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!


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


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!


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.


Dancing queen


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


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


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


Dancing with my neighbor’s dance troupe during the parade


When the dog bites…

Hi friends! Great news! I am really happy! It’s great. I’ve been here for almost 11 months, can you believe it? I know I sure can’t. If you’ve been keeping up with my blog or I talk to you on a semi-regular basis, you know I’ve certainly had my ups and downs but for awhile now, I’ve been cruising at a pretty high altitude. (Omg that was so cheesy I almost deleted it but I figured what the hell, who doesn’t love cheese?) During training, the Peace Corps shows us this absolutely terrifying graph that outlines the emotional roller coaster that is PC service. By roller coaster, I do NOT mean the wimpy ones they have at Elitch’s or World’s of Fun. I’m talking not up to US standards, probably can only find it in Asia or Europe because it is too wild kind of roller coaster. Unfortunately, after climbing up and up during months 8-10, there is a HUGE drop around the 1 year mark. I’ve spoken to several veteran volunteers about this “one year slump” (sounds like marriage) and they all verified that this isn’t some PC resiliency test to scare the weakest into early-terminating. The one year slump is real, it is terrible and it is just on the horizon. So, because I am sometimes a planner, I decided to strategize some ways to deal with the inevitable doom that is headed my way. No one knows this, so keep it a secret, but when I’m feeling down I like to put on the “Sound of Music” soundtrack, sing and dance in my room while wearing this adorable scarf my mom bought me for my 25th birthday after she saw me admiring it in a hospital gift shop. For those of you who haven’t watched this cinematic masterpiece, 1) Do it immediately 2) there is a great scene where the VonTrap children are afraid of a thunderstorm and so Frouline Maria sings a little ditty called “My Favorite Things.” In this song, she encourages the children to list their favorite things to take their mind off their fear. This is something I periodically do while I’m resting after my Julie Andrews dance party. However, I am terrified that I soon will be too depressed to even think of favorite things so I am doing this in advance and will use it as a reference on those days when I can’t even get out of bed and put pants on. I figured it has been a while since I posted a list so I might as while make it a blog post. Here it goes…

*Coconut rice…duh

*My little pink bed and my little matching bedside stand. My 4 year old “nieces” have the same furniture in their room J

*The fact that my mom has no idea that Sound of Music is one of my coping mechanisms and now that she does know, she is probably crying.

*Speaking of my mom, I really love our Sunday night phone calls.

*Street animals: I will NEVER get tired of seeing pigs, goats, horses, donkeys and chickens walking along with me on my way to school.

*The generosity, kindness and helpfulness that I witness here every single day. I could start a whole other blog that is purely stories of random acts of kindness that have been bestowed upon me during my time here.

*My students’ smiles. More cheese, I know but I just can’t help myself. They are so dang cute!

*Seeing my students become more and more comfortable learning and speaking English.

*Dance parties during class, during recess or just during any downtime.

*The delight on the students’ faces when they see the gringa dance.

*The delight on any Colombian’s face when they see the gringa doing anything remotely interesting. For example, I am the talk of the town after riding a horse after the races last Sunday.

*Random Sundays filled with street horse races. As my bud Michael described it, they are drag racing but with horses. It is crazy and there are NO rules.

*The music: I was warned that in the pueblos I would hear only vallenato but I don’t even care because I LOVE it! That link is to one of my favorite vallenato songs about a Colombian who falls in love with a gringa and all the adventures they have. Every time it is played here, the kids go wild.

*My fully loaded external hard drive. My brother, John, hooked it up with my favorite movies, tv shows and music.

*My little group of work out buddies. EVERY SINGLE DAY they ask me if they can exercise with me. It used to drive me nuts but once I embraced it, I knew I couldn’t go back to boring work outs in my room.

*Random pick up soccer games that I am never invited to play in but always encouraged to watch. After my falling incident, everyone agrees that I make a better spectator.

*The snacks my counterpart brings me. Empanadas every day. Yum!

*The fact that I never have to get off my lazy butt, I just tell a child to get something for me and they do it with no complaint.

*All the fun questions I get asked about my country and the excitement the kids have when they learn something new about the USA.

