Remembering how to live with a To-Do List, and loving it.

I have news. I’ll come right out and say it. I am planning to stay in Colombia for another year. After careful consideration I decided I feel okay about delaying my work as a Nurse Practitioner for one more year. I don’t want to get too far out of graduation without working as an FNP, but I can’t deny how alive I feel right now. In response to a blog post I made a few months ago, I got an email from one of the people I respect most in the world. My mom wrote something like, “You seem really happy. You have always done what is ‘expected’ of you. Your life fully yours, probably as fully yours as it will ever be. Don’t be afraid to claim your life and think outside the box.” When I read those words, it was like I was reading the answer to the question I hadn’t even let my mind fully form yet. As as soon as I let the thought take shape, I knew it was right. I have sat with the possibility over the last few months and it still feels right. I can’t imagine being done with Cali in 4 months. I’m so far from done…in my project, yes, but also in my general life. In my friendships, in my relationships, in my salsa dancing, in my Spanish. I am immersed, I have built a lovely life here and I don’t feel ready to move on yet. Right now the tentative plan is to come home in June, in time for my Women’s Summer Solstice retreat, and then hopefully work a 3 month travel RN contract, the income from which I will live off for the next year. I want to continue working on my research (see below for updates) but I am also drawn to continuing work in the area of Perinatal Loss.

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Saturday the the river with friends

I think mentioned before that I had introduced my mentor in the school of nursing staff at the Universidad del Valle to the concept of holistic labor and postpartum support for families experiencing perinatal loss. She was immediately interested. Families loose babies for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it is unexpected and most of the time we don’t know why it happens. Usually it happens early in the pregnancy, what we refer to as a miscarriage. A miscarriage can be devastating, but we don’t usually see those families in the labor and delivery unit of the hospital unless they are pretty far along in their pregnancy. When that happens, it often means a complete labor and delivery of the baby. And in a unit where the nurses and doctors are used to dealing with life, death, especially of a baby, can leave everyone feeling lost. 

I never thought much about perinatal loss, but in my work as a labor and delivery RN I discovered that I actually felt an affinity for these families. I felt like I was able to be present, and like I was able to support them in a way a lot of nurses weren’t able to. In Seattle I worked with an amazing team of providers and together we were present for all kinds of losses for all kinds of reasons. There were tears, candles, baptisms, photos, locks of hair, cuddling…and some of those experiences of loss are the ones that have stayed with me over the years. So when my mentor expressed interest in the topic, I was eager to share. I gave lectures to both the undergrad and graduate students in the nursing school. I told them about the “memory boxes” we have, about the importance of giving the family the opportunity to welcome their little one and to say good-bye to this being they have spent countless months bonding with and preparing for. I talked about what it really means to be a nurse, to have the strength to be present with a family during an experience like this. 

My mentor had a patient a few weeks later with an unanticipated loss of a full term baby. She clung to my words and went absolutely against the grain at the hospital where routine is to whisk the infant away to the morgue and move-on in caring for the medical needs of the mom. My mentor fought with the system in order to give this mama a chance to hold and kiss and say good-bye to her baby. They prayed, they baptized, they cried together. This is unheard of in the public hospital here in Cali. But the nurses and social workers have very immediately and clearly seen the value in being able to offer this option to families. It is so heartening to see such a positive response to such a radically new idea. One idea I have for the coming year is to develop a “Caring for Families Experiencing Perinatal Loss”  training program that could be offered at hospitals around Cali and around Colombia. 

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A fellow Fulbright researcher, Megan from Medellin, visiting for Cali’s big festival in December. We were watching of the big parades.

But that is getting ahead of myself. =) Because I am still in the beginning stages of the Group Prenatal Care project. And things are finally happening! Not a lot, but living in Colombia one learns to appreciate every little step forward. With the indispensable support of the nurses at the clinic and my 3 wonderful nursing student assistants, I have been actively recruiting  focus group participants at my primary clinic site for about 3 weeks. I hope that in the next couple weeks I will have enough women to hold my first focus group. Today I went to one of secondary clinics where I was supposed to meet the head nurse of the Reproductive Health department so that she could introduce me to the nurses…see, I was trying to avoid the situation of being a random cold-call Gringa showing up to ask for help recruiting. Unfortunately, in a classically Colombian move, the head nurse didn’t show up. So I decided just to go for it and introduce myself. And I was pleasantly surprised when the nurses welcomed me in, listened attentively, and *seemed* eager to help. Ha! I could have done that weeks ago! This whole time I was trying to use my connections to get an “in” and the entire time I could have just created it myself…ay ay ay. Tomorrow I am heading to the last site to start recruitment there. Terron Colorado. One of the poorest and least safe neighborhoods in the city. I have heard many stories (no jewelry, no wallet etc.) but I will hopefully have an actual 1st person report soon. My guess is that, like most of the other “barrios populares” in Cali, basic safety measures and daylight will serve just fine.

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With friends at the Marc Anthony concert during Cali’s annual festival.

On the personal front, I am dancing like crazy, (getting much better but still have a long way to go), studying Spanish, doing yoga, exploring Cali, and spending plenty of time being giddy over a new-ish relationship. Life continues to be amazing in nearly every way. I was also amazingly lucky to get to spend New Years with my uncle Doug, my aunt Helen, and my wonderful cousins Travis, Mira, Amanda, and Maria (along with many other amazing folks) on a scuba diving trip on the island of Bonaire. (Yes, I know, going on a tropical island vacation from my life of parties and Salsa in Cali…it’s totally absurd). The diving was amazing and the weather was beautiful, but the best part by far was getting so much time to bond with my cousins. 

