands, June 2015, on the National Geographic Endeavour

Eruption of Wolf Volcano, Galapagos Islands, June 2015, on the National Geographic Endeavour

voices from ciénaga

I met many people during my time in Ciénaga that came through the clinic and operating room.  There were a few that I spent time with in their homes before and after their experience with the Medical Ministry International team.  As the final installment regarding this trip, here are a few of their stories.

Alfredo, 68

Overwhelming heartbreak poured from Alfredo during our first encounter at the MMI Clinic.  He lamented over the loss of his son, the most recent in a string of tragedies that has shaped much of his life.

Overwhelming heartbreak poured from Alfredo during our first encounter at the MMI Clinic. He lamented over the loss of his son, the most recent in a string of tragedies that has shaped much of his life.

Of all the people I encountered in the Ciénaga area, Alfredo’s story was the most heart-wrenching.  The father of four, he lost his young wife after complications from their last son’s birth.  He sent his daughter to live with his sister in Bogotá and raised his three sons in their modest home.  In 2008, one son was murdered at the age of 28.  He was a motorcycle taxi driver who made a fatal decision when he picked up a certain customer.  When Alfredo showed me the newspaper that detailed his son’s death on the front page, the headlines read, “One man asked him for a ride and paid with a bullet.  He did not rob one cent.”  Tragedy struck again in 2013, when his youngest son, Erasmo, was with a friend in Alfredo’s back yard. Someone entered the yard and assassinated them both.  The target had been Erasmo’s friend; he was killed because he was a witness.  This last death, in particular, has left a lasting mark on his father’s life, and has also left Alfredo to fear for his safety in his home.  His oldest son lives in nearby Santa Marta, but because he has a large family of his own, Alfredo spends much of his time alone.

Alfredo's home, where he lives and works reparing electronics, once was a happier place where he raised his family.

Alfredo’s home, where he lives and works reparing electronics, once was a happier place where he raised his family.

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Alejandro keeps a file folder that contains photos of his family, including his son Erasmo, pictured, who was shot in his backyard in 2013.

A pile of rocks in Alfredo's yard marks the spot where his son was killed.  He used to take good care of the yard and use the space as his kitchen, but he no longer spends time in this area and relies on a friend to bring him meals.

A pile of rocks in Alfredo’s yard marks the spot where his son was killed. He used to take good care of the yard and use the space as his kitchen, but he no longer spends time in this area and relies on a friend to bring him meals.

The only living space in Alfredo's home is his small bedroom.  Since it is lockable, it also serves as a storage space for his power tools.

The only living space in Alfredo’s home is his small bedroom. Since it is lockable, it also serves as a storage space for his power tools.

Alfredo had come to the clinic needing cataract surgery but fearful of spending money on anything other than a cell phone plan so that he could call out if he was ever in danger.  Thankfully, the doctors and staff at the clinic were able to convince him that his safety was also compromised if he could not see.  While the surgeries typically cost ~1 month’s wages, there are funds set aside for cases like Alfredo’s so that people who are in need do not go without a surgery because of financial limitations.

Dr. Joe Fammartino, from Santa Fe, NM, examines Alfredo's eye at the MMI Clinic.  He was able to convince Alfredo of his need for the cataract surgery that took place a few days later.

Dr. Joe Fammartino, from Santa Fe, NM, examines Alfredo’s eye at the MMI Clinic. He was able to convince Alfredo of his need for the cataract surgery that took place a few days later.

Marisa is a shop owner who lives with her family down the street from Alfredo.  They have become an adopted family for Alfredo, pictured here the day after his cataract surgery.

Marisa is a shop owner who lives with her family down the street from Alfredo. They have become an adopted family for Alfredo, pictured here the day after his cataract surgery.

The light of his life now is a neighbor down the street, Marisa.  She and her husband run a corner store in the neighborhood.  They had moved into the area to flee the violence that had crippled her small hometown.  Marisa is the mother of six and jokes that Alfredo is her seventh child.  He would sweep the floors of her store before it opened each day when he was able, and she brings him meals to his home everyday when he’s not with her family at the store.  While they are no substitute for the family he lost, Marisa and her family provide him needed care and support.

 

 

Alejandro, 11

Alejandro lives with his father and shares his sister's room when he stays with his mom.

Alejandro lives with his father and shares his sister’s room when he stays with his mom.

