On ~living~ in Colombia

Sometimes I make my life here look like a wonderful combination of teaching subjects I love to amazing students and spending time exploring beautiful Colombia. And most of the time, that is very accurate. Like in any day to day reality, there are ups and downs, but between the constant sunny weather and the possibility of escaping to a beautiful tropical locale nearly every weekend, the downs here never feel quite so…down. Not in the way a dark, damp, freezing cold week in February felt when I lived in Madison, WI. Goodbye seasonal affective disorder. Goodbye endless work stress (as I have that frequent outlet that travel provides). My life here is by no means perfect, but I cannot deny that I am generally consistently happy here.

However, I am not on vacation. I am in my real life, and sometimes in real life, real things happen. Like getting sick for example.

I’ll spare you all the gory details, but basically I left a long meeting on Saturday not feeling completely right. I got out my trusty thermometer and realized I was running a slight fever, and so I quickly packed myself into a blanket fort on my bed and passed out. I woke up on Sunday not feeling much better but assuming it would pass by Monday morning. Despite my best efforts to rest and hydrate, I woke up on Monday with a worsened fever. In the American way, I contemplated going to work anyway and toughing it out, but it became increasingly apparent there was no way I could teach in that condition. So I relegated myself to texting my principal for help.

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Impatiently waiting for them to finally remove this thing from my arm.

Back in the States, I likely would’ve used up a sick day, spending the day sleeping and binging on Netflix, hoping the combination of relaxation and time would steer me towards better health. However, sick time works differently here. Which is why I found myself checking into the emergency room at 6:55 this morning, groggily making my way through the admittance questions in my second language (and second culture – cuanto pesas? Hmm en kilograms? No tengo ni idea.)  I soon found myself frantically texting emergency lesson plans to teachers covering for me and then attached to an IV dispensing fever-reducing, pain relieving, hydrating medicine.

In the end, it turned out to be the right call to go to the doctor, and I probably went a little later than necessary. I was raised in a culture of never paying a visit to the doctor unless you found yourself on death’s door. As a kid, a fever would warrant Ibuprofen and bedrest, not an IV and necessitated time off from work. Malaise and muscle aches would mean maybe skipping a run that day, not the emergency room. And if I did finally end up at the doctor,’s office I doubt my treatment back in the States would’ve included 90 minutes of an IV and the enormous slew of remedies I was given to take home.

So, was today a little scary? Yeah, it’s definitely not the most comforting feeling showing up to a foreign medical system and navigating it in a second language while feeling mildly horrible. Was it also a little empowering? Yeah, in fact it was. I realized I can be self-resourceful, even in a foreign place and in another language. I realized I wasn’t intimidated at all understanding and answering questions in Spanish. I realized that while I don’t love needles, IVs are really revitalizing (afterword the doctor pronounced, tienes cara nueva, literally you have a new face, saying that I looked much better). I also learned my lesson about not holding off on the doctor, as I have been programmed to do. This whole excursion cost me a grand total of $10 USD for the medicine I was issued. There is really no excuse to put off a doctor’s visit, especially in a place that has maybe more probabilities for infections than where I’ve lived previously (thinking about the tropical climate and prevalence of mosquitoes).

I love sharing the beautiful adventures I’ve had on this international teaching journey, but I also want to reflect on how I am living my real adult life here. Which sometimes involves real adult things, like stress with work or dealing with getting sick. Needless to say, it’s not as if some great tragedy befell me. I had a fever and will be totally fine. I am not trying to be overly dramatic and I fully recognize that this isn’t a life-altering bad thing to happen to me. I am sure I will wake up tomorrow feeling quite recovered. However, it is a new thing that happened here, a new thing I’ve figured out and dealt with and been fine. It is a weird feeling to be straddling two worlds, still very accustomed to the United States but having had a multitude of experiences in a new place as well. But wasn’t that the whole point of moving so far away? Though maybe in the future I’ll make my way to Urgencias when I start feeling sick, not several days later.

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Not a newbie…not an expert

 

Year 2: enjoying the happy medium between these two 

 

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Updating my very non-Instagram worthy bullet journal

A friend texted me the other day to ask how the beginning of my second year teaching here in Colombia is going. I started typing out my response, but you know that feeling when you start writing a text and it keeps going…and going…and going? All of a sudden your fingers are cramping and you realize you’re about to send a multi-screen length text your friend probably doesn’t want to read. No? Well, the feeling is a little too familiar over here (and probably for my dear friends, the patient recipients of these lengthy messages).

So, for all of you clamoring to know, how is year two going? I’ve decided the blog is a more apt forum for elaborating on my thoughts. If nothing else, it’s a little easier to sort through my ideas on the page than in the iMessage bubble.

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Mi primer año

‘¿Por cuanto tiempo has vivido acá?’ ‘O, em, ¿un año?’

