Monday, January 31, 2011

The Beers of Bogotá

Benjamin Franklin once said, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”

Seriously, he did.

A Greek philosopher once said, “A country’s true character can be measured by the quality of its beer.”

Okay, maybe I made that one up.

At any rate, I am an American; therefore, I love beer. Naturally, I conducted a thorough investigation of Colombia’s beer culture, taking it upon myself to acquire first-hand data from the field.

Here are my results:

Poker—“Bogotá’s Budweiser”
With a suggested retail price of a mere $1,300 pesos (75 cents), this is every Colombia’s go-to beer. Whether you stop by a small-town tienda or visit one of Bogotá booming discotecas, you will find many a Colombian hand accompanied by a bottle of this popular brew. In this gringo’s opinion, Poker is, in fact, superior to Budweiser. Call him a communist, but it’s true. If you are pinching pesos but still want to have a good time, order a few Pokers and you will soon be fiesta-ing like its 1959.
Aguila—“Colombia’s Coor’s Light”
As Poker’s primary competitor, Aguila is also a popular go-to beer throughout the land of El Dorado. Although some might disagree, this gringo believes Aguila’s electrifying taste to be superior to Poker’s homeliness. It also comes in a cooler-looking bottle. Regardless, a few bottles of Aguila will have you impressing the senoritas with your gringo salsa moves in no time.

Redd’s—“South America’s Smirnoff Ice”
During this gringo’s first week in Colombia, he entered a small tienda and asked for a cerveza. The tienda owner, knowing he was a gringo, served him the most expensive beer he had—Redd’s. He took his first sip and was immediately reminded of the summer Icings of ’10. It was sweet, like cider, but with a hint of alcohol. It wasn’t until this gringo was halfway finished with the beer that his suspicions were confirmed when he learned it was actually a girl beer. Tired of Bros Icing Bros? Then come to Colombia and try Bros Redding Bros. It’s the next big thing.     

Club Colombia—“The Boston Lager of Bogotá”
While the lager known as Club Colombia is more expensive than its counterparts, you get what you pay for. It tastes almost like a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, but is advertized as a lager, and therefore must be classified as thus. Club Colombia’s superior taste and potency make it a popular choice for the Bogotá elite; however, gringos living off a volunteer’s stipend tend to avoid it.

A BBC Giraffe
Bogotá Beer Company
If you are a lover of freshly-brewed beers and also happen to be in Bogotá, then you are in luck. Bogota Beer Company is chain of brewery-restaurants throughout Northern Bogotá that offer the best beer in the country, hands-down. They offer a variety of house-made beers, from darker stouts to lighter golden beers. This gringo’s favorite is the Roja, which is reminiscent of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, which also happens to be his favorite American beer. If you are thirsty, be sure to order a giraffe, a literal tower of cerveza that will ensure everyone goes home happy.

Most Colombians will tell you that their beer is, in a word, shit. After many nights of exhausting methodical research, this gringo must disagree. While Colombia’s beers may not win any international awards, they still get job done more gracefully than Keystone, Natural Ice or PBR and that counts for something.

PLEASE NOTE: Although beer-lovers will be happy in Colombia, connoisseurs of fine wines should probably just go to Argentina or Chile.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Nueva Esperanza

Driving up the hill
The underpowered engines of my host family’s Chevy Spark roared as they struggled to propel the vehicle up the steep incline towards the school. Jorge, my host father, maneuvered the Getz to avoid steamrolling a host of neighborhood dogs who slept haphazardly on the increasingly rugged road.

“These dogs never move,” he said as he carefully navigated through the mammalian minefield, “It’s like they don’t care if they live or die.”

I grimaced as we narrowly missed crushing the skull of a sleeping Scottish terrier. We turned a sharp corner and continued up a narrow road, passing pockets of scattered refuse as we chugged along like the Little Engine That Could.

Although we were technically still in Bogotá, the neighborhood could have fooled central Baghdad for one of its own. Poorly-constructed buildings and half-paved roads stretched out in all directions—a stark contrast to the booming modern buildings of Northern Bogotá.

