The Cherry on Top

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A few months ago I posted about my World Wise Schools project (aren’t familiar with WWS? If you’re a teacher, check it out! Connect with a volunteer! https://www.peacecorps.gov/educators/ ) At the end of last year I was matched with Lena, an energetic, awesome high school Spanish teacher in Colorado. We decided to take the plunge and try to connect our students. For eight weeks 20-25 of the eleventh graders at my high school met after school to write a letter to their partner, alternating English and Spanish each week. Lena’s students were completing their assignments in their personal time. We faced many challenges, from attendance to lack of internet to changing locations to bad weather…the list goes on. Each week 1-3 of the English teachers would assist the program. However, we made it through!

The last day was put on hold for a looooooooong time due to the teacher strike. However, this meant we were able to culminate with a visit from Lena!! That’s right, straight from Colorado, the teacher herself with tidings from her students.

Our last meeting started with the students writing final letters to their partners that Lena could take home. Some even brought small gifts. Each student was introduced to Lena as they entered, but then generally went about their business and freaked out if I asked them to interact with her. We all sat together after they had time to talk about Lena, the program, and have time for any questions. It took almost an hour before the students really warmed up and started asking lots of questions…as we were getting close to the time we had to leave. Classic! But we stayed and they wanted to know about the school system in the U.S., information about their individual partner, and more. It was an amazing exchange and we’re so lucky Lena was willing and able to make the trip!

The rest of the week Lena came to all of my classes and planning sessions, visited Cartagena, ate lots of Colombian food, and did whatever else came up. Talk about flexibility. She even learned to weave and took home her own faja (strap). Lena got a very unique perspective of small town Colombia and we all had an opportunity to get to know someone new and learn more about American culture. I’d say it was a success all around!

Thanks Lena!

Jurassic Park

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Did I say Jurassic Park? I meant Parque Tayrona. I don’t necessarily see them as different things. I mean, look at this!

Natalie, a fellow volunteer and I decided to make Tayrona one of our puente destinations. A puente is a three day weekend due to a holiday on a Monday. Natalie punningly called it #puenteenelparque. She’s genius with a sense of humor I really appreciate. The first day we arrived late in the afternoon and stayed in Castillo, the first camping spot. There are three major camping spots, with plenty of smaller ones about. The main ones are right on the water with places to get food and water. We rented a tent with a double mattress inside that was sitting right on the beach. We explored our area and woke up early the next morning to go to the main camp site furthest from the entrance. We walked about a half hour and then opted to ride the rest of the way. It took almost two hours on rocky and muddy trails. Definitely an experience.

We arrived and enjoyed the clear blue waters, sun, and sand. That evening we slept in hammocks surrounded by what seemed like millions of hammocks and tents. There were plenty of people but in the early morning it was nice and quiet. We even followed the coastal route to check out some of the other beaches. One of which was a nudist beach…which we found out after. At the time we were just confused about why there were a few men sitting in random parts of the beach with their birthday suits.

The last day we hiked out, which took about 1.5 hours and loads of sweat. I only gave up at one point, when we saw a sign after walking for at least 10 hours saying we were 40% to our destination. Don’t worry, I made it through. There were stairs and pathways through the woods, scenic outlooks, and other hikers to discuss the multitude of stairs and the beauty of the views. Even with the one moment of weakness, totally worth it!

If you’re in the Santa Marta area, definitely a place to see! Be sure to bring plenty of pb&j and water!

Let’s GLOW (again)!!

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Last year I had the amazing opportunity to be a part of Camp GLOW, a leadership camp for young women on the Colombian coast. As a counselor, I co-lead a group of five wonderful young women, lead multiple workshops, facilitated and took part in games and songs, supported wherever I was needed, and was amazed by how the girls interacted, grew, and took advantage of the unique opportunity that is GLOW.

This year, I returned to GLOW as a director, co-directing with two amazing friends and co-volunteers, Lindsay and Audrey, who I would not have made it through without. We also took on a spectacular junior director, who returned for her third year at Camp GLOW. She could run the entire show next year, she was so helpful and energetic. We had three other wonderful Colombian counterparts, 7 great counselors (PCVs), and 7 enthusiastic junior counselors (campers from last year who took on a leadership role of supporting a counselor and leading a group). Our counterparts were on top of any job we requested and our counselors took the lead whenever there was downtime or extended transitions due to last minute schedule changes. They were all absolute champs and the campers had a great experience with the positivity and enthusiasm the leaders showed.

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Camp this year was held in a new location, a location that took us many months to find. It was a fairly strenuous process. In the small town outside of Cartagena, we came together with 38 girls from three departments (states) on the coast. This included four young women from my pueblo and the neighboring one. The preparations and logistics of the camp itself were an adventure in and of themselves.

Did we have to change dates last second because of a seemingly never-ending teacher strike? Yes.

Did we have conversations late each week for months and almost every night in the two weeks leading up to camp? Yes.

Were there some major issues to deal with at site? Yes.

Was there no water when we returned from a beach trip? Yes.

Did we sleep? Barely.

Did we try out some new activities this year? Yes.

Did we exercise every morning while a young puppy tried to play along? Yes.

Did we connect with lots of amazing, strong Colombian women of all ages? Yes.

Did we have a dance party when we were trapped due to rain? Yes.

Did some girls have the chance to see the beach for the first time? Yes.

Did we host a successful mini-camp where the girls planned and facilitated the activities for the majority of the kids in town? Yes.

Did we have a talent show in the dark when the electricity went out? Yes.

Did we love it all, the frustrating, amazing, silly, rough, intense, and deep moments? Yes.

