Sunday, April 6, 2014

My Memories, My Master's, My Idea

This blog consists of 3 parts:

My Memories: contains personal reflections about life
My Masters: describes the Master’s program that I'll be starting in the fall and what I hope to do after I graduate
My Idea: humbly proposes a solution to exploitative labor conditions around the world

Read the parts that you want to read; this is not required reading. :)


MY MEMORIES

My memories are stored in a folder on my desktop.  That thought crossed my mind and was almost gone before I realized how strange it was.  I have a folder that’s titled “Memories with M” and in it I keep pictures and conversations that I’ve saved and don’t want to forget.  My memory has been ‘externalized’ to my computer.  I know that with time my memory of those events, of those moments, will fade, and because now it’s all still too fresh, too poignant, I can’t stand the thought of losing those memories.  So I’ve stored them.  Whether I will review them later or not, time will tell.  But for now it’s comforting to know that I have them: that they are there, still real and still vivid and I can relive them when I want to. 

(Spoiler alert for SLAUGHTERHOUSE 5)
That reminds me of a book I read: Slaughterhouse 5.  Without giving away too much of the story, in this World War 2 book (based on real events), the aliens who abduct the principle character pity the human race because of our narrow perception of time: we only can experience the present.  For us humans, the past cannot be re-lived and the future cannot be experienced at will.  They describe this as if we were living life with a tube attached to our eyes that only allows us to see a small fraction of our lives at a time. The aliens in the book have a less linear timeline, and can experience any moment of their existence whenever they choose to.  How they manage to do anything is not quite clear.  For most of us, if we were able to step back (or step forward) into the happiest moments of our lives whenever we wanted to, it would hard not to spend all of our time there.  We have no choice but to continue forward, hoping that many wonderful moments are waiting to be discovered.

I’m continually amazed by how quickly memories can fade.  For 2 years I lived in a small village in the Tian Shan mountain range, in the middle of the largest land mass in the world.  My life consisted of going to school, teaching classes, making bread, serving tea, and walking around town visiting neighbors.  Nobody in my town had running water, our bathroom was a wooden box built over a deep hole and was 20 yards from the house.  The place where I bathed with the rest of the women in my community was on the other side of town.  In winter there was no salvation from the extreme cold reaching to negative 40degrees Fahrenheit.  It was an intense and very valuable experience, but when it ended it was as if a door closed to that world and that life disappeared.  When I left Kyrgyzstan, I traveled on to India for a few weeks, returned home for a couple of months, and then came to Colombia.  And I’ve been here since then (except for a 6-month excursion to Brazil).

This world exists completely separate from the world of Central Asia.  Everything is different: the climate, the language, the food, the clothes, the social norms, the gender roles, everything.  There are so many things about Colombia that I love, and so many that I hate.  Here is where I fell in love for the first time, where I experienced my first heart break, where I learned that life goes on, where I discovered that who I am is constantly changing.  Where I realized that experiences don’t define me (though they do shape who I am).  Some advice:

Don’t define yourself by your failures.  Don’t define yourself by your successes.  Define yourself by your friendships and by your kindnesses.




MY MASTER'S

This fall I’m going to begin a Master’s in International Education Policy.  According to the website, the program “is designed to develop students' capacity to think critically and systematically about educational inequality and educational reform, to analyze policy alternatives, and to evaluate policies and programs.”

Upon graduating my goal is to return to Colombia and work with community activists, nongovernmental organizations, and policy makers to reform education in order to provide Colombian youth with the analytical skills that they need, not just to make better lives for themselves, but to make a better country for all.  




MY IDEA:

Lately (all the time) people tell me “The problem is that there’s just not enough work for everyone.”  While that is generally accepted as a feature of today’s world, it actually makes no sense whatsoever.  How can lack of work be a bad thing?  Now we have machines that can plant, harvest, process, produce, fabricate, etc. most of the things that we need on a daily basis, reducing the physical labor that is needed.  We have computers to do much of our calculations, data processing, graphing, etc.  And so, now that technology can do so much for us, we have to do less.  The comment: “There’s just not work for everyone” should be met with applause!  Yay, less work for everyone!  But what we’re seeing is that many people get trapped working a lot while others are un-employed or under-employed.  Those who have jobs feel a constant pressure to work longer, harder, faster, better because if they don’t there are 10 people lined up who could replace them. 

