I first came to Colombia in December of 2012 as a tourist. My husband’s college roommate and friend is Colombian, and a few months after his wedding in Virginia, he and his wife planned to visit his family to celebrate, inviting the wedding party to travel down as able. We decided to take advantage of the opportunity to meet his family and get to know the country a bit, since we were becoming interested in the Seed program at that point. So we picked out dates, purchased plane tickets, packed our suitcases, and arrived in Cartagena to sail through customs with nary more than a question or two and a stamp added to our passports.
It has been an eye-opening experience, then, to accompany the group of Chocoanos, mostly pastors and their wives, who are planning to attend the Mennonite World Conference in Harrisburg, PA this July. After obtaining passports, registering for the conference, and waiting several months to receive an official letter of invitation, the process of obtaining a visa to go to the U.S. for a one-week event began. To obtain a visa, you must first fill out form DS-160, which has approximately twenty-five sections. The questions are asked in English and must be answered in English. You can turn on a type of help in Spanish that will appear when you hover the mouse over the prompt, but other than, it is all in English.
It begins by asking basic information – name, date of birth, identification number, etc. Later it asks for information about your profession, your place of employment, and education, down to the addresses of the institutions you attended. It asks how much money you make. It asks for your parents’ full names and their dates of birth. After several more steps begin the various sections of “security questions,” which range from “Have you participated in genocide?” to “Are you coming to the U.S. to practice prostitution?” to “Have you ever participated in the forced transplantation of human organs or tissue?”
Asking the pastors these questions in a jokingly serious tone provided much entertainment, and completing each application was celebrated with hugs and high fives. One pastor and his wife even took us out for ice cream afterwards.
With the DS-160 confirmation page in hand, you need to book two different appointments at the embassy in Bogotá: one for fingerprints, etc., and one for an interview on a second day.
Practically speaking, this is a challenge. To travel to Bogotá from Chocó, you can take a bus, twenty hours each way and costing about $90, not factoring in meals or lodging. You can also take a plane, which might cost $200 round trip, again not factoring in meals, lodging, or transportation to arrive at the embassy. This is incredibly costly by local standards, not to mention that scheduling these appointments at the embassy costs around $160 per person.
The pastors made their trip to Bogotá, some by land and some by air, this past week. Thankfully their interview process went smoothly, and each visa application was approved.
Back in Chocó, however, the night before their return trip, a powerful storm rolled in. Chocó is the world’s rainiest lowland, averaging four hundred inches of annual rainfall, and when it rains, it pours. This storm, however, was accompanied by vicious winds and rising rivers. In the town of Condoto, hundreds of houses lost their roofs overnight. My coworker lost half of her roof at 9 pm that night. She and her family were able to salvage most of their belongings amidst the downpour and endure the rest of the night until daybreak when they could locate the pieces of their roof and repair it before the next storm rolled in. Part of the roof of the church also detached. As far as I know, there weren’t a lot of injuries in the community, but one young man was crushed by debris and killed, and two other people had heart attacks spurred on by the shock of losing their roof in the night. In other small towns, such as Andagoya, houses were flooded up to the halfway mark on the wall or higher.
It probably goes without saying that there is no such thing as flood or home insurance in Chocó.
The next morning, we received calls about what had happened, and realized that basically all of the pastors were currently traveling back from their visa appointments in Bogotá to arrive to communities and congregations in need, with several of their own homes flooded or damaged as well.
All of these challenges, and we still haven’t gotten to the part about finding money for the actual travel to the U.S., which will be the next chapter in this saga.
When I, as a 25-year-old, decided that I wanted to go to Colombia for a week for nothing more than a vacation, I did not have to plan a year or more in advance. I did not have to fill out extensive forms or need a special letter of invitation. I did not have to go to the expense of traveling to a distant city and paying hundreds of dollars for an interview. I did not have to hang in the balance of not knowing if I’d actually be able to go.
By virtue of where I happened to be born, I benefit from tremendous privileges which most of the time I am unaware I am receiving. By virtue of the little blue book I hold (which, hallelujah, I am faithfully preserving from mold growth here in Chocó – another story), I am given the benefit of the doubt that I am not a criminal or prostitute, that I am traveling with good intentions, and that I will return from whence I came at the culmination of my trip.
The world is not a just place, and this example of privilege is only a tiny slice of a whole host of ways in which the system is rigged in my favor, both within the U.S. and outside of it. I have been prompted to think about this issue in a variety of arenas over the past year and a half, and many times I don’t know how to feel about all of it. Though I am thankful that I have those privileges, I also know that it is fundamentally unfair and is a microcosm of larger systems of injustice. Above all, I am thankful for the privilege to walk alongside and participate in a reality different than the one I was born into, and to have the opportunity to grapple with these questions in a perspective-shifting manner that leaves my own sense of reality changed. I will never look at my passport the same way.