Three weeks ago we were sworn in as official Peace Corps Volunteers by U.S. Ambassador Whitaker! Three months of training went by so fast and I already miss so many of the people I had to say goodbye to.
My little community of Manzanillo is located about 30 minutes north of Cartagena. It is classified as a vereda because it’s small, only about 1,200 people. It’s one of the smallest sites and also pretty different than the typical PC/Colombia site in many aspects. The town is primarily Afro-Colombian, I have heard it was formed from escaped slaves from Cartagena . And while there is a lot of recent development and tourists that come to the beach here, the town remains estrata one (In Colombia, classes are divided into estratas between 1-6 with 6 being the highest). My host family has been great, I live with two parents and a 16 year old sister. They also have an older daughter who has an adorable 6 month old son who is always over so that’s fun.
I’m also super excited that I can finally cook for myself! I still get lunch from my host family during the week which is great because it’s delicious and I don’t have much time during the day to cook. My family probably thinks I’m weird for taking photos of my food but I’m just SO HAPPY. So far I’ve basically been eating chedder cheese, actual pasta and sauce (you don’t want to know what passes for that here), avocados, spicy food, and veggies.
Everyone is very laid back and relaxed which fits my personality very well. It’s also easy to get to know people in a really small town. One of the best things about peace corps is that just hanging out and getting to know people is part of my job, “integration” as we like to call it. So for example, walking down the beach one day led to me meeting Omar, a local who runs a kitesurfing shop that draws a ton of gringos. He said if I teach him English, he will teach me kitesurfing for free!
I’m looking forward to teaching community English classes in Manzanillo and possibly the nearby community of La Boquilla because of people like Omar. English is essential to anyone wanting to work with tourists here or in one of the nearby resorts. Usually, people have to pay a lot of money to take classes in the city. Hopefully improving residents’ English speaking ability will allow them to get better-paying job and have more of a stake in all of the tourist development happening so that they can improve their livelihoods through it, instead of just being shut out.
All English volunteers are spending our first month at site just observing at our schools so that part has been pretty laid back. I’ve just been getting to know the teachers and students and am so excited to start working with them. There is only one school site that is used for primary from 6:30 AM-12 PM and secondary from 12:30-6:30 PM. I plan to spend my time equally between the two sessions and work with nearly every grade from kindergarten to grade 11.
There are so many amazing programs already going on here and it makes me so excited that I can join in and develop something without having to worry if it will be sustainable and keep going after I leave. There is an awesome non-profit, Fundacion Carlos y Sonia Haime, that works in the areas of health, education, and income generation. The staff I’ve met have already been very welcoming and would love if I could work with them on some type of women’s program. Saray, one of the staff members, is around my age and invited me to her church in Cartagena. It was pretty similar to church in the U.S. and I got to hang out with a ton of people my age from Manzanillo afterwards.
Since my site is small, I was surprised to hear there was a public library. Libraries are probably my favorite place on earth besides my bed. And here, it’s usually one of the only public spaces with internet and AC which has just magnified my love for them. Before I got to site, I had thought it would be cool to start a reading club especially since in Colombia kids don’t grow up with a ton of books like most American kids do. Well I was pleased to find out that the library already has a reading/homework club three times a week so I will try to help out with that and try teaching a little English there.
Anyways I’m definitely in the “honeymoon” stage where everything seems magical and perfect but I’m fine with it. Things that are magical: blue crabs, bunnies coming into the house at random, huge mangroves, dirt roads embedded with shells, kids hugging me at all times, deserted beaches, all forms of baby animals (pigs, sheep, kittens) everywhere, puppies. So I’m just trying to live my best mermaid life and appreciate where I am.
That being said, it’s not like everything is absolutely perfect. There are times when I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing or how to go about meeting the right people or whether I’m integrating fast enough. I’m always worrying and overthinking about these things yet trying to let go and have faith that everything will fall into place.