Timing is Everything

I’m sitting on my bed in Barranquilla all jittery, not knowing how to contain the excitement within me. I have been promoted from alternate and selected for a 2015-2016 Fulbright U.S. Student Award to Brazil. Well, that’s what the email said. What I said was much different with much fewer words: I was speechless. Just seeing an email with the subject line ‘Update Fulbright Application Status’ had me hyperventilating and weak in the knees. So weak, in fact, that your girl straight dropped to the floor. Between tears welling up in my eyes and gasping for breaths of air, I managed to quite literally freak out — in the best way, of course. C’mon y’all, they were the happiest tears. Okay, there were some bittersweet ones, too, but I can’t pinpoint how many emotions I let fall from my eyes.

Bittersweet tears, you say. Yes. Arousing pleasure tinged with sadness or pain. You see, Fulbright is something I hold very dear to me. I have poured my heart into applying for a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship (ETA) to Brazil for two years. Just ask my college roommates how many emotions were shed in the process of writing my Personal Statement and Statement of Grant Purpose essays, yikes.

One of the things I spoke to my dad about before he died was Fulbright. I told him I wanted to apply. I was thinking about applying as early as my flight home from Madrid in May 2013. I was planning on speaking with Pat Taylor, Marist’s Graduate School and Fellowship Advisor, — or as I would say, Marist’s go-to human to inspire passion, motivation, direction and the all-too-necessary confidence boost for all things future related — on Friday, June 7th, 2013. Our scheduled phone call didn’t happen that day because my dad unexpectedly passed away that morning. As I endured my family changing in an instant, I felt this fire within me grow. I had to apply. I had to go. It is what I believe I was meant to do.

Sitting in that hospital waiting room, staring blankly into my unforeseen situation, I could only think of what my dad would have said to me. It’s the same thing he said to me when he and my mom dropped me off at the airport for my flight to Madrid a year earlier: “You’re not coming back, are you?” Maybe…maybe not, I’d say with a smirk.

This other completely unforeseen moment that is happening right now has never felt more carefully planned. I applied for a Fulbright ETA to Brazil for a second time last October. In January, I advanced to the final round, again. In April, I received word that I was an Alternate, again. So there I was in Palomino, Colombia during Semana Santa suddenly meditating, crying and listening to music on a beautiful beach in the Caribbean. I was lucky enough to have two solid dudes there for support. They further strengthened my love for fresh, positive perspectives from recent, yet deep friendships made during TEFL training and orientation in Bogotá. Travelers, man. I ended that trip with loads of gratitude for the opportunity to be living, teaching and traveling in Colombia until December 2015.

I set it up that way. Colombia until December with hopes for Brazil the following February. I continued hoping for a month after receiving my Alternate-status email. Grantees have a month to accept or decline, leaving Alternates in limbo for the time being. I had been in this same position a year prior, when I was about to graduate from Marist College and had accepted a temporary contract with Academic Programs International (API) as a Campus Relations Representative in the Northeast until just about the time Fulbright could have started if I received the grant last year. Here we are now: I’m a freaking Fulbrighter to Brazil. I’m going to Brazil in February. And I’ll be working with university students in programs to graduate as English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teachers. 

Like, what! Is this real?

It must be because the timing of it is impeccable. Seriously impeccable. I’ve been hanging out Colombian-time style for the past two weeks. My two-week vacation turned into four waiting for my new teaching schedule at SENA to present itself. And it just so happens that I received that email at the same time as the Fulbright one today.

When I piece together all of the signs, as they say, I can string several together: A few weeks ago, I brought back my Portuguese workbook from my intensive language course at Vassar thinking I should brush up on it. I was just talking to my friend about what an honor Fulbright could be. Maybe I’ll apply again in the future, I thought. Just yesterday, I started applying to English teaching companies in São Paolo. Today, I crossed the street to the bilingual library singing Shimbalaiê by Maria Gadú, an artist I heard in Portuguese class senior year that inspired my love for the sultry sounds of Música Popular Brasileira (MPB).

