Friday, December 21, 2007

Break Part I: Time Machine

First off, I must say that I am thoroughly enjoying the flexibility that having three entire weeks off between semesters is allowing me to do.

This first week off of school I jumped on a plane and flew the (barely) hour hop to Bogotá and met up with two other teachers who were already there, Christine (hailing from Sheboygan, WI and fellow UWEC alum) and Luis Armando. We spent the night in Bogotá, which is quite a bit cooler than the Cali heat I've been accustomed to the past five months; I guess elevation will do that to you. It is also significantly cleaner and more cosmopolitan than Cali as well. Kind of like if Chicago was in the mountains. I will definitely be planning a trip back to just explore Bogotá.

The next morning we took a bus to small town about an hour north of the capitol called Zipaquira. After a quick Colombian lunch of soup, beef, potato, and rice we continued walking through town until we reached the other side. Our main intention of stopping here was to visit the famous "Salt Cathedral." This subterranean attraction is exactly what you would think it is - a gigantic cathedral carved out of salt. This area of Colombia was once an ocean and therefore has a high salt content in the ground. Mining the salt has been a lucrative but dangerous business. In the early days of the mine, the workers would bring a statue of the Virgin Mary down in the tunnels with them to pray to. Eventually someone suggested that they carve out a cathedral where they have already mined so that they have an actual place to worship. And in the early 1950's that is what they did. In the tunnels of this working mine is an enormous cathedral about 200 meters into the side of a mountain. Along the way to the actual cathedral room, we passed 14 smaller chapels, each representing one of the Stations of the Cross. While walking through the tunnels, which smelled strongly of sulfur, we would pass prayer benches that looked like they were made of marble. Who knew that when salt hardens in creates a stone-like material that is like a transparent marble. The guide showed us how light can pass through it and that the pulpit and baptismal fountain are all made of this hardened material. (Side note: They have to use salt water in the baptismal because pure water will "eat away" the salt stone.)

After breathing in some fresh mountain air, we navigated our way by two different buses and a cab ride to the beautiful little town of Villa de Leyva, roughly three hours further north. This area of Colombia is still cool, but also surprisingly drier than the rest of the country. There was no need to pack shorts for this trip!

We spent the next three days exploring the little village and the surrounding area. One of the big attractions of the town is the huge center plaza. It is supposedly the biggest in all of Colombia and could probably rival many a city center throughout certain European and colonial American cities as well. It was almost as if time found a way to skip over this tiny pueblo each and every year as the rest of the world moved on. It was not difficult to picture yourself back in the early 1600's.

The food was amazing, as were the little craft shops all along the cobble-stoned streets of the town. One of the favorite flavors of the region is a soup called ajiaco (say: ah-hee-ya-koe) which consists of chicken, corn, and potato stew flavored with a herb called guasca, and avocado. There was also a type of fruit that Christine nor I had ever come across, called feijoa. Luis Armando explained that is very expensive to ship to other areas and because Cali has so many other fruits the demand to bring in others, such as feijoa, is not there, so neither is it.

There is so much to do in and around Villa de Leyva that it is nearly impossible to get it all done in one trip and relax at the same time. And really, if you're not relaxed in Villa de Leyva, you're doing something wrong! The last whole day we were in the place that time forgot we rented horses and a guide and took a tour of some of the local attractions on the outskirts of town. The first place we stopped at was a collection of small ponds that had a brilliant gem-like blue color in the very desert-like area of the valley. Being from the water-filled Midwest, this site wasn't terribly exciting to either Christine or me so, after a couple of quick pictures, we remounted our horses and left the Pozos Azules behind us.

Next stop was an ostrich farm! Now, just to be clear, ostriches (or "avestruzes") are NOT endemic to Colombia or anywhere else in South America. Just to be clear. Anyways, we walked through the farm and learned a lot of interesting facts about these huge birds. Did you know that males can live to be 70 years old but only reproduce between the ages of 3 and 26? I was secretly hoping I'd get to ride one a la Swiss Family Robinson but I had to settle for being pecked at and chased for the ostrich food in my pocket. However you picture that is probably how it looked. Feel free to laugh but just think about what you would do if an eight-foot tall BIRD were coming after you. Yeah. Think about it.

Moving on...the next stop was a small museum off the road built around a kronosaurus fossil in the ground. As I said before, this area used to be an ocean so everything in the museum that has been found in the area was marine in nature. There were a lot of shells, fish, and aquatic plant fossils. And let's not forget the gigantic alligator-like aforementioned museum centerpiece. After a good ten minutes (seriously, it wasn't that big) we were off again.

The final and most ridiculous stop on the horse-led tour of the country was a visit to an ancient Muisca Indian site. There are two reasons this area is important archeologically. The first is that it is like a smaller and simpler Stone Henge. There are two parallel rows of two to four foot tall pillars spaced about one meter apart from each other and nine meters apart from the other row. The position of the shadows apparently told the Muisca when certain growing periods were to occur and they based their festivals around this primitive clock. The other interesting aspect of this area is the abundance of giant stone penises standing, excuse the expression, perfectly erect out of the rocky mountain ground. When the Spanish settlers first began taking control of the area they were so appalled by these enormous phalluses that they knocked a few over and then decided to rename the area El Infiernito (or "The Little Hell") in an attempt to make this place suddenly evil and discourage the Muisca from going there. I can see why they gave up knocking them down when some of them are as big around as an old oak tree and up to two stories tall. Crazy stuff here in Colombia, I tell you...

Break Part II: The Mob & Me

After an enjoyable and relaxing week in Villa de Leyva, Christine, Luis Armando, and I left the little pueblo to head back to Cali. The plan was to catch a bus to Tunja and then another to Bogotá in time to get some lunch and head to airport in time for our 3:30 flight. Simple enough, yes? That's what we thought too.

The bus travel went well, with the minor exception of being randomly stopped and searched by the Colombian military, but I'd rather have to put my hands on the side of the bus and get patted down than have unsafe highways.
We got to the Bogotá airport at around 2pm and were immediately told that our plane had been overbooked...BUT we were being put on a later 5:30pm flight AND were getting some free bonos for future flights. In return we had to stand in line at the check in for a little over an hour. Finally having checked in, we made our way to the appropriate gate only to find that our original 3:30pm flight was at the neighboring gate and had not left yet at about 4:30pm. Eventually they took off and simultaneously our flight was delayed until 6:30pm. The first ting we noticed, other than the fact that no one seemed to really know anything was that somehow an entire planeload of people had been overbooked. I would love to know how that happened, especially when everyone we talked to was supposed to have been on the 3:30pm flight with us. Hmm...

Fast-forward another hour and we are told that our plane, which incidentally, has not shown up yet, is not going to be there until "maybe" 10pm. Or it could just be canceled altogether, they don't really know. At this point our fellow airline travelers began to get a little...peeved? Angry? Riotous? Let's just say about 60% of the flight basically stormed the gate desk all screaming at the same time. The military police stationed at the airport were summoned and were a solid presence from here on out, guns, batons, giant boots and all.

Luis Armando spent a lot of the next few hours with his fellow proactive Colombians questioning the airline workers about the location of our plane, why everyone at the airport was so ignorant, and when when when? Christine and I laid on the floor and watched the growing mob and equally growing number of armed military personnel. Various members of the mob began to emerge in our minds with names and predictable personality traits. There were several stereotypically power tied businessmen on the flight who were obviously used to being in control and getting what they want. They became our favorites to watch. There was also the man in the backwards Kanga hat and sports coat who looked like a Samuel L. Jackson wannabe, the "lady in white," and "chair guy" who seemed to feel that standing on various elevated places yelling random things to the crowd was helping things. "Chair guy" was mostly ignored although on several occasions he was successful in inciting the mob into chanting, "mentirosos" (liars) and "bonos." With each chant the mob caused at least one or two more military troops to show up. (There was also "good hair man" who didn't ever do anything except become our own minor celebrity solely based on his Patrick Dempsey-like locks.)

Eventually, around 11pm, an airline spokesman showed up to let us know that a plane was found to take us to Cali, unfortunately, the pilot had "timed out" and a new one needed to be found. How an airline shortchanges a plane and is out a pilot is beyond me but they haven't asked me to run the company yet so I'll stay out of it.

At about 12:15am we had a pane and a pilot and a crew. At this point the airline thought to themselves, "what else can we do to not get these people off the ground very quickly? I know! Let's board them by calling out their names one at a time! Brilliant!" So, one by one we were called by name and allowed to board the plane. After about 15 minutes Stephani Johnson got called to board. It was like getting the VIP treatment walking down the tunnel to the plane since no one else was in the tunnel with you. A few minutes later Christian Dussault joined me on the plane followed by our pal Luis Armando, who had no identity crisis. When several of the "Power Tie Crew" boarded they were greeted by an ovation of sorts. It doesn't take much to be a celebrity. We were also given more bonos, as if we were all dying to fly this airline again.