A smile was on young Alejandro’s face every time that I met him.  He came to the clinic with his mother with a crossed eye (strabismus).  An avid student, he likes every subject in school and dreams of becoming a doctor.  The surgery caused him to miss school the week that I met him, but he was looking forward to returning the following week, now that the kids there would have no reason to make fun of him.

Alejandro came to the clinic with a strabysmus in his right eye.  After the pediatric ophthalmologist screened him (left), she determined that he was a candidate for surgery.

Alejandro came to the clinic with a strabysmus in his right eye. After the pediatric ophthalmologist screened him (left), she determined that he was a candidate for surgery.

After his surgery, Alejandro happily talked about how he was looking forward to returning to school so that the kids there could see his straight eyes and realize that they had no reason to make fun of him anymore.

After his surgery, Alejandro happily talked about how he was looking forward to returning to school so that the kids there could see his straight eyes and realize that they had no reason to make fun of him anymore.

 

 

Lindrys, 31

JDavidsonBlog150128-11When Lindrys was 17, a friend had an eye removed because of an infection caused by rat droppings getting in the eye when he was cleaning off a roof.  At that point Lindrys vowed to her mother that if she ever lost an eye, she would take her own life.  Two weeks later, she and a cousin were in a horrible car accident.  Lindrys’s head hit the dashboard, causing extensive damage to the right side of her face….and the loss of her right eye.  Fearful about her recent promise, her family opted to keep the eye loss from Lindrys.  It was not until she caught a glimpse of a reflection in the doctor’s office several months later that she learned the extent of her injury.  When she confronted her mother about knowing the truth, she said that a great peace came over her.  Instead of declaring a desire to die, she instead expressed gratitude that she was still alive.  This was a powerful moment and a turning point for all of them.

Lindrys (left) was in a car wreck 14 years ago that damage most of the right side of her face.  Her mother (right) becomes emotional to this day when she talks about that dark time in her daughter's life.

Lindrys (left) was in a car wreck 14 years ago that damage most of the right side of her face. Her mother (right) becomes emotional to this day when she talks about that dark time in her daughter’s life.

In recent years, Lindrys has had three surgeries to reconstruct her right brow so that she could be fitted with a prosthetic eye.  During this time she has been studying hotel management and tourism while raising her 4-year-old daughter.  Her daughter’s persistence was a driving force in them seeking the MMI clinic when they did.  Even at her young age, she was the target for other children’s ridicule at school, with comments about her mother being pretty from the neck down, but ugly from the neck up.

Lindrys has the support of her family.  She and her daughter, left, live with her mother, her brother and his family.

Lindrys has the support of her family. She and her daughter, left, live with her mother, her brother and his family.

Lindrys arrived at the clinic in the final days that we were there, and the prosthetic eye inventory had dwindled.  The ocularist who fit these eyes was concerned that no match would be found, but after several moments in prayer and synchronistic moments beyond consequence, a perfect match was in fact found.  When I met Lindrys in her home, I met a vibrant beautiful young woman who has much to look forward to.  She is still in need of more reconstructive surgery and is hopeful that there are other groups like MMI that might be able to help.  With her new eye and more socially accepted looks, she talked eagerly about possibilities of holding a job and hoped for opportunities to one day marry. Ultimately she poured out gratitude to God, not for giving her “normal” looks, but for her injury in the first place, since through it, she has experienced deep grace and a transformed outlook on life.

Lindrys, pictured at her family's home, has a positive outlook on life that has grown from hardships and grace after her accident.

Lindrys, pictured at her family’s home, has a positive outlook on life that has grown from hardships and grace after her accident.

faces of ciénaga: buenavista and nueva venecia

Buenavista, one of three fishing villages in La Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta, is home to about 120 families.

Buenavista, one of three fishing villages in La Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta, is home to about 120 families.

They came because the fishing was good, but the trip to the market, and home, was long in their wooden dugout canoes. One thing led to another…what began as one stilted cabin here or there in which to stay overnight grew into larger buildings to store belongings allowing for longer stays. At some point about 100 years ago it just made sense to the fishermen to build more structures and bring their families. What once was open swamp with good fishing eventually became a good place to call home.

A fisherman throws his net near Buenavista.  In the distance plastic jugs mounted on posts mark shrimp nets.

A fisherman throws his net near Buenavista. In the distance plastic jugs mounted on posts mark shrimp nets.

Wooden canoes are used for fishing and getting around town.  Nueva Venecia is largest fishing village in the area.

