Helping the Venezuelan Caminantes

Helping the Venezuelan Caminantes

From Sabine Taras Thompson

I am in Colombia on my 2nd trip to assist the Venezuelan caminantes. Together, we can bring a bit of comfort to these beautiful people!

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Update #42

about 1 month ago

Just a reminder on the updates, if you're a newcomer and you're interested in reading more about the situation. The easiest way to do that and have my discombobulated updates make a bit of sense, is to scroll all the way down to the first update and read in chronological order. A lot of my updates are independent pieces, but there are a few that correlate with others.

[Pictured: the mismatched shoes of two young caminantes who stayed at the shelter in La Laguna when I was there.]

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I am back in Colombia for just short of 2 weeks to help make the caminantes' journey just a little more comfortable. The caminantes are Venezuelan migrants on a long, perilous journey as they flee their home country, which has become one of the most violent countries in the world. The situation in Venezuela is dire and has led to the most underfunded refugee crisis in modern history. According to the UNHCR, 5.4 million people have recently fled Venezuela - close to 20% of the country's population - and Venezuela has become the country with the most displaced people living outside of the borders. While some Venezuelans are able to afford a bus ride to their final destination, the most vulnerable of them arrive at the border with nothing, not even the $30 they would need to take an 18-hour bus ride to Bogota. Left with no other option, they walk (hence the word 'caminante', from the Spanish caminar, which means to walk.)

I am on a time crunch to get this fundraiser live after many technological problems, and sadly don't have updated numbers for now, but as of last year:- On a per capita basis, the international community had spent $1,500 to help each Syrian refugee, vs. $125 per Venezuelan refugee. I am absolutely not discouraging you to help the Syrian refugee community, who is very dear to me and needs our support as well. I am only highlighting the substantial need I see in a huge crisis that is getting very little attention from the media.- According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, the undernourishment rate in Venezuela had quadrupled since 2012.- The U.N. estimated that the limited access to medical treatment and life-saving medication was putting 300,000 Venezuelan lives are at risk.

I don't fundraise much because I know my friends would get tapped into non-stop with my constant volunteering. Every now and then, I feel compelled to do it. You have all been so generous towards the refugee cause when I was in Greece, Lebanon or Bangladesh, or during last year's trip to Colombia, and I am coming to you once again today asking for donations so I can buy items on the ground for the Venezuelan refugees during my trip.

Human suffering absolutely shatters my heart and if you can do so, I would love your help. None of the money I raise will go towards my volunteering expenses. I work hard and live simply so I can finance my volunteering trips on my own, and this is no exception. Like last year, I will be joining a wonderful, small grassroots organization, On The Ground International, and if you prefer to donate to the organization rather than this campaign, I wholeheartedly encourage you to do so!  Every dime of your donations will be spent towards the needs of the Venezuelan refugee community. Should you want your donation to be allocated to a specific need (food, medical supplies, assistance to shelters, etc.), please do let me know and I'll see that your money is handled accordingly. I will continue to cover all donation fees from my personal funds, so that anything you donate will go in full to the cause, without fees getting deducted. Should you prefer to Venmo me (if you know and trust me!) I'm happy to get the funds that way.

I know this has been a really hard year for many, and I understand not everyone is in a position to give. Those of you who know me well, know I'm always reluctant to ask - and the only reason I do it is because I really see a need, and I sadly don't have enough to tend to it on my own. I'm well-aware that there are strong anti-migrant sentiments out there, and I hope you are able to look past the politics and focus more on the fact that human beings, like you and me, are hurting and need some assistance. In my experience, many people prefer to see their money go straight to tangible items, and this is why I am setting up this campaign.

As I have done in the past, I'm setting a low goal... because I don't have a goal! If all I raise is $1, then that's still 3 pairs of socks going to 3 refugees. No donation is too small. However you wish to be involved, whether it is through a monetary donation, helping me spread the word on the severity of the situation, or through good thoughts (I'll take those, too!), thank you.

