Chivas—Happy Birthday Brandon!

Jason and birthday boy, Brandon!

Brandon’s partner, Jason, arranged an amazing three (or is it four?) day birthday celebration. It started off Saturday night with a chivas–a Colombian party bus. There were lights, music, balloons and lots of dancing.

First we board the party bus
Here’s a quick shot before everyone got on board. Katherine is finding a seat, but no one got to sit very long.
Anna, far left, is from Louisville and has worked here more than three years.

This is my roommate, Kelvin, with his lovely girlfriend, Katherine.
Hannah and her boyfriend.

After an hour of riding around, we stopped at Jason and Brandon’s apartment. This is taken from the top of the building.
Anna and Brandon have fun in the apartment’s kids area!

The rest of the group went out to a nightclub, but I wimped out and went home before midnight. Such a great night and a new way to explore Colombian culture.

My apartment and the teachers at my new school

This is a round up of photos to introduce you to my new apartment, neighborhood and the teachers I’m working with here in Ibaque, Colombia.

Let’s start with some photos of the apartment. It’s two bedroom. This is mine and Kelvin has the other. The place is small, not exactly any ambiance, but it has most things I need. Plus it’s close to the school.
Kelvin had a lot of kitchen and household items. I had nothing, so I’m grateful for his contribution. I’ve bought several items since we moved in last week to help both of us be more comfy.
This is taken from the kitchen. The open door on the right is my bedroom, which has a window. No couch and the small fridge is in the “living room.” But there’s good light with huge windows. The floor is tile and the white walls are pretty bare.
Here’s the view from the front room windows. We are on the first floor (called the second floor, here). At least I can see the mountains. Kelvin tells me there’s a park nearby. I will check it out soon.
looking out the window and down the street. OK, so it’s not a fancy neighborhood, but it’s reasonably well lit and safe.
I wonder how many people can read this sign?
After my first Saturday class, the teachers took me out for lunch. For $6,000 we ordered sancoche, a rich soup with potato and corn.
And this is the new gang: Brandon, Hannah, Anne, Kelvin (my new roommate), Katherine, and Jason. What great people!
But wait! There’s more food! Rice, fried plantain, a chicken leg and avocado, plus the drink. $6,000 Colombian pesos is just a bit over $2US.
Because I needed to buy household items, Brandon and Jason too me to one of the three large malls in the area, La Estacion. The view is lovely and their house is in the photo somewhere. Aren’t they handsome? They are even nicer than they look. They invited me out Saturday night for a drink with some other teachers. I didn’t get home until after midnight!
Here’s all three of us.
I like these houses, which are pretty pricey. They have a small, open court yard.
A wall near my apartment.
Ash Wednesday is a holiday! One side of 5th Avenue (Carerra 5), was closed to traffic and people were walking. This happens every Sunday, too. These were two street performers. He seems to be dressed like a marijuana plant, which is legal here.
So many taxis! At least five drove by while I got out my camera, but you can see four more in the photo.
I love street food. They sell pastel here. I usually think of that word as meaning “cake” but here it’s a deep fried potato, with a whole hard boiled egg and some meat. Tasty.
Here’s the pastel. I’ve opened up some of the crunchy coating to add a bit of sauce.
A block from my apartment, they sell arepahuevos–literally a fried egg, surrounded by corn flour. Tasty, but I need less deep fried food.
Here’s what it looks like when you buy it…..
… and when you bite in, you can see the fried egg. It’s often served with rosada sauce, which seems to be a tomato/mayo combo.

The best start yet

Our first view of Juntas, a local tourist stop, just north of Ibague, but easily accessible by bus. It’s just one road with houses and businesses on each side. But they have some good restaurants, a school and a community building.

2/10/2018 Saturday

Just can’t say how very relieved I am to be here in Colombia. Feels like I’ve been unsettled for the last year. Maybe two. It’s like I’ve come (almost) home. Sure, there’s lots I don’t know about the culture and I’m horrible at the language, but it feels like that’s going to work out if I just stick with it. It’s like finally being able to exhale. I hope this continues.

