Saturday, December 29, 2012

HAPPY Holidays

I’m a pretty happy person all the time.  I’m optimistic and tend to find the bright side in life.  I have also been incredibly blessed with fantastic opportunities, and I think my life is pretty great.

This December, though, I’ve been consistently happier than I can remember being in a long time.  Things have lined up well for me, and the next year will bring me a lot of good things. 

So of course, my time home for the Christmas holidays has been filled with lots of happy. 

I mean, come on…the good things started with the flight home.  Somehow when I booked my flight, the website put me into first class (without any price increase).  It’s the first time I ever flew first class, and I love it.  I’m probably spoiled already; flying coach is going to seem shabby after this.  So, even though last Saturday I spent 14 hours traveling, 6 hours sitting in first class made it all worth it. 

I love being home for the holidays.  My family Christmases are steeped in tradition, and I can’t imagine missing out for a year.  Even though preparations were rushed this year due to me coming home so late, we made it work.  My sister and I went shopping for gifts on Christmas Eve morning, and contrary to it being a stressful experience, we laughed our way up and down the aisles and came out with some fun purchases (let’s home our family agrees!). 

That afternoon, Liz and I put up the Christmas village in my parents’ house.  You let 2 teachers put up a village, and suddenly all of the characters have lives and backstories, and there’s not just a fence around a house—there’s a REASON for the fence.  Again, laughter ensued. 

The fence has traditionally gone around the church.  This
year, though, the family in this house has become
anti-social and lives on the edge of town.  

After church on Christmas Eve, my family opens our presents from each other.  Then on Christmas morning, we get up and there are more presents under the tree—the ones from Santa.  This year there wasn’t much that I desperately wanted, so of course I appreciate everything I did get that much more.  I got some AWESOME presents this year!  Some of the favorites include: a portable hard drive for my computer, a case for my tablet (see the post about the mayor’s gift to all students and teachers in Guayama), a travel book on Central America, and finding out my mom will pay for me to have a quilt made out of my old t-shirts.  

Christmas Day at my aunt's house 

One of Grandma's gifts on Christmas Day. 

The day after Christmas, my mom and Liz and I went to my grandma’s house to bake cookies for Saturday’s family celebration.  This is something we’ve done every year for as long as I can remember.  Over the years, Grandma has gone from being the head baker and teacher to being the official taste tester.  She supplies the kitchen and some of the ingredients, and her good company.  We do all the work.  I love it.  Of course, I have a nasty habit of eating too much cookie dough and too many cookies, so about 3 hours into the 5 hour baking day, my stomach was hurting and my energy was waning.  One day I’ll become an adult and learn from my mistakes.  Maybe. 

5 batches of cookies done... 4 more to go.

The rest of my break will be spent catching up with lots of people.  I have friends coming to town from far away, and I’ll be taking a road-trip to see a friend who IS far away, and of course there’s everyone who lives in my hometown and is always here.  There will be board games, and movies, and lots of food and lots of laughter. 

To all of you—I wish you very, very HAPPY Holidays!    

Thursday, December 20, 2012

La Parranda

Sunday night, I lay in bed at 11pm, having a stern talking with my brain, telling it to stop thinking about how great life was and to please let me sleep.  My brain had been refusing to listen for the past hour, and I was a bit frustrated with it.  And then my phone buzzed. 

Normally when a friend asks “what are you doing?” at 11pm on a school night, I would be tempted to reply with “Sleeping. Go away.” or just not replying.  And in fact, my answer Sunday night semi-resembled the former.  However, my friend replied that he was going to parrandear, and asked if I wanted to come along. 

Well…I wasn’t sleeping anyway, and the chance to experience a Puerto Rican cultural event really shouldn’t be passed up. 

Parrandas are sort of a funny tradition.  It’s basically really obnoxious caroling.  You stand outside someone’s house in the middle of the night, and then loudly bang on drums and sing Christmas songs until the residents wake up, let you in, and share their food and drink with you while you keep them awake a while longer singing more songs. 

On our way to Arroyo, my friend gave me a briefing on the drums that would be used.  There’s la bomba, or bass drum—which we didn’t have last night.  Then there are 2 hand drums—like tambourines, but without the jangles around the edges, more or less—the big one leads the rhythm, and the smaller complements it.  The bongos fit in around the cracks, filling out the melody.  My friend showed me the rhythms and how to strike each drum.  After 11 years on the drumline, I probably should have been more excited about trying it out myself.  But I was content just to learn and later watch, assured I wouldn’t have to play anything.   

It was a little after midnight when we pulled up onto a quiet residential street and parked near a few cars that were already waiting.  My friend passed around his drums and introduced la gringa to his high school classmates and their families—and everyone welcomed me with smiles.   Then, the 10 or so of us crept quietly to the front door of a house lit up with Christmas lights, and on the count of three, everyone started singing the traditional “let us in!” song.  I stood back and clapped along to the beat.  After a moment, the lights came on inside, and the residents came out to greet us.  After a few minutes of chatting, we all went inside and found seats in their family room.  Refreshments were brought out, and we spent perhaps an hour and a half singing every parranda song they could think of at the tops of their lungs.  I wish I knew the songs…singing along would have been a lot of fun!  I still enjoyed myself clapping along, though. 

Normally during a parranda, the party goes on, moving from one house to another. Since Sunday night was a school night and we were tired, however, we only went to the one house, then returned home. 
My brain gave me no more trouble about whether it was ready to sleep after that.  Spontaneity definitely does pay off once in a while.  I’m glad I bothered to read that text message!   

