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.

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One thought on “faces of ciénaga: pueblo viejo

  1. Pingback: faces of ciénaga: buenavista and nueva venecia | a patchwork path

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