Monday, August 29, 2011

Caja de Muertos

Well, after a whole TWO days of school last week (3 cancelled days due to Hurricane Irene uncertainty), we were all stressed to the max and in need of a relaxing day at the  beach.  ;) 

Luckily, we had reservations for the ferry to Caja de Muertos all booked in advance.

Caja is a small island and nature preserve just off the cost of Ponce, about an hour’s drive away.  The name of the island can be translated to “Coffin Island.”  The “official” reason for this name is that the island is said to look like someone laying down when seen from far away.  The legend behind the name is that a pirate married a woman and took her pirating with him, but she died on the first raid.  Heartbroken, the pirate but her in a glass coffin and buried her in a cave on a deserted island.  Each month, he is said to have come back to the island to visit her grave and leave half of his treasure in the cave.  However, the pirate was killed eventually, and later a Spanish engineer discovered the coffin and named the island. 

Either way…it’s a beautiful island. 

However, on Sunday, not QUITE so beautiful as usual…at least for the first half of the day.

View from the ferry...nice dark storm cloud right next to the island

Sure enough, as we reached the island on the ferry, the rain began.  We made it to a picnic shelter, which helped keep us and our belongings dry for a few minutes.  And then the wind (and lightning) picked up, and we made for a more solid structure.  We stood under the porch of the official office, where two rangers listened to a radio in Spanish and smiled at us empathetically, until the rain stopped twenty minutes later. 

I like thunder storms.  I really wasn’t fazed by the lightning flashes nearby, and I would have enjoyed the storm had the rain been warmer.  The other girls were not of the same mind.  Maybe I should have been more concerned.

Anyway, we survived.
After noon, the sun poked out from under the clouds, and we began to see the island in its true beauty.  The water is clear and still…it’s like swimming in a pool of salt water (which is refreshing, after you’ve been tossed around in the waves a few weekends in a row).  The rocky cliffs provide a striking backdrop.  I can’t wait to go back when the sun is shining and we can see the water in its true greenish-blue.  Also, I want to go back and try hiking to the lighthouse on the other end of the island.  I’m always up for an adventure.

Pelican beach--where we were--is that spot of sand at the right

PS...I can't believe I've been here more than a month already!  And at the same time, I can't believe it's only been a month.  Puerto Rico already feels like home in a lot of ways.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Hurricane Irene Update

As many of you may know, Hurricane Irene passed over Puerto Rico last night.  I just wanted to let everyone know that we are 100% fine here.

School was cancelled for today in case the town/school lost power/water, which turned out to be a non-issue; our power didn't go out for even a minute.  We did have moderate rain and some wind last night, which has continued on and off today, but on my run this morning I didn't see any signs of wind damage at all.

In fact, last night around 2am, as the radar showed a big swirling mass of red over all of Puerto Rico, including Guayama, the other American teachers and I were standing in the back yard, looking up at the sky and asking each other, "Is it even raining?  What's going on here?"

So.  We're all well and good.  No worries.  :)

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Have you ever climbed a palm tree? I have. (Luquillo beach)

It begins with a drive. 
Five girls and beach supplies packed tightly into Kia, fighting nausea and exhaustion as the car winds through the mountains and countryside of Puerto Rico. 
It ends with a beach.

Half the fun of our day at Luquillo beach, near Fajardo on the northeast coast of the island, was the spectacular view of the mountains and the sea that we drank in for two hours before arriving.  The road we took follows the coastline and winds up the cliffs to several small towns before joining with main highway and views of El Yunque (the rainforest) off in the distance.

Okay, maybe not half the fun.
Luquillo is gorgeous.  Hermosa is the word I would use in Spanish.  The beach stretches for ages with clear blue-green water on all sides.  The water was the perfect temperature to relax and cool off, and where we were, the waves didn’t break until the shoreline, making it perfect to bob and float. 

The coral at Luquillo comes almost right up to the beach, so we took out snorkel gear and went out to see the fishies.  We swam out pretty far, and coming back was a bit of a workout!  In a good way, of course.  Snorkeling is so peaceful.  Your face in the water, you feel like you’re in your own little world, watching the tiny fish below you. 
Rachel has an underwater camera, so we took pictures there too.  I tried once, unsuccessfully, to swim deeper…but I couldn’t make it.  Buoyancy…I tell you.

