Tuesday, December 16, 2014


During my time in Florida as a member of AmeriCorps, one of my favorite service opportunities was when we would partner with Habitat for Humanity and help with the construction of a house for a family in need. These projects, while always completed in the blazing Florida sun, were some of the most fulfilling service opportunities that we participated in because it was directly effecting the future of a family. While we may not have been able to see the end result at the end of the day, we knew that we were providing a needed amenity to those in need of it.

Here in Colombia, and across South America, there is a similar organization to Habitat called Techo. Techo, which means "ceiling" or "roof" in Spanish, was established in Chile in 1997 and is actively constructing houses in 18 countries throughout South and Central America, including Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Dominica Republic, Uruguay, and Venezuela. With nothing really pressing to hold my attention until school starts, I decided, along with 4 other volunteers from my groups (Sammy, Esther, Jessi, and Derek) to check out a build this past weekend. At the very least it was an eye opening endeavor in regards to some of the many cultural differences that I will face over the next two years...

Instead of trying to describe the building process itself with words (which will be extremely difficult since I really don't know all of the technical terms myself), I'll chronicle it with pictures and then discuss some of the frustrations/difficulties/lessons that I learned from the build itself.

Building the House

The house that the family was living in before the build
The land where the new house was built
Measuring out where to place the foundation poles
Digging out holes for the foundation poles
Using a tube and colored water to check the levels of the foundation poles
Senor Alvaro, the father of the family, digging out loose dirt by hand
Working on those dang foundation holes! 12 in all!
Getting ready to lay down the floor of house
The floor is down!
Nailing the floor into the support beams below
Putting up the walls
Photo op with the kids of the family!
It rained at lunch, meaning the only way in the house was shoeless!
Derek nailing in the supports for the roof
Creating a brace so that the walls didn't move while putting in the roof
The start of the roof!
Almost finished!
The finished product! Just in time for sunset
Presenting the house to the family
Ribbon cutting ceremony
The entire team with the family!
Frustrations/Lack of Organization

It is widely known that I am a well-organized, motivated, efficient person. When it comes to working, I enjoy finding the quickest way to complete a task and in a timely manner. This is also a quality that is often found among many Americans. Coming into this past weekend, I wasn't quite prepared for the level of inefficiency and disorganization that I would have to deal with.

It all started from the very beginning. We were instructed to meet at 5:30 pm so that we could leave promptly and arrive at the build sites in a timely manner. I completely forgot that 5:30 pm here in Colombia actually means 7:00 pm. As we waited for people to trickle in, very little direction or sense of organization was apparent. We were pretty much left in the dark without any idea of what was going on. Instead of using this time to load up the buses or get things ready to go, we just sat around wondering what was going on. When we finally headed towards out sites, it took another 30 minutes or so to load up the buses and get going.

When we arrived at the school in Puerto Colombia, we were broken up into our building groups. What would have been nice is if a run down of the process or an overview of the tools that we were going to be using (let's face it, my construction Spanish vocab isnt' the strongest) was conducted at this time. I just felt like I was unaware of anything that was going on all weekend and I found that to be super frustrating.

During the build itself, I found myself constantly being treated like I knew nothing. I was really unaware of how to construct this house because it was my first time and the tools that we were using were also new to me. However, instead of taking a little extra time to properly explain to myself and others what the process was, frustrations boiled over, equipment was taken, and jobs were completed that I was more than capable to doing. It was shocking and disheartening that this was how new volunteers were treated, whether they were Colombian or otherwise.

One of the other difficulties that we ran into was the build site itself. The place where we built the house was full of large rocks under the ground that made digging the foundation poles time consuming. I'm pretty sure that we spent about 6 hours on one hole alone. However, as we were struggling with this one hole, it seemed like the rest of the progress came to a halt as well. It amazed me that we couldn't work on the rest of the holes until this one was done. After about 40 minutes, it was pretty apparent that we were not going to be able to break through the rock very easily. I attempted to ask if we could just cut the pole shorter, but was met with a response of "That's not how we do it here." No other explanation was given - I was just supposed to accept that that was how it was going to be.

