Deja vu? Or something like that, only way different.

December 31, 2012. A year ago, I was saying goodbye to some of my oldest friends in Washington, DC just a few days before I would leave for a year in Colombia. I was slightly apprehensive but mostly just antsy and ready for my next “adventure.”

(Are they still adventures if they’re totally recurring and last up to 365 days? Is banging my head against a whiteboard because no one wants to learn the present perfect tense an adventure? Is working 40-hr weeks plus 2-3 hours a day of lesson planning and grading? I know, like, paragliding and climbing mountains counts, but it’s not like I was doing that ALL the time.)

Now, I’m sitting in a friend’s borrowed apartment in the capital city of 8 million people where I can go…certainly not everywhere, but a lot of places, confidently and securely. Half the things surrounding me seem to be remnants of life in Colombia: a stack of unused index cards, a receipt from my new cedula application, a few stray pesos, my Restrepo leather jacket and an alpaca blanket from Ecuador draped over my shoulders.

Upon coming to Colombia, really just upon applying to WorldTeach last August, I had no idea or expectation where it would take me. I wanted to get back to Latin America – I craved the chaos, the challenge and the vibrance. I wanted to give a hand at teaching, because I’ve always loved school, so maybe I would love being on the other side. Hey, it’s not like I had a clearer life plan in mind. I knew I would make friends and travel…but I couldn’t have hoped for better friends or more incredible travel experiences. I came for cultural immersion, and managed to create a home for myself without sacrificing the experience or my own background. I kinda learned to teach, and I learned that while it’s fun, it’s not my career. I had to work really, really hard at it, and felt like the efforts were sucking my energy and never yielded a satisfying enough result. I loved my year, and I’m so glad I did it. I gained so many skills and experiences and I really loved my students. Just, no more teaching. For now.

Like I mentioned a few months back, after a short time here, I wanted to stay in Colombia. I was comfortable without being bored, I knew enough but had plenty left to learn and to see, I had met people but didn’t know them as well as I wanted to. I wasn’t done here, and there was no reason for me to be done – no job or schooling to go back to, no relationship or mortgage.

Then, the seasonless skies opened up and the absolute perfect job for my background, passions, skills and current life situation appeared. And now, it’s mine. In two days, 43 new WorldTeach volunteer teachers are touching down at El Dorado’s sparkly new international terminal, where I’ll be meeting them as a member of the Field Staff. Logistics, counseling, liaising, problem-solving and support are my new best friends and I could not be more content with the challenge of the year ahead.

Sadly, Bogotá is not part of my new employment package. I had envisioned myself living here another year in the perfect Chapinero apartment with Natalie and colorful floor mats and Raquirá ceramics and potluck dinners. Instead, I’m relocating to the loud, vivid, oppressively hot Caribbean coast to oversee our volunteers based in Barranquilla and Isla Baru. What’s another change of address at this point, anyway?

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Wishing the world the best in 2013.

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Colombia: The Risk is Choosing the Slowest Line at the Grocery Store and other stories

Fifteen hypothetical chapters (blog posts?) that would star in a work of non-fiction about my (ahem, first) year in Colombia.

  1. What Were My High School Teachers Doing On Weekends?
  2. I’m 94% Sure This Is Illegal In My Country
  3. ¿De Donde Eres?: The Conversation I’ve Repeated At Least 700 Times
  4. Using the Green-Eyed Gringa Smile to Get What You Want
  5. Seven Buses, One Day: How to Travel When You’re Too Poor for Airplanes
  6. Stretching The Volunteer Budget with Arepa Consumption
  7. Thanks, Capitan Obvio. You Are Correct In Pointing Out That I’m NOT From Here.
  8. Many People in the United States and Other Western Nations Would Not Be Comfortable With This
  9. There’s Gotta Be a More Efficient Way
  10. How to Spot Colombian Boyfriends Performing Mundane Tasks
  11. Using Interpretation and Secret Agent Skills to Figure Out WTF Is Going On
  12. Why Fairfield County-esque Schools Would Fire My Ass and Maybe Put Me in Jail
  13. Offensively Personal Questions and Public Violations of Personal Space
  14. Interpreting Mispronounced English Without Upsetting Sensitive Teenagers
  15. What Can I Climb or Jump Off Here?
  16. Things That Are Totally Obnoxious When Students Do or Say Them, But Hysterically Funny When It’s My Friends and Me

    #17: Giving one another mustaches in public places, for example.