Photo by Rachel Hix

Photo by Rachel Hix

The afternoon was a perfect mix of time in the water, relaxing on the beach, snorkeling, and exploring.  I noticed that the palm trees had boards nailed to them for people to climb up and get the coconuts, so Rachel and I climbed one.  I didn’t go all the way up, but far enough to get a great view. 

Have YOU ever climbed a palm tree?  You should!

We finished our day in Fajardo, which is near Luquillo (and where the tours of the bio-luminescent bay departs from), eating at Popeye’s.  Pinchos y arroz con habichuela…a great way to end the day.  Also at Popeye’s, I made good friend with a parrot who tried to kiss my eye as he perched on my shoulder.  (Property of the restaurant…an employee comes around and puts the bird on you for photos). 

I lied.  We finished the beach portion of our day at Fajardo.  We finished our day driving back the way we’d come, oohing and aahing at the lights in the mountains, and singing along to our favorite club songs as Kelsey found them on youtube and played them on her phone. 
A good day.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Two Weeks Down

Week two of school finished up today.  The past few weeks have definitely had their ups and downs…but on a whole, I’m loving it.

Some Ups:
-My homeroom is an amazing group of 8th graders.  I’ve already got a great rapport with them, and when I have them for English, it’s my easiest and favorite class of the day.
-Our new class friend, Peter.  (Made for me out of paper by one of my 8th graders.  He now watches over every class and entertains the students). 
-Seeing my students outside of class and getting smiles and high-fives all the time.
-Getting into the routine and swing of things so that I don’t feel like I have endless work ahead of me each and every weeknight.
-Parents night for 7th grade this past week went well, and I think (I hope!) I made a good impression on all of the parents there.
-Spending time with friends on weekends (and sometimes weeknights)—enjoying our own happy hour, “Mexican miercoles,” grilling out, and a trip to the beach or two.

Some Downs:
-A few classes that left me wanting to pull my hair out after trying unsuccessfully to convince my 7th graders that when I’m talking it would be a good time to stop chatting with a friend and start paying attention.  (Hopefully this is on its way toward getting better as I have implemented a rewards system that they seem to be buying into). 
-The power at the school goes out just about every time it rains.  It’s only happened once when I’ve had students so far.  Twice when school has just ended…which makes it very hard to get work done in my room, since I have very little natural light that comes in.

No post should end on a low note…so I’ll end with this picture of the sunset over the mountains, as viewed from my front door.  

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

First Day of School

I survived!!  Day 1 of school is officially over.  Really, I think the day went pretty well.  As soon as my 8th grade homeroom came in in the morning, I relaxed and realized that these are just kids…just normal 8th graders like the ones I’ve been interacting with for the past 6 months.  And being up in front of the classroom just felt natural.  Phew! 

Want to see my classroom?  It’s still pretty bare.  But I’m going to have those 8th graders make some posters in the next few weeks that will fill my walls with a little more pizzazz when they’re done with them. 

My desk and the front corner of the room

The back corner of the room.
My desk would be to the right of this picture.

Standing  behind my desk

Standing in front of the textbooks.  Desk is to the left.

Today was tiring (I think that’s just a thing with the first day of school).  I did a LOT of talking, because we had a shortened schedule so I got more time with my homeroom and so that we could have an assembly to recognize the seniors (they came in air horns blaring, throwing confetti and mardi gras beads and whistles into the crowd), which meant all I had time for in class was to explain the materials they need to bring with them every day and explain our morning routines so they can jump right in tomorrow.  That made for a lot of talking for me!  Tomorrow we’re on our regular schedule, which means I get to breath between classes, and that I have 90 minutes with each class to get to know my students.  I think tomorrow should be a great day.  

Sunday, August 7, 2011

A Much Needed Weekend

Last week was, if not one of the most stressful weeks of my life, then certainly the most stressful week I can remember in a long time.  I spent much of the week at school completely overwhelmed by the tasks ahead of me—setting up my room, planning a syllabus for the year, deciding on classroom routines and procedures, planning lessons for the first days of school, becoming familiar with the school website and school policies…and the list goes on.  By Friday afternoon, I felt completely disheartened and worn out. 

