Picture of handwashed laundry that I’d proudly sent to my mom

Ch. 1: Welcome to Cartagena…where we may blast salsa until 8am

Given that I’d come to this country to teach English, you’d think my first real entry should be on my school and kids.

But that would not be very honest.

My goal in these entries is to share the real deal about my experience, and how the reality aligned with my expectations. So starting Chapter 2 with how much I love the kids (or even Chapter 3 and 4...) would not be an accurate reflection of where my head was at.

Because to be honest, assassinating mosquitoes, waking up drenched in sweat, and being nostalgic about my laundry machine occupied more of my thoughts than I’d like to admit.

When we got off the tourist-riddled plane in Cartagena, we were immediately greeted by the sun, the casual 90-degree temperature, and humidity. Giddy and anxious, we packed our year’s worth of things into a van and off we went to drop off each volunteer at their respective host families. We passed the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is El Centro, outskirts of the beaches of Bocagrande, and towering walls of Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. Places I’d only read about and imagined were now my physical reality for the upcoming year.

As the number of volunteers in the van slowly fell, so did the quality in scenery. Sidewalks disappeared, trading concrete for dirt roads. Fancy malls were replaced by humble tiendas. Smell of sea breeze for that of trash and dust. By the time I was dropped off, I was the only volunteer remaining, and deep in the inner-city — almost outer city — of Cartagena, about 45 minutes south from where we’d started.

My host mom is kind and loving. I walked in and immediately burst into compliments about her lovely home and the quaint room she’d prepared for me. I was excited. Finally, after all the mental, financial, emotional, and spiritual preparation, I was embarking on Day 1 of the life-changing experience I’d looked forward to for so long.

My host mom was eager to introduce me to her extended family, who lives next door. Before we headed out, she said something and to my horror, I understood nothing. Because costeño Spanish, the Caribbean accent spoken in the region, likes to drop its “s”es and other letters at the end. Pescado (fish), for example, is pronounced “pecao”.

When she saw the look on my face (which was something along the lines of “I just realized that I will not properly understand anyone for a long time”), she switched to gesturing. She told me to hold onto my bag and keep my phone out of sight because someone will snatch them on the street.

My grin faltered.

And continued to falter during the first week in my new city.

It faltered when I left with my host mom to meet her family and came back with 38 mosquito bites on my right leg.

It faltered on my first night, when I woke up at 3am drenched in sweat. My fans were off and I realized we’d lost power. But my next door neighbor’s salsa music was still pounding in my ears, so I realized it was strangely only our house without power. My dear neighbor, blessed with the power of electricity, continued to blare the music at a frat-party volume until 8 in the morning.

It faltered when my host mom told me we do laundry by hand. A sweaty, sunny hour of splashing, scrunching, and squeezing ensued (in the most unsexy way), as I handwashed my 3-weeks worth of clothes from training.

It faltered when I stepped into the shower after an evening workout, only to realize there was no water until the following day. I stood in front of a fan to dry myself off so that I was only slightly sticky before getting into bed.

All of that happened in my first week, each moment driving home the point a little deeper: “I’m here for a year.”

A fact that had filled me with happiness and pride until that point.

While it’s a bit comical that such a series of unfortunate events occurred on my first week, it woke me up to two realities quickly.

Fact: I care more about physical comfort than I thought

An uncomfortable truth to swallow for someone who generally considers herself low-maintenance. While I anticipated being uncomfortable, I underestimated how much I would miss being comfortable. When people back home would ask me about Cartagena, I was unable to respond with the anticipated “So great!!!”, because the never-ending heat, mosquitoes, and difficult access to potable water were what popped into my mind. For awhile, these recent physical differences in my life was the primary thing I cared about, and I didn’t see that coming.

Fact: Nothing shakes you out of “pretty” expectations faster than counting 75 mosquito bites on your body

When I recall my feel-good hopes and expectations for Colombia, I stare at my grimy, sweaty self in the mirror and laugh. Not because my hopes were wrong, per se, but because they were so incomplete. Spoken from a sky-high view.

The words, “volunteering in inner-city Colombia to teach English for a year” may generate applauses and congratulatory fanfares in an air-conditioned happy hour in metropolitan D.C. But when you zoom in closely on those words and see what they look like at a day-to-day level, it is so unsexy. It isn’t an inspiring picture on Instagram or a heroic post on Facebook. There are no applauses here. No fanfares. It’s just me, quietly dripping in sweat in my host mom’s living room, trying to concentrate on lesson planning over ants nipping at my ankles.

Through both its physical comforts and lack there of, Cartagena schooled me during my first week before I had gotten around to do any schooling of my own:

Yes, Nancy. You’re here to support a cause you’re passionate about, to get out of your comfort zone, to familiarize yourself with a new culture, blah blah blah. That’s great…

But think again if you think the process is going to be as pretty as your reasons.

And how could you think it could be? How could a privileged person being plucked from her securities, displaced in a foreign culture with limited means, and for the sheer purpose of being uncomfortable and challenged, be something even remotely close to an attractive process?

It’s a valid point.

And with that in mind, onward with this very modest, rather unfortunate-looking process of mine.

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