1) My love for Colombia and Latin America
At noon on the 5th of August, I left Sydney for Colombia. The past 1.5 years had been spent mainly in Sydney where I studied for 3 sessions in UNSW. I had decided early on in my studies that I wanted to do an International Exchange. As I’ve already mentioned, I didn’t my experience in Australia challenging enough and wanted to spend as little time as possible in Australia and experience life somewhere else. My initial plan before leaving for Colombia was to spend about 1 year from August 2003 till June 2004 in a Latin American country. There I would be able to practice my Spanish, immerse myself in the Latin American culture and also do some volunteering work among the poor. I needed the year of break to really improve my Spanish as I had planned to do the last year of my University studies in an International Exchange program in a University in Chile from July 2004 till about June 2005. In Chile, I would need to speak fluent Spanish and attend classes in Spanish. Everything would be in Spanish and therefore I had to improve my Spanish pretty dramatically. The year break in a Latin American country would enable me to do this.
I managed to apply and get an AIESEC education traineeship in Colombia. I went through a pretty rigorous application process through the AIESEC group in my University. Once I passed the process and had to choose my traineeship, my first choice was Colombia. Many people ask me why Colombia? Colombia has always had a special place in my heart since the very beginning of my interest in Spanish and Latin American culture. In fact, it was after reading a book called “Gaviotas: a village to reinvent the world” by Alan Weisman (a book recommended on the website of Daniel Quinn, the author of “Ishmael”) that I became attracted to the Latin American culture. Soon after finishing this book, I took Spanish classes in a private school in Singapore. This was in late 2001. The book was a very inspirational account of how some people built a sustainable development village in Colombia. (I’ll digress a bit here and share on how I became interested in Latin America…) Already before this, I was drawn to Latin America because of my interest in politics. Latin America is just south of the US and the US has been the major political power in the world for more than half a century. My interest in politics inevitably led to understanding how the US became politically involved in the world. And I found out how they were involved in Latin America. Suffice to say, many times the US acted oppressively against the Latin American people – either through their direct political and economic involvement or through the support of oppressive regimes in Latin America.Another book very inspiration book I read about Latin America and American politics is the biography of Ben Linder entitled “The Death of Ben Linder: The Story of a North American in Sandinista Nicaragua”. Ben went to help the poor in Nicaragua after he had graduated as an engineer. This was a time when his own country was funding the terrorist group “the Contras” in their fight against the Socialist Sandinistas, who did much to help the poor. He gave up all – including his relationship with his girlfriend who couldn’t understand why on earth he would want to live such a dangerous life as he did – and eventually died at the hands of a Contra. People like Ben are the true heros of the world for me. He lived a life I could only wish I’d be capable of living one day…
To continue, it was also because of my interest in theology that Latin America interested me – it was there that Liberation Theology was founded and thus where we see a lot of Christians (Roman Catholics) helping the poor and getting involved politically to stand up for the poor and oppressed there. (I’ll double digress and mention a bit about why I took up learning the Spanish language…) I took up learning Spanish because of my interest in Latin America. And it’s an extremely useful and widely spoken language too! All of Latin America (except Brazil, where Portuguese is the national language) speaks Spanish. And in the US, more than 10% of the population speaks Spanish and the Hispanics have recently overtaken African-Americans as the largest minority group there. All in all, because I feel that as Latin American countries (and also the nation of Spain) will only grow as economics and in influence in the near future, learning the language would be a good thing for me to do. Moreover, because of my interest in the Spanish and Latin American culture, I should learn the language as knowing the language brings me closer to the culture.
(Ok, back to lecture proper…) Besides Colombia being one of my favorite Latin American countries because of the book I read, Colombia remains one of the most unique countries in Latin America because of its violence. It’s one of the most violent countries in the world with a Civil War which has raged for decades which has not been resolved yet. Here was thus a country in great need and thus an interesting country to live in! Two other reasons for my interest in Colombia: 1) I was familiar with the Colombian political figure Ingrid Betancourt (the Greens Party in Australia had her come over to Australia before) and read her biography – and found it very inspiring. 2) I was also familiar with the Mennonite’s Christian Peacemaker Team’s (CPT) work in Colombia. I was on a few Mennonite email discussion lists and found out how there was a group of Christians who went to Colombia to help the poor and oppressed there. They braved the violence to be in the midst of civil conflict to show the way of peace – now, that’s what I call inspiring! These were Christians who saw the need to shine as lights for Christ, proclaiming peace and love in the name of Christ! (The Mennonites, by the way, were a Christian denomination that I was slowly becoming attracted to as many of them saw that an important implication of their faith was to be involved in society, pursue social justice and help the poor.)
2) General Life in Bogotá
Before mentioning my more specific experiences in Colombia – which includes teaching English and life after that – let me, in this section, touch on general life in Bogotá, starting first with a description of the city by the Online Lonely Planet World Guide:
Bogotá, the country’s capital, is the quintessence of all things Colombian: a city of futuristic architecture, a vibrant and diverse cultural and intellectual life, splendid colonial churches and brilliant museums. It is also a city of Dickensian waifs, beggars, shantytowns, drug dealers and traffic jams. This amazing mixture of prosperity and poverty, Maseratis and mules, makes it one of the world’s most chaotic, fascinating and aggressive metropolises.
The only thing I’d dispute with is the “prosperity” mentioned above. I never really saw much prosperity in terms of the prosperity seen in developed nations. I think it’s just because I didn’t go to the parts of the city that were more developed and prosperous. There are of course areas that were more prosperous than others – but I wouldn’t think there are many areas that were ostentatiously prosperous.
I lived in the northern part of Bogotá, which as a whole totaled 7 million in population (40 million for the whole of Colombia). The north is generally better off. The further north one gets, the safer and richer the area. The central parts of city can be quite dangerous. And the South is so bad that not many would go there. In fact, as one interested in seeing all of Bogotá especially the poorer areas, I wanted to go to the South but many people warned me not go there. One of my close foreign friends I hung out with a lot and practiced my Spanish with during my time here – an English of Pakistani descent – didn’t want to go there with me because he was afraid that his life would be in danger if he were seen with an obvious foreigner like me (He thinks he looks local and others have commented that he’s local but as one of Chinese background, I would look pretty obviously foreign!)
