Goodbyes and thank yous

This was originally written on Sunday, May 15, 2016.  I’m deciding to share it now because I’ll be leaving Boston two weeks from today. I’ve learned so much here in the past eight weeks, and I’m ready to tackle my last semester of college. 

What’s at the intersection of community and gratitude? Joy.

I’m home for 11 days before I head off to intern at WBUR in Boston.  The days have flown by, but I’m grateful for the time and space to enjoy my childhood home—from the smells of toast, coffee and eggs in the morning to the lush green of the front yard brightened by the flowers my parents have planted to watching a movie from the 80s with my family. This is familiarity.

It’s a respite from the world of college and an oasis in the middle of transitioning into full-blown adulthood.

Getting home this time around wasn’t easy, but not because of logistics. Leaving Columbia was hard. I cried because I know I’m only a few months away from a final goodbye to my college, my home, my friends and my community. For the last part of finals week, I got a taste again of what it means to just play and have fun, which I need to do more often.  I went on a spontaneous ice cream run with my roommate. I went to the Pinnacles. I watched the Sandlot for the first time. I played knockout and kickball.

And then life came knocking at my door. Well, it was actually more of my parents calling. They would be at my apartment in a few minutes to help me finish packing.

I said goodbye to my friends. I drove down Stadium Boulevard, windows down, warm summer air rolling in, and I thought, “Man, this place is beautiful.”

I smiled this time instead of tearing up.

I turned right on Providence, passing Farout Field, thinking thanks, Columbia.

This idea of gratitude had been floating around in my head. A good friend of mine (who is also an inspiration) said among the plethora of thank you notes she had written, she had one for the owners of Uprise Bakery—which if you haven’t been, you should.

I kept turning that over in my head. How rich must her experience have been of Columbia’s different communities that she would write a thank you card to her favorite bakery. How fulfilling to look at life a little differently because of new places, people, food and experiences.

I went for a run after work that day. Sun streamed through green leaves as the wind rustled through the forest.

Who was I thankful for? A few people came to mind. What was I thankful for? I found myself struggling to answer this second question because I was thankful for a lot of good that happened to me: landing an internship, finding housing, earning a scholarship to fund the summer, getting good grades.

Those are things that I worked for, but the act of receiving them didn’t change me. I kept thinking what does it mean to be grateful?

First, it is knowing someone or something has changed who you are for the better, or in a way you never quite thought possible.  Joy comes from that recognition, even if the process of change was hard.  Then, a desire to evaluate what I value and how I act on those values.

That last part is the sticking point. You need to act. You need to make a decision to go somewhere, extend a helping hand, otherwise how will you be changed?

Saying thank you means we have to look outside of ourselves for a while, which isn’t necessarily an easy task but one that changes us from the inside out. I think practicing this attunes our senses to what’s happening around us. We listen closer, take more risks and love more openly.

So when I think about adulthood in the safety and comfort of my childhood home, I’m not so scared because I know being an adult is so much more than paying bills and fulfilling responsibilities. It’s about acting out what we believe, loving others and experiencing life in a such a way so that when we’re about to leave this earth we can say, “Thank you.”

This reflection on gratitude means I will do the following:

  1. Making time for play with a group of people that I really cherish.
  2. To find spots and people in my community that I click with.
  3. To find spots and people in my community that challenge me.
  4. To be more productive in the hours that I do work, so that in the hours that I don’t, there’s space for spontaneity.
  5. Finding places where I can volunteer even if it’s just for a short while
  6. I don’t want to open my book of life and see one word, “Work.”




Taking Colombia with me

I’m leaving home to go home. The feeling shouldn’t be unfamiliar to many of us, those who have been to college or have made a life in a town different from where they grew up. I’ll be eating mom’s cooking, hearing Bella and Benji’s barks echo throughout the house in just three days. I’ll be running down the stairs, only to be told for the nth time in 20 years I might trip, fall and break my bones.

Yes, home: comfortable and familiar.

That is precisely what Bogota has become for me these past 9 weeks, although there’s still more to explore in a city of nine million people.  Those feelings weren’t really there to start though.

I was a bundle of emotions when I first got here. Will I fit in? What will I learn? Will I get lost? Robbed?

At the core of all those questions was this central one: How am I going to figure out this part of me, my Colombian self? You see, for 20 years, Colombian culture has pretty much only existed for me within the walls of my Peoria home.  And when I’d come visit my family every four or so years, I’d live in my family bubble. So then I came to the next question: Do I know what Colombian culture is really like?

