Saturday, April 23, 2011



I have moved. You may now find me at


Thursday, November 5, 2009

El Fin

These past four months in Colombia were incredible. At times I grew tired of the high heat and humidity. At times, I really, really, didn't want to get up at 5:30 to go teach English in an animated fashion for a few hours. But hey - heat and sleep deprivation aside, can one really complain when there is fresh mango juice on every corner, there are at least three different beaches within busing distance, and even the citizens still in diapers have killer dance moves?

Colombia gets a lot of flack for a reputation it doesn't deserve. Everywhere I went, Colombians constantly asked me what Americans (or 'North Americans' as they call them in Colombia) think of Colombia. They laughed when I described the land of drugs, sex tourism, kidnappingm and guerrilla warfare that Americans had in mind. To those Americans who remain doubtful - Yes, there are a lot of men and women in uniform in Colombia. Yes, they are there for security reasons. No, I never felt in danger wherever I went. No, no one asked me to traffic drugs back to the United States.

Colombia's government has been on a vigorous "rebranding" spree, painting Colombia as the country of flowers, not the country of guns. Everywhere I went, I saw people with heart pins and bags or t-shirts with the phrase "Colombia es pasion." The phrase works as a response for many situations, such as:
"Why is this guava juice so amazing?" - "Porque Colombia es pasion!"
"Why do we need to keep dancing?" - "Porque Colombia es pasion!"
"Why won't my students just sit still and be quiet?" - "Porque Colombia es pasion!"
But seriously, all joking aside, there is some truth to the statement. The picture in the top left corner is of a traveling dance troop that stopped in Cartagena. To me, the group epitomized the general spirit of Colombia, as well as of other countries I've visited in South America. I've found the people to be open, joyful, and eager to share their country with me. Yes, poverty is rampant throughout Colombia. Yes, prostitutes and drug dealers were certainly not far away from where I lived. My roommate got a lot of money stolen from her. We saw a student protest in Bogota with plenty of armored tanks just in case things got ugly (they didn't). These things are present in Colombia, but the country is no longer fighting the war against the FARC to the degree they once were, and militism is just one of color in the background - the country is no longer monochromatic militia green.

At the end of the day, I made some fantastic friends, saw some beautiful places, improved my Spanish, and developed a slightly unhealthy obsession for Reggaeton. Colombia is a HUGE country, and I was only beginning to experience parts of it. I will miss the people and places I knew, but I know I'll be back. It's good to be back in DC, but I know that within a month or two, I'll get the fever to jump over an international border or ocean or two. Here's to the next great adventure.

Bienvenidos a Bogota

I'd reserved the last week in Colombia for Bogota. My mom had some trepidations about my going there (probably because a friend at graduation had told us her dad thought it was THE most dangerous city to go to...excellent timing...) but everyone I'd talked to in Colombia didn't seem to have any problems there. Bottom line, I'm a smart cookie and I wasn't about to do anything stupid. I wasn't worried.

Bogota is enormous. The picture to the left was taken from the top of Monserrate, the mountain on the edge of the city. Como se dice "urban sprawl"? I went to Bogota to visit friends, but I'd met someone in Cartagena the week before, and Bogota just happened to be the next stop on his tour of South America. Lawrence and I spent a lot of time together that week.

We hit all the highlights. museum...Botero museum...

The best weekend was the last one there, because it was Halloween. Halloween is a HUGE deal in Colombia (little did we know...). It is over a three-day weekend, and everyone dresses up all three days. We went to a Calle 13 concert on Friday. Calle 13 is a really popular hip-hop artist. Manuel had introduced me to his music back in Cartagena, so I was really excited to see him live. The concert was insane. It took us about two hours just to get to the concert at what looked like a giant, abandoned warehouse outside Bogota. Everyone was dressed in costume, and people kept trying to sell us bottles of Colombia's national brew. This life-affirming moment brought to you by Aguardiente? We passed.

The last highlight of the trip was Saturday. We went to a church (of course...what else would the good Christian people of Colombia do?), which was highly unusual, because it was carved out of rock in a giant underground salt mine. Creepy, but cool. Fun fact: apparently the only other church like it in the world is in Poland. You know what they say - if life gives you lemons, make lemonade. If life gives you salt, make...churches?

