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.

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