An Open Letter to My Students

My school year is rapidly coming to a close – simultaneously speeding and dragging towards November 16th. I’m trying to conclude chapters and concepts while the kids have thrown all discipline out the window in favor of not shutting up ever. I was asked to write something about my experience at GMSB this year for the school newspaper, and it didn’t seem right to just list a bunch of clichés about my life being changed, inspiration, culture, molding minds and making a difference. So, without further ado, and leaving out the parts about the frustration and emotional drain: a reflection, directed towards those who ultimately shaped my experience.

An Open Letter to My Students

Carito me habla en inglés, qué me dice yo no sé…

I guess Carlos Vives didn’t understand his English teacher. Can you believe that? He probably wasn’t listening to her. Crazy, right guys? That’s guys, not gays, so don’t start unless you want to get me on my soapbox again. (Don’t try to translate soapbox with Google. I am not literally talking about jabón here, and definitely not a box of soup.)

Where were we? Something about listening, and English. Remember when you thought I didn’t speak Spanish, and you all freaked out? Funny thing is, you understand my alien language now, even if you don’t know it or don’t believe it. At the very least you know “sit” and “open your notebooks,” though there seem to be a lot of different interpretations on your end. Speaking is still a struggle because it is so darn EMBARRASSING!!! Or so you say.

Nine months ago, I showed up and terrified or intrigued you with my weird accent and exotic green eyes. I talked to you in a language that most of you only heard regularly from music or TV, and I ssstrongly ssscolded you for trying to put an “e” before words like school and stop. I was probably as curious and confused by all of you as you were by me.

Learning a new language is hard. Ten years later I’m still botching conditional tenses in Spanish and I can never remember the word for “needle.” That’s why I don’t expect you to be fluent English speakers after this year, and why I get so excited when you get the littlest things right. Seriously, when I hear someone say, “Hoy te entendí, profe!” I know I made the right choice by teaching.

I came to Colombia to teach English. I suppose I’ve accomplished that, more or less. I was teaching and some of you were learning. Some of you were doodling, or sleeping. All of you were texting. The most important thing, though, wasn’t vocabulary or possessive pronouns. It was being a breathing example of the importance of language, cultural exchange and travel. An example of what’s gained through a little courage, a little confidence and a little recklessness.

I started learning a language – your language – when I was your age, and it ultimately brought me here, to Gimnasio Moderno Santa Barbara. Fourteen-year old me would be pretty psyched to know that twenty-four year old me was in Colombia, all because of that silly high school Spanish class. Twenty-four year old me would love to see as many of you break through your comfort zones as possible, see the world and follow your passions.

I undoubtedly gained more from 130 of you this year than you gained from one of me, and I think that’s ok. You’ll have more English teachers, but I don’t know when I’ll have more students. I do know I’ll never have the same students.

So, thanks. Thanks for the smiles, the hugs, the candy and the laughs. Thanks for enough good days to make up for the bad days, or at least enough to not make me quit. Whether you passed, failed, triple-paged the Observador, ignored me all year or were one of the hilarious, friendly and sweet faces I looked forward to seeing every day, I’ll remember you. I’ll miss you. Thank you for an unforgettable, extraordinary year.

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September.

To those of us with internal calendars based on the four seasons and their transitions, seeing valentines in September is odd. Thankfully, there’s logic behind it. As usual, Colombia takes celebrations one step further with el Mes de Amor y Amistad: Love and Friendship Month. Instead of one day for obligatory dinner dates and highly unseasonal flowers (now most likely imported from Colombia), there’s an entire month dedicated to two of Colombians’ favorite things – universally favorite things, really.

Commercialism obviously jumps on board with special sales and promotions during the month, and so far the most visible tradition is Secret Friends (Amigos Secretos.) It’s Secret Santa – only better because it’s not Christmas! Everyone who wants to “play” finds themselves a group. You pick a name and endulzar the person over the allotted time – literally meaning to give them sweets (dulces) until the end when you give a bigger gift.

