Sunday, February 27, 2011

Colombian Time

On the left, an American clock. On the right, a Colombian one.
My high school football coach used to say, “If you’re not early, you’re late.”

Although he was referring to being on time for football practice, I’ve found his words useful throughout my life.

That is, until I came to Colombia.

The American penchant for punctuality could not be more different than the Colombian tendency for truancy. Whereas in the United States, when someone says they will meet you at 8 pm., you can expect to meet them at 8 pm., in Colombia you shouldn’t expect for them to actually show up until 8:30 or 9.

The halls I meandered.
A few weeks ago I had an important meeting with my school’s rector (principal) and a few other school officials to discuss my role in the classroom. Since the meeting was scheduled for 8 am, I got up bright and early and arrived at school by 7:30. I twiddled my thumbs as I waited outside the rector’s office for the others to arrive, but alas, 8:30 am came and went and neither the rector nor school officials were anywhere to be found. When the clock struck 8:45, I started to worry that I was waiting in the wrong spot for the meeting, so I left to meander Nueva Esperanza’s empty hallways like some kind of lost gato. When I returned to the rector’s office at 9 am, I saw the meeting had started without me.

The rector and school officials looked at me and chuckled. Tardy Americans, they probably thought.

Another FML moment to add to the record books about my time in Colombia.

I’m starting to worry that Colombian time has infected my own internal clock. Lately when I’ve told friends that I’d meet them at a certain time, I always manage to be fifteen to twenty minutes late no matter how hard I try to be on time.

Although I don’t have any solid scientific evidence to support this theory, I’m beginning to suspect that Colombia exists in some kind of temporal vortex that makes punctuality impossible.   

The White Rabbit was probably Colombian-American.
On a brighter note, Colombian time most likely stems from the country’s laid-back attitude towards how life should be lived. In the United States, our lives are dominated by schedules and daily planners—our sights are so set on the future that we often overlook the only time that truly matters—the now. Although Americans might view Colombian time as a sign of indiscipline, disrespect or even laziness, let’s not overlook the positive aspects of this cultural phenomenon. Colombians excel at enjoying the now—living life in the moment and not with their minds set on an ambiguous future.

In other words; they realize that life is best lived free from the chains of time.

My old football coach would undoubtedly be horrified by Colombians’ utter disregard for ever being on time

But if he ever came to Colombia, he would soon learn that if you’re not late, then you’re gonna have to wait.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Breaking the Language Barrier

“Señor Hower?”

My 8th grade Spanish teacher’s voice shook me from my boredom-induced coma.

“Umm,” I stalled, “Sí.”

A few of my classmates snickered. I looked around, not quite sure why.

“Vestidos azules,” said the teacher, “You like to wear them?”

I thought for a moment. Azul is blue. But what are vestidos? Crap.

I decided to take the hint.

“No,” I replied, “No me gusta.”

The teacher rocked against her desk in a humping motion—her signature move—then flashed a nefarious smirk. “I’m glad you said you don’t like to wear blue dresses, Señor Hower.”

My face turned red as I slunked down in my seat.

Let’s just say Spanish wasn’t my favorite subject.

Attempting to communicate with some of the locals.
Perhaps if my 13-year old self had known that ten years later I would be living in a Spanish-speaking country, I would have tried to pay more attention.

One of the greatest challenges I have faced in Colombia has been dealing with the language barrier. Granted, I did not come here a complete Spanish noob—I took five years of Spanish in middle school, high school and college—but my conversational Spanish abilities were definitely lacking in the not sucking department.

To be fair, my five years of Spanish classes have given me a relatively firm foundation upon which to build. Prior to departing for Colombia, I attempted to brush up on my Spanish abilities. I thought it would be a good idea to buy RosettaStone to help me, so I bought a copy off of eBay. Much to my chagrin, when I received the package, I opened it only to find I had purchased a very convincing counterfeit.

In case you haven’t guessed, one of the realities of living in a Spanish-speaking country is hearing and speaking Spanish—a lot.  Since most Colombians don’t speak a word of English, I am forced to listen to and use Spanish every day—whenever I go to the store, take the bus, order food at a restaurant or do anything.

Thanks a lot, Meg Whitman.
Language barriers can make even the simplest thing into a herculean task—like haircuts, as I recently experienced. I rehearsed in my head what I was going to say the whole way to the barber shop, but when I got there, I clammed up. Finally, I spat out, “Corta mi pelo, por favor.” (Cut my hair, please). She gestured for me to sit, so I did. The haircut lady then asked, “Maquina o tijeras?” I knew maquina meant clippers, but I wasn’t sure what tijeras were. I guessed tijeras must be scissors, but I wasn’t sure. As far as I knew, it might mean “give me a mullet, please.” As mullets are very popular in Colombia, this was a valid apprehension. I told her to use the maquina on the side and the tijeras on top. My heart began to pound as she got to work and when she finished a few minutes later, I was relieved to see I had a pretty darn good, mullet-less haircut.

