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Emilie’s Pilgrimage


On February 15th, 2016, The Reverend Emilie Smith embarked on her pilgrimage to Colombia. Below is Emilie’s account of her journey… 

Chapter 1: Mexico City
Chapter 2: Bogota, Part 1
Chapter 3: Bogota, Part 2
Chapter 4: Pilgrimage To Cerro Mocho – Part 1
Chapter 5: Pilgrimage To Cerro Mocho – Part 2
Chapter 6: Pilgrimage To Cerro Mocho – Part 3

Pilgrimage To Cerro Mocho – Part 3


We wake up when the night turns to morning, and the sound changes, from insects to birds, and far off, monkeys, greeting the new day. Early start. I pick away at the bread again, and find a flattened piece of chocolate that Brigitte and I had bought the week before, a million years ago, in Bogotá. I make a squashed chocolate sandwich, and I eat! Then across the river we get ready for the final great march. I wrap my feet as best I can. I long ago ran out of band aids, but a few arrive from Nico and from Marlin. My right foot toes are the worst; I can barely put my foot down without feeling the iron nails come through to my bone. Damn.

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Francisco bounds off early, up the hill to help another tired, wounded friend, so now I climb, up, and up, out of the river bed with Angel the health promoter. I overhear conversation, but need ask no questions. He is an older man (probably my age) –years, like all time here, are measured differently. The other old dudes, and their dogs, like to walk with him for a while: Monterosa, Juan, and his dog, Alerta, and others, I don’t know who else. And I get wisps of the stories. Angel doesn’t live in the Humanitarian Zone anymore, but rather in a previously abandoned village, he was determined to return. Damn the men with guns. And not too, too long ago at all, only a few weeks ago, the paramilitaries came through the region. They took five people hostage, and held one woman at gunpoint. Do you cook for the guerrillas? Do you let them cook here? She answered defiantly, of course we let them cook here. They are armed, like you are armed. Do you think we argue with them? After that the family moved back again into the Humanitarian Zone. For now.

The men talk, on the uphill, and down to the tangled forest flats, about the other people who came from away, who couldn’t walk this whole route, like they do. No judgement, no meanness, but they make comparisons. I sigh, and try to loosen my pride. I have, I think, become one of the problem ones. Up we go, and then flat, and the trees again, whisper gratitude to these old men, who know the way, who know them by name. This time we’re going back by a different route, all the while by the thin, shallow river.

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We climb, and then sink. I am thinking about that horse. Is there a horse, really out there? We walk and walk, there is nothing else to do, and the walking and the pain, become a kind of rosary, a prayer. The men, different ones, keep talking, and I am busy thinking, and I stop listening. Step, step. Every time I step over a fallen log, I seem to catch my foot in a root, and half-trip. Every time. So often I notice, and I make an effort to lift my foot again, after it has crossed each barrier. Think, pray, walk, lift, dust, trees, leaves, walk, dust, branch, log, lift. Breathe. Ration the chlorinated river water. Breathe. I have moved into another realm of being, thinking, believing. At some point Ana is with me again, and Abilio. Angel has gone on ahead. They have talked about me, and my half-presence here. They wonder if the horsemen have heard — will they come this way, or the other? Did the message go out, did they get it?We walk, down to the river, and others there are, gasping, waiting. Soaking their feet. Graciela has many, many bites from the naibi, ooo, the little invisible bichos that crawl up your socks and legs and into the warm folds of your body, and bite, along the way, leaving tiny pus filled welts.

Look, look into the trees, says Abilio. I know he’s trying to lift my heart. And there they are, I had so wanted to see them: a handful of little monkeys, smaller than cats, leaping, shaking the tree branches, and leaping again. Dear things, that I’m too sad to appreciate. Enough of the monkeys. And the bugs. Back into the woods. At least it is cloudy, and not as hot as it could be. And it’s dry. Not that many mosquitoes. We walk, four, five clock-hours by now.

The banana plantation is ahead, across the river. Leo’s plantain and banana trees, whispering and dry, as tall as a house. Down to the riverbed again. Angel is waiting for us, he has cut two banana leaves, and made himself a seat on the raised dry mud. He moves off when he sees me, and gestures for me to sit down. That is it. I can go no further. I want to cry. I have failed. Rather than helping the community, I have become a burden. My needs have overcome my usefulness. I say as much to Abilio, sunken in shame. And he turns to me, and with a grave, determined voice, without minimizing my grief, corrects my self-centeredness. We go out together, he says quietly, and we come back together.

The haunted banana leaves rustle a gentle chorus: this is not about me, my success, or my failure. I am,grateful, overwhelmingly humbly grateful, I am incorporated, into this manifestation of the Body of Christ, as one of Christ’s own beloveds. I belong, to these people, to this holy place, for a while. I am not a trouble, and my pain is a knitting together of our shared life, death and being. But still, I can’t walk. Dear God, I say, laughing with Abilio: please send me a horse, and a papaya. Just up the riverbank, he says, we’ll rest at the banana plantation, and send word out for the horses. I remember, for some reason, birthing my last son Axel, when I didn’t want to anymore, in the blinding pain, and Bridget, the midwife, laughed at me and together we climbed out of that place of real power. My midwives. Ana and Abilio and Angel, pull me up out of the steep banks. Abilio finds a very ripe plantain, and he feeds me, and I am restored again. I walk again. I need to pee, I whisper to Ana, and these sheltering trees look good. As I am hidden behind one clump, I hear the cry, the horses are here!

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Magnificent beasts. Mine is thick flanked and brown, shiny, and powerful. He is named, now, Rescate Canadiense, Canadian Rescue. Abilio climbs on an even bigger horse. And Ana, and Eliadoro, guide them, quickly we move now, through the river, up the bank. Suddenly the white face of a large monkey (capuchin?) grimaces down at me from a low branch, and then we’re gone. In a minute we meet a whole crowd, eating rice, and meat, wrapped in banana leaves, sent to us with the horses, and with water, from the Humanitarian Zone. We eat, and then ride out ahead. Ana leads, and marches fast, in her flip flops, and we don’t talk, and I grow to love my horse, so solid, and surefooted, along narrow creek ledges, and down sandy slopes, through the water and up again. We move through two Indigenous villages, and up again. Until, after a few hours, we arrive at the Popular Papo’s house. My papaya, the other half of my prayer to God, is waiting there for me, fat, dark orange and soft. My stomach is completely put back together. We drink fresh cocos, and I give seven guavas to the earnest, deserving Rescate, who pulls them gently into his mouth past thick, uneven lips.

