Eternal Summer of the Sweaty Mind

There’s something strange about living in the land of eternal summer.  First of all, anyone who says that California does not have seasons is sorely mistaken.  The coast of Colombia does NOT have seasons.  California has millions of seasons in comparison.

According to the locals there are seasons though.  Rainy season one and rainy season two.  The first rainy season is in April and lasts about a month or so.  This is the less intense rainy period.  In October and September there is the really rainy season.  That’s when it pours every single day and looks exactly like what you imagine a tropical coast to look like.

It took me about two years but now I can feel the imperceptible changes throughout the year.  December is “chilly” and brings the strong winds.  July is the hottest.  February is the calmest.  Which is probably why they have their week-long Carnaval celebrations during February.  It’s the most stable time.

Despite all of these miniscule changes, I am essentially living in an eternal summer.  This month marks three years of living in Colombia.  And I can’t believe it.  Like I literally cannot grasp that that much time has passed.  You could tell me that I am 22, just graduated college, and have been volunteering for a summer in Colombia before starting grad school in September.  You could tell me that only a few months have passed and I would 100% believe you.

I remember my first dinner in Colombia, in a hotel with 33 other tired, anxious and excited gringos.  The current volunteer sitting next me to looked at me and said, “The days are long but the years are short,” and I was like…yikes.  That sounds like the least pleasant way to spend a few years of my life.

But she was right.  The hot days seem to drag on forever.  You could have been working all morning, sweating, trying to corral students, dealing with problems, chatting with counterparts, calling other Peace Corps Volunteers, cleaning the house, cooking lunch, and then you look at the clock and it’s 10 am.  But I swear to you that the years have passed in the blink of an eye.  Three years of my life.  That’s grad school.  That’s a job.  That’s a relationship.  That’s a few seasons of Game of Thrones.

I’ve heard before that time is a construct.  And that is not a concept that I am mentally able to grasp.  I can’t understand how we could construct something that moves in a seemingly linear fashion.  One hour leads to another leads to a day leads to a week leads to a month leads to a year leads to a lifetime.  It seems like a natural progression.  It’s worked that way my entire life.  But this… I don’t know. This feels different.  This feels unimaginably circular.  It’s something I’m clearly having trouble expressing.  But I feel like I’ve been here for no more than a day… but also I’ve been here my whole life.  When summer never ends that means there’s no fall, no winter, no spring.  That means the natural milestones that I’ve always had no longer direct and control my life.  It might also have something to do with the fact that for the first time in 22 years my calendar is not focused on a school year.  School starts in August.  Christmas break when it gets cold.  Spring break when it starts to get warm enough.  Summer break.  Repeat.

So it’s hard to say if this is new passage of time is due to becoming a real live adult (yikes) or due to my eternal Colombian summer.

Essentially what I’m trying to say is… you’re not allowed to get mad at me for not keeping up my blog every week like I promised.  Because I’m pretty sure I just posted something yesterday.

Mango Cheesecake

I promised I would try to write at least once a week and I’m actually following through!  This time we’re going to do something a little different.

On the Colombia coast we are in my favorite season: mango season.  Loyal fans of the blog have already heard me talk about mangoes A LOT.  You can literally see the boughs of the trees bending toward the earth because they are so laden with fruit.  When you walk through the streets you are guaranteed to see gangs of youngsters crowded underneath the shade of the trees, plotting on how they are going to knock the fruit out of the upper branches, arguing over the merits of a long stick or a well-thrown shoe, scrambling to catch the falling fruit before it splats on the well-packed dirt.

As much as I love mangoes, I can only eat about 30 a day before I start to get tired of them.  So I decided to try some new kitchen experiments.  I present you: Mango Cheesecake!  A couple of notes first.  And I know, no one ever reads the notes on a cooking blog (they just skip to the recipe) but these are important!

Below I have two different versions.  The first one is a version that you bake and then refrigerate.  I am one of the fortunate few in Peace Corps that has an oven.  Most Colombian households on the coast don’t have an oven.  Or if they do it is not used at all, instead becoming an extra Tupperware cupboard.  However I also attached a second version, which is a no-bake cheesecake.  For those of you that are blessed with an oven and can’t decide which one to make, there are a few differences.  The first version was adapted from the TV show The Great British Baking Show, so it is very decadent and rich.  The second version is very light and refreshing.  Both are delicious and I honestly don’t have a favorite.

