I present, for your reading pleasure, a selected list of things my students have said to me. Some of the original quotes were in Spanish, and I have translated them into English except where I obviously couldn’t.
(while showing me pictures on his cellphone) “This is my wife, and this is my girlfriend”
Me: What happens in Colombia on Valentine’s Day?
Student: Motels. Full.
Student: Teacher, how do you say “chupetón” in English?
Entire class: !MIRA, TEACHER, EL TIENE UN HICKEY!
(as I am cleaning my glasses) “Teacher, you look beautiful with no glasses. Glasses on, ehhh.”
Class: Teacher, does your boyfriend know how to dance?
Student: No boyfriend, friend with benefits.
Class: TEACHER, WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS?
“Teacher, teach me how to Dougie. Please.”
“Teacher, you smell like Victoria’s Secret coco-vanilla. Yes?” (no)
“In Boston, you don’t celebrate Christmas, do you? It’s too cold.”
“Teacher, you are very red.”
“The Caspian Sea isn’t a sea. Caspian is the prince of Narnia.”
Me: What are you going to name your restaurant?
Student: ALF’s Delicious.
(as I am eating an empanada) “Teacher, that will make you fat.”
In my classes, we play a lot of games, and I always have the teams come up with team names. Here is a selected list of some team names:
Bananas in Pajamas
And finally, here is a bonus conversation that wasn’t with a student, but was with a Colombian during my very first weekend in Cali:
(in the car, stopped at a traffic light, I spot a man selling some interesting merchandise from car to car)
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This story begins, as most of my Colombian stories do, with me agreeing to something without knowing exactly what I was getting into.
It started the week before our long weekend, when a coworker invited me to visit Lago Calima, which is a man-made lake about a two-hour drive from Cali, over the weekend. I hadn’t been and I’d heard it was beautiful, and I didn’t have plans, so I agreed. Well, what I thought was going to be a nice day-trip to a lake turned into an overnight adventure with a bunch of Colombians I didn’t know.
My coworker picked me up on Sunday morning, and I thought we were headed to get our other companion, who also works at SENA, before driving off to the lake. Well, we went and piled into a car with not only her, but also her parents. Okay, cool. So off we went.
Why did I put “camping” in quotes? Well, I don’t really know if I can rightfully call it camping. We paid about $10 each to stay in lovely tents that were already set up for us, underneath nice dry tarps and built on top of sturdy platforms, and inside were delightfully comfortable mattresses at least four inches thick. We were also sure to be snug and warm with the fleece blankets they provided. This was a far cry from my previous experiences of camping, which has largely consisted of lying on the bare ground of the Israeli desert in January and shivering awake all night. So that’s different.
We had a relaxing afternoon at the lake. I gorged myself on the bandeja paisa, which is a beautiful Colombian dish that includes: rice, beans, avocado, a fried egg, chicharron, chorizo, ground meat, and an arepa (I actually had to just look it up because I couldn’t remember everything on it). Later, after a boat ride in which I dutifully called “last line” (I hope you’re proud of me, sailor friends), my coworkers decided to rent a jetski. Now, I am anti-jetski, so I elected to stay ashore with the parents. We waited for them to come back from their half-hour ride, and I had a confusing conversation with the mother about sociological differences between Colombian and American cities, all in Spanish of course. When they hadn’t returned after an hour, we began to wonder what was going on. Well, this being Colombia, it turned out that about 10 minutes after they left, the motor of their jetski died. So the parents and I waited a while longer for the now-dead jetski and our companions to be rescued.
When darkness fell, of course it was time to eat again, so we headed back to the tent and got the grill and campfire ready. Or rather, we tried. The Colombians seemed like they had been camping before and knew what they were doing, so I hung back for a while and let the men attempt to do their thing with the fire. Well, that didn’t work out so well. The newspaper they were using as a fire-starter quickly burned up, and neither the coals on the grill nor the logs on the campfire were even close to catching fire. I tried to step in to help, but my efforts were quickly undone by my fellow-campers. Here are some highlights of what came next:
Throwing a plastic bag in to use as a fire-starter: Oh, dear God, forgive me for letting this happen and not saying anything. Now, I’m not exactly a camping expert, but I know intuitively that this is a terrible idea. Perhaps some of my more scientifically or environmentally knowledgable friends can tell me exactly WHY this is so bad, but I just knew that it was. But they loved it.
