Tuesday, December 29, 2015

2 Month Rewind

So it seems that the attitude of coastal relaxation has affected me more than I thought! Here is a brief summary of the events of the last two months!


In early October, the first installment of Camp HERO (a leadership camp designed for boys between the ages of 13 and 15) was held in Minca, a pueblo outside of Santa Marta, in the Sierra Nevadas. HERO is an acronym for Health, Equality, Respect, and Outreach. During this weekend camp, a total of 25 boys from the various sites where male Peace Corps volunteers serve gathered together to participate in workshops, activities, and community service projects that helped strengthen their capacity to lead in their own communities. For many of the boys, this was their first visit to the mountains or even outside of their pueblo. It was an amazing weekend filled with new friends, improved skill sets, and new experiences.

Read this article by one of the other counselors, Danny, to get an idea of what the boys did during the camp.

Showing off all of the garbage collected that was around Minca!
All the campers
The boys having fun at the waterfall
The greatest success of the camp - the campfire and s'mores
My 29th birthday

I celebrated another year of life on November 1. The members of my community class surprised me with a small party at one of the local clubs in town, where one of my students works. The even was complete with balloons, streamers, and lots of smiling faces. The celebration included drinks, food, cake, and of course, dancing! I was finally given lessons on how to actually dance champeta, cumbia and vallenato. Although I'm still not even close to being as good as my students, it was a great evening spent with some of the most important people to me here in the pueblo.

I am beyond blessed to be able to teach these amazing human beings!

Thanksgiving is a very American holiday. Trying to explain to my Colombian students, teachers and community members the meaning of this holiday was a bit of a challenge, since they really have no holiday with which they can relate to. Since this is also a holiday which is marked by family and a lot of food, we decided to have a CII-6 Thanksgiving on the beach. This get together also marked our one year anniversary since we swore we as official volunteers, so it was twice as special. We rented an apartment and some other rooms in a resort in St. Veronica, a small pueblo on the beach. Everyone pitched in with the making of the food and desserts and the spread was amazing! That night, we played some games as a group and really enjoyed everyone´s company. Although we could not be with our real families on holiday, we made due!

The view for our Thanksgiving feast
The spread - such good food!
The dessert table was also delicious!
The group!

Graduation ceremonies was held in late November at my school. Not only did we celebrate the completion of classes for the 11th graders, but we also included the adult "11th" graders who have been taking classes at night. These students are students who did not graduate from high school during their first time through and returned to complete their education. In total, about 50 students received their diplomas and other certificates commenerating this important milestone in their lives. Tears were shed. Songs were sung. Photographs were taken. It was a nice ceremony and marked the official end of my first year of school in Colombia!

With some of the students in 11th grade in their last official day of school
11th grade students ready to graduate!
The adult students all settled in!
The proud owners of their new diplomas! Congratulations all!
That's a brief recap of some of the events here in the last couple of months. It is still hard for me to comprehend some days that I have successfully completed more than half of my service in the Peace Corps. With school not set to start again until late January, I have been spending time getting things ready for next year and doing some traveling. Look forward to a future post detailing my recent time with my parents!

Friday, October 23, 2015

Communication Barriers

One of the many challenges that frequent travelers face is that of communication. Language barriers present obvious issues, especially if there is no general knowledge of the language. Hand gestures in one country that are common maybe considered rude and inappropriate in another. Mannerisms while communicating also vary across cultures, from personal space to eye contact, among many others. Over the past year, I have been figuring out how to navigate Colombian culture when it comes to communication. I thought I had a good grasp on it. Recently, I learned that I actually have a lot to learn...


For those of you that know me, you know that I'm a very animated talker. I use gestrues and talk with my hands like it's my job (and here it kind of is). I've found that since I started teaching English, these gestures have just gotten bigger and more pronounced. I even find myself explaining basic English concepts (like "listen" and "write") with my hands when talking with native English speaking friends. However, it seems that I have finally met my match.

