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Showing posts from 2011

Top 10 Reasons Why I Fit Right In

An old friend of mine just visited me from the States. We spent our days touring the old city and chatting about the culture of Cartagena. As I was explaining the finer points, I realized despite being a “gringa,” I fit right in here for these reasons:
10. There is no such thing as being too loud or lively. 9.  Wearing a “nice” t-shirt, jeans, and sandals to work every day is perfectly acceptable. 8.  Everything is cancelled when it rains and 3 hours afterwards. 7. Repeating a good story or instructions is not annoying, it’s expected. 6. Interrupting someone is normal and often the only way to be heard. 5. People can have 5 conversations at once and remember all of them. 4. The answer “no,” is just used to bargain and in the end doesn’t exist. 3. There are 4 expressions for “to run an errand.” 2. These expressions are used to skip out on anything and no one ever asks what the errand was. 1. When in doubt, flash a big smile and everything will be great!

A Death Wish

There are times when I can’t hold my tongue. When I was younger, there were many more times I just couldn’t do it, but away from home, I have learned to just observe and keep my thoughts to myself. In Cartagena, I witness many things that bother me: garbage on a beautiful beach, school cancelled for no good reason, loud music outside my window, constant beeping of car horns, flooding in poor neighborhoods, politicians using misery and poverty to their advantage, etc. As a foreigner, I play the role of a therapist as Colombians release their frustrations about their country and how it should be more developed by now. I listen, but I don’t judge, openly.
My silence abroad can only be broken by only one thing: stupid Americans. Last Thursday afternoon, I was eating pizza in a cute little place near my house and in walked in five big, white, sunburned, and very drunk Americans. They all wore Panama Jack hats, black concert t-shirts, long cargo shorts, and white sneakers. They were loud an…

Top 10 Things to Prepare for Unexpected Visitors in Cartagena

10. Make your bed and straighten up right when you wake up. 9. Empty bathroom trash cans frequently. No one wants to see or smell your TP! 8. Have lots of salty snacks. Potato chips, banana chips, pork rinds, and peanuts with raisins are always a hit. 7. Don´t forget ham, cheese, and bread or saltines. They can go a long way! 6. Have soda (any flavor, but not diet), fresh juice, whiskey and beer  on hand at all times. 5. Go to the corner pirated music stand and buy the latest party mix, Salsa by Joe Arroyo, and Vallenato hits. 4. Play music at all times to create a warm and fun environment. 3. Offer at least cold water and a seat, even if you really late for something and need to leave.   2. Never feel embarrassed if you were napping in the middle of day and answer the door in a haze. 1. Always smile when people arrive at your door unannounced. If you don´t, they will never come back and spread the word you don´t like visitors. You'll be another just another unfriendly gringo.

Common Knowledge

Today marks my one year anniversary in Cartagena. I am no longer an official Peace Corps Volunteer, but I continue my work as an English teacher and being an American in a foreign land. I have started a new life here and I don’t have the Peace Corps to full fill my basic needs of shelter, IDs, and bank cards. I have moved into a new apartment which requires signing leases, getting documents notarized, paying utilities, buying housewares, and putting food in the fridge. In the US, I can do all of these things with ease. However, now I need the help and patience of my Colombian friends and businesses to explain what to them is common knowledge.

In the US, getting things notarized is simple and free. You go to the bank, show your ID, sign, and leave. Here you pay for each page being reviewed and each stamp and signature they decide that they need “legally.” It is quite a lengthy and costly process. In Cartagena, the most common place to pay utilities is at the supermarket as you pay for y…

Mission Completed

During my last week as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I am not reflecting on whether I made a difference during my services in Paraguay and Colombia, but what am I going to do without a higher mission while overseas? Who am I when I  am not a poster child for Uncle Sam's diplomacy efforts? Will I still help the lower classes via education and enthusiasm? I am planning on staying in Cartagena as an English Education professor at a private university. My research on how to make a public school bilingual will be conducted at the same school I taught at as a volunteer. So, my work will continue and develop, but will I change personally when I not an official representative of the US? I truly hope not since, I love my country. Whether I am in the Peace Corps or not, I am often the first American Colombians have ever seen in their neighborhood or on the bus. My official mission is ending, but maybe my personal one is just as simple as bringing Colombia to your computer and the USA to their da…

English Gets the Vote

In Cartagena, everyone from the mayor to the fruit seller knows that English means opportunity. It provides access to better jobs and higher education. It puts money in people's pockets and when money is involved people listen. No one know this better than Colombian politicians trying to get votes for the upcoming elections in November.

Gabriel, the teacher I work with, has a part time job in a small town just outside of Cartagena. One day, he began telling the people about how he would like to create the first bilingual (Spanish- English) public school and we how started a project called English for All. People's ears perked up when they heard public and bilingual in the same sentence. He continued to explain that the project  has four components:

English teacher professional developmentEnglish classes at the elementary levelEnglish test preparation for high school seniorsFree community English classesThe most interested person in the crowd was the mayor.  He became fixated on…

Irreversible Opportunity

A new semester has started in Cartagena. It physically affects me as I walk to school in the scorching sun, drinking water every step of the way. I arrive with a beat red face despite the 50 SPF sunblock. Teachers always worry about me when I arrive since, they don't know that a white face turns red when its hot. I say that I'm fine, but they tell me to rest just in case.

