Tag Archives: La Virginia Colombia

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

 

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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..