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Dear Future Volunteer

A couple of months ago I was asked by Peace Corps Colombia staff to write a letter addressed to the new group of PCVs that will arrive in August.  This letter, along with a few others, will be included in the future volunteers’ invitation packets.  

I remember the crazy sea of emotions one goes through when opening their invitation packet—-the packet that not only reveals what country you will be serving in, but provides valuable insight about what future volunteer life may entail.  

After a year and half in country, it was rewarding to sit back and reflect on my time here in Colombia.  Here is what I had to say:        

Dear future volunteer,

Congratulations and welcome to the Peace Corps Colombia family!  You are about to embark on an incredible, roller coaster of a journey.  A journey where, like all worthwhile things in life, the more you invest (both emotionally and physically), the more benefits you’ll reap. 

The Colombian coast is a lively, vibrant place.  I think Colombia’s public relations team said it right by stating the country’s best resource is its people.  Colombians are loving, good intentioned, so very rhythmically gifted and always down to fiesta.

I live in the small coastal city of Santa Marta, surrounded by stunning beaches and beautiful mountains.  My school is big, lively and chaotic—in many ways it reminds me of a circus.  Cotton candy and hot dogs are even sold during recreo, or recess.  I’ve come to see the disorder as character and charm.  I look forward to stampedes of sweaty hugs and kisses from the little ones and weekly teacher workshops with the secondary teachers.  I work with a range of teachers from primary to high school.  Co-teaching and co-planning is hard work, but you will find that even the smallest victories will garner big smiles and a sense of personal accomplishment. 

My school, my personal circus, is my community where I am supported, loved and blessed with a majestic view of the mountains.  I love the banter in the teacher’s lounge and walking around the school with a celeb-like status, everyone knowing who I am and what I’m up to. 

Peace Corps service offers something unique:  time to develop secondary projects that are both driven by community need/interest and volunteer passion.  Two projects that make my heart smile are my Girls’ Leadership and Empowerment group (Samigas Liceo del Norte) and Santa Marta’s competitive gymnastics team where I help coach and choreograph.    

As mentioned, you will be challenged, pushed to your limits and sweat more than you ever thought possible.  It is likely you will experience soaring highs and dismal lows.  But you will always have the biggest cheer squad right there behind you:  fellow volunteers, PC staff, your Colombian community and friends and family back home. 

All the sweat and occasional lows are more than worth it.  They give you a platform to inspire, make a difference and grow as a person. 

Welcome to the Peace Corps Colombia family!  We are so happy to have you.  

(Now go hydrate yourself with a big glass of water.  Hydration is key and you can never start too early!)

Sammy Merkle, CII-3



Got chalk? Calling on my gymnastics connections!

Are you a part of the gymnastics world in the states?  Do you want to pair up with a competitive gymnastics team here in Santa Marta, Colombia?  

I’m looking for a “sister team” in the states to collaborate with La Liga de Gimnasia del Magdalena.

If you and your team are interested in taking part of a cultural exchange that would be mutually beneficial, please contact me! 


We are professionals at making the most of what we have.  Here the girls are practicing a basic conditioning drill using beer crates in lieu of foam blocks.  

Here’s what I have in mind to kick off a cultural exchange:  I would love to trade short videos of gymnasts introducing themselves, showing off their skills, talking about their favorite events and what gymnastics means to them.  These videos can be filmed in the gymnasts’ native language and I will add subtitles in the language they will be watched in.  If there are any gymnasts on your team that speak and could film a video in Spanish that would be fabulous as well!  These videos do not need to be anything fancy nor a big time commitment.    

I strongly feel this cultural exchange will reach beyond the gym mats for the gymnasts and coaches involved—-through the videos gymnasts will get to taste a slice of another culture.  Global awareness is beneficial to all.  Why not have a cultural exchange centered around our passion for gymnastics?   

