Thursday, May 24, 2012

Vieques in a Nutshell

**This post is proudly written by my sister, Liz, who is currently staying with me in Puerto Rico and will be here for two weeks.**

It is with excitement that I accept my position as a guest blogger to narrate my trip with Sue to the island of Vieques. So here is the weekend in a nutshell…but a big nut shell, like the kind coconuts come in.
AND keep in mind that like any good story, all the excitement is at the end, but you need the whole story to get there. Not to brag or anything, but it’s going to be Da Vinci Code good.

By some gift of the travel gods, I woke up well rested and ready for the trip this Saturday. The bright Puerto Rican sunshine certainly didn’t hurt. The morning drive to Fajardo was beautiful, at least by my standards. Perhaps it’s an ordinary transit here, but the brightly painted cities, droopy foliage and coastal roads were a treat for me.

                After a breakfast sandwich and bumpy ferry ride, we arrived at Vieques and the group split. The three of us staying overnight took a complimentary ride to our hostel by one of the owners, Topher. As we drove, he chatted away about the island. We learned that we were the only guests in the hostel and that our host was more than accommodating. We were provided with an explanation of a map, nine publico/taxi drivers to call (and incidentally we had to try every single one that evening), and an open invitation to contact him or Jake for any reason. As he said, “You have friends on the island now.”

Our room at the Hammock House Hostel

                We met back up with the group at Red Beach just in time for rain. We swam regardless and enjoyed the beach. My problem was this: You know Newton’s third law? No?...look it up. It’s good for you to know these things. You should probably read up on the first and second while you’re at it. Anyway, when the raindrops hit the surface of the ocean, another salt water droplet bounces up into any one of a number of unfortunate places (my eyes, mouth, nose, etc). After we left the warm water, the world also became a more chilly and sandy place than necessarily preferred.  While these inconveniences meant an earlier trip back to the main land for the day crowd, it allowed a warm shower and time to change before Danielle, Sue, and I rode to the town of Esperanza for dinner and a bioluminescent bay tour.

Dark and stormy skies at Red Beach, Vieques

                Like so many grand adventures, the biobay tour began with a stranger telling us, “Hi. Okay, just go ahead and get into that blue van.” We did so along with 11 others with varying levels of sobriety. The van wasn’t particularly beautiful on the outside, but it, and the driver, soon proved to have superhuman driving capabilities. The single lane road to the bay was highly eroded and flooded…and sometimes our headlights would simply decide to turn off. Unlike the claustrophobic man in the back and anxious woman watching the road ahead, I loved it.

                We paddled around the bay. Well, technically Danielle and Sue paddled. As the weakest link in the kayak, I was granted the middle position to ponder the stars and play with the water. (For background on the bay see,_Puerto_Rico#Bioluminescent_Bay). It was an enchantingly dark evening, and with every wiggle of my fingers, my hand glowed neon blue. By plunging my arm in and letting the water run down, sparkles blinked across my skin for several seconds. As we turned the kayaks homeward, the wind picked up, painting beautiful blue streaks and polka dots all across the surface of the bay. Unfortunately no pictures turned out because the darkness of the evening makes it impossible to see anything without a flash, the flash washes out any illumination, and flash photography is discouraged because the light pollution saturates the receptors within the eye, reducing their sensitivity to observe the glow. So, you’ll just have to visit and see it for yourself someday.

...totally photoshopped!!

The following morning, the three of us visited Sun Bay. It was lovely in all the ways a beach should be. The sun, the cool waves, soft sand, and swaying palms met postcard expectations as wild horses fed on the grass behind us. I admire horses, but hereby admit that I have mild horsephobia. In the same way that an adult who has never held a child before shies away from approaching infant, you won’t see me skipping up to greet a horse any time soon. A horse and foal found their way onto the beach and were highly entertaining. After enjoying the little guy’s frolicking however, my heart rate rose as the papa approached us. He came nose to face with Danielle who put our bag of carrots behind her back. After staring her down, he nipped at the camera in her hand, then began rooting around in our beach bag, which incidentally is identical to Danielle’s. He bit at our plastic bag containing cameras, phones, and cash and tried to make away with it and a beach towel, but was scared into changing his mind when Sue gallantly ran around the end of the structure we were standing by (Okay…I had climbed onto it by that time in the hopes of preventing the horse from taking my life along with the valuables).

