November’s almost over, and I imagine that you’re getting tired of me and my oh-I’m-so-thankful-for-everything mindset. But bear with me ‘cuz this November I missed Great Thursday, Black Friday, Sucker Saturday, Cyber Monday, Mobile Tuesday – a whole week of important U.S. Holidays – and my internal clock’s off. Soon, I’ll give up on the thanks-be-to-something shtick, get into the Christmas Spirit, and start making a long list of all the stuff I need. I’ll call it my Gimme Some Booty list.†
†Easy, now. Booty’s just another word for pirate treasure, not that magical stuff that men trade in political careers and reputations for.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the woman and her child in the portrait above. I imagined her individual story as a slice of a larger narrative and her image as a stand-alone painting within a larger portrait – just like a family. When I started blabbing on about her story and Ciudad Bolívar, reader Jeff Aaron emailed and asked what I was doing there in the first place. Good question.
So what business does a gringo have being in one of the poorest areas in Bogotá? Uh… well… none. But the Fundación Catalina Muñoz has business there helping to improve the lives of people in need through various projects like building houses, constructing rooftop gardens from recycled materials, and teaching women how to make and market traditional handicrafts for extra income to name a few. And the foundation lets this gringo tag along in exchange for his manual labor to help build houses. The houses are built for families that the local community and the foundation find deserving based on need and merit. The building and construction are hard work and I’m exhausted at the end of the fifteen hour day. But I enjoy the manual labor, working outside, and feeling like I’ve helped create something. And in this case, at the end of the day, I’ve been able to help create something useful, something life-changing for someone who needs it.
When a house is finished, the workers gather around and the keys to the front door are ceremoniously handed over to the family. The families say a few words of thanks before unlocking the door and entering their new home. Keep in mind that these houses are tiny by North American standards – the size of our living rooms, maybe. But a family no longer has to live together in a tiny, cinderblock room, under a leaking tin-roof held in place by stones. This, at the end, is the part that makes it worthwhile. This is where a mother says that a place like this is a dream come true for her family. This is where a father tries to say thank you and invariably chokes up. My Spanish is sketchy, but I don’t need anyone to translate what he’s saying. I understand he’s thanking people for an opportunity, for helping him obtain something that he could never get on his own, and it always gets to me. Maybe it’s a man born into a machismo culture getting emotional in front of a group strangers that does it. Or maybe it’s being at an age where you realize raising a family is difficult enough when the necessities of life are mostly taken care of. And here, where the necessities are a struggle, that task seems monumental. And this man is receiving something he never expected to have, something that I’ve taken for granted my whole life. It occurs to me that I go on these trips to help out for selfish reasons – I go because it makes me feel good. I go on these trips not to remind myself where I came from, but to remind myself where I didn’t come from. I go to take stock of my own fortune because, except for something called luck, that could be me.
I like returning to this part of the city – a place where gringos rarely go – and seeing more and more of these houses dotting its hillsides; it feels good to be a part of that. I recognize that it’s a very small part – only two hands, really. But it reminds me of some things that the cynic in me would hear and roll his eyes at. It reminds me that small things grow, that my own two hands can make a difference. I’m reminded that the kindness of a group isn’t possible without the kindness of one. And while I watch all those other people working to help someone else and give them a chance, I can’t help but think that giving thanks for our own good fortune is giving some to someone with less.