The weather was pretty cooling. I left Sydney well into its winter and it was quite cold then. I expected living in Bogotá to be around the same temperature as living in Sydney during winter but it was slightly warmer. As the city is 2,600m above sea level, the temperature is consistent throughout the year, averaging about 14 degrees Celsius. Most of the time I’ll just wear a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, with a jacket (unbuttoned) worn over. In a way it wasn’t that cold, nor that warm. As compared to Sydney’s winter, it was better here. As compared to Singapore’s humidity, it was much better here. Yet, one eventually gets bored of the constant cool temperature. Sometimes you just want some sun! And that’s why many people from Bogotá usually travel to other cities in Bogotá to relax and for holidays – like Cartagena (the most popular tourist attraction in Colombia) and Medellín.
I lived with an old couple during my time here. They were probably about 60 plus years of age. Both were pretty nice people (especially the lady – just like a nice old granny!) and they had a lot of relatives who often came over and thus I got to know their relatives too. When I first came to Colombia, I viewed various places. In the end, I decided on this particular house mainly because there was a phone line in my room (so I could connect to the Internet, which was something extremely important to me!) and also because there was a TV in my room. I realized I wanted a TV because it would be a tremendous help to my Spanish – there were programs in English with Spanish subtitles! Overall, my stay with the couple was pretty smooth. I did practice my Spanish with them occasionally. I got to eat a lot of home cooked Colombian food too. Ideally, I would have preferred living with a younger family with children so I could communicate with them more in Spanish. Also, it would have been livelier with younger people in the house!
Cost wise, it was pretty cheap to live here in Bogotá. My rental of my room – food (lunch and dinner) provided – cost slightly under US$150 per month. Of course, I could have stayed in a lower ‘class’ area, which would mean it would be less safe and of course also cheaper. The Internet costs were a bit expensive – which is understandably so for a country that is not that developed. Also, I didn’t send any letters out from Colombia – even though I would have really liked to – as the cost of sending a normal letter overseas would be slightly more than US$3. Food, of course, is quite cheap. I ate a lot of food sold by street vendors, which was extremely cheap and also pretty nice though oily! Bus fares cost about US$0.30 per ride.
One thing I had to get used to early on was what bus to take. Here, the normal buses stop everywhere. There are no official bus stops so you just have to flag them down. Most of these normal buses are pretty small – seating between 10 to 30 people. Different buses had their own routes and you just had to familiarize yourself with the routes – no bus guides! :) Then there are bigger buses called Transmilenio with more fixed and formal routes. They work pretty well and can carry more people. Overall, it takes a bit of time to get used to but once it’s done, traveling around goes pretty smoothly. Using a taxi to get around is also pretty cheap. You can travel for about 30 minutes and not pay more than US$3 or US$4. One thing that you’ll need to take note of is that it may not be totally safe to catch a cab – especially for foreigners. I’ve taken cabs a couple of times and haven’t encountered any danger before but I was told to be careful.
I went to a few shopping centers when in Bogotá, though not many and I hardly spent any money there. There are a couple of big malls with lots of western brand stores. So one can get virtually anything one wants over here. I frequented bookstores pretty often and was pretty surprised to see a lot of well-known classical and modern books translated into the Spanish language.
One thing I have to say I was quite impressed with during my stay there was the pride and nationalistic/patriotic spirit of Colombians. Everywhere I went, the Colombian flag could be seen. This is very much unlike in Singapore where putting up the national flag is only allowed during the period as our National Day looms. Furthermore, many – and I mean a very great many! – Colombians would wear a friendship band around their wrists made of the colors of their flag. A couple of other differences I experienced from my life in Singapore: Some form of politics and democracy is taught in schools to allow students to understand how the Colombian political system works – if only that is the case in Singapore! Also, due to the political turmoil and violence in Colombia, teaching in the National Universities would occasionally stop. This could be due to strikes or violence. In the National University I went to (when I studied Spanish there), I saw lots of graffiti promoting guerilla groups or forms of Marxism – the guerilla groups were of course inspired, at least in the beginning, by forms of Marxism and class warfare. Finally, in Colombia, friends usually greet each other by kissing the right cheek of the other person. This of course is strictly between a male and a female!
As an Asian and of the Chinese race, I would pretty much always feel out of place here in Colombia. During my 4 months of life there, I’ve perhaps only seen less than 20 Asians in total. Most of them were my friends learning Spanish and also young students from schools I taught at. And I did travel quite often – and using public transport frequently too! However, I saw a lot of Chinese restaurants and food places – whether run by Chinese, I do not know. There were also some Korean restaurants and shops. I found out through my Korean friends that there is a group of Koreans in Colombia. Korea is the Asian country with the closest relationship with Colombia because during the Korean War years back, Colombia did send some help. Nevertheless, wherever I went, I would hear whispers of little children mentioning the word “chino” – or Chinese. But I got used to being the odd one out early on. After all, I wasn’t expecting to see many Asians there. And I was here to experience a totally different culture – and that I did.