Wait! We can't take off that easily! As we were taxing down the runway an older man in the front half of the cabin suddenly passed out. This was most likely due to the fact that while sitting on the slowly filling plane there was very little circulating air. After returning to the terminal to drop this gentleman off, we finally were in the air at 1:45am - ten hours and fifteen minutes after we were supposed to take off.

I know others of you have probably spent many hours in an airport due to cancellations for various reasons; however, the introduction of near riots, the police, and complete ignorance raised this airport experience to a whole other level for me. Moral of the story: Don't fly AeroRepublica.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Noche De Las Velitas

Tonight there was a celebration at school at dusk called "Noche de las Velitas" (Night of the Candles) where Colegio Bolivar families came, talked, listened to live music, and lit candles. If there is a religious or traditional purpose/history, beyond "this is just what we do," I was not able to ascertain one from any of the students I asked.

So, in the end, you purchase a bag of about 15 candles and light them one at a time, melting the wax and sticking them to a board laid out on the ground. There were basically hundreds of 2x4's laid end to end and about 5 feet apart all over the playing fields on campus. When all the boards were lit, it was quite a sight.

I've included some pictures above (which I'm sure you can see). Enjoy!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

None of these things I used this past weekend (except for a taxi which is technically an "automobile" but let's overlook that for now...). Think of ANY other form a transportation and I probably used it; this weekend was a mini-course in transit.


This weekend I explored the Pacific Coast of Colombia (Pacifico) with another teacher, Matt, who has been in the country for six years and has an interest in travelling "off the beaten path." There are certain places I would not feel comfortable going both because of my limited Spanish AND safety concerns. However, travelling with someone who is familiar with the area, people, and language to said places was an opportunity I could not pass up.

We left school immediately after the final bell Wednesday of Thanksgiving break and hauled it to the bus depot as quickly as traffic allowed and hopped on a colectivo (mini-bus) bound for the port city of Buenaventura. Now, I've mentioned Buenaventura before but just to recap and elaborate... Buenaventura is a shit hole. It is basically a giant ghetto surrounding one of the richest ports in South America. It is Colombia's only Pacific Coast port city so all the goods that come into the country from China, Japan, Russia, etc. come thru this port. Basically, there is a lot of money coming in to a city where most of the population has none. Also, the Pacific Coast of Colombia, I've been told several times, is one of the wettest places on earth; it does seem to always be moist too so there has to be some truth to that. For more info:

We found a hotel, which was a trick in and of itself because we had to find a reputable one, meaning one that didn't rent rooms by the hour. After that we met up with one of Matt's friends, Jhonesy, for Chinese food at restaurant across from our hotel. Jhonesy is an aspiring reggaeton singer who is allegedly moving to Spain to produce an album with Sony. We'll see. I have a hard time figuring out why he is living in Buenaventura if he is as on the cusp of musical success as he says... Regardless, Jhonesy told us a lot of interesting things about the city, including some barrios he won't even go into. I believe the exact line was "You can go in, but you aren't coming out." Jhonesy told us that muggings in some areas have gotten so bad, thieves have been known to take a machete to someones ankle in order to steal their shoes. There is no request - they just hack off the foot.

Needless to say, the next morning when we ventured down the block to the pier to get on our boat (keeping track of the transportation?), I couldn't have been happier!


The cliffs of Ladrilleros at high tide.
About an hour lancha (large motor/speed boat) ride north of Buenaventura is the small community of Juanchaco. I don't know the exact population of this little coastal town but it probably is more that I would expect for the number of houses it has. Bascially, the people of Juanchaco live off the sea and the limited tourism that come and go from their dock (singular). There are no roads that connect Juanchaco to the rest of Colombia. The only way in or out is by water.

Shortly after arriving we jumped on a couple of moto-taxis and headed north for about five minutes to the even smaller village of Ladrilleros along an occasionally paved winding road. I realized, as my driver evasively maneuvered around a giant mud puddle, that I had never been on a motorcycle before.

Hotel Medellin
After being dropped off in the center of town, we walked to our hotel, negotiated a price and checked in. The hotel was impressively located right on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Now, whatever seaside resort hotel you're imagining...stop. The rooms at this hotel were probably around ten foot square with a (lumpy, but clean) mattress, plastic resin table, and a fan. The toilet was located right around the corner for convenience. Each room had a small balcony facing the sea large enough for the two red plastic chairs to fit. For the two nights we stayed there, my room cost me all of US$20...and this was probably the priciest place in town.

For the next two days we just relaxed, hung out on the beach (when it was at low tide), read lots and lots, and ate just as much. The livelihood of the people in Ladrilleros is similar to that of Juanchaco with possibly a little more emphasis on tourism. Many locals fortunate enough to own property on the main road open up the front of their homes as restaurants. "Restaurante de Teresa" and "Restaurante de Alise" were two we frequented. There are no menus; you either order fish or eggs (possibly carne) and it automatically comes prepared in some delicious way with rice and a fried plantain.

Despite the tourism industry, both Juanchaco and Ladrilleros are pretty poor communities. Most of the houses look as if a stiff wind would topple them and although the aluminum roofs probably do a decent job of keeping the water out, many of the houses that are not elevated on a wooden platform often have their dirt floors flooded by the frequent rains. I would also not be surprised if there were more dogs living in Ladrilleros than people.

Some restaurants you even have to pay in advance because they do not have the food and need to go purchase it for you. This was the case several times, especially for dinner when we were ordering seafood. Side note: Teresa makes a mean shrimp dish. It is truly amazing what these women are capable of producing in these limited facilities. I would love to see what they could do in a good kitchen!


After almost three days of relaxing and taking in the sun and surf, Matt and I headed back to Juanchaco by moto-taxi to catch the last lancha of the day back to Buenaventura. This particular lancha ride was relatively terrifying as we became airborne several times and killed the motor thrice. Despite the clear blue sunny sky I didn't find much fun bobbing idly in the giant ocean waves waiting for the motor to maybe start again. And again. And again.

Finally back on dry land, we quickly hailed a taxi and headed out of town to an exit for a town about 30 miles southeast of Buenaventura. The town the taxi dumped us in was Cordoba, however, this was just that, a dumping point. Our intended destination is the tiny village of San Cipriano, hidden deep in the jungle in the middle of a National Forest.

Riding the "brujita" or "little witch."
Because this is protected land, there are no roads in or out of San Cipriano; instead they have a "rail car" of sorts. There is a single narrow track connecting San Cipriano to the rest of the world running about eight miles thru the jungle. Each rail car consists of a wooden platform on casters with a motocycle and bench situated parallel to each other. The motorcyle is bolted to the platform by its front wheel with the back tire touching the track. So, you straddle the bench and hold on tight as you go barrelling thru the jungle at up to 35-40 MPH. What happens if you encounter another rail car coming the other direction (remember - one track!)? You stop. The drivers stare each other down and through some unspoken pecking order, one of the rail cars is lifted off the track so that the other may pass. We must have a had a driver near the bottom of this caste because we had to de-rail car quite a bit.

Non-stop the rail car journey probably takes about seven minutes; depending upon the number of encounters with other rail cars, it could take longer. Because San Cipriano is in the middle of a National Forest and because of the unique method of transportation, it has become a smallish Colombian tourist destination and the village makes a living off of that. However, because it is in the middle of the jungle, even as recently as the early 2000's this was guerrilla territory and although an increased military presence in the area has pushed most of the guerrilla out, the natives here are more than likely, if not ex-guerrilla, guerrilla sympathizers. This is not to say San Cipriano is not safe. The locals know that they rely on tourism to live and are very warm and welcoming people.

Upon arriving we made our way to Matt's favorite hotel in town, Hotel David, where we were welcomed in with hugs and kisses from the owner, a sweet lady named Luz-Mari. She made a wonderful dinner of crayfish from the river, sancocho (a very popular soup in Latin America), rice, and fried plantains. We were pretty tired after traveling all day and called it a night.

If Ladrilleros has more dogs than people, then San Cipriano has more chickens than all of Colombia. Sunday at the crack of dawn the overabundance of roosters woke us up and there is no going back to sleep with roosters crowing all up and down the road.

Now, in San Cipriano there is one man with a vehicle. I don't know how it got into the town in the first place but he has a very old military surplus-type truck circa 1950. When it runs, he will take you a few miles into the jungle along the river and dump you off there with an inner tube to spent the next couple hours floating down the river back into town. The water in the river (I couldn't tell you the name) was unbelievably clear. There were spots I could see straight down almost 15 feet. It was a perfect way to spend the Sunday morning hours.

Upon our return, Luz-Mari had breakfast and tinto (coffee) waiting for us and we ate a leisurely breakfast watching the tourists and townsfolk walk up and down the main/only street in town. We then packed up, took the rail car back to Cordoba, hiked up to the highway, waited for a colectivo with two empty seats to come by and headed back to Cali.

