The Day of the English, and the Pilgrims Hugged the Native Americans.

How do I even begin to describe English Day? I mean, adjectives are easy. Stressful. Chaotic. Loud. Confusing. Educational (?). Red. White. Blue. Cute. Hilarious. Exciting. Messy. Exhausting. Fun. That all describes my average Monday-Friday at school, so what was this English Day that practically sucked out my soul but put me in absolute adrenaline rush Control Freak Organizational Championship of the World status?

Colombians are big on Special Days, especially at school. English Day is common in a lot of schools here, and it’s a specific day set aside to celebrate English education. This year, we (the English department, aka two other teachers and I) decided to be extra ambitious. First, we wanted to organize an inter-scholastic English spelling bee, then have students put on performances in the afternoon with the theme of U.S. holidays. Phewf. The weeks leading up to the Day itself were absolute locura and left me dreading the morning it would all come together – but it did. The spelling bee was impressive and – aside from some on-stage tears by the littlest kids – smooth sailing. My UConn roommate Kasey was in town and some of my WorldTeach friends came too. The afternoon performances were perhaps less than…informative of our holidays, but highly entertaining.

The Run Down:

- 4th and 5th graders prancing around with hand painted Easter eggs….

- 7th graders dancing to Katy Perry (only girls, because they got into a big fight with the boys and kicked them out of the dance the day before)

- My 8th graders playing a Christmas rock ‘n’ roll mash-up (and due to communication errors not singing Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer that they totally mastered with Kasey’s help)

- 11th graders coming out of left field with a New Year’s Eve dance to “New York, New York”

He spells, he sings Sinatra…what can’t this guy do?

- 10th grade boys rocking Cotton Eye Joe (obviously my idea) and Michael Jackson (obviously their idea) versus the girls dancing to Adele – 4th of July, the Yankees vs. the Brits, get it??

- 9th grade leprechauns with an adorable Dropkick Murphys and Britney Spears combination (festive correlation lost somewhere)

- 6th graders dancing to Thriller

- 2nd and 3rd graders…oh my god I will never look at my favorite holiday the same ever again because it will never be as precious as their Thanksgiving performance. It involved a lot of hugging, a poem about turkeys and a special dance performance.

Picture quality is icky because of the terrible auditorium lights (and 16 year old assistants)  but you get the idea.

Now, I breathe again.

And hear someone humming the Chicken Dance tune at least once a day. And join in. That’s what we call cultural diffusion.

(Apologies for repeated pictures, disorder, and overall blog hiatus. Internet problems, always.)

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Family Day.

Recently, in the midst of all 7 billion things I had going on the past two weeks, Gimnasio Moderno Santa Barbara dedicated a Sunday to school Family Day. Family Day was part fair, part pageant, part talent show and all fundraising for new computers and technology. There were food sales, intense bingo, raffles, auctions and of course a vallenato band performing. The teachers also performed a typical Colombian dance that had me frustrated to tears during the rehearsals (EVERYONE YELLING LOUDLY IN SPANISH AND NOT EXPLAINING THINGS CLEARLY) but came out pretty well according to the audience.

Despite some debilitating afternoon downpours, Family Day was highly successful for our school. And now, if anyone in Tabio had any doubt about who I am, they know. Sigh.

Haves and Haven’ts

Six months just fly by, ¿no?

Have dones:

  •  Swam in the Caribbean
  • Drank beers on the beach about 500 yards from the Secret Service scandal
  • Learned the names and personalities  (and in some cases handwriting, pet peeves, relationship statuses, favorites…) of 130+ children
  • Climbed a volcano
  • Participated in a silent protest for Colombian education reform
  • Ziplined in a cloud forest
  • Figured out how to navigate at least 4 kinds of transportation in a huge city
  •  Adopted a Creole of English, Colombian Spanish, literal Spanish-English translations and isolated gringa-isms
  • Been a patient at the least-legitimate looking hospital I’ve ever seen
  •  Purchased rum from a backpack, arepas on buses, BonIce from penguins, mango from stands, coffee from truck-shaped carts, beers on a boat and candy from children too young to be hawking on the street alone

Not a penguin, but still BonIce. Vanessa Walker photo.