 Before:

mangoes

After:

mango cheesecake

Mango Cheesecake (bake and refrigerate)

For the crust

1/2 cup packed light brown sugar

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for the pan

1/2 cup flour

1/2 cup old-fashioned rolled oats

1 large egg, beaten, for the egg wash

 

For the filling

About 2/3 cup mango puree (I added almost a cup to make it super mango-y)

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

Zest from a lime

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar

2 1/2 cups mascarpone (I had to substitute this… there was no way I was going to find mascarpone in the pueblo) OR 16 ounces cream cheese, ½ cup sour cream, ¼ cup heavy whipping cream (mix well)

1 cup crème fraiche (also had to substitute this) OR 1 cup sour cream

4 large eggs, plus 4 large egg yolks

 

For the whipped cream (optional)

Buy it at the store or use heavy whipping cream with a little bit of white sugar and vanilla extract and make your own.

If you are in Colombia, you should buy a packet of Chantilly Royal and then add a cup of milk (and be prepared to sweat a lot when you whisk it until it has stiff peaks).  It will either be in the powdered milk section, the baking section, or the gelatin section.  That’s the only way you can make whipped cream here without the cream turning chunky.

 

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

For the crust: Combine the light brown sugar, butter, and flour in a food processor; pulse just until they start to clump. Add the oats and pulse just until incorporated. The mixture should be fairly uniform and cohesive.  If you don’t want to use a food processor, or you’re like me and don’t want to wash out the blender, you can mix with your hands.  Make sure to cube the butter beforehand if you mix with your hands.

Use a little more butter to grease the bottom and sides of an 8-inch springform pan. Press the crust mixture into the base of the pan; bake for 10 minutes or until browned. Brush the crust with the egg wash, then bake for another 5 minutes. Let cool; leave the oven on. If you do not have a springform pan: I used a regular shallow pie pan.  However when I poured the mango mixture in, I had about half leftover.  So I just made another one a few days later. You will have to make the crust again.

For the filling: Reduce the oven temperature to 320 degrees. Wrap the outside of the springform pan in a double layer of aluminum foil (to prevent water from getting in) and place it inside the roasting pan. If you aren’t using a springform you don’t have to wrap anything. Boil a kettle of water.

Combine the mango puree, lime juice, lime zest, granulated sugar, mascarpone, crème fraîche, eggs and egg yolks in the bowl of a stand mixer or handheld electric mixer; beat on medium speed until smooth. Pour the mixture into the springform pan or your regular pan (seated in the roasting pan); you can fill it all the way to the top; it doesn’t rise; transfer the roasting pan to the middle oven rack, then pour in enough boiling water so it comes halfway up the sides of the springform pan. Bake for about 1 1/2 hours or until the cake is set, with a slight wobble in the center. Check the water level during baking; you may need to add more to maintain the same level before the cake is done.

Transfer the springform pan from the water bath to a wire cooling rack; discard the foil and try to blot up any water that might have pooled in the base of the pan. Let the cheesecake cool to room temperature; cover with plastic wrap (if it comes in contact with the surface, that’s okay), then refrigerate for at least a few hours and preferably overnight.

You can then serve with a dollop of whipped cream!  If you want to go wild you can use coconut cream to make your whipped cream and top it with toasted coconut flakes.

 

 

No-Bake Mango Cheesecake
CRUST:

1 cup finely crushed graham crackers

½ cup unsalted butter, melted

½ cup white sugar

 

FILLING

1½ cup cream cheese

1 cup heavy cream (Colombia edit: I use crema de leche)

½ cup mango pulp

½ cup powdered sugar

1 tablespoon gelatin

½ cup hot water

 

 

Directions

Make the crust: Combine the graham crackers, sugar and melted butter. Press this mixture to a loose bottom tin or the dish you are using.  I used a large rectangular pan that I usually use for cheesecake.  Refrigerate it while you make the rest of the cheesecake.

Make the filling: Dissolve gelatin in hot water. Whip heavy cream with two to three tablespoons of sugar until soft-medium peaks form (if you’re making this in Colombia, whip until it thickens).  Set aside.  Add the rest of the powdered sugar to the cream cheese and mix until it becomes smooth. Combine the mango puree and warm gelatin mixture. Add this to the cream cheese mixture. Mix well. Fold in the heavy cream and mix.  Pour this mixture over the crust and return it to the fridge. Refrigerate for about four hours, or until you notice that it has set.

My New Job

Surprise! I’m still alive.  And very embarrassed that it’s been five months since I’ve last posted an entry.  If I thought my life was busy the last two years, I was sorely mistaken.  I’m going to try not to make excuses though.  It’s time for me pick back up where I left off.

 

So, I no longer live in Tubará, but I still live in Colombia.  I live in a town called Fundación.  It is vastly different from Tubará.  Tubará had about 3,000 people.  Fundación has 70,000.  That’s the size of my home town in the states.  That’s a city. That’s not this small little idyllic town on a hill above the sea that I was used to.  It takes me five hours to travel by bus from Tubará to Fundación.  There isn’t an ocean but there is a river, and the only coal train left in Colombia passes by every thirty minutes, bringing the coal from the sierra nevadas to the interior or to the coast for export.  My house is also an office.  I have two computers, internet, a printer, and an extra bed.  This is so that volunteers that live nearby, relatively speaking, can come and use my apartment like a “hub,” so they don’t have to travel all the way to the main office in Barranquilla.

 

For those of you familiar with Peace Corps, you’re probably wondering, “Why is Katrina still in Colombia?  I thought service was only two years long.”  Peace Corps service is only two years.  However, I applied and was accepted to be a Peace Corps Volunteer Leader.  I share that title with another guy from my group, Alex, who also applied to stay.  We’re the only ones still in the country from our original group of 33 volunteers.  The extension is for one year, so we’ll be wrapping up in late November.

 

This new job is vastly different.  I am not longer working in the school as an English teacher, nor working in the community in development projects.  It is now my job, as the experienced and wizened volunteer, to train and support current and incoming volunteers.  This is honestly something that I love doing, and, not to be cocky, it’s something that I’m really good at.  You guys have heard a lot of self-deprecating remarks over the years.  I figure it’s time to throw in some compliments every once in a while.

 

A new group of Practical English for Success Volunteers (English teachers) arrived in January and for the following three months I trained them alongside the office staff.  My big project was called “Resiliency,” a six-session program that works to train volunteers on recognizing the unique difficulties of Peace Corps and how to overcome them.  Focusing on mental health early on is extremely important, and can help volunteers to have better service, both in terms of productivity and wellbeing.  I introduced them to the Cycle of Vulnerability, showing them that the highs and lows of their service are going to follow a predictable rollercoaster of emotion.  At the three-month mark volunteers are generally elated and super productive.  At the one year mark volunteers are generally depressed and frustrated.  Knowing about these ups and downs before they happen can help volunteers move through the tough times.  As any woman can attest, sometimes it’s nice to know why once a month you are irrationally angry and also cry a lot.

 

During training I also work with volunteers on understanding the Colombian culture, the history, and the education system.  It’s important to have the insight of a current volunteer who has already gone through everything that you are about to go through.  As hard as the office tries, they will never truly know what it means to be a volunteer.  They don’t know what it’s like to take a bus for eight hours sitting next to squawking chickens and kids throwing up and music blaring from every speaker.  They don’t know what it’s like to take bucket showers or eat in the dark because the lights have gone out again.  They don’t know what it’s like to try to walk into the classroom of someone who’s been teaching for 40 years and try to get them to reinvent their entire curriculum.  That’s something only we understand.

 

On a daily basis I get phone calls about host family issues, counterpart issues, Spanish issues, safety issues, and anything else you can imagine.  I’m the in-between person.  I’m part of the administration but I also know the reality of Peace Corps service.

 

Finally, the best part of my job is site visits.  I get to visit every volunteer in their town, meet their host family, work with their counterparts, walk the streets of their town, try food from their favorite street vendor, work through any issues they’ve been having, and sit down and have a long talk with the volunteer.  This is my absolute favorite part of the job.  My travel journal is already bulging with all the new places that I get to write down every week.  Over the next month I will be visiting over 25 towns on the coast of Colombia.  What an incredible way to get to know a country I love so much.

 

Again, I’m so sorry for the long hiatus.  I’ve set a goal of updating every single week, even if it’s just something small.

 

That being said, see you next week!

Goodbye Tubará

I don’t know how to say goodbye to my beloved Tubará.  I’ve been sitting here staring at this blinking cursor, thinking about how I can put into words the reason my heart is so heavy today.

Today is my last day living in Tubará.  I’ve been accepted to extend my service for another year, but unfortunately, I will need to move to another town a few hours away. I will go more into that in a later blog entry.

I’ve spent two years in this pueblo, in this casa.  That’s the longest I’ve lived somewhere without packing my life up in boxes for a long time.  It’s not a perfect house.  The sink leaks when I wash the dishes and I have to mop every night.  The walls are littered with scuff marks from overenthusiastic breakdancing, spontaneous play fighting, and vigorous dance parties.  There are paw prints from Lucy chasing giant praying mantises and moths up the wall.  The ceiling is starting to show water leakage marks from the relentless December rains.  My closet smells like humidity and the clothes I never wear in the back smell so badly I’ll probably just throw them away at this point.  My shower door comes off if you don’t open it in exactly the right way.  Some of the false bricks on the front of the house have fallen and the lime green paint is chipped and dirty.

