My parents finally came to visit! They set aside three weeks to come and follow me around my PCV life, going to classes with me, meeting all my pueblo friends, and even tagging along to girls’ camp. It was both surreal and exciting to have my parents–my biggest support during my service, always available via Facetime or Skype to listen to my successes and challenges and to give me toilet-plunging advice–finally in Colombia. Getting to merge my two worlds for a few weeks was both stressful and rewarding, stressful because of the 24/7, two-way translating, and rewarding because it gave me a chance to see my host country through fresh eyes.
In spite of Spirit Airlines, they made it to Cartagena (only a day late and baggage-less.) They flew in and we made it into the city just in time for sunset over the historic walled city, making the cathedral domes glow. As
we walked around the enchanted city, we saw a wedding procession with cumbia drums, and watched a mapale presentation in the park. My parents tried their first arepa con queso, then jugo de mango.
When they AND their baggage both finally arrived in Puerto Colombia, I got to introduce them to my Colombian life. I took them to visit each of my favorite families, meeting the kids I’ve watched grow and hearing the stories the grandpas love to tell over and over again.
As my American parents were coming in to town, my Colombian mama was moving out, going to Argentina to be with her husband. Before she left, we had a goodbye dinner with all my “parents” present: my American parents (theonesthatbirthedme), my Colombian mama (missing my Argentine papa!) and my Colombian papa and Ecuadorian mama, all at one table! This kid felt pretty loved, all of them sharing stories and conspiring to get me married (this is a dangerous combination.) Family, in all forms and definitions, is one of the things that makes life most worth living.
I was able to introduce my parents to all aspects of my Peace Corps life, including classes at my school; my weekend class in Barranquilla; each of the families I’m closest to here in my town; the Peace Corps staff; other volunteers; my favorite Colombian foods.
At my school, they sat in on a few of Ines’ and my 10th and 11th grade classes. That week, we were working on reading comprehension and test taking skills, but before class started, I introduced my parents and made the students ask questions in English. The best part was when they taught my dad some of the local slang–he was a hit!
The last few days of their visit, I took my parents to visit two different fincas, or farms in the hills near my town, farms owned by family members of my friends. There, we took advantage of the laid-back, simple lifestyle of drinking fresh mango juice, helping to cook over the fire, and sitting around telling stories in the darkness when the solar panel electricity runs out. Some of the most special memories in Colombia happen in these moments, away from the complicated mixture of society and instead captured one savored story at a time.
Their visit was well-timed in terms of my cultural integration cycle (the PC gives us this scarily-accurate graph of a PCV’s adaptability phases) and I felt privileged to be able to introduce my parents to the Colombia that I know so well now. It’s nice to be a “local”, to understand most jokes and know how to get around. Seeing my parents interact with my host gente made me proud of the people and places I’ve grown to love. This really is an incredible place, filled with great people, and seeing it through my parents’ eyes was just the perspective I needed.
The idea of camp always energizes me. As a camper, then a counselor, wrangler and finally director, I’ve seen summer camp from every angle.
And from every angle, the camp experience continues to be unique, unforgettable and powerful, with the potential to be life-changing and to act as a catalyst for learning and growth for all the kids involved.
This week, I’m taking a break from #carasdecolombia to tell you why I haven’t written lately. It’s been a busy few weeks with ending second quarter classes, graduation for our weekend class, my parents visiting and finally, Camp GLOW. Here’s a first peek at all the happenings.
For the past few months, several friends and I have been teaching weekend English classes through a friend’s non-profit, designed to help students from an under-served community access an opportunity for better education and employment.
What he didn’t tell me is that he and his uncle had brainstormed a way to help their vulnerable community and decided that the solution was English class. However, they weren’t English teachers. No fear, said Estefanel, I know a PCV! (With his brains and charm, this guy is going to be the president someday.)
Without telling me I was the answer to their problem, he invited me to check out the project and see if I wanted to help. “Come see our non-profit, Shanna!”