3) Teaching English in Bogotá, Colombia (6th August – 5th September)
So anyway, I chose to go to Colombia and arrived there on the 6th of August. My trip was a killer – I flew to New Zealand, then to Los Angeles. In Los Angeles, I had a 12 hours break so I visited Santa Monica. Then there were about 2 more stops after Los Angeles before I finally reached Bogotá! On arrival in Bogotá, I was met by AIESEC members from a local elite University. They brought me to an AIESEC welcome party which was held in a pub/disco in a famous night area. There we had drinks and danced the whole night through – the members were very interested in teaching me how to dance Latin and Colombian dances and so I learnt a bit! I must say dancing is so much part of the culture here and these people learn how to dance since young! Anyway, on the 8th of August, I started my work. I was meant to be an English teacher in a private school. I was meant to teach students from ages 13-18. My contract was for a year. However, it only lasted a month! I eventually found out that the school was requiring me to do things way beyond what they ought to be requiring of a person like me normally. I was only a native English speaker and had not been trained to teach English. In such a case, I should not have been asked to do things like creating syllabuses or leading a whole class all on my own! All the English teachers were new in that year and we were all just told to create syllabuses of what we’re going to teach our classes! The school gave me a lot of responsibilities that I was not able to fulfill even though I tried very hard. Many of my teacher friends in the school were also surprised at the level of expectations placed upon me as merely a native English speaker. Furthermore, I couldn’t really agree with the way we were told to teach. We had to use certain textbooks which in my opinion were way beyond the standards of the students. Hardly any student here – even from the highest level – could write a paragraph without any grammatical mistakes. Many couldn’t even differentiate the past from the present tense. Yet we were given American textbook materials to use! I thought it would be a waste of time for me to teach them from the book as most wouldn’t be learning anything. They needed to get their basics right first!
I had found out later that AIESEC were meant to have shown me some papers about my job responsibilities which I was to sign. However, I had never seen the papers and it somehow never got to me. My impression of what I was to do was thus something very different. I got my idea of what I was to do from what was expected of a native speaker normally. There are many English speaking people all over the world who would go to places like Latin America or Asia to teach English. They would do so as an opportunity to experience another culture while earning some money in return. However, most of these people would usually have already been trained in teaching English as a second language – there are a few recognized courses taught worldwide. Just because one is a native speaker doesn’t qualify one nor give him/her the resources or skills to teach English as a second language. I expected my role to be one of facilitating conversation and the like, or even simple teaching, as I was not qualified. However, what I was given to do was a bit too much. The school wasn’t exactly very good though it was a pretty prestigious private school. It was also run very business-like. Because of this, they probably tried to use me to the fullest and thus burdened me with a lot of responsibilities. One other difficulty in my teaching experience here was that the students, being from the middle-upper class segment of the population, were pretty spoilt. Almost all hated English too as it was difficult for them – even though they saw the importance of the language. Another result of being a for-profit run school is that the top management tends to side the students and relaxes the disciplinary culture of the school. This is because if you anger the students or have too strict a school culture, students may complain to their parents and their parents may find another school for the students. You will then lose money! I was pretty upset with the fact that these students had it very relaxed – it was a culture I was very uncomfortable with. It could also be because this was Latin America, which has a generally more laid back culture than the Asian environment I’m more familiar with – I don’t like to get into dangerous cultural analysis but just to say that this is not my observation, but rather that of a teacher friend of mine here.
Because of all this, I was extremely stressed during my first few weeks teaching here. I was very down because my job turned out this way. I decided to quit after a few weeks (I stayed one month in all) because I wasn’t enjoying the class, nor did I think I was helping the students much. I thought it would be wrong for me to just carry on throughout the year and in the end not really feel that I had made an impact upon the students. I love to teach – though I will only gain satisfaction from it if I feel I have made a difference in the students’ life for the better. I thought the English department here was extremely messed up and disorganized – all their English teachers the previous year left or were sacked. There was thus no continuity and they just dumped the responsibility to the teachers to create a syllabus! Also, a lot of teachers wanted to leave the school and some of my friends actually eventually left after me because the overall environment wasn’t very good. Many who had not left, but wanted to, stayed because it wasn’t easy to find a different job with as good a pay – by the way, teachers in a private school would earn about US$400-$500 per month.
[To digress here a bit, something I’ve realized through all this is that I don’t think there are many who love teaching a language (as a second language) to lower-level learners because they love the language. I’m sure one can love a language, which I do of Spanish. But I doubt one can receive the same satisfaction in teaching a language to lower level learners as say one would do so from teaching the language to more advanced level learners – which would most likely mean going beyond the basics of grammar and vocabulary…etc to ‘literature’. Most people teach a language to lower level learners because it gives them money, or it helps them to get to know the people or for some other reason BUT because they love teaching the language! I believe teaching a language as a second language is basically a means to an end – most do it for the money. For me, I didn’t mind teaching English because it paid me and I was given the opportunity to live in a different culture. No other reason whatsoever. It’s not easy or fun – nor challenging – to teach English as a second language.]
So those are the negative sides of my experience. On the positive side, I made some good teacher friends. I’m still in contact with some of them. The kids were also fabulous. As in any schools, there were both nice students and horrible ones. The older ones (17-18) were generally pretty horrible though there were some good ones. I got along pretty well with almost all the younger kids. All in all, my experience teaching, though mixed, was an interesting one. And I do miss the kids and hope to keep in contact with some and meet them up in future when I return!
4) Studying Spanish
After cutting my teaching stint short, I knew I had to do something else in Colombia and spend the rest of my time wisely here. The main reason I’m in Colombia, after all, wasn’t to teach English but really to improve my Spanish. If that was so, in a way it was good that I stopped teaching. This was because the stress of teaching in the school (and having to wreck my brain to formulate a syllabus) took so much of my time and energy and left me little time to practice or improve my Spanish. As the School I taught in was a bi-lingual school in which speaking English was encouraged, all the teachers were encouraged to speak in English – actually, it was more than ‘encouraged’ but they were in fact told that they have to speak in English and those who spoke in Spanish were to be reported to the School! Though it was good for my communication with the teachers, I was however unable to improve my Spanish!
[I realized that being a native speaker in English was not a very good asset if one wanted to learn and practice one’s Spanish! This is because English is a very important language in Colombia and therefore most people would prefer to speak to me in English to improve their English, rather than speaking to me in Spanish to help me improve my Spanish!]
Before Colombia, I had studied 3 sessions of Spanish in Sydney. I received a high distinction (HD) for the first 2 sessions, while a distinction (D) for my 3rd session. I studied a lot for my Spanish and thus theory-wise I was pretty good, but my speaking and understanding was always a bit weak as there weren’t many opportunities to practice it in Sydney! A lot of times I couldn’t catch what the teaching was saying – especially in the 3rd session. I used to try to improve my spoken communication by setting aside an hour or two per week to talk with a friend of mine who also took Spanish in the University. However, that didn’t help greatly.