Overall Lessons Learned
All of these issues (and some more) added up to a really frustrating weekend. This was honestly one of my first times running up against some of the cultural differences that we heard about during PST and it took me by surprise. I thought that I was ready to face these differences and ready to deal with them. While this was just a small sample, the laid back attitude of many Colombians is going to be my biggest challenge to cope with over these next two years.

Despite all of the frustrations and wanting to pull my hair out moments during the weekend, the presentation of the house to the family put everything back into perspective for me. This project was never about me and my inability to cope with cultural changes - it was about the family that we were building for. As we dedicated the house to them with the sun setting in the background, the pure, raw emotion that the family showed really humbled me. The mother was beside herself and one of the children ran around the finished house shouting "Mi casita! Mi casita!" ("My house! My house!").

I can't express how much this family, a family of 6 living in a one room shack built out of some random logs and plastic bags, helped change my attitude from one of disgust and intolerance to one of humility and acceptance. They were starting over in this brand new house that they never thought was possible. I had helped to give them the chance to begin a brand new chapter in their lives. Sometimes you just have to look past yourself to see that the bigger picture is more important than personal feelings.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Integrating Like a Boss

This last month or so has been characterized by one main theme: restlessness.

Despite having sworn in almost a month ago, the excitement and go-get-em attitude that many of us possessed has fizzled out. The reason for this is the fact that school doesn't start here on the coast until the middle of January. That leaves all of us with a lot of free time. I mean A LOT! Many days have been spent finishing full seasons and series of Prison Break and House of Cards, courtesy of Netflix and hanging out with other volunteers. Thankfully, this past week a multitude of opportunities to get out of my house and feel productive presented themselves to myself. Let's just say that I took full advantage of them all.

English Immersion Camp

One of the CII5 volunteers, who lives in a pueblo just outside of Barranquilla, had invited myself and a few other volunteers to join her for her week long English Immersion Camp. True to Colombian style, the camp was cut down from a full week to three days about five days before the camp was supposed to start. I was actually okay with this because that meant that I only had to get up at 5:30 am three days instead of five. I recently moved in with a new host family and they live a lot farther south than my last family did. This has translated into longer bus rides and more quality time spent with my iPod. This camp was not different. Two buses about an hour and 45 minutes to travel time later, we arrived at the school ready to go. However, there was one small complication: no students showed up.

Apparently, there had been a communication error between the counterpart and the students and none of them realized that the camp started on Wednesday. Instead of heading back to our comfy beds and houses, we decided to take advantage of having the rest of the day and do some exploring of Barranquilla. We ended up going to a spot in Barranquilla where the Rio Magdalena, which runs through Colombia, meets the Caribbean Sea. After taking a few taxis and a "train", we walked for about 30 minutes on a rocky peninsula before finally arriving at the end point. The view was super impressive and we were greeted with massive waves and lots of local fisherman working for their daily catch for their families. It was a really cool site and I'm glad that we were able to experience it!

Cab Spooning

The next, we arrived back to camp, hoping to have some students. Luckily for us, about 20 to-be 10th graders (for the most part) showed up. We were broken up into four smaller country groups and myself and another volunteer, Tiara, had the privilege of leading Team South Africa! They were a great group of kids that were super competitive (sometimes a little bit too much for their own good) and very eager to work on their English! The first day was spent discussing places in the city and how to give directions. We took the kids outside and they all worked together in their groups to create a city map using chalk and their imaginations. I was very impressed with all of the places that my group came up with that were not on the original map (including a Starbucks, McDonald's, and sports stadium, aka Madison Square Garden). We then did some fun activities with the map in which they had to find certain places and give directions to a partner to get them from one place to another.

Teaching the students about city places and giving directions
Working on the city map in the concha
Team South Africa!
The afternoon session brought along some team builders, telling time activities, and overall review of the morning session. We boarded the bus back to Barranquilla. Being that it was Thursday meant that it was also soccer night! 10 of our group came out to the field and we all played for the entire hour. It was more tiring than usual because we didn't have any subs or time to rest, but it was still a great time! I think I scored 3 or 4 goals, so I'm apparently getting better!

