sights on ciénaga

In Ciénaga's commercial district, people busily travel via motor cycles and ciclotaxis (left).

In Ciénaga’s commercial district, people busily travel via motor cycles and ciclotaxis.

In the poorer barrios outside of Ciénaga, homes are made of many types of salvaged materials.

In the poorer barrios outside of Ciénaga, homes are made of many types of salvaged materials.

Last year as I was traveling along the Caribbean coast of Colombia, en route to Santa Marta from Cartagena, I passed through an area that struck me by its level of poverty. On either side of the highway stood communities of shacks made of corrugated metal, cardboard or other materials that I’m sure were discarded by others. A few miles later we passed through the congested town of Ciénaga, packed with vendors, motorcycles, and bicycles with carts behind (ciclotaxis) carrying people here and there. It was a place that I remembered well after traveling around Colombia, even though I only experienced it through a bus window.

Multiple doctors, such as Joe Fammartino (center), worked at each station to streamline the screening process.

A team of eye doctors, including Joe Fammartino (center), have come to Colombia for the past two decades to give aid in the area of eye health with Medical Ministry International.

The morning after their surgery is first time that patients can see clearly after having their cataracts removed (left) or see themselves without crossed eyes after their strabismus is corrected (right).

The morning after their surgery is first time that patients can see clearly after having their cataracts removed (left) or see themselves without crossed eyes after their strabismus is corrected (right).

Patients waiting in the hospital before their surgeries ranged in age from 4 to those in their mid-90’s.

Patients waiting in the hospital before their surgeries ranged in age from 4 to those in their mid-90’s.

I have known about the medical projects in Colombia run by Medical Ministry International for several years. Dear friends of mine have been traveling with this group to Colombia for decades and going with them has been on my wish list for as long as they’ve been telling me about it. For two weeks this January, I was finally able to join them. As we pulled into Ciénaga the first day, it felt distantly familiar. This time I was not driving beyond the poverty-stricken barrios and bustling commercial center that I had seen last year. I was going right into the heart of it.

A side effect of the drops given to children to dilate their eyes is drowsiness.  These children sleep as they wait to be seen at the next station.

A side effect of the drops given to children to dilate their eyes is drowsiness. These children sleep as they wait to be seen at the next station.

Children and families were common at the clinic and brought smiles to those waiting in line with their playfulness.

Children and families were common at the clinic and brought smiles to those waiting in line with their playfulness.

We were a group of 70 – Americans, Colombians and Canadians. Many in the group were doctors, others were translators, still others came along to fill in wherever there was need. With the help of ~70 additional Colombians from a local church, a school compound was transformed into a clinic. At a nearby hospital, an operating room was modified to accommodate multiple patients simultaneously. Our focus was eye health. Even on this first day, we began seeing people in the clinic, screening their vision and scheduling surgeries for the next day.

Every morning people waited outside the gates for the clinic to open.  Some of the people seen above arrived at 2 a.m. and had traveled over 6 hours to get to the clinic.

Every morning people waited outside the gates for the clinic to open. Some of the people seen above arrived at 2 a.m. and had traveled over 6 hours to get to the clinic.

For many, new glasses provide the help that people needed to see better.

For many, new glasses provide the help that people needed to see better.

Some came for reading glasses, others for better prescription glasses. Moms brought their kids for screening. Some came with diabetes and glaucoma; others with undiagnosed conditions. Many came with cataracts and pterygia, both of which are prevalent in the area due to the intensity of the sun coupled with its reflection on the water in this community whose livelihoods closely associated with the water. Children and a few adults came with strabismus (crossed eyes) and several arrived who were missing an eye completely. For them, the question, “How do I look?” carries much weight, since their appearance causes ridicule and unacceptance and can prevent employment or the prospect of marriage, in addition to making them not look as they might desire.

For others who came with cataracts, surgery was required.

For others who came with cataracts, surgery was required.

The difference before (left) and after a strabismus was corrected is marked.  This surgery allows patients to see better and more importantly to some, brings more social acceptance from their peers.

The difference before (left) and after a strabismus was corrected is marked. This surgery allows patients to see better and more importantly to some, brings more social acceptance from their peers.

The inventory of prosthetic eyes varied slightly in color and size to ensure a better fit for patients in need of them.

The inventory of prosthetic eyes varied slightly in color and size to ensure a better fit for patients in need of them.

Miladys is from the local church.  She welcomed people into the clinic and attended the restrooms.  She lost her right eye when she was a child and received a prosthetic eye the first day the clinic opened this year.

