Una semana descalzo – A week barefoot (Part 2)

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Our first night in La Vigia we each fumbled with the perfect spots on the wall for tying the corners of our mosquito nets. By the last night, I’d almost gotten it figured out. With mattresses across the living room of our seaside shack and our nets in place, it was time to lay back in the foreign quiet of a dark fishing village and wait for the rain. The rain came down in biblical deluge-style almost every night, and it highlighted the marvelous simplicity and comfort of our rustic seaside shack, a place to stay dry and fall asleep to the sounds of the storm. At the same time, it didn’t hurt to thank the rain for filling the receptacles outside we drew from each day for cooking, consumption and bathing.

Each day we spent in the simple routine that included preparing three meals, bathing and playing in the ocean. At the same time, we came to know most Vigieños, Maritza’s network of family and lifelong friends, every time we made our way across the village. There wasn’t a single human being who Maritza didn’t know and stop to greet or catch up with. For me implicit in these moments was an opportunity to slow down and appreciate the time. What else did we have to do? A strange feeling. The only urgencies after all were to get to the beach before high tide and to get back in time to bathe and start cooking dinner before dark.

I learned to lie in a hammock, and to like it well enough to not want to get out. I learned from trying (hopelessly) to figure out whether the tide was coming in or out, watching the crabs running underfoot, and keeping an eye out for low-hanging coconuts (that might yield fresh and delicious coconut water), that in life, in general, I could work on being a little more observant.

The more you notice, the more you learn, the more you experience, the more you remember. Wherever you are. Slow it down – it’s possible. I’m working on it. Anyway, you’ll have to pardon the heavyhanded life lesson. Those are the sort of observations that come to mind when you have the luxury of distance and an exotic, foreign place to get introspective about your new year’s resolutions. Cheers, and happy new year.

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Una semana descalzo (A week barefoot) – Part 1

Requiring over 15 hours of land and sea travel and the direct support of a cast of locals along the way, getting to La Vigia, a remote fishing village on Colombia’s Pacific coast, felt more like an old-fashioned quest than a destination vacation.

There were four of us who made the trip. Together, we rang in the new year in a beachside village salón, dancing barefoot to salsa, reggaeton, bachata and choque alongside neighbors and their children, drinking Cuban rum out of plastic cups. The entire trip was possible because my friend Maritza Estupiñan agreed to share with us her hometown, her birthplace, her land.

Getting there was a production. From Maritza’s home in Cali, we lugged our bags, plus my parents’ old pre-roller bag canvas suitcase loaded with supplies. These weren’t groceries; they were supplies. A taxi trip later found us in Cali’s central bus terminal, boarding the next small van that would carry us over Colombia’s western mountain range of the Andes and down to the Pacific coast port of Buenaventura, a two-plus hour trip depending on road conditions and the adrenaline level of the driver. Arriving to Buenaventura, a bleak chaotic sweltering semi-urban mess, we stepped out of our van and for a few thousand Colombian pesos (about three dollars) entrusted our luggage to strangers, a couple of hardworking kids who (presumably) work the same spot every day muscling loads across the highway. On the other side, the warehouse and shipping dock of the cargo/passenger ship that would move us closer, about 100 miles over 12 hours, almost to the end of the journey, almost to La Vigia.

As I mentioned, the trip was largely made possible because of Maritza’s family connections along the way. A couple of Estupiñans captain the ship that transports passengers and supplies (mostly beer, as far as I could tell) daily to La Vigia and other village outposts in the department of Nariño’s Sanquianga National Park. Twelve hours later, we were awoken and suddenly in a hurry. We were approaching our rendezvous point in the middle of the bay with a small wooden fishing boat. Maritza’s nephew received our bags, including my parents’ food-filled, battle-worn suitcase, and we completed the final leg of the journey, motoring a half-hour across the bay to run aground at the sandy tidal marsh of La Vigia’s beach. I don’t think the most intrepidly researched backpacker’s travel guide could lead the outsider tourist along the route we took.

What followed was a week of communion with Maritza’s family and neighbors, with the unspoiled natural environment, with the unadorned simplicity of life in the village – una semana descalzo.

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Colombia for North Americans

Okay, assuming soap box position… Colombians know about their country`s infamy in North America, that they´ve been stereotyped as a tropical jungle of violence and drug traffic.  It´s a sad and ironic misinterpretation of a country that´s most notable in Latin America for its solidarity with the US.  From politicians to regular Colombians, there´s a respect and fondness for the US that´s actually inspiring to an American like me who´s always felt a little dubious about the reputation I wear into other countries as a US citizen.  These days it sometimes feels like we´re more famous for fast food, fat people and our unilateral, do-it-yourself attitude in international relations. 

