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Life in La Virginia – the kids!

I’ve already written a bit about life in this small town. There’s so much to tell – some of it flashing as surface ‘stuff’, more of it, hidden below, invisible to my eye as a foreigner who sometimes forgets to take off her rose-colored glasses in life.

Me with kids on my street.  On any given day they'll run with notebooks for a lesson or more likely want to come and see what my place looks like.

Me with kids on my street. On any given day they’ll run with notebooks for a lesson or more likely want to come and see what my place looks like.

What’s it like to be a ‘kid’ in a relatively poor town in a dry, hot place in the coffee region of Colombia, where the main business is the planting, harvesting, and processing of sugar cane? As best as I can tell…

Kids seem happy, curious, open even when shy, easily playing marbles or football on the street any time they aren’t in school or when the sun is too hot. Every kid seems to have a bicycle and can be seen cycling up and down streets or heading to the local store for dinner additions. Kids have lots of freedom here and discipline is a problem in all schools (public and private).  Kids everywhere in the country seem to be very kinesthetic and need lots of variety and change in learning. I’ve found it best to let them guide what I’m going to ‘teach’ them or what we’re going to talk about.

What do kids ask:  besides if I have kids and how old I am, they ask about violence in the states.  They seem to have the view of the states as so many have about Colombia.   They ask about shootings, murder and suicide.  The former is a known entity here, but suicide is pretty much unheard of, and that’s with all the poverty and recent killings around them.  The other thing they ask about is how high the buildings are and what it’s like to ride in an elevator.  Imagine! This is a town where only a handful of buildings are more than two stories high.  When they learn I am flying back to the states they want to know if I get sick – like taking a bus from Medellin or Bogotá.  (Fortunately not – taking the bus from Medellin was a 2-bag trip for me, one I’d rather not repeat…)

Me with 2 of the girls from Pedro Pablo Bello hanging out in Daniella's house (she's the one in the middle.  This after she made fun of my sunglasses with the glitter chipping aways.

Me with 2 of the girls from Pedro Pablo Bello hanging out in Daniela’s house (she’s the one in the middle. This after she made fun of my sunglasses with the glitter chipping aways.

Kids at the local fiesta wander about on their own. Maybe it’s because the town is small and relatively safe? Or that parents – or more likely mothers were on their way. Every kid seems to love  which is regatone, a type of latin music with a rap-like beat (or lack there-of). The louder it’s played the better, or so people must think.    This they share after they ask me how I like the music (hmm… well….) and with many holding (and drinking from) a can of beer. Maybe it’s better to ‘teach’ kids to drink at any early age. I don’t know.  And then there’s the dancing – sexy salsa which they learn before learning to walk – or so it seems to me.

As many kids have told me, drugs are also a problem.  While cocaine is really a ‘foreigner thing’, there is more than enough coke and marijuana to go around for everyone to become users.  While I’ve heard about the plethora of drugs all around me everywhere, especially in Medellin, I haven’t been approached – amazingly…  or sadly…..  It’s been here, wandering the streets that my senses have been filled most often with the smell of marijuana wafting through the cool night air.   One afternoon I was bushwhacking with the guys along the river when the smell hit us and we could see the glow of a light ahead.  By the time we got to the source, three kids – maybe 8 – 12 – were innocently munching mangoes.

Last day of class at the escuela, kids celebrating a 'group birthday

Last day of class at the escuela, kids celebrating a ‘group birthday

Dancing on the last day of school.  I had a salsa lesson from these 10 year olds.

Dancing on the last day of school. I had a salsa lesson from these 10 year olds.

Nancy, the primary teacher is one of the most gracious and joyous people I met in La Virginia.  Here she is on the last day pouring soda in between taking pics, dancing, and celebrating the kids.

Nancy, the primary teacher is one of the most gracious and joyous people I met in La Virginia. Here she is on the last day pouring soda in between taking pics, dancing, and celebrating the kids.

One high-schooler, though they don’t refer to it as high school, let me know that the only options for students revolve around manual labor – construction or sugar cane processing. He plans on leaving and going to University and he certainly was thoughtful. Kids have high goals as recent graduates talked about University plans to become engineers and architects. I don’t know what percentage of kids go to University – and how many come back here.

Two students came to join me on the street one day holding these blankets - and newborn pups.  The white one only 15 days old!

Two students came to join me on the street one day holding these blankets – and newborn pups. The white one only 15 days old!

And then there’s sex – girls shared it’s not unusual for girls to get pregnant at 14, 16 – and even at 12! Not that the U.S. is immune to this kind of problem – there’s just this universal challenge of young poor girls getting pregnant. I’ve met far more women with kids – and no husbands or father around which seems to be more the norm than the exception. And yes, kids are offered condoms – especially the girls. They are freely handed out. As one of the staff from the program pondered – ‘I don’t know why they don’t use them.” Is there the same problem in other cities or regions?  Or like in so many other places, including the U.S., the issue is economics.

I ran into Juan Carlos on the street one day - he wanted to practice English, a week later he walked me to my 'hotel' along the road, commenting on the garbage and the need for environmental education.  His English was excellent!

I ran into Juan Carlos on the street one day – he wanted to practice English, a week later he walked me to my ‘hotel’ along the road, commenting on the garbage and the need for environmental education. His English was excellent!

Every street seems to have one designated house that pulsates with music flooding the wonderfully cool evening.  These days that pounding music is accentuated by flashing Christmas lights that have been up for the last few weeks. There’s a point to all this stay with me… Escorted home one night by M. (with the hair), one of his students was celebrating a birthday a few houses down from me, and we were invited to come in. After being offered a drink and potato chips and singing happy birthday, the regatone was turned up to a decibel level that had my neck skin vibrating. That wasn’t the only thing vibrating: Boys leaning against the wall danced while girls gyrate their butts against the boys penises. The mother caught my eye, pointed and seemed to shrug.   I couldn’t help but think this was a pregnancy waiting to happen.

Marlon, the son of the woman who helped cook where I had lunch holding a balloon we found on our morning walk

Marlon, the son of the woman who helped cook where I had lunch holding a balloon we found on our morning walk

Dance is such a part of the culture and latin dancing is certainly provocative at its most innocent. But then there is dress: Provocative dressing is the norm, the tighter the better. I wondered out loud last night if there was an inverse relationship between a woman’s (poor) body image and economics. Here, there seems no body self-consciousness and the curvier the better so girls learn to flaunt from an early age.   I have never felt so thin.    Plastic surgery is huge here – not so much wrinkles – that doesn’t appear to be an issue:  it’s butt and boob implants.  If nothing else, an interesting way for people to spend their small, if any, discretionary income.