Overall, a relaxing and busy Thanksgiving holiday weekend. I got to see a lot of places I probably would not have ventured to alone and got to travel by bus, boat, motorcycle, and rail car. I'll satisfy the need for the plane over Christmas vacation when I fly to Bogota...hasta diciembre!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A Very Colombian Thanksgiving

Seasons greetings everyone!

Actually, it's been feeling very festive here with the holidays for some time. Even before Halloween (which is marginally celebrated here) the stores were putting up Christmas displays. I know it's bad in the States but I feel that the beginning of October is still a little early to be seeing Santa and garlands in the store...even by U.S. standards. Since there is no Thanksgiving here (duh) black and orange segue right into green and red and so it has been for awhile. Actually, I'm pretty sure I saw a Christmas clearance sale last weekend. No joke.

BUT! Thanksgiving has not truely passed us yet and, since we are an American International school, the Colegio Bolivar community hosted a lavish Thanksgiving dinner in the cafeteria, turning it into an outdoor banquet hall, for all the faculty, Colombian and all!

In the spirit of the season (and the blaringly obvious oversight of no stuffing at Thanksgiving dinner) I have compiled a brief list of the things I am now even more thankful for that I don't have.

#1) stuffing
#2) corn bread (not this arraypa stuff that is, yes, made of corn but tastes like compact styrofoam with flour)
#3) English muffins
#4) country music on the radio
#5) my FRIENDS DVD's (big mistake not packing those!)
#6) crunching leaves
#7) pumpkin pie (only because I didn't get a piece)
#8) McDonald's (yes, I said it...let's never speak of this again)
#9) Reece's peanut butter cups
#10) Reece's peanut butter cup McFlurries at McDonald's

...okay, someone stop me!
I'm leaving today after school for what should turn out to be a very eventful four day weekend. I know the stories have been lacking as of late, so I hope to up the ante a little. Juanchaco here I come!

Have a GREAT Thanksgiving everyone!!!!

Friday, October 26, 2007

Keeping My Voice and My Dirty Nails

or... Hello? Yes, I Can Talk - I'm Just At Parent/Teacher Conferences. What Is The Teacher Wearing? Umm..."

This week for two days I came to school and sat at a little table in the library and talked and talked and talked with parents and students at conferences. Going into conferences I wasn’t all that nervous. I was thinking about how convenient it would be if all the students who were not doing too well had parents that spoke good English, but other than that I was feeling pretty confident.

The conferences ended up feeling like my Spanish mid-term oral exam. I was given a translator but I ended up sending him away. He was a little too pushy and I found out that 1) I have learned enough Spanish to get through a parent/teacher conference fairly smoothly and 2) if I get stuck the student is right there to translate for me. I learned a few new words too and tried to incorporate them into the other meetings as much as possible.

Nothing amazingly entertaining happened over the course of the two days other than me drinking too much water in a preemptive effort to not lose my voice. I was successful and can speak with a full voice today; however, the library urinal and I are now on a first-name basis.

A lot of the things about the interactions at the conferences were very similar with my previous experiences. Some parents think 99% is fantastic and others think it is not good enough. Some parents think 60% is fantastic while others are starting to tan some hide. Some parents yell at their child right there in front of you at the table and others just give a death glare that would freeze lava. It was interesting to see that the interactions and reactions between the parents and the students were the same as what I’ve seen in North America.

There were four main differences though. First, if you didn’t know any better, you would have thought you were at the social event of the year. Most all the men were in suits and the women were so done up with jewelry and flashy clothes they needed to wear their sunglasses inside. Also, I was very aware of my fingernails and how I hadn’t had time to get a manicure yesterday…or ever in my entire life. The appearance thing is HUGE here. Another import teacher was talking with a mother who, while being told about her son’s progress in class, was leaning back to see under the table to check out the entire ensemble the teacher was wearing – skirt, shoes, and probably toe nails too!
Secondly, it is strange to give a kiss-hello to a student you are about to tell is failing. It’s kind of like giving someone a hug and then kneeing them in the groin.
The third difference was the total number of parents I talked to. Usually, in the States, by the time student reaches high school, the parents stop attending conferences religiously. Not here. Believe it or not, I had a 96% attendance rate. Had I brought a book to read, I would not have had much time to crack it open.
Finally, and this is very cultural, Colombians cannot not answer their cell phones. It may be physically impossible for them to ignore a call. I had at least seven parents answer their phones mid-conference and, when I stopped to let them take the call, they would motion for me to continue on. (!!!)
Welcome to Colombia.

Friday, October 19, 2007


One of the great things about teaching in Colombia is the semi-frequent three-day weekends. Since it is a predominantly Catholic country, most of them are due to "St. Somebody" Days...however, I stopped trying to keep track when it became apparent that even the kids don't know.

Last weekend was another such vacation, so I, along with a few other teachers, decided to spend it in a little town in the middle of the coffee region, Zona Cafeteria, called Salento. To get there we boarded a bus at Cali's massive three story bus terminal bound for the city of Armenia. After a three and a half hour ride passing semis and other buses on the two-lane Pan-American Highway at frightening speeds we arrived in Armenia and proceeded to board yet another smaller, albeit equally speedy bus for a 50 minute ride to Salento. (The bus terminals are great; they are like airports except with buses. You go to a ticket counter - or several until you find the best rate a la "The Amazing Race" - and then go to your "gate" and wait in the chairs until the driver comes and opens the doors and allows you to board. Unlike a plane though, the bus will occasionally make random stops along the highway/street corners to pick-up or drop off more people.)

Once in Salento we walked to our lodging, a nice little house on the edge of town that rented rooms, owned by the nice old man and woman. Appropriately we were immediately offered tinto (a small cup of black coffee). After chatting up the owners for a while and taking in the mountainous view we headed off to get some dinner. Now, Salento is smack dab in the middle of the main coffee producing region so one would expect to find coffee everywhere...and one would be correct. However, Salento is also famous for its trout (trucha) streams and therefore love trout. At dinner we asked to see a menu and the waiter told us they did not have menus, just trout. You order trout and tell them what you want on it. Simple as that. It comes filleted open, skin and all, sometimes with the head. So, coffee and trout. Separately delicious, together...not so much.

The next day we woke up bright and early, were offered a cup of tinto, and headed for breakfast. The only disappointment I had was the giant bowl of coffee I got for breakfast was definitely made from Nescafe. I go all the way to Colombia's coffee growing region and they serve me Nescafe. Seriously now, c'mon!

Salento is a really small town. It reminded me of those tiny Midwestern towns with a "downtown" that features a square with a road that encircles it going one-way, a few shops, the town hall, and a church bordering it, and about two to four blocks of houses beyond that in any direction. Quaint and small. So, after breakfast we walked all of ten feet across the road to the square and rented a ride in a jeep bound for a national reserve up a little higher in the mountains called Valle de Cocora. My guide book says that the jeeps wait for all six seats to be filled before they leave, or you can pay for the empty seats. This turned out not to be the case. Instead, the driver piles 13-14 people in the back of the jeep (it's tricky but it can be done if you have people standing...on the back bumper) and some grain, milk, rice, and toilet paper on the roof. Then you are ready to leave.

After 45 minutes of harrowing mountain curves in the crisp morning mountain air, we arrived at the base of the Parque Valle de Cocora. Here we acted like true grino tourists and purchased ponchos, as this is what the locals all wore because it is chilly up there, and cowboy hats. Why cowboy hats? Because that's what you wear when you ride horses! That's right - we rented horses and a guide to take us way into the park for a four hour tour.

The uniqueness of the Valle de Cocora is it is home to the wax palm (palma de cera) which is both the national tree of Colombia and the highest growing species of palm tree in the world. These trees were incredible and would seemingly grow up out of the most random places. Combined with the rest of the valley, I felt like I was looking for Dr. Suess's Lorax. It was fantastic!

We climbed up and up and up, crossing rushing streams where the water level breached the horses' underbellies and we had to lift or legs way up. (Actually, I think it was the same stream; we just crossed it a lot.) We made our way up these steep, narrow, rocky paths as if we were looking for the Temple of Doom that Indiana Jones couldn't find. I was ridiculous. Especially when the horse in front of you starts slipping on the wet rocks...

We eventually made it to this hostel located way up at the top of the mountain at about 9,500 ft. They served us...wait for and we sat and watched the infinite number of hummingbirds flitting from flower to flower. It was like there was a factory just churning them out; I've never seen so many in my life! As we left and started to head back, the clouds began descending on top of us. It wasn't really raining...but we were cold and wet in a matter of minutes. We took out the rain ponchos from under the saddles (apparently this happens frequently enough that they are just attached to each horse) and continued riding our horses in the cloud. Eventually we dropped just below the cloud and were able to see more than twenty feet in front of us at which point we came upon a grove of palma de cera that was just breath-taking. Some of them were so tall you could barely see the fronds on top.