So my solution is the 4-hour work day.*  Everyone would work 4 hours a day and be paid a living-wage for those hours.  The government would ensure that all of their basic needs are met (education, health, housing), and they would receive promotions/bonuses based on performance.  The better you work, the more you would earn.  Those 4 hours would be much more productive because people would be more energized and focused, and they would have more free-time to focus on other things outside of work.  The additional costs of employing twice the number of workers would be made up in reduced chief officer salaries.  In order for everyone to have basic living and working conditions, others would have to earn substantially less.  The top 5% could no longer enjoy the extreme wealth they currently have. 

We have the capability to produce everything we need without so many people subject to harsh, exploitative conditions.  It’s time to change the system.  All our “advancements” are not contributing to a higher quality of life.  It’s time to ask ourselves “why not?” and begin to demand that changes take place.  “There’s not enough work” should be a cause for celebration, not for preoccupation.  With a 4-hour work week, we would have more time to educate our children, explore, discover, invent, cure, entertain, create; the possibilities are endless!  But until we begin to question the assumptions that this system is based on, we will continue to belong to the most advanced slave plantation in history.


*I don’t know how feasible this really is, but surely there are better ways to organize labor than the current system. 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Expectations vs. Reality

I have better things to do.  I do.  If I’m going to be able to afford a master’s program in the states, I’ll need scholarships, so I should be applying for those.   But something has inspired a nostalgic feeling in me (maybe it’s the rain), and because I can’t shake it, I’ve decided to give it a voice, give it words. 

I’ve been living in Rio de Janeiro for almost 5 months now.  When I was counting the days until I could go back to Colombia, time went by painfully slowly.  Now time’s passing at a more mixed rate; at times it flies by and at times it almost stands still.  Like I said, it’s been almost 5 months...

Rio is not what I expected it would be.  (By the way, that’s true of every place that I’ve ever visited.)  There’s only so much you can imagine when you see pictures, watch movies, and read about a place.  Stereotypes, while almost always based on something real, never completely describe reality. 

Here are a few big surprises about Rio:

- Rio actually is more beautiful than in the pictures.  MUCH, MUCH more beautiful.  Oh yeah, and those mountains that you see in the background?  You can climb those any time you like and get a breath-taking view of the city.

- Rio can be REALLY COLD (12C in July) and it’s often cloudy and rainy during the winter months

- Most Cariocas (people from Rio) don’t actually dance Samba (or anything else for that matter).  They appreciate music, but generally prefer to just listen while drinking lots of beer with friends

- Brazilians come in all shapes and colors, so even someone as white as me could be Brazilian (in fact most people assume that I am Brazilian until they hear my accent)

- Here the cat-calling is minimal during the day.  At night however, it’s normal (even for Brazilian girls) for a guy to try to kiss or grab you as you walk by.  (In Colombia cat-calling occurred constantly, but nobody ever tried to touch me)

- Brazilians hate to say “no.”  So they often just say “yes” and leave you to discover later that they really meant “no.”

- Brazilians can be simultaneously intensely proud and intensely critical of their country.

Those of you who travel know that everywhere you go is subject to comparison to everywhere you have been.  And because I’ve been in Colombia for the last 2 1/2 years, I often find myself comparing the two places.  While Rio has a lot of incredible things going for it, it is also missing a lot of things.  Zona Sul is filled with the noise of cars and people, but you don’t hear music in the streets.  Where are the picós?  Where are the people sitting outside and talking to their neighbors?  They don’t sell arepas anywhere and there aren’t any juice carts.  No zapote, no nispero.   And something else is missing too.  Maybe it's just my imagination, but I don’t see as many people smiling.  I don’t hear as much laughter.  And my heart aches for Colombia again…

By the way, I read about Colombia regularly: about the agrarian protests, the international festivals, and the peace-talks with the FARC.  When I read about the protests, I was proud of the Colombian people for standing up to the government.  In cities around the world, Colombians united to express their support for the farmers.  I saw a video on youtube of Colombians in front of the Eiffel tower holding up signs that read: “Dear Santos, Here in Paris, we know about the agrarian protests.”  The Colombians living here in Rio organized many events to declare their support of Colombian farmers and their outrage about the government’s response.  At work, in the morning before any teachers or students came, I read newspaper articles or watched youtube clips of the protests, and filled with pride, love, and concern, I let my tears fall onto the desktop. 

