The contents of this blog are mine alone and in no way do they reflect the viewpoints or opinions of the Peace Corps nor the government of the United States of America.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

What happens in Cartagena...

If you've never heard of Cartagena, Colombia you have now, thanks to the Secret Service scandal.  Just the other day, I found myself still reading about the debacle in the news.  The latest morsel of media buzz made reference to an indirect excuse that the Secret Service agents' behavior was part of the "culture" here. Scoff-worthy, right?  

The obvious answer is yes, yet... whoever used this weak defense does have a bit of point.  The Secret Service agents did nothing that multitudes of gringos aren't doing here everyday.  ("Gringo," by the way, is a term used to refer to anyone who is "white" and is not an offensive term here.) Clearly though, the behavior expectations for US Government representatives are a bit higher, or one would think.  However, prostitution is rampant and legal here.  Case in point, several of my male gringo acquaintances report that when riding solo in a cab, the driver nearly always offers to help with arranging for a prostitute, and when I'm strolling the streets with gringo male friends at night, the offers they receive are plentiful.  The point is you don't have to look very hard for a prostitute if that's what you've come to Colombia for.

Also, as I've reported in other blog entries, the Colombian coast is a highly sexually-charged culture.  Even police officers have whistled at me as I walk with head-down and eyes averted through the city during daylight hours.  And stories like this could go on for pages and pages.  The male volunteers are actually a bit exhausted listening to all of the lady volunteers rant their unbelievable stories of unwanted attention.  It is slowly though becoming just a fact of life for me now.  As my girl Lola Cash says, "It is so hard being sexy." 

Lastly, Colombian women are BEAUTIFUL, both naturally and surgically.  They dress to the nines-- I really don't know what that means, but many dress in terribly high heels, nine inches maybe, tight jeans, with very flashy and very revealing tops.  It is hot, after all, and even I find myself loathe to wear anything with a sleeve. now reports that the "feels like" temperature is at 106, and we are just entering the hot season... and with air conditioners being rare if not non-existent, it makes sense to wear as little as possible.  

Yet with all the culture one can muster as an excuse, it is still a terrible embarrassment to also be here representing the US of A with associates like the Secret Service.  What I think the worst of all of this ignominy though is the one agent who refused to pay his prostitute the agreed upon price.  It reeks of colonialist history with the "white man," or in this case the more powerful government, coming to the Americas and taking what they want without the duty of earning or paying for the riches, pleasures of a less powerful people.  It is really quite tragic actually that Americans, or norteamericanos, still behave in this superior and shameless way.  

To the Colombians reading my blog, please know that many Americans are terribly ashamed by the behavior of the Secret Service.  It is my hope that I can, along with the other Peace Corps volunteers here, show Colombians a different type of gringo.  As Representative Tom Petri of Wisconsin says of the 1961 founding of the Peace Corps: 

"The Peace Corps put another side of America forward, not one motivated by the realpolitik of the Cold War, but one motivated by the genuine and optimistic belief that the world can be improved through service and understanding and that our nation, blessed by prosperity and strength, has an obligation to help uplift those outside our borders."

And may it be so.  God bless Colombia.


Friday, March 16, 2012

10 Reasons I Love Colombian Men!

Well, the Colombianos are getting quite a bad wrap among the volunteers here.  Since training, we have been warned by our Language and Cultural Facilitators (LCF's), host moms, and really by any female in the country we came across concerning the men- they are mujeriegos, bandidos, perros... downright dogs.  And corresponding to my observations, it doesn't seem like the men here are really expected to remain faithful to their wives.  Nearly every married woman I've talked with at length has spoken of what she has had to "put up with" from her husband.  Message understood and note taken.  Colombian men don't wear wedding rings, and if they did, that still certainly wouldn't stop them from whistling at pretty girls on the street.  However, there's always a bright side, and that's what this blog is all about.  In truth, I am finding the men here refreshingly different from the dating scene back home.  Here's 10 reasons why I don't think Colombian men are all that bad:

1. They will call you... on the phone.  Sometimes they will even call in the morning to see how you've "amaneciste"ed, or how it dawned upon you, how you arose from your bed (if you're even out of it yet).  No texting charades here; when they want a date with you, they call you and extend a formal invitation- "Amanda, I invite you..."

