Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Happy Birthday Hangover

Gringo v.s. Pinata. Gringo wins.
Slowly, I awoke, head throbbing and face burning. Sitting up, I found myself in bed in my new apartment in La Candelaria. After dragging myself to the bathroom, switching on the light, and looking in the mirror, I saw a tired person staring back who sported an ugly black and white shiner under his right eye.

I thought to myself, “¿Qué pasó ayer?” (What happened yesterday?)

Heading downstairs to the kitchen/common room, I saw the aftermath of the previous night’s abandon. Empty beer cans and bottles of aguardiente abounded. An explosion of colorful confetti covered the floor, which was as sticky as that of a roach motel. I spotted the looted carcass of a piñata and knelt down to examine it.

Then I remembered…

“You can come downstairs now!” One of my new roommates called from below. I descended the stairs and found myself in a happy birthday wonderland; the entire downstairs area was decked out with birthday decorations, food and drinks, populated by all of the friends I had made during my time in Colombia. On the table rested an improvised piñata made from taped cardboard and Ben 10 wrapping paper.

“What’s in the piñata?” I asked.

Party in the gringo pad!
“It’s a surprise,” one of my friends replied.

The party commenced, which I began with several Aguila cervezas, my Colombian go-to beer. The whole time, I pondered what fabulous prizes awaited within the makeshift piñata.

Finally, piñata time came and one of my friends blindfolded and spun me around 24 times. Now sufficiently discombobulated, I was ordered to chug a beer before being set loose on the piñata with the broomstick I now held. Like some kind of blinded arachnid, I thrust the broomstick in the piñata’s general direction, making a few lucky strikes, but mostly narrowly avoiding impaling the other party-goers. Eventually, I managed to knock my cardboard adversary to the floor and with one final thrust, put the piñata out of its misery, releasing a torrent of assorted cheap plastic toys.

All made in China, of course.

…leaving the piñata where it lay, I stood up to investigate the rest of the room. Sidestepping a pool of spilt red wine (at least I hoped it was wine) on the linoleum floor, I reached into the cabinet to find some Advil—to turn down the volume in my head, which beat like a boom box on full power. After popping two into my mouth, I spotted the crumbling remains of a birthday cake.

Of course! The birthday cake…

An hour or so after I vanquished the piñata, a slew of random European and Australian backpackers invaded our apartment. Since they seemed harmless at first, I thought ‘the more the merrier’ and proceeded to rage with my friends. After taking a birthday shot of Medellin rum with some Australians, someone turned the lights off and on to get everyone’s attention. My friend carried a birthday cake with an active Colombian firecracker towards me as everyone began to sing “Happy Birthday.” With the firecracker/candle sparkling before me, I instinctively tried to blow it out, but succeeded only in blowing sparks towards the partygoers.

Birthday Cake!
“No!” one of my Colombian friends cried. “Wait.”

It was noob gringo mistake on my part. My bad.

After the firecrackers died down to a point where it could be extinguished, I blew it out and the cake was served. 

As I stood eating a piece, two Australian backpackers came up to me and asked if they could use the bathroom. I told them sure and that it was upstairs, but then thought better and decided escort them. When we arrived at the bathroom, the two randoms loitered awkwardly then asked me where the best place to do a line would be.

I fought to contain my anger. I can’t stand coke-snorting gringo backpackers who treat Colombia like a drug-themed Disneyland.

“That’s not cool to do here,” I said, crossing my arms. 

They looked at me like I was joking, but when I stood my ground, one of them said, “No problem, bro. Gotta respect house rules.”

As I watched them go back downstairs, I remembered why gringos have such bad reputations in Colombia.

…I dug into a piece of cake with my finger and took a bite then went back upstairs to take a shower and wash away the previous night’s excesses. In the bathroom, I found my wallet, opened it, and found it empty save for my Colombian cedula (identification card), credit card, and a small ticket. Curious, I removed the ticket and inspected it for clues.

The cover ticket to Candelario…

After walking a few blocks from my apartment and ditching the douchebag backpackers, my posse and I arrived at Candelario, a popular club in La Candelaria. As I waited in line to enter, I felt something wet land on my shoulder.