  • Occasionally wished I still lived with the boys and had a job that I knew how to manage
  • Explored the beautiful colonial city of Cartagena
  •  Lounged on an unbelievable beach outside the oldest Spanish city in South America
  • Seen real cowboys in Casanare
  • Seen the desert in Villa de Leyva
  • Ogled and purchased ceramics in Ráquira
  •  Ridden a cable car up Medellín’s mountains
  • Cruised and climbed in Guatapé
  • Appreciated my nationality and culture
  • Eaten arepas, ajiaco, feijoas, mamoncillos, empanadas, rellena, soup for breakfast, hot chocolate for dinner, postres, coffee, papas criollas, micheladas and juice flavors with no translation

Sometimes I wander through ceramic forests. Photo courtesy of Natalie Southwick, who sometimes takes pictures of me in ceramic forests.

Haven’t dones

  • Given up
  • Been robbed (knock on wood)
  • Paid for many drinks
  • Run out of ideas
  • Gone a day without laughing
  • Heard several of my students say a single word in English
  • Ever been 100% confident in knowing what was going on
  • Ever been 100% confident that the bus I’m on is going where I think it’s going
  •  Exhausted my patience
  • Seen the Amazonas, Guajira, coffee region, Bucaramanga, Pacific coast and so so so many places
  • Lost interest
  • Figured out why English is so stupid
  • Figured out what I’m doing with my life…any ideas?

Sometimes I just feel like this, all the time. Kate Bailey photo.

THEY SPELLED MY NAME RIGHT ! ! !

A few weeks ago, my program director called and asked if I would be interested in getting interviewed by El Tiempo, Bogotás most prominent newspaper. But of course! They wanted to do a follow-up on the 36 volunteer teachers who rocked the front page in January, and Kim thought my experience was a good display of what we’re doing here. The article and some badass teaching pictures came out yesterday. I swear, my happy/concerned/enthusiastic faces were not entirely staged. Cool, right?

Article here:

http://www.eltiempo.com/vida-de-hoy/educacion/voluntaria-estadounidense-dicta-clases-de-ingls-en-colombia_11915249-4

And yes, Mom, I translated it. [Commentary in brackets.]

Brighid Carey is a U.S. volunteer who arrived in the country with 35 others to give English classes in public schools and universities.

Everyone was talking about chinos. “The chinos in the school,” “the chinos Bogotanos”. She was confused, but she didn’t say anything. She surely thought that Colombia was full of Chinese people.

“For me, chinos are the people from China,” says Brighid Carey, a 24-year old born in Connecticut, with a laugh. Although she speaks and understands Spanish very well, it’s easy to realize that she isn’t from here. [OH, REALLY?] She has light skin, big, green eyes, blond hair and a soft, caring voice, with an accent that gives it away.

[Ok, my accent isn’t THAT bad. And apparently Sergio was too busy staring into my big green eyes to notice that I haven’t been blonde since eighth grade. Journalistic license, much?]

Brighid makes up part of a group of 36 volunteers, between 21 and 65 years old, belonging to an NGO called WorldTeach. For the past four years they’ve been invited here by another NGO, Volunteers Colombia. Currently, they give English classes in different cities, municipalities and islands of Colombia, like Baranquilla, Cartagena, Bogotá, Madrid and Barú, among other locations.

“Of all the things about my experience, I’ve loved getting to know my students best. Colombian ‘chinos’ are so friendly. I laugh and I’m surprised every day,” she says.

It’s not the first time she’s traveling. She had the opportunity to live in Ecuador and Guatemala [and Spain, but who’s counting.] Her parents support her in everything she does and are used to her trips [aren’t ya?]. With her friends and the rest of her family, things are different.

“When I told them I had decided to come to Colombia, everyone asked why, if it was dangerous,” Brighid remarks. “And although you hear that it’s a violent place full of drugs, I knew there was more to it.”

In Tabio, she lives with a married couple. “They have four kids and a lot of grandchildren, so there’s always a lot of people. They’re all very nice. Of course, sometimes there are difficulties because of cultural differences.”

She teaches classes at the Gimnasio Moderno Santa Barbara to students from seventh to eleventh grade, and one hour a week with the younger ones.

Despite the fact that Brighid speaks and understands Spanish, she told all the professors to tell the students that she only spoke English. [Actually, my principal did] As it’s a small school, after a few months [days] they all realized she spoke Spanish, but at the beginning the method worked.

“When you study another language, the classes should be in that language. At first it was complicated but now I know they understand me more. There are those that don’t want to, but that’s how kids are,” says Brighid.

Her student Juanita González [handpicked by the principal to say nice things], 13, considers that “classes with her are very fun, she always has us do activities for us to learn and express ourselves in English. She’s really nice.”

She’ll be teaching until November, and although next year she won’t be a volunteer, she does hope to find work, if not in Colombia, then in another country nearby. [Shocking, no?] “I love this country and Latin America. I see myself living here. For now I want to see Villa de Leyva and the Amazon. Everyone tells me that I have to travel and get to know Colombia, and I’m dying to,” says Brighid.