2. They pay for everything.  If you accept one of these invitations, it is never even a question that you might pay for your half.  According to our LCFs, you can even bring your friends and family members and they will buy their lunch, dinner, drinks, too.  And on this volunteer's budget, I am not protesting too much.

3.  Their egos don't get in the way of them approaching you.  Back home, you may sit in a bar for hours while a man stares you down from across the room without ever initiating a conversation.  But here, if they are interested- they go for it.  Machismo isn't all bad.  Men back home, at times, need to strap 'em on and man up.  If you like a lady, talk to her!

4. They throw excellent piropos, or pick up lines.  Echando piropos (throwing flirtatious compliments) or endulzandola (sweetening her) are the things you get in the street, at the bar, in the grocery store, or at even at school.  Back home when the dudes finally approach you, it's normally an awkward "Uh..... er... so what's up?"  But here, you get to listen to lines like: eres una poema, un bello poema (you are a poem, a beautiful poem), eres el veneno y la cura (you are the poison and the cure), or eclipsas el mar... (you eclipse the sea), or something like that.  Hola my light, my sky, my queen, my heart, mi amor.  Muuuch better, men.  And thank you. ;)

5. They can dance.  Like you wouldn't believe.

6. Their passion.  Duh.

7. They're close to their moms.  Sometimes they're a bit too close, for instance grown men still sleep in bed with their moms if necessary, but the point is they love their moms, and that's always a good sign.

8. Some of them are very, very good-looking in a way only a Latino can be good-looking: dark hair, dark eyes, dark skin, oh my!

9. They will walk you home.  In the dark hours, Colombian men will never let you walk home alone.  They will either put you in a taxi- that they pay for- or walk you home for your protection; they are caballeros, knights, in the purest sense.  I'm recently very grateful for my student Hernando who walks me to my door after every English class offered to the community.  He is a boxer and a weight lifter, and I feel very safe with him.

10.  They write you poems.  As an English teacher and logophile, this is the way to my heart. ¡Ay!

Now to find a single one...

Speaking of my Community English class, it's finally started, and at a student's request we have begun with the alphabet.  Teaching the alphabet gives me a strangely good feeling.  I feel like Squanto or something.  Here we are breaking it down--

Here's Mendoza, my favorite, most smiliest security guard who sneaks into my class-

And lastly, I can't pass up the chance to share with you just one photo from my school's "Women's Day" presentation.  Women's Day is a big day for Colombianas-  they are serenaded by the vallenato accordion, given cake and flowers throughout the day, and are presented with inspirational PowerPoints such as this-

We watched a series of photos like these in the school's teacher lounge with the faculty and choice students while eating more cake and drinking sparkling cider.  Suffice it to say that I will be making next year's "Women's Day" PowerPoint, and it will be drastically different.

22 months to go!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Making plans in Latin America

"...[He] was truly sorry and promised there would be no more dogs killed in the streets.  The promise calmed the General, not because he believed it would be kept, but because the good intentions of his aide-de-camp were a consolation to him" (García Márquez's The General in His Labyrinth).

The General in this passage is Simon Bolivar who is recognized as the Great Liberator of [South] America, and he knows more about Colombian culture than I do.  He understands that when someone tells you something you want to hear, yet it is not true, it is a gesture of goodwill and not a lie meant as flippant or  blatant disrespect.  He understands that when someone honors your desires enough to tell you what you want to hear, they are caring for you.  For me, reading Colombian literature while experiencing Colombian culture has been a bit like looking at the answers in the back of a textbook.  

