Tag Archives: International educator

Conversations with the International Educator in Your Life

This is the second in a series of posts for and about international educators. The first one is here.

When I’m back in Canada for long vacations it often happens that people don’t ask me many questions about my life. That’s weird, right? And I know I’m not the only one who has felt that way as I’ve heard this comment from many other international educators. Perhaps part of it is that I keep asking questions about their life/work/family and people don’t necessarily notice that we’re not talking about my life at all. It could also be that people feel awkward asking about something they’re not familiar with… or they don’t want to be “nosy”… or they might feel a bit envious about a life they perceive to be more glamorous than their own.

Whatever the reason, most international teachers would love to engage with people at home in yummier two-way conversations about our lives. As Ram Dass said, “We’re all just walking each other home.”

To that end, here are some questions you could ask the international educator in your life:

  1. Do you have some photographs of your school and your apartment and home? I’d love to see them.
  2. What’s a habit or ritual from the country where you live that you think people living in your home country would benefit from?
  3. What has been the biggest challenge of living in this country?
  4. What are you really proud of in your teaching practice?
  5. Tell me about your boss.
  6. Is there a book you recommend I read so that I can better understand the country where you’re living?
  7. How was the process of settling in to your apartment and this job? Did anything surprise you?
  8. What’s your favourite meal right now? Is that something you cook yourself or is that a meal at a restaurant?
  9. Tell me about a student you admire.
  10. When you moved abroad, did you feel ready? Tell me about that.
  11. What are you reading right now?
  12. What can you buy with the equivalent of ten Canadian (fill in your own currency) dollars?
  13. What’s a good metaphor for teaching internationally?
  14. What’s the loveliest thing you’ve ever witnessed on a flight?
  15. What do you now notice or understand about your home country as a result of having been away from it?
  16. How is the school you teach at like the schools we attended as students? In what ways is it different?
  17. What’s a cool lesson you’ve taught recently?
  18. What are some of the less glamorous aspects of living internationally?
  19. How do you get to work? What’s your favourite part of the journey?
  20. How has living abroad affected your fashion sense and the way that you dress?
  21. What’s the view from your home? (If you are talking on Skype, your international educator could just show you!)
  22. What food/meal have you recently encountered that you’d never had before?
  23. How have you changed because you lived and worked outside your country?
  24. If you could give one piece of advice to your twenty-five year old self, what would it be?
  25. How do you define home?

Pro Tip: If you feel tempted to ask the international educator in your life when they are moving home, you could tell them, instead, that you love them.

In the comments below, please add a question that might spark an interesting conversation with an international educator. When writing this list, I let my curiosity and respect for other people and cultures guide me.
 

What’s an international educator?


{The cherry blossoms in Nakameguro, Tokyo, Japan}

There are thousands of international educators working around the world right now but many people in North America, including lots of teachers, don’t understand what that means. This post is meant to serve as a quick explanation of this particular way of life.

For the last 20 years, I’ve worked and played and taken Instagrams and paid my bills by working at high schools outside of Canada. I’ve made my way in, and through, the world as an international educator.

How it begins

Looking back, I see that I was very lucky. Because I did my teaching degree at Queen’s University in Kingston Ontario, and because Queen’s Faculty of Education hosts an overseas teaching fair each year, I learned about international teaching while I was still a student. When I was in Teacher’s College, the job prospects in my home province of Ontario were not good and rather than moving to a remote community in the far north of Ontario, I thought I’d try teaching in another country. Even though I didn’t attend the actual job fair, the Placement Officers kindly put me in touch with a school in Colombia that was looking for two English teachers. The Head of School traveled to Kingston to interview candidates and I was fortunate enough to be hired along with a woman I knew well from my Bachelor of Education program. We asked to be flatmates. Two months later I was living in a city called Cali in Colombia, South America. I was living in a city that, up until eight weeks earlier, I had never even heard of. Although I was at the school for just a year, during which there were some bumpy days, I can honestly say that the decision to “try” teaching outside Canada altered my life path. My year in Colombia marked the beginning of a truly interesting life and career.

After completing my Masters of Education back at Queen’s I returned to international teaching. Originally certified as an English and Social Studies teacher, I earned my qualification as a School Counselor and worked for the next 18 years at four different international schools located in Monterrey Mexico, Barcelona Spain, Bangkok Thailand, and Yokohama Japan.