Building a pyramid of coals on top of a candle: This actually is what worked.
Putting ALL of the logs onto the campfire once it got going: Again, I’m not an expert at this, but I know that this doesn’t work. When I saw this happening, I went over and removed most of the logs and rearranged the remaining logs in an efficient way so that they would burn and last a while. As soon as I stepped away, one of my companions immediately put it back the way it was, lecturing me on why I was wrong. The fire quickly burned out.
Throwing styrofoam plates onto the grill so that they would flame up: This is kind of like when my mom throws paper or wood chips onto the fireplace because she likes to see a blazing fire, except this is way worse in so many ways.
Well, somehow we got through it.
The next morning, we did what I’d really been looking forward to: horseback riding. We’d spoken to the people the night before and they’d assured us that the horses would be ready by 6 AM. Well, let’s just say that by 10 AM they finally started gathering the horses together and saddling them up, and we were off by around 10:30. At the beginning, the old Colombian horse-wrangler was leading one of the horses on foot, so I figured this was going to be a necessarily pretty tame ride. Well, when we got to the top of the hill, he turned us loose and said “See you in an hour!” Cool. So off we went, completely unsupervised and free to go where we pleased. It was a very different than horseback riding in America. We signed no waivers, no one asked us if we had even ridden before, and we were free to go as fast as we wanted. So of course we did, and it was awesome. Mum, don’t worry about it, it was totally fine.
I think that’s a pretty good snapshot of my Colombian “camping” experience. I returned late on Monday afternoon, tired and sunburned and muddy and totally happy, and as usual, I’m glad that I’m in the habit of saying “sí” to just about everything, because it can lead to some really cool and unexpected adventures.
…and God laughs, or so they say. Well, I think that’s true.
I had some plans for my time in Colombia. Really, they were more like goals, and they weren’t particularly well-defined. While in Colombia, I wanted to improve two things:
1. My Spanish
2. My dance skills
I thought this made a lot of sense. And yes, in my past four months in this country, my Spanish has vastly improved (I no longer consider myself at the level of a particularly slow kindergartener), and not to brag, but I can break it down on the dance floor. So far, so good.
But as I like to think of it, God watched me stumble through my little adventure in Colombia and thought, “You know what, gringuita? There’s something else that you can work on. And I’m going to give you a lot of opportunities to do it.”
Patience. Not the easiest of the virtues. But, oh man, have I gotten a lot of chances to work on that during my time in Colombia.
There are so many different examples, I hardly know where to start. There are little things, like the bus I take on my daily commute to work, the Mio. The Mio is supposed to run on a schedule, más o menos, but this is Colombia. Every once in a while, after a crowd of us has been waiting for almost an hour, two buses of the same route will show up at the same time, literally bumper to bumper, because that makes sense. Patience.
Then there is work itself. Sometimes class gets canceled, and no one bothers to tell me until I show up at the school at the crack of dawn. Sometimes half the students will leave in the middle of class for no reason that I can figure out. Sometimes I arrive at 7 AM to find that the door to my classroom, which is located on the first floor of a very noisy factory-type environment, is gone. Just gone. Patience.
And of course there is travel within Colombia, which is certainly always an adventure. Recently I took a trip to a city called Ibague to visit some awesome gringos. The bus journey was advertised as 6 hours, but of course it took 8. And naturally, on the way there, I had the incredible good fortune to be seated across from the crazy old man who shrieked into his cell phone for 3 hours, and then talked to himself for the rest of the time. To my delight, at one point he tried to engage me in conversation, which I evaded, and then I had the treat of listening to him refer to me as “this girl, this deaf girl” for the rest of the trip. Patience.
So, whether I want it to or not, Colombia is teaching me slowly but surely. In situations that would normally make me feel like my head is going to explode, I must simply remember the words of my students: “Ayyy, teacher, relax!”
I have been mentally composing this list for more than three months. I finally feel ready to present to you, dear reader:
Things Colombians Love
Beeping-This can mean anything, from “get out of the way” to “you are a blonde Gringa” to “you are a person on the sidewalk and I am in a car”
Erasing-I already touched on this, but I can’t stress it enough. Colombians love erasing, but they don’t always bring their own erasers. Fortunately, Colombians also love sharing.