That first week, I taught an English lesson to 106 students, between the ages of seven and 66, and after that first visit, I was hooked by their motivation and discipline.
I went to my fellow PCVs next, asking for some help with a new community class. “They are so excited to learn!” (With my brains and charm, I’m going to be a diplomat someday.)
The next week, Megan came and we split the group in half, kids and adults. Then, we added Angela and Kathleen, then a Belgian exchange student, then two Colombian teachers.
Every class, seeing those students was the highlight of my week. After a long week of struggling in projects and politics, I felt like my heart grew a size when I saw these kiddos.
I memorized their names (mostly to say, “Elian, sit down!” a lot) and loved watching the little personalities connected to the names as they grew more confident and creative with their English.
We closed the class term with a graduation ceremony, handing out certificates and taking a million selfies with students and parents. My parents were visiting, so they provided the candy and video recording.
I’m so glad I said yes to that first class visit–working with these kids has been a highlight in my year. It’s been hard for me to feel like a “real teacher” sometimes, without the certifications or experience that many other PCVs have. But these kids were gratifying test subjects, helping me develop my lesson planning and classroom management skills (ha ha.) I look forward to seeing where they go next.
In PC lingo, primary projects are those that fit the initial job description. Mine are any projects that are English language-related, including my assignment to the school in Puerto Colombia. In addition to the above class, I’ve continued working in the school, partnering with an incredible Colombian teacher in 10th and 11th grades.
Together, we’ve reached a really comfortable teaching and planning relationship. Lately, we’ve been planning lessons that integrate life skills, such as debate, powerpoint and public speaking, with the English curriculum we built. To this day, they mention the lesson we did on Malala Yousafzai, and recently, I saw a group of girls plan a project proposal with a great powerpoint.
Outside the classroom, two British volunteers and I started a reading program in the primary school. After months of empty promises from the school administration for a library space to contain the donated books, we decided to just show up at the primary, throw out a blanket and starting reading books to the kids!
After a few weeks of that–and a lot of renditions of “Yoga ABC’s”–the library idea started to take shape through the help of my co-teachers, some strong 10th grade boys, and even the elderly lady who sits at the primary school entrance, who took it upon herself to organize the textbooks we brought.
I don’t have an “after” picture yet, because we’re hoping to get the wall and bookshelf painted. Ideally, we’ll be able to paint another world map–a beautiful space is much more conducive to making reading an enjoyable, sought-out experience.
One of the truly frustrating aspects of my service here has been facing the reality that people often just don’t want to make any effort to change things. People love to say, “yes!” and “we want change!” but don’t follow through. I once wrote an entire grant for a project, only to realize that the people who asked for it didn’t really have the time to make it happen, and me doing it myself defeated the purpose. This library has been just one in many struggles between promises and outcomes.
But I have to keep taking small steps, following the people who DO have the combination of vision and grit, because they’re here! My students wowed me this week when they masterminded an anti-self-harm awareness campaign all by themselves, complete with a project write-up, a powerpoint and a design idea! Despite being shot down by admin, they’re optimistically re-designing the project to make it work.
So stay tuned to hear how the painting process and the anti-self-harm campaign turn out…if I’ve learned anything in Colombia, it’s that progress is slow, but not impossible. And usually happens with the most unexpected helpers and innovators.
Thanks for reading! Next, I’ll continue the update with my parents’ visit and our girls empowerment Camp GLOW.
Author’s note: I met David Caceres through a mutual friend at a poetry event. He cut a striking figure, his traditional indigenous ensemble contrasting with the Coca-cola in his hand and Ray Bans covering his eyes.
David turns out to be the official representative of the Wayuu community, a young leader with a strong passion for his people. This is the first part of his story.
“First, I wanted to greet you in my native tongue, my mother tongue. I am the voice of a million people who are called the Wayuu; we are people of the desert.
We are an Amerindian group that has inhabited the Guajira peninsula for 4,000 years, according to anthropologists. We have dual nationality because our people live in the border region of Colombia and Venezuela…but our identity is one, unique: we are indigenous, we are Wayuu, we are the sons of the earth and the rain.