12801656_10156669347105249_5014444718660387143_nWe trot back happily to Nueva Vida, the Humanitarian Zone, and as we enter, right from beside the school, a flock of children come running, waving homemade flags and greeting us like heroes. And now, damn it, I am going to cry. Who the hell cares? Back to the community house platform, I slide off of Rescate, and pray that I’ll see him one more time. I am thoroughly besotted. On the ledge of the house, I rest for a while, and then begin the process of peeling away my feet coverings. Not a pretty sight, though the children, and even some of the youth come and see. They are transfixed. It is night now. Five hours of hiking, and six of riding, and we are back. Someone brings me dinner, and I am hungry, at last. Lentils and rice, meat, and bits of homemade cheese softening in the lentils. Squashed, fried plantain. A banquet. There’s a small boy beside me, and we share the plate of food and I hope we are both filled. Brigitte, the mighty, who hiked both there and back again carrying the heavy tent, has now popped it, beneath the giant mango tree. And there we sleep.

The next day we rest, at least from walking, but the Comision, and the community leaders, meet all day, for analysis, and for planning. I hobble up to eat, and then lie in the tent, in the sauna heat, and will my filthy feet to heal. I can’t quite reach th12803282_10156665753960249_4664198400745877920_nem, and I can’t be bothered. There’s no running water in the village, and the river is too far away. Brigitte brings me fresh water to drink, and does some of my laundry too. Terribly, Luis, known as Piki, from the Comision, our photo and videographer, is stung in the river by a ray. He lies in great pain, on the platform, and the ladies bathe his wound with herbs and hot water. He moans, and we are all sad.

We gather in the late afternoon, to read, rewrite, and affirm our declaration, the history of what we have done, and what we are demanding. This is the peace plan, on the ground – not in Havana, but real, and with will and voice. Angel has been in the meetings all day, but at dusk he sets up his first aid kit on the edge of the common house. At last it is my turn. He washes my feet with hydrogen peroxide, and scrubs the grit and dust out of the broken blisters. Three are infected with yellow pus, and are red and hot all around. He bathes my feet next in iodine, and they turn orange. He smears on polysporin, and then he wraps them in gauze, and orders me to tent rest for what’s left of the day. Then he moves to other feet. The closing ceremony is going on, at a distance, dancing and singing, a play, and Alexandra, the German is sharing a bit from her novel about this place. I look out at them longingly, a5424_10156665763490249_981251512215578559_nnd then sigh, resigned. I don’t need to be there either, because others are, and that is good enough. All night, until after one in the morning, the young people have a dance. Unbelievable. The bass is heart-throbbing, but the accordion and the voices make it fun, and I smile. Then they crash around us, right beneath the mango tree, in the eternal homo sapien mating ritual of teasing and pursuit. I sigh, and smile again. Who needs to sleep with such fun to be had!

And just a little while later, three hours still before dawn, we are up, collapsing the tent, folding and packing. Out of nowhere, a tiny hand-sized kitten appears, miew, miew! So I give him a bit of bread, and he pounces, and I hobble over, and leave him on the other side of the mango tree, and then we’re off. The horses are late, so the walkers leave first, and then we go, Piki, on one horse, and me on the other, and the mules carrying a mountain of bags. Ana is resting, so Jonh takes my horse, the return of Rescate!

We start, and the mules are behind us, pushing, single-minded, in the dark. Suddenly, by the gate of the Community I hear, miew, miew. Way down below is the kitty. Clomp, clomp go the horses and the mules, stopping for nothing. Miew, miew! Jonh reaches down, and in one fell swoop, kitty is in his giant hand. Then deposited three logs over. As we move on, he can be heard from the back. Miew! Miew! Jonh shouts out something to someone, and the kitty is taken gently out of the path again, and away. The anxious mules, set on their work, pass us, and suddenly we are alone. Jonh, Rescate and me in the jungle forest and the dark. From across a clearing the sky is just barely turning light. Jonh calls out to an owl. And after a while the howler monkeys begin their morning greeting to the dawn, and the whole forest shakes awake with life.

After three hours, now fully day, we arrive at the Tapo. As we’re looking for the boats, Edwin calls out, And Abilio? Where’s Abilio? Somehow, in the walk between the Humanitarian Zone and the deep river, between the first stepping out, and our final horse ride in, Abilio and the high school girls have vanished. Edwin turns white. We can’t imagine what has happened. A wrong turn somewhere in the dark, probably. Eliodoro charges away on Rescate, and we wait, quietly. After a while, we decide to carry on, some of us anyway, get a head start. So we fill a worried dugout canoe, and we float down the river. Just as we are turning the first bend, I spot Nico. And if Nico is there, then Abilio and the girls must be too. We can’t hear much, but we hear SI! Aquí están. They are here, and we float away, relieved down the rest of the way. To the Panga, down the interminable river to the brown sea. Piki sits between me and Sister Caroline, swooning, we hold him up together, across the rough bay, to the bus, to the plane, to the other plane back to Bogotá.

It seems we take the jungle with us. As we line up for the baggage check in at the Apartadó airport, I notice that we’ve tracked in a whole trail of dirt. It follows us out, and to the tarmac. Piki is in a wheelchair now, I’m limping, and we look like we’ve slept and sweated in our clothes which, of course, we have, for many days. All of us are immeasurably dirty. On the other end in Bogota, everyone else in the whole huge airport is clean and polished, and still we carry on. Quite the scene, into the armoured cars big as tanks, with the armed men, we are carrying our dirty laundry. And our stories, limping anyway.

Restored to the Sisters’ bed, with a pillow, I rest, and try – unsuccessfully –to contain my leaky heart and eyes. I cry, and the tears roll into my ears. Ana, Angel, El Popular Papo, Augusto, Jonh, Janis, the children, the women, the youth, especially Francisco, who only twice stopped smiling, once when he told me the origin of his name, and a second time, when we saw that Abilio was missing. When I close my eyes, at last, I continue to rock, with the boat? the horse? my own two feet? Sheltered in God’s loving hands. Thus it is every night.

Jonh moves sure with the horse and above, the stars — ones I don’t know that well, of the southern sky — fade into the white of morning. Each step of this pilgrimage is an affirmation, a demand to be acknowledged, left whole. This land is God’s holy temple. And on this land live God’s holy people. We walked, only for a little while – and me not very well – on self-made trails of righteousness. Beloved people. This land will be saved.

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Pilgrimage To Cerro Mocho – Part 2

 


Ana has raised seven children. On her own. She has known exile and violence, loss and devastation. Humiliation and homelessness. And above all she knows a determination that bears no hesitation. This is Cacarica territory, commonly owned by the Afro-descendant communities who have lived in these forests for centuries. What hope on earth could Sergeant Carlos Andres Candela Candela have when confronted with her? He is young, green-eyed, nervously calm, and definitely not in charge, not a decision maker. Ana has at him, firmly, not unkindly, and Abilio. I watch these three Colombians in dialogue, move, challenge and question power. That is what we are doing. And it is good. What is the base doing here? What is that strange sign doing down the mountain? Who are you protecting? Can we see the base, so that we understand what is happening on our own territory? What of the reports of helicopters bringing in heavy machinery? What about mining? Are there any U.S. military on the base at the moment?