That one ringtone-If you have spent more than a week in Colombia, you know what I am talking about.
That one cologne-Ladies, you know the one. Every Colombian guy seems to wear the same cologne. This can be very confusing.
Saltines-I can’t explain this one. This is the go-to snack.
Asking how you are-This is not as simple as it sounds. No one ever just says “Como estás?” No, it’s more like: “Oye, como estás? Bien o qué? Qué pasa? Qué más? Todo bien? Sí o no? Qué tal tu día? Estás contenta o qué?” etc, etc.
Greeting you correctly for the time of day-God forbid you accidentally greet a Colombian “Buenos días” if it’s after noon. They will gleefully correct you “No, no, buenas tardes.” This has made me develop the habit of constantly checking my watch to make sure that, as soon as that hour hand hits 12, I switch to buenas tardes.
Bracelets-Honestly, this may have been more of a thing during the World Cup, when I arrived here. But at that time at least, EVERY COLOMBIAN I saw wore at least one bracelet with the Colombian colors. I still think that an unusually high percentage of people wears bracelets, mostly the kind you buy on the street for about $1. I am one of these people.
Blinking-This one took a while to understand, and I am still a little confused. Sometimes Colombians make intense eye contact and then blink very deliberately at you, and smile. I eventually figured out that they seem to be doing it at moments when I would consider a wink appropriate. I tried doing the Colombian blink in class recently, and my students thought it was hilarious. But they think all of the dorky things I do (which is most things) are hilarious, so I embrace it.
Figuring out what celebrity they look like-I briefly touched on this before, but this is intense, at least among my students. Here is a running list of the people and characters that I can remember my students comparing themselves and others to: Ugly Betty, ALF, Mr. Clean, Bart Simpson, some characters from Dragonball Z, the cockroach from Men in Black (at least they call it a cockroach), Apu from the Simpsons, Tyrion Lannister, and a llama.
Carlos Vives-When one of his songs comes on in a club, everyone LOSES IT.
True crime TV-They love it! Colombians seem to feel about true crime the way Americans feel about Law & Order SVU. From what I have seen, most of the crime shows are about dumb Americans, dubbed into Spanish.
Talking about the weather-Mostly, Colombians love asking foreigners how they feel about the weather. They take a weird pride in how hot and uncomfortable it gets. Also, they can often be seen wearing sweatshirts when it is 90 degrees.
Fog-I never heard anyone say that fog was beautiful until I arrived here. Colombians LOVE IT.
Brushing their teeth-Colombians love their teeth in general. Pretty much everyone has great teeth, or they are working on getting them, as braces are very affordable here and many adults have them. But they really love brushing their teeth. At lunchtime, the bathrooms are packed with people who crowd around the sinks to brush. I have had several students show up late to afternoon class and brandish their toothbrushes at me by way of explanation.
Spelling English words like they are Spanish names-This can take many forms. Some of the more famous ones I have heard of are Usnavy, Usmail, and Onedollar. And then of course there is…
I spend a lot of time talking about how Colombia is at (most) times crazy, disordered, and full of surprises. One of the biggest surprises to me, and possibly to you if you have been reading this blog, has been discovering a trait that it seems to me many, or even most, Colombians share: perfectionism. In a country where you hail buses from the side of the highway, students sometimes forget to inform you that they will not be showing up to their 7:00 AM class because they are all attending a protest, and “Let’s meet at 9:00” means “Maybe I’ll show up before midnight,” perfectionism is not something you would necessarily expect. But you would be wrong.
I first noticed this in my students. I have three separate classes, and they are all very different, but they have something very specific in common: a passionate love of erasing. They write almost entirely in pencil and have an aversion to using pens, even if they didn’t bring a pencil of their own; they will wait for their friends to finish the exercise, then they will borrow the pencil to do their own. Even when they do all have their own pencils, most of the erasers have been completely worn down to the point where they no longer exist. And God forbid they have to cross anything out; this is just not done. As a general rule, one or at most two students in each group will have an eraser, and this is the hottest commodity in class. Each time a student makes a mistake, he will inevitably (and with an expression of pure horror) locate the nearest classmate with an eraser and frantically yell, “¡BORRADOR!” until the eraser is tossed across the room and he can erase his mistakes, restoring the peace. I have tried to convince them that it doesn’t matter if they make mistakes or cross things out, because that helps them to learn, but they are not having it. They may not hear a word I say, but at the end of the day, their English packets will be copied out neatly and without any evidence of earlier mistakes. I am going to call this perfectionism.
