Monday, January 30, 2012

Our own private island...

Icacos, Puerto Rico

We ended up on Captain Mingo’s boat bound for the small isle of Icacos completely by chance. 

We began the day bound for Culebra, Puerto Rico.  The small island off of PR’s east coast is known among locals as having the most beautiful beaches in Puerto Rico. 

Leaving Guayama and heading east at 6:45am, we were graced with a breathtaking sunrise over the ocean.  Getting up early on a Saturday isn’t so bad with a reward like this. 

We arrived in Fajardo to purchase our ferry tickets at 8:00am. 
We were too late.

The 9:00am ferry for Culebra was sold out, and the next one didn’t leave until 1:00pm.
We got into line for the ferry to Vieques instead.

The 9:30 ferry for Vieques sold out.  The next one didn’t leave until 3:00pm. 

We stepped out of the line, resigned to visit the less-magnificent (but still nice) beach at Luquillo instead, since it was only a 15 minute drive away.

Fortunately, Rachel had a better idea. 
With the help of the internet on Danielle’s phone (not the first time that’s come in handy), she googled the phone number of Captain Mingo, who has a small yellow boat that he uses to take people to neighboring islands.

We called him up, and the conversation went something like this:
        “Hi, can you take five people to Icacos today?  …Umm…9:00?  9:15?  Okay…we’ll see you soon then!”  Cost was $25 per person (more expensive than the ferry to Culebra or Vieques and the ride was much shorter…but we also had our own private boat to take us there and pick us up whenever we wanted).

Approximately half an hour later, the five of us were aboard Mingo’s boat, “Punta Brava,” bound for the tiny island of Icacos. 

The day was gray when we got there, but soon the sun came out, letting us marvel in the absolute beauty and tranquility of the island.

Though deserted when we arrived just before 10am, the beach soon filled up with catamarans taking tourists on snorkeling tours.  And by 1pm, they left…and the beach was ours again. 


Not so much.

Sitting on the beach and relaxing in the sunshine, it was the type of day that made me think to myself, “Why would I ever want to move away from Puerto Rico, again?” 

On the way back to Fajardo, Mingo even let Danielle drive the boat.  A rather perfect ending to the day.  

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Student Poetry: It's a Beautiful Thing

We started our poetry unit in 8th grade a few weeks ago.  I’m enraptured.  Granted… my students look bored and threaten to fall asleep when we talk about poetic structure and mechanics, and even when we read it, I get a stilted reaction.

But when I let them write it…

I am seeing sides of my students that I didn’t know existed.  The shy, socially awkward boy who never does an assignment quite perfectly shows a depth of emotion in his poetry that shocks me.  The bumbling jock in the back row, when allowed to write love poetry, whips out vocabulary like “quantify,” which blows me away. 

Students turn in poems I never asked them to write. 
It makes me grin. 

When they have time to write in class, I have a hard time keeping them quiet—but not because they’re not working.  It’s because they are so eager to share their work with one another.  They write something down, then get up to read it to their friends.  They pass their work amongst the desks and praise each other. 

Their writing, while sometimes unpolished, shows creativity and emotion. 

It’s a beautiful thing.  

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Festival of San Sebastian

When my friends Mandy and Nick were first planning their visit to Puerto Rico, we had planned on spending Sunday and Monday in Old San Juan, sightseeing and enjoying the picturesque city.  As we discussed what we’d do when they came, this idea became more of a possibility and less of a sure thing, because we had so many options.

Not three days before they arrived, I found out that the weekend Mandy and Nick would be in Puerto Rico, an enormous street festival would be taking place in Old San Juan.  And I don’t mean an oversized arts and crafts fair.  I mean that the Festival of San Sebastian is one of the biggest events of the year.  Tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of people flock to OSJ for the festival, which includes artisans, food, parades, and LOTS of partying. 

After a bit of deliberation, the three of us decided that despite the crowds, seeing Old San Juan was a can’t-miss attraction, and that the cultural aspects of the festival were most likely worth it.  We decided to go into the city Sunday afternoon, and stay in San Juan (not Old San Juan; we stayed on the beach in a quieter section of the city instead) that night. 

The crowds were intense.  By 1pm on Sunday, it was pretty much impossible to drive into Old San Juan.  Traffic was too far backed up.  On Calle de San Sebastian, it was shoulder-to-shoulder people drinking, eating, and waiting for the parade to begin.

Walking to Old San Juan from where we parked.

Calle de San Sebastian...BEFORE the parade.

