Tag Archives: Latin America

On Proximity

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.

“We are Wayuu, we are the sons of the earth and the rain” // “somos Wayuu, somos hijos de la tierra y la lluvia”

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!]

En Espanol:

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.




I Just Podcast-ed about Colombia and Culture

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.

Episode 65

Please, check out the episode and show Walking the Earth some love! Enjoy!

Journey on,


P.S. Remind me never to say “and stuff” again.

Integrated and it feels so good

(Note: This week, I’m writing my one-year-in-service reflections. There’s a more comprehensive post coming, but I was enjoying writing this mini blog tangent, so I figured I’d share it now!) 

Here’s a huge–though gradual and ongoing–success: I’m integrated! That is to say, the integration and culture struggles no longer take the bulk of my time or energy. At the beginning, every conversation took extensive effort, and I spent a lot of time getting lost, asking questions, observing people and trying to deduce the idiosyncrasies of this culture.  Continue reading Integrated and it feels so good

Carnavales part 1: pueblo preambling

It would be impossible to condense the endless stories and embody the full excitement of Carnavales in a simple blog post, but here are a few vignettes to try!

Carnaval showcases the culture and colors of the Colombian coast.

Background of Carnaval  Barranquilla’s Carnaval is the world’s second-largest carnival, and the most traditional. The annual four-day festival showcases the Colombian coast’s rich blend of European, African and indigenous cultures through traditional costumes, folk dances and music. The event displays the history and culture of the coast, as well, including the Carnaval king and queen, various characters based on local history and local music.

If you live on the coast, however, Carnaval began long before March–in my town, it seemed that people were in a rush to get Christmas over with so they could focus on carnavales.

“Navidad is big, but Carnaval is bigger,” they promised me.

 Beginning in January, it seemed that carnaval was suddenly everywhere. You know how stores seem to put out their Valentine’s Day stuff the day after Christmas? I am pretty sure I woke up on December 26 to carnaval music and neon colors everywhere–the carnaval theme seems to be general disorder, so the more colors and textures, the better! Throw in a can of shaving cream and a box of corn starch to cause further mayhem, and you’ve got yourself a fiesta!

Monocuco club! This bunch of amigos invited me to join in the mayhem and taught me all the dance moves.

Soon, carnaval took over a prominent place in every conversation, television commercial (look for me!) and class schedule. We didn’t have class on Friday for almost two months because each week there was an event–a parade, a cultural dance contest or a coronation to attend! Walking down the street, a moto would pass, carrying a teenage girl clutching a plastic bag bursting with tulle and sequins–there goes a reina, a queen! On Friday afternoons, the street music would be pumped up, and groups of kids wearing monocuco outfits would run around town,chasing each other around with shaving cream and lining up for the parades. If you’re a monocuco in a parade, your job is to be as energetic and ridiculous as possible–and to dance serrucho, the song of the year, on repeat (on average, 12 times per parade. At least.) 

Reina and Rey Momo: a monarchy ruled with fiestas and fun

 My school asked me to be the international reina, or queen, which gave me a front row seat to understand the significance of the history, traditions and effort behind carnaval. As a reina, I was expected to learn the traditional dances, pose for endless pictures and most of all, with my rey momo (king), animar el publico, or rouse up the crowd! Thankfully, my rey momo, a chemistry professor at our school, was great at getting the crowd energized and choosing the perfect moments to toss his hat into the crowd or pull a professor onto the dance floor for a quick jig. I just had to blow a few kisses and stumble around in high heels!

I’m writing a separate blog entry about the queenship and its adventures, but suffice it to say that as a reina, I had an in-depth view of my first Carnaval and the work and fun involved.

Each week, the fiestas got more elaborate and my students’ attention spans got shorter. Here in the pueblo, there were events every weekend, and Barranquilla had various parades and parties, too. It was hard to pick and choose, but the mantra was, “there’s always another!”

My school held a foro, or forum, of the traditional dances. I was blown away—the bright colors! The pulsing cumbia drumbeats! The flushed dancers with glowing eyes! The elegant dresses! The flashy makeup!

The creativity! The talent! The culture! 

These middle-schoolers have already mastered the cumbia.

If there’s any takeaway from Carnaval, it is that Colombians are born with dance and music in their blood. I saw first graders moving their hips like I have never done in my 23 years (nor will accomplish in the next 23!) I watched cumbia players fall into intricate rhythms and play their instruments with their whole bodies, swaying and tapping the beat.

 I watched the entire town go into carnaval-mode, with seamstresses, door-to-door souvenir saleswomen, dance instructors and queens coming out of the woodwork. In true small town fashion, there’s a guy for everything: need a shoe fixed? The guy at the corner does that. Need to borrow a headpiece? The lady across the way rents them. Need a seam mended on your sequin bodice? So-and-so’s aunt does that. Need a crash course in dancing? Here’s last year’s dance winner.

