From the few people that know that I’ve been in Colombia for the past three weeks, I’m always given these recommendations of what I must see, what I must eat, what I must experience while I’m here, or simply told an over-enthusiastic, “You’re so lucky! How is it?!!!” Truth is, the way I feel about my trip thus far is what I told my friend the other day: “I feel like I’m working without getting paid.”
Last time I was here, I spent a good six months in Colombia researching the culture of boxing. What that meant is that I’d spend nearly everyday either training in a boxing gym or waiting around to interview someone from the boxing gym. The trip soon became about finding a story and following it, foregoing nights out with hostelers because I had to shoot a fight the next morning, or avoiding hostels completely because the lifestyle was too distracting. I’d take hanging out in the same dingy gym day-after-day over venturing to the next “must-see” attraction because at some point the story became more important than consuming an experience.
For those unfamiliar with the sport of boxing, it is the sport of the poor. Unlike many other pursuits of athletic competition, almost all boxers come from places of little recourse. They live in poor neighborhoods, they work shitty jobs, they have little-to-no opportunities to break the chains of generational poverty. Boxing, for many of them, is that small window of opportunity to change that cycle, but it is not an easy one to fit through. The sport’s foundation is based on an exchange of punches, many to the body, most to the face. Not many can adhere to the grueling physical demands of the sport, so you’d have to guess that only those with an incredibly strong will and determination can endure the industry of professional fighting, that or they’re just that desperate enough to punch and be punched for a living.
The majority of my time in Colombia has been spent revisiting the old boxing gyms, reconnecting with fighters, trainers, going to their neighborhoods and sharing a meal, which often consists of a simple dish made of potatoes, rice and meat. The updates have been mixed. One fighter, despite accumulating 8 losses since we last spoke, is actually doing better financially and is in position to potentially run his own small business. Other fighters have given up the sport, returned to their hometown, and their old ways, as one teammate indicated to me by squeezing an imaginary trigger with his index finger. The coaches in Cartagena told me about how a boxer named Henry suffered a bad knockout loss, probably the hardest working fighter I knew when I was last here, and has since moved to Bogotá. I’ve yet to visit Henry, but I have found where his gym is located. I’m a bit nervous to hear about his update.
This trip hasn’t been as glamorous as my last vacation to Spain, at least not in the sense of mindless binge drinking, late nights of chasing women at the best local party or a general overindulgence of the vices in life, but it has been more real. It has, to some degree, been more personal in the sense that I am doing my best to stick to something I believe in. I think there is a social expectation to party whenever you go to a new country, to have some mind-blowing experience that fills you with a sense of grandiose invincibility, but on the contrary, Colombia has so far left me feeling very vulnerable.
What people need to understand is that, for me, Colombia doesn’t elicit this sense of happiness or constant excitement; it actually conjures quite a bit of pain, many feelings of inadequacy and a general frustration with how the world works. Don't get me wrong, I love this country, but it wasn't easy for me to come to that conclusion. Sometimes I think about all the other things I could be doing while I’m here. Sometimes I wonder if it’s foolish to spend most of my time being frustrated and ultimately bored, when there are plenty of other things that I should be doing to feel good about myself. But I think about giving up on this project and I think that would be the greater disappointment.
This is not to insinuate a self-righteous sense of altruism, rather I want to establish roots here to have ties to it in the future, and I suppose that requires a certain level of sacrifice and work. I guess I could invest my time bouncing from traveler hostel to traveler hostel, meeting amazing people, and collecting moments of instant gratification, but one of the last things I want to say in my life is, “Oh yeah, I remember I spent two years traveling in Latin America. That was a really good time.” I want this to be more than a nice memory, more than just a good feeling to recall. I want to establish this place in my life, so in some sense, I’m being more self-indulged than most.
So what have I seen? Pretty much places I’ve already seen. Cities very alike to the one I came from. The insides of musty boxing gyms. The homes of neighborhoods I probably shouldn’t be in.
What have I eaten? Usually the cheapest thing available, which is commonly a Styrofoam box filled with a starch, a vegetable and a meat. Once in a while I might treat myself to a chicken salad from McDonalds.
What have I experienced? Nothing too glamorous or exciting, nothing that would hold much value to another person, but it does to me. And that’s what really matters in the end. That’s what I’ve been trying to learn this entire time. Going after what's important in the context of my own life, even if nobody else cares.