When the parade did start, it was not at all what I was expecting.  It took place on the narrow street of San Sebastian, which has barely enough room for a sidewalk, let alone room for 100,000 people to get out of the way of a parade.  The streets were not blocked off, and the crowds did not get out of them when the “parade” came through.  There were no beautiful floats, motorized vehicles, or marching bands.  What there were were groups of people walking en mass in matching t-shirts, carrying billboards advertising whatever company they were promoting, and sometimes wearing masks or walking on stilts.  Some groups had a few people who played music or drums as they walked along, which was cool.   But mostly, I was not impressed.

The parade.  Absolut Vodka making their way down
the street.

On stilts.

After almost 40 minutes of being jostled by crowds and seeing maybe 4-5 groups parade by amidst the mobs of people, the five of us (me, Mandy, Nick, Rachel, and Danielle) cut away from the hustle and bustle and headed to San Cristobal fort.  There, admission was free (due to Martin Luther King Day), and there were no crowds.  We passed a peaceful hour roaming the fort walls and taking in the late afternoon glow that coats the city around 4:30pm. 

View of the city from the WW2 bunker

Perfect perch to watch the city

We finished out the evening as far away from Calle de San Sebastian as possible—eating dinner in a restaurant on Paseo de la Princesa, near the waterfront. 

Though the festival was not my cup of tea, and I didn’t stay to experience the wild nightlife, I did enjoy the day, and I am glad I went.  I just realized I never made it to the square of all the artisans… maybe I’ll just have to go again next year, after all.  

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Just Call Me Miss Adventure

That's me!

Last Saturday, I had the adventure of a lifetime.  My friends Nick and Mandy were visiting me from Wisconsin, and we decided to do something “extreme” while they were here.  We settled on a rappelling/ziplining adventure that took us to the Carite Rainforest on a hike where there were certainly no manicured paths to follow.  It’s an experience I will never ever forget!

The day started at 9:30am, when the tour company picked us up in the Walgreens parking lot in Caguas.  From there we drove maybe half an hour through winding, mountain roads—with beautiful views!  Then we parked the van at an abandoned school , harnessed up, and got our helmets.  Next it was off to hike up a steep road for maybe 10 minutes (I thought this was the most physically taxing part of the day…though my back muscles argued differently the next morning). 

We came to a mountain stream and waded in.  Our guide, Marco, told us, “Get your feet wet, and get used to it…this was the last time they’ll be dry on this tour.”  He was right…we waded upstream through the stream, stepping carefully on the slippery rocks.  Usually the water was less than knee deep, but in several occasions it was a little deeper.  I only fell once—landing softly in a sitting position, water up to my waist.  How refreshing.  J 

We came to several small waterfalls and climbed up them with the help of ropes the company had tied there before, and instructions from the guides about where to put our feet.  (It was this part, pulling myself up with the rope, that had my back complaining the next morning). 

After a while, we left the river and climbed up the muddy mountain side.  Again there were often ropes secured on the path to help us pull ourselves along, but no paved or gravel “paths” to follow. 

At the top of the hill, we came to the lip of the 80 foot waterfall we would rappel down.  Standing there, we couldn’t see over the edge to see how far down it was.  They briefed us on what to do, and then one at a time, we made our way over the edge.

When I finally DID see over the lip, the view was completely invigorating!  It was high…but in a thrilling, not petrifying, way.  The rappel down was fun, though I doubt I managed it gracefully.  J  And landing in the water at the bottom was an adrenaline rush in itself, looking back up and thinking, “I just did that!!” 

Nick on his way down.

After rappelling, we hiked to the ziplines, and took 3 lines, each cutting over the river canyon and providing breathtaking views of the canopy, the valley, and the surrounding mountains.  I took a video of Rachel on the zipline.  

Then it was a hike back downstream the same way we’d come in, and back down the hill, until we reached the van again.  We had a chance to change into dry clothes (yay!), and then we went to “Grandma’s house” for lunch.  …It really was the home of the grandmother of our guide, Christian.  Like, really.  I used the woman’s own bathroom, along with about 10 other trekkers.  It was such a homey, comfortable feel!  And of course the food, authentic Puerto Rican and home cooked, was amazing. 

"Grandma's House" with Grandma's family sitting
out on the porch with her.

Pictures don’t really do the day justice.  You’d have to experience it.  In fact, I encourage you to!  Come visit me, and we can go too.  J  

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Catching Waves in a Bottle

I watched Childhood today.
I cannot put down its beauty in words.  A picture could not capture it.  A video would have come closest.  But to take one would have ruined it. 
I have my mental video.

