Dreams in San Pedro – Cartagena, Colombia

Dreams in San Pedro

Cartagena, Colombia

It is kind of ironic: the day I picked up the novel, How to be Good, by Nick Hornby, was the same day that I realized I wanted to start working with the boys of San Pedro. At the time, I was asking myself: What constitutes sanctimony? Goodness? Piousness? At what point should we share what we have, whether it be our time, our money, our friendship, or our experiences, and at what point do we reclaim what remains as selfishly our own? That, both the theme of this book and of my first Saturday in one of the poorest barrios of Cartagena, were the questions I was hoping to answer.

The barrio of San Pedro is anything but clean, respectable, or middle-class; it is, in fact, one of the most desolate, most suffering of all the neighborhoods in this misleading city of Cartagena. Cartagena, as I was beginning to understand, is not always the gem of beauty in the photos and on the internet and travel guides; rather, it is a series of hidden pueblos, poverty, and hunger amidst a lovely scattering of architectural tourist attractions. This knowledge was, as one might imagine, the very thing that shocked each and every one of the foreigners who had come to teach here with me. Places like San Pedro, so characteristically Cartagenan, so uncharacteristically advertised, is a district running along an open sewage line, dotted with color-splashed shacks of concrete and wood slats, washed with cracked windows, smeared in dust and cement floors. Explaining it in words seems to strip it of its pristine meaning, but as a camera would have been as out-of-place as a stereotypical American tourist in khaki shorts, a straw hat, and a Hawaiian-print tee, I had only my feeble memory and unreliable words to assist me as I entered into my first real unsheltered territory.

My intentions for the day were two-fold: to disappear behind the ritzy district, ritzy, mind you, for Colombia, of Manga Island to spend a short while in La Fundación Esperanze (“The Hope Foundation,” which provides hope for young boys in poverty desperately trying to raise themselves from drugs and future lives of crime) and to learn from them the things I could not and never would learn from my own experience. My friend Gustavo, a psychology student at the tecnológica where I taught English, invited me to see San Pedro with him; to see, as Micha, our German teacher, said was the “real part” of town, with people dancing in the streets and mingling with stray dogs. I, however, got much more than I bargained for.

The difficult thing about explaining the streets in Latin America are that they are absolutely unlike anything the Western world boasts as clean, renovated, or organized. A house, for example, is not a house to hide your family and surround yourself with tasteful, matching decorations – it is merely a place, hidden from the sky of the Caribbean rains, where everyone who is mildly related goes to sleep at night. They are brilliant colors of blue, yellow, orange, and green, with dust, dirt, and cracked paint peeling from the corners; they are sparse yet stuffed with a random collection of beds, chairs, artifacts, history, and people. There are chickens literally clucking around outside, picking at piles of rotting garbage, crumbled bricks from old houses, and sewage. Dogs, somehow, are more populous than people, having taken over the neighborhood with all their matted hair, tangled coats, skinny bodies, and wild faces. They sleep lazily where they wish, along with old men crowned in wrinkles and dust, who both have been waiting for nothing for a long time. There is a woman, one woman out of all the many mothers (both too young and too old to bear children) cutting plantains and stuffing empanadas over an open kettle fire, preparing food for every family on the street. And sometimes, when they have nothing, Gustavo told me, they chop limes into pieces and boil them in water, making soup. The images are strong – fierce, but very real, and I felt, upon feeling it in my own white skin, like I couldn’t be any more of a rich, undeserving, particularly ignorant Anglo-Saxon American. So I had nothing to do but swallow my embarrassment, hold my head to the blue skies as if San Pedro were the most natural place in the world for a suburban, middle-class American girl to be, and shook hands with Glen, the first of many boys I would meet that day.

He stared at me for a few seconds (which, as I recall, actually seemed like a few hours), burning his eyes into mine with a curiousness and a strangeness akin only to the experience of seeing something so bizarre and fantastic your eyes hardly believe, and I watched myself as I asked him the many questions I had rehearsed throughout the morning. He looked at the other members of the Fundación for some kind of affirmation that I wasn’t going to bite him, keeping silent and watching me without answering me. The woman in charge suggested that I sit and talk with him, find out about his life, enjoy his company – so, pulling up a plastic chair and sitting in front of my new friend, I did.

To see a boy of nineteen realize, after a youth of desperate hunger and cocaine addiction, hopelessness, and frustration, that he can get from one side to the other of a concrete room is not only a small step, but tons of little ones, is enormously beautiful. The second game we played during the afternoon’s meeting, after drawing pictures of what we desired to be in our futures and then having them ripped in half (to prove the metaphorical point of the activity), we divided the room into two halves and assigned the 15 boys the task of using their imagination to get from one side to the other without walking or running. And what imaginations we discovered! Teenage boys, laughing, dancing backwards, going underneath chairs, crawling on their stomachs, jumping on one foot, helping each other and ourselves come up with good ideas…how reminiscent of the awkward, unconventional paths their lives have taken, and will take in the future! The group dynamic improved, the sense of humor deepened, the friendships and the hope grew, and little by little, the nervous girl in the back became a little more confident, and even invented her own creative path: spinning in circles from one side to the other.

But what truly surprised me was the amount of affection and love these rough-edged boys gave to me – after the initial shock reaction of curiosity and uncertainty (because for many of them, I was the first foreign person they had ever seen), they opened their homes, shared their pictures with me, tried to speak a little bit of English with me, and didn’t seem to care that I would never know a life like theirs. The dreams they drew, with such an indiscreet fervor, confirmed my suspicions: that silly thing we call the “American Dream,” that thing invented to tell promising young people that they could turn out any way they wanted to, leaked, somehow, into the minds of these boys. Industrial engineers, car mechanics, father figures, computer specialists, doctors, rock stars, families with two children and a dog (and the occasional swimming pool, naturally), with a nice house with a nice fence and a nice yard and a nice bank account….these dreams, drawn from the hands of what were the most anxious and hopeless children in this city, prove something unbelievably difficult – most of them want what I realize they will never have.

For example, after being prompted to share how he felt upon seeing his dreams ripped in half and thrown to the ground, one boy admitted that he felt terribly sad. He was hurt, he added, offended at the lack of respect shown for what he believed to be his only dreams; he felt defeated, beaten, because if no one was going to respect something as intimate and personal as his dreams, what else does he have to wish for?

Another cleared his throat, blinked his eyes a few times, and added that he felt as if he was being laughed at; teased because he wants to be a doctor and cure the sick people in his neighborhood, and no one believes in him. Being laughed at, he said, is the most discouraging, and yet the most frequently-used, method to break your dreams.

Perhaps I picked up that novel that Saturday for a reason – perhaps it was just meant to keep my eyes compassionate and gentle. Judging people is a habit I’m desperately trying to break, and especially now: for how could I ever think of the unfortunate young boys, of any background, the same way again? Precious faces, black skin, tattered clothes, and some without shoes; yet all, as we now see, with dreams.

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