I feel a leotard drive is the best way to collect resources.  Here on the Colombian coast, my team makes the most of what they have.  Many practice in shorts and a tank top and save their one leotard for special occasions.  We would be extremely thankful to receive any old practice or competition leos.  If you are interested in holding this leo drive at your gym please contact me and we can talk about feasible shipping options :)   

Thank you in advance for your potential support.  I look forward to hearing from you and your gym :)

Flipping out in Santa Marta: Gymnastics updates

The Women’s Gymnastics team at the University of Florida just took home the NCAA National championship!  Although UF has showcased a top gymnastics program for years, bringing home the NATIONAL TITLE is a groundbreaking win for the gators.  Congrats ladies—you have most definitely worked your toned, little bodies off for this!  The Gator Nation couldn’t be more proud :)  

Riding on this gymnastics high, I would like to update the blog world about my gymnastics work here in Santa Marta.  The start of the new year has brought the development of other secondary projects (Samigas and Teaching English in Primary Classrooms~updates to come!).  Unfortunately these developments have put coaching gymnastics on the back burner.  I might not be at the gym every day, but I’m in touch with my gym family and have every intention to keep flipping.  I will be holding some choreography sessions and hopefully a self-esteem charla during the Colombian school year’s June/July break (if not sooner!).         

Emily Fiocco, a fellow volunteer, wrote the article below about my experiences with La Liga de Gimnasia de Magdalena for the February edition of our PC Colombia newsletter.  Catch up with my gym life through her lovely piece!  


Flipping Out in Santa Marta, Peace Corps- Style by Emily Fiocco 

Last February, Sammy went on a search for a public pool in Santa Marta where she could swim laps. Little did she know she‘d stumble into the city‘s gymnastics gym, where the team was looking for a person just like her: someone passionate as well as knowledgeable about competitive gymnastics, who had an interest in coaching, too.

Since that day in February, Sammy has been the head balance beam coach and floor exercise choreography coach for La Liga de Gimnasia del Magdalena, Santa Marta‘s nationally competitive team. The team has about 14 girls from ages six to fourteen years old who are dedicated to the team and committed to the sport, despite the lack of what US gyms would consider basic equipment—such as a spring floor, vault, or uneven bars.

Instead, the girls tumble on tile floors covered with a few inches of cushion, and stack the cushions to make vaults. To compete, they raise funds, and travel to Barranquilla every few months, where there is a better-outfitted gym in which they can practice.

“They make something out of nothing, Sammy says, “and they‘re so happy doing it. Sammy competed nationally in the US and brings a working knowledge of USA Gymnastics competition rules and regulations, which Colombia uses as well. The girls who compete from levels 1-6 perform standard routines. Those who compete at the higher, optional levels, however, need to have individualized routines, which Sammy provides during her coaching sessions two to three times a week.

One of the amazing things, Sammy says, is to see her work come full circle. She spends a great deal of time with Valeria, one of the most advanced girls, choreographing and cleaning her routines. Valeria helps out with coaching the younger girls. In general, the gym practices strict coaching techniques, and often the main coaches give directions with yells and critiques. One day, as Sammy was leaving, she caught sight of Valeria coaching.

“She coached just like me!” Sammy says, describing the way Valeria clapped rhythms, encouraging the younger girls through their routines. 

In the gym, Sammy has found a place where her talents make an immediate difference. During practices, she sees instant improvement. After one practice, girls may show real improvement on a certain skill, or their routines are noticeably cleaner. Their visible progress is a reward that provides a satisfying balance to the often-slow progress of work within her TEL co-teacher role.

Of course, there have been challenges. One of the biggest was learning a whole new gymnastics lexicon. Not just a matter of translation, the words can be completely different for different moves. Then, there‘s the matter of team communication—or an occasional lack thereof—in regard to practice times. Still, Sammy loves the work. I‘ve become part of the family, Sammy says.  There‘s definitely a gymnastics family and I‘m a part of it. It‘s amazing to be greeted with so much love and support, and to give it as well, to the girls and coaches and parents.

This year, Sammy plans to give charlas and workshops on themes like body image, self-esteem, empowerment, team building, and even community service— powerful, meaningful activities that will build upon the close ties she‘s built with this group. An exchange with a sister gym in the States – for both material things, like leotards, as well as personal connections—is also in the works.

