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.

ngtravellerlayout

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.

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.

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!

the land and the people of the coffee zone

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The mirador above Salento is a great place to watch the sunset.

I was drawn to the coffee zone in Colombia originally because I wanted to taste real Colombian coffee and see where it was grown.  As it is with most places, once I was there, other characteristics of the place are what impacted me most.  In Eje Cafetero, it is the land that comes to mind immediately when I think of my time there, as well as the people who live in this region.

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The people near Salento (left) and Manizales (right) were friendly and proud to share their homes and livelihoods with visitors.

It was easy to fall in love with Salento, even before I arrived; the view from the bus window as we approached the village was enchanting. This small town near Armenia is a bustling place, night and day. The central plaza is lined with numerous cafes serving patacones, trucha, and a wide variety of delicious fruit.  It’s a popular tourist area, and while I was there, most of these tourists were Colombian.  Colorful refurbished World War II Willys Jeeps take tourists and workers to the parks and reserves outside of town.  Each morning they line the plaza, ready to go at sunrise.  Every square inch is used in these vehicles; during one early morning outing, there were 15 of us sharing the ride.  Later in the day smaller versions of these jeeps are pushed around and around the plaza by men and with kids at the wheel.  Every evening at sunset, people climb the multicolored stairs that lead up to the mirador.  It’s a beautiful 360o view and also a social scene.  Musicians perform at the base of the large cross at the summit, children romp around the adjacent playground, and vendors sell drinks as locals and visitors enjoy the last moments of the day.

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Salento’s cafe-lined plaza has numerous great food options and ambiance.

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Every morning Jeeps line the plaza, waiting to take visitors to nearby natural attractions.

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Mini-Jeeps are pushed around the plaza, providing entertainment for younger visitors.

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On the hilltop overlooking Salento, musicians and other locals congregate to watch the sunset.

A few miles outside of Salento is one of the most unique landscapes that I’ve visited.  La Reserva Natural del Valle del Cocora is named for the 1000s of wax palm trees that grow there.  These trees, the national tree of Colombia and tallest palm species in the world, can reach up to 60m (~200ft) in height.  While many come just to see the palm trees, I did a longer hike through the cloud forest. Many hikers take this trail daily, but few do so at daybreak.  My only companions for the first few hours were the beautiful scenery, vibrant bird life, and one farmer bringing milk into town, on a trail that eventually weaved through the palm-filled valley.  As with most long hikes, the biggest reward was that there weren’t many people around.  Moments spent alone in places this spectacular are indescribable.  As the trail led back to the parking area, the chatter of people increased in volume and as is usually the case, I was happy with my decision to take the less traveled path.

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There were several bridge crossings like this one on the hike through the cloud forest in the Valle del Cocora.

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During the hike, my resting spots were always chosen based on the view. I could have stayed in this particular place for hours.

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Wax palms in the Valle del Cocora tower above the landscape. Every direction provided jaw-dropping views of the tree-studded valley.

On New Years Day, another trail beckoned, this one in the Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados, outside Manizales.  Our final destination was one the glaciers in the area, on Nevado de Santa Isabel, which stands at 4800m (15750ft).  (Nevado means snow-covered in Spanish; the park received it’s name from the several mountains within the park that are topped with glaciers.)  At the beginning of the hike, we walked through a páramo ecosystem, which is mostly found in the high altitudes of the northern Andes. The spongy ground was covered with a variety of medicinal plants and tall frailejones.

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Frailejones are members of the aster family. Some of these plants stood ~20 feet tall in the páramo in the Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados.

Our ambitious group of six hikers and two guides eventually dwindled to two hikers with one guide as the altitude worked its magic on those from lower elevations.  I was thankful for my time in the mountains of New Mexico and the conditioning that living at high altitudes does to a body as I took my first step out onto the ice.  As we had approached the glacier, our guide decided to backtrack to check on some of the folks that had been left behind, so my companion Carlos and I were the only two people on the glacier during our 20 minutes there.

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As we walked closer to the glacier, our group became smaller and smaller, due to altitude sickness. The views were worth every hard earned breath as we ascended to heights above 15,000 feet.

This glacier was very different from the tidal glaciers I had experienced in Alaska three months prior.  It was much thinner and smaller, but still a sight to behold.  And, like many of the glaciers worldwide, this one is receding. It’s estimated that Colombia has already lost 50% of its glaciers, and those that remain are expected to fade into history within the next 30 years.  There were spray-painted numbers on rocks indicating where the glacier had been 2, 5, and 10 years ago. To stand beside the painted numbers and see where the ice had been and where it currently was is a very different experience than hearing or reading about how quickly these systems are changing in books or presentations.

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The glacier on Nevado de Santa Isabel stands just below the mountain’s summit.

We rapidly descended the mountain in order to avoid the approaching afternoon snow and began the bumpy three-hour ride back to town. It was an invigorating start to the New Year and a gratifying end to my first visit to Colombia. It will not be my last.

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Sunlight falls on Nevado del Ruiz, an active volcano in the Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados as clouds begin to develop. As we descended the trail, none of the nearby mountains were visible, reminding me how quickly things can change in the natural world.