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Sergio and I at his grandma’s house on Christmas

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The Bonaire Crew having a blast as usual.

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The World Through Music

I have no doubt that music can change lives. I have been blessed to watch my incredible brothers, James and Mateo, experience the world through music and grow from two of the most impossible little boys into two of the best young men I know. And they did it through music. So when I first saw the boys from Fundación Herencia Andina (Andean Heritage Foundation) play, I fell in love with the organization. Herencia Andina is a true grassroots organization here in Cali and they are literally creating something out of nothing. The founder, Carlos Alirio Mamian organizes kids from the low income community of the East side of Cali called Agua Blanca (the part of Cali most people never see) and teaches them traditional music and dance (they are now adding a theater group as well).

Carlos (with guitar) and some of the girls at the end-of-the-year celebration at Carlos' house

Carlos (with guitar) and some of the girls at the end-of-the-year celebration at Carlos’ house

I was honored to be asked to hand out gifts of notebooks and pencils to the kids.

I was honored to be asked to hand out gifts of notebooks and pencils to the kids.

The kids can seamlessly switch from guitar to pan-flute to drums, and kids who were once too shy to raise their hand in class are belting out beautiful traditional songs. But beyond the music and the talent, Carlos has created a safe space and a given the kids a way out. For many of the kids, the trips into beautiful colonial neighborhoods to play for tourists in hostels is the first time they have crossed into this part of town. Practicing their instruments becomes their alternative to wandering the streets of Agua Blanca. And not only does Carlos give to the kids, but he works really hard to engender them with a sense of social responsibility as well. The older kids are to mentor the younger. And the organization as a whole works year round to collect donations of children’s toys- not for themselves but to carry 8 hours on bus to San Miguel, the rural indigenous village where Carlos comes from. The annual pilgrimage to San Miguel (this year they are going in the first week of January) is a chance to see the countryside of Colombia, to deliver gifts into the hands of eager children, to see a way of life different from their own, and to connect these city kids with their roots and their role as socially responsible Colombians.

Personal performance at Carlos' house in Agua Blanca on Saturday. It was the "end of the year" party for the kids.

Personal performance at Carlos’ house in Agua Blanca on Saturday. It was the “end of the year” party for the kids.

Sergio and I posing for photo shoots with some of the kids.

Sergio and I posing for photo shoots with some of the kids.

Carlos and Maria have created an entire world for the children of Agua Blanca. A world that includes friendships, mentorships, social responsibility, connection, and of course music. They dedicate their lives to these kids. A small amount of help goes a long way in Agua Blanca- toward instruments, transportation for performances, snacks for the kids…It’s not a giant non-profit, it’s not a big organization…this is true Colombian grassroots change that I am directly involved with. You can find them on facebook (Fundación Escuela Herencia Andina). Can you skip your latte today and send us the $5 instead? I know a whole bunch of kids who will be greatly appreciative. =) I set up an easy PayPal donation button. Just click below and enter the amount you want to donate. And THANK YOU for your support!!!

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Encantada

Something is happening. It started last summer when I fell in love with my life and since then the shine has only gotten brighter. I feel like I am walking through life carrying my heart out in front of me for everyone to see. It’s intense and it’s also one of the most incredible spaces I have ever been in. I feel like I fall in love a million times per day. A song plays in the bus and my heart overflows. I discover a beautiful new cafe and my heart overflows. And most of all, I meet new people and my heart overflows. Like when I returned from the amazing 24 hours of bonding in San Cipriano, I am back from another trip and completely encantada with my travel buddy (and friend from San Francisco) Sarah AND with our new friends we met along the way.

Visiting the Cartagena market

Visiting the Cartagena market

Sarah and I started in Cartagena, that same colonial Caribbean city where Cameron and I ended our year of travels 3 years ago. My sister Sophie who has spent the last year teaching English on the rural island of Baru just off the coast, met us and we spent our days wandering the colonial streets, drinking wine on the city wall that overlooks the ocean, and enjoying Costeña food and mojitos. Sarah and I had never done more than a weekend away together but she is so laid back and easy going that we immediately fell into a perfect rhythm.

The old city wall around Cartagena

The old city wall around Cartagena

Lunch at La Mulata

Lunch at La Mulata

After Cartagena Sophie led us by bus, ferry, and motorcycle to her home on Baru where we toured her very tiny dusty town of Santa Ana and then headed to Playa Blanca for beach massages, sunshine, and a night in an adorable and extremely rustic sand-floored beach cabaña. Playa Blanca is packed full of tourists from Cartagena during the day, but at night and early in the morning we found ourselves on a deserted turquoise beach. Lovely.

Sophie on our way to her house on Baru

Sophie on our way to her house on Baru

Touring Sophie's school

Touring Sophie’s school

Playa Blanca!

Playa Blanca!

People watching with my lovely sister.

People watching with my lovely sister.