Once I quit my teaching job, I applied to learn Spanish in two schools. One was in the National University there – a public University that offered Spanish for foreigners for a pretty cheap price. I also applied to a much more expensive private language school (High Technology in Learning) that believed in a different methodology of teaching. Rather than teaching students the traditional way, which focused on theory, the school focused more on conversation and speaking. It was thus quite weak in theory but most of the time the students spent time conversing in Spanish – even beginners!
I had a break of a week or two before starting the two schools. I used the first week to totally immerse myself in going through my Spanish 2nd year textbook I used in Sydney. The textbook was for the whole 2nd year and thus I had finished the first half and had I stayed in Sydney rather than coming to Colombia, I would have been studying the 2nd half of the textbook. And so I studied the 2nd half of the textbook (one semester’s worth of study) in one whole week. I learnt basically the rest of the grammar I had to learn and I was quite pleased with myself.
I did well for the National University entrance Spanish entrance test and was initially told that my Spanish was too good for the classes they were starting. Most students there were of a level lower than mine (theory-wise at least!) and so they didn’t start a class for my level. However, I still joined the best class there was but soon found that I was learning all the stuff I’ve already learnt before. I’ve basically learnt all the Spanish grammar and theory there is to learn formally. And so I dropped out of the class after a few lessons, receiving a refund.
[I started to realize that 2 years of studying Spanish in a University would allow one to learn almost everything there is to learn grammar-wise. This doesn’t mean one would be able to read and write Spanish pretty well. But it means that the foundations would have been laid. There would still be tons of vocabulary to learn and even when I read Spanish books now, the sentence construction is still more complicated than what I’ve learnt. But the point is that for one to be better in reading and writing Spanish, one would just have to read and write and advance through this way. There would be nothing more to learn in textbooks. One would have learnt it all in 2 years of University studies. After that, one just needs to read a lot and write a lot. And in fact, most Spanish courses starting from the 3rd year consists not in learning grammar, but in reading Spanish books and writing. In regards to conversing in Spanish, I think one could generally speak well in Spanish if one knows the Spanish grammar and vocabulary well enough. However, understanding and catching what the other person says in Spanish is totally different ballgame. This is what I find the hardest!]
I continued on with the other private school. I thought this was basically what I needed – that is, to converse in Spanish. The schoolteachers were basically native Spanish speakers who were in the midst of finding a job. They didn’t have to learn much to teach in this school; they just had to be a native Spanish speaker. After all, they didn’t need to teach grammar as the methodology of this school made it such that conversation was the main thing. So basically, what I was paying for is for someone to converse with me in Spanish!
In a way my Spanish did improve through going to the school. However, the school fees were pretty high. Considering I was just paying someone to talk to me in Spanish, I thought that was a bit expensive. I would spend about 4 hours in the morning (from 8am-12pm) at the school. The whole course was for 120 hours – or around 6 weeks of lessons. (I attended the school from mid-September till early-November). The plus point about the school I guess was that I made a lot of friends – all of whom were foreigners. It was interesting to know why there were in Colombia.
My first friend there was a Swedish gal. She met her boyfriend either in Europe or the States. She was in Bogotá to be with her boyfriend, who’s Colombian. While he was working, she was studying – correspondence with her University in Sweden. I met an Australian who was previously working in London. He traveled Europe then came to Central and South America. He’s now in France studying for an MBA. I met two Korean guys in the school. One of them was learning Spanish (and studied Spanish in Korea) and the other was learning English. The father of the Korean learning Spanish was from the Korean military and was based in Colombia. Thus he was spending his holidays here in Colombia. There was another Korean woman whose husband was sent to work in Colombia. There was a Dutch guy who’s in Colombia to live with his girlfriend, who’s Colombian and an American guy who just came to live with his newly married Colombian wife. There were three French I got to know. One was here for holidays because his sister is married to a Colombian. The other had a boyfriend who was sent to Colombia to work. The other had a boyfriend here. My English friend of Pakistani descent was in Colombia after spending a year teaching English in a village in China. One of his siblings is married to a Colombian. He hopes to spend a year or so in Bogotá teaching English.
In the National University Spanish class, I got to know a Palestinian couple (the guy was working here), an Italian Roman Catholic who was sent to be in his Order here and two Americans – one of which was slightly younger than me and was here to take a break from life in America and was probably going to study in a Bible College here. I also met two Korean guys. One has been in Bogotá for quite a long time already and has a business here. The other one just came here recently with his family as his wife and him felt called to live and serve in Colombia. He was serving in the Korean Church but has plans to minister in some other way.
5) Street ministry with Korean pastor
Both Koreans went weekly to a dangerous area in the center of the city called San Victorino. This particular place had a lot of homeless people and they preached the gospel for a few minutes before giving out burgers. When I got to know they were involved in this, I told them I was interested to go with them. And thus whenever they went to San Victorino from every Monday since then (the first being on 29th September), I would go with them and help them feed the poor. The people were really homeless – we feed maybe more than a two hundred each time. It was quite difficult to contain and order the crowd, but we managed to most of the time with the help of a Colombian there. Quite a few inhaled glue and were addicted. All of them were basically in ragged clothes and were really dirty and smelly. Most wanted more than one burger but the pastor was quite strict in giving only one. We marked their hands with a pen whenever one person got a burger so they couldn’t line up and get another burger. Sometimes some people were insistent on getting more and stirred up some trouble. But most caused no trouble and were thankful to us for what we were doing. There was a girl I remember quite clearly as she came on several occasions. Her name was Anita and she was 10 years old. She was so cute and petite but also very dirty. Her face was not smooth or clean and the parts around her eyes were very red. When she came, she would always ask me for more than one burger. She would pull my hand gently and beg me and whenever I could, I would give her more than one. But the picture of her will always remain in my memory. This was the first time I’ve actually talked to homeless people in a big way.