2/14/2018 Wednesday (Valentine’s Day, Ash Wednesday)

Without a doubt, this has been the best start in a country yet. The school seems pretty solid. They have very fair teaching materials and facilities. They don’t supervise much, nor is there a lot of paperwork. They schedule me and I’m on my own. The school is living up to their promises, but they didn’t really make many. At this point, I would have been afraid to depend on any school. They didn’t pick me up at the airport. I didn’t expect them to help with communications or exchanging money. I found a place to live without them, though they helped arrange temporary housing. I like this city and the Colombian culture. I’m close to the services I need and can walk to school. I can easily eat on the street, but I also can get supplies to cook. The other teachers are fantastic. My roommate is great. The apartment is basic, but functional—kitchen, laundry area and we’ve been told they are getting us a larger fridge. I like my students. The public transportation is buses and taxis. I’m still figuring out the first, but they seem to cover the city and even the nearby towns. The latter are not too pricey.

But mostly, I’m just thrilled that no one has lied to me since I arrived. I’m grateful for small favors. And very grateful I bailed on Bolivia and took a chance on Colombia. It wasn’t a country on my radar, really. The name was synonymous with “danger” and drug cartels when I was growing up. Things have changed for the better.

Meeting up at the hostel: Amy, Rod, me and Kevin. We are now all fast friends.

Sunday, I got a Facebook text from Rod, a guy I met four years ago while hiking the Appalachian Trail. He, his wife, Amy (who is now my unofficial sister) and a bilingual friend, Kevin, are on a South American tour and just happened to be spending a few days in Ibague! What a thrill for me! I had the best time with the three of them. It’s so nice to spend time with folks who not only love to travel, but have a penchant for doing it frugally, as I do. They just happened to stay in the same hostel I did when I arrived, so even finding them was easy. They mostly travel by bus or on foot and eat the local cuisine, including street food. It saves a lot of money and allows you to have an authentic experience, getting an idea of how life is for the locals.

Juntas, a town north of Ibague, that the four of us visited Sunday.

A big bonus was having Kevin along, since he could serve as interpreter. While my Spanish is getting better, I often don’t have the vocabulary to ask or understand much more than the basics. Kevin learned Spanish in The Peace Corps during the 1970’s and worked in Venezuela. (The Peace Corps no longer teachers Spanish, though they typically teach other languages to recruits. I suspect they can now find enough Spanish speakers.) Kevin still has land in Venezuela and lives part of the year there. His children live in Costa Rica. Kevin is hilarious and has more stories than I do–which is really saying something!

After Rod’s text, I grabbed a cab and went to meet them. We started with no real plan, but eventually jumped on bus #48 for a 45-minute ride north to Juntas (“junta” means “together.” It’s a town built where two rivers join.) The village is on the edge of the Parque Nacional Los Nevados, part of the Andean chain of mountains. Nevados are snowcapped mountains, which may give you an idea of how high they are. There’s a lot of rock climbing available, a ski-lift (that wasn’t working), some thermal pools (there are active volcanoes nearby!) and a mirador—a look out point—that almost anyone can climb. We also had a great lunch.

This is the view from the restaurant as we waited for food. Notice the tree with birds, lower center left. Those are a black headed vulture and they were everywhere. Who died?
The river is called Combeima, so this sign says “Welcome to the Canyon of the Combeima River.” There were small playgrounds for children and a basketball court.
Just to give you an idea of prices. This is a “relatively” expensive restaurant compared to my neighborhood. $1US dollar = $2830 Colombian Pesos. We had the “parrillada” which is a grilled meat plate–chicken leg, deep fried pork skin, beef rib, potato, sausages (rellena just means “stuffed” so we weren’t sure, but we got a pork sausage and a blood sausage with rice), avocado and chimichurri (sauce). TASTY!
Kevin can charm ANYONE and this woman was quite delighted with him. Here, he’s asking about the various sweets she sells. On the way down, we bought some.
These men were playing a game similar to horseshoes, but with a twist. They are tossing a metallic stone and trying to hit a large blasting cap (similar to the caps my little brothers used to use in there cap guns as children, but way larger). It’s LOUD when they strike and you can smell the gunpowder.
Wasn’t sure what this building was, nor if it’s under construction or falling down. Anyone?
You can rent horses to go up the mountain. It’s probably a good way to see the waterfalls.
This restaurant advertised trout, but also a local freshwater fish, seen drying here.
Jaguar, extreme ecotourism. Hummmmm. This is on the edge of town. From here, you can walk up to the Mirador or down to some very cold swimming pools. The water comes from melting ice. There are also thermal pools, but it’s a bit of a hike.
The town of Juntas

The view from the top.

