Casas, Cocadas y Colaboración

My last post, written during Semana Santa 2014 in Santa Marta, raised a few questions from readers regarding my current happiness and well-being in Colombia. The truth is, I have been hanging on by a yellow, blue and red thread to my new Costeño life in Barranquilla, Atlántico. Until last week, I was trying without much success to adapt to my housing placement. I used many different approaches to existing in someone else’s home; one after another, they fell as flat as a day-old areapa. I even tried not trying, which was the hardest of all.


Created in February… often, prayer takes time!

Finally, I surrendered and sent a request to the Universe to find another place to call home. From Sacramento to México, when my living situation began to tank, I did this and it worked. Again, I was successful, only this time, it seemed to take as long as the check-out lines in Olimpica on a Saturday afternoon – about a month and a half.


note the claws coming out, slowly…

I am grateful to now be in a wonderful home in barrio Alboraya near La Ocho. My new room is spacious and clean, with a small private bathroom. There’s a house cat, who right now hisses at me when I say “hola, gatita,” but we will be friends before long. I know well that the place we call home is truly worth our attention, and I have such gratitude for this opportunity to finally appreciate La Arenosa, where I prayed to be placed as a volunteer.


In preparation for our upcoming mid-service weekend, our WorldTeach assistant field director asked us to submit two photos: something we love about Colombia and something that drives us nuts. Surprisingly, my “love” list greatly outnumbers the “nuts,” although the nuts is definitely keeping up at times.

Colombia Makes Me Nuts


Shiny n sweaty at La Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino

Barranquilla is hot. During a weekend trip to Cartagena, I laughed listening to Suisse backpackers whine incessantly about their “litres of sweat” and “massive clouds of humidity.”  I sympathized with them because it’s true. I sweat a lot here, more than post places I’ve ever lived, including Charleston and México. My clothes are often soaked through after 10 minutes outside, and air conditioning is like a magical invention that deserves celebration. I escape the heat in shopping malls and grocery stores “stealing” their A/C, but it’s a temporary thrill. Some afternoons I simply pass out from the heat, which is always fun, because I wake up not knowing what day or time it is.


Apes in Malambo. It could happen for me.

I loathe the bus. Apart from a few beautiful, colorful buses with regular schedules, bling decor and friendly drivers, the buses in Barranquilla leave me wanting more (like a motorcycle). Several times I have boarded a giant, crowded bus only to discover I am going in the wrong direction or the bus has a funky route that won’t put me anywhere near my desired location. I frequent the Barranquilla transit site so often, I’ve memorized the top menu bar. One of my goals for the year is to leave without hating the bus system here… or at least managing to get someplace in a record-breaking time, meaning 45 minutes or less.


If a bird cat-calls you, is it a bird-call? This flirty one did!

Machismo Knows no Bounds. While I am saving the savory (and sour) stories of harassment for a book I may write after leaving Colombia, I can say for now cat calling seems second-nature in Colombia. I’ve watched men eyeball a girl while their wife is walking directly in front of them. I can barely make it down a city block without at least one “ssst ssst” in my general direction, and I’m still unclear if it means “look over here,” or “I’m looking at you,” or nothing. Regardless, hissing seems like lazy flirting.


“Regalame tu numero, mi cielo” jaja

Recently, as I passed by two boys who looked about 4 years old, one called out, “Linda mona reina,” which translates to “pretty white (girl) queen.”  I started laughing hysterically at them. The boys covered their mouths and giggled to each other. We all stood there cracking up at their preschool-level flirtations until their mom yanked them away by their tiny arms. With their free arms, they waved wildly, yelling, “ah-dee-ooos monnn-ahh!” Too much.


Mama and her pup, on my walk to work in barrio Cevillar.

The Animals Make Me Sad. Every day I encounter (or at best, observe) hungry skinny dogs, limping dogs with legs run over in traffic, mama dogs with their puppy-feeding breasts nearly dragging the ground, and packs of dogs who dig through trash, fighting each other for scraps of rotten food. I see tired, over-worked burros pulling carts with drivers, running through rush hour traffic.


Shiny and sweaty again, this time with a hot horse

I see horses surrounded by huge buses, loud horns and dangerous mototaxis. The humanitarian in me wants to pet and feed them all, and free them from their sad lives, but the street-smart traveller in me remains at a cool distance. Still, I am unsure of how to cure my sadness for the animals.


First Colombian dog bite! Pet dog, all shots up to date.

Colombia is Like No Other Place I’ve Loved 


Champeta. This island-original music, with roots in salsa  jíbaro and reggae, is generally played at full volume through big loudspeakers known locally as “picós,” from the English word “pick-up.” The beat and style of Champeta has dug so deeply into me that I find myself recognizing Kevin Florez songs within the first three notes. 


Artists like Karly Way, Young F and Mr. Black are among the “crew” groomed for success with the help of  promoters and deejays in Colombia, including famous Cartagenero ‘El Rey De Rocha’ Noraldo Iriarte, better known by his followers as “Chawala,” whose name is frequently heard in Champeta songs. If you like Reggaeton, think of your favorite Reggaeton song. Now add a spicier beat, lyrics in Costeño slang, and horns, keyboards or accordion. This is only the beginning of the infectious groove called Champeta.


Papas con queso: giant tater tot of love

Coconut Treats and other Colombian Delights. Finally, I am beginning to love the food here. After four months without much of an appetite, a friend’s mom taught me to make the simple-yet-satisfying arepas con huevos, piquing my curiosity in Colombian cuisine. In Cartagena I enjoyed a giant ball of potato with cheese in the center, and went back to the same place twice in one day for empanadas con champiñones with a side of steamed yuca.


Oh Cocadas, at 600 pesos each, how I love thee

I am addicted to cocadas, the handmade coconut-sugar patties sold on the street. Sometimes called chancacas or panelitas, these treats come in variations such as guayaba (guava), arequipe (caramel) and panela (unrefined whole cane sugar). Colombia rules with its fresh fruit juices and tangy limonada – no corn syrup here – and while I’m still a devout vegetarian (and not close to trying meat like butifarra), I am happily accepting many new dishes with unbiased taste buds.


with my awesome co-teacher Maria and some of our 5th graders

Colegio Hogar Mariano. My school ranks among my most happiest and grateful things about being in Colombia. In addition to the staff and my co-teachers, 400 brilliant, active 4th and 5th girls are helping me to understand the culture, history and daily routines of this country, as well as how things are done.


My students have enlightened me to things like why people feel entitled to your food (because they would give your theirs, if they had some), what makes someone a good dancer (the rhythm, then the foot moves) and, my favorite, why they can’t sit through an entire class (we don’t want to miss anything in other parts of the room). I’m not 100% convinced of that last one.


As I mark the start of my 5th month in Colombia, I am glad I decided to pursue the changes that were needed. I am inspired by the opportunity to contribute where I can, and to know when enough is enough with where I am living each day. When we finally recognize the difference between what we have and what we deserve, often the world around us will begin to collaborate. Now, if I can learn to dance Champeta…


“Teacher, bailar!” Trying my best at Champeta. The girls told me try harder. Photo: Nazly Beleño