Do I have to be an English teacher?
People often assume that all international teachers are teaching English (as a foreign language) but that’s not the case. International schools serve some combination of local and international students which means that teachers hired to work internationally teach all the subjects students study: Math, Science, Humanities, English Literature, Languages and many arts and elective courses. Although we teach in English, most of us are not English teachers. Those of us who are, teach literature in the same way we would teach English at home.

Adventurous?
When people hear the list of countries I’ve worked in, they often assume that I’m a very adventurous person but that’s not exactly accurate. I do love to travel, and I feel so fortunate to have lived internationally but I am a person with a VERY healthy need for structure, predictability and a big old safety net. I am living proof that it’s possible to teach internationally and still have a life that is safe and secure. A life that might even look a little bit boring on a day-to-day basis.

A (school) day in the life
At the school where I worked until June 2017, there are 650 students from approximately 50 countries. The teachers are from between 15 and 20 different countries. Most students travel to school on foot, or by train from Yokohama or Tokyo; in fact students as young as seven take the train on their own. (It IS that safe!) Other students are dropped off at school by their parents. Students at international schools come from many different educational backgrounds. There are students that have attended that school since they were in nursery school, students who’ve also attended local public schools and studied in Japanese, and Japanese students who have studied at international schools in Japan and/or other countries. There are also many students from other countries, each one with a different educational background which is shaped by the kind of work their parents do and the companies they work for. For high school students, the day begins at 9 o’clock in the morning and is finished at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Teachers arrive at 8:30 a.m. and finish their work day at 4:30 p.m. or later. Students have a 50 minute lunch hour and a break in the morning like North American schools. Before school, at lunch and after school, students participate in clubs, associations and sports. Students compete in activities like Model United Nations and Brain Bowl. University representatives visit the school. The places we teach are much more similar to North American schools than they are different.

Making a living
Some international schools are run as businesses while others are nonprofit schools. There are good and great schools in both categories. Although I’ve never worked at a for-profit school, that could change in the future. At some schools, teachers make just enough money to live comfortably and do some traveling while, at other schools, teachers are able to save a large percentage of their salary each year. Most of us started our international teaching careers at less well-known schools where the pay was not as good but there are certainly exceptions to that trend. International teachers are also responsible for planning for their own retirement as we won’t have a pension from a school board in our home country. Some teachers work internationally for just one posting and then return home while other educators spend their entire teaching career overseas. There’s no right or wrong way to do this, just the way that best suits the teacher or teaching couple. Many international schools provide free tuition to up to two dependents which means that the children of international educators receive an amazing private school education.

Why it’s worth it

The gorgeous thing about working internationally is that outside of our regular jobs, during the evenings, weekends and school holidays, we have access to amazing opportunities to experience, and learn more about, the cultures in which we live. For almost two decades, I’ve been immersed in cultures in a profound way. In my first international teaching gig in Colombia, I sometimes felt frustrated when Colombians didn’t behave like Canadians… didn’t line up like Canadians, didn’t show up on time like Canadians. This seems hilarious to me now now but it takes both time and effort to comprehend and appreciate how people’s deeply held beliefs and values shape the way they live their lives.

Living outside of Canada has helped me grow. I’m more empathetic, respectful and compassionate as a result of being a witness to so many other cultures and ways of being a person in the world.

Finally, as a person who lives outside my home country, I‘ve developed a better understanding of what it means to be Canadian and this, I believe, has made me a better citizen of the world.

Next week
In next week’s post, I’ll provide a series of questions that will help you engage the international educators in your life in the conversation they’ve been hoping to have since they first went overseas.

 

 

Interiors Project: Debbie Studwell in Tokyo, Japan

Welcome to the 11th issue of The Interiors Project!

This week, I have the pleasure of introducing you to Debbie Studwell who works at an international school in Tokyo. Debbie contacted me a few months ago, after DP and I moved to Yokohama, to introduce herself. She had seen my blog and wanted to reach out and say hello which is perhaps one of the coolest things about having a blog! Debbie has also worked in Bangkok so we have Thailand, Japan, international education and a love of interior design in common. At the EARCOS teaching conference in Bangkok in late March, Debbie stopped me in the hallway to introduce herself… so we’ve had just five minutes together in person but I look forward to spending some time with Debbie in person. Perhaps we’ll meet at a cosy cafe halfway between her school and mine which are on opposite sides of Tokyo. Enjoy the tour of Debbie’s gorgeous home as well as her thoughts about her life overseas.

