Thursday, December 10, 2009

Its Christmas Time In The City

Cali loves Christmas. Celebrating the season for just one day (or twelve if you're fan of partridges, pear trees, and maids a' milking) is not enough; Cali has designated the entire month of December to revel in the Christmas spirit.

To ring in the month, the entire Rio Cali is illuminated with a plethora of lights. All along, as well as over, are strung millions of lights creating characters to brighten the night scape. This year's theme was centered on the music of Cali throughout it's history, beginning with the indigenous peoples who called this area home all the way through to the present.

On Monday, the night before the day where Catholics honor the Virgin Mary, families were found out in the streets lighting candles. The tradition is supposed to "light the way" for Mary. This is the day I went to see the lights along the river, however, upon returning home to my barrio, there were still many candles burning in solitude on sidewalks and front steps.

The lights of the Rio Cali will remain on every night until after the new year. To add to the dramatics of the lighted waterway, Cali doesn't slow down in it's celebrating. In the later part of the month, between Christmas day and New Years, the Feria de Cali, a huge week-long party, will be held in various parts of the city featuring dance exhibitions, beauty pageants, and just general revelry.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Visiting Some Old Friends

Thanksgiving is a time to be with family and friends and give thanks for the good things in life. This Thanksgiving my friend and 9th grade colleague, Tara, and I traveled to visit some of the oldest inhabitants of Colombia - or what they left behind, at least.The town of San Agustín and the surrounding area, in the Huila department southeast of Cali, is home to several hundred funerary monuments left behind by some Pre-columbian civilization. Think Aztecs, Mayans, and Incas but a smaller, less successful population.

Not much is known about these monuments or the people who left them behind except that many of the remains and artifacts (pottery and gold) date back to BC. Archeologists believe there could be many more undiscovered tombs and statues under the ground and that only approximately ten percent of the area has been explored.

Many sites have been unearthed accidentally and subsequently grave-robbed - our horse backed tour guide included. (Luis Carlos actually brought us back to the house he shares with his sister and other assorted family to show us his exquisite finds. Both Tara and I were tempted to buy a couple, not as Christmas presents, as was suggested, but to donate (rescue) to a museum here in Colombia. The going rate for an ancient tomb-robbed pot? $150. Alas, these precious artifacts remain in a tattered cardboard box under a bed.

Getting to San Agustín is not an easy or comfortable journey. After a two hour bus ride to the "white city," Popayán, directly south of Cali, another bus takes you inland for five hours up and down curvey, rocky, unpaved, narrow roads. I generally don't get motion sick, but this ride was pushing my limits.

In the end, it was worth it. (On the way there I thought "These statues better talk and dance for what it's taking to get here!") Aside from the archeological sites dotting the countryside, Tara and I were also taken to see the tallest waterfall in Colombia, La Cascada Bordones, as well as Colombia's "most important" river, the Ria Magdalena, which begins in Huila and ends in the Caribbean near the city of Barranquilla. We were taken to El Estrecho, the narrowest point in the entire river at only 2 meters across.

Another highlight of our trip was staying in the welcoming home and hostal of Mario and his wife, Janeth. Located on the famous cobble stoned Calle Loceria, the first street in San Agustín, the dormitory and family-style lodging catered to travelers who didn't mind getting to know each other. Unfortunately we were the only visitors at the moment, although the town gets plenty of European and Australian visitors, so we only got to know the charming owners, which was not a bad thing. Mario was full of stories and jokes and Janeth always had a pot of coffee or fresh lemonade ready and breakfasts that could easily feed ten. It's nice when you're traveling to feel like you're at home.

And that, in the end, is what a good Thanksgiving vacation is all about.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Caffeinated Ride

Imagine combining your two favorite things. If that might be cats and ice cream you're going to end up with either a sticky kitty or a furry cold treat. Let's try again. Baseball and taking naps isn't going to work. Neither is grabbing a cup o' joe and riding a roller coaster...or is it?

Believe it or not there is a theme park in the middle of Colombia that combines the country's love of coffee with amusement park thrills. The Parque National del Cafe outside of Armenia is a juxtapositionist's dream come true.

Roller coasters, water park rides, restaurant stalls, several stages with hourly shows (one with dancing robotic orchids), and a gondola-like cable car combine with Juan Valdez Coffee to create a "only here" type of experience.

On a recent trip here, my travel companions and I decided to purchase the cheapest of the ticket options - which allowed us to ride the gondola and basically walk around. It was worth it though, as none of us felt the desire to ride a coffee bean ferris wheel.

The park is littered with coffee plants and, as our gondola passed over one field of them, the aroma of them filled the air all the way up to where we were. It was like being in one of those Folger's Coffee commercials where the thought of drinking coffee somehow makes every rise from bed with a smile on their face as the smell hits their noses.

And, of course, we finally got to meet Juan Valdez to speak.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Practice Makes Perfect!

After two and half years my Spanish is okay. Its not amazing and my students make fun of my gringo accent but I understand most of what is being said to me, regardless of if I can respond coherently.

Occasionally I meet people, who, like me, want to practice their "second language." Usually the extent of their English, however, is a short phrase from a song or a brand slogan. I've been bluntly told to "don't worry, be happy" and "just do it" on a couple different occasions while walking down a street somewhere.

This last weekend, at a roadside tienda on the outskirts of Armenia, some slightly inebriated 20-something guys were practicing the little English they knew, mostly "how are you?" repeated over and over. Then suddenly one of them remembered another phrase. He stood at the end of the table and, without pause or change in tone, proclaimed "How are you, fuck you."

Keep practicing, guys.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Be Green...Or Else!

The idea of "Environmental Activism" in North America, for the most part, is grounded in its educational roots. The idea that the more people know about how to make environmentally conscious decisions and why they are important, the more likely people will care and thus, make choices of their own free will and volition.

This idea persists in Colombia as well, but imagine, if you will, that instead of being voluntary, it was was mandated environmental awareness? If instead of suggesting an environmentally inspired day, such as "Ride a Bike to Work Day," where people, if they want, are encouraged to leave their gas-guzzler in the garage and huff it to school or work, they were legally forbidden to take their car on the street. How do you think that would fly?!?

Well, today was Dia Sin Carro and it was officially illegal to be on the street with a personal vehicle between the hours of 7am and 7pm unless you were a part of official government business, the police or emergency services, school transportation, or other crucially important things like restaurant delivery services. I mean, really, the President and the Domino's Pizza guy both have things to do today, right?!?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Journey to the Center of the Earth

Of the many reasons I wanted to teach abroad - including stepping out of my comfort zone, experiencing a new culture, and functioning in another language - was to build my professional resume in a unique and meaningful way. One might argue that being abroad in and of itself pretty much takes care of that single-handedly, and I would not argue, but I've been given the opportunity to go even further.

