Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Salud, Dinero, Amor

In Colombia whenever someone sneezes, another will say, salud or health.

If you sneeze a second time, they will say, dinero or money.

The third time you sneeze, they say, amor or love.

Salud is having good health—a strong and able body and absence of sickness.

Dinero is having the means to provide for oneself—not necessarily lavish but comfortable.

And amor is what it’s really all about—having those who you care deeply for no matter what.

This Thanksgiving I am going to be thankful for these three things.

Salud, dinero, amor.

The only three things I’ll ever really need.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The End of Service Conference

Manizales, Colombia.
Last weekend I flew to Manizales in Colombia’s Zona Cafeteria to attend the WorldTeach End of Service Conference. Arriving on Friday morning, it felt good to be back—I hadn’t been there since my visit back over Semana Santa. Since we had to wake up at 4 a.m. to catch our 6 a.m. flight, we spent most of the day napping—the conference was scheduled to begin in earnest the following day.

That night, we went to a local theater to watch the Manizales volunteers perform songs with their students in English as part of a presentation with Manizales Billingue, WorldTeach’s partner in the city. Decked out in their holiday costumes, the kids were adorable enough to make even the Grinch smile. They sang English songs to the theme of the “last day of school.” Afterward, all of the volunteers sang alongside the students as they intermittently waved at their families in the audience. Overall, it looked like the kids had the time of their lives, getting their two hours and forty-five minutes of fame.

Universidad Catolica de Manizales
When the show ended, we went out to grab a drink with some of the Manizales volunteers. It was strange hanging out, knowing that we would soon part ways, possibly for forever. We had all come a long way since our first days at Santa Cruz during WorldTeach Orientation—many of us now spoke decent or excellent Spanish, we were comfortable being in Colombia, and had overcome countless challenges throughout the year.

Unfortunately, we were not all there—due to budget issues, WorldTeach was holding two separate conferences, one for the volunteers on the coast (Baru, Cartagena, Monteria, Soledad) and one for the interior (Bogota and Manizales). Luckily, I had been able to say my goodbyes to the coastal volunteers during my October visit to La Costa.

After a long night, the next morning a rolled out of bed and dragged myself to Universidad Catolica de Manizales, where we were meeting for the conference. Although many of us were very…er… sleepy, we had a productive day talking about our experiences teaching. It felt good hearing that I was not the only one who has had a frustrating year trying to punch through the Colombian bureaucratic BS to actually accomplish what I came here to do.

I made it!
We also had practical sessions covering resume-writing and how to leverage our experience in Colombia as we pursue our next professional endeavors. Although helpful for obvious reasons it also pressed the issue in my mind just what the heck I am going o do when I return home for good in three weeks. But more on this later.

That evening, our field director, Tara, sent us on a scavenger hunt-esque mission o follow clues spread throughout the main plaza that would, in theory, lead us to a final secret destination. Sadly, the game soon fell apart when confusion about leaving behind discovered clues causes many of the groups to hit dead ends. Then, as if to spite us, God made it rain on us.

Luckily, I was wise to Tara’s evil plan and knew that they were making dinner at the hostel/house where the Bogotanos were staying. Sure enough, we arrived as Tara and Lynn were finishing up preparing our Thanksgiving dinner.

Gradually, the other volunteers trickled in, each more soaked than the last. When everyone had finally arrived, we enjoyed some awesome Thanksgiving food and our last night together.

The Bogota and Manizales volunteers.
Sunday morning came and along with it, the final day of the conference. After an enlightening ice breaker game of “Never Have I Ever”, we commenced with the final sessions of our WorldTeach careers. We talked about readjusting to life back in the states and the things we were looking forward to back home. At the end we all received plaques commemorating our year of service in Colombia.

Later, we headed to Juan Valdez café to have one last hang-out and take a group photo. After that, we said our goodbyes and went our separate ways.

Eventually, it was time for the four Bogotá volunteers to go back to our lovely mountain home—but the weather would ensure a complicated return.

When we arrived at the tiny Manizales airport, we learned that our flight had been canceled. Not only that, but we would need to take a nearly two hour bus ride to catch a flight in the in the neighboring city of Pereira.

On the bus to Pereira.
Given the region’s frequent mudslides, I felt that I’d rather take my chances flying through inclement weather, but choice is a luxury Colombia rarely affords.

We loaded onto a questionable-looking bus, given apologetic juice boxes and ham sandwiches, and sent out our merry way through the rain-soaked Colombian countryside. Although it was hardly a smooth ride, I somehow managed to drift in and out of sleep for most of the two-hour journey. Finally, the bus pulled in to the airport in Pereira.

After spending the next few hours waiting around at the Pereira airport, it was time to board the plane back to Bogotá. Passing through the boarding room, I encountered one of the most amazing things I have ever seen in South America: a vending machine that sells beer.