“It‘s been a wonderful way to become a part of the Santa Marta community. Her experiences have provided her a stark illustration of two different worlds—but also the many cultural similarities.   It‘s just so amazing to see girls so dedicated and passionate, Sammy says. Of course, that‘s a truth the Peace Corps community can state about Sammy herself.



Noticias: A little bit of this, a little bit of that

Buenas buenas family and loved ones!  It feels like I have updates galore.  Johnathan’s visit and Carnaval were both too spectacular to tack onto this post, thus I’ll be devoting solo posts (do you feel the love?) to these events in the upcoming weeks.  

Por ahora, I have some updates.  Life has been particularly wonderful lately.  I still feel completely recharged after my vacation back to the states.  I really just can’t help but smile :)

I’m respected and established at school.  Furthermore I’m focusing on areas that are close to my heart:  primary school (implementing a curriculum, working with and training primary school teachers), girls’ leadership and empowerment (I’m forming a Samigas Chapter at my school—our first meeting is scheduled for the first week of March!) and secondary teacher training (I’m continuing to host weekly teacher workshops for secondary teachers).  Outside of school, two PCVs and myself are kickstarting a weekly “Teaching English in Primary Classrooms” course that is open to all public school primary teachers here in Santa Marta.  Our informational meeting is this Friday. 

In other big news:  I joined a gym.  Having a gym membership is awesome— if I’m budgeting part of my Peace Corps’ living allowance into one, you bet your bottom dollar I’m going to go.  I’m loving the classes and the change of not having to jump around in my room to stay fit.  (You can only do so many months of P90X and Insanity, with a sane state of mind, in an itty, bitty space…)  Sin embargo, I can’t get away from doing por lo menos one good yoga or pilates video a week at home.  

And in even bigger news:


I MOVED!  For more than a handful of reasons, it was time for me to move to a new host family.  After a month of searching, I migrated with all my belongings down the street on Friday.  I’m now living in an apartment with a wonderful woman called Genith.  It’s a nice roommate vibe, we drink wine together and talk about day to day happenings.  


I was lucky enough to have Heidi and Carla lug everything with me from my previous house to my new apartment.  Here’s Heidi catching a bit of a break in my old room.  


One of my collages at the old place.  I love seeing letters and loved ones on my walls.  Send me a letter and I’ll tape it up :)  


Everything I own here in Colombia.  I’ve managed to accumulate quite a bit since October 2011.  


Y en más noticias:


February 18, 2013 my school—Liceo del Norte—celebrated it’s 11th year!


All of the students had to stand for a mass and assembly.  (That was a lot of standing…) 


Unlike many public schools here on the coast, it’s not the norm for Liceo del Norte to hold masses.  In fact, we held our first mass for this birthday celebration. Under new leadership (we have a new Director, translation = Principal), a mass was requested.  We thanked God for past years at Liceo del Norte and asked for blessed years to come.    


The Priest giving the homily.  Do you spot the student blocking the sun with his notebook?  I promise you this is the most common notebook I see on campus, among male teachers and male students alike.  


Pedro and two of his loving students.  



Sandwiched between my Valentines—Eder and Erik from Peace Corps staff came to visit my school on the Day of Love.  We met with the new Director and my English teachers to evaluate last year and discuss goals for this academic year.  The site visit went fabulously :)    


And I’ll leave you with the view from my new apartment.  I just can’t get enough of it!  


La nueva vista! 


Con mucho amor,




Surprise health fun in the barrio

Last night on an evening run I was flagged down by a neighbor and asked if I would join a group getting together to exercise and talk about health.  The group would be meeting next to the field, right in front of my house, in five minutes.  I couldn’t say no.  

It was quite an event.  

I was one of the first to arrive to a group of three men dressed presentably in jeans and tucked-in collared shirts, accessorized with clipboards.  After being introduced to the 'men with clipboards,' I found out they work for the Secretary of Health here in Santa Marta.  

La Secretaría de Salud is embarking on a new project to spread awareness about healthy eating habits, common diseases and physical activity to different barrios in the city.  My barrio, Los Almendros, was chosen to kick-start the program because one of the men with clipboards lives in our hood.

