Monday, January 31, 2011

Rock Me Baby

There's something to be said for consistency.  I've fulfilled my once-a-year sizable earthquake quota for the fourth year in a row.  Last night, around 2:12 am I was awakened by a slight rocking and low rumbling.  I must be getting used to this kind of thing since my only reaction was to turn my head toward the window to see the shadows of the telephone wires swinging back and forth over the street.  Then it was back to sleep.

According to the USGS, which has a phenomenal earthquake reporting and tracking program, this quake's epicenter was over 106 km deep and about 100 km north of Cali, near the town of Tuluá, registering 4.9 on the Richter scale.  As a colleague at school said today, "that was nothing - the Chileans would have just thought their stomach was growling."

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Come Again?

Last year I decided to document all the surprising and often humorous questions that got asked during our annual unit on the human reproductive system, after several years of wishing, in hindsight, that I had.  I'm not sure if I jinxed the novelty of it by doing so, or if I've simply become immune and very little seems strange to me now, but this year the questions have not been that out of the ordinary.

I was struck today, however, at the number of phrases being legitimately tossed around, by unflinching ninth graders, that would give a stranger passing by my open door whip-lash.  For example, as a way to better learn the organs and structures of the reproductive systems, and solidify the process of fertilization, my students are asked to write a short story entitled "The Epic Journey of the Sperm," being as creative in their story-telling as they see fit.  As class ended today, I told one group that they would have a bit of time next class to finish up but not much.  They looked concerned so I asked how far progressed they were to which one student replied, shouting across the room to be heard over his peers:
  "We're in the vagina.  Is that far enough?"
I smiled inwardly and said that it should be fine.  This might be an awkward time for my principal to do a walk-through observation.

Friday, January 21, 2011

What I Really Meant To Say

Consider for a moment, the following scene:  You're having a chat when suddenly the attentive eyes of your conversation partner narrow and a slight furrow crosses their brow.  You hesitate for a second and repeat what you just said, exactly as you just said it.  A slightly more quizzical look.  Now, if this conversation is happening in your newly learned second (third, fourth...) language, you are familiar with the feeling.  You just have to figure out why you are not being understood.  Was it pronunciation?  No, you talk to this person all the time; they "get" your gringo accent.  How about an incorrectly conjugated verb?  Doubtful; the expectation that you conjugate and distribute gender haphazardly is semi-expected and the context clues should have allowed them to comprehend what you were trying to say.

What about a wrong word all-together?  It sounded right though.  It even sounded Spanish.  Then you realize the problem.  Those damn false cognates!  To those who are not language people, these are those pesky words that sound or look like a word in your native tongue, but in fact means something completely different.

False cognates are the meat of any good miscommunication story.  I was reminded of how essential differentiating between these words is twice this past week.  First because an English teacher colleague was doing an activity with her students involving the avoidance of such language in their writing (false cognates obviously work both ways).  She had printed copies of a paper that outlined many such examples and graciously gave a copy to me.

Within the next day I had my own misstep.  While at the ninth grade semester awards ceremony, I was attempting to translate what an English-speaking teacher was giving an award for to our Spanish teacher.  The award was acknowledging a student's improvement over the course of the semester and so I erroneously used the word "improvisando," which, incidentally, is a word.  She asked for clarification and I repeated the same thing, wondering why she didn't understand.  She then let it go.  Meanwhile I played the conversation back again and again until I realized I had told her the student had received the award for "improvising" which, in hindsight, would be a stupid thing to give an award for, unless, perhaps, it was a drama class.  I then turned to her and said "mejorando" and the spark of understanding jumped back into her eyes.

Other common examples of mistakes that I've made in the past include using "equivocado" - which, ironically means "wrong" - when I was attempting to say equivocate.  Or using "nudo" when trying to say naked (actually "desnudo"), which means "joint" or "knot."  Telling a taxi driver to head to the sports arena by saying "arena de deportes" will get you to possibly a giant sand box as "arena" means "sand" and "anfiteatro" or "plaza" are two of the words referring to an arena as English-speakers know it.  "Carpeta" does not mean "carpet," it means "folder" ("alfombra" is carpet), the verb "contestar" means "to answer" while "to contest" something is "impugnar," and "red" in Spanish means "network" while the color of the same spelling is "rojo."

