This is a post I wrote for the WorldTeach blog that went up today. Hope you like it!
“My only fear is that this year will go too fast,” said Nancy, a girl in my group, as we shared our hopes and fears for the year to come on the last night of orientation. Too fast? I thought to myself, a year is a long time. The next morning we were flying from the farmhouse near Bogotá where we had orientation to our placements, and I was even more nervous than when I’d left my home in Pennsylvania. I was heading to hot, humid, and historic Cartagena de Indias on the Caribbean coast. I don’t remember what I shared with the group that night, probably something trivial. But the list of fears in my head was long- my inability to speak Spanish, the heat, teaching for the first time, living with a host family, navigating a brand new city, making new friends… the list went on.
Now here I am, just days away from leaving Cartagena to go back to Pennsylvania and I have a whole new list of fears in my head- forgetting all the Spanish I learned, inability to adapt back to the cold, leaving my students and new firends, saying goodbye to my beloved host family, missing the Cartagena culture that I love, and starting over in a new city when I know this one so well. I was right; a year is a long time. But Nancy’s fear also came true- it went too fast.
On learning Spanish
I arrived not exactly a complete beginner (I had taken Spanish class in Elementary school) but I couldn’t do much more than string 3 words together and point when I was delivered to my host family. I’m a talkative person though, and I wanted to share and understand more than could be communicated through the words I had. I downloaded Duolingo and brought my little pocket dictionary with me everywhere. My notebook was full of endless lists of new vocabulary words and phrases. I made flashcards to practice the seemingly endless verb tenses and conjugations. At school during the break I would try to talk to my students in the courtyard. Quickly I found a group of eleventh graders who were funny and patient with me. One girl spoke perfect English and we talked about our shared love of Grey’s Anatomy. With her as my ally/translator/grammar police the other kids taught me slang and popular songs and told me all the gossip I was missing due to my slow listening skills.
In the first month it felt like all the words were blended together into one long unintelligible string of foreign syllables. Then I started to parse out individual words, even if I didn’t know what they meant. I jumped at the chance to express myself when I finally had the right words to contribute to a conversation. I became an expert in telling new people who I was and what a gringa like me was doing living in their neighborhood.
When my cousin came to visit me in January, 7 months into my yearlong stay, I did almost all the talking and could feel my confidence growing. I was speaking Spanish! No, I didn’t know when and how to appropriately use the subjunctive, and I didn’t have every word I wished I could use, but I was communicating and it felt like a miracle. Now, at the end of my year, I’m dating a guy who doesn’t speak any English at all, I have dreams in Spanish, I catch myself thinking in Spanish, and I’m sometimes even able to crack a joke! A year ago I never would have believed you if you told me I’d reach this point, but here I am. The hard work and practice and headaches from focusing so hard were all worth it.
On being a first-time teacher
The first day walking into a classroom I wasn’t really nervous. The first day all I had to do was introduce myself (in English) and take a tour of the school and meet all my new coworkers. The rest of my first week I mostly observed classes and tried to memorize as many names as I could. I would be teaching 6 groups of 9th, 10th, and 11th graders with my co-teacher in the morning, and 6 more with another co-teacher in the afternoon. With around 30-45 kids in each class, I was easily teaching over 400 students.
When I actually started teaching my own lesson plans, that’s when the nerves set in. What if the material is too easy? Too hard? What if the kids aren’t interested? I struggled to keep the noise level down and to keep the kids in their seats. The Colombian culture of copying and cheating drove me insane. I tried to use the government provided books but found them confusing and the material too advanced. I walked into the classroom everyday for months with my stomach in knots about how that day would turn out.
On the day my field director came to observe my worst behaved 9th grade class my co-teacher, who normally had little or no control over their behavior, scared them all into silence. I had planned my lesson to fit what normally happened in the classroom. Now that they were all silent and barely participating, none of my activities were working. Without the built-in time trying to coax everyone back into their seats, I ran out of material with still another half of the class to go. I felt my heart beating fast and my face turning red as I looked at my field director, knowing she had just watched a disaster.
Good news came disguised as bad news when we found out at mid-service conference that due to local elections we would be changing our contracts from the city government to the national government and most of us would have to change schools. I was heartbroken to leave the students I had made close bonds with. But I resolved to be a brand new teacher at the new school, and it turned out to be exactly the fresh start I needed.
I walked into my second semester confident. I introduced myself (in both Spanish and English) and jumped in on the first week with a creative lesson plan on introducing yourself and spelling your own name using both the English and American Sign Language alphabets. It was a hit and I was well-liked and respected from day one at my new school. I started an English Club where I taught a small group extra grammar points and played fun games. In eighth grade I started regularly teaching songs and used my love of singing to connect with the students. I still struggled with the same problems from my old school, sometimes to a greater extent with classroom management and noise, but I had a greater level of control just because the students was me as more of an authority figure. I wasn’t scared of them or teaching anymore, and that made all the difference.
