Thursday, April 28, 2011

Get Your Hair Did

The Colombian mullet is a thing of beauty.  A lot of styles have come and gone during my time here but one of the main-stays has been the mullet, or the Colombian version of one.  Less redneck hill-billy and slightly more stylized with a dash of hipster, it is, love it or hate it, truly a coif to behold.

Which makes the follow student quote so amazing.  While working on lab activity, he stopped me, shaking his head slowly from side to side and said:
"Look at what I can do with my mullets!"
Yes, mullets.  With an "s" as in "more than one."  I've never heard a Colombian use the term mullet so that was awesomely humorous in and of itself.  The plural and the head shaking were icing on the funny cake.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011


Since the moment I first watched the music video which ran concurrently with Colombia's tourism campaign "Colombia es Pasion" almost four years ago I have wanted to visit the desertscape where it was filmed.  

Visiting the La Guajira region of Colombia takes some added time and effort however, as it is located in the northeastern-most part of the country, wedged between the Caribbean Sea and Venezuela.  La Guajira is also a gigantic desert and, possibly because of this fact, has little in the form of tourist infrastructure.  Better put: with poor roads and no mass transit system to speak of, it becomes exponentially more difficult to get around without your own vehicle.  Also, being situated in literally the opposite corner of the country from Cali, an extended vacation period is necessary to properly explore the area.
Los flamencos al Santuario
This Semana Santa (Holy Week/Spring Break) I decided to finally put a check mark in this travel box and spend a week in the desert.  Along with my friends Sam and Mandi we split our time between touring the unique features, cultures, and industry the land has to offer with a pre-arranged tour guide, and relaxing on the beautiful turquoise-watered beaches.

Our cabaña
Our tour began with a visit and overnight slay at El Santuario Flora y Fauna Los Flamencos, a nature reserve for thousands of flamingos, as well as a sea turtle rehabilitation center.  We stayed in a tiny cabin on an equally tiny island, complete with bats nesting in the eaves.  While they didn't enter the room, there was considerable chirping and rustling all night long and much guano on the porch come morning.  In this protected area, as is common in many protected wilderness areas of North America, are found one of the oldest native peoples in this region, the Wayuu (say "why-JEW").

All throughout the week we often heard people speaking Wayuunaiki and, aside from fishing and raising goats, the Wayuu people depend of the tourism industry to sell their one-of-a-kind brightly colored mochillas (shoulder bags) and woven bracelets.  While visiting one particular plan, or settlement, we were shown how they build their houses, discussed what the traditional family structure is like and how it has changed over the years, as well tasted some of their canela-fermented alcohol.  The girls were also given the opportunity to dress in one of the scarlet red fabric-filled ceremonial dresses used at many Wayuu festivals - difficult to put on in the ever-present desert wind.
A Wayuu girl displaying the ceremonial red dress.

Attempting amusement at the
coal mine. (Despite the safety
presumption, there was absolutely
no need for the hats and glasses
whatsoever.  None.)
The next day we toured north, past the largest city in the region, Riohacha, to visit a major source of employment and economy - the Cerrejón coal mine.  While the tour was militantly organized and moderately interesting, I'm not sure it was worth the two hours in entailed to essentially look at am impressively large hole in the ground and listen to a lot of propaganda about how environmentally friendly this coal mine is, regardless of its veracity.  

After a brief lunch stop in Uribia, the "indigenous capital of Colombia," we passed through the municipality of Manaure to see the salt flats which are used in the production of much of Colombia's salt business.  Essentially pumping sea water into these flat basins and allowing the water to then evaporate, leaving behind only rocks of salt crystals, the mineral is somehow "washed" numerous times and ends up in what, from a distance, look like the towering heaps of snow found at the end of a Target store's parking lot after the plows have cleared it following a blizzard.

Continuing northward, driving down what amounted to a dirt highway which ran parallel to the railroad tracks built solely to connect the aforementioned coal mine to the La Guajira's only port, Puerto Bolívar, we suddenly cut left down a small trail through a cactus grove composed of nothing more than deep tire grooves.  Shortly thereafter we emerged in the flattest expanse of non-water I've ever seen.  This "seasonal desert" was dry, cracked, a flat as a ruler.  During the winter months it floods from the sea and is impassable, but now, much like arctic truckers crossing the ice and snow on spontaneous roads, so was this short-cut.

