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.

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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.


Guatapé’s most defining feature (aside from the lake) is its zócalos. Zócalos are decorative, three-dimensional designs trimming the bottom halves of most of the houses and businesses in town. I found them a little tacky and gimmicky at first until I realized they weren’t just for tourists’ enjoyment. The further we ventured into town, the more the zócalos grew on me and drew me to take pictures of their colorful fronts.

Chapter 6: The Wolfpack on a Boat

We spent two glorious days in the tiny town of Guatapé where we encountered much friendlier people and cleaner bodies of water than Medellín (Río Medellin=WOOF.) Guatapé is a massive, partially man-made lake with dozens of islands. We arrived on a festivo Monday and the malecón or lakefront walkway was crawling with mainly Colombian tourists. There were vendors every few feet successfully tempting us with grilled papas criollas (the most delicious baby potatos on earth) and chorizos, empanadas and arepas, michelada beers, ice cream, obleas and the standard spread of souvenirs (with all these italics I feel like I should probably write a blog about Colombian food.)

The shore was crowded various watercraft for rent, and it was a beautiful, sunny afternoon so we shelled out about 6 USD apiece for a 1.5 hour lake cruise. The four of us didn’t chat much while on board because I think we were all too busy thinking the same exact thing: there is no where on Earth I would rather be right now. And let’s steal that beagle.

We stayed in a beautiful lakeside hostel that Kate’s mom recommended to us after she saw it on House Hunters International. (um, Brig’s mom, where were you on that one?) One morning was dedicated to casually climbing 739 stairs to the top of a strange geological structure called El Peñol, known as The Rock. The ascent was exhausting yet quad-burningly refreshing (if no comparison to Cotopaxi) and well-worth the views at the top.


If only there were a Guatapé closer to Bogotá.

Chapter 5: The Wolfpack Gets Insulted by Paisas

Medellín is the second-largest city in Colombia, former drug cartel hub and home to the late Pablo Escobar (formerly the second most-dangerous city in the world), and a popular location for tourists and expats. Colombians, foreigners, visitors and residents alike called it paradise, their favorite place in the country and world, a Utopian city of absolute loveliness.

Can I confess something rather blasphemous?

I wasn’t totally into Medellín.

The weather is great – sunny and hitting 80 during the day. The above-ground metro transportation is incredible, one of the cleanest, smoothest and most efficient I’ve ever seen. The tourist sites we visited were pretty and well kempt, the city has beautiful views and good restaurants. It seems like a lovely place to live and work….but I didn’t love it.

We heard the people were the friendliest in Colombia, outgoing and helpful, but in our few days there, a lot of the Paisas (Medellín residents) we encountered were kind of rude. Maybe because we were obviously tourists? It seemed like everyone was annoyed by our lack of perfect Spanish/perfect understanding of the singsong Paisa accent and talked down to us. Also, catcalls (from men) and staring (from EVERYONE) were far more overt.

We spent our short time in Paisa country exploring parks and catching up with visiting and resident WorldTeachers. We gained Kate’s boyfriend, Ben, visiting from the U.S. and lost Vanessa back to the states as her placement on the coast fell through.

Medellin. Would I go back? Sure. Would I live there? Probably. Would I recommend it? Absolutely. Would I jump on the bandwagon of every Colombian and tourist ever who OMG LOVES MEDELLÍN WANTS TO MOVE THERE THIS VERY INSTANT BOGOTÁ IS THE WORST?


I’ll let the majority have their stance and maintain my Bogotá loyalty guilt-free.

Pictures are from Botero Park in Medellin.

Sh** Colombians Say, Part 4


means to peel or skin something. Bogotanos and Tabiunos use it to talk about beating something/one up, or something that’s worn out. As in, “Quería cascarlo!” (I wanted to kick the ish out of him!) or “Mis zapatos están cascados”  (my shoes are totally trashed.) Don’t you love a good metaphor?

Hoy en ocho/quince días…

This one is just confusing. When Colombians are talking about something that will happen next week or in two weeks, their words are literally “Today in eight days” or “Today in fifteen days.” It’s not “a week from today,” it’s eight days. Really? As if I didn’t have enough problems counting, we’re adding an extra day to the standard week? Is it an extra weekend day I don’t know about? Or are there really two Tuesdays and that’s why they seem so long?

