Americans have a lot of preconceived thoughts about Colombia, which range from drug running narcos deep in the jungle to rolling verdant hills filled with coffee plantations. Yet, as with many things, Colombia is far more complex and dynamic than you may think. On this week’s episode, Jane Haines talks about her service as community economic development (CED) volunteer in the Caribbean coast of Colombia.
Photos from Jane’s Service
Jane Haines’s Peace Corps Story
Where and when did you serve? What did you do?
I am a community economic development (CED) volunteer in the Caribbean coast of Colombia. I live in a pueblo of about 10,000 located an hour outside of the country’s third largest city of Barranquilla. I’m currently 8.5 months into my service and almost a year into living in Colombia. As CED volunteers, we work with a variety of groups on personal money management, business advising, and entrepreneurship projects. In my site, I’ve worked with agricultural associations, an artisan association, and a small sausage-making business. We also work in the high schools using a curriculum called “Construye Tus Sueños” that was originally created by volunteers in the Dominican Republic and is adapted to the Colombian context. We co-teach the course with local teachers, and at the end of the year students walk away with full-fledged business plans they can execute in their pueblo. I also have a GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) club.
I’m currently working with a nearby volunteer to organize a meet up of LGBTQ individuals from our sites. We both realized there are active LGBTQ communities in our towns but they don’t get a lot of formal recognition or funding for activities like other groups. Many also suppress their identities to be more accepted in their communities. When you don’t leave the pueblo very often, it’s hard to realize that there are individuals that share your identity and face similar challenges. So the aim of the project is to start building a network of LGBTQ activists and see what they can accomplish together. I’m really excited about this project, and I think it’s a great example of how PCVs can use an outside perspective to introduce new ideas.
What is one of your favorite Peace Corps memories?
Right around New Years, a group of my university-aged friends decided to take advantage of their time off from school and do something fun. They held a kite-flying competition on one of the highest hills in our pueblo. December and January are really breezy months, and the wind is extra strong in my site because we’re close to the ocean. Everyone came with handmade kites and some were awarded prizes for creativity and how high they could fly them. It was such a picture perfect moment as the sun was setting over the town with all the kits flying and the community coming together like that. That night, we returned to the hilltop for an evening of stargazing. We made “tinto” (black instant coffee loaded with sugar) and a big pot of popcorn. We spent the whole night up there and it is the only time I’ve ever truly been cold on the coast of Colombia. The wind blew the entire night and we all huddled together in blankets and sweatshirts with droopy eyes. I was so relieved to see the sun finally come up so I could descend the mountain and go home and sleep. It was just such a classic Peace Corps memory that made me feel really integrated and happy to be living here.
Another favorite memory has been getting to know a family that lives in one of the rural towns where I work. They have three daughters who are all so bright and amazing. They really took me in like another daughter, inviting me to the beach with them and cooking for me and checking up to see how I’m doing, despite living pretty far from the town where I live. On my birthday, they were the first ones to call at 8 AM (before my family in the States!) and they all sang to me and wished me happy birthday individually. I’ve never felt so accepted and loved by people I haven’t known for very long.
What is one of your least favorite Peace Corps memories?
It’s HOT on the Colombian coast, so I sleep with a fan running on high speed almost every night. One night, I awoke to a clanging sound made by my fan. I turned on the light to see that a mouse had crawled inside the cage of the fan and been killed by the whipping fan blades. I carefully placed the dead mouse fan outside my room, but the house was closed for the night and I couldn’t get it outside without waking my host mom. I didn’t want to have to explain what happened in the middle of the night in sleepy Spanish. When she woke up in the morning, she saw the fan and wondered what was wrong with it. She plugged it in without realizing the dead mouse carcass was still trapped inside and let the fan blades whip it around some more. I was too ashamed to walk outside and deal with the situation. So I waited until she left, and realized I would need a screwdriver to get the carcass out and clean the fan. When I came back home at lunch time she had discarded the dead mouse and was already bleaching the fan blades for me. I have never been so grateful to live with a host family in my life than I was for not having to deal with that dead mouse.
What do you miss about Peace Corps?
I think I’ll miss how flexible and dynamic this job is. There are definitely a lot of challenges but I get to travel around my municipality daily and meet so many friendly and interesting people. My site is a little unique in that the municipality spans a huge amount of territory. So I work mostly in the rural “corregimientos” or rural towns that surround the main town where I live. Venturing out and getting to know these little communities has been so fun. They’re all so different and experience different challenges despite technically all being located in my site. It’s a really unique and interesting place to live, and I really appreciate getting to see the world from here and see the way the coast is changing and developing. My site is located right along a route that tourists on the coast would usually take between touristy cities, and I feel so lucky to know what pueblo life is like and the unique culture and challenges people face here that a tourist could never imagine.
What is something you learned in the Peace Corps?
Two really important lessons I’ve learned so far from my service are 1) how to be comfortable with ambiguity and 2) how to stay optimistic, even when it seems impossible. When I first arrived, Colombia wasn’t anything like I had imagined it would be. The heat was crushing and the Spanish was hard to understand. Additionally, PCV sites across the coast vary so widely in climate, geography, culture, and the type of work available. I realized very quickly that there were a lot of factors out of my control and the only way to be happy would be to let go of expectations and judgements about the way things should be or the way I wanted them to be. Once I did that and started appreciating the little things–like fresh fruit juice and the opportunity to speak Spanish every day–I was a lot happier. These lessons have applied even more throughout my service in my site. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve showed up to a meeting without having the faintest idea what it was about or who would be there. Some of my closest friends and counterparts have been made when I just randomly showed up to an event and introduced myself. It’s been awkward and uncomfortable at times, but opening yourself up to what can happen when you push past that discomfort is what Peace Corps is about. It’s one thing to say you want to step out of your comfort zone. It’s a whole different thing to do it over and over, every day, in a different language and culture. It’s something that really has tested me in a way I didn’t expect.
I heard someone on your podcast once say that Peace Corps forces you to connect with people who are totally different than you. As a PCV, you’re always the outsider, so you’re forced to find ways, even if they’re tiny, to connect with people you really don’t have anything in common with. Otherwise, you’d never have any friends or feel integrated and happy. The experience naturally increases your capacity for empathy. When they say Peace Corps is about “promoting world peace and friendship” it’s cheesy, but true.
Do you have a favorite quote or local saying that you’d like to share?
Costeños have a TON of slang that is different from other regions of the country. One of their favorites is “mamando gallo” which means joking around. Mamando gallo is a huge part of the culture here and no one takes themselves too seriously.