I Am Number 31

IMG_0967(On arriving well)

“Do they see Jesus in me? Do they recognize Your face? Do I communicate Your love and Your grace? Do I reflect Who You are, in the way I choose to be? Do they see Jesus in me?” (Joy Williams, Do They See Jesus In Me)

On Thursday (Sept. 26) I called the Philippines’ Consulate Office here in Bogota, Colombia as courtesy and to be connected with them. I expected a Filipino secretary to answer or to talk with (because I really miss speaking Filipino in a foreign place), but surprisingly the staff is Colombian and could only speak Spanish and no English. Well, blessedly my friend at CEPALC helped me to communicate with the secretary and tried to explain my point.

After my friend put down the telephone, he said that he asked the woman of Filipinos in Bogota. The secretary said that there are only 30 Filipinos in the city, and I am the 31st.

Yes, I am number 31. This confirms what the Colombian staff of the Colombian Consulate office in Manila (Philippines) said to me when I was inquiring about getting a visa. The Colombian Consulate has a small office and the staff were even skeptic that someone from the Philippines would be interested to come to their country as volunteer worker. Well, because most of the Filipinos who come here are businessmen. I couldn’t blame them for thinking that, I mean what would a young lady from a developing country do to another developing country?

Only one in Asia

Today marks my 13th day in Colombia: 6 days in Spanish class, 5 days at the office. The country welcomed me COLDLY. No, that’s not what you’re thinking. I arrived with 4 degrees celsius on September 17, 12:30 AM. The weather and the altitude are two things that made it hard for me to adjust but everything else, including the people are similar in so many ways with the Philippines.

Philippines is the only country in Asia colonized by Spain (1521-1898). And although I could write 1000 negative things that the Spaniards influenced us, my coming to Colombia has given me also reasons to thank Spain for occupying us that helped me adjust in my placement. After days of going around and trying their food, I would say that Colombia is close to home. I had a smooth transition of arriving and immersing in the culture. Here are some of the things I did for the past 13 days:

1. Be a “food tourist.” My family and friends know that I love “seefood.” Respect me for the spelling but yes, when I see food, I eat. I am a foodie and for me the best way to know one’s culture is through their local food. (Believe me, it is amazing to discover the story behind each dish, it makes me really connect with local people). Despite all the advises to bring my comfort foods from the Philippines (and I really would want to), I decided not to. In fact, on my first day, with just a few hours rest from the long 36 hours flight, I was to choose between pizza and rice meal. Well, I guess you know which one I chose. I had this rice with beans, potatoes, meat, and my least favorite green–cilantro. Colombians love potatoes, beans, rice, corn, meat, cilantro, cassava, plantains, avocado, strawberry, sweets (lots of them), and most of all COFFEE. And the best thing in my food journey so far, is that most of their known local dishes are another versions of my home foods–lechon, chicharon, empanada, maiz, paella, higado, etc. When I learned that we have the same dishes, I just couldn’t wait to taste them, with friends of course.

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2. Miss Congeniality. I love the fact that coming to a different country/place would mean to meet different people and make friends with. On my first day at work, I just couldn’t help asking the staff at CEPALC who they are and what their stories are on how they come to work at the NGO. Although I was struggling with the language, I praise God that speaking Cebuano pays. I mean, Filipino language has a huge influence from Spanish. Even some expressions in my mother tongue apply here! 🙂 And slowly I had conversations with them. The best way to learn the language and practice it is to speak it over and over again until you’ll get it. So, I get invitations from friends at work and church to go with them to watch a movie or just eat out together or even hang out. What is so interesting here as well is that most of the people I am working with or the young people at church are men. I rarely see women. I was actually expecting to have women close friends here but it turns out that I’m hanging out with the guys. Well, in the Philippines, most of the people I worked with especially in a Christian organization set-up are women and I could hardly see men in mission work, but here is a total difference!

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3. Do the Math Dance. If you can’t speak it, dance it! On my first weekend in Bogota, I was asked to lead a dance exercise for the children in one of CEPALC’s outreach area. I was still struggling with the language but I just led the dance–the Math Dance. The kids were so amused with my Spanish and they taught me how to speak it well. On my second weekend, I memorized a Spanish game I learned from co-MI and Spanish-speaking, Angela Ali. It worked well and the children understood what I wanted to mean. Here’s a video of our Math Dance.

