Patent Leather and Solitude

Gabriel García Márquez was not the first writer I read in Spanish. That was Rosario Castellanos and her novel, Balún Canán, that I read over long bus journeys in Chiapas and Guatemala. But Gabo was the first who I read deeply and widely. At some point towards the end of university, perturbed by the far-off glint that Hispanists had in their eye, I got a copy of Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude) and spent the summer months sniffing around it, measuring myself up to it. There was an English translation of No One Writes to the Colonel in the house, that had been sitting unread on one of my parents’ bookshelves for at least a decade. El coronel no tiene quien le escriba was hidden at the back of one of mine. I started in English. At the second or third repetition of “patent leather”, I went and dug out the Spanish to see why. The word is charol (cuero is real leather). The rhythm was different. I took a dictionary.

As a reader, that was my completist phase. I had worked through most of Kafka’s complete works for my dissertation and the habit took me years to shake. Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Hemingway, Graham Greene, Orhan Pamuk were some of the writers I tried to exhaust during that time. From that moment, Gabo joined them. My hand gripped a dictionary. The books gripped me. Soon enough, I was onto Cien años de soledad and much of the rest.

Now, a decade on and Gabo is gone.

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Langscape

My [redacted] is enough for business transactions, for humour: I say what the language wants, not what I want. Her laughter. I am the victim of my small vocabulary.

Homo faber, Max Frisch

Anyone who knows me will know I speak more than a couple of languages. Living as a foreigner in Brazil, this comes up most days and it often doesn’t take long for someone to ask me how it is I speak Portuguese “so well”. It’s a mystery to me, as much as to them[1]. This post might sound from a boastful enumerator, but I hope it doesn’t: I’m far more an embarrassed tallier.

Language is a landscape—and each one is different.

Mountains upon mountains  (Jardín, Colombia)

Mountains upon mountains
(Jardín, Colombia)

There’s one I used to speak, can no longer understand, that’s like a faded winter leaf: I can remember words, no meanings, but the intricate mathematical grammar hangs in its skeletal lace. Another sits in a jar of formaldehyde.

Another one, Russian, I worked in once and read in sometimes, but never without a dictionary for half the words. It feels like a misty hillside with a plain below where the slow-blown air sometimes clears and sometimes closes in. Or perhaps it’s like that scene towards the end of Tarkovsky’s Solaris, staring out over a snowy Breughelian vista.

The ones I feel I speak best, the irony and minor keys of German or arid, intricate, yet lush Spanish, are so much topographical, like a Caspar David Friedrich painting or the early sun over the Colombian cordillera, where ridge upon green ridge stretches to the horizon with the regularity and crunch of collapsing Toblerones.

Portuguese is different: I have a compass and a car, I am a navigator and have travelled far, but I know I’m on a wide savannah, where half my made-good turns were flukes.

Perhaps it’s familiarity and experience, perhaps it’s the mind-bending visions that come from literature, perhaps I have a synesthetic perception of these things. Or maybe it’s the range of lived emotion that spreads these maps of altitude: the most important relationships of my life (family, friends, lovers, partners) have been in English, German, Spanish. These are the languages that have made me ecstatic, made me cry. Will the same happen with Portuguese? Perhaps, or maybe it will always be a language on the flatlands, where words start to fade as soon as they’re touched and turn into gabbling shadows that sound, at a distance, like English, German or Spanish.


[1] The biggest mystery of all is how some people hear an accent from Portugal, where I’ve not been for 15 years and where I’ve never spoken Portuguese.

The cordillera(Somewhere over Paisalandia)

The cordillera
(Somewhere over Paisalandia)

Anything’s possible if you have guascas: Ajiaco in Brazil

By Rob Packer

Ajiaco, one of the most famous dishes of Colombian cuisine, is a soup of three types of potato, chicken, maize, avocado and—most importantly—guascas, a herb that gives ajiaco its flavour. I didn’t make it, but there’s been a packet of guascas from Colombia in the apartment for a few weeks, so why not make an ajiaco for Saturday lunch? The results were good, although it was missing two things: capers (due to laziness) and papa criolla, a small, delicious, yellow potato that’s hard to find outside the Andes.

Today's ajiaco with avocado.

Ajiaco

Art and Microfinance

This is a repost from my blog on Kiva Stories from the Field. Check out the site for blogs from other Kiva Fellows across the world.

By Rob Packer, KF10 Colombia

When I first became a Kiva Fellow, I never imagined that one day I’d spend a cold, rainy afternoon in Bogotá discussing the merits of art-as-expression against art-for-profit with an aspiring artist and Kiva borrower.

