Driving to the airport this morning, a massive cloud burst drenched the road about 15 miles around Boulder. Torrents of water gushed over the highway making driving difficult. After a week of sunny weather while visiting family in Colorado, I could only imagine that this was Mother Nature’s way of giving me a reality check on what to expect for the rest of my summer working and traveling in Colombia.
Having my mom with me on the morning drive to the airport has become somewhat of an unofficial tradition. The last time we made the trip together I was on my way to the concrete jungle of New York City to begin my first semester at Columbia’s School of International Public Affairs (SIPA). This time I’m off to another sort of jungle – the mangrove forest that surrounds Bahía Málaga, Colombia.
As we drove through the downpour I could tell that my mom, a world traveler and adventure seeker in her own right, was trying not to be too nervous for me. “Well, it’s not like we haven’t prepared you for this sort of thing,” she said more to calm herself than to reassure me.
Since as long as I can remember my mom, a retired school teacher, would take her summers off to travel with me. Unlike many tourists who go to Central America to stay in gated resorts, we would stay in the eight-dollar-per-night hostels and travel by local bus, seeking authentic foreign experiences off the “gringo trail.”
“Mom,” I replied, “I think you’ve actually pre-disposed me to this sort of thing.”
(Don’t worry dad, our backpacking trips in the Colorado wilderness and on the Appalachian Trail are also to blame.)
I’d be lying, however, if I failed to admit that I am also a bit nervous. My summer field placement (aka internship) will begin with a week-long orientation at the University of the Andes. My visit will then take a swift and decisive turn off the gringo trail. From Bogota, I will fly to Cali (home of the once-notorious Cali Cartel), take a bus to Buenaventura (Colombia’s most important port city and also one of its most dangerous), hop two boats to Bahía Málaga (a secluded bay that is visited by more humpback whales than tourists). My final destination is close to a Colombian naval base that features relics of the increasingly high-tech illegal drug trade. Progressively more complex boats and submarines, built by drug lords to smuggle cocaine, are displayed like rotting carcasses – a testament to Colombia’s decades-long internal conflict.
Hidden along the banks of the various tributaries that funnel into the bay are numerous afro-Colombian communities. Bahía Málaga is one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet due to the high number of endemic species, but the people who live there are also among the poorest – with poor infrastructure, low numeracy and literacy, and high maternal mortality.
These afro-Colombian communities primarily subsist through agricultural and extractive activities (mining, logging and fishing), but the pristine natural environment that surrounds them provides enormous potential for ecotourism – not to mention that Bahía Málaga is the number one calving ground for humpback whales in the world. The goal of my field placement is to identify and develop opportunities to grow the ecotourism industry as a source of income for local communities.
I can’t begin to describe how I feel about the opportunities, challenges, and uncertainties that undoubtedly await me…nervous is an understatement, but with the help of my colleagues (Yoon – a fellow SIPA student – and Rosangela – a Colombian student) I’m confidant that we can make a valuable contribution to the sustainable development of Bahía Málaga.
It’s times like these that I’m reminded of the final Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, and Calvin’s last words: “It’s a magical world, Hobbes ol’ buddy…lets go exploring.”