I recently started answering that ubiquitous “how long have you lived here” question with “oh, about a year”. Which honestly feels crazy. I never really thought I would reach a point in my life where I could say that I am one year into living in a small mining town in rural Colombia. But here we are. 

Back in September, I asked here on my blog, what can happen in a month? My conclusion back then, after a mere four weeks of living here, was I feel generally comfortable and happy in my new home, excited about my students, and eager for the adventures that lie ahead. So what can happen in a year? Well a lot of growing and changing, but also a lot of staying the same. That sentiment from almost 10 months ago has stuck. I still feel generally comfortable and happy, I am definitely still excited about my students, and I am certainly still eager for the adventures I will have in the coming year. 

And yet, I don’t feel like exactly the same person as I was back in July 2017, when I first stepped foot in Colombia, or August and September 2017, when I was trying to settle in. I don’t really believe people fundamentally change (or at least, I know I have not been significantly altered as a person just by virtue of living here). I’m not sure “matured” is exactly quite the right word to describe what has happened either (I still make plenty of immature decisions that I will not elaborate on here). It may just be that I’ve learned some things living in a new place and starting a new career. 

from the first day of the school year…and then the last

It is hard to fully articulate exactly what I’ve learned and from whom I’ve learned it. While I imparted students knowledge with about the stages of mitosis or how hydrogen bonds form, they imparted to me less tangible but arguably much more valuable lessons about becoming a better teacher, and person. I’ve learned to practice patience and kindness and empathy, and I learned through their example the importance of making new people feel welcome in an established community. They also taught me many Spanish words, though not all of them are words I think I should use in this (relatively) PG blog post (hanging out with teenagers all day helps one develop a wonderfully rich and interesting vocabulary). I’ve also learned from my colleagues and friends here, both specific teaching tips and more generally how to conduct myself as a young professional. And finally the experiences I’ve had, whether traveling or working or simply living in a new environment, have been teachers in and of themselves in things like patience and trusting that things will work out.  

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One grad school lesson that’s been reinforced here is the importance of showing up to those outside of school events. Here I am all dressed up for graduation. Getting my hair that straight took over an hour and it lasted for maybe 10 minutes. Worth it.

I could continue expounding on these lessons indefinitely, but I think summing them up with a few concrete examples will be in everyone’s best interest. And so here are, in no particular order, a few of my biggest takeaways from year 1 as an international educator.

  1. Calm the F*** down – This may just sound like me trying to be funny, but actually this advice can be applied to so many situations in Colombia. It’s advice I’m not always great at taking, but it is a lesson that’s been reiterated to me over and over. For instance, at the beginning of the year, I often fell into that new teacher trap of trying to cover as much content as quickly as possible. The solution? calm the f down. Checking for understanding and teaching for mastery of a few concepts can be much more powerful than plowing through a ton of different science ideas for the sake of having “covered” them. Students will be not be bored if the same idea is mentioned in two different classes – in fact, repetition will allow them to actually learn and remember the material. Another example: I used to be very concerned about planning every detail of any trip very far in advance. The solution? calm the f down. Those times when I am booking a hostel the day of, or arriving to a bus station after when the bus is supposed to leave, I sometimes wonder if I’ve swung too far in the other direction. I’m learning to embrace the idea that logistics will work themselves out. After all, weekends getaways are supposed to alleviate stress, not cause it! This life motto can be applied to almost anything I find myself stressing out over in Colombia: I’m not running as much as I want (calm the f down), I get an email from my boss asking for something I haven’t done (do the thing and calm the f down), being stuck at the bank for two hours (calm the f down, getting angry won’t make them move faster), the person in front of me at the grocery store put their basket down and is continue to wander around the store and holding up the line – wait no, this one still annoys me. Turns out, I haven’t developed unlimited patience. 
  2. Prioritize – This is not wholly unrelated to the point above. Having so much introspective time in the mine helps form a good perspective about the things that matter and those that are not worth my time (aka the things about which I should calm the f down). Being here has helped me value the things that are worth my time: my teaching career, my friends, learning new things, eating pizza (I haven’t actually done that much self reflection on pizza, but I do eat a lot of pizza in Colombia and doing so is definitely worth my time, so it makes the list). 
  3. Pause and reflect – This one is important, with appropriate balance. Sometimes reflecting too deeply on life in the mine puts me in a weird mood. Like, I can’t dwell on the fact that the nearest latte is several hours away by car. However, I want to continue staying grateful and appreciative for the opportunity I’ve been given here. I think of these two years as time to focus on my own personal development in a relatively stress-free environment (with my stress even further reduced after implementing lesson 1 above). In my town, I don’t worry about things like safety or daily transportation or coordinating many activities. Instead, I can devote that time and energy to things like getting the best out of myself as an educator, to experiencing a new country, and to learning a new language. 

