I’m Loved

As most of you probably haven’t realized, I haven’t posted a new blog in quite some time. This is not at all due to me not thinking about posting a blog, I’ve thought about it plenty. The problem has been having something that I deem worthy to post. I’ve had 3 other ideas for a blog post, one of which I actually wrote most of, but I ended up deciding that they just didn’t express the idea or theme I wanted to in the right way. I’ve been searching for an example in which I can really show or demonstrate some part of the Colombian culture. So here’s to hoping this blog post does that:

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I’m cheersing with a fried platano here because, well, this is Colombia!

A fellow YAV, Jake Crowther, suggests music for his readers to listen to as they read through his blog. I’m going to steal his idea. And don’t you worry, it’s electronic music, so it shan’t have words to distract your reading experience 🙂

Now, I understand that plenty of you would probably say that you don’t like electronic music. I would respectfully reply that you probably don’t really know electronic music. The music that pops into your head when you think of “electronic music” is probably some type of hard-core dubstep or electro house, and you’re most likely picturing kids jumping up and down to it at a rave. The electronic music that I’m absolutely obsessed with and utterly love is generally nothing like that, but is much more smooth and slow paced. I truly believe that in every way it’s a form of art. At any rate, I’d ask you to give this music that I have such a passion for a chance before you judge it. I think it accompanies my blog nicely, so give it a listen: Still Linger In My Dreams – Cubicolor

As my incredibly insightful friend and fellow Colombian YAV, Sophia Har, put it in her “lightbulbs” section of a weekly devotional: Soy amada por la gente que conozco acá (I’m loved by the people that I know here). This feeling of being loved by my community here in Carepa, Colombia has never been so strong as it was on my birthday.

On my birthday, April 25, I had an interview with Peace Corps scheduled at 12:30pm, so I knew the entire morning would be spent preparing myself as best I could for my interview. Outside of that, I knew my project would buy me a cake and sing me feliz cumpleaños, but I didn’t expect much else. I prepared myself for it to be a generally normal day, accompanied by an interview and some cake. Of course, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

My project did indeed buy me a cake and sing me happy birthday, and even hooked me up with a new pair of shoes. I enjoyed celebrating with them for a couple hours, until I prepared to leave the project. My friend Sandra had let me know that she wanted to take me out for a surprise. So, upon leaving the project, I immediately walked to meet her where the bus stops in Carepa. From there, we headed for the mall in Apartadó, where I found my surprise. It was basically like a small Chucky Cheese’s packed with all types of fun arcade games and rides that Sandra had decided to treat me to:

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Sandra decided she wasn’t quite ready for the big kid games lol
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NO I’m not too big for this ride!

Oh, and the most important part, they had the typical ticket winning and prize buying system setup. I’ll never be able to hold myself back from being a little kid again when there are tickets and prizes involved. I think the “hunter instinct” inside me gets brought out, and I want to earn myself a worthy prize to bring home. My hunting instincts availed me, and Sandra and I both walked away with a pair of yo-yo’s 😉 AND those beastly yo-yo’s were earned playing one of those basketball arcade games, WHERE I set a new high score for the machine! Can you say booyah?! I mean, setting a new high score on an arcade game is about the best birthday present anyone could ask for.

Anyways, I had a super great time with Sandra, and she treated me to an awesome picada dinner (basically french fries with all kinds of incredible meats, cheese, and sauce mixed together) to finish of the night. We then headed home, to close out what had turned out to be an incredible birthday.

That was until I got home, and my host brother, Carlos, told me there was something on my bed for me.

I walked into my room to find a black trash bag filled with what seemed to be paper. Carlos told me that a ton of people at his school had made birthday cards and posters for me, and had sent them home with Carlos to be given to me. I want to share that at this point, I hadn’t been working in Carlos’ school for at least two weeks, as I had moved to work at another school in Apartadó where they needed my help more. So, most of these kids hadn’t seen me in a couple weeks, they knew I wasn’t working at their school anymore, and they had no type of reminder for when my birthday was… yet, I still received 22 beautifully made cards and posters, that around 60 students had worked together to make:

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I inked my room up with my birthday wishes

 

That filled black trash bag is definitely the best birthday present I’ve ever received.

At this point, I want to take a little bit of time to share my opinion on the differences between a birthday in the United States, as compared to a birthday in Colombia.

In United States culture, we celebrate one’s birthday as the day that they were born. A birthday is a day of celebration in dedication to that day that you were born x number of years ago. Celebrating a birthday in Colombia is not so much a celebration of the day of your birth. Rather, it’s a celebration of the year of life that you have completed, and a toast to another year of life. Getting back to my teaching of random Spanish words, the verb for “to have a birthday” is cumplir, which literally means to fulfill, obtain, or accomplish something. So a more literal translation of saying my birthday is today in Spanish would be I am fulfilling or accomplishing another year.

In United States culture, we often give bought material goods to our loved ones for their birthday to celebrate that special date in their life when they were born. In Colombia, it’s more about giving time and special handmade gifts to show appreciation for the birthday boy/girl, and who they are as a person. Now, this isn’t to say that bought material goods aren’t given on birthdays here, but there isn’t a focus on it, as there is in the U.S. At that, Colombia (or my community at the least) doesn’t have such a focus on material goods in general, like we do in the U.S. Instead, I see them focusing more on enjoying the humans around them in lieu of enjoying some new cool toy or the latest and greatest smartphone. In turning what was originally a multi-paragraphed rant into a simple statement: it’s nice to live without that obsession on material goods all around you :o)

In summary, and in my humble opinion of course, I feel as if birthdays here in Colombia are more of people celebrating another year of your life with you, versus in the U.S. it tends to be more of people helping you to celebrate that special date of yours, by trying to make it as “special” a day as possible. I’m not saying either or is better, but am rather just trying to point out the differences I’ve come to recognize while living over here.