Sun Bay, Vieques

After the incident, we took a taxi and enjoyed a cold smoothie from a lady near the ferry, then boarded after a short wait.  After sitting down, I reached into our beach bag for the plastic valuables bag to check my phone…no bag. We checked our backpacks…no bag. We rechecked the beach bag…no bag. With 10 minutes left before the ferry departed Vieques, we hustled off to relocate the items. The next 10 minutes ran much like the point when a pair in the Amazing Race realizes they’ve left something behind upon reaching the elimination rug, initiating a frantic backtrack. Check with smoothie lady…no bag. Check with ticket booth guy…no bag! Borrow smoothie lady’s phone to call taxi driver…no bag!! We’d given up on making the ferry and regained our ticket to exchange for a later boat. Sue tried calling her cell when fate smiled on us. One of us had placed the plastic bag into Danielle’s beach bag by mistake…because they’re identical (kudos to those following along at home who solved the mystery at the top of this paragraph). The phone rang within her bag and we internally rejoiced.

So, with no time to spare, we returned the phone to smoothie lady who told us to run to the boat. We had one minute to catch the ferry. So, in true Amazing Race style (plus extra baggage and flip flops and minus a cash prize incentive) we sprinted down the dock and up the ramp just as staff members were detaching it from the ferry. We landed in our bright red seats exhausted, blistered, headached, and burnt, but having fully enjoyed the island. So, yet again, life failed to progress as planned, but worked out swimmingly in the end.

 And now, I return you to your regularly scheduled blog.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Fun Failure

They say sometimes the journey is as much fun as the destination.  Or something like that.  Well, that proved true for us on Thursday seeing as…we didn’t actually make it to our destination (but we still had a fantastic day!)  Since we had a day off of school, Rachel, Heisha, and I decided to go and find Las Tinajas in the rainforest—a section of a river where there is a natural waterslide, a rock to jump from, and a rope hung over the swimming area. 

So, following our directions, we took the correct exit from Hwy 53.  We turned right on Hwy 975, like the directions said.  We continued, looking for Hwy 971 where we were supposed to turn again.  We were starting to think we’d been on the road too long, when we rounded a bend and saw…Hwy 53.  The road had looped around and brought us to the previous exit.  So, we turned around, and headed back the way we’d come, keeping our eyes peeled for 971.  We still didn’t see it.  But what we did see was a police car stopped along the road, and we decided to stop and ask for directions.

His response, (in Spanish), was, “Las Tinajas?  I’ll go right now.  Follow me.” 
Perfect!  A police escort to the waterfalls!

As it turns out, our directions had been wrong.  We should have turned LEFT onto Hwy 975 at the beginning. 

The policeman made the turn onto 971, then stopped and turned onto the small road that would lead us to the parking area.  He told us we’d have to go through the gate, and pay the man whose land it was so we could park there.  We came to the end of the road…a large, run-down home on our right with a chain over the entrance and several cars parked in the yard, or the road continued past a large iron gate (which was open).  We figured the lot to the right with the cars was the place to go.  So we sat there awkwardly…until a woman in a bright pink dress came over and told us she’d get the owner.  He was down in the yard, so she went down, clapping her hands at him to get his attention, and brought him up to us.  We paid him our $2, found a parking spot in the muddy yard, and set off up the river.

The house next to which we parked.

It had rained in the morning, which made the current strong in places, and we took our time picking our way over the rocks and around “elephant and mammoth sized boulders” and sometimes hiking up into the trees to avoid places that looked decidedly treacherous.  After almost 2 hours of wading (with lots of stopping and breaks thrown in), it was getting close to 4pm.  We looked up the river; no waterfalls or natural water slide in sight.  At that point, we decided it was time to turn around, because if it took us as long to get back, we didn’t want to be stuck in the river as the sun went down. 