And finally…because the fans (hello, horde of avid readers!) are clamoring for more, here’s a quick lightening round of some favorite memories and moments from year 1 (ha like I’m interviewing an interesting famous person for a magazine…except the interviewer and interviewee are both me, and the interviewee is not so famous or interesting). 

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Best cafe that I’ve tried in Colombia definitely goes to this cozy little hipster spot in Santa Marta.

Most awkward translation English to Spanish: Usually when I say something wrong I probably don’t understand why it’s so funny, but one that comes to mind is when I asked someone I was standing in front of ¿Dónde estás? (where are you) instead of ¿Cómo estás? (how are you?). 

Most awkward translation Spanish to English: A student tried asking about his exposición by asking how he should expose himself. Or maybe the time a colleague was trying to ask if I wanted a ride to school by saying “do you want me to ride you”.

Favorite Colombian food: the healthy part of me says the tropical fruit, the less healthy part says arepas de huevos or patacones (both fried deliciousness).

Weirdest things that’s happened to me: hmmm so many. Maybe riding up front with the bus driver one time because there were no normal seats left (long story). 

Favorite trip: This one is hard. Maybe when my Kenyon friend Amy visited and we went to Salento, because I’d been there before and felt like I could show it off.

Favorite beach in Colombia: Cabo de la Vela because it was such a unique place that so few people get to see.

Favorite city in Colombia: This is a controversial opinion among Colombians, but my favorite city is Bogotá. Colombians usually don’t like Bogotá because it is cold and the people tend to be sort of rude…so it feels exactly like Boston! 

What I’m most grateful for here: So many things, but definitely my expat friends come to mind first. Couldn’t have made it through the year without them! 

Most unique thing I’ve done (or thing that I wouldn’t have done at home): Again, there are so many things, but maybe snorkeling in Cartagena. Or hiking in the Andes. Or staying in a jungle hostel near Minca. 

Thing I most excited for in the next year: Definitely there’s much more than one thing…my Spanish getting even better, discovering new places, finding new ways to make life in the mine exciting, but maybe just showing up the first day and not feeling so overwhelmed as the brand new fish out water first year American teacher with no idea what I was getting myself in for.

As always, thanks for reading my ramblings! I’m off to finally have a summer vacation. USA, can’t wait to see ya!  

On making my own peanut butter…and choosing happiness in Colombia

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Many who know me know that one of my favorite foods is the humble jar of all natural peanut butter. Specifically from the Trader Joe’s aisle. After extensive taste testing, I have a proclivity towards the one with the red label, crunchy unsalted, though I would be happy with any of their nut butters at the moment (or really any of their products in general, if I’m being honest).

Peanut butter is the perfect accompaniment to so many foods…spread it on toast for a protein rich snack, throw some in a smoothie, mix some into oatmeal, add it to a piece of dark chocolate for a decadent dessert. To be clear, I can obtain peanut butter at my local grocery store here in Colombia. However, the natural peanut butter I bought with alarming regularity when I lived near a Trader Joe’s – just a delicious mix of peanut butter and maybe some salt – is much harder to track down here.

When people ask what I miss from home, the food options at any American grocery story regularly come to mind. It’s not just peanut butter, but the dazzling array of fresh and healthy grab and go foods, the variety of pastas and frozen options, the healthy snacks…and on and on. Food is of course an enormous part of culture. I was very exited when I moved here to experience new tropical fruits and Colombian meals and I have eaten very well since moving here, especially when I venture outside the mine. However, like any small town, options can be limited in the place that I actually live day to day.

In the more difficult moments of first year teaching and living a new country, I find myself prone to complaining about lacking certain creature comforts from home, with natural peanut butter regularly making its way onto that list. However, last weekend, tired of my own whining, I woke up with a mission: make my own. Armed with this online tutorial, I roasted some peanuts in my toaster oven, put them in my food processor, and a few minutes later had my own delicious ridiculously easy homemade pb. See the process for yourself here:

 

I realized in a stroke of deep inspiration (ha ha, just kidding) that making my own peanut butter is sort of a metaphor for my life here – or choosing to find my own happiness in the midst of an unfamiliar or uncomfortable situation. (Though let’s be honest, natural peanut butter is delicious and fully worthy of writing about without having any hidden layers of meaning behind it).

Being a first year teacher in a tiny town in a new country, it can be can easy to sometimes focus on the more challenging aspects of the experience. I won’t start down the rabbit hole of things that can be frustrating, especially because each individual annoyance is generally rather small and it’s more of a cumulative effect of various small things that eventually and inevitably put me a crabby mood.

