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.”



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

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



We made it!


Taking a well-deserved rest


My sweet Isa


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


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


Island life


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


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!


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.


Who runs the world? GIRLS

Hola amigos, last week I mentioned that I would be spending the upcoming week at an all girls’ camp in the Sierra Mountains. This camp is called Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) and is put on by Peace Corps volunteers worldwide. Since today is the eve my girl power week, I figured it is a good time to write a blog on something that is very near and dear to my heart, a topic that has been constantly evolving, in my mind at least, for the last 10 months: women’s rights. If you’ve turned on the TV or been on the internet in the last year, you know that FINALLY women’s rights are becoming a global issue with programs like UN Women and the He for She campaign. I knew that coming to South America, I would be submersing my girl power, feminist-self in a society that has, historically, been known for its “machismo” (masculine) culture. It didn’t take long for this fact to become evident and during my time here, I have had to grapple with some tough issues, including my own identity as a feminist, overt sexism and the problems my home country has with regards to women.

Colombian culture is one that celebrates masculinity and strongly encourages women to stay at home, raise their children and take care of the home and to follow more “feminine” avenues of study. I witnessed this in both of my homes in Barranquilla and in the pueblo. In this culture, it is not uncommon or even really looked down upon for a man to have a wife, children and then another woman and even more children on the side. I know several families where the man keeps two homes, one for his wife and children and for his mistress and their children. Is this right? In my opinion, definitely not. However, my old host mom said to me “what the heart can’t see won’t hurt it.” Basically, she was ok with her husband having his other family as long as when he was home, he was present and kind and loving. Some may see her as an oppressed housewife while others may applaud her progressive views on monogamy. What I do know, is that I have not met one woman who has a little piece of man candy on the side.

My biggest issue with the Colombian culture is the pirropos, or catcalls. It is now an expectation, whether I am in my pajamas or dressed up, that when I leave my little pueblo I will be hissed at, whistled at, asked to smile, asked to get in a car, followed, hollered and leered at just while walking around and going about my day. This happened to my friends and me every single day while living in Barranquilla. There were days where I literally did not leave my house because I just couldn’t face it. I tried to start training for a 10k but gave that up from the constant harassment I faced while trying to run around my neighborhood. It did not matter whether I was wearing old running shorts, a baggy t-shirt and dripping in sweat; I was still getting called things I would never want my grandmother to hear. One day, my eye was infected, swollen shut and actually dripping puss so I thought “alright! Today is the day, I am going to run in peace!” Wrong. Luckily, when I moved to my pueblo I quickly told a few of the men how uncomfortable these comments made me and *almost* all of the catcalls have stopped, even though they don’t understand it because, obviously, I should feel wonderful that I receive so many compliments. BARF. I’ve been told, “Oh Jessi, they are just being nice.” “Men just can’t control themselves around you.” “You have to understand, there is no one around here that looks like you so men are just stunned.” BARF BARF BARF. For my first few months, even sometimes still today, I consider this country to be the most sexist, misogynistic place in the world. It took a long time, lots of deep thinking on my long bus rides and countless conversations to realize that this issue, as with almost every other social justice issue, there are so many layers to this cultural behavior that to write Colombia off as a place overrun with sexist jerks would be a disservice to this wonderful place filled with warm, kind and generous people. (This is not to say that I still have, almost daily, conversations with my gal pals while we complain about the disgusting verbal harassment we face on the daily).

You see, I was coming into this situation with my holier than thou, American attitude. America is the land of the freedom and equality! Of course things like this don’t happen where I come from! How easily I forgot all of the honks I got while walking my dog, or the times my butt has been grabbed by strangers in bars or the times I’ve been called a “bitch” or “slut”. Forget about the time that on an airplane, I was asked to move to the middle seat so the men could be more comfortable. Never mind all the times on busses, trains, cars or planes that I tried to make myself as small as possible to give the men sitting next me more room. The teacher who told my 14-year-old self that I looked like a stripper with my off the shoulder top (totally the hot fashion in 2003) was just looking out for me, right? Dress codes? Well those are important so the boys aren’t distracted from their education! I was definitely in the wrong when a boss told me that I was “extra sensitive” to the C word because I’m a female and it really is the equivalent of calling someone an asshole. Girls should be required to wear dresses at their high school graduation, it’s tradition! White women make 78 cents to every dollar a man makes, and women of color have a wage gap that can go as low as 54 cents to every dollar but that is probably because more women choose low-paying jobs like teaching and social work, duh! (aauw.org) Obviously, I needed to take a good long look in the mirror before I judged my new home.

Colombia is a land that celebrates masculinity, yes. But is also a place that celebrates beauty. Women of all shapes and sizes are admired. I have never seen more chivalry in my entire life. A seat on the bus opens up; boom the group of men clears the way so I can sit down. I approach a group of people, instantly a man is up, out of his chair offering it to me. Oh, I don’t have a drink? Here is a water/beer/juice. It’s not all bad. However, this does not excuse the street harassment that myself, my friends and women all over the country face every single day. Male attitudes towards women have to change. The truth remains that women in Colombia only hold 12% of parliament seats, (data.un.org) and men generally earn 28% more than women *not much more than the 22% American men make*. The legal marriage for girls is 12, while for boys it is 14. Studies indicate that 41% of women between the ages of 15-49 have experienced physical violence and 11% have been sexually abused (Violence Against Women in Colombia: A Report to the Committee Against Torture). These statistics, combined with my own observations prove that this country has a long way to go before gender equality is achieved. This is what makes female empowerment camps like GLOW and girls groups so important. These programs focus on gender, leadership, self-esteem and professional development to mold strong girls into stronger, capable women who become change makers in their communities.

For comparison, women in the US hold 20% of government spots, making us #71 in the world, right below Kenya and Saudi Arabia (www.ipu.org). 1 out of every 6 women in the US has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime (rainn.org). 5 US states have lower legal marrying ages for girls than boys (globaljustiveiniciatie.files.wordpress.com). Clearly, women’s rights are not merely an international issue and we Americans have a lot of cleaning up to do in our very own backyard. The experiences of girls and women are different in every country and sexism and discrimination manifest themselves in different ways but they are still there, whether we choose to ignore it or not. Feminist is not a dirty word for crazy radicals or lesbians who don’t shave their armpits. Feminism is the belief in equal rights for EVERYONE: men, women or in-between. It is time for all of us, including myself, to step up and do better. Every time I make myself smaller to accommodate a man, I am telling him that he deserves more than me, that he is better than me. It stops today.

Thanks for reading, amigos! Truth be told, I was kind of dreading camp. Five days, in the mountains, supervising teenage girls was starting to seem like a big punishment. Now, I feel motivated and ready to make this week a, hopefully for the better, life changing experience for these jovencitas. I’ll try to update ASAP. I am spending the weekend with my girl, Staci, in Cartagena and am so freaking excited I might just burst into tears the second I step off the bus. Ok, now please go listen to some Beyonce and watch “Orange is the New Black”!


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.