Sunday, March 26, 2017

For Claudio

The silver ring on the middle finger of my right hand is dented, scratched, and scuffed from ten years of constant wear.  If you look carefully, the word “Recuerdo” is still clearly etched into one side, though the way light reflects off the ring makes the word difficult to see.  People rarely notice it.  In fact, people rarely comment on my ring at all.  But there’s a story behind my ring, and I'd like to share it in full.

Xalapa, Mexico, 2007
We met them on Valentine’s Day.  It was perhaps 11:30 at night, a Wednesday, and the three of us had stopped along the quiet street in Mexico, waiting for a taxi to drive by and take Rebecca to her host parents’ home.  We’d just come from a party with some local friends, students and teachers from our school for foreign students, and we were ready to return to our host families and get some sleep before classes the next day.  
Our return home was delayed, however, when they--3 teenage Mexican boys just a few years younger than the three of us--stopped on the street and introduced themselves.  We sat there with the boys that night, on the steps of a church, until nearly 2:30 in the morning.  We got to know them, just a bit.  Claudio, the leader, was talkative and clever.  Alonso, with his greased curls and pouty lips, looked bored and uninterested.  Levi, with his frizzy curls, seemed friendly and eager to chat with us.  We exchanged phone numbers and email addresses, and we went home.
After that, we began to see more and more of our Mexicanitos.  We met them in cafes, or on the street.  We chatted and flirted and practiced our Spanish.  And with our three teenagers, almost right from the start, there was drama.  One of the first nights after we’d met them, Claudio showed up at 12:30am to the house where Jordan and I were staying.  He rang the bell and pounded on the door until our host mother woke up and spoke to him, but Jordan and I weren’t even home at the time.  Our conversations with the muchachitos became dramatic attempts at sounding stern and expressing our displeasure in broken Spanish.  Or, if not us being upset with the boys, they found mysterious reasons to be upset with us instead.
It didn’t take long for Jordan and Claudio to begin a relationship.  They made an awkward-looking couple--him small and slight, her rosy and round--but in a way they fit together perfectly. Both outspoken and full of jokes and laughter.  And they both loved the attention.  
We all did.  We ate up the drama.  It gave us something to talk about, something to do, plans for our evenings.  Eventually Alonso and I started “dating” as well, leaving Rebecca and Levi as awkward third wheels who really wanted to be just friends.  
Then came the morning, a few weeks after we’d met the boys, that Jordan woke to realize her wallet was missing.  When we walked downstairs and out the front door, we found it, slipped under the garage door.  The cash was missing, but all of her credit cards were still there.  There was only one clear culprit--one person who would have had access to her wallet, and who would have known where to return it.  Claudio.  
At this point, Claudio also had in his possession Jordan’s ipod, because she’d lent it to him some days before, and when she asked for it back, he kept saying he’d forgotten it at home.  Jordan assumed after finding her empty wallet that Claudio had no intention of returning the ipod, and she and Rebecca and I decided the time had come to cut ties with the Mexicanitos.  
Of course it wasn’t that simple, though.  We ran into Alonso and Levi one day, and we told them our suspicions.  They seemed to believe us; in fact, they told us it wasn’t the first time Claudio had done something like this, and that a few days ago he had had some extra money mysteriously.  They told us they would talk to him and would bring Jordan’s ipod back to her.  Yet when we next spoke to them, they claimed to have spoken to Claudio and assured us that he was not the thief after all.
So we continued our strange friendship with the boys despite our misgivings.  Gradually we learned more about them--or we thought we did.  Claudio told us he played for the soccer team in nearby Veracruz, the Tiburones Rojos.  Alonso hated school and never went, but he wanted to study birds in university.  Claudio’s mother worked for the government and was currently out of town, working twelve hours away, so Clau was staying with his grandparents.  Alonso’s parents were getting a divorce.  Claudio’s birthday was coming up at the end of March and he was hoping for a new gaming console.  The drama continued too, of course.  The “fights,” the moody silences.  And we spent long hours sitting on the sidewalk outside of our house, playing on the swings of a nearby park after nightfall, visiting cafes and bars, or walking along the lakes and parks of the city.  
And then, six weeks after our first encounter with the boys, came the weekend that changed everything.
On Saturday morning, the 24th of March, I woke with my first ever hangover, (brought on the night before in a ridiculous attempt to drink away the latest bit of drama with Alonso).  Still, I packed up my things and left with everyone else to go to the beach.  Nine of the girls from my study abroad school had planned to go to the beach that Saturday, and at the last minute the night before, Claudio had been invited and had decided to come along.  It was his birthday that weekend, he said.  He wanted to celebrate with Jordan and the rest of us.  So ten of us took the two hour trip to a nearby beach that day.
At the beach, the waves were choppy, and the sun was bright.  We spent a few hours relaxing, and by 3pm, I was even feeling well enough to join in the fun.  We jumped and splashed in the waves, a few of us up to about our waists in the water, and some only up to their ankles.  Suddenly, a large wave came in, and the water was up to my chest.  And then, in a matter of seconds, I couldn’t touch the bottom anymore.  
Looking around, I remember thinking to myself, “Maybe everyone else is okay with being out this deep, but I’m not.  I’m heading back towards shore.”  And I tried to turn around and swim back towards the sand.  But, as I did, I made no progress.  The shore kept getting farther and farther away.  
