Living in Two Worlds at Once

This is a repost of my blog on La Vida Idealist. Check out the site for more stories and resources from Idealists in Latin America.

By Rob Packer

One side of volunteering sometimes not spoken about is the desire to see the country you’re in—it makes you sound like a tourist and you came to Latin America to do something more. I personally think that it’s fine to see the country in your time off: you’ve chosen Latin America over another part of the world and if you’ve paid for the ticket yourself, they don’t come cheap.

The view over the weekend version of Cartagena.

Life as a volunteer makes things difficult though. Most volunteering on the continent will involve visits or contact with lower-income areas; however, it’s more unlikely that these people are going become your friends while you’re in-country. They will likely be higher-income locals or tourists. And your desire to see the country will take you to more sanitized parts of the country. As a friend who’s just finished with Kiva in Ecuador said, it’s “like you’re living in two worlds at once.”

Over the past week, I’ve seen completely different faces of Bogotá and Cartagena. After a weekend with friends in some of Bogotá’s nicer barrios, I spent a morning in the foundation’s office there before heading to south Bogotá to meet Kiva borrowers. There was something exhilarating about riding the TransMilenio, Bogotá’s metrobus, to areas a lot of bogotanos and even fewer tourists would ever enter. Cartagena, though, was much more extreme. I stayed with a Colombian friend in an area by the beach more like Miami than Colombia, and spent an afternoon wandering around the beautiful old city. The contrast couldn’t have been greater with what I’d seen during the week in Cartagena: meeting a displaced woman in a squatter settlement and hearing stories first-hand in former guerrilla areas outside of the city.

This divide takes a lot of getting used to and I’m not sure how to reconcile them. When I arrived back in Barranquilla, I grabbed dinner at the local pizzeria and started talking with the owner. He told me that the lack of contact between the parallel societies is what contributes to Colombia’s subdesarollo (underdevelopment, a word repeated all too often here). I don’t agree with his theory: there are too many examples of this in developed countries. What is does say, though, is that looking the other way is not the way to get used to the divide.

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