Since we didn't have to take the highway the long way around we reached the poster city of Cabo de la Vela, a remote picturesque fishing community, with daylight to spare.  Set in a bay of sorts, the immediate area is perfect for kite-surfing and not far away is gorgeous beach, tucked down between the rocky desert cliffs that meet the Caribbean.  This is obviously where we spent a considerable amount of time the next day.  This is also where I got a considerable sunburn on my stomach and shoulder blade areas, as well as my shins and tops of my feet; a former beach life guard should know better.

The classic Cabo de la Vela shot - Spanish for "Cape of the Sail."
Back in Riohacha we enjoyed the fact that our hotel was the essentially the best lodging option in the entire city, though is would barely be able to compete with a roadside Motel 8 in Florida as far as construction and amenities go.  We were, however, given complimentary tented shade on the beach in front, as well as served lunch under said tent complete with wooden table, table cloth, and bow-tied smiling waiter.  Shrimp rice, grilled goat, and sangria never tasted so good!

Plaza in Riohacha
In the evenings we would usually walk along the malecón, or boardwalk, between the beach and the Avenida del Mar, sifting through and admiring the plethora of Wayuu-crafted mochillas littering the sidewalk.  Some are patterned, most are colorful, but they are all unique and different.  Together we purchased six bags, as well as a few other local handicrafts.  (After four years of living here and traveling throughout Latin America, you start to see many of the same artisanal wares, but these were unique and different, making coming to La Guajira a great shopping destination as well.)

Our final full day of vacation we headed to a beach about half an hour's taxi ride north of Riohacha called Mayapo, which we found out about from a friendly cab driver who offered to shuttle us there and back for USD $30.  Mayapo turned out to be the place to be, filled with families and tourists alike, all enjoying the start to the long holiday weekend, the white sand beach, the steady ever-present breeze, and multi-hued blue of the sea.  
Mandi and me amidst the sea of Wayuu-made mochillas.
Going to La Guajira was like traveling to another world apart from Colobmia.  Between the arid landscape, the abundance of sea food, lack of many of the fresh fruits we have become spoiled by, wandering goats, and slow drivers who actually stop for and yield to pedestrians, La Guajira full-filled my every expectation.  Visually stunning in its own way, peaceful and understated, I hope to be able to return one day and discover more of its desert's secrets.
Heladeros (ice cream vendors) on the beach.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Trivial Pursuit (Part I)

I’ve been hearing the exasperated question “why?!?” a lot lately.  This isn’t completely undeserved either; it’s actually fairly legitimate.  On Sunday I voluntarily sat in a desk for about eight hours and took an exam that has no barring on my future.  

The ICFES is the Colombian equivalent to the SAT, except that is covers eight subjects – math, physics, chemistry, biology, philosophy, language arts (Spanish), social studies, and English (as a foreign language) – and is given in two parts, each four and a half hours in length.  The other major difference between this standardized test and its US counterpart is that every Colombian high school graduate must take the exam to receive a diploma of graduation and, those wishing to attend university in the country depend heavily on the score they receive.  So, you know, no pressure.
So, why did I put myself through it?  I’d say it was equal parts wanting to test my own Spanish comprehension after living here for four years, wanting a first-hand point of view of what is expected (according to the Colombian Ministry of Education) of my biology students, and because it was cheap at about US$20.  Nevertheless, it was a fascinating cultural experience as well.

The test is only given twice a year, with most people taking it at the close of their last year of school.   When you register, you are asked to put your address with the hope that you will be given a testing site nearby.  My colleague, Rita, and I both said we “lived” at the school in the hopes that we would be testing together and at one of the universities that sprout like weeds around our own school’s campus.  No such luck; we were both placed at separate sites on the other side of the city.

Upon arriving at the Universidad Libre in the west side of Cali just after 6am on a drizzly Sunday morning, I joined the already growing number of students lining up down the street, leading away from the front doors of the fortressed university building.  Because every graduate must take this test, there were people arriving from all kinds of schools, neighborhoods, socioeconomic backgrounds; some arrived my bus, some by taxi, and others drove themselves.  It struck me that this may be one of the only times in most city-dwelling Colombian’s lives that they are forced to intermingle with others from vastly different backgrounds, in this still very caste-like divided society.

