The last Colombia episode

I’m back where this Colombia chapter of my life began, sweltering in Santa Marta wishing the neighbours would keep their music to themselves.

20180102_175457.jpgAfter 4 years and 7 months in Bogota, and a total of 5 years and 3 months in Colombia, I’m heading back to Australia, back to where I came from, downsizing from a city of nearly 10 million inhabitants to a tiny speck on the map with maybe 200 people living there. I’m going back to a country where I know how things work, where I can communicate in my native tongue and to a place where there is peace and quiet.

I’m not going alone; Edwin and D are migrating with me as they have permanent residency visas as a result of the incredibly detailed partner visa application we submitted in December 2016. However this time, the shoe will be placed on the other foot. They will be the ones seeking my help to interpret and navigate interactions with institutions. They will be the ones grasping for the correct words and tone to use for the situation. They will be the ones missing things they love the most, apple flavoured soft drink, street food like empanadas and salchipapa, being a short walk from a corner store, not having to remember anyone’s name as you can call them amigo/a, vecino/a or Señor/a and being a long, expensive series of flights away from family.

It’s going to be a new experience for all of us, as certainly these past five years immersed in another culture, another language and with a family have changed me. I’m reading Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The Hate Race to try and learn what life in Australia is like for people with brown skin, so I can be prepared for what D might find at school and in the street. At the same time I’m desperately hoping that my part of rural Australia is more welcoming than I fear them to be and that D’s Colombian nationality and chocolate coloured skin won’t elicit bullying taunts from others.

I’m still excited, even if it is a hard road ahead.

Now that I’ve finished work and the stress of moving out of our apartment, deciding what will go with us in the nine suitcases we are taking to Australia, selling off furniture and giving away things and finally selling the car, has passed, in addition to my curiosity about the move for my boys, I’m free to think about the things I’m most looking forward to. Family outings on the Murray River, teaching Edwin and D to waterski, renewing old friendships and getting involved in my community, camping trips and being more involved in D’s school and extra curricular activities.

When I think about these things, I feel like my life has sort of been on hold – despite living half a decade in Colombia, having a great, career-oriented job, making wonderful friends and travelling to amazing places. I never came here indefinitely. I always knew I would return to Australia, or go somewhere else. So perhaps with that always in the back of my mind, I never truly put down the type of roots you do when you’re planning on staying. I barely have any female Colombian friends, I’ve never once looked at apartments or houses to buy. I always said no to D’s pleas for a dog because getting a pet to Australia from Colombia is an exhausting process that takes a long time and a lot of money. When my last visa expired, I was eligible for permanent residency, but instead renewed for a temporary visa only.

Ever since my first day in Colombia, surrounded by suitcases full of belongings with which to start a new chapter, the suitcases have been kept at the ready for this day, the end of the chapter and my return to Australia.

Edwin delights in telling people, usually after they’ve made some comment about me speaking Spanish well, that I even break out in typical costeño speak “no joda, que vaina” being one of them. But a few local idioms parroted out don’t mean that you belong there or are comfortable. I’m sure Edwin will feel the same in Australia, however the move is more indefinite and there’s a greater purpose to the move for him. It’s an opportunity to receive a fair wage for the work he does, but importantly, it’s for D to have more opportunities in his life. One thing all parents do is make sacrifices for the sake of their children.

Coming back to the coast from my little third floor ivory tower in the north of Bogota I’m once again surrounded by sad things. People without work struggling to feed their families and get proper health care, people with jobs who are woefully underpaid and exploited, young women without children who stay at home just to cook lunch and wash their men’s clothes, pregnant underage girls, cheating partners, grisly close up photos of murdered people on the front page of the newspaper, hearing that people I know have met with violent deaths, people who have to flee their homes because their own neighbours threaten them and so on. In Bogota I was shielded from most of this, or was at least at a very long arm’s length away. In Santa Marta, the whiff of danger and stench of depravity manifests in fearfulness.

My Bogota experience is such a polar opposite, that if I only had that to go on, everything would be amazing and incredible (except perhaps the traffic). But a fancy suburb of Bogota is not representative of the whole country, it’s just the cosmetic enhancement on the surface, whereas here in Santa Marta, I’ve punctured the skin.

Edwin is happy to be here, although he’s feeling sentimental and nostalgic because our departure date is just around the corner. But I’m happy to be going because I’m too delicate for this perpetual onslaught of a human condition that I don’t want to accept.