When I leave Rio, I will miss:
- the beaches
- the mountains
- the views
- the easiest job EVER
- beach volleyball on Mondays
- the sunset as seen from Arpoador
- the Carioca accent
- my foreign friends who have been discovering this amazing country with me
- my local friends who have been amazing companions on this journey
- the guy selling tea on the beach who always say “Mate!  Mate con limaoooo!”
- my hot shower  ;)
 (list to be continued…)




Saturday, December 15, 2012

Una conversación 'familiar'


Desde enero hasta junio de este año (2012) viví en Bucaramanga, en la casa de dos personas locas y divinas: Tania y Julio.  Llegaron a ser personas muy queridas para mi.  En julio, cuando regresé a vivir en la costa, Tania se mudó a Rio de Janeiro.  Julio sigue viviendo en nuestro apartamento en Bucaramanga.  Ahora Tania está en Bucaramanga, visitando a su familia.  Anteayer tuvimos una conversación ‘familiar’. 

Esta es la conversación entre Tania, Julio y yo.  Tania a Julio le dice "mata" como apodo y a mi me dice "maiquis."   Decidí postear esta conversación porque muestra lo que más me gusta de Colombia: la amabilidad y el sentido de humor de la gente.  

***Del contexto, entiendo que el verbo "acosteñarse" significa "volverse costeño".  ;)


Tania 9:47pm
Mata, Maiquis nos olvido

Julio 9:47pm
a mi no ;)
estoy hablando con ella
jajajajaja
pero porque yo la salude
jajajajajajaja

Micah 9:48pm
jajaja! tanis! me acabas de saludar!

Tania 9:48pm
a mi no me hablado listo maiquis

Micah 9:48pm
yo siempre te saludo y resulta que no estas alla!

Tania 9:48pm
ahora se acostenó y nos olvido

Julio 9:48pm
a mi nunca

Tania 9:49pm
a mi tampoco. toca buscarla

Julio 9:49pm
si no la saludo, no me dice nada
juete es que va tocar darle

Tania 9:49pm
lo missssmoooo
como cambia la gente, no mata??

Micah 9:49pm
jajaja! mentira! son ustedes que nunca responden!
grrrr! y ahora no me hablan sino solo se hablan DE mi! mira como cambia la gente!

Tania 9:50pm
eso siempre ha sido asi maiquis
es que esta vez tas presente
bueno Maiquis cuando llegas?

Julio 9:51pm
jajajajajajajaja mentiras maiquis tu eres la niña de la casa
jajajajajajajajaja

Micah 9:51pm
cuando llego? pensE que ustedes iban a venir a la costa! vamos a Tayrona juntos!
(vengo de esta familia de locos?)

Tania 9:52pm
Maiquisssss claro como tu estas a 3 horas

Micah 9:53pm
pero Tanis! no me habias dicho que querias pasar unos dias en la costa?

Julio 9:54pm
jajajajajajaja

Tania 9:54pm
ya mi familia no va

Micah 9:56pm
pero TU si puedes! viniste sola o estas con Jascha?

Tania 9:56pm
sola pero Jascha llega el 19

Julio 9:56pm
con la remona en las costillas jajajajajaja

Tania 9:57pm
visita tu familia Maiquis
cierto Julio?

Julio 9:57pm
si claro
yo la dije que esta es la casa

Tania 9:58pm
si eche pa su casa

Micah 9:59pm
vengan a la costa despues de la navidad! haz lo por mi! 
uf! los papas colombianos siempre joden tanto?

