An Evening at Casa Alitas

I’m in Tucson now! I haven’t written in a while, partly because I’ve been incredibly busy with the new job, and partly because the AmeriCorps social media policy scares and confuses me. But after a little chat with my director today, I feel confident that I can safely blog without getting fired.

Quick update for those who may not know, I’ve moved to Tucson to work with the Alitas program of Catholic Community Services, which receives women and children who are released by Border Patrol, offers them hospitality, and connects them with their families in the U.S. The program has changed a lot since the time I was hired, due to some policy changes within Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). But all those changes will have to wait for another blog post.

Both the previous AmeriCorps volunteer and the intern that was here when I arrived were living in the house where we receive migrant families. They both also recently finished up their service, so we’re in a difficult transition period of trying to begin overnight shifts with the volunteers, since I couldn’t live in the house due to my pup. However, while we’re trying to get the overnight shifts up and running, one of the volunteers was nice enough to foster my dog, so that I could live in the house until the end of the month. He informs me she’s doing well, and has already staked out a favorite napping spot on the couch.

Now that we have a lot less people coming through than the program was seeing in previous months (due to aforementioned policy changes) the house is pretty quiet. It still can get a little stressful living in your workplace though, so I was looking forward to having the house to myself for a few hours on a Friday night while some volunteers took the teens that are living here to a soccer game.

I turned off the TV, taking in the peace and quiet, and settled into the arm chair with a bowl of cheesy puffs to start writing some emails. Not 5 minutes later, I heard someone pull in and glanced out the window to see the familiar white and green Border Patrol vehicle. Usually they call first, and in all fairness, it was probably them trying to call a couple different times earlier when the phone rang, but I only heard beeps when I answered.

I walked outside to meet them as the agent opened the back of the suburban and the steel mesh cage door. One by one, 4 children hopped down from the vehicle, followed by their mother. I welcomed them, and explained that I was a volunteer with the church and they could come inside. They sat quietly on the living room couch while I brought them water bottles and cut off the wrist bands that had been put on them in detention.

I asked where their family members in the U.S. lived, and she said they were only a couple hours away. I gave her the phone to give them a call, and she soon passed it to me, so that I could explain where they were and give the address of the house. They told me they would be on their way soon.

In the meantime, they picked out some clothes from the donation shed and took baths. I told them to let me know when they were getting hungry and I could make them some supper. After the little 10-year-old girl finished picking out some clothes, she came up to me shyly and told me she was hungry. I asked her what she was hungry for, and she told me maruchan. I thought to myself, this little girl is asking for some Mexican dish called maruchan that I’ve never heard of, but that’s probably really delicious, and I’ll I’ve got to offer her is the “fiesta chicken” Pinterest recipe I’d made in the crockpot earlier that day, some veggie stew, or whatever cans and boxes we had in the closet. I told her I didn’t know what maruchan was, and she wasn’t sure how to explain it to me. I showed her what we had in the fridge and the pantry, and she decided on mac-and-cheese.

As I was putting the macaroni in the pot, her little 6-year-old brother ran in the kitchen and said “What’s that smell?” I told him it was macaroni, and he said “It smells like maruchan. I want maruchan!”

I had visions in my head of these kids’ abuelita in Mexico making them a big batch of maruchan like only an abuelita can make. And I worried they would be very disappointed in my mac-and-cheese.

As I was serving up bowls of mac-and-cheese, the oldest sister pointed to the ramen noodles sitting inside the open pantry door, and asked if she could have some of that instead. I said sure and pulled out the package. As I looked at it, I noticed the package said they were Maruchan brand ramen noodles.

OOOOOOOOOoooooooooooohhhhhhhh…….

I asked her if this is what her little sister had meant when she was asking me for maruchan. She nodded.

This is why I could never remember seeing maruchan on the menu of any Mexican restaurant ever.

I put a few packages on, since it seemed to be in high demand. As they ate, the mother seemed to relax a little. At first, she had seemed a little short with me, which was understandable. If I’m traveling on any type of transportation anywhere and something goes wrong, I get short with people. I couldn’t imagine crossing the border with 4 children, spending the night in a detention center, and then spending god knows how long in the back of a Border Patrol suburban just to be dropped off to some strange woman in some strange house in some strange city. Her stress was warranted.

But as we sat around the table, laughing at her youngest son, who is quite the little ham, and finally getting some decent food in her kids’ tummies (ok, mac-and-cheese and ramen may not be a 5-star meal, or a great source of nutrition, but I remember being 11 and thinking those were the only 2 foods on earth fit to eat) she began to warm up to me.

She told me that they had lived in the states in the past, and all her children were born here, but about 5 years ago, they decided to move back to Mexico. Her kids never really adjusted to being in Mexico. One of her boys missed his home in the states a lot, and when they first moved back his clothes started to fall off him because he would barely eat, he was so unhappy. Even 5 years later, the kids still hadn’t adjusted and wanted to go back to the states. The thing that actually brought them back, though, was when the oldest daughter started receiving death threats at school. The daughter explained to me in English that she was terrified to go to school there. She told me how “people are bad there, and they kidnap you, and your parents don’t find you until you’re already dead.” For this reason, the whole family came and turned themselves in at the border, asking for asylum. The husband was put in detention.

