Tag Archives: Colombia

Eleven Months in God’s Apartment (3)

Calle de los Amigos (Street of Friends} in Bogota by Nehko

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?

Eleven Months in God’s Apartment (2)

{Photograph by Nehko}

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.

“Yes. Yes!”

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.

Eleven Months in God’s Apartment (1)

{Cali, Colombia. Photo by Jordi Gomara}

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.”
{Cloud photograph by Hectormesa}

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.