Saturday, September 27, 2014

Colombian Happenings

Every day here in Colombia presents something new. Whether that be a new experience, phrase, or death-defying walk down the street, there's always something new to look forward to. Last week was definitely no exception. Let's recap the highlights...

Shrubbery Clean-Up

Last Thursday, I came home from playing soccer (I know this may be hard to fathom/believe, but I have started playing the national sport of Colombia once a week - more on this in a later post) to find an oddity outside of my house. There, in the middle of the street, was a large, massive pile of limbs, branches, leaves, and a few car tires. This pile-up was so big and in the way that cars, buses, and motorcycles had to slow down, decide which side to pass on, and then drive around this monstrosity. I was thoroughly confused - it had rained a little bit that day, which meant that there had ore than likely been an arroyo (because let's face it - raindrops don't fall from the sky without an arroyo forming). Even if there had been an arroyo, the placement of the debris was very puzzling. Normally, the arroyos rush by and make a turn on the next block, so all of this junk would've gone down the street as well and would not have just piled up in front of my house.

Perplexed and hoping to get to the bottom of what was going on, I dug out my house keys and headed inside to ask my host mom what happened. She was a tad bit frantic because I had forgotten to tell her that I was coming home a bit later than usual (oops!). From what I was able to gather from her explanation, the power had gone out at the house and then a tree fell down/was cut down/no longer was standing in its original spot. That would explain the excess amount of limbs and branches in the middle of the road. I honestly didn't really think much more about it while I ate my dinner, did some lesson planning, and then got ready for bed.

Around 10 pm, just as I was getting situated and ready to pass out, our electricity cut out. This led to a glorious hour or so of lying in my bed, swimming in a pool of my own sweat, attempting to get comfortable and fall asleep. It really has been amazing how much the heat and humidity affects someone, especially when they are trying to sleep. Finally, around 11 pm or so, my fans kicked back on and some sweet relief was afforded to myself and the rest of the house. The revival of our electricity also seemed to spark another occurrence - a lack of driving sense of some local drivers. As soon as the fans started whirring again, the piercing sound of screeching brakes and the hideous thud of car on branch came from the street outside of my window. Some errant driver had drove smack dab into the middle of the massive berm of vegetation in the middle of the street! As if that wasn't enough, over the course of the next couple of hours, at least 4 other vehicles met the same fate. It appears that this small tree that was now growing in the middle of the street just sprung up on these drivers, causing them to keep me from a lovely phenomenon called sleep.

As if all of the above wasn't enough action for one night, I was further disturbed around 2:30 am by the awesome beeps and echoes of a dump truck and backhoe cleaning up the mess. Honestly, I can't think of a better time to attempt the cleaning up of debris in the middle of the street than in the middle of the night. It actually makes perfect sense to me. However, my sleep deprived body did not agree with all of the action from the night before as I dragged through Spanish classes and technical training. All of the happenings led to even more fun times that following night...

Harrowing Taxi Ride

Last Friday after training, a group of us (Caitlin, Katrina, Sammy, Barbara, Kathleen, Hayley, Esther, Christopher, MC, Jordan, Alex T., Derek, Jimmy, and myself) headed out for some 2-for-1 drinks, relaxation, and the perfect start to our weekend. When we arrived at the restaurant, we were seated and actually given the wrong menus at first (which we all ordered off of). We later found out that the prices were actually a bit steeper than we originally thought, which caught us all of guard. But, as the drinks and food started coming, so did the conversation, random Broadway tunes, and impromptu back massages.

We all headed back to Caitlin's apartment complex afterwards to catch some taxis home. Her complex has a doorman that calls taxis for people, so this seemed like a better idea than just getting one off of the street. I ended up sharing a taxi ride home with Barbara and Kathleen, since they live relatively close to me (and by relative, I mean 20 blocks or so). On the way home, the taxi driver needed gas, so he pulled into a gas station. When he turned of the car, he told the three of us that we needed to get out of the car because he couldn't pump gas with anyone inside. He then proceeded to pop his hood (!) and the attendant took an air-compressor type hose, inserted it into the engine, and started pumping gas into the car. It was definitely a bit different than the way that we do things back in the states!

We got back on the road and dropped Barbara and Kathleen off at their houses, then headed towards my neighborhood. This is where things got kind of dicey. Throughout the entire ride, I had noticed that the driver seemed to be having trouble shifting gears while driving. This problem only became worse once he dropped off the girls. We were cruising down a hill in town when all of the sudden the car just died - like stopped working mid-careen down the street. A sensible person would pull over to the side of the road/side street, stop, and attempt to restart the car. Colombia isn't a normal place.

This driver decided that it would be awesome to attempt to restart the car while still rolling down the street not once, not twice, not three times, but FOUR SEPARATE TIMES! While this entire process was playing out before my eyes, we were actively avoiding buses, other cars, motos, and pedestrians that also decided to use that same stretch of road that night. There were a few close calls that almost made me just jump out of the cab before we ended up a fiery mess of tangled metal and body parts. Finally, the car started right up, second gear was discovered, and I was delivered to my house in one piece. Definitely one of the most "interesting" cab rides that I've ever taken in my life...

