The Beginning

I hate the beginning. Love it and hate it. Acostumbrarse is one of my favorite verbs in Spanish, meaning “get accustomed to.” What, you don’t have a favorite Spanish verb? You really should.

I like acostumbrandome, settling in to a new location, though I prefer the general knowing that comes in a few weeks once I can establish a routine and understanding of life. It’s an exhausting process of remembering names and conjuring the correct Spanish. I don’t have internet in my house, and while I have vague plans to figure out which mobile plug-in to buy for my computer, it’s so much easier to disconnect and disregard.

We graduated from orientation with several dozen hours of TEFL training and two free t-shirts and the airport bus collected all but the twelve Bogotá volunteers for their trips to Baranquilla, Cartagena, Santa Ana, Cali and Medellín. I took a car to my new home, the tiny brick town of Tabio. I’m living here with a lovely older couple named Edith and Amalcar who seem a bit unsure about this random foreigner staying in their back bedroom, but welcoming nonetheless. Most of their four kids and seven grandkids have been constantly filtering through the house and cheerfully entertaining me.

 

The school where I’ll be teaching, Gimnasio Moderno Santa Barbara, is about three blocks away. When polled last year, 60 percent of the parents indicated that they wanted an improvement in the English program. This calls for two big changes: new books and curriculum, and a native speaker. One of the biggest obstructions to English acquisition in Colombia is simply that the English teachers don’t have sufficient levels of the language themselves. Classes end up being taught in Spanish and focus on grammar and reading comprehension with little to no development of speaking skills.

GMSB is very small with only about 200 students and fifteen teachers for grades 1-11. The tentative class schedule has me teaching English full-time to the 7th-11th graders, and an hour a week with each of the other grades. It’s going to be a busy year.

Slowly, the particulars of the year are finally making sense, and more speedily I’ll be writing about their development.

Also, I officially have an address where you can send me prezzies and love letters. Email me (brighid.carey@gmail.com) and I’ll gladly share – past volunteers assured me that packages actually do reach the wilds of South America.

Dios mio this country is dangerous.

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Orientation Adventures

As I mentioned before, all 36 of us have been coexisting in a little country home retreat outside of Bogotá called Santa Cruz, until the 22nd when everyone ships out for our placements. Our group is really cool, with people from all over the U.S. (many from California and DC), two Australians who resent our shameful renditions of their accents, three married couples, two returning volunteers and a forty-year age range. It’s made for lots of great conversations and laughs but like I said, I’m ready to get out to Tabio and get started.

We spend most of our days in a series of classes related to English language teaching, classroom routines and daily Spanish lessons. Spanish has been frustrating for me because I just feel like I’m done with the classroom learning and can only improve through interaction with native speakers.

Orientation has also included a few trips to Bogotá, and the more I see it the more excited I am to be stationed right outside. It’s not an aesthetically pleasing city in the least but there are mountains, tiendas and buses and it’s so essentially Latin American. We went to an office called DAS to get our Colombian ID cards and christened it the Dumb American Services as we waited in line for a few hours and reinforced American stereotypes for all passerby.

The most interesting field trip was a long day of wearing dress clothes and looking important. We had a scheduled visit to the Colombian Ministry of Education that was apparently a huge press conference. We sat unknowingly in a meeting room and grew more and more confused as reporters and cameras filed in. WorldTeach Colombia is not directly aligned with the Ministry of Education as we partner with an NGO called Volunteers Colombia, but the Minister herself greeted us and said some nice words about their new education plan with our smiling gringo faces in the background. Some of us were pulled aside and interviewed and one volunteer gave a great speech for the cameras. Everything was on all the news channels and they picked the most ridiculous picture possible to put on the front page of El Tiempo newspaper. Another news crew hunted us down during a training session at a Bogotá school, and someone volunteered me to do a radio interview in Spanish that may or may not ever happen. It’s really great and well-earned publicity for WorldTeach in the states though from the Colombia perspective it’s…interesting.

After the Ministry visit we had a security briefing at the embassy which was far more realistic and down-to-earth than the one I had in Ecuador. The guy enlightening us on carjackings and militants wasn’t much older than I am and just gave it to us straight: Don’t be stupid. Colombia has a rough recent history but the cities are just as safe now as big cities in the U.S. and the same concerns apply*. The embassy reps were very friendly and seemed genuinely excited that we’re here.

Aside from a possible flea outbreak in our room and some nights at the tiendas across the street from Santa Cruz, things have been as tame as Colombia can get. Some pictures below…I swear I have human friends here, I just really like dogs. And barbed wire.

*The guy sitting next to me at the internet cafe just advised me that Bogota is very dangerous and I shouldn’t talk on the bus because people will know I’m foreign. He also tried to Facebook friend me and let me know that I can call him if I need anything. Oh, Colombia.