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Calle 13 Concert

There are so many reasons why I love my life right now.  The sun is shining, there’s a warm breeze blowing, I have 3 half days of school left before Christmas break begins, I live on a beautiful island, I have fantastic friends and a wonderful family, a great job, and there are—as always—travel plans in my future. 
And I got to go to an amazing concert last night.

I sort of decided to go to the Calle 13 concert on a whim, because Jenni, Kelsey, and Kezia were going, and I didn’t want to be stuck at home alone on a Saturday night. 
Excellent choice on my part. 

I didn’t know much about Calle 13 until the past week or so.  I’d heard a few of their songs and liked them, but that was it.  Once I’d purchased my ticket, I started listening to more of their music—and found I liked it.  I also found out that in 2009, the group was banned from performing in Puerto Rico by the then-mayor.  With San Juan under new leadership, they were allowed back for the first time last night.  25,000 people showed up to cheer them on. 

The crowd, as seen from above.
Photo from El Nuevo Dia

It. was. AWESOME. 
In the past, I haven’t been a huge fan of live concerts.  I find myself getting bored, or tired, or overly crowded (and with 25,000 people you’d think that would be a concert).  But that wasn’t the case last night.  I was completely entertained for the entire 2 ½ hours the group performed.  The music was great, the show was fantastic, and surprisingly, it wasn’t overly crowded.  Sure, there were tons of people, but we had room to dance and move along.  And we did dance.  It was a beautiful night, and while my shoes are now covered in mud and I drove home exhausted, the rest of me is no worse for the wear. 

Calle 13’s message was completely empowering too.  Before singing one song, the leader proclaimed, “En Puerto Rico se está viviendo demasiado violencia. Hay odio. Hay que dedicarle prioridad a la educación. Por eso es que pedimos una universidad accesible y gratuita. Si hubiese mejor educación, hubiese menos violencia. Se lo dedico a todas la familias que han perdido a sus familiares por criminales despiadados, a los estudiantes que han muerto por la causa, a lo que acaba de ocurrir en Conneticut, a Carlos Muñiz Varela... Se lo dedico a mi tío, asesinado. No hace falta delfinario, ni estupideces. Faltan profesores preparados, más escuelas.”
(My translation: Puerto Rico is experiencing too much violence.   There is hate.  We need to give priority to education.  Therefore we ask for accessible and free universities.  If there were better education, there would be less violence.  I dedicate this to all of the families who have lost family members to ruthless criminals, to the students who have died for the cause, to what just happened in Connecticut, to Carlos Muñiz Varela…I dedicate it to my uncle, murdered.  …We’re missing qualified teachers and more schools.”) 

You just can’t argue with that.
So…good music, a good message, good friends, and not to mention a singer with a body it did NOT hurt to look at for 2 hours…you’ve got a recipe for a fantastic, unforgettable night.  

My phone died as the concert started, and I didn't
have my I stole this photo from
Calle 13's facebook page.  

Monday, December 10, 2012

Can't Change Your Fate

I don’t always believe in fate.  But there are some things that happen, and the odds just stack up against you.  And you can’t help but think nothing you could have done would have changed the outcome.  You can’t change your fate. 

Saturday morning, I had a goal: get to the beach as early as possible to enjoy the day.  Amanda and Josh also had a goal: avoid a flat tire.  We both took measures to make sure our goals would be reached.  But fate had other plans. 

Saturday, because six of us were going to the beach, we took two cars.  Because I wanted to spend as much time as possible in the sun, I went in the early car with Amanda and Josh.  We left Guayama by about 8:30am, right on schedule. 

Amanda and Josh, likewise, tried to avoid a flat tire by going to get new tires on Friday evening.  They purchased used tires and were pleased with the speedy service of getting them changed. 

We both thought we’d achieve our goals.

At about 9:45am, we felt a familiar thump-thump-thump-thump, and Josh pulled over. 
The right front tire (one of the newly replaced ones) was not only flat, it was shredded. 
Well…they tried.  But apparently we were meant to get a flat tire and be delayed on our way to the beach.  You can’t change your fate. 

And it was the theme, all morning.  We took a “donut break” with a dual purpose—to eat our breakfast and to give the donut tire a chance to cool down a bit.  Amanda proactively thought to avoid getting powdered sugar all over the seat of the car.  So, she took her donut with her and got out of the car.  Then she thought, she’d better have a napkin too.  So, she leaned into the car through the open window…and dumped powdered sugar from her donut all over the seat. 
You just can’t change your fate.  And that’s exactly what she told Josh when he noticed the white seat.    

The rest of the day was pretty great.  We’d only been about half an hour from our destination when we got the flat, so we just drove the remaining distance at about 35-40mph.  We still arrived at Crashboat Beach by about 11am, and the others joined us by noon.  The beach was a beautiful as ever, and we all enjoyed our day in the sun and on the sand.  It was relaxing, and…just great.  As any good day at the beach should be.  

Crashboat Beach, Aguadilla, PR

We stayed almost until sunset...

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Take me out to a ball game!

Sometimes, I admit, I write a blog post simply because I’m out with friends and they say, “Take a picture!  For the blog!”  And then, well, I feel I’m obligated.

Even so, my first ever baseball game should probably merit a post anyway.

