Sunday, October 30, 2011

Election Day

Soldiers on patrol in Bogota.
Every day, when I walk down to catch the bus to school, I pass Museo Militar de Colombia, the country’s main military museum. Soldiers with automatic rifles stand guard at either end of the street leading up the museum to protect against those who might attack it. Colombia is, after all, still in the middle of a decades-long civil war and any military installation—even a museum—is a potential target.

Today, when I walked down to the tienda to buy some groceries, I encountered twice as many military guards and several police units on patrol. The increased security came as no surprise because today was Election Day in Colombia for local and regional offices.

It has been a rough couple of months for Colombian democracy—according to Colombia Reports, 41 political candidates were assassinated this year and many feared more attacks would occur today. To discourage alcohol-related violence, the government enacted ley seca (dry law), prohibiting the sale of alcohol Saturday evening through Monday. If nobody knew before that there were elections going on this weekend, they certainly found out when they learned they were unable to buy alcohol to celebrate Halloween last night.

Luckily, today’s elections came and went without any major attacks save for an attempted assassination in the Arauca department in northeast Colombia. This morning, the convoy of Representative Albeiro Vanegas Osorio, vice president of Colombia’s House of Representatives, came under attack by gunmen. Although Representative Osorio survived the attack, his driver was killed. Despite this and a few other acts of violence, the Colombian government said that there was an 86% drop in attacks compared to the last local elections in 2007.

Besides direct violence, corruption is probably the biggest threat to Colombian democracy; however, the Colombian government took steps to curb it. The government canceled 4 million identity cards (nearly 10% of eligible voters) suspected of being involved in electoral fraud. Even so, in at least one town in northern Colombia, there were more registered voters than actual residents.

Although Colombia is technically one of Latin America’s most long-lasting and stable democracies, the complicated nature of Colombian politics is enough to make even a Political Science major’s head spin. Regardless, Colombian democracy will live to fight another day and that’s more than many countries in this region can say.  

Thursday, October 27, 2011

La Costa Chronicles Part 3: Sweatin’ in Santa Marta

The Dreamer Hostel, Santa Marta.
We arrived in Santa Marta just before sunset after a five-hour bus ride down the coastal highway. Along the way, we had befriended some fellow American travelers, bonding over our mutual fear of premature death instilled by our happy-go-lucky driver’s penchant for dancing at the wheel.

Glad to still be counted among the living, Derek and I exited the bus and carried our bags inside the hostel. My first impression of The Dreamer Hostel was, “wow.” The hostel felt like a villa, with an open-air interior surrounded by nation-themed dormitories. We were assigned to Spain. There was an Italian restaurant, a bar, and even a swimming pool. Compared to the hostels I was used to, this was a major upgrade. And for all of this, it only cost about $11 USD a night.

After meeting up with my fellow WorldTeach volunteers, Pam and Katie, we sat down to eat at the Italian restaurant. As far as hostel food goes, it was actually pretty good.

Getting Iced by Pam.
I had spaghetti, in case you were wondering.

By the time we finished eating, a group of hostel-goers had gathered for trivia night and we joined them. Broken up into teams, we competed to answer questions about Colombia, Santa Marta, and general world history.

In the middle of the game, Pam came up to me with a bag of Goldfish crackers Derek had smuggled into the country and asked if I wanted some. Goldfish are my weakness, my brain food, and I had missed them dearly living in such a Goldfishless country.

Of course, I said yes.

Parque Tayrona entrance.
But when I reached into the bag to scoop up some of the little cheddar delights, my fingers found themselves touching a cold, hard bottle.

I looked up at her and said, “Seriously?”

She nodded and said, “Gotcha.”

Damn the Smirnoff gods… I had just been Iced again!

Confused but amused Europeans and Australians watched as I took a knee and polished off the Smirnoff Ice in one large chug.

The next day, Derek, Pam, and I hopped on a collectivo bus headed towards Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona, a national park near Santa Marta, where we planned to hike through the coastal jungle and spend the night on hammocks by the beach.

The bus dropped us off in a small village and we walked up a paved road to the park’s entrance. Although there was only a small group of people waiting to buy passes, it took us more than an hour to move to the front of the line—efficiency is not one of Colombia’s strong suits.

Derek and Pam hiking.
When we had finally registered our passports and gotten our passes, we waited around some more for a sketchy bus to drive us and some other hikers up to the staging area. The staging area turned out to be a surprisingly well-kept campground and we passed through it to head to the main hiking trail.

Although we had only just begun, I was already drenched in sweat—on Colombia’s Caribbean coast sweat is, like death and taxes, a fact of life. It is everywhere—covering your arms and legs, under your brow, and dripping down your back. There is little you can do to escape it—save for hiding out in air conditioned shopping malls.

Unfortunately, we were fresh out of shopping malls.