After the salt mine we caught the bus to the coolest restaurant I have ever been to. It's called Andres Carne de Res, and is a HUGE steakhouse outside Bogota. It apparently started as one small shop, and then kept expanding...and expanding...It would probably take up about two New York city blocks easily. Everyone was dressed in costume (of course), and we witnessed many weird and mythical creatures parading and generally making merry.

Soon it was late Sunday night and time for me to go to the airport. I had a fantastic week in Bogota. After confirming with three different airline employees that I was not, in fact, a drug trafficker, I made my way to the gate and caught my red-eye back to the states with no problem. I didn't sleep much on my way back to states, but with three full days between me and Colombia, it really is remarkable how quickly I'm moving back into the (admittedly much quicker) pace of life back in DC.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Quick! To the Batcave!

Last I heard, Batman wasn't Colombian. However, if he were, I am pretty sure I know where he would hide his ride, and it's not in Bogota.

Last weekend we went to San Gil, which is known for extreme sports and outdoor adventures. Being the intrepid explorer that I am, I'm always ready for anything that involves waves, "gear", or a required waver-signing before attempting it.

San Gil is about 14-16 hours away from Cartagena, depending on how generous your bus driver is feeling to roadside travelers, and how long your transfer is in Bucaramanga. We left Friday night after classes, and got into San Gil about 2:00PM on Saturday. After a much-needed shower and teeth-brushing, I caught a bus to a town just outside of San Gil where I could go cave exploring. I just made the last trip of the day. Julia had gotten to San Gil a few days before, since she had a week off from work, and the other people in our group had decided to stop at a park. This meant it was just me and five 17-year-olds, who turned out to be good sports.

Once outfitted with our helmets and life-vests, (life-vests? really?) we set off. Our guide took us through dark caverns. We ducked under stalactites and turned off our headlamps at certain points so as not to "freak out" the bats. Right. It was seriously cool slithering through tunnels or wading through pools of muddy water. At the end of our trip, we reached what looked like a huge diving board...if oil tankers came with diving boards. The board was over a huge pool about 15 feet below us. We were supposed to jump off and swim across the pool. A ha. Hence the life-jackets. One by one we leaped off into the blackness. It seemed like an awfully long time before the others hit the water, but hey, what the hell. The water was definitely cold, but I was laughing as I swam to the other side. This would SO never fly in the United States...

That night the whole group headed to an outdoor Vallenato festival in a little colonial town next to San Gil (Vallenato is a type of Colombian music). The town was beautiful, and it's always nice to practice my Colombian dancing skills, even if I am still rhythmically challenged. Maybe I'll get the hang of it in the last three weeks I'm here. Ok... so there's not a future spot for me on "So You Think You Can Dance."

Next morning Julia and I went down to the river for rafting. I found that our guide was none other than one of the guys I had danced with last night! Well nice to see you again, too. Rafting was great fun, as always, and afterward we headed out to lunch with some new rafting buddies and drove out to the hill where people can go paragliding. I was so excited to go, and started taking pictures of all the paragliders, knowing I would be up there in a minute. Alas, the wind didn't feel like cooperating, and died about two minutes after we got there. So much for that.

Monday morning I chose to leave earlier than the rest of the group, because I had to be back by 7:00AM on Tuesday morning, and I didn't want to be late. Last time three of us had been 15 minutes late for class, and it was a big deal. I work at a private language center where students pay very good money to attend classes, and it happens to be one of the few places in Colombia where it actually matters if you're on time. Because of this, I missed the waterfalls and hike through the forest that the rest of the group took that morning. I wish I'd planned better and gotten a substitute for my Tuesday morning class, but I didn't, so I sucked it up and headed back on the 2:00PM bus instead of the 4:30 from Bucaramanga.

