Monday, March 7, 2011

Well, I should probably win a prize for Colombia’s worst blogger. I even planned to improve this semester – I wrote a big “here are a random ten thoughts to summarize my experience thus far” and then never finished that nor posted what I had written. So this post is a synthesis of random thoughts from quite a long time ago, some of which I probably no longer agree with, but I thought it'd be better to post them now rather than never. There is no specific order to what lies ahead, but it provides a small window into what has been going on in my life (or rather, was going on in my life). From here I’ll be skipping to the present, more or less, so if you want to find out about January and February, you’ll just have to send me an email.

There is nothing like a study abroad experience.
You can try to recreate it, but it’s simply impossible, and there are two words that explain why: zero responsibility. Oh, sure, you’re responsible for getting good grades, but let’s be real here. I may have failed my first midterm in Argentina, but all I had to do is actually read what was assigned, and then I ended up with an A. Anyway, the study abroad experience is so glorified because your job is to make friends and have fun, and that’s pretty much it. As much as you may try to recreate that by working abroad post-graduation, it simply isn’t the same. You wake up at 6am Monday through Friday. You actually have to show up to work. You want to travel every weekend, but you can’t because you’re making somewhere between $300-$800 a month. It’s a sad truth.

Somos Pacífico (Chocquibtown)
I’ve had a hard time answering questions about Colombian culture, and it’s mainly because Colombian culture is impossible to summarize. From city to city and department to department the terrain changes, the people look different, the people act differently, and all of sudden you feel like you’re in a completely new country. If you come and visit me for a week, you sure won’t think Colombia is culturally or racially diverse at all, and in my first month or so here I didn’t think so either. Since then, however, I’ve travelled a bit and experienced that feeling you have when you first arrive in a new country and have no idea what the common phrases are or what culture shocks are going to hit you. I gained my first exposure to another aspect of Colombia in mid-October when Sarah and I travelled to a small town called Nuquí on the Pacific Coast. If you’d like to get a feel for the Pacific Coast, check out the music video of “Somos Pacífico” on youtube, then take that exact feel but make it 10 times more tranquilo. Sarah and I initially went imagining a relaxing beach vacation upon the completion of the first term at school. It definitely didn’t turn out that way, partially because of the rain, and partially because getting to the nice beach from Nuquí required finding a man who would canoe us over to it. Despite all this, the trip was still an incredibly rich experience in an unexpected way. Because of the rain and circumstances, we spent most of our time walking around the town, which lies in the poorest department of Colombia. After two months living in a wealthy area of Manizales, my thought arriving in Nuquí was, “Now this is Colombia.” There were muddy dirt roads, shacks for houses, chickens running around, and a majority of the population was of Afro-Colombian descent and sitting outside their houses in plastic chairs, sipping tinto (black coffee), socializing, and watching the gringas walk by. We made some friends and had some really fascinating conversations that opened our eyes to Colombian life in a different area of the country. On the Pacific Coast life is simple, life is rough, life is rainy, but life is also good.

I often arrive home to parties in my house.
Over the past few months, I’ve often arrived home from work to a small party in my house. These little fiestas have become somewhat representative of my experience and social life here. They are usually on Fridays, though sometimes not, and they usually consist of a group of my roommate’s friends getting totally smashed after a midterm. Of course I am never asked or notified about these get togethers, even when they occur on a week night and I have work in the morning. The typical situation is as follows: I walk up the stairs of my apartment building and hear loud music and laughing. I open the door and see a group of boys either in the living room or on the balcony. Sally! Come take this shot! Uh… no thanks. And from here there are three possible scenarios: 1) I say sorry, I have a lot of work, and retire to my room to spend the night grading papers and tests, attempt to go to bed early, but alas there’s a discoteca in my house (I know this seems lame, but after two months of multiple parties per week, this starts to become a favorable option); 2) I join them, but they are totally hammered and rambunctiously performing a sing-a-long or talking about waking up next to girls that aren’t their girlfriends, so after awhile I give up on socializing and do my own thing, or 3) I join them, make new friends, experience a “real” Colombian party, as they put it, and do my best to catch on to humor in Spanish, which is by far the most difficult part of language acquisition. For the most part, the parties have been great, but there are definitely some downsides, like when I can’t sleep at 2am on a Tuesday and I have to wake up in four hours. Also, when I get home from work, what I’m usually looking forward to is a little bit of piece and quiet, considering my work day consists of, “Sally! SALLY! Sally, come. Sally, I have a question. Me! Me! PICK ME! I wanna answer! HOMEWORK? NOOOO. Sally, PLEASE!” Though in the end, it’s nice not worrying about making plans on a Friday night because the plans come to me, and it’s been a great way to meet people and make more friends.