I heard a shout for help, and I heard Claudio yell Jordan’s name.  I watched, helplessly, as the people back on the beach became smaller and smaller.  I still got no closer to the shore when I tried to swim for it, so I resolved not to panic, simply to tread water and conserve my strength.  I had no plan, no memory of what to do when you’re caught in a riptide.  The thought crossed my mind, for the first time in my life, that I could die out in the ocean.  
Eventually, though, I saw someone off to my left standing on the ocean floor, motioning wildly to come in her direction.  And soon after that, my feet touched the sand, and the waves started pushing me in the right direction again, and I waded back to shore, so gratefully.
Standing on the sand, then, I scanned the waves.  A few of the girls from my group had made it back to shore before me, but not all of them.  I counted heads, watching people come back to us.  A crowd had already begun to gather on the beach.  I kept counting.  6, then 9.  All of the girls we’d come with had made it back to shore.  
But not Claudio.  And I couldn’t see any sign of him.
It was the worst moment of my life, standing there on the beach searching the waves, not seeing him, and feeling completely helpless.
Claudio couldn’t swim.  We didn’t know that. We assumed, through our privilege, through our narrow, naive worldviews colored with childhood swimming lessons and summers spent in pools and lakes, that anyone living as close to an ocean as Claudio did would be able to swim.  It was just like Clau, with his macho ego and his lies, to let us believe as we wished when we invited him to the beach.  
Eventually, an English-speaking Canadian woman who lived in the area approached us, told us help was on the way, and got us into the shade to avoid us going into shock.  She led us through as we spoke with authorities, called Claudio’s mother.  It turned out his mother was not working across the country, after all, but was right in town where she always was.  Perhaps learning, at this point, that Claudio had lied to us yet again should have come as no surprise, but it still hurt.
Help never really came.  It turned out that there was another emergency at the next beach down the coast, and the rescue boats were busy saving the child who’d been sucked out to sea there.
Ten of us had gone to the beach that day, but only nine of us boarded the bus well after dark that night and returned to our city.  
Upon returning home, Jordan and I wearily went to bed without waking our host mother or telling her what had happened.  A few hours later, there came a knock at the front door, and our host mom woke us up to go and speak with the two men and the boy who stood there.  It was Claudio’s uncle and Alonso’s father and younger brother (though we didn’t know that at the time).  Breaking into tears, we tried to explain to them all in Spanish what had happened, but our language skills failed us, and we ended up calling the Canadian woman who had helped us at the beach, so she could explain in more fluent language what had happened.  We had come to Mexico to learn the language and the culture.  We weren’t prepared for interactions on this scale; we hadn’t known our actions during our Study Abroad experience would alter so many other lives.  
The next few days were difficult.  Sunday we spent with Rebecca, talking through our experience and simply being together.  Monday we skipped our classes, met with Alonso, grieved with him, broke the news to Levi, went with Alonso to the cathedral and sat praying for a long time.  We did what we could.  We learned how to grieve.
A fisherman found Claudio’s body three days later.  It washed towards his boat miles down the coast from where we’d been.  That evening, as we sat at our favorite hangout spot, Alonso showed up in a taxi and asked us to come with him.  Though we’d been instructed by the lawyers at school not to speak with Claudio’s family without a bilingual representative present, we didn’t think twice before we got into the car with Alonso and the cab driver (who turned out to be Claudio’s uncle) and went to the memorial for Claudio.  
It was held in a school located right next to the tiny house where Claudio had lived with his mother, his sister, his uncle, his grandparents, and his cousin.  We would later enter the house, talk with his mother.  And I finally understood the reason for Claudio’s lies.  Entering through the front door of the house brought us into the bedroom, which served also as a living room.  A bed filled the entire space, and there was barely room for us to squeeze through the room into the kitchen.  There was only one other bedroom in the building that housed seven people.  A curtain served as a door to it.  Nothing about the place was fancy.  It was certain that Claudio did not have a video game console, an ipod, or a computer. These were things he dreamed about.  I began to understand why he made up a fictional life, asked us for things for his imaginary birthday.  
The night of the memorial, we met Claudio’s family, and we saw Levi and Alonso again.  Being there, we felt out of place, guilty for our role in Claudio’s death, but it was also healing.  Alonso and Levi laughed and joked about their memories of Claudio, and we knew we were right to be there, right to pay our respects.
That night, Claudio’s mother asked us not to forget her son.  She asked us to remember him always.
So a few days later, I went to a market vendor in the central plaza and purchased a plain silver ring.  The man working the stall asked me whether I’d like it engraved, and I told him yes.
“Recuerdo,” I told him.
“Recuerdo de Xalapa?” he asked me.  No, it was not a memory of the city where I lived.
“Solo ‘recuerdo,’” I told him.  Just the one word.  I remember.
And I do.  Every single day, and I look down at the well-worn ring on my right hand, and I remember the boy so full of life, so full of cunning and cleverness that he could create an entire alternate life for himself to tell us.  I didn’t know the real Claudio well.  
But I remember him.  