Miladys is from the local church. She welcomed people into the clinic and attended the restrooms. She lost her right eye when she was a child and received a prosthetic eye the first day the clinic opened this year.

Every morning when we arrived at the school, a line stretched down the street, people expectantly and patiently waiting. In my daily life I have not given much thought to eye issues, so I was surprised a the sheer number of people who came, some having traveled great distances, to seek help in this area. By the time we closed down the clinic and operating room, after ten days of being open, over 5700 people had been served.

Fran Logan from Santa Fe, NM tests a patient’s near vision.

Fran Logan from Santa Fe, NM tests a patient’s near vision.

Maria (left), who escorted her father, Isidro to the clinic over a three day period, for his cataracts, is ready to take him home after his post-op examination.  One of the first stations people visit (right) tests their near vision.

Maria (left), who escorted her father, Isidro to the clinic over a three day period, for his cataracts, is ready to take him home after his post-op examination. One of the first stations people visit (right) tests their near vision.

I had come with the group to serve as the photographer. While others spent hours each day in one room, testing long- or short-range vision, fitting glasses, or performing surgeries, I flowed in and out of each room, witnessing special moments that occurred at each station. I met the people who waited in line outside, heard their stories, and visited some of their homes.

A patient is ready to be moved to the operating room for her cataract while others are prepped with anesthesia in the background.

A patient is ready to be moved to the operating room for her cataract while others are prepped with anesthesia in the background.

Doctors mark patients patches (left) so that they can easily identify who they operated on the following day during post-ops.  Cataracts removed from patients (right) were a range of opacities and colors.

Doctors mark patients’ patches (left) so that they can easily identify who they operated on the following day during post-ops. Cataracts removed from patients (right) were a range of opacities and colors.

Dr. Roger Barth secures an eye cup on a patient just after performing cataract surgery.

Dr. Roger Barth secures an eye cup on a patient just after performing cataract surgery.

After surgeries were completed, many hugs were exchanged between the medical team and patients.

After surgeries were completed, many hugs were exchanged between the medical team and patients.

As I saw more of this area that last year I had passed by, the people of Ciénaga inched their way into my heart. Most do not have material possessions or even what many would consider basic comforts. But the people I met, young and old, are brave and generous with what they do have. They stood many hours in line, waiting and not necessarily knowing what to expect. Those that came to the hospital for surgery faced lying on an operating table, awake, as people operated on their eye, speaking a language they did not understand. Every day, as people left the clinic and hospital, they hugged those that had helped them, gave gifts (usually jewelry they were wearing or something they’d made) as tokens of appreciation, and lifted up praises to God – – whether their condition was fixed or not. In their vulnerability there was strength, and in their faith, hope.

Equipment (left) was transported from the US and Canada for screening purposes.  Nalfranquel Ronani (right) waits further instruction the morning after his cataract surgery.

Equipment (left) was transported from the US and Canada for screening purposes. Nalfranquel Ronani (right) waits further instruction the morning after his cataract surgery.

For the next few blog posts, I will be highlighting aspects of my time in Ciénaga, the people who came for help from the medical team, and the communities in the area.

Some irreparable conditions were more evident than others, such as that of Tilsia Maria (left).  Fernay (right) returned after having one eye corrected last year.  The doctors this year found nerve damage in his other eye, so he will never see better through it. Even though some patients received bad news like this, they were gracious and thankful for MMI’s efforts in their area.

Some irreparable conditions were more evident than others, such as that of Tilsia Maria (left). Fernay (right) returned after having one eye corrected last year. The doctors this year found nerve damage in his other eye, so he will never see better through it. Even though some patients received bad news like this, they were gracious and thankful for MMI’s efforts in their area.

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cartagenian cocktail

A recipe recommended for all who enjoy travel, culture, and ocean breezes.  Drink up!

Strolling the narrow streets of Cartagena's colonial walled city is a wonderful way to spend the day.

Strolling the narrow streets of Cartagena’s colonial walled city is a wonderful way to spend the day.

Muddle a variety of incredible food (any combination of fresh ceviche and fruit, street food, excellent mojitos, artisan ice cream, and world class coffee works well) in a shaker.

The selection of delicious ice creams, sorbets, and yogurts at La Paletteria commands more than one visit.

The selection of delicious ice creams, sorbets, and yogurts at La Paletteria commands more than one visit.

