After departing the airport, we arrived at our quaint home in the city center. The group was blown away at the scenic sight surrounding our accommodations after opening the double red doors that led into our space. We were greeted by Gloria, who will be taking care of our meals at our home throughout the week. She prepared an exceptional spread of local cuisine that included chicken, white rice, plantains and a fresh tomato and cucumber salad.
After lunch, we met for a team meeting to discuss the remainder of the week in further detail. After our meeting concluded, the group began to sort shoes and toys in preparation for our five distributions, where we will service an estimated 500 children. Once our work concluded, we set out to explore in the city prior to our dinner reservation at a local restaurant. Unfortunately, the power went out in the city center and the restaurant was unable to accommodate us. Luckily, we ventured to a restaurant a few blocks down and were pleasantly surprised by all they had to offer. The table was spread with everything from beef loin to risotto, fish fillet to prawn mashed potatoes, seafood pasta and more. It was excellent! A sweet treat at a local ice cream shop was the perfect nightcap.
Tomorrow is distribution day No. 1 and we couldn't be more excited. It will include community activities followed by two shoe distributions at a local school within the city. As for now, it's time to rest up as the rewarding work begins tomorrow.
Our first distribution day began with a meal of arepas, which is a traditional Colombian dish, fresh fruit, yogurt and cereal, fried plantains, Colombian sausage (similar to an American hot dog), toast with cream cheese, fresh fruit juice and coffee.
When we arrived at our first school, we were greeted by a wonderful group of children. Several were lined up with mini American flags and smiles as they chanted a welcome to our group. Our first task was a painting project of the school that was led by Domino Volunteers. We sanded and prepped the walls, before we plastered royal blue throughout the school grounds.
The children practiced their English with us as we painted. We laughed and bantered back and forth with them most of the morning, as we all painted and smiled. When we stopped for a break, we were escorted into a large room for a presentation by a collection of students at the school. One of the most endearing moments was when a child from their deaf program presented to us in sign language. After their presentations concluded, we began our first shoe distribution of the trip. Children filled the room proudly showing off their new shoes, friendship bracelets and pencils.
A second group of children arrived at school for the second half of the day and our process started all over again, but it was slightly more chaotic this time! The children were so eager to join in on the painting they ran rampant across the school grounds. Frantically, we repeated the process of painting, laughing and giving out dozens of more shoes to complete the day.
At the end of the day, we packed up and headed back to the City Center for a two-hour walking tour of the city. Santiago led the charge and escorted us throughout the hot spots. He enlightened us with unique information about Cartagena and the country of Colombia itself.
Our tour wrapped up with a meal back at our accommodations. As usual, the spread was top notch. Beef, fresh mixed veggies, fried plantains, rice, lentils and avocado filled the table before us. After dinner, we reflected on all the things we accomplished that day. We highlighted so many wonderful ways in which we gave back and talked specifically about where we walked out of our comfort zones. The night wrapped up with a sweet treat at a local crepes and waffles restaurant.
We welcomed additional guests at breakfast, as a production company joined us to film our interactions with the local children for a promotional video about Soles4Souls.
Our second distribution was much different than the first. In order to arrive at Tierra Bomba Island, we had to take a short boat ride across the ocean. Despite the short, 10-minute ride, it felt as though we entered into an entirely different country, with no running water. The elements were far different than what we had experienced during the day prior.
When we arrived at the school, we were greeted by faculty members, the principal and a group of female students. The principal expressed his appreciation for our presence in the school, and the group of students sang an amazing rendition of "Shout to the Lord" in English. We all were touched by their song.
Before we began our first distribution of the day, we painted the outside of the school, similar to the day two. We worked with the local children of the school to sand the walls, and repaint after. Afterward, we split into groups to begin distributing shoes. This distribution was different, however. While we still sized children's feet, and gave them new shoes, some of our group went to the local soccer field and played with the students for over an hour, while the film crew recorded the game. Once we finished with the distribution, it was time to eat some lunch, and take a short break.
For lunch, we were served a simple meal of fish prepared whole, with rice, tomato salad and plantains. We sat and talked with additional members of Domino Volunteers, who were helping us with the morning work. After lunch, we made our way to an after-school program that was situated on a large hill. The only way to reach the program was to walk through the village and climb a set of steep stairs. We began our ascent with bags of shoes and gifts for the program.
When we made it to the top, we met Laura who runs the program. She told us how they help children both in and out of school, by teaching them ways to recycle and reuse common items and turn them into something new. For our afternoon service project, we did some more painting and helped to build a new bathroom. We also helped to build a stand-up garden by filling empty plastic bottles that were cut in half, and then planting soil and vegetable seeds inside. The students of the program assisted us in the projects, and quickly it was time for our second distribution of the day. For this distribution, we had only about 30 children, but they were all students that attend the program.