Contrary to our United States culture, I went to bed without any type of birthday party, with only small birthday presents, and without an alcoholic beverage. People didn’t celebrate my birthday with me by having a party, buying me stuff, or giving me drinks… and yet I had one of the best birthdays I had ever had. Why was that?

I think it’s because I got back to the foundation of what a birthday should be: a special time of sharing love. Colombia celebrated with me by showing how loved and dear to them I am. Whether it was through the quality time they spent with me, or through the handmade gifts that they had made with love and care, they made me feel truly loved.

And I’m not saying that having a birthday party, buying someone a present, or inviting them out for drinks isn’t a way to show people love, but I think that love can easily be confused and lost in those methods of trying to share it.

For example, we tend to focus on how our birthday party turns out and what we do at the party, instead of focusing on spending quality time with our loved ones that are there. Those that attend the party tend to focus on how much fun they are having, instead of on celebrating the life of the birthday boy or girl. We tend to focus on how much we like the gifts we receive. Does it fit us? Will we use it? How much did it cost? Instead of the thought, time, and effort someone went through to buy that gift. And above all, we let alcohol deceive us on our birthdays. It’s so easy to confuse having a drink to celebrate, and celebrating by drinking. And when we celebrate by drinking, we lose all sight of what a birthday should be: a time to share the love we have for one another.

Up Close And Personal Pt. 2

… and continued! (From the last blog post). I’m going to give you all a warning: this is a beast of a post, it’s pretty long, and unfortunately, there is also no video in this blog 😦 But it is a super great story that gives some insight into the transformations happening in my life over here in Colombia.

First, some background info to paint the scene for my little story. In the months leading up to this YAV year, I told my parents that I’d return from Colombia a man. No longer a University Student who’s in limbo between tweenhood and adulthood. No longer the boy that I was, worried about how entertaining my life was for me. No longer self-concerned, worried about my personal desires. But a man, that’s both ready and equipped to lay down my life for whatever the will of God may be for me. This story will give a bit of insight into how that man is developing.

So this whole blog post idea came about from a conversation with the good ole’ mama bear. Being the mom that she is, she was asking about ways in which I’ve noticed growth in myself since I arrived in Colombia almost 5 months ago. As I rummaged through my memory for the countless ways in which I’ve noticed room for growth, and growth itself, one story really struck me. I shared it with my mom, and immediately afterwards she said (I think exactly), “You should totally write a blog post about that!” So here I am, writing a blog post about it, getting up close and personal 🙂

Once upon a time, in a land far far away from home, lived me. It was about 4 months ago, and I had recently left the security of my Colombian YAV group to move into my new home of Carepa, Antioquia, Colombia. I was pretty unsure of just about everything in my new life, especially the new language. Everyone around me spoke a language that I hardly understood, and somehow I was expected to form relationships with all of them.

Within all of these new Spanish speakers, I had my one little refuge, David. David spoke a little better English than I did Spanish at the time. So between his broken English and my floundering Spanish, we were able to communicate quite well. Naturally, we became friends quite quickly:

Being the great friend that David was, he would make sure to invite me to as many “outings” as he could. About 4 months ago, he asked me if I wanted to go to a quinseañera.

Heck yes I want to go to a quinseañera!! Not only will I to get to experience a new tradition here in Colombia, but that tradition is a birthday party! I mean it doesn’t get much better than that. Sounds like the makings of an extremely great time, am I right?

I was wrong. Upon arriving to the quinseañera I quickly found out that David didn’t actually know anyone there. Rather, he had been invited to sing a song with his friend Sandra. So given that neither David nor I knew the birthday girl, or anyone else there, we silently seated ourselves off to the side at our own table. This is the only bad picture I have to try and show the layout of the party:

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I want to emphasize that little phrase:“we silently seated ourselves.” Yes, this means we walked up to the party and sat down at a table without saying a word to anyone. Not a happy birthday to the birthday girl, no cómo estás, not even an hola. To make things even more awkward, we arrived super early. When we showed up there was only one other family (probably family) in addition to the birthday girl’s family. I can only imagine what they thought as they watched some random guy walk up with a gringo and seat themselves way off to the side without saying so much as a word. Now, we were “with” Sandra, who knew the family, and that’s probably why we didn’t get asked who the heck we thought we were. Even now, as I sit here writing this, I’m getting a good laugh out of imagining what must have been going through their heads.

So in keeping with our vow of silence to the outside world, we silently watched as the quinseañera slowly filled up with more friends and family, none of whom we knew or said anything to us. Eventually, after about an hour of us sitting there, the party officially started. In keeping with all birthday parties I have ever attended, I expected some type of birthday party activities, which I was fully ready to participate in. Even given our dud of a time building up to the party, I remained completely optimistic, knowing that once the party started there would be some fun to be had.

I was wrong again. Turns out a quinseañera is a line of family members and close friends giving speeches about how the birthday girl has grown, and how great of a person she is today. I’m sure all this is quite touching to hear, given that you know the person it’s about, and of course that you can understand the language being spoken. I knew neither of the two. But of course, being the good Spanish studier that I am, I tell myself I’m going to use this as a learning opportunity to focus and try to pick up as much Spanish as I can.