Friday afternoon, Sonja texted me and said they were going to a baseball game in Ponce, and stopping at Chili’s before, for an “all-American night.”  Funny thing is, before I came to Puerto Rico, I had never been to a baseball game OR to Chili’s!  So for me, I guess perhaps both “American” pastimes may be tinged with Puerto Rican flavor in my memories.  Still, I was all in for the evening.

The evening went just exactly according to plan.  Our waiter at Chili’s was from Connecticut, and from out seats the view through the window was of Burger King…we could have been in Anywhere, USA.  After dinner, we headed to the game: Ponce Leones vs Santurce…somethings.  We paid $7 for our entrance tickets and took our choice of seats.  We sat on the first base line in the front row for the beginning of the game.  There weren’t all that many people there…I was assured a game in the States would be different (not that I cared, at all).  During the 7th inning, we decided to take advantage of the choice seating and moved to the front row, right behind home plate. 

The game itself was quite enjoyable.  The experience was peppered with cries of “Cervesa!” (which switched to “Beer!” when the vendor was near our seats and the sounds of an air gun and a man blowing on a conch shell (only on a tropical island…we’ve got the real thing; no need to buy a plastic horn to blow here).  We “caught” one foul ball.  (The 1st base coach caught it and tossed it to us—but that totally counts).  Scott proved his psychic abilities by predicting in the 7th inning that #44, the pinch hitter, would hit it long and to left field to get on base.  His hit ended up being a home run…far into left field. 

The Leones lost the game, 4 to 11, but seeing as our allegiance to the team wasn’t the real reason we were there anyway, none of us minded too much.  We went home quite content.  And now I’ve seen a baseball game! 

From our seats on the 1st baseline

Our foul ball.  Puerto Rico baseball league! 

View from behind home plate

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A Dangerous (Wonderful?) Addiction

I may have a problem.  International teaching job fairs are addicting.  After I finish one, I find myself thinking how amazing the next one will be and the things I will do differently.  I had such thoughts after the UNI fair two years ago.  Now, my plan has long been to end my international stint after my next placement—Guatemala, as it turns out.  But after this fair, I find thoughts, unbidden, coming to my mind such as, “In two or three years, I’ll have a masters in International Education and 4 or 5 years of international experience.  I’d have a free ticket to practically any school I wanted to go to.  The job fair would be excellent.”  Oh dear.  My family and friends back home would not be happy to hear these nasty thoughts! 

But the fact remains…these job fairs ARE addicting. 
There are a few reasons why.

       1. The people
International job fairs are always filled with great people to talk to and get to know.  I think it takes a special breed of person to be an international teacher; they are people who both love to teach and love to travel.  What this translates into in terms of personality (in my opinion) is a group of people who both love interacting with people and have a great sense of adventure.  So they’re easy to get to know, and they’re really fun!! 
     2.   The competition (against yourself, more even than against other people)
I say the competition is against myself, because at the fair, I truly wish the best for every candidate.  There’s no backstabbing, no resentment if someone else snags my job, no badmouthing others or employing “strategies” to give myself leverage.  But I do compete against myself.  There’s a strategy to gaining interviews, to keeping in contact, selling myself, making a good first impression, and ultimately landing a job.  It’s a game, and a really fun one!  (And the prize for winning is pretty excellent).
      3.  Possibilities looming before you and the ability to change your fate in a matter of hours.
Job fairs move FAST.  Often in 24 hours or less, you’ve got a new job.  In a matter of hours, varying possibilities are placed in front of you, and one decision will influence the next 1-3 years of your life.  It’s exciting!  The fair is definitely an “emotional roller coaster” (a term I heard used over and over this past weekend), and, in my opinion, it’s certainly a fun one to ride.

Don’t worry, friends and family.  Even though I would love to return to a job fair with all the tools to “win the game” in a few years, I don’t really see that happening.  I never say never… but don’t fret about losing me to the international world forever just yet.  I may try to break the addiction one day, after all.   

Monday, December 3, 2012

Follow Your Heart (Job Fair 2012)

I'll give you a hint...this post ends well! 

Oh, what a difference two years makes!  If you’d asked me two years ago, I wouldn’t have said I was particularly unconfident or scared at the UNI Overseas Job Fair—where I landed my job in PR.  But after my experience at the AASSA fair this weekend, I look back and realize that I was nothing more than a scared little puppy at the last fair. 

Of course, I had reason to be.  I was fresh out of college, no experience, only my student teaching and a few references to back me up.  It’s AMAZING what two years of international teaching experience will do for you at a job fair, and the doors it will open.  But more on that later.

Thursday morning, I left my house bright and early (okay, dark and early) at 6:15am.  I hoped to make it to the San Juan area by about 7:30, so that I’d have a little time to find the park and fly place I had researched and get to the airport by 7:45—2 hours before my flight. 
I hit San Juan traffic outside of Caguas.  (For those of you not from Puerto Rico, that’s about halfway there). 
At around 8:05am, I took my exit for the airport.  The plan to use the park and fly was out of the question, and I headed straight for the San Juan airport.  $18 per day to park?  Okay then; it could no longer be avoided. 
By 8:15am, I had parked and was in line for security.  Thankfully I had no bags to check, so an hour and a half was the perfect amount of time to get through the line and wait about 20 minutes at my gate before boarding. 

My flight was smooth, and I enjoyed my time above the clouds.  I took a moment to really think about what I wanted for the fair.  Looking out over the clouds and listening to Joshua Radin’s music, I felt quite at peace.  I promised myself that when it came time to make decisions, I would dig deep, and follow my heart. 

