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  • Domino Volunteers

Coming home

By Ricardo Wilkins


Exploring the city with Sarah and Hannah, two other Domino Volunteers working in the education program.

Having been home for less than 48 hours, I moped into work this past Monday attempting not to be consumed by my feelings of self-pity now that I was back at this job. The first recognizable face I saw was the Latino cleaning lady who comes by to clean our desks once or twice a week. We smiled, and I might have said, “hola”, and kept it moving as pondered did she notice my absence the past two months.


Flashback: So maybe one or even two years ago, I can’t remember exactly, the cleaning lady and I were in the pantry on my floor and she began speaking to me in Spanish. I told her, “no hablo español”. She continued talking and I repeated. She seemed very confused that I didn’t know the language. I can only assume it’s because of my name which she’s undoubtedly seen hanging outside my cubicle. Since then, it’s been pretty much only hola or a mucho gracias after she wipes down my desk which I normally decline.


Later in the day, I was in the same previously mentioned pantry cleaning off my plate, when she entered the room. I looked over and had the thought "wait, I can talk her now!"


Me: Hola, fui en Cartagena para dos mesas. Ahora mi español es un poco mejor.


Her: Siiiii, “with a very surprised looking on her face”


Me: Necesito hablar mi español porque practico aprendiendo


Her: ‘she corrected what I said’. Con quien


Me: Contigo.  Podemos hablar ahora entonces necesito practicar.


Her: ‘ Her face had a look of astonishment with her eyes bulged and smiling’ CLARO CLARO, ESO ESO.


That’s not verbatim, but the gist of the convo. I couldn’t help but walk away with a smile on my face thinking, okay maybe my Spanish did get a little better. The delightful look on her face was a pleasure. Also, hearing her saying eso reminded me of my violin teacher saying eso eso after I played a tune correctly. It’s like saying, good job. She also recognized my level and talked very slowly for me. During our brief exchange, I had this almost surreal moment of really seeing and “knowing” her for the first time. Trippy!


Okay, you’re not here to read about the days and life of Ricardo at work in DC. This blog is about Cartagena, Colombia. So, here it goes:


How was my trip you might ask?

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say: life changing! I think any extended travel to a foreign environment can’t but help shift our perception of the world and reality, if only in a minuscule way. So, living in a foreign land with two non-English speakers for two months doing things you’ve never done, has like I said, been an existential experience. Heck, as I said before, I never even lived anywhere but DC.


What will I miss about Cartagena?

l will miss meeting new people. I’ll miss the friends I made and the community of Domino Volunteers.  I befriended four people in Alex, Lisa, Sarah and Hannah, whom it was a pleasure to getting to know past a superficial level; and took trips with, volunteered with, went site seeing with, shared meals with and philosophized about life with. Three of them are from England and two of which are half my age (Go figure but I have a young spirit). I guess that means I connect with Brits and should check out England.

Spending time with more volunteer friends at the social plazas.

I’ve met kindred spirits looking for their path. I’ve met people ending a year’s long excursion and others just at the beginning. I’ve met people who fell in love with Cartagena while volunteering and soon returned to live. I’ve met a bunch of folks from the DC area. And I also met a curious amount of Alexes. I met an English student in La Boquilla named Richard, so the joke was we both had the same but wrong names to later learn we share the same birthday when we were teaching the class months and days of the week (Come to think of it he could be my age. Should have asked him what year he was born too.) I’ve met several Colombians at Domino Volunteers English Conversation Club. A refreshing experience providing another mouth and ear, so they could practice their English. I met a slew of volunteers via Domino Volunteers or otherwise that have come and gone.


I’ll miss the guy who every morning announces up and down street the fruit he’s selling, as clear as if he was in our apartment. I’ll miss the peer in Manga and seeing people exercising at night. I'll miss the warm greeting from the security guard in the apartment lobby. I’ll miss Guillermo’s naughty humor and I’ll miss Margaret saying “a la orden” after I say gracias. I’ll miss walking across the bridge to and from the old city. I’ll miss that look on Colombians’ faces when they realize I’m not Colombian after I speak. I’ll miss the view from Margaret’s apartment. I’ll miss the bustling walled city. I’ll miss Urban Latino and Reggaeton. I’ll miss Andrea my violin teacher saying relax whenever I raised and tensed my right shoulder while playing. I miss her saying eso eso when I played well. I’ll miss the wonderful organization of Domino Volunteers ran by Christina and Alex with the beautiful balcony view from the their 13th floor co-working space.

The view from Margaret's window. Living with my homestay family in the enjoyable neighborhood of Manga was a really great experience.

What did I learn?

I learned I liked teaching. At least teaching English to non-native speakers. It was tiring and challenging at times, but it was a joy. Who would have thought?  I went from sharing limited duties with a host of volunteers in the beginning to garnering more responsibility as volunteers left until it was only Sarah and I to split the teaching duties for the two back-to-back classes; then eventually leading the two classes solo after Sarah was made an offer she couldn't refuse. Through a lot of observation and practice, I pulled it off.  Truly the more challenging the task the loftier the reward.


I learned to play the violin! Well, kind of…. It’s very hard but I’m learning and will continue to practice. What’s crazy is I can read music now because prior to my lessons I’d have a better chance at deciphering ancient Sumerian Cuneiform. Now, when I look at sheet music it’s not the equivalent of scribble scrabble and I can put paper to sound. Amazeballs!  Andrea pregnant with son.

Andrea, my violin teacher, pregnant here with her son. I hope to continue taking violin classes with her via Skype now that I am home.

I remember how nervous I was before I left. Seems so long ago and so silly now. I must thank my parents for letting me store all my stuff. Thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Wilkins, Richelle, Ruthie and family for all the wonderful encouragement and support. Shout out to everyone that checked in on me during my short stay.


Lastly, I’m not one to preach about my perspective on life and the world as we all have our own path and beliefs but since I have your attention I will say this: Life is fluid and flux, we do not need to grasp on to the things in our life so stringently as if everything is a life and death struggle. Our lives can be so much more balanced and content. Being without some much you realize you do not need much, and we make things much more of hardship than need be. It’s no ones’ fault, we have all been conditioned this way. There's an abundance of peace if we try to just live and let go because there’s truly nothing to hold on to!


This post was originally published on Ricardo's personal blog. Check it out to learn more about his experience volunteering with us in Cartagena!