Everyone, Colombian and American, always asks me if I like Cartagena and how long am I going to stay. It seems surprising to both sides that I like it here. When the heat mixes with sewer gases and I have just finished fighting with a taxi driver, I find it surprising too. But then, a few minutes later, when I see the Caribbean and its fishermen straight out of Hemingway´s Old Man and the Sea, floating along a wall the Spanish built 300 years ago, I remember why I am here. However, it is not because of the beauty of the city or sea. Beauty does not replace family, friends, or culture. It does not hide crime, poverty, or corruption. I am here because all I have ever wanted to be is a Peace Corps Volunteer.
Magarita Sorock, a volunteer in Colombia in the 1960s and current resident of Cartagena, stated this at a party. Her audience was current and former PCVs, a motley crew drinking beers and talking about American politics and the conditions of the schools they worked in; a scenario that could be found in any Peace Corps country in the last 50 years. As I observed my comrades, Margarita´s words rang out to me and cleared up any doubt about my future and maybe even my existence. All I ever wanted to be was a Peace Corps Volunteer: a person who is healthy, educated and is willing to represent the US while helping and inspiring people at the same time.
All of my skills, values, and vision are derived from my work as a PCV. In 1997, I was 23, fit, and had just graduated with a BA in Spanish and Anthropology. The only real skill that could be put on a resume was that I could speak Spanish fairly well. Washington reviewed my file and said I was only good for teaching poor kids in a Paraguayan small town. It turns out those bureaucrats were right. Since then, I have been doing just what the Clinton Administration ordered, helping and teaching disadvantaged children in the US, Paraguay, and Colombia. A few years ago, I denied my destiny, tired of the stress, fight, and low pay, but Peace Corp´s call to come to Colombia steered me back into battle.
Currently, I do not look or live like a traditional Volunteer. I get my nails done and wear pressed clothes and I have A/C and hot water while living in a ritzy neighborhood. I work at a private university surrounded by beautiful trees and flowers and have small classes with friendly and enthusiastic students. I get to teach history, culture, literature and writing, my favorite subjects. However, the Peace Corps flame is still flickering inside as I preach to my students about how they should work in public schools, a dreaded task. 75% of Cartagena lives on or below the poverty line and all these children go to public schools. They need my well- trained students to learn English, gain employment, provide for their families and in turn, improve regional economic conditions. My middle-class students often look at me with blank stares since they thought teaching was about English, not economics or developing their country, but I hope at least one or two will hear the call and say all I ever wanted to be was a Peace Corps Volunteer.