Colombians are the champions of gesture use while talking. I'm talking above and beyond the use of hands. Lips are used to point out directions mid-sentence. A quick double tap of the throat signifies that the speaker has no money. A raising of the pinkie communicates that something is "poopy" or very expensive/nice. It's always an adventure talking with Colombians. On top of having spent the last year trying to master their spoken language, I've also been tasked with the learning of their gesture language. However, it is a grand day when you can finally point at something mid-sentence with your lips without missing a beat. Now that's true integration!


Personally, I have found that Colombians are direct in certain ways and then sometimes tend to skirt around certain issues or situations. For example, Colombians will not hesitate to inform you when they feel like you've put on some weight (or are losing too much). They are quick to point out any blemishes on your face (pimples) or legs (multitudes of bug bites). New hairstyles and clothing choices are immediately disected. While it is easy to be caught off guard by this type of directness, eventually it just becomes the norm. One may never fully become comfortable with it, but it becomes more tolerable.

However, one thing that I have found that Colombians struggle with (in my own personal experience) is being direct with someone when they have an issue or problema that needs solved. There have been times at my school where members of the administration have questioned why I was doing something the way I was doing it. Instead of coming directly to me to try and solve the issue, they instead go to my counterpart, who then comes to me. It has been a frustrating process to try and overcome. When issues arise, I am used to having that person discuss them with me directly. That has not always been the case here and it has taken a lot of adjusting to. I'm still struggling with this aspect of the Colombian culture, but am striving to overcome it and work with it for the next year.

Style of Expression

When asked to describe Colombians in one word, "loud" is normally the first one that pops into my head. This is not meant as a bad thing at all. However, anyone who has lived in a Colombian pueblo or city knows this to be true. From the raging music that continues well into the wee hours of the morning to screaming students in the classroom, one volumen level transcends through the land.

A perfect example of this is my 7 year old host "nephew" (my host mom's grandson), Mario. My room is located out back of the main house and when Mario is outside in front of the house, I can hear him clear as day. It doesn't get much better when he comes inside. One volume level for all settings. He will sometimes stand outside of my room and "talk" to me. My ears will normally be ringing by the end of a 2 minute conversation. But this raised volume doesn't signal that he's angry or upset - most of the time it is just the opposite. A raised voice normally signals that you are happy and in a great mood. Quite the opposite from the United States.

Another aspect of Colombian communication that has taken some time to get used to is the amount of physical contact there is. Greetings are made with a kiss on the cheek between opposite genders. Firm, healthy handshakes are exchanged between colleagues and good friends. Hugs are given out like candy at Halloween. None of this really bothers me - until it is done at school.

It is very common for students to give teachers hugs and kisses on the cheek as a way of greeting one another. You can imagine the shock and slight horror the first time a student attempted to greet me in this way. My American trained brain immediately turned to the side, positioning myself for the perfect side hug. Fortunately, all awkwardness was avoided as the student didn't seem to notice my sudden panic.

Adjusing to all of these chances in the way communiation is carried out here on the coast of Colombia has definitely given me a deeper understanding and appreciation for the culture here on the coast. I'm excited to return home in a year and incorporate some of my new found techniques (mainly the lip pointing) into my daily communications.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

One Year Down...

Over a year ago, I hopped on a plane from Miami bound for Barranquilla, Colombia, not knowing what this experience with the Peace Corps would look like. Looking back over this last year, I can definitely say with confidence that it has been one heck of a ride, full of highs and lows (more on that in a little bit).

In order to celebrate this monumental milestone in the life of PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer), we met up in Cartagena for the weekend. 19 of our 23 members were able to attend and mark our one year in style. The grand plan for the night was a gorgeous dinner at El Santisimo, a beautiful restaurant in the old city. Before dinner, MC, Derek, Jessi, and I hit up the beach for a spell, grabbed some Greek food with the Reed's, and then chilled at our hostel for a few hours. After meeting up with others who were staying with us, we got ready for our dinner.

