Play

Playing is universal.  All species play one way or another.  But, why is it that kids play more than adults?  Seriously, I think the disparity here is too large.  As we age, we tend to lose the notion of play.  In fact, I never hear adults use the word “play” to describe their activities of enjoyment.  My good friend, Lance, who is a Fulbrighter living in Santa Marta has reacquainted me with the importance of play because whenever we are about to go do something fun he says something like, “let’s go play!”  Yes, we may play slightly differently than children do, but I know for a fact that I still play, and I sure as hell hope that you do too.

About two and a half weeks ago, my good friends from home, Tyler and Jessa, arrived here in Colombia.  It was great to get to share my life with them.  On their first day, I took them to Ciudad Bolivar, and it also happened to be my first day volunteering at Hospital Vista Hermosa.  I told my supervisors at the hospital that I am studying to be a doctor and they automatically jumped to the conclusion I already am one.  Thus my name at the hospital is Doctor Ryan.  I tried to tell them that I wasn’t quite a doctor yet, but they wouldn’t hear anything of it.  Simply by being a gringo here in Colombia, people give me credibility that I don’t even have.  Ty and Jessa also got to see and participate in the magic club at Bella Flor.  The next day, they helped me teach English at the university.  It has been a lot of fun having them here and I was excited to help them kick off their 2 and a half month long tour of northern South America.

So much happened two Tuesdays ago!  First, my other awesome Fulbright friend, Joe, whom is in Bogotá, joined me at the hospital.   He is a very talented juggler and we have been bouncing the idea of doing some performing together.  Having him at the hospital added a whole other level of energy and surprise to what I have been doing at hospitals for the past four years.  Amazingly enough, he instantaneously became a doctor when he stepped in the hospital doors.  He is known at the hospital as Doctor Joe even though he studied political science in college.  Not only did we leave every patient with a big smile, but we left with even bigger smiles on our own faces knowing that our work was enjoyed.  After such a great day, Joe decided that he would like to join me at the hospital every Tuesday- I’m really hyped about it.  That same day was the magic club kids’ first magic show at the foundation.  It was their entrance fee for them to be able to go to Gustavo Lorgia’s production called Ilusión which features 8 different        talented performers from around the world including Charlie Frye.  Recently, I have been a little frustrated with the children’s lack of discipline and seriousness about the magic.  In general, they haven’t been practicing as much as I would like.  Despite this, I was really proud of their performances in their first show.  There were over fifty people there: parents, foundation employees, and some of the kids who attend the foundation.   Obviously, they still have a long ways to go, but after only two months of practice, I am happy with how they performed.

Ilusión has been running for about 10 days and today is the day that the kids are going.  I went to check it out on Thursday- Gustavo was generous enough to give me and a date VIP tickets free of charge.  I was seriously impressed with the quality and variety of performers in the show.  Not only this, but it was great to see Gustavo in action.  He is one of the performers, but he is also the producer of the show.  Both before and after, he was in the lobby interacting genuinely with each one of his fans. The kids are in for a huge treat today.  For one, they rarely get an opportunity to leave their barrio of Ciudad Bolivar which is at least an hour and a half trek from the city center.  Also, they get to see their first professional magic show and will get to meet and take pictures with all of the artists after the show.  On top of this, something really amazing is about to happen tonight.  Two of the stars of my magic club are going to perform a brief routine on the big stage in front of the entire audience.  They are going to be special invited performers of Gustavo Lorgia.  I have never even performed in a show of this caliber, and after two months of studying magic, Daniel and Andres already have the opportunity to do so.  I cannot believe this is happening.  Gustavo is honestly one of the most generous supportive persons I have ever met.  Let me tell you how all this came to be.

About three days ago I got a phone call from a guy named Carlos Lopez.  He is also a magician and is the founder of an organization called conectando sonrisas (connecting smiles).  He met some of the kids from my magic club last weekend at a camp he runs.  He was impressed with what he heard about our project.  He called me because he wants to collaborate with the project and support us in any way he can.  It is amazing how this just fell into my lap because the next step of the project is to connect with other magicians interested in helping carry out the magic club after I leave so that it will be sustainable.  Ironically, he is also bringing 15 children from a foundation to the show tonight and so we are going to join our groups.  It was his idea to propose to Gustavo that one or two of my kids do a trick in the show tonight.  I thought there was no way it would fly being that it is a professional show, but I figured it never hurts to ask.  When we asked Gustavo, he responded enthusiastically without hesitation.  So it’s happening!   Just when I think there is no way for this project to get any better, it does.  This is truly magic.

By the way, I apologize once again for the delay in the blog post.  This seems to be a common theme, but know that I am doing my best considering the challenging circumstances of my life here.  Often, I am just too busy playing.  For example, on Wednesday, I got back from a weeklong trip to the coast to go play with Ty, Jessa, and my friend Lance who joined us for the whole week.  The trip came together about 5 days before we left.  I don’t work Fridays, and last Monday was a holiday.  The flights were too expensive for these dates, but I found a way to do it cheap if I could get two days off of teaching and go for a whole week.  Tough luck.  My tutor Amalia and our boss, Patricia, were generous enough to let me take it off.  They are really great.  They believe that an important part of me being here is that I get a chance to know their country and see how wonderful it is.  I felt obligated to do just that.  It’s funny though, most of the professors I work with at the university do not understand that I am not officially a professor and that I am really more of an assistant.  Therefore, sometimes they get jealous of special treatment like this.  Thus, we decided that although I was going to the coast everyone else would believe that I was in Medellín for the week at a conference.  Ohhh Colombia!

