Monday, March 28, 2011

How to Get Around (in Bogotá)

After Bogota, you will be begging for Los Angeles traffic. defines chaos as:

-a state of utter confusion or disorder; a total lack of organization or order

If you ever came to Bogotá, after spending two minutes on the street, you would agree that the above definition offers an adequate description of Bogotá’s transportation system. After five minutes, you would realize calling it mere chaos is a gross understatement—it’s more like pandemonium.

But you’ve got places to be, so you need to figure out how the heck are you going to get there.

Here are your options:

Taxi Cab

Every traveler’s natural first choice, you hail a cab and tell them in broken Spanish to take you where you need to go. God forbid you are over six feet tall—most of Bogotá’s taxis seem to be designed to carry the cast of Little People, Big World and not your typical gringo. Nevertheless, learning how to squish into uncomfortably compact spaces is a skill that will serve you will during your time in this city.

The taxi pulls away from the curb and you enter the automotive fray. At first, everything seems to go okay—other than the occasional bump on the uneven road, you could even say you are having a good time. But your satisfaction is short-lived as you see an elderly woman ambling across the road ahead. You are no physicist, but you can clearly see that the old woman’s current velocity isn’t great enough to escape the taxi’s warpath. Rather than slowing for the passing pedestrian, the taxi driver honks and accelerates towards the hapless grandma. You close your eyes and cringe as you await the inevitable—but at the last possible moment, the driver swerves, narrowly sparing the grandma’s life. Nearly to your destination, you see a four-way stop ahead. The driver sluggishly looks both ways and flies through the stop sign, treating it more like a yield sign.

In Bogota, Stop Signs equals Yield (if you're lucky).
When you finally arrive, you realize the taxi meter is not even on. The driver tells you an arbitrary amount, likely tacking on a gringo tax of a mil or two. But that’s okay—at this point, money is no longer an object—you are grateful to be alive.

Usually the colectivos don't look this nice.

You don’t have a lot of pesos to throw around, so you decide to take one of the shady-looking colectivo buses that stampede like mastodons through a herd of mini cabs and motorcycles. You wait near what appears to be a bus stop, but find that none of the colectivos are actually stopping there. After a few minutes of awkward loitering, a Bogotano comes up next to you and sticks out their hand, as if they intend to hitchhike. Dumbfounded as to why someone would try to hitchhike inside a sprawling city—much less at a bus stop—you smirk and shake your head. The Bogotano continues to stick out their hand and—as if by magic—the next colectivo comes to an abrupt halt next to him. The person gets on and the bus disappears down the road.

Colectivos in action.
Intrigued, you decide to mimic the hitchhiking maneuver and—lo and behold—the next colectivo stops for you. You barely have both feet inside the vehicle when the bus rockets off down the road, causing you to knock your head on a low-hanging safety bar. After you pay the driver the required $1400 pesos, you are disappointed to see that all the seats are occupied. Reluctantly, you grab one of the support bars and hold on for dear life as the colectivo driver brings the vehicle to an ungraceful spasm of a stop, quickly followed by a rapid acceleration. Since you are too tall for the vehicle, you are forced to turn your head to the side, straining your neck every time the collectivo driver slams on the brakes to let someone off. So many people file onto the bus that you can no longer see out the windows. When you think you are where you wanted to go, you press a red button near the back door, which signals the driver to stop. Barely out the door, the bus speeds off down the street as if an imaginary Tyrannosaurus Rex were chasing it.

A TransMilenio stop at rush hour.

With the taxi option being too expensive and the colectivo looking too much like a deathtrap on wheels, you decide to try your luck with Bogotá’s mass transit system—TransMilenio. You purchase a pass for $1700 pesos, enter one of the platforms and are instantly reminded of a subway—except that it is above ground and utilizes large, red buses. You find one of the system maps and carefully study it to find out which bus you need to take.

Inside TransMilenio
Once you figure it out, you head over to the area where your bus will arrive. Unfortunately, you made the noob mistake of using TransMilenio during rush hour and when the first bus pulls up, you find it to be as stuffed as the empanada you ate for lunch. With no hope of forcing your way onto the crowded bus, you are forced to wait for the next one, which arrives a few minutes later. Although this bus is also comically crammed, you see a small opening and go for it—barely making it in before the doors closes on your arm.

