Sunday, July 24, 2011

A second wind

I have a confession to make.

Since returning to Bogotá two weeks ago after three amazing weeks away, I have had a tough time readjusting. Prior to vacation, I was struggling to maintain my morale and when I got back, the problems I left behind were here waiting for me.

The bulk of my frustration is directed at the multiple organizations involved with me being in Bogotá in the first place. Nearly eight months into my service, my role in the classroom is still fraught with ambiguity. Since Nueva Esperanza already has Colombian English teachers, nobody seems to really know the purpose for me being there and there are days when I feel useless.

Although I came here because I wanted to teach English, I feel that I am being denied the opportunity to achieve this goal. Especially when I see that many of the other WorldTeach Colombia volunteers have been given greater freedom to make a real difference in their schools, I feel like a racehorse stuck in the starting gate while the other horses are well on their way to the finish line.

Of course, this only serves to compound the other struggles I face in Colombia every day.

I won’t equivocate; I miss home.

I miss seeing my family and friends; kicking the soccer ball around with my dog; real Mexican food.

I miss the taste of the San Francisco air, the comforting sight of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and the familiar expanse of the Central Valley.

A year is a long time to be away from all of that.

Life in Bogotá is also not easy—for those actually from here, much less a gringo. The city is overpopulated, polluted and dangerous. With no real community to integrate with, I find myself trapped in the lonely caverns of anonymity.

A year ago when I sat in my cubicle thinking about how great it would be to go teach English in South America, what has come to pass is hardly what I imagined.

But if I have learned one thing in my short time on this earth, it’s that you can’t always get what you want; and even when you try sometimes, you don’t always get what you need; but you must nonetheless find the will to carry on.

Many nights, I've laid awake wondering if I’m just not cut out for this; if I should throw in the towel and hop on the next flight back to San Francisco. I imagine that no one would really blame me—that I showed enough guts sticking it out in Colombia for as long as I did. I would settle back into a comfortable American life, find a job, and do just fine. But I know that if I were to do so, every time I looked in the mirror, I would be dissatisfied with the person looking back.

Arthur Golden writes in his novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, “Adversity is like a strong wind. It tears from us all the things that cannot be torn, so that we see ourselves as we really are.”

Although I face a long list of difficulties in Colombia, how I respond to them will ultimately reflect the kind of person I am; one who resigns when faced with adversity or who stands fast and endures?

I am making the decision, here and now, to be the latter.   

I will not turn my back on Colombia.

I will endure.

When I came to Colombia, I made a promise to myself, as well as to the children of this country, that I would give a year of my life in the service of something greater than myself. Although day-to-day it is difficult to see that I am making any significant difference, I know that I am part of a process of positive change that will, in the aggregate, set the foundations for a better world.

Whether I like it or not, I am and always will be an idealist. Just as I will always believe in such quixotic things as inherent good and romantic love, I will never stop believing that a better world is possible.    

Because just as a new day’s sunrise brings with it renewed light and warmth, so does it bear a new set of opportunities and, through them, hope.


  1. Hey Mike, I know that feeling though not as strong and in a different context and country. I taught Spanish for some months in France and I passed through something similar to your situation.
    Have you tried CouchSurfing? It works well to connect with locals. It worked for me in Europe.

    I also work with children and they are my main motivation, just watching their smile and feel their love makes it all worth doing it. I am sure your students really appreciate you and they will miss you a lot when you leave. They're very lucky to have you.

    I am also new to Bogotá. Just moved this weekend and I haven't got used to the cold weather. I also have a year contract but unlike you, I am living with a cousin and it is nice. The fact that I am Colombian also helps.

    Ok, a long comment. Just think about your students and it'll all make more sense!

  2. The above suggestion is spot on, CS Bogota has a big group, I met some of them when I first came here last year. You could try going to the English conversation club at San Cafe Cra 24 #45A-64, its on monday nights. For more info look for the facebook group, its ran by an american from LA.
    But you´ve got the right attitude, dont give up!


  3. Another 4 1/2 months is not a long time. It may seem so in your early 20's but later in life when you look back it will seem like very little.

    Your time away from family and the familiar will deepen your character and individuality and that is all good. The mind often throws up resistance to what is good for you, which may be what you're experiencing now.

    Change what can be changed, and if it can't be, than accept your situation completely. What are the teachers at other schools able to do that is making a difference? Could you insist on doing the same at your school? Have you spoken up to the administration?

    Unease is a blessing as it forces you inside yourself, where the answers lie. Forget the past and the future and live only in the present and all will be fine.

  4. Thanks for the supportive words everyone! I made it through that slump and it should be smooth sailing all the way home!