The best part about it was the haircut only cost $5,000 pesos (about $4 USD).

What now, Supercuts?

Unfortunately, when you move to a foreign country, you do not become fluent in the local language overnight. Learning is a difficult, slow and awkward process. Speaking Spanish with native speakers in everyday situations can be difficult—mistakes will inevitably be made and you must maintain a thick skin. People will laugh at you when you mispronounce words and you will feel like a complete jackass more often than not. You will have good days and bad days—days when everything seems to make sense and days where your mind draws blanks—but the key to success is to just keep trying.

I am not one of those people for whom learning a foreign language comes easy. I am going to have to work my butt off to become proficient, much less fluent.

To reach my goal of Spanish proficiency, I have been doing everything I can to improve—reading Spanish novels, listening to Spanish-language music and watching familiar movies in Spanish (I’m currently trying to make it through a pirated Spanish version of Toy Story 3).  

Achieving Spanish proficiency will continue to be a difficult, slow and awkward endeavor, but I’m confident that if I keep at it, by the end of my time in Colombia, I will get to where I want to be.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Exploring the Athens of South America

Parque Central Simón Bolívar.
Although I’ve been living in Bogotá for about a month now, I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of experiencing all that this city has to offer—but this past weekend, I finally got a chance to do some exploring.

Spanning a whopping 612 square miles and filled with over 7 million inhabitants, Bogotá is physically larger than New York City and has nearly the same population. In other words, Bogotá is a sprawling modern metropolis—not the secluded tropical pueblo the American media (*cough Mr. & Mrs. Smith *cough) often portrays it to be. Bogotá isn’t even in the jungle; it’s at 9,000 feet up on a plateau in the Andes Mountains. With its many universities and libraries, Bogotá is known as the “Athens of South America.”

 At the Biblioteca Pública Virgilio Barco.
I set out to explore the city with my friend and fellow WorldTeach volunteer, Zach, and his host mother. Our first stop was Parque Central Simón Bolívar, a major greenspace, entertainment and sports complex named after the Latin American leader who led the Latin American rebellion against the Spanish Empire during the early 19th century. It was refreshing to walk through the park’s open, green spaces and breathe the relatively fresh air, as much of Bogotá is dominated by concrete and smog. My favorite part was the large lake in the park’s center, where people can rent paddle boats and watch concerts at a nearby amphitheatre. I definitely plan to go back there often throughout the course of the year.

Tramcars to the Monserrate.
After we finished with the park, we headed over to one of Bogotá's main public libraries; Biblioteca Pública Virgilio Barco. The library is a clean, modern building with all the amenities of any library you might find in the United States and more. Along with a huge index of books in Spanish and English, the library also features a language learning center and an entire section devoted to cinema. At any rate, it definitely kicks the Burlingame Public Library’s butt back home.

We left the library and took a cab across town to the day’s main attraction—the Monserrate, a large mountain that dominates Bogotá city center. The cab dropped us off in front of the tram building at the base of the mountain. Looking up, I could see aerial tramcars ferrying people up and down the mountain. After buying our tickets, we got in one of the large, orange tramcars and headed up the hill. As the tramcar ascended, the city below seemed to grow larger and larger as the people grew smaller and smaller.

The church.
The view at the top of the mountain was unbelievable—the city stretched out in every direction as far as the eye could see; it made the city of San Francisco look like some kind of municipal pimple. Now I knew what the gods of Mt. Olympus felt like as they watched over mankind from their aerie palace.

There was an old church on the top of the mountain, along with monestary-esque structures that looked like they might have been stolen from Tibet. We entered the church and I instinctively dabbed my fingers in the holy water to make the sign of the cross. I am probably one of the worst Catholics on this planet, but I felt I should at least pay my respects. We sat down in the front pew and I silently said a quick prayer asking for the strength to help the children of Nueva Esperanza and, if it wasn’t too much trouble, to make it through this year in one piece.

Overlooking Bogotá.
After admiring the church’s antiquated architecture, we exited and passed through a garden filled with statues depicting the crucifixion of Christ—intriguing works of art that contributed to an ambiance of sanctity generated by the place's natural beauty.  