Awesomeness incarnate.
I will repeat that.

A vending machine that sells beer.

Move over, Machu Picchu.

At any rate, we got on a scary propeller plane in the dark and took off for Bogotá. Thirty minutes later, after I had barely made it through a single music album on my iPod, we landed at El Dorado International Airport.

Yes, our bus ride to Pereira took four times longer than our actual flight to Bogotá.

Colombia is like that.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Operation: Sorpresa

Student protesters blocking the road in Bogota.
One day back in September, my brother Jimmy sent me a proposition via Facebook. My mission—if I chose to accept it—was to fly home for a weekend in November to surprise my mom for her 50th birthday. Financing the operation was my dad, who was planning a big birthday bash to celebrate my mom’s half-century of existence.

For me, it was a no-brainer—a chance to go home after 11 months away, to return to the land of good Mexican food, my golden retriever, and free refills. I booked transport back to arrive in California on November 11, the day of the party.

Being such a high-stakes mission, success would be contingent on secrecy and I stressed to my dad and brother the importance of keeping the knowledge of my sneaky return on a need-to-know basis. I told only my friends Derek and Brian, whom I recruited to assist with the logistics of picking me up from the airport and giving me a safehouse to hide out in until it was time to go to the party.

In the two months leading up to the party, I commenced a campaign of disinformation to mislead my mom. Utilizing Facebook, Skype, and even this blog, I sowed the seeds of doubt in my mom’s mind that I would be coming home any earlier than December 10th. After learning that the number of people in the know about the operation was growing well outside of the desirable parameters, I became alarmed—my younger brother Danny told me he knew, followed by my cousin Kenan, and even my cousin Jennifer living in Spain.

My mom surprised to see me.
Worried that our secret mission was compromised, I contacted Jimmy to see what the heck was going on. Dad, he told me, was either under the influence of some psychotropic drug, or he was just excitedly telling people about my premature homecoming and then forgetting about it.

As the days drew ever closer to zero hour, my mom exhibited no suspicious behavior to suggest she was wise to our evil plan. So utter was her ignorance that I became paranoid and began to suspect that she had found out long ago and my family was conspiring to make me think that she was still in the dark.

Finally, the day of the operation arrived. On Thursday, November 10 at 20:00 hours, I left my Bogotá apartment, taking a taxi to the El Dorado International Airport. Along the way, the operation faced its first roadblock—literally. Student protesters demonstrating against the Colombian government’s education policies crowded the street bearing banners and waving patriotic flags. The taxi driver cursed when he realized we weren’t going anywhere if we stayed on the Septima and decided to turn left onto a TransMilenio-only road, breaking about a half-dozen traffic laws in the process.

But in Colombia, traffic laws are more like suggestions, anyway.

Much to my relief, we made it back onto a legal road without dying and, having circumvented the protesting hordes, were now relatively home-free; however, recent rain had flooded the main thoroughfare to the airport and we were delayed by a police checkpoint controlling traffic as it passed over the inundated road.

With my brother and fellow conspirator, Jimmy.
At 21:00 hours, I finally made it to the airport, awkwardly lugging everything I owned in Colombia with three large bags. My plan was to bring home everything now and return with a light travel pack to finish up the final month.

After checking my luggage, I proceeded through the security checkpoint and headed to the departure gate. The first leg of my journey would take me to JFK International Airport in New York and from there, to San Francisco.

There was an unusual amount of security in the departure lounge at my gate. To enter the lounge, I had to show my passport and boarding pass to an airline attendant, subject my carry-on luggage to a thorough hand-search, and allow myself to be frisked.

My redeye flight from Bogotá to New York was uneventful and uncomfortable. With an aisle seat, I had nothing to lay my head against, making falling asleep impossible. I passed the time listening to my iPod and watching the plane’s northward progress on the little screen in front of me.

When we touched down in New York, my heart began to pound—this was the first time I would step foot on American soil in nearly a year. Exiting the plane, I headed to immigration, where a large line had already formed. After almost an hour of waiting, I approached the immigration window and gave the immigration officer my passport.

Dancing with my mom.
“Good morning,” I greeted.

The officer half scowled and said, “Take off your glasses.”

I removed my glasses and he held up my passport to compare my face with the passport photo.

He handed me back my passport.

“Thanks,” I said, “Have a good day.”

The frowning officer said nothing and moved on to the next person in line.

New Yorkers.

Having made it through immigration, I headed to the domestic terminals, taking a tram to the other side of the airport, exiting the building, and walking through the chill November air to arrive at yet another security checkpoint. After being violated by TSA’s Superman x-ray vision machine, I finally arrived at the departure gate for my flight to San Francisco.