Friday evening, a few of us when to a Thai/Indian/Sushi restaurant in Coamo (about 30 minutes from Guayama) called Bangkok & Bombay.  I had only had Thai food once or twice before, and Indian food never, so I was excited to try it.  The ambiance of the restaurant was great, and at 8pm a belly dancer began gliding amongst the tables performing and entertaining.  Attempting to read a Thai/Indian menu in Spanish was interesting, given my unfamiliarity with the foods, so I stuck to recommendations from Jenni and Rachel and had pad thai with chicken (and was not disappointed!). 

The evening was peaceful, and I enjoyed getting to know Heisha (one of the Puerto Rican elementary teachers) and her husband Sergio.  The one downfall, however, was the service…the waiter kept forgetting about us.  We requested more water 3 times, but never received it.  Our dinner took 3 ½ hours. 

By the time we got home, it was nearly 11:30pm, and all I wanted to do was crawl into bed.  So I did. 

I woke up Saturday morning rested, but not ready to face a day of school planning.  Yet I got myself out of bed and began work on syllabus planning.  And then, a wonderful thing happened—the day turned itself around.  Planning went well, and I got quite a bit done in the morning.  Around noon, Jenni got up, and we did some Insane Abs with Billy Blank (tai bo dvd) …a workout was just what I needed.  After a quick shower, I went and had my bad tire replaced on my car, and then 6 of us took the afternoon to go to the beach. 

We went once again to Playa Caribe, the beach we visited my first day in PR.  In contrast to my first, overcast day, Saturday was beautiful, making the beach exquisite.  And, as always seems to be the case—we had the sand to ourselves.  It was a refreshing, relaxing, glorious afternoon.

On our way home, we stopped for pinchos at a roadside restaurant where the cook drummed along to the music with metal tongs on the grill as he tended the meat and cooked up a bacalaito (cod fritter) fresh for us.  Delicious (cheap!) food in a great atmosphere…perfect end to the afternoon.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Getting Down to Business: 8/2/11

Today (Tuesday) signaled our first official day of work.  We were to start yesterday, but due to unfinished repairs in the school, only the foreign teachers came in, and only for 2 hours to fill out insurance paperwork and get our checking accounts opened. 

Today was yet another modified day, however, because Tropical Storm Emily has been hovering off the southeast coast of Puerto Rico.  The sun was shining and no rain threatened at 8am, so all of the teachers gathered, and we were told that at 1pm, the decision whether to stay or leave was our call to make.  We could work in our rooms, or we could go home, for those teachers who live farther away or in the mountains. 

The morning was filled with meetings.  First a meeting led by Mr. Delgado, the school’s director, to talk about the school’s policies.  Then the middle/high school teachers had a meeting with Ms. Cruz, our principal.  We had a break for lunch, followed by another middle/high school meeting.  A lot of information was thrown at us today, but I didn’t feel completely overwhelmed.  I like my principal; she’s very straightforward in her expectations—and those expectations seem reasonable. 

At 1pm, our meetings ended.  Danielle and I stayed to work for about half an hour (until the power temporarily went out in the school), then we headed to my house.  (Our roommates were together at Walmart, meaning Danielle had no keys to her own house.  Eddie was working on making copies today). 

After being at home for only a few minutes, Kelsey called Danielle; her battery was dead at Walmart.  Thankfully, my car came with (among many other treasures), jumper cables in the trunk.  We headed over, and the four of us got Kelsey’s car started.  I was so proud of us!  Though I’ve had to get my car jumped or use my car to jump someone else’s over the years, I’ve never done it without a guy or an adult who was confident in the procedure.  Now I have. 

We switched cars, so Jenni came home with me in my car, and Danielle went with Kelsey to get their car fixed.  (I’ll post pictures of these people at some point, so I’m not just rattling off names).  Jenni and I worked on school preparations for a while—until we both burnt out for the day, I think. 

The afternoon brought more rain and wind as it wore on—but as yet, nothing excessive.  No flooding or damaging winds.  No thunder or lightning either.  But then…do hurricanes bring those?

I know this post is boring, and I apologize.  It’s been a work day, with no exciting adventures, unfortunately.   

