Tag Archives: Fulbright

Todo Vuela y Se Va…

I just skimmed over my last blog entry from about a month ago…is it possible that was only a month ago? To all of you who know me as ‘Corinna who plans every detail of her life over the next 10 years’…I think we need to get reacquainted. Because that Corinna is on vacation right now. And I am working on keeping my head above water as my world get repeatedly turned upside down. Although I will be the first to say that every single change that has happened over this absolutely crazy last year of my life has ended up being wonderful. Which is why I am still holding on and doing my best to let the current carry me where it will.

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Hanging out in the hammock while Sergio works. We rented a beautiful cabin in the mountains with view over the Valley de Cauca.

In February I went public with the news that I was going to stay in Colombia for another year. I have been in love with Cali since I arrived. And then there is Sergio, who has totally and completely captured my heart. The only thing that didn’t feel perfect about staying was that I have been really missing my role as a nurse. Being a nurse, and now a new nurse practitioner, is so much of my identity and so much of my passion. I really miss my patients. I miss the sense of competency I get from doing something I am good at and that I care about so intensely. I miss the steep learning curve and the challenges I am faced with every day. I am head over heels in love with my life, but I feel this lack of professional identity. I think that if my Colombia world was solely made up of my amazing girlfriends, most of whom are foreigners who are here dancing salsa and teaching english and studying spanish, I might be better at justifying my life of luxury (right now most of my days consist of a dance class, a yoga class, lunch with friends, and reading a book- I am a lady who lunches.) These girls are here, filling their days with dance and yoga and class, because it is a way to be in Colombia. Not because teaching english and studying spanish are their professional goals. But because they have decided to take this time-out, to be in a place that makes their hearts sing. It’s a valuable message- to take that time-out. Life is too short to not take time-outs and let your heart sing. But there is this other part of me that doesn’t quite feel satisfied. That longs for the challenges of my career. And being by Sergio’s side magnifies that. He is so dedicated to his work, to his dreams, to learning, to making the most of his time and his skills. Every night, when he has been immersed in work all day long and all I have to report is another dance class…I feel a little embarrassed, like I am failing at my purpose in this world. I wish he could see me in MY world. Where I am driven and professional and good at what I do. Where I draw energy from the passion I have for nursing. Where I make a difference in people’s lives.

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My girls. My world. Delana and Sita.

 

Anyway. Back to the news. About a month ago, Sergio tearfully told me that he had been offered an amazing grant to go do his masters degree in France. In September. And that after much consideration he had decided he needed to go.

I am absolutely heartbroken. Grieving not only the loss of him, but of a city, a culture, and a language that I am completely in love with. I spent this year dreaming about having a life here. A sweet little house with exposed wood beams and adobe walls. My own papaya tree. A little brown baby strapped on my back. My heart always leaps a little when I get to claim Cali as my home. And now I don’t get to do that. Now I have to let her go. And it breaks my heart.

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Sunday afternoon nap in the hammock at Sergio’s mom’s house.

But it is a wonderful opportunity for Sergio. I have been thinking a lot about my break-up with Cameron last year and what a gift it was that he was able to give me his blessing and let me go. It was partly because of this, that I was able to land here in Colombia with such an open heart, to really embrace this year like I have. And now the world has come full circle. It’s my turn to let go of someone I love so that they can have the experiences they deserve in the world.

So my world is a crazy roller coaster of laughter and tears right now. I have never been so happy and so sad at the same time. I am falling more in love every day and simultaneously grieving the loss of that love. I currently have a reputation for bursting into tears at any moment, no matter where I am or who I am with. In 9 days I will be arriving in San Francisco. *sigh* I am working hard to enjoy every moment I have left in Colombia. But everything is slightly tinged with a tear.

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Delicious dinner party with friends on a terrace overlooking Cali. Our group this evening was from Colombia, Australia, Poland, US, England, and Mexico.

There is more. Two days after Sergio told me the news (two exhausting days of emotion) I gave into my need to plan my life and decided to google nurse practitioner jobs in Portland. Having a back up plans makes me feel better- it gives me the illusion that I have some control over what is happening. =) I stumbled immediately upon my dream job. And the application was set to close in 36 hours. I scrambled, and I dragged 4 amazing UCSF professions along with me, all of whom managed to whip out reference letters within 24 hours. (Thank you!!!) And it paid off, because I was selected to be flown out for an in-person interview in June. If this job materializes, it will be my saving grace in this transition because it gives me a real true valid reason to be there instead of here.