Demonstrating one of the team builders, Evolution
Friday signified the last day of camp. We discussed the "5 W's" and prepositions. Each country group created a skit of some sort to showcase their knowledge and understanding of the 5 W's. The skit that my group came up with consisted of a concert in which One Direction, Beyonce, Ed Sheeran, and Miley Cyrus all performed. My group had a great time coming up with the songs that we sang and figuring out how to accurately show all 5 W's to the rest of the students. I was once again very impressed with the creativity that these students possess - it's amazing what can happen when you take away the textbook and incorporate some real hands on learning. We did some relay races dealing with prepositions and ended the camp with a scavenger hunt around the school grounds. It was really amazing to see how close we all got to the students after only two days. I can't even begin to fathom what it will be like after a full 2 years!!

Leading an activity related to the 5 W's
The whole group (minus Rick, Tiara, and Derek)
Team South Africa group pic (sans Tiara)
Colombian Weddings

Saturday, I was presented with the opportunity to attend my first Colombian wedding celebration. This change was very exciting as I have been curious to see how Colombian weddings differ from those in the states. The wedding was for the daughter of one of my host dad's fellow firefighters that he works with. I really had no idea what to expect and went into the experience with an open mind and ready for anything!

Holding true to Colombian time management, we left the house around 9:00 pm (after being told to be ready by 7:30 pm) and arrived at the venue about 20 minutes later. The venue was a bar/club near our house that was all decked out in Carnaval themed pictures, motifs, and mannequins. One of the first things that I noticed was that there was no head table. The bride and groom were just sitting at a random table, really surrounded by no one, minding their own business when we arrived. I was quickly introduced to the happy couple and we sat down at a nearby table with one of my host dad's co-workers and his wife.

The rest of the night was fun! It turned out that the wedding reception was not the only thing happening at the venue that night - there was also an 80th birthday party and a graduation celebration. Apparently exclusivity after marriage is non-existent here in the coast. As the night wore on (and the drinks kept coming), I worked up my courage to strut my stuff on the dance floor. My host sister and her boyfriend picked out the perfect partner for me - an elderly 75 year old woman who was a member of the birthday party. I accepted their challenge and successfully completed one dance with her without breaking any bones or damaging my dignity. The meal (which was absolutely delicious) was served around midnight and we headed home around 2 am. It was a cool experience to see how a different culture celebrates weddings.

Me, my host sister Gina, and her boyfriend Luis
My host dad Rodolfo, my hose mom Marlen, and myself
My lovely dance partner!
Dia de las Velitas

Colombians celebrate tons of holidays. Every month has at least one official holiday (most have multiple). Outside of Christmas, another big night during December is Dia de las Velitas (Day of the Candles). This holiday commemorates the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. It is marked by huge family parties, loud music, and the lighting of little lanterns. It starts at dusk on the 7th of December and lasts well into the night, sometime ending just as dawn breaks on the 8th. This holiday officially marks the beginning of the Christmas season celebrations.

The official celebration for this holiday was held at my host dad's sister's house here in Barranquilla. We arrived around 10 pm and I was led around to the various family members. My host mom is either extremely proud of me or just really likes to have a gringo in the family, because as soon as we got there, she immediately grabbed my hand and introduced me to pretty much everyone at the get together. Trust me, there were a lot of people present. I'm used to family gatherings of around 13-18 people, max. I met that many people in the house alone before even reaching the back patio, which was also packed with people.

The night was highlighted by a variety of events:

- We were treated to a private performance by the Canaval Queen of the Children. Accompanied by a traditional Colombian band, she danced a few common coastal numbers and then moved on. I'm not sure if she was related to someone in the family or just decided to stop by off the street. Anyhow, it was still pretty cool to see how excited everyone got to see her.

- I got to meet the old volunteer who used to live in my house, Nora. My family ended up Skyping with her during the party so that she could say hi to the other family members. It was nice to finally put a face to the name that I've been hearing about since I moved in.