When we reached the other side of the mountain, I was shocked to see that it was more or less untouched by man and overgrown with lush, green forest—a sharp contrast to the mega-metropolis I had just observed. The sight reminded of one of my favorite spots back home in California—a hill out in the Tahoe National Forrest my family calls the Top of the World.

Once we had gotten our fill at the top of Monserrate, we took a tramcar back down to the streets of Bogotá and headed home.

Getting out to see some of Bogotá’s sights reminded me of one of the main reasons I came down here in the first place—to get out, see the world and at the very least go where no Hower has gone before. This year I plan on visiting many other cities and regions in Colombia—I recently made plans to visit the city of Manizales in the coffee-growing region in April and I also plan on making trips to Medellin, Cali, Cartagena, Baranquilla and even the Ciudad Perdida—Colombia’s own little Machu Picchu. Beyond Colombia, I also plan to visit Peru, Chile, Nicaragua and if time permits—Brazil and Argentina.

Not quite the Top of the World, but close.
It’s a big world out there with so much to see and experience. I wish I could see and experience it all.

Well, I'm here in South America. 

It's a start.  

Friday, February 18, 2011

Teaching Challenges

Teaching = Tiring
Nearly a year ago when I first set my sights on teaching English in Colombia, I knew it wouldn’t be the easiest of roads. I would not only need to adjust to life in a foreign country, but also figure out how to do a job that I had little experience performing; teaching. Sitting comfortably at home in the States, this sounded perfectly fine—I wanted and welcomed the challenge.

But there’s a big difference between talking about wanting a challenge and actually facing it.

Every morning as I head up the comically steep, ramshackle road to Nueva Esperanza, I contemplate what hurdles the day will hurl my way. Arriving at the school, I say “Buenos días” to the guards as they let me in. En route to my first class, loitering students yell “Teacher Mike!” and a few courageous ones come up to shake my hand. Every now and then, a few giggly 10th grade girls come up to say “Hi” then dart away in embarrassment.

That’s pretty much where the cutesy stuff ends.

Looks can be deceiving
I am finding teaching to be more difficult than I ever imagined. Although I am still exhausted from the day before, I nonetheless must find the energy to push forward. Without coffee, I’m not sure how I would make it through the day. I do my best to make learning fun and be an effective, engaging teacher my students will never forget, but this is easier said than done—half the time it seems as if my students aren’t even aware I’m there. They talk incessantly—push and shove each other—and zone me out when I attempt to get them to be quiet and pay attention. I’ve even caught myself doing something I told myself I never would—yelling at the top of my lungs to get my students to sit down and listen—but this seems to be the only thing they are responsive to.

I spend more time trying to manage the class than actually teaching them.

Earlier this week on a particularly frustrating day, a student came up to me and asked, “¿Por qué está usted en Colombia?” (Why are you in Colombia?)

Looking out at my unruly class, for a moment, I thought, No sé.

But I know why I am here. I am here because I know I have what it takes to make a difference in the lives of these children.

Beautiful view from Nueva Esperanza.
With the high global demand for English teachers, I could have chosen an easy job teaching rich kids in Spain or Japan or South Korea, but I didn’t. I chose to come to Colombia because I wanted to give children who got life’s short end of the stick a chance at a better life—to give them the tools so that they one day might be able to pull themselves out of poverty.

Patience is not one of my virtues—but in education, it’s the only one that matters. The road from now until December is going to be steep and rugged—much like the road to Nueva Esperanza—but I will endure.

Despite my difficulties, this job also has its rewards—like walking out into the schoolyard and being swarmed by hordes of happy little humans who are genuinely glad to see me. It’s a remarkable feeling knowing that my very presence is capable of creating so much joy.

It’s moments like those that make it all worth it.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Valentine’s Day, Colombia and Reciprocal Trading Relationships

Colombians growing flowers for your sweetheart.
Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day.

If you are in a committed relationship and this is news to you, don’t worry—you’ve still got time to go pick up some flowers before she suspects anything.  

Before you go sprinting off to Safeway, Trader Joes or that little flower shop down the street in search of the colorful plant that will save your ass tomorrow, you should say thank you. Not to me—well okay, feel free too if you like—but you should really say thank you to Colombia.

Why? Well, because the flowers you are about to buy most likely came from there.

Colombian Flowers.
According to Colombia’s Flower Growers Association, in 2011 Colombia exported around 500 million Valentine’s Day flowers, with 90% of which were shipped to the United States. In the weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day, Colombia sent 28 flights of flower shipments every day—to satisfy the United States’ rapacious demand and to make sure your significant other doesn’t give you the silent treatment for the next three weeks.