A few hours into the trip, Julia texted me to say that they hadn't gotten to Bucaramanga in time, and would have to take the 6:00 bus. I certainly thought that the other girl who teaches with me would be late for class. I'd warned her what our boss had told me, but she'd still decided to take the late bus. My bus took exactly 14 hours from Bucaramanga, and I got home at 4:00AM. For some miraculous reason, the other bus took 12 hours and got back at 6:00AM with enough time for the other girl to get to Centro Colombo on time. I was pissed, but I realized something important. I value my work extremely highly, and if someone thinks I am not taking a job seriously, that's a problem for me. There was no way I was going to make that phone call telling my boss I couldn't make it to work on time. It's stressful trying to fit everything in a 3-day weekend here, and truthfully, I don't have nearly enough time to see all I want to see. However, I learned this weekend how highly I value others' professional opinion of me, which was a good affirmation to make. If I have to sacrifice a waterfall to learn that lesson, then so be it.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Dr. Seuss Goes Birdwatching

Before Julia and I left for Minca, we were perusing her guidebook for helpful things to see and do. The book mentioned that aside from organic coffee and picturesque walks through the jungle, Minca was also known for its many, many birds. Julia's guidebook devoted almost an entire page just to cataloging bird names. Among others, the book listed: the chesnut piculet, the blue-knobbed curassow (which to me sounded more like a cocktail than a bird), the tyrian metaltail, and the brown-rumped tapaculo, not to be confused with the Santa Marta tapaculo. Now, I couldn't tell you what a brown-rumped tapaculo looked like if my life depending on it, but with a name that could come right out of a Dr. Seuss book, how could it not be ridiculously cool?

We spent Saturday just wandering around Santa Marta, exploring the town and then heading off to the beach. It was hot and steamy, but the water was exactly the right temperature, and cleaner than the water along Cartagena's beaches. Saturday night we had the most amazing Mexican food I've had since the last time I was in California. After that we wandered down to a different beach and made some new friends from our hostel.

Sunday morning we wandered through the market, trying to find the bus that would take us to Minca. After getting lost among juice stands and bicycle-repair shops for awhile, we found the "bus" to Minca. The small car looked like it had been made long before the Berlin Wall came down, but Julia and I squeezed in along with 4 other passengers, and we headed off to Minca.

The walk through the jungle was perfect. We walked about an hour away from the town of Minca, scouting for birds. We'd decided to name at least one bird for ourselves, but there didn't seem to be any around. Our destination was a pool and waterfall which used to be a sacred site for the Koguis, the tribe which inhabited the mountains before the Spanish came. The pool was beautiful...the water freezing. After our swim, we sat out on the sunny rocks to dry. Suddenly I started to notice several red dots appearing on the tops of my legs. I looked on the backs of my legs and realized they were covered. Julia and I had been attacked by jenenes, tiny mosquitos that you can't see but which cause deep bites. It was time to go

On the way back, we kept looking around for birds, hoping to see something that we could christen. Alas, the only thing we saw was a rooster. Rooster jungle pigeon...? Tomayto-tomahto. Perhaps the elusive jungle pigeon will have to wait until the next time. Maybe after my jejene bites heal, I'll consider going back.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Water, Water, Everywhere, and Not a Drop to Drink

Last week was a little bit dramatic. I came home from school to find we had no water. Maria, our house Mom, told us that no one in our area had water, and that “they” were trying to do something about it. Now, I haven’t been in Cartagena very long, but I’ve spent enough time in South America to know that when “they” do something about a problem, often mosquitoes go through entire lifecycles before the problem gets fixed.

It really is amazing how much more you appreciate something when it is very suddenly taken away from you. We couldn’t do dishes or make a lot of food that required boiling things…bathrooms everywhere in the city were out of service because the main pipeline several miles away had burst due to unseasonable erosion and exposure. All inconvenient bathroom-break strategizing aside, the worst part was that we couldn’t take a shower. Now, when the days in Cartagena are 90°F with 75% humidity, showers are necessary. I also love to run, and sometimes get up very early in the morning (read: 4:45AM) to go running before it gets too hot out. These two days especially, I really needed some exercise.

The water turned on sporadically for the next 48 hours, and we were able to gather enough water for small amounts of cooking, for flushing the toilet, and for taking bucket showers. I’d never taken a bucket shower in my life before. Any time I’ve gone camping, I’ve always washed in the river or just sucked it up for a couple of days. For some reason it’s easier to do that when you’re expecting not to have access to a shower, as opposed to being blind sighted. Also, lack of plumbing in the forest (aka – an area with general lack of civilization) isn’t really a problem, since…well…no one really cares if you just pick the nearest tree and go about your business. Cities without plumbing are a bit more complicated, but a couple bucket showers now and again never hurt anyone. I was still able to go for my runs.