A really relevant and important tangent: I get frustrated when I read things online with the general message “just choose to be positive!”. It can invalidate real experiences and human needs. Feel your feelings. Vent. Take a moment (or two) to acknowledge that annoyance or frustration or unfairness is real and it’s fully justifiable to be upset over it. Or even if it’s not fully justified, being upset is a real and valid emotion and shouldn’t just be ignored. Moreover, there are many people who cannot just choose happiness because of chemical imbalances in the brain that lead to all sorts of anxieties and depressions and other very real conditions. So I’m not saying “just be happy, if you think about being happy you definitely will be!”. There are even plenty of pop psychology articles about how humans are evolutionary predisposed to focus on negative experiences rather than positive, maybe to avoid those sorts of situations in the future. Feeling down is okay, and normal, and part of life. 

However….there is something to be said for the cliché, when life gives you raw peanuts you make your own natural peanut butter (I think that’s how it goes). Despite what my Instagram feed may look like, my life is not one endless beach vacation. I am almost behind on grading. I am not running as much as I would like. I miss simple things, like having a coffee shop to retreat to after school and on weekends. I constantly strive to be better in the classroom, to have more patience, to better support my student’s learning, to be more reflective, to treat each student as the unique emerging young adult that they all are (I’d argue that if I reach a point where I stop wanting to improve as a teacher, that will be a sign that I need to move on to something else). I selfishly want all my students to like me because I crave positive validation. And…enough brutal honesty for the internet. I am also deeply fulfilled with the work I am doing, I am traveling more than I ever have before, and I am enjoying shaping my experience of being here into what I want it to be (knowing that I am in a position of privilege that I can find this happiness within myself, and that my situation is not true for everyone).

Here are a few recent positives that I would like to celebrate:

  • IMG_9513.jpgEveryday happiness The other day I was walking down the street and the thought popped into my mind “I love my job”. And I do, I really wholeheartedly do. I can find joy almost every day in the most mundane interactions. Here was a recent occurrence that brought a smile to my face. One student asked on a mental schema activity, “who discovered DNA?”. Another replied, “a scientist maybe”. A third came up to me and said, in total sincerity, “miss, I just can’t with this”. I laughed at the total sass and then appreciated that my students were at least somewhat engaged in activating their prior knowledge.

 

  • Independence (and natural fruit juices, as shown in the picture here). Before I moved here, I used to be almost scared of taking myself out to eat. I was impossibly shy about the idea of going to a restaurant alone. Like, what would the staff think about me if I was all by myself? What would I do the whole meal if there wasn’t anyone to talk to? Is it even allowed?

 

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Breakfast, lunch, or dinner I am now a dining alone pro. Here’s some delicious mango juice from a popular Barranquilla brunch spot

Okay, I guess I probably knew there weren’t any “rules” to restaurants about dining alone, but the idea still made my skin crawl for some reason. However, here in Colombia I’ve thankfully gotten over all of this anxious thinking, and now enjoy taking myself out to eat on the regular. Enjoying a glass of wine and a luxurious meal by myself is a newfound treasure. I do get the occasional “¿Una solita? ¿No hay nadie más? ¿Nadie viene?” (just one? There isn’t anyone else? No one else is coming? To be fair, usually it’s just one of those questions, not all three at once).

I should also say I have some absolutely lovely friends here, and I do not always dine alone! But I have been doing more solo travel recently, and solo travel often meals solo eating as well. And I am proud of myself for finally embracing the restaurant meal for one.

  • Nature How I can I not mention the beauty of the the world around me? Regular trips to the beach and other exciting locales remind me how incredible it is to live on the equator and to be surrounding by places like these.

 

  • Unique experiences Sometimes I have to remind myself how my life is now filled with these experiences I never would have had anywhere else. I have a feeling twenty years from now I’ll be saying things like “one time I lived in this mining town and all the security guards knew my name from me running around the town” or “one time I worked at this school where there were iguanas running around everywhere” or even “multiple times I had had to explain what is happening when my students and I see two iguanas mating right outside my window” (unfortunately no photographic evidence of that last situation for the blog).
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An iguana hanging us with us at recess

  • Travel I briefly mentioned this above, but this is the first time in my life I would really consider myself “well traveled” in a place. One of the most common questions I get when I meet someone from Colombia for the first time is “¿Cuál lugares de Colombia conoces?” (roughly, what parts of Colombia have you visited?). My list is long, and gets longer nearly every month…Bogotá, Barraquilla, Cartagena, coffee region, Santa Marta, Cali, Medellin, Riohacha, Cabo de la Vela, Palomina, Parque Tayrona, maybe others that I am forgetting about. Many of them are things I am grateful for in my life here are things I have experienced in these travels. I would argue this is actually a benefit of living in a small town, because I have a lot of motivation to leave on the weekends and see the big wide world around me.

Others? Of course, but this post has gotten long enough. Strong friendships, here and at home, perfect weather, never ever having to drive a car…but those can be reflected on in another post. Thanks for indulging me and reading all about my musings for today. Like sincerely thank you for getting this far in this long ramble of a post.

Let me know aspects of my life in Colombia you are most curious about! I will repay the favor and indulge your curiosity in an upcoming blog.