But it was the trip up the coast to Taganga and into Tayrona National Park when the adventures really began. There was the bus incident when a simple 20 minute bus ride turned into 3 bus transfers and an hour of Caribbean sweat (met with good humor and topped off with a passionfruit cocktail in the swimming pool that made everything better). There was the iguana incident while we waited to board our boat to Tayrona, when a giant iguana lept out of a tree nearly falling on someone’s head, raced around the street causing total chaos and then ran into the ocean and disappeared. 30 minutes later as our boat speeds through the ocean waves on the way to the park, said iguana appeared on the outboard motor. We had to pull into shore and toss him toward the rocks. =) Hopefully he is having a less adventurous life now. There was the monkey incident when Sarah and I hiked through the jungle to visit the ruins of an indigenous village. We were so excited to run into a group of monkeys playing in the treetops. Until one got a little too interested in us and headed straight down the tree to get a better look. We very quickly decided it was time to move on. =)

Tayrona from the upper hammocks

Tayrona from the upper hammocks

Tayrona

Tayrona

And then there was the Tropical Storm Incident. We first met Jose and Jose from Valencia, Spain, in Taganga before we left for the park. But we had no idea how integral to our trip they would become. Parque Tayrona is one of my favorite spots in Latin America. It’s wild. Giant boulders, palm trees, and sandy beaches backed by thick jungle and blue mountains. The ocean is fierce but there a few protected bays for swimming. The most popular spot is Cabo San Juan del Guía where you can rent a tent or sleep in a hammock. There are two sets of hammocks- the lower ones set back from the beach, packed tightly under a thatched roof reinforced with black plastic where you sleep to the sound of the generator and the smell the horses. The upper hammocks are fewer and harder to get but are high above the ocean, where you listen to the waves and smell the salty air. Sleeping in the upper hammocks is one of my favorite memories of my last trip in South America, so Sarah and I were determined to get up early and reserve them for our second night in Tayrona. Our new friends, the Joses, decided to stay in the lower hammocks and we teased them for it, bragging about what a lovely night we were going to have from our ocean front viewpoint. The only downside of the upper hammocks is that the ocean breeze is a bit chilly at night. Luckily I knew this from past experience and Sarah and I had packed very carefully including long sleeves, hats, socks…we had planned extensively to make sure we would have dry warm clothes for a comfortable night.

The upper hammocks (photo taken from the restaurant)

The upper hammocks (photo taken from the restaurant)

That night, we were sitting in the restaurant for dinner when the storm started. The restaurant is a large open air “room” covered by a thatched roof, filled with plastic tables and chairs, and the only place to be under cover besides in our hammock. It’s also the only place with light at night so most people sit there to play cards etc. The rain started hard- true tropical storm style. We were sitting the middle of the cover but it soon became obvious that that wasn’t enough to keep us dry. I was still in my beach clothes. A sleeveless cotton minidress, no shoes. And starting to shiver. My backpack and all my clothes was all the way across the beach and up the hill in my hammock. And as the downpour and gusts of wind continued for the next hour it became apparent that all my careful planning was probably soaking wet along with my hammock. The boys gathered up the few articles of clothing and damp towels they had and we all circled up to try to stay warm. Amazingly, while other tables of stranded travelers sulked and argued, we spent hours laughing at the absurd hilarity of the situation. Even though Sarah and I had absolutely no idea how exactly we were going to get through the night, for the time being it felt like enough to be in good company and we managed to maugh our way through hours of rain. Around 10 pm the rain slowed enough that I decided to borrow a broken umbrella and make a beach-run for it to see if I could salvage anything from the backpacks. The beach was dark and deserted and I hurried down the narrow strip of sand between the two bays that leads to the steep rocky trail up to the hammocks. It was dark and raining and all I could see was the circle of light right in front of me so when I suddenly reached the end of the sand I was disoriented. Where was the trail? and the hammocks? About 50 feet in front of me I could see the cliff where we were supposed to sleep. Except that the peninsula had turned into an island and between me and the island was a lot of dark rushing water. We were definitely NOT sleeping in our hammocks tonight. And it was probably better because anyone who had been in the hammocks when the storm started was now stuck out there. I hurried back to the restaurant and wrapped myself up in Jose’s towel. All the staff members had gone home after dinner leaving a dining room full of stranded and desperate travelers. All around us people we sleeping with their heads on the plastic tables or trying to curl up on flimsy beach chairs.

Surviving the storm in borrowed clothes

Surviving the storm in borrowed clothes

Around midnight when we couldn’t manage to stay awake any longer, the boys cemented the friendship and put us in their debt by giving us one of their hammocks. Muddy feet, wet minidress, and all, Sarah and I cuddled up in the single person hammock. Next door two 32 year old men did the same and we all made it through the night, exhausted and sleep deprived but still smiling. The next morning, emerging from our hammocks felt like we were survivors of a natural disaster. The grass was scattered with debris, clothes, overturned tents. There was no electricity and no running water. Nearby someone was bailing buckets of rainwater from inside a tent. All around people were ringing out everything they owned. We wandered to the beach and found that the island was still an island, but in the daylight the water was crossable so I waded over and gathered up a backpack full of wet clothes. We decided to hike out of the park early in case it started raining again. 5 hours and a bus ride later we arrived in Cartagena, wet and exhausted but still laughing about the adventure and so grateful we had met the Joses.

Hiking through the jungle to visit El Pueblito, ruins of an indigenous village

Hiking through the jungle to visit El Pueblito, ruins of an indigenous village

Sarah flew home the next morning and I headed to Bogota to spend the rest of the weekend with the boys. Maybe that is what happens when you survive a storm together, but we were totally bonded and the three of us stuck together like glue for the next 3 days. We took long bus rides, we visited the absolutely lovely mountain town of Villa de Leyva where we watched fireworks and drank wine, and we partied with the entire Spanish ex-pat community of Bogota (Fancy cheese, Spanish tortilla, Sangría, and lots of lessons in how to speak “real” Spanish and where I need to visit in Spain). I came home with the same floating on air feeling I had after my weekend in San Cipriano. Just feeling completely blessed to have so many amazing people in my life.

Photobooth at the Spanish Party in Bogota.

Photobooth at the Spanish Party in Bogota.

Drinking wine in La Guaca, an old colonial home turned into the most adorable and romantic restaurant in Villa de Leyva. (With our new Colombian friend, also names Jose. And no, I am not making this up.)

