Monday, February 29, 2016

The Tale of the 5 @ 5: Part 1

Running has become a relatively recent new passion/hobby of mine. During my time in South Korea, I joined a running club, more so because a friend of mine semi-pressured me into it. However, I quickly fell in love with an activity that I had done everything in my power to avoid since junior high. I have since continued running here in Colombia. I have talked about my runs with the police chief on various occasions, but I have never really given a detailed account of what the morning laps around town really entail. The next series of posts will be devoted precisely to that. Each post will be told from the perspective of a different thing or person involved in the morning 5 @ 5 (5 KM @ 5 AM).

So without further ado, here is entry number one…

The darkness is comforting. Nestled amongst the tissue paper and walls of my box, I am suddenly awakened by a sudden jolt. Is today the day?? My journey takes me out into the front room. I see many of my other friends, just chilling on the shelves, trying their best to attract the next customer. The lid is removed and florescent light comes flooding in. I’m taken out for the first time since my arrival to the store. The sensation of laces being strung through my eyelets excites me. Finally, the moment I have been waiting for is here! At last, I’m going to my new home!

Tuesday morning

4:45 am
There goes that alarm again – must be about time to get up. I faintly hear the sound of footsteps making their way towards me. Yup, it is time. As I fly through the air, I know that another early morning journey through the pueblo is about to start. In goes the foot. Next, my tongue is adjusted and pulled tight. Finally, the laces are stretched snuggly, formed in perfect bows and secured with a double knot. Looks like we’re ready to go.

4:58 am
Quickly, the cool feeling of the linoleum is replaced by the newly laid tile. We must be outside. Suddenly, the tile vanishes and gravel and sand are encountered. I hope that this crunching sound doesn’t wake up the barking guardian of the house – not my ideal way to start the day. The ground slightly rises as we stop at the garage door. After a few seconds of no movement, we are off again. The gravel and sand have given way to pavement. We are finally breached the outer wall.

5:01 am
The terrain changes once again. Instead of the smooth paved roads, jagged little pieces of rock jab me. This is my least favorite part of the morning routine. Does he not realize how uncomfortable this is for me?? How am I supposed to support him when he treats me this poorly? Ah, good – we’re back on more comfortable ground. We’re changing directions, taking a right just in front of that sewer cover. Just a few more feet and we’ll be ready to go.

5:08 am
Here comes a familiar face. Over the course of the past few months, I’ve become well acquainted with the brand making its way towards me now. After a mandatory greeting, we are off once again, retracing the path we just forged no more than two minutes ago. All of the discomforts and comforts from the previous journey re-present themselves again.

5:14 am
The black, tarry pavement signifies that our weekly ritual is about to begin. I’m lifted off the ground for a few seconds and then placed back down. This action is repeated multiple times – it’s all just part of the ritual. Finally, after much anticipation, we’re off. The usual far-off “beep” helps clue me in that my rate of use is about to increase tremendously. As we settle into a rhythm, I do my best to stay on the course and provide the support needed.

5:26 am
1st lap is done. Despite a few elevation dips, the pace has remained the same. Guess all this practice is finally paying off. As we round the corner, signifying the end of lap #1, I feel a wet sensation seep through my sole. We were doing such a great job of avoiding those annoying puddles – oh well, looks like I’ll just have to dry off when we’re done.

5:32 am
Great! It looks like we have picked up an unwelcomed passenger. Stuck between my tread protrudes a piece of gravel, irregularly shaped and causing more problems than needed this early in the morning. Apparently we aren’t stopping to remove this little visitor. Did I mention that I despise passing through non-paved sections of the pueblo??

5:37 am
The end has finally come! The pace has slowed down immensely and that nasty little rock has finally been removed! Now my favorite part of the morning routine – the walk home! Soon, I’ll be resting back on my shelf, preparing myself to go through this process all over again the next day. 

Sunday, February 14, 2016

When the Odd Becomes the Norm...