Massive Arroyo

So as I have documented a few times, flash flooding is a major problem here in Barranquilla. Last Sunday was no different. A massive thunderstorm rolled through the area, bringing with it tremendous claps of thunder, impressive lightning displays, and sheets upon sheets of rain. Within minutes, a small river was once again flowing in front of my house. This time it was a bit stronger than the ones in the past...

As I was watching the rain fall and the kids of my block frolic about along the sidewalks, I noticed something peculiar. There, in the middle of the arroyo, was a yellow taxi cab being swept away by the water. The cab was turned sideways and had at least a driver inside who was probably praying for the best end to his current predicament. Not too long after the distressed cab, a sofa, dining room table, and a multitude of tires followed, being swept down the street by the strong current that had been created. It was quite a site. This was by far the biggest arroyo that I've seen to date and it probably won't be the last one...

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

All Part of the PC Experience

The title of this blog just about says it all. These past few days have been nothing short of a true representation of what the next 2 years will more than likely hold for myself and my fellow 32 trainees. Filled with high and lows, making it through these last couple of days has further proven that I am in the right place! Here's the recap...


Casey, Alejandro, Lindsay, Jimmy, Erick, Christopher, and myself all convened at the Peace Corps office around 7:45 am and were picked up by Christian, one of the PC drivers. We were all headed to different sites near Barranquilla (Casey, Christopher, and myself to Puerto Colombia, Erick and Jimmy to Piojo, and Alejandro and Lindsay to Tubara) to spend a few days with a current volunteer for a few days to see what "A Day In The Life" was like. This activity was meant to give us a better idea of what we could expect once we are sworn in as official volunteers and receive our site placements.

The ensuing 2 1/2 hour drive took us through Puerto Colombia, picking up Shanna, and then up into the mountains surrounding Barranquilla to both Piojo and Tubara, where we picked up current volunteers Tiara and Brianna. We eventually wound our way back down to the beach, Playa Tubara, and set out to find a spot to set up camp. Unfortunately, Christopher and I were unable to drop our stuff of at our hotel because it was not open yet when we arrived, so we had to lug all of our belongings for the excursion with us the entire day (more on that later).

One of the things that I noticed immediately about the beaches here was that there were multitudes of little thatch roofed cabanas set up along the beach. Normally in the states you have the pay an arm and a leg to acquire a set up like that. Turns out that these cabanas are available to pretty much anyone to keep their stuff under and use while enjoying the beach. The cabanas are also "linked" to a restaurant just off the beach itself and it is possible to order food/drink as well. So as well settled in to our little cabana, food and drinks were ordered and conversation flowed naturally as we took advantage of having some current volunteers with us.

Cabanas ready to go!
Bring on the beach - ready to go!

Lunch finally arrived and another full, fleshy fish was sitting on my plate, just waiting to be devoured. I'm growing accustomed to attacking this new way of eating fish. I have yet to be disappointed (or swallow a bone), so let's hope that streak continues! As we were finishing up eating, a perfectly timed storm rolled through the area, causing up to dart through the raindrops to another cabana that was a bit bigger and better suited for our group. We waited out the rain for about another hour or so and decided to head off to this "secluded" beach that no one ever went to. This is where the real adventure began...

Lunch is served!!

We packed up our belongings (aka I slugged my duffel bag over my shoulder) and headed out for this new beach. Turns out this beach was a bit more difficult to find than originally anticipated. We trudged through brush, sticks/limbs jutting out into the ocean itself, and flat grassland areas before realizing that we were lost/didn't have enough time/needed to get back to the road to catch buses back to our respective cities. This realization caused us to change course and head for the main road. Only problem was that in order to get there, we had to cross some mud fields. Like literal fields of mud (at least that's what we're telling ourselves it was) that suctioned to your shoes/feet and wouldn't let you go. 2 hours later, complete with a sore shoulder and muddy feet, we finally found the road! Casey, Christopher, and I caught a bus to Puerto Colombia with Shanna, while the others successfully found their ways back to their pueblos.

Trekking through the sticks and limbs
They keep their buses colorful and are always playing music
We finally arrived at the house that Shanna has been staying at for the past 6 months or so, tired, dirty, and smelling ripe. We met her host mom, ate some delicious watermelon, and then headed over to the hotel to check Christopher and myself in. We walked along the beach on the way to the hotel and took in some pretty awesome views. We got to the hotel, checked-in, cleaned up, and then headed out to a meeting that Shanna had to attend with some local members of the community. One of the things that Peace Corps members are encouraged to do is to take on secondary projects outside of their schools. Shanna is currently in the process of helping establish a recycling program in Puerto that will hopefully help encourage the citizens to start recycling more frequently.

Wish the sun had been out!
The meeting was held at the house of one of the other people involved in this endeavor. The entire meeting was conducted in Spanish, which was really impressive. I was able to follow most of the conversation for about 30 minutes of the 1 1/2 hour meeting, but after a while, fatigue and hunger set in and I totally started to zone out. Christopher, Casey, and I were all struggling to stay awake after the long day that we had had and as the meeting ended, we all looked forward to getting some much anticipated food. Both Casey and Christopher are vegetarians, which is a bit tricky in a country that LOVES meat. So finding a restaurant to suit their needs was a bit tricky, but we finally were able to find a place near the city center. I had myself a big burger and it hit home a bit. While we were eating, it once again started to pour...and pour...and pour. Eventually, Shanna's mom came, picked us up, and dropped Christopher and I off at the hotel. Let's just say that it didn't take long for us to fall asleep (the AC in the room definitely helped...).

The neighborhood where the meeting took place

Being able to sleep in Monday morning ended up being a blessing in disguise. It was so nice not to have to get up at the crack of dawn to rush of to somewhere. Christopher and I were able to take our time getting ready and we walked from the hotel down to street to Shanna's house for an awesome breakfast of eggs, oatmeal cakes, and a green smoothie! I did some quality bonding time with her host dog, Dulce, while lounging around in her hammock. It was the perfect start to the morning.

Following breakfast, we embarked on a walking tour of the city. We started out down by the beach and walked along the road that passes right by. Lining the street are various statues and other works of art that were created by local artists in an attempt to help beautify the city. As we meandered down the street, we came upon a wooden walkway that led to the beach. Naturally, we followed it and ended up walking along the shoreline for a while until we reached the pier that stretched out into the ocean for a ways. The pier, which was partially destroyed in a storm a few years ago, was teeming with local fishermen. We walked out to the end, sat down, and carried on a conversation with one of the men, Larry. He showed us his catch of the day (including a baby catfish) and showed us how to effectively fish. Here, they don't use fishing poles - just a spool of fishing line that they cast out into the water. It was pretty neat to see! After awhile, our stomachs starting getting the best of us, so we headed in, searching for food.

A collection of the artist statues near the beach
Looking at Puerto Colombia from the pier
Larry's prized catch of the day!
Chatting it up with Larry
The fishing crew hard at work
Our search for food led us to a market that sold fruit and a delicious panaderia (bakery). We collected some goods and headed to the neighborhood where Shanna used to live to visit with some of her old neighbors. Everyone in the town greeted us with a smile and a warm embrace. It is definitely one of the things that I really like about living here so far - the people are undeniably genuine and nice. After making the necessary rounds, we headed back to hotel. The sun and heat had definitely zapped any form of energy that we had in our systems, so we all ended up taking some much needed naps to prepare us for the rest of the day.

When we all reconvened, we headed off to Shanna's school for a class that she was scheduled to have at 4:30 pm with her 11th grade students. Upon entering the school, we made our way to the principal's office and ended up chatting with him for about 30 minutes. He was a super nice guy who spoke English and Spanish, so we were able to help him a bit with his English and he helped us with our Spanish. We were treated to a snack and a Coca-Cola (definitely not the norm in the States), along with a plethora of travel experiences that he has had. It was a really nice welcome to the school. We then headed up to Shanna's classroom and waited...and waited...and waited. No students showed up, but it turns out that most of the 11th graders (remember this is their last year of school) are currently completing internships, so Shanna was not surprised by the lack of attendees.

This is actually a really nice sized classroom by Peace Corps standards!
We left school and once again headed back towards the hotel. We passed through Shanna's old neighborhood again, meeting more people along the way that she has gotten to know during her time in Puerto Colombia. Seeing the connections that she has made in such a short amount of time really has helped inspire me to do the same when I get my final site placement. The original goal was to find food and then attend a Zumba class at the local town concha. However, plans quickly changed (as they tend to do here) and instead of Zumba we actually ended up running into a friend of Shanna's that spoke amazing English. We sat and talked with Valentine for almost 2 hours and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves! He invited out to his home in Santa Marta whenever we want, so I'm definitely looking forward to taking him up on that offer!

As we made our way back to the hotel, Shanna realized that she wasn't quite prepared for the next day's class and needed our help. As the final project for her 10th grade students, she is having them create video projects of legends/myths of a certain region/department of Colombia. She was conducting a small workshop to get the students excited about the project, but needed an example to show them. Enter the three trainees visiting her. We ended up creating a real simple, quick version of a local myth here on the coast that deals with a woman that died on her wedding day and supposedly haunts empty buses/taxis at night that drive by where she died. Let's just say that it was some of the most entertaining material that I've seen for a while. We had a great time putting together this short little 45 second clip before calling it a night and turning in.


6:00 am came super early this morning. Christopher and I met up with Shanna and Casey and made our way to school. The workshop that she was running started around 7:00 am and the turnout was very impressive. There was supposed to be a guest speaker, but she ended up cancelling the night before, so improvisation was implored to help pull this workshop off. The whole things went really well. It was a lot of fun for me to be back in a theater setting. The four of us did a short demonstration of drama with the skit "The Dog is Dead." Basically, a daughter/son informs their mother/father that their dog has died. The mother/father then calls the doctor, who then comes and states that the dog is indeed dead. The play is then done in different styles (i.e. comedy, drama, horror, etc.) to help with portraying different types of theater. The kids (and the four of us) really enjoyed that activity.

Once all of the basics of the activity had been explained to the kids, they were broken up into four groups. I had about 25-30 students in my group. We did some more drama-style activities to help get them used to acting in front of others. The first activity was the FREEZE game. The students walked around the circle and when someone yelled "FREEZE," they had to stop what they were doing. If they were called on, they had to say what they were doing (i.e. throwing a football, painting a wall, etc.). The next activity was "The Dog is Dead" skits within the group. The students in my group had a blast with this activity. The final exercise was scenes from a hat. This was hands down the highlight of the morning. I ended up showing off my mad dance skills with a couple of popular dances here in Colombia (Ras Tas Tas and El Serrucho). Needless to say, I was the talk of the workshop after that! :)

Great group of kids!
The rest of the morning was spent chatting it up with the principal once again and enjoying one last meal in Puerto Colombia before heading back to Barranquilla by bus. It was an awesome site visit! I definitely took a lot away from these past few days in regards to how to properly integrate myself into the community that I will be placed in for the next 2 years, along with some ideas for things to do with my students once I get to my site. I honestly just want to jump into the classroom and start teaching right now!

Bartering Up A Storm

Bartering with local vendors is truly a way of life here in Colombia and the coast. It is common practice to be able to talk any price originally given to a consumer down to something more reasonable. It's a skill that Colombians seem to possess naturally, but tends to be more difficult for Americans as a whole. Me included.

This past Saturday, my language group (Esther, Jordan, Alex R., and myself) joined forces with another language group (Christopher, Nina, Amanda, Caleb, Robbie, and special guest, Mike) and headed down to the Centro, or main market area. This part of town is home to vendors of anything and everything. There's a section that sells knock-off phones, fruits and veggies, bags, kitchen supplies, flowers, etc. You name it, it's probably at some stall in some part of this labyrinth of stalls and vendors.

Our mission was to request the price of any item (Cuanta cuestan?) and then ask them how much lower they would actually go on that item (En cuanto lo baja?). We practiced in the electronics department with a few of the cell phone vendors. The point of the excursion  was to help us become comfortable with asking and talking to the local vendors. We each did this a few times and then spent the rest of the time perusing through the market. I was able to purchase a nice sized bag for $24,000 Colombian pesos (approximately $12 USD) using the new vocabulary and phrases that we learned that day.

After we finished that experience, we walked around the rest of the market for a bit longer and then headed home. This past Wednesday was Jessi's birthday, one of the girls in our group. So Saturday night, a small group of us headed out to help her celebrate. Kathleen, Christopher, Jordan, MC, Stacy, Jessi, and myself all met at a corner store ("tienda") by Jessi's house and hung out there for a while before catching some cabs and heading to a bar/club called La Troja.

This "club" was littered with tables and chairs filled with Colombians enjoying various styles of music with very limited dancing space. It was so brightly lit that I'm pretty sure small airplanes were mistaking this building as a possible landing site. Derek, Hayley, Esther, and Erick met up with us here and we ended up hanging out upstairs for about 20 minutes before deciding to move on to Calle 84, another popular destination for night life. The conditions at the next location that we ended up at were more ideal to a group our size, especially on the conversation front. Christopher, MC, and myself ended up catching a cab home around 12:30 am because we had our volunteer site visits the next day and had to be up pretty early to get to the office in time to leave for those.

At the end of the day, Saturday was a successful adventure that helped build some confidence in dealing with street vendors and enabled us to get out and see some more of Barranquilla that we had not yet been exposed to yet. However, in all honesty, the true fun and adventure was still waiting for me - in Puerto Colombia...

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Back to the Classroom

My teaching experience has been made of up of a variety of opportunities. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would have taught in two different countries and two different states by the time that I was 27 (with none of those experiences being in the field that I actually went to school to teach!). Out of all of the exposure that I've had to the education field to this point has not quiet prepared me for what I'm about to face for the next two years...

- While subbing and student teaching in Iowa, I was privileged to work with some amazing people, technology (including a SmartBoard), and students. This really jump started my teaching career on the right foot and helped lead me to my next destination.

- Teaching English in Korea for a year was a real eye opening experience. I was given my own, massive, spacious room to teach in (complete with a computer and touch screen TV) and free reign to teach whatever I pleased.
This was my first real opportunity to fully immerse myself into another countries education system. It made me appreciate certain aspects of the American education system a lot more than I thought it would. My time in Korea naturally led to my next step in my teaching career.

- My time AmeriCorps down in Florida exposed me to two very different teaching environments. The first was with the homeless population of Palm Beach County as a Job Ready Instructor. The second was at a vocational charter school working with students aged 15-22. Each of these experiences enabled me to work with two very different groups of students, while further confirming that teaching is the path that I needed to pursue.

Which leads me to my current situation. Last Wednesday was our first time to fully experience Colombian schools. We have heard a lot about what to expect during our first few weeks of PST, but I was itching to get some hands on experience. Talk about conditions is great, but it really means nothing until you fully immerse yourself and get to see it for yourself. Needless to say, I was beyond excited to find out where my practicum school was and what teacher I would be working with for the next 6 Wednesdays (or so).

9 of us (Drew, Sammy, MC, Erica, Jessi, Mike, Nina, Elizabeth, and myself) met at our school, Normal Superior Distrital, at 8:00 am, anxious to see what the morning held for us. We were ushered into the teacher's lounge and waited for our teachers to arrive and show us to their classroom. Now everyone is paired up with another volunteer except for myself. There are 33 of us, so someone had to be the odd one out! I met my counterpart, Prof. Andrea Diaz, and after a quick tour around the school, we headed up to her first class.

One thing that's very similar between the schools here in Colombia and Korea is the fact that the kids stay in the same room the entire day and the teachers rotate to each classroom. The first classroom that we visited was in the back corner of the school and was with 11th graders. Here, 11th grade is the final grade that students complete before graduating. The school year lasts from the middle of January to the middle of November, so we are nearing the end of the academic year. Despite this fact, I was pleasantly surprised at the level of motivation that the students had to participate and give answers to Prof. Diaz's questions/activities.

As you can see in the picture above, there is no technology whatsoever in this classroom. Just a whiteboard and one bulletin board along the back wall. It is about as basic of a room as they come. One of the windows of the room looks out onto the concha (main playground area) and as the sounds of children running around and screaming filtered into the room, it signaled that class had ended and it was time to move on. As the students filed out of the room, I was quickly mobbed by about 12 of them who all wanted me to pronounce their names in English.

During the break between our first and second class, Jessi and I decided to walk around the school a little bit to check it out and get familiar with the lay of the land. We passed through the beautiful entry way and walked around the concha, observing all of the students exerting their energy by playing soccer, tag, and other playground games. As we circled back around to the entrance, I was called over by a 7th grader (who I didn't know) and became engaged in a short Q&A session with him and his fellow classmates. I was taken back by how willing the students were to practice their English. In Korea, it was a struggle to get them to talk, but here, they are willing and ready to go!

The main entrance to the school
The concha
This school has some awesome artwork!
Group of 1st or 2nd graders! Adorable!
Jessi and I returned back to the teacher's lounge in time for me to head off to my second class with Prof. Diaz. This class was with 9th graders and the conditions of their classroom couldn't have been more different from the first classroom. As I followed Prof. Diaz to the room, I noticed how many of the rooms in the part of the school appeared to be unfinished. Ceiling tiles were missing from ceilings. Wires dangled from unfinished electric work. Doors were nonexistent on many of the rooms. The room that we ended up in looked like a construction site. The four concrete walls magnified the noises from the other classrooms and the street (which happened to be a jackhammer). It was unbelievable to me that these students spent their entire day in this room, battling the noise and elements, while trying to attain some form of an education.

This would not fly in the States...
This class was very entertaining despite the elements. 35 awe-struck 9th graders spent a good 30 minutes asking me questions and learning as much as they could about me. I made the mistake of saying that I was single and believe that I inadvertently gained about 20 new prospects - oops! One of the girls even asked me if I wanted a Colombian wife. Let's just say that I skirted answering that question pretty quickly! All in all, it was a very energetic class, but I can already tell that when I start teaching them it's going to be a struggle due to the conditions of the classroom.

Our first day in the classroom was a rousing success! I loved every minute of it. I can already tell that Wednesday's are going to be my favorite day of training. I'm teaching part of the lesson next week already and have been busy trying to figure out how to present it in a fun way without the aid of technology and a printer. It's been difficult, but I think I have something ready to go! Tomorrow, I'm heading to Porto Colombia with Christopher and Casey to visit a current volunteer, Shanna, for a few days to see what it's like at a different site. A trip to the beach is already planned and I couldn't be happier! I'm starting to become pale and I don't approve...

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Holy Arroyo!

Having lived in the Midwest for 20+ years has taught me to respect Mother Nature. From tornadoes to blizzards to devastating ice storms, her fury can be felt in a multitude of different ways. Here in Colombia, I still have not managed to escape the wrath that can be unleashed at any moment.

One thing that Barranquilla lacks is a good drainage system for their streets. When it rains here, the water literally has nowhere to go but into the streets. This onslaught of water is too much for the drains to handle, so the streets quickly become raging streams of fast moving water looking to escape somewhere. These flash floods, or arroyos, can be very dangerous and have been known to sweep cars down the road and uproot trees.

Lucky for me, the street in front of my house is a prime spot for arroyo spottings! I have so far experienced two - one fairly small and one a bit bigger. The first one occurred as I was just getting home from PST. It had been raining for most of the day on and off. As I disembarked from the crowded bus, I quickly hopped onto the sidewalk to avoid the steady stream of water that was flowing down Calle 54. The dilemma that I was faced with was how to successfully cross the street without getting sopping wet.

I paced up and down the sidewalk for a good 15 minutes trying to see if there was any place in which the water narrowed and became jumpable. No such luck. I eventually made my way back to the original corner in which the bus had dropped me off at and watched. I watched the other Colombians around me to see how they crossed the street. Some took off their shoes and made a mad dash to the other side (I elected to skip this option all together on accounts of my health and not wanted to contract unknown diseases that flowed in that water). Others were helped out by other bystanders with planks of wood (this was really only offered to the females, so I figured that that option was also out).

I finally decided to just brave it. After witnessing numerous other natives make a quick dash through the arroyo, I took my turn. I sprinted out into the street (making sure to not get hit by any vehicles of course) and splashed my way onto the other side. With my shoes squirting out water with every step I took, I made my way home. When I arrived, Pina just looked at me and started laughing. She asked if I enjoyed my first arroyo experience. I told her that it was interesting and she then informed me that this was a small one and that bigger ones would come sooner than later...

Well Pina was right! This past Sunday, as I was relaxing in my room watching Netflix, the pitter patter of raindrops started to sound outside of my window. Due to the heat and humidity, my windows are open all the time when I'm in my room. If they weren't, I'd probably suffocate. I took note of this development, didn't think much of it, and continued watching The Walking Dead (yes, I'm FINALLY getting into it). About 10 minutes later, I decided to check the streets outside to see what they looked like. This is what I was treated to...

The entire street had turned into a small, swift-moving stream. I was blown away how quickly this arroyo had formed. In almost no time at all, my street was turned into a high adventure, extreme kayaker's dream course. I watched as cars, buses, and even people attempted to cross this massive flood. I now fully understand why the sidewalks are as high as they are here. The four-foot drops are necessary to keep the water in the street and protect the houses and businesses that line them. Within a couple hours, as the rain stopped falling and the lightning stopped flashing, the water receded and the street was once again filled with the hustle and bustle of traffic and blaring horns.

Anytime that it rains or threatens to rain, I make sure that I'm close to home. I now know that being trapped outside of my house is not the way to go during this rainy season.

Monday, September 8, 2014

One Week Down!!

Holy cow! It's hard to believe that I've been in Colombia for over a week now. It's been such a whirlwind of activities and events that it's been a bit overwhelming at times. I don't think that it has truly sunk in yet that I'm here. This past week has been filled with tons of training, Spanish classes, and an attempt at familiarizing myself with my neighborhood and the city of Barranquilla as a whole.

PST (Pre-Service Training) 

Every member of the Peace Corps, no matter what country they are assigned to, has to go through some mandatory training to get them ready to serve in their respective field of service. This training, known as PST, lasts for a pre-determined amount of time, depending on the country and the nature of the project. Here in Colombia, PST is 11 weeks long. During this training, the following topics are covered:

- Language: Every morning (except for Thursdays), we have 4 hours of Spanish language classes with certified instructors. These classes are meant to help us gain the necessary language skills to survive here in country. During our first day of training, we each took an LPI (Language Proficiency Interview) to determine what level we should begin with. I was placed in the Basic group, which was a bit disheartening at first, since I was hoping for an Intermediate placing. But with plenty of time to practice and improve, I'm positive that I'll be able to move up in the upcoming weeks.

- Safety and Security: One of the biggest concerns that the Peace Corps stresses is the safety and security of its' volunteers. This is hammered home to us through countless presentations about how "no dar papaya" (don't give any opportunity), as the locals say here in Colombia. These trainings are meant to help us be more hyper-aware of our surroundings at all times.

- Cultural Awareness/Preparedness: These trainings so far have proven to be the most helpful and useful at the moment. All 33 of us stepped into an unknown world when we landed here in Barranquilla 10 days ago. Since then, we've been subjected to a brand new way of living that we've had to adjust to on the fly. Learning more in depth information regarding certain customs and traditions are going to definitely benefit us down the road.

- TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) Training: These trainings have been a bit harder to sit through. For me, it's a lot of the same stuff that I went to college for, in regards to teaching methodology and basic practices. I totally understand that there are non-teachers in our group that have not yet been exposed to this material, but even they seem to be confused by the manner in which many of these sessions are presented. I'm hoping that this aspect of the training will improve as this is a bulk of what we will be doing for the next two years.

- Current Volunteer Presentations: One of the nice aspects of PST is that some of the trainings are led by current volunteers out in the field. It's a nice breath of fresh air to hear some real-life experiences of people that are currently doing what we will be embarking on in 2 1/2 months. Along with these presentations, we will be having various site visits with current volunteers. Our first one actually starts this weekend. We are all going to be assigned to a volunteer in either Cartagena or Santa Marta. It'll be nice to be out of Barranquilla for a couple of days to see the other cities and get a taste for one of them.

- Teaching Practicum: One thing that is key to a successful service experience is success in the classroom. To help prepare us for the types of challenges and difficulties that we will be faced with/have to overcome, we are being placed in a school every Wednesday, starting this week, for the next 6 weeks (I believe) to help us get acclimated to this new culture. I am one of nine other volunteers who have been assigned to Normal Superior Distrital. Myself, along with Erica, Elizabeth, Drew, MC, Jessi, Sammy, Nina, and Mike S., will spend our Wednesday mornings at this school. What we'll be doing, we're not quite sure yet. Stay tuned for future updates!