It was quite a climb, so we rewarded ourselves with dulces (sweets). Amy is clearly excited. Me, too!
This restaurant will rent out the small cabins above for about $70,000 pesos a night, less than $25US. Of course, that’s a lot of money, here. My half of the apartment is only $350,000 pesos (all utilities included, even internet) for a month.
Kids love their photo taken, in any language.

While in Juntas, Kevin—who has clearly never met a stranger in his entire life—got to talking with this young man, Jorge, who is a local guide. The guide is interested in learning English and offered to take us from his home in Villa Restrepo (still north of Ibague, just before Juntas) up the mountain to a farm where we could have lunch. His services were free, just for the opportunity to practice a little English! It was quite a climb up, but the views were amazing. Lunch was great—roast chicken with rice, fresh yogurt, a tomato and onion salad, and the best fresh squeezed lemonade you could ask for.

The next day, I brought buñuelos to add to breakfast at the hostel. A buñuelo is basically just fried dough, but it’s a popular snack in much of South America. Sometimes they have a filling, like cheese, but these were just plain.
While we wait for the bus in Ibague, Kevin and Amy investigate this small park, with a statue of Simon Bolivar.
The sign on the statue reads “Remember the passage of the Liberator (Bolivar), January 8, 1830.”
We meet our guide, Jorge, in Restrepo. He’s telling Kevin what we will do that day. The village of Restrepo is small, but hopes to become more of a tourist destination.

The community has hydroelectric power.
Once we cross the river, it’s time to climb.
Rod, Amy and (especially) Jorge could really take the hills! I am terribly slow on uphill walking and was almost always dead last. Rod had to keep stopping to wait for me.
This is a small one, but there are many waterfalls to see.
Once we started climbing the narrow dirt path, the views became spectacular. This is a combination of national park land (with 4 snow-capped mountains) and private farms.
This is an organic farm, growing a type of passion fruit. they were shielding the vines with plastic to protect them from some spraying that was going on nearby. The farmer gave us several ripe fruits. So tasty!
This is a bad photo, but we saw a lot of coffee here. It must be tough to pick on the mountain slopes and even tougher to get it to market.
We climbed a substantial amount. My legs were tired. Below, the blue house is the governor’s.

Still climbing. Jorge kept saying we were “cerca” or close to the end. We clearly had a different idea of what is nearby. He said that and we probably continued on, straight up, for another 3-4km.

OK, mostly I was stopping to catch my breath by this point. But the views were wonderful.
When we got to the top, FINALLY, I thought we were done. We weren’t. But at least the climbing was over. The top had a couple farm houses and a one room school.
You have to have strong legs to farm around here. We saw the remains of what could have been terraced fields, but mostly there were vines (especially a type of flowering bean). coffee, and some fruit trees.
Jorge found several orchids growing wild. These would be expensive house plants. There’s also lots of impatients growing wild, too.

This farm was lovely! There were constant cool breezes and the house is really set up for it. Even the kitchen is very open, but under the protection of a second-story balcony from above.
Rod, Amy, me, the farmer who owns the hostel and Kevin.
Our guide, Jorge, is very musical. He not only played the flute, he plays piano. His nickname is El Conejo–The Rabbit, but he’s more of a monkey, the way he climbs trees and mountains.
Lunch! Chicken, potatoes, rice and tomatoes with onions. YUM! The black pottery is very common to this area.
The cows make it peaceful. And the milk and yogurt is always fresh.
The view from the balcony. There are several rooms on the second floor that you can rent. Most have a single and a double bed. There’s a shared bath and shower, plus lots of hammocks for lounging.
After lunch, we each got a hammock and took a little nap. I talked to Amy the entire time.

I can’t say how much I enjoyed my time with them.

About 6pm on Monday, I got a text from the school asking me to teach the next morning! Fortunately, I had the book for the class already, so I could prepare before I went to sleep. Class went well and I feel I’m really fitting in here.

Just a few more photos from the top of the mountain.

View from the farm to the Village of El Restrepo below
You can just see the waterfall in the upper center on the next mountain across. Those clouds have been a permanent fixture since I arrived, so I’d guess the mountains get a lot of rain this time of year. I live at a much lower elevation and have had some rain, but not constant.