Impossibly jammed inside a jungle of intermixed human limbs, the bus speeds down the express lane to the next station—you now know what it feels like to be a sardine on a rocket ship.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Colombian Comida

Brace yourself, ladies and gents, because this is the post you’ve been waiting for—where I delve into the wonders and intricacies of Colombian grub. But before another person asks me how the enchiladas are down here, let me get one thing straight—there is a HUGE difference between Mexican food and Colombian food. In fact, most Central and South American food couldn’t be more different than Mexican food.

Now that we’ve cleared up that little misconception, let’s continue with your crash course in Colombian cuisine. Although the following is not a complete compendium of Colombian cuisine, I’ve tried to include the most commonly consumed comestibles.

Also, I apologize for all the alliteration.

It’s just one of those days.

Ready? Here we go…

Some delicious-looking grilled arepas.

If you spend time in Colombia, chances are you will sooner or later cross paths with an arepa. Arepas are flat, round patties made of cornmeal that can be grilled, baked or fried. Although arepas vary from region to region, in Bogotá they are usually baked or grilled with melted cheese inside. Breakfast arepas are typically stuffed with scrambled or sunny-side-up eggs and lunch and dinner arepas have chicken or beef stuffed inside. Think of an arepa as a cross between an English muffin and a pancake that you can stuff with whatever your heart desires.

Fried Plátanos.

Known as plantains in English, these wanna-be bananas are often sliced and pan fried in oil until golden-brown and served as a side-dish. Although they look like bananas, don’t be fooled—eaten raw, these babies are bitter and generally mistreat the taste buds. Plátanos are best served either baked or fried as part of a main dish. But, if bitter is your thing, have at it raw.


Who needs Jack-in-the-box, when you've got these babies?

This dish should sound familiar—it is commonly sold in the United States. Empanadas are stuffed bread or pastries that are baked or fried. The name actually comes from the verb empanar, meaning to wrap or coat in bread. The dish originated in Spain and was brought to the Americas by conquistadors, which is why today it can be found in nearly every Latin American country. Empanadas are made by folding a dough or bread patty around a particular type of stuffing, which usually consists of some kind of meat, vegetables or even fruits. Picture a pizza pocket minus the pizza. When you are enguayabado, these babies will save your life. Trust me on this.

Fried yuca.

Although this plant sounds a lot like what a four-year old might say when pressed to eat their greens, it deserves as much respect as the potato receives in North America. Like the potato, yuca (also called cassava), has white flesh encased in a thick, brown rind. Indigenous to South America, yuca was an important staple food for pre-Columbian cultures and after European colonization became the single most important staple crop on the African continent. Today, yuca continues to play an important role in South America and comes standard with any traditional Colombian meal.  

You haven't lived until you've had arequipe.

Although it may look like plain old caramel, arequipe exists on a whole other plane of deliciousness. Often called dulce de leche, arequipe is prepared by slowly heating sweetened milk to create a product deriving its taste from caramelized sugar. In Colombia, arequipe is often found in brownies and cakes, but is most commonly enjoyed all on its own from the top of a spoon. If you don’t like arequipe—I’m sorry—but we can’t be friends.

Yeah, it's kinda cute. And yeah, I kinda ate it.

Chiguiro are animals indigenous to South America and is the largest living rodent in the world. They have heavy, barrel-shaped bodies and short heads with reddish-brown fur on the upper part of their bodies. Although they look like overgrown guinea pigs, they taste like chicken and their meat is considered a delicacy in Colombia. About a month ago, I ate Chiguiro thinking it was chicken. When someone showed me a picture of what I had just digested, I was slightly taken aback, but figured when it comes to eating rodents, there could be worse choices.  

If Satan took food form, this is what he would look like.