Tania 10:00pm
si senorita

Julio 10:01pm
huy le voy es a dar por esa geta pa que aprenda a respetar a los taitas

Tania 10:01pm
eso saque el juete

Micah Houston 10:02pm
(dos locos...)
los extraNo tanto! aun peleando y amenazando!

Tania 10:03pm
uyyyy Micah Maria Perpetua
que vas hacer el 24 y el 31?

Julio 10:04pm
ala toco voltearle el mascadero pal otro lado

Tania 10:05pm
el guarguero Mata el guarguero

Micah 10:05pm
no sE que voy a hacer el 24, de pronto en Cartagena o Santa Marta
estas amenazas no me afectan para nada (por que no los entiendo!)

Tania 10:08pm
explicale mata
se fueee
uyyy

Micah 10:11pm
maldito...

Julio 10:12pm
bueno si quieres regalo debes estar el 25 en casa

Micah 10:13pm
cuando las amenazas no funcionan, empiezan a sobornar? ustedes van a ser grandes papas!

Julio 10:14pm
jajajajajajajaja
funciona

Micah 10:15pm
jajaja! bueno. pero Julio, cuando vienes a la costa? no tienes vacaciones en diciembre/enero?

Julio 10:16pm
no, yo acabo de empezar

Micah 10:17pm
o sea que estabas de vacaciones hace poco y no me visitaste? no sabes nada del concepto de "obligaciones familiares"?!

Julio 10:17pm
jajajajajajaja no, cambie de trabajo
jajajaja

Tania 10:20pm
jajaja

Micah 10:22pm
cambiaste de trabajo? ahora donde estas trabajando?

Julio 10:24pm
en piedecuesta

Micah 10:25pm
pero antes no trabajabas en piedecuesta?

Micah 10:32pm
bueno mis amores, voy a dormir, tengo que madrugar mañana
besos y abrazos!

Julio 10:33pm
si pero en otra oficina
bueno niña a dormir que mañana hay que ir al colegio
chao matica

Tania 10:33pm
chaooo

10:34pm
Micah Houston
que descansen y decidan venir a pasar la navidad conmigo!


Sunday, September 23, 2012

Time and Place


I’ve been here in Barranquilla for over a month and a half now.  So many times I’ve thought “I need to write.  I need to record my thoughts and my feelings so that they don’t just disappear into the air...”  That’s really what this “blog” is.  A chance to voice some of my inner thoughts.  To not lose sight of me as I’m walking… 

I don’t recognize the girl that came to Colombia a year and a half ago.  I can see her in my memory; I can step back into her body and see those moments/days through her eyes, but she’s strange to me.  I’m not her anymore.  I’ve changed and I’m not sure how.  What’s different now?  When I think of her, she has such a simple view of things.  Uncomplicated.  That girl had already experienced a lot, but she hadn’t seen into the depth of her soul. The experiences of the last year and a half have showed her a lot more about herself, others, and the world.  And converted her into me.  I wouldn’t go back and undo the change. I could wish that I could undo the hurt I’ve felt and I’ve caused, but…I needed it.  It hasn’t damaged me (as I feared that it would). If it left a scar, it serves as a reminder of a lesson learned.  My only hope is that what I’ve learned will one day allow me to comfort someone else who needs it. 

We tend to always think that we are the exception.  It’s a silly trick that youth plays on all the young.  We observe others messing up, making mistakes, and we think that we would never do that.  We think that we’re smarter, wiser, more experienced, more self-controlled, disciplined, you-name-it, we’re different.  And then life shows us that we’re just as capable of extreme stupidity as the next guy. 

Pause.  Breathe.  Reflect. 

Two phrases caught my eye today:  One was the marketing phrase for a plastic surgery center.  Below the picture of a perfectly shaped women, it read “Dare to be happy!”  The second was the headline of a local sensationalist newspaper: “They killed him for his cellphone.”  I’ve been here a year and a half and that’s not the first time that I read about someone being killed for something small (the last time it was a baseball hat).  Should I be getting used to it?  Is that what’s supposed to happen?  What is this world?
But it doesn't matter really, because I'm too busy to do anything about it.  My work is crazy. I’m at the school about 60 hours a week and when I go home I keep working: planning, correcting, scheduling, trying desperately to give things some kind of order.  I never imagined that a teaching job would demand so much from me.  It’s been good because it’s given my life more structure, something that it’s been missing since I stopped being a volunteer and started being a renegade.  :) 

