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!”

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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!)

New Year’s Resolutions

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“It’s that time of year again…”

When the clock strikes midnight in a few hours from now, I will be very happy to see the end of 2015 and to look forward to beginning of 2016. Overall, 2015 was a very challenging yet rewarding year for me with many new experiences, new perspectives on life, and changes to my lifestyle.

I immersed myself in traveling to different cities and countries, becoming better at being a teacher, and developing my abilities as a writer through this blog that I’ve been experimenting with for the last few months. I think that I have grown as a person into someone more mature, wise, and knowledgeable.

2016 is going to be another big, life-changing year for me and over the next few weeks, I will be divulging about how my life will be different soon and what changes will be made to this burgeoning blog of mine as well.

I have never really been that big on New Year’s Resolutions but I think that it is an admirable concept to try your best to set goals and make improvements for the coming year. As human beings, we must always try to improve and better ourselves in any way that we can. Without further ado, here are my personal resolutions in 2016:

1) Continue to improve my Spanish language skills and reach an advanced level of proficiency.

2) Develop the layout, style, and substance of my blog and develop a stricter and more refined posting schedule.

3) Improve and become better as an English as a Second Language Teacher so that my students can continue to benefit from my knowledge and expertise.

4) Working out at the gym, running, and other forms of exercise are important to do for myself three to four times per week. This also goes along with maintaining a good diet and nutrition in order to stay healthy.

5) Make an effort to stay in touch with my family and my close friends around the world wherever they are.

6) Learn how to dance Salsa and develop some moves. I’m really serious about this one in particular.

7) Keep traveling, exploring new places, and gaining a better appreciation for different cultures and ways of life. This will prove to be key for me in 2016.

To all of my readership and those who support my blog, Thank you very much and I want to wish everyone a very happy and healthy new year. Here’s to a great 2016!

 

Expanding National Service

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“Congress agrees…but will that turn into actual legislation in the future?”

If you are a young American thinking about what to do next with your life after finishing high school or college, and you’re interested in serving greater causes than your own personal goals and pursuits, you should seriously consider becoming a volunteer. You may have your own preferences when it comes to serving but what matters is that you choose to do something to give back to those in your country and those around the world who are less fortunate than yourself. Your career goals, your family, and even your friends will understand if you choose to put things on hold for a few years, especially if you’re in your 20s still. You may like your volunteer service so much that you choose to make a career out of it too.

Currently, in the United States, a country which continues to be divided more and more along political and economic fault lines, I think it is vital that young Americans choose to put their differences aside and contribute to bettering their country or the wider world in some measurable way. Volunteering or serving a community can help you to become a better person and a better citizen. There are many options out there if you decide to take the leap and apply for some programs. Not only will you be doing good for a school, a community, a city, etc., you will be helping your own future out with the experience, knowledge, and skills that you will gain from the type of service you commit to.

Contrary to popular belief, joining the Military, while a very noble and brave pursuit, is not the only way to serve one’s country or community. There are many other options for those of us in the United States. The most popular volunteer programs include AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, Habitat for Humanity, CommunityHealth Corps, Teach for America, City Year, FEMA Corps, etc. Those are some of the most well-known and reputable organizations and agencies that have successfully made in a difference in the lives of thousands of people both in the United States and around the world. Besides these national programs, there is also thousands of other more local and community-based volunteer service organizations located in different towns and cities across America. While the options to serve are out there in global, national, and local settings, most young people do not commit to any type of service after college and choose instead to go into the private sector and begin their careers right away.

While the number of applications number in the thousands and continue to grow for service programs like Teach for America and the Peace Corps, there are not nearly enough spots available for all the young people who would like to serve but can’t due to a lack of funding or not enough spaces for them. Demand is not the overall issue when it comes to the issue of national service but rather the supply. Less than 1% of the American population currently serves in the Military and while other national service programs enroll tens of thousands of volunteers and the competition to get accepted is intense, only 25% of adult Americans are known have served in some capacity, which is quite a low number when you think about it.

Senator John McCain of Arizona and U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal recently wrote an excellent Op-Ed article for CNN where they also argued for an expansion of choices and options when it comes to national service for young Americans. They both believe that this issue is non-partisan and should be heartily agreed upon by both political parties and the American public as well. They go on to discuss the idea of a year or more of mandatory national service in order to foster a greater sense of citizenship, mutual investment, and commitment among young people for the country and the world. I agree with their sentiment wholeheartedly.