Finding a more permanent place to live

I’m told there is some really great hiking just outside the city. Some of the foothills are accessible by bus. Once I get settled, I’m going to talk Kathrine into taking me.

2/7/2018 Wednesday

Orientation this morning with Alejandro went well. He used the Beginning book as an example, but it looks like a pretty well written program—good vocabulary at the end of each section, lots of workbook style activities. No separate teacher’s manual, but most of the time, they don’t add much anyway. There are three program styles: Super intensive (4hrs a day, 4 days a week), Intensive (2 hours a day, 4 days a week) and Not Intensive (4 hours each Saturday). There are 15 levels. If you complete all 15, you’re at a B1 speaking level (on the British scale). Plus the school has 5 more conversation classes available to get a student to C1. I’ll be teaching Review 3 on Saturday, which looks like something I can handle. I’ve read the first two sections so far, and my job is to finish section 2 on Saturday.

We didn’t quite finish the orientation this morning, so I’ll come again tomorrow at 11am, before the noon teachers’ meeting. I did get to meet Katherine, an east coast Canadian who has been here 3 years. I’m taking over the Review 3 class from her and she showed me what she covered and gave me an idea of what needed to be done to finish the unit. I really like her and hope we can be great friends. She even likes to hike. We had coffee and a short conversation, but she’s funny and great to be around. I’ve also met Anna, from Kentucky, who was very helpful. She exchanged emails with me before I came.

A rainy morning in Ibague

When I got home, I tried to talk to Hector again about the rent. I had great difficulty, partially because someone is always around. While nice, this place costs half my salary. It became clear that he thought this was a permanent arrangement. It’s not. I can’t afford it. I thought that was clear yesterday, but I guess not. Maybe he looks at me and sees “una americana rica” who doesn’t care about money. Not so. I don’t want to pay for a full month because I’ll probably not stay that long. I won’t see the money back if I pay.

Also, I’m simply not that comfortable here. Hector has people over all the time. Many are pretty young boys. Two came from his bedroom and were wearing pajamas. I don’t really need to know the details, just leave it at he has a lot of people over. AND he has to come to my door with all of them (or, I suspect, show off my room if I’m not here). I can’t lock my bedroom door, so I feel exposed. This is still just a shared house and it’s Hector’s house, not mine. It’s expensive for the lack of privacy. Someone stayed over last night and was walking around after midnight. There was some loud music. I had a difficult time sleeping.

And the amenities aren’t exactly posh: The shower, kitchen and laundry have no hot water. There’s no air conditioning. These are common conditions in Colombia, but I’m paying a premium. Windows need to be open all the time. We are on a very busy corner, so the traffic noise is substantial. And there’s not even screens on the windows. For the same price, I could find an apartment alone.

And one more thing made me really uncomfortable. I got admonished for not making my bed this morning. I’m trying to talk money, and he forces me to watch a 5-minute video on why you should make your bed. He made me watch the beginning three times, I assume to make a point. It’s none of his business whether or not I make my bed!

I really like how the number system is. I’m told it’s quite new and not everyone is on board, but to me it is clear. Most corners are marked with the carrera (avenue, north and south) and calle (street, east and west).
Buildings are marked like this. This particular building is on carrera 7. It’s building #3 from calle 40. Once you figure out the system, it’s easy.

I tried last night, then again twice this morning (between appointments at the school), to talk to Hector about money. He conveniently doesn’t understand when he doesn’t want to. When I came back from meeting Katherine, I insisted that we talk. He finally called Astrid at the school to interpret. She was a great help. Yes, he thought this was a permanent situation, despite the conversation yesterday in front of Astrid where we all agreed it was temporary. He offered to drop the monthly rent if I wanted to stay. I really don’t. So we agreed to a weekly rate and I paid for just one week. He says he will help me find something more economical. From what the other teachers have said, he may not be the world’s best landlord, so I’ll also keep looking on my own, too. Hope something works out soon.

What still surprises me is how very uncomfortable I am with discussing money—in any language. It really upset me, though the conversation went well. Imagine how it would have been if it had gone badly? I actually had to lie down after we talked. You’d think I’d be more comfortable by this age.