As we reached the top of the hill, a structure came into view that could not have been more out of place. The modern building was tall and wide and had the words, NUEVA ESPERANZA written above the main entrance.

Nueva Esperanza.

New Hope.

My school assignment for the year.

Jorge dropped me off with my host mother, Maisa, who teaches music at the school. She took me in to meet with the principal and showed me around the facility. From one of the balconies I spotted another building across the street of similar construction.

View of the Primary School from the Secondary School
“What’s that?” I asked.

“The primary school,” Maisa replied.

Nueva Esperanza is really two schools in one; a primary school (elementary school) and a secondary school (middle/high school). The school suffers such a high demand for enrollment that they divide the day into two halves—there is a morning group that goes from 6:30 a.m. to noon and an afternoon group that goes from 1:00 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.

We left the secondary school building, crossed the street and approached the primary school’s gates. When I saw the primary school, the first thought that crossed my mind was prison. Hordes of chattering children loitered inside the main courtyard between thick, metal gates. Security guards patrolled the main entrance—to keep people in or out, I’m not completely sure.

Mis Estudiantes!
Passing through the gates, I felt four hundred pairs of little eyes catapult to me. I followed Maisa through the sea of uniformed little humans to meet the other English teachers milling about in the courtyard. Children looked up at me with awe as they wondered how a human being could possibly be so tall—I might as well have been André the giant to their curious eyes.

We stopped in the courtyard and Maisa introduced me to an English teacher I would likely be working with in the upcoming year. As if on cue, a company of third, fourth and fifth graders swarmed me from all sides. They asked me if I was from Los Estados Unidos (The United States), if I really was going to be their teacher and a barrage of other questions in Spanish I couldn’t comprehend.

I wasn’t supposed to let on that I knew Spanish, so I nodded, pointed to my chest and said, “My name is Teacher Mike. Tee-chur Mike.”

“Tee-chur Mike!” the kids screamed as they jumped up and down with glee, slapping each other on the back and smiling as they looked up at me.

Iron Man or Hannah Montana might as well have just landed in their courtyard.

At that moment, every doubt, every fear I had ever had about coming to Colombia was instantly extinguished. This was why I was here—why I had passed up a promotion, quit my job and traveled thousands of miles to a country where most Americans wouldn’t dare venture. The euphoric feeling generated by four hundred hopeful little souls was worth a thousand years of missed corporate paychecks.

Me with my students!
It was at that moment I realized I had more than just the power to teach English to the children of Nueva Esperanza. As corny as it sounds, I also had the power to give them hope—new hope.

And I promised myself I wouldn’t let them down.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Becoming a Bogotano

A teacher once told me, “We are all the authors of the stories of our lives.”

If my time in Colombia holds true to this maxim, then WorldTeach orientation was but a prologue—the real adventure is about to begin.

I contemplated this reality as I sat on the van to Bogotá, watching the other volunteers be dropped off one-by-one at their respective host family homes. This time there would be no returning to the pupí sanctuary of Santa Cruz at the end of the day.

I’m not gonna lie. I was initially apprehensive when I found out I would be living with a host family—I had heard many a host family horror story that I’d rather not repeat.

My Musical Host Parents Maisa and Jorge!
When I watched the final accompanying volunteer get dropped off at her host family home, I found myself in the back of the van, utterly alone. It was then that it hit me how alone I really was. About to move in with a host family in southern Bogotá, I would be the only gringo for miles.

There can be no courage without fear, I told myself as I often do, and no reward without risk.

The van continued to hurdle southward. My eyes burned from the thick smog that pervaded the air. Bogotanos would laugh and throw darts at California’s pansy clean air laws. Global warming and mondongo soup are way more macho.

Every Gringo's worst nightmare
The van traveled so far south that we were barely in Bogotá anymore. Densely-packed buildings gave way to rolling, green hills and clusters of poor-looking homes dotted the landscape. The driver stopped twice to ask for directions, once at a gas station and again outside a random tienda. 