The plane landed, and taking public transportation to my hotel in Atlanta was no issue.  I arrived at my hotel by about 2pm, and spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the surrounding area and settling in.  It was my first time every having a hotel room to myself.  I was surprisingly excited when I walked in; I felt like such an adult!  I didn’t jump up and down on the bed (it would have mussed the bedcovers, after all), but I did dance around the room a bit. 

My big girl hotel room! 

Thursday night was candidate orientation for the job fair, and I had the good fortune to sit next to someone who was also on his own and turned out to be from Wisconsin as well!  We introduced ourselves before orientation began, and when Matt found out it was my second job fair, he asked to pick my brain after the orientation ended, since it was his first.  We took what turned out to be a rather long walk to Whole Foods and our weekend’s friendship was sealed.  For the next two days, we ran into each other quite often and offered each other support, advice, and someone to share meals with.  I’d been nervous about being at the fair all on my own with no one to lean on, and having a friend there made the weekend quite wonderful.

Friday morning the job fair proper began, and I began to realize just how different this fair was for me than the one almost two years ago. 

At my first job fair, I had emailed every school with an open English position in a Spanish speaking country.  I’d gotten a fair amount of responses pre-fair via email, and when the job fair started, I had three interview requests in my mailbox before interview sign-up asking me to stop by recruiters’ tables to set up an appointment. 
This fair, I had 9 requests.  Three of the schools I’d already had skype interviews with before the fair began. 

At interview sign-up,   almost every recruiter I talked with recognized my name and was eager to sign me up for an interview in a prime time spot (as a rule of thumb, Friday afternoon interviews are ideal, as Saturdays most recruiters try to reserve for call-backs and/or end up making their offers by the end of Friday).  I walked out of the interview sign-up with 8 interviews scheduled for Friday and two for Saturday morning. 

My Friday afternoon interviews all went well.  I always say that at an international job fair, where interviews are 30 minutes long and there are so many more topics to discuss than at a normal job interview, you can tell it’s a quality school when the interview focus is on your abilities as a teacher.  At my last fair, I had a lot of interviews that were more info sessions on the school than a discussion of my teaching abilities.  At this fair, every single interview began with good questions about my teaching philosophy, style, and experience.  I respect each and every school I interviewed with and would have been happy to work at any of them. 

My 6:00 interview was the one I was very excited about.  I’d had an “in” with the American School of Guatemala before the fair, because one of my friends—who I actually met at the UNI fair two years ago—works there now.  He’d gotten me an interview with the middle school principal via Skype right before the fair, and that interview had gone really well.  I’d left the Skype interview completely excited about everything the school is focusing on at the middle school level and feeling like I had a good connection with the principal.  The principal wouldn’t be at the fair, but he told me he’d be in contact with the directors and saying very good things.  Turns out, he wasn’t lying.
My 6:00pm interview was not so much an interview as a job offer.  We went over salary information and benefits, and then she told me, “At this point, I’d like to offer you the job.  This is an official offer; you are the only one we’re making this offer to.  Of course you can have time to think about it—no pressure.  But I hope you’ll stop by at any point tomorrow to talk more or to sign a contract.” 

That wording is SO refreshing to hear at a job fair.  The very fact that she was so upfront about it and didn’t give me a time limit made a huge impression.  And then there was the fact that I had a great connection with her as well.  The school seemed like a good fit, and the benefits package really appealed to me.  I knew it’d be a hard offer to pass up. 

I went to one more interview on Friday night, and cancelled my final one.  I also cancelled one of the two interviews on Saturday because I knew I’d rather be in Guatemala than in Venezuela when it came down to it. 

Saturday morning I had one interview at 8:00am, and then attended a school presentation from a school in Colombia.  Right before the presentation I was offered the job there. 

So I had my first decision to make.  I really really wanted to be in Colombia.  But I really really wanted to be at the school in Guatemala. 

School versus location.  School versus location.  Trust your heart…
I went with school.  I turned down the position in Colombia.  I was still waiting to hear back from three other schools in Colombia, though.  (As a side note, apparently the directors talked amongst each other about me, which is a bit disconcerting.  My Saturday morning interview with a school from Brazil opened with, “Ms. Rosendale…I have heard about you.  You’ve been interviewing with schools in Colombia, yes?”) 

So the period between 10:30 and 1:30 became a waiting game.  I let my top Colombian schools know where I was at, and waited.  Early on I heard back from my top school; they’d hired someone outside of the fair.  By noon, I heard back from my 3rd choice; they’re hired someone else.  It all came down to Colombian school #2—which would have rivaled Guatemala had an offer been made.  At 1:30, Matt urged me to call the director since I hadn’t heard.  I was reticent.  “He has my email.  He said he’d keep me posted via email.  He’s just going to tell me he’s still interviewing.”  Matt had the phone in his hand ready to dial, when I checked my phone and there was a new email. 
My last Colombian school had gone in another direction.

A thank-you note written on the back of a
business card?  Not traditional.  

Decision made. 
Thank goodness it was one I was still quite happy with. 
I went up to Tracy’s room (the assistant director who offered me the job), and when I told her I was ready to sign, she let out a joyous scream and gave me a big hug.  (Caught me a bit off balance, and I toppled backwards into the arm chair, bringing her with me—a bit more intimate than either of us had anticipated!) 

Saturday night my new directors took all of their new hires from this fair out to dinner.  I truly enjoyed getting to know everyone, directors included. 

