Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Tall Gringo in USA TODAY

Hi all. Sorry for interrupting your Saturday night, but just wanted to direct you to an article I wrote for USA Today’s college blog about taking a detour away from the common path to do something to help the world. I am truly honored to have had the opportunity to see my work published in USA Today and am excited to share it with you all.

You can check out my article here.


Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Coffee and Colombia

Starbucks in the SF financial district.
If there is one thing San Francisco has plenty of—besides seismic activity—it’s coffee shops.

They’re everywhere. 

Last year when I worked in the San Francisco financial district, I often spent my lunch breaks meandering Market Street. Amidst my strolls, I marveled at the sheer number of coffee shops concentrated in such a small area. I found it a miracle that so many could stay in business—one could literally stand in front of one Starbucks and see another Starbucks less than a hop, skip and a jump away.

And that’s not even counting the innumerable Tully’s and Peet’s Coffees sprinkled in between.

I often wondered where all that coffee came from.

A year later I would have my answer…

Riding in the jeep.
Riding in the back of a modified old Jeep Wrangler, I sat hunched over as far as possible to prevent my head from smacking into the support bars as the vehicle attacked the uneven road.

We were just outside Manizales, navigating a rugged dirt road through a sparsely populated, rural and hilly area. The locals waved at us as we passed country homes on our way to Hacienda Venecia.

We arrived at the coffee farm just before midday and entered the hacienda’s main reception building, where a group of guests had already begun to gather. The hacienda people told us there would be two tour groups—one in English and one in Spanish. Although I probably could have survived in the Spanish group, I knew I would learn more listening to my native tongue, so I went with the former.

Coffee plant berries.
The hacienda’s manager led the English tour and took us into a small room to give us a crash course in all things coffee.

Here a summary of what we learned:

Coffee originated in Ethiopia and was brought to South America by Jesuits around 1730 C.E. Due to Colombia’s ideal climate for coffee cultivation, it became a natural cash crop after the expansion of the world economy during the latter half of the 19th century. Eventually, the United States became the most important consumer of Colombian coffee in the world, with Germany and France becoming the most important markets in Europe.  

The bad beans float while the good ones sink.
Most coffee beans in the world come from two species of coffee: Coffea arabica and Coffea robusta. More than 75% of the coffee beans in the world are a variety of Coffea arabica, while most of the remainder is Coffea robusta. Colombia almost exclusively grows the popular Coffea arabica species.

Colombian coffee fields.
The process of growing coffee is both simple and incredibly particular. First, coffee plants must be sown during the rainy season, as they require a steady supply of rain to thrive (hence why coffee can only be grown near the equator). Since Colombia has alternating wet seasons, it is one of the few places where coffee can be grown year-round. Once the coffee plants mature, they bear green coffee berries, which are later picked. A majority of the coffee berries pass through machines to remove their skins, revealing the coffee bean; however, for high-end coffee products, the coffee berries are digested and pooped out by some kind of special cat. The coffee beans then pass through a tank designed to separate the good beans from the bad—the bad ones float while the good sink to the bottom. The result is silos filled with raw, green coffee beans. Colombia usually sells coffee beans in their raw form because once roasted, coffee has a short shelf life.

After giving us the coffee-growing lowdown, the hacienda manager took us for a walking tour of the coffee fields. The coffee plants grew in long, straight rows on flat and steep terrain alike. We crossed a small river to visit the coffee processing facility that housed all of the equipment necessary for taking coffee berries and turning them into raw coffee beans ready for shipment.

The final product- raw coffee beans.
As far as I could tell, there were no coffee-bean-pooping cats on the premises.

So next time you enter a Starbucks and order your ritualistic latte, be sure to say, “Thank you, Colombia.”

Because if it weren’t for Colombia, your caffeine addiction could never be satiated.   

Monday, April 25, 2011

Semana Santa in Colombia’s Coffee Region

Manizeles is a short flight from Bogotá.
Standing on the crowded TransMilenio bus sporting my overstuffed travel pack, I might as well have been dressed up as Uncle Sam with the looks the other passengers were giving me. Normally, I can avoid stares by keeping a low profile and keeping my mouth shut, but with my giant gringo travel pack, I wasn’t fooling anybody.

After linking up with two other volunteers, I arrived at El Dorado International Airport with plenty of time to spare. When it was time to board, the flight staff led us down a short flight of stairs and ushered us onto a bus that took us to where our plane was waiting further down the runway. Although I was slightly taken aback by the fact that the plane had propellers rather than jet engines, I had no choice but to surrender to the will of the aviation gods and board. Thirty-six minutes after takeoff, we landed on a small runway in La Nubia Airport in Manizales, Colombia.