All of this training has definitely taken its toll on all us. The majority are in bed by 9:30/10:00 pm, just so we can muster enough energy to do it all over again 5 days a week. Hopefully it'll get a bit easier as we all start to get into routines and figure things out for ourselves. Once we're able to successfully navigate the city on our own, things will definitely improve. Until then, we'll just keep plugging away, taking it all one day at a time.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

If Frogger and Mario Kart Joined Forces....

Frogger - this  classic video game challenges players with the task of guiding an animated frog across a busy street, avoiding cars and other obstacles along the way.

Mario Kart - a popular video game with youth of the early 2000's encourages players to choose between Mario and his friends and race through fantasy-inspired worlds, while avoiding random objects (including banana peels) thrown onto the course by other characters in an attempt to derail one's attempt at crossing the finish line victoriously.

Imagine for a second what would happen if you were to combine these two game together. What would you get? Well, you'd get a pretty good idea of what it's like to take any type of transportation in Barranquilla. 

If there was one word that could be used to describe getting around this city, it would be INSANITY! I'm not talking about the crazed workout program. I'm talking about a genuine fear for your life every time that you step out of the comfort of your piso and onto a bus or into a taxi. Here are a few of the realities that you will face when trying to navigate the city:

1. Jaywalking is encouraged because crosswalks do not exist - anywhere. 
2. Pedestrians NEVER have the right away - crossing the street is an adventure every time that you do it.
3. Honking is used as a way to communicate - basically it's a "polite" way of saying "I'm coming up behind you, so don't cut me off or do anything that's going to make me lose control of my vehicle."
4. Bus stops are a thing for weaklings and Americans - you can flag down a bus absolutely anywhere on the street here.
5. Getting on a crowded bus and hanging out the front door for a few blocks is commonplace here - I've already done it the past three days.
6. Having to know your destination by a landmark or street number is a must because there are no set stops and no announcements - you literally decide where you get dropped off.

It's quite the adventure whenever you need to travel here in the city. Many of the buses are always packed full of people. Finding opening seats can be a chore in itself. Some of the buses do not have any interior lighting, so when most of the windows are heavily tinted to keep out the sun, it creates a very dark, cave-like feeling that can be a bit unsettling. Despite the overcrowdedness, unbearable heat, and death-defying driving, the buses are a very efficient and manageable way to maneuver about Barranquilla...most of the time.

So figuring out how the bus system actually works is a whole other beast in it's own right. The thing about these buses is that they don't really have traditional bus numbers like back in the states. Instead, they are identified by their color, company name, or main street that they drive on/end up at. For example, Monday - Wednesday and Friday, when I go to training out at the Colombo Americano, I take the Urba Playa bus. All that I have to do is stand on the sidewalk/street, look for this bus, wave it down, and I'm set. Normally, this bus is packed full of university students on their way to class in the morning, so finding a seat is pretty much impossible for the first 30 minutes of my journey.

Now, on Thursdays we have our meetings at the Peace Corps office, I walk down to Calle 52 and catch the gold La Carolina bus that goes towards the center part of Barranquilla. This bus also tends to be pretty crowded, so standing for long periods of time and holding on for dear life have become part of the normal routine around here. Normally by the time that my landmark for departure (a car dealership) comes up, the bus has mainly emptied out.

Outside of these two buses, I haven't quite figured out how else to get around the city. There are so many other buses available and getting a sense for where they all go to is difficult and confusing all at the same time. I'm planning on taking a Saturday or Sunday here in the near future and purposely get lost in the city to see what I can figure out.

In all honesty, I don't have to try and imagine what it would be like if you joined Frogger with Mario Kart - I'm living it everyday...

My Home Away From Home

Throughout my copious amount of traveling over the years, I've been blessed with some pretty amazing living arrangements. Home stays with families in Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Spain helped make those experiences as memorable as they were. The kindness and generosity that each of those families showed me during my time in their country has stayed with me to this day. So far, those same sentiments have followed me to my experience here in Colombia.

Last Saturday (August 30), all 33 trainees were finally united with the families that we will be staying with for the next 3 months. We were given brief bios about our families before we actually met them to help give us an idea of who we would be living with. Needless to say that anticipation and excitement levels were at an all time high as our future families were distributed to each of us. I received mine and found out that I would be living with Agripina (Pina) Acevedo, her husband Erick Salazar, who is a fashion professor at a local university here in Barranquilla, and their son, Jeffer, who is studying Mechanical Engineering. As the time came to meet our host families, we packed our bags and headed down to the lobby, anxious for the big moment.

My host mom was actually one of the first ones to arrive at the hotel! We were introduced to each other, completed a short little "Getting To Know You" exercise, and then headed to my new home! We hailed a cab and had a nice discussion in the taxi about our likes and dislikes. I informed her that my Spanish is still a work in progress and she immediately understood and did her best to make sure that when she talked to me, I understood! It was a great taxi ride in which we both got to know each other a little bit better.

