Monday, September 28, 2009

Dr. Seuss Goes Birdwatching

Before Julia and I left for Minca, we were perusing her guidebook for helpful things to see and do. The book mentioned that aside from organic coffee and picturesque walks through the jungle, Minca was also known for its many, many birds. Julia's guidebook devoted almost an entire page just to cataloging bird names. Among others, the book listed: the chesnut piculet, the blue-knobbed curassow (which to me sounded more like a cocktail than a bird), the tyrian metaltail, and the brown-rumped tapaculo, not to be confused with the Santa Marta tapaculo. Now, I couldn't tell you what a brown-rumped tapaculo looked like if my life depending on it, but with a name that could come right out of a Dr. Seuss book, how could it not be ridiculously cool?

We spent Saturday just wandering around Santa Marta, exploring the town and then heading off to the beach. It was hot and steamy, but the water was exactly the right temperature, and cleaner than the water along Cartagena's beaches. Saturday night we had the most amazing Mexican food I've had since the last time I was in California. After that we wandered down to a different beach and made some new friends from our hostel.

Sunday morning we wandered through the market, trying to find the bus that would take us to Minca. After getting lost among juice stands and bicycle-repair shops for awhile, we found the "bus" to Minca. The small car looked like it had been made long before the Berlin Wall came down, but Julia and I squeezed in along with 4 other passengers, and we headed off to Minca.

The walk through the jungle was perfect. We walked about an hour away from the town of Minca, scouting for birds. We'd decided to name at least one bird for ourselves, but there didn't seem to be any around. Our destination was a pool and waterfall which used to be a sacred site for the Koguis, the tribe which inhabited the mountains before the Spanish came. The pool was beautiful...the water freezing. After our swim, we sat out on the sunny rocks to dry. Suddenly I started to notice several red dots appearing on the tops of my legs. I looked on the backs of my legs and realized they were covered. Julia and I had been attacked by jenenes, tiny mosquitos that you can't see but which cause deep bites. It was time to go

On the way back, we kept looking around for birds, hoping to see something that we could christen. Alas, the only thing we saw was a rooster. Rooster jungle pigeon...? Tomayto-tomahto. Perhaps the elusive jungle pigeon will have to wait until the next time. Maybe after my jejene bites heal, I'll consider going back.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Water, Water, Everywhere, and Not a Drop to Drink

Last week was a little bit dramatic. I came home from school to find we had no water. Maria, our house Mom, told us that no one in our area had water, and that “they” were trying to do something about it. Now, I haven’t been in Cartagena very long, but I’ve spent enough time in South America to know that when “they” do something about a problem, often mosquitoes go through entire lifecycles before the problem gets fixed.

It really is amazing how much more you appreciate something when it is very suddenly taken away from you. We couldn’t do dishes or make a lot of food that required boiling things…bathrooms everywhere in the city were out of service because the main pipeline several miles away had burst due to unseasonable erosion and exposure. All inconvenient bathroom-break strategizing aside, the worst part was that we couldn’t take a shower. Now, when the days in Cartagena are 90°F with 75% humidity, showers are necessary. I also love to run, and sometimes get up very early in the morning (read: 4:45AM) to go running before it gets too hot out. These two days especially, I really needed some exercise.

The water turned on sporadically for the next 48 hours, and we were able to gather enough water for small amounts of cooking, for flushing the toilet, and for taking bucket showers. I’d never taken a bucket shower in my life before. Any time I’ve gone camping, I’ve always washed in the river or just sucked it up for a couple of days. For some reason it’s easier to do that when you’re expecting not to have access to a shower, as opposed to being blind sighted. Also, lack of plumbing in the forest (aka – an area with general lack of civilization) isn’t really a problem, since…well…no one really cares if you just pick the nearest tree and go about your business. Cities without plumbing are a bit more complicated, but a couple bucket showers now and again never hurt anyone. I was still able to go for my runs.