Drinking wine in La Guaca, an old colonial home turned into the most adorable and romantic restaurant in Villa de Leyva. (With our new Colombian friend, also named Jose. And no, I am not making this up.)

And for the weekly single paragraph update on my actual research…I finally have a green light! I presented my project to a panel of Public Health staff members and they gave me my third and final letter of approval. I am now the proud owner of three whole ethics committee approval letters (UCSF, Universidad de Valle, and now the Cali public health administration). The one catch is that I can’t start until January. Colombia takes Christmas very seriously and the entire month of December is reserved for holiday happenings. So my job is to officially enjoy life until January when I can actually start working. =) Luckily I have had plenty of practice and am getting pretty good at that job…

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Caleño Caleño

I’m still trying to figure out what exactly it means to be an extranjera in Cali. And not just an American woman passing through the hostal scene with my backpack. But one who really has fallen hard for this city. One who dreams of calling it her own city. I know it’s not and it will never be mine. But I like to dream of it. Everything that adds to the illusion of my belonging her is welcomed with opened arms. Running into friends on the street absolutely makes my day because it reaffirms my sense of place. Whipping out my frequent buyer card at the supermarket or my local ID card (which is extra cool because you have to be somewhat official to get one) makes me glow with pride. Hopping on the bus with my bus pass and chatting on my Colombian cell phone leave me feeling special…special in a “I’m just another girl in the crowd” kind of a way. Except that even while I am trying my very best to blend, I will never ever be just another girl in the crowd in Cali. My friend Delana has been living in Cali for over a year. She originally came here on vacation (from Santa Cruz), fell in love with the city, and moved back to study Spanish and salsa dancing. She also teaches yoga which is how I originally met her. Delana’s story is not uncommon here. Where as Cali is just another big, bustling, sweltering city for many of the tourists who pass by, those who take the time to see beneath the surface often fall in love. How many extranjeros have I met who get a dreamy look in their eyes when they talk about Cali? And not just extranjeros- Caleños get it too. One of my favorite conversation starters is to ask someone if they were born and raised in Cali. Nearly 100% of the time they puff out their chest, get a sparkle in their eyes, and very proudly claim to be “Caleño Caleño” as opposed to just one Caleño which might mean you are from a nearby town or relocated from another city.

Sergio, Delana, and I at a salsa club the night before Delana left for the US.

Sergio, Delana, and I at a salsa club the night before Delana left for the US.

But the reason I brought up Delana is that she recently headed back to The States for a holiday visit and one of the first things she was surprised by was this: “I actually miss being openly ogled by strangers. (How rude! Don’t they see how hot I am?!)” It’s hilarious because it is absolutely true. As annoying as it can be to be constantly watched, the attention has become the new norm. And it would be a lie to say that I didn’t sometimes (or often) enjoy the heads that turn when I walk into the room. But along with the excitement of being so different comes the undeniable fact that I can never truly belong here. I will always be an outsider. So what would it mean to build my life in Colombia? I have friends, I have a community- many locals and many extranjeros…but now that I have been here for 4 months the first of my close extranjero friends are starting to leave. People who have been part of my social circle nearly since I arrived, people who, for me, have been part of the Cali landscape. And now it is changing. And I realize that it is only a teensy tiny taste of what life is like for the Caleños who have opened their hearts to me- the constant coming and going of people. How do they do that? How can they be so genuinely open and welcoming to me if I am just another extranjera who will leave? And what if I didn’t leave? Or what if I came back? What is I built my life here? What would it mean to build my life in a place where I am always an outsider, where I am always part of a culture that will never quite be my own? I am sure that I have no idea. Of all the time I have spent abroad, even in Brazil where I really did immerse myself, I have never had the experience of calling a foreign place home. But there are a lot of people in the world who do just that…in fact my own step mother (from Germany) and my step father (from Mexico) did just that. I grew up surrounded by people who were doing just that and I was never even really aware of what it meant. I’m not saying I am planning on staying in Colombia forever (don’t worry family!) But this might be the first time I could actually imagine that as a possibility. And it makes me see Cali in a different way.

Dancing the night away. Literally.

Dancing the night away. Literally.

Tomorrow I head to the North Coast for a vacation (from all this intense work I have been doing…) on the beach with one of my best friends from San Francisco. It is the same area of Colombia where Cameron and I ended out year-long trip just about 3 years ago. It will be interesting to return there- but I can’t think of a better person to do it with that Sarah. Off for some good old fashioned girls time. =)

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Riding Brujitas in the Rain

I have been thinking a lot about how quickly cultural shifts happen. Sophie and I talked about it when she was visiting me- about how we find ourselves commenting on “cute” outfits in the street and then realize that it is something we would have laughed at at home. Like leopard print mesh tank tops or one piece jumpers or sparkly leggings. In fact I have to check myself when I buy new clothes here…on a scale of 1 to 10 how Colombian IS this shirt? Would I ever wear it in San Francisco…? And if not, will I wear it enough in the next 6 months to justify buying it? (Since I have been swimming so much, my bikini from home is asking to be replaced…Colombian bikini shopping…I may be in trouble!) But it’s not just with clothes. I’ve noticed the change in my taste in men’s styles as well. Whereas at home I am all about the bearded, flannel-clad, half-hipster, half-mountain-man…in Colombia that prototype doesn’t exactly exist. Too hot for a flannel and half the men can’t even grown a full beard…but very quickly I noticed my preferences changing. Suddenly I’m checking out  clean cut, freshly cologned men in fitted jeans and fancy shoes. Speaking of fancy shoes, sexual orientation  is another cultural conception that has been completely blown out of the water. Sometimes I sit and watch my friends, men I am as sure as sure can be are straight, and try to imagine how popular they would be at a club in the Castro district in San Francisco. The classy clothes, the cologne, the jewelry…and most of all, the way they move their hips…it’s amazingly sexy and by US standards, extremely gay. But I’m not in the US…and those standards are quickly fading from my frame of mind. So bring on the backless shirts, the heels, the animal print leggings. Bring on the cologne, the speedos, the gelled hair. The questions remains, what happens when I move home. Does my world shrink back down, in accordance with local culture? Or does it stay open? I have a feeling it shrinks back down. But maybe not. Maybe forevermore, the smell of cologne, the sight of a silver cross hanging on a smooth chest, and salsa dancing hips will make me swoon. =)