The trek back took only about an hour, and we stopped to swim and enjoy the water a bit.  Never mind the fact that trees kept moving right in front of Rachel and hitting her head, and that we all fell at least once or twice (though Rachel stabbed her knee with a rock and has the lump to prove her fall was worst).  We had fun. 

We emerged from the river at about 5pm, wet, a little tired, and pretty happy.  As we left the lot, a younger man came by to open it up for us (as it turns out, it wasn’t locked; we could have moved it ourselves).  He asked if we’d gone to Las Tinajas, and we said we’d tried but had turned back.  He said, “I’ve never gone there through the river.  I always just take the path.”  Turns out we’d parked in the wrong place (or at least the place where the going was tougher).  If we’d continued up the road, there is another yard where a gentleman charges people to park in his yard, and there’s a very easy path right to the swimming area.  Next time.  J

Back in the car on the way home, Rachel set up her “office” to grade her poetry portfolios for the end of the year—complete with a stapler (with a cute turtle on it!) which kept falling, and a book light when it got dark—and we relaxed.  We stopped for food along the way—Subway, followed by ice cream at Maggie Moo’s.  We ate in the car in the parking lot, and Heisha ended up leaning out her window because her ice cream was dripping.  She ended up with ice cream all down her car door…but one must admit that’s preferable to ice cream all over the seat. 

When we got home around 8pm, we were happy—despite not having reached the actual goal.  

Thursday, May 17, 2012

First Year of Teaching: COMPLETE!

I have officially survived both my first “year” in Puerto Rico, and my first year of teaching.  In the yearbook, the students voted me the teacher with the “most creative classroom activities.”  As someone who used to fear I didn’t have enough creativity to be an engaging teacher, I’m really really excited about this! 

So here are a few of the things I’ve learned about myself and about teaching during the school year:

-My classroom management mantra is “CONSTANT VIGILENCE!”   I’ve learned that classroom management is less about a secret trick to instilling fear and respect in students, and more about diligence, consistency, and a will to follow through.  Students are much more likely to stop talking if I’m standing next to them quietly saying, “Be quiet, please,” than if I’m sitting at my desk and yelling across the room, “Billy!  Be quiet!!”  I can’t expect them to have the energy to obey me if I don’t even have the energy to circulate the room.

-Everyone (me included) is happier if I assign more short, in-class activities than assignments that need to be completed at home.  Yes, there’s something to be said for developing responsibility.  But we’re also in middle school here, not high school or college.  They don’t need homework every night. 

-Plagiarism can’t be escaped.  Even when you think you’ve got the best students in the world, a few in the group will get lazy and try to copy (from the internet, from their friends, whatever).  Sometimes they know what they’re doing is wrong, and sometimes they seem to honestly not get why it’s a problem. 

-I was never taught an effective method of teaching grammar.  By this I mean, teaching grammar in an authentic way, rather than drilling into students, “this is a verb.  This is a preposition.  This is how the two work together.”  I don’t believe in drilling; I don’t think it’s easy for students to make the connection between their worksheet and exercises and their actual writing.  However, I’ve learned this year that that doesn’t mean I can cut out grammar instruction; there are a lot of problems in my students’ writing that I want to work to fix.  So I need to educate myself and find a way to teach grammar effectively.

-Sometimes it’s okay to take a night off.  I’m kind of a grading wizard; it’s surprising if I don’t have tests or projects ready to pass back the next class after they’ve been turned in.  Staying on top of the grading most of the time means I can afford to come home and just stop working some nights.  It’s a reward I’ve earned, and I need to remember it. 

And perhaps most importantly, I’ve learned that I can do this.  I finished my first year of teaching, and my students and I still like each other.  I’m excited to begin the next year (though of course I’m looking forward to the summer).  And I know that each of my students learned from me.  What more can I ask, really?  

The student artwork behind my desk.

