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Love Thy Neighbor(hood)

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Smiling chicas, ready for Pre-Carnaval

Week 2 of my life in Colombia came and passed quickly, and with Carnaval less than a month away, I suspect time will fly by in the weeks ahead. After four days of teaching 3rd, 4th and 5th graders how to greet each other and sing the Good Morning song, our Friday classes were shortened for a pre-Carnaval celebration. As several girls shimmed and shook on the auditorium stage, including one crowned as the Reina de Carnaval, loud and spirited music blared; fascinated by the costumes, glitter and chiffon, I never exactly figured out who was the Reina.

I think of all the girls as queens, and I am blessed to be surrounded by happy, curious girls as a volunteer with WorldTeach. Although teaching is challenging and tiring, the rewards – like a day of dancing and laughing with my students – bring balance to the demands and exhaustion.

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Safe enough for… pizza

Inspired by the dancing and celebration at school, my friend Shauna and I went out recently to learn more about our new city.  Along with one other volunteer, we are living in the southern part of Barranquilla, while the rest of our group (Club Quilla) is clustered in the middle-north towards the center of the city. I am incredibly grateful that I can walk to my school (definitely one of my highest priorities regarding placement), but I have been told that I live in an “unsafe” part of the city. In my first week teaching, the other teachers told me not to carry a cell phone or electronics, and to constantly change my walking route so my schedule is not memorized by locals with intrigued by the gringa.

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My new friend, San Nicolas and me

My opinion varies greatly on what constitutes “unsafe.” I have lived in many cities deemed dangerous by the media and, despite the rumors about some areas of the world, they don’t always match real life situations. When I lived in Jalisco (MX), I always felt safe, even walking alone, however, living Atlanta and Baltimore (US), not so much. As I walk to and from school, I observe people rushing to work or sweeping their patios early in the morning. Mototaxis zoom past, cars converge and buses billow exhaust: all seemingly normal things to me. Everyone I see says “Buenos dias,” and in the hot afternoons, simply, “buenas.  So far, nothing has felt threatening and malo, and I am grateful to God for keeping me safe.

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Streets of Centro – loco y más

After Shauna and I briefly discussed safety, we opted to walk from Carerra 20 to Carrera 44 – about 24 long city blocks – taking in the scenery and barrios along the way. At one point, we were surrounded by mechanic shops, the streets crowded with cars being serviced on blocks and transmission fluid flowing onto the sidewalk. Although this felt like the sketchiest part of our walk, with cat calls and constant stares, we were soon out of the oily blackness and into an apparently “better” area. We kept waiting for the feeling of “transition,” where the crappy area gives way to the posher part, but couldn’t exactly decide where it was.

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mmm enjoying a Pony Malta in Plaza San Nicolas

Shauna and I first walked to Centro near Plaza San Nicolas, a place I have been curious about even before arriving to Barranquilla. For months, the Iglesia San Nicolas was the desktop image on my computer, and I had the same spooky feeling in front of Iglesia San Nicolas as I did at the Basilica de Guadalajara: after months of hoping and dreaming about being there, I am. Visioning® works wonders in my life, and there is nothing like having tangible proof. Ask. Believe. Receive.

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Obligatory tourist shot of the iglesia

Iglesia San Nicolas is a huge church, painted brightly in orange, blue, and cream, with tall steeples and gigantic doors. Inside the sanctuary is spacious, with marble floors and many rows of wooden pews leading up to a grand altar. At the time I visited, there was a service going on, and I watched a street dog trot up the center aisle, then turn left to sit at the front. I was reminded of an article I recently read about a faithful dog who visits his deceased owners church, and I loved seeing this Colombian canine feel welcome in the iglesia.

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Narrow sidewalks, a la orden, a la orden

Centro consists of several blocks bustling with street vendors, shanty-like kioskos, open-sidewalk restaurants, people shouting over loud Vallenato music, and the smell of fritos, fried cornmeal prepared several different ways. I bought a mirror for $2500 COP (about $1.25 USD) from a handsome vendor who wanted to speak English with me, “Hello! My name is Ubito. Thank you.” I regret now not asking to photograph his beaming smile and table of everything from espejos to bootleg CD’s.

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Shauna, cute birds and friendly vendor. He smiled after this!

Many people recognized us as foreigners and said, “Good afternoon,” or “hello, how are you?” When we replied “Fine, thanks, how are you?” our responses were met with blank stares or laughter; greetings are probably the extent of English for many.

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Museo del Caribe!

After Centro, we met with our new friend Rafael and enjoyed a traditional Colombian lunch (beans, rice, patacones, yucca and ensalada), before heading to Museo del Caribe, a concrete building with a huge open patio for special events. Inside, the museum exhibits and displays are large and informative, but not very interactive, and the museum overall seems dark and cold, although the first attraction, the Gabriel Garcia Marquez room, is a reputable homage to the great writer filled with books, his typewriters, and cameras.

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With Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s typewriter: ¡Que chevére!

The Marquez room offers a beautiful animated film based on his famous titles, including Love in a Time of Cholera and 100 Years of Solitude. Clearly, Garbiel Garcia Marquez is greatly revered in Colombia, as he should be. Overall, the Museo del Caribe is good for a one-time visit. I expected color and excitement – it’s the Caribbean, after all! But honestly, the museum could use some vibrancy and intrigue for the visitor.

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Rafael and the wall of Costeño slang at Museo del Caribe

As we headed home escorted by Rafael, Shauna and I agreed we have much to learn about Barranquilla, not just it’s culture and the incredible Costeño accent, but where we are, where we are headed and how to get there.

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Hut one, hut two… after this, home!

Passing by a place where we recently enjoyed dinner, we saw our waitress friend, Gigi, who exclaimed cheerfully after besitos, “¿Cuándo vas a volver a verme?” (when are you coming to see me?). Suddenly, the feeling of being a stranger dissipated on the night air, mixing with the smell of fritos and sound of Vallenato music.

Author: Kate Dana

Teacher, traveler and writer living on the Caribbean coast of South America.

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