Today is Wednesday. Today in eight days is next Thursday. Today in eight days in Colombia is next Wednesday. Why? WHYYYYYYY?

Pilas is one of my favorite Spanish words ever. They say it here, in Ecuador, in Guatemala and probably a lot of other places. It literally means “batteries,” but it’s also commonly used to mean a certain type of intelligence. It’s not necessarily the booksmart genius, but someone who’s sharp or on the ball. They might be bright, quick-witted, or have good judgment. There are dozens of uses within this definition, from complimenting someone’s intelligence or reminding a friend not to be an idiot.

I like to say ganas and pilas are an unbeatable combination.

Going Back.

My upcoming vacation is going to mark a full sort of circle for me: the returns.

I’ve had the utmost luck and fortune the past five years in that I’ve lived abroad in three different locations. I spent a 4-month semester in Spain, just under six months in Ecuador and a few months volunteering in Guatemala. Thanks to working multiple jobs, plane ticket deals and coincidental schedules, I’ve so far been able to return to two of my former homes to visit.

A year after I studied abroad in Granada, a few friends and I went to Dublin for spring break to visit my friend Jess, who was there for the semester. I found good ol’ RyanAir-school-bus-with-wings flights for less than 100 USD back to my beloved little Spanish city, and we went. I remember being ecstatic to show my friends everything I adored about Granada: the Alhambra, Café Futbol, sunsets from the mirador, the “chup,” sunny afternoons in Parque García Lorca, Pöe tapas and beautiful first-person history from every angle. I was a bit outraged to find that prices had gone up and the floor had been mopped at our old bar haunt, Perra Gorda. Three days back in Grana were far from enough but I left happy having shared such an important part of my life with some of my best friends.

Less than a year after leaving (read: tearing myself kicking and screaming away from) Santiago Atitlán, I was at an odd junction with jobs, housing and various situations when I found a window of time and a cheap plane ticket back to the lake. Since the night I said my goodbyes in December 2010, I was resolute to visit again, if only to assure the incredible people I met there that I hadn’t and would not forget them, that my three months were more than meaningful and that I would keep my promise to return. I can’t describe how happy I was to be back. I felt like I was floating. I burst into tears the second I saw Volcán San Pedro from the chicken bus where I was smooshed next to two women in huilpas. I wanted to hug everything. I did hug everyone save for the drunks and tuk-tuk stalkers. The sights and smells and sounds were overwhelmingly familiar and unchanged.

Now, I live conveniently close to my second home abroad: Quito. I started looking at tickets from BOG to UIO before I arrived in Colombia, and bought them before spring break, aligning with my Bogota-based professional travel buddies. My study abroad friends – Samantha, Barb, Shmeels, Katie and Jenny – were such a huge part of my Ecuador experience that I’m not sure what to expect without them. What will Quito be like this time around? How can I possibly remember how to play cuarenta by myself? What if I can’t find Guardian Shawarma or I’ve totally forgotten the map of the Mariscal I once had tattooed to my eyelids? If “Calle 8” and “Llamada de Emergencia” aren’t playing in the background at all times, what will be? What if we get pick-pocketed or sick or roofied and Ecuador doesn’t live up to the five months I’ve been talking it up? I’m pretty sure my friends are expecting a city made of alpacas and BonIce where ají flows like wine and local currency is granadillas. Fortunately, that’s EXACTLY what they’re going to find.

Really though, I can’t want to get back to my old stomping grounds, visit some of the most lovely people in the world, buy two of everything in Otavalo, drink Zhumir, relax and adventure in Mindo, fall flat on my face descending city buses, asphyxiate our way to the refugio of Cotopaxi and see how one of my beloved cities has changed or stayed the same. I’m interested to note the differences between Colombia and Ecuador – they’re more subtle than the similarities, especially after two and a half (!!!) years away.

I’ve been focusing so much on Quito that the second half of our trip in Medellin, Colombia, is going to be a delightful surprise. If they successfully get me out of Ecuador, that is.