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.