A city-wide lack of water is apparently very unusual, but things got more stressful than that. Aside from no water, our internet also shut down for a few days, our phone wasn’t working, and…we had a few new friends who’d moved into our room. These friends were not welcome. The first one had four legs, a tail, a love of cheese, and still lives under Julia’s bed. The second had eight legs and set up camp in our bathroom. Julia had warned Anezka and me not to use the bathroom, but we scouted it out and the spider seemed to have left. That night around 4:00AM I got up to use the bathroom. I opened the door and was greeted by a giant black spot on the floor. The spot moved. I screamed, slammed the door, and caused my two roommates to awaken, terrified, and demand in the name of all that was holy why I was acting like an axe murderer had come for tea. I explained. They went back to sleep...or ignored me.

The next morning, our friend with too many eyes and too many legs had gone, but that night he returned. Moreover, he’d grown bolder, and had ventured out from the bathroom. I was alone. Julia and Anezka were nowhere to be found. This was serious, and I needed backup. Unfortunately, there was no boy readily available, and Manuel refused to come over and kill it for me. For some reason he thought I was being silly and could do it myself. Right. Screw chivalry. Of course I could.

I strategized. The spider was crawling across the wall and over my bed. I pulled my bed into the center of the room, so any dead spider remains wouldn’t fall on it. Then after jumping up and down a lot and shouting colorful things (which did nothing…surprisingly), I picked a book from my closet and hurled it at the spider. Spider and book fell. I had won. Let me just say that Mario Vargas Llosa comes in handy for more than practicing your Spanish.

The water returned the next day, our internet returned the next day, and one of our guy friends came to sweep up the spider carcass. I’ve climbed mountains, crossed borders, hitch-hiked through foreign countries, made friends with unusual people…but it’s good to be reminded that even something the size of your fist, or something as simple as not taking a shower can still throw you off your guard. I’m thankful for small reminders like that. And for the fact that through all of this, our air conditioning still worked.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

"Teacher, why is the mens walking if they can drive a car faster instead?"

It's now been two months since I began teaching English in Cartagena at Centro Colombo Americano. The first month I just observed classes, and the second I taught full time. I teach three regular classes plus Speaking Corner, which is an informal class where students come to practice their speaking.

Teaching is not easy. I'd had plenty of tutoring and informal teaching experience before, but I'd never taught full-time before coming here. It looks simple when you observe someone who knows what she's doing - the class moves smoothly and everyone looks engaged. At the end of the month, everyone passes with flying colors. Simple, right? Things get tricky pretty quickly though, when you don't know the right questions to ask to elicit student participation, you explain too much and end up lecturing, you don't come up with good examples that demonstrate grammar nuances, or, of course, if you just don't have the energy.

I never thought before how accountable teachers were for their work. If a student loses interest, you immediately see. If a student doesn't understand, the test or quiz will demonstrate that quite clearly. And if students don't like you...well...they can certainly say so on the teacher evaluation. I am not a person who can sit comfortably in front of a computer all day and stay far removed from her work. I need to be engaged; need to see the fruits of my labor right in front of me. I want results. Luckily, teaching is perfectly conducive to that. It is not always easy, but I love the challenge.

Last week I was nervous. My students had their final exams, and I wanted them to do well. Two of my classes were fantastic, but the third one was full of students with terrible attendance and bad attitudes. They didn't participate, and it was hard not to take something like that personally. I always wondered if there were something I could be doing better. Luckily every one of my students passed, even if some just scraped by. My greatest victory was a student who failed his oral exam, but I worked with him to understand the grammar, and he aced the written part. He was shaking when I told him he could move on to the next level, and he gave me a giant hug.

Despite some minor pitfalls, last month was full of highlights, and I'm excited for more. I had several students tell me they loved me at the end of class. One student told me I was the best teacher he'd ever had. This month I'm teaching one of the groups of students I observed my first month here. They got to know me because I taught a few lessons for their main teacher. When I walked into the classroom yesterday, they all shouted, "Leah! Yaaaaay!" It was indeed a very warm welcome. I may have a few Calvins again this month, but hopefully I'll be better prepared. May the Susies triumph once again.