The mother told me life was hard in Mexico. Her husband worked hard all day long, for only $5 a day. And everything there was expensive. It was hard to feed 5 kids. She asked if I had kids, and I told her I just had a dog. Her youngest son asked if he could have my dog and take it with him. I laughed and his mom said they used to have 2 little puppies in Mexico, but one got ran over by a car, and another ate a poisonous frog and died. The little boy told me he was going to get another dog and keep it in a cage in his bedroom so nothing could happen to it. I told him he needed to find a dog like Macy, because all she wants to do is lay on my bed and sleep all day, and doesn’t want to go outside or eat frogs.

Soon we heard a car pull up in the driveway, and I opened the door to let their family in. I stood aside as they ran to give hugs, with tears rolling down their faces. After the relative I had spoken with on the phone finished hugging all of the kids she turned to me, gave me a big hug, and thanked me for being here to take them in. I explained to her a little bit about the Alitas program and she said “you’re like angels…you’re our angel!”

As they got ready to leave, the youngest boy walked up to me without saying a word and gave me a firm and solemn handshake, then turned and walked out the door to the car. Then, one by one, the other kids came up to give me a hug and say goodbye. Even the shy 13-year-old boy, who had barely said a word the entire time he was there, gave me a silent, reluctant hug. I said goodbye to the mother, gave her a big hug, and wished her the best of luck with everything. I was sad to see them go. I had really gotten to like them in the couple hours we spent hanging out together. But they have our number, and I hope to hear from them in the future with good news about their case.

A lot of times, working as a volunteer doesn’t feel as rewarding as you think it should. You usually set out trying to change the world, but are only reminded how small of a person you are in a society full of big problems. But there are those moments now and then when you’re reminded why you do what you do. Those moments when all you’ve really done is make some ramen and mac-and-cheese, but someone still calls you their angel.

La Despedida

(My blog posts have gotten a little out of chronological order. I apologize.)

June was an exciting month. Not only was almost every weekend a puente (literally, this means bridge, but it refers to a 3-day weekend), but we also had 3 birthdays in a row – Claire’s on the 13th, mine on the 14th, and my roommate Donata’s on the 15th. The weekend of our triple birthday was a puente, so we decided to go all out for it, and use it as a going away party for me as well.

We decided we wanted to rent out a finca. There’s no good translation for finca in English. Essentially it’s a farm, but it usually grows coffee and bananas and has a huge colorful house with multiple rooms and a beautiful yard with a pool and maybe some outdoor games. A lot of Colombian families, at least in the coffee triangle, have a finca, and there are a lot that you can visit to learn about coffee production or to stay overnight.

When we mentioned the plan to our friend Oscar, he called around to get some prices and then figured out how many people we would need for everyone to pitch in a reasonable amount for the weekend. It was a process getting people invited and RSVP’d and collecting payments so that we could make a deposit and buy food, but we got it figured out. Oscar did basically all the planning and preparation, and I just tried to help as much as I could, which in the end, was not very much.

We had about 30 people RSVP’d and decided we would prepare a sancocho, a yummy Colombian soup, for lunch on the first day, grill out for supper, and make a pancake breakfast for the next day. The day before the party, Oscar and I went to buy groceries. This was a process. He had done some investigation into meat prices, and found that Super Inter was having a sale and would be most economical, so that was our first stop. We left with a cart full of a ridiculous amount of meat, 72 eggs, a bunch of oranges (which were kind of a “just because” purchase), onions, potatoes, 6 bags of milk (because milk comes in bags in Colombia), some other veggies, and some condiments.

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This was only the beginning.

We unloaded our supplies at Sonia’s house. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned her before, but Sonia is the wonderful and super helpful woman that Claire, Jana and Earl live with. Our next stop was at the city center for vegetables. We got a couple of huge bags full of produce, and then stopped by another shop where Oscar haggled for some good plantain prices and we bought an entire bunch still on the vine or branch or whatever you call it. We also stopped by a place to rent a sound system for the music.

We unloaded all of this at Sonia’s and then stopped at a store that sold disposable dishware and cutlery (stores in Colombia can get very specialized). Then we popped over to the street that has all the mariachi bands and Oscar asked about prices – I’ll get to why in a minute. We made a stop at Ara for some juice, water, pasta and a few extra things, and then we pulled up to a dark street where Oscar instructed me to get off the motorcycle and knock on an unmarked door because this is where they sold charcoal for the grill. This all seemed very strange to me, but I looked up and saw a little handwritten paper sign on a second floor window that said “Charcoal for Sale” and someone else actually walked up to buy some too while we were there, so I guess that’s just like a normal way to get your charcoal. We headed back to Sonia’s to drop off the last of our stuff and then Oscar took me home. The whole process lasted about 5 hours, but we managed to get everything we needed and to stay within our budget.

