Cali, Colombia. April 2013
My introduction to Cali, the third largest city in Colombia, is a late night ride from the airport into town, a twenty-minute ride amongst the palm trees, a pleasant tropical shirtsleeve warmth to the night. I know we are arriving when I see the first set of traffic lights approaching. What surprises is me is that we go right through the red light with barely a slow down, and a few other cars alongside are doing the same. I express my amazement and Connie, who is driving, explains how after 11 pm, the police encourage this driving behavior, for safety’s sake. I decide to avoid the topic of what kind of safety are we talking about here, robbery, car-jacking, worse?? From the annals, I recall a scene, riding to the airport outside Rio de Janeiro. After going through a series of intersections and driving up the highway onramp, the driver lets out a big sigh of relief. She reveals that we just passed through a particularly dangerous area famous for robbing cars stuck in traffic.
Connie and Ilana, the founders of a one-year old organization called CaliClown, Payasos Humanitarios are welcoming me to their town, one that really only gets a little dangerous in certain areas at night…unless you go to the wrong part of town…. These two experienced clownesses are leading the nascent hospital clowning group in town. As Payasos Humanitarios, they have also adopted the mission to bring performances into displaced people’s communities, something my work with Clowns Without Borders has familiarized me with. According to the iDMC (internally displaced monitoring center) there are currently between 4.9 and 5.5 million tinternally displaced persons in Colombia depending on whom you talk to. It’s the second largest of IDP’s in the world, and constitutes about ten percent of the population.
As we fly through red lights in the increasingly urban environment, Ilana is giving me a clearer picture of the situation around Cali, the colonias full of displaced persons who squat empty land with makeshift housing, creating entire neighborhoods, much like the favellas around Rio, and many cities of the world, many which share similar levels of poverty. In certain parts of the world, there are heavy criminal undercurrents, and gang territorialism is prevalent in these areas of town.
Ilana tells me a story of a woman getting murdered for crossing the imaginary borders of gang-controlled territories in a part of town. The woman had been shopping, and her normal store being out of a certain product, she had gone on to the next store. She was murdered in her apartment. One of the neighboring gang members decided to make a point of finding out where she lived and went to find her, knocked on her door, and shot her. I am open jawed hearing this, as I always have imagined that the territorialism was about controlling who sold what, drugs/protection etc, I share my incredulity with Ilana, “but the woman was just walking through the neighborhood, why would they?…” Ilana replies that indeed, it is hard to believe, “maybe it’s just because the want to and they can.”
During our twenty minute ride, police corruption is also a topic though our discussion mostly resides on the relatively benign topic of bribing police to get out of traffic fines…I remember a bribing the policeman incident in Sudan, on a CWB project. Something about the driver not having the right permit to drive foreigners around… that project was certainly a bit different in nature that this one, although both involve Internally Displaced Persons, or IDPs for short. In both situations, the IDPs are being caused by civil war. In Sudan, we were an international team of 7 bringing shows into 8 or 10 large IDP camps. Here in Cali, I am alone, with a much simpler task, to do one show at the end of a week’s workshop with the Cali Clown group. We will play in an open-air amphitheater at the top of the hill in Siloé, a.k.a. Colonia 22, one of the toughest spots in town. Then the next day, we will also go to the local hospital to do a little show for the children.
This is my second foray into Colombia, the first three years prior, to perform in Mimame, a big mime festival in Medellin and in parallel teach a workshop a the Clown Encuentro, the main yearly gathering of clown community of Colombia. The Encuentro was dedicated to “humanitarian” clowning, and on the last day, a large group of the clowns traveled in a festive open air bus to las quatras esquinas, the four corners of Medellin, into the marginalized parts of town, very similar in nature to Cali’s Siloé. In the late afternoon, at the third esquina, we find ourselves in an area of town, where there are camouflaged soldiers with machine guns hanging lining the street, one every 50 or 100 feet.