From my spot on the beach, hugging my knees in the cool wind, I watched the little girl, skinny legs braced in the sand, lean down and fill a plastic bottle with mud, tip it over to see that none fell out, then plop it down and repeat the process in the late afternoon sun.  I watched the two other small girls—her sisters, I imagine—take their clear plastic bottles and make wonders with them.  Catching waves in a bottle.  Sprinkling sea foam over the giant sand pile they’d built.  Running back and forth on the shore, full of endless energy.  I watched their mother stand up from near their sand pile and brush herself off.  Dressed in shorts and a tank top, she was there to help them have fun, but not to join in enough to get herself dirty. 

After a time, I watched Grandpa come over and round up the girls.  Time to come in, I imagined him saying.

I watched a snapshot of their childhood today.

My own involved dark brown dirt and grass, green leaves and grass stains.  Theirs will involve the froth of the waves, wet sand on bare feet, salty mud coating driftwood.  

Though our memories will be different, I saw myself in the girls today.
I smiled.  

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Ramblings on Research and the 2nd Day Back

The first day back to school was…tiring.  It was the case of missing homework and a preoccupation with talking.  As far as days go, it wasn’t bad.  And it wasn’t good.  It was just a day.

The second day back was better.  Though talking was still an issue (talking is always an issue here), there was (almost) no missing homework.  Better yet, when teaching research to my advanced 7th grade class today, I was met not with blank, uncomprehending stares, but a genuine understanding of the task at hand.  When I gave them work time to take notes at the end of the hour, they were actually able to use the time—creating source cards and beginning to highlight their sources and take notes.  Yes, I thought, This is the way this unit is supposed to work.  Class today gave me faith that although there is a chance that some of the research papers I receive may be poorly written, riddled with unintentional plagiarism, and not  based on completely research-able topics, my papers from this particular class should give me something to look forward to when grading.  My students have chosen relevant, interesting topics, and have made a real effort to find scientific evidence to support their findings.

As one student attempted to make her source card for her website source today, she remarked, “Oh, this one doesn’t have an author.  Oh, this is a bad source!  I can’t use this!”  I was so proud of her.  Because she’s right—the article in front of her definitely did not look like it was based on fact or supported by research.  Another student called me over and explained to me that he wouldn’t be able to take as many notes from certain sources, because one was based more on opinion than on facts, so he really couldn’t use it as much.  I was proud of him too, especially since his thesis, “Dogs are better pets than cats,” made me a little nervous when he first brought it up.  I am glad he has found scientific studies which talk about the benefits of each as pets. 

Maybe my mood was also lighter yesterday due to the simple fact that two students stopped in to visit with me at recess, and we talked about Japan, and Mexico, and Alaska.  An entertaining, educational, non-school related conversation with a student can always make my day brighter.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Coming "Home"

Preemptive Note: The first half of this post was actually written in the airport between flights on my way home, when I was feeling rather philosophical.  The second half was written tonight, as I recline in my bed rather tired after the first day back to school.  You may notice a distinct difference in writing style.  Enjoy.

I lead two lives.
I have a life in Wisconsin.  And I have a life in Puerto Rico.  Of course there’s some overlap; people coming to visit, chats via skype, etc.  But it’s strange how separate the two lives feel. 
When I came home for Christmas, the moment I stepped off the plane in Minneapolis, it felt as though I had left Puerto Rico behind me, in a dream world that didn’t really exist unless I was there.  It felt, as I wrote three weeks ago, like stepping back into real life.
Friday morning, as I watched the sun rise on the eastern horizon as my plane made its way from Minneapolis to Milwaukee, I felt I had already left my Wisconsin life behind, and Puerto Rico is my real life. 
Of course I know both lives are real, and it’s natural that wherever I am should feel like real life.  If I went around feeling constantly like I were living a dream, I would probably need psychological attention.  I don’t; I am proud to say I can still quite easily differentiate between fact and fiction. 

It is amazing to me how similar and different this flight to Puerto Rico is from the first time I made the journal.

The same: Because I had an early morning flight from Minneapolis, I again stayed overnight beforehand at a hotel with shuttle service to the airport.  It was the same hotel that I stayed at in July before my flight.  Like that night, I didn’t sleep well.  Though I slipped into bed at 9:17pm, setting my alarm for 4:00am, I tossed and turned and never managed to stay asleep for more than an hour throughout the night.  Like that night, it wasn’t nerves that kept me up, but excitement.

Different: There were no tears at the airport.  But then…there was also no one with me at the airport to make me cry.

Different: 2 layovers instead of just one. 

Different: During my 2nd layover, I was on the phone with the person who was picking me up at the airport, catching up on Guayama gossip and making plans to meet. 
Different: I KNEW who was picking me up at the airport, and where to go when I got off the plane, and what the car looked like that would be meeting me.

Different: As the plane descended over Puerto Rico, I picked out San Juan landmarks that I knew and places I had been. 

The same: Baggage claim was frigid, and I shivered as I waited to get my bags. 

The first night back, Kelsey and I stayed in San Juan.  We went out dancing to a salsa club and each learned a few new moves, and had an overall fantastic time.  Saturday afternoon we spent on the beach, then headed back to Guayama. 

Driving into town, and then stepping into my house, was one of the best feelings I know.  It felt…like coming home.  

Monday, January 9, 2012

Creepy Crawlies

I will write a full post about how good it feels to be back home in Puerto Rico, and try and explain my feelings on the plane and on the drive home.  But first…let me explain why my heart keeps pounding in my chest and I keep perching on the back of my kitchen chair like I’m afraid to touch the floor.

It’s as if the creatures of the world noticed our house was sad and lonely for a few weeks and decided to move in.  Or at least come and visit.

I came home last night to fresh termite trails in my bedroom, a dead roach in the bathroom, and of course the ever-present ants crawling over nearly every surface.  All these are routine, expected (well, not the roach…but at least it was dead).  Things I could handle and shrug off. 

But then when I was unpacking my clothes, I found tiny poo pellets on some of the shirts I had left here over break.  It (thankfully) appeared too small to be mouse poop.  Probably a little gecko.  At least that’s what I’m (still) telling myself.

Next I found more poop—more concentrated in the area—in our kitchen.  Cleaned that up with a paper towel.

And then I saw the mouse.  It ran out from the direction of the futon towards my chair in the dining room.  It looked well fed, for a mouse.  And I didn’t see where it went, because I was too busy screeching in surprise. 

Mice don’t really scare me.  They bother me, because they can get anywhere, leave poop anywhere, chew threw things and leave messy nests anywhere.  But they don’t scare me.  Except when they take me by surprise and I’m home alone.  I grabbed my keys and went to Kelsey’s, not even bothering to call ahead. 

Flash forward to this afternoon.  I was reclining on the loveseat when I saw a blur of brown cross the floor from my couch to the other couch.  At least it was under the other couch now. 

But then a few minutes later,  I clearly saw the mouse crawl up the side of the couch and go under the cushion.  Too much for me.  I was off the couch, sitting on the back of a kitchen chair with my feet on the seat.  (Home alone again). 

Perhaps an hour later (when I was sitting in the chair like a normal person again and much more collected), I heard a scurrying behind me.  I turned my head to see an iguana scurrying towards the back of the house. 

Not a baby iguana, either.  The green body was at least a foot long…the tail was probably closer to 2 feet long.  It was not the biggest iguana I have ever seen.  But it was not a baby. 

And a straight shot from the front door brings one directly into…my bedroom.  For some odd reason, my bedroom door happened to be open.

Iguana in my bedroom.

The menacing tail I could see from the hallway...

At this point, I grabbed my phone and ran out the front door, calling my friend Rachel in near hysterics.  She told me to shut the other doors in my house, get a broom, and shoo it out.  As calm as ever, of course. 

So I tried to do what she told me.  I stood on my bed with my broom, and shook it at the iguana, who was hiding next to the dresser.

The iguana ran under my bed.

Hopping all around on my bed did not make him run out.

Once again shaken, I left my room and waited for Jenni to get home.

When she did, she went into my room—full of bravery—and looked under the bed.  She saw no iguana.  She checked behind my dresser, and we looked in my closet.  We were about to give up (even though I knew he had to still be in the room somewhere), when I decided to just pull my bed away from the wall a little bit.

Cue a big green iguana scurrying past us both and towards the front of the house.  Jenni let out a satisfying scream and I did my “scared to touch the ground” dance.  The unfortunate part of this…we didn’t see the iguana go out the front door. 

We looked around the living room—the only place he could be, but we didn’t see him.  However, as Jenni said, “he proved he is a very effective hider!”  Still, we decided we could sleep easily that night. 

This morning I saw the iguana sitting on the wall behind our futon right by the front door.

Dang iguana.

Not a great picture...but since I was scared it would wake up and
run off again, this is what you get.

Thankfully, Kelsey was enthusiastic about helping to get the iguana out, and using a broom, a mop, some careful furniture placement, and good strategy, the two of us got the iguana out. 

Kelsey and our iguana-herding barricades.
(Strategy involved: close the door...shoo the iguana to the right. Open
the door...shoo the iguana out).  

The thing was much less scary in the daylight of the living room rather than the shadows of my bedroom. 

Hurray for Kelsey!! 

My house is now iguana-free.  And I set out traps for the mice.  So…hopefully it will soon be mouse-free too.