Parade after parade, event after event, we danced, serrucho-ed, cheered, photographed and celebrated towards the culmination: Caraval weekend, March 1-4, 2014. The long-anticipated weekend, attracting tourists and professional pickpocketers from around the globe. Suddenly, arepa prices skyrocketed, the streets started filling with tall, Raybans-sporting pale people, and the carnaval music got even louder.

In rickety buses, overcrowded airplanes, air-conditioned shuttles and little taxis, the world converged on Barranquilla with juicy anticipation, ready to gozar the event of the year.

And that brings us to Friday night of Carnaval.

to be continued…


#selfie with a congressman

Last night, the Barranquilla volunteers had the privilege and honor of dining with two ranking U.S. Congressmen who are Peace Corps fans. Rep. Sam Farr (D-California) served right here in Colombia in 1964 and has returned countless times on business and personal trips. Rep. George Miller (D-California) is one of the most senior members of Congress, elected in 1975. He has seen it all–he’s an expert on Latin American politics and he is one of the three authors of Obamacare.

These two congressmen took a day of their CODEL trip to Cartagena, Col, for a day in Barranquilla with the purpose of meeting with about 30 volunteers and staff. They spent a leisurely dinner with us before driving 2 hours back to Cartagena at 10 pm.

I was pleasantly impressed by their effort to go out of their way to prioritize Peace Corps volunteers and engage a dialogue about PC policy and our feedback on our program’s priorities and importance in Washington policy. Both Congressmen were candid; Rep. Farr gave me career advice and Rep. Miller told stories about his 40 years in Congress, from colleague Charlie Wilson’s campaign ads to an investigative trip to El Salvador after the El Mozote massacre in 1981.

I was fortunate to sit right next to George Miller, who graciously fielded my pestering questions about education policy and California politics, and I got to tell him about my work with technology in the pueblo classroom and I completely botched translating his drink order in Spanish.

Both Representatives talked about the voting system in the States, how they see Colombia moving ahead and how important the Peace Corps is, both on a personal and diplomatic level. “You guys are the best bang for our buck,” said Rep. Farr.

What can we do? We asked.

“Come home!” said Rep. Miller. “Bring this good work home!”

Rep. Miller asked me if I had a special interest in Lat-Am policy; he says the region is opening up and Farr said it’s going to be the hemisphere of the future. Based on their collective experience over the past four decades here and my personal experiences, I’d say that Latin America is, indeed, worth attention!

Finally, at the end of the evening, I decided that in an effort to bridge the generational and experiential gap, we ought to take selfies, too:

“Old guys like me don’t usually do selfies.” ~Rep. George Miller
“[PCVs] are a thousand points of light.” ~Rep. Sam Farr

On Moving

The fan doesn’t faze the insistent unknown insect devouring my legs. It’s hot. My back hurts from lugging supplies all over town because I’m too stubborn to take a bus and I need the exercise.

My belongings–the things that I say I need for this life in Colombia, the things the Peace Corps says I need and a few extra pairs of shoes–are all back in the suitcases. I’m watching the shadows from the traffic on my curtains for the last time; listening to the cats outside my window making kittens for the last time.

Three months I’ve been here, months of memorizing Barranquilla’s addresses and training to be teachers. It feels like a long time. I feel older.

Goodbye to the park where we ran in the mornings, to the utter confusion of the walkers, chatting about dinner last night (‘how much costeño cheese this time?’) and culture integration (‘I went to three different birthday parties!’)

Goodbye to Gutierrez, my favorite little old man with a mustache who called me a queen every morning I walked past his plastic chair outside the tienda. He looked up at the darkening sky and said, may god bless your path.

Goodbye to the guy who runs a grocery out of his living room who always said good evening but then piropo-ed me, which in my mind cancelled each other out. (Piropos are the cat calls and comments men make to women. I’ll write much more about that later, don’t worry.)

Goodbye to the black wrought iron gate that pinched me yet again today and I had to steal a napkin from the perro caliente cart on the corner to stop the bleeding.

Goodbye to the beautiful porch with palms and green benches outside the window where the abuela watches the street.

Goodbye to these three little women who opened their house to me and shared their food, jokes, family members, tv shows and opinions with me. They were my first view of Colombian life, and boy, will I miss their arepas! These ladies are a wealth of knowledge, experiences and ideas. I’ll miss them!

Goodbye to Barranquilla proper! These tree-lined carreras and hectic market stalls and sweaty buses and curious neighbors and your contradictions and colors and challenges and hopes are now a happy place for me, and I’ll be back.

Next weekend, in fact!