Until next time, abrazos.

Life in (and out) of the mine

All my many avid readers (shout out to my single follower!) will have noticed that I haven’t posted in a while. There have certainly been things to write about and being too busy isn’t a real excuse. I think it’s more that I don’t have the same strong tendency for publicly processing my experiences here, which was something that I really craved when I first arrived. As life settles in and things take on a sense of normalcy, the urge to reflect is diminished, but I believe no less important, if only because part of being grateful for this opportunity is being purposeful about the ways I am learning and developing personally and professionally (that sounds like it could’ve been on a cover letter or something – in short, I have s*** to say again, so hence a new post).

So, after months of anticipation (you’ve all been on the edge of your seats, I know), here’s a quick recap of some of the (at least relatively recent) highlights in my exciting life.

Stateside for Christmastime 

 

Like…there’s another option besides having winter. No one has to live in conditions like this!
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Endlessly grateful to the friends that let me basically move in while I was backpacking around Jamaica Plain and Madison, WI, which I’ve heard are some top backpacker destinations, especially in January.

People had warned me that I would experience reverse culture shock upon returning home, which is supposed to be in some ways worse than normal culture shock because feeling bewildered around the seemingly familiar can be deeply unsettling. I will admit, when I arrived in the States after a few months away, groggily navigating my connection and then Logan after departing from Bogotá at 1 am, there were a few moments of feeling overwhelmed and confused. Particularly I noticed being startled by the ubiquitous use of English around me. I had become accustomed to using Spanish for almost every transaction-type interaction. Using my native language almost felt like cheating. However, the feeling of unease wore off by the end of my first day. Turns out, after spending about 25 years and 360 days in the US and then about 5 months away, the US still feels like home. I think it helped that I not undergoing yet another major life transition, and only taking a temporary break from the routines I had only just established in Colombia.

 

In all honesty, there is not too much to report from my trip related to the theme of this blog (which I think is doing transitions and getting lost a lot, both physically and metaphorically. Well, let’s be honest, I got lost a bit in my hometown, but that comes with the territory). I courageously braved the freezing temperatures (like, for real, that was no joke. I showed some pretty extreme bravery just existing in temperatures like those). I was insanely grateful to many of my friends for hosting me and for the opportunity to visit with many of those who are dear to me from all different periods in my life thus far – Framingham, Kenyon, Madison. I got the opportunity to get some up close and personal details of wedding planning for a best friend’s wedding I’ll be participating in this summer. Much hugging was done, much coffee was drank, several other beverages were also consumed, and then a few weeks later I was bag on a plane to Bogotá for a week, where I enjoyed a week-long intensive Spanish class (yeah, I already speak it, but extra practice never hurt anyone!)

Carnaval

Whew…what an experience. I not sure quite how to succinctly sum it up, or if I can really capture what happens both in my town and in Barranquilla. Colombia has the second biggest Carnaval in the world, behind Rio in Brazil, and along the coast (like where I am, sort of) is where it is most celebrated. As I have already posted excessively on social media about the experience – I became a selfie addict for the weekend after the professional makeup artist did some truly amazing work – I’ll keep things brief. I cannot help but acknowledge that I am proud of myself for putting myself out there, despite lacking any – and I really do mean any – innate proclivity towards dance. It was a little challenging to stretch outside of my comfort zone in such a public way. Competitive swimming and running don’t exactly set one up to be onstage performing traditional Carnaval-style dances, but there I was, in full costume, trying my absolute best to remember the weeks worth of choreography and get my steps to at least vaguely mimic those of the people around me.

While the performance itself left me feeling vaguely unsatisfied – why do other people’s bodies just seem to naturally move in a certain rhythm while mine is stiff as a board – the outfits and ensemble really couldn’t be beat:

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Headed home…but first, let me take a selfie

 

A French braid may not be the most traditional hair option, but a friend suggested it as an easy way to keep my hair out of my face while dancing, and I was impressed with how well another friend tamed my hair into a braid. Also pictured: snagging the queen’s crown for a quick second (though I was absolutely NOT the queen, and major props to my friend Brendolyn who totally knocked it out of the park as la reina)

Semana Santa (and that extra week we get off post Semana Santa)

Words cannot express my gratitude for my wonderful friend Amy coming to visit during Semana Santa. As I stood in the international arrivals area at El Dorado airport in Bogotá, I spotted a familiar tall silhouette and short haircut. All of a sudden, I was crying, seemingly out of nowhere. The weight of  everything – wanting to live abroad for so long, finally signing the contract, jumping into an unknown, the journey to get to this point, establishing a whole new life here, and then having someone from my old life fly all the way to another continent (or the southern half of this continent, debatable I know) to visit with me – was entirely overwhelming. She walked out of the customs area and we embraced, our tears intermingling, both exhilarated by the week of travel and exploration ahead.