Sunday, October 16, 2016


I struggled a bit with whether to continue this blog, now that I’m living back in Wisconsin.  I’m no longer “rocking” a tropical paradise, nor an international one.  Now I’m just rocking my own paradise.  Because the truth is, paradise is what you make it.  And thankfully, while I no longer hear Spanish spoken on a daily basis, and my employer no longer pays for one summer flight home per year, and I no longer live in the land of “eternal spring,” I’m still in paradise. And that merits at the very least, one final blog post.  

Cheesy, I know.  

This is my third attempt at writing this blog post.  The first I wrote right after the first day of school.  I was pumped up and excited and the post was overly positive, and I thought to myself, “best wait and see if this excitement lasts.”  The second I wrote after a particularly draining couple of days at work, and the post was rather full of complaints and self pity, and I thought to myself, “best reread this in a day or two.”  That, of course, was nearly two weeks ago, and now it’s time to try again.  

I’ll begin from the “beginning”...

I was so very scared about moving back to the US.  I worried about losing my social life, leaving good friends behind, leaving adventure and the outdoors and trail runs and people who “get it.”  I had so many fears that moving back to the United States after living abroad would be as difficult as everyone says it is.  

The summer, for its part, did well in keeping those fears from coming to fruition.  I was busy, planning a trip to Asia, being on a trip to Asia, and then upon my return, finding an apartment, buying a car, filling my new apartment with furniture and appliances, and beginning to learn the new curriculum I’d be teaching.  

I got really lucky, too, in that I happened to meet someone who lives here and “gets it,” who shares my love of Guatemala, the outdoors, food, and exercise.  So I can still talk about Guatemala--all the time--and I can still go on trail runs--all the time (who knew there were so many beautiful trails so close to where I live?!)--and really my social life is just overall remarkably awesome.  

Because the summer was great, the transition back to US life seemed exceptionally easy.  And then school started.  And when it started, it too seemed really great.  (And it still is, in a lot of ways).  I have a great team of teachers that I work with.  Everyone’s willing to offer support and help, and there’s truly a family-feel in the staff; we’re in this together, and doing what’s best for the kids is everyone’s number one priority, and to top that off--we like each other, too.  

But there’s been some stress involved during my first months teaching back in the States as well.  There’s more pressure here, a more rigorous curriculum, more paperwork and accountability, more classes to plan for and less time to prep.  Teaching high school is completely different than teaching middle school.  There have been days that I work 12+ hours.  There have been evenings I feel completely overwhelmed and like I’ll never get it all done, like I’m doing my students a disservice and am not the teacher they deserve.  And I never really had that in Guatemala.  Except for the weeks when DI was in full swing right before Global Finals, I never remember ever being very stressed out there at all.  

So it’s a period of acclimation.  But lately, I have more good days than bad days, I am finding a rhythm at school, and my evenings and weekends give me plenty to look forward to.

This morning, a Sunday, the sun was shining and the temperature was cool and the fall colors were almost peaking.  So Jake and I hopped in the car, and within ten minutes, we were in a forest, choosing among the well-marked paths for a beautiful morning hike.  After our hike, I contacted a seller on Craigslist about a washer and dryer for sale, and upon finding out it was available, called my dad to come with a trailer and a dolly to help move the appliances to my apartment and install them. He was there 20 minutes later, and before lunchtime, I had a washer and dryer installed.  This evening, I walked home from my sister’s apartment just after dark, and I didn’t give a second thought to the fact that I carried an expensive laptop and a nice phone in my backpack.  On the walk, just over half a mile, I passed no gates, no walls, no guards.  Instead, I greeted 2 families out walking and passed groups of children playing in their front yards--with no fence separating them and me.  None of these things would have been possible (or at least not in the same way) when I was living in Guatemala.  Public hiking paths didn’t exist close to my home.  My dad was too far away to help with things like furniture moving or appliance installation.  And a walk home, alone, after dark always came with a feeling of “walk faster; you should have driven; why are you tempting fate by taking unnecessary risks?”  I really do value these little things in my life--along with a whole lot of other big things I’ve been blessed with.   

And so as always, I can truthfully report that life is good.  

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Cambodia: Reflections and Highlights

I was really excited to visit Cambodia for a few days and hit up Angkor Wat and the other temples in the area.  Cambodia felt like my kind of adventure--and I can’t even really say why.  But I was excited.  I was excited for our hotel there--a full-out boutique hotel (not a hostel), with AC, a swimming pool, breakfast included, and airport pick-up for free--which cost us a scant $20 per night.  And we’d read about a lot of great tours we could take with local guides.  Flying in and flying out, this leg of the trip would be a breeze, and hopefully everything would be as cheap as the hotel.  