To commence, a scale was brought out.  This quickly generated a crowd.  I realized that many locals don’t have the opportunity to weigh themselves (besides doctors visits, paying to use a scale on the street (control de peso) or owning a scale).  No joke, word spread and before I knew it close to 50 people were gathered to pesarse, or weigh themselves.  (My host family even came outside and waited to be weighed).    

Our weights, heights and heart rates were recorded.  Unlike the mentality and often secrecy bounded to body weight in the states, weight is freely discussed here.  Upon stepping on the scale, your weight was screamed out for everyone to hear and open to free commentary.  I heard many things along the lines of: “Ayyy you are the heaviest one here!” and “Nena, que gorda” (Girl, you’re fat) and the very common questions of “Te peso?  Cuánto pesa?” (Did you weigh yourself?  How much do you weigh?).

After these body assessments, many people returned to their homes.  About 25 people stayed to hear the men with clipboards give charlas about healthy eating as a family, common diseases and exercise.  

It was nice to see my community learn more about these important topics, especially because many of them were surprised by things (like it’s best to avoid fried foods) that are common knowledge to many of us.  

The men with clipboards wrapped up the night with some fun activities, stretching and a brisk walk.  I must add, I was told sternly a few times that I was stretching too far and that I should not proceed to the next stretch until the leader did so…jaja.  

The community hopes to continue meeting for workouts and the men with clipboards are scheduled to come back in a couple of months to jump further into health topics, and of course, to bring back the scales.   


We were given useful pamphlets about healthy eating, physical activity, hygiene and eyesight.   



Samigas Girls Camp: Forming female leaders for the future of Santa Marta

CII-3 Santa Marta volunteers held the first Samigas Girls Empowerment Camp on December 4, 5 and 6.  (¿Qué significa Samigas, you ask?  Santa Marta residents are proudly referred to as Samarios, thus Samigas is a play on Samario and amigas…clever, huh?). 


Happy campers and PCVs after a dynamic 1st day 

About 30 8th and 9th grade girls from four of our respective schools attended the camp.  It was a beautiful experience for participants and PCVs alike.  Confianza was established early on and the girls flourished in an environment where we discussed and participated in activities covering body image, self-esteem, nutrition, fitness, financial planning, sexual health and team building. 


Girls jotted down words that came to mind about images of women we cut out from magazines.   


Similarly around the world, magazine images here don’t portray what the average woman looks like.  


Carla teaching about a healthy meal.  


Girls prepping for a little cheer competition:  Yo soy una joven bella, adentro y afuera.  (I am a beautiful young woman, inside and out).     


Writing compliments on each others’ backs.  Cue the warm fuzzies.  

We brought in local female professionals to take part in shaping our young leaders.  The camp included a lesson on self-esteem led by a local psychology student and a panel of successful women in Santa Marta (a museum administrator, a police captain, a psychology professor, Leandra from PC staff and the wonderful Allison Bakamjian).  These women answered a spectrum of questions ranging from, “What advice would you give to your 15 year-old self?” to “What do you do when things don’t go how you would like?” 


Our panel of successful women answering questions.  

Importantly, we dove into the topic of sexuality, including pregnancy myths, the reproductive systems and how to use condoms.  With the normal amount of 15-year-old giggles, the girls reported they learned a lot on topics they’ve never freely discussed.     


Reproductive systems


Condom use demo.  


The girls learning how to properly use condoms.  

It was rewarding to work on a project with other PCVs and see different volunteer strengths come into play.  We are looking forward to forming Samigas chapters in our schools to further dive into these topics and to foster a network of young female leaders in Santa Marta.  <3 <3 <3    


Chain of goals and expectations for the camp.  


My group of sweethearts that will help me start a Samigas chapter at our school.  



Hot yoga

What to do when it’s 91 °F and the feels like temperature is a scorching 104 °F?  In the middle of November.  Besides melt that is…

I’ve gotten in the habit of trying to make the most of the heat by indulging in hot yoga sessions in my room.  I have become a loyal user of this awesome yoga site that offers a plethora of top-notch yoga and pilates classes.  FOR FREE!