Instead, I´m made aware every day of the average Colombian´s affection for the US when I see people on the bus wearing t-shirts and caps with our flag, American-themed bars, barber shops offering “American cuts”.  A man I met this weekend even went so far as to say, “The US is the country I love the most.  If it weren’t for them, we’d all be slaves to the communists today.”  Wow.  However, when these same Colombians seek visas to the US, they pay over one hundred dollars to wait for hours in lines where they´re herded like cattle by indifferent consular officials, interviewed by phone across a prison-style plastic window, and often rejected with no explanation or even eye contact. 

Colombia is an ally in Latin America that the US shouldn´t lose.  I hope they can find the humanitarian agreement regarding workers´ rights to push through the still pending free trade agreement that would mean so much for the improving economic and security situation in this country.  It´s unfair to characterize all of Colombia by “conditions of instability, inequality, impunity, violence, and poverty” (according to a statement against the trade agreement endorsed by the US-based Interfaith Working Group), just as it´d be unfair to characterize all Americans by inner city thugs, English-only xenophobes, soda guzzling fat people, or the soldiers caught on film torturing prisoners in international prisons. 

While Colombia´s got its share of serious problems which shouldn´t be reduced or disregarded, my observation after a year here is that most Colombians are proud and optimistic about the future of the country.  I´ll be proud to share that perspective when I head home next week!

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Farewell to 4th graders

Today was the last day of school with the kids.  It was as hard as I’d imagined it would be, even a little harder.  I could only take so many hugs and goodbyes from the many special kids I’ve spent most of my waking hours with over the past year before I ducked into a classroom and let myself get a little emotional.  In one day, it seemed a goodbye to the kids, to the school, and to Colombia all at once.  Throughout the morning, I wandered from classroom to classroom, trying to burn the images of these kids and the sensation of having been their teacher into my memory.  As I accepted handmade farewell cards and repeat hugs from the same students, as I looked the kids I most connected with in the eye and wished them luck, I felt as though it were my own graduation, a major life passage.  After two years of job-inspired sarcasm in Seattle, it felt good to feel so deeply affected.  Teaching’s a pretty good fit for me, it seems.

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“No dar papaya” – Two Identities in Colombia

There’s an expression that’s sort of the golden rule in Colombia: “no dar papaya”. It means something like “don’t flash your wealth in public”. They’re words of caution to avoid things like getting your cellphone stolen out of your hand in the street, or your iPod (which happened to me). It’s good advice in Colombia, it’s good advice in any country. So, be conservative, be careful.

The ironic refrain that follows is “papaya partida, papaya comida”. Here the message is, “If it’s dangling for the taking, take that papaya and gobble it up!” So, don’t be stupid. But, at the same time, if the opportunity presents itself…

I feel like the message between the lines is “stay close to home, it’s a jungle out there!” Actually, this is also pretty good advice in any country. Still, there’s a closeness here in relationships and family that I think is inversely related to the risk, or perceived risks, that lie outside the comfort zone of home.

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The first of parting words

I really want to take a moment, amidst the business of ending the school year and closing the all too short 11 months of my life in Colombia, to attempt a few thoughtful comments on Cali, Colombia and Colombians.  A lot of tropical ground to cover, but let me get started. 

I love Cali.  I love the warmth of the people, the old-fashioned formality with which Caleños meet, greet and thank each other, the closeness of family. This is familiar ground, but let me go back to my neighborhood.  I love wandering the narrow streets in hilly San Antonio, where the wide open front doors and windows of colonial houses open directly onto the sidewalk, welcoming wandering eyes inside to watch unpretentious families eating, cooking, playing, working, celebrating.  I love greeting my neighbors and buying street food.  I love the sounds of salsa music perpetually pouring from neighbors’ stereos like an open tap onto the street.  I love the silence in my apartment on a Sunday afternoon, broken only by the distinctive cries of individual sellers pushing avocadoes, and tamales, and mazamora, and pandebono, the slow fade as the ice cream man’s music-box Beethoven melody wanders out of range.  I came to Cali alone, but it’s impossible to feel alone here.

I realize I basically just rewrote a more detailed version of an earlier post.  Oh well.  Anyway, there’s culture and climate, family and city life and, of course, frustrations yet to mention.  I promise I’ll be back.

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On becoming a Florida Gator

If you’ve been putting off that Colombian vacation, meticulously refining your salsa moves and wearing out your Rosetta Stone “Latin-American Spanish”, leave well enough alone.  You’ve plateau-ed.  And that’s okay!  No one’s judging you!  Now come visit me before I’m gone in two months!

This fall I’ll join the University of Florida as a graduate student in Spanish Linguistics.  Okay, I realize that a lot more widely meaningful events have happened since I last wrote in February, revolutions in the Middle East and a Japanese tsunami.  The Memphis Grizzlies in the playoffs.  Still, the big news in my world, as reflected in my selfish blog, is that I’ll be leaving Colombia in early July – bidding a tearful goodbye to my fourth grade students, selling my wicker patio furniture and my sofa-bed and my red mountain bike – to start down the path I started when I moved here last July.  As a graduate student, I’ll study language acquisition and teach Spanish to undergrads.  Beyond school, I’ll look to continue research into bilingual education programs and how they can be implemented successfully in the US.  Right now, I’m just psyched about summer vacations and a University gym.

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Linguistics, 1st graders and a research project

Okay, anyone out there interested in linguistics?  Does everyone know what linguistics is?  My Mom once called it mental masturbation, but it’s actually the “scientific study of language” – not any specific language, necessarily, but the study of structures, themes and processes universal to all languages.

Not only a form of intellectual self stimulation, linguistics is also the study of language acquisition, a process that has direct implications for how language should be taught in schools.  I’m very interested.  I’m looking towards graduate school in fact, and I’ve begun a linguistics research project here at my school with a professor from the University of Florida.  The subject is second language acquisition (English) by young children (all students are native Spanish speakers) in a dual language, or bilingual, school.

“Dual language” means that, of all subject areas, about half the classes are taught entirely in a second language.

At my school, the bilingual program is now in its fourth year, though so far only the preschool is fully bilingual (50:50 English/Spanish).  In primary school, about 30% of classes are in English (in 4th grade that’s English, Science and Technology), though the goal is to make the program fully bilingual within the next five years.

The first phase of our project consists of video interviews I’m recording on my laptop with 1st grade and 4th grade students.  The goal is to compare the level of the 1st graders’ English, who’ve gone through three years of bilingual preschool, with the 4th graders’ English, who’ve had only partial immersion in the past three years and no exposure in preschool.  In the interview, they tell a story, describing in English a series of wordless pictures.

It’s a work in progress, but we’ve already applied to submit a research report to a second language conference in Bogotá in March, and it’s a project that just might continue over the next couple of years when I’d be in graduate school.  Everyone hold your breath for me to get in to graduate school.

Below are the pictures used to elicit the child’s story and an actual recording I made of one of the kids.  

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Son muchos sombreros que viste el profesor

A year ago I was a civil engineer in Seattle, sitting at my desk high above the street, watching ferries cross the Puget Sound, gazing at snowcapped Mt. Rainier, and wishing I wanted to be there.  I dreamed of being somewhere in Latin America and I couldn’t possibly have anticipated the surprises and unlikely responsibilities I’d find in life as a schoolteacher.

One morning in early December before school had started, I got persuaded to dress up as one of the Christmas Wise Men.  With the other “Wise Men”, several students and a couple of faculty, we wandered the halls distributing candy and wishing a merry Christmas to every single class in primary school.

Every year at school, the week before Christmas vacation is given over to a chaotic schoolwide competition.  Events are in sports, academic areas, and the arts, with teachers assigned to assist in each event.  With all the luck of the new teacher, I got assigned as musical director of an attention span-less group of 9 and 10-year old girls singing Shakira’s “Waka Waka”.  We didn’t win.  But we weren’t last!

Little know fact: I play the flute.  In fact, among the little baggage I toted from Tennessee to Colombia, I packed my flute.  My secret dream was playing in a salsa group, and becoming, like, the gringo rock star of latin music.  I got my start last month when I played flute in our school’s Christmas concert.  The theme was Andean Christmas, so all the tunes were in the style of music from the indigenous people of South America’s Andes Mountains.  I was a little nervous.  It was my first time to play in public.  But it went really well, and it was a lot of fun.

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Feliz año de Colombia!

I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions.  However, three weeks of vacation later, after a Colombian Christmas reunion of the King Street crew (Katrina, Felipe and I were housemates in Seattle) in Bogotá, a week of lounging on the Caribbean coast over New Year’s and the first visit to Colombia by Jessica, my Seattle girlfriend, and with the second half of my first year as a fourth grade teacher starting this week, it’s not so cheesy to stop and reflect on what’s happened and what’s coming in 2011.

First, it’s been a weather year for all of us, wherever you are – flooding and landslides in Colombia, snowstorms in the US, the big freeze in Europe, flooding in Australia.  The world seems a lot smaller when everywhere we’re all facing the wrath of nature.  In Cali, there’s been so much rain I gave up riding my bike to school almost two months ago.  No one here can remember such a long and heavy rainy season.  The thunder sets off car alarms in the school parking lot.

In my little corner of the world, there’s so much to talk about I decided to break it all up into shorter posts, forthcoming.

Also, check out a video I made last month of a chorus of kids singing Christmas songs in the Cali airport.  Very cute.

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