Last week I got stood up not once, but twice-- by the same person.  I was actually "stood up" a lot more than two times, just by different people.  Anyhow, when I arrived at my new school a few weeks ago, I was on a mission to find a Spanish teacher.  And as it turns out, there are several Spanish teachers, or Castellano teachers as they refer to them here, at my school.  One very nice Castellano teacher who spoke decent English said he would be happy to help me learn Spanish.  Since the Peace Corps is giving us money to continue Spanish lessons at our site, I told him I would pay him because after arriving in the barrio where I was without 21 other Americans, I was serious about finding a Spanish teacher as soon as possible.  He said that we were friends, and he was at my orden, here to help me.  So after I asked the typical gringa questions of what day and what time, we had an appointment.  

Well, I showed up...  and he didn't.  After a span of time, another teacher saw me waiting and called my new Spanish teacher who explained that today was his plata pica.  Here in Colombia, there are certain days you are not allowed to drive your car or motorcycle depending on the last digit of your license plate number.  It applies to everyone, and you will get ticketed if you are caught driving on your public transportation day.  Anyhow, my response, delivered lightheartedly but directly, to the other teacher was, "His license plate number didn't change since yesterday and neither did the law, so why did he tell me would come?"  Response: "Welcome to Colombia!!!"

Now, I knew to expect this coming here.  Still, that doesn't mitigate the frustration I feel when I have made the effort to take yet another startlingly cold shower, put on hot clothes, and take a hot trek by foot or bus to keep an appointment.  I teased the teacher a little the next day but did not ask him to meet again because I thought surely he didn't really want to give me lessons, but in a couple of days, he offered again.  I gave him a sideways glance and asked if he was sure.  Then I proceeded to the "When?" and "What time?" questions.  I did notice that his eyes moved around a lot, but I didn't know if it was because I was just asking confusing gringa questions.  I gave him my number and asked him to call me if he wasn't going to make it.  The next morning, I sent him a text that I was on my way.  To spare the time it takes to read an already predictable story, he didn't show up.  The excuse this time was something about a medical appointment, but I didn't find out until after I had waited 30-45 minutes in the school courtyard, and I had showed up 20-30 minutes late, trying to be Colombian. I was more than just a little perturbed this time.

I've conducted problem-solving interviews since then, and this is what the Colombians advise:

1) Call, don't text, someone 30 minutes before the appointed time and see what they say.  If they are on their way, leave in about an hour.  If they are doing something, give it another 2-3 hours and call again.
2) Look at their eyes when making an appointment.  If they are shifty, like I had noticed before, it's not because they are confused, it's because they don't really mean it.
3) And as GGM narrates above, take it as a kind gesture when someone tells you they'll give you lessons, or invite you to visit, or take you to the nearest island to visit their family.  They really do wish it... or they think you do, and they like you, so therefore they are saying it.  Smile.

I'm waiting for the gift of Colombian discernment.

Other updates:

I have a new host family, and I am cooking for myself.  It's been only one week, and I feel different already being able to control what I eat.

 Here I've some corn arepas with portobello mushrooms and squash sautéed in olive oil- oh god, olive oil is good- drizzled with some suero, or sour cream, and some queso campesino.  I also made a side of real guacamole a la Mexicano with lots of  jalepeños.  The Colombians aren't into spicy food, and they are amazed at the amounts of peppers and hot sauce I pour over my food.  They are equally amazed that I'm making meals without meat.  Each day and at each meal, they confirm that I'm really cooking without meat.  I think they feel sorry for me, but I am really, really happy with this food.

Carnaval is next weekend, and my host mom from Barranquilla is calling me everyday to confirm that I'm coming.  She's making the arrangements, which we repeat each time; I just have to get in the taxi.  Barranquilla's carnaval is the world's second largest, and people from all over the world are coming to celebrate something like Mardi Gras meets futbol stadium furor.  There will be dancing, and there will be alcohol- both flowing into the streets.  I'm hoping to manifest a costume or fun mask before next weekend.  Here's my host mom's marimonda mask.  Its origins are making fun of Arab immigrants, and the Colombians think it is hilarious.

