I am in a remote village on the Pacific coast of Colombia. One road leads in and out, extending as far as the next village. It is a thoroughfare for cocaine transportation -- processed deep in the jungle, transported up the coast, en-route to Panama -- a ruthless commodity akin to conflict minerals or diamonds. Fuelling both addiction and war, affecting the lives of every person in this area.
There exists a palpable sense of death here. At the very least, a recognition of one's mortality -- it seeps through the air. Ten people have lost their lives in so many days. Eight trapped in their rooms on a passenger ship sunk off the coast, two murdered and four wounded in narco-trafficking conflicts and domestic disputes. Yet life goes on. Death is, for the residents, a practical outcome of the day to day -- dogs hang their heads in the street, gaunt, homeless, searching for scraps of food. Cows show ribs and chickens spotted with featherless patches roam aimlessly. The military casually occupies benches in the town centre equipped with all manner of assault rifles, sidearms and even rocket launchers.
I am here recording the music of a group of funeral singers. Descendants of slaves, their ancestors permitted to gather only to mourn the dead. Funerals necessarily became a meeting point, akin to a pub or social club. Death is an event, so to speak, at the very least, a distinct cultural entity. Rituals, songs and attitudes surround it and are inherently woven into the cultural fabric.
This is my second time here. A year ago, had I been told someone was shot, I would have panicked. This year, I brush it off. You are at the mercy of this place -- if someone wants to do something, they can. I have no means to vacate even if I wished. It's something you learn to accept, as my local friends have in light of their son being shot in a nightclub on Christmas Eve. A casualty of a lovers' quarrel, he was shot in the genitals. While we were celebrating with the local doctor Alejandra, she was rushed down the beach to attend to the victim. With rudimentary implements and no water, she performed his autopsy the following morning in the local cemetery, atop a tombstone, removing her friends organs and carefully documenting his cause of death.
As she operated I happened upon the local "Eco" hotel. "Eco" being the latest PR term to sell package holidays. This is not ecological by it's very existence -- built on needed land, in an area with a 60 per cent poverty rate, illiteracy, lack of access to health care, jobs and resources. Where most still have outdoor toilets and stoves, no waste disposal and little clean water. It functions as a testament to the disconnect between the "haves" and "have-nots." The hotel's patrons maintaining a fixed gaze towards the beach, sunset and trees, securely fastened in the familiar -- a situation recognizable to home, mixed with elements of the wild.
As I passed the hotel, four patrons sat poolside in a group mediation session, eyes closed. Less achieving a higher state of consciousness, more comatose to the struggles facing those some 300 metres down the beach. Such is the reality in these areas -- maintaining a fixed tourist gaze towards the sea, while exercising superficial relationships with locals based on necessity: they are your waiters, taxi drivers, maintenance men and cleaners. A convenient photo opportunity. Their day-to-day consumed and packaged into cell phone pictures of strange houses and odd behaviours -- an idealized other, kept caged at a distance, to be gawked and prodded at.
A true understanding of their lives is a requirement above and beyond the artificial -- barriers most are unwilling to breach or open their eyes to.