Thus began my Semana Santa in Colombia’s Coffee Region.

Manizales is San Francisco's South American twin.
Mountain Hostel and Manizales Night Life

Watching the city pass by on the way to the hostel, I could not help but feel that I was back in San Francisco. As the taxi powered up steep hills, passed through tunnels and weaved through incongruent streets, a strange air of familiarity hovered over the city just as the fog often does over the city by the bay.

After arriving at Mountain House, our home away from home… away from home for most of the week, we checked in and got ready for a night on the town. Many of the WorldTeach volunteers from across Colombia had come to Manizales for Semana Santa and were all staying at the same hostel, so I was excited for a mini-reunion.

That night when we went out to check out some of the Manizales night life, I was immediately struck by the differences between the bar scene in Bogotá and Manizales. Whereas Bogotá’s is huge and spread out, the Manizales bars were concentrated in a relatively small area. The streets were filled with college students having a good time, drinking on the streets within plain view of patrolling police. Although much of that night became an aguardiente-induced blur, the highlight of the night was dancing and drinking with friends at a place called Cable Bar.

Salento, Colombia.
Two Days in Salento

The next day, after forcing myself out of bed, making some scrambled eggs and chugging two cups of coffee, I left with the others on a bus for the nearby town of Salento. As the bus navigated the coffee region’s comically crooked roads, my enguayabado self endured three excruciating hours of doing my best not to vomitar. About two hours into the trip, our bus was stopped by a roadblock of Colombian soldiers carrying big guns. The soldiers were cordial as they frisked us for any hidden weapons. When they were satisfied that we weren’t gringo guerillas, we got back on the bus and continued towards Salento.

Hills near La Serrana hostel.
The bus dropped us off in Salento’s main square and I fell in love with the town at first sight. Salento had retained nearly all of its colonial architecture, accentuated by an old white church making up its center. Merchants set up stands throughout the square, selling a variety of art, jewelry and clothing.

After a pleasant jeep ride over an increasingly more rural road, we arrived at La Serrana, and I fell in love yet again. The place resembled a bed & breakfast resort more than a hostel and encompassed a large property overlooking rolling green hills. After checking in and dropping my bags in my room, I went for a walk to take in the surrounding area. Looking out at the painfully beautiful green pastures and peaceful tree-covered hills, I couldn’t help but smile—this was the Colombia I had been itching to see since the day I set foot in Bogotá. After four months of living in a polluted, overcrowded metropolis, I savored every breath of fresh mountain air.

Riding on the back of the jeep.
The next morning we headed into town to find transport to the Valle de Cocora where we planned to do some hiking. After hiring an old Willy’s jeep to take us, we piled on to the vehicle and I rode standing on a foot plate sticking out the back. With the wind blowing in my face as the jeep passed through some of the most breathtaking countryside I had ever encountered, I could have sworn I heard the Indiana Jones theme song playing from some invisible speaker.

When we reached our destination, the jeep dropped us off and we continued on foot through the Valle de Cocora. Colombian soldiers stood guard near the entrance to the trail to protect against guerilla activity that continues to pose a threat in the region. After entering the Valle de Cocora, I felt thrust into a Dr. Seuss book—the impossibly tall wax palm trees standing in the distance gave off an otherworldly aura. I would later learn that these trees were the tallest palm trees in the world and Colombia’s national tree.

In Valle de Cocora.
We spent a good five hours hiking through the mountain jungle, crossing makeshift bridges and ascending steep rocky inclines. Halfway through it started to rain and the already-muddy trail devolved into an even muddier trail, enveloping our boots with thick, brown mud. Although a pervasive fog prevented us from enjoying the view when we reached the top of the mountain, it was still worth the hike.

The Hot Springs

At the hot springs.
The day after we hiked through Valle de Cocora, we returned to Manizales to finish up the rest of the week checking out the area. On Wednesday, we attempted to visit one of the few places in Colombia that has snow—Nevado del Ruiz, but mudslides had made the pass impassable and we had to turn back. Instead, we decided to go to one of the hot springs in Manizales to soak up some sulfur. Although I had always pictured a hot spring to be a small pond in the middle of nowhere with hot, bubbly water swirling around in it, I was surprised to see that it turned out to be more like large, warm swimming pool.

After a few hours of lounging in the hot spring sipping a beer and looking out at the clouds hanging over the distant mountains, I was as relaxed as anyone could be.

