Paper mache

Trip Start Dec 07, 2005
Trip End Apr 10, 2007

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Flag of Colombia  ,
Monday, September 11, 2006

cartagena emodies much of latinoamerica in the huge and visible disparity between the luxury hotels and condominiums of bocagrande and the simple concrete houses that pack the roadsides outside of downtown. just a few blocks beyond the compact old old town is the dusty old town ringed by the spanish fortified walls. from there, the city sprawls out indiscriminately: yacht clubs and mansions squat under a thick cover or palm fronds and navy blue awnings just a few blocks from a highway where trailer trucks rumble past the local postobon (a colobmian soft drink company) factory, and chaotic markets butt up against a filthy part of the harbor.

the old old town is the 10 or so blocks packed with incredibly well-preserved colonial buildings and the requisite (although politically incompatible) plaza bolivar--simon bolivar was the great liberator of most countries in the north of south america, so the palm-shaded plaza that surrounds a triumphal statue of the man astride his steed is an beautiful spot to contemplate irony and contraditction. the spaniards who built all the beautiful houses around the plaza were none too fond of senor bolivar. walking into or out of old old town under the 20th century clock tower, one walks through the plaza de los coches, the onetime site of a slave market.

we stayed in the dusty old town, historic but very rundown. we were only a couple of blocks from the old spanish walls. our hotel was a once-magnificent two story building with a beautiful, large central courtyard. the second floor rooms were closed because they were so worn down. our room was basic and clean, and we stayed at the Doral while we volunteered out in barrio daniela lemeitre at a group home for street kids. the dozen or so boys we met and worked with were either runaways or didn't have families to run away from. the neighborhood was poor, but there were also some nice houses on the main street and some of the side streets were almost downright suburban.

but our volunteering started close to bocagrande, where all those condos and hotels are. we met with a few american teachers working at the very well-funded jorge washington school, and they brought us out to the group home and introduced us to the staff there. on that first afternoon we sat in with julian, a traveller from europe (i didn't catch exactly what country he's from) who had been visiting the boys and doing activities with them for a few weeks. we played some games with the boys and hung out while they ate their merienda, or afternoon snack. it was clear right away that these kids could be a handful, but that they were eager to get into any game or activity that we could throw at them.

but what could we throw at them? we tried all weekend to think of something that would capture their attention and teach them something new. something they could take with them into adolescence and beyond. something that would go nicely with their merienda. that something would be paper mache.

that something would also be balloon animals and lots of origami. but to begin with, it was paper mache. we thought that when we returned on monday that julian would be there and that we'd just help him out. but he wasn't. and we were empty-handed. so as soon as we got to the gate and found out that we were solo, we turned around to equip ourselves as best we could for a paper-mache workshop. we stopped at a corner store and bought some flour. actually, it was arepa mix--flour for the thick corn cakes sold at street stands all over colombia. good enough. then we ran all over looking for newspaper. found some at a paint supply store.

when we got back, almost nothing went according to plan. but all went pretty well--daniela tried to explain the process of making a drawing and then a 3d model to pile paper mache onto, but once i drew a car for one kid, i started getting requests to draw other things for each of the others: "me haces un camion" ("make me a truck"), "un helicoptero", "no, i want a helicopter", "no, i asked first!" i spent two solid hours drawing and didn't look up. daniela spent two solid hours running around and trying to help whoever wasn't getting enough attention. we left tired and stopped for a paleta (ice cream on a stick) and caught the bus home.

we broke out the paper mache batter and balloons the next day. a lot of the paper mache made it onto the balloons. a lot of the paper mache made it into peoples' hair. and onto their faces. mostly they were happy to be filling their little hands with gobs of the goopy batter. some kids weren't so happy to have gobs gooped onto their faces by their housemates.

we spent time talking with the nighttime staff member (there is only 1 staff member there each night and there are 12-14 boys) one night and stayed for dinner with the boys. most of them relaxed on the small patio outside with us and the profer. some of the boys ran around and got into scraps inside. the profer was calm. we were uneasy, but for better or worse the boys had their own ways of working things out. it was usually for worse, as they all pretty much handled disputes by hitting each other, even if a 12 year old had a problem with an 8 year old. i guess when you're the sole staff member, you have to be able to stay cool about small stuff. and for all their nonchalance, the boys seemed to listen to what the profers said.

during our workshops, kids scrapped with each other, too. they ran around the house and yelled. i told daniela that i didn't particularly feel like we were helping. she pointed out that at the very least we were taking some of the burden off the staffers who were there. daniela taught origami and it really caught on. a couple of the kids figured each figure out as soon as they had made one. we encouraged them to teach their housemates who were still learning. that was amazing to me.

on wednesday the teachers who had introduced us to the home showed up for their weekly visit. there were so many of them that the boys got almost individual attention and they were incredibly calm and into the activity. it was el dia de amor y amistad (the day of love and friendship), and one teacher delivered cards for the boys that her students had made. we helped each boy make a card in response to their new penpals, and they hunched over and colored and spread glitter with great earnestness.

one day we brought in string to make bracelets with. a number of the boys grabbed some string, looped it around their big toes, and took off braiding it. i left with three bracelets, in various stages of completeness, on my arm. we made stress balls with left over arepa mix and balloons. later we stayed for dinner and daniela made balloon animals to cap it all off. even as the balloons broke, the boys re-inflated and re-tied the broken pieces. "what can i make with this?" they asked us. lesson in third world recycling. later, four boys and the profer played an imaginary game of basketball (for forty five minutes) with a balloon and a wall. lesson in third world ability to make something out of almost nothing. again, we left with at least as much as we left behind.
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