The Associated of American School in South America (AASSA), one of my schools governing bodies, has partnered with the College of William & Mary on a grant project dealing with teacher evaluations in the international teaching community. The project is being mediated by the very capable and experienced, Dr. James H. Stronge and involves two-person delegations from six different schools throughout South America. These schools include the Escola Americana de Campinas in Campinas, Brazil; Colegio Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Lima, Peru; and three schools in Quito, Ecuador, including the host school, Academia Cotopaxi.

Four times this school year, I, along with my principal, will travel to Quito to meet with the other fourteen committee members to design a evaluatory system fro administrators to use that will have an aim at teacher improvement through the use of standards and benchmarks with an emphasis on the nature of international education. One of the main issues that a lot of international schools face is teacher turn-over. It is expected as most schools offer two-year contracts and many teachers eventually plan to move back to the U.S. or Canada eventually. The problem comes when these teachers treat their experience abroad as an extended vacation. Improving themselves as educators is not a top priority; their job is simply a means to have funds with which they will experience the world.

At the 2011 AASSA Conference, being held in Campinas, Brazil, the entire committee will meet one last time to share our finished product with the rest of the AASSA member schools' administrators. This is a huge step forward for international schools both in teacher quality but also establishing a potentially unified document that could potentially travel with teachers who may move on to other international posts. I'm excited and honored to be a part of its inception and looking forward to all that I'm going to learn through this process.

We met for the first time last weekend in Quito and it was an extremely enlightening experience. Hearing about other schools like mine was fascinating and being a part of such and intelligent and diverse group of people was and will be invaluable. I am by far the youngest and most credentially inexperienced person at the table, but I feel that my point of view and opinion still is valued.

I know I was considering leaving a year ago to pursue a master's program but I'm glad I stayed. This experience will give me something most post-graduate degree courses couldn't.

Here are some pictures of the Academia Cotopaxi. We did not have a lot of time to explore Quito this time due to our flight schedule but hopefully next time we will budget some more free time in. When I do, I will write more. All I can say about the city as of right now is that it is cold (like a nice sunny October-in-Minnesota-day).

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Are We There Yet?

Once, after graduating from college, I went back and swam in the alumni meet, which pitted the current team members against graduates from years close and distant. As a collegiate swimmer, my specialty had been the distance events and so it only seemed logical to me to compete in one of those. "The 500 is short," I remember thinking, "I'll do that one." Never in my life have I ever been less trained or conditioned for an athletic endeavor.

Until now.

Last weekend seven teachers from school took our mountain bikes and headed north to the small city of Tuluá, an hour from Cali. Here we began an 8 hour Travesía (bike tour) of the neighboring mountains visiting remote pueblos such as San Pedro and Buenos Aires.

Now, I ride my bike ever Sunday morning with, more or less, this same group, but its only once a week and never more than four hours, at the most. We stop every so often to make sure no one is lost and then push on some more. These Sunday rides are challenging, now doubt, but the end is always in sight.

This Travesía had no end. While the terrain wasn't horrible - I've ridden on trails with rocks the size of my head - it was still rough and bumpy much of the time and several streams or stream-beds were traversed. The grade of the climb was not impossible either, it just didn't ever let up; seemingly always inclining, an angle of 15° seemed might as well have been flat ground at times.

The entire event was amazingly well organized. A Jeep and motorcycle followed along with the approximately 100 or so bikers as we covered over 60km of mountain trails. The large man with the scruffy beard, greasy hair, baseball cap and red shirt, who we began secretly referring to as el gordo rojo took many pictures of all the participants and provided vocal support from his comfortable seat in the Jeep, much to our exhausted chagrin.

The scenery was outstanding. I'm not sure what our final altitude was but the ride down into the valley was stunning. Cloud-topped mountains displayed their full greenery of virtually untouched forest. Even on the lower slopes as we passed small family farms with fields of banana trees, the majesty of the hills was humbling. I kept saying to myself, "I was just up there!"

Rodrigo and me at the "end" of the course.

At the end of the course we were served lunch (and then had to bike another 7km back to the start) and given a medal of completion. This is possibly the biggest and nicest medal I've ever received for anything, let alone just finishing a bike race. I think maybe it's for gluing my butt to a bike seat for 8 hours; that's definitely worthy of a big fancy medal.

Today, two days later, my legs are a little sore and my lower back is still stiff. I take this as a sign to either bike more than once a week or find shorter Travesías!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Famous: I Know "People"

Sometimes its fun to pick up a copy of the local Podunkville town newspaper. Aside from the finding out what the mayor's wife ate for lunch on Tuesday and how the various high school sports teams fared over the week, you can see pictures of your friends and neighbors mowing their lawns, shopping, or attending the parade on Main Street. Some small town "heralds" also publish the recent crimes and traffic accidents, a guilty pleasure of many, especially if names and pictures are involved.

One of my favorite stories of my mother's while growing up was of a time when she and her sister, my aunt, had to go pick up a book from a friends house. On the way home they decided to cruise slowly by the house of a cute guy, you know, just to see if he was home. Even at that slow stalking pace they were inevitably moving at, my aunt managed to crash my grandfathers car into one parked on the side of the road. If it was mortifying to find their car crashed directly in front of the high school stud's house, it was another to get their names in the paper for it!

That is what I associate with when I see common people attending regular functions appearing in the newspaper. Coming from a larger city, one with dualing publications - one from Minneapolis, one from St. Paul - it better be a pretty big deal to get your face in the paper. If I were to see friends of mine staring out at me from the "Local" section for attending a birthday party or grand opening of another Target store, I would think, "must have been a very slow news day!"

This is not the case here in Cali. Every Friday the city's newspaper, El Pais, publishes a pullout section called "Gente" (People). In it, you can see photographs from various anniversary parties, weddings, business openings, and, most commonly, fifteenth birthday parties (quinceaneras). My students have appeared many times and I often can't help but feel like I've spotted a celebrity when I flip the page and see Maria Camila in an evening gown or Juan Diego looking dapper in a suit. I find this surprising still, after two years, from a city with over 2 million people.

Recently, however, I have been inducted into the "Gente" club. Not the real "Gente" but the minimalized page that appears occasionally in the regular non-Friday editions. This time it was for the recent Honor Society induction ceremony that happened at school. I serve as one of the sponsors for the Jr Honor Society and was, therefore, present for my 9th graders.

The picture shows me standing with, from left to right, my co-Jr. Honor Society sponsor, the Honor Society sponsor (and fellow colleague in the science department), and our school's director.

I waiting to get recognized on the street. Any day now...

Monday, October 12, 2009


I mentioned in the previous post that several students fell ill for various reasons on our trip to Isla Gorgona. I actually typed that very same post feeling slightly under the weather, myself; I then spent the rest of the three days since we got back in bed drinking inhuman amounts of fresh squeezed orange juice from the corner grocery store.

Today I feel fine. I'm going to assume that most of the other students from our make-shift island infirmary are also up and about. The same can not be said, however, for one girl, who doctors on the island hypothetically diagnosed as having Dengue fever. It turns out that while her symptoms are Dengue-like, the tests all come back negative. The school has now decided that, until her more comprehensive results come back on Friday, all the 9th graders from the trip and chaperones are quarantined from school, incase others are carrying whatever this "bug" is.