This abomination is every gringo’s worst nightmare. Although this traditional Latin American soup may seem innocent enough at first glance, the unassuming vegetables that float in the broth are only there to avert your attention from the dish’s fiendish intentions. See that white meat bobbing in the broth? Yeah, it’s not chicken—it’s tripe—also known as cleaned stomach of cow. If you’re not allergic to mondongo, you’ll wish you were. It’s the devil’s nectar.

A typical Colombian meal.
So, there you have it—a quick overview of what Colombians like to eat. Although some of these foods might seem exotic, a typical Colombian meal is actually quite simple—meat with rice and vegetables. The types of meat and vegetables vary from region to region, but this is pretty much the standard formula for Colombian cuisine.

No burritos here.

Friday, March 18, 2011

An Irish Pub called Irish Pub

You try explaining what this is.
Although I have faced many challenges in Colombia, few have been as stifling as trying to explain what a Leprechaun is to a group of Spanish-speaking fourth graders.

As a visual aid for my explanation, I had drawn a crude picture of what I hoped resembled the mythical Irish creature.

I tried to explain in English, speaking slowly, “A Lep-re-chaun is a… mag-ic-al lit-tle man. He likes to hide gold at the end of rain-bows.”

My students looked at me like I was speaking dolphin.

I paused to regroup my thoughts. Back home, I had never really thought about what a Leprechaun actually was—all I knew was children seemed to always be after their Lucky Charms.

I gestured to a pitiful picture of a rainbow and pot o’ gold I had scribbled on the board.

“The mag-ic-al man, the Lep-re-chaun, hides his gold at the end of rain-bows.”

“Oro!” one of my students yelled.

“Yes!” I practically cried, “Oro is gold. Very good.”

Little victories.

The Irish pub called Irish Pub.
After work I headed north to meet some of my gringo friends to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day at an Irish Pub called Irish Pub.

I know—creative.

Let’s just say originality in naming restaurants isn’t one of Colombia’s fortes. I kid you not—there is a buffalo wing restaurant called Buffalo Wings in Bogotá.

At any rate, since no one seemed to know what St. Patrick’s Day was, I expected the pub to be more or less empty. Much to my dismay, when I arrived at Irish Pub, there was a massive line stretching well out the door. Luckily, my friend Lynn had arrived earlier and was close to the front.

I joined her in line and took in the debauchery-filled scene. Drunken Colombians, adorned in green shirts and top hats, were everywhere. They sat at tables sipping green beer and blabbering in unintelligible Spanish.

A borracho Colombian.
I heard one guy yell, “¡Estoy borracho!” (I am drunk!)

I was surprised to see such a crowd and couldn’t help but feel like they had stolen our holiday—which we stole from Ireland—but that’s beside the point. I just really wanted some green beer.

After my friend Zach joined us, we finally made it to the front of the line and got a table inside the pub. Walking through the crowded bar, I heard a swirl of drunken English-Spanish conversations. I passed a few Americans flirting with Colombian girls speaking with broken English accents.

Borracho, indeed.

The gringos at Irish Pub!
We sat down and ordered a pitcher of the green beer. As we were engulfed by increasingly drunken chatter, I tried to guess who was American and who was not—it’s often hard to tell in the rich areas of Bogotá.

A few pitchers and one Irish car bomb later, it was time to go.
Headed back home with a healthy buzz, I thought to myself, The niños better behave tomorrow. Teacher Mike is going to be muy enguayabado.

And indeed he was.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Cocaine and Colombia

Aerial shot of La Escuela de Artillería
Whenever I take the bus to northern Bogotá, I pass by La Escuela de Artillería, a large Colombian military base where artillerymen are trained. Looking out at the base’s well-guarded gates, it is common to see young men standing and waiting alongside their distressed mothers. The young men—or should I say, boys—are there because it is their 18th birthday.

In Colombia, every male, upon reaching the age of 18, must present themselves for military service. Although all Colombian males are, in theory, subject to this “civic duty”, those attending college can defer and ultimately evade service. Since the wealthy have the means to send their children to college while the poor do not, it is the latter that nearly always end up being conscripted.

