A Trip to Minca

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This past weekend, I was able to make my first road trip here in Colombia with a few fellow Peace Corps trainees. When I found out that we would be going to visit a current volunteer in the Magdalena department, a different and very unique, beautiful part of Colombia that is much different from where I have been currently living in Atlántico.

It was quite the trip for the four of us trainees, as we had to use three different modes of transportation such as cars, taxis, and buses in order to get to our final destination. However, the scenery and landscape changes that we were able to see and enjoy could not be matched. Going from the savanna/dry flatlands of Atlántico to the lush tropical mountains and hillsides of Magdalena was quite fascinating for me. It was almost as if we had transported ourselves to a different country but in fact, we were only four or so hours away from our original starting point.

This small road trip was able to put into perspective for me just how biodiverse and unique Colombia is as a nation. I have only seen a little bit of the wide range of landscapes and scenery that this country has to offer but I have been really impressed with how different it is even when just describing the Atlantic coast. Along with China and the United States, Colombia ranks as one of the most bio-diverse and naturally rich countries in the world, which is amazing considering its size compared to those two aforementioned countries. I really do hope to see as much as Colombia as I can and to be able to see how diverse and unique it really is.

Getting back to the trip, it was smooth traveling for us all even when we had to take a car halfway up the mountain to about an altitude about 1,000 meters. Our host, a current Peace Corps volunteer in Colombia was generous, gracious, and showed us around the town of Minca and all it has to offer. When you’re up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, you can indulge in a lot of different outdoor activities.

Minca recently has become a more popular tourist hotspot with cafes, restaurants, and small hostels being filled with French, German, and other European tourists. It is difficult to conclude whether or not the locals of Minca have benefited or not from this influx of tourists who have come to see the natural sights and sounds. I would argue that this is part of a growing trend for Colombia as more and more tourists come to explore the country given that the safety and security situation has been improving.

During our short stay in Minca, we were able to meet some of the locals who have benefited from the Peace Corps’ volunteer being there to help with their English. In addition to working full-time at the school, the volunteer here gives English lessons to adults and also those business owners who would like to have a decent level of proficiency for dealing with the incoming tourists. I really admired the hard work and effort that the volunteer has put in to the community there and the close comradery, affection that the local people have for the volunteer too.

In addition, the teachers and students at the school in Minca welcomed us with open arms and allowed us to observe their lessons, answer their questions, and answer our many questions as well. I believe that it will be vitally important for myself, as a volunteer-to-be is to establish a productive and successful working relationship with my Colombian counter-part. It’s also important to really get to know all of the students in the school on some level and be able to interact with them, which should help when it comes to classroom learning.

We were truly lucky to spend a day with a current Peace Corps volunteer and to observe them at work and at home to see what kind of life may await us for our two years of service. Minca is a really peaceful, unique town nestled in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The beautiful vistas, and the cascading waterfalls will stay in my memory for a long time.

Even if my site placement puts me far from that type of location and environment, I definitely hope to be able to visit the Magdalena department of Colombia soon again. If for anything else for the fact that I really enjoy hiking up the mountains, breaking into a sweat, and then cooling off by diving into the cool, refreshing waters of the many waterfalls to be found there. Stay tuned for more road trips in the future. Colombia is a very big country and I hope to visit more places here in the future.

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The Beauty of Magdalena

Location: Magdalena Department, Colombia.

Photos taken with the iPod Touch, 6th Generation.

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Atlántico

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“My host family here for the next three months of training gave me an extremely warm and kind welcome.”

Over a week has passed since I arrived in Barranquilla, Colombia with the other Peace Corps Trainees from our CII-8 group but it seems like more time than that with all of the changes and moving around that we have done in such a short amount of time. Each of us has since relocated to different rural towns and communities outside of Barranquilla where we were each introduced and have become acquainted with our first host families here in Colombia for the first three months of our training.

The Atlantico department of Colombia has an interesting climate to say the least. It is very hot and humid here but the rainy season here is not slated to begin until around April or May. However, this month and hopefully in February, there is a very strong wind breeze coming from the coast that cools down the temperature a little bit which is a very welcome relief. From what I have heard from others, this is only temporary and does not stick around for the rest of the calendar year. Oh well.