I had to smile at this student addition to the brand name in
my classroom.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Signs of a Good Day

1. A lobster-red sunburn on my neck and shoulders
2. The impressive bruises under my left arm
3. Not a photo taken
4. Utter exhaustion by 7pm 

Yesterday we went out on Delgado’s boat again.  We started at a place that I think was called Tres Palmas.  We were the only ones there, and the water was really shallow.  We could hear and see the waves breaking from the ocean not too far away.  Eddy found a conch—a living one, that crawled out of its shell for us to see how truly weird the creature was.  He also found a living sea anemone that we explored like star-struck children. 

Eddy's conch (photo taken by (and stolen from))
Danielle Bergeron

After a few hours of relaxation, Delgado asked us, “So, do you want to go island hopping?”  With a hearty yes, we responded.  We drove to the harbor in Salinas, and without stopping, went from there to Cayo Matias to time the trip (20 minutes).  We spent a few more hours at Cayo, puttering around in the chest deep water, eating Victor Pollo (and feeding some to the fish), and forgetting to put on sun screen.  

At 5, we decided to go back.  At our first burst of speed, my seat cushion and I at the front of the boat slipped off the seat and onto the floor.  I was all laughter, and Eddy strictly instructed, “Hold onto the rope!”  (And that’s how I got those impressive bruises on my underarm). 
On the way back, Delgado pushed the boat’s speed to the max, and I laughed into the wind as we skimmed over the waves.  A beautiful, beautiful end to a very good day.  

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Jeopardy My Way

I survived the last “real” day of classes by relaxing.  Had I not, I would have lost my patience, my temper, and probably my mind by lunch time.  As predicted, the kids were off the walls.  They did not want to review for finals (which are next week), as planned.  They wanted free time, or to make sentimental speeches about how much they’ll miss each other over the summer (or forever, as some of them are moving), or to take pictures, or to spend time signing pieces of notebook paper (as the yearbooks won’t be delivered until tomorrow). 

So I took a deep breath, took heart in the fact that there was no one in the school taking a test, so my students’ noise wasn’t disturbing anyone in another class TOO much, and I let them sing, and talk to their friends, and get up out of their seats, only reminding them once every two or three minutes to get to work and review. 

The truly amazing thing, though, happened the same way at the end of each class.  Each period, we spent the 2nd half of the class playing Jeopardy.  Once I had them in teams and had refreshed their memories of the rules…they were quiet.  Silent, even.  They were into the game.  They knew that if one team got a question wrong, other teams would have a chance to steal the points.  They knew that if their team talked out of turn, they would lose points.  They DIDN’T know for sure whether there would be any reward for winning; they played the game for the sake of the game--before being told the winners would receive candy (really, everyone received candy—I had to get rid of it; it’s the end of the year). 
It made me smile.  At least they’ve learned one thing this year: how to play Jeopardy my way.

And I’ve learned something too.  Even on their craziest day, I can keep kids quiet with a good game of trivia.     

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Game Day

Today, I finally found out first-hand what Game Day at my school entails.  I’d heard bits and pieces.  I knew what to expect.  It was a field day.  The students came for a half day only, with no classes.  They were all divided up into teams, and each team was a different color.  Students came wearing their team color.  I knew there would be wacky games; my principal told us to come dressed comfortably—jeans, shorts, whatever—because there would be water and flying food.  Family reunion games. 

And that’s just what it was.  The students filled the bleachers, seated by color (which made for a pretty cool image).  For each game, our principal would announce the name, and then say how many team members were needed from each team (usually 10-12).  The games ranged from wheel barrow relays and piggy-back relays, to tug of war and a dance competition. 

1/2 of the students, seated by color.

Shoe rally.  All the shoes in one big pile.  Find your shoes and run
back to your teammates.