The Mango Rain Boutique Hotel

Our flight to Cambodia was unlike any other I’ve ever been on.  There were only about 20 of us on the flight--which would not have been strange, except it was, because we were on a full-size plane that could have seated 200.  The 20 of us were mostly grouped together towards the back of the plane.  Second impressive thing was that as soon as the plane got to altitude, the flight attendants came around and served a light meal.  This, too, would not normally have been strange, except it was, because our fly-time was a mere 40 minutes or so.  So it was the quickest meal service I’ve ever seen.  Deliver the food...come around for trash...tray tables up; we’re landing!  

Tuk tuk to the hotel
Upon landing at around 8pm, we got our visas, cleared immigration, picked up our backpacks from baggage claim, and easily found the hotel driver who was waiting for us with a sign outside.  As we seated ourselves in his tuk tuk, he offered us, in rather broken English, his tour guiding services for the temples of Angkor the next day.  We hedged for more time; we had certainly planned to go with a researched and reputable guide, not taking a tour through the hotel.  When we arrived at the hotel, though, the man checking us in again pushed the hotel’s tour.  The price, to be fair, was indeed quite reasonable.  But the “guide” barely spoke any English, and we wanted to learn about the history of the temples.  We turned the tour down...and then went up to our room and started kicking ourselves.

We’d researched several good tour companies.  We just hadn’t thought to reserve anything before arriving in Cambodia.  Fine, except that now it was 9pm, most tours started around 7:30 in the morning (or earlier, if you took a sunrise tour), and we did not want to waste a day waiting for a guide to get back to us.  We sent out several emails to tour guides, checked several websites, but getting a tour for the next morning was looking bleak.  Then Liz thought to message a friend of hers who had recently been to Angkor.  Elise responded immediately with a glowing review and contact information for someone she said was the best guide she’d ever had.  We sent an email, and of course heard nothing, so the next morning at 6:30am, we tried calling Leap, the guide Elise recommended.  He answered, and in perfect English apologized and said he was currently 2.5 hours away, and it just wouldn’t be feasible for him to guide us that day.  He did, however, contact a colleague of his, and we gladly accepted these tour services.  

It was around this point during our stay in Cambodia that I begin to get the constant feeling that I was being ripped off--but also that I should maybe be okay with that.  I felt our tour guide was charging us too much (although he was indeed a quality guide, and his prices aligned with others offered in the area).  Compared to the price of our hotel and the price of food at the street markets, though, the fee seemed outrageous.  Furthermore, food was not included in the price of the tour, and of course the guide took us to a tourist trap restaurant (which admittedly had very good food) where he ate for free and we paid about 4 times as much as we would at a night market (and about double what we’d pay at a restaurant in town).  The second day, the guide suggested we visit 2 more remote temples and see more of rural Cambodia on the way...and then he mentioned that we’d need to pay even more to cover transportation.  In one of the cheapest countries in Asia, I did not expect to be paying $70-100 per day on tourism.  

And yet...feeling this way also made me feel a bit guilty.  Our guide was a local, building himself up from nothing, working freelance, which means he didn’t have a steady income...and really, had we been in the US, the tour would have cost as much or more.  Same for the food.  Were we in the US (or Japan, for that matter) the restaurants we stopped at would have been considered quite reasonable.  So...was I just being stingy?  Should I have been feeling more generous and giving with my money in such an impoverished country?  Or was I right to feel ousted, wishing that my money could have been going elsewhere and to better causes in Cambodia?  I’m still unsure.  I know far too little about Cambodia to make an educated call on it; what is, is.  It’s done, I paid, and in the long run, I could afford it.  

Siem Reap is a town built by tourism, for tourists.  In a way, this is a good thing.  There are myriad restaurants and a huge night market.  Prices are cheap and you can find a lot of fair trade handicrafts in the evening (regret of the trip: not buying that beautiful painting of an elephant.  I could have transported it somehow…).  The US dollar is accepted pretty much everywhere, and actually preferred to the Cambodian Real.  The city was filled with tourists, and absolutely everyone we encountered spoke enough English to be able to help the tourists.  
But in some ways, the tourist-centric town felt fake, forced, like we weren’t truly being exposed to the real Cambodia (and we weren’t; we saw the real Cambodia on day 2, when we drove for 3+ hours going from temple to temple).  
I left with mixed feelings about the whole ordeal.  

Without a doubt, though, the trip was worth it.  The temples of Angkor are every bit as impressive, intricate, and amazing as the pictures on the internet had made them out to be.  Our guide was very knowledgeable, and told us tons about the mythology behind the carvings of Angkor Wat and as much history as we could handle regarding the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian genocide.  

The first day, we hit up the main temples in the Angkor complex-- Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm.  Angkor Wat, of course, is the trademark view everyone knows.  But what I didn’t know was that the walls are covered with crazy intricate carvings depicting both mythology and history.  Our guide spent a long time telling us each story (and I promptly forgot most of them due to information overload).  

Entrance to Angkor Wat

"Churning of the Sea of Milk" 

Angkor Thom is a huge complex, the most well-known temple inside being Bayon.  The temple looks like a jumble of rocks from afar, but up close, you can see that every surface there, too, is covered with sculpture.  There are also 216 giant faces on the temple towers.  

