Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Five Pedlers

Colectivo buses.
Sitting on the colectivo bus headed home from Nueva Esperanza, I peered out the window to see the majestic Andes rising up from the Sabana de Bogotá. My head jerked back and forth from the bumpy ride—the bus driver appeared to be making a conscience effort to hit every single pothole along the road.

After exiting the Juan Rey barrio, we turned onto one of Bogotá’s main thoroughfares, Primero de Mayo, and the ride became much smoother, much to my beleaguered body’s relief. When the bus stopped to let passengers off and on, a dark-skinned man missing a front tooth boarded and addressed the passengers, saying not to worry; he wasn’t here to rob us, but to sell chocolate bars to help support his family. The man walked down the cramped aisle, passing out chocolate bars and once everyone had one, returned to the front of the bus. Facing the passengers, he gave a lengthy spiel about the merits of his chocolate bars that would have given Willy Wonka a run for his money. His speech delivered, the man walked back down the aisle, collecting money from those who he had convinced and recovering the chocolate from those had not.

Inside a colectivo.
At the next stop, the man got off and a young woman got on, carrying a box of variegated pens. Just like her predecessor, she addressed the passengers, passed out the pens and began a lengthy oration as to why her pens were worth coughing up $1,000 pesos.

The same cycle was repeated two more times over the next ten minutes—one salesperson would get off and immediately be replaced by another. Although their goods varied from candy to pencils to notebooks, they all used the same sales strategy; pass their product out to each passenger, deliver an Obama-esque speech about the merits of their product then return to collect the money.

Finally, five minutes went by without someone boarding to sell us something and I thought we might be in the clear, but alas, I was proven wrong when a tall, gaunt man carrying a boom box boarded the bus. He begins blasting a familiar rap beat and breaks down into Spanish rap. I exchange wry looks with an 89-year old woman sitting next to me as we find ourselves being musically mugged by this would-be Colombian Jay-Z.

A contemplative homeless man in Bogota.
At this point, everyone on the bus, including myself, had become annoyed by the incessant flow of people trying to sell us stuff we didn’t want. When an older woman boarded the bus and began what I believed would be the same old thing, I thought to myself, “Are you kidding me?”

But this woman was different—she had nothing to sell. She told us about how difficult her life is—that she was there to ask us for anything we could spare to help feed her hungry grandchildren. In the face of such raw desperation, my initial annoyance melted into sympathy and I realized I was wrong to have felt resentment for her and the others. These were people strangled by penury who were only trying to scrape together enough pesos to feed their families.

Who was I, someone who had never known want, to judge?

It is easy for those who have a lot to grow to resent or worse—ignore those who have nothing. The complexities of poverty and economic inequality cause many of us to wrongly blame the poor for landing themselves in such a precarious condition. Rather than treat the poor as equals, we develop emotional calluses to stay sane in the face of such inexplicable socioeconomic imparity.

My reaction to the bus peddlers denuded my guilt of having developed such calluses.

But no more.

It is a gross error in judgment to blame the poor for poverty.

It’s time to rip open those calluses. Let it bleed. Feel the sting.

Because if I, or anyone, hope to make a lick of a difference in this world, the humanity of the poor must never be forgotten.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Fútbol Americano

One day during recess, I entered the teacher’s lounge and found a curious, but familiar object resting on the table. It’s brown and egg-shaped, but much larger than anything a chicken could lay. I picked up the leather ball and allowed my fingers to play over its white, grooved stitches.

Another teacher entered the room and noticed me holding the ball. In Spanish, he said, “In Bogotá, only the rich play American football. Because they want to be like Americans. Most of the rich kids in the north play in leagues. But they don’t have that here.”

I asked if the children in this neighborhood had ever even seen an American football before.

He shrugged and said, “Probably not.”

I walked to the window overlooking the schoolyard and spotted some of my students playing soccer on the blacktop below.

I grinned and said, “I think it’s time for that to change.”

Ball in hand, I descended the three flights of stairs and entered the schoolyard, where my students were still engaged in a heated game of Colombian blacktop soccer. When they noticed me standing there holding an American football, they immediately abandoned the game and rush over to me.

One of the smaller students asked, “Podemos jugar fútbol Americano?” (Can we play American football?)

“Of course,” I said, gently tossing him the ball.

And then there was chaos.

The scene denigrated into a page out of Lord of the Flies, as the students chased the small student, doing their darnedest to bring him down on the cold, hard blacktop. When the small student realized he had become a marked man, he dropped the ball, culminating in a massive dog pile consisting of sixth, seventh and eighth grade boys.