Unfortunately, I have made mistakes with all of them.  However, none have been more blush-inducing than mixing up "embarazada," which refers to being pregnant, for being embarrassed.  To make matters worse, in Colombia "pena" means embarrassment, not its potential homonym friend and fellow false cognate "pain," which is actually "dolor" (which does not mean "dollar").

Had enough?  When I'm at the end of my rope - "cuerda," "ropa" means "clothes" - I try to just laugh it off!  Spanish actually has it right, as they call this part of speech "amigos falsos," or "fake friends."  I literally couldn't have said it better myself!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

This Is Too Hard; Let's Just Quit! (Part I)

Nicaragua - A Visit In Two Parts
These were the proclamations uttered as we trekked and, as the guide book adequately put it, "scrumbled" our way toward the top of the Maderas Volcano, comprising the eastern side of Isla Omatepe on the expansive Lake Nicaragua.  While they were meant half in jest and half as perverse motivation, they seem to ring true to my impression of the tangled history and complex ppolitics that make up this fabulous country. After years of political strife, conflict, and wars, the people here seem tired.  They are seem happy to be in a time of peace and calm and want nothing more for things to remain that way, slowly improving towards a better future.

Isla Omatepe's twin volcanoes: Concepción (L) & Maderas (R)
Conflict is hard.  Death and war and poverty and locked doors and politics are hard.  Let's just quit and live our lives.   Take a break from civil wars and work on establishing a working government.  Smile and work and raise families and laugh.  Sounds like a good idea to me!

The "muddy scrumble" up Maderas.
Upon arriving at dark to the capital of Managua, I did not know what to expect.  After my taxista, who had a fondness for Johnny Cash, warned me that "eating trout from the lake would cause me to die from a tapeworm with three heads" I was even more perplexed as to what this week would bring.  However, I thoroughly enjoyed my six day vacation in Nicaragua, visiting with friends, both new and old.  An ex-colleague from my Manitowoc days, Lynn, just completed her two-year Peace Corps service in the Philippines and was visiting a couple other volunteers in Costa Rica for the New Year, so we decided to meet up across the border to the north, knowing little and expecting nothing.  It turned out to be one of the most rewarding "random" travel decisions I've ever made.

I met their foursome in the "cattle town" of Rivas on the Panamerican Highway - me coming from Managua, they from the southern border - and promptly boarded a ferry in the port town of San Jorge to reach Isla Omatepe on the enormous Lake Nicaragua.  The island was formed from the eruption of two volcanos, creating a disfigured "eight"-like shape.  One of the volcanos, Concepción, is still active though the last activity was a sputtering of red non-toxic gas a few months ago; it has since settled down.  We, however, stayed at a rustic lodging on the part of the isle dominated by the Maderas volcano which has a lake in it's crater as evidence of any recent activity.

A sunset dip near Mérida on Isla Omatepe.
Since it initially took a good 90 minutes to get from the dock on the other side of the island to our lodge, we stayed on our part of Omatepe the entire three days, filling the time with excursions to the San Ramón waterfall and the aforementioned beautifully strenuous climb up Maderas.

The hike to the crater ridge was one of the most stunning and challenging I've ever done.  It resulted in two sore legs and a left knee that is showing signs of not being twenty years old anymore, but the vistas and flora along the way were incomparable.  As we literally climbed hand over foot using cloud dampened roots as ladder rungs, the mist of the forest gave way to a secret world filled with ferns and dew-dropped, moss-covered vines.  Taking a breather on the narrow pathway up on the volcano's ridge, you couldn't help but notice the contrast in temperature between the breezy and moist cloud forest around you and the hotter summer-like lake shore a mere 1300 meters below.