Wooden canoes are used for fishing and getting around town. Nueva Venecia is largest fishing village in the area.

Nueva Venecia and Buenavista (both appropriately named, these translate to “New Venice” and “good view,” respectively) are two small communities in the Cienaga Grande de Santa Marta, about an hour’s boat ride from Pueblo Viejo. Most of the towns’ structures are on stilts. There is no electricity except what is provided by gas generators. Most of these are small portable varieties in homes, with the exception of Nueva Venecia. It is the largest of three communities in the area, and has a generator that supplies limited electricity to much of the town. While each town is self-contained, residents commute to Nueva Venecia for high school and community events. Small plots of land in each town were built up over time by piling up sediment and shell, primarily to serve as well-used soccer fields or gathering spaces.

Young girls played on their porch while a family member mended a shrimp net in Buenavista.

Much of life happens on the porch.  Children play outside and adults tend to business, mending shrimp nets, working on outboard motors, or socializing with friends.

Small generators provide power for fans, blenders and lights in Buenavista homes.

Small generators provide power for fans, blenders and lights in Buenavista homes.

Soccer fields built up by piling sediment and shell in the shallow water provide a place for boys to play the popular sport.

Soccer fields built up by piling sediment and shell in the shallow water provide a place for boys to play the popular sport.

Napoleon’s family moved to Buenavista over 50 years ago. He says that life in Buenavista is good and peaceful. People move there because they want to live there, and everyone knows everyone else. While they do have representation for regional political activities, there is no police force because there is little crime. It is not cheap to live in these communities. Everything must be transported in, including supplies for daily life and building materials. It is much less expensive to have a home in Ciénaga or Pueblo Viejo, but the quality of life that calls in these towns out-competes any monetary gain from living the larger towns.

Shrimp nets are put out each night and collected in the morning. Men who are not fishing use the daylight hours to check the nets for holes.

Shrimp nets are put out each night and collected in the morning. Men, such as Napoleon’s nephew, right, who are not fishing use the daylight hours to check the nets for holes. 

Living in these towns is not without its challenges. Nearby, the Magdalena River, Colombia’s largest, flows into the Caribbean Sea at Barranquilla. Every few years, the river floods and greatly impacts the residents of these fishing villages. The rise though is slow, as is the retreat. This gives people enough time to raise their belongings, and even their floorboards, in their homes, to prevent water from coming into the home. Quality education is also an issue. While many children do make it to the university level, government corruption has misrepresented attendance and made it difficult for qualified teachers to be placed in the remote schools.

During floods, the Magdalena River can rise several feet into the home, causing Napoleon, left, to raise everything in the house to stay dry. His wife Berta, right, came to MMI’s clinic last year for cataract surgery but is not able to make the trip this year to repair the cataract in her other eye.

During floods, the Magdalena River can rise several feet into the home, causing Napoleon, left, to raise everything in the house to stay dry. His wife Berta, right, came to MMI’s clinic last year for cataract surgery but is not able to make the trip this year to repair the cataract in her other eye.

A young student pauses by a classroom in Nueva Venecia’s school.

A young student pauses by a classroom in Nueva Venecia’s school.

Fishermen spend their days on water or at home mending gear. They make trips to the market in Tasajeras, to sell their catch and gather supplies, every 4-5 days. Many have outboard motors, but some rely on plastic sails to propel them across the waters.  For the people who live in these villages, inconveniences caused by their remoteness is a small price to pay for a quieter, simpler life.

A group of boys took a break from soccer to visit with us, left.  While younger boys spend their day at play en masse, men spend much of the day on the water, right, working alone or in pairs to catch fish for food and income.

A group of boys took a break from soccer to visit with us, left. While younger boys spend their day at play en masse, men spend much of the day on the water, right, working alone or in pairs to catch fish for food and income.

Nueva Venecia is a combination of vibrantly painted and weathered wood buildings, beautifully reflected in the surrounding waters.

Nueva Venecia is a combination of vibrantly painted and weathered wood buildings that  reflect beautifully in the surrounding waters.

While many fishermen have small outboard motors to shorten their long trips, some travel across the water in wooden canoes propelled by wind.

While many fishermen have small outboard motors to shorten their long trips, some travel across the water in wooden canoes propelled by wind.

faces of ciénaga: pueblo viejo

Children play in the street by a church and plaza in Pueblo Viejo.

