Why does a young Canadian teacher decide to live most of her adult life overseas?
I was in my mid-twenties and completing my second degree, a Bachelor of Education, at a lovely limestone university in the Canadian province of Ontario. The job outlook was bleak. My most focused and ambitious friends had mailed their carefully-crafted resumes to school boards all over the province and it was pretty clear that few of them could count on finding work in their home towns.
“Okay.” I thought. “If I can’t teach in Ottawa… then I should have an adventure.”
Looking back, I wish I could say that my decision to go overseas was better thought-out or more sophisticated than that but it really wasn’t. I’d been trained as an English Literature and History teacher and I needed a job. Although my prospects of gainful employment weren’t looking good at home in Canada, overseas schools were desperate for certified teachers whose native language was English. That was me!
Fortunately, the Faculty of Education at my limestone university sponsors an annual overseas teaching fair that brings together recruiters from international schools and qualified teachers looking for positions abroad. In the fall, when it was time to register for the fair, I was not yet certain that I was ready for overseas teaching… the kind of certain that you need to be in order to agree (contractually) to move half-way across the world and create a new life. So I waited. In the spring, when I was absolutely sure, the coordinator at the placement office put me in touch with a private, bilingual school in Cali, Colombia. (Oh… I know what you’re thinking!) My interview was conducted over the phone and, a few days later, I was offered a job teaching 10th grade English Literature. Much to my own surprise (and in spite of the grave concerns voiced by my family) I accepted the job.
Only two words of Spanish did I possess at the time. Hola (hello) and Gracias (thank you). Madness, right? Although it may seem impossibly foolish to move to a foreign country speaking only two words of the language, it’s amazing how far hello and thank you can take you. (I am reminded of this now in Bangkok where my Thai vocabulary consists of, yet again, only hello and thank you.) There was simply no time. Just weeks after being hired, I would be on a flight – my first in ten years – to Cali, Colombia, a country about which I knew virtually nothing. I went to the library and read encyclopedias and articles but the only resource that seemed current and reliable was my Lonely Planet guidebook that I carried around like my bible.
I flew out of the close comfort of my tight-knit Ottawa Valley tribe, to Toronto, to New York, to Miami. Each successive city was larger and warmer and farther from home. At Miami the blast of hot air I walked through, while boarding, almost brought me to my knees. This plane was smaller and packed with rapid-talking Colombians returning from summer vacations spent with Miami siblings and cousins and tias y tios (aunts and uncles). I squeezed into the (highly coveted) middle seat, between a Texan businessman and a Colombian man heading home to Cali. The turbulence rocked the cabin gently, like a cradle, and the American asked me if I had ever been to Cali. I thought it seemed pretty clear that this was my first trip, but it was still kind of him to ask. He had been to Cali many times on business and told me about some of the hot spots. What I know now is that I would see this man’s Cali only from a distance, from the lobby of a hotel where we went to buy over-priced copies of “Time” and “Newsweek” in English. (And only one week out of date.)
The Colombian was charming, and he chatted with me in broken English, for which he apologized and then apologized again. “I dream of speaking Spanish so well.”
“Really?” he asked.
After dinner the airline attendant brought us steaming hot washcloths piled into a pyramid formation on her tray. Warm white face cloths. Uncertain of their purpose, I looked around for guidance. Passengers were washing their faces, their hands, the backs of their necks, and so I took my cue. The cloth was cold by the time I piled it back on the tray with the others. Used little ghosts.
When the pilot announced that we were close to Cali, I had been in the air, and in airports, for 14 hours. As we began our first wide swoop of the valley, Valle del Cauca, which would be my home for these 12 months, I saw flames leaping up towards the sky, dancing a wild, final dance. Please, I thought, don’t let the city be burning now, when I’ve come all this way. The Texan explained that these were fields of sugarcane and that the fires were part of the harvest, needed to burn off the extra bits from the plants, and perhaps scare off a few snakes. I was a farmer’s daughter and understood the extreme measures sometimes required to claim the land and tame the wild things that grow there. “The ashes”, he said, “will travel for miles. You will drive through them on your way to the city.”
Cali, Colombia. At the time, there were 2.2 million inhabitants and it was the third largest Colombian city after Bogota, the capital, and Medellin which was reputed to be the hardest working city in the country. Cali with its average daily high of 32 degrees. 32 degrees full of water. Two hours inland from the rocky Pacific coast, and 12 hours north of the Ecuadorean border, Cali is nestled snug in the basin of a valley filled with smog-producing industry. Sugarcane and coffee. Cocaine. We cannot pretend that fact away, no matter what we do.
As the plane smacked down to meet the sweet earth the other passengers applauded wildly. “Siempre,” said the Colombian. “Always, we thank our Father for delivering us safely home.”
Do you feel a little anxious for our heroine? What do you think happens next in this real-life telenovela?
Stay tuned for weekly stories about my year in Colombia.