“I think a bird just shat on you,” my friend said.

Surreptitiously, I looked at my shoulder.

“Crap,” I confirmed.  No pun intended. When we finally made it inside, I made a B-line towards the bathroom to clean it up.

Candelario with my birthday posse!
Candelario was lots of fun. We danced and drank and had a jolly good time. By this point I had had quite enough to drink, but I took it upon myself to ensure the inebriation of one of my friends and in so doing, damned myself. I decided that it would be a good idea to buy a bottle of rum to help get him on his way, going shot for shot. After that, my recollection of the night plunged into a muddled abyss.

…I felt refreshed after taking a long, hot shower. By then my roommates had woken up and I sat down with them to learn about the rest of my night’s misadventures. Specifically, how I had gotten a black eye and how exactly I had made it home.

But that’s for me to know and you to never find out.

Friday, August 26, 2011

My Last Move

La Candelaria
Today I said goodbye to Ciudad Kennedy, hopped in a taxi, and headed to my new home in La Candelaria.

La Candelaria rests at the base of Cerro Monserrate, a mountain that dominates the city center. As the city’s historical district, its architecture is characterized by Spanish Colonial and Baroque styles, most noticeably with the red-tiled roofs and protruding balconies.

With its plethora of churches, museums, and historically-significant plazas, La Candelaria is also Bogotá’s main tourist zone. Whereas in Usme and Kennedy, a gringo sighting was as common as a Big Foot sighting, La Candelaria is brimming with camera-wielding foreigners. My new apartment is located just around the corner from the famous Museo de Botero and within walking distance of some great restaurants and bars.

View down the street.
Although parts of La Candelaria can be sketchy after dark, my place is on a well-lit street and is relatively safe by Bogotano standards. Just a few doors down there is a permanent post of soldiers with a sub-machine guns guarding the Colombian military history museum.

That’s got to mean it’s safe, right?

I am excited to be living in a better part of town where there is much more to do and maintaining a social life is not a herculean task. With just over three months left in my sentence…err… I mean, service, moving here was a necessary change to help me make it to December.

Time to go unpack.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Debit Card Debacle

It all started the day my debit card stopped working.

Standing in the locked ATM chamber, I swiped my card through the machine with increasing frustration. I looked over my shoulder and smiled sheepishly at the people forming a line behind me just outside the chamber.

Crap, I thought, just work already.

But every time I swiped the card, the infernal machine would taunt me in Spanish, telling me to try again. After a few more failed attempts, I said to hell with it, put my busted ATM card back in my wallet, and shamefully left the chamber.

Banco de Bogotá 
The next day I went to Banco de Bogotá to get a replacement card. Waiting in line to be helped, I ran through my mind all the things I would need to say in Spanish to communicate my problem—this would surely stretch my Spanish abilities to their limits.

Much to my delight, I was able to tell the bank teller my problem and she passed me on to a banking specialist to take care of my replacement card. After filling out some paperwork, they said I was good to go and I headed out the door to try my new card at the ATM.

Sliding the card, I was happy to see the machine read it without a problem, but when I entered my PIN, it said I had inputted the wrong one. After trying and failing with the PIN a few more times, the machine told me my card was now blocked.

Flustered, I returned to the banking specialist, who told me she had forgotten to give me the new PIN to my replacement card—I had wrongly assumed the PIN would be the same as was with my old card.

Now in possession of the new PIN, I tried it with the replacement card, but to no avail—it was still blocked. Since I figured the card would unblock within a day or two, I let it be for the time being.

A few days later, I went to the ATM at the mall where I work out to see if the card was working. After sliding the card and inputting the PIN, sure enough, the screen said: “blocked.”

Annoyed, I shoved the card in my pocket and headed to the gym to blow off steam. After my workout sitting on the bus returning home, I felt in my pocket and realized that my card was gone—it must have fallen out when I changed at the gym. Since the card was already blocked, I didn’t worry that whoever found it would be able to steal money, but dreaded having to return to Banco de Bogotá to try to explain in Spanish what had happened.

