Tuesday, May 25, 2010

On getting closer to those "Anythings can happen": Presidential Elections 2010

In the summer of 2006, three booms! sounded in the middle of the night, each about half a minute in succession. Alarms sounded, but no sort of hysteria. I thought little of it, an engine backfire or something, and went back to sleep. The next morning I found out that those explosions were truck bombs planted by the guerrillas outside a police training school two blocks from my cousin’s house where I slept. Two days later, I was in an uncle’s living room in Cali, where they were telling me about a car bomb that detonated just that morning outside a police station, killing 6 and wounding a dozen or so others, 10 minutes walking from where they lived. They had even walked over to see the damage. The re-election of Alvaro Uribe as President of Colombia led to my first experiences with political violence.

One week from today, Colombia’s political landscape will be in the middle of possibly serious changes. The elections which will see Alvaro Uribe, who has held presidential office for the last 8 years, out of his term, will likely demand run-offs in the coming months. The top contenders are Juan Manuel Santos, Uribe’s Minister of Defense, and Antanas Mockus, a progressive Green Party candidate and former mayor of Bogota, credited with cleaning up the city to somewhat more human levels. Run-offs will likely come down to these two. Talking to an Australian friend last night who has lived in Colombia for 7 years, he predicted things will likely continue as usual if Santos wins, and if Mockus wins, he could do something to piss off the paramilitaries and in the worst case, get assassinated, in which case Colombia would fall into political chaos.

Around a cozy fireplace in our hostel, my friend tells me and other travelers what he remembers about traveling on election weekend of 2006, going to the bus terminal and seeing so many police officers, and so many helicopters overhead in the cities, on the roads. People stopped being friendly, and tensions were high, as it felt like people thought something could happen at any minute. A walk this afternoon to the Biblioteca Luis Angel Arango, three blocks up from the Plaza del Bolivar and a zone of government offices, the streets are smattered every half block beginning at the library with officers in full fatigues, and AK-47’s. In one corner, three officers stand casually, talking, and, like sleeping babies in their mothers’ rebozos, AK-47's hang lazily on their backs. Over time, this may become normal to my eyes. For now, it is still surreal, and I steal glances, hearing my Colombian friend in my head, now finished with his police obligations, tell me how surprisingly easy it was to fire such a destructive weapon. And I recall how, from those first explosions in Tulua, to my cousin getting robbed on the beach, to my earrings getting yanked off my ears in Oaxaca, that, to someone for whom such experiences are typically virtual via movies or TV, the most impressive thing about violence is how casual it is.

Needless to say, wandering the streets of Bogota next weekend, or traveling between cities, is worth thinking twice about.

Like other tourists that I talk to today, I had no idea, in 2006, what was going on, that it was even an election year, or the weight of the political events that were taking place. And as Uribe had no option to run again this year (though he did try), there is much more at stake, with what feels to me like an Obama-style campaign as Antanas Mockus has risen from bottom to top through new media and garnered support from nearly every [level-headed] student, professor, and person under 30 in the country. Other than a few bricks through some windows, the U.S. experienced nothing like what parts of Colombia are likely to experience in the coming days. When I talk to tourists here in the hostel, they tend to be surprised about the risks and the possibility that they could be affected. As they/we tend to float above the social and political events in the places they/we visit, they/we are not used to having to change our itineraries for such causes. Unless worst-case-scenarios happen, travelers likely won’t be affected too much as they only tend to pass through Colombia for a couple weeks on average on their routes through South America. With a little more understanding of what is going on, I am eager and apprehensive to see what kind of changes will take place this summer, and how they will affect the day to day lives of myself, the Colombians around me, as well as travelers.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

they can't kick me out now: orientations to citizenship

This is my first trip to Colombia as a Colombian citizen. I never realized how still unstitched I am to the social fabric of Colombia until I thought about how I would go about doing things here that I do back home. What are the things that every Colombian learns and repeats since grade schools, the equivalents of our George-Washington-crossing-the-Delaware-River-and-chopping-cherry-trees, and stop-drop-and-roll-in-a-fire? If I had to teach illiterate adults to read in Spanish, what methods and content would I use? What is the Colombian equivalent of “a” for “apple?” Until a couple weeks ago, I didn’t even know what the emergency number was (911, my mom told me). If I want to volunteer for an organization, how do I find, and quite literally, how do I talk to the person that would help me with that?

