Thursday, January 26, 2017

An American Road Trip: Floridian Fun in the Sun

The two years that I spent in South Florida as a member of AmeriCorps were full of some of the most memorable moments in my life. The work and the people that I meant during my service are things that will stick with me for the rest of my life. The thing that has continued to amaze me is the quality of friendships that I made while living in one of the richest areas of the United States. A handful of those friendships helped bring me back to the beaches, heat, and palm trees.

When Trisha and I parted ways at the airport in Austin, I headed east to Fort Lauderdale. I was picked up by Ryan, the husband of one of my roommates during my second year, Kourtney. While I was really excited to see Kourtney and Ryan, I will selfishly admit that I was actually more amped about seeing their dogs, Taz and Zoey. These two were a huge part of my service both years and I had missed their energy and sloppy kisses while I was in Colombia. Needless to say, some much-needed puppy therapy was in order during my stay.

Kourtney and Ryan were gracious enough to let me stay at their apartment, which was absolutely beautiful. I had a great few days catching up with them and, of course, soaking in quality time with the pups. But those four weren’t the only reason that I went down to South Florida. I made a stop at the Literacy Coalition of Palm Beach County to see my former bosses, Brad and Audrey (or Braudrey as they were known during my service). It was great to fill them in on my comings and goings, while also getting an update on the current AmeriCorps group. I wish that I had had more time to spend with them, but other places were calling my name.

For lunch, I went back to my second-year service site, EdVenture, and met up with my former counterpart, Carly. It was a blast not only being able to see her but most of the other staff that I served with during my time at the charter school. I was also able to meet the current AmeriCorps members that are serving at the school and got to share some of my AC and PC experiences with them. After school was done, I accompanied Carly back to her gorgeous house and we did some more catching up.

For dinner that night, I went to the house of one of the families that I used to tutor for. We had a very lively discussion about my time in Colombia and my thoughts on lots of topics (ranging from education to the recent election to cultural differences). Angelina’s mother (the girl that I used to tutor) is from Peru and it was very interesting to compare my experience in Colombia with hers growing up in Peru. The night ended with several pleas for me to move down to South Florida (including an offer to just live in their spare bedroom!)

The rest of my time in South Florida was spent relaxing with my two favorite furry friends, going for walks and runs around the neighborhood, and cooking up a storm to express my gratitude for the hospitality Kourtney and Ryan extended to me. As my time in South Florida came to an end, I was able to spend one last night with Brad, as we went to a brewery down by the airport. He dropped me off and I readied myself for the next leg of my trip: up north to Tampa.

Tampa presented me the opportunity to cross paths with multiple people from different parts of my life. I was picked up at the airport by Cassie, another AmeriCorps survivor from my second year. She and her boyfriend Ryan have a cute little apartment near downtown that offered the perfect accommodations for my stay. Cassie currently is teaching 6th grade Language Arts at a charter school in the Tampa area and invited me to come and present to her students about my time in Colombia. While a bit rambunctious, the presentations went well and I think the students learned quite a bit about life outside of the United States.

The next path that I was able to cross (on the spur of the moment) was my friend Kevin. Kevin and I first met while participating in Camp Adventure Child and Youth Services in college. The summer that I spent in Italy Kevin was in Germany and we were able to meet up twice that summer (in Rome and in Salzburg, Austria). Since then, he has become an Occupational Therapist and is currently located in a community north of Tampa. It just so happened to be his birthday, so Cassie and I headed up to a brewery to meet up with him and a few friends to help celebrate his big day. We played multiple rounds of Cards Against Humanity and reminisced about the good ole days of Camp A.

The third path that I crossed during this trip was with my friend Donna. Donna and I first met in Korea through the volunteer group Mannam. She was a science teacher on the military base located in Seoul and opened up her home to us multiple times for parties and other get-togethers. She has since moved back to the Tampa area and is currently teaching Language Arts at a local school. We went down to the Riverwalk and had a very enjoyable lunch at a restaurant right on the water. Afterward, I was able to accompany her on a few of her dog-sitting stops. A massive lover of pets, Donna has become involved in animal shelters and pet-sitting for owners while they are on vacation.

My time in Tampa was wrapped up with another visit from Kevin at a brewery that was decorated like a giant aquarium. We played darts, drank some delicious brews, and ended up at a burger joint that was the perfect way to end my brief time in Tampa.

I’m excited for my next trip down south. Not only is it warm and sunny, but some of my favorite humans make it a place that I will always enjoy visiting.