But it’s one of my favorite places in the world.  Sitting on the balcony, drinking coffee in the early evening, a book propped up on my knees, feeling the cool breeze, calling out to people passing by below, Lucy perched on the edge like a gargoyle, the music from the pool hall down the street… that might be my definition of heaven.  Sweating in the kitchen, cooking for my friends while they filter in and out of my house, sometimes perched on the stairs overlooking the kitchen, talking with me or talking amongst themselves or simply sitting in silence, watching me work, sometimes in the living room, playing twister or shouting over the music resonating from their tiny speaker.  Even when they break a glass or the sofa collapses under the combined weight of ten people piled one of top of the other, my little slice of heaven is perfect.

I never thought I would love a place so much.  I never thought spending two years away from my parents, my friends, my house, Trader Joe’s, air conditioning, and English speakers would be so meaningful and beautiful.

I don’t know how to say goodbye.  I want to sneak away in the dead of the night, take my suitcase and board the rickety old bus, sit in the window seat, listen to the vallenato music blaring from the speaker, and cry in the darkness, letting the wind from the cracked window whisk away my tears before they fall from my face as we barrel down the dirt road.

I want Tubará to know that I tried to stay.  I tried so hard.  I want the people to know that it was never my intention to whirl into town like a hurricane, fall in love with every person and every moment and every sun-drenched house and shaded porch, and then disappear as suddenly as a clap of thunder, leaving behind an oppressive rain cloud and memories hanging like heavy mangoes from every tree, bending the branch toward the warm packed earth below.  I didn’t mean to make a home in your hearts and then leave an empty cavern after two years.

I was only supposed to come to this pueblo, teach English, and then go back to my American life, my real life.  But something happened.  And I don’t know when it happened.  But I do know when I realized it.  Someone asked me in class one day, “When do you head home?” And I paused.  And I had to ask, “Do you mean this afternoon or to the United States?”

They say that when you begin to travel, you will never feel complete again.  You will always be longing for your home, or your other home, or your next adventure, or your last adventure.  You will never feel content and you will always wonder if you should be somewhere else.  When I first started contemplating my departure from Tubará, I felt that sentiment.  Deeply.  How will be happy in one place when my heart is completely torn in two? One part is nestled next to the fireplace in my parents’ house, listening to jazz and hearing the soft bustle of the kitchen, wrapped tightly in blankets and love.  The other part is sitting on the edge of a hill, watching the sun melt into the ocean as the day draws to a close and fireflies begin to flit into existence.

Today, though, my heart doesn’t feel split in two.  It feels like it is brimming over, spilling into the lives of every person I touch.  It feels like it cannot contain the love that I feel from every person in my life.  I didn’t become incomplete when I fell in love with Tubará.  I became whole.

Laundry

Laundry day sucks for everyone, right?

High school: Ugh this is pure torture.  My clothes have to make it from my floor to the laundry hamper. Why is life is cruel?? And once in a blue moon I will have to move allllllll those clothes from the washer to the dryer.  And then I might have to fold them??

College: This is the grossest thing ever, I’m using washers that other people put their dirty clothes in.  Why do I need to pay for ten dryer cycles just to get my jeans dry??  Who even uses quarters anymore?  Now it’s snowing outside and the 30 second walk back to my dorm is going to be brutal.

Peace Corps: Ok, doing laundry in the developed world is the easiest thing ever.  This is what laundry day looks like for this Peace Corps Colombia volunteer.

First, you need to do it on a Sunday or Saturday.  Because it takes all day.  I have to drag myself out of bed on one of my few precious days that I should be sleeping in.  As soon as the sun is up, so am I.  I throw all my dirty clothes into a pile, and if I’m very unlucky, my sheets and towels as well.  Normally I can’t wash my towels on the same day as I wash my sheets, because both need substantial time in the sun and I have limited space.  That means that sometimes, if everything is starting to get smelly, both Saturday and Sunday become laundry days.  And why does everything get smelly?  Because I live in 100% humidity 100% of the time, which means mold and that ever so pleasant mold smell are always lurking around the corner.  I’ve been able to keep my clothes in pretty good condition but there have definitely been some days when I’ve arrived to a meeting and suddenly realized that awful smell is coming from me… which is why I’ve now become the kind of person to keep perfume in my purse.