After much delay, my master’s classes started on Friday.  There are 12 students in the program.  Classes are from 5pm-9pm on Fridays and from 8am-6pm on Saturdays.  The first unit is called The Philosophy of Social Sciences and it’s taught by an enthusiastic philosophy professor who reminds me of a friend from Cartagena.  Identical.  Except that one is 30 years older than the other, 1 foot shorter, and he doesn’t have the other’s characteristic clown smile.  The class consists of 24 hours of lecture followed by 12 hours of student presentations.  Our grade for the class is based on a final essay and a 1-hour presentation.  Good luck Micah. You just might need it…

I just had an interesting conversation with an elderly man in the coffee-shop where I’m sitting to write this.  His nationality: “citizen of the world.”  His accent: European.  His features: Scandinavian.  His name: Ricardo Julio Caballero Villa.  It was a great conversation.  He’s an artist and draws for different magazines and newspapers around the world.  The last thing he shared with me was both the simplest and the most shaking:  “I was talking to my granddaughter in France and she said to me 'Grampa, you’re an immigrant in this world.  I’m a native.'"  She was referring to technology.  She was born into it; it’s been part of her experience since she entered this world.  He hasn’t.  His existence was different, and now he has to assimilate.  Although he was laughing, tears brimmed in his eyes, “It’s like the final scene from Planet of the Apes," he told me.  "The main character goes back to earth and finds it completely changed and falls to his knees and screams at the heavens.  When my granddaughter said that to me, I felt like that.  I realized that my world is gone.”  I didn't know how to respond.  

He’s not the only immigrant in this world.  And it’s not just time or place that makes us immigrants…




Acepto que no entiendo todo lo que pasa en el mundo.  Solo quisiera entender mas de lo que pasa en mí.   
(I accept that I don’t understand everything that happens in the world.  I just wish I understood more of what happens in me)

Small delights:

-hanging out the door of the bus in the early morning, the wind in my grinning face
-laying down in a grassy park in the sunshine
-dipping my finger into the jar of peanut butter
-dancing down the sidewalk with my earphones in, conscious that I look silly and delighted that I don’t care
-being with a family






Sunday, July 29, 2012

Directions


I’m sitting in Juan Valdez in the historic center of Cartagena.  Juan Valdez is the Colombian equivalent of Starbucks.  It’s expensive and elegant and most of the people here aren’t from Cartagena.  Cartagena.  I first came to this city a year and a half ago as a Peace Corps volunteer and I left it 6 months ago in order to experience life in another part of Colombia.  And now I’m back to the coast.  It’s strange the turns life takes.  Sometimes all we want is to get from point A to point B and each detour is incredibly frustrating.  But often, in the middle of it all, we don’t realize that point B is really point F and it’s necessary for us to pass through points B, C, and E in order to learn what we’ll need to know when we actually get to point F.  That’s how I’m choosing to see it anyway…

In May I decided that I didn’t want to stay in Bucaramanga until the end of the year.  In my often overly dramatic mind: I couldn’t.  Although I had made some great friendships there, the city itself and the culture seemed too American to me.  Almost everyone I knew had the same routine: work from morning to evening, go home, watch TV and take care of household stuff, go to sleep, and repeat it again the next day. Sound familiar?  That’s life, right?  Maybe it is.  But I don’t want that to be MY life…

So on June 15th I traveled to Cartagena (a 12-hour bus ride from Bucaramanga) to apply for jobs here before traveling to the States to visit my family.  Taking a motor-taxi around the city, I stopped by every bilingual school to present myself to the administration and give them my resume.  Previously I had sent out dozens of emails to these schools, but hadn’t received any reply from them.  I’ve discovered that in Colombia, emails are very easily ignored.  So without having scheduled any interviews, I googled the schools’ addresses, showed up in my nicest top and skirt and asked to speak with the coordinator.  I repeated that process 3 days later in Barranquilla.