It is a cliché, but the 10 days flew by, and were absolutely incredible. I am sure no one else cares about the minutiae, so I’ll leave the day by day updates to my personal diary, and instead share a few broad themes of the week. For me, there is always a slight apprehension about traveling with someone one on one for an extended period of time. I am an only child after all. We can be prickly and enjoy our space, but with Amy it was the most natural time in the world. We seemed to be in synch with when we wanted a crazy night out or just chill night at the cine (La Pantera Negra was truly a treasure of a movie. Highest review possible from this avowedly non-cinephile). From hiking in coffee region to exploring the social life of Bogotá to finding the best vegetarian restaurants, we made a dynamic travel duo (except maybe for our mutual dislike of anything related to navigating directions).

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Gosh….this lady. There are no words. I am so happy you came to Colombia!

 

Salento…you’ve stolen my heart. How is it possible that a place is this pretty?

 

No, wait, maybe it’s Bogotá that’s truly captured my affection….or maybe it’s just the experience of sharing it with a friend!
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post snorkel!

Not to be outdone by week 1, week 2 of break offered plenty of new adventures as well. Saying goodbye to Amy was painful, but luckily I had plans to meet up with some friends in Cartagena. I quickly found myself boating around the most clear, blue tropical water I could imagine, then hopping off for some quick snorkeling, then back on the boat to be ferried to the beach. I couldn’t help but text a couple friends in the States and point out that my Tuesday morning snorkeling in the Caribbean Ocean was probably cooler than their Tuesday mornings at the office. Probably. There were a few more days exploring Cartagena, then again back to Bogotá (where I visited a lovely specialty running store! Reminded me of home!), and I was finally ready to head back, feeling happy, satisfied, fulfilled, well-rested, and ready to get back to teaching full steam ahead.


And that basically brings us up to current day. The past couple weeks at school have been busy, especially with IB tests coming up and a half marathon I ran last weekend while being very out of shape. My initial goals at the outset of training shifted from running close to a PR to merely finishing, which I have come to terms with as a consequence of everything else going on. For now, I am grateful to still have running in my life, even if I’m not putting in the same work I did back in Madison. I won’t bother including a picture because the pictures have been blowing up my facebook….the only way to collect my photos was to allow the company to post them directly the book and my intention was to catch them, download, and then immediately erase from the public domain…but by the time I’d found them on my page, it had become probably the most popular thing I have ever posted, and so up they stayed.

I’ll end by answering the question that lingers at the bottom of this coffee mug spootted in a Bogota coffee shop, waiting for the unassuming patron (me) to finish their drink (or gulp down my daily travel latte).

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Thanks for asking, coffee cup, I did enjoy the latte

Sí, coffee cup, me gustó. De hecho, me gustaron todas de mis viajes.

Moving abroad of course has had its ups and downs – I am a first year teacher after all, there are times when I feel like I have made a lot of progress in Spanish and times I stumble over my words, I have days I get frustrated with incidents at school or dealing with logistics in a new country in a second language. I am definitely still navigating living in such a small town and not having access things that exist beyond the confines of the mine.

But overall am I happy here? Did I make the right choice? Do I love my students and the subjects I am teaching, and am I excited to continue? Am I grateful for those opportunities to venture beyond the mine, explore both the hidden and the well known riches of this wonderful country? ¿Me gusta vivir acá?

Yes, unequivocally yes. Por supuesto.

5 months in…surreal

On the last day before a month-long Christmas break, I stood at the front of my classroom, looking out at the faces of my students. The group I was addressing was the same group that I had faced 5 months earlier as a brand-new teacher fresh out of grad school, fresh off the boat in Colombia (going for the colloquial expression here…there were zero actual boat rides to get from Madison, WI to la mina), fresh out of bed (as school starts quite early in the morning), earnestly trying to appear cool, collected, and in charge despite how new everything felt. The shy, smart, quiet students I met that very first class of my very first day have transformed into a lively group of unique individuals. They have challenged me to think about science with a new perspective, to find novelty in the chemistry and biology concepts I fell in love with at their age, and to pique their interest in learning for the fun of it, not just for the grade. They have taught me about my new home here in Colombia, improved my Spanish by treating me as a walking bilingual dictionary, and most importantly they have made me a better teacher by accepting my shortcomings and relishing in learning together. How could I possibly express all this genuine emotion to a room full of teenagers?

I did not really try to convey to them everything I was feeling, to create a sappy moment that would inevitably come off as trying too hard. There are times for that – graduations, award ceremonies, the end of the school year – but not now, as their attention is being pulled in different directions by their many obligations this time of year (between midterm exams and Christmas celebrations…if you think you care about Christmas, move to Colombia. They take celebrating the holiday to a whole new level). I simply thanked them for a great semester, scared them with the threat of homework (which turned out to be to relax and enjoy our upcoming vacation), and let them go. As always, I stood by the door ushering them to their next class. However, on this day, each student paused to give me a hug as they passed. Maybe my simple goodbye had made an impression after all.