Colombian guerrillas marching.
The purpose for Colombia’s conscription practice is simple—to provide a steady supply of fresh blood to fuel its decades-long civil war against left-wing insurgents and right-wing paramilitaries. Walking Bogotá’s bustling streets, one would hardly believe Colombia is engaged in a domestic armed conflict—most of the insurgents operate in the country’s secluded jungles and there is little threat of war-related violence in the capital city.

Despite this fact, every now and then, I encounter stark reminders of Colombia’s internal struggle. Recently while on my way home from the gym, I noticed a man not much older than myself walking with crutches, missing his entire left leg. As the guerrillas favor the use of anti-personnel mines in their attacks against government forces, dismemberment is a common injury among Colombia’s veterans.

Injured Colombian veterans.
My host mother’s sister currently serves as an army medic and was nearly killed a year ago when her convey guerrilla forces attacked her convoy. She was riding in the middle vehicle of a convoy of three military transports in a rural area where guerrillas were known to be active. After driving for hours on the jungle road, there was a blinding light and deafening blast as the lead vehicle exploded into a fiery wreck, instantly killing everyone onboard—the handiwork of a guerrilla roadside bomb.

As an American living in Colombia, it is difficult to see, first-hand, the human toll the war has and continues to take on the Colombian people, knowing that my country is both directly and indirectly responsible for perpetuating the violence.

Colombian forces hunting guerrillas.
It is a well-known fact that Colombia is one of the biggest producers of cocaine in the world. Although the days of Pablo Escobar are long over, criminals in Colombia continue to produce over 776 tons of cocaine every year. But these criminals don’t grow cocaine just for shits and giggles—they grow it because Americans are willing to pay a ton of money for the addictive drug. To put it into perspective, cocaine is produced at $1,500 USD a kilo in jungle labs and can be sold for as much as $50,000 USD a kilo in the United States—a gargantuan profit margin. Both the guerrillas and paramilitary groups alike capitalize on this lucrative income source to finance their campaigns against each other and the government.

U.S. military advisers training Colombian troops.
In 2000, the United States initiated Plan Colombia to crack down on the Colombian drug trade, which annually gives millions of dollars to boost the Colombian military budget, provides counternarcotics operations training and even calls for U.S. military forces to engage in joint counternarcotics missions. Eleven years later, the Plan has been somewhat of a successful failure—although the security situation has dramatically improved and the guerrilla groups have been driven into isolated jungle hideouts, illegal cocaine production continues to thrive and drive further violence. Furthermore, the ongoing U.S.-backed scorched-earth policy of dropping powerful, toxic herbicides over suspected coca fields has failed to stifle coca production while causing catastrophic environmental damage.

Don’t get me wrong—I don’t mean to imply that the United States is solely to blame for Colombia’s internal conflict; however, our actions both at home and abroad are doing little but throwing fuel on the fire.

Here is what I think needs to be done to not only improve conditions in Colombia, but also diminish the international illegal drug trade once and for all:

First, we need to change our “War on Drugs” mentality of thinking that there is a military-only solution to ending the illegal drug endemic. For every coca cultivator killed, there are a thousand more ready to take his place.

Second, we need to make an effort to change the culture of drugs within the United States. We consume more than 80% of the world’s cocaine supply and—as any 12th grade economics student can tell you—where there is a demand, there will always be a supply. Congress should increase funding for drug rehabilitation and prevention programs and mount an anti-drug educational campaign on the same grand scale as it has for anti-tobacco.

Charlie Sheen is a douchebag.
Third, Hollywood needs to be more vocal about condemning cocaine consumption. Cocaine’s high cost makes it a “rich person’s” drug and is popular in Hollywood’s affluent circles. Just as professional sports leagues test their players for illegal drugs, Hollywood’s numerous film and television studios, as well as its record labels, should make drug tests a regular policy and refuse to sign and create stiff penalties for anyone who consumes illegal drugs. If Hollywood refuses to do this on their own, then the government should enact legislation to achieve this end. Colombia’s cartels make a killing off of the bad habits of scumbags like Charlie Sheen and Lindsey Lohan—action must be taken to stop them.

