Friday, December 9, 2011

The Beginning

Leaving for Bogota on January 1.
Many years from now when I sit down to tell my grandchildren about my year in Colombia, I will tell them that it was one of the best, worst, and greatest years of my life.

I will speak of how I followed my heart to a distant land in hopes of making the world a little better, a little brighter. Although I found reality to be sobering, I nevertheless stayed the course.

Nearly a year ago, I boarded a plane to Bogotá.

I was hopeful.



When I arrived, my unchecked enthusiasm slammed headfirst into the stonewall of a dysfunctional education system. I found the abundant talk and little follow-through to be aggravating. I found it incomprehensible how such an invaluable resource could be allowed to go underutilized for an entire year. Despite it all, I did the best I could with what I had.

With some of my students.
Mark Jenkins once wrote, “Adventure is a path. Real adventure—self-determined, self-motivated, often risky—forces you to have firsthand encounters with the world. The world the way it is, not the way you imagine it. Your body will collide with the earth and you will bear witness. In this way, you will be compelled to grapple with the limitless kindness and bottomless cruelty of humankind—and perhaps realize that you yourself are capable of both. This will change you. Nothing will ever again be black-and-white.”

It is a scary thing to walk where you have never walked before—to leave the comfort of familiar shores in pursuit of something greater than yourself.  I set out to change the world but ultimately found it to be the other way around.

Away from everyone I knew and loved, I experienced true loneliness. But rather than let it break me, I learned to become a more independent, self-sufficient individual. After growing up in one of the most privileged communities on the planet, I saw what it was like to live in one of the most underserved.

At Machu Picchu.
Sometimes I wonder what my life would be like today had I remained in my cubicle. I would have gotten promoted, found my own San Francisco apartment, maybe even met someone. I sacrificed that life, along with tens of thousands of dollars in lost wages to go work for free in a country where I could very well have lost that which I can never get back.

In leaving all that, many believed I was putting my life on hold.
But they had it all wrong.

In leaving, I was finally able to begin truly living.

I traveled.

Explored ancient ruins at the heights of the Andes Mountains.

Swinging into the water in Costa Rica.
Witnessed breathtaking Caribbean sunsets.

Scaled active Costa Rican volcanoes.

Sipped wine on the Chilean coast.

Hiked through the Colombian jungle.

Saw the Panama Canal.

Met Pablo Escobar’s brother.

And so much more.

But the most rewarding thing about this year were the people I met along the way—inspiring individuals who taught me to look at life differently. That there is more than one way to lead a good life. Nobody has all the answers.

Living in such a world, our hearts are the only reliable compass.

Watching a Caribbean sunset.
I followed mine here—to South America.

But now find it pointing north.

I am ready to go home to the land that I love, to rejoin the friends and family I miss, and begin the next chapter of my life. Although I don’t know where life’s winds will take me, I will always look back on my time in Colombia with infinite gratitude for allowing me to reclaim something I lost.

Last year, before embarking on this crazy adventure, I wrote that “…there can be no courage without fear and no real reward without risk.”

After a year in Colombia, I have learned to summon the courage to face any fear and that is, in and of itself, the ultimate reward.

Watching over Bogota.
I am fired up. I am ready to begin my adult life in earnest; kick some butt and establish myself in the working world; become economically independent; form new relationships; maybe even find someone crazy enough to share it all with me.

Tomorrow, I will board a plane that will take me home. What awaits me there, I don’t know.

But something tells me I’ll be able to handle it.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Guest Blogger: Zach from Pintando Caminos

My friend and former WorldTeacher, Zach Binsfeld asked if he could write a blog post to promote the non-profit organization he now works for, Pintando Caminos. His foundation helps underserved Bogota youth with after school programs, giving them the support they need to succeed in life.

Here it is...