And lastly, I am slowly making my way into Cartagena's nightlife.  Cartagena is a fun, quirky, and youthful crossing of bohemes from all over Latin America and Europe.  Last night, I found this club with some other volunteers.  The band is from Holland, and they are playing something between the polka and the Colombian cumbia.  

Fun times.  I'm still in the observation phase at my site, so I don't have anything to report work-related.  I'll begin my co-teaching with other English teachers in a couple of weeks along with offering community English classes, English classes for teachers of all subjects, and an English club for the advanced students.  Lots of work coming up, and I'm looking forward to it.  

Carnaval post coming soon!

Love you all.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Gab, Gabo, and 2012

First and NOT most importantly, I'd like to report that after 2 1/2 months of consuming a diet of butter, grease, sugar, and carbs, I've managed to remain more or less the same weight, probably because of the daily miles I try to walk, a pastime which has the twofold benefit of saving me money and keeping me trimmish.  

On to more riveting news: I had the privilege of visiting one of Gabriel García Márquez's ten siblings, Lijia García Márquez, in her house not far from where I'm staying.  If you're not literary minded, you should know that Gabriel García Márquez is considered by many to be the most important author in all of Latin American history and one of the most important of the 20th century, winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982 for his magnum opus One Hundred Years of Solitude.  Plus, he is my favorite author, and I have read quite a few books. I first met Lijia in a nearby panadería on my first morning in the barrio.  I could tell at once that she was quite garrulous, even for a Colombian, when my host mom repeatedly kept trying to say good-bye and she would repeatedly begin another dramatic parley, not much unlike grocery shopping back home.  It wasn't until after we left that Naifir told me she was GGM's sister, and I was shocked-- her shoes weren't shined, nor her dress new, and she was shopping at my local panadería!  According to the biography of GGM I'm reading, he has turned down interviews offering $50,000, so why, I wondered, would his family be living in the conditions of the average city-dwelling Colombian?  

When I arrived with my Spanish teacher, Joao, and mama Naifir at the appointed time, Lijia came to the gate feverishly dusting a statue of an eagle while profusely apologizing that her house was not clean enough for visitors yet.  I figured this was a polite way to decline the visit, but then she began inquiring if I knew anyone back home who would be interested in buying some family photographs so that she could purchase medicine for her diabetic, convalescent husband.  She had tried calling Gabo, as GGM is affectionally referred to, but his wife, that "hija de la puta," wouldn't put her through.  Evidently, GGM's wife and the in-laws don't get along so well.  Anyhow, we returned after an hour or so and were finally invited through the gate via a shout indoors from her husband, a typical Colombian man, who while his wife was in the next room amorously told me I resembled a telenovela star and that I was "a poem, a beautiful poem."  

While we continued to wait for Lijia, I snuck this shot of her living room--

Also, here's a popular family photo.  There are several versions of this; I saw two different ones in Lijia's house and there's another version in the biography I'm reading as well.  They apparently cut and paste different people into the photo according to their own personal taste, but in all Lijia is just to the left of Gabo, who is at top center in the white guayabera.  

Lijia finally emerged in a formal dress, freshly bathed and frantic that she couldn't buckle the strap of her heels.  I felt odd that she was really that preoccupied about her appearance.  During the visit, I found her to be sincere and entertaining.  She was difficult for my Spanish teacher and me to steer conversationally, as she answered one question by first telling another story that would help you to know the background to another story which would lead to an answer to the question.  She whispered and looked behind her as she told us family "secrets," different versions of events I'd read in the biography by Gerald Martin.  This Latin Americanism struck me as distinctly cultural.  Martin says in his Introduction that during the initial interviews for the book as he was beginning to research and make inquiry into the author's life, Márquez told him, "Whatever you write will be the truth."  There doesn't seem to be a value on one single truth here; it's all dependent on the storyteller, their perceptions and current whimsy at the time that determines which version you'll hear.  The actual event doesn't even really seem to be the focus; there's value in simply the telling of a story.  

