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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.