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?

We Need to Talk About Coke

You had to know this conversation was coming eventually. Yes, I spend a lot of time talking about how Colombia isn’t the country it was 20 or even 10 years ago, how there’s so so SO much more to this amazing place than “machine guns and murders,” as my father so aptly put it in a recent conversation about how apparently nobody we know has seen any news since 1985. Colombia is no longer Pablo Escobar’s Colombia, but it’s also not paradise, despite what the tourism ads tell you. As much as I’ve fallen in love with this place, my love isn’t blind: this is still very much a country at war, and it’s a war that extends far beyond the geographic borders. It’s a war that probably touches you.

If you know anything about anything, you’re aware that Colombia has been mired in a civil conflict for decades. A quick and dirty primer for those of you who failed Endless Civil Wars in Latin America 201: The modern conflict began in 1948, with a decade-long political civil war known as La Violencia, which killed more than 300,000 people, most of them farmers or rural residents. In the meantime, the number of people affiliated with the Communist party had been slowly growing since the years following WWI; by the early 1960s, many rural regions had formed their own leagues based on communist principles, calling for increased rights to land ownership, services and access to resources that were controlled by the land-owning class. Because god forbid the threat of Communism be allowed to flourish near our own continent, the U.S. of course had to get involved: in 1962, our proud nation created a paramilitary intervention, known as “Plan Lazo,” which trained and encouraged the Colombian military (as well as the paramilitary civil defense groups they created, which of course don’t conveniently vanish when the plan ends) to attack these leagues and their adjacent communities, many of whom were generally unarmed. Such good neighbors, we are. In response to a 1964 raid on a small town, when 16,000 U.S.-sponsored Colombian troops attacked a group of 1000 villagers, a group of 48 men who had been involved in the battle created the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, known as the FARC by their nearest and dearest friends, and everyone else.

The group quickly grew to include hundreds of guerrillas, with the ostensible purpose of defending their territory and land from these imposed, colonialist attacks. However, somewhere along the way (sometime in the early ’80s, to be more precise), the FARC lost most of their revolutionary political ideals, and turned into something closer to the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Cocaína. Cocaine is a hell of a drug fast way to make a profit, and when you’re spending all your time hiding in the jungles and fighting the paramilitares/army/police/idiot lost tourists/capybaras/anyone who crosses your path, you need all the fast money you can get. Current statistics estimate that the FARC brings in anywhere from $60 to $100 million dollars annually just from taxing the drug trade, so it’s no surprise that the guerrilla groups saw that they could leverage this system to their advantage, nor that they turned rural farms with little oversight into a production system for their new export, therefore placing the farmers directly into the lose-lose middle of this impossible situation: work with the FARC, and stand a chance of losing their farms or being sent to jail under the latest anti-drug initiative; refuse to work with the FARC, and stand a chance of losing their lives. As usual, the little guy is the one who gets screwed.

But you know what, kids? Most of us, even unwilling journalism majors, have learned a little bit about economics by this point in our lives. We certainly understand the capitalist holy grail of supply and demand — we live it. So if the supply is here, hiding in the overgrown corners of jungle-bordered Colombia, shielding themselves from the occasional pesticide-laced flyover or big military initiative — then where is the demand?

Take a look around you, dear friends and countrymen (and, I suppose, some of you non-countryfolk). Because that’s where it is. Colombia may be one of the world’s biggest producers of cocaine, but the U.S. is by far the biggest consumer. It’s no accident that in the last few years, northern Mexico has turned into a roiling nightmare of narcotraficantes and horrific cartel-sanctioned violence — someone has to protect that coke and make sure it’s getting safely to the noses of rich kids in American cities.

I have friends (not good friends, obviously) back at home who do or at least have done cocaine. I’ve seen friends or acquaintances snorting that stuff up their noses, and while it never seems like the time to give them a lecture about supporting traffickers and essentially signing off on death, both in other countries and in the U.S., being here by the source makes this just so much clearer. I see the poorest neighborhoods of Bogotá, perched up on the hills and without electricity or running water, filled with people who fled the conflict in their native towns, trying to salvage at least their lives and families, if nothing else. I teach kids who lost family members in the ’80s and early ’90s, the unstable era when Bogotá was a city filled with narcos and bombs, when Medellín was the murder capital of the world. I sense the hope, the need to break free of this past, this narrative of Colombia as eternal battleground. The scars here are still so, so visible, and no amount of smiles or makeup or plastic surgery, that Colombian specialty, can cover them up.