Colors of Colombia

The flag is bright red, royal blue and golden yellow. Those three bands embellish body parts, shoulder bags, car decor, accessories, walls and every adornment, accessory and object thinkable. Colombians love their country and they express it widely through demonstrations of the flag’s colors. More openly patriotic than we tend to be (outside country concerts and July 4th), the flag colors here can be seen on any shade and size of wrist gripping bars on the TransMilenio in Bogotá whether accompanied by dirt or rhinestones.

The red, blue and yellow might be matched against any skin tone or hair color as well. While coastal populations are largely characterized by African descent, the interior of this nation is markedly diverse. Typically the sea of faces (or backs of heads, more likely) in my classes is characterized by dark hair, brown eyes and medium skin tone, though there’s a huge range from gold eyes to strawberry blond hair. There’s evidence of indigenous, Andean descent alongside European and African influence. It’s hard to say what “looks Colombian” and impossible to say what doesn’t.

Brilliantly scarlet sweaters define my figurative “red flag.” Coupled with white polos and navy or plaid bottoms, I see swarming GMSB uniforms in my sleep. My eyes are trained to spot that cherry-popsicle sweater five blocks away and decide whether to greet it head-on or sidestep and detour. On “Jean Days” and weekends a totally different species is saying “Hi, Teacher!” – without the sweater, they could be any kid on the street anywhere.

My five colored pens that organized my five classes have slowly but surely disappeared, leaving me with standard blue ballpoints and one or two black – free ones. Why are free pens always black ink? I can’t think in black. My planning notebook is ragged and shoved in an overstuffed bag with three red, blue and green spiral-bound Teacher’s Edition texts, crumpled stacks of colored paper, someone’s misplaced quiz (oops) and a handful of dried-up Expo markers.

To the north, east and west the mountains are shadowy greens: olive, jade, chartreuse pushing lime – like the fruit, not the fluorescent construction. Tabio’s signature peak, Juaica, juts out with jagged, bold stripes depending on weather conditions. When it’s clear, the sky rims the hills with cloud-pocked blue, turning to silver as the sun drops and sparkling navy when it’s long gone. I can see the stars in Tabio, a luxury when considering geography – about thirty miles outside a massive urban sprawl.

Bogotá is a blur of grimy sidewalks, bright maroon TransMilenio buses and universal yellows cabs. To the right the sky is blue, to the left it’s dark gray and angry. By night the brown bottles with yellow and red labels complement shimmery eyeshadow and all dimensions of our plans unfolding.

Week in, week out, the palette wavers and repeats.

Favorite Things.

It would be easy to sit here and whine about being isolated, teaching a million hours a week, I don’t have internet, the altitude hurts, living here is expensive, 14-year olds suck sometimes, my favorite jeans ripped, in fact half of my clothes are falling apart, I get less vacation than a lot of WT people, I’m super behind on work, I’m not in Guatemala and I’m out of boxed wine. Let’s be serious though, no one wants to hear about that, and I signed up for 14-year olds and ratty clothing a long time ago. Instead, here’s a list of some of my favorite things about my time here in Colombia.

  1. Bus rides to Bogotá.

I spend a lot of my weekends in the big city and sometimes even venture in for a weeknight affair. The bus ride is about an hour depending on traffic, but it’s scenic and relaxing. Sometimes there are attractive bus attendants who take my money and smile at me. I’m usually buzzing off a long week of teaching and Tabio, ready for whatever the big city will throw at us.

  1. Lesson planning.

It’s kind of like writing papers in college. I procrastinate and dread it, whine and stress about it and often have way too much on my plate, but at the end of the day, I really enjoy it. I look at the book for a few ideas, and then do whatever I want, because they’re my classes and I wear the bata (lab coat-looking white smock.) Even if it doesn’t go as planned when I’m actually teaching, I’ve had a lot of fun coming up with some lesson ideas that pertain to the current grammar or vocabulary. I get to be creative, organize things and use my brain, so basically all of my favorite activities in one shot.

  1. Acting a complete fool with my friends in any given setting.

There’s something about experiencing a totally new environment with people from your own country and background that makes for excellent friendships. We know what it’s like to be here, and to be there. We’re spanning two cultures in a frustrating, consuming process, and we have every right to laugh about it and cause a scene in public places just for existing.

  1. Cheap earrings.

One of Tabio’s greatest assets is its handicraft stores. Bad day? New earrings.