The ninth grade class likes to adopt me because I don’t have my own homeroom group, so I played with them last week. I was possibly the only person in the room who legitimately had no idea who anyone else had, and despite having told no one, everyone knew who my Amigo Secreto was. All the kids in the school are so excited about Amigos Secretos, but they are such chismoso (gossipy) little things that I have a feeling it’s just regular Amigos after a day or two.

Aside from Secret Friends, September’s theme is exceptionally appropriate in my life right now. Two of my friends in Bogotá have birthdays a week apart so they celebrated with a chiva last weekend full of 25 of our closest friends in this city. While I’m partial to Quito chivas (and maybe Quito everything), it got the job done.

Something about being a billion miles from home and constant bombardment of equal parts difficulty and amusement really bonds you to the people around you. Also, they’re both from New England so they walk fast and don’t talk to strangers.

At the end of the Love and Friendship Month, I’m fittingly going to see some of my Best Friends in the Entire World when I’m back in the states for Michelle’s wedding, best friends I don’t get to talk to as often as I’d like because of schedules and internetlessness. (Unfortunately I will be far from Connecticut.)

How are you celebrating?

Chapter 2: The Wolfpack Explores a Cloud Forest

Mindo is a tiny town a few hours northwest of the capital. The geography is extraordinarily different from that a few hours northeast where the highway wraps around Ibarra’s dry, grassy mountains. Mindo is in a cloud forest, a lush, green selva with steep mountains and small rivers in the valleys. The town is dedicated to ecotourism. A few decades ago, Mindo was a community where the population got by with agriculture and forestry. A small group of locals and foreigners were able to turn the economy around to a sustainable model focused on tourism and positively exploiting the surrounding forest. This was my third or fourth trip to Mindo. The town is slightly more developed but my favorite hostel was still there (Casa de Cecilia, it’s basically a summer camp treehouse) and the guides and business owners were as friendly and accommodating as ever.

On our way to Mindo we hit up the Mitad del Mundo//Middle of the World monument outside Quito. It’s allegedly 0’0” latitude. Someone with a military GPS claims that the real middle is a few hundred yards north, but who’s counting?

Despite pouring rain that afternoon, we embarked on a chocolate tour at a hostel/café next to ours where we saw the chocolate-making process from fruit to bar and obviously tried some treats. The next morning was perfect Mindo weather, blue sky and sun, so we did a waterfall hike followed by my favorite activity of all time: ziplining.

Chapter 1: The Wolfpack Goes Shopping

We arrived in Quito on Saturday night, and even though a cute, geographically-challenged little boy stole my window seat on the flight, I was ecstatic the second I saw Quito’s lights. Landing there by night is incredible, because it’s a long north-south city sitting in a valley and the airport is right in the middle. I was anxious until we boarded our hostel shuttle and started covering familiar territory. Quito is still the city I loved in 2009.

Our hostel was on the north end of the Mariscal, basically the gringo-y district full of bars, tour agencies, restaurants and hostels. The location was great and the hostel was more like a bed and breakfast than the backpacker-infested bunkhouses that I so despise.

The first true Vacation Success was dinner. When I was here two years ago, I had this uncanny sense of direction for the Mariscal. It’s not a big area but I could navigate the grid and locate any business without a second’s hesitation. This time, I was counting on my sixth sense instead of practical things like street addresses to find the best Mexican restaurant on Earth – Red Hot Chili Peppers. Apparently these things never leave you, because we found it without a single wrong turn and the frozen blackberry margaritas are every bit as delicious and potent as they used to be.

I promised the girls a massive wool-and-everything market in the form of Otavalo on Sunday. There were no disappointments and I think we made the blanket, poncho, jewelry, sweater, hat, bag, scarf and art vendors very, very happy.