Gate to Angkor Thom complex


aspara (dancing lady) carving at Bayon

Ta Prohm is most well known because Tomb Raider was filmed there.  I loved this temple because it’s been half taken over by the jungle.  Trees grow out of the rock and threaten to pull down walls.  

Ta Prohm entrance 

Ta Prohm

Our second day, we made three stops:  The Floating Villages of Chong Kneas, the remote temple of Beng Mealea, and to see the intricate carvings of Banteay Srei (the Lady Temple).  

The floating villages are supremely interesting, and a whole post (or more) could be written about the culture and why and how they exist.  I’m going to skip over all of that, though, and just write about our experience.  Basically, what you need to know is that it’s a village on the water.  House boats, but also floating markets, churches, schools, etc.  When water levels change, people move their houses.  It’s an extremely impoverished community, yet I was struck by the small touches to bring beauty.  A bougainvillea growing in a pot outside someone’s door.  The bright colors used to paint the houses.  These little touches hinted to me that the people here must still have some hope, must still find pockets of joy in life.  

It's that time of year!  Moving the house from one spot to another.

The next stop was a place called Beng Mealea.  It’s pretty remote (about an hour and a half driving to get there), and when the Khmer Rouge was in charge, they set dynamite to it--trying to cut people off from their heritage, their religion.  So there’s a large jumble of rocks and debris.  Only recently were wooden walkways added; in years past, tourists had to scramble over the rubble.   Aside from the pathways, the temple hasn’t been restored at all; the jungle has been allowed to take over.  

Beng Mealea

The final point of interest for the day was a small temple called  Banteay Srei (another hour’s drive away).  This temple, in contrast, has been beautifully restored and maintained.  Almost every surface of Banteay Srei is covered in intricate, beautiful carving.  Our guide told us that the sandstone at this temple is pink sandstone, of a much higher quality than that used to construct Angkor Wat, and for that reason has stood the test of time.  At Banteay Srei, unlike Angkor Wat, visitors are not allowed to get close to or touch certain areas of the temple (and for good reason, I’d say!).  There’s a pathway inside the outer walls, but the innermost structures are only able to be looked at, my touched or walked through.  This temple is nicknamed “The Lady Temple” because legend says the art is so detailed and delicate here that it could only have been crafted by the hand of a woman.  

One of the doorways in Banteay Srei

Just look at that detail.  After 800 years!! 

So that was our trip to Cambodia in a nutshell.  Lots of exposure to a new culture, lots of learning and seeing history.  Definitely one of the highlights of the entire trip to Asia.  

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Hualien, Taiwan...with the help of a local

When we found out G-Money wouldn't be able to come with us to Taroko Gorge in Taiwan, I decided to follow up on a contact.  My friend Christy remembered a couch surfing host who takes people into the national park, and so I asked for his name and sent him a message to see if he would want to meet up with us.  He said yes, so at 9:30am, we stood waiting at the park entrance for a stranger to walk up and greet us with a huge smile.  Dylan had arrived.

We got into Dylan's blissfully cool, air conditioned car, and he took us to our first stop: the Shakadang Trail.  For about an hour, we walked at a brisk pace along a smooth, flat path with a rock outcrop cut out above our heads from the rock.  It was our first excursion into the gorge, and it was magnificent.  The trail ended at the river, and while Dylan let us go ahead and explore, he was busy buying us a small gift. When we returned to the path, he presented each of us with a hand-woven aboriginal bracelet.  As he tied it onto our wrists, he told us to make a wish.  Then he said not to take he bracelet off. But, he said, if nature made it fall off after time, our wishes would come true.  Not sure I buy into all that, but it makes a nice souvenir and was such a sweet gesture!

Dylan took us to one more hiking spot (another place with sweeping views of he gorge and the river, and a trip across a suspension bridge), and when we got back to he car, it was around noon, and I was getting hungry. Dylan suggested that since it was so hot out, a Japanese lunch might be nice.  He took us to a place in Hualien where the sushi dishes travel around on a conveyor belt, and you just pck off the ones you want to eat.  Delicious!  (And really affordable).  Liz and I tried to pay for our host’s lunch, but he refused to let us.

Next up, we went to Liyu Lake, which I had never even heard of.  I was so glad to have a local guide to show us cool things in the area.  We walked around the lake, taking in the beautiful view and clear water.  People used peddle boats and canoes on the lake, and others biked the path around it.  But the real draw at the lake was this giant inflatable duck (I'm talking 30-40ft high, here) surrounded by a flock of smaller ducks.  I've no idea the story behind the ducks, and Dylan didn't either, but they made for pretty entertaining photos.

From the lake, Dylan brought us to the coast, and we sat at the edge of the pebbled beach sipping iced tea (a mix of oolong and green tea) and listening to the waves rake along the small stones.  The water was clear, clean, and blue, and the setting was very peaceful.  We stayed there a little over 30 minutes, just relaxing, before we took off for the night market and aboriginal dance performance.