A group of displaced Colombian children.
Fourth, the United States needs to shift its Colombian foreign policy focus from military aid to economic aid. The violence in Colombia has resulted in millions of Colombians being driven from their ancestral homes by both the paras and guerrillas. Known as desplazados (the displaced), these poorest of Colombia’s poor are forced to scratch out a living in the country's overcrowded cities, which are ill-equipped to assist them. Many of Colombia’s poor turn to street crime or even illegal coca production simply because it will allow them to provide for their families—if they were provided alternative economic opportunities, they would be less inclined to engage in illegal activities.

Fifth, individual Americans need to take a stand against the use of cocaine. Cocaine is commonplace on many of America’s college campuses and is especially popular among those in their 20’s. Understand that there is a difference between consuming marijuana and cocaine—every time you purchase cocaine you become an accomplice to the cycle of violence that runs from Colombia to Mexico and back to the United States.

Me with some awesome people.
Living amongst Colombians for the past 2 ½ months, I have come to the conclusion that they are one of the warmest, resilient and hardworking people on the planet. Despite their many hardships and the ever-present threat of violence, I have found many of them to be more genuinely happy than most Americans. 99% of Colombians want nothing more than to make an honest living to support their families—it’s the 1% that gives their country a bad name.

Colombia is a beautiful land filled with a beautiful people—we must take action today so that tomorrow they can finally live in the peace and prosperity they desire and deserve.      

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Saturday in Suesca

Old railroad tracks and water tower in Suesca.
I awoke in the dark to the sound of my cell phone’s grating alarm. Fighting the urge to smash the vexatious device, I instead flipped it open to shut off the alarm. When my eyes adjusted to the blinding light I saw that it was only 5:00 a.m.

And it was Saturday.

After mustering the motivation to get out of bed, I trudged to the bathroom in hopes a shower would shock me into full consciousness. Luckily, the shower more or less did the trick and I got dressed and sat on my bed to put on my hiking boots—the first time I put them on since the day I got to Colombia.

What had compelled me to wake up at this ungodly hour on the holiest of days was a chance to finally use my hiking boots—to get out of Bogotá and experience the Colombian countryside.

The Bogotá River running next to the railroad.
All set, I left my apartment and headed down to the main road to hail a cab. After having a more or less comprehensible conversation with the cab driver, the cab dropped me off in front of a building with two large charter buses parked outside. As I stepped out of the cab, the eighty or so people loitering on the sidewalk next to the buses turned to look at me, curious.

“Hello Mike,” I heard someone say.

Turning to the voice, I saw that it belonged to a short man with a long ponytail resembling an elephant’s tail.

“Juan Carlos?” I said.

“Yes, Sir,” Juan Carlos replied, shaking my hand.

Juan Carlos was the brother of one of my coworkers at Nueva Esperanza and taught and English class for adults. After he learned I was living in Bogotá, he invited me to join him and his students for a day of rock climbing in Suesca, a small rural town north of Bogotá—he thought it would be beneficial for them to be exposed to a native English speaker.

Explaining how to play American Football.
When everyone was accounted for, we loaded into the buses and set off for Suesca. As I watched the sprawling metropolis turn into rolling green hills, I couldn’t help but feel relieved. It can sometimes be suffocating living in a city as large and crowded as Bogotá and it was nice to be able to take in some of Colombia’s beautiful rural landscapes

After a bus ride filled with the people constantly asking me “Como se dice” this and “Como se dice” that, we finally arrived at our destination. I got off the bus and stepped onto the hard, crunchy gravel—happy to finally be standing on something other than concrete.

We followed a dirt path that ran along an old railroad track towards the place where we would eat breakfast. To our left lay the Bogotá River, at this point still clear and pristine, yet unaware of its toxic fate as it gurgled and churned southwards towards the capital city. To our right were Los Rocas de Suesca, the famous natural cliffs we would soon be climbing.