But it’s not just confined to the students. I learned this recently when my shoe started to, quite literally, fall apart. Now, I have worn these shoes most days for about four years. I’ve worn them on four continents and in four seasons; they carry many layers of paint, the dust of the Israeli desert, and the mud of the Colombian jungle, among other things I probably shouldn’t speculate on. They might be the best $40 I ever spent. So I was fairly distressed when the sole of the left shoe began to come off. I tried my best to ignore it for a few weeks, stopping occasionally to pick the rocks out after a walk across campus, but I eventually realized that I had two choices: do something about it, or get new shoes.
Now, I have many faults, but materialism is not one of them. I had no interest in getting new shoes. So, I looked up the Spanish word for “glue,” and after class one day, I asked my students if they knew where I could find some. They brought me back through the industrial plant that is our school to the maintenance room, where I met my new heroes. I expected to ask for a bit of the Colombian equivalent of Elmer’s, slap it on my shoe, and carry on my way, hoping it would hold. But no, my new friend Henry would have none of that.
Henry sat me down and took my shoe. He produced an enormous tub of industrial-strength glue and spent about ten minutes carefully applying several layers of the stuff to my shoe. He then held the shoe in place for another ten minutes or so while we chatted. I thought that would be that, but no. Henry then put the shoe in his heavy-duty vise and cranked it shut, not leaving anything to chance. When I had been there about forty-five minutes, the maintenance crew had a brief consultation about the shoe. Henry informed me that I would need to wait a while longer for the glue to really dry, so that we could be sure it would hold. But there was no reason for me to have to sit there in the dusty maintenance room, awkwardly one-shoed, while I waited.
Henry unearthed a brand-new pair of workboots that were miraculously, exactly my size. He found some shoelaces and helped me lace them up, then sent me on my way in my borrowed boots. I galumphed around the school for an hour or so, thinking about what might have happened in a similar situation in the US. I imagined that I probably would have gotten what I had expected here: maybe some glue to throw on my shoe and hope they would hold; maybe a few raised eyebrows at the fact that I even considered my shoe worth saving. But here, no one questioned it or hesitated: they just helped.
And Henry made sure that he did as perfect a job as he could have. When I returned for my shoes, the left one was now perfectly sealed back together. I happily put them back on and skipped off, and I did not have to stop once to remove any rocks. And I was grateful for the weird and wonderful perfectionism of Colombians, and especially for Henry, the man who cheerfully saved my shoe.
Hold on, because this one’s a bumpy ride (but isn’t it always, in Colombia?).
Every year, approximately from July to October, hundreds of humpback whales migrate along Colombia’s Pacific coast. They are most active and visible in August and September, so when the Colombiano suggested we go to see them, I was of course on board.
The tricky thing is that, to see the whales, you have to go to Buenaventura, Colombia’s major Pacific port, which is (as anyone here will promptly tell you) the most dangerous city in Colombia. Colombians, upon hearing that you are traveling to Buenaventura, will inevitably react in one of two ways: they will force a smile and say, “That’s nice;” or they will gleefully mime getting shot or decapitated with a friendly laugh. So that’s reassuring.
We decided to extend the trip to see more than just Buenaventura, so early on a Friday morning, it was back to the jungle for the Gringa and the Colombiano. This time it really was the jungle. We set off on the bus to Buenaventura, intending to get off about a half hour from the end of the route to get to our destination. Now, if you look at a map, the distance from Cali to Buenaventura doesn’t seem that great. It is only 127 kilometers. So why, you may wonder, does the bus supposedly take three hours? Surely, you think, that must be an overestimate. But if you think that, you clearly have still learned nothing about Colombia.
There is one road from Cali to Buenaventura, and it twists and curves through valleys and mountains. The fearless drivers of the minibuses that run this route, however, take no note of the twisting, treacherous mountain roads. The good thing about Colombian drivers is that they want to get you to your destination as fast as possible. The bad thing is that they want to get you there as fast as possible. This often means swerving onto the wrong side of the road, speeding in front of a long line of vehicles ahead, and (hopefully) careening back onto the ride side of the road literally just in time to avoid a horrifying collision. Seriously, you better hold on.
