Thursday, July 14, 2011

14 days 'til 45

Fifteen years ago, I decided to accept a job offer to teach in Colombia, South America. I did not go looking for a job teaching overseas; it was one of those times when circumstances lined up and presented a chance of a lifetime.

I was working the 4pm to midnight shift at the Department of Public Safety when I was offered the opportunity to interview for a job overseas. I had just gone to bed at 7am when the call came at 8am, a dangerous time for me to make rational decisions. I remember waking up later in the day thinking, "What did I just agree to?"

I figured it was an opportunity for me to at least work on my interviewing skills. I got the call on a Tuesday, interviewed on Wednesday, was offered the job on Thursday, and had to let him know by Friday. I talked to everyone about what I should do. Responses ran from "it might be a good opportunity," to "hell no." My mom called and talked to her minister, and friends reminded me that it was COLOMBIA and if I needed to be rescued they probably couldn't get to me. All I could think about was that I was  turning 30 that year and would probably never have another opportunity like that again. I took the job and did not have any regrets--until the day I left.

My mom and her boyfriend (now husband) took me to DFW airport that morning. I was flying from Dallas to Miami, then Miami to Barranquilla. My brother was going to meet us at the airport so that we could say goodbye. Mom was holding up well. Her minister told her that she had to let go and trust God. I was excited and ready for my new adventure until I realized that my brother would not make it to the airport on time. I started crying. I don't ever cry, really, and I was close to becoming hysterical and making a scene. My mom had to hug and hush me. To this day, I don't know where all of that emotion came from, but I pulled myself together and got on the plane. I had met one of the other  teachers going to Colombia earlier in the month, so I knew at least one person on the plane. The other teachers, one more from Texas and two from Canada, would be on the plane from Miami to Colombia. I picked out the other Texan right away in the airport in Miami: large Mexican guy, looking very stressed and kind of muttering to himself. We're still best friends.

The trip was pretty uneventful until we got to Barranquilla. We had a seven hour layover in Barranquilla. Seven. Seven hours to take in all the sights and sounds of the airport because we couldn't go out into the city. Seven hours of realizing that everyone around you is speaking Spanish except for the group of teachers you just met. Seven hours to think about the fact that this was going to be your life for almost a year. Seven hours to check the flights back to Miami and the United States.

There was a feeling of uneasiness about the fact that we could not go out into the city. I mean, we had seven hours. Why did we have to stay there in the airport? What were they hiding from us? The man who hired us was there and had the same Mickey Mouse smile plastered on his face that I saw when I was being interviewed. He did not seem to be a person who would sell me into slavery, but you never know.

It was almost time to board the plane to the region where we would be living, but there was a problem. There were too many people who needed to be on the 40 passenger plane. Our director made sure that we got on the plane, but our luggage was going to have to stay behind. We could take a small something that we could carry. He promised that we would get our bags the next day. What could we do? We left our things and got on the plane. Did I mention it was a 40 passenger plane? One of those planes that you walked out on the tarmac to get into. I was lucky to be small because those seats were jammed close together. Both of the Texans were pretty large boys and had a hard time getting into the seats. They also would not turn on the air conditioning until the plane was going--and there were flies on the plane. Oh, did I mention I am just a tad claustrophobic? I stared out the window and tried not to begin rocking a shrieking.

We finally took off. I have forgotten how long the flight took, but I remember the rocky landing. It wasn't bad, but you can really feel everything on those small planes. We transferred from the plane to a bus that drove us to camp. There were no street lights, just the light of the bus driving us through the darkest night I had ever seen, and every once and a while lighting up signs that read "peligroso (danger)". Just the word--no pictures of animals, falling rocks, steep hills, curving roads--leaving the possibilities open to interpretation. It's Colombia so you can probably guess what I was thinking. I did not need a sign with a picture of Al Pacino holding a machine gun a la Scarface to get my imagination going.

We finally arrived at the camp at about 1am. There was a crowd of people there to greet us, talk to us, and feed us pizza. That's when I decided they were trying to brainwash us. We had been traveling most of the day and experiencing Colombia (peligroso!) for the first time, and they were trying to get us to stay up and talk to them. Not a great first night. But then the director took us to his house so that we could call home and let everyone know that we arrived safely. By the time I got to my bungalow, I did not care where I was. I just wanted to sleep. I ignored the possible new creatures I might find in my place, ignored the fact that I only had a few things, ignored the fact that the walls of my new place were painted so pink that it seemed like I was in utero (my new friend Abe dubbed it that when he visited the next day). I just wanted to sleep and finally I did.

The next morning, I looked at the clock. It was only 5am. I looked out of the window and saw this really bright light. "What the heck is that?" I thought. It was sitting high up in the sky and was really bright. Oh my goodness.  It was the sun. Big and bright at 5am.

What kind of hell did I just enter?

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