 

Feliz Dia from my little feminist

A light knock on my bedroom door this morning was followed by D coming in to greet me. He flopped his lanky teen body on the bed and burrowed his head into my side. As I put my arm around him he said “Feliz Dia de La Mujer“.

My earliest memories of International Women’s Day are from after I had started work in the late nineties, where my female colleagues celebrated the day and my workplace observed the day with seminars, morning teas and the colour purple. I don’t recall anything from my school days giving cause to note the 8th of March as any special day, which is a crying shame.

It’s probably given this that I received a nice surprise on the first International Women’s Day I spent in Colombia in 2013. D was then in Grade 4 and he, along with Edwin, wished me, la suegra and Edwin’s brother’s girlfriend a happy women’s day. I hadn’t expected this at all, and truth be told, I probably hadn’t even realised that it was International Women’s Day until that point.

Colombia is still quite a macho country, especially on the Caribbean Coast where my boys are from. Although men have an utmost respect for their mothers, that sadly doesn’t transfer often enough into respect for partners and young girls. So I was extremely pleased to see that International Women’s Day is acknowledged widely in Colombia and instilled in children at school, so much to the point that I’m surprised it hasn’t become a national holiday yet (although really, maxing out with 19 public holidays per year is probably sufficient).

Feliz Dia del La Mujer
A present from D in 2015

After D had left for school, Edwin came into our bedroom bearing pancakes and with another “Feliz Dia de La Mujer“. It gives me a nice cosy feeling to see the wonderful example that Edwin is for D and know that D is growing up in an environment where there is respect for women.

D is exposed to a family environment where there is sharing of household tasks and responsibilities and where a woman is the main source of family income. This should all be part of a definition of normal, and therefore I sincerely hope that these elements of his upbringing will be indiscernible in him as a man, and intrinsic to his future as a feminist.

What’s in a name

I’m one of those people that is quite attached to their name. I really like it and I’m ever so thankful that Dad stumbled across the name on an American waterskiier competing at Moomba and managed to steer the namingship away from Digabeena, which was my mother’s choice for feminising Digby.

I’ve often been called Camilla, which, to be absolutely clear, I do not like to be called. A girl at high school once said to me after I’d told her not to call me Camilla that it just rolled of the tongue more easily than Camille. I think my muttered response was to put the brakes on her tongue.

One of the things I like about my name is that it is not common. I know of a couple of Camille’s but have only come across someone with the same first name a handful of times in my life. Perhaps that uniqueness is one of the reasons why I, shamefully, was distressed about being placed as an advisor in college alongside a guy called Kamil. Thanks to my response, the lesson in taking my name’s uniqueness too seriously was repeated as I now work alongside a guy called Camilo (and I’m pleased to say that I didn’t have the same reaction to the situation fifteen years ago, but rather was able to see the funny side of it).

Here in Colombia I have had to deal with the Camilla saga all over again, as Camila is a popular Spanish name and every time I say my name they think I’ve said Camila. To make my life easier, I told my Colombian family to call me Camil-ee, pronouncing the normally silent ‘e’, which was a good way of establishing that my name is not Camila.

I have also started to simplify it even further in cafes where I have to give my name and always use ‘Cami’, a common short-form of Camila or Camilo here. However, despite my best attempts, every time I say ‘Cami’ at Juan Valdez, they always need me to repeat it. Perhaps it is because they don’t quite believe that is my name because I don’t believe that my accent in Spanish is that bad.

A couple of weeks ago I was at a busy café and ordered my lunch to takeaway. They had also implemented the name system, and I said ‘Cami’ to the person behind the counter. I then sat and waited to hear my name called out.  I waited, I heard someone call out Carmen, then I waited some more, heard them call out another name and then I realised that my name had been written down as Carmen. When I approached the counter I said I thought they’d gotten my name wrong and was that a tex-mex burrito as that was my order. They were a bit reluctant to give it up and I repeated a number of times that my name was Cami not Carmen. I eventually got my burrito, although I left in a cranky mood.

I went back to that café again this week and stood patiently in a really long line to order the tex-mex burrito again. To get my revenge from the last visit, I said my name using my Australian accent, not providing any concessions to the Colombians behind the counter. I was asked to repeat it and said it exactly the same way. A look of confusion flit across the girl’s face, but she didn’t say anything more.