They12799179_10156665712695249_8555709038162973629_n have the guns, but we are not without power. Sergeant Candela nods politely, and doesn’t say much of anything. We’d have to ask his superiors for more details. Can we at least go to the perimeter of the base? A delegation can. So we mark out a select few – and that ends up being about 25 people. I decide that I’m not needed on that delegation, so I’ll pass, and I wait with the people down at where we first met the soldiers. All of a sudden cool drinks appear: a pot of fresco de panela and then water. People line up, and another even younger soldier serves us. A party! Not exactly. This is still very stressed, and everyone is on edge, starting with the soldiers, who are jumpy. The people are cautiously defiant. Not twenty years ago soldiers, not these ones, carried out Operation Genesis, where this chapter of this story sort of begins.

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Soldiers are servants, of course, and they don’t think, but rather serve, and those they serve worship nothing short of the demonic idols of power and money. The soldiers cannot be trusted, though they should always be loved and respected, and invited to conversion. The Comision has identified some real reasons for fear. Yes, for God’s sake, let’s get the damned peace accord signed. Enough already. But, for example, Guatemala’s peace accords were signed in 1996, and in 1997 the Constitution was re-written, drastically favouring foreign mining companies. The Canadian mining invasion which subsequently occurred has caused countless deaths, injury and community strife.

Thus there is great fear in indigenous and afro communities across Colombia. Do Peace and Progress mean a danger even greater than war – the invasion of mining companies, and the permanent destruction of their sacred land, water and communities? Are superhighways blasting through the jungle likely to bring along with them the fullness of life? They have good reason to fear: Anglogold-Ashanti (South African) currently holds six concession titles on Cacarica land. How? What? On commonly held land? Like elsewhere, people can hold land title to the top part of the land, the crust, but the state maintains “subsurface rights” which it can sell at will. Fuck that. Land is land, no one but God owns it, all the way down and through the core of the Earth. How many generations of people are buried in the Cacarican soil? Are the disappeared somewhere here in the dirt and leaves?

The delegation returns, having been up to the wire fence, and back again. Not much more to see. An unpleasant Panamanian soldier, and Sergeant Candela Candela trying to be nice. Nothing resolved – for now. So we form a great circle, and begin our act of prayer. 20160224_144532We have white crosses with the names of the 80 dead since the return to Cacarica, so we take turns calling them out, and declaring these our martyrs, Presente! Then our lovely boys, Jani and Peludo, rap: where are the martyrs? They are in the Earth! They are the result of this stinking war! Sister Caroline, veteran of love for this place and these people declares:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.  Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.  For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness.  As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.  With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.

And so we pray:

Father/Mother, Creator of Heaven and Earth, of all that is seen and unseen, we give you thanks.

We give you thanks that you have placed us on this holy land.

We give you thanks for the ancestors, and the martyrs. For those who loved this Earth, those who cared for it, and will never be lost or forgotten, because now they are the Earth.

We give you thanks for the elders. For those who carry the story, the memory of resistance, the knowledge of this sacred land and these pathways.

We give you thanks for the youth. For their energy and fierceness and their determination to not be undone by the cosmic powers of this present age.

We give you thanks for the men and women of this place.

We give you thanks for the men and women not of this place, who have come here to stand in love with these their brothers and sisters.

We ask you to grant us courage and clarity. Against whom is Our Struggle? Not these soldaditos behind the fence, poor boys with worried mothers. Not the government, necessarily. But we will stand and not stand down to all those and all that which would deny the flourishing of life, holding up that which is not life and claiming it worthy of our love and praise. Our fight is against the crafters of golden calves. Have mercy on us all.

We hear your caution, O God, as we arm ourselves for the Struggle. You have outlined our defense: with what? Not with violence, or even hatred. But neither with apathy or indifference. We are armed with non-violent direct action, using your whole armour: truth, righteousness, peace, faith, your word made flesh, which is Love manifest, made action, made defense of the poor, the despised, and of the Earth, our Mother.

Here we are, oh God. In flesh and blood and bone and spirit. Here we are, and we are not silent, or blind, confused or intimidated. We offer the power of witness.

We have brought our bodies here in an act of pilgrimage, an offering of love to you, oh God of Creation. In humility, matched with determination, we have walked and climbed and pulled one another along, knowing that without you, we are lost, and with you we are found, and will never be lost again.

Shield us, this day, on your Holy Mountain. Grant us victory, in the trial of Love. Amen.

Now, we have been here long enough. Time to climb down. And so we go, scurrying, filling our water bottles from the soldiers’ pot, one last time. Thanking them, and praying that God may bless them too. And we’re off.

As always, the line thins out. My feet, which had been forgotten in the last climb and the prayer, are now doubling under me. Anita stays, as always, and Angel, and now, Abilio, who notes that I am having trouble, and he calls to Peludo, come, back, help us. So he does, smiling, and takes my hand. Uphill is a challenge and exhausting. Downhill is another matter, a total loss of control, as gravity helps – too much – and the dust and roots, and leaves combine to make a rush and slippery danger. Sheer downhill, flat for a while, and sheer downhill again. The massive trees, whose tops are long lost into the light of the invisible sun, watch us go, with quiet whispered gratitude. The birds flit. The butterflies float, and I cry into my kerchief in pain. My stomach turns, and I’m not sure if I want to throw up, or pee, or just lie down for a while. Not yet. Occasionally a wind picks up and blesses us and moves even my soaking shirt.

Peludo, I ask, why are you always smiling? He smiles, pushing against my hand with just the right amount of pressure in the sharp downs. He doesn’t know quite what to say, and maybe he’s never been asked, but it is life itself, bursting out in beauty between his lips, and spilling into his black eyes. And why the nickname, Peludo? I ask. Well, he says, I used to have longer hair, and he doffs his green cap, and he is rather hairy, long, black, straight, but not so much. My name is Francisco. That was my father’s name.

Is your father not living? No. He was killed in 1997, along with my brothers. I grew up just with my mother. I’m so sorry, I say. And we are silent for a while. Francisco, Pancho, I whisper to him quietly, as if we share a secret. And he smiles.

At last we are on the final descent. We can hear the river below, and then see it, and the pool made by the huge uprooted ceiba, and the little waterfall. I want to be in that water. Not yet. One hundred metres to go, and there they are! Brigitte sees me and comes over, and Francisco leaves me at the tent door. Most of the kids are in the river, or washing their now empty bowls. There was lentils and rice, but it’s all gone now. I’m feeling vile, anyway. Not interested at all in food.