On 6th of October, the Korean pastor took me to a place called Suba after our normal trip to San Victorino – because we had some burgers left over. He wanted to start another ministry there and had a Colombian pastor friend living near there. This was a really poor area. The buildings were all pretty worn down. The roads to this area were really dusty. This area was quite different from the suburb I lived in, which was pretty well off. The Colombian pastor, his son and the three of us (2 Koreans and I) went to this area. The Colombian pastor knew someone there. She opened her little place out and this pastor got together all the kids around the area. We told them that if they come, they would be given a burger each. About 30-40 kids gathered in the little house and he preached to them for a while and then we gave them the burgers after that. All the kids enjoyed the story telling and had fun. A ministry was started just like that!
Overall, I really enjoyed my time with the Korean pastor and the various humanitarian ministries we were involved in. I did think of being more involved in a more formal way and with a bigger organization but in the first place, my Spanish wasn’t good enough. Furthermore, I did enquire about volunteering in some bigger organizations but I felt that the bureaucratic nature of it all was very stifling. I saw that there was so much need here in Colombia and thus there wasn’t really a need to go through any particular organization. Opportunities would come begging. And they did. I especially liked the way how these two Koreans just went to do their stuff. That’s how it should be done, in my opinion. Why the need to be part of an organization? We should just start something. And they did.
[While we’re on the topic of Christian humanitarian ministry, on the 16th of October, I met a guy on the streets called Henry. He asked me for some money so he could get back to his house as his wallet was stolen. I talked to him for a while and found out he was a pastor and had a ministry to drug addicts. He invited me to come and visit his place and he wrote down his particulars and phone number. I was quite looking forward to him bringing me on a tour of his ministry. A week or two later, I called him but didn’t manage to contact him – probably coz he wrote his details down wrongly or I wasn’t able to read his handwriting properly!]
6) Street encounters with the poor and the meaning of grace
Walking back from the gym at around 10pm on the night of 7th October, I met a lady named Isabel and her child Maresol (about 9-10 years old). This lady started talking to me. I didn’t understand at first but realized she wanted some money. I told her I didn’t have any money because I didn’t bring my wallet to the gym. She continued to talk. And I heard the word dinner/food. I knew then that she and her little kid didn’t have any dinner to eat. I started to speak to her. The first thing I said – something I say to most people who are new to me to excuse my poor Spanish – is that she needs to speak more slowly because I don’t speak Spanish well! Then I started to talk to her about where she lives.
When she told me she lives in Suba, it caught my attention. I knew she stayed somewhere and didn’t look that poor as to live on the streets. But she did look poor enough. And I knew the sort of poverty she was in, having been to Suba the previous day with the Korean pastor. I asked her about her child, about whether he goes to school and about what she’s doing in this neighborhood, which is not walking distance from Suba – though there’s a bus. She said that she comes here to ask for money – I guess my neighbourhood is one of the better off ones not too far from her area. I asked her if she was able to find a job. She wasn’t and told me she had to pay for her housing and she doesn’t have much money – 120,000 per month she said. That’s about S$60-70 per month. She has 5 kids living with her, no husband. Of course, I wasn’t sure how true all she told me was because she may not have been telling me the truth or I may have misunderstood what she has said because of my poor Spanish skills! Nevertheless, true or not true, I told her I’ll give her some money and asked her to wait for me at a place for a few minutes so I could go back to get my money. When I returned, we talked more. When I gave her some money, I told her, “I believe God wants me to give this to you. And may God bless you” – just to let her know that I’m a Christian and I’m doing this because I do believe God loves her, and cares for the poor and would want me to help her. She then told me she goes to Church everyday – the Catholic Church in my neighborhood, actually. I then proceeded to talk with her about her faith.
From that day till I left Colombia, I met her about 8 more times. In total, I gave her about equivalent of US$100. I met her mostly after or before I went to the Gym – she was stationed outside. Once, she actually came to guard house at the entrance of the apartment I stayed in to look me up. She knew where I lived since the first day I met her as then she saw me going into my apartment to get the money for her. On this occasion on the 14th of October, the guard called me and I went out to meet her – and she actually asked me for money so I gave her a bit. I have to say I wasn’t very happy she came to look for me in my apartment. I told her not to come again because this wasn’t my place. But then when I saw her child there, my heart just melted and I realized I shouldn’t be feeling the way I did!
On the 17th, I met another son of hers – William – and on the 21st, I met one of her daughters, Paula. From the first day I met her till the rest of my stay in Colombia, Isabel and her children were regularly on my mind. In a way, I looked forward to meeting her and talking to her whenever I went to the Gym. When I was alone and thinking, most of the time I would be thinking about how I should really respond to them and the poor like them. On the 9th of October, I met her after going to the gym and we talked for about 30 minutes. After our talk, I started to think more seriously about whether my giving money to her was any use on the long run. I was giving to her so she could pay for rental and buy food for her family. But if she were using my money to merely stay alive, wouldn’t she be dependent always upon me and others to give her money? Shouldn’t she think about getting a job? If she got a job, she could earn her money. As the famous chinese proverb goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” If that’s the case, shouldn’t I be making sure that I help her to get a job somehow so she can support herself and earn her wages, rather than always begging for money?
I thought hard about this. I knew all about this before as I studied Development. One aspect of developmental work is relief work – for example, helping the poor survive in extreme situations like famine or during wars or other unfortunate extreme circumstances. In relief work, NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) raise money to be used to help these people to merely survive. Another aspect of developmental work – and the more regular aspect – is actual development. This is when we help the poor by giving them education and equipping them with job skills. Our aim in all this isn’t just to help them survive and thus make them dependent on us forever. Rather, it is in a way teaching them how to fish so they can fish for themselves for life and wouldn’t need to depend on us for long.