There were several iPad 2s set up at tables near the gate and I passed the time playing around with one, also taking the opportunity to send a message to Derek to let him know that I was now in-country. Sitting there, surrounded by my countrymen, I could not help but feel out of place—after a year of being the odd gringo out in a country of Spanish-speakers, it felt strange hearing only English being spoken.

Hungry, I went to a little food place to grab a quick breakfast and was immediately horrified by the prices.

Derek pouring the aguardiente.
$5.99 for an egg and sausage bagel?

That was like $10,000 pesos! Spoiled by cheap Colombian food prices, I was now one stingy gringo.

A little while later I boarded the plane to San Francisco, this time ending up with a window seat. I found myself sitting next to two men, one a tech guy from Silicon Valley and the other who I initially took to be a talkative old grandfather type. The three of us made small talk for a while, first about the awesomeness of tablet-devices (iPads, Amazon Fires, etc.). Eventually, the conversation progressed in typical fashion to what we all did for a living.

When I asked the older gentleman what he did, he responded with, “I have a website called”

“Oh,” I said, not fully understanding, “What do you do on your website?”

“I make prophecies,” he replied.

“Oh, cool,” I said, wishing I hadn’t opened this door.

The old man began telling me his life story—primarily how twenty years earlier God had chosen him as a medium to communicate with mankind about the coming Armageddon. Possessed by the Holy Spirit, he had been compelled to write four books about prophecy and the coming End of Days. When I asked him when the world was scheduled to expire, he only said, “Within my lifetime.”

Seeing as how the guy was probably pushing 65, it did not bode well for my future plans.

White people dancing.
Luckily, the other guy in our aisle distracted the man long enough for me to slip on my headphones and whip out my kindle. The rest of the way home, I half-listened to the old man’s matter-of-fact attitude about being the Voice of God and the coming destruction of all that we know and love.

After nearly twenty hours of travel, I finally arrived at San Francisco International Airport and, miraculously, all of my checked bags made it without incident.

It was14:00 hours on 14 November 11th.

The day of the party.

My friend and fellow conspirator, Derek picked me up from the airport and we made a B-line for In-N-Out to accomplish one of the mission’s secondary objectives—securing awesome American cheeseburgers. There, my friend Brian met up with us and afterward, we went to his apartment to hide out until the party.

That night, we drove to a street near my parents’ house and called my brother to see if my mom had already left for the party. As luck would have it, she had and he and my dad were still at home. I decided to risk the whole operation to go say hello to my golden retriever, Gerico.

I’m not sure how dog memory works, but Gerico was definitely excited when he saw me. Although I had been gone eleven months, in dog years, that was almost seven years.

Luckily, he didn’t have a heart attack.

It was 18:00 hours and my dad said we should wait until more people arrived before launching the surprise attack, so we decided to bide our time at the local microbrewery near where the party was being held.

At 19:00 hours, we headed over to the party, located at a local banquet hall near Burlingame’s largest park. Our plan of attack was to enter through the backdoor, slither through the kitchen, then I would sing happy birthday to my mom.

Arriving at the building, I could see lights on and hear people chatting inside. We called Jimmy and he came out the back door with the DJ. The DJ told me he would make an announcement to get everyone’s attention, and then it was my time to shine. My drunk little brother, Danny, ran around the side of the building and tried unsuccessfully to startle us.

Everyone took their positions.

It was go time.

Derek and Brian waited with me in the kitchen as the DJ got everyone’s attention, letting everyone know that there was going to be a surprise.

Mission Accomplished.
Then I began to sing, “Happy Birthday.”

Walking out into the main room, I saw my mom along with the rest of the guests. She looked right at me, then back at the DJ, the visual not having registered. Then she looked back at me, her eyes lighted up, and she charged me like a mother goose discovering one of her long-lost goslings.

Operation Sorpresa was a raging success. And quite literally because we all raged quite hard that evening, thanks to the open bar and the aguardiente I had smuggled in from Colombia.

Mission Accomplished.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Life, Death, and Everything in Between

With Aunt Marsha when I was 2.
I recently learned that my great aunt passed away at her home in San Bernardino, California. Aunt Marsha, as we called her, was a kind and warm woman who would do anything for those she loved. When my dad was young, he and his mother (my grandmother) lived with Aunt Marsha and her husband, Robbie, in San Bernardino, California. She was like a second mother to him.

Since we lived pretty far away from Aunt Marsha, I only saw her a few times in my life. The first time when I was two, the second when I was 5, and the third, two years ago, when I went down to check on her with my dad after Uncle Robbie passed away.

Aunt Marsha was a good woman and I will never forget her.

I just want the world to know that.

Although the struggle of coming to terms with our own mortality is as old as time itself, it is the single most difficult thing we can ever do. In the United States, it seems that rather than face it, we turn away from it and act as if we will live forever—often leading us down a road filled with shallowness and vanity.