Sweat aside, it was a scenic and enjoyable hike. Along the way, I got to see some monkeys and way too many industrious leaf-cutting ants. We made our way through the dense jungle and soon ran into the coast, where we followed the trail along the beach. Walking on the beach next to the thick jungle made me feel like I had been teleported into an episode of LOST.

Cabo San Juan, Parque Tayrona.
Luckily, there were no smoke monsters in the vicinity.

After stopping to eat lunch on a large rock next to the ocean, we continued down the trail, passing through camping areas and locally-run tiendas selling everything from water to coconut rice. Finally, we arrived at our destination: Cabo San Juan.

Cabo San Juan is essentially a large, outdoor hostel. You pay to spend the night in either a hammock or tent and there is a restaurant that provides meals. You can also buy beer at their tienda. Although it was nearly dusk, Derek, Pam, and I were determined to drink a hard-earned beer and swim in the warm Caribbean waters.

Hiking in Parque Tayrona.
Beers in hand, we hung out in the water, befriending some Canadian and American backpackers who also happened to be staying at The Dreamer Hostel in Santa Marta. By random chance, one of the American girls heard me mention WorldTeach and she said she was friends with Adam—she had gone to college with him.

South America is indeed a small world.

When the sun finally set, the bugs came out in full force, and we retreated to shore.

That night, we ate dinner at the restaurant where everyone else had congregated. I had a traditional Colombian dish of chicken with rice and papas—not bad. We befriended a pair of American travelers and hung out with the other people from our hostel, playing some card games under the restaurant’s lights.

Our furry escort.
When it was finally time sleep, we headed to our hammocks, which were densely packed under a thatch-roof structure. Although some drunk guy had stolen my hammock, I managed to find a free one and claimed it as my own. This hammock-sleeping experience was much less relaxing than the one I’d had on Playa Blanca. For starters, Cabo San Juan was much more crowded and we were packed so tightly together that you were screwed if anyone near you was a snorer. Adding to the sleep impediments was a vociferous donkey that made annoying donkey noises all throughout the night. As if to add insult to injury, God decided to send a tropical storm our way, sending down torrents of pouring rain down against the thatch roof—making it like trying to sleep under Niagara Falls. Eventually, the snoring, the donkey, and the rain formed a twisted jungle lullaby and I drifted off to sleep.

By the next morning the rain had passed and we rolled out of our hammocks to catch some breakfast before taking off. Since Pam needed to be back in Santa Marta in time to catch a bus to Cartagena later that day, we headed out early.

With Derek in Parque Tayrona.
As we backtracked through the jungle, passing the homes of the locals that worked in the park, a small dog decided to tag along, following us as we walked along the beach. Every time we stopped to drink some water, the dog waited and looked back at us. After we had gone a few miles, I began to worry that the dog would not be able to make it back home, but once we left the beach for the interior, our furry escort decided he had gone far enough and peaced out.

We had been walking for a while when I realized that we were not on the same path that we had gone in on. I normally have an above-average sense of direction and knew we must have taken a wrong turn somewhere. We were passing over a muddy mess of a road covered with horse crap and mud holes. The path was also slippery and if you fell, you would literally be eating… well you know.

After a few hours of hiking, we were relieved to see that we had made it to the staging area. We took another sketchy bus down the hill and returned to the hostel in Santa Marta.

With my nemesis, Pam.
That night, Derek and I headed to the nearby town of Taganga to meet up with my friends Alyssa (my Baruvian Icer) and Nina. I had heard many things about Taganga, the foremost being that it was a fun party town. When we arrived in the small seaside pueblo, I thought someone must have been mistaken—the place was run down and full of trash, much like southern Bogotá.

We headed to “downtown” Taganga, where there was a concert going on in a park by the beach. Amidst the Colombian crowd, we hung out and listened to salsa and reggaeton and watched the locals pull some crazy dance moves.

Later, we headed to a bar on the cliff side that was supposed to be fun. When we entered the bar, the first thought that entered my mind was, Welcome to Gringolandia. The place was filled to the brim with gringos of every shape and size; roughneck Australians, overly dressed Englishmen, and wasted Americans.

In Parque Tayrona.
I bought a beer and turned to join my friends on the dance floor, when a shady Colombian approached me to offer what he claimed was a good deal for coke. I ignored him and continued on to my friends. Despite being an overly gringo affair, it was a fun night and we had a good time dancing on the open-air terrace overlooking the Caribbean.

The next day, I lounged in a hammock back at the hostel, surprisingly not hungover and enjoying the sun’s warmth. I tried not to think about the fact that the next day I would be returning to stormy, freezing Bogotá and appreciated the day as best I could.

Soon, it would be back to the grind.

