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

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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! ❤️

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

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

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Rise up, friends 💪

Don’t worry, be happy :)

As many of you know, I have been living in a state of perpetual boredom since our swear-in back in November. I’ve had some adventures sprinkled here and there to spice things up but my daily life is super dull. A few weeks ago, I decided to watch the documentary “Happy” on Netflix. The producers filmed people from all over the world trying to discover the root of happiness. There was one story that really stuck with me. There was a man living in a shanty town in India who drove a rick-shaw, taxi thing for a living. By American standards, this man and his family live in extreme poverty, however he identifies himself as a happy and successful individual. He says he is surrounded by family and good neighbors, what more could he possibly need? Since I heard his story, this man has been on my mind as I explore my way through the Caribbean coast of Colombia.

On my last post, I spoke about my trip to “Boca de Cenizas,” a narrow peninsula where the Magdalena river meets the Caribbean sea. Along this peninsula are tiny little shacks with makeshift walls and tin roofs. It is clear that these people have next to nothing, however on their houses they have all hung signs saying how they enjoy their simple life living on the edge of South America. During our hike, we encountered several fisherman who live on the peninsula and make a modest living by selling their daily catch to the local restaurants. They were some of the cheeriest, smiliest people I have ever seen. We also saw children playing amongst the rocks, squealing with delight as a wave crashed into the side of the peninsula creating a little puddle from them to splash around in. To an outsider, this community appears to be devastated by poverty, buried in garbage and in desperate need of intervention. However, once I took a closer look, I realized that these people need nothing from me yet I have so much to learn from them.

That was not the only time my privileged-American self has been humbled in this country. In December, a few volunteers and I signed up to do a mass emergency housing build in a pueblo outside of Barranquilla. We were broken up into small teams and each paired with a local family who was in desperate need of housing. We spent two days building a sturdy house with four walls, a wood floor, poly glass windows and a tin roof. Again, my privileged self was shocked at the poverty that these families were living in but the smiles on their faces, their generosity and pride when they fed us and their joy when they cut the ribbon on their new home were priceless. These are people who are truly grateful for everything they have and are surrounded by love.

These lessons on happiness have been paramount to my mental health because, truthfully, I have not been doing so well lately. I feel stuck and utterly useless. On one hand, I am living in a beautiful country with my amazing friends but on the other, I am missing my family and all of the comforts of home. The real issue is too much free time. I am anxious for school to start and the real work to begin. This, coupled with the fact that our program in Colombia is rapidly changing due to people being moved out of their urban sites to rural pueblos has everyone on edge. I think things will improve next week, either a big change is coming my way or I start work. Either way, I’m excited for this adventure to continue!

The holidays on the coast were wonderfully warm. My buddy MC came in from Santa Marta on the 23rd and after a soccer game with our homies, we had a sleep over. On Christmas Eve, we spent the night basking in the air conditioning in our friend’s hotel room and Christmas Day was spent lounging on the beach. Not too shabby, eh? I went to Cartagena for the Enrique Iglesias, Daddy Yankee and Prince Royce concert on the 28th and stayed there through the new year. Besides having my lifetime dream of seeing Prince Royce fulfilled, I spent time exploring Cartagena, chilling at the beach drinking rum and coconut lemonades, watching fire works on NYE and spending the 1st on a little farm outside of the city, once again being humbled by the generosity and kindness of complete strangers.

I’m trying to remember that happiness is a choice that we must make every day and it comes from being grateful for this beautiful life we’ve been given. I truly appreciate my family and friends who have been here to remind me of this as I’ve struggled the past couple of weeks. Good things are on the horizon, I can just feel it. ¡Feliz año, amigos! I hope 2015 is full of love and adventure for you all ❤️

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Post Swear-In Life

It has been so long since I’ve last updated! I wish I had a ton of exciting news to report but not much has happened. It’s weird, I feel super busy some days and others I’m paralyzed by my boredom. It has been 3 weeks since we swore in as volunteers and began 2 months of “vacation.” Some of us moved and are spending time getting to know our new sites, some of us are visiting schools and meeting neighbors and probably all of us are binging on Netflix and reading whole novels in one day. It has been challenging not having a set schedule living in an urban setting makes it challenging to integrate in my community, however I’ve found some stuff to occupy my time.