We arrived at the house after a bit of a perilous drive (I'll be giving more detail about the driving in my next post), unloaded my bags, and headed up the stairs. My house is situated on the corner of Calle 54 (Street 54) and Carrera 37 ("Roadway 37). For the most part, the streets that run east-west are the "calles" and those that run north-south are the "carreras". This actually makes navigating around the city a lot easier, even though it's not a perfect grid like one might hope for. My piso (house) is located above a tienda (store - very similar to a small convenience store), which is nice because if I'm ever hungry or need something really quick, I can just head downstairs and grab what I need.

After I got the grand tour of the house (see pictures below), I unpacked my bags and took a 4 hour nap (which was much needed!). The heat here in Barranquilla takes a toll on everyone pretty quickly. When I woke up, I was introduced to my host father and host brother, both of whom were very welcoming and excited to have me in their house. I'm the first person that Pina and family has ever hosted. They have friends that have hosted and are currently hosting other Peace Corps members, so they are somewhat familiar with the program and whatnot. Later that evening, I was treated to my first meal, which was delicious! Sadly, I do not remember what it was, just that I absolutely loved it!

Mi cuarto (bedroom)! Those two gigantic windows are a blessing in disguise!
La sala (living room) that is literally just for show - no one uses this...ever
El comedor (dining room table) that is more of a holder of cups and glasses than a place to eat at
La cocina (I eat at the counter while Pina stands and talks to me)
"Spare" room that leads out to the patio where the dogs, Pipo and Tommy, live
Calle 54 and Carrera 37 - normally there are always cars, buses, and motorcycles zooming about
I have been blessed so far with an awesome family! They have really been understanding in regards to my up and coming Spanish abilities and have done everything that they can to help me feel welcome. I went for a run with my host brother Monday and hope to continue that in the coming months. Pina makes some of the best food around. Plus, she found out that I love mashed potatoes and grilled ham and cheese and has thrown those in for a few meals to help remind me of home! Of course, she's also cooking the normal Colombian food, which is absolutely awesome! But it's always nice to have a little taste of home every now and then.

I can already tell that my Spanish is getting better and I'm feeling more at ease speaking and communicating. I'm still having trouble always using the right tenses, but I'm able to get my point across, which at this stage is the most important thing. Tidying up those mechanical errors will come with more practice. I'm so excited to be living here and can't wait to see what the next three months hold! I can already tell that it's going to be hard to leave in November...

My host mom, Pina, and I! She had to go do her hair and put on earrings before taking this picture - she's phenomenal!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A Little Backstory....

So I realized the other day that in all of my excitement of leaving the United States and arriving in Colombia that I have neglected to really talk about the organization that I'm working with and it's history in Colombia! So here's a quick post on that aspect of things...

As I'm pretty sure that everyone knows by now, I'm currently serving with the Peace Corps in Barranquilla, Colombia. Now, most (if not all) Americans have heard of the Peace Corps. This organization, which was started in 1961 by former President John F. Kennedy, is a volunteer program run the United States government that has three main goals:

1. To help interested countries in meeting their needs for trained men and women;
2. To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the people severed; and
3. To help promote a better understanding of other people on the part of Americans

Needless to say, this program has been a huge success! To date, over 215,000 Americans have participated and served in about 140 countries around the world. Currently, approximately 7,000 volunteers are serving in approximately 70 countries, with almost 40% of those helping with projects that are education focused. Along with education, Peace Corps also has ongoing projects in the health, environment, community economic development, youth development, and agriculture sectors. Almost 50% of current volunteers are serving in Africa, with the rest spread out through Central/South America, Asia, Eastern Europe, the Caribbean, and some Pacific Islands.

Peace Corps has been involved with sending volunteers to Colombia since the beginning of it's existence. The first volunteers starting serving in country in 1961 and were still helping until 1981, when the Peace Corps officially finished it's phasing out of volunteers and closed Colombia as a country of service. During the 1980's and 1990's, there was lots of unrest between the Colombian government and various terrorists/guerrilla militant groups (headed by FARC), causing major security concerns. As the 2000's came around, the presence of FARC and other groups started to diminish, causing Colombia to return to a collected and peaceful state.

With this in mind, the Peace Corps started to send volunteers back to this beautiful country in 2010. It was identified that the greatest need within the country was that of English education. The Colombian government enacted an initiative back in 2004 that stated that all public schools in Colombia would be bi-lingual by 2019. With this in mind, the Peace Corps, through the education sector of the program, began a Teaching English for Livlihoods (TEL) program along the Caribbean coast in the cities of Barranquilla, Cartegena, and Santa Marta. These areas of the country successfully passed the necessary security and needs assessments that were conducted. This area of the country has a very vibrant and welcoming culture that make it a perfect place for volunteers to both serve and connect with the local communities.

Hopefully this helps clear up any confusion that anyone may have had! So far this experience has been everything that I've wanted and more! Look for more posts in the upcoming days as so much has happened that I want to update everyone on!