Friday, October 21, 2011

La Costa Chronicles Part 2: Kickin’ it in Cartagena

The sun about to set near Cartagena.
Standing on the old Spanish wall watching the sun set over the tranquil Caribbean waters, I sensed a pervasive romantic feeling in the air—one that seemed to penetrate the skin and simultaneously fill one’s being with both hope and despair—like looking upon the girl of your dreams and knowing you could never have her.

In Cartagena—within the old city, at least—an unshakeable sense of history transports you to another time; when the city was the main Spanish port for exporting plundered South American gold back to Spain; when the warning bells would sound, signaling an impending English attack. But you are also reminded of the city’s darker side—when it served as the South American hub for importing African slaves. Nevertheless, Cartagena—like a beautiful girl with a complicated past—draws you in without letting go, a siren that, if you aren’t careful, can consume your very soul.

When the sun finally vanished over the horizon, I headed back to the hostel to await my friend’s arrival.

The Old City.
The day after I picked up my friend and former college roommate, Derek, from the airport, we headed into the old city’s narrow streets to find something to eat. Despite the relatively early hour, the city was already bustling with tourists and street vendors setting up their wares. Pushy people waiting outside restaurants accosted us in broken English in hopes of convincing us to eat at their establishment.

Passing a bar, one guy said in decent English, “Come to party here tonight brother. We have lots of pretty girls for you.”

Without stopping, I threw him a “No, gracias. Estoy bien.” (the most useful Spanish phrase a gringo can know in Cartagena)

After breakfast, we headed back to the hostel to pick up my friend, Jessica, and set off for the day’s main activity—touring Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas.

Derek and I in front of Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas.
Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas sits on the hill of San Lázaro overlooking Cartagena’s Old City. Built in 1536 to defend the city against pirate attacks, it was one of the most impregnable defensive military structures the Spanish ever built in the Americas. Walking up the steep incline to the cannon-studded parapets, I could clearly see why.

My inner history geek rejoiced as we descended into the fort’s dark tunnels—old soldiers’ quarters and what must have been a jail for prisoners of war. Closing my eyes, I imagined what it would be like to be in this very spot hundreds of years earlier, the fort shaking under the relentless bombardment of English cannons.

Exiting the tunnels and ascending to the cannon-fortified walls, I decided that I’d rather be the one defending the fort than someone trying to attack it—I couldn’t imagine the attackers faring well against such a strategically-superior structure.

Beware the elderly Canadian armies!
Although the English may have failed to take the fort centuries earlier, today a camera-wielding horde of English-speaking white people had succeeded in storming the position after paying a meager $16,000 pesos at the ticket kiosk. Well-dressed and looking way to well-off to be backpackers, these older gringos could have only originated from one place—cruise ships.

My suspicions were confirmed when an older man wearing a bike helmet meandered over to where we were sitting and asked me, matter-of-factly, “What ship are you from?”

“I’m not from a ship,” I said, “I live here.”

He gave me a fish-eyed look and paused, as if waiting for me to tell him that I was just kidding.

In the tunnels.
“Really?” He said. “What do you do here?”

“I teach English in Bogotá,” I replied, “I’m in Cartagena for vacation.”

“How cool,” he said, “Well, I am gonna go take a ride down through the old city. Our ship guide says it’s a bad idea, but I think he’s just being overly cautious.”

Before I could tell him that the ship guide was absolutely right and that it was a terrible idea to attempt to ride a bike through the Darwinistic nightmare of a Colombian city, he had already turned to head back down to the fortress entrance. On the back of his helmet I spotted the red maple leaf of the Canadian flag. Canadians—that made perfect sense.

That night, we sat out on our hostel’s balcony overlooking the centro’s streets. After befriending a roughneck Australian, his Canadian girlfriend, and a quiet Norwegian guy, we decided to go grab a drink nearby. Since it was Monday, our options were limited, so we settled for the bar with the cheapest drink deals in the main square near the clock tower.  

Outside the bar, a swanky fellow with a creepy beard approached us and said in less-than-good English, “You want drugs and girls? I got them.”

On the fort walls.
After politely declining the gentleman’s gracious offer, we went upstairs to the rooftop bar. The place was deserted save for an old gringo and two younger Colombian women and we took over a corner table and ordered a bottle of rum and some Coca-Colas.

Drink in hand, I went to the balcony to look out at the city. With the full moon shining overhead and the city lit up below, I couldn’t help but smile. All I needed was someone to share it with, and it would have been a perfect moment.

A Colombian woman appeared next to me and leaned on the balcony to take in the view. I looked at her and said, “Hola.”

“Hola,” she said.

I made small talk with her in Spanish for a few more minutes and when I asked her what she did for a living, she replied, “Soy un compañera de amor.”

Awesome … I had just spent the past few minutes making small talk with a Cartagenian prostitute.