Roommates (or apartment mates) are complicated.
This one goes out to you, Banana. If we ever live together again, I will never complain about you leaving all your crap in the living room. In college I was blessed with amazing roommates (shout out Beth and Ali J) and apartment mates (shout out 118 and 219), and to be totally cliché, you don’t know what you got till it’s gone. There’s just a certain level of respect and courtesy that I assumed was second nature – something understood and carried out by all people who have any sort of social understanding. I realized I’d been mistaken when I got home from work one day, used the bathroom, and then discovered that instead of buying more TP, my roommate had simply removed mine from my bathroom. Then, of course, I went to wash my hands, but he’d taken my soap as well. Then there’s the massive stack of unwashed dishes in the sink, going almost a week without lightbulbs in the common spaces (mind you he was on vacation while I was at work all day, and we remained without light until I went out and bought them), the constant unannounced parties on weekday nights in my apartment that I am not even warned of beforehand, and the fact that I usually don’t feel comfortable inviting people to my own apartment. It’s all the more complicated because my roommate’s mother owns the apartment, so technically my roommate is my landlord. It really isn’t all that bad, and it’s improved significantly after winter vacation – the nice, long break was needed. Upon our return, my roommate explained to me that his brother gave him advice on living with other people, so now my roommate thinks he’s the all-knowledgeable one on how to live with others. His know-it-all attitude is usually incredibly irritating, but if it’s getting him to wash his dishes and respect my space, I’m really just okay with it.

Fortunately, the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.
Every time I travel to another part of Colombia, I just become happier that I’m living in Manizales. I’ve realized that the key to happiness when living in, as opposed to visiting, another country, is to live in a city where there is little tourism. Of course there is tourism in Manizales, but it’s minimal. And of course as I walk down the street with my blond hair and blue eyes, I get a few stares or a “mona, mona” (rubia in Colombia), but when all is said and done, people leave me alone. I’m treated as an equal. People on the street aren’t constantly trying to sell me junk or lure me to their hostel or onto whatever guided tour, and sometimes it is just so nice to be ignored. In retrospect, Mendoza was similar in this respect. Because of the minimal tourism, I feel like Manizales is that much more my city and my home, and I get protective when I see other blonds (Hey! I’m the token Mona!) or uncomfortable when I walk down the street with fellow gringos that make me stand out that much more. Back to my main point, though, I couldn’t be happier in another city. I haven’t travelled a ton, but I’ve visited a few others cities which have been fun and beautiful, but I end each trip thinking, “I’m so happy I live where I do.”

La Navidad (AKA December 1-January 11)
I should have been ready for this after Danny’s first December in the DR when he explained that normal life stops, people don’t work, and life is basically a month-long party. Well it’s quite similar here in Colombia. Christmas lights are HUGE here. They start putting them up mid-November, and then on December 8th, a national holiday, cities in the entire country light up all the lights for the first time for a big alumbrado. It’s always a competition among cities for the best lights, and then on the night of the 8th people sit outside their houses with their families and light up candles in lanterns along the sidewalks and streets, and those without houses walk up and down the streets to see all the lights and take pictures. It’s a beautifully fun and happy celebration that officially kicks off the Christmas season, but the season really starts as soon as they start prepping the lights two weeks beforehand. At school there were non-stop events all leading up to the holidays, there were multiple three day weekends, and you couldn’t dare to get something official done because work just seemed to either slow down or cease completely. The party and family time continued all the way through the Ferias, and finally the lights were taken down and special holiday food was no longer served after the 11th of January, which is also some national holiday.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Effects of Homogeneity

When I think of sheltered individuals lacking racial/cultural awareness or an understanding of what it’s like to be different, I inevitably imagine a group of wealthy, white individuals of Anglo-Saxon descent. It’s always been the wealthy wasps who are insensitive to other races, religions or cultures, right? Well, about a month ago I found myself ignorant with this assumption. I found myself realizing that it obviously isn’t the white privilege that creates this effect, but the homogeneity of a country, city, or even a town or school. If everyone is surrounded by people just like them, they forget that there are others out in the world, with different thoughts, beliefs, histories, interests and ideas.

