Eleven Months in God’s Apartment is my story of moving to Cali, Colombia to work as a teacher in 1993.
Click here for Part 1.
Inside the Cali airport everything shifts and slides. The men checking our documents let me pass. They are smiling. It seems they cannot think me capable of anything that might jeopardize Colombian national security. By now I am sweating so much that there is no word for the way that I am sweating. (Note to self: Get used to this. This is the way that it’s going to be for the next eleven months!) Disoriented, I am gobbled up by a crowd of people surging towards the escalator. We plunge down into the steaming belly of the airport and I’m coughed out at the conveyor belt where our luggage has not appeared. I’ve not yet spotted a friendly face poking out above a sign that bears my name in large letters. This is the point at which I realize that all of the people inside the airport are passengers and staff. The friends and family members (and school administrators) of the passengers are all outside, their expectant faces pressed against a wall of glass. Earlier that afternoon, I phoned Kind Principal from an airport pay phone to confirm my flight information and time. Is she out there? How will I know?
My confidence continues to slip away from me as I watch the the conveyor spit out other people’s luggage. Moving around the carousel are dozens of identical mid-sized black suitcases, a huge television inside a cardboard box marked “FRAGILE”, and a sea of odd-sized packages transported in weirdly-festive multi-coloured, striped shopping bags. A few of us shift uncomfortably and glance around to count how many passengers are left waiting… the luggage orphans. At last my luggage arrives, one bag at a time. These two enormous suitcases are, for me, black-canvas-covered-life. These are the bits and pieces with which I have chosen to start my life in South America. These bags contain the clothing I’ve chosen especially for this climate. (These might be the lightest weight clothes available in all of Canada and, still, I’ll never be cool enough in Cali.) There are pictures from home so I won’t forget the stark and soft lines of the faces I love. I pat my bags affectionately and pull them off to one side of the baggage area, never taking my eyes off them. Of course, I had been warned by virtually everyone I knew about the dangers a young woman might encouter in “The Third World” (that’s the term most people used in 1993) and, particularly, in Colombia. (“Always keep your hands on your luggage and purse when in an airport” is actually one of the better pieces of advice I’ve received in my life.)
Then it hits me. My large box of books, my resources, my coloured markers – my teacher-self – has not appeared and the conveyor machine has stopped spitting its contents onto the belt. How can I teach without these things? I cannot.
I am two seconds from an anxiety attack. The man at the desk does not understand me when I try to explain, in English, that one piece of my luggage has not arrived from Miami. We don’t share a language. How can I explain that I’ve never really been anywhere (just chaperoned school trips to Toronto, Vancouver, Washington D.C.) and that I don’t know how to do this on my own. Tears well up in my eyes. He shrugs. It’s not his fault.
I return to my baggage and sit down on its bulging familiarity. What to do next? I’m considering my options (there are actually none that I can think of) when a woman with short brown hair approaches me. “Monna?” she says.
This is Kind Principal and she whispers that she has bribed a guard to let her inside the airport. She floats over to the man at the counter and quickly fills out a report for my missing box of teaching supplies. “No problem. It should be here tomorow,” she tells me. She appears, in that moment, to have developed a soft little halo in the space just above her head. Often, in the months to come, she will save me in small ways.
The drive from the airport is long, most of an hour, and the highway bursts through late night blackness. I chat with Kind Principal who, at my age, already has three young daughters. I later learn that her family donated the land on which our school is built. She met her husband while at university in the States. They tell me about themselves and ask me questions about me, about Canada, but all I can do is gawk out the window at this radical new landscape. My first palm trees. I might as well be on the moon.
Suddenly it is raining ashes. (Just as the Texan from the plane had predicted.)
It’s late when we arrive at the house but I want to call home; I need to let my parents know that I have arrived safely. I have never been happier to hear my mother’s voice. She says, “I love you” and I can tell she’s a little worried. It’s weird to be so far away from home.
For several days I stay with Kind Principal and her family at their gorgeous home. The administrators at the school felt that it might be unpleasant, intimidating even, for me to move into my own apartment before my housemate, a teacher-friend from Canada, arrived in Cali. The first day, still groggy and disoriented, I go to the school with Kind Principal. The school is just up the road but she still drives her car this incredibly short distance. This makes me laugh. I have been walking forty minutes to and from my university campus for several years. I do not yet know the rules for here.
I cannot fathom the heat. With its long, greedy, yellow tonque, the sun licks the moisture from my body. Parched, I hear my mother’s voice in my head… she’s telling me to drink more water but I’m not sure which water is safe to drink. That evening, at Club Med (my nickname for Kind Principal’s home), it is a bit cooler and I help out in the kitchen. Later, back in my own posh bedroom, I read a bit and and write in my journal. I’m obsessed with recording everything… what time I woke, what I ate, the smells of things. Later, when we knew each other much better, I asked one of the other foreign teachers, B, if she kept a journal. “No,” she replied, “Not anymore. I’m happy now.” I would remember that response, months later, when I picked up my own journal and noticed that I had not written a word in some weeks.