Investing in the Future
By Zach Binsfeld

The other day when I was at the organization where I work (Pintando Caminos),Valeria, who is in 3rd grade, approached me to say thank you for helping her with a school project she had been working on so she wouldn't fail English. It turns out, she told me, that after spending a couple days working with us in our homework help program her project got the best score in the class - and she passed English. I felt warm in my chest and about as happy as can be, because I knew that she had done all the hard work of learning on her own.

All I had done was help her understand the instructions and focus a little, and encourage her. These are things that her teachers in her school – with limited resources, classes of 40 or more students, and sometimes just 2 hours of class per subject, per week – often are unable to do. So when she thanked me I told her I was proud of her. I really was.

Valeria wants to be a veterinarian when she grows up. I know she’s perfectly capable, but when I look at her longing eleven-year-old eyes I can’t help but wonder if she’ll make it, if she’ll really be given access to the kinds of opportunities that allow her to break cycle of poverty that has trapped her family for generations.

I wonder the same for the other boys and girls. Years from now, will I learn that Valeria and her friends have grown into healthy young men and women, who are bettering themselves and working hard to realize their dreams and the dreams of their community?

Or will I find another succession of desperate adolescents who have replaced hope with the sad truth of our present reality, who spend their nights surviving and escaping their pain by any means necessary? I never try to answer this question because I know it’s purpose is to motivate me into action rather than get me to speculate about an uncertain future – and because I know that its answer depends on how we collectively respond as fellow humans.

The truth is that small initiatives like Pintando Caminos don’t have the power to change the whole world, or a whole country, or even one community. That depends on the people in those communities, and on the direction we take as a global society. But places like Pintando Caminos represent what we hope to achieve in the future. They show us that there are people willing to invest their time and energy in the most important sustainable resource we have – our children – and our children are eager to demonstrate that if we give them the opportunity they are ready to learn and share with the world the wisdom and simplicity of their youth.

I’m the first to admit that one more youth organization in one more oppressed neighborhood in one more difficult city in some other country is not going to solve the world’s problems, but I can also say with confidence that Pintando Caminos is eliciting the best out of children like Valeria. I am learning from them that such places serve as examples of a future that has the potential to become reality if we only work hard and long enough out of love.

The most profound gift that such organizations give – to all of us – is hope for a better tomorrow. But the most tangible gifts that Pintando Caminos gives to the kids its serves is the self-value and self-confidence that come from having full stomachs and the chance to thrive as learners, and, as kids who like to play and laugh and explore.

Zachary Binsfeld

For more information on Pintando Caminos, or to donate, visit our project page:

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Salud, Dinero, Amor

In Colombia whenever someone sneezes, another will say, salud or health.

If you sneeze a second time, they will say, dinero or money.

The third time you sneeze, they say, amor or love.

Salud is having good health—a strong and able body and absence of sickness.

Dinero is having the means to provide for oneself—not necessarily lavish but comfortable.

And amor is what it’s really all about—having those who you care deeply for no matter what.

This Thanksgiving I am going to be thankful for these three things.

Salud, dinero, amor.

The only three things I’ll ever really need.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The End of Service Conference

Manizales, Colombia.
Last weekend I flew to Manizales in Colombia’s Zona Cafeteria to attend the WorldTeach End of Service Conference. Arriving on Friday morning, it felt good to be back—I hadn’t been there since my visit back over Semana Santa. Since we had to wake up at 4 a.m. to catch our 6 a.m. flight, we spent most of the day napping—the conference was scheduled to begin in earnest the following day.

That night, we went to a local theater to watch the Manizales volunteers perform songs with their students in English as part of a presentation with Manizales Billingue, WorldTeach’s partner in the city. Decked out in their holiday costumes, the kids were adorable enough to make even the Grinch smile. They sang English songs to the theme of the “last day of school.” Afterward, all of the volunteers sang alongside the students as they intermittently waved at their families in the audience. Overall, it looked like the kids had the time of their lives, getting their two hours and forty-five minutes of fame.

