Stranger in a Strange Land: Visiting the Desert of La Guajira

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Last week was Semana Santa, or Holy Week, here in Colombia (and across the entire region). It is, in some ways, the Latin American version of Thanksgiving weekend: airline prices skyrocket, major cities clear out and everyone tries to finagle an extra day or two of vacation. Granted, there’s less turkey and more church involved, but the analogy still stands.

Since we were able to take the whole week off, four of my friends and I headed north — as far north as one can go and still be on the continent, as a matter of fact. We went to explore the Guajira peninsula: that odd little finger of land that juts out of northern Colombia into the Caribbean. The Guajira is a strange, remote place: largely cut off from the rest of the country, it gets most of its supplies from over the Venezuelan border, yet it’s also the epicenter of Colombia’s booming natural gas and coal extractive industries. Essentially the whole peninsula is desert, with the dusty, palm-covered hills of the Cesar department and low Guajira giving way to endless plains of sun-cracked dirt broken by figures that could be either mountains or mirages. It’s one of the best places in the country for kitesurfing, and one of the worst in terms of economic opportunity. The department brings in tens of millions of dollars to Colombia through natural gas and coal imports, and most of the residents never finish high school — in reality, many children in the most remote rural parts of the region hardly go to school at all. Even in Cabo de la Vela, one of the most “developed” towns with a relatively strong tourism industry, the children of the family running the home where we stayed struggled with basic knowledge (addition, subtraction, the letters of the alphabet) that their city-educated peers learned long ago. And school is a luxury right now — the recent political upheaval in Venezuela as well as tensions along the border have cut off many of the supply routes, causing a severe hunger crisis in a place surrounded by some of the country’s most bountiful fishing areas. La Guajira is a study in contrasts, a place of startling beauty and paralyzing lack of opportunities.

left or right or straight

Don’t take a wrong turn.

I’ll have more to say about the stunning aesthetic appeal of La Guajira (because it does have it in spades) later: the jewel-tone ocean that gives the famous “Seven Colors” of San Andrés Island a run for their money, the way the desert sprawls out in all directions like an optical illusion, the silent isolation of South America’s northernmost point of Punta Gallinas, the way the stars look during an eclipse at the end (or beginning) of the continent, the absurdly enormous and delicious lobster, the handmade hammocks, the bleached Dunes of Taroa, the mind-blowing sunsets. There is a lot to say, about a lot of things, and I feel lucky to have seen them, but right now, with impressions still fresh in my mind, what I remember most is an acute sense of feeling like an intruder.

It’s not to say that people weren’t friendly and kind, or that we didn’t feel welcome there. The desert itself is inherently unwelcoming — it’s designed to defeat and turn away everything that doesn’t have the strength to survive there, and humans are certainly not high on that list. And yet, humans do survive, and thrive, there. La Guajira is home to the indigenous Wayuu community, one of Colombia’s largest and most distinctive indigenous groups, accounting for almost half of the department’s population (there is a very significant percentage of Wayuu people on the Venezuelan side of the peninsula as well, especially in the city of Maracaibo). The community has a long history of resilience in the face of both the unforgiving desert and equally deadly invading groups — they were never formally subjugated by the Spanish conquistadores, and in the modern era have won guarantees from the Colombian government that allow them to continue practicing their traditions and exercising their traditional justice system within their territory.

A house on a hill, or as close as it gets out here.

A house on a hill, or as close as it gets out here.

And it is their territory. Maybe it’s because I’ve never been to Venezuela, or don’t know the arid plains of northwestern Colombia very well, but it felt like very much a different country up there. Granted, Colombia has such cultural and geographic diversity that it does often feel like a number of small nations all crammed together around a few mountain ranges, but this was different. Being in Guajira felt like stepping into a different space entirely, and one that I wasn’t sure wanted me in it.