Sergio, Alejandro, and I on the bank of the river in San Cipriano

Sergio, Alejandro, and I on the bank of the river in San Cipriano

Colombia loves to celebrate. This weekend (and last!) was another Puente (3 day weekend). For what…? I have no idea. There was never any mention of why it was a Puente, just plenty of discussion of how to celebrate. So on Sunday morning, after a night of salsa in a packed club, we started an adventure to San Cipriano, a little river town near the Pacific coast. 

The crew. Jefferson, Diego, Linda, Sabrina, Me, Sergio, Alejandro, and Theodora.

The crew. Jefferson, Diego, Linda, Sabrina, Me, Sergio, Alejandro, and Theodora.

Every time I travel, I see groups of local young adults on trips together. Guys and girls BBQing, playing games, flirting, laughing, listening to music…and every time I think how much fun it would be to be part of one of those groups. This weekend I got my wish. We had the best little group of friends. We jumped off high rocks into the river, we had chicken fights and handstand contests, we played silly games, we cuddled, we drank arrechón and played never have I ever, we all slept in one room. It was amazingly fun to be part of this close knit group of friends- it was a feeling I have missed. Since I arrived in Colombia I have made dozens of friends and been received warmly everywhere I go, but I have deeply missed the feeling of intimacy. Long hugs, massages, sharing secrets, sleeping next to someone…it’s easy to feel alone in a crowd when you are in a foreign country. This weekend I got to remember how it feels to be part of something. But enough feelings talk. It’s the actual trip to San Cipriano I want to tell you about.

Chicken fight!

Chicken fight!

My friend Alejo

My friend Alejo

As per usual, I  only had a bout a 25% understanding of The Plan. It’s a nice change for me since I am usually making, organizing, and enforcing The Plan at home, to have to sit back and go with this flow. So my technique is just to be prepared for anything , since I never know exactly what is going to happen (I have developed a reputation of having a Mary Poppin’s purse since I am always pulling random needed items out of my bag). All I knew about San Cipriano before we left was that it was a couple hours away toward the Pacific ocean and that there was a river. From the side of the the highway, we crossed a swinging bridge and there is where the adventure began.

Getting ready to baptize Diego in the river (we made him confess first)

Getting ready to baptize Diego in the river (we made him confess first)

The tiny little pueblo of San Cipriano is about 5 miles down the old railroad tracks. The locals have a thriving business of transporting tourists (mostly Colombian tourists) down the tracks on big wooden planks (called Brujitas- little witches) that they mount on the tracks. Until about 5 years ago, these planks were propelled along the tracks by a local man with a pole (and delicious biceps). But now, modern technology has added motorcycles into the equation (don’t worry, there are still delicious biceps involved). Along one side of the plank, a small motor bike is mounted with the back wheel touching the rail. The tourists climb aboard and off we go, flying through amazingly green trees, past wooden shacks and naked babies, clothes drying on barbed wire fences, through tunnels, across bridges and finally landing in San Cipriano.

Climbing aboard the brujita for our ride into San Cipriano.

Climbing aboard the brujita for our ride into San Cipriano.

What happens when you run into oncoming traffic. Someone has to lift their brujita OFF the tracks so the others can pass.

What happens when you run into oncoming traffic. Someone has to lift their brujita OFF the tracks so the others can pass.

The town itself is nothing more than a gravel road lined with super basic services. Cement and wooden “hotels”, giant pots simmering over open fires (fish, lobster, crab), and plenty of inner tubes for rent. Since it was a 3 day weekend, the town was pretty full of Colombian families and couples, although I imagine that mid-week it is an absolute ghost town.

One of the restaurants along the main (i.e. only) road

One of the restaurants along the main (i.e. only) road

About a 5-10 minute walk from town, you find the charcos (swimming holes) in the beautiful green river. The water here is much warmer than the river in Cali, probably about 75 degrees- like a comfortable swimming pool. I was in heaven diving through that water, jumping off the rocks, floating on my back under the blue sky. Well, there was blue sky for a few hours on Sunday. But by the time we were ready for our Brujita ride back to the highway, there was definitely NO blue sky. We stripped down to the fewest clothes possible in an attempt to keep something dry for the bus ride home. But it was all in vain. By the time we arrived back to the highway, we, along with our bags, were all completely soaked. The bus ride back to Cali was long, sleepy, and wet. But I was still basking in the memories of such a wonderful trip so I didn’t mind at all. In fact, I would have stayed on that bus forever smiling and feeling grateful for my friends. =)

Sabrina got the best seat on the ride back...trying to stay dry with the driver.

Sabrina got the best seat on the ride back…trying to stay dry with the driver.

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On another note, as you may have seen on Facebook, I GOT IRB APPROVAL! Today I meet with the head doctor of this public health sector and tomorrow I will start recruiting participants for my focus groups. I have a lovely little group of nursing students who are working with me in data collection. Very soon I promise actual research updates! 