I am the oldest of six kids, a member of a middle class family from the Philadelphia suburbs, and later on a small town in upstate New York. Traveling meant going to the Jersey shore, Cape Cod, or big excitement, Montreal or NYC for a day. However there was evidence of adventure and foreign travel in my family. My grandparents were travelers, my Mother’s emigrated from Belfast in the late 1920s, not to return for almost 40 years to their beloved Ireland. My father’s family made the next voyage after the Mayflower, my father used to say that in typical Studwell fashion we procrastinated and missed the boat. My paternal grandfather volunteered to drive an ambulance in Spain, a la Hemingway, before the US entered WW1. My father was one of the many brave Americans who fought during WW2. Having fought in Europe he had stories he never told us, but he did reminisce about R&R in the south of France, or the good times at his home base in England. The summer I was 15 my good friend Barbara and I had just arrived at her family’s summer cottage, that night we watched the original Anastasia [no, not Disney] with Yul Brynner and Ingrid Bergman. We were so fascinated that we begged her Mom to drive us back to our town library to learn more. Yes, this was pre-internet days. The next summer I ventured off to Germany as a nanny, a job my Mom helped me get. I’m sure she had no idea what this trip would start. During my senior year my family sponsored an exchange student from Chile, another great experience. Then, four years of college, no money for travel or junior year abroad, I was stuck stateside. Nine months after graduation I fell into a chance to teach in Australia, and I have been overseas ever since. I have taught in Australia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Japan, England, and now back to Japan. I am a third culture adult, having spent over 30 years living outside my home country, and making many new places “home”.

A (small) home in Japan
My current home is in the western suburbs of Tokyo, about 30 minutes from downtown. It’s just a 5 minute commute to work, I love that. My flat is quite small, only 51 square meters, or 167 square feet for my American friends. Even though Japan is famous for small homes, I live in a small place because I can keep the leftover housing allowance. For me that translates to more money for holidays! While my flat is small I like it. To me home is where I feel comfortable, where I can have my favorite things. It also needs to be a place I can invite people over for a drink, a meal, or a movie night. When I move to a new place I need music and wine, then I unpack everything at once and quickly because I want to be settled. I am very organized and neat, which makes this small place work for me. I would kill for more closet space, but otherwise it is a good home. I am lucky to have some free space at school to hide away a few things.

{Winter scenery from my classroom.}

Shopping
It is obvious when you enter my flat that I like to shop, no, love to shop. As I travel I like to pick up objects that remind me of those places. The thrill is in the hunt, to find unique items I won’t find at Pier One or Cost Plus. Shopping is hard work, but my kind of work. I can’t move the furniture too much, but I am constantly rearranging collections, layering objects, going higher, going lower. When friends visit they always have questions about where things came from, though I am sure some of them just think I have too much stuff! I read a scary amount of blogs and websites about decorating. I have about 10 magazines on my Ipad, and I love to see what is different in each place I visit, bringing ideas home with me, if nothing else.

{Shopping at Shrine Sales. So much fun.}

My Home
My décor is predominantly Asian, but I try to blend in treasures from Africa and Europe. I love photos, books, artwork, baskets, blue and white porcelain, and textiles. I doubt I will ever be finished decorating, I think of my house as a work in progress. I have also become an unpaid decorator for friends and family, though sometimes I get dinner and I will always work for a good white wine. If I was not a teacher, I would love to do something in the decorating field.

{My tiny but lovely home.}

{Dinner for my magazine club, we are too lazy to read a book! Seriously, it is just an excuse to eat and drink with friends.}

A few rules I follow; from William Morris: “Have nothing in your house you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” Also, from a 1950’s decorating guide, “Have red in every room, and a bottle behind every curtain.” Wow, I am glad that was not my life. I do have red in every room, but my bottles are out in the open!

Life as an international educator
Most people think that living overseas is just an extended vacation. Wow… that is debatable. Monday to Friday I work and I usually work hard. It’s good that I love being a 4th grade classroom teacher, but it is a demanding job.

