Two men traveling South America discuss privilege, growth, learning and failure. Text COMMUNITY to (332) 877-9540 to join the Authentic Travelers Facebook group, or join the Baggage Claim email list here.
Weird trivia and stuff Will wants to say
- I looked her up recently - Sister Pat McTeague is still doing her thing, running the Nuevo Mundo school in Duran, Ecuador. She's a force.
- It may or may not be obvious, but the reason so many of the details of this episode are vague is because this episode never... really happened? I mean it did, in that these learnings came from a sequence of conversations of the course of my time in South America, and one of those conversations took place in our setting here: in front of an old stucco church in the Plaza de Armas in Guatape, Colombia. But that conversation (which was with Geoff, who appears in other episodes) was one of many that comprised a large narrative. Quick love to Jeppe, Atalanti, Marthe, Isabelle, Sam and many more who are all captured in the essence of this generic English fella sitting next to me.
- Plaza de Armas are interesting. Look them up.
I hear with my little ear
[Sounds of crickets, distant traffic and a faraway barking dog]
If you need to know, we’re in a town called Guatape. It doesn’t matter much. There’s one of these little squares in every town in Colombia - nearly every town in South America.
Plaza de Armas, they’re called. Manicured lawns, a little fountain in the center. During the day, street vendors sell arepas and ice cream and trinkets. Pigeons flutter around doing whatever it is pigeons do with their days. There’s a charming stucco Catholic church through the trees on the far side of the park. But now, it’s night. The pigeons are roosting and the world is mostly dark, but for dull orange flicker of street lamps and spotlights illuminating the church face. It’s more maniacal at night than it was during the day. More sinister.
The park is mostly empty, but for two white men on a bench. The name of the man sitting to my right doesn’t matter much. People come and go when you travel. You sink deep into intense conversation with strangers and then, just as quickly as they were by your side, they’re on their way and gone.
“Could you ever live in South America?” he says.
Without thinking, I nod.
“Yeah, of course,” I say.
“I don’t think I could,” he says. “I never quite feel comfortable. It’s don't quite feel safe.”
And as he's talking, I realize I couldn’t. But not because I agree with him. I don’t, after all.
[Theme Music Begins]
This is Baggage Claim: travel stories no one tells.
I’m Will Conway and today, two men have a conversation. That's it.
We're all hanging out and chatting in the Authentic Travelers Facebook group. You can find it online, but text COMMUNITY to (332) 877-9540 and I’ll send you the link.
Okay, let's get to it.
[Theme Music Ends]
“It’s 10:30 at night,” I say. “We’re sitting on a park bench. You feel scared?”
He says no. No he doesn’t. “But it's Guatape. It’s one of the safest cities around.”
And that’s true - Guatape is a quaint local vacation town. But it’s only recently true. Guatape is about two hours from Medellin. Thirty years ago, it was the vacation home for the richest men in Colombia. Thirty years ago, those men were narco kingpins. The city was crawling with sicarios and other shady characters with the backing of massive dark networks. Thirty years ago, we couldn’t sit on this park bench at 10:30 in the morning - let alone the late evening.
“Doesn’t that kind of make my point for me?” he says.
And I say nothing. It doesn’t, but I’m not quite sure why.
“I guess the reason I really couldn’t live here,” he says, “Is because I feel committed to home. I feel like I’m traveling to learn. And then, one day, I'll go back home to bring my learnings to my community, to my home.”
“I’m not sure I feel a loyalty to my community,” I say. “I’m not sure I need to ever stop doing this. I guess I don’t feel like I could live here, but not because it scares me. I like the way this place is structured. It's just that I always feel like there’s more.”
“There always is,” he says. “But isn’t that just running? Isn’t travel designed to be an escape? You go out and you learn about yourself and come back and take that back to your community.”
I light a cigarette and take a drag.
“I don’t know, that just feels imperial to me.”
“Imperial, like you just get to use this country for your own ends. Oh, I came to Colombia and I learned about myself and I got what I needed and I went back to my white-bread developed world nation. I took what I came for and I left. But who the hell knows. Maybe my thing is just as bad.”
