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.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Life, Death, and Everything in Between

With Aunt Marsha when I was 2.
I recently learned that my great aunt passed away at her home in San Bernardino, California. Aunt Marsha, as we called her, was a kind and warm woman who would do anything for those she loved. When my dad was young, he and his mother (my grandmother) lived with Aunt Marsha and her husband, Robbie, in San Bernardino, California. She was like a second mother to him.

Since we lived pretty far away from Aunt Marsha, I only saw her a few times in my life. The first time when I was two, the second when I was 5, and the third, two years ago, when I went down to check on her with my dad after Uncle Robbie passed away.

Aunt Marsha was a good woman and I will never forget her.

I just want the world to know that.

Although the struggle of coming to terms with our own mortality is as old as time itself, it is the single most difficult thing we can ever do. In the United States, it seems that rather than face it, we turn away from it and act as if we will live forever—often leading us down a road filled with shallowness and vanity.

In Colombia, life and death are in a constant state of flux and the certainty of uncertainty gives people no choice but to stare mortality in the face. Living among Colombians these many months, I have come to appreciate their outlook—that life is so brief, and death so permanent that we cannot afford to squander the precious time we are afforded.

Plan for tomorrow, but live for today.

I like the sound of that.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Passing the Torch

Tasha Miley.
I am leaving Colombia in 34 days.

Looking back at all that has transpired, I can hardly believe that my time here is almost up—my contract with WorldTeach will end and I, along with the other volunteers, will return home.

Although my Colombian story is coming to an end, for others, it is only just beginning. In January 2012, a new group of WorldTeach volunteers will arrive in Colombia to claim the torch and carry it forward into a new year.

Months ago, one of these soon-to-be volunteers, Tasha Miley, contacted me through my blog asking about WorldTeach and my experiences in Colombia. Taking her under my wing, I helped her through the application process just as Lauren Doll helped me. Much to my delight, Tasha was accepted into the WorldTeach Colombia for 2012 and is now preparing for her January 2012 departure.

“I am excited about the opportunity to experience living and teaching overseas and I know that it will be both a rewarding and challenging experience,” says Tasha, “I have always felt that it is my purpose in life to make positive change. I just think that everyone in this world has the ability to make the world a little bit better off. I am hoping that I can do just that with my teaching position in Colombia.”

Tasha is currently finishing up her final semester at American University in Washington, D.C. and shortly after graduating in December, will board a plane to Bogotá. In Tasha, I see the same passion that brought me to Bogotá—a conviction that a better world is possible and a desire to actively work to make it a reality. It is comforting knowing that our work to combat Colombian inequality will continue through such capable people as Tasha. I have absolute confidence in her abilities and know that she will kick serious butt when she gets down here.

But in order to make this possible, Tasha needs your help—she is currently raising money to help cover the costs of living and teaching in Colombia. If you would like to help her, please donate to her cause—every dollar helps.

Also, like her Facebook support page and check out her blog to stay up to date with her goings on throughout the year.

John Quincy Adams once said, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” 

A year ago, I had no idea that in taking this chance, I could inspire others to do the same.

I am starting to see what this whole leadership thing is all about.

My time in Colombia will soon pass—but there will be others. 

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Art of Waiting

Don't let the dimples fool you: this is one crafty kid.
I have always been pretty bad at waiting for things.

Once, as a child, I asked for a computer game for my birthday. As the days crawled ever closer to August 28th, I could not stand the anticipation and decided to go snooping one day when my parents were out. After digging around in their closet, I found a rectangular gift, neatly wrapped up in birthday-themed wrapping paper—it had to be the game.

Unable to resist temptation, I took action.

Cue Mission Impossible music.

Surgically peeling off the tape on one side, I carefully removed the game box from the wrapping paper. Next, I opened the box, took out the game disk, and went downstairs to install it on my computer. My heart began pounding when I heard a car pull up to the curb. Creeping to the window, I peered through the curtains and saw that my mom’s minivan had just arrived.

I was out of time.