Colombia is by no means homogeneous – quite far from it, actually. Just like in the US, Colombia has a population made up of various races – mainly Mestizo (a mix of white and indigenous background), black and white – so racially and culturally, Colombia is quite diverse. Religiously it is less so (one of my colleagues said to me the other day: “Colombia is ONLY 70% Catholic!” Only, eh?) Despite the diversity that does exist in Colombia, each city within the country seems to be fairly homogenous. Manizales, for example, is mainly white and Mestizo and has a relatively educated population because there are so many universities here. More specifically, the student population at my school is 100% Catholic and upper-class.

A few weeks ago at school we had an opening ceremony for the interclass competitions – a fun event to kick off the upcoming months of sports games and such. Each grade was assigned a country for their team, so one grade was the USA, one was South Africa, England, Aruba, Australia, Colombia, etc. For the opening ceremony parade (like a mini version of the Olympics), the girls dressed up to represent their countries in either their team’s uniform or in other ways to symbolize their countries. There were kangaroos for Australia, a cheetah for South Africa, Flamenco dancers and bulls for Spain, and my favorite was the queen, with a massive paper dress, for England. As the girls paraded with big smiles on their faces, I noticed the oh-so-familiar toothbrush moustache on one of the girls in 11th, whose country was, of course, Germany. My initial thought was, “That’s not cool to joke about,” but I tried to be positive and changed my thought to, “Ok, I guess it’s a little funny that there’s a 16-year-old Colombian girl dressed as Hitler.” The parade continued. Then, when the students marched onto the fútbol field, I noticed that the lovely Hitler was carrying a massive flag bearing the Swastika. The girls were all laughing, and one of them was dressed up a bit skankily and posing with Hitler and the flag. As I looked on with the other teachers, one of them turned to the principal to say, “Look! Hitler! How funny,” and the principal gave a laugh. The show carried on. I was completely stunned. You can hardly blame the girls – if the teachers think parading around with the Swastika to represent Germany is a funny little costume, then how are the students supposed to know any better? Shocked, offended and disconcerted with the insensitivity of the entire school community, I tried to keep a smile on my face, but a few minutes later the principal turned to me to ask what happened – apparently it showed that I was upset. I replied with an “oh, nothing” and returned to the English room for the rest of the festivities.

Over the next few days I wanted to talk to a fellow teacher about it – I wanted to see someone else’s view and try to understand how they could think dressing as Hitler and prancing around with a flag of the Swastika was OK, but then I thought… If it doesn’t naturally occur to them that that is both incredibly offensive and insensitive, how would I explain it to them? The event was published in the local newspaper because of the school’s progressive ideas in thinking of the world as a “Global Village” and stressing the importance of physical education in school (something less common in countries other than the United States). There was an excerpt in English that one of the teachers, an Argentine who has lived in multiple countries, wanted me to read over to check the grammar. I got to the part about the 11th graders dressing as Germany: “From Hitler to…” I turned to my colleague to say, “Maybe we don’t want to brag about the girls dressing as Hitler. It’s not really something to be proud of, you know?” The fellow teacher looked at me, perplexed. “Oh… um, okay, yeah. Poor Germany. Will you read this part?” And she continued, completely disregarding my comment. 

Sunday, September 19, 2010

El día del amor y la amistad

Today was the Colombian national holiday of love and friendship. For me, it was a little bit of a sad day. Yes, I have made friends here, and many more than I thought I would have made in just a few weeks, but when I think of love and friendship, I think of people who are very far away, and I felt a little lonely because I couldn't celebrate this day with them. Today has also made me reflect on how lucky I've been in the realm of friendship. The two most recent friend-making times have been entering college and then studying abroad. Well, at Cornell I found some of my best friends just one room over or maybe a few steps further away. Then, in my abroad program, I found four lovely women who were not only wonderful to discover a new culture with, but who were also truly my people - people who I connected with beyond "let's explore Argentina together". And now, here I am, and here we all are, making friends all over again. Through my own experience and conversations with others, I've noticed that a lot of us are meeting a lot of new people and making many new friends, but we haven't really found our people, and that's been tough. I was thinking tonight, around a table of new friends, that maybe, in this chapter of my life, I don't need to find my people. Maybe what I need now is good company - friends to laugh with and share experiences with. And maybe I don't need more than that because I already have my people, and while we are thousands of miles apart, they'll always be there.

