Sh** Colombians Say, Part 5: No words, no problems.

A series of posts dedicated to the intricacies of cultural Spanish expressions. Some may be specific to Latin American Spanish, the Andean region, Colombia, in and around Bogotá, small towns or even the kids at my school. They’ve caught my interest and maybe even found their way into my vocabulary.

Because body language isn’t universal…

Head nod

When beckoning someone to “come here!”, Colombians execute a short, deep head nod. It’s like a quick jerk of chin to chest used by kids and adults alike, with a certain degree of eye contact and sometimes a slow, carefully timed blink. We were actually briefed on this in orientation, but I didn’t really buy it until my kids were nodding at me from across the room. I tried it out tentatively at first and I’m still delighted every time it works. I get a kid’s attention, nod quick and they come to me! It took a while but I’m over my head-nod stage fright and readily pull it with waiters, bartenders and anyone whose attention I need.

 

Nose Wrinkle

When Colombians don’t understand something, they do this little wrinkle-crinkle with their noses. Sometimes it’s super crinkly and sometimes it’s just a quick twitch to indicate “…what?” This is useful yet extremely frustrating. There’s nothing worse than explaining something to one of my students or trying to communicate with someone, and I think we’re really having a breakthrough, totally on the same page, when there goes the face with the nose wrinkle. “Questions? No? Ok, great!…no….oh. Oh. That again. From the top…”

I’ve started doing this involuntarily, even when I’m on the phone or reading something I don’t quite gather. Probably because I’m confused at least 72 times a day.

Anger and/or agression is not an integral part of the nose wrinkle.

 

Lip Pointing

Literally, this is pointing with pursed lips as opposed to using other appendages. Up, down, left, right, near, far – it can all be indicated with one’s lips. We Estado Unidenses might point at something with our chin or head instead of our hands, but we definitely do not use our lips to motion at something to the left or right. I find it to be the least practical and natural gesture, but also the most entertaining to mimic.

Kate Bailey: Amateur Lip-Pointer

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You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone: Weighing Values

Much about Colombia isn’t particularly foreign on the surface. Bogotá, particularly in the north, isn’t too far off from your standard-issue city in the homeland. A lot of the differences between Colombians and Americans are invisible and gradual, things that I’ve noticed over time. I’ve been feeling particularly U.S. AMERICAN lately given the month of July, the Olympics and my school’s English day coming up. It makes me think about things that make me foreign, that I’m not about to change. First example: Young independence.

When I say my age here, most people react with “you’re so young!” which I’m perfectly fine with because it means there’s someone out there not freaking out about my lack of a stable future. Twenty-four is young to them because I’m unmarried, childless and on my own a bajillion miles away from my parents. Twenty-four and married with or without a kid would no longer label me “so young!”

In the states, I’m an adult. Despite coming home for school breaks and summers (and really only because my university was so close to my hometown), you could technically say I moved out when I was eighteen. I was the one making sure I was eating, getting places on time and wearing clean clothes. Colombians don’t value this kind of young independence. They recognize that we have different lifestyles after high school but they don’t exactly understand it.

Young Colombians rarely move out before they get married, except perhaps to work or study in other cities – in which case they’ll probably live with a family member. If there are a handful of young people living in an apartment, it’s likely that they’re cousins, or an aunt or mother lives next door or downstairs. This is common in a lot of Latino cultures. When I try to explain why we move out and shun slightly the phrase “I live with my parents” (obviously less so now that our generation is screwed with jobs and debt)…no one gets it. They get that “it’s different there” in the states, that we do things differently. They don’t get why. “But my parents don’t care if I come home late.” “My friends come over all the time to hang out.” “I have a job, I don’t just sit around all day.” “I don’t have to pay rent and my mom cooks for me!” “My brothers and sisters live at home too.”

Yes, I know. I understand the perks of living at home with the original roomies, from meals to free parking and oil changes, laundry to internet. For a culture that puts less emphasis on independence and privacy, and more on familial ties, it’s hard to explain why we flee our parents’ houses the minute we have the means to pay rent and buy mac and cheese. We just do. We like our space, our independence, our shabby little apartments with empty fridges and mattresses on the floor. We like our roommates and learning how to deal with their quirks. We like to play beer dodge on the dining table, play loud music and let random people sleep on the couch. It lets us figure out how we want to live, what habits we break or let rule and how to fix things (or how to make 3 am calls to the Comcast representative in Wisconsin).