Avoiding mom's detection.
Running back to my computer, I swept up all of the evidence and brought it into my parent’s room. I replaced the game disk with a random CD, put the case back inside the box and slipped it back inside the wrapping paper, resealing the gift with the same tape.

Hurrying back downstairs, I sat down at my computer just as my mom stepped through the door.

“What are you playing?” she asked, walking in with some groceries.

I kept my cool and responded as ambiguously as possible, “A game.”

To her, all my games looked the same and she accepted my answer, unaware of what a nefarious little shit her son was.

But all these years later, after living in Bogotá for eleven months, I have become a master in the art of waiting.

I heard somewhere that Bogotanos spend more than half their lives waiting for and on public transportation. Given Colombia’s penchant for inefficiency and Bogotá’s sheer enormity, I believe it.

Looking back over this year, I have probably spent a good chunk of my time waiting—for the bus, on the bus, and in line to buy bus passes. And that’s just TransMilenio. I have also spent a ridiculous amount of time waiting for the colectivos that take me to and from school.

TransMilenio at rush hour.
In being forced to wait for, well, everything, many gringos can go crazy.

But I’ve found a way to compensate.

Crammed amongst a sea of sweaty people in a TransMilenio bus at rush hour, I search for my happy place like in Happy Gilmore. Entering a state of quasi-consciousness, I think simultaneously about everything and nothing. In this state, it does not bother me that a tiny 85-year old woman has her face awkwardly smashed against my stomach; that a fat, hairy man’s B.O.-sodden armpit is shoved in my nose; or that I know this will be my lot in life for the next 30-40 minutes.

Learning how to wait is one of the greatest gifts Colombia has given me.

But you should probably still make sure that my other gifts remain well-hidden.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Election Day

Soldiers on patrol in Bogota.
Every day, when I walk down to catch the bus to school, I pass Museo Militar de Colombia, the country’s main military museum. Soldiers with automatic rifles stand guard at either end of the street leading up the museum to protect against those who might attack it. Colombia is, after all, still in the middle of a decades-long civil war and any military installation—even a museum—is a potential target.

Today, when I walked down to the tienda to buy some groceries, I encountered twice as many military guards and several police units on patrol. The increased security came as no surprise because today was Election Day in Colombia for local and regional offices.

It has been a rough couple of months for Colombian democracy—according to Colombia Reports, 41 political candidates were assassinated this year and many feared more attacks would occur today. To discourage alcohol-related violence, the government enacted ley seca (dry law), prohibiting the sale of alcohol Saturday evening through Monday. If nobody knew before that there were elections going on this weekend, they certainly found out when they learned they were unable to buy alcohol to celebrate Halloween last night.

Luckily, today’s elections came and went without any major attacks save for an attempted assassination in the Arauca department in northeast Colombia. This morning, the convoy of Representative Albeiro Vanegas Osorio, vice president of Colombia’s House of Representatives, came under attack by gunmen. Although Representative Osorio survived the attack, his driver was killed. Despite this and a few other acts of violence, the Colombian government said that there was an 86% drop in attacks compared to the last local elections in 2007.

Besides direct violence, corruption is probably the biggest threat to Colombian democracy; however, the Colombian government took steps to curb it. The government canceled 4 million identity cards (nearly 10% of eligible voters) suspected of being involved in electoral fraud. Even so, in at least one town in northern Colombia, there were more registered voters than actual residents.

Although Colombia is technically one of Latin America’s most long-lasting and stable democracies, the complicated nature of Colombian politics is enough to make even a Political Science major’s head spin. Regardless, Colombian democracy will live to fight another day and that’s more than many countries in this region can say.  

Thursday, October 27, 2011

La Costa Chronicles Part 3: Sweatin’ in Santa Marta

The Dreamer Hostel, Santa Marta.
We arrived in Santa Marta just before sunset after a five-hour bus ride down the coastal highway. Along the way, we had befriended some fellow American travelers, bonding over our mutual fear of premature death instilled by our happy-go-lucky driver’s penchant for dancing at the wheel.

