Sunday, December 18, 2011

Back Home

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I stepped off the plane into icy Wisconsin weather for the first time.  “You are going to be so cold, it’s going to feel so strange to you!”  But my first breath of winter air was not that shocking.  In fact, as I took my first gulp in the parking lot of the Minneapolis airport, all I thought was, “Tastes like home.”  Rather than experiencing reverse culture shock, I simply feel like I’ve stepped out of the time-warp fantasy world of Puerto Rico and back into real life. 

Everything here seems real now.  It is all (more or less) exactly as I have left it.  The smell of a wood fire woke me this morning, and the sun glinting off a light snowfall out my bedroom windows looked just as it should.  My bedroom at my parents’ house is the same—a time capsule of my life from 8th grade through my college graduation. 

And now, suddenly, it has become shockingly real and clear; Christmas is in one week.  When on earth did THAT happen?  Time to shop, bake, and decorate up a storm!  So much to do to get ready! 


Wednesday, December 14, 2011


Sometimes as I think back on the year so far, it still strikes me as just weird that I am actually a teacher.  In the day-to-day, it’s just life.  I plan lessons, grade papers, look back and let students know what they can do to raise their grades, and sometimes hand out detention slips.  But looking at the big picture, I’m shaken sometimes.  I’m a real, live teacher.  It’s not just me that’s affected by that.  Even after this year, I will always be my students’ 8th grade (or 7th grade) English teacher. 

I think we all have those teachers who we remember—not as being our favorite teachers in the world, but simply as being good teachers.  People we learned from, who led classes we didn’t dread going to, who taught at least one or two lessons that stuck in our heads over the years.  For me, there are several.  6th grade Social Studies, 7th grade English, my 5th grade teacher (who coincidentally ran into me when I was in my early 20s and working at an appliance/electronics store and recognized me before I recognized her), 8th grade Social Studies, 7th grade Science (though now that I think about it, due to the number of lessons, projects, and units I remember vividly from 7th grade Science, maybe Mrs. Braatz really deserves to be in the rockstar all-time great teacher category…), and others.  These teachers taught me something, to be sure.  They weren’t the most popular teachers in the grade level, and I never became “close” with them.  But I remember the lessons they taught me. 
And more importantly, I remember them as a part of my life.

This is the type of teacher I strive to be.   

I hope that ten or twenty years down the road, my students stop, think back, and say, “Let’s see… 7th grade… I had Ms. Rosendale for English.  Yeah, that was an okay class.  I remember a project we did…” 

If they remember me, I will count my first year of teaching a success.  

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

December Update

I’ve been failing in the blogging world these past few weeks.  Why?  I can’t really say.  It’s not that I haven’t been doing interesting things (or having interesting things happen to me).  It’s not that I’ve been too stressed or busy to write.  I just…haven’t felt like it.  So, I apologize.  And here’s a re-cap of my last 2 weeks.

My parents and sister came to visit over Thanksgiving!  We did and saw a LOT together (enough for 4-5 blog posts!  Why didn’t I write about that?).  We hit up the beach, stayed in an awesome mountainside B&B, kayaked in the bioluminescent bay in Fajardo, hiked in the rainforest of El Yunque (and got rained on, of course), and spent some time sightseeing in Old San Juan. 

Sisters, together again!  

No beach day with my sister would be complete
without a sand castle... and her posing next to it.

Ready for rain in El Yunque!

La Mina Falls.  We opted not to swim
that day...

After my full 9 days off of school, I headed back to my students and routine for 2 weeks.  It was good to see them again and get back into the swing of life.  They were two pretty uneventful weeks of classes.  A few quizzes, a few new concepts, students mostly paying attention, etc. 

The first weekend after Thanksgiving, I spent a very quiet and relaxing weekend staying in town, having a sleepover with Rachel and Kelsey.  We played games, watched Christmas movies, listened to Christmas music, and ate delicious food.  And, of course…didn’t change out of pajamas until mid-afternoon on Sunday. 

This past weekend, we had planned a trip to Culebra (a small island off the east coast of Puerto Rico known for its beautiful beaches) on Saturday, but we woke up to rain.  So instead, we spent the morning and afternoon at Pozuelo (by then the rain had stopped and the sun even poked its head out over Guayama in patches), and then played Hoopla and simply enjoyed our own company all evening. 

Last Sunday, Rachel, Kelsey, and I went Christmas shopping in Old San Juan.  While we may not have made as many Christmas purchases as we hoped to, it was an enjoyable day in the city filled with good food and Christmas spirit.  (All of Old San Juan is decorated in lights, and we made sure we stayed until after dark to see their full glory).    
In another side-note: I had sushi for the 2nd time ever in Old San Juan this past weekend, and I still love it!  NEVER would have thought I would enjoy raw fish as much as I do.  Yummy AND healthy!

I love Old San Juan...even the streets that AREN'T
decorated for the holidays are pretty.

This week at school, the students come for half days.  They have 2 midterm tests each morning, and the teachers stay until 3pm to give us a chance to get all of our grading in before the semester ends on Friday.  I must say, I quite like this schedule!  Tomorrow is the last day with students, then on Thursday teachers have a workday, and on Friday is the staff Christmas party.  Can’t wait!

In 4 days, I’ll be back in Wisconsin weather!  Cheers!

Pretty standard photo for us.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Horseback Riding in Rincon 11-21-11

I have a bucket list.  It’s pretty long, and the first half of it (at least) is specific places I want to go before I die.  Next on the list come the adventure tasks I want to complete.  Things such as skydiving, caving, and riding a camel are included.  At the end of the list are “life goals”—things like coaching a team, making the perfect white sauce for pasta, and finishing writing a novel. 

One of those “adventure tasks” on my list is riding a horse.  For a person whose parents  both grew up on farms and riding horses, riding a horse seemed like something I should have done by now. 

The last day of my mini-vacation in Rincon with Rachel and Kelsey, I got to check it off of the bucket list.  The three of us booked a 2 hour trail ride along the beaches of Rincon with the company Pintos R Us. 

It was just the three of us on the ride, along with 2 guides—which was great.  I was given the most gentle horse of the bunch and a very quick lesson on how to steer (thankfully, Primrose knew to just follow the horse in front of her, because I wasn’t very good at steering), and we were off. 

I thoroughly enjoyed my first experience on horseback.  Our path took us along the road, down onto the beach, up through the forest, on another beach, for a quick run through the grass, the back on the road again to end where we had started. 

We saw a lot of beautiful scenery—including one path along the coast we never would have seen or discovered without the tour.  The guides were great.  The horses were great (though I don’t think Primrose liked me very much, personally).   It was a beautiful way to start the morning! 

Ride a horse: check.

The beach path we rode along and never would have
seen or known about otherwise

Give Thanks

Every year at Thanksgiving, I realize just how much I have to be thankful for.  Sometimes, it seems my blessings just keep growing each and every year.  This year is no different.  I feel like I (knock on wood) almost lead a charmed life, in which nothing truly bad has happened in a long time.

My parents and sister came to visit over Thanksgiving break, and some of the other teachers had visitors too, meaning we had 11 people at my house sharing in a Thanksgiving feast!  4 or 5 other friends stopped by later, making it a wonderful night of friendship. 

Not to boast, but for being overseas, our Thanksgiving meal was legit.  Rachel cooked a 20lb turkey to perfection and brought mashed potatoes and gravy.  My mom made her stuffing, which alone made it feel like we were back at home.  Danielle brought green bean casserole.  Kelsey and Rachel made homemade rolls.  Jenni and her friend Liz made an amazing gumbo.  Kelsey brought cranberry sauce.  My sister and I put together fruit salad, 2 pies, and a carrot cake for Danielle’s birthday.  The family Kelsey tutors for sent over leftover ham, macaroni salad, and rice from their own Thanksgiving feast.  And one of my students gave me an entire tembleque (Puerto Rican coconut pudding) to finish out the meal.  YUMMMM.

Things I am Thankful For (a partial list):
-Good friends here and at home
-The opportunity to live and teach in Puerto Rico
-My job
-My students
-Good health
-The ability and means to travel
-A car that runs, clothes to wear, enough food to eat, and a roof over my head

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Finding Waterfalls 11/20/11

“Here, take these directions.  They were just fixed not even a week ago, so they’re right.”