For those of you who haven’t ever had the experience of trying to focus on a lecture or speech that’s in a language that you only somewhat understand, here’s exactly how that’ll typically go. At first, I’m all ears: I’m going to further my Spanish understanding, woohoo here I go!! In the very beginning, I’m able to just accept that I don’t understand plenty, so I try and focus on what I’m able to pick up immediately, and ignore what I can’t. After about two minutes tops of that, I start getting “stuck” on words that sound like something I know, but I need to think about the word to translate it. Because of these words that I get “stuck” on, I start missing large chunks of the conversation and have to pick it back up 15 seconds down the road. Eventually, during one of these getting “stuck” periods, while I’m thinking about what the conditional conjugation of the verb decir (to say) is, my mind will wander to: “Wow, that girl’s shoes are super flashy. Colombians wear really nice shoes in general. My shoes probably look bumish compared to theirs, I should have brought my other pair I left in the states. I wonder if Nemo (my dog) is still reminded of me by my sent that’s on the shoes I left. I wonder how my sent smells. Can Nemo just smell his own sent all the time? I bet that’s annoying.”

So like that, within 5 minutes tops, I’m lost to Lolla Land in my head until I snap out of it and realize that I should be trying to pay attention to the Spanish. And so the endless struggle will continue.

When we were at probably about the 3rd speaker, about 20 minutes in, I’ve already cycled through the paying attention and being lost in Lolla Land stages a few times, but at this point in the story, I’m in the Lolla Land stage. There I am, thinking about God only knows what, when I’m sharply brought back to reality: “Did I just hear my name?”

After a quick look around the party to see where the noise came from, I notice that the speaker is looking in the direction of our table… and seems to be pointing at me. I knew that there were no tables behind us, as we were at the edge of the party, but there must be someone standing behind me that this lady is pointing at. I pull the classic: look back behind me over both my shoulders. Nope, no one there. Whelp, I have no idea what this lady is pointing at, or what she could possibly want from me, so I’m just not going to do anything.

Once she had noticed that I was refusing to take ownership of the fact that she had pointed at me, she repeated: “Alexander, el misionero de los estados unidos.” (Alexander, the missionary from the United States). Crap, so this lady is definitely talking about me! Gosh dangit, what did I miss?! What does she want? She must just be pointing out that there is a missionary from the US in attendance, give her a little smile and a hello wave.

After my nervous waving of hello, the speaker must have realized that I was totally lost. She then slowly repeated my name again, along with what she had probably originally said. I don’t remember exactly what she said in Spanish, due to the utter shock I was in at the time, but this is what she was asking: “Do you want to say a few words for the birthday girl?”

Are you absolutely kidding me?!! Is this even real right now… Not a single soul here has said a word to me, how do you know my name, much less that I’m a missionary? And why are you asking me to give a speech?! I have not the slightest clue what the birthday girl’s name is, much less anything else about her, and you’re asking me to say something about her, in a language I don’t speak, in front of 100 fluent speakers of that language, at her quinseañera, that she’ll remember for the rest of her life?! This has to be a joke…

In the brief 5 seconds that followed I was so completely shocked and panicked that I didn’t know what to do. Red faced and wide eyed, I quickly turned to David for some kind of help or support, who in turn burst out laughing amidst the complete silence. Even if I had to give this speech in English, there’s still no way I could do that. I have to give her a reply.

I turned back to the speaker and couldn’t even get a word out, all I could do is shake my head no. Thankfully, she took the hint that there was no way I was getting up on that stage to say anything, and continued on with the speech she had written out in-front of her.

A few minutes later, once David had stopped razzing me, once I could no longer hear my heartbeat in my head, and once a new speaker had taken the stage, I asked myself: why would that lady ask a completely random stranger to speak at her niece’s (as I found out later) quinseañera?

Even before the next thought popped into my head, I got a response, a response that wasn’t mine. It was God, and he was speaking to me crystal clear. Instead of trying to remember or explain anything, I’ll show you exactly what I recorded in my YAV notebook (which I carry around with me everywhere) in that very moment:

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My notebook model, Carlos, my host brother

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“Said this year was to become a man. That happens when I realize I can’t be the boy who timidly follows and expects to be led, but (when I) take confidence in myself to be the leader God intends me to be for ALL others around me.”

So here’s my up close and personal: I bold the word confidence because that’s what I’ve lacked. I tend to doubt myself instead of take confidence in myself. I’m afraid of being wrong, afraid of disappointment, afraid of failure, afraid of what people might think of me, and afraid of appearing as something that people won’t like. I’m done with all that now, in my weakness God has made me strong. I’ve started a new chapter over here in Colombia: trusting in myself to be that man God is making me into. Fun little side note here to really pull that all together, the Spanish noun for trust and confidence is actually the same word: confianza.

The woman that asked me to speak at her niece’s quinseañera didn’t know anything about me. She had no idea what I might have said, and nonetheless she trusted me. She thought I was fit to be a part of that small group of people who had the opportunity to say something about her beloved niece, she had confidence in me. Even there, in a foreign community, surrounded by people that I don’t know, with plenty of my elders around, she saw me as a leader.

Meanwhile, my mentality had been to follow David around wherever he went. I had taken the role of being a puppy on a leash, following along wherever I was led. To take the backseat and timidly let others lead is usually easier. It doesn’t require that I put myself out there, and doesn’t require too much effort on my part. I can just follow, instead of setting an example; I can just sit back and watch, instead of taking the initiative; I can just be silent, instead of speaking. And just like that, I can easily shuffle my way through most situations life throws at me.

But that’s not the way God wants me to live. That’s not the way a man lives. That’s not the way I’ll live.

The next time I’m asked to speak at a quinseañera, though I still have no idea what I would say, I’ll have the confidence to get up on that stage to be the leader God has made me.

Up Close And Personal

For starters, sorry for the late blog post. I’ve been without internet for over a month now, so I wasn’t able to update you all with how my holiday season was going/went. At this point, I’m just going to paint a very brief little picture of what Christmas here looked like. There were very limited Christmas lights, and the houses that chose to put up lights put up two strands of them at best. My house did not put up Christmas lights, or any other type of Christmas decorations, inside or out. Yes, that means no Christmas tree as well. There was basically no baking of holiday goodies, besides the natilla (a Colombian holiday sweet) that we made last minute on Christmas Eve. There was no Christmas nativity scenes, no Christmas show watching, no Christmas caroling, no Christmas songs, no Christmas plays, and no Christmas presents. It goes without saying there was no snow here, the weather is still the same as when I arrived, rather hot.

And it’s not like my typical Christmas traditions were replaced with new “Colombian Christmas Traditions” that I could learn and partake in. Instead, life here just trucked along like it were any other plain old time of the year. With the absence of anything and everything that is normally included in my holiday seasons, I must admit it didn’t seem like Christmas to me here, and I didn’t feel “The Christmas Spirit.” Rather, I felt what I’m going to call a figurative “Christmas hole” that needed to be filled.

Finally, in my search for Colombian Christmas Traditions I found one: thankfulness. In turning to this great Christmas tradition I filled my “Christmas hole” with thankfulness and gratitude for all the wonderful graces God has filled my life with.

One blessing that I’m especially grateful for is the opportunity to serve as a missionary and volunteer worker in Colombia for a year. This year wouldn’t have been possible without the amazingly awesome YAV program that I’m serving here with, or without the overwhelming support of so many wonderful people that I’m extremely fortunate to have in my life. So here’s a little shout out video to my great program and all of you:

I tried many times to capture how thankful I am for all of you in that video, and ultimately came up so very short. This experience that you have all provided me with means the world to me (cliche, I know), and will forever change my world going forward in life. So while I can’t tell you all exactly how great I think you are, I can tell you that I’ll continue to pay back all the generosity, support, and love I’ve received, with interest, to all those around me, and all throughout my life.

At about this point in time you may be wondering: where is all the nitty gritty insight into the personal life of Alex Meyer that’s implied with a title like “Up Close And Personal?” Don’t you worry, you shall have it yet! … In my next blog: “Up Close And Personal Pt. 2,” which will debut just a week after this bad boy. I had originally written one behemoth of a post with both parts together (hence the title), but I really wanted to dedicate this to all of you and everything you’ve done for me, without taking away from that by following with a long winded story. That, and I’m getting a kick out of myself knowing that I’ve built up some suspense and then leave you all hanging with a: to be continued…

I Ate A Sweet

So as the title plainly states, I ate my first sweet in a little over a year in a half. For all my friends and family back home, yes that’s right I caved in. For my fellow YAVs and site coordinator (Emily, Sophia, and Sarah) who were with me in Bogotá, Colombia when this life altering event took place, yes I’m seriously writing a blog post about it 🙂 And don’t you all worry, of course I took a video of it:

In the hours after this video was taken I felt beyond terrible. Not because of the sugar (although that did result in a blood sugar crash) but because of the fact I had eaten a “sweet.” All the negative aspects of eating sweets were spinning in (figurative) circles around my head as I lay in bed later that night pondering whether it was a mistake and I should go back to my no sweet eating, with this as a lesson. Or are there indeed some valuable reasons for me to eat sweets.

It’s worth mentioning that a valuable reason is not just to eat good tasting stuff. It’s not hard for me to deny myself some sugary dessert. But what is difficult is to deny the gift of generosity from a Colombian friend who’s trying to make me feel welcome and at home by treating me to something sweet:

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Eating ONLY yogurt with some friends in Bogotá (pre-sweet eating)

Initially, when weighing all the positives and negatives in to eat, or not to eat, sweets, the negatives were the only thing I could see. However, for some reason I felt as if God wanted me to eat sweets again, if even just for this year in Colombia. I know that sounds funny saying God wanted me to eat sweets, and I’m sure most all of you reading this right now wish you would get that same mandate, but for me that was actually something extremely hard to accept. But as I looked back over my past week in Bogota, it was blatantly clear that’s what God had in store.

For starters, upon settling into the apartment where we’d be staying for our 9 day retreat, I told my fellow YAVs I was going to throw in the towel on sweets sometime during the retreat.

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The street we were staying on in Bogotá

Furthermore, I was put in many situations where I had many “positive reasons” to eat sweets (such as accepting a popsicle from a girl at the project, or sharing some deserts with friends after a day of being show around town). But of course, being the stubborn young man I am, for every situation I encountered throughout the week I had an excuse. I convinced myself that I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to go ahead and eat sweets again. And somehow, it was never the “right time,” things needed to be better for me to finally eat the “cave in” sweet.

God just kept pulling at me though, offering new and improved situations. Until finally, it was the 2nd to last night of our retreat, and we were at my favorite chain restaurant here in Colombia, Crepes & Waffles, and I was with everyone from my Colombian YAV group (like I had wanted to be), and they serve some bomb.com ice cream (like I had wanted to eat), and I had made the commitment I was going to cave in, so I did.

Anyway, the video shows and explains the rest from there.

Back on track, as I laid in my bed just hours after eating my first sweet, having realized that God was calling me towards that Banana Split, I wondered: why did God want me to eat that? Was it indeed for a lesson that I shouldn’t be eating sweets and I was becoming weak? Or was there something more?

It was then that the culture here surrounding “sweet eating” popped into my head. Simply put, eating sweets here is part of the culture (in my experience at least). It’s not like the US where you tell your host: no, you wouldn’t like desert because you don’t eat sweets, and they completely understand, and most probably congratulate you on your feat. Instead, here I get hammered with question after question about why I don’t eat sweets, until the conversation ultimately ends with the other person thinking I’m a weirdo and don’t like the taste of sugary delights for some reason. Whereas in the states we view chunky people as unhealthy, numerous times I have heard people here say that it means you’re well fed and healthy if you have some fat on you. Furthermore, people here do not keep sweets around the house. When they eat sweets, it’s either for a special occasion, or it involves going out to buy the dessert to make a little outing of it. As with so many other aspects of this great culture, sweet eating is a time of bonding and sharing (compartiendo for those of you who remember that lesson some blog posts back), and so it is custom to take part in it.