The night market in Hualien is new, in a space especially built for the purpose.  There are wide walkways between the stalls and spaces filled with picnic tables for people to sit and enjoy their food.  We walked around looking at our options, then went with Dylan's suggestions for food.  We ended up with these...things.  The filling was a bit like a spring roll (and that's what Dylan called them), but they were the size of burritos, and the wrap was thicker than a normal spring roll (but softer than a tortilla--made of rice, I think).  Anyway, they were absolutely delicious.  I could soon become addicted!

At 7pm, we went across the street to watch an aboriginal dance show.  The dancers explained each dance (or maybe the story of the dance represented), and then began.  The entire explanation was in Chinese, though, and Dylan didn't try to keep up with translating.  Even with no background info however, we could easily enjoy the music and  dancing.

Dylan graciously took us home after the show (a taxi would have been very expensive, so the ride was really kind of him), and we pretty much fell into bed after showering.  It was a great day, and I am so glad we contacted Dylan!

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Next up: A Trip to Asia

Two weeks ago, I moved home from Guatemala.  The actual leaving was tough; there was a lot of fear involved.  (And maybe that doesn’t make sense…fear?  When you’re moving home?  But yes, fear.  I could write a whole post about it, and maybe someday I will). 

Thankfully though, when I arrived back in Wisconsin, my sister and I immediately threw ourselves into the work of planning a month long trip in Asia.  We’d booked our flights a couple months ago, but not much else.  Where would we stay?  How would we get from place to place?  What did we want to see and do in each city/country? 

The planning, coupled with the typical summer gatherings with old friends, kept me busy and excited for the past two weeks—and being home hasn’t been a struggle so far at all!  The opposite, quite honestly. 

And now, suddenly, it’s the night before we leave. 

I look at the way I plan an overseas trip now versus the way I planned one three years ago.  My travel styles have changed, as has my budget. 

Three years ago, my sister Liz and I went on a backpacking trip through Europe.  Everything was budgeted.  We got a great deal on airfare, then purchased a Rail Pass and used it exclusively for our transportation.  We stayed in dorms in the cheaper hostels, and couch surfed or stayed with friends when we could.  We were on a strict budget per day, and we didn’t go over it. 

This year, we are going to Asia.  We’ve already spent double on transportation.  (Partly because the initial flight was so much longer and more expensive…and partly because we’re flying between each major destination.  When it comes to the decision between $30 for an 18 hour bus ride or $150 for a 5 hour plane ride, we choose flight.  We have the money—why not be comfortable?)    When it comes to booking lodging, we don’t even consider the hostel if a private room is not available.  (We do still lean towards hostels versus hotels, though).  We’ve become high-class travelers.  …Sort of. 

The way I packed was different this trip, too.  When we went to Europe, I looked through my closet and picked out a few pieces I already owned that I thought would help me “fit in with locals.”  I brought skirts, a couple of dresses, a pair of flats, and “city tennis shoes.”  And what I realized in Europe was that there’s nothing wrong with looking like a backpacker, and tons of people just dressed comfortably.  After all, I wasn’t a local, and I found no particular advantage to looking like one.  So for Asia, I kept in mind what will keep me comfortable in extreme heat, and I went out and bought pretty much an entire new wardrobe for the trip.  Loose fitting, patterned shirts, the first true jean shorts I’ve owned in probably close to 10 years, and dry-fit workout tops that could pass as casual tops in normal company.  I'm also bringing real shoes, and Keens... this trip will hopefully involve a lot more hiking and a lot fewer cathedrals (more temples, though, I'm sure) than our European trip included.  Not having left yet, I can’t say whether I did an ace packing job or not…but I’ll weigh in after we return. 

For now…my backpack is packed, I’ve got podcasts and books downloaded for the plane ride, my headphones are ready, and it’s time for bed before tomorrow’s long flights. 

Friday, June 17, 2016

Coban 21K 2016

Since moving to Guatemala and expressing my interest in running half marathons, all I’ve heard is that the race to run is the Coban 21K.  The past two years, the dates haven’t worked out; I’ve been in Tennessee for DI Global Finals the day of the race.  This year though, finally, I was able to run the race the day before leaving for Globals. 

It, of course, turned into something of an adventure. 

On Friday, Karina and I got coverage for our classes in order to leave school early (1:30pm) and avoid the Friday afternoon traffic as much as possible.  The strategy was pretty successful, but we encountered some road construction and slow trucks we were unable to pass, so the drive still took a while, and we were set to arrive after dark.  We probably never would have found our hostel if Annette and Joel hadn’t been braving the way ahead of us.  Our directions had us driving another 2 miles after the place we were actually supposed to turn. 

Thankfully, Annette texted us some very helpful directions.  We turned just after the sign for a small village, up an unmarked road that soon turned from paved to dirt.  We followed this in the darkness, and when we came to a fork in the road, we trusted our gut and took the path to the right, thinking it looked like there were more lights up ahead in that direction.  We didn’t see anything resembling a hotel until—there—twinkle lights, up in the distance.  That had to signal hospitality, and sure enough, it was the place we were staying in.  We arrived just after 7pm, and were in bed early (after the host at the hotel whipped up some yogurt and fruit and eggs and beans for us for dinner—the only things she had on hand (but we were outside of the city and didn’t want to leave to find dinner elsewhere)). 

Our hotel.  No signs, but a really beautiful place! 

The next day, we attended the expo to pick up our race packets.  The walk to get them included walking past a certain building where approximately 30 men were working on the roof.  Now, getting whistles or mild cat calls in Guatemala is common, as it is in most Latin American countries.  But I have never experienced the like of what happened when we passed those men.  The chorus of whistles continued ceaselessly as we walked by; who knew 5 white girls could cause so much commotion?! 

After the expo, we went on an adventure to find a place called Grutas del Rey Marcos, a series of caves that also had a swimming area (the weather was stifling) in a natural stream and a restaurant.  The road was a bit rocky to get there, and included one random stretch of beautiful pavement that ended after we passed through the village, which we thought was odd.  The drive was worth it though, as the place ended up being quite beautiful.  We didn’t go into the caves, but took a walk up the hill where the water cascaded down through the forest.  Karina and Annette took a dip (by this time, the rain clouds were rolling in and the rest of us didn’t feel hot enough to get into the frigid water anymore), and we headed back to the city.

For dinner, we planned to go to Annette’s favorite restaurant in Coban.  I had heard rave reviews of this place for the past year.  The food, my friends said, was amazing, and the dessert was even better.  Since we had a feeling the restaurant would fill fast, we went early, arriving at the eatery at about 5:30pm.  However, waiters in the restaurant told us that the restaurant was closed for at least 2 hours, that they had apparently run out of food and supplies (seriously?  That happens to restaurants right before dinner hour?).  So, disgruntled (we saw people inside eating through the windows…), we wandered to the center square.  None of us knew of any other good restaurants within walking distance in the city, and so we ended up trudging into a hotel with a restaurant.  We saw a lamb roasting, which looked promising, and entered the dining room to take a table.  The waiter came over and graciously explained they only offered the buffet that night.  We asked what would be on the buffet.  Pasta.  We weren’t very excited about it, but as Kerrah chimed repeatedly, “Eat pasta, run fasta’!”  The lamb, the waiter told us, wouldn’t be ready for another hour and a half.  Oh well.  We went up to the pasta bar, grabbed our plates, and discovered…they were out of pasta.  Ha!  We filled up on salad and mashed potatoes while we waited for the next batch of spaghetti to come out.   And, as it turned out, we sat enjoying a leisurely dinner long enough that the lamb was ready before we left, and our timing led us to believe our first restaurant might be open for business.  We decided to stop in for dessert.  We ended up taking it to go because they were “full,” (again, we could spot empty tables…). 

Anyway.  We enjoyed our desserts in the peace and tranquility of Annette and Joel’s hotel.  Then we left to get back to our hotel for an early bedtime; we needed to be fresh for race day!

At 5:30am on Sunday morning, Karina was up and moving around the room.  Our plan was to leave at 6:00am to ensure we’d find a parking spot before the race started at 7:30. 

“Um…so the door is locked.  But not actually locked.  Like it’s broken.  Anyway, we can’t get out,” Karina told us. 
Every day needs its little emergency. 

With the help of a text from Annette, we obtained the phone number of the woman owning our hotel, called her, and she sent someone up to free us from our room.  Meanwhile, Karina examined the balcony of our 3rd floor room and told us we’d have to jump down, swing on to the 2nd floor balcony, and then jump to the ground.  The prospects of landing without broken limbs did not seem promising.  We focused on the banging and tinkering now coming from the opposite side of the door instead. 

The view, leaning over our balcony, to the
2nd floor balcony and the ground below
After about fifteen minutes, the door handle was dismantled, the door taken apart, and we were free.  We made it to the race in plenty of time. 

The race itself was a great experience.  There were so many runners and spectators and such positive energy surrounding all of us.  The route was essentially just out and back, so at about Mile 3, the first place runner passed me going the other direction.  There was a bit of commotion and cheering from the runners around me and the people watching on the street.  But when, minutes later, the first Guatemalan runner sprinted by in 5th place, the cheer that went up from everyone around me was nearly deafening.  The national pride actually brought tears to my eyes. 

I finished the race in a respectable time, considering I hadn’t trained properly, knew it, and still broke the cardinal rule of distance running by starting too fast.  I was content with the result, and the experience. 

After the race, we had a quick lunch, then took off to make it back to the city, where I unpacked, repacked, went out to dinner, and then fell into bed, ready to get up at 3:30am the next day to leave for the DI trip to Tennessee (see previous post about all that).  

Sunday, May 29, 2016

DI Globals 2016: A Tale of Two Teams

For the past 3 years, I have acted as a team manager for Destination Imagination at my school in Guatemala, and each year, my team has earned a trip to Global Finals in Knoxville, Tennessee.  This school year, I was blessed to manage the exact same team I had last year—the Aguaguates, the most wonderful group of kids any DI team manager could wish for.  This group, all 7th graders this year, has everything needed to not only excel at DI, but also make a team manager’s job almost unnecessary.  They have amazing team chemistry, and they understand the importance of teamwork.  They’re crazy creative and hilarious and amazing actors when they get on stage.  They push themselves to improve their performances.  They know what they need to get done for DI, and they create their own practice schedules.  In short, they are a DI dream team, not to mention really, really great people

This year though, I took one look at the school calendar and decided that if the team qualified for Global Finals, I would not be going with them.  The competition lined up exactly with the last week of school.  It being my last year in Guatemala, coupled with the fact that I’d “been there, done that” at Globals two years in a row, and I decided that I would send another chaperone with the kids if at all possible.  I even went so far as to talk with my principal about the possibility and brainstorm chaperones that would be satisfactory to the kids, administration, and parents alike. 