Family here in Colombia is emphatically cohesive in geography. They might not all get along or like one another more than we do in the U.S., but damned if they’re going to be physically distant. A lot of people think it’s strange that I’m here all alone – they ask if my parents are here with me, or I must have Colombian family, right? Uh, no.
It’s frustrating to explain that I don’t need someone constantly helping me, holding my hand, walking me places, making my lunch – I can do it! I have done it! I like doing it! Colombians are ever-eager to help and accommodate, and that’s really great of them, but I swear, I can serve myself breakfast. I really can. And – shockingly – my parents don’t freak out if I don’t call them upon leaving or arriving anywhere I go. International calls are just too expensive.

Haves and Haven’ts

Six months just fly by, ¿no?

Have dones:

  •  Swam in the Caribbean
  • Drank beers on the beach about 500 yards from the Secret Service scandal
  • Learned the names and personalities  (and in some cases handwriting, pet peeves, relationship statuses, favorites…) of 130+ children
  • Climbed a volcano
  • Participated in a silent protest for Colombian education reform
  • Ziplined in a cloud forest
  • Figured out how to navigate at least 4 kinds of transportation in a huge city
  •  Adopted a Creole of English, Colombian Spanish, literal Spanish-English translations and isolated gringa-isms
  • Been a patient at the least-legitimate looking hospital I’ve ever seen
  •  Purchased rum from a backpack, arepas on buses, BonIce from penguins, mango from stands, coffee from truck-shaped carts, beers on a boat and candy from children too young to be hawking on the street alone

Not a penguin, but still BonIce. Vanessa Walker photo.

  • Occasionally wished I still lived with the boys and had a job that I knew how to manage
  • Explored the beautiful colonial city of Cartagena
  •  Lounged on an unbelievable beach outside the oldest Spanish city in South America
  • Seen real cowboys in Casanare
  • Seen the desert in Villa de Leyva
  • Ogled and purchased ceramics in Ráquira
  •  Ridden a cable car up Medellín’s mountains
  • Cruised and climbed in Guatapé
  • Appreciated my nationality and culture
  • Eaten arepas, ajiaco, feijoas, mamoncillos, empanadas, rellena, soup for breakfast, hot chocolate for dinner, postres, coffee, papas criollas, micheladas and juice flavors with no translation

Sometimes I wander through ceramic forests. Photo courtesy of Natalie Southwick, who sometimes takes pictures of me in ceramic forests.

Haven’t dones

  • Given up
  • Been robbed (knock on wood)
  • Paid for many drinks
  • Run out of ideas
  • Gone a day without laughing
  • Heard several of my students say a single word in English
  • Ever been 100% confident in knowing what was going on
  • Ever been 100% confident that the bus I’m on is going where I think it’s going
  •  Exhausted my patience
  • Seen the Amazonas, Guajira, coffee region, Bucaramanga, Pacific coast and so so so many places
  • Lost interest
  • Figured out why English is so stupid
  • Figured out what I’m doing with my life…any ideas?

Sometimes I just feel like this, all the time. Kate Bailey photo.

Not that I’m counting…

Eight 90-minute classes to a weekend in Boyaca. Twelve more until Ecuador and Medellin.

The lack of seasons in Bogotá/Tabio has me bugging out about the passing of time. Having spent 24 years gauging life’s milestones by appropriate New England weather patterns, I don’t understand that it’s now summer at home, and people are drinking seasonal brews near a body of water or on the patio at Main Street. My father is sitting in an Adirondack chair on the deck spying on the neighbors, everyone is wearing sandals and listening to happy, summery country music. Is that really happening? Here, when it’s raining and chilly, people say it’s winter. When it’s warm and sunny, it’s summer. When it’s both simultaneously, it’s Colombia. Although I’m really only fond of the warm parts of seasonal weather, I miss the organization.

Sunny but raining…It’s pouring in this picture of my backyard. I kid you not.

So here we are, June. These recent weeks have been nuts with the end of the second marking period, long weekends and getting ready for my mid-year vacation. We just had our WorldTeach Mid-Service conference, which entailed Bogota, Cali and Medellín volunteers joining forces at a finca/hotel outside the capital to talk about hating/loving everything about our experiences so far. It was nice to be back in the group (the interior half at least), remember how amazing we are and that it’s ok to whine sometimes.