The bus stops, and we are told to that we are going to parade our way through town past the market. Which we do with good fun, offering live music, bubbles and good natured colorful interactions in the marketplace. We keep going and we travel down a little hill into a small quaint plaza with a church. There our guide is unsure which way to go, and the main organizing man isn’t there. The clowns are asking each other which way to go, which is a funny number in itself, but no one knows our exact destination, so we stall. I shake off a little unease, what with all the camouflage men around wondering what part of town we are in. As clowns will do, we start playing around again, and I join a small group posing for photographs with one of the soldiers, who is having a great time with it all, after first locking and strapping up his weapon.
Suddenly, the organizer of the day shows up, and quickly becomes rather frantic, gesturing rather wildly that we should gather quickly. And poof, we are vamoosing on, in quick-pace formation, towards our unknown destination, in no small hurry to distance ourselves from the plaza. Later I learn that that is the most dangerous intersection in all of Medellin. I’m more than a little peeved for a number of minutes. After all safety is a primary concern with any kind of humanitarian action and ays ago in a CWB kind of discussion, I’m assured that everything is well planned out. Well, I don’t think we were in any great danger, it being broad daylight and no lack of nearby soldiers, still…
As we are entering a small older section of Cali, Ilana tells me that we are partnering with the local neighborhood associations for our show in Siloé, and that we are enthusiastically expected.
The Siloé Visit
Met by Gualas outside the Cultural Center. After 5 days of workshop preparation, it’s time for our trip to nearby Siloé. Nearby distance wise, but a world apart, a battered favella with a distinct reputation as unsafe and gang infested. So we gather outside the brick facade of the downtown cultural center, where the guards are more concerned with theft then killings and sometimes diligently inspect your bags going in and coming out looking to make sure nothing get’s stolen from the cultural center….once in a while the register the number of a camera. After 5 days, the ones who recognize me are not so interested in my bag but on that last day, they wished to register my ukulele, but as their was no number, they were quite content with spelling the strange sounding name ukulele…
We’re a happy bunch, about 12 performers and just as many guests piling into two battered converted red pickups better known as gualas. Ubiquitous in a variety of configurations throughout the developing world, pick-ups, customized for transporting many passengers…Where ever it may be in the world, they have one thing in common, deep mileage. I’m enjoying the look of these, one has Ferrari stickers on the bumper, the other has Porsche engraved on the chrome radiator grilll. A pool ball gearshift handle in one…
Riding into Siloé past markets and shops then suddenly angles shift and we are climbing rapidly along a narrow winding street. At certain street corners, small bands of young men are hanging around. I have been hearing stories about territorialism, not only gangs controlling who sells what where, but even residents risking their lives if they cross the imaginary boundaries. These guys look none too friendly, and their wary eyes follow our journey up towards the top of the hill. I choose to keep my camera in the backpack though many images, impressions calling for photographic attention, especially the curiosity in the faces peering out from barred windows. There is such intensity and longing in some of the faces, and occasionally, a clown nose influenced changes, transformations from questioned fear to pure delight. Our dilapidated gualas are full of smiles, joking, and laughter riding waves as we head into forbidden territories.
Man on crutches
Finally we stop, near what seems to be the top of the hill. It’s an odd T shaped intersection, curve in the road, with a cement walkway leading off from the road along the hillside. There are little houses sandwiched into every free space and it is quickly clear that there are no building codes being followed in this zone. Three young men are standing in the road watching as we unload from the gualas. There is an intensity in their eyes, none too inviting, combined with a wide eyed curiosity as they recognize the clown noses. I’m standing maybe 5 feet away, and in a flash, I have made eye contact with them.
Clearly they are curious as to what this band of clowns might be up to, and with the eye contact, It’s become a clowns without borders moment, so I engage into clowndom and approach them with a coin in hand… One of the men is on crutches, one leg of his jeans pinned up above his knee and I decide to offer my slight of hand moment to him. A quick coin disappearance followed by sneezing it out of my nose is received with quickly muted laughter by the man on crutches, youthful interest from another, and suspicion in the third who is quickly requesting to see it again. A wave of tension rises in our connection, I sense a sudden distrust as if I my tricksterdom is meant to be a mockery. That they might be the brunt of some joke. Maybe I’m being paranoid, or perhaps I’ve surfed into the danger zone. In any case it’s not the usual enthusiastic vibe as they await my next offering.