After some journaling that night as I laid in bed distressed about my decision, and having made the above realizations, I came to the following conclusions: Is eating sweets the best for my health? The truth is no, it is not. But is it worth that small sacrifice in health to reap the positive benefits of sweet eating? Yes. And so I realized the message God was sending me with breaking my “no sweet eating”: sacrifice is required in order to adapt and share with another culture (and at that, it doesn’t stop). Sometimes those sacrifices are easier, as they’re for adaptations you’re interested in making, such as learning to speak a new language. But sometimes, that sacrifice is something you hold quite dear. For myself, eating as healthy as possible (aka no sweets) was an aspect of my life that was quite important to me. But making that sacrifice to further adapt to the culture here helps me dive that much deeper into my understanding, and ultimately admiration, for the Colombian Culture.

So yes, I now eat sweets 🙂

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Juice, Juice, And More Juice

So I’m setting into a little routine here now, and when I think of what my routine consists of, there is really one recurring “staple” at all parts of the day: juice. I haven’t taken all that many pictures of juice, because it’s not all that interesting, but here’s the few pictures I have of the hundreds (okay, not actually hundreds, but a lot) of juices I’ve come to love:

And notice what everyone has next to their plates at this church meal:

I figure with this post I’ll give you all a little insight as to how my days here typically go: First, I’ll go workout in the morning at 6:30am with my friend David (the one who speaks pretty decent English). These workouts involve going to this free gym type thing (key word here, free!) at a park where they’ve built machines that use your bodyweight as the weight. That, or we play basketball. After that I’ll have my little morning routine of getting ready (which doesn’t involve juice though it does involve a hot chocolate like beverage). From here I’ll head on over to my work at the project. Given the feedback on how much everyone enjoyed the past video of a tour of my house, I figured I’d spoil you all with another one! It’s simple, but gives a little glimpse of my life. Behold, my walk to work!

Once I arrive at work I have an English class at 9:00am. We usually wrap that up at around 10:00am, and the kids have a little snack that I partake in, which usually includes juice. Next I study Spanish until about 12:00pm at which point we all have lunch together. Guess what we drink with lunch? Juice! Then I’ll spend the next hour and a half or so responding to messages from friends and family, and doing other miscellaneous things I may need to do. From here I’ll have another English class at 2:00pm. Once we are done with that, snack time again! You probably get where this is going by now, yup, we drink juice with it. I’ll then spend some more time studying Spanish until about 5:00pm when I head on home.

Now that I’ve made it to my sweet sweet bed with my sweet personal fan, I typically take at least a brief moment of alone time to read a bit. At the end of my work day I am totally wiped out from Spanish speaking and learning, teaching English, and trying to keep up with the extremely high energy around me all day long. I know, I sound old right? So from here my routine has three possible routes:

  1. I spend about 3-4 more hours reading. For those of you who know what I like to spend my free time on, it has never been reading, I mean like never in my entire life. So in all honesty, I find it pretty funny that I am now an avid reader.

  2. I play Monopoly with Carlos and some of his friends. Monopoly is definitely the best $10,000 pesos (a little over $3.00 USD) I’ve ever spent in my life, and for a couple reasons. First, and obviously, I just love hanging out with Carlos and some kids from the neighborhood playing a boardgame. At the same time, I won’t deny that I love winning in Monopoly after a 4 hour grind of building up what I deem to be superior properties. We’ll leave it at I’m still undefeated 🙂

  3. I go to culto. Culto is basically church service. Some of you at this point may be thinking wait, I thought this was your everyday routine you were sharing, and when I first found out how many cultos I’d be attending I had the same type of reaction. There are 5 cultos a week, each about 2 hours long, and the number of those I go to ranges from about 3-5. So yeah, I’ve been clocking some serious church hours. Here’s a culto we shared with another church in a neighboring town:

Regardless of which of the above three paths my day takes, it will always end with some Spanish reviewing of words/phrases/verb tenses I need to learn and a little private bible study sesh. Oh, and let’s not forget dinner! At this point I’m going to go as far as to not say the beverage I have with dinner, because you should know that by now (hint, it’s in the title of the post). If you’re curious what my nightly Spanish studying looks like, here she blows:

Pictured on the left is essentially my dictionary of everything I’ve learned in Spanish WITH little drawings next to the words (it’s supposed to help you learn better), the middle is a pocket sized Spanish dictionary, and on the right is the notebook I take with me everywhere to jot down new Spanish words I learn from people throughout my day. For those of you wondering what is that pink prettiness that I’m doing all this Spanish studying on, they’re my new bed sheets that I had to buy. Just because I want to show off my new pink rose bed sheets, here’s a picture:

Back on track though, for the first time if you asked me how my Spanish learning was going, I’d say quite well. When we first arrived to Colombia I met an American who had been living here for a year and had arrived in Colombia with pretty basic Spanish. I asked him how long it took until he was feeling pretty decent with his Spanish, and he said at about the two month marker he was feeling pretty solid. I’ve hit that point now and would definitely agree with him. Just what exactly is “pretty solid” is hard to explain. I’m no where near fluent, and there’s still tons I don’t understand. But for the most part I can communicate about most anything I want now, and I would feel comfortable just traveling around alone with no one to help me struggle through it.

So this post has been pretty unexciting and is boring you by now I’d imagine, but I figured you’d want to get an idea of what type of “activities” I have going on in my day to day life. There’s still the “thoughts/ideas/challenges/learning/faith” part of my life that all goes on up in the old cerebro (brain), but we have about 9 more months for me to dive into all of that. However, I’ll give you all a little sneak peak into that aspect of my life with my biggest current challenge here: living simply.