Finally, the van arrived at the gated apartment complex that would be my home for the year’s duration. I knew next to nothing about my host family, save for that it consisted of a teacher, her husband and 9-year old daughter.

Mariania's Thank You Note

After living here for a few days now, all I have to say is that I’ve won the host family lottery. My host mom and dad, Maisa and Jorge are pretty much the epitome of what anyone would want in a host family. They both speak English very well (although they make me speak Spanish with them more often than not) and are really into music. Maisa is the music teacher at the school I will be teaching at and Jorge plays pretty much every instrument known to man. They are exposing me to authentic Colombian music and they said they would teach me how to play guitar, piano and some Colombian flute thing I can’t remember the name of.

One of the biggest fears every expat living with a host family has is that the food is going to suck. This fear was immediately extinguished when Jorge told me on the first day that he comes from a long line of cooks and that cooking is one of his passions. After stuffing my face with delicious arepas, Colombian style eggs and much more, I am more than satisfied in the food department.

One of the things I was most excited about my host family assignment was that I would have a little host sister. Coming from a family of nothing but boys (even the dog is a dude), I was overjoyed at the thought of having a sister. My host sister, Mariana is eight years old, loves Hannah Montana and is totally awesome (despite the fact that she loves Hannah Montana). She doesn’t speak English, so I am forced to speak to her in Spanish (which is good for me). 

Me and Jorge
As a host brother gift, I gave her a journal with some pens I bought in Cota. I was worried she wouldn’t like it, but it just so happens she loves to write and the journal has hardly left her side since she received it. She wrote me a thank you note on one of the journal’s pages and gave it to me. Mariana often tries to tell me chistes (jokes) in Spanish, which go way beyond my bilingual comprehension abilities, so I usually just nod my head and laugh so as not to reveal my gringo-ness.

My room
Mariana suffers from Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a degenerative neuromuscular disease that forces her to use a wheel chair to get around. I am trying to learn how to help take apart and reassemble her wheel chair so I can help her get in and out of the car when we go places. The fact that the wheel chair doesn’t seem to faze her is truly inspiring. We are having a birthday fiesta for her this weekend and I am stoked.

My host family has made me feel truly welcome and with them at my back, I am ready to take control of the narrative of my Colombian life.

In other words, I say to Life; bring it.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Dogs of Santa Cruz

Lucas doing what he does best.
Lucas is a four-year old Labrador with short, yellow fur and a peculiar bump on the back of his head. His hobbies include sleeping, chasing tall gringos and more sleeping. Although he would never admit it, he is the luckiest dog in the world.

Why he is the luckiest dog in the world is simple—he lives at Santa Cruz. While most dogs can only dream about having multiple enormous lawns to run on and plenty of chickens to chase, this is an everyday reality for him.

Lucas lives at Santa Cruz with his best buddy, a raggedy-looking Snowser called Toby. Lucas would tell you that although Toby may look permanently pissed off, he is actually a good and loyal friend. While personal hygiene isn’t one of Toby’s strong points, he is a thinker and a ponderer, like the philosophers of old. One can only guess what deep and existential thoughts circulate through his mind as he sits looking out at the world.

If you were to enter Santa Cruz’s welcoming gates, you would find Lucas curled up in a ball sleeping somewhere on the grass. As you approached the derelict yellow lab, you would suspect him of being under the influence of a heavy sedative. When you attempted to pet the comatose Labrador blob, you would worry there was actually something seriously wrong. But fret not—Lucas doesn’t particularly care for gringos at first and he especially disdains being bothered while partaking in his favorite pastime.

In other words—it’s not you, it’s him.

Lucas and Toby love to visit their buddies Rufus and Snaggy, who live across the street at a tienda. Lately, a large group of gringos have been frequenting the tienda, which Lucas is beginning to enjoy because of all the attention he receives from a particularly tall one.

Rufus is some kind of collie-mut mix—timid and shy, but eager for gringo affection. If you are in the market for fox tails and miscellaneous caught-in fur objects, he’s your dog.