In Colombia, life and death are in a constant state of flux and the certainty of uncertainty gives people no choice but to stare mortality in the face. Living among Colombians these many months, I have come to appreciate their outlook—that life is so brief, and death so permanent that we cannot afford to squander the precious time we are afforded.

Plan for tomorrow, but live for today.

I like the sound of that.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Passing the Torch

Tasha Miley.
I am leaving Colombia in 34 days.

Looking back at all that has transpired, I can hardly believe that my time here is almost up—my contract with WorldTeach will end and I, along with the other volunteers, will return home.

Although my Colombian story is coming to an end, for others, it is only just beginning. In January 2012, a new group of WorldTeach volunteers will arrive in Colombia to claim the torch and carry it forward into a new year.

Months ago, one of these soon-to-be volunteers, Tasha Miley, contacted me through my blog asking about WorldTeach and my experiences in Colombia. Taking her under my wing, I helped her through the application process just as Lauren Doll helped me. Much to my delight, Tasha was accepted into the WorldTeach Colombia for 2012 and is now preparing for her January 2012 departure.

“I am excited about the opportunity to experience living and teaching overseas and I know that it will be both a rewarding and challenging experience,” says Tasha, “I have always felt that it is my purpose in life to make positive change. I just think that everyone in this world has the ability to make the world a little bit better off. I am hoping that I can do just that with my teaching position in Colombia.”

Tasha is currently finishing up her final semester at American University in Washington, D.C. and shortly after graduating in December, will board a plane to Bogotá. In Tasha, I see the same passion that brought me to Bogotá—a conviction that a better world is possible and a desire to actively work to make it a reality. It is comforting knowing that our work to combat Colombian inequality will continue through such capable people as Tasha. I have absolute confidence in her abilities and know that she will kick serious butt when she gets down here.

But in order to make this possible, Tasha needs your help—she is currently raising money to help cover the costs of living and teaching in Colombia. If you would like to help her, please donate to her cause—every dollar helps.

Also, like her Facebook support page and check out her blog to stay up to date with her goings on throughout the year.

John Quincy Adams once said, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” 

A year ago, I had no idea that in taking this chance, I could inspire others to do the same.

I am starting to see what this whole leadership thing is all about.

My time in Colombia will soon pass—but there will be others. 

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Art of Waiting

Don't let the dimples fool you: this is one crafty kid.
I have always been pretty bad at waiting for things.

Once, as a child, I asked for a computer game for my birthday. As the days crawled ever closer to August 28th, I could not stand the anticipation and decided to go snooping one day when my parents were out. After digging around in their closet, I found a rectangular gift, neatly wrapped up in birthday-themed wrapping paper—it had to be the game.

Unable to resist temptation, I took action.

Cue Mission Impossible music.

Surgically peeling off the tape on one side, I carefully removed the game box from the wrapping paper. Next, I opened the box, took out the game disk, and went downstairs to install it on my computer. My heart began pounding when I heard a car pull up to the curb. Creeping to the window, I peered through the curtains and saw that my mom’s minivan had just arrived.

I was out of time.

Avoiding mom's detection.
Running back to my computer, I swept up all of the evidence and brought it into my parent’s room. I replaced the game disk with a random CD, put the case back inside the box and slipped it back inside the wrapping paper, resealing the gift with the same tape.

Hurrying back downstairs, I sat down at my computer just as my mom stepped through the door.

“What are you playing?” she asked, walking in with some groceries.

I kept my cool and responded as ambiguously as possible, “A game.”

To her, all my games looked the same and she accepted my answer, unaware of what a nefarious little shit her son was.

But all these years later, after living in Bogotá for eleven months, I have become a master in the art of waiting.

I heard somewhere that Bogotanos spend more than half their lives waiting for and on public transportation. Given Colombia’s penchant for inefficiency and Bogotá’s sheer enormity, I believe it.

Looking back over this year, I have probably spent a good chunk of my time waiting—for the bus, on the bus, and in line to buy bus passes. And that’s just TransMilenio. I have also spent a ridiculous amount of time waiting for the colectivos that take me to and from school.

TransMilenio at rush hour.
In being forced to wait for, well, everything, many gringos can go crazy.

But I’ve found a way to compensate.

Crammed amongst a sea of sweaty people in a TransMilenio bus at rush hour, I search for my happy place like in Happy Gilmore. Entering a state of quasi-consciousness, I think simultaneously about everything and nothing. In this state, it does not bother me that a tiny 85-year old woman has her face awkwardly smashed against my stomach; that a fat, hairy man’s B.O.-sodden armpit is shoved in my nose; or that I know this will be my lot in life for the next 30-40 minutes.

Learning how to wait is one of the greatest gifts Colombia has given me.

But you should probably still make sure that my other gifts remain well-hidden.