This time when I disappear the coin and reveal my hand empty, I start to move my hand to reach behind his ear. In that moment, I realize that perhaps this is not such a good idea to be reaching towards this guys face. OH, sometimes I am such an idiot! Anyhow, I’m committed now, so I groove into friendly eye contact reassuring him that yes indeed, I am about to reach behind your ear but not to worry…and he doesn’t. Surprise, I don’t pull out the expected coin from his ear, instead it is my mini harmonica. When I start to play a little tune on it, the man with the crutches laughs and smiles at his two cohorts who return a slightly leaden good cheer, and they saunter away from me up the street. I feel as if we have passed some kind of litmus test and declared non toxic…I turn back to the group who have been gathering as they spill out of the gualas. Ilana and Connie are talking to a few people, a few people from the barrio and one of the drivers. The assemblage of red-noses faces with excited voices and bright eyed energy gathers as Diego introduces himself to us. He is our contact from the non-profit cultural network of barios (neighborhoods) that make up Siloé. They organize neighborhood activities, health clinics and much more than I can remember, and they have invited and arranged our performance today.
Diego stands above us just off the steep street on a flat rough cement and earth area that narrows into a little walkway between tall stucco houses. He beckons us to join him then explains that we are going to take a little walk through the neighborhood to reach the hillside amphitheater. And indeed we do, as the walkway hugs the hillside, with dwellings and terraces hanging just above, and more stacked below us. Sometimes the houses look like any normal small Cali house would, and sometimes the house is more a shack made of scavenged patched together materials. Dogs are barking on all sides. For a short stretch, two, a big one and a little ferocious comical mutt. menace us with loud barks and barred teeth from an outcropping just above our heads. Faces keep peering out from barred windows and doorways. I catch eyes with big and small people, smiling, inviting them to follow us to the show, but there is no movement, no kids coming out, running along.
Occasionally there is break in the houses and I am treated to an exhilarating view of Cali opening up below. It’s surprising how high up we are. Our pathway through the narrow maze suddenly opens up into a large open cement plaza, with a stretch of landscaped hills side above, and a steep plunge off view of Cali off the edge of the plaza. A oasis of urban development amongst the rebels. There are a half-dozen kids playing a pick-up football (soccer) game and further on, a number of groups of women talking. There certainly isn’t any crowd on hand waiting to greet the clowns. We all are immediately attracted to the railing to take in the spectacle of Cali spreading out beneath us. That’s when I see, just below my feet, the big cement amphitheater sitting, built into the hillside, completely empty, not a soul waiting for our scheduled show.
A coin manipulation for three kids quickly turns into 15 faces crowding in for a look. A quick mini-show, with occasional glimpses to see
the other clowns playing around, photo taking, looking down. We gather for a little pow-wow as to what to do. Diego recommends that we do a passe-calle, a parade of sorts, around the neighborhood to announce our presence, and gather people to come watch the show. So we assemble the troops and take off, following Diego down past the amphitheater, on a narrow set of aged cement stairs onto a little hillside pathway that takes us into a stretch of terraced housing before we turn onto a horizontal stretch lounging the hillside, houses above and below….
We are having fun with the procession. There are bubbles floating off, spontaneous games emerging, loud yells announcing, “espectaculo..payasos…circo….” Eager kids faces pop up, and a few doors even open. Sudden recall transports me fifteen years back on the CWB trail to a hillside colonia on the edge of St Cristobal, in Chiapas, where our passe-calle was met with a slightly louder enthusiasm… But we are having fun now, and it’s a sweet treat to watch moments of nosey waves that elicit smiles from behind the protective bars, and guarded bright exchanges emerging. A grandmother and her two small grandchildren, the elder woman starting to chuckle, and 4-5 year olds smiles brightening. Our passe-calle leads us back up another set of stairs directly to stage level on the other side of the amphitheater.