The schoolyard.
For the next several minutes, I watched the students repeat the cycle; one kid would snatch the ball from another, and run away from his attackers like Mufasa from a heard of wildebeest. I watched in horror as one student dove over a low-standing fence trying to catch an overthrown pass, but he reappeared a few minutes later, miraculously unscathed.

I knew I needed to do something to organize the mayhem before someone got decapitated, so I gestured for the wildebeests to gather around.

“Okay,” I said, “We are going to play a game called Three Flies Up.”

After I explained the rules, the game commenced and the students resumed their chicanery, albeit slightly more civilly. At the very least, I was able to teach them English words like “catch”, “throw” and “I got it!”

One of the boys ran up to me and cried, “Estamos jugando fútbol Americano!”

“Well,” I began, then reconsidered, “Close enough.”

Saturday, May 14, 2011


Thanks for nothing, JFK.
Today I moved.

Don’t worry, I’m still living in Bogotá but am now in a different area.

As I mentioned before, my host sister, Mariana suffers from Spinal Muscular Atrophy, which makes performing even the simplest tasks a challenge. My host parents needed to hire a full-time caretaker to live in and watch over her 24/7 and as I was taking up the only spare bedroom, I needed to move out to make room. Luckily, Gloria, another teacher at Nueva Esperanza had an open room in her apartment and offered it to me.

I am now living in Ciudad Kennedy, a barrio in southwest Bogotá. Intrigued by the name, I did some research and learned that the barrio is in fact named in honor of President John F. Kennedy after his assassination in 1963. The barrio was developed during an urbanization project in 1961, partially financed by the Alianza para el Progreso (Alliance for Progress) and President Kennedy visited Bogotá during this period to show his support for the program. There is also a major hospital a few blocks from my apartment that also bears the martyred president’s name.

Ciudad Kennedy, with the hospital in the distance.
So, basically, I traveled all the way to Colombia only to end up living in a neighborhood named after a U.S. president.

How exotic.

Sarcasm aside, I am actually really happy about the move. Kennedy is a lot closer to, well, everything. I will have easier access to public transportation and therefore have an easier time getting around this crazy town. Whereas before, planning a night out on the town was a logistical nightmare, I will now be able to have a real social life and start showing off some of those hard-learned salsa moves.

Besides the social benefits, moving here will also allow me to stabilize my teaching schedule at Nueva Esperanza. Although Usme was closer to the school than Kennedy, there was no direct public transportation from my old apartment to the school, which meant I had to rely on rides to get there. Living in Kennedy, I can take a bus that goes directly to and from Nueva Esperanza, making it a lot easier to get to work.

My new diggz.
This year has been all about changes. Living in Bogotá, I’ve had to learn to be flexible (quite literally when it comes to taking TransMilenio) and to roll with the punches. Although living abroad is not easy, I’ve learned that it is doable if you keep an open mind.

I came here because I wanted to change the world. But with each passing day I am beginning to believe that by the time this experience is over, it will end up being the other way around.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

An apology, a rant and a revelation

I want to apologize for the lack of updates lately, but I promise I’ve got a good excuse. In just over six weeks, I will be taking the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) and have been hunkering down to study. I am going to do my best to continue to add new content from now until then, but it will probably be less frequent than usual.

Since I’m on the subject and it will make me feel better, I am going to rant a little about the GRE.

Seriously, he signed my diploma.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, the GRE is a standardized test everyone must take to apply to most graduate programs in the United States. It tests advanced English vocabulary, reading comprehension, mathematical skills and writing ability.

I have never been good at standardized tests; I am more of a reader and a writer and a doer than a filling-in-empty-bubbles-er. As I sit here studying, I cannot help but find it silly that 55 multiple-choice questions could very well decide the next chapter in my life.

When I graduated from college in 2009, I had the rest of my life in front of me but no idea what I wanted to do with it. Armed with little but my aspirations and a diploma bearing the Governator’s signature, I set aside my idealistic impulses to get a taste of corporate America. After spitting out that soufflé and scuttling off to South America, I now find myself considering my post-Colombia moves.

Although I’ve had graduate school on my mind since they day I graduated college, I wanted to hold off until I knew exactly what I wanted to do.

I believe I finally know what that is.

Me in Washington, D.C.
They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder. After being away from my country for nearly half a year now, I can say that this is indeed true. But living abroad has also allowed me to see the United States from an outsider’s perspective, illuminating the blemishes that are often covered up by the mascara of patriotism.

