by Emily Oubre , The Link School
It feels fitting and timely that Colombia seems to perfectly embody MLK’s quote, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Over and over, I have seen examples of Colombians who – after years of hatred and darkness – have chosen to respond with light and love.
Rafa is the perfect example.
Rafa was one of those guys who chuckled when he greeted you. He said, “Hola, Emily” with a gleeful amusement that made me feel like just my presence brought him excitement. I wasn’t sure what it was about my “Buenos dias” or my “Hola, Rafa” that made him laugh every time—maybe my smile looked funny—but it sure made me happy to greet him.
In fact, Rafa chuckled just about every minute. His quickness to laugh made it seem like he had never had a care in the world. He was the one guide who did not speak any English, but he looked at everyone and smiled, anyway. He just seemed to be daring you to give him a reason to smile. Actually, he seemed to just know you would. I remember when we got stopped and searched by the police, he was just looking at each of us the whole time, smiling, almost laughing – wanting us to know it was okay and also waiting for us to make him laugh. He had a knack for making light of any situation.
He also was the best climber of them all. One night, I was sitting outside our hotel, recovering from a rough bus ride through the mountain roads, and Rafa came over and sat next to me with that playful sparkle in his eye and crooked smile. He didn’t say anything or expect anything from me. He was just happy to smile and sit next to me. I knew he had to have a story, as he was probably close to my age, which meant he lived through the violent years in Colombia, and I knew this was my chance.
I asked him how he found climbing. He chuckled, paused, and told me it was a good question. For the next 20 minutes, I sat in awe, as he told me how climbing had transformed his life.
He told me he used to work for the paramilitary, hiding and transporting drugs and weapons. He shared a few details of the risky work he did, all within blocks of where we were sitting. He knew he could be killed at any second, so his life did not seem to be of much value. In his free time, he just partied and numbed himself. He didn’t feel much worth.
Then, a friend took him climbing. As he was climbing, he was scared, realizing that only that rope was keeping him alive. This fear for his life seemed to open him up to the idea that he did, in fact, value his life. He was also part of a healthy community, where every person truly mattered – not for their ability to deceive or kill or conform to what was being asked, but for what they had to offer, just as they were. Gradually, he started associating less and less with the para-militarists and more and more with his climbing friends. The problem was that the para-militarists threatened to kill him if he left because he knew too much.
Still, the people in that group saw how much climbing meant to him and started encouraging him to go more and more. Eventually, they decided they trusted him, and he was able to leave the group with their blessing. As he started climbing more, he said, he started thinking more about what his grandparents had taught him about valuing the land, building houses, and building community.
Now, he has built and opened his own “refugio” – a little hostel for climbers—where he meets interesting people from all over the world. He has biked from Bogota to Quito, he built his own house where he grows coffee, and he dreams of visiting Yosemite. He smiles and laughs every minute of every day – genuine smiles and laughter – not induced by mind-altering drugs.
Climbing saved his life.
It has been weeks since I met Rafa, but my mind keeps going back to him. I don’t think this is an uncommon story, but it meant a lot to me that he was willing to share it with me after knowing me for just a couple of hours.
His willingness to be vulnerable and trust me with his story is something I will never forget. In fact, it had an impact the very next day, when we went climbing. Lately, I have felt extremely vulnerable with climbing, since I have one leg that is not really working. I have not been willing to climb much at all, knowing I would inconvenience others by taking a long time, I would not look very good, and I would be at risk of getting hurt more. But when we were climbing the next day, Rafa was belaying, and he looked over and offered to belay me. In the past, I would have contemplated the offer for 10 minutes before saying, “No thanks.” Before I knew it, though, when Rafa offered, I had said yes and was tying in to his rope. I realized that his willingness to be vulnerable with me the night before had made me so much more open with climbing that day. This is the power of vulnerability. If he could share that story, I could look like a fool at the crag. I struggled through the climb, with Rafa shouting carefree encouragement the whole time. When I got back down, I thanked him and told him he had a lot of patience. He laughed, like he always did, and said if he didn’t love it, he wouldn’t be there.
After everything he had experienced, having to belay a little longer really probably was no big deal.
I am so grateful for this lesson in vulnerability. I have spent most of my life trying (and of course failing miserably) to appear perfect. I have avoided vulnerability and been hesitant to show my real self or true, messy insides. Being willing to climb with Rafa was a very minor thing, but for me, it represented a big change. I have seen the power of vulnerability – the way it connects people, opens people up, puts them at ease, makes them okay with their own imperfections. Vulnerability makes our interactions less calculated. It builds community by showing trust. It allows us all to be seen and heard, just for who we are. It seems to me, now, that the rewards of vulnerability far outweigh the risks.
Rafa seemed so free, and he was so lovable and easy to be around. I realized that if he could be so open, I, too, could let go of being stifled by the image I’m trying to present and just be me. Next time I’m trying to hide my mistakes or my shortcomings, I will remember how grateful I was that Rafa shared his so openly and joyfully.
I will remember how he responded to darkness with light; how he responded to hatred with love; how he allowed himself to be softened and opened by hardship, rather than hardened and closed off.
Thank you, Rafa.