The Briefing: Colombia Trip #TMMWVC

My uniform for the week in Colombia

We’re discussing guns, heroin and child trafficking inside a World Vision Canada meeting room in Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto. This is my first security briefing ever. I have squeezed this in to a frantic first week back to school. These are the practical details that can help keep you safe in the field, which in this case is various vulnerable ADPs (area development programs) in the Colombian countryside. Soon I am to be taking a Colombia trip with World Vision Canada.

I am warned to get a money belt. Carry your passport with you everywhere. Take money, but split it up. Same for medicine. Traveller’s version of don’t put all your eggs all in one basket? Lock your suitcase. Don’t leave things unattended. I jot notes. The translator joins us by Skype from Bogota and we engage in a full briefing about places with names I cannot pronounce.
“Dress code?” I ask the question, and wonder whether it’s a foolish one.

I have a picture in my head of the place we visited 18 years ago in Colombia and I remember what I wore then – bathing suits and shorts and sandals. A celebration shortly after I had finished my undergraduate degree. In Cartagena, my husband and I would find stunning architecture, appealing food and many excursions into town. Street kids hung off the tourist buses then. I wonder if they still do. That image is engraved on my brain, them draping off a bus, surrounding us, begging. Us driving on by, sticking to the well used seats in July heat. Hot is not a very good word for July in Cartagena. This Colombia trip will be dramatically different.

I am a graduate. I have a degree and I will write. Of that I am sure, but not certain where these words will lead me. Not certain any doors will open with an Arts degree, but I know my heart has always bled in ink and maybe newsprint too. People strolled the beach in front of our resort then with wares and  many had amputated limbs and visible deformities. It was memorable and foreign and slightly nauseating, in a peculiar way I still don’t really understand. Now, I wonder why we chose that place. I think that back then, inside the dictionary of words in my head, Cartagena screamed exotic.

This is not that trip. It is Thursday morning. Flights are scheduled for Sunday to Bogota, Colombia, the biggest city I have ever flown into. Population 8 million people. I am relieved to be flying in with Alicia Pereira, manager of the celebrity ambassador program for World Vision Canada. It will be just the two of us accompanied by some World Vision Colombia Workers and a translator named Astrid. Astrid speaks quickly by Skype, as an ambulance siren screams in the background.

Wear your old shoes. Nothing provocative. No spaghetti straps. Don’t bring your good sunglasses. No glasses as headband deal either. Perched on the top of your head that way sunglasses are just begging to be stolen. The $100 pair someone sent me to write about will remain at home. I make a mental note to bring the cheap pair given out at every blogger conference I have ever been to. My kids are fond of those. My kids. What am I thinking? This is the scariest thing I have ever done since becoming a Mom. A small piece of me thinks I must be out of my mind and how can I even think of doing this, if it is remotely dangerous. I am a Mom. I have a job as a Mom and a blogger and a social media consultant and yet this is something so big and exciting and filled with potential that my heart starts coursing with adrenaline from the second the communications person contacted me. It could be advocacy in action. I might find the biggest stories I have ever told.

In the blank spaces of my day, when I am summoning words and shaping strategies and tweets and posts and Instagram campaigns, I hear a voice in back of my head reminding me the timing sucks for this. The second week of school with kids who don’t transition well and special needs on board, well, that  couldn’t be a bigger recipe for domestic disaster. I wonder if I have a right to do this thing. I am agonizing over this one day when someone tells me: “You have kids at home too you know. They also need you.” Like a slap across the face. As if the words actually needed to be voiced. I know all too well that I left a steady paying career with benefits to build a family and I stayed home with kids exclusively for 8 years. I have done stay at home Mom. I loved it. I cherish that time spent only growing kids and bonds and family. Then just when they both got to school age, I built a business from my dining room table. And it grew fast and it was fulfilling and brought a whole new dynamic to my life. I need to do this, I think wrestling with myself. I finish reading the kidnapping and hostage taking policy and a child safety form warning me of appropriate conduct when I am with children or youth sponsored by World Vision Canada. I undergo security checks and police checks as I am testing my kids on their homework knowledge and helping my daughter prepare a monologue for her upcoming audition. I plan their time so they’ll be able to function without me nearby when I am on this particular Colombia trip.

I am a writer. I gather my tools. Pen, paper, iPhone and a good pair of shoes. This time I am back in journalist mode on a slightly scary adventure. My stomach clenches again thinking of the coming week. Do I need to do this? Why am I doing this? Why did they ask me? Juliana, the World Vision Canada woman doing the briefing continues to construct Colombian history and culture as I sit absorbing it all. Colombia has one of the world’s highest rates of displaced persons. There are at least four million people in the country who were forced from their homes, often seized by gangs, fallout of the war on narco-trafficking. Some other estimates are as high as five million.

I am still trying to frame everyone in the right roles and tasks inside this room, inside the hierarchy of the non government organization, when a video starts. The video was done by some World Vision Colombia youth who now work, also at World Vision, and were once sponsored by Canadians. This is where the idea for this trip began. It started with a photo. A group of youth sponsored as children now working for World Vision and sponsoring children themselves. It is unusual to see the effects of sponsorship played out fully and so beautifully articulated. The young woman on the video speaks: she was nine when she was sponsored by a Canadian. She was young and lived in an extremely poor area of the country where hope was harder to find than drugs and guns are. But World Vision Canada sponsorship gave her dignity and a future. The young woman, Yenni, says she is a social worker now. She got an education and she works for the very organization that helped provide her with the tools for a future. She sponsors a child now too. “I want her to have the same opportunity I had,” she says. I bite the inside of my cheek so I don’t cry and I wonder if a video affects me this way then how on earth will I manage a week in the field, immersed in emotion.

I leave the briefing and head back to London. There’s a lot to do in two days and I cannot get the requisite travel vaccinations in time. The yellow fever vaccine is tripping me up. There aren’t enough travel vaccine clinics in London. It might, or might not, be crucial. It might even be an issue for entry in and out of the destination country. But no local clinics are open on Friday. The whole experience so far is overwhelming and frustrating and scary. A tiny part of me wonders if I will suddenly get sick before the trip. If I might just back out. Maybe I won’t go through with it. The idea of putting my journalist cape back on speaks to me. But at the same time, I am not immediately certain what I have gotten myself into. I am not sure why an adoptive parent, a Mom, a blogger, would find herself in a situation like this. A part of me is terrified, in a good way. It’s the kind of scared that is inscribed on Lululemon branding paraphernalia: Do one thing a day that scares you. This is my thing for 2014.

World Vision Canada is an organization that speaks to me. Protecting children, instilling hope. These are things I cherish and hold close to my own heart. Perhaps I will see these things in action. I hope this Colombia trip makes a difference in my life. I hope I can get into the country without the yellow fever vaccine. I hope I don’t forget my passport. I hope I have strength to tell the stories.

IF you are moved to sponsor a child after reading this series of posts please click over to the main World Vision site.
You can also follow World Vision on twitter at
and on Facebook:

Keep reading more here – >

Mom of two beautiful active girls, traveller, fitness junkie, social media consultant, and keeper of the sanity.