New hires (and directors) of CAG

Next year’s going to be a big change, to say the very least.  My new school employs 78 foreign hires—a big step up from 9 at my current school!!  It will also be a culture shock moving to Guatemala City (which has a population in the millions) in a truly Latin American country.  I could go on and on, but this post is already much too long.  So more on my future later. 

For me, it’s time to focus back on the present; I went back to school tomorrow morning.  I’ve got midterm tests to write and projects to lead, baby!  

Monday, November 26, 2012

Coming Up Next: International Job Fair

In 3 days, I will be attending the AASSA International Job Fair.  The goal, of course, is to obtain a teaching job in South or Central American for next year. 

3 days to go… and how am I feeling? 
My insides are all twisted up. 

I’m excited, and nervous, and scared, and unenthusiastic  and skeptical, and confident, and utterly unconfident, and ready. 
In short, I’m not really sure how to feel. 

The job fair itself will be exciting.  The possibility of a change for next year is exciting.  Seeing a new piece of the world and gaining more teaching experience is what I want to do.  There are tons of possibilities out there, and I can’t wait to see where I end up.

But it’s also scary.  I've gotten pretty comfortable in Puerto Rico.  I know my way around.  I have a support system of friends.  I know how the school works and I've got my unit plans down.  I like it here. 
Not to mention that being so close to home and in a US territory has its perks. 

But, it’s time to take a leap of faith and try for something.

I can’t promise I’ll come back with a job after this job fair.  I can afford to go into it with my standards a bit higher than they once were, and I don’t plan on settling for a school I don’t respect or a location I’m not absolutely pumped about. 
If I don’t accept a job, I’ll have some decisions to make, of course.  To stay in PR one more year?  To search for jobs in Wisconsin?  Or another part of the US? 

I’ll keep you posted.  But the short version of the long story is this: my future is completely up in the air at the moment.  And that both terrifies and excites me.  

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Flights, Funny hats, and Food

I love just how much returning to Guayama after time in the States feels like coming home.  The sights on the road, the feeling of pulling up to the fountain at the edge of town, and most of all the smell of my house are comforting.  I really enjoyed my week at “home home,” but it’s good to be back.  And that fact is a beautiful thing. 

I wouldn’t normally go to Wisconsin over Thanksgiving break, but I had a special reason to do so this year.  One of my best friends from college got married!  So, Thursday, right after school, Robert and I set off for the Patillas airport, and he flew me to the San Juan airport in his plane.  Talk about riding in style! 

Robert's plane

San Juan from the air

Other than having to run to make a short connection in Houston, my flights went well, and by midnight I had landed in Chicago and was reunited with my friend Ice (college nickname…I can’t call her anything else).  We drove to her house, which she shares with her now-husband.  The best man and his girlfriend were staying the night as well, so we passed a few hours getting to know each other and enjoying ourselves.  I was a marching band geek in college, and that’s where I met Ice.  She married a fellow band geek, and consequently it was a wedding filled with band people.  We realized that of the 14 people in the wedding party, all but one of us had marched at some point in our lives.  So getting to know the grooms-people (both sides had both guys and girls stand up) felt like I’d been transported back to college.  Music people are music people the whole world over—dirty jokes, quirky senses of humor, arrogance, a love for music and all.

It was a blast. 

It was a weekend filled with funny hats, photobombs, a marathon game of “Never Have I Ever,” stories, messing with the photographer, and LOTS of laughter and dancing.
I’ll drink to that. 

And the photo-bombing begins

After Sunday, my week at home calmed down.  I spent Monday and Tuesday mainly at home, getting ready for the job fair (more on that later) and running errands.  

On Wednesday, Liz and I cooked a Thanksgiving feast and had some family and friends over to share it with us.  There’s nothing like gathering around a table with good food (mountains of good food) and good people. 

Thursday, I ran a 5 mile Turkey Trot in the morning (in 41:28—my personal best by a long shot!), then lazed away the afternoon until it was time to head to my aunt’s for Thanksgiving there.  Again—good food, good people, you can’t go wrong. 

The night—and my visit—concluded with a few friends at one of my favorite spots in La Crosse.  Getting to see everyone (and laugh a lot) was a great way to end my mini-vacation at home. 

And on Friday, it was back on the road!  A 2 hour drive to Minneapolis, a 3 hour flight to Houston, a 5 hour layover, then a 4 hour flight to PR, capped off with a 1 hour drive back to Guayama, and I was back.  Time for a nap and to unpack.  Maybe I’ll hit up the beach later this afternoon.  It was snowing in Wisconsin yesterday…so I should probably take full advantage of my current location.  

Monday, November 12, 2012

A Free What?!

Political season is officially over in Puerto Rico, as of last Tuesday evening.  The island has a new governor, and the city has a new mayor.  Though I don’t have cable (and so missed out on any political commercials) and I felt pretty far removed from the Obama/Romney race, I experienced my share of political campaigning.  I will not miss the rousing tune of “Con Eduardo estoy yo…” in the streets (though people still tend to sing it to themselves once in a while…it’s pretty catchy).    Nor will I miss the blaring political parades that stopped traffic and sometimes made concentrating while in the house impossible. 

But there was some good that came to us because of the mayoral election in Guayama, I must admit. 

