Guest post by Orlee Rabin, MA candidate in sustainable international development
When I travel to a foreign place, the first thing I notice are the smells. San Andres is a confusing mix of smells, with surprising familiar scents wafting past as I walk down the street. It seems that my olfactory system is working on overdrive here as I move through the island, as I almost feel like you can smell the humidity here when you step outside.
For those of you that do not know, San Andres is a very small island with a circumference of 27 sq km. It is a territory of Colombia, though it resides off the coast of Nicaragua. I chose to do my masters field project in Sustainable International Development (SID) out here so that I could work with CORALINA, the Corporation for Sustainable Development of San Andres, Old Providence, and Santa Catalina, and conduct a conflict assessment of the region and of their activities — as well as train staff in conflict resolution skills.
San Andres is more or less a poor tropical island, so you get certain expected smells: the beach with somewhat decayed seaweed letting off a pungent but not repellent scent that is a comfort to any who has lived near the ocean, the aroma of overripe fruit, the acid smell of uncollected trash as you walk along the street, the soft scent of the tropics – moist soil and exotic plants – and in the evening the familiar smell of those illegally burning trash that perpetually reminds me of traveling to foreign places. Somehow, even the bakeries and the barbeque stands have a unique aroma that wafts out onto the streets with delicious scents richer than anything you pass in the states. All these overwhelm me, but are analyzed expectedly. What takes me back are the smells of home – freshly cut grass, laundry, a familiar perfume, that when recognized, confuse my senses and both give me a subconscious pang of homesickness and a satisfaction at being in such a new foreign place.
I feel my foreignness as I walk down my street, as I live in a un-touristy part of town: an obvious “Gringa” that often warrants double glances from passersbys and courteous “Buenas” from the multitude of relaxed policemen that never seem to be doing anything. I also feel like an outsider with my shock and surprise at the ubiquitous presence of wild dogs. Constantly sidestepping dog feces on the sidewalk and street, I realize that San Andres NEEDS an animal control agency. I never thought I would support that, but it breaks my heart to walk on the streets and see the wild dogs like skeletons sprawled across the street. They are everywhere and are so pitiful that it makes my heart ache—bone thin, straggly haired, lethargic due to starvation, dehydration, or both, and the females with their teats hanging down and swollen. I know San Andres is a poor island and I imagine that there are people here suffering, but the extreme poverty is hidden in illegal neighborhoods and shantytowns that I have no opportunity to visit due to the danger of those areas. I do not see the plight of the people, and thus all of my sadness is directed to the dogs. I daydream as I make my 20 minute walk to work in the morning, imagining what I could do with a bag of dog treats or biscuits and argue with myself whether I would be helping or hindering the situation. Ahh… the eternal questioning of a development practitioner.
It seems I arrived to San Andres during strange weather patterns. Whether you want to blame it on climate change or a simple weather irregularity, I realized I arrived in a small heat wave, with people complaining that it was much hotter than usual. (Just my luck ehh?) Then it quickly switched weather patterns and the complaints switched with it that we have had more rain than is expected at this time of year. Think buckets of rain; think cats and dogs; think whatever simile you want, but lots and lots of heavy rain along with amazing vibrant and violent thunderstorms. Even though you would think that with this being a tropical island, they should be able to handle so much rain, that is not the case. The streets flood –fully flood– every time it rains hard. I wanted to go to get groceries after one of such storms and found myself walking in water up to my ankles, even though I was in the shallow area of the pooled water. As the common mode of transportation is motorcycle out here, people have learned how to navigate their motorcycles through the pond-like streets, sticking their feet high in the air and either laughing or gritting their teeth at the steps they must take to deal with transportation out here.
These are my observations of the streets. I will write more when I have more time.
Orlee Rabin, MA candidate in Sustainable International Development