Ty, Jessa, Lance, and I had an amazing week.  We spent 4 days sleeping in hammocks and playing in the turquoise waters of the Carribbean at Tayrona National Park.  It is a true paradise.  Because it is a national park, there are no resorts, just pristine jungle nature leading to sandy white beaches and refreshing crystal clear water.  It was a rugged four days of snorkeling, swimming, eating, drinking, and beach naps.  As you can see, I learned a lot at my conference in Medellín!  I was in dire need of some beach time as I missed the late Seattle summer and there is no heat or beach anywhere near Bogotá.  After Tayrona, we went to a fisherman’s village called Taganga which is just north of Santa Marta.  It was an interesting cultural experience as it has blown up with backpacker tourism in the last 3 years, so it was a mix of coastal fishing culture, with the party backpacker culture.  From there, we went to a great mountain village called Minca, where we spent two days exploring the rainforest of the highest coastal mountain range in the world- Sierra Nevada.  There, we drank coffee while we sat next to the plants that the beans came from, we tubed down a river with class two rapids, and I even got to do some waterfall jumping.  What a week.  What a life.

Something amazing is happening here.  It’s something I can’t quite put my finger on, but I can definitely feel it.  I hope you can too.  We are all kids at heart.  We all yearn to play.  To play is to let go and enjoy; to be a child and drop our enormous  egos that weigh us down.   In Spanish, we often use the verb aprovechar, which translates to: take advantage of.  In English, this usually has a negative connotation.  In Spanish, it is quite the opposite and can have a connotation similar to enjoyment.  It is a mistake if we do not take advantage of the opportunities we are presented with.  Life is too short and precious to be complacent or bored.  There is too much to aprovechar.  Que  aprovechan la vida!

Community


So there I was, making my daily Thursday refreshment trip to the cafeteria at my university while I left my students in the care of Profe Amalia. I was walking down the stairs and was approaching a group of about twenty students hanging out when I began to hear a few of them quietly murmur my name (here many people call me Brayan instead of Ryan). I greeted them with a friendly gringo smile, a flash of my blue eyes (which I am beginning to learn are invaluable here), and a “como están” (how are you all). They responded with an enormous uproar of cheering, clapping, and whistling which lasted at least 30 seconds. The best part- none of them were my students. Community. It is one of the greatest gifts life has to offer. It is everywhere here in Colombia. Sometimes you have to take the first step and open the door, but once you do, relationships and trust develop quickly and effortlessly. People are often looking for a chance to connect, and if you are willing to break the ice, the possibilities are limitless.

Now that the magic club is off the ground, I have decided to pursue the next step of our vision for the magic project: volunteering my skills as a magician on a regular basis at a hospital as I have done the last four years at Sacred Heart in Spokane. Since I have been going to Ciudad Bolivar for the magic club, I have never failed to notice the hospital that lies just about 20 minutes before my stop for Bella Flor. The hospital is called Vista Hermosa (Beautiful View) and it is a social project through the government to serve the disadvantaged population of Ciudad Bolivar who do not have the resources for medical care. This is what drew me to the hospital-its presence stands out in this challenged community. Last Tuesday, I stopped at the hospital on my way to the foundation. After running around to about four offices/departments, I finally found the people I needed to talk to. They were at first confused about my proposal, but after I explained my idea in detail, they were extremely excited. Right now, we are in the process of dealing with bureaucratics and bosses, but things are looking good and I hope to start volunteering there in the next week or two. It will be interesting to see a different aspect of Ciudad Bolivar and I think it will help provide me with a better balanced perspective of the community. Should be great.

Speaking of magic, the magic club is continuing to proceed with great success. Last Tuesday was the one-month anniversary of the club- can you believe that??!! Time is flying and it is and will continue to be important to savor every moment. There is a new blossoming star emerging in the club, his name is Andres. At the end of last week’s club, the director of the foundation came to check in on everything. Andres was one of the few kids still hanging around and he promptly began to show her what he was learning- with great confidence and success. She was both entertained and impressed with the magic. It was a beautiful moment to see the empowerment that magic can instill in someone. Andres was beaming from ear to ear and when the director asked him what were his favorite things to do, he responded very simply: “magia” (magic). I couldn’t agree with him more.

 

Also, I went to Gustavo Lorgia’s house for the second time about a week ago. We shared a lot of magic and laughter. He has an impressive library full of books-some of which are very old and in limited print. We are going to work on a project compiling some of the better books written in English and translating them into Spanish. He has given me free reign to select the best material from the books and begin translating. It is an amazing opportunity to be able to study with him as he is a world renowned magician. It will be both interesting and exciting to see where everything goes with this.