On the YAV website, “simple living” is listed as one of the core tenets of the program. When all of us Young Adult Volunteers learned more about this at orientation, it entailed everything you might imagine comes with simple living: limited budget, turning away from desires and focusing on necessities, no extravagant living, etc. In fact, part of the reason I wanted to do this year was to get away from all the “stuff” we have in our lives. I believe that “stuff” interferes with living how God wants us to live. So anyways, I went into my year all excited about getting to live a very basic life in terms of material goods… and I can confirm that I do indeed love it as much as I thought I would. Really the only material possessions I have that I wouldn’t consider extremely “basic living” is my computer and camera, which I need to document and communicate my time here with all of you wonderful people! Outside of that though, I live extremely simple, as you can see in my last post’s video. So while I enjoy living simply in physical terms, there is another aspect of simple living for me here in Carepa, Colombia, that is much more of a challenge for me. I’m going to call it social simple living. By that I mean living my life simply in terms of the activities and interactions I have (in other words, yes, I don’t have much of a social life).

As most of you probably don’t know, due to safety concerns here, I am not allowed to go anywhere alone (besides my walk to work now, whoop whoop!). So that means I need a friend (basically David) or a family member (which can’t be one of my host siblings because they’ve been deemed too young) to accompany me wherever I go. Given these pretty strict restrictions, I don’t really go anywhere or do anything outside of the places and activities listed in my daily routine above. I want to make sure that I don’t give the impression that I’ve been like imprisoned here, completely stuck to the same routine everyday, because the church and the project do take quite a few vacation days away to neighboring towns, rivers, and the beach. So I do still have some days of new activities in new places (which I am very grateful for), but in terms of my day to day life, it has been a complete 180.

Just to paint a quick picture of my daily life in the states: the exact opposite of simple social living. I could go anywhere and do anything at any time I pleased, and I took full advantage of those freedoms. Looking back on my life in the states, I would say I almost aimed to live the most action packed interesting life possible, and boy did I succeeded with flying colors. So to go from that type of lifestyle, to one where I can’t really go anywhere, where I live rather repetitive days, and where I see basically the same set of people day in and day out, has been extremely difficult for me. I’ve always been very intentional about recognizing and being grateful for how easy and great my life really is, but in all honesty I never realized how great the simple freedom of being able to go where you want when you want to is. I guess this goes back to the saying: “you don’t really know what you have until it’s gone.”

Now then, this might be my biggest challenge here, yes, but you better not believe for a moment I’ve let it get me down. For those of you who know me pretty well, I aim to be as happy a camper as possible:

(Yes, I just really wanted to share that photo, but I’m also about as happy as it gets in it too!)

I think the key to that happiness is enjoying every moment that God grants us in this beautifully wonderful life. And how do we enjoy every possible moment?! By finding the light of God in every situation, no matter how small that light may seem sometimes. For me, this often involves looking for the small and simple graces in my life, whether it’s the kids laughing at me when I mispronounce my Spanish, beating Carlos in Monopoly, or even just a glass of juice 😉

My New Home

As the title suggests, I am now settling into my new home. Since compartiendo (iendo = ing in Spanish, plus compartir = sharing) with the displaced community a few weeks ago, I finished up my last bit of orientation with my Colombian YAV group (sad face), and have now moved into my new home here in Carepa! Here are some pictures that are on the outskirts of the town so you can get a feel for where I’m living:

Look’s pretty pretty right?! I’m staying in the town of Carepa though, not on the outskirts, so it is an actual town, though small in size. There is one pretty large store here called Exito, which I’ve yet to be inside but from what I’ve been told it’s a little bit like a Colombian version of a smaller Walmart. So yeah, I’m not like totally out in no man’s land, but for example there is only one school, one gas station, and I’d venture to say the residents of Carepa have never seen an American before.

I’m going to go on a quick side rant about the word American. The America’s are quite large in fact, reaching from Canada all the way down to the tip of Chile, and including everything in between. Therefore, everyone who lives within the Americas is in fact an American, but the United States has adopted this word to mean one of their citizens. Yes, I used it, largely because I wanted to bring this topic up, and because a United Statesian is not a word, plus it sounds funny. Nonetheless, I’ve become much more sensitive to the use of this word and avoid it at all costs, just some food for thought.

I suppose my new host family would be a good starting point for my new life here huh? Well, I actually live with the the pastor’s family, which I must admit feels a little bit like living with royalty. The pastor, my new papa, is Apolinar, my mom is Danilsa, my sister, Ledis, is 17, my other sister, Mileydis, is 15, and finally we have my brother, Carlos, who’s 13. If you’re anything like my actual mother your very next question would be: “do they speak any English,” and the answer is no, they do not. Due to this language barrier, we communicate in my secret language of “smiles”. For example, in the afternoon when I come home from work and see them, we make eye contact, I give them a big smile, and they give me a smile in return. I’m pretty sure they’ve figured out that smile stands for: “I’m happy to be here, thank you for having me, I’d like to have a really meaning conversation with you, but I can’t”.

None of this is to say that my Spanish has not been coming along pretty well, if I might say so myself. However, they have a different accent here which is much more difficult for me to understand, and I feel like they speak faster than what I’ve experienced in other parts of the country. This has resulted in me saying no entiendo (I don’t understand) many a time, and ultimately has led to them thinking I actually speak less Spanish than I really do (I know, I didn’t think it could happen either). Needless to say, the conversations we have in Spanish are about very basic “small talk items,” and we don’t even have very many of those. So in all honesty, the whole experience to date has left me quite frustrated about not being able to build the relationships I envisioned myself forming with my host family.

