Looking through a camera, you see a girl standing on a street corner. You focus the lens on her. She stands motionless, a blank expression on her face, her hair blowing in the wind. Everything around her is a whirling blur of color and noise, people and cars whizzing by in a maelstrom of chaos and activity, but she is still, frozen in the moment.
The wonder of life in this world strikes her: the number of faces passing by, the endless struggle to carve a path toward success, the intricate maze of our tangled streams of individual existence. As she moves in slow motion through the street life, her thoughts come back to her…
I was living in a small Colombian town, where the conflict grew increasingly violent and the new plan for peace provoked controversy, as the people faced the reality of soldiers from the jungle laying down their weapons and reintegrating into their communities. The town, Ituango, isolated deep in the Andes Mountains, has historically been a major Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) stronghold and has experienced the worst of the country’s fifty-year war.
At twenty-two, I moved to Colombia on my own, in search of answers about war, life, and humanity. For a brief period I lived in the sprawling urban center of Medellin, Colombia’s second largest city, but quickly realized I wanted to witness the way of life the majority of Colombians lead in the countryside. I decided to move to Ituango, a place unknown even to most Colombians, to start an English-teaching program. I began the project the only way I could, by speaking to students individually and advertising my courses with posters on school walls. I organized over fifty interested students, from age seven to forty, into a weekly class schedule. I designed my own lesson plans and charged the lowest possible price, but enough to live off of -- only five dollars a week.
The work challenged me, strained me mentally and emotionally as I waded through cultural barriers and tried daily to gain my students’ respect. And why would they respect me? I was a stranger, a foreigner, a gringa. They didn’t know me. They didn’t ask for me. What a strange situation I had created for myself.
It would be a miracle if my students actually learned anything significant about the English language from my classes. In many ways I felt I had failed -- failed myself and failed them. But in retrospect, I realize the relationships I built with them really had nothing to do with English. I remember the adventure of being their friend -- wrapping our bare legs around the branches of mango trees, pouring salt into Coca-Cola cans to watch them explode on the concrete, and riding on the ferris wheel when the fair came to town, laughing over the rolling mountainside as our stomachs flipped.
Throughout my four months in Ituango I sat down with people I would have otherwise never met: politicians, rural farmers, and human rights workers. I interviewed community leaders in remote villages who were trying to make a difference, spoke to kids about their tough experiences of growing up with war, and heard stories of women’s vulnerability in a violent, male-dominated society. I went on hikes and saw row after row of coca plants, a major source of revenue for these communities cut off from government support and economic opportunities, and I watched their white flowers bloom in abundance down the grassy mountain slopes. I communicated with the people of Ituango in Spanish, and yet the language was the smallest of the barriers separating me from them.
The girl stands alone on the street corner; this is where she wanted to be. Her eyes absorb the light around her: the images and expressions on the faces passing by, and the sentiments behind the eyes of the strangers that she locks with her own. Her ears vibrate from the honking horns, the rhythmic music in the air, and the sharp accents and staccato phrases of a language she is still learning.
The mountains of Ituango stretch and climb and loom over the land, swallowing up the tiny specks of human life sprinkled over their lush greenery. It’s hard not to feel insignificant among such heights, such valleys, such skies. I experienced a striking feeling of solitude in Ituango. I get chills reflecting on it now, how lonely I felt in those vast mountains, in a community I did not belong to, yet wanted to be a part of so desperately. Human psychology performs in strange ways when you live in a foreign land, out of your comfort zone. I remember having dreams of people from my childhood, as if my mind was flipping through the album of my life, trying to take me back to moments of refuge and nostalgia.
On my own in such a distant place, I didn’t always feel safe. I could only rely on myself. Have you ever tested that? Have you ever been in a new place, alone, solely responsible for your own safety, so far from anyone who knows you? It’s terrifying. It makes you question how much you can trust your ability to protect and take care of yourself. Maybe my optimistic perception of the world was naive. I encountered boundaries within myself I didn’t know existed -- with no familiarity, I began to forget my place in the world, the meaning of my life. Having already pushed myself so far, I began to recede, to turn inward, to lose myself.
The images and sounds flow straight into the girl’s head, bouncing against the walls of her skull, like light trapped under a glass. Life moves so fast. How do you make sense of a moment before it vanishes?
Eventually, I had to leave Ituango. I moved back to Medellín, and ultimately back to the U.S. I still carry the weight of those experiences and the feeling that I failed in many ways during my time there. I didn’t write any award-winning journalism pieces, or get a grant to start a women’s development project, or even really teach English successfully.
This is what happened to me in the mountains of Ituango. On job applications I claim to have learned how to work independently, how to create and implement an impactful project, and how to engage with local communities. What I really learned is that there are no answers to the questions I have about life, and perhaps there is no reason for anything at all. We are products of our circumstances. When you venture outside of the context in which you grew and became the person you are, the vastness of life becomes perplexing, unfathomable.
In Ituango I saw a different side of life, one characterized by immense and simultaneous beauty and suffering. These people, subjected to decades of bloodshed, massacres, and abject poverty, live on the brink of hopelessness. And yet, the vivacity of their culture and community thrives, even in the most remote and distant setting imaginable, even in the poorest conditions.
If you decide to venture to a place like Ituango, understand you will come back with more questions than you left with, and most are questions that can never be fully answered. What I strive for now is a continuous journey to find my own truths and participate wholeheartedly in our world, whatever it is.
The girl laughs to herself, aware of her insignificance, and astonished by the wonder of it all.
Claire Dennis is currently working for Senator Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) in Washington, D.C. and supporting the causes she believes in: women’s rights, immigrant rights, and free press. She has lived in two Latin American countries, speaks Spanish, and believes, above all, in the power of truth.