Monday, January 21, 2008

De regreso

On the 13th of December I hugged Ana Maria tight, kissed her one last time, tightened my pack on my back, and stepped into Medellín's Metro, bound for the bus terminal. It was time to head back to Bogotá, where this two-week trip, my year in Colombia, and my life away from the UK during the preceding two-and-a-half years, were to come to an end.

Five days later, five days filled with frantic last-minute tying up of loose ends and poignant goodbyes, I was barrelling towards the airport in what was likely to be my last life-threatening taxi ride for some time. So many "last"s. Characteristically, I nearly missed the flight, only the second last in line before they closed the check-in. Also characteristically, this meant that I got a free upgrade to Business class. And, the following day, I was back in the UK, back in Coulsdon, back in the bedroom which I grew up in and where I had not lived for 10 years.

2007. It was a year which started with my catching a last-minute flight back to Colombian with a beautiful Colombian girl who had stolen my heart the previous summer in Bogotá, and ended with me leaving, with heavy heart, another beautiful girl in another Colombian city, another delightful Colombiana who had enchanted me and brought me so many happy moments in such a short time. It was a year in two acts, defined by a break-up so wrenching that I cried into my washing-up for weeks after as I slowly came to terms with the fact that I would not be spending my life with the girl whom I had loved so intensely. But Act One has already been amply decribed in this blog. What of Act Two?

The key moment of the year came when, looking for a new flat, I came across a house-share in the Chapinero neighbourhood of Bogotá: a neighbourhood characterised by its many Universities, its gay population, and its high street catering to regular-Jo lower middle class bogotanos, with shabby malls, shops selling chinese imported goods, and dolarazos or dollar-stores. Run by an American named Grant, the house had six rooms, and was a focus for the small foreign population of Bogotá: Brits, Americans, Europeans and Aussies congregated here. Everyone had their own story and without exception all taught me something about the simple act of living. Here I found a group of people who were so far from living in a rut it sometimes seemed absurd to juxtapose us against the highly conservative bogotanos. Some teaching English, some in love with Colombians, some recovering from relationships, some working with NGOs or in other business ventures. I found people who shared a passionate love for Colombia yet a passionate frustration with its difficult aspects: being able to use humour to let off steam was a huge blessing.

Feeling at home among this inspirational bunch of people, I started to really enjoy Bogotá. Through them, I made many amazing friendships with Colombians. Teaching at the local school, going to the local gym with my housemate, sipping coffee at Juan Valdez with a Colombian girl: I started to feel part of a community in Bogotá in a way that I hadn't done before. I met some great girls: I realised that Panda was not the love of my life. I travelled outside Bogotá for weekends away -- the Eje Cafetero, the Caribbean coast, Medellín, Girardot, Cucuta. I saw something of the astonishing beauty of this country. I was happy.

Around August, I bought a flight home for late December, attracted by an inexplicably cheap fare. I wanted to spend some time with my family, renew old friendships that had weathered two dry years of communicating only by infrequent Messenger and Skype conversations, and see how the UK had got on for two years without me. I, and most of my friends, were celebrating their 30th birthdays in the first half of 2008, and my brother was getting married in June. It seemed like an appropriate time to return.

But then in October, I visited Medellín with my wonderfully entertaining housemate Bridget. I met Ana Maria and wished that I had longer to get to know her and that she didn't live a 9-hour bus ride away. In November I spent a long weekend with her and a bus full of rowdy Paisas on the Caribbean coast. Later that month she visited me for a week (what Colombians call "eight days") in Bogotá, visiting the nearby attractions, and enjoying the simple pleasure of each other's company. I began to regret that I was leaving.

In December, Stefan arrived from Holland, for a two-week holiday. You can follow his blog of our trip at Apart from two weekends in Bogotá, we spent most of our time on the Caribbean coast. Although I hadn't seen him for 12 months, it was great to find that conversation flowed as freely and widely as it ever had, as we compared notes on the year. Travelling around Colombia with someone new to the country, I saw things afresh through his eyes: the stunning natural beauty, the regional diversity, the openness and friendliness of the people, quick to smile, concerned for outsiders. I was reminded of the quality of life even with a modest income in European terms. I wondered more about leaving.