 

A decorated street in the barrio where the primary school is. The coolest decorations I've seen!

A decorated street in the barrio where the primary school is. The coolest decorations I’ve seen!

Many kids let us know learning English will be their saving grace and they want to learn. As I’ve mentioned before, after several years of classes, kids can’t say much. There’s no chance to speak and practice, especially in a town like this that has little if any access to foreigners.  Teachers are faced with the same issue – they may know their grammar, but speaking is a whole other thing and another ‘challenge’ for teaching kids the language.

I had a chance to go to a teachers' celebration day at a local park/farm.  Here's a kid feeding the pigs - no worries, I did too along with feeding the goats and sheep and....

I had a chance to go to a teachers’ celebration day at a local park/farm. Here’s a kid feeding the pigs – no worries, I did too along with feeding the goats and sheep and….

Nukanti, the wonderful organization I volunteered with is a wonderful drop in the bucket to provide kids a chance to expand their lives.  And always there’s the question, how to capture and harness openness, curiosity and joy!

Me petting a pony at Con Familiar, at the teachers celebration

Me petting a pony at Con Familiar, at the teachers celebration

 

Life as I know it in La Virginia

I’ve been out here off the beaten track in La Virginia Colombia for over two weeks with only days to go.  It’s amazing how fast the time has flown by as I do some teaching, lots of talking and walking as I get to know the town’s rhythm, people, and especially the kids.

'My' cafe where I observe La Virginia life while sipping a coffee latte.  FYI, it's also a place where other women 'hang out'

‘My’ cafe where I observe La Virginia life while sipping a coffee latte. FYI, it’s also a place where other women ‘hang out’

While there is no real reason to come here as a tourist or even a traveler, I’ve loved being here for these weeks.  It might sound a bit pretentious or just plain ‘precious’ to say this town/pueblo feels ‘real’, yet I don’t quite know how else to explain it.  The town moves slowly – bicycle slow absolutely not the racing of NYC bikes moving faster than the speed of cars through that city streets.  I’m scared of NYC bikers.  Bikers here ‘stroll on wheels’ as bikers chat, hold hands, carry groceries or friends, or move slow enough to wave as they pass.  All this while traversing the buses whizzing by on the road out of town.

My favorite mango guy - notice the microphone!

My favorite mango and aquacate/avocado guy – notice the microphone!

 

Bicycle carts offer fruit and avocados as hawkers move up and down streets, stopping to chat as they pass each other.  Cafes and panaderias/bake shops fill corners with yummy smells although the bakery bread I crave is missing from the glass fronted shelves.  The cakes are gorgeous if a bit unreal.  And no, haven’t tried one – yet.

The coffee here is so-so, but the ritual of spending hours nursing a cuppa seems to be a well-practiced ritual.  I still have my favorite place which claims its unique ambiance thanks to its location.  I’ve become such a regular that I was allowed to use the (pay) toilet which is currently closed because it’s not working. Believe me, it felt more special than it reads.

The town market filled with small stalls of vegetables, dried herbs, pots and pans, small restaurants, clothes, etc.  It's fairly small - probably about 30 stalls in all covering a small central square.

The town market filled with small stalls of vegetables, dried herbs, pots and pans, small restaurants, clothes, etc. It’s fairly small – probably about 30 stalls in all covering a small central square.

Really the best part is the kids.  But first a bit more about my school which is ‘way out’ of town, a fifteen minute walk down a luscious tree-lined, cow grazing, bicycle and bus filled road.  Of course we all know it doesn’t take much to distance people from each other, and that definitely exists over there on the other side.  The collegio/high school is made of three barrios/neighborhoods:  Pedro Pedro Bello, El Jardin, and across the road, Livertidados.  (The first barrio is a tongue twister and the last I still have trouble pronouncing).  I arrived during the last real week of school and the English teacher greeted me with the enthusiasm of fish meeting hooks.  No, really it wasn’t quite that bad, but he did seem to want to run the other way every time he saw me, I’m sure for a variety of reasons, none that I’ll take personally:  it was the end of the year and he’s tired; he didn’t know what to do with me; he is skeptical of the program; English is taught as grammar vs. conversation and the opposite of how a volunteer like me would teach it.  While I offered to help any way I could, it’s easy to understand he may not even know what type of help to ask for – or how to use that help.  A real challenge for volunteers in general especially when it involves an educational and cultural change (instituting English language learning).  FYI:  one of the students last major activities of the year is scrubbing the classrooms clean including rubbing desks clean of carved initials, painted names and memories of the year as well as clearing walls of the year’s marks, scraped chairs and desks and purposefully or accidentally scribbled reminders.  I have to admit the class cleaning filled me with ‘pause’.

Certainly one of the hardest parts about teaching English here is (I think) helping the teachers whose English is (more than) a bit limited.  While the initiative to create a bi-lingual population may have started as a WHO initiative, it has been embraced and expanded as a ‘personal’ Colombian goal thanks to an innovative President with a desire to turn Colombia into the ‘crown jewel’ of South America.  It may be in part to the large numbers of tourists streaming into the country, and even more as a way to open Colombia innovation and business. I’m not sure where this fits in (my ramble) but I’ve met a very large number of engineering students here – many more than I would expect to meet, for example in the states (so bravo for my niece studying engineering at Penn State), and, I’ve heard two geologists talk about the way foreign mining companies are destroying the environment, which I imagine Colombians may have incentive – emphasis on may – to take better care.

While the school was shuttered to me during teacher' planning, I found walking the barrio and sitting turned up kids eager for a chance to chat and even practice speaking.

While the school was shuttered to me during teacher’ planning, I found walking the barrio and sitting turned up kids eager for a chance to chat and even practice speaking.

A bit odd – and unsettling – about being a gringa -or different here.  Occasionally people will stare.  One kid on a bike shouted, ‘hablas ingles?’  (speak English?) while I answered ‘yes’ as he exchanged smiles with his mom and then me.  While I can almost but not quite pass as Colombian, I’m met with shy smiles and/or stares in stores and cafes.