After our distribution, we loaded up on the boat to head back to the mainland. Our boat ride in the afternoon was a much rougher ride than in the morning, and it took about 25 minutes to get in. When we got back, we had some time to relax and reflect on the day. Around 7 p.m., we left to go to a restaurant that is famous because Anthony Bourdain visited it when he was in Colombia. We had a lot of different fresh seafood, from lobster salad, to panella, a dish of rice with lots of different seafood and ceviche. After dinner, some of us returned to our new favorite crepes and waffles restaurant, before getting ready for bed, and starting to look forward to an excursion day tomorrow!
Excursion day arrived after three days of travel, service projects and shoe distributions. After we finished breakfast, we applied lots of sunscreen and walked to a nearby port on our way back to the island of Tierra Bomba. When we arrived at the port, we met Christina and her husband, Jose. They, along with other Domino Volunteer members, run a scuba diving and snorkeling business, Paraiso Dive Cartagena.
We traveled by boat to the other side of the island, and when we arrived, Jose gave us instructions for diving and told us how all of the gear worked. After learning the basics of scuba diving while on land, it was time to divide into groups. While the first group of five geared up to go diving, the other half took advantage of a private beach at Blue Apple Resort, relaxing and swimming in the ocean. For the divers, they were fitted with scuba masks, wetsuits or rash guards for the coral reef, flippers, and finally tanks and weighted belts. After we found the gear that fit, we loaded the boats and rode out to a spot a short distance out to sea. We put on our gear, and one by one went into the water.
After we all learned the basics and felt comfortable, it was time to begin our descent. As a group, we released the air from our vests, and slowly began descending into the sea. As we descended, the instructors continued to work with us, reminding us to breathe, and to regulate the pressure in our ears. Eventually, we made it to the ocean floor, about eight meters deep from our boat location, and swam to the edge of the coral reef. As we swam out to sea, we kept going lower, staying close to the reef. We saw a lot of wildlife, from schools of fish to lobsters and crabs, and the occasional eel. We dove for about 40 minutes, before starting to climb back to the surface. As we swam back up, the water began to warm up, and we were quickly back to the surface. The boat came and picked us back up, and we went back to shore to switch with the other group.
We only had a morning distribution, but it may have been the hardest one yet. The area of beach that we were in lacked running water and was full of trash. We started our morning in the community helping to pick up garbage along the beach front and surrounding area. There were plastics, clothing, styrofoam and broken glass in the water and grass. Not only that, but there was a lot of barbed wire in the taller grassy areas. We worked with the local children to pick up some of the trash, and to sort the recyclables, and put the garbage into a large dumpster. We helped with the trash removal for about an hour and a half, and then we went to help prep an area in between houses for a future garden.
The area was very overgrown, but we started to pull trash out of the grass and the plants. Once we finished with assisting in the service projects, the hard work got started with our shoe distribution. We gathered in a small room used for schooling, and we broke into teams to start giving out shoes. We were anticipating giving shoes to 40 children, and ended up giving out shoes to more than 80 children throughout the community, and left an additional 30 shoes for future gifts! Although we began running out of some shoes, we were able to fit every child that came through the door. Four of the staff members even took the shoes off of their feet to give to a child or teen. It was amazing!
After we finished our distribution, we played soccer on the beach with a group of children. A lot of children in the community do not have shoes to wear when picking up trash on the beach, so to be able to give so many of them a pair of shoes was immensely rewarding.
After lunch, our group had about an hour of free time to get out and explore or to rest up. Once everyone reconvened, we decided to sit and reflect on the whole trip. We spoke in depth about the differences in the communities that we served, what we found interesting, challenging and what we expected versus the reality of what happened. We heard how the trip impacted everyone individually, and truly took time to appreciate and recognize how life changing this trip was for everyone.
After our reflection, we sat down for a family dinner at the house, followed by a salsa dancing lesson at a nearby dance studio! For a lot of us, it was the first time that we had danced to salsa music. The dance lesson lasted about an hour in total, and it may have been the hardest workout that we had all week.
We decided to change up our morning routine before leaving for the airport. Because we were not flying until after 1 p.m., we decided we wanted to visit a local castle and fort, Castillo de San Felipe. We had passed it a few times while we walked or drove through the city and were eager to learn more about it.
We arrived at the castle around 8:15 a.m., and spent some time walking through it. We also had an incredible vantage point of all of Cartagena, especially the city center. We talked about the trip as a whole and shared some laughs, but we also had some time to quietly reflect on the journey and what it did for us. As we looked over the city, we thought about how we can get more involved in charity work, not just through Soles4Souls or Domino Volunteers, but also how we can give more of our time and money.
After we spent some time reflecting on the trip at the fortress, we headed back to the house to pack and leave for the airport. We took taxis back, but had to be dropped off outside of the city walls, because it was Colombia's Independence Day, and there were celebrations going on around the city. As we walked back through the city, there were people all through downtown and so much Colombian pride being shown.
We made it back to the house, and began to pack, but no one was ready to leave. Before we boarded the bus one last time, Christina and Jose came over to say goodbye. This trip would not have been possible without their hard work and the volunteers from Domino Volunteers, and without Kristen Reid and Soles4Souls.