Just when I'm feeling well enough to be productive again, I'm not allowed to be. I wonder what time the Tuesday matinee shows are at the movie theatre?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Somos Pacífico

There is a song by a Colombian hip-hop group, ChocQuibTown, that sings the praises of being from the Pacific coast of Colombia. The chorus of their hit single "Somos Pacífico" says "We are of the Pacific. We are united. The region unites us. The color, the race, and the gift of flavor."

This tune became the theme song for the 9th grade week-long class trip to Isla Gorgona this past week. Unfortunately, compared to the trip two years ago with the class of 2011, this group wasn't as unified as the song would hope them to be. Not to say the trip was a bust by any means. Most of the kids, I think, had a great time. However, an unusual and disproportionate number of students found many things to complain about, sucking the fun out of their own trip. One group of girls approached me after only three days on the island and told me they thought the trip was too long and we should go home. Compare this to two years ago when girls were crying as we got on the boats to leave the island after a week.

Every class has it's dynamic and this one's reputation as being non-unified, apathetic, and leaderless didn't fail us in Gorgona. Despite the mediocre attitudes of some of the students, it was still a great trip! These are some of my personal highlights:

No hablo inglés.
I was the only gringo on the trip this year. The Dean of Students is from Canada and has been in Colombia for around 18 years so he doesn't really count. And while a couple of the other chaperones are effectively bilingual, the language of function this trip was Spanish. This might be the first group of students to think I'm a lot more capable in the language than I really am.

Watch your step!
The name "Gorgona" is in reference to the Gorgon Women of Greek mythology. In other words, there are a lot of snakes on Isla Gorgona! Last time I was there we had a couple boa sightings. This time, there were the requisite boas, a tiny coral snake and two encounters with the most venomous snake on the island, Bothrops atrox. Known on the island as "talla equis," this pit viper species can be identified by the X shaped markings along it's back. We found one sitting in the middle of the trail one day and our guide successfully navigated us around it, marking it's location afterward by sticking a forked branch in the ground and inserting another stick in the forked area as a sort of arrow to indicate to other guides the snakes one time location. Another less excited encounter came when one of the 9th graders stepped on a tiny baby one that then scurried into the jungle.

Fresh coconut
Three of the days on the island I accompanied a third of the students on a hike to Playa Blanca to carry out their Biology Lab for the trip. All three of those days I was treated to fresh coconut and coconut milk courtesy of the guide. Delicious way to spend a late morning!

The other schools
Marine Biology is not my forté but I do enjoy poking my head below the surface and seeing the incredible diversity of life that exists there. The couple times I got to snorkel on this trip were incredible! I can't remember seeing that many fish of all shapes and sizes in one place. I'd look down and see a pair of parrot fish poking around some brain coral while a school of tiny black and grey fish with florescent green dots by their dorsal fins darted past only to glance above the surface for a moment and have it all replaced by an enormous school of two foot long iridescent fish sailing past. Unfortunately, I was not with the group that was within meters of a humpback whale and her calf.

Turtle Power!
Almost every night, a group of biologists stationed on Isla Gorgona head out in search of sea turtles to measure, weigh, and tag for tracking and research purposes. The biologists invited us to watch this process this year. The night I took a group of students the biologists hauled in four turtles! How they catch them with their bare hands in the dark of the night is beyond me but once on land, the turtles are put in separate wooden boxes and then carried over to the measuring/weighing table one at a time. One of the more interesting things about the research was that they snip a tiny piece of skin from the back of the turtle's neck for DNA classification purposes. Another interesting aspect of the whole process was the use of only red lights; white light (no flash photography or flash lights) was allowed near the research station.

The Amazing Race
The last day on the island includes a visit to a beach on the opposite side of the island from where our lodgings are. We spend all afternoon enjoying the black sand, good sized surf, and cool westward ocean breeze. To get there though, there are two options. The tough can come with me and a few other chaperones and guides and hike the four kilometers to the south and then up and over the middle of the island. The weak or lazy can take the boat. As our intrepid group of 21 hard-core 9th graders exited the jungle and began traversing the first of three beaches before crossing the over the middle of the island, the boat carrying the weak came into view. And we ran. All 21 in unison. Probably the most unifying event of the trip (ignoring the fact that it excluded those on the boat).

In the end, I know the trip was worth it. (Really, when is spending a week on an isolated and near-virgin tropical island not?!?) I would like to think that most of the students had a good time and it is my wish that, upon reflection, the majority of them will look back at their memories and pictures and wish they were back on Gorgona, even those girls who wanted to leave paradise after three days.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

My New Roommate

A few weeks ago I discovered I did not actually live alone in my apartment. Occasionally, upon entering the kitchen and flicking on the light I would catch blur of a little gecko as it dashed out of sight, usually behind the microwave. For about a week I would find the little guy hiding amongst the dishes in the sink and, as I turned on the water, he would dart up and out and return to his countertop sanctuary.

I decided to name him Mike (as that is where he seems to live - behind the MICrowave) and we saw each other on a daily basis for about a week and a half. I was just thinking to myself yesterday, as I was preparing to blend a delicious banana/mango smoothie, that I hadn't seen Mike in awhile. Well, today as I went to fry some yucca on the stove, Mike was waiting for me beside the knobs for the gas-top ranges. He sat there nice and still as I turned the burner on, while the yucca fried, and then wriggled away just as I was dishing them up.

This is Mike in the sink. I wonder if it looks like a water park when you're that small?

This is Mike supervising my yucca frying abilities. He must have gotten the memo that I burn things.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Bien Pueda

Colombia is a very welcoming place and the people here are some of the most generous, inviting, and accommodating I've ever met. They often say, "Bien pueda" which means basically, "Sure you can!" (It really doesn't translate exactly.) You hear it when getting into a taxi, entering a store, being offered a chair or place to sit on the bus, borrowing a phone, etc.

So, as I am now settled into my new apartment in my third year in this place I have come to know as home, I say to you, "bien pueda!" Mi casa es su casa. Let's take a tour...

Mi casa desde el punto de vista de la calle. Vivo por el tercero piso. My house from the street view. I live on the third floor.

La calle en frente de mi casa. The street in front of my house.

La entrada (por la izquierda), el cuarto de la huésped, y mi cuarto. The front entrance (to the left), the guest room, and my room.

La sala de estar. The living room.

La sala de estar otra vez. The living room again.

La cosina (desde la sala de estar). The kitchen (from the living room).

La cosina. The kitchen.

Las cordilleras al oeste de Cali. Esta foto sacé desde mi patio. The mountains to the west of Cali. This picture is taken from my back porch.

Mi cuarto. My bedroom.

El cuarto tuyo (el cuarto de la huésped). Your room (the guest room).

Otra vez. Again.