When I got home, I set about baking a Queso and Bocadillo cake for Claire and she was going to bake a lime one for me. I also tried to prepare some lentil burgers for the vegans and vegetarians. The first batch turned out fine, however, I realized when I was throwing the first few burgers in the pan that the eggs I put in them weren’t exactly vegan. I tried another batch using “flax eggs” but they crumbled, so I ended up making a lentil salad with the remnants. I also made some cookies because yum. Then at about 1 a.m., I went to bed.

The next morning, we headed to Ian and Jordan’s place, which was the meeting point for the Jeeps to pick us up and take us to the finca. We lied to everyone about the time the Jeeps were going, since Colombians don’t usually show up on time, and because foreigners in Colombia assimilate to that aspect of the culture very easily. It turns out the Jeeps were about half an hour late anyways, so it all worked out.

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Selfie while cruising through Armenia in the back of a Jeep.

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When we got to the finca, there were slips of paper on each bed with peoples’ names on them, so we hunted around 2 floors of the main house and two rooms of the other house to find our names. My name was missing so I just stole the bed of one of the girls who got sick and couldn’t come.

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Sancocho preparation.

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You can’t really tell the scale from the picture, but a small child could easily fit in this pot.

We set to work making lunch. Everyone pitched in and soon we had a giant vat of sancocho ready to dig in to.

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Birthday girls with birthday cakes.

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In the afternoon, people watched the Copa America game (which Colombia unfortunately lost) and hung out in the pool. In the evening, we fired up the grill and hit up the dance floor, and everyone had a great time.

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La hora loca.

Oscar had already proposed to his girlfriend Viviana, but he had not had a ring when he proposed, so he wanted to present it to her at the finca with a mariachi band. He had scheduled the mariachi to come at 1 a.m., so when Viviana announced she was going to bed at midnight, we tried our best to get her to stay up without giving away the surprise, but she was tired and ended up going to bed. The mariachi band didn’t show up on time, so Oscar left the finca to look for them, or so we thought. When they did show up, I gave him a call to let him know he should come back, but he told me to tell them to leave because he had gotten a new one. That was not something I wanted to do, but he insisted, so when I got off the phone, I tried to get out of it and make Ian do it. Ian didn’t want to do it either, so he called back Oscar to tell him that we couldn’t send home a mariachi who had driven all the way out there at 1:00 in the morning. Ian ended up handing the phone to the head mariachi (I’m sure that’s the correct terminology) and Oscar told him himself. Just a few seconds after their van pulled out of the driveway, another one pulled in with the new mariachi. We went to wake Viviana up.

When we got there I tried saying “Viviana, wake up,” but she did not respond to that, so I tapped her on the shoulder. Nothing. I nudged her and then shook her a bit and she woke up. We told her she should come out because there was something she should see, but she wasn’t having it, and just wanted to sleep. We tried to convince her a little, and then finally told her that there was a mariachi there. She pulled the blanket over her head and said that she didn’t like mariachis because they made her sad. Not exactly how this was supposed to all play out. Finally we dragged her out of bed and sat her down in front of the mariachi.

The next little road bump was that instead of sitting next to his fiancee during this grand romantic gesture, Oscar ended up getting in a fight with one of his best friends about one of those silly little things that best friends fight over at 2:00 a.m. after too many cups of aguardiente, so there were a couple really awkward moments where Viviana was sitting by herself, the mariachi was playing, and Oscar and his friend were on the sidelines in a shouting match. Luckily, that blew over pretty quickly, and Oscar presented Viviana with the ring and they enjoyed the rest of the songs together. I even got a mariachi version of “Happy birthday” before they packed up and left.

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All’s well that ends well.

I think some people partied until the wee hours of the morning, but I was not one of those people. The next morning, I woke up feeling pretty well rested, and commenced the making of an enormous batch of pancakes. We had a nice breakfast, and then everyone chipped in to help clean up.

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Soooo many eggs.

Some people had come from really far away, so they headed back early to catch their buses, but others stuck around to enjoy the pool a little longer. When it started to rain we all packed up and headed home.

It was really an amazing weekend. Volunteers placed as far away as Popayan and Ibague came, so I got to see a lot of people one last time before I left. Some SENA teachers made it too, and it was nice spending time with them outside of work. Usually when you have something of this scope planned, something always goes terribly wrong. Or when you are looking forward to something for a long time, it ends up not being as great as you expected. This was not the case here. It exceeded expectations, and Jordan told me a lot of the volunteers commented to him that it was one of their most memorable weekends in Colombia so far. It definitely made my list. It’s always nice to go out with a bang.

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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.

Days Like These

As I’m nearing the end of my stay in Colombia, a lot of my time lately has been spent feeling a lump in my throat. My heart sinks when I look out the bus window and see the beautiful landscapes and mountains in the distance, when I’m laughing with my friends and realize we only have a few more weeks together before I move to a different continent, or when my students tell me “Teacher, no te vayas!” Even as I write this, I’m trying to hold back the tears.

But there are days – not even days, more like hours – when leaving seems a lot easier. Those hours are usually from 10-12 on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday when I teach my Multimedia Production group. I started working with this class after semana santa. They were brand new, just beginning their studies at SENA, which means most of them are 17. We started out with about 30 students, or apprentices as they’re called at SENA, and every few days someone would approach me at the beginning of class and inform me that they were a new student, until we reached 36.

