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.