Teaching at the university is continuing to go smoothly. The students are learning, step by step. Maybe just as importantly, we are having fun getting to know each other and share our cultures. This week we conducted oral evaluations with our students. This is the first time my university has ever had a native language teacher and it is important to get feedback on how it has been going. We wanted to know how we have been doing, if the students had suggestions, and what they have and have not liked. During the evaluation process, we received both helpful suggestions and lots of positive feedback. One of the suggestions that we will try to implement next semester is to more accurately organize different classes based on the level of the students. One of the challenges is that in any given class there are students who are at completely different levels. It makes it hard to find a place that challenges the more advanced students without leaving the more basic students behind. The good news is that one of the most consistent criticisms was that the students wanted more classes to be available and they wanted them last for two hours instead of one. Unfortunately, 17 hours of teaching a week is pretty dense, so they won’t be getting that until more native assistants arrive. However, it was encouraging to learn that they want more- a true sign that they feel they are benefitting from my presence and our classes.

About two weeks ago, someone from the U.S. Embassy called me and told me they wanted to interview me. I knew that their media department was planning on following and documenting my project with Magicians Without Borders. I figured the interview was about this. When I arrived last Friday morning, I soon found out this was not the only thing they wanted. Their media department sometimes collaborates with RCN, which is one of the two largest television networks in Colombia. They want to do a feature story about me and my magic project-I will have a full camera crew following me around this Tuesday when I go to Ciudad Bolivar for the magic club. What an honor! I will definitely keep you all updated about this- I’m going to be on TV! I will be sure to find a way to get you a copy of it once it’s all said and done.

I just literally returned from a 3-day conference with Fulbright. They flew in all of the grantees from around the country. It was great to see everyone once again. I don’t know if I should share this, but they literally treated us like kings- we had amazing suites in a super swanky hotel, incredible food, and a couple of great outings. Thank you taxpayers and U.S. government! This is truly something to be grateful for. Here with Fulbright, we have the opportunity for lots of personal growth while doing as much good as we possibly can. What a gift.

As you can see, my community continues to grow here with each day. The group of us Fulbright Grantees jives incredibly well and we got to spend half a week strengthening our friendships. At home, my roommates and I are always responsible for hosting our friends to pre-game before we go out on the weekends. At the university, I am building trust and friendships with the students and the professors. At Bella Flor, I am slowly getting to know the 150 kids that are not in the magic club as well as the volunteers and coordinators. Last Saturday, my roommate Maxxi, and I accompanied about 60 children from the foundation for a visit to the Museo Nacional (National Museum) which ironically resides directly in front of my university. On Tuesday, after finishing at the foundation, all of us volunteers went out for some food and drinks together- it was wonderful to connect on a more personal level.Studying with Gustavo Lorgia has the potential to open an even bigger world of magic to me. Who knows, this TV gig could expand my community to a whole new level. So much remains to be seen, but I could not be more enthused about how things are going here. The biggest factor in this joy and success is the people that I am surrounded by. I am referring not only to the people here in Colombia, but also to all of you back home. It is amazing to know I am supported by such a loving network of family and friends- to be honest you are all part of what I consider to be my family. I am also beginning to connect with those who will become my family here in Colombia.

Community- try it. I challenge you to either pick a community you are involved with and deepen your involvement and commitment to it, or to take a risk, put yourself out there, and engage in a community that is completely new to you. I guarantee you will not regret doing this, and at the worst, you will have an amusing story to share. Community is where life begins.

Video Blog

I am happily recovered from my illness and am excited to be back in the world.  Thank you for all your get well wishes, they definitely helped! The second week of the magic club went really well and the kids really practiced which was great to see.  I am thoroughly enjoying teaching even though 17 classes is a bit exhausting each week.  My roommates are great and we are having a ton of fun. Life is good. I made this post because I wanted to share this brief video I just made for my program- we have a conference coming up.  It is not of the highest quality, but I think you will enjoy seeing at least a little bit about what I have been up to. Enjoy!

You Can’t Have Everything

 

Have you ever had those streaks when for weeks at a time, you felt like you were literally untouchable?  Not in an egotistical sense, but in a sense that everything was going your way and there was little to nothing that could change that.  That’s how I have felt these past few weeks.  What was it that brought you back to reality (the realization that shit really does exist) after a streak like that?  For me, it started on Wednesday.  I’m sick.  Quite sick indeed- a nasty fever with hot/cold flashes, body aches (especially head and neck), and I feel extremely weak and fatigued.  I’ve slept for at least 30 of the last 48 hours.  Yesterday, a very wise woman (my 97 yr.-old grandmother, Gumma) told me that “you can’t have everything” and I think that was the best thing I could have heard.  There are many people for whom a nasty fever would be the least of their worries.  Tom Verner is recovering from a shattered pelvis, the children in my Magic Club have minimal resources and know very little outside of their ghetto in Paraiso Ciudad Bolivar.   Actually, being this sick may be a blessing in disguise as it has forced me to get some much needed sleep and it has allowed me to put my feet up without any intention of putting them back on the ground until I feel better.