The classroom, which had started out being a little small for 30 students became ridiculously small for 36. The fact that there are only 4 tiny tables to use as desks helps free up a little space but makes it necessary for most students to sit cross-legged and use their knee as a desk whenever they have to take notes or do a writing activity. “A teacher should always be moving around the classroom,” they say. It’s easier said than done in this case, because I end up zigzagging my way through a maze of squished-together chairs, trying to squeeze in between shoulders and hop over feet, and I do my best to get to the back of the room without bumping into 10 students along the way.

And then there’s the heat. Armenia’s been having some hot spells lately, and the branch of SENA that I work in is lacking in ventilation. “Welcome to the sauna, teacher!” the security guard has joked when unlocking my classroom for me. We have an oscillating fan and a tiny air conditioner (which blows the cool air at the students, while the hot air comes blowing out the opposite end right towards my desk). The apprentices, who are required to wear uniforms of dark blue slacks and long-sleeve button-down blouses most days, and are packed in the classroom shoulder-to-shoulde,r unsurprisingly find it difficult to stay engaged. I don’t want to teach in that horrible classroom any more than they want to learn there, and I find it difficult to not get irritable and frustrated as I’m sweating through my instructor lab coat.

All of the students are great people on an individual basis, but as a group they drive me to drink. Colombian classrooms in general are more noisy than American classrooms. If you’re in a college class in the U.S. and there are 35 students, you can expect near silence when the professor is explaining something. Maybe some quiet whispers, but nothing more. At SENA, if you encounter near silence in a room of 35 apprentices, you should check for a gas leak. It just doesn’t happen. Neither does partial silence for the most part. With this class, and with the class of 36 I had last year, I just keep pushing through the lesson, doing my best to keep the room from descending into complete chaos, and hope that at least some of the students are getting some kind of educational value out of what we’re doing. I tell a student to take their headphones out, and 5 minutes later, they’re back in their ears again, I tell one group of students to stop talking and pay attention, and meanwhile 3 more loud side conversations have sprung up, I give the class a talk about respect and listening while myself and others are talking, I stress the value of the education they’re getting, I remind them that they’re adults now, that this isn’t high school, they’re training to enter the workforce and this kind of behavior isn’t going to help them get a job or keep one. They sit quietly for a few minutes, looking ashamed and promising to get their act together, and within half an hour, they’ve completely forgotten ever having had the conversation and it’s back to their old ways.

I leave the classroom feeling like I’ve just fought a two-hour battle and lost. It’s hard to feel like a confident teacher when this experience is repeated 4 times a week. Certain things help me hang in there, like hearing from fellow teachers who are having the same problems in their classrooms or going to my afternoon Digital Animation class of 17 students who are always engaged in the lesson, ready to participate, and even do the disciplining for me by yelling at each other to quiet down and “pay attention to Teacher” when the noise level starts to get too high. While listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath on audiobook the other day, there was a chapter about ideal classroom sizes, and when they said something to the effect of “a class of 30 students is difficult for any teacher to manage,” I felt a little better knowing that it wasn’t just me.

In Bogota, we had various training workshops. One of them was about discipline, another was about teaching with a lack of resources, another was managing large classrooms, and another was teaching multi-level groups (since SENA has obnoxiously decided that students who enter in a certain area of study should be grouped together from the beginning and will take ALL classes together, even if that means that students who speak fluent English are in the same class as students who have never taken an English class before). A more accurate theme for orientation should have been “How to keep your sanity and avoid throat-punching your students one by one while teaching gigantic multi-level groups of teenagers who are incapable of shutting their mouths for more than 2 seconds in tiny, boiling rooms with very few resources.” Because why should we sugarcoat it?

I commented to my roommate yesterday that one of the therapeutic effects of going to Conversation Club every week is that a lot of my Multimedia Production students go, too (because I bribed them with the reward of getting out of doing an oral exam if they go 3 times), and seeing them outside of the classroom reminds me that they are not evil human beings at all, but are actually a lot of fun. In the same way, the ones that attend have the opportunity to see that I’m not always the giant bitch that I have to be during class. I’ve joked that if someone from my Multimedia Production class ever sat in on my Digital Animation class, they would wonder who kidnapped me and replaced me with a nicer, more fun clone. I’m a completely different person with that class, because it’s not the constant struggle to keep them under control. Instead, we can do fun activities without worrying about things getting out of hand. Sometimes I even let things get out of hand just because my Digital Animation class tends to break out into arguments about topics that I find really interesting, so I just sit back and listen – like when they were discussing military service in Colombia or when we were learning vocabulary for professions, and an intense discussion broke out at the mention of park rangers (apparently a much more heated topic in Colombia). I can let things like that happen with them, because I know that all I have to do is raise my hand and say “Let’s get back to work” and the conversation will immediately die down and everyone will be ready to move on.

If only that were the case with every class at SENA, but unfortunately it’s not. And so I count down the days until I can walk out of that classroom for the last time, and hopefully I will have at least a few shreds of sanity remaining when I do.

