Spring break, Peace Corps style

Happy belated Easter, friends! One of the best things about being a teacher is that you’re never too old for a spring break and luckily, even though I am on another continent, Colombians are also big fans of vacations so I had all last week off for “Holy Week.” My site mate, Michael, and two other PCV’s decided to fly down to Peru, eat some guinea pig, see some mountains and escape the heat. I had another motivator for leaving: turtle is the main dish in my town for Easter and I hate seeing all the poor little turtles in their buckets awaiting their imminent death, also turtle is too chewy for my taste 🙂

You may not know, but Cusco, Peru is home to one of the world’s biggest tourist destinations, Machu Picchu. This ancient Incan city was named a World Heritage site and since then, 2,000 tourists flock to the mountains every day to witness the amazing ingenuity of the Incans. Cool, hard core travelers like to hike up the mountain to fully appreciate the work ethic and determination of the Incans. Michael and our friend, Caleb are these hardcore travelers. Luckily, Caleb’s super cool wife, Alex, is not and so I had a buddy to hang out with in the city of Cusco all week while the boys spent 5 days trekking and camping (AKA my worst nightmare) and then we took a train up to the ruins. It was MUCH more enjoyable and there was still light hiking involved so we were able to appreciate the physical endurance the Incans had. If it isn’t already on your bucket list, I highly recommend making your way down there; it is absolutely breathtaking.

In addition to Machu Picchu, Cusco has so many Incan ruins right outside the city to explore. While on our way to a national park that houses an ancient temple and tunnels where Incan women hid during battles, we encountered a nice indigenous man who said that instead of paying the entrance fee to the park, we could pay to go through the indigenous town and he’d give us a guide to take us on horseback through all the sites. It was incredible and I almost liked the experience more than Machu Picchu. One night, we went back up the mountain to the Cusco Planetarium, which is really the house of an indigenous family that has been studying astronomy for generations. We went star gazing and they taught us all about the Incan constellations. We spent the rest of our time touring gorgeous cathedrals, visiting markets, eating all the food in Cusco and people watching.

Even though I am outside of my home country, I feel like I haven’t had the opportunity to travel much lately so this trip was a good reminder of just how big our world is and how beautiful the human race can be. On my way through the indigenous town outside of Cusco, I saw two Peruvian teenagers chasing each other through the street. The one in the lead came across some of those cute, white dandelions that everyone back home loves to pick and blow the leaves off and guess what he did? He picked it and blew the leaves off. I don’t know why but it was such a simple, beautiful act and really put everything into perspective: we are all the same. We hope, we dream, we have fun, we fear, we laugh, we cry and we all pick dandelions on some point in our lives. Peruvian women may carry their children around differently than Americans but that doesn’t mean they care any less or worry about their futures. American music is nothing like what I hear in Colombia but that doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate a nice melody.

While traveling in itself is amazing and fun and it gets me out of my pueblo for awhile, experiencing new cultures and learning about people is so important and worth every dime. I truly think that the world would be a better place if we all got to know each other a little better. I realize that not everyone has the privilege of having the time or money to travel, but I can bet there are parts of your town that you don’t frequent too often. For my Nebraska/Iowa friends, go down to South Omaha, eat some bomb Mexican food, walk into the International Bakery and strike up a conversation with someone that looks different from you. If you’re living elsewhere, go into international market and talk to the cashier or try out a new restaurant and get to know your waiter you won’t regret it.

It was hard to come back to my little town after such an amazing trip. I was excited to see everyone but I still had anxiety for some reason. Obviously, as it is after every trip, my anxiety quickly went away when Isa ran into my arms and gave me a hug and kiss and my host mom sat on my bed while I unpacked and told her all about Peru. Tonight, my neighbor who is only 19 but is basically my second mom here, made me dinner and I had an eating contest with her 4 year old son and the nine year old neighbor boy. Spoiler alert: I won. Once again, I feel beyond grateful that this is my life and that I have found so much love thousands of miles outside of my comfort zone.

I only have about seven months left of this adventure so I am really going to try and appreciate every moment. Thanks for reading! I hope the lovely spring weather is treating you well. Abrazos!!!

P.S. I’ve been trying for an hour to upload pictures but my weak data plan isn’t cutting it. So I’ll just leave with you this J.R.R. Tolkien quote in honor of my finally committing to tackle the Lord of the Rings series (I swear I’m not as nerdy as that last sentence implies).

“The world is indeed full of peril. and in it there are many dark places; but still there is so much that is fair, and though in all the lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps all the greater.”

 

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Queen Jessi

Hi everyone! I am finally, almost feeling rested from the 2016 Carnaval celebration. Carnaval is essentially a 4 day Mardi Gras celebration. Each town and neighborhood elects a queen and after a coronation, there are parades, dancing, drinking and staying up all night until Ash Wednesday. A lot of the traditions are rooted in the country’s history of slavery and most of the dances and costumes you’ll see represent the Afro-Colombian population’s way of mocking the Spanish ruling class. Barranquilla, the capital city of the department I live in, boasts the 2nd largest Carnaval celebration in the world (Rio is first). Last year was my very first Carnaval and it was pretty tame because I had just arrived to Rotinet a couple days before. I didn’t know a soul besides my host-brother and sister-in-law. However, they are the best and they took me out and I got to see the queen coronation one night and went dancing the next night. Even though it is a 4 day event, I could only hang for 2 nights and called it quits.