The job is a new graduate nurse practitioner residency program at the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic. Nurse Practitioners don’t get any sort of residency after graduation- we just jump right in and spend a year trying to keep our heads above water. It’s up to each individual to negotiate with the employer as to the support you need for your first year. But it’s rough. As the healthcare systems change in the US, dependance on NPs as providers is rising fast. In order to meet the needs of the population for primary care providers, the system is going to rely very heavily on NPs and Physician Assistants since we have a serious lack of family med doctors in the US (everyone wants to specialize). In the last few years these NP residency programs have started to pop up around the country, but it looks like there are still only a handful of them. They are mostly in Federally Qualified Health Centers and are an attempt to increase the number of primary care providers working in low-resource, high-needs settings.  It’s a 12 month, fully salaried position that combines “precepted primary care sessions, specialty rotations, mentored independent clinics and didactic sessions.” It’s basically a fully paid 3rd year of grad school- a residency to get me on my feet. And not only is it the kind of supportive environment I am looking for, but it is in a clinic that provides real primary care to a population of low income and spanish speaking families located just 3 hours from Portland and 2 from Seattle. I couldn’t ask for more (except maybe to bring all of Cali with me in my suitcase..) I will be interviewing in Yakima on June 9th and 10th. Keep your fingers crossed for me! (I’m still kind of amazed that they are flying me out…they even asked me if I wanted a community tour and what was important for me to see. It’s like they are wooing me. I’ve never been wooed for a job before! Especially one I want so much!)

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When I told Sergio I had finally purchased a pair of animal print leggings, he wasn’t exactly excited. So the girls and I decided to surprise him with a bit of animal print attention.

So that is my life right now. I feel like I have my heart on my sleeve all the time. I am so sad that my chest aches. I am so excited that I get giddy. I am so in love that it is written all over my face. So don`t be shocked if I burst into tears when I see you and you give me welcome home hug. They may be tears of joy. They may be tears of sadness. Or I may have no idea what-so-ever where they are coming from. Sometimes I just need to cry for a minute.

See you all soon…Mil abrazos de Colombia.

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Sunday birthday celebration at a farm outside Cali.

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My beautiful Cali

“Nada hay absoluto, todo se cambia, todo se mueve, todo revoluciona, todo vuela y se va.”
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“Nothing is absolute. Everything changes, everything moves, everything revolves, everything flies and goes away.”

~ Frida Khalo

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Getting Work Done and The End is Coming.

I have a very unfortunate situation. I live in a beautiful neighborhood- full of giant shady trees, cute restaurants and boutiques, yet a few neighborhoods away from the gringo hustle and bustle of the tourist barrio. In fact my house in a mere half a block from a well known park which means that all I ever have to do to get home is mention the park name to my taxi driver and I am off the hook from giving directions. Which brings me to the unfortunate park. The park is called Parque del Perro (Dog’s Park) and although I have practiced and even mastered some of the words requiring the beautiful rolling R, the word ‘Perro’ remains one of the banes of my existence. My technique is that if I first name my neighborhood and then name the park it sometimes gives enough context to my bad pronunciation that the taxi driver can figure out what I am trying to say. But more often than not the conversation is filled with misunderstanding and multiple failed attempts at pronouncing this one godforsaken word, until finally the taxi driver understands me and exclaims, “Ohhhhhh! Parque de P-E-RRRRR-O” exaggerating the sound for my benefit as if hearing it pronounced correctly will suddenly make everything clear for me. Ugh. I know it’s my own fault, but I can’t help feeling indignant every time. “Yes! Just like I have been saying for the last 5 minutes…parque de perro.” I think I need to move. 

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Ice cream with two of my favorite people. Delana, my spirit sister, yoga teacher, and roommate, and Sergio, el que tiene mi corazón.

