Dear Friends, 

I’ve been living in Colombia for 10 months now and I am finally writing my first blog post about my new home! Many of you have inquired about my silence and I so much appreciate the support. But, I just couldn’t write. I wasn’t inspired. In the beginning, I blamed it on the oppressive heat that engulfed the city through the months of summer and fall. I blamed it on a serious learning curve at work, where I worked full-time, every evening and most weekends to learn five new curriculums, the culture of an International School and how to teach virtually for the first time. I also blamed my dry spell on the fact that I was changing to a new blog platform, and I didn’t have it up and running yet. All of this is true. It’s been a lot. But little by little, I’m starting to write again, and I’m so happy to finally launch this first post on my new On The Wing Adventures Blog. We’ve got a new look with new stories of all I am experiencing as I flit around, wearing myself on my sleeve, living and learning on the fly. I hope you’re still willing to come along for the journey, because with you at my side, I’m always a little more brave to tackle the next adventure!

Let’s fly!

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia is a city of about a million people on the northern Caribbean Coast of Colombia. To be honest, I couldn’t have placed in on a map before July 2021. This was when the Elementary Principal of a bilingual school contacted me for an interview. After almost a year and half floating around the States and Mexico during the first waves of COVID, I added my name to a job search platform for teachers looking to work abroad. He spotted my profile on this site, we had an interview, and I was hired the next day to fill in as a 5th grade teacher at the prestigious Colegio Jorge Washington.

Cartagena de Indias, located on the Caribbean Coast of Colombia
The courtyard of Colegio Jorge Washington separates into three different wings of classrooms for the elementary, middle and high school students.
My Classroom

This school, called COJOWA (Ka-Ho-Wa) for short, was founded in 1952 by prominent local families and international workers who wanted a bilingual education for their children. Today, it is a private Preschool -12th grade institution, funded in part by the US government, in which all students receive their core subjects (reading, writing, math, social studies and science) in English. All of these curriculums are from the US and we integrate them into a Project-Based Learning model. At the elementary school level, students also receive classes each week in Colombian history and culture, Spanish, social-emotional learning, art, music, drama, PE, library, and computers. All of these classes are taught in Spanish. At the high-school level there are a variety of electives and AP classes offered, as well as SAT prep courses. By graduation, the students earn both a Colombian diploma and a US diploma. It is expected that all students who graduate go onto university, and some of them study abroad. 

On the one hand, teaching at COJOWA is very different than my teaching experience in Portland, Oregon. Each day, I’m picked up in front of my apartment by a “teacher bus” that transports me for free to and from the school. I can special order my breakfast and lunch at the school from a well-stocked cafeteria. I have an entire technology department that comes running when my doc camera or computer doesn’t work. I have a human resources person at my access which found my apartment for me and continues to help me negotiate any challenges with my landlord, paying my bills, etc. I only have 21 students in my class, and on any day, they may fly off to Miami or Bogotá for some family event. Sometimes, their class attendance or school projects take a back-seat to their parent’s work and social itineraries. In the beginning of the year, I invited myself to a 5th grade party held at the local country club. I was surprised that only a few parents joined the fun. Mostly, the kids arrived with their nannies, their maids, or their personal drivers. Yes, it’s a very different world for me, indeed!

That said, 10-year-olds are the same around the world. My students would love to be lazy, but generally, they love to please a little bit more. They’re kind and generous to others, they work hard and they love to play even harder. I have a really great group of students who amaze me with all they can do in a second language every day. It’s really fun to push them outside of their comfort zone and help them get a glimpse of the world beyond their privilege. “Yes, Mateo, it’s true. I don’t have a car. I take the bus around the city. But that doesn’t mean I’m homeless.” 

I am also working and learning from so many other teachers who have worked both in the US and in other international schools around the world. My teaching partner was teaching in Myanmar, while others taught in China, Vietnam, Morocco, and Germany. They come to the table knowing about completely different curriculums and web-based applications. It’s fun to have the support and the freedom to try out new and different teaching methods every day. 

And for those who worked with me in Portland, this bit of news will surprise you most of all: I go home soon after the kids are dismissed. I have to. The schedule of the teacher bus allows for about 15 minutes of prep time in my classroom before students arrive in the morning, and about 15 minutes more after the students are dismissed. So my planning is supposed to happen during my prep time. And now that I’m starting to get the swing of things, my evenings are sometimes free to go out to dinner with friends, write, read and binge watch a little on Netflix. 