Thank you for putting up with my constant need to bring disaster, refugee and other humanitarian issues to you. I am where I am today, and who I am today, because people have helped me. This includes complete strangers who will never know that they had an impact on my life. We can all be that stranger for someone.

Some of you may know this trip has had a bit of a rocky start. My computer died, making it difficult to fundraise and post photos. GoFundMe, which hosted my fundraiser last year, has been very slow at helping me reopen it for this year, and not being able to wait any longer, I have transitioned to Fundly, which has a good reputation. Because of the practical limitations I am facing, I may copy some of my posts from last year and update them as needed, as I had shared a lot of information about the caminantes' situation then. However, should you have some time on your hands and a little bit of interest in the situation, you are welcome to access the old updates on your own from last year's fundraiser: https://www.gofundme.com/f/bpp77-help-venezuelan-refugees

With love from Colombia,

Sabine

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Sabine Taras Thompson posted a new update:
about 1 month ago

Update #47

Just a reminder on the updates, if you're a newcomer and you're interested in reading more about the situation. The easiest way to do that and have my discombobulated updates make a bit of sense, is to scroll all the way down to the first update and read in chronological order. A lot of my updates are independent pieces, but there are a few that correlate with others.

[Pictured: the mismatched shoes of two young caminantes who stayed at the shelter in La Laguna when I was there.]

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Sabine Taras Thompson posted a new update:
about 1 month ago

Update #46

I want to write a quick note about this topic, because I realize some people may have the wrong idea... No, the caminantes are not headed for the U.S. I know my American friends sometimes have strong opinions about immigration in the U.S. It's an important topic, but not one that is relevant here. I try not to be too political with my volunteering, because what I do is humanitarian at the core. It's not a statement of whether I endorse a policy or another. There are people suffering greatly, and if I can play a small part in making their journey just a little bit easier, it's important to me that I do it.

Again, the caminantes (the "walkers", literally translated from Spanish) are fleeing on foot. Not a single one of them is headed for the US. Even if one wanted to walk from Venezuela to the US, the distance, topography (jungle, etc.) and political situation (gang violence, cartels, etc.) in Central America would make it impossible for them to walk to the US. This campaign is helping migrants from one country (Venezuela) in what is almost always their final destination country (Colombia... The only ones I've talked to who were not going to stay in Colombia were headed for Peru).

And yes, Colombia is saturated with Venezuelans. Over 20% of the country's population has fled. This is me extrapolating because I don't know the official number. I only have the official number from the end of 2019 (16% of Venezuela had fled) and 20% is pretty conservative. Needless to say, this puts a great deal of stress on the receiving countries in terms of jobs, lodging, etc. Colombians and Venezuelans have a long history of helping each other. A few decades ago, the mass migration of people was flowing the other way. In the time when guerrillas, cartels and paramilitaries were the source of a lot of violence in Colombia, many Colombians fled to Venezuela. And Venezuela welcomed them. The roles are now reversed, but this may help explain how welcoming Colombia has been.

With this said, the heavy flow of people has led to the current situation, where a lot of the caminantes end up in the streets. Some of them will eventually secure jobs, but not all will make it. This crisis has been going on for so long, and is so deep-seated that it's hard to envision a solution, short of a complete structural change in Venezuela. I will say, though: the caminantes are not lazy, and they are resilient. Not all will find a much better life in Colombia, but I give them credit for not being complacent and trying to do something about their situation.

Remember, "no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark."

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Sabine Taras Thompson posted a new update:
about 1 month ago

Update #45

$3,485.46. That's how much we've raised so far for the caminantes through Fundly, the old GoFundMe campaign, Venmo and Paypal. I'm so humbled. I always say that this money goes a long way, because the cost of living in Colombia is so low, but that's without taking into consideration the large number of caminantes that enters the country daily.