Monday, January 23, 2017

An American Road Trip: Texan Sized Wedding

One of the downsides of my multiple adventures traveling the world is that I have missed out on many milestones of friends and family members. Graduations, bachelor parties, and birthdays have all been placed on the back burner while I have been galavanting around the world. Weddings have also been skipped over due to my traveling conflicts. 

Fortunately, this dubious streak ended in November. While I was in Colombia, one of my best friends from my time at the University of Northern Iowa, Megan, became engaged to her boyfriend, Chris, while they were vacationing in Prague. During a Skype session with her and our other friend Trisha (the three of us took Spanish classes together at UNI), Megan informed us that the wedding would be happening in November of 2016. This was music to my ears! I was going to be able to attend my first wedding in over 8 years!

The big day was set for November 12th, 2016 in Megan's hometown of Austin, Texas. This would mark the first time that Megan, Trisha, and I would all be in the same city and location since Megan and I graduated in 2010. Trisha and I decided to fly down together, get an AirBnB, and take in some of the many sights and sounds that Austin had to offer.

Before flying down to Texas, I spent a few days with Trisha in Atlantic, Iowa. She is a Spanish teacher for the Atlantic School District and had invited me to come in and give a short presentation on my time in Colombia to her students. I had a great time reliving my time in Colombia, while also expanding everyone's understanding of Colombian culture.  

The trip down to Texas ended up being a bit more adventurous than we had originally planned. Around 5 a.m. on the morning that we left Iowa, Trisha received a call saying that our flight out of Des Moines had been delayed. This delay would have ended up causing us to miss our connecting flight to Austin. So after about 30 minutes of going back and forth with customer service, we were placed on a different flight pattern that took us through Chicago instead of Dallas. Instead of getting into Austin early in the afternoon we were now scheduled to get in around 11 pm. 

We made it to Chicago with no problem. However, getting out of Chicago proved to be a bit of a challenge. The gate that we were scheduled to leave from kept changing. Delays of other flights kept moving our flight all over the airport. After traversing the C and D concourse of O'Hare multiple times, we finally boarded the plane and made it to Austin in one piece. 

The next day, which was the day before the wedding, we explored downtown Austin. Our first stop was the graffiti park. This failed building development turned outdoor art gallery is constantly changing. Artists receive permission to add their own flair to the three-story structure. While we were there, we were able to witness artists at work, along with some pretty spectacular views of Austin.

From the graffiti park, we made our way to the state capitol building. This mammoth building, the largest in the country, tells a pretty interesting story about regarding the history of Texas. While at the capitol, I was able to cross paths with Andrea, a survivor of my second year with AmeriCorps down in south Florida. She is currently living in Austin and ended up living in the same apartment complex as our AirBnB! Small world to say the least!

Finally, the day of the wedding was upon us! That afternoon, we made our way to a small town outside of Austin to a beautiful location known as the Hummingbird House. This set up was absolutely perfect and very Megan-like. The intimate setting, complete with a string ensemble and a beautiful gazebo, was made even more perfect by the bride and groom. A gorgeous ceremony was followed by an even better reception.

Trisha and I weren't the only Iowans who made the trip down. In all, about 10 fellow Panthers made the journey to support the new couple. It was great to catch up with them. We also partook in the singing of our fight song, tore up the dance floor, and just enjoyed each other's company. Finally being in the same city and location proved to be everything that Trisha, Megan and I could've asked for! 

Congrats once again to the newlyweds! #INowPronounceSchuhHuffmanAndWife

Sunday, January 22, 2017

An American Road Trip: Back Home Again!

It’s hard to believe that almost 3 months have passed since I last updated this blog. Needless to say, quite a bit has happened since my last post and I’m going to do my best to get y’all caught up on the happenings of my post-Peace Corps life!

PCV à RPCV: The Journey Home

The last week of my Peace Corps service was filled with tons of smiles, laughter, and tears. Some of the many highlights included:

-       Members of my beloved community English classes receiving their certificates of completion, officially commemorating their achievements and successes during the course of the past year and a half

-       Various despedidas (going away parties) at both my school and with members of my community, that included tons of food, dancing, and memories that I have taken back to the United States with me

-       My final bus ride from Repelon to Barranquilla to officially close out my service in Colombia
-       Being able to “ring the bell” (a Peace Corps Colombia tradition that signals the end of a volunteer’s service) in the Peace Corps office with the rest of my CII6 cohort

-       Exchanging tearful and heartfelt “see you laters” with fellow CII6ers and other members of the staff who helped shape and make my Peace Corps service an unforgettable experience

After 27 months away from the United States, my friends, and my family, it was time to head to the airport for the long-awaited journey home. Derek and I were able to book the same flights all the way to Houston. Upon touching down in Houston, the realization that I was back on US soil immediately hit me. We were welcomed back to the motherland with a new look customs area, filled with automated machines and English everywhere. After figuring out the machines (and where the correct button to take the picture was located at), we proceeded through security and back into “civilized” society.

It wasn’t until my flight to Chicago that I fully embraced the fact that my Peace Corps service had ended and I was starting life over again in America. Saying goodbye to Derek (who was headed to Omaha from Houston) severed my last Peace Corps tie and made the transition all that more real. I also had a moment on the plane where I just lost complete control and started openly sobbing while indulging in real orange juice for the first time in over 2 years. Never before in my life has pulp tasted so good!

As the Chicago skyline came into view, my pulse quickened and the jitters started to set in. I knew that waiting for me at the airport were three of my best friends from my AmeriCorps years (Kevin, Erin, and Phetsada, who had flown up from Atlanta solely for the weekend). Waiting to deplane took what felt like ages, as those around me just didn’t quite understand the excitement/anxiety that was accompanying me. Finally, off the plane and dodging other slow moving travelers, I made my way to baggage claim, hoping to cross paths with the others sooner than later.

My baggage claim was the very last carousel, so as I made my way to claim my bags, I passed by a group of people holding signs and balloons. The name “Michael” jumped out at me. I did a double-take and was greeted by the smiling and surprised faces of my people! Despite the anticlimactic reunion (turns out they were looking for my red and white shirt, which had been covered up by my blue and white sweatshirt), tears still flowed nonetheless. I was so relieved and amped to see them that I couldn’t control myself!

My return to the states was marked by two big events: Halloween weekend and the Chicago Cubs World Series bid. As some of you may know, the Cubs (formerly known as the “loveable losers”) had been previously marred in a World Series championship drought that had reached 108 years. Game 4 was slated for the Saturday that I got home, so to say that the city was brimming with excitement and electricity would be an understatement. Erin and Kevin’s apartment ended up being about a mile or so from Wrigley Field (so close that you could hear the crowd’s moans and cheers from inside their apartment). This alone led to an abundance of fans and other enthusiasts milling around the local bars and restaurants. I just told myself that they were all there to welcome me home.

After spending some time down by the lake and just walking around, we turned our attention to the festivities for the night: Halloween. Talk about a welcome home experience! We headed out, decked out as athletes (gotta love last minute, low budget costumes!) to meet up with a friend of Erin’s at a local bar. This experience totally threw me for a loop and introduced me to “reverse culture shock.”

Upon entering the bar, we were greeted by our waitress. She immediately asked us for our orders and my mind went completely blank. I had forgotten how to order a drink at an American bar! Gone were the staples of Colombia (Aguila, Club Colombia, Costeñitas, Aguardiente) and in their place were strange bottles and handles depicting brands that were foreign to me. A complete look of confusion and befuddlement overtook my face as my mind went blank.

To try and redeem myself, I asked for a menu. One problem – I had forgotten the English equivalent. I just kept repeating over and over again “La carta, por favor”. With each repetition, our poor waitress just kept staring at me, obviously not comprehending at all what I was saying. Luckily, Phetsada saved me from by daze by asking for a menu like a normal human. This was one of many “re-acclimating” experiences that I encountered during my first week back.

The rest of the night was a crash course in American culture. The bar scene in the states is so different from that of Colombia. I spent most of the night in awe of the pick-up attempts happening all around me. I had clearly forgotten that that was one of the main activities that took place in this environment. The music, a mixture of rap and hip-hop, was for the most part unfamiliar to me. I found myself yearning for the comforts of champeta and vallenato.

The next day, after a wonderful brunch, my parents made their way to Kevin and Erin’s apartment to pick me up. It was so great to see them for the first time in almost 11 months. We then made our way to central Illinois, where I was able to spend some time with my aunts and grandma. It was great being surrounded by family again after such a long time apart. Eventually, we made the 4-hour journey back to Iowa. I was officially home after 27 months away. 

Friday, October 21, 2016

Making English Fun Again!

Being a Peace Corps education volunteer in Colombia has its ups and downs. Serving on the coast and having to try and teach in unfavorable conditions with unruly students makes our stated goals and benchmarks sometimes seem unattainable and fruitless. However, every so often, there comes a day or a week where everything clicks and falls into place. Teaching is fun and results are seem almost immediately. This experience happened to me last week, and while it took getting off the coast to achieve it, it helped reaffirm that Colombia's future is in capable hands.