Once I get everything collected I head out back to the sink, checking there are no toads or spiders in my washing buckets.  I separate everything out, making sure that darks and lights are separated.  More importantly though, I separate things into piles of “What Takes Longest To Dry” and what doesn’t.  I wash the bulkier things first: jeans, sheets, towels, my one jacket.  I fill a bucket with water, dump about five or six articles of clothing in (or a single bedsheet or towel), pour in some laundry detergent (the powder, not the liquid kind; I’m not some kind of millionaire), and then vigorously agitate the water/soap/clothing mixture.  I have two buckets so I can get two “loads” going at once.  Then, I leave the clothes in the buckets to soak for a little bit.  I come back, agitate the water again, let them soak, and then pour the bucket out in the sink.  I run water over the clothes and wring them out over and over and over again, until all the soap bubbles are gone.  Then wring them out one last time, trying to get them as dry as possible.  If it is something large, like the sheets or towels, I fling it over the laundry line and twist the ends until all the water pours out.

When I had chikungunya I had extreme pain in my joints, especially my wrists.  Any pressure or movement would send shooting pains through my bones.  So imagine poor Katrina, trying to wring out her jeans or bedsheets, crying, pouring sweat, unable to get anything dry.  I can honestly say it was one of the more painful experiences of my life, more than anything because it was a necessary evil that I knew I had to do and would spend all day dreading.

Once the clothes are more or less dry, I hang them up on the line.  My laundry line is in the shade for some reason, so I put the less bulky clothes like t-shirts and underwear there, because they dry in about an hour.  Jeans, sheets, and towels I bring to the front of the house.  My porch is closed off by white bars, which are in the direct sun from about 7 am to 1 pm.  I fling my sheets over the bars and within an hour or so, they are already dry and crisp.  I have to say, sun-dried clothing smells and feels amazing.  Especially when they come from this sun.  It feels like I’m taking my clothes out of the over.  Nothing is ever wrinkled because they are all drip dried and crisped by the sun.

I don’t enjoy washing my clothes by hand.  It is time-consuming, labor-intensive, and difficult.  And half the time I get distracted and forget I have clothes sitting in water and then at 3 pm I remember and by then it’s too late and nothing will dry and I have to keep everything out on the line overnight and wait until the next day.

I know when I get back into the states I will be very appreciative of any laundry situation I have, whether it be my own machines or if I have to lug my clothes to the nearest laundromat.   But I also think this newfound appreciation won’t last long.  We as humans are, by nature, adaptable.  One day I will forget how hard it was to wash every item of clothing by hand.  One day I won’t remember the sweating and the joint pain and the feeling that the soap would NEVER come out.  And I’ll go back to complaining about moving things from the washer to the dryer and having to clean out the lint trap.

An Outsider’s Inside View

Tomorrow, October 2nd, 2016, the citizens of Colombia will be heading to the polls to decide if they are going to vote “SI” or “NO” on the peace accord signed back in August.  The Colombian government, under President Juan Manuel Santos, has been in peace negotiations with Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas in an attempt to end the 52-year-long conflict that has been ravaging Colombia for five decades.

220,000 lives lost; more than 80% were civilians

359 people were killed by landmines in 2013 alone

78 human rights defenders were assassinated in 2013

1,982 massacres

5.7 million internally displaced Colombians

25,000 people disappeared

27,000 kidnappings

Countless victims of sexual assault

These are the numbers of the conflict.  These are the numbers that have defined Colombia for so long.  And tomorrow the people of Colombia will go to the polls and they will decide, “Is this deal the best way to truly achieve peace?”

There is heavy criticism of this peace accord.  But before I get into that I need to say something.

I am an outsider.  I have no right to say what is right and what is wrong for the people of Colombia.  My degree in International Relations with a concentration in Latin American studies does not mean I understand.  The fact that I read The New York Times does not mean I have a grasp on the toll of this conflict.  Even my two years of living immersed in Colombia does not give me any right to tell the Colombian people what they need to do tomorrow.  I have not had a brother go off to fight and never come back.  My parents were not murdered in front of me as a child.  My kids were not disappeared.  My sister was not sexually abused.  I studied this conflict from research essays in the library stacks and articles read from the comfort of a Starbucks.  Even the last two years talking with people in my village about the effect of the war has definitely given me insight and allowed me to sympathize, but I cannot empathize.  And due to the fact that I am an outsider I acknowledge that my role in this historic moment is to listen and try to understand.  I can say from an analytical point of view this deal should be signed.  Actually, the deal is already signed. It was brought before the United Nations last week and signed there.  The FARC is already disarming and traveling from village to village, pleading with the victims to take the next steps toward peace and asking for forgiveness.  So tomorrow, then the people are asked to vote yes or no, I know that the “yes” vote will just affirm the steps that are already being taken.  I do not know what a “no” vote means, since this country is already taking the steps specified in this accord.