Medellin and Guatape

Medellin was definitely on my to-do list last year, but when I decided to extend I figured I could just wait until this year to really have time to see the city. Since it’s only a 6-hour bus ride (traffic willing) from Armenia, and only costs about 35,000 pesos (~$15) each way, I’ve actually had the chance to make a couple of trips.

The first trip was for the sole purpose of going to a Manu Chao concert. It was a few weeks before Semana Santa (Holy Week – which means we had the whole week off of school), and I had planned on going back for Semana Santa anyways, so I spent a really relaxing weekend just going to the concert, eating some good food, hanging out with friends, and going on a party chiva with the Medellin volunteers.

During Semana Santa, there was a pretty big group of us that decided to go back to Medallo, as they’ve nicknamed the city here. Some people told us a week would be too long to spend there, but we had plenty to see and do.

The Free Walking Tour with Real City Tours

Free Walking Tours are the first thing I look for to do in a city now. I have never been let down by them and Medellin didn’t disappoint either. The tour lasted a good 4 hours, and not only did it show us the main sights in the city, but it was all coming from a tour guide who had lived through the violence of Medellin’s recent history. For those who need to brush up on Colombian history, Medellin was the home of Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel that he ran. I’m sure even if Colombian history isn’t fresh in your mind, you know that name and all that’s associated with it. Within my lifetime, Medellin was once the murder capital of the world. But walking around the city today, at least the parts of the city that a tourist walks around in, you would never be able to tell. The city looks and feels like any other city. Probably even a little cleaner and friendlier than most. That’s why the walking tour was such an eye-opener, because the guide could take you to a beautiful park or plaza full of art and sculptures and people enjoying a sunny afternoon in the city, and tell you about how when he was a kid (and our guide was also pretty young), it used to be one of the most dangerous areas of a city that was the most dangerous city in the world. He gave us a crash course in the country’s long and complicated history, and the current situation regarding the peace talks happening between the government and the FARC in Havana, but the tour was not just about that. It was about all the things that make Colombian culture and especially Paisa culture (Paisas are from Medellin and the coffee triangle region). We saw the tourist sites of the city, and the not-so-touristy sites – like the street where they sell bootlegs of hardcore porn. It was a really great tour and I would highly recommend it if you’re in Medellin.

Guatape

Guatape is a gorgeous pueblo a couple hours from Medellin in bus. We decided to spend a night there despite being told you could do it in a day. We were all glad we did. The town is so colorful and beautiful to walk around. The main plaza has a gorgeous fountain and a pretty white church that lights up different colors at night. Guatape sits on a lake so it has a cute little sidewalk running along the shore where vendors set up stands to sell everything from souvenirs to fancy shots – as in shots of liquor, from a sidewalk stand.

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There’s nothing better than a gummi turtle chaser.

As if the beautiful little frescos painted on the sides of all the houses didn’t sell me on this town right away, the michelada’s available every 30 feet definitely did. Micheladas in Colombia are fresh squeezed lime juice, beer and salt on the rim and they are the best thing ever. I caught a lot of shit back home for my love of the Bud Light Cheladas, which I think taste amazing and others think taste like vomit. These micheladas don’t have the clamato and hot sauce, but they’re amazing nonetheless. What I’ve found interesting here is that micheladas are thought of as what we in the states would refer to as a “bitch drink.” So basically, here, a beer with salt and lime is equivalent to drinking a Mike’s Hard Lemonade in the states. Which makes no sense to me, and also makes me sad for all the men who are refusing themselves this delicious refreshment in order to protect their egos. But since Guatape has almost a beachy vibe, it apparently made it okay for dudes to drink their micheladas, which made me happy for them.

But let’s get back on topic. This is what Guatape looks like:

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Need I say more?

Yes, actually. Guatape’s cuteness is not it’s only attraction. There is also El Peñol – basically a huge rock with stairs to the top. There’s 600 steps to get up there, but the view is more than worth it.

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Admiral Morris made me carry him up 600 steps to take this picture.

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The Planetarium 

Maybe you’re not interested in learning about the vast and mysterious universe surrounding us. Maybe you’re too cool for earthquake simulators. Maybe you don’t like animated cinedome movies about the solar system that were originally narrated by Rupert Grint but have been dubbed in Spanish. To each his own. You should still visit the planetarium if only to take multiple pictures in the photo booth with various space-themed backgrounds that you can have sent to your email for free.

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Parque Arvi

You have to take a cable car to get to Parque Arvi, and the cable car alone is worth it. Try to go early, as there is a limit to the number of people they let in, so the first day, we stood in line forever, just to be turned away because they reached capacity. We tried again the next day and we made it that time. The cable car ride was beautiful. You go up the hills surrounding Medellin, and look out the window at the houses below. As you get higher and higher you have to wonder how the houses were even built anymore. Hanging off the edge of a steep hill, with no roads in sight. The cable cars were actually not built just as a tourist draw, although they have turned into that as well. They were built as part of a hugely innovative social project so that the poor people living in the barrios (favelas, slums, pueblos jovenes, call them what you will) on the outskirts of town didn’t have to walk up endless steps to get to and from the city to work every day. In addition, there are escalators going all the way up the sides of the hills in some parts of the city to increase access to the outskirts.

