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.

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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


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:

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.

  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.

Kilometers, you say?

There’s this random trend I’ve noticed of friends and acquaintances who graduated college in the last few years. A lot of people my age, regardless of their level of athleticism or activity, have taken on marathon running as a hobby. This is great for them, and I’m not against marathons or anything, I just don’t care that much. I preferred to handle the post-college depression/quarter life crisis stage with backpacks and international flights instead. A lot of people do it for charity, which is cool, but involving a marathon doesn’t make me more likely to donate money. If I like your cause and the way you approach me, I’ll consider donating, regardless of how many miles you’re running or walking or whatever.

Anyway, I generally think running is boring unless there’s a ball to chase or people to tackle. Since I arrived in Tabio, however, I’ve been running as often as possible because the endorphins keep me sane. Also, there’s NOTHING else to do. I actually enjoy running here because the mountains and cow fields are so pretty, but most people think it’s kind of strange, like 90% of my lifestyle…um, everywhere.

Recently I made a vague promise to another teacher that I would run a road race with him in Bogotá in July. As I mentioned, not my steeze, but the man is very convincing and pretty much flattered/coerced me into it. First he says it’s just 10 kilometers, then goes on to tell me it’s actually the Bogotá half marathon, but we’re only going to run 10k. And we’re going to write up our own numbers instead of registering officially. Then the next day he started talking to me about hydration and potassium and what do you know, we’re going to “run the entire half marathon.”

Right. Thirty minute loops around Tabio have in no way prepared me to run 21 kilometers while choking on Bogs’ pollution at 8,000 feet. For now I’m going to half-commit to training, meaning it will not be interfering with my weekends and I will not be venturing out of my house during monsoons just to ensure I get my daily mileage, and we’ll see what happens.

Sh** Colombians Say, Part 3

A series of posts dedicated to the intricacies of cultural Spanish expressions that offer insight on the Colombian experience. 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  found their way into my vocabulary.

Chinos/as means Chinese people. Except in the Bogotá area, where it means “kids.” By now “chino” comes flying out of my mouth without hesitation but it was a confusing day or two before I figured out that no, people here are not outwardly racist against the Chinese (and there’s definitely not an Asian population in Tabio to even make it relevant). They just have weird slang.

Que pena… essentially means “I’m being a huge pain in the ass right now…” or “I’m about to do or say something super inconvenient for you…” or “I just did something obnoxious/rude and I feel bad.”  It’s literally something like “what a pain/shame/misfortune/embarrassment” and used how we say “Excuse me/pardon”, though more frequently, to ease the blow of an inconvenience or imposition.

“Que pena, I’m interrupting your class because…”

“Que pena, profe, I’m late because…”

“Que pena, the internet in all of Tabio isn’t working today…”

It’s never what I want to hear, but like “tranquilo” is an excellent defensive phrase. I’m certainly guilty of conjuring my best “confused and pathetic light-haired foreigner” face and “que pena”-ing my way in or out of situations as needed.

Es que…

THE EXCUSES. Holy Simon Bolivar, they are full of excuses, and they really need to step up their game. I know, it’s probably universal with teaching high school, but I can’t relate because I did my homework. If I spun a tall tale or two in order to buy time or miss a class in college, at least they were credible. Anyway, I can’t figure out if they’re testing me as a foreign/new teacher, or if the excuses really work in other classes?

“I don’t have the text book.”

“Someone took my pencil case.”

“I left my notebook at home.”

“My backpack got wet and ruined the worksheet.”

I can’t even decide if I would rather hear an attempt at a more elaborate excuse, or let them stick with the one-liners.

“Teacher, we couldn’t do the homework yesterday because we were in the soccer tournament.” I laughed out loud at this because they were so sincere, so convinced it was a legitimate reason. Wrong crowd, boys.

“I had my notebook, but ______ borrowed it to copy the work she missed, and I did the homework on a piece of paper but I started to copy it in my notebook and then I left them both at home.” (Yea, me neither.) Overall I’m kind of an asshole when they bring forth the excuses. Just do your work! I did my homework in high school and college, and guess what? I still had fun! Crazy!

Es que. Es que. Es que. Es que literally means “It’s that…,” a way of starting a sentence to explain something. I consistently, Spanglishly affirm that I will not sympathize with the “es ques” and now they’ll start to say it then laugh. It doesn’t mean they do homework more consistently, but I like to think they’re more self-aware.

Beloved GMSB students translating this with Google, I think you already know how I feel about the phrase “es que.”

All that teaching is making me thirsty

In case you were dying of curiosity regarding Colombian beverages, here’s some perspective.