Exercise park near the school. It’s on quite a slope.
There are birds here I’ve never seen before. They are beautiful.
Here’s another in red.

2/8/2018 Thursday

I’m having trouble sleeping. Some of it is the high humidity and lack of air movement. (Does no one own a fan?) Some is the traffic noise. Mostly I’m just not that comfortable here. Hector is nice, but invasive. Last night he fixed spaghetti for is both (which was sweet, though I hadn’t agreed to it and was sort of ordered to the table. It was pretty good food, but he spent the dinner correcting my Spanish and explaining why I should stay here with him and not move out. He also had to  tell me why I shouldn’t walk around in bare feet. I get the bed dirty, he said. Sweep the floors, I thought.

Another whirlwind day. This morning, I found the spaghetti still sitting out on the counter. He tried to get me to take it for lunch today. Not a chance.

Flowering trees, too.

It was raining heavily this morning. Hector was up early, walking around in his boxers. Not my idea of a great morning. I didn’t want to stay cooped up in the house anyway, so went for a walk about 8:00a to orient myself to the neighborhood. I didn’t really have anything to do until 11 when I was finishing my orientation with Alejandro. I walked, had an arepa on the street. Yum! Took a few photos. Nice, leisurely morning.

Areapa con queso y miel. A corn griddle cake, with cheese in the center and topped with honey butter. YUM. This was my breakfast.
And here’s the street vendor who made breakfast for me. Looks like arepas, coffee and fresh fruit or juice are easy to buy on the street.
The man was very nice and helped me with the change to buy the arepa. I’ve just about figured out the paper money, but still learning the coins.

After orientation, there was a teachers’ meeting where I got to meet the other teachers. I really like the group—it was a very welcoming feeling. I think I’m going to fit in here, maybe better than in any other place I’ve been. The teachers are great. I already like Anna and Katherine, but also met Brandon (here with his partner Jason, Canadian), Hannah, Karen and Kelvin.

And Kelvin is about to be my new roommate! Turns out we were looking at the same apartment. It’s a little pricey for one person, so we rented it together. We move in tomorrow.

Kelvin is very handsome, buff, perfect smile, from California, late 20’s or maybe 30, and has great Spanish. The place is semi-furnished—fridge, beds, curtains, but not much more. Not even sure if there’s a sofa. He has lived here in Ibague for over a year and has a lot of kitchen and household items already. I have nothing. I’ve told him that after we move in, we can make a list of what we need, and I’ll be responsible for supplying most of it, since he’s bringing so much to the place already. Today he took me to the mall where I bought pillows and towels—things I know I’ll need right away. I think I’m lucky with how this worked out. If I were 25 years younger, I would swoon over Kelvin. It’s hard to stomach that he probably thinks of me as “that harmless, old woman.” I just hope he doesn’t come to regret living with an old lady.

This is my new building! Fortunately, I only have to walk up one flight of stairs. But the laundry is on the top floor. A few of the rooms don’t have kitchen facilities, so the top floor also has a kitchen, dining table and several refrigerators. The view is pretty nice.

So tonight, I’m going to start packing. Will also try to work on a lesson plan for Saturday morning. Looks like there’s no classes for me this coming week, but the week after there should be.

This place is adorable. It’s called Heladogs. Helado = ice cream. The sign translates as “cake and ice cream place for pets.”

Moving in, in Ibague

My new neighborhood, barrio Cadiz, is built almost on a cliff. The edge has great views of the mountains that almost completely surround Ibague.

2/6/2018 Tuesday

This has been a busy day and I plan to get some extra sleep tonight to deal with it.

I love street food, and this is one that defines Colombian food: Arepas. These thick tortillas are made from corn. They can be served with cheese or butter, or split and filled for sandwiches. Can’t wait to try them. This was mid-morning, so perhaps it’s going to be an easy, street breakfast.

This morning I had an appointment at 10am with Astrid, the manager of the Ibague language center, Native Tongue. My taxi driver took me straight there, too, so I was quite early. Astrid didn’t seem the least bit impressed with me. I’d say she’s done this orientation many times and had too many native English speakers leave after a short stay. I can’t blame her. I’m sure she has a tough job scheduling around all the changes. She doesn’t really do the recruiting, either. That seems to be done in the Canadian office. While it’s nice to have someone else go through the hassle of recruiting, it means she doesn’t get to choose her teachers. She gets the results of the recruiting sent to her. I’m sure things don’t always work out. Let’s hope this works out well for both of us.

