Orientation is 3 weeks long, held almost entirely at a beautiful retreat center in a town called Chia. There is a lovely woman named Patty who cooks us three meals a day, a friendly kitchen staff, and a man who mows the grass everyday and makes a fire for us in the great room. We really need that fire, too. Chia is a cold place, more than 8,000 feet in elevation. The first few days I had a slight headache and I found myself out of breath on even short walks. But its wonderful to be surrounded by these green hills and see the lights of the houses across the valley.
The days are mostly the same here, but I am always learning something new. We have to cover a huge amount of information on teaching for our TEFL certification, plus all the logistical and cultural information we need to be able to live here for the next year. I was told before I arrived that the three weeks here would prepare me to be an excellent teacher, and now that I’m at orientation I can say that is true. A few of the volunteers are former teachers with advice to share, but most of all the field directors are fantastic at preparing us. WorldTeach uses something called the 5-Step Lesson Plan, with the theory of “I do, We do, You do.” This template seems fantastic (not that I’ve used it much so far) because you can bend it to fit almost any topic you plan on teaching.
On Saturday we took a fieldtrip to La Guatavita, the site of the real legend of El Dorado. Our guide explained to us in patient English about the ancient people who lived around a lagoon high in the mountains. They believed in many spirits, but one of the most powerful was called upon when the first light of dawn hit the water. Each new chief would have his coronation ceremony after 9 years of meditation in an isolated cave. Early in the morning spiritual leaders would cover him in honey and sap and they coat him in gold dust. Then he gets on a raft and floats to the center of the lagoon. When the sunlight comes over the mountains and touches the water, the chief submerges himself, washing off the gold as an offering to the gods. All the people of the tribe stand at the crest of the mountains to watch the ceremony and to make their own offerings of emeralds, gold, and quartz. When the Spaniards learned of this great wealth, they wrote back to their king about uncivilized peoples with untold riches and used them as a reason to conquer Colombia.
The hike to the top was short but exhausting, the peak elevation was over 10,000 feet. We took lots of beautiful photos even though we were absolutely freezing by that point. It is a wonderful place, but also a tough reminder of the damages of colonization. At one point the water filled the valley, a near perfect circle of pure water. In the early 20th century, explorers from Europe used explosives to remove part of the mountain walls and drained most of the lake to get to the riches. They found a large fortune, but not nearly enough to cover the cost of the expedition.
Jackie and Jomer at La Guatavita
A few days after our fieldtrip we took another day trip to Bogota to get our Cedulas- the identification all Colombians and foreigners need to live in the country, as well as to set up our bank accounts. We woke up early in the morning to drive more than an hour to the city. Then we experienced the famously frustrating Colombian bureaucracy at the migracion office. A few of the volunteers got through quickly, but I waited more than an hour to sit in confused silence with the immigration officer who processed my paperwork. I can only hope the tiny picture they took of me turned out okay.
The rest of the day turned out quite nicely. My new friends Autumn, Amelia and I went to a café for frozen drinks and internet access. I skyped my Dad and posted some photos to instagram. Then we walked and looked around Bogota, finally finding a beautiful hipster café for lunch. It was all white tile and hanging plants and lights, a place I’d love to work for. I poured over the menu but understood almost nothing. All the prices were in pesos, a system that still confuses me a little. When the waitress came I panicked and pointed to a random item, then prayed that something I liked would arrive in front of me. As it turned out, I ordered a delicious steak-stuffed pita with sautéed onions and a savory red sauce. Rico! We figured out the bill, a complicated affair, and walked quickly to the bank.
Since I arrived in Colombia I have been finger printed 4 times, which is more times than I’ve ever had my prints taken in the US. Another curious thing here is that every official documents seems to need your height and blood type. None of the volunteers knew our own blood types, so a nurse came to the orientation site to test us. Turns out I’m A+, and I’ll have to write that on most of the forms I fill out. At the bank they gave me a new debit card that I can use to access my stipend. Living in a new country turns out to be a very complicated thing to do, thank goodness I have help adjusting.