While there are a great amount of people my age who commit a few years in their 20’s to public and national service, many of my fellow citizens do not have the chance to or do not want to. Mandating a year or two of national service for all American citizens after college or high school would be an excellent policy idea and would be a great benefit to institutions like Teach for America, AmeriCorps, etc. Creating the opportunity for every young American to give back to their community and country is a noble endeavor and can only help the future rather than hinder it.

Overall trust in the American government, national institutions, and even other citizens are at all-time lows. Expanding opportunities for young Americans to serve would be a great way to begin to restore that faith and confidence in our civil society, and to rebuild that national fabric that holds us together as one people. Recent legislative efforts like the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act and the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps have been great in expanding national service in certain ways by increasing AmeriCorps membership by 250,000 volunteers per year and focusing on putting more resources towards improving our national parks and forests respectively.

However, none of the legislation thus far has gone far enough to make at least one year of national service mandatory for every citizen and to provide enough opportunities and programs available to make it a feasible commitment. I would hope that the next President and Congress will strive to involve more young people in building a better America and a better world. One or more years of national service from millions of young Americans would make such a positive and sizable impact on the country as a whole. It would be definitely worth the money it would take to make this public policy idea a reality.

As President Theodore Roosevelt once said, “We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune.”

Sources:

1.) https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/therootdc/post/why-volunteer-programs-like-the-peace-corps-teach-for-america-reward-children/2012/02/02/gIQAOXl8mQ_blog.html
2.) http://www.cnn.com/2015/08/10/opinions/mccain-mcchrystal-national-service-legislation/
3.) http://www.nationalservice.gov/about/legislation/edward-m-kennedy-serve-america-act
4.)http://www.nationalservice.gov/sites/default/files/documents/10_0421_saa_implementation.pdf
5.) http://www.mccain.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/2015/8/senators-john-mccain-michael-bennet-introduce-bill-to-expand-national-service-opportunities-for-american-youth
6.) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-brown/americorps-funding_b_1280200.html
7.) http://www.people-press.org/2014/11/13/public-trust-in-government/
8.) http://21csc.org/

A Walk In The Woods

“I shall be telling this with a sigh, somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

-Robert Frost (1874-1963)

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Camera: Canon PowerShot SX710 HS

Location: Caleb Smith State Park, New York

Made In America?

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Have you ever noticed this small yet important detail when you’re out at the store buying a consumer good whether it’s a pair of pants, a carpet, or some brand new shoes? For those of you who are confused right now, there’s a tag attached to the item indicating that the final product was “Made in …..” which indicates the origin of the country the good has come from. I doubt that most people notice this small detail when they’re out shopping and it’s probably not their biggest concern.

However, I do believe it’s very important as consumers to know where our goods and services are coming from and to what sort of quality they are made. It’s also important to ask the question of these companies who make these consumer products, both foreign and domestic, how well are they treating their employees and what do they pay them for their hard work? Do they receive good health benefits and vacation time? Are the working conditions in their factories and shops safe and hospitable?

I have noticed that most of the clothing, household items, and electronic products that I have bought were not made in the United States. I am not against wearing or buying consumer goods that were created and manufactured in other countries. However, I do worry that we are relying too heavily on these foreign-made products in our daily lives instead of having some of these same goods made in the U.S.A., which could improve the lives of many people looking for decent-paying jobs. Many abandoned and dilapidated factories, plants, and mills could be re-opened again if we change the way we look at free trade.

According to the official and most recent numbers on United States International Trade Data, there was a sizable overall trade deficit in goods and services of $43.9 billion dollars in October of 2015. Since ‘The Great Recession of 2007-2008’, the trade balance has not changed greatly in terms of lowering the overall deficit. Over the past five years alone, the monthly trade deficit has ranged from $40 to $65 billion. There has been very little sign of this trade imbalance being decreasingly significantly or being entirely eliminated recently. This means that the U.S. is importing a much larger quantity of goods than we are exporting overseas. While some people would argue that this is not a big deal, I would say that in order to grow the economy at a higher output and decrease unemployment further, increasing our exports overseas with the stamp “Made in America” should be a higher priority especially with the upcoming presidential election.