The halfway point of the school year is all kinds of stressful, but while I’m adding up grades and fending off the whiners, I feel a million times more organized and confident than I did at the end of the first marking period. I am still quite possibly doing everything wrong, of course. I thought this might be an appropriate time to publish something I wrote a few months back and finally touched up, so check out the next post if you’re interested in some abstract, 100% Made In Colombia words from the brain behind this blog.

Dia del Profe

Riddle: How many times can one commemorative holiday be observed by a school of 200?

Answer: Thus far, maxing out at three, with intentions of four. Colombia’s Día del Profesor (Teacher’s Day) was officially Tuesday, May 15. Wikipedia tells me it marks John the Baptist’s appointment as patron saint of teachers? Sure.

Tuesday was marked by cheery students, aware that they were missing most of their classes, wishing me a happy day and some bearing gifts. I got candy, cards, notes and even perfume from a seventh grader. At mid-morning the celebrations started with a tae-bo aerobics instructor that the students had invited…naturally. Then the teachers shared a brunch of crepes and fruit salad also collaborated by the students. In the afternoon, everyone gathered in the auditorium for a video tribute to the teaching staff, followed by a mariachi band also organized by the students. It was really fun and I appreciated it at a different level – as someone who has probably never known that Teacher’s Day was a real thing.

Celebration number two was rather anticlimactic. Minuto de Dios, the large corporation that runs my school and some of my friends’, had a routine Saturday meeting for all the teachers in the system. Normally, we play the volunteer card and don’t attend, but there was talk of Teacher’s Day recognition so it seemed like a good time to show our faces. It ended up being church, team-building and trivia with an underwhelming though appreciated lunch.

The third invitation came from Oscar Lozano, one and only Mayor of Tabio. All teachers in Tabio (I think nine schools in total?) were invited to lunch on Friday. Afternoon classes canceled, we were treated to a huge cookout lunch of meat, potatoes, avocado and yucca and an excellent live band playing salsa, merengue and vallenato. Beers were flowing all afternoon but the real fun started when waiters delivered a bottle of aguardiente to each table and the dancing commenced. Have I mentioned that I adore Colombians?

The Parents Association was supposed to have a lunch for us today as their contribution, but it was canceled.

Día del Profesor Official Tally

Celebrations: 3

Anthems sung: National (twice), Cundinamarca (once), Tabio (once)

Live bands: 2

Meals: 3

Snap bracelets from 7th graders: 1

Tae-bo: 1 hour

Attractive gym teachers from other schools: 1

Canceled classes: 5

Cheers (both the drink kind and the voice kind): many

THEY SPELLED MY NAME RIGHT ! ! !

A few weeks ago, my program director called and asked if I would be interested in getting interviewed by El Tiempo, Bogotás most prominent newspaper. But of course! They wanted to do a follow-up on the 36 volunteer teachers who rocked the front page in January, and Kim thought my experience was a good display of what we’re doing here. The article and some badass teaching pictures came out yesterday. I swear, my happy/concerned/enthusiastic faces were not entirely staged. Cool, right?

Article here:

http://www.eltiempo.com/vida-de-hoy/educacion/voluntaria-estadounidense-dicta-clases-de-ingls-en-colombia_11915249-4

And yes, Mom, I translated it. [Commentary in brackets.]

Brighid Carey is a U.S. volunteer who arrived in the country with 35 others to give English classes in public schools and universities.

Everyone was talking about chinos. “The chinos in the school,” “the chinos Bogotanos”. She was confused, but she didn’t say anything. She surely thought that Colombia was full of Chinese people.

“For me, chinos are the people from China,” says Brighid Carey, a 24-year old born in Connecticut, with a laugh. Although she speaks and understands Spanish very well, it’s easy to realize that she isn’t from here. [OH, REALLY?] She has light skin, big, green eyes, blond hair and a soft, caring voice, with an accent that gives it away.

[Ok, my accent isn’t THAT bad. And apparently Sergio was too busy staring into my big green eyes to notice that I haven’t been blonde since eighth grade. Journalistic license, much?]

Brighid makes up part of a group of 36 volunteers, between 21 and 65 years old, belonging to an NGO called WorldTeach. For the past four years they’ve been invited here by another NGO, Volunteers Colombia. Currently, they give English classes in different cities, municipalities and islands of Colombia, like Baranquilla, Cartagena, Bogotá, Madrid and Barú, among other locations.