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Adventures in Bug Control: 7/31/11

Our house is great—big and airy, with bright colors on the walls, and more furnished than we expected it to be.  And for the first few days, it seemed like we didn’t really have a bug problem.  Down the street, Kelsey and Danielle complained of a serious ant issue.  The left cereal rolled down in their cabinets before they knew just how bad the ants were, and they ended up with cereal very rich in protein.  Ew.  Rachel, who taught here last year and knew the girl who lived in our house before we did, told me that we had the ants too.  She told me they were in the doors and shelves of the back 2 bedrooms—because they like wet wood.  And any wood in Puerto Rico eventually becomes wet. 

Still, I didn’t see it.  I bought some Raid and when I saw a few on my dining room table one morning, I sprayed liberally.  But the bottle instructed me to spray ant trails, and I didn’t see any. 

Jenni’s arrival last night seemed to bring the bugs out to say hello, like they were excited to meet her. 

Jenni has 2 wooden shelves attached to her walls.  Sunday night she went to clean the bottom one before putting her things on it.  When she put the slightest weight on the shelf, the front half of it broke off, and the inside was crawling with maggoty buggers.  She called me from the living room, and I attacked the shelves with a steady stream of Raid, though we knew the bugs were probably deep inside. 

Our hopes were not high that the shelf would be torn out and replaced soon…the school seems pretty slow-moving on home repair issues so far.  However, when Eddie happened to stop over later that night, Jenni told him about it.  To our surprise he took a hammer to the shelves right away and got the bottom one out of there.  So at least that’s taken care of.  (Chance of a new one going in: likely very slim)

Not pictured: the fan, mid-air as it fell from the
 top shelf--approximately right above his head

Right before bed, I found my first ant trail.  It was crawling from the hall closet ceiling, down into my room, in a straight line under my light switch, then up the corner of my closet to the ceiling.  Out came the Raid again, stopping them all in their tracks.  However, our bottle ran out as Jenni called that she had a trail by her ceiling as well. 

Monday’s project: buy more Raid, and air-tight containers in which to store food.  

A Tour of the Mountains en-route to the Airport: 7/31/11

Sunday, I went with Eddie to pick up my roommate, Jenni, from the airport.  We took off with plenty of time to spare, and Eddie took us the scenic route, through the mountains.  Along the way, he pointed out various sights.  We passed through Guavate, a town known for lechón, which is pork that’s been slow-roasted over a spit.  The town was already beginning to fill with Sunday crowds as we drove through.  He pointed out a picnic and hiking area near Guavate which is a shady spot to pass the day, half an hour from Guayama.  We drove past one of the largest lakes in Puerto Rico, with water the color of caramel from all the rain.  We stopped at the dam at the end of the lake and took a few pictures.  Even when we didn’t stop, the mountains took my breath away.  I really can’t put into words the beauty of the jungle-covered peaks. 

We reached San Juan about 40 minutes before Jenni’s flight arrived, and Eddie decided to take me to Loiza, San Juan’s beach.  We drove out to the point, then pulled off and crossed the roadside barrier on foot to explore.  After a few pictures of the main beach, we climbed the coral-covered rocks at the end of the beach (and Eddie collected 4 small hermit crabs) for a view of the other half of the beach.  Then we headed back to the car, with only a quick stop for helado polar (what they call nieve in Mexico—a cross between sherbet and shaved ice), and were on our way back to the airport. 

We picked up Jenni, then made a beeline back to Guavate. 

On the way, we passed a roadside restaurant, and Eddie suddenly said, “My mom is there!” and he pulled the car over to the left hand side of the road, then proceeded to back up half a block (in reverse, in the left lane, on a winding mountain road…are you picturing this?) to where she was.  It turns out Eddie’s mom and step-dad are in a motorcycle club called Los Bandoleros.  There were perhaps 25 of them on their cycles, and they were winding their way up the mountain.  We met and waved at Eddie’s mom about 3 more times throughout the day, sometimes pulling off to the left again to exchange a few words with her.  It was almost as if we were playing leapfrog with the cycle club.