Glad to still be counted among the living, Derek and I exited the bus and carried our bags inside the hostel. My first impression of The Dreamer Hostel was, “wow.” The hostel felt like a villa, with an open-air interior surrounded by nation-themed dormitories. We were assigned to Spain. There was an Italian restaurant, a bar, and even a swimming pool. Compared to the hostels I was used to, this was a major upgrade. And for all of this, it only cost about $11 USD a night.

After meeting up with my fellow WorldTeach volunteers, Pam and Katie, we sat down to eat at the Italian restaurant. As far as hostel food goes, it was actually pretty good.

Getting Iced by Pam.
I had spaghetti, in case you were wondering.

By the time we finished eating, a group of hostel-goers had gathered for trivia night and we joined them. Broken up into teams, we competed to answer questions about Colombia, Santa Marta, and general world history.

In the middle of the game, Pam came up to me with a bag of Goldfish crackers Derek had smuggled into the country and asked if I wanted some. Goldfish are my weakness, my brain food, and I had missed them dearly living in such a Goldfishless country.

Of course, I said yes.

Parque Tayrona entrance.
But when I reached into the bag to scoop up some of the little cheddar delights, my fingers found themselves touching a cold, hard bottle.

I looked up at her and said, “Seriously?”

She nodded and said, “Gotcha.”

Damn the Smirnoff gods… I had just been Iced again!

Confused but amused Europeans and Australians watched as I took a knee and polished off the Smirnoff Ice in one large chug.

The next day, Derek, Pam, and I hopped on a collectivo bus headed towards Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona, a national park near Santa Marta, where we planned to hike through the coastal jungle and spend the night on hammocks by the beach.

The bus dropped us off in a small village and we walked up a paved road to the park’s entrance. Although there was only a small group of people waiting to buy passes, it took us more than an hour to move to the front of the line—efficiency is not one of Colombia’s strong suits.

Derek and Pam hiking.
When we had finally registered our passports and gotten our passes, we waited around some more for a sketchy bus to drive us and some other hikers up to the staging area. The staging area turned out to be a surprisingly well-kept campground and we passed through it to head to the main hiking trail.

Although we had only just begun, I was already drenched in sweat—on Colombia’s Caribbean coast sweat is, like death and taxes, a fact of life. It is everywhere—covering your arms and legs, under your brow, and dripping down your back. There is little you can do to escape it—save for hiding out in air conditioned shopping malls.

Unfortunately, we were fresh out of shopping malls.

Sweat aside, it was a scenic and enjoyable hike. Along the way, I got to see some monkeys and way too many industrious leaf-cutting ants. We made our way through the dense jungle and soon ran into the coast, where we followed the trail along the beach. Walking on the beach next to the thick jungle made me feel like I had been teleported into an episode of LOST.

Cabo San Juan, Parque Tayrona.
Luckily, there were no smoke monsters in the vicinity.

After stopping to eat lunch on a large rock next to the ocean, we continued down the trail, passing through camping areas and locally-run tiendas selling everything from water to coconut rice. Finally, we arrived at our destination: Cabo San Juan.

Cabo San Juan is essentially a large, outdoor hostel. You pay to spend the night in either a hammock or tent and there is a restaurant that provides meals. You can also buy beer at their tienda. Although it was nearly dusk, Derek, Pam, and I were determined to drink a hard-earned beer and swim in the warm Caribbean waters.

Hiking in Parque Tayrona.
Beers in hand, we hung out in the water, befriending some Canadian and American backpackers who also happened to be staying at The Dreamer Hostel in Santa Marta. By random chance, one of the American girls heard me mention WorldTeach and she said she was friends with Adam—she had gone to college with him.

South America is indeed a small world.

When the sun finally set, the bugs came out in full force, and we retreated to shore.

That night, we ate dinner at the restaurant where everyone else had congregated. I had a traditional Colombian dish of chicken with rice and papas—not bad. We befriended a pair of American travelers and hung out with the other people from our hostel, playing some card games under the restaurant’s lights.