When I told her I was not interested in her services, she peaced out so fast, I swear she left a dust trail. From the table, my friends laughed at my expense.

Cartagena at night.
As a gringo in Cartagena, it is common to be constantly offered illegal drugs and prostitutes, a reality that bothered me a lot while I was there. I get it, a lot of gringos come to Cartagena for these things, but I found it hard not to feel insulted every time someone assumed I was interested in such things. Staying at hostels on the coast and being among backpackers, I soon realized that a good number of them were indeed interested in cocaine and other illegal drugs, but more on this later.

The next day, Derek, Jessica and I took a bus an hour away from Cartagena to see one of the region’s most up-and-coming tourist attractions—Volcán de Lodo El Totumo. After making its way down an unusually well-maintained highway, the bus turned onto a gravel road, following it a ways until we arrived in front of what appeared to be a giant termite mound.  

Volcan de Lodo El Totumo.
Exiting the bus, we got in line to ascend the rickety wooden stairs to the volcano’s peak. The line moved slowly, but we eventually made it to the top and beheld one of the strangest sights we had ever seen. Several mud-lathered people sat submerged up to their chests in a silvery, sloppy mud, reminiscent of dinosaurs trapped in a tar pit. Some locals stood by the pit holding way too many cameras and taking pictures of the mud-covered tourists.

After waiting nearly a half an hour, we finally made it to the pit’s entrance point. I handed my camera to one of the locals and slipped into the mud. Being inside the El Totumo mud volcano was one of the most awkward yet awesome experiences of my life. The mud pit’s consistency made it so you could not sink below your chest and maneuvering yourself in the stuff was like trying to swim in half-melted butter.

Lying on my back, one of the locals gave me a mud “massage”, which was more akin to torture than comfort, but there was no way to turn them down. Once the three of us had been sufficiently mud-tortured and covered in mud, we simply stood (without actually standing on anything) there like flies trapped in Jell-O. I kept an eye on the guy with my camera to make sure it didn’t end up on Colombian eBay and he took pictures of us hanging out in the mud.

In the mud with Derek and Jessica.
When we decided that we had had enough, we climbed out and headed down another set of wooden stairs. Now resembling Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator, we waddled down to a nearby lake to rinse off.

In the water, a local woman sporting a small bucket began to toss water on me. As my height prevented her from splashing my upper body and head, I squatted down to make it easier, but drew the line when she told me to take off my shorts and waded deeper into the lake to rinse the rest of the mud off my body alone.

Since the lake was too shallow to swim in, I sat looking around at the others rinsing off around me. I saw another guy close to my age fall victim to the bucket lady and when he declined her attempts to bathe him, she said that there were piranhas and alligators in the lake—therefore it was best for her to do the job.

Piranhas or not, the lake was better than being molested by an old Colombian lady.

About to pick a fight with the ocean.
When we were reasonably cleaned-off (I would continue to find mud in my ears over the next several days), we returned to our bus where the locals were holding our cameras hostage until we paid them for their services. I told the guy to wait as I entered the bus to retrieve my money and when I returned, massage-torturer guy and bucket lady were there, demanding their cut of the gringo peso pie. After paying to get my camera back and being guilted into paying the other two opportunists, I boarded the bus and we left the mud volcano in our dust.

The bus drove a ways back towards Cartagena then turned onto a dirt road, through a poor-looking pueblo and stopped at a beach called Playa Mansanillo. The bus let us out and the tour guide said we had a half an hour to hang out on the beach until lunch was ready.

Eating Colombian food by the water.
Derek and Jessica hung out on the beach while I went to face the Caribbean waves—battling the ocean has been one of my favorite pastimes since childhood. The warm Caribbean waters felt like a bathtub and I swam out far enough to see the tall towers of Cartagena in the distance.

When lunch was ready, I came back to shore and we enjoyed a traditional coastal Colombian meal of chicken, coconut rice, and fried plátano. After lunch, the bus took us back to Cartagena.

Although I was loving my time in Cartagena, it was time to move on—the next day Derek and I would head further down the coast to Santa Marta, where we would meet up with my friend and fellow volunteer, Pam, and check out some Colombian jungle.

Monday, October 17, 2011

La Costa Chronicles Part 1: Getting Iced on Isla Barú

Last week was a national holiday week in Colombia and I took the opportunity to explore part of Colombia’s northern Caribbean coast. My travels brought me from the white beaches of Isla Barú to the colonial city of Cartagena to the jungle beaches near Santa Marta. I will be writing a three-part series chronicling my coastal travels.

Here is part one…  

On the canoe with Adam.
The taxi dropped me off in the main square of Pasacaballos, an Afro-Colombian pueblo forty minutes outside of the sprawling Colombian touristropolis of Cartagena. The humidity wrapped itself around me like an oppressive alpaca blanket and I scanned the plaza in hopes of finding sanctuary in shade. Unfortunately, the pueblo’s denizens had already claimed every last precious patch, forcing me to face the relentless Caribbean sun on a vacant bench in the plaza’s center.