After swear in, we had one week off which I spent watching “Homeland,” hanging out with other volunteers and settling in to my new house. The next week was the All Volunteer Conference, where every PC volunteer in Colombia was whisked away to a nice little hotel by the beach. We spent our days in meetings and our nights by the pool, tough life, huh? This year, the conference coincided with Thanksgiving which was nice because we were all together. The food was less than impressive and there were no mashed potatoes or pumpkin pie which was absolutely devastating. However, I spent the rest of the afternoon at the beach. I missed my family desperately but was happy to be surrounded by such good people. Black Friday lived up to its name, but not for the usual reasons. It marked the end of the AVC which meant we had to say good bye to our friends not placed in Barranquilla. This was harder than last time because we aren’t sure when we will see each other next. The tension was thick and everyone was a little off, I know I didn’t feel like myself. I spent the rest of the weekend hanging around the house and wallowing in self-pity, which based on conversations with other volunteers, isn’t unusual.

On Monday I pulled myself out of bed and went to the beach. It was just what I needed to reinvigorate myself and get ready for an English immersion camp I volunteered to help with the rest of the week. Tuesday was our planning meeting and in Wednesday camp began. The camp wasn’t in Barranquilla but a little pueblo outside of town. I had to catch a bus at 620 to make the 7 am bus out of town. As you may know, I can’t function before 9 am so I arrived to school in a zombie-like state, unsure of what to expect. Everything we have learned about the relaxed lifestyle on the coast still did not prepare me for what came next: an empty gym and a bummed out English teacher. The woman in charge of recruiting kids for the camp forgot to do her job and no had shown up. We were all a little deflated but left with the promise that tomorrow, kids would be there and ready to learn.

The day wasn’t a total loss because we decided to go to Boca de Cenizas, the point where the sea meets the Magdalena River. We took a little “train” out to a shanty town on a narrow peninsula. A 30 minute hike over some rocks later and there we were, at what seemed like the edge of the world. It was absolutely breath taking. I have a whole other blog post planned which will detail the trip. Just know, that if you plan on visiting me, we will definitely be making the trip out there.

The next two days of English camp were a blur. We had about 20 campers and we were divided into 4 teams, each with a different country name. I was a counselor for team Italy and even though we didn’t win a single competition, the kids had an absolute blast. It was a great learning experience for both them and me. It was amazing to see how these teenagers participated in every silly game we planned for them and how excited they would get upon receiving a little sticker to reward them for their efforts.

One day after camp, I had to rush back to Barranquilla for my school’s graduation ceremony. I was extremely nervous as I walked into the country club that had been rented out for the occasion. I didn’t even know these kids and had only met a few of the teachers, however right when I walked in the doors a woman welcomed me by name and showed me to my seat, which was in the front row! The rest of the ceremony went smoothly and was fairly comparable to ceremonies in the states….long and boring. A musical intermission with a man covering Enrique Iglesias, a Lion King-style presentation of one of the graduate’s children and a champagne toast with the students spiced things up a bit 🙂 The second the ceremony was over, someone handed me a small bouquet of flowers and my coworkers rushed me out so we could beat traffic and get the party started. We went to dinner and then to a club. The thought of my 545 alarm and my 1.5 hour commute to camp was in the back of my head all night so I ducked out early. I had a blast and it was great to already feel like a part of the staff.

Tonight is the “Eve of the Immaculate Conception” which is apparently a very big deal here on the coast. It’s confusing because Christmas is 3 weeks away…shouldn’t the immaculate conception be celebrated in March? Regardless, we are hosting a big party and I get to meet all of the extended family. It should be interesting. This weekend I’m off to a pueblo to help build a house for a family in need. Fingers crossed I don’t lose a limb or end up in the hospital! Happy Holidays, friends. On Thanksgiving, I spent some time reflecting on all of the joys in my life and I am thankful for each and every one of you. Besos! 😘❤️

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Team Italy in action! 🇮🇹

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Boca de Cenizas

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Some motivation to get through the next few weeks before school starts. 👊

It’s official!