Why is there so much resistance to this deal?  In order to reach a compromise with the FARC, the Colombian government had to make some concessions.  There is a clause stating that if an alleged war criminal fully and without hesitation confesses to the entirety of crimes he committed, he will be allowed to go free and might even have a chance to enter Congress, if he can get elected.  Obviously this has people furious.  There are eight million victims in Colombia.  Eight million people that might see their tormentor one day hold a position of power in Congress.  However, if we look at the reality of the clause, there is actually a very small possibility that this would happen.  Let’s say, for example, that a war criminal confesses in detail to the 230 charges against him.  If ever a moment arises in which a 231st crime is discovered that he did not declare in the trial, he will be immediately put into jail for 20 years.  If the prosecutors even find his evidence lacking, he is looking at five to eight years.  The majority of the war criminals will end up in prison.

For many victims, especially families of the disappeared, what they want is truth and reparations, not vengeful punishment.  This clause will hopefully give some peace to the victims.

The government has been working very hard to change the minds of the Colombian people.  A month ago, when the deal was announced, the majority of the people I talked to were firmly against the peace accord.  However, the government has flooded the radio, TV, newspapers, and billboards with messages of support for the deal.  This propaganda has actually had an effect on the people.  Now, when I talk to Colombians I hear more tentative support, even if it is hesitant.  The most common refrain I hear is, “The past is the past; it’s time for us to move on.”  It’s hard to hear.  Many people do not see this deal as the harbinger of peace and prosperity.  After 52 years, sometimes it’s hard to believe it can truly be over.

Tomorrow will be a significant moment in the lives of the Colombian people, whether the vote is si or no.  I hope that this deal will bring true peace to Colombia, so that this incredible country can live up to its potential and show to the rest of the world what the Colombians, and I, already know: this beautiful and vibrant country has so much to offer, if you would only give it a chance.

img_1079

Vote “yes” and stop this war already

 

Sidewalks

I once read an article that said the thing that makes America great is its postal service, which is actually NOT the first thing that would have come to my mind, surprisingly enough.  Normally we think of things like liberty, freedom of speech, fast food drive-thru windows open at 2 am, and football.  But the editorial said that the ability to send and receive mail and packages with relative confidence that it would arrive, unopened and undamaged, is almost mind-blowingly amazing.

Living in Colombia for two years has actually given me a different perspective.   What makes America truly great is its SIDEWALKS.  In the small village that I live in, sidewalks are not important at all.  You can walk down the street and only have to dodge the occasional motorcycle and bus roaring through town.  But in the major cities, the sidewalk situation is a DISASTER.  Barranquilla, the main city closest to me, has a population of 1.1 million people and I swear to God it does not have a single functioning sidewalk.

I’m not even sure I’m able to accurately explain what a travesty this is.  It’s one of those things you truly have to experience to understand just how annoying the whole thing is.  Every week when I go to the office, I get off the bus and walk 45 minutes through a “good” part of Barranquilla instead of taking a $2 taxi.  I’ve been told the savings are totally worth it.  About ¼ of the walk does not have sidewalks.  That means you get to walk in the street next to the four lane of cars trying to smoosh themselves into the two actual lanes, all the while dodging motorcycles, buses, bikers, and donkey-drawn carts.  Also make sure you duck to avoid any hanging electrical wires.  You never know if they are live.  In the parts that do have sidewalks it’s almost worse.  Trees have ripped up so many concrete slabs that you feel like you are on a very not-fun roller coaster.  There is no uniformity, so your walking time triples as you weave back and forth on the mismatched paths.  And, there is no law or obligation saying you have to keep the sidewalk clear.  So there are ALWAYS cars and motorcycles blocking your path, jutting out from the driveway meant to fit one car and actually housing 700.  Constantly wedging yourself between the cars and trying not to touch the hot metal that’s been sitting in the Caribbean sun for five hours is like the least-fun version of “the floor is lava.”  Sometimes I give up on the sidewalks and try to walk in the street, but that brings me back to the whole cars/bikes/motos/donkey situation.  And if it rains?  Don’t even think about it.  The streets turn into arroyos, literally floods, that can carry whole buses away.  This phenomenon happens because the streets have no sewer system and city planning was not the number one priority of Barranquilla.

Colombia has not had the political stability to be able focus on infrastructure.  They don’t have the political capital to waste on making sure cars aren’t parked in front of sidewalks.  Colombia is in a process of reassessing what their government is possible of, after 52 years of just trying not to give in to the demands of the FARC.

Be that as it may, I prefer to walk around my beautiful village Tubara, where everybody knows my name and hands me free empanadas and bolis (a fruit popsicle you eat out of a plastic bag) and the streets are wide and recently paved and the only thing you have to worry about is one of the thousands of mango trees dropping a ripe mango onto your head.