*Visitors! I have been so lucky to have my mom, my brothers, and two girlfriends come and visit me. SO MUCH FUN! (hint hint, wink wink)

*Care packages filled with white cheddar popcorn, chocolate covered pretzels, pink lemonade Crystal light packets, Starbursts for the students (they are obsessed after trying the ones my mom brought!) and, most importantly, little love notes. (again, hint hint wink wink)

*Hearing almost every single student, and a good majority of adults, say “Hello Jessi” in beautiful English.

*My wild host nieces who love it when I swing them around while they pretend they are birds, read them stories and take selfies with them.

*My incredibly shy, quiet host nephew who says “Hi Jessi” with a big smile on his face every time he sees me.

*All of the free time I have to read because I have zero house responsibilities.

**Also the fact that our wonderful housekeeper does my laundry. I know, “house keeper” sounds so not Peace Corps but it is very common here and my host mom is elderly and doesn’t move around very easily.

*Feeling 100% safe all the time in my community.

*Cheap food from the tienda. I bought 8 eggs, 4 potatoes and a Jello cup for a little over $1.

*Wearing sandals every day.

*My tan

*Not washing my hair for 6 weeks and not feeling disgusting at all. I’m in the Peace Corps, this is the only time in my life where this behavior will be acceptable! Also, I swear it doesn’t smell and I don’t have dreadlocks.

*Being able to keep in touch with my friends and family back home.

*My AMAZING PCV family!

*Having Colombian friends, it finally happened!

*When my Daddy sends me pictures of my sweet baby Nala (for strangers, she is my dog).

*Finally getting over my extreme fear of chickens. I still won’t touch them but I finally don’t feel like passing out when one gets near me.

*Piglets! Oh so cute!

*Having adventures

*Falling in love with someone almost every day. Not like “OMG be my boyfriend forever love”, but just seeing a glimpse of their soul and recognizing what a beautiful person they are and feeling so happy and lucky to have met them.

*Being proud of myself in the knowledge that I am overcoming my fears, making myself vulnerable and following my dreams.

I could really go on and on but I am hungry and it is time for my bedtime snack. Today was the last day of school for the week as it is our Patron Saint festival. I am looking forward to sleeping in, parading through the street worshipping the Virgin Carmen (7 years of Catholic school and I’ve never heard of this lady) and lots of dancing! I hope you all had a fantastic 4th of July! I spent the day laying on a beautiful island with two of the coolest ladies in California. I miss you all lots and lots but I’m definitely where I’m supposed to be. Besos

P.S. The cute scarf I mentioned has a beautiful quote on it: In our best moments, we understand that our vulnerabilities are what connect us. That we can step into the power that is uniquely ours. Play hard, love bravely, offer comfort to our younger, broken selves, and soar, always soar on the brightness of being alive. Follow your true North.

Staci, Mandy, some of the kiddos and I. The boys are OBSESSED with these ladies.

Staci, Mandy, some of the kiddos and I. The boys are OBSESSED with these ladies.


Staci and I on the 4th. Not pictured: Our fabulous friend Mandy and our cocktails served to us in pineapples and coconuts. Also #nofilter


I might have been a little scared at first one this beast. But we became fast friends 🙂

Photo on 4-3-15 at 4.25 PM

The whole crew: Natalia, Fabiana, Alesandro and I messing around with Photo Booth on our front porch.

Photo on 7-12-15 at 11.24 AM #3

The twins. Get cuter. Oh wait, you can’t.


Lose yourself

Some of you may know that my decision to apply to the Peace Corps was impulsive. I believe it was the day after Halloween, I just had a terrible friend break-up (which is obviously WAY worse than a regular break-up), I went to a party with the same people from high school, which was fun, but I realized that just wasn’t who I was and I needed something more. I woke up on Sunday morning with a killer headache and the travel bug. I ordered a pizza, went down to the basement (the darkest place in the house, lights were the enemy that day) and I spent hours applying to the Peace Corps. Just like that, I had made the first step in changing my life. What none of you know is that after I sent in my application, I became OBSESSED with internet-stalking everything to do with the Peace Corps. I was so obsessed in fact; that I created a secret Peace Corps board on Pinterest. I pinned links to different PC blogs, recipes, remedies for bug bites but mostly I pinned inspirational quotes to keep me motivated on this long journey. Cliché, I know, but it helped. Anyways, one of these fabulous quotes is by this dude Gandhi, maybe you’ve heard of him? He says “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”. I didn’t really know what that exactly meant when he said “lose yourself” as I felt pretty confident in my identity and the knowledge of who I was. However, over the past couple weeks, I realized that my “identity” or at least my silly concept of the word had been ripped out from underneath me and I felt truly lost.