I was definitely torn between the two cities.  Cartagena has something happening every day for the week.  There’s always a group of people that get-together in the center or in neighborhoods close-by.  I doubt that there’s another city in Colombia with such a great atmosphere.  And it’s centered around the tourism.  Every day, week, month new people arrive in the city and are anxious to meet locals and experience the best aspects of the city.  Some stay for days, others for weeks, and others never leave.  The locals and tourists are equally happy to be in each other’s company and share about their lives and experiences. But in Cartagena those are the divisions: local and tourist.  And because of my light-Scotch-Irish features, even if I lived here for 20 years, I’d always be placed into the latter group.  I’m a foreigner, it’s true.  But a foreigner who lives and works here is quite different from one who’s here for the week or weekend.  I’m a foreigner, not a tourist.  So, as much as I LOVE this city, I feel like the city itself pushes me away even while it embraces me.  So in August I’ll be moving to Barranquilla.  The school where I’ve chosen to work is called the British International School (Colegio Britanico Internacional). It’s a very elite school located at the north end of the city.  I'll be teaching math, social studies, and English.

About the city:
Barranquilla is the 4th largest city in Colombia (after Bogotá, Medellin, and Cali) and is located 2 hours east of Cartagena on the Caribbean coast.  Although it’s known for having the largest Carnival outside of Rio de Janiero, tourists rarely visit the city during the rest of the year.  It’s more organized and has better transportation than other cities on the coast, but it doesn’t have the same charm and magic of Cartagena.  Two days ago I traveled to Barranquilla to find a room to rent there.  School starts on August 8th, so I’m planning on arriving a few days before to get situated.  I found a room in a nice apartment building in the north end of town that will be close to my work and to the university where I’ll start studying in August.  About that…

Last year I began to consider the possibility of getting my Master’s degree here in Colombia.  I had visited the campus in Barranquilla and I had begun to imagine myself studying there.  I looked into the application process and saw that applications were accepted in November for programs that begin in January.  That was last winter.  My plan since then has been to apply this November and start classes in January 2013.  On July 11th I sent an email to the coordinator of the Master’s in Psychology program at the university asking him which books he would recommend as preparation for the Master’s.  I mentioned in my email that I wanted to begin the Master’s program in January.  He responded that the Master’s in Psychology would start in August, and that they were about to close the admissions process.  I was devastated.  It was too late and now I’d have to wait 2 years before the next program opens.  Nevertheless, the coordinator asked me to send him my resume to see if I could be a potential candidate.  The next day I traveled to Barranquilla for an interview.  Five days later they notified me that I had been accepted into the program.  Classes start next month.  Yikes.  If I hadn’t sent that email about the books, I would never have known that the program starts in August.  In November I would have learned that I had missed the application deadline (by months!).  It’s a miracle that it all worked out. 

So that’s it.  My life has taken another turn and yet it seems like all the pieces are falling into place.  It’s so tempting to keep squinting at the road I’m on, trying to figure out where it will lead me.  But who knows?  Maybe life is meant to be taken one step at a time.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Situations


Situation 1: At the police station.  Surrounded by 5 male police officers.  Smiling mischievously, one of them asks me “Why do you look so scared?”  What I’m thinking, but not saying: “Colombia.  Police station.  Five guys with guns…” I just smile, and soon they're trying to entertain me by showing me fake $100 bills and explaining how fingerprinting works.

Situation 2: Walking down the street yesterday, I smelled pickles.  It happens in life that you can go a long time without smelling something familiar, and then one day, when you smell it again, it’s like waking up from a dream.  I had forgotten about pickles.  They had ceased to be part of my world until, just like that, they re-entered it.

Situation 3: It’s mango season.  Even here in the city, it’s noticeable.  In the park that I walk through on my way to work, the ground is now scattered with green mangos that are busted open and exposing their bright orange interiors.  It’s charming.  Until you consider that a mango falling from 40 feet above you could sting a little.

