Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Food For Thought

Pun Intended

On my day-long journey back to the frozen tundra of Minnesota I had the unexpected pleasure of discovering a new favorite breakfast. On the first leg of my voyage, from Cali to Panama City, I was served a meal of French toast, fruit, and cheese. Sitting quietly beside the French toast slices was a non-descript white cup full of what I assumed to be syrup. Upon opening and cautiously taste-testing it, I discovered not syrup but apple sauce! In hindsight, I'm not even positive the apple sauce was intended for the French toast, but at the time it seemed oddly logical.

Seriously, put apple sauce on your French toast. Feliz Navidad!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

"Solo Valle Solo!"

Every four years Colombia holds its Juegos Nationales (National Games). The event is officially hosted by one department, although some events are inevitably spread to other locations. The 2008 Games are being hosted by the department that includes Cali, the Valle del Cauca, with a few competitions happening in Buenaventura and the islands of San Andres and Providencia.

Last night I went to the fourth night of swimming competition. One of the highlights was getting to see a 2008 Bolivar graduate, Mateo De Angulo Velasco, win the 1500 M freestyle in 16:06.66. The hometown crowd went crazy with pride!

Another Vallecaucano swimmer, Camilo Becerra, has swum in three Olympic Games, including Sydney, Athens, and Beijing. I read in an article surrounding the event that this would be Camilo's last professional competition and how proud he was to end his career in his home department. Last night he got third in the 100 M butterfly. He was then carried off in a stretcher so there could have been something wrong...

I wore my UWEC Blugolds Swimming & Diving t-shirt and my red Manitowoc Swimming jacket (it was drizzling off and on) which turned out to be a good thing since 1) Valle's colors were red and silver and 2) I ended up sitting next to a section where a group of exuberant Valle supporters with drums and songs to boot positioned themselves. Never been to a meet with a drum section before!

Monday, December 1, 2008

The "Donde" Situation

I have had several situations during my time in Colombia where I have asked myself "where am I?" Sometimes out of actually being lost but most of the time out of complete awe for my surroundings. Cartagena De Indias fell into both categories. One of the few "discovered" Colombian cities by North American tourists, this walled Spanish city on the Caribbean coast dating back to the 1500's is truly an enchanting place.

Donde Estamos?
Between myself, my roommate, Nira, and my life-long family friend Sarah (who flew in from Minneapolis for a warm Thanksgiving weekend) we asked ourselves "Where are we?" quite a bit. This despite having two different guidebooks and being in a walled city next to the ocean one would think getting lost would not be a problem. Well, this is the one Colombian city without numbered streets and they often times change names every block. So, while, yes, you will eventually end up at a wall or the sea, that doesn't help you find that one restaurant or your hotel if it isn't embedded in the exterior.

"Where are you from!?!?!"
The one thing that dragged down the magical time capsule-like atmosphere of Cartagena were the street vendors. I know I am spoiled traveling around a country generally unruined by touristic consumerism but I feel as though I was commercially accosted more times in the first day than the entire year and four months I've been here.
People selling jewelery, Cuban cigars, "real" emeralds and silver products, as well as boat trips and money changers, all from the street. The sad thing is that people actually fall for it. Honestly, who exchanges currency from some dirty man on the street? I got many of them to give me a slight reprieve by telling them I lived in Colombia or in Cali; that seemed to at least confuse some of them long enough for me to get away.
The vendor that gets the top prize for persistence was the umbrella salesman who insisted we purchase one of his two umbrellas after dinner one night when it was no longer raining. Even after explaining this to him he followed us for a good five blocks. Another man insisted on knowing where we were from by literally screaming at the top of his lungs "Where! Are! You! From!" over and over again in English. When I didn't respond to that he preceded to ask if I spoke French or Portuguese, but in Spanish, of course.

Where to now?
With all the history (Cartagena was one of the first Spanish forts in the "new world," enduring numerous pirate attacks, and being one of two main hubs of the African slave trade) and architecture, it is easy to forget that it is located on the Caribbean. Well, not "easy" - it is incredibly sunny and humid and the heavy air has a nice salty odor.
On Saturday we joined a group of fellow tourists to venture out to the nearby National Park in the ocean that encircles several small islands known as the Islas del Rosario. A few hours after leaving the grey-blue water of the port, we encountered the most magnificent shade of turquoise I think I've ever seen in the natural world. As we weaved in and out of the tiny islands, some with just one little house on them, the color of the sea seemed to change like a vending machine mood ring. We got off the boat at a tiny aquarium located on one island and walked the boardwalk through which the ocean crashed up between the planks with each surge. There were dolphins, sharks, rays, and sea turtles, all in the most organically natural setting they could have been in. Had you wanted to, you could have reached out and touched each one.
Back on the boat the sea was getting to Sarah and we had to persuade an old man to let her lay across "his" seat. He obliged, but not happily. The other stop on the tour was lunch and beach time at the beautiful white sand beach on the appropriately named Playa Blanca. Lunch was typical Colombian fare (rice, fish, plantains, salad) but the beach was anything but. Somehow there were vendors here too and they brought their women friends who were offering massages. (Because when you're on a beach in paradise you're tense?) Again, the water was unbelievably aquamarine and the breeze made for the perfect place to rest after a nice lunch.

The best part about Cartagena though was wondering the narrow streets, admiring the leafy and ornate balconies and coral and limestone facades. Between the walls, the dungeons-turned-craft shops, weathered old canons, and uneven roads, it was impossible not to marvel at what this mass of buildings has seen. The trials of early colonial Spanish settlers, violent battles against pirates, the inhumanity of humans being sold as property, and finally tourism and relative calm leave much to be learned and even more to be imagined.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

My Second Home

I love Salento. If I could have a modest house on a hillside in this tiny town, I might never leave. I would find a way to survive on coffee and trout and just be. This might just be my favorite place in the world; it really is enchanted.

I went to Salento for the first time a little over a year ago and finally made it back for a second visit last weekend. I hope it is not the last. Salento is located up in the mountains at relaxing spring-like elevation where short and t-shirts are fine during the sunny days and ponchos are worn after darkness falls. Everywhere smells of coffee, as the area is home to countless plantations, and it is not uncommon to be offered tinto (black coffee) just about anywhere. Trout is the dish of choice as the fish is plentiful in the surrounding streams and farms.

Salento is also just outside of the insanely beautiful and unique Valle de Corora, home of Colombia's national tree, the palma de cera (wax palm).

Last year, my current roommate, Nira, made friends with some of the townsfolk and upon returning this time, one of the families, a 21-year old university student named Andres and his mother, Gloria, insisted we stay with them. Gloria is like that warm-hearted neighbor-lady that will give and give and give and will never except "no" as an answer.
"Oh, so you are coming over for coffee and breakfast?" she will ask.
"Well, we made plans to visit [blank]." you would say.
"So you will be here soon, yes?" will be the response.
"Well, we are..." you will start to say.
"Oh! I am so glad you are coming over! See you soon!" And thus ends the conversation.

Andres is studying English and hopes to become an English teacher. He is the only one of his graduating class to go on to university and you can tell his mother, an elementary school teacher, is incredibly proud of him. Although Andres got to practice a lot of practical English with a couple of fluent speakers, we also got to use a lot of our Spanish while talking with Gloria.

Upon arriving, Gloria and Andres told us that it had been raining for many days. This was true and continued to be true. Every morning the weather was overcast and by noon it was at least drizzling. You just got used to either being wet or maneuvering throughout town under the overhangs and awnings.

On Sunday morning, in honor of there being no rain, temporarily at least, I ventured out to take some dry pictures of the many colored doors and balconies around town. I was just thinking to myself if the rain would ruin this enchanted view I had in my minds eye of Salento. Just as I thought this a young boy came around the corner carrying a closed bucket and asked me if I wanted a buñelo (my favorite Colombian bakery product - like a giant donut hole except greasier). I asked him to clarify and he opens the bucket's lid to reveal dozens of these delicious treats. Just when I started to doubt the magic of this place, a little buñelo boy comes ands rights me. I was quite content wondering the streets munching happily away on my buñelos.

Later the same day I met up with two other teachers from school who were also visiting Salento for the long weekend, Tara and Eila. We hired a Jeep to take us into the Valle de Cocora to see the famous trees. When I visited last year, I rode a horse for four hours through the national park. This time I had aspirations to hike in, find a nice rock in the valley, read a little and do some sketching of the scenery around. Attempt to have an existential moment, if you will, while Tara and Eila explored the area on horseback. After awhile I noticed an ominous looking cloud slowly crawling my direction, so I packed up and hiked back to the entrance where I found an empty restaurant to wait out the rain in. Halfway through me trout and coffee, the girls came back cold and wet and we continued waiting together.

Now, I should note that because of all the rain over the past few weeks, there had been much flash flooding and landslides in the area. Normally the Jeeps can take you all the way up into the park. Because of this, however, when we were en route, the Jeep could only take us halfway because the road had been washed out. Even a good Jeep couldn't traverse this. Fortunately some Jeeps got stuck on the other side when the road washed out and turned into a river so, once we were on the other side, another Jeep could take us the rest of the way. This is what we did - to get to the Valle de Cocora.

While waiting for one of these trapped Jeeps to come back for us, we met three European backpackers, a German girl, and two guys: a Czech and a Swiss. After talking with the soldiers stationed at the park entrance who told us that there were no Jeeps on this side of the washed out road, despite the fact that we all took one in, we decided the best option would be to begin the three-hour walk back to Salento, as the rain had become a light mist for the moment.
An hour into the journey, a bulldozer happens by and offers us a lift. (Side note: Tara informed us that it was actually a "backhoe" but if someone had used that name in a story I, personally, would not have known what they were talking about. Therefore, it is going to be called a "bulldozer.")

The driver of this enormous machine was actually on his way back to Salento and was more than willing to take us all the way there. The catch was that whenever we passed a fallen tree or pile of mud we had to "do work." More accurately, we had to hang on for dear life as the bulldozer scooped huge amounts of earth and debris off the road. At one point I was sure he was attempting to scoop water that was flowing across a low point in the road. Our mini-United Nations crew eventually made it back to town, albeit much wetter and muddier than anticipated; bulldozers don't have wheel guards.

I've taken pictures doing some pretty ridiculous things (canopying, running a marathon, on a bike, etc.) but I opted out of finding my camera while dangling off the side of a bulldozer careening down wet mud-soaked mountain roads. Riding on a bulldozer also adds another mode of transportation to the list of "ways I've gotten around" while in this country.

Back in Salento, I dried off, met Nira for coffee and talked with Gloria and Andres. The next day we awoke early, visited the shops as they opened to get some of the better deals on gifts and coffee products before we headed out.

As the bus was pulling out of town, Nira commented that it always feels as though she is leaving home when she leaves Salento. I have to agree. Maybe next time it wouldn't be such a bad thing if the landslide blocked the road leaving Salento and the bulldozer was nowhere to be found.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Color of Colombia

As I watched the Yahoo! interactive map of the United States change colors from grey to either blue or red from the comfort of my apartment thousands of miles away from the election action, I couldn't help but think about how the rest of the world would be colored if it was voting too.

Judging from the headlines and media reports from places like Indonesia, Japan, most of Europe, and all of Africa, Obama seems to be a fan favorite. Our neighbor here, Venezuela, is clearly not a Bush supporter. The same can be said for allies of Venezuela's president, Chavez, such as Bolivia and our other neighbor, Ecuador. They are all definitely blue; an Obama victory would surely please them.

As for Colombia, I'll let my students comments answer the question of who it was pulling for. I can't tell you the number of times I heard, "But Obama hates Colombia!" Yep, Colombia is red. I'm sure the fact that the Bush administration and the Republican party have been very generous to Colombia's military, war on drugs, and opening up the trade agreements, plays the most important factor in peoples' Ameri-political view points.

I tried to explain to my students that Obama, first of all, does not "hate" Colombia and that his first order of business after taking office in late January will not be cutting ties with their country; he has a few other substantial things on his plate to digest first. Secondly, a brief lesson on checks and balances in the American governmental branches was calming to some of them.

One girl put it best: "[President Alvaro] Uribe is a nice guy and people like him. I bet he'll call Obama up and they'll make friends."

Aside from the occasional asinine comments about "I'm never moving back to the United States in McCain gets elected" from some co-workers, I rather enjoyed experiencing the race from abroad. It gave it a whole different perspective. Plus, I didn't have to see or hear any political ads! I might just have to make living abroad an every-four-years event just for that!

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Indians Are Coming!

Today we had school cancelled. I've had "snow days" and "cold weather days" be responsible for school being called off. I imagine some places even have "hurricane days" or "fire danger/drought days."

But today was a first. We had school cancelled because the indigenous peoples of the southern part of Colombia were marching on the city of Cali. I'm not even sure what to call that kind of a day!

Apparently the native Colombians in that region are upset over the lack of government funding they have been getting, including health care, as well as the encroaching corporations into their land. They began marching from near the city of Popayan (about a three hour bus ride south of Cali) and picking up more supporters along the way. They were scheduled to reach Cali sometime today or last night. Thus far I have seen no one. (They are all sporting green bandanas so please don't think I'm trying to judge people based on certain physical stereotypes!)

The latest news we were given is that they plan on marching into Cali, staying a few days and then continuing on to Bogota. Well, President Uribe obviously doesn't want the image of this many people walking halfway across the country splashed all over the international media, so he has agreed to come and meet with the leaders of the group on Sunday.

This is supposed to be a peaceful march. The reason school was cancelled was twofold; other people (members of various paramilitary groups for example) might use this demonstration to further their own cause inciting violence, and our campus is in the southern part of the city, fairly close to where the marchers will be entering.

It will be interesting to see what happens in the coming days. Until then, isn't it interesting how, it seems, no matter where you go in the world, the native peoples always seem to have been unjustly persecuted in some way through out their history?

Monday, October 20, 2008

3:29.34 Later

I can now say I am an International Athlete. This past weekend I completed my first marathon. (I say "first" because although today I am hobbling around like a ninety-year old man with two new hips who forgot his cane, I plan to continue this athletic endeavor.)

The race took place along the beautiful Lago Calima in the northern part of the Valle de Cauca region (where Cali is located). The lake itself is actually a man-made resevoir created by the damming of a river and it is high in the mountains. This meant the course was hilly, the air was thinner, and the climate was perfect.

I did the race with one of the guidance counselors (Adriana) and a few senior students. One of the seniors had a family finca ("farm" or cottage) in the area so we all drove up the night before, had a great pasta dinner and relaxed. Being that I was traveling with people from school who do not want to get kidnapped, etc, we had a bodyguard escort us on a motorcycle and the car was bullet-proof. The bodyguard stayed with us all weekend, obviously.

My favorite conversation during the ride up included the sentence from Adriana who stated matter of factly that "If the guerilla stop us and try to shoot us we can just sit in the car and 'Miguel' [the body guard] will have to drive thru the cane fields to get help. If they pull a bazooka out though, we should probably get out of the car." Where are you people taking me that this conversation even needs to be brought up!?!

Anyways, the race began at 6am while the sun was still trying peak over the mountains. The starting of the race was a little anti-climactic because there were only about 500 runners total and at least half of them were only running the 1/2 marathon; running is not a very understood or popular sport here in Colombia.

The course was gorgeous but the hills were awful. I felt as though I was either running up or down the entire time; climbing or jamming my toes - pick one. Adriana has run several marathons in her life, including New York, and she said that this one was by far the most difficult one she has competed in yet.

I'll let the pictures tell the rest of the story for me:

This is around km 9 going throught the pueblo El Darién. The course started in the town, went 5 kilometers south and west, then returned to the town to go to the northern end of the lake.

At km 22, just past the half-way mark with a split of 1:36-something, and still feeling good enough to whip out the camera and snap some pictures. This is the dam at the northern-most end of the lake. The course continued around the tip and climbed away from the water for a solid 4 kilometers or so and then turned around to head back.

The military was present about every 1/2 kilometer or so. If I didn't want to count the painted kilometer markings on the road, I could have just waited to see army men. It would have been about as accurate.

Some of the aid stations had tables, others did not. This one did not. The girl working her assigned stop at km 24 was handing out the typical refreshment: bags of water. You can get these all over Colombia and they are a lot more environmentally friendly than bottles since they take less energy to make and less space in landfills. They are GREAT for races though because you just bite off the corner and squeeze the water into your mouth instead of clumsily spilling all over yourself with a paper cup.

The turn-around back to El Darién happened at km 26. This is right before km 28. Yes, the scenery is unbelievable, but sometimes it felt like the entire course was uphill.

KM 36 had cows in the road. Typical...
I hit my "wall" soon after this and the camera was forgotten temporarily. KM 39 got walked as I was tightening up pretty badly and it was uphill. It got to the point where I realized I could walk as fast as the tiny running steps I was taken - so I did.

When I got to El Darién's town square everyone was cheering and encouraging me on. The finish line was facing the "wrong" way and I wanted to walk across is so badly but I didn't know where to go in my exhausted state. Forget about speaking Spanish, I could barely function in English! I threw out the universal "where-do-I-go?" arm position and picked out one guy's voice who was telling me I had to "run around the park." I know it was a small block but seriously? The finish is RIGHT THERE and I just did 42 km! "Around the park" is an eternity!

After that eternity I finished and my new friend Juancho Correlón was there to greet me. 3 hours, 29 minutes, and 34 seconds later...

After I finished and waited for the rest of my group to come a lot of other runners were shaking my hand and asking me all kinds of standard questions like where I was from, did I like Colombia, did I like running, what was my time, will I do more, etc. As the sole foreign runner (and a pink freckly one at that) I was getting a lot of attention. As we were leaving an official came running over and said to Adriana, "You can't leave! You won a prize!" She asked him what he was talking about and he tells her she was the first finisher in the womens' division. Needless to say, by the time we left the area both of us had become minor celebrities.

I don't think I'm going to visit the track for the next couple days though.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

I'm Feelin' Hot Hot Hot!

This past weekend we finally had our first three-day weekend of the school year. I believe this is the longest stretch we need to endure without a tiny break; glad that it is behind us!

My friend Tina and I took two of the new import teachers, Carrie and Tara, on a short little road trip to show them how the insanity of the bus station works and how the general concept of reservations is irrelevant most of the time. After all the weeks without a break from the students we all agreed some rest and relaxation was in order so we headed for the tiny hamlet of Santa Rosa de Cabal in the coffee-growing region about four hours north of Cali.

Santa Rosa is great because it is quaint, up in the mountains so that the temperature is comfortable sweater-weather but not snowing cold (not ready for that yet!), and near a bunch of thermal hot springs. All perfect for a weekend of decompressing!

We arrived in the mid-afternoon on Saturday and found a hotel near the town square. Normally, this would have been fine, except the town was having their 164th Anniversary celebration so when the revelers were leaving the party at all hours of the night, roughly one fourth of them staggered past our street-side room. Tina and I scouted out other lodgings the next morning and found a colonial-looking one near the edge of town owned by a nice couple who spoke English and had lived a time in Miami. (If you should end up in Santa Rosa, stay at the Hotel Cohiba - that's my plug.) He was from Cuba originally and was nice enough to drive us to the very best thermal hot springs in the area and pick us up when we were good and relaxed. That's hotel service if you ask me!

They had a great backyard with a high stone wall, chickens, a rooster that is lucky to be alive after waking us up much too early the next morning, and a nice little green parrot named Pacho who asked "¿quiero cacao?" Perhaps the Colombian version of "Polly wanna cracker?" Cocoa is a much better request than a cracker if you ask me; I think these Spanish-speaking birds are on the right track. He was my favorite, obviously.

The springs were amazing. We could tell we were getting closer as we drove, not only because of the increase in other weekending Colombians and the smell of sulfur, but because of the steam rising from the green leafy mountain ridges. There were several waterfalls at the site of the thermal springs, some fresh and freezing from streams higher up and others boiling hot originating from deep underground. As the pools got more crowded and the day progressed, we took the opportunity to get a massage at the on-site spa. I've never had a professional massage before but I could get used to this luxury! The best (and most surprising) part was when my masseuse began digging into my gluteus muscle. I could go for just one of those next time; its like walking on air afterwards!

That night we partied with the locals in the main central park and ate the regionally famous chorizo sausage among other meat products. It really is impossible to be a vegetarian in this country. I don't think anyone would laugh at you, you'd just end up starving after all the mangos, pineapples, oranges, avocados, and cilantro have bored your stomach to tears.

Things that will continue to amaze me about living here: grocery store "hoes." These are the girls that certain brands pay to stand all day in grocery store aisles and pimp their product while wearing apparel usually reserved for "women of the night." Well, the grocery store off of Santa Rosa's town square had girls serving customers shots of whiskey as they came in and out of the store. Classy, no? Only in Colombia...

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Ins and Outs

I have now had to both enter and exit Colombia four times since coming here over a year ago. The most recent time was over this past week for my good friend Matt's wedding in Eau Claire for which I was groomsman.

Anyone who has ever spent any significant amount of time in another area other than where they came from knows about the cultural period of adjustment. You can have culture shock moving around within the United States even! What most people don't consider is that there is an opposite reculturalization when you return.

It doesn't seem like it would be a big deal, but every time I am reminded of things that I like and dislike about my home country, my host country, and the citizens that make up each.

The first shock is the amount of conversation I can understand all around me once I am back on American soil. Each time I have returned I have found myself a little over stimulated by all the mini-dramas unfolding in parts at every turn. What once was "white noise" has now become comprehendible. Sometimes not knowing what is being said is comforting.

Secondly, and I know this will come off as clichéd, is the number of overweight people. Yes, I've been to state and county fairs before and been amazed at the temporary per capita poundage of the fair grounds but stepping off a plane upon returning to the U.S. of A. presents as much a case as any that "we have a BIG problem."

Thirdly, Americans are always running and rushing, panting and panicking to get to where they need to be. I was told when I arrived in Colombia last year that the concept of "time" is different in our respective cultures. To Americans, time is something that is spent, saved, and wasted. Colombians don't attach a tangible value to it, therefore making it nothing more that a reference point. You don't see people in Colombian airports sprinting awkwardly down the hall with four bags a toddler and baby, red in the face, ready to blast through any pedestrian not aware of the train wreck coming toward them. I think every time I've stepped off the plane from Cali I've had to look both ways before stepping out onto the concourse. However, this ease with time may explain why there are occasionally empty seats on a supposedly full flight too.

Organization* is one thing that I do miss about the American savior faire. Everything is very clear as to where to go and what to do and there are always enough people around to help and serve the needs of everyone. I have returned to Colombia to find several planeloads of people in one long single-file line waiting for the one customs official at his booth to process them. Fortunately because time is not a "thing" to Colombians, no one appears upset by this obvious staffing error and they stand calmly and wait. Don't even pretend to think that that would happen in the States!

*does not apply to the hot mess that is Miami International Airport.

Next time I leave the country will be over the Christmas/New Years holiday break. I must have been subconsciously worried that I would start to become used to this in and out business so, to make things interesting, I will be going through customs TWICE! In December I will be flying from Cali to Panama City, Panama, to Houston. I'll let you know how that goes...

Monday, August 18, 2008

Petronio Alvarez

Festivo de Musica del Pacifico

Every year the city of Cali hosts an enormous concert festival celebrating the music of the Pacific Coast regions. These areas are primarily inhabited by Afro-Colombians and the influences of their music run anywhere from calypso to African tribal to "polka-ish" to big band to reggae...and everything in between. No matter the sound, though, the talent is enormous! This year the concerts were held in Cali's Plaza del Torro (Bull Ring) and when the crowd got going, jumping around and waving their white hankies, the whole stadium seemed to sway; it was nuts!

The festival runs from Wednesday to Sunday with roughly ten groups performing a night for the first four nights, and the top ten groups returning the last night. My new roommate, Nira, and I went and watched on Friday evening and then again Sunday night with our friend Lisa. Below are some pictures of the night:

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Did You Miss Me, Mango?

Summer has come and gone. Well, calendar summer that is; it will still feel like summer here for, well, always. After spending a crazy and amazing seven weeks back in the US of A visiting friends, family, and eat English muffins (man, I miss those things), I am back in Cali, ready for another great year!

I was afraid I would have forgotten a lot of my Spanish over the summer and the long drive from the airport would be made even longer by me not being able to fill the awkward silences with anything other than "¿qué?" and "no entiendo" but all was good and we talked about fruits, vegetables, and chicken farms. Don't ask - it was near midnight and I had been traveling for around fourteen hours.

I moved apartments at the end of last year and by "moved apartments" I mean I had my stuff brought to the new place and then I left. So, upon arriving in the wee morning hours I was pleasantly surprised to see that my maid had made my bed and "unpacked" for me. (I was honestly set to just pass out on top of my mattress with a sweatshirt for a blanket and deal with the rest in the morning.) The next few days were spent playing "where did Omaira put _____?" It was moderately fun.

We've had a week's worth of teacher workshop days and gotten to meet and know the new staff. There's a couple from Wisconsin (Chippewa Falls) and Minnesota (St. Cloud), respectively, who just graduated from UW-LaCrosse, as well as a couple from Michigan and a girl from Chicago. It's nice to see the Midwest represent! The math teacher on my 9th grade team, who took me under his wing, left after four years last spring so now it's my turn to return the favor with the new math teacher. It's amazing the number of things I needed to know last year that are now just second nature to me; sometimes I feel like I was here longer than just one year! At an International School, I think it is possible grow more than the time would conceivably allow. Despite this, I still can't believe this begins year four in a, hopefully, long career.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Fanny Lú

An alumni of Colegio Bolívar who is now a famous singer throughout Latin America came to school today to congratulate the graduating seniors and give little concert.

Fanny Lú has released one album, “Lágrimas Cálidas” (literally “Warm Tears”), and was nominated for a Latin Grammy this past year...she lost. She is most popular in Mexico, Venezuela, and Peru and is gaining popularity in her home country.

Anyways, as you can see, I got to meet her. :) If you want to check out her songs, they are on iTunes. Some of her singles have been "No Te Pido Flores" and "Te Arrepentirás."

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Baby Got Back

Just when we are getting achingly close to the end of the year, the nation of Colombia throws a bunch of puentes (three-day weekends) at us. Where were those in February? Well, after an extra long puente at the beginning of the month, we were rewarded with another last weekend. Avid readers will recall a mishap in the Bogotá airport back in December (see: “The Mob & Me”) that resulted in free bonos, or airline money. My then travel buddy, Christine, and I decided to finally take the airline up on their offer of a free trip and fly to Medellín for the weekend.

Medellín is the second largest city in Colombia and one of the most unique as far as the people go. Our guide book said that people from Medellín, paisas, are a lot like Texans in that they have more pride for their state than they do for their country. That is not to say they do not like their country, they just like being a paisa better. There is an art teacher at Colegio Bolívar who is a proud paisa and even has his own “Medellín passport.” It is obviously a joke, but it made me think if a better comparison would be Quebec instead of Texas. Either way, paisas are a proud, hard-working, and friendly people.

Aside from being prideful, paisas love to party. Almost as much as the caleños here in Cali, except with a lot less “plastic.” One night out at dinner I ordered a mojito and was told there was a 3 for 1 deal. I said that one was fine but I apparently misunderstood because the waiter basically told me I couldn’t order just one; I had to get three. Okay! Maybe Quebec isn’t a good comparison either. Maybe it should be…Wisconsin!

Medellín is also one of the safest large cities in Colombia. This has a lot to do with the fact that the once powerful Medellín-cartel no longer exists and that enforcement in this region is strong; probably because President Uribe is a paisa himself. Even the homeless and street people were not threateningly desperate! Because of this security, Christine and I did a lot of walking.

We walked from our hotel in the Central District next to the huge Parque Bolívar, to the Museo d’Antioquia which is home to a cornucopia of works by Colombian, and paisan, artist Fernándo Botero. Botero has a thing for fat people. But not in the same way some renaissance artisits liked to paint supple women of the day. Botero likes everything fat – animals, cars, fruit, bouquets of flowers, even houses are bloated. Before even entering the building there are a dozen or so bronze statues in the plaza out front for the enjoyment and amusement of everyone.

One thing I enjoy about Botero’s work is that it can be both humorous and serious. He has created many works, in his distinct style, that portray very topical events in Colombia’s resent history. Often his paintings are of car bombs, earthquakes, class differences, and even the assassination of Pablo Escobar. The best part is that Botero is still alive and kicking and producing more and more art. It is great to see an artist getting this kind of recognition before they are dead!

We spent the rest of our time in Medellín wandering into various churches, looking at randomly placed sculptures, admiring the efficacy of the public transportation system (they had an elevated train like Chicago!), and eating buñuelos. Actually, I couldn’t get enough of these things. They are the closest thing Colombians have to a donut and are basically giant donut holes. I can get them here in Cali but they seemed much more plentiful in Medellín.

One day we took a day trip to a tiny town west of the city on the other side of the mountains. Sante Fe de Antioquia is an old (founded in the early 1500’s) pueblo paisa that has remained relatively unchanged and is a big weekender place for the people of Medellín. It is also HOT. Before leaving we consulted the guidebook and found that it was comparable to the Amazon region. On the ride two-hour ride there we descended a little over 1000 meters, including a drive through a tunnel that took nearly seven minutes! Needless to say, Christine and I got good at drinking juice and walking on the shady sides of the street.

We saw a few nice cathedrals and parks and a crazy old cemetery. The tombs were all holes in the wall with the “head stone” being the cap on the end; no one was buried in the ground. We considered asking some of the grave diggers sitting around having a noon aguardiente bender but decided against it after hearing some wonderfully colorful language coming from them. (It’s nice when your Spanish is proficient enough to pick up on crude language!)

Being such a cultural hub, Medellín and the rest of the area have way more to offer than we were able to see in a weekend. Hopefully in the future I can score another set of free airline tickets to do some more Botero hunting! Thanks Aerorepublica!

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Brought To You By the Letter "C"

If You Can't Swim, You Don't Go; That's Why It's An Adventure

This last weekend became an extra long weekend when the school decided to cancel classes Friday due to anticipated low student attendance because of a national holiday on Thursday and the following Monday. Good call, school!

I took the opportunity to travel to a fairly remote location in the mountains east of Medellin with two elementary teacher-friends of mine, Tina and Lisa. During the trip, one of them suggested we make a list of fun things that happened beginning with each letter of the alphabet. (There's the reason I mentioned they were elementary teachers.) We never did, however, I thought that might be a fun way to remember this trip...and then I sat down to do it and it wasn't so fun. The main problem being there are 26 letters and some of them are "Q", "X", and "Z". Also, I found an over-abundance of memories for the letter "C". Therefore, this recounting will be all about the letter "C".

Canyon The reserve we stayed at sits along the Rio Claro at the bottom of a beautiful tree-lined canyon. Everywhere we hiked, you looked up and see these amazing rock formations towering over you on both sides of the river. There literally wasn't a bad view anywhere! I'm not one for taking excessive pictures (that's a lie), but I found myself flipping through the photos on my camera thinking "I took 80 shots of the same thing!"

Caminando I'm cheating here and using the Spanish for "walking" but it's with good reason. The bus we took to get to the reserve was a Medellin to Bogota bus which meant that about three hours after leaving Medellin we would get dumped off. That's kind of what happened. The driver realized we were passing the Rio Claro as we were going over it and then proceded to drive for another two kilometers before letting us off and then telling us to walk up another road! As the bus, and our link to civilization, drove off, a semi pulled in to go up said road and, after asking where we were going, the truck driver informed us that, yes, indeed, the river was about two kilometers back down the high way. So, we proceded to walk (caminar) with our huge backpacking packs for two kilometers in the noon-day Colombian sun along a narrow shoulder on a busy highway connecting the two biggest cities in Colombia because our bus driver was a tool.

Caving I've only been in two caves in my life. One was as a daycamp leader for the Parks Department in Roseville when I was in high school. We went to a cave somewhere in Wisconsin (I should know the name of it; I drove by the signs enough times) and I had sore arms for a week from all the kids hanging on me for fear of getting accosted by a bat. The second time was in college when a group of us drove to St. Paul to walk through one of the caves along the Mississippi River for Halloween where people jump out at you. Either way, both of those experiences were pretty tourist friendly and "safe" because there were actually walking paths and ropes to lead us along. Not here!

I need to back up a bit though...our fifteen year old tour guide was a little confused and tried to take us in the exit and decided the water was too high. The reason the "water was too high" was an issue was that in order to get to the cave, one has to swim across the river, current and all. Well, after a few hours (yes, hours) of waiting the boss came by and imparted his wisdom to the group and our guide making statements such as the subheading of "If you can't swim, you don't go; that's why it's an adventure!" Thanks for the confidence.

Eventually we all made it across the river, although me without my water shoes - they got sacrificed to the river. The entrance to the cave was about a twenty minute hike throught the forest and our guide stopped us along the way to point out trees and rocks (there were plenty of both). Then he warned us that should we encounter any ants that we need to "keep our feet moving" because they sting. At that point I remember the group collectively looking at me, the one with no shoes. As we rounded the next ridge everyone ahead of me started running. The ants apparently don't just cross the trail, they follow it! After declining Tina's offer to get a piggy back ride from her, I waited until the "shoed" group was far enough ahead for me to sprint through the forest. About fifty yards later I emerged with only two bites and a soaring adrenaline.

Finally at the cave entrance we turned on our lights and ventured inside. Remember now, there are no paths, no tow ropes. Lisa mentioned that it reminded her of "canyoning" in that we were always in water, but it was in a cave and therefore dark. After walking a few hundred feet we all became aware of one of the most awful noises I have ever heard in my life. Condors that nest on the cave were flying about overhead screaming at us. Shining your light upwards only made it worse. It was a horrible sound. Some Hollywood film crew needs to come down here and record it for their next slasher flick. It was as if they were screeching "kill! kill!" in unison.

At times the water was at our ankles and at times we were literally swimming. There were a few short "water slides" made from the centuries of water running through the cave over the marble rock within. Those were fun! The exit of the cave was a waterfall with a rope ladder attached to it. After climbing down the ladder, we traversed the river again by hanging on to a rope that stretched across it. I guess "that's why it's an adventure," huh?!?

Capsizing On the second day at the reserve we went kayaking. Now the Rio Claro, at least were we were, never really reaches any kind of difficult rapids, however, if the rating scale included a .5 Class Rapids, we went over them. Again, not difficult, but fun nonetheless! The three of us were in two kayaks, the girls in one, me in the other, and we departed with two rafts full of families. At one point the rafts got behind us a ways (that's our story anyway) and, in an attempt to let them catch up, we grabbed some low hanging tree branches. Correction: Lisa and Tina grabbed some low hanging tree branches, I grabbed their kayak. ...and then they tipped over. :)

Children The last thing a teacher wants to see on vacation is a mass of school kids. One or two with their families is fine as long as they don't bother you but a school trip is not acceptable. We were graced with the presence of two different groups, although thankfully not at the same time. The first was a group of about 20 8th grade girls. Against all odds, they were pretty good. Then came the group of about 40 ninth graders. If I had wanted to see my kids all week I would have brought them. Unfortunately they were staying right above us in a very tree house-like lodging. Fortunately Tina had no problem going up and telling them to go to bed.

Campfire The second night at the reserve we met some teachers from our school's sister school in Medellin, Columbus School. They were camping for the weekend and invited us to come to their site after dinner and enjoy the campfire and all things that go along with it. It was a surreal feeling sitting around a fire in the cool night air getting smoke blown in your face by the breeze and listening to the river rush by a few yards away. In the dark I would have thought I was back in northern Minnesota; it was a nice feeling.

Canopying For those that don't know, like my dear mother, canopying is moving through an area, usually a forest, at the level of the canopy. In essence, you're really high and, if you're on a zip-line like we were, you're going pretty fast. This particular canopy had three zip-lines, one that crossed the river and two that followed it. Great fun but it goes by really quickly.

Clear River (I know I cheated on this one too.) There is a reason it is called Rio Claro. It is clean and clear. The guides all told us we could fill our water bottles from the river. We didn't, but it's nice to know we could have.

C you next time! (Lame?)

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Scandal? What's That?

This is an Associated Press article, by Frank Bajak, dated May 4th, 2008 discussing an interesting aspect of the political situation here in Colombia:

These are trying days for President Alvaro Uribe, Washington's closest ally in a region dominated by leftist leaders.

Opposition lawmakers are seeking his impeachment on charges that aides offered political favors for votes. His longtime confidante has joined dozens of allies jailed for alleged ties to illegal, drug-trafficking militias. U.S. Democrats are blocking White House attempts to approve a free-trade agreement because of his human rights record.

In most countries, a president in such a pickle would be on the ropes. Yet Uribe's approval rating — consistently above 70 percent in opinion polls — is the highest of any president in the Americas.

"It's almost as if he's a person with supernatural powers that let him do whatever he likes," said leading newspaper columnist Maria Jimena Duzan.

Uribe's closest political adviser, Jose Obdulio Gaviria, said the president's popularity is reward for his dedication and for vigorously battling crime on all fronts, bringing down murder and kidnapping rates.

"Jesus Christ was also condemned to death, and I understand that his historical popularity remains intact," Gaviria told The Associated Press.

Uribe's Teflon presidency has various explanations.

Backed by billions of dollars in U.S. military aid, Uribe has managed to knock off balance the peasant-based Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — something no president had managed since the FARC's 1964 birth.

He also has seen success in killing or capturing drug lords, including twin brothers who the defense minister said controlled roughly half the country's armed gangs: one was slain April 29, the other arrested two days later.

Then there's Colombia's economy, which grew by 7.5 percent last year and averaged 5.5 percent growth from 2003-2007 as Uribe's vigorous privatization of state-run enterprises spurred foreign investment.

And there's Uribe's style. Colombians love his wonkish, take-charge approach. Statistics roll off his tongue through regular 18-hour work days. He drags ministers and generals to daylong communal councils in dangerous backwaters where he rolls up his sleeves and digs into details.

By far the greatest coup has been Uribe's pursuit of the FARC, most spectacularly with a March 1 cross-border raid into Ecuador that killed Raul Reyes, the rebels' foreign minister.

Contempt for the FARC is so widespread that people are willing to overlook ties between Uribe-allied politicians and right-wing death squads formed to counter the rebels.

"The promise that he's going to defeat the FARC is fundamental to his popularity," said political analyst Leon Valencia.

Crime prevention is another big selling point.

"If you are living in a city or on a main road — and that's about 80 percent of the people — you are feeling a whole lot safer," said Adam Isacson, an analyst with the liberal Washington-based Center for International Policy.

Colombia's opinion makers generally esteem Uribe. Any time he wants to sound off, he calls a radio network and talks for an hour or two. Most Colombians get their news from the radio, and supporters love his directness, even when he's confronting the latest scandal dogging his government.

He has done that a lot lately. On Tuesday, he responded quickly after 10 opposition lawmakers called for his impeachment for allegedly offering favors to then-Rep. Yidis Medina in return for reversing herself on a crucial 2004 committee vote that allowed him to run for re-election. Yidis surrendered April 27, saying she'll plead guilty to bribery and implicate the president and three close aides.

"The national government persuades. It doesn't buy consciences," Uribe told reporters Tuesday during a trip to the southwestern city of Neiva. He denied offering favors for the vote.

Another scandal assailing Uribe is over mutually beneficial relations between some of his closest political allies and the outlaw far-right paramilitaries that demobilized under a peace pact with his government.

Ten percent of Colombia's 268 federal lawmakers are jailed on charges of backing or benefiting from the groups, and another 10 percent are under investigation. On April 22 his second cousin and political confidante was jailed as well.

The scandal, compounding concerns over the killing of union activists, is complicating attempts by Uribe and his ally, President Bush, to persuade the Democratic leadership in the U.S. Congress to stop delaying a vote on a free-trade pact.

The raid that killed Reyes earned Uribe international reproach and threats of war from Ecuador and Venezuela. Uribe apologized for violating Ecuadorean sovereignty but refused to say he wouldn't do it again.

A week later, Gallup conducted a poll of 1,000 Colombians — people with telephones in the country's four biggest cities — with a margin of error of three percentage points.

Uribe's approval rating was 84 percent. It was his highest ever.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Oh, Canada!

Obviously, living in another country different from your own brings about the inevitable exposure to cultural differences. Latin American culture is very different from North American culture, as I have experienced and described in other posts. Even within Colombia there are differences in the various regions of the country. However, in some ways, I don't even need to leave school to run into myriad cultural dealings different from my own.

I remember when I moved from Minnesota to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, for college, I was surprised at how different life had been for my friends right across the border. Getting money from Tyme machine instead of the ATM and going to bars with your parents when you were under 21 was a strange new world for me. Later, moving even further into the state for my first teaching job in Manitowoc brought new "cultural" discoveries. In north eastern Wisconsin, for example, a "hot tamale," for some reason, is a sloppy joe sandwich, and the use of the non-word "yous" is common and acceptable both in spoken and written communication (as in "can yous give me a hot tamale?").

At Colegio Bolivar I am blessed to be working with a richly diverse faculty of Colombia, American, and Canadian teachers. With this cornucopia of backgrounds and experiences, it is not surprising that terminology and ideas are influenced and melded together.

I was reminded recently, after passing back an exam to my 9th graders, of how confusing these differences in terminology from the different import teachers can be for the students. Aside from saying "eh," Canadian teachers bring a different pedagogical terminology to the academic table.

For example, when I was in school, I "took" tests; my students now "take" tests. In Canada, students "write" tests. This is confusing for obvious reasons because, in my mind, I write the test and the students take them. Why would a student write a test? I suppose a Canadian could rightfully argue that it would be inappropriate for a student to take a test though. "To where are they talking it, eh?" I imagine would be legitimate question.

To further compound the student's confusion, when I "grade" an assignment or exam, a check mark or a slash through an answer usually means the response was incorrect. When a Canadian "marks" an assignment or exam, the same checkmark or slash means it is correct. Maybe that is why some students don't break down in despair when they get an exam back full of red checks; they probably think they aced it!

With there currently being 5 American teachers, 5 Canadians, and 15 Colombians in high school alone, I do not envy the confusion I'm sure many of the students face on a yearly basis learning a new language and deciphering the nuances of Canadian and American phraseology. Maybe next year the school can hire a couple Brits and an Australian so we can continue to confuse everyone.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Me Tarzan

I think that at one point or another most elementary-aged kids go through a stage in which they are interested in the rain forest. I remember my own elementary days of creating a rainforest out of the hallway by the cafeteria in art class and building dioramas for display in the library – although the intrinsic purpose of the dioramas escapes me now. Either way, to me, the rainforest was this mysterious place only truly accessible to researchers and people working for National Geographic; I probably would never go there.

This past week, however, I got the amazing experience of spending four days buried deep in the Amazon rainforest in the Heliconia Reserve about four degrees south of the equator and off an Amazon River tributary, the Yavarí River, in what is technically Brazil.

For our Semana Santa (Holy Week) or Spring Break vacation another teacher friend, Tina, and I boarded a plane in Bogotá for a two hour flight to Leticia, a small town in the southernmost tip of Colombia, where it meets with Peru and Brazil. Aside from using the river or a plane, there is no other conceivable way in or out of this region of the country; it truly is isolated in the middle of the jungle.

We were met at the airport, if you could call it that, by a lady from the reserve who took us to the docks of Leticia where we climbed aboard a small fiberglass motorboat driven by a curly-haired, raspy voiced man named Israel with questionable dental hygiene. Israel handed us a sandwich and juice and informed us we would be sitting for the next three hours as we made our way to the reserve. Along the way, he pointed out various settlements along the river and birds and the like, but with the motor, his heavily accented Spanish, and the fact that he sounded like that lady in the anti-smoking ad that takes a puff through the whole in her neck, we usually didn’t understand and thus just smiled and nodded politely.

This being the rainy season (although I have to believe that there is still a consistent amount the rest of the year in order to maintain the moniker of “rain” forest one assumes a certain amount of constant precipitation) the water level was at the cresting point and all of the shoreline was hidden and most of the trees seemed to grow out of the river itself. Upon arriving at the reserve the staff greeted us warmly and served a wonderful fish dinner. Oddly enough, we were the only two guests present that first night so we were able to hang out in the lodge and converse with Israel, the wonder kitchen mother, and several of the guides. It was a great way to practice our Spanish. They decided to name me Tarzan because they could say that so I was “Tarzan” the rest of the week.

Our cabana consisted of beams and screens with beds enclosed in mosquito netting. There was a toilet “room” and a shower “room.” I say “room” because the outside wall was non-existent and as you did your business, you looked out at the marvel that was the jungle. It reminded me of the forest wallpaper my parents have behind the entertainment center in the basement except it moved.

After bidding everyone a buena noche we made out way to said cabana only to discover a (large - to us) medium-sized tarantula on top of my mosquito netting. After calling for help and not getting any response, we haphazardly attempted to smash it with a pair of shoes only to have it retreat into a crack in the wall. We conceded defeat and, only after pulling my bed away from the walls, secured our mosquito nets and drifted off to sleep. I’m sorry – that’s a lie. Have you ever been tempted to buy one of those “Ocean Sounds” or “Jungle Sounds” CDs to help you sleep? I haven’t and I am now certain I never will. Not really a settling noise when you know the rattling trees or chirps or screeches are real and potentially meters from your head. I’ll take passing traffic any day.

The next few days our personal guide, Jimmie, took us on nature hikes, canoe outings, fishing, and swimming. On our hikes we saw termite mounds, more tarantulas (bigger ones), frogs, parrots, monkeys, eagles, and a dead anaconda complete with circling vultures. He also showed us how the rubber (caucho) is harvested from the rubber trees the way the indigenous tribes did it so that the trees did not die. He also showed us trees with medicinal value including one to prevent constipation (that was a fun game of charades) and itching from bug bites. SAVE THE RAINFOREST PEOPLE! THERE'S GOOD STUFF IN THERE!!!

On the river we canoed, saw freshwater pink river dolphins, and went for a quick swim. Jimmie told us the middle of the river was fine and that all the snakes, crocodiles, piranhas, and electric eels were over near the trees. He also jumped in first. We went fishing for piranhas and, although both Tina and I got nibbles, Jimmie was the only successful fisherman. He caught two fish, one being a piranha and both being small. He then took a small leaf and said, “Este es su dedo (This is your finger)” and stuck the thing into the piranha’s mouth where it promptly made hole puncher-worthy bite cuts out of the leaf’s margins. Crazy stuff. I’m glad it wasn’t my dedo.

My two favorite things we did was a night outing in which we floated peacefully in the canoe and Jimmie told us the indigenous people’s legend of the pink dolphin. This was fun mostly because we had to work together to translate it and because it was a good story. Well, based on how we translated it, it was. The other was a night outing in the boat were we went looking for caiman crocodiles. Apparently caimans in the Amazon and deer in North America have the same paralytic habit of doing nothing when a bright light is shown in their eyes. All you need to catch a caiman is a flashlight and a quick hand. Jimmie caught a small one (about a foot long) and attempted two others. (One of the others was about three feet long and he wisely retracted his reach and the other just got away.)

The second night Tina was alone in the cabana before dinner and a large gecko lost it’s grip and fell (or jumped, depending on who’s story you are hearing) on her arm. She flipped out, screamed, and the gecko lost its tail as geckos often do when frightened so at least they are even. Either way, the entire staff and a few of the newly arrived guests all went running to “save her.” It was pretty funny and we all laughed about it later. That and when Tina took a swing of the homemade bug repellent we made in an old water bottle. This actually happened while we were asked to help translate (!) for a couple from Germany who spoke good English but not much beyond “hola.” Needless to say, it was an interesting impression of us they will take back to Germany.

After four days in the jungle, we said our goodbyes and Israel took us on another three hour boat ride. We stopped briefly to get gas on this island village, Santa Rita, which turned out to be part of Peru, so Tina and I went for a short walk. I’m not sure it this truly counts as visiting another country but it’s a start.

We found a hotel in Leticia, showered up (without having to immediately apply bug juice and feel instantly dirty again), and headed for Brazil. Normally Americans have to pay a hefty visa fee to travel in Brazil (apparently America charges Brazilians a ton to travel in the States so it is reciprocated) but since the town essentially connected to Leticia, Tabatinga, is in the same isolated situation that Leticia is in, they turn a blind eye. It’s not likely we would turn up in Rio de Janeiro in a few days. During the walk we discussed what one has to do to claim they “visited a country.” We came to the decision that money needs to be exchanged so we proceeded to have lunch. We also got Brazilian change so that has to count. Then, on our way out of town back to good ole Colombia, we bought flip-flops with little Brazilian flags on them. Tell me that that is not “visiting a country!”

Leticia turned out to be a really pleasant and very safe town – actually one of the safest feeling I have visited in Colombia. This may have something to do with the need for tourism…and the easily 2,000 troops stationed throughout the town. You couldn’t turn your head without seeing at least one soldier. One of the unique sights in Leticia is the Parque Santander where each night at around dusk thousands of parrots roost for the night in the trees. The guidebook says they arrive “screeching” but to hear it does not do the book’s description justice. It is almost deafening. You go from thinking, “Oh look at all the little green parrots landing in the trees” to “Seriously! Shut up!”

Friday morning I woke up to find a bakery for breakfast and accidentally joined a Good Friday processional though out the streets of Leticia. The church (I say “the” since there is probably only one) set up the Catholic 12 Stations of the Cross at various places along the processional route and as “Jesus” and the congregation/city of Leticia walked behind, a truck drove along slowly playing Hymns and the priest narrated the story. It was fun since I had a basic frame of reference I was able to understand a good 80% of what he was saying.

Not bad for Tarzan, eh? Also, not bad for a kid who thought the closest he’d get to the rainforest would be the wall outside his elementary school cafeteria.

Monday, March 10, 2008

I Start Walkin' Your Way...

Saying it has been a wild news week in Colombia would be an understatement. Saying that things have actually been wild in Colombia would be quite the opposite. Despite the shocking headlines of Colombia being “on the brink of war” and statements about “sabers” and the like, life in Colombia this past week was essentially the same as it has always been.

I did find it interesting to read the headlines each day on Yahoo! News or CNN.com and find out what had happened politically and how it was being sold to readers. Granted, if this had been a year ago and I was reading such headlines about my future home I would have been concerned. Being in the midst of it, however, was a whole other story; mainly that there wasn’t much in that midst.

A little background to put this into perspective: The FARC have been terrorizing many in Colombia for decades. They are one of the biggest para-military groups in the region and are very leftist and get their money through the cocaine trade and ransom from kidnappings. The current president, Alvaro Uribe, has made significant strides to limit the FARC and their activities.

The problem is that other countries in the region, namely Venezuela and Ecuador, have not. This could be due to the fact that the people of these countries were not, until recently affected by their activities, or that the leaders may or may not have been getting monetary kick-backs.

When Colombia stormed a mile or so across the Colombia-Ecuador border to attack a FARC camp in the jungle, and incidentally killing one the top FARC leaders, this upset a lot of people. The only ones who should have realistically been upset would have been Ecuador, whose border was crossed without permission. Venezuela, or more accurately, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, lead the charge and made a big stink, often times speaking for the Ecuadorian president. (To make a point, I can’t even tell you without looking it up what the Ecuadorian president’s name is since he had such little voice in all this with Chavez shooting his mouth off all over the place. The Ecuadorian president's name is Correa - but I did have to look it up.)

Uribe issued an apology saying something along the lines of “we will not invade another country without permission again…so long as they are not harboring terrorists at their borders.” I love the added clause which, in my opinion, is completely justifiable.

In the mean time two things are happening. First is that the contents of a laptop found at this FARC camp is being analyzed and accusations are flying all over about all kinds of people and connections, namely that Chavez was funding the FARC. Ah! No wonder he is getting all hot and bothered over this. The second thing that is going on is the Chavez keeps running is mouth and orders troops to the border. He eventually closed the border for a few days.

The thing about this border, and why it sounds worse in the media than it really is, is that there is nothing there, really. Now, I have never been to this area of the country myself, and I probably never will, but I have not found one person who has either. If you look at a political map of Colombia, you will see that most of the population resides in cities or towns along the Andean Mountain range, mostly running north and south along the western half of the country. A whole bunch of Colombia is unpopulated. This includes a lot of the Venezuelan border. (This is also true on the other side in Venezuela!) In all seriousness, Chavez could have secretly had his troops cross the border and not man people would have known about it – since no one lives there!

So, really, it was a very safe threat to make. It sounded really intense and volatile to the international community and media, who are used to having people living near borders, and yet those in the involved countries collectively shrugged.

Well, the politicians didn’t shrug, just the rest of us. (Except for Ecuador’s nameless president who didn’t get many sound bytes out of a situation involving his country. He probably shrugged a little.) There was some head shaking too over Chavez. Every taxi driver I talked to, out of curiosity over their opinion mostly, told me they think he is certifiably nuts. This is true of the common people in Venezuela as well, where Chavez has cut off trade and thus dairy and meat products to his own people. His approval rating is dangerously low – as in overthrow low.

(Another reason Chavez may be having a bad taste in his mouth, so to speak against Colombia, many feel is out of jealousy. Colombia is U.S. backed AND has a lot of the rest of the world more willing to associate with them than Chavez or Ecuador. Some countries, Cuba and Castro most recently, like to throw the old "America trying to run the world" card around. However, in this situation it is important to remember that the U.S. does have a say because they fund a big part of the Colombian military and have since about 2000 because of the increased effect the narco-trafficking was having on the U.S., on U.S. soil. This does concern them.)

Well, this past weekend, all these fine leaders met in the Dominican Republic and signed a peace statement agreeing to play nice. Uribe also extended his apology again, reiterating his initial clause.

In unrelated but ironic news, with the “threat of war” gone, the good people of Cali decided to riot at a soccer game between the cities two major teams and major rivals. (Think Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings x 10 and then remember that it is soccer and we are in a Latin American country.) The riot resulted in two dead and a bunch more injured including a stabbed pregnant lady.

But at least we aren’t at war, right?

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

One Ride Around the Sun

I’ve been getting several requests for updates and concerns that something has happened and I no longer have the means/desire to write blogs. Worry not – I’m fine and still living it up Caleño-style; I just haven’t had any adventures up to par with some of the previous postings.

Regardless, for those of you inquisitive enough or interested in bit of vicarious living, I will give you a little day to day update:

Right now I’m reclined in my hammock five floors up from street level with my computer n my lap. (My keyboarding teacher from elementary school would not approve.) It is only about 8pm right now but it has been dark for about two hours already. Such is life so close to the equator; 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of starry skies become the norm. It is actually surprisingly quiet tonight. A motorbike just tore down the street but other than that I can hear a baby crying somewhere semi-close and the lights of the barrios on the mountainside are twinkling away. It is hazy at the top of the mountains so I can’t make out the tops but I can see some stars directly overhead. Perhaps it is some more rain clouds rolling in; this is a theme recently as the region’s second rainy season allegedly began about a week ago. From what I’ve seen thus far, this season is living up to it’s name much more than the previous one in November/December. Seriously though, two?!? C’mon.

I spend many of my evenings and weekends reclined in this manner here on my balcony, reading, napping, writing, grading papers, daydreaming, thinking about going for a run, napping again. It’s a good place to be.

Most weekends I enjoy some time to sleep in. When the teacher bus comes at barely daybreak each morning, sometimes 7am is sleeping in, but I usually abuse the term and roll out around 10am. I then convince my lazy ass to do something so I put on my Speedo and some running shorts, shirt, wrap my goggles around my wrist, stuff a swim cap and granola bar down my shorts somewhere (don’t judge) and head off for a three mile run to school. I usually attempt a breathless conversation with the guard at the gate. I, thankfully, no longer have to introduce myself as a teacher anymore, although I’m sure they have other names for me. I like to think of them calling me “that little pink boy on a suicide mission” but they just say “Hola, Profi.” I’ll swim for a ½ hour or 1500-2000m and then run back. I take my time and enjoy the pain so it tends to be a two-hour round trip. (The granola bar gets eaten pre-swim, in case you were wondering.)

This could happen both Saturday and Sunday or just one of the two. Occasionally I just run and skip the swim; God knows I’ve logged enough miles in the water for a lifetime. Another teacher friend who I run with most days after school, Sarah, has joined a running club that begins and ends their runs in a park near my house. She has tried to convince me to join them on several weekend runs but I just can’t seem to do it. It’s not for not trying either; I’ve set my alarm to meet them at 6am at least three different times. After years of forcing myself out of my warm bed to hurl my unwilling body into icy pools for morning swim practices, I just can’t bring myself to do it! Especially not when it is purely recreational…and I know I’ll go later.

Recently, I have begun a new Sunday tradition that I like to consider “Me Time”. After a possible late morning workout, I walk to the nearby mall, head to the movie theatre, buy a ticket for a show most of you would probably remember seeing on a marquee months ago for later in the day, head to the book store that sells overpriced American magazines, then make for the food court for some Chinese and a “good” read. Finally, when the time is right, I go back to the movie to laugh alone in the darkness because something didn’t translate, or at least laugh early. Then some quick grocery shopping for the next school week; I can’t forget the mangos and avena (oat-milk drink)! It makes for a nice Sunday afternoon.

School has been going well. My 9th grade biology classes are well into our genetics unit. Surprisingly, I think, they have not had any genetics before my class so I had to start at square one with them, which was new for me but also good because I got to see some of the misconceptions develop that usually happen before the students get to me. I brought my Marriage Lab (“Dropping Your Genes”) here and decided to put it into play with the Bolivar kids. My students back in Manitowoc always seemed to have fun with it, and I usually do too.
(For those of you out of this loop, I set the room up like a chapel with a center aisle and a podium and some gaudy weddingish decorations. They kids come in not knowing this is happening then I call them up two by two to meet their “mate.” Prior to this they have researched and interviewed family members about certain traits on their paternal and maternal sides as well as inventoried their own so they are aware of their own genotypes. After the cheesed up ceremony they go off with their “spouse” to make some babies by cutting out chromosomes, folding them in half so that only one allele is showing on each side, and then literally dropping them and pairing like traits up to determine the childrens’ traits. While they are working I set up a “reception” with cake and ice cream.)
Anyways, I was concerned that given the social nature of Colombians, and some of my classes’ track records, it would be more work than fun. Fortunately, they rose to the occasion and we all had a lot of fun with it. Some classes even “helped” with the pairings of kids in the later classes…just like in Manitowoc. More proof that 9th graders are 9th graders wherever you go: horned up and awkward.

Quote of the day came from a student who apparently had a very strong impact on the appearance of his progeny. He yells, “Meester! Look! I have very powerful semen!” This is my life.

Side note, a car just cruised by below blasting “What Is Love?” from that obnoxious SNL skit. I wonder if it was in Spanish…

Not really sure what else to update everyone on! Lists are fun so here is my own personal right-now-favorite-things list:
-I was recently introduced to an Australian singer named Missy Higgins (thanks, Sarah Lou) and am quickly becoming obsessed. Current favorites are “Sugarcane,” “100 Round The Bend,” “The Special Two,” and “Don’t Ever”…to name a few.
-Currently reading A Mighty Heart by Mariane Pearl about the 2001 kidnapping of her husband Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter, in Pakistan. Beautifully written and my “bus book” which makes me unhealthily excited to ride the bus each day.
-My hammock.
-Watching the newborn chicks of these two ugly squawking birds on my running path each day. Unfortunately they too will be ugly and squawking too. Perhaps why mom and dad are so crabby.
-The fact that I can still watch American Idol here…although it is a few days later and on my computer. It’s not like I voted anyways…not since Christina Christian unceremoniously broke my heart in Season 1.
-Fresh fruit.
-My porteros (doormen). They are probably about my age but they always ask me questions and humor me when I try and answer. They're good guys and they keep the bad people out.
-Starting my mornings at my computer eating a banana and avena reading “nothing” emails from friends telling me there was a snow day, almost vomiting on the NYC subway, or the “trials” of working from home.
-Running through the small sidewalk flower market on the weekends, briefly saving my nose from being assailed by the exhaust of the Pasoancho Avenue.
-The TV shows “Corner Gas” and “Pushing Daisies.” (I believe they are both Canadian but the later may be on cable?)
-Why not…you can never have too much music: the songs “Death By Chocolate” and “Academia” by Sia

Okay - enough self-reflecting for now. As you can see, life is good! This weekend is the school-wide Bolivar Day Festival and then in two weeks Semana Santa (a.k.a. Spring Break!). An adventure is in the works…

Monday, February 4, 2008

Marcha de la Paz

Today is an important day for Colombians. Today is the day that the people of this country have decided to stand as one and march for peace. Today is the day this nation hopes to bring international attention to the injustices put against its people by certain para-military groups. Today is the day they stand as one.