When I got home tonight, my friend Katherine had sent me an email that translated to something like this: Sally, I'm not sure if you know, but today is the day of love and friendship, so I hope you had a wonderful day. Although we've only known each other for a short time, I think you're a really sweet person, and I hope we become good friends in the future.

So I hope all of you had a wonderful day, too, and that you were able to share it with people you love. And don't worry if you haven't met more of your people yet. It may take awhile, but it'll happen. In the meantime, you already have your people, and I think we should all feel quite lucky about that.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Week 6

I’m sorry it has been so long since my last post. You can either take it as a good sign, because I’m enjoying myself too much to blog, or a bad sign, because I work too much to have time for a blog. Either way, here goes a very, very long update. Many thanks to those who make it through the whole thing!

The job, the school and life as a teacher...

After four full weeks of classes, I am flooded with so many thoughts on various aspects of my work situation. I am constantly trying to figure out which part of this job is the hardest: the fact that it is my first real job, the idea that the first year of teaching is always the most difficult and time-consuming, the disorganization of the school, the lack of books and resources available, grading papers, following the many, many rules of a Catholic school, or the sassy attitudes of my students. Perhaps the most difficult aspect is seeing my own qualities in many of my students.

Front entrance to the school
I’ll begin with the girls. Overall, they are quite wonderful. I am teaching 8th, 10th and two levels of 11th grade, and each class has about 15 students. I am definitely lucky for having such small classes, and I don’t think I realize how much easier it makes my life. The girls are sweet, and a good portion of them is eager to learn, make me smile, constantly ask about my life, and show true potential. These are the girls that keep me sane and make me love teaching. The others… well… they don’t listen, they’re disrespectful, they complain when I give even the smallest homework assignment, they show no effort, and they are constantly on their cell phones in class. It is really quite amazing how girls in the front row blatantly talk to each other and text away in the middle of class. I can see you! I can hear you! You are in the front row! Discipline has surprisingly been one of the biggest challenges (surprising because it’s a Catholic school), but with help from both other teachers and feedback from my students, I’ve slowly learned the ropes on how to manage a classroom of dramatic adolescents.

When I relate my teaching experience here to my own high school experience, it’s hard to tell if the difference lies in my attendance of a prestigious, well-endowed, secular private school or in the fact that I’m in Latin America. Here are some glimpses into my teaching experience thus far:

1. On the first day of class, we introduced ourselves and played a name game. The girls were allotted ten minutes at the end of class to write about themselves; this exercise was purely for me to get to know them a bit and, more importantly, to see their level of English. Their mini autobiographies looked something like this: Run-on sentence run-on sentence, run-on sentence run-on sentence, run-on sentence. I talked to my supervisor about their writing quality because I didn’t want to intervene and accidentally contradict other teachers in their Spanish classes. My supervisor’s response? PLEASE teach them how to write. They’ve never been taught, and if their teachers haven’t taught them yet, they won’t be starting this year. I went home and talked to Sebas about it. He went on and on about how Colombians aren’t taught how to write, so his theory is that the girls don’t know how to write because their teachers don’t know either. The following day I entered my most advanced class and wrote on the board: “My name is Sally I am 22 years old, I have a brother he lives in the Dominican Republic, I miss him.”  My question directed to the class: Is this sentence correct? Their response: Yes. Well, you all don’t need a grammar and punctuation lesson, but you can see how we spent the first week or so of classes.

My "office" / the English library
2. Unit 1, Reading 1, handed to me by my supervisor to teach to the 11th graders: Alternative Families. Pre-reading discussion prompt: “Hannah, who has two mothers, describes her family as a bunch of people who love each other. Do you agree with Hannah?” The following discussion may have been my biggest culture shock thus far. As would be expected in a Catholic school, the consensus was simply that no, this is not okay; two lesbians should not be allowed to have a child together. One of the girls decided to defy the rest of the comments by explaining that she watched an interview of a man raised by two women, and he turned out okay. This comment was by far the most liberal, and while I would typically respond to it thinking, “You seriously need to watch an interview to understand that a man raised by two women can turn out ‘okay’?” I was instead so proud of this one student who disputed the rest of her classmates’ comments and took some time to think for herself. 

