Saying Goodbyes

Author’s Note: I really hated the movie P.S. I Love You. Basically, it was just Hilary Swank crying the whole time. Like I know your husband died, and if I was married to Gerard Butler and he died, I would be in a deep, black pit of despair, too, but that doesn’t mean I want to watch a movie that’s scene after scene of you weeping. This blog post is kind of like P.S. I Love You. It’s mostly just me crying and blabbering about how much I miss Colombia and the people there. I just want you to be fully informed before you decide how to spend the next 5-10 minutes of your day.

Two weeks ago, I left Colombia “for good.” Hopefully not really, but at least for the next year. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. So first off, why didn’t I just stay?

In a nutshell, because of “la bitch,” as one of my Colombian friends likes to call her. AKA my dog (he’s totally using the term in reference to a female dog, and not as an insult, but mostly just because it’s funny). La bitch is my responsibility and I basically had 2 options. Either go back to the states and take care of her, or try to rehome her. (What about bringing her to Colombia, you say? Nope, they have a law against bringing in “dangerous” breeds). Both of those options required me to go back home. The first for obvious reasons, and the second because rehoming a pitbull is not a simple task. As I’m sure you’re aware, people don’t always want pitbulls so that they can love them and spoil them and give them a happy life. I had asked around to people that I knew and trusted, and even friends of friends, but didn’t find anyone who wanted to adopt her. Finding a stranger to do it would require some pretty extensive work to get to know them and their background and make sure they would provide a good home. More work than I could get done in the short time that I would be able to go home on summer break before starting the fall semester back in Colombia. So I decided not to take the contract extension that I had requested, and to move back to the states.

I started applying to jobs, and ended up getting a really exciting AmeriCorps VISTA position in Tucson, AZ. I was really pumped about it for a week or so, until the reality of leaving Colombia started to set in and began to completely overshadow all the positives of the new job, and the excitement of moving to Tucson.

I have lived for a year in Germany, 4 months in Peru, and 4 months in Georgia (the country). I have also basically lived as a rambling gypsy in FEMA Corps for 10 months. In each of those places, I had a really great time (okay, in Georgia, I would maybe classify it as a really weird and mostly uncomfortable time), but at the end of my stay, even though I knew I would miss it, I was excited to go back to the U.S. Not the case with Colombia. I was an emotional wreck.

You heard me right, emotional. And you thought I was a robot with the inability to feel feelings? You thought the only tears I shed were the result of accidentally dipping in the hot salsa instead of the mild? Me too. But it looks as though Colombia has melted my heart of stone.

The emotional basket case phase all started when my Accounting and Finance class threw a surprise party for me. It was one of the sweetest things anyone has ever done for me. The previous week, the vocera, or spokesperson of the class, had told me to come to class the next day all dolled up. They needed to take a group picture with their English instructor to put in a presentation they were doing for another class, so she suggested I do my hair and put on makeup and dress up. I would like to point out that I put on makeup every day and I do try to do my hair and wear nice clothes, but Colombians have very high standards of primping. I did not even bother to ask why they needed a picture with me for a presentation, because they do weird things like that all the time, so I just went with it. Then, when I got to SENA on the Friday before my birthday, I went to walk in the door of the building and one of my students grabbed me by the arm and started asking me how I was doing, all the while, not letting go of my arm. This was a little weird, too, but I didn’t think much of it. She told me Victor, my mentor, and their English teacher on the one day of the week when I don’t have class with them, was coming by to tell me something, so I needed to wait by the street, because he didn’t want to walk upstairs with his leg in a brace. Meanwhile, some of my other students were leaning out the second floor window making gestures to the ones who were down on the sidewalk with me. Again, I just didn’t think anything of it. Victor pulled up and we all went upstairs. Now I was suspicious, since he wasn’t saying whatever he had come by to tell me. When we got upstairs to the classroom, the window on the door had been covered up, and now I was really wondering what was going on. They opened the door and everyone started singing Happy Birthday to me. There were balloons and streamers hanging from the ceiling, a Feliz Cumpleaños banner on the whiteboard along with the message “Thanks for all. I love you teacher” and a table set up in front with a beautiful cake and gifts. I started tearing up, but held it together.

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They even got a Minion tablecloth for the occasion!

When they were done singing, they lit the birthday “candle” – I use quotes because on birthday cakes here they actually use miniature rockets, which are very cool-looking but probably also a fire hazard – and I made a wish. Then they had me open my presents. They got me a very cool key ring holder to hang on the wall with a picture of Guatape, a beautiful woven purse, and – my favorite gift of all, maybe ever – a coffee mug that had the group picture we had taken together for their “presentation.” Colombians love to make little speeches at things like this and they all told me how sad they were that I would be leaving and how they hoped we would stay in touch and that I would come back again and see them, and they thanked me for all I had taught them, and for having patience with them even though they had been crazy the last week (this is one of my good classes so in reality, they had only been slightly less angelic than usual as we got closer to summer vacation). Then it was my turn to make my little speech in response. I told them that I was so sad to be leaving and would miss them a ton. I thanked them for being such a great class and making it fun to come in to work. As I was talking, I saw one of my students looking at me with tears running down her face, and I quickly avoided looking at her again, lest I should choke up. I got through the speech with only a lump in my throat, but no tears, and we moved on to the cake-eating, pop-drinking portion of the party.

