By Mia Spingola
I’m on a bus, alone, on an unfamiliar road in the dead of night. I had resigned myself to sleeping in the airport in Barranquilla, Colombia, until a kind soul drove me around town to find a safe bus that would take me back home to Santa Marta. I wanted to pay him, but a kiss on the cheek was all he would accept.
This is why I moved abroad alone. I’ve learned to trust humanity, step outside of my comfort zone, let go of plans, and explore the unknown parts of the world. Every person and situation I encounter presents life lessons that my textbooks lack. Every day is filled with lessons that have grabbed my undivided attention.
I jump off the bus and begin the walk back to my home away from home. From a block away, I can smell the gooey, cheesy street arepeas in the cut. As I continue my walk, I see the neighborhood drunk in his typical ensemble — a cheetah bandana, graphic tee from Limited Too, 90’s mom sunglasses, no shoes, and a fifth of guaro. He goes out of his way just to give me some buena ondas because he knows how frustrated I get battling the machismo-infested streets. Instantly, I forget about the construction workers hollering from the 18th floor and the fathers blowing kisses while holding their children’s hands. I walk up to my apartment and the doorman, Ivan, sensing my exhaustion, takes my backpack and walks me to my door. “Bienvinedos a casa, reina.”
Thank you, neighborhood drunk and doorman, for shattering every possible stereotype I learned about Colombia back home. For a country that has been to hell and back, these men still have the most intoxicating smiles I’ve ever seen.
Living in a tropical climate means a ridiculously sweat induced wake-up call from Mother Nature. As the sun rises, my personal mototaxi honks at me from the street, ready to take me to work. The driver gracefully (and not so gracefully) swerves through the typical chaos that is South American traffic, and I close my eyes while trusting yet another stranger with my life.
I arrive at my job as an English teacher at a Colombian public school. I walk into first period and the A/C is broken, yet again, resulting in a decently sized pond forming in the middle of the classroom. A few students are late because they didn’t have running water at home that morning. There’s a new girl timidly tucked in the corner whose family just escaped the harsh living conditions of Venezuela. So, to clarify, that’s 47 students that pack into a room the size of my bedroom, crowd around a small pond, with only a few pens to receive their education.
Through the sweet scent of piss, blaring reggaeton, and 150% humidity, I think about the things I considered problems back in Chicago. Like always having to bring a jacket to the class that blasted the A/C. Or throwing a fit when there was no warm water or soap in the bathroom. Or having the freedom to do whatever I wanted in the bathroom because there was running water. Or simply having a pencil to take notes with. You know, the petty problems that had nothing to do with my simple right to receive a basic education. I was plagued by insignificant problems that didn’t even compare to the reality outside my privileged bubble.
In typical Colombian fashion, school is cancelled later for the national soccer team’s game. As much as I enjoy kicking it at a corner tienda, pounding back Aguila beers with creepy old men blasting vallenato, one of my students lets me in on the secret beach only locals know about (Juan and Carlos from the tienda will have to wait until the next game).
I’ve lived in South America for some time now, so I know to push and scream instead of waiting my turn to buy a ticket for the bus. Unfortunately, the bus drivers are on strike again because of their low-wages. Fortunately, there’s a non-affiliated colectivo across the street and the man in the back seat has an adorable monkey popping out of his backpack. Naturally, I hop in without hesitation.
As we get further from the city, the roads get bumpier and the accents heavier. The police pull us over, searching for a colectivo on that road with smuggled drugs. To their surprise, they wouldn’t be arresting anyone for having drugs, but rather a monkey stolen from the jungle.
I find myself stuck on another road in the middle of nowhere. In the midst of what is soon to be a breakdown, a young girl with nothing but the dingy T-shirt on her back offers to share her food with me. Her dirty hands break open an unfamiliar tropical fruit and we sit on the curb exchanging food and giggles.
Eventually, I am able to weave through all the thick accents and get directions to the beach. After overcoming obstacles in my unexpected adventure, nothing tastes sweeter than a piña colada on the postcard-perfect playa.
The rum gets stronger, and I get sappier. Soon, I will no longer see my students (whom I call my children) everyday and Ivan will only be a photo on my wall. This initially catastrophic day will only be an entry in my journal and the five-minute encounter with the homeless girl will be a profound lesson on how I choose to live.
But through every bump in the road, friend made along the way, and meal shared, I get to know myself a little more. Slowly, I’ve become addicted to meeting myself in Colombia.
For me, this could’ve only been possible by staying, building a community, and consciously taking in my surroundings. When I live it day in and day out, I’m able to crack into the culture just a little more. And discovering crevices in the Colombian culture around me quickly leads to revealing new crevices in my own being. These profound lessons given to me by the Costeños are some I will carry with me as I continue to move through the world.