Added to that I am basically illiterate in Japan, and I need a lot of help to do daily tasks due to language limitations. I really appreciate how easy it is to communicate when I am in English speaking countries. I love new cultures, but I am not a linguist. I still pay taxes, [in two countries!], go to the dentist and clean my house. Okay, in some countries I did not clean my house. While I have had a huge advantage to do and see amazing things I have missed some important family events, good times with US friends etc. However, I would not change my life for the world, [there may be a pun in there somewhere.] I love the challenges, the unexpected, experiencing new cultures and places. I enjoy taking photos and trying new food as I travel. It is a gift that I have friends basically all over the map. I have travelled to 60+ countries, and I am not finished.

I cannot pick a favorite, so many places are great for so many different reasons, but top contenders are Italy, Nepal, Thailand, England, Bali, and South Africa. I like places for different times and events in my life. I can’t think of anywhere I would not go back to, but some I would return to only if someone else paid for it. There are just too many places to go, my list only gets bigger, not smaller. I am constantly reading and exploring travel sites, and while I am on vacation I am already planning the next trip. I don’t think I will ever tire of traveling, but I am tired of long, uncomfortable, increasingly expensive flights.

Next travels
Next on my itinerary, I am heading off to see friends for a few days in Chiangmai before the EARCOS teacher’s conference in Bangkok. Summer plans are still in the thinking stage. Like my ancestors I do procrastinate making travel decisions. Mostly, it is because I cannot decide where to go; I am greedy and want to go everywhere. I have been known to only decide the day that school gets out.

{So, so true.}

{Even Ronald loves Thailand.}

Africa
My latest passion for 4 of the past 5 summers has been safari in Africa. I have been to South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Kenya and Tanzania. Who knew animals were so amazing, I was just a dog lover before these trips. Now I can’t wait to see the Big Five again, will it be a lion sitting 2 feet away from me in the jeep, an elephant rubbing up against our tent, or an angry hippo charging our boat in Botswana? That was a terrifying but exciting time! I am just sorry none of us clicked even one picture, we were all too scared.

{My latest travel passion, AFRICA.}

{I love the ellies.}

{Victoria Falls, one heck of a helicopter ride.}

{They are so gorgeous.}

London
I love Europe too and I hit London every summer.

{London will always be a favorite place.]

Italy
Each year, I also try to go somewhere new. Last year, I visited a small town in Italy called Ceriana. It is inland from the Italian Riviera, a medieval walled town. A good friend is retiring from teaching and opening a B&B/cooking school there. Let me know if you are interested; it’s fantastic!

{Italy. Beautiful and great food.}

Other Travels
It may finally be time for me to get to Russia this summer. On the other hand, maybe it is time to go back to Australia. Of course, I always head home to the US to see my family. Remember the old joke, “There are 3 good reasons to teach, June, July, and August.” I love to take full advantage of my long holidays. YES, I KNOW HOW LUCKY I AM!!!

When is it time to leave?
I think it is important to find a balance; you don’t want to be like the character in Gerry Raffety’s song” Baker Street”, and say, “Another year and THEN I’ll be happy”. Go, if you don’t like it. Stay, if you do, just don’t stay only for the money.

The next time I leave it will be to retire. I don’t know where I will go when I “grow up”, but I have a few ideas. In the past the decision was usually easy; time to leave because I was ready for a change, or wanted a new challenge. I left once because the job was not good, the pay was awful, living conditions not so great. I stayed there only one year, but I got good experience for my resume, learned Spanish, and made friends who are still important in my life 30 years later. FYI, they all left too! I have never been evacuated, I have just missed a few wars and civil unrest, good timing/luck there. I was in Japan last year for the big earthquake, as a matter of fact I am writing this on the one year anniversary. It was scary, and oh, so sad, but I am still here. Actually, I think seeing the integrity and bravery of the Japanese people actually made me like Japan even more.

{Japan, my latest home.}

{Festivals in Japan offer wonderful insight into Japanese culture, and great photo opportunities.}

Thanks, Monna for starting this and letting me participate. I have loved reading everyone’s entries, and I think we should start a house swap between us. Until then, I may meet some of you at EARCOS, or see the rest of you somewhere out there in this ever expanding world. In the words of the great Joe Walsh, “Life’s been good to me so far…”

Please leave your love notes for Debbie in the comments section below.

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.
Really.
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.