Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Good News/Bad News

I’ve got some good news and bad news.

First, the good news.

This Friday I will be taking a break from saving the world to spend a few weeks exploring it.

I’ll kick off my three-week gringo trek in and around Santiago, Chile. I’m still not 100% sure what’s gonna go down there, but I’ve had thoughts about checking out Valparaíso and Viña del Mar. Besides that, I am looking into going snow skiing (it’s winter there) and I couldn’t call myself a true Californian if I didn’t partake in some Chilean wine tasting while I’m there.

After a week in Chile, I will head to Cusco, Peru where I will spend a few days before embarking on a 4-day hike along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. If there’s one thing I love more than camping, it’s historical landmarks, so it will be great to combine the two. After Machu Picchu, I will fly to Lima, Peru for a few days. Word on the street is the food in Lima is the best in Latin America, so I will probably spend most of my time gorging myself on whatever it is Limans eat… hopefully it’s not too sour.

When I’m through with Peru, I will fly to San José, Costa Rica. Random, I know. But I have a good reason. Since I won’t be going home at all this year, I suggested that my family come down here to see me. So we decided on Costa Rica.

Speaking of going to Costa Rica, random chance averted certain disaster with my travel plans. Months ago, when I planned this trip, I looked online to check the vaccination requirements for each country. The page for Costa Rica said the only required vaccination was for yellow fever, but not if you were from the United States. I took this to mean that I didn’t need it.

Costa Rica
Yesterday, I was talking with a Colombian friend and she happened to bring up a story about someone she knew who tried to enter Costa Rica, but was denied entry because he didn’t have the yellow fever shot. Later, I went home and looked at the vaccination requirements for Costa Rica again and, lo and behold, saw that you need the yellow fever vaccination if you are coming from Colombia or Peru.

Luckily, today I was able go to a local Red Cross and get the vaccination promptly taken care of. Before you say anything, I know that Colombian clinics offer the yellow fever shot for free, but I didn’t wanted to deal with impossible lines, so I paid the lousy $50,000 pesos ($25 USD) for the shot.

At any rate, after a week in Costa Rica doing an assortment of touristy gringo things, I will head back to Bogotá, and the regular grind.

As for the bad news, this mainly falls on you—you are going to have find some other way to procrastinate at work for the next three weeks.

Something tells me you’ll live.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Free Fallin'

The sketchy plane.
It was a warm, sunny day in Sonoma County, California. A comforting breeze blew down from the tree-covered hillside and a few rogue clouds gathered overhead, as if to witness my demise.

I stood inspecting the antiquated piece of aviation technology that would allegedly carry me into the air. It looked like something the Wright Brothers used before they solved the whole “crashing and burning” problem during the development of their first flying machine prototype.

After a crash-course in skydiving safety, I entered the aero-jalopy’s cramped cabin and took a seat next to my instructor. The plane’s hoarse engines coughed to life and a few minutes later we were, miraculously, airborne. As the plane climbed towards the heavens, a thousand “what if” questions spiraled through my mind at a hundred miles per hour.

About to jump...
What if the chute fails?

What if the plane crashes?

What if I die?

When we reached the desired altitude, the instructor slid open the door and I found myself looking 12,000 feet to the earth below. My heart began to pound so fast that I felt the friction would cause me to spontaneously combust.

I was afraid.

But then I jumped…


A year later, I found myself on a Boeing jet peering out a porthole at the sprawling metropolis below.

Bogotá, Colombia.

My new home for the next 12 months.

Overlooking Bogotá.
I had just quit my job, said goodbye to everyone I knew and loved and packed my life into two checked bags and one carry-on. I had barely ever been outside the United States, much less to a developing country. I was like a tightrope-walker who had never walked a tightrope before and doing it blindfolded.

Another whirlwind of questions swirled through my mind.

What if I get robbed?

What if I get kidnapped?

What if I die?

I was afraid.

But then we landed and I entered Bogotá.

After dropping out of the propeller plane, the next 45 seconds were straight free-fall. My body emptied its entire adrenaline reserve into my bloodstream, quadrupling my heart rate and sending my brain into sheer survival mode. My clothes rippled in the air as the wind rushed all around. Although I kept my head up and eyes open to catch a glimpse of the view, my mind’s aesthetic faculties were unable to process the flurry of the sensation.

After what seems like two and a half lifetimes of freefall, there was jerk and then a gush of wind as I shot upward.

Free fall.
And then there was peace.

The chute caught the air and the chaos transformed into tranquility as I gently floated towards the earth. Although my eyes had been open the entire time, I was finally able to appreciate the breathtaking beauty that surrounded me. From this height, the cars driving on the 101 looked like ants scurrying towards their next task. I could see the glistening waters of Lake Sonoma in the distance and the sprawling fields of wine country covering the earth like a patched quilt.

A few minutes later, I landed on a patch of grass beside the airfield. I was alive and well, yet more alive than I had ever been in my entire existence.