During the drive from Cabo de la Vela to Punta Gallinas, there are notorious “roadblocks,” where Wayuu children (or sometimes even adults) will string a rope or wire across the road in front of their homes, demanding candy or money from drivers in exchange for letting them pass. It’s easy to get frustrated with this system, especially when you hit the tenth one in half an hour, but looking around at the barren desert surrounding these houses, the few skinny goats munching on cacti in front of the one-room homes, the children living hard miles away from the closest school or clinic, it’s hard to stay frustrated. Our guide, a native of the region, convinced most of the children to drop their obstacles without giving them anything, but as time went on we started to feel worse about it. Sure, it’s a system that perpetuates handouts, and I’m sure it would cause an aneurysm among libertarians and those who espouse that “pulling up by the bootstraps” bullshit, but there’s no doubt that those families can use those 1,000 pesos far more than we can. When there are no other opportunities, you make do with what you have. Besides, we’re technically the ones driving SUVs through their front yards. They’re the people who have survived out there for their entire lives — we’re the ones who need A/C and liters of water just to make it through a day in the desert. They’ve taken on the desert, and they’ve won.

ouch

A cactus fence is as effective a way of keeping people out as I’ve ever seen.

My friends laughed at me when I described the stops as tollbooths, but in some ways I don’t think the description is so wrong. You pay a toll to provide for the general upkeep of the roads and infrastructure you use — why shouldn’t we pay a toll for invading someone else’s land? Just because the Spanish (or English, or Portuguese, or your own personal favorite colonizers) never bothered doesn’t mean it can’t be done. If the government can’t find a way to reinvest some of the exorbitant amounts of money it pulls out of the Guajira, what’s so wrong with the people asking visitors and tourists to help invest in the upkeep of the region? It’s the same as any tourism-based economic exchange — it’s just a hell of a lot more direct. Maybe the idea of paying people directly for the privilege of being on their land makes some folks more uncomfortable than paying people to provide food or transport services, but I kind of fail to see exactly what’s so bad about it.

pay up, gringo

One of the “tollbooths,” seen through the window of our car.

La Guajira is not a popular tourist destination for a reason (several reasons, in fact). It’s brutally hot, intensely dry, requires a serious commitment to waking up before 5 a.m. on a consistent basis, offers few choices in terms of meal options, has more hammocks than beds and doesn’t have anything remotely close to a five-star hotel. If you try to drive through the desert without a guide, you’ll be lost in minutes — or worse, kidnapped by someone along the way, something that happens with a borderline alarming frequency. It is also brutally beautiful, geographically fascinating, quiet in a way that most places will never achieve and home to a unique culture that has found a way to make peace with its unforgiving surroundings.

I’m deeply appreciative that I was lucky enough to see this part of the country and the world, but I’m also not sure how I feel about it as a tourist destination, and part of me is glad that it is still so underdeveloped in terms of tourism. Maybe it’s not so wrong to let the land belong to the people it actually belongs to, and to respect the idea that, just because something is there, doesn’t mean we need to take a photo of it. Sometimes it’s enough just knowing that it’s there, and that it doesn’t need us in order to continue as it has been. If a cactus falls in the desert, nobody there cares what I think about it, and that’s probably the way it should be.

 

camera settings are hard

Staring into the sun at Cabo de la Vela.

zooming clouds

This is actually exactly what it looks like. The clouds are unreal.

pilon de viento

You can’t tell from this pretty photo how insanely windy it is up here.

soooo winddyyyy

The Pilón de Azucar – or, Wind Tunnel Mountain, as I know it.

sugar sunset

Sunset at the Pilón de Azucar – our first Guajira sunset.

so lost

Where do the roads go? Good thing nobody is asking me.

bleach trees

Everything is sunbleached and washed out up here.

chicken boat

Waiting for high tide at Punta Gallinas.

chicken fence

Sunset at the top of the continent.

no photoshop necessary

It’s so pretty up here I don’t even have to retouch my photos.

tornado sky

Night comes down over South America.

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Salento: My Happy Place in Colombia

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Anyone that has had the misfortune to interact with me since October 2012 has probably heard about Salento — if I haven’t just come back from there, I’m planning my next journey or trying to convince someone to come with me. Including the trip I took two weeks ago, when my college roommate came to visit, I’ve been there a grand total of four times. I have a photo of the nearby valley as my phone background. You could say I’m a little crazy about the place — or at least you might say that if you’ve never been there. Because once you have visited, it’s hard to resist the urge to go back immediately. From the beautiful traditional painted houses to the perfect cups of coffee, Salento is a Colombian slice of heaven. I realize I’m a few decades away, but I’ve never found a place that whispers “retire here!” as much as Salento. I’m a city girl at heart, and I love Bogotá intensely, but something about those rolling green coffee hills almost convinces me to leave bricks and buses behind and trade in my smartphone for some vegetable seeds.

i want to go to there

The view from the lookout at one end of town, looking toward Los Nevados National Park.

Now, I’m certainly not the first person to feel the magical pull of Salento. In the last few years, the tiny town has become a popular spot for backpackers, providing a relaxing layover between Popayán, San Agustín and Cali to the south and Medellín to the north. Still, the place isn’t overrun in the way some other spots are (looking at you, Santa Marta) — despite the strong emphasis on tourism, it’s easy enough to walk out of town and find a quiet place to sit, without encountering a single person trying to sell you feather earrings or a bunch of bros discussing where they partied last night. Yes, there are definitely enough visitors to keep the hostels busy, but it seems to draw less of the party-and-drugs crowd and more of the hikers and introspective types.

salento tiene talento

Ha! Rhymes are the best! [In case you can’t see it, this sign, outside an artisans’ collective, says “Salento Talento.” heehee]

In addition to the quiet, Salento’s main appeal is sensory, mostly for the eyes and the taste buds. The town has historically subsisted on coffee production and trout farming, and those are still the primary economic activities for the rural families living nearby (though running a restaurant or a hostel appears to be an increasingly lucrative option as well). Especially on weekends, when the main plaza fills up with food stands and visitors from the nearby cities of Armenia and Pereira, you can find great local trout slathered in sauce and served with a ton of sides, or massive patacones (plantains) the size of a serving platter. I also bought one of the top five most delicious arepas I’ve ever eaten in Colombia — yes, I obviously keep track of this — in Salento, from a women selling homemade arepas the size of my head off a grill along the road on the way back to my hostel.

paisas love porches

The colorful porch of a traditional paisa house.

Though the comida típica (typical food) is great, there are also a number of non-traditional restaurants in town, including a pizza-and-curry spot run by a wonderful couple and the backpacker favorite Brunch, an American-owned place featuring (you guessed it) brunch food and homemade peanut butter! My personal favorite spot in town offers 5,000 peso breakfast and 6,000 lunch every day — there are only 2-3 options, but they’re all delicious and the people there couldn’t be nicer. Plus the walls of the six-table restaurant are plastered with posters for  events and businesses, everything from horse markets to hostels on the Pacific Coast, which provide a great conversation piece when you haven’t had coffee yet and can barely string two words together.

GIVE ME ALL THE CAFFEINE

This is what coffee looks like when it grows. Not half bad!

And speaking of coffee, did I mention this place grows a lot of coffee? Salento is in the heart of the eje cafetero (coffee region), and it’s one of the best places in the country to get a quality cup of joe. There are a number of fincas (coffee farms) within walking distance, and many offer tours that explain the entire coffee production process, from planting to exporting, and everything in between. Even better, for the other purists out there, is the fact that many of these family-owned farms are all-organic — some even maintain the practice of doing everything by hand! As far as I’m concerned, it’s hard to beat buying a bag of fresh-ground organic coffee straight from the family that grows, harvests and sells it — we’re taking farm-to-table to a whole new level here.

pretty colors!

Outside a gallery in Salento

In addition to its tasty products, Salento is also a haven for artisans. The main street leading out of the plaza is lined with all kinds of shops selling everything from hand-knitted sweaters to chocolate-covered coffee beans. The leather, wool and wood here are especially good quality, and you’ll see many people walking around in ruanas (Colombian wool ponchos). One of the most iconic local products is the sombrero aguadeño (or sombrero antioqueño), a slightly larger version of a fedora favored by most of the local farmers. The hat has grown from its humble beginnings as a rancher’s traditional sun protection and can now be spotted as a fashion statement on the heads of Colombians across the country. If you’re on the hunt, though, this is the place to get it — there are a few stores on the first block close to the plaza that sell a staggering quantity of hats in all sizes. Every time I visit, I debate buying one, but the truth is I’d be afraid to wear it much in Bogotá because of the inevitability of it getting soaked. Still, I’m tempted whenever I’m there — I have visions of wearing it as I gaze out over the small coffee and lulo plants sprouting in the yard behind my finca. Maybe once I finally do buy that finca (is it time to retire yet?), I’ll have a reason to get a hat.

In the meantime, I’ll just keep going back.

trees for days

Can you blame me? LOOK at this place!

Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love #2: Giving Unsolicited (Beauty) Advice

“Your hair looked better yesterday.”

“You should wear red more often.”

“That dress makes you look skinny.”

“Why don’t you send your resume to that [university/publication/school/business even though it’s totally unrelated to your skill set or current job]?”

“You don’t have a Colombian boyfriend? You should have a Colombian boyfriend.”

“Have you gained weight? It looks like you’ve gained weight.”

One thing I’ve noticed over the last year and a half is a particularly large cultural difference between here and home in terms of the focus on appearance, and the corollary social acceptability of making comments based on that appearance. And not just from your mother or grandmother, which might be expected. No, this is co-workers, students, friends of friends, the apartment doorman, people sitting next to you on the bus. Friends of mine here are often surprised when I explain to them that, in the U.S., telling someone — especially someone you don’t know — that their hair looks messy or their clothing is unflattering is generally considered, well, rude. Here, it’s a public service. But wouldn’t you want to know?

And yes, okay, I understand that logic when it comes to spinach between your teeth or leggings that become upsettingly see-through in sunlight, but we Americans do seem to draw the line pretty quickly as far as commenting on physical appearance is concerned. Compliments are allowed, but anything that remotely resembles a critique is best kept quiet. Most of us have, at some point, been the target of a well-timed maternal “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

This isn’t to say that Colombians are rude — in fact, it’s quite the opposite. They tend to be much more complimentary about pretty much everything, pretty much all the time. Last year will undoubtedly be the high point in my life of being told that I’m beautiful, as it happened at least once every day. The thing is, though, most Colombians say “You look/are beautiful” like the rest of us say “How are you?” which does somewhat take away from the significance of the sentiment.

Disregarding overuse of complimentary adjectives, though, the fact is that things that are interpreted as rude, insulting or invasive by Americans are just normal here. It’s not an insult if it’s true, right? And why wouldn’t you want to know your hair looked better yesterday, so you can do it like that again? In a weird way, I do understand this logic — it comes from a place of wanting to be helpful, not cruel, even if that help does come out sounding like something that would be best left unsaid. Still, as someone who doesn’t pay much attention to my appearance beyond what earrings I’m wearing (always the most important decision of the day), it’s been strange adjusting to people feeling like they have the right to comment on how I look.

I think it’s partially tied to the whole American complex of independence: I can dress however the hell I want, goddammit, and you don’t get to say anything about it. I definitely grew up with a bit of this attitude, and it hasn’t gone away yet, nor do I want it to. But on top of that, I also have more than a bit of a strong feminist reaction to it — while telling people how they look and how they should look is liberally applied to all genders here, it’s far more often directed at women. This is linked to all sorts of other underlying factors about beauty standards and how women are judged here, but there does seem to be a general sentiment that this advice is more “useful” for women. Because we care more, or because our bodies are public property for commenting, or for a whole range of other reasons which I’m sure would make for a great master’s thesis. On a personal level, though, it’s mostly just annoying. Anyone who’s met me knows I’m not exactly the type who enjoys being told what to do, unless it’s coming from a really good editor, and I’m certainly not in the habit of taking advice from any grown adult who thinks that sparkly pink t-shirts designed for teenagers or leopard-print pants are an appropriate fashion choice.

Then again, this objection is probably why I don’t have a Colombian boyfriend. Which, as far as everyone is concerned, is almost certainly for the best.

 

Other Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love:

#3. Aguardiente

#4. Agua de Panela

#5. Inappropriate Uses of English

#6. Colombia’s Got Talent

#7. Horrifying Jeans

#8. Malls

#9. Wearing Heels Everywhere, All the Time

#10. ’80s Rock/Hair Metal Bands

Quien lo Vive…

So as I may or may not have mentioned, I made up for my (lazy, broke, bad-at-planning, unmotivated) omission of last year and made sure I spent the second weekend of this past February in Barranquilla for Carnaval. Obviously a big part of this was the fact that Brighid lives there now, so it was a great excuse to go visit her, but it’s also one of those things that you just have to do when you live in Colombia. Or, judging from the number of gringos in attendance, even when you don’t.