There have been so many walkers, that when I left we were on track to spend $2,500 just on eggs for January. Rest assured all your money was not spent on eggs! Some of it covered the food and Gatorade (including eggs, but also a lot of other things!), but we also used it to purchase a bunch of blankets for the shelter as we were running low and it is really cold on the mountain, to buy socks, and I've entrusted Bethani to get some space heaters to add to the shelter, as well. There is plenty to do still, but if you were looking to donate with no fees and no overhead, you've found the right campaign! And remember, if you haven't donated yet and there is a specific need you'd like to address (socks, flip flops, food, blankets, ponchos, etc.) just let me know. Even though I am not physically on the ground anymore, Bethani is a very dear friend of mine, and I can tell her how you wish for your money to be spent.

I owe a huge apology to the donors who contributed at the end of my stay. Things were so busy that I failed to send thank yous, and I apologize for that. Please know how grateful I am. You've made a world of difference in the lives of many people.

There are also a lot of updates I'd like to write, not necessarily to generate more donations (though that would be nice!) but also just for your information. This is not a crisis that has been extensively covered by the media, and education is important.

Stay tuned...

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Sabine Taras Thompson posted a new update:
about 1 month ago

Update #44

Even dogs arrive exhausted at the shelter. This dog's head bobbing had us entertained for a bit. Poor thing was so tired. It even lost its balance a few times, as it was falling asleep while sitting. Sadly, we had to get it outside, as we don't let dogs inside the shelter.

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Sabine Taras Thompson posted a new update:
about 1 month ago

Update #43

This arena is not very far from the shelter in La Laguna. Often times, when the caminantes cannot find the shelter, or when the shelter is full like it was when I stayed there, the caminantes will sleep there. It's open to the elements, but it does have a roof. And let me remind you, this is up in the mountains and it can be really wet and cold at night.

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Sabine Taras Thompson posted a new update:
about 1 month ago

Update #42

I bought a SIM card loaded with 12G of data when I went to Colombia. This ended up being more useful than I ever thought, since my computer stopped working before I even arrived.

Most caminantes left my phone alone, but a handful of them asked if they could use it to let their family know that they were ok. Many caminantes had parents, but also a wife and kids back home in Venezuela. You have no idea how many times I got my phone back to find the language on my Facebook app changed to Spanish. Also, my Facebook app kept asking me to choose who I was among a long list of Venezuelan names.

I don't generally keep in touch with the caminantes. I typically meet more than a hundred of them each day, so I wouldn't see the end of it if I chose to maintain contact. But some found me on Facebook today, and I got the nicest thank you message from one of them (one of the guys in the picture). He thanked me for getting up early at the shelter, so they could have breakfast before leaving (how did he know I'm not a morning person?). He said the help they received from me (and I assume, by this he means the help he received from the shelter staff and the volunteers) is the reason they smiled. Incredible. So much gratitude for something so minor.

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Sabine Taras Thompson posted a new update:
about 1 month ago

Update #41

I really enjoy interacting with the caminantes. Often times, they are really interested in the fact that I come from another country, and they ask a lot of questions. It's always interesting to me to see what questions and stereotypes foreigners have of the U.S. or France.

The other day, a caminante asked Caleb where he was from, and upon finding out he was American, he asked, with confusion, "who is your president?"

The two young caminantes in the photo were full of questions. I don't remember most of them, but the one that stuck with me was when the guy on the left asked me, "is it true that in the U.S., people wouldn't be nice to me because I look like a Black person?"

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Sabine Taras Thompson posted a new update:
about 1 month ago

Update #40

I'm very sorry for the silence over the past couple of days. The end of my stay in Colombia was hectic - packing, tying loose ends, and trying to focus on the people rather than being on Bethani's computer writing updates. It took an entire day to get back to Phoenix, but I got to feed people until the last minute as we packed Jhon's car with sandwiches, eggs, fruit and other items when he took me to the airport. I am now back home in Phoenix, and things are equally hectic, this time focusing on catching up on work after being gone for close to 2 weeks.