As I awaited my friends’ arrival, I studied the town I now found myself in. The sheer demographics of those milling about told me that I was a long way from Bogotá—whereas Bogotá is largely white and mestizo, this town appeared to be 100% Afro-Colombian. Although in Bogotá I can sort of blend in if I dress humbly and keep my mouth shut, here I stood out like a sore gringo thumb.

A trio of school children walked by, shyly smiling at me as they passed.

“Hola,” I said, giving them a friendly gringo wave.

At that, they snickered and scurried away.

Crossing over to Baru, the moto taxis waiting.
After a few more minutes of taking in the town, I spotted my friends, Adam and TL, approaching and stood to great them. Adam and TL lived on the nearby island of Barú and taught in the poor pueblo of Santa Ana—they had crossed the channel to help me make the passage over to the island for a visit.

We passed several street venders on our way to the canal selling chilled fruit juice and empanadas while local children stood amused by the tall gringo and company passing through their neighborhood. All the while, the Caribbean sun continued to rain fire upon our backs.

When we arrived at the canal, I spotted a gang of grungy men waiting by a jumble of canoes. My friends told me that normally, people took the ferry to cross the channel, but that it was faster and cheaper to cross over by canoe.

Looking down at the canoes lying moored by the shore, I was fairly certain that nobody’s mother would approve of them setting foot on one. But after ten months of living in Colombia, I had already done plenty of things my mother would not approve of (the first being deciding to live in Colombia in the first place), so I said to hell with it and came aboard.

The canoe ride across the channel turned out to be more pleasant and less eventful than I expected. Whether Latin American Poseidon took mercy on our gringo souls or we just got lucky, I don’t know, but we made it to the other side without incident.

WorldTeach classroom in Santa Ana.
After safely arriving on Isla Barú, we commenced the second and final leg of the journey to Santa Ana: moto taxis. On Colombia’s Caribbean coast and especially on Isla Barú, moto taxes are the primary means of getting around. We talked to three moto taxi drivers and after negotiating the fare, jumped on the back of weathered dirt bikes and took off towards Santa Ana.

Now, I am no stranger to dirt bikes—back home, my family owns several and frequently takes them out on the dirt trails in the Lake Tahoe National Forrest—but riding on the back of a moto taxi along the unkempt roads of Barú was one of the most adrenaline-filled and comical experiences of my life. Without a helmet and lugging my heavy travel pack, I did my best to anticipate the driver’s turns and the unexpected bumps to prevent falling to my untimely gringo death. Since I stood more than a foot taller than the driver and could see clearly over his head, it seemed like the motorcycle was driving itself.

By the way he was driving, it might as well have been.

With the wind rushing into my face, I absorbed the beautiful landscape around me—so much green—and the pristine Caribbean waters glistening in the distance. It all made me smile, until I swallowed a bug and learned to keep my mouth shut.

TL with some of her students.
After twenty or so minutes on the moto taxi, we arrived in Santa Ana at the gates of Instituto Ecologico Barbacoas where the WorldTeach volunteers live and some work on Barú. We passed through the walled compound and I marveled at the open-air classrooms—those would never fly in freezing Bogotá. Although school had ended for the day, we encountered a few students milling about and TL introduced me to a few of hers.

We entered the teacher quarters and I reunited with several other WorldTeachers I had not seen since the midservice conference back in July. Many of them were on their way out to nearby Playa Blanca, where that night we planned to have a beach party and spend the night on beachside hammocks.

Before heading to Playa Blanca, I wanted to check out Santa Ana and meet some of the locals the other volunteers had befriended. While the others took off for Playa Blanca, Adam, TL, and Bryanna stayed to give me the grand tour of Santa Ana. Half-joking, I asked my friend Alyssa to have a beer waiting for me on the beach, and she said she would.

In Santa Ana, next to the puddle-pond.
Exiting Barbacoas, we backtracked a bit down the dirt path and arrived at a tienda next to a pond-sized puddle that had formed on the road. There, we began the tour.

Walking through the impoverished pueblo, I felt like I had passed through a portal into a distant African village. The dirt road was dotted with muddy cesspools of greenish goo that was reminiscent of the primordial soup and was such a muddy mess that not even the most well-endowed 4-wheel vehicle could hope to navigate it—hence the abundance of moto taxis, which were nimble enough to pass over the few dry paths.

We passed several young children running around and playing in their underwear—clothing made little sense in the oppressive heat. Some of the children had bloated bellies resulting from malnutrition—a tough sight to take in.