This year, I knew it would be different because this place has become my home. I obviously know so many more people and have become a bit more comfortable dancing so I was preparing myself of 4 days of non-stop partying with my family and friends. Then, a couple days before the festivities, my host mom was talking about the coronation ceremony for Friday and she mentioned something about me. I wasn’t paying that close attention but I thought she had asked me if I wanted to crown the queen of our neighborhood (our town is split into two neighborhoods, Barrio Abajo and Barrio Arriba). I said sure, that sounds like fun! And then, later on she said “so, we’ll need to find a dress for your coronation.” And I said uhhh excuse me?? MY coronation?!?!? She was exasperated and said “you just agreed to be our queen! People here love how great you are with the kids and are always up and dancing even though you look confused a lot, you just go with the flow and have really adapted well here so they want you to be their queen.” I was stunned but also incredibly honored and excited. The next two days consisted of running around to dance lessons and costume fittings. Additionally, my neighborhood wanted to make sure everyone knew that the gringa was their queen so they planned a parade for Thursday night (remember, we are in rural Colombia, there is no need for permits or road blocks). I was super nervous to how people would react and I was terrified of leading a small little parade where all eyes would be on me. Traditionally, for the pre-Carnaval parade, it is just the queen, her family and some of her closest friends. By the end of the parade, I was leading over 100 people, a live band and multiple dance troupes. I couldn’t believe the support and love from everyone! One of the previous queens came up to me and said that I broke records and they had never seen that much support for a queen before. It was honestly the best feeling I’ve had in my 17 months here and I truly felt like a part of the community.

The next day was my coronation but before that, I had to go to another city about an hour away to march in the parade with my school. We had custom made dresses and a whole dance routine planned. After about 2 hours in the parade, I knew it was getting late so I snuck out and took a bus home. I arrived sweaty, hungry and exhausted but excited. The Queen Coronation of 2015 was one of the coolest events I attended last year and I remember thinking how it amazing it would be to perform in one of the dance troupes, never in a million years would I have imagined that I was going to be the queen! Even though I felt so much love from everyone last night, I was still incredibly nervous for my multiple costume changes and dance presentations. Obviously, I am not the traditional queen and with that comes a certain size difference and dance skill from previous years and I was eager not to let my community down. Plus, one guy expressed distaste when he heard I was queen, saying that all queens should be costeña and I was DYING to prove him wrong.

Once again, records were broken and people came from all over town to see my crowning, not just people in my neighborhood. I had 4 costume changes, countless dance routines and an interview in front of everyone. They even built a “palace” for me to sit and watch some of the other dance troupe performances. The best surprise of all was when Michael and Alejandra came from the next town over to support me and they made Michael my King. It was SO nice to have him up there with me and he made me the best dance partner. I also would’ve had about 12 meltdowns if hadn’t been for Alejandra running around, finding my outfits, fetching my water and beer and basically being super supportive as I was having some extreme self-esteem issues with one of my outfits… a shirt little skirt made of tied up ribbons and a crop top: the perfect outfit to dance “mapalé” a traditionl, Afro-Colombian dance which involves a lot of full-body thrusts. Previous queens spend their whole lives learning these dances and I had a quick, 5-minute tutorial before going out and shaking EVERYTHING in front of, essentially, the whole town. Once again, everyone was SO supportive and even though it was clear I had no idea what I was doing, they applauded me as if I were Shakira.

The announcer, another teacher from school, got up and gave a little speech about how much I mean to the community and how I have become a “Rotinetera” and a ton of other nice stuff that made me get all choked up, which was embarrassing because I was wearing about 3 pounds of make-up on my eyes and they had to redo my whole face before the actual coronation. As soon as the crowning was over, everyone went home to rest up for the next 4 days of parties and I was exhausted and actually laid down on someone’s porch until my host mom took me home.

Saturday, the first official day of Carnaval, we had the big parade called the “Batalla de Flores.” Somehow, I became the queen of Rotinet, not just Barrio Abajo and so once again, it was my duty to lead the parade. However, this time I had an “armed” guard (one man and 6 little boys with sticks) and they made sure no one crossed the parade perimeter to bother me. I try to be a cool, down-to-earth person but quite frankly, I was made for this. I LOVED being the center of attention and hearing throngs of people chanting my name. I know, I know it is so pretentious but hey, we all have our flaws right? After the parade, I went home to change and then went to the “club” in our neighborhood to get the party started. Other than a couple of dances and some speeches on the microphone, the responsibilities were limited and I was able to just dance and enjoy being around my friends. The next two days were a blur of dancing and partying and tons of picture taking. On Tuesday, we had ANOTHER parade to “mourn” the closing of Carnaval and then I was to play hostess at the final party of the season. At this point, I was deliriously tired but I made it through the parade and a few hours of partying but I gave a speech thanking everyone for their support and for making these some of the best days of my life and took my tired butt home at midnight.

Wednesday, I woke up with a sore throat, body aches and a fever but also countless memories so it was totally worth it. The love and acceptance I felt over the last week is something I will carry with me for as long as I live. I am forever grateful to the people of Rotinet for opening their hearts to me and helping me to make Colombia my second home. They are already concocting a plan to get me back here for next year J

P.S. The one nay-sayer who believed all Carnaval queens should be costeña came up and apologized to me and said I was one of the best queens the town has ever seen. VICTORY!

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Some of the neighborhood kiddos and I before the parade announcing I was queen

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My host mom and I standing in front of the speakers. They were playing music at the time and it was so loud, the sound waves were moving my skirt!

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A big tradition of Carnaval is the throwing of “maizena” or cornstarch in people’s faces. I don’t really get it but people LOVE it.