After dismounting and staggering awkwardly to a jeep waiting with nine people already inside, we headed back down to Salento to shower and eat dinner. That night, after dining on trout (with fried plantains, of course), I wandered down some of the side streets, stopping in shops and talking to the vendors. This town is a huge tourist draw, not for foreigners, but for Colombians. Most of the people walking around are not from Salento and it therefore creates an even friendlier atmosphere as almost everyone you pass on the street is a tourist as well.

I eventually made it back to our house, where I was offered more tinto and went to bed praying I wouldn't be sore in the morning...

The next day was a lot of lounging around in hammocks and enjoying the view. Also tinto. Then came the saddest moment I've had in all my time here in Colombia: we had to board the bus and go back to Cali. I WILL be going back to Salento again...and not just for the tinto.

PS: Two days later I couldn't walk. It was bad.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Lights, Camera, Action!

Before I arrived here, my guidebook advised that Cali was not a cultural hotbed and was lacking in movies and such. This is both true and skewed. There are plenty of movies to see in Cali. The question is, do I want to see them? (Get your mind out of there...not those movies. I mean, I have internet...let's not get creepy. KIDDING!) Let's go to the movies...

When you go to the movie theater in Colombia, you stand in line, pay someone sitting behind a plexi-glass panel with a hole in it, get snacks, sit in the dark, etc just like in North America. A few subtle differences:

1) There are assigned seats and you get to choose them at the plexi-glass window. This takes a ridiculous amount of time so it is advisable to arrive at the airport. (This practice is apparently pretty common in Europe and actually not all that bad of an idea.) You can also pay more money to sit in the "preferred" seating, which is in the very back. All theaters I've been in have been stadium seating so this isn't actually too bad.

2) You get frisked on your way into the theater. Thoroughly.

3) You are ushered to your assigned seat. If an attendant is not immediately there when you enter the theater, one will find you and check that you are indeed in your assigned seat. Also, if no one else is in the theater and you want to move to another seat you will be shot. Okay, not really, but it is not allowed and a flashlight will end up shining in your face.

4) Movies that say "Proximente" (or "Coming Soon") are. Eventually. I saw Lucky Number Slevin (7 Número Equivocado) this week. I believe this movie came out in the States a year ago and is definitely already on DVD. It should be noted, though, that other more current films, such as The Bourne Ultimatum (Bourne: El Ultimatum), The Simpsons Movie (Los Simpsons), and Die Hard 4: Live Free or Die Hard (Duro de Matar 4.0) have been here since I arrived in August. Also, I have been unable to find anything resembling a schedule of when movies will or will not be there.

5) Most everything is subtitled. Fortunately for me, they are subtitled in English. Which means if something funny is said, I laugh first, followed by the "readers." Or not at all if the humor doesn't translate. In that case I'm always thankful we watch movies in the dark. Also, cartoons are never subtitled and always dubbed in Spanish. I guess it's easier. (?)

I love that even simple activities like this can become serious misadventures. Coming next week...brushing my teeth.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Survivor: Gorgona

Each year the ninth grade class goes on a trip. I'm not sure what the overall intended purpose of the trip is because there are definitely some educational points to it but as far as an all-encompassing mission statement, that eludes me. This year we went to an Island in the Pacific, Isla Gorgona. It is an entirely privatized area owned by the National Park service of Colombia and the only people who live there are the workers. It also used to be like the Colombian Alcatraz and there is a deserted prison deep in the jungle. But I'm getting ahead of myself...

The trip began on a Wednesday afternoon loading the buses at school. We had to search the bags for the usual contraband (cigs, booze, knives, etc.) as well as music players and too many snacks. I don't make the rules, I just enforce them! After all the moms and dads said goodbye we were off!

After three hours on the bus weaving around steep Andean Mountain curves at 50 kilometers an hour (its sometimes easier not to watch) we arrived in the port city of Buenaventura. (Side Note: Buenaventura is one of the richest ports in South America and the largest city on the western coast of Colombia. It is also the poorest, most run down city I've ever seen. The entire city is like a giant ghetto; it is horribly impoverished.) So, we get off the buses in the pouring rain, grab random bags, run for the boat only to stand in the rain getting wetter by the minute since only one person at a time can "walk the plank" to get on the boat. This is clearly not a luxury cruise. Once we are all on board the Colombian Coast Guard gets on and does an entire inspection on the boat the crew. You see, some of these kids come from very "important" families, for various reasons, and the Coast Guard will be accompanying us on this know, just in case. Some of the students' body guards are also riding along with the Coast Guard.

After waiting at the pier for about an hour we finally head out for our twelve hour sea voyage. Although not technically a passenger vessel, there were limited cabins with "beds" and although I was not feeling particularly sea-sick while the storm tossed us around, I felt it best to go inside and try and sleep the hours away. The doctor, on the other hand, was kept very busy all night long. I awoke once at about 2am, took a walk around the boat, talked to some kids on the roof for awhile (the storm was now just a light drizzle), and then went back to bed. When I awoke again, we had anchored and were looking at the paradise that was Isla Gorgona in the dawn light. The time was 6am.

The first small boat (lancha) was loaded with about 16 boys who were taken to shore. (Isla Gorgona has no dock.) Little did they know that the next three lancha-loads would be filled with luggage that they would unload. He he... Then the rest of us disembarked for the island. We then had our bags checked again by the Park Service workers, found our lodging, and had a wonderful breakfast of eggs, arraypas, mango juice, sausage, and avena (a hot oatmeal drink). Finally, we had a brief orientation meeting so that everyone was clear on the rules of the island:

Rule #1: You must have a guide with you if you leave the poblado (lodging area). No exceptions.

Rule #2: There are only two places on the island you can go without big rubber boots. The area around the poblado and the beach.

Rule #3: Rule #2 does not apply after dark. Boots are on all the time.

The rest of the day was free to relax, snorkel from the beach, lay in a hammock, whatever. The kids were great and entertained themselves and I took part in all of the aforementioned activities.

The next three days the kids did a small group activity in the morning, which they rotated through, one each day. There was the prison tour (which was kind of the social studies/English activity), snorkeling lab, and the biology activity which I had to lead. First off, it is very difficult to plan for an outdoor lab in an environment you have never been to before. Second, I had originally planned a lab that would have complemented our evolution unit nicely...but we didn't get that far in class yet so I knew it would be a stretch. So, the morning before departing on our journey I scrapped it and came up with a new one that was more ecology/scientific method based.

For my lab, we walked three kilometers through the rainforest, with the help of our guide, Justinano, mind you (see Rule #1), to a beautiful coral beach, Playa Blanca. There the kids got into groups of three and, using a length of rope marked off three quadrants, inventorying the number, size, and coloration of the hermit crabs inside each quadrant. Blah blah blah...pretty cool biology lab. Eventually they will be writing up a lab report, drawing conclusions, and making some generalizations about hermit crabs and their living habits. (While the kids worked, Justiniano cut fresh coconut for us to snack on before we headed back. (Side note: Eating too much fresh coconut may loosen the bowels...FYI)

Along the hike we saw two boas, a lot a little tiny frogs, and monkeys monkeys monkeys. Occasionally they would get "upset" that we were walking through their home and would come down from the trees to scream at us. (One time a very aggressive monkey was right in the path and, since I was stuck at the back of the line making sure everyone was keeping up, about five of us got cut off from the rest of the group. I called ahead for Justiniano to come save us but he was too far ahead. So Plan B went into effect and I picked up a coconut from the ground, threw it toward the monkey...and we ran muy rapido.) The highlight of the bio lab activity happened on the second trip to the beach when a group of humpback whales passed by about 200 meters from shore. It was amazing to see these enormous creatures so close!

In the afternoon each day we usually boarded the main boat and went to a new snorkeling site or went whale watching. The snorkeling was amazing and I got to see lots of different types of coral I had never seen in person before and also so many beautiful fish...some of which were definitely on our dinner plates later that evening. Red Snapper anyone? The kids loved finding pufferfish and making them puff up. The first time a student came swimming up to me with one I was a little shocked and almost choked on the water in my snorkel. They are so funny looking when they poof out. It is a little like a balloon with a tiny face trying to talk. It is hard not to laugh!

Whale watching, or more accurately, "whale chasing", was a lot of fun too. Most of the time the whales would just be breaching the surface with their backs but every once and a great while we would get to see one jump almost clear out of the water. The first time it happened was right in front of the boat. No one was really so the only image that exists of that moment is the one in our heads. I was ready for the second jump...however it was not nearly as high. Still, it is incredible that these animals can lift themselves so high out of the water. (On one hike back from the hermit crab lab a student heard a loud noise and we looked out through the trees to the ocean and saw a mother and baby jumping over and over and over again. It was an incredible sight to see.) We also finally saw a whale tail on the second to last day which was fantastic!

One night I went with a bunch of students on a night dive to look for organisms that only come out after dark. We looked like a bunch of aliens landing in some sci-fi movie as we hoovered above with our flashlight beams shining through the dark water. The kids found a ton more puffer fish and had a lot of fun chasing the moray eels, much to my concern. I got a kick out of finding sleeping fish who had wedged themselves in the rock and coral crevices.

