Sybelle VanAntwerp and Ivette Aguilar are Community Economic Development (CED) volunteers serving in pueblos in Sucre, Colombia and Magdalena, Colombia, respectively.

The original version of this article was a speech for the CII-11 swearing-in ceremony, delivered in Spanish by Ivette Aguilar. It was developed based on common experiences and input from the cohort during their three months of training in the department of Atlántico.

A few months ago, my Spanish language class learned how to make sancocho. Sancocho is a traditional Colombian soup that carries cultural significance and exists in diverse iterations; sancocho costilla, mondongo, pescado, rabo, and trifasico. To make each type, you simply have to substitute different ingredients.

One of the core values of the Peace Corps is the ability to adapt. In the context of cooking, this entails learning to substitute ingredients as necessary. Our cohort arrived with our own set of ingredients – a strong attachment to scheduling and time, our individual comfort zones, and independence. Throughout three months of training, we learned that our own ingredients needed some adjustment.

The first ingredient we needed to substitute was our sense of time. Many of us arrived in Colombia with our own concept of what schedules, agendas, and plans should look like. What we didn’t know was that each person we would meet in our training towns would slowly help us move away from this mindset. We learned to walk a little slower so that we could say hello to each person in the neighborhood. We sat on patios and wished neighbors goodnight; we turned power outages into spontaneous festivities by candlelight. We substituted our desire to plan and control our days with an ability to focus on the people around us. In other words, we substituted our watches for kisses on the cheek – and a greater focus on relationships.

IMG_3787.JPGA second ingredient that needed a culinary adjustment was our comfort level. Traveling to a new country tested our confidence communicating, our sense of cultural norms, and our tolerance for heat. Many in our group worked hard and experienced challenge after challenge, especially when speaking Spanish. We had to develop the ability to laugh at ourselves and accept vulnerability. From confusing arroyos (flash floods) and ahorros (savings), to inviting friends to a tormenta (storm) instead of a torneo (tournament), we were humbled often. And we’ll continue to be humbled throughout our service.

The strongest ingredient we’ve tasted so far – and that we’re sure to encounter time and time again in Colombia – is compassion. We experienced host families that fed us (and overfed us), did our laundry, and invited us into their homes. They kissed us goodbye, celebrated our birthdays, and held our hands while we cried. The most beautiful substitution that we made was to let go of our independence so that we could step into a community that represents something muchgreater than ourselves. It has been an incredible honor thus far and will be one of the greatest joys of our service.

With these new ingredients, our sancocho is sure to be delicious no matter which type we choose. Here is the recipe for a simple sancocho costeño:


  • 3 ears fresh corn, cut into 3 pieces
  • 12 cups of water or more if needed
  • 1 cup of aliños (food process the list below into a paste):
    • ½ medium green pepper, chopped
    • ½ medium red pepper, chopped
    • ½ medium onion, chopped
    • 4 scallions, chopped
    • ½ teaspoon cumin
    • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
    • 1 cup water
  • 1 big whole chicken
  • 2 pounds of short ribs
  • 1 pound of pork ribs
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 green plantains, peeled and cut crosswise into 2 inch pieces
  • 1 ripe plantain, peeled and cut crosswise into 2 inch pieces
  • 2 chicken bouillon cubes
  • 6 medium white potatoes, peeled and cut in half
  • 1 pound yuca, cut into big pieces
  • 2 cups of auyama, cut into pieces
  • 1/2 small cabbage, cut into pieces
  • 1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro


  1. In a large pot, place the beef ribs, pork ribs, chicken, corn, aliños, chicken bouillon, salt, and green plantain. Add the water and bring to a boil, then cover and reduce heat to medium and cook for about 45 minutes.
  2. Add the potatoes, ripe plantain, yuca, pumpkin and cabbage. Continue cooking for 30 more minutes or until the vegetables are fork tender. Stir in the cilantro.
  3. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve in large soup bowls, dividing the chicken and vegetables evenly.


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