Every culture and country comes complete with things that to the casual, outside observer would appear odd and strange. It's these "quirks" and differences that make living in new cultures outside of your innate comforts exciting and interesting. When I first moved to Repelón a little over a year ago, there were definitely things that caught my eye as odd and extreme. However, today, I rarely even bat an eye when these events occur. Here are some of the things that my pueblo has taught me to embrace as the "new norm":

1. Overly affectionate students

In the United States, teachers are drilled on the importance of maintaining space between themselves and their students. Physical contact of any kind is severely frowned upon. Primary teachers are taught the art of the side hug. Secondary teachers do their best to form bubbles around themselves so as to avoid possible lawsuits or sexual harassment cases. Here in Colombia, this just simply does not exist.

Every morning at school, I am greeted by hugs and a kiss on the cheek from the female students and various, elaborate handshakes from the male students. Colombians are very affectionate people.Why let the institution of "school" change that?? I still remember the first time that a female student approached me and tried to give me a kiss on the cheek. I started profusely sweating, as my eyes darted around the school to see if any other teacher or administrative staff member was watching me. I was expecting the police to show up at any moment and haul me away for making inappropriate contact with a minor. Needless to say, all of my anxieties and awkwardness surrounding this practice have disappeared during my time here.

2. Farm animals gone wild!

As I have mentioned many times before, I grew up on a farm in a small town in Iowa. We raised sheep when I was younger, and my grandparents, who live about a mile up the road from my house, still raise cows and pigs. I have been around farm animals my entire life and have no issue dealing with the unavoidable smells and noise associated with have live animals. Here in the pueblo, many of the same animals exist as well. The only difference is that they roam free and do pretty much whatever they want!

Pens and pastures are a thing of the imagination. Why keep animals locked up when they can just roam free through the city?? The sight of pigs and cows meandering up and down city streets has become such a daily occurrence that I don't even think twice about the oddity of it. Just last month, a friend of mine visited from the Atlanta. As we did a tour of the pueblo, she was in awe of the fact that pigs just wandered freely and did whatever they wanted. It made me realize that this isn't "normal" to an American. Heck, I've even been delayed on my walk to school by herds of cows lazily walking through town, having not a single care or worry in the world.

3. Pueblo bus culture

In my last post, I wrote about ways to get around the pueblo. One of those ways was by bus. Since a large majority of the people living in the pueblo don't have a personal vehicle, the bus becomes the only source of transportation for not only bodies, but other items as well. Over the last year, myself and fellow volunteers have seen the following being transported on a bus:

- Washing machine
- Rocking chairs (complete with occupants using them as seats)
- Queen-sized mattress (strapped to both the top of the bus and inside the bus)
- Bed frame and headboard
- Floor tiles
- Live animals, including, but not limited to:
         > Roosters
         > Chickens
         > Dogs
         > Birds
         > Piglets
- Lumber for construction
- Large sacks of rice, sugar, salt, etc...

Now, boarding a bus becomes some what of a game. What fun and inventive items are going to be transported back to the pueblo today????

4. Club standards

Going out on a Saturday night, one is bound to go through the same routine:

1. Meet up with friends (normally half an hour to an hour late)
2. Head to the caseta/estadero/club
3. Order a round of drinks
4. Consume said drinks while trying to not go deaf from the blaring music
5. Dance to every fifth song with a friend or through an invitation
6. Repeat steps three through five

While this may seem a lot like a night out in the states as well, there is one glaring difference: age requirements. It is super common to see parents with their small children (between the ages of 2 and 5) out well past midnight. Primary aged students weave their ways through the throngs of adults dancing and enjoying the night. Bachillerato students awkwardly congregate in the corner and try to act cool. Age limits do not exist here in Colombia. There are no bouncers at the door checking ID's to make sure that patrons are over 21. This type of night life is just such a part of the culture here that no one thinks twice about having everyone participate in it, no matter what their age.

5. Lack of punctuality

One of the biggest things that I have had to try and let go of here is my concept of time. Americans are notorious for their punctuality and desire to squeeze as much into a day as they possibly can. This spans the generations, as my mom remembers going to church every Sunday growing up a child. Even though mass didn't start until 9:00 am, her family always arrived by no later than 8:30 am. Gotta make sure to get that pew!

Showing up somewhere thirty minutes early is simply unheard of here along the coast. I have had to seriously adapt my views on what "on-time" really  means. This caused many frustrations and misunderstandings when I first moved here. Friends would say "Let's meet at 7 tonight in the plaza." Being the American that I am, I would show up at 10 'til 7, and then proceed to wait for 30-45 minutes for everyone else to show up. I quickly realized that meeting times were just arbitrary numbers used without any real meaning.