As I'm sure many of you have heard, even in the often Ameri-centric news media, several kidnapped victims have been released by Colombian rebels and leftist activists. Many more, however, remain captive and many people here are still paying off ransoms for their freedoms and to prevent further kidnappings.

The main, but not only, group that is being targeted with these injustices is the FARC (translated, it stands for the "Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia"). This is not your typical guerilla group, however. They do not generally commit random acts of violence; everything they do is planned and with a purpose. Those who are kidnapped usually have money and/or are in positions of power. Many of the families of the students at my school fall into this category. Several have been or have family members who have been kidnapped in the past and held until a hefty ransom was paid. (Do not worry about me - the FARC know I am not someone they could extort money for.)

This is the reason for today. Today, Colombians from all over the country and allegedly other nations as well, are holding Peace Marches against organizations like the FARC. Thousands of people are expected to take to the streets today in Cali and other cities across Colombia in a non-violent march for peace.

Apparently Colombia is not typically one of those nations that protests regularly so this is seen as a big deal. School is very much a ghost town today. The primary sections are in full swing but the numbers dwindle significantly as you reach the higher grades. There are only 16 9th graders here today out of about 75. The entire high school only has 30 students present.

Walking around this weekend I saw many of the traffic light vendors selling Marcha de la Paz t-shirts and those flags you stick out your car window instead of their usual fare of pirated DVD's, cell phone chargers, and mango slices. All of Cali, rich and poor, seemed to be gearing up for this one event. It is going on as I type this and I pray it goes well and everyone remembers this is a march for peace.

It will be interesting to see what happens. As the banners and t-shirts declare:



Monday, January 21, 2008

Rhythm Of The Night

On Saturday, in honor of nothing in particular, my roommate and I hosted a party at our apartment. We invited people from school and just let word of mouth do the work for us.
At about 8:30 pm our first guests began arriving and by 10 pm there were a whole lot of gringos and two Colombians (who came with gringos) and no one else. Finally at 11:30 pm the party started. This was mostly due to the arrival of the ones who clearly know how to party, the Colombians. The salsa got cranked up and suddenly we had a real party.
I spent most of the night out on the balcony, allowing people to circulate to me. Sometimes that is more fun than making ones way through a party. I figured my roommate had that covered. The great part was that while I was sitting there, enjoying the night air and watching the salsa get hot inside, I got to practice my Spanish (and occasional Spanglish) with some new Colombian friends. It was nice to be told that I was speaking really well for only having been here six months. A lot of them knew some English too so between our limited language skills we were able to talk about a surprising amount of topics.
I also, again, got sucked in to the inevitable downfall of any conversation with a Colombain at a party in Colombia – aguardiente. This aperitif might as well be known as the “friendship shot” since it is very customary to be offered one after a conversation of any length; the longer the conversation, however, the more shots. This drink, which smells like licorice and has an after taste like acidic candy, is cheap and traditional here, at a around $2 to $4 a bottle.
Despite, increasing my likelihood of a guaranteed hang-over the next day, I felt fine. I slept most of the morning and afternoon, as the party roared on until about 4:30 am. Once again, the Colombians showed us how a fiesta should go down!

Monday, January 14, 2008

And On Your Left...

Greetings and Happy New Year...or I should say Feliz Año Nuevo!

After a great vacation filled with travel, family, and relaxation, I had three days of school (in which many kids were absent - really, is three weeks off enough?) and then another great weekend with VISITORS!!! My first official house guests were my brother, Rolland, and his girlfriend, Jamie.

They arrived early Friday morning and, after a slight transportation mix-up at the airport where my hired driver apparently had trouble picking out two gringos getting off a plane from Bogotá, they arrived safe and sound at school. The cafeteria was serving a very Colombian soup that day called sancocho so we were off to a great start to a crash-course in Colombian everything.

They sat through my last class of the day and the kids were very excited to have them there. During work time, several students came to introduce themselves...I suppose practicing mitosis can wait until next time. Even after class when the school was letting out and I was preparing to give a tour of the campus, several students sheepishly came up and asked to be introduced. As much as these kids talk in class, they are very polite and I do love them.

We caught a taxi home, sparing Rolland and Jamie the thrill of the "teacher bus." We had a couple beverages and enjoyed the sunset from both my balcony and the tienda on the corner. It was so great to be able to sit back, relax, and enjoy a conversation with someone I've known for a long time (yes, almost my whole waking life) and meet someone new. They were a little travel-laged having flown all through the night, so I graciously let them take a nap before dinner. After a brief reprieve we went to a trendy part of Cali with a lot of restaurants and had a great dinner. Jamie felt as though she were back in Spain versus Latin America based on the atmosphere and I attempted to show her some of the differences in the Spanish spoken here. Rolland also ordered all by himself - I guess "North Juarez" (aka El Paso, TX) is rubbing off a little! We made sure to congratulate him.

Saturday morning we had a nice slow start, slept in, and then walked to breakfast at a place about a mile from my apartment called, ironically, just Crepes & Waffles. It was more of a dessert breakfast than breakfast breakfast, but none of us complained. Incidentally, the restaurant is owned by a woman who only hires single mothers to work there. An all-woman workforce is very uncommon in Colombia. But I digress... We then headed to school to meet another teacher, Matt (who I traveled to the Pacific region with over Thanksgiving), who took us up to the Rio Pance outside of town and we enjoyed a fantastic afternoon sitting in the cold clear mountain spring water amongst the rocks, waterfalls, and butterflies. After a few hours we headed back into town and grabbed an early dinner with Matt at a restaurant that serves more meat than...well, its a lot. (My analogies are failing me right now...or are completely inappropriate.)

We then headed home to prep for a night out at the salsatecha. This meant a nap. After picking up my friend Tina (I needed a dancing partner too!) we arrived at a famous and popular salsatecha called Tin Tin Deo. We got there early enough to be guaranteed a table, and, after ordering our bottle of Bacardi, we began the process of teaching Rolland how to dance. It was slow going but he was doing pretty well by the end of the night although Jamie began to think the Bacardi was helping so she continued to pour. Rolland even won a CD with salsa music by local artists. The best souvenirs are free, right?! Later that night I made the Colombian equivalent to late night pizza - frozen empanadas - and we crashed.

The final and last day began with a mid-morning hike up one of the mountains that borders Cali to the west that is topped with three giant crosses. Another teacher friend, Lisa, joined us and we made it up and down in roughly two hours. The view of the smog-covered city was as beautiful as a dead rose but when you come from the flat mid-west, anything from high up is impressive.

We then headed home, had some breakfast, showered, and headed to the mall to do what Americans do best: be consumers. Jamie got her nails done and was really impressed with the tiny flowers painted across her big toes. I believe the quote later that night was, "Let's all just stop and look at my feet!" After spotting some Colombian "plastic," including the ever-elusive butt implant, we headed to get some dinner at a restaurant owned by the family of one of my students. On the way there we ran into another student (who ran out of a restaurant just to say hello, incidentally) and Rolland and Jamie got to witness the always awkward "kiss-hello with your student" scenario.

Dinner was delicious and I decided I really do need to go there more often. I invited a teaching couple from Wisconsin along, Sarah and Justin, to talk about Santa Marta and the surrounding area of the Colombian Caribbean coast, as that is where Rolland and Jamie were headed for the second leg of their Colombian adventure. (The 'Sconies had recently visited the area over Thanksgiving ergo...)

The last thing I remember about my dear brother's visit was stumbling down the stairs of my building to let the driver know they were coming in my sleepy 5am stupor. I even tried talking to him in Spanish and attempted to figure out what happened on Friday at the airport when they arrived. If I got a response, I don't recall. Too early to be functioning in another language.

Overall it was a fantastic visit and I am currently exhausted from playing tour guide all weekend but so glad I did. So, who's next...?