I’m a Peace Corps volunteer! Goodbye to trainee status and all of the terrible rules that come with it! Last Friday, I, along with 31 of my amazing friends, took an oath (in front of the US ambassador!) to uphold the constitution and some other stuff I can’t remember. I’m not one for ceremonies since they are typically snooze fests, however this one wasn’t so bad. The ceremony began with a speech welcoming all of the important guests and press, then we were introduced by our program manager. We each had to turn around and introduce ourselves to the audience (in Spanish!) Apparently, I did such an amazing job, El Heraldo, the local newspaper snapped a picture of me and used it for their story, here is the link. Actually, I just think they chose me because, besides one other blonde dude, I’m the most gringa looking person in our group.

Introducing ourselves was mildly terrifying, but then we listened to a speech from the ambassador and the mayor of Barranquilla. I was starting to get restless but then we got to watch a 10 minute performance of native Colombian dances. It was absolutely mesmerizing and I cannot wait to learn how to dance just like them! There was a closing speech and then we watched this really amazing video about the Peace Corps’ history here in Colombia. The movie was called “Hijos de Kennedy” (because, as you all know, the PC was founded by JFK). It showed all of the work that the Peace Corps did during the 60s and 70s. Unfortunately, PC had to pull out in the 80s and suspend the program due to all of the violence. Luckily, this beautiful country has made a turn for the better and in 2010, they reinstated the program. The current president was even interviewed about all of the work we are doing here. It was super inspiring and it also made me proud to part of such a respected organization.

The days of training leading up to swear in were rough. I think the realization that the training wheels were about to come off and our group would be split up finally started to sink in and we were all in a funk. However, on our very last day we completed the tradition of reading our commitments to service. This really reinvigorated everyone and reminded us all why we are really here. As some of you may know I did not have to sigma contract to join the Peace Corps, it’s not like the military where I have to complete X number of days of service and I get penalized if I leave early. Truthfully, I can leave whenever I want. Instead of signing a formal contract, the Peace Corps asks us to make commitments of service. These commitments, in my opinion, are more meaningful than a contract because I am the only one holding myself responsible for completing this journey. To be honest, I was kind of annoyed when I found out that not only would I have to write my commitment, read it aloud in front of my fellow trainees and other PC staff, but I was dreading listening to 32 other speeches because I had assumed they would all be the same. Shocker, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Seeing the drive, passion and commitment that my peers have for this work was inspiring.

Ironically enough, the day we swore in and committed ourselves to two years of service, Colombia played USA in soccer. Sorry folks, but I rooted for COL all the way! Some of us even went out and bought jerseys to wear on the chiva that night. What’s a chiva, you ask? Well, a traditional chiva is a rickety old bus that used to transport farm workers, ranchers, animals and anything else you can think of from pueblo to pueblo. There are still chivas like this, but in the concrete jungle of Barranquilla, chivas a party busses that take you around the city to different salsa clubs, which is actually unnecessary seeing as they have a live band playing on the bus. We had so much fun blowing off steam and celebrating making it through 11 weeks of training. On Saturday, I woke up and moved down south to my new barrio. My new host family is amazing, it is just an older woman and sometimes her husband (he lives out of town for work). My barrio is a lot livelier than my old one, hopefully one of these nights they’ll turn down the music so I can get some sleep. However, I think I’m going to be very happy here. I’m about 200 feet from my school and so far, all of the neighbors seem super friendly. Also, when I spent all day at the beach today and when I came home, my new host mom cleaned my room because she knew I’d be tired 🙂 I’m so lucky.

School is almost out for the “summer” so we have some relaxation time over Thanksgiving and Christmas and then school starts back up in January. I hear everyone back home is a little chilly? I sure felt sorry for you all today while I was splashing in the waves 😉 Talk soon, amigos. Stay warm! Xoxoxo

P.S. Here’s my commitment to service:

Before embarking on this job, I had no expectations or plans because I didn’t know what to expect and I didn’t want to be surprised or let down. I did, however, have hopes. I wanted to find myself immersed in a new culture, helping others by sharing my experiences and learning from locals and other volunteers. I hoped to feel welcome, valued and supported by the Peace Corps, other volunteers and the community. I was scared to leave the comforts of home and being surrounded my friends and family but I hoped to find a new home in Colombia. Since this journey has began, everything I had hoped for has come true. There have been challenges we’ve had to face and there are many more to come but I feel confident and ready, especially because I know we will face them together. M short time here has taught me that I can stop hoping because I’m no longer taking a chance or a leap of faith. I’m committing myself to 24 months if service, learning, personal growth and adventure. I make this commitment not only to the Peace Corps. But to Colombia, CII-6*, my community and myself. I am far from perfect and I still have so much to learn but I promise to listen, be present, open and always humble. This the beginning of amazing journey and I promise not to take this privilege for granted.

*CII-6 is the name of our cohort. C=Colombia, II=the second time the Peace Corps has had a presence in Colombia and 6=the sixth group that has been here in the second round of volunteers. Last year’s volunteers are CII-5, next year we’ll meet CII-7. ¿Comprende?

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All of us after swear in with some of the PC staff. We’re looking pretty sharp, huh?

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Soccer jerseys on the chiva!

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My neighbor and best buddy, MC, who left me today for Santa Marta 😥

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This is me awkwardly talking while our country director, ambassador and mayor look on.

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Week 3 coming to a close…

Holy cow it feels as if so much has happened since my last update! Where to start? First of all, I had an AMAZING birthday! Seriously. It rocked so hard. If that day was any indication, 26 is going to be an incredible year for me. My day started off with my host mom playing a birthday song while she served me my standard breakfast of eggs. Then, we went to school to observe some classes and the instant the kids found out it was my birthday, they broke into song. It was one of the cutest moments of my life. My super awesome friend, Michael, caught the tail end of it on video. It’s up on Facebook and you should totally check it out. After school, we had Spanish class and I walked in to see my profe had made me a bday card on the whiteboard. So adorbs. After class, we watched some of the volunteers play soccer. I obviously sat out and drank beers. Then, we went to this restaurant called Bourbon Street which was Mardi Gras themed and they served American food. I got to eat nachos which everyone knows is my favorite food of life. Nachos + beer=heaven.

The next two days were pretty standard training days with language class in the mornings and tech classes in the afternoon. It’s a bit of a snooze fest but it’s going to all be worth it when we swear in. When I came home Friday, my family had surprised me with a “pudin” (Colombian for cake). They gathered round to light the candle and sing happy birthday to me. Little did I know this was NOT your ordinary candle but basically a firework so big and bad that Nebraskans cross the border in Missouri to buy these suckers. It almost took my head off which my family though was hysterical, of course. It was such a sweet and thoughtful gesture that I will remember for the rest of my life.

On Saturday, we went to the local market to learn how to bargain. Unfortunately, this was not your typical Latin American market and most of the stuff was junk made in China. My homegirl Natalie did buy a volleyball so her and I entertained the Colombians by playing pepper in the streets. I rushed home to shower and then Luisa and I walked to my favorite arepa stand for dinner. Then, some friends and I partied our pants off at La Troja and Country Licores, which my fellow Nebraskan dubbed the “Colombian Whiskey Tango”. Obviously, I felt right at home there.

On Sunday the real fun began. I, along with about 9 other volunteers, packed up and headed out to the beach town Santa Marta for a few days. After a death-defying van ride, we arrived safely to our hotel (queen size bed! hot showers! air conditioning!). There, the current volunteers in Santa Marta took us out to a corriente (small restaurant with a daily menu, usually choice of meat accompanied with rice, salad, soup, fried plantains/yucca). Then, they took us to the quaint little fishing village of Tagonga. It looked like it was out of a movie. I wanted to kick myself for not bringing my camera. The second I got into the calm, ocean water I felt all of the stress from training lift off of me. I had no idea how anxious I had been until that very moment. I swam out to the buoy a couple of times and then played some volleyball on the beach with my awesome volunteer buddies. The only downside of the day was getting scolded by the Colombian cops, which was actually pretty cool because I felt like a badass.

The next day, I visited the school of a current volunteer living and working in Santa Marta. The staff was so warm and welcoming and it was wonderful to see how strong of relationships he had built with them in such a short time. The kids were adorable and when I surprised them by speaking Spanish, they all gave me a round of applause. It definitely got me really excited to get back into the classroom. These next 9ish weeks of training cannot go fast enough!!!!!!! Thank goodness I get to start a community project next week with my Spanish class.

After coming back from Santa Marta, I developed a terrible cold. Ok that’s a lie. Last Friday, I developed a slight cold, which was made worse by partying until 3 am, swimming on the beach for 2 days, playing volleyball and going on a sunset run. I make terrible choices but guess what? NO RAGRETS (if you don’t get the reference you better wake up and get a clue). On Wednesday, I woke up 30 minutes before my alarm and decided that school was just not going to happen that day. I crawled out of bed, told my Mama so she wouldn’t think I had overslept, and then I went back to sleep. I woke up 3 hours later to my host mom sitting in the living room. I asked what the heck she was doing home and she said she didn’t feel right leaving me alone and stayed to take care of me because I’m her daughter and that’s what mothers do. OMG GET CUTER! Seriously, how in the world did I get so lucky?

I made it to training the next day only to regret my choice immediately as everyone looked at me in disgust every time I produced a phlegmy cough. I don’t blame them, I sounded like utter garbage. I made it through the day, though and finally had my first interview with Olga, the program manager who decided our fate for the next 2 years. She said I’ve already adopted the costeño life style 🙂 however, that little compliment left me feeling very confident as I left the office, I decided to try out a new bus route. The second I stepped on the good old VIP line, I knew that my life was over. For starters, there were two random dudes chillin with the driver in the up front, off limits to passengers, area. These bros were covered in tats (very unusual for Colombia) and the bus was bumpin the hardest core gangsta rap music I have ever heard, and I used to spend a lot of time in North Omaha! I put my headphones and said my mental goodbyes because I knew this bus had been hijacked. However, my terribly offensive stereotypes turned out to be just those- terrible, offensive stereotypes. My bus driver got me home safe and sound, his friend even helped me off the bus! I suck. Next time I will do better. I can’t wait for the day when I stop judging books by their covers. Poco a poco I’m becoming a better person through this experience.

I’m so happy I made it through another week! Love you all so much, thanks for reading! Un abrazo ❤

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1.5 weeks down, 9.5 to go…

You guys. Tonight is my last night being 25. Where did time go? I remember my 16th birthday party like it was yesterday. If you had told me then that in ten years, after teaching Spanish in Council-tucky for 2 years, I would be living in Colombia and training to be a Peace Corps volunteer I would’ve thought you were bonkers. It is crazy how everything in life works itself out and you end up being right where you’re supposed to be. While week 1 of training was brutal and by the looks of week 2, it’s not going to get any easier, I would not change this experience for anything. The love I have for my barrio, my fellow trainees and my familia is borderline creepy but I don’t eve care because it’s so awesome. I’ll give you a little run down on my day to day life and obviously share some of the weird stuff that has happened thus far…

Bueno, I wake up every day at 6 am in order to get ready, eat my breakfast of scrambled eggs and saltines (a big staple in our household), chat with my mama and head off to meet my friends at the bus stop. This usually where I encounter my first major choice of the day…risk my life and stand in the doorway so I can get a breeze or cram myself in the rows with the rest of the poor suckers who live too far north to get a seat? I usually chicken out and end up sweating my ass off while waiting for some hot Colombian dude to give me his seat. I’m still waiting for that dream to come true. After my hour-ish commute, I make my way past all of the iguanas and cats on campus in order to not be last to Spanish class. Our teacher loves to give “penitencias” for the person who arrives last. They usually involve song and dance….not something I want to do at 8 am. After 4 hours of fun, games and inappropriate conversations (all in Spanish, of course), we get an hour for lunch, usually some type of meat, rice, beans, and juice that comes in a plastic bag. The more food I eat in Colombia the more I want to go back to being a vegetarian. In the afternoon we have technical training which is usually a bit of a drag. A lot of us have teaching experience so we get a little antsy during our basic education classes. But that’s ok because we keep each other entertained 🙂

When the clock strikes 5 we all race to catch our bus, this usually where the fun starts. For example, one day I started a Prince Royce sing a long with a teenage girl. Other days, street performers hop on to provide a little en route entertainment. Yesterday there was a guy who did some free styling reggae rap that was super cool. I’ve also learned that if you ask nicely, street vendors will sell you food as you stick your head out the window. A little hair flip and a big smile will help ensure the bus driver doesn’t take off mid transaction. This how I found the best arepa stand in town!