Like, what! Is this real?

Yes, yes it is. I write that for you, dear reader, and for myself. It is in these unpredictable moments that I feel I must convince myself that this, indeed, is happening, and it is, in fact, very, very real. For the yoga and RumbiaTerapia classes tonight, and for the two ice creams that followed, I am, like, really grateful. For the always-inspiring, absolutely-endless support from the humans I cherish, I am so very grateful. For the bittersweet, happy tears that fall for you daddy, I’m still, and forever will be, grateful. In happy moments and in sad moments, I still find myself completely stunned at how this life has shown its blessings in some sort of magically-timed manner. For that, I am beyond grateful.

“This might as well happen”

“…you know those days when you’re like this might as well happen.”
–  ‘The Xanax Story,’ John Mulaney

You’ve had those days. Come on, I know you have. Today was one of those days for me. Come to think of it, I’ve had quite a few of these kinds of days since my arrival to a country intertwined with magical realism. It most certainly was real, and I’d stretch it far enough to say it had me feeling some kind of magical.

I knew today would be one of those days even before I went to bed. Why? Dave Fitz sent me a “Hi Kerianne Baylor” Facebook message. What does that mean? It means an all-nighter. Granted, it was already past 1:00 a.m., but this type of message makes way for something far from procrastination: Inspiration. Just receiving them paves the way for pivotal life conversations about time, digital storytelling, curiosity, travel, education and negativity—and pretty much anything and everything in between—that last until the following morning. Yes, I had class at 8:00 a.m., but you know damn well I was ready and willing to be up until sunrise.

You see, some of my deepest conversations during my senior year at Marist involved Dave and I killing entire nights. Insomniacs some would say, but if you asked me, I’d say something along the lines of carpe noctem (seize the night). Because these are the type of connections that give you those late-night, I-should-be-doing-more-right-now jitters. You Google new things. Your eyes widen at ingenious new perspectives. You reflect on great ideas. You experience the depths of introspection. You converse about those profound topics that trigger newfound curiosity, that have been suspended in your mind and finally let out into the depths of the messenger window.

At one point last night Dave said the following about finishing up his most recent edit: “If you’re gonna be up [I] would love your opinion on it.” He doesn’t know, but I actually laughed out loud. Man, was I already wide awake. And I would be until about 5:00 a.m.

I would wake up at exactly 7:50 a.m., ten minutes before one of my ficha’s last classes in which they were giving individual and business presentations. I would look around and assess my already-late-for-teaching situation, realizing I hadn’t printed the final presentation grading rubric and consequently plopping my laptop in my bag because typed assessments would have to suffice.

I would glance at my phone, checking messages from my mentor that necessitated immediate, yet cloudy replies. I would hear the doorbell ring at exactly 8:00 a.m., jolt my head towards the door, and throw on some shorts (because who would sleep with clothes on in 90-degree weather, amirite?), instantaneously remembering that I had asked the new cleaning lady to come on Tuesday.

I would notice our friend Logan crashed on our couch, nudging him ever so slightly and whisking him away to my bedroom so that the apartment could be cleaned. I would tap Nathan awake to remind him that a) the cleaning lady was here and I had to go; b) that he was the only Spanish speaker left to communicate with her; and c) we’d have to split some Colombian pesos for payment.

I would hurriedly explain some instructions to Emilsa, telling her that I had to leave and the chico in that bedroom over there could help her if she needed anything (which already included running down to the doorman to borrow a broom because ours were thrown away by our last cleaning lady). I would throw on a dress, grab a banana, and run out the door, immediately spinning my heels to return to the kitchen to snag a bag of cookies and candy for my students’ last day.

I would jump into the first moving vehicle outside my apartment, stirring up small talk with my ex-military taxi driver from Bucaramanga. While watching the steamy city wake up around me, I would wonder if I even put a bra on, if I grabbed everything I needed, if it even mattered that I’d be super late (even for Colombia); but what would spread across my recently awoken face was a smile, a real wide one.