11th graders with their brand new textbooks. My last day at San Lucas.
On the heat of Cartagena
Fearing the heat was one of my most logical fears. It’s awful. People say that you get used to a hot climate, but that definitely didn’t happen to me. I still sweat every time I leave my house between the hours of 9am and 5pm. Or if I’m in my house and out of range of my fan. Or if I’m walking at a reasonable pace. Or if I’m just sitting still. The heat is everywhere all the time, so I had to learn some coping strategies.
- Light colors and light fabrics. Quite a few of the outfits I brought, especially for teaching, were too heavy. I found that my cotton and linen button downs were my best options for work. Despite the heat, most people still wear jeans and khaki pants, only the teenage girls wore shorts. On my days off or in the evenings I wear mostly dresses and shorts.
- Find the air conditioning. I spent more time in malls this year than I ever have in my life. I hope I never spend this much time in malls again. I came to know the options of every food court, the layout of every store, and the location of every bathroom far too well.
- Shower a lot. And wear lots of deodorant.
Jaime and me at a Junior game in Barranquilla. The stadium is made of concrete and is nicknamed “el horno” or “the oven” by opposing teams.
On living with a host family
The day my field director dropped me off at my host family’s house I was filled with a fear that balled itself up in my throat and made it hard to speak. My host mother Manuela took me on a little tour of the house in rapid Spanish. I understood that this was my new room, I had my own bathroom but the sink didn’t work, I had my own metal cup that was kept in the freezer next to hers. Manuela is unstoppable. She speaks in a distinctive consteño accent and talks quickly and a lot. Even with the bewildered look on my face she kept on, seemingly sure that I’d catch on eventually. She’d tell me a story about the previous volunteer in which I understood about 4 words and only knew it had come to an end when she’d burst out laughing.
We did come to understand each other though. I learned some Spanish and started to understand her stories. She’s an avid newspaper-reader and evening news-watcher so she is usually the first person to tell me when something important happens in the city. We discuss the latest CDC health warning on red meat, or the earthquake in Ecuador, or the winner of the Miss Universe pageant (way to go Steve Harvey!). She and I both disliked one of my co-teachers at school and she’d cover for me when he’d come by the house to chat and say I was sleeping.
Our relationship is built a great deal on food. Some of our first real conversations were about grocery lists and what we would cook that week. She taught me how to make arepas de huevo and patacones and platanitos. She made me the most delicious lunches of arroz con coco, ground beef, fried pork, yuca, tajadas, mango carrot salad, lentils or chicken soup served with a fresh glass of homemade juice. In the evening she sometimes pokes her head into my room and asks if I want a patacon with suero or an empanada, or best of all deditos with cheese. Once she brought home two huge bags of mangos from her hometown a few hours away and we drank sweet mango juice and ate mango biche for breakfast for weeks. I introduced her to microwave popcorn and pancakes and my family’s banana bread recipe. (I’m proud to say that several of the neighbors now call banana bread “Pan de Jackie”)
Manuela and I also share the house with her 21-year-old granddaughter. While we’re close in age (I’m 22) we are far apart in culture and interests. Maria Clara was away in America when I first arrived, but when she came back she cleared up a lot of confusion with her near-perfect English. She is a Pharmaceutical Chemistry student at the University of Cartagena. I went to her school a few times to attend university events and meet her friends and the sight of all that lab equipment and equations on the boards made my head spin. I studied journalism and haven’t been in a math class in 6 years. Maria Clara prefers clothes that are short, glittery, tight, and colorful. I’m more east coast in my fashion sense- modest necklines, dark colors, comfortable and functional. She straightens her dyed-blonde hair everyday and is an expert in applying make-up. I go for the less-is-more approach in make-up most days and gave up on straightening my hair in this heat. Nonetheless, we are friends. When we go out dancing together she introduces me to her friends as her sister and I feel proud. We gossip and help each other through boy troubles, and sometimes she lends me her beauty expertise to help me get ready before I go out at night.
Maria Clara’s carnival outfit for a beauty pageant. Manuela lining our house with candles for the celebration of Christ’s immaculate conception. Manuela laughing
On navigating a new city
First impressions of Cartagena: hot, dirty, trash everywhere, lots of metal gates. In the van from the airport to my host family I was shocked to see the city where I had signed up to live for a whole year. How could I ever get used to this? My host family’s home was at first very foreign-feeling with religious symbols on the walls and a formal sitting room in the front with lace curtains. I woke up the first few mornings disoriented. I walked to the corner store to buy soap and bread, dictionary in hand and fumbling over the strange new money. My neighbor and fellow WorldTeacher Emily taught me which busses were good to use- Bosque and Socorro, but not all the Socorros because there are two types and one of them will bring you to a bad part of town. I was nervous to leave the safety of my new bedroom and the block where both my school and first friend were.