Reservations can be made by email or Facebook. Lodging includes airport pick-up, private bathroom, breakfast, lots of back porch sun, free guided tours of the city, and lots of fun! Bien pueda!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

What's In A Name?

The start of every school brings many challenges to a teacher. Every class has it's own dynamic, there are different students with different needs and expectations, and there are the names. The kids have it easy, they have to learn eight new names, many of which they already knew. Teachers, on the other hand, have to learn a bunch and, preferably, quickly!

I the States this didn't ever seem to be a huge challenge; if I had a couple Amber's or Dillon's (or Dylan's) they just weren't seated near each other. Amber and Dillon didn't expect me to learn their middle names and call them by it as well. I also didn't run into too many nicknames in the States. Sure, there were a few but the entire class rarely referred to David as "Booger," just his close friends.

Let's travel south to Colombia. I still get that here. It's not uncommon to have a few too many Mateo's, Daniela's, Laura's, or Isabela's. The trick comes when that is not their whole name. The majority of the people here, it seems, have four names. Two first names that they are often called together, and two last names, the first from their father and the second from their mother. (Incidentally, it is very easy to trace family lineage here!)

My first year here I had five Juan Camilo's. (The two names together remember.) I also had a Juan Sebastian, a Juan Jose, a Juan Manuel, a Juan Francisco, a Juan David, and a Juan Pablo. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on how you want to look at it, none of my Juan Camilo's went by "Juan Camilo" - all went by their last name only; a skill they no doubt learned early on when there are five of you in the same graduating class. That year I also had an abundance of Maria "something's: Camila, Isabel, Paula, Paulina, etc. The last two young ladies both went by an abbreviated "Mapi" and were in the same class.

The first year I was also wrestling with pronunciation. Having that under control my second year, I thought would make learning the names easier. I remember being momentarily pleased to see only one a few Juan Camilo's and no Maria Camila's. Suddenly, however, I had five Santiago's and four Valentina's; I had neither my first year! There were the omnipresent Juan and Maria "something's" but not necessarily in replicate. My bigger challenge turned out to be the nicknames.

The first year there were a few bizarre ones, in the sense that it was not related to any of their given names or surnames at all. There was "Chumba," "Tigre" (who got it when she came to school in second grade wearing a Tigger backpack), "Nano," and "Negro." If there were others, I can't remember, and that is what I call them when I see them around campus.

That second year was a zoo of nicknames, literally. I had "Hormiga" (ant), "León" (lion - although it was also his last name), "Mono" (monkey, and also "blond") and "Pollo" (chicken). Ironically, there was also a guy they called "Chicken" because his last name was Gallo, which is literally "rooster" in Spanish. There was kid who had moved to Cali a year from somewhere along the Caribbean coast so he became "Costeño," a name referring to anyone from that region. And, believe me, there were more...

The class lists this year look pretty tame. Again, I'll be up to my ears in Juan Camilo's and variations of Maria but the Santiago's and Valentina's seem to be in check once again. I do however have two Luis's - a Miguel and a Manuel - so that should be fun. The only new name comes in duplicate with two Tatiana's. There are three Juliana's inconveniently placed in the same period. Daniela seems to be the most popular name of the year with a grand total of four.

So, after I master the three Gabriel's and three Gabriela's from the three Alejandro's and three Alejandra's (and one Maria Alejandra), I should have a pretty easy time. Then I'll start attaching last names...

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Autograph Line Starts Over There

¿Me Recuerdas?

A year ago, upon returning back to Cali from summer vacation, I had just finished a trip to the grocery store. After getting into a taxi and greeting the driver, he turned around and asked, "¿El Ingenio?" which was the neighborhood I had lived in during my first year here. I thought it odd, but plausible, that, of all the taxis in Cali, I had gotten some guy twice to drive me somewhere. It was also conceivable that he remembered this freckly red-headed gringo; there're aren't a lot of us running around these parts. What I found weird was that he remembered where I lived! He looked a little disappointed when I told him that, no, I had moved.

Later that month I was riding in the elevator in my apartment building and a girl who also lived in the building got on and asked me if I had been at Tin Tin Deo, a well known Salsateca in Cali. I had been and was a little embarrassed to be that easily spotted. It made me wonder if I've got some name the locals that see me out and about have for me. "Look! It's the pink one!" I can hear it now.

Well, this week I went to the bank to pay my very truant cell phone bill. At banks in Colombia there are usually two lines; one is for people who hold accounts at the bank and the other is for those who do not. The thing is that there are usually several tellers for the non-clients and one or possibly two for those belonging to said financial institution. Unless there is an enormous caravan of customers in the line for those who are not clients, it doesn't really matter which one you go to. Also, although I'm a client at my bank, if I'm there to pay a bill in cash to a third party, I'm not sure where I'm supposed to go. That and I'm paranoid of waiting twenty minutes to be kicked out of line and have to start again so I usually bring a book and err on the side of caution.

As I entered the snaking line for "non-members," the [very attractive] teller calls out to me to get in the other line. So, as the rest of the tellers, guards, and scores of customers turn to look, I did an about face, followed the zig-zagging path out of one line and into the much straighter "member" line.

When I got to the front of the line and was called forward my face was still a nice shade of red; the teller told me so. I asked her if she remembered me and she said yes and looked at me like that was a silly question as if I had asked if there was a big safe in the back room. I suppose it was a little silly. I'm in the bank probably once a month and in June of last year, this same teller was very helpful in helping me deal with another bank over a computer problem and she was the same one who deposited my last paycheck last year. I guess it's not too unbelievable, I mean, I remembered her...

Regardless, in a city of 2 million people, I still find it strange to be recognized by relative strangers. Nice, but strange.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Dusting Off

Every time I fly back into Cali, I feel I have to mentally prepare myself. Are my passport, Colombian ID, and customs forms ready and together? Where is my baggage claim slip? Do I still remember Spanish?

Before I left for the summer last June I moved into a new apartment. It is the upstairs of a house near to where I lived last year. I had only spent two nights there before starting my summer vacation so I had tried to get as much of the place "together" as possible so that I wouldn't walk into a sea of boxes in August (now) after a long day of traveling. I knew there was still plenty to do once I returned: find a new maid, get a washing machine, hang up curtain rods, find someone with a drill so I would be able to hang up the curtain rods, and on and on.

It takes me five keys, two doors and two gates to finally reach the inside of my home. After using three keys and opening a gate and a door, my landlady, who lives downstairs with her husband, noses out to greet me and tell me something about not using the gas. I didn't really catch why but if she doesn't tell me any differently in a few days, I'll ask again. There is a cord running through my kitchen that wasn't there before and, although I'm pretty sure gas does not flow through electric cords, I'm going to assume there is some relation and not touch that for now either.

The apartment is very dusty right now, surprising since it was pretty well closed up the whole time I was gone. This is why I need a maid. The dust here from the streets and air can get a little out of control very quickly and I do not wish to be spending two nights a week dusting off every surface in sight. Also, I was not pleased to find a dead cockroach in the middle of my bedroom floor. Happy, though, in a strange way, that it was a dead cockroach.