The Wayuu can’t be defined as a particular group but rather as something heterogenous, because not all Wayuu are fishermen, miners, farmers, shepherds or hunters and gatherers.
I myself am a specialist, a man of the desert, and I live in a peninsula at the edge of the sea, so my role is to be a fisherman, or a man of the sea. In wayuunaiki, we are called “aparanch.”
Our concept of time is spiral, and the spiral of time is simply related with the spiral of the universe, which is what we observe every night in the sky. There is where we focus and learn. All our ancestors are all the stars in the universe, so the Wayuu people will never cease to exist (laughs), because we carry on in the stars.”
[ This is a post in the series titled “#carasdecolombia,” a collection of stories and photos portraying the diversity and beauty of the Colombian lives around me. Please feel free to add to the collection with your own pictures and stories!]
Primero, queria saludarte en mi lengua nativa, mi lengua natal. Yo soy, en este momento, la voz de un millon de personas que existimos entre colombia y venezuela y nos llaman desde hace miles de anos como Wayuu. Somos un grupo Amerindio que habitamos la penisula de la Guajira desde hace 4,000 anios y somos gente del desierto.
Nosotros los Wayuu tenemos un carácter binacional por estar en una zona fronteriza, pero…La identidad es una, unica: somos indigena, somos Wayuu, somos hijos de la tierra y la lluvia.
Los Wayuu no se puede definir como un grupo particular sino mas bien como algo heterogenio, porque no todos los Wayuu son pescadores, no todos los Wayuu son mineros, no todos los Wayuu son agricultores, no todos los Wayuu son pastores, no todos los Wayuu son recolectores.
Yo, por lo menos, soy especialista y hombre del desierto, y estoy en una peninsula y el orilla del mar, entonces mi condicion es ser un pescador, o ser un hombre del mar que, en wayuunaiki, se nos llaman “aparanch.”
Nuestra linea del tiempo es espiral, y la espiralidad del tiempo es simplemente relacionada con la espiralidad del universo, que es lo que observamos todas las noches. Y ahi enfocamos y transmitimos y conocemos. Todos los ancestros son todas las estrellas que son en el universo, entonces pues, nunca van a dejar a existir los Wayuu (rie) porque sigamos en las estrellas.
Note: This is the first post in a series titled “#carasdecolombia.” I will be posting stories, pictures and interviews using this hashtag. Please feel free to add to the collection with your own pictures and stories! And yes, shout out to @humansofny for the initial inspiration for such a project.
The Colombia that I’ve gotten to know these past two years can be described in one word: vibrant. The colors are bold, the music loud, the smiles bright and
the hugs warm. This Colombia boasts abundant natural resources (Amazon rainforest, deserts, coffee farms, rivers and two oceans). This Colombia was recently featured on CNN Money for its “booming economy” and growth in the technology industry. This Colombia teems with trendy backpackers and cruisers, drawn to the colonial coast and lush interior. This Colombia, to me, is characterized by the photo at right.
But unfortunately, this Colombia has been overshadowed by a different Colombia. It’s got several decades of darkness and a reputation that hangs over the present generation. Of all the conversations I’ve had with thousands of Colombians, a constant question I get is, “what do Americans think about Colombia?” What they mean is, “do Americans think that Colombians are all drug traffickers and terrorists?”
Have you ever seen a coastal Colombian talk? It’s 85% body language with animated facial expressions, broad hand gestures and full-body emphasis on the Most Important Points. Even their feet are fidgety, listo to break into a salsa step. Imaginate what it’s like when the subject matter actually involves dancing!
Because or body language is so central to the culture, the idiosyncratic gestures and facial expressions are essential communication tools to survive as adopted costenos.
Once you master these haptics, your cultural fluency will skyrocket, your language skills will improve, and costenos everywhere will adore you (if only to laugh at you.)
