Kicking Back in Villanueva

Read about our first week in Villanueva

Villanueva – Week 2

During our second week in Villanueva, our volunteering schedule was shuffled around a bit. The director decided that she wanted Dennis, the writing expert, to focus on teaching written English to the older students, who are only at the main campus. And she wanted Kimberly, the sign language expert, to focus on teaching signing to all ages.

The latter was a rather odd request in a way. Sure, we often use sign language in our teaching; associating words with some kind of physical action makes it more fun, and helps students remember better. But to focus on teaching sign language itself to ESL students is peculiar because signing varies so much from country to country. American Sign Language is designed specifically to communicate American English — even British sign language is quite different, though there is some crossover and mutual understanding among sign languages around the world. (Incidentally, this school teaches British English, which also seems odd given that Colombia is so much closer to the U.S. It also offers classes in Mandarin for some reason or other.) But that’s what the boss wanted, so that’s what we delivered.

This meant that only Kimberly was catching the early morning van to the rural campus, with Coldplay blaring away on the stereo while the kids napped en route. Dennis, meanwhile, was able to spend all 5 days at the main campus, but his schedule was more spread out, putting a crimp in his free time.

Fortunately, we were both given rather free rein about how to conduct our sessions. There was a prescribed curriculum during regular classes, but that didn’t apply to us. We were able to be creative and come up with whatever content and activities we wanted to that helped to make learning English fun and productive. And that’s just how we like it.

Meanwhile, we were still navigating our way through the system of meals — namely, the breakfast and lunch provided for us Monday through Friday. And on the one hand, we welcomed the opportunity to eat what the locals eat, and experiment with new culinary adventures. On the other hand, this presented several problems — in part because our dietary habits are so exacting.

They didn’t have any trouble at all accommodating our vegetarianism (which is mostly, though not entirely, veganism). In fact, they provided us with several intriguing varieties of imitation meat that we have to wonder where they obtained. There was nothing like them in any of the markets we visited; perhaps they were brought in from Bogota or somewhere. So we certainly appreciated the effort they put into that.

But there was, to begin with, an issue with salt. Colombians seem to like their food really salty; and our cook at the main campus was trying to out-Colombia Colombia. Every meal, she added enough salt to melt the polar icecaps, and it got worse as the days progressed. Being the courteous guests that we are, we did our best to eat it anyway, but it got to the point that we just couldn’t finish dishes that we would have loved otherwise. And we didn’t want to say anything about it, for fear of offending someone. (A few weeks later, we’d meet a fellow volunteer who related how, after eating at one particular restaurant in Southeast Asia, he was asked by the server how he liked the food, and he replied as tactfully as possible that it was a bit too salty for his taste. Whereupon the entire restaurant staff erupted in a rage that seemed on the verge of an international diplomatic crisis, prompting him to flee for his safety.) Fortunately, the American from Michigan who is the boyfriend of the school director, and ate with us at times, finally made a comment about the salinity, and apparently the word was passed on to the cook, because she eased up after that.

Then there was the matter of the beets. Now we really have very broad tastes, and we’re generally as adventurous with cuisine as with everything else. And in particular, we’re fond of all manner of vegetables. Except… well, beets. With all due apologies to Tom Robbins, our mutual loathing for those crimson roots has kept us together through thick and thin. And wouldn’t you know it: at our very first lunch here, we had a truckload of them dumped onto our plates. We did our best to choke down a few bites, but couldn’t manage to get very far, lest they come right back up. Our cook seemed to get the message, and we never saw them again.

For our first breakfast (which was at the rural campus) we were served eggs, and asked what we preferred to have for breakfast. Kimberly replied that while she eats eggs occasionally (she is by no means in love with them), she needs to limit her intake of them because of a cholesterol problem; and she normally has oatmeal every morning. Dennis commented that although he likes eggs, he generally prefers oatmeal as well. So we figured that we’d both be getting oatmeal thereafter. Instead, Kimberly got oatmeal — a very thin, watery concoction in which she had to go fishing for the oats, and suggesting that the cooks had never prepared it before in their lives. And Dennis got eggs. Every. Single. Morning. True, they were usually supplemented by potatoes, fruit, vegetarian “meat” and/ or arepas, those tasty Colombian corn cakes that can be served in a variety of fashions. Still, even though he doesn’t have a cholesterol problem so far, he wasn’t hankering to acquire one either. It’s not surprising, however, that eggs are so much more popular than oatmeal in Colombia; almost everybody seems to own chickens.

The flies were rather a nuisance, especially at mealtime. The weather was quite warm, even for February, so the doors and windows were left open. And since there were no screens, the flies made themselves part of the family. Often, we’d be eating food with one hand and chasing them away with the other. It was like we were always on a picnic at mealtime.

All in all, however, we enjoyed the food we were served. Our biggest objection was the regular dining schedule, which sometimes left us waiting when we were hungry, and at other times had us trying to eat when we weren’t. We always looked forward to the weekend, when we could could concoct our own food from ingredients obtained at the local markets, and eat at our leisure.

One dietary discovery we made was achira, a little Colombian snack that’s normally about the size of a strawberry, but somewhat football-shaped, or more elongated, or rounder depending on the supplier. It’s a wheat-free cracker made from the flour of the achira (a relative of the arrowroot) or sometimes rice instead, with butter and eggs added. We became addicted to them, and bought them at every opportunity. We also developed quite a fondness for habas, which are fava beans roasted like peanuts. (No liver or chianti required.)

And we had reasonably comfortable quarters, which we shared with the occasional birds and lizards. Oh, and after a few days of detecting a stench coming from the bathroom, we traced it to the underside of the laundry basin, where we found the carcass of a bat — perhaps one that had popped in for a visit the week before. We had a couple of portable fans to keep cool at night — well, one of our own plus one we borrowed from the classrooms at night. They also provided some welcome white noise to drown out the bar a couple of blocks away.

The other inconvenience we had to learn to accommodate was the rather intrusive cleaning lady as mentioned in our post about the first week.

On Saturday night, a couple of teachers at the school — young women who got around on a motorcycle — insisted on buying us a drink at another outdoor bar. Though, as we’ve mentioned before, we’re not really drinkers, we went along for the experience. Dennis couldn’t resist trying a local beer, which it turns out was served in a glass full of cucumber slices, with salt around the rim. Interesting, to say the least.

On Sunday, we rode our bikes, in the company of our school director and her boyfriend, to the local farmer’s market. And although we ended up buying only a couple of little things, it was a fascinating experience, a display of the vibrancy and vitality of the local community.

That night we heard amplified sounds coming from somewhere not far away, sounding perhaps like some kind of sporting competition. We decided to investigate, and walked toward the commotion. What we found was a rodeo of sorts (on Sunday night?), with horse riders, most of them rather young, chasing down cows who ran along a track if they happened to be in the mood, and if they didn’t they just poked along and provided comic relief. It seemed that about half the population of the town was there — including some of our students.

This little city was full of surprises. Even though Villanueva is not what one would consider a “happening” town, it seems there is always something going on there.

Volunteering – teaching English, Theatre and ASL

Bus ride to and from the grade school campus takes about an hour. The kids often fell asleep from exhaustion. The parents all greet their children at the bus. The dad pictured here always made a point of carrying his two daughters who attacked him with hugs, from the bus to their house everyday.
The highest praise a volunteer teacher can receive is to the students eagerly practicing what we taught them on their own time. Here they are practicing their ABCs in American Sign Language.

Birds Sighted during our Second Week in Villanueva

February 21-27, 2022

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