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Dancing queen

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My host sister, Isa and my host nieces from my previous host family. They’re all just the cutest!

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The head of the “guard.” He was very intimidating and smoked a cigar for the entire parade!

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My acceptance speech at the coronation. Next to me is the “Reina Infantil” or the child queen. She was the queen of the school.

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Dancing with my neighbor’s dance troupe during the parade

Holy crap, that year went fast

Hi friends. Remember me? Your friend, Jessi, who is living in Colombia and working as a Peace Corps volunteer? I don’t blame you for forgetting about me. I forgot about this blog for a really long time. It’s not that I’ve been overly busy or suuuuper bored with nothing to write about, I’ve just gotten so used to life here that I sometimes forget it is still adventure and a couple people (my parents) want to hear all about it. Time really got away from me but I’ll try to do a quick recap of the last 3 months of 2015 and I shall try and write more in 2016, promise!

Last time I wrote, I had just celebrated my 27th birthday with my amazing host family and I was on top of the world. WELL, that didn’t last long let me tell you. To celebrate my birthday, my best gal pals and I decided to meet up in the mountains outside of Santa Marta for a weekend of wine, hiking and good food before our final Peace Corps training. My friend has a cat so I opted to sleep outside in a hammock. It was actually really comfy and I was a tad chilly so I snuggled up in my hoody and blankets. The next day I woke up feeling really crummy and as the day went on, I realized I was having an asthma attack. My friends convinced me to call the Peace Corps Medical Officer who told me to get my butt off that mountain and to the urgent care clinic. Luckily, I have the best friends ever and one of them, MC, accompanied me down to the city in some random stranger’s pick up truck. At this point, we were both pretty certain I was toast. Anyways, long story short, the ER that I went to was awful and I was so miserable and sad AND they gave me two shots in my butt so I was pretty much ready to end it all. I called my mom the next day crying and she decided I needed to come home for Christmas and escape my endless stream of illnesses for a couple of weeks.

The rest of September passed uneventfully and I spent the first week of October touring Medellin and the Eje Cafetero (Coffee Region) in the interior of Colombia. I had an absolute blast even though my friends forced me to do an 11 mile hike. It ended in a gorgeous valley of some of the highest palm trees in the world and then they made me rice krispy treats so I suppose it was all worth it 🙂  One thing that kind of surprised me was that I found myself really missing Rotinet and my awesome host family and was happy to return to site. I missed them so much, in fact, that I took them as my guests to the 25th anniversary celebration of Peace Corps Colombia. Isabella dazzled all of my friends with her charm while my other sister, Elsa, and my mom learned about the history of Peace Corps Colombia. That part was cool but I just really liked having a chance to show off these wonderful people who have saved me from several mental breakdowns.

 

As some of you may know, I detest all things scary and as such, Halloween is one of my least favorite holidays. I’m obviously only in it for the candy. So I was pleasantly surprised to find out that in Rotinet, the tradition is that children dress as little angels and go around trick or treating for candy and the ingredients to make sancocho, my favorite Colombian soup. We celebrated at school and all of us teachers pitched in to buy the ingredients and the kids made a big ol’ cauldron of soup for everyone to share. They even butchered and plucked the chickens! It was so cool to see these kids step up and be leaders. The older ones took charge and helped teach the younger students. They were doing things that I’ve never in my life imagined doing (plucking chickens?!?!? WHAT?!?!?) and they did it all so expertly, I was truly impressed and felt so lucky to share this fun tradition.

 

November was a pretty chill month. School was wrapping up so there wasn’t a lot of work to do. I got diagnosed with an ulcer so my theory that Peace Corps rapidly ages us was proven true. All of the volunteers got together at a hotel on the beach a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving to celebrate and stuff our faces. The organizers even managed to find a little turkey! I made 10 pounds of mashed potatoes that I smashed using a tiny pot, as we had no mixer. It was a good work out so I really felt like I earned my meal :)It was fun to celebrate with my amazing friends and reflect on all we had accomplished in the past year.

Once December hit, I had extreme vacation brain. School was out, no one wanted to learn English or talk about building fish ponds and chicken coops so I took a hint and spent 2 weeks relaxing and spending time with my host family. I did take some time out of my Buffy the Vampire Slayer binge to work on a grant for Camp GLOW 2016. I am lucky enough to be one of four co-directors of this amazing leadership camp for teenage girls on the coast. It is quite an undertaking but we have a solid team and are all very motivated to make 2016 the best camp yet.

FINALLY the time came for me to go home! I was so excited I barely slept the week leading up to my trip! I arrived on John’s birthday and my whole family was at the airport to pick me up and then we went out to celebrate our little Johnny turning 25. My mom sporadically broke out in tears, typical. I got my hair chopped off on Friday (I hate it, I look like a surfer bro) and then spent the next two days basically attached to my mom at the hip. My dad couldn’t believe how quickly I reverted to my 13 year old self. I hope he found it cute and endearing and not pathetic and weird. We celebrated Lukey’s birthday early because obviously a cool, hip and social 20 year old can’t possibly be expected to stay at home with his lame family for his birthday so after he went to a party, John and I locked ourselves in the basement for a Law and Order SVU marathon. I spent the rest of the week relaxing and just being a normal American. It was nice but it got pretty boring. The day before New Year’s Eve, my best friend Sam flew out to spend my last few days in the US with me. We had SO MUCH FUN! I am so lucky she took the time to come see me and it reminded me why I’ve been friends with her for so long. She even booked the latest flight possible out of Denver so we could go to the airport together (my flight left at midnight) and she didn’t chastise me when I threw a temper tantrum when it came time for her to board her plane and leave me. I actually handled leaving a lot better than I thought I would. I was ready to come back to Colombia but I hate good-byes more than anything and avoid them at all costs so it was really tough when John dropped us off at the airport. But, I lived. Especially because I knew that in less than one week my parents were coming! Oh, and I guess it didn’t hurt that my mom was so exhausted after searching for the best flights that she accidentally booked me first class the whole way back! I have never felt like more of a queen and I hope to travel like that forever and always.