Arepas!

I recently learned how to make arepas (uh-REY-puh) using corn flour and now I am going to share the “recipe” and, more importantly, the process, with you!

Arepas are like the pancakes of Colombia, and maybe South America in general.  They can be made with either wheat flour or corn flour, but are more traditionally made with corn flour.  I learned a few months ago how to make corn flour but that is a VERY labor intensive process, so I usually cheat and buy corn flour for a dollar at the local tienda.

Now when I said I was going to tell you the “recipe,” that term in itself is very lose.  The recipe is:

Pour corn flour in bowl.

Add a little bit of salt.

Add a little bit of sugar.

Add water until it becomes the desired consistency.

Fry.

The end.

The desired consistency is the part that is hardest for me.  It should almost be like play-dough.  It should stick together and form a perfect ball, it shouldn’t stick to your fingers, and when you press the ball down, the edges shouldn’t crack.

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This is my friend, Richards, who helped teach me how to make arepas.  The ball of dough in his hand is roughly the size you want the arepa to be.

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Then you lay down plastic wrap, put the dough on top, and fold the plastic back over the top, leaving room at the fold for the arepa to spread out.  You then use a cutting board or flat object to flatten the ball inside the plastic wrap.  The edges should not crack.  If they crack, put the dough back and add a little more water.

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Before and after picture of the arepa.  Do you see the small hole in the flat arepa?  That needs to be in ever single arepa.  Close to the edge but not so close that the dough breaks off. This is tradition.  The hole needs to be there so when you dump it in a vat of frying oil, you can fish the arepa out with a hook.  Even though I had neither the vat of oil nor the hook, it was still necessary to make the hole.

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My boys working hard in a blisteringly hot kitchen to teach me this staple of Colombian food. Left to right: Richards, Samir, and Junior.

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Junior flipping the arepa in the non-tradition way… with a spatula.

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Midway through the cooking process.

 

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The finished product!  It is put on paper towels or napkins to absorb the grease and then eaten plain.  You can add butter, or honey, or any number of things (hot sauce for me, not for the Colombians).

This is the process for a fried arepa, but you can also grill them with grated cheese and they are incredible.

Ultimately, any way that you serve these delicious little pancakes will result in the manifestation of this Colombian proverb:

“Barriga llena, corazon conteno”

“Full stomach, happy heart”

Buen provecho!!

Things I’ve Learned

Walk slowly in the sun.  I’ve always been a fast walker even by US standards, which means I look like Usain Bolt when I walk to the tienda here on the Colombian coast.  I assumed, incorrectly, that it would be best to spend as little time as possible in the sun and get to your destination as soon as possible.  I would always show up red and sweaty, in comparison to the cool and collected Colombians.  If you walk slowly in the midday heat you can always find shade or a neighbor eager to invite you on the patio for a cool drink.  And then you realize it was never about the destination, it was about the journey.  Hah, no, walking anywhere when the sun is out is pure torture.  But it helps if you walk slowly.

Repellent does nothing.  I’ve had chikungunya and zika despite almost bathing myself in repellent every day.  I’ve watched mosquitos land on my legs seconds after spraying.  Might as well forgo the repellent and smell like a flower instead of a DEET factory.

When the power goes out in the evening you can see the stars better.

When the power goes out in the middle of the day and it is 107 degrees there are no positive spins you can make up.

If someone calls you 14 times it is not an emergency.  Here very few people have phone plans.  Instead, you go to a tienda, tell them how many minutes you want to load on your phone, and hand over the pesos.  They send a text to the company and the minutes, usually five or ten, are loaded onto your phone.  Therefore, your phone isn’t always “charged” with minutes.  So if someone wants to get in contact with you they are not going to call once and leave a voicemail.  They are going to call at least eight times so that you can hear the phone ringing, locate it, and answer.  It’s… considerate?

There is no end to the number of people that want to help you and be part of your life.  It is almost impossible to be isolated in Tubará (and I imagine Colombia in general).  There is always someone that wants to talk to you, to cook with you, to learn from you, and to teach you.

Never leave your electronics plugged in when you leave the house.  There WILL be a thunderstorm and it WILL send dirty energy into your appliances and fry them.  Thankfully this was a lesson learned by another volunteer, not me.

If you drink cold water after working out, you will get sick.  Apparently.

Sun-dried laundry is a million times better than laundry from a dryer.

It is completely normal to call your boyfriend’s mom suegra, or “mother-in-law.”  As a matter of fact, his cousins call you prima (cousin), his sister calls you cuñada (sister-in-law), his aunts call you sobrina (niece).  I’ve stopped blushing anytime someone refers to me like this and now refer to people as my primos or tias.