At the coffee farm near Manizales.
The Coffee Farm

One of the highlights of the week came when we visited a coffee farm just outside Manizales. Again, we took jeeps through beautiful countryside en route to a rural destination. Touring the coffee farm felt a lot like wine tasting, as we got to sample some of the best coffee I have ever tasted while learning a lot about the coffee-growing process.

Colombia is one of the largest producers of coffee in the world and it was fascinating to see how they grow it first-hand. We walked through the coffee fields and inspected the large machines that process the beans after they have been picked. I was so fascinated by what I learned that it has inspired me to write a post about Colombian Coffee, so keep an eye out for that in the near future.

Los Yarumos, Torre al Cielo and Catedral de Manizales

Los Yarumos is a large ecological park in Manizales where you can do a lot of different outdoor activities. They have a zip line, ropes course and a series of hiking trails to keep you busy all day. Due to time constraints, I was only able to do the zip line, which they call canopy. The zip line was fun, albeit short, but nonetheless worth the $4 USD it cost to do it.

Riding the zip line in Los Yarumos.
After zip lining, we went to Torre al Cielo, a large UFO-shaped tower on the highest hill in Manizales. The tower overlooks a stunning vista of the surrounding mountains and is famous for being the best seat to one of the prettiest sunsets in the country. We went to the tower’s third floor lounge and had drinks as we looked out at God’s impressive handiwork. Although you can also go to the top of the tower and pay to be strapped into a safety harness to literally hang out on the top terrace, I opted to save the $10,000 pesos to put towards my margarita fund.

On our last day in Manizales, we visited the Catedral de Manizales, one of the tallest cathedrals in the world. The impressive neo-gothic architecture makes the cathedral one of Colombia’s treasures and I was able to tour the inside and climb to the top of the one of the cathedral’s highest spires to take in a panoramic view of the city.

Catedral de Manizales.
Back to Bogotá

After a fun-filled week, the time finally came to say goodbye to our friends and head back to the big city. Although I was reluctant to leave such a beautiful place, my duties back in Bogotá beckoned for my return. Seeing a new part of Colombia has whetted my appetite for more and I can’t wait for the day I will get to see more of this truly enchanting place. 

Friday, April 15, 2011

Video: My Time in Colombia So Far

The other day as I was perusing my laptop for something to occupy my idle gringo mind, I stumbled across Windows Live Movie Maker. After playing around with the program for a bit, I got the novel idea of creating a video about my time in Colombia thus far.

I figured you guys could use a break from my perspicacious prose, anyway.

So, grab a bowl of popcorn, sit back and enjoy what could quite possibly be the greatest display of cinematic excellence you’ve ever witnessed.

Oh, and one more thing.

Tomorrow I’ll be heading to Manizales for Semana Santa, so there won’t be any updates for at least another week.
I know, I know.

Look on the bright side—now you will have plenty of time to catch up on all of my posts! When you’re done with the video, take a peek in the Gringo Archives (right sidebar) and dig in.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Gringo Origins

Gringos in their natural habitat.
Have you ever wondered where the word gringo originated?

I sure have.

After devoting no small measure of my considerable mental resources to solving what could possibly be one of the greatest mysteries of our time, I dug up a few interesting theories.

The Mexican-American War Theory

For those of you who never paid attention in history class, here’s what the Mexican-American War was in a nutshell: the United States asked [1] Mexico if it could borrow [2] some [3] of Mexico’s land so that some of its citizens [4] could have a place to live. After Mexico said, “No way, José!” and spilled American blood on American soil [5] the United States was pissed and had no choice but to borrow the land through force.

There are actually two digressing theories based on the Mexican-American War paradigm:

To be fair, we asked nicely first.
1. The Uniform Argument—Some say that the invading American troops wore green uniforms and the defending Mexican soldiers would yell “green-go” as to tell the U.S. troops to go home. Although this might seem logical, the United States Army did not adopt green uniforms until World War I. So basically, this argument stinks. Forget it.

2. The Immigrant Argument—During the war, several hundred recently immigrated Irish, German and other Catholic Americans were sent to fight against Mexico. Many of these immigrants came to question why they were fighting against a Catholic country for a protestant one and when combined with their growing resentment for mistreatment by their Anglo-Protestant officers, they deserted to join forces with Mexico, calling themselves St. Patrick’s Battalion. Proponents of this idea claim that the Irish soldiers frequently sang “Green Grows the Rushes, Oh!”, an old folk song. Mexican soldiers, after continuously hearing “Green Grow” reported back to their superiors that this might be what Americans called themselves.