Last Friday (a week and day ago) was a real gift.  Gustavo Lorgia (Colombia’s most famous magician) invited me to his house to meet and share magic.  I must be honest, I was quite nervous to meet him as I have never had one-on-one time with a magician of his caliber (world famous).  His kind, generous, and genuine way of being quickly eased all of my nerves.  Attached to his house is his studio where he stores many of his large stage illusions.  He was kind enough to give me a brief tour.  Not only is Gustavo Lorgia the most famous magician in Colombia, he is also an important producer who is responsible for a significant portion of Colombia’s large entertainment shows.  In October, he is bringing 6 magicians from around the world to do a show called Illusión.  He also created Intermagic,  a semi-annual magic conference in Bogotá that brings in 30 of the world’s best magicians.  Needless to say, I was more than impressed with Gustavo Lorgia and am honored that he is generous enough to share his time and support with myself and Magicians Without Borders.  Additionally, he has his own magic prop fabrication and he may help us get ahold of some of the props for the magic club that we were not able to get before I left.

Gustavo invited me to go with him and a couple magician friends to a show after our meeting at his house.  Unfortunately, I had to turn him down because I already had a ticket and plans to go on a chiva with my roommates and 61 other people.  What is a chiva you may ask?  It is a Colombian party bus that would never exist in the United States.  It is basically an old school bus with the side panels removed, flashing lights, and a bangin’ sound system.  They are supposed to hold a maximum of 45 people and we had 62!  We drove around Bogotá for three hours, went to the Calera (a beautiful lookout over the whole city), and were then dropped off at a great discoteca.  Like I said, last Friday was truly a gift.

Through a mutual friend, I got connected with some serious outdoorsmen who love to rock climb and have guiding experience like myself.  They took me to Suesca, a rock climbing town about an hour and a half north of the city.  It is an incredible crag.  The face of Las Rocas de Suesca span about 4km and are at least 500 ft. high based on my estimation.  There are over 400 routes to choose from, some are bolted (although the bolts are spaced much farther than in the U.S.) and some require cams.  It turned out that one of the guys I was climbing with was responsible for installing bolts on some of the routes.  One of their climbing partners could not join us because he was traveling to Singapore for a climbing competition.  He is the number one 19 yr.-old climber in Colombia.  I was with people who are light-years beyond my ability level, but that’s what I love about climbing- it didn’t even matter.  They go every Sunday and I have an open invitation to join them whenever I want.  Now, I have motivation to frequent the climbing gym 5 blocks from my house so I can at least attempt to keep up.  First things first though, I gotta kick this fever.

Exciting news!  The Magic Club has officially begun!  It started off with a bang.  I have 10 children in the club and we will meet every Tuesday.  They are all between the ages of 12-14 and there are three girls and seven boys.  The first day went exceptionally well, they were all incredibly enthusiastic about learning magic, yet they were mature enough to thoroughly understand the discipline it is going to require.  When I taught them their first trick, the jumping rubber band, I could see their faces beam with excitement as they eagerly worked on their mastery of the technique.  This was just a little taste of the empowerment that will accompany the process of learning the art of magic.  There is one boy in particular, Daniel, who shows exceptional promise.  He has a deep passion for magic and has already taught himself a few impressive tricks from youtube.  I have high hopes and expectations of him and believe that with a little discipline, he will blossom into a promising young magician.

I apologize for the delay in the post.  I was optimistically waiting until I had some decent photos to share.  Unfortunately this post is without photos.  With being sick, I haven’t done much aside from work and rest.  Also, I am sensitive about taking photos with people whom I’ve just met (my English and magic students as well as Gustavo Lorgia).  I feel that is important to build confianza (trust) before shoving a camera in front of our faces.  Without confianza, I feel that pictures can be disingenuous and can interrupt the process of building that confianza.  I hope you understand my stance on this.

Although I know I really can’t have everything, I still feel like I do.  Literally and physically/materially speaking, it is true, I cannot have everything.  But, my mindset can make me feel like I truly do have everything no matter what the circumstances are.  For the four hours that I was awake this afternoon before taking a five and a half hour siesta, my roommates, Isaac, Carlos, and I played a few great games of poker using dry spaghetti as our chips.  There is nothing I would have preferred to do this afternoon.  It is all about the perspective that I bring to my reality.

Friendly Reminders

Yesterday morning (Monday which was a holiday in Colombia), I was awoken at 7:45 by my Colombian campmates from the 100 tents that surrounded mine in the town of Villa de Leyva during El Festival de las Cometas (kite festival).  I sleepily stumbled out of my crowded tent and joined my Colombian friends in the tent next to ours.  I was greeted a good morning with a steady pour of aguardiente (guaro) down my throat from the box (you can get liquor in a box here- you can also get it delivered to your door at any hour).   I thought American college students knew how to party, but let me tell you that Colombians take it to another level.  Last Wednesday, as I traversed down the stairs to leave campus after a full day of teaching household and food related English vocabulary, I saw a group of young girls from the neighboring colegio (high school) preparing a choreographed reggaeton dance that they would soon perform at the university.  Colombia is full of energy.  The overcrowded bus with shoulder to shoulder standing room only gently played a tasteful set of salsa music as I made my trek to my second Judo training session only to disembark too early, walk 15 blocks in an unfamiliar neighborhood at night, and get more turned around until I finally decided to drop my ego and grab a cab.  These random, yet sometimes surprisingly common experiences serve as friendly reminders as to why I am spending this year living in Colombia.  By challenging myself to go outside of my comfort zone (within reason) I am learning more about myself and about the world I share  with many fascinating people and cultures.