Eventually the students hounded Victor to say some words, and he started in on his speech. He told me that when I came last October, as my mentor it had been his job to help me learn how things were run here, to help me with my lessons, and to familiarize me with all things SENA, but that when I came after Christmas, I already knew how the students were, knew how things went and knew my way around. He said he now thinks of me as a coworker and a friend instead of just a volunteer. He said that he remembers that on the day I told him I would be going home and not coming back for the next semester, he was shocked and very sad. At this point I had a few tears running down my face, but I was still keeping it together. He finished up his speech and my students, half of whom were recording this on their cell phones, informed me it was my turn to say something back. Trying to speak when you’re trying not to cry is impossible. So at this point, I lost it. I completely started bawling in front of my entire class. And they just continued to record me on their cell phones. When I got it together I explained to them how rough the past few weeks had been, because I really didn’t want to leave. To cheer me up, they ordered Juan Daniel to tell some jokes, and we passed a good 20 minutes listening to those. Then they started playing sad songs on their phones and singing along to them to me, in a gesture that seemed aimed at trying to make me cry again, but I resisted.

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Colombia vs. Brazil at La Canequita

The next humiliating public crying episode was soon to follow.

Ian and I had gone out with Oscar and Viviana to watch the Colombia-Brazil game of the Copa America at La Canequita. Afterwards, we all went to Flor de Loto to meet up with Natalia for micheladas. We were having a great time, and then someone said something about me leaving and how they wished me the best when I got back home. I thanked them and then glanced at Viviana. She was wiping tears from her face, and started talking about how sad it was that I was going. And that was the end of it. More bawling for like the next half hour. To make things worse, the goodbyes were already beginning. Ian was leaving the next day for Bogota and wouldn’t be back until after I had already left the country.

The Colombia game was on a weeknight, so the next day I was not only feeling tired, but also super bummed out. After work, I went to pole dance class. I had gone earlier than normal, and I ended up being the only one there. Gustavo, the coach, was giving me skills to do that I could normally do with no problem, but for whatever reason, I just couldn’t get them. He asked me how I was feeling. I told him I was fine, but that I was just a little tired and stressed. It seemed like every hour of my day had been booked solid lately between planning the birthday/going away party last weekend (which will get it’s own post), and trying to hang out with people before I leave so I could say all my goodbyes, because people were already starting to head out on summer vacation. Not to mention the stress of getting everything finished up in the last week of school and packing, which I had barely even begun. He said, “I knew something was wrong because you’re here and I can see you’re trying to focus, but really you just look like you want to cry.”

The thing is, I hadn’t felt like I wanted to cry, but as soon as he said that, I did. He told me he really didn’t think it was safe for me to keep training when my mind was clearly on other things, and that he wasn’t trying to kick me out, but he thought it would be better to use this time to go home and destress or to call up a friend and spend some extra time with them before I had to leave, and then come back tomorrow. A few hugs and tears later, I headed home. Right after I walked through the door of the apartment, my roommates Donata and Maureen asked if I wanted to see what they had made Claire for her birthday (which is one day before mine). I said sure, and they showed me the beautiful photo collage they had made her. Admittedly, I was a little jealous, but told them how awesome it was. Then they brought out another one and said “And here’s your birthday present.” It was a huge collage filled with photos, mostly from the insanely fun and memorable finca birthday/going away party we had had the previous weekend. After I thanked them profusely and gave them hugs, I apologized for having to excuse myself to go in my room and bawl.

Luckily, that got it mostly out of my system. On the last day of school when my Digital Animation class surprised me with a birthday cake, a Colombia pillow, and a beautiful letter, I held back the tears. Then, at our last brunch with the gang at Sonia’s house, before most of the other volunteers headed out to Ecuador or on other adventures, we had a fun time, playing Clue and eating pancakes. When brunch was over, I said my goodbyes and managed to run out the door before the tears started.

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See what I mean about the rockets?

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My Digital Animation class at the surprise party they threw on my last day.

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Viviana and I having some vino at the apartment.

That evening, I was in my room starting to pack my suitcases, and Viviana started chatting with me on Facebook. She asked what I was up to, and I told her I was just packing. At this point, almost all the volunteers had already left for their trips or were getting ready to leave late that night or early the next morning. Oscar called me up and told me that they didn’t want me to be sitting alone, so I should pack some clothes and come over and spend the night at their place, and we could have some wine and then have breakfast together the next morning. So, half an hour later, I was in a taxi. We hung out and had some wine at their place, then decided to stop by La Canequita. We were there til late, and then headed back home. They set up a little air mattress for me, and the next morning we had a nice breakfast and hung out. Then we met up with Viviana’s mom and went out for a nice Father’s Day lunch for Oscar at a seafood restaurant. Unfortunately, we had to wait quite a while for our food, so Oscar was a little upset that he had to watch the first half hour of the Colombia-Peru game at the restaurant instead of at La Canequita.

