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.

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