Snaggy victimizing Toby
Snaggy’s real name is Donkey, but the gringos have nicknamed him Snaggy on account of a facial deformation that reveals a snagtooth. Although Snaggy is only six months old, he suffers from an extreme case of nymphomania, which poor old Toby knows only too well. Snaggy also enjoys munching on dead bird carcasses, which he proudly shows the gringos, much to their dismay.

When there is a full moon, the dogs of Santa Cruz go crazy. They wrestle each other in the dirt, playfully nipping and growling. Lucas, the ringleader and true to his Labrador heritage, fancies destroying household items easily draggable to the front yard. They laugh and play and bark in Spanish to one another. It’s a good life.

Me and Lucas
But the dogs of Santa Cruz would tell you the best part about being a dog in Colombia is that you get to keep your balls.

None of that pansy gringo neutering business here.


Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Ray Romano, Security Briefings and the U.S. Embassy

The main gate of the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá
Standing at the gates of the United States embassy in Bogotá, I couldn’t help but be impressed. Looming guard towers manned by armed sentries stood like monoliths as far as the eye could see. The embassy was a fortress in its own right and looked like it was capable of repelling a direct military assault. As we waited to enter the main gate, someone told me the U.S. embassy in Bogotá is the second largest U.S. embassy in the world, after Baghdad.

Observing the high, thick walls and series of large, important-looking buildings, I wasn’t about to start an argument.

I was a little annoyed I couldn’t take pictures of the embassy—it is forbidden for security purposes, so sorry for the lack of photos in this post.

Anyway, we were there to receive a security briefing from the embassy’s head security agent to better prepare ourselves for our year in-country. Since the current State Department security advisory for Colombia isn’t exactly something you would read to your four-year-old before bedtime, I was prepared for some scary stuff.

We entered the main gates and walked across a small parking lot to another security check point. The sight of Colombian police guarding the main entrance caught me off guard—I had assumed U.S. military personnel would be the ones doing that.

After passing through the security checkpoint, we entered a courtyard area, where we waited behind another gate—the one leading to the main embassy complex. To the left of the gate was a large, covered area where several tired-looking people sat, presumably waiting to apply for U.S. visas. Apparently, U.S. visas are extremely difficult to obtain and people usually need to wait hours just to enter the building to apply for them. 

The guards finally opened the gate and we passed through. We were officially on American soil. For those of you who don’t know, embassies are considered sovereign territory by national governments. For example, the French embassy in Washington, D.C. is legally French territory and the U.S. embassy in France is U.S. territory. The same is true in Colombia.

Entering the main embassy complex, we passed a final security checkpoint manned by U.S. Marines and I immediately had flashbacks to my time interning on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Well-dressed civilians and uniformed military personnel roamed the long, modern halls going about their various duties. I knew I was back in the land of liberty when we stopped at the embassy gift shop and I found corn nuts (they are impossible to find in Bogotá!). To commemorate the visit, I bought an official U.S. Embassy Bogotá shot glass.

I know.

I would.

Special Agent Ray Romano
Finally, we arrived at the briefing room, nestled deep within the main complex. The head security agent, a man named Ray Romano (no joke) gave us the Colombian security low-down.

I was surprised to hear the security advisory was not as bad as I had thought. Ray Romano said that although the U.S. government currently classifies Colombia as a high-risk area, the government is in the process of downgrading it to a normal security threat level within the next couple of months. He talked about FARC and the paramilitaries, which still have a presence in this country—but said their ability to assert military power is restricted to isolated pockets in the deep jungle. Basically, all the talk about the high risk of getting kidnapped is a load of BS. As long as you don’t take a stroll through the deep jungle in search of El Dorado, you’re golden.

The biggest danger in Colombia, Ray Romano said, was everyday street crime. Speaking specifically about Bogotá (where I will be living), he said most of the reports the embassy receives are muggings of people who went down the wrong street when they were drunk. Granted, street crimes can occur at all hours; however, they usually only happen when people do dumb things to make themselves targets. When Colombians see a gringo, they automatically assume he or she has money, so the key is to “lower your profile” as Ray Romano put it. For instance, don’t walk around talking on your cell phone or fumble through a cash-filled wallet while in a public place. He said a majority of muggings happen when people are drunk—and most vulnerable.