3. I’m only allowed to assign homework two specific days of the week, and I’m only allowed to give quizzes on one specific day of the week (ex. 11th graders can have homework on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and quizzes on Fridays). Not only does this make planning difficult, but it also gives the girls an opportunity to challenge my authority. For example, last week when the 8th graders were completely unfocused, talking and not doing any work in class, I suggested that they focus more because what we didn’t finish in class would be homework. One of my students declared, proudly and in Spanish, “Actually, Sally, you have to respect the homework schedule.” Oh, the nerve. Actually, sweetie, you need to respect me, because I’m your teacher.

4. Two of my classes do not have grammar books, and three of my classes don’t have reading books either. For the grammar portion, this means that I not only need to come up with the syllabus completely on my own, with no past experience of teaching English nor knowledge of what the girls have already learned in their past English classes, but it also means that I need to pull rules and concepts out of any book or online site that I can find. You’d think teaching English grammar rules would be easy, but try explaining when to use prepositions like “from”, “by”, and “of” when all of these words translate to a simple “de” in Spanish. Meanwhile, my literature teaching experience involves finding simple enough books online, converting them to word files and emailing them to my students.

5. D-i-s-o-r-g-a-n-i-z-a-t-i-o-n. Imagine walking to your 11th grade class and passing all of your students on the way. “Come on girls, we have class now.” “No we don’t.” Hmmm, that’s right. No, we don’t. Why? There’s a high school meeting in the auditorium! When was this planned? Who knows! Who did they tell? Who knows! Not me. Who is “who” that makes these last minute decisions that we suddenly won’t have afternoon classes? Who knows! In addition to the whole issue of classes being cancelled here and there (which obviously makes me look like an idiot to my students), there’s also the issue that the girls don’t really have a “homeroom” time or free periods other than the morning break and an hour for lunch. If a class ever needs to coordinate for a presentation, a social work project, student campaigns, etc., when are they supposed to find the time? During class time. Of course this is never planned in advance, either, so I’ll be walking into a class, and another teacher will say to me, “Oh, Sally, could the girls use your class time to plan their campaign for student elections? Thank you so much, you’re so helpful.” Yeah, it’s cool. I didn’t plan a class or anything.

View from the English department
I acknowledge that I sound quite bitter in a lot of these anecdotes, and during the first couple weeks I really was bitter. I was constantly frustrated when I had planned classes two weeks in advance only to find out in the same day that this or that grade had activities planned and no class for the day, so I would then go back and have to re-plan everything (note that I cannot simply move everything to a day later, because I am only allowed to give homework and quizzes on certain days of the week). In the past week and a half, though, I have learned to relax and go with the flow. It hasn’t been easy, but when a class is suddenly cancelled, I simply enjoy that I have a free fifty minutes. The difficulty has been that I have high expectations for myself as a teacher – I want my students to excel and be the best possible, but the 11th graders can’t do their best on their big English exam in March when classes are cancelled every other day. I have accepted that I can only do the best with what is provided and possible, and if the girls don’t ace their English exam, that’s okay. I did the best with the time and resources that I had within my reach. Meanwhile, I can enjoy my job a little more. If the school has no problem with girls missing class all the time, then I won’t have a problem with it either. I know I will feel like a failure if my students don’t reach their fullest potential, but I have to accept what is in and out of my control. 


A couple weeks ago Sarah and I went to a festival put on by the Universidad de Caldas called Ecovida. It was a small organic festival for farmers and artisans in the Caldas department to sell their products. The food and artisan crafts being sold weren’t anything particularly exciting, but while we were there, we participated in an indigenous religious ceremony. Unfortunately, it was difficult to hear everything said in the ceremony due to all the people there, but the general idea was to love and care for the Pachamama (Mother Earth). We all stood in a circle around a fire while a few people set gourds of liquid beside it. We lifted our arms in the air, held hands in the circle, and then crouched down to touch the Pachamama for a knee-aching portion of the ceremony. Finally, we hugged everyone around us, thanked each other for sharing the experience together, and then took a sip of some spicy juice (the bittsweet?) as the gourds were passed around. It was a peaceful experience.