It was vale la pena (worth it) to see and be a part of the girls and counselors thriving, making friends, learning, teaching, and having a blast!

Progress in the Pueblo

There has been a lot of change over the past year in my pueblo, including new businesses and roads being paved. My favorite (the one that improves my day to day most – clearly biased here, I know), is the road leading to the main high school I work with. The road used to look like this:

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It was hard to get a shot that really captured it. With hundreds of students walking on it every day, lots of moto drivers, horses, donkey with carts, it had gotten fairly destroyed. Then one day a sign went up saying the road would be worked on. Not long after that, I saw this:

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Of course, this was happening while there were downpours most days, which made for difficult working and walking conditions. Sometimes it involved leaping from one rock to another, having one of the workers assist in crossing over, or getting muddy shoes. The teachers of my school have a WhatsApp group and two of my favorite pictures that seem to showcase the struggle so well is when our administration staff tried to get home one day:

It’s all about teamwork! However, after many weeks of nonstop work, we now have this:

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A world of difference!

Here’s to progress!

Y ya!

Well, as of Friday, the paro is officially over!

5 weeks of school. Lots of negations. Finally, an agreement was made that involved additional support and resources for teachers, salary increases, and more. There has been some confusion as to when school resumes, but latest I’ve heard is we go back after vacation, which for my department (state) would be July 4th. Decisions have not been made to determine how students will be able to make up the missed time in order to meet the hours needed to move to the next grade. I’m sure you can imagine our 11th graders, who are supposed to be graduating this year, are particularly anxious about this. We’ll just have to leave those choices to the pros. Until then, the teachers get a bit of a break and we’ll be ready to rock come July!

 

But where did all the classes go?

 

Qué pena. It’s been a month. What’s been going on in the past month? Actually, all public school teachers in Colombia have been on strike. No classes since May 11th. You think I’d have more time to update, but with Camp GLOW coming up, community classes, conferences, mochila orders, and I’m not entirely sure what else, I haven’t. Hope your month has been full of adventures as well!

This has been an extremely long strike. It’s been eye-opening. Many people ask me if there is any news or updates and I turn around and ask anyone I can as well. All of us want news of what will happen and who will finally make a move that goes over well. There are constant meetings for the teachers, marches, demonstrations, and meetings with the union and the government.

Why the strike? From what I’ve learned, there are salary discrepancies, a lack of funds for resources, and major issues with health care. Through all this, negations are going on, but neither side has been pleased by the outcome enough to go with it. There’s talk about how they will make up what has been missed in the school year, if they will take away vacations, extend further into December (the school year is January to December), or if all students will have to repeat the year.  Here’s hoping an agreement can be met soon!

Eje Cafetero

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Semana Santa, or Holy Week, is the week leading up to Easter. It’s a big deal here. It’s a religious week where people attend church services and make loads of sweets from different fruits, my favorite being coco con leche (coconut with milk).

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It might not look like much, but it’s so good!

For many PCV’s, Semana Santa is vacation time! I took the chance to go to the Eje Cafetero, or Coffee Triangle, in the interior of the country. Let me tell you, it’s worth being on your travel to-do list. Sam, my site neighbor and travel buddy, and I chanced heading to Buenavista, a smaller, lesser known pueblo, to start. If you’re familiar with San Alberto coffee, it’s from this town. It’s an amazing little pueblo built in the hills. There is some local tourism and the hostel we stayed at advertised Buenavista and Pijao, the neighboring pueblo, as hidden treasures for travelers who like to go off the beaten path. They aren’t kidding. We arrived at the hostel in Buenavista and were offered coffee before even seeing the dorm room we were staying in. Pretty fitting for the Coffee Triangle. Now, full disclosure, I don’t like coffee. However, I’ve been told coffee from the Eje Cafetero is delicious, very smooth and a little sweeter than coffee grown in other regions. The majority of Colombian coffee is exported and, because of that, many Colombian’s drink instant coffee. Therefore, I did try multiple coffees, as I was there. Nothing swayed me to the dark side, however.

Here’s a little taste of Buenavista…

The next morning we decided to catch a Willy (a jeep) and head over to Pijao for a few hours before going to Salento. We asked the Willy driver (how can you not love saying that?) to drop us at a particular coffee shop but he thought we meant somewhere else. This worked in our favor, as he brought us up a steep hill to a hostel that gave us some great views and a cute puppy. What more can you ask for?

We then went to Salento. It’s touristy, but for good reason. There’s an amazing hike in the Valle de Cocora, going through hills and a cloud forest to see giant palm trees. Think Truffula Trees from The Lorax. In fact, if you want to be as cool as we were, read the story as you sit amongst the trees.

There’s also lots of amazing food and coffee finca tours. One of the restaurants, Brunch, let’s you sign the wall. There’s a corner for PCVs. And the food is amazing. Peanut butter brownies, anyone? We met up with Michael, an RPCV who just finished his service recently and is working near Medellin now, Max, one of his colleagues, and a new friend, Ann-Marie. Along the way we met others at our hostel, people jumped in and out of outings and games, and had a great time. It’s chilly in the mountains and there were even large, fluffy blankets to use in the evenings. Fluffy blankets, people! After the heat of the coast, this was paradise. We had a jam-packed few days, eating everything, hiking, touring a coffee finca and learning about the whole growing process, meeting up with other volunteers, and more. It’s definitely worth a couple days to check out!

Recommendation status: GO! And make sure to get a mix of the more and less touristy pueblos.

Fun fact to end: If you are shopping (outside of Colombia) and want legit Colombian coffee, make sure it has the symbol on it, as seen on the right side of the package here.

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