I wouldn’t care about hardly sleeping because I would feel energized. I’d feel ready. For what? Who knows. For class. For today. For tomorrow. For this entire week splitting at the seams with emotions. Goodbyes. Loads of laughter. Hellos. Awaited hugs and kisses from family members in NJ. Saudade. Longing. Longing for now, for this moment of sheer excitement as I taxi my way to one of the last classes of the first half of my ten-month teach abroad endeavor.

Is it crazy to already feel nostalgic for this moment in the future? I know for sure I’ll miss it. Because even after an almost sleepless night of awakening conversation and jaw-dropping videography, I feel weightless. I feel present in this verging-on-eight forty a.m.-cab-ride to 8:00 a.m. class with a sly, slightly-more-knowledgable grin across my sun-kissed, B’quilla-glowing face. I feel that, yes, this chain of fortunate interactions and events might as well happen today. Hell, may it happen to me any day. Because it was purely blissful and renewing. Because there’s some sort of magic in the haphazard flow of my early morning. And I’d like to say I had a feeling I’d feel this way, because as Dave said when he first messaged me, “it’s been a while.” It shouldn’t take this long of a while to get back to that heightened awareness of life; that appreciation for open, honest sharing of thoughts and ideas; and that desire to truly compliment each other on our talents, interests, goals and minds—“Smart is sexy,” right Fitz?

Today, watch this reel of images and experiences that flow together to form the inner-workings of Dave Fitz’s last twelve months. It might as well happen. You might as well click play to wake up and do more—you have no time to waste.

That Human Connection

I’m connected to humans that never cease to inspire me. They’re as close as the bedroom across the hall; the sweaty sidewalks of Suri Salcedo park; the always loud, always energetic SENA centers and as far as the streets of NYC; the café con leche-and-tortilla serving cafés of Madrid; the places I feel at home in the Garden State; the largest city in the PNW; the all boys classrooms in Gumi, South Korea; the Texan city proud of staying weird; and the underwater world in the Gulf of Thailand.

The definition of human connection has changed drastically in today’s digital, hyper connected world. You do not have to be physically close to others to feel connected to them, to be constantly in communication with them, and to even have the pleasure of seeing their face and entering their world through iPhone-to-iPhone video calls. Just this past week I saw faces in New Jersey, South Korea, Thailand and Seattle.

More so than being digitally connected to others across the world, I’ve been feeling pretty damn inspired by their own respective paths. From a fresh-outta-college offer in the Big Apple to a new job at Boeing to a paradise resort receptionist gig on a Thai island to new-and-exciting changes at API, my humans truly amaze me. When I woke up to lots of big news this week I couldn’t help but feel that rush of adrenaline I felt when I accepted my teaching placement in Barranquilla.
Mutual inspiration is where it’s at. Developing and maintaining those relationships that get my heart pumping, my mind racing and my feet dancing is what’s important to me.

I am so grateful to be able to message, talk and video chat with the people I love and admire. It keeps me humble, and it keeps me going. Cassie’s last text to me before hopping on a one-way flight (well, a few flights and other forms of transportation) to Koh Tao, Thailand was: “Boarding. I love you. You inspire me to be free. I’ll contact you from the future. Xoxoxo.” I warned her that I’d have wise things to say before she set off to Asia, but our last FaceTime call was roughly 85% gasps and screams. I felt like I was boarding those three flights, hopping on that ferry and checking into a bungalow with her. It’s an adrenaline-pumping risk. It’s a chance at making your own way because you were determined, you were dedicated, and you made it happen. My go-out-into-this-world send-off message to Cassie was: “Go take life by the balls.” Though it’s not the most eloquent message I’ve ever sent, it communicated my sage advice pretty clearly: You are free to choose the when, where, how, why, and who of your life, so get out there and go after whatever it is that may be.

So Many Feels

It’s already June. I’ve been in Colombia for almost five months, and the halfway point is closer than I realize. I’m splitting up my ten months with a short trip home to NJ for Father’s Day (PSA: June 19th-24th for anyone who would like to rendezvous), and returning to Cartagena for a longer explore-the-Colombian-coast-and-go-to-a-wedding-in-Manizales trip. I already have so many feels.