Some of the other fun or "fun" daily occurrences on Gorgona was being awakened each morning by the monkeys jumping on our roof. Who needs a rooster or an alarm when a troupe of 30 monkeys comes through the poblado each morning? There was also always an abundance of Basilisk, or "Jesus Christ", lizards. They sit almost completely upright and run on their two hind legs...even across water. It is incredible. (Go here to watch a video I found of it: Other than poisonous snakes, another reason for Rule #3 was the rats. After dark, these gigantic football-sized rodents came out looking for food. Most of them didn't even care that you were there and would only scamper off when you got really close. I get the willies just thinking about them. The guidance counsellor, Carlos Augosto, found one in his bed. After he chased it out and went to sleep, it, or another one, crawled in next to him. (!!!!!) Sick, sick, sick, sick! I think that would have been enough to make me swim back to Cali.

The last day we woke up, at breakfast, and packed up the rooms. We were going to be spending the entire afternoon on a beautiful black sand beach on the other side of the island. Normally everyone walks, however it was raining pretty hard that morning so the kids were given the option to take the boat. From a visitor's point of view it sucked that it rained frequently, but I guess there wouldn't be a rainforest if it didn't! Anyways, I, along with two other teachers, thought walking in the rain would be fun, so we rounded up a few really cool kids (they are cool solely because they wanted to walk with us, of course) and headed out with a couple guides. It was about a six kilometer hike in the mud and clay that make up the topography of the island. It rained for about half of the hike and then cleared up in time for us to dry off and then get wet again from sweat. It was an awesome hike, mostly because we had kids who wanted to be on it so no one was complaining...unlike the cherubs I got to spend time with at the end of my lines to Playa Blanca.

Once there, the ship brought a grill ashore and we had an amazing lunch of pork ribs, potatoes, rice, and arraypas on the beach. A few more hours of playing in the surf and we loaded the boat, headed back around the island to finish packing, have our bags get checked at "customs" (my Spanish was good enough to joke with the park ranger that I was taking a monkey home in my bag), eat dinner, and get back on that dreaded boat. Fortunately, after a week of being around the boundless energy of 70 ninth graders 24/7, hiking several kilometers every day, snorkeling excessively, and being awaken at the crack of dawn by monkeys, I was pretty much spent. I boarded the boat, had a cup of hot chocolate, and crawled into bed. The seas were calm this time around and I slept all night long without waking up once before daybreak as we pulled into Buenaventura again.

So...what did you do on your ninth grade trip? ;)

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Roadside Donkey

AKA: Visiting Popayán

This past weekend a small contingent of us import teachers embarked on our first trip outside of Cali to a smaller city about three hours south called Popayan. This city is notable for embracing and attempting to preserve its colonial roots and architecture.

Our journey began when our hired driver, Patricia, showed up to pick all eight of us up at 9am Saturday morning. It cost us $300,000 (about $35 USD each) for her to drive us there and back. As an added "bonus,"Patricia brought along her five year old daughter, Isabella. I believe the trip was so inexpensive up front because there was an "Isa-Tax" involved. This little girl was adorable, shy, and cute...for the first five minutes. Then began the hitting, punching, screaming, biting, and even taking off her belt and whipping people part. All were subjected to this hostility fairly evenly, except for Josh, whom she took a fancy to right from the start and would not let anyone else sit next to her but him. She called Marco "ugly" (feo) and Josh "fat" (gordo...although it should be pointed out that "gordo" or "Gordito/a" is a form of flattery...yes it means "little fatty" but it is supposedly endearing). She also made up a song about Matt that went something like: "Mateo manderino! Mateo manderino!" Thank goodness there is someone here who has redder hair than I; songs comparing me to an orange, I can do without!

(I am happy to report that I was able to temporarily calm this devil-child by entrancing her, only briefly, by teaching her the only Spanish song I know, "Mi Cuerpo" as taught to me by music teacher extraordinaire, Miss Sarah Norvold. Thanks, dear!)

We passed the time, in between evading Isa's assaults, by looking for certain pre-determined sights along the way, including fire, a black and white dog, an iguana, roadkill, a tricycle, a mechanic actually working, and a roadside donkey, and acquiring "points." It helped to pass the time. It was amazing the number of fires and non-black and white dogs there were. (Fires mostly because we were in the sugar cane region of Colombia and they burn the cane before harvesting it.) Surprisingly enough, donkeys along highways are not a common sight.

After three loooooong hours we finally de-vanned in front of our hotel, a nice open-air Spanish-style villa. After checking in, the first order of business was to find food. While looking for a restaurant, we noticed right away that the streets are very narrow and the buildings come right up to the sidewalks. They are also all white, save for a few rogue pink or tan ones...rebels. Apparently the white is reminiscent of the colonial days and is encouraged in much of the city. The whole town had a very European-village feel to it with most streets looking like wide white alleyways.

We found a nice little cafe and had a cheap lunch of soup, jugo de piña (pineapple juice), and rice and chicken...all for about $1.50 USD each. Crazy. Some of the girls went back to the hotel to nap and then rest of us went exploring. The amount of churches in Popayán was impressive. It seemed every block had one and prestigious old cathedrals were also very abundant. All you needed to do was look at the skyline for the next steeple and head in that direction. Unfortunately, most of them were not open the first time we walked by. Eventually, we made our way to the top of a hill that has been made a park and lookout point. There were a lot of Colombian tourists and locals relaxing and hanging out all over the park so, as they say, when in Rome... The view was amazing and the air was so much cleaner than Cali we sat in the grass and played cards for a couple hours before heading back to the hotel to rouse the girls.

On the way back it appeared the streets were busier than before and we soon discovered that Saturday evening mass is quite popular in Popayán. Some of the services had already begun but when we found one that hadn't, we snuck inside briefly to admire the art and architecture inside. It is incredible to gaze up and admire that people actually built these massive spaces before the advent of modern machinery. It's incredible!

A teacher back at school had recommended favorite restaurant so, after picking up the girls, we headed to the Italian district of town...yes, there is a "little Italy" of sorts in Popayán. I don't know why but a small section is festooned with Italian flags and home to dozens of pizzerias. The restaurant we ended up at serves a mean six course meal...although spread out over three and a half hours, ensuring you get your fill of wine. ;) The meal was delicious and ended up costing more than the van-fare to get there but definitely worth it!

After dinner we found a little salsatecha, had a few drinks, danced a few dances, and then realized we were all old-balls and needed our beds. We agreed to pass the blame on to Isa for exhausting us too early.

The next morning we slept in, had a leisurely breakfast of eggs, mango juice, arepas (cornbread disks), and cafe con leche, and headed out for some more church-seeking and general walking in circles for a few more hours. At one point we ended up at a park in the city center where I indulged in some of the grossest ice cream I've ever have. They pretty much put the leftover scrapings of a bunch of tubs of ice cream together into one tub and created a sort of ice cream goulash. This is not an exaggeration. Sadly, I was hungry and ate the entire thing...

Later, we checked out of the hotel, met Patricia (and Isabella...), and headed home. We attempted to play our "Eye Spy" game again, but ended up falling asleep instead. Ten bucks says we passed a donkey on the roadside...

Monday, September 10, 2007

I Feel The Earth Move Under My Feet...

So last night was an exciting night for this Midwesterner. I was sitting in my living room, enjoying the cool night breeze and attmepting to master the future tense of the Spanish language when all of a sudden I felt like I was sitting in boat that was hitting the waves sideways. (For those of you from the "ring of fire," I'm sure you are old pros but this was my first time. I was an Earthquake Virgin, if you will.)

My roommate, Little Miss California, yells down from upstairs, "Stetson! Do you feel that?!" (No, not at must be a very localized tremor; just in your room and the telephone wires outside. Those car alarms going off and purely coincidental.) "Yes, I feel it! What do we do?!?!?!"

And then it was over. Probably only 20 seconds, maybe less, but it felt like more. We went outside on the balcony, because it seemed safer, and I learned that the first tremor is always the biggest and any subsequent aftershocks are never as big. Good to know.

Next week at school we will be having an Earthquake Drill. Duck, cover, wait, and run outside. Yeeesh...give me a tornado anyday! But I guess that's the "sky tumblin' down" part, huh?

Friday, September 7, 2007

Stuffing My Face

Nothing terribly exciting has gone down this past week. School continues to be interesting and different each day with the different schedules and getting to know the kids. Shopping for anything is always an adventure and I'm constantly on the lookout for the cashier that looks "the nicest." My runs around the country are becoming more routine, although I am always on guard for a herd of cattle lest I end up making my own mini Pamplona. I've also found a great little tienda (corner store/bistro type place) about two blocks from my apartment that has become a favorite after school hangout. The lady who owns it makes the meanest hamburger I've ever had in my entire life. Which leads me to write a little about Colombian cuisine and eating habits.