I still have lots of updates to write, and I will tackle this in the coming week. Although I will no longer be in Colombia in person, OTGI's work continues on the ground. There are still people to feed and to care for daily. This crisis has been going on for a couple of years now, and it blows my mind that there continues to be a mass exodus of people every single day, to this day. For this reason, I will keep the fundraiser going for another month or two.

Together, we have raised $2,812. This money has gone to food, Gatorade, diapers, pads for women, socks, blankets, heaters for the shelter (coming up), some hard cash so that the caminantes braving the mountain can get rides, among other things. It has helped thousands of caminantes, and I couldn't have done it without you!

As is the case after every volunteering trip I've taken, my mind is still with the caminantes and it will take a few days to adjust back to life home. I'd love to go back and help OTGI again in a few months, when I'm able to take vacation time. A couple of you have expressed interest in joining me and I think it would be nice to show other people what the situation is like, and to have new people to help, as well.

More updates will be posted in the near future. Thank you, again and again, for your support and for taking interest in the Venezuelan caminantes.

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Sabine Taras Thompson posted a new update:
about 1 month ago

Update #39

A heart full of gratitude today. $2,762 raised for the caminantes!

I didn't publish any updates yesterday but hope to write more in the next few days. For now, I wanted to refer to this article: https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2018/5/7/my-life-in-crisis-diary-of-a-venezuelan-journalist

It was published in 2018 and explains how, "formerly the wealthiest country in Latin America, Venezuela has been rocked by political, economic and social crises in recent years that show no signs of resolution." And the situation has only gotten worse since this was written. It's a really good read, and will help explain how dire the situation has gotten in Venezuela, between the staggering rate of inflation and the humanitarian crisis that has left Venezuelans without food, medicine or sanitary products. This in turn has caused a spike in crime.

Another article from 2017 reads, "in January, the government issued a range of new banknotes including 1000, 5,000, 10,000, and 20,000 denominations. The largest denomination was formerly 100 bolivares, which while in the past could buy someone a television or a grocery shop, is now worth less one cent. Further, the largest 20,000 denomination still only has a rapidly decreasing value of $2.27." Nowadays, bank notes are worth little more than paper. People have moved back to a system of barter where they'll exchange "mullets and snappers for packages of flour rice and cooking oil". Most Venezuelans can only afford one meal a day. Many scavenge trash cans to eat.

Finally, I find this Bloomberg page really eye-opening: https://www.bloomberg.com/features/2016-venezuela-cafe-con-leche-index/ It tracks the price of a simple cup of hot coffee at a bakery in Caracas, Venezuela. A cup of coffee in September 2016 was about the equivalent of 0.01 of the new currency, the Venezuelan Bolívar. Back in September 2018, right after the introduction of the Bolívar (which was created to address the hyperinflation), that cup of coffee would have been 35 Bolívars. Currently, in January 2021, that same cup of coffee costs 1,175,000 bolivars.

Maybe this will make it easier to understand why it is impossible for the Venezuelans to continue making a living over there, and how even professional individuals have quickly depleted all their savings. This is why they are leaving. They don't want to leave their country - they simply don't have a choice. When I ask the caminantes where they'd like to end up eventually (long-term), they always tell me, "back home in Venezuela." And I sincerely hope that one day, they get to go back and prosper again in their country.

Pictured: a 20,000 bolivar note that a caminante gave me as a souvenir at the shelter. Years ago, this would have been a pretty decent sum of money. As of today, this bill is worth $0.01.
One cent.

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Sabine Taras Thompson posted a new update:
about 1 month ago

Update #38

We ran into this man on our way back from the shelter to Pamplona this afternoon. "How far is it to the next shelter?", he asked. It would have taken about 5 hours of steady walking from where he was to La Laguna, but judging from the fact that he didn't appear to be in the best shape, and he had a lot of luggage with him to carry up the mountain, there was positively no way he would make it before the shelter would close for the night.