Barranquilla, normally your typical mid-sized industrial port city, goes all-out for its Carnaval, which they never hesitate to tell you is the second-largest in the world (after only Rio, which, if you’re going to be second to something when it comes to Carnaval festivities, is really the only option). The city essentially shuts down for a whole week, during which time everything is covered in decorations, paint, banners, and anything red-green-and-yellow, the Carnaval colors. The people undergo a similar transformation — everyone is dressed in outrageous, neon, sparkly, bedazzled, insane festive clothing or costumes and covered in wigs, face paint, more sparkles, hats and other peculiar hair accessories. As if this weren’t enough, the two major spectator pastimes of Carnaval are drinking and throwing maizena (flour) and espuma (foam) at both friends and strangers until everyone in attendance looks as white as an Indiana frat boy on his first trip out of the country.

The days are filled with parades, dancing, music and celebration, and the nights — are pretty much exactly the same. We spent 2 hours one night just wandering from one block party to the next, weaving between neighbors dancing together and changing songs as we passed from one set of blaring speakers stacked higher than the surrounding houses to the next. People always talk about how joy is contagious, and this is one of the best places to see that in action — sure, we’re all sweaty and dirty and covered in flour and glitter and our feet hurt from standing and dancing, but we are all having one hell of a good time. Barranquilleros were, without fail, warm and welcoming and delightful people, and I couldn’t think of a better group to serve as my festival guides. For four nights straight, Brighid and I rolled into bed past 2 a.m., filthy and exhausted and probably dehydrated — and then the next morning, we got up and did it again. Because that’s what you do when it’s what everyone else is doing. We were just following the motto of Carnaval, after all:

Quien lo vive, es quien lo goza (S/he who lives it, enjoys it)

And enjoy it I did. Who’s up for 2014?

[full disclosure: I did not bring my fancy camera to Barranquilla, because beer + intense sunlight + flying foam + copious opportunities for robbery = disaster, as far as I’m concerned. So I’m sorry these photos don’t look so nice, but it’s the price we pay for caution. And it’s worth it]

Bogotá, Te Quiero

So it’s finally happening. Tonight, at 11:59 p.m., I board a plane at Bogotá El Dorado’s shiny new international terminal, bound for JFK. Touchdown at 6:02 a.m., the usual customs wrangling (potentially with a few more pointed questions than usual), and a transfer to the equally shiny JetBlue terminal for my connection home to Boston. Logan homecoming should happen right around 10:40 a.m. tomorrow morning, as long as the world is still here.

For the record, I’m not dealing well with this. Overall, I like change, but I’m not a big fan of the enforced kind, and plane tickets are nothing if non-negotiable (unless you have lots of money to throw around). The idea of reverse culture shock has always been something that I didn’t think really applied to me — I love travel, but I also love homecomings. Coming home is much easier when you love your city so much it’s like a physical affliction. Mostly, though, I’ve never really experienced it before. I’ve been sad to leave places before, and I have a long list of planned return visits to places that I left too soon (I’m coming for you, Amsterdam and New Zealand), but the only other time I lived outside of the country for a significant period ended with a feeling of relief more than sadness. I was so happy to come home from Argentina that I didn’t even have space in my heart for culture shock. You can’t be shocked by something that’s welcome.

But then this year happened. This year, where I’ve been happy and comfortable, challenged but able to deal with it and grow with it. I didn’t realize how attached I was here until my plane ride from Lima to Cuzco, about two weeks ago. I was sleepy and my hostel only had instant coffee (practically a cardinal sin to me, after a year of Colombian tinto), so I wasn’t in the best frame of mind from the outset. And then my flight — my flight was full of people like me. Full of loud, enthusiastic, poorly dressed American tourists. Everyone speaking English. Nobody saying “chévere” or wearing totally age-inappropriate clothing. After spending this year surrounded on all sides by Spanish, by friendliness and disorganization, this sudden immersion back into almost-America felt like parachuting into a suddenly foreign region. It was strange and uncomfortable, and I sank into my chair, protected by my headphones, to hide from it all. All I can remember thinking right then was, “I want to go home.” Home, in this case, meant Bogotá. Because maybe it is home now, in a way.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m super excited to be capital-H Home for Christmas, to see my parents and my brother, to sleep on my friends’ sofas, to drink good beer and stay out late and have normal conversations with people in bars without the immediate need to justify my presence there, to walk through Boston and take the T and eat the entire stock of the breakfast cereal aisle at Stop and Shop and watch college football for like 3 days straight and touch snow again and mostly just be home. A year is a long time to be out of one’s comfort zone, and despite the extent to which I’ve fallen in love with Bogotá, a little comfort couldn’t hurt.