At the restaurant, we partook in a great deal offered there. For about $45, we received an appetizer, entree, dessert and unlimited drinks for 2 hours. Talk about a steal! The food was amazing and delicious (I had red snapper bites, salmon with caramelized onions and asparagus, and a brownie complete with ice cream and hot fudge) and the drinks were just right. The night was completed by two special presentations. Jimmy went around and described each member of our group with an adjective that he felt pertained to them. Jordan, who had asked us all to describe our service in one word, compiled all of these words into a poem that pretty accurately described our experience here in Colombia so far.

Following dinner, we took to the streets of Cartagena and enjoyed a night of dancing, meeting new people, and enjoying a night life that is absent in many of our pueblos. Even though we didn't stay together the entire night, it was still a successful night. I can't express how much this group of people has become my family here throughout this entire experience. Being able to celebrate one year in country together was just another way to strengthen this bond.

Now about those highs and lows...

Committing to living 27 months abroad in a new culture, language, and life style is not an easy task. The normal roller coaster of emotions that comes with this endeavor has not disappointed. It's been one heck of ride and only promises to continue over the next 15 months. From those expected highs (arriving in country, figuring out the crazed bus system, receiving our site placements, becoming official volunteers, moving to site, starting at school, starting projects with the community, visiting other volunteers in their sites, traveling around Colombia, celebrating one year) to those nasty lows (saying goodbye to friends and family back in the states, moving away from host families that had become like family, waiting in limbo for a month or so while awaiting a new site, having members of our close knit group leave early for various reasons, dealing with conflicting interests at site, being subjected to changing landscapes and policies), we've endeared a lot as a group to this point.

To this point, I'm glad that I'm here. This experience has been humbling, eye opening, exciting, and an amazing learning experience about both myself and the Colombian culture. I know that I'm going to come away from my time here as a changed person. The rest of my time here in Colombia will be filled with more hurdles, challenges, and life changing experiences. But I am confident that through all of these, I will continue to grow and change as a person and return to the US as a more complete human being who will be ready to tackle anything.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Sounds of Repelón

Having spent most of my life living a small, rural town in southeastern Iowa really helped prepare me for my time so far here in Colombia. I am accustomed to having to travel outside of town to get groceries, find entertainment options, and to encounter good restaurants. I'm used to having everyone know your business and in turn, knowing the rest of the town's as well. One thing that I definitely grew used to as well was the peace and quiet. The level of tranquility was off the charts, especially since we live outside of town. The most noise that we ever really hear is every Saturday night during the summer when the sounds of the local stock car races would drift our way from the fair grounds.

Life here in Colombia is pretty much the same, for the most part. Rural living has offered the same small town feel, just with different conditions and surroundings. The people are just as friendly, if not friendlier (didn't think this was possible until coming here). Conversations, normally centering around the unbearable heat, flow freely on the streets and in front of local tiendas. Children run around kicking soccer balls. But there is one thing that I've noticed recently that helps to distinguish this home from my one in Iowa: the sounds.

On any given day, you are bound to hear a mixture of any of the following:

- The animal orchestra, consisting of (but not limited to...)
        * braying of the donkeys as they wonder aimlessly through the streets
        * squealing of the pigs as they are lead through town on leashes
        * baaing of the local goat gang as they patrol the dirt roads and alleyways
        * crowing of the rooster as it daily confuses sunrise with 2 am
        * clucking of the chickens making their way from house to house looking for scraps of food
        * howling of the dogs as they attempt to draw territorial lines
        * mooing of the cows as they meander from finca to finca without a care in the world

- The blaring of the bus horn as it makes its way through town, informing the citizens of its next departure

- The incessant honking and beeping of passing motos, looking for passengers

- The screams of joy of the local children as they run through the streets during rainstorms

- The humming of my elderly neighbor as she sits on her front porch knitting

- The whir of my fan as it works to keep me "cool" and "comfortable"