It was my dad’s first trip to Colombia and my mom’s second time out of the US. We had an absolute blast! We ate, drank, shopped and burnt ourselves to a crisp on the beach. My dad was surprisingly relaxed with the crazy driving and he actually enjoyed Colombian food. We spent some time in Rotinet and they absolutely loved meeting my host family and people in town. I think they especially loved it when, every time they met a new person, they would exclaim “OH MY GOSH JESSI YOUR PARENTS ARE SO YOUNG!!!” I actually took offense because this means they think I am too old to have such good looking parents but my mom was in heaven when people mistook her for my sister. After our pueblo visit, we spent the rest of the week in Cartagena and my parents got to meet a bunch of my PC friends. It is really just embarrassing how much my mother thanked them for being my friends.

As always, I was dreading the moment that I would have to say good bye to my parents for another ten months. My mom and I made a huge scene at the airport, which I continued in the taxi and then on the bus home. My dad was the tough guy and only got a little choked up. However, they loved it here so much they are going to try another trip before I leave! I am so lucky to have adventurous parents who are willing to visit their wild daughter as she muddles through her journey of self-discovery.

I really do love it here but every time I have to say good-bye, I hate it and want to just book a flight home so I can avoid the whole situation. However, the second I got off the bus, I ran into my friend who I haven’t seen in months. She was super pumped to see me and made me promise to come visit her ASAP. When I walked into my house, everyone shouted “Jessi’s home!!!” and showered me hugs and kisses. I even got a nice little grunt from the newest member of our family, Esperanza the pig. My host mom said how much she enjoyed meeting my parents since they are also a part of her family, as I am her adopted daughter. I know I say it all the time, but I am SO LUCKY! I spent the afternoon laying in bed with Isa watching Frozen for the millionth time. When she finally got sick of it, I decided to book a flight to Peru for our Easter break. All in all, it was not a bad a way to come home after a rough morning.

It’s back to school next week but I promise I will try to update my blog more consistently this year. In fact, I will add it to my very short list of resolutions. My other one is to not just b**ch about things that bother me, but actually try and change them. So far, I’ve been sticking to it!

Exciting things are coming this year, I can just feel it. As always, thanks for reading. I hope 2016 is the best year for you all! Besitos

 

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We made it!

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Taking a well-deserved rest

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My sweet Isa

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My mamas are so tiny! This is us in front of the “club” in town

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Elsa loves to do nails and she gave my mom a pedicure

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Island life

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I wasn’t exaggerating when I said they made a cauldron of soup

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Hating every second of my life whilst crossing this bridge

 

 

 

You smell like a monkey and you look like one, too!

Hi friends! Today is the most important day of the year, MY BIRTHDAY! I actually don’t really like my birthday, I have this really weird phobia of aging and every year since I’ve turned 21, I’ve been really stressed out as my birthday approaches. Dramatic, unnecessary and slightly bratty- I am aware. Last night, the stress was compounded by the fact that when I was a teenager, I had it in my head that 27 was going to me the year that I had everything figured out. Back then, I was obsessed with the idea of being a doctor and so I figured by 27 I’d have graduated medical school, have my dream job, dream home and be in a happy, healthy and stable relationship. My life is LITERALLY the exact opposite of that. I randomly became a Spanish teacher, have a half Master’s in special ed, I’m studying to back to grad school for another random Master’s, I make about $350 a month, live in a tiny town where I think it’s a victory when people call me by first name instead of Blondie, White girl or fatty, I take baths with brown water from a bucket, I regularly find myself stepping in animal excrement and I pooped my pants more than once this year. Needless to say, this is not what I imagined 27 would look like. I am so happy that things don’t work out as planned (although I could live without the endless tummy issues). I would be a terrible doctor, owning a house right now sounds like the biggest nightmare and I am having way too much fun wandering through life on my own to be in a serious relationship. It is so funny how things turn out.

Today, I woke up and received a birthday kiss from my host grandma, host mom, host sisters before I even brushed my teeth. My host mom, who struggles every single month to pay the bills, bought me the most adorable earrings (from the States!) and a cute little ring. While I was getting ready for school, my neighbors walked right into my bedroom to give me hugs and kisses, I went to school and was serenaded by every class, and, of course, there were a zillion more kisses. My counterpart bought me two new pairs of nice underpants (I never even told her about my bus disaster!) Today is also the principal’s birthday so the teachers went all out and there was a band, a sanchocho (local party food-soup!) lunch, dancing, cake and fun decorations. As I was walking home from school, I got a birthday shout out from someone in almost every single house. I came home to more kisses from my host family. My sisters and I just settled into bed to take a nap when it started pouring rain. Our mom came running in and said get out there! Without any hesitation, all three of us ran outside and danced in the rain with all of the other neighborhood kids. Obviously, I was the oldest person out there by almost 10 years but it didn’t matter. We were just happy souls enjoying a break from the oppressive heat. It was a beautiful way to celebrate aging but keeping young at heart.