The underlying layer of that comfort, though, is the knowledge that I’m coming back in three weeks. That might be the most comforting thing of all.

Happy Holidays and a festive New Year to one and all! If you need me, I’ll be at a bar drinking as much Sam Adams as one can reasonably consume in a three-week period. God bless America, indeed.

Hasta 2013, Bogotá!

Skydiving

So I did some math this morning and realized that I have exactly one month until I’m back home. That’s right, kids — if all goes well, which is to say disregarding the possibility of my expiring somewhere on the Inca Trail or perishing in the midst of the predicted apocalypse, I’ll be landing at JFK sometime around 6 a.m. on December 21st. I still haven’t quite wrapped my mind about that reality — for all the talk going on amongst my friends and I lately about our first meals back in America, or all my efforts to ignore everyone’s Facebook updates about undoubtedly delicious Thanksgiving dinners, or my occasional annoyance that none of the emails I receive about events are ever relevant to me, I can’t figure out how to analyze the math in a way where the fact that I’ve been here for almost 11 months makes any sense. Sure, everyone always says “It feels like just yesterday that…” I won’t go so far as to say that it feels like yesterday, but it does feel like a whole bunch of yesterdays. It doesn’t feel like almost a year. It doesn’t feel like I’ve turned 24 here. And it definitely doesn’t feel like it’s time to go.

I always know when I need to move, because I do this thing where I start staring obsessively at every airplane overhead, wondering where they’re going, who’s aboard, why I’m not on that flight right now. It happened to me at home in Boston, it happened in Buenos Aires, it happened in Chicago. Even though I miss some of those places desperately (I still harbor a Charlie Brown-esque unrequited and unconsummated love for the Windy City that’s going to have to be remedied one of these days), the only recent time I can remember glancing at an airplane that I wasn’t about to board was one day where Bogotá was smothered in absolutely spectacular clouds and I couldn’t help watching the lights slice through the darkness. I’m just not ready to leave yet.

Of course, I’m ready to go home for the holidays. I miss my family, my friends, American football, Trader Joe’s, Harvard Square in December, good breakfast cereal, snow… the list goes on. I miss people. I miss things. But the unfortunate truth of where I am in my life is that I’m always going to miss people, places and things. My friends are scattered across the country, some of them across the world. I will never live within two miles of all of my closest friends at any point again in my life. Everything I love can never be in one place. And traveling doesn’t make it better — it exacerbates it. I keep moving, I keep falling in love, and then I keep moving on. I would rather be in love with everything than nothing, but it’s not my favorite kind of balancing act.

All of this is to say that, despite my itchy feet, I’m not done with Bogotá yet. Whenever I think, seriously think, about getting on a plane and never coming back, I start to freak out. I want to grab everything here that I care about and cling to it. You’re going to have to drag me away, I hiss to the imaginary authorities enforcing this mandatory evacuation.

But you know what? Nobody is enforcing it. I will be thrilled to go home in December, but I’m going to be just as happy to come back in January. Because yes, I’m coming back. It’s not exactly clear right now what I’m going to be doing (or how I’m going to make sure I feed myself), but that’s something I’ll figure out in the time between now and then. I’ve always landed on my feet so far in my life, and if a man can take the risk of jumping from an aircraft perched on the edge of space, the least my scaredy-cat self can do is try to make this work and see what happens. Because lord knows I won’t be jumping from any airplanes anytime soon.

Unless that Mayan apocalypse does happen, after all. Then I may not have a choice.

How can I think about leaving this place when I just want to wrap my arms around it?

Summer Flashback: Otavalo Market

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One of the (undoubtedly many) reasons I tend to drive my friends slightly crazy is that I am maybe the world’s least reliable photographer. I’m not necessarily saying that I’m bad at taking pictures (although I certainly didn’t get the … Continue reading

Eight Things I Can Now Competently Do in Spanish… and Five I Still Can’t

It’s often hard to know how much progress you’re making with a language, since the incremental daily changes are near-impossible to measure as they happen. We don’t walk around going, “hey, my vowels sound just a little better today than they did on Tuesday!” Language development is a long-term process, something that happens over months rather than hours. Still, there are times when I manage to do something or make some point in a conversation that I know would have been absolutely impossible for me a year or even three months ago. These are the moments when I realize that I am still progressing, that my Spanish hasn’t stagnated at good-enough-to-buy-bus-tickets-but-not-good-enough-to-win-an-argument-about-homophobia (which, for the record, is right about where it is right now. But onwards! And upwards!). It’s important to acknowledge these little victories, if only for the fact that it keeps me motivated and hopeful that I can keep improving, every day.