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Drinks with Oscar and Viviana on my last night in Colombia.

But after we ate, we made our way over, and watched the rest of the game, which was a bit disappointing, and ended in a tie. After the game, we went to the mall for a bit and then decided to make pancakes for supper. So we went back to their apartment, and a few more of their friends came over for the American breakfast-for-dinner feast. Towards the end of the night, they told me I was welcome to crash on the air mattress again, but I had a lot of packing left to do, so I thought it was better that I go home. This is one of the reasons it was so hard for me to leave Colombia, though. Because the friends I have there have the biggest hearts of anyone I know. For them to basically offer to let me move in with them for my last 3 nights in Colombia so that I didn’t have to be alone and sad in my apartment was just such a kind gesture. I really hope that they rubbed off on me, and I can remember to be more like a Colombian in the way that I treat my friends from now on, which is to say, just being kind and thoughtful.

On Monday, I stopped by SENA to say one last goodbye to the teachers, who still had to be there working even though classes were officially over, and on my last night in Colombia, I called up Oscar and Viviana to see if they wanted to go out for drinks. At the end of the night, they put me in a taxi and then were going to catch one for themselves. The taxi driver started driving and I told him I was going to Fundadores, the neighborhood where I live. He didn’t hear me, so I said Fundadores a little louder. Then he told me he was a little deaf and I would need to talk louder. So  I shouted FUNDADORES. He pulled over and said he wasn’t going there and told me to get out. We had only gone a couple of blocks, so I decided to walk back to where we had been, because there were more cars passing, and I would be able to catch another taxi. It turns out Oscar and Viviana were still there waiting for a taxi, and they were very pissed at the taxi driver when they saw me and I told them what had happened, since it was 11:30 at night, and apparently the neighborhood we were in wasn’t the safest to just leave a girl by herself on the street. They told me to get in with them and go to their apartment, and Oscar would call his friend who’s a taxi driver to take me home. His friend wasn’t working that night, and they didn’t feel comfortable putting me in another taxi off the street, so I just ended up spending the night on the air mattress again. The next morning, I said my last goodbyes to them, and then headed home to finish up my last bit of packing before leaving for the airport for my 2 p.m. flight.

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Saying goodbye to Freddy at the airport.

Delia and Victor both stopped by to say goodbye to me, and I made a quick trip across the street to the bank to make sure my card would work in the U.S. (I had gone the day before and they said it would be fine, but then someone mentioned they were pretty sure I would need to put a travel notification on it). Unfortunately, the guy at the bank the previous day was wrong, and it turns out they had to put this form in the system to make sure I could use it, which meant that I had to wait forever in line to talk to a banker. I was completely stressed out, because I was cutting it really close and needed to get to the airport so I didn’t miss my flight. Finally I got out of there and the banker said I was good to go (which is a lie, because now that I’m in the U.S. my card is not working at all).

Luz Helena rushed me to the airport, where the stupid woman who works for Spirit kept telling me that I needed to hurry because they were doing a last boarding call on my flight, but then was going as slow as possible getting me checked in. Also, they made me pay again for the bags I already had bought online, and now I still haven’t been able to get my money back because Spirit has an excellent strategy of making it nearly impossible to contact their customer service department. My friend Freddy had gone to the airport to say goodbye to me, but I barely got to talk to him because I was rushing around trying to get to security as quickly as possible before my plane took off without me. So he basically just sprinted across the airport with me, and then gave me a hug, and I went through the checkpoint. After going through security, I found out the stupid woman who works for Spirit didn’t know what she was talking about because I ended up waiting for nearly an hour because my plane was delayed. At that time, I received a Facebook message from one of my students. It turns out she had gone to the airport to say goodbye to me, too, but she couldn’t find me. She sent me a picture of her standing in front of the airport. I felt horrible, because the airport is a pretty long way from town, and it was super sweet of her to come all the way out there, and then I didn’t even see her, and hadn’t had time to check my messages before getting to the gate because I was in complete panic mode.

As we were boarding the plane, Luz Helena called to make sure I had gotten on alright and that I hadn’t missed my flight. I settled in and took a deep breath of relief that the crisis was averted. Then, we got ready for takeoff, and it sunk in that I was leaving my beloved Colombia. This was it. I spent the next 20 minutes being that girl that was awkwardly crying in a plane full of strangers. Until the captain turned off the seatbelt sign, and then I was that girl that was bawling in the lavatory for 10 minutes.

Here’s what was going through my mind, and has been going through my mind for the past weeks. During most phases of my life – Germany, college, Peru, Georgia, FEMA Corps, Mission – I felt happy. I felt like I was in a good place, but I was almost always looking to move on. I was wanting a change of scenery. Something different. Something better. Colombia was the first time in my life where I never felt that. I didn’t even want to think of the next move (something I normally obsess over planning). I was really happy. I had a job that I (most days) enjoyed. I was surrounded by an amazing group of friends. And I was living in a breathtakingly gorgeous country that was home to some of the kindest, friendliest people you could ever meet. And I was leaving. Why in God’s name would I leave this place? I’ve been home about 2 weeks now, and that’s still something I ask myself pretty much every day.

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