View from the top of the hill.
We arrived at a small tienda next to a field of black cows and I sat down to eat with a few of the English students. Since I was wearing a UC Davis football shirt, one of the students asked me about the difference between American football and fútbol (soccer). It was then that something strange happened—I started speaking Spanish—really well. I not only formed fluid, coherent sentences, but also more or less understood the machinegun Spanish being fired my way. By chance, one of the students had brought an American football with him and he tossed it to me as I spoke to the gathering crowd. After a few minutes, I was fully encircled by my own personal paparazzi asking me questions about what it was like to live in the United States.

Happy I didn't hyperventilate.
Of course, I hated the attention…

After breakfast, we split into two groups—one would climb while the other went to do team-building activities. After lunch, the groups would switch. I was placed into the latter group.

We backtracked down the railroad tracks and turned left and up a steep incline. As we heaved up the hill, my lungs burned from the altitude, but I managed to not hyperventilate. When we reached the hilltop, I found myself staring out at one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen.

Taking in a deep breath of the fresh, non-polluted air, I absorbed the breathtaking view. As far as the eye could see, there was lush farmland lined with clusters of trees and bordered by tall, dark mountains in the distance. From here one could see the entire town of Suesca, small and peaceful like any rural American town. I savored the opportunity to be in such an open and tranquil place—the antithesis of Bogotá’s crowded chaos.

Relaxing and thinking.
The group leader began leading us in a series of exercises intended to help us relax as well as cultivate teamwork skills. Although I was the newcomer—everyone there had been taken English classes together for weeks—they instantly made me feel welcome. The group leader told us to form a circle, close our eyes and focus our mind on a single person—to think about the last time we saw them; what we said to them, what we did with them and how we felt about them.

We lay there for several minutes under the morning sun, enjoying the sounds of the soft breeze whipping against the mountaintop. Although I would later pay dearly for exposing myself to the sun without wearing sunscreen, it was totally worth it.

With new Colombian friends!
When we finished the exercises, we headed back down the hill and returned to the same place where we had eaten breakfast. I was served a traditional Colombian meal of chicken, rice and lentils and a few older students gestured for me to join them on the grass.

As we ate, the students practiced their broken English on me and I yet again found myself speaking pretty decent Spanish. When someone asked me what I studied in college and I replied, “Ciencias Políticas y Historia” they said I must be a professional political scientist and historian. I tried to explain that in the United States, most people don’t end up actually using what they learned in college, but my lunchtime posse did not understand—college is a lot more pragmatic in Colombia.

Hanging with my lunchtime posse.
Another person asked me why I was in Colombia—to which replied that I was there to help poor children learn English. My entourage seemed intrigued that an American would not only be interested in helping their country’s poor, but also be willing to venture to Bogotá south side, a place most Bogotanos did their best to avoid.

The U.S. government likes to talk about winning the hearts and minds of those in developing countries—well I did more to achieve this goal, sitting in the dirt and shooting the shit with real, everyday Colombians, than a thousand ambassadors ever could.

A woman next to me asked me to write down my email address so we could stay in touch. I happily obliged, but soon found myself bombarded with notebooks and requests for my email address. All-in-all, I gave my email to more than twenty-five people—I feel bad for my gmail inbox for the day it is inevitable flooded with incomprehensible English emails.
The Virgin Mary on Pride Rock.

With lunch finished, it was my group’s turn to go rock climbing. It began to rain just as we reached the base of a cliff that resembled The Lion King’s Pride Rock that had a human-sized statue of the Virgin Mary on top.

You know you’ve been in Colombia for a while when running into large statues of the Virgin Mary in the middle of nowhere no longer seems random.

Just sayin’.

The first activity was not actually rock climbing, but rappelling. I walked up a narrow path that wound its way to the top of Pride Rock and found myself looking down fifty feet to the rest of the group below. Although a few of my companions were nervous to jump off the edge of a cliff, I was perfectly calm.

Rappelling down Pride Rock.
In 2009, I went skydiving—once you’ve jumped out of an airplane at 11,000 feet and lived to tell the tale, there aren’t a lot of things capable of fazing you. 

Strapped into the harness and attached to the line, I jumped back and down the cliff face. Nervous onlookers cheered me on from below and I nonchalantly made my way down the cliff. Had the rope broken, I would have likely fallen either to my death or to a life of paralysis, but I managed to make it down in one piece.