Oh, and I forgot to mention, the pastor, my host father, probably the one who made the decision to take me in, and from what I can tell from the one visit I had with him, the talkative initiative one of the family, is out of town in Barranquilla finishing up his theology degree until November. Even though he’s out of town, he still makes an effort to communicate with me and check up on how I’m doing here at the house, which as you can imagine for a person in my shoes, means the world to me.

Anyways, moving onto the physical house itself. Thankfully for you, this time I’m not going to bore you with large walls of text, but instead I shot a fancy little video of my new pad:

(You need to watch that video or these next few paragraphs won’t make all that much sense. Yes, sorry, I’m forcing you to.) I thought I’d share a couple interesting adaptations I’ve had to make in my daily routine. First off, I’ve had to get very used to bugs. Long story short, things here aren’t airtight sealed to the outdoors like in the states. As you may have seen in the video, my window is not in fact a window at all, nor does it have a screen, but rather it’s just an opening to the outdoors. I have at least 3 spiders on my bedroom ceiling that I’ve allowed to become permanent residents because they help by eating other bugs that stroll on into my room. It is very common for their to be ants on the table, as well as any and everywhere in the kitchen. Believe it or not, I’ve actually become decently used to this (although I’m not all the way there yet). It’s just a more natural way of living that the people of Colombia have adapted to.

The next three items I’ll kind of lump into one, because they all deal with limited running water. Originally, I thought there was no running water in the house, but I recently found out the kitchen sink faucet does in fact work (I guess I just didn’t know how to use it). There is, however, no running water attached to the toilet or showering area shown in the video. This means in order to flush the toilet, I have to go grab a bucket of water from the pool/well type thing shown in the video, and dump it into the toilet to make it flush (my first time doing this I was utterly amazed that actually made the toilet flush). My showers are a bit more interesting without running water. I have to throw water over myself using the bowl pictured in that massive bucket in the video. I must admit, it does make washing the soap off my body a bit harder, and this is the only point in the day when I’m cold, and I mean shockingly cold. While I don’t remember the exact figures for the water used when flushing a toilet or taking a shower, I am certain that both of these methods save tons of water. I went from watching water poor endlessly down my shower drain, to using only 10-15 bowls of water to bathe myself. So if you’re seriously wanting to make a difference in your consumption of an ever shrinking resource, here are two great options!

Finally, the adaptation for which I’m most proud of, is being able to hand wash clothes (well, really only my underwear, but still). I had to have my host mom teach me how for my first time, and it’s really decently simple. It’s a somewhat freeing thought knowing that I’ve broken that attachment to washing machines. Whether I don’t have the money for a washing machine, feel like living in the wilderness for an extended period of time, or face a zombie apocalypse, I’ll always be able to clean my clothes.

On to the last part of my new life here: my work. I’m working at an after school program for kids that have issues at home. For the past week and a half I have spent most of my time at the project just hanging out talking with the kids, playing futbol with them (really more of them teaching me), and researching how to best teach them English. Here’s a couple of the various encounters I’ve captured with them:

As a quick side note here, you may notice in a couple of the photos that I appear to be swarmed, and I am indeed swarmed, it’s not just for the pictures. This is actually a fairly frequent occurrence for me now. I could really be anywhere, doing anything, and next thing you know, it will go like this: at first a few kids will approach me and start talking to me, starting with the typical where am I from. From here, other nearby kids will see that a conversation has been initiated the the guy from los estados unidos (The United States), therefore giving them the opportunity to jump right into the discussion as well. Within under a minute, this compounding effect will have gathered all the children within viewing distance into a swarm around me, all wanting to ask me where I’m from, what my name is, and how to say their name in English. My mom joked with me that kids will want to touch my hair, and I’m sure she was pleased to find out her prediction was correct. It won’t typically happen until we are pretty well along in the conversation and one of the braver kids finally decides to attempt it. But then, like with initiating the conversation, once one kid does it, everyone does it. Yes, I do love it 🙂

Getting back on track here though, not only will I be teaching the kids English, but also all the staff who works at the program, and my host family would like to learn as well. I quickly learned that speaking English and teaching it is two entirely different things. So after a week and a half of preparation time, learning how I was going to teach a language that I only knew how to speak, I was all ready with my first couple lesson plans (I feel like I sound old just saying that for some reason, I have lesson plans). I had my first class on Monday of this week, the 28th, and boy was it difficult. I have a new found respect for teachers everywhere because it is so incredibly hard to control that massive herd of what seems to be pure energy. They never want to be quite, and then because they are distracted doing other things they miss what I just taught them, and don’t know the proper response to: “what is your name,” and I have to go through and do it all over again. Needless to say, by the end of each of my hour sessions I am not only drenched in sweat, but exhausted. Here are some of those future English speakers:

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I have so much more that I want to share about my thoughts and feelings on work, home life, and how God has been playing a roll in all of that, but this blog post is already incredibly massive, and I’ll dare to say my biggest yet (and that’s really saying something). I figure I’ll save my more in depth analysis for my next post, and just give the broad overview with this bad boy. I need to include one last thing about my work though, and that’s how incredible the people I work with are. While my relationship with my host family isn’t fitting my expectations, my work relationships are exceeding those expectations. Everyone at work from the director, to the cooks, to the tutors, are all so incredibly kind and inclusive with me. By inclusive I mean that they make sure I am included in activities and conversations by going out of their way. From explaining what the conversations they’ve been having are about, to asking me questions that I can answer to get involved with the discussions, to assigning me a job I can do to feel meaningful that doesn’t require fluent Spanish speaking, I really feel like I belong. I am so incredibly grateful that God has put these people in my life, and he knew they’d be exactly the community I’d need. With that being said, we have already had quite the adventures together as well. From making tamales to raise money:

To a day away at the beach:

To a beautiful river trip:

This now brings us to the end of this monstrous post. Thanks for taking what was probably a reasonably large chunk of your day to read this beast, and thank you even more for your prayers. Please keep them coming, I can attest that they are indeed helping 😉

Love,

Me

Eating Off Banana Leaves

I decided to post again in such a short period of time because of a very important event that happened just earlier today. While I want to share tons of other things have happened in the past week, I feel the need to dedicate this post solely to today’s events.  Don’t worry, me eating off a banana leaf is not the main topic here, although it did really happen (and I’ll prove it later).