A Bogotá street
One interesting thing Ray Romano mentioned was the popular practice of Colombian women robbing unsuspecting foreign men. He mentioned an instance when a group of beautiful Colombian women approached some American men at a bar and partied with them, suggesting the party continue at the Americans’ house. The men woke up the next morning to find their apartments cleaned out—computers, TVs and all other valuables stolen. To prevent this, Ray Romano said he advises all U.S. embassy personnel to look in the mirror and accept that if they can’t get a 10 in the U.S., then they can’t get a 10 in Colombia.

I’m not sure how much I like this advice, but I guess Ray Romano knows best.

When the security briefing ended, we exited the embassy-fortress and boarded our buses back to Santa Cruz. As we passed through the city that will soon be my home, I spotted a horse-cart competing with an expensive-looking sedan for right-of way in the far right lane. The sight made me contemplate the world I am about to enter—a world where a burgeoning modern society still struggles to bring a huge tract of its population to modernity. A world where there is such a disgusting gap between the rich and the poor that such a sight is not only possible, but commonplace.

The Man Cave all dressed up for the embassy
I am doing my best to maintain a realistic expectation of what I can actually accomplish during my time here. I am just one person. A microscopic dust speck in the enormous history of the world—this I can accept. What I cannot and will not accept is that there is nothing I can do to make at least some place in this world a little better, a little brighter.

Circumstance has made this place Colombia.

And I am willing.

Monday, January 10, 2011

A Night Out in Bogotá

Hanging out at the hostel
One of the toughest things about being a tall gringo in Colombia is the fact that none of the buses are designed for passengers over six feet tall. Standing with my head awkwardly cocked to the side, I hunched to catch a peek of the passing Colombian countryside as the bus sped towards Bogotá (bo-go-tah). It was Saturday night and I was with a dozen other people from my program.

Our mission: to party it up, Bogotá style.

It took just over thirty minutes to take the country bus from Cota to the TransMilenio station on Bogotá’s outskirts. TransMilenio is Bogotá’s rapid mass transit system—picture BART or the D.C. Metro, except instead of subways and trains you have special lanes and buses. You wait at above-ground stations that feel like subway stations, buses arrive, doors open, you get in and off you go. It is surprisingly efficient and easy to use and is a much cheaper alternative to an expensive subway system.

On the bus to Bogota
 We took TransMilenio to downtown Bogotá and walked to the hostel we planned to stay at. I was excited to have my first hostel experience.

We arrived at the hostel just after dark and were greeted by the hostel manager who was an American from Colorado. We signed in and went upstairs to check out our rooms, which were large and filled with several bunk beds. The manager told us that they sold beer for $2,000 pesos (about 80 cents) a bottle and had computers with free internet—music to our internet-deprived ears. Needless-to-say, we would capitalize on both offerings without inhibition.

I was chilling in the foyer waiting for the manager to get me a beer, when I heard a high-pitched yap come from the living room. I took a curious peek into the other room and thought I was hallucinating when I saw a four month-old golden retriever puppy growling and slapping at a ball with its tiny paws. Instinctively, I entered the room and said hi to the little guy. His eyes lit up and he loped towards me. I got down on a knee and let him greet me by gnawing on my hands with his razor-sharp puppy teeth.

And people say there is no such thing as a hostel golden retriever...

Irish Pub in Bogota equals awesome
At any rate, Gerico would have been pissed.

We left the hostel to look for food in Zona Rosa, a posh neighborhood in downtown Bogotá (yes, Bogotá has posh neighborhoods). Much to my delight, we found a Mexican restaurant in Zona Rosa and I ate a quesadilla. Colombian Mexican food is slightly worse than Chipotle, but better than Taco Bell, so they get props for that.