Eventually, the cable car we were on stopped passing neighborhoods and came upon some  open space where there were just a few farms sprinkled here and there. After that, it was pure forest, and as we continued, we wondered if it would ever end. We had no idea how far out of the city the cable car went. After a long and beautiful ride, we touched down at Parque Arvi. As you step out of the cable car station, there is a huge market on your left that sold fresh fruit, artisan crafts, coffee and snacks. I couldn’t resist a beautiful woven scarf. And of course, a giant cup of fresh berries, drizzled with sweetened condensed milk, as that is the Colombian way. We didn’t have a lot of time to explore the park, but there are walking tours you can take with guides who can point out all the flora and fauna that you see along the way. We just took a short walk and then headed back into the city, but it’s definitely somewhere I’d love to explore more.

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Food

Medellin has everything you could want. I ate sushi, Turkish doners, veggie food from a restaurant called Lentil Express (Lenteja Express in Spanish), Mexican food, and the best breakfast sandwich in the world from D’andre Gourmet.

There are also a ton of parks, plazas, museums and areas that I haven’t mentioned, so being in Medellin for a week is definitely not something that will bore you.

Popayan

Our first weekend in Armenia, the volunteers were planning to make an overnight trip to Salento. But on Friday afternoon, we heard from our Regional Coordinator that all volunteers would be getting Monday and Tuesday off work. Why? I’m not sure. If someone gives me a four-day weekend, I don’t ask questions, I just take it. I decided to bail on the Salento trip, since I wanted to take advantage of the long weekend to go somewhere a little farther and see something I haven’t seen. Jordan, one of the other vounteers, was up for that as well, and suggested we go to Popayan.

We found an overnight bus, and headed out at midnight on Friday. I slept like a baby on the overnight bus from Cartagena to Bogota, but this trip was a little different. First of all, the seats weren’t quite as comfy, but the biggest obstacle to a good night’s rest was when I would suddenly wake up feeling as if I was about to be thrown into the aisle because the driver had taken a corner that fast. In the end, though, we made it out alive and made pretty good time.

We headed from the bus terminal to the hostel and dropped our bags off. I kept my purse and camera with me because I don’t always trust the hostels to keep an eye on your stuff, and the particular woman working at this hostel seemed to give zero shits about her job and negative shits about the security of my belongings.

We decided to go for a walk while we were waiting for our rooms to be ready to check in. A couple blocks from the hostel, we saw a hill with a church at the top and some promising views of the city, so we climbed up. At each bend in the path were statues that seemed to be stations of the cross. The top did have some great views. Popayan seemed like such a peaceful town. There were kids playing in the basketball courts and soccer fields, people going for a morning run. The town was nestled between some mountains. It was like the beginning of a feel-good movie.

Unfortunately, the peaceful feeling didn’t last long. Jordan and I made our way down the hill and started walking toward the soccer field we’d seen. I put my camera in my bag just in case. And then I saw a really cool flower. Colombia has a plethora of beautiful flowers and I have a weakness for taking pictures of them. After I had snapped a picture, I turned back and started to catch up with Jordan again. It was a pretty empty street, but all of a sudden I heard a bunch of footsteps walking quickly behind me. I knew I was about to get robbed. I sped up, and before I could even turn around, someone grabbed me from behind and swung me around. I couldn’t see anyone’s faces, just their hands as they grabbed my camera. My DSLR that is was my most prized possession. I don’t remember if I screamed, but I don’t think I did, because it took Jordan a second to realize I was being robbed, since he was a little ways ahead of me. After they took my camera, they started yelling at me to give them my bag. I was yelling at them to take it, but with me struggling against them (probably not a smart move, but that was my instinctual reaction to being grabbed by 3 men) and my bags crossed over me, they were pulling at them but couldn’t get them off. I heard Jordan scream at them, and later I learned that one of them let me go and turned around and pulled a knife on him. Next, I heard lots of voices and the men let me go. I turned around and it took me a second to orient myself to what was going on. I saw a lot of people, and as a few guys took off on motorcycles, it dawned on me that they were the ones that robbed me. But not soon enough to try to get a look at them, or their bikes, or their license plates. I realized the other people were a family that had heard us and came out of their house which was right by where all this was happening.

They called the police for us. The cops took us in the back of their car to drive around and see if we could recognize the people who did it. Unfortunately, all I knew was that they were men on motorcycles and it happened really fast, so all Jordan knew was they were men with long sleeves and helmets that covered their faces. So men on motorcycles – that narrowed it down to about 50% of Popayan’s population. The police took us to the station and wrote up a report. They told us they would let us know if anything turned up, and then they gave us directions on how to get safely back to our hostel through the nice non-sketchy neighborhoods. As we were sitting at our hostel, still waiting for our rooms to be ready, a different hostel employee came up to me with a worried look on her face asking if I’d been robbed. I said yes, a little confused as to how she knew. She said the police were there to see me.

