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.

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