Children play in the street by a church and plaza in Pueblo Viejo.

Between Cienaga and Barranquilla there is a thin strip of land that separates a large lagoon (Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta) and the Caribbean Sea. It’s so narrow that I could see both bodies of water as I rode way down the highway between the two cities. On either side, there was barrio after barrio of small homes, mostly defined by the limits of the water and land. This is Pueblo Viejo. It is a town that is deeply connected to the water, where most men make their living by fishing, either in the lagoon or ocean. Most women are homemakers, but others take the 45-minute bus ride into Santa Marta to work at a hotel or restaurant for the tourist industry there. The people here are no doubt poor, and they are strong. I was able to visit several different neighborhoods within the town and was an unexpected – and welcome – guest in many homes. Since I was traveling with Medical Ministry International during their eye project in Ciénaga, my local guide and I would stop and ask the first person we saw if there were people in the neighborhood with eye issues. Inevitably doors opened. We met people who did not know we were in town, who had already been to the clinic or had come last year, or who just wanted to meet us and tell us their story.

Luis, 70, used to be a fisherman.  Now he buys large fish from other fishermen and sells the cleaned fish at the indoor market in Tasajeras.  He says that the lifestyle is much easier and prefers it to long days out on the water.

Luis, 70, used to be a fisherman. Now he buys large fish from other fishermen and sells the cleaned fish at the indoor market in Tasajeras. He says that the lifestyle is much easier and prefers it to long days out on the water.

Much of life happens on the front porches, where people relax and friends and family gather for meals and visits.

Much of life happens on the front porches, where people relax and friends and family gather for meals and visits.

Ana, left, watches over her 10-year old daughter.  She lives in Barrio San Vicente with several of her 12 children (between 5 and 27 years old), daughters-in-law and grandchildren.

Ana, left, watches over her 10-year old daughter. She lives in Barrio San Vicente with several of her 12 children (between 5 and 27 years old), daughters-in-law and grandchildren.

The first barrio I visited was that of San Vicente, which was established in 2004 as a refuge for people who had been displaced from their homes from the violence that ravaged parts of the country in the early 2000’s. Most of the homes in this neighborhood were made of wood, and there were probably not any walls that did not let light through them. As I walked down a dirt road into the barrio, I couldn’t help but notice how brightly painted some of the homes, something that I would later note in every neighborhood I visited. One house was even wrapped completely in wrapping paper. It was what I took as an expression of pride in their homes, manifested in brightly painted walls, lace curtains, or ornate paper decorations. The colors and decor extended to the home interiors but found their limits there. Behind the homes, backyards with walkways that connected homes from different streets, revealed stagnant water, piecemeal walls, barren dirt, and discarded trash.

Lace curtains add bits of beauty to an otherwise impoverished setting in this home in the No Estrés barrio.

Lace curtains add bits of beauty to a home in the No Estrés barrio.

Carolina Melendrez walks toward her home in Barrio San Vicente.  Approximately 120 families sought refuge in this neighborhood when it was established in 2004.

Carolina Melendrez walks toward her home in Barrio San Vicente. Approximately 120 families sought refuge in this neighborhood when it was established in 2004.

Outside the Melendrez home in San Vicente, several neighborhood children congregated to see what we were doing in the area, including this protective brother with his little sister.

Outside the Melendrez home in San Vicente, several neighborhood children congregated to see what we were doing in the area, including this protective brother with his little sister.

Carolina Melendrez (right) and her friends were like teenage girls from many parts of the world – in love with the camera.  They proudly modeled as they showed me Carolina’s backyard.

Carolina Melendrez (right) and her friends were like teenage girls from many parts of the world – in love with the camera. They proudly modeled as they showed me Carolina’s backyard.

Garbage, particularly plastic, is a huge problem in this part of Colombia.  It accumulates along the highways and shorelines.  There were some barrios, such as Palmira, that looked to be choking by all the surrounding trash.  There are actually trash trucks that come through each barrio regularly, but only the small amount of trash that is produced inside the home is discarded using these services.

While the fronts of homes were often brightly colored, their back yards painted a different story.  Stagnant water and a broken canoe reveal what cannot be covered by paint or looking the other way.

While the fronts of homes were often brightly colored, their back yards painted a different story. Stagnant water, litter, and a broken canoe reveal what cannot be erased by paint or by looking the other way.