I sat down to wait, and made sure that I paid attention to the customers who were in front of and behind me so I didn’t miss my lunch being called out. Only my name never got called out. Instead the girl handing out the orders just held up her hand and waved at me. I’m not sure whether any name was even attached to my order, or whether they remembered me from last time, or whether I was just the only foreign looking person in the café. At least I left this time with a sly smile and a win instead of with an argument.

Walking back to the office I thought of a friend who regularly posts photos of the botched names she gets on her coffee cups in different places around the world. I’d really love to know if someone has researched if using names actually makes people feel more connected to the place, or whether the incorrect spellings or pronunciations outweigh the positives.

I’m not even going to say that the incorrect name issue is an expat or foreigner experience – although many expats would have plenty of tales to tell about having to repeat their names and spell them out all the time – because there are plenty of Australians whose names I would not be able to spell or necessarily even understand. And when the shoe is on the other foot, I’m also guilty of mis-hearing peoples names here, and although I’m more familiar with names in Spanish speaking Latin America now, I get lots of names wrong when I’m in Brazil. I’m therefore always thankful when there’s an exchange of business cards!

How do you adapt your name or the pronunciation of your name when you are in a foreign country?

 

A lesson in lyrics: El Taxi

They say that listening to music is a great way to improve your language skills. In my case, where my learning preference is visual rather than aural, this just doesn’t work unless I have the lyrics in front of me.

At the party after the baptism, we got to hear the ‘El Taxi’ song by Pitbull twice, with the kiddie entertainers leading a choreographed dance. I quite like this song, simply because it’s catchy, and obviously the kids like it too.

I was convinced that during the chorus it was:
“JoJo dar me por el taxi” which I was translating as “JoJo give me the taxi fare”.
This got cleared up by my colleagues this week when it was played in the office.

Correct lyrics are:
“Yo, yo le paré el taxi” which means “I stopped the taxi”.
My colleagues thought my mistake was pretty funny.

Reading over the rest of the lyrics I was shocked to read all the dirty double entendre which causes me pain for liking a tune against my better judgement of the nature of the lyrics. I could go on here about how I despise a lot of reggaeton and champeta music, and the accompanying dance moves, for their objectification of women as sex objects and make the same kinds of correlations they do between video games and violence with these songs and teenage pregnancies and sexual assault, but I won’t say anymore because it’s depressing and the best I can do is teach my stepson to be respectful of women and girls.

I just hope that these meanings are way beyond the kids’ grasp because here the kids start dancing as soon as they can stand up and there isn’t really much of a children’s music sector here so they dance to whatever the adults listen to – not age-appropriate Wiggles-type songs or the Peter Coombes “Brush your teeth with orange juice” kind of songs that I grew up with.

Here you can see just how much the kids enjoy El Taxi.

Lift Etiquette

I’ve always really liked Colombian manners in lifts (aka elevators) because it’s so warm and fuzzy and polite, but today I saw the other side of the lift doors in a new way as I was heading out to enjoy the first of three long weekends in Colombia this month (yes really, three almost-consecutive Mondays of public holidays woohoo!).

One thing you notice in Colombia, and Latin America in general, is that when you get into a lift, everyone will greet each other with a hola, buenos dias or buenos tardes. At first as a cold and solitary Westerner riding the lifts it was shock, but it’s actually a really lovely custom that I’ve grown to love and embrace. And as if the greeting wasn’t enough pleasantry for one trajectory into the heavens, you get farewelled when you get out with a ‘hope you are well’ or ‘see you later’. Awww. Lift riding brings out the best niceties in Colombians.

Or so I thought until this afternoon.

I rode down from my floor in an express lift with one other person to the ground floor. While he didn’t give way to me – as a woman – to leave the lift first as is often the case in Colombia, he shared the space politely. Please note, if you are a foreign woman sharing an elevator with a Colombian woman, you must ALWAYS cede to her native-born female right to leave before foreign women and men.

When we arrived at the ground floor, the doors parted to reveal a stocky man with a deadpan face standing directly in the middle of the doorway, toeing the line formed by the edge of the marble floor and the liftwell. He was so perfectly centred in the middle that he appeared first as a nose, followed by eyes, ears, shoulders and hands in quick succession. My companion and I started towards the doors to exit the lift, doing those preparatory movements you make to signal what your real move is going to be, and all the guy on the other side did was stand as still as a statue, perfectly blocking the doorway and not even blinking one dead eye in response to our ‘we’re getting out now’ jig.