Salento & La Valle del Cocora 

On Saturday I went with nine friends (3 other foreigners, 6 Colombians) to a small town called Salento and the Valle del Cocora – the largest wax palm tree forest in the world. Wax palms are incredibly tall but also really thin, so they look really goofy popping out of fields of grass in the middle of a lush forest. The Valle sits in the southwestern corner of the Parque Nacional de Los Nevados, all of which is just south of Manizales. After a two and a half hour drive, we arrived in the Valle at around 11am and went for a beautiful four-hour hike through the valley of palm trees. At our halfway point we took a break at a waterfall, where my friend Alfonso decided to take a dip, even though the air temperature was no more than 60F, and obviously the water was much cooler than that. On our return, the air cooled and it began to rain (don’t EVER assume that you will get a day without rain here), and we headed into a local restaurant for a feast on trucha (trout) just before it started to pour. It felt so great to go for a hike, and I can’t wait to go back for a 3-4 night trip into the park, where you can stay at farms that provide bunks and a cooking space. (Also a great overnight spot for those who plan on visiting me!) 

In addition to the beautiful scenery, the other great part of the trip was the company. It was a really fun group, and the mix of cultures and languages was amusing. My German friend Nicole doesn’t really speak much Spanish, but she speaks English well, so she and I always converse in English. I obviously speak in Spanish to my Colombian friends, even when they try to speak to me in English. Then, some of the Colombians we were with only speak Spanish and German, so they communicate with Nicole in German. Quite the mix of languages, and it’s easy to get confused! But I think this situation is symbolic of my multicultural experience here.

Alfonso, Sarah, Me, Luis Miguel
When I’ve told people that I went hiking with a group of ten people, the response has been, “You already have ten friends to go on a trip with?!” Granted, I wasn’t the one planning the trip - I was was merely an invitee, but yes, I surprisingly have made a lot of friends. In my first two weeks here I was really worried that people would be friendly but wouldn’t actually care to become legitimate friends with some American girl who would just be around for a year. Everyone already has their friends – why need a new one? Luckily, this was purely an assumption and far from the truth. I’ve already met a ton of people around my age (mostly students), and because Manizales is so small, I continue to run into the same acquaintances who then become friends, whether our get-togethers are planned or unexpected. It’s funny to think back on my experience in Argentina, where I would have given anything to simply have one good Argentine friend, yet here I am after 6 weeks in Colombia, and I already have about 10 Colombian friends whom I am closer to than my one “real” Argentine friend (excluding my host family). Everyone here is incredibly friendly, and many are eager to make new friends and have long philosophical discussions with someone from a different country and culture. It’s exciting to think that after such a short time I have already formed so many relationships, and this number will only continue to grow. 

Saturday, August 21, 2010


If you know me from my pre-college years, you know me as a very picky eater. I can already envision Falco reading this and shaking her head, but I can truly promise you that my pickiness has improved greatly. I’ve expanded my eating horizons, and I am much more willing to try new foods, especially when I’m in a new country and feel that it’s part of the cultural experience. If you’re curious about Colombian food, let me give you an overview: carbs, meat, fried carbs, mystery meat, fried carbs stuffed with cheese, carbs, meat, fried meat, fried carbs stuffed with extra cheese... add in some tropical juices and ice cream and you have the full picture. Thus far, I have been a champ about not only trying everything, but also actually eating everything, regardless of whether I like it or not. To name a few, I’ve eaten unidentifiable meats, salad loaded with cilantro, buttery buttery buttered everything, and I’ve drunk whole milk, coffee, and fennel-flavored liquor (these may seem quite normal to the average person, but cilantro, butter, and whole milk are on the top of my disgusting list). The school serves both breakfast and lunch, so for two out of three meals a day I don’t get to choose what I eat. Luckily, the food has *mostly* been pretty good. The other day, however, I reached my limit and pushed a meal aside for the first time. I felt horribly doing so, and I ate quite a bit before reaching my breaking point, but I had to draw the line somewhere. It was a soup of mystery meat. It smelled like a very foul chicken soup (no pun intended), and I couldn’t figure out why I was so repulsed by a scent that resembled chicken. By the look of the actual meat, I could tell it was gooey, fatty, and disgusting, so I avoided it from the get-go and managed to accidentally spoon it into my mouth only once (I’ve become very good at sneakily spitting something out when no one is looking – quite a skill if I must say). Well after sticking to the broth and potato portion of the soup for a couple minutes, I couldn’t even handle that part anymore. I set it aside (the smell was literally making me nauseous) and ate a banana for lunch. A few minutes later, a teacher sat down next to me saying, “This is my favorite!” Another responded, “I think Sally thinks you’re crazy.” And to that, “Well she doesn’t know what it is, does she?” Eyes were on me. “Chicken? Pig’s feet?” Oh, no, no. How could I be so naïve? Cow stomach. Mmmhmmm.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Week 2: (Slowly) Falling into Place