After three hours and only getting an "answer" to three questions, it was time to go.  As to why Gabo doesn't support his family more than what would be expected in such a case, I can't really say.  For one, I don't know if what I'm told is really the truth, and secondly, I don't want to betray my new friend's confidence. Lijia is excited to have me back next week to show me more pictures and is even more excited that I'm going to Cartagena where more of her family resides, including Gabo at times.  She is eager to introduce me to two other brothers and their relatives and has even inquired whether I could possibly live with one of them during my service.  I'd be tickled to meet more García Márquezes, but whether Lijia's invite is just a story, I won't know until I get there.  :) 

The next day, I visited a pueblo where two Peace Corps Response Volunteers are working in the area of disaster relief.  During this year's rainy season, Atlantico, the state of Colombia I'm living in, suffered flooding that was reportedly worse than Hurricane Katrina.  The region experienced in one month a year's worth of rain and hundreds of thousands were displaced.  Volunteer Bob Arias works with the children and Shirley Sherrod focuses on the women in a pueblo called Campo de la Cruz.  What is their work?  Sewing is Shirley's guise and popsicle sticks Bob's.  Shirley comes with a new pattern or blanket she's working on to show the women while the youthful 73 year old Bob introduces new trinkets, all the while socializing and, of course, laughing.  Truly though, their work is in simply bringing the women and children together after facing the traumatic flooding of their homes.  Because most of the community's men go to Venezuela to work during the year, these women endured this frightening upheaval alone with their children.  Yet, as an outsider coming in, I couldn't really tell that these people had recently been in life-threatening danger or had experienced any great loss.  They, in Colombian fashion, were all smiles.

Well, mostly all smiles.  :)

Lunch with Shirley and Bob (not pictured).  Even though it's sweltering, we still eat hot soup for lunch.

Today is New Year's Eve, and Naifir is currently working on a sancocho, or a big-ass soup.  The ingredients are many and the flavor will be strong.  I just saw some chicken feet laying alongside some other meats and vegetables to be added.  I'm hoping for a serving sans feet tonight where I'm sure I'll be seeing more of this--

Naifir pouring whiskey.

I'm ready to ring in my first full Colombian year.  In GGM's biography, Rodrigo García Márquez, the firstborn son, says of his upbringing, "There were two things you just had to know.  One was the great importance of friendship.  There was a huge emphasis on the sheer fascination of other people and their lives.  It was my father's drug.  You had to know about their lives and all their business and you had to share in other people's experiences and share your own with them... We were brought up to be completely unprejudiced, except in a couple of significant respects.  Firstly, Latin American people were the best people in the world.  They were not necessarily the cleverest, they might not have built a lot, but they were the very best people in the world, the most human and the most generous" (GGMA Life).  

I welcome a year of sharing in the lives of the "best people in the world!"  Truly, they are among the most generous I've known.  To Colombia 2012!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

On lice and happiness.

When traveling to a foreign country, one can expect, at some point, to get sick... and that the sickness will then be over shortly after popping some Immodium or whatnot.  Well, I have been sick.  It's been nothing extraordinarily dangerous or severe, but I have underwent an onslaught of minor afflictions, one after another.  First, the expected, um, digestion issues- 5 days in length, oh yes, followed promptly by a throat infection with a fever to top.  Just as the throat infection was beginning to clear up, I got the worst sunburn of my life. (I am completely to blame and have learned, aha!, that the sun is more intense when closer to the equator).  Seeing it is evidently gasp-worthy.  Now I have gone from a deep scarlet to looking like I have a rare skin disease as the tanned skin gives way to new pink blotches.  And, just as the blisters and effects of solar overload were wearing off, it turned out that the persistent itching at the nape of neck was... LICE!  I don't want to whine, or overly whine because I think I already am, but imagine all of this combined with two months of intense longing for familiar friends, a loving dog, and a healthy diet with only temperate amounts of carbs and fried foods.  At hour 23 tossing on my children's mattress that may or may not be infested with lice, I found myself wondering, "Why am I doing this again?"