Well if that’s the case, that’s perfect then.  We’ll follow that map to get to the waterfalls listed under “Off the Beaten Path” in the Rincon section of my guidebook.  Recently updated directions…what more could we ask for?!

We were optimistic as we set off to find the waterfalls.  The directions started easily; we took Hwy 115 to 111, and made the turn.  We found the intersection with Hwy 446 (gas station on the left, police station on the right), and turned.  But then the directions got hazy.  Pass the Avon factory (check).  Drive 8 miles.  Turn after the first bridge.  Sounds simple enough.   Except then this happened…

Rachel: “Oh, there’s the first bridge…so we turn here.”
Me: “That can’t be it.  We haven’t gone nearly 8 miles yet.  We’ve barely gone ONE mile.”
So we continued.  The path wound around the mountains, up and down on steep and narrow roads.  About 4 miles along, we came to a sign: “Road closed ahead.  Local traffic only.” 
“Well friends, we’re about to become local traffic,” I said, planning to drive between a few traffic cones and maneuver my way down a gravel road for a while before meeting up with pavement again.  Except when the road ended, we were met with this:

My car can’t handle that.  Don’t know about yours.

The view from where our road ended

So we backtracked.  We’d seen a sign for a detour on 446.  We turned and took it.  After driving 5 more miles and not seeing anything that looked like a sign for us to meet back up with the broken road, or any signs pointing us in the direction of the detour, our road came to a dead end at an intersection with Hwy 110.  After a quick look at the map, Rachel confirmed we’d gone too far.  We backtracked again, and chose one of the many forks in the road to try. 

As we came around a steep corner, we were faced with a hill steeper than any we’d seen that day.  At the bottom was as short driveway.  I pulled into it and stopped.  “That’s not the road, right?  We’ll never make it up that!”  It was.  But then I started freaking out a bit about where I was parked in the driveway.  There was no room for me to make a Y-turn, no guardrail to give me a sense of security as I backed up to get back on the road, and no way I could continue down the hill rather than up.  Rachel, seeing my panic, hopped out of the car and directed me to back up onto the road, my car facing primed to begin the climb.  Then she hopped back into the car, and told me to drive.

Ruby (my car) inched up the hill.  I mean literally inched—less than 5 miles per hour.  “Come on, Ruby, come up!” I urged, petrified that either 1)my engine would fail and my car would simply roll backwards down the hill, or 2)a car would come from the opposite direction over the hill, and I would have place to go because the road was so narrow. 

Thankfully, though, we made it to the top of the hill…and another fork in the road.  “Left or right?”
“Ummm… I think we should turn around,” Rachel said.  “This doesn’t look right.”

I stared at her in disbelief.  “Going back down that hill is going to be even worse than going up!  I don’t want to!”  She put on her sympathetic face and told me, “Well, you’re going to have to.  I don’t know any other way back.”  I took a deep breath, turned around in the driveway, and we began our descent, my foot firmly on the brake and my hand on the horn as I made the corner.  It was the steepest road I personally have ever driven on; I’m convinced it would give many in San Francisco a run for their money.  But we made it safely.  

You can't even tell how steep it was...

As we reached the bottom of the hill, all three of us burst into uncontrollable laughter.  Between breaths, Rachel gulped out her amusement at the fact that the day before, I’d seen a picture of a skydiver and said, “Does Puerto Rico have skydiving? Can we GO?!?!” but a steep hill had had me at my wits end.  Yeah, well…
We continued back to 446 and decided, with a shrug, to go try that first bridge after all. 

We turned onto the bridge, followed more twisty, narrow, steep roads for about a mile, then pulled over behind a car who had stopped to ask an old man with a machete for directions.  We asked him too; how do we get to the waterfalls?  He pointed behind us to our left and said something about concrete.  
Do we go back and turn before the bridge?  On the first road we tried?  Back to where the road is concrete and not blacktop?  What does he mean?  We gave up and used yet another driveway to turn around.  But as we did, we noticed at that very curve in the road—a gate. 

Our directions told us that we needed to find a gate and follow a footpath down to the waterfalls.  A… concrete footpath, perhaps?  Could it really be that we were THERE?  We parked, and followed the footpath.  Soon enough, we heard the rush of a waterfall.  We found a murky pool and abandoned buildings—what look like remnants of a tourist attraction long closed.  We met locals on the path, and one man who directed us to the top of the falls rather than the bottom, because “it’s worth it.” 

It had been raining intermittently, and had soaked us all on the walk down.  Therefore, at the top of the falls, Rachel and I had no qualms about hopping into the shallow river, dresses and all, and hiking upstream a bit to take pictures on the rocks and enjoy a sense of exploration. 

Slippery mud made it impossible for us to get to the bottom of the falls, but Rachel climbed down partway to get pictures. 

That being done, we hiked back up to the car, drenched but happy, and headed back into town to find some lunch. 

Sometimes the journey is as much fun as the destination.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Crashboat Beach 11/19/11

For some weird reason, Crashboat Beach in Aguadilla gives off a strange vibe to me.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when Kelsey, Rachel, and I went there last Saturday.  The pictures online looked beautiful; some reviews online said it was crowded, a party beach, unclean, and overall not great; some reviews said it was wonderful.

We found the beach with absolutely no problem.  There are actually clear signs marking the turns from PR2, which we were travelling on!  Good signage…how refreshing.

But here’s the reason for my “weird vibe.”  (All of the following combined):   
-The beach is BEAUTIFUL—just what I think of when I think of “Puerto Rican beach.”  Lush green mountains border the beach, making you feel like you’re on the edge of a jungle.  Brightly colored fishing boats line the shore of the powdery sand, adding some “Puerto Rican flair” to the scene.  The water on Saturday was a clear, turquoise blue, and so clear we could see not only our feet, but the patterns the eddying waves made in the sand below us—even in chest-deep water. 
-The beach is disconcertingly close to civilization.  A five minute drive takes you back into Aguadilla.
-There were plenty of people on the beach, but rather than feeling crowded, it felt like there should have been MORE people there.  (This strange sensation was the weirdest of all for me). 

Maybe I got the “weird vibe” because it felt like such a perfect place shouldn’t exist where it does.  I’m not sure.  Whatever was going on, I got over it and embraced the beach.

In fact, the three of us loved it so much, that on Monday, we returned, rather than spending our last day of vacation at one of the beaches in Rincon, where we were staying.  It was a decision all of us were glad of as Crashboat Beach gave us another perfect day on Monday.


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Poetry in Motion

I can’t believe this is real life.  This is poetry in motion.

At one point as I sat on the beach on the west coast of Puerto Rico this weekend, I couldn’t help but be taken by the beauty of the sun hitting the water, the waves crashing onto shore, the fishing boat in the distance.  Poetry in motion.  

I returned to Guayama last night refreshed and rejuvenated after three amazing days with Rachel and Kelsey on our vacation in Rincon.  The vacation was just exactly what I needed.  The three of us laughed (a LOT), relaxed, saw the sights, went at our own pace, made decisions spontaneously, and put aside our worries and stressors for three days. 

Our Thanksgiving break trip started on Saturday morning, when we got up early and headed off towards the west side for a day at Crashboat Beach in Aguadilla (see Crashboat post for more on that).  Around 5pm, we packed up from the beach and began what should have been a half hour drive to Rincon and our hotel for the weekend.

Something we learned on Saturday:
Saturday, Nov. 19th was Puerto Rico Discovery Day.  On Puerto Rico’s Discovery Day, there is a horse parade in Aguada which includes over 1,000 horses.  We tried to drive through Aguada.

Needless to say, the drive was…interesting.  Roads were blocked off, forcing us to detour around (with no signs to tell us what roads we should be looking for on the detour.)  We stopped to ask police officers for directions approximately three times.  And then, as if that weren’t enough (that was just the beginning!) , there were the horses.  We probably saw at least 500 of the horses from the parade…being  ridden down the streets in groups of 2-10.  Cars and horses were not meant to share highways.  I don’t believe that horses, like pedestrians, should be given the right of way—but they certainly take it.  As darkness fell and we maneuvered between the traffic, it became harder to see the horses and riders—because of course almost no one was wearing reflective gear; that would be silly.

Our half hour drive took well over an hour, if not closer to two.  Eventually, though, we found our hotel, showered, ate at the poolside bar/restaurant, then collapsed exhausted into our beds around 10pm. 

