By Katrina Castner
As I clumsily disembarked from the bus in Viaven, I looked up to see Gene Rutan walking towards me, his huge smile thrown into shadow by his characteristic wide-brimmed hat. When I think of integration I think of Gene. Despite the fact that he towers over the majority of the Colombians he passes, he looks completely at home. Almost every person that he walks by greets him with warmth and familiarity; from the pot-bellied men sitting in front of the tiendas, to the barefoot children darting in-between motorcycles and stray dogs. Gene’s integration has been facilitated by his superior grasp of Spanish, gained from years of living in Latin America prior to his Peace Corps service. As we sat down to a delicious lunch prepared by his host mom, I started asking him questions about his service here.
Is the Spanish here hard for you to understand or did you adjust pretty quickly?
Normal communication is fine, but the jokes are hard to understand. Also, when they talk amongst themselves it’s difficult because they aren’t making a conscious effort to communicate with me. There is a lot of new vocabulary and colloquial words that I am still learning.
So what exactly are you doing right now? Primary projects, secondary projects… tell me everything.
I am teaching about fifteen classes currently. I work with third, fourth, and fifth grade in both Viaven and Juan de Acosta schools. I am in the middle of re-doing one of the classrooms to make a computer lab. The electrical is all done, but I still need to install the air conditioning and the plugs. After that we should be good to go.
For about three months I worked with an electrical crew to install and replace the fans in every single classroom. We re-did the wiring, the switches, and finally, the fans. My next little project is installing the secretary’s air conditioning and fixing all the small annoying projects like the broken rejas and doors.
Right now my big project is planting trees all around the school. We constructed fences to go around the trees to protect them as well. Just last weekend we prepared the dirt and seeds and placed them in a greenhouse we made.
Wow. I’ve just officially become depressed about how I little I do. So, of all your projects, what makes you the proudest?
My most fulfilling project was definitely the two and half months I spent working with electrical crew to fix the wiring and the fans in the schoolrooms.
The most fun I’ve had is when I got to explore the back country with Yepes, a very knowledgeable local. We identified different trees and hiked for several hours.
What are you most looking forward to?
I can’t wait to see the trees start growing. I also want to see all the small repairs done in the school and address the trash problem with the students.
Do you have a funny story you can share?
A while ago I installed two fans in the teachers’ lounge. The next day, as I was walking out of English class, the teachers came running up to me yelling, “You’re trying to kill us!” It turns out one of the wires above the fan had fallen, become wrapped around a blade of the fan, and then started violently whipping the electrical wire across the room, almost taking a teacher out. I finally managed to fix it, but it is something I will never live down. One of the teachers wrote an eloquent, long-winded poem on the board about Gene, the racist, fascist gringo who tried to kill them all one day.
Finally, do you have any words of wisdom that you can pass on to all of us?
Do something you love. Whatever you do, integrate it with something you really love. I know we are here to teach English but find a way to merge that with your passion and share it with the world.