I can’t speak for the other trainees but I have been extremely happy with my 1st host family here and how they have received me so far. They have been very hospitable, kind, and helpful to me especially when it comes to improving my Spanish and preparing excellent food for me. I currently live with a grandmother, her husband, and her grandson. Besides the Spanish classes that we are enrolled in as part of our training, I have enjoyed conversing with my host family in Spanish and learning the local slang words and phrases. The locals here known as Costeños, (People from the Caribbean coast of Colombia) tend to speak very quickly so it’s quite the challenge sometimes to understand everything but it will only help me in the long run to develop my fluency.

It’s been a real pleasure meeting the people in my community so far and sharing with them where I’m from, who I am, and why I’m here in Colombia. The locals in my community are very curious about the Peace Corps and what we are all about. This is the first time for many of them with meeting an American so I hope to make a good impression on behalf of my country and its people. In addition to Spanish classes, I hope to get involved in some community projects during my three-month stay here. My fellow Peace Corps trainees and I were lucky enough to meet some local officials along with the Mayor and we hope to be of any assistance to the community if it is necessary.

Families live within walking distance of each other and the bond between neighbors is much stronger and closer than what I’ve seen in the United States. That’s one of the first things that struck me about my community as well. Everybody knows each other pretty well and they each look out for one another. It’s really cool to see families hanging out and children playing together when the heat lets up and the sun sets down.

One thing that I underestimated before coming to Colombia was the sheer passion and love that the people have here for the game of football (futbol). It doesn’t matter what age you are or which neighborhood you are from. All you need is a few friends, a sturdy ball, your feet, and a makeshift goal/net and you have yourself a game. I have enjoyed bonding with my younger neighbors and other kids in the community by playing some football with them at the local field (cancha) or in the park. Regardless of language miscommunications that are bound to happen, football has a universal language that everyone can enjoy at the end of the day.

For the Colombians who are living in rural communities, access to the Internet is not easy to come by. I was very pleased to see that the local government here has recently set up a new Internet (Wi-fi) cafe with laptops for locals to share and use for a very minimal cost per hour. In addition, there is a small conference center for meetings, and a room for young people to hang out and play some video games after school lets out. From what I have noticed so far, there is a lot of construction going on and a lot of development, which is exciting to see.

In addition to the many motorcycles, motorcars that take families and friends from place to place within and outside our community, there are also these large buses that transport Colombians to and from Barranquilla. They remind me a lot of the dolmuşes that I used during my time living in Istanbul where for a small cost, they would ferry the stuffed in passengers from neighborhood to neighborhood. However, the difference here in Colombia is that these buses are a little bigger than the dolmuşes that I used there and they also are much more colorful. Each bus is unique in the colors that it has, the symbols and pictures that are used, and also with the kind of music that is being played through the speakers. It seems to me that these are buses that you would only find to be used in Colombia though. Some symbols are religious in meaning on the buses as they would be on the dolmuşes but other symbols represent cartoons, historical figures, etc. The cool fact of it is that each bus has a different name, different colors, and has a different saying for its passengers to read and enjoy.

In a way, these buses could represent the Colombian people. Colorful, full of life, and not shy when it comes to avoid a traffic jam at rush hour. One week in and I am starting to understand why Colombians are often ranked as one of the happiest, if not the happiest people in the world. More entries from me to come in the near future. Until then, “Que le vaya bien!”

Staging and Arrival in Barranquilla

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The day has finally come and I have made it safely to Colombia. It has been an extremely eventful week so far and I am very happy to be apart of the CII-8 volunteer trainee group as apart of the U.S. Peace Corps. Everyone in my cohort has been extremely friendly and helpful so far and I look forward to training with them over the next three months so that we can be sworn in as official Volunteers serving in Colombia. It’s a real pleasure for me to meet all of the great people from around the United States who have committed themselves to the Peace Corps for the next 27 months.

The only bad part of this trip so far was the rather tedious and stressful flight from New York to Miami on American Airlines which provides much better international service than domestic service. I arrived in Miami on Monday afternoon after a tumultuous morning but I was happy to be reunited with a good friend of mine from college who showed me around the Miami Beach area.