After the rain dance, we were starving and decided to cook pasta for dinner. We all piled into bed, listened to rain and laughed and told stories while we ate. Today, while I was at school, my host sister went to the “city” (a town of about 80,000 people) and picked out the most beautiful birthday cake. She even bought candles to say “27”…although she thought it was HILARIOUS to switch them around and pretend like I was 72. After dinner, my neighbors and some students came over and sang happy birthday to me and then we just hung out. My mommy called and I was able to talk to both of my brothers AND my dad (who is soo not a phone person). It was a great day!

I learned that today is also the birthday of fabulous poet, Mary Oliver, who wrote this lovely piece that I believe perfectly describes where I am at in life right now. Enjoy!

The Summer Day

Who made the world?

Who made the swan and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean-

The one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the field,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what it is you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

Thanks for reading and thank you, thank you, thank you for all of your wonderful birthday wishes! I wish you all the happiest of days! xoxoxo

My family sent me a brand new, indestructible digital camera for my birthday so finally I will have some higher-quality photos! Here are some fun ones from today.

Cutting the cake after being smashed in the face with frosting

Cutting the cake after being smashed in the face with frosting

The adorable little neighbor boy and I. Bet you never thought you'd see me looking so cozy with a baby, huh?

The adorable little neighbor boy and I. Bet you never thought you’d see me looking so cozy with a baby, huh?

After rain dance cuddles and laughs

After rain dance cuddles and laughs

Isabella and I

Isabella and I

Dance party after school. This is the only picture I have because I after I took it, I was yanked out of my seat and joined the dancing. Everyone sat down and the principal and I had to dance since it was our birthday.

Dance party after school. This is the only picture I have because I after I took it, I was yanked out of my seat and joined the dancing. Everyone sat down and the principal and I had to dance since it was our birthday.

My wonderful host sisters! <3 them!

My wonderful host sisters!

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You smell like a monkey and you look like one, too!

Hi friends! Today is the most important day of the year, MY BIRTHDAY! I actually don’t really like my birthday, I have this really weird phobia of aging and every year since I’ve turned 21, I’ve been really stressed out as my birthday approaches. Dramatic, unnecessary and slightly bratty- I am aware. Last night, the stress was compounded by the fact that when I was a teenager, I had it in my head that 27 was going to me the year that I had everything figured out. Back then, I was obsessed with the idea of being a doctor and so I figured by 27 I’d have graduated medical school, have my dream job, dream home and be in a happy, healthy and stable relationship. My life is LITERALLY the exact opposite of that. I randomly became a Spanish teacher, have a half Master’s in special ed, I’m studying to back to grad school for another random Master’s, I make about $350 a month, live in a tiny town where I think it’s a victory when people call me by first name instead of Blondie, White girl or fatty, I take baths with brown water from a bucket, I regularly find myself stepping in animal excrement and I pooped my pants more than once this year. Needless to say, this is not what I imagined 27 would look like. I am so happy that things don’t work out as planned (although I could live without the endless tummy issues). I would be a terrible doctor, owning a house right now sounds like the biggest nightmare and I am having way too much fun wandering through life on my own to be in a serious relationship. It is so funny how things turn out.

Today, I woke up and received a birthday kiss from my host grandma, host mom, host sisters before I even brushed my teeth. My host mom, who struggles every single month to pay the bills, bought me the most adorable earrings (from the States!) and a cute little ring. While I was getting ready for school, my neighbors walked right into my bedroom to give me hugs and kisses, I went to school and was serenaded by every class, and, of course, there were a zillion more kisses. My counterpart bought me two new pairs of nice underpants (I never even told her about my bus disaster!) Today is also the principal’s birthday so the teachers went all out and there was a band, a sanchocho (local party food-soup!) lunch, dancing, cake and fun decorations. As I was walking home from school, I got a birthday shout out from someone in almost every single house. I came home to more kisses from my host family. My sisters and I just settled into bed to take a nap when it started pouring rain. Our mom came running in and said get out there! Without any hesitation, all three of us ran outside and danced in the rain with all of the other neighborhood kids. Obviously, I was the oldest person out there by almost 10 years but it didn’t matter. We were just happy souls enjoying a break from the oppressive heat. It was a beautiful way to celebrate aging but keeping young at heart.

After the rain dance, we were starving and decided to cook pasta for dinner. We all piled into bed, listened to rain and laughed and told stories while we ate. Today, while I was at school, my host sister went to the “city” (a town of about 80,000 people) and picked out the most beautiful birthday cake. She even bought candles to say “27”…although she thought it was HILARIOUS to switch them around and pretend like I was 72. After dinner, my neighbors and some students came over and sang happy birthday to me and then we just hung out. My mommy called and I was able to talk to both of my brothers AND my dad (who is soo not a phone person). It was a great day!

I learned that today is also the birthday of fabulous poet, Mary Oliver, who wrote this lovely piece that I believe perfectly describes where I am at in life right now. Enjoy!

The Summer Day

Who made the world?

Who made the swan and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean-

The one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the field,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what it is you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

Thanks for reading and thank you, thank you, thank you for all of your wonderful birthday wishes! I wish you all the happiest of days! xoxoxo

My family sent me a brand new, indestructible digital camera for my birthday so finally I will have some higher-quality photos! Here are some fun ones from today.

Cutting the cake after being smashed in the face with frosting

Cutting the cake after being smashed in the face with frosting

The adorable little neighbor boy and I. Bet you never thought you'd see me looking so cozy with a baby, huh?

The adorable little neighbor boy and I. Bet you never thought you’d see me looking so cozy with a baby, huh?