I thought there would be a stand off to see who would give way first, but my lift buddy wasted no time exiting on the left, turning on his side to shimmy past the giant stone obstacle. Alone in the lift I also just wanted to get out, but still the guy waiting to get in the lift did not budge.

I have to admit my time in this new skyscraper with its fancy lifts is short, but I had seen this situation once before (although it’s never happened in our apartment building or in the previous building I worked in) and it reminded me of other impolite impasse behaviour I’ve witnessed in Bogotá. It reminded me of a Transmilenio bus stop.

For those not familiar with Bogotá, the Transmilenio is a train-like mass bus transit system notorious for overcrowded buses and stations. One incredulous aspect of it that riles me no end, is the utter chaos of boarding and disembarking the buses. There are zero rules and even less logic applied when it comes to these two rather critical parts of getting somewhere. There is no pause to let people off the bus before trying to board and definitely no giving of a little space so people can get off the bus and in turn make some room for those wanting to get on. There is also no moving aside to allow others past if you are at the front of the line yet this isn’t the bus you want to get on. It is mayhem and requires an excellent barging technique to get around these people whose only thoughts are about themselves and where they are going, with no concept of how give and take can actually make for a more effective and comfortable ride for everyone.

Since staring off at my nemesis wasn’t getting me out of the lift any quicker, it left me no option but to copy the side shimmy of my lift buddy, except that I added my own twist to the manoeuvre and quipped “This isn’t the Transmilenio, you know” as I slid past him and raced to the building exit without looking back to see if he’d understood the barb.

A report card & maths class

Sheldon would have been horrified at the parents meeting today.
Sheldon would have been horrified at the parents meeting today.

Today was the last day of school before a week of holidays for Semana Santa (Holy Week / Easter) and so the parents were invited to the school to receive first term reports.

This is the third parents meeting for D’s Grade 5 class I’ve been to this year, the fourth when you count the farce of a Parents Council meeting during which I wrote furious notes about the principal’s narcissism, the complete lack of explanation of the role and frequency of Parents Council meetings, the disorganised elections of committee representatives, the vast quantity of parents who hadn’t finished school and wanted to return to study and the principal’s complete lack of ethics in naming people for whom the parents should not vote for in elections for mayor of Bogotá. I had intended for those notes to become a blog post, but they are probably too harsh and the summary above should be enough to give you an indication of my shock at how I’ve found Colombian government schools to be.

Usually we are only told the evening before that there is a class parents meeting in the morning, but for this one we had a week to program activities to ensure our attendance. I am the one who has been to every single parents meeting because they always fall on one of the three mornings per week that mi novio has classes. His cooking school is expensive and he can’t afford absences, so I am the sole representative from our family, which is a bit scary because I don’t always understand every nuance and struggle to hear what the teachers are saying because of distracting background jabber. (Second language speakers will know it’s so hard to focus on what is being said while in a noisy room).

In each of the three class-based parents meetings, the male teacher has said the same thing:

“We Colombians lack reading comprehension because we simply don’t read. This isn’t just our fault here in the class or at home, it is a cultural thing. Children will mimic the behaviour of their parents, so if they don’t see their parents reading even a newspaper, they won’t read themselves.”

Now that I’ve heard that for the third time I realise the teacher gives the parents an out for why they don’t read, or think that reading is important, although he did ask how many parents had thought to give a book instead of a toy. I am a big reader. I’ve always loved reading and stayed up late to finish chapters. I remember once in Grade 3 (about age 9) I was reading a Babysitters Club book on the bus. A Grade 6 girl came up to me and told me I was too young to be reading a book that thick. Thankfully I didn’t let that criticism stop me and went on to collect 40 more Babysitters Club books up until I grew out of the girls’ antics. Anyways, instilling an interest in reading in D is difficult. I came into his life as he was about to turn 8, and I don’t think he owned a single storybook. He had a couple of books on dinosaurs, but that was about it. I struggle big-time with this and acknowledge completely that it is a cultural and a socio-economic issue. Television rules in Colombia.

I am also starting to realise that these meetings are not just progress updates for the parents, but personal development classes where they teach the parents how to parent, what are parental responsibilities, and also how to do Grade 5 maths. Today the teacher asked the parents to give him examples of homework problems they didn’t understand and we had a class on long division. I really should admit that while I like statistics and written maths problems, long division has been long forgotten from my brain. I understand the concept of division, just not how to get the solution without using a calculator. I was, however, the only parent who was able to answer correctly why the kids need to learn long division instead of just using a calculator. Although offered up by other parents, “For when they don’t have a calculator” and “So they don’t think the calculator is intelligent” were not what the teacher was hoping to get.