Since arriving in Bogotá, I’ve felt like I’ve been in a constant state of freefall. Except instead of lasting 45 seconds, it has lasted nearly sixth months. The everyday challenges of surviving in a place where few gringos have gone before have kept me from truly appreciating the gravity of where I am and what I am trying to accomplish here. Although this “saving the world” business is not so glorious during the day-to-day toil, that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it.

Time to pull the chute.
On December 10, 2011, I will be boarding another plane, one that will take me home.

But until then, I have a lot of work to do.

I need to stay focused and remember why I came here in the first place. If I can make it through this, then there is no limit to what I can accomplish.     

It’s time to pull my chute, let the breeze catch and appreciate the view.

I’ll be making landfall soon.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

A Day in the Life of Teacher Mike

Estan bien!
My eyes open.

It is still dark.

My alarm blares. I reach to shut it off.

I sit up and throw my feet over the bedside. Rubbing my eyes, I check my cell for the time.

It is 4:30 a.m.

Plodding to the bathroom, an unseen shoe nearly sends me to an early grave. I step into the shower, turn the faucet and wait for the water to heat up. Thanks to the electric showerhead, there is always hot water. I step in. As the steaming water streams down my back, I ponder the sensibility of using electricity to heat water. Fortunately, I make it through without becoming gringo frito.

After showering, dressing and scarfing down a typical Bogotano breakfast of Zucaritas and Tampica, I head downstairs to catch the bus.

I wait on the sidewalk to flag one down. The frigid air cuts to the bone. I can see my breath.

There is no such thing as too crowded in Colombia.
I see my bus and hail it like a taxi. It stops and the doors open. It’s already overflowing with people.

But in Colombia there is no such thing as too crowded.

Like an all-star running back, I push my way through a tangled mess of humanity to find a place to stand. I am thrown off-balance when the bus accelerates, but months of colectivo conditioning have given me Spiderman-like reflexes, allowing me to catch myself on a support bar. As usual, I am too tall to stand comfortably and am forced to tilt my head at an awkward angle until one of the seats opens up.

Forty-five minutes later, the bus reaches the Juan Rey barrio and I disembark. A chill breeze shoots a shiver throughout my body. It is even colder here. I head down to Nueva Esperanza, stopping at a tienda for a café tinto along the way. At this early hour, the streets are mostly empty save for a few beat-looking dogs meandering the streets in search of sustenance.

Nueva Esperanza.
I enter Nueva Esperanza and head to the teacher’s lounge. There, a few teachers sit drinking coffee and engaging in a cherished Colombian tradition—gossip. I look out the window at the street below, beginning to fill with burgundy and black-clad children.

It is 6:30 a.m.

Time for school to start.

My co-teacher and I head down to the classroom. Loquacious children fill the halls. A student comes up to me and gives me the handshake I had taught him—two slaps and a knuckle pound.

Another student approaches and says, “Gewd Mowerning, Teacher Maik.”

“Good morning!” I respond. The student smiles and walks away, proud of his English prowess.

Helping students.
We arrive outside the classroom, where our students await. Entering, the students take their seats. The lesson begins. As the students work, I troll the classroom and helping those who need it.

One student, a small, light-eyed boy, gestures for me to come over.

“Teacher Mike!” he says.

“Yes?” I reply.

The student smirks, then shouts, “Playboy!”

I shake my head and roll my eyes. Every day, the same thing.

Another student signals for me to come over.

“Teacher Mike,” she says, “Como se dice perro en inglés?

“Dog,” I say.

The girl nods, then exchanges devious looks with her friend.

“Como se dice, perra en ingles?”

I smirk, but don’t respond. I am not going to teach her the English word for female dog.

I move to intervene when I see one student has captured another in a headlock. When he sees me approaching, the aggressor releases his captive and says “Estamos jugando!” (We are playing) I shake my head and tell them to cut it out.

The next few classes progress in a similar fashion. It’s like playing that groundhog-bashing game at an arcade. I put out one fire only to have three more ignite.

 But this isn’t chaos; this is a Colombian classroom.

Six hours and four classes later, school ends. I head to the outside seating area that passes for a cafeteria. It’s lunchtime. Nueva Esperanza offers authentic Colombian lunches for $4,000 pesos ($2 USD). With my Zucaritas now long-digested, I inhale the meal.

Eating Colombian comida.
The bus ride home is a lot less crowded.

But I am exhausted.

After being solicited by multiple peddlers trying to sell me an array of frivolous items, I arrive home in Ciudad Kennedy.

It’s 2:00 p.m.

Siesta time for Teacher Mike.  

VOTE for The Tall Gringo for Best Gringo Blog!

Hi all. Colombia Reports, the main English news web site for Colombia is having a contest for the best gringo blog and The Tall Gringo is on the ballot! I would very much appreciate it if you would vote for me!

Here is all you need to do:

1. Click here to go to the Colombia Reports website.

2. Scroll about halfway down the page.

3. Find the poll on the right side of the page.

4. Vote for The Tall Gringo

It's as easy as that! Thanks for the support!