I’ve been out here off the beaten track in La Virginia Colombia for over two weeks with only days to go. It’s amazing how fast the time has flown by as I do some teaching, lots of talking and walking as I get to know the town’s rhythm, people, and especially the kids.
While there is no real reason to come here as a tourist or even a traveler, I’ve loved being here for these weeks. It might sound a bit pretentious or just plain ‘precious’ to say this town/pueblo feels ‘real’, yet I don’t quite know how else to explain it. The town moves slowly – bicycle slow absolutely not the racing of NYC bikes moving faster than the speed of cars through that city streets. I’m scared of NYC bikers. Bikers here ‘stroll on wheels’ as bikers chat, hold hands, carry groceries or friends, or move slow enough to wave as they pass. All this while traversing the buses whizzing by on the road out of town.
Bicycle carts offer fruit and avocados as hawkers move up and down streets, stopping to chat as they pass each other. Cafes and panaderias/bake shops fill corners with yummy smells although the bakery bread I crave is missing from the glass fronted shelves. The cakes are gorgeous if a bit unreal. And no, haven’t tried one – yet.
The coffee here is so-so, but the ritual of spending hours nursing a cuppa seems to be a well-practiced ritual. I still have my favorite place which claims its unique ambiance thanks to its location. I’ve become such a regular that I was allowed to use the (pay) toilet which is currently closed because it’s not working. Believe me, it felt more special than it reads.
Really the best part is the kids. But first a bit more about my school which is ‘way out’ of town, a fifteen minute walk down a luscious tree-lined, cow grazing, bicycle and bus filled road. Of course we all know it doesn’t take much to distance people from each other, and that definitely exists over there on the other side. The collegio/high school is made of three barrios/neighborhoods: Pedro Pedro Bello, El Jardin, and across the road, Livertidados. (The first barrio is a tongue twister and the last I still have trouble pronouncing). I arrived during the last real week of school and the English teacher greeted me with the enthusiasm of fish meeting hooks. No, really it wasn’t quite that bad, but he did seem to want to run the other way every time he saw me, I’m sure for a variety of reasons, none that I’ll take personally: it was the end of the year and he’s tired; he didn’t know what to do with me; he is skeptical of the program; English is taught as grammar vs. conversation and the opposite of how a volunteer like me would teach it. While I offered to help any way I could, it’s easy to understand he may not even know what type of help to ask for – or how to use that help. A real challenge for volunteers in general especially when it involves an educational and cultural change (instituting English language learning). FYI: one of the students last major activities of the year is scrubbing the classrooms clean including rubbing desks clean of carved initials, painted names and memories of the year as well as clearing walls of the year’s marks, scraped chairs and desks and purposefully or accidentally scribbled reminders. I have to admit the class cleaning filled me with ‘pause’.
Certainly one of the hardest parts about teaching English here is (I think) helping the teachers whose English is (more than) a bit limited. While the initiative to create a bi-lingual population may have started as a WHO initiative, it has been embraced and expanded as a ‘personal’ Colombian goal thanks to an innovative President with a desire to turn Colombia into the ‘crown jewel’ of South America. It may be in part to the large numbers of tourists streaming into the country, and even more as a way to open Colombia innovation and business. I’m not sure where this fits in (my ramble) but I’ve met a very large number of engineering students here – many more than I would expect to meet, for example in the states (so bravo for my niece studying engineering at Penn State), and, I’ve heard two geologists talk about the way foreign mining companies are destroying the environment, which I imagine Colombians may have incentive – emphasis on may – to take better care.
A bit odd – and unsettling – about being a gringa -or different here. Occasionally people will stare. One kid on a bike shouted, ‘hablas ingles?’ (speak English?) while I answered ‘yes’ as he exchanged smiles with his mom and then me. While I can almost but not quite pass as Colombian, I’m met with shy smiles and/or stares in stores and cafes.
I don’t get nearly as much attention as my fellow volunteers as you can tell from the pics below. Last weekend began a one week celebration of the town’s 126th year anniversary with a modeling show on the banks of the river which made a surprisingly good stage, stalls of street fair type stuff, food, fruit, and a music stage that comes ‘alive’ after 8:00 when the ‘music’ starts. I had to use the quotes since so far we’ve had mostly rap. Girls have come up to me and asked about the guys, often too shy to go up to them. Adults hover close to listen wide-eyed as kids unabashedly crowd around to ask questions, many of them from the schools the guys have worked in. People who speak even a word or two of English are anxious to share what they know – which is actually a great start. (My school is on the other side of the road out-of-town and have only seen one student from there so far.) People ask to take pictures, reminding me of the Korean woman I met in Medellin who said she was more often than not the most popular attraction while in Bogotá.
And none of this is as simple as I’m making it out to be as you can imagine…. I’ll add more about the kids and life here, just give me time.