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? ;)


~Lynn~ said...

LOVE IT! I've never been on a 9th grade trip that cool...okay, I've never been on a school trip that cool at all - I am glad you are loving your time in Colombia!! I was thinking about visiting over the Christmas, butttt I do not think it will happen(b/c of $$$), sad, sad...keep up the blogging! I miss ya!

Jill said...

And to think that I only accompany eigth graders to Germany/Austria. We certainly do cool stuff, but your trip sounded quite great! There aren't great beaches like that there. I'm fine with the lack of boas in Europe though!

Shipsstaff said...

Oh such great adventures...I am so jealous! I have to get my application finished!!!
How do you like avena? I was not really found of it, I had it a couple of times and it was hard to choke down, but I managed.
I am so glad you survived your trip. It sounds like you had a great chance! I am so happy the monkeys never took your clothes away!!!!!
I still have a 'student/friend" who is so sad you are living out of the country! LOL.....fkeep up the good work!!!!

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