It occurs to me that maybe the reason that America has wide sidewalks and Colombia has narrow ones isn’t because of the difference in the size of the people–most Americans are quite a lot taller and wider than most Colombians–but in fact, because of the differences in comfort zones. Here, we all brush shoulders and graze elbows into those curves of the human body that are usually reserved for hugs and tickles, and we turn our bodies to swing our hips and handbags around each other.
Waiting in line to board a flight to LA from Panama, the two vacationers in front of me turn periodically to check on me, despite my best efforts to not look like I am eavesdropping. Then I realize it’s not my invasion of their conversation but my encroaching into their personal space that bothers them. I am lining up like any good Colombian would, with the minimal amount of space between me and them, breathing down onto their wheeled suitcases.
My waxing lady (yes, I now have one of those) asks what I’ll miss about Colombia. The human connections, I tell her. In my country, lives are separated by fences and decorative lawns and closed up, air-conditioned bubbles. Here, we live in each other’s spaces, sharing the same experiences.
The same tiredness as we try to stay balanced in a creaky, careening bus home, holding each other’s groceries and toddlers to balance each other’s load. The the same helplessness when the rain comes and we all lose power at the same black, startling moment, and we can hear each other through the walls and open windows in the stillness that follows. The same community pride when we all press together into the main street, a sea of yellow soccer jerseys, to watch the hometown hero, Carlos Bacca, parade slowly to the plaza atop the volunteer fire department’s best rig.
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.
“There’s so much to be done here. The people have this capacity to invent ways to survive; I love the informality of this culture.”
Trained as a journalist and brimming with stories from Vietnam to Alexandria, Ricardo is a native barranquillero who says his work now is to report as an “observer of the peace process.” I met him in our shared favorite coffee shop, where he rotates between a Coetzee novel and a sketchbook.
“One day overseas, the US Navy base invited the press to a movie night. ‘Zorba the Greek.’ Zorba wanted to live as if he would die tomorrow.” Now, I live for today, and I meditate. The mind has to be quiet to live in the moment.
“Hay mucho que hacer. La gente aqui tiene la capacidad de inventarse sobrevivir. Me gusta la informalidad.”
Periodista de carrera y lleno de historias de Vietnam a Alejandria, Ricardo es barraquillero nativo y dice su trabajo actual es reportar en el proceso de paz. Lo conoci en nuestro cafeteria mutual, donde el da turno entre una novela de Coetzee y un cuaderno de dibujo.
“Un dia afuera, el US Navy invito a la prensa venir a ver una pelicula. ‘Zorba el Griego.’ Zorba quiso vivir si fuera a morir manana.” Ahora, vivo para hoy y hago meditacion. La mente debe estar quieta para vivir a la hora.
[ This is a post in the series titled “#carasdecolombia.” I post stories, photos 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. ]
You know how you usually hate the sound of your own voice? Well, I conquered that fear recently and served as a guest on Walking the Earth podcast. Mike Margolies is a fellow traveler and has a great podcast about the travel lifestyle, doing podcasts with travelers and expats of all different walks of life. Each episode is an open conversation about traveling and wherever else the topic leads.
Our conversation, recorded about a month ago, is about anonymity, navigating cultural differences, the idea of “home” and the evolution of relationships due to technology.
Please, check out the episode and show Walking the Earth some love! Enjoy!
(Pre-context: I am a twenty-something, college educated, middle-class, White American and that is my inevitable frame of reference, here and there. For better or worse.)
I had a realization today. I am unhappy sometimes, discontent and endlessly pursuing satisfaction. I was jogging down the street in my little town in Colombia with a perfect breeze at my back, wearing my brand new Nikes that I bought in America, waving at all my friendly townspeople, but internally, I was making a long to-do list of things that I had to accomplish before I would be satisfied and could relax. Continue reading The Privilege of Choice (The Pursuit of Happiness, Pt. 1)→
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!