Skeptical Kerianne.

Feels, you say. Yup, feels. Short for feelings, but there’s no shortage of those. I’m in a constant state of feelings, an ebb and flow of emotion.

A bit bumpier ebb and flow of emotion.

Happiness culminates in carefree hammock swings, savory peanut butter spoonfuls, and impromptu song and dance. Gratitude shows in heartfelt student appreciation, sweaty, yet somehow bearable sunshine, and deep, awe-inspired breaths. Adaptation prevails in jeans-clad classes, steaming hot tea sips, and (some) bus route knowledge. Adventure happens in hitchhiked truck rides, spur-of-the-moment classroom activities, and fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants weekend excursions.

Daily B’quilla bouncy bus adventures.

Some days I’m all, “Hell yeah, I’m a teacher in Colombia” and other times I’m like, “DAH! I’m an actual teacher in Colombia.” You ever have those days? You roll out of bed and remind yourself of your geographical location and your current occupation, all the while thinking WOAH! This is happening right now. It’s the real deal. 

I think back to my mindset just before college graduation: I knew I wanted to go somewhere and do something. A year ago I couldn’t have predicted where I am and what I’m doing now. Again, lots and lots of feels. Thing is, I’m actually doing what I set out to do. I initially planned to be teaching in Brazil, but hey, I landed in Colombia and I couldn’t be happier. It is during those days that I sit and wonder where my path will take me a year from now. I sure as hell couldn’t tell you a year ago that I’d be vying for a window seat on a bumpy, salsa-tuned colectivo bus en route to teach English at SENA in Barranquilla on a steamy, endless summer’s day in June.

I’d Tell Him Happy Birthday 

My dad would have turned 58 today. I would’ve given him a call, though he wouldn’t have expected it. I would’ve started the conversation with an ecstatic Doooooodle! I would’ve heard him say “Swee-T, you took the time out of your day to call your dad, huh?” I would’ve been reminded of that same response on May 3rd, 2013 when I wished him a happy birthday from Madrid.

Two years later and I would tell him a million minuscule details of my life. The small stuff he always asked about; the daily happenings that would make him happy. Because he’d most likely be where he usually was when he answered my calls from abroad: at work. “What are you looking at Keri? Where are you? I’m sitting at my desk, 60 feet from a window and I’m not even sure what the weather’s like today.” 

I’d tell him I just came back from our go-to place on Sundays: the ice cream stand in Suri Salcedo park, where I ordered two – yes, two – ice creams with a total of four oh-my-goodness-can-I-have-more flavors (arequipe, chocolate, maracuyá and mandarina) for about $3 USD. They don’t have Rocky Road there, huh? 

I’d tell him I sang Hillsong to my students after several pleas of “Ayyyy, teacher!” and forceful blockage of the only exit route.

I’d tell him I haven’t replaced my lightbulb that blew out because his persistent Shut the Lights Before You Leave the Room mantra made me accustomed to navigating my room and my living space in the dark.

I’d tell him my work commute has involved riding shotgun on a colectivo bus and hopping on the back of a moto taxi.

I’d tell him how much fun my students are, that we’ve even done karaoke in English and he would have been stoked to hear one’s rockin’ take on “Teenagers” by My Chemical Romance.

I’d tell him my apartment is equipped with a hammock, a B’quilla breeze and a palm tree view.

I’d tell him my paper daddy now permanently accompanies me on my travels.

I’d tell him how my days are based around meal times (as always) because I happy dance around my kitchen while cooking. How he’d be right there with me moving to the beat.

I’d tell him stove-popped popcorn is one of my weaknesses.

I’d tell him Pradomar is the closest I can get to a nice Colombian beach, and that I sure as hell take advantage of catching the bus there every weekend.

I’d tell him my landlord’s practical ways remind me of him.

I’d tell him I’m learning to buy what’s necessary, to not be wasteful, and to be smart about perishable groceries. Buy only what you need. 

