So, mark it on your historical calendars folks. Ms. La Mondain herself stood beside the President of Colombia on January 19th. For a potential press photo that never actually got published, anyway. Still, a thrill. The 30-some of us gringos lined up outside the presidential palace in La Candeleria at around 7am and fidgeted around the numerous guards that gestured and laughed in our direction. We were all in our most formal wear – which, when you’re preparing to stay at a farmhouse for a couple weeks and then teach high school for a year afterward, is not incredibly impressive. We were a pretty naturally sharp group, though, so we pulled it off. (After a midday run to Forever 21 the day before – yes, that exists in Colombia and is very popular.) We stood in a line waiting for the palace gates to open when somebody shouted to look back. Ambling down the cobblestone street was a blinding herd of more gringos, strange gringos. Meeting us was the rest of the foreign volunteers under our umbrella organization of Volunteers Colombia. They were called SENA and there was at least 100 of them flooding towards us. Our group joked – “Look away. Don’t acknowledge the gringos.” They looked a bit out of place, after all, in their black vests that boasted their volunteer service compared to our formal attire. One donned four dreadlocks and a bright blue handkerchief. It was an interesting sight, to say the least. There was definitely a current of WorldTeach pride running amongst our group. After they arrived and lined up behind us, the gates opened and we were allowed in one at a time after our name was highlighted off of the set list held by a rough-faced man at the entrance. The list was not alphabetical. It took about an hour to feed all of us into the building. Slowly, we were led through security, to the front desk where they took individual pictures of each visitor, to a rather small waiting room with beige walls lined with photos of President Santos participating in various humanitarian acts. We flipped through the selection of coffee table books, one of which was oddly filled with paintings and statues of very large naked women – apparently a rather famous Colombian artist?
Soon enough, we were filtered into what appeared to be a press conference room. At least six cameramen were set up around the perimeter and a podium stood at one end. We stuck to the walls, leaving the president a runway if he so chose to use it. We seemed to stand for hours. One of our group started a game of telephone on the opposite side of the room. We made small talk with the other, larger group of volunteers. Compared our hometowns and our upcoming job descriptions. It seems that the SENA organization covers education in specific international centers and is based in vocational English training. Apparently their stays ranged from 4 to 10 months as well. They were an interesting bunch and several were stationed in Bogotá, so I figured it might be a good idea to make some connections for potential resources and support.
The President arrived. He stood tall at the podium and looked oddly like William Shatner – no lie. He spoke and seemed to have a warmth to his voice and mannerisms. He had the sort of face that you imagine is always smiling, the smile creases so deep and eyes so buoyant. With my not even elementary level Spanish, I caught about ten words from the whole speech and my heart fell a little. I wanted to resonate with his words, I wanted to know what he was excited about with our group, what he expected from us, what he thought of our mission, but I just couldn’t grasp the words. He stopped speaking and we clapped, then he started up again. In English. He recited his speech over in our native tongue. He hoped that we fell in love with Colombia, the Colombia that he knows. He hoped that we find the balance between experiencing their wonderful culture and sharing ours with the students of the country. He hoped we would go back to our countries with unforgettable experiences that we would share with our own people, that we would become cultural ambassadors around the world for Colombia. It was a deal we were willing to strike. From the little experience of the people thus far, I could only feel warmth and love for Colombia and the spirit of its people. I felt enriched to be where I was. When the speeches were over and a volunteer finished telling the President and our group of their amazing experience in Colombia so far, a team of servers entered the room with porcelain coffee cups and silver ketels filled with the best coffee I had had in country yet. The President passed through the crowd and took photos with groups of the volunteers. He shook hands and never lost that bright smile. In the next couple days he would be off to Spain to participate in peace talks amongst the international community and also to promote economic development for Colombia itself – a state that has done nothing but grow into a beautiful version of itself in the past couple decades, transcending its former reputation as a crime capitol.
We trickled slowly out of the capitol after our meeting as if in a dream. None of us had really ever expected to meet a President, but there we were. We took group photos outside of the palace and goofed with each other for the last time as a big group. As soon as we got back to the bus, we were headed towards the airport where most of these future teachers would get on planes and head towards there official placements. Us Bogotá folk would see them off and then hop on a bus to our own destinations, far apart from each other in the city. It was a triumphant and sad day as we gave our last hugs. We knew we would see each other again, but to spend so much intense time with such an amazing and dedicated group of people, it was a difficult parting. We made promises to visit each others’ towns and watched as, one by one, backs turned and left. The buffer had ended and we were finally entering the reality of our positions. Succeed or fail, we would go forward. We were ready to do our best. We would miss each other.