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Tricky Tricky ‘Alloween!

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Valley around Salento, Colombia

Plastic Bags

I’m notorious at the local super market for being the Bagless Mona. They think I’m nuts because I never want a bag. And they are crazy about bags in Colombia. Not only does nearly every item in your cart get it’s very own bag, but they also tie each back closed in a very annoying way that makes it hard to carry. So when I say, “Oh, I don’t need a bag, I can just put it in my backpack.” I get a lot of stares. Or almost worse is when I try to give the bag boy instructions to put it all together in one bag, please… I often find myself in an argument about whether it will be too heavy or not. Sometimes it’s not worth the fight. I realized the extent of my reputation one day when I did take a bag. Everyone paused to stare and one girl said “Es un milagro….”

Piropos

Piropos is the spanish word for compliments, usually cat calls in the street or declarations of love given on the dance floor. In my past travel experiences piropos have left me feeling anywhere from annoyed to pissed off to violated, but I’ve come to love the Caleño piropos in the last few months. Most commonly I get a simple exclamation of “Mona!” which is the Colombian term for light skinned girl (like guera or chela in Mexico). Sometimes it’s “Mona linda…” or “Mona bella” but it’s often just plain “Mona!” which would be like yelling “Ginger!” as you passed a redhead on the street. It always leaves me with the urge to call them out on something obvious…but what to say? “Colombian guy!” or “Brown Skinned Man!” just doesn’t have the same ring to it. But my favorites are “Reina” and “Nena.” Reina is queen and Nena means baby girl, but they are both used as pet names in an affectionate, non-threatening way by both men and women (usually older women). I was recently proof-reading film school applications for a couple Colombian friends who are applying to grad school in the US. In one of the screen plays my friend had a street kid addressing a women as “Beautiful Princess” and I had to explain that we don’t have anything like that in English…Beyond “mam” or “miss” there isn’t really anything…I’ll miss being called “Mi Reina” all day.

Salento

Last weekend I escaped the city for the Zona Cafetera (Coffee Region) just a few hours north of Cali (between here and Medellin). Salento is known as being a quaint tourist town but most people go to tour the Valle de Cocora which is full of wax palms, the tallest palm trees in the world. Not to mention the incredible vistas, the misty blue mountains, the rivers, the fields, the hummingbirds…it was stunning. I stayed in an amazing little home away from home hostel called Yambolombia. I chose it because it was TV and internet free and situated about 25 minutes walking outside of town (even quaint Colombian mountain town enjoy the weekend Rumba and I was looking to escape the aguadiente and the dancing for a few days.) Gabriel, the hostel owner, was muy buena onda, and I immediately felt at home. But the best part of all was the mirador. From Yambolombia you have almost a 360 degree view of the valley. Layer upon layer of mountains, greenery, all the way down to the river at the base of the valley. Every morning found Gabriel, Hana, and myself on the mirador welcoming the sunrise with yoga. And the evenings were filled with fireflies, stars, and the delicious feeling of being cold and cuddling up under 3 blankets to sleep. I went to Salento to escape the city and all it’s distractions (salsa three nights a week, dates two days a week, rum many nights a week…) and spend some introspective Corinna time. I couldn’t have asked for a more peaceful and gorgeous place to dive into my own processing. I will absolutely be back with Gabriel soon! I know that Salento will be calling me again in the near future. Next time I am going to rent a tent from Gabriel and sleep on the mirador. As the say in Cali, It’s “Deli” up there (deli as is delicioso.)

Oh, I almost forgot…I promised the story of how this yoga pose saved my life. Ok, saved my life is definitely an exaggeration…but I’m still grateful. It’s become my tradition to always take a yoga photo in front of beautiful vistas while traveling. I have yoga photos on the Nicaraguan beaches, in the Peruvian andes, at the Patagonia glaciers…so when I was near the end of my 7 hour hike through the Valle de Cocora and I realized I hadn’t done a wax palm yoga photo, I found the first stable fence post I could and set up for a self timer balancing pose (which is actually a little difficult cause it involves setting the 10 second timer and then rushing to find your center and get into a a good balance before the camera goes off…) Just as I got set up, a Canadian couple came around the bend. I got shy and pretended I was just enjoying the view. I very nearly decided to forget the photos and just keep walking, but I really really wanted my yoga photos, so I stuck it out, chatted with them for a while, and then stayed on while they continued the walk. The photo session went well, so I was ready to follow them down after just about 5 minutes. The trail curved down hill into a big field, so I could actually see the couple in the field as I headed down. Suddenly, there were 4 people, and I couldn’t quite tell what was happening down there but it looked like horseplay…the girl was kind of running, arguing, then she was on her knees…. my body completely reacted before my mind was sure of what was happening. Total adrenaline rush. I still didn’t know what exactly was going on, but I knew it was not good. I quickly took stock of my backpack. SIM card into the bra. Credit card and ID into the underwear. I left my camera (sans card), some cash, and my decade old IPOD  accessible as bait and I started down the hill. I am not sure why I started down the hill…I think that I thought that whoever those people were, they would be coming up the path and I was there, alone, in their way. I didn’t want to be alone and in their way, so I figured I would meet them, at the same time I would be uniting myself with the Canadian couple. But they didn’t come up the hill, they took off running down the valley. I reached the Canadian couple just a few minutes after the ladrones had left. They were shaken and in tears, without cameras or money, but unharmed despite the gigantic knives that had been used in the theft. We found a local guide, reported it all, joined forces with a Swiss couple so we could be 5 strong for the rest of the walk, and continued on for the last 20 minutes. The ladrones weren’t caught but the local guides and police were all really helpful. Apparently Salento and Cocora really pride themselves on being known as safe tourist destinations and the concern for maintaining that reputation means that the communities stay pretty vigilant. It was unfortunate and it was actually the closest I have been to getting robbed (as far as I know) in all of the years I have traveled Latin America. But I still couldn’t help but thank my yoga guardian angel that kept me from being 5 minutes ahead of myself on the path…and alone. So appreciate the beautiful yoga pose. =)