The answer is a resounding, “Sort of.” I still know so little about history, geography and politics here, all those forces that shape how people think and act.  But I’ve worked for a Colombian organization, taken Colombian public transportation and have navigated my way through it all. So I’ve learned a few things here or there.

For example: Colombian time mannerisms which usually means being about 10 minutes late.  I, for instance, waited for 40 minutes at a work dinner for everyone to arrive for a 7 p.m. reservation. This occurrence isn’t atypical. And I got there at 7:10…(not always, some people are punctual).

People here are a lot less preoccupied with to-do lists and, what sometimes seems sought after, “busyness” I so often see in my circles back in the States. To be honest, I’m guilty of it, too.

There’s a warmth, intimacy, openness and less worry about going from thing, to thing.  Step into a room and expect to say hello to each and every person, even if you don’t know them. (Saying hello usually means shaking hands or a kiss on the cheek). Same thing for when you’re leaving. It’s rude to just say bye to the people you know.

Lunches here are massive. A typical lunch includes soup, main dish, juice and a cup of coffee after.  They’re also an incredible amount of fun at FLIP.  I’m by far the quietest of all my co-workers, making the listening experience all the more enjoyable. I work to pick up colloquial phrases, idioms and the sense of humor here. Our conversations over lunch are honest, blunt, funny and sometimes pretty loud. Everyone wants to express their point of view, meaning things get pretty heated on occasion.

I’ll cherish those hours I spent listening to my co-workers talk, joke and laugh. It was in those moments when I got a real insight into how people here interact. It’s then I got a better idea about the journalistic and legal environment here.  As the saying goes, you have two ears and one mouth; so listen twice as much as you talk.  Who wouldn’t want to when listening to Spanish every day is like listening to music float out of people’s mouths?  Not to mention I will miss hearing salsa or merengue around the corner or from a taxi.

But I could also enumerate the things that are frustrating about living here, like the traffic, the way people just cram onto Transmilenio or just toss their wrappers and other trash in the street. Or I could continue about the things that are upsetting, such as lack of government transparency, recent attacks on civil society by the FARC or the pretty deeply ingrained machismo.

I know this country struggles. I know many of its people suffer, each and every day. They’re the reason I want to come back to work here. Not because of the mountains, the food or the salsa dancing. It’s those who are trying to recover from a half-century conflict who are my motivation to continue learning and bettering myself on a personal and professional level.

Colombia is beautiful and broken. No culture or place is perfect. But isn’t that what love is? Caring, accepting and cherishing for the good, bad and ugly? And working to grow together?

Well then, Colombia, you could say I’m madly in love with you.

A few lessons from a Colombian internship

I held copies of two death threats a journalist received. One scraggly-written note read, “Shut up, or we’ll shut you up.”

This threat didn’t happen at the height of the drug conflict here in Colombia nearly two decades ago, when killings of journalists were at their highest.

It happened in 2013. That September 11 as Edison Molina rode home from work on his motorcycle he was shot four times. He died later in the hospital.

I had read about the deaths of Colombian journalists. But holding something physical, seeing the same handwriting he saw made me shudder.  It made me think of the kind of risks journalists throughout the world face to speak up and tell the truth.

And it made me appreciate even more the kind of respect for freedom of the press and expression that exists in the United States.

To say the least, then, I’ve learned a lot in my five weeks here in Colombia.(Though it saddens me to think this journey is almost half-way done.) One of my favorite parts of work is listening to the conversations my co-workers have. It’s from those I gain more insight into the world of journalism here.

One conversation stands out to me. We sat around the lunch table at Crepes and Waffles after a workshop evaluating a freedom of press index  built by a sister organization.

Someone mentioned how threats against journalists were considered just another part of the job. Even government workers think so.

“Pa’ que se metio a ser periodista, si sabia que esto era parte del trabajo?” a co-worker recalled a policeman saying when he discussed a case with her. (“Why did you become a journalist if you knew that was part of the job?”)

We awkwardly chuckled.

“The parts of the job that should come with being a journalist are getting a flat tire, missing a flight or having technical difficulties,” another commented.

Maybe so.

But the greatest challenge will be changing people’s mentality about what’s “normal” for a jouranlist here. There’s a lot that would have to happen for that shift to take place.

Justice would mean justice. Cases wouldn’t take 10 or more years to reach some sort of conclusion. The Attorney General Office wouldn´t release a man who confessed to the torture and kidnapping of a journalist and then arrest him again.

I’m just starting to get bits and pieces of the whole picture of the journalistic environment present here. It’s wonderful to be learning all of this, and at the same time, a bit scary to know all of this is real, not just a read of a newspaper article.