After two hours of driving, we found ourselves in a seemingly endless line of standstill traffic. What was so unusual was that it was a literal standstill; the line did not move an inch. Finally, we decided to ask our fellow passengers what was going on. They explained that the road ahead had three tunnels that passed through the mountains; the tunnels were only one lane, so we had to wait. This did not make sense, I thought; if there was only one lane, surely we would move more slowly, but we would at least move. But I suppose I briefly forgot that this is Colombia. Our fellows went on to explain that no, one lane does not mean one lane going in each direction; one lane means: One. Lane. Because of course it does. They close the traffic in one direction, let a long line of vehicles pass through, and then approximately (though not realistically) every hour they change the direction of traffic.
So, about four hours after leaving Cali, we arrived in the place that was supposed to be two hours away. I thought I was ready for an adventure, but nothing could have prepared me for the method of transportation that awaited us. This, my friends, is a brujita (Spanish for “little witch”). It is a wooden platform with benches, attached to a motorcycle. The motorcycle’s rear wheel runs on the train rail. So we plopped ourselves on the bench and, once again, held on.
It honestly feels a bit like a rollercoaster speeding through the jungle. It goes surprisingly fast, and once you get over the initial shock, it is a fun ride. San Cipriano, our destination that day, is a nature reserve, so there are no roads to get to the village; the brujita is the only way in or out. It is actually a rather ingenious way of utilizing the little-used train tracks that are already there with the resources on hand.
The village of San Cipriano sits alongside a pristine, crystal-clear river. Along the river are a series of charcos, natural pools that are deep enough to swim, jump, and dive in. It was a refreshing change from the heat of Cali, and the scenery was absolutely beautiful. The jungle, however, was not entirely kind to me. Despite layers upon layers of my mother’s supposedly industrial-grade insect repellent, I was repeatedly attacked by the creatures of the jungle, including swarms of mosquitos and some extremely persistent bees.
We spent an enjoyable and muddy day in San Cipriano. That night in the hostel, I got practically no sleep, courtesy of the nightmare rooster and nightmare dogs that kept me up all night with their constant crowing and barking. On Saturday morning, it was back to the brujita and out of the jungle as the journey continued. After (naturally) some very long delays, we managed to find the correct minibus to take us on to Buenaventura.
I’ll just say that Buenaventura looks exactly like I pictured it would, and other than going to see the whales, I wouldn’t recommend a tourist visit. We went directly to the docks, where we purchased our very expensive boat tickets, and were told that the boat leaves every 15-20 minutes. Ha, right.
After waiting for well over an hour on a sweltering dock, they finally began to load the boat, five people to a row that was surely only meant for four. After they packed us in like cozy little sardines and made us wait another 20 minutes (for good measure), the boat finally left. And this being Colombia, it was a wild ride. It was not a particularly new vessel, and from the creaks and clatters it made, did not sound particularly safe. The boat sped through choppy seas for 45 minutes, often catching surprising air off of the waves and coming back down to the sea with a harsh jolt. It was quite an experience to hear everyone on the boat simultaneously yell “¡AY…AY!” as the boat took flight and then came back down, slamming us repeatedly onto the hard wooden benches.
Finally we arrived at our island destination, and those disembarking had to climb over the seats and jump onto the wharf as the boat bobbed in the waves. We stayed on the boat until it left again in search of the whales (and my sailor friends will be proud to note that I called “last line” because I am well-trained). It did not take long to find the whales, and they were well worth the long and winding road from Cali. We saw a mother and baby, as well as a very large pod of at least six or seven whales traveling together. It was beautiful, and the pictures cannot do it justice at all.
The rest of the day was, of course, filled with delays. We had to wait for about two and a half hours on the island before getting the boat back to Buenaventura, and then we went directly to the bus station. Outside, an employee approached us and forced us to wait outside on the street corner while he called back the Cali bus for us. This time, our fearless driver was not so keen to get us back quickly; he made several stops and got out from the bus to gossip with strangers on the street and, once, in a bar. You can’t make this stuff up.
After a harrowing ride through the foggy mountains in the dark, we finally made it back to Cali, thankfully in one piece and with nothing worse than insect stings and a few nasty bruises to show for our trip to the most dangerous city in Colombia.