I’d tell him I still make sure to not put things on my bed just in case I want to pass out. You never know if you’ll be too tired later and you’ll just wanna climb in bed, Keri. 

I’d tell him how Colombian women walk with purpose, each hip sway a calculated move. How I could see him shake his skinny hips to impersonate them.

I’d tell him I’m anal about how they pack my groceries at the check out, that I’d prefer to do it myself like he taught me. Like things with like things!

I can envision his smiling, wide-eyed reaction. How he’d ask more and more questions to really come to understand what it’s been like for me living and teaching English in Barranquilla. He’d let out a sigh and tell me I couldn’t complain: You’ve got quite the set up, Swee-T! And I truly can’t complain. I have absolutely nothing to complain about: I’m alive and breathing.

Barranquilla Feels Like Home

From the outside looking in, you’d think my life in Barranquilla is all rainbows and butterflies. The real magic is the fact that I’m living and working just like everyone else. This isn’t just a trip. This isn’t a vacation. This is my life. I just chose to live it in a foreign country. Yes, I do have fun. Yes, it is quite the adventure. But I must remind you that every adventure has its moments of negativity, miscommunication, confusion and mishaps. Nonetheless, I’m growing accustomed to life here on the Caribbean coast. It has been a hot, sweaty roller coaster ride, yet Barranquilla continues to feel like home even when I’m experiencing the inevitable ‘downs.’

Even when I can’t possibly understand how my students wear long pants and a long sleeve button down shirt to class every day.

Even when the woman behind me in the supermarket checkout line reaches over, rustles through my groceries, picks up my bag of quinoa and asks me how to cook it.

Even when the bus I usually ride to work never shows up when I need it to, and when it does, sometimes the driver will say “no hay de viaje.” (Aka, try again later, Kerianne – we ain’t taking you to work. Ha!)

Even when the sweltering heat drenches my entire body in sweat within minutes of exiting my somewhat cool, fan-breezed apartment.

Even when the silver lining of the Caribbean coast is cold showers. In actuality, I genuinely look forward to them and I took three of them yesterday. 

Even when standing in line for a while is a thing and Colombians accept it as a normality. Patience is more than just a virtue here.

Even when it’s rare to find toilet paper and hand soap in public bathrooms. (BYOTP: Bring Your Own Toilet Paper)

Even when I wake up without electricity because any drop of rain shuts the power off in certain neighborhoods, of which mine is included…of course.

Even when a Cosmetology student interjects my class with a demonstration of her masseuse skills on yours truly, in front of all of my students. Though it was a combination of embarrassment and laughter. Okay, mostly laughter. And maybe some beginnings of hysterical tears. 

Even when the week I start wearing pants is the week an actual heat wave swoops into Barranquilla. And it’s apparently setting up camp until July. Oh word?

Even when Colombian cat-callers of all ages call me princesa or tell me that beauty should be a sin as I nonchalantly head to work.

Even when I’m the only one on the bus literally dripping sweat. Seriously, though, how do they not sweat? 

Even when a casual conversation with a taxi driver ends in a bold invitation to go on a trip to the beach together.

Even when cold showers aren’t enough to stay cool. So much so that I lay in bed post-shower with the fan directly blowing (hot) air on me.

Even when window seats that give you intermittent access to the breeze aren’t available on the overcrowded colectivo buses.

Even when my favorite ice cream place smack dab in the middle of the park really entices me after our group does yoga and works out.

Even when my doorman graciously warns me that there will be no running water on Saturday – for the entire day.

Even when I try to pay my bills on time, but the cashiers at the grocery stores – plural because I visited a few – simply tell me that I can’t pay my bills here sans any justifiable explanation. But, but… the bill says I can pay it at this store.

Even when my time in Colombia has taught me to cógela suave. Because these ‘downs’ I’ve experienced do not nearly carry as much weight as the endless supply of ups. I’ve got that B’quilla glow (cough, sweat) and that Colombian mentality: I’m just going with it.