Before I came down here, I was a little concerned that my Scandinavian palate wouldn't be able to handle a lot of Latin American foods. I've literally broken out in sweat eating buffalo wings. I've been pleasantly surprised that Colombians do not use a lot of spices in their cooking, save for a lot of salt. Rice is significantly more salted than in North America, as are a lot of meat dishes. It is also not uncommon to have beer served in a glass with a salted rim like a margarita would be. Salt is not commonly found on dinner tables, since the food has plenty on it already. It is actually seen as rude to add more salt to food at the table because it means you did not like the way the chef made it and are trying to cover up the taste.

I've already talked about the fruits here a little in previous entries so I won't dwell on them too much. It is fun to buy "exotic" produce that is really expensive back in the States here for next to nothing and see apples, strawberries, and pears priced way beyond what they're worth. There are so many different types of each fruit too.
  • Mangos are my favorite and I haven't met a mango I didn't like. There is even a variety of mango that is sliced long and narrow, like a french fry and then heavily salted. They put them on the table at restaurants and bars where you might normally find peanuts.

  • I have decided that papayas are gross and taste like a combination of nothing and puke.

  • Lulo is a great little fruit that looks like an orange, feels like a peach, peals like a kiwi, and looks like rotting jello inside. The first time I got one I thought I was buying an orange relative and when I went to eat it I thought it had gone bad. Fortunately, I ate it at school for lunch and some of the other teachers assured me it was fine. It's kind of like nature's Jell-O snack pack; you peal back the top and scoop it out with a spoon!

  • Guanábana (say: gwa-NA-BA-na) is a huge green watermelon-sized beast with warty bumps all over it. On the inside it is white and it is GREAT for making juices out of. I can not describe the taste other than to say it is a fiesta in my mouth. I had a jugo (juice drink) at a feria (fair) last weekend with milk and sugar. Unbelievable.

  • Bananas are not a uncommon sight here, however, their good friends the plantain are everywhere. Mostly baked or served fried, there is no end to what Colombians won't use them for. I've had them cut lengthwise, stuffed with cheese, and then baked (gracias, Omaira) and they even were part of the wrapping on some sushi I ate.

  • There is also never a shortage of potatos or yucca (say: jew-KA) root prepared in a variety of ways. Fried yucca is like combining the best of a french fry and a cheese stick.
Despite the plethora of fruits and vegetables, this is not a country for a vegan. Colombians love their meat. Pork, chicken, is never hard to find. Case in point: recently, there was a party for the High School faculty. They brought out at least 18 platters of food. These platters held heaps and heaps of meat. Chorizo sausages, pork, chicken nuggets, blood sausage, and cow lung (which is only gross when you eat one after being told what it is...before it is delicious!). Now it wasn't all meat, there was a nice tomato and lime wedge border on a bed of lettuce, some potatoes, yucca, and fried plantains.

Colombians drink their yogurt. Anyone who likes to spoon their yogurt should not come here. You can not find thick yogurt. You think you can! You find a little cup of yogurt with the tear-away top...but no. It is liquid. You get used to it, but I definitely miss my Yoplait Whips at lunch...

A student asked the other day, when we were discussing my lack of Spanish language knowledge, how I shop for food. I told them the shopping isn't the problem. You can always look at the picture on the box or figure things out by the other nearby food items. Paying isn't even that difficult, as long as the price screen is in view. (If it's not, then I'm screwed.) What is difficult, though, are the sales people. I don't know what the deal is, but Colombians have the need to put people in ridiculous outfits, in every aisle, selling a specific brand. The spaghetti guy is dressed like Chef Boyardee, there is a girl in a mini skirt and a neon green wig by the laundry soap, another pair a girls in a sexed-up mechanic's jumpsuit next to the...cereal (it doesn't have to make sense). It is definitely not hard on the eyes, it can be hard on the wallet though. Basically, you are in great danger if you hesitate for one second over a product choice. Either know exactly what you want or risk becoming a piece of consumer-meat. You will end up with stuff in your cart you do not necessarily want. Also, you can look at the slutted-up grocery girls all you want, but Lord help you if you make eye-contact. Seriously, it's game over. End of story.

Hope everyone is good and hungry...I'm off to lunch to eat my mango and drink my yogurt!
¡Buen provecho!

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Say "Queso!": Buying a Camera

A short story...

So, my camera that I came down here with has been acting funky lately...perhaps it didn't like being dropped, I don't know. Regardless, I'm not going to live in this beautiful country without being able to document it, so off to purchase a new photographic device I went.

It was recommended I go to an electronic store in the nearby mall, Photo Japon. Me and my limited Spanish have no problem going grocery shopping and the art fairs, but the Colombians make a big deal about purchasing electronics, even lamps. (Actually, when you buy a light bulb they take it at the register and go test it to make sure it works.) Therefore, I was little nervous. So, nervous actually, that purchasing a camera took two attempts.

The first one went like this (all in Spanish):
Store Clerk: How are you?
Me: Good. Thank you.
Store Clerk: blah blah blah...(probably can I help you find something?)
Me: [with charades] Just looking. Thank you.
Store Clerk: blah blah blah camera?
Me: Yes. This is a camera.
Store Clerk: (looks at me and smiles)
Me: Thank you. [And at this point I run out of the store.]

Three days later, I decided to try again. This time I practiced a few key phrases to better prepare myself.

I walked in, was greeted by a clerk and proceeded through a similar conversation, although this time there was no retreating. I choose a camera I wanted and told the clerk "I would like to buy this camera." Then I somehow turned into Julie Roberts in "Pretty Woman" because the clerk repeated the price to me three times. The first was as a statement, the second time as a question, and there third with much skepticism. There could have been an eye roll.

I'm feeling pretty good at this point as I reach the register and give the cashier my bank card. She asks me something and I just say "yes" because sometimes it is easier that way. (She was cute so if she propositioned me and I didn't know it, I'd be okay with it.) Then I had to sign the receipt, as is common practice in North America. I handed it back and she told me I needed to fill in my phone number. I then realized that I did not know my phone number. (I do now though!) I also realized I didn't know the verb "to forget" so I attempted to act it out. She was cute, but I would not want her on my team for charades, I'll tell you that much.

She disappeared inot the back room and brought out the manager. He spoke about as much English as I speak Spanish. The conversation went like this:

Manager: Hi. What is you telephone number?
Me: I know. I forgot it. [again with the acting]
Manager: What is hotel telephone number?
Me: No no no...I live here. I live in Cali.
Manager: What is the name of hotel?
Me: No. I live here. Yo vivo en Cali. Soy profesoro en Cali. Yo vivo aqui.
Manager: Okay. [walks away to back room]

A minute later I am wondering if they are just going to hide from me until I give up and leave when the cashier girl cames out with an ink pad and the receipt. I am then fingerprinted and given my camera. I'm glad they have my index finger print on file. That way if the money doesn't go through they can hunt me down by showing everyone my fingerprint. No address or picture - just a single fingerprint.

Moral: Colombians like to make things more complicated than they probably need to be so just learn your phone number.

The End.

Friday, August 31, 2007

The Waiting Game


So, it finally seems that life is coming together here after almost a month. Last Friday the boxes that we all shipped back in July arrived safe and sound. It was like Christmas in August! I forgot I even packed some stuff...other things I sense that Mom may have snuck in. (If anyone needs a year’s supply of ziplock baggies, I’ve got plenty to spare! Thanks Mom; I love you!)

Other amenities are coming along nicely too. The oven and range in our apartment now function properly and Omaira can now cook dinner for us. Fried plantains here we come!!! The gas has also been fixed but it takes a loooong time heat up and some forethought to turn it one ahead of time and as of right now I don’t necessarily feel that I want to wake up at 5:15am just to turn on the water heater to have a warm shower at 5:45am. So for now I stand and stare at the shower head giving myself a pep-talk before turning it on. Some days take more convincing than others. Ananda also is a happy camper now that Direct TV was installed and the apartment gets cable. Although I must say that watching “Flavor of Love” in Spanish is quite entertaining albeit no less trashy.
All we are waiting on now is internet (supposedly two days ago) and the washing machines (if they are not at the school today, the school is refusing to buy them and will go to another company and then we will wait some more). That is how we roll here in Colombia!

Last weekend was pretty low key. I went out with some other teachers to happy hour which turned into late night party before long. One highlight of the evening was visiting a “Video Bar” which is basically a bar where they play 80’s and 90’s rock music videos and the Colombians sing along. At times it’s like large group karaoke. A room full of Colombians singing along to Audioslave is a sight to behold. The motto of the bar was fantastic too: “Cerveza, Pizza, y Rock and Roll”. Really, what else do you need?!?!
Later on in the night we ended up at a salsatecha, naturally, and this Colombian guy we were with orders a bottle for the table of supposedly top shelf rum. He said it was really expensive. The only way I could see this shit being expensive would have been because a bunch of guys had to puke in a bottle just to fill it. If you think that is gross, you should have tasted it. Sick. Basically my friend, Lisa, and I were doing “Coyote Ugly”-style shots and spitting it back into our ginger ale chasers. I’m ill just thinking about it.