With the decline in American manufacturing, the U.S. has increasingly looked to its trading partners overseas to fill the void that has been created. Due to free-trade agreements such as NAFTA and the recent passing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, many American companies and jobs have moved overseas causing the trade deficit to increase over the past generation. This has led to many good-paying middle class jobs with health and other benefits to disappear. There has also been a steady decline in the Unions and their total membership and influence within the U.S.

Examples of the shift towards the growing importation of manufactured goods and products that used to be made in here at home can be found in companies such as Wal-Mart and Apple. These iconic companies that were created by Americans such as Steve Jobs and Sam Walton have changed significantly like many others since their early days. They have become multi-national in nature and have expanded their facilities and operations to multiple countries around the world. Even though their company headquarters are in Silicon Valley and in the heartland of Arkansas, these companies are not taxed like other U.S. companies and carry out their manufacturing and production of goods from overseas suppliers.

American workers are known to be more expensive to train and hire than those workers found in countries such as China, Vietnam, and Cambodia. That’s an unfortunate truth that has led many companies to take the easy way out by calculating how much they would save due to the fact that foreign labor is cheaper. For these firms, there is little to no need to worry about strict labor laws that don’t exist outside the U.S. and other parts of the Western world. For example, huge multi-national companies such as Apple have used subsidiary companies like the ‘Foxconn Technology Group’ for years in order to manufacture their iPhones and other high-tech products. There have been many investigative reports done by The New York Times and other news outlets about the harsh working conditions, poor salary, long hours, and reported suicides and riots occurring at these plants in China.

In a lot of developing countries, the taxes associated with doing business are much cheaper which allows a lot of big manufacturing firms to operate there more freely. Even though multinational companies have to pay U.S. taxes on the profits that they earn from products that they make and sell in other countries, Apple and others can avoid paying these taxes by re-investing their profits made from outside the U.S. on overseas factories, stores, warehouses, etc. Because of that, they won’t have to pay the higher taxes. It’s a significant loophole that hasn’t been closed yet and allows U.S. companies to store billions in profits overseas. “Apple is not alone in this strategy. U.S. companies have $2.1 trillion in foreign profit stashed overseas, according to Capital Economics.”

Once the multi-national companies decide to move their manufacturing and production operations overseas, it’s very difficult to bring them back to the U.S. Competitors like China have the infrastructure and a vast amount of workers willing to work in the factors for these supplier companies. It is the responsibility of companies like Apple to break their agreements with manufacturing giants like Foxconn if they ever decided to move their production operations back to the U.S. However, Apple would have to invest in billions of dollars to build these new factories and pay these workers a fair wage with benefits. This proposition is entirely unlikely to occur in the near future for Apple, Wal-Mart, GE, and others to move their manufacturing back to the U.S. due to the higher taxes, the higher costs of the workers and their desire to make the most profits that they can secure.

Free trade is a complicated subject but I decided to write about this issue because I think as consumers, we should know where our money is going. I am guilty like many other Americans in supporting these popular multi-national companies who have gotten away with sketchy business practices and who have shied away from creating jobs here in the U.S. However, it’s never too late to be informed about where your clothes, your cars, and your electronics come from. Do your research and be informed about these issues.

Globalization and free trade have lifted millions of people out of poverty and allowed many countries to boost their economies but it’s also led to a higher amount of competition, the stagnation of wages, and many environmental concerns. I am not a protectionist and I believe that some free trade is good. However, it’s more important than ever that we support fair trade and business practices from these companies. Workers around the world should be treated fairly with good wages, good health and vacation benefits, and they shouldn’t be taken advantage of whether they are located in Saigon or Detroit.

We have free trade with other countries so that we can exchange goods and services with them to better our economies and our peoples. Lets’ not create a situation where we are importing more goods than we should be at the expense of the American worker and taxpayer. These companies need to be held accountable for what they do both here in the U.S. and overseas.

I would encourage everyone reading this entry to think about where your goods and products come from. If you have the chance and opportunity to do so, I would argue that you should try to buy from the U.S. companies making the goods and services right here in America. I am not against buying foreign goods either but we have to know whether these large companies out there are playing by the rules and are not being exploitative.

By ‘Buying American’, it’s good to show those small businesses and firms that we still support them and that we want them to succeed. If you would like to support buying American-made goods and products, check out this website: http://madeinusachallenge.com/ (Made In America – Master List)

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