Last Sunday morning, I woke up to a franticly excited email from Amalia, the professor I work with at my University.  Over the weekend, she had received about 200 additional emails requesting a seat in our English classes.  I will be hosting a total of 17 class periods each week- there are 3 different focuses: conversation, pronunciation, and vocabulary and 2 different levels: basic or intermediate/advanced thus making 6 different types of classes to plan for.  Spread throughout our classes are 210 university students and 30 professors/faculty members.  We decided to cap each class period to a max of 16 students in order to allow for the most productive learning, although with the increased demand, a couple classes have been bumped to an absolute maximum of 20.  Last week, we offered the first of what will be many English classes.  The students are absolutely wonderful.  Some speak no English, some speak a little English, and some speak an immense amount English.  Nevertheless, they are all taking on this extra time commitment (no credit or grades will be given for these classes) solely because of their intrinsic desire to improve their English mastery.   It is honor and a gift to be able to facilitate this.  It is literally great fun to teach students who are motivated to learn as this creates a dynamic and engaging learning environment.

On Monday, I was reminded that although I am teaching, I am also learning at the same time.  In one of my advanced listening and conversation classes, I showed them the song “Breakdown” by Jack Johnson.  Afterwards, we reviewed the lyrics as they were a bit confused about the underlying meaning of the song.  I decided that it may be helpful to begin working together on translating it to Spanish.  After a few minutes, one brave and wise student shared that she did not think it was a good idea to do so.   She explained that because they were more advanced students, they already had plenty of experience translating and she felt it would be more beneficial to work on understanding the meaning through English and independently from her native language.  What a great point!  Just another friendly reminder.

One reminder that is especially poignant was not as friendly as these last few were.  On last Sunday evening, five of us Fulbrighters crammed into a taxi we had called to take us to a fireworks show that was the finale of Bogota’s 8 day Festival de Verano celebrating the birth of Bogota.  Soon after we got into the taxi, we dove into an excited conversation in English.  After this began, I noticed the taxi driver make a phone call.  I was warned that taxis are the most dangerous part of Colombia and to pay special attention when a taxi driver is the one that initiates a phone call.  While my friends continued chatting, I removed myself from the conversation and began to prying my ears to listen to the taxi driver’s quiet conversation.   I am glad I did.  The conversation began as follows: “Hey homie (parcero), I have 5 gringos and they don’t speak much Spanish.”  It was hard to hear everything, but I heard enough to know we were in danger.  As the conversation continued he told his homie where we were heading, a potential meeting spot, and that there were 3 guys (2 of which were more built) and 2 girls.  At this point, I looked to see if anyone else understood what was going down.  I made eye contact with my friend Lizzie, and we had an entire conversation without saying a word.  I then told the taxi driver to let us out immediately as we were on a busy street and I noticed some police about a block away.  The other friends were confused, but quickly got out of the taxi with me.  After recapping, Lizzie also heard him refer to a very dangerous kidnapping drug called scopolamine or escopolamina in Spanish multiple times- this drug makes one submit to another person’s demands without awareness or recollection after coming down.

I debated about sharing this story, but felt it was important to do so.  However, I must add a qualifier- his talking was very hushed, and the conversation of the others was very loud.  Thus it was hard to be 100% certain about what he was truly saying.  However, the warning signs were there- he initiated the phone call and there were some parts that I heard that I was certain about.  Also, as the drive continued, I could sense increasingly dangerous energy coming my way and I try to be very intentional about paying attention to such intuitions. That, in combination with what Lizzie heard, confirmed my suspicions. While we will never know what would have happened- maybe nothing at all, it is always better to play it safe and not find out.  Needless to say, we all made it to the fireworks show safely and had a great time.  We were all actually grateful that this happened, as it was another friendly reminder that although we feel very secure, we are still in Colombia, and as gringos, we are targets.  We learned that although it is important to trust others, you cannot do so blindly.  It is always wise to “stop and smoke a cigarette” as we say in Gonzaga Outdoors- which means to take a step back and survey the situation even when you feel everything is going smoothly.

On a lighter note, I am excited to share that I will be giving my first magic club lesson one week from today at Bella Flor.  I will be teaching magic to 10 underprivileged youth on a weekly over the coming months.  I visited Bella Flor last Tuesday, and I am thoroughly impressed with its facilities and how organized it is.  I quickly had about 15 children eating out of my palms as I showed them a few magic tricks.  They reciprocated by showing me a brief STOMP rhythm routine.  The organization has gained some recognition for its STOMP performance group.   Bella Flor is an NGO that aims to help disadvantaged youth find their element through the art of performance.  It is located in the most impoverished part of Bogota, in Paraiso Ciudad Bolivar- the southernmost part of Bogota.  Some Colombians have called me insane for going there, but in the 10 years of Bella Flor’s existence, many volunteers have come and gone daily without a single problem.  I want to express gratitude to the Mt. Vernon Morning Rotary Club for donating $1,000 for props which will stay with Bella Flor and the aspiring magicians.  This is one of the aspects of my year that I have been most excited about and I am very much looking forward starting the club.  More to come on this one!