For weeks, my seventh grade students had been telling me that the mayor of Guayama had promised to give them all tablets.  As in the mobile mini-computer kind of tablets.  One student came in with the case for his tablet and showed me proudly.  I, however, had heard nothing about this from anyone other than the students, and it sounded pretty far-fetched to me.  I got a little nervous noticing how high their hopes were set. 

And then, on November 1st, a last-minute staff meeting was called after school.  Our principal opened with something along the lines of, “I’ve just been informed of this, and I have no control over it.  If you want to vent your concerns to me after the meeting, you certainly can.”  The group tensed. 

Turns out, the rumors were true.  The mayor of Guayama was coming to the school the next morning to give out the tablets.  Of course, they were not to be simply delivered to each homeroom.  She required a full-school assembly, at which each student would be called by name to receive their tablet and then take a photo.  The mayor said she’d be there at 8am.  But the last time she’d visited a class at our school, she’d been nearly 2 hours late.  Our principal wasn’t sure whether she’d require both elementary and middle/high school to be in the assembly at the same time or not.  Long story short: we could potentially lose an entire class period or more to the production, and we’d have the task of keeping our students orderly through a long, hot, boring, and quite frankly, pointless assembly.  Because yes, all students and teachers would receive a tablet.

Wait wait wait… TEACHERS TOO?!?! 
Okay.  I think we can handle a messed-up schedule for a day. 

And we did.  As it turned out, we ended up only missing about 45 minutes of the last period of the day, which is the longest period anyway, so I still had an hour with my class.  The assembly was quite organized and efficient, really.  The only confusion came in wondering when class would begin again, as students were dismissed from the assembly to go straight to lunch, but lunch started late because of the assembly.  No one told students or teachers what time class would begin again.  But it all worked out. 

So now I’ve got a new toy.  And all of my students have a new toy.  And despite the questionable politics behind the gift (The mayor spent $2 million dollars and students coincidentally received their tablets the week before the election.  Hmm…), the educational possibilities really ARE quite exciting.  (As long as every teacher doesn’t try and use the tablets on the same day and the school’s internet doesn’t crash under the strain.  But so far that hasn’t been a problem.) 

Oh, and the mayor up for re-election?  She lost, despite her expensive gift to the students and educators of her city.  I wonder if a thank-you note from my students and I would make her feel better? 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

La Cueva Ventana

Puerto Rico is a beautiful place.  Amanda and Josh and I tackled la cueva ventana (the window cave) near Arecibo yesterday, and the view did not disappoint!! 

It took us about 2 hours to drive to the window cave.  We parked at Texaco, paid $2 to do so, saw this interesting sign:

and set off up the trail to the cave.  The cave was easy to find.  There was one fork in the trail, but thankfully a guy had set up shop there selling bottles of water (I think), and he told us to go to the left.  Once we got to the entrance, we pulled out our light sources (I finally got to use the headlight I got as a graduation present almost 2 years ago!) and set off into the dark depths of the cave. 

The walk was pretty short and easy to follow, and soon we saw the light from the window, and then we were there!  We had great timing, as one group of people was just leaving as we arrived, so we had the view all to ourselves.  It was truly magnificent!! 

I finally got to use my headlamp!! 

After the window cave, we walked through the other cave that’s right there, which is basically a big cavern.  We used a rather sketchy rope (hung from a massive tree root coming from the ceiling that swayed back and forth when we touched it) to climb up, and we exited through a smaller opening—a shortcut back to the path down the hill! 

Since we’d only spent about half an hour total at la cueva ventana, we decided to try and find a waterfall we’d read about before heading home.  Unfortunately, the turn mentioned in the directions I had doesn’t seem to exist, so we didn’t find it.  We decided instead to head to Lago Dos Bocas, which was well marked on my map. 

The lake is a beautiful place to relax.  There are 4 restaurants on the lake, and each has a boat which ferries guests for free from the dock. We’d brought our own picnic lunches, so we forewent this service and simply sat in the shade at a picnic table, enjoying our food, the breeze, and the great view.

Lago Dos Bocas 

On the way home, we wound our way through the mountains rather than taking the expressway home.  What a beautiful day!  

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Walking to Heaven

I wish I had a photo that did the view justice from last evening.  I had one of those, “I just can’t believe I live here,” moments.

We arrived at the beach at sunset and waded into the water for a swim.  As we walked slowly out to sea, the view to the right looked like a giant canvas God had painted, using sweeping strokes of pink and gold, gray and white in the sky, and metallic gold for the surface of the water.  As we stepped further out into the quiet evening, the calm golden wavelets welcomed us and caressed us, as with a gentle “hello,” of a caring friend, rather than energetic screams of a young child.  We all felt at peace with our lives as we slowly watched the world change color, the stars come out, the deep green palms in the distance fade to black.

As we walked out into the shallow water, Sonja said, “It feels like we’re walking out to heaven.”  We laughed about it, but her words did resonate with me.  Softly walking out to the end of the world…and completely at peace with the decisions we had made along the way.  Yes.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Sweaty Betty

Slowly but surely, I am checking items off of my “to see” list in Puerto Rico.  Yesterday, Amanda and Josh and I took a hike through the Guanica Dry Forest—one of the places I had not yet explored. 

Surprisingly (for us), we didn’t get lost once all day.
What we did get was sweaty.  Oh man, did we get sweaty.