It is weird seeing the signs of Christmas everywhere – from constant flashing Christmas lights to endless Christmas music to a highly professional primary school Christmas show – while walking around in shorts and a t-shirt in sunny 90° weather (haha how much of my blog can I devote to bragging about our great climate? The pictures above are from the last couple days in la mina, soaking up some sunshine in mid-December). I keep getting asked if I’m excited about heading home, and while I absolutely am grateful for the opportunity to spend a couple weeks in the US, I am realizing there is a lot I will miss about my new home, from the sun to the language to my new friends to arepas de huevos…and most especially my students.

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Still me…decked out in Kenyon gear, post run, unshowered, as usual…maybe being slightly more adventurous than my usual self

Have I changed in 5 months? Nope…I am still me, Hilds, the girl who gets lost walking down the street, who loves running and reading and learning new things and taking long naps, who has been a vegetarian for the majority of her life, who likes warm weather and spending time with friends but also being alone. I am of course fundamentally still myself, and I would be highly suspect and concerned if that had changed in five months time, but this experience has influenced me in new and exciting ways. There’s the obvious growth – the improvement in my Spanish language, my comfort being in my own classroom (I noticed I started this post off with “my classroom”…pretty sure in my first posts I called the space “the classroom”…I am becoming a real teacher!), my increased confidence traveling to new places in South America. And there’s more subtle changes. I found myself having a conversation yesterday that was much more typical of a Colombian exchange than an American one. I had a simple question for our school’s wonderful secretary. In the States, I would have simply walked up to the desk and asked her my question, but I am slowly adjusting to the conversational patterns here, which involve much more build up (how are you, how’s everything going, how are your kids?) and subsequent follow through (thank you so much, what are your plans for the holidays, I hope you have a wonderful day) than I would ever deem necessary at home.

So how can I sum up everything I’m processing and all that I’m learning? It all feels…surreal. I’m really teaching here (even, I’m actually a real teacher), I really made this incredible leap, and I’m really halfway through the year, it’s really Christmastime (this last point is particularly surreal, thanks to that beautiful warm weather!). I fully expect some reverse culture shock upon going back – hola accidentally slipping out instead of hello in stores and restaurants, lingering too long in conversations, trying to kiss everyone hello. Which will also, I am sure, feel surreal. I was reading earlier today about cognitive dissonance, the sensation that occurs when the input to your brain is not what’s expected. I think periods of intense personal development are filled with those surreal moments of dissonance, and so I am choosing to revel in this feeling, knowing it means I am growing and changing, even if the consequence is some weird looks when I accidentally tell an English-speaking store clerk “que esté bien” at the end of a transaction.

And to wrap up, I’d like to share a few of my favorite moments from the past 5 months. I couldn’t begin to capture everything, but here are some highlights, in no particular order.

From teaching (not posting a ton here because of privacy for my students…but a couple action shots are okay!)

Lighting fires in the classroom and imploding cans…the best parts of teaching chemistry are the crazy things you can get away with in the name of science!

Clearly my students know how to make me feel special:

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From traveling

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Where it all started…the insane amount of luggage when 7 people move abroad

One of the first trips out of the mine, when I realized how rural my new location was by the ubiquity of goats hanging out on the road, and when I began to see how beautiful Colombia really is

Speaking of the beach, I’ve seen a few…from left to right…somewhere near Santa Marta, taken from the bus, Riohacha, Cabo de la Vela, and Palomino. 

I haven’t just been to the beach! Here a few beautiful landscapes from our October break trip:

And some more fun sights from October break, including the nightlife in Medellin, a hilarious translation in a bathroom stall, Bolívar Square in Bogotá, and the price of a beer here in Colombia (58 cents USD). 

People always ask me how I feel about being vegetarian here. In fact, I have gotten some really incredulous reactions from locals when they learn that I abstain from meat. However, I have also delighted in finding some wonderful vegetarian cafés in some unlikely spots, likely catering to the hipster backpacker crowd. Here are the menus from a couple (Palomino and Santa Marta, respectively. Of course I was excited enough to photograph the menu):

And finally, to no one’s surprise, my excitement over finding new coffee shops in new places knows no bounds. Mmmmm….sooooo good. Almost always the first thing I look for in a new place, maybe after running trails 

Above, a cup of coffee from a coffee farm in Salento (can’t get much fresher than that), coffee from Comuna 13 in Medellin, one of the most delicious lattes I have ever had, also in Medellin, and some truly amazing latte art from Santa Marta. Obviously not an exhaustive photo diary of cup of coffee I’ve consumed here.