Pour in 2 oz. history (picture a walled fortress, quaint narrow streets, hidden courtyards, rehabilitated and dilapidated buildings…what stories, triumphant, festive and horrific these streets could tell).

At the end of his work day, a street vendor walks his empty cart for storage.

At the end of his work day, a street vendor walks his empty cart back for overnight storage.

Add 1 oz. art: equal parts historic, contemporary, and street varieties.

Santoya Cardales has washed Botero's Figura Reclinada 92 every morning since it was installed at the Plaza Santo Domingo in April of 2000.

Santoya Cardales has washed Botero’s Figura Reclinada 92 every morning since it was installed in the Plaza Santo Domingo in April 2000.

Street art, like this installation at a construction site near Plaza Bolivar provides an interesting backdrop for passersby.

Street art, like this installation at a construction site near Plaza Bolivar, provides  interesting backdrops for passersby on many of Cartagena’s streets and walkways.

When in season, add a splash of intellectual inspiration with a local festival, such as last weekend’s Hay Festival.

Paul Bogard discusses his book The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in the Age of Artificial Light at the 2015 Hay Festival.

Paul Bogard discusses his book The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in the Age of Artificial Light at the 2015 Hay Festival.

Turn on some salsa music and shake well to blend the eclectic flavors.

Salsa bands rotate throughout the night at Cafe Havana in the Getsemani neighborhood.

Rotating salsa bands perform throughout the night at Cafe Havana in the Getsemaní neighborhood.

Prepare a glass by rimming it with dancing well into the night.  Add a few cubes of ice (you’ll want them in this steamy Caribbean climate).

Live music can be heard on many blocks in Cartagena.  Dancing in the street is one way to avoid the crowded dance floors.

Live music abounds in Cartagena and can be enjoyed just about anywhere. Dancing in the street is one way to avoid the small and crowded dance floors inside.

Strain the mixture into the glass and garnish with the unexpected, which is sure to greet you at any given moment.

Keep your eyes open for unexpected happenings when in Cartagena.  You never know what might be coming down the street.

Keep your eyes open for unexpected happenings when in Cartagena. You never know what might be coming down the street.

Unplug, find an outdoor street-side table, and sip slowly to enjoy this enchanting concoction to it’s fullest.

The cozy setting outside Patagonia Asados del Sur encourages enjoying your company and the outdoors.  Wi-fi is certainly not missed.

The cozy setting outside Patagonia Asados del Sur encourages enjoying your company and the outdoors. Wi-fi is certainly not missed.

¡Salud!

some things don’t get old

The beach at Gardner Bay on Española Island is a stunning place with its white sand and turquoise water.

The beach at Gardner Bay on Española Island is a stunning place with its white sand and turquoise water.

This is one of my favorite times to be in the Galapagos Islands because the sea lions, in addition to being beautiful on the beaches, are particularly active in the water.

A sea lion jumping out of the water near Fernandina Island.

A sea lion jumping out of the water near Fernandina Island.

Two young sea lions play with each other near Champion Island.

Two young sea lions play with each other near Champion Island.

 

intersection

There are times when life whispers, “Pay attention.” I’m certain it happens to all of us, though we may or may not be listening. Sometimes when those subliminal (I think divine) lights are flashing, I look the other way, out of fear or denial. It matters not whether they are red or green, sensing that life is or isn’t on the right track can be a big deal, especially when looking out across the unknown.

Sunrise near West Yellowstone, Montana.

Sunrise near West Yellowstone, Montana.

During my travels over the past 11 months, I have received two books from friends. One I have held onto since the beginning of my journey without reading. The other was given to me only recently. My delay in reading the former is beginning to make sense. It just wasn’t the right time yet. Last week I was reading both and came across the following on the same day:

We Americans are great on fillers, as if what we have, what we are, is not enough. We have a cultural tendency toward denial but, being affluent, we strangle ourselves with what we can buy. We have only to look at the houses we build to see how we build against space, the way we drink against pain and loneliness. We fill up space as if it were a pie shell, with things whose opacity further obstructs our ability to see what is already there.
from The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich

Openness is also about wonder and surprise. Christin Lore Weber writes: “All life is beginning. I need an open, spontaneous, joyful attitude that knows it does not know. I need an emptiness in me…I need to find the part in my soul still empty, still able to be surprised, still open to wonder” (The Finding Stone).
from The Cup of Our Life by Joyce Rupp

Sunset at Flathead Lake, near Bigfork, Montana.

Sunset at Flathead Lake, near Bigfork, Montana.

