Friday, January 30, 2015

Let the PCV Experience Begin...FINALLY!

So for those of you that are regular readers of my blog, you probably have picked up on a common theme over the last month or so: inactivity. It's been a difficult month as we have been experiencing quite a few changes as a post here in Colombia. Here's a quick rundown of the events since Thanksgiving.

- The week of our swear-in, a new Country Director started. She has previously run Peace Corps programs in Guatemala and Kenya and was brought on as our former Country Director retired. With this change in leadership, changes were bound to happen as well.

- During our All-Volunteers Conference, safety and security issues were brought to our attention and it was discussed that changes were bound to happen in order to solve/curtail the problems that these statistics showed.

- The day before Christmas Eve, 4 volunteers from CII-6 (my group) received calls from the office telling them that due to security concerns with their school and/or living area, they were being relocated from the city (Santa Marta or Barranquilla) to pueblos in the the Atlantico region. This news came as a huge shock to our entire group as no one saw these moves coming. Paranoia rained supreme amongst all of us as we speculated who else was moving and when "the call" would come.

- The day before New Year's Eve, 3 more volunteers received the same call. This occurred after we had been told that all of the moves were finished, so naturally a new wave of panic and uncertainty ran through our group. We brought in 2015 with more questions than answers. What a great way to start the new year!

- The first week of January brought along the last set of changes (for the time being). 4 more volunteers, myself included, received the fateful call, informing us that we would be moving out of Barranquilla and into pueblos around the end of January. We were instructed to not go to school and to just hang tight and wait for more information.

So that brings me to my current situation. Telling my counterparts at my school and my current host family that I was being moved was one of the most difficult things that I've done ever. The looks of disappointment and sadness will forever be something that I think about. Needless to say, that week was definitely the hardest one I've had to stomach since I arrived in Colombia.

So finally, after multiple weeks of sitting by the phone, waiting to find out my new location, I received the second, much more anticipated "call." I found out that I will be moving to Repelon, a city of about 16,000 people, about 2 hours south of Barranquilla. The city is situated on a lake, so hopefully that equates to lots of fresh seafood and fish for the next two years! All of the stress and anxiety that I had been holding onto since the beginning of January magically melted away. I'm finally able to look forward to starting my Peace Corps service and do what I came here to accomplish.

While there are still lots of unknowns about my new site, the prospect of being the first volunteer there possibly ever is exciting. I know that there are going to be a lot of hard days ahead of me, filled with ups and downs. Issues regarding Internet, water, electricity, among others, will test me to the max. But I came to Colombia to experience a life unlike one that I've ever had before. So while it's hard to leave my current host family and my fellow volunteers that are staying in Barranquilla, I'm confident that this move will open up new avenues and opportunities that I would not have had otherwise.

Bring on the pueblo life!!

Where Repelon is in relation to Barranquilla and Cartagena
A map of the town itself - definitely a change from Barranquilla!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Relaxation and Rejuvenation

Time can be a funny thing. At times, it drags by slower than molasses on a cold, wintery day. Other times, it flies by faster than a Concord Jet, racing through the clear, blue sky. It can be your best friend, while also your greatest enemy. Over these past few months, time has been more of an enemy than a friend to myself and many of my other fellow volunteers. We have all been itching to get started in our schools and find something to help us pass the time besides countless naps, enthralling books, and engaging Netflix series. A recent trip to Santa Marta and Minca helped remind me that time can in fact be my friend.

Santa Marta is a small, tranquil town on the coast about 2 hours by bus from Barranquilla. A couple of weekends ago, Derek and I decided to pay this quiet city a visit to see some of our fellow volunteers and get out of the hustle and bustle of the city. Upon arrival, we met up with MC and headed to the beach in Taganga, a msall city nestled between the Caribbean Sea and Sierra Nevada mountain range. The beach was beautiful, with the small waves quietly lapping up against the sand. The chill of the water sent shock waves coursing through our bodies at first, but were later welcomed as the sun's rays beat down on us.

That night, we hung out with a few other volunteers and enjoyed some pizza, drinks, and great company. Recently, there have been some major changes that have happened in country and two of the members that were located in Santa Marta have been relocated to smaller pueblos south of Barranquilla. Being able to see them one more time before they made their moves was a great perk to this trip.

The next day, Derek, MC, and I caught a colletivo (aka we rode in the back of a pickup truck) up into the mountains to the small town of Minca. This pueblo is a popular tourist destination despite it's small size (only about 500 people reside here). We met up with our friend Caitlin, who works and lives there, and headed on an hour long hike further up into the mountains to las Cascadas de Marinka (the Marinka Waterfall). The hike was worth the sweat and dirt. At the end of the path was a beautiful waterfall, cascading down the shear rock and gathering in a clear, cool pool. The abundance of nature and lack of concrete made this an even more ideal destination.

After a delicious lunch at a local restaurant, we made another hike up to the hostel that Derek and I were going to stay at for the night. This hostel, Casa Loma, was unique in the fact that it offered hammocks as a sleeping option. This was a new experience for me and one that I thoroughly enjoyed. We passed the rest of the day playing spades, enjoying a delicious supper, and meeting other backpackers who were both passing through and volunteering their time at the hostel.