Maybe you can’t see them from where you are. Maybe you think it’s not you perpetuating this cycle of violence and exploitation. Maybe you just really don’t care where your toys come from, like people who buy diamond engagement rings without investigating the history of those sparkling gems. If you do care, though — if you give a shit about people, about the ability of human beings to live their lives without the risk of being killed or injured or forced to leave their entire livelihoods behind to flee from an unsafe situation to a far-away city or country — then think. Think about the implications of your actions, think about what these habits say about you or your friends as human beings, think about what you can do to distance yourself from the kind of people who, through their action or inaction, implicitly condone drug violence and the exploitation of thousands of innocent people.

At the least, think before you inhale.

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.

Being Responsible Is Overrated (But Necessary)

Aside

Back around May or June, when I seriously began thinking about the possibility of trying to stay here for another year, I gave myself an arbitrary deadline of September to begin looking for jobs. It’s not like anyone here is going to be hiring four months ahead, but it at least gave me a concrete time to start scoping out potential employers, getting in touch with various people and organizations and engaging in that dreaded activity, networking.

Well, it’s September now. Time to act like a responsible adult and start begging people to hire me and/or sponsor my visa. So…. anyone know of any good jobs or people hiring enthusiastic Americans with above-average verbal skills in Bogotá? I’m all ears.

The 25-Step Guide to Successfully Taking a Bus in Bogotá

  1. Walk to the intersection of the two largest streets near you. Hope that the bus you need will conveniently run along one of these streets.
  2. Every 15 seconds or so, turn your head from one direction to the other. You wouldn’t want to miss the bus!
  3. Decide you’re at least 60% sure the bus you need is green. Pay attention to all of the buses, but pay extra-close attention to the green ones.
  4. Squint frantically at the sign in the front window of each approaching bus, trying desperately to read as many of the neighborhoods as possible before it goes hurtling past you at pedestrian-killing speed. Attempt not to fall into the street while reading the aforementioned signs. Succeed at this, more or less.
  5. Get impatient after about ten minutes, decide to settle for a bus that passes even close to where you’re going.
  6. See a bus that has your destination in its sign. The bus looks especially rattletrap and scary. Let it pass.
  7. Take this previous bus as a positive sign that there must be other buses heading in that direction. Feel confident about your decision to wait for one that at least appears to have functioning brakes.
  8. Wait.
  9. Wait some more.
  10. Start to wish you’d just gone with the first damn bus when it came by. It couldn’t be that bad.
  11. Wonder whether the buses have all been rerouted today for some inexplicable reason. This is a perfectly reasonable hypothesis, since it happens all the time.
  12. See the bus, finally! It says the neighborhood you need! It is also red. Try to figure out why you were so certain it was green.
  13. Hail the bus, which screeches to a stop about 20 feet in front of you. Scamper to it and swing yourself onto the stairs. Brace yourself for the bus to lurch back into traffic as soon as your second foot leaves the ground. Try not to fall back out the open door.
  14. Catch the strap of your bag as you push through the turnstile. Piss off the woman standing on the stairs behind you as you try to wriggle it free. Hope she doesn’t fall back out the open door.
  15. Give your fare to the small child sitting in the front seat, on the other side of the glass partition. She is probably the driver’s daughter. She is probably about eight years old. She should definitely be in school right now.
  16. Miraculously find a seat next to the aisle. Proceed to get smacked in the shoulder or face by the bags or arms or bodies of every single person who passes by for the rest of the ride. Wonder why spatial awareness is so difficult for everyone.
  17. Get stuck in a horrible traffic jam about ten blocks from where you boarded the bus. Fidget anxiously in your seat as it takes half an hour to go four more blocks. Hope your iPod doesn’t die.
  18. Check your phone for any scolding text messages. Reflect on the fact that your friends are probably going to stop hanging out with you at some point because of how goddamn long it takes you to get everywhere. Accept that you can only blame your chronic lateness on the transportation for so long before people expect you to start learning from your mistakes.
  19. Conclude that you have yet to learn from your mistakes. Try not to think about that Einstein quote about repetition and insanity.
  20. Breathe a sigh of relief as your bus finally passes through the green light to the sweet, sweet freedom of the open road.
  21. Resist the urge to strangle something when it becomes clear that the open road freedom only lasts for three blocks before it turns back into a tangled, cacophonous catastrophe devoid of any recognizable road rules or human decency all over again.
  22. For the next ten minutes, devote yourself to gnawing on your thumbnail as your bus slowly crawls toward an intersection with a major, TransMilenio-containing road.
  23. Elbow your way past the rappers or guitar players or ladies selling candy or whoever is currently entertaining/asking the passengers for money and leap off the bus as soon as it crosses the road.
  24. Take the TransMilenio instead.
  25. Arrive forty minutes after you said you would. Consider this to be a fairly acceptable time frame and, in fact, a minor victory.