Free Time

So far – three days in – Colombia has felt almost disturbingly…natural. It’s very similar to Ecuador, with the same Latin American flavor characteristic to Guatemala as well. Street dogs, corrugated metal, food vendors, traffic, buses, pollution – it feels like home. I’m trying to have “no expectations” as our WorldTeach directors are urging, to accept everything as a surprise and a novelty, but instead of stepping out of my comfort zone, I jumped headfirst into  it – until we step into the classrooms at least. I mean, there are GRANADILLAS, only the best fruit in the world. How could I not be content here?

Orientation just started on Thursday and it will be an exhausting 2.5 weeks. We have intense TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) training, lessons in culture and safety, Spanish classes and miscellaneous errands like setting up bank accounts and ID cards. We’re staying at a retreat center called Santa Cruz in a little town called Cota outside of Bogota. It’s sort of a big country home with a large open area for dining surrounded by small bedrooms (in which we’re packed summer-camp style) and other rooms where we have meetings and class.

The other people in my WorldTeach group, about 36 in total, are amazing. Everyone has traveled to incredible places and accomplished spectacular things. It’s a stretch for me to be socializing and surrounded by people almost 24/7 but I know there are some really great friends in this group. Half of us will stay in Bogotá and other interior cities while the rest will take off for the coast at the end of orientation My school is actually located in a suburb to the north of the city called Tabio – other than that, I don’t have much information. I’m getting very excited and intimidated about teaching. Right now we’re in this orientation bubble where we can barely unpack, happy to get to know everyone but anxious to get to our living and teaching sites.

There are no pictures because Andre came out of hiding for the first time this morning.

Quito crew, did I mention the granadillas? And BonIce. That’s all I really need in life.

Blast off.

Thank yous.

Boys and the entire Danbury crew for putting up with me.

Coworkers and bosses at AIFS for a great ten months.

Gunner for snugs and not eating anything important.

Teagan, Brianne and Paul for the dinners and company.

Everyone (players, parents, coaches) involved with Westport Field Hockey.

Sue and Paul for adopting me after the disgusting Halloween snow power outage.

Teachers and students in the Danbury High School ESL classes.

Family around the globe.

Volkswagen “Babycar” Cabrio, thanks for the awesome gas mileage, and for always breaking down when I could safely and conveniently pull over.

Friends – thanks for the couches, the weekends, the drinks, the calls, texts, emails, the perspective, the great times. You guys rock.

Just about anyone I’ve been in contact with this past year, particularly this crazy fall…thanks. It was a blast.

After 4:53 pm tomorrow, I’m out. We have three weeks of orientation outside Bogota with limited internet and whatnot, so consider this a brief blog hiatus. I have a billion more things to say and hopefully I’ll get them into words sooner or later. Nervous? Nahhh. I’m about to enter my comfort zone, not leave it.

A little Kerouac to keep you going:

“But why think about that when all the golden lands ahead of you and all kinds of unforseen events wait lurking to surprise you and make you glad you’re alive to see?”

and

“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain ’til you see their specks dispersing? – It’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”

Colombia awaits.

From Within the Whirlwind

By the time I post this, it will be midnight, and 24 hours until January 4th. That’s the crazy day wayyyy off in the future when I get to go to one of my favorite locations (the airport) and hop on a big ol’ Delta machine headed south. Am I ready? Mentally, I’ve been ready since about five years ago. Logistically, I really hope that I at least leave the house with my passport. Packing for a year abroad and moving back home in the same 3 days is NOT recommended. Also we recently acquired a Wii, and it is not at all conducive to productivity.

In the midst of completely not preparing for Colombia, I decided I had a serious deficit of friend time, so a little [12+ hour roundtrip] car ride was in order – down to DC for some quality Windham lovin’. Some of my absolute favorite people congregated in Alexandria for New Year’s Eve to act like complete weirdos, make fun of each other, dance, drink and leave all filters and boundaries behind. Living so far from friends isn’t always easy, but it definitely makes the reunions…special.

Never forget your safe word.

It was also a great opportunity to do some fundraising for my trip. While other WorldTeach volunteers host fundraising parties and events, I just sat on the floor and had money thrown at me. Literally. The quarters hurt.

There's nothing like sitting on the floor as your friends degradingly fling coins at you.

I think the hole-y hobo tights I tried to wear the night before set off their pity (generosity?) but hey, girl’s gotta pay tolls.

Classy folk having a chuckle

C.S. Lewis wisely said, “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, “What! You too? I thought I was the only one.” That couldn’t sum up my best friendships more and I’m so very lucky to have them.

Now it’s officially January 3rd, so January 4th is tomorrow? That’s weird. If you’ll excuse me, I have to unpack and repack my bags 7 more times before I can sleep.