Colombians are quick to label and I am constantly reminded of my more visible identity components as I am called Gringa, Mona (blondie), Teacher, Blanca (white girl) or, once after a large portion of salchipapas, Gorda (fatty). Up until this point, I have accepted this. The labels are who I am, they will not change (well hopefully the fatty one does) and that is ok. I will always be a heterosexual, Irish-Polish-Czech-German-Catholic, middle class, white girl, but there is so much to me that isn’t as concrete. The other pieces of our identity that aren’t so visible are the ones that are constantly evolving. If we allow them to remain stagnant or if we trap ourselves in one box, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment, failure and a pretty dang boring life.

As volunteers, we come here knowing we are going to have to give up little pieces of ourselves in order to integrate into our new home and culture. I didn’t realize how big of a sacrifice it is to truly lose yourself in a new culture and succumb to all of the labels forced upon you, whether you like it or not. If you aren’t careful, you really do start to forget who you are and who you hope to be and you just accept what you are told and put yourself into that box. I started to see myself as only the blonde, American, sometimes fat, teacher and nothing more. Then, all of a sudden, the teachers went on strike, school was closed and I was no longer a teacher. I was just the fat, blonde American who was sitting around her house with nothing to do. I tried thinking of other things to do to occupy my time and contribute to my community and I came up with nothing. All of my ideas centered around the idea that I am a teacher, that is all I can do, if I can’t teach, I am worthless and I should just stay in my house until this strike business was sorted out and I could go back to being me. Obviously, this is not the greatest place to be, mentally and I started to be big grump.

I believe it was my Dad who told me that just by being here, I am making a difference so I should just give myself a break and know that change is happening, whether or not I see it. I realized that I could be much more than a teacher to my community. I can be a friend, learner, neighbor, explorer, mentor, “aunt”, “daughter” and just a plain ol’ fellow human. With the help of my super awesome site mate, Michael, I started participating in more activities. We visited a farm, picked fruit, went to a dance class, learned to play a drum and made friends with the local police. By allowing these people to share their culture with us, we empowered them to become the teachers which probably makes much more of a difference than directly teaching them English. I just had to realize that my identity is constantly developing and that I am much more than the labels others were placing on me. While I still accept the labels and the names they call me, I try to remind people that first and foremost, I am just Jessi. And that is pretty great.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe identity and truly “finding yourself” is something that every person struggles with throughout their entire life. A lot of people probably never discover themselves and just live their lives going through the motions. I think that Gandhi guy was on to something because even though I am still looking for something within myself, I feel much closer to finding it as each day passes.

Pueblo life is still going, more or less, smoothly. We haven’t had running water for about a week so I have been taking bucket showers with brown water. One day, I hope to feel clean again. Our power is out so this means extra sweat without the fan and a dark bathroom to use for a blind bucket shower. The teachers have been on strike for over two weeks but it looks as though the end is near. I, along with Michael, have begun teaching classes to the local police three nights a week. It is super fun to teach people who actually want to learn and aren’t just forced to be there. Plus, they feed us and let us hang out at the station and we kind of feel like we have friends. I’ve also been travelling about the department (state) and visiting my friends. My neighbor is extremely impressed with my knowledge of the inter-departmental bus system and says I know more than her!

It has been extra hot lately and I’ve been getting even more comments than usual about my excessive sweating. I even considered calling the doctor to see if something is wrong with me. Does anyone know if they have invented a face cream that stops your sweat glands from working? I would pay big money for that.

It’s way past my bedtime but I do believe this writing sesh has cured my insomnia. Thanks for reading, friends!