So I was confronted with the question of whether my helping Isabel and giving her family money was a good thing. Or perhaps, it was a good thing, but was it a wise thing? Or was it the wisest response in such a situation? In a way, it’s like when one meets a beggar. Should we give money to him/her? Giving to the beggar is just like giving to Isabel (she is after all begging for money) – in both circumstances, we would be giving a fish to the recipient rather than teaching him/her how to fish.
Should I continue giving to Isabel or somehow make sure that my giving to her would result in her working and thus earning her way to self-sufficiency? If I were to continue giving “fishes” to Isabel, rather than making sure she fishes for herself, would I thus be considered a bad steward of my money? Wouldn’t I be of better use if I were to somehow help her to get a job? Wouldn’t it be more right for her too if she were to earn her wages rather than depend on charity to survive?
Although the reasoning behind the “fish” quote is indeed true and wise, I realized that we could indeed take all this too far. What I mean is that we could start thinking that we should not give to the poor if indeed nothing comes out of it – if there is no long-term results to show for our charity. We could start thinking that we need to make them earn their wages and not rely on us for charity. In a way, we could fall into the spirit of the very famous saying (which many people think is taken from the Bible, but is in actual fact not) that “God helps those who help themselves” and thus think it wrong to help those who do not show they want to put in effort to help themselves. While all this in some sense no doubt true, I realized it is dangerous because this spirit could easily go contrary to the spirit of grace. That is, we could forget what grace means. Grace is unconditional giving. It is not conditional at all. By coming up with criteria to be fulfilled before we start giving, our giving ceases to be unconditional. Whether the criteria is imposed on the recipient or merely guides us as to whom we should be giving doesn’t really matter. As long as we don’t give freely – as long as we are being in any way conditional in our giving – we do not understand what grace really is. After all, Jesus didn’t die for the sins of certain people who fulfilled certain criteria, He died for all. When He loved us, he didn’t love only some but all. And when He called us to love others, He didn’t specify who we are to love – except that we are to love all without exception. When we give to others, we are called to give without expecting anything in return. We aren’t asked to give only to those who would use our money wisely. Rather, the only criteria, if any, which needs to be fulfilled before we give, is that those given ought to have needed it.
I came to this conclusion after much struggle within me. Initially, I had told myself that I should be giving for a good purpose. And a good purpose would be if my giving would help Isabel to get a job and thus support herself. There would thus be a long-term effect. In a sense, I would be leaving a little “legacy” of my giving. I would be proud in future to let others know that I gave to help this person who now has a job and is self-supportive. But I realized that this kind of thinking could go very much against the spirit of grace. I wanted to get something out of it – to get the satisfaction of having made a big difference to Isabel’s life. In a sense, my giving was conditional upon the fact that it would lead to something big. But I realized grace doesn’t make such conditions. Jesus loved us all and died for us all even if some would never have accepted His love. Or even if some would have accepted His love but still fail over and over again. That’s grace!
I’m not saying that using our money wisely is not something we ought to do. Obviously we should do that. The parable of the talents encourages us to be responsible for the use of our money. We should use it in such a way that it blesses others and that there are results to show. If we were to go by the parable of the talents alone, then the “fish” quote would indeed be wise and right and ought to be followed. Then we should think about using our money as best as we can and not just give unconditionally, but making sure that results follow. Indeed, the parable of the talents reminds us that we should not be lazy and thus when we give money to people, we need to make sure they are not just lazy and “consume” our gifts but they will invest wisely with it – preferably to learn how to fish, not just to buy fishes! The parable of the talents has a sort of “meritorious” feel to it.
I acknowledge that God does want us to be responsible with the way we use money. We need to put it to good use. But on the other hand, there’s the notion of grace. And grace has absolutely no “meritorious” feel at all! God is a God of grace. His love for us is more of reckless abandon than a calculative sort. The parable of the talents has to be balanced with the understanding of what grace is all about. When we think about grace, we banish all notions of merits or conditions. After all, in the bible there are hints of both capitalism (in the parable of the talents and such) and communism/communalism (Acts 2:44-45, Acts 4:32-35, 2 Corinthians 8-9). And let us not forget that the idea most prominent and preeminent in the bible is that of love and grace.
My point in all of this is that I realized how easily it is for one to forget the idea of grace. And in terms of giving and development, I believe remembering about grace should cause us not to think so much about how our giving produces good long term results, but should instead remind us that even if our giving were to produce nothing in the long term, but were only to be a short term and one-time expression of grace and love, grace would compel us to do it anyway.
7) Misíon Charismata Internacional
I mentioned about my going to the gym just above. Another reason for staying in my apartment was due to a good gym being pretty nearby – less than 5 minutes walk. And I wanted to go to the gym regularly as I knew I needed the exercise and the food would be quite fattening here. It was a pretty huge gym – with a spa and sauna and all! It was also very expensive! I subscribed to a cheaper plan which only allowed me to enter the gym during non-peak hours – before 4pm and from 9pm till 12 midnight. During the middle of September, I got to know some Colombians in the Gym. They talked to me in English and I eventually got to know that they were Christians. They were part of an MCI cell group.
MCI stands for, in Spanish, Misíon Charismata Internacional. Or in English: International Charismatic Mission (ICM). It’s one of the biggest Churches in the world led by Pastor Caesar Castellanos. This Church is famous around the world for its cell concept called “G12”. There are of course many cell concepts around. And it seems like the G12 cell concept is the one that has been getting a lot of attention in the recent years. Faith Community Baptist Church (FCBC) in Singapore pastored by Lawrence Khong was once famous for its cell church. But just a few years back, it adopted the G12 format. It seems like Victory Family Centre (led by Pastor Rick Seaward) is also slowly doing the same. There are actually leaders of their Church who regularly visit MCI/ICM and stay for a week or two to experience the G12 cell concept.
One of my colleagues (in the School I taught) also invited me to her Church. She was previously attending MCI but left for her present Church that was pastored by an Australian who was discipled by Caesar. I got to know a cell group of young people and attended the cell group once. On the 27th of September, I attended the Saturday afternoon youth service at MCI with the cell leader. Although it was raining, the stadium was almost full with probably about 5,000-7,000 people attending the service. The service was held in a big indoor stadium. It was a typically lively charismatic service with a lot of young people attending.
