First and Last Projects

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“Teamwork makes the dream work.”

As apart of my training program to become a Volunteer for Peace Corps – Colombia, my fellow trainees and I have worked hard over these past weeks and months in developing and implementing mini-projects in partnership with our community here in different ways.

Overall, there have been three community projects that we have been working on over these past two months. All of us trainees together have worked on a ‘Limpieza La Comunidad’ or ‘Cleaning up the Community’ project with local citizens in an effort to make the parks and the local river here cleaner and safer for everyone. So far, we have conducted two clean-ups so far during the weekends which have at the central park of our town and then most recently at the ecological park and the area near the football stadium.

It has been a real joy to work with the young people of the community especially. The children and teenagers, who have helped us with the clean-up process the most. They have been extremely enthusiastic and willing to pitch in to assist and work with us. I have worked with one child in particular, named Jesus, age eight, who has helped me specifically with picking up the trash and sweeping the leaves. For both times where we have had our clean-up project in different parks, Jesus has been there to be my partner and help me with my big trash bag. I hope that after we leave for our volunteer sites in mid-April that the children, teenagers, and young people of our current community will become the next leaders of this clean-up effort and will continue these projects and make a sustainable difference in their town.

In addition, my colleagues and I have been able to create two mini-projects related to English education here in the community. A few of my fellow trainees have started a ‘reading buddies’ after-school program where they have read books alongside children and teenagers over the past couple of weeks. Others and myself have worked hard to create a community English class based around conversation lessons that have taken place on Thursday nights and during the weekends.

My fellow trainees and I have split the hours of teaching between ourselves and now provide about three hours a week between the three of us in giving conversational lessons in basic English to those members of the community who want to learn and expressed sincere interest to us in attending our classes. I have been very pleased with the turnout for my community class on Thursday nights and the hard work, engagement that my students have had so far for learning conversational English.

Eight adults showed up for my first class last week and I hope that they will continue coming to class over the next few weeks. For this program, I also hope to designate a leader(s) to continue having English classes within the community. If possible, I will select an adult with the English skills necessary in order to teach his fellow Colombians and keep the class going into the future. I always think back about how lucky I was in the past to pursue my passion for foreign languages and how I was able to take Turkish and Arabic classes at night and also attend Spanish conversation groups as well. It has been great giving that same opportunity to those adults interested in learning my language and developing their conversational proficiency.

Lastly, my fellow trainees and I have successfully completed recently two separate training sessions for the English teachers in our community. The topics have focused around creating speaking and listening activities for their students in an interactive way, as well as working on the pronunciation of difficult sounds in the English language. Both ‘charlas’ or teacher training sessions have been well attended; the teachers were enthusiastic about sharing what they had learned from us and applying this knowledge in their classrooms for the future.

As our first projects finish up over the next few weeks, I can say that we made a meaningful impact in our community during our training program. Each of the trainees has worked hard, provided a lot of time and effort, and have developed good relationships with the local community too. I believe that we can hold our heads up high as we head into April 2016 and the beginning of our formal volunteer service here in Colombia.

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The Heat Is On

One undeniable fact about life here on the Atlantic coastal area of Colombia is the constant heat and humidity. For me, this has been the biggest adjustment that I have had to get used to over the past month or so. Considering it was 20 degrees Fahrenheit and extremely cold when I left New York in mid-January, it was quite the shock to my senses to be experiencing 90 degree weather and 70% humidity on a daily basis here in Colombia especially during the months of January and February, which I have always associated with the Winter season. However, one of the great things about human beings is that we are very adaptable to our environment and our bodies can adjust to different climates without too much trouble. For example: Instead of bundling up in layers, you wear light clothing and show more skin.

Especially in this day and age, it is much easier to deal with the climate then in decades or centuries past. Due to modern technology, it’s much easier to deal both with the heat and humidity than ever before. For my fellow Peace Corps trainees and for those of you out there who want to visit the Atlantic coast of Colombia in the future, I have listed some tips and advice on how to beat the heat:

  • Wear light shirts and pants, preferably of cotton material. Heavy clothing is heavily discouraged and it will give you a chance to upgrade your fashion choices by wearing what the locals wear. Jeans are common here culturally and because it is also much harder for the mosquitos to bite you if you cover your legs as well.
  • Before you leave the house or apartment, wear sunscreen that is strong and reliable. If you’re not careful, you can get a severe case of sunburn and heat stroke. Also, it’s important to put on mosquito repellant in the exposed parts of your body not covered by clothing when you’re walking or running outside in the heat.
  • Wear a hat and put on sunglasses to reduce the sun’s impact on your face and eyes. This has been great for me in protecting myself from any skin problems or eyesight issues because the sun is quite strong.
  • Make sure that you drink plenty of water and hydrate continuously throughout the day. Bags of water are commonly sold here and are great for re-hydration. I would avoid sodas, sports drinks because they are not the best for hydrating yourself. If you need some sugar, then they are good options but Water is king when it comes to keeping your body temperature in line. Lack of hydration can be a real problem here so make sure you’re drinking a couple of liters of water each day.
  • Try to reduce your activities, movements outside during the hours of 2 to 4 PM. In my own experiences here, the heat is strongest and the humidity most oppressive during the mid-day. I would recommend staying inside during those hours and keeping cool at the local café or library. Strenuous physical activity during these hours could be detrimental to your health. It’s also a good opportunity for a nice descanso (rest) if you have some free time after school is over.
  • Besides water, indulge in some ice cream and natural fruit juices to keep your energy levels up. This is my favorite item for this list as I am a sucker for ice cream and cool beverages. It cools you down and it’s a nice reward for yourself after a hard day or week on the job.
  • Travel and time permitting, going to a local villa for some time at the pool and indulging in some cool refreshments is an afternoon well spent on the weekend. Going to the pool is one of my favorite ways to beat the heat and it’s nice to swim, lounge around and relax with friends.
  • Take advantage of the mornings and evenings when it is much less hot and humid out. I’ve heard from my fellow trainees that running in the early morning or exercising in the evening is preferable. I would agree completely that you have to be flexible and try to pick the times of the day where the heat isn’t as extreme and you can exercise without sweating puddles.
  • Hanging out at the library or the local Internet cafe where you can read a good book, catch up on work, and/or use the Wi-Fi is another great option. These places usually have air conditioning and/or strong fans too to help keep you cool.
  • If you’re feeling adventurous, heading to the beach for a day trip or to the local mall, Movie Theater are other great ways to keep cool and round out the ‘Top Ten.’

Finally, do not forget to invest in having a big fan ready to use for those humid nights in your bedroom. Sleeping in 90-degree weather is not easy so make sure you have a fan at your disposal to rest more comfortably. I hope this list is useful for those reading who are thinking of visiting hot and humid places. Despite the challenges that warm climates present to the human body, I still prefer it to the cold and snowy weather that I grew up with in New York. In addition to that, shoveling two feet of snow can be a real pain in the butt.

Carnaval!

 

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“A large crowd gathers to dance, listen to music, and enjoy the beginning of Carnaval 2016 here in Colombia.”

Carnaval Season here in Colombia has officially come and gone. Life here is starting to return to normalcy and I’m sure some of the locals are already beginning to count down to when Carnaval will be back in 2017. This was my first Carnaval ever and I can firmly say that it was some of the most fun I’ve had in a while. In addition to the festive parades and diverse costumes, there were also the live concerts, the neighborhood parties, and the street foods/drinks to add to the already festive atmosphere. Unfortunately, I was unable to make it to Barranquilla’s Carnaval this year but I still was able to enjoy myself by attending other parades, parties, and festivities in the Atlántico department.

The biggest highlight for me during the Carnaval celebrations was attending ‘La Gran Parada’ in one of the major towns located outside of Barranquilla. It was really cool to experience the parade from the seats and be able to enjoy a cold beverage and a warm snack while both the kids and adults danced, sang in their unique costumes as they came streaming down the main parade route.

Historically, Carnaval has been known as the main celebration associated with the Christian festive season that occurs before the period of Lent. There are many Carnaval festivals that happen around the world. The most famous one takes place in Rio de Janeiro, which attracts about a 1 million visitors to Brazil each year. Carnaval in Barranquilla is the 2nd largest in the world and brings in hundreds of thousands of tourists, partygoers as well. For those of us from the United States, we are more familiar with the Mardi Gras celebration and the infamous ‘Fat Tuesday’ which is also known for its size and scope of partying as well.

Before ‘Ash Wednesday’ and the beginning of Lent and the Easter season for Christians around the world, Carnaval represents a shedding of inhibitions, and an enjoyment of the pleasures in life. Some people see it as indulgent in heavy drinking, eating greasy foods, and fraternizing with the opposite sex but other people see it as a way to reconnect with their diverse culture, spending quality time with their family and friends, and enjoying a break from work and the daily grind. For my first Carnaval, I spent the festivities mainly meeting new people in my community, enjoying the company of new friends and my host family, and checking out the cool costumes and cultural dances that make up this very unique holiday.

I also had to deal with the tradition of young children and adults throwing great amounts of Maizena (corn starch) and white foam spray all over random strangers. It occurred multiple times where my clothes and my body, face would be covered with both substances during the festivities. Needless to say, I had to wash my clothes extra hard in order to get the cornstarch / spray out of my clothes and hair as best as I could. Besides getting messy, it was nice to drink a beer in public, eat some good food, watch the parade, and then reconnect with my fellow Peace Corps trainees later to celebrate together.

Carnaval was originally introduced to Colombia and Latin America from the Spaniards during the early days of the colonization hundreds of years ago. However, the celebration has evolved over hundreds of years to reflect the diversity in Colombian culture. In addition to European elements, Carnaval combines those traditions with those of the African, Amerindian indigenous cultures. It is a really interesting mix of cultures combined together and is reflected in the costumes, music, and dancing styles that are put on display in events like ‘La Gran Parada’ and ‘La Batalla de Flores.’ As for the types of music, they are various and diverse.