I sit, peel of my shoes, socks, sanitary pads and band aids which have now wrapped my feet in sweat and blood, and river water, and dust from the mountain. My heels on both sides, the ball of my left foot, and particularly the last two toes on my right foot are swollen in white blisters. My stomach turns, I can barely walk, but I move as quick as I can upstream, up a smaller branch and pee, and throw up, and do a little business off the bushes on the bank, and cry by myself. Dusk is settling in and tiny frogs, the size of a fingernail, hop out of the river onto every other rock. Here there is a pool too, and no one around, not until the next eddy downstream. I hobble over, strip to my undies, and slide in. Oh dear God, thank you. I float, and let my feet rest in the rushing part. I stay until it is dark, and then pick my way across the rocks, back to our sideways tent. I crawl in, and just pray for the ending of this day, and the beginning of the next, and our long walk out, and back to the Humanitarian Zone.

Carolina comes around, carrying rice, and squashed white sliced bread. I thank her, and leave it in the bowl. Brigitte is starving, and she eats the rice. After a while I nibble at the bread. We talk for a while. The tents are lined up like sausages in a tray, touching. I’m closer to the next tent than I am to Brigitte. Last night there were couple sounds — not naughty ones – and not intelligible, just sighs and moans, and words of question and of comfort. I don’t think they know that we can hear them. Tonight the man comes back – I never figured out who exactly they were – and he says to the woman, There’s a snake outside your tent. Brigitte and I shriek out at once, a snake! Surprised silence. The man: no, no worry, no real snake. A couple of giggles. Then silence. Then muffled, non-naughty couple noises.

We are so tired, we slip into sleep. But I feel too sore and sick and squashed and rocky, and I’m sliding slowly towards the river. No sleep for me. There are deep frogs saying, WARK, WARK, WARK! Night birds, a million insects. The youth down the river laugh and scream. And then don Augusto calls out in one alabao after another. Singing the story. Singing the lament. Singing the promise.

Tomorrow there will be horses, promises Abilio.

to be continued. . .

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Pilgrimage To Cerro Mocho – Part 1

 


We scatter down the tangled path along the widening Atrato river to the Tapo, to where the boats are waiting, water deep enough to take us back downstream to the sea, and home. We left the Humanitarian Zone in the dark, all in a rush. It is fully day now and we can see each other, our shadowed, not-very-clean faces, faces we have glanced at, grown to recognize, and to love, over the past five days of trekking, determination, pain and proclamation. We arrive in groups, and ours is the last, having waited for the mules and horses to take the heavy bags and the lame. I am still sitting on my horse, Rescate Canadiense, when Edwin cries out from the far muddy bank, “Where’s Abilio?”

Everything stops.

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Quickly we do a count. The girls are missing from the Francisan High School too. And Abilio. Dios mio. Edwin, co-ordinator of the Comision in the region, turns instantly from loud and blustery and cheerful to deadly serious, focussed. Brigitte, from SOA Watch, notes that Nico, from Washington, D.C., is not here either, and that he had been standing in his boots in the river, helping people across at the head of the hike out, just after 4am. Right where we came upon a surprise army patrol on our way into the Humanitarian Zone five days ago. Eliandoro, the horse man, takes Rescate from me, and crashes back into the jungle. I sink to a pile of shorn logs, and wait. Abilio is missing. And the girls. The east sky warms pink over the ceiba trees.

“ Look what happened to us.” Josefina keens. “ Jesus Christ was nailed down. There by the river. Three hours before dawn. In the little Cacarica River, something happened that had never been seen before: Christ baptized St. John, and St. John baptized Christ! We were so many, so many, little brother, but at the time of my departure, I said goodbye by myself. And our lands, our lands they were left alone.” Josefina sings an alabao, a traditional death lament, of the terrible days in 1997, when paramilitaries and the Colombian army, chased the afro and indigenous communities out of Cacarica, killing dozens, and exiling thousands, some into Panama, and most to the neighbouring department of Antioquia and the dangerous dusty banana port town of Turbo. They stumbled off the boats at the “waffa”, having crossed the bay with the few scraps they could grab, as the bombs fell from the helicopters. We stand by the memorial, flapping at mosquitoes as night comes in, and we hear testimony, launched into heartbreaking song, how do we survive, except by telling, and retelling the story. This is the truth, and it matters.

By the rivers we sat down and wept, and then we stood up and sang. And wept singing, the song brought over five hundred years ago, in the untellable story of slavery. Josefina and these women, ten women, heads of families, about sixty people, stayed, when the rest returned, four years after the original exile. Their husbands had died, so they stayed in Turbo. They asked us to come to the memorial, at the place where they had all lived, several thousand people, during the exile. We came, and listened, and cried, and lit candles to honour the dead in this most horrible war, the longest war of Latin America, almost never-ending, with breaths of hope, and the horror of despair. Two hundred thousand dead. Five million people displaced. Don Augusto sings of the current peace process in Habana, reminding President Santos and the FARC guerrillas of who always pays the price in every stupid war:

“It just occurred to me that I’m going to sing this song, this song about the peace we all long for. Listen to me, Mr. President and you fellows from the FARC, because this is what my people are saying. We are tired of this conflict, because those who are dying in the war are the poor, my poor brother and sister colombianos. It’s been fifty years now that you have kept it up, seeking peace with guns, and it has never arrived. But by talking to one another we can come to peace. Stop with the guns, and never start again! That’s what my people say.”

(A Colombian alabao https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wwy75UK7k_A)

Don Augusto sings the alabao into the gathering night. The ‘sport centre’, a shabby stadium and dusty field, where 19 years ago thousands of the surviving refugees were herded, and lived in humiliation and fear, fills with echoes of the living, and shadows of the dead. Jonh Mena Palacios, one of the leaders of the returned community speaks to us sternly of the reasons for displacement, and the reason they went back, and the reason they have invited us to visit them across the water. And we file out, solemn and sorrowful, to sleep one last time before we follow their flight route, backwards, across the bay of Uraba, up the Atrato river, into the jungle, the ceiba forests, and as far as we can go.

We wake up early. I shared my room with Carolina, the Franciscan sister, and we talked until late about our dogs. I sleep fitfully. God give me strength. I am most afraid of: mosquitoes, stomach trouble, my right knee giving out, my general lack of physical strength, that I’ll embarrass myself, that I’m too old for this, and what was I thinking anyway. Guerrillas, army, and especially the paramilitaries, a little bit, but there is a great group of us, and many, many internationals. Please God, carry me, if I can’t carry myself, and let me reach the peak of Cerro Mocho. We have breakfast on the roof where we can just see the sea. The regional police have no station here, so they stay in this hotel too, lounging in the sitting area with their giant guns. We quickly eat our eggs and rice and fried plantains on broken chairs, at broken tables, as their green underwear flaps drying on the lines across the roof. We pray. I lead us in prayer. We pray the Beatitudes, and exchange the Peace, and look into one another’s faces. And we are off.