The teacher also put up a problem that was given to the kids the day before and asked the parents to solve it. He said the majority of kids got it wrong. It was soy un numero 365 veces que 100, cual numero soy? (I am a number 365 times the number 100, what number am I?). He asked who knew the solution. Nerdy foreigner Camille sitting in the front row raised her index finger shyly but the rest of the room had blank looks, especially when he then said that 365 + 100 was not the answer. He waited a bit longer and the other parents could not deduce from the three other equation types which to use. I mumbled “Multiply” and the teacher scanned the room one more time before nodding in my direction and asked me to repeat the answer. He used that as a case in point for lack of reading comprehension because they didn’t know what ‘veces‘ was in mathematical processing. I got to put on a doubly proud face because D got this question right on the test. 🙂

In addition to the maths class the primary coordinator stopped by to dictate to the parents that they need to focus on three things with their kids during Semana Santa:

  1. Health – get check ups for dental, vision and hearing, and focus on nutrition and exercise
  2. Creating good study habits – not leaving homework til the last day, playing board games with their kids
  3. Rules and limits – set timeframes for how long they can play with a video game, or visit a neighbour etc

I came away from the meeting deflated by all this preachiness to the lowest common denominator and being made to feel like I am incompetent to raise an intelligent and considerate child without the school’s intervention.

I also find it so hard not to compare it with education in Australia. Okay, I find it impossible. In Australia, a kid can go to a government school and get an excellent education. That’s not the case here where it’s a rare case for a graduate of a government school to go to university, and they instead encourage students who excel to continue to vocational education – this is straight from the back-patting speech of the principal at the Parents Council meeting and not any observation of my own. Education in Australia is colourful, imaginative, project and team-based. I worry that when we move to Australia one day, D will be behind the other kids not just for his level of English, but because he has not been guided in using critical thinking, and so that is something we try to work on at home.

I now know why parents who can, pay to send their kids to school and we will be looking for a new school for D to start high school next year. I want to give him every opportunity to shine and learn in an environment where the majority of other kids are also there to study and learn and who have high aspirations for their futures. D’s marks reflect a good opportunity for improvement in some key areas. His report card did not have the consistently high marks he received at his small school in Santa Marta and it may sound contradictory to what I’ve mentioned above, but I think he is learning more here in Bogotá and he has better educated teachers. We’re also happy that he’s settled in smoothly after a big change of environment and that he is now more self-starting and independent with his homework than he was in Santa Marta. Now we just need to focus on improvement in some subjects so we can get him into a good school where I can go to the parents’ meetings and be spoken to like a responsible and educated adult.

Just throwing it out there … do you know of a good co-ed secondary school in the north of Bogotá that operates on the calendar year, teaches classes in Spanish and doesn’t cost millions of pesos per month?

Oops / Duped

Regular readers will note that I have changed my blog theme recently.

Whilst I had been thinking about changing my theme as a bit of an inspiration to write more posts, the change comes about as an uninformed oversight and quick scramble to make it presentable, instead of a researched and planned upgrade.

I was browsing themes to see if any caught my eye, and in the past WordPress allowed you to see how your blog would look in a particular them before committing to it. Maybe I wasn’t looking in the right places, but I couldn’t see that option, so instead I decided to activate a new theme and thought that if I didn’t like it, I could simply revert to my old theme of Bueno. Then I read an article saying that Bueno got retired. Nooooooooo!!!!!!

Bueno was one of the most popular themes so I never would have imagined that they would retire it. Sure, being so popular means it’s not so original, but I loved that theme. Unfortunately I feel as though I had the wool pulled over my eyes because there wasn’t a button to revert to my original theme, or a warning saying that I wouldn’t be able to return to Bueno if I didn’t like the new theme. 😦

So I tried on a few more themes and in the end have stuck with Bouquet for the interim, or maybe long term if it grows on me. It has two columns and full posts on the homepage and it is also pink, a colour I feel rather attached to. I would love to go for a magazine style or featured posts, but I don’t think my photos are eye-popping enough and my content publishing is hardly regular at this point.

What are your thoughts on the new theme? Should I stick with Bouquet or go with something really different?