This Is Too Hard; Let's Just Quit! (Part II)

Nicaragua - A Visit In Two Parts
Although there is a ferry that crosses the entirety of Lake Nicaragua, it leaves Isla Omatepe at 1am and, in the interest of sleeping and being rested while on vacation, we opted to take the 9am ferry back to San Jorge and bus it the ninety minutes or so to the colonial tourist and historical mecca on the western shores of the lake: Granada.  One of the oldest Spanish settlements in Nicaragua, founded in 1524, Granada has seen wars, pirates, fires, and fierce political battles - including one to be the capital of the country - in its long history.
Granada's colorful Plaza de la Independencia
Today the city is a place where backpackers and package tourists convene to stroll the streets lined with colorful colonial one and two-story buildings.  Many of the buildings, though restored, are now home to hotels, hostels, spas, upscale restaurants, boutiques, and over-priced gift shops.  Granada's charm still exists, though, and in the early morning and dusk light, the shadows, painted walls, and wrought iron gates tell a different story than the tourist bustle all around.  It reminded me a little of a couple of the other historical Spanish settlements I've visited, such as the Panamá Viejo area in Panama City and Cartagena in Colombia, but on more single-floored way; this is an earthquake zone, after all!

Wandering the streets of Granada.
Side Note: After one near-sleepless night in a recommended hostel, La Libertad (don't go there!), we convened in the main courtyard and unanimously agreed to find a new place to sleep.  It's not that the amenities were terrible here, it's just that we were not solitary 20 year-olds traversing the subcontinent on a journey of haphazard self-discovery.  Also, there was a bar and subsequent lounging areas in every corner, inviting aforementioned travelers to hang out until the uncurfewed wee hours of the morning, loudly regaling each other with well-worn tales of the road.  Fortunately, we found a more respectable and tranquil option a couple blocks away for only $3 USD more for a grand total of $8 USD/person.  (Hostel La Siesta is the place to go should you find yourself in Granada.)

The potter and his craft
Our second day in Granada we opted for a day-trip to two nearby pueblitos, San Juan de Oriente and Catarina.  San Juan de Oriente exists mostly because of the ceramics industry centered there.  This barely one-street town is built on earth that the locals discovered long ago was perfect for making pottery. Craftsmen abound here and one family invited us into their shop to not only admire their wares but also talk with the father and watch as he "threw clay" (pottery lingo for the spinning wheel contraption and process of creating a piece of pottery).  I purchased two vases.  One for my burgeoning and accidental collection of bird-themed souvenirs, and another that was too green, beautiful, and unique to pass on.

Catarina, on the opposite side of the Panamerican Highway, and a short walk uphill from San Juan de Oriente's potter's row, is home to several tiny restaurants and juice stands leading toward El Mirador, or "The Lookout."  From this impressive vista one looks due east over the crater lake Laguna de Apoyo, beyond which sits Granada and then Lake Nicaragua.  To the south, as if adding some sprinkles to the top of the scenic cake, sits the majestic Mombacho Volcano.

Back in Granada later that evening - our last - we spent some time in the Parque Central taking in the architecture of the cathedral and palatial buildings while eating ice cream and enjoying some good old fashioned people-watching.  Dinner that night, at a discretely located and dimly-lit restaurant we toasted to a trip with good company filled with near non-stop laughter and great conversation over ginger chicken, gumbo, and sangria.

Nicaragua was an enchanting place to spend a week and I hope to return one day soon.  There is so much more to explore; the surf spots of the Pacific, volcano-boarding in the north around León, Caribbean island communities, and historical jewels of earthquake-torn Managua beg for my return!  Politics has stoked the fire recently again though, bringing back the not-so-distant fears of a tumultuous past.  Many feel the current president, Ortega, has bought the current congress and will have no problem in changing the laws allowing him to run again for a record third term, when many more people feel it is time for a change.  Venezuela's polarizing president, Hugo Chavez, has been getting friendly as well, in his apparent quest to form a socialist alliance with as many Latin American countries as possible.  The past has been difficult and I hope the future doesn't continue along that way.  We didn't quit on the way to the top of Maderas; I trust the Nicaraguan people won't quit either, as tired as they may be.
Los cinco amigos at El Mirador backed by Laguna de Apoyo.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Leavin' On a Jet Plane...

So, you want to travel this year, eh?  Fortunately for you Cali, Colombia made the New York Times' list of The 41 Places To Go in 2011.  At number 10 on the exclusive list, my adopted city is one of four in South America and cited for its salsa culture, restaurants and food, as well as the colonial feel and nightlife in two particular barrios, San Antonio and Granada, respectively.  Also, fortunately for you, I will be staying in Cali for one more school year so strike while the iron is hot!