I don’t get nearly as much attention as my fellow volunteers as you can tell from the pics below.   Last weekend began a one week celebration of the town’s 126th year anniversary  with a modeling show on the banks of the river which made a surprisingly good stage, stalls of street fair type stuff, food, fruit, and a music stage that comes ‘alive’ after 8:00 when the ‘music’ starts.  I had to use the quotes since so far we’ve had mostly rap.  Girls have come up to me and asked about the guys, often too shy to go up to them.  Adults hover close to listen wide-eyed as kids unabashedly crowd around to ask questions, many of them from the schools the guys have worked in.  People who speak even a word or two of English are anxious to share what they know – which is actually a great start.   (My school is on the other side of the road out-of-town and have only seen one student from there so far.)  People ask to take pictures, reminding me of the Korean woman I met in Medellin who said she was more often than not the most popular attraction while in Bogotá.

And none of this is as simple as I’m making it out to be as you can imagine….  I’ll add more about the kids and life here, just give me time.

You can see how the M. on the left would attract attention anywhere, but here, after 3 months he's quite the celebrity as kids ask about his hair and want to touch it.  A., the other site mate and I tag along and bask in the blaze of his glory.

You can see how the M. on the left would attract attention anywhere, but here, after 3 months he’s quite the celebrity as kids ask about his hair and want to touch it. A., the other site mate and I tag along and bask in the blaze of his glory.

kids playing a marble game that seemed like miniature pool/billiards in the Pedro Pablo Bello barrio

kids playing a marble game that seemed like miniature pool/billiards in the Pedro Pablo Bello barrio

The river swelled and flooded a few years ago, something many of us can relate to.  While there has been some rebuilding, the government is building that block of houses in the background to move people who live too close and are likely to be flooded again.  Brilliant, huh???  Girl in the foreground, C.,  from the elementary school I started going to last week.

The river swelled and flooded a few years ago, something many of us can relate to. While there has been some rebuilding, the government is building that block of houses in the background to move people who live too close and are likely to be flooded again. Brilliant, huh??? Girl in the foreground, C., from the elementary school I started going to last week.

The universal joy of camp songs

LaV town sign

Being dropped into a school in La Virginia, Colombia has been filled with song, joy and of course a little frustration.  It’s the end of the year here so the English teacher has little time for me, but the kids, well, that’s another story.  Kids always have time to stop and talk to someone new, someone seemingly exotic.  Someone who can teach them something they want to learn – and they know they should learn English.  Even though they’re shy and/or afraid of not speaking well.

It took taking out my phone for a pic for these kids to suddenly turn shy!

It took taking out my phone for a pic for these kids to suddenly turn shy!

There’s so much to say about the town, La Virginia, itself.  I know whatever I write now will be a jumble of thoughts and ideas so expect more in the next few weeks.  It’s a poor, hot town with little vegetation.  That said, there’s something about it that feels comfortable and welcoming.  Maybe it’s that bicycles outnumber cars, or the people leaning out windows watching the street and all who pass with a smile, and it’s definitely the hawkers walking or biking down streets selling fruits and vegetables.  I don’t think I’ll ever look at an avocado again without hearing ‘aquacade’ in my head.  There are few buildings over 2 stories high, and doors are often open for air and to satisfy (at least my) curiosity – or not – with many opening to a single room meaning a bedroom.  It’s just the way it is.

Will this town change as Colombia changes?  What will ‘modernization’ look like?

The school I’m working in: Pedro Pablo Bello (try saying it fast even once…) is considered to be one of the better ones in the town.  Juan Esteban, a student, told me other schools are envious of the students ‘here’ because it’s a very united place.  This doesn’t look like an enviable place though with peeling paint, old desks, dark hallways, and their ‘technology’:  black boards replaced – by white boards and markers.

Daniella and Veronica

Daniella and Veronica

Each morning I’ve been bombarded with greetings of ‘h-e-l-l-o.  How – are – you?’ and waves from kids too embarrassed to even try to speak.  As groups gather in the halls around me – there seems to be lots of break times and kids wandering the hall – we have conversations of sorts as I teach them general phrases and let them ask me questions:  Where am I from?  Do I have kids?  (being married is not nearly as interesting or important as having kids).  How do I like La Virginia?  How long will I be in Colombia?’  They promise to come for afternoon conversation club but unsurprisingly only a handful show up.  Don’t get me wrong though, having only 2 or 3 kids provides them lots of personal attention which is wonderful

More often than not, they quiz me to see if I remember their names – which often I don’t.  They all look very different but I’ve just met so many in such a short period of time.

My morning walk view

My morning walk view

Although they learn English – technically – it’s not evident in conversation beyond hello.  I admit I’m surprised at how much we have to drill the simplest phrases and words they might say when meeting someone.  How is that they know and speak so little?  The purpose of Nukanti’s program is ‘to promote’ English speaking and I’m experiencing the challenges of this seemingly simple goal.  Colombia’s goal is for everyone to be bilingual by 2023 creating a need here for native English speakers.  Sadly, many teachers who teach English  (like many other places in the world) have poor language skills themselves.  With that in mind students’ difficulty with speaking and pronouncing English becomes easily understood.  Another complicated issue.

(My favorite:  I say ‘nice to meet you’ ; they say: ‘machu picchu’.)

But let’s face it, I’m not giving formal classes and it’s the end of the year.  How to introduce language to kids in a way that’s fun and gives them real practice?  SONG!  Two big hits are camp favorites:  ‘swimming, swimming in a swimming pool’ – it is vacation time and it’s quite hot here, and, ‘If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands’.  They know the latter in Spanish and seem thrilled to sing it in English.  Much to the chagrin of the English teacher, a class requested a sing along.   Not only do they get practice pronouncing the words, they get a start on vocabulary since amazingly, I translate the words for them!  It’s a start for all of us.  I like to have them help me with my Spanish and regularly let them know how hard it is for me to learn their language.

 

First square as you enter town

First square as you enter town

The school is out-of-town, not quite a suburb, but a different barrio/neighborhood.  Lucky me, I get to walk 20 minutes on a tree covered road in a town that is sorely lacking vegetation.   I pass fields of sugar cane which to my untrained eye looks like corn, grazing cattle which look far different from the dairy cows in Salento, and scores of bicyclists and horse-drawn carriages.   Except for the busses breezing in and out-of-town, mornings seem to begin with a quiet energy.