To start at the beginning, we headed off to meet up with some displaced farmers where they are currently living. I have been learning about the displaced people in Colombia a lot over the past 10 days, as well as during my 5 months of preparation for Colombia. I wish I could inform you all on the details of what I’ve been learning, but this would take up more than a blog post in itself. Please reach out to me via facebook or email to discuss the topic in depth (I actually really want you to do this, not just being nice, so please do). In a one sentence description: 10% of Colombia’s population has been displaced due to conflict between the government and guerrilla groups, as well as a recent free trade agreement between Colombia and The United States. The people I visited today aren’t even supposed to be living on their land that they’re on now. Now that you’ve gotten a very general context, back to my story:

We arrived at the displaced farmers plot of land with groceries to make lunch, and big hearts ready to support and learn what we could. I have to admit, the first thing I noticed, being the nature lover I am, is how beautiful the countryside was that we were in:

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I feel the need to point out that you can click on the pictures and they become larger. The little thumbnails that appear in this post are so small you can’t really see anything, so please, click away.

We proceeded to meet and greet everyone that had come to compartir (to share) with us. When I say they came to us, I mean that people from neighboring plots of land walked over to where we were just to share lunch with us. Here are just a few of them:

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From here we were shown around the property we were on, where four families lived. My personal tour guide was a three year old boy who loved that little wheelbarrow he’s sitting in:

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Here’s the kitchen where we ate:

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Here we have some pigs being raised on the property:

And here is the distant front of another house on the property:

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I specifically want to show this distant photo with the white flag in front because of how many of those white flags there were. Literally, they lined every single property that we passed for probably a mile, there were hundreds of them. I never got around to asking why they had white flags everywhere, but my guess is it’s to demonstrate that they are tired and done with any form of conflict. The white flags symbolize a surrender to violence, and a movement towards peace. These people just want a place where they can live and call home. It doesn’t even have to be on their land where they currently reside.

Back to my day’s ventures. Next, we had the privilege (and I mean absolute privilege) to hear most of our hosts stories about how they were displaced. Now keep in mind, my Spanish has improved, but not to the level to understand a fast speaker talking about a subject with many strange nouns and verbs. I was able to get the jist of what they were saying, with Sarah’s help in translating some things that went totally over our heads. However, the most moving part of our conversations was seeing the emotion on their faces. Their faces basically told their story for them. It wasn’t necessarily any expressions they were making, or the crying, but it was as if their entire face painted what they were feeling: pain. You could just see the pain radiate from them as they went back in time to tell their stories. And oh how terrible the stories were: police in swat gear shooting rubber balls, people bringing specifically chainsaws to knock down houses because chainsaws have been used to dismember people who have refused to leave, children telling their parents they don’t want to die yet, young adults having to drop out of college. It was just one story after another, and the entire time I sat there wondering, what can I possibly do.

I’m going to leave you hanging on that thought for a moment as I proceed onwards with my day’s activities. After our long discussions, it was lunch time. Might I mention, that our lunch was cooked on a wooden stove, which I personally have never seen in person before:

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This is the part where I walked into the room where we would be eating lunch and saw that the food was laid out on banana leaves! We had some incredibly tasty soup and rice:

After lunch, I had one of the men (pictured below on the right) approach me and begin talking to me:

At first I wasn’t 100% sure if I understood what he was saying, but it sounded like he wanted to write me a note. As anyone who is struggling to speak a foreign language would do, I used my hands and items I had to verify that I was indeed hearing him correctly. I was. I carry around a notebook with me, so I handed it over to him with my pen.

His note gave me his name, the name of the place where we were, and said we hope you all will return to compartir with us again (compartir is used as a more meaningful “to bond” almost). He made sure I understood everything he had written down, and I did. I was touched, he enjoyed our company so much that he was asking us to return already (which I was told many times by others as well).

But that’s not it… He wanted me to write him a note. At first I started to freak out in my head as I thought what on earth could I write him a note about in Spanish. I asked him what he would like it to be about, and he said just my name. He pulled out a piece of paper he had, which was essentially the back of a receipt, and handed it to me. I wrote him a note with my name, where I would be living in Colombia, and where I was from in los estados unidos (The United States). I handed him the note, and he gleefully looked it over to make sure he understood all of it. It took a couple times saying Phoenix, Arizona for him to get the pronunciation correct, but he got it. He folded up the note, and held onto it as we continued to struggle along in our conversation. He unfolded, looked at the note, and refolded it at least 4 times, as if to make sure it was still there. After our conversation was over, I watched him walk around with that note tightly grasped in his hands as he moved from one conversation to the next, never putting it in his pocket.

I couldn’t believe what had happened. This man truly valued me being there. He had planned out that he wanted a note from me, went and got any sort of paper he could find, and had me write down who I was so that he could always remember this moment.

In all honesty, I probably can’t help this man or these people much at all, and they know that. I’m no lawyer, elite family, or politician. I can’t save them from the horrors they have been experiencing (as much as I’d like to). What I can do is simply be there for them. Let them know that I care, and I’m there to support them. Let them know that there are people in the world who care about what they are going through, and that it isn’t going unnoticed. It’s called ministry through presence. I had learned and heard about it before, but just today I realized that I was actually taking part in it.