Back in April, I received an email from my project manager inviting me to participate in an English Immersion Week in the department of Antioquia (located in the interior part of Colombia) in a town called El Carmen de Viboral (which is located about 45 minutes outside of Medellin). I, along with two other volunteers, Alex and Michelle, would be working with the Marina Orth Foundation in helping them put on a week long English teaching strategies workshop for local primary and secondary English teachers. After much deliberation and discussion, all three of us decided to jump on board and support this effort the best that we could.

La Fundacion de Marina Orth (Marina Orth Foundation) was started by Maureen Orth, a former Peace Corps volunteer who served in Colombia in the 1960's. During her service, Maureen helped construct a new school in her rural community of Aguas Frias, which is located in the mountains near Medellín. In 2006, she officially started this foundation which aims to provide students with a quality and sustainable education that is centered around the use of technology and English. The foundation is currently working with schools both in and around the Medellín area to implement their vision.

One of the cool things about this experiencce was the fact that we were paired up with RPCV's (Returned Peace Corps Volunteers) who had served in Colombia during the 1960's. My main contact, Mary, had served in a few pueblos around Medellín,so she was very familiar with the area. We started discussing ideas for the week and how I could best assist her back in May. As the date got closer, my level of excitement and anxiety continued to rise.

When Michelle, Alex, and I arrived in Medellín (albeit 6 hours late due to some mechanical problems with our original plan), we were picked up at the airport by two staff members from the foundation, Alejandro and Susana. We enjoyed a pleasant car ride to El Carmen, got checked into our hotel, and then made our way to find some food. We were super fortunate that all of our meals were covered by the Secretary of Education from El Carmen. Afterwards, Susana took us to a local cafe where we enjoyed a glass of vino caliente (hot wine - which was absolutely delicious) and more conversation.

When your flight is cancelled, the only thing to do is enjoy some Subway!
Vino Caliente - on point!
The next day, we met the other RPCV's to  go over the game plan for the week and iron out any unknowns or minor details. We spent the rest of the day just walking  around El Carmen and preparing ourselves for the week ahead. Little did we know at that time just how impactful and enjoyable the week would be...

Overall, the week just flew by! Over 100 primary and secondary teachers attended the workshops that were provided. I worked with the secondary teachers and had an absolute blast. They were beyond greatful and appreciative of the new techniques we provided them in the teaching of grammar, vocabulary, and English conversation. The entire week was done in English and I was just blown away by the high levels that the students possessed. It was such a breath of fresh air to be surrounded by dedicated, determined teachers that truly want the best for their students.

Below are some photos that help capture the week:

Secondary teachers ready to get to work!
Mary, an RPCV from the 1960's, answering questions
Everyone loves the fly swatter game - adults included!
Working on final projects
Teaching is hard work, so naturally we had to treat ourselves to some ice cream!
Introducing comparatives and superlatives
Was surprised with the traditional outfit of the campesinos (farmers) of Antioquia - and they chose blue!
Michelle, Alex, and I with Maureen Orth, the founder of the Marina Orth Foundation and Peace Corps Colombia legend
All of the instructors for the week
With Susana, one of the many dedicated staff at the foundation who did a great job of putting together this fantastic week!
Some absolutely beautiful words written by one of the participants
Group shot!!
I honestly could not have thought of a better way to end my service and time here in Colombia. I will forever remember this week as one filled with laughter, new ideas, and a reaffirmation for the bright future that lies ahead for Colombia and its people. Mil gracias to the Marina Orth Foundation for reaching out to Peace Corps and making this experience a reality. Hopefully this partnership can continue to grow and help teachers all across this beautiful country.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

We Got The Whole World In Our Hands

Before I ever applied for Peace Corps, I have been a huge fan and proponent of geography. Learning the location of important places around the world is a key factor in being a globally educated and well-rounded human. This is one of the contributing factors to why I just love to travel. Being able to experience new cultures and customs is an absolute thrill and adrenaline rush that has only been enhanced by my love of geography.

When I was accepted to the Peace Corps over two years ago, I started doing some research on various projects that other volunteers had done to help give me an idea of possible things that I could try and accomplish during my service. I was immediately drawn to the World Map Project. Created by a Peace Corps volunteer who served in the Dominican Republic from 1987-1989, this project was right up my alley. What better way to spread my love of geography than through the creation of a gigantic map mural?

When I finally got to my permament site here in Repelón, I started scouting out possible locations to make this map into a reality. Luckily for me, other artwork adorned many of the walls of the school when I arrived. This gave me hope that getting permission to do this project would be no problem at all.