Halloween

Yesterday was Halloween! And Thursday which means that you can find me at Tin Tin Deo, one of the traditional salsa clubs. I have absolutely turned into a salsa snob. The Salsa Boys I have met through my friend and yoga teacher Delana are absolutely amazing dancers. Sergio, Daniel, Ricardo, Carlos…I lose myself in their arms every Wednesday and Thursday until my whole body aches and my toes are blistered. I made sure my panda bear Halloween costume wouldn’t impede on my double spins and dips. =) Cali has 100% adopted Halloween, American style- except with the Colombian twist that the parties last from Wednesday to Sunday. The kids are all decked out in store bought costumes and they all head to the local malls to trick or treat (or “Tricky tricky ‘alloween” as they say) from store to store. I saw many many 4 year old princesses (with extensive eye make-up and sparkling high heels), quite a few 5 year old police officers and super heroes, and a lot of baby animals. So sweet. And as you can imagine, the Colombian women go all out on the traditional sexy costume front. =)

The news on the research front is…No News. Yet. I swear, I am going to get the go-ahead in these next couple weeks and soon I will have something for you to read about besides my social life. ;) But until then I will work hard to have as much fun as possible…for your benefit of course, so I can have good stories for you, my loyal readers. Muchos besos…y hasta pronto!

 

(Having a hard time uploading photos for some reason so I’m going to have to send you to the Salento album on facebook! https://www.facebook.com/corinna.michels/media_set?set=a.10100129996058722.1073741841.7104513&type=3

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On My Own and The 4th Trimester

In a lot of ways today is a typical Colombian day for me. This isn’t the first time in my life that I have been in charge of my own schedule. I have been lucky in that way. Twice as an adult I have taken a full year off, lived off savings, and let my whims carry me through jungles and desserts and pueblos and cities. And graduate school also left me with three day weekends (full of books to read, online lectures to watch, and case studies to puzzle out, but the schedule was mine…) However, this is the first time I have really truly felt on my own since I was 19 years old. When I was 19 I traveled through Southern Mexico by myself and I relished the shocked responses I got to the fact that I was by myself…although I think to say on my own is an exaggeration because not only was I adopted everywhere I went, it also took only one month before meet a musician and got swept up in the magic of falling in love and being taken care of. Since then, I have been on many adventures, but none of them alone. Beyond the sense of being on my own, I am really, truly my own boss at this stage of my life (I mean, besides the fact that the U.S. Government hovers over me a strangely invisible way). There is no charge nurse or clinic expecting my arrival at 7 am.  There is no one checking on me every day to make sure I am doing my work. There is no lecture or study group on my calendar. My project is mine. It is not for a grade. It is not for a graduation. It is just for me. Because I find it interesting and because I made a deal with Fulbright that if they pay my way I will do this project. Because it is my excuse for living the life I am living. So what does my daily planner look like? (My planner is figurative at this point. I actually do want a planner in my life, but as of yet have been unable to locate one. The last libreria I asked at assured me that they would be coming out in December for the new year as opposed to ours that run Sept-Sept.) So anyway, today is a good example of my daily life.

My view of Cali from my bedroom window.

My view of Cali from my bedroom window.

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Taking a walk at Lago Calima

Normally I have class on Thursdays at 2 pm (My Colombian Cultural and Ethnic Diversity class. Super interesting, but three hours with twenty 19 year olds in a stiflingly hot room with uncomfortable elementary school style chairs can be a bit much.) But today I decided to skip class because I finally heard back from the Ethics Committee with suggested changes to my study proposal and after all, my study is why I am here and a totally legit reason to skip class, right? I worked all day yesterday to address the committee’s questions and concerns and today I had an appointment with my advisor at the University to review my changes and hopefully get the revised proposal turned in and approved ASAP because I am SO ready to get started. I managed to get UCSF IRB (Ethic’s committee) approval way back in June but the Colombian process has been a bit harder for me, and technically I can’t start recruiting participants until I have dual approval. Today started slow. I slept in, I listened to Morning Edition, I exercised at home (Jillian Michaels in the back yard), I checked e-mail and perused facebook. Around 11:00 I went for a coffee at a nearby café and finished the novel I am reading (Game of Thrones- thanks Alicia!). I called my advisor to confirm our appointment and agree on a time, but she didn’t answer. I ate lunch (white fish in creamy shrimp sauce, beans, rice, and salad for $2.50) and then wandered over the health sciences university campus in hopes of catching her in her office. Except that the campus was closed for another strike. The university students are marching downtown (naked I think…as a form of protest) I had heard a warning rumor last week that there may be a strike this Wed/Thursday

See what I'm missing out on by being banned from all protests! (Photo from El Pais)

See what I’m missing out on by being banned from all protests! (Photo from El Pais)