1. Cornell Connections
This past Saturday I spent the entire morning looking for a place to live for the year. After an unsuccessful morning, I received a call from an American named Sarah who is here in Manizales for a year on a Fulbright Scholarship. She was also looking for a place to live, so she suggested we look together. Sarah is temporarily staying with a family of a professor who works at the same university where Sarah will be teaching (Universidad de Caldas). That afternoon, Sarah and the professor, Margarita, came to pick me up for an afternoon of apartment hunting. Upon meeting, Sarah and I exchanged the typical question: “Where did you go to College?” After my response, Margarita threw up her hands to say, “I lived at Cornell for a year!” As it turns out, Margarita’s husband was awarded a Fulbright scholarship in 2007 to do research at Cornell, so in the mean time Margarita taught as a Spanish professor for two semesters. We discussed all the Spanish professors that we know in common, bonded over Cornell, Ithaca and all their wonders, and then resumed the apartment search. In summary: six days after my arrival in Manizales, Colombia, with its population of 400,000, I meet a Colombian woman whose family lived in the little town of Ithaca for a year.

2. My New Home
Saturday’s search showed me that the living options here are not too great, especially if I want to stay within the budget of my Colombian salary. Luckily (very, very luckily) Juan Sebas invited me to stay in his apartment for the year. While his apartment is far beyond anything I could afford, Sebas has enjoyed having a roommate and wanted me to stay, so I’m paying the amount I was expecting to pay when I set out on my initial search. Ironically, I’m now living in Colombia (where I expected to be “roughing it”) with more amenities than I’ve ever experienced. I live in a nice, furnished apartment with two bedrooms, two full bathrooms, and a patio lining the entire Northeast wall. The pictures from my last update show a version of the view I wake up to every morning (I say “version” here because the weather changes drastically day to day, so the view always looks different). I have a doorman and a cleaning lady – luxuries that I will most likely never have again in my life. I feel spoiled to have fallen into this lucky situation, but the lovely Ari Fox made a good point here: just because I live in a shmancy apartment doesn’t mean I’m not “roughing it.” I’ve moved to a new country where I didn’t know a soul, thrown myself into a culture about which I knew essentially nothing, and have taken on my first real job in a completely foreign work environment. I was courageous enough to come here, so why not live in a little luxury?

3. 12 Hours in the Capital
Tuesday night I took an 8-hour bus ride winding through the mountains at 40km/hr to arrive in Bogotá at around 7am.  I went straight to the Ministry of External Affairs, waited 5 hours for my visa, got my visa (I can officially start work legally on Tuesday!) and then spent a few hours meandering through the streets, going into churches, and then listening to a “cuentero” (comedic storyteller) on a plaza in the evening. I was pleased to actually understand a lot of the jokes he told; those of you who have taken on another language can agree with me that humor is difficult to translate and is probably one of the last aspects to grasp in language acquisition. Then at about 7pm I headed back to the bus terminal to catch another overnight bus back to Manizales. Walking aimlessly through the gridded streets of Bogotá reminded me that one of my favorite parts about Mendoza was walking everywhere, stepping into shops, stopping to watch goings-on in a park or plaza, and taking a different route to reach the same destination each time. Unfortunately, I don’t know how much I’ll be able to enjoy long aimless walks through Manizales. The hills are steep enough to make leisurely walks not-so-leisurely, and the curving streets make it nearly impossible to know where you are. I consider myself someone who is pretty good with directions, but sometimes I’ll be two blocks away from my own house and not even know it. I’ll have to stray from the main avenue – Avenida Santander – little bits at a time, and then maybe, just maybe, I’ll start to know my way around.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Beginning