After rain dance cuddles and laughs

After rain dance cuddles and laughs

Isabella and I

Isabella and I

Dance party after school. This is the only picture I have because I after I took it, I was yanked out of my seat and joined the dancing. Everyone sat down and the principal and I had to dance since it was our birthday.

Dance party after school. This is the only picture I have because I after I took it, I was yanked out of my seat and joined the dancing. Everyone sat down and the principal and I had to dance since it was our birthday.

My wonderful host sisters! <3 them!

My wonderful host sisters!

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Laughter is an instant vacation

Hi friends, Happy September! My birthday is in 6 days so you better hustle up and get my cards/candy in the mail 🙂 Just kidding, but kind of not really. This is, hopefully, a light-hearted post about the worst weekend ever (I alluded to this in my last post). One of the best parts of serving in the Peace Corps, besides changing the world and having adventures and all that, is the journey of self-discovery. Being plopped in the middle of nowhere, thousands of miles away from home and not knowing a single soul in town really shows you what you’re made of. When you’re put in an especially tough situation, you are forced to confront your faults but you also learn some of your strengths. Fortunately, I have placed into countless of sticky situations, which have helped me to really learn a lot about myself. Through this experience, I have discovered that I’m lucky enough to have, for the most part, a positive attitude and I can always find the humor in any situation. This REALLY helped me from having a mental break down during the worst weekend of my life (although there were tears). When I told the Medical Officer about my weekend, she tried to make me an appointment with a counselor because she was worried I was so traumatized. I told her that I had gotten my tears out and now I just think everything that happened was hilarious. She didn’t believe me and called me 3 more times through out the week to make sure I was maintaining my mental stability. I’ve told pretty much all of my PCV friends this story and one of them, who happens to enjoy my blog and my silly commentaries, challenged me to somehow put a positive spin on my latest fiasco so here it goes…CHALLENGE ACCEPTED

DISCLAIMER: IF YOU ARE A JUDGY PERSON, DO NOT READ THIS POST BECAUSE I DISCLOSE ONE OF THE MOST EMBARRASSING MOMENTS OF MY LIFE. IF YOU JUDGE ME, I WILL FIND YOU. Also, I hope you aren’t easily grossed out. You’ve been warned.

Ok, remember in my last post I said that at the end of July, we had a Project Management and Leadership conference at a resort outside of Barranquilla? Well, afterwards, some of us spent the night with another volunteer who lives close to the resort. We were exhausted from the week and after stuffing our faces with pineapple cake and homemade pizza, we passed out. The next day, my good Nebraska buddy, Derek, and I went to the fancy mall in Barranquilla and decided to be super American and treat ourselves to Big Mac’s and fries before heading back to the pueblo diet of plain rice and plantains. After lunch, I hopped in a cab to catch my bus. I had a slight tummy ache but just assumed that it was because I had just eaten a ¼ lb. of nasty meat smothered in cheese. Now, my bus is always incredibly full and to ensure that I have a seat, I always go down to the “station” (parking lot), which is in the absolute worst part of Barranquilla. Picture the pit of hell, plus the smell of a garbage dump plus crack heads and you have a pretty accurate picture. This is a place that was marked off limits (with good reason) by the Peace Corps and when the safety and security manager found out that I had been going there, he was not pleased. He found a car service that would take me to a safer spot to catch the bus and wait with me until I was safely on my way. Well that is fine and dandy but I had a week’s worth of luggage that I was not willing to hold onto while standing for 2.5 hours. I told myself that just this is the last time I would head down to the crack-head-garbage-dump spot and then I would take the car service next time. I confidently got out of my taxi, walked towards the bus and the next thing I knew, some dude had grabbed my backpack. It was now wide open and a butthead was running away with my wallet. I only had about $25,000 pesos (approx. $10 USD) in there but I also lost my Colombian ID, Peace Corps ID, copy of my passport, US debit card, Colombian debit card, my commitment to service, a nice my friend wrote me before I cam here and, most tragically, my Sephora Beauty Insider card. Luckily, I had planned on buying some fruit so I had put $15,000 pesos in my pocket before exiting the cab. I got on the bus, angry, embarrassed that I broke the rules and got robbed, and terrified to call the Safety Manager to report everything. I reluctantly got out my phone (which also, luckily, was in my pocket and not my backpack) and called our SM and confessed my idiocy. He was SO nice and was happy that I hadn’t been hurt and told me to just get home safe and we would deal with this on Monday. There you have it, Part 1 of the Worst Weekend Ever.