This week at school has been fun. The kids are awesome and I continue to love my Pre-AP Biology class. Probably mostly because there are only 11 of them and so they talk a lot less, but who knows? This week I also learned about the 9th grade class trip, which was originally planned for October and has been moved to the middle week in September. Oh, and I’m supposed to be leading a three day lesson? Or something? But don’t worry, they’ll tell me about it later. (!!!!) Apparently, every class goes on a “trip” with some years being better trips than others. The 9th graders get a good trip I’m told. But what I’m about to tell you is basically all I know…you know, because they’ll tell me more later. We will be traveling to the Island of Gorgona, off the Colombian coast in the Pacific Ocean. This is an uninhabited island where ecological tours can come and visit and relax. We leave on a Saturday and return on the following Friday. There will be a 10 hour boat ride to get there. There are lots of snakes on the island and you are forbidden to walk alone in the rainforest without a guide…or boots. The students tell me I need to bring “old clothes” because the “monkeys steal them.” Cool. I just brought clothes; my “old clothes” are now the property of Goodwill. I’ll just have to tie everything down?!? What else? Oh, they’ll tell me later.

On Wednesday we had our HS Open House. Basically this is a time when the parents walk through their kid’s schedule and the teachers introduce themselves and their class. The National Honor Society Club volunteered as interpreters for us which was much appreciated. Carolina saved my life. I did speak a little Spanish at the beginning: “Hola, me llamo Stetson Johnson y soy professor de biologica. Entonces, beinvenidos a biologie! No hablo español todo via pero estoy aprendiendo.” Then I told a story about how when I came three weeks (treis semanas) ago I knew (yo sabia) 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10, hello, goodbye…and beer. And that’s it (es todo). So, I found I can be funny in Spanish. [Those of you Spanish speakers out there, I’m sure there are errors in my spelling, but right now all I need to know is how to talk!] Anyways, the parents were great and all wanted to know if I was old enough to drive. Some things never change…

Adding to my previous list of things I’ve learned:
8) You can tell how well-off people are by looking at them. Women you look at their chest or face. Something will be fake. (Sometimes their ass…really.) Men you look at their hands. A surprising number of men here get manicures. Some of the girls in our import group were talking about it and I have never really looked at a man’s hands before so at HS Open House I started. Basically every man who came in a suit had immaculate nails, and a few others. I’d say it was about 60% of all the fathers that came had their nails did.
9) My newest favorite fruit is the guañabana. It is the size of two cantaloupes, green, and spikey. Great for juices.
10) There are two kinds of notebooks here: Girly notebooks or “Girly” notebooks. On any given day in my class, I have more notebooks with half-naked women on them than a porn shop. I checked it out at the stores too. Your only options are bikini models or hearts/flowers/kitties/etc. I think I saw one with a motorcycle. Plain is not an option.
11) The Colombian mullet is a sight to behold in all its glory. I love them. I will get a picture up as soon as I can convince a kid to let me take a profile shot of him. I just might get one. (Kidding…?)

Until next time…gracias por la lectura!
Hasta Luego!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round...

Hola y buenas dias!

So, it is about 7am and I just arrived at school fifteen minutes ago. Just for reference, that is fifteen minutes earlier than I even woke up last year. Just for reference. I get chauffeured to school each morning in a stretch...okay, its a bumpy old school bus from circa 1972 with a bus driver who looks like Saddam's brother. People generally don't talk on the bus. If you do, you get some "looks". I have subsequently started bringing my iPod for such occasions.

So far, after almost two weeks, the school days have been going really well. The kids are unbelievably polite, saying "good morning" or "hello Meeester" every time they come in and "goodbye Meeester" or "thank you, Meeester" every time they leave. Honestly, after awhile, especially because this is not a practice I'm used to, it gets a little annoying. (They call me Mister since the Spanish equivalent, Señor, can stand alone as a title, whereas when we call someone "Mr." or "Miss" all by itself, it usually denotes some sort of unfamiliarity.) Basically they are really nice and polite all the time and it is hard to tell if they don't like you or not because they will not show it. They will whine...but what 9th grader won't, eh

I feel like I've mentioned this to some people but the main difference I've noticed between the way students in Colombia "do school" and the way students in North America "do school" is the volume of the classroom. Despite all the politeness, Colombians love to talk. Any chance they get they will start chattering. Anybody remember the scene in the Music Man when all the society ladies are gossiping..."Pick A Little Talk A Lot"??? That is what it is like. Chatty-Cathys all around! This is the one common complaint all the import teachers have no matter what grade level they teach.

In North America, if you borrow a pencil from someone next to you during class you might nod thanks or at most whisper it. Here its a great big vocal "GRACIAS"! It is interesting adjusting to such cultural differences especially when it is perceived as rude by me and not by them. Right now there is a lot of wait time and staying after class into break or lunch or after school. I've told them I will not talk over them (something I wondered if I was lying to them when I originally said it) and so far I have resisted. Other than controlling the constant motor mouths, I really like my classes!

The schedule here is a bit confusing but I think I really like it. They have eight classes and each class is roughly 70 minutes long. All the classes go all year round but they do not necessarily meet every day. Each day there are only five periods and all eight total periods rotate through these five periods. (For example: Day 1 would see periods A, B, C, D, and E. Day 2 would see periods F, G, H, A, and B. Day 3: periods C, D, E, F, and G. And so on...) I like this schedule because 1) you don't always see the same group of kids the same hour of the day every time, 2) 70 minutes is a great amount of time to get a lot of things done, and 3) some days I teach four classes, some days three, and some (like today) I teach two. Even the four class days aren't bad when one of the hours is a 70 minute prep. I know it has only been two weeks, but I have yet to even come close to needing to bring something home. In conclusion, I am a fan of the schedule.

We usually have meetings after school but if we don't, the first teacher bus leaves at 3:30 and another at 5:00. I have taken both and they are equally as terrifying as riding shotgun in a cab. I swear we've both gotten "air" off a speed bump and been on less than four wheels going around some corners. These bus drivers must moonlight as demolition derby guys on the weekends. (They actually do double as the grounds crew and maintenance during the day. One even came to our apartment to fix the oven on day!)

Most days I either take the 3:30 bus home or go for a run in the country around school and then run home. (It is about 3.5 to 4 miles from my barrio to school so I estimate I'm putting in around 6-8 miles a run.) Running outside of the city is an interesting experience. You always have to be ready for giant horse poop in your path or the cow parade that comes around the corner out of nowhere. But the air is cleaner out there than in the city. It is amazing how much good emission standards on cars really does!

Alright, I'm sufficiently awake now. Time to do some work before my first class two and a half hours. Uff dah. Hope all is well and good luck with the new school year!!!!!!


Monday, August 13, 2007

Honeymoon's Over...

So, this last week has been good but trying at times. The one big inconvenience stems from the fact that my glorious apartment might as well be a cave since the city turned off our electricity (and for a day, our water). There was a mix-up somewhere along the line and someone, either the last tenants, the landlord, the school, someone...did not pay the bills. So, when the city saw us sucking power from an unpaid grid, they cut it. That was last Wednesday. As I said in a previous email, as modern as Colombia is, it moves at an excruciatingly slow pace when it comes to getting things done. Turning off the power, however, they can do quickly.

Also, because we are so close to the equator, we get approximately 12 hours of daylight each day. Unlike North America where the sunrise and sunset are a gradual process, here it is light, then about 2 minutes of dawn/dusk and then night. This happens somewhere between 6-6:15 each morning/evening. Then my apartment is dark and I am fumbling like a blind man. Hopefully, tonight when I get home there will be lights and other wonderful things from this past century. Oh, yeah...with no power, we cannot run the water heater so its been cold showers for a week and you know what that means...eep!

Other than dealing with stubbed toes and shrinkage, I've been busy at school getting ready for the kids tomorrow. It will be strange having 4 year olds all the way up to seniors on the same campus but I'm looking forward to it. The staff meetings are ridiculous and I've definitely developed ADD. They are bilingual and so everything takes twice as long as it is said twice (even questions and discussions and jokes). There is no rhyme or reason to who translates or if it is said first in Spanish or first in English. There are always people talking; if you can have controlled chaos, this is it. Regardless, everyone is really nice. I'll write more about school later...

This past weekend was pretty chill. There was a "happy hour" at the boss's house on Friday. ("House" is misleading since most houses don't have electric fencing and several armed guards but who's being picky?) We got to meet and socialize with a lot more of the staff and of course there was salsa dancing under the tent by the pool. After that ended, another teacher had a after-party at his apartment, which happens to be down the street from my dark hovel so of course I went. There was more dancing and socializing. The Colombians there thought it was funny how the non-Colombians just stood/sat around and talked. I didn't realize it but that is a very non-Colombian thing to do. When you are at a party in Colombia you dance. And when you are in Cali, you salsa. (That is ALL they play here, especially at parties.) I got several "lessons" from a couple different girls and they said I did well. (?) Maybe it's the red hair, I don't know...