This in turn has caused me to become a bit lazier! I have stopped arriving to places early and deliberately show up late - I still normally end up being the first one! For example, last November, I organized an end of the year celebration for the students of my community English classes. We decided on starting the event at 4 pm, knowing well that this was never going to happen. I finally showed up around 6 pm, two hours after the stated "start" time, and WAS STILL THE FIRST PERSON! It just blew my mind!

Through the course of my Peace Corps service, I have adapted to so many new norms and ways of life. With a little over nine months remaining before I head back to the United States, I'm excited to see how many more of these new "norms" I can identify and enjoy before the hustle and bustle of American life re-consumes me.

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

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Pueblo Transportation

Living in a small, rural pueblo presents itself with plenty of challenges and obstacles. Power is lost without warning. Air conditioned rooms are a luxury. Running water is something found in the large, bustling cities. Despite these perceived limitations, there is one thing that is relatively easy to access and use: transportation. Getting around the pueblo itself and to other surrounding areas is fairly easy and straight forward. Below are five of the most common ways to get around a Colombian pueblo...

1. Moto

Easily the most convenient and popular option of locals, motos can be found at pretty much every street corner and major intersection in town. For less than $0.50 USD, you can be transported anywhere in town that you would like. Motos also run between pueblos and are sometimes the only option available when a bus is missed or time is an issue. Locals are not afraid to transport any item on a moto, as I have personally witnessed pots of sancocho, bookshelves, and queen sized mattresses moved on the back of a moto.

2. Motocoches

These three-wheeled bikes are almost as popular as motos. Used mainly by large groups of people wishing to travel together or people with lots of luggage/groceries/items, motocoches provide a bit of a safer, slower ride. Prices are normally a littler higher to use one of these (closer to $1.00 USD), but when trying to transport lots of items, the slight uptick in price is definitely worth it.

3. Bus

When traveling outside of the pueblo, the most effective form of transportation is the local pueblo bus. These colorful vehicles are normally adorned with various decals, ranging from Looney Tunes to pictures of Jesus to American flags. These buses are marked with the name of the final destination, usually painted across the front, just above the windshield. Most also provide a small plaque stating the name of the pueblo where the bus is headed. Getting on the bus early and finding a seat, preferably by a window, is a necessity as the bus tends to fill up quickly. The lack of air conditioning can make the commute extremely uncomfortable some days. Buses leave once every hour, more or less on the hour, starting at 5 am, with the last bus leaving town around 4 pm. From Repelón, the two-hour bus journey to Barranquilla costs roughly $3.00 USD.

 4. Bicycle

The bicycle is also a popular way to move about the pueblo. Used by all ages, biking provides for a more relaxed, controlled ride. One of the really interesting things here is how people use their bikes. It is very common to see two or three people on one bike - one person sitting on the bar between the seat and front tire, one person on the seat, and someone else hanging on the back wheel. Also super common is seeing grown adults (usually men) riding bikes designed for small children. While an amusing spectacle, I personally cringe every time that I see this, just thinking about how uncomfortable that ride must truly be.

5. Walking!

My personal favorite and preferred way to get around my pueblo is by walking! Everyone in town is always in shock that I choose to walk the ten minutes to my house from school every day. I am constantly bombarded with cries of "but the sun - it's going to turn you black!" To this, I quickly reply "that's the goal!" One thing that I've come to understand and appreciate here is how Colombians judge distance. It is not uncommon to see a Colombian take a moto three blocks - anything to avoid extra steps! While the heat does sometimes make walking absolutely horrendous, I love the exercise, along with the ability to greet and converse with others that I encounter.

Added Bonus: Mule Cart

The occasionally mule cart will make its way through town. Normally used by local farmers transporting their goods from the finca to town, this form of transportation always adds a bit of adventure in maneuvering through town. Getting stuck behind a slow moving mule is almost the same as following a combine back home during harvest season - you aren't going to be getting anywhere anytime soon!

