Friday, August 31, 2012

Project Lover

Disambiguation: This article does not refer to the song "Project Lover" by Guce featuring Juvenile, although I do really like that song.

I love projects. Not the projects—but the discipline known as Project management. I got my formal introduction to Project management while working on a Certificate in Business Administration through the University of California Extension Program in 2003. Since then I’ve been hooked, constantly weaving this approach to work into my approach to tackling the world around me. Admittedly, there are times in life when the tools of Project Management are utterly useless (cough, cough, failed relationships). After all, life is not a project, it’s a process. Still, I find it helpful to break it down into bite-sized pieces whenever possible, setting goals and hitting them (or not). One of the best parts about a project is that when it’s over, it’s over. You take a look back to evaluate, but then you get a clean slate to move on with it, whatever “it” might be.

Project Management has been the backbone of my work as a volunteer for the last few years. One of the challenges of getting inserted into an organization as a volunteer is that your exact role might be a little... well... fuzzy and undefined. Organizations run smoothly when their processes run smoothly—defined roles and systems that work efficiently and repetitively. As volunteers, we can’t expect the train to change course or rearrange the order of its carriages just to accommodate us. Instead of trying to force my way into processes that are already in place, I’ve found some success by tackling projects that contribute to the overall flow.

Yesterday I handed in a final report for a month-long project that we just wrapped up at our site. In late July we kicked off Los Olímpicos Kokoro, a mini-extravaganza to parallel the real deal going on in London. You can put your Spanish-English dictionary down because you won’t find the word “kokoro” anywhere in there. “Kokoro” is the Japanese word for “heart,” and the name of our program. I work at Fútbol Con Corazón, an Colombian NGO—but more specifically, my work falls under a program called Kokoro that is jointly funded by the World Bank and the Japanese Social Development Fund. But I digress...

When we were asked to come up with a theme for August’s activities at our site, I suggested we do something to get the kids tuned into the Olympics (and the world beyond their barrio). I got the green light to design the project and I jumped at the chance—the rest is recent history. For the next month, the kids at our site participated in new sports, workshops, and other activities. My favorite part of the project was assigning each of the 34 groups of kids to a different country, which they would represent for the duration of the project. Some of you reading this blog from your corner of the world—New Zealand, South Africa, Senegal, Mexico, Chile, Brasil, Canada, Venezuela, etc.—will get a kick out these pictures. 

The project culminated with La Clausura, the closing event where the kids got a chance to show off everything they’d been working on. The Saturday morning affair featured a mini-parade, the finals of several different sporting events, a homemade kite competition, and an awards ceremony.

Carreras / Sprints


Relevos / Relay Races

Salto Largo / Long Jump

Cometas / Kite Competition

 Fútbol / Soccer / Football

Premiación / Award Ceremony

Ultimately, I was really proud of the kids, our team of coaches, and the project in general. Now I’m on to the next project, this time of a completely different variety. Over the next couple of weeks I will be taking the lead on putting together an Emergency Action Plan for our worksite. Like the flu shot that our nurse just stuck me with, I guess it’s better to have it and not need it than the other way around.

Pura Vida,


Thursday, August 16, 2012

Happy Camper

The great Chris Tucker once said, “You can’t be everywhere at once.”* Well, he didn’t exactly say it in those words, but that was the idea. I’ve been lucky enough to be in many places, but always one place at a time. The downside of this big adventure is that I’m always missing out on something back home. I’ve missed Christmas with my immediate family two of out the last three years. As for weddings and babies, let’s just say that my friends are dropping like flies and I’ve been absent for these special occasions more often than I care to admit.

After breezing through the Bay Area for ten days this summer, I arrived in Colombia in mid June. It was great to be home for my brother’s birthday and Father’s Day, but I did miss out on something that is near and dear to my heart—JazzCamp. No regrets, but while I was settling into my new home, a piece of my heart was back home in the woods, where I knew my friends were rocking out for the week. 

The good news is that ther's no shortage of great music here in Barranquilla. The city seems to have its own soundtrack, feeding my ears a steady stream of Salsa, Vallenato, Champeta, and the occasional unfortunate bit of Reggaeton or Banda. Half of the folks in the U.S.A. couldn’t clap on 2 and 4 to save their lives; but here, old ladies tap out clave rhythms on their bus seats while whistling a Joe Arroyo classic and balancing a bag of groceries in their other arm.

By day, I play in the Orquesta Tránsito Publico**... by night, I get my salsa fix at the various nightlife spots. The best known joint in town is La Troja, a two-floor open-air club, designated as cultural landmark. I was a little surprised to find that Salsa dancing here is pretty different than what I’m used to, but I’m doing my best to get in where I fit in. The bad news is that after two months, I still have not touched a piano. I know, I promised myself I wouldn’t do this again ("Notes" April, 2012). 

Don’t worry, I haven’t been slacking completely. With the constant music in my ears, I found myself drumming on whatever was in reach— lap... my friends. They were starting to get annoyed so I decided to hunt around for some real percussion—either a caja vallenata or a pair of bongos. I started studying percussion—mostly congas—in elementary school with Mike Margolis. I never lost the love for it, but since high school my percussion education has been limited to my annual week at Camp. While this is no recipe for becoming a master, I’m still grateful for all the hours I’ve spent since 1998 soaking up knowledge from two of the greats, Carolyn Brandy and John Santos. Over time I adoptem them as my unofficial Percussion Parents—no they are not a couple, but yes, we have been mistaken as an actual family. 