Snack time is at a required distance outside in the open cooridors.

In the beginning of the year, we taught 1/2 days in-person and 1/2 days on-line. In October, we switched to a full day in-school schedule. Our school is able to make our in-person learning successful by following strict COVID protocols. We all wear masks full-time at school, all doors and window are left open with air-conditioners blowing at all times. Students sanitize their hands before entering every classroom and I sanitize the desks several times a day. If any of the students come into close contact with a suspected COVID case, they are required to stay home and get tested in three days. I receive notifications daily as to which students I need to virtually teach because they are working from home. Once they have a negative test, they are allowed to return to class. It’s a lot, but it’s working. 100% of our staff are vaccinated and a large majority of the students are fully vaccinated. Over 70% of the local population is vaccinated as well.

As for my personal life, I’m slowly learning about life and culture in Cartagena. 

My ocean-side apartment is circled in red.

I live in a beautiful ocean-side apartment where I can be in the ocean from my bed in 2 minutes flat. But truth be told, I prefer the infinity pool overlooking the beach. When I’m not working, I do a lot of exploring on my own around the city. I have found a Saturday morning paddleboarding class which I love. I practice yoga during sunrise on my balcony, or I run or walk the beach when it’s not too hot. I’ve also taken several of the touristy tours, to get to know Cartagena’s history and surrounding areas. 

Here’s some other things I love about Cartagena:

There’s magic in the way that the architecture, the colors, and the flowers of the Centro Historico glow in the setting sun. The horse carriages, the cafes, the cobblestone plazas and the street musicians all add to the charm. It’s super fun to put on a flowy dress, drink some fancy cocktails, and eat reasonably priced ceviche dinners at some chic and trendy roof-top restaurant. I cannot deny. 

I love that this population is active. Despite the heat, many people bicycle, walk, run, rollerblade, work-out on the beach and participate in other active sports. For a little money, I can kayak, paddleboard, join an outdoor circuit training class, or a salto-jump class. There’s salsa dance lessons, cooking schools, mountain bike tours, walking tours, as well as snorkeling, swimming and surfing to do everywhere. A little further out of town, there’s museums, botanical gardens, aviaries, a mud volcano, mangrove tours, an historically important Afro-Colombian community, and artisan villages to visit nearby. With some money, there is a lot to do.

I love waking up to my ocean view; wave after wave crashing on the long coastline, interrupted only by rock outcroppings to curb the power of the currents. If I sit on my balcony and tilt my head just so, I can block out the view of the highway and the other high-rises, and pretend I’m on ship, sailing in the sea. From my perch, I see the deep blues and aqua greens of the water being pushed along by the currents. I can spot a container ship or a sailboat heading to ports unknown. I always stop what I’m doing to watch a line of pelicans flying at arm’s reach just off my rail. Then I watch the families on the beach playing in the sand, jumping the waves or celebrating an occasion with balloons, asada, and cervesas, always with the warm sounds of the Colombian coastal music, Champeta, providing the soundtrack for the day. Then there’s the Chivas. I’ve made my peace with their loud music and cheers filling the air all day and all night, providing the ultimate party-bus experience for all who will pay.

Glen Pintor, the artist of this fantastically loud, musical work

I love my new painting. I bought it from a street artist in the artisan neighborhood of Getzamani. It’s big and bright with so many swirling colors and movement. It very vaguely shows three Afro-Colombian men playing instruments, the motion of their hands and their wide brimmed Colombian sombreros being the most prominent in the scene. When you look at it, you can hear the Caribbean music blasting from its strokes. I’ve never bought a huge oil-painting before. But, within its frame, it screams everything I do like about Cartagena. So, I decided it needed to be above my bed so I could enjoy it every day. 

Finally, I’m starting to make a few friends with the other teachers from my school. Some are international teachers from the States such as I, but a few others are locals and they’re willing to spend a little time with me out of school. They haven’t yet let me “into” their lives, but there’s hope for building a relationship that transcends the work day. 

I hate the heat, but luckily, it has subsided a little. And, admittedly, it is nice to wear summer clothes and sandals all the time. That’s a fun benefit too. 

Oh… and the food! The fish and tropical fruit are amazing!