Monday, February 25, 2013


I try to make this blog a little different—hopefully, it doesn’t read like a laundry list of what I did this week. Sure, living in another country is interesting, but it doesn’t mean you want to read about what I ate for breakfast every morning, or look at pictures of what my bathroom looks like. For each post, I try to start from a small place—an idea, a question, or an event that I can build into something that gives you a real impression of what I’m living, or what I’m thinking.

That being said, sometimes I feel like my blog fails to answer a fundamental question: “What am I actually doing here?” So, this week I’m taking a different approach, in the hopes that I can give you a snapshot of what a day is like for me here. That’s not to say that this day was typical. In fact, I chose this day because it was a great one, and it happened to have a lot going on that could show several aspects of my life and work as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer in Barranquilla, Colombia. So, without further ado, I present to you... Thursday, February 21, 2013.

7:00 - My feeble phone alarm goes off (for the first time). Without actually opening my eyes (or even really waking up), I deftly reach out to activate the snooze mode. One thing has never changed in my life—the snooze period has always been an essential step in my wake up process. Some people do yoga, others need their cup of coffee. No matter how early or late it is, I need to cogela suave* when it comes to starting the day. I can afford to do that here because I work about three blocks away from my house.

7:30 - After a bit a snoozing, I was ready to transition into life. My breakfast, like most days, was a steaming cup of sugar with coffee and a banana. Then I got myself together—shower, dress, “deo” for my B.O., etc.

8:00 - Our first classes at the sede tend to get rolling around 8:15, after the kids have their snack. I don’t have my own classes to teach, so my morning responsibilities vary depending on what projects I have on my plate. At this stage, the core of my work at Fútbol Con Corazón involves working as a liaison between the sede and the surrounding community. Unlike the coaches and staff, I actually live here in the barrio, so I’m in a good position to help build that bridge. For the past week I’ve been doing a lot of in-person visits to houses to check in on kids and families, and to make sure the info is flowing in both directions. My first task on Thursday morning was to prepare a summary report of the 50 family visits that I had done the previous day. 

9:00 - Of the 50 families that I visited on Wednesday, three children had been absent due to scheduling conflicts. At the beginning of the calendar year, many students graduate to a new curso, changing their school schedule from the morning to the evening, or vice versa. On Thursday morning I was able to move these three kids into different time slots at our program, then I went back to their houses to give the parents their new schedules.

10:30 - In addition to working with Fútbol con Corazón, I am doing a lot of work to identify and build relationships with other organizations that do Youth Development work. After my family visits I had a meeting with Fundación Oasis de Fé, a community center in the barrio that focuses on four areas of intervention: spiritual, cognitive/academic, social, and physical. We discussed our different work, and ways where I could support their activities. I am particularly interested in starting a conversation-based english class at their center, but the opportunities for collaboration are endless.

12:00pm - Normally, I eat lunch at the sede in the comedor, but on Thursday I headed home to make my own grub. I think I’ve mentioned that meals here tend to be light on green vegetables. So, I steamed some broccoli then worked it into the rice with meat that I had saved from the previous night’s dinner (I ate out at the restaurant we have our music rehearsals on Wednesday nights). I’m a man that loves his condiments—they’ve become that much more important in a world where 75 percent of virtually every meal is plain white rice. Thankfully, I had my Sweet Chili Sauce ready to complete my poor man’s broccoli beef.

2:00 - After lunch I headed north to the Peace Corps Office to tackle some admin work in a nice air-conditioned environment, complete with a table, chair and high-speed internet—three things that I cannot get in the same place at the same time in my barrio. My main task for the afternoon was to do a wrap-up report for a recently completed project. At the end of January, our team of Peace Corps Response Volunteers held a multi-sport camp at a high school in Campo de la Cruz, in the southern region of the Departamento Atlántico.

4:30 - My workday closed with a great meeting at the office. I had a chance to sit down with two  representatives from PNUD (United Nations Development Programme) to discuss an abmitious Youth Development project that they are undertaking. After a thirty year absence from the country, the Peace Corps’ Youth Development program in Colombia is still in its neonatal phase—I am one of the first three volunteers to serve in this capacity. Since my arrival, I've appreciated being included in the process of building the YD program up from the ground floor. Just last month I got to participate in part of Peace Corps Colombia’s Integrated Planning and Budget Sessions (IPBS), a series of annual evaluation and strategy meetings. Our meeting on Thursday included our Country Director, our Director of Programming and Training, our Small Projects Coordinator, and little ol’ me. I’m looking forward to learning more in the coming weeks about how the project will develop, and what role Peace Corps Volunteers will play in it.