The green goo of Baru.
One of the things that struck me most about Santa Ana was how everyone seemed to know everyone and that they all knew the volunteers. They waved and said hola to us as we passed and stopped to chat here and there. Living in Bogotá, I have not been able to become part of any real community. Granted, when I am at my school or walking through the neighborhood from the bus stop, students always and parents occasionally say hello; however, as I do not live in Juan Rey and it is not exactly safe to hang around the neighborhood after school, I haven’t been able to experience the same community feel as the volunteers on Barú. I was also amazed by how safe Santa Ana was despite its poverty—my friends told me they could walk around town well after dark without fear of being robbed, or worse. Since Santa Ana was so small and everyone knew everyone, no one could possibly hope to get away with criminal activity.

I found that fact refreshing.

On Playa Blanca.
After Santa Ana, we hopped back on moto taxis to head to Playa Blanca. If I thought the road was bad before, I was in for a surprise—the previous night’s rain had turned much of the road into an impassable nightmare. Luckily, we made it through unscathed, albeit muddied, and arrived at Playa Blanca.

Playa Blanca is more and more becoming a major tourist destination—most people take daily ferries from Cartagena to spend the day and return at night. Much to my delight, we arrived just before sunset and most of the tourists had already left.  
We walked down the sandy beach to find the rest of the group, who had gotten there a few hours earlier. As we passed small thatched huts, people approached us to offer hammocks to spend the night in. Besides that, the beach was all but deserted.

We met up with our friends, grabbed some drinks, and waded into the warm Caribbean water just as the sun began to set.

Watching the sunset by Playa Blanca.
Alyssa told me she had bought me a beer and that it was in her backpack near the hammocks. Like a naïve child, I left the water to retrieve my beer from her pack. When I unzipped it and reached inside, what I pulled out was not a beer… but a Smirnoff Ice.

You guessed it—I had just gotten iced in Colombia—it wasn’t the first time and, much to my chagrin, would not be the last. For those unfamiliar with the cultural phenomena of icing, click here.

After taking a knee and polishing off the disgusting sugary beverage, I returned to the water and witnessed one of the most breathtaking sunsets I had ever seen.

That night, we ate dinner at a small, family-run “restaurant” on the beach and sat around playing games and having a good time. The best part about it was that we had the entire beach to ourselves—giving the illusion of being on an isolated tropical island. Later, we fell asleep in hammocks on the beach to the sound of the surf gently lapping against the shore.

Double-fisting coconut rums!
The next morning, most of our group headed back to Santa Ana while the rest of us remained on Playa Blanca to enjoy the sun. Local peddlers patrolled the beach selling everything from beaded necklaces to oysters. After hanging out in the water for a bit, we stopped by one of the thatched bars and drank some coconut rums. No joke, the guy actually opened up a coconut, mixed in some rum, and stuck a straw in it. Best invention ever.

Sitting on the beach, drinking a coconut rum, and looking out at the crystalline waters, Bogotá and its freezing mountain rain was the last thing on my mind. I was on vacation for the next week, and I was determined to enjoy every second of it.

Next stop, Cartagena.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Guest Blogger: Bryanna on Barú

Bryanna Plog
I created this blog to chronicle my experiences living and teaching English in Bogotá—therefore, my posts have focused on my life here in Colombia's capital. 

Butas I've mentioned beforeI am not here alone. 

I am part of a team of thirty-five volunteers spread across Colombia's different regions and although we face living situations and working challenges as variegated as Colombia itself, we share a common desire to affect positive change through teaching

To give you an idea of what some of the other WorldTeach volunteers are up to in Colombia, I asked my friend, fellow volunteer, and talented writer, Bryanna Plog, to write a piece about her experiences teaching in the rural Afro-Colombian community of Santa Ana, Isla Barú on the Caribbean Coast.

But enough jabber from me. Bryanna will take it from here.

*                                      *                                       *

The 5 S’s of Santa Ana: A Look at Living and Teaching on Isla Barú

 By Bryanna Plog

Setting.  Students.  Sweat.  Shouts.  Surprises. 

These five things have not only defined my experience teaching English and living in Colombia but also help explain my experiences here—what I have enjoyed, struggled with, and learned from life here. (Plus, who doesn’t like blog posts defined by alliteration?)

"Downtown" Santa Ana.

First, let me set the scene.  Palm and jacaranda trees blowing in a hot breeze.  Green bushes grow densely thanks to the rainy season where months before there was only khaki dirt lay.  Honking donkeys and lowing cattle move through the streets, which are simultaneously rutted with mud and covered in dust.

Colombia is divided into fairly distinct regions, geographical features creating the borders, but climate, history, ethnicity, and more have shaped the different personalities of the diverse areas in Colombia.

And the coast of Colombia is no Bogotá (or Medellín or Cali…).  Colombia has two distinct coasts, the more rural and remote Pacific Coast and the more developed Caribbean coast.

