To those of us with internal calendars based on the four seasons and their transitions, seeing valentines in September is odd. Thankfully, there’s logic behind it. As usual, Colombia takes celebrations one step further with el Mes de Amor y Amistad: Love and Friendship Month. Instead of one day for obligatory dinner dates and highly unseasonal flowers (now most likely imported from Colombia), there’s an entire month dedicated to two of Colombians’ favorite things – universally favorite things, really.

Commercialism obviously jumps on board with special sales and promotions during the month, and so far the most visible tradition is Secret Friends (Amigos Secretos.) It’s Secret Santa – only better because it’s not Christmas! Everyone who wants to “play” finds themselves a group. You pick a name and endulzar the person over the allotted time – literally meaning to give them sweets (dulces) until the end when you give a bigger gift.

The ninth grade class likes to adopt me because I don’t have my own homeroom group, so I played with them last week. I was possibly the only person in the room who legitimately had no idea who anyone else had, and despite having told no one, everyone knew who my Amigo Secreto was. All the kids in the school are so excited about Amigos Secretos, but they are such chismoso (gossipy) little things that I have a feeling it’s just regular Amigos after a day or two.

Aside from Secret Friends, September’s theme is exceptionally appropriate in my life right now. Two of my friends in Bogotá have birthdays a week apart so they celebrated with a chiva last weekend full of 25 of our closest friends in this city. While I’m partial to Quito chivas (and maybe Quito everything), it got the job done.

Something about being a billion miles from home and constant bombardment of equal parts difficulty and amusement really bonds you to the people around you. Also, they’re both from New England so they walk fast and don’t talk to strangers.

At the end of the Love and Friendship Month, I’m fittingly going to see some of my Best Friends in the Entire World when I’m back in the states for Michelle’s wedding, best friends I don’t get to talk to as often as I’d like because of schedules and internetlessness. (Unfortunately I will be far from Connecticut.)

How are you celebrating?

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The Day of the English, and the Pilgrims Hugged the Native Americans.

How do I even begin to describe English Day? I mean, adjectives are easy. Stressful. Chaotic. Loud. Confusing. Educational (?). Red. White. Blue. Cute. Hilarious. Exciting. Messy. Exhausting. Fun. That all describes my average Monday-Friday at school, so what was this English Day that practically sucked out my soul but put me in absolute adrenaline rush Control Freak Organizational Championship of the World status?

Colombians are big on Special Days, especially at school. English Day is common in a lot of schools here, and it’s a specific day set aside to celebrate English education. This year, we (the English department, aka two other teachers and I) decided to be extra ambitious. First, we wanted to organize an inter-scholastic English spelling bee, then have students put on performances in the afternoon with the theme of U.S. holidays. Phewf. The weeks leading up to the Day itself were absolute locura and left me dreading the morning it would all come together – but it did. The spelling bee was impressive and – aside from some on-stage tears by the littlest kids – smooth sailing. My UConn roommate Kasey was in town and some of my WorldTeach friends came too. The afternoon performances were perhaps less than…informative of our holidays, but highly entertaining.

The Run Down:

- 4th and 5th graders prancing around with hand painted Easter eggs….

- 7th graders dancing to Katy Perry (only girls, because they got into a big fight with the boys and kicked them out of the dance the day before)

- My 8th graders playing a Christmas rock ‘n’ roll mash-up (and due to communication errors not singing Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer that they totally mastered with Kasey’s help)

- 11th graders coming out of left field with a New Year’s Eve dance to “New York, New York”

He spells, he sings Sinatra…what can’t this guy do?

- 10th grade boys rocking Cotton Eye Joe (obviously my idea) and Michael Jackson (obviously their idea) versus the girls dancing to Adele – 4th of July, the Yankees vs. the Brits, get it??

- 9th grade leprechauns with an adorable Dropkick Murphys and Britney Spears combination (festive correlation lost somewhere)

- 6th graders dancing to Thriller

- 2nd and 3rd graders…oh my god I will never look at my favorite holiday the same ever again because it will never be as precious as their Thanksgiving performance. It involved a lot of hugging, a poem about turkeys and a special dance performance.

Picture quality is icky because of the terrible auditorium lights (and 16 year old assistants)  but you get the idea.

Now, I breathe again.

And hear someone humming the Chicken Dance tune at least once a day. And join in. That’s what we call cultural diffusion.

(Apologies for repeated pictures, disorder, and overall blog hiatus. Internet problems, always.)

Family Day.

Recently, in the midst of all 7 billion things I had going on the past two weeks, Gimnasio Moderno Santa Barbara dedicated a Sunday to school Family Day. Family Day was part fair, part pageant, part talent show and all fundraising for new computers and technology. There were food sales, intense bingo, raffles, auctions and of course a vallenato band performing. The teachers also performed a typical Colombian dance that had me frustrated to tears during the rehearsals (EVERYONE YELLING LOUDLY IN SPANISH AND NOT EXPLAINING THINGS CLEARLY) but came out pretty well according to the audience.

Despite some debilitating afternoon downpours, Family Day was highly successful for our school. And now, if anyone in Tabio had any doubt about who I am, they know. Sigh.

Hey ya’ll, it’s summer!

I’ve kind of been denying the existence of summer because…I miss it. Convertible cruising, swimming in any available body of water, outdoor concerts, food and drink festivals, redneck adventures in Windham, sandals, dresses, beach picnics with the ShArbitmans, barbecues, WARMTH, baseball and so many outdoor activities just aren’t as easy to find in constantly-October/April Cundinmarca, Colombia.

Bogotá decided that these first two weeks of August are summer, and damned if the city isn’t going to celebrate summer right. August’s weather is markedly different in only one way – more wind. More wind can only mean one thing, right? More kites. Kites are best enjoyed alongside sports, typical food and concerts. Bring on the Festivales de Verano.

The Summer Festival is centered in Simón Bolívar park, a huge expanse in the middle of the city. In addition to kites for sale and flying all over the place, there are motorboats in the park’s pond-lake, sports games and exhibitions like BMX, wheelchair basketball, “swooping” (some kind of sky-diving act), roller hockey and group exercise activities. Oh and did I mention the rugby? There was rugby. Hours of sevens rugby that left me torn between ogling the players and yelling obscenities because really how are you gonna let that guy get by you like that? And I’m sorry when was the last time hugging someone around the shoulders brought him to the ground?

I love summer.

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

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.