In the United States when you lose a debit card, all you need to do is call your bank to have a replacement card mailed to your house—I figured it would be a similar process in Colombia.

But I should have known better—nothing is ever simple in Colombia.

When I returned to Banco de Bogotá, I found myself sitting face-to-face with the same banking specialist as before. I figured it would be the same process as the last time I asked for a replacement card—fill out some paperwork and get a new card on the spot; however, after doing so, the lady gave me a piece of paper showing that my card was blocked and told me to have a good day, as if we were done.

Confused, I loitered for a moment then asked what I was supposed to do. Although I did not understand every word that came out of her mouth, I thought I heard her say something about registering that the card was lost with the police online. Doubting that I had understood her clearly, I returned a few days later with my friend Lynn, who is more or less bilingual. Lynn confirmed that I had heard the woman correctly—I had to register the debit card lost with the police before the bank could issue me a new one.

I didn’t bother to ask why.

When I finally managed to locate the place on the police website where I could report a lost card and filled out the online form, the site rejected the information and did not let me print what I needed to show the bank to get a new card. With the website apparently suffering from technical difficulties, I improvised and printed the screen before submitting the information, hoping that would be good enough.

The next day, I returned yet again to Banco de Bogotá and the same old banking lady looked at me with what I could have sworn was disdain. With a forced smile, she asked if I had the form and I showed her what I had printed out, watching with hopeful eyes as she examined it. Much to my relief, she deemed the form acceptable and went about the process of issuing me a new card.

Finally, she gave me the new card and accompanying PIN and I went to try my luck at the ATM. This time when I swiped the card and entered the PIN, the machine decided to give me my money.

With crisp Colombian pesos in hand, I headed straight for the bar.

Kids, don’t ever lose your debit card in Colombia. It’s a pain in the culo.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A look back, a leap forward

So… it’s August.

This means two things; first, I am entering my eighth month in Colombia; second, I will be turning 24 at the end of the month. It also means that I am nearly two-thirds of the way through my service.

Okay, that was three things.

At any rate, I have been in Bogotá for a while and it seems like as good a time as any to take stock of how far I have come since arriving last January.

The most obvious improvement has been with my Spanish abilities. To illustrate, when I first arrived in Colombia I could barely order a beer from the local tienda; earlier this afternoon I went to the bank to replace a dysfunctional debit card using, of course, only Spanish to communicate what I needed—something I was not capable of eight months ago. I am also now good enough at Spanish to talk to Colombian girls at the bars, which I must say, is quite awesome.

Another significant change has been my level of comfort with living in a developing country. During WorldTeach orientation, I felt like a daredevil taking the bus in Cota from Hacienda Santa Cruz to downtown (in reality, a very safe area). Today, I regularly navigate Bogotá’s crazy colectivo bus system, entering parts of town many Bogotanos would never even venture to. Although I am always careful, I have learned to overcome the fears of the many potential dangers of being in such a dangerous area—having grown up in a white-collar suburb of San Francisco where people don’t even lock their doors at night, I consider this to be an accomplishment.

Despite these consummations, my greatest victory is simply the fact that I am still here. I am doing it; I am living in Colombia, a country where most foreigners are afraid to go, working in a neighborhood where few gringos have gone before.   

And now I find myself at the final stretch.

Back in high school, I ran the 300 meter high-hurdles for the Burlingame High School Track & Field team. It was an exhausting race; not only did you have to run really, really fast, but you also had to clear a series of not-so-low obstructions blocking the path. The race was won at its most difficult part; the final 100 meters; the final third. Although the finish line was now within sight, this was where most runners made their mistakes, faltering and falling when they were nearly there.

With 4 months left in my service, I am at the final third, the final 100 meters of my time in Colombia. Although I am physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted, I need to stay focused—I am nearly there. I can practically taste the In-N-Out, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and ground beef enchiladas.

Since my recent post expressing my frustrations and disappointments with the way things have been going, I have taken steps to rectify the situation and make sure my students receive the greatest benefit from my presence during the time that remains. I am excited to see how it all pans out.

In the mean time, I’ll keep an eye on that finish line.