By the time we reached Guavate, it was 2:30pm, and the town was packed with tourists and locals come to enjoy the Sunday scene, which includes live music and dancing, lechón, and cheap souvenirs for sale.  It took us nearly half an hour to inch our way through the traffic to find a parking spot.  When we did, though, it was worth it.  We ate at a place called El Rancho Original—lechón and arroz con gandules (rice with small peas) and grated fried plantains (which I’m sure have a Puerto Rican name, but I can’t remember it).  Neither Jenni nor I could finish our hefty portions—so we have leftovers for another meal!

We left Guavate right after eating, completing our twisting descent through the mountains.  And since I’d taken my Bonine (my preferred brand of motion-sickness medication) prior to leaving, I enjoyed every minute of it!

Life's a Beach in Puerto Rico: 7/30/11

We meant to get an early start to get to the beach on Saturday morning, but sleeping in won out, and we got a mid-afternoon start.  We followed Zach to a beach Eddie had showed him in Maunabo, about 20 miles away from Guayama.  The ride took us briefly up some cliffs and awarded us with great views of the coast. 

After small detour through the town of Maunabo due to a concert played from a school bus in the middle of the street, we found the beach and were not disappointed.  We had the sand all to ourselves.  The waves were great for wave-jumping, but not big enough for surfing, though Zach made a valiant attempt.  We passed a peaceful afternoon drinking in the serenity of the place.


On our way back to Guayama, we decided to stop at a street stand for pinchos (kabobs with no vegetables, served with a slice of French bread, usually).  Sadly, the first stand we stopped at only had one ready and told us it’d be another 15 minutes until they made more.  As the five of us were plenty hungry, we bought the one we had ready and split it amongst ourselves, then went off in the search of somewhere else to eat. 

We found a stand overlooking a calm bay, where we met Anthony, who works there and speaks English.  Anthony fried us up some fresh and hot hot hot pastelillos de pollo (a fried chicken turnover, more or less) while we enjoyed the view. 

Yes...this view is only about 15 minutes from my house.

Yes, I think I can get used to this life.

Thoughts from the Airport and Afterwards: 7/27/11


I was fine until we got to security.  All through the drive to Minneapolis, all through the night in which I tossed and turned and didn’t sleep much, I was excited more than anything.  All the anxiety and fear I’d felt in the preceding weeks was strangely pushed to a deep corner, and I didn’t feel it at all. 

I was fine, until we got to security, and it was time for goodbyes.  I looked at Liz, and her eyes were already spilling over with tears.  I gave her a long hug, then turned to Mom, who had also started crying.  I didn’t know I had so many tears in my eyes at that moment. 

When I entered security, the TSA agent asked where I was headed, and why.  When I told him I was moving for two years, he asked, “Is that why you’re sad?”  He didn't just ask, “is that why you’re crying?” No.  “Is that why you’re sad?”  Yes, I guess it is.  And now I’m crying again.  Thank you, friendly TSA agent. 

The first flight was great…except for the woman who smelled of cigarettes right next to me and the Indian family directly behind me with the 2 year old who wailed during take-off and descent and kicked my seat periodically.  The flight also included some turbulence which was fun.  Other than that, I slept through the entire flight.  I wonder if I’ll stay more awake on the next one?  I’m still really excited to arrive…but I’m nervous about finding Eddie Gonzalez in the airport—or outside of the airport?  No one ever told me where to go.  And if he’s not there…what do I do?  Who do I even call?

7/27/11 Recap of events
I wasn’t more awake on the next flight.  Well, I was a little bit.  I kept waking up, but I kept just forcing myself to go back to sleep.  The nearer we got to Puerto Rico, the greater my anxiety became.  I found myself thinking, “Do you realize what you’ve gotten yourself into?  You can’t get out of this.  It’s two whole years!”  As we began our descent into San Juan, a knot formed in my stomach.

I got off the plane and headed for baggage claim, just focusing on the task at hand and trying to keep myself composed.  I began shivering at the baggage claim—I think it genuinely was chilly, but I believe nerves had something to do with my shaking. 

All four of my bags came through, which was a relief.  I decided to forgo using a porter, who would expect a tip, and somehow managed to move through the airport and out the door with 3 fifty pound bags and 2 carry-ons.  Once I got outside, with the help of a stranger or two and after several phone calls with Eddie Gonzalez (Mr. Delgado had given him my number and he called me, thankfully), I found him and he loaded my luggage into the SUV. 