Well, time continued passing and I had yet to find the right time to get this project started. Finally, just prior to the summer vacations this year, I talked to my principal at the time (he has since left) about the project and he was immediately on board. We agreed that I could use the wall behind the stage, as it would be in a prominent location and could be seen all visitors that come to the school. So I got to work.

After chiping away all of the old paint, giving the wall a fresh coat of white paint, and starting to draw the grid, I was slightly derailed when I realized that the elements were going to eventually do more damage to the map than good. Luckily for me, a new library had just been constructed at my school and with this four blank walls were just screaming for a new map. After receiving permission from the new principal to move my project into the library, I started over again.

Finally, after about a month of hard work and collaboration with some very talented 10th and 11th grade students, the map is finished! I am so excited to be able to give the school this resource that I am hoping will be utilized by the social studies teacher and maybe incorporated into other activities to expand the students' knowledge and understanding of the world around them.

Below are pictures showing the project from start to finish:

The wall before starting
The start of the grid that was used to draw the map
Grid done - now ready to draw the world!
One of my 10th grade students, Angelica, hard at work
Another 10th grade student, Anderson, lending me his drawing skills
All drawn and outlined - bring on the paint!
Mafe, a 10th grader, putting her artistic abilities to work
11th graders Alex and Arnaldo helping to put on the finishing touches
The final product!!!
I'm super proud of the end results! It was a lot of fun being able to collaborate and work with my students outside of the classroom and in a non-English context. The artistic abilities of the students here both at my school and in Colombia in general never cease to amaze me. I'm excited that I'll be able to leave this in the school as part of my Peace Corps legacy here in Repelón.

Gettin' Down and Dirty!!

Spa days are something that many people enjoy. Being able to pamper yourself for an hour or two with a relaxing massage or mud bath/facial is a great way to relieve pent up stress or to treat yourself after a long week. This is definitely a luxury for many Americans, as high prices and limited free time hinders many people from enjoying this treat as often as they would like to. Well, here in Colombia, there is a simple solution to this dilemma and it comes in the form of a volcano.

El Volcán del Totumo (Totuma Volcano) is a 50-foot tall volcano that is located between Barranquilla and Cartagena along the Via del Mar. It is filled with a warm, dense mud that is believed to have cleansing properties that will lead bathers more wholesome and beautiful skin. The legend has it that this volcano used to emit fire, lava, and ash. However, with the help of a local priest who was convinced that this was the work of the Devil, these harmful substances were turned into mud by the simple act of sprinkling some holy water into the volcano. Today, it is a very popular tourist destination, with the majority coming from Cartagena.

When we first arrived in country, we were told about this volcano and it immediately jumped to the top of our list of places to check out. Well, almost two years later, I can finally say that I have been. A couple of weekends ago, Caitlin, Katrina, Jessi, Derek, and I made our way to this volcano to check it out and see what it was all about. It did not disappoint.

After paying an entrance fee of $10.000 pesos (approximately $3.00), we climbed some steep steps to the top of the volcano. We had a little guy who guarded our stuff and escorted us around the park, which was nice. As I entered into the volcano itself, the mud slowly suctioned itself around my legs, waist, and torso. Instead of sinking straight down to the bottom of the volcano, I found myself suspended in this warm, think muck. It's what I imagine space travel to be like - minus the slime and grime.

We spent over an hour just chilling in the mud. It was a beautiful day and we found multiple ways to entertain ourselves, as only a group of gringos truly can. About halfway through our experience, we were joined by a group of Austrian bros who were probably on a trip to Cartagena and paid an exorbitant amount of money to come check out this treasure. Getting out of the pit itself became a balancing act between trying to rid yourself of as much mud as possible without slipping back into the volcano itself.

After we had all emerged looking more like creatures from the Black Lagoon than humans, we slowly descended down to ground level and proceeded to a nearby lagoon to wash off. We thought that we would be able to just leisurely enter the lagoon and wash ourselves. However, we were sorely mistaken as out of nowhere a group of women appeared and directed us to various crates situated near massive tanks of water. What happened next is something that I can only describe as an aggressive, anger laden rubdown. Water was splashed in my face, mud was forcifully rubbed off my skin, and a few shakes of my shorts completed the experience. We made our way back to Katrina's house and napped for the rest of the day.

I'm so glad that I was able to successfully check this experience off my Colombian bucket list before leaving. With only three weeks left in country, it's memories and experiences like this one that I will never forget. Now if only we had discovered the magical properties of this place earlier...