I reached the bottom and one of the group leaders asked if I wanted to try to climb one of the bigger rocks a little further down the road.

Naturally, I said yes.

When we arrived at the base of the next cliff, I strapped in and slowly made my way upward. It wasn’t that pretty, but I managed to make it to the top without looking like a complete gringo goon.

Detaching after making it down alive.
The last climber made it down just as it began to get dark and we headed back to the buses waiting to return us to Bogotá. I boarded a bus and collapsed into a vacant seat.

I was physically exhausted, psychologically drained and sunburned to boot.

In other words—it had been a good day.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Mayor of Bogotá, Democracy and AC/DC

The primary school all decked out.
Cascades of Bogotá’s signature rain bespattered the jalopy’s virtually opaque windshield as the vehicle powered up the hill to Nueva Esperanza. Crammed in the back seat next to two elderly women, I held on for dear life as the driver made a sharp turn at the next corner, sending a muddy spray towards an unlucky slumbering neighborhood dog.

“Por acá, por favor,” I said.

The vehicle came to an ungraceful halt. Grateful to still be counted among the living, I paid the driver and stepped out into the pouring rain.

When I looked up at Nueva Esperanza, the first thing I noticed was the enormous white tent that had been erected in the primary school’s courtyard. The second thing I noticed were the guns—lots of guns—being wielded by a contingent of Bogotá police and Colombian military personnel patrolling the area.  

The students and their parents watch the ceremony.
A military guard searched my bag and when he was satisfied I was not some kind of gringo assassin, allowed me to pass through the primary school’s gates. A lavish assortment of colorful balloons, streamers adorned the school’s interior. Within the tent was a massive stage with a large hanging banner that read, Bienvenidos—Colegio Nueva Esperanza: Educamos en el Respeto y Probidad.

I arrived just as Nueva Esperanza’s rector (principal) was finishing his opening remarks. Behind the rector sat Bogotá’s alcalde (mayor), Samuel Rojas, with his entourage of government officials and other misfits. A large seating area had been erected where students sat with their parents watching the rector speak.

Mayor Samuel Rojas speaking to the students.
As I made my way over to a good spot to watch, a few students yelled, “Teacher Mike!” and waved at me from the crowd. I smiled and waved back.

Although I only understood about half of the words the rector was saying, I knew what all the festivities were about—the inauguration of the Nueva Esperanza primary school. Nueva Esperanza is comprised of two structures—one for the primary and the other for the secondary school; the former was completed about a year ago.

After the rector finished his address, a few government officials spoke, including the Bogotá Secretary of Education. Heading up the speaking caboose was Mayor Rojas.

Prior to that day, I had heard a lot of things about Mayor Rojas—most of them negative. He is unpopular for a lot of reasons, but mainly because he has failed to follow through on most of his campaign promises. For instance, in 2008 he promised to construct a subway system for Bogotá and three years later… still no subway. Like many of Bogotá’s elected officials, he has also been accused of corruption on many occasions.

The students performing a Colombian dance.
When the mayor finished speaking about the virtues of knowledge and the government’s commitment to helping all the children of Bogotá realize their dreams, a group of Nueva Esperanza students put on a performance of traditional Colombian music and dance. The children had practiced for weeks to impress the mayor and they did an amazing job. The performance was a culmination of African, European and Native American influences—a bona fide representation of Colombia’s rich cultural heritage.

My students are awesome.
Afterward, I went to congratulate the children and tell them how much I enjoyed their performance. They were giddy from the thrill of performing in front of such important people—for them, this had been one of the most exciting experiences of their lives. When I asked if I could take a picture of them in their traditional Colombian clothes, one of the little girls grabbed my hand and insisted I join them in the picture. As I knelt down to take the picture with the kids, one of the boys put his sombrero on my head, officially making me one of the gang.

Not gonna lie—I felt pretty cool.

Well, cooler than Mayor Rojas, anyway.

When the ceremony ended, the mayor departed with his entourage in a heavily-armed convoy.

But the day was not yet over.