Aristotle, the first Gringo?
The Greek Theory

Many scholars agree that gringo is a variant of griego, the Spanish word for Greek. Alternatively, it has also been argued that griego could be a variant of the Spanish Romani (pre-Castilian Spanish language spoken during Roman times) word peregringo, which means ‘wayfarer’ or ‘stranger.’

Further supporting this theory, in the 1840s, Swiss natural scientist Johann Jakon von Tschudi, while traveling through Peru, wrote: Gringo is a nickname applied to Europeans. It is probably derived from Griego (Greek). The Germans say of anything incomprehensible, "That sounds like Spanish,"--and in like manner the Spaniards say of anything they do not understand, "That is Greek."

Regardless of which theory is correct, it has been well-documented that the word gringo was first widely used by Mexican soldiers to disparage American troops during the Mexican-American War, suggesting that this conflict gave birth to the common usage of the word as a racial epithet towards those hailing from the United States.

Where else did Mexico expect us to build
Disneyland and Caesar's Palace?
Since the 19th century, gringo has become a universal word in most Central and South American countries for referring to people from the United States (or any English-speaking country). Although the word is often meant to be derogative, it is also commonly used in a neutral or even affectionate manner in referring to foreigners of North American/European descent.

Well, there you have it, folks—the mystery is more or less solved.

If not, at least you have something cool to talk about at your next cocktail party.

[1] demanded
[2] steal
[3] nearly half
[4] white, Anglo-Saxon, protestants
[5] land that Americans had ‘borrowed’ a few years earlier.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

A Tale of Two Bogotás

Looking down on the streets near Nueva Esperanza.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…

As I stand on third floor balcony overlooking the dilapidated neighborhood surrounding Nueva Esperanza, I cannot help but think of these words, immortalized by Charles Dickens over 150 years previous. Abounding crumbling buildings stand in stark contrast to Nueva Esperanza’s modern, sound architecture. On the streets below, homeless dogs of every imaginable breed peruse piles of curbside refuse in search of sustenance—one of them squats to take a dump in the middle of the road while another patiently waits to lop it up. Young gang members dressed like the spawn of Snoop Dog wander the streets in search of their next victim—perhaps an unlucky student, teacher or the mother lode—the gringo they’ve heard to be working in the area.

The Juan Rey Barrio around Nueva Esperanza.
Later, I find myself making the rounds within a sea of sixth graders, answering their copious questions about the assigned task. I feel a pang of hunger and instinctively head to my backpack to down a handful of peanuts. My stomach satisfied, I turn to see a few students watching me with envious eyes and am immediately ashamed of my insensitivity.

Towards the end of the period, a pair of older students lug in a crate filled with pre-packaged meals. I reach inside to inspect today’s bounty—plátano muffins, milk and mangos. I grab as much as I can carry and begin to pass out the government-issued provisions to my students.

“Gracias, teacher,” each student says as I hand them what is likely to be the most significant meal they will have all day.

Zona Rosa.
When school ends, I see an aseador sweeping up shards of broken glass as I head out the front door—the night before one of the local gangs attacked the school with a barrage of rocks, shattering many of the building’s windows.

Headed home on a colectivo bus, I watch a woman carrying a bag of colored pens get on, her two daughters beside her. The woman asks for everyone’s attention and begins her sales pitch as she passes out a pen to each passenger. Once everyone has a pen, she returns to the front of the bus to collect the money. A few people pay, but most hand back the pens, uninterested. Although a cheap pen is the last thing I need, one of her daughters reminds me of my baby cousin Grace and I decide to buy three.

Bogotá Hard Rock Cafe.
That evening, I head north on TransMilenio to meet friends for dinner. Watching the cityscape pass by, I spot a horse cart racing a taxi for road supremacy and, surprisingly, giving the taxi a run for its money. Passing by a maximum security prison, I am shocked to see an elementary school built right next to its high barbed-wire-tipped walls.

As we cross the invisible border dividing north from south, I notice my fellow passengers’ cheap Nokias transform into BlackBerries and iPhones. Outside, modest homes and tiendas sprout into skyscrapers rivaling those of the San Francisco financial district.

Bogotá Hooters.
I get off at the Héroes stop, enter Zona Rosa and find myself in another world. Crossing the street, I see a red Lamborghini burn out as it turns the corner. I pass by posh restaurants with English names—there is a CitiBank, a Harley Davidson Store, the nicest Burger King I have ever seen and even a Hooters.