If someone teaches you a new word always double-check the meaning with someone else before you try to causally use it in conversation.  Because they just might be messing with you.

Not having Daylight Savings Time is the best thing ever.

When you have to collect your own water you realize how little you really need to use.  We are in the middle of a very severe drought right now.  It is so bad that the mayor’s office alternates between cutting the water one day and cutting the electricity the next day (the majority of our electricity is hydropower), for days at a time.  So we have a big tank we fill up in the back yard for the days when there is no water.  I can take a complete shower including washing my hair, with four bowls of water.

Things will work out.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been scrambling at the last minute, panicking because nothing is ready.  And yet, somehow, the people here always manage to make it work.

I might only have seven months left in my service but I know I will carry Tubará in my heart for the rest of my life.

Surprise Party

I get really nervous about inviting people to things.  Having a birthday party stresses me out because I always believe everyone will cancel at the last minute and I’ll have to explain to everyone that I am sitting in my living room alone with a cake and streamers.  Also what if I invite too many people? What if I don’t invite enough people?  Will there be enough food?  What music are these kids listening to these days?? I have no idea why I have this fear.  Nothing like that has ever happened to me.  And normally I love hosting and cooking for people.

Anyway, because of this weird fear I didn’t plan anything for my birthday this year.  I assumed my friends would come over at some point but I didn’t send out invitations or buy balloons.  I worked at the school in the morning.

In the afternoon I put on a really cute dress, grabbed a book, and pretended to read.  Every time someone passed by my window I would look up excitedly, waiting for my friends to come bursting in the door.  I had made friends right?  I thought I did.  After an hour or so, I moved to the kitchen and decided I needed to bake something to get rid of all my nervous energy.  Just in case someone came over or something.  Banana bread is my go-to dessert because there are always bananas, flour, and sugar in the tienda.  I blasted music, whipped up the batter, and stuck it in the oven.  As I was cooking my 13-year-old neighbor came over and said, “Hey did you see Junior? He just walked by the house.”

“Ummmmm was he looking for me? Did he see me?  The front door was open, right?” I asked anxiously, surprised my boyfriend hadn’t stopped in to say something.

“Nah. He said hi and kept on walking.”

All my worst fears were coming true.

 

About 20 minutes later one of my friends finally came over.

“Happy birthday!!” he yelled, quickly followed by, “Do you have a second to talk?”

“Um sure,” I replied.

“Ok let’s go to the park.”

“Actually, my banana bread has about 20 more minutes left in the oven. Can we go afterward?”

He froze.  “Yes.  But can I borrow your phone I have to make a quick call.”

Ok so obviously this all seems suspicious NOW but at the time nothing clicked.  I was a little sad that no one had really come over and I was embarrassed I had dressed up and cooked.

I finished up the bread, set it on top of the stove to cool, and then we headed out.

He took me up to the Lookout Point and we talked for over an hour or so.  Finally, at 8:30 pm he suggested we could head back down to the house.  I was actually pretty happy with my day.  It felt good to get out of the house and walk around and see the stars.

As we got to the front door, I noticed my host mom sitting outside.  She wished me happy birthday and I promised to bring her over some banana bread.

We walked to the front door, I fumbled with the keys, threw open the front door, and nearly died with shock as my friends screamed “SORPRESA!!!!!!!!!!” and threw confetti at me, meaning I swallowed a fair amount of it as my mouth was hanging open in shock.  The whole house was decorated.  Streamers, balloons, confetti, a table laden with a huge cake and other food.  My friends enveloped me in their arms, wishing me happy birthday and telling me how important I was to them.  They sang a song and my boyfriend emerged from behind the crowd with roses and a small gold box in his hands.  Everyone cheered as he presented me with the gifts.  He told me later, “I rode by your house on my bike several times so you would see me and get mad and think I forgot.  It makes the surprise better.”

“Ok I don’t think that’s true at all but I’m willing to overlook it, I guess.”

We danced, we ate cake, we had a food fight that I got to clean up later after everyone left, we sang, and we finished the night with the “hora loca,” or the “crazy hour,” which involves one hour (or 15 minutes in our case) of dancing and jumping up and down and yelling to a mix. You can find it on Youtube if you just search “Hora Loca” I think.  It is a mix of Spanish songs and the Grease soundtrack.  It’s a pretty awesome way to finish a party.

Junior and his brother and sister stayed to help me clean up at the end of the night.  As I scrubbed confetti and cake off the floor and tried to remember who started the food fight so I could scold them later, I couldn’t help but smile and think to myself that I really must be the luckiest girl ever to be surrounded by so many wonderful people.