“Of all the things about my experience, I’ve loved getting to know my students best. Colombian ‘chinos’ are so friendly. I laugh and I’m surprised every day,” she says.

It’s not the first time she’s traveling. She had the opportunity to live in Ecuador and Guatemala [and Spain, but who’s counting.] Her parents support her in everything she does and are used to her trips [aren’t ya?]. With her friends and the rest of her family, things are different.

“When I told them I had decided to come to Colombia, everyone asked why, if it was dangerous,” Brighid remarks. “And although you hear that it’s a violent place full of drugs, I knew there was more to it.”

In Tabio, she lives with a married couple. “They have four kids and a lot of grandchildren, so there’s always a lot of people. They’re all very nice. Of course, sometimes there are difficulties because of cultural differences.”

She teaches classes at the Gimnasio Moderno Santa Barbara to students from seventh to eleventh grade, and one hour a week with the younger ones.

Despite the fact that Brighid speaks and understands Spanish, she told all the professors to tell the students that she only spoke English. [Actually, my principal did] As it’s a small school, after a few months [days] they all realized she spoke Spanish, but at the beginning the method worked.

“When you study another language, the classes should be in that language. At first it was complicated but now I know they understand me more. There are those that don’t want to, but that’s how kids are,” says Brighid.

Her student Juanita González [handpicked by the principal to say nice things], 13, considers that “classes with her are very fun, she always has us do activities for us to learn and express ourselves in English. She’s really nice.”

She’ll be teaching until November, and although next year she won’t be a volunteer, she does hope to find work, if not in Colombia, then in another country nearby. [Shocking, no?] “I love this country and Latin America. I see myself living here. For now I want to see Villa de Leyva and the Amazon. Everyone tells me that I have to travel and get to know Colombia, and I’m dying to,” says Brighid.

Favorite Things.

It would be easy to sit here and whine about being isolated, teaching a million hours a week, I don’t have internet, the altitude hurts, living here is expensive, 14-year olds suck sometimes, my favorite jeans ripped, in fact half of my clothes are falling apart, I get less vacation than a lot of WT people, I’m super behind on work, I’m not in Guatemala and I’m out of boxed wine. Let’s be serious though, no one wants to hear about that, and I signed up for 14-year olds and ratty clothing a long time ago. Instead, here’s a list of some of my favorite things about my time here in Colombia.

  1. Bus rides to Bogotá.

I spend a lot of my weekends in the big city and sometimes even venture in for a weeknight affair. The bus ride is about an hour depending on traffic, but it’s scenic and relaxing. Sometimes there are attractive bus attendants who take my money and smile at me. I’m usually buzzing off a long week of teaching and Tabio, ready for whatever the big city will throw at us.

  1. Lesson planning.

It’s kind of like writing papers in college. I procrastinate and dread it, whine and stress about it and often have way too much on my plate, but at the end of the day, I really enjoy it. I look at the book for a few ideas, and then do whatever I want, because they’re my classes and I wear the bata (lab coat-looking white smock.) Even if it doesn’t go as planned when I’m actually teaching, I’ve had a lot of fun coming up with some lesson ideas that pertain to the current grammar or vocabulary. I get to be creative, organize things and use my brain, so basically all of my favorite activities in one shot.

  1. Acting a complete fool with my friends in any given setting.

There’s something about experiencing a totally new environment with people from your own country and background that makes for excellent friendships. We know what it’s like to be here, and to be there. We’re spanning two cultures in a frustrating, consuming process, and we have every right to laugh about it and cause a scene in public places just for existing.

  1. Cheap earrings.

One of Tabio’s greatest assets is its handicraft stores. Bad day? New earrings.

  1. NP&

This is a half-human, half-puppet satire show on Sunday evenings on one of the main news channels. I love it because it so openly mocks current events, leaving nothing and no one safe. There are snarky songs and when they portray President Obama the accent is hilariously offensive. It’s been great for my Spanish and general comprehension of Colombia’s take on news and affairs.

http://www.noticiascaracol.com/informativos/noticiero-np-con-los-reencauchados

  1. The national anthem.

It’s catchy, it’s patriotic, it gets stuck in your head with its archaic lyrics and just begs to be sung or hummed at any given moment. Also, it plays on radio and TV stations every day at 6am and pm.

  1. My students.

They are so funny, intelligent, creative, endearing, interesting and sincere. I never saw myself teaching middle/high school, and I definitely never saw myself loving it.