Part 2: (This is where it gets embarrassing). So you may remember that I mentioned having a little tummy ache, or what I like to call “a rumble in the tumble” after eating McDonald’s at the nice fancy mall. Well, while I was sitting on the bus waiting it for it to take off, I started to feel sicker and sicker and realized I was not going to make it another 3 hours without going to the bathroom. I asked the nice bus worker if there was a bathroom around here and he laughed (remember, we are in crack-head-garbage-dump hell) and said MAYBE the little store would have one. So I made him promise not to leave me and ventured back out onto the terrifying street in search of a toilet. I found, what I could only describe as a porcelain hole in a closet at this crusty little bakery. Obviously there was no flushing mechanism so I tried to sneak out in shame when the cashier chased me to down to tell me it cost 500 pesos to use the lovely facilities they offered. I paid him and slunk back to the bus. FINALLY we were on our way home and as we were making our way through town, another volunteer called me. While I was on the phone, I realized that I was not going to make it another 2.5 hours without a bathroom break. I was panicked because, remember, I had very little money. If I got off the bus now, I was going to be stuck in Barranquilla with basically nothing. I was debating between getting off the bus or just sticking it out for the ride home when my stupid body decided for me. Yes, that is right, I pooped my pants. Obviously, I wanted to die right there but unfortunately, life isn’t that kind. I called the Emergency Medical Phone to, for the second time that day, confess my shame and beg for a night in the PC hotel while I recovered. SHE DIDN’T ANSWER. I had no choice but to get off the bus, grab the first taxi I saw and have him take me to the closest bathroom because my body was screaming at me that the worst was just beginning. The first place that popped into my head was the mall and I made awkward small talk the entire ride in an attempt to distract myself from the monster that was wreaking havoc in my stomach. When we arrived, I threw the rest of my money at the driver and sprinted inside. I got to the women’s restroom and IT WAS CLOSED OMG WHAT DO I DO?!?!? I knew there was a facility in the basement but worried I wasn’t going to make it. My concerns were valid because it turned out I was right; I definitely didn’t make it. I had now had 2 accidents, had no money and was 85 km. away from home. I obsessively called the emergency medical phone but I received no answer. I ended up calling my bff, MC, and sobbed into the phone while sitting in the mall cafeteria. She suggested I just suck it up and call the doctor’s personal phone number. I waited another hour and decided I couldn’t stay at the mall any longer. I called her number and it turns out, she wasn’t on call that weekend and had contracted out another doctor to take the phone. She immediately called the hotel and booked me a room and so off I went. My good buddy Michael stopped by and loaned me some money to get by and then I took the longest shower of my life.

Part 3: I bet you though the nightmare was over? Unfortunately, no. The worst had passed but I still had one big challenge before making it back to my town and my loving host family. After overcoming my tummy illness, I felt well enough and ready to go home. I decided to use the car service that was contracted by the Safety Manager as to avoid another robbing situation. Well, the poor driver had no idea where to go or what to do so we ended up sitting on the side of the highway for almost an hour. I was feeling stressed because it was starting to get dark (night travel is strictly against Peace Corps policy). After what seemed like an eternity, a bus finally approached. The driver flagged it down, I got on and breathed a huge sigh of relief-I was home free. I found a seat and finally relaxed. About 30 minutes into the ride, I was looking at my phone when suddenly the bus smashed into the back of a giant cattle truck (there were no cows, thankfully). I flew forward, smacked my face on the seat in front of me and my stuff tumbled to the ground. The bus was totaled. Everyone had to get off and wait, in the dark, in the middle of nowhere for the next bus to pass. I finally made it home, gave my sweet host sister a big hug and collapsed into bed.

There you have it, the worst weekend/most embarrassing moment ever. Even as it was happening, I could not fail to recognize the humor in the situation. I was providing a play by play to one of PCV friends who said, “This is why you’re going to make it, you just laugh at everything.” Even while writing this post, I laughed out loud several times and I realized that my “worst” weekend really wasn’t that bad. In fact, two positives came out of it: I learned that I can handle anything that life throws at me and I will never poison my body with a Big Mac ever again. Also, I was lucky to have the support of the PC Safety Manager and the Medical Officer and, of course, my PCV family. It was a good lesson that life is only as good or as bad as your attitude and laughter really can cure anything. So, here’s to another 15 months of laughing my way through my Peace Corps service. Cheers!

P.S. This post was approved by my PCBFF Mary Catherine, who is a marvelous friend but also likes to mess with me so hopefully this was internet appropriate. Another side effect of my Peace Corps service is that I have become incredibly candid, I have no shame and I don’t hold anything back. I’ve been told that I am very “authentic.” 🙂

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A not so subtle hint that I would love a birthday card. I'm not picky, handwritten notes on napkins or backs of receipts are perfectly acceptable. Love you all! <3

A not so subtle hint that I would love a birthday card. I’m not picky, handwritten notes on napkins or backs of receipts are perfectly acceptable. Love you all! ❤

525,600 minutes

Hi friends! Today is a very special day, it is my one year anniversary in this crazy country. About a year ago, a veteran volunteer told me that in the Peace Corps, you experience your highest highs and the lowest lows. I didn’t really know what she meant at the time but now I completely understand that I, unknowingly, signed up for the craziest ride of my life. I am reflecting on the past 365 days and I honestly cannot believe this is my life. It feels like a dream (sometimes a nightmare) and I can’t believe I have made it this far in my journey.

I keep a list of blog topics in my phone for whenever an idea strikes me, however since it has been so long since my last post, I will stick to a basic update and keep the weird lists for a different time J

June, as you may know, was a month of vacation and visitors. Also, I had Camp GLOW, a week long female empowerment camp for girls all over the Colombian coast. At the end of the week, 37 strangers left with new friendships, skills to become leaders in their community and the self-confidence needed to improve their lives. It was a LONG, EXHAUSTING but REWARDING week. I am very proud and grateful that I was chosen as a volunteer, even though at times I probably wasn’t the most enthusiastic counselor. After camp, school started up but we quickly received another break for our town’s patron saint festival. It was a week filled with horse races, parades, music and food, culminating in a big vallenato concert and this gringa dancing through the night. Before the concert, some Peace Corps friends and I were walking through town (they were getting the grand tour so it was about a 10 minute walk) when we ran into my friend, Milagros. She invited us to sit on her porch and have a snack with her. One thunderstorm, a power outage and 3 hours later, I had a new best friend in the pueblo.