This last weekend in Villa de Leyva was probably the most fun weekend I have had since I have been in Colombia.  This is pretty hard to believe considering how much fun I have already had.  Colombians call August the month of the winds.  And this classical colonial town celebrates this with a kite festival.  We flew kites, we hiked, we rappelled 40 meters into a cave with stalagmite dating 20,000 years, we bathed in an amazing swimming hole, and we ate some great food.  I almost forgot, we also partied, and celebrated, and partied just a little more.  Like I said, Colombians take it to another level.  My favorite part was that we did not go to one bar the entire weekend.  Everyone gathered in the central plaza to socialize, have some drinks, and watch the kites.  Before I left for Colombia, my Mom shared an article she had found in National Geographic.  Aside from the awesome adventure opportunities, the main thing that stuck out to me from the article was that Colombians are in general some of the most genuinely happy people the author had ever met.  I went to Villa de Elyva with my roommates and some of our Colombian friends and they taught me what fun and happiness is all about- enjoying each other’s company.  It is that simple- happiness does not need fancy bars, expensive toys, or anything of the sort.  Happiness requires genuine interactions which come from good company.  Colombians are just that- a friendly reminder of what life is truly about.

Spendin’ G’s

6G for cold medicine.  2.5G for a frejoa milkshake (Colombian fruit high in protein).  150G for my Colombian I.D.  11G to rock climb at the gym 5 blocks from my house.  200G for a flight to Medellin for la Ferria de las Flores (festival of flowers- one of Colombia’s most famous festivals).  16G for a bottle of aguardiente which is Colombia’s famous or maybe infamous liquor.  The list goes on… this frivolous spending of thousands upon thousands of Colombian currency (pesos) is not as bad as it sounds.  Do not despair, I am already a millionaire here- can you believe that?!  One U.S. dollar is equal to about 1800 Colombian pesos.  Money aside, an incredible week chalked full of learning and a plethora of new friends: priceless.

Last Wednesday afternoon, I bought my 200G plane ticket to fly to Medellin on Thursday morning.  Life is all about the adventure and my weekend in Medellin provided just that.  I wish I could share all the escapades, but that would fill pages and I do not want to bore you too much.  One highlight from the weekend was literally getting groped by a 70-year-old Colombian woman.  I thought she was drunk.  Her friends told me she didn’t drink however.  We met her while eating lunch on Friday afternoon near Santa Elena just outside of Medellin.  My Fulbright friend, Rita, lives there and this is where the Feria de las Flores begins each year.  This elegant woman spotted me the second I sat down and began shouting vulgar comments at me and my friend Justyn.  Before I knew it, she was behind me grabbing my chest and begging her friends to take a picture.  I thought that was it, but it wasn’t.  She was with a group of about 40 older people and they had two buses that were going directly to Santa Elena as we were still a little ways from the town. They offered to take us but said there was standing room only.  So of course, we took them up.  Justyn and I intentionally tried to board the bus that this woman was not on.  However, the second we got to the door, the driver informed us that it was full and that we had to go to the other bus.  Just our luck.  Boarding first, the moment my head surfaced from the stairs, the 25 or so older people erupted into roudy applause as if we were celebrities.  We had no idea what we were in for.  The bus took off on the beautiful stretch of curvy road leading to Santa Elena, bumping a mix of reggaeton and bachata.  Without warning, our elderly female friend turned the bus ride into a raging party.  She went one by one down the aisle dancing and attempting to grind with each one of us gringos while not being shy to put her hands on us.  I had a backpack which I put on my chest for both security reasons and for a sort of protection from being further violated… she literally begged me to put it on my back!  This woman was so full of life and she brought hysterical laughter to the entire bus.  Meanwhile, shots of aguardiente were flowing from the generous hands of our other elder Colombian friends.  These words do not capture this scene appropriately.  All I can say is, only in Colombia!

This is one of the many noteworthy stories that occurred over my short weekend in Medellin.  On Saturday evening, we were invited to a small concert to be played by our Australian musician/spoken word friends, The Finnigan Brothers, whom we met through Rita the day before.  We decided to go because we trusted it would be another adventure.  We were to meet them at placita, and we had no idea where that was, but our taxi driver seemed to know.  It turned out to be about a 25 minute drive outside of Medellin and we were dropped at the very top of a barrio called Altavista that scaled up the side of a mountain.  The Australians were nowhere to be seen.  So we anxiously awaited while hoping we were in the right place.  After about a half hour of waiting, we were so grateful when saw their familiar faces.  We were in for a treat.  The venue turned out to be an outdoor stage on a bluff that overlooked the barrio and the mountainside.  Following their set which was extremely well received despite being in English, was one of the most profoundly direct 7 act skits I have ever seen.  It was targeted at youth and provided 7 direct messages discouraging them from violence, drinking and driving, and even abortion.  Nonetheless, it was very impressive to see how this outdoor theatre brought the barrio of Altavista together.  There were over 100 people there and everyone was full of energy.  People were selling donuts, juice, ice cream, etc…  My Australian musician friend, David Finnigan also wrote about this experience and I would encourage you to read his take on the whole adventure: http://blind-dragonfly.com/?p=709