Liquid Delights for all ages

Jugo. Despite our recent history’s global diffusion and cultural integration between North and South America as a result of migration, conquests, Communism hunts and tourism, we gringos are missing out on something huge: juice. Maybe we can blame our seasonal climate and bland imported fruit, but our juices suck. Here, juice is fresh fruit, sugar and water or milk in a blender. So easy and so good! Mora (blackberry) is my usual but there are a ton of flavors and combinations: mango, pineapple, passion fruit, guanabana, guava, lulo, orange, tree tomato, papaya, coco, lime, peach, strawberry and oh so many more I don’t even know about yet.

Gaseosa. Colombia and Latin American countries at large: I love you dearly. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. I will never, however, drink soda like you drink soda. I do drink it more here than I ever do in the U.S. because it’s often the only choice, and it’s so much better without corn syrup – but after a hike, or exercising? I don’t want soda. With lunch or dinner? I rarely want soda. On a hot afternoon? Not soda. I want WATER, Colombia. I know, those crazy foreigners are always swigging the H2O, always asking for it at restaurants and filling our glasses at home when there’s a perfectly good bottle of Colombina or Coca Cola available. While I love me some Quattro, water consumption will be my last U.S. habit to go.Pony Malta is a filthy brown soda that Colombians adore. All thirty-six of us in WorldTeach tried it and all thirty-six of us thought it was vile. I can’t accurately describe the taste because I only got as far as a sniff, but it smelled kind of like syrupy, rotting fig newtons. Colombia, I WILL NEVER EVER EVER LIKE PONY MALTA.
 (Pony Malta serves one purpose: some of my students splashed their shoes in it before playing soccer so they wouldn’t slip on the floor.)

Café. When you hear “Colombia,” your first thought is probably either cocaine or coffee. Let’s talk about the latter. Ironically, we drink the best Colombian coffee in the U.S. because of the high volume of exports (go ahead, jump to conclusions about the cocaine reference too.) Here, coffee is either tinto (black coffee) or café con leche (coffee with milk) that both range from instant to espresso. Hot chocolate and various forms of tea are also widely available and widely delicious.

Agua de Panela. Agua de panela is a hot or cold drink made from cane sugar extract of some sort. I think it’s disgusting in all forms, and always try to establish my revulsion ASAP so I won’t have to drink it to be polite.

21 Plus*

*The suggested legal drinking age in Colombia is 18, though I’ve gotten the impression that a lot of parents let it slide after 15 or 16. They do check IDs at popular bars.

Cervezas. No IPAs here unless it’s a specialty restaurant or brewery. Poker and Aguila are the most common beers in Bogotá, and they get the job done without being anything special. Club Colombia and Redd’s are on the classier end. The chain brewery Bogotá Beer Company has some good brews but I miss American beers.

Aguardiente. I love the word aguardiente, I hate the beverage itself. Different from Ecuadorian liquor by the same name, it’s unforgivably flavored with anise. Unfortunately it’s often the cheapest and most popular alcohol available. People are very likely to buy a bottle (or box) and pass it around a group setting, but I try to avoid it at all costs.

About the boxes – the U.S. really needs to get into liquor sales in cardboard cartons instead of bottles. Boxes don’t shatter when you drop them, they’re easy to store, lightweight, easy to dispose of and you can’t stab someone with a box. For safety’s sake alone, Uncle Sam!

Dia del Idioma/Language Day

A few sights from school on Tuesday, celebrating the Spanish language with a parade and seriously impressive theater and dance presentations. I’ll upload more in the next few days.

A Busqueda for Normalcy

For various reasons, my friends and I have pledged to have a normal weekend. Whatever that is. What’s normal for a handful of 20-something American volunteer English teachers on their two precious days and nights outside the classroom? What’s normal in any sense of the word here?

Teaching English abroad for ten months isn’t vacation. It’s a regular life, taking place in another country. Normalcy in Colombia, in Bogotá, in Tabio – that is, in Colombia, Bogotá and Tabio from my point of view – is in a million ways different and the same as normalcy from my point of view in the U.S. Life is still a constant bombardment of newness and differences but there’s a certain peace of mind in accepting a normal state of being.

Normalcy here is three types of carbs for every meal. It’s carrying hot sauce in my purse and snacking on fruit, bakery goods and ice cream. It’s drinking coffee all day just to fight off the “winter” chill, and bringing an umbrella everywhere. Bogotá rain doesn’t play nice. Learning to read clouds and dress for fifteen-degree differences.

It’s feeling like I’m a total boss at speaking Spanish one minute then getting shot down immediately as someone is wrinkling their nose and staring at me blank-faced. It’s the mental high from stretching my brain every day that I crave and hoard. Normal are personal questions from friends or strangers: “Did you vote for Obama? Do you believe in God? Do you have a boyfriend?”