Later on that week, I had a slight mental breakdown due to various conditions in my home and I decided that I needed to move. I went to Milagros and asked her to be my new mommy and she welcomed me with open arms. Just a little glimpse of how wonderful she is: I was trying to discuss rent money with her and she was like “ugh I don’t care what you pay me, what is important is that you feel happy, loved and safe here.” I wasn’t unhappy in my old house but I really didn’t know what true happiness and belong felt like until I put all of my stuff in a little motocarro and moved down the hill to “Barrio Abajo” (Low Neighborhood). My new mom, grandma and sisters were so thrilled to have me and did everything to make sure I felt comfortable. My new sisters, Elsa (18) and Isabella (3) are already like my real sisters and we spend hours laying in bed in their AIRCONDITIONED room watching Master Chef Junior and Dora the Explorer. Sometimes, we even take “family naps”. My host sister, Isabella, loves to ask me “Jessi, who do you love?” and then I have to say “I love you, Isabella” and she giggles and says “I love you, too!” OMG I can’t. I spent the last week in Barranquilla and when I got home, she was at her aunt’s. She heard I was back and came barrelling down the street screaming my name and then jumped into my arms. It makes such a difference being around people who are happy that you are there.

The conditions of my new house and neighborhood aren’t as nice as where I was living before. We have no running water and get what we need for washing dishes, laundry, flushing and bathing from a well in the backyard. We don’t have an oven or a real stove, just a little camping stove. The road in front of my house is sand and we are at the bottom of a giant hill. Colombia is has a class system called “strata,” with the lowest strata being 1 and the richest of the rich are in strata 5. I was warned by PC that I would be moving to a strata 1 neighborhood and it would be very different from my previous spot. So far, besides the water, the differences have all been positive. The people here are generous, kind and so incredibly filled with joy. You always hear that money doesn’t buy happiness and see freaks like Donald Trump so obviously it’s true, but this barrio is a true testament to finding joy in the smallest things. I cannot imagine my life being any different than it is right now.

Another little story to demonstrate the awesomeness that is Milagros (which means miracles BTW): after a week in my new home, I invited two fellow volunteers over for a sleepover. We made popcorn and laid in my new (QUEEN SIZED) bed to watch a movie when someone moved and the bed creaked. I said “Oh my God if this bed breaks I will end…” I didn’t get to finish my sentence because we crashed to the ground. It was late and we couldn’t fix the bed so we just set the mattress in the frame and slept on the floor. The next morning, I felt sick to my stomach. Here this woman generously invites me into her home and within a week my fat ass is destroying furniture. I was sure she would kick me out. I told her she had to come see what happened and she walked into my room, saw my two amigas sitting in what appeared to be a giant crib, and burst out laughing. I was so relieved and I asked her “so you’re not mad?” and she said “of course I’m mad! I can’t believe you didn’t wake me up last night to laugh at you!” She was also very concerned that we didn’t sleep well on the floor and after they left, she made me take a nap. She totally gets me.

After I moved, Peace Corps hosted a project management and leadership conference for us at a resort outside of Barranquilla. We were able to invite someone from our sites and I brought along the fishing and agricultural teacher. We are hoping to write a grant and build a fish tank, chicken coop, pig pen and small farm on our school since the focus is agriculture and fishing. Again, I can’t believe this is my life. Chicken coops? Pig pens? WTF. But I love it. I get to see more pigs in my new barrio and I never get sick of them J

This weekend, all of my CII6 (remember, that is the name of our group of volunteers) buddies and I will be getting together in Cartagena to celebrate surviving a year in Colombia. We started out at 33 people and are down to 23 for various reasons but I feel confident that the rest of us will make it. It is amazing how much I rely on these people who were strangers a year ago. They are all extraordinary individuals and I, Colombia, the Peace Corps and the world are so incredibly lucky to have them. I feel proud to call them my friends. Stay tuned for more fun blogs, I know I took a little hiatus there but I am back!

Love you all and thank you so much for your support ❤ besitos!

Can you see the rainbow? This was there to greet me after I came home from the worst weekend EVER. (Details to come next blog)

Can you see the rainbow? This was there to greet me after I came home from the worst weekend EVER. (Details to come next blog)

Taking a break from soccer

Taking a break from soccer

6th graders hiding out because they didn't want to zumba in front of the boys.

6th graders hiding out because they didn’t want to zumba in front of the boys.

I let a local woman loose on my hair and I ended up with cornrows and she insisted that I were this elegant t-shirt.

I let a local woman loose on my hair and I ended up with cornrows and she insisted that I were this elegant t-shirt.

9th graders hard at work on their clothing vocabulary project

9th graders hard at work on their clothing vocabulary project

My host sister, cousins and a student before a night out in Villa Rosa. I am so huge.

My host sister, cousins and a student before a night out in Villa Rosa. I am so huge.

My new house

My new house

My new street.

My new street.

Laundry station (when the mobile washing machine isn't available to rent)

Laundry station (when the mobile washing machine isn’t available to rent)

The well- one of the most terrifying things in my life is reaching into this thing with a bucket when it is dark out and I can't see if there is an alligator in their or something.

The well- one of the most terrifying things in my life is reaching into this thing with a bucket when it is dark out and I can’t see if there is an alligator in their or something.

Dish washing station at the new crib

Dish washing station at the new crib

Backyard

Backyard

3 gringas and a Colombiana sipping on beers at the beach.

3 gringas and a Colombiana sipping on beers at the beach.

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Isabella, who brings sunshine to my life on even the darkest of days.

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The other night, Mary Catherine and I were in the hotel and the wifi was out so we laid in bed and sang the entire “Rent” sound track. I am just now realizing how relevant the song “525,600 minutes” is today. I hope your lives are bursting with love, I know mine sure is ❤