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.