With the various difficulties that living in a pueblo can present, it's nice knowing that getting from one place to another is relatively easy and stress-free. It'll definitely be an adjustment when I finally return back to the US getting used to the pace at which everything moves, including transportation. I'm also going to have to retrain myself in the art of driving, something I will not have done for over two years! The accelerator is the pedal on the left, right?? ;)

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

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Pueblo Royalty

It’s that time again: Carnaval! Also known as the happiest time in one of the happiest countries in the world, this year’s Carnaval celebration has been filled with everything you would expect – extravagant costumes, traditional dances, and copious amounts of drinks and laughter. The above quote, which loosely translates to “he who lives it is he who enjoys it”, accurately captures the atmosphere here on the coast during these celebrations.

The celebrations this year have taken on a bit of a different meaning for me. Last year, I was caught up in the pomp and circumstance that Barranquilla’s festivities bring with it. Touted as the second largest celebration in the world, the parades, hordes of people, and constant music established an amazing experience. However, this year, I wanted more of a personal experience, one where I was more actively involved in the activities and excitement. Carnaval in the pueblo has offered me this opportunity and more.

Pre-Carnaval Activities

Although the actual Carnaval itself is a 4 day celebration that leads up to Ash Wednesday, the build-up to the main event starts over a month before. Decorations adorn houses. Costumes and traditional outfits are pumped out by local tailors. Music fills the air with more gusto and strength than during the rest of the year.

These activities extend to the schools as well. Carnaval rotates each year based on when Easter is. That meant that this year Carnaval fell on the first weekend in February, which happened to be about a week and half after the start of the school year. This means that the only thing on everyone’s mind was who the school queen was going to be and what the school’s float was going to look like. Needless to say, academic matters have been of little concern.

Prior to the start of the school, the teachers gathered for about two weeks of meetings, planning, and discussions about the upcoming year. Those discussions this year included the choosing of the teacher queen and rey momo (Carnaval king). Normally, these honors go to new teachers that have just started as a way to welcome them to the school. Despite the fact that I am not a new face, the other staff voted me as the Rey Momo of the school for this year. It probably helped that I am one of only 2 male high school teachers, but still, it was an amazing honor to have been chosen. 

The week before the  start of Carnaval was spent nominating candidates for the student queen, working on dance routines to perform at numerous assemblies, and figuring out where all the party hot spots will be. Each grade elected a female representative from their class to be in the running for the student queen of the school. These candidates then went through a competition, in which they danced, wore traditional outfits, and answered questions. The candidates were judged by a panel made up of the school coordinator, jefe nuclear (more or less the superintendent of the schools), a former student, and a respected parent from the community. The build-up to the announcement of the student queen was infectious. When she was announced, the students went wild! The Miss Universe pageant has nothing on the queening of the student queen!

With the candidates for primary school queen
The teacher queen, Alison, and I
With the representative from 10-2
Angelica and I! Best counterpart around!
My favorite janitor crew in the world!
The student queens for 2016!
Later that night, I took to the streets with my friend Jaime. We headed down to the plaza and scouted out the best location to watch the coronation of the pueblo queen. Chosen about a month before, this year’s queen is the cousin of one of the student’s in my community class. This honor brings a great sense of pride to the family and everyone associated with her. The festivities that night were filled with lots of dances, vallentato performances, and the eventual crowning of the queen. It was a great event filled with tons of espuma (foam), maizena (corn starch that is thrown at bystanders in good fun and jest), and sore feet from hours of dancing and standing.

With Jaime and Kevin before the start of the coronoation
Getting ready for the festivities to begin!
The Repelón Carnaval Queen!
Cumbia performance
Espuma aftermath!
Carnaval Activities

This past Friday I was able to participate in a parade of my own. All of the schools in town created floats, dressed up in their best Carnaval attire, and made their way through town. I was joined on the IE John F. Kennedy float by the queen of the teachers, the primary student queen, and a cumbia band. This event reminded me a lot of our homecoming tradition back in the States. There was a lot of town pride, with students from all three schools joining in and walking the route with their respective floats.

Alison and I all decked out in our outfits
Ready to start the parade!
With some former 11th grade students
Clapping along with some cumbia!

Repelón wasn’t the only town kicking of the Carnaval season in style. Just up the road, in Rotinet, my friend Jessi was having a grand celebration of her own. A few days earlier, she had told me that she was being crowned as the queen of one of the local casetas (club) near her house. With this being such an amazing honor for her, I made my way to her pueblo and experienced one of the coolest events ever.

It is obvious that Jessi has made an amazingly positive impact on her town. A large majority of the citizens gathered outside of the caseta, where a stage had been constructed (complete with an American flag, which was an awesome touch!). Throughout the night, Jessi made multiple outfit changes, danced cumbia, mapale, and champeta, and stole the hearts of all of the Rotineros all over again. As an added bonus, I was unexpectedly named Rey Momo and was able to enjoy the night by her side. Not only was this a night that the town will never forget for quite some time, it’s one of the many memories that I will bring back home with me. 
Ready for the coronation ceremony to begin!

And what an absolutely stunning and beautiful queen she is!
There are still three more days of festivities left. More vallenato will be played, aguardiente drunk, and maizena dispersed. However, the events that I have been able to experience so far make this year’s Carnaval far and away better than last year. Remember – Quien Lo Vive Es Quien Lo Goza!!

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

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Unintentional Ride Along

It all started off just as a normal Tuesday. Having just returned from a glorious two week vacation, I was anxious to get back into the groove of pueblo life. As I made my way to the police station to check in with my cop friends, I had a sneaking suspicion that this day was going to provide a bit a twist. Turns out, I was right...

As I made my way through the front gates, I was greeted by the faded one-eyed Santa Claus painted on the pavement in front of the station. After making my rounds through the normal greetings with all of the cops present, I wandered into the office of the police chief, Mel. He and I engaged in conversation about my vacation and his upcoming trip home for the holidays to see his family and friends. Suddenly, the police radio crackled some incoherent words that immediately alarmed Mel. As he uttered the first cuss word that I had ever heard him say in the past year, I knew that something bad was going down.

Mel stormed out of the office, calling for some of the other cops to gear up and get ready to head out from the station. I started to pack my things up, figuring that this was my informal cue to return home. I was extremely startled when all of the sudden I heard "Michael, venga conmigo!" (Michael, come with me). As Mel's muted words sunk in, I made my way out of the office to see him motioning me towards to police truck. Expecting a stern, serious face awaiting me, I was instead greeted with the typical, wide-eyed smile that Mel wears with extreme pride.

I climbed into the back of the truck and we took off. My initial thought was that I was being taken home, a common practice that is often extended my way when returning to my house after an afternoon at the station. Instead of turning towards my house, we headed out of town. We meandered through Rotinet and stopped off at a finca on the outskirts of the corregimiento. As we pulled up to the front gate, we were met by four other local police and four military men, decked out in camouflage uniforms and huge guns. Not knowing what was going on, I elected to just stay in the truck and try to figure out what was going on.

Instead of sounds of stern talking and discussion, my ears were greeted with the sounds of laughter and lighthearted conversation. Peering out the back window, I saw all ten of the police standing in a circle. They appeared to just be swapping stories about life and any earlier tension that was expressed by Mel at the station seemed to have dissipated. After about five minutes, Mel and one of the other cops returned to the truck. With vallenato spilling out of the speakers and filling the night air, we headed back out onto the road. However, we weren't headed back towards town - we just continued away from home and normality.

Within ten minutes, we had reached the limits of Luruaco, another town within the vicinity. With lights flashing, we weaved our way through local motos and bikes towards the Luruaco police station. Upon arrival, I once again hid in the backseat while Mel entered the station and the other cop struck up a conversation with the other cops standing outside. Eavesdropping gained me no new knowledge that would help explain what this journey was all about. About ten minutes later, Mel returned and we headed back to town.

Still completely confused as to the purpose of our journey (and really why I was along for the ride), I asked Mel what had just happened. He explained to me that there had been a suspected break-in at the finca. Now this particular finca was at one time a part of the drug trade that has crippled Colombia in the past. When we arrived at the finca, the other cops and military at the site said that it was a false alarm. We had to continue on to Luruaco to report the lack of findings and fill out some paperwork.

All in all, this experience just reassured that saying "yes" to requests from community members always leads to some interesting experiences. Being apart of an inadvertent drive along provided with an opportunity to get a bit of look into the life of a police officer here in Colombia. While I'll never really know what was talked about at the finca or the police station, the relaxed way that this situation was handled completely reconfirmed the "coge la suave" attitude possessed by the costeños. Now I can cross "partake in a ride along with the police" from my bucket list.

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