Friday, November 26, 2010

Pre-Departure: Crazy is as Crazy Does

Me, The Tall Gringo, and my dog, Gerico
 As you can see, I am pretty much as gringo as they come.

If, at first glance, my blue eyes, brown hair and pale skin don’t give it away, the second I open my mouth, you will soon learn that my conversational Spanish is about as good as George W. Bush's English.

I haven’t even been to Latin America before. Not even Mexico.

I am going to the one on the right
So when I tell people, “Colombia. Yeah, I’m going there,” they assume I’m talking about grad school.

But then I shake my head and say, “No, I’m going Colombia… the country.”

At first, they might say, “That’s cool! What a great experience that will be.”

But then the thought registers; cocaine and Shakira and guerillas, oh my!

Right about then, they look at me like I’m crazy. Not so much about the Shakira part, but definitely the other two things.

Maybe they’re right to look at me that way.

Things I am leaving behind
After all, I did sacrifice an impending promotion at a perfectly good “real world” job in order to leave behind everything I know and love to devote a year of my life making next to nothing helping disadvantaged populations in South America.

So, if I know that what I’m doing is crazy, why am I still doing it?

Well, I’ll tell you.

All my life, I’ve walked the practical path. I had a more or less cookie-cutter childhood, went to college, graduated in four years and found a “real” job. People told me I should be proud of how well I had done for myself, and I was, but nonetheless found myself in want of something more. I knew I could never be satisfied with doing well solely for myself; I also needed to find a way to do well for others. I needed to break away from the safe harbor and do something truly significant.

And then I found WorldTeach.
WorldTeach has placements all over the world. Duh

I first learned about WorldTeach from a friend of a friend who had participated in one of the organization’s programs in Southeast Asia. Intrigued, I did some of my own research and learned that WorldTeach is a non-profit, non-governmental organization founded by a group of Harvard students in 1986 in response to the need for educational assistance in developing countries. WorldTeach partners with local governments and non-profits to bring English-speaking volunteers into developing areas to work with underprivileged populations.

Due to the abundance of sketchy teach-abroad programs littering the Internet, I was at first wary, but the organization’s Harvard affiliation and a timely endorsement by my favorite New York Times columnist (and personal hero), Nicholas Kristof, reassured me it was legit.   

I knew I wanted to teach somewhere in Latin America because it would allow me to not only improve my Spanish speaking skills (a good career move), but also to discover a previously unexplored (but often joked about) piece of my Latin American heritage.

Numbers don't lie
Believe it or not, my grandmother was from Nicaragua, making me 25% Nicaraguan. Although she passed away a few years ago, I like to think she would be proud of me for what I am about to do and I am dedicating this trip to her memory.

But the question remains—why Colombia?

WorldTeach offers placements in only a few Latin American countries. Among these are Costa Rica, Chile, Ecuador and Colombia (and most recently, Panama). I did a bit of research looking into each of these countries and found myself inexorably drawn to Colombia.  Although Colombia was considered to be less safe than the other countries, it appeared to be the place where my efforts would have the greatest positive impact.

Colombia stands at a crossroads. After years of improving its security situation, the country can either continue down the path to peace and prosperity or fall back into the darkness it has worked so hard to escape. Ultimately, Colombia’s fate will be decided by its willingness and ability to invest in its most valuable resource—its people.

A WorldTeach classroom in Colombia
In the United States, there is a direct correlation between education and prosperity and the same is true in Colombia. As a volunteer educator, I will work to improve educational opportunities for disadvantaged Colombians and help them to build better lives. It will be a chance to do something good, something real—something truly significant.

I don’t mean to let on that it’s going to be easy; working in a developing country never is. I will face unforeseen challenges every day and success is anything but assured. I would also be lying if I said I am not a little nervous; this is hands-down the scariest, riskiest thing I have ever done.

Not Superman, but ready for the challenge
But there can be no courage without fear and no real reward without risk.

I have always talked about wanting to make the world a better place; this is my chance. No more talk; now is the time to act. If not now, then when? If not me, then who?

I’m not Superman. I’m not faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive or able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. I certainly can’t single-handedly save the world, much less a country as complex as Colombia.

But I'll be damned if I don't try.