That night we went to a few different bars/clubs. The first one played a lot of American hip hop complemented with seizure-inducing strobe lights. The bathroom was pretty cool because you peed on ice in marble-encased urinals. Next, we went to a salsa club and I was able to show off some of my salsa skills.

TransMilenio Station
On a side note: I am so glad I took salsa lessons before coming here. They paid off big time one night when we broke into a spontaneous salsa dance party at Santa Cruz after drinking too much aguardiente (don’t worry, it’s legal) and cerveza at a small tienda across the street.

Okay, side note over.

Overall, we had a great time in downtown Bogotá. The locals laughed at our pathetic gringo attempts at achieving rhythm, but we didn’t care. The area was so nice that it felt like it could have been in any American city. There was even a Hooters, a Burger King and a Harley Davidson store in the area.

Despite this affluence, one only need walk a few blocks south to enter an entirely different world. A world where people survive on only a few thousand pesos a day and the thought of patronizing upscale salsa clubs seems just as likely to occur as spontaneously developing the ability to breath underwater.

The most beautiful sight in Bogota
As I enjoyed Bogotá’s nightlife, I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty. I am not on vacation. I didn’t come here to party—I came here to help the people who can barely afford to feed their families, much less a night out in Zona Rosa.

Two weeks from now, I will.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Arrival

Saying goodbye to the parents at SFO
Well, ladies and gents, I made it to Colombia! Please, please, hold the applause—I have a lot to update you on from my first week in South America.

After a long and exhausting flight from San Francisco to Miami to Bogotá, I finally landed in Colombia’s capital just after nightfall and our group took a charter bus to Santa Cruz, a retreat center just outside of Bogotá, near the town of Cota. At first I didn’t feel like I was in a foreign country, as most of the buildings we passed would not have been out of place in San Francisco. It wasn’t until I saw a homeless person guiding a malnourished horse as he sorted through garbage on the side of the road that it hit me.

Guess what goes in the red garbage bin
Yep, I was definitely not in San Francisco anymore.

Santa Cruz is truly a beautiful place. A cross between a church, a school and a summer camp, it rests in the middle of a large gated property with a big lawn and lots of trees. A mud road winds up a small incline towards the front of the structure, with a small soccer field to the right and a a large grassy lawn to the left. First walking inside, you find yourself in a large main room with chairs and tables, where we do most of our training. Multiple bedrooms form a perimeter around the structure, along with a kitchen small kitchen and large dining hall, where we take all of our meals (which have been delicious, by the way). Much to my delight, two dogs live there, a yellow lab named Lucas and a little foo foo dog named Toby. Both of them were kind of cold to us at first, but I think Lucas is starting to warm up to me. He still won’t play fetch, though.

The Man Cave
Since there are only a handful of guys in the program, we took over one of the rooms and called it the Man Cave. My roomates are all really cool guys from all over the United States and even one from the United Kingdom and we have been getting along really well. 

Orientation has been a lot of fun so far. It’s been especially interesting meeting people from all over the country who share a similar passion for making a difference. The other volunteers come from New York, Illinois, Texas, Oregon, Colorado and even South Carolina, to name just a few. I am the only person hailing from California. Don’t worry, I will do my best not to embarrass the Golden State.

But I can’t make any promises.

Eating a cheeseburger in Bogota
I got my first true Colombian experience when I took a cab with a few other volunteers to check out the nearby town. We passed a seemingly infinite number of stray dogs along the way and even a few stray cows.

Since Santa Cruz does’t have internet access, my first stop in Cota was the internet café to let my family know I had arrived in one piece. To be honest, it has been kind of nice being cut off from the internet and my phone—back home I constantly check my email and Facebook via my iPhone and laptop.

The next item on my agenda was to find some Colombian cerveza. My group found a small café just down the street that served beer, so we went in and sat down. I asked for a cerveza and the café owner, in typical fashion, served me their most expensive beer called Redd’s, which came in a green bottle. The beer was sweet, but strong and I sat smug and satisfied with myself for having had my first authentic Latin America beer.