How to Ask for Clarification with Your Nose
This is the costeno shrug, the Colombian gesture for the universal “huh?” Use this gesture to say you don’t understand, to ask for the speaker to repeat their statement, to indicate a doubt or question, or to amuse your host family.
Cumbia is a sacred word on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, especially during Carnaval season. The dance is a mesmerizing infusion of Spanish dance, African drumbeats and indigenous instruments, an ode to the history of this region. It’s also my personal favorite dance, so I’m going to introduce you to this stunning cultural masterpiece. Continue reading Culture Spotlight: Cumbia→
I’ve lived here on the coast of Colombia for 13 months now, which has given me enough to time to observe a few trends, customs and oddities of the Barranquilla culture! I thought I’d share a few of the Costeno-isms that I’ve noticed.
1. Walk like a Colombian… women here walk like they’re on a catwalk–whether it’s a crosswalk, the mall circuit or just down a hallway, these women move. Their omnipresent heels don’t hurt the effect, either. In contrast, you can tell a gringo from a mile away–we walk like we’re in a hurry and with bad posture.
2. To the left, to the left…While you’re walking like a gringo, there’s one important thing to know: pedestrians pass on the left. If you don’t, it gets rather awkward, rather quickly. If you forget, it’s also perfectly acceptable to walk very slowly in the dead center of the sidewalk, blocking both oncoming and passing pedestrian traffic.
3. Bus entertainment…There’s a lucrative informal economy in action around: Every few minutes, your bus will be commandeered by a candy hawker, a pen salesman, a rapper or, my personal favorite, a two-person vallenato duo belting tone-deaf ballads and beating a makeshift drum. Continue reading Distinctly Colombia→
A few posts ago, I talked about Carnaval, the biggest event of the year in coastal Colombia. Here is part two, what it’s like to be a queen of Carnaval!
The festivities started getting into full swing–all the music and conversation revolved around Carnaval. Then came the game-changer: my school asked me to be the queen of professors. They promised I’d only be the international queen, so I would be sidekick to the official king and queen…until the real queen of professors couldn’t make it to the first event and I got promoted in the space of ten minutes from vice-queen to the reigning dignitary who had to open the festivities for the entire school–in Spanish!One of the best memories of queenship was frantically prepping in the school office that day while my fellow English teachers coached me on Spanish inflection and pronunciation and my host mom fussed over my frilly cumbia dress and the flowers in my hair. And that’s how one becomes a school queen, or, as I see it, a school mascot with a much cuter outfit (also itchier.)
As a progressive, independent Western young woman, I’ve never aspired to be a beauty queen; it’s always been a foreign culture to me, with the crowns and fake tans and such. But here in Colombia, you say yes to everything, so I found myself being convinced to be a queen.
“It’s fun!” they said.
“It’s not a big deal!” they said.
Two parades, at least eight events, five dresses, two meltdowns and one crown later, I am writing a “Gringa’s Guide to Being a Carnaval Queen.” Here’s a preview…
Gringa’s Guide to Carnaval Queening
Welcome to your new role! As a gringa, your most important job, like any beauty queen, is to represent your people–in this case, all foreigners. No pressure. All anyone wants is to know that foreigners love and enjoy the host culture, and Colombians are a great example of that. From now on, whenever anyone asks you what you think of Colombia, you just say, “Carnavales!!!” with a big smile and you’re in. If you can throw in a little hip shake that you learned during Carnavales, even better. Here are a few other tips:
1. One Word: Glitter. Be forewarned: they will expect you to know how to make yourself up beauty
queen style. If you’re a mascara and BB cream girl like me, I strongly suggest you either a) find a knowledgeable host sister or b) youtube the hell out of contouring and eye shadow application. Invest in a good bright red lipstick and resign yourself to the inevitable glitter tornado that is the month of March. As for blotting paper, remember that you live in a tropical location and under NO CIRCUMSTANCES can you get makeup on your fancy dresses. If you’re too cheap for oil blotting sheets, know that paper napkins are a really scratchy, thin Plan B.