As I was reading these passages, I was camping in Montana, on Flathead Lake, not far from Glacier National Park. Soon after, I spent several days in Yellowstone. As I am writing this now, I am sitting on a hilltop watching the sun descend behind the Tetons. These are magnificent places, probably some of the most awe inspiring in the lower 48.

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Buffalo Bill State Park, near Cody, Wyoming.

There have been moments driving through this part of the country when I physically gasped as I came over a rise that revealed a new expanse of landscape before me. There are places to which the spontaneous tears that come really are the only appropriate response. There was one particular evening in the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone where I had to remind myself to breathe. The dance that was playing out before me – the multitude of animals in such a stunning setting, the soft golden light, with sounds of birds, bison, and flowing water coming from all directions, and the crispness of the cool air gently moving around me – it was unlike anything I had before experienced, or I suspect, will again.

The fact that these two passages refer to openness was not lost on me. As I wrote here, it is a concept I thought a lot about last year. But on a deeper level, they express ideas of fullness, which happens to be my world for this year. I have to admit, I haven’t thought very much about “full” this year. I’ve been too busy living! Maybe that was the point all along.

Chief Joseph Scenic Byway, near Cody, Wyoming.

Chief Joseph Scenic Byway, near Cody, Wyoming.

It doesn’t matter whether you are perched above or sitting within a large valley of wilderness. You can’t deny the vastness of it – the space. That is part of what adds to the grandeur. Taking it all in, you know that there is nothing missing. This is fullness – abundance. There is nothing overflowing the brim of the mountains (compared to our need for constant stimulation, from media, communication, exercise, fill in the blank…consuming the waking minutes of our days). This view of nature is not the pie shell filled with opaque things that prevent us from seeing what is there. All that is to be seen is what is there.

It is not only the space in the topography, but space in vegetation as rocky mountaintops descend onto pine-covered slopes, leading to the grassy valley floor below that is elegantly dissected by winding streams which in turn reflect light from the sky that encapsulates the scene. Within this setting, there are spaces between herds of buffalo running full speed to their wallows for the evening, with a cloud of dust in their wake. There is space between the elk quietly grazing on the hillsides, between the geese swimming through the streams, and between the lone bear and coyote walking along their shores. In the midst of it all there is space for those of us watching this play out to experience pure amazement. Would we be able to see this magnificent choreography if it weren’t for all the openness? No, the space is vital – and yet, again, nothing is missing.

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Bison grazing near Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

This is openness AND fullness together. This is an expression of God’s grace. And this, on a human scale, is what I seek.

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Looking out over the Tetons, near Jackson, Wyoming.

wide awake and dreaming

rock islands rise up from a flat turquoise expanse like tree covered larger-than-life limestone mushrooms floating on a glistening bed of oceanPalau-JDavidson140428-01

isolated marine lakes are treasure chests full of magical bountyPalau-JDavidson140502-03

rainbows of corals in crystal clear water just inches deep, a playground for fishes that rival their flamboyant displayPalau-JDavidson140501-04

in another, jellyfish as numerous as stars on a clear moonless night pulsate, softly bouncing off my skin like gelatinous bumper cars in a liquid traffic jamPalau-JDavidson140430-02

moving between islands, kayak paddles slice through glassy waters after a passing rainstormPalau-JDavidson140501-05

the final sunrise…the fin of a blacktip reef shark cuts the surface of still water, traveling through the reflection of a rainbow that ends at our last island destination…this moment seared into my mind, a cherished parting gift from paradise

this is no dream…this is palauPalau-JDavidson140428-06

living on the edge

After a day at sea, the small island of Satawal greets us on the horizon.

After a day at sea, the small island of Satawal greets us on the horizon.

Tiny islands in the world’s largest ocean. While they may be but specks on a map, within their shores the islands of Satawal and Ifalik are brimming with culture, color, and heritage. Satawal is the easternmost island in Yap State of the Federated States of Micronesia, and to the west lies Ifalik. Both these islands are small, miniscule compared to the expanse of the water around them. Both are beautiful. Both have people living on them who are very warm and welcoming. And life on both is walking a fine line of existence.

Children on the beach at Satawal took the idea of a welcoming committee to a high level.

Children on the beach at Satawal took the idea of a welcoming committee to a high level, not only yelling hello and goodbye, but remembering many of us by name.

People in this part of Micronesia have held on to their traditions. Traditional songs, dances, trades, and general ways of life are honored and passed down to the communities’ youngest members. However, marks left by the outside world are not absent. Boys wear sports jerseys, and girls can recite songs from even the most recent Disney movies. A stereo bellows prerecorded chants in a church as women sing along. While traditional boats far outweigh modern ones, outboard motors hang from huts, and a fiberglass boat or two sit in the background.

Two men prepare for the performance on Ifalik Island.

Two men prepare for the performance on Ifalik Island.

Neck pieces of petals and leaves contrast the turmeric-dusted skin of a performer on Ifalik Island.

Neck pieces of petals and leaves contrast the turmeric-dusted skin of a performer on Ifalik Island.

Songs and dances about the harvest and combat are performed not only for visitors, but also during important feasts and holidays. I cannot imagine the hours it must take to weave the flower and plant based skirts, necklaces and headpieces for the dance performances. Just before the dances begin, everyone is dusted with turmeric, giving their skin a rich yellow glow. The rhythms of chanting and movement range from almost meditative to humming with vibrant energy.

Heavy rain did not slow the dancing on Ifalik.

Heavy rain did not slow the dancing on Ifalik.

The dances on Ifalik included young girls whose vibrant expressions matched their colorful adornments.

Young girls on Ifalik Island happily danced alongside the older women of the community.

A short distance from the performances, women wove bowls, baskets, and bags from coconut palm leaves. Men made rope from coconut palm fibers, fishhooks from shells, and large sea-going canoes from mahogany and breadfruit wood. These important trades stay alive in the islands here and are integral to daily life, as people here rely on their surroundings for food. They grow bananas, yams, taro, breadfruit, and coconut on the land. They raise a few pigs and chickens. But mostly they look to the sea for their protein.

Women make baskets and bowls out of coconut palm leaves on Ifalik Island.

Women make baskets and bowls out of coconut palm leaves on Ifalik Island.

John has watched the construction of this canoe for the last two years.

John has watched the construction of this canoe for the last two years.

People from this part of Micronesia, and particularly Satawal, are well known for their traditional navigation techniques, without the use of instruments. They have long been a seagoing people and continue to travel between islands on their hand-hewn wooden canoes. They are masters at maneuvering these vessels. When needing to change directions, instead of tacking, a team of men quickly lowers the sail, hoists the mast and moves it to the opposite side of the boat, before raising the sail once more as the boat changes course. The tiller is a large wooden blade separate from the boat that is controlled by the hands and feet of the man at the stern. The orchestration of these movements is an art in itself.

A hand and foot operated tiller steers a wooden canoe off Satawal Island.

A hand and foot operated tiller steers a wooden canoe off Satawal Island.

Satawal is well known for traditional navigators that explore the Pacific waters in traditional wooden canoes.

Satawal is well known for traditional navigators that explore the Pacific waters in traditional wooden canoes.

Unfortunately, the waters outside Satawal are lacking large fish and the diverse marine life that is present around many of the Pacific Islands. Overfishing has wiped out the nearby food source for this small island, and so now, these canoes are not used only to explore other lands but to venture regularly to uninhabited islands to bring back food for the village. Ifalik currently is faring better, evident by the presence of fish and large molluscs around its nearby reefs. However, it only takes one cyclone or a change in fishing pressure to shift the delicate balance of self-sufficiency.

Banana trees (left) are among the fruit crops that line the pathways on Ifalik (right).

Banana trees (left) are among the fruit crops that line the pathways on Ifalik (right).

It is such an honor to visit places like this. The songs are enchanting and the dances exhilarating to watch. A downpour in Ifalik during the performance did not deter the troupe of women ranging from women in their 70’s to girls of 4 or 5. Their singing became louder and movements more energized as the rain pounded harder. As I walked through the quieter parts of each village, people invited me to look into their homes, told me stories of their lives and asked questions about mine. The people here seem truly healthy and happy. To have a connection with them, however brief, and the place they call home is to have a small taste of what it would be like to live in an island paradise. As tempting as it is to romanticize that picture beyond my idyllic visit, there’s little question that I’m not tough enough to live the existence that these beautiful people do. And I wonder how much longer they will be able to hold on to their lifestyle as well, as conveniences of the modern globalized world and real time food security issues are ever-present realities just beyond the horizon. It’s my hope that their heritage and way of life is able to withstand the pressures of both.

Veronica (left) lives in a thatched house with seven family members, steps from the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean on Satawal.

Veronica (left) lives in a thatched house with seven family members, steps from the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean on Ifalik.