First thoughts from Tumaco

written by: Lisandro Torre
posted in: 2011, Colombia

Lisandro Torre

I’m finally in Tumaco and it’s all starting to come together. I got picked up at 4:30 in the morning on Wednesday and taken to the airport to catch my 6 am flight to Cali, landed at 7:15 and hopped on the 7:35 flight to Tumaco to arrive at 8am. A two-hour flight that takes over 25 hours to do overland. As soon as I landed I felt at home and much more comfortable than in Bogota. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to describe Tumaco, or how to contextualize it for myself and I end up comparing a lot of things to Uganda. It’s not the same, but it is the only other experience I’ve had working abroad and I can’t help but to compare the two. I apologize ahead of time if that’s annoying.

Tumaco Street Scene

Tumaco Street Scene

Tumaco is completely different than Bogota. In Uganda (it starts) Kampala was different from Bududa, but they were still a lot alike – you could see how both places fit together in the same country. Tumaco is a different world from Bogota and it’s noticeable immediately. It’s hot—and sticky hot—and sunny. My ride was immediately there and rather than sketchy people asking to take me somewhere or to some hotel, a bunch of kids followed us to the car, opened our door and begged for a tip. Fewer cars, a ton more motorcycles (and there were a fair amount in Bogota), no helmets, no seatbelts, kids riding on the front of motorcycles (women don’t side saddle here), fewer traffic lights, bumpier roads, no tall buildings, a lot more litter, shacks. It feels like another country and I would believe that it was except the Colombian military is everywhere.

Tumaco Water House

Tumaco Water House

Richard, the driver (and if I learned anything in the Peace Corps it’s to make friends with drivers; I’m getting there with Richard and it is paying off deliciously), took me to my hotel to drop my things. I thought that I was going to be staying somewhere swanky because I was told that I was going to stay at someone from IRD’s place for a week while I chose from three options (which I’ll do tomorrow), but I’m not. It’s not bad, though, and I’m comfortable and hope the places I get to choose from are comfortable (though I was guaranteed that wherever I chose to live would have the essentials – a bathroom, a tv and a fridge, WHEW!). From there we went to the office where I met the staff – more on them later, but they are as amazing and dedicated as they’ve been described.


Typical House

Typical House

Earlier I said that it is all fitting together, and now I’ll describe how. We spent a week in Washington, DC and two days in Bogota, learning about IRD and the work they do. It all sounded very impressive, but it also felt detached in a way. Headquarters in DC and Bogota seem worlds away from Tumaco – but it all fits, and functions very well (I know that I’ve only been here for two days , but really the dedication and work that they’re doing in Tumaco impresses immediately). I sat with the program operations manager and talked a little about what I’m going to do. They want me to work with the nutritionist and give them ideas for ways to improve their programs, but they are also very flexible and want me to stick my nose in everything so I can learn what they are doing. I then talked to one of the psychologists and she told me what they are doing and invited me to a play that evening that they had helped organize. I then asked if I could go see the road that they had helped build nearby (because IRD also does infrastructure) and the painted houses project.


Painted House

Tumaco Painted House

After lunch I went with Richard and the engineer off the island to the road they helped improve. They turned a very bumpy gravel road into a much less bumpy gravel road, improved a few bridges and painted houses. (The road was so bumpy before that dogs would sit in the road and not move when a car came, knowing they had time. With the new road, cars can go a lot faster and apparently a lot of dogs die – also, there are a ton of dogs in Tumaco.) When we were in DC they mentioned the painted houses project as an aside; in Bogota, they talked about it with pride, but I have to admit that I was dubious. I mean, they painted some houses on side of the road. I feel like an idiot now. There is an artist in Northern Colombia (I think that’s right) who suggested the project and does similar work where she is from. She does special patterns and bright colors and they decided to paint ALL the houses along the 15 km of road they improved.  They are lovely and bright and the community spent two weeks painting all the houses, working side by side with the civilian police, which is a big deal because they don’t get along. It brought the community together and people are proud of their houses and it makes it a much more pleasant place. It’s a sort of “broken window” theory approach to development, as the country program director described it, and I can see it.


An aside – the road is in a very rural area (that reminded me of villages in Uganda, down to the banana trees) and I asked about how life is out there. Colombians in these areas don’t own the land, there are just huge pieces of communal land that hundreds to thousands (depending where) of people live. They stake their place, build their houses and all share the land. If someone owns cows, they build a fence for the cows, but the land still belongs to everyone. People farm as they like and can’t sell their land. It’s amazing and really tests the Tragedy of the Commons, as people tell me it works. There is also another tradition that I think is nice called Milga (or something close to that) where the community will decide to all get together for a day to do a community project like clearing brush and then spend the afternoon cooking and eating. That also extends to building houses – the people will gather together and build a house for a neighbor and then the neighbor provides lunch.

On the way home I was telling Richard and the engineer that all I wanted to eat while I was here was fruit and fish. Richard then started telling me about all the weird (his word, not mine. Actually, he said exotic, but I’ll paraphrase and say weird) fruit. Stopped on the way home and bought me a guaranbani (that’s close enough for now), which is a fruit that looks like a very large (about the size of a football) and somewhat spiky pear. It’s usually served in juice form, but I was told that it’s delicious raw. It’s delicious raw. I had half of it for dessert tonight (they also told me not to eat too much because it will upset your stomach, but I ate a lot, let’s see what that does). He also bought another fruit that has to be cooked and brought me some today and it tastes like a sweet potato.

We got back to the office and it was time to go to the play. We packed the IRD canopies into the back of the truck and went to the Parque Colon, which is a small plaza with a 200-year-old tree brought by the Europeans back in the day. This week is a week where people are supposed to remember people who have disappeared or have been murdered. The play was overly dramatic, but hit home what people here live through. The plot was a bunch of women trying to get a neighbor to snap out of a depression she was in because she lost her son. There was a lot of yelling and overacting, but it ended with a song whose last lyric, which they repeated over and over again was: “ooooooowwweeeeeeooooooo.  Queremos paz en Tumaco!” (We want peace in Tumaco!)

The crowd seemed to really appreciate it except for a gaggle of twelve-year-old hooligans who were causing a ruckus and started a small fire with the candles that were distributed to remember victims. Then things got ugly, then wonderful again. The kids were making a scene and a lot of people started to leave after the play. A group of old women and men were going to perform traditional songs and were in their traditional dress and it was obvious they did not want to sing to the diminished crowd of mostly teenagers (separate from the 12-year-olds). They sang one song, which was pretty amazing (old ladies just love to belt it out everywhere it seems but the US) and the teenagers got into it a bit. The song ended and the ladies and old men (on drums) started to walk away but the teenagers started to chant “One more song! One more song.” The troupe looked confused, but went ahead and started another song and the teenagers started to join and the lead singer, an old lady with four teeth who was wailing away, was getting more and more into it as the teenagers went down to where they were performing and then there was a gaggle of old men and women in traditional clothes and about 10-15 teenagers in acid washed, cool jeans and tight t shirts all together singing traditional songs from Tumaco together. It was really lovely and rescued the night – I even cried a little.

Then that ended and I went back to the hotel and my first day in Tumaco was over. I fell asleep to Dallas beating Oklahoma City to reach the finals, a dog barking and then rain.

This entry was posted on May 27, 2011 at 12:53 pm and is filed under 2011, Colombia. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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