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.
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.
Last weekend, I was invited to recite a poem at two different events: the first was a Peace Corps poetry jam hosted by the Oiste volunteer magazine team; the second was the annual poetry and music exhibition in Pradomar, commemorating Julio Flórez, a famous local poet.
I wrote a poem about my experience with language acquisition, in which I have reached a point where the two syntaxes, cultures and, ultimately, identities meet, in a single, confusing mindset called Spanglish.
My brain speaks Spanglish–half and half, whatever comes out first. And that’s kind of how my concept of self has become–no longer wholly a single culture or perspective, but a mix of two.
“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. ]
I took the better part of last week’s Semana Santa break to relax in Minca, a tiny mountain town about four hours from my site (bearing in mind multiple buses, taxis and jeep rides.) We have a PCV in Minca, so I was lucky to get her keys and her hammock for the week while she was out of town.
I’ve been feeling pretty jaded lately, and overwhelmed with the amount of work I want to finish in the limited time left of my service. I needed to get out of my site for a refresher and a change of perspective.
So I spent the week just reading in the hammock, trail running, walking to the waterfalls and drinking coffee from the local coffee farms.
Sometimes, all we need is a little break away from the usual–a change of scenery, some time offline and a to-do list that only consists of “relax, rest, repeat.”
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!
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.