- The silence of the appliances when the power goes out (which lately has been happening at least once a day)

- The nasally hollers of "aguacate" (avocado) and "bollo de yuca" from the local vendors as they parade up and down the streets trying to make a sale

- The sloshing of the washing machine as it completes its cycle on laundry day

- The chatter of the customers in the cabana enjoying a delicious lunch prepared by my host mom

- The laughter of the neighbor children as they jump through and on a piece of rope tied to the gate of the front patio

- The slamming of dominoes on a plastic table by the random groups of men playing this favorite past time throughout the pubelo

- The siren of the police truck delivering me home after another night of English class

- The raspy breathing of the police chief and myself as we complete our 5 at 5 (5K at 5 am) run

- The pattering of the rain as it cascades from the sky for all of 10 minutes

- The distant roll of thunder, signaling an approaching storm that may or may not actually come

- The cheers and moans of locals while adamantly cheering on the Colombian and other local soccer teams

- The clink of beer bottles as a new round is started on a lazy Saturday afternoon down in the plaza

- The blaring of the picos (large speakers) every Saturday and Sunday night, supplying the pueblo with ample amounts of champeta, vallenato, and salsa music

These sounds have helped shape my experience here in Colombia. They are a part of my daily life and have really become second nature to me. I've found a strange sort of comfort in these sounds. Adjusting back to the peace and quiet of small town Iowa is going to be a challenge...

Blogging Abroad's Boot Camp Blog Challenge: Starting January 2015

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Colombian Exploration

Life here on the coast can be exhausting. Constantly battling the heat and elements of pueblo life zaps the energy right out of anyone. Constantly trying to decipher and understand the locals as they tell you about their day and lives leads to confusion and headaches. When summer vacation rolled around and I was given an opportunity to escape the coast for a while, you better believe I jumped on that!

Normally, the summer break is around 3 weeks. However, due to the teacher strike back in April, that vacation was cut down to just one week for the students. Luckily, I was able to get my vacation approved in advance of this schedule change and I was able to take 10 days away from the comforts of the pueblo and do some exploring of Colombia away from the coast. The following is a recap of the trip itself!


- Upon disembarking from the plane, Derek, Kathleen, and I were instantly greeted with the cool, rainy weather of Bogotá. Needless to say, this was quite a change/shock to the system from the hot, humid temperatures that we have become accustomed to on the coast.

- Met up with a former Peace Corps Volunteer, Alli, who served in Cartagena and led some of our trainings back when we first arrived, and explored some of La Candelaria, one of the oldest barrios (neighborhoods) in Bogotá. We ended up at the Botero Museum, a free museum dedicated to showcasing some of the famous works of Fernando Botero. Botero is famous for his very distinct style of painting, in which he enlarges all of the characters of his paintings on purpose.

- Tried some of the traditional food that Bogotá is famous for, including Ajiaco (a thick soup with chicken, avocado, rice, capers, and crema de leche - probably my new favorite soup here in Colombia!) and chocolate con queso (hot chocolate with cheese - sounds weird, but it's a nice sweet/savory combination surprisingly).

- Partook in a graffiti tour around La Calendaria and the surrounding areas. This tour was really interesting and the graffiti was not your stereotypical tags and attempts at defacing public spaces. Graffiti in Bogotá revered and respected. Many of the works that we saw were beautiful pieces filled with intricate designs, bright colors, and distinct stylistic elements. Despite the rainy and cold conditions that accompanied the tour, this was by far one of the highlights or the trip.

The oldest street in Bogotá

- Walked around the Plaza de Bolivar, the main plaza in Bogotá that includes the cathedral, Congressional building, and Presidential Palace.

Congressional building
Standing in front of the Presidential Palace
 - While exploring the open air market at Usaquén, we stumbled upon a random gathering of jugglers, acrobats, and other street performances in the middle of a park. 