8) Occasional English teaching
Despite having stopped teaching in the School, I had a couple of occasional stints in teaching English. On the 6th of September, the day after my last day at the school, I went to a private University with some people from the YMCA. The YMCA has an English teaching branch and thus conducts courses and camps for those who want to improve their teaching – this is one way they raise money to fund their other more humanitarian causes. I got to know the lady in charge of this English ‘department’ of YMCA through a colleague of mine. As I was a native English speaker (and therefore in great demand!), they got me into the team to help conduct an English Refresher course for English teachers in the University. This lasted the whole day. I also conducted some English lessons in the morning of the 10th of October in a private school – very similar to the one I taught in before and situated not too far from it either. Later at night, I went to the Presbyterian Seminary my Korean pastor friend taught English in and relief taught there for one lesson.
9) Paid Spanish Conversation with a friend
I completed my 120 hours in the private language school early November. I had already decided that I was not going to continue at that school or any other school, as it would probably be too expensive. And furthermore, I knew what I needed to do to improve my Spanish. It wasn’t to go to a School, but just practice and practice my Spanish! One of the brothers of my lady host offered to speak with me in Spanish. He was retired already and thus was free to talk with me in Spanish everyday. I was delighted to find someone to be able to talk to me and so I paid him about US$2 an hour – which was a pretty reasonable price – the teachers in that private language School are paid that same amount by the School, though I paid the School about twice as much or slightly more. I started my ‘speaking lessons’ with him on the 6th of November and it lasted till I left Colombia early December. We would walk around the place where I lived and just talked and talked about anything and everything – politics, soccer, guerilla groups…etc. Occasionally, we would go to certain places when I needed to – and shop and talk at the same time. In all, I probably chatted with him about 50-60 hours during the month.
10) Soccer match
The 4th of October saw me attend a soccer match that featured Millonarios – one of the two soccer teams based in Bogotá. My host family and their relatives are huge followers of soccer in Colombia and some of them had very close connections with the Millonarios team and other friends in high places! Thus, I was not only able to watch the game, but furthermore, was participant to two unexpected events. Firstly, I was able to enter the locker room before the match and managed to see all the players preparing in front of the media – some of whom were part of the Colombian national soccer team. Secondly, I got to enter a room used by a radio station. I was actually interviewed live – in Spanish – by the radio soccer commentator. I heard that this was a popular radio station that many people tuned in live throughout Colombia! Thus possibly hundreds of thousands to millions of people heard my unpolished Spanish! At the end of the match, I was further interviewed by the same radio station!
11) Touristy places I visited
I went to quite a few touristy places. My visits to the Museo de Oro (Gold Museum, 16th November) and the Museo Nacional (National Museum) were excellent. These are places I’d definitely visit again when I return to Bogotá. They basically contained lots of pre-Columbian relics and art and just going there really challenges you to think about how civilization was like before the Americas was colonized. I roamed around La Candelaría quite a few times. It was the oldest parts of the city and still retains its beautiful colonial architecture. I also walked up and down a mountain to get to the Monserrate (17th November), a church overlooking the city. I walked a couple of times along Carrera 7 where there were a lot of street stalls and flea markets. And I went once to Zipaquira to visit the Catedral del Sol (Salt Cathedral).
12) Close call with the FARC!
There’s also a popular food and entertainment area for tourists called Zona Rosa. Mostly foreigners and the middle-upper class Colombians would come here. The first time I ate at this area was on the 15th of November. A friend and I settled for a Mexican restaurant for dinner. He had to leave early to give a private English class later that night so we both left early. Later on, we found out that a couple of hours after we left, a FARC member threw a grenade into a bar called Bogotá Beer Company, which was situated right beside our Mexican restaurant! The bar was supposedly frequented by a lot of Americans, prime targets for the FARC guerilla group. One person died as a result.
13) Safety on the streets
I came across two experiences of nearly being pick-pocketed. The first was when I was at a busy bus stop, having gotten off a Transmilenio bus. While walking to take another bus, I felt that someone was touching my backpack. My backpack actually had a small little pocket in the front where I’d sometimes put my Palm Pilot and my mp3 player. I knew that I needed to be cautious as it was a very easy target for pick-pocketers! So I was very aware that I needed to be alert. And when I felt someone touching my backpack, I quickly used my hand to feel if the pocket was opened. In this case, it was! However, fortunately nothing was stolen. The second occasion was when I was walking with two of my friends along a very busy road where lots of flea markets were situated. I was very cautious as I knew that a crowded place like this was a great place to be pick-pocketed! Being very alert, I noticed a lady following behind me very closely. Then suddenly, I felt someone touching my backpack. I touched the front pocket to find it open (though there was nothing in it as I stopped putting anything important in the pocket after some time). I quickly turned back and saw this lady right behind. As I looked at her, she mumbled something in Spanish proclaiming her innocence (I presume) and showing her hands to me to prove she took nothing. I just stared at her. Of course she didn’t take anything – that’s because there was nothing to take! But I knew she had been up to something because of the fact she was quick to show me her hands and prove her innocence. Indeed, if she weren’t guilty of trying to steal anything, she wouldn’t have reacted that way. She probably only reacted that way because she didn’t end up taking anything from my front pocket! And thus could show there was nothing on her.
Living in a country like Singapore or Australia, there would generally be no problem with pick-pocketing. Furthermore, one could leave things around (for example, leave one’s bags on the table while going to buy one’s food) without fear of it being stolen. However, obviously one would need to take more care here. After hearing my Australian friend having his wallet stolen in a Transmilenio bus, I stopped putting my wallet in the back pocket of my jeans and instead placed in the front. Also, I seldom took out my Camera in public to take pictures as this probably wasn’t a wise idea and would attract a lot of attention!
