Eleven Months in God’s Apartment is my story of moving to Cali, Colombia in 1993 to work as a newly graduated teacher. (Please note that all names have been changed.)
Click here for Part 1.
Click here for Part 2.
Anna, my Canadian teacher-friend and flatmate, arrived in Cali several days after I did. The HS Principal, Guillermo, and I drove to the airport to get her and I felt like a veteran, having mastered this arriving thing already. Guillermo and I stood at the window, searching, and she finally emerged from the crowd hair-first. Her audacious long red hair was pulled back into a ponytail. I waved madly until she saw us. In retrospect, our greeting may have been comedic for the Colombians around us as Anna is tall and strong and striking and I am short and blonde and round. We were a Canadian Laurel and Hardy. In our entire time in the country, Colombians never knew what to do when they first saw us. What was clear, however, was that we were “las extranjeras” or foreigners. Yes, we were foreign.
On the terrible highway, we alternately sped and bumped our way back towards the tiny lights of the city, with me chattering all the way about the school and the city, and Anna, mostly silent, glued to the passing of cane fields.
Almost from our first day we were shutter-happy. We may have been gathering evidence, that we lived there, did this or that thing, or simply made it through. Or it may have been because everything looked so different from home. The colours were more intense, more vivid. There were more greens than the imagination is capable of dreaming. Every (other) moment was a Kodak one.
At some point, we would take photographs of our apartment to send home to our two moms. Each room would be recorded: 3 bedrooms, a living room and dining room, a kitchen complete with our elaborate system for drying clothes. The photos would even show the coloured letters on the fridge, spelling out words in Spanish as we began our adventures in language acquisition. Our moms would be delighted to get these pics. Of course, they had no idea what our apartment was like when we first moved in.
Several days after Anna’s arrival Kind Principal, Lorena, drove us to the furnished apartment that the school had provided. Lorena had not been involved in the choosing, or the shopping, and so all three of us were walking up the five storeys together into the unknown. (Ignorance is bliss!)
Anna and I had some thoughts as to what “furnished” meant but they were wrong ideas. We had been provided with old camp-like cots for our bedrooms. One night on this mattress crawled by like a thousand years. Our living room furniture, a series of taupe vinyl chairs which more or less fit together, looked like it had come from the waiting room of a doctor’s office. (This may well have been true given how many of our students had at least one doctor-parent.) And in the kitchen, our cupboard was practically bare. Lorena left us and we tried to tell ourselves how it wasn’t so bad, how we would make do, and what did we expect, after all? Later that afternoon, we discovered that there were no curtains and no hot water. The shower was broken, as was the phone. Damn Lorena’s Club Med hillside home. We’d moved from the palace to the mud puddle.
This was my longest night in Colombia. We held bedtime off until midnight. We unpacked our two worlds and then composed long and very specific lists of the things we would buy. We spun fantastic tales about these six rooms and how they would look after our spell-casting, once we had worked our decorating magic. Nesters, both.
And then to sleep. (But not.)
The apartment was located on a huge four-lane highway and while the noise of traffic had been noticeable in the daytime, it was now unbearable as I lay tossing and turning in my lumpy bed. The windows were not made of a single pane of glass, but of two rows of small glass slats that opened out. Even when I closed the windows all the way, the sounds of trucks passing still rattled me out of my brain. Unfortunately, I couldn’t sleep on the couch because we didn’t have one. I was at a complete loss which is a very uncomfortable place to be when you are 3,000 miles from home. How would I teach if I couldn’t sleep? How would I function? (Who chose this apartment and what were they thinking?) Exasperated, I got up and wrote my parents a very sad letter describing my terrible apartment sorrow. Honestly, I cannot remember whether I sent them this late-night lament or if, in the end, a calmer mind (my own or Anna’s) intercepted the mailing. After more of the night passed, slow as glaciers, I pulled my mattress into the third and unoccupied bedroom, which faced away from the highway, thinking myself quite clever at this move. There was no salvation, no thickly quiet night to be found anywhere within the walls of our apartment. I waited out the sunrise and finally stumbled into a troubled half-sleep.
This was as bad as Colombia ever felt to me. Subsequently, whenever I saw Anna sneaking into the spare room, stealthily going for her luggage, I would stop her. “We are not leaving yet.” Busted, she would drop the bag and we would make a big pot of Earl Grey tea. And when my bad days would find me packing, if only in my mind, she was always happy to cut me off at the door.
Have you ever made a big move that you regretted? How long did it take before you became comfortable in your new home? Are there some cities/countries/cultures that are simply a bad fit?