Unfortunately, they weren’t there to tell me that my camera had been found. Instead, they were there to tell me that for some reason the chief of police wanted to talk to us about what happened. We shot the shit with the officer for a while until the chief arrived. So if getting mugged wasn’t traumatic enough, I had to talk to the scariest police officer I’ve ever seen. Let me tell you something about Colombian police. Most of them look like they’re 14. They’re not super intimidating, because they seem to be just getting their very first chest hairs. This guy, on the other hand, was chief for a reason. He was really just a normal looking guy, but the fact that he didn’t smile once, spoke to me in really serious, gruff, fast Spanish, and completely commanded the attention of all the lower ranking officers had me feeling a bit nervous to talk to him. After he asked me again what exactly happened (wasn’t someone writing this down before?) he said they would be in touch if there were any new developments.

The police were actually really fantastic throughout this ordeal, so I have to take a moment to give them props. If I had been an officer talking to me, I would have said “Welp, sucks to be you. You’re never gonna see that camera again.” But instead they took an incredible amount of time helping us. I don’t know if it was just a slow day in Popayan or if it’s because we were gringos and they wanted to minimize the damage this incident did to our outlook on Colombia (no worries, Colombia, I still love you dearly).

As I’m writing this a month later, I’m pleased to inform you that there’s at least a tiny bright side to this situation. Remember when I fell on my ass during the Ciudad Perdida trek and my lens ended up getting busted? I got it replaced while I was in the states and paid for it with my Chase credit card. Because I had purchased it within the last 120 days, it was still insured by Chase (yep, your credit card insures your purchases – I had just read that in an article a few weeks prior, and had absolutely no idea before that). All I had to do was send them the police report, copies of the receipts, and a short claim form, and a week later they fully reimbursed the lens. Unfortunately the body of the camera was purchased a little less than a year ago, so that wasn’t covered under the credit card, nor is theft covered under my travel insurance, but at least it wasn’t a total loss.

Now on to happier stories. Popayan is b20150221_135152eautiful. It’s called the white city, because all the buildings are…wait for it….white. Jordan had a friend who’s a fellow volunteer SENA teacher in Popayan, and he was nice enough to let us crash at his place instead of the hostel. We also met up with some other friends from training who are living there.

We saw the sights in Popayan, which really doesn’t take long. The next day, Jordan and I spent a relaxing day at the Coconuco hot springs nearby. When we were walking back to the village from the hot springs, where we were going to catch a bus to Popayan, a nice family stopped and asked if we wanted a ride. We hopped in the back of their truck, where the women had made a comfortable little space filled with blankets and cushions. When we got back to the town, the driver forgot to stop and let us out at the bus stop. When we asked if we had passed it, the women looked surprised, and said the driver must’ve forgot. They said we could just stay there, and catch a ride all the way back to Popayan, since that’s where they were going anyway. Along the way, they brought out pop and snacks and shared with us, and dropped us off a few blocks from our place. They wouldn’t accept any money for gas, and wished us well and were off. Just further proof that aside from the ones that rob you, Colombians are the best.

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The next day we rounded up some of the other teachers to visit the Parque Nacional Natural Purace. This was a while ago, but I will try to remember as best as I can the many different forms of transportation we took that day. first we walked to the terminal where we were going to catch a bus, but we missed the bus. We were told we could take a taxi to another bus stop and take a different bus. So we took the taxi, and got off. We waited a while and the bus didn’t come. Meanwhile, a guy told us he would be willing to take us to the village of Purace in his car. We eventually decided on that. We got to Purace, and it was a really quiet, sleepy town. There was a restaurant open where we had a nice breakfast, and the waitress/owner/cook told us there was usually a bus that comes, but we should make sure and watch for it because it would be the only one. She also told us that it might just not come at all. After breakfast we waited for the bus for a while and nothing came. Finally a semi truck pulled up and we flagged it down. They let us hop on, us 2 girls in the front, and the boys in the cargo part. The bus dropped us off at a fork in the road, where it also dropped another of it’s hitchhikers who was from the area. He told us where the Condor lookout was, so we climbed to the top of that and enjoyed some amazing views.

Then we kept walking down the road. We had been told the entrance to the park was only about a kilometer away, but it was clearly farther. Finally we saw a passing jeep, and they let us hitch a ride to the entrance of the park. There was an information center, but it was locked and no one was there, so we took a trail and decided to see where it lead. It ended up taking us to some beautiful hot springs. The weird thing, though, was the complete lack of people. After walking around the hot springs for a while, we finally saw another older couple. They were retirees from Canada who had been doing all kinds of amazing things, like taking a cruise to Antarctica and traveling all over South America. I totally want to be them when I retire. We asked if they had any idea of what else to do in the park and/or how to do it. They were pretty much just scoping it out like we were, but they did remind us the last bus out was around 5.

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We headed back up the trail we had come in on, and back to the main road. We decided to take it and see if we came upon anything else. We got to a trail marked Cascada (waterfall) San Nicolas, so we headed down that one. The trail ended up being a little difficult, i20150223_141154n that it was filled with sloppy mud that would eat your shoe if you weren’t careful. We had to do a lot of leaping from rock to rock to make it through without destroying our footwear. But we saw that it was worth it when came to the waterfall.

