Beyond the bombs

3rd October 2003 at 01:00
With kidnappings, shootings and bombings an ever-present threat, teaching in the world's cocaine capital was never going to be dull. But life in Colombia is not all about drugs and violence. Nicholas Pyke meets a British teacher who saw the country's positive side - and took her mother along

Alison Thomason has taught in some troubled places, but Oldham and Bradford are no preparation for Colombia. Ms Thomason, 34, returned to the UK this summer after spending two years teaching geography at the Colegio Anglo Colombiano in Bogota, one of the most extraordinary and, on the face of it, most dangerous postings in global education. If, as a foreigner, particularly as a tall blonde foreigner, you are brave enough to take a bus to the lush countryside beyond the capital, the advice from the Foreign Office is brief: wear comfortable shoes. Kidnap gangs march quickly, and high-heeled sling-backs will only make things worse. As Matthew Scott, the 19-year-old student who last week escaped from his kidnappers in wet and mountainous jungle, discovered, sturdy boots can save your life.

At the Colegio, a prestigous all-age school catering for some of the richest families in the country, a high, wire fence and armed guards are ever present. They told Ms Thomason that things were better now than the mid-90s, when, fuelled by an unstable mix of revolutionary politics and cocaine trafficking, Colombia's long-running guerrilla insurgency reached a new peak of violence. But the threat of kidnapping, or worse, remains so real that those parents who can afford it routinely send their children abroad for months at a time.

In the staffroom, stories of kidnappings were common. Every so often, when the guerrillas gain brief ascendancy on one part of the road or another, a bus is stopped and the passengers ordered off at gunpoint. "It's not as if they're out looking for Alison Thomason, English teacher," she says, "but you could always be unlucky." As it happens, European men such as Matthew Scott probably run the greatest risk because they can be mistaken for oil workers, a high-value class of hostage.

She became a teacher because the job "could take you all over the world".

After six years in northern comprehensives she decided it was time to make that bit come true. Her decision was all the braver as she spoke no Spanish - Colombians are not too big on English - but she learned rapidly, through an international GCSE course, free lessons provided by the school, and the practical hell of buying a fridge on hire purchase. Five hours of tortuous negotiation later, she says, her grasp of the language was more secure.

In one sense the danger was inescapable. Where most schools or offices have regular fire drills, the Colegio has rehearsals for terrorist attacks. Few families in Colombia are unaffected in some way and Ms Thomason's fellow members of staff have had relatives kidnapped. A few years ago, one of the current pupils was taken, held and then released. And in February this year, the school mourned the loss of a primary pupil, killed by a terrorist bomb at his family's country club. After that Ms Thomason was advised not to venture beyond the school or her apartment.

But violence was not a defining factor of her time in Latin America. To give in and allow the house to become a prison would be to go mad and, despite the warnings, normal life resumes quickly. "After three weeks you think, 'if they want to blow me up, they're going to have to blow me up because I can't live like this'." In reality, she says, the chaotic traffic bouncing along Bogota's potholed roads is probably more dangerous.

And then, in September 2002, her mother arrived. Gillian Staley, a teacher at the successful West Bridgford comprehensive in Nottinghamshire for 22 years, decided to join her daughter for a 12-month sabbatical teaching English. So last year found one astonished group of Nottingham teenagers waving goodbye to their English teacher while, on the other side of the Atlantic, an amazed group of Colombians came to terms with the idea that their geography teacher had her 58-year-old mum in tow. "I was tired. I'd seen three cohorts through. I was missing Alison. And it was time for a change," says Mrs Staley. "All the women I spoke to said, 'Good for you.

Enjoy every minute'. All the men said, 'What about Nick?', my husband."

It was an unusual role reversal and initially a dependent one, with Mrs Staley reliant on her daughter for everything from accommodation to social life to personal security. But it worked. "Of course any two people living and working together can be a bit too close for comfort at times," says Ms Thomason. "I was used to living by myself and hadn't lived at home since I was 18. But we've had a unique opportunity to get to know each other as adults, and now we're the best of friends. I feel we understand each other much better. I have greater affection for my mum than ever before and I'm really proud of her."

Well paid in local terms, the two could live in style. They shared a much better apartment than Ms Thomason could ever have afforded in the UK, with a domestic servant for two days a week, and private medical and dental care. Using the same, trusted taxi, they practically had their own driver.

They had their hair and nails done regularly and had dresses made to order.

There was plenty of socialising, and they could afford to eat in the best restaurants. Back in the UK they have found the prices impossible. A pair of Marks amp;Spencer trousers costs the same as two tailor-made suits in Bogota. But it was economics, rather than political chaos, that eventually forced Ms Thomason to quit Colombia - for the moment at least. The weak peso makes it impossible to save; in just two years the currency slide had seen a wage equivalent to pound;19,000 drop to pound;15,000.

Not that there was any shortage of cash on the part of the Colegio's 1,200 pupils. Ms Thomason says it wasn't unknown for the family chauffeur to be ordered to drive over to school with forgotten sports kit or missing homework, possibly in an armour-plated Mercedes. It is a level of wealth that poses problems when it comes to motivation - not helped by the key entrance qualification for university often being cash rather than top grades. Material deprivation is unheard of, but a dislocated lifestye that sees parents jetting to Europe or the US for months at a time can be hard on children left in the care of nannies or domestic servants.

With tongue slightly in cheek, Mrs Staley draws a parallel with West Bridgford. "There are similar types of issues when it comes to parents with very high, maybe unrealistically high, expectations. Parents who say, 'We've spent pound;300,000 buying into your area. How come he's only getting a C?'" But in other ways the teaching was a joy. For Ms Thomason, it was like an extended geography field trip - "standing on the Equator looking at volcano peaks was a big thrill for a geographer" - while Mrs Staley has been to the homeland of the novelist Gabriel Garcia M rquez.

The children were keen to please, volunteering to take part in each and every school activity, with none of the surly peer-group reticence that marks many British classes.

Their time in Bogota was, they admit, occasionally frightening, but they say it has also been testament to the durability of civilised values, even in extreme and often chaotic circumstances. Colombians may not have a working postal system, but they have a strength of community that Ms Thomason misses, and a warmth of relationship that will eventually take her back to Latin America.

Going abroad to work is always a risk, and every year brings fresh complaints from teachers who find the prospectus has lied or believe their personal safety has been compromised - often in supposedly safe countries offering big salaries. Pay rates in Colombia are weak and its reputation is worse but, says Ms Thomason, it is a far better bet than you might imagine.

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