Thursday, 16 September 2010

Let it be: a period of adjustment

Hello Finbloggers, huge apologies for the long wait for this instalment, but I have been uncharacteristically busy working through “a period of adjustment”, and generally settling into life in Colombia. I will skim over (although it should be mentioned) a day of vomiting, tears and cursing myself for not reading Childhood Studies or anything instead of “BLUDDY LANGUAGES”.  Done.
First, the apartment. You have seen photos of the view from my room, and so hope you gather it’s pretty darn suh-weeeet. There were of course a couple of teething problems, like inconsistent plumbing (read: I blocked the loo (but I also unblocked it and felt very domestic (small victories...))), a plague of cockroaches (they were EVERYWHERE- it was biblical. I felt like Moses. In a good way), and my adorable roommate’s curious habit of aligning everything in the kitchen with mathematical precision, yet failing to clean up and egg shells and wanton tuna from the table. He is a fitness instructor and in the evenings likes to relax with his shirt off. I told him that that was my favourite part of the day. He told me he knew.
The most difficult part of moving here so far has been socially adjusting to Colombia. What I will never get used to is being hissed at in the street by every single man, or being shouted “Coochi coochi” at, or, intriguingly, “Hello, yes, no, please, thank you, very good, goodbye.”  Although some of what that man was trying to communicate may have been lost in translation, the sentiment was there alright. Everyone wants to sell you something, be it a pair broken sandals, a Cartagena t shirt (I actually bought one on the beach the other day when I went there alone and got drunk on pinacoladas and bought an array of kitsch soveigners I neither like nor want in any way) or a lolly, presented in such a way that you would think the vendor was a sales person for George Forman. Everyone stops me to practice their English or ask me what I am doing alone in Cartagena, and as someone who back home likes nothing more than to converse with drunks on the tube (“because he told me I looked like a pirate!”), it has been difficult to train myself to ignore them. And ignore them I must, as just as I begin to feel comfortable here, someone new will tell me I must never walk alone, I must never carry a bag, I must never talk to strange men. I had only just begun to feel comfortable taking the bus when yesterday, taking a taxi home from work on a whim, passed my normal bus pulled over at the side of the road. It had been hijacked by thieves, the driver held at knife point and all money and possessions confiscated from passengers. These events apparently become more common towards the end of the year as the festive mood heightens. My bus journey is grim at the best of times, passing through a market where the smell makes you gag, while filthy little men scrounge around on the floor licking discarded plastic spoons and grab at people’s ankles begging for 100 pesos (3400 pesos =  £1). With all this in mind, it is hard to not feel constantly afraid, constantly looking for danger, and constantly suspicious. It is particularly frustrating as everyone insists on chaperoning me from place to place, even the 50 metres down the road between the main centre of the Foundation and the kindergarten school. I feel as if I were back in Jane Austen’s era, an “eligible” young woman, must never be left to her own devices. It means I am not free to wander, to amble, or daydream.
I fear I am creating the impression that Cartagena is all third world doom and gloom, but while there is definitely a need to discard my rural naivety, I have found myself in a place so full of colour and promise. I love teaching. With my 20 something year old students, I have been having so much fun making them learn the words to Rihanna songs, playing things-you-would-find-in-a-hotel room bingo and educating them on the middle class joys of the Notting Hill Carnival. Although decidedly ropey, their English seems to be slightly improving, if not technically but in confidence. All my students call me “Teacher” with a sort of serene reverence, so I feel like the enlightened  head of some religious cult.  Sadly, teaching the little children (all under 4) has been less successful. On learning that I play the guitar and piano (!) the head teacher appointed me the school’s music teacher. My first lesson loomed. I felt nervous. I began to sweat. 40 pairs of beady little eyes and endearingly snotty noses followed my every move as I fumbled with setting up the keyboard. My heart pounded. Suddenly, all musical or intelligent thought left my mind. I panicked, and before I knew I did something that I will live to regret. I played the Beatles. Not just any old Beatles, but “Let it be” by the Beatles, my voice faltering and my sweaty little paws slipping over the keys. The song ended. Dumb silence. The teacher looked at me sympathetically and suggested I might play something a little more upbeat. Tumbleweed. I played “Hit the road Jack”. NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO. But then, something remarkable happened. I stood up and shouted “Whey!” and the children erupted into whoops of delight. I crossed my eyes and stuck out my tongue and they screamed with laughter. An army of 40 tiny little soldiers charged and before I knew it I was at the bottom of a smelly little wriggling bundle. It turns out that the children bluddy love me. Now, when I walk in to the school, the children run up to me and grab my legs shouting something that resembles my name. I can talk the biggest load of crap and be as awkward as I like and to them I’m some kind of Mother Theresa. No, not Mother Theresa, what’s the name of the guy who used to do that show “Get your own back”? Him. Either way, it is such a joy to be working for them. I NEVER thought I would put “children” and “joy” in the same sentence.
As far as actually speaking Spanish is going, the answer is: awkward. Everything is awkward, from misunderstanding simples questions like “What did you have for lunch?”, to having to ask a 3 year old child to please speak more slowly, I don’t understand. That is the definition of humiliation. When faced with a situation in which I do not understand what is being asked, the set reaction is as follows: 1) A small laugh, roll of the inclines and slight incline of the head which could indicate a “yes” but is equally ambiguous  as to include “no”. If this is not the desired response 2) a shrug and a cocking of the head to one side. Small laugh. If this still doesn’t answer the question, 3) “I’m sorry, I’m English, I don’t understand.” VILLAGE IDIOT.  I am reliably informed by other year abroaders that this is the standard response, irrespective of country, language or culture. Phew.
Regular finbloggers will be aware of my quest to prove that Colombia is a suspiciously fertile nation. While this is definitely so (everyone is pregnant or has a small child. Everyone.), I am yet to confirm whether this has a correlation with hair gel use. And so the quest continues. Peace out lovers xxx
P.S. another instalment to follow shortly, including: extra curricular activities, my hair, shrimp exporters and food.

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