When I checked the weather before we left home, it said there was a heat index of 105 in Guanica.  Awesome.  Stepping out of the car when we got there was like stepping into an oven.  No…ovens are dry.  You’d think the dry forest might have dryer air than the rest of PR…but it’s just as humid there as elsewhere. 
Let me tell you—I’ve gotten used to sweating here.  But yesterday was pretty gross.  Sweat should not form puddles on your clavicle, or drip off of your chin.  Ew. 

On the plus side, it was a nice hike!  It was greener than I expected.  But as Josh pointed out—it was the green of weeds, not vibrant foliage.  Also, there were more trees.  I guess I’m not sure what I WAS expecting—cactuses that looked like trees, maybe?  Trees with no leaves?  I did know it was a forest, after all.  We did see some cactuses, however.  With the booklet we’d picked up at the ranger station, we found out some of them had rather interesting names…

Melon Cactus

Spanish Dildo Cactus

Our path 

At the midpoint of our hike, we came to Playa Tamarindo, a pretty beach where we stopped to have lunch and enjoy the view (and the breeze coming off the water). 

Playa Tamarindo, Guanica 

Then it was back on the path for another sweaty walk uphill to the car. 
So—Guanica Dry Forest: check.  2 hour hike in extremely hot weather: check.  A great way to spend a Saturday afternoon!  

Saturday, October 20, 2012

A Teacher's Research Rant

Time for a teacherly rant. 
I hate teaching research.  Hate it, hate it, hate it. 
It’s taken me only a year of experience to come to this realization.

Let me back-track.  When I started teaching, writing a research paper was one of the things I was most excited to teach.  When I was in school, I loved finding information, organizing it in a different way, putting my own spin in it, and spitting out a research paper.  In my opinion, writing a research paper is simply a process—and one which requires very little deep thought, especially when you’re in middle or grade school and aren’t really expected to add any ideas to the research of others.

Here’s what I’m learning: writing a research paper DOES take extensive critical thinking skills, and it’s not as easy for everyone as it is for me. 

My Saturday.  

Step 1: Find scholarly sources of information for your topic.  Check.  This is pretty easy for my students, after I guide them about how to identify sources they can trust.

Step 2: Highlight the important information from the source, and then take notes on notecards.  One paraphrased fact goes on each notecard. 
This is currently the step we’re on in class, and it’s a beast.  No matter how much we practice paraphrasing similar articles in class, many of them either don’t get it, or get lazy when it comes to taking their own notes.  To prevent unintentional plagiarism, I’m going through each of the students’ notecards and checking them with their sources.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written, “This is a quote, not a paraphrase!  Re-word.” 
The problem is that much of the time, my students don’t really understand what they’re reading.  They see words they don’t know, and rather than looking them up, they just write down the sentence—assuming it must be important.  This results in two problems.  One is obvious; they’re quoting rather than paraphrasing.  The second has to do the actual information they end up taking notes on.  Because they don’t understand the whole article, they miss the most important parts!  I’ve read notes on Anne Frank that never mention she was in hiding for two years, and notes on other Holocaust survivors that never explain what happened to the person during the actual Holocaust. 

Step 3: Organize your notecards by subtopic, and then put them in a logical order.  When I write a research paper, this is the fun part for me.  I love combining information from multiple sources in a way that makes sense, and the notecard method makes it so easy to chop up the info. and re-compile it.  It’s harder for students to grasp.  All their notecards are labeled by source.  Mixing up information from each source is sometimes hard for them to do.  Also, going back to the fact that they don’t understand what they’re taking notes on, sometimes their organization is severely lacking.

Step 4: Write an outline.  This should be easy, because all the facts are there already, in order, organized by subtopic (which is essentially organized by body paragraphs).  And yet it takes them forever.

Step 5: Write a rough draft.  We’re not there yet.  I can’t comment on this year’s difficulties.  Last year I had a lot of plagiarism because students didn’t understand paraphrasing, though.  I’m hoping they take my comments on their notecards to heart and it’s not such an issue this year.

Step 6: Peer-edit.  Always a borderline waste of time…students aren’t the best at catching each other’s errors and leaving constructive criticism.  They’re pretty good at complimenting each other, which is a good thing, though. 

Step 7: Revise and edit and complete a final draft. 

Step 8: Revise again and turn in a 2nd time to get a better grade on the final draft.  I believe in letting students do this, because the point should be that they’re creating quality work, not that they’re getting it right by the deadline, or on the first try.  Of course it makes for more grading for me, though.  That’s the trade-off.

Second semester’s poetry unit can’t come quickly enough. 
This unit is worth it, and I hope they each take something from it and remember how to write a solid research paper in the future.  I will probably teach a research unit every single year that I am a teacher. I will continue to hate it, unless I eventually discover the magical way to present the information so everyone “gets it” right away.  But I know it’s a skill my students need to have—especially if they have any desire to go to college one day. 
So, I plod along.  Giving up my Saturday in favor of banging my head on the table at the misquoted and mis-paraphrased information on student notecards. 
Cheers to the weekend!  

Monday, October 15, 2012

Culebra From the Back of a Golf Cart

If you’ve been reading any of these blog posts, you may have noticed there are several recurring themes in many of them, such as:
        -The kindness of strangers
        -Lucky finds
        -Getting lost
        -Lots of fun and friends
        -Adventures in beautiful places
This weekend’s trip to Culebra encompassed almost all of the themes above—making it one of the best mini-vacations I’ve had in a long time.

sunrise on the way to Fajardo

Friday morning (no school—Columbus Day holiday), we stood in line to buy ferry tickets for the 9am ferry at 7am.  The ticket window wasn’t open yet, but the line wound down the sidewalk.  By 8:30, ticket selling now in progress, we had inched our way closer to the window an were one group away from buying our tickets.  And then, a sign went up in the window, and the announcement came on over the loudspeaker: tickets for the 9am ferry to Culebra were sold out. 