14) Decision to leave Colombia
A change in direction occurred on the 30th of October. On this day, I talked to my father and decided to go back to Singapore earlier. Before this talk, my plan was to maybe go back in February or March for a while just to see my family and return to continue practicing my Spanish to get it ready for my Studies in Chile from July. However, my father talked about the family and especially my brother and I decided that I should go back earlier and spend time with my family – especially my brother – during the holidays. It would be easier to spend time with my brother during the school holidays, as he wouldn’t need to go to school. Thus, I decided to go back earlier but also return earlier.
15) Trip back to Singapore and an encounter with a gay
On the 3rd of December, I left Bogotá for Singapore. Similarly to my trip from Toronto to Singapore in 1999 and from Sydney to Bogotá, this trip was long with many stops. Perhaps, this trip was the worst of all I had. Not only did I stop twice before reaching Los Angeles, but at LA, I had a stopover of 24 hours. What’s more, I arrived at LA around midnight. I had decided not to spend money to stay over in a hotel – but rather sleep over in the Airport while leaving my baggage in a secure, paid place. In LA, however, I realized I could get cheap accommodation at a Youth Hostel. There was even a free bus ride from the Airport to the Hostel even at such an hour – one is obligated to pay tips, of course. And the cost of staying one night was about US$15. I was glad for this cheap accommodation though I guess I got what I paid for and stayed in a pretty squashy room that fitted 19 other young people! I entered the room at about 1am when most were sleeping – though many still out partying. I found my way around the room in the dark (though someone did offer me a torchlight) and took a much needed shower! Then I tried to sleep though it wasn’t exactly conducive with some people noisily entering the room throughout the morning.
I woke up early in the morning – fearing for the safety of my two luggages! Then I went to Santa Monica again (as I really didn’t have any other place to go!) to do a bit of walking around and maybe some shopping. I arrived during the late morning and was soon to experience a very interesting encounter with a stranger – and gay! Here’s what happened: The first shop I walked into was Borders. As I reached the front door, I passed by a guy. As I passed him, I asked him for the time. He replied me and as he was going into Borders too, we went in together. He was very friendly and asked if I had been to Australia. Maybe it was a bit of my Aussie accent (though there isn’t much left of it!) which caused him to ask me that question? I don’t know. But we then talked more and he showed me his favorite books in the bookstore. I found out he was a postgraduate politics student in a pretty good University – I think it was New York University. He was also a Swiss but had stayed many years in the States. We talked a bit. Since here was a friendly guy, I was very glad to be friends with him. But then after a while, I started to think if he was gay and interested in me or something! It wasn’t that I was uncomfortable with talking to strangers. No, I was comfortable talking to anyone and don’t mind making friends with anyone. But somehow, the thought just came to my mind – maybe he was unusually friendly. I started to feel slightly uncomfortable. Soon after, he asked me if I smoke. I told him I don’t. Then his shocking reply came: “That’s good. Because I hate to kiss someone who smokes.” Uh-oh!
Now I started to feel even more uncomfortable. He sensed it and asked me if something was wrong. I told him everything was ok. I wanted to tell him I was straight and so suggested we take a walk outside the mall. When I told him I’m straight, his first response was, “Oh, I respect that.” But I didn’t want to leave our encounter at that. Though I wasn’t gay and we both couldn’t have a gay ‘encounter’ (nor kiss!), I still wanted to get to know him better as friends. So I told him that we could still be friends and hang out during the afternoon. He was agreeable. I suggested we take lunch at a nearby foodcourt. He was agreeable to that too though told me that he didn’t have any money on him as his sister accidentally took his credit card in the morning. I offered to pay for his lunch and we ended up eating some Chinese food. Later, he had to take care of a business call and so we agreed to meet at Borders again an hour plus later.
During this time apart, I prayed to God. Why did you put me in such a situation? I wasn’t scared or anything. But during his time with me, he talked about a lot of dirty stuff – about sex, about his gay life…etc. And I was pretty uncomfortable. I don’t exactly remember what I was praying for, but I guess I was praying that I’ll make the best of this situation and learn what I can from this encounter. Later we met and we only had an hour or two together as he had to go to an airlines office to pay his ticket by this afternoon. He asked me if he could borrow some money from me – about US$70. He said he needed it to pay his ticket by the afternoon. If he doesn’t by this afternoon, he would have to pay a couple of hundred dollars extra. I gave him the money. He got my email and told me he’ll keep in touch with me and send me a check to repay me. He said he’ll pay me more – about US$200 as that was half the amount he would have saved by my lending him the money to pay his ticket by the afternoon. I said he could just pay me the money he owed me and give the rest to charity. But he insisted sending me half of the money he saved. Anyway, before he caught his bus to the airlines’ office, we talked. He again talked a lot about sex and all that. He told me how he was really interested in me, how meeting me made his day, how he wanted to kiss me (and he asked me to consider whether I would allow him to!). He was in his University’s debating team and he wanted me to go watch him in this competition in 2004 and said he would pay for my ticket there and all!
Anyway, in the end I didn’t really manage to get in contact with him – or rather he didn’t manage to get in touch with me. I gave him my hotmail email address I checked regularly though one that there would always be problems with in receiving emails! Too bad I guess! Nevertheless, though I didn’t get my money back, I still believed he was genuine (and wasn’t out to take my money) and would have send me the money back had he been able to get in touch with me. I don’t regret losing that money, though it’s a lot. Overall, it was an interesting – though expensive – experience! Darias Giovatti – if that’s how you spell your name – if you happen to read this, do contact me!
My next flight brought me to a couple of hours stopover in South Korea. The airport was big and beautiful. After meeting a lot of Koreans in Colombia and having interacted more with the Korean pastor, I became more interested in Korea. I think Korea has always taken backstage to China and Japan. Japan remains the most popular and happening Asian country, while China is always talked about due to its size and population. Somehow Korea is always out of the picture. So I bought a book about Korea in the airport – it was a cartoon book about Korea and which also compared Korea to China and Japan. And I told myself that I’ll go visit Korea in future! In fact, I was planning to stop over a few days on my way back to Bogotá.