I spent the four years previous attending college in Boston. I loved the freedom of movement I had there. I could use the T, or the busses, or my bike to go just about anywhere I wanted. More than anything I missed the familiarity of knowing every neighborhood and major street and landmark. Now I had no idea how to get on the bus let alone where I was going, plus the added fear of lacking the communication skills to ask for help or directions if I got lost.
My host mother brought me around the city for the first few weeks. When I needed to go to migration to pick up my government ID card, she took me. When I wanted to go to the mall to buy a sim card for my phone, she took me there too. Still, I craved my old independence.
Eventually, with practice, I figured out how to get around. I learned how to wave down a bus and hold on tight so you don’t fall when you get on. I learned how much to pay the spari, and how to yell “parada!” when you want to get off. When I was brave enough, I learned how to hail a motor taxi and avoid stepping off on the right side so the tailpipe wouldn’t burn me. In November, a new more modern bus system was put in effect after 15 years of planning, and I learned how to use that too.
When my sister and little cousin came to visit me in May, I felt like an absolute expert. I knew where each bus went, how to get around the historic center, what time and for how much each type of transportation could get us from point A to point B. I was just as comfortable here as I once was in Boston.
Anna on a moto. You can see the green bus behind her: its route in written across the top of the windshield, the spari is leaning out the door to look out for passengers and collect the bus fare.
On making new friends
Thank goodness for my fellow WorldTeach volunteers. I don’t know what I would have done this year without them. We regularly met for coffee and wandering around the mall and eating street food in the center. It was such a relief to let off steam from the week of teaching and unwind by speaking in English to someone who understood Cartagena and this experience the same way. Autumn and Kristen and Elizabeth and I would eat ice cream in the food court of one of our favorite malls, I would drink beers in the lively Plaza de la Trinidad (before the new laws in January) with the whole crew, or just a few people. I enjoyed talking to the backpackers about their travels and to the locals about changes in the city.
My best ally and supporter though was definitely my neighbor and soon-to-be best friend Emily. Her house was just around the corner from mine and we made it a ritual to sit on her front steps to chat or drink beer. We had a few favorite neighborhood restaurants to go sit and talk about our days. She came to Cartagena the year before me and had extended for an extra six months. She was full of wisdom about the city, the language, communicating with locals, how to get around, students, co-teachers, medicine and doctors, food, just about everything. She influenced my time here so much, and I know I couldn’t possibly have had this full experience without her. One of our best moments together was the day she let me tag along with her and her boyfriend for the Bando on the parade day of las fiestas Novembrinas. When I met the two of them at a grocery store they immediately attacked with cans of espuma, foam that everyone shoots at each other all through the festivities. That set the tone for the rest of the day as we romped around downtown with espuma cans and fistfuls of blue paint powder and participated in the madness of the city-wide party. I’ll never forget that day, and I’ll always be thankful to Emily for taking me under her wing this year.
Me and Autumn in our dorky green vests. Emily walking on the walls of the old city. Emily and her latte.
On appreciating culture
Cartagena loves to party and I threw myself into learning the local scene, especially the popular music called champeta. Champeta was originally a style of dance and music from Africa. Cartagena, a city built by African slaves and now populated by their descendants, is greatly influenced by that culture. Modern champeta developed only in the past few decades, starting as amateur-recorded mix tapes that were copied and passed around the Mercado Bazurto. Now it’s extremely popular on the radio, in discos, and with my students. Like hip-hop in the US, champeta is not only a type of music, but also a lifestyle that includes slang words, fashion, and hairstyles.
I fell in love with Champeta, making a long playlist on Spotify and watching the music videos on YouTube. I tried to learn the dance moves when I went out to discos and my host sister tried to teach me new ones in the living room. I learned the names of the artists and producers, tried to learn the lyrics (they sing so fast!) and pretty soon I could sing along to at least part of every song that came on the radio. When a champeta hit came on, a classic like “El Serrucho” or an new one like “Mi Nueva Vecina” I would freak out like the rest of the Cartageneras and sing along. The music here was my favorite part of the culture, I just couldn’t get enough. At the end of service conference a few weeks ago, we played “Colombian Jeopardy” and I scored 400 points for my team by naming 10 Colombian music artists, 7 out of my 10 were champeta artists.
One of the phrases that came into fashion here from the champeta scene is “se fue así” but pronounced with the costeño accent like “se jue así” that means “so it goes”. I said it once in class out of habit and my students cracked up, calling me a champetua (girl who loves champeta) and from that day on begged me to say it everyday at the start of class, cracking up every time. I’m also guilty of responding to questions with “aja” rather than a real answer, in true costeña fashion.
Two girls from JFK high school dancing in the talent show.