There were a couple good surprises though. The aforementioned curtain rods, which I was convinced would become part of the Great Window Covering Saga of August 2009 were miraculously installed! I can only assume the landlords had something to do with this. If I have apartment elves that do nice little favors, I would have appreciated them cleaning the inside of my refrigerator as well. Another fantastic surprise was that I have internet! More accurately, one of my neighbors has really good internet and I am able to "co-op" long as I'm in the bedroom or out on the patio. (This is actually a relief because I had no idea how long getting internet hooked up would take.) I hope this lasts!

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got some cleaning to do.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Pomp & Circumstance

Congratulations to the graduating Class of 2009!

This morning I attended the graduation ceremony for the seniors at Colegio Bolívar and I decided that I like graduation ceremonies. Other major life events and celebrations I can take or leave, pick or choose. But graduation ceremonies, I decided, are something special.

I think I like them because of the hopeful and determined energy of those in the mortarboards and their parents coupled with my own nostalgia. I like listening to the speakers talk of the future, where they as a collective group have come from, and where they are independently going. I like hearing about these coming aspirations, recollections of friendships, and important memories.

I like hearing these things because I picture, not only my own high school graduation ("double O!"), but also where my life has indeed taken me in the past nine years since then. Looking back, I don't recall a lot of the things I'm guessing one is supposed to be able to remember about graduating from high school.

The few things I can recall about my own ceremony was that I was at the end of my row and my name was written on a large piece of paper in the staging area to let everyone in my row know this is where they needed to be, lest I not show up to indicate it with my presence. I remember one of my best friends, Annie Taff, gave one of the commencement speeches. I remember thinking it was good and being proud of her, but most of all I remember she ended it with her trademark "have fun, kids" line. I also remember being terrified of tripping on my robe in front of the 500 people I was graduating with as I descended the stairs. Fortunately, I also remembered how to walk. There are other tiny things too but those are the main memories, the lasting ones.

One of my other best friends from high school, Laura Hammer, had made her own memory book with all of our senior pictures in it and a survey next to each one. Over the course of the summer following graduation she made us answer the survey, which consisted of future predictions and various favorite this or thats. I only remember that I had said that I wanted to become a teacher and work in either an inner-city school or abroad. (Part of me wants to see that book again now to see what else my optimistic 18 year old self thought to document.)

At 18 I am not sure what I thought, or if I even cared, what being 27 meant. I probably thought it wasn't young but I don't think I thought it was old either. I know I didn't see myself as being married yet and definitely without children. But I do remember being ambitious and wanting to get out, spread out, and find out...about everything. I still feel that way.

I saw that today in the eyes of the graduates and heard it in the words of the speakers. The valedictorian, a guy I got to know through the musical this year, is going to London for school next fall. I went 90 minutes into Wisconsin. But dreams are dreams and I think it's good to be reminded of them. It's good to be reminded of how you felt when you wanted them.

This year is also special for me personally because the freshmen that I started my fledgling teaching career off with back in the fall of 2005 at Washington Junior High in Manitowoc, Wisconsin are also graduating. Four years goes by quickly! I still remember standing in front of my first hour class on the first day of school holding the syllabus in my hands and all 27 of them silently staring back at me, questioning my very existence. I can actually still picture where some of them sat and, if you gave me a list, I could probably put each and every one of them in their respective periods.

I have a special place in my heart for everyone I had that first year; they taught me more about how to be a teacher than I have learned in any one year since then. Some of them have stayed in contact with me since I left for Colombia through random emails and I love knowing what they are doing. I was definitely thinking about all of them today as well, thousands of miles away and almost a week early.

It is my hope that these graduates, both in Cali and Manitowoc, and everywhere else this spring, remember years from now not the words that were said, but the feeling that was created from those words. I think the real reason I like graduations is because, despite the excitement of graduating - the speeches, the college acceptance letters, the tears, and the tossing of the hats - it is what you do afterward, consistently, that leads to the circumstance. I'm now far enough away from the pomp to see that.

¡Felicitaciones a todos del año 2009!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Whip it! Whip it good!

"An iguana's tail can cut you like whip. It is extremely dangerous when provoked."

With these words the lady from the zoo who visited my class in elementary school terrified me forever of those spiky gray-green lizards. Ever since then, every time I've seen an iguana, and up to two years ago that was primarily in captivity, I've pictured that woman and her giant glove holding this grumpy-looking reptile with it's potentially dangerous tail dangling toward the floor, ready to leap into action and slash gaping wounds into all of our flesh at any moment.

Dramatic enough? I was eight. Some things stay with you.

The track at school where I log much of my running time is usually a place I can space out. I don't run with music but I'm used to the circular monotony from years of going up and back in the pool for swimming. The biggest hazards I have to be aware of are errant soccer balls and the ugly little territorial dive-bombing birds when they have eggs or chicks to protect.

The evil chick spawn have flown the coup and soccer season is over, so I was mentally prepared for an obstacle-free run when I rounded the corner and two (plural, mind you) very large iguanas darted across the track in front of me. They had been sunbathing on the side of the track and conveniently camouflaged right into the gravel and grass. I know my adrenaline kicked in, I'm pretty sure I jumped, and there is speculation that the security guard near the gate heard me yelp. (The later is all hearsay and gossip, of course.)

On my running routes in Minnesota and Wisconsin the only thing I had to worry about looking out for were cars and leashless dogs. I suppose this is a good reminder to start preparing again for random attacks from, well, anything.

Next year I'll ask the guards to start shooting at me if I start looking bored maybe...

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Second Chances

As proud as I was about the poetic nature of my "I'm leaving" post back in January, it pains me slightly to have to renege on it now. (I mean, there were songs lyrics involved!!!)

Regardless, circumstances have changed slightly and I have been given an opportunity which I feel I need to take. Before anything even occurred locally, it was clear the openings for biology teachers were scarce at best (or very rural and also involved chemistry or something I am not interesting/certified in teaching). Secondly, and coincidentally, the person the school hired at the recruiting fair in February decided not to come. Suddenly my position was open again. To sweeten the deal, the school is partnering with a graduate school program and hopefully forming a cohort of faculty members to work toward it together from Colombia, while covering part of the cost.

In the end, I enjoying living here and wasn't exactly ready ready to leave after only two years. Professional practices and policies that I don't agree with can be dealt with; I can be a "yes man" for a couple years if that's what it takes. Most importantly, I adore the kids. There are definitely tough days, not everyone is a studious and interested angel, but in the end they are wonderful people who will be the leaders of their city, country, and beyond. I love them for who they will become and what potential they have.

If those don't factor into a reason for re-signing my contract, I'm worse at proverbial math than I thought! Either way, I'll be in Colombia for a couple more years so if you were snapping your fingers because you thought you missed your chance to visit, well, it's your second chance too!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Runways & Running

What do fashion models, children living in poverty, river bathing, and getting body-checked have in common? They were all part of my abnormally entertaining weekend!