The Nevera (the fridge as Bogotá is known to costeños for its chilly climate) has a very feel from Colombia’s Caribbean coast where I’m based. Partly this is because you need a coat and an umbrella; but it’s mainly because of Bogotá’s urban charm, which sometimes reminds me of European cities like Madrid; and the more formal and reserved nature of the cachacos (people from the interior of Colombia). Bogotá is also a city of revolutionary urban projects, such as Ciclovía—other cities might boast at closing their streets on Sunday mornings so inhabitants can go cycling or running, but the roots of this began in Bogotá 30 years ago—and the TransMilenio, the urban transportation system of running buses in dedicated lanes—admittedly Curitiba was the pioneer, but Bogotá’s version is often cited as the model when yet another Latin American city opens a network. As the capital, it’s also a national centre of art and on a previous trip to Bogotá some Colombian friends had shown me around La Macarena, a bohemian barrio of the city admiring the street art and imaginative restaurant concepts.

On my next trip one of Bogotá’s credit officers, Luis Carlos, and I headed to the south of the city to visit Germán Gustavo Garzón, a self-taught and aspiring artist as well as Kiva borrower, who lives in a barrio called La Macarena de los Alpes: like its namesake it’s perched on the side of the escarpment overlooking Bogotá, but lies at quite a different end of the socioeconomic scale. As we arrived at the point on the hillside where Bogotá ends and the mountains begin and the rain began to fall, I was struck by how unexpected the situation was: I’ve realized I’m far more used to meeting artisans than artists (for more on the difference in perspective, check out Suzy Marinkovich’s 2009 poston the same topic in Peru).

Germán in his studio in Bogotá.

The view out over the rainy skies of Bogotá.

Germán’s parents moved from the countryside to Bogotá many years ago and began setting up businesses very similar to the microbusinesses that I see on a daily basis: his father worked as a shopkeeper, his mother as a seamstress. Germán told us that “A muchos de los papás de mis amigos era impensable que su hijo pueda ser pintor, o poeta (To a lot of my friends’ parents, it was unthinkable that their son should become a painter or a poet).” As if to express the irony of this view, all of their children developed an artistic streak of one kind of another; Germán told us that during his childhood, the house would be dominated by his two sisters dancing on the staircase—both are now contemporary dance and performance art teachers—while Germán painted and his brother wrote poems and short stories on a typewriter. For much of his childhood and adolescence, he had no formal artistic training and only started taking courses in the past few years. It was at a woodwork class at the Escuela de Artes y Oficios—an organization with links to FMSD—where he attended an information session with two Bogotá credit officers and became a borrower with FMSD.

Paints, paid for by Germán's Kiva loan.

In my experience of microfinance, it can often be difficult to support a family member in their dreams as an artist: I have come to learn that it’s an incredible luxury for a Kiva borrower’s child to attend music or ballet classes and a sign that their business is going well. Germán’s response to these needs has been to bridge the gap between microentrepreneur, artist and artisan, and to do both: he used his first loan to invest in materials, which he uses to create artisan works (art-for-profit) and it’s the proceeds from these artesanías that then support him in his true passion, art-as-expression, either as work for friends, for art shows or socially-minded projects such as murals in the local community or performance art with marginalized groups in Colombian society.

As the conversation continued to a rainstorm and background music from Beirut, Sigur Rós and Björk against a view over southern Bogotá, adding to the magic, it emerged that both Luis Carlos and I were frustrated artists—he a painter or sculptor, I a photographer or writer—beaten as we both became to realize that art wasn’t for us.

Germán as artisan, showing us a lamp that he makes to be sold in artisan shops in Colombia.

Germán as artist. This painting representing his grandmother was one of his first paintings and was what made his realize he should follow the path towards becoming an artist.

Meeting people like Germán is one of the most rewarding parts of being a Kiva Fellow. It makes you realize that in spite of the difficulties that borrowers might experience, sometimes vocation is vocation. It made me thankful to know that microfinance provides people like him with the means to pursue their dreams.

Rob Packer is a Kiva Fellow currently working with the Fundación Mario Santo Domingo in Barranquilla, Colombia. There are borrowers from Colombia with FMSD who you can help by contributing to a loan today, and many other entrepreneurs from around the world on the Kiva site.

You sell what? Microfinance and health foods

This is a repost from my blog on Kiva Stories from the Field. Check out the site for blogs from other Kiva Fellows across the world.

By Rob Packer, KF10 Colombia

Sometimes context is everything. If you met someone making muesli, granola and other fibre products in San Francisco or Berlin, you might not be all that surprised. But if you take away the context of coffee culture, media types and brunch and replace it with Barranquilla, a port town with an image problem on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, things start looking different. Oh, he’s also a microfinance borrower. Not exactly what you’d expect.

A street scene in Me Quejo. An unlikely location for health foods.