Nooooo!  We’d been SO CLOSE!  The next ferry didn’t leave until 3pm.  Quite the wait in Fajardo.

And then—the kindness of strangers.

A guy in line ahead of us told us he had 3 tickets he didn’t need, which we could have if we wanted.  Great!!  Except that there were 4 of us.  We resolved (since we were next in line) to at least ask if they had just one more ticket.  Reading the sign on the window, I remarked it was a shame we weren’t residents of Culebra with proper identification—because they were still selling tickets to them

And then—the kindness of strangers!

The guy just ahead of us must have been a Culebra resident, and he must have been listening.  He turned around and handed us the 1 ticket we needed.  He’d just bought it for us! 

Josh sprinted to find the guy with 3 spare tickets (he’d wandered off), and we made it onto the 9am ferry!

Those guys at the window behind us are part of
the group that shared tickets with us.  

On the boat, we got seats on the top level inside the air conditioned part.  We questioned the intelligence of this move, though, when the boat started moving.  It was by far the rockiest ride I’ve ever been on.  It felt like a roller coaster—one of those old wooden ones with lots of little dips that make your stomach flip.  It was quite an exciting ride—complete with whoops and laughter from other passengers as the ferry dipped repeatedly.  It was a ton of fun—for about ten minutes.  Then it got a bit old.  Miraculously, I didn’t get sick.  (Though the girls behind us did!  Twice.)  But by the time the 45 minute ride was done, I was ready to get off and get some fresh air. 

We stepped off the ferry, and saw our hotel.  They weren’t kidding when they said it was right at the ferry dock!  Josh went to pick up the golf cart we rented for the day to get us around, and the other 3 of us checked to see whether we could leave a few things at the hotel until we could check in at 3pm.  Inside, we had another stroke of luck; the room was already ready!  So we checked in—and saw that our room was huge and awesome.  We had 2 bedrooms (with beds for 6), a full kitchen, a sitting area, and our own patio.

our hotel

Our room at Hotel Kokomo, Culebra

When Josh returned with our sweet ride, we piled in and set off to explore.

After getting a little lost (recurring theme—check), we met up with Robert and Sonja, who’d flown over to join us for the day.  They rented a scooter, and the six of us set off for Playa Flamenco, Culebra’s most well known beach.

The playa lived up to expectations.  Soft, powdery sand, and teal water the color of taffy greeted us.  Despite just a few rain drops, we thoroughly enjoyed the afternoon.  

Playa Flamenco, Culebra 

After about 4 hours, we set off for our next beach—Playa Tamarindo.

Back into the golf cart—with our driver beeping merrily and calling out the warning “Dip!  Dip.” for the passengers in the back who couldn't see them coming—we made our way to Tamarindo.

This beach was much quieter.  There was no sand—just rocks (beware of sea urchins in the water! We were warned by a passing stranger).  It’s a great snorkeling spot, and Robert saw something like 6 seat turtles feeding in the sea grass.  Sitting on the beach and listening to the waves brush up onto the pebbles (a sound like rain), we made a new friend.  The chicken enjoyed sitting under Amanda’s chair—while she was in it.  Ha!      

As we left the beach, we had some fun in the golf cart on our way to the next stop.  As election time nears in Puerto Rico, the streets are often filled with political caravans—parades of cars honking their horns and waving flags supporting one candidate or another.  In our golf cart, we pretended to be our own political rally—honking our way down the street and waving at every person who was outside with huge grins on our faces.  I love my friends.

Riding in the back of the golf cart.

Our driver 

Pretty scenery 

After a tasty dinner at Heather’s Pizza, we ended up at the Dinghy Dock for the remainder of the night.  We were the rowdy table of Americans playing cards and laughing much too loudly as Josh and Scott kept up a comedic routine involving Chinese accents throughout the entire game.

Dinghy Dock--complete with a dinghy at the dock

comedic entertainment.  

When we left the Dock, we weren’t quite ready for bed, so we took the golf cart for a joy ride.  We flew down to Flamenco—stopping on the way for Amanda to hop off and dance, and for me to go down the slide on a playground.  We raced Robert and Sonja—and lost; the golf cart was no match for the scooter.  We found a place called Susie’s (photo op!) and explored a new part of the island.  And then it was time for bed.

Saturday morning, we were up and off to find breakfast and Zoni Beach.  We didn’t have a ton of time, because we had to return the golf cart by 10:30am.  After the 20 minute ride to the hidden oasis (absolutely breathtaking!) we had just enough time to take a 15 minute walk along the shore, and then back in our sweet cart for one last ride.

Zoni Beach, Culebra 

We returned the cart on the minute at 10:30, then checked out of our hotel, bought our ferry tickets, and spent our last 2 hours on the beach right next to the ferry dock.  A perfect end to the trip—the water was as clear and smooth as glass, and immensely refreshing.

Our ride back to Guayama was peaceful.  We stopped along the way in Humacao for Subway and some Maggie Moo’s (my favorite combo!).  By Maunabo, we came upon a political caravan that stretched for miles.  Thank goodness we were going in the opposite direction and didn’t get stuck in it! 

What a fantastic weekend.  It’s adventures like these that make me love living on the island.