The anticipation and excitement had caused me to lose sleep over these past few days and that built up to a crescendo when I arrived to the hotel on Tuesday morning for ‘Staging’ with the other volunteers-to-be. After a long day of orientation, icebreakers, and getting to know my fellow invitees to Peace Corps Colombia, I capped off the ‘Staging’ event by going to an excellent Cuban restaurant called “La Rosa” which I would recommend to anyone reading this blog. Fantastic food and a great atmosphere.

Finally, the moment had arrived yesterday when we gathered our many bags and backpacks and headed off together to the Miami Airport. After checking-in, going through security, and arriving at the gate, we were on our way to Colombia. Compared to my usual flights overseas, this was extremely easy to handle as it was only a 3-hour flight and the service, hospitality is much improved for an international trip from American Airlines thankfully.

Since arriving, the other invitees and I have been extremely busy with meetings, paperwork, and briefings designed to help ease our transition into life in Colombia. This is necessary for us to all take part in because this weekend, we will be moving out to small pueblos outside of Barranquilla to begin our three months of technical and language training before we can be sworn-in as official volunteers.

I am extremely grateful and pleased with the support of all of the staff and the current Peace Corps volunteers. Those currently serving have been a great resource to us in answering our questions and helping us out. I was especially pleased with how enthusiastically and warmly we were greeted at the airport by the current staff and volunteers here in Colombia.

Barranquilla seems like a very nice city from what I’ve seen so far and reminds me a lot of Miami although much more humid and down-to-earth. Thankfully, there is a very nice wind breeze coming in from the Caribbean Sea to the north of us so the hot weather is much more bearable during this month although this is likely to change in the Spring. This will only be a short-stay here in the city before we meet our Colombian host families for the next three months.

Lastly, I am excited to begin my training to become an official Volunteer and am committed to my mission and goals here in Colombia. It’s been a long journey to get to this point but I am ready for the work to begin and I am very happy to be here.

A New Adventure Awaits

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U.S. Peace Corps in Colombia – I’m excited to serve and ready for this journey to begin.

In just one week from now, I will begin my training to become a Volunteer for the United States Peace Corps in Colombia starting in mid-January of 2016. For my three months of training, I will be living in a town called Santo Tomas, which is about 45 minutes outside of Barranquilla. For my work and living situation, after I’m sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I will be located in a site close to the Atlantic Coast of Colombia close to the cities of either Barranquilla, Santa Marta, or Cartagena. The school where I will be teaching and the community that I will be living in has not been announced yet due to the fact that I haven’t completed my training yet.

This will not be my first time living overseas for an extended period of time. Previously, I lived in Istanbul, Turkey last year as an ESL teacher at a private high school. I also studied for a semester at Bogazici University in Istanbul as well when I was in college. My first overseas living experience occurred when I was 16 years old in Costa Rica where I studied Spanish for a summer there in a language homestay program. I have become quite comfortable with adjusting to a new lifestyle and territory by now. However, it still may take me a few months to adapt to the new culture and hot climate.

My family and my friends have been very supportive of my decision over the past year and a half to pursue service in the U.S. Peace Corps. It’s not easy to be away from your family and friends for a long period of time but they all know about the good work that I will be doing in Colombia. They understand the importance of volunteering and serving. I would not be where I am today without the support of my father, mother, and my brother especially. They have been great to me throughout the whole application and selection process.

My main project while serving in Colombia will be developing, and improving upon the ‘Teaching English for Livelihoods’ program. I hope to work with local Colombian teachers to advance the English curriculum and materials that they are using to teach the students. I believe that with hard work and effort, we can make real progress in creating an effective way of teaching English and improving the English proficiency levels of the Colombian students. I also would like to expand upon tutoring and after-school programs related to English learning and making sure that the students see learning English as fun and useful to them.

I look forward to being apart of a new school and a new community. I am excited to explore my surroundings and to learn about the Colombian culture and their customs. I will be very happy to work with my Colombian colleagues as well at the school and hope that I can make a real difference in improving the English level of the students that I hope to help during my service. I want to immerse myself in becoming fluent in Spanish, learning the local dances, and tasting the Colombian cuisine as well.