How does citizenship change the way people approach me? When DAS can no longer kick me out or pay fines for staying more than 60 days or for working or volunteering anywhere, and that graffiti tag "Fuera Yanquis de Colombia" no longer applies, how do other Colombians, how do I, come to terms with having all the documented access that they have but lacking the social networks and cultural-linguistic protocols for different civil situations, such as say, finding a job? Making a doctor’s appointment? Getting a driver’s license and handling a car accident? What should I expect when I call the police or get a medical exam? How do I deal with handing over my Colombian ID and explaining that I’m not really from here, so you’ll have to explain to me what to do...? Or, in more social situations, with being stereotyped as an American tourist girl and then I explain that, legally, I am as Colombian as the native-born? I guess the only way is to burrow through it like a gopher and be ready for some possibly awkward positions.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Does Salman Rushdie believe in his own magic? A few notes on Midnight's Children and Garcia-Marquez' 100 Years of Solitude

I was only a few pages into Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children when I had started making comparisons with 100 Years of Solitude, by Colombia’s own literary idol, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. Both begin with one patriarch and trace several generations, often revealing the fates of their characters before the stories had come to them. A Wikipedia note of Rushdie as a “magical realist” got me thinking more about the worlds that Garcia-Marquez and Rushdie created in their respective stories. In MC, Saleem, the narrator, rather persistently doubts and questions the [what we would regard as] supernatural, with a kind of self-consciousness for what his readers might or might not believe. The ghosts of MC live in completely separate, intangible worlds, having only secondary effects on tangible characters. In nearly all cases, from the ghost of Joseph D’Costa to the prophecy of Saleem’s life, to Saleem’s telepathy itself, they are all reducible to coincidences or contrivances of their characters’ hyperactive imaginations. The ghosts and the magic of Macondo, on the other hand, make up every day life as much as any other character, to a point where one child character is assumed body and soul into the heavens.

Rushdie is notorious for his relationship with religion (and, in contrast to his truly engaging storytelling in Midnight's Children, disappointingly lacks creativity of position in his non-fictional literature on the subject - he offers himself up as the voice of the pet “Other-come-to-his-senses” in the panel of New Atheists... but I prefer not to get into this here). As he is a self-proclaimed atheist, I wonder if it is to be expected that his ambivalence toward the non-material permeate the world of Midnight’s Children. I sense that what Rushdie does not doubt is the impact of belief on the actions of believers, and the ability of actors to create and ascribe greater significances to the smallest things in one’s own life - we see this in Saleem’s story, who finds himself reconciling the pain of all his family’s trials by tying them with the events of India, to whom he convinces himself that he owes some great purpose, only to finally lose all sense of hope and purpose once he would literally get castrated by the state-sanctioned sterilization campaign of Indira Ghandi.

While I think that the different approaches to magic in these two works may have something to say about their authors’ beliefs in the non-material, what are perhaps more justly accessible are the authors’ approaches to writing. If it is true that Rushdie himself struggles to distinguish between the origins of the natural and the supernatural, perhaps the story is his battleground, or his negotiating table, between secular-Western and traditional Asian systems of belief. In MC he acknowledges the power of metaphor and meaning, but he himself, in the form of his main character, will not dive headfirst into that wonderland, will not even allow himself the godly role of author, where he can create entire worlds to say something about the world outside them. But it is perhaps this very frustration with the impotence of dreams and the delusory nature of the non-material (especially compared to that violently-materialized illusion of the state) that Rushdie hoped to convey in Saleem.

Although I don’t know enough about the personal religion of Garcia-Marquez to speculate on how it paints his writing, I can say that 100 YoS is not so [explicitly] preoccupied with distinctions between the natural and the supernatural, or between the beliefs of the reader and the contrivances of the narrator. Might I hypothesize, then, that Garcia-Marquez insists on the undoubted, unquestioned, and uninhibited integration of the natural and supernatural, where djinns and ghosts are materialized beings rather than just metaphors, to resist those secular-materialist-Euro-American systems of belief? Could Jose Arcadio Buendia’s determination to find a daguerreotype of God, to the consternation of his wife and neighbors to where he must spend his last days hogtied to a tree speaking an incomprehensible language, also be a comment on how an obsession with the strictly-material could drive one to antisocialization and, ultimately, madness?

Both 100 Years of Solitude and Midnight’s Children are set in the midst of radical historical changes, and both seem to be commenting on how traditional systems of belief are affected by new world orders. Rushdie seems to do this rather consciously, through the repeatedly tested and ultimately destroyed quixotic beliefs of a single character, while Garcia-Marquez tries to capture the responses of several characters, over several generations, to the sequential cultural invasions in Macondo. Recalling the integration of [let’s just say] unnatural and natural events in 100 Years of Solitude, and comparing them to the persistent questioning of the supernatural in Midnight’s Children, I thought to myself, “Rushdie doesn’t believe in his own magic.” Now I am thinking: that was the point.