I have continued to be surrounded by the Colombian Love I mentioned in my last post.  Today, one of the professors from the University gave me a ride to go grocery shopping and despite it being quite out of her way.  Upon checking out, I was short about 1000 pesos, but the cashier told me not to worry about it.  My landlady patiently let me wait to pay my rent until my bank account through Fulbright was squared away and I had been paid.  This list goes on.  This place is unlike anywhere I have ever been.

My living situation is amazing.  My housemates, Isaac and Monica whom are both from Mexico are in their last year of dental school, Maxi whom is from Argentina is in his last year of medical school, and Carlos is from Spain and is winding down his studies in business.  The apartment is spacious, clean, and comfortable, and most importantly, we enjoy each other’s company.

I am finishing my lesson plans for teaching and will begin giving classes next week.  I already have about 100 students signed up for my classes and have space for about 50 more.  I am grateful that they are all eager to learn English and I plan to make it fun and challenging.

Today, I met with Bella Flor and we are excited to get the magic club off the ground.  Speaking of which, please keep Tom Verner in your thoughts and prayers.  He is stable, but he is at the beginning of a long road to recovery from his shattered pelvis.

Colombia is teaching me about patience.  Things move a bit more slowly here- I have yet to teach English and the Magic Club has not started yet.  I am growing to see the value in it however.  People take an hour or sometimes two to enjoy a leisurely lunch.  When you see someone you know, you never hesitate to stop what you are doing to have a meaningful conversation.  Consequently, people are always late, but now I am beginning to understand why.  They are present.  Colombians are so damn happy and I think this has something to do with it.  They take the time to smell the roses-  and quite literally so; Colombia is one of the largest flower exporters in the world (specifically roses).  Colombians are not running around chasing their own tails to the point where their blood pressure rises.  However, they are still impressively driven, intelligent, and hard-working.  In general, Colombians seem to maintain a healthy balance between work and leisure and I think we can learn from them.   Leading up to and following my graduation from Gonzaga, I have been doing a lot of contemplating about balance- my Dad always told me that it was the key to a meaningful life.  With each day, I am learning more and more how true this really is.  I believe Colombians have it figured it out.

Whether I am running around spending my G’s or making my millions, it does not really matter.  What matters is the company I get to share it with.  So far, I have been surrounded by the some of the most amazing company I have ever met.  The best part is that this is only the beginning and it has been getting better with each day.

Fresh Eyes

I think that the reason why many of us love to travel is because of the adventure- we get to move outside of our realities, strip our perceptions of what is, and see something new for the first time ever.  This is exactly what has been happening for me here in Colombia and it is a beautiful experience.

I have been busy looking for apartments and it has been an incredible way to meet people and see the city.  Yesterday I went and looked at five apartments.  One woman, Nivia, took me around La Candelaria (the colonial part of Bogota) to show me some apartments in three different locations.  The second location she took me was where her apartment was located.  As we were leaving for the third location, she asked me if I had eaten lunch yet.  I told her no.  She then said “comemos entonces” and she invited me into her apartment with her 8-year-old son, Victor, and began banging around the kitchen preparing a typical Colombian lunch- rice, meat, fried plantains, and freshly made juice (from a fruit named julo).  The three of us enjoyed a scrumptious lunch while salsa and merengue music played from her computer in the background.  This story is the best way I can describe Colombia.  She did not make me lunch because she was preoccupied with the idea of me renting an apartment from her, she made me lunch because she is a Colombian and is among the nicest and most genuine people in the world.  She was hungry and so was I, and she wanted me to feel welcome and cared for.

I ended up choosing a different apartment because I wanted to live with other people- preferably Spanish-speakers.  I will be living about 18 blocks from my university in a part of town where many university students live. There, I will be sharing an comfortable and spacious apartment with 2 students from Mexico, one from Argentina, and one from Spain.  It will be a great opportunity to share our different cultures and improve my Spanish.  The big move is all set for tomorrow and I am very much looking forward to settling into my life here and being done with living out of a suitcase.

I arrived here on Sunday late afternoon and from early Monday until late Thursday night all of us Fulbrighters were busy with an information-laden orientation.  During the orientation, we met and had presentations from: the United States Ambassador, Michael McKinley, the Colombian Ministry of Education, the Executive Director of Fulbright Colombia, Ann Mason, a few university professors, and many other inspirational people.  Throughout the week I continued to be impressed by the quality of our program, the people involved, and the opportunity we are so privileged to have.  They literally gave us the royal treatment and we (myself and fellow Fulbrighters) had to continually pinch ourselves to be sure that is was real life and not just a dream.  I have never heard of another program that offers extremely generous funding so that one can live in another country and engage in a social project like what I am doing with Magicians Without Borders.  I look forward to settling in so that I can begin putting things in motion with the project.