My motivation to join Peace Corps was because of a number of different factors. I had a desire to volunteer and serve a purpose greater than myself. I felt that I could contribute a lot to the Peace Corps’ Education sector given my previous background and experiences as an ESL teacher. I wanted to explore a new country and a new culture as well. Spanish was the first foreign language that I learned as well so I hope to use this exciting opportunity to become fluent and to connect more easily with the locals in my community. It was also important to me to volunteer and contribute to the wider world in some way. I hope I can be an example to other Americans who want to be part of something bigger than themselves but are not sure where to begin.

When I leave Colombia, I want to leave behind a school and community that is better off than it was before I arrived. My main goal is to help the local teachers to develop an effective English language curriculum that will last for many years after I depart them. I hope to foster better relations between Americans and Colombians through my actions and my relationships that I hope to build between our two peoples.

I wish to help as many students as possible with their English language skills whether its through tutoring, after-school programs, etc. so that they can become bilingual and have a brighter future. Above all else, I would like to make new, lasting friendships and to be considered an honorary member of their community by the time I leave.

I leave in less than a week and I’m excited to begin and complete my training over the next three months. All I have left is the final packing of my bags and I’m off to Miami for the staging event!

There will be a change of focus for my blog from this point forward as I will focus on writing about my experiences and adventures living in Colombia. I hope to write about the cuisine, customs, culture, and food of my adopted country for the next 27 months. I hope that you will follow me on this exciting journey. Thank you very much for your continuing viewership and support. (Muchas Gracias y Saludos para todos! Vamonos!)

Reverse Culture Shock In The USA

“Adjusting to one’s home country and culture can take a while. This graph sums it up quite well.”

After being away from the United States, my home country, for the past year, I have been dealing with ‘reverse culture shock’ since I have returned as many people who come back to their home culture experience after an extended time overseas. There is a natural recovery and adjustment process but it takes time to get back into the swing of things. As a writer, I like to gather my thoughts on paper about what I have noticed about my home country since returning from my time spent overseas. These observations have helped me to deal with my ‘reverse culture shock’ so far and to comment on what could be improved or changed to make my country better. I have traveled to 20 other countries, and have lived in Turkey and Costa Rica thus far so I believe I have some knowledge about how the U.S. compares to the rest of the world in different ways.

I would like to note that I do love my country and have enjoyed being born and growing up here. The United States is a great country and I only wish to see it become better and better in the future. I intend to use this blog post to merely bring up some outstanding issues and problems that the U.S. must deal with as a whole. No country I’ve lived in or have been to will ever be perfect and every country has different flaws/issues to work out. That’s part of the reason why I love to travel and explore the world. It’s interesting to see the variation among cultures and societies along with how they tackle their own internal and external problems to make their own countries better. Listed below are the items that I write in detail about which have caused me some ‘reverse culture shock’ since my return to the United States in late July of 2015.