Cut to Colombia: the coastal region where I'm serving has a poverty rate of 47%, and poverty here isn't quite the same as what we may think of as poverty in the US.  Further, Colombia ranks among the top 10 countries in the world with the greatest inequality of wealth distribution.  Yet, according to BusinessWeek, Colombia is the world's third happiest country!!

I don't credit this achievement to the rise of tourism or the literacy rate as the article does, but to the Colombians' very unique joie de vivre.  They never need a reason to have a fiesta, though they do have many with 19 national holidays, and they are always surrounded with a real sense of community.  Plus, they absolutely love to dance; I mean, they really, really like to dance here.  It is not unusual to see Naifir, my host mom, dancing the vallenato or salsa with her mop.  Dancing begins early, as many schools devote the first two months of school- not to scheduling or classwork- but to dance rehearsals for Barranquilla's carnaval.  

Cut back to me on the flimsy foam mattress.  Why am I doing this?  I recall a group of British blokes I met at a salsa club last week traveling through Colombia who asked me the same question.  My answer is usually pretty standard, but this time I answered, while trying to concentrate on my salsa steps, white-like, while they, even more white-like, sat on their barstools sipping whisky, "Because back home, you can go through the wealthiest parts of town, and people aren't happy.  You don't see smiles, and if you do, they're probably forced.  But here I've seen people living with no running water or who are living in the most basic of conditions-- and they're all smiling."  I knew coming into this that likely I would receive much more from Colombians than I could ever hope to offer them, and already this has been my experience.  I may teach them how to teach and speak English, but they are teaching me how to be happy.  So after I combed those eggs out, I welcomed the salsa music blaring in from the street and... smiled.

By the way, I am going to Cartagena!  This is a dream of mine about which I'll write more later.  

Here I am learning my site assignment on Thanksgiving day-

  My first arrival at the school I'll be working at for the next two years-

In Cartagena, pre-sunburn-

And my novio Santiago.  Sometimes we play Spiderman, crash the toy motorcycle into the other carefully aligned toys, and put the bucket on your head.  We have a special understanding of each other, and he always leaves me with a sweet kiss.

Thank you, friends, for remembering and supporting me during these next two years.  Receiving emails of encouragement go a long way during these sometimes troubling times.

Leaving you in happiness nonetheless,

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Month One: Don't Worry!

The last two weeks have finally afforded me the opportunity to escape the training classroom and get a taste of what I've come here to do- teach English.  Despite possible objections to what could be viewed as another example of American ethnocentrism, teaching English is important because it truly is, as it has been called, “the world's second language.”  Learning English provides access to ongoing global conversations, such as how to cure diseases, ameliorate poverty, decrease pollution, etc.  Also, on a smaller scale, many students are very motivated at the prospect of working in a call center.  Yes, working in a call center provides a coveted stable life that isn't nearly as accessible to all as it is in the US.  So, be nice to those people you talk to on the phone when you're angry about a malfunction or service problem!  Furthermore, Colombia is particularly interested in increasing English fluency among the general population because there is a big push to attract more tourists.  Colombia is much safer now than it once was, and slowly, the country is showing up on the gringo trail.  I recently met a young woman who is teaching English to police officers so that they will be better able to respond to tourists trickling in from all over the world.  Following is a link to a short 5 minute TED talk we watched in training about "English mania" where Jay Walker, inventor and owner of Walker Digital, explains why 2 billion people around the globe are trying to learn English.  What intensity in these students!