Geovany explained this to him as we gave him some food. He thanked us with a warm smile and kept going.

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Sabine Taras Thompson posted a new update:
about 1 month ago

Update #37

Since I'm on a roll writing about shelters, I may as well cover another shelter right now. There aren't many shelters on the way to Bogota (maybe about 10), but there happens to be 4 of them in Pamplona, and I think it says something about the people in this city. OTGI provides assistance to the shelters, in an effort to indirectly support the caminantes. Shelters have been closing due to lack of funding, staff burnout, or neighbors complaining, but the 4 shelters in this city are still actively operating. It takes a lot to keep up a place to welcome the refugees, especially at the scale this migration is going.

Of the four local shelters, we're involved mostly with three. I've only stopped by the fourth one, Chirimoya, a few times. It is privately funded and doesn't need as much assistance as the others. The three shelters we have strong ties with are those of Marta, Vanessa and Douglas - I've written about Douglas and Vanessa. Here's a little bit about Marta.

Marta doesn't have any ties with Venezuela that we know of - she's just a beautiful, compassionate human being who wants to help.

Like Douglas, Marta has lived in Pamplona her whole life.

Marta and Douglas's shelters are located right on Highway 55 at the entrance of the city, which means all the caminantes walk past it. This means Marta saw the Venezuelans coming in flocks, on foot, from her front window. She refused to sit there and do nothing. She started feeding the walkers 3 years ago, in January 2018, and she has fed people daily ever since. She and her staff of Venezuelan volunteers are still providing meals to the people staying in her shelter and Douglas's shelter next door, to this day - over 300 meals a day! Not long after starting to feed people, she began letting moms and kids sleep over. What started as a project in a shed is now a full-fledged shelter that can accommodate up to 60 women and children a night. The Red Cross helped put a roof over the outside cooking area, and the rest of the space is cozy and inviting.

Every time I've driven by the shelters she and Douglas provide during this trip, there were long lines of refugees standing outside, waiting to be fed. I hear there are also people sleeping outside because they run out of space.

This something Bethani wrote on the OTGI website: "I asked Marta how she has been able to afford to run such a large operation, and she put a hand over her heart, looking upwards. Her shelter operates completely from donations and her own limited income.

“I never know quite how we’re going to buy food tomorrow. Gracias a Dios, so far we’re still able. But it’s not just food we must buy!” I felt humbled by my small scope of imagination as Marta began listing all the other expenses that add up quickly when you’re feeding and housing so many people.

Dish soap, for the hundreds of dishes that have to be washed every single day, detergent for endless loads of laundry, electricity, toilet paper, and – the expense that tends to get cut first – cooking gas for the huge pots of rice and beans.

$60 of gas will cook 300 daily meals for about fifteen days, Marta says. When it runs out, she cooks over a fire until she has enough money to buy more. Marta was out of cooking gas the day we visited. A local man showed up with a bundle of sticks on his back, and Marta pointed. “Mira – natural gas!”
Marta laughed jovially at her own joke, but mentioned several times how difficult it is to cook so much food over a wood fire. “It’s hard on my lungs,” she said. “But gracias a Dios, the people can eat.”"

Last year, we had medical clinics and a children's program daily at the shelter, and we all loved going there because Marta and her staff are so kind. I went there and helped with the cooking a couple of times too. This year is a little different with the pandemic, but we still have a strong relationship that extends into financial ties.

Sadly, I wasn't able to see Marta during this trip as she fell sick pretty much around the day I arrived in town. She was later diagnosed with COVID-19 and is now under medical care at the city hospital. She's a beautiful person and the caminantes need her, so I hope she gets better soon!

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Sabine Taras Thompson posted a new update:
about 1 month ago

Update #36

This time around I had pretty limited contact with the shelters in Pamplona. I went to Vanessa's shelter a few times and chatted with Sr Douglas a few times, but it was hard to do much work there because I was mostly gone during the day, and the region of Colombia where I am has a curfew at 7 PM every day. In addition, they also had a complete lockdown for 6 of the days I was here. I was at the shelter in La Laguna for 2 of those days and doing my runs up the mountain for the rest, where the police doesn't patrol too much.