Michael, our awesome cumbia band and I after dance practice. Michael's awesome photo editing skills hide how drenched in sweat I am.

Michael, our awesome cumbia band and I after dance practice. Michael’s awesome photo editing skills hide how drenched in sweat I am.


En Barranquilla, no me quedo

Hola amigos! Can you believe January is coming to a close? Time sure flies when you’re having fun, or in my case reading books and spending hours watching Netflix. You may be wondering why the heck I haven’t updated about school and why I am STILL talking about Netflix. Well, about 3 weeks ago, right before school was set to start and I was going to be liberated from the boredom, I got “The Call.” Since Christmas Eve, some volunteers had been getting phone calls from the Peace Corps office telling them that, for various reasons, they would be pulled from their site and given a new assignment. Some volunteers were moved for safety and security reasons while others were moved because our new country director wants to change the post from primarily urban to primarily rural. So by the new year, 4 of my friends had gotten “the call.” A couple of posts ago, I alluded to the fact that big changes were coming or school was going to start. Well literally 30 seconds after I posted that, my phone rang. It was our deputy director saying that I would have to be pulled from my barrio and placed into a little pueblo, or village, town, whatever you want to call it, outside of Barranquilla in the department (state) of Atlantico. Unfortunately, the office did not have a placement for me and were scrambling around trying to find a pueblo that met the Peace Corps’ strict safety, security and medical standards.

I had no idea what to think. Part of me was relieved that I finally knew and I didn’t have to jump out terror every time my phone rang however, as you all know, I LOVE my host family and my school. I was absolutely devastated to have to tell them that I wouldn’t be able to stay. That, coupled with the fact that I don’t know how well I’m going to handle pueblo life and the uncertainty of the entire situation sent me into a very unhappy place, mentally. Does the Peace Corps even want me here? What the hell am I going to do without 24/7 access to my closest friend, Netflix? Do they have grocery stores in pueblos? Am I going to spend 2 years covered in dirt and sweat? I better not live with cats or birds! These are just some of the thoughts racing through my mind. I don’t consider myself a diva, but I really, REALLY enjoy things like electricity and running water. As if I wasn’t traumatized enough, the water to our house was shut off about an hour after I received “the call” and it stayed off for 3 days. You guys, I could barely stand the smell of myself after day 1. But, you know what? I survived. It was fine. And everyone else was smelly, too! Chalk that up to another humbling experience that reminded me of how privileged I really am. This is just the beginning of a whole new adventure. Plus, roughing it totally builds character, right? 😉

So while I was sitting around, obsessively checking my phone and email for word from the Peace Corps, I google-stalked every pueblo in Atlantico. Obviously, I was hoping for a place right on the beach but I was regretfully informed that there will not be any spots along the coast. So, I started to find my second-dream destination. Let me tell you, it was slim-pickins’. As time dragged in, I became more and more despondent. I watched all of my friends go to school and chatted with my would-be coworkers and I was going out of my mind. This dark spiral led me to the conclusion that while I may love it, Netflix is not a healthy coping strategy for stress and boredom. I started working out every morning and spent my time reading, studying French and learning geography. I stopped feeling so worthless and began to enjoy my free time.

Today, I got “The Call 2.” Finally, I have a placement! I will be going to Rotinet, on the south-west side of Atlantico. I’m not TOO far from the beach and my town sits right in the edge of a reservoir! Hopefully it’s clean enough to do some swimming. According to google, Rotinet has a population of 6,000 and is near the site of the world famous egg arepa festival! Exciting stuff, huh? A small town will be a huge change from Barranquilla, which has a population of about 2 million. I will be about 2 hours away from my current home and to the west, is Cartagena, a super cool city that is only about 2 hours away. I’m feeling so excited to start my new Peace Corps experience and get to work! I’ll move next week so I’ll have more details about my host family and school then. A HUGE shoutout to my friends and family, Colombian and in the US who put up with my whining and mood swings. Mucho amor! ❤️

So this is the department of Atlantico and that little blue star is my new home!

That tiny blue dot is where I am, more or less, in relation to all of Colombia.

Rise up, friends 💪