That’s part of La Virginia’s charm:  the quiet energy.  And of course the singing!

The cart was being loaded with wood and bark from a nearby field

The cart was being loaded with wood and bark from a nearby field

I was walking along the river and spotted these guys around a mango tree - one guy was half-way up shaking fruit to the ground.  I walked away with a handful of tiny mangoes - a wonderful gift.

I was walking along the river and spotted these guys around a mango tree – one guy was half-way up shaking fruit to the ground. I walked away with a handful of tiny mangoes – a wonderful gift.

 

The mango shaker who proudly parted the branches so I could get a picture..

The mango shaker who proudly parted the branches so I could get a picture..

Settling in Colombia’s Coffee Region

There I was in Salento, easily lazing about while viewing the ever-changing landscape of lush grey/black clouds gathering to engulf the green Andean foothills.

Another beautiful sunset

Another beautiful sunset

A little afternoon delight Salento style!

A little afternoon delight Salento style!

As one friend imagined, I spent my days walking around asking ‘hey you, want to learn English?’  Didn’t matter who it was, if they stopped to talk, they got asked.  Of course everyone was enthusiastic in their reply – ‘of course’!!!  People here know how important it is to be able to communicate to a changing clientele of gringos hopping off the bus to enjoy this little beauty of a town.

Street musicians on a Sunday afternoon

Street musicians on a Sunday afternoon

But we all know how these things go:  enthusiasm becomes a cold shoulder (well as cold as Colombians can get – they are a very welcoming people) and classes are cancelled after my 30 minute stroll into town.  Hey, people are busy and things happen.  But how could I complain when I sipped my morning coffee in the middle of paradise?

Sirani and Stephania, my students in Jesus Martin Cafe

Sirani and Stephania, my students in Jesus Martin Cafe

I didn’t have to complain, but I was told about a volunteer gig, not far away, working in schools supporting English teachers and encouraging students to speak and practice their English.  So suddenly my morning coffee was spiked with a decision:  should I spend 3 weeks in a small pueblo/town hanging in a school or stay parked in my bunk-bed resort?  How could I refuse a chance to get my feet in the door of a school and talk with kids the same way I’d been talking to everyone in Salento?  (Though I’m hoping to go to Salento on weekends to continue with my students)

This region of Columbia was settled by exiled Spanish Jews and Basques in the early 1500's.  As for the story behind these Stars of David, well, I'll imagine that they were purposeful decorations!  Just one more question in the story of Jews in Colombia

This region of Columbia was settled by exiled Spanish Jews and Basques in the early 1500’s. As for the story behind these Stars of David, well, I’ll imagine that they were purposeful decorations! Just one more question in the story of Jews in Colombia

So here I am, still in the coffee region, where ironically no coffee is grown – but the fields are alive with sugar cane – in a little town called La Virginia (g sounds like ‘h’).  I’m volunteering with a non-profit called Nukanti.  It’s an international organization, though Colombia now has its own management with a focus on education and youth development.

Just to give you an idea of what it’s like:  there’s only one coffee cafe, lots of billiard halls, one street light, no street signs or buildings taller than 2 stories.  I went for a walk this morning with the other new volunteer (there are now 3 of us here) and we wandered around horribly lost and of course had no idea of the address of the place we had to return to.  Imagine two gringos wandering the street of a town barely able to ask directions – IF we knew where we were going.  Just call me ‘Gilligan’….  After 45 minutes we found our way back.  The good news is my school is just out-of-town on a tree-lined road just outside the place I am staying which means it’s possible I actually know where I am going now.

The market in La Virginia is filled with herb.  These were labeled and I'm still not quite sure (yet) what they are.

The market in La Virginia is filled with herb. These were labeled and I’m still not quite sure (yet) what they are.

Curse the rain, rejoice in the coffee

My Goldilocks trek through Colombia to find the ‘perfect’ place to teach English now finds me in the green, lush, and wet coffee region.  Can’t say I’m loving the rain, but I’m suffering – happily.

Sunset - always around 5:45p.m. (And this was taken with my iPhone)

Sunset – always around 5:45p.m. (And this was taken with my iPhone)

This is certainly the perfect place.  Tiny, touristy, Salento!  A once sleepy town dotted with coffee fincas/farms, hummingbird preserves, and a killer hike.  Jewelry shops now outnumber cafes and on weekends, tourists fill those shops and the tables in pop-up restaurants serving fresh trout and patrons in a half-dozen ways.

Palm trees making their presence known in Cocora - a valley known for great hiking

Palm trees making their presence known in Cocora – a valley known for great hiking

Like every other place I’ve been in Colombia, few people speak English.  Of course whether I can find anyone interested in paying to learn English, that is another story.  See, here’s the deal:  with the plan to only stay here for a few months it’s all but impossible to work in an institute/language school without a work visa.  And so here I am, making my way into restaurants and shops ‘selling’ the intangible skill of a new language.  Do people here need it?  As the only fluent English speaker I’ve met said:  NO!  Tourists buy stuff and easily order food and a coffee.  Somehow it all works out.  But as I’ve written before, it’s all about doing more than brushing by someone while traveling with a three word exchange. To me, it’s more important to share ideas, thoughts, and experiencs -real life stuff that needs a shared language.  Half-way through my ‘trip’, my Spanish is slowly improving, but not enough for real conversations.  Of course, even with a shared language there are no guarantees.

IMG_2086

So I was here, left, and now i’m back.  It all started my first hour here – getting dropped off on a small street, walking past tiny homes, asking directions to the lovely eco-hostel, while taking in the beautiful green Andean foothills surrounding me.  Green, clean, quiet – what’s not to love!

In the land of pay toilets - with an extra surcharge for toilet paper (of course!).  This little girl (all ready for Halloween) was happy to pose holding my TP at the Medellin bus station

In the land of pay toilets – with an extra surcharge for toilet paper (of course!). This little girl (all ready for Halloween) was happy to pose holding my TP at the Medellin bus station

In Medellin I'd heard that ponchos in this region looked like Tallt/tallises, a Jewish ritual shawl worn during services - brought here by the Jewish exiles from Spain in the early 1500's.

In Medellin I’d heard that ponchos in this region looked like Tallt/tallises, a Jewish ritual shawl worn during services – brought here by the Jewish exiles from Spain in the early 1500’s.

This shot from Cartagena could be from anywhere in the country - hawkers trying to sell to tourists - beaded necklaces btw!  I haven't bought anything - yet and have learned not to make eye contact, just a smile to for those who hawk.

This shot from Cartagena could be from anywhere in the country – hawkers trying to sell to tourists – beaded necklaces btw! I haven’t bought anything – yet and have learned not to make eye contact, just a smile to for those who hawk.

Tell others – tell them to help

For me, the best part of traveling – and definitely staying in hostels – is listening to people’s stories.   I’ve come to think of it as my greatest skill being a ‘story whisperer.’

On the one hand, there is the usual:  where’ve you been, how long will you be here, and how drunk did you get last night?  asked in a single breath.  As you might know, my conversation wanes once that last question is uttered.

One thing that never gets old is the universal joy of Halloween.  I'm a bit blown away by the shops and preparation.   I'm thinking I should begin planning my costume.

One thing that never gets old is the universal joy of Halloween. I’m a bit blown away by the shops and preparation. I’m thinking I should begin planning my costume.

On the other hand, there are those who are looking for the more substantive either talking about the state of their mind and soul or the world they inhabit and ‘walk’ through.

And the best people to chat with are goofballs in one breath and deadly serious with another.  At the ‘Black Sheep’ hostel (my namesake hostel) I noticed this about F., a just-past- young Turkish film and commercial editor from Istanbul.  Traveling for seven months, with 97 more days to go (and counting), our conversation began when I shared I was fasting for Yom Kippur – and how that was (kinda) similar to fasting for Ramadan.   On paper F. is Muslim though in the 3-D world he is nothing – if not (more than) a bit scared about the state and future of Turkey.

Medellin as seen from the Metrocable (car) on the way to the park on the top of the mountain.

Medellin as seen from the Metrocable (car) on the way to the park on the top of the mountain.

First he shared the facts or should I say the fate of Turkish Jews as told by the mother of a friend.  In the 60’s, a ‘luxury’ tax was placed on Jews – so many left to Israel or the states.  While there are still Jews there, after what F. told me, I wonder for how much longer.  But his desperate (and that’s how it sounded at times) tale isn’t about the Jews, but the country as a whole.

Sure, Turkey is a democracy – of a sort.  But he feels the country is being dumbed down as people slink into capitalism, watch TV and stop thinking about life around them.  He blames this on the U.S. (The country of blame around the world – except when there is need for help) who exported the American dream which Turks were only too anxious to buy.  Then there is the whole ‘allowing’ the country to ‘turn’ Islamic, meaning there is a control and acquiescence to life and therefore part and parcel of that dumbing down.  While it seems strange to think of the U.S. wanting another Islamic state, his response was that ‘this’ wasn’t thought through very well.

Slowly, he feels Turkey is becoming an Islamic state – definitely in 20 years.  Religious studies are now mandated regardless of religion.  Even Jews have to study Islam (which promotes understanding and isn’t necessarily bad… – unless it’s mandated as a way to be).  It’s more he feels the fundamental crush of what and how people should live including when people can drink, have sex, and overall freedoms of what can be shown in the media and in commercials.  Commercials he says are fairly safe to make and show.  As long as they don’t show any type of political opinion.

And how does this all happen without any kind of protest?  F. says it’s because people are sedated by television into the belief that things aren’t that bad.  After all, they don’t want to think. (Another Turkish woman agreed – without the urgency of needed action.)

'Quinceanera', the celebration for a girl's 15 is their opportunity to dress as a princess.  I saw several young girls strolling through Medellin's lovely Botanic Garden.

‘Quinceanera’, the celebration for a girl’s 15 is their opportunity to dress as a princess. I saw several young girls strolling through Medellin’s lovely Botanic Garden.

So after telling me how it’s the fault of the U.S. – he pleaded with me to help:  to tell the government they should step in and do something to stop the growth of a fundamental state.  He wants people to know what is going on there.  It was interesting he felt so powerless – or afraid – because if he made any real show of what is happening what would happen to him?

One thing he hopes will happen is that in these next 97 days he will find a place to stay.  By the time he left, he seemed quite fixated on marriage  (though not Colombian he stressed!) – maybe to a Canadian.

Me, I’ll be coming back stateside – happy to go and happy to return.  But now all the wiser, I’ve shared with you.  We all do what we can do and wisdom is power.

Fyi: And I should add this was all shared before Turkey shared in the news of ISIS battling in Syria and beyond.

View from the cable car showing the many slums of Medellin, ironically on the way to one of the primo tourist spots.

View from the cable car showing the many slums of Medellin, ironically on the way to one of the primo tourist spots.

 

There are three separate cable car stops all the way to the top.  Some of us are tourists - (like these people I shared my tiny cable car with_ - though it's also a commuter cable car.  The best part of them it's almost impossible NOT to chat with your fellow riders which adds a bit of charm and personalization to the day - and the commute!

There are three separate cable car stops all the way to the top. Some of us are tourists – (like these people I shared my tiny cable car with_ – though it’s also a commuter cable car. The best part of them it’s almost impossible NOT to chat with your fellow riders which adds a bit of charm and personalization to the day – and the commute!

I loved this guy working at the Black Sheep's front desk.  He was especially nice to me because I was hand-delivered in a taxi from the airport by a Colombian rock star.  I had no idea how famous she was, but she was absolutely lovely and very helpful in helping me get from the airport to the hostel.  And this 'selfie' was taken because I said I hate taking them.

I loved this guy working at the Black Sheep’s front desk. He was especially nice to me because I was hand-delivered to the hostel in a taxi from the airport by a Colombian rock star and world-famous musician;  ChocoQuib Town – they’ve played at Lincoln Center -twice. I had no idea how famous she was, but she was absolutely lovely and very helpful in helping me get from the airport to the hostel. And this ‘selfie’ was taken because I said I hate taking them.

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ChocQuibTown:  Check out ChocoQuib Town‘s music – they’re fabulous!  

Choc Quib Town Music, Lyrics, Songs, and Videos

5775 – A year infused with hope

In a land rich in resources from gold, emeralds, coffee, and a multitude of fruits, it’s easy to think about planting seeds to reap in 5775.  Though I suppose it’s equally counterintuitive to think about planting seeds during the northern hemisphere’s fall, when things are settling into hibernation, pulling in color displays, baring naked limbs for a long period of (seeming) inactivity.    The ‘earth’ is ready for seeds to take root.  I can only hope my internal seeds find equally fertile ground to grow.

Talk about fertile Medellin!  This lovely path along a canal (for me) leads to the local Exito - the local Walmart that sells produce, clothes and even tires

Talk about fertile Medellin! This lovely path along a canal (for me) leads to the local Exito – the local Wal-Mart that sells produce, clothes and even tires

Jumping into the unknown is a good way to start a new year.  I’ve  played the vulnerability card,  a key to new beginnings and stripping away dead ‘skin’.  But with the new, I’m holding on to what gives comfort and strength like holding to my rituals of the Jewish New Year.

They say wherever you are in the world, Kol Nidre (the beginning chant for Yom Kippur) is the same.   It’s been true for synagogues I’ve attended in the states, and this year I heard the familiar chant in Medellin’s Ashkenazi synagogue.   Wrapped in the traditional tunes and prayers I was reminded that across oceans, history, culture, and even assimilation, the power of tradition, a bond grounded in cellular DNA directs not just phenotype, but a spiritual expression.

The synagogue's entrance - nestled among trees at the bottom of a hill and hidden from the street by a huge fence and with armed guards!

The synagogue’s entrance – nestled among trees at the bottom of a hill and hidden from the street by a huge fence and with armed guards!

Yet attending holiday services here in Medellin I thought I’d get a real taste of being immersed in ‘this’ culture, especially after my Eastern European journey. But it’s not that black and white – nothing ever is and I should know that’s particularly true of Jewish communities regardless of continent and language.   There’s lots of ways to be an outsider, and maybe it comes back to language – again. It was easy to connect with the few other English speakers I met – especially since I glommed on to them while catching words I easily understood. I sat upstairs with P., after leaving her husband D., a former Aussie, to sit downstairs on the men’s side.   P. told me they’d been praying with the more Orthodox ‘converts’, and were happy to now be attending this synagogue. The ‘converts’ are the B’nai Anussim – the rising number of Colombians who are claiming their Jewish roots.

This conservative synagogue has a community of about 250 members and is made up of three different groups. Most striking was how much the congregation looked like so many other congregations I’ve seen over the years. This might seem like a strange thing to comment on, but the only other place I’ve seen so many European features (in the last month) is in my current hostel.  These congregants represent the Jews who fled Hitler’s slaughter, settling in this corner of South America.

Coffee is one of the region's riches and likely to be a 7 oz. serving!  The best is 'Juan Valdez' and this little kiosk cafe in the local Exito is a wonderful place to chill and people watch.  This is where I'll do my 'gift shopping''

Coffee is one of the region’s riches and likely to be a 7 oz. serving! The best is ‘Juan Valdez’ and this little kiosk cafe in the local Exito is a wonderful place to chill and people watch. This is where I’ll do my ‘gift shopping”

Yet this is the most recent – and – smallest part of Medellin’s Jewish history as I learned on my ‘Real City’ walking tour. While the Spanish ‘invaded’ this American continent in lust of gold in the late 1400’s, two other Spanish groups sought refuge in this region protected by winding mountain roads– the Basques (political) and the Jews (religious).   Does this mean many paisa’s (people living in this ‘department’) have Jewish DNA I asked my guide Julianna? Yup – in fact she said when Spain recently released the surnames of the (expelled) Jews who settled here, it was hard to find anyone who didn’t have Jewish blood.   She pointed to the Jewish influence of the region’s typical dress: a striped poncho with stringed ends, reminiscent of the Tallis. And while the regional dish contains pork, it’s marked by two symbolic cuts to show it was eaten in protest.  And while the Basques and the Jews sought wealth in freedom, ironically this area was filled with gold bringing riches to the refugees.  The region’s new liquid gold is roasted rather than mined: coffee!

 

Pablo Escobar's 'muerte' - Fernando Botero style

Pablo Escobar’s ‘muerte’ – Fernando Botero style

And you may be wondering why I didn’t mention what Medellin, and in fact Colombia is most famous for these past years: drugs. Well as Julianna mentioned, drugs didn’t add to the economy – in fact sucked financial resources from the city through murder and fear. This is a country that has suffered decades of internal war and violence, including all that Pablo Escabar famously added.

(And who creates the drug problem? Obviously the people who buy it – without the demand, the suppliers would be baristas pushing pastries)

Probably Colombian's drug of choice is sugar like Cinnobon - and of course is found in the local very modern malls

Probably Colombian’s drug of choice is sugar like Cinnobon – and of course is found in the local very modern malls

Ok, so drugs may be easy to find (but somehow I've had no offers…), but Colombia is serious about it's no smoking policy.  Just carefully check out the cigarette package warnings.

Ok, so drugs may be easy to find (but somehow I’ve had no offers…), but Colombia is serious about it’s no smoking policy. Just carefully check out the cigarette package warnings.

 

What speaks more to hope and growth than public transportation?  Medellin built their metro 10 years ago - and  even more brilliantly every single station is shell chair accessible, complete with employees to help secure wheelchairs!

What speaks more to hope and growth than public transportation? Medellin built their metro 10 years ago – and even more brilliantly every single station is shell chair accessible, complete with employees to help secure wheelchairs!

But here’s the kicker: while this country – and city – has every right to be wallowing in PTSD, Medellin has most famously gone from 2002’s world’s most dangerous city to being awarded most innovative city (of the world) last year.   I’m intrigued and awed by how this city has risen from the ashes (so to speak) and is changing and growing and aiming to become the crown of South America – a goal it will easily achieve, I’m sure.

Julianna said it had to do with selective remembering – and forgetting – about the city’s violent past. And focusing on the good while celebrating life. Talk about resilience and a good life lesson for all of us!

Dancers in Cartagena

Dancers in Cartagena

This country’s been blessed with natural beauty and resources – but so have others like South Africa – yet somehow this diverse culture and people are turning their country around with a strength and power that is intriguing and awe-inspiring. I want to know what’s it all about. Is there something in the air? If so, I want to take a deep breath and begin this year with this surge of resilience.

Gold Colombian style!

Art Colombian style!

Lucky for me, I have the next few months to explore and sate my curiosity while delving into a new way and place to work and live. It’s scary and exciting and I hope to walk away infused with Medellin’s energy of growth and recreation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The life of a working traveler

4 weeks.  1 job.  2 cities.  And I’m told understandable Spanish.

Open windows beg for voyerism and I continue to look through every door and window I can.  This is from Cartagena, though these same delights hide behind Bogota doors.

Open windows beg for voyeurism and I continue to look through every door and window I can. This is from Cartagena, though these same delights hide behind Bogotá doors.

Mix it up for a happy month and a dizzy mind.   After a month in Colombia, from the Caribbean to the capital, I’m confused, or maybe just overwhelmed.  Walking the streets is like being shaken inside a kaleidoscope, causing me to stop at corners and look 6 ways.  Maybe it’s all the coffee – more likely it’s all the sights and sounds.  On top of that, like Goldilocks, I’m in search of the right spot to settle into for the next few months.  All I know, is looking for work adds an interesting dimension to traveling – I’m asking myself how it would feel to be ‘here’ for any period of time – and questioning what I want most of this ‘adventure’.

The Palace of the President!  Recommended by my hostel' hostess (Spanish speaking only!).  Grand and seemingly accessible too.

The Palace of the President! Recommended by my hostel’ hostess (Spanish-speaking only!). Grand and seemingly accessible too.

Back in Bogotá for a few days before I head to Medellin, the expected verdict is written in cobblestone:  this city is too big, buzzy, crowded, and smoggy for me.  While big cities are in my blood, at this elevation my blood is thinner and the appeal of a big city isn’t flowing as smoothly.  Though my perspective has softened:  I view the hustle and grunge around me through 1980’s NYC eyes.  This will be a powerful place in years to come IF they can switch from diesel.  That’s the deal breaker for me.  There’s already so much in the works for turning this into a model city including building a pedestrian mall along the main street.

This courtyard seems to be by the cathedral - and guarded.

This courtyard seems to be by the cathedral – and guarded.

The city is filled with historic grandeur and architecture spanning several centuries.  Anything you desire is likely to be sold on the streets or within a block or two of where you are.  People linger over coffee at Juan Valdez, Colombia’s Starbucks where businessmen and students mingle in the warm afternoon sun.  Although life moves faster here than in Cartagena, I see more people stroll than race down the street.  I’ve wandered into almost every museum, grasping for history and culture of this diverse and rich country, and learning mostly about my limited communication skills:  I’m the mono-lingual ‘ugly (north) American.  My sympathies are renewed for all non-English speakers who venture into the U.S. and walk around seeing without being able to understand everything around them.  I eagerly returned to the Museum of Heroes today for a promised 3:00 tour in English that wasn’t.  My hope and expectation is to understand by December….

Last picture of my Presidential Palace walk.  I was in a museum and heard a marching band.  Racing out, I discovered they were changing the guard - nothing like Buckingham Palace.  These guards all looked to be around 18 and learning the ropes of marching in step.  I never saw the band though….

Last picture of my Presidential Palace walk. I was in a museum and heard a marching band. Racing out, I discovered they were changing the guard – nothing like Buckingham Palace. These guards all looked to be around 18 and learning the ropes of marching in step. I never saw the band though….

It’s all about the language:  that’s why I’m here, right?  Why should people speak English?  Any more than most of us in the U.S. speak Spanish.  Yet, as this city and country turn to the future, it’s with a bi-lingual voice.  Unbelievable to think about right now that by 2018 English will be found on restaurant signs and spoken at airports or hotels.

There is one unifying action that ties the world together:  being glued to our phones while walking, sitting at a cafe, or just for taking pictures.  And I’m embarrassed to say, awaiting replies, I’m slowly wearing away my right thumbprint swiping open my email.  Language be damned – we are all connected!

Passing through one museum into another in Bogota's center

Passing through one museum into another in Bogota’s center

Time moves quickly – even in Cartagena

When I first got here, each second felt elongated, weighted down by humidity then baked in place by the sun.  Realizing I’ve been here almost two weeks this morning came as a  shock.  How could the weeks have flown while my body  crawled in Caribbean time, drugged by the heat and alternatively stimulated by sounds, smells, and the unexpected daily pleasure of getting lost.  Unbelievable.  And like so many ‘challenges’,  my initial frustrations with housing, torrential rains and sorting through my responsibilities as a teacher trainer are like a forgettable made-for-TV movie:  hazy on details, a pleasant few hours without the need to ever see it again.

A spa treatment for the adventurer at the Tumero Volcano mud bath.  200 meters deep, I had trouble staying vertical in the mineral rich mud.  Fortunately there were women in the lagoon to scrub the mud off us.  We have no idea how lucky we are….

A spa treatment for the adventurer at the El Tutumo Volcano mud bath. 200 meters deep, I had trouble staying vertical in the mineral rich mud. Fortunately there were women in the lagoon to scrub the mud off. We have no idea how lucky we are….

My student had it worse.  Becoming a TOEFL teacher is challenging under any circumstances.  Imagine: this guy Skyped his first two weeks of class – in a place with temperamental wi-fi.  Mr. Gomez, his teacher, never showed.  A practice class never materialized  (expect for one student!).  I showed up half-way through and disrupted his 90 minute lunch routine, while overloading his brain.  This guy is ready for anything!

 

This street is remarkable for it's graffiti - I walked through it often on the way to class.

This street is remarkable for it’s graffiti – I walked through it often on the way to class.

I don't think I've ever seen 2-dimensional wall mural before this one - imagine these reliefs covering a wall about 20' x 20'

I don’t think I’ve ever seen 2-dimensional wall mural before this one – imagine these reliefs covering a wall about 20′ x 20′

Wandering deserted city streets at noon today with no place to be, I silently commended people for brilliantly staying out of the sun for a short siesta.  I had my sun umbrella (of course) walking the talk:  ‘Why does Linda cross the street?”  “To get out of the sun”.  Fortunately streets are narrow and easy to jot across as I zig zagged to success – finally finding the Colombian artist Botero’s reclining woman.

 

Patting this Botero's statue is said to bring luck.  She's the one on the right.

Patting this Botero’s statue is said to bring luck. She’s the one on the right.

Small squared and galleries are filled with art that is easy to enjoy while walking through the streets

Small squared and galleries are filled with art that is easy to enjoy while walking through the streets

This Ciudad Viejo (the old walled city Cartagena is known for) is all about the tourists, though locals swarm the streets selling hats, jewelry, and fruit.  I have to differentiate because this area is not cheap.  Food costs are comparable to what we’d pay in the U.S..  The typical salary is about $200/month USD.  The math doesn’t add up.  Most people work 2 jobs just to make ends meet – a universal story.  I’ve passed homes without windows at ground level close to swampy areas that must easily flood – as I notice elevated homes meters away.  Thatch roofs look charming on an urban restaurant, and utilitarian on a small hut planted on a rural hill with scrawny horses and cattle grazing close by.  All this from my first world perspective – what goes through the minds of locals as they watch tourists pour through their city showering pesos for drinks and consumables like it’s raining money.

Fishing 'village at the local beach ouside the city walls

Fishing ‘village at the local beach outside the city walls

This is the other side of that same group - cars were parked on the road as people came to buy.

This is the other side of that same group – cars were parked on the road as people came to buy.

Today I’ll take advantage of my last day moving in slow motion.  Drink coffee at Juan Valdez, visit the pallateria  and eat fish so fresh it must have just come from the sea – just check out the pictures above.  That and listen to the tales of fellow travelers who are kindred spirits as they adventurously wander the world  seeking growth and fulfillment in awesome ways.

Soccer tournament outside the city's walls one night

Soccer tournament outside the city’s walls one night

Looking through the shutters of the hostel' windows, can you see the man across the way watching us?  It's easy to be a voyer here, taking peeks through open doors at the wonders within plain doors.

Looking through the shutters of the hostel’ windows, can you see the woman across the way watching us? It’s easy to be a voyeur here, taking peeks through open doors at the wonders hidden behind plain doors.

Cartagena – A tale of two worlds

Cartagena lays claim to why spanish is spoken in South America.  Granted, it’s old history, battles fought hundreds of years ago between Spanish soldiers holed up in this fortified city and depending on the year either French or British naval invasions.  Walking around brilliant forts (or castles or just the walled city) and learning about soldier’ slaughters, I thought if it weren’t for war, Paul Revere would’ve saved himself a late night ride and been able to tweet about the British coming (for tea – remember no war).  Let’s just say there are riches to fight over here and many have been fought.  For better or for worse that is at least one of the questions.

 

Looking through the old city to the castle/fort San Filipe d'Baraias

Looking through the old city to the castle/fort San Filipe d’Baraias

photo 5-18

Peeking through the old walled city are reminders of our more ‘modern’ age.

photo 2-57

A city of water, this is exiting into the bay area and the neighborhood of Manga and where the synagogue is

photo 2-59

The local beach, uncrowded early on Sunday morning. The water warmer than the showers.

Fast forward to modern-day Cartagena where I’ve been for the last week, teaching a young man to be a TEFL/English teacher.  Especially interesting since I haven’t really taught English and I’m happily relying on my  hundreds of years of experience facilitating and presenting ‘train-the-trainer’ workshops.  Fear not, I am helping him even as the class curriculum dribbles in like afternoon showers here.   I’m not in Kansas anymore.

 

Small squared and galleries are filled with art that is easy to enjoy while walking through the streets

Small squared and galleries are filled with art that is easy to enjoy while walking through the streets

There are the foreigner-filled beaches, and the tourists who wander in packs through the charming ‘Ciudad Vieja’ – the old walled city, with emerald shops on every corner, while you can’t avoid the offers for tours of every kind from men in front of every shop.  Everyone has something to sell, something to offer, smelling the sweet scent of foreign currency.   One tour guide linked Cartagena with St. Augustine.   An urban planner from New Orleans said she was reminded of her hometown thanks to the architecture, ‘festival’ and the intimate streets, not to mention the weather.  A torrential rain last Tuesday flooded the city and I got a the smallest taste of how Katrina must have devastated that city.

Saturday night fireworks as seen from my hostel courtyard.  Why?  Possibly a wedding.  Or because it was Saturday night???

Saturday night fireworks as seen from my hostel courtyard. Why? Possibly a wedding. Or because it was Saturday night???

Traveling to any country is like falling into a whole new world.   Of course it’s not uncommon to cross a street almost anywhere in this same world and experience the passage from 1st to 3rd world.  My time in Cartagena finds me somewhere in between.   Discussing the differences in amenities with German travelers this morning we agreed we were very lucky to live in countries with such a wonderful standard of living –  and how easy it is to take it all for granted including having sewage systems that can handle flushing toilet paper.

Looking down a street in Getsemani, the neighborhood outside the 'old city' and where I spend my days teaching.  A neighborhood that appears ripe for gentrification

Looking down a street in Getsemani, the neighborhood outside the ‘old city’ and where I spend my days teaching. A neighborhood that appears ripe for gentrification 

Substituting walking for motorized transportation – taxis or buses is a fascinating albeit harrowing experience.    The closest comparison is bumper cars though with everyone going in the same direction at dizzying speed and three lanes of traffic regularly swelling to five with motorcycles regularly competing for lane space – or should I say painted line space.  I haven’t taken pictures/videos of my experiences because of iPhone theft warnings:  see somethings are the same wherever you are!  And honestly, there are times I’m holding on tight.  It takes nerves of steel to ride in one of these vehicles not to mention cross the street (which I’ve now mastered with a hand wave!).  It must take nerves of titanium to get behind the wheel.  Good thing I love to walk.

Getsemani street art.  Cartagena, like Bogota is filled with colorful murals

Getsemani street art. Cartagena, like Bogotá is filled with colorful murals

Taking time to breathe, I luxuriate strolling more as a citizen than a tourist inside the wall,  exiting each afternoon into the ‘slums of Getsamenie, where I’m working.  Stepping out of my ‘world view’, I’m following the footsteps of the locals.  Slowing my pace and expectations and most of all trying to take things as they come.  There’s no sense of urgency here.  No ‘timely fashion’ as we might say in the first world.  Sharing this time challenge with ‘my NYC boss’ she responded: ‘well that’s why some places are not doing well and not advancing’.

It’s not that simple.  The culture is so different here in a way I can’t explain.     I don’t understand it yet, but give me another week to try.  Understanding – isn’t that the purpose of travel?

Enjoy!  And Shana Tova: Happy New Year.

Getsemani square in the early morning

Getsemani square in the early morning

 

I may be the only person who goes to the Caribbean and doesn't race to the beach…..  I did dip my toes and more and you can see how clean the water is and lukewarm...

I may be the only person who goes to the Caribbean and doesn’t race to the beach….. I did dip my toes and more and you can see how clean the water is and lukewarm…