Friday, December 9, 2011

The Beginning

Leaving for Bogota on January 1.
Many years from now when I sit down to tell my grandchildren about my year in Colombia, I will tell them that it was one of the best, worst, and greatest years of my life.

I will speak of how I followed my heart to a distant land in hopes of making the world a little better, a little brighter. Although I found reality to be sobering, I nevertheless stayed the course.

Nearly a year ago, I boarded a plane to Bogotá.

I was hopeful.



When I arrived, my unchecked enthusiasm slammed headfirst into the stonewall of a dysfunctional education system. I found the abundant talk and little follow-through to be aggravating. I found it incomprehensible how such an invaluable resource could be allowed to go underutilized for an entire year. Despite it all, I did the best I could with what I had.

With some of my students.
Mark Jenkins once wrote, “Adventure is a path. Real adventure—self-determined, self-motivated, often risky—forces you to have firsthand encounters with the world. The world the way it is, not the way you imagine it. Your body will collide with the earth and you will bear witness. In this way, you will be compelled to grapple with the limitless kindness and bottomless cruelty of humankind—and perhaps realize that you yourself are capable of both. This will change you. Nothing will ever again be black-and-white.”

It is a scary thing to walk where you have never walked before—to leave the comfort of familiar shores in pursuit of something greater than yourself.  I set out to change the world but ultimately found it to be the other way around.

Away from everyone I knew and loved, I experienced true loneliness. But rather than let it break me, I learned to become a more independent, self-sufficient individual. After growing up in one of the most privileged communities on the planet, I saw what it was like to live in one of the most underserved.

At Machu Picchu.
Sometimes I wonder what my life would be like today had I remained in my cubicle. I would have gotten promoted, found my own San Francisco apartment, maybe even met someone. I sacrificed that life, along with tens of thousands of dollars in lost wages to go work for free in a country where I could very well have lost that which I can never get back.

In leaving all that, many believed I was putting my life on hold.
But they had it all wrong.

In leaving, I was finally able to begin truly living.

I traveled.

Explored ancient ruins at the heights of the Andes Mountains.

Swinging into the water in Costa Rica.
Witnessed breathtaking Caribbean sunsets.

Scaled active Costa Rican volcanoes.

Sipped wine on the Chilean coast.

Hiked through the Colombian jungle.

Saw the Panama Canal.

Met Pablo Escobar’s brother.

And so much more.

But the most rewarding thing about this year were the people I met along the way—inspiring individuals who taught me to look at life differently. That there is more than one way to lead a good life. Nobody has all the answers.

Living in such a world, our hearts are the only reliable compass.

Watching a Caribbean sunset.
I followed mine here—to South America.

But now find it pointing north.

I am ready to go home to the land that I love, to rejoin the friends and family I miss, and begin the next chapter of my life. Although I don’t know where life’s winds will take me, I will always look back on my time in Colombia with infinite gratitude for allowing me to reclaim something I lost.

Last year, before embarking on this crazy adventure, I wrote that “…there can be no courage without fear and no real reward without risk.”

After a year in Colombia, I have learned to summon the courage to face any fear and that is, in and of itself, the ultimate reward.

Watching over Bogota.
I am fired up. I am ready to begin my adult life in earnest; kick some butt and establish myself in the working world; become economically independent; form new relationships; maybe even find someone crazy enough to share it all with me.

Tomorrow, I will board a plane that will take me home. What awaits me there, I don’t know.

But something tells me I’ll be able to handle it.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Guest Blogger: Zach from Pintando Caminos

My friend and former WorldTeacher, Zach Binsfeld asked if he could write a blog post to promote the non-profit organization he now works for, Pintando Caminos. His foundation helps underserved Bogota youth with after school programs, giving them the support they need to succeed in life.

Here it is...

Investing in the Future
By Zach Binsfeld

The other day when I was at the organization where I work (Pintando Caminos),Valeria, who is in 3rd grade, approached me to say thank you for helping her with a school project she had been working on so she wouldn't fail English. It turns out, she told me, that after spending a couple days working with us in our homework help program her project got the best score in the class - and she passed English. I felt warm in my chest and about as happy as can be, because I knew that she had done all the hard work of learning on her own.

All I had done was help her understand the instructions and focus a little, and encourage her. These are things that her teachers in her school – with limited resources, classes of 40 or more students, and sometimes just 2 hours of class per subject, per week – often are unable to do. So when she thanked me I told her I was proud of her. I really was.

Valeria wants to be a veterinarian when she grows up. I know she’s perfectly capable, but when I look at her longing eleven-year-old eyes I can’t help but wonder if she’ll make it, if she’ll really be given access to the kinds of opportunities that allow her to break cycle of poverty that has trapped her family for generations.

I wonder the same for the other boys and girls. Years from now, will I learn that Valeria and her friends have grown into healthy young men and women, who are bettering themselves and working hard to realize their dreams and the dreams of their community?

Or will I find another succession of desperate adolescents who have replaced hope with the sad truth of our present reality, who spend their nights surviving and escaping their pain by any means necessary? I never try to answer this question because I know it’s purpose is to motivate me into action rather than get me to speculate about an uncertain future – and because I know that its answer depends on how we collectively respond as fellow humans.

The truth is that small initiatives like Pintando Caminos don’t have the power to change the whole world, or a whole country, or even one community. That depends on the people in those communities, and on the direction we take as a global society. But places like Pintando Caminos represent what we hope to achieve in the future. They show us that there are people willing to invest their time and energy in the most important sustainable resource we have – our children – and our children are eager to demonstrate that if we give them the opportunity they are ready to learn and share with the world the wisdom and simplicity of their youth.

I’m the first to admit that one more youth organization in one more oppressed neighborhood in one more difficult city in some other country is not going to solve the world’s problems, but I can also say with confidence that Pintando Caminos is eliciting the best out of children like Valeria. I am learning from them that such places serve as examples of a future that has the potential to become reality if we only work hard and long enough out of love.

The most profound gift that such organizations give – to all of us – is hope for a better tomorrow. But the most tangible gifts that Pintando Caminos gives to the kids its serves is the self-value and self-confidence that come from having full stomachs and the chance to thrive as learners, and, as kids who like to play and laugh and explore.

Zachary Binsfeld

For more information on Pintando Caminos, or to donate, visit our project page: