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.