The adventure begins. I arrived in Manizales on Sunday afternoon after two very long days of traveling, during which I was stuck in Bogotá while the Manizales airport was closed because of bad weather. (Potential visitors beware: the Manizales airport closes often. Though the Bogotá airport does have very nice benches to sleep on.) When I finally did make it, I couldn't believe what I saw. The city sits dispersed among lush green mountains and low hanging clouds. It is cloudy and rains almost every day, but the weather almost adds to the mountainous beauty. On a very occasional cloudless day, you can see snow-capped mountains (Los Nevados) in the distance.

I'm currently living with a guy named Juan Sebastian - a student and fellow member of AIESEC. What is AIESEC you ask? Let me explain. AIESEC is an international student-run organization founded in 1948 by students in France and Germany for the purpose of bettering relations between young adults from different backgrounds and countries. AIESEC now exists in over 100 countries, and its main goal is cultural exchange. Students work with companies, schools, organizations, etc. in their local cities to set up internships and jobs so that students from other countries can then work abroad, experience a new culture, make friends in other countries, and so on. When I decided I wanted to teach in Colombia for a year, I went onto the AIESEC database and found a teaching job. Now that I'm here, I have one AIESEC member hosting me for the next week or so, another in charge of my contract, another handling the visa and green card process, another helping me to find my own apartment, and plenty more to act as my new friends. It is quite the ideal situation. Juan Sebas has a nice apartment with great views, as you can see by the pictures I've posted - these were all taken outside of my bedroom window. He's been a great roommate - very friendly and helpful. He lives in an area called El Cable, and I'll be staying in this area when I find my own place. El Cable is filled with bars, cafes, shops, a movie theater, and anything else that you would want within a 5-block walking radius of your apartment.

The school where I'll be teaching is part of a national chain of Catholic, Opus Dei single-sex schools in Colombia. For purposes of protecting the school and myself, I am going to leave out the actual name of the school. My orientation began on Monday, and so far most of my impressions have been positive. The other teachers are very friendly and welcoming, and the coordinator of the English department has been incredibly helpful. I will be teaching Language Arts to 8th, 10th and 11th graders, and 11th grade is split into a more and less advanced group. One of the hardest aspects of this job will be accepting the differences between the Colombian and American education systems and pedagogy. A few weeks ago the English coordinator sent me an email with a list of the books I would be teaching, and I was amazed by the students' advanced level of literature. Well, I shouldn't have gotten too excited. The 11th graders do not actually read Pride and Prejudice; they read an abridged, 80-page version of the story. So here is the question I proposed: If the 11th graders are at an 8th grade English reading level, wouldn't it be better for them to read 8th-grade level books in their original version instead of more advanced books in their abridged, non-literary version? The teacher's explanation: the girls get too impatient with the length of books in their original form. Then I skimmed through a sheet with a teacher's notes regarding the books that were read in previous years. One of her comments: The abridged Heart of Darkness was too metaphorical for the 7th graders. My thoughts: What an atrocity to abridge such a beautiful piece of literature, essential in its poetic form, and how can you possibly expect 13-year-olds to conceptualize its profound significance? Later Monday night I learned from Juan Sebas that basically all Colombian schools use abridged English books; it's simply something that I'll have to accept. I proposed using short stories and short novels in their original versions as an alternative for the most advanced group; the English coordinator received this suggestion positively.

This year will be challenging in a positive way. I have moved to a country to which I have never been before, and I've entered a culture without any study abroad program orientation that explains all the rules and details of the cultural norms. I am starting a new job in a place where Mass and the Rosary are planned events in the orientation schedule, and I am the only teacher who neither speaks native Spanish nor makes the sign of the cross before every meal. I have a lot of responsibilities and a lot to learn, but I'm excited for all of it. Colombians have proven to be incredibly friendly thus far. My work space is accepting and comfortable, and I have a ready-made social network for my fun time. I'm only on day four, and although I haven't yet had a chance to explore the city, I have already made a few friends who will be showing me around this weekend. Each day I become less overwhelmed and more enthused for what lies ahead. Hasta pronto.