The months of June and July in Kenya are cold; the coldest months I had experienced since embarking on my trip 6 months prior. The money was running out, I began the slow panic of, “Oh no, what shall I do to sustain this nomadic lifestyle?” I did everything I could in my power to stay in Kenya, because I LOVED it with all of my heart right away. However, job competition was fierce and I had to fall back on my old job skills…teaching ESL. I was able to secure a teaching position in Istanbul, I purchased my flight and my visa, but something in my gut told me not to go. I was excited though for incredible football and amazing food, but my heart wasn’t in it. I desired warm weather, salsa music and South American fútbol culture. Essentially, I threw my ticket to Istanbul in the trash as there was no refund. I bought a one-way ticket to Santiago de Cali, Colombia to teach in a private Catholic school for a year to save up more money, learn salsa, attend incredible football matches and be on my merry way one year later. My plan fell apart within one month.
I had no idea the impact Colombia would have on me emotionally, physically or financially, but the results have been impressive to say the least. I was not ready to go back to work yet, but when I laid eyes on Colegio Pio XII, I was inspired and ready to do a great job. The school campus is gorgeous, fit with two soccer fields, a beautiful coliseum, pool, petting zoo and huge playground. It seemed professional and like a great place to work as much of the staff had been employed there for over 20 years. I was genuinely excited and thought to myself, I might possibly stay and call it home-base. Days into working at Colegio Pio XII, I got into the groove a bit even without a word of Spanish to my name. Walking into the Teacher’s Lounge each morning made me feel like I was truly part of the team bettering the lives of beautiful kids around me; I was content. A few personalities stood out immediately, but my lack of Spanish inhibited growing any kind of friendships. I learned to greet everyone with a kiss on the cheek and a friendly “buenos días,” but I wanted more.
I began a desperate Spanish language course on the free app Duolingo. My Spanish improved incrementally as it couldn’t get any worse and I was able to converse in basic Spanish with my colleagues. Within 3 weeks at Pio XII, I began learning bits and pieces of each person’s story. There was this kind of oddball, insanely skinny teacher named Rubén who ALWAYS wore purple clothing and yelled my name across the Teacher’s Lounge each morning as a greeting. I found him to be slightly annoying but in an endearing way. One day, a fellow English teacher gossiped about Rubén’s life to me. His story was intriguing and sad which made me curious. I invited him to our pool one day to enjoy some beers with me and a couple other foreigners. He showed up with a six pack of beer, wearing a pair of jeans, Converse shoes and of course…a purple shirt. I really didn’t understand his obsession with purple, but for the first time since meeting Rubén, I thought that he was “cute.” We spent the entire evening back and forth on Google Translate attempting to communicate.
When I left DC, my intentions had everything to do with exploring my own creativity through writing, pictures and my love of football. My initial travels had me in Southeast Asia, a region starved for good football, but a place on my cost-efficient radar. I headed to Spain afterwards and then Kenya. Kenya turned out to be amazing, but expensive thus driving me to seek out work. But Colombia, Colombia was something entirely different.
COLOMBIA: a purple shirt, Google Translate, a motorcycle, and a mutual love for salsa music and football changed my life.
And then it happened. Words weren’t necessary. We kissed. IT WAS MAGIC. We couldn’t communicate, but the feelings were there, they were strong and they were real. He bought me roses, cooked for me and shared beers with me as we both practiced our language exchange feebly on Google Translate and homemade flashcards. I fell in love for the first time in 8 years, truly, legitimately and head over fucking heels. And so the adventures began…a downward spiral of physical pain combined with financial ruin and emotional stress of the most serious kind. Oh, you thought this was a sweet love story? It is, please do not distress, but filled with the ups and downs that only a place like Colombia could serve on a plate con arroz y papas. I wanted to embrace Colombia with my full heart, because it had everything I wanted. Colombia SHOULD have been easy, amazing, filled with honeymoon stage love stories and googly-eyed pictures on Instagram. Our fates had another path in store for us and it shaped my experiences there, the kind of love I have with Rubén, and my perceptions of a country and it’s people.
As the newness of Colegio Pio XII wore off and the day-to-day grind settled in, life at school deteriorated. Mostly due to the general public learning of our relationship. Subsequently, the management treated us differently making each day more and more arduous. My spirits worsened and my attitude became ever more pessimistic. Be that as it may, Christmas vacation was on the horizon and we had three glorious weeks together to work on our new apartment. The days passed, we purchased pallets and power tools, spent hours together sipping Club Colombia and painting our new apartment. Rubén’s English improved so vastly during that time, Google Translate was only necessary during our disagreements for better explanation. We adopted a kitten and named him Jalapeño, which resulted in a significant loss of sleep the following months. We fell more in love, but the stress of our insulting paychecks began to weigh on our shoulders. We were already living peso to peso and it was just the beginning. Life in Colombia, I realized was no piece of cake.
Christmas Eve rolled around and it wasn’t an easy day. Rubén had past issues to deal with, while I was really missing my family. I spent most of the day crying and hanging out with his mother anxiously awaiting his return. Day rolled into night and there I was, crying washing the dishes furiously at his grandmother’s house. We had an argument that hurt me to the core. My insecurities and doubts and fears reared their ugly heads and the first half of the evening was tense and difficult. We pushed through after some Club Colombia’s and the mood softened. Hours passed, fireworks exploded all around us in the streets, and the tradition of opening presents Secret Santa style at midnight began. While throwing up in my mouth a litte bit, I purchased a Real Madrid jersey for his cousin as my Secret Santa present to a family member, he was very pleased and shouted way too many times for comfort, “Hala Madrid!” I deeply regretted the purchase immediately. I had four Secret Santa presents under my chair, which seemed quite excessive to everyone else…a pair of awesome pants that I am currently wearing at this moment, a Selección Colombia scarf, an America de Cali jersey and one mystery box that I was to open at the end.
The salsa was jamming, fireworks were going off, I unwrapped my last present. Rubén took the box from my hands, opened the tiny case inside and there it was…an engagement ring. He started to propose to me, but I demanded he get down on one knee proper! In front of his family, only 4 months into our relationship, he asked me to marry him in Cali, Colombia. I said, “yes.” As we kissed to celebrate, fireworks went off behind us like he planned it. It was magical and a moment in my life I shall never forget.
One week before we returned to Colegio Pio XII from Christmas vacation, we were riding my motorcycle on the Autopista from his mother’s apartment to ours. A car cut us off randomly and we went sliding down the road on the motorcycle in flip flops, shorts and tank tops. The motorcycle landed on my foot and broke it in three places. That downward spiral I was referring to earlier began at this moment. Three surgeries, an apartment eviction due to no pay for three months, months spent on crutches and rehab, moved in with my mother-in-law, my iPhone robbed at gunpoint on the street at 3pm while on crutches, a 5-person fight with a razor on a bus due to me speaking English and having tattoos, countless fights between me and Rubén due to the incredible stress, no money, at times no food, no sleep, and micro-managing work conditions. Colombia went from great to bad to worse in a few months. We needed a way out.
At this exact moment, I am sitting in his family’s house in Jacksonville, Florida. We applied for a K-1 Fiance visa to the United States. We are getting married in Washington, DC in 3 weeks. We leave to work in Beijing, China at the beginning of September. All of the bad brought us something good. Rubén is out of Colombia for the first time, experiencing a different culture, learning about where I come from and enjoying each second together in a different environment. I spent a year in Colombia learning about his culture, his language, his family and all the good and bad that comes with a crazy country like Colombia. He is here now overdosing on sándwiches, craving Sancocho, but taking in the newness of his life and his future.
I never wanted to get married. I never cared about finding love when I set out on my most recent journey into the world, but it fell in my lap and here I am sitting in my country, kissing my Colombian fiance only weeks away from becoming his wife. No, I didn’t see enough football, no I didn’t hike up all the mountains or swim at all the beaches, but I met my soulmate. I met the love of my life. I met my other half and for that, all the ups and downs of this journey were worth it. We daydream of our lives in China now, exploring Asia together and saving our money so we can return to Colombia with different and better opportunities one day in the future. Besides, I am missing some tamales, chocolaté, papa rellenas, and most importantly mi familia y amigos in Cali. We WILL return to the magical and formidable place we met, but first we will explore and grow out in the strange world together as the bad ass couple we are.