Me with the student dancers.
One of the teachers explained that they were going to have student government elections. Naturally, I volunteered to help and was assigned to monitor one of the voting stations. It was great to watch the kids come up to cast their votes—I believe that teaching children at a young age that their voice counts is the best way to strengthen the foundations of democracy. Although Latin America is renowned for its abundant supply of despots and dictators, Colombia has managed to maintain a strong democratic tradition—despite its checkered past.

When the students finished voting, I walked out to join one of my fellow teachers on the balcony overlooking the courtyard. Below, a few of the older students had hooked up a boom box to the stage speakers and were blasting reggae music.

“Los niños te quieren,” the teacher said as we watched below.

Helping a student cast her vote.
It was nice to hear those words—to know that although sometimes I feel like I am spinning my wheels trying to teach my students, at the very least, they like me.

I went down to mingle with the students as they listened and danced to their beloved reggae music. When I asked if they wanted to hear some American music, they nodded enthusiastically. I reached into my bag and retrieved my iPod and searched for a suitable song.

When I found what I was looking for, I hit play and for the first time in the history of southern Bogotá, the sweet rock jams of AC/DC filled the air.

“This song is called Back in Black,” I said.

Okay, technically it was Australian music, but they didn`t care.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Why English is Everything

Carlos Cano discussing Colombian socioeconomics.
When I first signed up for this gig, I knew I was coming down here to do something important—but the more time I spend in Colombia, the more I am realizing just how important that something is.

To quote one of my Colombian friends: “In Colombia, English is everything.”

Wait just a darn minute… isn’t Colombia a Spanish-speaking country?

Well, duh—I’m reminded of this every time I attempt to order an empanada at the local tienda.

So if everyone speaks Spanish here, then why is learning English so important?

During my second week in Colombia, the other WorldTeach volunteers and I had the opportunity to listen to a presentation by Carlos Cano, one of Colombia’s top economic advisors—more or less, Colombia’s Alan Greenspan—at the Colombian Central Bank.

Countries where English is an official language.
Mr. Cano told us that English is still the language of knowledge—more books, scientific papers and other important research documents are written in English than in any other language. In other words, a lack of English roughly equates to a lack of knowledge.

English is also still the international language for business—without at least a working knowledge of English, conducting international business is nearly impossible. Naturally, those who know English get better jobs than those who don’t. In other words—if you know English, you will have money and if you don’t, you will be poor.

Do these kids deserve a life of poverty? I think not.
It is also virtually impossible to get into college in Colombia without at least a basic understanding of the English language. Every prospective Colombian college student must take the ICFES—essentially Colombia’s SAT—to even be considered for admission. As you may have already guessed, one of the most crucial sections of this test is English.

Therefore, in Colombia if you don’t know English, you aren’t going to college.

Colombia’s wealthy elite have the resources to send their children to expensive prep schools where they can learn English from fluent and sometimes native speakers, guaranteeing that by the time they take the ICFES, they will be prepared to do well. Meanwhile, although Colombia guarantees every child a public education (which is more than most countries in the developing world can say), most public schools lack quality English teachers. More often than not, the public school English teachers don’t even speak the language themselves—so how can they expect to effectively teach it?  

Me... coming in.
This is where I come in.

As a native speaker teaching at a public school in one of the poorest areas of Bogotá, I can help to level the playing field. For children who would likely otherwise never even meet a native English speaker, the chance to learn from one every day should create a huge impact in their lives. Although I will likely never see the fruits of my labor—most of my students will not take the ICFES for many years—I am doing my best to plant the seeds of knowledge today so that when my students grow up, they will have a shot at a better life.

Every day when I enter Nueva Esperanza’s gates and am greeted by packs of children way too excited to see me, I cannot help but feel a sense of anger towards the adults of this world who have created a system so disgustingly unfair that these children—these little human beings—are more often than not destined to fail before they even get a chance to shine.

They've got what it takes to shine if we would only let them.
I don’t profess to have the power to correct capitalism’s inherent inequalities nor to purge poverty from the face of the Earth—but in teaching these children English, maybe—just maybe— I can help them reclaim the chance for a better life they were denied.