Unfortunately, percussion skills cannot be inherited via imaginary genes, so I guess I’ll just have to practice. No worries, I’m up to the task. After a healthy hunt, I purchased a new pair of bongos last week, and I’m already practicing. I hope I don’t disturb the neighbors... wait, they’re already blasting music.

Pura Vida,


* A very inexact quote from movie, Dead Presidents.
** The Public Transit Orchestra. No, this is not an actual group.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Death To Mayonnaise

As my journal, hobby, and therapy, this blog has often carried my reflections on food in my life as a volunteer abroad. In “Now We’re Cooking” (October, 2011) I mapped out the direct link between my sanity and having access to a kitchen to cook my own meals. In the very next post (“Sugar and Spice,” October, 2011) I celebrated the arrival—via care-package—of spices, marinades and what should have been a year’s supply of Sour Patch Kids. “Commitment and Canned Meat” (December 2011) was a study in will power, and what it means when canned hot dogs actually start to sound tasty. More recently, before leaving Cape Verde, I reflected on the different eat-spots that I had grown to love in São Vicente (“Restaurant Quality,” May 2012).

Here I am—again—seven weeks into a new adventure in a new country, in a world of culinary opportunities... and obstacles. The good news is, I’ve been here before. I won’t get into whether I like Cape Verdean or Colombian food more—they both have the potential to be absolutely delicious or utterly disappointing. What matters is that it’s not what I grew up eating; therefore, I have to get my mind right, get myself a game-plan, and work the plan. 

I live with a host-family, and eat two meals a day at home. Normally, this is a small breakfast—coffee with some combination of arepas, empanadas, papa rellena*, deditos, bollo or eggs. A typical dinner might be arroz con pollo or carne** with a sopita ("a little soup") on the side.

I am blessed to work in a program with a nutritional element. In addition to playing soccer and doing workshops, our students also eat snack and lunch at the center—which means, so do I! I was recently singing the praises of my Peace Corps dental insurance, but free lunch is easily the second most valuable work benefit that I enjoy. The meal is different everyday and it’s always served with fresh squeezed juice—patilla, melón, mora, maracuyá, tomate de arbol, guayaba, and more. Plus, since it is brought to you by Nu3, you know it’s tasty and nutricious!

I’m not big on sweets, but I do love to get my snack on in various ways. Since there are no Sour Patch Kids to be found in-country, I’ve had to be more creative. Luckily, in Barranquilla I’n never more than 100 yards aways from a delicious avocado, available at your local street vendor or market for the equivalent of 50 cents (lime and salt optional).

When I’m not eating at home or work, I’m exploring new spots around town. My friend Emily has turned me onto some excellent pizza at Panaderia 20 de Julio. Even better is when I’m lucky enough to enjoy a home-cooked meal at a friend or colleague’s house. Fourth of July was a great excuses for us to gather around and celebrate the fine cuisine of the American Melting Pot (pasta, watermelon, chips & salsa, Budweiser). 

I can still taste the tastiness of the authentic Italian meal that my Country Director (boss) and his wife served up over a week ago. Thank you, Napoli, for brining Signori Baldino into our lives.

Overall, food has been no problem here in Colombia. According to the plan I mentioned before, I have taken a few steps to keep it kosher. One of the first things I did was buy a bottle of hot sauce to keep near. My host-family wants no part of it, but they see that I love it and they respect that. Now I find that bottle waiting next to my plate of food when I sit down to eat. One can never underestimate the importance of condiments when it comes to food sanity. With that I mind, I recently made a trip to the big grocery store in the city to grab some olive oil and balsamic vinegar. But sometimes it’s not about what condiments you put on your food—it’s about what you don’t put on it.

Earlier this week, I felt the time was right to make my first foray into the kitchen at home to cook a meal for myself. I chose the simplest thing possible: pasta. I grabbed a pack of spaghetti from the corner store and almost bought some “tomato sauce” before remembering that it was really ketchup. Instead, I grabbed a few fresh tomatoes, garlic and a bell pepper from a street vendor and went to work. As expected, a could feel a few members of my host-family start to creep in close over my shoulder as I started to boil the water. “Stay calm,” I told myself, “just stick to the plan.” I positioned myself between them and the stove, boxing them out of the paint just long enough to get the noodles al dente.*** Then I threw in the chopped tomatoes and a little butter, and began to plate it up. Reaching over the pot, my cousin immediately started to reel off a list of everything that my pasta was missing. Actually, I agreed with some of his suggestions (bell pepper, garlic), but explained that I was too hungry and lazy to sauté them up—plus, he was using the only pan at that moment. But then he told me that what my pasta was really missing was mayonnaise... and that's when I lost it. I pivoted, clearing him out—possibly a loose-ball foul—and made it clear that my pasta DID NOT FALTA MAYONESA! He backed down, and we all laughed about it, agreeing that there were a hundred different ways to make pasta. Plus, I reminded them that there were plenty of things (like hot sauce) that I love that they wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole.

The pasta turned out fine, although it was admittedly bland. The important thing is that I survived the process without pissing off or offending my host-family. Like I've said before, cooking a meal brings me peace of mind, even when it's just boiled noodles, tomatoes and butter. After I knocked down two bowls and retired to my bed to enjoy the rest of my lunch break, my host-mom popped her head in the door.

“Baby, can I finish off the rest of the spaghetti in the pot?” And nothing could have made me happier.

Pura Vida,


* "Papa rellena" literally means "stuffed potato." Not to be confused with the better-known Peruvian papa rellana, the local version is more like a thinner-skinned samosa, without the heavy spices.

** Carne = meat

*** Yes, they were appalled that I did not cook the pasta for another 30 minutes.