But with this said, I don't want to forget to provide updates about the shelters we're helping. I covered Douglas's in a past update. Let me tell you about Vanessa now.

Vanessa's shelter is one of three Pamplona shelters OTGI is tightly connected to in town. We provide the ingredients the shelter needs to make breakfast daily, as they don't have the funding for them. We also used to provide medical clinics and a children's program daily, help with food preparation when needed, and other programs prior to the pandemic. I've only been to Vanessa's shelter a handful of times (maybe 4 or 5) during this trip, and they were short visits.

The shelter is pretty nice, and is in an actual house, unlike Douglas's shelter. It could house up to 80 walkers last year, but they added a level since so I imagine they can have 100+ now.

Vanessa is a college student. She's Colombian, but she lived in Venezuela for 12 years. In fact, it is where her daughter Sarahit was born. When the Venezuelan refugee crisis began, she started helping by letting people sleep at her home, something she still does on occasion if all the shelters are full. She's also now renting a space that she's converted into a shelter. She spends $250 a month on the rent, an amount that may be trivial for many of us, but which is a lot for Colombian standards. It is now a three-story space. The large room on the main level is generally where people will sit around during the day or have meals, but it turns into the men's sleeping space at night. The downstairs room is primarily for women and children, and it is where we generally had our kids' program. She also has a small room we used to claim for the medical clinic, and a kitchen downstairs.

Vanessa's shelter is cozy and welcoming. It is where I celebrated Christmas last year, surrounded with volunteers, staff and caminantes alike. Very fond memories for me.

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Sabine Taras Thompson posted a new update:
about 1 month ago

Update #35

The photo is a bit blurry but the memories will never be. This has been my little family at the shelter for the past 2 days. They are the staff at the shelter in La Laguna. All are Venezuelan refugees. On the far left is Elvis; then yours truly and Carlos at the back. At the front, Little Sophia, Paola, Kenny Sr., Luz and Little Samuel, and Kenny Jr on the far right. Each has a defined role at the shelter, and they do a great job at keeping it running, and making it a place filled with love for their Venezuelan brothers and sisters, day in and day out. They never take a day off. The whole point of me coming for 2 days was to give a break to 4 of them so they could take some time to themselves, but they ended up staying and working the whole time I was there.

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Sabine Taras Thompson posted a new update:
about 1 month ago

Update #34

I mentioned the shower at the shelter, and I've noted that it only has cold water, but so you fully understand the amenity that the caminantes are lining up for in the cold every morning, this is what we're talking about. A single stall for the entire shelter, where up to 70 people may sleep any given night (but the shelter will be full at about 50 people). See the pipe suspended under the roof next to the toilet? That's the shower. If the caminantes prefer, they may use the water stored in the big green bin to splash over themselves with a scooper.

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Sabine Taras Thompson posted a new update:
about 1 month ago

Update #33

I haven't received any donations lately, and this is certainly not me complaining. I think we've done really well with $2,343 raised in a week, especially considering all the technological setbacks and whatnot (Bethani did let me borrow her laptop, which was a great help, but I had to start shooting in JPEG again, something I haven't done in years! And, of course, time to write updates and post photos has been limited. A special thank you to Neal Dixon for spreading the word so much -- I hereby name you Chief Fundraising Officer!) The money has been/is being used directly for the caminantes - blankets, space heaters, socks, food, diapers, etc.

We ended up having to turn away 8 people last night. There just wasn't any room for them at the shelter. They had to go sleep outside. I'm so sad, because it was so cold outside. I don't know how well the caminantes slept over here last night, to be fair. They were all squeezed like sardines, including in the hallways. Dogs were barking outside. Babies were crying. People needed to use the bathroom - we only have one stall and in order to get to it, they had to walk all over other people.

It was a short night for many. All seemed particularly cold while waiting for the shower this morning (only one stall - the same one as the bathroom, and cold water), they were wrapped in blankets or huddled up together trying to keep warm.

At 6 am, we opened the doors and they started leaving, little by little, in the cold rain. There was a long line of people going all the way into the fog towards the main road. Carlos and I walked with a group, but there were so many people that all kinda left at different times. Like the day before, there were warm goodbyes. They thanked us profusely, wished us many blessings, and went on their way. As they disappeared one by one into the fog, I felt the tears come up once again. Carlos asked me if I wanted to walk around town for a bit. La Laguna is a small village, it doesn't take long to walk from one end to the other, but I took him up on it. Many caminantes were on the sides of the road, having spent the night outside probably.

I really like talking to Carlos. He is wise, and he has meaningful conversations. He doesn't talk much, but when he does there is usually substance to it. He's very reflective.. He is also the only Venezuelan I can understand without any difficulty. He speaks slower than most, and uses words I understand.

It's only 10 am here and we've had a steady flow of caminantes already this morning. This early on, they don't end up spending the night, but they will stop by to sit down and enjoy a warm meal.

[Photo of one of the groups getting ready this morning]

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Sabine Taras Thompson posted a new update:
about 1 month ago

Update #32

Pets are not allowed inside the shelter, and for a reason that does not make sense to me, a lot of caminantes are traveling with dogs. This means we have several dogs outside of the shelter tonight. They must be really cold because they won't stop barking. I hope the caminantes can still get some sleep.

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Sabine Taras Thompson posted a new update:
about 1 month ago

Update #31

A heavy heart tonight. The shelter is completely full. Our rooms are full to the brim. There are people sleeping everywhere, including in the hallway. It's really cold and we just about ran out of blankets (I'm going to buy more blankets with your donations, as well as a few space heaters. The latter are hard to find, but I'm up for the challenge. And Neal Dixon already claimed the heaters to be covered by his donation -- thanks, Neal!) I was going to give up my blanket but the staff told me to keep it and that it seems some people are ok with sharing a blanket. At least with so many people, there should be a bit of body heat being shared.

Seriously though... it is SO cold over here, and I'm wearing a lot of clothes (which is why I look like I weight 200 lbs on every photo of me!) Some of these people show up in shorts and t-shirts. I don't know how they do it.

We saw a handful of caminantes during the day who just came by to rest, ate a meal, bathed and left - maybe 15 or so. The bulk of them arrived mid- to late afternoon. Then a bunch more arrived in the dark, shivering. And when we thought we had found spots for everyone, more showed up. I am staying locked in my room (Kenny, Luz and their kids have a room in town, but Carlos, Elvis, Paola and I all are sharing a small room in the shelter) because there is nowhere to step if I want to go out anyway, but also because it is a little heartbreaking to see all these people all over the floor.

[photo of one of the rooms, before the last few groups of walkers showed up]

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Sabine Taras Thompson posted a new update:
about 1 month ago

Update #30

This is Carlos. He's 59. He walked from Venezuela to Colombia so he could feed his family. Like many families in Venezuela, he went by himself while his wife and 2 daughters (14 and 8) stayed back. This is why we see so many more men than women and children walking here. A lot of times, the men will go and send money home. So many of the guys I've met have a wife and kids at home, it's really heartbreaking that so many families are finding themselves separated like this.

Often times, the caminantes ask me if they can borrow my phone to send a message home and let their family know they are ok. A simple everyday item like a phone is not a common thing to have among the walker community. Carlos doesn't have a phone, but he borrows the phone of another caminante, Elvis, to check Facebook messages from time to time and see photos of his family back home.

A month or so ago, OTGI hired him and Elvis as staff for the shelter in La Laguna. I love Carlos (but then again, that probably doesn't mean much because I love everyone). He's very kind. He misses his family, but he told me this is a sacrifice worth making for them.