Our furry escort.
When it was finally time sleep, we headed to our hammocks, which were densely packed under a thatch-roof structure. Although some drunk guy had stolen my hammock, I managed to find a free one and claimed it as my own. This hammock-sleeping experience was much less relaxing than the one I’d had on Playa Blanca. For starters, Cabo San Juan was much more crowded and we were packed so tightly together that you were screwed if anyone near you was a snorer. Adding to the sleep impediments was a vociferous donkey that made annoying donkey noises all throughout the night. As if to add insult to injury, God decided to send a tropical storm our way, sending down torrents of pouring rain down against the thatch roof—making it like trying to sleep under Niagara Falls. Eventually, the snoring, the donkey, and the rain formed a twisted jungle lullaby and I drifted off to sleep.

By the next morning the rain had passed and we rolled out of our hammocks to catch some breakfast before taking off. Since Pam needed to be back in Santa Marta in time to catch a bus to Cartagena later that day, we headed out early.

With Derek in Parque Tayrona.
As we backtracked through the jungle, passing the homes of the locals that worked in the park, a small dog decided to tag along, following us as we walked along the beach. Every time we stopped to drink some water, the dog waited and looked back at us. After we had gone a few miles, I began to worry that the dog would not be able to make it back home, but once we left the beach for the interior, our furry escort decided he had gone far enough and peaced out.

We had been walking for a while when I realized that we were not on the same path that we had gone in on. I normally have an above-average sense of direction and knew we must have taken a wrong turn somewhere. We were passing over a muddy mess of a road covered with horse crap and mud holes. The path was also slippery and if you fell, you would literally be eating… well you know.

After a few hours of hiking, we were relieved to see that we had made it to the staging area. We took another sketchy bus down the hill and returned to the hostel in Santa Marta.

With my nemesis, Pam.
That night, Derek and I headed to the nearby town of Taganga to meet up with my friends Alyssa (my Baruvian Icer) and Nina. I had heard many things about Taganga, the foremost being that it was a fun party town. When we arrived in the small seaside pueblo, I thought someone must have been mistaken—the place was run down and full of trash, much like southern Bogotá.

We headed to “downtown” Taganga, where there was a concert going on in a park by the beach. Amidst the Colombian crowd, we hung out and listened to salsa and reggaeton and watched the locals pull some crazy dance moves.

Later, we headed to a bar on the cliff side that was supposed to be fun. When we entered the bar, the first thought that entered my mind was, Welcome to Gringolandia. The place was filled to the brim with gringos of every shape and size; roughneck Australians, overly dressed Englishmen, and wasted Americans.

In Parque Tayrona.
I bought a beer and turned to join my friends on the dance floor, when a shady Colombian approached me to offer what he claimed was a good deal for coke. I ignored him and continued on to my friends. Despite being an overly gringo affair, it was a fun night and we had a good time dancing on the open-air terrace overlooking the Caribbean.

The next day, I lounged in a hammock back at the hostel, surprisingly not hungover and enjoying the sun’s warmth. I tried not to think about the fact that the next day I would be returning to stormy, freezing Bogotá and appreciated the day as best I could.

Soon, it would be back to the grind.

Friday, October 21, 2011

La Costa Chronicles Part 2: Kickin’ it in Cartagena

The sun about to set near Cartagena.
Standing on the old Spanish wall watching the sun set over the tranquil Caribbean waters, I sensed a pervasive romantic feeling in the air—one that seemed to penetrate the skin and simultaneously fill one’s being with both hope and despair—like looking upon the girl of your dreams and knowing you could never have her.

In Cartagena—within the old city, at least—an unshakeable sense of history transports you to another time; when the city was the main Spanish port for exporting plundered South American gold back to Spain; when the warning bells would sound, signaling an impending English attack. But you are also reminded of the city’s darker side—when it served as the South American hub for importing African slaves. Nevertheless, Cartagena—like a beautiful girl with a complicated past—draws you in without letting go, a siren that, if you aren’t careful, can consume your very soul.

When the sun finally vanished over the horizon, I headed back to the hostel to await my friend’s arrival.