Two weeks ago, I visited an all girls’ school in Santa Marta called Escuela Normal Superior Maria Auxiliadora.  I arrived shortly after 7:00 (school begins at 6:30!) where the girls were still at their “Buenos Dias,” a short charla, or motivational talk, from the nuns. 

This school, and the students, were beautiful. The grounds were well-kept with plants and small garden retreats located throughout the campus.  The class sizes were manageable and the students motivated.  Every bulletin board had a Biblical or inspirational message.  This one was my favorite:

Rough translation: "When you're being educated, you're always in the right place at the right time.  There are no bad hours for learning.  Thank you, Teachers."  Ummm... I want to work at this school.

Unfortunately these conditions are very atypical for a Colombian school.  Many of the other volunteers visited schools that were dilapidated and taught by poor teachers with consequently uninterested and unruly students.  One school had a bathroom that hadn't worked for two months, so the school day was decreased.  The explanation given is that when a school files for a maintenance request, corruption is suspected, so sometimes it takes several months for problems to be addressed.  There are often not enough desks in classrooms that can reach up to 60 students and remember-- no air conditioning.  (Barranquilla has been running a steady 90 degrees since I've been here.  And this is the rainy season, which means cooler season.)  There are also sparse materials.  The schools that do have textbooks, curriculum, and technology safeguard them by locking them up and making them inaccessible to all- students and teachers.  There are no copy machines in the schools, so students pay teachers for their own worksheets and exams!  In addition to these obstacles, creating effective change in the schools is made even more complicated by the scheduling.  In the four weeks I've been here, there has been only one full week of classes.  Festivos, or holidays, are FREQUENT.  Add to this an expected 30-45 minute late start time- for each class- and you have a challenging scenario.  

So with all of the turbulence, infrequencies, and unreliability of schedules, Colombia is teaching me one major word: relax.  The way to get by is to be fully in each moment, to not worry- no preocupes, relax some more-relajate, and take it easy- coja la suave.  Don't worry about what's next because it may rain, and then you'll just stay inside to avoid arroyos.  Computer broken?  Don't worry.  Can't find the right bus?  Don't worry.  Don't know what's going on most of the time?  DON'T WORRY.

Yesterday was my host mom Naifir's 53rd birthday.  We made punch-

And ate cake!

From left to right: Mercedes- Naifir's cousin.  Hobbies: watching TV while topless.  Naifir- amazing host Mom.  Activities: serving everyone with a smile.  Santiago-Mercedes's sister's daughter's son.  Hero: Spiderman.  Gladys- Mercedes's niece.  First question to me: How much are the Victoria Secret body sprays in the US?

I find out my site location on Thanksgiving day.  Everyone is vying for a post in Santa Marta, but rather than being attached to desirable circumstances, I'd rather align my wishes with the Creator's design in what's best for me at this moment in life.  Hope with me for the best site of all- the best site for me!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

My first two weeks as a volunteer...

...have been challenging yet fun!  Our group of 23 volunteers arrived from the world of air conditioning to the Barranquilla sauna on October 13 and were immediately whisked via bus to a hotel where we were-- trained!  We met the Country Director, George Baldino, a very kind and humble man who was reportedly once a monk!  Three days later we moved in with our host families.  My host family consists of two ladies who are cousins and another couple who live in the bedroom next to me but I rarely see.  Their presence is still somewhat of a mystery.  The ladies, though, are both super chill, and my "mom" is adorable.  She greets me each morning with coffee, juice, and a "Buenos dias, mi vida."  Although I told her I don't eat breakfast she still regularly asks if I want anything.  Both women are perplexed at what they consider the little amount of food I eat, yet my plate is heaping with up to three times what they themselves are eating.  I've tried showing my cultural diplomacy by cleaning my plate, but it's impossible.  My eating also seems to be a phenomenon- they and their visitors have hovered over me to witness the act; I feel like a specimen in "Watch the American Eat." Now, I just take food from my plate and load theirs up and slowly my portion sizes are decreasing.  Success!  Here's one of her typical meals- chicken and veggies (veggies because I've pleaded for them), sopa de something, rice, french fries, and juice!  Juice, juice, at every meal.

