Finally, I was healthy and my adventure was nearing its transition point from solely exploring to settling in a city and starting to teach. Pereira, Colombia, my home for the next five months, was nearly a week away. First I just had to get through the Ministry of Education teaching orientation.
Orientation was an introvert’s worst nightmare. Eight days of 10-hour long trainings combined with sharing a room and incessant small talk as I attempted to find friendship in a never ending crowd of new faces led to little to no alone time. The contrast between spending nearly a month isolated in a quiet apartment as I recovered from being sick to suddenly being surrounded by 250 people made it even worse. The first night, I sat at a table with strangers, looked down at my plate and ate. My social skills completely escaped me and even asking a simple question such as ‘what is your name’ seemed to be intrusive. I had no idea how to behave.
As the days went on my social skills returned and I went from silence at meals to starting conversations as I slowly re-immersed myself in society. The lack of connection became less daunting and, slowly as the small talk faded, friendships began to form. Once I hit that point, orientation became pure entertainment.
When signing my contract to spend five months teaching in Colombia, I never expected that I would be essentially signing my life over (in black pen, of course*) to the Colombian government. Obviously, that is an exaggeration, but during the first day of orientation I was shocked to see that a blood test was on my schedule. I knew I would be giving up a lot of my time and energy to my future school and the Colombia Bilingüe project but I had no idea that I would have to hand over a part of my body too. In disbelief, I prepared for yet another medical procedure in this country that already had so much of my blood.
Days were long. Really long. Training sessions were MANDATORY and went from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Breaks flew by and free time in the evenings felt essentially non-existent. Mid-way through the week long session all of the new English teaching fellows were scheduled to attend an event with the Minister of Education who was responsible for the Colombia Bilingüe program’s huge success. For those who don’t know, Colombia has set the goal of making the country bilingual by 2025. One of the ways they are trying to reach this goal is by bringing in hundreds of native English speakers to partner with Colombian English teachers in public school classrooms. We were huge part of this program and excited by the chance to leave the hotel and shake up our normal training schedule…until we learned that we had to leave the hotel at 5:30 a.m. At this point, we were all already exhausted from meeting hundreds of new people, full days, and long nights (for those who chose to extend their social festivities into the evening). As a result, the news of an early wake up call was not a welcome announcement. Breakfast started at 4:30 that morning and fellows congregated in the breakfast tent, lining up in unseen proportions behind a very distressed hotel waiter who controlled the coffee. At 5:30 we gathered outside with our groups and waited for the buses to come. That took awhile. Then we got to the hotel. And waited. Again. Upon arrival, we were locked in the presentation hall and prompted by an energetic MC to cheer when he called out the various continents from which we came and the placement cities to which we were going. As you can imagine, 250 young adults who had been dragged out of bed at 4:30 in the morning were not too enthused by that idea and so responses to his calls were hilariously non-existent.
Somewhere between 6:30 and 9:00 a.m. – do we look like crossing guards?
Another hour past and it was clear that there really was no set time for the Minister to come. She would arrive when she felt like it. In the meantime, we would continue to be ‘distracted’ be the extremely caffeinated MC. To top it all off, we were all dressed up in grey t-shirts and matching neon green Ministry of Education vests. Are you picturing 250 irritated and sleep deprived crossing guards? Because I’m pretty sure that’s what we looked like. In addition, we were supposed to have memorized a song to sing during the Minister’s entrance. I’m not sure if anyone actually looked at the sheet of paper with the lyrics but I’m certain that no more than 10 people were singing during the opening processional once the Minister finally arrived.
Finally, minutes before 9:00 a.m. (four and a half hours after we left the hotel) she arrived. From there, the celebration was wonderful and it was inspiring to see Colombia’s steps towards change. With the recent peace agreement with the FARC, Colombia has ended its civil war that has been going on for over 50 years. Its education budget is also, for the first time, higher than its defense and military budget. It is clear that Colombia is not the Colombia of the past and the one that so many Americans, and people around the world, are scared of. Colombia is changing.
Pereira, Dosquebradas and Santa Rosa fellows meet Gina Parody – the Minister of Education
Despite the early morning festivities, the afternoon continued on as usual. Clearly it was more important to fit the training in than to take care of the wellbeing of the fellows. So before we knew it, we were back in class.
Days went by as usual, chock full of training sessions that were interesting and helpful but coupled with little to no breaks, completely useless. As the week went on people started to get sick, and tired, and just fed up in general. Attendance at the sessions started to waiver as people realized that once you signed in for the morning or afternoon sessions you could just disappear to the bathroom and never come back. Those who stayed in the sessions essentially tuned out (or at least I did). In class activity times turned into social sessions and during lectures, phones decorated the room like Christmas lights, completely bright and totally shameless. I, along with at least one other Orange Group member spent one session setting up Pokemon Go. Imagine my disappointment when I realized that the whole point of Pokemon Go is that you actually have to go…my plan to sit and play during class was quickly squandered. Unfortunately, the regional coordinators got wind of the skipping habits and, on the second to last day of training, decided to put their foot down.
By the last few days of training, we were all tired and desperate. Desperate times called for desperate measures. In the middle of another endless session one fellow attempted to leave early and, upon realizing that for the first time there was a regional coordinator sitting in the hall ensuring that no one left, decided to brainstorm a more creative exit strategy. So what did he do? He jumped out of the window. In the middle of class. I’m not kidding. Despite having very unsuccessful decoys that included me and two other girls in class, the teacher never found out. Moments after he successfully climbed up and squeezed the last of his body out of the very small window, we burst into laughter. At that point, there was nothing to be done, all that was left of the boy was his zip up jacket hanging on the back of his chair. To be fair, he wasn’t just bored of class. He along with two other fellows had tickets to a big soccer match downtown that afternoon. Unfortunately for the window boy, though, five minutes after he disappeared, we broke into groups and were allowed to spread out around the hotel to make lesson plans in groups. As a result his two partners in crime were able to walk away from class completely unnoticed and escape to the game.
The amazing Orange Group consisting of fellows who will be working in various cities in Colombia’s Coffee Region
Excitement to finish orientation, leave the hotel and settle into our placement cities built up throughout the week. Soon enough, it was nearly time to go. 24 hours before we were supposed to leave for our placement cities, no one had been told what time their flight was, where they would be housed upon arrival or the name or location of their school. Welcome to life in Colombia.
Out celebrating the end of a long week!
When the departure times were finally announced they were once again unwelcome news. Busses left the hotel at 4:00 a.m., 5:30 a.m. or 6:30 a.m.. Fellows in Pereira were assigned to the 5:30 a.m. bus even though our flight didn’t depart until 8:55 a.m. Despite the early wake up call, people didn’t hesitate from celebrating their freedom from orientation and their one chance to explore Bogotá (training ended at 4 p.m. that day rather than 6 p.m.). The next morning, people dragged themselves out of bed at ungodly hours, took advantage of the chairs and floors at the airport for nap time and boarded planes to start their new next chapter in their placement cities.
*In Colombia all documents need to be signed in black pen or else they are invalid. You also need to write legibly and can’t make mistakes as anything crossed out also invalidates the document. We were reminded of this countless times during orientation.