A city-wide lack of water is apparently very unusual, but things got more stressful than that. Aside from no water, our internet also shut down for a few days, our phone wasn’t working, and…we had a few new friends who’d moved into our room. These friends were not welcome. The first one had four legs, a tail, a love of cheese, and still lives under Julia’s bed. The second had eight legs and set up camp in our bathroom. Julia had warned Anezka and me not to use the bathroom, but we scouted it out and the spider seemed to have left. That night around 4:00AM I got up to use the bathroom. I opened the door and was greeted by a giant black spot on the floor. The spot moved. I screamed, slammed the door, and caused my two roommates to awaken, terrified, and demand in the name of all that was holy why I was acting like an axe murderer had come for tea. I explained. They went back to sleep...or ignored me.

The next morning, our friend with too many eyes and too many legs had gone, but that night he returned. Moreover, he’d grown bolder, and had ventured out from the bathroom. I was alone. Julia and Anezka were nowhere to be found. This was serious, and I needed backup. Unfortunately, there was no boy readily available, and Manuel refused to come over and kill it for me. For some reason he thought I was being silly and could do it myself. Right. Screw chivalry. Of course I could.

I strategized. The spider was crawling across the wall and over my bed. I pulled my bed into the center of the room, so any dead spider remains wouldn’t fall on it. Then after jumping up and down a lot and shouting colorful things (which did nothing…surprisingly), I picked a book from my closet and hurled it at the spider. Spider and book fell. I had won. Let me just say that Mario Vargas Llosa comes in handy for more than practicing your Spanish.

The water returned the next day, our internet returned the next day, and one of our guy friends came to sweep up the spider carcass. I’ve climbed mountains, crossed borders, hitch-hiked through foreign countries, made friends with unusual people…but it’s good to be reminded that even something the size of your fist, or something as simple as not taking a shower can still throw you off your guard. I’m thankful for small reminders like that. And for the fact that through all of this, our air conditioning still worked.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

"Teacher, why is the mens walking if they can drive a car faster instead?"

It's now been two months since I began teaching English in Cartagena at Centro Colombo Americano. The first month I just observed classes, and the second I taught full time. I teach three regular classes plus Speaking Corner, which is an informal class where students come to practice their speaking.

Teaching is not easy. I'd had plenty of tutoring and informal teaching experience before, but I'd never taught full-time before coming here. It looks simple when you observe someone who knows what she's doing - the class moves smoothly and everyone looks engaged. At the end of the month, everyone passes with flying colors. Simple, right? Things get tricky pretty quickly though, when you don't know the right questions to ask to elicit student participation, you explain too much and end up lecturing, you don't come up with good examples that demonstrate grammar nuances, or, of course, if you just don't have the energy.

I never thought before how accountable teachers were for their work. If a student loses interest, you immediately see. If a student doesn't understand, the test or quiz will demonstrate that quite clearly. And if students don't like you...well...they can certainly say so on the teacher evaluation. I am not a person who can sit comfortably in front of a computer all day and stay far removed from her work. I need to be engaged; need to see the fruits of my labor right in front of me. I want results. Luckily, teaching is perfectly conducive to that. It is not always easy, but I love the challenge.

Last week I was nervous. My students had their final exams, and I wanted them to do well. Two of my classes were fantastic, but the third one was full of students with terrible attendance and bad attitudes. They didn't participate, and it was hard not to take something like that personally. I always wondered if there were something I could be doing better. Luckily every one of my students passed, even if some just scraped by. My greatest victory was a student who failed his oral exam, but I worked with him to understand the grammar, and he aced the written part. He was shaking when I told him he could move on to the next level, and he gave me a giant hug.

Despite some minor pitfalls, last month was full of highlights, and I'm excited for more. I had several students tell me they loved me at the end of class. One student told me I was the best teacher he'd ever had. This month I'm teaching one of the groups of students I observed my first month here. They got to know me because I taught a few lessons for their main teacher. When I walked into the classroom yesterday, they all shouted, "Leah! Yaaaaay!" It was indeed a very warm welcome. I may have a few Calvins again this month, but hopefully I'll be better prepared. May the Susies triumph once again.