- We made the 2.3 km trek up to Monserrate, the tallest mountain in Bogotá and home to a church and beautiful views of Bogotá. The hike up was filled with wind, rain, sun, and tired calves. Esther, another volunteer in our group, flew into Bogotá for a few days and joined us for the hike. Coming from the flat lands of Repelón made the hike a bit more difficult than it should have been. However, the rewarding views of the city made it worth it. 

- On our last day, Esther, Derek, Kathleen, and I hopped on a bus and headed to Zipaquriá, a town about 45 minutes north of Bogotá. This town is home to the Salt Cathedral, an underground Roman Catholic Church that was built in 1932. The mountains that the cathedral is built into have been an important economic source for the town and surrounding areas, providing salt and other minerals for centuries. Along with the church itself, the tunnels are filled with a rendition of the Stations of the Cross and other sites. We also partook in a mining tour, in which it was confirmed that I will never be a miner (we legitimately mined for salt with real picks - I´m pretty sure I ingested more than anything else).

Survived the mining tour!
Islas del Rosario

As our time in Bogotá came to a close, I was definitely not ready to return to the daily grind (and heat) of Repelón. So, upon arriving back in Barranquilla, I met my friend MC and we headed to Cartagena for the night. There, we met up with Amanda, Alex, and Caleb, other volunteers in our group. After spending a nice, relaxing night in Cartagena, catching up, we headed to the Islas del Rosario the next day. These islands are not only beautiful, but are also "home" for Alex and Caleb, one of the two married couples in our group. I have been wanting to visit them ever since site announcements were made back in October and took full advantage of this opportunity. 

Amanda, MC, and I had a wonderful two days, basking in the sun, snorkeling, meeting community members and tourists passing through, and being able to see how other volunteers truly live. One of the best parts of serving in a country where all of the volunteers live relatively close to each other is the ability to visit each other at site. Alex and Caleb truly have a unique situation, as they are the only volunteers who live on an island and truly do depend on their community for survival. It was great to see them in their element, and of course, to also spend time with them.

MC (Master Chef) and her eggplant parm! So good!!

The crew
4th of July

Before heading back to Repelón, we had one more stop to make and celebration to partake in. July 4th not only marking Independence Day in America, but also my friend Jimmy's birthday. From the island, we made a quick pit stop in Cartagena to see Jessi and a few of her friends before heading back to Barranquilla to join other volunteers at a 4th of July potluck in the park. After properly stuffing ourselves with some delicious food (and taking a modified citizenship test), we moved the party to an apartment that we had rented for the night.

The festivities continued well into the wee hours of July 5th. Having spent many 4th of July's away from home and the US has helped me to gain an appreciation for being an American. Being able to spend this important American holiday surrounded by not only good American friends, but also a few Colombian made it even more special. With Colombia's Independence Day coming up next week (July 20th), I'm looking forward to being able to partake in their celebrations in the same way that some Colombians were able to partake in ours.

Most of the 4th of July crew
The past week has been filled with classes starting up again, readjusting to the heat, and figuring out ways to make these next few months of my service meaningful and enjoyable. While it was nice to be off of the coast for a while and to have a break from the climate, it's always good to come back home.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Cultural Experience or Animal Cruelty??

One of the truly unique experiences that pueblo life provides is the ability to partake in festivals and other celebrations in a more intimate and concentrated setting. One festival that every pueblo celebrates is that of their Patron Saint. Repelón’s Patron Saint festival, which was recently held to celebrate Saint Anthony, included streets brimming with people, vallenato (a type of music very popular here on the coast) concerts, and correlejas (bullfights). The 4-day festival itself was a lot of fun. A few other volunteers from the Atlántico region came to join in the festivities and experience a different side of Repelón. 