Normalcy is cut-and-pasting lesson plans into the next day or week because a class was canceled or shortened, 40% homework completion, 50% student comprehension at best and always deep breaths after everything goes wrong. It’s a crying girl in at least one class a day – hopefully just one  – and 16-year old boys acting like any-year old boys in a way that makes me miss my roommates terribly. It’s sweet, clueless seventh graders, unmanageable eighth graders, obstinate ninth graders, mischievous tenth graders and indifferent eleventh graders, all maybe learning something? Maybe not?

Normalcy is putting on my Big City Face and flagging the BOGOTÁ/PORTAL 80 bus every weekend, road sodas and toothbrush in hand, so I can shake off the Tabio blues and feel young, social and cosmopolitan instead of stationary and alien. It’s gossip, plans, triumphs and complaints over Crepes & Waffles, arepas, coffee or drinks; exploring and acclimatizing; it’s never looking as good as the Colombian girls but having blond hair on our side…thanks, KB and Tasha.

My Tabio normalcy is never using the internet after 8 p.m., writing things down to Google later, paying $.60 USD an hour for painfully slow connections, power outages when I haven’t saved everything I just copied to read when I get home, and Skyping friends and family with strangers over my shoulder. Normal is not having cell phone minutes, answering calls from strange numbers and cheap phones failing to send or receive communication.

It’s laughing at misunderstandings and stifling little or large outrages, trying to maintain cultural mores and morals, running in shorts because it’s warm enough and I don’t care if I look incredibly American while doing so, and trying to fit in and adapt without compromising my identity. Normalcy is getting through each day in a foreign country knowing that it’s exactly what I need to be doing right now and what I want to be doing for a long time.

As for this weekend? Let’s hope for more backpack rum and less Hotel Cosmos, chicas.

Sh** Colombians Say, Part 2

A series of posts dedicated to the intricacies of cultural Spanish expressions that offer insight on the Colombian experience. 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  found their way into my vocabulary.

Ganas is the best word ever and I’ve been in love with it since I first heard it in Spain. There’s really not a direct translation, it’s something along the lines of “enthusiasm,” “drive” or maybe a strong expression of “feel like it.” It’s constructed with the verb tener, so it’s said like “You have to have ganas” or “I do/don’t have ganas to do something.” You can have ganas to win a game, to get a good grade, to go to the movies or eat ice cream. It’s versatile and positive – even if you don’t have ganas to do something, it’s nicer than saying you don’t want to. Let’s face it, you gotta have ganas.


Stereotypes blah blah blah, Latinos are late, cultures in South/Central America are more laid-back and time is a more relaxed concept. In my experience, it’s typically true, and I’m ok with it for the most part. Let’s be serious, I haven’t been on time for a social engagement in years, so clearly I’ve adopted the habit in some ways. Sometimes, though, it’s a struggle.

Ya! “Ya” is an extremely common Spanish word. It’s excellent because it means “now,” “already,” “almost,” “soon,” “yet” and just about every other time expression. It’s terrible for that same reason. If someone inserts “ya” into a phrase, it is absolutely impossible for a non-native speaker to determine the meaning or timeframe indicated. Ya is perfect for operating on loathed Latino time, because saying “ya” doesn’t pin you down to any specific hour. It makes life confusing in all situations, and I absolutely cannot stand it coming from my students’ mouths.

Standing in the hall talking instead of going into my class? “Ya, profe, I’m coming.”

30 minutes into class and they haven’t even cracked their notebooks, let alone started the assignment? “Ya, ya ya! I’m doing it!”

Homework due? “I’ll give it to you ya.

What time do you have to leave for the field trip? “We’re going ya!”

Already? Soon? Now? Later? WHEN??????

Ahora/ahorita Unlike its counterpart above, “ahora” has a literal, fixed meaning. It translates to “now.” It does not mean the same thing that our “now” means. Ahora and its sneaky diminutive ahorita can mean any time from today to…never. It’s one of the hardest words to adjust to culturally, because we don’t take “now” lightly in the northeast USA. I’ve decided, after about 16 months of international field research in various Spanish-speaking countries, that there is no way to ever pin down the concept of right NOW this very second that I’m speaking no questions asked. My students will say they’re doing something “ahorita”, and my response is “NO. NOW.” Classic example of something they can only learn from a native speaker. I always have to slow down my Spanish and pantomime madly when trying to figure out if something is actually “ahora,” the way my inner Nutmegger like things to be ”ahora,” or if it’s the other kind, the way Colombia does “now” (and possibly everyone not within 3 hours of Boston or NYC? THE HORROR.)

Ok we have an assembly…now…but NOW NOW? Right now? Like, I’m teaching two more classes now, or everyone else is already in the auditorium now?

Yet of course, the vagueness is liberating when I can say it myself.