We are at the edge of the stage, which really looks like a vast concrete expanse from where we stand. We have a little huddle. I put on my show-general hat, assessing the open space, and the scattered audience of 50 maybe 70. Physically speaking, it’s a large space to fill up with energy. It’s a tall task for this gang lacking vast experience. Still there is an aliveness amongst us, we have been building up to this moment for 5 days, and everyone is ready. I call out a slightly adjusted show, axing most of the opening processional number which no longer makes any sense.
We start with a group cluster shuffle towards the stage, then smaller groups of 4-5 emerge to take excursions up the tall concrete steps into the audience. They all have mischief up their sleeves, showering confetti or bubbles on selected targets. The kids are loving it. I worry a bit, the place is immense and there is what seems like dead time as the groups cross the vast stage. But the audience is into it, happy to be guessing just what they might be up to. After the excursions, the meat of the show, a series of small group routines that have come out of improvisations in the workshops.
Add in a few of my Mr. YooWho routines, with Connie and Ilana creating the red thread with a running gag. They keep coming out between the routines, with different walks, hiding behind opened sheets of newspapers, using funny peeks and reveals to each time announce the big upcoming ‘la magia’ (magic) number. By the end of the show, they exuberantly deliver a completely ridiculous magic trick that nevertheless delights the audience.
We don’t go out blazing in glory basking in waves of applause, but we are rewarded as a little avalanche of kids come tumbling down out of the amphitheater seats to greet us after the show. They are excited, happily embracing the clowns and slapping high fives. I pull out my camera to capture a bit of their joyous demeanor. We pose for group photos with the kids in celebrative moods.
Overall the show went great, graced with a wealth of smiles and laughter. I spot numerous instances of little bodies rolling over in laughter, and friends poking each other with big smiles. I’m a proud teacher as my students rise up to the task connecting with their audiences’ funny bones.
It is only on the path back to the gualas that Ilana tells me what Diego had shared with her earlier. That last night there had been a gunfight in the neighborhood streets. That was why so few people came out, because people were afraid and no one was willing to venture out. It explained a lot of course, and also resolved a puzzle in my head. During the show, Diego , standing in the stands, was mostly looking away from the show, scanning the hillside. He had looked concerned about something, a keen lookout scouting for danger. I had wondered why, but quickly slipped back into YooWho land. But now, walking back to the gualas, Ilana’s explanation clarifies so much.
As the car fills up, everyone in a good mood, I catch myself in a mind vortex reflecting on today’s experience, and last night’s fight, the nature of the project, how challenging it is to bring in shows and activities to these hard to reach places. I leave it alone to join the joyous mood in our little clown cabin as the car starts moving and suddenly tilts at a much steeper angle Somehow the way down the hill goes by so much faster than our journey upwards, and before I know it, we are back at the cultural center. We have a closing circle in the open brick patio of the cultural center with the water sounds of the nearby fountain gently serenading the positive words as the talking stick, a little Burmese bell, travels around the circle.
The question of the next steps, what should CaliClown plan, how to activate in the region as Payasos Humanitarios. There is no obvious pathway. In Colombia, the safety issues are complex, widespread. When one looks beyond the cities and the gangs to the civil war conflict zones, It doesn’t get any simpler there…. I suggest to Connie and Ilana that perhaps that reaching the kids through the schools might be a possibility. Create a show and tour in the schools. Who knows? It’s certainly a possibility Connie and Ilana say
Currently as I write this, over the Colombian border, in Ecuador, a group of six clowns are performing in refugee camps. It’s a collaboration between Clowns Without Borders, USA and Narices Rojas (Red Noses), an Ecuadorian clown organization. Two Americans and 4 Ecuadorians have created a show together, and the UNHCR is taking care of all the logistics to bring them to all the camps along the border.
The first reports are in today, and the shows are going great, the kids are loving it!!!
Many thanks to all the wonderful folks who are donating to Clowns Without Borders and making all this possible !!!