Sunday was our day to sightsee.  We started on a quest for waterfalls (see “Finding Waterfalls” post).  Returning to Rincon around 2pm, we had a quick lunch of pinchos and empanadillas near Steps Beach, then began sightseeing (and our quest for a swimmable beach). 

Rincon is known for surfing—which means that most of the beaches there have good waves most of the time—which means that most of the beaches there are not good for swimming.

We tried Steps Beach first.  Not swimmable.  But we got some nice pictures on the steps!

Steps  Beach, Rincon

We tried the beach by the marina next, which is reputed to have good snorkeling.  Also too wavy.  

We headed for the lighthouse next, and spent some time in the park there, looking down at Domes Beach and the surfers there.  

El Faro (The Lighthouse)

Domes Beach

By this time, it was about 4:30.  Our original plan had been to watch the sunset from the lighthouse.  (Rincon, being on the west coast, is privy to stunning sunsets over the sea, which Guayama, being on the southeast coast, is not).  However, since sunset was still over an hour away, we decided to try once more for a swimming beach and wait there until sunset. 

We found Sandy Beach and stayed there.  Some rain clouds on the horizon blocked the sunset, but the sky still lit up with orange and gold and made for a beautiful sight.  I relaxed in my beach chair as Rachel and Kelsey played paddle ball in the dying light.

Sunset on Sandy Beach

Monday brought horseback riding on the beach in the morning (see Horseback Riding post), followed by a delicious meal.  Then we headed back to Crashboat Beach (minus the hoards of horses on the road this time), stayed there until sunset (once again blocked by billows of clouds!), and made the drive home.

None of us wanted the vacation to end as we neared Guayama—which is a sign of a most excellent vacation.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Embracing my inner Exploradora

I’m glad we didn’t go to Playa Sucia one of my first weekends here.  It’s the same principal used when you go to Six Flags; you don’t ride the biggest and best roller coaster first, or all the rest will seem pale in comparison.  If I had gone to the best beach one of my first weekends here, places like Luquillo and Isabela would have seemed inadequate.

There are many reasons that Playa Sucia is pretty awesome:
1.       Soft, white sand
2.       Water the color of turquoise
3.       Calm waves great for swimming
4.       THE CLIFFS

I haven’t done a lot (any) hiking since I’ve been here, and the exploradora in me was feeling a little left out I think…until today, that is.

Playa Sucia is a nearly round beach ringed by cliffs, with a lighthouse standing guard off to the right.  There are rocky paths up towards the lighthouse, and if one follows them, at the top of the hill, you see the magnificent, breathtaking cliffs.  There are no guard rails to keep people from walking right to the edge and peering down to the depths below.  Picturesque doesn’t begin to describe it.

Today the four of us started our day with a hike to see the cliffs and take pictures.  After nearly an hour, Danielle and Kelsey turned back, but Rachel and I kept going, intent on seeing all there was to see.  We were not disappointed!  Here are a few of the highlights of our adventure.  

On the top of the world!

Note Rachel being adventurous in the background.  :)

We found a cave!

Looking into the cave

Jumping over the cave

Ending the day with some paddle ball

We returned to the beach and spent the rest of the afternoon swimming, lounging in the sun (and later in the clouds—which made lounging even more relaxing), and playing paddle ball as the waves lapped our feet. 

It was a perfect beach day.  As we drove home under a full moon, I couldn’t help but feel high on life.  Days like today make every other day in my life worthwhile. 

Here's another reason I enjoyed Playa Sucia: it's an adventure to get there.  The last leg of the road to the beach is unpaved, full of potholes, and--when we were there--mud and deep puddles.   Thanks to Rachel's SUV, we made it through.  The video doesn't quite show the experience, but take a look:  

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Tourists for a Day

Saturday morning, Rachel, Danielle, and I got up and left Guayama before 9am (practically on schedule!!) and headed across the island to Camuy and the Rio Camuy Caves.

The day was overcast, but not rainy—a perfect day, we commented, to spend inside a cave.  The 2 hour drive was uneventful and pleasant.  We didn’t even get lost.