Situation 4: I woke up today to the sound of rain hitting my window.  That’s not easy for someone who comes from the rain capital of the world.  It sounded like pebbles shattering against the glass.  But the real surprise came when I went into the living room.  It was as if the apartment had been re-located to the base of a waterfall.  I felt like I was IN a river, consumed by the sound of the water around me.  There’s a saying here “Abril: mes de lluvias mil” (April is the month of a thousand showers).  Yeah, that’s an understatement.   But it was a magical moment.  Those moments don’t come very often.  Honestly, the last one that I can remember clearly happened about 7 years ago.  I had just pulled into the university parking lot, when it began to snow.  It was early and the sky was still completely dark.  I was the only one there.  And I just stood there, my face tilled up to the black sky, staring at the flakes as they emerged from the darkness above me.  They were big and fluttery and there was a silence that I felt inside and out. Even after 7 years, that moment, that memory, is still amazingly vivid in my mind.

History: A few days ago I saw a woman selling roses in the street.  It’s something that I’ve seen a dozen times here in Colombia, but something that always gives me a strange feeling.  Six years ago, after watching a Colombian movie called the Rose Seller, I decided that my place was in Colombia.  The movie is about a young girl who runs away from home and begins selling flowers in the street.  It’s a tragic story, not filmed with actors but with people who actually lived in the streets of Medellin.  Street children.  Drug addicts.  Gang members.  After watching the movie, I couldn’t stop thinking about Colombia.  While there are many places in the world were help is needed, few compare to Colombia in terms of constant and prolonged conflict and social struggles.  “There,” I decided, “is where I need to be.”  It was a long road to get here, but I made it somehow.  And now, when I see someone selling roses in the street…

Modernity: I’ve been here 15 months.  I have a nice apartment (which I share with 3 young professionals), I enjoy my work (4 hours a day, from 6am-11am with a 1 hour break), and I live in the land of eternal May.  The weather hovers between 65 and 85 degrees year round.  Currently, in the afternoon I volunteer teach English at a foundation in the northern part of town.  It’s the part of town I was told I should never go to.  Everyone told me that if I went there I would certainly be robbed, raped, and killed (not necessarily in that order).  While I may be trying to paint myself as a fearless adventurer, the reality is that I’ve become accustomed to hearing dark-predictions whenever I go into parts of town that belong to a lower economic sphere.  I’ve realized that those fears are often exaggerations.  And It helps that I never carry anything worth stealing.

Bucaramanga is a pleasant city.  Most of the neighborhoods are well organized, clean and full of apartment buildings of about 20 stories.  The northern part of town lies in a deep valley and looks like it belongs to another country.  There, the houses are cement block-houses that attach to one another and more streets are unpaved than paved.  I take a bus to get there and then catch a “pirate” back to the center of the city.  A “pirate” is an unofficial, unmarked taxi that you can recognize when the driver slows down in front of you and shouts “center!” through the open window.  In between arriving and leaving, I spend 3 hours with students in grades 6-11th practicing dialogs, learning verbs, and trying to show them that they are capable of determining what their futures will be like.  After all, the neighborhood is called “esperanza.”  Hope.

Each time I go to the north, the same thoughts tickle my mind.  “What if I had been born here?  What would my life be like? What kind of person would I be? Would I have finished high school?  Would I have gotten pregnant at a young age? Would I have become a sad statistic or would I have found a way to make a good life for myself?”  I am so fortunate for the family that I have and the opportunities I’ve been given. Unbelievably fortunate.  And yet, so often, I am completely ungrateful.  I look at those around me, who are earning a lot, have nice things, don’t worry about expenses, and I think “That’s not fair.  I’d like to be able to live like that.”  Why is it always our tendency to look at those who have more and get jealous instead of looking at those who have less and being grateful? 

While I like it here in Bucaramanga, I don’t imagine myself here for much time.  Something just doesn’t fit.  And so I spend hours thinking about where I SHOULD be.  Something I’m beginning to realize (finally!) is this: WHERE I am, is less important than WHO I am.  In other words, wherever I am, I need to take advantage of the challenges and opportunities to grow.  Hopefully, I'll remember that tomorrow. 

Seattle, I miss you.

Cartagena, my heart is still there with you.