7:00 - After work I headed back to Mazzino—the restaurant where our motley crew of gringos and Colombianos plays live Jazz on Saturday nights. Thursday night is not our official rehearsal night, but I had a date to join a few friends for a beer, a pizza, and a couple of hours of listening to music and talking shop. It wasn’t the first time that I found myself in a deep, deep convo with Jaime, the owner of the restaurant and the trumpet player in our group. This time, the conversation** was sparked by a recently-surfaced photo of my maternal grandparents, courtesy of my cousin, Janet Foster. 

Dr. Luther Hilton Foster, Jr., the fourth president of Tuskegee Institute (later University) from 1953 to 1981 with his wife, Vera Chandler Foster in the early 1950s. Dr. Foster was known for his “quiet but firm” leadership of Tuskegee during the turbulent years of the Civil Rights Movement. Mrs. Foster, a graduate of Fisk University and The University of Nebraska, was a social worker and a peace activist. Photo: The Abbott Sengstacke Family Papers/Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images.

When we weren’t discussing racial politics, or the myriad romantic differences and difficulties between men and women of all cultures, we picked out a couple of songs that we want play next Saturday. I’m really excited to give Fela Kuti’s “Gentleman” a go.

11:00 - I got back to my barrio at a relatively reasonable hour and decided to check my email before crashing. I got some great news: I’ve been accepted*** to the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Education—woooo-hoooo! After doing a short victory lap around my house, I resisted the temptation to get on Facebook to announce the news to the world. Instead, I sent one simple email—no doubt, the Notorious D.A.D. should be the first to know... and now that he does, I’m happy to tell you too!

Pura Vida,


*"Take it easy" - the unofficial motto of life here on La Costa.
** For more info on exactly what we were talking about, check out this previous post about an interesting story from my family.
***I have until April to make my decision about Berkeley, which is definitely one of my top choices. In the meantime, I'm waiting to hear back from two more schools...

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


They say a picture is worth a thousand words. I say a good sound effect is worth even more. No sound effect captures the experience of living Carnaval in Barranquilla better than a good “ufff!!!”*

Over the past months, this great expression has crept into my vocabulary, to the point where it’s become one of my favorites. As in any culture, costeños** have tons of great, funny, and ridiculous ways to get their point across. So to put “ufff” into context, I wanted to lead off this post by sharing a few of my other favorite costeño communicationisms.

1. The Lip Point***
Next time someone asks you where something is, don’t waste your energy on any grand hand gestures or complicated verbal instructions. Just thrust your lips in the general direction you want to indicate, and your buddy will know exactly how to get where they’re going—"over there." If you’re having trouble picturing what this looks like, just give it a shot while you’re sitting at your desk in the office. It’s almost like you’re trying to kiss someone sitting next to you without rotating your body or face at all. Got it?

2. Miercoles!
You always have to be ready to censor yourself, especially when you work around little kids all day. My aunt Carmen back home in Oakland has a whole arsenal of almost-vulgar, but completely harmless exclamations. For example, “GOT-tobemorecareful”... or “SHUT THE front door.” In Colombia, with just a few extra letters, you can turn any poopy situation into everyone’s fourth-favorite day of the week! So next you get a parking ticket, just yell it out... “MIER-coles!”

3. The Triple Confirmation / C.F.U.
The costeño spanish accent is notoriously difficult to understand. I often joke that costeñol is just like normal spanish, except without any consonants. To get a better sense of what it sounds like, knock half your teeth out, spread peanut butter all over your tongue, then read a sentence out loud without closing your mouth... and read it REALLY fast. Perhaps because of this phenomenon, costeños tend to work a lot a confirmations into their everyday conversations. My classroom teacher friends would call this classic technique the “Check For Understanding” or C.F.U. This is what a simple story in costenol might sound like.

“Ayer, yo fui al centro porque quería comprar un pollo—me entiendes? Entonces, fui al Carrefour, porque no se vende pollo en la tienda en mi barrio—te explico? Pero, no compré nada cuando llegué porque cobran mucho en Carrefour, si o no?”

“Yesterday, I went downtown because I wanted to buy a chicken—you understand me? So, I went to the Carrefour because they don’t sell chicken at the store in my neighborhood—do I make myself clear? But, when I got there I didn’t buy any chicken because they charge so much at Carrefour—right or wrong?

