Although only a four hour bus ride, Salento is worlds away from Cali. Salento is small, tranquil, cool, breezy, and relaxed. Gorgeous green mountains catch your eye in every direction, topped by fog and clouds and sprouting with tall wax palms, Colombia’s national tree. This is coffee country. If this incredibly diverse nation with jungle, beaches, snow capped mountains and fertile valleys has a center – it might just be here. Pardon the stereotypical allusion, but this is where Juan Valdez would live almost without a doubt. I spent two lovely days horseback riding, sipping coffee in adorable cafés, window shopping for artisan crafts, eating divine trout, and sharing a few canecas of aguardiente with Oliver and Katie, my fellow foreign travel mates. Paisa country (the land populated by those originally hailing from Medellín and surrounding Antioquia) is renowned for being industrious and hard working. Demographically, the European dominates and there is little trace of the Afro presence that gives Cali and the Pacific its vibrant personality. Tranquillity was the name of the game and that was precisely what I was looking for after a somewhat hectic week in Cali. Our arrival back at the bus terminal in Cali provided the perfect contrast with our previous locale. As we hopped into line to get a taxi on the trash lined sidewalk, a woman was madly yelling vulgarities at a police officer and had to be escorted away. The noise of the city was overwhelming and we all knew we were not in Kansas anymore. We were back home. Despite the grit and the grime, or perhaps because of it, I have learned to call Cali home. Cali is complex. Cali has countless layers. Cali es Cali y el resto es loma no más! I’m learning to understand that phrase more and more. Cali is Cali and the rest is just hills. Cali brings together diverse cultures, music, peoples, and makes them caleño. It is certainly rough around the edges, but something continues to intrigue me and pull me back.
My news from la Corporación Educativa Popular, or El Liceo de la Amistad as it is colloquially referred to, is quite good. I have been working at this private, low-income school Wednesdays from seven in the morning to one or two in the afternoon and now have a fairly good report with many of the students both young and old. I still occasionally have a group of students who don’t know me, but they are rarely too shy to come and introduce themselves. My favorite such episode was when three tenth grade girls approached me a few weeks ago and told me they had a bet going and needed to know who had won. One bet that I was Paisa, one Argentine, and the other a gringo. I found it all quite entertaining and let them continue their guessing aloud for a bit before I spilled (well, really, they had all figured it out after a few minutes of conversation...who am I kidding? My accent isn´t THAT good). In class time, I am usually working with small groups of students, pulling them out of class for an hour and reinforcing concepts already learned while focusing on speaking – almost always the most difficult part of language learning I believe. We do a pretty good job of sticking on topic, but I must admit that my favourite moments are when I just sit and chat with them, leaning about their lives, their interests, their hopes, and their dreams as well as answering their questions about the United States and the world in general. As some of my experiences in Colombia tempt my inner cynicism, these kids keep me believing in my ideals and give me much hope for the future of Cali and Colombia.
It is hard to believe, but this semester is coming to a close. A couple more weeks and then it’s off to the next chapter of Fulbright-Colombia: a good two months of travel and exploration. If all goes to plan, I will be visiting Ecuador, Peru, Los Estados Unidos, Mexico, and various parts of Colombia in the next two months on both personal excursions and official Fulbright journeys. My first three months have been a time to get settles, to realize how difficult it can be to get side projects off the ground and then sustain them, to learn about teaching, and to learn about Cali and Colombia. At times I have felt that things were not moving quickly enough, but I have accepted the fact that I have worked for the best and now have set up several new activities (classes and a research assistantship) to compliment my teaching, volunteering, and travelling come next semester. I have learned a lot about the world in these past few months and know that the learning will only continue, growing exponentially as different wires connect and realizations are made.