Bucaramanga, thanks for welcoming me here.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

A new CITY, but no PLACE


It’s been two months since I decided to change my life via a change of location.  I said goodbye to the Colombian coast and moved into the center of the country, to a small city called Bucaramanga.  I feel like the wind must have carried me here because, now, after just 2 short months, I can’t remember why I decided to re-create my life here.  When people ask me, I always answer “I wanted to experience life in another region of Colombia” and while that’s true, it doesn’t really answer the question “Why Bucaramanga?” 

During my year in Cartagena, I had felt alienated by the tourism there.  My appearance immediately caused me to be associated with a group that knows and understands very little about life in Cartagena.  While I wanted to be accepted as a part of the community, I felt myself separated by unseen barriers from everyone else.  I felt a push to look for a place where I could actually belong.  Sending out my résumé to various schools, institutes and universities around the country, I received a job offer in Bucaramanga that sounded appealing and, fearing being deported after my visa expired, I accepted the offer.  Then, in my last 2 months in Cartagena I found the connection to the community that I had been longing for.  I met people that while they weren’t senseless to my foreignness, they were still sensible that that was only one aspect of who I am.  The timing couldn’t have been worse.  My decision to leave had already been made.  The day I left Cartagena, I felt like my heart would break.  Even the excitement of visiting a new place couldn’t drown my sadness for leaving a place (and people) that I had begun to love. 

My first several weeks here were miserable.  Even though I desperately wanted to like my new home, my heart was unwilling to accept it.  Instead of seeing the beauty and the lovely aspects of life here, I just mourned the differences between here and the coast.  I remember feeling waves of nostalgia hit me and take the air out of my lungs.  Crying was a regular part of my daily routine.  But now, while I still wonder why the wind carried me here, I have learned to appreciate this new city and new life.  The people are polite, the city is well-organized and clean, the weather is perfect, my job is fun and very low-stress, my co-workers are sweet and funny, and my housemates seem to enjoy my company as much as I enjoy theirs. 

But even though everything seems to be going well in my life, lately I’ve felt lost, out of place, and without direction.  I haven’t been doing the things I imagined myself doing when I came to Colombia. My dream was to work with disadvantaged teenagers, find ways to encourage them, help them define and outline their goals and make good decisions so that they can reach them.  It seems so simple and yet the logistics of it aren’t.  There are few points where my life crosses with the lives of kids in difficult situations.  We’re in the same city, but we belong to different worlds.  Even if we had a reason for interacting, why should they listen to me, believe what I say about them and their potential, or accept my advice?  My solution to this dilemma has been to use English as a door into their lives.  As a volunteer English teacher I have a chance to speak to them from a position of authority, develop trust with them, support them in their problems and encourage them in their dreams.  At least that’s the idea.  But it’s been two months and I’ve been too caught up in my own stuff (visas, work, housing, friends, etc) to dedicate myself to finding a school that will accept my offer.  I’ve been ME-focused.  And now that my situation is comfortable, I wonder “Is this it?  Is this what I’ve been working for: a comfortable life?  Don’t I want something more?  To contribute in some way to making the world a better place?  To help those who haven’t been as fortunate as me?”  And I make myself a cup of coffee (the best coffee in the world!) and make plans about how SOON I will start doing the things that say I came to do…

In the last 2 months, I've...

-traveled to Venezuela to get a Colombian work visa

-changed houses 3 times

-spent about 200 hours Skype-ing with people back home and friends from Cartagena

-developed the perfect quick-fix lunch (turkey sandwich with lettuce, tomato, mayonaise and mustard)

-rediscovered that true friends are there when you need them, even if you had selfishly abandoned them for a while

-taught 5 groups at the Colombo (Level 3A, Level 4, Level 8, Conversation 2 and Conversation 3)

-lost my cellphone and dropped my new cellphone about 15 times

-felt perfect, inexpressable happiness followed by deep, soul-shattering pain

-started and (temporarily) stopped learning Portuguese

-crashed a free university dance class for students (I attend every Thursday, and I think everyone knows but nobody says anything...)

-experienced, momentarily, what life is like in a small Colombian town

-

-

And the odds are good that tomorrow will bring new experiences, new frustrations, more opportunities to screw-up, learn, grow, and continue questioning..........................