As we neared the caves, we passed more and more stands offering pinchos, hamburgers, barbeque, pina coladas and coco frio, or other Puerto Rican treats.  Our stomachs growled.  As we passed a large pincho stand with smoke spiraling to the sky from the grill, we all commented about how good it looked.  “Should I stop?” I asked.  “I dunno…guess you could…” came a noncommittal reply.  I pulled over into the gas station parking lot right beyond the stand.  This decision was a great one.  We discovered that they were selling not just any pinchos, but Super Pinchos.  They were, quite possibly, the best pinchos I have had so far in PR.  They were HUGE, all chicken and almost no fat, AND you get to choose between sweet or spicy sauce!  And the bread… Pinchos are generally served with French  bread.  Usually it’s squished and cool.  The bread that came with our Super Pinchos was toasted with garlic, fresh and delicious. 
Enough gushing about our chicken on a stick?  I guess so.

We arrived at the caves around 11:15am.  We’d heard that the caves often fill up and you can find yourself with a long wait for a tour.  So we were excited to find a nearly empty parking lot on Saturday!  We had to wait no more than 20 minutes for our tour to begin.

We boarded a trolley and were taken down a steep hill, through rain forest type vegetation, to the mouth of a cave.  There, we got out and walked into the entrance, playing our audio tours to hear all of the details about what we were seeing.  (The audio tour was nice because it meant the guide didn’t have to shout and also didn’t have to translate everything between Spanish and English, but it was also not as great as a live tour because the information was more general.) 

The trolley ride down to the cave mouth

Mouth of the cave--
tree growing upside down!!

The cave was definitely impressive.  The entrance opens up to a huge cavern—la Cueva Clara (so named because the light from outside reaches inside) with stunning stalactites and stalagmites abounding.  We snaked through the cavern, poked out heads into the sink hole and looked down at the Rio Camuy, drank from the “fountain of youth,” then came back inside and entered the “labyrinth.”  The tour was too short, in my opinion (I would have liked to explore deeper in the cave—there are close to 15 miles of cave system, if I remember right), but what we did see was impressive enough to make the trip worth it.

Entering la Cueva Clara

Opening into the sinkhole

Looking up into the sinkhole

After the cave, we headed to the Areceibo Observatory, which is close by.  We only got a LITTLE lost on the way (and Danielle and Rachel had to get out at one point, cross the street, and move a tree from in front of a sign pointing the correct direction to the observatory), but we found it.

The Areceibo Observatory houses the largest radio telescope in the world.  It’s also where the movie Contact (which I don’t think I’ve seen) was filmed. 

We parked in the lot, then climbed a huge hill up to the visitor center and telescope.  Inside the visitor center, there are many interactive displays with science information.  All were interesting, but involved too much reading for us to focus.  The really interesting part to me was the short presentation about the telescope and observatory, and the tour of the telescope itself.  I wish I could have a copy of their presentation, because the information blew me away. 

Here’s some of what I remember:
There are 3 reasons for the observatory being built where it is.  First of all, it was built by someone from the US and therefore needed to be in a US territory.  It also needed to be as close to the equator as possible, because this area is the best for viewing the part of the atmosphere/solar system that they wanted to study.  Therefore, Puerto Rico was the best choice.  And also, there just so happened to be a sink hole of the perfect size in Areceibo; so they didn’t have to dig a 305 meter hole to build the basin.  It was just there.

The panels are made of aluminum, so they never rust.  They are also perforated (and there’s a hole in the center of the basin) so that rain water does not collect.  There is a black mold that does grow on them.  Once, the center shut down for an entire month in order to clean the panels.  They tested their sensitivity before and after the cleaning—and it didn’t change.  So removing the mold is just for looks. 

The telescope is supported by 3 towers; 2 are 265ft tall, and one is 365ft tall.

The huge Gregorian dome (where the reflectors are) moves so they can angle the telescope and get just the information that they want.  We actually saw it move; it was so cool!!  The dome weighs about 1000 tons (or something close to that, I think). 

We headed for home a little after 4:00, happy with our day, visions of pizza dancing in our heads. 
What happened next?  Check out my post on Spare Tires.

Want more information on the observatory?  The teacher in me knows Wikipedia isn’t a scholarly source, but it does provide quick statistics.