On Saturday, another teacher who has been here two years and worked at a school Bogota for several years took a few of us to the Central District. First we walked through this open market. This is where the food comes before it goes to the stores. Allegedly it is cheaper here. This may be true but you have to be able to stand the stench of fish, cow heads, and other dismemberments first. I might prefer my food from the grocer for awhile longer. Next we went to an area that is essentially a giant thrift sale/black market paradise. It extends for probably 8 blocks x 8 blocks. For those of you who have been to Canal Street in's like that times 100. Crazy crazy crazy.

Sunday I went in to school and that was it.

I've got to go catch the teacher bus home so until next time...
Have a great day!!!!

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Me Llamo Sergio


I am finally at a computer after about five days, which in this day in age seems like an eternity, especially when so much has been happening. Today is the first day of teacher workshops. I've met all the other science teachers. There are nine of us in all and five are Colombians. Everyone is really nice and promised to help me with my Spanish. I cannot get over how beautiful the school grounds are. My classroom is enclosed and has air conditioning but most of the other non-science rooms have just three walls. I've been told that the incoming freshmen class is "wild" by the Colombian teachers but the physics teacher clued me in that "wild kids" in Colombia are the equivalent to "pretty good" in the States. Either way, bring 'em on! In addition to biology I am also teaching Pre-AP Biology for juniors and seniors. (Surprise!)

This afternoon we have work time but I was originally told we would not get work time the first two days so I did not bring anything for my classroom darn it, I guess I will have to email. And occasionally look out the windows at beautiful trees. I'm still waiting to see the iguanas that supposedly roam the campus.

On Monday we got our maid. Her name is Omaira and she is very nice. It was great that we were home the first time she came so we could show her what we wanted her to do and not do. (Note that I said show and not tell. I am getting quite good at charades.) She comes Mondays and Thursdays and we pay her $60,000 a week (Colombian pesos) which is the equivalent to about $30 a week. That sounds horrible but that is at the higher end for maids here.

I've been exploring my barrio a little each day. There is a nice corner store right across the street from me. It is basically a little tiny grocery store. The anti-kidnapping army is also located one block down from me. They are always out on the street in their army gear and giant guns. I make it a point to say hello since they are there for me...well, that's what I tell myself. They are also very friendly.

We went on a tour of the city yesterday got to see a lot of great stuff. The bus drove us to the top of a mountain that has a giant Jesus statue at the top (kind of like the one in Rio in Brazil but smaller). There is another mountain with three giant crosses on top that can be seen from the Jesus mountain. The teacher giving the tour told us that folklore says that the reason Calenos (people from Cali) party so much is that the devil stopped to rest in Cali and then because they built both of these monuments on top of the mountains, he couldn't get out and is stuck there...thus the constant celebrations and partying.

Speaking of partying...we went out to a salsatecha (salsa club) last weekend. It was so much fun. I knew the basic salsa steps from many summer nights at Famous Dave's in Uptown (Minneapolis) salsa nights but was worried they wouldn't be enough. Apparently I learned Carribean Salsa, which is much more formal. Colombian salsa is all hips and not so much feet. I'm learning to adjust. The crazy thing about a salsatecha is that the dance floor isn't that big and it is HOT and sweaty. People go out and dance and then when the song ends there is a complete change in the dance floor and new people replace the old ones. You rarely see anyone stay out there for more than one song in a row. People go back to their tables and have a drink and talk and then go back and dance some more. Oh! And you don't order drinks. You choose a type of liquor. They bring you the entire bottle along with glasses, shot glasses, and ice bucket, and mixers in pitchers. You are your own bar. The only thing that sucks is that you pretty much have to decide what you want to be drinking all night long. There is a local liquor called Aguardiente (I think that's the right spelling) and it is kind of like tequilla but it smells and has an aftertaste like licorrice. It's...interesting.

Spanish speakers have a problem with the "st" sound, since it doesn't really exist in Spanish, so my name is a trick. Especially when I call for a cab. I lost count the number of times I've been hung up on. I have adopted a Spanish name to alleviate such confusion. I am now Sergio. It seems to be working. To get a cab here you call (pick a number) ###-####. All the same. It was recommended to us that the 5's and the 7's were the best. The 6's and 3's are not to be taken and the 4's are suspect as the Colombian mafia used to run/use those. So far the 4's have not hung up on me so for now I prefer to go with the mafia.

Some other things I have learned in the past week:

1) You can NEVER eat too many fried plantains. It is not possible.
2) Riding shotgun in a Colombian taxi trumps any rollercoaster ride. There are no traffic signs, only suggestions. Case in point: when going to the salsatecha (salsa club) our driver took us down the wrong way of a one way, yelling at the drivers going the correct direction, mind you. Then backed down another one way, still travelling in the wrong direction. (These people are either the worst drivers in the world or the best. I have yet to decide.)
3) Pedestrians have no rights. Basically, I'm getting really good at playing human Frogger.
4) Fresh mango is the best thing I've ever tasted.
5) There is always a reason for Colombians to party (have a fiesta). I've been here a little over a week total and already there has been a national holiday. There is another next week.
6) Colombians have there own system of time. Manana means both "morning" and "tomorrow" also means "whenever I feel like coming/doing it." We waited three days for our living room furniture to be delivered. They came once at 8pm on a Saturday night. We were not there anymore. Our doorman told us they would be there on Sunday. Normally I would not expect anything to be delivered on a Sunday but I also would not expect anything to be delivered on a Saturday night! They came Monday, by the way.
7) Cali is the capitol of plastic surgery. A fun game to play is "spot the fakes." Let's just say that there are enough around to not have to look very hard.

Hope everything is going well for everyone! Have a GREAT day!!

Friday, August 3, 2007

King Me Now

Buenos dias!

This last week has been a crazy mess of getting our governmental IDs (I don´t have mine yet but the process is ongoing), apartment hunting, and blood tests (for who knows why but they took a lot). Oh, and lots of shopping. The school gives us ~$600 for moving in allowance which equals about a million some pesos so I felt pretty loaded. It is a pretty comical site seeing thirteen people crammed into a bus with bags and bags of goods each filling up the rest of the seats and floors. Who ever said this is a third world country hasn´t been to the cities in a while. Name something, you can probably find it. (There was a guy selling the Simpsons movie on the street...I bet the quality was great.)

The current infrastructure of Cali is a little lacking right now. They are attempting to build a mass transit system here right now. All at once. There were no highways, and now they are trying to build some criss-crossing the city but it is a up the entire place, basically. Because of this traffic sucks and the school didn´t want the teachers to live of the other side of town from the school so they limited where we could live, and in some cases pre-rented apartments for people.

There are three sets of couples with us and their apartments were already taken care of. There was one other single guy who had a horrible experience the last few years with roommates and had mentioned to the school the he wanted to live alone and they already had set that up. (He kind of wanted to back out and have a roommate when we got here and was asking me about it but the school couldn´t get out of the contract.) Three girls had mentioned in Miami that they would like to live together so the administer of the school got on the phone and by the time we got here they had an apartment. Another girl had already made arrangements to live with another teacher who started last year.

If you´re keeping count that leaves two. Myself and this girl from California. Here name is Ananda and she has spent the last three years teaching in south-central LA and needed a "change". Really nice girl. Well, the school recommended that if we didn´t mind, we sould find a two bedroom apartment together. Neither of us had a problem so we started hunting with the human services assistant, Aña Luica (which I think means drop dead gorgeous in Spanish). After looking at around 11 apartments we settled on this AMAZING place. Did I say place? I meant palace.

Let´s take a tour. First off, it is on the fourth and fifth floors of the building. It has marble/stone floors, two huge balconies (one on each floor) that face the mountians, and an ENOURMOUS living room. Our furniture looks ridiculous in it, its so big! There are three bedrooms and one giant study but it could easily be another bedroom since it is roughly the same size. There are three full bathrooms, one off the master. (PS: I got the master.) And, of course a kitchen and maids quarters, which has another bathroom also. The best part is that for each of us, the rent is only ~$250/ dollars. (Its a little under a million in pesos.) The barrio, or neighborhood, I´m in is called El Ingenio and has been nicknamed the "gringo ghetto". Another new teacher, the one who wanted to live alone, lives kitty-corner and we can yell across the street from our balconies instead of calling, which we did before we had phones. The man in charge of orientation for all the import teacher also lives a block away.

So, other than shopping and occational conferences where we learn about anything from the school´s mission statement to safety precautions, to what fruits make the best jusices (seriously) that is about all we´ve been doing. Last night another teacher who has been here three years took us to another barrio and we had dinner there. If the Colombians find a way to make something with plantains (type of banana), they will. I had no idea waht I ordered exactly but what came out was basically a giant banana chip with cheese and wine sauteed mushrooms on the top. Amazing. Tonight some of us are going out for dinner and dancing in the salsa distict. Good times...we´ll see if I can make it to the traditional 6am closing time.