Plastic and discarded items fill the shore of a pond in the Palmira barrio.  Even though trash trucks come through regularly, the service is only used for a tiny portion of items thrown away in the home.  The majority accumulates in the landscape.

Plastic and discarded items fill the shore of a pond in the Palmira barrio. Even though trash trucks come through regularly, the service is only used for a tiny portion of items thrown away in the home. The majority accumulates in the landscape.

Adonai is a barrio across the highway from San Vicente. The streets are wider and the homes more sound, being constructed mostly of cinder bocks. As we drove into the neighborhood, our motorcycles weaved between plastic barrels in the middle of the wide dirt streets. These were water tanks. Every day a truck drives through the barrios, delivering clean water. People bring barrels into the street to collect the water. The cost to fill a ~50 gallon barrel is 3000 pesos ($1.17). This provides enough water for a small family to use for about 3 days, and is used for just about everything: drinking, showering, and cooking.

The homes in the Adonai Barrio are mostly built from cinder blocks.

The homes in the Adonai Barrio are mostly built from cinder blocks.

Hector, Diosa and their daughter Milagro, 9, run a store out of their home in the Adonai Barrio.  Hector used to fish but says that this business provides a better life for his family.  Diosa and Milagro had visited the MMI clinic earlier in the week to receive glasses.

Hector, Diosa and their daughter Milagro, 9, run a store out of their home in the Adonai barrio. Hector used to fish but says that this business provides a better life for his family. Diosa and Milagro had visited the MMI clinic earlier in the week to receive glasses.

The hub for Pueblo Viejo is the Tasajeras fish market. As we approached, we passed cantinas, churches, and restaurants as ciclotaxis and motorcycles buzzed by. Fishermen from all over the area congregate here to sell their catches. We walked through the indoor market, where men and a few women processed fish at lightning speed. Many of these men used to be fishermen but now buy some of the larger fish from fishermen to sell to the public at a premium. Outside this expansive, and mostly quiet, indoor market was an area alive with activity. Narrow wooden canoes slipped in and out of spaces only three feet wide to bring in their catches. Money exchanged hands quickly as women and children hold buckets up and whole fish are tossed in. One fisherman told me that the fish are not as big or as abundant as they used to be, mirroring conversations happening in many parts of the world as we hungrily over-develop, over-fish and over-pollute the planet’s coastal and marine areas.

Merchants at the indoor market in Tasajeras quickly process numerous fish to sell to the public.

Merchants at the indoor market in Tasajeras quickly process numerous fish to sell to the public.

Fishermen in a wooden canoe approach the fish market in Tasajeras, bringing in fish caught in the surrounding lagoon.

Fishermen in a wooden canoe approach the fish market in Tasajeras, bringing in fish caught in the surrounding lagoon.

A fishermen cleans his catch at the Tasajeras fish market.

A fishermen cleans his catch at the Tasajeras fish market.

A young boy shows me fish he had just purchased at the market.

A young boy shows me fish he had just purchased at the market.

As the afternoon came to a close, we entered a barrio called Cero Estrés, which translates to “Zero Stress.”  The family I visited there did not know about the MMI project in Ciénaga but they told of how a similar group had helped a son of theirs years ago.  Alfonso, now a strong 27 year old father of two, spent two months in the US as an 8 year old.  He had heart surgery there, at a time when communication between where he was and where his family remained, was impossible.  His concerned, pregnant, and courageous mother had taken him in to see the doctors at the clinic while her husband was out fishing.  She did what she had to do.  She let her son get on a plane with strangers who might be able to help them.  And they did. There’s no doubt that similar stories have played out with less than happy endings.  But it was good to be reminded that lasting differences come about when the generosity of those who can help meets the bravery of those who need it.

Alfonso's father, left, was fishing when his wife decided to let their son go to the US for heart surgery.  The couple lives with their three sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren in the No Estrés barrio.

Alfonso’s father, left, was fishing when his wife decided to let their son go to the US for heart surgery. The couple lives with their three sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren in the Cero Estrés barrio.

Left, An older man crouches in his canoe, gathering fish at the Tasajera fish market. Right, This determined and at one time desperate mother took her son to a medical missions clinic, not realizing he would need heart surgery.

Left, An older man crouches in his canoe, gathering fish at the Tasajera fish market. Right, This determined and at one time desperate mother took her son, Alfonso, to a medical missions clinic, not realizing he would need heart surgery.