Flying to Colombia

Waiting to board my flight to Orlando, I felt a lot calmer than I expected to be. I checked two bags, a large suitcase and a small duffel bag, but the backpack that I brought on the plane as a carry-on was so heavy my shoulders were aching. The night before I flew out of New York City I only got two and a half hours of sleep, my mind was racing through every excitement and anxiety. But when my alarm went off at 2:45, I bolted out of bed, adrenaline already propelling me towards the airport and to my final destination in Bogota.

The fear I expected finally hit when I was waiting at the gate in Orlando. While I was using the airport wi-fi to send last minute emails, a little boy walked up to me and started speaking in rapid Spanish. When I looked at him with a blank face he realized I didn’t understand and switched into even faster English. “Is that your email? Do you know who Mario is? I have a Gameboy but I know how to play Mario on the computer. It’s easy! I can show you how.” Bewildered, I looked around for his mother. Who is this brave talkative little kid? It turned out she was only 50 feet away, waiting for a flight to Puerto Rico in the adjacent gate. After 3 games of Mario, and 20 more minutes of explanation on the finer points of Gameboy strategy, the boy and his mother boarded their flight and I was overwhelmed with a heavy sense of dread.

Why did I think it was a good idea to move to another county to do a job I’d never trained for in a language I barely understood? This was madness. I jumped from my seat, holding back tears and started walking away from my terminal. Maybe I could just catch a flight back to Philadelphia? It would be embarrassing to explain, but at least I could explain in English. I speed walked past the Burger King and the Au Bon Pain and the Mexican Cantina, past several sunglass stands and souvenir stores, I could not go to Bogota. I finally stopped to sit on a bench and call my friend Rosa. She calmed me down and distracted me with a familiar and comforting story about her love life and the daily routine I had left behind in Boston. I ached for a hug from her, but her voice urging me on was enough to fill me with the courage I needed to walk back to my terminal and board the flight.

In the terminal I met two other volunteers in my program. Mohammed, a GW graduate from New Jersey who was wearing a Wu Tang cap and a backpack full of electronics. “I packed two 70 lb. suitcases,” he told me, and I immediately felt less embarrassed about my own overstuffed luggage. Then the two of us met Autumn, a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota. She is quiet and shy, but I immediately knew we would be friends. While Mohammed was on the phone we talked about where we had traveled in the past and discovered we had similar travel bucket lists for the year.

I took lots of pictures while we were in the air. The on-flight map wasn’t working, so I was never sure exactly which islands we were flying over, but they were tiny from so high up and ringed with bright blue water. Maybe that’s Cuba? Or Haiti? When we finally got to Colombia we were flying over a flat green landscape with a large winding river cutting through. Then the mountains started to slowly rise until that’s all there was. By the time the plane started its decent we were passing steep cliffs, lakes, and sprawling towns. Another little boy came and sat in the seat next to me. He asked me a few questions in Spanish before I told him I didn’t understand. (How funny that this happened twice in one day!) He switched into perfect English and asked me where I was going and why. He told me about how his Dad lives in Virginia and his mother in Bogota. He told me about his school and how he is going to play basketball at Duke University when he’s older. Then he told me I should be careful in Colombia, not everyone is as nice as he is. A woman I assumed to be his mother gave me a sympathetic look and told him in Spanish to put a seatbelt on.

After immigration and several checks of my passport, I was delighted to find my luggage safely spinning round and round on the conveyor belt. We congregated on a few benches and excitedly made introductions with the rest of the volunteers. It’s a very diverse group. Siok from Singapore who just finished a job as an Outward Bound instructor and seems to speak every language except for Spanish. Nancy is from Virginia but grew up in South Korea. Amelia rowed crew at BU and shares a few mutual friends of mine. Christina is a Teach for America alum from New Orleans. Elizabeth lived in LA as a part of City Year, Yomi has a charming Manchester accent. George from Texas, Jomer from the Philippines, Gina from Chicago.

Overall there are 16 volunteers in this cohort, and they are some of the loudest people I have ever met. At dinner we are noisily talking about Colombia and our lives back home, making fast friends. There’s nothing like a new environment and similar motivations to connect people instantly.

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