The Old City.
The day after I picked up my friend and former college roommate, Derek, from the airport, we headed into the old city’s narrow streets to find something to eat. Despite the relatively early hour, the city was already bustling with tourists and street vendors setting up their wares. Pushy people waiting outside restaurants accosted us in broken English in hopes of convincing us to eat at their establishment.

Passing a bar, one guy said in decent English, “Come to party here tonight brother. We have lots of pretty girls for you.”

Without stopping, I threw him a “No, gracias. Estoy bien.” (the most useful Spanish phrase a gringo can know in Cartagena)

After breakfast, we headed back to the hostel to pick up my friend, Jessica, and set off for the day’s main activity—touring Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas.

Derek and I in front of Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas.
Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas sits on the hill of San Lázaro overlooking Cartagena’s Old City. Built in 1536 to defend the city against pirate attacks, it was one of the most impregnable defensive military structures the Spanish ever built in the Americas. Walking up the steep incline to the cannon-studded parapets, I could clearly see why.

My inner history geek rejoiced as we descended into the fort’s dark tunnels—old soldiers’ quarters and what must have been a jail for prisoners of war. Closing my eyes, I imagined what it would be like to be in this very spot hundreds of years earlier, the fort shaking under the relentless bombardment of English cannons.

Exiting the tunnels and ascending to the cannon-fortified walls, I decided that I’d rather be the one defending the fort than someone trying to attack it—I couldn’t imagine the attackers faring well against such a strategically-superior structure.

Beware the elderly Canadian armies!
Although the English may have failed to take the fort centuries earlier, today a camera-wielding horde of English-speaking white people had succeeded in storming the position after paying a meager $16,000 pesos at the ticket kiosk. Well-dressed and looking way to well-off to be backpackers, these older gringos could have only originated from one place—cruise ships.

My suspicions were confirmed when an older man wearing a bike helmet meandered over to where we were sitting and asked me, matter-of-factly, “What ship are you from?”

“I’m not from a ship,” I said, “I live here.”

He gave me a fish-eyed look and paused, as if waiting for me to tell him that I was just kidding.

In the tunnels.
“Really?” He said. “What do you do here?”

“I teach English in Bogotá,” I replied, “I’m in Cartagena for vacation.”

“How cool,” he said, “Well, I am gonna go take a ride down through the old city. Our ship guide says it’s a bad idea, but I think he’s just being overly cautious.”

Before I could tell him that the ship guide was absolutely right and that it was a terrible idea to attempt to ride a bike through the Darwinistic nightmare of a Colombian city, he had already turned to head back down to the fortress entrance. On the back of his helmet I spotted the red maple leaf of the Canadian flag. Canadians—that made perfect sense.

That night, we sat out on our hostel’s balcony overlooking the centro’s streets. After befriending a roughneck Australian, his Canadian girlfriend, and a quiet Norwegian guy, we decided to go grab a drink nearby. Since it was Monday, our options were limited, so we settled for the bar with the cheapest drink deals in the main square near the clock tower.  

Outside the bar, a swanky fellow with a creepy beard approached us and said in less-than-good English, “You want drugs and girls? I got them.”

On the fort walls.
After politely declining the gentleman’s gracious offer, we went upstairs to the rooftop bar. The place was deserted save for an old gringo and two younger Colombian women and we took over a corner table and ordered a bottle of rum and some Coca-Colas.

Drink in hand, I went to the balcony to look out at the city. With the full moon shining overhead and the city lit up below, I couldn’t help but smile. All I needed was someone to share it with, and it would have been a perfect moment.

A Colombian woman appeared next to me and leaned on the balcony to take in the view. I looked at her and said, “Hola.”

“Hola,” she said.

I made small talk with her in Spanish for a few more minutes and when I asked her what she did for a living, she replied, “Soy un compañera de amor.”

Awesome … I had just spent the past few minutes making small talk with a Cartagenian prostitute.

When I told her I was not interested in her services, she peaced out so fast, I swear she left a dust trail. From the table, my friends laughed at my expense.