Universidad Catolica de Manizales
When the show ended, we went out to grab a drink with some of the Manizales volunteers. It was strange hanging out, knowing that we would soon part ways, possibly for forever. We had all come a long way since our first days at Santa Cruz during WorldTeach Orientation—many of us now spoke decent or excellent Spanish, we were comfortable being in Colombia, and had overcome countless challenges throughout the year.

Unfortunately, we were not all there—due to budget issues, WorldTeach was holding two separate conferences, one for the volunteers on the coast (Baru, Cartagena, Monteria, Soledad) and one for the interior (Bogota and Manizales). Luckily, I had been able to say my goodbyes to the coastal volunteers during my October visit to La Costa.

After a long night, the next morning a rolled out of bed and dragged myself to Universidad Catolica de Manizales, where we were meeting for the conference. Although many of us were very…er… sleepy, we had a productive day talking about our experiences teaching. It felt good hearing that I was not the only one who has had a frustrating year trying to punch through the Colombian bureaucratic BS to actually accomplish what I came here to do.

I made it!
We also had practical sessions covering resume-writing and how to leverage our experience in Colombia as we pursue our next professional endeavors. Although helpful for obvious reasons it also pressed the issue in my mind just what the heck I am going o do when I return home for good in three weeks. But more on this later.

That evening, our field director, Tara, sent us on a scavenger hunt-esque mission o follow clues spread throughout the main plaza that would, in theory, lead us to a final secret destination. Sadly, the game soon fell apart when confusion about leaving behind discovered clues causes many of the groups to hit dead ends. Then, as if to spite us, God made it rain on us.

Luckily, I was wise to Tara’s evil plan and knew that they were making dinner at the hostel/house where the Bogotanos were staying. Sure enough, we arrived as Tara and Lynn were finishing up preparing our Thanksgiving dinner.

Gradually, the other volunteers trickled in, each more soaked than the last. When everyone had finally arrived, we enjoyed some awesome Thanksgiving food and our last night together.

The Bogota and Manizales volunteers.
Sunday morning came and along with it, the final day of the conference. After an enlightening ice breaker game of “Never Have I Ever”, we commenced with the final sessions of our WorldTeach careers. We talked about readjusting to life back in the states and the things we were looking forward to back home. At the end we all received plaques commemorating our year of service in Colombia.

Later, we headed to Juan Valdez café to have one last hang-out and take a group photo. After that, we said our goodbyes and went our separate ways.

Eventually, it was time for the four Bogotá volunteers to go back to our lovely mountain home—but the weather would ensure a complicated return.

When we arrived at the tiny Manizales airport, we learned that our flight had been canceled. Not only that, but we would need to take a nearly two hour bus ride to catch a flight in the in the neighboring city of Pereira.

On the bus to Pereira.
Given the region’s frequent mudslides, I felt that I’d rather take my chances flying through inclement weather, but choice is a luxury Colombia rarely affords.

We loaded onto a questionable-looking bus, given apologetic juice boxes and ham sandwiches, and sent out our merry way through the rain-soaked Colombian countryside. Although it was hardly a smooth ride, I somehow managed to drift in and out of sleep for most of the two-hour journey. Finally, the bus pulled in to the airport in Pereira.

After spending the next few hours waiting around at the Pereira airport, it was time to board the plane back to Bogotá. Passing through the boarding room, I encountered one of the most amazing things I have ever seen in South America: a vending machine that sells beer.

Awesomeness incarnate.
I will repeat that.

A vending machine that sells beer.

Move over, Machu Picchu.

At any rate, we got on a scary propeller plane in the dark and took off for Bogotá. Thirty minutes later, after I had barely made it through a single music album on my iPod, we landed at El Dorado International Airport.

Yes, our bus ride to Pereira took four times longer than our actual flight to Bogotá.

Colombia is like that.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Operation: Sorpresa

Student protesters blocking the road in Bogota.
One day back in September, my brother Jimmy sent me a proposition via Facebook. My mission—if I chose to accept it—was to fly home for a weekend in November to surprise my mom for her 50th birthday. Financing the operation was my dad, who was planning a big birthday bash to celebrate my mom’s half-century of existence.