I made sure to stay tuned to the University facebook page and even found an official memo from the University stating that classes would continue but exams would be postponed…apparently the official memo was wrong. (Facebook seems to be the primary source for all information. Most clubs and events don’t have webpages, they have FB pages. There isn’t a good central “events calendar,” but if you “Like” enough local FB pages you can kind of keep tabs on what’s going on in the city.) By now it is 1:45 and the class I was planning on skipping starts at 2. I call my classmate to see if the main campus is open. She (an actual employee of the University language department) also has no idea what’s going on. The building seems to be unlocked, but it’s 2:05 there are no students or teachers in sight. No announcements, no updates…so we just have to assume that this means no class. (Two weeks ago we made a similar assumption and it turned out we were wrong a missed a week of class…whoops!). No worries though- the day isn’t totally wasted because I have a coffee date at 5 pm with a Colombian friend who needs some help on her U.S. Film School application essays. Except now she calls me to tell me that her work schedule got changed and she can’t meet until tomorrow. Dang. Now it’s 3 pm and every plan I had for the day has fallen through. Luckily, I get invited to go salsa dancing at 10 pm. Whew! At least the day won’t be a total loss. I can count that as Spanish practice, Dance practice, exercise, and socialization. And the rest of it will be rescheduled for tomorrow. So here I sit counting down the hours until 10 pm, trying to stay out of the house so that my landlords don’t think I’m lazy (and so I can be out of the way for the weekly room cleaning) and writing this blog. =)

Lago Calima paisaje and clothes drying on a fence

Lago Calima paisaje and clothes drying on a fence

On Tuesday, Isabella reached her 40th day of life outside the womb. Which means that her mama’s post partum dieta ended. I had heard of The Dieta before (not a diet as we think of it), from patients, but I didn’t know much about it and always assumed it was something practiced in rural indigenous areas. Apparently this is not so. The family I live with is light skinned, middle-upper class, Western. And although they refer to The Dieta as something “de las abuelas” they take it seriously. It is the 4th trimester and the body needs support as it returns to its non-pregnant state. A lot of it seems to be about the balance between hot and cold. The Dieta helps the mother heal, helps her uterus shrink, her cervix close, her milk come, her body strengthen. For the first week after the birth, the mother stays closed up in her room. She is not to go outside for any reason. She doesn’t bathe. She drinks herbs that bring her milk in, she sleeps, and she feeds her baby, she takes in only “hot” foods and drinks. I didn’t see Carolina or Isabella for a week. After that they emerged and life seemed pretty normal except for the daily pot of herbs boiling on the stove. At first I just assumed it was more breastmilk support, but after a month I figured the breastmilk supply must be firmly established and there had to be more to the story. It turns out the hot eucalyptus/rosemary tea was for bathing. Carolina is not allowed to bathe in cold water, lest it affect her healing and any future pregnancies she may have. And on Tuesday, Day 40, Carolina once again shut herself up in the bedroom for 24 hours to breathe in the vapor of the herbal baths, to be with her baby, and her finalize the healing process. On Wednesday she emerged, no longer in the post partum period- now just a beautiful mama to a 41 day old baby girl who is finally waking up and finding her voice (to the chagrin of all in the house).

Carolina giving a double-time bath to the girls

Carolina giving a double-time bath to the girls

My sister Sophie is finishing up a year of teaching English on an island off the northern coast of Colombia (it is by chance we both find ourselves here). She flew to Cali for the long weekend (Dia de la Raza, which has recently replaced Christopher Columbus Day in a Colombian attempt to be PC). As is tradition, we followed the masses to get out of town for the weekend. My lovely friends David and Cristina invited us up to Lago Calima, a reservoir and hydroelectric Dam north of Cali, just high enough in the mountains to escape the heat and breathe some mountain air. It was beautiful- the fog over the hills and the green grass contrasted against the red earth reminded me how much I love the cool wet weather (home!!!). I even got to put on a sweater and cuddle up underneath blankets. Yummmm.

Getting cozy in the cool weather of Lago Calima with my sister Sophie

Getting cozy in the cool weather of Lago Calima with my sister Sophie

The reservoir itself was like a lot of Latin American weekend getaways. Families pile in cars and park lakeside, music blaring, beers cracked, swimsuits on, breathing in gasoline smells and having a blast. At the lake you can rent jetskis by the 15 minutes or you can opt for a Banana ride (you know, you sit on a giant inflatable banana, get pulled around the lake for 5 minutes and then dumped into the water at the very end.) I tried to convince someone to ride the banana with me but it wasn’t quite warm enough to really make the reservoir water look enticing. Next time, they promised. (On our way home it down-poured. When that happens here, it happened BIG. No time for drainage- within minutes the streets turn into rivers. We were in an SUV, driving through a good 12 inches of water, splashing past poor motorcycles who were stuck in the water. In fact, it rained so hard that out passenger side (luckily!) windshield wiper fell off! No joke…)

Banana rides from an almost sinking dock at Lago Calima

Banana rides from an almost sinking dock at Lago Calima

Being at Lago Calima ignited a pretty intense cold-weather longing inside of me. It’s October. Everyone at home is picking out pumpkins and planning costumes…my favorite holiday of the year! (Don’t worry! I just found out that Colombians have adopted Halloween and even the adults get to dress up when we go out dancing…so I am working on a last minute costume with glue and safety pins.) Between my cold weather longing and a surfacing feeling that I need to spend some time alone with myself, I am planning a long weekend of my own for next weekend. Salento and the Valle de Coroco are about a 4-5 hour bus trip from Cali. Hiking, local fresh coffee, the tallest palm trees in the world, and plenty of rain are what is promised. I plan to bring my one long sleeve shirt (my precious Smartwool- thank you Megan!!!), my rain coat, my journal, and a good book and spend some time with myself away from Facebook, away from Skype and online chat, away from Netflix…away from all the things I use in my daily life to feel less alone, to avoid my grief and feelings of loss, to distract… I feel like its time for a little Corinna time.

More beautiful Valle de Cauca countryside

More beautiful Valle de Cauca countryside

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