Cartagena at night.
As a gringo in Cartagena, it is common to be constantly offered illegal drugs and prostitutes, a reality that bothered me a lot while I was there. I get it, a lot of gringos come to Cartagena for these things, but I found it hard not to feel insulted every time someone assumed I was interested in such things. Staying at hostels on the coast and being among backpackers, I soon realized that a good number of them were indeed interested in cocaine and other illegal drugs, but more on this later.

The next day, Derek, Jessica and I took a bus an hour away from Cartagena to see one of the region’s most up-and-coming tourist attractions—Volcán de Lodo El Totumo. After making its way down an unusually well-maintained highway, the bus turned onto a gravel road, following it a ways until we arrived in front of what appeared to be a giant termite mound.  

Volcan de Lodo El Totumo.
Exiting the bus, we got in line to ascend the rickety wooden stairs to the volcano’s peak. The line moved slowly, but we eventually made it to the top and beheld one of the strangest sights we had ever seen. Several mud-lathered people sat submerged up to their chests in a silvery, sloppy mud, reminiscent of dinosaurs trapped in a tar pit. Some locals stood by the pit holding way too many cameras and taking pictures of the mud-covered tourists.

After waiting nearly a half an hour, we finally made it to the pit’s entrance point. I handed my camera to one of the locals and slipped into the mud. Being inside the El Totumo mud volcano was one of the most awkward yet awesome experiences of my life. The mud pit’s consistency made it so you could not sink below your chest and maneuvering yourself in the stuff was like trying to swim in half-melted butter.

Lying on my back, one of the locals gave me a mud “massage”, which was more akin to torture than comfort, but there was no way to turn them down. Once the three of us had been sufficiently mud-tortured and covered in mud, we simply stood (without actually standing on anything) there like flies trapped in Jell-O. I kept an eye on the guy with my camera to make sure it didn’t end up on Colombian eBay and he took pictures of us hanging out in the mud.

In the mud with Derek and Jessica.
When we decided that we had had enough, we climbed out and headed down another set of wooden stairs. Now resembling Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator, we waddled down to a nearby lake to rinse off.

In the water, a local woman sporting a small bucket began to toss water on me. As my height prevented her from splashing my upper body and head, I squatted down to make it easier, but drew the line when she told me to take off my shorts and waded deeper into the lake to rinse the rest of the mud off my body alone.

Since the lake was too shallow to swim in, I sat looking around at the others rinsing off around me. I saw another guy close to my age fall victim to the bucket lady and when he declined her attempts to bathe him, she said that there were piranhas and alligators in the lake—therefore it was best for her to do the job.

Piranhas or not, the lake was better than being molested by an old Colombian lady.

About to pick a fight with the ocean.
When we were reasonably cleaned-off (I would continue to find mud in my ears over the next several days), we returned to our bus where the locals were holding our cameras hostage until we paid them for their services. I told the guy to wait as I entered the bus to retrieve my money and when I returned, massage-torturer guy and bucket lady were there, demanding their cut of the gringo peso pie. After paying to get my camera back and being guilted into paying the other two opportunists, I boarded the bus and we left the mud volcano in our dust.

The bus drove a ways back towards Cartagena then turned onto a dirt road, through a poor-looking pueblo and stopped at a beach called Playa Mansanillo. The bus let us out and the tour guide said we had a half an hour to hang out on the beach until lunch was ready.

Eating Colombian food by the water.
Derek and Jessica hung out on the beach while I went to face the Caribbean waves—battling the ocean has been one of my favorite pastimes since childhood. The warm Caribbean waters felt like a bathtub and I swam out far enough to see the tall towers of Cartagena in the distance.

When lunch was ready, I came back to shore and we enjoyed a traditional coastal Colombian meal of chicken, coconut rice, and fried plátano. After lunch, the bus took us back to Cartagena.

Although I was loving my time in Cartagena, it was time to move on—the next day Derek and I would head further down the coast to Santa Marta, where we would meet up with my friend and fellow volunteer, Pam, and check out some Colombian jungle.