One of my roomates, Rob, joined as at the café and asked the café owner what the most popular beer was. The café owner said it was a beer called Poker. Rob asked who usually drank the beer I was drinking and the owner responded, “los mujeres.”

View from the Colombian Central Bank in Bogota
Great. My first authentic Colombian cerveza was the country’s equivalent of Smirnoff ice. Good going, gringo.

The next day, all of the volunteers traveled to Bogotá to register our cedulás (Colombian ID cards), along with a few other things. Waiting to register our cedulás was a lot like waiting at the DMV, but it was an opportunity to get to know some of the other volunteers.

The highlight of the day came when we visited the Colombian Central Bank and listened to a presentation by one of Colombia’s highest-ranking economic policy makers. He spoke about how although Colombia has made huge strides towards a brighter future, great inequality still exists between the rich and the poor. He went on to talk about how English is the language of knowledge around the world and how speaking and understanding English can mean the difference between prosperity and poverty and how valuable WorldTeach is to helping his country. He said that Colombia lacks a culture of volunteerism and that many people don’t understand why anyone would sacrifice a year of their life helping people they don’t even know.

Presentation at the Colombian Central Bank
If we accomplish anything here, I hope it’s that we show Colombia and the the world that although there are indeed many selfish, apathetic and even bad people in this world, there are also altruistic, passionate and good people out there who not only believe a better world is possible, but are actively working to make it a reality.

I am doing my best to be one of them.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

El Día de Mi Partida

My flight path

In few short hours, I’m leaving on a jet plane and I don’t know when I’ll be back again.

Okay, well that’s not completely true.

My Colombian visa expires on December 17, 2011, so I will probably be back again around then.

At any rate, it’s going to be a crazy 48 hours.

My flight departs from SFO at 9:00 p.m. and lands in Miami, Florida at 5:15 a.m. At the Miami airport I will meet up with the rest of the WorldTeach volunteers who are flying in from all over the country. Later that day, we will depart together for Bogotá, Colombia’s capital.

The Retreat Center
We will spend the first three weeks of January at a retreat center just outside Bogotá, where we will receive intense training in English Learner teaching methods, take lessons to improve our own Spanish speaking abilities and getting overall acquainted with the country.

After the three weeks of orientation, the group will disperse to various assignments across Colombia, but I will stay in Bogotá, where I have been assigned to teach grades four through seven at one of the public schools. I still don’t know what my living situation is going to be or even the name of the school I will be teaching at, but I should find out soon.

Inside the Retreat Center
Many people have asked me how I feel about leaving.

Well, I’ve gone through a few different phases.

With my mind initially consumed by the idea of having the chance to make a difference, naïve idealism caused me to overlook the potential hardships of living abroad.

Once this adrenaline rush wore off, I questioned whether I was making the right choice in quitting my job in a crappy economy, especially since most people seemed to think otherwise. I remember waking up one night in a cold sweat, sitting up in bed and thinking, What the heck am I doing?

Retreat Center Sleeping Quarters
Complimenting my second-guessing was a lingering guilt for causing my friends and family pain in the form of worrying about my well-being, which made for a delicious soufflé of negative emotions.

But, after receiving my teaching assignment and learning more about the people I am set to help, I developed a single, simple sentiment—resolve.

Resolve to acknowledge and overcome my trepidations, to move beyond the comfort zone of my friends and family and get on that plane tonight to take the first steps down an unfamiliar path in pursuit of something greater than myself.

A good friend recently sent me a quote by Indian theosophist and writer, Annie Besant, which I find particularly inspiring, given the journey I am about to embark upon:

“Never forget that life can only be nobly inspired and rightly lived if you take it bravely and gallantly, as a splendid adventure in which you are setting out into an unknown country, to meet many a joy, to find many a comrade, to win and lose many a battle.”

I’ve spent the better part of a year preparing for Colombia reading books about the country, learning salsa and talking to people who live there.

I'm ready to face the great unknown with absolute confidence.

Colombia, here I come.

Once I shake this unholy holiday hangover, that is.