He lights his own cigarette and raises his eyebrows.
“Maybe imperialism is just in our DNA,” he says.
“Look around you,” he says.
And I see old stucco buildings and a pretty park and a janitor sweeping the floor of a bodega on the corner.
“Do you see it yet?”
“No, I don't” I say.
“Do you know what Plaza de Armas means?” he says. I don’t.
It translates to “Weapons Square.” In Spanish. Spanish being the language everyone speaks here. Everyone speaks Spanish here because of this square, and hundreds of others like it across the continent. The conquistadors came in, flattened the old infrastructure, and built this central square surrounded by their government buildings and armories and hey, look at that, a Catholic church. They built it this way to defend themselves if the people they just raped and pillaged ever decide to revolt. This continent’s culture is the story of domination by men who look like you and me.
“I’m Irish by blood,” I say. He’s English. He gets my meaning.
“You know that doesn’t matter,” he says.
“It’s also only 25% true. I’m mostly German.”
“Even worse,” he says.
“Okay, but say I am Irish - why doesn’t it matter? Can't white people be oppressed?"
“They can,” he says. “But it matters because you’re sitting right here, learning what the fuck a Plaza de Armas is at a leisurely pace on a park bench in a new and interesting land with a cigarette in your mouth. And they’re living right here, knowing exactly what it is for every minute of their born lives and not able to afford to get even to Medellin, let alone New York City. You don’t have to apologize for your bloodline, for people who died a long time ago, for people you aren’t. But you absolutely have to know what it’s given you.”
“So why go back?” I say.
“What the hell is the point of doing it forever? Isn’t that just shirking your responsibilities? Isn’t that worse than my thing?”
“What responsibilities?” I say. “What responsibilities are we truly born into?”
“Family,” he says. “Dancing with the gal who brought you.”
“I hear that,” I say. “But, not to sound like some 18-year old rolling at an MGMT concert, but isn’t this whole thing our family?”
“I’m not sure I know what you mean,” he says.
“I truly don’t feel like I have a responsibility to go back to New York and get a dull job so I can be 45 minutes away from my mother. I have a responsibility to love and know and care for my mother, no doubt. But isn’t doing right by her proving that she raised someone who wants to do right by changing the world?"
“Slow down, cowboy. You’re not changing shit.”
I have a tendency to get a little lofty.
“Yeah okay,” I say. “But isn’t a lifetime of building experiences with human beings, internalizing those experiences, sharing them with others and internalizing new experiences kind of all we have? That’s the entire mechanism by which this thing functions. And every single act of oppression - every single slight, every injustice, every act of colonization - it’s all been a failure of ignorance, right? And the only way to fix ignorance is to learn. And the only way to learn - truly learn - about other humans is conversation.”
“That’s why I’m here,” he says.
“But you’re just gonna stop one day and fly back to London and get a job as an accountant! Doesn’t that feel like giving up? That feels like running to me. That feels like shirking responsibility.”
“Maybe,” he says.
“Eh, maybe not,” I say.
“The problem with privilege is knowing you have it,” he says “The problem with knowing you have it is having no fucking clue what to do with it.”
And then I tell a story.
[Crickets fade, sounds of a busy street rise]
Even then, at sixteen years old, I’d grown somewhat jaded by Catholic catchphrases. I’d gone to Jesuit schools all my life, after all.
“Go forth and set the world on fire.”
That's nice. Until I realized St. Ignatius Loyala never actually said it at all and also, I like my world better sans-fire, thankyouverymuch.
Catholic school as an atheist gets a little tiring.
But this nun? She nailed it.
Sister Pat McTeague should have been hobbling at her age, but she wasn’t. She was pacing back and forth before us, proud and indignant. Full of life. Energy.
This was far from an ordinary mission trip. Sure, we were a collection of privileged white kids from a Catholic school in Connecticut in one of the poorest slums in Ecuador. But we were under no illusion we were helping anyone. There was no school to “build.” No English to “teach.” Those were the jobs of people equipped to do them, we were told. We were useless to the world. Our job was to observe. To listen. To empathize and understand.