If you asked me what quality was most important to someone thinking of coming to Colombia for a long period of time, whether to travel, volunteer, or teach, I’d have to go with…unflappability. During my first two weeks here, the constant refrain that my fellow volunteers and I heard from everyone was “Be flexible.” That’s really good advice, for Colombia and for life in general.
Let’s look at some episodes.
I’ve mostly gotten used to the staring, but sometimes it reaches new heights. This happened over the past weekend, during the Petronio Alvarez festival here in Cali. This festival celebrates Afro-Pacific culture and music, and as such, the vast majority of attendees were black, many of them visitors from the coast who had come to Cali specifically for the festival. Needless to say, I and my band of merry gringos attracted quite a bit of attention, especially in the early evening hours before the dancing and music really got going and hordes of gringo tourists showed up. This is understandable, as compared to the crowd of festival-goers, we are pale, blonde giants.
One of the new friends we attracted was an extremely friendly lady in an awesome headdress, who was hawking what is essentially Colombian moonshine. She was quite pleased with us, for we happily practiced her few lines of English with her and, more happily, bought a bottle of her product. We were not quite sure what it was made from, and it did not quite go down slowly, but I don’t suppose that was really the point. About halfway through the bottle of moonshine, we befriended a pair of small Colombian children. They were very excited about the gringos as well, and I was perfectly happy to practice my Spanish with them. They asked me with wide-eyed wonder if I could understand everything that my friends were saying, and I replied solemnly that yes, indeed, I can. They were duly impressed. My popularity grew as another little girl, and then another, joined the cluster asking me how to say various words in English. I was satisfied with my newfound role as Colombian child-whisperer.
We decided to leave the festival in time to catch the bus back to my apartment. When we got to the bus terminal, well within operating hours, the doors were locked. I asked a friendly fútbol fan what was going on, and he responded with a shrug that it was closed, and yet somehow open. The growing crowd of people repeatedly tried to convince the guard inside to let us in, as buses were continuing to arrive and let people off in the terminal, but no one could get in or out. The guard refused. Finally, we proceeded to hop over the rails into the bus lane, sprint alongside, and climb up onto the platform with the helping hand of a friendly fútbol fan. The guards looked on placidly, and for no reason I can discern, this behavior was completely fine, but it was out of the question to open the doors and let us in.
It’s not all fun and games and dodging in and out of bus lanes, though. I am here to work, after all. Normally I make my copies for the week on Monday mornings, but since yesterday was a holiday, I arrived a bit early to the center today to get everything ready for my class. To my displeasure (though not entirely to my surprise), there was a center-wide blackout. That meant no copies, no lights, no AC, no computers, no projectors…nothing. And my first class starting in ten minutes.
This naturally led to a lot of stalling and a lot of improvising. We had a bit of fun learning about giving directions, and then, in a momentary stroke of inspiration, I decided that we should review everything we have learned in the past five weeks. I wrote a series of questions on the board and instructed the students to write a paragraph introducing themselves. I thought this would take half an hour, maximum, but it took well over an hour. I underestimated the Colombian love of erasing, rewriting, and asking many, many clarifying questions. It did turn into a fun activity, and I learned some amusing things. Most awesomely, one of my students wrote that one of the things he likes to do in his free time is “hugging his pregnant girlfriend’s belly.” Additionally, and also awesomely, this is the same student who cheerfully informed me that, when he wears glasses, he looks like Ugly Betty (and he really kind of does, and it is amazing).
All in all, I am gaining lots of experience in going with whatever Colombia can throw at me, and finding something to laugh about in the process.
Well, I finally did what my mother, my doctor, and several others vaguely concerned for my safety attempted to get me to promise not to do: I ventured into the Colombian jungle.
OK, I don’t really know if it can be considered the jungle. It certainly isn’t the Amazon. And there are no malarial flies (that I am aware of…if I had contracted malaria, I’d know by now, right? …Right?!) But it felt enough like a jungle for me to feel justified in calling it one, so jungle it is.
It was a particularly Colombian adventure from the start. As often happens here (at least to me), I did not know quite what I was agreeing to. My friend (who will be henceforth known as the Colombiano) told me about a nice river just outside Cali and invited me to visit it on my day off. “A river, you say?” was my delighted response. “Just outside Cali, you say? Let’s go.” Did I mention how hot it is here? I was assured that you can, indeed, swim in this river, so I readily agreed.
