Author: gortoner

Language immersion in Medellin

The lights blink off briefly on the plane as I’m shaken awake by a particularly violent patch of turbulence. There’s an announcement, too rapid for my waking mind to process. It’s not translated. The ground beneath my window is dramatic and strangely close. It’s not long since we took off. The aircraft continues to shake itself from side to side and I sense too the definite lurching sensation of steady descent. The lights fade to blackness and I’m left without the means to search for panic in the eyes of my fellow passengers. Only to look into the inexplicably approaching mountains. I sit back in my seat and close my eyes. Such are the fictions we create for ourselves when travelling alone. After six frustrating hours waiting in Bogota airport with few distractions, I fell asleep into my window frame as soon as I boarded the plane. But I hadn’t really understood how short the journey would be and awoke bewildered and, without reference points, convinced myself of a different fate for that journey. But Google …

Taxi rides in Bogota: a brief stop in Colombia’s capital

I say farewell to the US with another long bus journey back to LA and one more rather jaded day in suspense of my onward flight and what awaits me in Colombia. My third couchsurfing host takes me to an open mic night straight after I arrive in the city, where I originally planned to perform some poetry, but I’m a little relieved that a considerable delay in my journey has made this impossible. We watch a wonderful mixture of poems, comedy, music, nerves, oversharing, and like any open mic the quality meanders between sublime and tragic. I try to lap up what more I can of LA in the hours that remain to me, and manage to explore some of downtown before the heat forces me back into air conditioned cafes and the absorption of writing. I even fit in Venice Beach in the daytime before my flight, as it’s on route to the airport, but sunbathing properly proves difficult with all my belongings in tow. As I walk down the strip and look …

Play-writing in Berkeley: a new life perspective

I find myself repeatedly in the City Lights book store during my time in San Francisco, stumbling upon it in my walking, sometimes consciously, sometimes not. I stop to run my fingers over the spines of the many works of my admiration, of Frank O’Hara, of Bukowski, of Jack Kerouac. I while away hours between those shelves, losing myself to its history, its words, its poetry. And every minute I spend there cements an ambition which has been forming itself in my mind ever since I began travelling: to become a nomadic writer. The inspiration for this idea and the person who woke me up to the real possibility of this kind of lifestyle, happens to be who I’m staying with in Berkeley. We first met in Junax in San Cristobal, the wonderful volunteering mecca I have frequently exulted about, and as he made his way back up to Canada and home, our paths happened to cross again in California. His life for the past decade has been split between working and saving back home …

Tsunami: a dream extract

Something about the texture of the plastic under sheet on the mattress beneath me, a barrier to the persistent bed bugs of the household and the strongest deterrent our eccentric anti-chemical host is willing to impose against the infestation, keeps me from true sleep. Instead I catch it in fretful bursts, waking to the exultant shouts of freshers starting their university lives in and around the UC Berkely campus just minutes from my hostel. I wake again, late enough now for the sounds to have receded. Peace settles again on the neighbourhood. It washes over me, and though I’m awake I feel luxuriously content nestled in my blankets watching the early sun. As I lie there, it feels strangely natural that for thirty seconds or so the bed shakes minutely beneath me and I think back to an early physics lesson and a small textbook illustration demonstrating the lower end of the Richter scale. A man sits up in bed looking mildly surprised, captioned ‘1-2: very faint tremors felt only during rest or sleep’. An …

San Francisco sunsets: falling for a new city

Despite an uncomfortable first few days, the rest of my stay in San Francisco – another blissful week – was a dream of sun and sightseeing and endless walks along the steep city streets. It was a love affair, each day bringing its new and irresistible seductions. Slowly but surely, as I had anticipated, I was falling in love with the city. Haight Ashbury, with its second-hand vintage clothes and co-operative book stores, its quaint photogenic houses, its cafes stocked full of gluten-free cakes where soya milk is the default. The sea front with its piers and bars and chocolate shops, its inexplicable sea lion population and the view of Alcatraz spectacular on the horizon. The Golden Gate Bridge itself, an all-too familiar sight but no less awe-inspiring, seen from the city stretched out in the distance, when not obscured by the thick blankets of sudden fog, or from up close to be walked along, its construction and sheer size to be gazed upon and wondered at. This is where I found myself that morning after …