I could go on all day, but like I said, I really want to share my feelings about "ufff” and everything that’s it’s meant to me over the past week and a half. If you’re still having trouble with this one, imagine the sound a cartoon character might make when getting sucker punched in the gut. That’s the gist of it. So, when someone calls you on Sunday morning after a late night to ask how you’re feeling, the proper response is “ufff!” Or, "Did you see Mike Tyson knock out Trevor Berbick? Ufff!!!" Now, don’t get me wrong—this sound effect doesn’t necessarily have a bad connotation. In the context of Carnaval, I use it to communicate the extreme levels of healthy fun that was had by all. Everybody enjoys it in their own way. The few (crazy) people that don’t like Carnaval vacate the city to make way for the thousands of people that converge on Barranquilla from across Colombia and the world every February.

Personally, I take a more nocturnal approach to the extravaganza—getting most of my “work” done between the hours of 6pm and 6am. Some people might call me blasphemous for skipping out on some of the daytime parades. Others will call me soft—or something worse—for sleeping at all during the week. All I can say is do you, because I damn sure am gonna do me.

So, here’s a few pictures and highlights from week:

Friday (Feb 1) - La Guacherna
My Carnaval officially kicked off at La Guacherna, the night-time parade that functions as a sort of warm-up for the daytime desfilas that follow.

Saturday - La Nalgoteca
An electrocumbia extravaganza, featuring a guest appearance from Colombia’s own Systema Solar.

Wednesday - Cumple de Chavela
My host-mom—officially the coolest woman in Colombia—turned 35 last week (wink wink). As her daughter pointed out, she's been turning 35 for many years now, but that's cool. We celebrated in style at the house, not for the last time that week.

Thursday - Noche Del Rio
This was a excellent outdoor cultural concert, featuring beautiful music from the Coast. Cumbia, Tamboras, and more. It was held at the Parque Cultural del Caribe, one of my favorite venues and museums in town. Not a bad seat in the house, and as always, I was in the company of great peoples. The finale of the night was a performance by Barranquilla's own Colectro.

Friday - Tascas Club Colombia
The 12,000 ($6.67) pesos entrance fee to this outdoor party came with a bucket of five Club Colombias on ice for each person. That may sound reasonable, but consider that I was with four girls—two of whom were driving—which means I really had to carry the weight.

Saturday - Cancha Nueva Granada
This was the official go-hard-or-go-home night of Carnaval for me. Unlike a lot of American transplants, I don’t just tolerate vallenato music—I love it. But if I have to choose, I’ll pick salsa music any day of the week. Fortunately, I didn’t have to pick on Saturday. The “Los Mejores” concert was held at a massive sand soccer pitch, featuring just what it advertised—the best. Diomedes Diaz and Silvestre Dangond were in the “building,” with the later taking the stage to headline the concert at about 5am. After performing a song or two, Silvestre took a minute to give a shout out to everyone outside the concert that greeted him on the way in. Immediately, the barrio errupted in screams of love from what must have been a thousand people enjoying the music from outside the walls of the concert. That was powerful. Without a doubt though, the highlight of the show was hearing two legendary salsa groups: Richie Ray & Bobby Cruz, and Hansel & Raul. “Sonido Bestial” has recently edged out “Pedro Navaja” as my favorite salsa song.


Sunday - House Party
After a short recovery from la cancha***, we kept it moving en my barrio. From late afternoon into the night, la desorden**** reigned—maizena, kola****, salsa, vallenato, champeta, costeños, gringos, etc. The second phase of the night was an adventure to Berbetronik, the Red Bull Music Academy concert featuring electronic music, Reggaeton and Champeta. It was a relatively early night, which saw me home by 4am.

Monday - Tienda, Block Party, Block Party, Ice Cream
On monday I was treated to a new barrio experience, in a part of town where I’d never really hung out before. Really, it felt a lot like my barrio at times—lots of plastic chairs (where do they all come from), really loud and great music, and tons of great people taking care of us. From the neighborhood block party, we moved on to catch the end of another block party, then capped the night/day off by hunting down the first open tienda. The final highlight of my Carnaval was sitting on the sidewalk, eating ice cream at 8am. 

Tuesday - Ufff!
In the bay we used to call it “luffin’.” Here, it’s “hacer locha,” “flojear, or "jugar rasquebol.”******* Either way, I spent all day Tuesday doing absolutely nothing, which is exactly what I needed.

Wednesday - Back on the Grind

Pura Vida,


* pronounced "ooof"
** people from the Caribbean Coastal Region of Colombia
*** When writing this post, I came across the blog of a volunteer who served in Nicaragua. Apparently, the lip point is common there too, and she had already written about it. Photo credit to Nicaraguan Lauren, thanks!!!
**** sirope de kola (red syrup) is one of many random substances that costeños cover each other with during Carnaval season. Other favorites include corn starch and spray foam.
***** soccer pitch
****** see my last post for an explanation of the term desorden.
******* rascar = to scratch. Thus, if sitting around scratching your ass was a sport, it would be called "rasquebol."