Cali, Colombia.

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.

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