On Friday, I was happy to be on my own and independent from the rest of the gringo Fulbrighters I had been with.  Don’t get me wrong, they are all amazing people, I was just ready to immerse myself in the real Colombia.  I spent most of Friday at my university (Universidad Colegio Mayor de Cundinamarca) with my tutor, Amalia, and the dean of the university, Dra. Patricia.  It is a humble, public, yet well-organized university that is made up mostly of females (students and professors) that serves people from lower economic backgrounds.  As with Fulbright, upon my arrival at the university, I was greeted with love and respect and truly given the royal treatment.  Classes started 2 weeks ago and on Saturday morning, Patricia hosted an orientation for the parents of the new students.  During her talk, she introduced me and put me on the spot to share what I will be doing at the university (in Spanish) with about 300 parents.  You never know what’s going to happen here in Colombia and I love it!  After her talk, she handed the presentation off to someone else so she could leave early and take me out to eat and accompany me to look at a few apartments. Like I already said, Colombians are incredibly generous and will go way out of their way to make sure you are given what I like to call the Colombian Love.

I can’t believe I have already been here for a week! So much has already happened.  It is easy to become immersed in your own reality and forget about what is happening beyond it.  I want to take this opportunity to share something troubling with you all.  Tom Verner, the founder of Magicians Without Borders, was recently involved in a serious car accident.  He is alive and now stable, but has a shattered pelvis and will be undergoing an estimated six-hour surgery tomorrow, July 30th at around noon East Coast time.  Tom is one of the most compassionate and inspiring people I have ever met.  Please keep him in your thoughts and prayers.  I am going to have a minute of silence for him as the surgery begins and I would invite you all to join me with this.

I wish you all my best from here in Colombia.  Being here and seeing everything with fresh eyes has reminded me to be open and has helped me find wonder in some of the most basic aspects of life.  It has also reminded me to say yes to an opportunity even when I feel tired or inclined to say no.  You never know where saying yes will take you.  Cheers!

Vermont to Washington and then Colombia tomorrow

What an adventure this project has already been!  It brought me to Vermont about two weeks ago where I spent about half a week with Tom Verner and Janet Fredericks, the founders of Magicians Without Borders.  We balanced our time between making plans for Colombia, practicing and performing magic, and having meaningful discussions.  They live in rural Lincoln, Vermont and their house is nestled in the woods with beautiful tree-covered and softly rolling hills surrounding in every direction.  It was the perfect setting for putting our heads together on this project.  Our philosophies for what magic is really about- joy and hope align incredibly well and I believe this helps explain why I have been drawn to be a part of Magicians Without Borders for many years.  One of the highlights from our time together was having the opportunity to perform with Tom and Janet (La Fleur) at a camp for those with mental disabilities.  It was an honor to share the stage with the two of them and to personally witness the power of the joy that they bring to others through their show.

I spent the second half of my week with Steve Taubman, and he is the person who first introduced me to magic.  While there, he was generous enough to offer the last minute opportunity to do an opening act for his weekly hypnosis show at Lake George in New York.  Not only that, but we also arranged for me to do fundraising presentations for two of the local Rotary Clubs in Vermont- they received the presentation with great interest and support.  Additionally, we were able to go for an afternoon kayak with Steve’s dog, Woody, and our friend Roderick Russel who is not only an incredible person, but is also one of 50 professional sword swallowers in the world.  It was powerful to re-connect with Steve and I don’t think any of this would be happening without him as he introduced me to magic AND introduced me to Tom.

My week in Vermont was truly magical.  A big thanks to Tom, Janet, Steve, and Roderick.  We also made great progress for our project in Colombia!

Colombia update:

I cannot believe the time has come.  I am flying to Colombia tomorrow afternoon…whoa!  Excitement does not even touch what I am feeling as I write this.  We are extremely grateful as the fundraising has been gaining steam and we are up to about $5,000 which is a big step up from the $1,600 I had raised before my trip to Vermont.  While this is a huge improvement, we are hoping donations will continue to stream in as we are now about halfway to our goal of $10, 000.  Also, a big thank you to the Skagit Valley Herald and the Anacortes American for their touching articles about my upcoming adventure in Colombia.

We will be partnering with a non-profit organization based in Bogota called Bella Flor for the Magic Club.  With the club, I will be training challenged and disadvantaged Colombian youth in the art of magic.  Bella Flor has generously offered to provide the meeting space for the club as well as help in finding 8-12 children who are particularly interested in and willing to dedicate themselves to learning magic.

I would like to share more as so much has been happening, but I must be on my way to finish packing and saying my good-byes as it is my last night in the United States for at least ten months.  Next time you hear from me I will be in Colombia.  Thanks for reading and let the adventures begin!

 

Let it begin

Gallery

Well here we are.  Words cannot begin to describe my excited for what’s ahead.  I will be leaving for Colombia on the 21st of July to begin my adventure there.  Before then, I am flying to Vermont to meet with … Continue reading