- La Voz Kids (exact same concept at the show "The Voice" in the States, except for kids aged 8-15) was an extremely popular show here in Colombia over the past few months. In that spirit, we were treated to numerous performances from a young guy that tried out for La Voz Kids and didn't quite make it onto a team this year. He sounded really good and I'm hoping that he tries out again next year and makes it, so I can say that I received a private concert from him before he made it big!

- The true highlight of the night for me came around 2:30 am. I was cold (yes, it is possible for 75 to feel chilly), tired, hungry, and ready to go to bed. However, I knew not to make a big deal about those things because Colombian parties (especially family get togethers) are famous for lasting well into the late hours of the night. So as I was contemplating how I was going to muster enough strength to last another possible 2-3 hours, the most amazing thing happened: sancocho. This traditional soup was placed in front of my shivering hands and openly welcomed by both my taste buds and gnawing hunger. It was some of the best tasting soup I've ever had and it helped me hold out until my host mom, host cousin Alejandro (who's 7), and I left around 3 am.

All in all, it was a great night and the perfect way to end the weekend. I'm very excited to get to know my dad's family better over these next two years. I'll also make sure that I'm better prepared for next year's festivities and that I eat something a little more filling beforehand.

With my host dad and his cousins/other family members

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

A Multitude of Thanks

Spending Thanksgiving outside of the United States is always difficult. No one else truly understands this amazing holiday and all that it stands for like Americans. There is definitely something to be said about the smells of turkey cooking in the oven, football announcers on the TV, and family chatting away about their latest accomplishments. Sadly, I have missed all of these sensations for the past 4 years.

This year, as I was sitting at a resort overlooking the Caribbean Sea waiting for our Thanksgiving meal to be served, I had some time to accurately reflect on my past three months here in Colombia and what I am truly thankful for:

1. The amazing group of people that make up my cohort, C II-6. Without the support and friendship of these 32 other volunteers, this experience would not be anything close to what it has been so far. From the moment that we met in Miami, we clicked and it has continued to this day.

2. The two host families that I've had the privilege to live with while here in Colombia. They have both opened up their homes and families to me and have helped make the transition from US to coastal life a rather smooth one.

3. Cold showers all the time. This is definitely one that I didn't think I would ever appreciate, but with the constant heat, sometimes the bathroom under the shower head is the coolest place in the entire house.

4. The ability to run. My friend, Derek, and I recently completed a 10K, which I finished in right around an hour. One of the things that I was afraid of coming into this experience was that I would have to give up running. However, that has not been the case and I'm currently looking forward to checking another item off my bucket list - completing a full marathon this upcoming September in Medellin!

5. My school and counterparts. While I haven't officially started working at El Campito yet, I was invited by my counterparts (pictured below) and a few of the students to attend their prom last week. It was quite an interesting experience, complete with party hats, a live, traditional Colombian band, and lots of dancing. I feel very honored to be at the school that I am and cannot wait to start working with everyone at the school.

6. All Volunteer Conference. This conference, which is held once again and brings all of the current volunteers in Colombia together for three days to discuss important events, was held at this beautiful resort outside of the town Salgar, right along the Caribbean coast. The conference was a real chance for us to get to know the other volunteers in the country, while also having the opportunity to see our fellow CII6ers that moved to other cities. We had a "Thanksgiving" meal and enjoyed the beach and pool to the max. It was a very relaxing and rejuvenating couple of days.

7. Access to technology. Many people associate the Peace Corps with being thrown out into the wild with no access to any modern conveniences. While this may be true for some posts, that's not the case here in Colombia, as we are a mainly urban site. With this comes the ability to have internet at our houses (in most cases). This makes keeping in touch with loved ones and friends from back home a lot easier. Without this "luxury" this past three months would have been a lot more lonely...
8. My family back home. It's always super reassuring to know that you have a strong support system, backing you up no matter where you might call home. Without the amazing support that I have received from my entire family over these last 4 years, there's no way that I would be where I am today or the person that I am today. So even though I had to spend a 4th Thanksgiving on another continent/state, know that I am beyond thankful for everything that you have done for me and will continue to provide for me throughout these next two years. I love you guys!