I had the privilege and honor of returning to Bogotà in July after having been away more than five years. This trip to Colombia was exhilarating, inspiring, humbling, frustrating, and wonderful in ways I did not experience before. I have been to Bogotà about four times, and to other places in Colombia an additional six times since 2010. Each time I leave a piece of my heart there, and it was true again this time.
Because I was facilitating workshops every day, I did not have the luxury of keeping a journal with all the details of the events, places, and people. These are some of the highlights of my eleven days in July of this year, as I remember them now.
- Seven days of successful workshops on curriculum reform with the professors in the chemical engineering and mechanical engineering departments at la Universidad de los Andes (Uniandes). I was reluctant to accept the invitation to give these workshops because I have retired from MIT, and thought that this part of my life was over, that I had moved on to a different kind of teaching at my church. When I accepted, I believed that this might be my last trip to give workshops in Colombia. As a result of this trip, I have new friends at Uniandes, with whom I expect to continue to be in contact.
- Meeting three “old” friends from Pontificia Universidad Javeriana (PUC) for dinner at El Caracol Azul. PUC was the first university at which I worked in 2010. I was thrilled that our schedules allowed us to get together one evening.
- A tour of the Candelaria section of Bogotà, including a visit to the Botero Museum, with a recent engineering graduate of Uniandes. La Candelaria is Bogotà’s vibrant heart, with landmarks like the colonial-era cathedral and neoclassical Capitol flanking Bolivar Plaza. Narrow streets lined with shops selling emeralds and handicrafts lead to cultural hotspots like the Gold Museum, with pre-Columbian artifacts, and Museo Botero, showing international art in a colonial mansion. I had been to Candelaria on previous visits, and it was great to see it again.
- Daily lunch of typical Colombian food and drink with different professors each day at La Casa Vieja and the campus restaurant, La Paulina. Typical foods that I enjoyed include bunuelos, arepas, pan de bono, pan pera, ajiaco con pollo, sancocho, arequipe, robalo, empanadas, arroz de coco, and platanos fritos. And to drink jugo de guanabana and café con leche. Lots of café con leche!
- Learning on site how panela is produced on small farms, called trapiches, in the mountains. It was a Sunday morning so the trapiche was not in operation, but the young manager generously gave of his time to tell us about making panela. He even went into the field to chop a sugar palm so that we could try a sample of the sugar before it is processed.
- Good flights on Avianca, smooth departure from Bogotà, and equally smooth re-entry to the United States in Orlando.
So, what were the humbling experiences? Humility means recognizing and loving yourself just as you are, without pretenses. I had several opportunities to practice humility in the eleven days. While these humbling experiences were uncomfortable, I am grateful for the lessons that they taught me.
- Recognizing that I could not walk up hills or stairs and still be able to breathe because of the altitude, my age, and my weight. I live in Florida, pretty much at sea level. Bogotà is 8,860 feet above sea level! I knew what to expect because of my previous visits. However, I am older now, and carrying more weight than I should. Everyone was very kind, waiting for me, and helping me with stairs. It’s hard to accept that I could not keep up. The experience left me feeling unhappy with my current age and wanting desperately to be 30 years younger.
- Questioning my life now as Director of Adult Faith Enrichment at my church and living among older retired people. I enjoyed being with university professors who are younger than me. I also enjoyed being actively engaged in a profession that I thought I had given up. The experience made me wonder if I let myself get so comfortable at home and at work that I am reluctant to leave my comfort zone.
- Still not able to speak Spanish, although I am able to order all those wonderful typical foods in a restaurant! I have been traveling to Latin America once or twice a year since 2010, promising with each visit that the next time I would be speaking Spanish. This still has not happened. Moreover, everyone in the universities where I have conducted workshops work very hard at learning and speaking English. This time I am resolved to be more consistent with my Spanish lessons.
- Finding it difficult to surrender my independence in coming and going and doing things on my own. Because I am the guest of the university, everyone is very solicitous of my safety and comfort. There is always someone to meet me at the airport, take me to lunch and dinner, and accompany me on excursions in the city. This time, because I stayed in a residence on campus that is walking distance to the engineering building, I could walk to and from the engineering building on my own. And I am extremely grateful. Still, when you are used to jumping in your car and doing your own errands, it is hard to give up this independence. I know the day is coming when I will face this situation even at home.
And two (now) laughable situations:
- My inability to get hot water in the shower for four days because I was turning the faucet in the wrong direction. I knew they must have been thinking that a professor from MIT ought to be able to figure out faucets in the shower! Very humbling.
- Teaching for five days with my hair having dried “au natural” because I had no hair dryer. Not a good look for me! It’s not that I forgot to bring a hair dryer; it’s that I thought I would not need one. Finally, in one of our excursions to La Calendalaria, we found a beauty supply store that had one professional hair dryer for sale! When packing for home, I had to decide on taking the bulky hair dryer or a couple pounds of Colombian coffee. I think you know what made it into the suitcase!
What I treasure most, I think, from this visit is all the laughter. The professors shared so many funny stories all week. They were being just their warm and humble selves. Their humor was never at someone else’s expense. So, I’m pretty sure that my humbling experiences have not become the subject of their future stories.