  1. NP&

This is a half-human, half-puppet satire show on Sunday evenings on one of the main news channels. I love it because it so openly mocks current events, leaving nothing and no one safe. There are snarky songs and when they portray President Obama the accent is hilariously offensive. It’s been great for my Spanish and general comprehension of Colombia’s take on news and affairs.

http://www.noticiascaracol.com/informativos/noticiero-np-con-los-reencauchados

  1. The national anthem.

It’s catchy, it’s patriotic, it gets stuck in your head with its archaic lyrics and just begs to be sung or hummed at any given moment. Also, it plays on radio and TV stations every day at 6am and pm.

  1. My students.

They are so funny, intelligent, creative, endearing, interesting and sincere. I never saw myself teaching middle/high school, and I definitely never saw myself loving it.

What’s new?

  • Tabio turned 409 years old last weekend. There was a random, DJed reggaeton fest in the park on Saturday night (not so crowd-approp considering Tabs’ population is largely children and the elderly) and some other moderately interesting events throughout the weekend. Highlights included free cake for 2500 people and Oscar Lozano, the mayor, rolling up to the party in Tabio’s 409th birthday gift: a new garbage truck. Aaaand small-town Colombia remains fascinating.

    409 years young.

  • Are you serious, North Carolina? Can 61% of that state even read the Bible? (Sorry, Whitney.) Get over yourselves. I effing despise Twilight but I’m not trying to ban it. Ok, clearly I would rally if there were a vote, but Twilight is about a million times worse for the wellbeing of the American people than gay marriage. My point being this – if you don’t like gay marriage, don’t get one. BAM.
  • My friend Melissa is going to Nepal for two months. Crazy kids leaving the country these days. She’s the coolest. She’s writing about it here.
  • I have my first visitor officially locked in. Kasey Ciolfi and I once spent ten months coexisting in the same 10×12-foot space and somehow lived to talk about it (what we remember at least.) We haven’t been that geographically close for more than a few days since and I can’t wait for her trip in August.
  • Sometimes comfort food can do wonders. We found bagels in Bogotá. BAGELS.
  • The cat-to-human ratio in the Angel-Hernandez-Carey household just hit an all-time high and I’m really not pleased. The newest addition is an unnamed, deaf white cat with a ginormous head who Edith rescued and/or stole from a sad life elsewhere. We will not be friends until he gets fixed and stops MEOWWWWing at 5am and peeing on student posters waiting to be graded*. Even then I won’t stop wishing that the cats would turn into dogs. That’s right, Gunner Postemsky, I miss you!

*If you’re reading this, it wasn’t yours

“Teacher, have you read Harry Potter?”
Uh, yea duh. “Of course I’ve read Harry Potter!”
“Look, Sirius Black!” – Just when I think I can‘t love this kid any more. Please note that he said “read” and not “seen”. In Spanish, but whatever, I take what I can get.

What it lacks in extra-curricular activities, Tabio makes up for with mountains.

Sh** Colombians Say, Part 3

A series of posts dedicated to the intricacies of cultural Spanish expressions that offer insight on the Colombian experience. Some may be specific to Latin American Spanish, the Andean region, Colombia, in and around Bogotá, small towns or even the kids at my school. They’ve caught my interest and maybe  found their way into my vocabulary.

Chinos/as means Chinese people. Except in the Bogotá area, where it means “kids.” By now “chino” comes flying out of my mouth without hesitation but it was a confusing day or two before I figured out that no, people here are not outwardly racist against the Chinese (and there’s definitely not an Asian population in Tabio to even make it relevant). They just have weird slang.

Que pena… essentially means “I’m being a huge pain in the ass right now…” or “I’m about to do or say something super inconvenient for you…” or “I just did something obnoxious/rude and I feel bad.”  It’s literally something like “what a pain/shame/misfortune/embarrassment” and used how we say “Excuse me/pardon”, though more frequently, to ease the blow of an inconvenience or imposition.

“Que pena, I’m interrupting your class because…”

“Que pena, profe, I’m late because…”

“Que pena, the internet in all of Tabio isn’t working today…”

It’s never what I want to hear, but like “tranquilo” is an excellent defensive phrase. I’m certainly guilty of conjuring my best “confused and pathetic light-haired foreigner” face and “que pena”-ing my way in or out of situations as needed.

Es que…

THE EXCUSES. Holy Simon Bolivar, they are full of excuses, and they really need to step up their game. I know, it’s probably universal with teaching high school, but I can’t relate because I did my homework. If I spun a tall tale or two in order to buy time or miss a class in college, at least they were credible. Anyway, I can’t figure out if they’re testing me as a foreign/new teacher, or if the excuses really work in other classes?