Starting Saturday, my roommate, Nira, and I went to an event to benefit CreeSer, a foundation aimed to help children living in areas of Cali below the poverty line with schooling and getting a good diet. It was started by a recent graduate of Colegio Bolívar, Mariana Cobo, who now attends the University of Virginia and continues her work with the organization from afar.

The event turned out to be a fashion show with collections from three Colombian designers: Hugo Puentes, Lulu Borrero, and Jhon Mesias. I've never been to a runway show before, so I didn't what to expect, other than the fact that Tyra Banks would be judging the models afterward and one of them would "no longer be in the running for America's Next Top Model." What I did not expect was to see some of my current and former students in the show! Sitting there on the side of the catwalk looking down it's length, the first one emerged from behind the wall and I thought, "Wow, that looks a lot it? is!!!" Fortunately, none of them were hired to model the barely-there "beach-wear." Some of them were really nervous but no one fell and they all looked great! Also, note to self, everyone looks taller on a runway.

On Sunday, in the wee hours of the morning (try 3:30am) I got a cab and headed to the house of my friend and counselor at school, Adriana, to head to the small city of Pereira to run a 1/2 Marathon with her brother and a few students. Two of the students, Camilo and Juan Sebastian, both seniors, were already in Pereira. The other two, Diana and Manuela, both juniors, rode from Cali with us. I ran the full marathon in Calima with Adriana and the boys back in October, but this was the first road race for the girls who are basketball and soccer players, respectively. Oh, and there were the three body guards too; one was driving our car and the other two followed in another.

The course was all through the city, across the famous Viaducto César Gaviria Trujillo (the longest cable-stayed bridge in Colombia), into the neighboring village of Dosquebradas, and back to Pereira. Traversing the bridge (at right - I stole this from Wikipedia) was by far the best part of the run, with the exception of the exhaust from the buses passing by. Unlike the marathon in Calima, this one was not through the country-side so there were plenty of spectators along the entire route; since running is not a popular sport here in Colombia they could be considered "gawkers" as well. Because of this, I lost count of the number of times I got called "mono" or "gringo" along the way. As my eyes were fixed to the road ahead, I would undoubtedly hear "Aye! Mira! Es un gringo! Vamo' mono! Vamo'!" I kept thinking how weird that would be in the States if an Asian man was running down the street and someone started yelling "Look at the guy from China! Go Asian man! Go!" I just can't see it!

I finished in 35th place with a time of 1 hour 28 minutes 22 seconds. The course was quite hilly and the elevation higher than that of Cali by about 400m. Also, this guy that I had passed about 2 km from the end came sprinting back right as we rounded the corner for the finish and completely body-checked me! Running is not a contact sport last time I checked and, if you are going to pass someone, the proper way to do it is to go around the outside, not squeeze in between the curb and the runner, shoving them in the process. Regardless, it was a personal best by over seven minutes; I'm looking forward to the full marathon in Duluth, MN, when I get back Stateside at the end of June!

In the end, everyone finished, including one of the body guards, in one piece, and we all had stories to tell. The crazy drunk lady, the black dog that tried to attack everyone, the lady who cheated by cutting a block, the "spitter," etc. After the run, we went and found a spot in one of the many mountain rivers to wash off in and then headed back to Cali, completely spent!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Say What?

One of the fun things about living in a place where English is not the primary language, other than learning the new one, is discovering words that do not exist in English. Most of these discoveries occur organically through incidental conversation. Other time it happens when a student is attempting to translate something and asks what the English word is, in Spanish. This second option usually results in a round of charades followed by a polling of the class. Eventually, I figure out what they are talking about, but still can not answer their question.

A few examples off the top of my head:

Pequeca In English, we just say "stinky feet smell" or "foot odor." In Spanish (or at least Colombian Spanish) there is a word to describe this particular odor. Since learning it, I have heard it used to describe anything that stinks, but it always stinks "like pequeca."

Estrenar This verb is a fun one since it is very limited in it's use. It means literally, "to wear for the first time." I guess in English we ask a similar question: Are those new shoes? Clearly though, we do not have a verb explicitly for such an occasion.

Vaso Sometimes when I run, I get a "side cramp" or a "side stitch." In reality, this is not very specific for this pain could be anywhere on my side. This word, I learned during our recent Anatomy Unit, refers specifically to the type of side cramp one gets in the lower side of the abdomen, nearish to the spleen. Incidentally, spleen in Spanish is "bazo" which, as one of my brighter students pointed out to me, is a "homophone not by coincidence."

You have to love the things you "learn" from your students...

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Lions and Tigers and Bears!

This might come as a bit of shocking news. I've lived in Cali for coming up on two years now, I have had an unhealthy fascination with nature since birth, and I've yet to visit what is considered one of the best zoos in all of South America right here in Cali. I'm still trying to figure out how I allowed that to transgress as long as it had!

Last weekend a few friends from school and I decided that now was the time to go! Sarah and Justin, along with their seven month old, Claire, and my roommate, Nira, all headed to the far western side of the city to the Zoológico de Cali. The beautiful facility is nestled along the mountainside and traversed by several tributaries of the Rio Cali, adding not only a beautiful backdrop to visit the zoo's creatures, but also a constant and pleasant background noise to accompany your walk along the winding paths.

The zoo had quite the selection of animals, including a few that I'd never seen in person before, such as a giant anteater, which, even when curled up in a sleeping ball, is impressive. We saw a strange "sitting bird" (at right) and some scarlet ibises in the bird aviary as well as a plethora of stunning butterflies and a chrysalis or two that would have made some jewelry jealous in the butterfly atrium.

And, yes, there were lions, tigers, and bears there. In fact, the bears came from as far north as Alaska! Grizzlies in South America, not something you see every day!

Sunday, April 12, 2009


I realize the title and theme of this blog is to inform everyone about my "Aventuras en Colombia" but did you know that once upon a time, a man named Simón Bolívar created a great big country called Gran Colombia which included the modern day nations of Bolívia, Ecuador, Perú, Colombia, Venezuela, and Panamá? So technically visiting and discussing here the country that connects South America to the rest of the Americas is staying within the parameters of the title.

For Semana Santa (Holy Week)/Spring Break three good friends from Minnesota met me in Panamá for a week-long adventure of traversing the country and testing my translating ability. While planning, several precedents were set: I wanted to see as much of the country as I could in a week without driving too much while still staying in a few places at least two nights and incorporating the ultimate travel wishes of my companions. Maggie wanted to fulfill her dream of zip-lining through a rainforest. Kim wanted some sun and beach time. Eric wanted to try some Panamanian food "Anthony Bourdain-style" (Travel Channel food guy). Let's see what we can do...