Today is April 24th and in 6 days I will no longer be a current Fulbrighter, but an alumni. About a month ago I finally got it together to hold my ever-promised focus groups. I let recruitment and enrollment run on for 7 weeks and I still only had about a third of the participant goal. But time was running short so we moved forward. I held two groups in two marginalized neighborhoods around Cali. I had an awesome team of assistants, who have been by my side for months now. Three lovely nursing students who are getting some undergraduate credit for their participation and an inspiring woman named Ayda Luz. Ayda Luz is many things. She is a doula with a passion for childbirth, a graduate student in nursing, and a clinical instructor at the University. And she volunteered to work with me because she likes the project. The first time I met her I knew I had been blessed to find her. She is Caleña, an expert in maternal health, and so gentle and kind- exactly what I needed for a focus group moderator. I preferred to avoid moderating myself because of the subtle communication skills required for the delicate task of probing information, keeping the group on task, ensuring participation, and not biasing people’s responses…I didn’t have faith in my Spanish level. But Ayda Luz came to me and absolutely saved the day. 

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My team!

Although I made my poor assistants call the women multiple times to remind them, and I made sure to lure the participants with supermarket gift cards and free food, I was pretty convinced that no one was going to show up. As soon as women started wandering into the room, I felt my heart lift. All the motivation and passion for my project that had slowly leaked out of me over the months of waiting to get started was back. I had forgotten how much I miss that interaction with beautiful young women and their round baby bellies. I was excited. And the energy the women brought to the group only added to my own feelings. They were grateful that I was there- they were excited to see attention being given to their neighborhoods. When I showed them the video about the Centering Pregnancy Model ) (created by the lovely midwives at San Francisco General Hospital) (video here in Spanish) the energy in the room was palpable. They were totally pumped about the concept of a) a long term relationship with a midwife (community midwives used to exist in Colombia but were made illegal in the last decade. There is still an underground practice in the rural communities but the cities have lost that option. The women seem to miss it) and b) a support group of other pregnant women. In both my focus groups the women unanimously and enthusiastically said they would love to take part in a group prenatal care model. I left work that Saturday feeling newly dedicated to my work. Unfortunately, all this excitement and dedication occurred in the last 2 months of my grant. Fortunately that doesn’t mean it’s all over. This weekend Fulbright is flying me to Bogota for final presentations. Then I have exactly 1 month left before Jet Blue carries me away from Colombia…for a little while. 

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My assistants working with the women to fill out the demographic forms.

My mind has been going a million miles an hour. About a lot of topics. I am Skype interviewing for Labor and Delivery RN jobs. I am keeping my fingers crossed that Sergio gets his visa approved so he can come to Portland with me this summer. I am planning how to come back here and what to do with myself for the next year. Right now I am mostly focused on two project ideas for the next year, though really I am trying to set that aside and just enjoy my last month. 

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Delana, Sita, and I at Salsa on Sunday. These ladies are my world- we have been each other’s family over the last year.

So that’s the professional update! I have been so flaky these last few months- and so much has happened. Sergio and I took an amazing trip to the North Coast. I met up with some fellow Fulbrighters for a week of Carnival Chaos in Barranquilla. My mom and her partner came to Cali and got a sneak peak into my life. My dad and Daviel came for their Spring Break and we explored Medellin and the beaches. Sergio and I spent Semana Santa exploring the Pacific Coast. And in between all of that I continue to dance, host lots of Girls Nights, and occasionally work on my Spanish. Below are some photos of the rest of my life, all social. In general I have truly become a Lady Who Lunches. And between dance classes, yoga classes, and lunch dates, my daily calendar is pretty full. I have no idea how I will adjust to the shock of working my first few 12 hour night shifts this summer….but let’s try not to think about that yet. 😉 

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Mom’s visit to Cali! This was a Sunday we spent with Sergio’s family.

 

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Dad and Daviel also spent their spring break in Colombia. We explored Medellin and then headed to the north coast for some Caribbean beaches.

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Enjoying the “Agua Dulce” in the mangroves near La Barra on the Pacific Coast of Colombia.

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Mi amor and I drinking a CocoLoco (fresh coconut, rum, baileys, and brandy) on the Pacific Coast where we spent Semana Santa in a rustic wood cabin. We ate, we swam, we slept, we read.

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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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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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