I'm very happy about the availability of fresh fish!

So, after moving in with our host families, we have been-- training!  I take about an hour bus ride to an ESL school where we have Spanish classes for four hours in the morning and technical and program training in the afternoon.  I'm happy to say that I've been advanced to a higher level of Spanish than they originally placed me in, and I'm truly enjoying learning the language, especially the costeño slang.  For example, the insult for an ugly woman is "culo de bofe!"  Bofe being cooked cow lungs that is a local dish and culo de... well.  I doubt I'll ever use the expression, but it's funny to learn nonetheless.  The accent is difficult to pick up on because they cut off their words and rarely pronounce their d's, s's, and p's.  This is odd to me because the coastal people are very relaxed, reportedly showing up hours late for meetings, yet they all seem to be in a big hurry.  The cars WILL run people over in the streets.  Anyhow, in the afternoons we review ESL teaching strategies, safety and security measures, and health safeguards.  This training continues until January 13 where we will then move to our assignments for the next two years.  Fortunately, I get to go to Santa Marta for my site observation this week, which I'm uber-thrilled about.  I'll be observing a volunteer who's teaching at an all girls' school run by nuns near a beautiful beach.  I'm crossing fingers this will be my final placement.  I like all girls!!  I like beach!!

Really, I haven't experienced much of Colombia yet because of the grueling training schedule, but I did go to an English conversation club hosted by some other volunteers at La Cueva, the bar where Gabriel García Marquez wrote much of One Hundred Years of Solitude.  This glass of wine cost me a day's wages, but it was worth it!

We also split into small groups last week and made our first school visits for national bilingualism week.  That is why we're here- to help with President Juan Manuel Santos's mission to have all Colombian schools bilingual by 2019.  Our project director exhibited the typical Latin American positive tact by saying, "This is a big goal." Translated- it's unlikely to happen.  Many of the English teachers don't speak English!  I'll write more on this mission later.  Anyhow, my group and I visited a girls' school where we were greeted with drums and a dance mix of Colombian cumbia and the American mashed potato.  The visit ended with 30 minutes of "Watch the Americans Dance" begun by the whitest guy in our group trying to dance salsa with a local teacher.  The girls were mad with delight.  I was quite elated myself.

I have changed in some big ways so far as a result of this experience.  Such as:
  • I use pea-sized amounts of toothpaste, shampoo, etc. and buy the absolute cheapest products available. Our allowance is scanty, so I have to pinch every peso.  And really, it's not necessary to use more than is needed anyhow, right?
  • A/C and hot water are non-existent here.  The lack of A/C was quite shocking at first given the heat of Barranquilla, yet I've somehow managed to live just fine.  My two cold showers and nightly fan treatment have become small pleasures.
  • Put washer and dryer on the 86 list, too.  I don't wash my clothes until they reek.
  • I carry my backpack as a frontpack and watch my back- literally. Theft is very common here.  Few people talk on cell phones or listen to their iPods in public because it's likely they will be stolen.  As the local expression goes- "No da papaya."  I think that translates to "don't give them a reason to rob you."
Living with my host family has thus far been my most rewarding experience.  My host mom's hospitality and gusto are daily inspirations to be happy for the people you have in life.  And as she genuflects and prays over me as I leave each day, I leave you friends with a prayer, too.  

May I be peaceful, happy and light in body and spirit.
May you be peaceful, happy, and light in body and spirit.
May the world be peaceful, happy, and light in body and spirit.

-Thich Nhat Hanh

Post about Santa Marta experience coming soon!

Bendiciones amigos!