I was able to meet my friends at their gate at the airport outside of Panama City since my short flight from Cali got in before theirs did. We went through customs, got luggage, and proceeded to the car rental where we were introduced to our chariot for the week, a 2009 Toyota Prado. Next challenge? How about navigating the mess of signless streets and dead-ending highways called Ciudad Panamá. I've never driven in Cali but I must have picked up a little aggressiveness via passenger osmosis from careening around in so many Caleño taxis. With several maps and three navigators we only got "lost" four or five times before finding the one road out of the city going west over the Puente de las Americas (Bridge of the Americas). We all breathed a sigh of relief knowing the trip could now officially begin! I breathed a second sigh knowing that that moment would be the longest amount of time before I would have to tackle Panama City traffic and roads again.

The entire week was to be spent in four different locations, all along the Pacific coast of the country. We were to drive through six of the nine Panamanian provinces and visit places in five of them. Of the remaining three, two are on the Caribbean coast and the other is mostly jungle, borders Colombia, and is mostly indigenous communities and some Colombian para-military groups in hiding.

Coclé Province

The first stop was to the sleepy ocean town of Santa Clara and, more importantly, the Playa Santa Clara. Long stretches of white sand beaches and steady waves kept us company under some thatch huts in front of our lodging at Restaurante y Cabañas de Veraneras. I ate a lot of seafood on this trip but the best may have been the corvina (white fish) the first night; it was melt in your mouth fantastic.

One afternoon we headed north into the mountains to the small town of El Valle. From a point near here it is possible, on a clear day, to see both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. On a very clear day, however. In the cloud forest 3KM outside of town is a breath-taking hike and canopying adventure. Our guide, Andriano, showed us lost of different insects and flowers on the hike up to the first zip-line, but the coolest thing we saw was a sloth! (In Spanish a sloth is called a "perezosa" which literally means "lazy." I laughed when Adriano told us this; I use this word plenty at Parent/Teacher Conferences.) Of the four canopy lines, the third was the most impressive. It started out so steep that one had to be lowered by another rope attached to your belt or too much speed would be picked up. This one passed in front of an incredible waterfall.

Maggie had a blast. Dream fulfilled: Check!

Veraguas Province

This is the one province we never did anything in, save for stopping for gas, a bathroom break, and a snack at a roadside super-mercado. Oh, and getting pulled over and bribing a police officer.

First off, Veraguas Province is much like driving through parts of heavily wooded Texas with a lot of hills; there is a lot of vegetation, its very dry and not necessarily lush, but its not a desert either. The poor signage continued from Panama City, as well, and at times the speed limits would change suddenly from 100KM/HR to 60 KM/HR. It is not a good thing when the 60 KM/HR sign is missing/obscured/not seen right before a police officer with a radar gun on the other side of a hill. The policeman actually pulled me and a semi-truck over at the same time which impressed me.

After exiting the vehicle and going over to his car, the conversation went like this:
(Somehow all in Spanish)

Officer Panama: Look, you were going 92 in a 60.
Stetson: OK. I believe you.
OP: The fine is $50.00 You have to pay it before you will be allowed to leave the country.
S: OK. Can I pay it now?
OP: No, because I don't have any receipts. You can pay it at the airport, the border with Costa Rica, or at any [something] government office.
S: OK. Fine.
OP: I need to keep your license, though.
S: Seriously?
OP: You can get it back after you pay the fine.
S: So you will send it to me?
OP: What do you mean?
S: I live in Colombia but the address on the license is in the USA. Will you send it somewhere?
OP: No, you can pick it up in David. (largest city in Chiriqui Province - but not anywhere near where we were going)
S: Oh. So, it is necessary that we go to David?
OP: Where are you going?
S: Isla Boca Brava. And then back to Panama City.
OP: I'm from near Isla Boca Brava. It's beautiful.
S: ---
OP: Look, if you pay the fine with me I'll file the report and write a receipt later. Then you can keep your license.
S: Yes?!?

I guarantee there is no record of me getting pulled over in Panamá on file in any police office. However, the last year and eight months of learning Spanish suddenly all became worth it in that one moment. Also, 92 KM is not that fast. Most of you probably drive faster than that on your way to work.

Chiriquí Province

The reason we got a 4WD vehicle was in order to get to our next destination, the Isla Boca Brava, an island just off the coast of a tiny town called Boca Chica. After turning off the Interamericana Hwy onto a sometimes paved road, we drove for about an hour south toward the Pacific and the Gulf of Chiriquí. Once there, we disembarked at the town dock, hired a water taxi to take us for a five minute ride across the way to the Isla Boca Brava, where one finds the Hotel y Restaurante Boca Brava. (You don't need a creative or unique name when you are literally the only establishment on the island.) The "hotel" doesn't take reservations and, in the chance there is no vacancy in the various rooms, the staff will put you up somewhere in a hammock; we got lodging.

After settling in, we headed for one of the beaches, Playa Piedrita, on the southern side of the island. After a 30 minute hike, we came to a beautiful rocky and secluded beach. It didn't stay secluded for long though, as we were greeted by a large troop of monkeys, some with tiny little babies clinging to their mothers' backs. They really paid us no mind as they traversed the branches of the trees from one side of the beach to the other, disappearing back into the forest. The next morning I went for a trail run and came across the troop again. Some of them were just waking up and one, that I couldn't quite locate, was howling very loudly as I got closer so I opted to turn around.

After breakfast we chartered a pontoon boat out to one of the further islands, Isla Bolaños, for a day of snorkeling, coral sand beaches, and sparkling waters. The snorkeling was interesting and I saw my first wild octopus, as well as some brilliantly colored fish and a neon-blue starfish. The beach was also filled with wildlife including thousands of hermit crabs and some sort of iguana-like lizard that may or may not have been hunting the crabs. We spent the afternoon floating in our private bay, reading on the beach, having lunch, and just enjoying the sun and the view of mainland Panamá off in the distance. On the way back to Isla Boca Brava our pontoon was joined by a school of dolphins who swam alongside and leaped into the air in front of our craft for about ten minutes.

Kim's pristine beach and glowing sun: Check.

Back at the lodge, we enjoyed another dinner of good food and drinks, as well as a liberal helping of aloe to pretty much everywhere. We talked with one of the managers of the establishment, a German guy, who told us the owner and his wife, also German, are trying to sell it as it is becoming "too commercial" and they feel guests are expecting too much - more than a rustic hotel and restaurant might be willing to offer, anyway. So, if you have $30 Million laying around, it's all yours! If not, and you are in the area, make this a part of your itinerary before someone else buys it and turns it into a great big luxury resort.

Los Santos Province

The turn-off of the Interamericana for Boca Chica was our westernmost point in the journey, especially now that a trip to David to reclaim my license was no longer necessary, so we jumped back on the highway and head east toward Panama City again. I was very careful this time in Veraguas Province and Eric, as my chief navigator, helped me look for the sometimes elusive speed limit signs.

When we got to the end of the province we headed south again, this time into the Azuero Peninsula to a town in Los Santos Province called, appropriately, Villa de los Santos. It is here that Panamá officially declared it's independence and the people of the entire peninsula are very proud people to be living in the birthplace of their country. There are many festivals throughout the year in the scattered towns throughout this region, including the Semana Santa festivities held in Villa de los Santos.