Kite Season

Image

kites everywhere

With “summer” in Bogotá comes the wind, and with the wind come the kites. On the last Sunday of the Festival del Verano (Summer Festival) in Parque Simón Bolivar, they were out in full force. Maybe someday I’ll be this good at kite-flying.

25 Reasons Why I Love Bogotá

About four months into living in another country is when one allegedly hits that first real “low” of culture shock. It takes different forms and manifests in various ways for different people, of course — I’m overall a pretty upbeat, cheerful person, so anytime I don’t feel like hugging half the city is a warning sign for me. Luckily, this is fairly uncommon, and I usually just blame my bad-mood days on the rain, PMS, a painfully crowded bus or the fact that I cannot get my sixth-graders to shut up for two minutes, for the love of god.

Personally, I have yet to really hit that all-out valley of crap feelings — and, barring some sort of traumatic event, I’m not entirely sure I ever will, at least not completely. It’s barely been five months, and I already feel so at home here, in so many ways. The difference between how I feel at five months in Bogotá (blissfully happy) and how I felt at five months during study abroad in Buenos Aires (oh my god get me on a plane I miss baseball season and walking down the street without people saying creepy shit to me more than anything in the world) is just astronomical. I know this is blasphemy and everyone loves Buenos Aires and yay you can totally function there without even really speaking Spanish and blah blah blah etc., but all I can speak for is my own experience. While I’d love to go back and visit all of the parts of Argentina I didn’t get a chance to see the first time, I don’t think I’ll ever be tempted to live there again. The way I feel here right now, they’ll be dragging me out of Colombia kicking and screaming in December, if I end up leaving at all.

But back to the culture shock for a minute. Last weekend I was talking with a few friends about how a lot of us volunteers — who all arrived here at the beginning of January —  are probably going through similar low points around the same time. Living abroad, it’s even easier to feel isolated than it is at home; or to think you’re the only one feeling the way you are; or feeling a lot of pressure to keep up a happy facade, whether it’s for friends and family or because everyone else seems happy and you don’t want to be the only Debbie Downer of the group. This is normal, but it’s not positive. We all have bad days, but we also all have reasons why we came here, and reasons why we haven’t left yet. And those bad days are the times when it’s most important to remember those reasons.

One of my friends already wrote a very entertaining blog post about some of her favorite things in Colombia, and another excellent gringa blogger in Colombia has a really delightful list of reasons to love Bogotá. Encouraged by these ladies’ efforts, I want to toss my own hat into the ring. You can call it copying — I call it inspiration. Everyone else is talking about what they love about Colombia, and I just don’t want to be left out!

just, you know, about 40% of the time

See? It doesn’t rain ALL the time!

So, ladies and gents, in what I expect may be somewhat of a continuing series:

25 Things That Make Me Never Want To Leave Bogotá

1. No matter where I am in the city, I can see mountains. It is impossible to overstate how beneficial this is to my mental and emotional health.

2. It is totally socially acceptable for adults to walk around eating all kinds of sugary treats.

3. People stop to help other people change their flat tires. In the middle of the street. At 11:30 at night.

4. Crepes & Waffles. Oh my god, Crepes & Waffles.

5. At most tiendas (and grocery stores), a beer costs about US$1.

6. Random people at bars will buy you a beer, invite you to join them at their table and talk to you like they’ve known you for years.

7. Everyone has a finca outside the city. And they all want you to visit. You could spend months just finca-hopping every weekend.

8. Walks of shame do not visibly exist here (or are at least extremely covert), because tons of women are normally walking around in dresses and heels on weekend mornings.