I speak in vast generalities of course because where I am currently living and teaching, through the same volunteer teaching program as Mike, WorldTeach, is certainly underdeveloped despite its proximity to the tourist mecca of Cartagena.  I teach 6th, 7th, and 8th grade at Institución Educativa de Santa Ana, in the rural community of Santa Ana, Isla Barú. 

Playa you wish you were here.
Located about an hour and half south of Cartagena (by the often exhilarating and energy-draining route of bus, ferry, and motorcycle taxi), on the upside I can boast about living on a Caribbean Island for a year.   The downside of our remoteness and natural beauty are the ups and downs for the town on relying on tourism and fishing (as well as a good chunk of cash coming in from the fun/harrowing motorcycle taxis). 

Because while the town of 5000 is not much to look at in itself (nice to walk around but is not exactly a tourist attraction), we are located only 20 minutes from Playa Blanca, which is assuredly THE beach for white-hatted retirees with money to burn and dreadlocked backpackers to visit as part of their Cartagena experience. 

Without any paved roads (think billowing dust when it is dry and deep ruts of mud and pond-sized puddles after a rain), and streets dominated by small concrete houses, dozens of small shops, the ever-present traffic of donkeys, cows, and pigs, and the pumping sound of African- influenced champeta and vallenato music, Santa Ana is not exactly mentioned in the Lonely Plant guidebook.  However, Santa Ana is certainly a community where a basic knowledge of English can help a family earn more money at the beach or get a job in Cartagena or at the mega all-inclusive (read: exclusive) resort on Playa Blanca, the Decameron.  This was the first site in Colombia that WorldTeach volunteers taught and I am proud to be a small link in the continuing program.

Bryanna with some of her students.

The reason I am here is for the students.  In short, I am a great believe in the power of education in changing communities and countries for the better.  So I find my self in a sweltering classroom at the public school in this town of 4,500, asking students not to get frustrated, teaching the grammar structure of the present progressive and house vocabulary.

The school houses around 800 students – grades 6-11 in the morning (6:30-12:30) and 1-5 in the afternoon (12:30-5:30).  Because of our proximity to Cartagena, the school is supported by many different foundations and gets money from random corporations.  Our shiny new bathrooms (2010) bear a sign thanking Exxon-Mobil.  Our army-green backboards on our concrete cancha (for soccer and basketball) are painted with the Jeep logo, thanks to donations of chairs and paint one random afternoon in March.  We have a very nice library with air conditioning, a computer lab that got internet for the first time this year (also thanks to Jeep), and two classrooms with TVs.

There are thousands of schools without such resources, yet I still look around and know we could improve.  The grounds are almost impassable after a rain, desks are in short supply and those we have are broken, the concrete floors and walls are bare of anything to inspire learning (such as maps, posters or student work), we have no science, art, or vocation labs or resources to think of, and the lights and fans don’t work in many classrooms.  This last point means that I have a lot of classes that all congregate claustrophobically up front in order to sit under the working fans and that on dark, rainy morning in one class of 7th grade only really the front row of students can see what’s written on the board.

Institucion Educativa de Santa Ana
Individually, I love my students, who can (when they want to) be sweet, caring, generous, and humble.  Unfortunately, they don’t have a lot of great role models demonstrating these characteristics.  Domestic violence and abuse are more common than I want to think about and while not bragged about, unfortunately accepted and students live a hard life no matter what. 

Teachers here have it rough too and only a few put in all the work they should or come to work every day because they care about students.  Almost all the teachers aren’t from Santa Ana (Colombia’s public school system, like many, places teachers nationally) and live in Cartagena.  Santa Ana is definitely not a first-choice school for most – because they have to commute from Cartagena every day and its reputation of having lazy and badly-behaved students.  So we have cyclical problem of assigning teachers who do poorly in their exams to their last choice of Santa Ana.

Still, that just gives us all an opportunity to be examples perhaps to not just the students (“what, teacher, you are not going to yell in my face?”) but to the teachers as well.

And what I like best about living in Santa Ana is that I can walk through the streets of the town (careful to avoid the piles of cow dung and the rivers of sludgy green water trickling down the middle of the streets) or off in the direction of the beach (and enjoy green hills, fields, and an amazing array of birds – while avoiding both donkeys and large Decameron charter buses racing down the roads) and meet my students. 

A sixth grade classroom.
As the only gringos in town, even kids that aren’t my students shout “Teacher!” “howareyoufinetsankyou!” or “morning!” (no matter the time) at me as I drip with sweat strolling past small shops and concrete houses.  Tiny primary school students in their blue tartan Barbacaos pinafores give me shy smiles.  My middle schoolers duck away with wide, wry grins and whisper their response to my “how are are?” worried if their peers will think they’re not “vancano” (cool) if they greet their teacher.  Sullen high schoolers still in their red pants and worn ivory shirts break into a smile in response to my encouraging grin.