They include the popular Cumbia, Rumba, Vallenato, Reggaeton, Porro, Mapale, and African Congo music. Finally, it wouldn’t be Carnaval without the King and Queen of the festivities being anointed. For each town and city that is involved in the celebrations here in Carnaval, they must appoint a King and Queen to lead the main parade, to dance up a storm, and to wave to the partygoers in the stands. As far as I can tell in Colombia, being the King or Queen of Carnaval (Rey / Reina) is a huge honor and is very competitive between the young men and women vying for the title to represent their town or even the city of Barranquilla.

After experiencing my first Carnaval, it’s going to be difficult to top that kind of day party in the future. It truly was one of the best times I ever had in terms of celebrating a holiday. The only way I could top it in 2017 and beyond is if I was able to spend some free time and head to Barranquilla for the big kahuna there. I don’t know if it will be logistically possible but we’ll see what happens. If not, there’s always the biggest carnaval in Rio but that can wait until after I finish my Peace Corps service.

 

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.

Costeñol

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The regional and local dialects of the major languages can be found in different countries around the world. Colombia is no exception to this rule. Within the Latin American dialect of Spanish and also the Colombian regional variations lays the innermost layer of what’s popularly known as Costeñol, the coastal dialect of Colombian Spanish. One of the first things I learned as a foreigner living here in the Atlántico department of Colombia was that the locals here have their own unique dialect, colloquialisms, and vocabulary that is different from other regions of Colombia.

As someone who has only formally studied the Castilian Spanish in my previous schools and university, it has been a challenge in adapting to the local dialect and how fast the words and sentences come out for me to try to translate and respond to. However, it’s been really fun for me to learn about the sayings and phrases used by Costenos during everyday life. A lot of these vocabulary words have already rubbed off on me where I now feel comfortable using them in both the right setting and context.

For those of you unfamiliar with both Spanish and Costeñol, here are ten words and phrases that you should familiarize yourself with if you decide to visit Barranquilla, Santa Marta, Cartagena, and/or the surrounding towns nearby.

1.) Adios: Usually used to mean “Goodbye” in Spanish-speaking countries, it’s quite common where I’m living now for you to great your neighbors and friends with ‘Adios’ when you walk by their house and would like to greet them formally on your way home. Almost always, they’ll return your ‘Adios’ with a smile and a wave or thumbs up.

2.) A la orden: Okay, this isn’t a phrase just for the Atlantic coast of Colombia but for the entire country regardless of the region, which is pretty cool if you ask me. Wherever you visit or live in Colombia, you will most definitely hear this phrase being used. It’s the most popular one I know of and I find it to be my favorite thus far.

3.) Bacano: A word used to describe something that’s cool, interesting, or exciting. When you see a friend pulling up in his new motorcycle, which would be a perfect time to use the word ‘bacano’ here.

4.) Buenas: More popular in the morning and in the afternoon, it’s customary to greet other Costenos with a ‘Buenas’ and a smile as you start your day. For those unfamiliar with Spanish, it’s a shortened version of the popular greetings of ‘Buenos Dias’ or ‘Buenos Tardes.’

5.) Chévere: See ‘bacano’ above. A bit more difficult to pronounce for the average gringo. However, chévere is very popular as well and has a similar meaning in terms of expressing how something or someone is cool, exciting, and fun.

6.) No Jodas: An exclamation of shock, surprise, or disbelief. My host mother here taught me this one most recently when she remarked on how fat the dog was getting. It made me laugh to hear her use it in front of me along with the explanation she gave me.

7.) No dar papaya: Literally, it means ‘don’t give papaya’ which is a euphemism meaning that you should resist flashing your Prada bag, iPhone or Camera in public for the entire world to see. It’s okay to have that stuff with you from time to time but don’t give someone an excuse to make you a target for a snatch and grab by having it on display all the time. One of the first phrases I learned here upon my arrival and one that I won’t soon forget.

8.) Que le vaya bien: Before someone leaves the house or the apartment, it’s important to let them know this salutation and wish them well on their way to the school, office, store, or elsewhere and that they will have a pleasant journey.

9.) Qué pena: Expressing how shameful or disappointing something is. If your favorite football team lost last night or you realized you forgot to wish your mother a happy birthday, a phrase like this will sum up how you’re feeling right there and then.

10.) Que mas?: When you see your neighbor or a friend walk by you on the street, it’s a very good time to use this popular phrase. Being able to communicate about how your day was or what’s been going on in your life in Spanish is one of the coolest aspects of living and working here in Colombia. This phrase especially for the coast is good at making that goal a reality.

11. Cogelo Suave: Last but not least, this phrase is the equivalent of a New Yorker saying “Take it easy.” Relax, have a coffee, and everything will be all right. When your friend is running thirty minutes late and you’re ready to call it quits on waiting for him. Say ‘Cogelo Suave’ to yourself and stick it out for a little while longer.

There are many other phrases and words that are used on the Atlantic coast of Colombia that I’m still not familiar with. However, I hope to learn more and more each day about this very unique and interesting dialect of the Spanish language. In order to learn Costeñol, you must be prepared to study and use it too.

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.