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.
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.