For me, it was a no-brainer—a chance to go home after 11 months away, to return to the land of good Mexican food, my golden retriever, and free refills. I booked transport back to arrive in California on November 11, the day of the party.

Being such a high-stakes mission, success would be contingent on secrecy and I stressed to my dad and brother the importance of keeping the knowledge of my sneaky return on a need-to-know basis. I told only my friends Derek and Brian, whom I recruited to assist with the logistics of picking me up from the airport and giving me a safehouse to hide out in until it was time to go to the party.

In the two months leading up to the party, I commenced a campaign of disinformation to mislead my mom. Utilizing Facebook, Skype, and even this blog, I sowed the seeds of doubt in my mom’s mind that I would be coming home any earlier than December 10th. After learning that the number of people in the know about the operation was growing well outside of the desirable parameters, I became alarmed—my younger brother Danny told me he knew, followed by my cousin Kenan, and even my cousin Jennifer living in Spain.

My mom surprised to see me.
Worried that our secret mission was compromised, I contacted Jimmy to see what the heck was going on. Dad, he told me, was either under the influence of some psychotropic drug, or he was just excitedly telling people about my premature homecoming and then forgetting about it.

As the days drew ever closer to zero hour, my mom exhibited no suspicious behavior to suggest she was wise to our evil plan. So utter was her ignorance that I became paranoid and began to suspect that she had found out long ago and my family was conspiring to make me think that she was still in the dark.

Finally, the day of the operation arrived. On Thursday, November 10 at 20:00 hours, I left my Bogotá apartment, taking a taxi to the El Dorado International Airport. Along the way, the operation faced its first roadblock—literally. Student protesters demonstrating against the Colombian government’s education policies crowded the street bearing banners and waving patriotic flags. The taxi driver cursed when he realized we weren’t going anywhere if we stayed on the Septima and decided to turn left onto a TransMilenio-only road, breaking about a half-dozen traffic laws in the process.

But in Colombia, traffic laws are more like suggestions, anyway.

Much to my relief, we made it back onto a legal road without dying and, having circumvented the protesting hordes, were now relatively home-free; however, recent rain had flooded the main thoroughfare to the airport and we were delayed by a police checkpoint controlling traffic as it passed over the inundated road.

With my brother and fellow conspirator, Jimmy.
At 21:00 hours, I finally made it to the airport, awkwardly lugging everything I owned in Colombia with three large bags. My plan was to bring home everything now and return with a light travel pack to finish up the final month.

After checking my luggage, I proceeded through the security checkpoint and headed to the departure gate. The first leg of my journey would take me to JFK International Airport in New York and from there, to San Francisco.

There was an unusual amount of security in the departure lounge at my gate. To enter the lounge, I had to show my passport and boarding pass to an airline attendant, subject my carry-on luggage to a thorough hand-search, and allow myself to be frisked.

My redeye flight from Bogotá to New York was uneventful and uncomfortable. With an aisle seat, I had nothing to lay my head against, making falling asleep impossible. I passed the time listening to my iPod and watching the plane’s northward progress on the little screen in front of me.

When we touched down in New York, my heart began to pound—this was the first time I would step foot on American soil in nearly a year. Exiting the plane, I headed to immigration, where a large line had already formed. After almost an hour of waiting, I approached the immigration window and gave the immigration officer my passport.

Dancing with my mom.
“Good morning,” I greeted.

The officer half scowled and said, “Take off your glasses.”

I removed my glasses and he held up my passport to compare my face with the passport photo.

He handed me back my passport.

“Thanks,” I said, “Have a good day.”

The frowning officer said nothing and moved on to the next person in line.

New Yorkers.

Having made it through immigration, I headed to the domestic terminals, taking a tram to the other side of the airport, exiting the building, and walking through the chill November air to arrive at yet another security checkpoint. After being violated by TSA’s Superman x-ray vision machine, I finally arrived at the departure gate for my flight to San Francisco.

There were several iPad 2s set up at tables near the gate and I passed the time playing around with one, also taking the opportunity to send a message to Derek to let him know that I was now in-country. Sitting there, surrounded by my countrymen, I could not help but feel out of place—after a year of being the odd gringo out in a country of Spanish-speakers, it felt strange hearing only English being spoken.

Hungry, I went to a little food place to grab a quick breakfast and was immediately horrified by the prices.

Derek pouring the aguardiente.
$5.99 for an egg and sausage bagel?

That was like $10,000 pesos! Spoiled by cheap Colombian food prices, I was now one stingy gringo.

A little while later I boarded the plane to San Francisco, this time ending up with a window seat. I found myself sitting next to two men, one a tech guy from Silicon Valley and the other who I initially took to be a talkative old grandfather type. The three of us made small talk for a while, first about the awesomeness of tablet-devices (iPads, Amazon Fires, etc.). Eventually, the conversation progressed in typical fashion to what we all did for a living.

When I asked the older gentleman what he did, he responded with, “I have a website called”

“Oh,” I said, not fully understanding, “What do you do on your website?”

“I make prophecies,” he replied.

“Oh, cool,” I said, wishing I hadn’t opened this door.

The old man began telling me his life story—primarily how twenty years earlier God had chosen him as a medium to communicate with mankind about the coming Armageddon. Possessed by the Holy Spirit, he had been compelled to write four books about prophecy and the coming End of Days. When I asked him when the world was scheduled to expire, he only said, “Within my lifetime.”

Seeing as how the guy was probably pushing 65, it did not bode well for my future plans.

White people dancing.
Luckily, the other guy in our aisle distracted the man long enough for me to slip on my headphones and whip out my kindle. The rest of the way home, I half-listened to the old man’s matter-of-fact attitude about being the Voice of God and the coming destruction of all that we know and love.

After nearly twenty hours of travel, I finally arrived at San Francisco International Airport and, miraculously, all of my checked bags made it without incident.

It was14:00 hours on 14 November 11th.

The day of the party.

My friend and fellow conspirator, Derek picked me up from the airport and we made a B-line for In-N-Out to accomplish one of the mission’s secondary objectives—securing awesome American cheeseburgers. There, my friend Brian met up with us and afterward, we went to his apartment to hide out until the party.

That night, we drove to a street near my parents’ house and called my brother to see if my mom had already left for the party. As luck would have it, she had and he and my dad were still at home. I decided to risk the whole operation to go say hello to my golden retriever, Gerico.

I’m not sure how dog memory works, but Gerico was definitely excited when he saw me. Although I had been gone eleven months, in dog years, that was almost seven years.

Luckily, he didn’t have a heart attack.

It was 18:00 hours and my dad said we should wait until more people arrived before launching the surprise attack, so we decided to bide our time at the local microbrewery near where the party was being held.

At 19:00 hours, we headed over to the party, located at a local banquet hall near Burlingame’s largest park. Our plan of attack was to enter through the backdoor, slither through the kitchen, then I would sing happy birthday to my mom.

Arriving at the building, I could see lights on and hear people chatting inside. We called Jimmy and he came out the back door with the DJ. The DJ told me he would make an announcement to get everyone’s attention, and then it was my time to shine. My drunk little brother, Danny, ran around the side of the building and tried unsuccessfully to startle us.

Everyone took their positions.

It was go time.

Derek and Brian waited with me in the kitchen as the DJ got everyone’s attention, letting everyone know that there was going to be a surprise.

Mission Accomplished.
Then I began to sing, “Happy Birthday.”

Walking out into the main room, I saw my mom along with the rest of the guests. She looked right at me, then back at the DJ, the visual not having registered. Then she looked back at me, her eyes lighted up, and she charged me like a mother goose discovering one of her long-lost goslings.

Operation Sorpresa was a raging success. And quite literally because we all raged quite hard that evening, thanks to the open bar and the aguardiente I had smuggled in from Colombia.

Mission Accomplished.