We found and checked into our hotel, hung out by the pool for awhile, and then headed into town for dinner and some people-watching. Dinner was had at a small tienda across from the main plaza near the church, were the night's service was being held. I love stumbling upon restaurants where there is no menu - just a plate that they serve. Eat it, or don't. It's like dinner at home as a kid. You don't like what Momma's cooking? Fine! Go hungry. This particular establishment served grilled chicken. You could get it by the quarter: 1/4 bird, 1/2 bird, or whole bird. All grilled and seasoned to perfection by the old lady with the scarf around her head and hips that could move a mountain who has probably been doing this her entire life.

Shortly after dinner two things happened: the stomach ache that was most likely a little amoebic friend in Maggie's intestine decided it didn't like the chicken and she needed to go back to the hotel, and the church service ended to allow the Wednesday night festivities to begin.

A year ago, after crawling out of the Amazon jungle, I happened upon a Semana Santa parade in the town of Leticía. I was excited about making this a two-year tradition. The procession in Villa de los Santos was a little different that the one I saw last year. First of all, this one was at night and there were no Stations of the Cross to visit along the parade route, just three bed-sized floats with flowers, lights, and statues depicting Christ and a couple saints being hoisted and carried through the streets. The crowd still moved as one and there was still a member of the church clergy on a megaphone telling the Easter story. This time however, it was nearly impossible to hear as the drone of the generators used to power the lights on the floats drowned out the voice of the speaker. I'm not Catholic, but it was a moving experience to watch and walk with this age-old tradition move through streets that have seen probably over 250 of these ceremonies.

Herrera Province

The next day, Maggie's amoeba having calmed down, we again headed back to the Interamericana, leaving behind Los Santos Province and passing through Herrera Province. It is here that one of the first Panamanian towns, Parita, is found. Located just off the main route into the Azuero Peninsula, Parita is tiny grid of cobbled and gravel streets with modest brightly colored houses book-ended next to each other. In the town center there is a surprisingly large church with the bell tower positioned untraditionally over the entrance and not one of the front corners. The guidebook told us that this is the only church in Panamá, and much of Central America, to have such a feature. It also mentioned that church-goers do not linger near the entrance as they are still skeptical of it's structural integrity.

Panamá Province

On the way back into Panamá Province, we stopped at a notorious roadside diner that many Panama City residents stop at on their way to their fincas or beach resorts. The establishment was a few steps above a shack or some temporary building one might find at a State Fair so it was funny to see BMW's and Lexus's parked in the gravel parking lot. But that also told us we would not be disappointed. The restaurant is known for it's bollos (cornbread-like rolls with different flavors like chili, cheese, chicken, coconut, etc.) and chicheme (drink made of milk, corn, and cinnamon). Well, when in Rome! I actually have had a version of the bollo back in Colombia, though I believe it is called something else, and while I wouldn't drink them all the time, the chicheme wasn't as gross as it's list of ingredients leads one to believe, just a little chunky.

Eric's roadside culinary attraction that Anthony Bourdain would love to visit? Check!

Putting off the inevitable, the dreaded return to the city of few driving rules and fewer signs finally came. Fortunately for us, it seems that the last part of Semana Santa, Panama City residents leave town so traffic was significantly reduced. This did not make it any easier to find out hotel; after making three loops around the same neighborhood, mostly because the location of the hotel was marked incorrectly in the guidebook by a block and was in the crack in both maps, we found the elusive Hotel Costa Azul - which was neither blue nor on the coast, but I digress.

We settled in, then headed out for a nice dinner at Palms restaurant for both Kim and Maggie's birthdays. The chef at Palms was incredible. She had managed to create some delicious and inventive meals that made you savor each bite. I had a plate with pork wrapped in bacon on top on a stack that included a tiny crepe, and apple slice, and a portabella mushroom. This was all topped with candied shredded carrots. At the end of the meal the chef came out to meet us and it turns out she is from Barranquilla, Colombia. Small world!

The next couple days were filled with more delicious food, including a fantastic sushi dinner (Maggie and Kim wanted to try sushi with plantains since I had talked about how much I loved getting that here in Cali) and a great Lebanese restaurant (which, incidentally was the only thing open on Good Friday).

On our last full day in Panama City, we ventured to an area called Casco Viejo, or the "old compound." This area was, essentially, the city's second try after the original settlement, Panamá Viejo, was destroyed by the infamous pirate Captain Morgan. Panamá Viejo was the first European settlement on the Pacific side of the Americas (north and south) so Casco Viejo is still one of the first. It reminded me a lot of Cartagena in terms of it's architecture and sea-side location; it has a very enchanted European feeling to it.

It is here that we encountered many vendors selling various souvenirs, including pieces of fabric called "molas" which are crafted by the Kuna people of the Kuna Yala Province along the Caribbean coast. The women selling the molas were dressed in traditional attire and seemed out of place in this old city setting. According to the guidebook, the Kuna do not like to have their picture taken, in their province anyway, so I respected that wish, but their skills with creating these pieces of layered fabric are incredible! Kim bought four small molas to frame for her nephew.

Last but not least, though a tad out of sequence, on the list of things to do when one visits Panamá, is to see the Canal. Before we returned our Prado, we drove the half hour north of the city to the Miraflores Locks, the only set of locks on the Pacific side. (There are two sets on the Caribbean, but this is the most accessible and tourist-friendly.) I've been to some internationally known landmarks and been disappointed, such as the Statue of Liberty and the Mona Lisa, but the Panama Canal does not make that list. It really is an engineering marvel. Every ship constructed today is designed with the dimensions of the Canal in mind. Some of the enormous ships that passed through the series of locks while we were there had literally inches to spare on each side as they passed slowly to the ocean. It takes about eight hours for a ship to get from one coast to the other and can cost upwards of $200,000 depending on the size of the vessel.

The most interesting thing I found about the Canal system was that, while a boat is in the Canal, if it is a huge ocean-liner, it has to have a Panamanian captain. For this reason, all of the large ships flew the Panamanian flag as they passed though, as the original captain has to temporarily give up command. We ate lunch on the terrace of the museum's restaurant and watched several ships of impressive size from all over the world exit toward the Pacific, saving countless hours of travel.

People were skeptical of the Canal's future success when the U.S. handed over complete control of it to the Panamanian government in 1999 but it has continued to run successfully and there is actually an expansion project underway due to be completed in 2014, which will increase the number of crossings and decrease the amount of water needed to move a ship through the locks.

All in all, I really liked Panamá and I loved traveling around with some good old friends and practicing my Spanish. If I have trouble finding a job as a teacher I might have to considered the travel agent/personal tour guide gig!

I kept inadvertently comparing everything to Colombia in my head and I have to say that by the end of the trip, I really missed it. Panamá is nice...but it's no Colombia. I know they used to be the same country, but I think it is okay that they gave this part up; Colombia still has all the good stuff!