No matter if I am taking the bus to Cartagena, walking to the store, or at Playa Blanca, I am always “Teacher.”  A label I am proud to wear and a title I hope I earn in and out of the classroom here.

How students play soccer in the coastal heat is beyond me.

Of course, while my life revolves around teaching and my students, on the surface, what defines my experience most is the climate.

On the coast, there are two seasons, the hot and humid and wet rainy season, and the even hotter but still humid but dry season.  Temperatures thankfully rarely creep over the 100 degree mark, but the humidity gets you every time.  Checking can just be depressing, especially because we know that we’re always a little hotter, a little more humid, and have less breeze than Cartagena.  The page loads. “86°, feels like 95.”  “88°, feels like 107.”  91°, feels like 112.” 92°, feels like you’ll simultaneously shrivel up in the waves of heat and drown in your own sweat.”  You couldn’t pay me to take a hot shower here.

I sweat as I do my breakfast dishes, certainly as I walk to school.  I wipe sweat off my face and neck as I teach and rinse it off at my sink after getting back from school or on an evening walk.  I also sweat in the figurative sense planning for classes, trying to encourage students to study, to do better, to care.  I break a sweat as my motorcycle barely avoids a cow in the road.  And then I go back to regular sweat as it soaks through my clothes as I cook dinner and enjoy an evening in front of my fan.

An impassioned softball player during a game in Santa Ana.

Coastal Colombians shout a lot more than I am used to from U.S. Americans.  I have to keep reminding myself that it is not always, strictly speaking, yelling at someone.

I do hear a lot of happy shouts in town.  Students squealing for joy as they play soccer or kickball in the street.  Babies bumping up and down on their mothers’ laps.  Greetings and conversations shouted between friends at 10, 20 or 50 feet apart.

But there are a lot of not-so-happy shouts too.  Couples arguing or parents yelling at their kids.  Vendors or mototaxi clients arguing a price with enthusiasm.  My students yelling across the classroom after someone steals their pencil, or fighting with each other after a disagreement over a soccer call during break.

Still, I think the happy shouts dominate.  The loudest and happiest happen after dark.  Nights where the electricity had for whatever reason gone out with a clunk, plunging the entire town into a homogenous black blanket.  I sit on my bed, sweating with no fan, reading a book with a headlamp or using some of my precious computer battery minutes.  Suddenly my fan goes on, the lights of the town appear and a loud jubilant cheer shoots through my window.  Electricity back on and the happy shouts reflect the town’s appreciation.

No electricity... no problem (as long as you have headlamps)
But that brings us to the point that life for volunteer English teachers on the island is pretty good. 

The eight of us here all live in the “Villa” on the campus of Barbacoas, the charter school in town, and get to enjoy most all the creature comforts of any U.S. city and wealth.  When it works, we have running water in our rooms and kitchen, electricity to power our fans and refrigerator, our computers and lights, and even wireless internet in the teacher’s lounge. 

We also have food delivered to our kitchen with stove and oven every week, with a salary (okay, more like a living stipend) that is only a little less than half of what some other teachers at my school make - and I don’t have to pay for accommodations, a lot of my food, or provide for a family.  It can be easy to forget when I go back to eat lunch and relax in front of my fan after school that many of my students go home to little food or love, or head to work to help out their families. 

Appreciating the unexpected... and important lesson.

I don’t know what I was expecting from life in Colombia.  Certainly I knew the stereotypes were not the daily life of the majority (or anyone) in Colombia.  But it is the surprises that help me through the hard days, that help me appreciate my amazing life here all the more.

It can be something as little as my favorite juice (passion fruit) at the school cafeteria.  The running joke of how many frogs my roommate and I have found in our room since January (upwards of 70).  A random hug or note from a student.  A cool breeze after a rain.  A student who had struggled in class passing a test.  A gift of mangos from a man whose students go to my school though I don’t actually have them in class.

It’s a community.  And a community that I feel honored has accepted that a group of strange North Americans with strange customs and a strange language will come every year with the best intentions to try to help just a little.

And whether that is encouraging a student to solve their problems in another way other than fighting, whether showing students that they can do the work and be creative, and maybe even also teach a few words and phrases in English, I hope our intentions are becoming something concrete that will change and improve the future of the town, and with it the country, region, and world.

Right now, the combination of setting, students, sweat, shouts, and surprises seems to be helping us all move in the right direction.


To hear more about my experiences (including individual posts about my school, frogs, heat, Cartagena, Afro-Colombians, my trip to the Amazon, and more, I invite you to visit my blog at

Thanks to Mike for having me as a guest blogger!