Besides being a critical component of the Colombian economy, the demand for flowers is also good for you and I—Colombia’s flower shipments support almost 200,000 jobs in the United States.

For Colombia, love pays.
Ultimately, although for the United States Valentine’s Day represents getting yelled at by your disappointed girl—erm—I mean an annual commemoration celebrating love and affection between intimate companions, for Colombia it means making bank while cultivating a reciprocal (legal) trading relationship.

Oh, yeah, Colombia’s take on Valentine’s Day—El Dia del Amor y la Amistad—takes place every third Saturday of September.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

A Candle in the Darkness

During my senior of high school, I attended a leadership camp at Stanford University for student leaders. The camp was filled with seminars and workshops designed to teach us to develop leadership skills to better ourselves, our schools, and the community at large.

One night, they took us outside to a large grassy field, where we stood in silence in the darkness.  The camp’s head counselor, whose name now escapes me, passed out a small white candle to each of us. After we all had candles, he lit his own, holding it closely as he looked out at the group of forty-five student-leaders before him.

We remained quiet as he lit the candle of the person standing next to him. That person then lit the candle of the person next to him and so on and so forth until the combined might of our tiny candles illuminated the night with a brilliant, flickering light.

The head counselor went on to tell us the meaning of the exercise—that we all carry a flame which we can share with others. When we do so, we empower others to perpetually pass it on until there is no more darkness.

I have always interpreted this as meaning that each and every one of us has the power to change the world for the better. While most of us won’t end up in the history books, this is beside the point—we don’t act to be physically rewarded, but simply because it is the right thing to do. Although we may individually lack the ability to single-handedly save the world, each of us has the power to save someone’s world.

I challenge you, as I challenge myself, to strive to be a sharer of your personal flame—not a hoarder. Make it a personal goal each and every day to commit one random act of kindness, whatever that may be, even if it is inconvenient. The opportunities to do good every day are as plentiful as the stars are in the sky.

Only when we share our light with those who lack it, do we ourselves truly begin to live.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Teacher Mike

I’ve had quite a few different jobs throughout my life.

These have ranged from selling shoes to pissed-off soccer moms at Sports Authority and managing money at the CoHo to delivering flags for Nancy Pelosi and arguing with douchey reporters about why they should talk to my client; however, none of these could have possibly prepared me for what would prove to be my greatest challenge yet—teaching children a foreign language.

In other words; teaching is really, really hard.

Since the students at Nueva Esperanza knew little to no English, I decided to make my first lesson as basic as possible—teaching the two phrases, Hello, my name is and What is your name?

As I entered my first class, a potent mixture of adrenaline and caffeine powered through my veins. When my students saw me enter, they erupted in excited Spanish chatter, a few identifiable Teacher Mike! ’s strewn in here and there.

After my Colombian co-teacher helped me calm the class to what passes for quiet in Colombian classrooms, I wrote TEACHER MIKE on the board.

Asking for volunteers.
Turning to the class, just as I had done in the courtyard a week before, I pointed to myself and slowly said, “My name is Teacher Mike. Tee-chur Mike.”

Based on the look they gave me, I might as well have been speaking Klingon. In the dumbfounded silence, crickets could have heard crickets.

My co-teacher helped me to act out a basic introduction, using the two phrases. After we did it a few times, I hoped my students realized I was attempting to teach them a language originating on Earth, not Planet Qo’noS.

I asked for two volunteers to come up in front of the class. Again, there was confusion. Finally, the students got the idea and I chose two students to come forward. I explained for them to display what they had learned by using the phrases on each other, pointing to the board to indicate what I wanted.

Doing my best not to lose it.
“Ask, What is your name,” I said to one student, pointing at the other.

More figurative crickets.

“Repeat after me,” I said, “What is.”

“Wot iss,” the student said.

Your name,” I continued.

“Yoa nah-may,” the student repeated.

Naym,” I emphasized.

“Naym,” the student said.

Close enough, I thought.

The other student looked at me, smiling but without a clue as to what to do next.

I gestured to the board and said, “Now you say, My name is…”

“Mai nahm is…” the student began, hesitating, “Teacher Mike!”

FML, I thought.

Doing my happy dance when they finally got it.
After I corrected the students, I had more pairs come up to practice. Eventually, the students seemed to catch on and started using their own names instead of mine.

When the class ended, I gathered my things and moved on to the next classroom to do it all over again.

Aristotle once said, “Those that know, do. Those that understand, teach.”

After finishing my first week of teaching at Nueva Esperanza, I believe this maxim should be amended to include: “Those who teach, require cerveza.”

Lucky for me, in Colombia, beer only costs about 75 cents.