I come from humble beginnings and have parents who have made a lot of sacrifices to give me and my sister a better life. Of course, what is considered poor in France has nothing to do with what the Venezuelans are going through (a common Venezuelan salary nowadays, I'm told, is about $4 and a kilogram of rice costs $1. The way one of the caminantes summed it up to me the other day is, "if we eat breakfast, we don't eat lunch. If we eat lunch, we don't eat dinner. If we have all 3 meals one day, we don't eat the next day.") but because I have a lot of appreciation for my dad for the sacrifices he's made to make sure we always had a roof above our heads, food on the table, and to ensure my sister and I could get a solid education, I have special love for Carlos.

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Sabine Taras Thompson posted a new update:
about 1 month ago

Update #29

This is Samuel. He was one year old when his parents fled from Venezuela. Samuel's parents, Luz and Kenny, have been working at the shelters for some time. They started at Vanessa's shelter in Pamplona, where I met them last year, and are now working at OTGI's shelter in La Laguna.

Samuel has an older sister, Sophia, who is 8 years old and is also a joy to have around.

Samuel is the sweetest little ray of sunshine, and I imagine he brings a lot of warmth and happiness to the caminantes who stop by the shelter. It is no surprise that he is so friendly - having grown up in the shelters, he's always been surrounded by strangers. Samuel is everyone's little buddy!

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Sabine Taras Thompson posted a new update:
about 1 month ago

Update #28

OGTI used to prepare these little envelopes with words of encouragement on them, and 10 mil pesos inside. We used to distribute them to the people walking up the mountain - those who absolutely have nothing. 10 mil pesos equates to about $3 and would be enough to get these people a seat on a bus that’s already underway, or maybe a ride on a truck for the rest of the way.

You have never seen gratitude until you see these people’s eyes fill with tears. Over $3.

Sadly, we had to put this program temporarily on hold. Over time, the bandits on the mountain caught on to what those envelopes were. It didn't take a rocket scientist to notice the van of gringos going up and down the mountain every day, stopping to give food and water to the caminantes, and then to notice that many walkers would proceed to catch rides rather than have to walk the rest of the way.

The bandits started attacking the caminantes and stealing the envelopes. The mountain pirates are the scum of the earth. To prey on the most vulnerable is despicable. What started out as a beautiful program ended up discontinued for obvious reasons. Not to say that we won't find another way to conduct it in the future, but for the time being, until we can be creative enough as to not put the caminantes in danger, we are laying low with the direct money donations to the walkers.

Yesterday, for the first time in a while, we handed some envelopes again to the people walking up the mountain in the rain. I hand mine discreetly, usually while talking to the caminantes and looking at them in the eye, I'll put it in their hand and tell them to hide it. On the mountains, if there are no cars passing by, it's not a huge deal, but I can't do it at the shelter or in town when others are watching. I've also been telling them to be careful with rides and to only pay after the ride has been completed.

This morning, after all the caminantes left, Paola and I were getting ready to walk back to the shelter. A pregnant lady was walking the streets of La Laguna, carrying a small baby. She seemed a bit distraught. She said she had managed to get a ride up the mountain but didn't know where her husband, who had kept walking, was. She was hoping someone would have given him a ride eventually, as well. I suspect she may have slept outside because it was quite early in the morning. It's sad because the shelter is just off the main road, and many caminantes don't realize it's there. Also, because it's fairly new, they don't always know the shelter even exists to start with. We told her we had not seen her husband but that they would be welcome at the shelter. She decided to wait in the cold on the main road. There were enough people around that I couldn't talk to her privately, but when no one was watching, I dropped one of our envelopes in the pocket of her jacket. I trust that she will find it later, and that it will help her and her baby get over the mountain's summit in a car instead of on foot. She won't know where it came from, or who put it there, and I think that is the best - to know people care, no need for a face or a name attached to the gesture!
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[A photo of a caminante reading the words of encouragement on one of our envelopes. I took this one last year.]

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