School affects me mentally too. Sometimes  as I walk up the hill to school, I think to myself "why am I doing this?" I'm sweating, getting irreversible skin damage and I could get jumped at any moment. A confrontation will a robber would scare me to death, especially if it were at knife or gunpoint. I dream of the days of going to school in Boston, where I used my Blackberry on an air conditioned bus, not really paying attention to my bag or wallet. But just when the heat and fear are about to consume me, I always hear "Goo mornin' teacher! Howa ju?" I look up, wipe the sweat from e…

10 Things I Miss About the States

10. Strip malls with lots of parking
9. Turkey subs
8. The Eisenhower Interstate Highway System
7. Everyone and everything has A/C even in cold climates
6. DVRs
5. It's hard to get robbed
4. Brand names are the norm, not the expensive choice
3. The insane amount of different snack foods and candies
2. Toilet paper goes in the toilet
1. Family and friends that love me even though I jumped the border

Two Out of Three Ain't Bad

Every day people ask me why I am here in Cartagena and how long I plan to stay. I have a few one liners to explain my presence. "I am an English teacher... the US and Colombian governments are working together to improve English instruction... at least 9 months..." If someone is really interested, I explain the Peace Corps, and if he or she is really, really interested I tell them it has three goals:

• Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
• Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
• Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

I find it funny that no one ever asks me if I accomplish these goals. I have #2 down. Sometimes I feel like Uncle Sam's niece as I am humming "You're a Grand Ole Flag" and teaching how to pronounce the words "United States of America." I'm on my way to completing #3 v…

Link to the Land of Opportunity

This past week was my birthday and I was nervous. I really had no idea how the Colombians, that I have been living and working with for 7 months, would treat me. I knew I would get a hug  and blessing, dios te bendiga, from everyone. However, I didn't realize I would get two surprise parties and a lunch. Students told me that were honored to be in my class, enjoyed getting to know a North American, and now see more opportunities for their futures. Even though Cartagena is a tourist city with many gringos, most residents have never spoken, let alone work, live, and eat with one. 
As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I represent the US government, people, and attitudes whether I like it or not. It can be a tough task especially when I don't agree with many of our policies or even my fellow citizens. However, I do agree with one thing that the US has been doing well since its inception: providing opportunities.  Since, most of the Colombians I meet will not be able to visit the US, it is m…

Top Ten Things I Always Do in Colombia, But Never at Home

10. Shower with cold water since, no one has or needs hot water
9. Eat homemade rice, beans, meat, and soup with a bone in it everyday
8. Sing out loud at school, in the street, and on the bus
7. Keep my bag on my lap or insight at all times
6. Carry toilet paper everywhere I go
5. Drink liquids out of plastic bags instead of bottles
4. Wear clean and ironed clothes everyday
3. Get in-home manicure and pedicure service
2. Put on 50 sunblock all over my body everyday instead of moisturizer
1. Love the weather

English Is Not a Dead Language Anymore

It started out as a simple idea: provide English classes to the community. After all, it is part of my job as a volunteer. The teacher I work with Gabriel was very excited and has always wanted to start a community based program. He loves English, understands its value in the workplace, academia, and travel, and has been promoting the language for more than 16 years. Now with the help of a Peace Corps Volunteer, he has the support to get the job done. However, he got more than he bargained for by underestimating the community's desire to learn. Word spread about my nightly English classes for adults in the neighborhood. The first class 5 people came, the next 17, then 35, 55, and finally 75! There I was, the Gringa, trying to teach the numbers from 1- 100 to 75 people in 1 hot classroom. There was a mixture of housewives, college students, teachers, and local thugs eyeing my laptop. The kids warned me about the unsavory characters and offered to walk me home in order to avoid any …

La Buseta: Cartagena's Original Roller Coaster Ride

Cartagena has a fun and hectic bus culture with a surprisingly civil etiquette. The buses are called busetas because they are much smaller than most public buses in the world. Many of the Cartagena`s barrio streets are narrow and curvy which makes turning difficult. Anyone over 5'4" is normally uncomfortable with their knees jammed in the back of the seat in front of them. My friends over 6 feet have to stoop when standing on a crowded bus. Their heads hit the ceiling with every bump. It can also be quite hot since, temperatures are normally in the high 80s 10:00AM to 3:00PM every day of the year.

There are a few air-conditioned buses for a few pesos more. However, they do not have what makes most Latin American buses truly fun and festive: music and decorations. In Cartagena, the buses blare all sorts of rhythms: Salsa, Vallenato (Colombia's Country music), Champeta (Afro-Colombian music from Cartagena), and many others that I am still learning. I've never heard any …

75 Cents to Paradise

I live in a concrete jungle. There are cement roads, homes, schools, stores, churches, factories, etc. Real estate is very valuable in Cartagena so every milimeter is utilized for residential and comercial space. My middle class residential neighborhood is about 75 cents from my personal paradise. Depending on traffic, in about 30 - 40 minutes on a bus, I can watch the sunset over the Caribbean, play tennis, go boating, and eat in 500 year old plazas from colonial Spain. I feel very lucky that I don't need to fly here or pay for an expensive hotel to enjoy such a beautiful place. There are many tourists from Bogota, Medellin, and Europe that have to do just that. School starts Monday so I will only be able to go down to Boca Grande and the Historic Center on the weekends or when you come and visit. Until then, my new paradise will have to be a 75 cent Coke at lunch time at my cement school.