A beginner’s guide to couchsurfing: what not to do

After spending time in Central America, flying to the US was a bit of a shock to the system – for many reasons, but particularly when it came to money. Miami and even Haiti – which is extremely expensive for tourists despite what you may think – put quite a strain on my budget, and as I landed in California and handed over that first crippling taxi fare, I knew this trend would only continue. Therefore I decided to make a compromise, enabling my indulgent tangent over to California only on the condition that I would do my best to economise. To this end, it was time to try out something new: couchsurfing. Okay, not entirely new, I’d deliberately tested out the site before I left, acting host myself on the network from my flat in London. But this was the first time I’d be using the site from a traveller’s perspective. I’d initially planned to do this in Miami as well, but an unfortunate experience meant I abandoned the idea and opted for our …

Twenty hours in transit: Haiti to Los Angeles

Despite the many wonderful people I met in Haiti, the passionate development workers of the Communitaire, the committed local project leaders, and let’s not forget all 32 incredible children of the SMDT orphanage, I’m quite happy when my time in Haiti comes to an end. Although I enjoyed my work there, it’s not a very easy place to operate in. Every day I had to make the decision between being uncomfortably hot or eaten alive by mosquitos. I would always choose the latter, and curse myself later in the evening as I tossed and turned in my bed, the dozen or so new bites swollen and ablaze around my ankles. Semone, one of my new friends from the Communitaire, observed that the climate in Haiti just doesn’t seem to agree with me. And the climate wasn’t our only restriction. Feeling limited by our lack of language skills and not wanting to put our personal safety at risk, our excursions outside of the security of the Communitaire were infrequent, and those that there were needed laborious …

It’s my birthday and I can cry if I want to – or, in fact, do whatever I feel like

This time last year I decided to celebrate my 25th birthday with a job interview. It was for a promotion within my team, which I felt obliged rather than inclined to apply for and, rather unexpectedly, I got the job. A year later I’m sitting in the persistent heat of Port-Au-Prince in the relatively temperate shade of a hammock-slung tree, discussing social media strategy with the director of a local orphanage. Although it took a number of punishing life events for this change to come about, I feel the benefits of that change pertinently, not only in place, but in entire philosophy. There’s something so powerfully brainwashing about the English school system, mirrored I’m sure by many education systems around the world. There was such a strong focus in my school on securing a prodigious place at university. This ladder was presented to us from a young age, each wrung a new set of qualifications, from GCSEs onwards, all with the ultimate goal of a rewarding life-long career. But it’s only as I reach my …

An orphanage and an English school: project visits in Port-Au-Prince

Imagine wondering how you’re going to feed 32 children every week? As far as the mission of his charity is concerned, Carlo’s is quite simple: care for the needs of the children who call the SMDT orphanage in Port-Au-Prince their home. The orphanage, which stands for Sant Mete Men Pou Defann Dwa Timoun or Hands Together to Defend the Right of Children, was founded by a pastor a number of years ago, but he was killed in the 2010 earthquake and the building was destroyed. Carlo’s mum took over, and Carlo has now stepped in as Director. We’re here representing Global Giving, but we already know this is going to be a very different kind of visit. In contrast to the larger organisations we’ve so far evaluated, talking to Carlo about issues such as governance or internal communications wouldn’t make much sense. I’m even nervous talking to him about social media, as how could this ever be a priority for him above the day-to-day care of the children? Carlo understands though. He understands the long-term potential …

Port-Au-Prince five years on: the road to recovery

I have a strange and accidental habit of visiting the sites of major disasters. In 2005 I went to Sri Lanka, just six months after its coasts were desecrated by the tsunami. In 2011, I spent a week in Christchurch, New Zealand not long after the town was completely destroyed by a 6.3 magnitude earthquake. And this year, Haiti was chosen as part of my Global Giving field evaluation itinerary, five years after it lost nearly 100,000 lives to an earthquake of its own. I also had the great opportunity earlier this year to be able to work at the offices of the Disasters Emergency Committee in London, supporting them with social media as they launched the Nepal Earthquake Appeal. Although I may have been close to disaster sites in the past, this was the first time I was able to see the relief effort first hand, from the incredible outpouring of generosity from those across the world to the amazing life-saving work taking place out in the field. But what was so interesting about the …