When I get home, I sit down, chat with the family and then eat dinner. I’m usually served some type of meat, rice and sometimes I get cucumbers and tomatoes 🙂 Carbs are definitely NOT the enemy here in Barranquilla. After spending time with my host sister, I go to my room to read a bit before bed. I try to go to sleep around 10 so I’m fully prepared for whatever adventures the next day will present.

Just like in the states, weekends are the best. On Friday, Colombia played Brazil in soccer and I got to see my main man James in action. COL lost so that was a bummer but a couple rounds of Tejo took the sting away 🙂 Tejo is basically the coolest game in the world. It is essentially bags or corn hole but instead of trying to get some lame bean bag in a hole, you try to hit a pouch of gunpowder with a rock to make an awesome explosion. While my team won, neither of us was able to hit the gun powder. However another volunteer did and it sounded just like a gun shot! I obviously stayed calm and poised after the explosion.

On Saturday, we had a short class in the morning and then I spent the day exploring the various malls of Barranquilla. It’s just so dang hot here that basking in the air conditioning is the absolute best way to spend a day. Unfortunately, tragedy struck later that night. After a relaxing day in the AC I decided to unwind with a few beers with my amigos. We went to this super fun bar that played 80’s rock music AND they brewed their own beer! Paradise, right? WRONG! After a couple of minutes of drinking, my nose started to run, my eyes were itchy and watery and then my voice started to go out. I WAS HAVING AN ALLERGIC REACTION! What is my life? Why can’t I be allergic to something basic like broccoli? Why beer, the nectar of the gods, my favorite beverage of life? I had to leave immediately to go home and take a Benadryl. I don’t know what was worse, my severe case of FOMO (fear of missing out) or the cough that began as my throat started to swell shut. After a brief internal debate, I decided I did not need to have the cab driver take a detour to the emergency room and all was cured with the trusty PC medical kit. Thanks, American tax payers 🙂

I relaxed all day Sunday and after 4 hours of being alone, in the dark, in my room I decided to go for a run. It was about 150 degrees so it obviously seems like the perfect time. I made it about 100 yards before I wanted to turn around, however something magical happened! The temperature suddenly dropped and I was able to run like the wind! I got further and further away from my house when it started to rain. I turned around, sprinted through the torrential downpour, feeling like a champ as I approached the last street before home. That’s when I saw it: my first arroyo! (Crazy street floods that will take out busses, street lights and unsuspecting white girls who go on runs at the wrong time). I hovered under a drug store roof for about 5 minutes until I got impatient. I told myself, “girrrrrl you got this! It’s just a little bit of water, you used to be a life guard!” I walked down the sidewalk and stuck my leg into the water, yes not just my foot, my whole leg because that’s how freaking high the water was. I immediately turned around and sprinted to the safety of the drug store. Luckily, one of my friends happened to see my attempt from her apartment window and she ran down with her umbrella to bring me upstairs where her mom cooked me a bomb.com arepa. I consider the whole experience a win. If you think I’m being dramatic, I dare you to go to my Instagram _jessi88 to see the video!

Tomorrow we finally get to go to an elementary school where we will have practical teaching experiences every Wednesday until we swear in. I didn’t realize how much I missed being in a class room until we got our assignments today. I will be with 7th and 8th graders and I’m actually excited about it! After class, I plan on celebrating my birthday with my amazing new friends. This weekend, vamos a bailar and on Sunday, I get to go with some of my favorite people to visit some volunteers in Santa Marta until Tuesday! Life is good, friends.

I hope you are all doing fabulously! I love each and every one of you, even if you’re stranger 🙂 thanks for reading!

P.S. I realize this is not my best work. It has been soooo not here at night that I have not been sleeping. I literally wake up around two just to dump cold water on my skin to cool off. I’m delirious which means I’m loopier than usual. Next time will be better, promise! Un abrazo ❤