After seeing the United States, in all its beauty and ugliness, I know that my love for my country is unconditional. But that doesn’t mean I think we can’t do better.

And I’ve decided to spend the rest of my life ensuring that we do.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Staying Safe in Colombia

Papaya; don't give it.
Colombians have a saying, “No dar papaya” which translates as, “to not give papaya.” It has nothing to do with giving tropical fruits and everything to do with staying safe. It means to not put yourself in a situation where you can be taken advantage of, hurt or worse.

With the dramatic improvements in its security situation, Colombia is becoming one of the most popular backpacker destinations in South America. Although coming here ten years ago would have been an exercise in fatuity, today Colombia has cleaned up its act enough so that it is safer for foreigners to visit.

But safer doesn’t mean safe—in coming to Colombia, you are pretty much by default, darring papaya. Although the Colombian tourist board will probably have me assassinated for saying this, Colombia is still a developing country plagued by an ongoing (albeit limited) civil war. Besides Colombia’s unique dangers, it poses the risks that come standard with any developing country.

Here are six things to keep in mind to stay safe during your time in Colombia:

What you look like to criminals.
1. Don’t make yourself a target—the greatest danger you face in coming to Colombia is not kidnapping or dodging bullets, but everyday street crime. As a foreigner, Colombians criminals automatically assume you have money. Whether not this is true, they will see a green dollar sign floating over your head. You can minimize your chances of standing out by dressing as plainly as possible and not wearing any expensive-looking items—jewelry, shoes, designer backpacks and more. Use common sense and you should be fine.

2. If someone gets the drop on you, don’t resist—most muggers would rather take your possessions than your life. Even the U.S. Embassy employees in Bogotá are told to not resist muggings unless they feel that their life is in jeopardy. Think about what’s more important—a couple dollars or your life. A British man was recently killed in Medellin because he failed to follow this simple advice (He also failed to listen to #1).

3. Never carry more money than you need—when you are out and about playing tourist, there is no need to carry more money than you will spend that day. In the event that you do get robbed, the thieves will have not made off with your entire net worth. As an added safety check, make a habit of keeping a $20,000 peso note in your shoe—if something does happen then you will at least have enough to get back to your hostel or hotel.  

4. Never drink excessively—with Colombia’s party culture, vibrant night life and cheap alcohol, it can be easy to party to the point of losing control. When I visited the U.S. Embassy, the security officers told us that a majority of the reports they received of Americans being victimized happened because they were drunk. While I was traveling in Manizales over Semana Santa, I met an Irish backpacker who was nearly killed because he resisted a mugging while inebriated. The mugger stabbed him in the gut, slashed his arm and punched him so hard in the jaw that he had to have a wisdom tooth removed. I’m not saying don’t go out and have fun while you are in Colombia, but drink responsibly if you do.

5. Do your homework before making travel plans—I’m going to be blunt; not all regions of Colombia are safe—for Colombians, much less foreigners. Although their power has drastically diminished over the past decade, the guerillas and paramilitaries are still out there and the threat is still very real. Just last week I read about a FARC attack against a small town in southwest Colombia. Colombian police officers were killed and the town’s population had to seek refuge in specially-made “guerilla attack” shelters. That being said, there is very little threat of coming into contact with these armed groups in the major cities; however, if you venture off the beaten path and visit more rural areas, the threat becomes very real.

Bus accident in Colombia.
6. Avoid traveling long distances by bus—Colombia has an extensive and cheap intercity bus system, which appears ideal for travelers on a budget. But traveling by bus can also be one of the most dangerous things you do there. Colombia’s unique geography makes traveling by bus a risky business—most of the (poorly kempt) roads zig-zag through mountainous terrain with sheer drops off high cliffs. Colombian bus drivers tend to suffer from a severe case of machismo and value speed over safety. Also, Colombia has been suffering from excessive rains this year, causing dangerous mudslides that have injured and killed many people—recently a bus traveling from Bogotá to Manizales was swept off a cliff by a mudslide, killing fourteen people. Although plane tickets can be expensive in Colombia, it is always safer to fly.

I don’t mean to scare you away from visiting Colombia, but to make sure you have an honest appraisal of the potentials dangers so that you can stay safe during your time here. Colombia is not the bullet-ridden Pablo Escobar dystopia many make it out to be—in fact, by Latin American standards, Colombia is safer than most countries (especially Mexico).

Don't let the risks scare you from seeing Colombia.
Colombia is a beautiful, exotic place that should be on everyone’s Latin America travel itinerary—but as with all worthwhile things, it comes with a degree of risk.

I hope this can help you to minimize it.