  1. Lack of Using the Metric System in the 21st Century: The U.S. is one of only three nations in the world who don’t fully use the Metric System (International System of Units, SI). Liberia, Myanmar are currently our only counterparts in this anomaly. There’s no excuse for that and it harms our international commerce procedures and our ability to conduct foreign relations properly.
  2. Lack of High Speed Rail, and Efficient Public Transportation: This can be quite jarring after visiting developed nations like Germany, France and also from what I have read about China and Japan who are way ahead of the U.S. in developing high-speed rail networks. Part of this is the fault of state governors who refuse federal stimulus funding for high-speed rail projects. (Examples: Wisconsin, Florida, Ohio, etc.)
  3. Large and Unhealthy Food Portions: This may be part of the reason for the ongoing obesity problem in the country. I’m all for enjoying a good meal of course but I think the food portions I’ve had in the U.S. have been the biggest than all of the other countries that I’ve visited so far. I also believe that having ‘free refills’ and ‘soda fountains’ at restaurants, while a tempting proposition, is not something that should be offered to promote a healthy diet.
  4. Reliance on Tipping (Mandatory?) to pay workers’ wages: I’m fine with throwing in an extra 10% on top of my meal and tax for good service but I don’t believe it should be 15-20% every time in order for these workers to meet and go above their very low hourly Minimum Wage as ‘tipped workers’. I believe that these service workers in the U.S. should be paid a higher minimum wage altogether by law and that they should be guaranteed a good wage each shift rather than fighting for tips each day.
  5. Obesity crisis and an astounding proportion of adults/children who are overweight: It’s a drain on an already expensive health care system and contributes to our total health care expenses. There needs to be more emphasis in our society on daily exercise and getting out of the house for both children and adults. Healthier eating and taking a walk/going for a run each day can go a long way to helping to solve this problem. I believe that companies and schools should play a larger role in keeping their employees/students in good physical shape with certain incentives.
  6. Heavy reliance on cars, trucks and other motor vehicles to get around suburban and urban areas: There is a lack of walking around towns and cities because there is much more sprawl and open space in the U.S. However, I believe that having trams/streetcars, more extensive public bus transportation systems in both suburban and urban areas could relieve part of the traffic jams and gridlock that affects a lot of the country nowadays.
  7. Big Businesses and Corporations get the benefit of the doubt too often: When it comes to beating out smaller businesses and enterprises, these big box stores are winning out. These major companies contribute to this problem by monopolizing their industry and not allowing others to compete in a free market environment. This, in part, contributes to suburban sprawl because these huge megastores contribute to the layout that contributes to the car culture. (i.e. Wal-Mart, Bed Bath and Beyond, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Best Buy). I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a family-owned coffee shop in my town or neighborhood. There are three Starbucks’ around though for a good cup of joe…
  8. General lack of curiosity about foreign cultures and peoples: Many Americans do not speak a 2nd language or don’t pay attention to international affairs beyond what they learned about briefly in high school and college. This is a generalization but I still believe it applies to the majority of people within this vast country. Still, only about 30-35% of Americans own a Passport. I would encourage more Americans to travel and see the world especially if they’re younger. Taking a “gap year” before or after college would be a good way to travel and there are ‘work-study’ programs available for Americans to take advantage of in western European countries (Ireland, UK, etc.) along with Australia.
  9. Very conservative laws about alcohol possession and consumption: “21” as the minimum legal age for consuming alcohol makes no sense to me especially considering you can start operating a motor vehicle at 16, join the military at 18 and also vote for President and other elected officials at that same age. Having someone check your ID to get into bars/clubs or at a sporting event to purchase beer or wine is also ridiculous. I’ve seen people in their 40’s and 50’s get carded when they are clearly over the legal age here. The United States is one of the few countries where the drinking age is 21 along with Pakistan, the UAE, and Indonesia.
  10. Mind-numbing advertisements: I have noticed that there are way too many drug commercials (Cialis, Prozac, Ambien etc.) that appear on television especially during the day. In the U.S., We are constantly bombarded in our homes, in public events, on public transportation, etc. with these silly advertisements. It’s predictably a way for marketers to get people to feel insecure enough about themselves to want to buy things to fill some kind of missing “void” in our lives.
  11. Political Gridlock / No ability to get big things done legislatively: The recent threats of a government shutdown, the debt ceiling threats, continuous gerrymandering, the electoral college deciding a Presidential election instead of the popular vote, too much of an influence of organized money in politics in the upcoming 2016 elections, (Citizens United decision). These occurrences harm our ability to boost our education system, solve long-term Medicare and Medicaid solvency along with the broken immigration system and the need for more investments in our antiquated transportation and infrastructure systems.
  12. Expensive costs of Higher Education: A lot of Western countries completely subsidize higher education institutions but the United States has seen a rapid growth in the amount of students going into debt to pay for college and graduate school. There have also have been cuts over the years to the Public University systems in certain states such as California. Wages have not kept up with inflation and the pace of tuition increases is out of control. $1 trillion of total student debt is disturbing and is a poor reflection of our country’s priorities.
  13. High level of income inequality between the richest and poorest Americans: The top 1% of Americans earns about 20% of the total national income. This is unacceptable and shows a widening gulf between the wealthy and poor. This level of inequality is at its’ highest since the gilded age of the 1920’s. Many economists say this is one, if not the top economic issue facing the country into the future. If not dealt with, our country runs the risk of turning into an actual “banana republic.”
  14. Too much emphasis on Military Spending: The U.S. continues to spend more on its military and armed forces at about 650 billion dollars total. This is 40% of the total world share and is more than the next 11-12 nations combined. It may only account for 4% of the total Gross Domestic Product but has much more of an influence on the federal budget than State, HUD, Education, HHS, EPA combined. The Cold War has been over for twenty years and the wars of the 21st century will be fought through specialized forces, by drones, or over the cyber-web so there’s no need for such an expansive budget into the future. It’s important to maintain a strong military but a nation should have other priorities as well and balance them out successfully.
  15. Our prison system needs real reform: The United States has the largest incarceration rate in the world. 2.3 million citizens are in its jails which is 22% of the world’s total amount of incarcerated prisoners, (Source: World Prison Population). Unfortunately, we are ahead of other nations such as Russia, Iran, China, UAE, etc. when it comes to this rather dubious distinction. While the Netherlands is closing down prisons because of a lack of need, my country continues to build up a massive private prison industry which is unheard of in most other industrialized nations. This is, in part, a result of the failed “War on Drugs” which involves serious sentencing measures for non-violent drug offenders. Recently, politicians in both major parties in the U.S. have called for prison and sentencing reform but no concrete legislation has been passed by Congress and signed by the President up until this point.