4. Spot the difference. People in public places and transportation stare at me the whole time trying to figure out where I came from. For a few of them, they simply ask me, “Are you from China?” In height, I am average here. But in other aspects, I really look different, which is pretty awesome! Kids at CEPALC and at church are fond of me, asking me questions about my country and what I think about theirs. They’re so interested to know more about me, which is really amazing and I love to share my story. As my placement supervisor puts it, “You’re the only Filipino in CEPALC.”

5. Poco a poco. For seven straight days my schedule was all occupied with language class, exploring Bogota, and work. My body was still adjusting with the temperature (very cold since I have a low tolerance to cold) and the altitude (Bogota is located at 2,600 meters above sea level). It was hard to breathe and to go up and down in some places. In the end I got sick for two days. I was just at home last week, although I still tried to go to my language class so I won’t miss anything. But I learned that I should have taken things slowly. Poco a poco means little by little. I was so excited to start and to get things done that I forgot to take things one at a time. My off is Sunday and Monday.

What I do. Where I live.

Many people ask me what I am doing in Colombia. Yes, you have all the right to know what I am doing here in the first place. Well, early this year I applied for a Global Mission Fellow program of the General Board of Global Ministries, Generation Transformation. In May this year, I was accepted in the Fellowship and was matched to a placement, CEPALC. CEPALC or Centro Popular Para America Latina de Comunicacion also applied to the same program as placement center. And Global Ministries matched us both based on the organization’s needs and my skills. CEPALC is a non-religious based organization and in fact, their staff is diverse. CEPALC works among desperately poor communities, especially women and children, in Colombia through producing communication resources. And most of their partners are Christian churches. There are only 5 full time staff, 3 foreign volunteers (including me), and several local volunteers.

My work is more on translation and helping out in producing communication resources. But for now, I am focused on studying and speaking the language. Well, the US volunteer started an English class for the staff and local volunteers, so I am assisting in practical conversations.

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CEPALC is around 45 minutes walk and bus ride from my home. Colombia has 6 social strata (1 being the poorest and 6 as richest) and CEPALC is in the fourth. I live far in the north, where most rich people (5-6) live (I feel kind of guilty where I live). I live with two other people, who are siblings, a woman and a guy. We have our own privacy, own rooms, common kitchen and laundry place. They are both professionals in their late 30s and bought this apartment unit early this year. So, I pay only a share of the apartment.

Bogota is a very expensive city. I even wonder how the poor people survive each day. I understand that probably because of its location, which is far from the waters (sea or river). And it is hard and costly to transport commodities and materials up here. It is really hard to adjust with the money here because they start with 1,000 CoP.  CoP 2,000.00 is equivalent to USD 1.00. And I try not to convert but I can’t help it and when I do, I find everything here very expensive compared to Manila City, Philippines. My housemates also said that it’s hard to look for jobs here, which is why the number of poor people is increasing. It’s really crazy! The place where I live has a very good and clean neighborhood, but when I went to the outreach areas in Barrios (small towns), I could see the very big difference.

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Yet, despite these obvious socio-economic and political struggles they have, the colorful and beautiful history of this country overpower. As most Colombians would say in times of tough times, “Just smile, everything will be alright.”

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How am I?

I am still adjusting in so many ways. Language is most important and then, social life. I miss my family and friends at times, I am struggling with insecurities because I can’t communicate well with most people. Every day, God reminds me of His love and His omnipresence with me and in this place. I miss a lot back from the Philippines but I know I should be living in the present and be with the people here. What I have seen and experienced in Bogota so far is just the tip of the ice berg. I know there are more stories I would hear and share in days, weeks, and months to come. I know God brought me here for His purpose. I am excited to explore more and know Jesus more through the people and the work I am called to do with the locals in Colombia.

Thank you for continually praying with me! To know more about my work and how you can be a part of this ministry, check my profile at Global Ministries website, Joy Eva Bohol, missionary support code 3021829 (click the code and it will direct you to the online giving) through The Advance.


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