16 February, 2014

learning from angels

Having spent the last week at a community centre in the slums of Medellin volunteering as an English teacher and playing with grubby little beautiful children, I thought it would be worth me sharing my experience.

Firstly, I can't believe how emotional this work is. One would think after all the heartbreak; there'd be a strong wall of equanimity built around this heart with eyes accustomed to witnessing extreme poverty; but for me at least, the opposite is true. The walls have crumbled away and I am perpetually moved by these gorgeous little children that just want to play and know how to smile with so little. They want to skip ropes and do jigsaw puzzles. They want to learn English so they can one day have a good job. They want their family to be healthy and have dreams of seeing the world. Saying goodbye the other day, I was followed to the bus stop and waved off by two shouting little monkey-faces while the little rickety red bus headed away from their village to bounce on the dusty dirt track back down the mountain. This my heart wasn't quite prepared for and I've shed a tear or two in that humble realisation that perhaps I really have no idea.

But I don't want to paint a sad picture, because it isn't sad, it's really bloody good. There are places in the world, on the ground, that bring people with hearts and hands of kindness to those that need it. It's amazing. And the work has true meaning for everyone. I ran a workshop the other day to invite the kids to create their dreams on behalf of The Dreamflag Project. Wow it was so cool. Children of all ages were engaged in envisioning their wishes for themselves, the world and their loved ones and making flags that were then hung around the classroom.
Obviously Valentine's day was going to be unconventional. My 'date' involved bringing my couchsurf host and friend Juan Pablo with me; up to the slums via a cable car and on a rickety bus up a dirt track in order to hang out with poor dirty children. Not the most romantic one might argue.

Juan Pablo is an amazing conductor (his work here) for the city youth orchestra and despite now being a successful musician and professor at the University, his beginnings were also humble and poor. He took responsibility for his family; Mum, two sisters and now two nephews and as he explained to me, was 'saved by music'. He found a place in music where he could escape the discomforts of his living situation and focus his energies on something beautiful. Now he's an example of hope for these children.

So a group of valentine volunteers trekked up to the remoter part of the slums; we bought bananas, snacks and toothbrushes to give to the children and visited two of the disabled members of the community in the remote area to give food and care just in time for the rains to fall down on us and create mudslides through the pathways separating the little shacks. I was amazed at the gentleman we met who was handicapped and had set up a little gallery to sell his paintings. They were lovely and his spirit was so positive.

After a full on day, we returned back to the apartment in Medellin. I smiled with a sense of gratitude for the day, despite feeling pretty exhausted. I then had the pleasure of cooking dinner for my host; curried beans, rice and platano followed by strawberries and ice-cream for dessert. Juan Pablo is also bisexual and unfortunately, in this strongly Catholic culture, there's shame associated with that. Which is why I suggested we went dancing at a cool gay bar last night to finish off a full on day. It was a very cool experience being surrounded by gorgeous latin men without attracting anything other than a joyous giggle (probably at my dance moves and perhaps the odd cheesey pop singer impersonation). It was extra fun seeing Juan Pablo enjoy himself there.

I woke up this morning to an email from a friend I met while in New England, USA, letting me know that his wife had passed away after a long battle with cancer. They'd spent most of their lives together and while my heart sank in sadness for his loss, I felt it open graciously too. He recognised what they had shared together; something beautiful and true. They'd gone deep in their love and despite leaving the body, as we all do in this world, I feel that she is with him infinitely and pray he can find joy again perhaps also through music given he's a very talented Blues musician. 

So a big lump sits in my throat after what's been a pretty intense week volunteering for Angeles de Medellin. It's not a very long time, there are people here who spend months and years doing this kind of work and I have so much love and respect for those who dedicate their lives to such meaningful work. I don't know if in my lifetime I'll live to see equal opportunities around the world or for these kids but at least this week I've learned one thing that we are all very much equal in: We all live. We all die. 

Whatever we choose to create in that space between; I hope it to be more joyous, accepting, loving and respectful. With a few gay dance moves thrown in for good measure and dreams coming true for those gorgeous little grubby children.


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