We had 3 hours to wait until Chamron’s flight got in—not enough time to drop me off in Guayama and get back—so Eddie drove me around Old San Juan, showed me the old fort, etc.  We parked the car and walked a bit, then stopped in a restaurant for something to eat.  I got a mofongo, which is a Puerto Rican dish made of mashed plantains and stuffed with meat.  It came with AMAZING shrimp inside and on top.  Mmmmmm.  No leftovers. 

As we finished eating, the thunder began.  We stepped outside and stood under an overhang, hoping to wait out the rain, but it was coming down in sheets with no sign of stopping.  Eddie said he’d go get the car and pick me up, but I told him no way, that I wouldn’t melt and would run with him.  It was a thoroughly drenching rain, and all the streets were flooding.  There were puddles in my shoes as we finally made it to the car, me laughing and Eddie not so much. 

We picked up Chamron from the airport then, then made the hour drive back to Guayama.  Because Chamron’s power wasn’t on, he stayed the night with me.  The girls (Danielle and Kelsey), who live just down the street, came over to say hello, as did Zach, who lives in Casa Benny.  We sat and talked, getting to know each other a little bit, for an hour or two, and then we all headed for bed. 

By the end of the night, all my nervousness was gone and I was really loving life.  

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Bienvenidos a Puerto Rico!!

First things first:  I’m here, I’m safe, and I’m LOVING Puerto Rico.  A week without internet access has been driving me insane, and I’ve got so much to share on here!  For now, here’s the bare bones account of what I’ve been doing up until now, and I’ll post more about each thing in the next few days.

Day Zero (Wednesday): Flight arrived in San Juan at 3:40pm.  Eddie Gonzalez (the high school principal’s assistant) picked me up and gave me a tour of Old San Juan and took me for food.  Picked up Chamron, another US teacher, at 7:40, then came back to Guayama.  Chamron stayed at my place, because my roommate wasn’t here yet, and because there was no power yet at his apartment.  The 3 other new teachers who are already here all came over to my house and we hung out for an hour or so, and then bed.

Day 1: I spent the morning unpacking, then went to the beach with the girls, Chamron, Rachel (an American teacher who was here last year), and Rachel’s sister and family friend (who are staying with her this week).  After we got back, I went to Walmart with the girls, then out to eat with Rachel and company.  Finished up the night with some Family Guy on dvd at the girls’ house (which is just a few houses down from mine).

Day 2: Eddie picked Chamron and I up in the morning to go and get our names on our water and electric bills.  After getting back, Chamron and I went with Danielle and Kelsey (the girls) to the post office to set up PO boxes for ourselves.  Unfortunately, they were short, so we filled out the application but didn’t get assigned boxes yet.  I’ll let you know when I know my number, in case you want to ship anything to me.  When we got home, I had some lunch, did some dishes, and took a nap.  Eddie delivered my car that evening, so I went to Walmart and got a few things for the house.  That evening all of us (but Rachel) hung out at the girls’ house until the wee hours of the morning.

Day 3 (Saturday): We had planned on getting up early to head to the beach, but no one was really moving quickly.  We ended up going around 2pm.  We followed Zach (another American teacher) to a beach called Maunabo, which was really pretty—and we had it all to ourselves.  We headed back around 5:00, and stopped on the way home for some street food.  The rest of the night was pretty laid back—watched a few more episodes of Family Guy, and that was about it.  We were ready for bed by 10:30.

Day 4 (Sunday):  Eddie picked me up at 10:00am to go with him to San Juan to pick up my roommate, Jenni, from the airport.  We took the scenic route through the mountains, which was absolutely breathtaking.  We still got to San Juan a little bit early, so we drove out to Loiza, the beach there.  After a few pictures and catching a few hermit crabs, we headed to the airport, found Jenni, then came back towards Guayama.  We stopped at a mountain town called Guavate which comes alive on the weekends with tourists and locals.  There’s live music and dancing, and the town is known for lechón, which is roast pork.  After a delicious lunch, we returned to town, and Jenni and I spent a few hours talking before she started unpacking.