Continuing on, I see fashionably-dressed women and men sporting expensive suits and watches to boot. Designer clothing stores line the streets as far as the eye can see, with flashy casinos distributed here, there and in between. It could have been San Francisco or New York.

Crepes & Waffles.
After eating dinner at a popular restaurant called Crepes & Waffles, I return south on TransMilenio. I take out my Lonely Planet Colombia guide and read its description of the country:

Colombia’s back. After decades of civil conflict, Colombia is now safe to visit and travelers are discovering what they’ve been missing. The diversity of the country may astonish you. Modern cities with skyscrapers and nightclubs? Check. Gorgeous Caribbean beaches? Check. Jungle walks and Amazon safaris? Check. Colonial cities, archaeological ruins, high-mountain trekking, whalewatching, coffee plantations, scuba diving, surfing, the list goes on.

I close the book and consider what I have just read. Colombia is back—but for whom? For the impoverished masses who rush to Bogotá in search of opportunity, but find only desperation and a government that could care less if they live or die? Or is it for the wealthy Colombian minority and foreigners who come here in search of cheap drugs and a good time?

The two Bogotás.

As the bus speeds towards my adopted home in Bogotá’s darker half, the last part of Dickens' passage plays through my mind:   

...we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Three Months In

My school, Nueva Esperanza.
When I first arrived in Colombia just over three months ago, I had no idea what to expect. My mind was a maelstrom of hopes and apprehensions, but my desire to make a difference ultimately outweighed my fear of the unknown. Thus, I threw caution to the wind and willingly walked the plank off the ship of conventionality.

Now a quarter of the way through my service, I can clearly see that this leap of faith is being rewarded—I have grown, and continue to grow in ways I cannot even begin to fully comprehend.

When I look back on my first day out in Cota—the small pueblo where I had WorldTeach orientation—I laugh at how nervous I was walking the streets and how utterly incapable I was of something as simple as ordering a beer in Spanish. Today, I can comfortably navigate Bogotá’s chaotic streets and hold my own in a Spanish conversation.

Teaching; a tough gig.
If there’s one thing I have learned during my time here, it’s that there’s a big difference between traveling abroad and living abroad. Whereas when you travel abroad, everything is new and exciting from constantly being on the move, when you live abroad, the excitement is replaced by the monotony of routine. Nevertheless, I am happy and proud to be living abroad in Bogotá because it is allowing me to get to know Colombia on a more intimate level than most foreigners ever will.

Although I knew it wouldn’t be easy fighting on the front lines in the battle against poverty, I am learning just how truly herculean a task it is. It’s not like in the movies where the idealistic young teacher is able to easily inspire their class of underachievers into embracing education—more often than not I leave school feeling beaten and battered.

But then there are those rare “aha” moments when everything seems to click and a student actually seems to have learned something.

Dogs make me happy.
Living abroad can also be difficult for the simple fact that it’s lonely. Constantly feeling like an outsider and not being able to articulate everything you would like to communicate can make you feel isolated. Facebook makes it impossible not to see everything I am missing out on at home with my friends and family—there are days when I wish I could teleport back to California, if only for a few hours—at least to say hi to my dog and let him know I’m still alive.

When I find myself missing home, I try to remember why I am here—to give disadvantaged children a shot at a better life and to challenge myself to become a better person. I didn’t choose this path because it was easy, but because it was headed in the direction that I wanted to go.

When my morale reaches its nadir, it helps to remember this poem by William Ernest Henley:


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Monday, April 4, 2011

To Help the Homeless

Plaza Los Mártire in Bogotá.
Bogotá’s Plaza Los Mártires has seen better days—what was once a center for commerce has since deteriorated into an emblem of the capital city’s pervasive poverty. Today, the homeless wander the plaza in search of handouts from passersby, willing or otherwise. Colombian soldiers stand guard around the clock in the center of the plaza, protecting a large obelisk resembling a miniature Washington Monument. If you planned on venturing there during the day, people would say you need a flak jacket—if you decided to go there after dark, they’d suggest you try on a straight-jacket.

Well, it was well after dark and that was precisely where I was headed.

Sorry, mom.

My triceps and forearms burned under the strain of pushing a large cart loaded with enough soup to feed five hundred people. I was accompanied by a diverse group of men, women and children as we walked through the centro’s dimly-lit streets. Although to walk there alone at this hour would have been tantamount to suicide, our small army of good Samaritans—led by the tallest priest I had ever seen—walked unopposed through the darkness. Every now and then we would halt our advance and a few people carrying guitars would begin to play, spurring the whole group to break into song.