Earlier in the week, I took a trip with a loan officer from FMSD to meet Gustavo in Me Quejo—incidentally I’d been looking forward to a trip to this barrio since I arrived as it means “I complain” which makes it my favourite barrio name in all Barranquilla (see here for more background). Gustavo is one of the most unique Colombians I’ve met in my months here: in a land of meat, rice and soup, he’s been a vegetarian for the past thirty years. He gave up selling products like shampoo seven years ago and used his understanding of vegetarian food to start a natural food business with little more than a casserole dish and a great idea. Years later, Gustavo’s business is still small and based in one room, and he’s found a market selling his products to vegetarian restaurants and natural food shops—I had no idea these existed in Barranquilla either. But what really set him apart for me were his ambitions to expand the brand he’s created to break into supermarket chains and to start selling his products in gyms in Barranquilla. I was struck that this was 1) an excellent idea and that it was 2) achievable if he has access to the capital required. If he achieves his dreams (and I hope he does) it would be yet another example of the interplay between formal and informal economies that characterizes so many developing countries and the juxtaposition of rich and poor that’s more marked in Latin America than other regions: it’s these differences that I find one of the most disorienting aspects of living in the developing world.

Gustavo in his kitchen.

Gustavo shows us where he makes his granola products.

As we left I took a moment to think about a bizarre intersect that I never thought I’d see: Whole Foods and microfinance. There was part of me that was stunned by the fact that a microfinance borrower was working in the health foods business, an industry often associated with overpriced snobbery. And then I realized that I was looking at things from my own cultural context and not seeing the bigger Colombian picture and realized that Gustavo was one of those microfinance entrepreneurs we all love to read about: someone with an innovative idea who only had the resources to get it off the ground with microcredit.

And at the end of the day, isn’t this what microfinance and Kiva is all about? It’s about giving these people the chance to grow their businesses.

Rob Packer is a Kiva Fellow currently working with the Fundación Mario Santo Domingo in Barranquilla, Colombia. There are borrowers from Colombia with FMSD who you can help by contributing to a loan today, and many other entrepreneurs from around the world on the Kiva site.

Election time

By Rob Packer

At the end of February, Colombia’s Constitutional Court made what some said was the most important decision in its 20-year history: it said that the way that the circumstances surrounding a proposed referendum to allow re-election for President Álvaro Uribe Vélez were “substantial violations of democratic principles” of the constitution. For a country where the president wields an enormous amount of power—enough to issue decrees about the national healthcare system, for example—this was quite a spectacular result: at the start of my time in Colombia I doubt that most of the people I know in Colombia would have expected this turn of events and when I asked at work, the general consensus was that before the president and the court would have made a backroom deal. Suddenly it seemed Colombia had institutions and a system of checks and balances.

Unfortunately, one decision in the constitutional court does not change the system entirely as last Sunday’s Congressional elections showed. This is by no means a full rundown of the elections or of Colombian politics at the moment, but rather some observations from the weekend’s elections.

Sunday’s elections were the first real change since the parapolítica scandal (see an excellent four-part YouTube video from 2008 with political analyst, Claudia López and Wikipedia in English and Spanish) which began to make waves in 2006 when agreements between politicians of all parties and paramilitary groups first came to light. At times since then, around a third of senators have been in prison, either convicted or awaiting trial, leaving their seats empty and meaning that some departments of Colombia were left almost without lawmakers in the House of Deputies—the Senate does not have constituencies and is a single national list. Rather than the modernized face of New Colombia that Uribe’s government likes to show to the outside world, the parapolítica scandal revealed the deep roots of Old Colombia where links with paramilitary groups infiltrate the political system on all sides, including several people close to the president. One of the curiosities of the election is that two thirds of senators are new to the Senate, partly due to a lack of politicians available for re-election but also due to a large number of politicians who have moved from the Chamber of Deputies to the Senate. Unlike what you might expect, according to Semana, a news magazine, this doesn’t mean a change in direction. In fact, in a number of cases there will be very little change in direction where a relative of an incarcerated senator has taken their place, as often in Colombia, politicians are members of political dynasties with networks of interests and patronage. Evidence of this can be seen in the “handing over” of a Senate seat to Arleth Casado, wife of Juan Manuel López Cabrales, a former Liberal senator from Córdoba department on Colombia’s Caribbean coast who was sentenced to six years in prison for signing the Ralito Pact between politicians of various parties and paramilitary groups (see terra.com.co for more details). One of the most memorable parts of my short political education in Colombia happened in a puerta a puerta (a door-to-door minivan somewhere between a bus and a taxi) running between Montería, the capital of Córdoba and Barranquilla, which I picked up in San Juan, Bolívar: the consensus among the monterianas was that “Juancho” was the innocent victim of a corrupt judicial system. The wide-reach of parapolítica did not convince me that they were right.