The doors opened at 7am and everyone filed into the building and were directed to the wing and floor we were each assigned to.  Outside room 408 I was met by a nice old professor-like gentlemen in a worn sweater and jeans who asked to see my identification and match my name with the list outside the door.  With his glasses on the tip of his nose, he triple-checked that I was indeed who I said I was, smiled, and told me to sit in desk #16. 

As I entered the room, which at this point had only one other test-taker in it, I oriented myself to the numbering on the desks.  I saw desk 11, and 12, and then 13.  Taking a glance further down the row I saw it.  One desk that was older, smaller, and more decrepit than the rest.  Even though my gut told me I would be squeezing into this miniature joke of a writing surface, I still continued to count. 

Once the room was filled, the gentleman proctor from the door, Mr. Rojas, began distributing the exams, each personalized with our names and codes, pre-sealed in their own plastic-wrapped packages.  For the next four and a half hours Mr. Rojas, wandered in and out of the room, chatting with other proctors from across the halls, occasionally peaking his head into the room and sighing heavily as he plopped down in the one comfortable-looking chair at the head of the classroom.

Oye, ¿Esta prueba de ingles es de 'fill in
the blanks' o es de 'spot the mistake'?
During the lunch break I met up with six students from my school and we headed to grab something to eat and discuss the first half of the exam.  I was pleasantly surprised that the questions I didn’t “get” were ones they too found perplexing.  The test has been the subject of many a harsh critique over the years, ranging from poorly written questions to conspiracy theories regarding test questions that are too advanced as a way of assuring low scores so that the government has an excuse not to pay educators in poorer schools more money.

One of the most controversial sections, English language, has received some of the worst criticism.  I’ve heard horror stories about questions such as “Which of the following would you find in a park?” with the choices being between a man, a tree, a trashcan, and a dog.  Unsurprisingly, very bilingual graduates from my school were scoring in the 80th percentile.  At lunch we were all anxious to see how this year’s exam would play out.

Other than a couple oddly worded passages, I thought the entire section was well done, although the girl next to me would probably opine otherwise, as she clearly came from a school with no English program and therefore filled in none of her answer sheet, another universal flaw in the exam for schools with no English teachers or funding yet with national expectations.

The only question that I may actually have gotten wrong was in a section with a series of signs where the tester was asked to determine where these signs would be found.  One sign said “No running.”  The choices were: a zoo, a park, and on a bus.  I chose “a zoo” because it doesn’t seem possible to really run on a bus, nor seem like that would be a problem.  I’ve seen plenty of people running at a zoo, although I could see a sign condemning this behavior here much more than on a moving vehicle.  Later in the evening, Rita confirmed this sentiment, however, at school this week, the students had a different point of view: the school busses list not running as one of the many rules.  Context will get you every time.
From the ICFES website, the girl on
the left seems to be having an easier
time managing her exam than some
in my testing room.

Another strange thing about this exam is its form.  Think about being lost on some rural country road or stuck in the middle of big city in rush hour traffic with some giant road atlas map spread out over your lap and steering wheel, momentarily blocking out the windshield.  The exam “booklet” is like that.  You must somehow manipulate this massively awkward poster-sized paper monstrosity with origami master skills in a desk with a foldable writing surface the size of a notebook.  (Or, in my case, half that size.) Why they can't print separate pages and throw a couple staples in it while they're busy shrink-wrapping them is beyond me and most of the people I have spoken to.  

Other than the philosophy and Spanish language arts sections, which I pretty much gave up on not for lack of literal translation but interpretive translation, I felt pretty good about the exam.  For not studying at all, I felt pretty good about things I retained from my own university physics, math, and chemistry days.  Multiple-choice also helps a great deal, and, as a teacher, writing tests gave me an edge in weeding out potential wrong answers.

Time will tell, however, if I could apply to a Colombian university.  Truth be told, I’m mostly looking forward to seeing the score from the biology section, however, a part of me – the competitive part - would love to outscore at least one of our graduating seniors in the overall score.  Going for the B-C-B-C-B-C strategy on two sections probably won’t let that come to fruition though. 

We’ll all find out in May, I guess…

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Les Poissons, Les Poissons

After months of preparations, seemingly endless Saturday rehearsals, paint and glitter-filled lungs, fights with lighting and sound technicians, and a few tears...the show went on!  Here are a few shots from our extremely successful production of "The Little Mermaid."

Ariel wants to be "Part of Your World"
Ariel's Mersisters and Flounder
Welcome to life "Under the Sea"
"...the seaweed is always greener, in somebody else's lake..."
"Poor Unfortunate Souls"
Triton, Ariel, and Flounder
Chef Louis and "Les Poissons"
"She's got legs you idiot!"
Sebastian and Flounder try to get Eric to "Kiss the Girl"
Scuttle's entourage
The Maids and Ariel
"...they come flocking to my cauldron crying 'spells Ursula please..."
Sebastian the court composer!
The best production team "under the sea"!!!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

April Showers

As the adage goes, when it rains, it pours.  Due the weather phenomenon known lovingly as El Niño, Cali's two rainy seasons have been long and seemly never-ending.  Had it not been for the brief reprieve during Christmas and New Years - which I wasn't here for - I would have thought Colombia was emulating the monsoon seasons common in certian part of southeast Asia.

Yesterday was one of those days, however, when the rain comes so fast it turns the streets into rivers, the lighting rivals a Van Halen concert, and thunder claps would startle a coma patient into consciousness.  It took me over twice as long to get home after school, which usually takes only half and hour.  Fortunately, I had my camera with me to capture the watery disaster:


Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Brazil Nuts

By popular request, here are a few more photos from my brief "business trip" to Campinas, Brazil (with a short tour of São Paulo).

Avenida Paulista in downtown São Paulo.  (I took this on a cross-walk during
 a red light, just so you don't think I regularly risk death for tourist photos.)
The MASP or Museu de Arte de São New York's MoMA
A slightly out-of-place building on Ave. Paulista.
Welcome to Campinas, Brasil!
The Jockey Club, a famous historical site in Campinas.
The Metroplitan Cathedral
Parque Portugal (or Lagoa do Taquaral)
Where I spent most of my time: Escola Americana de Campinas (EAC).
They have tiny little monkeys in the trees on campus.
Brazil's national cocktail, the caipirinha, made with the
 local "fire water," cachaça; it tastes a bit like a really
tart margarita with sugar at the bottom.
A night out in Brazil wouldn't be complete without a Samba band!
Hopefully this will be just the beginning of great photographic relationship with this intriguing country.  Stay tuned for future expeditions...

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Return of the Blank Stare

I've now been to Brazil twice.  The first time was during Semana Santa (Holy Week/Spring Break) three years ago; my friend Tina and I visited the Amazon region, spending four days in the Brazilian rainforest and one afternoon wandering around the isolated town of Tabatinga, across the river from Colombian's Leticia.  Last week I was in Campinas, Brazil, for an educational conference where I was on hand to help present the teacher evaluation system a committee of international educators helped develop over the coarse of last year, meeting several times in Quito, Ecuador.  But that's not what I want to talk about.  (The conference was phenomenal, however; I got to meet a lot of interesting and inspiring people as well as learn to look at the education profession from a fresh perspective.)

Bom dia, Campinas!  Morning traffic
from my hotel window in Campinas.
I want to address the fact that Brazilians speak Portuguese and not Spanish, like the majority of the rest of the continent.  Even when I arrived in Colombian with, what I always claim to be, no Spanish, I was able to count, exchange pleasantries and ask for both a bathroom and a beer.  I far as speaking and comprehending verbally, I might as well have gone to China.  Since Portuguese is similar in many ways to the other Romance languages - French, Spanish, Italian - it often comes across sounding like a fusion of all three, to the uninitiated ear.  Almost like the speaker is trying to speak Spanish with a bad French accent while moving a few marbles around inside their mouth.

One thing I didn't have to struggle with was the fact that in Brazil it is common to serve cake at breakfast.  And not pastry-type cakes, cake cake.  Like "happy birthday" its 7am cakes.  Thanks for waking up, you deserve frosting and sprinkles!  I have an automatic positive bias for a country that embraces dessert for breakfast.

On the plus side, my tourist visa is valid for ten years - longer than my passport's expiration date - so I plan on making use of this situation.  It will take some effort to learn to function in the Portuguese language but I'm excited at the prospect.  I just need to start forcing myself to say "obrigado" instead of "gracias," which, it turns out, is my knee-jerk foreign language response to a lot of things!  Hopefully the next time I return I'll have a few more words up my sleeve and not have to play charades with [beautiful] people of Brazil.
Strolling the steets of São Paulo, Brasil.  This street, Ave.
Paulista reminded me a lot of Michigan Ave in Chicago.