At the wharf, the ‘waffa’, our panga, and its driver Alexis waits. We step in, me near the front, and we nuzzle out to the bay, past dozens of shaky and shakier looking boats, and houses built on platform right in the water. We check papers with the marine branch of the army, and then we’re out in open water. The waves slap us hard as we bounce and laugh and choke on salt water. We pass a giant banana boat leaving for the north (Chiquita Brand was banned from Colombia after it was caught red-handed funding the paramilitaries to murder union activists and community leaders, but they’ve found ways to slip around the restrictions.) An hour later we are at the mouth of the Atrato river, at another precarious set of wooden houses perched on the water. Edwin steps out and comes back to the panga with trays of fried plantains, sweet and good, and crab, shrimp (which I can’t eat – seafood and fish allergy.).

The river is wide and thick and brown at the mouth. Mangroves line the banks, and the panga drones upstream, and I doze in the heat, and the lull. We are stopped by the marine army again, and then yet again, in a surprise check, in an army boat, which just floats out of nowhere, under the overhanging dreadlocked trees. 10421539_10156665733975249_326598996021654184_nThe river narrows, the vegetation thickens, and finally we stop altogether. Some men get out to push and pull – Bogart and Hepburn, African Queen-style – and then Carolina, and the three students from her school, and then me, of course. The water is lovely and cool, and the mud floor receives our feet to the ankles, holds for just a second and releases. Time has already changed, watches and measuring, almost useless, except for vague organizing. All up river, people and boats have been joining us. We’re all heading to the holy mountain. From Curvarado, Cauca and heaven knows where. Boys from our boat – now carrying more than 20— shriek hello, when they see a wooden dugout with a young man in green and yellow, with a yellow cap, “Peludo!” He turns and grins, and instantly I like him.

Now we are unloading at the Tapo, where Atrato becomes a trickling stream. It is dry, dry, dry, global-warming weirdly dry. Chocho is the “wettest place on earth” – 523.6 inches average a year, but not now. Our march begins. We follow Jonh. Up to the Nueva Vida Humanitarian Zone. We come, invited and drawn in, circling closer together, most everyone to me unknown. Ninety of us in total are heading towards Cerro Moncho. First stop, Nueva Vida, about a three hour hike in from the Tapo through the great ceiba forest, birds and monkeys, butterflies and flowers. Suddenly – before we cross the trickle-creek Atrato, we come across an army patrol. Just checking us out – a hair breath away from the weapons-free Zone. The Peace Brigades are on top of it, and step out front. We are being watched. And we are watching. PBI have their radio phones, and our every move is reported in somewhere. We wait, while they converse quietly, and then we cross the plant over the river, away from the army and into the safe zone.

Four years after their forced displacement by the Colombian army and paramilitaries, the people of Cacarica, supported by the Comision and others were able to return. Land and territory is a complicated thing in Colombia, as it is in all of Latin America. Here is a shot at explaining Cacarica, from a very slightly-informed Canadian-Argentine Anglican priest: there is a “collective title” for the northern area of the department of Choco (the poorest department in Colombia), in the area bordering Panama, and the Urba bay, and various rivers. The title is for 103,024 square kilometres, and the title holders are residents of afro-descendant background. There are some Indigenous areas within the Cacarica holding as well, and there are several meztizo (mixed race) families too, some of whom, interestingly, like don Augusto, self-identify as afro. With the heightening of the Colombian civil war, now 50 years old, the FARC guerrillas entered the region and made several mobile bases. The government responded by increasing attacks and in 1996, choking the region with a blockade on the import of goods, and in 1997, by outright attacks on civilians, who were said to support the guerrillas. The Turbo monument in the sports complex to those lost in the war explains it like this:

In 1996 there was an economic blockade and selective disappearances and killings, which shredded family and community networks. On February 27, 1997, the Evictors came dropping bombs from the air and on the ground. Some of us fled to Panama, and others were forced to go to Turbo, where we suffered nakedness, pain, fear and hunger. We didn’t know anything about our family members or neighbours, our houses or our crops. We didn’t understand what war was.

After the return, however, it was still too dangerous to live in the 23 villages, and countless scattered homesteads, that had previously made up Cacarica. So they themselves created two Humanitarian Zones, where it is prohibited the entry of any weapons, and anyone from either the national army, the paramilitaries or the FARC. And that is where we are tonight. The Nueva Vida (New Life) Zone. The Gracias a Dios (Thanks be to God) Zone is on the other side of the region, but their people are coming with us, and are here now gathering. Our numbers grow. That evening after a dinner of rice and meat and squashed fried green plantain, there is a meeting under the great mango tree. Leaders of the communities, and invited visitors, from the Comision, and all of us.

If we meet the guerrillas, the community leaders will lead the conversations. If we meet the army, the PBI will intervene. Above all, says Jonh, we are non-violent. You can’t fight a stone if you are an egg. And remember, the army is prepared to fight violence. They don’t know what to do with non-violence. And that is who we are. This is our land, says Ana.

The next day we are late starting, and fast. I eat breakfast – rice and deep fried meat, salty and delicious. Irene, a silver-haired Chilean woman from the School of the Americas Watch, is staying in Nueva Vida. Yesterday, she fell off a horse and bruised her arm and shoulder. Today the mules carry only food, giant pots, and some tents and bags. My small tent stayed with Irene, and now I’ll share with Brigitte a bigger, heavier tent. I’ll help carry it, I say.

We gather in a circle. Peludo sings a rap song, and we pray, Psalm 121:

I lift up my eyes to the hills

from where will my help come?

My help comes from the LORD

who made heaven and earth.

The LORD will keep you from all evil

he will keep your life.

The LORD will keep

your going out and your coming in

from this time on and for evermore.

And we go out. The hills are high, and very far away. The group breaks up on this first great day of trekking, and there are many fast walkers, the young, which is practically everyone, the visitors, some faster, some slower. I’m fine for a while, and then my backpack begins to weigh more. I valiantly carry the tent for a while , but then it ends up on a mule. After a few hours, I feel sick and delirious. Ana, from Nueva Vida, who is to become my best friend, grabs my pack, and pushes me on. She is the sweep up person, and I am in the dirt. We walk. Jungle flat, jungle up, down. Trees, wild banana, ceiba, bongo, who knows what, ferns, prickles, knee-deep dry leaves, trunks on the path, root-tangles tripping, dust, thirst, hot plains with horses below, sun, sun, sun. I feel dizzy and more delirious. I am never going to make it. At last we stop at a half-abandoned ranch. And we walk again, along a ridge, always going up,steep, and then not so. Sun again. And then a river bed. Another almost-gone stream. We brought ourown rice and meat to eat, but I can’t face it, my stomach turns. I nibble on some seeds and dried fruit, and drink water.

Now we’re in the thick jungle forest, and it is late, three o’clock, four. I am with Janis, from Curvarado, and his little puppy, Dogi. My shirt and everything is sweaty wet, and my feet hurt. I’m not in the last group, and I’m keeping up, but they are too fast. I almost get left behind, and then they put me in front, so as not to lose me. At last we reach a peak, and then a scurried downhill, dangerous, slippery, and at last, around five o’clock, nine hours after beginning, we are at the creek bed of the Perancho river. Brigitte is on the other side, pitching the tent. Others are in their underwear in the river. I want to join them, but my towel and my dry clothes are with Ana, coming down with the last group. I sit on a rock and breathe. Put my fresh-blistered feet in the running water. Brigitte offers me her shirt, bless her, and then Alexandra, a German novelist, offers me her extra shirt too (we all only have two) and her already wet towel, until my things show up, so I gladly strip, and sink into the water, and borrow Carolina’s soap to wash everything. And just float in the now darkening pool. Eventually I have on my German shirt, and we sit, and talk by the cooking fire. At last Ana comes, and I return the now soaking shirt, and put on my own.

Dismay. Dinner is rice, and mushy noodles with tuna. Can’t eat the latter, so I eat rice for dinner, and we crawl over the rocks to the other bank, to the slipping downhill who cares tent, and to sleep. Brigitte sleeps like a log, and I toss, but am happy.

Early in the next day, this is it. Cerro Mocho. My blisters are pretty bad, and I bandage them as best as I’m able. Abilio shares the secret. Feminine protection, the thinnest ones, around the worst blisters. Padding and absorption of moisture. Who knew. Breakfast is rice and mushy noodles with tuna. I eat rice, and crumble a granola bar in, to make it taste like something, with maybe a hint of protein. I feel nauseous, and my stomach is making slow summersaults. Uh oh.

We are at the base of the hill, and we review our plans. Stick together, now that matters. There are designated speakers, should we meet the army. Non-violence. And we slip up the riverbed, past a giant fallen ceiba, which makes a pool and a waterfall, and then uphill. Uphill. Uphill. Uphill. I push my way higher, and higher, but I’m slipping. Ana is helping me now, and Angel, the health promoter. He gives me some pain killers, and then takes my water bottle and makes suero, rehydration drink, with salt, baking soda, and sugar, no saltier than tears, I drink and am restored. We push on. Uphill. Uphill. Uphill. Everyone is singing and clapping, making a lot of noise. It is not our intention to take anyone by surprise. I have to make it to the top. Abilio asked me to come, and to pray with them at the top of the hill. I don’t think I can climb anymore. Not one step. Ana shakes her head, no – about me – she’s not going to make it. And then suddenly we stop.

There is a sign, a new sign in a new place: Republic of Panama. Restricted Area. Do not Enter. 12799019_10156665704525249_3105637783840039332_nWe stop for a good while. I catch my breath. The PBI group have their radio phones out, and their GPS’s and we determine exactly where we are. There’s no clarity on if this is actually Panamanian territory, but most likely it is a tactic by the joint armies, to not allow us any closer. So we stop. And we move to make consultations. Each by organization, or community group. Consequences unknown. Arrest? Shots in the air? Violence? Nothing? I put my head together with Abilio. We are SICSAL here, and he is Comision, of course. We quickly reach consensus. We are with the community groups. Whatever they decide.

Too late! The indigenous youth have burst on ahead up the mountain, and as we’re still talking they come back. The soldiers are there, and they are waiting to talk to us. So we climb the rest of the way.

… to be continued.

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February 19th, Bogota – Part 2

 


So, you may wonder, what on earth is she doing there anyway? On holiday. An Emilie holiday. In the 2015 SICSAL Assembly in San Salvador, we made the decision to take on more direct action to challenge militarization in our regions.  Last September I was invited by the Comision, as co-presidenta of SICSAL, to come this year on an ecological pilgrimage of witness in the region of Chocó. So of course I said yes.

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bogota 2The Reason.

I (mostly) finished reading the Inter-American Human Rights Court on the case of the Afro-descendant communities of Cacarica vrs. the State of Colombia. Here’s the story: The region of Cacarica (googlemap it, north area of Colombia, department of Chocó, on the border with Panama) is the ancestral home to tens of thousands of Colombians of African descent, and a smaller number of people from a few Indigenous groups. It is an area rich and beautiful, and in the world’s eyes poor – it is far from any urban centre, and was completely ignored for most of Colombia’s history, until it became a hot spot for the now older-than-me civil war. Guerrillas roamed the thick jungle, as well as irregular armed forces —  the paramilitaries — who are a shadow-linked  to the national army, and have been responsible for a great number of human rights violations. Then of course there are the drug-trafficking routes.

In February, 1997, there was an overt military action by the Colombian army, called Operation Genesis, and a shadow covert military action, by the paramilitaries, called Operation Cacarica. The target was ostensibly the FARC guerrillas. But civilians in the area, who had openly and often declared themselves to be neutral, took the brunt of the violence. Because of the joint actions, a great number of people, more than 2000, were forced to flee their ancestral lands into the neighbouring department of Antioquia, and the town of Turbó. While several died in the operation, one man, Marino Lopez, was notably tortured, beheaded with a machete by paramilitary soldiers.

 

The Comision began accompanying the community immediately, both those who were now living crowded into a stadium in Turbó, and the surviving family of Marino. The living conditions of the displaced were degrading and culturally devastating, and after much negotiation and pressure the communities were able to return to the region of Cacarica, after four years. The Inter-American court found the State of Colombia guilty in both the generalized situation of displacement and the particular case of violence against Marino Lopez. Reparations were ordered, but a major failure occurred in the assigning of individual damages, while not fully recognizing the collective harm that was inflicted on the communities as a distinct cultural group.

[caption id="attachment_1285" align="aligncenter" width="769"]martyrs Latin American Martyrs[/caption]

The afro-descendant communities have had some success in having collective title to their territories recognized, but this understanding has been limited and easily manipulated when other, economic, interests present themselves. The Comision was successful, miraculously, in their ceaseless demands for justice, when General Rito Alejo Del Rio, commander of Brigade 17, which carried out Operation Genesis, was convicted and incarcerated of the crimes committed during the operation. (One of many reasons why the people at the Comision have round-the-clock security protection.)

Back in the region however, the now returned communities continue to experience violence at the hands of paramilitaries, suffering in 14 yearsmore than 70 documented crimes including murder and disappearances. In response, they have declared themselves a “Humanitarian Region”, a strategy supported by the Comision, where communities proclaim their territories to be civilian zones, free from all weapons – no army, no paramilitary, and no guerrillas.

In addition to the constant and on-going shadow of violence the communities now face a new menace:  a model of ‘development’ which has no interest what-so-ever in the strengthening of the people, and indeed threatens their very way of being, in their traditional territories. Illegal logging for precious wood has already been underway, and there is a (now blocked) plan for blasting a super-highway through their protected and sensitive region, that was declared in 1994 by UNESCO as a “Patrimonio de la Humanidad” (for the life of me, I can’t remember how to say that in English!) Of grave concern, with zero community consultation, a bi-national (Colombia-Panama) military base was established, with U.S. advisors, right in the middle of an area sacred to local spiritual traditions — the Cerro Mocho. So that is where we are going.

The Plan

Sunday. Plane to Medillín. Plane to Apartadó. Drive to Turbó. Celebration with women, who did not return to Cacarica, but stayed in Turbó.

Monday. Panga (big canoe with a motor) from Apartadó,  across the little bay in the Caribbean Sea, and then up the Atrato river. Hike in to the Humanitarian Region.

Tuesday. Hike from Humanitarian region to Indigenous community of Perancho, Cacarica.

Wednesday. Hike from Perancho to the border, the bi-national military base on Cerro Moncho. Religious act of witness, remembrance and resistance. Hike back to Perancho.

Thursday. Hike back to Humanitarian Region.

Friday. Big ceremonial celebration, and then party in the Humanitarian Region.

Saturday. Hike to river. Down river in canoe. Across the bay. Little plane to Medellin. Little plane to Bogota. Collapse.

Who’s Going

Here’s the Canterbury Tales part of our pilgrimage: One Franciscan Sister, three young girls, students at her high school, four people from the Comision, (Abilio is our glorious leader for this whole affair), four people from the School of the Americas Watch (an organization looking to close this military school which has trained most genocidal military leaders from Latin America, including General Alejo del Rio), four people from Peace Brigades International (an international group that engages in human rights accompaniment), some Spaniards, some Germans, including a novelist, an Italian journalist, and many, many Colombians from the different regions, connected through the Comision, who are engaged in their own struggles in defense of life and territory, and your servant.

Pilgrimage

My ancestor was a wandering Aramean. We – my gathering beloved –  are Christians. Pilgrimage is a Christian action (and one, of course, from many traditions). We offer our bodies, as gift to the pathway, and walking, we wear down our crustiness, that stops us from being with the One who loves us, who knit us from within our mother’s womb. That One, gave us our true name. By leaving the world as we know it, just for a while, we can return to God’s creation and be restored for a time to that silent, true name, which we know, but may have forgotten. That happens every time we walk – and especially like this. But, as we talk with the girls from the Franciscan high school, this is more than acaminata. Pilgrimage, peregrinaje, is a journey, into the unknown, the uncontrollable, to encounter together a glimpse of the face of God.

God is revealed in a thousand ways, if we are open to noticing.

This is a pilgrimage of witness. By journeying with our beloved, our treasured friends, invited by them, into their most Holy Land, we crack open the hardened veins of loving. By coming together we honour their right to be in this place, and free from the menace of violence of every kind. It is a glorious thing, and we are most heavily blessed.

And now, I sign off. In 12 hours we fly, drive, canoe, and walk away from this world, and await our welcome in another. Thanks be to God.

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February 18th, Bogota – Part 1

 


I can hardly believe I’ve never been here, because I know some people, but I know them well, both in Vancouver and of course, my beloveds from SICSAL: Abilio, Padre Alberto (Padre Bigoticos) and la Hermana Cecy (la Hermana Sexy). I have known Colombia, in her refugees, wars, pain, and stories of struggle, martyrdom and survival. Its place in the history of liberation theology, the Bishops’ Conference in Medellin, 1968, that changed the direction of the church in the most profound way possible, and Padre Camilo Torres, who died fighting and whose body was taken and hidden, and never returned to his family. Then there are, of course, all the swirling myths of drug cartels and lords, horrendous, complicated violence. The war started here in 1960, the same year as in Guatemala, riding on the hurricane of the Cuban revolution, when it all seemed inevitable, and unstoppable, and everyone was in the whirl.

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I am rescued at the airport by Sarita, past midnight, and we go (in an armoured Comision car), and she leaves me in a little hotel, with hot pink and Lenten purple cushions on the bed, and I sleep, dead, until breakfast, and then Jema rescues me, and we walk to the offices of the Comibogotasion, past many, many men, in scary combat police full armour. And we’re in, past the police, and the electrified fence, and the barbed wire, and the offices are like so many I’ve seen: Brazil, Venezuela, Haiti, Argentina, El Salvador, Dominican Republic, Mexico and of course Guatemala. Posters on the walls from international gatherings. The grainy, washed out photos of the martyrs, the few who died fighting, and the many, many who were murdered: priests, nuns, lay people, and then the bishops, Romero, Proaño, jTatic Samuel, Angelelli, Gerrardi — always Romero line the walls. The promise of what was to come, and then what was slaughtered. We are the old veterans now – and the stories are something to be told. The Comision is busy, and most everyone –except we veterans — is so impossibly young.

La Comision – what to say, possibly about this group? Ecumenical. Fearless. Uncompromising. Righteous. The Gospel alive, defense of the poor, vulnerable, forgotten. Here’s a short link: http://www.peacebrigades.org.uk/grupos-nacionales/pbi-uk/where-we-work/colombia/inter-church-justice-and-peace-commission/?L=1%22onfocus%3D%22blurLink%28this%29%3FL%3D0%3FL%3D0

Here’s a longer story, also from Peace Brigades:

http://www.pbi-colombia.org/fileadmin/user_files/projects/colombia/files/press_kits/100629cijp.ingles.pdf

At the Comision, la Hermana Cecy comes for me and we go (in an armoured car) to the University. Her sister, a sociologist, is giving a talk. It seems that I have arrived for the week celebrating the life, ministry and the 50th anniversary of the death of Padre Camilo, the priest-sociology professor-guerrillero. The outlines of the story, I know, but I get a few more sketches.

Profesora Elvira is talking about Camilo and women in education, and bursting through into the war, and the sparks are alive. The Catholic Church, the central hierarchy was (and still mostly is) connected to the Partido Conservador, and the status oligarchy. These forces orchestrated tremendous violence in the 50s, against campesinos (workers in the countryside) and students.

Camilo, went to seminary, was ordained, studied in Belgium, came back, founded the sociology department in the National University, and then began to work with the people in the countryside, with his students, he pulled the schismatic popular organizations in to a United Front, and then was in such danger, there was no choice, and he went to the mountains, and died in combate. Camilo’s great teaching was about “amor eficaz” – practical love. Love with action embedded, and transformation.

Cecy and I slip out, as I’m starting to sleep through the fire and talk, and we walk arm in arm – a few weeks ago she was in a car accident, and everything still hurts. We walk across the university, heading to a side entrance, and across the busy street (with bicycle lanes!)to la Oficina. But suddenly we stop, our eyes are stinging and we are coughing. Down on the busy street the robot police are all out, and the students, they’re full on fighting — and we’ve been tear gassed! Sigh. Hermana Cecy is almost 80, and convalescing, but we slip down the opposite way, through the Che Guevarra Plaza, and out another gate.

Cecy tells me her story: when the convent doors flung open, after Vatican Two and the Medellin Conference, she went out to work in the countryside, in the llano, the wide, dry plains of Colombia. And Cecy tells me, sweetly, fondly and firmly about her compañera, also named Sister Cecy, and how the two of them lived together for 32 years, always en la lucha. Lovely.bogota 3

And when the other Cecy died, how the Comision brought our heartbroken Cecy in, and how she has worked now for more than twenty years. The convent still grumbles, but often she doesn’t go home at all, she’s out on the road, and she is loved by everyone in the countryside, who has sought Life, Solidarity in these safe walls of the Comision.

William is here, from the Llano. He was displaced years ago, after his grandparents, uncles and cousins were killed in the 60’s, his father in the 80s, and finally his mother, in 1990 –murdered by paramilitaries. Now his traditional territory has been taken over by Poligrow, an agricultural mega-project, African palm oil trees, to make ethanol. Abilio and Padre Alberto come and go, in meetings, on the phone, and then out to the street. Armoured cars and armed men. International court appointed, government assigned guards. I knew, but didn’t know, it is a miracle they’re not dead, with what they do. Plan: keep alive, and fight like hell, spilling over into every community, teach everyone else to fight, with the tools of the Gospel, international law, and Colombia’s own constitution. The Bible in one hand, the International Declaration of Human Rights in the other. The guards/drivers are thick armed and gruffly friendly, always courteous.

This night I’m whisked away (armoured car) to a convent, to sleep in a slender room, on a slender bed. At nun-food dinner, I make more friends, Spaniards here to accompany La Comision, as they have been forever, an older couple, psychologists from Madrid – ah, my lovely, lovely family around the world. We watch the Pope’s address from Ciudad Juarez on an old wavy TV. The Pope’s vestments turn neon green, and his face is weirdly purple. He seems exhausted, and we worry. So much left to do. We lisp goodnight and head to our cells.

I wish that Latin Americans would figure out bedside tables with lamps. I still haven’t bought new batteries for my reading flashlight.

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February 16th, Mexico City

 


Me and the Pope are in Mexico City. The airport snarls, and the streets, metro, sidewalks. Somehow I make it through and —cheap me won’t take a taxi – onto the pink line, number one of the million passenger metro. Absolutely no one knows me, but everyone stares at me. Not a lot of turistas on the early train. By the time I get to Balderas, I‘m so squashed lots of me is touching lots of other people. How will I ever get out? Then almost everyone exits, and I’m carried in the rush out into the dim sunshine of a Mexico City morning. I want coffee. I look around, lost for a minute, then decide to walk — any where — for a while, until I get my bearings. Who is waiting for me around the corner, in a dusty paved park? – a little black schnauzer! Woof. Sniff.

burritoA minute later I’m sitting on a damp park bench with half-a-litre of blended orange and papaya juice, and a dish of chopped fruit, feeding granola to one sparrow, and then 20 and then a fat squirrel. Nothing to do. And even better — no one knows me. I could have called my friends, it’s a ten hour layover, but I want to be alone. I’ll call them on the way back from Bogota. So now, I am invisible, or at least unknowable, if not unseen.

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I know this city. A little. The waitress uniforms at Sanborns haven’t changed, with their weird metre-wide, fly-out triangular collars — at least in 30 years of my coming here. There are no Beetle taxis flying around, and there are more bikes. Definitely more bikes. Thirty years ago I was young, alone, and then with Axel, and then the boys researching my first book, about Guatemalan women en la lucha. I met Rigoberta Menchu, and Julia Esquivel, and Juana Vasquez, and Sister Raquel, who taught me the Magnificat, which then set me on fire, and helped everything make sense. Then we lived here for two years. Axel died last May. I hadn’t seen him for 17 years, but still. There are things that only we two knew, and now I’m the only one who does. The way the elk stag looked in the snow on the train ride home to Toronto, after our wedding.

I have four cups of weak tan coffee at Sanborns, and read the first 79 pages of the 2013 sentence by the Inter-American Human Rights Court on the case of the Afro-descendant communities of Cacarica vrs. the State of Colombia. Thorough and heart-breaking and boring all at the same time. I slip out into the morning again, down Juarez again, to the artisans’ market, and then to the Popular Arte Museum, dusting out the grey, frittering now in the colours of old and of new, because Maco came here with me too, during the SICSAL assembly. Skeletons battle with dragons and tigers, and la Guadalupana holds her baby tight on the very top of the two-storey Tree of Life, no question of who in Mexico is the Queen of Heaven and Earth, all that is seen and unseen.

Guadalupe is my ever-loving mother too. I almost died here, just south of here, in Tepoztlan, in 1993. In the roar to the hospital, I said goodbye to my boys, and rested, at last in Her arms, my work here on Earth was done. Wait! Not yet. Surgery saved me, but no doubt that I was okay with dying.

And here too, in this city, in some giant stone church or another I received the broken bread of communion for the first time. I had come with the women, refugees from the Guatemalan war, to celebrate when Rigoberta Menchu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Paty and Carmen, hand on my arm, leading me in love to the altar of belonging. And here too, astonishingly, years later, now a priest of all things, I was elected co-president of SICSAL, leading international liberation theology network, my beloveds, the Christians, like me, who are armed to the teeth, with the whole armor of God, in defense of the poor, and the Earth.

I settle in for a comida corrida, and invite a family to share my table. They are kite makers from Puebla, at the Museo across the road, I saw their work, in the courtyard, kites the size of an elephant, or two, hoisting towards the ceiling. I bask in eternal blessing and beauty. I sneak out, secretly paying their bill, and make my way down the road. The smell of fresh coffee grabs me by the scruff of the neck, and I duck inside a bookstore-cafe. A group of old men hog one small table, and argue and shout and laugh. I want to stay here forever.

I walk again, here I am in Mexico City. Land that’s not mine, that I love. I walk towards the Zocalo, but think instead, it’s time to find the pink line to the airport again. The Pope will be flying back in. He went to Chiapas, with my beloved don Raul, bishop of Saltillo, currently co-president of SICSAL, formerly assistant to don Samuel of Chiapas. The Pope and don Raul, quiet in front of the tomb of the prophet Samuel. Our grandfather, jTatic. The Pope, holding up the beleaguered don Raul, attacked by many in authority, for his radical love. Thanks be to God!

I ride in the women only cars and as always, we seem to be smiling furtively with one another, at this brief moment of relief. I arrive early. Check in. Avoid a $65 peso Starbucks latte. Get back to reading the Inter-American Commission Ruling. Sleep, don’t drool, until our plane is ready to go. Done is my day alone in the City of tens of millions. Bogota, here I come, I don’t know you at all. Si, señora!

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