Highlights of the festival itself:

  • Showing off Repelón, my new adopted home, to fellow volunteers
  • Seeing the streets filled with people, as this contrasts with the normally tranquil lifestyle here
  • Witnessing my first bullfight with a couple hundred of my closest Colombian friends
  • Introducing the Colombian culture to Jessi’s family
  • Meeting the mayor’s son and getting into the VIP section (granted only for a hot second) for free
  • Enjoying the company of great friends (both Colombian and American)
  • Discovering that I’m not able to rage past 2 am anymore 
Finally met the famed Mama Atha!!
Great group of people right here!
Breaking out the camera (after a long hiatus) in style!
Representing CII-6 with pride!!
Quick view of the stage from the VIP section
The one aspect of the festival that was a mild point of controversy is that of the bullfights. Many members of the community that I talked to about the festival mentioned to me that they don’t attend the bullfights because they don’t support what they stand for. So out of curiosity, I decided to do a bit of research into the history of bullfighting and how it came to be such an integral part of Spanish culture.

Bullfighting traces its roots back to the days of Mesopotamia. The people of this region not only sacrificed bulls, but also worshiped them for their pure strength and sheer beauty. Other sources claim that bullfighting can be linked to the Roman Empire and subsequently spread to Europe through the various conquests carried out by the empire at the height of its dynasty. 

The original purpose of bullfights was to celebrate royal weddings and religious holidays (like patron saint festivals). This sport was reserved for the nobles and wealthy as only the rich could afford the proper supplies and training for both the bulls and horses. While other European countries participated in jousting matches, Spaniards partook in bullfights. 

The concept of modern day bullfighting can be traced back to 1726. During this time, nobility on horses was replaced by commoners on foot. This switch drew larger crowds and also introduced a higher degree of danger and peril to the sport. Instead of being on horses, the matadors were now only inches from the bull, providing more drama and excitement. This type of bullfighting was then introduced to other Latin countries through various Spanish conquests, including Colombia.

The Colombian version of bullfighting is a bit different than that you will find in Spain. For starters, the ring in which the bull is released is filled with multitudes of participants, not just one matador. The object is not to kill the bull, like it is in traditional fights in Spain. Instead, the bull runs around for a couple of minutes, challenging participants and chasing those on horseback. After a few minutes, the bull is corralled out of the ring and another bull is released. This continues for hours upon hours. 

Pure mayhem in the ring itself
This stadium is constructed solely for this event - then promptly torn down until the next year
Jimmy, Luke (Jessi's younger brother) and I taking in the event
The action happening right in front of us
People literally clung to the sides of the bleachers and darted underneath them when the bull came their way
The pure spectacle of this event has greatly divided many people, both within the Hispanic community and worldwide. Supporters claim that the beauty of this sport is based on the interaction between the bull and the matador. It is a demonstration of various styles, techniques, and a certain courage taken on by the participants. The bulls are not seen as sacrificial victims, but  rather as a worthy adversary. Also, the bulls used for these fights are respected, revered, and overall, treated better than any other animal, including cattle. This I can personally attest to. The cattle that roam the countryside around Repelón are sickly and underfed, while the bulls that were used for the fights were strong, sleek, muscular animals that surprised me with their speed and strength.

Opponents to bullfights cite the fact that the point of the bullfight is to eventually kill the bull by driving a sword through its spine. Many see this unnecessary bloodbath as a cruelty that no animal deserves to be subjected to. These opponents have led to the banning of bullfighting in many cities around the world where this sport used to be practiced quite freely.

As for me, I can see both sides. Witnessing a bullfight for the first time in my life, I saw the cruelty and savageness that is normally associated with the event. However, I also tried to step outside of the event itself and understand it in a greater context. The electric atmosphere of the stadium, including various bands and venders, added to the excitement that the spectators felt watching the participants flee from the bull as it barreled down on them. 

While I am not advocating for bullfighting or am in any sense a staunch supporter of the event, one thing that I learned from this experience is that sometimes you don’t have to fully agree with something to appreciate its importance in another culture. Being able to fully experience this event in the context of another culture was the true pleasure and joy that will remain with me well beyond my time here in Colombia.

*Information used for this post was found using this article