The homeless in Plaza Los Mártire.
When we finally arrived at Plaza Los Mártires, there was a huge line of homeless people forming in anticipation of the nourishment we wrought. Happy to be relieved of my burden, I helped to carefully set the cart on the pavement. A few people who had been lugging bags filled with sandwiches plopped them on the ground next the soup. The group fanned out and linked arms to create a protective circle around the food, as a few people began ladling soup into small Styrofoam cups.

A few heavily-armed soldiers meandered over to make sure nobody bothered us, but it didn’t appear to be necessary—volunteers freely mingled with the homeless, chatting up a storm as they waited (more or less) patiently in line for what was likely their first real meal in days. My friend Zach and I watched over a group of children volunteers as they conversed with an old man sporting a rough, gray beard who smiled warmly with all the five teeth he had.

When the children volunteers spotted a pair of homeless children waiting for their mother to get them soup, they swarmed the unsuspecting pair like paparazzi. Although the two initially looked immensely uncomfortable with the attention they weren’t accustomed to receiving, they eventually opened up and began chattering with their admirers in rapid-fire Spanish I could barely follow. One of the homeless boys disappeared for a few minutes and returned wearing roller blades, proudly displaying his roller talents to the group.

Homeless man sitting in Bogotá.
I looked around to soak up the scene—volunteers not only hard at work passing out food to the hungry, but also socializing with them as if they were old friends. I watched the homeless boy attempting to impress the young girls with his mad roller blade skills, only to hit a crack in the cement and come crashing down in a blaze of glory.

My time in Colombia has compelled me to reflect a lot about the gross inequality afflicting this world. While I concede that, given our choice of economic system, there will always be a degree of inequality; however, we cannot progress as a species until we can guarantee that at the very least, those dwelling at the bottom of the economic barrel can live humanely and, more importantly, have equality of opportunity to better themselves as human beings.

Homelessness is an epidemic that many of us who are better off chose to ignore. We justify our ignorance by dehumanizing the homeless, rationalizing that they are solely to blame for getting themselves into their plight. Serves those lazy drug addicts right, we argue. But after speaking with the homeless first-hand—albeit in my spotty gringo Spanish—it was impossible not to see their humanity. These were not people to be reviled nor pitied—although through a series of unfortunate events, they had found themselves at the absolute bottom of society’s barrel, they were nonetheless, still human. 

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said: “Why should there be hunger and deprivation in any land, in any city, at any table, when man has the resources and the scientific know-how to provide all mankind with the basic necessities of life? There is no deficit in human resources. The deficit is in human will.”

Helping the homeless at night in Plaza Los Mártires.
We owe it to ourselves as well as to those who come after to not only imagine a better world, but to also do whatever is within our power to make it so.

We cannot continue to make excuses not to act.

Time to get to work.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Quitting Colombia

The horse cart that almost killed me.
There’s no easy way to say this, so I’m just going to say it—I’ve decided to leave Colombia.

I will fly out of Bogotá tomorrow afternoon and after a lengthy layover in Miami, touch down at SFO early Sunday morning. I didn’t come to this decision lightly—but recent events have compelled me to choose a different path.

The other day, I narrowly escaped death-by-horse-cart when I was nearly trampled while crossing the street. Apparently, the horse was malnourished and had developed a personality disorder that made it think it was a Formula One racecar. It was my bad for not looking both ways before I crossed the street, but it seriously came out of nowhere.

This kid watches too much Fox News.
Besides that, I have found that my services are no longer needed at Nueva Esperanza. I have proven to be such an effective teacher that all of my students are now proficient English speakers. I realized this the other day when one of my 4th graders came up to me during recess and asked me (in perfect English) whether I thought the United States’ current military action in Libya construed a new “Obama Doctrine” or was just a fluke in the president’s foreign policy. Dumbfounded at how effective the previous week’s lesson on world countries had apparently been, I continued on through the schoolyard, batting away peculiarly advanced questions in English my students tossed my way. After speaking with the rector, we agreed that my work there was done and it was best if I got the F out.

Gerico is a very demanding dog.
But the main reason I am quitting Colombia is because I just can’t stand being away from my golden retriever, Gerico. The other day he barked at me through Skype and I realized that he might run away if I don’t come home soon. If he ever did such a thing... I don’t think I could live with myself.

So, goodbye Colombia, I will miss your craziness and reasonably-priced beer. Until we meet again.

But before I go, I just wanted to say…