9. People drink hot chocolate at breakfast and dinner.

10. Colombians will invite you to their birthday parties after knowing you for exactly two hours — or to their weddings after two months.

11. You can buy a cup of strong, dark coffee on pretty much any street corner in the city, for about 25 cents.

12. Also lollipops, if you’re into that.

13. When the guy at my favorite local bakery calls me “amor,” it actually does make me feel just a little more loved.

14. There are dogs everywhere. Everywhere. And they are beautiful.

15. Passengers on crowded buses will happily pass bus fare and change back and forth between fellow passengers and the driver.

16. The cops posted at every TransMilenio station are basically unofficial travel agents in flourescent jackets. The only things I’ve ever seen them do are text, give people directions and occasionally ask random people for identification if they’re feeling especially bored.

17. People keep their horses in the strangest, most surprising places. Like the field next to the Éxito on my walk home from school. Or their back yards.

18. Eggs are fresh, delicious, cheap and probably came from the chicken strolling down the sidewalk outside the store.

19. Reading is considered a worthwhile and normal use of personal time.

20. They have beer towers in more than a few bars. I missed you, college.

21. If you’re an hour late arriving somewhere, it is perfectly acceptable to blame it on the traffic, even if it’s not true. Everyone will understand.

22. Sundays are exactly the way Sundays should be: lazy, quiet, with empty offices and full bike paths and cafés. You can even get away with walking around in sweatpants on Sundays.

23. There is some sort of holiday almost every week. Most of them are celebrated on multiple days, and they often involve presents.

24. For some reason, stilts are really popular here. At almost any kind of large public event, there are guaranteed to be people on stilts. I think I’ve seen more stilts in my five months here than the rest of my life prior to this year.

25. Teenagers are not too embarrassed to be seen in public with their parents. Sometimes they even hug them.

#26: Chocolate-covered strawberries. They have stores specifically for these treats. I’m never leaving.

Día del Idioma: A Little Bit of Culture, and a Lot of Kids in Costumes

People here are really into holidays. As in, we celebrate something pretty much every week — holidays I never even knew existed in a formal sense, like Teacher’s Day, Children’s Day, International Water Day, and so on. Basically every holiday is an excuse for us to have an iza bandera (this translates more or less to “flag-raising” but is essentially a school-wide assembly. There is no actual raising of any flags) and for all the kids and teachers to miss class for an hour or two. I typically use it as an opportunity to tan my arms in the courtyard and whisper threatening things at 10th-graders who are hitting each other instead of paying attention.

However, some holidays merit even more than just an assembly with various patriotic songs and people talking. When they get serious about celebrations here, they go all out. A recent example at school — probably the best one so far — was Día del Idioma (Language Day, more or less). Día del Idioma is celebrated throughout the Spanish-speaking world as a day to recognize the global importance of the Spanish language, and has been a national holiday here in Colombia since 1938. It officially falls on April 23rd, as an homage to “Don Quixote” author Miguel de Cervantes, one of the most important writers in the history of Spanish literature, who died on that day in 1616. Even though the holiday has an official date, all of the schools where we volunteers are working seemed to celebrate it on different days. Ours was April 25th, and boy, was it a party.

Día del Idioma, although it seems like it should just be people talking about how awesome Spanish is all day (which would’ve been fine with me, too), turned out to be really more of a celebration of Colombian culture in general, or at least that’s how it played out here. Classes were suspended for essentially the entire day, since the festivities took up almost six hours. Every classroom was decorated according to some kind of theme — a different geographic region of the country, different kinds of food, different cultural myths, literature, and so on. Pretty much anything that contributes to culture had its own space, and some of the students from that class did a presentation on their specific topic. The rest of the students rotated around the school in groups, acting as the audience for the presentations.

It was pretty cute watching the students take a turn teaching each other, and we teachers got to more or less take a back seat for the day and just hang out with the kids and see the results of all their hard work. This was especially nice for the Spanish teachers, who had been driving themselves pretty much crazy with preparations during the week before Día del Idioma — I was legitimately concerned about the relative sanity of a few of them.

In the end, though, everything seemed to go fairly smoothly. The kids had a great time, all of the classrooms looked great, it miraculously didn’t rain for the whole six hours — plus, I got some great pictures.