2. Fake it ’til you make it! For your inner princess, this is your chance to live it up–all eyes are on you! If you don’t have an inner princess, find your inner actress and fake it! Being a queen gives you a rare chance to communicate one message to the entire crowd, so make sure the message is, “I feel so lucky to be queen! This is the coolest experience I’ve ever had in Colombia! I’m having the time of my life up here! I hope I don’t fall!!” And more likely than not, it’ll be true.
3. Find a reina expert. For me, this was my host mother. Her daughter had been a child queen, so she knew the who, what and when of the queenly business. I had no CLUE, which led to more than a few mishaps. Warning: you are responsible for nagging the school to pay
for the dresses (if you’re lucky) (they still owe me), for going to fittings you didn’t know about, for picking up and dropping off the stuff in a timetable you have no idea about, and for finding someone to do your hair before every event. Thankfully, my host mom rescued me from several dramatic emergencies regarding the above rules.
4. Smile for the camera! Camera to the nth power…If I’m ever a real celebrity, I’ll be ready! The smartphones, not-smartphones, pocket cameras and, the most baffling, professional photographers come out at any time. Once, I went to a parade in the nearby town with a bunch of
friends and guess who showed up? The photographer from my school! They have an ingenious business here–these guys have professional or semi-pro cameras and ask you to smile for the camera…a week later, they show up at your doorstep at 8 pm to sell you every single shot they’ve ever taken of you! Apparently, you’re supposed to buy all of them, but at $5,000 pesos ($2.50) a piece, this broke volunteer only took six. Anyway, moral of the story is make sure you practice a sustainable smile and a body-flattering pose, cuz you’re going to see it many, many times in print.
5. Gozar! Once you’re zipped in, sucked in, powdered up and smiling, don’t forget to sit back and enjoy your front row vantage point. It is so incredible to see your own high school students transformed into elegant, expressive, passionate artists, showing their beautiful traditions to the world. When they invite you to join in, forget the precarious crown; the risk of lipstick teeth; the pinching zipper. Throw your hands up in the air, grab a nearby student and dance!!
I feel so honored to have been part of this celebration of the elaborate and beautiful costeno culture. As they say, “quien lo vive es quien lo goza“, or “the one who lives it, enjoys it!”
Appendix A (ish):
These are all the costumes I got to play dress up in! A huge shout out to my school, my host mom and the numerous other helpers who made these outfits possible!!
1. Cumbiambera. This costume is worn for the traditional cumbia dance, which is a fusion of three local cultures: African, European and indigenous. An interesting fact is that the small steps taken originated with the African slaves in the area, who could only lift their feet off the ground a little bit because they worn iron chains on their legs.
The dance is a chase: the man tries to win the woman’s affection three times before she accepts his gift, a lit candle. He then leads her through the dance as she holds the candle and follows his hat. It’s very flirtatious!
2. Garabato. This costume is also a dance outfit in the colors of Barranquilla’s flag (red, green and yellow.) The dance depicts the struggle between life, as shown by the bright outfits, and death, which is played by a character in a skeleton suit. As always in Latin American culture, life wins and everyone celebrates! There’s a whole parade.
3. Skirt and top-cito: (see in the article above) This one was another cumbia outfit, but a little more fancy. It was midriff-baring (no bueno) and had lots of dangly, sparkly things going on. I wore it to dance the faculty presentation dance (a mambo) on the coronation day.
4. Coronation Cumbiambera. The frilly, white princess dress I wore on the Coronation day was also a cumbia dress. It was custom-designed in Barranquilla for a girl who was queen of the town a few years back. Fun fact, she may have been similarly tall and thin, but I was much more endowed in certain areas! That dress was tight! The ladies who helped me zip up said, “maybe if you diet until Friday, you can lose your boobs.” Didn’t work.
5. Orange outfit. Brianna, a fellow volunteer who was a spectacular international queen a town over, loaned me one of her outfits so I wouldn’t have to rent a whole extra dress for some event. While we’re on the subject, she was absolutely stunning in her blue feathered outfit as she paraded through her entire town (up and down
the hills) in stilettos. Kickass queening!