But leave I did, and on December 20th, full of bittersweet emotions, I arrived home. But I now looked at "home" through a different lens. I had lived in another culture long enough to really begin to call that home, and my ideas of where "returning" would take me to had blurred. I had good, close friends now on two sides of the Atlantic; friendships in two languages. I had as much reason to live there as here. I missed so much about "there". I missed even things I'd hated. I missed it as you miss an ex-lover: irrationally. Missing everything about her, even the things which you hated.

But I concentrated on the positive aspects of being home. I came back to find my brother a changed man, having both got engaged, and moved out of my parents place and into a first home with his fiancée, since I'd left the UK two and a half years previously. He had become a man, via a well-trodden route. And yet, even as I looked at myself, without a job, without a home, practically without money, with a girlfriend of one month 6000 miles away, I could feel within myself that I too had changed distinctly in those two years. I had gone through some amazing experiences, some really unhappy times, and some great times. But I had also fulfilled two of my greatest dreams, to travel solo, and to live in a foreign country. I feel the spring in my step, the sparkle in my eye, the relaxed attitude to life, all the signs to everyone I meet that say: I am someone. I have lived and seen things most people have no idea about: no way I'm going to get upset about small things like a someone giving me bad vibes or getting agro. I'm confident, I'm happy, I know who I am, I'm in charge, and I'm going somewhere. And in the end, it seems to me that that is what maturity brings you, what growing up is all about you. Getting there could be marrying your childhood sweetheart and making a home together. Or it could be living in Latin America for two and a half years. Take your pick.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

3 month's silence

Can it really be three months since I last posted? And three months since I finished the CELTA? Time flies like an arrow, and fruit flies like a banana.

I have a pending post about how collectivised Colombian society is. It seems it is not going to get posted, so to summarise: family is very important to Colombians, with cousins and aunts being as much a part of the family as brothers and sisters are to us. Friends also, with lifelong childhood friends being very common. We tend to obsess about our fragmented UK or US societies, seeing it as a bad thing and an unfortunate side-effect of our drive toward individualism. Close friend and family support networks do have some clear benefits in keeping society meshed together, but living here you realise the heavy price everyone pays in freedom of self-expression, action and thought. As DH said to me the other day: the UK may have lots of screwed up people, but we make some great music.

So that aside, what is new donde Pablo? Well, since I finished the CELTA I have had the idea that I would like to teach in a public (state-run) school, for ethical reasons. Despite strong opposition from all my Colombians friends who all went to 'nice' private colegios, and from the public school system itself, among whose chief characteristics do not rank flexibility and openness, I finally started teaching in my local public school this week. I do them two hours every morning, teaching 13- to 15-year-olds half a class at a time, ie in groups of 17. They aren't paying me (getting a work visa would have been more trouble than it would be worth) but this is freeing me from all responsibility to "be good" and allowing me to go into class with more confidence. I'm only at day two but so far I have enjoyed it hugely.

The week before last I worked in an orphanage for two days, with younger children, from 5 to 11, supposedly as an assistant to the English teacher there. But the children have lots of behavioural problems (to be expected given their likely backgrounds) and have a very low level of English. Although working with the kids was in some ways rewarding, I didn't feel I could offer them much having no child psychology training and not really being able to teach much English beyond colours and numbers. One girl was playing with plasticine and I asked her, "What are you making?" "A house," she replied. "A house for me because I am an abandoned girl and I don't have a house." Mainly those kids need hugs I think, not English lessons.

I have bought a plane-ticket for Europe, and return to Madrid on December 18. I really look forward to being home again. Originally my plan was to teach here in a school for a while to practise, improve my teaching skills, and find out if maybe teaching might be what I wanted to do "when I came home." I was thinking of doing a PGCE. But I have to say I'm almost wondering why teach in a UK school full of gits when there are lovely kids all around the world who need and deserve an education a lot more. But perhaps my kids are just being nice to me so far because I'm a novelty. Let's see how 'inspired' I am by December.

In other news, I have been writing the odd bit of software, going out partying with my housemates, meeting girls, going on dates. Facebook is a recent internet addiction, and a superb way to not forget birthdays. Photos go there now too: friend-request me if you are interested. A few trips out of the city, and a few party nights within the city.

Oh, and I accompanied my housemate on a trip to the border to change her visa. We ended up spending a day in Venezuela: much like Colombia, only with less comprehensible Spanish, and huge 70's American gas-guzzlers instead of cute little Korean imported cars -- petrol there is extremely cheap.

Oh, and, finally Apple brought out the iPod I always wanted: whole-face screen, wi-fi net browsing, and video. So, to make up for my more or less complete lack of geek- and/or consumerist- purchases in the last two years, I have charged a friend going to Miami with obtaining me one. Bets on how long before getting relieved of it by a knife-wielding street-gentleman.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

More Chiva

A Chiva is a kind of wide, low-slung bus with no windows or doors. Here is one in Cartagena:

I'm not sure if they were ever used as actual transport. Presumably, given that the number of speakers heavily outweighs the number of doors, they have always and only ever been used as party buses.

The plan is you get a bunch of people together, get in the bus, and it drives around while you demonstrate publically that you are Having a Good Time. Very exhibitionist: very latino. And, it has to be said, quite a laugh. Especially with the liberal application of aguardiente.

On Saturday, to celebrate end-of-CELTA, the teachers and students clubbed together and got one. I was quite pleased, having been here for over a year and never been on the inside of one. Amusingly, the bus is high enough to allow Colombians and/or girls to dance, but to ensure that foreigners/men remain seated. This provided me with a perfect excuse to do what I would have done anyway -- namely, drink, while watching incredibly sober girls shake their booties, scream, sing along with Vallenato hits of 1950, and generally act in a way that it would take me a lot of aguardiente to get to. We drove around Bogota city centre generally pissing other people off and making sure we had been seen, then we drove up into the mountains above the city for dinner, and then to a club. The club was practically empty, but since we were a group of 40 we basically made our own club. The DJ who must have been pushing 50 even took requests, and played a bit of 'electronica' for the sake of those of us unused or unable to dance to his standard latin rhythms.

I thought I should record for Posterity that I had done a Chiva trip, because it's such a Colombian thing to do, and it took me such a long time to getting round to doing it. But really there's not much to say about it, except that I got quite drunk and had a nice time flirting with a bunch of lively teenagers (our ex-students). Plus ça change. Good post-breakup therapy, anyway.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

On my own two feet

So here I am, emerging blinking into the sunlight after the long crawl through the tunnel of CELTA: yesterday was the Last Day! Unfortunately, we don't get even a provisional grade until two weeks hence, so I wasn't sure if I was celebrating or drowning my sorrows last night. But indications are that we've all done pretty well.

So the week before last, Panda decided that she wouldn't like me as a boyfriend any more. It was a little hard to take, as I suppose I thought it'd be forever, but she took her time to think about everything and was completely honest with me throughout the process, which although it can be a little painful, is ultimately the fairest way to be treated. We said our goodbyes last Saturday, tears were shed, and then the next day she was back to Duitama and a whole different life there. When people say, "why did you split up?", I tend to look at it as a combination of ingredients and catalyst. The raw ingredients for our break-up have been present from the start, in the form of cultural differences. Not simply between "Colombian" and "British", but between our specific brand of each. The catalyst was her going off to Duitama and having the time of her life with her five housemates and 25 other medical students from around the country, working hard, playing hard, meeting new people, and, I think, realising that she just basically couldn't be bothered with the struggle that our relationship was at times.

Of course despite my best intentions, I lost all my cool and begged her not to leave me, and after she'd gone I felt pretty devastated for the weekend. But the moral of this story is not really that. The thing that has impacted me most about this episode is how quickly I recovered. Saturday and Sunday night I couldn't face being alone in my flat so forced myself upon a CELTA colleague and his girlfriend, who are lovely, and had good evenings. Monday afternoon I decided to just go for a walk in the sun after working on my assignment all afternoon. Then I got in a bus and went downtown and ate chicken in a chicken place with plastic seats, surly waitresses, and football on the TV, and suddenly realised: it's actually ok! I had arrived in Colombia alone; I was now in Colombia alone. I had had a really interesting and challenging year in between, with an amazing girl, and that would always now be part of who I am.

Reflecting on this this week, I have concluded that my "year off" solo travel experience has indeed had the desired effect: to make me more happy and certain of who I am, so that I am not dependent on external things to define my happiness or my life.

I should say of course that during the course of that not very happy or pleasant weekend, I had the very good fortune to have many chats, online or via skype, with lots of good friends back in the UK and Europe who supported me enormously, and I am very grateful for that. Being dumped always sucks; being dumped miles from home had the potential to be extremely sucky indeed. And I'm sure that all that support and chats pointed me on the right path, to my speedy recovery. I am not undervaluing my friends, and the support they gave, by any means.

So now the question really is: what next? I have loved the CELTA. I have enjoyed teaching, and I have enjoyed teaching language, because I find it so fascinating anyway. And Colombians are widely seen as being generally one of the most rewarding nationalities to teach anywhere in the world. And oddly, despite my gripes about Bogota, since I started the CELTA and began to feel a part of the city, in having a daily routine, colleagues/friends/students etc, I feel a lot happier here. And it is certainly preferable to be in a city because you want to, rather than because you are waiting for someone, even if you love that someone very much (or perhaps particularly then.)

A friend of Panda's showed my CV to his school, a private bi-lingual girls school, and they coincidentally needed an IT teacher. They seemed quite interested. But after a first interview I decided not to continue with the applications procedure, for three reasons: one, IT is quite boring, especially at high-school level, and it's English that I've trained to and would like to teach. Two, I wasn't that happy philosophically with teaching a bunch of privileged rich girls to become privileged rich adults: how rewarding would that be? And three, they wanted to pay me only 2 million pesos (about 500 quid) a month, for a 35h working week in the school, plus preparation work at home. Oh, and the final kicker: I would have to sign a one-year contract. In the end, the game just wasn't worth the candle.

However, it seems that I'm not likely to get much more than that, salary-wise, in any teaching job. That's OK I suppose -- I'm here more for the craic than the cash, of course. But I think because of that I'm quite picky about the exact kind of job I want. Unfortunately, without any experience, finding that exact job might be difficult. Additionally, I have to find another apartment in the next 10 days. So there's plenty going on right now. But, importantly, I feel very positive about all the possibilities, and ready to start another chapter of my life!

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Bus drivers

In London, the Routemasters have been phased out, because they are not cost-effective, requiring two men to operate them -- a driver to drive, and a conductor to collect the fare.

In Bogota, the busetas have just one driver. Sometimes his girlfriend, children, or friends ride in the cab with him, and help him by collecting the fair. But most often it is just the one man (and it always is a man), who, as well as navigating the vicious Bogota traffic, a considerable feat in itself, must look out for passengers standing on the sidewalk (bus stops aren't common: people just wait at the roadside and wave at the bus they want), operate the doors which are opened and closed with a jerry-rigged panel built from the electrical spare parts bin, collect the fare from passengers entering the bus, give change, and make as good time as he can, driving in whatever crazy way he can to shave minutes off his route time. At certain set checkpoints, men with clipboards in the street record the time the bus passes: presumably this information is used to decide whether the driver should keep his job or not.

Routemaster, LondonBuseta, Bogota

As soon as you step into the bus, the driver accelerates away, throwing you against the seats as you click through the turnstile. Desperately clinging on to the handrails you scramble for some money for the driver. You poke it through a little hole in the plastic divider separating passengers from driver. When the driver has reached third gear, he takes his hand off the gearshift long enough to take your money. He glances at it then counts out the change with his right hand, all the while continuing desperate lane-changes and hard acceleration/braking so as to move ahead as quickly as possible.

So the upshot of all this is that although it is hardly a comfortable and stress-free experience, you can get on (and off) a bus wherever you want, which is extremely convenient, and you are sure to get to your destination as fast as humanly possible given the traffic conditions. I suppose the downside is you might have a crash. Most people don't like to sit in the rear row of seats, or even those by the window, presumably on the basis that that's where you're most likely to be crushed if another bus drives into your one. I don't know how common that is, although on Thursday I did see a bus that had driven into a tree outside my house.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Is that a Concept Checking Question you're asking?

Something the CELTA folks are very big on is asking questions to confirm instructions are understood, and to check concepts. So are they big on asking questions? What two things do they like to ask questions about?

The problem with this is that I have started doing it in real life :0. The classic correction by saying "Do we say, I do a mistake?" Great in the classroom: patronising as hell at the dinner table. Must stop doing it.