When we got back to the main road again, we decided to start making our way back. It was a long walk, and eventually we were able to flag down a jeep that allowed us to hang on the back. I got some good footing, but the rest of our group wasn’t quite so fortunate, and they were literally holding on for dear life. It dropped us back off at the information center, where we met up with our Canadian friends again. This time there were actually people at the information center having some sort of group excursion. We caught the bus, thankfully. I was getting a little worried that we might be spending the night in the park, because traffic on that road was sparse. But we made it back to Popayan, in time to have our last amazing dinner with the volunteers at their hostel.

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But the adventure doesn’t stop there. Jordan and I decided to get an early start out the next morning for the 5 hour bus trip back to Armenia. We left town around 8 or 9, but within an hour, the bus stopped. The police had blocked the road. I figured they would give a quick look through the bus, and maybe check our ID’s, because that happened sometime. Not so. It turns out that all traffic was stopped due to an indigenous group holding a march to protest land rights violations. Apparently it had gotten pretty heated, and they were blocking the highway with semis. We thought we’d be stopped for an hour or so. Five hours later, after many arguments amongst the driver and passengers about whether to wait it out or head back to Cali, police started letting us through. The bus made it maybe a half an hour before we stopped again. I fell asleep in the back waiting, and woke up about an hour later to Jordan saying that this bus was turning around, but there was another one up ahead on the road that was going to try (no guarantees) to make it to Cali. We decided to go for it. We made it through, and in Cali we caught a bus to Armenia, arriving only 6 hours later than planned.

Orientation in Bogota

Before heading back to Colombia, I got to spend some time in Georgia with my sister and her family. I got in lots of quality time with the niece and nephews, hung out with the Mom’s Club, made a trip to the Sweetwater Brewery, saw the Bodies Exhibit in Atlanta, and just had a general good time.

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On February 1st, my sister kindly drove me to the airport in the middle of the night. I made a stop in Ft. Lauderdale and then on to Bogota. It’s amazing how much faster you can get there when you fly out of Atlanta instead of Sioux Falls. At the airport, there was a group of Volunteers Colombia teachers waiting to load up the bus and head to the hotel that we would call home for the next 2 weeks. Once we all packed ourselves and our stuff into the bus, we headed about an hour out of the city to the Xue Sabana Hotel Campestre in Cajica. Which is basically a hotel kind of out in the middle of nowhere. I was in the right place in line when we were checking in, because I happened to get a room all to myself.

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The next 2 weeks was a lot of fun, but also very tiring. Technically, I didn’t have to go to orientation, since I was a teacher last year, but I thought it would be a good thing to do, since the Heart For Change “orientation” I received last year was severely lacking. Pretty much all they said was “Try not to get drugged so that people can’t rape you and steal all your money.” Then they put me on a plane to Armenia and contacted me maybe twice for the rest of the year. In December, a week before the semester ended, they called to check up on me and make sure everything was going ok at my school and with my living situation. So nice of them to finally give a fuck 2 months later, when I’m about to go home. Clearly, I’m not a fan of HFC, but luckily I’ve found Volunteers Colombia to be a much more organized and helpful organization.

I also wanted to go to orientation so that I would be able to meet the other teachers that are going to be around Colombia, and I’m really glad I did. The best part about orientation was getting to know the other volunteers. All of them had interesting stories about traveling and teaching all over the world. This is why travel is addicting. Because everywhere you go – in hostels, at your job, wherever you’re volunteering – you hear amazing firsthand stories about all the other places in the world that you have yet to see.

There were about 170 of us, I think, and I connected with a lot of other Teach and Learn in Georgia (TLG) alums who had the same crazy memories of supras and tchatcha and gorgeous landscapes that I did. I talked with some AmeriCorps alums. I swapped stories of German host families, some crazy, some wonderful. As usual, I was the only South Dakotan.

It almost felt like summer camp, especially when standing in line in the dining hall for every meal. At the beginning, you made an effort to get to know everyone and tried to remember names and backgrounds. However, after a few days, you got a little sick of the “What’s your name? Where are you from? What city will you be in?” game and you just sat at a table and joined in on the conversation, just ignoring the introductions, knowing that there was an unspoken understanding that at this point there was just too many of us to meet everyone and keep them all straight.

For TEFL training, we were broken into four groups, so we got to know our groups a little better. Aside from the TEFL training, we had culture and safety sessions, and we took a trip to Bogota to get our bank and visa stuff all sorted out. At the end of training, we also took a couple days to go into Bogota and do a practicum where we taught classes to some students at the SENA centers. Because of some logistical issues, it ended up not being super productive, but it was still a nice chance to see the centers and get out of the hotel. However, the bus-ride-induced nausea was not so great.

There were also some fun activities planned – yoga, salsa, bonfires, an overnight trip to Bogota with a free day to see some sights. At the end, it was sad to leave, knowing that a lot of the friends you just made, you would never see again. But, I think everyone was ready to get out of the compound and get settled into their cities. The last night was a fun night drinking around the bonfire and hanging out one last time with all the other volunteers. The next morning was a not so fun bus drive to the airport where there was a lot of puking into plastic bags going on. And then back to my beloved Armenia!