The adventure began in the morning. I met the Colombiano on the south side of the city and we set off. This being Colombia, however, we did not go to the main terminal to catch our bus. We simply strolled along the side of the semi-highway and flagged down passing minibuses to ask if they were headed towards our destination. When we found the right one, we hopped on.
The right one turned out to be the wrong one, so fifteen minutes later we hopped back off.
And up the mountain we went, this Gringa regretting not having changed out of her jeans when she had the chance.
After an hour of walking (all uphill, of course) and a few detours to look at various birds and waterfalls, the right bus finally passed our way and we got on. Shortly, however, the Colombiano decided we should get off before our destination and take another detour, naturally an uphill one. This time we headed into a national park that may or may not have been open to the public, but it was open to us. We mostly stuck to the main path and mostly avoided getting eaten completely alive by mosquitoes. Sadly, we did not spot any monkeys or capybaras, but to be honest, if I saw a capybara in the wild, my heart would probably stop from sheer excitement.
So after some more wandering, we headed back to the main path and continued on to our destination, you guessed it, further uphill. Oh, did I mention that I had donated blood the day before and had promised the nurses I would rest and drink water for the next 3 days? The Colombiano was unsympathetic to this fact and urged me boldly forward. All told that day, we trudged upward through the midday heat for a total of about three hours before we finally arrived at the promised river.
Also, it’s the dry season, and it’s been a particularly dry year, so the river was about three inches deep in most places. Oops. Not much for swimming. But we did get to cool off in some unexpectedly cold natural pools at a resort along the river, and we managed to find a mini-waterfall to frolic in, so in the end, it was a successful adventure.
The journey back was as Colombian as the journey up. First, we waited two hours for the bus that supposedly comes every hour, and it never really came. While we waited, we sat with a drunk old man who told us about living in that town when the guerillas had had control of the area, and then cheerfully encouraged us to brandish the machete that he casually carries with him at all times. He was just one of a colorful cast of characters we met that day.
Instead of the bus, we took a jeepeto back to Cali. These are basically big jeeps with the normal backseats removed. Instead, there are two benches along the sides, and iron bars on the ceiling. Why, I wondered, would you need iron bars on the ceiling? Well, I did not have to wonder long. Everyone firmly but perfectly calmly held on as our fearless driver careened down the unpaved, tightly winding mountain roads, sometimes catching slight air off bumps and always swerving just in time to avoid oncoming traffic. Come to Cali, and you, too, can experience the adrenaline rush of this thrilling ride for less than a dollar!
Well, that was one day in my Colombian life. Most days are neither as eventful nor as exciting, but every day is just as typically Colombian, whatever that might mean.
Sometimes in Colombia, as a teacher, your students just want to dance Ras Tas Tas. This is OK. Have a little Ras Tas Tas break, and then back to work.
Sometimes in Colombia, even in the third biggest city in the country, there are horses and chickens hanging out on the street. Don’t question it.
Sometimes in Colombia, you don’t realize you are getting an assigned seat at the movie theater, and you end up sandwiched between two large families, even though there are plenty of empty seats. This is not that big a deal; you only paid $3 for the ticket. Besides, the movie is in Spanish and you don’t always know what’s going on. When in doubt, ask a small child (if available) to explain what is going on. Your Spanish is approximately at the level of a small child’s, so this will work out perfectly.
Sometimes in Colombia, you find your way to work blocked by yellow caution tape and a construction zone that has seemingly appeared overnight. Don’t worry about it. Much like red traffic lights in this country, yellow caution tape is only a suggestion. Duck underneath and carry on your merry way. Additionally, keep in mind that if you are walking, there is ALWAYS a construction zone. So remember your comfortable shoes, and avoid wearing anything that you don’t want to get covered in dust.
Sometimes in Colombia, people stare at you anywhere you go. This may be off-putting at first, but it is just curiosity. Sometimes strangers will come up to you at a restaurant as you are about to eat lunch, only to welcome you to Colombia. This is pretty delightful.
Sometimes in Colombia, strange men talk to you on the street. They usually say things like:
“Hello, I love you”
Sometimes in Colombia, you look around and realize you are the tallest person in a crowd. Similarly, you are definitely the blondest person in the room. This is strange for you because you never thought of yourself as a particularly tall or blonde person. But rest assured: in Colombia, you look like a Viking princess. This has the awesome benefit of being the perfect excuse never to wear heels, because heels are terrible.