Upon our return to Quito, we had dinner with “my other mom,” Ibis. I’m 4-for-4 with host family placements, but she’s got the gold medal on lockdown for quirkiness and loveliness. She still speaks in all capital letters and is just a genuinely wonderful person. “BREEGHEED! HOW ARE YOU? HOW IS YOUR FAMILY? HOW IS YOUR BROTHER? WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN DOING? HOW IS AMELIA? THIS HAPPENED! THAT HAPPENED! WHEN ARE YOU COMING BACK TO ECUADOR?” It was a total time warp to be a guest in my “own” house, looking across the street at the window that used to be Amelia’s, watching the same buses chug by on Calle Eloy Alfaro and wanting to fall back into my old routine. After a delicious homecooked meal, Ibis took us for a drive through the Historical Center, somewhere I’ve only been at night on a chiva. Sorry, Bogotá, but Quito’s Centro KICKS ASS. It’s huge, beautiful and clean, and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Seeing it lit up and quiet is like a different world.

Going Back.

My upcoming vacation is going to mark a full sort of circle for me: the returns.

I’ve had the utmost luck and fortune the past five years in that I’ve lived abroad in three different locations. I spent a 4-month semester in Spain, just under six months in Ecuador and a few months volunteering in Guatemala. Thanks to working multiple jobs, plane ticket deals and coincidental schedules, I’ve so far been able to return to two of my former homes to visit.

A year after I studied abroad in Granada, a few friends and I went to Dublin for spring break to visit my friend Jess, who was there for the semester. I found good ol’ RyanAir-school-bus-with-wings flights for less than 100 USD back to my beloved little Spanish city, and we went. I remember being ecstatic to show my friends everything I adored about Granada: the Alhambra, Café Futbol, sunsets from the mirador, the “chup,” sunny afternoons in Parque García Lorca, Pöe tapas and beautiful first-person history from every angle. I was a bit outraged to find that prices had gone up and the floor had been mopped at our old bar haunt, Perra Gorda. Three days back in Grana were far from enough but I left happy having shared such an important part of my life with some of my best friends.

Less than a year after leaving (read: tearing myself kicking and screaming away from) Santiago Atitlán, I was at an odd junction with jobs, housing and various situations when I found a window of time and a cheap plane ticket back to the lake. Since the night I said my goodbyes in December 2010, I was resolute to visit again, if only to assure the incredible people I met there that I hadn’t and would not forget them, that my three months were more than meaningful and that I would keep my promise to return. I can’t describe how happy I was to be back. I felt like I was floating. I burst into tears the second I saw Volcán San Pedro from the chicken bus where I was smooshed next to two women in huilpas. I wanted to hug everything. I did hug everyone save for the drunks and tuk-tuk stalkers. The sights and smells and sounds were overwhelmingly familiar and unchanged.

Now, I live conveniently close to my second home abroad: Quito. I started looking at tickets from BOG to UIO before I arrived in Colombia, and bought them before spring break, aligning with my Bogota-based professional travel buddies. My study abroad friends – Samantha, Barb, Shmeels, Katie and Jenny – were such a huge part of my Ecuador experience that I’m not sure what to expect without them. What will Quito be like this time around? How can I possibly remember how to play cuarenta by myself? What if I can’t find Guardian Shawarma or I’ve totally forgotten the map of the Mariscal I once had tattooed to my eyelids? If “Calle 8” and “Llamada de Emergencia” aren’t playing in the background at all times, what will be? What if we get pick-pocketed or sick or roofied and Ecuador doesn’t live up to the five months I’ve been talking it up? I’m pretty sure my friends are expecting a city made of alpacas and BonIce where ají flows like wine and local currency is granadillas. Fortunately, that’s EXACTLY what they’re going to find.

Really though, I can’t want to get back to my old stomping grounds, visit some of the most lovely people in the world, buy two of everything in Otavalo, drink Zhumir, relax and adventure in Mindo, fall flat on my face descending city buses, asphyxiate our way to the refugio of Cotopaxi and see how one of my beloved cities has changed or stayed the same. I’m interested to note the differences between Colombia and Ecuador – they’re more subtle than the similarities, especially after two and a half (!!!) years away.

I’ve been focusing so much on Quito that the second half of our trip in Medellin, Colombia, is going to be a delightful surprise. If they successfully get me out of Ecuador, that is.