Here’s my new school again. This neighborhood has many English schools and a few other languages are taught as well, like French and German.
Inside the school.

Astrid did an initial orientation with me, concerning the benefits and the process to get a work visa. Honestly, the work visa system seems fairly straightforward compared to most countries. It takes about 20 days. There are more benefits than I expected, including decent health care, a bonus for staying the year and some vacation days. The pay isn’t fabulous, but costs are reasonably low here, so I think it will be enough to cover expenses in country. The school has about 500 students, and 15 teachers. Most of the upper levels are taught by native English speakers. There are 15 classroom levels, plus 5 more that stress conversation and preparation for big English exams (a total of 20 levels). Some classes are intensive (four hours a day), some not (4 hours each Saturday). There are also children’s classes, mostly on Fridays. I’ll have Sunday and Monday off. Scheduling sounds confusing and I’m sure it will take me awhile to get the hang of everything.

I’m set up with Alejandro, the trainer, for a thorough orientation in the morning at 7:30. He’ll give me my books for Saturday’s Review 3 class, which I’m teaching. There’s also a teacher’s meeting at noon on Thursday. So I’ll have some time to prepare. Not sure what my week day classes will look like, but everyone works on Saturday mornings.

Next, I met with the school’s real estate agent, Hector. He has a few properties, where he rents shared rooms to teachers. Unfortunately, he has nothing available at the moment. So, he offered me his guestroom in his penthouse until a place opens up! It’s lovely, as the photos show. The 6th floor apartment is only 5 blocks from the school and overlooks Carrera 5 (similar to Fifth Avenue) and the mountains that surround Ibague. The apartment is ringed with balconies. I’ve got a private bath (but still no hot water!), access to a kitchen and laundry, private bedroom with large closet, and a doorman. The best part—there’s an elevator that opens into the living room! No climbing the stairs with my books every day as in Peru! It’s too pricey for a long-term stay, but I’ll enjoy it while I’m here.

This is from one of the balconies of Hector’s home, where I’m renting a room until something opens up. What a nice view. AND a nice breeze too. There’s little air conditioning in Ibague, none in this penthouse. It gets a bit warm for my tastes, but I’ll have to adjust. Maybe that’s what the cold showers are for?
Farther along the balcony
The living room. This man can decorate.

Lots of windows and lovely lighting and flooring.

He took me in his car to the hostel where I quickly packed up my things a day a head of schedule. After a nice lunch, with a lovely young couple who seemed to need his assistance in some way I couldn’t determine, I moved in. Phew! That’s a lot before 1pm.

AND I’ll be forced to learn a lot of Spanish. Though Hector is a US citizen and lived 30 years in the DC area, he speaks very little English. He understands almost everything, but he’ll force me to speak in Spanish. I’m sure it’s what I need. He does EVERYTHING quickly–especially speaking. This won’t be easy.

The photos were all taken today.

This is Carrera 5, much like Fifth Avenue. It’s a wide boulevard, and a main road for traffic. It’s a bit loud at times, particularly with all the windows open, but at least I’m above everything. Don’t you love the mountains? There has been rain in the mountains since I arrived, but only a little here inside the city.
This is the view from my window. Notice the blue roof at the bottom of the photo…..
….On the roof is a child’s doll. You just know there’s a story there. Probably not a good one, either.
Hector has lovely art. He seems to like Picasso, Charlie Chaplin and Marilyn Monroe. He moved several items from the room he rented to me, and it’s all piled on the couch for the moment. This evening, he’s hired a couple women to help him organize everything. It will be perfect before I got to sleep.
I don’t even know what this painting is about, but I like it.

Here’s the building from the outside. You can just see the top floor, where Hector lives. And there’s also a small market on the ground floor for basic items. I may end up eating on the street a lot here, as I did in Mexico. I could probably live on fresh fruit and arepas.
This is the side street, that takes me to the school.
Why is there always a KFC? It must be the most popular American fast food chain in the world. I see more of them than McDonald’s.
I thought I’d seen some Mennonites at the airport. This looks like a Mennonite Church. It’s right across the street.