“I don’t have the text book.”

“Someone took my pencil case.”

“I left my notebook at home.”

“My backpack got wet and ruined the worksheet.”

I can’t even decide if I would rather hear an attempt at a more elaborate excuse, or let them stick with the one-liners.

“Teacher, we couldn’t do the homework yesterday because we were in the soccer tournament.” I laughed out loud at this because they were so sincere, so convinced it was a legitimate reason. Wrong crowd, boys.

“I had my notebook, but ______ borrowed it to copy the work she missed, and I did the homework on a piece of paper but I started to copy it in my notebook and then I left them both at home.” (Yea, me neither.) Overall I’m kind of an asshole when they bring forth the excuses. Just do your work! I did my homework in high school and college, and guess what? I still had fun! Crazy!

Es que. Es que. Es que. Es que literally means “It’s that…,” a way of starting a sentence to explain something. I consistently, Spanglishly affirm that I will not sympathize with the “es ques” and now they’ll start to say it then laugh. It doesn’t mean they do homework more consistently, but I like to think they’re more self-aware.

Beloved GMSB students translating this with Google, I think you already know how I feel about the phrase “es que.”

Dia del Idioma/Language Day

A few sights from school on Tuesday, celebrating the Spanish language with a parade and seriously impressive theater and dance presentations. I’ll upload more in the next few days.

Sh** Colombians Say, Part 2

A series of posts dedicated to the intricacies of cultural Spanish expressions that offer insight on the Colombian experience. Some may be specific to Latin American Spanish, the Andean region, Colombia, in and around Bogotá, small towns or even the kids at my school. They’ve caught my interest and maybe  found their way into my vocabulary.

Ganas is the best word ever and I’ve been in love with it since I first heard it in Spain. There’s really not a direct translation, it’s something along the lines of “enthusiasm,” “drive” or maybe a strong expression of “feel like it.” It’s constructed with the verb tener, so it’s said like “You have to have ganas” or “I do/don’t have ganas to do something.” You can have ganas to win a game, to get a good grade, to go to the movies or eat ice cream. It’s versatile and positive – even if you don’t have ganas to do something, it’s nicer than saying you don’t want to. Let’s face it, you gotta have ganas.

Time

Stereotypes blah blah blah, Latinos are late, cultures in South/Central America are more laid-back and time is a more relaxed concept. In my experience, it’s typically true, and I’m ok with it for the most part. Let’s be serious, I haven’t been on time for a social engagement in years, so clearly I’ve adopted the habit in some ways. Sometimes, though, it’s a struggle.

Ya! “Ya” is an extremely common Spanish word. It’s excellent because it means “now,” “already,” “almost,” “soon,” “yet” and just about every other time expression. It’s terrible for that same reason. If someone inserts “ya” into a phrase, it is absolutely impossible for a non-native speaker to determine the meaning or timeframe indicated. Ya is perfect for operating on loathed Latino time, because saying “ya” doesn’t pin you down to any specific hour. It makes life confusing in all situations, and I absolutely cannot stand it coming from my students’ mouths.

Standing in the hall talking instead of going into my class? “Ya, profe, I’m coming.”

30 minutes into class and they haven’t even cracked their notebooks, let alone started the assignment? “Ya, ya ya! I’m doing it!”

Homework due? “I’ll give it to you ya.

What time do you have to leave for the field trip? “We’re going ya!”

Already? Soon? Now? Later? WHEN??????

Ahora/ahorita Unlike its counterpart above, “ahora” has a literal, fixed meaning. It translates to “now.” It does not mean the same thing that our “now” means. Ahora and its sneaky diminutive ahorita can mean any time from today to…never. It’s one of the hardest words to adjust to culturally, because we don’t take “now” lightly in the northeast USA. I’ve decided, after about 16 months of international field research in various Spanish-speaking countries, that there is no way to ever pin down the concept of right NOW this very second that I’m speaking no questions asked. My students will say they’re doing something “ahorita”, and my response is “NO. NOW.” Classic example of something they can only learn from a native speaker. I always have to slow down my Spanish and pantomime madly when trying to figure out if something is actually “ahora,” the way my inner Nutmegger like things to be ”ahora,” or if it’s the other kind, the way Colombia does “now” (and possibly everyone not within 3 hours of Boston or NYC? THE HORROR.)

Ok we have an assembly…now…but NOW NOW? Right now? Like, I’m teaching two more classes now, or everyone else is already in the auditorium now?

Yet of course, the vagueness is liberating when I can say it myself.