One of the volunteers that we met actually turned out to know one of the volunteers in our group! We were playing spades and struck up a conversation with a worker named Eileen. It turns out that she is traveling through South America and is staying in Minca for about a month, working at the hostel in exchange for room and board and food. She asked us what we were doing in Colombia and we told her that we were apart of the Peace Corps. She quizzically asked us if we knew Drew Chadwick, on of our fellow CII-6 volunteers! You want to talk about a small world! We also met a couple from Canada who will be around Barranquilla for Carnaval and a lad from Holland who was just finishing up a 2 month journey through Colombia.

This weekend was the exact thing that I needed to get through this period of inactivity. Even though we didn't do much of anything, the time away from Barranquilla served to help both relax and rejuvenate myself in preparation for the beginning of the school year and the chaos that will ensue. I'm looking forward to finally getting settled into my site and to start working with the school, students, and fellow counterparts.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Music and Mayhem!

Finding fun and interesting ways to ring in the new year is always a challenge. Over the past few years, I've stood on a beach in Hawaii, enjoyed the amenities of a luxury hotel in Seoul, volunteered at the Orange Bowl in Miami, and danced the night away in Savannah, GA. Let's just say that the end of 2014, which was full of concerts, beaches, and fireworks, will be added to that list.

Here on the coast, everyone seems to flock to Cartagena to bring in the new year. This port city on the coast is a hub for tourist from all over the world and a major destination to bring in the new year. This was my first time to Cartagena and I was more than excited to finally be getting out of Barranquilla and away from the daily grind that has become my last two months. The week was jam-packed with tons of activities, new faces, and lots of memories! Here's the rundown...

- Started off with an amazing concert consisting of Daddy Yankee, Enrique Iglesias, and Prince Royce. I haven't been to many concerts in my life, but I knew that I couldn't pass up the opportunity to see these three megastars at the same time! We had an absolute blast singing, dancing, and making fools of ourselves in the cheap seats.

Getting ready for a great night out!
Midwestern Unity!
Getting ready for Enrique Iglesias! You can also barely see the stage, hence how far back we actually were!
Breaking out those white people dance moves!
Daddy Yankee tearing up the stage (at least his graphics are!)
- Toured the small town of Turbana, a pueblo about 30 minutes south of Cartagena. One of the volunteers in our group has family that lives there and we ended up finding a really nice and cheap "resort" to stay at for our entire time. By cheap, I mean CHEAP! Over the course of 4 nights, 9 of each spent roughly $16-20 TOTAL! It definitely beat anything that we would've found in the city and came with a pool! Definitely a major steal on our part!

- Spent an afternoon on the beach in La Boquilla, a small, Afro-Colombian dominated pueblo right on the Caribbean Sea. We lounged in the sun, ate some patacones, and refreshed ourselves with some coconut lemonade. Later that night, we indulged ourselves with some delicious Italian food and awesome company as approximately 15 people from our group made their way into town for the NYE festivities.

- NYE was spent basking in the sun by the pool, hightailing it into Cartagena, wandering around the old walled city, taking in fireworks on top of the wall, running into other volunteers, bargaining for new shoes on the street (not mine, but a friend who's had broken over the course of the night), dancing to a nice mix of Colombian/American-ish music, watching the sun rise over the wall, and finally making it back to our resort around 8 am. Needless to say, it was quite a successful way to bring in 2015!

- On New Year's Day, we spent the afternoon on a finca (small, family farm) in this hills surrounding Turbana. We were treated to homemade sancocho (which was beyond delicious), breathtaking views of the city and surrounding scenery, and an overall positive and relaxing beginning to the new year.

All in all, it was the perfect way to end 2014! I'm beyond excited to see what 2015 has in store for me as I finally get started at my school and really get going with my Peace Corps service!

Thursday, January 8, 2015

A Colombian Christmas

Spending the holidays abroad and away from home is not something new for me. Having spend the Christmas season in Hawaii and South Korea helped to prepare me for once again being away from my family and friends back home in Iowa this year. But this was one of the tougher experiences that I've had. Since we swore in on November 14th, there hasn't been a whole lot of action on this end. Days are filled with books and Netflix series, so the holiday season was looked upon as a much needed reprieve from the day to day droll that has consumed our lives. Luckily, my host family did the best that they could to help me cope with a little case of the holidays blues.

Here in Colombia, Christmas is celebrated on the 24th (Christmas Eve) instead of Christmas Day itself. My family had a small gathering at our house. True to Colombian form, the party started around 9:30/10:00 pm with the arrival of my host mom's sisters, some of my host dad's cousins and family, and a few neighbors. Derek and Janice also joined in the festivities. My host mom made this amazing drink that was very similar to egg nog and with the music pumping, the drinks flowing, and some amazing food, we went strong until about 5 am on Christmas Day. My family never fails to have a good time when it comes to celebrating holidays. This one was no exception!

Derek and I with my host dad
Host dad passed out after way too much fun (and whiskey...)
Myself, Janice, and Derek around 5 am - still going strong!
On Christmas Day, I headed to the beach with Jessi, MC, Derek, Christopher, and Casey. We're determined to start a new tradition of hitting up the beach on Christmas Day. Instead of spending the day inside huddled under blankets, we dug our toes into the sand and enjoyed the beautiful Colombian sun and coast. This is definitely a tradition that I'm looking forward to continuing during my time here in Colombia! Later that night, I was able to Skype with my family back home. They were all gathered at my grandparents house and it was great to see everyone and do a short catch-up session.

While it was a bit difficult to be away from my family this past holiday season, Colombia did it's best to help me feel like I was at home.