Well, my first week of “work” ended and I managed to come out of it alive and with a hiking date! Often, when the teachers speak to me in Spanish, I ask them to repeat themselves once before I just give up and nod and try and pick up on the context of what they might be saying to me. Otherwise, I just smile and say loudly, in my gringo Spanish, “Hola! Buenas dias! Como estas? Mi? Muy bien!” Typically, I get a laugh or a wide smile and a nod and they walk away. I am sort of a funny enigma in this place. Almost nobody can understand me and I understand very little of what others are saying around me. Some, however, stick it out and attempt to pantomime what they want to convey to me. Sometimes they will continue repeating it very loudly and very slowly. It makes me laugh and consider how I speak to my students when their faces stare back at me in confusion and near hilarity. Most of the miscommunication is funny and it is fun to have to use other means to communicate. When a student can’t think of a word, I ask them to try and explain it. They stare at me like an alien for a minute, laugh, then turn to a student with a better knowledge of English and ask for help. It always works out. With the teachers, too. Sometimes I will pull out my laptop and quickly pull up google translate and type my question to them. To which I get a “whoa, cheveré!” (cool) towards my neat little tablet, before they mime their way into my understanding.
On Friday, the final day of my work week, however, I was surprised by a teacher when he found me and asked, “Nueve, mañana, correcto?” 9am? What was happening at 9am? He mimed driving a car and I realized that when we were talking about the mountains a couple days ago, I had actually agreed to meet up and go for a drive with him. This is what happens when you just nod to everything you don’t understand. I laughed, unable to communicate my confusion, and agreed. Sure! 9am! Why not?
Bright and early on my Saturday morning, I rose from bed like the grave, hesitant to cut my sleep short after a week of waking up at 5am. I pulled on a t-shirt, some dirty jeans and a pair of tennis shoes. I smiled at the shoes. They were worn and beaten up, but Sarah had given them to me before she had left on the bike trip down to Patagonia, after only knowing me for three days. They were desperately needed, too. Until then, I had been jogging in my hiking boots – not uncomfortable, but definitely not efficient.
I arrived at the Exito I had agreed to meet at exactly on time. Manuel, my new friend, called me as I was walking across the Transmilenio bridge. He spoke in rapid Spanish that made my head spin – how in the world was I supposed to find him when I had no idea what he was saying? “Camino a Exito de el bus,” I kept saying – that being the only applicable sentence I could think of. He hung up as I was walking down the stairs to the entrance of the giant super store. I heard a shout to my right and there was Manuel, standing half in and half out of his car, waving. A wave of relief hit me and I fell into a wide smile. I hustled over and hugged him before hopping into the car.
Manuel was probably in his 50’s and taught Social Studies to the little kids at Colsubsisidio Norte. He always had a smile and was the most quick to laugh of anybody I had ever met. He had a warm sense about him, the ladies at school describe him as grandfatherly. As we drove north, he pulled a map out from the backseat and pointed to the road as we inched our way out of Bogotá proper. We had finally reached a good pace on the freeway, Manuel chattering away and me attempting to understand at least every tenth word, when he pulled off to the side of the road beside what appeared to be a worn old strip mall. Manuel led me into a little restaurant with an open grill out front. The small space was filled with construction workers chowing down on various kinds of foods I had never seen before. Manuel ordered two coffees and two of something else I didn’t understand. What showed up were the best arepas I had ever had in my life. Like puffy corn tortillas, they were stuffed with cheese and fresh off the grill. To die for. I hankered for more, but restrained myself and followed Manuel back to the car. We drove north. And north. And north. We drove through an adorable little town named Sopo that made me kick myself for not bringing my nice camera. I had thought about it and decided against. Stupid.
The car began to climb up. The road got steeper and steeper. I was afraid the little vehicle wasn’t going to make it at some points as it choked and revved on the dirt roads that seemed to go nearly straight up. Eventually, we stopped and parked. We got out and the veiw was expansive. You could see towns amongst the rolling mountains for miles. We started down the road and onto a trail that led to a patio with a raised platform in the middle. Manuel climbed onto the platform and put his hand out to help me up. Once on top, I realized that what we were standing on was a map of the surrounding area. He pointed down at each town and then out to where it was in real life. Everything was so green out there. We climbed down and hiked into the forest.
The trail brought us to a cobblestone path that led across the ridge of a mountain. The plants we passed were blowing my mind – I’d never seen anything like a lot of them. I tried to explain to Manuel what the forests were like in Colorado. Not like this, that’s for sure. Everything was just bursting with life on life on life. Flowers that looked like bells and succulents that were soft to touch, moss and bushes that looked like sea urchins. It was beautiful. We found ourselves at what first appeared to be an impass, but we climbed down a rock wall and found ourselves in a thicket of a canyon that led up to another peak, atop which stood a giant cross. I looked out onto the green earth and felt accomplished. Manuel laughed and hugged me. He said something that I assumed was like “we did it!” I smiled as I gazed upon the foreign land that sprawled out around me. The red clay shingled rooftops and white walls. The cobblestone streets. The expanse of greens. All at once I felt an extreme happiness for where I was as well as a deep longing for home. As beautiful as everything was, I had nobody to really communicate it to.
Manuel and I spent a good portion of the rest of the day in the mountains. We stopped at a building on a mountaintop, above which paragliders swooped through the brisk air. We watched as they whipped the parachutes into flight and came in for landings in the field outside of the cafe patio we sat at. I could see myself coming back and taking flight. I made a promise to myself that I would do that while I was here. Manuel laughed when I motioned to him that I wanted to paraglide. He told me it was very cheap, but that I would have to take a taxi up the mountain because buses didn’t go up there.
By the time Manuel dropped me off back at the Exito, I was exhausted. I rode the Aliementadore home and crashed into bed at 6, already ready for sleep. I tried to write a few emails but couldn’t collect my words correctly so gave up. I read a book. I thought about my day and thought about home. That same content sadness crept up on me. I am so lucky to be where I am, but so separate from the people that I love. It is a strange feeling. It is something I am learning to live with.