6. Mambo Italiano. (see top photo) The final dress was tailored for our faculty dance. That sounds much more exciting than it actually was–I showed up at the designer’s house for a “final fitting” the morning of the dance to find that she hadn’t even made it yet! She threw some pieces of fabric together for a quick dress, but let’s just say that I won’t be wearing it again–four hours of scratching left me raw and red. Either way, it was a fun dance dress!
Today, I took a break from lesson plans and meandered down to the pier. The 4 pm sun was strong as I stopped by the vegetable store to inquire about avocados (I’m gaining something of a reputation as an avocado eater). Lucky for me, they not only had ripe avocados but also fresh spinach! I think I confuse the vegetable men with my enthusiasm for green things, but they cheerfully bagged my purchases and said, “see you later, my queen!”
I took the quickest route–in front of the catedral–then cut to the back street to avoid the tourist hunters in the main plaza. Today, I just wasn’t in the mood to explain that a) I live here and b) I’m too poor for your chicken dinner this month. On the back street, I heard the waves as I passed behind the restaurant row. Between the plastic tables, I caught a glimpse of the old muelle. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, the muelle used to be the longest, busiest pier in South America; today, it’s four stubborn slabs of broken concrete and steel, a shadow of the glorious railroad days and tourists’ pocketbooks that used to come from all over to witness the bustle. Now a days, the old men call it “the four piers of Puerto Colombia,” a sad joke before they take another pull on their frosty Aguila Lights.
I made a beeline for Amelia’s jewelry stand of woven bracelets and shell necklaces that tinkle in the gusty breeze. She’s always here, clenching a needle in her teeth as she threads shells onto fishing wire. I met Amelia a few weeks ago when I decided I was going to introduce myself to all the artisans on the pier so that they’d stop trying to sell me stuff. This afternoon, she lit up when she saw me, laying out a piece of heavy cloth for me to sit on. We tried to exchange New Year’s stories, but the vallenato music at the adjacent restaurant was too loud and she had customers. I left my avocado with her and headed for the muelle.
December is the month of breezes and “cooler” temperatures (around 80-85 degrees), and the strong winds almost blew me over as I walked out over the waves. On the right side, the open sea was choppy and high as it crashed into the cement; on the left side, the leftover wave fragments are still for a moment before recollecting themselves and rushing towards the rocky beach. In this still spot, Ramiro was fishing.
Apparently, Ramiro and I are neighbors, but I didn’t recognize him when I started chatting with him about the wind conditions. He recognized me, though. He started to tell me stories about when the muelle was whole and an island guarded the puerto. He used to work the international ships that came to Puerto Colombia and to the mouth of the Magdalena River–English, Spanish and American liners. Nowadays, he’s pensioned and fishes for fun, although I can’t imagine any exercise in patience to be enjoyable. He laughed when I said I had bad luck for fishing–then handed me the line. “Just for a minute, while I rig the other one!” he promised.
I got into proper fishing position: back to the wind, eyes squinting at the setting sun. Every passerby stopped to look at me, look at the fishing line, and look at the dying fish next to me.
“La gringa pescadera! The white girl fisherman!” they murmured.
“His name is ‘Lunch’,” I shrugged back, deciding not to tell anyone that it wasn’t my catch to claim.
I watched the light turn pink on the foaming waves and Ramiro sang in a sweet baritone voice, a ballad he wrote to the muelle for its 100th birthday. He sang about the view from the island; the tourists who used to come; the storms that broke it and its abandonment by the rest of Colombia.
For some reason, Ramiro decided that I’m a “beautiful artist”, and he talked about the music and the art and the beauty of the death of the muelle. He marveled at my travels and I realized that right here, on this hard piece of history, even those who stay in one place can understand the heart of a gypsy.
And then I went home and wrote a little poem, but it’s kind of in two languages, or Spanglish, or something: