Real-Enough Volunteer

All right. I live here now. So when will I actually start feeling like a real volunteer?

 

I’ve been avoiding writing a post that’s anything other than rote list of experiences. Because 1) there’s a lot that goes on and it’s all exciting and new for me and 2) because I’ve felt that there’s nothing I could say that couldn’t be better expressed by another volunteer. Someone who’s been here longer. Someone who’s on a committee. Someone who’s super well-integrated. Someone who absolutely never binge watches Firefly when she could be outside speaking Spanish. Someone who doesn’t wake up every morning to the thought, “I have absolutely no idea what I’m going to do today.”

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A few experiences for context: I’m doing my observation right now. I have something like 10 possible school campuses to choose from. My actual experiences in the classroom have ranged from watching 10+ different classes silently take the same exam to being abandoned in a room full of 4th graders with the vague directive to keep them busy. The local schools end at 12:30 at the latest, leaving me with plenty of time to really marinate in my cluelessness. Due to a nationwide teachers’ strike, I don’t know the next time I’ll be setting foot in a classroom. Yet more time with my cluelessness.

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I’m uncomfortable with ambiguity.

And I’d like to be honest about that, but my thought process generally runs:

“Am I a real-enough volunteer to start writing about thoughts and feelings? Have I earned that yet, or do I need to hold some community English classes first? Teach a co-planned lesson? Hit my sixth month? Year?”

I’m not looking to turn this into a melodramatic assertion of authenticity (“Yes!” She screams off the balcony, tears streaming down her face, “I am a real volunteer! I have been one all along! The real volunteer was within all this time!”).

But I am working on viewing what I do every day as the work of a real-enough volunteer, even though my work hasn’t officially started yet.

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I’ve taught the neighbor kids how to play spoons. Last Saturday, we grabbed my (waterproof, shockproof) camera and took pictures of the town. Which quickly devolved into a full on photoshoot as they started putting flowers in my hair and ordering me to strike a pose. I’ve painted mascara mustaches on myself and my little brother, showed up to people’s houses and made a series of more-or-less successful desserts.

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There have been introductions, ice cream, language-related awkwardness, bus rides, hikes, and spur-of-the-moment decisions that have all contributed to the slow, slow work of making myself at home in a new community.

I’m still figuring out what I’m doing in the schools. I’m sure I’ll still be figuring it out a year from now. But for now, this is what a real(-enough) volunteer looks like.

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The content of this website is mine alone and does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Peace Corps, or the Colombian Government.

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Catching up

**There are no pictures because my computer is not being very kind.   Disculpen.**

I’ve started and stopped this blog post too many times in the past 6 or so weeks.  Training has flown by.  Sort of.  Time is weird here.  Tomorrow, I moved to site.  Here are some of the things that have happened since last I posted:

  • Carnival has come and gone, and not a day too soon.  I’m looking forward to a year’s respite from maizena [the white powder on my face in all the pictures]. 
  • Site visit #1: Piojó
    • Site visits are meant to show the day-to-day lives of PC volunteers.  Two of my cohort members and I had the honor of visiting Natalie, a phenomenal English teacher and overall 10/10 human being.  
    • Piojó was too good to be true.  It’s the highest point in Atlantico, home to some killer views and blissfully cool evenings. I was certain I was being set up for disappointment.  No way I was going to get mountains for my permanent site …
  • Site visit #2: Guachaca
    • Yes, I procrastinated this post so long that you completely missed my anxious waiting period between site visits #1 and #2.  But I got my mountains!
    • Guachaca is about 20 minutes or so away from Parque Tayrona.  There’s a lot of tourists in this neck of the woods.  I was one of those tourists a few years ago, and I may have teared up a time or two thinking about how I never expected that I would call the Colombian Coast my home.  
    • I have the best PC neighbors.  I spent a lot of my site visit with fellow volunteers and was absolutely overwhelmed by their kindness (and, in Devlin’s case, mad cockroach-killing skills; he had to have killed upwards of 20 cockroaches in one night).
  • I have made some incredible friends during training, and I absolutely was not expecting that.  I had heard so much about how lonely Peace Corps is, I forgot that you essentially spend the first three months in the constant company of people who are in the exact same boat.  I’m sure I’ll write a feverish love-letter to my cohort after a week or two on my own in Guachaca, but for now, a lone bullet-point will have to express what pages and pages of grateful journal entries could not.  
  • I’ve co-facilitated actual English classes.  With varying degrees of success.  With the best co-facilitators I could have hoped for.

  • Team Santo Tomas facilitated a training workshop for primary school teachers.  We had upwards of 40 teachers show up to learn activities they could use to incorporate English into their classes.
  • Speaking of Team Santo, I am infinitely grateful for the six gringoes I’ve gotten to share this pueblo with.  For the most part, we were placed in Santo Tomas because we had the lowest Spanish level of the group.  Naturally, that poses a bit of a challenge when you’re trying to lead workshops for people who don’t speak English.  Time and time again, they’ve pulled through and humbled me with their persistence and effort, both in their commitment to improve their Spanish and in the work they’ve put into every task that was thrown our way.

  • Swearing-in was beautiful.  And hot.  The power cut out several times throughout and even when the lights came back, the AC did not.  Sweaty hugs were had by all.

  • A month or so into training, two friends and I started a community English class.  It’s been the highlight of my week ever since.

  • My Spanish went from intermediate-mid to advanced-low.  So, miracles do happen.

  • With the help of my host mom, the kids on my street threw me a surprise going-away party.  My friends kept me distracted with 3+ hours of Resident Evil films and Grand Theft Auto.  When I came home to a darkened house, I caught my mom standing behind the door and still suspected nothing because, hey — she’s an adult and she does what she wants.   And then the children jumped out of the hair salon, and there was this huge poster with my name on it.  Everyone said a few words wishing me well on the next step.  I tried to say a few words but promptly forgot Spanish and just kind of got really shrill from gratitude.  I can’t cry anymore, apparently, but my voice can jump 7 octaves if people are nice enough to me when I absolutely do not deserve it.

 

This has been an awkward attempt to describe something that’s indescribable.  There’s no way a bulleted list could adequately communicate what this has experience has been like in any comprehensive sense.  Not for me, not for my Colombian friends, neighbors and students, not for the other volunteers, not for my teaching counterparts.  

Regardless, here are a few slices of a life that is definitely still in transition.

The content of this website is mine alone and does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Peace Corps, or the Colombian Government.

A hearty dose of Week 4 optimism

As of Friday, I’ve lived in Santo Tomás for 3 weeks

 

I’m pretty spoiled right now.  The fan in my bedroom is excellent, my neighbors were kind enough to allow me to connect to their wifi, and I live very close to several very wonderful and helpful trainees.  Here’s a running list of all the ways life is good right now.  

 

  • School practicum couldn’t be better.  Not only am I sharing a classroom with one of my favorite fellow trainees, but our Colombian counterpart is the actual best at what she does.  Plus, the classroom has A/C!

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  • Speaking of one of my favorite fellow trainees, Kellie and I led The Tiniest English Class on Saturday, covering greetings, farewells and some courtesy words.  Several other trainees have launched little English classes in their communities, but I was a concerned about leading one in Santo Tomas.  Trainees are divided into pueblos based on language ability, and those of us at the lower levels have had the great fortune to live among the extremely patient people of Santo Tomas.  But it’s one thing to be unable to tell your host mom a story from your childhood — Leading a small class in a language you’re far from fluent in is another thing altogether.  Our class of four students seemed to really enjoy what Kellie and I had planned and were so, so gracious with our Spanish.
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There was a bird.  Also, I hate eye contact.

  • A man offered me the tiniest kitten and I ALMOST DIED.  Definitely did some scheming to try to figure out a way to keep the little guy.

 

  • My host mom, Rosa, makes THE BEST LIMEADE I’VE HAD IN MY LIFE.  Juice is a way of life here, so that’s been pretty cool.  Check out this delicious, fuity-iced-tea creation I had for lunch:

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  • The Folklore Parade passed in front of my house:
  • Part of our training is to coordinate a community project.  It’s supposed to be a Thank You to our host community.  It’s been said that members of our training communities can sometimes feel like they’re getting the short end of the stick — we’re only here for three months, and we’re definitely on the receiving end of investment and instruction.  Community projects enable us to give back, even if it’s just a little, to people that have invested so much in us.  They’re supposed to be sustainable; our role is to jumpstart a project that community members can carry on after we’ve left. 

    All those nice things being said, community projects can be a considerable source of angst for trainees (read: me. A considerable source of angst for me.)  Where do you even start?  How do you have conversations about the needs of a community when you’re still learning the language?  It’s not like someone’s just going to walk up to you in a park and be like, “Hey, we have a group of young people we’d like to mobilize.  Can you help us hold some talks on personal finance and sustainability, or perhaps work with us to teach English or proofread grant proposals?” 

    Except, that’s exactly what happened the other night.  So, we’ll be meeting with those guys soon to figure out what needs to be done and when we can get started.

  • Completely last-minute, I got to ride along in a mule cart in the Carro De Mulas parade.  I got kicked out 10 minutes later once the mule got tired, but it was cool while it lasted.

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  • We’ll be having a Valentine’s Day gift exchange tomorrow.  We had an impromptu crafting session today during Community Project Planning hour and I was super impressed by what my colleagues can whip up with colored paper and scissors.  
  • MY HOST AUNT MADE ME A CUMBIAMBERA SHIRT FOR CARNAVAL CHECKIT.

 

Commentary time!

It’s certainly not been all sunshine and rainbows.

 

There have been some low points.  No one showed up to this week’s English class, for one.  There have been long days, discouraging days, intense discomfort (no, not actually talking about acute diarrhea…. yet), misunderstandings, and insurmountable language barriers.  The days simultaneously seem far too long to stay awake for, and too short to get everything done.  We all feel like our staging event in Miami was a thousand years ago, but it feels like April 7th is coming on way too fast.

But, paradoxically, I’ve never been happier.  Every day is riddled with blessings in the last places I was expecting to find them.

 

 

 

And, until I figure out how to add footers:

The content of this website is mine alone and does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Peace Corps, or the Colombian Government.

 

Boom.  #followingtherules

Week one: Training, washi tape, Carnaval

Training has been going non-stop.  Here’s what I’ve been up to since Friday:

 

  • Carnaval dancers showed up in front of my house, drums and all.

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  • I got maisena’d.  That’s a handful of cornstarch to the face.  How does it feel, you ask?  Like integration.  It feels like integration.  (And it is also extremely uncomfortable.)

 

  • I’ve definitely gone inside the supermarket exclusively for the A/C.

 

  • “I got two / phones / one for the Corps, and one for my mom.”

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  • Got really, really confused by, “Carlos es de Texas, si?”  Texas sounds like TEH-has.  I had just learned that “lentils” are “lentejas.”  I did not understand why she were calling him Carlos Lentils and asked her to repeat herself several times.

 

  • I wore a string of washi tape for the event celebrating the coronation of the pueblo’s Carnaval Queen. My host mom wanted to spice up my outfit, spotted my washi tape and straight up fastened it around my neck. Wasn’t going to argue with that.

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  • Something large-sounding is currently buzzing in my roof and I am pleading with God for it not to be a cockroach.  Might actually be the cat.  She gets on the rafters sometimes.

 

  • My integration strategy is basically to ingratiate myself with the neighborhood kids because: 1) They are awesome and hilarious, 2) They’re trying to teach me to dance and play dominoes, 3) They’re impressed by my pushups and 4) They are so, so patient with my wacky Spanish.

 

  • Seriously though, the happiest moment of my experience so far happened Sunday.  I’d promised to draw with this kid prior to visiting my host aunt — wasn’t really feeling like keeping my word, but I figured I’d give it a minute and see how it went.  Within 10 minutes, there were 10 kids ripping apart my notebook to draw the logos of soccer teams.  They were also super excited about washi tape with English words on them.  One kid kept his “hello” piece of tape from one evening and transferred it onto the next day’s shirt.

 

  • I went to a youth group meeting at the Catholic church on Sunday.  The leaders were getting commissioned/presented/ordained and the ceremony included an extremely intense skit (that I didn’t understand, but still managed to enjoy) complete with dancing.

 

  • I teared up in Tuesday’s technical training session.  Given my limited teaching experience, I’d been horribly anxious about that aspect of the training.  Once the expectations were laid out, the fog lifted.  For the first time, I could let myself be excited about what the future held, sans the mind-numbing fear.

 

While I realize I’ll need more than optimism and fuzzy feelings to get through training, life has been pretty good so far.  

Dating the Peace Corps

(No, not dating in the Peace Corps. That might be a post one day, but it will not be today.)

My cohort, 27 trainees total, touched down in Barranquilla today. As soon as we set foot outside of customs, we were greeted by screams.

The good kind of screams. The “Whoooo!!! Bienvenidos a Colombia!” kind of screams.

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They made us siiiiiigns!

 

Our country director, program director and a veritable boatload of current volunteers and staff were there to greet us.

Once we made it to our hotel, we settled in to the first of many, many in-country training sessions, where our program director explained that we were all now in an official dating relationship with the Peace Corps.

It’s a time for us to evaluate our own commitment to serving in a country we’re not familiar with — and a very, very warm country, at that.  It’s also a time for our program directors to use their considerable experience to determine whether or not we’re a good fit for the program.

What is the program, you say?  

Well, I’m perfectly prepared to stray farther and farther away from the original intent of this post, so put on your hiking boots (and send me some since I didn’t bring any) and come with me on this tangent!

We’ll work primarily with Colombian teachers to develop English teaching strategies. As a nation, Colombia aims to make the majority of its public school graduates bilingual.  The communities we’ll be working with have specifically asked Peace Corps to provide trained teachers to train teachers.  Each community waits years to get its volunteer, and Peace Corps shoots to have a volunteer in each community for a six-year period. That’s comprised of three two-year stints by three separate volunteers.

That’s a long-term relationship, I’d say. So let’s meander back to the original point: Peace Corps and I are dating right now; we’re trying to see if we’re right for each other.  

Let’s call this stage the first date: We’re in a nice, air-conditioned hotel, our training sessions have been fairly short and manageable, and the real work has yet to begin.

I’ll let you know how the relationship goes.