The Benefits of Learning a Foreign Language

“There’s so many languages to learn and so little time to master them. What are you waiting for?”

 Learning a foreign language often gets overlooked by those people who like to travel to different countries and have fun adventures, unique experiences but refuse to learn the local tongue while they are traveling. However, A large part of truly integrating yourself into a foreign culture when living overseas is to develop a working proficiency in the local language. When you make the effort to learn the language, it truly makes a difference both to those in the new community and/or country in which you’re residing. If you consider yourself to be a worldly person who likes to travel, you must also seek to become well-versed in foreign languages.

 The locals will respect you more and you also stand out from the other tourists and expatriates who only know the basic phrases and words even though some of them have been there for a longer period of time than you. Especially in a professional context, learning foreign languages makes you stand out in many different types of businesses and industries today. I’ve met so many people from around the world during my recent experience of living overseas who are very successful and are fluent in three to four global languages including English, French, Spanish, etc. One of my personal goals in life is to be fluent in three to four languages excluding my native tongue of English.

 I’ve been pretty successful thus far in developing a good proficiency in Spanish, Turkish, and with some basic knowledge of German and Arabic. I hope to keep improving my foreign language background as I go through my 20’s. One of the best things about language learning is that it’s never too late to start and to see how far you can develop your proficiency in it. I’ve heard that it does get harder though as you become older and that it takes more and more work to learn a foreign language starting in your 30’s and beyond. Even if you don’t want to really become fluent, it makes all the difference really in just having those basic 25–50 words and phrases that you learned and memorized before you head off for your travels to new countries and foreign locales.

 There are a lot of cognitive benefits to knowing more than one language and there is a lot of research to back this statement up. (For example; Source –http://www.actfl.org/advocacy/what-the-research-shows) It helps your mind stay sharp and it allows you to see the world in a different way. It’s hard to describe but by thinking in multiple languages, it makes your mind much more agile and able to think creatively, and to analyze thoughts much more deeply.

 I think that every person should learn a foreign language even if it’s just the basic phrases and sayings. There are so many free and cheap ways to learn a foreign language these days. For example, Duolingo is an excellent web application that is free to try and use. There are also many websites nowadays where you can hire a native speaker of a foreign language to tutor you in a private lesson for an hour for only $15–20 which is quite affordable.

 The fact that foreign language learning goes neglected sometimes in the United States is a real shame. However, regardless of where you’re from, even though you may have never picked another language up when you were younger doesn’t mean it’s not still possible.(http://qz.com/453297/many-european-kids-…cans-zero/) Hopefully, everyone who reads this blog entry will think hard and long about giving foreign languages another go of it and to make it part of your personal development. It’s challenging yet rewarding and there are many benefits to it, both professionally and personally.