The level of vested interest can also be seen in the apparently widespread vote-buying, which was denounced by OAS observers, that seems to happen in Colombia: it seems to be taken as read that a vote is worth $50,000 (around US$ 25) or is payable in merchandise of some kind (cement is one of the more common things that I heard). In addition, friends told me about companies where employees are forced to vote for a politician with links to the family who owns the company. This tendency appears to be most developed on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, considered to be one of the more corrupt areas of the country, where there was a concurrent straw poll on whether to create an autonomous region in the Caribbean. On the one hand, this would mean that an often neglected region would have more power and money to make its own decisions, an opinion that most people I speak to in Barranquilla share; however, according to one commentator—and some friends—would also increase the amount of power that the same corrupt politicians and/or paramilitary groups already have. In the context of political caciques (chiefs), it’s easy to say that both sides are right.

In an article on the BBC News website, before the elections, Colombia was described as having “one of the most solid democracies in Latin America”. I am in a no position to judge Colombia against other Latin American countries where I haven’t lived: however, if true, there is a long way to go for democracy throughout Latin America, as there is more to democracy than holding elections and maintaining the independence of the executive, legislative and judicial branches. Along with the obvious need to resolve the armed conflict in the country and demobilize all parties (guerrilla, paramilitaries, drug-traffickers and the army), an important part of developing democracy in Colombia is to build faith in the political system. Compared to accusations of parapolítica it can seem trivial, but as I write this, there are recriminations in large parts of the Colombian press that the results of the Conservative primary are still not known, that the elections for the Andean Parliament may be annulled due to a large number of blank ballot papers (shades of Saramago’s Seeing) or that the National Registrar may have been drunk on a (supposedly) dry weekend. But the roots of trust and the cure to the cynicism widespread among people here and parts of the press go a lot deeper than the electoral process: fixing the electoral process is only the start and faith in the politicians is most important. The fact that there has been little change to the legislature since the parapolítica scandal—and with the parties most linked to the scandal now the largest in Congress—makes me agree with these opinion columns (El Tiempo, El Espectador and Semana): that the Colombian electorate hasn’t learnt from the past.

Celebrating Carnaval in South America, Kiva Fellows Style!

This is a repost from my section of a blog on Kiva Stories from the Field, for the full blog including Ecuador and Bolivia, click here. Check out the site for blogs from other Kiva Fellows across the world.

Rob Packer, KF10, Colombia

Every year, Barranquilla hosts one of the world’s largest carnivals—also the biggest festival in Colombia. For the four days of Carnavales and the weeks of Precarnavales before, the city comes to a standstill as various roads are closed to be filled with brightly-coloured, traditional carnival characters and cumbiamberos (cumbia dancers).

Having lived in Barranquilla for just over a month, everything has been building up towards Carnaval for the past month: there are borrowers at the Fundación Mario Santo Domingo who derive almost all of their annual income from producing items for Carnaval, and there are borrowers I’ve visited who’ve decorated their house with carnival characters or have part of their business based on the Carnaval.

The part of Carnaval that I’ve enjoyed most has been the letanías: something I’d never heard of until I arrived in Barranquilla. These are minstrel-like improvised satirical rhymes with subject matters ranging from international politics to the appearance on the onlookers, told by groups of around five people who accompany Carnaval parades. Often crude, full of costeño words and local and national news of the last year you might not have heard of, they can often be quite hard to understand: unless they’re about something you know. In the spirit of Barranquilla’s Carnaval, the staff at FMSD wrote their own letanía about what had happened over the past year, and here’s the section on Kiva:

El Carnaval es goza y goza
Y toda la gente está muy activa
Y hasta metemos en la recocha
Al man que vino con Kiva.

Ese man es gente buena
Pero le vamos a echá maicena

El de Kiva no se baja en un hotel
Tiene miedo hay gente tesa
Y es por eso que Liney
Le tiene alquilá una pieza

De día lo lleva donde sea
Y de noche le gatea

Al Kiva le gusta le lealtad
Del microempresario, también su garra
Y eso que no fue al mío en Soledad
Pa que meta butifarra

Que busque su Sisben de inmediato
Porque va a parecer un pato


Carnival is all enjoyment
And everyone is very active
And we even make a mess
With the guy who came from Kiva.

This guy is a good person
But we’re going to throw flour at him

The Kiva guy doesn’t stay in a hotel
He’s scared there are difficult people
And that’s why Liney has
Rented him a room

She takes him here and there by day
And at night he’s on curfew

He likes the loyalty
Of the entrepreneur, and their grit
And he didn’t even go to mine in Soledad
To have butifarra

He should get his social security
Before he starts looking like a duck

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