 

When running an errand involves a flight to another city (or, my weekend of adventures in Barranquilla)

“So, miss, no offense or anything – I promise I don’t think you’re old – but were you around before computers?” asked one of my students at the beginning of the school year. A cursory google search informs me that the first computer was produced on February 15, 1946, meaning that not only was I not alive, neither were my parents, and even my grandparents were quite young. Considering I am usually confused for one of the high school kids, I’m not sure I should be flattered, or if maybe I need to do a quick lesson on the history of computing.

The heart of my student’s query (I think) was whether or not I could remember a time before computers were ubiquitous office necessities, essential for any hope of productivity. And the truth is I can remember a more analog reality, though just barely. The moment at which my family brought home our first computer from the Gateway store, sometime in the mid 90s, was momentous for me. The motivation for such an uncharacteristically extravagant purchase was a sense that computer-based school assignments would soon be obligatory, and without access to this essential tool I would fall behind in school. I vaguely remember using my mother’s typewriter, a tool I found endlessly frustrating, immediately preceding our lofty computer ownership. Like any typical 90s kid in the US, I grew up alongside computing technology, marveling along with everyone else at the rapid advancements throughout the late 90s and early 2000s that now evoke a feeling of amused nostalgia. Who could forget rushing to the family desktop computer to open up an AIM message while playing Oregon Trail, until of course a phone call came in and the phone line had to be switched over, disrupting your internet browsing session. The sounds of the dial-up internet are still distinctly lodged somewhere deep in my brain.

All of this is to say, we have come a long way technologically, so much so that functioning without a personal computer is nearly impossible for any working professional. Throughout grad school, I knew my aging computer was on the fritz. My patience frayed at the increasingly slow speed, reminding me occasionally of those early days of the internet. When it finally started crashing at random intervals, and the stupidly expensive Mac charger broke completely, I decided that now was the time to replace my beloved Mac.

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After 9 years of Mac ownership, I considered the sleek Macbook airs, but realized I was ready for a change. Spending large amounts of money never fails to induce some stress, but the transaction to buy this beauty went pretty smoothly, even as I navigated describing the computer I wanted in Spanish.

What would this errand look like at home? I would spend some time on internet research, comparing reviews, price points, and features until I felt like I could work at a computer shop myself (the scene in Master of None in which Aziz Ansari decides where to eat comes to mind). Upon deciding, I would mentally prepare to spend an inordinate sum of money, hop in my car to go to the mall, spend some time browsing around the brands I recognized from my extensive research, and make a purchase. I’d be back in my apartment after maybe an hour, new computer in hand.

What did this process look like here in Colombia? After several week process of going back and forth, hitting obstacles with online purchases and options for going in person, I finally found myself in Barranquilla, ready trying to make the big purchase. At first, as I struggled with the inconvenience of not having a working laptop for several weeks during a busy time at school, any excitement for being in a new city was outweighed by my desire to just complete my errand. However, once I was in Barranquilla, exploring a new place, going for a run along unfamiliar streets, eating new food and wandering around new neighborhoods, I began to embrace the entire process. Last night, after a quick treadmill run at my hotel, I went up to the rooftop pool. I was the only person there, excited by the beautiful view and eager to dip my toes in the water after a couple miles on the dreadmill (safety first! By the time I got around to my run on Saturday it was dark outside, and so venturing out of the hotel to run did not occur). Like any good millennial, I picked up my phone and immediately took a barrage of photos, already brainstorming social media captions (don’t lie, we all do it).  Then, after sending off a couple texts to friends showing them the cool place I was in, I put my phone down for a second. I sat up straight, took a deep breath of refreshing, clean air, and closed my eyes. The emotions I felt – a swirling mix of excitement at being in a new city, relaxation after a stressful day, anticipation of a comfy sleep in fancy hotel, gratitude for this entire international experience – are hard to describe. I had a moment of realization that I really did this, I took this crazy leap to leave everything I knew and start my teaching career abroad, and despite those days when my lesson plans flop or I feel stressed out by grading or I generally feel in over my head, despite all of the craziness really, I’m here and I’m doing it and I’m learning and growing and I’m happy. Do certain logistics related to living in a tiny coal mining town in Colombia annoy me at times? The unequivocal answer is yes, and I’d be deluding myself if I were to pretend otherwise. However, I can choose to not let those moments of frustration mar my overall experience. Maybe the word to sum up everything I was feeling up on that rooftop pool is satisfaction. Or maybe it’s appreciation, for everything in my life right now (friends, students, colleagues, even using Spanish all the time, and not insignificantly sitting by a pool in shorts and a tank-top at the beginning of December).

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The aforementioned pool and awesome views

 

Obsessed with my beautiful hotel room. Thanks to some travel points, this lovely space set me back only $11 USD, a steal even by Colombian standards!

 

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A Christmas train for children at the mall! Not going to lie…seeing Christmas decorations everywhere but having the weather still be summerlike has been very disorienting.