But when the day of the national competition came, and our team won, qualifying for Globals, I knew right then that there was no way anyone but me was taking this team to Global Finals.  I could say good-bye to my other 110 students a week early; the last week of May, my team and I would be in Tennessee.  Their energy and excitement was just too contagious; I wanted to be a part of the experience one last time.

We aimed to make the most of the trip.  Being Globals veterans, we knew how to maximize our schedule, and we squeezed in a lot. Even on the days when our schedule was packed, and I had to hurry the kids through lunch, tell them no pin trading, urge them to walk faster to get to the presentation on time, I still got no complaints, no whining, hardly even a rolled eye.  There are not many groups of 7th graders who have the grace, maturity, and understanding to make a week like Globals enjoyable for everyone.  Because of their cooperation, we balanced our time between pin trading, a trip to the Dollywood theme park, shopping, visiting the Expo on campus, and watching other challenges—especially other Guatemalan teams, and our buddy teams.  

Dollywood--ending the day with a water ride

The bus--where my team sang songs loud and proud each day

Last year, my team was matched up with a buddy team from Duluth, Minnesota called Mission Improvable.  The purpose of buddy teams is to make a connection between a US team and an international team.  Last year, the two teams met each other and clicked right away.  They had lunch together, and even practiced some improv (It’s safe to say Mission Improvable is the reason my team chose the improv challenge this year) and ended up being interviewed and getting on the news.  Since then, the kids have kept in touch via snapchat and Instagram, and I’ve kept up with a couple of the team moms on facebook.   

Both teams, the Aguaguates and Mission Improvable, qualified for Globals again this year, so we made arrangements to meet up and watch each other’s challenges.  We realized belatedly that the buddy team—our friends—were the competition this year.  But there were 88 teams in the Middle Level Improv category.  The kids lightheartedly told each other, “we’ll come in 1st and 2nd place.  Or better yet, let’s tie for first!”  But none of us really believed we’d place quite that high. 

The Aguaguates and Mission Improvable

The kids ended up being able to spend a lot of time with their Minnesota buddy team during the week.  They watched each other’s performances (and I think both felt a little intimidated afterwards, because both teams did extremely well, and they were competing against each other, after all).  For the most part, they ignored the competition and just enjoyed each other’s company, though.  Friday afternoon, after we watched Mission Improvable compete, we found ourselves stuck inside the student union during a brief rainstorm.  After the rain stopped, the kids stayed.  For nearly 6 hours, they sat around a table, playing games, laughing loudly, snapchatting with each other.  To me, it was beautiful that amongst all the stimulation of the Global Finals event, all these kids really needed to entertain themselves was—each other. 

Piggy back races

Just chillin'

The night of Closing Ceremonies finally came to close out the week.  The kids felt good about their performance, and my team was pretty confident they would place in the top 10.  I was preparing myself to comfort disappointed kids and hoping their hearts weren’t already too set on the trophy.  88 teams…we hadn’t seen all of the others perform, but I felt I’d watched 1 or 2 that did about as well as we did, and that had to mean there were others who’d been better than us, right?

Still, as we sat in the stands of the arena on Saturday night, I found myself planning out the route we’d take if we had to run down to the stage to accept an award.  So perhaps I had a bit of a premonition that my kids had done really well, after all. 

Closing Ceremony

They finally came to our category.  Places 4 through 10 were shown on the board.  No Guatemalan team.  I sighed inwardly; if we didn’t come in in one of those positions, we probably hadn’t placed.  I looked down at my kids.  They still seemed excited.  Santiago couldn’t contain himself and was already standing up.  Well, maybe they had a right to be so pumped.  But I didn’t have a lot of hope.
Third place—not us.

Second place—not us.

Then the woman announced there was a tie for first.
The first team in first place, they announced, was a middle school in Duluth, Minnesota.  Our buddy team!! 
The second team in first place… from Guatemala City, Guatemala… US!!!! 

I couldn’t believe it.  I’m still in shock.  What are the odds that not only would we come in first, but we’d have the opportunity to share the honor with friends.  That neither of us had to lose, or come in second place.  The teams had a celebration like you’ve never seen when they met on the arena floor to accept their medals.  There were tears, and hugs, and a lot of cheering. 

Nearly 24 hours later, I still can’t quite believe it. 

What are the odds?  Not only that the kids would win, but that they would tie with none other than their buddy team friends.  It seems nearly impossible.  

To put it simply, I am very, very glad I went on the trip to Global Finals this year.  My team gave me the very best going-away present before I left Guatemala that I could ever have asked for or dreamed of.