The dance competition was perhaps my favorite.  It was like being transported to Rydell High—minus the hand jive.  Each team sent out a boy and a girl to act as a couple.  Mr. Mendez acted as judge, walking around and tapping couples he deemed to be “out.”  A variety of music was played.  First pop-style songs; the type of thing you hear on the radio.  One reggaeton song came on and lasted maybe 15 seconds before it was nixed—because there is only one real way to dance reggaeton, and it’s dirty.  As each song changed, the students changed their style of dance with it.  Slow, fast, dancing together or apart.  But what really made me grin was that unlike in the States, these students also danced salsa, bachata, and merengue.  It’s a part of culture that I feel like we lost at home back in the 50s (or maybe later—but before my time), and I love that dance is such an important part of life here that all kids grow up knowing how to dance “real dances” (like those mentioned above—dances in which the man leads and the girl knows all the steps to follow along). 

Free style

Bend those knees and move those hips.

Game Day ended with the water balloon relay.  Each student had to run across the gym, pop a water balloon over their head, run back, and tag their teammate.  All that water on the concrete gym floor made that part of the floor as slippery as an ice rink, and I’m surprised no one seemed to get hurt.  It was good entertainment, for sure, watching them slip and slide and struggle to pop unwieldy balloons over themselves.

Some balloons just didn't want to pop.

In the afternoon, the teachers stayed and met in the library for a teacher appreciation get together.  Food and drinks were provided, and a stereo system was set up to play music Puerto Rican style (in other words, loud enough to make holding a conversation with the person next to you difficult).  It was an enjoyable, relaxed afternoon, and we all went home happy to begin our 3 day weekend.  

Three amazing teachers!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

With a name like Guilligan's...

When you’re going to a place called Guilligan Island, you hope that your trip there will be uneventful and that everything goes as planned.  (We wouldn’t want any bad weather or other circumstances transforming a 3 hour tour into a trip that lasts much longer). 

However, our trip to the little island off the coast of Guanica, Puerto Rico wasn’t without its inconveniences on Saturday morning.

First of all, I got pulled over for speeding.  74 in a 65—not even 10 over! 
On the up side, I finally found out how people know they’re getting pulled over.  I’ve always wondered this, because most police vehicles just drive around with their lights on always.  They’re not pulling someone over or going somewhere in a hurry…the lights are just flashing.  I found out the “pull over” signal of Puerto Rico on Saturday.  The cop pulled over ahead of me, then stood in the middle of the right lane gesturing forcefully at me in a way that clearly said: “You!  Go there!  Now!  You!  There!  I’m mad!” 
Needless to say, I got a ticket.  Perhaps I’ll have another Puerto Rican adventure when I try to go and pay it.

Then, we got stuck in construction traffic.  No chance of speeding after that! 

The day's poor beginning was foreshadowing for the rest of the day, you may be thinking.
But not so, my friend! 
When we got to the ferry dock, our luck started to turn around. 

The ferries leave every hour on the hour.  At 1:00, we literally bought our tickets, walked onto the ferry, sat down, and it pulled away.  We couldn’t have timed it better!  And we are VERY lucky that we weren’t 5 minutes later—or we would have been sitting on the dock for an hour waiting to take the 8 minute boat ride. 

view of the lagoon on the island from the dock at Guilligan's

On the island, we found a spot to leave our things (and this was a bit tough; it was crowded).

Then, we ate lunch and began our day of swimming and frolicking in the shallow water.  There are 2 channels through the mangrove trees, and Rachel and I donned snorkels and swam up one channel (and this was a workout, moving against the current), then floated back the other side.  Rachel had her underwater camera, so we had some fun stopping to take pictures (and hanging on to the mangroves so we wouldn’t drift away!)

Add caption

We stayed and enjoyed the sunshine and water until 5pm, then hopped on the ferry, and drove back to Ponce, where we used a free hotel voucher (a perk of booking our spring break cruise through priceline) to stay at the Howard Johnson.  It’s the first time I’ve stayed at a bargain franchise hotel since being in Puerto Rico, and I felt like I’d been transported back to the States, a little bit.

We showered, ventured into Ponce for a nice dinner at a restaurant called Lola, explored the Plaza, then returned to the hotel for a relaxing night.

In the plaza of Ponce currently, there are all these lion statues painted by various artists.  I believe that the lion is the city’s mascot (Ponce de Leon…eh?), and the city is celebrating 100 years.