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!