Sometimes in Colombia, old men will approach you in line at the grocery store. They might ask you for English lessons. Answer as you will. Alternatively, they might ask you why your face is so burnt, even though you have not spent any daytime outside in the sun in over a month. Colombians are not, as a rule, a very red people. Just shrug, smile, and assure them, “Solo tengo una cara roja” and carry on.
Sometimes in Colombia you have no idea what’s going on, so you just have to smile and roll with it. Actually, that’s all the time. But then you look around and see something that makes you feel right at home, and you know that everything is going to be just fine.
Every caleño (Cali native) I meet first asks me if I like Cali (answer: Yes, I love Cali, it’s a beautiful city, Bogotá was too big for me, etc…). This is inevitably followed by the question of how I like the heat (answer: Oh, the city I am from is too cold for me, so I like it here, etc…).
But the heat, man. I have thought of about a hundred clever quips about this heat, none of which are appropriate for a blog with a mixed audience, so I shall refrain. I also am currently living alone in a hotel, so I don’t even have a roommate to take a picture of me staring despairingly at the non-functioning air conditioner. Point is, it’s hot.
You can’t really beat the scenery, though.
It’s not just the weather that’s warm, but also the people. Caleños are probably the most hospitable people I have ever met. Before I came, many of my American friends and family nervously/jokingly expressed a hope that I wouldn’t get kidnapped in Colombia (as I mentioned in my first post). Well, friends and family, I actually have been kidnapped, twice actually. My kidnapper is my Colombian coworker who has taken it upon herself to adopt me and make sure I eat enough. The first time, I thought she was going to take me to see a neighborhood I might want to live in, before taking me back to my hotel. This turned into a two-hour city tour, followed by dinner, during which she expressed great concern that I wasn’t eating enough. The next day, I decided to stay after work to take advantage of a dance class that is free to employees. My kidnapper swung around after class to whisk me off in her car once again. Again, I just thought I was getting a ride home, but instead we went to her apartment, where she fed me Chinese food and we watched her favorite telenovela. I should probably state that she speaks no English, so all of our conversations are in Spanish. I may have been informed of all of these plans and agreed to them in advance without realizing it.
Similarly, yesterday I had lunch with a Colombian friend at his grandparents’ house. His grandmother was dismayed that I wasn’t eating enough, and she did not let me leave without taking home an extra piece of cake for later. Before I came to Colombia, I don’t think anyone ever accused me of not eating enough (quite the opposite, really). Let the record show that I’m good, thanks, and at the rate I am going, I don’t expect to be hungry at any point for the next five months. (Also, Colombian ladies, thank you for feeding me, I really do appreciate it!)
Oh yeah, the teaching part. That is why I’m here, after all! I am working at SENA, which is basically a free vocational education for young Colombians. The aprendices at my center are learning how to manufacture plastics (I think…honestly I am not really clear on this). I have three “fichas,” or groups of students, and I see each group twice a week for three or four hours. The classes are long but fun. Most of the students are eager to learn English and excited to have a gringa for a teacher. They are also surprised and impressed when they find out that I know about Colombian things, for example, Ras Tas Tas. (this is a song-dance phenomenon that has exploded in Cali…for more information, check out youtube). I have only been teaching for one week, but I’ve enjoyed it so far.
Many people have been asking how my Spanish is. I don’t really know how to answer that question. I have entire relationships with people (like my friendly kidnapper) in Spanish. With that said, I don’t always know what’s going on. I spend a lot of time employing the age-old trick of smile-and-nod. I get laughed at by old people and small children. But I just keep smiling and nodding.
I have a lot of down time during the day in between classes, so when I’m not working or planning, I occasionally try to further my own education with some Spanish reading. After I finished my six-month-long Harry Potter en español project, my dad said to me one day, “…Maybe you should try reading a book written for adults.” Well, fine.
I will not pretend to understand more than, maybe, 30% of it…but I press on.
Next on the agenda: learn to dance like a caleña. I know it will surprise no one to learn that I was told by a Colombiano that “for a foreigner, you move well.” High praise indeed. Stage one of making my life into “Dirty Dancing: Cali Nights” is in progress. Stay tuned for more!