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.


Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Bienvenidos a Colombia!

Alright, singing that in Miami worked a lot better than here...somewhere Will Smith is shaking his head in shame.

I've arrived and I am safe! We arrived at about 9pm and got thru customs with very little trouble. My bag got searched but no underwear fell out, which was good. We just checked into a hotel and are going apartment hunting and getting our blood tested (!) tomorrow. All the other import teachers are really nice, even the Canadians.
I will write more later. Also, it is warm but pleasant.