For five days, we did. We lived in the fashion of the locals on less than a dollar a day. We played soccer with the children and flirted with the school-aged gals. And then, right when we were about ready to make that adolescent observation that people are people, no matter where they’re from, Sister McTeague sat us dozen Connecticut prep school sophomores down, right on the hot asphalt in the midday sun.
“You are Jesuits,” she said. “You are disciples of Jesus. You are young men tasked to go forth and set the world on fire.”
I rolled my eyes the way children do when they think they’re done being children. I was no disciple of Jesus.
But Pat McTeague caught my attention just a moment later.
“The world needs you. The world requires your existence. Not because you are better or special or uniquely valuable. No. The world needs you because of your privilege. Because, by sheer dumb luck, you simply can change the world.”
I was hooked. But then, nearly as an afterthought and out the side of her mouth as she collected herself, she mumbled thirteen words I wouldn't soon forget.
“With the privileges you have been given, you have no right to fail.”
For nearly a decade, those words would drive my every action.
They powered me through deeply ingrained imposter syndrome when I returned to my pretentious Catholic prep school, drove me to a Jesuit university, and buoyed my anxiety when life caught up to me, I dropped out of college and found myself working the checkout line at a grocery store. They powered me out of my funk and into a career in politics and, years later, into a successful second act at a software company that powered some of the world’s largest movements.
They drove my inner function. They powered who I became, they oriented my compass toward a well-defined True North and reset my GPS such that, even in momentary failure, I never strayed too far from course.
“With the privileges you have been given, you have no right to fail.”
I remember the moment I failed.
Two things decided to change at the same time: the world and me.
For my part, I decided to meet a woman and fall in love and do that thing you’re supposed to do and, in so doing, I learned a few things about love itself. No, not that eros nonsense. Not the puppy-love, star-struck, one-person-forever, holy-shit-you’re-sexy thing. No, I’m talking about real, universal, unconditional agape. That love-thy-neighbor just because they’re your neighbor kind of love.
The woman I met couldn’t break my cynicism about eros - she intensified it, actually - but she taught me all I know about agape, oddly enough. Or, at the very least, she pointed me to it. She told me where to find it.
And, in roughly the same moment I was falling in cynical love that would lead to life-changing discoveries, the world decided to forget everything it ever learned about love in the infinite. It forgot the lessons of its own history, the rituals so enshrined in religious belief that they were dismissed in this new age of scientific realism. The world just forgot it ever had anything to say about gift love, that Matthew 22:39 love thy neighbor, mettā loving-kindness, nirvana, enlightenment kind of love.
And so it was right around my twenty-eighth birthday when I realized I had no idea what the hell success even meant in the first place. And so I just… stopped. I left the lady who had taught me so much about agape but heightened every insecurity I’d ever felt about eros, I left my work as a master of witty but hollow bromides at the tables of modern royalty, and I just left. Literally. I hopped a plane to South America and started over.
And now I'm here, talking to you.
It may seem weak. It may seem like the coward’s way out. I understand. But I read not so long ago about John Muir, the famous explorer of America’s western frontier. He had this wonderful belief in the difference between a vacation and an expedition. A vacation is a journey to get away from something. An expedition is a journey to find something.
“I think that's it right there,” he says. “If you’re on a quest to do what you said - and you actually put the work in - then you’re on an expedition. A mission. And that’s beautiful. But if you just treat this like a lifetime of vacation? Well, then you’re just a coward.”
[Theme Music Begins]
That was Baggage Claim: travel stories no one tells.
I’m Will Conway.
Hey, if you join the Authentic Travelers Facebook group, there's a little more content coming in from Baggage Claim these days.
Every Sunday, I prompt the community with a question, and the Sunday that follows, I put out a little video of all the responses. They're called Sunday Stories. Join Authentic Travelers and check it out.
Text COMMUNITY to (332) 877-9540.
The theme music from Baggage Claim comes from Kit Conway, my brother, of the band Stello.
The link for the show notes for this episode is in the description.
See you next Tuesday.
[Theme Music Ends]