I’m off to my heat box (my bedroom) now to do a quick yoga/pilates fusion class. Que pena I don’t have time to write more, but if I’m going to squeeze in this class before a 4 p.m. folklore dance performance at my school, I must go…

I hope you all are enjoying crisp November weather wherever you are :)   




Old toilet paper rolls to give your hair some va-va-voom!  Love the creativity and resourcefulness! 

This is the woman who comes to our house and paints my host mom’s nails.  Mani & pedi for 12 COP, roughly 6 USD.  What a deal!  I still need to take her up on doing my nails.    

Please note:  It’s entirely socially acceptable to travel around town, as she did to get to our house, like this.  

Fun fact:  She’s seeking a little extra va-va-voom and opted for larger, hotel toilet paper rolls.  However, I was informed that the normal household ones work just fine too.  Let me know if you decide to give this sustainable fashion trick a go!    



One of my counterparts, Lourdes, loving on her precious granddaughter.  Can’t you see the resemblance?!  I got to play with this curly-haired sweetheart while she was visiting her abuelos in Santa Marta :)  



One Year in Country: Things I’ve Learned

In a recent skype date a dear friend asked me, “So you’re a year in…do you still feel like joining the Peace Corps was the right decision?”

My answer is a resounding yes.  Sí, claro!  There are definite highs and lows, struggles and rewards.  There are days where I feel accomplished and like I’m making a difference and there are days where I just want to sleep.  This whole experience is such a learning opportunity.  I feel like I’m in life’s classroom—-learning so much about myself, the culture of the Colombian coast and living in Español.    

12 months in, here are some things I’ve learned along the way:

  1. A strong sense of personal motivation is needed.  No matter how difficult it may be, it is important to not be too affected when day to day things that are supposed to happen don’t.  Or simply when things don’t work out the way you thought they would.  And it’s a very safe assumption to expect everything to be canceled when it’s raining.
  2. Kids are so darn cute and naturally good.  Kids all around the world hold these common merits.
  3. Colombians tend to say ‘yes' to you in order to not hurt your feelings or let you down, even if they are well aware that their 'yes' is a definite 'no.’  This is genuinely done in good character with the aim of not disappointing the other person and results in a lot of unfulfilled promises.  I personally would rather be ‘let down' initially.  
  4. Being bilingual is sexy.  I stole this from another volunteer’s facebook status because it rings so true.  Even on the days where nothing seems to be going right, I feel very blessed to be in a different country and interacting and living in another language.  
  5. I absolutely have to have a creative outlet.  Whether it be choreographing beam routines and coaching gymnastics; teaching dances to my kids at school or taking dance classes myself.  I have rediscovered that I need this creative and physical release.   
  6. The hardest part about living abroad for an extended period of time is being away from family and friends.
  7. I can be a lot more comfortable with being uncomfortable than I’ve ever imagined.  
  8. A good support system is vital.  Big shout out to the wonderful one that I have!  
  9. I am a complete foodie.  Food is one of the things I miss and think about the most.  
  10. Colombia is full of warm, loving people.  Families have taken me in with their own and have provided much love, compassion, rice and patience with my Español.  
  11. We need to take care of our planet.  The Colombian coast is breathtakingly stunning with mountains, waterfalls and beaches.  But there is also a plethora of trash.  Everywhere.  Littering is common practice and trash cans are scarce.  Living in an area that is clearly favored by Mother Nature’s thumb, it is heart wrenching to see the very earth being used as a garbage dump.  
  12. I enjoy my alone time.  As an extrovert and person who feeds off the energy of others, I also enjoy some quality time solo.  Time to regroup, think, process and relax.  
  13. A slower pace of life can be a healthy pace of life.  As the locals do, I’ve become accustomed to stopping and talking to every person I know on my way from Point A to Point B.  With the idea, you are with said person you know and ran into on the street now and that is where you should direct your attention and energy, instead of focusing on rushing to your destination (Point B).
  14. Naps are wonderful.  I’ve always known this universal truth.  But the amazing thing is, I never feel guilty about napping here.  It is common practice and expected to nap every afternoon after lunch.  
  15. When you say yes to life, life often says yes back to you.  

I feel established in my community and ready to make more things happen.  Look out for another blog post of goals I have for year two!  

Thanks for all the love and support!