A few of the things I can now accomplish in Spanish:

  1. Get something notarized without ruining any important paperwork (I am most self-impressed by this one. It’s a very confusing process, even in English!)
  2. Translate answers to questions as someone is speaking — again, without ruining anything important.
  3. Get from Bogotá to Manizales using three taxis, a plane and a bus without getting lost or ripped off.
  4. FedEx a document (to be fair, at this point I could probably fill out a shipping label in my sleep. Or in Mandarin).
  5. Get a haircut and actually have it turn out pretty much exactly as I want it.
  6. Explain why I’m a vegetarian and have people actually understand it. Insofar as most Colombians understand the concept of vegetarianism (anything more than “So you don’t like meat?” is progress).
  7. Give directions that are at least intended to be helpful and accurate.
  8. Take a yoga class without looking like a confused fool.

A few things I still can’t do:

  1. Make good jokes.
  2. Win the aforementioned argument about homophobia.
  3. Correctly write dates without double-checking the order of the days and months.
  4. Convince my attractive co-worker that I am obviously the perfect woman. Then again, I couldn’t do this in English, either.
  5. Explain American football.

My Best Classes Involve Water Slides

So I was a wee bit MIA last week, but with good reason: I was busy hanging out with about 40 of my 9th-graders in Melgar, a very warm resort-y town about three hours outside of Bogotá, because my life is super-exciting like that. Actually, though, it was both exciting and a great opportunity to spend time with my delightful kids outside of the dark confines of school.

I didn’t just sneak onto a field trip full of 15-year-olds, I swear (okay, I kind of did. But there was a reason!). Colsubsidio, the organization that owns my school, also owns about half of the other buildings in Colombia — including a rather nice hotel in Girardot, right next to Melgar, and a water park, Piscilago, which features the longest water slide in Latin America. For some unknown but delightful reason, particular grades at the Colsubsidio schools get the opportunity for an overnight at the hotel and then a day at the water park. I was originally supposed to go with the 7th-graders about two months ago, but due to scheduling it didn’t work out, so I got shuffled to the 9th-graders instead. This actually ended up being a pretty lovely surprise, since I adore my 9th-graders and they are, on average, slightly easier to wrangle than a bus full of insane 12-year-olds. I’m not sure why anyone at my school thinks I’m a responsible enough human being to take care of a large group of other human beings, but I chose not to question it.

So instead of dragging myself through the polluted streets of chilly, rainy Bogotá, I spent two days frolicking in pools and water slides with my generally well-behaved children, shocking them with the fact that yes, I actually do speak Spanish (surprise!) and yelling at them to stay in their damn rooms and for the love of god please just go to bed (I never said that I slept at any point during this trip. I didn’t).

Being with these awesome kids for two days straight made me remember some of the things that I love so much about this work, and what a huge role my students have played in making this year such a positive experience. On Thursday night we had a bonfire outside, and we did an activity where everyone had an opportunity to speak to their peers about things that have been difficult or positive about this year. I went last, and after hearing the sweet, insightful and often very emotional things my students had to say, all I had to tell them was how much I love them and how important they are to me. They are the reason that I’m excited to come to school every day, and they’re the reason that all of the inconveniences and frustrations that come with working at this school and in this system are worth it. I’m already upset that I’m going to have to say goodbye to them in three months, but I’m trying not to think about it for now.

The two-day vacation was a fantastic opportunity for both fun (Riding the longest water slide in Latin America! Going headfirst through a dark tunnel on a water toboggan! Watching my students throw each other in the pool! Frolicking on playground equipment like a little kid! Not having to wear sleeves!) and reflection (oh my god I love these kids so much how can I ever leave them?). Even though it’s over now and I’m back in my cloudy, scheduled reality, at least I still have the memories (and 75 itchy, torturous bug bites on my legs) to remind me.